December ParkRonald Malfi
Medallion Press, Inc.
For Grandpa, who led the charge
And for Madison—my daughter, my student, my teacher
Published 2014 by Medallion Press, Inc.
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is a registered trademark of Medallion Press, Inc.
Copyright © 2014 by Ronald Malfi
Cover design by James Tampa
Edited by Lorie Popp Jones
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission of the publisher, except where permitted by law.
Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictionally. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
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Any writer worth their salt has inside them at least one good book about their childhood. This one is mine. Thanks to D.G., D.S., S.S., J.T., and C.S. for a great childhood and a lifetime of great memories.
Thanks to my gracious and dedicated editor, Lorie, and the staff at Medallion Press. Thanks to my family and friends for putting up with me during the course of writing this book; I know what a chore that can be. And thanks to my wife and daughter, who give me new memories on top of all the old great ones.
My grandfather passed away during the writing of this book. I loved him very much, which made the sections about my protagonist’s grandfather particularly difficult to write. Yet I felt my grandpa’s hand on my shoulder guiding me through to the end, much as he guided me in real life, and his spirit made it possible to complete this work.
Welcome to Harting Farms
(October 1993–January 1994)
In the fall of 1993, a dark shadow fell over Harting Farms. Newspapers called him the Piper, like the minstrel of Brothers Grimm lore who lured all the children away. There were other darker names, too—names kids whispered throughout the halls of Stanton School and carved in the wooden chairs of the library like dirty, fearful secrets. The cafeteria rumbled with talk of escaped mental patients from Sheppard Pratt and lunatic mariners, lustful for child blood, who ported in Baltimore and found their way to our sleepy bayside hamlet.
In homeroom, Michael Sugarland drew pictures of werewolves with dripping fangs and claws like bayonets until Mr. Johnson, shaking his head and looking terminally exhausted, told him it was disrespectful of the missing. No one referred to the children as dead because none of them were found—not at first, anyway. They were the Missing, the Disappeared. The first few were even thought to be runaways.
But all that changed soon enough, and my friends and I were there to see it happen.
Winter Came Early That Year
We stood at the intersection of Point and Counterpoint, cigarettes dangling from our mouths like we were serious about something but too cool to show it, and shivered against the wind. Farther up Counterpoint Lane, the rack lights of police cars painted the trees with intermittent red and blue lights.
It was early October, but a premature cold spell had overtaken the city, coming in off the Chesapeake and freezing the water around the fishing boats down at the docks. The flower stands along the highway had traded in their potted plants and bristling ferns in favor of Indian corn and shiny orange pumpkins. Though it was still too early in the season for snow, the sky looked haunted by it.
It had been Peter’s idea to skip out after lunch period, and we’d gone directly to Solomon’s Field to smoke cigarettes and skim rocks across Drunkard’s Pond. Neighborhood kids called it that due to the derelicts who drank whiskey beneath the overpass of Solomon’s Bend Road. Its actual name was Deaver’s Pond, named after a former constable from the 1970s, according to my father, who knew about such things.
Peter, Scott, and I watched the conga line of police cars that had sidled up Counterpoint Lane. On the other side of the guardrail, the embankment dropped into the swell of the woods that buffered the street from the vast park below. These woods were known as Satan’s Forest, and some people said they were haunted. Most of the trees had already shed their leaves, though what foliage remained burned an almost iridescent orange, as if the tops of the trees were on fire.
An ambulance idled on the shoulder, too, its lights off. Twin sawhorses outfitted with flashing orange lights prevented traffic from turning onto Counterpoint Lane. A lone police officer stood behind the sawhorses, gazing at the detouring traffic, a look of abject boredom on his face.
“We shouldn’t hang around,” I said. “It looks like something important is going on.” Which meant my dad might be here, and I didn’t want him to catch me loitering on the sidewalk, smoking.
“Do you think another car went down there?” Peter said. He stared at the twisted remains of the guardrail and the deep grooves in the mud made by skidding tires.
Two days earlier, a college student named Audrey MacMillan, driving home drunk from Shooter’s Galley on Center Street, went off the road, through the guardrail, and down into the woods. She was lucky to have come away with nothing more serious than a broken leg. Before a tow truck could hoist the shattered vehicle out of the woods, the county sent some guys down there to cut away a few of the bigger trees. It had been a fiasco.
“I don’t know,” I said, “but they’ve got the road closed for a reason.”
“No chance another car went down,” Peter said. “I mean, two in one week?”
“I don’t see any new skid marks or tire tracks,” I said.
“Check your underwear,” Peter said, smirking. He was the oldest by just a few months, though the extra weight he carried afforded him a youthful, almost cherubic look. His pale green eyes were almost always alert, their color and intensity complemented by a shock of unruly red hair he kept too long in the back. He had been my best friend since we had unwittingly been dumped together in the same sandbox over in the Palisades all those years ago.
