McCown County assistant prosecutor Elsie Arnold is prepping an assault case when a girl is found beaten and bloodied at a roadside no-tell motel. Elsie tries to convince the teen to reveal who attacked her, but Mandy is too scared—and stubborn—to cooperate… and then she disappears. Elsie’s positive a predator is targeting the Ozark hills, yet the authorities refuse to believe their small town could be plagued by sex trafficking.
Then middle school student Desiree Wickham goes missing, but only Elsie suspects it could be connected to Mandy’s assault. As she digs deeper into the events leading up to Desiree’s disappearance, she stumbles upon an alarming discovery: local girls are falling prey to a dubious online modeling agency, and never seen again. Elsie shares her concerns with Detective Ashlock and the FBI, but they shut her out.
She takes matters into her own hands and lands an interview with the head of the modeling agency. But when she meets him face-to-face, she discovers the fate of Desiree and Mandy… and becomes his newest captive. Elsie’s desperate to free the girls—and save herself—before the unspeakable happens. And she’s in for the fight of her life.
A dark haired man lounged behind a battered desk in a second floor room at an EconoMo motel that sat on the highway in flyover country, Missouri. He pulled up Skype on his laptop and studied his own image on the computer screen, rubbing the tattoo that covered his neck. Behind him, the unmade bed was visible on the screen. A thin cotton sheet covered the form of a young girl.
He adjusted the angle to cut her from the shot. The bed disappeared, replaced by beige curtains at the window, hanging askew on the rod.
The place was a dump. He could afford better accommodations, without a doubt. It was business, and business was booming. His greatest challenge was procuring sufficient supply to meet the constant demand.
On the desktop, bottles were scattered near the computer. Alprazolam. Oxycodone. Rohypnol. Diazepam. Three value packs of Benadryl: cherry flavored. A plastic bottle of Aristocrat vodka sat beside a jumbo container of Hawaiian Punch.
As he pushed them aside, the bottle of roofies rolled off the desktop and onto the dirty carpet. He caught it just before it rolled under the dresser.
A ding notified him: his Skype appointment was ready. Right on time. He liked the girls to be punctual.
He hit the button on the mouse and fixed a smile on his face. “Lola! How you doing, baby!”
A giggling girl with a mane of curly blonde hair greeted him onscreen. “Tony, you’re so funny. I’m not Lola, I’ve told you a zillion times.”
“But you look like a Lola. If you want to make it in the modeling trade, you’ll have to project glamour. Drama.” He stretched his arms over his head, displaying muscled biceps covered in ink, and locked his hands behind his neck.
“Cool.” Her eyes shone.
“Leave that country girl persona behind in Podunk. Where are you from again?”
“Barton. Barton, Missouri. Where’s Podunk?”
He laughed, running his hand over his thick hair. “Podunk is where you’re sitting right now. What you’re itching to ditch. How’s life?”
Desiree shrugged, pulling a face.
“They still giving you shit at school, baby?”
She rolled her head back onto her neck. “All. The. Time.”
“And how’s living at home?”
“Wish you could leave it all behind?”
The girl turned her head; he heard a whisper from someone off-screen. Sharply, he asked: “Are you alone?”
A second head appeared over Lola’s shoulder. He saw a mixed race girl. She was taller than Lola, but he pegged her at the same age: an adolescent, around fourteen.
And she was a diamond in the rough—a black diamond. Unblemished skin, full lips, high cheekbones. Lola said, “You asked if I had any friends who wanted to meet you.”
He smiled, tapping his hand on the counter. “Who’s this?”
The tall girl looked at her friend, then into the computer. “I’m Taylor Johnson.”
“And you’re interested in modeling?”
She blinked. A nervous twitch. He shot a grin, to reassure her. “You’ve got the bone structure for it.”
The tall girl pinched her lips together. “Maybe. I think so.”
“We’ll need to conduct some auditions by video, maybe an interview, before you can qualify for a live shoot at the agency.”
She looked skittish. He wouldn’t get anything from her today.
“Let’s just get acquainted, okay?” He was about to launch into his patter: find out her story, gain her trust.
But a moan sounded from the bed behind him. The girl was coming around. He glanced over, fearful that she might raise a ruckus that could scare off his new prospects.
Tony picked up his phone. “Aw shit. Call’s coming in from one of our clients. I gotta take it.” He winked and shut off Skype just in time.
In a weak voice, she said, “Tony. Help me. Please, take off the cuffs.”
He sighed. Picking up a dirty plastic cup, he poured a measure of vodka and Benadryl, and topped it off with the red punch.
The girl spoke again, in a pleading tone. “Don’t make me do it, Tony. It hurts.”
He stirred the drink with his finger and walked toward the bed. “Mandy, Mandy. You look like you could use a magic drink, baby. This will fix you right up.”
The girl tried to sit up as he extended the red plastic cup. Tony stared down at her, shaking his head. “What’s that saying? ‘The customer is always right.’ You know what you got to do.”
The girl began to thrash against the mattress. But she was handcuffed to the metal bed frame.
Excerpt from A Wolf in the Woods by Nancy Allen. Copyright © 2018 by Nancy Allen. Reproduced with permission from Witness Impulse. All rights reserved.
Nancy Allen practiced law for 15 years as Assistant Missouri Attorney General and Assistant Prosecutor in her native Ozarks.
She tried over 30 jury trials, including murder and sexual offenses, and is now a law instructor at Missouri State University.