Read Death Falls Online

Authors: Todd Ritter

Death Falls (8 page)

He started the search in his mother’s room, rooting through her dresser and closet shelves. Then it was on to the kitchen, where every open drawer yielded only utensils, household minutiae, and Betty Crocker recipes.

Eric decided the next place to look would be the only spot in the house where he knew there was a visible trace of his brother—the basement.

Creaking down the stairs, he saw that little had changed there since he was a snooping kid. It was still strewn with dust-encrusted junk. Crates sitting upon boxes sitting upon chests. An array of appliances that spanned decades. And books. Stacks of them, some almost as tall as Eric herself.

Cutting a swath through all the debris was a foot-wide path that led to the furnace. Eric followed it to the end before he turned left. With his back pressed against the wall, he had just enough room to skirt past the bulk of the more recent junk and reach a section of old junk.

He cleared a space on the floor and sat down next to an eight-millimeter film projector he never knew his mother owned and sifted through box after box. Each one unearthed a long-neglected memory—Halloween decorations, mothballed clothes, Christmas ornaments that tapered into silvery points and had once seemed as delicate as stained glass. After an hour of searching, he opened a box and saw his brother staring back at him.

Eric recognized it instantly as a school picture. His own class portraits had been taken in front of the same blue background at Perry Hollow Elementary School. In the photo, Charlie looked uncertain. He was smiling, yes, but it was slightly crooked, with a hint of sadness at the edges. Eric saw the same sadness in Charlie’s eyes. He looked like a boy who knew he didn’t have many class pictures left.

There were more school photos beneath it, each one taken a year earlier than the one before and showing Charlie getting younger in a distinctly Benjamin Button–like fashion. There were pictures of him at Christmas. Blowing out candles on a birthday cake. Posing one Easter in a powder blue suit that Eric would have torn off had he been stuffed into it.

Below that was a photograph of Charlie holding a baby in his lap. The baby, Eric realized, was him when he was only a few months old. He and his brother were on the brown couch his mother had kept until 1982. Charlie looked at the camera, beaming, as Eric wriggled in his arms. Charlie looked so happy then. Eric saw that he did, too. It reminded him that although he had grown up an only child, he once had a brother, and it might have been nice to grow up that way, too.

There was one more photograph in the box. So many years there had left it flattened facedown against the bottom. When Eric pried it up, he saw it was a picture of his parents standing on a beach. His father wore a crisp white T-shirt and dark shorts. His mother had on a two-piece bathing suit. Both of them grinned madly for the camera.

Also in the photo were a man and woman Eric had never seen before. The man had a deep tan, slicked-back hair, and a devil-may-care smile. The woman wore a flowing white dress that fluttered in the breeze. Eric had no idea who they were. Friends of his parents, he assumed. He also had no clue when the picture was taken—certainly years before he, or even Charlie, were born—and he was struck by the sight of his parents in their youth. His mother had been so beautiful then, with a smile brighter and wider than any he had ever seen. His father, too, was good-looking—strong and handsome, with the confidence of someone who had yet to be defeated by life’s disappointments.

After studying the picture a few moments longer, Eric placed it back in the box with the others. Then he slid the box back into its original position, noticing something unusual just behind it. A large piece of plywood had been propped in front of an alcove beneath the basement steps. It wasn’t meant to hide the space. Bits of darkness could be seen above it and on each side. Rather, it looked to Eric like it was put there to hide something
inside
the alcove.

Like more of Charlie’s possessions, Eric thought. Perhaps even a key.

Sliding the plywood aside, he didn’t see a key or anything that might contain one. But he did find another one of Charlie’s possessions—his bicycle.

It stood alone in the center of the alcove, unsteadily resting on its kickstand. The front tire was flat. The rear one was badly mangled. Four decades’ worth of cobwebs dangled from their spokes. Rust had taken over the base years ago, and there were too many dents and nicks to count. Yet Eric could still make out bits of blue paint and tiny white marks that he guessed were stars.

