“That poor child,” Mrs. Boone said. “I’m sure everyone at school was worried.”
“That’s all we talked about. A total waste. I should stay home tomorrow and help with the search.”
“That’s a pretty lame effort,” Mr. Boone said.
“Did you guys talk to the police about Mrs. Finnemore and explain to them that she’s lying about being home with April? That she wasn’t home Monday or Tuesday night? That she’s a weirdo who’s taking pills and neglecting her daughter?”
Silence. The room was quiet for a few seconds, then Mrs. Boone said, “No, Theo, we did not. We discussed it and decided to wait.”
His father said, “Because it won’t help the police find April. We plan to wait for a day or two. It’s still being discussed.”
“You’re not eating, Theo,” his mother said.
And it was true. He had no appetite. The food seemed to stop halfway down his esophagus, where a dull throbbing pain blocked everything. “I’m not hungry,” he said.
Later, halfway through a rerun of Law & Order, a local newsbreak blasted out the latest. The search for April Finnemore continued, with the police still tight-lipped about it. They flashed a photo of April, then one of the MISSING posters Theo and his gang had distributed. Immediately after this, there was the same ominous mug shot of Jack Leeper, looking like a serial killer. The reporter gushed, “The police are investigating the possibility that Jack Leeper, after his escape from prison in California, returned to Strattenburg to see his pen pal, April Finnemore.”
The police are investigating a lot of things, Theo thought to himself. That doesn’t mean they’re all true. He had thought about Leeper all day, and he was certain that April would never open the door for such a creep. He had told himself over and over that the kidnapping theory could be nothing but one big coincidence: Leeper escaped from prison, returned to Strattenburg because he lived there many years ago, and got himself caught on videotape at a convenience store at the exact same time that April decided to run away.
Theo knew April well, but he also realized there were many things about her he didn’t know. Nor did he want to. Was it possible that she would run away without a word to him? Slowly, he had begun to believe the answer was yes.
He was on the sofa under a quilt, with Judge wedged close to his chest, and at some point, both fell asleep. Theo had been awake since four thirty that morning and was sleep deprived. Physically and emotionally, he was exhausted.
The eastern boundary of the city of Strattenburg was formed by a bend in the Yancey River. An old bridge, one used by both cars and trains, crossed over into the next county. The bridge was not used much because there was little reason to travel into the next county. All of Strattenburg lay west of the river, and when leaving the city almost all traffic moved in that direction. In decades past, the Yancey had been a fairly important route for timber and crops, and in Strattenburg’s early years the busy area “under the bridge” was notorious for saloons and illegal gambling halls and places for all sorts of bad behavior. When the river traffic declined, most of these places closed and the bad folks went elsewhere. However, enough stayed behind to ensure that the neighborhood would maintain its low reputation.
“Under the bridge” became simply “the bridge,” a part of town that all decent people avoided. It was a dark place, almost hidden in the daytime by the shadows of a long bluff, with few streetlights at night and little traffic. There were bars and rough places where one went only to find trouble. The homes were small shacks built on stilts to protect them from high water. The people who lived there were sometimes called “river rats,” a nickname they obviously found insulting. When they worked, they fished the Yancey and sold their catch to a cannery that produced cat and dog food. But they didn’t work much. They were an idle people, living off the river, living off welfare, feuding with each other over trivial matters, and in general, earning their reputation as quick-tempered deadbeats.
Early Thursday morning, the manhunt arrived at the bridge.
A river rat named Buster Shell spent most of Wednesday evening in his favorite bar, drinking his favorite cheap beer and playing nickel-and-dime poker. When his money was gone, he had no choice but to leave and head home to his irritable wife and his three dirty children. As he walked through the narrow, unpaved streets, he bumped into a man who was going somewhere in a hurry. They exchanged a couple of harsh words, as was the custom under the bridge, but the other man showed no interest in a fistfight, something Buster was certainly ready for.
As Buster resumed his walk, he stopped dead cold. He’d seen that face before. He’d seen it only hours earlier. It was the face of that guy the cops were searching for. What’s his name? Buster, half drunk or worse, snapped his fingers in the middle of the street as he racked his brain trying to remember.
“Leeper,” he finally said. “Jack Leeper.”
