Finding Vanessa

Updated: Mar 24, 2020

I must confess this process hasn't exactly been easy for me. Wading through the memories of what happened feels like digging through the rubble of your home after a tornado. You look for anything worth salvaging. And try to ignore the rest. Those three days feel like an exposed nerve in my mind. The wounds, both physical and mental, are still fresh. But this is a process, and my shrink says the best way to heal is by facing the trauma head on. So I force myself to remember it one more time to put it all on paper, even the parts that don’t make any sense.

Let’s get on with it. This whole thing began a couple months ago with a phone call to my office. I run a small operation out of New Orleans, meaning I answer the phone when I'm not in the field. I'm one of dozens of private investigators in the city specializing in infidelity cases. Yeah, I know, what a cliche. But it pays the bills and keeps the doors open. More or less.

"Riggin Private Investigators," I said into the receiver. Answering the phone is just another part of the job--usually old clients looking for an update or the occasional confused telemarketer. I don't get many new cases from clients calling me, and despite what you may have seen on television, there’s no such thing as a “walk-in” client at a place like this. If I want a new job, I have to make friendly with one of the divorce lawyers or grease the palms of a certain Madam at a certain “establishment” who knows exactly when a marriage is coming to an abrupt end.

I multitask when I can, which means I was cyberstalking a cheating asshole husband on Facebook when I answered the phone. This douchebag was using an alias to lure in the impressionable college girls while his long suffering soon-to-be-ex-wife was at her parents’ house taking care of his kids.

That douchebag was my client, and he had paid me good money to dig up dirt on his old lady.

"Hey, oh, hi," the voice on the other line stammered. I stopped what I was doing and gave the phone all of my attention. That voice sounded like it belonged to someone young. There was a hint of fear in it.

"Hi," I answered, trying my best to sound like a calming presence, something I’ve had zero practice with. "You’ve reached Eric Riggin."

"Eric, hey!" The voice answered. Definitely a kid's voice. "It's me. James."

I scanned my mind for any Jameses I knew but came up blank. Not surprisingly, I don't know many kids.

"What can I do for you, James?"

"It's about Vanessa. I don't know if you heard what happened or not."

Holy shit. Vanessa? Then that must mean that this is-

"Jamie?" I asked, "Hey, kiddo! I didn't recognize your voice. How long's it been?"

"It's been... a few years."

"Yeah, sorry about that."

I've never been good at the whole "uncle" thing. After my only brother died, I swore to myself I'd check in on his kids from time to time, but there's something about real life. It can't be stopped, or paused, or put on hold. And sometimes it takes all your attention. Look, I know I'm a shit uncle just like I was a shit brother, but at least I can acknowledge that.

"So Vanessa," I asked. It was his older sister. I did some quick math and came up with her current age. Eighteen. Jeez, has it really been that long? "What happened? Is she okay?"

"Oh, uh, I guess you didn't know. I'm not sure who was supposed to tell you."

Oh shit. My mind jumped to all of the worst case scenarios, and all my years in this city gave my imagination plenty to work with.

Just tear the band-aid off, kid.

"I haven't heard anything, Jamie. Tell me what happened."

"She's missing."

Missing? Well, she's eighteen, she's got rebellious Riggin blood, and if she's anything like the last time I saw her, smart as hell. Missing could mean anything.

"How long?" I asked.

"Two weeks."

"Who was the last person to see her? Did she say anything? Leave a note? Pack a bag?"

"Um..." I was overloading the poor kid. "Can you... maybe come here?"

If it hadn't been my own flesh and blood asking I might have laughed into the receiver right then.

"Jamie, I have a job."

Jeez, did I really just say that?

"Oh, ok. I thought I'd ask. Thanks anyway."

"Hey, wait. Is your mom around? Can I talk to-"

He had already hung up the phone.

I have a job? What the hell is wrong with me?

It took me all of ten minutes to make up my mind that I was going back to that shitty town I'd sworn never to go back to. The town where I grew up swearing I'd find a way to escape. The town where I left my brother's body in the ground. I made arrangements to put what cases I could on hold and sent some select screenshots to my douchebag client's wife from an anonymous email address. Next, I threw a few supplies into the go-bag I keep by the door: some clothes, cash, smokes, my Beretta 9mm, and a bottle of liquid courage - everything I might need for a week or so away from the comforts of home.

