Note — 1st draft of this scene is linked at bottom. This is 2nd draft. Interesting to note the differences between them…
Dinner was a quiet affair in the combined dining room / kitchen. The stove was a stand-alone propane gas model on one wall, with a propane-powered hot water heater beside it. A steel sink cabinet stood under the window, with a workbench beside it covered with a plastic tablecloth and with egg crates nailed to the wall to hold dishes. A steel cabinet with a patina of rust, perhaps a foot thick and three feet wide and six feet tall, stood against one wall and served as the pantry.The actual table was a 50’s vintage steel-leg and linoleum top affair, with a plastic picnic cloth atop it. The floor was aqua blue vinyl, with holes in it and tacks holding down places where it was sticking up. The kitchen looked like it had seen better days, but its better days had never been too good.
Jess turned out tuna casserole with green beans and carrots, with baked sweet potatoes for dessert. While she was waiting for food to cook, she examined the pictures on the wall above the table. There were an elderly couple, perhaps Bob’s mother and father. There was a family portrait of that couple, much younger, with two boys one of whom was clearly Bob, looking as lean and wiry then as he did now as someone near sixty years of age. Then there was a portrait of a young man, Bob, standing with a woman and a child, a girl perhaps eight years. The woman was stunning. She was tall and blond and oozed sex in a way that half the girls in her high school would have killed to achieve. The child looked somewhat like the woman in the shape of her jaw, but nothing like Bob. Bob had a long face and a pale complexion that had turned reddish with weathering, with a prominent jaw. The girl had straight black hair and a Mediterranean complexion and a rounder face and a sturdy build, not Bob’s wiry build.
Finally the food was ready. Jessica put it on the table, then everybody ate. Kyle excused himself after the first helping and after putting his dirty dishes in the sink fled through the door as if pursued by demons. Or by Jess. Perhaps she had made the desired impression upon him that afternoon. He certainly didn’t look like he was going to try to hit on her again.
Jess finally rinsed off her dishes and frowned. There had to be dish soap somewhere, but she had no idea where. Bob brought his own dishes over and nudged her to the side, then pulled out a dish pan and dish soap from beneath the sink.
“I’ll take care of this,” Bob said.
Jess nodded. “Seems fair.” She moved off to the side.
“Jeter pester you about the bill?”
“He knows he’ll get paid. I just gotta get the beefs big enough to sell to the feedlot.”
Jess nodded. Thought some about that.
“The ranch is falling apart, seems to me.”
“Yep. Doesn’t have to last much longer though. I’m about done.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m sure that fool Jeter bent your ear and I saw you looking at the pictures. In three years, it will have been twenty years.”
“You’ve been waiting seventeen years.” That was most of Jess’s life, she realized. Jess had barely been born, and Bob was waiting for people who never came.
“Don’t presume,” Bob said sharply. “Those morons in town presumed. That’s why they never found my Lorali. The only place they ever looked was my ranch.”
“So… uhm… why are you still here then? You could sell the ranch, retire someplace.”
“Because you presumed right, dammit.” Bob’s hand shook as he transferred a plate from the wash water to the rinse water, then put it on the drain rack. “Have you ever had a loved one taken from you?”
“I have,” Jess said quietly.
Bob stopped and looked at her, a troubled expression on his face. “A lover? No. Your mother. Your father. Your mother and your father. Both of them. And now you’re out here. All alone.” He shook his head. “The world ain’t right. Ain’t right at all.”
“I know,” Jess said. Memories were welling up. She rubbed her eyes.
“I’d say something reassuring, but I ain’t got much reassurance left in me, and I think a tough little thing like you wouldn’t welcome it much anyhow. Ever want to tell your sob story though, I’ll listen.”
“Thanks,” Jess said quietly. “So what happens in three years?”
“I open the paddock gates and let the horses out, then I dowse everything with gasoline and catch it on fire. Then I walk out into the middle of the field and eat my .357 Magnum.”
Time stopped for Jess. She was reliving the security video again, her mother sticking the revolver barrel into her own mouth, squeezing the trigger. The explosion of blood and gore as the back of her mother’s head disintegrated. The slump of the now brainless body backwards, flopping like a straw scarecrow.
“I… I don’t have a reason. It’s, just… don’t you want to know what happened to her?”
