“We’re running out of time, Michael.” Terri entered her office, leaving a trail of heavy snow behind her. She peeled off her wet gloves, tossed them onto her desk, and quickly began rubbing her hands together. The weather outside was frightful; but, unfortunately, there was no delightful fire. In fact, nothing that had happened in the past month had been delightful.
“We’ve still got time, Terri,” Detective Michael Burdine said as he walked into the cramped space behind her. He slowly sank into the cloth chair in front of her desk.
“Not much,” she argued. The gesture wasn’t working, not even a little. Terri’s bones felt as if they had been dipped in ice water and then left outside in the single digit degree weather to freeze.
She lowered herself down into the leather chair behind her desk, shrugged out of her bulky coat, and looked down at her gold watch. It had been the only piece of jewelry that Jacob had ever given her.
“Erin was taken sometime late Friday night,” she said. “It’s now Monday—almost four. At best, we’ve got six hours to find her.”
“We will find her,” Michael assured, crossing one leg over the other.
“Well, we’ve got to!” she barked. Terri rose to her feet and promptly crossed her arms over her chest. “This isn’t just any other girl, Michael. This is my daughter and—” she took a deep breath. “You know what happened to Judy Hall and Brooke Hines on the third day they were missing.”
Michael sat up and nodded. “I know, Terri. But Detectives Scott and Clark are out there right now with the volunteers; they’re searching for her.”
“I should be out there too,” she protested. “I could be—”
“You need a break,” he said. “Have you slept or eaten in the past two days?”
She bit down on her lip. She refused to answer the question.
“That’s what I thought,” he said and shook his head.
“Look,” Terri started, “I’m your boss and—”
“And like you said,” Michael interrupted, “we still have six hours to find Erin. Take a half an hour to regroup. We’ll get back out there soon.”
“Nothing,” he commanded. “I’m going to make some coffee. Try to relax a little bit.”
Easy for him, she thought, as Michael exited the office and turned left toward the break room. He didn’t have children; he didn’t understand what it was like to be a parent. Frustration was beginning to boil inside of her. It had started down at her feet—burning. Now, it was slowly starting to rise, building throughout her entire body, dangerously closer to the point of eruption.
Terri reached for the first thing she could grab: a round glass jar housing pens and pencils that sat perfectly in the center of her desk. Clutching the jar, she launched her right arm back and threw it forward. It shattered against the wall.
Six hours, she thought. Six unbelievably short hours was all she had left.
Weakness overtook Terri. Suddenly, she no longer had the strength to stand. She fell into the comfort of the leather chair once again. She brought up her hands and raked them through her thick, dark hair. Terri could feel the dirt and grime of the past two days. She now wished she’d taken the time to shower.
She angled her head down toward her petite lap. Though she’d often thought of tears as a sign of weakness, Terri gave into temptation and let herself weep. The release felt surprisingly nice, as if this was exactly what she needed. But fearing that Detective Burdine could return at any moment, she wiped at her green eyes, hoping to somewhat conceal her unusual emotion. At forty-two, the last thing she wanted to be considered was a crybaby.
Terri looked down at her hands. Seeing that they were smeared with mascara, she rapidly brushed them against the sides of her black pants to rid herself of the mess.
“Everything alright in here?” Michael stood in the doorway. He was holding two yellow coffee mugs.
“Fine,” she answered, choosing not to explain the shards of broken glass on the hardwood floor. “How’s the coffee?”
He shrugged. “You’ve had the station’s coffee before.” Michael handed her a mug.
Terri accepted it, not expecting much. She did know what the coffee was like—dull and usually stale, but at least it was hot. And at the moment, she’d gladly welcome any liquid that had a temperature above freezing. Besides, she thought, reaching for the top center drawer of her desk, she had something to add to it.
“What are you doing, Terri?”
“Sorry,” she said, screwing off the cap to the thin, black bottle. The heavy, rich scent of Irish cream gradually flooded the room. “Do you want a shot?”
