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The Cradle Snatcher

After the corpse of a six-year-old girl is found on an NYC playground, homicide detective Lauren Ryder vows to catch her killer before he can claim the innocence of a second child…even if that means losing her mind, or her life, in the process.

Age Rating: 18+

 

The Cradle Snatcher by Shannon Whaley is now available to read on the Galatea app! Read the first two chapters below, or download Galatea for the full experience.

 


 

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1

Summary

After the corpse of a six-year-old girl is found on an NYC playground, homicide detective Lauren Ryder vows to catch her killer before he can claim the innocence of a second child…even if that means losing her mind, or her life, in the process.

Age Rating: 18+

Original Author: Shannon Whaley

Phillips
Lauren
Phillips
you up?
Ryder
no
Ryder
well, almost. It’s 5am
Phillips
Hale just called, there’s a body
Ryder
where?
Phillips
Dewitt Clinton Playground
Phillips
Lauren
Ryder
Phillips
it’s a kid

Approximately 24 hours Earlier

LAUREN RYDER

BEEP

After just one blaring tone from her alarm clock, Lauren Ryder’s hand shot out from under the covers and turned it off. It was 6 a.m. on the dot, and her snooze button hadn’t gotten any action in years.

Today was no exception.

She slipped into the workout clothes that waited on the bench at the foot of her bed. Then it was straight to the bathroom to brush her teeth and comb her blonde hair.

In the kitchen, the coffee was already trickling into the pot, set on a timer the night before.

Lauren poured herself a cup and added a packet of stevia before pulling out her phone and opening up her to-do list.

The day ahead was jam-packed.

Wake up.

“Check.” She smiled to herself. She liked adding obvious tasks to the list just for the satisfaction of ticking them off.

Work out.

Debrief w/ Phillips.

Follow up w/ Lt. Hale re: Bollinger trial.

Buy present(s?) for Emma’s b-day party @ lunch.

She didn’t have time to scan the tasks for the second half of the day. She had to get moving or her workout would be cut short.

Lauren poured the rest of her coffee into a to-go mug and moved toward the front door of her tiny apartment.

She passed a wall covered in framed photos of herself with friends and family.

The most frequent faces belonged to her father, her brother Liam, and Lauren’s favorite person in the world: her “almost six years old!” niece Emma.

Emma’s birthday was tomorrow, and Lauren couldn’t wait to watch her blow out her candles.

Standing in the threshold now, Lauren made sure that she had everything she needed for the day ahead:

Phone, keys, wallet.

Check, check, check.

And the two other things she would never leave the house without:

Badge and gun.

Check and check.

She disappeared into the hall and the door clicked shut behind her.

At age twenty-seven, Lauren had already been an NYPD homicide detective for three years.

She was the youngest person to be promoted to detective in the history of her precinct.

What she lacked in years, she made up for in self-discipline. She stayed later and worked harder than any of the others in her cohort.

And that was just how she liked it.

STEVE PHILLIPS

Detective Steven Phillips, partner to Lauren for the last year and a half, watched as Lauren beat the living hell out of a punching bag hanging in the police station gym.

“Whose poor ass are you picturing today?” the trainer, Dan, asked her.

Dan normally worked with the field cops, but Lauren still wanted to stay in fighting shape, even after becoming a detective.

Steve admired that, though sometimes he teased that she made the rest of them look bad.

“I’m picturing me, yesterday,” Lauren said through grunts. “If I’m stronger than her, I’m doing something right.”

Typical Lauren.

Lauren’s time in the gym meant everything to her. It was her way of burning off the stress of a caseload—of settling her heart rate after mainlining caffeine day after day.

Phillips knew that other people in the precinct had different addictions to help cope with the pressures of the job. Alcohol, cigarettes, pills, you name it. But Lauren would barely have one drink before cutting herself off.

As she finished her session, Lauren gave Phillips a nod. “You wanna wait for me in the front?”

Phillips grinned. “Sure thing.”

A few moments later, as Lauren jogged down the stairs to meet with him, her phone rang and she plucked it from her gym bag, continuing to descend.

