Skullbelly © 2011 by Ronald Malfi
Cover Artwork © 2011 by Daniele Serra
All Rights Reserved.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
P.O. Box 338
North Webster, IN 46555
Tommy Downing was nineteen years old but possessed the haunted, vacuous eyes of a man very near the end of his life. Considering what the boy must have been through, John Jeffers didn’t think the comparison was that far off.
Sitting there with the boy, of course, was useless—Jeffers would have gotten more info from rereading the police reports and newspaper articles that had come out after the incident—but the Downings had insisted. And the Downings were paying one-fourth of his bill.
Jeffers leaned back in his chair, which was a foldout wooden job beside the boy’s bed that made his ass sore. He was not necessarily a large man, but he was sturdy and there was still muscle beneath the layers of flab he’d unwittingly accumulated following his second divorce last year. Canned soups loaded with preservatives, greasy fast food, and microwave dinners would do that to you. Not that Vicki had been much of a cook, but at least she had made certain he wasn’t filling his face with an overabundance of carbs and saturated fat and that he worked out at least twice a week. Ah, well—she was scrutinizing someone else’s diet now.
“Our biggest concern, aside from Tommy’s health, of course,” Carl Downing spoke up, snapping Jeffers from his daydream, “is that the police have been so quiet. They’ve stopped answering our questions and returning our phone calls. I know they’re busy, but I don’t like all this silence.”
Jeffers nodded. “I understand,” he said in his well-practiced, gruff voice. Had the Downings not been in the bedroom with him, he would have slipped one hand under the sheets and given Tommy a good pinch to see if he could elicit some emotion from the boy. He had to admit, it was damned creepy—blank stare, pale face, body a withered husk that seemed just barely capable of respiration. The Downings had shown him photos of what their son had looked like prior to the trip—just three months ago—and he’d looked like a completely different person. The photos showed a cocky, athletic teen with sandy hair and a confident, almost cavalier, grin. The hardships of the world had not yet come to slap the face of the boy in those pictures…though what remained of that boy now, catatonic in his bedroom beneath his parents’ roof, had been more than just slapped.
Life kicked you square in the grapes, partner, Jeffers thought, repositioning himself in the uncomfortable chair.
“I mean, if there were just some communication,” Downing went on, visibly distraught over the whole situation. “We feel like they’re holding something back from us.”
“They’re probably worried about giving up misinformation,” Jeffers suggested, though he personally believed the police had an altogether different reason for limiting their contact with the Downings, or any of the other families for that matter: namely, that Tommy Downing was a suspect. The boy’s three-month-long dissociative fugue state, while medically confirmed, no doubt left a bad taste in the mouths of the detectives on this case. All too convenient, wasn’t it? After all, how do you interrogate someone on the whereabouts of his three missing friends when the son of a bitch was practically in a waking coma?
Jeffers stood. From the windows at either side of the boy’s bed he could make out the rain-swept skyline of Seattle. Great silvery bands of clouds flossed through the tall buildings. The Space Needle looked conspicuously like the topper on a wedding cake. Jeffers rubbed the side of his nose then picked up the accordion folder he’d previously set down on the nightstand beside the boy’s bed. It contained paperwork on the case, and not just about Tommy Downing, but about the other three kids, too. The missing teenagers. He’d met with all the other parents already.
Downstairs, Jennifer Downing offered him coffee, which he politely declined. She was a meek woman whose constant restlessness hinted at amphetamine usage and she made Jeffers nervous. Suddenly, he wanted nothing more than to be out of that house.
“Have you spoken to the cops down there?” Carl Downing asked as his wife handed him a cup of coffee.
“I’ve left them a couple of messages but no one’s called me back yet.”
Downing’s eyes frowned at him over the coffee mug as he slurped. “See what I’m talking about?” he said after clearing his throat.
“That’s typical,” Jeffers said, switching from one foot to the other. “Cops hear a privative investigator’s been hired, they think, ‘Great, here’s some bumbling idiot who wants to take up our time asking questions about things that we’re already looking into.’ I’ve seen it plenty of times before.”
“What’ll you do about it?”
“Drive down there and meet with them in person. Offer any assistance, whatever that might be. Not that they need my assistance, of course, but it’s better to approach it as if I’m there to help them, and not the other way around.”
Downing nodded but his eyes grew distant. Beside him, his wife dropped straight down into one of the kitchen chairs. The lack of expression on her face made Jeffers want to hold a mirror up to her nose.
“When will you leave?” Downing asked after taking another sip of coffee.
Jeffers shrugged. He felt instantly tired. “This afternoon,” he said. “No use wasting time.”
Anyway, it was a chance to get out of the city and put some miles on the old Crown Vic. He packed some clothes and a few incidentals, including two extra magazines for his Glock, then grabbed Interstate 5 and headed south out of the city. Fumbling through his tape cassettes that lay scattered about the Crown Vic’s interior, he selected the melancholic Jazz Impressions of New York which, despite the title city, provided the perfect backdrop to the wet and gloomy Seattle afternoon.
