Ancient tumblers click and the rough, hewn door creaks open. Two hooded soldiers march me down a dimly lit, dank corridor. Condensation pools on the stone floor. With a spear point pressed against my spine, I mount the spiral staircase. Ten-foot doors swing open. The waiting crowd jeers with anticipation. Blinded by the sun, I squint to assess the circular arena. Struggling against the ropes that bind my wrists. I earn a strong whack across my shoulders, that knocks me to the ground. Forced to my feet, I stumble to the guillotine at the center of the field. Kneeling, the executioner secures my head in the lunette. The blade is released. I scream and bolt upright in bed. The phone rings and I will my breath to normal.
“Clark…Can’t it wait until morning?…Okay. You’re on.”
I have ten minutes to pull myself together or lose ten dollars and a dollar for every minute I am late. Elliot tossed out the bait and I bit. My shortie nightgown hits the floor on route to the bathroom. The sunken eyes in the mirror receive a cold-water splash and my pearly whites get one pass with the electric toothbrush. A baby wipe suffices for cleansing the pits and groin, with deodorant picking up the slack. Taming my fiery curls with an elastic is the final touch. My foot touches the curb as the red, Mercedes AMG Roadster glides to a stop.
My partner shouts from the open window, “You look like Hell.”
I climb in. “Don’t start. You owe me ten dollars.”
“The guillotine nightmare again?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“You should see a shrink.”
“Why did you wake me up in the middle of the night.”
“A thirteen-year-old girl is missing. She was last seen in the dining room at 7 P.M., having dinner with her mother, father and fifteen-year-old brother, Dillon. After dinner, she went upstairs to her room.”
“What’s her name?”
“They want to keep it quiet.”
“The police have more resources.”
The sky is warming as we follow the winding, tree-lined, dirt drive to an open, iron gate. Ahead is a stucco, Tudor mansion, that has seen better days. The plantings are overgrown and the lawn is riddled with weeds. The housekeeper leads us to the parlor, where the family is congregated by the fieldstone fireplace. A bald, stocky man in his forties rises from a chestnut, leather chair.
“Samantha Clark and Elliot Michaels, I’ve heard a lot of good things. Thank you for coming. I’m Trevor James. This is my wife, Jenny and son, Dillon.”
Jenny is frail, with a sallow complexion. Her turban scarf cannot mask the lack of eyebrows and facial hair from chemotherapy. She nods an acknowledgement. Dillon is beside her on the sofa. Built like his father, he has his mother’s doe-like, brown eyes.
Elliot begins questioning. “When did you discover Molly was missing?”
“At eleven, when I did a bed check.”
“Your children go to bed at eleven on a school night?” I ask.
“No. Lights out is at ten. I look in at eleven.”
Dillon wiggles in his seat.
“When you found Molly’s bed empty, what did you do?” Elliot continues.
“I looked for her in the bathroom, then in the kitchen. When I couldn’t find her, I searched every room, which took a while in a twenty-room house.
Elliot directs a question to Jenny. “At what time did you realize Molly was gone?”
“When my husband woke me an hour ago.”
The boy’s eyes are riveted to the floor.
“Don’t waste your time. He’s deaf.” His father’s tone is crisp.
Elliot and I are private investigators. Messy divorces and insurance fraud are not on our list of services. Our styles differ, but we get the job done. Elliot solves mysteries with logic. I pick up vibes.
“While Elliot’s finishing the interview, I’d like to see Molly’s room.”
Trevor scowled. “I’ll escort you when we’re done.”
“Time is of the essence, Mr. James. Dillon can show me where it is.”
I crouch in the boy’s line of sight and reach for his hand. His eyes search his mother’s face for approval. She smiles and nods. In the foyer, away from parental oversight, I sign that I want to see Molly’s room. We go to the right wing on the second floor. There were four doors off the corridor. Dillon opens the first on the left. I sign my appreciation and tell him to wait in his room. Looking relieved to be released, he disappears into the room next to Molly’s.