I tried calling Jamie a couple more times after I hit the interstate, but his line stayed busy. I tried at least once an hour, but it never went through. You know that sinking feeling in your gut when something bad is about to happen and there's nothing you can do to stop it? That's what I had, times a thousand. I drove all night, stopping only for gas and bathroom breaks, eating and smoking in the car. Vanessa was like her father. Probably too much for her own good. And that backwards small town wasn't kind to smart or different people. I could just imagine how her last few years had gone. That high school where I had to break a few kids' noses just to get left alone at lunch time wasn't for the weak or kind. But maybe things had changed since I left.

It was afternoon by the time I got to Jamie and Vanessa's home. The kid was pure shocked to see me, and the feeling was absolutely reciprocated. He was fifteen years old, two feet taller than the last time I saw him. In fact, he was taller than me now, and the spitting image of his father. It was downright eerie. I gave him a hug and he invited me in.

I hate to say it, but even after all this time I didn't really do the whole "catching up" thing. Maybe after this blows over, I'll ask him about his friends and grades and whatever, but at that moment all I wanted to do was get down to business. Thankfully, he felt the same way.

We sat in the cramped, dusty living room of his family's three bedroom ranch-style house. It was smaller than I remembered, the front and back yards overgrown with weeds. They lived in a part of town that looked like nature was slowly taking it back. I would say that they were in the poor part of town, but that place only had poor parts. The fact that they weren't living in a trailer put them in the top tier of luxury. All I could think while I was there was God I hate this place.

The story fell together about like I expected. She'd been talking about getting out, and had even started working a part time job at the gas station on the edge of town. One night, she went outside for a walk and that was the last anyone ever saw of her. Jamie was in the living room and saw her leave but didn't think much about it. She wasn't carrying anything with her. She didn't look strange or high or drunk. She just walked out in jeans and a yellow t-shirt around ten o'clock, and then... Who knows?

These were the facts. The cold, unemotional facts. If I was going to be able to help in any way, it would only be because I used the facts to do it. Her car was still in the driveway. None of the neighbors heard or saw anything. She didn't have a boyfriend. Her classmates hadn't had any contact. Her cell phone was plugged in on the table next to her bed. Facts.

What about the police?

The police had their hands full, but they came out and did a report and said they'd be in touch if they found anything.

What about Vanessa's mother?

Well, that's where things get uncomfortable. My brother's widow has had issues for a while. Losing her husband just cranked them up into a higher gear. She was taking meds for it, but there's only so much you can do for someone that doesn't want to be helped. Miranda had delusions and manic episodes. Some days her grasp on reality was more tenuous than others. I remembered some time after the funeral when Miranda confided in me that she didn't believe Vanessa was really her daughter. She was convinced that someone had come shortly after she was born and swapped her out with another baby. Her Vanessa, she said, was in outer space now and this thing she was being forced to raise was secretly working for "them."

I may be a shitty uncle, but Miranda is an even shittier mother, and if this were a worst case scenario she was my suspect number one.

But Jamie put that to rest. Miranda was off in another city, in the same hospital she had been for nearly two years, getting some much needed help. He and Vanessa had been living pretty much on their own ever since. He was shocked that nobody had told me.

"Look," I finally said after I had heard everything there was to tell, "I know you think I can help, but I'm not sure I'm really qualified to do anything here. I've never worked a missing persons case before in my life."

"I can pay you," he said, defensively.

"I don't care about money. Not right now. I just want to manage expectations. You know the forty-eight hour rule, right?" He nodded. "Well, you also know that Vanessa is a smart kid. Super smart. She's most likely with somebody blowing off some steam in the city."

He nodded again. I don't know if I was being convincing or not. Comforting clients is the one thing I could never get right. And right now, I had to treat this like a case.

"Good." That's when I said something I never should have said, "I'm going to find her. I promise."

I made my first stop at the sheriff's station to check on the status of their investigation. The receptionist made me wait in the lobby for about half an hour, which I spent on my phone looking up any news and public information I could find about this place. It's remarkable how much knowledge is out there on the internet. With social media everybody is an amateur reporter. Between that, the Freedom of Information Act, and the general dilution of news, there aren't really any secrets left anymore. Death records, police files, a veritable treasure trove of information plugging all of us into a shared consciousness and giving you whatever you want if you know where to look, and the