Read A Child Is Missing Online

Authors: David Stout

A Child Is Missing

A Child Is Missing

David Stout

MYSTERIOUSPRESS.COM

For Ruth Furie, who carries the light

One

The thick, strong hands of the mechanic steered the four-wheel-drive pickup off the road, into the tiny clearing barely big enough for the truck. The metallic slam of the door broke the hush of the deep woods. As he stood next to the truck, he heard other sounds: snow collapsing from the upper branches of the evergreens onto the lower boughs, then tumbling all the way to the bottom and landing on the ground with loud
plops.

He had caught the weather just right. There was enough snow left in the woods for him to drag the heavy sled without much trouble, enough to drag the sled back to the truck with its heavy load. He knew the sled was strong enough. It had been used for ice fishing.

If he had judged his time right, and the weatherman was right, the snow would be gone by tomorrow—along with his tracks, if that mattered.

Not quite winter. The ground was not cold enough to keep the snow for long, and it was still soft enough to dig in. And it was in between hunting seasons: Small-game hunting had just ended, and deer season would not start for another ten days. That meant he might be the only person to be in this part of the woods all day, which was fine with him.

He let down the back of the truck and set the sled on a level spot of ground. Then he hauled out the two tanks (green for oxygen, red for acetylene), the cutting torch, and the hoses and arranged them on the sled, buckling them down with the straps he'd fastened to the sled. Safety mask (check), work gloves (check), and he was on his way.

He had to walk a few hundred yards through the trees, down a gradual slope to the dump site. Things were exactly as they had been on his last visit. A shopping cart lay on its side, among old cans and an ancient rusted stove. And there was the other metal thing that had caught his eye while he was doing his own after-dark dumping. Yes, it was as he remembered. It would work; he was sure of it. But it lay under some other waste metal that was either too heavy or too sharp for the man to clear.

He put on his mask and gloves and in no time was running the flame around the metal he needed to cut away. The man was an expert with the torch, and he worked quickly and efficiently. The snow around him hissed from the sparks.

He still had plenty of daylight by the time he freed what he had come for. Puffing from the strain and taking care to avoid the hot metal, he horsed the object onto his sled, strapped it down, and resecured the tanks, torch, and hoses.

Done.

He took out a candy bar, started to eat, let himself relax. His hair was wet from sweat.

The man was tired but pleased when he got back to the pickup. Some of the snow had melted just in the short time he'd been gone, and the only tracks in what was left were his own. Warm weather must be on the way.

He was sweating heavily. But after he put his gear onto the truck (along with the object he'd come for), he was surprised to feel a slight chill on his skin.

“Make up your mind,” he said to the graying sky.

The man made sure the big metal thing wouldn't roll in the back of the pickup. Then he drove back to the shop. He encountered no one on the road in the woods and only a couple of cars on the main road.

Just before he got to the shop, he stopped to buy a cold six-pack. Then he went to the shop, where he and his partner dragged the metal thing inside.

“What do you think?” said the man who had dragged the thing out of the woods.

“I think it'll work.”

“Damn right. Let's get started.”

So the two men set about with torches, drills, screwdrivers, nuts, and bolts to fashion the thing for its intended use. It took a couple of hours, but they didn't mind. They had the six-pack for company (the beer went fast, and one of them went to fetch more), and they worked easily together. They were brothers.

Two

Jamie was tired, and he floated in and out of sleep on the front seat next to Tony. He hadn't wanted to put on his pajamas before leaving his father's for the ride home, but his mother had told him over the phone that he had to.

Usually, his father drove him back home after the visits. His father would take him to the door and say hello to his mother. They seemed real friendly to each other after the visits, shaking hands sometimes, and Jamie couldn't understand why they couldn't all be together again if they got along so well.

It just couldn't be—that was what both of them told him. It just couldn't be. Someday he'd understand.

“Damn,” Tony said. “Oh, you're awake, huh.”

Jamie giggled, because he knew his father had told Tony not to swear in front of him.

“How come you said ‘damn,' Tony?”

“Don't tell your dad. I'm counting the snowflakes. See?”

Jamie sat up straight. “Lookit, Tony. Millions and millions and millions.”

It seemed to Jamie that all the snowflakes God had ever made were flying at the car, dancing like feathers in the headlights. Jamie could tell that Tony was driving more slowly. “Can you see okay?”

“No sweat, pal.”

Jamie was happy. Though it had been too cold to ride the pony, his father had taken him to the barn to say hello to it. The pony had been glad to see him and had pranced in the stall. Jamie liked the smell of the pony and had said, “He makes good air.”

His father had laughed at that.

Jamie knew it would be a long time before he could ride the pony without his father next to him. He was only five.

“There must be millions and millions of snowflakes. Huh, Tony?”

“Yep.”

