The Finder

The Finder By Cat LeDévic

I’m headed up I65 on a soft Alabama summer night, accompanied by a chorus of bullfrogs, hoot owls, and the roar of the occasional 18-wheeler. Wilbur, my ancient Jag, is behaving himself with both his top and my foot down.

Sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? Then why am I grumbling and bitching every inch of the way? I loathe travel, prefer to stay within the safety of my own four walls or, at most, brief trips through my small city for work or groceries. No, I’m not elderly with 20 cats. I’m youngish, been told my bushy red hair, dead white skin and eyes like a miniature monkey are cute. Guys do chase me, the last one being as loving and tender as a grandfather clock: bitches regularly, strikes on the hour. The only safety lies in the hours when it winds down and recharges.

I also have a valid fear that my rather odd talent, that of a Finder, will become nationally known, chasing me out of my one safe zone. Yet I’d thrown all of that to the winds after receiving a call about an hour ago. What sort of client would have such a radical effect on me?

Ricky Grimes had sounded eight, tops, as he informed me that his mom was missing, could I find her?

It’s one thing to say I won’t leave my city, it’s another to hear a crying child beg. So here I am,

The Finder

headed for the lovely village of Four Corners. A vacation, I’m telling myself. I need to get away. Oh how the gods laugh.

~

As a Finder, I track energy and can locate earrings, keys, and other oddities including the job I just finished, locating a hairball in an elderly lady’s mansion. She’d been told either

there’ll be a hairball soon or Kitty likely has cancer. Kitty is safe: I Found that hairball, laid like a gift in a cactus plant.

Of course I’ve thought about Finding a missing person. Who wouldn’t, in my position? But I’m never sure my abilities will work, and for something like this, my failure would be devastating to others. In particular,

And I must admit yet another fear, that my obscure ability should become well known. I’m afraid I’ll be kidnapped and tested in some dreadful underground facility.

~

Ricky had told me that his mom, Sandy, had walked into a convenience store bathroom and never emerged. Sounds like some distant movie I’ve seen, but this is as real as sobs from Iowa. How could I say no?

Four Corners is a lovely spot – emphasis on “spot”. If I hadn’t dutifully stopped at the 4-way about a block south of a “Buddy’s Gas” sign, I’d have shot right through it. Buddy’s Gas is half-hidden behind a giant horse on wheels. Well, half a horse at least: the creature has no head, neck or front legs.

A horse’s ass. Looking at it, I feel a familiar nausea rise. “You half-ass everything, blame it on ‘energy.’ Can’t you be like normal people and get a real fucking job?” That ex of mine. I shudder.

Thump-thump-thump. Wilbur has wavered over the curb in front of Buddy’s. Hands shaking, I steer him back onto the road, kick the brakes, rumble into the station.

I pull up to a pump,

and up comes a big fellow in jean overalls and the most impressive unibrow I’ve ever seen. It resembles a squirrel’s tail after a meaningful relationship with an electric socket.

“Help ya?” he asks, eyeing Wilbur with lust.

“Can you tell me where the Grimes live?” He stares, that unibrow sort of scrunched at the top of his nose. “Look. Ricky Grimes called me to help find his mom.”

He grunted. “You that witch Ricky got, then.”

I wince.  Unwelcome association. “Sorry, I prefer Jags to broomsticks. I simply find things.”

“Buddy! Who you runnin’ your mouth to?” A wall of freshly-pressed dark-green cop suit stretches up out of sight until his dark-tanned face with more angles than a fractal leans into view. Marlboro Man complete with hat, if one ignores the cop suit.

“Hey Gray! This lady’s here to help Ricky.”

“Great car.” Deep blue eyes, no kind of friendly, scan me. “But you better not be here to dick Ricky around with some weird psychic crap.”

“I’m Ani Germaine, here by invitation.” I give him my best chin-raised, you asshole stare.

“Whose?”

“Ricky himself, if you really need to know. I’m a Finder.”

“As I’m Deputy Sheriff Grayson Talbert of Four Corners – the only law enforcement around – damn right I need to know. A Finder, eh? And how much is it going to cost young Ricky, this power of yours?”

