Police Chief Michael Ryan sat at the small desk in his home office, his eyes on the steamy darkness outside the window and his mind on what might happen tomorrow. He doubted it would be good. Early this afternoon he’d received a message informing him that Everett Garth had been released this morning from the state prison. Everett Earl Garth. Ryan thought he knew, now, how Gary Cooper’s character must’ve felt when he found out an old enemy intending to kill him would be arriving on the noon train.
Ryan wasn’t sure, of course, that Garth would come tomorrow. It might be the next day, or the next. Maybe at high noon like the movie, maybe at night like a bad dream. But it would be soon.
He was chewing his second Gas-X tablet when his desk phone rang.
“Sheriff? Debbie Weston,” the voice said.
Ryan ran a weary hand over his face. “What’s up, Debbie?”
“I think I have some information on the Hightower boy.”
He sat up straight in his chair. Twelve-year-old Benny Hightower had disappeared without a trace from the middle-school grounds yesterday morning, and half the county was looking for him. Ryan himself had been up all night and chasing false leads all day. “What kind of information?”
Debbie sighed. “We need to talk, Mike. Can you come here, to the house?”
“I’m on my way.”
He arrived at the Weston home five minutes later, with lightning flickering in the distance and the smell of approaching rain heavy in the air. Debbie, a single mother in her thirties, met him at the door. He and Debbie Prescott had known each other since first grade, and had dated for three years before she’d met and married Billy Weston. Now, Debbie didn’t even know where Billy was, and had told Ryan she didn’t much care. But all that was ancient history.
It was only when Ryan saw her reaction, there on the porch, that he realized how rough he looked. Bleary eyes, two-day beard, dirty shirt …
“Are you okay?” she said.
“I’ll be better when we find Benny.”
“But that’s only one of your problems, isn’t it.” She looked a little haggard herself, but she tilted her head and studied him with a kindness that warmed his heart. “I called the station before I called your house—the dispatcher told me where to find you.”
“I suppose she also told you about Everett Garth.”
“Yeah. She knows you and I go way back.” Debbie paused. “Think he’ll come for you? Garth?”
Ryan shrugged. “He swore he would, when he got out. I’m the one who put him away.”
“What about Polly, and the boys?”
“This afternoon I sent ’em all to stay with her mother in Vicksburg. Till all this is over.”
Debbie Weston nodded, sighed, and said, “Sorry I had to call you with this, tonight.”
“No, I’m glad you did. Like I said, a missing kid …” He shook his head. “What information do you have?”
And then Ryan saw something else in her face, something more than just concern. And certainly more than concern for him and his problems. What he saw in her face was fear. Debbie Weston was scared to death, of something.
“Follow me,” she said.
They walked together to the living room. Everything in it was old, Ryan noticed: old carpeting, old furniture, old curtains, old clock on the mantel. Debbie’s son Nick sat quietly at one end of the worn couch, looking worried. Ryan tried to remember Nick Weston’s age. Eleven? Twelve? Surely no more than that. Debbie sat down beside the boy and Ryan took a seat in a chair facing them. Raindrops began to spatter the window.
“Nicky,” she said, “you know Chief Ryan. Tell him what you told me.”
Nick Weston took a deep breath, let it out, and looked Ryan in the eye. “I think I know where Benny is,” he said.
The words seemed to echo in the room. Ryan exchanged a quick look with Debbie.
“Where?” he asked.
“It’s kind of—crazy. You might not believe me.” Nick looked at his mother. “I’m not even sure Mom believes me.”
“Well, tell me and let’s see.”
The boy swallowed hard. “Benny’s in a room. He’s sitting in a little room with log walls and a lamp and a desk and two double beds and a picture on one of the walls. It’s a painting of a buncha wild horses running through a stream, and splashing water everywhere.”