Updated: Mar 23, 2020
He was waiting for me in the living room when I walked in. At first, I didn’t recognize him, a short man with bad posture and thick glasses. He looked nervous when he saw me and muttered a simple, “Hey detective.”
It took me a few seconds before I recognized him as the janitor from the school. “Hey Roger, I thought we weren’t meeting until later.”
He shook his head and said in an exasperated voice, “No, no, I’m not- could you please not do that?”
“My name is Peter Kohl.”
I looked at Jamie and said, “Do you mind giving us a minute?”
Jamie nodded and left towards his bedroom. I took a chair and invited “Peter” to do the same. After he had sat and taken a moment to calm down, I asked him my questions.
“What’s up, Peter? Why are you at my brother’s kids’ house? Should I be concerned?”
Peter took off his glasses and wiped his eyes, forcing back tears. I didn’t know exactly how to react, but I assumed time would tell. So I waited until he was ready to answer. After a few more moments, he managed to get it together enough to say, “I really shouldn’t be here. If he finds out I came to talk to you-”
“If who finds out?”
“Roger. Who else?”
Oh for fuck’s sake…
“Look, Peter, is there a reason you’re here? Because I’m actually still trying to figure out what happened to my niece and bullshit distractions like this aren’t helping.”
“You can’t trust him.”
“Roger! He acts like he’s working for the common good, but in reality he’s just a manipulator. He only cares about himself and these favors he’s collecting aren’t what you’d expect. He hurts people. And he can’t be stopped.”
I took a deep breath and rubbed my temples. “Look, Peter, I’m not interested in role playing or whatever the hell this is. Roger is a puppet. A toy. An inanimate object. If you’ve got some kind of anxiety or whatever and can only communicate through the doll then fine. You do you. But I’ve actually got shit to do, so unless you want to tell me whatever it was that ‘Roger’ found in Vanessa’s case, then please, kindly, get the fuck out of this house.”
Peter stood up, muttered something about being sorry for wasting my time, and left.
I felt defeated. Another dead end.
The only thing left to do was start over.
I took apart Vanessa’s room piece by piece and spent a couple hours on her laptop. There was nothing out of the ordinary to be found in either case. Her phone was still plugged in next to her bed, but it was locked with a passcode. I made a few guesses using birthdays, but nothing worked. She was too smart for that anyway. I pocketed her cell with the intention of mailing it to my guy back in New Orleans, the one who could break into anything if the money was right, and I’d already decided to make this priority number one.
She didn’t keep a diary, or a day planner, or anything that could have given me an idea of where to start. Her sock drawer had a stack of cash in the corner, about $350 in tens and twenties and a dime bag of pot. A post-it near her bed had her most recent work schedule.
Everything on her laptop was password protected using a master password manager program. She was smart, but that’s a level of caution that I would categorize as paranoia. I had only ever seen that kind of behavior with one other person. Me. And I deal with some pretty sensitive stuff by profession.
Her Facebook settings wouldn’t let me see any of her posts, but Jamie was able to view her friends list from his account. I cross-referenced names with the school database and in under an hour I had my check list for the day planned out. It was going to be difficult running these people down without access to a phone, nevermind the fact that I’m a grown man trying to convince a bunch of teenagers to sit down for a Q and A.
Frankie was a tall homely girl and, best I could tell, Vanessa’s best friend. I found her at the local pizza place where she worked and convinced her to give me a few moments of her time. She mostly corroborated what I already knew. Vanessa was saving up money, planning to move out of town, didn’t have any secrets worth sharing. She wasn’t seeing anybody but…
“But she had this glow about her. Like, I knew there was somebody. They went out a few times. Not, like, a date or anything, and she didn’t really want to talk about it. Then a couple weeks ago, it went away. Like they broke up, but not like they were ever really official anyway, you know?”
“Guy? Girl? Did you get a name? Any idea where they were from?”
“No, she didn’t think it was serious enough to talk about I guess. They met online, I think.”
