The note taped to the bathroom mirror read:
I've got nothing more to say to you, I can't see things your way and you refuse to see things my way, so I've gone to stay with my sister in California. Please don't try to contact me; I don't want to see you again.
Now I was worried. I'd tried to call my wife Ally, short for Alyssa, at lunch time. We'd had a spat that morning about nothing important and I wanted to apologize for losing my temper. I found the note when I got home from work. There were several puzzling things about that note.
First it was where the note was left. Ally and I always left notes on a cork bulletin board on the kitchen wall next to a key rack. We'd hang our car keys and house keys on that rack when we came home, so we thought that was the logical place to leave notes.
The next thing bothering me about the note was my name is John, not Johnny, Delahome; Ally had never called me Johnny. She said if my parents saw fit to name me John that she wouldn't insult them by calling me a bastard form of the name; Ally really likes my parents.
Another part of the note was a problem because my wife doesn't have a sister living in California; in fact Ally is an only child and her parents had passed away ten years ago. Also worrisome is that my wife never uses her full name. I'd started calling her Ally on our first date, she didn't mind that I shortened her name and she's gone by that ever since. She even signs her checks and credit card slips Ally Delahome.
The final thing that bothered me was that Ally wouldn't have run off without giving me a piece of her mind in person and in my face. I'd learned in our one year of dating and two years of marriage that Ally wasn't a shrinking violet when it came to confrontation. My wife is a passionate Irishman; her maiden name was O'Rourke. She had a temper that was advertized by her long red hair and intense green eyes. Those eyes could be sweet and loving or as sharp as broken glass as they bored through you like a laser. Ally might hit me with a skillet to settle our dispute when I came home but she would have been there.
I walked through the house trying to find more information on Ally's disappearance. None of her clothes were missing from her side of the closet, that I could tell, and her personal items from the bathroom were still sitting on the counter. No woman would leave without taking her clothes and makeup, I thought. Her cell phone was in its charger; that's another thing she wouldn't have left behind. Once we get used to having the convenience of a cell phone, we feel almost naked without one.
I made another pass through the house trying to get a clue as to what was going on. The kitchen was, for Ally, a mess. The dirty breakfast dishes were still on the counter next to the sink, she usually cleaned up before she left for work; Ally leaves about an hour after I do. There was cup was on the floor with the coffee it had held in a puddle around it. That wasn't like Ally.
Ally had been living with two other girls when we met. They had left dirty dishes in the sink for days, empty pizza boxes in the small living room and apparently didn't know that clothes were supposed to be hung up or put in drawers. The two roommates' sloppy mannerisms were a bone of continuation between Ally and them on more than one occasion.
When she moved in with me, Ally let me know in no uncertain terms that our place would be kept clean and orderly. I thought with a small grin remembering how stern she had been. She wasn't a "neat freak" but she liked our place tidy in case someone dropped by for a visit.
After one more look around the house, I grabbed a bottle of Jack Daniels, poured three fingers, added ice and headed outside to our covered patio. I sat down in one of our Adirondack chairs with my mind freewheeling. The bright sunny, but cool, spring evening seemed out of place as I sipped on my drink.
Several unrelated and non relevant things ran through my head. Need to cut the grass this weekend, I thought as I looked out across the yard. Really should finish that cover over the BBQ grill; these chairs could use a new coat of stair before the summer gets here; maybe we should put a couple of fruit trees over in that corner of the yard.
It should be cloudy, rainy, and cold, I continued my thoughts. The sun is bright, I can hear the birds chirping and having a hell of a good time; the kids in the park across the street are laughing and playing. How can everything seem so normal when my world is coming apart?
As I tilted my glass, my brain caught up to my thoughts. "No, this is the last thing I need," I said and lowered the glass. "There aren't any answers at the bottom of a bottle. You find solutions to problems so get off your ass and find a solution for this problem."
