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On Halloween night, a small midwestern town is traumatized by what appears to be a hit- and-run accident. But the mayor and chief of police conspire to divert the investigation away from the prime suspect, a local high school ...
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On Halloween night, a small midwestern town is traumatized by what appears to be a hit- and-run accident. But the mayor and chief of police conspire to divert the investigation away from the prime suspect, a local high school football hero, leaving the beleaguered police officer who discovered the body to uncover the truth behind the cover-up. Full of the author's trademark psychological intensity, this fast-paced tale is Michael Collins at his page-turning best.
Author Biography: Michael Collins was born in Limerick, Ireland, and is the author of seven previous works of fiction, including The Resurrectionists, The Keepers of Truth, and Emerald Underground.
I could hear Max barking from his solitary confinement in the basement. I went down and let him up into the house.
It was a night when they say the dead walk among the living, and the evening had passed in a motley assortment of trick-or-treaters going door to door. I’d followed the ghoulish neighbor spectacle from my cop car, kids dressed as ghosts with shackles and chains, witches with warts, devils with forked tails, skeletons with scythes, sorcerers and wizards, monster brides, along with the usual superheroes: Super-man, Spider-Man, Batman, The Incredible Hulk. I’d turned on my siren and lights from time to time, just to add to the phantasmagoria of the evening.
The crime of the night had been some kids tying a string of firecrackers to a cat’s tail, that and a bogus incident with some loser kid reporting he’d found a razor blade in an apple.
Max was groggy, though he came and licked my hand. I’d given him a sedative, since he was a barker. I’d not wanted the kids harassing him while I was on duty. He growled a bit, like he was mad at me. I told him about the cat. The word “cat” made his ears point. Just hearing my voice made him pant. He looked to the window like there was a cat in the vicinity. It was good to get that kind of loyalty, even if it had to come from a dog. You hang on to whatever is thrown to you. I opened the refrigerator. The kitchen filled with the smell of meatloaf. I put ketchup on it, the way he liked it, and fed him.
I drank a glass of milk just to kill the time. I wasn’t sleeping well. My reflection stared back at me in the window—like looking into an old memory.
I was two years on from a divorce that had blindsided me. My wife, Janine, had left with my son. I’d not learned to inhabit the silence of the house. I missed my kid is what it was. Holidays could do that. For some, they represented happiness; for others, regret.
Earlier that night, I’d seen my kid at the mall where the town held its official trick-or-treating. It was two years after the Tylenol murders in Chicago in ’82, the case still unsolved. I’d set up a metal detector at the mall, to scan all the kids’ candy. I was dressed as Obi-Wan Kenobi, and this kid dressed as ET came forward and emptied his stash of candy. I scanned his candy with my metal detector made up to look like a light-saber. The disguise was complete—that is, until I saw my kid’s eyes staring through the eyeholes of his mask, and then I knew, but Eddy said nothing. He turned and looked back. He didn’t know what to do, like he was going to get into trouble just speaking to me. It wasn’t my day to be with him. He was more lost than that alien he was pretending to be, but I didn’t blow his cover. He wasn’t the problem.
As he walked away I simply said, “ET, phone home.”
In the background, I saw my ex-wife with her new husband, Seth Hansen. They were dressed as ghouls, chained together, each carrying a ball and chain, pretty much how I saw them in real life. The line for receiving Scare Packages snaked all the way back to the Food Court, our mayor, master of ceremonies, dressed as Gomez Addams, trying to bolster his personal profile in the community. His face shone with perspiration. I could smell his aftershave from fifty feet away— his signature smell, optimism overlaid with desperation, a tangy ripeness of someone having just finished running. He radiated heat when you got near him.
The mayor was in a struggle with the powers that be in the next town over, Elkhart, Ind.—the RV capital of the world—regarding a proposed rezoning ordinance that would put the mall under their municipal control, siphoning tax revenue away from us.
Knowing this might be the last year I would be working the mall added to my own sense of depression. There are times when you are a victim of circumstance, or that is how I rationalize my own personal decline.
That Halloween night would prove to be one of the longest of my entire life, a slur of exhaustive hours. All I got as a memento was a photo of Eddy receiving a prize from the mayor for his costume. Eddy was hidden by his mask, looking out at Janine. I hoped he was looking for me too, there amidst the onlookers.
