The White Elephant Flea Market was on the outskirts of Mitchum Bay, near the interstate. It was, I soon discovered, a more or less straight shot from the Barnes house. A left turn from their street led to a street that ran parallel to the interstate. Put up with the stop signs and a school zone and soon you were pulling into a potholed parking lot that had once belonged to a Gibson’s Discount Center.
Now it belonged to the flea market, which was nearly deserted on a Tuesday morning. I pulled in anyway, because of the two white cargo vans parked there. Both were in rough shape. One was a Chevy. The other was a Ford. Neither had license plates containing the digits 5 and 6.
Of course, when we’d interviewed the eyewitness, we’d believed and not believed his statement about getting part of the plate. Maybe he really had. Maybe the kidnapper had switched plates or bought a new set for seven bucks down at the tax office. Maybe neither of these would turn out to be the van.
I came to the Chevy first. No weird smells. I was searching for blood or bleach. I got exhaust and burned oil. The parking lot backed up to the rear of the flea market, and a high chain link fence separated the two. Blue tarps had been attached to the fencing, allowing me to snoop without alerting the van owners.
Ford next. No bleach. But I got a tingle at the base of my neck. No reason; it was as creepy-looking as the Chevy. But there was something extra creepy about it, according to the monster curled up inside me. I tried the driver’s door. Locked. Ditto the passenger’s. And the sliding side door.
But. The rear cargo doors were unlocked. I opened one and climbed inside. And scraped my head against the ceiling.
I’m not particularly tall. I go 5-8, 5-9 in my tactical boots. That day, I was wearing loafers. No big height advantage. I’d never had a problem with climbing inside a van before, and I’ve searched my fair share.
I pulled the door shut. I felt like a giant in here. The floor had been built up. Extended all the way to the front, stopped where the two captain’s chairs started. The built-up floor was covered in cheap beige carpet. I duck-walked to the front and pivoted. Saw a seam in the carpet, near the rear doors. I duck-walked back, tugged on the seam. It turned out to be a large square of carpet, covering a plywood door. The door had been fitted with a hasp and padlock. The padlock was unlocked. I took it off, opened the door.
And got knocked on my ass by the scents that came billowing out of it.
Boy. Young. Scared. Fear. Urine. Sweat. Peanut butter.
I gasped for air. Breathed into my sweaty palms while I tried to make sense of the smells.
Boy. Young. Charlie Barnes. The smell matched the one I’d taken from his pillow. Scent is, after all, the sense most strongly tied to memory. Especially in me. I carry smells in my head like an iPod carries songs. Anderson’s Infinite Olfactory Playlist.
The rest didn’t need to make sense. Except the peanut butter. Shyla said she’d made him a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch.
I closed the door. Replaced the padlock and carpet. Being careful now.
I sniffed the front seat. Got the scent of a male in his early twenties. Used a cologne available only at Abercrombie & Fitch. Washed his clothes in Tide.
I climbed out of the van. Walked around the fence, found the entrance to the flea market. It was open 7 days a week, according to the sign below the elephant. Ahead of me was a wide dirt path, hard-packed from years of foot traffic. Booths flanked the path. The booths were constructed of plywood, open in the front and top. Some merchants covered theirs with more plywood. Others used tarps similar to the ones covering the fence.
I walked past booths that had yellow tape strung across their fronts, indicating that they were closed. Others used thin chains. A few were open. Old men sold fishing lures, hand tools they’d bought from pawn shops and marked up 80 percent. A young woman in a tie-dyed sundress sold Tarot cards, palm readings, homemade candles. A middle-aged couple were trying to corner the market on the pet casket business.
Near the end, on my left, was the one I wanted. A booth covered with a burnt orange canopy, manned by a young guy in a T-shirt and basketball shorts. He wore a University of Texas ball cap tipped back on his head. All his clothes were UT colors: burnt orange and white. He looked like a model from the A&F store he shopped at. Blond hair, blue eyes. Cleft chin. Built, but not muscle-bound.
He was surrounded by quilts. Quilts on custom-made wooden racks. Quilts neatly folded and stacked three-deep on the scarred wooden table in front of him. Quilts made from kids’ T-shirts. I saw two Pokémon quilts. One Toy Story quilt.
And behind him, hanging from a rack, a quilt with a familiar design: a bright green Tyrannosaurus Rex on a background of horizontal purple, blue, and yellow stripes.
Charlie’s favorite sweatshirt, the one from the day he went missing, the one from his awful school picture. Cut into a square and made into a quilt. Sewn together with squares that had blue ducks on them, red cats, orange dogs.
Did all those shirts belong to missing children?
Things went a little gray around the edges of my vision. I bit the inside of my cheek to keep from fainting. Or from leaping across the table and ripping apart Everybody’s All-American, I’m not sure which. In any case, nothing happened, except that my prey sat up a little straighter in his canvas camp chair.
“Can I help you?” He had a nice, normal voice.
“These are amazing,” I said, in my own nice, normal voice. “Did you sew these?”
“Oh, no way. My grandmother does all these. I just furnish the materials, the shirts and all that.”
“She does great work. You live with her?” The question came out before I had a chance to consider it.
If it struck him as odd, he didn’t show it. “She lives in Concord Village, that retirement place? I bring her the stuff and sell the quilts for her. I have my own place.” As he said that, he looked at my chest.
It struck me as fake. Like he was doing something that he thought a guy his age who was not a twisted sicko would do.
Reminded me a lot of me.
“I really like that one,” I said, pointing to Charlie’s quilt. “How much?”
“Hundred. They’re all a hundred.”
“Pretty steep.” I pulled out my wallet. I had stashed my purse in the trunk of my car, along with my off-duty gun. I opened the wallet, knowing full well I didn’t have a hundred bucks in it. I wanted him to see the silver sheriff’s deputy badge nestled below my driver’s license.
My sunglasses are dark. You can’t see my eyes. That’s the only reason I bought them. I watched him. He saw the badge. His face stayed open and friendly, but his left upper eyelid twitched.
He said, “They’re handmade. She puts a lot of time into them. I could sell them for more.”
I rummaged through the bills. “You’re not much of a negotiator. I have sixty.”
He shook his head. “Hundred. Sorry.”
“I’ll throw in my phone number.”
He laughed. “Sorry, she’d kick my butt.”
“Well, we don’t want that.” I closed the wallet, put it up. “How long are you going to be out here?”
“Till six. Look, I have this device–” he pulled his iPhone out of a pocket of his shorts–“that plugs into my phone? I can swipe your credit card through it.”
Yeah, as if I want a record of my name and address tied to you, whenever they find what’s left of you, I thought. I said, “I prefer dealing in cash. No offense. I’ll be back. I really, really like that quilt.”
“Yeah, me too.” He looked at it over his shoulder. “It’s got some sentimental value.”