And then, straight ahead, the little girl made a mewing noise as she stumbled. The man yanked her up violently. She struggled to keep up, walking on the tips of her toes. The man looked at his watch again. He glanced over his shoulder. Will tensed, but he was looking at traffic, not Will. The man studied a black Chevy Malibu that passed. Again, he looked at his watch, then back over his shoulder. Someone was supposed to pick him up; that much was obvious. Was he trading off the girl? Was he going to pick up another one and take her somewhere across the country?
The busiest passenger airport in the world. Over three thousand flights a day. Over two hundred gates. Over 130 destinations. Over a million ways to traffic children in and out of the city, if not the country.
Will looked behind him as a Prius hummed by. An Atlanta Police cruiser crawled up behind the red truck. Will motioned for the officer to stay back, but it was too late. The guy in the truck beeped his horn.
“I’m gettin’,” the Cowboy called out. The truck’s engine rumbled as he pulled away from the curb.
Will turned back around, searching for the girl and man, but they were gone.
“Shit,” Will hissed. He scanned the breezeway, furiously searching for the green jacket, the bad wig.
The Prius. It had parked in front of the far exit. Will ran toward the car. He grabbed the door handle and yanked it open. The woman inside screamed, terrified. Her hands went to her face. Her foot slipped off the pedal. Will scanned the back seat. The cargo cover was rolled up. He could see the empty trunk.
The door nearly slammed on his hand as the woman sped off.
The cop was out of his car. He spotted Will and nodded toward the parking structure, indicating he’d go check it out.
Will jogged a few yards ahead, thinking he should search the second pedestrian tunnel at the opposite end of the breezeway. Maybe the man had gone back into the airport. He was probably spooked. The rendezvous point was compromised. If this man knew what he was doing, he wouldn’t panic. At least not for long.
Will stopped running.
There had to be a backup plan. There was always a backup plan.
Will looked into the lower parking lot, his eyes scanning back and forth like a pendulum as he searched in vain for any sign of the man or girl. No bad wig. No green jacket. No cargo pants. No little tights-clad foot missing a pink shoe.
No Atlanta Police officer checking between the cars.
Where was he?
Will took out the TSA agent’s cell phone. The screen showed a missed call. Faith. Will hit the green button to call her back. He stared at the parking lot as he listened to the rings, wondering if the guy had already gotten into a car. If he had, there was no way he’d be able to drive out without being caught. Will knew the procedure. Code Adam. Missing child. It took a full fifteen minutes to shut everything down, but they started with the exit points. Each car would be stopped at the parking booths. Trunks would be searched. Seats would be pulled out. Names and licenses would be verified.
Faith answered the phone after two rings. “We’ve got a Levi’s Call out. The picture’s already on TV. We’ve blocked all the exits.”
“I lost him in the lower parking deck, south side.”
“They saw you on the security feed. A team is heading your way.”
“I’m not going to wait for them.” Will ended the call, tucking the phone back into his pocket as he crossed the street.
The red truck idled in front of the entrance to the parking deck. The Cowboy reached out to the machine for a ticket. The caution arm swung up. The truck rolled forward. Will followed it into the garage, using the truck as a shield. He saw groups of people heading into the terminal, suitcases and phones in their hands.
The only person walking away from the terminal was an older man in a baseball hat. His hair was white. He was wearing a black jacket and tan shorts. He was about Will’s height, maybe a few pounds heavier. He had something gripped in his hand. Tiny, about the size of his palm. Will put his hand in his own pocket. He felt the little girl’s shoe, and he knew it was the same man.
Where was the girl?
Will spun around, trying to find her. There was no one. Not even the Atlanta cop. The parking lot was suddenly empty of people, probably because no one was being let in. Will dropped to the ground, checking under the cars, trying to see two small feet, praying in vain that the little girl was playing hide-and-seek and everything would be okay.
But there was nothing. Nothing except the man. Will pushed himself back up. He saw the red truck making the turn onto the ramp leading up to the next level.
Then he saw the man. No more wig. No more baseball hat. No more glasses. He was staring directly at Will. He had the same snarky smile on his face. He was walking backward, hands in the pockets of his reversible jacket. His hairy legs showed where he’d unzipped the bottom part of his cargo pants to turn them into shorts. His white socks looked perfectly normal with his gray sneakers.
For a split second, Will found himself wondering if the man had worn the shoes because he knew he’d have to run. And then the answer became obvious. The man started walking faster. He kept his eyes on Will until the last minute, then spun around and took off running up the ramp.
Will’s feet pounded into the concrete as he gave chase. His fists clenched. His arms pumped. He felt the weight of the tiny shoe in his suit jacket as it tapped against his leg, like a child who wanted his attention. The little girl had his attention now. He should’ve grabbed her in the bathroom. He should’ve shut down the airport first thing. Why hadn’t he listened to his instincts? Why had he cared about getting into trouble when there was even the slightest chance that a child might be in danger?
Will’s ankle twisted as he rounded the corner and bolted up the ramp. The man was at least fifty yards ahead, passing the red truck. His shoes squeaked on the concrete as he made the turn up to the next level.
“Hey!” Will called, banging his fist against the back of the pickup. The Cowboy turned around, but Will was already climbing into the bed of the truck. “Go!” Will shouted. “Follow him!”
If there were questions in the Cowboy’s mind, he didn’t ask them. He floored the gas, tires sending up smoke as the truck accelerated up the ramp. Will tried to brace himself, kneeling down low, gripping either side of the truck bed for balance. At the last possible moment, the Cowboy wrenched the wheel, taking the turn up to the next level. Will was thrown to the opposite side of the truck. His shoulder slammed into the metal edge. There was no time to assess the damage. The man was already making the turn up the next ramp.
The Cowboy sped up again. Will thought he was going to try to run the man over. Apparently, so did the man. He abruptly changed direction, heading toward the exit stairwell with his head tucked, fists clenched.
Will felt his brain click off. It was a sort of survival mechanism, or maybe it was a death wish. The man was a few yards from the exit door. There wasn’t much time. Will pushed himself up. He used the edge of the truck as a jumping board, catapulting his body directly toward the man.
The man’s hand was out, reaching for the doorknob. He turned. His mouth opened in surprise, or maybe horror.
Will slammed into him like a pile driver. The guy flattened out to the ground, arms and legs spreading from the force of 185 pounds of pressure. Will felt the breath leave his lungs. He saw literal stars behind his eyelids. He blinked, trying to clear his vision. That’s when he saw it. Hello Kitty. Pink trim. The little girl’s shoe was still gripped in the man’s fist.