“No,” Michael said with a tight frown. “Do you really think it’s wise to be…”
“Don’t,” she ordered, immediately stopping him. She added a few drops of the liqueur to her drink, replaced the cap, and then put the bottle away. “It’s Bailey’s, not Patron. And you were the one that wanted me to relax.” Terri took a sip, lavishing the sweet warmth the beverage provided.
“I wanted to ask you something,” Michael said.
She looked up at the thirty-something-year-old detective. Terri hated to admit it, but she actually envied him. Detective Michael Burdine stood so tall and confident. He was together. He was dressed in neatly pressed, dark pants and a matching sweater. His blonde hair was slicked back, and his blue eyes seemed to sparkle. The man had no signs of stress present on him anywhere. He was smart, strong, and as Terri had seen demonstrated numerous times, an excellent detective.
“Terri, you still with me?”
“Right,” she answered. She shook her head to snap herself out of her reverie. “What is it that you wanted to ask me?”
“Well,” he started as he resumed his seat. “I know that we’ve discussed this ever since Judy Hall was found strangled to death, but I still can’t wrap my brain around this three-day deadline.”
“That’s the million dollar question,” Terri said.
“Both girls were strangled three days after being taken. But why?” Michael repeated.
Terri released a heavy sigh; she was losing concentration. Her focus immediately shifted to December 6th when she had received the first phone call. She’d been at home, slowly letting the shower water heat up, when her cell phone rang, causing her to jolt.
“This is Detective Carpenter,” she’d hesitantly answered as she’d flipped open her cell.
“Carpenter, it’s Detective Clark.” The raspy voice on the other end sounded exhausted. “We found her, Boss—Judy Hall. She’s dead.”
“Where are you, Detective?”
“Right off of Hamilton Road. It appears the girl was strangled to death and then dropped in the ditch like some piece of garbage.”
“I can be there in twenty minutes. Don’t move anything.”
Terri recalled trekking through the inches of solid white snow to get to the dead girl. It had been a cold walk in which she’d clearly been able to make out her own, frost-stained breath.
Upon reaching the body, Terri had registered a couple of things: the recent flakes that littered the girl from head to toe, and the angry wind chill that had fiercely began picking up. Terri had known then that Mother Nature wasn’t going to be an aid in solving this murder.
Circumstances had been quite similar when finding the second victim. That night was also vivid in Terri’s mind.
She’d known instantly when hearing the jingle of her phone that her efforts of finding therapy in a bubble bath and glass of red wine were going to be useless.
“This is Detective Carpenter,” she’d answered with her usual greeting.
The monotone voice of Detective Scott had filled her ear. “I just got a call at the station, Boss. Brooke Hines was found.” Scott had stopped for a moment. “She was strangled, too.”
“Her body was dumped close to Hamilton Road, just like the last one.”
The three-day pattern had then been brought to light. Michael had been the first detective to utter those two words that had sent rapid chills up and down Terri’s spine: serial killer.
And now, Erin was the latest female to be taken; the three-day deadline was inching closer and closer to an end.
A clock seemed to be ticking somewhere deep within Terri. Every minute—no, every second—she spent inside talking to Detective Burdine was just time that was being wasted. Terri checked her wristwatch again: five and a half hours now remained. The end was hastily approaching. But what that end entailed exactly, well, Terri wasn’t completely sure that she knew. She was no longer positive how it would all play out.
“Terri, are you going to answer that?”
She quickly blinked her eyes. She tried to gain focus and absorb her surroundings. That high-pitched, nauseating Christmas jingle—her cell phone was ringing.
“This is Detective Carpenter,” she answered.
She instantly recognized the deep voice on the other end of the phone: “Terri, it’s Dean.”
“Oh, Dean,” she sighed and collapsed back into her chair. “It’s my brother,” she said, looking at Michael.
“I was talking to Detective Burdine. We’re at the station, but we’re getting ready to rejoin the search party.”
“Christy’s out there now,” Dean said. “I came home to get some dry clothes. Blake and I are heading back out in a little bit.”