By the time he stopped for gas, a bag of sunflower seeds, and a coffee which he overloaded with Splenda, the rain had let up and the sun seemed hungry to make an impression on the remainder of the day before it sank down beyond the coastline. Jeffers found himself in a surprisingly good mood. He attributed this to his departure from the city, which sometimes felt like a noose around his neck. Lately, there had been too many nights spent at McCorley’s, running a thumb along the rim of a glass of whiskey while his cloudy reflection judged him from a wall-mounted mirror that ran the length of the bar. No one could argue that his drinking hadn’t picked up over the past year or so. He did not blame Vicki for the drinking, though—in fact, he thanked her for it. Her hasty departure from his life afforded him good reason to take up the old habit again. A fellow wasn’t an alcoholic if that fellow had reason to drink. Made sense to him, anyway. Besides, to whom did he have to answer now?
“No one,” he said aloud, surprising himself with the sound of his voice. He was back on the road now, the paper cup of hot coffee between his thighs, the lilting sounds of Desmond’s alto sax accented by Morello’s casual snare brushing to keep him company.
Somewhere between Portland and Salem he decided to veer off to the coast, allowing the old Crown Vic to open up along U.S. Route 101. An East Coast transplant—he’d relocated here with his first wife, Cora, back in the early nineties—the majesty of the Pacific Northwest still held power over him. On this day, the Pacific Ocean looked like hammered tin crested with whitecaps, the panorama so grand Jeffers could discern the curvature of the earth. He gunned the Vic’s accelerator and the eight-cylinder behemoth growled and belched black smoke from its exhaust.
Jeffers managed to coax the speedometer needle to a steady eighty-five until a police motorcycle was spotted in his rearview. He dropped gears and let the Vic shudder to a light gallop, his eyes glued to the rearview and the tiny helmeted figure on a motorcycle decked out in police lights swerving through the black clouds of the car’s exhaust. Eventually—and thankfully—the cop took an exit, and Jeffers slammed the pedal back down to the floor, chuckling.
This wasn’t the first time he’d driven this particular stretch of highway, though the last time was more than a year or so ago. He’d still been with Vicki and they had gone on some wine-tasting weekend together, something she had read about in a magazine or something. As the sun started to settle down behind the ocean, the water glowing fiery with reds and oranges and all the colors of autumn trees, Jeffers now wondered how he could have miscalculated the length of time it took to drive the coastal road. And he was headed for just outside of Brookings, which was practically California. He kept stopping for coffee to keep himself caffeinated but that only caused him to have to pull over more frequently to urinate.
By early evening, he had grown exhausted and dispassionate about the landscape and aggravated by his uncooperative bladder. He stopped for the night in some nameless town along the coast where his motel room looked out on rocky shores and a lighthouse that jutted from a peninsula like the finger of God.
In his room, he stripped down to his undershirt and boxer shorts, a banquet of fast food spread out on the mildew-smelling bed sheets, and reviewed the papers in his accordion folder.
Tommy Downing’s material was on top, and comprised most of the paperwork. There were the medical reports, evaluations, hospitalizations, home care receipts, the whole nine yards. Very little of this would prove helpful in finding out what had ultimately happened to the boy—and to his missing friends—but Jeffers read it all anyway. When he came across glossy eight-by-ten photographs of Downing’s wounds, he shuddered. Carl Downing had described his son’s wounds to Jeffers but this was the first time he’d seen them for himself. The boy had suffered serrations to the abdomen and upper chest, most likely with some sort of hooked blade (according to the report) that managed to gouge out a significant amount of tissue, and had required a combination of stitches and staples to close the wounds. Thankfully, none of the boy’s major organs had been ruptured.
The medical reports categorized Downing’s condition as displaying “catatonic features,” specifically, the boy’s lack of motor mobility (termed “catalepsy” in the report), unflinching stupor, and a chronic apathetic state. The reason given for his condition was “severe psychological trauma.”
Jeffers flipped to the next series of documents, which contained the official police report out of Coastal Green, Oregon. It opened with Downing’s arrival in town approximately three months ago, dazed and bleeding profusely and unable to speak or comprehend much of anything. He was spotted staggering down one of the logging roads that wound up into the redwood forest by several witnesses, a number of whom eventually approached the boy and provided what assistance they could—namely, they sat him down on the ground and telephoned the police. When the police arrived, Downing was taken immediately to the hospital where his wounds were addressed. His condition back then sounded no different than his current state. The photos taken by police and included with the report showed a very different boy from the one in the pictures the Downings had shown him back in Seattle. Gone was the wry glint in the eyes, the cocky half-grin, the self-confident poise. The boy in the police photos looked like the photographic negative of that other boy. In each photo, the look on Downing’s face betrayed a horror of the likes Jeffers could only imagine.
There were some cursory interviews with the witnesses who’d found Downing and called the police, but they added nothing important. Conspicuously absent were any interviews with the owners of the small motor lodge, The Happy Brier, where the kids had stayed, or interviews with any of the owners of the eateries where they’d had their meals. Jeffers knew about these places because the families had given him access to their kids’ banking information, to include credit card statements and ATM withdrawals. They’d traveled in the Harper girl’s Jeep from Seattle to Coastal Green and stayed two nights at The Happy Brier. They ate at some place called Moe’s and bought some camping supplies from a place called Redwood Outfitters, also in Coastal Green. Some other menial charges appeared as well, though they were of little consequence to Jeffers. The cops were afforded equal opportunity to review these bank statements but, as far as Jeffers knew, they hadn’t done anything beyond telling the families where to mail the documentation.
