The severed finger fell from Jaxon’s grip and landed on his boot where the sticky blood adhered to the leather.
He stared at it as he held the empty box in his other hand. His surprise at finding it here in this beautiful wooded area overshadowed the revulsion he felt. He looked back and forth between the box and the finger, shook his boot, dislodging the amputated appendage, and then unconsciously wiped his hand on his jeans. The pink fingernail polish gleamed in the sun as it rolled into a lighted area on the forest floor.
He looked back to the box and saw a white piece of paper crammed inside, a little blood smeared across its surface. He pulled it free and opened it, careful to keep from touching the drying blood.
It read: Congratulations! You are the lucky recipient of the finger of one Bethany Hope. She’s waiting to get it back. Should you so choose, you could be her savior. She’s trapped in a place only you will be able to find, but you must hurry. The clock is ticking and I’m watching. I’ll know when you find this note and I’ll be watching your every move. Think of it as a game…only with a dire outcome should you fail. If you choose to ignore this or come to the conclusion this is a joke, she will perish just as surely as you will survive. If you call the police, she will die. Can you live with that? You have 72 hours. I’ll be helping you along the way and for my first act of kindness here is your next waypoint. The rest may prove a little more difficult. Ready? Go!
N29° 58.91915’, W081° 38.04077’
Jaxon read the note again, more slowly, and then looked around, searching.
He could make out no one watching or even a hint of how they would know he was here. He looked up and a glint of sunlight on an object caught his eye. He maneuvered to his left and saw what looked to be a camera high up in the tree, its lens facing down at him. A little red light blinked off and on.
Jaxon Jennings, retired cop, ex Army MP, and owner of Jennings’ Investigations, dropped the box and paper on the ground and began to climb the tree. His six foot three, two hundred and forty pound frame didn’t seem to cause the huge branches of the old oak any strain. At least until he climbed a little higher. Then he wondered if this little excursion was the smartest move for someone of his size and age. Forty eight was not old, but it was not young either. When he reached the camera, he tore it from its strap and stared into the lens.
“I’m coming for you, dipshit.” He found the power switch and turned it off.
Back on the ground, he pulled his cell from his pocket and dialed a number from memory. It was answered by his wife on the third ring.
“Hey Vick. I need a little help,” he said.
“What’s up? I thought you were GeoCaching.”
She sounded amused and he knew she didn’t appreciate his hobby.
He explained the situation to her and she listened quietly, never interrupting.
“Shit,” she said.
“Yeah, I agree. I need you to find out as much as you can about this Bethany Hope and then see if you can track anything down about this remote camera. Call the manufacturer and give them the serial number…”
“We’ve been here before,” she interrupted.
“I know. I don’t know why all the psychos find me. See if the serial number can get us an IP address or something. He has to be accessing the camera from the internet.”
“Don’t call me. I’ll call you. He may have some other means of watching me and I don’t want him to know I’ve got help. We have 72 hours. No police right now until I know he’s blind.”
He contemplated that statement, “Right. I don’t think it’s a woman, but we can’t rule it out.”
“Be careful,” she finally said.
“I will. You know me.”
“That’s what worries me.”
He grinned to himself and then said goodbye.
It was amazing how she had fallen right in with him on this and they both knew exactly what needed to be done. It shouldn’t surprise him, being that she was also an ex-cop and retired FBI agent, but it still made him feel better that they were in sync even after all they had been through. Working together they just might have a chance at saving this girl’s life and taking down the bad guy. What a cliché, he knew, but it gave him comfort.
He opened the GeoCaching app on his phone and plugged in the numbers for the lat/longs the psycho had provided.
GeoCaching was a fun new hobby he had gotten into in the last few months. It was like a scavenger hunt you could participate in as much, or as little, as you wanted. It kept his investigative juices flowing and gave him an excuse to be outdoors. Who would’ve guessed it would lead to the ultimate scavenger hunt, where someone’s life hung in the balance?
He stared at the map of North Florida and the blinking blip representing the latitude and longitude point he had entered into the phone. The GPS built into it said the new waypoint was to the south and approximately five miles away. The only problem was it showed it smack dab in the middle of the St. John’s River. He rechecked the numbers and confirmed they were correct.
“What the hell?” He didn’t have time to question it so he used a leaf to pick up the severed finger and place it back in the box.
Trekking back through the wooded area, he scanned the note again to see if there had been anything he might have missed. It was scrawled in a looping pen, with purple ink. The handwriting looked very feminine and this bothered Jaxon. Maybe Vick had been right. Could this scumbag be a woman?
He emerged from the woods to the sight of his car being blocked by two local black and whites. Actually the vehicles were green and white, as Florida seemed to enjoy colorful cop cars over the traditional. Anyway, he was getting a ticket. Or a towing notice. Two cops stood by his car. One spotted him and they both waited for him to make the short walk from the woods to the car.
