Hi there, everybody. Welcome to my first post and my first story, a psychological thriller about a man racing against the clock to outwit an incarcerated criminal and find a group of missing children. I like to call it “In Search of a Skull”
I’d like to dedicate this tale to Brennan McPherson, a professional author who, even though we only met recently, took time out of his busy schedule to do a line-by-line critique of the first draft. Seriously, how often does that happen? He currently has two books available for purchase. You can find out more by visiting his website.
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In Search of a Skull
Copyright 2017 Eric M. Heiden
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
In just five minutes, Pete Ryland would be face-to-face with the world’s most notorious kidnapper. He swallowed and opened his briefcase. He hoped he’d be able to hide his disgust. This man had helped take so many children away from their families, and this visit might be the only way to bring them home.
He pulled a legal pad out of the briefcase and set it on the table. Going against his earlier resolve, he began reading through his list one final time.
Despite giving in, Pete shook his head. He must have gone over it a hundred times already. Then again, he couldn’t afford to get careless and slip up. The man he was about to speak with had a reputation and would clam up if Pete wasn’t careful. Every known thing that could set the guy off was written down on that sheet, and this would be Pete’s last chance to review it. He needed to be quick too. If the list was out when the interviewee got here or if he even saw Pete putting it away, he’d guess that something was up, and it’d be all over.
Pete skimmed through the off-limit subjects: his school, his father, his grandparents. Eventually, he was at the last item: a name.
Everyone knew the kidnappings hadn’t been a one-man job, and almost everyone had a theory on who else was involved. Pete stared at that last item. He didn’t have a theory. He knew, and if this all just went as he hoped, he’d have proof. He gave the name to the police long ago, but nothing came of it. They just weren’t as convinced as Pete was, not even close. He often thought they might’ve been just humoring him when they took it.
He kept staring. This name was why the list had to stay hidden. He absolutely could not say it during the interview, but he had to do everything possible to coax it out of the punk’s mouth. It was a miracle they’d let him do this in the first place, and he only had this one shot.
At that last thought, Pete’s chest went cold. Idiot. How long had it been? Praying for enough time, praying at a thousand words a second, he shoved the papers back into the briefcase and snapped it shut.
Right then, the door opened. Xander Eklund, the most famous inmate anywhere on the planet right now, stepped into the room. An armed guard followed.
Ever since the arrest, Pete had always been amazed at how little Eklund looked the part. He was tall, sure, but he was also as thin as a broom and had a tiny, weak chin. Then there was his hair, far too short given how badly his ears stuck out; it made him look almost like a little boy whose parents had just tried at-home barbering for the first time.
However, this was, in fact, a grown man, one who looked right at Pete and frowned.
Pete resisted the urge to leer. Eklund had probably been thinking his visitor would be from a big network. Nope. No crews, no cameras with famous logos on them, just one guy with a camcorder. Like it or not, the monster was stuck with an amateur.
Eklund looked at the guard and back again, waiting a few seconds before sitting down opposite Pete at the table.
While Pete was an amateur, he hadn’t come unprepared. Yesterday alone, he’d practiced what he’d say to introduce himself 300 times.
“Well,” Pete began. “Let me just say how glad I am to be here talking with you.” He gave a nod. “My name is Pete Ryland.”
The other man nodded back.
“Xander Eklund,” he replied. “Of course, I imagine you knew that already.”
Pete hadn’t quite expected a joke, but he responded quickly. He had to. Next to not bringing up the accomplice, his biggest concern was to keep talking, to keep Eklund from having any time to wonder why some unknown freelancer had been allowed to speak with him when there were major names and networks all over the planet still waiting their turn. He forced a chuckle.
“That’s very true…but,” he shifted the camcorder on its stand to center it more on Eklund’s face, “your name is really the only thing about you that anyone agrees on. Even with all the interviews you’ve given, there’s still so much gossip and misinformation out there.”
Eklund snorted and shook his head. “That’s very true.”
“Exactly,” Pete said. “That’s why I wanted to see you. I want to separate the facts,” he leaned forward, “from the lies. I want to know about the real Xander Eklund, not the Xander Eklund from the tabloids or the forums.”
Eklund narrowed his eyes.
“You know, everyone who’s interviewed me said the same thing, and that”–he made air quotes–“other Xander Eklund is still out there. He’s thriving, even.”
Pete figured Eklund would say as much, and he was ready.
“That’s why I’m here,” he told the inmate. “Let’s say there was another way to get the truth out. I bet you’ve realized I’m not even a reporter.”
Eklund sat up.
“What I am,” Pete half lied, “is a teacher.”
Eklund tilted his head.
“A teacher,” he parroted.