“I’ll thank you to keep your mouth shut. Your ignorance is showing.” I eye him from the top of that block head to the tips of – what else? Cowboy boots. I smirk, pull a card with my site. “Here. Do your research.” I pop Wilbur into first: he roars. “Couple hundred folks back in Cullman seemed to appreciate my services.” Slam my foot on the accelerator, admittedly childlike, and cover him in inches of Iowa’s finest dust – all 6’6” of him. Jerk.

I take a right at the one light, drive slowly down SR51 until I’m about a block from Ricky’s address. Both roads are deserted in the middle of the day here, so a long, long line of oncoming traffic is somewhat startling. That is, until the front car is close enough for me to realize its headlights are on – as well as all the other cars behind it.

You’ve got to be kidding. A funeral procession now, with Ricky’s small house to my left? The regal black hearse passes, and I feel like crossing myself although I’ve not been near a church since I was 10, and wasn’t Catholic anyway. My best friend Jo is, though, and she crosses herself more often than a curious nun in a voodoo shop.

I grin. Have to remember that one for Jo. And then, with my usual impeccable luck, I get tickled. In Wilbur, with the top down, trying to take a left whilst a 50 mile long funeral procession rolls slowly toward me, and what do I do? Christ, this is like chuckling at the funeral itself, I thought, and am now brick-red with tears, trying to stop roaring with inappropriate laughter. And likely going to Hell as well.

Of course it’s hopeless, and now I’m getting dirty looks from the endless line of trucks. I slump over with my head on the wheel and simply howl as silently as possible. The procession ends with a bright yellow VW Bug who honks and waves, and somehow that strikes me as yet more absurd. I take the left, and an aged red truck blocks the driveway  – I’m not surprised to see the sheriff unfold himself from the front seat.

“Somehow missed asking you a few questions.”

I admire the new coat of light-yellow dust that now decorates his uniform. “Go ahead.”

“How long you be here?”

“No clue – usually a couple of days.”

“Where you intend on stayin’?”

“McGregor’s Landing B&B.”

“Hmmm.” He’s frowning. “I’ll like to watch you doing this Findin’ thing.”

I look up, all innocence. “Well sure! Purely love to have a few more, what with the media I invited and all.”

He whips straight upright faster than a cobra on the strike. “You invited WHA-“ I try not to grin. “Very funny,” he mutters. “Listen, Ricky’s Mom Sandy is my only deputy. And the families of the other two missing women have a dog in this hunt too.”

Two – two other? Wait a minute. Three women missing. Couldn’t that mean… I can’t finish the thought because my gut is shaking which usually means the rest of me soon will be. I take a deep breath, it catches several times. And now I’m looking at the ground, I see the edges of my jeans vibrating. Oh hell.

My breathing quickens, quickens as dread dances heavy as an elephant on my chest. I bite the inside of my cheek: the pain is instant, and after a few moments my breathing returns to normal. Got lucky this time. “Three missing women,” I say.

“You didn’t know? Didn’t research this at all?” Skeptical look, but frowning slightly, laser eyes staring into, through mine.

“Listen, I didn’t even want to come. I don’t travel, I don’t find missing people…” I sputter to a stop, embarrassed as tears threaten. The magnitude of this situation just got fathoms worse. I inhale deeply, grasping for control. “I gather Sandy stopped at a small store then vanished?” He and Bud both nod. I type a note. “Where is that, exactly?”

The two guys look at each other: Buddy jerks his chin back the way we came. “My place.”

“The women were taken from your tiny store?” With two short rows of chips and batteries, that store can’t even hide a mouse but he’s nodding.

“Yeah, from the Ladies. First time, have to wonder why Caren’d been in there for hours: second, Andrea’s husband came in after 20 minutes.”

“You got a camera shows the sides and back of your place?” I type a few more notes: this is shaping up even stranger than I’d thought.

“Yeah.” He exchanges a look with Buddy. “Shows nothing. The women go in: that’s it.”

“What happened to your deputy?”

“Same as the others,” he says, heaving a sigh.” No difference at–”

“Hey!” A small tow-headed kid trots up. “Ani. Is that you?” His entire scrawny body is tense: cords stand out on his neck.