Decorated in lavender and white, the room is frilly and bright. The queen-size bed is a white, four-poster with a canopy. Lavender shag rugs accessorize the wide board, oak flooring. On the wall by the bathroom door, is the vanity and bench. Between two windows, is a matching double-dresser with a round mirror. The view, from the back of the house, is the walled, English garden that no longer displays prize winning roses and pruned shrubs.
One window is missing the screen. From the windowsill, there is a short drop to the back porch roof. To the left, a mature ivy, has overgrown its trellis and creeps along the cedar shingles. I climb out the window and pick my way on the slight pitch to Dillon’s room. He is wearing Bluetooth earbuds to play a video game, odd for a deaf, young man.
Back in Molly’s room, I go through the drawers and closet, which would pass military inspection. On my way out I pause in the doorway to scan the room. Nothing shouts that a teenage girl lives here. Missing are posters, stuffed animals, jewelry and make-up. I close the door and slip into the room across the hall.
Painted British racing green and decorated with heavy, mahogany furniture, it feels more like a study than a bedroom. There is a queen bed, desk, bookshelves, walk-in closet filled with men’s clothes and an adjacent bathroom.
The next room is brighter with off-white walls, but death’s smell hangs in the air. Pill bottles line the oak dresser. Beside them sits a pitcher of water on a silver tray. A shawl and blanket lay rumpled on the navy upholstered chair and ottoman. Centered on the left wall is a queen brass bed. The closet and bathroom belong to a woman.
I cross the hall to ask Dillon if Molly has a special place that she likes to go. A blank stare is his reply. I try again in sign language. His noncommittal shrug ends my futile attempt.
Back downstairs, I make a sweep of the foyer and stick my nose into the dining room, where the housekeeper is polishing silver. “Hello.”
Her smile is trained civility. “Do you need something, madam?”
“I would like to ask you a few questions.”
Dressed in a simple navy frock, she continues with the busy work. “I saw nothing.”
“Did you hear anything?”
“Do you live here?”
“Yes. My room is off the kitchen.”
“Near the back porch?”
“Did you hear anyone on the porch roof?”
Pausing her hands, she answers without making eye contact. “No.”
“Maybe you didn’t see her last night, but you’ve seen her go in and out that way before, haven’t you?”
Rough, arthritic hands drop the microfiber cloth onto the sheet-covered table. Laser-like eyes meet mine.
“Has she disappeared before last night?
“I wouldn’t say disappeared.”
“What would you call it?”
“What does that mean?”
“I said too much.” Her jaw clamps shut and eyes drop. She picks up the cloth and attacks a candlestick with what my grandmother called elbow grease. I call it anger.
Knowing when to fold them, I bid adieu and cross the foyer to the parlor. Elliot hastily wraps up the conversation to join me. In the car, we compare notes. Mine are quasi factual, based more on instinct. His are facts, as told by the parents, which could be a combination of truth, misinformation and lies.
“Did the parents have anything to add?”
“Only that she was introverted and liked to spend time in her room.”
“Or escape out the window.”
Swiveling in his seat, Elliot asks, “We can rule out kidnapping?”
“Yes. According to the housekeeper, Molly snuck out regularly to hide.”
“That’s what we have to find out.”
“That’s my bet. Mother appears to be battling cancer. The father could be turning to his daughter.”
“He’s paying us big bucks to find her. Doesn’t sound like a child molester to me.”
“I feel it in my bones.”
“You’re projecting your experience on this case. Maybe I should handle this alone.”
“No way in Hell. If he is molesting her, I’m going to bring him down.”
“Have it your way, but if you do or say anything out of line, I’m dumping you in the nearest ditch.
“Consider yourself warned.”
I twist in my seat to show him my back as the engine roars with power. In the mid-morning light, Elliot heads toward the main road, slowly picking his way through the potholes that he nailed inbound.