By now, most of Strattenburg knew that a reward of five thousand dollars was being offered by the police for any information leading to the arrest of Jack Leeper. Buster could almost smell the money. He looked around, but the man was long gone. However, Leeper—and there was no doubt in Buster’s mind that the man was indeed Jack Leeper—was now somewhere under the bridge. He was in Buster’s part of town, a place the police preferred to avoid, a place where the river rats made their own rules.
Within minutes, Buster had rounded up a small, well-armed posse, half a dozen men about as drunk as he was. Word was out. The rumor that the escaped convict was in the vicinity roared through the neighborhood. The river people fought constantly among themselves, but when threatened from the outside, they quickly circled the wagons.
With Buster giving orders that no one followed, the search for Leeper sputtered from the start. There was considerable conflict in terms of strategy, and since every man carried a loaded gun, the disagreements were serious. With time, though, they agreed that the one main street that led up the bluff and into town should be guarded. When that was done, Leeper’s only chance of escape was either by stealing a boat or going for a swim in the Yancey River.
Hours passed. Buster and his men went door-to-door, carefully searching under the houses, behind the shanties, inside the small stores and shops, through the thickets and underbrush. The search party grew and grew and Buster began to worry about how they might split the reward money with so many people now involved. How could he keep most of the money? It would be difficult. The payment of five thousand dollars to a bunch of river rats would ignite a small war under the bridge.
The first hint of sunlight peeked through the clouds far to the east. The search was running out of gas. Buster’s recruits were tired and losing their enthusiasm.
Miss Ethel Barber was eighty-five years old and had lived alone since her husband died years earlier. She was one of the few residents under the bridge who was missing the excitement. When she awoke at 6:00 a.m. and went to make coffee, she heard a faint noise coming from the rear door of her four-room shanty. She kept a pistol in a drawer under the toaster. She grabbed it, then flipped on a light switch. Like Buster, she came face-to-face with the man she’d seen on the local news. He was in the process of removing a screen from the small window on the door, obviously trying to break in. When Miss Ethel raised her gun, as if to shoot through the window, Jack Leeper’s jaw dropped, his eyes widened in horror, and he uttered some gasp of shock that she couldn’t quite make out. (She had lost most of her hearing anyway.) Leeper then ducked quickly and scrambled away. Miss Ethel grabbed her phone and called 911.
Within ten minutes, a police helicopter was hovering near the bridge and the SWAT team was moving silently through the streets.
Buster Shell was arrested for public drunkenness, unlawful possession of a firearm, and resisting arrest. He was handcuffed and taken to the city jail, his dreams of reward money dashed forever.
They soon found Leeper, in an overgrown ditch near the street that led t
He was spotted by the helicopter crew. The SWAT team was directed to his hiding place, and within minutes the street was filled with police cars, armed officers of all varieties, sharpshooters, bloodhounds, even an ambulance. The helicopter got lower and lower. No one wanted to miss the fun. There was a van from the television news channel, filming live coverage.
Theo was watching. He was up early because he’d been up most of the night, tossing and flipping in his bed, worrying about April. He sat at the kitchen table, toying with a bowl of cereal, watching the small screen on the counter with his parents. When the camera offered a close-up of the SWAT team dragging someone from the ditch, Theo dropped his spoon, picked up the remote, and increased the volume.
The sight of Jack Leeper was frightening. His clothes were torn and covered with mud. He had not shaved in days. His thick black hair was wild and shooting in all directions. He appeared angry and defiant, yapping at the police and even spitting at the camera. As he neared the street and was surrounded by even more officers, a reporter yelled, “Hey, Leeper! Where’s April Finnemore!?”
To which Leeper offered a nasty grin and yelled back, “You’ll never find her.”
“Is she alive?”
“You’ll never find her.”
“Oh, my God,” Mrs. Boone said.
Theo’s heart froze and he couldn’t breathe. He watched as Leeper was shoved into the rear of a police van and driven away. The reporter was talking to the camera, but Theo didn’t hear his words. He gently placed his head in his hands, and began to cry.
First period was Spanish, Theo’s second favorite class, just behind Government with Mr. Mount. Spanish was taught by Madame Monique, a young, pretty, exotic lady from Cameroon, in West Africa. Spanish was just one of many languages she spoke. Normally, the sixteen boys in Theo’s section were easy to motivate and enjoyed the class.
Today, though, the entire school was in a daze. Yesterday, the halls and classrooms were filled with nervous chatter as the rumors spread about April’s disappearance. Was she kidnapped? Did she run away? What’s up with her weird mother? Where’s her father? These questions and more were tossed up for debate and kicked around with great enthusiasm throughout the day. Now, though, with the capture of Jack Leeper, and the unforgettable words he uttered about April, the students and teachers were in a state of fear and disbelief.