“Yep! I’m here, Ricky. Want to go inside so we can talk?” He starts to nod, looks at Gray with pleading eyes. “Can Gray come too?”

“Absolutely.”

~

Before we reach the steps, he stops. Looks up at me, tries to say something. Fails.

Utilizing the depth of my kid knowledge – zilch –  I attempt to look as serious as possible.” You know I’m not free, right?” His body is bowed, and tears now fall steadily onto the shaved grass. The sun is setting at the end of several rolling pastures: a guy has a wheelbarrow with grain or something tasty to horses as they gallop across a long enclosure to meet him.

Now Ricky stares up at me, wise old man eyes in a 6-year-old kid suit. “Mom says nothing worth a shit is ever free.” He hops up the porch steps, me behind him choking back a laugh.

Stopping in front of a faded blue door, he pulls out a battered cardboard box. Ominous scratching sounds as something explodes out and is gone. I shriek, leap backwards as Ricky lets a panicked cry.” I gotta pay you twice now – to find Casper too,” he yelps on a rising wail.

“Who, or what, is Casper?”

“He’s a rare white frog… Mom will kill –” Now he looks stricken.

“Well, this one’s on the house!” I say, whilst backing up so rapidly I almost went down those steps backwards.

“Really? Why?”

The sun is gone now: only an orange glow remains above the horizon. “Because he is right there on the porch, under that swing. I see his little eyes gleaming. You are getting under there to–” but he already had.

Big mistake: now he’s sure that I’m the Second Coming. Great, my bestie Jo’ll tag me as the “Great White Frog Finder” now.  I sigh: enough for one day. I’ll begin working in the morning, I tell Ricky. Got some research to do. Could we meet tomorrow afternoon?

“Sure, but how much are you?”

“Thinking we could trade it out. I could use an assistant. What you think?”

Hair sticking straight up, green eyes switching back and forth. “You serious?” At my nod, “Yes! Oh yeah! When do we start?”

“Tomorrow, bright and early.”

~

After a nearly 20-mile drive to McGregor’s Landing, I walk in to discover Ed and Mary, the kind elderly owners, have made the best barbequed baby-back ribs I’ve ever tasted. Mary turns my huge feather bed down, clicks the TV on to yet another showing of “Porkies.” Hmmm. Now who did I know… oh well, another of life’s little mysteries.

In the morning, Mary brings me a cup of excellent coffee in bed, then stays for a brief chat.

“Sure I know about Buddy’s vanished ladies.” She shudders. “Makes me want to avoid Buddy’s and he’s the only station for miles.”

“I only know about Ricky’s mom,” I admit. “Can you tell me about the others?”

“I surely don’t understand how such a thing could happen in Four Corners – there ain’t but about a hundred of us. But somehow…” She sets the tray on the bedside table, then her own wide self in an old rocker next to it. Begins rocking slowly, her hands picking at the well-worn doily on the chair’s arm.

“Caren Banston vanished three months ago. She’s married with two kids, third on the way – they ain’t been here long. Maybe 2 years? They live next to the Grimes – Sandy Grimes is Ricky’s mom, our deputy who poofed couple days ago. Sandy and Drew knew the Banstons fought a lot, they heard it. Figured Ralph Banston’d had a hand in Caren’s disappearing that night. Lord, she just craved her some barbeque chips and – and-” tears rise in her brown eyes.

“We don’t know she’s gone for good,” I say, pity swelling. Losing 3 people is awful enough in any community, but as this one is so small, they all practically live in each other’s pockets. “How long was it before they discovered Caren missing?”

Mary sits back in the chair, rocking. Lively brown eyes go dull, staring at nothing. “No more’n 10 minutes. Tell you true, I don’t get what coulda happened, it don’t make no sense. She left those babies in the car, went in, got her chips. Asked for the key – pregnant, she gotta go every 5 minutes she says. She walked out the door, to the car, leaned in and said something to the kids.

“Walked around the corner, used the key on the Ladies and that’s it. She hasn’t been seen since.”

I finish typing some notes. “When you think about Caren, what’s the first thing comes to mind?”