Terri felt herself frown; confusion flooded her. “Blake?” she asked. “What’s he doing home? I thought he had classes.”
“No,” Dean answered. “He’s been home about a month now for Christmas break.”
“Right,” she said and nodded. “Christmas break.” The most wonderful time of the year, yet she couldn’t bring herself to smile about one damn thing. Not even a single Christmas card or piece of candy could be found in her office—or her house, for that matter. Terri had more to worry about than the upcoming holiday.
“Tell Blake and Christy that I appreciate their help. And, of course, you too, Dean—thanks for all you’ve done.”
“We’re family,” he said. “Erin is our only niece, Blake’s only cousin. We’re going to find her.”
“I know,” Terri affirmed weakly. Doubt suddenly began overwhelming her. She didn’t know whether to cry or scream.
“You still there?”
“Yeah,” she mumbled, trying to hold herself together. “I was actually just thinking about Blake and that university sweatshirt he gave to Erin last Christmas.”
“Terri, you need to be strong—”
“Did you know that she applied to that college, Dean? She wears that damn sweatshirt all the time. She even had it on the night she went—”
“Terri, hold yourself together,” Dean ordered. “Do not break now; there isn’t time. We will find Erin,” he repeated.
“Right,” she said and cleared her throat. “Thank you.”
“I didn’t call to upset you. I just wanted to check in.”
“Nothing’s really changed; the search parties haven’t come up with anything just yet.”
“They will,” Dean assured. “There’s still plenty of time.”
Terri swore to herself that if Dean said the word “time” just once more, she would unravel. There wasn’t plenty of time, not anymore.
“Dean, I need to go. I have to—”
“Wait,” he said.
“What?” The harsh, irritated tone of her own voice surprised her.
“I wanted to ask you if you’ve called Jacob yet? Does he know what’s happened?”
Tears immediately stung the corners of her eyes. Terri let them build up. When they began cascading down her silky cheeks, she didn’t bother to try and hide them.
“Terri, you still—”
“How dare you, Dean! You know how I feel about Jacob.”
“He has a right to know,” Dean argued.
“And why is that?”
“He’s Erin’s father!”
“Some father,” she said, exploding. “Jacob left me before Erin was even a week old. He doesn’t care about her; he doesn’t even know her.”
“I still think you should call him,” he tried.
“And say what?” she asked. “He’s got a new woman in his life now—Liz, remember? He doesn’t care about me, and he sure as hell doesn’t care about Erin. He never has.”
“I don’t have time for this, Dean. Not today. Please thank Blake and Christy for all of their help.” Terri flipped her phone shut and threw it down onto the hard surface of her desk.
“What was that all about?” Michael asked.
“Nothing,” she said. “That was just my brother being, well, my brother.”
“I think it’s more than that, Terri. You’re shaking.”
“He brought up my ex,” she shouted. “Dean thinks Jacob has a right to know what’s happened with Erin, but I know for a fact that Jacob won’t care. He’s remarried to Liz,” she said, putting a hard emphasis on the other woman’s name. “And—”
A loud beeping sound interrupted her.
“Sorry,” Michael said. “That’s my phone.” Terri saw him glance down at the caller ID. “It’s Detective Clark.”
“Answer it, please,” she commanded. “Maybe they’ve found something.
“Detective Clark,” Michael answered. “Anything new?”
Terri reached for her coffee mug, but figuring that the brew was now cold, retracted her arm and folded her hands into her lap.
She desperately tried to avoid the large, rectangular clock that hung on the wall in front of her. Time was dwindling away, she knew. Night would be settling in all too soon, and temperatures would lower even further, creating an unbearable winter wonderland. Terri felt her legs beginning to shake; her inner core was rattled with anxiety. She had to get out there.
“Anything?” she asked as soon as she saw Michael flip his phone shut.
He looked down and then shook his head. “Sorry, not yet.”
Terri nodded and then took a moment to let his words sink in. “Where are Detectives Clark and Scott now? We should get out there and join them.”
