26

“This is nuts.”

“Hmm?” Slovo stirred, yawned. “Yowch. Fucking hip. Did you get any sleep?”

“No. You were snoring too loud. Besides, I’m nervous.”

“Sure. This case was a big deal for you, and this might crack it open, or it might be a total bust.”

“It’s not that. We’re about to show up unannounced to question a woman who lives like a hermit in the middle of the woods in a part of the state where people run strangers off with shotguns.”

“That’s a stereotype.”

“We’re, like, ten miles from Kentucky. It’s another world down here.”

“They probably think Chicago’s crazy dangerous.” He peered into the woods, still tangled and dark. “You think there’s bears around here?”

“Probably.”

They had made it to the southern end of the state by 3:00 am. They’d stopped at an all-night gas station on the outskirts of the tiny town where Joyce Truscott had grown up. Slovo chatted up the old man working at the counter while Anni prowled the aisles, picking up snacks and pretending to read the ingredients. She paid for a candy bar and two coffees and headed back out to the car as Slovo lingered, listening to a long-winded joke. He was still good at cultivating informants.

The man had given him enough information that, after a few false turns, they were able to find a mailbox by the side of a gravel road that had reflective letters stuck to it, spelling out Truitt. Etta Mae Truitt, one of the Pope County Truitts, still living in her granddaddy’s house. She made quilts and kept bees. Didn’t see much of her, he’d told Slovo, except for when she brought her honey down to sell. Those Truitts, they kept to themselves. Anni had parked on the side of the road near the mailbox, then they’d settled in to wait for dawn. Slovo snoozed while Anni watched the overgrown drive that disappeared up into the forest darkness. The stars that twinkled through the tree branches overhead gradually faded as the sky began to lighten until the stars were gone and the sky was a deep, crisp blue.

“Ready?” he said to her.

She sighed, started the car, and turned up the driveway. They bumped along, tree branches clawing at the sides of the car, winding up the hill until they broke into a clearing. A weathered house with a deep porch and smoke coming from the chimney sat on the crown of the hill under a gnarled oak tree. Beside it, a barn, once red but now mostly a rose-tinted gray. A dog loped out of the doors that were propped open, barking. He stopped beside the car, head lowered, growling and showing his fangs until a sharp whistle snapped his head around. He barked once more for good measure, then trotted back to the barn, where a woman stood, cradling a shotgun.

“I told you,” Anni muttered, then got out of the car, careful to hold her hands out at her sides to show she wasn’t a threat. Slovo followed, hobbling around the car to join her. “Ms. Truitt?” she called out.

“Who’s asking?”

“My name’s Anni Koskinen. We just drove down from Chicago. I wonder if I could ask you a few questions.”

The woman didn’t move for a few moments, then she gave her head a little regretful shake. Anni caught her breath as the shotgun came up out of the crook of her arm, but she was only setting it down, propping it against the wall. “Been wondering when you’d show up.”

 

She turned back into the barn and they followed. Had to finish with the chores, she told them. Chickens clucked in a pen, picking at feed, a basket of eggs set down on a straw bale nearby. The woman took a steel bucket into the cow’s pen, pulled a stool over, leaned her head into its flank, muttering wordless calming sounds, and began to squirt milk as the cow chewed cud and looked around at them with big, placid eyes. The dog had sprawled on the earthen floor after giving them a good sniff and an extra growl just to be sure. He was motionless except for the eyebrows that shifted up and down as he looked from Anni to Slovo.

They were watching the boy who was staring at a shaft of sunlight beaming through a gap in the barn siding, filled with dancing motes of dust. He seemed transfixed by the swirling patterns of gold flecks, though his hands were busy, plucking at the hem of his shirt, then rising to his chin to clutch together before falling down, fingers fluttering along his chest, wrists twisting before starting all over again.

“He does that,” the woman said, carrying the milk bucket out of the cow’s stall. “No harm in it. Come on inside and we’ll have some breakfast.” She picked the shotgun up in her other hand and started trudging toward the house. “Bring the eggs,” she called to the boy. He turned awkwardly and went, pigeon-toed, to the basket set beside the chicken coop, taking the handle in both hands, carrying it carefully. The twitchy spasms seeming to migrate to his elbows, jerking out at his sides like wings trying to lift his skinny, angular body up into the air.

She led them into the kitchen, where she set the milk down and took the basket of eggs from the boy. “Go turn the cow out into the pasture and I’ll get the food on.” He nodded. It was an elaborate motion, circling and tipping his head back, letting out a faint squawk of a laugh as he flapped his hands at his sides, then a definitive yes, his chin dipping to his chest. She smiled as he left, then turned and pointed them to the table. “Sit. There’s coffee on, you want some?” She didn’t wait for answers, got two chipped mugs out of the cupboard and filled them. Set them down on the red-checked oilcloth and sat across from them, exhaling in a sigh. She was a big woman, muscular but growing softer around the edges with age, her graying hair scraped back into a messy ponytail. “You don’t look like cops.”

