Cherry Bomb

Anywhere else, fifteen will get you twenty. Along the Turnpike, fifteen will get you dead.

When beautiful fifteen-year-old Stacy Kendall disappears, her wealthy parents hire Hartford PI Zach Barnes to find her. Barnes fears that the girl is dead…until a brunette who looks like her shows up in a security video outside a sleazy motel room. Inside that room, a man lies dead. Overnight, Stacy turns from a kidnap victim to a murder suspect—and her parents’ worst nightmare.

To save the girl, Barnes invades a thriving trade in teen sex-trafficking, blackmail, and murder. Getting in is easy. Now he has to get back out.

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Zach Barnes wonders if he’s heard the word “Esquire” since he stopped reading the magazine ‘way back when. He reads the business card again: Michael R. Kendall, Esq., Chief Executive Officer, Olympus Insurance Group. The embossed letters probably cost more than Barnes paid for his entire wardrobe. Kendall is three inches too short for his weight and has a personality that Barnes suspects will stain the office carpet, which he’s still paying for.

“It’s my daughter.” Kendall’s voice sounds like he’s used to snapping his fingers at the minions to make everything happen yesterday.

“What’s her name?” Barnes jots “daughter” on his legal pad.

“Stacy,” Kendall says. “She’s disappeared. I want her back.”

Barnes writes “missing” under “daughter.” “When did you see her last?”

“Tuesday.” Kendall adjusts his tie clip. “I dropped her off at the Hollingswood School–she’s a sophomore–but she didn’t show up for classes the next day. They called my wife.”

The Hollingswood School costs enough to fund an NBA franchise, but if Kendall is really a head honcho in Hartford, Barnes knows he’s making eight figures before the stock options kick in.

“What time Tuesday?”

“About noon.”

It’s Friday morning.

“Your daughter is a sophomore, so she’s what, sixteen?”

“Fifteen. She’ll turn sixteen in about a month.”

A fifteen-year-old girl from a family with lots of money, gone nearly three days. Barnes feels his morning coffee corkscrew into his stomach lining.

“Have you gone to the police, Mr. Kendall?”

“My wife called them Wednesday afternoon, after the school called her. They asked if we’d received a ransom note. We hadn’t. So they said they could file a missing persons report, but
they wouldn’t follow up for forty-eight hours.”

Kendall runs a hand through his thinning hair.

“Nobody’s seen her or heard from her. All her stuff is still in her room, except her cell phone. Her roommate says she had that with her at soccer practice. But she hasn’t called us, or anyone else.”

The more Barnes thinks about it, the more scenarios he can come up with, and none of them has a happy ending. Even though this is what he does for a living, he hates to be the bearer of what he already sees will be horrible news.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Kendall, but I don’t think I can help you.”

Kendall stares at him.

“Your daughter has been gone nearly three days. That means she could be hundreds, even thousands of miles away if she planned this, and that’s the best case.”

Kendall’s eyes process what Barnes isn’t saying.

He fumbles in an inner pocket, produces a BlackBerry and pushes the screen almost into Barnes’s face. Stacy Kendall’s smile lights up the whole office, brown eyes like a Labrador, short hair so black it looks blue, a dimple on her right cheek. Barnes feels the elevator plunging several stories beneath his feet and forces himself to breathe.

“My wife asked the police to recommend an investigator,” Kendall says. “Someone said you used to be a Hartford cop.”

Barnes wonders if that same person told Ms. Kendall why he’s no longer a Hartford cop. This girl looks enough like his wife to be a niece, maybe even a sister. But Erin Cavendish Barnes was an only child. And she’s been dead for five years.

Barnes looks away from the picture and waits until his heart stops pounding in his ears.

“I charge six hundred dollars a day, Mr. Kendall. Plus expenses. And I can’t guarantee that you’ll like my results.” He’s pretty sure he’s not going to like them, either, but that face reels him in like the sirens singing on a rock.

Kendall slides his hand behind those charcoal pinstripes and produces a piece of paper.

“I got a cashier’s check so you wouldn’t wait around for it to clear.”

Barnes looks at the zeroes and the perfect type font. Three thousand dollars. He slides a blank contract out of his desk drawer and the check into his pocket. He slides a business card
across the desk, too.

“Email that picture and two or three others to me at this address.”

Kendall types and Barnes looks at three pictures on his monitor. In one, Stacy wears a yellow tee shirt with the Hollingswood coat of arms over the left breast. That insignia has a definite curve.

The kid has been missing sixty-eight hours.

When Michael R. Kendall walks back to his Lexus, the windows open while he’s still five paces away.

Barnes downloads the pictures into his own phone.

Only a fool would see any good coming of this.