I caught her ex-boyfriend Brian as he was getting off shift from the local garage. He was in a bit of a hurry to get to the deer stand, but agreed to answer a few quick questions. I asked about the mystery person in Vanessa’s life, but Brian informed me that he absolutely didn’t give any fucks about what she was up to since the breakup. He was an asshole, but there wasn’t any impression that he was lying.
I found Hammons, her English teacher--the one she had friended on Facebook--at his home on the other side of town. He was all too happy to cooperate, and if it weren’t for his rock solid alibi on the night of the disappearance (taking his kids to visit their dying grandmother the next state over), I might have been tempted to play things differently. But it quickly became clear that he also had nothing to hide.
He showed me the letter of recommendation that he had written for Vanessa’s batch of college applications, and we spent a few minutes drinking coffee and talking. He agreed that the cult story was bullshit, but he had heard some rumors around school that she was seeing somebody new. Of course, a middle-aged overweight English teacher wasn’t exactly the keyholder for information when it came to students’ personal lives. It wasn’t a total waste, though, as he pointed me to my next lead. Morgan Hardee.
According to Hammons, “everybody” knew that Morgan had a thing for Vanessa. He was an awkward kid, a year under her, but he still asked her out on more than one occasion, and was turned down on more than one occasion. He wasn’t on her list of friends, but Hammons knew where I could find him.
There weren’t any cars in the driveway at Morgan’s house. I rang his doorbell and knocked, then waited about five minutes before circling around to the backyard and breaking in through an open window. I didn’t have time to play it legal, and besides, this was hardly the worst thing I’d done all day.
It wasn’t hard to figure out which bedroom was his. There was an oversized Fight Club poster thumbtacked to his closed door like an edgy-teenager beacon. I pushed it open and immediately realized that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. There was a mirror on the wall covered with pictures of Vanessa. Some looked like they were taken off of social media, others looked like they were snapped from a voyeur’s point of view. The pictures continued, all over the walls, thumbtacked in random intervals more or less at eye level.
The room was a mess, clothes and books and dishes stuck wherever they would fit, which made my search all the more difficult. I checked the obvious places and hit gold right off the bat. Under his mattress next to a one-hitter and a baggie of weed was a girl’s yellow t-shirt--a match for the one Vanessa wore the last time she was seen.
I could hear Morgan’s car stereo blaring that god-awful excuse for music as he pulled into the driveway, giving me plenty of time to sneak out the way I had come, but that was the last thing in the world I wanted to do. Instead, I closed the bedroom door and waited for him in his closet with the door cracked just enough for me to see out. I needed to see him before he saw me. I needed to see his reaction to know for sure.
It didn’t take him long to get inside. He shut the bedroom door behind him and made a b line straight for his computer desk, but then stopped halfway and muttered, “What the fuck?”
He was taller than I expected, with at least an inch on me. Long, greasy black hair and the beginnings of a patchy beard. Where he stood, he had his back to me, and by the time he turned around I was there with my gun pointed right at him, ready for a kill shot.
He fell to the ground and covered his face, screaming out “Oh please oh shit oh man, please don’t hurt me!”
“Shut up!” I yelled at him.
“What do you want? Oh god, dude, just take whatever you want but please don’t hurt me!”
That was the last thing he got out before he started sobbing.
“Phone. Give me your phone.”
“Wh-wh-what?” He blubbered.
“Sorry!” He dug a cell phone out of his pocket and held it out to me.
“Put it on the bed!” I yelled. He nodded and tossed the phone onto his dirty, unmade mattress, and I kept the gun locked on his forehead as I walked over to grab it.
“Why did you put up all these pic-”
“Shut up!” I screamed, rushing over to the spot where he had collapsed into a pathetic heap and smacking him across the face with my weapon. It worked. He shut right the hell up. But just to make sure, I pressed the tip of the gun against his face and put the fear of God into him. “If you say one more word. Just one more single word to me, I’ll paint these walls red. Nod if you understand.”
He understood. And closed his eyes. And fell onto his side in the fetal position, crying.
