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Ghosts, dead bodies, dark secrets and bad energy still lurk in Steepleton, N.J., the boondocks town made famous by the disappearance of high-school loser Christopher Creed.
When the body of Darla Richardson, the sister of Bo Richardson from The Body of Christopher Creed (2000), Plum-Ucci's Printz Honor–winning debut, is discovered dead and buried in the woods behind the town, dogged, aspiring college reporter Mike Mavic and his girlfriend hit the road to investigate her death and ultimately Chris' disappearance. Fans of the first book will love the return of the first book's characters, including Bo, Torey Adams and Justin, Creed's bombed-out brother, who's been in and out of rehab since his brother's disappearance. However, readers won't like Mike's narration, whose voice is closer to a sensitive 40+-year-old's than a college student's: "I was hoping Justin might find moderation, quit going for the energy-charged manipulation tricks, and maybe give his brother up to the Higher Power." Much of the first book's finesse with teenspeak, which made it both a page turner and a sordid pathway into the psyche of an insular New Jersey town, has vanished, leaving far too many platitudes in its place.
Finally, what of Christopher Creed himself? Fans will have to slog through 400+ pages to spot the subtle and not-so-subtle clues that lead to the truth in this sort-of thriller. (Mystery. 12 & up)
IT HAPPENED ON A DARK AND STORMY NIGHT. I’m a sucker for stories starting like that. I like it even better when it’s true. I said as much to my girlfriend, RayAnn, as she cut the engine, and we were left with the sounds of drumming raindrops on the roof and a surge of wind through the forest. Finally she leaned over me and opened the passenger door of our borrowed car.
"I’ll stay here," she said.
I heaved my backpack over one shoulder, trying to size up the distance between us and a couple of flashlights bobbing in what appeared to be a crowd.
"Thought you wanted to be an investigative journalist," I lectured.
"Can I write about a bank robbery before I do a dead body?"
I got out, saying, "You can do anything you want. God bless America . . . land that I—"
Lanz, from the back seat, started panting and whining. I patted his head.
"Stay," I told him as I stepped into the rain and slammed the car door.
The forest trail was wide up to the crime scene tape holding back a group of people with flashlights. I stooped under the tape and kept going. The last ten yards were treacherous—uphill and full of bramble, which, fortunately, kept me from skimming backwards. I crept up to a second crime scene tape surrounding a gaggle of orange ponchos where portable floodlights beamed onto the ground. We were maybe a quarter mile behind Torey Adams’s house, I knew, from the map on his website.
Adams launched ChristopherCreed.com four years ago, about a year after Chris disappeared during their junior year at Steepleton High School. They hadn’t been friends, but Adams needed to make sense out of Chris’s disappearance. Creed hadn’t had any friends. Since its launch, lots of visitors have become site fans, including me and RayAnn. Adams is a budding musician in L.A. now who doesn’t post much anymore and doesn’t respond to interview requests.
I haven’t been a reporter for long. In fact, some would say that because I write for a college newspaper and I’m only a junior, I’m not actually a reporter. I’m a pretend reporter, that’s what they would say. Whatever. I know a good potential story when I hear it. I’ve been following this one for four years. I know when it’s finally time to sell my laptop to buy a plane ticket.
I had already won my blowout with Claudia Winston, our editor in chief, a first-year grad student and equal parts bluster and brains. This morning she tore around the office demanding to know why I was stupid enough to bail on covering the Spring Formal, which would force her into it because all the other reporters were going, and I know she hates dances. She reminded me loudly that the newspaper has no budget for replacing laptops of imbeciles who sold them to report on crimes that have nothing to do with Randolph University or our newspaper, the Exponent. I told her that if she prints this holy mess, Associated Press will buy it, no question. My name and "of the Randolph Exponent" will be in every paper across the country, and she’ll be famous as my editor. Like I said, I know what I’m doing.
It took the cops a couple minutes to realize that I was not one of them, because I also was wearing an orange police poncho, which an Indiana state trooper gave me last fall when I was covering a car accident in a blinding rain storm. It explains why nobody stopped me, nobody bothered me. Finally an officer noticed my backpack. It says RANDOLPH on it in bright yellow letters.
"No one past the crime scene tape but FBI and Steepleton law enforcement," he snapped, and I tried to pull my eyes from the neon skeleton to look at him. A spotlight shone on it. The skull was less than half uncovered, the angle telling me the head had been turned to the side when the dirt was thrown on top. One eye socket gazed nowhere and everywhere, and muddy teeth were bared in a forever-silent scream. No raindrops were hitting it, and I realized that we were under a tarp. The skeleton was still buried from the waist down, with one visible arm extended out to the side slightly. An officer was digging carefully—sweeping, in fact, making short, patient swipes. The arm bone appeared to be wrapped in muddy, leafy, woodsy remains of some sort of fabric. The officer was nowhere near the feet yet. Torey Adams said in four different places on his website that Christopher Creed had always worn Keds. I looked down where the feet might be, and, seeing only the mud of a homemade grave, laughed at my uneasiness.
