Authors: Patrick Dakin
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery, #Retail, #Thrillers
When I entered the Virginia state prison system in 1997 there were over one and a half million offenders in lockup in the United States. The majority of those residents were African-American and between the ages of 25 and 29 so being a middle-aged white guy put me in a small minority. All else being equal I would probably have done my time without attracting much attention. However, the fact that I had spent the majority of my life before my incarceration employed as an FBI agent went some considerable distance in changing the dynamic that might otherwise have been expected. Although unquestionably the man used to calling the shots on the
, I now faced daily encounters with guys who felt I needed to learn who called the shots on the
. Long before my deuce was up there was not a scintilla of doubt in my mind: it wasn’t me. The other thing I learned with absolute certainty was that I never wanted to see the inside of another prison.
My two year sentence for murder was interpreted by many of my fellow inmates, not to mention jailers, as fundamentally unjust. They were probably right - murder is murder after all. But my actions were mitigated to a significant extent by the fact that my victim was a hunted serial killer who had savagely beaten and then beheaded my seven-year-old daughter, Tanya, and that sad fact clearly affected the prosecutor’s decision to seek a minimum degree of reparation. In fact, had I simply shot the bastard instead of savagely torturing him to death over several hours, I would most likely have been given a good citizen award or, at the very least, a public commendation. The law could not, however, overlook the awful truth of what I had done - the systematic removal of Reuben Henderson’s hands and feet with an axe, the hammering of his teeth down his throat, the watching as his butchered body succumbed to an ugly, choking death. And I had not been content to stop there. As soon as Henderson had drawn his last breath I had completed my gruesome task by using the axe to replicate what he had done to my little girl. Even though Henderson was at that time the most reviled human being in the country, with in excess of fifty killings to his credit - most of whom were girls under seven years of age - the legal system was obligated to at least appear to punish my actions.
The insanity that had taken hold of me during that horrible period of my life was further aggravated by the fact that Henderson had also attempted to kill my wife. The true testament of his sick mind was that this woman was also his own daughter. By shear luck she had survived his attack, but not without consequence. The powerful toxin he had injected into her had put her in a coma for many months and when she did eventually wake from it she was a changed, damaged woman.
Rather than face prosecution following my horrendous actions I went on the run, faked my death, and managed to stay undetected for five long and lonely years. It was only by the most unlikely twist of fate that I was spotted by an FBI agent I had once known and was eventually brought to justice. Although Callie had little difficulty coming to terms with the atrocities I had committed she could not forgive me for letting her believe I had been dead for all those years. Before I went to prison I begged her to allow me the opportunity to make everything up to her once I was free. She had said only that she would have to see how things went. No guarantees.
I couldn’t blame her. My actions were not those of a man who had earned the respect and love of a fine woman.
Despite all this, my foremost thoughts on leaving the Central Virginia Correctional Center near Jarratt on a mild spring morning were to see Callie and confront the issue that had turned her so understandably against me. She had not come to visit me once during my two years behind bars and that fact, of course, spoke volumes. Nonetheless, I was undaunted in my determination to see her and plead my case for forgiveness.
She had spent the last seven years living with close friends in Colville, Maine. Miles and Betty Wilson, now in their seventies, were the nearest thing Callie had to a real family not counting, of course, her absent husband. Miles had written brief notes to me occasionally to keep me abreast of how Callie was doing so I at least knew where to find her.
As I climbed aboard a Greyhound bus for the six hundred and eighty mile trip to Colville I contemplated what awaited me. Except for the few minutes we had spent together before I was led from the courtroom two years earlier, it had been seven years since I had talked with Callie. At that time, she was still in the hospital, recovering from the assault.
Even after months in a coma and struggling to get her strength back she remained an amazingly attractive woman, but her looks had undergone a momentous change. From a vibrant, wholesome beauty she had been transformed into a fragile, waiflike creature.
In addition to the outward changes that were so apparent, the poison had also affected her mind. Once a woman who thrived on challenges, she now struggled to cope with everyday problems. She spoke in a slower, more tentative cadence, lacking the confidence that had once marked her personality. These changes did not, in any way, affect my feelings for her. If anything, knowing the physical and emotional pain she had endured with incredible grace, my devotion only deepened.
I had spent many hours over the past seven years, and particularly during my two years in prison, reliving my actions in those awful days. With the benefit of hindsight it was all too apparent that I had allowed my anger and frustration to cloud what was really important. Instead of hunting Henderson down I should have been with Callie to help her through her difficult recovery. Her pain, after all, was even more profound than mine. She had not only had to suffer the tragic loss of our wonderful little girl but had been savagely attacked herself. And, if that wasn’t enough, she had to somehow reconcile that it had been her own sad excuse for a father who had been responsible for these egregious acts. But at the time my focus had been on vengeance, plain and simple. There’s no denying that I did exact a heavy measure of revenge, but if asked now whether or not it had been worth it, the answer would be absolute and categorical – no, it had not. I don’t mean that Henderson didn’t deserve every second of his miserable passing; my regret for my actions relates only to the effect it had on my life and that of my cherished wife. If I had it to do over again, I would do things much differently. Hindsight, of course, is always perfect.