I'm what's called a consultant for a company here in St. Louis; Last Call Solutions. Our motto is that we are the last company you'll need to call about a problem or question. We are in a sort of ask and you shall receive business. If you want help setting up or have a problem with IT, we are the Last Call you'll have to make; we solve your problem and/or answer your questions. If you have a problem or want to revamp your security measures, we're your Last Call. We can even research and tell you which machinery will be best for manufacturing whatever your product is. I was a problem fixing and solutions guy but I had no experience with this type of problem.
Returning to the kitchen, I poured the rest of my drink back into the bottle. I wasn't a great investigative mind like Sherlock Holmes or even a detective out of a book like Spenser; the character invented by Robert B. Parker. My mind set was finding the problem and fixing it. Okay, I finally thought, I need to call the police first thing.
My phone call to the police was less than satisfying.
"911, what is your emergency?"
"I came home and my wife is missing," I answered.
"Are there signs of a struggle or break in?"
How do you explain to someone that didn't know Ally why I was concerned about the note she left or the messy kitchen? "No, no sign of a struggle or break in."
"Then you've called the wrong number; this is for emergencies. You can call 555-1234 and they will direct you to your closest police precinct." Then the operator hung up.
I wanted to call back and argue that this was an emergency, but realized that it would be a waste of time. So I called the number I'd been given. After being transferred a few times I finally got to the Desk Sergeant at the 16th Precinct.
"You can't file a missing persons report until someone's been gone for over 24 hours," the Sergeant said after I gave him my name and explained the reason for my call.
"I'm sorry, Mr. er did you say Delahome? Anyway that's the procedure. I'll make a notation in today's log but that's all we can do at this time." He paused for a few seconds. "Look Mr. Delahome, most times the wife just went on a binge or is mad about something or had an evening with someone and they come home in a couple of days all sorry and repentant." Then he hung up.
"Son of a bitch," I yelled at the dead phone.
My head felt like someone was beating it like a bass drum. Instead of the whiskey I took some Advil for my pounding head and sat down in my easy chair. Need to calm down I told myself and laid my head back. My cell phone going nuts woke me up.
"Hello?" I answered in a gravelly voice.
"Where the hell are you John?" The caller was Thomas Boone, my boss.
"I'm at home." Glancing at the big antique clock on the side board, I saw it was 9 AM. I'd slept through the night and past my normal wake up time.
"I realize that stupid. I mean why aren't you here? We have that meeting with our new customer, James & James, at 11 and we need to have a final discussion before we meet them."
Shaking my head to clear it, I struggled out of my chair while I talked to Thomas. "Something's come up Boss. I can't come in today so you'll have to handle the meeting."
"What could be more important than increasing our business by 20 percent?"
I hesitated for almost a minute.
"John, you still there?"
"Yeah, I'm still here." I hesitated again, for just a few seconds this time. Thomas was more than my boss; he'd been the best man at our wedding, he was my mentor and my best friend. We'd know each other and been friends since the second grade; sometimes it seemed like a hundred years. "Ally's gone," I told him.
"What'da you mean gone?"
"I came home and found a note that said we were done and she was gone."
"Bullshit," Thomas said in a loud forceful voice. "Ally wouldn't leave like that."
"I know and that's what's got me worried." I explained about our argument, my misgivings about the things she'd written in the note, the fact that none of her clothes or personal items were missing and finally about the messy kitchen.
"You're right, something isn't Kosher here. Ally might have waited and beat you about the head and shoulders with a broom but she'd never just up and leave."
Thomas knew Ally pretty well; they'd worked together at Software Solutions before he started Last Call. He'd tried to get her to come to work for him, but by that time Ally and I were living together. She thought it wouldn't be a good idea for us to work together too. Ally said she had her hands full with me at home; she didn't need it at work too so she stayed with her job.
"Don't move, I'm on my way," Thomas told me.
"What about the account meeting?" I asked. I was grateful he was coming but I didn't want him to throw away a profitable new customer.
"I'll have Sarah handle the meeting. It was only to stroke their egos anyway. J & J's team are all men and with Sarah there they won't even know that I'm not."
