Writing Distracted
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Coal Ridge

Set in a small, somewhat geographically secluded town in the Midwest, the blue collar people of Coal Ridge are friendly and laid back, enjoying block parties, gossip, and the simple joys that come with being a close knit community. Because everyone knows everyone else, secrets are hard to keep, but some are so well hidden that they've been forgotten. These are a series of short stories that explore a supernatural awakening that tests the bonds of family and community.

The Investigator

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"Mr. Jacobs, what do you have for me?"

The woman who stood in front of me on this warm November afternoon was wearing a department store business suit with her arms crossed over her chest; she looked completely out of place with the pile of flattened cars behind her. "Please, call me Bill," I said again, "are you sure you want to talk about this out here?"

"I'm certain," she glanced around, "a junkyard seems an appropriate metaphor for my life right now."

She was the fourth client to say something like that to me; perhaps renting office space in a junkyard wasn't the good idea it seemed last year. "I'm not sure what's going on in the rest of your life, but there's no evidence that your husband's been cheating on you." I handed her an envelope that held pictures and logs showing his actual activities. "He does, however, seem to enjoy dressing in drag and participating in choreographed shows on stage."

My revelation was met with a moment of silence as she stared at me open mouthed, then she looked down at the envelope and uttered a simple, "Huh."

I'd wanted her to come inside because I wasn't sure what reaction to expect. Having her seated at the small table where I'd provided evidence of infidelity, addiction, and gambling, among other hidden vices, seemed more comforting and would allow me to provide tissues or a hand to hold. "Are you sure you don't want to come inside and sit a moment, Mrs. Hamilton?"

She looked up from the envelope and shook her head. "Can you send this to me digitally?" I nodded; she continued, reaching into her purse. "I took out cash, I hope that's okay."

It was and I accepted the payment not sure whether or not I should offer consoling words; these odd situations were difficult to read and they happened more often than I would have thought when I began my second career as a private investigator. After exchanging pleasant goodbyes, I watched Mrs. Hamilton get into her car. She sat behind the wheel for a few moments looking through the pictures in the envelope before throwing her head back and laughing. Stepping back into my office, I shook my head and smiled. It takes all kinds.

I wasn't expecting anyone else that afternoon, so when the dirty gray Chevy Impala pulled up to the small office structure, I’d already taken off my sportscoat and tie and was thinking about where I might be going for dinner. Having just been paid, a steak sounded good, but I'd already had red meat four times this week and it was only Wednesday. I could almost see Doctor Tammy giving me that glare.

Putting the tie in a drawer and grabbing the sportscoat, I went to one of the two front windows and peeked outside. A middle-aged woman and a teenage girl were standing in front of the sign at the bottom of the wooden stairs, which read: Bill Jacobs, P.I. While the woman looked like every other soccer Mom in the Amber River Valley, the teen definitely had at least one eastern European parent, and from the way they stood, the two were close but it was doubtful that they were related. I watched the woman wipe tears off her cheek, and then put on my sportscoat and stepped outside.

"Good evening, ladies." I waited for the woman to speak, but the teenager stepped forward.

"Do you find people?" she asked. I expected her to have an accent, maybe Russian, but she didn't. Something about her looked familiar though; I felt like I'd seen her somewhere.

"That is one of the services I offer." It was never a good idea to answer questions with a yes or no in this business.

The woman leaned in and whispered something to the teen; she seemed uncomfortable. It could have been my skin color, I'd encountered my share of prejudices in this area over my life, but the body language of bigots was different. I waited through a brief back and forth discussion, before the teen said. "We'd like to discuss hiring you to find someone."

I smiled and invited them inside where we all sat at the table. After moving a box of tissues closer to the woman, I looked between them, unsure of whom I should address. "My daughter is missing," the woman said, "she has been for almost a month. The police think she ran away, but she didn't; she wouldn't."

"Kids are really good at hiding things from their parents," I replied honestly, "Runaways are a lot more common than you think." From my time as a detective in the Silver Spring City P.D., I'd found that setting realistic expectations early in the first conversation was better than offering false hope.

"Yeah, but I'm her best friend," the teenager said, her voice rising. "Em did NOT run away." That was it; I had seen the girl on television. Her name was Mila Franco and for the past two weeks at least one of the news stations had been playing a soundbite of her making that exact proclamation.

"You're the family of Emily Farrara," I replied, putting on my best sympathetic expression, "I'm so sorry Mrs. Farrara, Ms. Franco," and offered my hand to each. Fortunately I'd taken an interest in the story when it first broke and had been following it, so I already had some details. "I understand that she went missing shortly before that city worker." From their expressions it was obvious that they were both impressed, and seemed to share a silent agreement as they glanced approvingly at one another.

