A short story by Andrew Leniart
© Copyright 2020
He’d been stalking them in K-Mart for a while, but they were oblivious to his presence.
It was the early 1980’s and the cute little girl in the short red dress couldn’t be more than five years old he thought, her mother busy focusing on various shades of lipstick and face powders while the child wandered aimlessly nearby, obviously bored.
Grabbing a small cuddly bear from the nearby toy aisle, he silently inched closer. The mother was too lost in her own reflection to notice her daughter a few feet behind her, slowly spinning in circles and mindlessly twiddling with the locks of her own curly hair. He spotted his chance.
Furtively glancing around, he positioned himself between two nearby aisles, crouching down pretending to be looking at something on a bottom shelf. He was out of the mother’s view, but this part was always tricky.
Focusing on the child’s face, he waited for her to notice. There was something about merely staring at kids that gained their attention. His telepathic powers never failed him, and he was soon staring into a pair of bright blue eyes. His mouth curved into a warm smile while he rocked the teddy bear from side to side in a friendly wave. Her mouth formed a broad smile, revealing some missing teeth that only added to her cuteness. He felt a familiar stirring down below.
“Hello,” he mouthed, beckoning with his finger.
She glanced sideways to her mother, who was still preoccupied, and her attention returned to him.
He willed her closer.
She started walking towards him. He put on his most inviting smile and furtively glanced around at the same time. The aisle was empty; so far, so good.
“Hello there little one,” he said softly, using a practised warm, calm voice. “Do you like teddy bears?”
She nodded, staring at him curiously with her thumb in her mouth.
“Would you like to hold him?”
With elbows now resting on both knees, he held the bear out towards her, only just out of reach. It was like a magnet. She gravitated towards him until she was a foot away. He was careful not to make any sudden movements that might startle her.
“What’s your name, honey?” he asked gently.
“Jodie,” she said, taking the toy and hugging it to her chest.
“I’m a good friend of your mummy’s and she told me it was OK for you and me to walk around a bit while she’s shopping. Would you like to go for a little walk?”
Jodie nodded but kept her eyes focused on the bear, still cuddled to her chest.
Standing up, he noted Jodie’s mother was still busy at the counter. No one else around was paying them any attention.
He smiled at Jodie and held out his hand. “Come on then, let’s go for a walk through the toy aisle. Do you like ice cream?”
Her eyes brightened even more as she nodded her head. Ice cream never failed to get a kid’s attention.
Taking her now outreached hand, he asked, “What’s your favourite flavour?”
“Chocolate,” she said, beaming up at him.
“Chocolate it is,” he said warmly. “But we can’t take teddy with us because he gets sick if he has ice cream. What say we sit him here while we have some ice cream together, and then we can pick him up again afterwards?” he offered, indicating an empty spot on a shelf.
She nodded and trustingly held out the bear. Having popped it on a shelf, he started leading her towards the entrance. Slowly. This was the most dangerous part he reminded himself. If there’s going to be any problems, they’re going to happen now.
Back at the counter, and still admiring herself in a mirror, Cheryl flicked some hair behind her ear. “Come see how pretty mummy is, darling,” she said without bothering to look around. Not hearing an answer, she turned around. Her daughter was nowhere in sight. Oh, for heavens sakes, where has that girl wandered off to now? Exhaling a harassed breath, she walked over to the toy aisles, but nobody was there.
Silence. Her heart rate increased as she began walking, looking along every aisle. By the time she reached the end of the store, she was starting to panic. Spinning around, she walked briskly past all of the aisles again until she reached the other end of the store. Jodie was nowhere to be seen. What the hell? Where is she?
Looking around, there wasn’t an attendant to be seen, just shoppers wandering around, pushing trolleys. She raced back to the makeup counter, but that attendant had disappeared too. A sense of dread came over her. Jodie had never wandered off before. She started running towards the front of the store.
Slowly making his way out of the store and into the mall, Jodie was keeping up with him obediently. He made sure to keep a smile on his face. No one was paying them any heed. They kept walking.
“Ready for some ice cream, Jodie?” he asked, smiling down at her. “How about I pick you up and save your little legs from getting tired?”
Jodie beamed, nodding enthusiastically. Positioning her bottom in the crook of his right arm, little legs hanging down, he buried her face into his neck and increased his pace towards the mall’s entrance. She started to squirm and protest, so he pushed her face into his neck more firmly. “Be good baby, I don’t want to hurt you yet,” he warned, muffling her cries of protest. Scared, she stopped struggling and went limp in his arms. The doors to the mall’s entrance slid open as he whisked his way through, making a beeline for his car. He could feel his adrenaline and anticipation rising.