“They’re finishing up Hamilton Street. They’re checking out that small wooded area, and then they have a few more houses to canvas.”
“Good,” Terri said. “Where’s the search party headed next?”
“Clark said that they’ll hit Steven Street in about an hour.”
“Steven Street?” she repeated. “Really?”
“Yeah,” Michael confirmed. “There’s not much to check out on Steven Street. But there’s that rundown apartment building and old warehouse. They’re places that haven’t been cleared yet. Steven Street is close to Hamilton.”
“Great,” she said and stood up. She grabbed for her coat and swiftly wrapped herself in it. “We should join the guys over on Hamilton Street, then.”
“Sounds good,” Michael agreed and then stood.
“Do you want to drive? Or should I?” Terri asked. Out of habit, she began reaching for her coffee mug again. But then recalling that it was cold, she pulled her arm back. But Terri hadn’t been paying close enough attention; her hand smacked the mug, causing the liquid to spill completely down the front of her.
“Dammit!” she screamed.
“Do you have a change of clothes here?” Michael asked as he offered her a napkin from her desk.
“No,” she said. She took the napkin and tried to clean up her mess. But the task wasn’t working; the thin material wasn’t absorbing any of the dampness.
“Do you want me to see if anyone else might have something here that you could use?”
“I’m soaked!” Terri hollered. She took a deep breath, trying to think fast. “You go to Hamilton Street and meet Detectives Clark and Scott. I’ll go home and meet you back in the field in fifteen minutes.”
“What? Are you sure? I can go with—”
“No,” she cut him off. “I want you out there. I need you out there.”
“Okay,” he said and headed for the door. “I’ll see you soon. And Terri?”
“Yes,” she asked and stared up at him.
“I’ll find Erin, no matter what it takes. I promise.” Michael pivoted and then left the room.
She heard the clicking of his boots as he walked down the hallway. Terri reached for her bag on the floor, flung it over her shoulder, and then grabbed her cell from her desk.
Exiting her office, she couldn’t help but glance at the clock on the wall. Just the slight sight of it frightened her. Her whole body instantly broke out into a cold sweat. Only five hours remained.
Terri rushed through the back door of the building and let it slam shut behind her. She braved the brutal cold, shoving her bare hands into the depths of her coat pockets for warmth. Her boots crushed down onto the stiff snow. As she began picking up the pace, running for her jeep, her hair whipped around her face, painfully stinging her skin.
Terri welcomed the protection of her vehicle. She immediately started it and let the heat fully blast out. She didn’t bother with the radio, preferring the eerie yet peaceful silence. After all, her overworked mind was already amped enough—she didn’t need the addition of cheesy, holiday music.
She was on her way now, pulling out of her parking spot and cruising down the long stretch of open road. Her wiper blades were working double time to keep the windshield clean. The strong scent of cinnamon coming from the air freshener that was loosely hanging off her rearview mirror was overpowering; the stench was almost making her gag. But Terri tried to ignore all of the distractions. She had to keep moving.
Terri quickly made a hard right. As soon as she turned onto the street, her jeep began sliding. She felt her body immediately stiffen and tense up. Her vehicle was fishtailing to the side. The wheel frantically spun round out of her control; her tires began screeching loudly and pierced her eardrums. She panicked and swiftly reacted by smashing her foot down onto the break.
The movement didn’t help; her jeep was acting on its own accord. It was spinning forward—unstoppable. Terri looked up. She was only a few feet from the large building. She was going to crash into it; there was no mistaking that.
She frantically reached for her seatbelt. Tugging, Terri prayed she’d avoid a collision with the windshield and the jagged edges it would undeniably become on impact. She tried the break again. She pressed down harder this time, needing a miracle.
And finally, almost as soon as the danger had started, it ended. The jeep skidded to a complete halt, the passenger side of the vehicle just inches away from touching the building. Terri let out a long exhale. She realized for the first time that she’d been holding her breath. A throaty cough escaped her lips; tears painfully stung her eyes. An accident, she knew, would have ruined everything.