Glancing at the screen, she looked up and mouthed, “Liam.”

Lauren rolled her eyes and answered: “I told you to stop calling me on workdays. It’s distracting.”

Walking beside her from the police gym to their shared office, Phillips watched with mild interest as Lauren exchanged good-natured barbs with her brother.

“I’ll be there,” Lauren said into the phone. After a pause, she repeated, “I said I’ll be there! Can’t wait. Have a nice day.”

She hung up and gave Phillips a grimace.

“Liam. He’s such a nag,” she said.

“Where does he want you to be? Court?” Phillips asked. Liam was one of the top prosecuting attorneys in the tristate area.

“No, Emma’s birthday.”

Oh! Yeah, I forgot,” Phillips chuckled. “The ‘almost six-year-old’ is actually turning six.”

Phillips was a close colleague from back when they were both uniformed officers. He was as much family as Liam. He had even met Emma.

“So—finally ready to get to work?” he asked with a grin as she took a seat at her desk.

“I’m one minute late. Liam’s fault. Update me.”

LAUREN RYDER

Lauren met Phillips’s eyes, eager to hear what he would say.

“Bollinger got his conviction,” Phillips began.

“And?” Lauren’s heart started to pound in anticipation.

Kenny Bollinger. Age twenty-two. Struck and killed two pedestrians while driving drunk, before fleeing the scene.

When they caught him he showed no remorse—smiled in his goddamn mugshot.

Now he’ll be sorry.

“Four years with possibility for parole after two,” Phillips said grimly.

“That’s it?”

“Are you surprised? That’s what you get when your weapon is your daddy’s Porsche.”

It’s not fair.

“That Hernandez kid got fifteen years for the same thing,” Lauren said, her fists clenching.

“God Bless America,” Phillips sighed.

Lauren took a deep breath and tried to shake off the news. Once she caught the guy, her part of the equation was over. There was nothing she could do.

But if it were up to me, he’d be celebrating his thirty-second birthday in prison.

She sighed and carried on. “Still no sign of Kagan, huh?”

Robert Kagan. Age thirty-three. His wife was found strangled to death with his belt.

“Nope,” Phillips said.

“We should get eyes on Empire City Casino,” Lauren said. “His mistress said nothing could keep him away from there. Never underestimate the power of a gambling addiction.”

“No way he would risk going to one of his usual spots, right?”

“This is the same genius who left a note that said ‘Oops, sorry’ next to his wife’s corpse.”

Philips laughed, “I still want to get that framed.”

“It’s a piece of evidence, Phillips,” Lauren said. She didn’t even like to joke about breaking protocol.

“Alright, alright. I’ll head down to Empire City while you meet with Hale—if you think you can handle him without me.” He smirked at her.

“Hey, don’t let the door hit you on your way out,” Lauren called after Phillips as he sauntered out of her office. “Or do. Whatever.”

Moments after Phillips left, Lauren made her way to Hale’s door.

“Come in, Ryder,” a voice called out after Lauren delivered her signature double knock on the door.

She opened it to find Lieutenant Oliver Hale leaning back in his chair. “I heard about Bollinger,” he said, motioning for her to sit opposite him. “Entitled son of a bitch.”

“Yeah, so it goes,” she replied.

“Where’s Phillips?”

“Working on the Kagan case. I’m gonna stay in and get through my growing stack of files.”

“That’s just fine,” he replied, running a hand through his salt-and-pepper hair. But he clearly wasn’t paying attention to her words. His mind was elsewhere.

“Hey, Hale. Everything okay?”

He shook his head. “A six-year-old girl was taken from her bed last night. Isabelle Mackintosh. No sign of forced entry. The parents just called it in.”

“And you’re sure they have nothing to do with it?”

He glared at her. “When they can get up off the floor, I’ll be sure to ask them.”

Not a great idea to coddle suspects just because they act upset.

Keeping that thought to herself, she said, “Do you want me to—”

“Stay in your lane, Ryder,” he said. “As of now, we have a missing child. We’re obviously going to explore all the avenues. Let’s just hope this case never crosses your desk.”

