Missing Persons

CHAPTER ONE

On a corner, books in her arms, laughing with friends, she stood out. They always did. Like creatures apart. There were similarities—superficial physical characteristics; hair parted down the middle and combed evenly to the sides, shoulder length or longer. Wide mouth, a quick smile that had a practiced effect. The beauty queen. Pretty.

But it was not her appearance that drew him. There were many attractive women who passed unnoticed. It was an ambiance, a demeanor. A certain toss of the head, a tilt of the chin. A way of walking. Better-than-thou, that’s how he thought of it. Look-but­-don’t-touch.

As artificial and manufactured as plastic, their smiles, the sound of their laughter, the way they stood with heels touching, backs straight—practiced, deliberate.

From across the street he watched, eyes shaded by polarized lenses, afternoon heat rising in shimmering waves from baked cobblestone paving. He chewed gum with methodical, slow masticating movements, mouth dry despite it.

His innards twisted, irritated by her although he had never seen the girl before. He didn’t have to know her. He knew her type well enough.

Beyond the girl and her friends, like a dusty mirage, the red brick school house grew somber and more deserted. Inside the fenced perimeter, younger students played in pools of purple shade beneath water oaks. Swing chains squealing, seesaws levitating, a staccato of youthful cries, adolescent girls taunted by mischievous boys. A yellow Bluebird bus lurched out of a parking lot and turned away south, double rear tires churning silt in ocher plumes.

The girl made moves to disengage—and that’s what it was. A pulling free; pressing matters awaited, time enough in camaraderie. As if in ballet, she side-stepped, heels always coming back together, designed to accentuate posture and announce, “Look at me. Pretty!”

Yes. Well.

He sucked the gum, trying to wet his mouth, but the Chiclet adhered to his teeth. His belly drew taut, abdominal muscles quivering. Fingers straight, splayed, he wiped them on the steering wheel of his Volkswagen “beetle.” He watched her, but all the while with peripheral vision he watched all who might be watching him.

A final gesture, one hand extended toward a friend palm down, her books clasped to bosom by her other arm. Then with a half turn, a toss of her hair, she walked away as if aware of all eyes following.

He waited until she turned a far corner, then started his car. Pulling away from the curb, he reached behind himself on the floorboard, touching the cold steel of a tire iron. One end was wrapped with adhesive tape for a better grip. He drove past the street where she walked, glancing casually in her direction. Then he circled the block and met her at the next corner.

“Hi!”

She started to cross and he called again, “Say, I’m lost, can you help me?”

The critical moment. Had she kept walking, he’d have driven away. She hesitated.

He got out, the motor running. He saw himself as if through her eyes—right arm in a sling, a friendly, genuine smile, brown wavy hair, tennis shoes, wearing shorts.

“Hurt my arm when I slipped trying to make a return,” he said. “Do you play tennis?”

“Sometimes.” Wary, aloof.

“Great game.” He grinned. “But a backhand is best performed with feet well beneath the body. My name’s Bob.”

A quick nod.

“I was born here.” He winced as he adjusted the “hurt” arm with his other hand. “I’ve been away ten years. Things have changed, haven’t they?”

A tentative smile, but still alert.

“I was looking for the house where we used to live. Green shutters, slate roof, two-story house. Do you know it?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Next door neighbors were named Ziebart.” A name he’d seen on a furniture store downtown. “Do you know them?”

“Randy Ziebart?”

“Could be. On the other side lived my cousin and his family—do you know the Murphys?”

“Murphy.” She gazed past him. “You mean the Murphys who own a Texaco station on Main Street?”

“Now that you mention it, I believe they did say something about that.”

“They live across town from here.”

“Now, you mean. They used to live right around here. I went to Lake City elementary school with my cousin.” He put a foot on the bumper of the idling VW, smiling. “Those were great times. We lived on Pine Tree Boulevard—”

“That’s about six blocks from here.”

“Oh, yeah?”

“Straight ahead,” she advised.

“Can’t miss it, right?”

“Right,” she said.

“I once got lost on a dead-end street. It was one-way.”

She laughed, stance easing. He avoided prolonged eye contact, allowing her time to assess him—handsome, winsome, with a hurt arm.

“You must be packing in the studies.” He indicated her books.

“Trying to rack up the credits.”

“You’re a senior?”

“No. Eighth grade.”

“You look older. That’s a compliment.”

Her face flushed.

“Straight ahead, you say?”

“Right. About six blocks.”

“Give you a lift?”

“I’m not going far.”

“Don’t mind at all,” he volunteered. “I’m going that way.”

“Well—”

“Hop in,” he opened the door. “Forgive the clutter.”

She saw remnants of fast-food containers, a tennis racket in the rear seat, some tools on the floor. “I don’t have far to go,” she hedged.

“Hey look,” he teased, “I’m harmless! Be a good Samaritan and show me the way.”

