And… that’s it! The start of a new year, and the end to all my stories. I’m all caught up and ebooked! Check out all the ebooks at my Stories page.
Though something tells me that I’m not done writing about Bim and Hanky J, from the story below…
Wedged into the unforgiving passenger seat of a twelve-year-old Ford Escort, I took a deep breath and shoved more food into my mouth.
My old friend Hanky J sat perched in the driver’s seat, waiting on me without watching me. We were down south, ten miles north of Arkansas City. Both of us cold and miserable in the rain, parked in front of a wide expanse of brown, slow-moving Mississippi.
I hadn’t even realized he’d stopped the car. I’d been too busy working my way through an economy-sized bag of Cheetos, chewing slowly, savoring each morsel. I was shoving handfuls of food into my gob, trying to get a line on our missing person.
She was still alive, fortunately. Though I feared that my connection to her—the image of a tiny, dark room without windows, and the weight of a jagged rock clenched tight in one hand—had grown weaker. That I was losing the taste of her.
Now Hanky J was shaking his head, giving me that look.
“What?” I said around my mouthful of cheese-flavored snacks. These were the crunchy kind, too, not the nasty puffs. Definitely beat some of the other shit I’d eaten in the name of duty. “I’m workin’ on it. Don’t stare.”
Henry Johnson, aka Hanky J (his self-made nickname, which I always though broke some sort of rule, somewhere), was a private investigator. His specialty in the past few years had been tracking down identity thieves online, but now and then he liked to branch out, especially when it came to missing persons.
Hank was also my best friend since first grade, the only kid at our school who’d been on the receiving end of more shit than a goofball like me from bullies like Darren, due to the fact that he was the smallest, not to mention darkest-skinned, kid in our grade.
I don’t know what possessed his parents to move to tiny Faison, Iowa, thirty years ago, but I owed them.
Hanky J did a pretty good job of hiding his disgust at being associated with me right at that moment, with my flab as well as my crumbs spilling over the car seat and onto the console, my bag of nuclear orange junk food growing more and more empty.
He never said anything about it. I’m sure he just loved the fact that he had to fondle my left love handle each time he shifted his Escort into gear.
“This is my m.o.,” I began, though I knew I didn’t have to explain anything to him. “I can’t help—”
“Look. I’m freezing, and this rain is making me crazy.” Hanky crinkled up his nose and cracked his window an inch. “And you’ve got more b.o. more than m.o.”
“Screw you,” I laughed, but just for a few seconds. This job was getting to Hanky J. He usually never commented on my lack of showering and my overeating when we were on a case. I think it was the water. He hated being close to so much water. It was too much like the time he lost Alisa.
“She’s close,” I said after swallowing my most recent mouthful. I really could’ve used a 20-ounce Diet Coke about now. “And she was definitely here the night she got taken. Memory’s strongest from that night. They stopped by here, for something.”
Hank rubbed the point of his carefully manicured beard and sighed loud enough to drown out the rain for a few seconds.
“Bastard probably wanted to show her where she’d end up if she didn’t cooperate. This part of the river’s deep, and that spillway over there would’ve freaked her out.”
Hank pointed a tiny brown finger at the rocks lining the riverbed not ten feet from his Escort’s front bumper. Brown water gushed from a culvert ten feet wide set in those rocks, a horizontal waterfall churning into the river.
Just looking at it made my belly recoil and clench, recoil and clench, sensations I’d grown used to in the past two decades.
With a sigh, in spite of the ache in my full stomach, I shoved another handful of orange crunches into my mouth. Hanky J had to look away.
As I chewed, I closed my eyes, forgot about my employer/best friend next to me, and blocked out the shudder of running water and the patter of rain on the car roof.
I focused only on the food rolling around on my tongue like so much starchy debris, trying to reconnect with our lost girl.
Her favorite snack had been Cheetos. Just my luck; I was a sweets guy, not a salty guy. Get lost, gag reflex. Get lost.
* * * * *
You’d be surprised at how difficult it can be to find out a complete stranger’s favorite food. Especially if that person has just gone missing.
Hanky J and I were used to weird situations, though.
He could usually dredge up some good hints using his computer skills. I was sure a lot of the software he used was illegal in most states, but that didn’t stop him. If that didn’t work, he’d impersonate a cop and make a phone call or two to the missing person’s friends. Sometimes I’d figure it out on my own, guessing at foods, looking for that connection one bite at a time.
The trick, of course, was learning this information without becoming kidnapping suspects in the process.
I remembered my first find, over twenty years and about two hundred pounds ago. Darren, our hometown’s bully, had lost his dog, and he employed me under duress: “Find Buddy or start picking up teeth off the sidewalk.”