She shifted into park, making sure the jeep was stationary. Terri didn’t want the vehicle going anywhere. She slowly reached out for the door handle. But before she could get a good grip on it, she heard movement against leather. Her eyes widened; her heartbeat began wildly increasing. Her nightmare was far from over.
Someone was in her backseat!
Terri racked her brain; she tried to think swiftly. She had two options. Her gun was in the glove box. She could attempt to seize it, but would she be fast enough? She didn’t know exactly what she was up against. Running was always a choice, too. She could throw open the door and dart out into the early evening cold. But where would she go? Was there someplace to hide?
Fight or flight, she contemplated. Her head was plagued with questions, but only one blatantly stuck out: who was doing this?
Trembling, she slowly let her arm stretch out. As if her mind had been read, a deep monotone voice rang out from the backseat and filled the small space of her jeep.
“Don’t even think about it, Terri.”
Confusion promptly flooded her. She let her arm drop. Had she heard correctly? Could it really be him? Suddenly, she felt the hard metal barrel of a gun as it was tightly pressed up against the back of her head. Was he really doing this? Nothing no longer made sense.
“Step out of the jeep. Now!” The deep voice ordered.
Terri didn’t bother arguing; she did as she was told. She opened the driver’s side door and stepped out of the jeep. She was immediately met by the bitter temperature. Terri tried desperately to zip her coat.
“Don’t bother with that,” he said. “Get inside, now!”
“Now!” he repeated, lowering the gun’s aim to the base of her neck.
“Please,” Terri begged. “Don’t do this.”
“Then do what I tell you to.”
Terri obeyed, again, and then moved forward with him tight on her heels. She reached out for the round knob and turned it. She pulled the heavy metal door toward her and entered the building; the stench of spoiled fish instantly overwhelmed her. There was barely enough light to take in her surroundings. She was in an empty room. The walls were basic—plain plaster. The floor was cement. There was a small pile of two by four pieces of wood in one corner, not much else.
The door slammed shut and Terri turned around to face her assailant. The aim of the gun was now pointed at her face, directly between her eyes. The man was sweating badly, causing dirty streaks to run the course of his face. Terri had no trouble placing his nerves, as the hand holding the gun was slightly shaking. Maybe there was still a way out of this.
“Why are you doing this?” she asked.
“Funny,” he said. “I was going to ask you the same question.”
“Excuse me?” she asked. “I don’t understand.”
“Don’t play dumb with me, Terri.” His voice echoed throughout the barren room. “At least give me more credit than that.”
“Stop!” he shouted. He spun around and threw his hands into the air. He began laughing. “Just stop! We’re here on Steven Street because—”
Terri made her move—she dove for the pile of two by fours. She frantically reached out to grasp one of the boards, but a shot rang out. The bullet exploded into the wall in front of her, just feet above her head. Terri stood, turned, and stared at the gun.
“Are you trying to kill me, Michael?”
“Maybe,” he answered. “If it comes to that.”
“I’m your boss,” she roared. “Put your weapon down—that’s an order.”
“I know it’s you, Terri.”
“What are you taking about, Michael?”
“I know you kidnapped Judy Hall and Brooke Hines. I know you killed them. And I know you kidnapped Erin, your own daughter.”
“You’ve gone crazy!” she screamed. “How could you possibly—”
He pointed the gun to the ceiling and fired it again. A loud crack exploded into the room. “Don’t lie to me.”
“Fine,” she said. She threw up her hands to show that she was surrendering. “Fine! You caught me, Michael. I admit it: I’m the person you’ve been looking for this past month. Happy?”
“Happy?” he repeated. “You’re my boss, my mentor. I’ve looked up to you! How could I be happy?”
“Don’t be so dramatic,” she said and revealed a sly smile. “I am impressed with your work, though.” Terri began clapping. “Bravo, Detective Burdine.”
“What made you finally catch on?” she asked, crossing her arms over her chest. “What was the big tip off that you were working with a coldblooded killer?”
