Mallory Petersen, Fourth Degree Black Belt and private investigator is on the trail of a kidnapped eight year old girl.
Private Investigator Mallory Petersen, a fourth degree black belt with her own taekwondo school in Des Moines, Iowa, splits her time between teaching martial arts and her often inane cases. It's not that she wants bad things to happen to people, but it makes life more interesting when they do.
When Mallory accepts a case to find Cheryl McGee’s kidnapped eight year old daughter, she is pulled into the dark underworld of child pornography. The trail soon leads to the Quad Cities, where Mallory partners with an officer from the Special Case Squad.
As the investigation deepens, Mallory discovers there’s more to the girl's disappearance than her client let on.
A naked bulb hangs from a frayed cord tied to a wooden rafter. The dull, yellow light keeps most of the small room, its water rotted walls, grime encrusted corners, and stained concrete floor, in shadows.
There is no furniture, so the little girl sits very still on the cold floor and tries not to shiver. She barely holds back tears and does not make a sound. Her fright-filled green eyes watch two pairs of other eyes, narrow and menacing, watching her in return.
As she stares at the creatures guarding the door, she thinks of her bedroom at home filled with dolls and colorful stuffed animals. One in particular she loves is a black and brown dog that reminds her of her puppy, Snuffles. She wishes she could be with Snuffles, or at least with her stuffed animals.
Her dad took Snuffles when he went away.
She doesn't like to remember the time before Dad left: the shouts, the slaps, the cries in the night.
She is scared because the room is dark and she doesn't know where she is. The mean animals by the door growl and snarl whenever she moves or utters a sound. She hopes her mom will come for her…hopes her mom can find her.
She doesn't understand what happened, but the events replay in her mind.
* * *
The weather was warm for November and Mom said they both needed a day of play. After a Happy Meal at McDonald's, they drove to the park where she wandered around the new wooden playground. She bounced from one swing to another, plunged down the slides, ran through the obstacle course, and teetered back and forth on the colorful animals mounted on giant springs. Mom sat on a bench reading a book.
Half way up a wall of tires, she realized Mom had disappeared. At first, she didn't notice the big man. He wore a zippered black jacket, black jeans, and his arms and legs bulged huge. His mean face was covered with a lot of bumps and scars. Before she could scream, the man grabbed her and held a cloth over her mouth. When she breathed, she smelled something sweet and sickly. She tried to cough, but instead fell asleep.
When she awoke, she found herself in a spacious room, with bright lights, a camera, a pile of clothing on a chair, and a box filled with toys and other strange looking items. The big man who had grabbed her stood near the box. Another man stood behind the camera, while a third lurked in the gloomy shadows. A large sheet stretched across some of the floor, one end tacked to part of the wall.
The cameraman spoke in a soft voice and told her she was a good girl, a pretty girl. He said a lot of people wanted to see pictures of her. If she acted nice and followed directions, she could wear new clothes and make-up.
She didn't understand. Where was Mom? Her heart thudded hard in her chest and her stomach ached in fear.
The cameraman led her over to the box and showed her what he wanted her to wear. He kept telling her how pretty she looked and held up some of the outfits and helped her with the make-up. She did like the dresses with the frill and lace, but had to undress in front of the three men each time she changed clothes. She felt embarrassed even though the cameraman kept reassuring her. When she asked about her mom, the man said, "This is for your mother. She wants to have a bunch of pictures of you."
On the sheet, the man posed her in various positions: standing, sitting, kneeling, or lying down. Sometimes she held dolls or Beanie Babies. For another set of pictures, she grasped a tube with an electrical cord and other strange objects.
The camera clicked and flashed and whirred. Hardly any words passed between the men, just whispered or gestured directions from the one in the shadows. The big man stood silent, staring. His scars shaded by the spotlights made him look like a monster.
She didn't like the pictures. She didn't like the way the cameraman posed her. It felt ucky and bad. When he forced her to lie with her legs apart, she said she wanted to go home and wanted her mom. The cameraman offered her candy and promised she could keep one of the dolls. When she started crying, the man in the shadows became angry and stopped the pictures.
After the cameraman left, she put on her own clothes. The two other men talked quietly so she couldn't hear, then they argued.
The big man became angry. "What the hell we supposed to do with her until Monday night?"
"Quiet, you fool," the other hissed. Their voices lowered again and she couldn't understand any more words. She thought she recognized the dark man's voice, but too afraid to say anything, stayed silent. Why would he be here? After a few minutes, the big man went outside and returned with two large growling dogs and directed the girl to a smaller room.
She backed away and wedged herself into a corner. The big man knelt in front of her and leaned very close.
"Don't move or make any noise," he whispered, his breath smelling awful. "If you do, you will make these animals very mad. When they get mad, they bite. So keep quiet, or else!"
Then he left her alone.
She didn't like the dogs. They were not like Snuffles at all with their huge heads, gigantic mouths, and sharp teeth.
* * *
The girl sits very still in the cold room. She hugs the doll and tries not to cry.