With every passing mile her heart fled a little more.
The girl, nine years old, sat slumped in the front seat, rubbing her finger along the worn beige armrest. The slipstream from the open window laid a strip of blond hair across her face. She brushed it away and looked up at the unsmiling, gray-haired man of about forty. He drove carefully, with his eyes fixed beyond the long white nose of the car.
“Please,” the girl said.
She put her hands into her lap.
Maybe when he stopped at a red light she would jump out.
Maybe if he slowed down just enough …
Would it hurt, she wondered, to leap from the car into the tall grass beside the road? She pictured herself tumbling through the green blades, feeling the cold sprinkle of dew on her face and hands.
But then what? Where would she run to?
The first click of the turn signal interrupted these thoughts and the girl jumped as if a gun had fired. The car slowed and rocked as it pulled into the driveway, aiming toward a low brick building. She realized that her last hope was gone.
The car eased to a stop, brakes squealing like a sob.
“Give me a kiss,” the man said, reaching over and pushing the buckle release. The seat belt retracted. She held on to the nylon like a lifeline.
“I don’t want to. Please.”
“Just for today? Please.”
“Don’t leave me.”
“Out you go.”
“I’m not ready!”
“Do the best you can.”
“There’s nothing to be—”
“Don’t leave me!”
“Look—” His voice grew stony. “I’m going to be right nearby. Just over at Blackfoot Pond. That’s hardly a mile away.”
Her inventory of excuses was depleted. Sarah opened the car door but remained sitting.
“Give me a kiss.”
She leaned over and kissed her father quickly on his cheek then climbed out of the car, standing in the cool spring air heavily scented with bus exhaust. She took three steps toward the building, watching the car pull out of the driveway. She thought suddenly about the Garfield toy stuck to the back window of the family station wagon. Sarah remembered when she’d placed it there, licking the cups before squeezing them against the glass. For some reason this memory made her want to cry.
Maybe he would catch a glimpse of her in the mirror, change his mind and return.
The car vanished behind a hill.
Sarah turned and entered the building. Clutching her lunch box to her chest she shuffled through the corridors. Although she was as tall as any of the children swarming around her she felt younger than them all.
At the fourth-grade classroom she stopped. Sarah looked inside. Her nostrils flared and she felt her skin prickle with a rash of fear. She hesitated only for a moment then turned and walked resolutely from the building, buffeted and jostled as she forced her way through the oncoming stream of shouting, calling, laughing children.
“Not thirty feet from where they had found the body last night, he saw the note.
The piece of paper, pierced by a wild rose stem the shade of dried blood, fluttered in the moist wind, sending out a Morse code in the low morning sunlight.
Bill Corde pressed toward the paper through a tangle of juniper and maple saplings and stubborn runners of forsythia.
Had they missed it? How could they?
He barked his shin on a hidden stump and swore softly but continued toward the scrap.
Corde was six foot two and his short hair was Persian-cat gray, which because he was just about to turn forty made him maybe seven-eighths premature. His skin was pale, the month being April and Corde having been fishing only twice so far that season. He looked lean from a distance but his belt curled outward more than he would have liked; Corde’s most strenuous sport these days was gentlemen’s softball. This morning as always his New Lebanon Sheriff’s Department shirt was clean and stiff as a sheet of new balsa wood and his beige slacks had razor creases.
Corde was by rank a lieutenant and by specialty a detective.
He remembered this place not twelve hours before—last night, lit only by the deputies’ flashlights and the edgy illumination of a half-moon. He had sent his men to scour the ground. They were young and austere (the ones trained in the military) or young and arrogant (state police academy grads) but they were all earnest.
Although they were virtuosos at DUI arrests and joyridings and domestics, what the deputies knew about murder they had learned mostly from pulp thrillers and TV, just like they knew about guns from stubbly autumn fields, not from the state pistol range up in Higgins. Still they had been ordered to search the crime scene and they had, doggedly and with fervor.
But not one of them had found the piece of paper toward which Bill Corde now struggled through thick brush.
Oh, you poor girl …
… who lies at the foot of a ten-foot-high earth dam.
… who lies in this chill wet dish of mud and low grass and blue flowers.
… whose dark hair is side-parted, whose face is long, whose throat thick. Her round lips curl prominently. Each ear holds three wire-thin gold rings. Her toes are lanky and their nails dark with burgundy polish.
… who lies on her back, arms folded over her breasts, as if the mortician had already done her up. The pink floral blouse is buttoned high. Her skirt extends so modestly below her knees, tucked beneath her thighs.
“We got her name. Here we go. It’s Jennie Gebben. She’s a student.”
Last night Bill Corde had crouched down beside the body, his knee popping, and put his face next to hers. The pearlish half-moon was reflected in her dead but still unglazed hazel eyes. He had smelled grass, mud, methane, transmission fluid, mint from her lips and perfume like pie spices rising from her cold skin.
He had stood and climbed to the top of the dam, which held back the murky waters of Blackfoot Pond. He had turned and looked down at her. The moonlight was otherworldly, pale, special-effects light. In it, Jennie Gebben seemed to move. Not living, human movement but shrinking and curling as if she were melting into the mud. Corde had whispered a few words to her, or to whatever remained of her, then helped the men search the ground.
Now, in the morning brilliance, he pushed his way through a final tangle of forsythia and stepped up to the rosebush. With his hand inside a small plastic bag, Corde pulled the paper from the russet thorns.
Jim Slocum called, “The whole shebang?”
Corde did not answer him. The boys from the department had not been careless last night. They could not have found this scrap of paper then because it was a clipping from this morning’s Register.
Slocum asked again, “The whole, uhm, place?”
Corde looked up and said, “Whole thing. Yeah.”
Slocum grunted and continued unwinding yellow police-line tape around the circle of wet earth where the girl’s body had been found. Slocum, after Corde, was the next senior New Lebanon town deputy. He was a muscular man with a round head and long ears. He’d picked up a razor-cut hairstyle in 1974, complete with sideburns, and had kept it ever since. Except for theme parks, hunting trips, and Christmas at the in-laws’, Slocum rarely left the county. Today he whistled a generic tune as he strung the tape.
A small group of reporters stood by the road. Corde would give nothing away but these were rural news hounds and well behaved; they looked all filled up with reporters’ zeal but they left the two officers pretty much alone, content to shoot snaps and study the crime scene. Corde figured they were sponging up atmosphere for tomorrow’s articles, which would brim with adjectives and menace.
Corde lowered the newspaper clipping, now wrapped in the plastic bag, and looked around him. From the dam, off to his right, the ground rose to a vast forest split by Route 302, a highway that led to the mall then to a dozen other county roads and to a half-dozen state highways and to two expressways and eventually to forty-nine other states and two foreign countries where a fugitive killer might hide till the end of his days.
Pacing, Corde looked over the forest, his lips pressed tightly together. He and Slocum had arrived five minutes before, at eight-thirty. The Register started hitting stores and porches at about seven-fifteen. Whoever had left the clipping had done so in the past hour.
Listening to the hum of wind over a strand of taut barbed wire, he scanned the ground beneath the rosebush. It was indented by what seemed like two footprints though they were too smeared to help in identification. He kicked over a log that appeared newly fallen. A swarm of insects like tiny armadillos scurried away. Striding to the top of the dam, he placed his hands on green metal pipes sunk into the dirt as a railing.
He squinted deep furrows into his forehead as he looked through the morning sunlight that crackled off the wind-roughed water of the pond. The woods stretched away from him, endless acres encased in a piercing glare.
He cocked his head and pointed his ear at the stream of light.
Copyright © 2009 by Jeffery Wilds Deaver. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.