December 2007

Her Name Is Mommy

                                                                       Prologue

     

     Jan Lutovsky had no interest in the throng of shoppers.  Exhausted from her own Christmas shopping, she checked her makeup once again in the compact mirror. Her long, blond curls had been meticulously brushed minutes before, and Jan allowed herself a satisfied smile. Occasionally she glanced down at the large bags at her feet to make sure no one tried to grab one. Only three days left till Christmas and she finally had the perfect gift for everyone.  With any luck, a nice snow would make it an ideal Christmas.   

     At 24, Jan had one of those model bodies, only not rail thin.  In another life she could have been a movie star.  At least that’s what her husband, Rick, always said.  She was accustomed to being described as drop-dead gorgeous and learned to ignore the admiring looks from the many male passersby. 

                              ~*~

     Jan’s four-year-old daughter, Madison, sat quietly on an uncomfortable, slatted bench and wondered how long she would have to sit there.  She hoped mommy would remember the promise of ice cream as a reward for good behavior.

                              ~*~  

      The Lutovsky driver, George, was not due for another fifteen minutes. Jan didn’t see anything that looked more comfortable, so she had just seated herself next to Madison when a man approached.  A worn Cubs baseball cap was pulled down to his eyebrows, and seemed to match the dirty jeans and scruffy, black leather jacket.  Jan tried to snub the tall, gangly cretin who sported a three-day growth of beard, but he got right in her face.

     “Come with me, and you won’t be hurt.”  Despite the man’s appearance, his voice was soft and strained.

     “I beg your pardon?”  Jan looked him in the eye and shot him her most vicious stare.

     “You’re coming with me.  Let’s go.”  The man grabbed her arm and pulled.  The expensive compact flew out of her hand as she tried to wrestle her arm away, only to discover the unwanted grip had tightened.

     “Ma’am, I have a gun.  You don’t want me to use it.”  He tugged his coat away, and she gasped at the sight of the shiny, brown handle of a pistol tucked in his belt.

     “What do you want?”  A cold shiver ran up her spine.  She really didn’t want that question answered.  

     “I won’t say it again, lady.  Let’s go.”  They started toward the door.  Jan took one last look at the bench where her daughter sat alone next to the pile of presents.  She desperately hoped someone would help Madison, because she knew she wouldn’t be able to.  Would she ever be able to help her daughter again?    Dear God, this couldn’t be happening to her.



 

One

 

     The rust-colored curls stood out against the bright green color of the bench the little girl occupied.  Cowering in the corner, she almost disappeared in the vastness of the wooden seat.  The cornflower blue eyes cast anxious glances at the passing mall crowd of holiday shoppers.  Tears tumbled down the naturally rosy cheeks, but the child didn’t utter a sound.  She smoothed her yellow dress, decorated with multi-colored butterflies, and continued searching the mass of people, no doubt seeking a familiar face.

     For several minutes Mike Shepherd watched the little girl look worriedly around.  He hated malls and hated shopping, but agreed to help his girlfriend, Diana Barton, complete her Christmas list.  Helping might be exaggerating a bit.  Mike believed his role amounted to hauling parcels.  He hoped those last-minute purchases would liberate him from the despised task for another year.

     Mike wondered if he should approach the girl and ask if she was okay, all the while thinking that a forty-one-year-old man striking up a conversation with a toddler wouldn’t be an instant hit if her mother or father showed up any time soon.  Still, he couldn’t stand to see the child in such obvious distress.  The packages piled beside her must have been placed in her care.  He frowned, thinking she was too young for such responsibility.  Mike was a private investigator.  People in trouble were his business. 

     Mike was about to abandon caution and go over to the tot when Diana appeared, carrying four large boxes and a shopping bag, each parcel announcing the name of the store selected to complete her reign of spending.   

     “Whew, finished!”  Diana took a couple of deep breaths.  “I never saw so many people.  Sorry I took so long.”  Chestnut-colored eyes shot him a look, suggesting he should take some of her packages.