Thomas was right; if you were a normal, heterosexual male, it would be hard to pay attention to anything or anyone but her. Sarah is a stone cold fox. She's probably the most beautiful woman I've ever known personally; with the exception of my Ally of course. When Sarah walked through a bar or someplace public she got the attention of most men and some women. They would watch her and curse the gods that she wasn't with them.
Sarah's beauty was both a curse and a blessing. People, both men and women, underestimated her because of her looks. Many didn't take her seriously, to their own detriment. She was about as sharp as they come. Sarah had a BA from NYC and MBA from Wharton, one of the premier business schools in the world and she was working on a PHD.
Sarah was also a lesbian. It always made Thomas and me laugh at how men fell all over themselves trying to get her attention and get close to her; not knowing that she could care less about them. Ally especially thought it was funny because Thomas had tried to romance Sarah when they met at a business seminar. He didn't make any headway but he did piss off Sarah's partner a bit. Instead of dating her, Thomas hired her.
"I'll be right there," Thomas continued. "Don't do anything stupid."
Going into the kitchen to make coffee, I saw something I'd missed before. To one side of the kitchen door, sort of pushed aside, I noticed a piece of cloth on the floor and picked it up. It was an oval patch with the name Bill embroidered on it. The patch was the kind mechanics and service station workers wore. Still attached to it was a piece of what looked like a striped shirt; again like the type mechanics wore.
Who is Bill and what is his name patch doing in our kitchen? I asked myself as I cleaned up the mess. I know, it's a funny thing to do but Ally wouldn't like the place looking like it did. Sitting down at breakfast bar, I waited for the coffee to brew and tried to think what to do next.
While waiting for Thomas, I made a call to 16th Precinct and talked to another Desk Sergeant. This time he took down the information for the report and asked that I come in to sign the paper work. Then I jumped in the shower, shaved, and generally got myself ready to face the day. As I finished, Thomas knocked on my door.
"Well, you look better than I thought you would," he said as he came sweeping into my house.
Thomas was always like that, taking charge and larger than life. We are both 30 but that's where the resemblance ends. At 6'1" I'm a little taller than average but I had to look up six inches to see Thomas's face. I weigh about 200 pounds and seem slender beside Thomas at around 270. He also has the build that Arnold Schwarzenegger, in his prime, wished he had.
People know he is a big man but they have no idea what Thomas hides beneath the suits he wears at work. It's only around the pool or playing a shirts and skins basketball game that his true size shows. Jealous or envious men wouldn't stop with his size; they also resented his hero like good looks. Women looked at him the way men looked at Sarah and Ally too. In my mind too many men paid too much attention to my wife.
Overzealous attention from some men had caused Ally to grab my arm to keep me from rearranging some jerk's face more than once. She'd pull me out of the situation and would pretend she was angry with me but she would have a little smile on her face. She liked the idea that I would fight for and protect her.
When we were in the Army, the brass even used Sergeant Thomas Boone on recruiting pamphlets and posters as the perfect specimen of an Army soldier. On patrol in Afghanistan he used to say I had the best deal because I was a smaller target. The only thing we had in common physically was that we both had dark hair and blue eyes.
I showed Thomas the note that Ally had supposedly left. He looked for me for a couple of seconds. "You put all those things you told me together and I agree that Ally didn't write this note. And therefore everything in it is bullshit. What do ya want to do?"
Shaking my head I looked back at him.
Thomas reached over and pushed at my shoulder. "I've got your back and I'll save your ass just like I did in the sandbox."
Even in my worried mindset, I had to laugh. It was an old joke between us that Thomas had saved me in Afghanistan; truth of the matter was just the opposite. Our squad had been on patrol outside of Farah and was attacked. Instead of finding cover and hunkering down, I pushed my men on through the ambush to the safety of a building where we could fight off the Taliban. During the rush to cover, I shot two men that were angling to fire at Thomas.
"I'd know how to handle a few Mujahidin insurgents; this is a different game," I replied. "I've called the cops and still have to go to Precinct and make a formal report, but I haven't got an idea after that." I paused for a moment and added, "The one thing I do know is that Ally didn't leave me; at least not on her own."