“Not that a whole lot of folks move to Four Corners, but them that do, Caren brings them a bag of Hot Pockets and her wonderful chocolate cake.” Mary tries to grin, it trembles and dissipates. “We called her the One Woman Welcome Wagon.”

“Super friendly.” I shake my head, a distant fury forming in my gut. “Mary. What about Buddy’s cameras?”

“From what I hear, his video’s kinda jerky but it shows everything. And that door never even opened again.”

Kinda jerky. One of those still cams that takes a shot every so often, then? Not much used now, but this is Four Corners. “That’s awful,” I say, meaning it. “What about the second lady? Andrea, is it?”

“Andrea Mardello, yes.” She leaned forward.” Right beautiful thing with these huge dark purple-like eyes. Never did see a color like that. In my opinion, she could be in magazines or even on the TV!”

“That pretty, eh?”

“She’s a bit older than Caren, a bit more curvy, too. Let’s see. She’d eaten something bad at lunch, was on her way back from work, and she just had to stop in at Buddy’s. She dashed in, got that key, dashed out and that was it.”

I have a thought. “After Caren and Andrea, what happened to that key?”

“Everybody leaves it in the door. Sort of a way to tell they’s someone in there.”

“And Ricky’s mom Sandy? The deputy, right?”

“And a right good one too. She was a cop in Memphis, before. Met Drew there, married him. Already had Ricky, though. They were hoping to get pregnant and have their – their-” the tears spill over, she fumbles in the apron’s pocket. Extracts a tissue and honks. “I just can’t bear this. Sure do hope all this is gonna help you. Please, please find our ladies.”

“I’m not a cop,” I say. “Normally I Find things. I believe Finding is Finding, though, and logic indicates if I find one, likely I find them all.” Still alive, please God. I have no clue what I’ll do if – I catch sight of the time. “Good lord, I need to be at Buddy’s! I’ll talk to you later, if you’re available?”

“I was thinking about sneakin’ over to Buddy’s myself.” She pursed her mouth, waggled her brows. “Hear tell half the town’s going to be there.”

“Oh hell!” And here I’d joked with Gray about the media. I devoutly hope none of that particular breed will appear. As I’m halfway out the door, her voice stops me. Now it’s thin, pleading. “Ani. Please – please find Caren, Andrea and Sandy. Bring them home to their families.”

“I’ll do my Damndest, you can believe that,” I say, closing the door behind me. No use her seeing my own tears.

~

I pull into Buddy’s, wanting to get as many photos as possible; I can work from those later. The front of Buddy’s consists of two bays for cars, the aged pumps, and the tiny shop at far right.

Strolling out to the road in the broiling heat, I spot an old trailer with a big sign above it “Tornado Magnet Diner.” Have to grin. Several vehicles all older than 2005 crouched outside, just needing a long leather shank curved over their front bumpers to look like horses tied to a hitching post.

Just beyond the Tornado Magnet is a tiny strip mall sporting a hair salon, a hardware place and several other shops I couldn’t make out. The area is otherwise deserted for miles in either direction, with the exception of a lovely farmhouse in the distance behind Buddy’s place. I stare at it, make my way back to the station. I need a closer look at that bathroom.

“C’mon. Not much to see.” Gray strides out and I nearly trot to keep up, my head well beneath his own. At 5’3”, I’m officially tiny yet loathe that word like none other. Several much larger folks have learned that fact the hard way, but I digress.

Buddy leads us around to the right side of the peeling white-bricked building, his large, cowboy-booted feet stomping up small clouds of dust like Western call-outs. A locked door has the silhouette of a lady, head back and hair flowing underneath a cowboy hat. Continuing around back, I see a rusty old dumpster squatting on ancient, baked concrete with splotches of greenery here and there. Weeds curl through narrow cracks like desiccated men crawling towards a mirage in the desert. That thought gives me the oogies, so I perform that particular shudder mainly reserved for the appearance of a rat.

The back of his building sports what looks like a wide closed garage door. Buddy tells me it was a large extra bay for working on vehicles back in the day when business was much better, but now it’s sort of a junk room, though he does store some of his more valuable tools there.