The looks I got for asking what kind of food Buddy liked to eat, all those years ago, were priceless. A pretty innocent question, to get a better feel for the dog.
Looking at the half-empty can of Alpo that Darren brought me from their fridge, covered in Saran Wrap, I felt a pang of empathy for the other kid, even if he had enjoyed knuckling my skull for most of the fifth grade. I don’t think Darren had been able to throw away that last bit of Buddy’s memory from their fridge.
At the same time, something went “thunk” inside my head, my Eureka moment, which occurred as I was sniffing a can of weeks-old dog food.
“Can I please have a spoon?” I asked.
* * * * *
Her name was April. April Mae Honeycutt, to be exact. A name all over the Net and on every news channel in the past few days. She would turn sixteen next week. Security footage from the mall in Greenville had uncovered just two fuzzy images of a man, first walking up to April, then standing right next to her, hands on hips, looking down at her. A tuft of gray hair under his navy blue baseball cap under the harsh mall fluorescents.
That had been two and a half days ago. No other evidence had come to light, according to Hanky J’s contact in the Little Rock police department.
All of that was common knowledge, though, easily googled. I pushed away the tiny flinching fear inside of me that said, “This is it. You lost it, Bim. You’re nobody again. Just another loser living alone, two blocks away from your parents in a cheap rented house.”
“Bim,” Hanky J said from next to me, though he may as well have been fifty miles away. “Bim…”
With her favorite food now digesting inside in my sizable gut, so close to where she’d been recently, the images and memories and thoughts related to April’s disappearance now came faster, like bad dreams coming on the heels of too much pepperoni-and-sausage-and-onion pizza the night before.
I sighed. It had been years since I’d had good pizza.
“Last night,” I muttered. Take that, insecurities.
“Here,” I said, my own voice sounding miles away as I went back.
Dark. Dark out here under the half-moon, the night cold and too cloudy for many stars.
The river pulled at her sore eyes through the tinted windshield like a giant magnet.
She held her bound hands in front of her—metal handcuffs—when he pushed her out of his black SUV and onto the rocks.
Legs wobbly, as if she’d been walking all day, or standing without a break, and she tumbled, hit her shin on a rock. He’d taken her shoes, probably as a precaution against running, and her socks were already wet and muddy.
Strong hands gripped her, long fingernails biting into her upper arms.
All she could think about was food. Cheetos. Hungry.
He’d already let go of her arms. He never touched unless he had to. At least so far.
“We all end up here,” he’d said in her ear, standing behind her. Voice low and angry, hint of a southern accent that had never fully faded. “Thrown in once our usefulness is up, washed downriver out into the gulf, then out into the ocean to rot.”
April was too weak to run from him and his low, unsteady voice, and the knowledge both haunted and infuriated her.
* * * * *
I swallowed and nearly choked, and the desperate, hopeless night was replaced by gray noon light and my own coughing. Then my gut gave a lurch.
“Oh man,” I said, eyes watering. I grabbed for the door handle.
As I lost all the junk food I’d ingested in the past half-hour onto the gravel, I felt April—just April, never April Mae—slipping from my head for a second. I nearly panicked. We were too close for me to lose it now, or for the connection to just disappear because I couldn’t stay focused. Or worse.
I’d only lost the connection four times in all these years. Those missing folks hadn’t survived long enough for me to find them.
But by the time I’d finished spitting into the rain, I still had my connection to the lost girl. I dropped back into the car with a shaky groan. The Cheetos were strong, and her will to live was even stronger.
“I don’t know how you do that,” Hanky J said as he started the Escort. His right hand bumped me in the side as he put his car in reverse. “But I’m glad for it. Which way?”
I stuffed three sticks of gum in my mouth. A black SUV. A man dressed in gray. A voice tinged with madness, spouting off nonsense about water.
“Where’s the closest lake?” I said, feeling the gum dislodge the last bits of junk food from my teeth. With them came the image of a lake, a pier, and a two-story white house behind it. April had gotten a good look at the place, thank God, before he’d taken her inside.
We all end up here, he’d said to her, facing the water.
“So,” I said as Hank elbowed me again with an apologetic wince as he put the car into first gear, “at what point should we engage the local authorities?”
“Not just yet,” Hank said. “Just point me in the direction of where he’s got her. I gotta talk to this guy first. I have to know.”
I stifled a burp and tossed the empty Cheetos bag into the back.
Hank, I thought. Alisa’s safe now. Stop chasing her.
“Fine. We’ll have to stop at the first convenience store we come across, though. I’m outta fuel.”
* * * * *
Some people were cut out to be regular nine-to-fivers. They got along with others, played nice for their bosses, got raises and lived normal lives. But when you catch weird vibes whenever you share a person’s favorite food, even if they aren’t lost, it can make for very awkward social moments.
