I drove through patches of blinding sun and shade dark as night. I saw the hand-lettered sign for County Road EE, and pulled off the pot-holed, single-lane pavement onto what looked like a driveway, but was another paved road. That gave way to gravel and the gravel to dirt. The dirt was hard-packed, and up ahead smoke curled out of a brick chimney. Dead petunias were scattered on the side of a white frame house.
She had braces and slim ankles, and the rest of her was covered in a long navy blue skirt and an expensive-looking black cashmere sweater. She could have been 35, or 45. She turned the corners of her mouth up and showed just a little bit of metal and tooth, but I wouldn’t call it a smile. She had brown bangs as fashionable as any magazine model, and they framed high cheekbones and hazel eyes. In the white of her left eye was a popped blood vessel that made a tiny explosion of red, perfectly matching her lipstick.
“Can I help you with something?”
“I’m the reporter,” I said.
“Uh,” I said, “the one who’s reporting the disappearance of the little boy?”
She coughed. Or was she stifling a giggle?
“Oh, yes,” she said. “Beatrice called me about you. I’ve been out of sorts. I had meant to have some things to show you, but my prints were late, and, well, you can imagine. Can I get you something to drink? English Breakfast Tea? Coffee?”
She turned, did something to a vase on a table. The hair that should have fallen over the back of her neck had been hacked off.
She turned again, put her hands on her hips and smiled. Her eyes were like marbles–lovely, cold, and lifeless.
“What do you think?” she asked, flouncing what hair was left.
“It’s great,” I lied.
“You’re lying, but that’s okay.” Before I could answer, she’d taken my hand and pulled me toward the kitchen. “Let’s have some tea before we talk,” she said.
I told her tea would be fine, as I wondered what had been getting her out of sorts, besides disappearing children and spooky woods. I also wondered what prints she was talking about, and what a nice-looking woman with braces and tea was doing living in the muddy backwoods. And where was Mr. Loomis?
“You like being a reporter?” she asked, as we sat down.
“Yeah, for the most part,” I said. I didn’t mention Jim the Wonder Dog or Snuffy the Miracle Rabbit.
“Have you found the little boy yet?”
“No, and I’m not going to. I’m not here to find the lit…”
“What if I could lead you to him?”
Maybe that’s the moment I should have called the local cops, or at least checked in with Deadline Ed, or Kev. Maybe I should have called Sissy. And maybe if I had done any of that, things wouldn’t have turned out how they did. I’ve always pondered the maybes of my life. It’s never helped.