I took off my glasses, reached under my poncho, and rubbed the raindrops off them with my T-shirt, biding for time. I put them back on my face and took one last glance at the corpse, even as I turned my polite grin to the officer, because my dark glasses allow me to do stuff like that. My eyes can pick up a lot when bright light is shed on something in the dark.
"I’m Mike Mavic. Reporter. I called this morning." I stuck out my hand for the officer to shake, but he only glared into my dark glasses. I was used to stares and let my polite grin remain. "I called and talked to, um . . ." I reached nervously into my pocket, pulled out a piece of paper where I’d written down the name, and held it out.
He snatched it up and held a flashlight deep under the tarp so rain wouldn’t devour the ink. "You talked to Chief Rye?"
"That’s right. This morning. I’ve interviewed different police officers over the past six months. Rye said I could come."
The officer moved away toward a hulking poncho holding an upside-down shovel that looked to me like the staff of Moses. The figure was on the other side of the corpse. I kept my head high but my eyes lowered. I could see a lot in this light. I saw the chest coming clean—four rib bones, and I heard curses as little pieces of fabric kept getting stuck in the broom utensil.
Chief of Police Doug Rye had a booming voice, despite his whispering.
"Some legally blind guy . . . college paper somewhere near Chicago . . . just some friendly geek . . . stay, so long as he doesn’t . . ."
The officer eventually walked back around the body and spoke close to my ear. "He can’t talk to you right now. He wants you to stand where you are. Don’t move, don’t come any closer to the remains."
I waited patiently as the broom picked up mud but managed to leave a mangle of that fabric on the bottom rib.
I’ll tell a truth here that could get me in trouble if people knew, because not even my boss Claudia realizes this: Legally blind is a huge term, and it basically means I don’t see well enough to drive and I can get scholarships for blind people. I’m not as blind as I make myself out to be.
I lost most of my vision when I got cracked in the head with a baseball my first week at college, playing in a dorm scrimmage. Most people’s vision, including frontal and peripheral span, runs about twenty-five feet, side to side. After two failed corrective surgeries, my entire vision screen is seven inches wide. About four inches of that is in black and white, and I lose everything for two to three seconds if I turn my head too fast. If I don’t wear shades, I see "twinkles" outlining things, so I wear them almost always. Funsville. But I make sure to count my blessings every day, because I could be taking meals through a tube while examining the back of my hand all day and finding that amusing. Life is excellent or life blows, depending on how you look at it.
I can actually see well enough to navigate around campus without Lanz, but I like Lanz. We understand each other. I usually take him for the fun of it, but when I don’t, I’m in no danger of walking dead-on into a tree, though I’ve done it to get politically correct girls to feel sorry for me. I can’t always see whole faces in one close-up frame—but I can see eyes. I can tell by people’s eyes whether they’re smiling or happy or depressed or judgmental or sober or high—whether drug-infested people are on uppers or downers. Light reflects in eyes, and when that’s all you can take in at once, they tell you a lot.
This officer’s eyes told me he felt sorry for me and wanted to help out a blind college dude who’s pudgy enough to get winded climbing a small hill and who smiles even in the rain. If I were some sobering New York Times reporter, he’d have told me to can it and go wait with the local goons.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m basically an honest person. But I want to be a journalist like any good Roman priest wants to be pope, and the truth is, people tell you more when they think you’re a blind reporter. I don’t know why that is, but I’ll take every advantage I can get. I live to get that goddess of a story. Soon, I want to send one of my crime pieces to Salon.com and have the editors say, "Move that piece of garbage off the homepage and make room for Mike Mavic. The guy’s so talented it’s scary." I will be a happy man when my words make people laugh and cry aloud.
"You came pretty far pretty fast," the officer said.
"I’ve been following this story since the beginning."
"One of those, huh?" he said, letting out a short laugh. "You relate to Chris Creed or something? If so, you’re not the first college student to show up here wanting to write about him."
That was deflating, but not enough to give me pause. "Chris and I were born in the same year. I also ran from an unhappy home, leaving younger siblings, and I was picked on in school by the ‘pops.’ That’s short for popular kids, back in my hometown." I think the runaway part was what got him staring. Most kids who related to Chris and wrote as much on Adams’s site had been picked on. A few were runaways also, but not many.
"Jesus, I didn’t know there were that many Creed-type families out there," he said, sidling up to me and saying in a low voice, "or, off the record, that many Sylvia Creeds to run from."
