THE SILVER RING
STANDING on the balcony overlooking the west end of town, I felt the westward wind fondle my forehead. A thick column of white smoke stretched across the sky, drifting lazily over the town like a blanket of fog after a bad rainstorm. Late afternoon traffic was thick and sluggish.
I checked my watch to see what time it was, walked back into my office and slumped down into the little black chair behind his desk. The woman sitting across from me looked about twenty-three, maybe twenty-five. A slender black dress concealed her slim, tan physique. Brown leather sandals covered the center of both feet, exposing short toenails painted blood red.
“Well, Misses Rowan.” I sighed a little. “What can I help you with?”
“I need you to find my daughter.” Her voice sounded sweet and gentle.
“When was the last time you saw her?”
“My ex-husband Nick picked her up on Friday. He was supposed to drop her off on Monday because she starts school this week and he knew he had to work the night shift at the paper mill.”
“You said ex-husband, right?”
“Yes.” It was her turn to sigh.
“Could you tell me the cause of your and Nick’s divorce?”
She thought about it for a minute, looking up at the ceiling then back over at him. “When I first met Nick, we were just barely out of high school. He was on the football team and I was a cheerleader.” She took a sip from the water bottle he offered her a few minutes ago and set it back on the desk. “On the night he brought the championship back home to Shallow Rock, we did our own little celebrating in the back seat of his car. I ended up pregnant and he injured his knee so badly he couldn’t play football anymore.”
“And then what happened?”
“We got married and took care of Leigh.” She leaned forward as if the volume of her voice was too low and he couldn’t hear her. “He would constantly come home drunk off his ass. You know what he did Mister Rivers ? He beat the living shit out of me so bad I couldn’t stand.”
“Is that why you got divorced?” I asked as the breeze came through the sliding glass doors behind me.
“That was Leigh’s decision.” She held her hands up in the air like she were warding off the signs of evil. “She saw him beating me up one night in her bedroom, snuck out of the window and called the police at a neighbor’s house.”
“She sounds like a very brave little girl.”
“She gets that from her mother.” Flattery turned her face red.
“So tell me about Leigh’s disappearance?”
“He always brings her home at around seven in the evening because his shift starts at eight. He didn’t show up at seven or seven thirty or even eight o’clock for that fact and I assumed he was running a little late. After I waited for two hours, I called the police. They sent a car over to Nick’s and nobody was there. They told me that if he didn’t return the next day I was better off hiring a private investigator.”
I didn‘t know anyone on The Shallow Rock Police Department. Anyone of them could’ve drop her into my lap.
“Okay.” I replied as I slid open the desk drawer on the lower right side and took out a pad and pen. “I need a description of your daughter.”
“She’s five feet one. Brown eyes like mine, but she doesn’t have my hair.” She raked a hand through her boyish-cut black hair. “But she has Nick’s blonde hair and its long and goes down to her shoulders.”
“How old is she?”
“She turned fifteen in July.” Today was the thirteenth of August.
I tore out that page and handed her the pad and pen.
“I need a list of names and addresses of his friends and relatives. Anybody who would be willing to hide him or know his whereabouts.”
She scribbled something on the pad and slid both items back to him. I looked at the paper with inquiring eyes.
“I gave you my cell-phone number in case you come up with anything.” She replied. “The person you’ll want to see is Scott Dugan. He lives on Pickett Run Road and he’s one of Nick’s best friends. He can probably tell you what the guy eats.”
I wrote the name three inches below her cell phone number and stuffed the paper into my shirt pocket.
“What’s the price for something like this?”
“One fifty a day.”
She took a black-leather purse from the floor at her feet, placed it on the edge of the desk and searched it. Three seconds later, she produced a long dark-blue checkbook, set it on her knee, flipped through the book until she found a blank check and scribbled across it with a black ballpoint pen. As she stood over the desk, I caught himself looking through the V-neck slit of her dress, peeking at her cheerleader tea-cup breasts. I spun around in my chair, hoping she wouldn’t notice where my eyes were aimed and stopped when she tore out the check and handed it to me.
After a quick glance at the check, I said: “You gave me two thousand.”
“Leigh is more important to me than life itself and I’d give you a million dollars if that’s what it took to find her.” A tear began to protrude out of the corner of her right eye. “I just want my daughter back in my arms again, safe and sound. I would die if I ever lost her.”
She stood up and slung her purse over her left shoulder. She opened the door halfway, turned and faced him. Her thin-fingered hand clutched the cold, brass doorknob.
Smiling devilishly, she said: “Truthfully, Mister Rivers.”
“Call me Joe.”
She thought about it for a second, smiled and said: “I expected you to be taller.”
“What?” I shrugged my shoulders. “Five-eleven isn’t tall enough?”
She didn’t answer. She just smiled, but she manage to say.
“Thank you, Travis.” She walked out and shut the door behind her.
