Authors: Ed Gorman,Daniel Ransom
The door opened at dawn. A silhouetted figure stood in the streaming light pouring over the floor of the church basement. The figure was tall and angular in the light, its features completely obscured in shadows. It stood appraising the sleeping form of Richard huddled on the army cot.
The figure glided across the floor with a gracefulness that did not seem to be quite human.
It seemed out of place in the basement, which was piled high with folding chairs and blankets for flood relief victims and a hodge-podge of battered mundane objects collected over the years.
As the figure moved, a huge knife, curved in the fashion of a Bowie knife, appeared in its right hand, so that the knife was completely exposed by the time it reached Richard there on the army cot.
Nothing. No response whatever.
The man slept as if he were on the dusk of death itself.
This time the figure added prodding to his calling of Richard’s name.
This time there was the faintest of stirrings.
In two minutes Richard was sitting on the edge of the bed, reeking of sleep and sweat, pawing at his eyes with knuckly hands.
He seemed unaware of the figure standing over him. He had not once looked up. Not once.
This time, albeit slowly, Richard looked up. His bad teeth and matter-filled morning eyes appeared to be focusing on an apparition.
Then the fear was on his face. Richard tried to scuttle over into the corner of the cot. He grabbed a pillow ineffectually for help.
The figure slashed the pillow into wafting feathers with a single rip of the knife.
Richard whimpered his animal noise.
The figure moved closer, jerking Richard up to him by the shoulder, holding the tip of the knife to the middle of Richard’s throat.
“You were out at the motel last night, weren’t you, Richard?”
Richard shook his head no.
The figure pressed the knife even harder against Richard’s throat.
Richard’s pitiful eyes bulged. He squirmed beneath the feel of the knife. He whimpered again.
“You were out at the motel last night, weren’t you, Richard? You saw me take the girl from the car, didn’t you, Richard?”
This time Richard nodded. His face pleaded with the figure.
The knife was withdrawn.
The figure smiled. “Do you know what’s going to happen now, Richard?”
Richard’s eyes followed the frightening figure as it paced around a bit, as if trying to decide what to do now.
“Terrible things, Richard. Do you know how little puppies sound when you hurt them, how they scream, Richard?”
Richard scuttled back up the cot again.
The figure trapped Richard by grabbing his trouser leg.
“That’s how you’re going to sound when I start cutting you, Richard. You’re going to sound like a little puppy.”
Vince Reeves sat in the sheriff’s office with his feet propped up on his desk. The deputy had been here, in almost this same position, for the past three hours, since storming out of the trailer where he lived with his wife, Donna.
Another miserable performance as a lover, Vince thought bitterly. Where other men had talents or hobbies, Vince had only ever had one thing he could boast about—his prowess in the sack. Not that he did boast. He was not the kiss-and-tell type. Still, enough women had flattered him over the years that he knew he was a good lover, a man who genuinely cared about the woman’s pleasure as much as his own.
But the last few weeks ...
“Damn!” Vince snapped.
He hadn’t noticed that the Winston Light he’d been holding had burned down to his fingers.
He ground out the cigarette angrily.
Then he began rubbing his face. He needed a shave. He needed sleep. He needed to feel good about himself sexually again.
He needed to talk to somebody was what he needed.
Talk to somebody about what he’d overheard one day about a month ago when he had been on his way to deliver a message to the sheriff out at the fishing lodge where a group of city council members often got together.
Oh, Vince had gone out there all right. His tires had crunched up the gravel parkway right to the door. He’d gotten out and walked around the side to where the entrance was to the large cabin and then he’d overheard what was being said.
Apparently nobody inside had noticed him.
After hearing a few of the words being said, he’d peeked around the corner, into an open screened window, just to make sure who was speaking.
When he’d seen, he’d been doubly shocked.
Not only was what they were saying unbelievable, but the people who were saying it—the town elders, the most respected names in the community of Burton—
And there in the middle of it all, taking his part in the proceedings, was none other than Sheriff Bill Wayman, the man Vince had always considered a mentor, a father-figure....
What he’d heard that evening he could not repeat to anybody. First of all, who would believe him? Second of all, if anybody did believe him, what could they do about it?
The helpless feeling had translated into headaches and finally into his miserable sexual performances.
A few nights earlier he’d started to tell his wife Donna about what he’d heard, but at the last moment he’d drawn back—for her sake. He didn’t want to share such dangerous knowledge and put her in a position of jeopardy.
The third thing against talking to anybody was that he wasn’t sure what the council members’ words had meant exactly. Sure, on the surface they made sense, but there were so many things he couldn’t figure out....
“If I’m keeping you up, just say so,” Deputy Fred Shanks said, coming into the room where the deputies had their desks.
Vince started. His feet dropped off the desk. His head jerked up, his eyes flying awake. He’d been dozing off, no doubt about that.
