Authors: Ed Gorman,Daniel Ransom
Behind the crowd of onlookers, many of whom were dressed in the pajamas, robes, and nightgowns they’d been wearing in their motel rooms, flashing red emergency lights appeared to bathe them in a bloody glow.
The sheriff, the man Adam Carnes had called ten minutes ago, was pulling into the motel driveway.
The onlookers had been attracted to the noise Carnes had been making as he’d combed the local countryside in a crazed search for any sign of Deirdre. A few people had joined in to help him. Deirdre had been missing nearly half an hour now.
The sheriff was a tall, flabby man in his early sixties who introduced himself as Bill Wayman. That he looked wide awake and sober at this time of night impressed Carnes, who had feared that the local law would resemble the Jackie Gleason character in the “Smokey” movies.
“She’s gone,” Carnes said as soon as Wayman had finished the introductions. Carnes knew how shaky he sounded and appeared. He could gauge his present condition by the expressions of the onlookers. Most seemed sorry for him, a few seemed just happy for the excitement, and a handful looked as though no real man, even with his daughter missing, should carry on this way.
the crowd away as if he were dispersing a herd of cattle. Tilting his western-style hat off his head to reveal a bald dome with white fringes, he nodded to the motel office and said, “Why don’t we go up there, Mr. Carnes, where we can talk in private?”
Carnes agreed, moving automatically up the incline to where the motel clerk stood outside sipping on a Coke. “She’ll turn up, son. You wait and see.” There was real sympathy in his voice. Carnes appreciated it.
“You mind if we use your office, Slocum?” Sheriff Wayman asked the man.
“Heck, no, Sheriff.” Slocum even held the door for them.
Inside, the sheriff found a coffee pot that still held liquid and poured them both a cup. Ordinarily, Carnes never drank coffee past six p.m. Tonight he had a terrible sense that he was going to drink pots of the stuff before the light of tomorrow morning.
Wayman sat down with a squeak of leather from his gunbelt and the deep sigh of a man carrying too much weight. He had an eagle beak of a nose, brown intelligent eyes, and a leisurely, reassuring manner. Carnes trusted the man.
Wayman tucked a sardonic twist on his mouth. “Afraid I’m going to have to ask you a few questions that may irritate you, Mr. Carnes.”
“How about calling me Adam?”
“Sure,” Wayman said, “if that’s what makes you comfortable.”
Carnes nodded, impatient to get on with the interview.
“Did you and your daughter have an argument?”
“She didn’t run away, Sheriff. That I can say for sure.” Carnes could not keep the testiness out of his voice.
“I said I was going to irritate you,” Wayman reminded him gently.
Carnes cooled down. “She didn’t run away, Sheriff.” He explained the divorce situation, how this was their first extended time together. “She was looking forward to the trip as much as I am.” He realized with brutal reality that he had just spoken in the past tense where Deirdre was concerned.
Please, dear God.
“So you didn’t have any arguments?”
“None at all,” Carnes said.
“And as far as you knew, she wasn’t unhappy in any particular way.”
“We’d just spent hours talking about her life. She seemed very together, very peaceful.”
Carnes noticed that during the last few questions, Wayman had taken a small notebook from his pocket and was writing in it.
“All right, let’s assume for the moment that she had no reason to just up and take off,” Wayman said. “Now I’m going to have to ask you to think very hard.”
“Fine.” The impatience was back in Carnes’s voice.
“When you pulled up to the motel office, did you see anybody standing around, or anybody sitting in a parked car?”
Carnes thought so hard he could feel the beginnings of a headache start down the center of his forehead. The anxiety, the exhaustion of his run through the nearby underbrush, had worn him out. A headache was inevitable.
Wayman didn’t seem satisfied with his answer. “Think hard.”
“Nobody standing around?”
“Nobody sitting in any parked cars?”
“Nobody over near the restaurant?”
“Nobody on the driveway as you were starting off the road at the bottom of the hill?”
Carnes had to think about that for a long moment. “No.”
“You said on the phone that you asked the waitress at the restaurant. She didn’t see your daughter?”