We finish our tour by walking around the far side, which is featureless except for a long wide window well-hung with cobwebs and dirt. Barely visible is a car Buddy’s been working on. I take several more shots of the back area, that window, then tell Buddy I want to see the Ladies. He leads the way around front, across, and back to that shabby door with the cowgirl’s head painted on it.

“…right into the Ladies room here,” Buddy is saying as I tune back in. “Poor Ricky actually fell asleep waiting so it was full-on dark by the time he came running into the shop.”

“Got the key?” I ask, waiting with toe-tapping impatience while he strolls back into the store to fetch it from the hook near the register.

When I open the door to the Ladies, a dim light flickers on. I stay where I am and feel the energy. At left there’s a small stand-alone sink with a chipped full-length mirror across from it. Just beyond the mirror near the back wall is a dingy white toilet with rust stains dripping from the tank; then an overflowing small trash can and one of those aged solid metal cabinets where you put in a quarter for a Tampax.

What used to be cream paint is now cigarette-tan, peeling here and there with a multitude of dents near the floor, yet the place is surprisingly clean. I compliment Buddy on that.

“My momma taught me that cleanliness is next to godliness,” he says, rolling his eyes skyward. “I ain’t quite so godly in, uh, other aspects of my life, so I take it where I can get it!”

“That’s it,” I grumble.” I’m cleaning out Wilbur today.”

He laughs. “Before you do that, reckon the troops are arriving.”

“I need a couple of minutes,” I say. He nods. Still without entering the tiny space, I raise my left arm high, inhale deeply, extend my right palm. Close my eyes, let my relaxed head fall backward.  Put all my focus in my right palm. I send the thought “My intent is to find Sandy Grimes for her son Ricky. I ask help in doing so” into the universe and remain still as possible.

Nothing happens for a bit, then my right palm grows hot, hotter. Really hot. It’s a struggle to remain relaxed and calm as my heart is pounding with excitement, for my palm rarely ever grows that hot. When it does, I am completely on point as energy roils electric and tingling in the air around me.

As I’ve never tried to Find anything like this, I’m caught unaware when a wave of dark energy roars over me, enveloping me for a brief moment with a clear sense of gleeful, all-powerful malevolence. I jerk straight upright in shock, on instinct alone sending a powerful burst of my own white light.

“What the FUCK!” a distant bellow of rage sends me backward in a positively Olympian leap of pure shock. Nott alone: Buddy has taken off as though the hounds of hell are nipping at his heels.

Moments later he trots back, face reddened. “What in hell was that?”

“I don’t know. I suspect it’s what we’re searching for.” We? What am I doing here? Dark energy this powerful is not only new to me, it’s entirely unwelcome. I wipe my hand repeatedly on my jeans until it’s red and nearly bleeding. Still it feels contaminated from – whatever in hell that was. And my description there just might be particularly apt.

I turn in place, feeling a curious pulling. Looking across the enormous field, I spot that pretty farmhouse, now far more weathered as I’m closer. “Who lives there?” I point.

“That there is the Saunders’ place. They really good folks.”

I squint at it: for the briefest moment, it looks as though the walls are alive with a blanket of black bugs. My vision settles; the house sits quietly in the afternoon sun, boards hanging off here and there, leaving dark spots. Hmmmm.

“Tell you what – we need everyone to stay well back behind me, remain utterly quiet. Do you think they can do that?”

“Gray done thought of that and he’s bringin’ just the thing,” Buddy says as we round the station back to his shop where several cars are already parking, and a bunch more approaching at a crawl. I frown; small as Four Corners is, I hadn’t really expected any kind of a turnout, and I pray it doesn’t disturb Ricky. Well, I’ll just see that it doesn’t.

As if I’d conjured him up, Ricky appears at a run. “Ani! I can’t wait to start I miss my Mom so much can we do it right now?” His face is bright, eyes shining, and I see the kid he should be. Not the wan, drawn up version I met yesterday. But then he senses the tension, goes still. “Did something happen already?”

I wish I’d never invited him on this Search, obut done is done. “Actually, yeah. I think we’re not far from where your mom is, but-”

“Don’t say I can’t come, not now.” The words fly out of his mouth, small face screwed tight in determination.

