24
Aug
2016
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A Friend Rediscovered, Phantom Love, Chapter 1

Jared Quinby stared at the printouts of chat transcripts scattered on his bed, willing the words to make sense. He’d been pouring over the material for far too long and now his left leg cramped, muscles bunching and twisting beneath the marred surface.

Gritting his teeth and willing his left leg to support his weight, he hobbled to the dresser and reached for the bottle of pain relievers. Pain made his fingers clumsy and it took him four tries to wrestle it open. After dry-swallowing the Percocet, Jared closed his eyes. He had to get out of his cousin’s house and into his own place. Coming here seemed like a good idea two months ago.

His cell phone chirped and he lumbered to the bedside table to answer it before it went to voice mail. “Hello.” A quick glance at the alarm clock on the bedside table showed the time: 2:35 a.m. No wonder he was tired.

“Oh, fantastic, you’re awake.” Will Fulton sounded way too chipper this early in the morning.

“Couldn’t sleep, so thought I would work on the case.” Jared sat on the edge of the bed and rubbed his eyes. “What’s up?”

“I think I found something interesting. Are you online?”

“Yes.” Jared leaned over and pulled the laptop toward him. Will rattled off a URL. Jared keyed in the website and watched the page load. Slowly. “It’ll take a minute.” Another reason to move—he needed a faster Internet connection like yesterday. The Soul Believers site unveiled itself like a bride at the altar. Will had better not be trying to set him up—he knew Jared had sworn off women after what happened the last time. “It looks like a Christian dating site.”

“Yes, but this relates to the case, not your personal life.” Will chuckled.

“Enlighten me.” Jared tried not to take offense. His personal life was not something he wanted to discuss with Will or even himself.

“Our tech guy saw something in the chat transcripts that pointed to this site.”

“Which one?”

Jared heard pages rustling. “It’s labeled ‘Cynthia B.,’ and dated January 8.”

Jared flipped through his copies. “Okay, got it.”

“Do you see the username at the top of the page?”

“Yeah. ‘Wildcat.’” He shook his head. “This guy is sure full of himself, with a name like that.”

“From what I’ve read, the ladies love his smooth talk. Maybe you should take some notes.”

“Ha, ha, very funny. What’s the connection?” Jared shifted on the bed to get his leg into a more comfortable position.

“The tech went behind the scenes and found that Wildcat prefers a certain type of woman on Soul Believers.”

“What’s the motive?”

“That, we’re not quite sure of, but he’s proven to be quite an operator who has no scruples when it comes to weaseling women out of money.”

Jared focused on the site, with its cheerful text promising the love of your life if you threw down ninety-nine dollars for a year’s subscription. “So he’s pursuing women on this site, and they’re forking over their cash. That’s not a crime.”

“No, it’s not.” Jared heard the frustration creeping into Will’s voice. They’d worked this fraud case for three weeks with nothing to show for it but bleary eyes and a sense that something big was about to happen.

“Do you have a list of the women whose profiles he’s visited? Any way to find out if he’s actually contacted any of them?” Jared massaged his leg, willing the ache to go away.

“We can figure out where on the site he’s gone without contacting Soul Believers.” Will sighed. “But we can’t find out if he’s contacted them through the site without a search warrant.”

“And we don’t have enough probable cause for a warrant.”

“Exactly.”

Jared’s email program pinged and a message from Will popped up.

“I just sent you an email with the list of names that Wildcat has visited.”

“How’d you get those?”

“Our tech guy said he looked for patterns on outside servers, or something like that. All I know is he managed to find the information without breaking any laws.”

Jared clicked open the email and scanned twenty or so names. “These are the only profiles he’s viewed frequently?”

“Yep. He’s clicked on the profiles at least five or six times, spending between six to eight minutes each time, which is a significant amount of time.”

“I’ll say.” Jared skimmed the women’s names.

“I’d like you to check out the women’s profiles. You’ll be reimbursed the membership fee. We want you to contact the women and start a dialogue.”

“Whoa. I’m not so sure that’s a good idea.”

“Just hear me out. If we could talk to the women he’s interested in, we might have a chance on figuring out what Wildcat’s up to.”

Jared returned to scanning the names and nearly dropped the phone when he got to the last one. Mary Divers. Now there was a name he hadn’t seen for thirty years, one that he’d had a hard time getting out of his mind. Odds where it wasn’t the same Mary he’d known as a kid, but what if it was? The pain in his leg faded to the background at the thought of solving a mystery that had plagued him for three decades.

“Okay, I’ll do it.” He closed the phone and sat staring at the computer screen. Mary, Mary, quite contrary, what have you been up to all these years?

Read the next installment on Friday, Aug. 26. Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. Phantom Love is copyrighted and cannot be used in any form without permission from Sarah Hamaker.

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