This is the latest chapter of an ongoing serialized novel that I’m working on and posting up here in rough draft form. To read other chapters, CLICK HERE.
PS – It’s my birthday – buy me something pretty. Or just buy something I wrote. Either one.
Willis and I left the Miller house not long after, after Willis directed Larry to take Jenny’s dad to the hospital and left Chuck at the house in case any calls came in about ransom or anything else. We didn’t expect the phone to ring; we both knew exactly what was going on here. I sat in the passenger seat of the sheriff’s patrol car while he got on the radio and ordered dispatch to call in the auxiliary deputies. There were half a dozen or so men and women that were deputized in case of missing children or elderly folks, lost hikers, or any large-scale emergencies. Jenny rode along to the hospital with her dad, unseen and unheard, but there to see he was taken care of.
Willis opened the door and slid in behind the wheel. “Everybody will meet us here in a few minutes. I’m going to station two of them in the house, probably Gene and Clyde. They’re old enough and trustworthy enough to babysit the place while Mr. Miller is getting checked out. I’ll have Chuck start the canvass in one direction, and get Ernest McKnight to head down the other side of the street.”
“You think that’s gonna work out okay? This is still South Carolina, Willis. Some people see a black man knocking on their door in the middle of the night, they’re going to answer with a twelve-gauge before they ever look to see if they know him.” Ernest McKnight was a respectable businessman, one of the best mechanics I’d ever seen, and about six and a half feet tall and blacker than the ace of spades. I did not want to see that gentle giant killed by some nervous homeowner while trying to help the police.
“I’ll send Irene Middleton out with him. Make sure she does the knocking, and Ernest can ask the questions. He’s been an auxiliary deputy for a long time, and was an MP in the army, too. He knows what kind of things to look for.”
“You know they ain’t going to find anything,” I said.
“I know we have to try everything we can think of,” he growled.
“I’m not arguing that, Willis,” I said. “I’m just saying that…well, I don’t even know what I’m doing here. I can’t help none with the living.”
“You’re helping me, Lila Grace. This is my first real case in this town, with these people. I need somebody to be my touchstone, to keep me grounded. That’s why you’re here – because I trust you, and because everybody here trusts you.”
“Everybody here is scared shitless that I might really be able to talk to their dead relatives and find out all the dirt on them.” I was grumbling, but Willis’ words made me feel good, like I was useful.
“Well, there’s probably a little of that, too,” he agreed, and I slapped him on the arm. We both laughed, then headlights appeared and he was out of the car to give instruction to the new arrivals.
I waited patiently for about three seconds, then started to fidget. I got out of the car, knowing full well that if I sat there much longer I was going to start messing with the switches and buttons on the dash. The last thing any of us needed was me firing up the siren on Church Street in the middle of the night. Not that anybody within a mile of us was asleep. If there’s one sure way to wake up small-town folk in the middle of the night, it’s turn on some police lights.
I felt a chill on my arm and looked to my left, starting a little as Sheriff Johnny looked at me, his hand on my shoulder and a worried expression on his face. “Good Lord, Johnny, you scared the fire out of me!” I said. “What’s wrong? I mean, more than what I already know about, that is.”
Johnny didn’t speak. Johnny never spoke, except for that one time a couple days ago. He was a quiet man in life, and death hadn’t loosened his tongue any. Some ghosts are just barely different from when they were living, but some are mere shades of their former selves, no pun intended. Johnny seemed to be fading the longer he was around. I had a fleeting worry that he needed to cross over soon, or there wouldn’t be anything left to pass on to the other side.
I don’t know what that means, what waits for anyone after they leave our world for the next, but my faith tells me that even though some souls wander the earth for a time after their bodies die, eventually they move on to a better place. Well, not all. Young Jeffrey was very quickly getting relegated to the list of people I wanted to see go to a much worse place.
“What is it, Johnny? Did you find something?” He nodded, and motioned for me to follow him. I did, walking down the sidewalk several houses to the Terrance house. I knew that Jackie and Mike Terrance were in Michigan for a month, visiting their new grandbaby, so I wasn’t sure what Johnny wanted me to see there. He stopped at the mouth of the driveway and pointed down, but of course O couldn’t see anything. I pulled out my phone and turned on the flashlight app, shining the bright LED beam down at the ground. There, in the mud built up in the dip between their driveway and the street, was a set of fresh tire tracks. There was no reason for anyone to be at the Terrance house with them gone, and it had just rained a few days ago, so these tracks were almost certainly from tonight. Which meant they were Jeff’s.
“Well, what about it, Johnny? We know he drove here. Are you telling me there’s something about these tracks that Willis needs to know?” He nodded. “Alright, then. Let me text him, and we’ll see what we can figure out.” I took a photo of the tracks with my phone and texted it to Willis, telling him that Johnny pointed them out at the Terrance house.