I turned and walked back out to the balcony again. The sun slid behind the horizon like a quarter dropped into a slot machine in slow motion. I walked around my desk, took my car keys off the top of the filing cabinet and headed out the door.
SHALLOW Rock, Ohio was a charming little town located just off Interstate-33 between Enterprise and Oak River. Of course, with any other place, there were variances between my hometown and this one.
In San Diego, California, there were lush-green palm trees and the shrill cry of a hawk flying overhead. Cool summer winds. Bikini clad ladies strolling the boardwalk alongside the hypnotizing ocean. But Shallow Rock was different.
The only women walking these streets were married, too young--too ugly--or the kind who chose to flaunt their bodies in unnecessarily tight clothing, even if the occasional never called for it. The palm trees were replaced by naked gnarly oaks placed along yellow painted curbs. The sweet sound of the seagulls were traded in for the occasional fart popping from the muffler of a rusted pickup truck. If San Diego was a bright and colorful metropolis of drugs, sex, crime and the movie business, then Shallow Rock was a dingy, gray fabrication of a tourist’s nightmare.
I drove my dark-blue Ford Mustang down Main Street and pulled into the Savings and Loan and cashed Amy’s check. I transferred half the money into my savings account and kept the rest in my wallet; small bills only. I despised carrying a whole lot of cash because even the amount in my savings account could make me a prime target for the criminal underworld. I gave a courteous wink to the pretty drive-thru teller with the boyish-cut blonde hair--and a wedding ring on her right hand--and drove away.
One hand on the wheel, eyes locked on the road, I got off Main, onto Poplar and fished the list from my shirt pocket. To my right, a large pool sat encased behind a green-plastic fence, its occupants laughed and splashed, shooting great geysers of cool, refreshing water into the air. I swung a left off Poplar and got onto a wide concrete bridge right flanked by a green sign with white lettering that said: PICKETT RUN ROAD.
Pickett Run Road was a sprinkle of one and two story homes scattered across the base of a lush green hill. I passed two houses before I found the right one and eased my car onto its driveway. I killed the engine and slid out from behind the wheel. I shut my door and dropped my car keys into the same pocket with my cell phone. I turned away from the house and heard the river splashing around behind a long, metal guardrail bordering the road.
The two story, redbrick house sat on a flat shelf of shaved grass split in half by two masks of sunlight and shadow. It had small curtained windows and a wooden wraparound porch. I heard something that sounded like a gunshot and jolted back around, realizing it was the sound of a screen door being slammed shut. A young, baby faced girl emerged from the front porch, crossed the front lawn and stopped directly in front of me, her hands tucked into the pockets of her blue-jean cutoffs.
“Can I help you?” She asked in a mild Southern accent.
Draped across her shoulders, her long red hair had curled at the end. Her small china-blue eyes scanned me engagingly like a circle of ladies watching a crew of construction workers. A pouch of baby fat overlapped the waistline of her shorts. I tried not to look because even the aspect of such a fashion statement was unattractive and very nauseous. The nipples from her balloon-sized bosoms peeked out from underneath a Tommy Hilfiger tee-shirt the color of raw hamburger.
“I’m here to see Tim Dugan.”
“He’s in the basement right now.” She exposed two rows of clean white teeth in
wide, pencil-thin smile. “Can I ask was this is all about?”
“I can come back tomorrow if he’s too busy.”
“He’s just tinkering around with his tools.”
When she extended her hand, I noticed something sparkling from one of her fingers. I stared at it for a moment, admiring the way it looked. It was a silver ring with a bright-blue bead surrounded by an array of different colored beads.
“I’m Sandra, Scott’s daughter.”
I shook her hand and it felt like clean sheets.
“Joe Rivers.” I said, breaking the handshake.
“I’ve never seen you around here before.” Her forehead wrinkled and folded with thought. “Are you new in town?”
“I moved in two weeks ago.”
She started to tug at her shorts, twirling her body in a half-circle. Her legs were the color of the Arizona desert at sundown: deep, dark and brown. I relished in many enticing attempts thrown at me by irresistible, attractive women probably just as much as Elvis Presley or the Beatles. But this one was different. This one could get me into a whole lot of trouble.
“Can I help you?” A voice called out from a distance.
I looked up at the front lawn again. A tall man wearing denim jeans, a sleeveless white tee shirt and a pair of black-striped Nikes started walking toward us.
Once he got to us, he said to Sandra: “Your boyfriend’s on the phone.”
“I don’t have a boyfriend.” Disgrace took the color out of her face.
“Get in the house anyway.”
She rolled her eyes and sighed like a teakettle. Mumbling incoherently to herself, she pouted back up the yard, toward the front porch. The screen door opened, she disappeared and then it banged shut again. The man standing in front of me had solid muscular arms and hands half as large as a bear’s. Due to his massive size and strength, he looked as if he picked up cars for a living. I could put up a hell of a fight, but I’d more than likely get my ass kicked. His dark eyes were filled with a calm anger he showed by biting his lower lip.