“You trying to win the Barney Fife award, huh?” Shanks said, referring to the deputy on the old
Andy Griffith Show.
“Yeah, I guess so.” Vince strained at sounding amused. But he was too embarrassed for humor.
Shanks got ready for the day, taking his notebooks and other paperwork from his desk drawers and getting ready to transfer them to his patrol car. All the while his round face kept steady eyes on his partner deputy.
Vince kept his own gaze on the floor. The lack of sleep for the past two weeks had made him punchy, was finally catching up to him.
“You know somethin’?” Shanks said.
“Huh-uh, what?” Vince muttered groggily.
“Somethin’s wrong with you, buddy-boy.”
A terrible alertness came into Vince’s eyes. Already he felt the blood rushing to his face. Had Donna been talking to Debbie, Shanks’s wife, about the problems Vince had been having in bed lately? Shanks was a gossip. If Donna had said anything, the story would be all over town in a matter of hours. No matter where Vince went people would be pointing at him. Probably sniggering, too. There goes old “Quick Draw.” He could just imagine all the names they’d invent for him.
“I’ve been fine,” Vince lied.
“Sure you have, buddy-boy.”
Shanks came over, stood next to Vince.
“Donna told Debbie she was real worried about you.”
“She say anything else?”
Shanks scrutinized his friend carefully. “She wasn’t talkin’ behind your back, if that’s what you mean. You got a good wife there, my friend.”
Instantly, Vince felt ashamed of himself. Shanks was right. Donna was a good wife. A good friend. She wouldn’t gossip about him behind his back or share any information that would embarrass him.
“Yeah, I sure do at that,” Vince said, happy for the respite from his problems, happy that he could spend some moments thinking about how good his life was in other ways—
“’Course she ain’t the only one worried about you,” Shanks said.
“Who else?” Vince asked, thinking the answer would be Shanks himself.
“That’s what I said. He came up to me yesterday and asked me if everything was all right with you.”
“Why’d he do that?”
“Why’d he do that?” Shanks smiled miserably, as if he were addressing a lunatic. “You’ve been actin’ strange, buddy-boy. Real strange. People call your name and you don’t seem to hear ’em. You sit outside in your car half an hour at a time just starin’. That ain’t real normal behavior.”
“I been all right, just tired,” Vince said. “The sheriff want to know anything else?”
“Oh, like if I said anything to anybody.”
“About what was bothering me, or was supposed to be bothering me anyway.”
“Nope. Sheriff Wayman just likes you. He worries about you. Like a son.”
“Yeah,” Vince said, standing up. “Like a son.”
Shanks’s expression made it clear that he detected the slight note of sarcasm in Vince’s voice.
“There somethin’ you don’t like about the sheriff?” Shanks asked.
“You ever think maybe he’s not what he seems?”
“Meaning just that. That he’s not all he seems.”
Shanks went back to staring at him as if he were insane. Now there was even a kind of pity in his eyes. “Maybe you need a rest, buddy-boy. Maybe you’ve been working too long without a break.”
But by then Vince had left the room.
Just walked clean out in the preoccupied way he’d been doing everything lately.
Shanks looked at the empty doorway, then scratched his head. Suddenly, he leaned over and punched the intercom that fed into the sheriff’s office.
“Elsie, is the sheriff back yet?”
“When he comes in, tell him I’d like an appointment with him, will you?”
“Sure. Somethin’ wrong?”
“Yeah,” Shanks said, looking at the empty doorway again, “yeah, I think there is.”
In the daylight Carnes could see how beautiful the countryside was here. Rolling hills, such as those you found in Grant Wood paintings, filled one section of the diner window, while the other was taken up by the woods where Sheriff Wayman and himself had walked last night.
He put the coffee down and almost instantly a pot appeared to refill it.
Sheriff Wayman came out of the bathroom, a toilet thundering behind him.
The Sheriff looked as tired as Carnes did.
Signaling that he’d like more coffee himself, Wayman took the stool next to Carnes and said, “You think you’d take a piece of advice?”
Carnes smiled bleakly. “I suppose that would depend on if I thought it was good advice.”
“Get yourself some sleep.”
“I don’t think I could sleep.”
“You might surprise yourself. You might be able to sleep for half a day. You’re exhausted.”
“You look pretty shot yourself.”
“Mine’s just physical. I don’t have the stake you do in this.”
“Yeah,” Carnes said, “I see what you mean.”
Misery, like a disease, began working its way through his body again.
“Maybe I don’t know her as well as I think I do,” Carnes said. He sounded well beyond mere exhaustion—he was functioning on some plane that few people survive for long.
“What do you mean?” Wayman asked.
“Well, maybe she is into drugs, or has some secret that I didn’t know about.”
“Could be,” Wayman said. He didn’t sound convinced.
