Stranger in Town
Sloane Monroe Series #4
(2014 Shamus Award Finalist)
July 27, 2010
Six-year-old Olivia Hathaway tiptoed down the center aisle of Arbuckle’s Market, stopping once to glance over her shoulder and make sure her mother wasn’t watching. But Mrs. Hathaway was too engrossed in selecting the right card for her sister’s birthday to notice her daughter had slipped away.
Olivia looked left and then right before scooting one aisle over. She peered at the products lining the shelves and then shook her head. “Nope, not this one.”
She frowned and moved on.
The colors from the paint samples on the next aisle were like bright strips of candy, beckoning her to come closer. So she did. She loved plucking the cardstock strips from their slots and adding them to her collection at home. She’d collected so many over the past few months, her mother had bought her a notebook to glue them all in.
The star-shaped colors were Olivia’s favorite because they weren’t plain and ordinary like the rectangle ones, and they had fun names like “Summer Sparkle” and “Twinkle, Twinkle.” She tapped her pointer finger on the top of each card like she was playing a game of “eeny meeny miny moe” and then selected her favorite color: green. She’d always wanted a green room, but her mother said green was for boys and had painted Olivia’s room pink instead.
Olivia held the green star out in front of her and twirled around and around until she collided with something hard.
A man in a black cowboy hat and mirrored sunglasses smiled and pointed at the ground. “You dropped something.”
“Here, let me get it for you,” he said.
The man scooped up the star and held it out in front of her. “Go on, take it,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.”
Olivia didn’t know why her stomach felt like a bunch of ants were crawling around inside, but she did know the way it made her feel: scared. She wanted to cry out for her mother, but when her mouth fell open, nothing came out.
“Come here, sweet thing,” the man said.
When Olivia didn’t move, the man lifted her up and set her down on his knee. “Do you want me to take you back to your mommy?”
Olivia squeezed her eyes shut, but when she opened them, the man’s hands still wound around her tiny arms like a boa constrictor. If he wants to help me find my mommy, why is he holding me so tight?
“How about this—give me a hug, just a little one, and we’ll look together.” He held a finger out in front of her. “Pinky promise.”
Olivia wanted nothing more than to be back with her mother again. She leaned in just enough but jerked back when the mountain of stubble on the man’s chin scratched her face. She knew her cheek wasn’t on fire, but it felt like the metal from a seat belt on a hot day.
The man patted Olivia on the back and stood up. “There now, take my hand.”
Olivia looked down. Her fingers were clenched in a tight ball, the edges of her untrimmed nails digging into her soft skin. She stuck out her tiny hand, and the man wrapped it in his. But when they got to the end of the aisle, he didn’t turn, he kept going.
A faint whisper echoed in the distance. “Olivia honey, where are you?”
She wanted to cry out, “Mother, I am here!” But the man clasped her hand so tight, she kept quiet.
Hand in hand, they walked through the front door. The sun had just started to go down when they stepped outside, but it was just light enough for Olivia to see someone walking toward them.
“Olivia, is that you?” the woman said.
It was her white-haired, wrinkly-faced neighbor, Mrs. Schroeder.
“Excuse me,” Mrs. Schroeder said to the man, “I don’t believe we’ve met. I’m Helen Schroeder. Are you a relative of the Hathaway family?”
The man looked down and kept walking. He stopped next to a grey car and turned to Olivia. “Get in.”
He shut her inside and turned around to find Mrs. Schroeder glaring up at him.
“I really must insist you answer my question,” Mrs. Schroeder said. “Or I’ll have no choice but to call Olivia’s parents right now.”
“Very well,” the man said. He glanced around. Seeing no one, he pulled a knife from his front pocket and pushed a button on the side. The knife sprung to life.
Before the old woman had the chance to scream, the man thrust the knife into her side. “I’m sorry, but I must insist you stop asking questions,” he said.
The woman collapsed.
Olivia shielded her eyes and thrashed her head from side to side. “It’s okay, everything’s okay. Mommy will find me,” she whispered to herself.
The man flung open the driver’s-side door, started the car, and backed out. The car bounced up and down for a moment. It reminded Olivia of the time her dad ran over the neighbor’s cat by accident. Olivia gathered up enough courage to move one of her fingers just enough to see her neighbor through the car window. She was on the ground, motionless.
The man turned around and smiled. “Mrs. Schroeder will be okay, Olivia. She fell down, that’s all.”