“Oh, he’s a cute one, this one.” Sergeant Hagen’s tightwire mouth curled in a sarcastic grimace.
The email message on the screen read: “Do you like pets? Specially dogs? Fluffy white speckled spaniels with the most adorable brown eyes you ever seen?”
It was only Hagen’s second day with the Computer Crimes Unit. They’d set up a decoy on a chat room, a fictional 13-year-old they’d christened Heather. And accompanied it with a stock agency photo of a clearly underage child. Within hours there’d been six hits that loudly triggered alarm bells. Heather’s online identity had been carefully crafted, typing in only her age, her hair color—blonde—and the complaint that she was “totally, freakily” bored at home.
Hagen was surprised at how swiftly the responses had come racing in. Five of them were clumsily obvious. Sitting at the keyboard, he patiently played along. Avoiding any language that might smack of entrapment should this correspondence at some point surface in court. Letting the predators, which surely some of them were, press forward more assertively.
Most could be strung along with a few chirpy, cheery, only slightly flirty sentences. It wouldn’t take long, he’d been briefed, before the responders moved to the next level. How cool if Heather could swing free for a while! What funky stuff they’d get into! Sooner than not, a meeting arranged.
The bait so avidly swallowed, the trap would then snap. And the street cleansed of another piece of filth.
It was a simple formula. But the spaniel with the adorable eyes, the message signed by “Danny”, didn’t easily fit the pattern. A floppy-eared spaniel? Hagen drummed his thick fingers on the desk, hesitating. Then he wrote: “Ya. I like dogs. Really wish I had one. What’s urs called?”
Heather could say that, Hagen decided. He would have said that himself when he was a kid. Back then he’d badly wanted a dog but wasn’t permitted. He’d gone to live with his Gram, who was grumpy and finicky and wouldn’t allow pets in the apartment. Years later, grown up and married, Hagen bought a collie pup on the day his daughter was born. His first gift to her. His best gift to her, he’d always thought.
Danny’s message shot back instantly. “I named my dog Whiskers. Real playful. Loves to have you pet him. Kind of weird how he got here. Wandering in a couple nights ago. Outa nowhere. Friendly as can be. Tail wagging all the time. You’d love him Heather!!! TTYL.”
That meant “talk to you later”, Hagen understood. He’d consulted with his daughter about Heather’s emails. About using and comprehending teen vocabulary. Teach me, he’d joked to Amy. It was a language she was conversant with, though he’d not allowed her on Twitter and he closely limited her texting. He knew how many were out there online, prowling, searching, waiting.
Amy was why he’d volunteered for the cyber squad. She’d just graduated from sixth grade. Over a decade as a patrol cop and then detective, Hagen had had nasty run-ins with too many sickos. The thought of any one of them ever reaching out to Amy … the ugly vision increasingly pried its way into his mind as her birthday approached.
“Took Whiskers on a walk to the river,” Danny wrote the next day. “He was awful frisky. Running up and down. Barking like crazy. Wish you coulda seen him. He likes the hard rock stuff I play all the time. Sets him off. What’s your favorite band Heather?”
Hagen paused, trying to recall what music had lately been most obsessing Amy and her friends—and continually assaulting his eardrums. Then it came to him: a frenetic local garage band inelegantly calling itself Pus.
His face twitched, a wry smile. Pus? For himself, he would have responded with Scupperguts. But would that have looked suspiciously antiquated to Danny? Tipped him off that he wasn’t dealing with a teen? So Pus it would be.
In the midst of typing the message, he squirmed suddenly, aware of a pulsating throb in some far corner of his consciousness. So familiar. Then recollection. That random thought had touched off a memory. Scupperguts. The pounding rhythm. Hearing it again. Hearing again his onetime best pal shouting out the words.
“Sugar! Honey! Ice! Ya! Ya!” Cliff would shriek along with the juiced up tape, his long lantern jaw wildly gaping, thin spidery tattooed arms punching the air.