“I’m Tim Dugan.” We shook hands. “Unless you want to keep driving that nice fucking car of yours, you’ll keep your eyes off my daughter.”
“I wasn’t attracted to her, anyway.”
You saying my daughter isn’t beautiful?”
“Sandra’s a beautiful girl, Mister Dugan.” I said, reassuringly. “And any guy who spends the rest of his life with her is the luckiest man in the world. But I was no way, shape or form trying to bang your daughter in the back of my car. Too young for me.”
“She should know better than that.” He ogled in the direction of my car like he were going to buy it. “That’s a smooth sombitch you got there. What she got?”
“AM/FM stereo, bucket seats and an engine that purrs like a panther.”
“This is a classic.” He eyeballed the clean, spotless hood and looked up at me and asked: “Why are you driving around? If I were you, I’d keep this thing under Fort Knox
security. Someone’s liable to steal it.”
I didn’t want to be rude and changed the subject.
“Mister Dugan, I need to ask you some questions. My name’s Joe Rivers. I’m a private investigator working for Amy Rowan.”
“What’s this pertaining to?” He walked away from the car and took a seat on a waist-level brick wall that separated the front yard from the driveway. “Is she okay?”
“She’s fine.” I put up my hand. “Her daughter Leigh has been missing and Amy’s asked me to find her.”
“If it’s help her out,” He nodded, wiping a film of sweat from his forehead with the back of his palm. “ask until your heart’s content.”
“Okay, I’ll start off by asking how you first meet Amy?”
“In high school. Nick introduced me to her a month before the big game.”
“From your point of view, how was their relationship.”
“They act like Romeo and Juliet. All lovey-dovey and shit. But when they’ve seen each other too much, they start insulting each other and stuff. He’ll say something about her face. She’ll say something about his sexual performance.”
Did this go on forever?”
“No. Eventually they’d be all over each other. If you ask me, it was more like a small war than an actual relationship.” He stood up from the brick wall and walked up to me, his eyes darting this way and that as if he didn’t want anyone to hear. “Just between you and me, I think the bitch is a prime candidate for the rubber room. Catch my drift.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Well, it goes back to the championship game in eighty-five.” He stared up at the sky, his head held high. “It was the Shallow Rock Wolves against the Oak River Stallions. One look at her told me she was trouble.”
"How could you tell she was crazy?”
“I wasn’t going to tell you, but--.” He took his head out of the clouds and looked down at me.
“Withholding information in a missing persons case is against the law.” I cut his sentence in half, avoiding any disrespect.
“But now that there’s a little girl involved, I have no choice.” He looked unaffected by my quick disruption. “After the big game, the whole team was going to celebrate at this college kid’s house. Nick and Amy didn’t want to go so they left together. Me and my future wife Veronica,” He smiled proudly. “decided to go to the post-game celebration. You know how those things are. Boobs and beer for everyone. People were nearly naked, jumping into the pool in the backyard. This place was on fire. Every bedroom in the house was occupied.”
From the tone of his voice, he sounded as if he missed the past when most people wanted to forget it. But unlike theirs, Tim’s was obviously paved with beer, boobs and naked people jumping into backyard swimming pools.
He continued. “Anyway, I had to get Veronica home by the time her parents got back from their trip. I went back home and fought with an unbearable headache and tried
to get some sleep. The phone rings and its Amy and she‘s crying.”
I considered getting all this on a tape recorder. Then I thought I would loose my head if it came unattached. What made me think I could keep track of a tape recorder?
“She was saying something about how Nick beat her up and she wanted me to come over. I gulped down some headache pills and drove down to her house. I walked in and found her lying on the couch, naked as the day she was born. Candles were lit all over the place. Al Green was playing on the stereo.”
Did she tell you why she did it?”
She said Nick was holding back on her and that she was the right one for me and how she loved the way I moved up and down the field and how tight my ass looked in the uniform.”
What happened then?”
“She ran off the couch and shoved me against the wall beside the front door. She started kissing me all over my face and neck and through the kisses she was telling me she wanted to fuck me till I was blue in the face. I was thinking about what Veronica would say and do if she found out I was cheating on her. So I threw Amy off my lap, ran out the front door and got into my truck.” He took in a gulp of air and continued. “And as I’m leaving, she’s running beside of my truck like that blonde from that Terminator movie. She knew she couldn’t keep up with me so she got mad and threw a brick through my back windshield. I spent the entire weekend cleaning glass from the front seat of my truck. I have to admit, the offer was enticing but I was already taken and she knew it.”
“Did Nick always ignore Amy’s sexual appetite?”
“Oh, hell no.” He chuffed. “Nick always talked about nailing her?”
“Did you see her again after that?”