When I climbed down from the bus, the third since leaving Richmond, it was a little before noon the next day. I decided to grab lunch at a diner in Colville before walking the mile or so out to the Wilson home.
Mollie’s Diner hadn’t changed much from my days here fifteen years earlier. I had been in Colville then to investigate the disappearance of a young girl named Sophie Crandall, another in the long list of Henderson’s victims although, at the time, we didn’t yet know it.
The diner’s name and décor remained the same but the quality of the food had definitely taken a turn for the worse. I remembered the place as having some of the finest home cooking I had enjoyed in a long while. It now seemed to have little to distinguish it from uncounted thousands of other small town eateries. Looking around I saw no sign of Dee, the elderly African-American woman who had owned the diner for many years after the original owner passed on. When I finished up I asked the waitress if Dee was still around. “Died three years ago,” she mumbled as she took my money and made change.
“Sorry to hear it,” I said.
The waitress shrugged and looked at me with a sad face. “Me, too,” she said quietly. “The guy who owns the place now is a prize jerk.”
I nodded sympathetically and left a far bigger tip than was warranted. It brightened her demeanor considerably. “Come back anytime,” she said with an appreciate smile.
“I may do that,” I responded.
It took me around thirty minutes to make the trek to the Wilson home, a charmingly old-fashioned place set on the grassy bank of a stream. Although my arrival had not been announced it was not, I imagined, unexpected.
Given my history I didn’t necessarily anticipate a rousing welcome from the Wilsons but when Betty answered my knock at the door with a stricken look on her face and then, without a word to me, yelled for Miles, I knew something was very wrong.
“Jack,” Miles said as he hurried down the hall toward me, “she’s not with you?”
“No, of course not,” I responded. “I just got here. What’s going on?”
“Come in, come in.” Miles led me into the kitchen and dropped his aging and rotund body into a chair at the table. Betty, slightly less aged but equally rotund, sat opposite him while I took a chair between them.
“Are you telling me you don’t know where Callie is?” I said.
“We knew you were gettin’ out yesterday,” Miles answered, rubbing his jaw nervously. “Callie seemed kinda nervous about ya comin’ around. When she took off this mornin’ we figured maybe ya had showed up without us knowin’ and took her off somewhere so ya could talk in private.”
“She’s been gone since this morning?”
“Yeah. Disappeared right after breakfast.”
“She drives?” I knew it sounded ridiculous to ask such a question but the truth was I knew so little about her now I wasn’t even sure she was capable of operating a vehicle any more.
“Yeah, she took the pickup. She goes into town pretty regular on her own. Thing is she’s always made a point a lettin’ us know what she was doin’ before goin’ off.”
“Have you got another vehicle I could use to look for her?” I asked.
Miles shook his head. “No, just got the one.”
“Do you think she took off to avoid seeing me?”
“Could be,” Miles answered in an obviously reluctant tone. It clearly distressed him to see me hurting. We had once been good friends. I hoped, maybe naively, that we still might be. I knew Betty, who was devoutly religious, had had a tough time coming to terms with what I had done. She had not spoken a word to me since my arrival and was quite clearly having difficulty even making eye contact with me. It surprised me when she placed her hand over mine and patted it lightly. There were tears on her cheeks.
“I’ll walk back into town and look around – maybe see about borrowing somebody’s car,” I said. “Surely she wouldn’t have gone far.”
Miles nodded. “I guess that’d be best,” he said. “The pickup’s a dark blue F150. Got a little dent in the tail gate.”
“Is there anyone in particular she’d be likely to visit?”
“Don’t know really,” Miles said. “Everybody around here knows her a course, her bein’ the police chief for all them years before you and her got married. She’s well liked by everybody, even loved by some, I’d say. But, far as we know, she’s kept pretty much to herself since she’s been back here.”
“Would it be alright if I left my duffle bag here?” I asked. It didn’t contain much but it was everything in the world I owned.
“Sure,” Miles answered. “Course.”
When I turned to leave Miles told me to hold on for a minute. He went out the back door and returned a moment later with a Golden Retriever trailing along behind him. “Why don’t ya take ‘er dog along with ya? Maybe he’ll help run ‘er down.”
I couldn’t help but smile. The dog was almost a dead ringer for Winston, the pet we’d owned before all the bad times happened. “What’s his name?” I said.