Thomas nodded in agreement. "Okay, what else you got besides what you've told me?"
I reached over to the table, picked up the name patch I'd found, and handed it to Thomas. "Found that on the kitchen floor near the back door."
"Looks like it's from a mechanic's or some type of service person's shirt," he said.
"That's what I thought. Sometime while I waited for you to get here, my brain must have kept working because now I think I may know who this could belong to." Thomas waved with his hand for me to go on. "We use the same gas station, that one at Chippewa and Kingshighway, two blocks from our building most of the time. There's a guy by the name of Bill that works there."
I paced across the kitchen. "Ally said that he was always nice to her. He'd clean her windshield or offer to check the oil even through it's a self service station." I hesitated for several seconds. Then I muttered more to myself than out loud, "I should have handled it."
"Handled what?" Thomas asked.
"Ally said that this Bill was getting a little too friendly and she was going to have a word with the owner. She specifically told me that she would handle it. When I tried to argue, she said the last thing she needed was to have to bail me out of jail, and besides she was a grown woman and could take care of herself." I added, "She was probably right, I would have had a very serious talk with this guy but Ally and I did get into a spat about it."
"We going where I think?" Thomas asked. I nodded and he said, "Let me stop at my car and get my Colt." He laughed at the look on my face. "Hey if you can carry so can I."
The service station looked like any other on a busy intersection. There were four pumps and two open bays where the actual mechanical work was done. I pulled my truck in front of an empty bay and got out of the truck. As I did, Jim Dawkins, the man that owned the station, came over to meet me. I knew him by sight if not personally.
Dawkins was about 45 with graying hair and a hard face. He wasn't that tall at 5' 8 but he must was solidly built with a barrel chest. His hands were stained with grease and he carried a 42 inch breaker bar.
"If you're here about Bill, I've already fired him," Dawkins said. He didn't seem to be happy to see me.
"What?" I asked.
"Your wife made a complaint about him and it wasn't the first one I've had about Bill gettin too friendly with the females customer, so I fired him." Dawkins frowned and said, "He sure was pissed. Ifin I hadn't have been holding this breaker bar I think he would've tried to kick my ass." The man paused and continued, "My wife's mad at me too cause he's her cousin or some such."
"Where's he live Mr. Dawkins; I need to talk to him."
"Don't believe I'll tell you. Ifin I do, you might just beat the hell out of him and my wife's mad enough at me."
"Mr. Dawkins, I need to talk to Bill," I replied.
"Like I said, don't think I'll tell you anything," Dawkins said as he patted his palm with one end of the breaker bar. "And I don't think you're big enough to make me."
As I was debating my next move, Thomas got out of the truck. He'd taken off his suit coat and tie and rolled his shirt sleeves up showing off his huge forearms. Thomas stepped around the front of my truck and said, "If he isn't, I am." Dawkins weathered face paled as the big man walked toward him.
"I wouldn't hit Thomas with that bar," I suggested to Dawkins. "You'll just piss him off."
"I don't think you understand," Thomas said to Dawkins, looking him in the eye. "That wasn't a request; it's a demand." He put a large paw on the man's shoulder and exerted a little pressure. "Now where does Bill live?" Before Dawkins could answer, Thomas continued. "In fact, we want to see your employment records on him."
Dawkins winced at the pressure on his shoulder and started to raise the breaker bar but seeing the look on the big man's face changed his mind. He dropped the bar, nodded, and led us into his office. Dawkins pawed through a file cabinet that had seen better days and handed me a folder. Inside was an employment application that showed Bill Dixon's address; no phone was listed.
He had gone to O'Fallon Trade School in St. Louis and taken courses in auto mechanics. According to the app, Bill was 25and the person to contact in case of an emergency was Jim Dawkins; there was also a photo of him which showed him to be about 6 feet and slender to the point of being thin, with blond almost white hair and brown eyes. He looked like he'd been rode hard and put away wet.
"Looks like something you'd find under a rotting log," I said after looking at the picture. "You have a phone number for him?" I asked Dawkins.