“You have a job, remember? You and Buddy are going to bring up the rear, ensure that the crowd stays quiet and well back. Can you handle that?”

He starts to speak, seems to sense that something isn’t quite right, and simply nods.

“I’m going to teach you a bit about Finding, about sensing energy. That’s if you’d like to know?” He’s highly sensitive as most children are.

Now he’s beaming. “I’d give anything – anything at all.”

“Keep the damn frog,” I mutter but he hears anyway and barks a surprised laugh as Gray, spotless uniform, and very official, approaches with a roll of Crime Scene tape.

“All I got to keep folks back,” he admits.” Hey Ricky! How you doin, little man?” He holds out his arms, the boy leaps, they stand in a tight hug for a moment. “Can you take one end of this and wrap it around that big tree?”

“Sure.”

They split up as I hear a low feminine voice say, “Why Gray! What sort of crime are you hiding from me?”

His back stiffened, his head comes up like it did when I tweaked him about – oh no. No.

“Maureen. What you doing here?”

Every hair in place, lovely silk shirt over designer jeans. Holding out a damn microphone. “I heard some woo-woo stuff is going on, somebody going to try and locate the last victim of our serial–”

Ricky’s face is paper white, his eyes large dark holes of anguish. “Shut the hell up,” Gray growled.

“We’ll talk later.”

“We talk now: I’ll be busy filing this later. Of course, that’s your choice.” In a light, sexy voice, sculpted brows slightly raised.

“Guys, give me a moment.” He hands Buddy his end of the tape, points to the desired tree. Doesn’t introduce me to the reporter, for which I’m profoundly grateful. And walks off.

Ricky and Buddy are done tying the tape in place when Gray finally stalks back, steps under it.

“She ain’t gonna be happy till she talks to you,” he says, voice low.

I’m speechless. My eyes wander to the road, then the green interstate sign atop a small hill to the south. He doesn’t miss that.

“You wouldn’t be thinking of getting the hell out, would you?”

“It crossed my mind.”

He sighs. “And I just wasted all this crime scene tape for nothing.”

I stare as this is not at all what I thought he was going to say. I laugh, reluctantly. “You bastard.”

“Made you laugh.”

Laughing will be the death of me yet.

~

Maureen stands off to the right of the crowd, near a tall, dusty tree. She’s grinning widely as I approach, all bright lipstick and white teeth. Damned if I know why, but that did it. The shaking began. No no no. Not now. But I’m standing right in front of her now. “Hi.”

She took a step and was next to me: a guy I hadn’t seen before moved in front of us, suddenly a brighter light than the sun was in my face. Double shit.

“Ani, is it?” I nod. “You’re whiter than the proverbial, girl. Want some makeup?” I shake my head vigorously. She sighs, loses the smile. “Dan, hold off a minute, will you?” The light goes out. “Is it that bad?”

Now I’m really surprised, but I nod. “Yeah. Is.”

“You don’t want to be seen, do you.” Wasn’t a question, and I give my head an emphatic shake. “Good thing: you look like hell anyway.”

My eyes pop for a second, then I have to laugh. “I’m sure of that.”

“Tell you what. I need something, here. Can I use you if we pixilate you and change your voice?” I begin to relax. “Long as you promise to give me the gritty details over drinks when this is done.”

“You’ve got it.” A reporter with a heart. Who said there weren’t miracles? The interview is mercifully brief: she asks what I do, how I do it.

I give her the three second version. Raise one hand, looking for the light. “There’s a power, a light up there. What/who? I don’t know, but I ask it for help. My right hand moves in all directions, seeking. A sudden heat tells me I’m onto what I’m looking for. I follow that warmth, and voila – someone’s missing earrings. But a missing mom? Good lord.”

She shakes her head at that last, I realize I said it out loud. Then she thanks me, says we’ll speak again when I’ve found Ricky’s mom. I’m glad someone is optimistic: this I keep to myself.

… when a wave of dark energy roars over me, enveloping me for a brief moment with a clear sense of gleeful, all-powerful malevolence