“This your vehicle?” one of the officers asked when Jaxon approached.
The cop looked him over and then to the woods from where he had emerged. He was medium height and slightly overweight, with brown to graying hair. He looked close to Jaxon’s age.
Jaxon had tucked the box with the finger and note in his pocket and he hoped it would stay there. It would take quite a bit more explaining than he was prepared for at the moment. He was definitely not ready to involve the locals just yet.
“I need your driver’s license and registration.”
“Is there a problem, officer?”
“We’ve had numerous complaints of vehicles blocking the shoulder here and we’re just following through.”
“I’m not in the road.”
“No, you’re not, but you’re on a piece of private property here and the owner doesn’t like it. What exactly were you doing trespassing on his land?”
This was part of the issue with his new hobby. Many GeoCachers were hiding new caches on property that was not public. It was difficult to tell if the property belonged to another entity so the cachers just did their deed and went about the business of uploading the GPS coordinates and letting the games go on. The problem was that it was illegal to put a cache on private property and this wasn’t found out until some poor cacher like Jaxon ran into a problem like this one. Jaxon hadn’t checked it out before he got here. He had trusted one of his new GeoCaching friends, PBIStalker, from the forums, and had added the site to the list of places he was going to visit today. Mistake.
He really didn’t have time for this so he decided to use his ex-cop trump card.
Jaxon pulled his old badge from Fairfax County in Virginia out and flashed it along with his driver’s license. “Sorry for the problem. I’m an ex-cop from Virginia and I’m into this whole GeoCaching thing. Have you heard of it?”
The first cop looked irritated and nodded his head. “You folks are showing up all over the place, creating problems that are taking away from real police work.”
“We were eating breakfast when we got the call,” the second one said. He was tall, blond, and built well. Pretty close to Jaxon’s own size.
“Didn’t know we were that much of a pain to anybody but ourselves,” Jaxon said. “I’ll take care of this site and have it removed so you won’t get any more calls.”
The first cop finally smiled and said, “Yeah. Do that please. Old man Vincent is a pain in my ass and he’ll keep calling for whatever else he can think of, but if you close this down, that will be one thorn extracted from my side.”
“No problem. I’m Jaxon by the way,” and he shook the first cop’s hand.
“Fanucci. Robert Fanucci,” the first cop said.
“Williamsen,” the tall one said and clasped Jaxon’s hand in a vice-like grip. Jaxon tried not to wince.
“You retired or just down on vacation?” Fanucci asked.
“Retired, but I run a private investigative firm with my wife.” Jaxon handed him a card. “If you guys ever need anything outside of the normal channels. The wife is ex-FBI too.”
Fanucci looked over the card and pocketed it. “Thanks. I may pick your brain in the future. Not too far from retirement myself.” He waved, and got in his cruiser.
“Stay alert,” Williamsen said, and put his fingers to his forehead in a half-hearted salute.
Jaxon waved as both cops drove off.
Jaxon sat in the car and brought up the GeoCaching app on his cell phone. He made a notation for this site that indicated it was closed and no longer safe to hunt. Private Property notated by a cache location was usually enough to keep most of the cachers away. He looked at the next waypoint on the GPS and started the car. Time to move.
As Jaxon headed south out of Orange Park, Florida, on US 17, he looked over the note again trying to find anything that might give him a clue as to what the real motive was behind this thing.
No one kidnapped a woman and held her life in the balance just for fun. At least no one Jaxon ever knew. The world was full of idiots and psychos and Jaxon had had his fill of those types during his lifetime, but usually there was something or someone creating a catalyst for the actions committed, even if they made little sense to anyone but the perp. He knew that in police work, motive was often searched for first. If there was no clear motive, then it was very difficult to win the case.
The note did not yield anything unusual.
The purple ink seemed to mock him as it stuck out on the paper like a sore thumb. There was a small stain at the bottom right corner, but without any forensic analysis at his disposal he could only guess at what it consisted of. Could just be a water stain. He sniffed the page and noticed a scent of perfume. Though unusual, it did not give any of the secrets like he hoped it would. It was just perfume. He put the note down and concentrated on the drive to the next town.
Green Cove Springs, Florida was the political seat of Clay County and had been a tourist attraction back in the 1800s. Everyone who had made the trip from up north to Florida back then had to stop and see the spring and bathe in its warm crystal clear waters.
When the spring had been discovered, there were those who thought it the fountain of youth and Ponce De Leon be dammed, they were going to capitalize on it. A huge resort was built and it catered to the well-to-do of the time. Even Presidents and foreign dignitaries had visited and bathed in the pristine liquid, hoping that some of the youthful legend would rub off.