Carnes tried to recognize the dimensions of his nightmare. It didn’t belong in this context, in a nice, clean little diner with glazed donuts inside a glass display case, a coffee pot spreading a friendly aroma through the air, and a very pleasant man working the counter.
When you sat in a place like this you shouldn’t have the thoughts he was having—of her dead in a ditch somewhere or in the clutches of a slavering lunatic.
He shook his head, trying to push all the terrible thoughts away before he snapped and spoiled the beautiful morning for the other people along the counter.
When he looked up he saw the door to the diner open and a pretty, dark-haired woman enter, nod to the sheriff, and come over.
She put out her hand and Wayman took it. “How are you, Beth?” he said.
Under any other circumstances, the woman’s clean-cut good looks would be the sort that got Carnes very interested. Not today. He went back to staring at his coffee.
He scarcely listened as Wayman and the woman exchanged pleasantries.
Only when he heard the word “newspaper” did Carnes take real notice again.
Now he knew why she was here.
And if she was here, then others in the press would inevitably follow.
He hadn’t thought of that before—how the media would turn his missing daughter into an event.
He started to stand up.
The woman put a lovely, slender hand on his elbow.
“May I speak to you for a moment?” she asked.
He glared at her, obviously letting his eyes speak his answer, then threw a few one dollar bills on the counter and walked outside.
Behind him he heard the woman mutter a few words of surprise but he kept on walking, out into the morning air of cow manure and diesel fuel, sunshine, and apple blossoms.
He walked across the macadam to his car and leaned against it and surveyed the blue-green hills hidden partially behind a veil of morning fog. As an urban person, he’d never much considered living in the country, but there were moments when life out here seemed so much easier—
Guilt stabbed through his bucolic thoughts as he realized that he still had to call Janet, Deirdre’s mother, and tell her what happened.
A terrible phone call to make ...
“I’m sorry if I made you angry.”
The voice was as gentle as the breeze.
Carnes turned to find the dark-haired woman who had introduced herself as a newspaperwoman.
“I don’t have anything to say,” he said. “Talk to the sheriff. He can tell you what’s going on.”
She looked at him levelly. “I came to apologize.”
“For what? I don’t blame you for doing your job. Just don’t blame me for not wanting to talk to you.”
“Well, I’ve had personal losses of my own. I should have been more sensitive about just showing up and walking into the diner. I could’ve gotten ahold of the sheriff first and talked to him, I guess. My husband was the real reporter. I just kind of followed him around and picked up what I could.”
When she spoke about her husband a kind of injury came into her voice. He liked her better after this, a kind of kinship being established.
“I’m just kind of crazy, I guess,” he said. “She just vanished.”
“Have you had breakfast?”
“I’ve tried. I’m just not hungry.”
He stared out at the interstate beyond the swell of a close-by hill.
She was out there.
“She could turn up, you know, safe and sound.”
“Yeah, I know,” Carnes said.
She put a hand on his arm again. Despite himself, despite his preoccupations of the moment, the touch was exactly the right tender feeling he needed.
“I’m sorry to have bothered you,” she said. “I’ll leave you alone.”
But as she turned to go, Carnes found himself reaching out, touching her on the arm.
She turned around.
“How about you?” Carnes said. “Have you had breakfast?”
She smiled. “As a matter of fact, no, I haven’t.”
“Do you know anyplace in town where we could get something good?”
Suddenly he needed to be away from here, from the motel where Deirdre had disappeared. If he didn’t give his mind and body a rest, he was afraid of the consequences.
“Sure,” she smiled. “The best place in town.”
“Where would that be?”
“The kitchen in my apartment. I was about to go over there and make some eggs and ham slices. How does that sound?”
It sounded wonderful, though immediately Carnes hated himself for the pleasure he felt. There should be no pleasure with his daughter gone.
He had still not given her his answer when she put out her hand and said. “I’m Beth Daye, by the way.”
He introduced himself.
Sheriff Wayman left the diner, walked across the macadam. He studied their faces, saw that they were getting along much better than when he’d last seen them, and smiled.
“I see you’re in good company,” Wayman said. “Beth’s actually a real nice lady, even if she is a member of the press.” Wayman nodded to his patrol car. “I’ve got to be heading into town, Mr. Carnes. If you need anything, just call my office. They’ll put us in touch in no time.”
“Anything more we can do?”
“I’ve put an APB out along with her description. The Highway Patrol is stopping at truck stops and asking the drivers if they saw anybody meeting her description on the interstate last night.” Wayman shrugged. “Right now, I’m afraid that’s about the best we can do.”
He put out a big hand.
Carnes shook it.
Nodding, the sheriff turned back to his car, got in, drove off.
“Shall we?” Beth Daye said.
Carnes stared a long moment at his car and at the memory of his daughter who’d been riding in it.
Beth’s gentle touch on his arm urged him away. He gave in to her.