Carnes sighed. “No.”
Wayman closed his notebook.
“Afraid I’m going to ask you another one of those irritating questions.”
“That’s your job, I guess.”
“Is your daughter taking any kind of drugs?”
Carnes shrugged. “I want to say absolutely no. I guess the best a parent can say these days is, I don’t think so. I mean, her mother and I have talked about the possibility that Deirdre is susceptible like any other teenager, so we’ve both kept a close look after her. For any behavioral changes, things like that. We haven’t noticed anything. Why?”
“Well, if she took something and it had a bad effect on her, that might cause her to run off. Get scared or lose her sense of where she is. Drugs doing terrible things to these kids today.” There was no contempt in the sheriff’s voice, only a kind of weary pity. Carnes supposed that even out here, in a small town, the local law had to deal with its share of drugs.
Carnes jumped up from his chair when he heard the throbbing motor of a truck work up the steep incline.
“That’ll be Ralph,” Sheriff Wayman said.
“Ralph Potter. He’s got the best bloods in the county.”
Carnes obviously looked confused because Wayman said, “Bloodhounds.”
And that was the case. Even above the big Chevy engine powering the big pickup truck, the keening yip and barking of dogs could be heard.
Suddenly the reality of everything overwhelmed Carnes—the little details that made this nightmare inescapably true—the smell of cigar smoke in the office, the rumbling truck engine outside, the sweat stains darkening Wayman’s armpits. He felt like an alien stranded on another planet.
Wayman seemed to sense Carnes’s condition.
As they were going out the door, Wayman put an arm on Carnes’s shoulder. “You’ll be all right, don’t you worry.”
But it wasn’t himself Carnes was worried about. His concern was Deirdre.
Almost like a child, he said, “You think we’re going to find her, Sheriff?”
But Wayman apparently wasn’t one for false optimism. All he said was, “We’re sure going to try. We’re sure going to try.”
From the bathroom Beth Daye brought paper towels soaked in cold water. The
among many other inconveniences, lacked hot water, thanks to a heating unit that had blinked out even before her husband had died.
With the towels, she wiped the blood from Richard’s hand, the viscous stuff staining the towels a pink color instantly.
Richard, smelling as always of sweat and dirty clothes, sat bolt-straight in the hardbacked chair, watching Beth with fascination. His dark eyes danced with excitement as she finished the job, tossing the soaked towels in a wastepaper can.
Then Beth examined his hands closely, to see if he had suffered any cuts or wounds.
Richard had come across something bloody and gotten the blood on himself. She had observed the man for enough years to know that he wasn’t violent, wouldn’t inflict harm on any living thing. But obviously somebody or something else had, and Richard had found it.
“Richard,” she said, “I want to talk to you.”
After long moments, his eyes raised to hers and he focused on her face. Almost instantly he began to cry.
She realized then that her voice had sounded harsh within the confines of the quiet little office. She had frightened him. He was always afraid of displeasing people, which was why it was so cruel for others to pick on him.
She leaned over and touched his shoulder, her senses repelled by the smell of him. She hoped there was a heaven and that in that fine place there was a special place just for Richard, one in which he would be clean and happy and at peace.
“Yes,” he said. He had always sounded, to Beth, like a deaf and dumb person who had just learned to speak, as if each syllable were an enormous boulder that had to be pushed up a hill by a frail body.
“You know what the word blood means, don’t you, Richard?”
He pointed a dirty finger at his nose. “Sometimes I get nose blood.”
“Yes. Yes, very good.”
He looked proud of himself.
“You had blood on your hands tonight.”
He nodded. The happiness was gone from the dark eyes. He seemed on the verge of crying again. “Blood.”
“Where did you get the blood, Richard?”
He did not appear to understand her question.
She tried again, more carefully. “Richard, your hand.” She pointed to his hand. “Tonight when you came in here you had blood on your hand.” She pointed to his nose. “Nose blood, you remember?”
He nodded. “Yes. Nose blood.”
“Very good, Richard. Where did you get the blood tonight?”
He shrugged. “Blood is bad.”