“We’re not,” Anni said. “I was a long time ago, but not anymore. I know Joyce, though.”

“How’s she doing?”

“Okay, I guess, except her daughter doesn’t want anything to do with her and her marriage is bad.”

“She’d leave that son of a bitch if she had any sense. She gave you directions?”

“No. She doesn’t even know we’re here.”

“It was Andy,” Slovo said. “At the gas station.”

“Damn, I’m going to have to straighten him out. Who are you, anyway?”

“Name’s Slovo. We used to work together.” He jabbed a thumb at Anni. “I’m just along for the ride.”

“What’d you do to your leg?”

“Got shot. On top of that, I went and broke it. I’ve always been clumsy.”

She started to laugh, a throaty rumble that turned into a cough. When the fit was finished she wiped her eyes and turned serious, even grim. “So, you going to tell the police?” she asked him.

“Nope,” he said. “Matter of fact, they’re looking for me, so I’m staying out of their way. Not sure what she wants to do, though.”

“I don’t understand any of this,” Anni said.

“Time for questions later.” The woman pushed herself up from the table. “Danny’s back. That boy’s got a hollow leg. I got to get to cooking.”

 

They finished their scrambled eggs and were nursing cups of coffee at the table as Danny settled on a couch in the next room with a book open in his lap, rocking as he flipped the pages, his hands rising up and fluttering beside his head as he pored over the illustrations, occasionally making little grunts and squeaks. “He still likes his dinosaurs,” the woman murmured. “Every time they get a new dinosaur book at the library, they set it aside for him. But astronomy’s the new thing. He drug me out the other night to teach me the constellations. He fetched a blanket we could sit on and a flashlight so he could show me what they’re called in his book. Like to have froze out there.”

She glanced at them frowned, offended by things they hadn’t said. “He reads good. He picked it up fast, all by himself. One thing about Danny, he ain’t stupid. I homeschooled all of my kids, and he’s as sharp as any of them. There’s not a thing wrong with his brain. Nothing wrong with him at all, but other people and their narrow minds.” She swallowed some coffee, then put her mug down, started to move it in little circles. “How’d you figure it out?”

“I don’t know how much you know about what’s been going on,” Anni said.

“Read about it in the paper. They think some crazy old hoarder kidnapped and killed him.”

“Right. Danny’s sandals and a shirt that he’d been wearing when he disappeared were in his room. There was a lot of strange art in there, notebooks filled with illustrated stories about children in trouble. Turns out one of those notebooks was about Danny. In his version, he wasn’t kidnapped. He was escaping.”

“He got that part right, anyway.”

“Slovo found out Joyce had relatives down here. I knew she had cousins, but I didn’t think she was close to any of them.”

“She wasn’t. Her daddy made sure of that. He had ambitions, didn’t want to anything to do with his redneck relatives.”

“Anyway, the cops thought she was stonewalling them, so they asked me to talk to her. She told me she was certain Danny was dead. When I talked to Cassie, the daughter, she told me to back off. Slovo, here, he was convinced the crazy hoarder was innocent. I was coming around to that position, but I had no idea where to go from there.”

“I had some time on my hands,” Slovo picked up the story, “so I got online, traced the family relationships through a genealogy site, and got in touch with one of your cousins. Well, second cousin once removed. Taylor Truitt, lives in Edwardsville? She spends a lot of time on Facebook.”

“That sounds like Taylor, all right.”

“She was happy to have a chat with a genealogy buff about the Truitt family. In the course of it, she mentioned you were caring for a thirteen year old. Said his disabilities came from his mother being a drug addict.”

“Disabilities,” Etta Mae snorted. “She should talk, she can’t even do long division. So, where that came from? I had a niece, Laurie. She moved to Saint Louis, got in with a bad crowd, died of an overdose. When Danny came to live with me, I said he was hers and people accepted it. Not the first time I’ve cared for children here. Something goes wrong in the family, this is where you come home to. Her whole side of the family has troubles. They didn’t want him.”

“We knew about Joyce’s older son, Philip,” Anni said. “That he had been through all kinds of programs and therapies because his father was determined to cure him. Which made Slovo wonder if his little brother was in for the same treatment.”

“That was the thing. Joyce was seeing signs. Their doctor wasn’t sure, but she could tell. She was terrified he’d have to go through all that, like Philip did. She knew Brian, she knew how stubborn he was. Even if she asked for a divorce, he’d make sure he had control of Danny’s medical treatment, and she saw what it did to Philip. Made his life hell. Ended up sent away to live in some school for handicapped kids.”