"No.” He chuffed again as if it didn’t really matter. “Two days later, I heard Nick messed up his knee and she got knocked up. Last time I heard she was working for a law firm here in town.”
“Thank you for your time, Mister Dugan.” I reached around to my back pocket, took out my wallet, flipped it open and handed him a business card. “This has my phone number and my address. If you hear from him, call me immediately. She may not try to screw you, but she’ll happy to see her daughter again. She’ll probably be more happy knowing an old friend made it happen.”
“Sure will.” We shook hands again.
Tim marched up the yard and I got back in my car. I fired up the engine and backed out, my tires crunching the gravel underneath. I gazed up at the rearview mirror when something caught my attention. I hit the brakes, kicking up a small cloud of dust and sat in the driveway.
Standing in front of the second floor window on the right, Sandra Dugan watched her father disappear through the front door before she pressed her hand to her mouth and kissed it. I looked up at her, my hand resting on the steering wheel, my right arm placed on the headrest of the passenger seat like I were courting an imaginary date. She aimed her hand at me and blew into it. Once she thought the kiss had reached my face--or wherever she intended for it to go--she grabbed her shirt and jerked it halfway up. She exposed half of her snow-pale stomach before Tim crept up from behind her and tugged her away from the window, canceling her little peepshow.
He peered through the window at me and waved. Respecting the man’s wishes, I drove away, laughing.
IT was six o’clock in the evening when I decided to call it quit for the day. I was too tired from having to unpack all those boxes and sorting their contents into the right places. The other people on my list would have to wait.
Besides, tomorrow might be a brighter day.
parked the car, killed the engine and got out, carrying my third bag of take out for the week. I was slowly getting tired of fast food. On Monday when I first moved in, I had pizza. Tuesday I had Chinese. Tonight, I was staring at another bag of pork-fried rice, teriyaki chicken and two egg rolls.
hiked up the stairs, down the stark-lime corridor and into the office. I took the food to my desk and sat down and ate. When I was finished, I padded to the bedroom, stripped down and stepped into a pair of black dojo pants. My physical physique that drew women to me like magnets wasn’t something that came to me when I was born. I had to workout hard to earn it and earn it I did. My routine started with four-hundred snap kicks, one hundred and fifty sidekicks and ended with a twenty-minutes of meditation.
oaked in sweat, my body felt like a barrel full of molasses when I walked into the bathroom to take a shower. By the time I was done, it was six-forty-five. I stayed in longer than necessary so as to let the soothing hot water pound the tightness out of my back and shoulders. I dried myself off in front of the mirror, taking the towel across the necessary areas, wrapped it around my waist and brushed my teeth. For some strange reason, Sandra Dugan came to mind and then I erased her from memory.
At the age of twenty-five, my mother used to tell me that I remind her of Fred MacMurray from the movie Double Indemnity. My black hair was cut short and combed down to the crest of my forehead and my eyes are small and brown. My arms were thick with muscle and my stomach was as hard as a rock. I had the same sunburned color that my Native American ancestors have had since Day One. I slipped into a San Diego Padres tee and stone-washed jeans just long enough to finish unpacking and sorting out my kitchen utensils. I padded into my office to lock the door and stopped dead in my tracks.
my Rowan stood beside my desk, fingering the plastic brown Willie E. Coyote cup sitting next to the lamp. Instead of the black dress, she donned a dark-blue business suit and maroon high heels. A cheap-looking gold watch glimmered from her wrist. Her nails were painted a bright, pastel pink and her hair was knotted into a fat brown bun that looked like a bran muffin fresh out of the package.
“Catch you at a bad time?” She asked and walked away from my desk and sat down in front of my desk.
“No.” I walked over to my desk and sat down. “There anything you need?”
“I tried to call you earlier ago but you weren’t here. I drove around until I saw your lights come on.” She crossed her legs, pulling up the cuffs of her pants and exposing a tan, golden ankle. “You know that list I gave you?”
“I still have it, yes.” I replied, patting my pants pockets only to remember I’d put it somewhere else. “Hold on for one minute.”
I dashed from my chair and back into my apartment. I ran to my bedroom, took the list off my dresser--where he had put it before I dressed down for the day--and carried it with me to the office. I unfolded the list, spread it out across my desktop and smoothed it out.
“Is there a Doctor Jake Mathis on that list somewhere?”
“Well, after I left your office today, I went straight to work and put a few hours in. My boss knew about and saw that I wasn’t concentrating on my work all that well and he sent me home early. I went back home and my phone rang. I picked it up and it was Doctor Mathis on the other line. He kept whispering something into the phone. When I asked him to speak up, he just kept on whispering. I heard a crashing sound in the background, you know like a tree falling down after it’s been cut and then the phone died.”
“Who is Doctor Mathis, anyway?”
“He was Nick’s anger management therapist.”
“Did you ever sit in during one of his sessions?”
