We didn’t find Charlie that day. Or the next.
Or that week. Or the next.
Three weeks went by. The Amber Alert was nationwide, so we had a country full of crazy to pick through. And it wasn’t like white vans were rare. There were Charlie Barnes sightings in Maine. Alaska. Florida.
But I concentrated on Sawyer County, Texas. I figured it was an opportunity snatching, that the asshole hadn’t gone very far. I pounded the pavement, his mother’s words whipping around in my brain: You found that girl. Why are you sitting here? You found that girl.
Indeed I had. But that was a different child.
I was the same monster, though. So I shook down most of the county’s known sex offenders while wearing a ski mask (not an easy thing to find in coastal Texas), smacking them around while I sniffed them and their houses for any scent-trace of Charlie. I always left disappointed.
Three weeks to the day after he disappeared, Shyla called me. I had forgotten I had given her my number, and I stared at the phone’s display for a few seconds before taking the call. She stammered through her introduction while I finished off my fourth whiskey sour of the night.
I finally managed to ask her if everything was okay.
Stupid question. Of course nothing was okay. I was sitting in a bar called Liquerotica while her son was God knew where.
“I don’t know,” she answered.
I got the bartender’s attention by waving a twenty at him. “What’s wrong?”
“I don’t know. I . . . can you come over? Now? I know it’s late, but . . . ”
Was it late? I checked my watch. Nearly nine. I’d been in here for two hours, and I’d only managed four drinks? Lightweight.
I said, “If something’s really wrong, you need to call the police.”
“You are the police.”
Yeah, but I’m off-duty. And a bit tipsy.
I gave the bartender a ten-dollar tip and slid off the stool. “Is it Charlie? Has someone contacted you or . . . ?”
We’d fielded the usual round of phone crazies, and two weeks ago, a waste of skin had showed up at her house holding a teddy bear he’d claimed had belonged to Charlie. He claimed he’d taken the boy. In his helicopter. To Greenland.
“It’s not anyone. It’s not . . . I think I’m going crazy.”
I pushed open the bar door. Cool night air greeted me. “I’m on my way. Give me fifteen minutes. Can you do that? If this is serious, you really should call Mitchum Bay P.D.”
“You told me to call you if I needed anything!”
“I know.” I unlocked my black Mustang and slid inside. “Calm down, Ms. Barnes. I’m on my way.”
I drove with the windows down, hoping the fresh air would sober me up. I drove past a billboard that read BUZZED DRIVING IS DRUNK DRIVING and tried to feel guilty.
She met me at the door. The living room was the same: small, crowded with Charlie’s toys. There was one minor difference, though: all the pictures of Charlie were gone. Before, they’d been hanging on the walls. Charlie at the beach. At the Houston zoo. Petting a dog. Hugging his mom. Nothing on the walls now. She’d removed the photos, but left the toys. I thought that was strange, but what did I know about a mother’s grief?
I looked at her. She sank onto the futon. “Ms. Barnes?”
“Shyla, okay, please?”
“What’s going on?” Then I took a quick sniff, out of habit. My nose picked up dirty dishes, cheap no-name laundry detergent, rotting flesh, orange juice–
Wait a minute.
I inhaled again, deeper this time. Nearly got knocked down by the stench. “Jesus,” I whispered. “What is that?”
Shyla looked up at me. I registered the expression on her face only after I turned my back to her: Hope.
I drew my backup gun out of habit. I held it down by my side as I approached what I determined to be the source of the smell. Charlie’s bedroom. The door was closed. I’d been in here the day he was taken, wanting to get a good, clean scent off of his pillows to help me find him.
The rotten smell oozed out from around the door frame. The smell was green-black and oily. It made me light-headed, made me want to throw up. Despite that, I turned the dented brass door knob. The smell smacked me in the face. I paused at the threshold, caught between wanting to get this over with and wanting to turn my head and spray vomit on the wall.
I decided to throw up later. I entered the bedroom. It was dark. Somehow, I remembered the light switch was on my right and swiped it on.
No body on the floor or the bed.
I looked inside the tiny closet. Body-less also.
I leaned against the closet door. This was where she’d stored his photos. There were picture frames all over the bed. All of them face-down.
This was also where the stench was the strongest.
My nose picked it out. My hand picked it up. An eight-by-ten picture frame, a cheap one. Black plastic and glass. Under the glass, Charlie’s school picture. The one we’d copied because it was the most recent. There was a copy of it hanging inside Walmart on their missing children board.
I was willing to bet that their copy looked nothing like this one.
In this one, Charlie was dead. Decaying. Rotting away in front of a green background, his big schoolboy grin now a scream.
The frame felt sickeningly warm in my hand, like it had a fever. I dropped it back on the bed. I backed up a couple of steps, and my feet tangled together. My back slammed into the closed closet door. I slid down it to the floor.
= = = = = = = = = =
I hear a banging noise from Charlie’s bedroom. I stand up. I know what a falling body sounds like. Charlie trained me enough for that. I used to joke that it was like gravity was out to get him.
I walk into his bedroom. I haven’t been in here since I saw that photo last week. I’m surprised it still looks the same. I’ve lived with that smell for five days now, and I expected that the room would now look . . . different. Darker. Menacing. But it’s the same.
Deputy Anderson is sitting on the floor, her gun in her lap. She’s pale. I smelled the alcohol on her when she showed up earlier. I imagine she’s stone sober now. The look on her face–horror–makes me happy.