     “That’s okay.  Do you see the little girl sitting on that bench?”  Mike took the boxes and gave a nod to indicate the direction in which Diana should look.

     “The one in the yellow dress?  She’s a doll all right.”  Diana smiled, tucked flyaway auburn strands behind one ear, and handed Mike the shopping bag.

     Mike fidgeted, waiting for Diana to react. “She’s crying.” 

     “I wonder what’s wrong.”  Diana’s eyebrows pulled together.

     “I’ve been watching her more than fifteen minutes, and she’s alone.  No one’s come up to her, and she’s been looking around as if she’s lost.  I think we should go check her out.”  Not waiting for a comment Mike walked over to the child.  Diana followed.

     Mike’s big smile softened his rugged face.  He pointed to Diana.  “Do you mind if we sit on this bench with you?”   

     “I guess it’s okay.”  The tot studied the fading nail polish on her fingers and didn’t look at Mike or Diana.  Those fingers seemed too small to be able to pick up much of anything.

     “My name is Mike, and this is Diana.”  They sat down.  Mike piled Diana’s packages next to the bench.

     “Hello.”  She toyed with the thin, pink belt that wrapped twice around the tiny waist.

     “What’s your name?”  Diana placed herself between Mike and the little girl and took over the conversation.

     Madison.”  One hand swept across the slats of the bench next to a tiny brown parka with matching mittens attached to each sleeve.

     “Are you okay, Madison?  I think you’ve been crying.”  Diana’s voice was soft and tender.

     “I’m all right.”  Two quick sniffles said otherwise.

     “If you need somebody to help you, we’d be happy to.”  Mike and Diana both smiled.

     “I’m supposed to wait here.”  Another tear dove to the bottom of her chin.

     “Would it be okay if we waited here with you for a while?”  Diana asked.

     “Sure.”  Madison tugged at the Shirley Temple curls on the back of her head.

     “How old are you?”  In response, the child’s right hand struggled with four fingers, and the left helped display the correct number.

     “Do you know your last name?”  The little girl shook her head.  “Are you waiting for your mother?”  This time the head went up and down.

     “What’s her name?”

     “Her name is Mommy.”  A smile lit up Madison’s face like a Tiffany lamp.

     Mike noticed a compact lying on the floor next to the bench and picked it up.

     “What do you make of this, Di?”

     Diana raised her eyebrows.  “Very expensive.  A Jay Strongwater.  Those are about $300 apiece at Nieman-Marcus.  Someone’s going to be upset when she discovers it’s gone.”

     “I don’t like the looks of this.  I’m going to contact mall security and get Madison’s description paged on their intercom.”  Mike took the compact and went to consult the mall directory.   

                             ~ * ~

     Bold, black letters spelled “Mall Security” on an otherwise plain door.  Inside, a beefy man in a dull gray uniform sat squeezed behind a desk and a computer monitor, trying to see how much of a submarine sandwich he could fit into his mouth.  Lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise leaked out of both sides and onto a paper wrapper laid out on the keyboard.

     “Excuse me.  I want to report a found child.”  Mike leaned on the counter that blocked the front of the office.

     “You what?”  The man stopped stuffing and wiped condiments from his bushy mustache.  Overhead lights reflected on the parts of the man’s head that refused a comb-over.  A spindly Christmas tree, one even Charlie Brown would reject, leaned precariously in the corner.

     “There’s a little girl on a bench down the hall who’s been alone for at least twenty minutes.  She says she’s four years old.  I think someone, namely you, should go down there and try to find her parents.”   

     “Um, no one else is here right now.”  The lips smacked as a piece of onion slithered inside puffed cheeks rivaling those of Dizzy Gillespie.

     “Don’t you have a two-way radio to contact someone else?”

     “Oh, sure.  Just a minute.”  He grabbed up a walkie-talkie.  “Harold, this is Bernie.  Got a situation here, over.”

