If Kelda James hadnâ€™t been wearing inch-and-a-half heels
and the toilet paper roll hadnâ€™t been empty, Rosa Alija
would probably be dead.
At about ten-twenty that morning Kelda had excused herself
from her fellow FBI agents and followed directions to the
restroomâ€“down the long hall, go left, last door on the
right. The bathroom was a step up from what she had
expected to find, given the tacky condition of the rest of
the building. She was relieved to see that the sink was
reasonably clean and the toilet seat wasnâ€™t stained with
yellow coins of urine. The only problem was that there was
no toilet paper on the cardboard roll.
Kelda stepped back out into the hall to retrace her route
and retrieve her shoulder bag and its stash of tissues,
but noticed a closet marked â€śUtilityâ€ť adjacent to the
bathroom. The knob on the door wasnâ€™t locked and she found
herself staring into a space about six feet square. A
window was mounted high on the wall, dividing the small
room in half. A jumble of brooms and mops leaned against a
cracked porcelain sink on one side; the opposite side was
stacked with particleboard shelves piled high with what
appeared to be a lifetime supply of paper towels, soap,
disinfectants, and toilet paper. Kelda reached onto an
upper shelf for a fresh roll of toilet tissue and
reflexively glanced over the sill and out the window as
she rotated back toward the door.
The window overlooked the alley behind the building.
Across the alley was the back of a single-story light-
industrial building not noticeably different from the one
that Kelda and her FBI colleagues had justraided.
Except for the hand.
Kelda was sure that for a split second she had glimpsed a
hand in a window of the building across the alley. In her
mind she was already considering it to have been a tiny
hand, a childâ€™s hand.
She approached the utility closet window, stood on her
toes, and peered again at the building across the alley.
No hand. She raised her fingers to the sill to hold
herself up and examined the distant window in detail. The
bottom edge of the cloudy pane was streaked with parallel
vertical lines that could have been made by fingers.
Tiny fingers. Childâ€™s fingers.
â€śOh my God,â€ť she said.
Fresh out of the FBI Academy, Special Agent Kelda James
had been in the Denver, Colorado, field office for all of
five weeks. Her initial assignment was to a squad that
investigated white-collar crime, and that morning she had
been ordered to accompany three other agentsâ€“all male, all
senior to her, all somewhere between significantly and
maximally apprehensive of her skillsâ€“to serve a federal
warrant and raid a company called Account Assistants,
Inc., on Delaware Street in Denverâ€™s Golden Triangle
neighborhood. The company did contract billing for medical
practices, and the raid was intended to collect evidence
of suspected Medicare fraud.
For an FBI white-collar crime squad, this was routine
Prior to entering the FBI Academy, Kelda had earned her
credentials as a certified public accountant and had spent
a few years investigating fraud for an international
insurance company. Her role in the raid of Account
Assistants, Inc., was to cover the back door as the raid
started and, later, to use her forensic accounting
background to help make certain that the agents didnâ€™t
fail to retrieve any records that they might ultimately
need to press their case against the firm.
Most important, though, she knew that her primary
responsibility was to remember at all times that she was
the new guy, or in FBI parlance, â€śthe fucking new guy.â€ť
Her primary responsibility was not to screw up.
Later in the day, after she and the other agents had
finished collecting the evidence and had transported the
boxes back to the Denver Field Office, Kelda figured that
sheâ€“the fucking new guyâ€“would be the one who would be
assigned to spend the next few weeks sitting at her Bureau
desk examining the mind-numbing details of the service and
billing records, trying to use Account Assistants, Inc.â€™s
own numbers to prove the fraud case that had spawned the
warrant and the raid.
Itâ€™s what she did. And she knew she did it well.
That was what she was contemplating when she saw the hand
flash across the window a second time. But as swiftly as
it appeared in the window, the little hand disappeared
A more experienced agent might have gone back to her
squad, reported what sheâ€™d seen, and asked one of her
colleagues to accompany her across the alley to
investigate the fleeting hand. A more experienced agentâ€“
one who wasnâ€™t a bookish young woman with an accounting
degree whose colleagues called her Clarice behind her backâ€“
would have been less concerned about the scorn she would
suffer if she pulled a fellow agentâ€“or two, or threeâ€“away
from important work to search the back of an adjacent
building because she thought that maybe she had seen a
childâ€™s hand in the bottom of a window.
Kelda could only imagine the relentless ridicule she would
endure from her fellow agents after word spread in the
field office that she had begged for assistance in
checking out what would probably turn out to be nothing
more nefarious than an unlicensed day-care facility.
Kelda moved out of the utility closet, closed the door,
and took three steps farther down the hall to a door that
was marked â€śExit.â€ť An hour and a half earlier sheâ€™d stood
in the alley on the other side of this very door in case
any of the principals of Account Assistants, Inc., tried
to flee out the back as the FBI team announced the raid
and the warrant was served by the agents who entered the
building through the door at the front.
She checked the inside of the exit door for an alarm: She
couldnâ€™t spot any electronic devices attached to the heavy
door that would announce that she had opened it. She
stepped outside, propped the door open with a softball-
sized piece of concrete, and then jogged across the alley
to the window with the streaky glass and the disappearing
Two days before, six-year-old Rosa Alija had vanished from
the playground of her elementary schoolâ€™s summer day camp
near Thirty-second and Federal on Denverâ€™s near west side.
The other children on the playground told police
conflicting tales of a van or truck that was gray or brown
and one man who was white or two men who were black or two
men and a woman who were all kinds of different
combinations of races and colors who had waited for a
child to chase a ball into the field adjacent to the
school and then, when Rosa Alija had been that child, had
scooped her up, covered her mouth, and carried her away in
the van or truck.
