Updated: Mar 24, 2020
In the center of town, there’s an old cemetary connected to the Baptist church. Behind it, there’s a service trail leading off into the woods, which connects to a dilapidated caretaker’s cottage that’s been out of commission since the fifties. When I was in school, it was a popular spot for kids to sneak away and make out or get high. I had a hard time imagining teens slipping back there these days, now that the forest had swallowed up any semblance of civilization. The path was overgrown and narrow, with low tree branches reaching out like the claws of forest giants, scratching the car on both sides as I drove slowly past.
I pulled O’Brien’s cruiser back there deep enough that nobody would spot it from the main road, killed the lights and engine, then got to work.
I used the pass code I’d gleaned from Vanessa’s file to get inside her phone and started with emails and texts. Not too much to see, but there was a long conversation chain with somebody named “Toulouse.” They had first started chatting a couple months ago.
Vanessa - “I had a good time yesterday. Looking forward to our next hang sesh.”
Toulouse - “Wow. Desperate much?”
Vanessa - “Lol, kiss my ass. I’m trying to pay you a compliment.”
Toulouse - “What the hell is a compliment?” Is that some kind of sandwich?”
Vanessa - “God, ur so weird.”
Vanessa - “Wanna come over and play smash bros tonight?”
Toulouse - “Can’t. Got a thing.”
Toulouse - “It’s super mysterious, yet important as fuck.”
Vanessa - “Sounds intriguing. Can I have a hint?”
Toulouse - “Gotta help a guy get rid of some bodies.”
Vanessa - “Well, when you’re done, come play smash bros.”
Vanessa - “And bring beer.”
I’ll spare you the gritty details, but there were a few times when I had to put the phone down and roll my eyes.
Is this how kids flirt these days?
Toulouse seemed mostly harmless, but immature even by teenager standards. I honestly couldn’t tell what Vanessa saw in him (or her?), but there’s no accounting for taste, and Toulouse made her type “LOL” enough times that she must have enjoyed his company. There was nothing overtly sexual in their messages, just a strong overtone of two horny kids trying to figure themselves out.
I felt like such a creep, but then reminded myself that this was what I did for a living. Stalking couples, waiting for cheaters to get busy, then stealing some photos while they were going at it. The only difference here was that I knew the person whose life I was digging into. But even still, I couldn’t shake that nagging thought: this feels wrong.
Vanessa and Toulouse’s texts weren’t as expositional as I’d hoped. A whole lot of “see you tomorrow’s” gave me the impression that Toulouse was from work. A couple “I had fun last night’s” told me that they had gone out for some not-dates. A ton of emojis back and forth reminded me just how out-of-touch I was with this generation. And then the whole thing ended abruptly, with a few messages from Vanessa.
Vanessa - “Hey. Whatcha doin?”
Vanessa - “You there? I’m bored. Wanna hang?”
Vanessa - “Hello?”
Vanessa - “I guess you’re not talking to me anymore, huh?”
Toulouse - “Lose my number.”
Vanessa - “Wtf? What the hell did I do?”
Toulouse - “Vanessa was a friend of mine, douchebag.”
Vanessa - “I should have listened to everybody when they said that there’s something wrong with ur brain. U r an asshole.”
Toulouse - “Sorry, my bad, autocorrect.”
Toulouse - “What I meant to say was”
Toulouse - “Vanessa was a friend of mine, you twat-waffle Mcfuckface.”
That’s how it ended. The date of the last message put the conversation at about a week before her disappearance. I saved Toulouse’s number on the burner I got from Roger and made a plan to track the line down once I had a moment’s reprieve.
The next step was checking her phone for pictures. I opened the gallery, scrolled down a ways, and started flicking through the slideshow in chronological order. Vanessa was a normal teenage girl, and she took what I would consider an average amount of selfies. One for every day or so. I studied them, looking for any sort of clue or indicator that something was wrong, or about to go wrong. But she was always happy. Always wearing that same old brown jacket and that same typical teenage-girl smile.
I had to smile when I first saw it. The jacket. I recognized it as the one Donny used to wear all the time. It was a little too big on her, but she made it work.
Starting around a month back, there were more frequent pictures of her. Four, five, or more each day. Not selfies, though. Somebody else was taking pictures of her, with her phone, while she looked back and laughed.