Authors: Eileen Browne
Tags: #Mystery, #thriller, #Suspense, #Murder, #True Crime, #Crime
Terminal One Publishing Group
All Rights Reserved
based on a true story
. Although inspired by actual events, the places,
in this book
have been altered dramatically to protect the innocent, both living and dead. Characters, places and events
are a product of the author’s imagination. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author
“What are little girls made of, made of?
What are little girls made of?
Sugar and spice, and all that's nice;
And that's what little girls are made of."
Children’s Nursery Rhyme
ED DOJCSAK LEARNED
of the disappearance at six forty five p.m., after the murder but before the body of Missy Bitson was discovered. It had been a long Sunday. With no baseball or football to occupy his time and his constitution not up to CNN or
in the Middle East, it was a time of limbo, that period in his life between major league seasons Ed liked to refer to as wasted space; a flaw in basic architectural design and an area not small enough or sufficiently large to be of any functional use. A time for drinking too much, smoking heavily, and generally dragging his listless self a dozen times for beer from the television set to the refrigerator and back before retiring early to bed, as he’d done tonight. On such occasions his wife was overheard to say, “Sit much longer, Ed, you’ll grow roots.”
Dojcsak was not resentful of the interruption when shortly after midnight it came, his mobile phone disturbing his dream filled and restless sleep. At first he thought it part of an illusion, a ruse to draw him back to a place he didn’t want to be.
But no, it was Burke and he was telling him the child was no longer missing but dead. Dojcsak knew as much, the inconvenience of untimely death being the solitary reason for anyone to disturb him at this hour.
Usually it was death by drowning, somewhere along the river that separates the town of Church Falls into two distinct halves. Often, death by accident, the twisting county back roads having claimed their share of fatalities in Dojcsak’s twenty-plus year tenure as County Sheriff. And more than once, he’d needed to confess to distraught parents that their child had been dispatched from this life to the next while attempting to outrun a speeding locomotive at an unmarked level crossing. But tonight it was death by murder. Burke had suggested as much.
“Found her in a garbage bin, Ed. In the alley, behind the
,” he had said.
This was not misadventure and Dojcsak knew the post mortem would not determine death by natural cause.
Struggling from the mattress, he shuffled a few tentative steps and paused, feet naked on the carpet below. The dark was heavy, without relief from the rising moon that earlier had marked his withdrawal to bed. Dojcsak’s failing eyes battled the gloom, adjusted, and after a moment allowed him the confidence to resume his journey across the floor to the window opposite.
Outside, a porridge of fog rolled through the street and over the grass to smother the homes of his neighborhood, moving across the landscape like a blanket of fuzzy gray wool. Winter-naked trees stood in relief against an unrelieved backdrop of wet dust, their skeletal rigidity softened by cloud. Beyond that, the world disappeared over an unseen horizon into an unexplored dimension of white haze.
Dojcsak lamented the weather, now regretting his decision to delay filling a renewed eyeglass prescription. It was a short drive to the body but fog, the rain and dark would conspire with his neglect to obliterate the florescent yellow markings on the roadway and upcoming curves he would encounter on his way there. Dojcsak threw a final unflattering glance over his shoulder at his sleeping wife before leaving the bedroom.
He moved across the hallway to the second floor room where his youngest daughter made her bed. Dojcsak placed his ear to the door. He paused, idly fingering the St. Jude Medallion dangling among the tangled hair on his naked chest, a keepsake given to him by his father. When asked,
Why the Patron Saint of Lost Causes
, Frank Dojcsak was overheard to say, “Suits the boy’s character.”
Dojcsak listened for the peculiar and shallow gurgle of his daughter’s tortured breath, a sound like thick boiling liquid bubbling from the bottom of a pot to top. Luba’s disabled lungs labored unsuccessfully, trying in vain to achieve what in most is taken for granted. She had battled this demon too long and if her body didn’t submit, Dojcsak was convinced her spirit soon would, the daughter he considered favorite eventually unable to endure the unendurable and muster sufficient will to live. Surviving her fifteenth birthday she’d already defeated the best odds, the doctor said, as if that meaningless triumph should somehow soften the impact of her inevitable death.
In the bathroom, Dojcsak closed the door, passed wind and relieved himself. His toes, if little else, were visible beyond the edge if his hairy belly. For a moment, he pondered the source of his passing water. I’m aging, Dojcsak conceded, in ways I hadn’t anticipated. No longer could he deny the degradation of his own anatomy, this prelude to obsolescence. He’d always assumed it would come quickly, that one day he’d simply wake to find himself old. Instead, it began gradually, an unseen infection contaminating his youth
On his most recent visit, Dojcsak’s family physician had remarked, “Weight is up, blood pressure up, pulse rate up, blood-sugar level is up. Fine if you’re the Dow Jones Industrial Average, Ed. If you were a stock, I’d sell you short; you can’t possibly maintain these elevated levels. What are you doing to yourself?”