Madame Monique understood the situation. She taught April, too, in a girl’s section during fourth period. She tried to engage the boys in a halfhearted discussion about Mexican food, but they were too distracted.
During second period, the entire eighth grade was called into an assembly in the auditorium. Five sections of girls, five of boys, along with all the teachers. The middle school was in its third year of an experiment which separated the genders during classroom instruction, but not during the rest of the day’s activities. So far, the experiment was getting favorable reviews. But, because they were separated for most of the day, when they came together at lunch, morning break, physical education, or assembly, there was a bit more electricity in the air and it took a few minutes to calm things. Not today, though. They were subdued. There was none of the usual posturing, flirting, gazing, or nervous chatter. They took their seats quietly, somberly.
The principal, Mrs. Gladwell, spent some time trying to convince them that April was probably all right, that the police were confident she would be found soon and returned to school. Her voice was comforting, her words were reassuring, and the eighth graders were ready to believe any good news. Then a noise—the unmistakable thumping of a low-flying helicopter—passed over the school, and all thoughts immediately returned to the frantic search for their classmate. A few of the girls could be seen rubbing their eyes.
Later, after lunch, as Theo and his friends were in the middle of a halfhearted game of Frisbee football, another helicopter buzzed over the school, obviously going somewhere in a hurry. From its markings, it appeared to be from some branch of law enforcement. The game stopped; the boys stared upward until the chopper was gone. The bell rang, ending lunch, and the boys quietly returned to class.
Throughout the school day, there were times when Theo and his friends were almost able to forget about April, if only for a moment. And whenever these moments occurred, and they were indeed rare, another helicopter could be heard somewhere over Strattenburg—buzzing, thumping, watching—like some giant insect ready to attack.
The entire city was on edge, as if waiting for horrible news. In the cafés and shops and offices downtown, the employees and customers chatted in hushed tones and repeated whatever rumors they’d heard in the past thirty minutes. In the courthouse, always a rich source of gossip, the clerks and lawyers huddled around coffeepots and watercoolers and exchanged the latest. The local television stations offered live reports on the half hour. These breathless updates usually offered nothing new, just a reporter somewhere near the river saying pretty much what he or she had said earlier.
At Strattenburg Middle School, the eighth graders quietly went through their daily schedules, most of them anxious to get home.
Jack Leeper, now wearing an orange jumpsuit with CITY JAIL stenciled in black letters across the front and back, was led to an interrogation room in the basement of the Strattenburg Police Department. In the center of the room, there was a small table, and a folding chair for the suspect. Across the table sat two detectives, Slater and Capshaw. The uniformed officers escorting Leeper removed the handcuffs and ankle chains, then retreated to their positions by the door. They remained in the room for protection, though they were not really needed. Detectives Slater and Capshaw could certainly take care of themselves.
“Have a seat, Mr. Leeper,” Detective Slater said, waving at the empty folding chair. Leeper slowly sat down. He had showered but not shaved, and still looked like some deranged cult leader who’d just spent a month or so in the woods.
“I’m Detective Slater, and this is my partner Detective Capshaw.”
“A real pleasure to meet you boys,” Leeper said with a snarl.
“Oh, the pleasure is ours,” Slater said, with equal sarcasm.
“A real honor,” Capshaw said, one of the few times he would speak.
Slater was a veteran detective, the highest ranking, and the best in Strattenburg. He was wiry with a slick, shaved head, and he wore nothing but black suits with black ties. The city saw very little in the way of violent crime, but when they did Detective Slater was there to solve it and bring the felon to justice. His sidekick, Capshaw, was the observer, the note taker, the nicer of the two when they found it necessary to play good cop/bad cop.
“We’d like to ask you some questions,” Slater said. “You wanna talk?”
Capshaw whipped out a sheet of paper and handed it to Slater, who said, “Well, Mr. Leeper, as you well know from your long career as a professional thug, you must first be advised of your rights. You do remember this, don’t you?”
Leeper glared at Slater as if he might reach across the table and grab his throat, but Slater was not the least bit worried.
“You’ve heard of the Miranda rights, haven’t you, Mr. Leeper?” Slater continued.
“Of course you have. I’m sure you’ve been in many of these rooms over the years,” Slater said with a nasty grin. Leeper was not grinning. Capshaw was already taking notes.