"Yes. There were three mass searches, but the police have basically stopped looking for Em." The two of them were obviously upset, but Mila was also angry; I couldn't help but wonder if that anger was being purposely directed elsewhere. In my experience angry people who had lost loved ones blamed either the person they lost or themselves; either way it meant that they knew something.

"Call me Bill." I decided to determine where that anger was coming from, and so ignored the teenager for the moment. Looking to Mrs. Farrara, I said. "The Coal Ridge Police have limited resources for missing persons, not that there's been much of a strain on their resources until recently."

"The departments in McMahon and Heaton are involved too, and alerts have gone out to departments across the state," the woman added automatically. Based on her tone, she was parroting a statement likely repeated to her numerous times.

"For all the good it's done!" Mila added, a little too loudly.

I focused on the mother, while waiting for a more useful outburst from the teenager; anger at the police was a little too obvious, but it might be part of a pattern. "Mrs. Farrara, I'm sorry, I didn't get your first name." It was always easier to get someone to focus if you used their first name.

"Carol."

"Thank you. Let me just ask you a few questions, Carol. You may have already answered most of these when you spoke with the police, but I can't exactly go ask them for their reports on an active investigation."

What followed was about ten minutes of who, what, where, and when that revolved around the last time she'd seen Emily. It included two bouts of sobbing, four tissues, and the periodic wiping away of tears. Not much of what she had to say was useful, though I had found it odd that a girl who would soon be turning seventeen had absolutely no interest in getting her driver's license. A fact that Mila confirmed.

More surprising was that Mila remained patient and only offered help when Carol asked. If she were hiding something, I would have expected her to try to control the narrative somewhat, but I didn't see any of that happening. Of course, it was possible that Carol was already on script, but that seemed doubtful given their lack of familial relationship.

When I had finished with Carol, I turned to the teenager. "Mila, she was at your house the night she disappeared?" The girl nodded. I waited a moment, but she didn't offer more. Nothing rehearsed, that was good; I continued. "Carol didn't mention anything about a boyfriend, was she seeing anyone?"

Her eyes darted left as she shook her head; that was the first purposeful falsehood from either of them.

"No one?" I pushed.

This time Mila maintained eye contact, her brow furrowing. "No, there was no one!" Here was the anger; the teen knew something about who Emily was seeing. Either she was protecting that person or she was protecting Carol. Possible scenarios ran through my mind; she could have been seeing someone whom her parents would not approve, perhaps someone of a different ethnic or social background, or of the same gender. I would need to talk to Mila alone to find out, but being a fifty-four year old black man, I couldn't exactly ask for some alone time with a white seventeen year old girl.

In the next five minutes, I discovered that Mila and Emily had been watching the dinosaur action movie from last year, which seemed an odd choice for two teenage girls. They'd eaten skinny popcorn and drank non-fat caffeine-free mochas, which sounded exactly right. Emily had left that night just before 9:00pm to be home by the 9:15pm whistle, as it was a school night—that seemed an early requirement for a teenager, but I saluted the parents for applying some common sense rules.

After I got the facts from Mila, she began to volunteer some speculation. "I'm sure that when Em left our house, she walked down Palm Road towards the high school, and then cut through the alley to Sixth." I noted that Mila said our house and not my house. That implied someone else had been there at the time, though she hadn't mentioned anyone.

"What makes you think that's the direction she went?"

"Listen Mr. Jacobs, Em and I have been friends since we sat next to each other on the first day of kindergarten. Every time we went to her house from my house, we went down Palm and cut through the alley behind the school. Every time. That's why I'm sure that's the way she went."

Perhaps it wasn't speculation after all, and that gave me a place to start. I wanted to push the teen on the hidden relationship, but there were other details that needed to be worked out and I didn't want to talk about it in front of the mother. "Got it. And please, call me Bill." I looked at Mrs. Farrara. "Based on what I've heard, I agree that it's unlikely that she's run away. I’ll take the case." I pulled a pamphlet out of the plastic holder on the nearby bookshelf and handed it to her. "Here's a basic breakdown of my fees. Take it home, talk about it, and if you decide this works for you, my cell and email address are at the bottom."

She nodded mechanically and took the paperwork. "Will you find my little girl, Bill?"

I offered her a reassuring smile. "You'll get my best, Carol."

*          *          *

Thirty minutes later I was sitting in my car parked on Bur Oaks Drive across from Coal Ridge High School, finishing up my bag of fast food burgers and fries. I'd hit the drive thru in McMahon first, while not the meal I was planning, nor one of which Dr. Tammy would approve, I was anxious to poke around that alley behind the high school.