Doctor Henry Bauer spoke in a staccato fashion that appealed to his sense for driving hard to the point. He treated the Dojcsak family, had done so since the children were born, and was the man responsible for setting the best odds on when Luba Dojcsak might inevitably die.
“Nothing different,” Dojcsak admitte
“Of course not,” Bauer replied. “It’s what I’m talking about. Are you sleeping?”
“Yes,” Dojcsak said truthfully without admitting that sleep, lately, was his only refuge, a gauzy state of slumber his only respite from the hobgoblins—both imagined
real—that plagued his wakeful mind.
“Yes again,” Dojcsak said, an assortment of junk food, fast food, and take-out.
As they spoke, Bauer made notes on a chart, pushing his pen almost grudgingly across the paper as if the nature of Dojcsak’s condition required the extra effort.
“Drinking?” he asked.
Dojcsak fixed the doctor with a blank stare. “Only beer.”
Bauer eyed him suspiciously over half-glasses. “I don’t expect miracles, Ed, but lay off the booze, cut down on the cigarettes and treat yourself to a home cooked meal. We’ll have you in for a complete work-up next month.”
Now, with the murder, Dojcsak would be too bus
Dojcsak drank water from the tap—two tepid glasses—before returning his attention to the bathroom mirror.
He banished an expired blade from his straight razor, retrieved a Kleenex from its box, taking care to wrap the dull metal edge securely in tissue before discarding it. The exercise took one minute and had a look of ritual to which Dojcsak was unaware; like a burial, not of a family member perhaps, but maybe a close friend. He then inserted a fresh blade. Before lathering, he inspected his face, delicately fingering the shallow cleft at his jaw, the round, slightly too puffy cheeks, the sagging soon to become a double chin. Half a dozen bloody nicks glared back at him like stop signs in the uneven glow. Though his face was as smooth now as it had been three hours before when he last shaved, to Dojcsak, the impending growth was obvious, as if someone had brushed it there with dark paint. (“
, damn beard,
!” might be Ed Dojcsak’s unconscious refrain each time he had the misfortune to confront his reflection in a mirror.)
More than once, his wife had commented, “Shave any closer, Ed, you’ll strike bone.”
Dojcsak spent five minutes shaving; eight deliberate strokes to the right cheek, eight to the left. One stroke beneath the jaw beginning at a point aligned directly above the Adam’s apple, and outward seven strokes either side to just beneath the lobe of the ear. Finally, at the gap between nostrils and upper lip, one dozen abbreviated strokes in a downward motion (Ed Dojcsak
pulled at his whiskers against the grain), left side to right. To be thorough, Dojcsak repeated the process twice more. In total, start to completion, he counted one hundred twenty-nine strokes. If pressed for time, it might be less; on weekends, it could be more. Dojcsak took a minute to brush his teeth and didn’t comb his hair before leaving the bathroom.
Returning to the bedroom, he dressed in silence. Rena hadn’t moved, still curled in the fetal position she adopted tonight and on each night in the past twelve months since her mother’s death. Was it significant he wondered without real interest?
In the downstairs foyer, he struggled to tie his shoes. Left foot then right, a simple task made difficult by intemperate weight gain. He put on his coat, the one with the nylon outer shell, counting aloud but quietly as he fastened eight buttons from bottom to top. He pulled his favorite cap low over his head of full, sandy brown turning silver hair and left the house.
Outside it was damp. Fog remained glued to the surface of the earth like a greasy skin. No traffic, and at this hour no neighbors to disturb his solitude. The porch light was on and would remain so until his eldest daughter returned home. He wondered where he and Rena had failed with Jenny. It was too late to lament, Dojcsak convinced any influence he might hope to have with her long past.
Dismissing thoughts of squandered opportunity, he stepped from portico to front walk, out from under the sheepish glow of dull yellow light and into the dark.
“C’MON,” SHE CALLED.
She submerged her body almost to her shoulders, wading farther into the current. Her breasts broke the surface like two half-moons. “The water is cold. Warm me up.”
He watched as she turned. Her nipples appeared, two hard pink knots, then her breasts, cast in shadow and sheltered from the setting sun. A lunar eclipse, he thought. He glanced back to the roadway; no one approaching from either direction. He considered the offer.
They had started the afternoon together in town, at the
Big Top Diner
, a group of them talking over colas and plates of home-cut fries. When it came time to settle the bill, they’d all needed to reach deep into their pockets: he’d pulled out only lint. Unasked, she’d offered to contribute his share. They parted company shortly thereafter, she with her friends, he alone, his face burning with a mixture of gratitude and resentment when it came time to say goodbye.
The day was warm and it was early. Rather than return home, he walked toward the river, thinking he might stop to assist the workers preparing the bandstand for the upcoming Fourth of July celebration. In past years an offer of help had been good for a few dollars, maybe cigarettes, and one year he remembered, for half a beer. But the beer had been lukewarm and had made him sick.