“No.” She shook her head a little. “Some kind of confidential thing.”
“Patient Doctor Confidentiality.”
“A few years ago a law was passed stating that a patient’s medical records couldn’t be revealed to anyone but them. That also includes their wives and other family members as well.”
“How can we get Nick’s file?” She leaned up in her chair for a second and then leaned back.
“We need a warrant.”
“How do we get that?”
“First off, we need probable cause. That links your suspect to the crime. In order for us to obtain his medical records, we need evidence that Nick’s mental health was the reason for him just taking off with Leigh. Until we get that, we’re sitting ducks.”
“Do you think Doctor Mathis had something to do with it?”
“I don’t know the guy personally. But I do know that Mathis would’ve handed that file over in a flash even if it meant protecting his practice and his reputation.”
“What did you come up with today?”
“You really don’t want to hear it.”
“Call me Joe.”
“Well, Joe.” I could tell she was going to get a little testy. “My daughter is missing and my life is slowly starting to fall apart. So say whatever you have to say.”
Optimism glimmered in her eyes. I starting to understand that who ever lived underneath me was a bonafide music freak. This time, Ashlee Simpson sang “Pieces of Me”. The song started to remind me of Amy’s situation. Her daughter’s disappearance had her so stressed out she was starting to fall to pieces.
Maybe I was, too. So I let her have. I told her everything Tim Dugan had to say.
“Now I’m a sex-crazed psycho.” She smiled teasingly, as if she expected Tim to throw me off course with a make-believe fantasy. “He knows the real reason why I chased him down that night. He just told you what he wanted you to hear.”
“After Nick left, I asked Tim to come over and chat. Just friends, nothing else. Veronica and me were best friends so why the hell would I ruin that by flirting with him. I chased him down only to thank him for keeping me company. I’ve never had any sexual attraction to Tim Dugan.” She breathed through her nose and lifted her nostrils up a bit. “I want to thank you for everything you’re doing for me. No one’s ever done anything like this for me.”
“It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there.” I said, standing up from my chair. “and you’ve got to do what you can to stop from getting bit. Would you like to watch some television with me?”
Sure.” The question and the answer both brought a smile to her sagging sad face.
We walked in and sat on the living couch together, looking like a pair of shy lovers, our knees touching at the sides, quietly pondering who should kiss who. I reached over quietly and turned on the television. Once the screen came to life, Lon Chaney wore black clothing and a paper-white mask while moving his fingers up and down the keys of a large golden pipe organ. I could smell her perfume and it was tantalizing. On more than one occasion, I caught myself looking down the V-shaped slit from her suit blouse, staring directly at the tops of her tiny breasts.
Like a gunshot, she jumped out of her seat as if a ghost touched her shoulder. She reached over and picked up her purse from the floor next to the feet of the couch.
“I brought you a picture of Leigh I found on the nightstand earlier today.” She began to search through her purse, pulling back every flap. “I thought it might help you.”
She took out the picture and showed me. She was exactly as Amydescribed. Looking at thepicture, something caught my attention and shot me up from the couch.
“What’s wrong?” Amy asked, also standing up from the couch.
I was so speechless I forgot to answer. The one thing that had blown right by me had come back to hit me in the face. The excitement of this new revelation kicked an extreme amount of adrenaline through my veins, straight into my heart. Goose bumps prickled the back of my arms as if I’d stepped into a walk-in freezer.
“The ring on Leigh’s hand.” Again, the excitement closed my throat, prohibiting me from speaking.
“Tell me.” She took the picture from my hand and stared at it.
Today when I went to the Dugan residence. Tim’s daughter Sandra was wearing that same exact ring your daughter is wearing in that picture. A silver ring with a small blue bead sitting around a bunch of colored beads.”
“Are you sure?”
“Of course I’m sure.” I said, thinking that she would doubt me for one second.
“We need to--.”
Just then, my office door busted open and fell to the floor, spraying splinters across the air. I heard the hinges pop off the wall and dance across the floor like tumbling marbles. Before I could move a muscle, let alone breathe, two figures dressed in black clothes stepped through my office and into my apartment. One of them was carrying a double barrel shotgun. The other was holding what looked like a .38 revolver. I couldn’t tell because I kept thinking about what my office looked like.
“Don’t be a hero.” One of them spoke, their voice sounding like gargled glass.
They wore black boots, black jeans, black trench coats and black ski masks.
“Get your shoes on,” said the other one whose voice sounded rather female. “we’re going for a little ride.”
I did what they asked me.
AFTER I tied on a pair of brown-leather work boots, Amy and I led our guests through the hallway, down a long flight of polished marble stairs and out through the front doors.
The air outside was so cool it quickly reminded me of California. The full moon burned the night sky with a pallid-white glaze mostly concealed by the thick veneer of dark clouds floating by. They stuck us into the back seat of a muddy-red Jeep Cherokee sitting along the curb. The taller of the two rode shotgun while the much shorter one sat behind the wheel, sticking his shotgun in my face.