“That’s right,” said Pete. “All that gossip? I hear it from my own students, every single day. What you’ve told the media isn’t getting to them because they don’t listen to the media. A lot of people in my field are sick of kids only hearing one side of all this, especially since that side seems to have a problem with accuracy. A bunch of us got together and made enough noise so that a teacher,” he pointed at himself, “would be the next person to see you.
“The way things are, kids will only hear the real story if one of us tells it to them, and they’ll only be interested enough to listen if they’re told it by someone who’s actually met you.”
Eklund went quiet, for much longer than Pete liked. Had he bought it? True, almost everything Pete just said was a complete lie, but it was a believable lie, wasn’t it? He was starting to lose feeling in his hands.
The prisoner let out a long sigh, then raised both eyebrows.
“I think you might be right,” he said, “and even if you’re not, my talking to reporters isn’t working, regardless.” He folded his hands on the table. “Go ahead. Ask away.”
Pete’s muscles relaxed. He was in. He’d have to speed things up–this visit wouldn’t last forever–but he was in.
“I thought we’d start with the biggest rumor,” he told Eklund. “Now, despite what people like my students are telling each other, you’ve never harmed any of the children you took, correct?”
Eklund inhaled slowly, parting his lips just a crack and showing some teeth, before answering.
“Out of all the lies that are told about me and the…others, that, that’s the one that gets to me the most. It’s the one that’s done the most damage.
“The mass relocation,” he referred to the kidnappings, “had been a success. Overall, the public was on our side. It was the perfect time to add to our ranks so we could begin Phase Two of ‘Operation Skull.’ That’s when I recruited Sally Holm to our cause.
“Then,” he set both palms on the table and moved them apart, “the press were told that a body had been found, twelve-year-old Angie Gilmore. People might not have bought it if her parents hadn’t come on camera and said they’d verified it was her. Of course, they were in on it; the police probably told them it was their only chance of seeing her again. Everyone believed it though…and Sally began having second thoughts.
“I reassured her that Angie and the others were perfectly safe–not happy, of course–but safe. I thought she believed me; she seemed to. But within a week, she turned herself in and led the detectives right to me.
“So,” he said with a joyless grin, “we lost a promising recruit, our cause was demonized, and I wound up in prison, all because of a tall tale. The only silver lining was that I was the only one Sally had met; she didn’t know who all else was involved.”
Pete opened his mouth, but Eklund started talking again.
“To answer your question, you’re correct. I’m sure that Little Miss Gilmore and the rest are still safe. We’re not perverts; we’re not killers. Violence was never part of our plan. ‘Operation Skull’ has only ever been about equality.”
As much as that ‘equality’ line made bile rise in Pete’s throat, he hoped Eklund was telling the truth about the kids. He forced himself to nod.
“Thank you. Now, ever since your group released its first statement to the public, you’ve all referred to the children as ‘skulls.’ Why is that?”
“‘Skull’ wasn’t our first choice,” Eklund said. “Up until the month of the relocation, we called them ‘vessels.’ It made sense. We wanted a quick, to-the-point way of telling everyone we weren’t interested in the kids themselves; they were just containers. We wanted what was inside them, their powers. If there’d been a way to take that and leave the kids with their families, believe me, we would’ve done that instead.
“Anyway, the name was ‘vessel,’ but then…somebody had a better idea. These weren’t ordinary children. We’d be dealing with kids who could touch an object and for up to two weeks be able to tell you its location–no matter where it’d been moved–just by closing their eyes and thinking about it. Since these powers were mental in nature, why were we using a generic word for container? Why not use the name of the mind’s container, the skull? That’d be even more to the point. So, just weeks before Phase One began, ‘Operation Vessel’ became ‘Operation Skull.’”
Pete nodded. This was going better than he’d hoped. He’d noticed that pause. Eklund had gotten careless and almost dropped a name. Pete would stick with his plan. Eklund had just shown he couldn’t keep his guard up forever. All Pete had to do was keep him talking.
“How long has ‘Operation Skull’ been in the making?” he asked. “When did it all begin?”
“Well, it formally began once that census was finished and the numbers came in. To be honest though,” Eklund put an elbow on the table, “I think everyone involved knew we’d be doing something like this back when the news first broke, when everyone first learned about the powers.
“That was a frustrating time. Instead of studying what was right in front of them, the”–he made air quotes again–“experts spent all their time trying to figure out where the powers came from. I mean, here we’ve got psychic abilities showing up worldwide, and all we’d get on the news were theories. ‘Was it some kind of evolutionary leap?’ ‘Did aliens secretly visit and toy with our gene pool?’ It was funny,” he frowned, “almost.
“Everyone figured the authorities would eventually focus on the here and now, and to keep their sanity while they waited, some people,” Eklund winked, “got together and began discussing things that actually mattered. How exactly would these individuals use this gift? Who all had these powers? Who didn’t have these powers?