When he slid a hand across its surface, his palm came up black with dust. He wished his mother had shown him the bike when she was still alive. He wished she had opened the door to Charlie’s room and let Eric roam around it. Most of all, he wished his mother had trusted him enough to at least express her suspicions about what happened. And her hope. And her frustration and sadness and regret.

Tears welled up in Eric’s eyes. He wiped them away with his clean hand. Since Gracey sure as hell didn’t cry, Eric wasn’t going to, either. Not when he still had work to do. He still had to find a key, and other than making him emotional, the trip to the basement had been fruitless.

Backing out of the alcove, he bumped against the plywood board. It tipped over, landing against the boxes behind it. Eric spun around, startled. What he saw unnerved him even more.

A map of Pennsylvania has been tacked to the other side of the board. It showed the entire state from border to border. Perry Hollow was marked with a large red circle. Five other spots on the map had similar circles. In the center of each was a thumbtack that held a length of red string in place. Each string stretched to an area outside the map, their ends also secured by tacks. Pinned next to every strand was a newspaper article.

Eric scanned the entire board, stopping at the string that led to Perry Hollow. The article that accompanied it was illustrated with a picture of Charlie—the same class photo Eric had seen in the box. The headline was a punch to the gut:
PERRY HOLLOW BOY, 10, MISSING
.

His gaze jumped to another article. And another. And another. Each one sent his heart racing a little faster and tightened the knot that had suddenly formed in his stomach.

“Mom,” he said in astonishment, “what the hell were you up to?”

SIX

There were no arbors at Arbor Shade. As far as Nick could tell, there wasn’t much shade, either. While the name conjured up English gardens and rolling meadows, what he and Kat encountered was a clay-colored building just off the highway. Despite some shrubs by the front door and a smattering of trees on the lawn, the place looked anything but bucolic.

“Promise me something,” Nick said as they neared the entrance.

“What?”

“That you’ll shoot me before I ever end up in a place like this.”

Kat agreed, adding, “Only if you do the same.”

Arbor Shade wasn’t much nicer on the inside—more dentist office waiting area than living room. Gray walls. Mauve carpet. A meager array of magazines on a crooked coffee table. Next to a fake potted palm was a small receptionist’s window, where a matronly woman peeked out at them.

“Are you here for a tour?”

Nick hobbled up to the window. “We need to talk to one of your residents. Mr. Owen Peale.”

“I’m afraid it’s too early for visiting hours. Most family members come on evenings or weekends.”

Kat joined Nick at the window and flashed her badge. “I’m Chief Campbell of the Perry Hollow Police. We really need to speak with Mr. Peale.”

The receptionist’s eyes widened and she put a hand to her chest. “Is he in trouble?”

“No,” Kat said. “Should he be?”

“Of course not.” The receptionist checked the area for prying coworkers before leaning forward and whispering, “But we’ve had some complaints.”

“What did he do?” Nick asked.

The woman at the window wouldn’t say, which made her the worst kind of gossip—a tease. Nick much preferred Lou van Sickle’s all-or-nothing approach.

“I’ve already told you too much,” the receptionist said. “You can usually find Mr. Peale in the common room at this hour. And a word of warning: it would be wise to watch your wallets.”

She gave them directions to the common room before pressing a black button on the wall. There was a low buzz, followed by a click as a door to Nick’s right unlocked.

“Security,” the receptionist explained.

Nick assumed the system was intended not to keep visitors out but to keep residents in. It was understandable. Thrown into a place like this, his first order of business would be to hatch an escape plan. But on the way to the common room, he saw that most of the residents seemed, if not content, then at least resigned to their fates. They roamed the halls aimlessly, using a wide array of mobility devices. Orthopedic canes. Walkers. Wheelchairs. Gripping the pit bull handle of his own cane, Nick realized it was all downhill from there. Soon he’d be making the same sad progression. At the entrance to the common room, he and Kat were cut off by a woman riding a motorized scooter. At least that was something to look forward to.

The common room was nicer than Nick expected, and a far cry from the waiting area. There were real plants there, catching the sun from a row of windows along one wall. Plush armchairs ran the perimeter of the room, broken up by shelves loaded with books and board games.