“She calls him Bix. Don’t know why.”
I did. And it gave me hope that Callie might still feel something for me. My middle name - my mother’s maiden name actually - was Bixford.
Miles handed me a photo of Callie. “This was taken about fourteen months ago.”
The picture showed Callie sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch. She was smiling but there was no happiness reflected in her eyes. “She looks sad,” I said.
“Yeah, it’s been a long time since we’ve seen ‘er look otherwise.”
I took the leash Miles held out to me, and Bix and I made the return trip to town. Bix seemed to accept my lead without complaint or concern. He appeared to be a very dignified animal, not prone to silly actions - maybe a bit on the sad side.
Colville was a tiny burg. There weren’t a lot of places Callie could have gone unless her destination was someone’s home. I scanned both sides of the main street as we made our way past its quiet shops.
No sign of a blue Ford pickup anywhere.
Before long I found myself back at Mollie’s Diner. I draped the loop on Bix’s leash over a bench handle and walked inside. I took a seat on a swivel stool at the counter. The same waitress I had talked to earlier came over to stand in front of me. “Didn’t take long for a return visit,” she said.
“Who could resist the place?” I quipped.
That earned me a wistful smile. “Coffee?”
After she filled my cup she looked around the place. None of the half dozen men in the place seemed to require her attention. “Name’s Kat,” she said. “Short for Katherine.”
“Just passing through, Jack?”
“Kind of,” I said. Just then one of the guys at the end of the counter tapped his cup for a refill. I watched Kat as she sauntered over to him. She was a good looking woman, probably in her mid-forties. Sexy in a messy way – wild, dark hair, makeup a little overdone, and a shorter uniform skirt than was probably, strictly speaking, appropriate. If you saw her in a movie she’d be the one with the big heart and bad taste in men.
A minute later she was back. “You look like a guy with something on his mind.”
I took a sip of the coffee. It seemed to be the saving grace of the place. “Do you happen to know anybody who might be interested in renting me a car for a few hours?” I asked.
She arched her eyebrows. “How far you planning on going?”
“Probably not far,” I said.
She motioned with a nod of her head to the street. “See that brown Chevette?”
I looked over my shoulder at a rusting junker parked forlornly outside the diner’s front window. I nodded unenthusiastically.
“Will it do?” she wondered.
“I guess,” I said.
“It’s yours. Just have it back by six o’clock and make sure the tank’s full.”
“You’re a peach, Kat.”
She leaned over close to me and half whispered, “Maybe I’ll think of a way for you to return the favor.”
I put a five dollar bill in her hand and stood up. “Don’t think too hard,” I said. “I’m a married man.”
“Aren’t they all,” she said. She reached into her uniform pocket, then dropped her car key on the counter.
I had purposely neglected to mention to Kat that I was accompanied by a large, furry canine that tended to shed rather dramatically, but one look inside the Chevette gave me the feeling it would hardly have mattered. The interior of her little gem appeared not to have been the subject of a cleaning any time within living memory.
I opened the passenger door for Bix and he obediently climbed aboard. He waited silently while I walked around the car and climbed in beside him. “So, where’s Callie, boy?” I said to him.
He turned his head slowly and looked at me with eyes that seemed far too wise for a supposedly dumb animal.
I fired up the Chevette. With nothing better coming to mind I drove the streets, hoping I would simply stumble across the pickup.
In twenty minutes I had covered every inch of the town. For a while I parked and gave thought to my next move. Without consciously making a decision to do it, I found myself driving out Thornhill Road in the direction of the rural property that had once been owned by little Sophie Crandall’s grandfather - the spot from which she had been abducted. It was the only place I could think of here that linked Callie and me in any way. Back at the time of the investigation into Sophie’s disappearance Callie had been the local police chief. It seemed possible that, if she was trying to reignite a spark from our past, she might regard such a location as one in which we had shared a commonality of purpose. It scared me a little that I might be right, though, because, if I was, it would seem to indicate she was suffering from serious depression. The Crandall farm evoked memories that were far from peaceful. And the connection to Tanya’s terrible demise was all too evident.
The farm buildings came into view from half a mile away. Much like the first time I had set eyes on the place, a little chill rippled through me. Few cases I had been involved in while working with the FBI had summoned such feelings in me and it was impossible to experience these thoughts without reliving in my mind the days when Tanya had been taken from us. I couldn’t imagine that Callie could look upon this place and feel any differently.
The vehicle parked off the road some distance past the farm was not clearly identifiable when it first came into view. But as I got closer my hopes rose; I could see it was blue, and then that it was a pickup with a little dent right where Miles had specified.
I pulled up behind it and went quickly to the driver’s side door, hoping to find Callie hunkered down and napping contentedly on the bench seat.
No such luck, of course. The cab was empty.