Josh picked up the ringing phone, even though he knew no one would speak. This was the third time in the last hour that it had rung, and every time he answered, the line was silent. But not dead. He could hear something on the other end, someone, but whoever it was never said anything.
The first time, he didn’t give it much thought.
The second time, he thought it was a little strange.
Now, the third time, he had to admit it was starting to creep him out.
His overprotective parents barely ever left him home by himself, even though he was twelve, and it just seemed, well, weird, that this would happen on one of those few occasions.
He chewed a fingernail—a habit his mom kept telling him he must stop—as the questions rolled around in his head. Who could it be? And why did they keep calling? When the doorbell rang, he jumped. Could it--?
No. It was the doorbell, not the phone.
He squinted through the peephole to see his friend Nathan standing on the porch, and unlocked the deadbolt.
“What are you doing here?” On Saturday mornings, Nathan went to his bowling league, and he was still wearing the orange jersey that identified his team, the Tigers. But Nathan ignored the question and pushed past Josh into the house. Josh noticed a worried look on his friend’s face.
“What’s wrong? Why aren’t you at bowling?” Josh asked.
“It was canceled. Mr. Gardner didn’t show up.” Nathan closed the door behind him and flopped onto the worn brown couch in Josh’s living room, where the boys had spent many hours playing video games. “And when the police went to his house, the whole place had been torn apart. Front door wide open, drawers emptied, furniture thrown over. A total mess. They even went through the refrigerator!”
Josh opened his eyes wide. “So he was robbed?”
Nathan shook his head grimly. “The police said there’s nothing missing.”
“Except Mr. Gardner.” Josh sat next to Nathan on the couch, the implications of what he was saying sinking in. Josh pulled off the black knit cap he wore all the time and absently spun it on one finger. Josh’s dark hair and stocky build contrasted with Nathan, with his blond hair and skinny build, but the boys tended to think alike. “So maybe he was kidnapped.”
“Or worse. I came because I thought your dad might know something about it.”
As a police officer, Josh’s dad usually knew what was going on in their small community, but Josh only shrugged. “He won’t be back for an hour. He went to some meeting with Mom to look at the site for that new development over by the high school.”
“That’s where he is right now?” Nathan tensed.
“That’s where the Gardners live.” Nathan waved his hand in the air. “What time did they leave this morning?”
“Around eight-thirty. The meeting was at nine. Why?”
“That means they were right there when this whole thing happened. Maybe they saw something!”
Josh opened his mouth to respond, but right then the phone rang, snapping him back to reality. Another strange phone call? He hesitated before slowly reaching to pick it up. “Hello?”
“Hey, son. Just called to make sure you’re okay.” It was his dad’s voice, sounding concerned.
“I’m fine. Why?”
“Nothing. Just checking that nothing’s... happened.”
Josh thought of the strange phone calls earlier. Did those count? “Everything’s fine,” he repeated. “Except...”
“What?” Dad’s voice sharpened.
“Somebody’s been calling, but they don’t say anything.”
“What’s the number?”
Josh read it off the Caller ID. “It’s not that big of a deal, though.”
“Maybe not, but that’s a mobile number. I’m going to run a trace. Just a minute.”
Josh heard him patch it through over his radio. As they waited, he asked, “Hey, did you hear anything about a robbery over there this morning?” Briefly he explained what Nathan had told him.
There was a long pause before Dad said, “I do know something about that, but I can’t talk to you about it. Just-- Hang on.”
Josh heard the radio crackling in the background, and then Dad saying, “Are you sure?”
Something in his voice sent a chill up Josh’s spine, and his fingers tightened on the handset. Then Dad came back on. “Josh. Listen to me very carefully. Do not say anything. Act like everything’s normal.”
“What--” Josh started.
“Don’t talk.” Dad interrupted him. “Get out, now. Those phone calls are coming from inside the house.”