“Maybe even zillions and zillions.”

“You got it, pal.”

Jamie watched the snowflakes flying toward the car (like white bats, that's what they were like), until he felt himself getting sleepy again. The last thing he remembered before his eyes closed was Tony patting him on the knee.

“Son of a bitch!”

Tony's swearing woke Jamie up and scared him. Tony almost never talked that bad.…

“What is he, crazy?”

“What's the matter, Tony?”

“Nothing, pal. Don't worry.”

But just then Tony reached over and checked Jamie's safety belt. He's making sure I'm buckled, Jamie thought. Jamie was afraid.

“Damn. First they give me a detour with no warning, then … Jesus!”

Jamie saw the orange cones in the headlights (witches' hats; that's what they were), saw the other lights, coming in through, the back window and shining off Tony's face. Tony looked scared.

Alongside the car, there was a big dark shape (a truck, Jamie thought), and it looked close enough for Tony to reach out and touch. The shape pulled ahead, then moved to the side. Jamie heard Tony swear again, saw him pull on the steering wheel, felt the car go bump, bump, bump on the side of the road.

The car stopped, and there was a big bright light shining into Jamie's eyes, and he turned to look at Tony and saw Tony's eyes, which were all shiny and afraid, and two men stood in the big bright light with masks on (all different colors, like for skiing), and the snowflakes blew all around the men, and Jamie could see that they were pointing big shiny guns at Tony, the kind of guns his father used to shoot birds. And Jamie started to cry, because he knew he wasn't dreaming.

“Jesus!”

Jamie heard how scared Tony was. Then he saw one of the colored masks real close to Tony's window, saw the gun barrel pointing at Tony's head. Then the gun barrel wiggled up and down, and Tony opened the window.

Cold air and snowflakes blew in.

“Put your hands on the wheel and hold tight,” a mean voice said through the mask.

The door on the other side opened, letting in more cold and snow. Jamie turned and saw the other man, the other mask. The man unbuckled Jamie's seat belt, grabbed him so tightly that Jamie's arms felt pinched. Jamie made fists, swung at the man, got ready to kick.

“Tell the kid to cool it,” the other man said. “Do it, or I'll blow your head off.”

“Jamie, don't. Don't. Oh, Jesus…”

Jamie had never heard Tony afraid before.

“We're taking the kid. You're gonna stay right here. With any luck, you can get loose before you get too cold.”

Jamie was out in the cold now, blinking in the light, snow-flakes blowing all around him, being held tightly against a man's winter jacket. He saw the other man tying Tony's hands to the steering wheel, saw Tony's face all white and scared.

“You're gonna stay here and take a good long time getting yourself untied, aren't you? Aren't you?” said the man who was tying up Tony.

“Yes. Please. Yes.”

“Good. That way, you won't get your brains blown out. We'll be in touch on how to get the kid back. Tell his old man if anyone tries anything, we won't just kill him. We'll diddle him first.”

Three

Tom Ryan cursed silently as Lyle Glanford stood in the doorway of the newsroom. The publisher of the
Bessemer Gazette
was frowning, and Ryan knew the frown (reflecting puzzlement rather than anger) meant trouble. As Ryan watched, the publisher ran his fingers through his white hair, then headed for Ryan's desk.

Shit, Ryan thought. “Mr. Glanford,” he said.

“Ry, do we have anyone over in Hill County?”

“A stringer, you mean?”

“No, not a stringer. I mean, have we sent a staffer over there? To follow that kidnapping over around Long Creek?”

“Oh, uh, not—”

“Well, hell. Seems like we should. People over there look to our Country Edition to know what's happening. Especially those who don't have cable. Hell of a case, don't you think?”

“Hell of a case, yes.”

“Who can we send? You're running the city desk today, you tell me.”

“Most of the staff has gone home, Mr. Glanford. What with Thanksgiving and all. If we sent someone and they were there over the holiday, technically we'd have to pay overtime.…”

“Overtime?”

“For Thanksgiving work, Mr. Glanford.”

“Work out something, Ry. You're the editor. Call in a favor.”

That won't be enough to pay for the trip, Ryan thought. “The thing is, Mr. Glanford, we thought we were supposed to be cutting back on the travel expenses.…”

The publisher shot Ryan a look.

“…to conserve our resources for big stories like this,” Ryan said, recovering instantly. “We'll, I'll get someone over there pronto.”

“Good,” the publisher said as he stood to go. “Make sure it's someone who knows what he's doing.”

“Right.” But who? Ryan thought.

Fran Spicer had been tapering off all afternoon, and in a few more minutes he could lock his desk and start his holiday. He would be off not only Thanksgiving but for the next three days, as well. He didn't know exactly what he would do—watch some football, try to keep busy so he didn't mope too much—but he had learned to take each day at a time.

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