     Harold’s voice was almost drowned in a sea of static. “What’s up?”   

     “Got a lost or found little girl down here.”

     “Which is it?”

     “Well, she’s found, but her parents aren’t around.”

     “Be right there.”  A click signaled the end of the conversation.

     Harold showed up four minutes later and crammed himself through the door.  His uniform strained to contain the girth that shimmied and shook with each labored step.  Neither of these guys had ever missed a meal, or seconds.  “Who’re you?”  Harold made no effort to hide his distaste at having had to trudge all the way back.

     “My name’s Mike Shepherd.  I’m a private investigator, and I noticed this little girl all alone on one of your benches.”

     “Maybe her parents put her there and told her to wait while they shopped.”  Harold scratched his blonde head and rubbed his belly at the same time.  Mike gave him ‘A’ for dexterity.

     “I also found this.” 

     Harold gingerly took the compact Mike handed him.  “It’s pretty.  What is it?”  He handed it back, folded himself into a leather captain’s chair and leaned his right elbow on the metal arm of the chair.

     “A very expensive compact.  I found it by the little girl.  It should go in the lost and found.”

     “S’pose so.”  The man picked up a stack of mail from the desk and began sorting.

     “Look, Harold, I’m not doing this for the fun of it.  I think the little girl’s in trouble and needs help.  If you won’t do anything, I’ll call the cops.  Would you like to see them swarming all over the mall in your busiest season?”

     “Hey, okay, okay.   Let’s go see this girl.”  Harold lurched out of his chair and squeezed through the area between the counter and the wall.  He left the office with Mike following, and they weaved their way through the crowd toward the spot where Diana waited with Madison. 

     Harold, panting heavily, only nodded a greeting when they reached Diana.   When Harold’s battleship-sized body stood over Madison, she shrank back into the bench and refused to answer any of his questions.  Harold flicked on his two-way and told Bernie to make a lost-child broadcast. 

     Seconds later the announcement spewed from the loudspeakers, and all three adults waited with the child for someone to show up.  Five more pages to the crowd and twenty minutes passed, and still no one came.  The little girl seemed content that people were paying attention to her and even went to sleep in Diana’s lap while she stroked Madison’s hair.

     Harold started to sweat over the possibility that a serious problem might have arisen on his watch.  “What are we going to do if no one shows up?”

     “Don’t you have surveillance cameras that cover this area?”  Mike watched as the light bulb went on in Harold’s brain.

     “Yes.  That’s it.  The video camera.  Let’s go take a look.”

     “Does anyone have a pencil and paper?”  Mike took the pad and pen Harold handed him and wrote out a note to leave on the bench, saying the little girl would be at the security office, in case her mother showed up.

     Diana picked up Madison, and Mike hefted the Christmas parcels, and they shuffled down the corridor to the cramped security quarters.  Forty minutes later they finally located the right place on the tape.  The busy scene played out before them in semi-fast motion.  A tall, blonde woman stood by the bench.  Madison sat where Mike had first spotted her.  The woman’s jewelry flashed just below the three-quarter length sleeves of a coat that Mike would have bet was mink, as she applied lipstick and then, using a compact mirror, checked her makeup.  Her figure was accented in tight fitting jeans and gray high-heeled snow boots 

     The small crowd in the office watched the TV screen as a thin man dressed in jeans, baseball cap, and a black, waist-length jacket approached and spoke to her.  The blond hesitated, and the assailant pulled back his coat revealing the handle of a pistol tucked in his belt.  The woman dropped her case as he grabbed her arm and hustled her out the door.

     “Oh, my God!”  Diana, holding Madison more tightly, turned away from the screen to shield the child from the horror of the scene. 

     The man in the video took no notice of the little girl scrunched down behind the packages on the bench. 

     Not a single shopper noticed that a kidnapping had just occurred, right under their noses.