Some of the child witnesses reported that Rosa had kicked
her legs and cried. Others maintained she was already dead
by the time she got to the van.
No adult reported seeing a thing.
And no one had seen Rosa since. The girlâ€™s frantic
parents, an independent landscaper named JosĂ© Alija and
his receptionist wife, Maria, waited in vain for a ransom
demand. But neither the police nor the local FBI office
expected to hear from Rosaâ€™s abductors. The Alijas werenâ€™t
the type of family who were chosen for a kidnapping for
Rosa Alija had been taken for some other purpose.
Denver mobilized in an unprecedented fashion to find the
girl. Hun- dreds of citizensâ€“Hispanic, white, black,
Native American, Asianâ€“searched the city for little Rosa.
Posses of private citizens scoured the banks of the South
Platte River and Cherry Creek. The huge expanse of rail
yard between her school and Lower Downtown was searched,
and the interior of every last boxcar in the yard was
examined. Her picture was featured on the front page of
both daily papers, and the quest to find her dominated the
local TV and radio news.
Bloodhounds tracked her route away from the school. The
dogs seemed confident that her abductor had taken her down
Speer Boulevard after the kidnapping, but the hounds lost
the scent near the spot where Speer intersected with
Interstate 25. The cops knew that once Rosaâ€™s abductors
had her on Denverâ€™s main freeway, they could have taken
Anywhere. The Rocky Mountains, the Great Plains, the Great
Basin. North to Wyoming, south to New Mexico. Anywhere.
Even into the back room of a light-industrial building in
one of Denverâ€™s transitional urban neighborhoods.
The bottom of the window in the building across the alley
was level with the top of Keldaâ€™s head. She listened for
the sounds of children playing, but all she heard was the
sough of distant traffic on Speer Boulevard; she heard
nothing to convince herself that sheâ€™d stumbled onto a day-
care facility. A momentâ€™s contemplation failed to suggest
any other good reason that a small child would be
scratching at the glass in a back room in a building in
Kelda grabbed a discarded plastic milk crate from the
alley and carried it back toward the window to check and
see what was inside the building.
Before she had a chance to step onto the crate, she saw
the hand again. It was reaching, groping, the fingers
extended against the bottom edge of the pane, but they
could only stay there for a second or two. Kelda imagined
that every time the girl lifted her hand someone else was
yanking it right back down.
Most of the doubt about what she had discovered evaporated
from Keldaâ€™s mind. Rosa Alija, she was hoping. Itâ€™s Rosa
Alija. But even in her head, the thought was only a
whisper. If hope was the balloon, reality was the ballast.
What if itâ€™s not?
For the first time since Kelda had graduated from the
Academy, she withdrew her handgun from its holster with
the clear understanding that she might be about to fire
it. The Sig Sauer felt almost weightless in her hand as
she stepped up onto the crate. Her confidence grew;
Keldaâ€™s best days in training at Quantico were the days
that her Sig weighed about as much as a glove. She knew
instantly that this was going to be one of those days.
The filth on the glass and the dark interior of the room
kept Kelda from peering inside. For a split second she
considered returning to Account Assistants to collect her
colleagues, but she was already fearing what would happen
if she left the little girl alone for another minute. She
decided that she would use her radio to summon the other
agents the moment she was absolutely certain that she had
indeed found the abducted child.
The building had a small loading dock that faced the
alley. She pulled herself onto the narrow cement shelf of
the dock and tried the big door. It was locked tight. She
hopped back down and moved to the side of the building.
The long cinder-block wall was interrupted by a solitary
steel door that was secured by a hasp and padlock. Around
the front, two old newspapers still in their delivery bags
littered the sidewalk at the main entrance. A big â€śFor
Leaseâ€ť sign hung in the window, and three or four flyers
were stuffed in the mail slot. Kelda put pressure on the
handle of the glass entrance door. It didnâ€™t give.
Whatever this place once was, it wasnâ€™t in business
She returned to the side door. The bolt on the lock was in
place, but the hasp seemed to be beginning to break free
of whatever was holding it to the cinder block. She
searched the weeds behind her and found a rusty length of
angle iron, jammed it behind the hasp, and began to pry
the steel hasp away from the wall.
After two minutes of constant pressure, the fasteners
securing the hasp gave way and the door creaked inward
half an inch.
Kelda had made a hundred armed entries into buildings
during her training at Quantico. Maybe two hundred. She
knew the drill. She knew where to look, what to say, how
to hold her weapon.
She also knew not to do it alone.
In one minute, she promised herself, sheâ€™d call for help.
Right after she was sure that Rosa Alija was safe and that
her kidnapper couldnâ€™t spirit her away to some new
location before the cavalry arrived.
Once inside the door, Kelda turned left toward the back of
the building and stopped. Her gun was in her hand. It was
not pointed at the ceiling; it was pointed in front of
her. Why? Because thatâ€™s what the FBI had taught her. Why?
Because, as one instructor had shouted at a classmate
during a drill, â€śvery few fucking UNSUBs are going to be
waiting on the ceiling.â€ť
She listened for any indication that the building was
occupied. She heard nothing, and the stale air she was
breathing confirmed her impression that the building was
probably not being used.
She paced silently across the empty loading area until she
confronted a closed door. The door, she figured, should
lead to the room with the window. With the same gentle
squeeze she would use to compress a trigger, she put
pressure on the knob. It was locked.
She thought she heard a whimper.
Keldaâ€™s heart was cleaving. She thinks heâ€™s coming back,
thatâ€™s why sheâ€™s crying. Kelda swallowed, checked her