As the progress of time so often did, the town lost its attraction and fell to the wayside as the interstate system built new towns and tourist attractions that were much more accessible. The big cities of the state, Miami, Tampa, and Orlando, were much more attractive and much easier to get to. Thus, Green Cove Springs remained a small hick town and though the spring head itself still fed into the St. John’s River right at the center of town, it attracted little attention. In fact, Jaxon didn’t even realize it was there until he passed the spring itself just off of the main thoroughfare through town while in search of a good cup of coffee. It just never occurred to him that the town with ‘Spring’ in its name actually had a real live spring.
The GPS in his hand told him to turn left off of US 17 onto State Road 16. He maneuvered the car to the turn lane and guided it left toward the old navy base, now named Reynolds Air Park. He drove past the installation which still housed an airport and dock facilities. It even had an old par three golf course.
He was approaching the Shands bridge which spanned the St. John’s River far south of the city of Jacksonville and he wondered if he had made a wrong turn. The GPS told him a left turn was coming up and he bore left down the road with a sign that said Old Shands Pier. It was the original Shands bridge that had been replaced in 1963. The old wooden structure was now used by the locals as a fishing spot.
What remained of the bridge jutted out a good distance into the river and as he pulled into the parking space the mystery of the cache that put itself in the middle of the water was solved. The pier just didn’t show up on the GPS map.
The parking lot was moderately full and he could see a dozen or more fishermen spread out along the length of the old wooden pier with their poles dangling line into the river. A toddler was running from his grandfather down the length of the structure and Jaxon wondered at the wisdom of bringing a little tornado onto an old, rickety, road of sorts, with little standing between him and the water. He was a fast tornado, too. Jaxon reached out and grabbed the tyke as he skittered past and held him tight while the little guy squirmed and protested. A man Jaxon assumed was the kid’s grandfather caught up and took him from Jaxon.
“Thank you, sir. He’s a little spunkier than I remember.”
“I can believe that, my friend,” Jaxon said and smiled. “Better tether him to a cleat or something.”
“You got that right. I was actually thinking this wasn’t such a great idea. He’s pretty damn bored and the fish sure aren’t biting. ’Bout time for us to head out. I thank you again for your quickness.”
He touched the brim of his hat and turned with the boy wiggling to get out of his arms. He scolded the toddler as he walked back out toward the water where Jaxon hoped he was just going to retrieve his gear. The kid would probably end up in the river before long and Jaxon did not want to go swimming.
Jaxon held up the GPS and it indicated the cache spot was 127 yards to the north. Probably the end of the pier. He started walking. Even though GPS positioning had improved over the years, what with the government releasing some of the constraints on the technology back in May of 2000, the lat/long the GPS displayed was only accurate up to about twenty-five feet. It got you within that distance of the cache point, then it was up to you to do a little hunting and find the hidden treasure.
This is what appealed to the growing followers of GeoCaching, as it not only got them out into the wide world, and yes there were caches throughout the world, you had to put your thinking cap on to actually discover the little box, or tube, or Tupperware container that was hidden. The funny thing was that a lot of the caches were sitting right under most folks’ noses and they either didn’t see them or they didn’t realize what they were. This was such a place, and Jaxon would bet that nobody on this pier even knew one existed here.
The GPS said he had arrived at the spot and Jaxon scanned his surroundings. Nothing jumped immediately out at him. He was at the end of the pier and there were three men spread out around the railing with poles and lines hanging into the still water. Nobody paid attention to him.
He looked for anything metallic as a lot of the caches were attached to sign posts or guard railings or anything that a magnet would stick to. Nothing metal out here but some old tie down cleats for boats and Jaxon saw nothing attached to any of those. He put the GPS in his pocket and started walking around the perimeter that would encompass the twenty-five foot radius inaccuracy built into the GPS. Nothing stood out. Not a box, a bag, a plastic bottle, or even a rubberized container. The only things that were within view were the fishermen’s tackle boxes.
He looked over the rail and down into the water. The brown water of the St. John’s River showed little beyond two feet into the murk. The bottom could not be seen and since it was high tide, Jaxon was sure it was probably a good ten to twelve feet to the sandy bottom.
He began to think that it might be attached to the underside of the pier itself and he got down on his knees and leaned over the edge trying to peer underneath. He dismissed this idea as no one would be able to reach the cache without the help of a boat or without getting in for a swim. He knew there were cache sites that had to utilize such things, but they were usually notated as such, and this one did not indicate the need to get wet or have a boat. He stood and paced along the railing looking for anything that might give itself up.
He was starting to attract attention.
One old woman sitting in a beat up folding chair with a cane pole hanging out over the edge eyed him and then went back to staring at the tip of her pole. Jaxon moved away.