“Keep your mouth shut,” he spoke to Amy as the driver pulled away from the curb. “and you just might make it through the night.”
Just then, something screeched to a halt behind us, its tires screaming against the asphalt. The smell of burnt rubber and noxious exhaust stung my nose as the vehicle stopped just inches from my side of the vehicle. The driver of the Jeep ignored the other driver’s command to go “fuck yourself” and sped away. Our chauffeur guided the monstrous vehicle through large brick/paved streets, past trash-littered alleys with
graffiti-streaked brick walls. The driver used good tactics when taking the sharp turns. The Jeep would slow down a little when it came around the curb, then quickly recuperate to its original speed.
With two barrels still aimed at my face, I saw a tear sliding down Amy’s cheek. I wrapped her hand in mine, letting her know that nothing was going to hurt her and that everything was okay. The shotgun wielding passenger tapped my shoulder with the barrel, motioning for me to back away. But I wouldn’t so he left it at that. The radio was booming out a rock and roll classic I remembered from my childhood days: Pat Benetar singing “Heartbreaker”.
When the driver took a sharp turn onto Pickett Run Road, I knew instantly where we were going. The person behind the wheel tapped their fingers against their leg as the Jeep coasted past the Dugan residence. We turned right and raced down a stretch of clean, gray asphalt. We passed a slab of road kill sprawled on the side of the road, lying under a red blanket of blood. On the right side of the road, long thin-wire fences ran along the foot of the lush green hill bullying it.
The Jeep went straight for another twenty seconds and took a left onto a narrow stretch of dirt and gravel. Gusts of brown dust rose up into the sour-yellow headlights piercing the darkness blanketing the wide, open countryside. The tires jutted and bounced over unseen potholes, pressing the cold seat belt against my chest like an ice-pack. The Jeep stopped at the end of the road and took a right. It followed a second stretch of dirt and gravel for about thirty yards before it took another left and braked to a halt between two lush green hills.
When the headlights died, so did the engine. The driver stepped out from behind the wheel, walked over to our side and yanked off the mask.
“Veronica?” Amy looked at her confused. “Veronica Dugan? What the hell is going on?”
“Don’t you just hate it when a child doesn’t listen to you. I told that dumb ass daughter of mine not to wear that ring until everything sort of blew over but she never listened to me. I mean, hell. She doesn’t even listen to her father.” Veronica Dugan replied, snickering a little. “I’m sorry my son Chad hasn’t taken off his mask. He, unlike his sister, listens to his mother. Now get out.”
She pulled her gun from between the seats and aimed it at me. Chad grabbed the meaty part of Amy’s arm. He pulled her out of the back seat, her screams and kicks unheard from nearby ears.
It’s okay, Amy.” I said, hopping out of the Jeep, my feet smacking hard onto the soft, black grass. “I won’t let them hurt you.”
We didn’t ask for an Afternoon School Special, asshole.” Veronica replied, walking up behind me, shoving the barrel of the gun against my back. “Get going.”
Chad came up the yard from my left and paced backwards, watching me intently.
Sitting one football field away from the Jeep, was a crumbling two-story clapboard house. The windows on the top floor were faintly lit by a strong golden light. The front porch stairs were in desperate need of repair and the wind chimes poised above jingled like a child’s xylophone. The nude oak tree parked at the left side of the house swayed under the weight of the howling wind, its black skeletal branches raking the air. The town sat sprawled over the side of the hill; an island of bright lights streaked through the middle by a large gray river spangled with moonlight.
We stopped at the side of the house where a set of concrete steps led down to a large, wooden door. Flakes of white paint were scattered about the bottom of the door and conjoined in small piles. The big man paced down the stairs, knocked three times, took a key from the inner pocket of his trench coat and unlocked the door. Veronica shoved Amy and me down the stairs and into a small underground basement.
The floor was a wide flat pan of dirt and the brick wall surrounding it looked as if it were polished and buffed to mirror-like perfection. The room stank of mildew, sweat and the strange scent of jasmine. On the far left, a set of wooden stairs led up to the house itself. On the far right corner, a clean bare mattress was placed in front of a tall, purple-velvet curtain that was properly secured to the wall. A black camcorder sat on a set of spider-legs and was connected to a desktop computer set against the side on the wall.
A tall man in sneakers, a gray sports tee and blue jeans was hunkered down on one knee, peering through the lens of the camcorder. He stood up and turned toward us. He had stone-chiseled face and a lean, wiry build. His salt and pepper hair was trimmed just as short as mine and his blue eyes were somewhat hypnotizing like a crystal dangling from the end of a gold chain. As Veronica shoved Amy towards the far right section of the room, making sure she was facing the mattress, Chad kept his eyes on me, his hands still cradling the shotgun.
