"I didn't even give Amy a chance to tell me about her 'bad feeling.' I just chalked it up to her pregnancy,” Jackson said as the group walked out to his SUV.
"Amy loves you and there's no way she would blame this on you. Give her some credit, man," Jude returned.
"I couldn't blame her if she did. I wouldn't listen to her fears. I kept cutting her off every time she tried to tell me. Now she's in danger, and so are my kids.”
"It isn't your fault. How were you supposed to know Jude's partner was a psychopath?" Scott asked.
"I've been thinking a lot about something, guys. I know this probably isn't the time to bring it up, but I don't know when we'll all be together again. Now that I have Amy and we have a baby on the way I want to spend more time at home. I've been prepping How-To for my position on the Special Forces Team."
Jude said, "It sounds like there's an 'and' at the end of that statement."
"Well, we work well together," Jackson gestured to all of them.
"Yes we do, that's a fact," Otis said.
"Where are you going with this, pal? Just spit it out for us, please," Scott put in.
"I think you guys should give the man a chance to formulate his sentences the way he wants to," Amos said.
The ringing of Jude's telephone interrupted the conversation. "Hello?"
"This is John Sims, the coroner. I don't know if you remember me but we've met."
"I remember you, what's up?"
"You know that Sanders woman that was sent to me earlier this evening?"
"Yes, what's the problem?" Jude’s heart lurched painfully. Even knowing what she’d done, he was still upset at her death.
"It isn't Justy Sanders," John Sims said.
His heart tripped, and then began a pitter-patter as he took in several deep breaths. "Are you sure? What's going on?" He was confused and he couldn't formulate the words he needed to say. "How...?"
"As I was prepping the body I noticed some very recent facial scarring like that of someone who has just undergone extensive reconstructive surgery," John relayed.
"Do you know who it is?" What was going on?
"No, I still have to run the tests.”
"This is really confusing."
“It is confusing, but I figured you’d want to know right away.”
“I'll call you back Mr. Sims." Jude ended the call and turned toward Jackson.
"What's going on?"
"That was the coroner, John Sims. He says the woman in the morgue isn't Justy Sanders.”
"How can that be?”
His face mirrored
"I don’t know, but I need time to process it. What were you gonna say before my phone rang?”
"I was thinking...If I could interest you guys, we could start our own team together. We could start a detective/protection agency. Let me know what you think."
They all spoke at once and pandemonium reigned for a couple of minutes. The ringing of Jude's phone put an end to it.
He answered, "Yes, this is Jude Johnson, what can I do to help you?"
"I'm pretty sure you know it isn't Justy Sanders in the morgue by now." The voice sounded just like Justy’s and a rush of hope went through him.
"What’s going on?”
"Well Jude Johnson, back-off and I'll tell you how. You might as well turn around and go back home. I'm not letting you anywhere near the woman or the children. They're my leverage, you know. If you follow me I'll be forced to kill them.”
"Tell me one thing, Are you really Justy?" Jude asked. This whole thing was making him crazy. He’d believed she was a serial killer, and then one phone call gave him hope, and now he was crushed again. How can I take this?
"I'll ask you a question, Mr. Johnson. How tall is Justy Sanders?" The click of her phone effectively ended the call. If he was getting what she was hinting at, she wasn’t Justy, but who then?
"That was a bazaar call. I don't think we're looking for Lauren or Justy. I think they’re trying to freak us out so bad we don’t know which way is up. Was anyone able to hunt down Max Sanders?" He had a hunch, and if he was right, they were all on the wrong track.
"Nope, I put in a request and they tossed his place, but he's gone. It looks like he fled the city," Scott said.
"I know he's into this somehow. It's possible he's the original killer," Jackson said. "What if he just looks like he's young, but he's not? I mean, we were fooled by someone who looked like Justy, but wasn't. That would account for why she sounded sane and sweet when we first met her, but after the killer attacked her in her home she changed. It's possible she didn't really change, but wasn’t her, and if that’s the case, where is she?”
"Exactly, and on our ride back from the hospital she started an argument with me. She threw that old high school incident right up in my face not even twenty-four hours after promising she wouldn't ever do it again if I found her parents' killer. I haven't found the guilty party yet but I'm actively looking. It just wasn't like her..." Jude added hopefully. He hoped he hadn't actually fallen in love with a serial killer. Something popped up in Jude's mind and he asked, "Why would there be so many calls between Lauren and Max if she didn't have anything to do with this?" He was desperately trying to make it all make sense in his mind.
"Maybe they had some kind of relationship," Jackson said. "If it wasn't really Justy, it would account for why Amy liked her when they first met and then turned around and changed her mind."
Jude’s phone rang again and he answered, "Hello?"
"This is John Sims again."
"What is it?"
"Her prints came up as someone named Julia Salio."
"I used to date her,” Jude said. He was even more convinced now whoever the killer was, he'd gone to school with her. It would have to be someone he went to both high school and college with, or at least someone who’d known enough about him to know who his girlfriends were.
"That leaves a big dilemma, Mr. Johnson," John Sims said into the phone.
"I know, if it isn't Justy, then where is she?” He hung up and looked over at Jackson. "I guess you surmised what was going on?"
"I got the gist of it."