We ended up having to keep the mall open past ten just to accommodate all the kids getting to shake hands with the mayor.
For my efforts at the mall that night all I found was one razor blade in an apple, and I knew it was a hoax because I knew the kid, Bobby James. He kept looking back into the crowd behind him. Bobby James’s older brothers were losers. They’d put him up to it. I swear to God, I didn’t want to be part of all that bullshit. My kid was roaming the mall. I was legally bound to keep away from him.
We ended up questioning Bobby James because I had to treat the hoax as something real. Arnold Fisher, a rent-a-cop at the mall who worked part-time for us, had to find out which houses the kid had trick-or-treated at. The kid got his photograph taken holding the apple and the blade.
That image was going to define Halloween for our community, one of those set pieces about our vanishing innocence. I always wondered how the most depraved tapped into our psyche, how they sensed the undercurrent of our lives, anticipating our decline.
I watched Max slobbering at his bowl. His black muzzle pushed the bowl across the floor, his dark pinkish tongue showing. On the table was a National Enquirer I’d picked up at the supermarket with a piece in it about a hot dog vendor in New York who’d taken the door off a microwave and, over the course of a few months, cooked his hand from the inside out.
It’s how I might have described my marriage.
I yawned and my eyes teared. I put the backs of my hands to my eyes, smelt nicotine in my pores. I had quit smoking a few days prior, something I did from time to time, but with no real conviction. I went and got a carton I’d stashed away, pulled off the ribbon of golden plastic and broke yet another promise. I drew in that first breath the way people coming up for air in swimming pools do after they’ve held their breath too long. I felt the smoke burn my lungs. It was a satisfying feeling. There are worse ways to die. I know. I’ve seen them in my line of work. I got up, feeling the nicotine ease the tension. I was ready for bed. I had a few days off, a long weekend planned at my hunting cabin. But while Max was out doing his business in the cold night air, I got the call about the missing little girl.
The dispatch operator, Lois Gains, said she figured it was just some mix-up, some kid who’d decided to stay at a friend’s house, given it was Halloween.
I just listened to her talking.
“I hate to get you out like this, Lawrence, but you’ll be back in bed before you know it.” She was talking fast. “That kid is probably at someone’s house at a sleepover. She just followed kids into a house, that’s what happened.”
But there was something not quite right in her voice.
I said, “How old is she?”
Lois hesitated. “Three.”
“You think a three-year-old could slip into someone’s sleepover unnoticed?”
Lois didn’t answer immediately. “What with the costumes and masks they got these days, who can tell one kid from another?”
“Whose kid is it?”
“I don’t know her ... some single woman living over in one of those apartments in the old mansion houses on East Pine.”
Somehow I knew right then that this wasn’t just a kid missing from a sleepover.
I shivered against the night and opened my car door. Darkness was settled in by early afternoon now. Daylight savings had just robbed us of an hour of daylight.
Max barked in the house. He pissed on the floor when he was left alone, suffering from separation anxiety. I could hear him as I backed out of the driveway. I should have put him back into the basement, but I didn’t. On a few occasions people had called about his barking, complaining about how he was treated. He had, in some ways, come out worst in the divorce, locked away in the basement during my shifts.
I didn’t want to be out looking for a missing kid. I wanted a call from dispatch to tell me it had all been a mistake, but the call never came. In the retelling of things, sometimes I think that if I could get it told right I could change it, I could make it come out different.
I parked at the back of the town hall. The mayor was already there, still in his Gomez Addams costume from the party at the mall. He was drinking black coffee. I saw him through the glass in the chief’s office, along with the chief, who was on the phone, and the chief’s secretary, who had rollers in her hair, but she wasn’t in costume. It made her all the more pathetic.
The mayor was talking out loud, and the chief’s secretary was typing up what the mayor was saying. The local newspaper wanted a statement.
When I punched in, Lois told me that the child’s mother was being interviewed at her apartment by Arnold Fisher, since he lived close by. Lois said, “The mother’s drunk ... I mean, really drunk.”
In the stark light of the break room, which came to serve as a command post since it had the coffee vending machine, we came up with a rudimentary search plan. Some members of the volunteer fire department were already on hand.