When she looked at the man standing in front of the camera, Amy’s eyes swelled to the size of grapefruits. I didn’t know why she was acting that way, but my curiosity
was solved when she said:
“Doctor Mathis.” A tear slid down her cheek again. “Where’s my daughter?
“Hello to you, too.” He gave her the false smile of a car salesman.
Chad stepped up, whispered something into the good doctor’s ear, stepped back, pulled something from his hip holster and threw it onto the ground. Once my eyes adjusted to the light in the basement, the object looked familiar to me. It was the same Sig Sauer P-229 I keep in the glove box in my car. Loaded with .357 caliber bullets, it costs more than the average price of gas and kicks like a horse. He must’ve taken it out of the glove box before he kicked down my door.
Jake Mathis walked over to me, looked over at Chad, turned back to me and drove his fist into my stomach--hard. I hit the ground knee first, coughing and wheezing and holding my abdomen. Amy ran up to pull me to my feet, but I waved my hand at her, insisting she stay where she was at.
“You must be the prick she hired?”
“Why do you care?” I said, getting to my feet.
“Its my job to care. Especially when some California cock sucker thinks he can stroll into town and stick his nose into someone else’s business.” He walked away from me and hollered at the basement stairs. “Tanya, bring down my new star would you?”
He walked back to the camera when a tall limber young woman with long dark hair padded down the stairs in a white gauzy nightgown. A crying sound followed Tanya down the stairs, holding hands with Leigh Rowan, taking each step one by one. Amy made a mad dash for her daughter. I grabbed her around the waist and held her back just
in time to halt Chad’s trigger finger. Veronica pulled Amy away from me, slammed her against the wall and pressed the barrel of the .38 between her breasts.
“What’s going on, Mathis?” Amy asked.
“Leigh’s going to make me rich.”
“How’s that?” I asked, staring at him and my gun at the same time.
"There's this thing called child support. It’s where the husband has to pay a certain sum of money for his ex-wife to take care of their daughter. Did you know, Mister Rivers that Amy makes two hundred and fifty dollars a month, but yet guys like me and you have to pay child support. I can barely live on what I make at the clinic. The kickbacks aren’t doing me a damn bit of good and half of my staff has threatened to strike if I don’t raise their wages. Man’s got to make money somehow.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Amy leaned up from the wall, attempting to force the barrel off her chest.
“The good doctor is running a child pornography site on the Internet.” A cold chill slithered up my spine as I said all this. “He’ll charge visitors outrageous prices to see films of Leigh and Tanya having sex.”
I knew where this was going and I didn’t like it. It’s the kind of thing you expect to hear on the news, happening to other people besides you. You never expect it to happen to you.
“Don’t worry about him.” Mathis replied, shrugging his left shoulder only. “He’s in the living room right above us.”
“Let me talk to him.”
“I wish I could let you,” His condescending tone was like nails scratching along a giant chalkboard. “but he chose to go against me. So I had Chad take care of him.”
"You'd be surprised what damage a twelve-guage shotgun can do when you shoot them point-blank in the jaw.” Chad replied through the mouth hole of his ski mask.
“You son of a bitch.” Amy growled.
“Let me guess, Doc.” I said, turning his attention from Amy to me. “In the end, you and the Manson family here get a certain percentage of the royalties that are brought in from the website.”
“I’m not a betting man.” Chad replied in a thick Southern accent. “But my finger is just aching to pull this trigger and blow your fucking---.”
Before Chad could finish his sentence, I leaned back and kicked the shotgun. It went off, causing everyone to hit the dirt like soldiers in an ambush. The buckshot hit the far wall and struck the computer, rupturing the monitor and spraying a vicious mist of sharp glass and bright yellow sparks across the room. Like a baseball player heading for home plate, I slid across the floor, grabbed my gun, aimed and fired. The bullet struck Tanya in the forehead; blood gushed from the exit wound in the back of her head staining the purple curtain behind her. Once Tanya landed on the mattress, Leigh took off and cowered behind the stairs, sobbing uncontrollably. Growling like an enraged beast, Chad raised the double barrel at my face. I spun around the dirt like a break dancer, staining the back of my shirt and raised the pistol up at him and fired. In the matter of three seconds, the bottom of his chin and the top of his head exploded at the same time. The shotgun fell into my hands as he stumbled back against the wall, legs and arms jerking under Death’s unseen electrical charge.
When I got to my feet, Jake punched me in the stomach and back. I backpedaled and hit him in the jaw with a high roundhouse kick, shoving him against the wall. His arms flailed, knocking the camcorder to the ground where it snapped in half, spilling screws and metallic fragments onto the floor. Leigh came out from behind the stairs and collided with her mother. Gun gripped in both hands, I looked around for Veronica, only to find her lying on the floor behind me, her face bleeding profusely from the shards of glass impaled into her cheeks, face and neck. She must’ve been near the computer when it went off.
