Lutovsky had no interest in the throng of shoppers.Exhausted from her own Christmas shopping, she checked her makeup
once again in the compact mirror. Her long, blond curls had been meticulously
brushed minutes before, and Jan allowed herself a satisfied smile. Occasionally
she glanced down at the large bags at her feet to make sure no one tried to
grab one. Only three days left till Christmas and she finally had the perfect
gift for everyone.With any luck, a
nice snow would make it an ideal Christmas.
At 24, Jan had one of those model bodies,
only not rail thin.In another life she
could have been a movie star.At least
that’s what her husband, Rick, always said.She was accustomed to being described as drop-dead gorgeous and learned
to ignore the admiring looks from the many male passersby.
Jan’s four-year-old daughter, Madison, sat
quietly on an uncomfortable, slatted bench and wondered how long she would have
to sit there.She hoped mommy would
remember the promise of ice cream as a reward for good behavior.
Lutovsky driver, George, was not due for another fifteen minutes. Jan didn’t
see anything that looked more comfortable, so she had just seated herself next
to Madison when a man approached.A
worn Cubs baseball cap was pulled down to his eyebrows, and seemed to match the
dirty jeans and scruffy, black leather jacket.Jan tried to snub the tall, gangly cretin who sported a three-day growth
of beard, but he got right in her face.
“Come with me, and you won’t be hurt.”Despite the man’s appearance, his voice was
soft and strained.
“I beg your pardon?”Jan looked him in the eye and shot him her
most vicious stare.
“You’re coming with me.Let’s go.”The man grabbed her arm and pulled.The expensive compact flew out of her hand as she tried to wrestle her
arm away, only to discover the unwanted grip had tightened.
“Ma’am, I have a gun.You don’t want me to use it.”He tugged his coat away, and she gasped at
the sight of the shiny, brown handle of a pistol tucked in his belt.
“What do you want?”A cold shiver ran up her spine.She really didn’t want that question
“I won’t say it again, lady.Let’s go.”They started toward the door.Jan took one last look at the bench where her daughter sat alone next to
the pile of presents.She desperately
hoped someone would help Madison, because she knew she wouldn’t be able
to.Would she ever be able to help her
daughter again?Dear God, this couldn’t
be happening to her.
The rust-colored curls stood out against the
bright green color of the bench the little girl occupied.Cowering in the corner, she almost
disappeared in the vastness of the wooden seat.The cornflower blue eyes cast anxious glances at the passing mall crowd
of holiday shoppers.Tears tumbled down
the naturally rosy cheeks, but the child didn’t utter a sound.She smoothed her yellow dress, decorated with
multi-colored butterflies, and continued searching the mass of people, no doubt
seeking a familiar face.
For several minutes Mike Shepherd watched
the little girl look worriedly around.He hated malls and hated shopping, but agreed to help his girlfriend, Diana
Barton, complete her Christmas list.Helping
might be exaggerating a bit.Mike
believed his role amounted to hauling parcels.He hoped those last-minute purchases would liberate him from the
despised task for another year.
Mike wondered if he should approach the
girl and ask if she was okay, all the while thinking that a forty-one-year-old man
striking up a conversation with a toddler wouldn’t be an instant hit if her
mother or father showed up any time soon.Still, he couldn’t stand to see the child in such obvious distress.The packages piled beside her must have been
placed in her care.He frowned, thinking
she was too young for such responsibility.Mike was a private investigator.People in trouble were his business.
Mike was about to abandon caution and go over
to the tot when Diana appeared, carrying four large boxes and a shopping bag,
each parcel announcing the name of the store selected to complete her reign of
“Whew, finished!”Diana took a couple of deep breaths. “I never saw so many people.Sorry I took so long.”Chestnut-colored eyes shot him a look, suggesting
he should take some of her packages.
“That’s okay.Do you see the little girl sitting on that
bench?”Mike took the boxes and gave a
nod to indicate the direction in which Diana should look.
“The one in the yellow dress?She’s a doll all right.”Diana smiled, tucked flyaway auburn strands
behind one ear, and handed Mike the shopping bag.
Mike fidgeted, waiting for Diana to react. “She’s
“I’ve been watching her more than fifteen
minutes, and she’s alone.No one’s come
up to her, and she’s been looking around as if she’s lost.I think we should go check her out.” Not waiting for a comment Mike walked over to
the child.Diana followed.
Mike’s big smile softened his rugged
face.He pointed to Diana.“Do you mind if we sit on this bench with
“I guess it’s okay.”The tot studied the fading nail polish on her
fingers and didn’t look at Mike or Diana.Those fingers seemed too small to be able to pick up much of anything.
“My name is Mike, and this is Diana.”They sat down.Mike piled Diana’s packages next to the
“Hello.”She toyed with the thin, pink belt that wrapped twice around the tiny
“What’s your name?”Diana placed herself between Mike and the
little girl and took over the conversation.
hand swept across the slats of the bench next to a tiny brown parka with
matching mittens attached to each sleeve.
“Are you okay, Madison?I
think you’ve been crying.”Diana’s voice
was soft and tender.
“I’m all right.”Two quick sniffles said otherwise.
“If you need somebody to help you, we’d be
happy to.”Mike and Diana both smiled.
“I’m supposed to wait here.”Another tear dove to the bottom of her chin.
“Would it be okay if we waited here with
you for a while?”Diana asked.
“Sure.”Madison tugged at the Shirley Temple curls on the
back of her head.
“How old are you?”In response, the child’s right hand struggled
with four fingers, and the left helped display the correct number.