Arnold Fisher showed halfway through the meeting and reported that the mother had been rushed to the county hospital after collapsing. He said there were amphetamines in her apartment, that she’d taken them along with the booze. As he talked, his coffee steamed under his chin. I could see his blue striped pajamas under his uniform.
From what he had patched together from the mother, we learned the kid had trick-or-treated with neighborhood kids and had been dropped back at eight-thirty. The mother said she put the kid to bed at just past nine o’clock, then she too fell asleep, admitting she’d been drinking throughout the evening. She didn’t wake until she felt a draft of cold air. That was at a quarter to eleven. The door was wide open. She’d left it half-open because of trick-or-treaters and had forgotten to shut it.
Given it was just below freezing, we had to act quickly. The chief cordoned off areas on a map, and we left and began searching the night.
I passed through the old neighborhood lit by the grinning malevolence of pumpkins, the candles licked by the cold wind. I passed lawns laid out like graveyards, tombstones tilted and hands reaching out of the ground. Someone had tied a life-sized witch on a broom to a telephone pole, so it looked like the witch had crashed in midflight.
I shone my spotlight over the gardens, probing the sleeping quiet of 2:00 a.m. I saw the shifting silver of TVs left on, playing those old horror movies, taking insomniacs through the night. From time to time the dispatch radio in the car hissed a report on the blocks that had been searched.
It went that way through the night, each block checked and accounted for, mapped back at the office, and still no sign of the missing child. I circled through my own street, came level with my house, shone the light on the menace of the word “PIG,” on what kids could conjure as evil or malevolent.
They had, of course, no idea, not yet.
I needed an ally, someone to stave off the sadness I felt. Frost covered everything and the temperature had dipped below freezing.
Max was barking. He had heard my car. At least, I hoped it was the car, and that he hadn’t been barking like that all night long.
After a night of searching, after hours of exhaustion and black coffee refills back at the station, when I was about to stop searching I let Max out, let him walk beside the car as I drove slowly. We were back on the actual street the child lived on, but up a few houses, when Max stopped in the street and made a whining sound, then barked at something in a pile of leaves at the side of the road.
I stopped the car, got out, and knelt down slowly by the side of the road, brushed the leaves aside to reveal the bent, feathered wire hangers of two broken wings. The yellowish halo of my flashlight lit up the face.
It was like discovering a sleeping angel left between the worlds of the living and dead. And then I saw where the blood had clotted the leaves. When I touched the child she was already stiff. She’d been dead for hours.
Max sniffed and whined at my coat. He made that huff noise dogs make and settled. I got him back into the car and called for backup.
It was hard just forming the words, speaking to dispatch. The dispatch radio hissed. Lois was talking to me, but I didn’t hear what she was saying.
I was looking at a small, sentinel fire hydrant painted like a minuteman.
I got out of the car again and, standing over the pile of leaves, looked back along the street, putting together in my head the terrible truth of what happened, of how this child had died, seeing the tire tracks where a car had come zigzag through the damp leaves.
Posted September 12, 2006
Posted May 8, 2005
I really enjoyed this book. I was looking for a new author (I've read all the Michael Connelly books) and saw that Connelly recommended Collins' book so I went for it. He's up there with the best story tellers. You won't be disappointed.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 19, 2004
Lawrence, a small-town cop, sure seems like a loser. Divorced, lonely, in a dead-end job, not much respected by anyone; can things get much worse? They can and do. When he begins looking into the apparent hit-and-run of a little girl, Lawrence dredges up more trouble than he needs from his superiors and the suspect's family. When the bodies begin piling up, Lawrence, ever the lucky one, finds the finger of suspicion pointed at him. This novel is beautifully written; everyone in it is damaged or flawed in some way and it's hard not to be sympathetic with even some of the less lovable characters. The story flows so seamlessly and relentlessly that I had a hard time putting the book down. I highly recommend it for those who love mysteries and fine writing.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 4, 2004
A 3-year-old girl is found dead, the victim of a hit-and-run. A small-town cop becomes involved in both the investigation and cover-up. In small towns, people are not always what they seem. Collins is a gifted storyteller. This is an entertaining mystery.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.