“It got worse. He’s in a nursing home, now.”

“See? Goddamn. She loved those boys. Must have broke her heart to give Danny up, but she knew it was for the best. And this was the only way she could think to do it.”

“How’d you pull it off?” Anni was torn between admiration and frustration. “If I’d seen your number in her phone records, you’d have got a visit. I’d have figured this out ten years ago.”

“Good thing I don’t have a phone, then, smartypants. More coffee?”

She rose, fetched the battered pot from the stove, and refilled their mugs. “Forgot to ask if you take milk. I got some pasteurized in the fridge. We used to drink it raw, but my Uncle Bennett got real sick, almost died of it, and the extension man said it was the milk. Gave us a pamphlet showing how to do it. It’s not that hard, and a good thing because I’d never keep up with all the milk that boy drinks If I didn’t have my own supply. I’d be running to the grocery every other day.”

She got a jug of chilled milk from the refrigerator and thumped it on the table, then busied herself clearing their plates. “Most everything we eat comes from this farm, just like when I was a girl, only I don’t keep pigs or sheep anymore. My brother’s boy brings me meat from his place. All organic, grass fed and whatnot. There’s a growing market for it. He’s doing real good. Everything we eat here is real food, none of those chemicals in it. It’s a lot healthier.” She sat again, cleared her throat with a rumble. “I got us off the subject.”

“How many people were in on it?”

“Just us. Me and Joyce. Kind of thing, no matter how much you trust folks, you don’t want people knowing. I mean, even the FBI was working on it.”

“I still don’t . . . I mean, how’d you do it?”

“Well, I hadn’t heard from Joyce in years when . . . no, let me back up to the beginning. I told you her father had his nose in the air. He moved to town, married a banker’s daughter, lived in a big house, drove  a fancy car. You didn’t see him here, except for every August when he’d drive up this hill and drop off little Joyce while they flew off somewhere on vacation. She was an only child, a shy little thing. Barely talked the first time, just watched everyone with big eyes until she finally loosened up and started swinging on the rope in the barn, or catching frogs with us over by the pond. There are always a lot of kids here in the summer. Each August, she’d get dropped off here all wrapped up tight in herself and she’d kind of unfurl over the next two weeks, like a morning glory does, until her parents came to fetch her.”

She smiled to herself. “We were the same age, and we both liked to read. We’d hole up in the hayloft with a big stack of romance books and talk about things. We were good pals. But when she was twelve, that stopped. They took to sending her to summer camp instead. Probably thought we were a bad influence. We went to the same high school, but by then she was in with a different group of kids, and then she went off to college to find somebody rich to marry. Get her MRS, that’s what they used to say. And she did, too. Didn’t have time for us, anymore.”

“But that changed,” Anni said.

“No so much. I only met her twice after that. First time, she turned up here one evening, late, two kids in the back seat, at her wits’ end. Cassie was just a couple months old. Philip would have been, what, four? She said the baby wouldn’t stop crying and Philip kept hitting his head on the wall and she didn’t know what to do. She only stayed a week. Seemed to do her good, having family to help out, and we had some good talks, like when we were girls. But she was kind of embarrassed about the state she’d been in and wanted to get home before her husband got back from a work trip. She didn’t want him to know, he’d think she was an unfit mother. After that I’d use the payphone at the grocery to call and see how she was doing every now and then, and she appreciated it.

“Then one day I called and she told me about Danny, how scared she was. Oh, she was a wreck, and all I could say is ‘what can I do? Tell me what I can do!’ She didn’t know. I felt like going right up there to give that husband of hers a piece of my mind, but that wouldn’t have worked. She married a man like her father, a loudmouthed bully. She’d probably crumple up and take his side, that’s what I figured.

“I called again a week later and she told me she had a big favor to ask. A really big favor. Could I come up to Chicago and meet her? ‘Well, that’s not such a big favor,’ I said, kind of joking, and she told me that wasn’t it. It was a whole lot bigger. So I drove up and we met in a park and she introduced me to Danny and told me her plan.”

“You’re the one who took him in Grant Park that day?”

“That was weeks later. I drove up, stayed at a Motel 6 overnight, then drove downtown and went to the park, like she told me to. As if I wasn’t already nervous enough, driving in the city, I’d never done that before. Oh, there was such a crowd, I was afraid I’d never find them, but then I caught sight of them. Joyce was looking bad, like she might pass out. In fact, for a minute I thought she did, sitting down on a stone ledge with her head in her hands. Cassie was pestering her and Danny was jumping up and down, overstimulated by it all. Plus she must have been stressed, knowing what we were about to do. The original plan was for me to meet them as they were leaving. She was going to get Cassie distracted while I took her brother, but I saw my chance when Cassie led Danny over to an ice cream stand. While she was busy trying to get the ice cream man’s attention, Danny took off, slipping between people, probably looking for a place to get some peace and quiet.