Bob shrugged. “Sure. But how? She’s dead. She’s been dead for 17 years now. I know that. She would have never left me, and if she did would have never just disappeared without contacting me to let me know she was okay. Especially if Jodie was with her. I’ve been waiting for hunters to stumble across her bones. They’ll do it someday, and then maybe we’ll know how she died. But twenty years… long enough. If she’s not found in twenty years, she won’t be found.”
“You… have no other reason to live?”
Bob waved at the shabby kitchen. “Does it look like I’m drowning in reasons to live?”
“Come out on the road with me,” Jess said impulsively. “Maybe we can both find something.”
Bob smiled sadly. “Ah, to be so young and hopeful. No, child. I’m old. My adventuring days are over. I hurt when I get up in the morning, I need pills to get to sleep at night. I wish you luck on your own journey though.”
“Oh.” Jess’s shoulders slumped in defeat. She had no answer for herself, much less for him.
But.. “Your daughter’s name is Jodie?” Jess asked, pointing at the girl in the photograph.
“She would be 27 years old,” Bob said. His eyes glistened.
“If she had lived,” Jess said softly. Remembering other children. Remembering the girl in the suitcase. Remembering a brave girl who had saved Jess’s life, ten years prior, and whose bones were found in a shallow grave only a few years ago. Remembering a boy who had come into her life a coward, found the courage inside, and been shot down on the street for no reason other than who his father was.
“What was she like?” Jess asked softly, sitting down in one of the vinyl-covered kitchen chairs.
And Bob sat down and told her. Told her about a girl who was physical, always in motion, never still. But friendly and sweet. Jess thought she would have liked this Jodie.
“Who is Ralph Perkins?” Jess asked abruptly.
“Deputy Perkins? He’s the second in command at the Sheriff’s Department.”
Jess nodded, standing up. “Why does Deputy Perkins want me to find Loreli and Jodie?”
Bob looked troubled. “He sent you here? You lied to me?”
Jess shook her head. “I told the truth. I didn’t know who he was, he was just some guy at the feed store who told me you might give me room and board for work. I didn’t realize why he sent me here until you told me about Loreli and Jodie. He wants me to find them.” She looked at Bob. “But it’s been seventeen years. And finding dead people… That isn’t something I’ve ever done before.” She looked down at her shoes, and slowly exhaled. She was good at making people dead. Finding them after they were already dead… Could she do that?
Bob was looking at her with eyes that had no hope in them. “That’s that, then. Ralph wasted his time.”
Jess riffled through her mental file of people that she knew. Detective Frank Nowak of the Denver Special Crimes Unit. She’d worked with Detective Nowak a few times. She knew how he thought. She knew the procedures he followed.
She knew how he thought.
“Maybe not,” Jess said quietly. She explored inside herself, gingerly. She could put herself into that madness place. Where she was Detective Nowak, more or less, as much as she could be. She could. What would Nowak do?
What would Nowak do?
She knew what Nowak would do. She pulled out her notepad and pen and started writing rapidly, putting down as much information as she could recall. Then she said, “Tell me about Lorali. Who are her relatives that are still living? Who were her friends?”
Bob started talking. Jess started writing. An hour later, after Jess had redirected him multiple times, Bob was out of things to say and Jess had filled out pages. Jess made some herbal tea to soothe their throats.
“What good is all this?” Bob asked.
Jess shrugged. “Maybe none. Maybe a lot. Most murders are done by someone the victim knew. So… This notebook,” she said, pointing at the small notebook in her hip pocket. “I’ll start there.” She looked out the window. There was still daylight, but the sun was heading low. “Guess I’ll go get set up for night,” she said.
“You aren’t going to find them,” Bob said sadly.
“Maybe not,” Jess said. It was a big prairie. They could be anyplace under it. “But it won’t be because I didn’t try.”
Jess looked at the photo of the small family again, the man, the woman, the child. She looked at the child.
So many dead children…
I will do my all, she promised that smiling child, that child who had been dead for seventeen years now. I will do my all. If it was not enough?
She already knew the answer to that. Remembered seeing the answer in the eyes of another child, a boy, a boy dying as a gaping hole in his chest bubbled his life out, bubbled his life out all over her. It had not been enough, then. It had not been enough. But it could not have been enough, not for that boy, whose life had been warped since birth to make him into what he had become.
She would do her all, though. And what would happen, would happen.
She had no idea, then, that before she was done there would be more bodies, more deaths, more to haunt her in her nightly dreams.