ometimes I wish my eyesight wasn't so good, because then I would have kept going.
I was on my way out to Cazenovia to see a family about a case involving their runaway daughter. I'd just rounded a turn and was daydreaming about renting a place on a beach for a week when I spotted a discarded pile of clothes lying by the side of the road.
As I whizzed by I thought I saw a hand. I told myself I was seeing things, that it was a piece of an old doll someone had thrown away. Or a store mannequin. I told myself it was none of my business. But I couldn't let it go. Five minutes later, I made an illegal U-turn and went back for a second look. Just to make sure.
Half-hidden in the dried-out grass, the man was lying on his side with his head resting on his arm and his hand out. At first, I thought he was dead, a hit-and-run left on the side of the road along with the discarded soda cans and fast-food wrappers. But there was no blood. Then his hand moved, the fingers faintly motioning me to come near. As I got closer, I could see he wasn't injured; he was sick. His cheeks were sunken. His eyes were glassy. His brown skin had taken on an ashy undertone. The spot he was lying in must have been as far as he could get before he collapsed.
The edges of the tall grass scratched my arms as I squatted down beside him. He began coughing. His face went red with the effort as the cough rattled around in his chest. Blood and sputum flecked his lips. I felt his forehead. His skin was dry and hot to the touch. I was about to ask him what was wrong with him when he reached up and grasped my wrist.
“Da este a Dorita,”
he whispered, opening his left hand. I noticed he had a small comet tattooed on it as a crumpled piece of paper fell onto the ground. A turkey buzzard sitting on a tree branch a short distance away flew down and hopped toward it.
“Get away,” I cried. Offended, the buzzard pulled in its neck, hissed, and took off.
I picked the paper up and looked at it. It was a Polaroid of a familyâa smiling man, woman, and a young childâall in their Sunday best, standing on the steps outside a church in a town square.
the man repeated. He coughed again, spit blood onto the ground, and closed his eyes.
“Hey, don't die on me.”
He gave a slight nod.
“I'm going to get you to a hospital.”
A choking noise exploded in his throat. For a moment, until I saw the rise and fall of his chest, I thought he'd died. I looked around for someplace I could go for help. But there wasn't any. No houses. No stores. No nothing. Just trees and brush. I realized that the nearest house that I knew about belonged to the people I was going to see, about fifteen miles away.
“Hang on,” I told him as I went through his pockets, looking for some identification that would tell me who he was and where he was living. But there wasn't any. “It's going to be okay.”
His eyelids fluttered. I stuffed the picture into the pocket of my jeans and half-dragged, half-carried, him over to my car. He was so thin, I could almost circle his wrist with my hand. But even though he was as light as straw, maneuvering him into the backseat of my car took more strength than I'd anticipated, and I was covered with sweat by the time I was done. I rolled up the jacket I'd been carrying around for the last couple of months, slid it under his head, then wiped my hands off on my jeans, got into the front seat of my car, started it up, and took off.
The rattle of the man's breathing filled the car. I kept glancing in the rearview mirror as I drove. His eyes were closed. His right arm dangled over the seat, moving each time I took a turn.
“Como se llama? De donde viene?
” I asked in my faltering Spanish.
But he just shook his head and began coughing again.
I hit the gas. A couple of minutes later, I zoomed into the driveway of the Petersons' house. I slammed on the brakes, ran out, and rang the bell. A blonde that had had too much plastic surgery came to the door.
“You must be Robin Light,” she said. “We've been waiting for you.”
I explained about the man in my backseat and asked her to call 911.
The smile turned to a frown, and she half-turned back toward her house. “Arthur,” she called. “My husband will be here in a minute,” she said, turning back to me.
He must have been just inside the door, because he was with us before I could say anything.
“What is this about, then?”
I explained again.
“Millie, go ring up 911.”
“I'll take a glass of water for him, too, if you don't mind.”
She nodded and vanished into the house.
“I still don't understand why you brought him here,” Arthur Peterson complained as he hurried toward my car. A heavyset man in his early forties, he had pouchlike bags under his eyes and a salt-and-pepper beard.
“I couldn't leave him on the side of the road, could I?”
“Don't you have a cell phone?”
“Not on me.” I'd forgotten it.
Arthur Peterson snorted and peered through my car window. “I can tell you where he lives, though. In the trailer park. All the Mexicans around here do.”
“I didn't know there were any trailer parks in Caz.” Cazenovia was a town where rich people lived.
“Just this one.” He ran a hand through the remaining wisps of hair on the top of his head. “I wish they'd tear the damned thing down.”
“Now, now, dear,” Millie remonstrated as she handed me a glass of water and a wad of paper towels. “Those people have to live somewhere. How's he doing?”
I glanced into the car. “Not well, I'd say. Not well at all.”
The ambulance and a sheriff's car rolled in ten minutes later.
“Where are you taking him?” I asked one of the EMTs as they loaded the man I picked up onto the gurney.
“Upstate.” The EMT, a guy who looked as if he should be riding a Harley, paused for a second, then added, “If I were you, I'd check with the county health department in a few days to see if his TB test comes back positive.”
“I ain't a doc, but that's my best guess. We're seeing more and more like him.” He jerked his head in the direction of the ambulance. “They should stay where they belong.”
“Jeez.” I brushed the lock of hair that had fallen into my eyes out of the way and, when that didn't work, refastened my ponytail. Who was it who had said that no good deed goes unpunished?
“That poor boy,” Millie said, watching the sheriff walk back to his squad car after he'd taken my statement.
Arthur, the corners of his mouth pulled down, waved his hand in the direction of the sheriff's car as he maneuvered it down their driveway. “They can come out for an undocumented worker, but I have to pay someone to look for my daughter.” He shook his head disgustedly. “No wonder we're in the shape we're in.”