While rolling up the bag, a fist pounded on the driver side window. Startled, I reached for the glove box while my heart beat heavily in my chest.

"Hi Mr. Jacobs!"

Letting go of the pistol, I closed the glove box and rolled down the window. "Hi Mila. You can call me Bill."

"Can we talk?" she asked, nodding towards the passenger seat.

Small Town, teenage girl getting in an old man's car in the evening, what could possibly go wrong. "How about we walk and talk?" I suggested instead. She nodded and I climbed out of the car. "How did you know I'd be here?" I asked, genuinely curious.

"I didn't. Sometimes I walk the path from my house to Em’s. Since this is the same car I saw at the junkyard, I figured it might be yours."

I nodded, guessing that this was one of the ways that she dealt with the guilt; from experience I knew that there were far more unhealthy ways she could be dealing with it. Still, she seemed nervous so I wanted to get her talking. "Your generation has a reputation for being glued to your phones, but I didn't see you with one at my office and I don't see one here."

She fished a phone out of her back pocket and waved it at me; it had a pink and purple case, but a lot less sparkles than I was expecting. The phone disappeared back into her pocket without comment.

We walked in silence for a bit; I realized just how disconnected I was from this generation as it dawned on me that I had no idea how to get her talking without bringing up the one topic of which we had a shared interest. Mentally sighing, I dove in. "Why don't you tell me a little about Emily, back in my office you said that you'd been friends since kindergarten?"

"She was with my twin brother, okay! They weren't dating exactly, I mean, they were exclusive, but they weren't telling anyone because they thought I'd be angry." Tears started rolling unbidden down her cheeks. "I'm such a selfish, terrible friend and now she's missing and probably dead and if I weren't so selfish then maybe Jack would have walked her home that night and then she'd still be here and I wouldn't be…"

She stopped altogether—walking, talking, and crying—and wiped the tears off her face with her palm. It wasn't the confession I expected, but it fit her behavior. "Did you tell any of the other investigators?" She shook her head, staring at the ground. "Anyone?" Again, she shook her head. "That's probably for the best," I lied.

Her head snapped up, meeting my gaze. "Really?"

I felt my eyes look left as I answered. "Since you were there with him, I'm sure your brother wasn't involved and they would have just wasted time looking at him as a possible suspect." I made a mental note to have a little sit down with Jack. When a person goes missing and there’s a hidden romance, it's almost always the primary factor.

She wrapped her arms around my neck and sobbed as she hugged me. "Thank you Mr. Jacobs."

I was uncomfortably aware of my surroundings, wanting to console the teenager, but all it took was one nosey person with a camera phone to post a picture of this out of context and I'd be run out of the valley on rails. "It's okay," I said, patting her shoulder lightly and extracting myself from her stranglehold of a hug. "It's getting dark and I'd like to take a look at the alley behind the school."

Still wiping away tears, she stepped back and nodded. "Can I look with you?"

Absolutely not. Based on the geography and the path she almost certainly took, I'd decided that if Emily were abducted, the alley was the most likely location. I wanted to see the scene fresh, with no outside influences so that I could draw my own conclusions; except that no one with a heart was going to be able to look at the vulnerable teenager standing in front of me and tell her no, so it was my turn to nod.

As we walked past the concrete stairs leading up to the gymnasium, she pulled her phone out of her pocket, hunching into that walking position that is so common today. It seemed that with her guilt at least somewhat alleviated, she could go back to being a teenage girl. I was wrong. "Here's the initial police report," she said, handing me her phone. I stared at the pink and purple case for a few moments, dumbfounded. She pressed, "The notes are handwritten but pretty detailed."

I took the phone and squinted at the screen; it looked like she had pictures of official police documents. "Mila, where did you get these?"

"Greg likes me." I stared at her. "Greg Carabelli…you know, Chief Carabelli's son."

I closed my eyes and counted to ten. "You realize this is a felony?"

"Yeah, that's what Greg said," she replied nonchalantly, waving my words away, "he couldn't get me the digital reports, but these are pretty good. They found blood splatter near the ticket booth and a little on half a brick that was tucked behind of the railroad ties. They think she might have been…" Her voice broke and she stopped again.

As realization dawned on me, I closed my eyes and took a deep breath; I wasn't looking for a missing teen, I was looking for a murdered teen. Turning to Mila, who was doing her best to skirt the reality of the situation without admitting to herself that her friend was most likely dead, I did my best to control my anger. "This is why you're so certain she didn't run away?" The girl nodded. "Carol doesn't know about it, does she?" The teenager shook her head. "Mila…"

"I can't tell her, and the police won't say anything about it. Apparently, there's been some weird things happening lately and they think she might just turn up." Weird things happening, I almost laughed. This girl didn't know anything about weird things happening in Coal Ridge; if she'd been around in the late seventies and early eighties, she'd know about weird things happening. The pleading whine in her voice did nothing abate my anger, even if I understood her reasons.