“Yes, sir,” she said.

“Get back to work, please.”

She started to leave but then turned back toward her lieutenant. “I heard you went to visit…” her voice drifted off.

Hale’s face softened as he nodded.

“And?”

Hale shifted in his seat. “No change. But it was good to see him. You should, too. When you’re up for it—”

“Yeah. Sure. Thanks,” she said, avoiding eye contact as she excused herself from the room.

Lauren returned to her office and started on her paperwork. But as she plowed away, her mind kept flashing to an image of her niece, laughing on the swing in Liam’s backyard.

She couldn’t even begin to imagine the pain that she would feel if Emma vanished in the middle of the night.

The idea alone was too much to bear.

Lauren regulated her breathing and focused on the file in front of her.

When it all came down to it, Lauren worked as hard as she did to make the world a safer place for Emma. Medals and accolades were nice, but that was the only thing that really mattered.

***

At lunchtime, Lauren stared blankly at shelves in a toy store, filled with all the latest gadgets in flashy packaging.

Pretend you’re six. Come on. What would you want?

But even when Lauren was six, toys had never interested her. She always wanted a puzzle—something she could solve.

Well, maybe Emma would like a puzzle, too.

Lauren picked out a one-hundred-piece puzzle featuring several of Emma’s favorite superheroes.

We can work on it together.

Lauren smiled at the thought as she took it to the cashier.

Just then, her phone buzzed. And then buzzed twice more.

Phillips
guess who turned up at Empire City
Phillips
you must be good at your job
Phillips
meet at the station

Lauren beamed, threw a $20 bill down on the counter, and rushed out of the shop.

***

As soon as she entered the station, Lauren was ambushed by the smiling face of Naomi Davis. Davis was a twenty-one-year-old, eager, newly minted cop—with her hazel eyes set on homicide.

Lauren had unofficially taken Davis under her wing.

“Congratulations, Detective!” the brunette officer cried out. “He confessed as soon as Phillips got him into the interrogation room. Isn’t that amazing?”

“Aw, I missed the fun?” Lauren asked, genuinely disappointed to have missed out on questioning the suspect. “Guess there’s always a next time.”

Moments later, Hale gave her a pat on the back for a job well done, but praise didn't matter to Lauren.

The only thing that she cared about—the only reason she drifted off to sleep so easily that night—was that justice had been served.

***

BUZZ

BUZZ

Lauren Ryder’s hand shot out from under the covers and slammed onto her cell phone. She was confused for a moment. Then she sat up.

At 5 a.m.

This can’t be good.

And it wasn’t.

A body found at Dewitt Clinton Playground. A kid.

A chill ran down her spine. Lauren was usually unfazed by such reports, but something about this one didn’t feel right. It put her on edge.

Lauren didn’t know why, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that this was only the beginning.

 

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2

Ryder
I’m here
Ryder
you?
Phillips
pulling in now
Ryder
don’t text and drive
LAUREN RYDER

Lauren tightened her coat as she stepped out of her car.

The weather was unseasonably cold for April, but that wasn’t what was giving her the chills.

It was the keening coming from the squad car across the street—the piercing, inarticulate wailing punctuated with “No! No! My baby!”—that echoed through Hell’s Kitchen Park.

Lauren spotted Phillips as the door of his car thudded shut.

“Morning. You ready?” she asked.

He winked at her like he always did when they were about to enter an unsettling situation, as if to say “I got your back.” She was glad he was there.

Lauren and Phillips flashed their badges at the uniformed officers who were blocking the scene, and ducked under the yellow tape that encircled the playground.

I don’t like where this is going, Lauren thought.

Lauren spotted Dr. Mark Lennox, the precinct’s chief medical examiner, standing next to the roundabout, notepad in hand.

The morning sun was just breaking through the darkness, and as Lauren reached Lennox’s side, it cast a faint light on the most gruesome image she had ever seen.

“Isabelle Mackintosh,” Lennox said.

She looks like Emma.

“How old?” Lauren asked.

“Six,” Lennox said, confirming what Lauren suspected.