“Stop the car!”
I point to the vultures circling over a stand of trees on my right.
“It’s probably a deer,” Elliot says.
“My gut disagrees.”
“Your gut better be right.”
He pulls onto the grass and pops the trunk. We don our boots and ponchos.
“You owe me,” Elliot mutters.
“For dragging me through a muddy field in the rain.”
“You can’t blame me for the weather. At least the hay isn’t knee high. They must rent it to a farmer.”
Out of breath at the edge of the woods, I vow to lose twenty pounds and get back to the gym an hour a day. Looking debonair as usual, Elliot is not breaking a sweat.
The trees create a heavy canopy and protection from the deluge. We pause to rest and let our eyes adjust to dim light. There are two well-defined paths. Rather than splitting up, we agree to follow the one to the right for ten minutes. If we find nothing, we will double back to try the other one.
“Ladies first.” Elliot gestures toward the trail.
“I don’t like snakes.”
“Macho, rich kid is afraid of snakes?”
Beads of sweat form on his forehead. “I’m not kidding.”
“There were probably more snakes in the grass.”
“Now you tell me.”
Seeing that his breathing is rapid and shallow, I make a mental note of his kryptonite and ditch the sarcasm. “I’ll go first.”
Elliot is on my coattails as we dodge tree roots and rocks. Nine minutes into the journey, I turn to face him.
“Ready to turn around?”
Peering over my right shoulder, Elliot’s eyes become saucers. “Over there.”
I spin to see weathered shack through the underbrush. “Good eyes, Sherlock.”
Elliot forgets his fear and rushes ahead. His six-foot two-inch stride leaves me in his dust. At five feet four inches, I run to stay close. The trail ends at a clearing, large enough to accommodate the shed, with a few feet to spare in every direction. Feeling like Gretel, I follow Hansel to the door. He raps three times. I expect a witch to answer.
“Nobody home,” Elliot says, as he turns the knob.
The shack is not the magical place that I imagined, nor is it grimy and filled with spider webs. A wood stove stands on a brick hearth in the middle of the room. Stacked wood and a box of kindling line the left wall. A couch and chair face the stove. Along the right wall, is a twin bed.
A fluffy, cinnamon Teddy Bear strikes a regal pose on the chair. Three smaller bears, a lamb, a dolphin and a horse surround him. A cabinet against the back wall houses containers of water, granola bars, a Ziploc bag filled with chocolate chip muffins and a box of cereal. The cooler beside it is filled with milk, juice, pudding, yogurt, hard boiled eggs and cheese.
“What do you make of this?” Elliot asks.
“This is Molly’s safe place. Her friends are here,” I say, pointing to her stuffed animals.
“Where is she now?”
“I’ll take a look outside.”
I snuggle the stuffed animal king and sink onto the couch. The stove’s glowing embers are mesmerizing. My eyelids become heavy. I succumb to the weight. A terrified girl’s movie flashes in my mind. I see her afraid of the dark.
The door creaks open. My vision evaporates.
“Find anything?” I ask.
I know that tone. “Molly?”
Behind the house, a man’s body is lying in pool of diluted blood. Multiple stab wounds to the chest appear to be the cause of death. Judging from his white hair and beard, I place him to be in his mid-sixties.
“Do you think Molly did this?” Elliot asks.
“I don’t know. The killer was enraged or terrified. The knife penetrated a denim jacket.”
“Trevor’s plan to keep the police out of it is down the tubes.”
“Was this man a friend or foe? Someone was stocking the hideaway.”
“And where is Molly?”
“She couldn’t have gone far. The coals are still hot in the stove.”
“Frightened girls run, too. I flashed that she is sitting in the dark.”
“When forensics get here, everything will point to Molly. The fact that she disappeared makes her look guilty.”
“I know. What’s our next move?”
“After you call it in, we’ll head back to the James’ house. Tell the cops where we’ll be.”