“Nose blood hurts. Scares me.”
“Yes, nosebleeds can be very scary.”
“Drink,” Richard said. “Thirsty.”
Beth hopped down from the edge of the desk and went into the bathroom and got him a paper cup of cold water. She brought it back and handed it to him. Watching him drink or eat anything was fascinating for her. He slurped, he slopped, and with the abandon of an infant. His dark eyes grew large and round with appreciation for good-tasting things. Water did not evoke that much of a reaction in him. He handed her the paper cup delicately, as if it were priceless china.
She took it from him, letting her hand linger on his, watching his reaction to her kindness.
“Where did you get the blood, Richard, do you remember?”
He stared at her. Dumbly.
“Where did you go tonight, Richard?”
He told her. Haltingly. In bits and pieces. Dinner in the basement of St. Katherine’s. A walk downtown for a Dairy Queen. A stroll along the riverbank. “Pretty lights,” Richard said, referring to the power plant on the opposite bank.
“Yes, very pretty,” she agreed.
He went on in his limping voice, describing his walk back downtown to where the movie theater was letting out and the people were all “dressed up good,” and then passing by the town square and sitting on the park bench, and then deciding to venture out along the county road to the motel. This was all a typical evening for Richard, Beth knew. No wonder he was so skinny. He must walk twenty, thirty miles a day.
When he began talking about the motel, something changed in his voice and manner. He looked like a child trying to hide a secret from an adult.
“Tell me about the motel,” Beth said patiently.
Richard surprised her. Rather adamantly, he shook his head.
He had started to cry again.
She leaned forward and touched him on the shoulder.
“Listen, Richard, I’m only trying to help you. I need you to tell me what happened at the motel.”
Again, he fiercely shook his head.
“Richard, please,” but even as she spoke she knew it was no use.
When he got like this—when anything scared him back into the furthest reaches of himself—then no amount of talk or cajoling did any good.
He sat there, a ragbag of clothes, a man whose beard was so rough his chin was blue, his dumb-fearful eyes huge and miserable in his gaunt face.
Beth sighed and again let herself down from the edge of the desk.
Richard held up his hands and stared at them.
“Nose blood,” he said after a time.
“Yes,” Beth said, unable to dislike him no matter what he did. “Yes, Richard. Nose blood.”
The hounds pushed on into the night, ahead of the blaze of big flashlights and emergency beams that preceded the dozen men who hacked their way through the waist-high grasses.
Carnes estimated that the two dogs must weigh at least a hundred pounds each, their red and tan bodies almost chunky. What amazed Carnes and had always amazed him about bloodhounds was their gentleness. With their loose skin hanging in dewlaps from their heads, with their dark eyes almost melancholy, they looked like anything but hunters. They were almost comic creatures, in fact. Yet hounds had been known to follow prey more than one hundred miles.
Before they left the motel, the sheriff had asked Carnes for a piece of Deirdre’s clothing. Carnes had supplied a sweater, the material heartbreakingly precious in his hands as he gave it to the sheriff.
Now, the scent of the sweater filling their olfactory systems, the hounds led the way across a seemingly endless field that was dry in parts, swampy in others. Already, in the first hour of the search, two different teams of men had fanned out in opposite directions, electric beams slashing the night.
Carnes was in the group headed northwest.
His clothes were soaked with sweat, his body lashed from the reeds and weeds and grasses. Terror had been replaced by a dull dread that had come to resemble a form of death. He could easily imagine—his tired mind playing awful tricks—one of the search parties coming over a hill and finding beautiful Deirdre torn apart and dead just below them. He hoped he wasn’t among those who found her. He knew he couldn’t handle such a discovery.
There were four men in Carnes’s party and all of them came to a halt when Sheriff Wayman put out a beefy arm and said, “We’re coming into the woods, so we’d better split up. Carnes, why don’t you come with me?”
Ahead loomed a dense track of timber, black, despite the moonlight.
Carnes followed the sheriff forward, into a land rich with spring and such diverse trees and shrubs as elm, spruce and maple, and such plants as cardinal flower, bloodroot, and wild ginger. Under other circumstances he would be glad to be here, in this rush of natural beauty and scents on the starry night.