The ride into Burton was pleasant. The blooming sights of spring reassured Carnes that maybe things would turn out to be all right, after all. From half a mile before the city limits sign he could see two different church steeples plus a handful of taller brick buildings that looked clean against the blue sky. A farmer on a big John Deere tractor honked at them and waved, friendly as a man in a travel film. A yellow school bus loaded with kids also waved at them. Beth waved back.
On their right, just inside the welcome sign erected by the Kiwanis club, sprawled a two-story factory that seemed to be a quarter of a mile long. Over its wide front doors appeared the name Foster Meats.
“There you have it,” Beth noted sardonically. “Burton’s largest industry. Correct that: Burton’s only industry.” She laughed. “Actually, I guess I should take some pride in it. Foster Meats are shipped all over the world, right from here in little old Burton.”
“It looks like a huge place.”
“It is.” Beth shook her head. “The only thing I’ve got against it, I guess, is the squeals of the dying animals you hear sometimes. I like meat too much to be a vegetarian, but once in a while it crosses my mind that that would probably be a decent thing to be.” She frowned. “The only other thing I don’t like about it is that it has a free run of everything. Nearly three-fourths of the town council work there, and so any time the plant wants to create a new road, even if it will inconvenience other townspeople, well, the road is built. Foster Meats is actually the town government here.”
Carnes took the devil’s advocate role. “Yeah, but imagine what would happen if they ever decided to pull out.”
“That’s a kind of blackmail, isn’t it?” Beth said. Then, “Actually, they did threaten to pull out once. I’m not sure when—around 1950, I guess—because we had an upstart mayor then who thought that Foster Meats should pay more taxes. Apparently the executive people were all packed and ready to go, and at the last moment, the mayor gave in and they stayed.”
Beth knew that the town’s civic pride went back far beyond the crisis at the meat plant, of course. Burton had been born in adversity, in the 1850s, when the land had been timber, where buffalo and deer roamed the same pastures, where Indians more curious than hostile had noted the white man’s progress. Floods had come shortly after the town, in the 1880s, had erected false fronts like towns did farther west. Then there had been two killer bouts of influenza, which had claimed many, many citizens. During WWI the town had lost more than twenty-five young men, terrible for a place this size. In WWII, the figure had doubled, though the population had not. But whatever fate or the gods pushed the town’s way, Burton had its pride. Natural disasters could not move it. Wars could not move it. And crimes could not move it.
Along with other citizens, Beth took pleasure in the way the town had remained solid and strong, despite everything. The people, if not sophisticated, were generally honest and hardworking.
They couldn’t tell you about Andy Warhol, but they could tell you about midwifing a baby or what sweet corn tasted like on an August afternoon or what last night’s episode of
had been about.
This was the kind of life Beth preferred, no doubt about it.
They had passed the factory now and were driving down a narrow avenue lined with small homes that looked well cared for. An old brick schoolhouse stood on one corner, a church on another. At a Texaco station several men stood around a pickup truck talking. A bit further down the road a supermarket bustled with a dozen or so housewives toting groceries out to their cars. In all, an ideal little place, Burton was, and Carnes would have been charmed if Deirdre’s fate weren’t so heavily on his mind.
The downtown area was built around a town square that came complete with a bandstand and a Civil War statue. Beth turned right, away from the loop area, and headed down another narrow street. Here were bungalows of colorful yellows and whites and blues, bright in the warm morning sun. She pulled up next to a two-story white house with a staircase running up the side.
Her apartment on the second floor was a model of neatness. The furniture was chunky and modern, not at all what Carnes had expected, for some reason, and on the walls were some expensive Chagall prints. He felt sure there would be no other Chagall prints to be found anywhere in Burton.
In the bathroom, while she started breakfast, Carnes gave himself what his mother always referred to as a “sponge bath.” He had brought a shirt, trousers, and underwear from his car and was glad he had.
He returned to the kitchen to find Beth Daye wearing a frilly apron and working with speed and efficiency at the stove.
“Would it be a very chauvinistic thing to say that you look good in an apron?”
“Then I’d better not say it.”
“No,” she said, “you’d better not.”
Carnes rubbed at his forehead. “Maybe I’ll sit down in your recliner in the living room.”
She smiled. “That sounds like a good idea. Then I’ll call you when breakfast is ready.”
He started to leave the kitchen, then paused. “I should tell you how much I appreciate this.”
She smiled again. “No need. Really.”
“Well, at least let me say thanks.”
“You’re welcome.” She nodded toward the living room. “Now why don’t you go in there and sit down. Rest.”
He had been maybe three minutes in the chair, a copy of
magazine on his lap, when he let his head fall back, and sleep overtook him like a form of death.
He had no idea how long he’d been out when the scream penetrated his consciousness and he came awake thinking only that his daughter was in terrible danger and that it was up to him to save her.