"Actually, there are thousands of mothers like that," I said, grinning slightly wider. He’d have known that if he read all the posts on the ChristopherCreed site. "Walmart could market voodoo dolls of the Mother Creed and make a bloody fortune off sons born to some unfortunate likeness."
"The Mother Creed?" He snickered. "That’s what you Web fans call the poor woman?"
"Actually, that’s a personal ID. You like?"
"Not bad, for a writer." He yawned and didn’t try to hide it. "We just found the body this morning. I’ve been standing here ever since, guarding, waiting for the FBI to show up for this dig, which didn’t happen until four. Wish I had duck feet. How’d you hear about this corpse so quickly?"
"Luck," I said. "I checked Torey Adams’s website again today. This is the first update he’s made in five months."
"Mmm . . . his parents must have called him."
I turned and looked back at the flashlights of onlookers. "Do you think they’re part of that crowd back there?"
"I doubt it. Not the types. Chief Rye will call Vic and Susan Adams when he gets back to the office, and a few choice others. Those back there are . . . the folks with nothing better to do, you know?"
"Yeah." I laughed soberly. "I know."
That’s not something he would have confessed to a New York Times reporter.
I heard yelling behind me. It was a woman’s voice—loud, unhappy, unintelligible, and voracious. It sent chills down my back, dark memories of my own little hells.
"Speak of the devil," he groaned.
"Think she’s drunk?" I asked. Some local college dude posted last year that Sylvia Creed had turned into a drunk in the four-plus years since her son had disappeared. Adams posted that he feels sorry for her. Sometimes.
"Why don’t you go interview her and find out?" the officer asked. He’d grown tired of me. He was unburying a corpse. I could understand. But I would rather interview him, and this is one thing most people don’t understand: The interview starts when the reporter identifies himself, not when the reporter shoves a pad or recorder in your face.
"Do you think this body is Chris Creed?" I asked.
He took a moment, leading me to think he had nothing to say, until, "I would love to think so. This town has an open wound. It just keeps bleeding."
That was a Quote of the Decade.
"But you really have no opinion," I urged him on.
He laughed uncomfortably. "There have been a couple copycat disappearances in the years since Chris left town. This could be one of them."
Dumbfounded anger jolted me. The police I interviewed never mentioned copycat disappearances. My inexperience was frustrating. Have I ever asked if there had been copycat disappearances? Has Torey Adams ever printed such on his website? No, and no.
I tried to think through my anger how such a fantastic news item would not have been posted on ChristopherCreed.com. First of all, Adams hadn’t updated it much in the last couple years. In the last entry he posted five months back, he said he probably wouldn’t be updating anymore, as he wanted to get on with his life and he felt that almost five years is enough to give to a missing kid he had never actually hurt, beyond punching him in the face once in sixth grade. Adams had never allowed me to interview him, even though I sold all six of my iPods to go see his band play a concert in Anaheim last year. The manager was letting some press backstage, but I made the mistake of saying why I was there. Adams sent word out that he had nothing further to say about his website or Chris Creed, and I never got backstage. Adams’s band had a debut album coming out. Heaven is a great distraction from hell, I guessed. I couldn’t blame him.
I reached down, feeling for the recorder in my backpack. I hit Record and made sure the officer could see it. That’s journalism ethics, but I didn’t make a big deal of it.
"How many copycat disappearances are there?" I asked.
"Two. Only one of them showed up again, two weeks later. So if this is not Chris, it could be the other copycat."
"Okay . . . who’s the other copycat?"
He didn’t answer right away. A band of fabric that I couldn’t make out rolled across one rib, which the FBI diggers/sweepers were pulling out of the ground. The agent sweeping was female—speaking unintelligibly to the agent behind her.
I kept smiling, trying to distract from my uncomfortable shuffling. The officer finally softened to it.
"The one who showed up two weeks later was a Renee Bowen."
I knew that name well enough to do a double take. "The teenage girl who was known to be kind of mean to Chris Creed?" I asked. "She was a gossip hag in Adams’s web tale . . ."
He nodded. "She’s not a teenager anymore. She’s twenty-one. Has a recent history of drug use and run-ins with the law. She left a note very similar to Chris Creed’s about wanting to ‘be gone. Therefore, I AM.’"
Chris Creed’s letter scrolled slowly on the opening page of the website. I knew it by heart. Renee had been somewhere close to the front, a pretty-faced antagonist. Adams had made me dislike the girl, and on top of that, plagiarism guns my hate engine.
"There was a lot of press, a lot of local stink, until someone found Renee sleeping at a friend’s house. So much for that one."
I nodded, trying to conceive of Renee Bowen using all her strength to be Chris Creed. Problem: He’d been missing for nearly five years, and she couldn’t even make it out of town.
"Guess her family was relieved," I said. "And who’s the other copycat?"
"Justin Creed. Chris’s younger brother."