I looked down at her phone. In for a penny. "Can you email these to me?"

"Oh, I didn't think you'd know how to do that," she said, plucking her phone out of my hand; she reached into her other pocket and pulled out several pieces of neatly folded paper, "so I printed them."

"I know how to do that," I said, grabbing the paper a little more aggressively than I should have.

"Sor-ry," she replied, taking a step back. "My grampa can barely use his phone. I was trying to be nice." The tone was that sarcastic mean that teenage girls seem to master, and her purposeful use of the word grandpa was a stark reminder that I should have sent her home.

Taking a deep breath, I put the papers in my pocket. "Thank you."

"You're not going to look at them?"

The security lights on the outside of the school all came on at the same time. After pausing to look around, trying to pretend not to have been startled, I started walking again. "I want to take a look and form my own conclusions first."

"Why, it's been almost a month?" she asked, falling into step next to me.

"I might see things differently, notice something they didn't; there’s no way we can know what happened, so we investigate and make assumptions based on evidence, but there may be more than one way to interpret that evidence. By drawing my own conclusions first, and then comparing them to the police notes, I might be able to put pieces together that neither myself nor the investigating officer saw individually."

"That makes sense."  We turned the corner into the alley, and her brow furled. "What’s that?"

I followed her gaze to the ticket booth. There was something in the foreground, it shimmered in the waning light of sun, like a heat mirage. I blinked, but it was still there. "A reflection?" I whispered, glancing towards the security light about twenty feet away.

"Em?" Mila stepped forward. "Emily!"

The shimmer turned; I swear by all that is holy that the shimmer turned. Before Mila could go any further I grabbed her by the shoulder, exclaiming, "Hold on a second?" I couldn't let her run towards it.

"Let go of me!" she shouted, shrugging off my hand and running away before I could grab her again. The security light blinked off and Mila disappeared.

The shimmering figure seemed to explode and in the blink of an eye, Mila crashed to the ground about ten feet ahead of where she had disappeared. I felt like I was running through syrup trying to get to her, but that was probably the fast food sitting in my gut. When I got there, she was already pushing herself up. "Mila, are you okay?"

"It was Em," she whimpered between strained breaths, tears running down her cheeks. "There was something there…it was hungry. Em saved me from it." She sat up on her knees. "We have to help her."

"I think we should get you home," I countered.

"No!" Mila stared at me with wide eyes. "She's here somewhere. I felt her. Something had me and she saved me from it. Don't look at me like that, I know it was her!"

"Mila, I have no idea what just happened," I felt my eyes dart left, "but you can't just go around saying things like this, you sound crazy."

"I'm not crazy, I know what I felt."

The situation was getting away from me; I needed to get control of it before things got worse. I stepped in front of her and forced eye contact. "I know you're not crazy, I saw something too, but what's going to happen if you start telling people about this? We live in a world where if someone doesn't like a picture I took, they accuse me of photoshopping it. I'm still not really sure what that means."

That got a brief grin from her. "But if we don't tell anyone…" she was saying, starting to look around again.

Putting my hands on her shoulders, I said, "That's not what I said, we have to be careful talking about this."

"Oh my god," she exclaimed, her brow furrowing as she turned back to me, "you know what's going on."

"No, I don't," I closed my eyes to keep them from shifting left, when I opened them, she was starting intently at me, "I mean, not really, but there is someone I can talk to about it."

"Who?"

"Mila, you are going to have to let me work this case my way." I said, putting as much authority into my voice as I could manage, and started back for my car.

*          *          *

As I walked into Amber Valley Corrections, I'd like to say that Mila had agreed to let me get started on the investigation, but what she did instead was follow me back to my car first begging, then pleading, then throwing out angry threats; her stubbornness easily rivaled that of my ex-wife. One of the guards led me into a small private room that had only a metal table with a ring welded to one side and two benches, all of which was firmly attached to the floor. I'd used a big favor to get this meeting, and Mila was sitting in my car waiting in the parking lot.

I looked up at the video camera that covered the room and tried not to listen to the doubts seeping into my mind. Fortunately, those doubts didn't talk to me for long before the door opened and a guard led Bruce Richards into the room.