My stomach grumbles noon as I press the doorbell. The housekeeper answers and tells us to wait in the parlor until after lunch. Elliot explains that this is now a murder inquiry and the police were called. Color drains from her face.
“Molly?” The housekeeper’s words were a whisper.
“No. We’re still looking for her,” I reply.
“A white-haired man with a beard.”
“Billy!” Her knees buckle. Elliot catches her before she hits the floor and eases her into a nearby chair.
Elliot and I exchange befuddled expressions. Her controlled sniffles morph into uncontrollable sobs.
“What’s going on? What have you said to upset my housekeeper?” Trevor’s booms, as he struts across the foyer.
Willing her knees to support her weight, she rises with fire in her eyes. “Billy’s dead! I’m through being a part of your masquerade, Trevor.”
“Henrietta, I’m sorry.”
“Did you kill him?”
“Of course not!”
She steams past him to the dining room. Elliot and I stay at her heels.
Jenny rises to meet her. “Mama, what’s wrong?”
Weeping, the women embrace. Elliot and I step away to give them space. A few minutes pass before the energy wanes.
“Was it a heart attack?” Jenny asks.
“No. He was murdered.”
Jenny’s hands fly to her face. “Oh my God! The killer must have Molly.”
Her mother gives her a squeeze. “Baby, you know I would never want to hurt you.”
“Dillon, you know grandma loves you. It’s time to talk. Where’s Molly?”
Trevor bellows, “He can’t hear a word you’re saying.”
“Jenny, tell him the truth.”
Jenny looks at Trevor, to Dillon and back to Trevor. “There’s nothing wrong with his hearing. He has selective mutism.”
“What the Hell is that?”
“It is an anxiety disorder. He speaks only to Molly, Mama, Daddy and me.”
“Why did you tell me he was deaf?”
“You would have used force and made matters worse.”
“Really? Could they be any worse? You babied that weakling and never paid any attention to Molly. Now she’s gone! It’s all your fault.”
Despite Elliot’s warnings, I go for the abuser’s jugular. “Mr. James is it her fault or yours?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Did you sexually abuse your daughter?”
A vile laugh sends chills up my spine. All eyes turn to Dillon. His deflated persona discarded, he is on his feet, in an aggressive stance. “That fool couldn’t get it up if he wanted to. All my life, he treated me like shit. He teased me to make me cry, then told me to be a man. I waited a long time, but I got even. I took his precious princess again and again.”
Trevor dives for his son. He lands one punch before Elliot grabs his arms and pulls him back. The chilling laugh overrides Jenny’s heartbreaking wails.
Grandma’s granite expression is impossible to read. “Dillon, why did you stab grandpa?
His reply has no emotion. “Because he got in the way.”
Her lips quivered, but she kept her composure. “How did he do that?”
“Last night, I followed Molly to the cabin. Grandpa came out and told me to go home.”
She closed her eyes, took a deep breath. “Where’s Molly?”
“According to Google, she’ll be with Grandpa soon.”
Jenny stood to face him. “Dillon William James, where is your sister?”
“Sorry, Mom. She was screaming so loud, I had to put her on ice.”
“What does that mean?”
He collapses into his chair like a popped balloon and resumes his practiced blank stare.
Guessing Dillon’s play to control the situation, Elliot ignores him. “Does anyone know what he meant by putting her on ice?”
Around the table all heads shake in the negative, except one. Grandma has a furrowed brow.
Elliot notices. “Do you have an idea, Henrietta.”
“This is a long shot. We have an icehouse on the farm.”
“Where is the farm?” I ask.
“Trevor and Jenny couldn’t afford this place, so we bought all the land around the main house. I live in what was the caretaker’s house. The icehouse is mostly underground, near the cabin.”
Dillon snipes the effort. “It’s too late. She’s out of oxygen.”
