Death Lives In The Water – Snippet 17

“I’m not your usual minister,” he said. “We sing a bit, read, discuss, sometimes hold silent prayer. Harper’s Landing is an anomaly in the Midwest when it comes to religion. We are more a fellowship than a congregation.”

They all relaxed a bit, though Dan Miller was still defensive and on edge.

“How long have the boys been missing?” Jim asked.

The parents all started to talk at once. Jim held up his hand.

“Mike, is it?” he asked Mike Blinder. The man nodded. “You first.”

“Steve, my son, left yesterday morning along with Gary Miller, Billy Martin, and Mike Stoneman. They were going to go for a drive, maybe do some fishing down at Big Bass Pool. At least, that’s what they said.”

Jim turned to Suzie Stoneman.

“Mike’s your son?”

She nodded.

“Did he take anything with him? Anything unusual that you’ve noticed?”

“No. He just said he was going to spend the day with the other guys. I work the swing shift at Wally World. Most nights I get home and Mike’s asleep. So I didn’t know he was gone until this morning, when I went to get him up for breakfast. I thought maybe he’d stayed at one of the guys’ houses, so I started calling them at around ten or so.”

Tina Martin spoke up.

“Billy didn’t come home either. We were out at a party for fundraising for the mill restoration, along with Mike and Nancy.” She pointed to the Blinders.

“I guess we all just thought that they’d stayed the night at Gary’s house,” said Mike Blinder. They’ve done it before, but never without asking first.”

“What about you?” asked Jim, looking at Dan and Beth Miller. “When did you realize Gary wasn’t home?”

Both parents blushed deeply. Finally, Beth blurted out, “We didn’t get home until this morning.” Dan gave her a vicious glare.

“We went to St. Louis, to the new Budweiser expansion opening,” he said. “Gary knew we wouldn’t be home until this morning. He’s graduated high school, old enough to be alone,” he declared defiantly.

Jim finished his lunch, letting the parents calm down, deliberately taking his time under the glare of Dan Miller. The man was obviously a bully and, from Beth’s reaction to his glare, most likely a wife beater.

Finally, he put down his fork, took a sip of coffee, and said, “So none of you have seen your son since yesterday morning?”

They all nodded, beginning to look worried as the gravity of his question sank into them.

“And none of them said anything about a road trip, mentioned a concert in the city, anything like that?”

They all shook their heads no.

“What about family troubles? Issues with school? Detention, grounding, anything like that?”

Again they all responded no, though Jim noticed Beth’s glance at her husband.

Suzie Stoneman sat up a little taller in her chair.

“Mike . . . he’s too young to be running with the others. He’s only fourteen; they’re all seniors or graduated. But he likes them. He’s lonely since his dad died. So I let him go with them.”

“Don’t you go blaming my son,” interrupted Dan. “He didn’t force your son to go with them.”

Jim leaned closer to Arthur.

“Would you mind taking Dan outside? I’m not sure what excuse you can come up with but please think of something,” he said softly.

“Sure,” whispered Arthur. “Dan, would you and your lovely wife mind joining me for a moment? I’d like your opinion on a project I’m contemplating, and I’m told that you are pretty handy with building things.”

“Right now?” asked Dan. “Can’t you see we’re involved in something important?”

“Oh, I’m sure Jim will want to talk with each of you,” smiled Arthur. “I’m just sure I’ll forget and then want to call you down here again. It’ll be a good break from the anxiety, anyway.”

Reluctantly they followed him out to the back, where he pulled out the plans he had drawn up for redoing the Rectory into a bed and breakfast. Despite his mood, Dan found himself drawn by the drawings and Arthur’s enthusiasm, and soon Beth joined in with suggestions about interior design and a new kitchen.

Meanwhile, Jim sat down with the other parents who seemed far more relaxed now that Dan and his mercurial temper were removed.

“How likely do you think it is that the boys might have headed south on a lark,” said Jim. “Maybe a post-graduation trip for Gary and Billy.”

“I think it would have been more like an escape,” said Tina. “Dan’s got a temper. I don’t think Beth got that bruise from banging into something. Billy would have gone along with him. He likes Gary and sees something in him, something maybe the rest of us miss.”

Mike Blinder spoke up. “Steve has commented more than once that Gary would give anything to get away from his dad. But I just don’t see Steve going off without telling us first, even if he did just graduate. We have a good relationship, no problems. Right, Nancy?”

She nodded. “He talks to us both, about things many boys wouldn’t discuss with their parents. But if things got bad between Dan and Beth, well maybe the boys went with Gary instead of coming to us, or even you, Sheriff. Kids stick together.”

Jim nodded, and beckoned to Arthur to come back in with Gary Miller’s parents.

“I’m not going to open an official investigation just yet,” he said, holding up his hand against their protests. “I will notify the State Patrol to be on the lookout for Gary’s Mustang. You folks–turning to his parents–write down his license number. That’s the pretty blue number he likes to drive around town, right?”

They nodded.

“If the state boys spot them, I’ll ask them to pull them over just to make sure they’re okay and insist that they call you folks. If they resist, then we’ll have them taken in for you to go and pick them up.”

The parents all reluctantly agreed.

“Now if we haven’t heard anything by tomorrow, then I’ll open a missing person report. We usually wait forty-eight hours anyway, unless there’s some evidence of foul play. If it were just Mike, given his age, I’d do it now. But since he was last seen with the other boys, and two of them are old enough to be regarded as adults, we’ll wait. You be ready to come in and file a report if I call, and then we’ll get more people on this. Until then, all we can do is wait.”

There was more grumbling among the parents, but ultimately, they agreed that it was best to wait. Two days later Suzie Stoneman, Mike and Nancy Blinder, and Tina and George Martin all filed missing persons reports on their sons. Dan and Beth Miller did not come in, nor did they respond to messages from Jim. He went ahead and took the reports on the other three boys and sent a private message along with copies of the reports to Clay Murdoch. In it, he voiced his concerns that Gary may have had something to do with the disappearance of the other boys. While he had no reason to believe the parents knew anything, he also wrote of his opinion that Dan Miller was a violent and potentially abusive father and husband. There certainly was more than enough circumstantial evidence leading to that conclusion.

Around town the majority opinion, voiced loudly and often by old Ethan White at Morey’s Diner, was that Gary Miller had talked the other three boys into leaving with him, and that they were larking about somewhere in or near St. Louis. Jim kept silent during these discussions. It was his duty as a lawman, and as a responsible citizen. Privately, he had told Arthur that none of the boys had taken any money out of their bank accounts (he left out how he knew that since his conversation with Jim Ledlow up at the new Harper’s Landing Citizens Credit Union was somewhat extra-legal).

The days stretched into weeks, and by mid to late summer the search for the boys stalled. Although the parents were still upset, they turned from badgering Jim to calling the state police headquarters daily, and once Mike and Nancy Blinder drove to St. Louis to demand that the search be stepped up. After a long and heated conversation with Clay Murdoch and Blake Meadows, they returned to Harper’s Landing, disheartened and anguished, believing their boy to be cold and lonely, wandering the streets of St. Louis.