I let this one sink in without moving, though I felt like I was falling. All I said was "Wow." I might lie by omission about my ability to see things, but I’m not such a prick that I couldn’t understand how Mrs. Creed might turn into a drunken wasteland.
"He hasn’t shown up?" I asked numbly.
"He just left two weeks ago."
I glanced down at the bones being uncovered in front of me and let my gaze bounce up again immediately. "So . . . this couldn’t be Justin."
"Not unless he was burned. There was a brush fire out here last week. The jogger who noticed the protruding portion of the skull this morning said she thought she smelled kerosene. Can’t smell anything now. Not in the rain."
I forced my mind on to stupid details. How would a burned body have gotten into a shirt? Or is the fabric around the body a blanket? I decided not to ask. I realized I’d been swaying when the officer’s hand came down on my shoulder.
"Are you okay?" he asked. "Maybe you should stand back from the corpse. If you’re not used to seeing them—"
I moved slightly to snap out of my sudden desire to get away from the corpse. "I’m fine. I’d just . . . been hoping to get an interview with Justin Creed when I came out. It’s been at the top of my list, and it had never occurred to me he wouldn’t, you know, be here."
I dived into the memory of having tried before, back when RayAnn and I first met and I was testing her commitment after she’d asked to assist me on bigger stories. I had her call the house either to get Justin on the phone or get his cell phone number, but the Mother Creed answered and told her to cram it when she identified herself. The woman said we could talk to her, but not her child, then proceeded to question RayAnn for five minutes instead of the other way around. RayAnn finally hung up and took two aspirins. It was nuts.
I looked again at the neon bones and this muddied blotch of fabric the agent with the broom kept fishing for. She finally brought it up.
She held it up for the cops.
"Bra," she said. "I suppose that means we’ve got a female. What the hell, Rye. Do you have any missing females?"
"No missing females, Jenna. Not at the moment," he boomed, then cleared his throat.
The officer made some remark about hoping I wasn’t too disappointed, but this would probably not be a career-making story on finding the body of Christopher Creed.
"Walking into the corpse of Chris Creed would be a gold mine for any reporter," I confessed. "But I can live with the situation, no matter who it is. It’ll write, either way."
That caused him to stare. He probably thought like Claudia Winston, who was expecting me to show up on Mon-day with the Corpse of the Hour angle or there was no story at all. I had the start of a great story—complete with two winning Quotes of the Decade, the second one being "No missing females, Jenna. Not at the moment." It’s as if this town of Steepleton had descended into Stepford-wife numbness and people were responding to death-in-the-woods in the same easy way you’d respond to that No Smoking sign on your cigarette break.
"So then, what exactly brought you here?" he asked.
The corpse, obviusly. But I’d just said I didn’t need the corpse. I could understand his confusion. I was slightly confused—but also at peace with my choices.
"Gut instincts?" I took a stab at wording. "I don’t know if being blind has anything to do with it, but I have very good gut instincts. I fall into stories that write themselves all the time."
"And a dead body didn’t hurt anything, I suppose." He finally laughed a little, probably at my seemingly compulsive ways of spending my time and money. But he worked more with corpses than concepts, being a cop instead of a writer. I let him laugh.
Steepleton had been my interest, my story brewing for months—the people of a small town like this, people who are left when the dorkiest kid in town takes off and nobody can find a trace of him. There are no remains. The people who remain become the remains . . . I figured I’d have to play with that line, but the point was in it. Adams had left enough hints on his website for me to gather that the people had become withdrawn, bitter, distrustful gossips with little weird streaks. Adams wrote that after Chris disappeared, his weirdnesses started coming out in others. I think it was that line that hooked me to his story, to the idea that I wanted to come here if the moment ever was ripe.
It’s always about the people. It’s never about the facts. I forget which of my success gurus wrote that, but I’ve never forgotten hearing it. Hence, any great story on Chris Creed’s disappearance would always be about Steepleton. This corpse was a nice sidebar—if you can forgive my sounding callous—one that would provide the impetus for showing how weird people can be. I wished the officer well in finding an identity, recorded his name as Tom "Tiny" Hughes, and walked back to see if I could hear what the Mother Creed was saying about this. I stuck the recorder in my pants pocket under my poncho and sucked in air silently. I wanted to hear this woman babble without approaching her, without seeing the torture in her eyes. All my college material reads that serious journalists should not try to interview a drunk. It seems like a chance to get some really good intrigue, but there’s no telling whether it’s the truth. Drunken quotes are almost taboo among reporters, and I was glad of it at the moment. I just wanted to see what it was like to stand fifteen feet from the Mother Creed. A legend to me. A firestarter. An enigma. I wasn’t certain I shared Torey Adams’s belief that the woman deserved some compassion, though I admired him for it. I moved toward her voice, but in a staggering, dizzy way.
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