The tented black hats of two more uniformed officers materialized on the other side of the guardrail. A fourth officer stepped out from one of the cruisers and leaned against the vehicle’s hood, appearing cold even in his fur-lined jacket.
Scott nodded in the direction of the police cars. “Come on. Let’s check it out.”
“They might grab us for truancy,” I said. “I’m already in the doghouse with my dad over that whole Nozzle Neck thing.”
Mr. Naczalnik, otherwise known as Nozzle Neck due to his faucet-shaped profile and a neck like Ichabod Crane’s, was my English teacher at Stanton School. Last month, I had failed to turn in an assignment, and Nozzle Neck, forever at the ready to make some poor student’s life miserable, had wasted no time telephoning my father. I had been grounded for a week.
Peter checked his Casio. “School’s been out for twenty minutes already.”
In tandem, we crossed the intersection and walked up the slight incline of Counterpoint Lane toward the police vehicles and the ambulance.
When we reached one of the flashing sawhorses, the bored-looking cop approached. “Sorry, fellas. Street’s closed.”
“What happened?” Peter asked, trying to peer around the cop.
“You boys need to get out of the street. You can watch from the other side.”
“Did someone drive off the road again?” I asked.
“No.” He was a young cop, almost familiar. I glanced at his name tag but didn’t recognize his name. “Come on, guys. Shake a leg.”
��It’s a free country,” Peter said but not with any force. He was still busy trying to look over the cop’s shoulder.
The cop arched one of his eyebrows. “Yeah? Well, you can be as free as you want across the street.”
“Can’t we just take a quick peek?” Peter pushed.
The young cop’s eyes settled on me. “Get your friends back across the street, Angelo.”
His use of my name didn’t surprise me. My father was a detective with the Harting Farms Police Department. Policemen frequently recognized me, even if I hadn’t met them before. “Come on, guys,” I said and stepped onto the sidewalk.
“Thanks.” The police officer nodded at me, then glanced at my friends. “You boys are too young to smoke.” Then he checked his watch, perhaps recognizing that it was maybe too early for us to be so far from school already, and strutted across the street.
There was increasing commotion over there now, although most of it was on the other side of the busted guardrail and farther down the embankment. Two men in white smocks milled about, smoking cigarettes and talking to each other while gazing at their shoes. At one point they spoke briefly with a uniformed officer. Their languid movements and casual air made me think that nothing too urgent was happening on the other side of the guardrail.
“You know that guy?” Scott whispered, even though the cop was too far away to hear him.
I shook my head.
“It’s freezing out here.” Peter zipped up his coat and blew into his hands. “What are they doing, anyway? What’s going on over there?”
I shrugged. For the first time, I was aware of the faint, tinny sounds of Metallica spilling from the headphones Scott had hanging around his neck.
Loyal to his surname, Scott Steeple was tall and slender and possessed the coveted body of a natural athlete. His features were subtle, handsome, his eyes introspective and haunted. Having just turned fifteen one month earlier, Scott was the youngest of our group. He should have been in the grade below ours, but his academic prowess had enabled him to skip second grade. Thus, fate had dropped him in the empty desk beside me in Mrs. Brock’s third grade class, consequently forging a friendship between us.
“You guys going down to the docks tonight?” Peter asked. He was pacing, his hands in his pockets, sometimes pausing to balance on one foot while the other hovered half an inch off the ground.
“I guess,” Scott said.
“I don’t know, man,” I said. “What time are you heading over?”
“Maybe around nine.”
“I guess it depends if my dad’s home or not. I’ve got that new curfew.”
“But it’s Friday,” Peter said.
“You know how my dad is.” Generally, I was allowed out until eleven o’clock on weekends, but since the disappearances, my father had cut my curfew back an hour. If everyone was getting together at nine, it left me precious little time to hang out. I wondered if it would be worth it.
Peter frowned. “Dude, you gotta come. Sugarland’s gonna sink that stupid cow, remember?”
“Yeah, I know.”
“Look,” Scott said, taking a single step off the curb. “They’re coming up.”
More heads emerged from behind the slope of the embankment, rising like buoys on a gray sea, and I immediately felt both excited and dismayed. The officers leading the pack were the only ones conveying any sense of urgency; they moved quickly ahead of the rest and dispersed along Counterpoint Lane, presumably to make sure no vehicles disobeyed the roadblock. Two of them turned their heads in unison and looked straight at my friends and me. If they were considering shooing us away, these plans were aborted once the full surge of officers, so dense in their numbers that I couldn’t count them all without losing my place, joined them.
A number of men wore monochromatic suits and thin black neckties. Detectives. Once again, I wondered with some trepidation if my father was among them.
“What are . . . ?” Peter took another step in their direction, but we were still too far away to make out the important details. “What are they carrying? You see that, Angie?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I see it.”