"Nope, he said he didn't need one at his place and didn't want to spend the money for a cell."
"Thanks for your help Mr. Dawkins," I said and started to leave the office.
Thomas stepped closer to Dawkins and said, "I know you said Bill doesn't have a phone but we wouldn't like it if we found out you got hold of Bill and warned him we are looking for him." He put his hand around Dawkins' neck, squeezed a little. "Understand?"
Dawkins nodded so hard I thought his head would fly off. "Yes sir. Don't care if I even talk to him again. I knew Bill had some trouble down home, but he's my wife's cousin or somethin. So, you know?" Dawkins shrugged his shoulders and went back to the car he'd been working on.
I started the truck and headed for the apartment building listed as Bill's home address. It was in a less than a prosperous area. The two story building had once been a fine residence but apparently hard times had befallen the owners because it was just a few years away from being a dump.
"Wouldn't be a bad place with some work and renovation," I told Thomas as we walked to the manager's office just inside the entrance.
"Yeah, nothing a bulldozer starting at one corner and going to the opposite one couldn't fix," he answered.
I knocked on the manager's door, waited about twenty seconds and knocked again. A man came down the stairs from the second floor. "He ain't at home," the man said.
"Thank you," I replied. "Do you know when he might be back?"
"Naw, he's downtown at the court house; somethin about a license for the building." The man coughed for several seconds. "Too damn many cigarettes. Anyway this place is falling apart and the city inspector is threatening to keep the owner from renewing his license to run an apartment building."
"Do you know which apartment is Bill Dixon's?" Thomas asked.
"Yep, but he ain't here either. Left yesterday morning early and ain't been back."
"Which apartment please," Thomas repeated.
"He lives in the basement apartment at the back." The man looked at us for a bit and asked, "Anything else?" I shook my head and he continued out the door.
We walked around the building and saw the entrance to the basement apartment. I knocked on the door two or three times and then tried turn the doorknob; apparently the door was locked.
"Guess we'll have to come back when the manager is here," Thomas said with a grin.
"Guess so," I replied and put my shoulder to the door. "No wait its open," I said as I pushed my way through the lock and into the apartment.
The old man had been right, Bill wasn't at home. From the looks of the place he'd left in a hurry. There were some clothes scattered around the one room apartment. The bed hadn't been made but then again it didn't look like it'd ever been made. The kitchen was a disaster area with stacks of dirty dishes in the sink and the trash can was overflowing.
"Not something you'd see in House Beautiful, is it?" Thomas said. "Hell, I'm a slob and my place never looks this bad." He grinned and added, "That's why I have the lovely ladies come over; to clean my place."
That was another sort of inside joke. The only person I'd ever met that was as concerned with things being clean, neat, and tidy as Ally is Thomas. In the Army, he cleaned his weapon daily, even if it had never been out of our quarters. His rack and foot locker were always inspection ready. Thomas even had a local woman tailor his clothes because he didn't like the way the G. I. issue hung on him.
"There's sand and stuff in the air that can damage my weapon and I might need it one day," was his reasoning. He may have been right because his rifle never jammed or misfired; others who were less concerned couldn't say the same thing.
"Yeah, you and Ally are the two biggest slobs I know," I said and laughed.
"Why are we in Bill's apartment when he isn't home?" Thomas asked.
"Might be something that will tell us where he went. If he took Ally, we'll need an idea of where he took her," I replied.
"When did you get all detective like?"
"It's just common sense. Don't take a Magnum P I or Mike Hammer to figure that out." I walked over to a beat up wooden dining room table that had a lot of papers and mail on it. "So let's see what we can find."
Leafing through the stack of papers on the table I came across three or four letters from an Emily Swanson. It was apparent from the content that this was Bill's mother. The return address was Clinton, Arkansas. I called Jim Dawkins.
"Who's this Emily Swanson?" I asked. With what I'd read in the letters I knew the answer but I wanted to double check.