"We can't let Amy and the kids out of our sight," Jude said urgently. “If Justy isn’t Justy then Lauren probably isn’t Lauren. If they aren’t who they’re supposed to be, then Max isn’t who he’s pretending to be… Ugh! I can’t take this.” Jude rubbed his big hands through his blonde crew cut in agitation. Dear Lord, please help us figure this out. He couldn’t get his thoughts straight to make a plan, and that’s probably exactly what the killer wanted in the first place. “The woman who just called me said if we don't back off and stop following her she's going to kill Amy and the kids."
"Well, we are tracking them. We can ditch this car and get another one,” Scott suggested. “She’ll probably make us, though.”
Yeah, whoever she is, she's good. I'd bet my next paycheck she's a professional service woman of some kind," Jackson said.
"What service do you think she's from?" Jude asked.
"I don't know. She could be military, FBI, police, CIA...any one of those three-letter agencies. The way she got away after that last shooting was too professional to be luck. I know what we're gonna do," Jackson said firmly.
"What's that?" Jude asked. They were running out of time and he wouldn't feel better until he knew what they were going to do.
"We'll come in from the other end of the property. I've got a barn back there that has a dozen four-wheelers sitting in it. We'll all grab a four-wheeler and pretend we're locals out on the trail," Jack told them. He was coming up on his turn so he just veered off to the right and headed down the smaller, less traveled road.
"That's a great idea, except for one small detail," Jude said.
"What's that?" Jack sped down the back road. He was just passing a road sign that informed them they were fifteen miles away.
"She knows what we look like, even if we don't know who she really is," He said.
"I have suits and helmets that will disguise us. I realize it isn't a perfect plan, but it's all we've got at the moment.”
"It'll work in a pinch," Scott affirmed.
They drove until they reached the back side of Jackson's property. It was frigidly cold outside and the roads and trails were nothing but frozen sheets of ice so they had to take extra time to put chains on the four-wheelers. Some of the trees on the property looked bare and desolate, the telltale signs of winter. Others were full of green needles and heavy white snow. The mountains were covered and as Jude looked up at them he was aware of just how small humans were, and how awesome God is. He wished for a brief second he'd brought his camera, and then discarded the thought. They were here to save lives, not take pictures.
"Is everyone ready to go?" Jackson asked. They looked like ethereal images against the stark white backdrop of snow covering the mountainous land. Their suits were in all different colors. Jack had the blue and silver suit with matching helmet. Jude was red and silver, Scott was green and silver. Of course, Otis had fought like a six year old child for the privilege of wearing the black and silver suit and Amos was stuck with the white and silver one. It was a tight-fit because he needed to lose a few pounds, but he'd somehow squeezed into it.
"We're all ready," Jude replied.
"Okay, let's go then. Everybody just follow my lead. Amy and I learned these trails like the back of our hands during our Honeymoon," He told them as he started his four-wheeler and took off down the winding trail. The sound of multiple four-wheelers starting up filled the air for a few moments as they all followed Jackson's lead.
Jude picked up his walkie-talkie to see if he had range. "Jack, can you hear me?"
Jackson touched his helmet in recognition for a moment and then replied, "Loud and clear, mate."
Jude checked with everyone else. They all had the same built in radios and knew they must have cost a fortune, but then, Jackson was rich.
They reached their destination after about fifteen minutes. Jude's fingers and toes were frozen, and he was thankful to get off the 'man-toy.'
They'd stopped about a quarter of a mile away from the house. They didn't want to alert the woman that they were there. There were fresh footprints in the snow and Jackson pointed them out as they went. Someone had recently been this way. It was snowing heavily but the prints weren't covered up. They were just minutes away.
"It looks like four different sets of prints here. At least three are either women or older children," Jude said.
"I see, but it doesn't explain where my kids are," Jack said.
Otis came up to the front where they were examining the tracks and said, "Don't worry, son. We'll find the little ones."
"Yeah, they couldn't be too far away. She couldn't have beaten us here by much, maybe fifteen minutes or so," Scot added.
They all began to spread out in the woods at Jude's instruction. Ten minutes later they all met back by the four-wheelers. "We've been duped. They had to have back-tracked. They're headed for the car," Jude said, his shoulders slumping.
"You guys go head her off. I'm gonna go back to the road and block her way. She has to go back down this road if she's in a car. It's the only one that leads to the main highway," Jack ordered.
They separated again and went to surround the woman before she got away with Amy and the kids. By the time Jude and the others made their way back to the house, she was gone. They found the kids locked in the main bedroom, terrified and crying, but Amy was gone.
After checking the house and immediate grounds they headed back to their meeting spot. Everyone but Otis, that is. He took the children and headed back to the mansion in the old Jeep Jackson kept there.
Jude, Jackson, Amos and Scott were standing at the meeting spot when they heard the whirring of helicopter blades overhead. They looked up into the sky helplessly as the lady killer shoved Amy up against the glass, using her to keep them at bay.
Amy screamed but Jude couldn’t hear what she was saying. “Dear Lord, please save them and let us catch this killer if it’s your will, amen.”
“Amen,” Jackson repeated. “We have to get them before they hurt her.”
The pain in his friend’s voice almost broke his heart. He wouldn’t quit until he had her back, safe and sound.