Tawny Lindholm Thriller #8
Chapter 1 – Blue Rock, Montana
Monroe Old Child always wondered if his father knew that, seven months after his death, Monroe would be born.
Did his father hear the car roaring behind him as he walked along the shoulder of the road on a moonless Montana night?
Or was death silent, wearing moccasins like Monroe’s grandmother who snuck up to smack his head when he was little?
Mostly he wondered if his father had felt the same sharp edge of a feather that he now felt on his own neck?
“Get a move on.” Corrections Officer Geblin’s voice urged Monroe forward. “The sooner you finish, the sooner we can both get back to sleep.”
Monroe didn’t ask why Geblin rousted him from his cell to unload a delivery in the middle of the night. The CO was six-four, two-hundred-fifty pounds. You didn’t ask him anything. You just did what he said. He hadn’t given Monroe time to grab a jacket to wear over his t-shirt and thin pajama bottoms.
Geblin’s steel-toed work boots clacked on the concrete as they walked down the quiet corridors of Blue Rock Corrections Center. Monroe’s sneakers made no sound. They passed the commissary and kitchen to the double metal doors leading to the loading dock.
Geblin carded the lock and the door clicked open. His chin motioned Monroe through.
Out into the bitter night air.
For the past week, days had been warm. But Spring in Montana was a trickster that fooled humans, animals, and plants into believing winter was past. Without warning, a seventy-degree day could turn into a twenty-degree night.
Monroe looked around the service yard. No truck. The loading dock was empty.
Without moving his head, he scanned the U-shaped catwalk fifteen feet above. One leg of the U ran along the warehouse where supplies for the prison were kept. The middle leg crossed above the loading dock. The last leg ran in front of second-story offices for the warden and administrative staff, windows overlooking the yard.
Usually, a second CO patrolled on the catwalk while deliveries were unloaded, supposedly to prevent theft. What a joke. Geblin and the warden stole a thousand times more every day than any dude doing time could stuff in his underwear.
The open end of the U was a chain link fence with single-coil razor wire and a rolling gate through which delivery vehicles entered. The gate was closed.
The freezing temperature heightened the prickling on Monroe’s neck. Gooseflesh rose on his arms as he swung them hard to keep warm. He wanted to pace but knew better than to move without the CO’s permission.
Geblin stood with his legs apart, thumbs in his belt. He wore an insulated jacket, a watch cap pulled low covering his ears, and leather gloves.
Monroe didn’t dare make eye contact. “Where’s the truck?”
Geblin said, “On its way.”
After several minutes, Monroe could no longer control the chattering of his teeth. Frigid air knifed through the thin t-shirt. Shivering made his whole body quake. He looked sideways at Geblin, still not meeting his eyes. “Can I sit?”
Geblin shifted. “Yeah, go ahead.”
Monroe dropped to the cold concrete floor, hugging his knees to his chest to conserve body heat.
“Stay here,” Geblin said. “I’m going to check on the truck.” The door clicked open then slammed shut.
Monroe recognized the guard’s lie. He could contact the driver with his phone. He just wanted to go inside to get warm.
There was no truck.
Monroe looked around for something to cover himself. The utility area was bare and empty, broomed clean by inmates at the end of the workday. Not even a sheet of cardboard left behind after deliveries.
A light came on above in one of the offices. Monroe saw Geblin make himself at home in Warden Quinelle’s cubicle.
Monroe knew the layout from working inside the office for the past few weeks. Monitors filled an entire wall fed from security cameras that scanned every inch of the prison. From the console, the warden could see every time a mouse ran across the floor.
At first, Monroe’s new bookkeeping job had sounded cushy, a reward for doing well in his GED business classes. Rather than sweating in the overheated laundry, he sat at a computer all day. Pretty quickly, he figured out the reason for his supposedly privileged position. Quinelle was a ferocious cost cutter. Employing an inmate was cheaper than a civilian accountant.
But Monroe had learned more than that, a lot more.
In the twenty-thousand acres of prison grounds were gold mines, worked openly by inmates, that supported the facility without taxpayer dollars.
Inside the office, Monroe discovered a different, secret export from the desolate earth. A computer window inadvertently left open showed Warden Quinelle and CO Geblin ran a side business—selling thousands of dollars of rare Yogo sapphires each month and pocketing the money.
Monroe had quickly closed the spreadsheet file on the unofficial set of books, hoping Quinelle hadn’t noticed. But the next day, Quinelle watched him with narrowed eyes.
The computer must have recorded Monroe’s accidental intrusion into the secret file.