Elliot launches, pulls Dillon from his seat, forces him to the floor and binds his limbs with zip ties. “Keep an eye on him. Samantha and I will get Molly. Have an ambulance meet us there.”
“I’m going. You’ll never find the icehouse without me,” Henrietta says.
“Wait for me. I’m a nurse.” Jenny runs to the kitchen and returns with a first aid kit, water and granola bars.”
“Trevor, I’m warning you man. Don’t hurt him. Police will be here soon,” Elliot yells over his shoulder.
With the pedal to the medal, the Mercedes kicks up a rooster tail of loose stone and dirt. Henrietta takes us to a tractor access, used for haying. The car bounces over muddy ruts until it lands in one and sinks to the frame. Only one hundred feet from the brush-covered mound, we sprint the rest of the way. Elliot releases the wrought iron bolt and swings open the door. Wearing a headlamp, he navigates the rickety steps into a black hole. Clinging to each other for support, the three of us wait in silence.
“I’ve got her! She’s still breathing.”
The rest is a blur of tears, hugs, lights, sirens and statements. The ending is bittersweet. A life was lost, but a life was saved. The festering boil was lanced. Our hope is that this broken family can heal. Without hope, what is there?
Death is inevitable, the looming reality, that the journey on Earth is temporary. Although we observe the life cycles of all living things, we are devastated by loss and fear our own mortality.
Grief is an emotion that cannot be avoided. The pain is excruciating when loved ones, including pets, transition to the other side. A piece of us dies with them. Functioning like robots, we tend to daily tasks, but our hearts are non-participants.
Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross developed a theory that we go through five distinct stages of grief after the loss of a loved one: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance. I experienced all of these, but some during the five years that my husband fought leukemia. Denial came when he was diagnosed and relapsed from a bone marrow transplant. Bargaining was in the form of prayer during his treatment. Because he was suffering without hope of recovery, I felt acceptance and relief at his transition. Two years later, when time had dulled the illness and treatment nightmares, I was angry because he had left me to navigate life’s challenges alone. The last item is depression. Over the last seven years, I monitored my mood. Was I clinically depressed? No, but I felt a dark cloud overshadowing everything. Nothing felt the same. It was as if a nerve had been snipped from my body. I felt and enjoyed with all my senses, but the intensity was missing.
There is no time limit on grief, but we can take charge to avoid being devoured. Our loved ones are in a place of unconditional love and light. We remain here because there is more learning, growing and loving to do. Regardless of your beliefs concerning perpetual life, while here, you must survive. Reality bites when the loved one’s death puts you into financial hardship. You may have a family to feed, mortgage and other debts. Nobody is going to rush in on a white charger to save you. After the initial shock, there is no time for pity parties or for sitting in the corner to suck your thumb. Moving forward is the only way to survive. The progress may be slow. You may feel like you are slogging knee deep in molasses, with tears gushing from your eyes. The path may seem dark as pitch. Keep going, if only by baby steps.
With time, the journey becomes easier. Set realistic expectations. Become friends with grief. Know that dates, songs, pictures and places may trigger waves of sorrow. Feel and deal with the emotion when it arises. Have a good cry. When the intensity recedes, continue your healing journey.
Love and pamper yourself. Work on mind, body and spirit health. Stay open for signs from your loved ones. I experienced electronic irregularities, coins, feathers, scents, songs on the radio, random memories, a chill, tummy blips, butterflies, dragonflies, birds and ringing bells. Repeating numbers may be messages from the angels. Multiple fours appear to me several times a day. They are on the clock, computer, license plates, receipts and car odometer. Other repeating numbers include my birthday and 1111. Your loved ones reach across the veil to give you comfort and support. Be open to their love. Their vibration is higher than ours. Raise yours to meet them. Deep in sorrow, you will miss the messages.
Grief hurts and is merciless. Struggle through the void. Find joy and be grateful. Beauty surrounds. Open your heart to receive the love.