“Today, in your office,” Michael said. “You told your brother exactly what Erin had been wearing the night she had been taken. I realized you could have only known that information if you had been the one to have taken her.”
“Nice catch,” she said.
“It wasn’t the only one,” he revealed. “You were on edge the whole day today. Never once did you show excitement about the search party’s progress. You were drinking alcohol. You even got upset when I mentioned that the search was spreading to Steven Street. I put it all together.”
“And what?” she asked. “Hopped in the back of my jeep to catch me in the act?”
“I knew you were coming here. You spilled that coffee on purpose. You had to move Erin before the other detectives got here.”
“It only took you a month to piece it all together,” she mocked. “And if I would have just kept my big mouth shut, I probably would have gotten away with all of it.”
“You need help,” he said.
“I’m getting help,” she admitted. “Well, I was. You wouldn’t believe how it feels to strangle the life out of someone.”
“You’re sick,” he said and slowly shook his head.
“No,” she corrected with a strong glare. “I’ve just been pushed over the edge.”
“What in the hell are you talking about?”
“See,” Terri said and took a step back. “You don’t even know. You stand there, pointing that gun at me, judging me. You don’t even know why we’re here.”
“I know why,” he argued. “You’re crazy!”
“Oh, Michael,” she smirked. “It goes deeper than that.”
“Fine,” Michael said. “What’s your great excuse for committing murder?”
Terri leaned her head back and released a thick laugh. “You must not have been listening too closely today in my office. Jacob,” she informed him. “This is all because of Jacob.”
“Your ex-husband?” he asked with a frown. “But what does—”
“He left me eighteen years ago this month!” Terri yelled and instantly balled her hands into fists. “Erin was only three days old and . . .” she took a deep breath. “He left me.”
“What does that have to do with your daughter?”
“It has everything to do with Erin! This is all her fault!”
“Do you hear what you’re saying?”
“Jacob left me because of her! He never wanted kids! And then, three days after—he just left!”
“You blame your daughter?” Michael asked. “This has nothing to do with those other girls? They were just a cover so you could get away with killing Erin?”
Terri shrugged. “Maybe it was the approaching anniversary of my divorce? Or perhaps the upcoming holiday? Regardless, I finally just snapped.”
“And now what? You think Jacob will just take you back after Erin is officially out of the picture?”
“No,” Terri said and hastily shook her head. “He’s got a new girl now—Liz. Remember? But my daughter still needs to be punished.”
“That’s not going to happen, Terri.” Michael aimed the gun.
“Yes,” she said, bending down. “Well, we do seem to have a small problem.” Quickly reaching behind her, she grabbed for a block of wood. Terri swiftly brought it up, hitting Michael in the arm and chest. He fell to the floor and dropped the gun. She started running.
Terri ran down the narrow hallway, turned right, and started up the concrete stairs. She made a left and charged into the room. She was well aware of the fact that time was not on her side. But she would adjust. No matter what happened, whatever the consequences were, Erin was going to get hers. Terri would squeeze the life out of the girl, just like Erin had done to her eighteen years ago.
Terri scanned the room. It was empty. And suddenly, she felt pressure on the back of her head as something came crashing down onto her. She became dizzy. White, hot pain overtook her—she couldn’t see for a moment. Terri fell to the floor and clutched at her wound.
“I told you that I knew you were headed here,” Michael said. “I had Detectives Clark and Scott come here; they took Erin to safety.”
“You ruined everything!” she screamed. “You. . .” she couldn’t finish. Michael was becoming a blur; she knew that she was losing consciousness and would fully pass out in a moment. She squinted and was just barely able to see him retrieve a pair of handcuffs.
“Terri Carpenter,” he started, “you are under arrest.”
[Author’s Note: This short story originally appeared in the horror anthology Unholy Night: Christmas Fears 2, published by Static Movement in 2012 (currently out of print). It then appeared in the e-book, Another Motive for Murder, published in 2015.]