Looking up from her daughter, eyes bigger than they were when Veronica took off her ski mask, Amy screamed: “Behind you, Joe.”
Jake was pulling a small pistol from the ankle holster hidden behind the cuff of his jeans when I brought up my gun and shot him in the hand. The gun flew across the room, bounced off the purple curtain and fell onto the mattress. I heard a clicking sound from behind me. Amy had picked up Veronica’s .38 and aimed it at the doctor. I tucked my gun into the waistband of my jeans and stepped toward her.
“I can’t let you do this, Amy.” I said, feeling the cold barrel of the .38 press against my chest.
“Get out of my way, Joe.” She thumbed back the hammer, telling me she was serious. “Or I’ll take you out, too.”
“Listen.” I said, waving at Leigh to stand by the basement door. “You don’t need to stoop yourself to his level. Men like him deserve to go to prison. The minute he sets foot in general population, they’ll kill him. If you fire that gun, you’re no better than him. Give me the gun, Amy.”
As if my little speech had worked, she lowered her head, her face crinkling up to cry and lowered the .38. I slipped it out of her hand and hugged her as tightly as I could.
“You think this is all over?” Mathis said, lying on the floor, his chin resting on his chest. “I’ll claim insanity and get out in six months. I’ll come back for her even if it takes me forever. And when I do, you’ll never find her.”
“No you won’t.” I took the pistol from my pocket and winked at Amy. “Because Amy is going to slap a restraining order on you that says if you come within a hundred yards of Leigh or her, you’ll be arrested. If you’re prosecuted, you’ll get the maximum sentence. Kidnapping is a federal offense and that’s twenty-five to life. Then they’ll add on five more years for child pornography and child endangerment. I’m sure the other charges will add more time to your sentence so there’s no way you’ll find her again.”
“You’re lying.” He tried to get up from the floor, but he used the wrong hand--the one I’d shot--and fell back down, teeth and eyes clenching in pain.
Off in the distance, sirens howled toward the house. Looking at them now, not even The Gates Of Hell could separate Amy and Leigh.
“You really think I’m all there is.” He snickered. “There are others out there just like me who do the same thing everyday and get away with it. They never get caught and they make a shit load of money doing it. Who doesn’t want a little green for old time’s sake, huh?”
“You don’t put a price on a child, Jake.” Amy replied, wiping tears from her face. “You’re a disgusting man and I’ll never understand why. You’re just damaged goods. That’s all you’ll ever be and I hope you die in prison.”
“Hey, Doc.” He turned and looked at me. “Tell all the others like you I said this.”
I raised the pistol and shot him. The blast echoed across the basement. Screaming, he clamped his hands over the bloody stain soaking the crotch of his jeans--where his dick used to be. I lowered the gun and followed Amy and Leigh outside. We left Jake in the basement and met up with the patrol cars sitting in the driveway behind the Jeep.
TWO days later, after everything seem to settle down, I slipped into shorts, sandals and a sleeveless tee-shirt and met Amy and Leigh at Dale’s for lunch. Dale’s is a quaint little café across the street from my office and it reminds me of something from the movie Mischief. Leigh busted through the front door, kicking the little bell above it and gave me a big hug. I hadn’t expected it, but it was nice of her to think of me anyway. Amy slid into the seat across from me in a dark blue dress and a white blouse.
“How are you guys holding up?”
“Okay, I guess.” Her face looked uneasy, as if she had something to tell me but was afraid of what I’d think about it. “Did you hear about Tim Dugan?”
“The cops found him in the Hocking with two bullets in his forehead. They think he knew about Nick’s deal and he threatened to go to the cops about it.”
“I’m leaving town, Joe.” She said it fast, but not too fast.
“Why?” A slight sadness began to wash over me.
“This place isn’t safe anymore.” She folded her arms across her chest as if she were cold. “Not for me or Leigh. My uncle has a job waiting for me in Florida. It’s better this way.”
I couldn’t despise her for making the right decision. What ever she could do to protect Leigh was the best decision she’d ever made.
We stood up from our seats and kissed for what would be the second and final time. I slipped back into my seat and watched them climb into a gray Lexus parked in front of the café. Amy was hunched over the driver’s seat, crying inside her hands. Leigh leaned over and gave her mother a comforting pat on the back as the Lexus took off out of sight.
This time, she wouldn’t be coming back. I started to wonder if I would ever see her again. If so, would she recognize me? Would Leigh?
Watching a teal blue Ford Escort park along the curb in front of the same office building I operated out of, I slipped her into the file along with all the other unsolved mysteries, slipped out of the booth and out of the café.
BIO: Since the age of thirteen, Brian J. Smith has dreamed of becoming a published writer. His story "A Day With Daddy" was published as a podcast and just recently his story "Nobody Does" was published by The Forbidden Zone Magazine.