The girl’s lifeless body sat in a white nightgown, the lacy neck stained red with blood. She was posed on the roundabout as if she were riding it.

Her eyes were wrenched open.

Her mouth was manipulated into a crooked smile.

God, no.

Lauren had seen a lot of horrors in her time on the force, but this was different. This was the stuff of nightmares.

I’ve actually never even had a nightmare this bad.

“Cause of death?” Lauren asked Lennox in the steadiest voice she could muster.

“Gunshot wound to the back of the skull. Severed the brain stem. She would have died instantly if that’s any comfort.”

It’s not.

Lauren slowly crouched down next to Isabelle’s form, careful not to touch anything that could prove useful to the case.

She looked deeper into the face of pure innocence, a face that would never mature beyond this exact moment.

Never another birthday.

Was she “almost six”?

Lauren straightened and swallowed, only with effort hiding how upset she was.

Isabelle had been robbed of her future.

I will find who did this, Lauren vowed to the little girl. And to herself.

She observed what appeared to be bruising on the child’s legs, arms, and face.

Could it be postmortem, or did that monster beat her while she was alive?

“The patchy lividity indicates that her body was moved around quite a bit after death,” Lennox said, as if reading her mind. “At least that’s my suspicion. I’ll know for sure once I get her back to the lab.”

Postmortem bruising…still not a comfort.

“So she was probably killed somewhere else and then transported here,” Lauren replied, trying to ignore the knot that was forming in her throat.

As she continued to study the scene, she heard Phillips talking to Lennox.

“This is so messed up, man. We gotta clean this up and get her in for an autopsy as soon as possible. There are gonna be kids walking across this park to get to school in like an hour.”

“I’ll tell my team to start packing it all in,” Lennox replied, nodding to John Patel, his assistant.

“We’ll meet you at the lab in a bit,” Phillips said.

With dread, Lauren said to Phillips, “We should go talk to Mrs. Mackintosh.”

“You want me to take the lead?” Phillips asked.

“No, I got this one,” Lauren replied, turning her back on the gruesome scene. Phillips followed after her closely.

As she walked, Lauren cracked her knuckles, stretched out her arms, wiggled her toes—anything to send energy to her extremities and away from the knot that was moving from her throat to her stomach.

She approached Officer Davis’s squad car, where the young officer was comforting Isabelle’s mother.

She had stopped screaming, but now her face was buried in her palms and her whole body was shaking uncontrollably.

“Mrs. Mackintosh?” Lauren asked, reaching out a hand and gingerly placing it on the woman’s shoulder.

Isabelle’s mother looked up at her with wet, wide eyes.

“My name is Lauren Ryder. I’m a detective on your daughter’s case. And this is my partner Steven Phillips.”

“Hi,” Mrs. Mackintosh replied, wiping away tears with the back of her sleeve. “Angela, please.”

“Angela. We’re so sorry for your loss. I understand how devastated you must be,” Lauren said, although she was sure she couldn’t possibly comprehend the mother’s agony in this moment.

And she hoped she never would.

“The thing is,” Lauren continued, “to catch the monster who did this, we need to move fast. Would you mind coming back to the station with us so we can ask you a few questions?”

Angela nodded.

“Do you have a husband? A partner? Someone else who was in the house with you last night?”

“Husband. He’s back at home with our other baby. He couldn’t take it—being here—it’s too much—”

“I understand. We’ll talk to him later. But let’s start with you.”

Angela slid into the back of the police car, and Davis’s partner, Matthews, started driving toward the station. Lauren and Phillips followed.

STEVE PHILLIPS

Phillips, Lauren, and Angela sat in the detectives’ office. Angela had her hands cocooned around a Styrofoam cup filled with steaming green tea.

She took a sip, exhaled, and looked up at Lauren.

“Take all the time you need,” Lauren said gently.

“If you don’t mind, I’m going to take some notes,” Phillips said, pulling a pad from his jacket pocket. He smiled softly as Angela nodded in approval.