But tonight ...
“There!” Carnes heard himself yell.
Beside him, Wayman fairly jumped, bumping into him as he swung his flashlight around.
“What do you see?”
Immediately, Carnes knew that his eyes had deceived him. Weariness was setting in. Peripheral vision—the simple act of turning his head too quickly—had misled him into imagining something dashing between trees.
Carnes felt foolish as Wayman shone his lights into the elms.
The hounds continued their way ahead, jerking the sheriff to the right when he wanted to go left.
Carnes said, “Nothing.”
“What?” the sheriff said. This time it was the lawman who sounded irritated.
“My eyes. Playing tricks is all.”
“Oh,” the sheriff said, not at all happy. “Why don’t you try to calm yourself a bit.”
“She’s my daughter, Sheriff.”
“Won’t help any to keep yourself all keyed up.”
“I guess I can’t argue with that.”
From the pocket of his khaki uniform shirt, the sheriff took a tin of snuff. He tucked some inside his lower lip. Then he spoke to the dogs in a language only animals understood. The dogs yipped and plunged deeper into the night.
For the next hour, the two men and the dogs penetrated a forest whose trees were bathed eerily in the glow of the moonlight. Scores of animals noted the passage with eyes that watched them solemnly, with little voices that seemed to offer sympathy. Sheriff Wayman explained that this huge tract of timber was actually the northeastern end of a state park and was used by backpackers because it most resembled the wilderness. All city sounds had dropped away miles back. Now there was just the crunch of feet on the forest floor, the smells of dozens of different kinds of flowers and vegetation, and the majesty of different types of trees that rose to touch the night sky. They followed trails that had obviously been used by Indians at least a century ago. They found a creek bed, silver in the moonlight. They nearly tripped over a fallen oak tree that forced them to go a quarter of a mile out of their way.
In all, according to Wayman, they had traveled three miles since leaving the motel, and it was unlikely that Deirdre could have gone any further if she had gone on foot.
They went on a quarter-mile further, the dogs as intense in pursuit as they’d been in the beginning. Only their human masters showed signs of wear.
Coming out into a clearing, seeing nothing but short grass and tree stumps, Wayman mopped at his head and said, “I’m afraid we’re not going to find her on foot, son.”
“We’ve got to.”
Wayman appraised Carnes as if examining him for signs of clinical disturbance. Obviously, given Carnes’s stress, such disturbance was easily possible.
Carnes walked on ahead, through grass that switched at his knees, to the edge of a hill. From here he could see the lights of Burton, huddled in a cup of the valley below. Nearer by, down an incline to the east, he saw the cupola and captain’s walk of an ornate mansion of the sort built in the early 1900s. From what he could see, the place appeared to be built of stone and wood. Somehow the mansion and its surrounding grounds, designated by a steep speared fence that Carnes felt sure was electric, seemed inappropriate for the rural atmosphere of Burton and its people. In the moonlight, the huge house looked to be a Hollywood set.
Wayman came up behind Carnes.
“That’s the Foster place,” Sheriff Wayman said. “Impressive, isn’t it?” There was an unmistakable note of pride in his voice.
“Yes,” Carnes said. “It’s hard to believe a place like that would be out here.”
“Out in the uncivilized regions?” Wayman said sardonically.
Carnes shrugged. “I didn’t mean it that way.”
“Sure you did. And it’s all right. That house probably doesn’t belong out here, as a matter of fact.”
Carnes, Deirdre on his mind again, forgot about the mansion below. He raised his eyes to the sky where a crow wheeled against the golden circle of moon. The bird made Carnes feel unfathomably alone. Once again he had the sense that he was an alien being on a far planet.
Wayman clapped a hand on his shoulder.
“We’d best be turning around,” Wayman said. “Heading back for the motel.” In the shadows his smile seemed false. “Maybe she turned up and is sitting there waiting for you.”
But the sheriff’s tone said that he knew better than that.
Wearily, Carnes turned around and followed the sheriff back up the hill.