"Bruce," I said, and hesitated. From the look in his eyes I'd say that he hadn't slept much in the past month, and this was probably the longest he'd been sober since his last stint in prison. The guard used handcuffs to secure his shackles to the table and then gave me a questioning look. I nodded and waved him out.

"Man, you're here because you know it's out, don't you?" He was looking down at the shackles, his voice ragged.

"Yeah," I replied. I could see his hands shaking.

"Who?"

"The only one I'm sure of is a teenage girl named Emily Farrara, but there might be a city worker and maybe one other."

"Those damn kids, man." He paused. "There's going to be a lot more."

I wasn't sure of what kids he was referring, maybe the teens he'd put in that electric chair back in the eighties. "I hear you Bruce but the girl, Emily Farrara, she's in there. How do I get her out?"

"What do you mean she's in there?" he asked, looking up for the first time. The gaze he had fixated on me was terrifying. I’d known Bruce for most of my life, he’d been one of the few people in the white Midwestern town who didn't treat me like the token black kid. He was also that cool neighbor who would buy my friends and me beer when we were in high school. The night he met Hank McDonald at Miller's Pond changed him, and a couple of years later—after a day of binging—he'd told me all about it. I can't say that I believed him at first, but then he'd proved it.

"Remember that night you showed me Marjorie in the park? It's kind of like that. Emily's trapped in there and after another girl got pulled in, she was able to push her back out before the creature could get her."

Bruce shook his head. "Nah, there's nothing you can do, man."

"Come on Bruce, there's got to be something."

"Listen man, Hank tried to save that little girl for like twenty years, if he couldn't do it, there's nothing you can do to get this one out." He looked away. "I always liked you Bill, you were a good kid, that's why I wouldn't let you sit in that chair." When he looked back at me, his gaze was steady. "Leave this alone. Walk away. Far away. Get out of this place, it's going to get worse and there won't be anything you can do to stop it."

"But what about that magic bag you had?"

He actually laughed. "It ain't magic, it just has tools for dealing with that thing. Doesn't matter anyhow, either the cops got it or it's still in that mine. I'm sorry man, there's nothing you can do and there ain't anything I can do to help. This is the end of the line for me, maybe for everyone."

*          *          *

The ride back to Coal Ridge had been brutal. I explained the situation and Mila cried, pleaded, and raged. She insisted that there was something we could do, and even demanded that I arrange a conversation between her and Bruce. No force on Earth was going to make that happen after his first conviction, but I'd lied and told her I would try.

It had been more than a week since I'd let Mrs. Farrara know that I couldn't take the case. I'd gotten two more missing person cases from Coal Ridge families that I'd decided to turn down and had just picked up one to investigate a possible insurance scam, when I saw that dirty gray Chevy Impala winding its way through the junkyard towards my office.

As I stepped out onto the small porch, Mila got out of the car. She didn't say anything, she just reached into the backseat and held up an old style green military pack; it was Hank's pack.

"Greg Carabelli?"

"You don't even want to know how I convinced him to get it," she said, coming around the car.

"Mila…"

"I'm going to find Em and you ARE going to help me." She stood at the bottom of the stairs staring up at me; there was a sadness about her I hadn't seen before. "You were right. No one believes me."

I should have sent her away; every instinct I had told me that the last thing I should do is let her into my office. "Come on in and sit down," I said, shaking my head.

When we were seated across from one another, she laid the pack down on the small table. "This is a crime," I said, pointing at the pack, "if you get caught with it you will go to prison, and you're taking me with you."

"Oh relax," she reached into the pack, "you committed a felony when you took the sheets I printed, we're already down that path. There's some weird stuff in here. A lot of salt, a locked steel box with no key, some other stuff, and this." She held up an old leather-bound book.

I reached over and took the book. "I think this belonged to Hank McDonald." Flipping through it, I could see that it was written in another language, about the only thing I could tell about it was that I didn't recognize any of the letters. The penciled notes in the margins, however, were printed in plain English. "How much of this did you read?"

"All of the notes, but the rest is weird, according to Google Translate it seems to be a mix of several old languages."

Okay, she was resourceful, I could admit that, but this was still pointless. "Mila, did you forget what I told you, Hank had this book for twenty some years and couldn't rescue that little girl, what makes you think we could use this stuff to rescue Emily?"

"First, the little girl's name is Marjorie Linton. Second, Hank McDonald was a coal miner who dropped out of school in the ninth grade while I’m going to be Valedictorian. And third," she held up her cell phone, "I have access to the sum total of human existence right here. That's why!"

No. No way in hell I'm getting involved with this situation.

Dammit. I took a deep breath and let it out slowly.

In for a penny. "Alright, I’m back on the case. Let’s rescue Emily."