I felt awful doing this to the poor kid, but it was the only way to convince whoever set this whole thing up that I was buying their little fabrication. He almost ruined it by asking me why I put up all these pictures of Vanessa.
I’m not the smartest person in the world, but I would have to be a complete moron to see an orgy of evidence like this and believe it.
When I first came into town, I made a point to look up and memorize the sheriff’s personal cell phone number for just such a situation as this. I picked Morgan’s phone up off the bed and dialed.
Clyde answered, and I’m sure he was confused as hell when I explained that I had found Vanessa’s killer and told him where he could find Morgan.
The look on the kid’s face when he first walked into the room proved that he had no idea where all these pictures had come from, but the whole thing was so nice and neat. The perfect horrible ending to the story, complete with a villain, motive, and a resolution that would satiate the pain-in-the-ass detective that was asking too many questions.
He told me to stay put, and I lied and promised him I would.
Five minutes later, I was in the Honda, driving as fast as I could without raising any suspicion and trying to decide where the hell I was actually going.
The story was starting to take shape in the worst way possible. Vanessa had to be tied to the town’s secret somehow. Whatever entity had set me up this morning and made the truck disappear was now adapting their strategy. Offering me a way out, all I had to do was take it. But I’d already decided that there was nothing that was going to make me stop until either I’d figured out what happened to Vanessa or I was six feet under.
I tried to think while I drove aimlessly around that shithole of a town, but couldn’t come up with anything actually worthy of calling a plan. After a few minutes on the back roads, I came up to an old Mom and Pop hardware store and remembered what Peter had told me earlier vis-a-vis Roger. About “them” framing me up for some of the open cases in town. After what I had just seen, I had no doubt that his warning was genuine, so I decided to cover my ass and pulled into the empty parking lot to go shopping.
Thirty minutes later, I had a Boy scout basket of supplies for nearly any situation. Duct tape, pipe cleaner, rope, pliers, hammer, gloves, flashlight, JB Weld, and some other various odds and ends. When it comes to the unknown, there’s no such thing as overprepared.
It was already getting dark by the time I left the store, and I made the mistake of feeling optimistic.
That didn’t last too long.
I saw the figure sitting in the passenger side front seat of Vanessa’s Honda right away. There was no mistaking him. The figure, dressed in all camo, green paint smeared on his face, staring forward with a lifeless gaze.
A million thoughts tried to crash their way through my mind at once, but by some miracle I managed to grab onto the only one that mattered.
Be calm. Be rational. Think this through.
Facts. Use the facts.
The man sitting in the car, waiting for me, looks exactly like… what was his name?
But he died earlier today. I checked.
How long was I inside? Half an hour? How did they find me? How did they sneak his body into my car without me noticing? And why?
Of course. I knew why.
They couldn’t take any chances. Even if Morgan took the fall for Vanessa’s disappearance, I was still a loose end. Which means this is a set up. Which means the police will be here any second.
Think, think, think, now, options, go.
I can run. Flee the scene. Call it in later that the car was stolen. But by now it would be covered in my DNA. If they found the dead body, it would get tied back to me. And what kind of story could I tell in my defense? I literally killed him, so the truth was out. No, forget that, next option.
Get in the car and gun it. Anywhere. Leave the fucking town if I need to. I can drop the body in the parking lot and- No! The old man working the cash register in the store will tie me to this place. Okay, take the body with me. The cops will pull you over, then how do you explain this? Well the cops aren’t here yet. So that leaves me with one option.
I dropped my things, raced to the trunk of the car, popped it open, then opened the car door and checked to make sure.
He was just as dead as the last time I saw him. The only thing different now was the bullet hole on his forehead. Whoever put him in the seat had made a point to splatter blood all over the dash and carpet, but I didn’t have the luxury of time. This was going to need to be fast and messy.
I yanked him out the seat and dragged him over my shoulder around to the back, shoved him into the trunk, and slammed it shut the same second that the deputy’s cruiser pulled into the parking lot.
I took a few deep breaths, tried to steady my nerves, then when that wasn’t working lit a cigarette and went back to where I’d dropped my bags.