It was after four o’clock when he reached the site and the workers were gone, having departed early to take advantage, no doubt, of the final remaining hours in what had been a warm and sunny day
At the dam, he paused to remove his shoes. Beyond this point, on either side of the river and extending more than three miles upstream to Church Falls Bluff, the terrain evolved from a rock-strewn Martian landscape to a more civilized floodplain of sweeping knee-high grass. Farmers had settled here in the late eighteen hundreds, long before the dam was built; homesteaders who allowed their cattle to graze within the confines of the fertile pasture where the natural boundary consisted of the river on the one side and a shallow embankment on the other. Every year dozens of cattle perished in the turbulent floodwater, unable to scale the barrier separating the river from the road and the safety of the higher elevation beyond. Despite the losses it was not until the nineteen forties, when the County Water Authority expropriated the property, that permanent settlement along the water was mostly banned.
The heat from the hottest part of the day had burned off by the time he reached the rapids at the base of the falls. Above the horizon the sun hung suspended like a ball of orange yarn. His skin was slick and even if he couldn’t see them he knew he was being ravaged by a half dozen species of feeding insects; mosquitoes, ladybeetles, gnats and flies. He made the decision to submerge himself in the swirling pool that formed along the shoreline, created from the pressure of the water falling from seventy-five feet above.
Removing his shirt, he was preparing to unzip his jeans when she said, “Would you like company?”
She observed him from a small stand of sapling pine. Above the rush of water, he hadn’t heard her approach. The sun backlit her yellow dress: for a moment, he saw the curve of her hip, the swell of her small breast and the outline of her cotton briefs. Her hair was red, seeming to draw its color from the fading day. A bridge of freckles crossed from one cheek to the other over her nose, like a smudge. On her feet she wore sandals. Her toenails were seashell pink.
“I hope I didn’t embarrass you,” she said, “this afternoon, when I offered to pay.”
He shrugged his shoulders. “It’s a free country isn’t it?” The response was surly, more petulant than he intended.
Emerging from the trees, she approached the water. “Going for a dip? Don’t let me stop you.” Kneeling by the river, she cupped a handful of cool liquid, splashing her shoulders, face and her hair. “I think I’ll stay.” She sat, removing her sandals and hiking her dress to mid-thigh. “Do you mind?”
He couldn’t say
it’s a free country
, could he? Not knowing how to respond, he didn’t. She stayed and after a while they talked, or rather she talked, he listened.
Her family had relocated upstate from Albany eight months ago, she explained as if it were necessary. Her father was in the insurance game—“His words not mine,” she said—and though they were now living in Church Falls, he maintained a weekly commute to his office in the city.
With a shake of her head, she said, “Dumb, if you ask me. We move all the way here just so he can drive all the way back? What do you think?” She did not bother to wait for his reply.
When asked, her mother explained to her that the village was quaint—“Her words, not mine,” she said—an ideal environment in which to raise a child, though as far as she recalled, they had never consulted her on the matter.
“If you ask me,” she said, “I think he’s having an affair.”
Recently, her father had purchased a
with a turntable, eight track and stereophonic sound. They had set it up in the front room, she said. Time most days was spent listening to a collection of tapes purchased with the allowance money she received each week.
Joy to the World
by Three Dog Night and
One Bad Apple
by the Osmond Brothers were her current favorites. When he asked about Elvis, she giggled childishly. “
Ick,” she said holding her nose.
She was younger than he, she confessed, fourteen, maybe fifteen against his seventeen going on eighteen
“I thought you were older,” he said.
“I’m a freshman. How old do you think I am?”
“I thought maybe they held you back.”
“You think I’m retarded?”
“No…not exactly. Just…” he searched for the appropriate word. “Slow, that’s all.”
She laughed, the same childish giggle. Nudging him playfully, she said, “I’m not slow. C’mon, everybody into the pool!”
She spoke in italics, as if her entire body were a small, floating exclamation point. He watched as she stood to her feet, allowing her yellow dress to fall from her shoulders to the ground. She removed her panties, exposing her bottom and a sparse thatch of fur between her legs; it glistened in the fading light. She entered the river slowly, tentative, waiting for him to follow. When he didn’t, she called out.
Nervously, he glanced a second time to the road. He shouldn’t be here, shouldn’t be thinking, even, about doing what he knew eventually he would. If he were caught there’d be hell to pay. She was young. How young? Fourteen, maybe fifteen, he thought he heard her say. He was seventeen but had a birthday next week. Technically, that made him seventeen; morally, he supposed it made him a year older.
He looked to the road a final time, back to the river and to her. Rising to his feet, he completed the task he had started when earlier she had interrupted him. Entering the water to join her, he thought for only a very brief moment;
this is a bad idea that can only turn out bad
, before submerging his naked body and allowing his instinct and the current to carry him to her.