It was long, white. It was a sheet. It was something wrapped in a sheet. My stomach dropped. I had watched enough TV to know what I was looking at.
“Oh, goddamn,” Peter said, his voice quavering. “That’s a person.”
The body was carried on a steel gurney, the gurney’s legs retracted, the whole thing covered by a plain white sheet. One of the uniformed officers walked with one hand pressed to the center of the sheet, keeping it from billowing in the wind, even though it was strapped down.
They brought the gurney around the opposite side of the ambulance, temporarily disappearing from our view. When they reappeared at the rear of the ambulance, they had rearranged their positions.
Unable to pry my eyes from the scene, I noticed the officer who had kept his hand pressed to the center of the sheet was no longer there. And as if my observation directly invoked the ire of fate, an icy slipstream of wind barreled across the escarpment, rattling the trees like party favors and kicking up whirlwinds of sand and dead leaves.
One corner of the sheet ballooned with wind like the sail of a great ship. Then the loose flap of sheet flipped over, exposing an emaciated, graying female profile, replete with the wet, matted net of black hair tangled with leaves, the hint of a bruised arm, the flank striated with ribs, and the swell of one tiny white breast.
It was the first dead body I’d ever seen, and it was strangely unreal. The mind-numbing barrage of fake blood and guts my friends and I digested each weekend watching horror movies at the Juniper somehow felt more authentic than this.
The head was turned slightly to the left, and I made out what could only be described as a bloodied dent on the right side of her scalp. That side of her head looked caved in, her right eye winking just below the unnatural concave of flesh.
“Holy shit,” Scott uttered. Apparently, he had seen it, too.
The paramedics were clumsy covering the body back up. They rushed too quickly to do it and fumbled with the sheet. For a second there was a bit of tug-of-war before the sheet was replaced over the dead girl’s head. One of the officers even tucked the sheet beneath her, securing it.
To my left, Scott stared across the road, his headphones providing a rather discordant soundtrack to the moment. Peter stood just slightly ahead of us, the wings of his coat beating in the gathering wind, his hands stuffed into the too-tight pockets of his jeans. He’d seen it, too.
No one said a word. We watched as they stowed the body into the back of the ambulance. Everyone moved with incredible slowness. It seemed inappropriate. The discovery of a dead body in the woods should not elicit such lethargy. It was fake, all of it.
“The Piper,” Scott whispered.
“No.” I still couldn’t comprehend any of it. And I couldn’t shake the dead girl’s visage from my mind. I feared I would see it in my sleep tonight. “They’ve never found any of the Piper’s victims. Anyway, there might not even be a Piper.”
“There’s a Piper,” Scott said with unwavering certainty.
“Do you think it’s anyone we know?” Peter asked. “You guys hear of anyone else gone missing?”
I shook my head. But of course he couldn’t see me because he was watching the paramedics start up the ambulance.
A cloud of smoke belched from the ambulance’s exhaust. I realized I was waiting for the sirens to come on, but they never did. Of course they didn’t. Why would they? What was the hurry now? Yet for whatever reason, I wanted them to hurry. It seemed disrespectful to whoever was under that sheet for these policemen and paramedics to move so slowly.
“Did you guys get a good look?” Peter went on. “Did you recognize her, Angie?”
“I don’t think so. It’s hard to tell. Her face wasn’t . . .” But I didn’t need to finish the thought. Her face had been broken, and Peter and Scott
had seen it just as clearly as I had.
“I wonder if it was someone from school,” Peter said, finally turning around. His cheeks were rosy from the cold. His eyes gleamed. “You think she could be from Stanton?”
“I haven’t heard of anyone else having gone missing,” I told him.
“She was young,” Scott said. I registered a twinge of disbelief in his voice. “Not a grown-up, I mean. Did you guys see her?”
“Yes,” I said. “I saw her. I saw her.”
“She could be from school,” Peter said. “I didn’t recognize her but she could have been . . .”
Too many cops were staring at us now. With all the commotion over, we were no longer curious onlookers. In our canvas army jackets with Nirvana and Metallica patches sewn on the sleeves, we were burgeoning troublemakers.
“Let’s get out of here,” I said.
We hoofed it down Counterpoint against the wind. Skipping out on tonight’s get-together down at the docks suddenly didn’t sound all that bad. Just imagining the freezing wind riding in off the black waters of the Chesapeake Bay caused something deep within the center of my body to clench up.
That caved-in side of the head, that unnatural creasing of the right side of her face. Did I really see what I thought I saw?
In collective silence, we sought refuge from the cold inside the bus stop portico at the end of the block. Scott changed tapes in his Walkman, and Peter distributed fresh cigarettes. Smoking, we watched the traffic on Governor Highway. Across the street, the two- and three-story concrete buildings looked like pencil drawings in the gray and fading afternoon. Multicolored vinyl flags fluttered above OK Used Kars, the half-empty car lot riddled with potholes.