“Do you know your last name?”The little girl shook her head.“Are you waiting for your mother?”This time the head went up and down.
“What’s her name?”
“Her name is Mommy.”A smile lit up Madison’s face like a Tiffany lamp.
Mike noticed a compact lying on the floor
next to the bench and picked it up.
“What do you make of this, Di?”
Diana raised her eyebrows.“Very expensive.A Jay Strongwater.Those are about $300 apiece at Nieman-Marcus.Someone’s going to be upset when she
discovers it’s gone.”
“I don’t like the looks of this.I’m going to contact mall security and get Madison’s description paged on their intercom.”Mike took the compact and went to consult the
~ * ~
Bold, black letters spelled “Mall Security”
on an otherwise plain door.Inside, a
beefy man in a dull gray uniform sat squeezed behind a desk and a computer
monitor, trying to see how much of a submarine sandwich he could fit into his
mouth.Lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise
leaked out of both sides and onto a paper wrapper laid out on the keyboard.
“Excuse me.I want to report a found child.”Mike leaned on the counter that blocked the front of the office.
“You what?”The man stopped stuffing and wiped condiments from his bushy mustache.Overhead lights reflected on the parts of the
man’s head that refused a comb-over.A
spindly Christmas tree, one even Charlie Brown would reject, leaned precariously
in the corner.
“There’s a little girl on a bench down the
hall who’s been alone for at least twenty minutes.She says she’s four years old.I think someone, namely you, should go down
there and try to find her parents.”
“Um, no one else is here right now.”The lips smacked as a piece of onion slithered
inside puffed cheeks rivaling those of Dizzy Gillespie.
“Don’t you have a two-way radio to contact
“Oh, sure.Just a minute.”He grabbed up a walkie-talkie.“Harold, this is Bernie.Got a situation here, over.”
Harold’s voice was almost drowned in a sea
of static. “What’s up?”
“Got a lost or found little girl down
“Which is it?”
“Well, she’s found, but her parents aren’t
“Be right there.”A click signaled the end of the conversation.
Harold showed up four minutes later and
crammed himself through the door.His uniform
strained to contain the girth that shimmied and shook with each labored step.Neither of these guys had ever missed a meal,
or seconds.“Who’re you?”Harold made no effort to hide his distaste at
having had to trudge all the way back.
“My name’s Mike Shepherd.I’m a private investigator, and I noticed
this little girl all alone on one of your benches.”
“Maybe her parents put her there and told her
to wait while they shopped.”Harold
scratched his blonde head and rubbed his belly at the same time.Mike gave him ‘A’ for dexterity.
“I also found this.”
Harold gingerly took the compact Mike
handed him.“It’s pretty.What is it?”He handed it back, folded himself into a leather captain’s chair and
leaned his right elbow on the metal arm of the chair.
“A very expensive compact.I found it by the little girl.It should go in the lost and found.”
“S’pose so.”The man picked up a stack of mail from the
desk and began sorting.
“Look, Harold, I’m not doing this for the
fun of it.I think the little girl’s in
trouble and needs help.If you won’t do
anything, I’ll call the cops.Would you
like to see them swarming all over the mall in your busiest season?”
“Hey, okay, okay.Let’s go see this girl.”Harold lurched out of his chair and squeezed
through the area between the counter and the wall.He left the office with Mike following, and they
weaved their way through the crowd toward the spot where Diana waited with Madison.
Harold, panting heavily, only nodded a
greeting when they reached Diana.When Harold’s battleship-sized body stood over
Madison, she shrank back into the bench and refused
to answer any of his questions.Harold
flicked on his two-way and told Bernie to make a lost-child broadcast.
Seconds later the announcement spewed from the
loudspeakers, and all three adults waited with the child for someone to show
up.Five more pages to the crowd and
twenty minutes passed, and still no one came.The little girl seemed content that people were paying attention to her
and even went to sleep in Diana’s lap while she stroked Madison’s hair.
Harold started to sweat over the
possibility that a serious problem might have arisen on his watch.“What are we going to do if no one shows up?”
“Don’t you have surveillance cameras that
cover this area?”Mike watched as the light
bulb went on in Harold’s brain.
“Yes.That’s it.The video camera.Let’s go take a look.”
“Does anyone have a pencil and paper?”Mike took the pad and pen Harold handed him
and wrote out a note to leave on the bench, saying the little girl would be at
the security office, in case her mother showed up.
Diana picked up Madison, and Mike hefted the Christmas parcels, and
they shuffled down the corridor to the cramped security quarters.Forty minutes later they finally located the
right place on the tape.The busy scene played
out before them in semi-fast motion.A
tall, blonde woman stood by the bench.Madison sat where Mike had first spotted her.The woman’s jewelry flashed just below the
three-quarter length sleeves of a coat that Mike would have bet was mink, as
she applied lipstick and then, using a compact mirror, checked her makeup.Her figure was accented in tight fitting
jeans and gray high-heeled snow boots
The small crowd in the office watched the
TV screen as a thin man dressed in jeans, baseball cap, and a black,
waist-length jacket approached and spoke to her.The blond hesitated, and the assailant pulled
back his coat revealing the handle of a pistol tucked in his belt.The woman dropped her case as he grabbed her
arm and hustled her out the door.
“Oh, my God!”Diana, holding Madison more tightly, turned away from the screen to
shield the child from the horror of the scene.
The man in the video took no notice of the
little girl scrunched down behind the packages on the bench.
Not a single shopper noticed that a
kidnapping had just occurred, right under their noses.