In the center of the room, a silver-haired cluster sat in front of a television, watching the news. Giving the TV a cursory glance, Nick saw yet another report about China’s trip to the moon. The mission had been in the news all summer, with so-called experts squawking nonstop about what it meant for the United States and the rest of the world.

The attention had reached fever pitch now that the mission was finally under way. Nick couldn’t turn on the TV or open a newspaper without seeing something about it. He understood why it was big news, yet he just couldn’t bring himself to care. The moon had been there since the beginning of time and would exist until the end of time. It didn’t really matter who walked on it and what country they were from.

Turning away from the TV, Nick asked an elderly woman sitting nearby to point out Owen Peale. She did, gesturing to a man in sweatpants and a plaid robe sitting alone with a deck of cards. Next to his elbow was a tattered shoe box.

Nick approached the table. “Mr. Peale?”

The man studied first Nick, then Kat. “That’s me.”

“Do you have a minute to speak with us?”

“Am I in trouble?”

That question again. Hearing it a second time made Nick wonder just how much of a handful Owen Peale really was.

“Of course not.”

“I was just wondering,” Owen said, cocking his head in Kat’s direction. “Because most people who visit me don’t bring a cop along.”

Kat extended a hand. “Mr. Peale, I’m Kat Campbell—”

“Jim Campbell’s girl. I know. You look like your dad.”

“So you remember working for him?”

Owen started shuffling the cards while muttering, “Of course I remember. I’m old, not senile.”

“Then if you remember that,” Nick said, “you most likely recall an incident involving a boy named Charlie Olmstead.”

“I remember. I wrote the report.”

“I know. That’s why we’re here. To ask you a few questions about the incident.”

“That’s an old case, son. Let sleeping dogs lie. That’s my motto.”

“Even if the boy’s mother thought he was kidnapped?”

That seemed to get Owen’s attention. The former cop eyed Nick’s cane. “Looks like you need to sit down, son. You’re in worse shape than me.”

Nick took a seat. Kat remained standing. It was a wise decision, because Owen Peale started dealing cards as soon as Nick got situated.

“What’s this?” he asked, staring dumbly at the cards being tossed in front of him.

“Poker,” Owen replied. “Five-card draw. No wilds.”

“I don’t play poker.”

“If you’re staying, you’re playing. That’s the only way I’m going to answer your questions. Now ante up.”

“Ante?” Nick said. “You’re joking, right?”

“Poker isn’t played for fun, son. This is a money game. Now, I need to see some cash on that table or you and your cop friend can take your questions elsewhere.”

Nick sighed his response. “How much are we betting?”

“Five dollars to start.” Owen opened the shoe box, which was filled with loose bills and rattling change. He placed a five-dollar bill in the middle of the table. “We can go higher if you think you can keep up with me.”

“Five? That’s extortion.”

“But I might have some juicy information about the Olmstead boy. You’ll never know if you don’t play.”

Nick opened his wallet. Save for three ones, it was empty. He thought of the four dollars he had spent for a coffee at Big Joe’s. Without the java, he could have played at least one hand. Unless the old coot decided to raise.

He turned to Kat. “Could you spot me?”

“This is ridiculous,” she announced, digging through her own wallet. Still, ridiculous or not, she found a five and slapped it on the table.

When Owen saw the cash, a wide smile spread across his face. “Let’s look at our cards.”

Nick peeked at his hand. It was weak—a pair of twos, a four, a seven, and a king.

“You going to start asking your questions?” Owen said from behind his own cards.

“The report states you were with Chief Campbell and Maggie Olmstead the night Charlie vanished,” Nick began.

“That’s not a question,” Owen said. “But I’m gonna answer it anyway. Yes, I was there.”

“Who was the first person on the scene?”

“The chief. Normally, it was just me on duty at night, but the chief thought it’d be a good idea to have more manpower on the streets in case something happened with the moon folks. The whole town was buzzing about it. Parties and singing in the streets and worrying about something bad happening up there.”

“What does the moon have to do with any of this?”

Owen lowered his cards and flashed him a look seen only from grandmothers, teachers, and other exasperated authority figures. “Don’t you know your history, son?
Apollo 11
. Man walked on the moon.”

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