Slater continued: “First of all, you’re not required to talk to us. Period. Understand?”
Leeper shook his head, yes.
“But if you do talk to us, then anything you say can be used against you in court. Got it?”
“You have the right to a lawyer, to legal advice. Understand?”
“And if you can’t afford one, which I’m sure yo
u cannot, then the State will provide one for you. Are you with me?”
Slater slid the sheet of paper close to Leeper and said, “If you sign here, then you agree that I’ve explained your rights and that you are voluntarily waiving them.” He placed a pen on top of the paper. Leeper took his time, read the words, fiddled with the pen, then finally signed his name. “Can I have some coffee?” he asked.
“Cream and sugar?” Slater asked.
“No, just black.”
Slater nodded at one of the uniformed officers, who left the room.
“Now, we have some questions for you,” Slater said. “Are you ready to talk?”
“Two weeks ago, you were in prison in California, serving a life sentence for kidnapping. You escaped through a tunnel with six others, and now you’re here in Strattenburg.”
“You got a question?”
“Yes, Mr. Leeper, I have a question. Why did you come to Strattenburg?”
“I had to go somewhere. Couldn’t just hang around outside the prison, know what I mean?”
“I suppose. You lived here once, correct?”
“When I was a kid, sixth grade, I think. Went to the middle school for a year, then we moved off.”
“And you have relatives in the area?”
“Some distant kin.”
“One of those distant relatives is Imelda May Underwood, whose mother had a third cousin named Ruby Dell Butts, whose father was Franklin Butts, better known out in Massey’s Mill as ‘Logchain’ Butts, and ‘Logchain’ had a half-brother named Winstead Leeper, ‘Winky’ for short, and I believe he was your father. Died about ten years ago.”
Leeper absorbed all this and finally said, “Winky Leeper was my father, yes.”
“So somewhere in the midst of all this divorcing and remarrying, you came to be a tenth or eleventh cousin of Imelda May Underwood, who married a man named Thomas Finnemore and now goes by the name of May Finnemore, mother of young April. This sound right to you, Mr. Leeper?”
“I never had any use for my family.”
“Well, I’m sure they’re real proud of you, too.”
The door opened and the officer placed a paper cup of steaming black coffee on the table in front of Leeper. It appeared to be too hot to drink, so Leeper just stared at it. Slater paused for a second, then pressed on. “We have copies of five letters April wrote to you in prison. Sweet, kid stuff—she felt sorry for you and wanted to be pen pals. Did you write her back?”
“I don’t know. Several times, I guess.”
“Did you come back to Strattenburg to see April?”
Leeper finally picked up the cup and took a sip of coffee. Slowly, he said, “I’m not sure I want to answer that question.”
For the first time, Detective Slater seemed to become irritated. “Why are you afraid of that question, Mr. Leeper?”
“I don’t have to answer your question. Says so right there on your little piece of paper. I can walk out right now. I know the rules.”
“Did you come here to see April?”
Leeper took another sip, and for a long time nothing was said. The four officers stared at him. He stared at the paper cup. Finally, he said, “Look, here’s the situation. You want something. I want something. You want the girl. I want a deal.”
“What kind of a deal, Leeper?” Slater shot back.
“Just a moment ago it was Mr. Leeper. Now, just Leeper. Do I frustrate you, Detective? If so, I’m real sorry. Here’s what I have in mind. I know I’m going back to prison, but I’m really tired of California. The prisons are brutal—overcrowded, lots of gangs, violence, rotten food—you know what I mean, Detective Slater?”
Slater had never been inside a prison, but to move things along he said, “Sure.”
“I want to do my time here, where the slammers are a bit nicer. I know because I’ve had a good look at them.”
“Where’s the girl, Leeper?” Slater said. “If you kidnapped her, you’re looking at another life sentence. If she’s dead, you’re looking at capital murder and death row.”
“Why would I harm my little cousin?”
“Where is she, Leeper?”
Another long sip of coffee, then Leeper crossed his arms over his chest and grinned at Detective Slater. Seconds ticked away.
“You’re playing games, Leeper,” Detective Capshaw said.
“Maybe, maybe not. Is there any reward money on the table?”
“Not for you,” Slater said.
“Why not? You give me some money, I’ll take you to the girl.”
“It doesn’t work that way.”
“Fifty thousand bucks, and you can have her.”