There is no silence deeper than that between the shattering beats of an adrenaline-drenched heart.
In that abyss, Michael Moses Levi grappled for fragments of his unstuck world. If he did not hold the scattering pieces together then madness and nothing would surely follow.
An hour before the wave of hormone crashed though his blood and washed Michael into the void, he had reflexively kissed his wife Belinda goodbye as she left for Lilith's.
He had stood in the downstairs hallway and watched her back the Toyota out of the driveway. Then, when her taillights went around the corner he climbed the stairs of their home in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, to sit in the dark. Increasingly over the past six months, since their eleven-year-old daughter Cory had disappeared from a family fourth of July picnic, Michael had spent his waking hours searching. At first he had been strong for Belinda and himself; maintained. But, as days, weeks and then months slipped away with no progress from the police, or the private investigators, his focus had tightened and tightened again until nothing mattered but finding Cory. He hadn't written an article since his daughter's disappearance. His editors had understood at first when he missed deadlines. A few kept his name in their Rolodexes and quietly passed assignments to others. The rest tossed his name and went on with business.
Michael didn't care either way. The words refused to come. They didn't matter.
Out his window Michael saw snow falling and it muffled the sounds of the few passing cars. He sat that way, thinking, for a time and then reached for the bottle on the side table and poured three fingers of Knob Creek into the cut-glass tumbler he had liberated years ago from the Terror Club, the old British naval officers club, in Singapore.
Michael drank and moved from the almost-too comfortable daybed with its dark green leather to the matching high-backed office chair. He set the tumbler on a coaster and reached over the desk to turn on his computer monitor.
While he couldn't write, Michael could read, research. After the police and the private investigators had given up, Michael's obsession kept him going. He asked questions. He made phone calls. He wrote letters that traveled over the Internet and through the mails, he flew to half a dozen cities and to Europe and Mexico following faint clues. Occasionally he got answers. He learned things.
Michael became an expert on child abductions. He used his interviewing skills and credentials to open doors and learn nearly everything there was to know. One fact he learned, however, overarched all of the rest. Despite the milk cartons and the mailers and America's Most Wanted, most of the lost children stayed lost. Cory was hidden out there somewhere. He knew it. But did she know her parents were desperate to find her? Could she imagine their worry? Feel their love?
As the blue background on the monitor slowly brightened, Michael reached for the mouse and clicked twice on the icon for his Internet provider. He sipped the bourbon as the he listened to the gurgling screech of his modem connecting and then launched Outlook Express, the program he used to read the newsgroups. Michael discovered the newsgroups several years before when he first began using the Internet in his work. On the groups, millions of people posted everything from frivolous games to philosophical discourses. The newsgroups were electronic public squares where anyone could say or offer anything for consideration. People tacked-up whatever they wanted and waited for others to respond. The discussions were usually cordial, sometimes acrimonious, but always lively.
The information and ideas had interested him at first. He'd enjoyed trading tales with fellow journalists and finding experts on line to answer technical questions for the stories he wrote. He'd known about the recreational and the sex groups, but hadn't bothered to look at them. Michael preferred his time spent with Belinda and Cory to any attraction in cyberspace.
It was in these dark cyber alleys – the alt.sex groups – where demons gibbered, that Michael spent his time now. There, amongst denizens who reveled in every fetish imaginable, where people proudly displayed their most hidden thoughts in the glaring light of the computer screen, Michael searched for clues. There he met the pedophiles. And wept.
Belinda knew that Michael was using every skill he had to find answers about what had happened to their daughter, but this one thing he kept from her.
They never talked about what they both knew was most likely the case: someone had stolen their child to satisfy a power fantasy. And after the fantasy was fulfilled, that someone had murdered Cory. They hid that from each other. Even when they both lay awake in the still hours before the delivery trucks rumbled out of the garages and the doughnut shops placed the first jelly-filled and icing-frosted batches of the day in the display cases, they stayed silent.