Many people were wandering around outside, but no one was close to his car. Perfect. Grabbing the keys from his pocket, he flipped the boot lid of his Holden Kingswood open. Making sure no one was watching, he dumped Jodie into the boot and used a cloth to gag her mouth. Her terrified eyes filled with tears as he flipped her on her belly and used some elastic ties to bind her wrists to her ankles. He had this down to a fine art so it only took a few seconds. Slamming the boot shut, he raced to the driver side door, jumped in and started the car.
“My daughter’s missing!” Cheryl cried as she reached the register.
The check-out lady stopped scanning items and looked at her, eyebrows raised. “Pardon?”
“My little girl’s missing!” repeated Cheryl, desperation now evident in her voice. “She was right beside me … I took my eyes off her for a few seconds and she was gone!” She couldn’t stay still, moving from foot to foot, wringing her hands and pleading with her eyes.
“I’m sure she’s fine. It’s a large store. If you go to the service desk, they’ll page her for you.” She pointed to an enquiries counter at the end of the line of registers.
Cheryl ran to the counter. Two attendants were dealing with customers. She banged on the countertop.
“Excuse me? Hello? My daughter’s gone missing,” yelled Cheryl. Both attendants turned around, and the older of the two approached her.
“You say your daughter is missing? How old is she? How long since you last saw her, and where was she?”
“She’s five years old and wearing a little red dress,” stammered Cheryl, eyes now shining from the beginnings of tears. “Can you please help me?”
“Where did you last see her?”
“In the makeup section. I was testing some lipsticks.”
“My name’s June, and I’ll help you find her. She’s probably just wandering around the toy aisles,” she smiled.
“No! I’ve already looked and she’s not there! I only took my eyes off her for a second!”
“What’s her name?”
“Jodie,” replied Cheryl, feeling an impending dread and stifling tears, as she brushed long hair back from her face towards the back of her head.
“What’s she wearing?”
“I already told you! A red dress with white shoes and frilly white socks, and she has blonde curly hair.”
“OK, calm down love. I’ll make an announcement over the speakers,” said June, giving Cheryl a reassuring smile.
“She’s usually so good,” Cheryl said. “She’s never done this before.” June picked up her phone and pushed a button.
“Attention all staff and shoppers. A little girl named Jodie is lost in the store. She’s five years old, wearing a red dress with white shoes. If you see her, please bring her to the service desk at the front of the store. Thank you.”
“There you go, I’m sure someone will find her. Where were you when you lost sight of her?”
“I didn’t lose sight of her!” Cheryl almost shouted defensively, feeling like she was being accused of something. “I only looked away for a second and she must have run off.”
“Of course, she did,” replied June. “Kids will be kids,” she smiled, trying to encourage calm. “Give it a couple of moments and I’m sure someone will come to tell us where she is.”
Cheryl could feel the adrenaline begin to subside, they were helping her now. Her thoughts switched to what she’d tell her husband and started feeling annoyed. She wouldn’t need to mention it at all except for Jodie’s tendency to tell him everything that she’d done when he asked her about her day. Now they’ll be late for meeting her friend Sue for brunch and coffee. Damn that kid.
The lady at the counter returned to the previous customer. One minute ticked by, then another. Feeling like hours had passed, Cheryl let out an exasperated sigh and turned back to the counter.
“Hello? What’s taking so long?”
June glanced at Cheryl. “It’s only been less than two minutes, but I’ll repeat the announcement.”
“Fine, but please hurry,” complained Cheryl. “I have an appointment before lunch.”
The announcement was made again with the same result. Within ten minutes, the store manager and centre security had become involved. The police were called. Everyone available was searching for little Jodie. Another fifteen minutes and Cheryl was repeating her story to the attending police officers that had arrived. Panic turned into terror as the possibilities of what might have happened began registering on her.
As he drove out of the car park and onto the main road, the adrenaline turned into excitement. He started imagining the fun he would soon have while heading towards the nearby state forest, only an hour’s drive away. He could hear muffled sounds coming from the boot of the car but wasn’t too concerned. It’d never been a problem before. He kept one eye on his speed, the other on the rearview mirrors as he lit up a cigarette.
A little over two hours had passed when he turned on the radio.
“Police are appealing for help to locate five-year-old Jodie Thompson. She has blue eyes and fair curly hair and was last seen wearing a red dress with white shoes and socks. She was last seen at the Broadmeadows Kmart at 10:45 this morning. There are grave fears for Jodie’s safety, so if you have any information, please contact your local police station immediately.”
A satisfied calm fell over him as he smiled to himself and sat back to relax.
He was already well over 150 kilometres away from the scene.