Angela took another deep breath before launching into her story. “I woke up sometime in the night. Around four, because that’s when Bethany usually wakes up hungry.”

“Bethany?” Lauren cut in.

“Our youngest. She turned six months last week.”

“Gotcha.”

“I fed her, put her back to sleep and—”

Angela choked back a sob.

Phillips glanced at Lauren, knowing that though she didn’t let on, this whole thing was agonizing for her.

But Lauren was great at her job. She reached out a hand for Angela to hold. Angela took it and then continued.

“Well, I never usually check on Izzy. She’s such a good sleeper. But I just decided to pop my head in and—I don’t know, I had some feeling, I guess—and her bed…it was…”

She couldn’t hold back anymore—tears spilled down her cheeks.

“Empty,” she managed to say. “I looked everywhere. I woke up Mike. He looked with me. She was g-gone. That’s when we called the police.”

“Do you know someone who would do this? Someone who might want to target your family?” Lauren asked.

“How could anyone do this to a baby? To my baby?”

Angela suddenly shot up from her seat. “I need to go home. Mike’s alone with Beth. I need to be with my family.”

“Of course. Just one more question,” Lauren said calmly. “Were you the one who found your daughter this morning?”

“Yes,” she replied. “Me and Mike…we couldn’t sleep. We decided to take turns searching the neighborhood. I had already scanned that park a million times. But when I went back, she was…she was…”

Angela wailed and crashed into Lauren’s arms.

Remaining where he sat, Phillips watched as Lauren held her, a muscle jumping in Lauren’s cheek.

She pulled away from Angela. “You should definitely go be with your family. Officers Davis and Matthews will drive you back home.”

Lauren handed Angela her business card. “Don’t hesitate to call me if you have any questions. Or any ideas at all. Day or night.”

Angela took the card and stumbled out of the room to Davis and Matthews.

Phillips felt his cell go off and plucked it out of his pocket.

Lennox
Get down here ASAP.
Lennox
You need to see something.

As Angela disappeared, Phillips turned to Lauren. “We gotta go too,” he said.

Lauren looked at him questioningly, and he shoved his phone screen into her face.

They bolted out of her office and toward the medical lab.

LAUREN RYDER

It would only take a couple of minutes to get to the lab. Lauren rarely stopped to socialize, and no one expected it of her. They knew she was all business.

Before the detectives got there though, Lauren's phone started buzzing.

Liam
Come early if you can to help set up
Liam
Turns out mini cupcakes don’t cook themselves lol

No. Goddamnit.

She didn’t want to let Liam down over text, but with this kind of case, there was no way she was going to make it to Emma’s birthday party.

She dialed Liam.

“Uh oh,” was the first thing he said when he answered.

“What?”

“Nobody answers a text with a call unless they’re confused about the plan or they’re canceling. And you’re never confused.”

“I’m so, so, so sorry Liam. I want to be there more than anything, but—”

“—but you can’t pull yourself away. I know, I know. I’ll tell Emma.”

“Make sure she hears that I’m sorry and I’ll come over—”

But Liam had already hung up the phone.

Lauren weakened at the thought of her niece’s disappointed face when she learned that, yet again, her aunt had decided to stay at work instead of coming over.

A six-year-old girl was dead, and Lauren had to find out who’d done it.

They arrived at the lab; Lennox was clearly awaiting them. He had a pained look on his face.

“What’s so urgent?” Phillips asked. “You find DNA?”

“Not yet,” Lennox replied. “But you need to see this.”

He walked over to the table where Patel was waiting alongside Isabelle’s body.

With her eyes closed and her face cleaned, she almost looked like she could have been sleeping.

“Prepare yourself,” the young assistant said as he pulled back the white blanket that was covering her tiny, limp form.

Carved—yes, carved—into the flesh of her stomach were two words:

Prima Hostia.

Lauren had only taken one year of Latin in college, but it was enough to know what that phrase meant—enough to realize that if they didn’t catch the killer soon, there would surely be another body.

She held her breath as she looked up the words just to be sure. Her worst fears were confirmed.

Latin: Prima Hostia.

English: First Victim.

 

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