She got in. The seat slipped beneath her, loose on its track. He rounded the car, got in beside her. “That seat is broken,” he said.

“I’m only going a couple of blocks—”

“So you know the Ziebarts?” He shifted into low gear awkwardly, obviously pained by the effort.

“I know Randy.”

“How are they doing?”

“I think Randy’s fine.”

“Buckle up, honey, that seat scares me.”

She did so, the seat slipping with each acceleration. “I want to look them up,” he said. “I had a lot of good times with the Ziebarts. And you know Randy?”

“He’s a classmate.”

He had to reach across himself to shift gears, his right arm useless, each time grimacing.

“Boy, I bet I never use a backswing again.”

“I go right at the next corner,” she directed.

“Do you suppose you could show me the way to Pine Tree Boulevard, first?”

“No, I really have to go on home.”

“Sure,” he smiled at her. “I understand. Say, can you just hand me that map under your seat—right under your feet?”

She bent forward to see, shifting books on her lap. Suddenly, he yanked his arm from the sling and seized her by the nape of her neck, shoving her down; he jammed the brake and the seat shot forward, her head under the dashboard, her waist cinched by the seat belt. Holding her, he stepped on the gas.

She grappled for his hand, his fingers intertwined in her hair, but he pushed her head down harder, growling, “Stay put or you’ll get hurt.”

She tried to turn and he shoved her violently, her breath expelled by the pressure of books against her abdomen, held by the seat belt. She scratched at his hand and he shook her, warning, “Be still, or else!”

The town wasn’t large. The residential area quickly passed and still he held her.

“You’re hurting me,” she cried.

“Put your hands behind you.”

The cutting belt, her lungs aching, sides hurting—she complied. He snapped handcuffs on her wrist, demanded she bring the other hand nearer.

“No!”

He slammed on brakes and momentum threw her into the dashboard. He was on her with both hands, dragging her other arm up, cuffing it, also.

Only now did he release her, saying, “Keep your head down, or I’ll knock it off. I don’t want to have to hurt you.”

“Stupid!” she shrieked, damning herself. “Dumb!”

The vehicle swung wildly, bumped, knocking her head again. All the while, his right hand rode her back, prepared to restrain or harm as need be.

He stopped, cut the motor and allowed her to sit up.

“Don’t hurt me,” she said.

He lit a cigarette, inhaled, staring through the smudged windshield. They were under pine trees, surrounded by underbrush, adjacent to a plowed field with a stubble of cornstalks jutting from the soil.

“Please don’t hurt me.”

Not so haughty now, arms locked behind, her facade torn away—not so god almighty now.

“Are you going to hurt me?”

He looked at the glowing tip of his cigarette, flicked ashes, drew again.

“Are you?” she asked.

It was his eyes which terrified her most. A moment ago dancing, cerulean blue, filled with warmth and friendliness. She remembered something she’d read in literature class—something about the eyes being windows to the soul—now distant, utterly cold and without compassion. He smoked, peering through pine trees down a rutted sandy lane overgrown with weeds.

“Please don’t hurt me.” Rape she meant. There had been a class—home economics—she struggled to remember the advice offered, all the girls giggling nervously as the teacher mechanically listed the threat, alternatives, proper responses. Rule One: don’t take up with strangers. Rule Two: stay out of their cars. Rule Three—

He flicked away the cigarette, spit gum out his window. Turning, he looked not at her face but at her neck and chest.

“Please—”

“If you don’t cooperate, I’ll kill you.”

“Oh, no, please—”

He unbuttoned her blouse, slowly, as if savoring the moves.

“Oh, please—”

Unexpectedly, he bit her.

“Help!” she screamed.

He slammed her against the door, a hand over her nose and mouth. She tried to bite back but missed; he was expecting it. Wrenching aside, she screamed, “Help me! Help!”

Incongruously, a flip remark made by a pimply-faced student came to her mind, “Relax and enjoy it …”

“Help me!” He smashed her face with a fist, the taste of blood rose on her tongue.

He hauled her out onto the ground, threw her down and pulled off her clothing.

It hurt, even when she tried to ease it by cooperating, it hurt. It would be over soon. Be over soon. Be over soon—

He finished with her, turned her onto her belly and for a grateful instant she thought he was going to remove the pinching handcuffs.

He left her there and she heard him raking among the tools on his floorboard.

Instinctively, she whimpered, “I won’t tell. I promise.”

What was he doing?

“I don’t know you,” she reasoned.

His feet beside her.

“Let me go home now,” she begged. Her mouth was gritty, sand between her teeth.

She tried to twist and face him, and he pinned her bare shoulder with a hand. The hand made a soothing stroke and she dared hope—

Then he swung down hard with the tire iron, aiming at the base of her skull. She quivered. Again, harder—a spastic twitch, skull crushing. Again, with all his might …