“I whistled to get his attention and he let me pick him up. I thought he remembered me, but I’m not sure, it could have been the shirt I had on. It had a big rhinestone flower on it, and he kept trying to pull the rhinestones off. I carried him off to my car, stuck him in a booster seat I had from when my kids were little, and gave him a box of animal crackers to keep him occupied. That was Joyce’s idea. He liked animal crackers and she figured it would be something familiar. Then I headed out. Couldn’t believe how expensive the parking bill was, but I wasn’t about to argue.”

“So, how did those clothes end up in Feliks Król’s room?”

“Well, that was the thing. I was planning to get on the highway, but I got confused and missed my turn, and then I heard on the radio they were looking for him. Gave his description and all, and I realized I couldn’t drive around with those clothes on him. I pulled into an alley in a quiet neighborhood and got him out of the car. It wasn’t too hard to get the shirt off him, but those sandals. Oh, he did not want to part with those sandals. And let me tell you, nobody could throw a tantrum like Danny. I was about to lose my mind when this old man came up. Had a beard like Santa Claus, only kind of dirty, with a sack over his shoulder.”

“Feliks,” Anni heard Slovo murmur.

“I thought he was homeless and was going to ask for money, but he took this thing out of his bag and showed it to Danny. A Rubik’s cube. It’s still in Danny’s bedroom, though he doesn’t play with it anymore, it’s too easy. The man twisted it, showing how you could match up the colors, and Danny’s eyes got big and he stopped yelling and kicking. He picked himself up and went over and put a finger on the cube. I want that. He didn’t have to say the words, they understood each other. The old man pointed at the sandals, and Danny took them off. They made a trade. I left the shirt there, got Danny back in the car and we went home.”

“You realize I spent a year of my life trying to figure out what happened?” Anni said. “It was that easy?”

“Easy! We got lucky. If Joyce hadn’t been so desperate I would never have gone along with something so crazy. That first week, I could hardly sleep, waiting for police to come knocking. I was sure somebody would have seen us. But I looked like a mother, and Danny was perfectly happy to go with me, at least until I tried to take those precious shoes of his. Then he turned into a little demon. If that man hadn’t come by, I don’t know what would have happened.”

“He’s the one, you know,” Anni said. “The crazy old hoarder.”

“I figured it might be. He sure saved my life that day. Our lives. So . . . what are you going to do?”

Anni didn’t know how to answer. She looked into her coffee cup, trying to read something in the grounds at the bottom of it.

“The old man’s dead,” Etta Mae said. “it can’t hurt him if they think he did it. And Danny’s fine, here. Look at him, you can see. He’s thriving.” She pointed. The boy had set his book aside and had slipped off the couch to stand in the sunlight coming in through a window. He was chuckling to himself, bobbing a little and twisting his wrists, fingers flicking as he watched his own shadow, finger puppets acting out some secret show all his own. Etta Mae touched Anni’s arm to get her attention. She leaned forward on her elbows, her hands clasped. “It’s what Joyce wants for him. I call her every year on her birthday and tell her how he’s doing. She knows he’s happy. It’s not just me, either. If I got sick or died, my daughter will care for him. He’ll always have someone, he’s family. Don’t take him away.” Her words turned into a whisper, almost in tears. “Please don’t.”

“Of course I won’t,” Anni said, feeling a burden lift.

 

Etta Mae persuaded them to have a rest before they left. Anni took one of the spare beds. The woman told her proudly Danny had helped make the quilt on it. He liked making patterns and the feel of the cloth. Her head was whirling with thoughts as she lay down, but she passed out almost instantly. She woke two hours later when Slovo nudged her arm. “You got a message.

“What?”

“On your phone. I can’t read it. Don’t know your passcode.”

She took it from him groggily, sat up and punched in the code. “’The package has arrived safely,’” she read aloud. “It’s that Signal app. Must be the Boston lawyer, the one who vouched for you. I wonder what . . .” She looked up and realized Slovo was pumping his fists, making little grunts of pleasure, like an adult-scale Danny. “Yesss,” he finally said. It sounded like steam escaping. “Whoo. Goddamn, that’s good news.”

“Are you going to explain?”

“It’s the thing in Boston, it’s over. She’s going to be okay.”

“She?”

“I’ll tell you in the car. Come on, let’s go home.”

License

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In the Dark by Barbara Fister, 2020, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.