At this moment, CO Geblin was likely erasing security video that showed Monroe crouched near the loading dock. His shivering image would disappear as if he’d never been there.
Sitting outside in the cold was his punishment. A warning.
Or was this his execution by hypothermia?
Chapter 2 – Faked Out
Two phones vibrated simultaneously with incoming texts, jittering across the rosewood desk in the Kalispell, Montana law office of Rosenbaum and Landes. The phones belonged to Tawny Lindholm and her husband Tillman Rosenbaum who were waiting for the arrival of Tillman’s new client.
Tawny picked up her phone while Tillman’s long fingers scampered over his keyboard, ignoring the racket. “Probably that asshole saying he’s late,” he muttered.
The video image on her screen made Tawny’s heart thunder in her ears. “Oh my God.”
Against a black cloth backdrop, Tillman’s eighteen-year-old son, Judah, sat tied to a chair with electrical cord. A strip of duct tape covered his mouth. His brown eyes were wide, the irises surrounded by white.
Tawny thrust her phone into Tillman’s face. His typing paused although his solemn expression didn’t change. He tapped the play arrow, and the video began.
Judah lurched side to side, trying to break free of his bonds while a stilted computer voiceover spoke: “We have your son. Pay ten thousand in small, unmarked bills by five p.m. or he will die.”
A hand from an unseen person came into view and yanked the duct tape from Judah’s mouth. He yelped in pain. “Dad! Tawny! Help me!” The hand slapped the tape back in place.
“This is proof of life,” the voiceover went on. “Ten thousand in small, unmarked bills by five p.m. We’ll be in touch.”
The video ended.
Tillman snatched up his own phone and tapped the screen. The identical video played.
It terrified Tawny even more as she watched it the second time. Judah’s frightened eyes were silent screams for help, his cry of pain, the flat, sinister tone of the computer-generated voice.
Tillman’s face didn’t change, as hard as Mount Rushmore. He went back to typing.
“Tillman?” Tawny choked out his name, unable to believe his apparent indifference. At the same time, she called Judah’s number. It immediately went to voicemail. “He’s not answering. Oh Lord, what’s happened?”
Tillman stared at her over his half-glasses. “Calm down.”
“What do you mean? We have to do something.”
“I know what I’m going to do.” He returned to typing. “Kill that little sonofabitch.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Watch it again.”
Tawny’s hands were trembling too much to hold her phone steady. She set it on the desk and tapped to replay, teeth clenched, sending a stab of pain up her jaw to her ear.
Tillman must have seen something she’d missed.
She searched Judah’s face, still slightly pudgy even after his adolescent growing streak. He had a crown of black curls that Tillman disparagingly called his Jewfro. Tawny had seen old photos of Tillman at that age, his Jewfro the size of a beachball, a thumb in the eye to his own father who was half black. Yet Tillman somehow missed the ironic parallel with his son.
Judah’s eyes lacked the piercing focus of his father’s but were just as dark, making the whites glaring in contrast.
The cloth backdrop gave no clue to where the video had been made. A curved metal bar was barely visible on one side of the screen. Tawny zoomed in, trying to identify it.
The intercom buzzed followed by the husky voice of Esther, Tillman’s case manager and bookkeeper. “Your client’s here.”
Tillman answered, “Send him in.”
Tawny shot to her feet. “What? How can you—”
“Judah’s fine,” Tillman said. “Let’s take care of business.”
“How do you know he’s all right?”
Exasperation edged Tillman’s deep baritone. “Number one, no genuine kidnapper demands a ransom that small. Number two, that chair he’s sitting in came from the conference room of my Billings office. Number three, that metal piece is a handlebar on a rare, old Raleigh bicycle—the model that London bobbies used to ride. Probably the only one in Montana.” He paused, his stare intensifying. “The bike belongs to Eve. This video was made in her garage in Billings. He’s pulling another stupid prank.”
Tawny scrambled to catch up with his conclusion. Judah was temporarily living at the home of Tillman’s law partner, Eve Landes, while he attended the community college in Billings. But how could Tillman know the video was a prank?
He went on, “When I talked to Eve yesterday, she said he’s taking a videography class. Learning how to manipulate images. The little dickhead figured to scam me for money while fulfilling a course requirement.”
He called his son, tapped the phone to speaker, and together they listened to the outgoing message. “Judah here. I’ll get back to you…someday…maybe.” An exaggerated, cackling laugh followed. The boy still had a lot of growing up to do.
“Judah.” Tillman’s voice boomed like James Earl Jones. “You have two choices: either quit lying to me or learn to do it a whole lot better.” He disconnected.