But Michael forced himself every day to stare into the dark and read the messages. And to look at the pictures.
Most of the pictures didn't shock or sicken.
They were the ones taken at the nudist camps and beaches. They were the ones with an innocent quality that, when viewed with a light mind, might have brought a smile to Michael's face.
The children in these photos, clothed in the sun, weren't abused. They weren't taken away from their families in the night. They slept in their own beds and played in their own yards.
Michael began his search of the newest batch of postings. Looking for anything that might lead him to Cory. The first file he opened was a picture file. He always held his breath when he opened the pictures. He could find some remove from the stories and messages, they could be fantasy. But the pictures were real and undeniable. As the picture scrolled downward, revealing itself on the screen, Michael released his breath. It was one of the nudist photos. In the color photo a little girl, maybe eight or nine years old, stood at the edge of the surf with her arms reaching upward, perhaps to catch a beach ball. Perhaps just in joy. Her darkened skin was free of tan lines and her body was sleek and straight. She had blue eyes and a bright smile and golden hair that splayed around her round face in the sun.
The pose was full frontal but with the exception of a slight pinkness where her breasts would later develop and the folded skin of her mons, she was sexless as a cherub in a Raphael garden scene.
Michael didn't know who she was. He cared and he didn't care. She wasn't Cory. He cataloged the photo, adding it to the now thousands more on his computer, and moved on to the next.
With the initial plunge into the chill passed, Michael didn't hold his breath as he opened the next picture. The process became robotic.
This picture was another nudist camp scene. Seven girls ranging in age from about seven to seventeen stood on a low wooden platform. They were all winners in some competition, perhaps a beauty contest, perhaps a foot race. Michael couldn't tell from the bright medallions that hung around their necks on blue ribbons. The largest girl's body was full. Her heavy breasts were tipped with large pink areola, her pubic hair dark and thick. The tiniest girl was smooth and pale like an anatomically correct china doll. The other five girls, arranged like one of those drawings illustrating how a body develops in a medical text, displayed graduations of maturity. All of them were smiling and unselfconscious. All looked proud to be standing there to receive their awards. They, Michael thought, went on to enjoy their summers. To go to school in the fall. To fall in love and marry and have children of their own who might proudly stand on the same platform some day and smile.
Many of these nudist camp pictures had similar file names and had been downloaded from a bulletin board system in California that had become one of the myriad of successors to the legendary Maestro BBS. Michael retrieved five more nudist camp photos. Four were of girls, individually or in groups, playing in the grass or on beaches. They all appeared to be younger than thirteen or fourteen. The fifth was of six boys in a wheelbarrow race. Their bodies were hard and lean with the exercise of summer. Their hair lightened by intense sun. Their flaccid penises peeking from behind jumbled flesh as they raced across the sand. Everyone was happy.
Then Michael found one of the photos that invaded his sleep
The black and white photo tightly focused on a little girl performing oral sex on a man. Her tiny lips were stretched around the head of his penis and a small glob of semen dribbled out of the corner of her mouth. Her dark hair was cut short. Her face was scrunched closed.
As hard as it was to look at, this was one of the pictures Michael examined closely. The other photos were taken by the passive pedophiles, the voyeurs who took pictures in the open. They looked but they didn't touch. They didn't steal. Hurt. Kill.
The man Michael hunted wasn't satisfied with just looking. He needed it to be real.
Michael scrutinized the photo for details that told him something about the little girl and the man. That it was black and white told Michael that this was probably a very old photo. Pedophiles weren't interested in the artiness of monochromatic photography. This girl could be Michael's age or even older. If she were still alive. There was little to see in the background. A few hazy shapes that might be bedroom furniture. Not much else. Michael emptied the last of the bourbon into the tumbler and dropped the empty bottle onto the rug.
The next photo was from the same series. The girl was sitting by herself on a bed spread. She wore a white blouse with puffy sleeves, white knee socks, black Mary Jane's and nothing else. Her head was turned away from the camera. She seemed to be smiling at somebody to the left of the photographer. Her legs were spread wide and the camera focused between her thin thighs.