“Stay there. Don’t touch the tracks. Be there in 5.” Was the reply I got, so I went over and sat down on the retaining wall Mike Terrance built out of rocks he picked up out of the Broad River last summer. A few minutes later, Willis came walking up, his own flashlight cutting a narrow beam through the dark night.
I got up and walked over to the tire prints. “Here you go. I don’t know what good this does us. We knew he drive here. It ain’t like he was going to carry Mrs. Miller off over his shoulders.”
“It tells us he ain’t in his squad car,” Willis said. “The treads don’t match the department-issue tires. And these are big tires, not like the car I’ve seen Jeff drive around town. These are from a pickup, or an SUV. Maybe something with four-wheel drive. From that, I’d guess he had to do some off-roading to get to wherever he’s holding Mrs. Miller, or at the very least, down some rough dirt roads.”
Johnny was nodding so hard I thought his head would pop off. Obviously Willis was saying what Johnny was thinking, I just couldn’t figure out all the connections. I wracked my brain, trying to remember anything from Jeff’s childhood about hunting cabins, or favorite spots in the woods, or…
“That’s it,” I said. “That’s got to be where he took her.”
“Where?” Willis asked.
“I’m not real sure, we should probably ask Cracker, but I seem to recall there being something about Jeff’s daddy having a little piece of property over on John D. Long Lake, with a trailer or a fishing cabin, or something like that. I think his daddy called it his quiet place. Jeff talked one time in Sunday School about going with his daddy to the quiet place, and how much he liked it there.”
“That sounds like the perfect place to take somebody if you don’t want to be seen,” Willis said.
“And it’s not far from where he dumped Shelly’s body. Do you think he might have…”
“I don’t know,” Willis interrupted me before my thoughts went too far down that path. “Her body was in the water too long to know if there was any kind of sexual assault, so don’t think about that right now. Just think that if he’s got some kind of deranged fantasy playing out in his head, that Mrs. Miller might still be alive.”
“As long as we can find that place and get to her fast enough,” I said.
“Welcome to the wonders of the internet,” Willis said. “Let’s get back to the car.” We can look up property records online with the computer in the car.”
I followed him back to the car and slid into the passenger seat. He tapped a few buttons and looked annoyed.
“Nothing under his name. I know he rents the house he lives in from Clint Maxwell, but whatever other place he’s got oughta show up in the tax records.”
“Maybe it’s under his daddy’s name still?” I half-asked, half-suggested. “Try Richard Walker.”
He tapped the keys, then grimaced, shaking his head. “What’s his mother’s name?”
“Serinda Walker. Her maiden name was Cowen. Try that, too.”
A few more taps, more head shaking, then more tapping and more scowling. “Nothing. How does a person as transparent as Jeff keeps something like property hidden. I wouldn’t think he was somebody that would think like that.”
“I wouldn’t think he was somebody that would kill two teenagers and kidnap a woman, either,” I said.
“We don’t know that he did, Lila Grace,” Willis said, a cautious tone to his voice.
“Don’t use that policeman tone of voice with me, Willis Dunleavy,” I snapped. “You know as well as I do that boy is our best and only suspect, and if he don’t have that woman in his fishing trailer, wherever the hell it is, we ain’t got a snowball’s chance in Hell of getting her back. I looked into that man’s eyes and I promised him we would bring his wife home. He’s already lost his little girl. That woman is the only thing left keeping him in this world, so if we can’t do that, we might as well put a bullet in his head when we give him the news.”
Willis’ eyes were haunted, and he wore the face of a man who had told too many families their loved ones weren’t coming home. “I know, Lila. I know.”
I felt a little twinge in my chest. “Nobody calls me just Lila,” I said.
“I do.” Those two little words, in the middle of the night, sitting in a police car hunting down a murderer and trying to bring Karen Miller home safely, rang deep inside me. This was not a man who planned on just visiting in my life. He was part of me to stay. I took a deep breath, realizing I liked that feeling, then turned my attention back to the task at hand.
“Try Dargin Feemster,” I said.
“What the hell is a Dargin Feemster?”
“That’s Jeff’s granddaddy. He’s liable to have never switched the deed over when his Pap died, just kept paying the tax bill every year. The county wouldn’t care, as long as they got their little piece of money, and Jeff probably never thought anything about it.”
“Well, I’ll be damned,” Willis muttered. “There it is. A little six-acre plot on the lake, a couple miles from the main road. Ain’t no way to get there in a car, but I reckon that old Bronco of Jeff’s would do just fine. It’s got about fifty yards of frontage onto the lake, just enough for a little dock to fish off of.”
“If he’s anywhere, that’s where he’ll be,” I said. “We ain’t getting there in this Chevrolet, though. We’ll take my pickup. It’ll get us through about anything.”
“Then let’s go bring her home.” Willis said, putting the car in gear and tearing off on a ghost-fueled rescue mission.