Like at my first job, at the factory in town during my first attempt at college, when we had chocolate cake for Miss Doris’ forty-year anniversary at the plant. And I learned of her hot senior-citizen lust for the new priest down at the Catholic church. Ruined chocolate cake for me, for forever.
So I started working hard on focusing my strange skills, tuning out all the static, eating only the kind of foods I figured people didn’t like: collard greens, liver and onions, Brussels sprouts, unflavored and unsalted potato chips, mac and cheese with just a tiny bit of the cheese mix added.
Either weird flavors or not enough to keep that food from being beloved by any one person. Problem was, even when I wasn’t focusing on finding anything or anyone, I just kept eating.
I ended up moving back in with my parents at the age of twenty after dropping out of school at the U of Iowa, with my prospects dimming until all I could see on the horizon were more shifts at the factory and long days of clock-watching.
So I guess you could say that running into Henry—”Call me Hanky J, Bim!”—at the grocery store that day had been my salvation.
We’d lost touch, and something in him was different. He smiled less, for one. I’d learn later that it was the bad stuff with his girlfriend Alisa that had added about ten years to him. He told me later that when they’d found her, alone and half-crazy after a week in a shack next to a smelly river, she’d only asked for Hank.
They’d never found her kidnapper, and she’d never gotten a good look at him. That had haunted both of them, and eventually killed their relationship five years later.
There in the grocery store, Hank told me how he’d gotten his two-year degree in criminal justice at the local community college. He said he’d been looking for me, ironically. He wanted to know how I’d always been able to find stuff, especially people. He never said anything about Alisa, but he didn’t need to.
Pretty soon Hanky J was hooking me up with work, getting me out of my parents’ house and building up what little self-esteem I had after dropping out of school, while he got to build his private eye reputation with my finds.
His favorite food was deep-dish sausage and mushroom pizza. Another awesome taste, off my list forever.
* * * * *
The rain finally let up the moment I spotted the white house on the lake, the place three thousand square feet, easy. The trip here had been surprisingly quick, as I chomped Cheetos and ticked off more and more of the landmarks from April’s own journey here.
The budding trees and narrow two-lane roads and the fancy stone entrance to this lakefront neighborhood looked a bit different in the post-rain sunlight, compared to the way they had appeared in the tinted glass of the SUV’s windows. At least he hadn’t covered her eyes on the way here.
Maybe the guy wasn’t as unhinged as his voice had sounded in my head. He seemed more desperate than crazy.
Speaking of unhinged—we were coming up on the part of the job that always made me question my partner’s sanity.
Hank drove his Escort right up to the closed garage door. The houses in this neighborhood five miles outside of town sat on two-acre lots surrounding a lake that must’ve been a quarter-mile wide. Lots of privacy out here, no streetlights. No cars in any of the driveway. I was starting to get itchy and nervous.
It was now Hanky J’s turn to take over. I got to sit back and watch, still munching Cheetos and tracking April’s thoughts. She was in that room again, still handcuffed, still thinking about how hungry she was. Hungry, and angry.
Hank liked the face-to-face approach with the kidnappers we caught. Said he wanted to look them in the eye, try to get them to explain why they did what they did. I’d tried to convince him to get the local cops involved at least, but he refused.
He reminded me of the gun he always kept tucked inside his little black jacket. I knew how fast he was, though that never made me feel any better.
April’s thoughts shot into high gear when she heard Hanky J’s knock. I wished my skills worked two ways, so I could send her a reassuring message, tell her to stay low.
But all I could do was feel her sting of surprise at the knock, followed by a rush of other emotions—fear, panic, and maybe even a strange kind of excitement at the sound of her kidnapper’s footsteps outside her locked room, growing louder.
Her stream of thoughts took a strange turn then. I kept feeling a rock, clenched tight in the darkness. Hank knocked on the door a second time, standing casually and acting all relaxed in his dark jeans and maroon sweater-vest.
I wanted to roll down the window and get him to come down off that front porch. But I couldn’t explain why, not for sure. More Cheetos were needed.
And then, with another handful of chips halfway to my mouth, it hit me. April didn’t want to be rescued.
That’s all I could figure. She had her own escape plan figured out, and here we were, hosing up that plan. She was thinking of the forest at the end of the road, where her kidnapper—a burly man in his mid-forties, gray hair in need of a good cutting, stubble and wire-rimmed glasses on his face—had taken her earlier.
They’d walked for an hour, then he gagged her and set her loose. Toying with her, chasing her. He eventually caught her, peeled off her ruined tennis shoes, and took her to the river. Showed her the churning water of the spillway as a warning.