This photo provided more information for Michael. He could see the bed stand and the wall behind the bed. The bedspread, bright white in the photo, was heavily textured with thick ridges dividing the cover in a diamond pattern. He remembered similar covers from his own childhood. The furniture and bedspread supported Michael's original assessment that the photo had been taken in the late '50s or early '60s.
There were only the seven photos on the net today. It was a thin day for the pedophiles. Sometimes Michael found twenty or thirty new photos on the newsgroups. Once he found a bonanza, one-hundred and thirty-two photos posted in one day by one man.
Next he began to scan the messages. Many were "flames" – the angry attacks from people enraged that the pedophiles traded their wares so openly. Those told Michael nothing. Occasionally he found a message requesting photos like the famous K2 series or offering others via email. He suspected that some were traps set by law enforcement agents.
All of the information, however, went into his files. Michael didn't know what might become important later. Over the months he had developed profiles of fourteen men who regularly posted material. Michael knew what they liked and what they wanted. After he felt reasonably sure of a response, he had sent messages to those men he knew the best. It was risky. He could fall into a police trap. But he was as careful as he could be and he had to penetrate the screen to find his fiend and Cory.
Nine email messages gone out and two replies had come back. He now carried on correspondence with the two men. From hints, Michael knew that one man lived in the D.C. area, possibly northern Virginia. The other was somewhere in Europe. Both used the anonymous server in Finland, as did Michael, to prevent anyone from tracing the messages.
When Michael had first learned about the computer in Finland that allowed anyone to safely hide their Internet identity, he had wondered what the operator gained. Could it be the government running a sting? Was the operator in it for the blackmail potential? He concluded that whoever it was was enjoying the world's best voyeuristic experience. He, or they, got to see some of the deepest, blackest secrets in the world. It was peeper heaven.
Carefully building up a persona for himself that he hoped was believable, Michael was slowly applying for admission into the next circle. He sent messages and photo files downloaded from the news groups to the two who had responded. He knew that original photos were a key, and while this hadn't been raised as an issue yet, he suspected that they were the only key that would open the barred passage.
Once, only once, he had thought of photos that Belinda had taken when Cory was three years old. Their daughter had been in the backyard playing in the inflatable pool and decided to take off the shiny, pale-blue, bathing suit. Belinda had been standing near the kitchen window and watched their daughter carefully push the suit down around her ankles and then step out of it.
Then Cory had thrown her head back and just giggled, her green eyes closed against the bright sun. Careful to not spoil her daughter's moment of freedom, Belinda had quickly gotten her camera from the front hallway closet and attached a telephoto lens. Over the next fifteen minutes she shot a roll of thirty-six exposures before Cory came running inside and asked for some juice. In the pictures, Belinda captured the purest of innocents, a sprite splashing in white light and crystal water. When the photos came back from the lab, they chose one – a not-too-revealing pose – to have enlarged and hung in their growing family photo gallery. Belinda joked that it would make excellent blackmail once Cory started dating. The thought of Cory dating had seemed like such a long time in the future then.
When Cory was nine, she had demanded that they take it down lest "some boy" in the neighborhood see it. With a smile Michael had complied to his daughter's wishes – as he almost always did – and moved the picture to their bedroom wall.
Michael closed the newsreader program and opened his email program. In a few seconds it reached across the telephone wires and into his electronic mailbox on a computer somewhere in a building in downtown Cleveland. The program brought back two messages.
Michael recognized the first as the pedophile in Europe. The second message was from someone he didn't recognize and apparently sent "in the clear." Probably junk mail, he thought as he opened the first message. The message from Europe was a reply to his questions about pedophile junkets to Asian countries. Thailand had been popular for several years, particularly with Japanese businessmen, but now the Philippines were the in place to vacation. The correspondent confirmed what Michael had learned on the net and even suggested a particular travel agency in Amsterdam that arranged such trips for the sexually adventurous.