He watched a fisherman move from his spot after reeling the line in and walk back to his equipment a few yards away, baiting the hook again. The man nodded at Jaxon, then bent to his tackle box where he rummaged around inside for something. He brought out a cigarette, lighting it. The smoke trailed away in the breeze and Jaxon watched it disperse.
He was missing something and though he was fairly new at this GeoCaching thing, he had figured out some of the tricks of the trade, but unfortunately they were not helping him now. He pulled out his phone and clicked on the GeoCaching app bringing up the page for this cache. The rating was three stars out of five so that meant it was moderately difficult to find. One star being the easiest.
He looked at his watch and saw that forty-five minutes had passed since he had found the finger and Bethany Hope was not going to save herself. He was already feeling the pressure and though he had a little over 71 hours, he planned on finding her much sooner than that. Jaxon was not going to make the girl suffer any longer than she had too.
He put the phone back in his pocket and took the note from his other one and read over the GPS coordinates again to make sure he had them correct. It was the third or fourth time rechecking them, he knew, but he was at a loss.
He turned toward the newer bridge, which stood white and tall in the afternoon sun, the few cars crossing its span whizzing by, their tires singing on the metal grating at the top. It was about one hundred yards away and there was no way the cache would be located there.
He did notice a DMV camera on a pole at the top of the span and wondered if the asshole was watching him through it right now laughing his ass off. He raised his hand to it and gave it the finger. A horn honked from a passing car and Jaxon put his hand down embarrassed.
Two of the fisherman stared at him and the old lady was glancing at him out of the corner of her eye, squinting in the bright sunlight. He stood out like a sore thumb. He was dressed in camouflage pants and shirt, and he wore a belt with a canteen strapped to it. He looked like a lost hunter and since he was not holding a fishing pole, he was sure these people were wondering what the hell he was doing. He glanced at each one, noted their sour, sunburned faces, their multiple poles in the water and their tackle boxes sitting by their feet, and decided he needed to talk to them.
He paused in mid-step as he headed for the first fisherman and looked back to the end of the pier as something nagged at the back of his mind. Each person standing in their spot had a little cluster of equipment next to them; tackle box, cooler, bucket. Even the guy who had walked away from his equipment possessed the same thing just not next to him.
But over to the side, where no one was fishing, a lone tackle box sat on the deck. It looked old and weathered, and the plastic, faded, as if it had been sitting in the sun for a long time. Jaxon glanced at each fisherman and counted their tackle boxes. Three. And then there was the lone fourth one with no owner.
Jaxon moved over to it and stopped.
He looked down the pier to see if anybody was walking back down to claim their forgotten tools, but everybody was either sitting in their chairs or standing with a pole dangled over the edge.
He bent to the box and picked it up. It was light. Like maybe there was nothing in it but paper. A paper GeoCaching log perhaps. He opened the lid and stared at the little plastic toys and coins of the cache and smiled. The log was there too. He breathed a sigh of relief.
The woman woke and screamed.
The darkness that surrounded her was almost impenetrable as only a small sliver of light briefly made its appearance and then winked out. A few seconds later, it returned, then winked out again. She screamed more. Her voice echoed loudly and then trailed off. No one answered. She thought she could hear water nearby, but was unsure.
She struggled with her hands and realized they were bound to something behind her. She was sitting upright on the ground and though she could move her legs and feet freely, she was not going anywhere. Her hands ached, but she did not care. She needed to get out of here.
Panicking, she kicked her feet and legs and jerked her arms trying to break free. The darkness made her feel claustrophobic and she breathed rapidly as her chest heaved, trying to catch her breath. Adrenalin coursed through her veins and made her immune to the pain caused by her struggling. What the hell was going on?
How had she arrived at such a place? Who had brought her here (wherever here was) and tied her to this spot, she did not know. She only remembered going shopping at the mall, standing at her car as the mall was closing and dropping her keys. The next thing she knew she had awakened in this terrible place. No one with her and no one to help her. She screamed for help again and her throat burned from the effort. She was so thirsty.
A trickle of water found its way to her legs and she only noticed it because her pants felt wet. The trickle grew and after a few minutes, puddles formed around her calves. What was happening? The light winked on and off again and now she could hear water sloshing up against whatever she was inside of. Was it a boat? An old house by the sea?
The water began rising as her legs were slowly immersed in it. She could feel things skittering by her feet and hands, and she screamed and kicked continuously for what seemed a lifetime.
Her voice was starting to give out and no one was coming to her rescue. The water rose to her chest and the chill made her shiver. It must be the tide. She must be somewhere by the ocean. The tide was coming in and she was going to drown. Panic rose in her throat and then she vomited. Who had done this? Why was she here?
She tried screaming again but her voice was nothing more than a whisper. No one would be able to hear her now. The water seemed to slow in its rise and it stayed at about the level of her breasts. She shivered and waited. Waited for the water to rise more or for it to sink back again. She waited for death.