Odd, Jeffers thought. Especially if they’re considering foul play, very odd.
John Jeffers knew about cops. He was fifty-two, and those were hard-mileage years. A college grad with some promise, he’d wanted to become a police officer instead of working in some stuffy office, so he had. He was five years on the force when a shootout in a convenience store parking lot in Hoboken put him on permanent desk duty, his leg and hip injured and his nerves frazzled. He had a strong desire to get back out on the street but he couldn’t cut the PT anymore. So he quit. Moved down to the Keys where he bummed around and tried his hand at various new careers, to include bartending and playing the trumpet in a mediocre jazz quartet. A chance meeting with a beautiful singer with stars in her eyes named Cora Goodman had him pack up all his shit and follow her out to Los Angeles, and eventually Seattle. Most days, it seemed like he just happened upon a career as a private investigator the way some people will happen upon the same sticky penny at the bottom of a drawer. The notion just kept coming back to him. He already understood the work and he could be his own boss. Twelve years later, it was just what he did, what he had been doing. He had not just grown accustomed to the lifestyle, he had acquiesced to it, surrendered to it, like someone with no arms and legs tossed into the sea—fuck it, you know you’re gonna drown, might as well quit trying to fight it.
Of course, the crazy hours and shitty pay wound up costing him his marriage with Cora and, after that, his relationship with Vicki, too. He blamed himself for the parts he was certain had been his fault but knew, in both instances, that his ex-wives were equally responsible for the collapse of their respective matrimonial unions. Much like Jeffers himself, they had their own paths to follow and, as it turned out, gruff old John Jeffers was just a blip on the radar screen, a momentary indiscretion: a pothole on the boulevard of their lives.
Ha, he thought, smiling to himself as he turned the pages of the police report. That’s grand. I should write that down.
There was a photo of the Harper girl’s Jeep, too—one of those boxy Cherokee numbers with a spangly mauve paintjob that reminded him of young hipster girls’ toenail polish. The Washington license plate said 4EVRHOT and was expired.
The last section of the report spoke of the search efforts to find the three missing hikers. Jeffers read it three times, the frown lines on his face increasing with each subsequent read. Either the report had been a rush-job omitting any details of significance, or the searches themselves hadn’t been very thorough. Nowhere did the report detail how many officers were involved, if locals pitched in, if any law enforcement from Brookings or other surrounding cities joined the party. He knew the parents of Soussant and Holmquist had come down to join the search at one point, but when they arrived at Coastal Green, they were mortified to find that the search consisted of two deputies with a pair of hunting dogs. According to Mr. and Mrs. Soussant, one of the deputies stank horribly of booze.
Jeffers grunted and tossed the report aside. The remaining documentation in the accordion folder had to do with the backgrounds of the other three kids, the ones who never made it out of the forest and back to Coastal Green, as Tommy Downing had.
Megan Harper, seventeen. There was a school yearbook photo of a dark-haired, slender-faced girl with an upturned nose and eyelashes that looked like palm fronds. She’d been Downing’s girlfriend, according to both sets
of parents. A high school senior, she was the youngest of the disappeared.
Michael Soussant, nineteen. Ditto, yearbook photo. Square-headed and flat-nosed, he reminded Jeffers of a prizefighter. His eyes looked dim in the photo, though Jeffers supposed they looked pretty much the same in real life, and there was some mention of him playing football in one of the documents, though Jeffers couldn’t remember exactly where and on which document. The kid already had a police record—some destruction of property charge in Tacoma a few years back, though he’d been a minor.
Lastly, Derrick Holmquist, eighteen years old, athletic, sagebrush hair cropped to a bushy buzz-cut in the photos supplied by his parents. He possessed a tanned and handsome face, and one of the pictures showed him struggling to grow facial hair. Dismally, Jeffers wondered if the boy was dead and if he’d ever actually managed a full mustache and beard.
Eyes burning from a lack of sleep, Jeffers finally closed the files and set the paperwork on the rickety-looking nightstand beside his motel room bed. From his wallet he produced an index card on which was scribbled several names and phone numbers relevant to the case. He picked up the telephone and punched in one of the numbers. He did not expect the chief of police to answer, so he wasn’t disappointed when he got the man’s voice mail. He left a message, telling him he was in town, that he represented the four families involved in the missing persons case, and that he would be in town tomorrow morning and would appreciate it if the chief could spare him any time. Then he hung up the phone, took a shower beneath a lukewarm drizzle, and went to bed.
From the parking lot of the Coastal Green Police Department, John Jeffers could see the marbled and rugged peaks of the Klamath Mountain Range through a thin veil of morning mist. The stationhouse was small and comprised of modular trailers joined together by little wooden footbridges. A few police cruisers were parked outside and it looked as though someone had sprayed the Oregon state flag, which flapped noisily from a post at the center of the parking lot, with buckshot.