Michael noted the address of the agency, and quickly typed a thank you note. He would write a longer letter later.
He opened the second message. There was no text in the message itself except the signature line "Don't worry, be happy," but there were four files attached to the email. The files were photos; numbers one, two, three and six in a series. Michael ran a virus check on the files just to be safe and then opened the first one.
It was a color photo of a girl, maybe 12 or 13 years old lying face down on a cot, the kind Michael remembered from summer camps. The girl's arms were thrown high over her head, draped over the metal rail at the end of the bed. Her long auburn hair covered her face and most of her upper back. Distinct tan lines showed where her one-piece bathing suit had protected her from the sun. Her legs were slightly spread and her buttocks stood out white against the dark gray of the blanket that covered the cot. The wall behind the cot was pastel-blue-painted concrete block.
Michael looked at the sender's address on the message again. It read: firstname.lastname@example.org. The burning river reference suggested somebody here in Cleveland, but it wasn't anybody on his list nor someone whose name he remembered seeing before. Why had this Happy Face sent the pictures to him? This broke all the protocols that Michael was aware of. This was like a murderer sending a trophy picture of a victim to a random home owner. It made no sense. Maybe the other photos would answer the questions, he thought. The second photo looked like another shot of the same girl, the body and hair were the same, but her face was cropped out of the photo. In this photo she was sitting on the edge of the cot, her knees pressed together and her hands clasped in her lap. Her barely rounded, translucent white breasts were framed by her hair. Her tan showed the initial redness of the first weeks of summer and from the sharply drawn lines at the edge of the fresh tan Michael could tell that her bathing suit had been cut high and unrevealing. Like most girls of her age she still didn't know how to react to her just ripening body. Her posture surely indicated that she had never imagined posing as she was now.
Then Michael saw something that yanked at his dispassion. Between her breasts hung a tiny mezuzah on a thin gold chain. She was Jewish. Not that Jews were any less likely to be victims of child abuse, but Michael had never seen anything in any of the photos that so positively linked a girl to his people. He felt the wall he had raised to protect himself from the photos crack a little.
He drained his tumbler. Picking up the empty bottle from the rug and dropping it in the trash can, he got up and went to the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves along the side wall of his office. Redecorating the office in the style of an English Lord's country library had been the only reward Michael had allowed himself after selling his first book; his reporter's view of the aftermath of the 2000 presidential campaign.
The books on their dark oak shelves made Michael feel safe in this room. As a final touch, the decorator had hidden the shallow closet with a section that opened to reveal file cabinets and a wet bar. Michael depressed the hidden catch and swung that section back. He reached in and opened a fresh bottle.
For a moment he sipped from the tumbler and then, shored, he sat back down at the computer. Michael carefully examined the details of the photo. On the blanket next to the girl's thigh Michael saw the outline of the letters "US." The blanket was military issue, most likely Navy or Marine from the gray color. A summer camp was still the front runner, but a military base was also a possibility. There was nothing new to learn from the blank wall behind her. Michael cataloged the photo and moved on to the next.
The photo began to scroll down the screen and when Michael saw the girl's expression he dropped the tumbler, splashing the oriental rug with spirit. The eyes were emerald and large and terrified.
Shock squeezed Michael's adrenal gland hard preparing him for fight or flight, it didn't matter which. The girl – Cory – was still sitting on the edge of the cot, but her hands were raised, pulled behind her head. Her face and upper body were framed in the photo. Michael could sharply see her face, her shoulders, her budding breasts, her mezuzah. The mezuzah. The mezuzah was wrong. Cory didn't own one. Michael had planned on giving her one as a Bat Mitzvah present – just like the one he had given his little sister 24 years before – but had never gotten the chance.
His hands shaking so hard that the cursor bounced around the screen like a midge in a swarm, Michael zoomed in on the face and mezuzah.
"Oh my God. Rachel."
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