Before he picked her up after she fell and barked her shin, she’d grabbed a rock just a bit smaller than her palm. A rock with a nice serrated edge to it.
Still nobody had answered Hanky’s knocks. The man was busy unlocking the door to April’s room. She could just barely hear his panicked mutterings.
The guy was cracking under the pressure, saying something like, “Can’t take it. Too much—”
April’s thoughts went black and still as the key turned in the door to her cell. Nearly choking on my current mouthful of Cheetos, I put a shoulder to the car door and opened it.
“Get in there!” I yelled at Hanky J, spraying the driveway with orange meteorites. At the same time, I keyed in 9-1-1 on my cell. Hanky J would just have to deal with that.
The kidnapper had the door to the windowless room unlocked, and all I could see was the rock in April’s hand. Then a sliver of light that grew wider as the man pushed open the door. Rock and darkness. And the darkness was disappearing, until it was just the rock.
Hanky J had the front door jimmied and was running inside, while I was moving too, at last. I panted my slow way up to the porch, rain pelting me as the storm clouds broke. I just hoped we weren’t too late.
I paused at the front door to catch my breath and swallow back a gutful of bile.
We were too late, but not for April.
Down the hall, a man in a gray sweatshirt lay crumpled on his side, his broken eyeglasses two feet from his bloodstained head. A puddle of red grew around him on his hardwood floor.
April had gone for the temple instead of the throat. Probably a good choice. Dude wasn’t moving, barely breathing.
Above him stood a teenaged girl, barefoot and bedraggled, smiling madly down at him with the rock in her hand, poised for another blow.
But then Hanky J was there, his small, strong fingers on her wrist, talking low and fast, pulling her away from her kidnapper lying at their feet.
I’ll never forget, in the seconds before I lost my connection to April Mae Honeycutt—”Just call me April, damn it!”—the way she looked at me. I felt her fear of me flash through her like the sharp spikes of pain I always felt after making a connection.
She’d thought I was working with her kidnapper and not her rescuer. That I was coming to back him up, not Hanky J. She’d thought I was a bad guy.
And then, right before her connection with me broke as she allowed herself to accept that she was no longer lost, but found, I felt her comprehension as Hank explained who I was. Her understanding was followed by a reflexive kick of disgust.
With the sound of sirens growing in the distance, I wiped my mouth and dropped out of April’s head forever. My stomach, brimming with her favorite snack, lurched as if I’d been punched.
This time I wasn’t sure if it was the girl’s revulsion or just my usual reaction to my gift that was making me so violently nauseous.
As Hanky J led April—still clutching her rock—past me to the front porch, I looked around for a bathroom, a sink, a garbage can. Anything to catch all I’d eaten on this case.
I’d like to say that I found something suitable for the event, but I can’t. I guess the kidnapper was in no position to argue with the mess I’d made on the nice hardwoods of his front hallway.
* * * * *
Hank wasn’t pleased with me for calling in the local authorities, but he handled them easily enough. He just insisted that the media tell the world that April was found via an anonymous tip. He didn’t want any of the attention, and he knew I really didn’t want it.
Before the locals arrived, Hanky J did get a chance to check out the kidnapper’s computers while April and I sat waiting awkwardly on the wide front porch. Thanks to his regular work with identity thieves, Hanky was just as fast with a computer as he was with picking a lock and disarming angry teenaged girls with rocks.
Hanky’s time on the computer helped placate him after not being able to interrogate the kidnapper, much less even look the guy in the face, thanks to April and her rock.
Turns out the man had made plans to sell April to a sex slave ring being operated out of Long Island, so he could get out of the debt he’d been in since he got laid off his job two years ago. I figured stuff like that only happened in other countries, not here. Showed what I knew.
After the cops came and whisked away April and her badly wounded kidnapper, I kept thinking about what April had thought when she saw me come charging into the house, my long hair and beard all slicked down with rain, belly hanging out of my Hawaiian shirt, mud on my flip-flops.
Panting for breath, just from running from the car to the front door.
Me, a bad guy. Me, someone who every day ate the crappy food that nobody else loved, bland food or food with an off taste to it, just so I could get by without picking up someone else’s thoughts or feelings. Me, a guy who had helped find almost five dozen missing people in the past twenty years.
There was something else I needed to find. A couple things, actually. If a young girl like April could find the steel in her to take out a man twice her side with just a rock, I could muster up the willpower to get my own shit together, before all this food I was eating killed me.
I couldn’t blame these extra two hundred pounds all on my job, either. It was me, something inside of me, that always felt hungry, never satisfied.
Along with my willpower, I’d need to find my good walking shoes, too.
I had a feeling this wasn’t going to be anywhere near as easy as finding Buddy the lost dog.