“After the world governments announced they’d collaborate on a census, that last question became the focal point of our meetings. Were these abilities spread out evenly? Were there any regions or groups that were being left out? If there were, what could be done about it?”
He took another deep breath.
“Despite what your students have heard, nobody involved had a prejudice. When it turned out that the Irish and people of Irish descent had one ‘gifted’ kid, one skull, for every eight, we didn’t resent them. It’s just that some demographics had as few as one for every thousand.”
Eklund folded his hands and leaned as far forward as the table allowed.
“We made this entirely clear all the way back when we made that first statement. This was about evening the playing field, getting rid of unjust advantages and disadvantages. It was about getting those kids to families that deserved them more.”
Pete had known that the longer this went on, the worse Eklund’s preaching would get; putting up with it was something he’d resigned himself to well before coming here. Still, he was eager to change the subject.
“The next thing I’d like to ask you,” he began “is–”
Eklund raised a hand.
“I’ve heard enough,” he said, leaning back into his chair before continuing. “Boy or girl?”
Pete shook his head. “I don’t follow.”
“There’s no point pretending. I know why you’re here now.”
Pete’s heart all but stopped. He’d been found out. Eklund had leaned in close when he finished his ‘evening the playing field’ sermon; Pete’s face must’ve given something away. Maybe he was bluffing though. It might not be over yet; he just had to play dumb.
“Um,” he shrugged his shoulders, “how about you tell me what you think I’m here for?”
Eklund gestured at the camera.
“This isn’t for your students. Are you even really a teacher? You look more like a construction worker.”
Football coach, thought Pete.
“Whatever you actually do for a living, I can tell this much,” Eklund said. “You are one of the parents…or at least a relative. You didn’t come here because you wanted to share my story, you came here in search of a skull.”
All feeling left Pete’s body.
Eklund sighed. “I was really hoping I’d been wrong about you. Do you know how much it would have meant if you’d been telling the truth? Before Angie Gilmore was turned into a martyr, it was incredible; there were so many out there who got what we were doing. People were actually tearing down and defacing the missing child posters.”
Pete could vouch for that last part. There’d been days when David’s posters would be gone within an hour of being put up.
“Everyone was behind us,” Eklund went on, “and if you were really here to clear things up, it might’ve gone back to the way it was then, before people were ashamed to show their support.”
Pete looked down at the camcorder. He could feel himself trembling. The entire family had spent ages chasing down even the barest hints of a lead, and after all that time, David was still gone. This had been Pete’s one chance to find him, and the plan he’d stuck to religiously, the plan he’d staked everything on, had failed him, had failed David.
He felt a sudden urge to throw the device right at Eklund’s head. It wasn’t like Pete needed the footage now, and it might even kill the monster.
No. That would just create more problems for everyone. Pete turned and looked at his briefcase. For all he’d accomplished, he might as well have kept that list out in plain sight. He clenched his teeth. He might as well have waved that list in Eklund’s face.
Pete froze. Maybe that was it.
He turned back to the camcorder. It was still on and was still pointed at the angry convict. He might have one last chance. Pete’s face had given him away; maybe Eklund’s would do the same. He looked into those remorseless eyes.
“You win,” he told Eklund.
The criminal didn’t move a muscle.
“You’re completely right. I thought if I told you I was a teacher, buttered you up and kept you talking, you might let something slip.”
He took a breath, held it a second and said the one thing he thought he’d never say.
“Now, there’s no one left to question, except Simon Lars Johnson.”
Eklund didn’t say a word, but the annoyance on his face changed into disbelief, then horror. After five seconds he managed to will his expression back into a scowl, but the guard had seen everything, and Pete had recorded it.
“Well,” the guard said.
Eklund closed his eyes and exhaled through his nose.
Pete’s job was done. He had proof and an eye witness. He’d just made Mr. Johnson the investigation’s main person of interest. David was still out there, but Pete had taken a huge step toward bringing him home. In fact, though Pete had no idea at the time, his contribution would bring David, Angie and all the missing children home in just four days. In the meantime, he wasn’t at peace, but his hope had returned.
Eklund might have sat there forever if the guard hadn’t walked over.
“I take it you’re done?” the guard asked.
“Okay,” he looked at Eklund. “On your feet, now!”
Eklund complied, not taking his eyes off Pete. The guard and prisoner made their way to the door.
“Wait,” said Pete.
The guard swung Eklund around.
“You got something else to say to our new informant here?” the man in uniform cheerfully asked.
Pete nodded again, then looked right at the grown man with a little boy’s haircut.
“I just wanted to say that I don’t appreciate you calling my nephew a skull.”