“Evening, Mr. Riggin.”
I tried not to look guilty as fuck when I turned to face the rookie deputy that I had just met yesterday.
“Franklin, right?” I said as I picked up my purchases and started for the car. He followed right behind me. “Sure is a small town, huh deputy?”
“It sure is,” he said.
I opened the back door and put the bags on the seat, keeping it casual and cool. I leaned against the car and slowly continued to smoke the coffinnail, then offered one to Franklin, who shook his head and said, “No, I’m ok. Been quit for five years.”
I put the pack away and said, “You’re a better man than me.”
After a second, I could see that Franklin was getting nervous, trying to look over my shoulder into the car.
“Is something wrong, Franklin?” I asked point-blank.
“No, no, we’re good.”
His poker face was just as bad today.
“Well,” I said, “Any new developments with Middleton? I know you’re not supposed to say anything, but off the record, does he look like he’s any closer to cracking?”
“I doubt it.”
I finished my smoke, put the cherry out on the heel of my boot, then put the butt back into the cigarette pack as Franklin watched.
“Look, I’m flattered by the attention, but something tells me you’re not just here for my world class conversation skills. Something on your mind?”
Franklin finally relaxed and let out a laugh. “You got me. Somebody called the station to say there was a man outside the hardware shop, trying to sell drugs out of the trunk of a Honda.”
I returned his laugh, “No shit? Did they say what he looked like?”
Franklin went on to describe me to a t. Down to the black jacket and scrapes on my face. Franklin and I shared another laugh.
“I guess I better get going,” I said, “Before anybody gets the wrong idea, huh?”
“Yeah, but real quick, why don’t you let me take a look inside your trunk. Just so I can put it in my report, huh?”
I shook my head and said, “Sorry Franklin. You’ll have to put in your report that I refused to open it without a warrant. You know, it’s the principle of the thing.”
Franklin nodded a couple times and said, “Well, I guess you’d better get going then, huh?”
I felt a deep sense of relief that lasted for all of half a second before the radio on Franklin’s belt cracked to life with the sound of a loud and urgent voice:
"All units be on the lookout for a Honda Accord. Plate number-" and then Vanessa’s car’s license plate. “Be advised, the driver is Eric Riggin; he is likely armed.”
I tried to laugh again, but Franklin started reaching for his gun so I put a right hook across his cheek hard enough to drop him and split my knuckles open.
It wasn’t enough to knock him out, though. But his head hit the concrete and he started groaning. I went straight for his gun, wrestled it free from his belt, and pitched it onto the roof of the store. Then while he was still regaining his bearings, I took out his cuffs and put one around his left wrist before he snapped back into action and jumped on top of me, throwing wild punches and screaming.
He was a terrible fighter, and relying entirely on adrenaline. I guarded my face until he had tired himself out, then grabbed him by the wrists and gave him a solid kick to the side of his knee. He dropped again, and I put him on his stomach and twisted his arms behind his back just enough to connect the handcuffs.
I jumped to my feet and turned to see where the sound had come from. It was the old man with white hair, the cashier from inside the hardware store. He was standing there with a shotgun in his hands aimed in the air.
“Now that was just a warning shot,” he said with a slight quiver in his voice. “The next one’s for you if you don’t let him go right now.”
As he said that, he pointed the gun at me.
“That’s a Hatfield break action shotgun.” I said.
“Yeah, so what?” he answered back, trying to sound intimidating, but failing.
“So, I’m not an idiot, old man. That thing is a single shot. And you just fired your entire payload with the warning.”
He trembled slightly, but refused to lower the weapon, so I gave him a little incentive, pulling my own piece and aiming it right back at him.
“This one, however, has plenty of warning shots left in it.”
He tossed the shotgun down and held up his hands as he made his way to his knees.
“Good.” I said as I circled around to the front of Vanessa’s car. That idiot’s gunshot would be attracting every bored law enforcement agent in the whole damned town, and I needed to get somewhere else fast.