"That's Bill's mother, she remarried after Bill's father died. She lives outside of some hick town in Arkansas." Dawkins answered. "Bill's a real red neck type, you know."
We got back into my truck and Thomas said, "By the way, have you checked Ally's credit card records for usage?"
"I knew you were good for something," I replied as I shook my head.
"I can do it on my smart phone but let's get back to your place where I can use your computer; it'll be easier and faster. We'll find out pretty quick."
Credit checks, back ground checks, and financial information wasn't in my wheel house but apparently it was easy for Thomas. It only took him about five minutes on my computer to get into the credit card files. It showed several charges on Ally's card.
Thomas ran up Google maps, input a request for directions from St. Louis to Clinton and then pointed at the screen. "Looks like she's heading south," Thomas said. "The first usage was at a McDonald's in Rolla, the next time it was in Springfield for gas." If Ally's with Bill, looks like they're on the way south back to his hometown, back to Clinton."
"So are we," I replied. I stuffed a couple of changes of clothes in a duffle bag and walking over to a cedar chest located against the far wall of the living room I opened it. Reaching inside I pulled out my Glock 21C in its paddle holster and fastened it to my belt. My concealed carry permit allowed me to be armed. The cool spring weather made a good excuse for the jacket I threw on to hide the pistol. "C'mon," I said.
"If we start looking for Bill in a small town and people tell him about it he might recognize your truck. He's never seen mine." I nodded and he said, "My apartment is on the way, I'll grab some stuff and we'll head out."
Thomas' truck is a wolf in sheep's clothing. Once you've met or spent time around Thomas, you'd never forget him; his truck was just the opposite. The twenty year old, 1992 Ford, pickup looked like it was ready for the junk yard. At one time the truck had been a two tone blue; now the main color was rust red/brown.
It's under that nondescript, forgettable body that made the truck special. The Police Interceptor engine generated over 400 HP with a top speed of over 150 MPH. The chassis, suspension, exhaust, and brakes had also been beefed up. Thomas' truck could compete, power wise, with a lot of the Nascar Sprint cars.
After stopping at Thomas' apartment, we were very quickly on I-44 South, pushing the speed limit. Thomas set the cruise control and sort of leaned back in his bucket seat.
"Once we get outside the city, I'll pick up a little speed," he said. "No need to get stopped by a State Trooper. It'll take a little under five hours to get there and Bill has a full day's head start, but we'll find him and Ally," he said with conviction.
"That's pretty quick," I offered. "It's better than 300 miles to Clinton."
"Yeah, but we're in my truck. Once we get on those secondary roads I can let the horses run," he replied.
After a couple of hours on the road, Thomas pointed at my Glock and asked, "You plan on killing him?"
"All I want is Ally back safe and sound." I looked out the window for a minute. "If he's hurt Ally all bets are off though." Turning toward Thomas as he drove I said, "If that bothers you, let me off at the next place I can rent a car and I'll go on alone."
"Doesn't bother me," he replied. "If he's hurt Ally, I'll want a piece of him too. Just don't want to lose my best employee; got too much time and money in you for you to go to jail." He glanced at me and then back at the road. "If need be, I'll help put him away and dig half the hole."
I reached over and patted Thomas on the shoulder. It felt good to know that he had my back; no matter what.
We stopped at the service station just south of Springfield where Ally's card had been used. The Hep U Sef station was small with only four gas pumps and a convenience store. The clerk didn't remember a man fitting Bill's description, but using Ally's credit card there would have been no need to go inside. While Thomas filled up with gas, I made a pit stop.
The two restroom's doors were outside on one side of the store. The door to the ladies room was propped open with a trash can. Coming out of the men's room, when I passed the open door I glanced in. There was something written on the mirror above the sink. It looked like lipstick was used.
Help. I've been kidnapped. Am in blue Chevy sedan, license TXW 554. Headed south on 65. Call police.
I was excited for two reasons. First it proved I'd been right; Ally hadn't left me. And second, it was the first indication that we were on the right trail. I called Thomas to show him the note.
"Guess he's heading for Clinton like we thought," he said.