“Now, Arthur, you know you don't mean that,” his wife tittered as he led the way into their house. “Arthur's just upset,” she explained to me. “We both are. Bethany.” She stopped and took a deep breath. “This has been hard to deal with.”
The husband took me into a pleasant living room that was furnished with expensive wood and leather modern furniture. There was original art on the walls and pieces of pottery sitting on the end tables and the fireplace mantel. A modern brown and orange patterned rug completed the design. I started reaching into my backpack for a cigarette when I noticed there weren't any ashtrays. I sighed and settled for taking out my notebook and pen.
The moment I sat down on the sofa, Arthur Peterson put a photo of his daughter in my hands. “This is our Bethany,” he said. “She's fifteen. We took it outside our house this spring.”
I couldn't tell from the sullen expression on her face whether she wasn't happy about having the photo taken or she just wasn't happy, period. She looked about five feet five and was on the plump side, though she might have looked heavier because of the oversized T-shirt and windbreaker she was wearing.
She'd bleached her hair platinum blond and pulled it back off her face and tweezed her eyebrows till there was nothing left but a thin line she'd augmented with black pencil. Even though she was trying to make herself look older, all she'd done was emphasize the baby fat in her cheeks and the softness of her chin. But the thing that caught my attention was her jewelry. She had large gold hoops in her ears and a gold necklace with her name written on it around her neck.
“That's real gold,” her mother said, following my glance. “We don't know where she got the money to buy it. When I asked her, she told me it was none of my business.” Millie put her hand to her mouth and blinked back tears. “I'm sorry,” she said. “I'm just so worried.”
Arthur patted his wife's shoulder. “It's been obvious from Bethany's choice of friends that something has been wrong for a while. We've tried being patient. We've tried talking to her in a nonthreatening, nonconfrontational way. We've tried counseling. It hasn't made any difference. We did one of those drug tests, the kind where you get a lock of hair and send it off for analysis. It's come back clean, but her grades keep dropping, and now we're getting these calls from the principal of her school saying she isn't there.” He took a deep breath.
“And then, last night, Millie and she had a big fight. Naturally, I stepped in to back up my wife.”
“What was the fight about?”
“A kid I'd never seen beforeâhe was older, maybe eighteenârang the bell and asked for Bethany. She started out the door, and I told her she couldn't go; then I told this kid he had to leave. Well, he took off, and Bethany started screaming at me. I told her she had to go up to her room.”
The wife sighed. “I can't believe some of the things she said to us.”
“Neither can I.” The husband's voice was grim. “Anyway, I gave her an hour to cool off, and then I went up to speak with her. Only she wasn't there. She'd climbed out the window. We called her friends. No one has seen her. Or at least that's what they're telling us. But I don't believe them. One of my friends, Matt Rydell, said you were good at finding runaways.”
I'd managed to locate his son for him last spring. I looked up from the “B” I'd doodled in the margin of my notebook. “Finding them is the easy part. The problem is what happens when they come back.”
“I think we've got that covered.” Arthur Peterson squeezed his wife's shoulder. “So you thinkâ”
“Can I keep this?” I lifted the picture up. “I'm going to have to get copies made.”
I left the Petersons' house armed with the photo of Bethany, a list of her friends, and a retainer. Now that it had cooled off a bit, the evening was pleasant. I decided that as long as I was out here, I might as well be efficient and call on some of Bethany's friends and see what I could find out. But as I drove over to Somerset Road, the first address on my list, I wasn't thinking about Bethany. I was thinking about the man I'd picked up on the road, wondering who he was, who Dorita was, and hoping like hell the EMT guy was wrong about his having TB.
I remembered a story my grandmother had told me about her husband's family not wanting him to marry her because she was too thin and they were afraid she'd come down with TB. They called it Jewish pneumonia back then. I'd told her we didn't have that stuff around anymore, and she'd looked at me and said something like things like that would always be around.
Of course, now they had pills to take care of it. Pills you had to take every day for a year. The problem was you couldn't drink when you were on them because it would stress your liver. That would be a lot of fun. Still, I suppose it beat the sanatorium. Especially since I didn't have health insurance. One of the perks of being self-employed.
I wondered if the pills were expensive. With my luck they'd probably be five dollars each. That was a little over eighteen hundred dollars a year. I never thought I'd be in a position where eighteen hundred dollars mattered one way or another, but unless things turned around at the pet store I owned, I was going to have to declare bankruptcy. At least that's what my accountant had told me during our last meeting.
Which brought me back to thinking about Bethany. Here we had these upper-middle-class parents. A father who was a psychologist, a mother who dabbled in interior design, nice house, carefully cut hedges, tended flower beds, the whole schmearâbut according to the photo I had, their kid was decking herself out like someone from the projects.
All the CDs in her room were rap. The posters plastered on her bedroom walls were hard-core gangsta rappers. The clothes in her closet seemed to consist of oversized sweats and microminis in equal proportion. I could imagine how pleased Mr. and Mrs. Peterson were at the music she was listening to and the clothes and jewelry she was sporting. Like her parents, I wondered where she'd gotten it from and how she'd paid for it.
The first two of Bethany's friends on the list her parents had given me weren't home, but the third one, a Karim Nettanhu, was. He lived in a big, expensive new colonial on a road filled with houses just like it. He was a tall, thin brown-skinned kid with a bad case of acne and the kind of black-rimmed glasses I vaguely remembered people wearing back in the fifities. I wanted to talk to him alone, but his mother hovered right by his side.
“Bethany,” she said carefully, picking a piece of lint off her yellow silk shell. “I already told her parents we haven't seen her. Isn't that right, dear?”