Chapter 2—Early Friday Morning, Missouri
“Gotta quit that,” Jake told himself as watched the Wisconsin Odyssey diminish in his rearview mirror. He’d taken to counting minivans when he and Barb bought a Plymouth Voyager. But that was before the divorce, and now every minivan on the highway reminded him of how much he missed his kids. Time to move on, he thought, hoping his new truck would help fill the aching void in his heart.
He had ordered a dark blue rig, just to try to keep a low profile. If Joey had still been in his life, he would have opted for a candy apple red truck. With the back of his hand, he brushed a tear off his cheek as he remembered how Joey loved to sit in the back and call him on an old cordless phone, pretending it was a CB radio. “Bweaker, bweaker, Joey to Daddy, come in pwease.” Joey had a low, husky voice as a little kid.
If only he could hear his son call him Daddy again.
Once the truckers had picked up the scent of his arrest and trial, they grabbed their CBs and spewed the news all over the country. He pounded his fist on the steering wheel in fury. Abject despair under a justice system that, once rolling, no power on earth could stop, still bound him like steel straps around a truckload of cinder blocks.
The sour taste of having the blame dumped on him wouldn’t go away. As far as he was concerned, losing the kids was the worst of it, the worst thing that could happen to anybody. Maybe it would have turned out better if they had stayed on the ranch instead of moving back to Lincoln as she insisted. Maybe if they hadn’t been so young…
His looks didn’t help. People seemed to instinctively distrust men who looked like him—dark brown curly hair with copper glints, smooth skin. Too handsome for his own good, Ma used to say.
Ma should have warned him about girls like Barbara. He did remember Ma hadn’t approved of him and Barb going together since they were fifteen, but she never knew they got married right out of high school. She died of cancer in January, and Jake and Barb married in June the same year.
Barb had cured him of women, no maybe about it. If he couldn’t have his own kids with him, he’d manage fine without a woman. His truck was a whole lot more predictable. Less hassle, for sure.
Unless…uninvited, another picture floated into his mind—the girl his brother had introduced him to in Dallas, saying he needed to get out and meet new people. Tina, the redhead with liquid green eyes, who reminded him of an almost-tame doe, letting him approach slowly, but ready to skitter off if he made a sudden move.
He felt good just thinking about her. Something about her kept him going back. Well, he could think of worse ideas than a nice city girl to spend time with on his weekends in Dallas.
She had been humiliated as badly in her divorce as he had in his. He would gladly string up that Richard character she had been married to. What kind of an idiot would hurt someone as sweet as Tina?
Beautiful little Tina, red hair to her shoulders, all silky and shiny. If only she wouldn’t try to shove her religion at him.
Be fair, Jake chided himself. She didn’t exactly push it at him; she just explains why she’s so cheerful. “God gives me peace.” Downright remarkable, given her history, he had to admit. He winced as he remembered how she often said, “Jesus has given me a new life.”
He didn’t mind so much when she just talked about God in a generic sense. But the Jesus stuff made him itchy.
Probably why she wouldn’t sleep with him, too, although he knew she wanted to as much as he did.
Can you get in trouble with God for fantasizing about sleeping with a religious person, he wondered.
He could picture a good life with Tina. After all she had gone through she deserved a man who knew how to treat a woman. He hoped she would let him close enough to find out she was safe with him.
“Watch yourself, Jake,” he warned himself. If he wasn’t careful… He could feel himself beginning to care too much, and to his surprise it was a good feeling. He sat up straighter at the thought. A real good feeling!
He had told Tina all about Barb and her crazy accusations, and he had been sure neither he nor Tina was ready to risk loving again.
It might be too late to be careful, he thought with a start. He sure didn’t want to stop thinking about Tina and what it would be like if they were married. And to his surprise, it wasn’t all about what she could do for him. He smiled, picturing her face when he’d bring her a gift, or tell her a funny story, making her eyes crinkle up the way they did when she smiled. The touch of her hand on his face, the sound of her voice…He wanted to close his eyes and dream of her, to remember her scent…He didn’t want to consider life without her…
Despite the coffee, at 3 a. m. Jake found himself growing sleepy. The Clancy book had bogged itself down with technical stuff—hard to follow when he listened with only half his mind.
By the time he reached Rolla, Missouri, he decided he’d better ease off the road and take a nap. Several other truckers had pulled their rigs off at the Rolla truck stop, not uncommon in the pre-dawn hours.
“Are we stopping, Mister?”
Jake could feel the hair on the back of his neck crawl. He turned around to see a small blond boy standing behind him, steadying himself with one hand on the back of the passenger seat and the other holding his crotch while shifting nervously from foot to foot. Lighted digital indicators in the dashboard cast the child’s pale complexion a sickly green.
“I’m sorry, Mister, but I really gotta go. I can’t hold it any more.”
Easing his truck onto the shoulder of the off-ramp, Jake turned and pointed wordlessly to the porta-potty he kept on board for emergencies.
Austin stood over it, aimed unsteadily, and relieved himself.
Jake, wide-awake now, scrabbled around inside his brain trying to place this beautiful little boy in his truck in reality. Could he be having a nightmare, a flashback of some kind? But this kid’s hair is blond—almost white, he thought, while Joey’s hair is more like mine, dark with reddish streaks. Where had this child come from? When did he stop last? Bloomington? But that’s Illinois. This is Missouri. Across a state line.
“Oh God oh God oh God…” He realized he was talking out loud. The boy began backing away, staring at him wide-eyed.
“I’m sorry, Mister. I know I spilled some. I’ll clean it up for you, okay? Mama says I should sit down when I go but Daddy says that’s for sissies and he says…”
Jake heard the hiss of air brakes and the hollow rattle of an empty dry van trailer as an International exited and passed them heading straight toward the diesel pumps. A slight mist around the neon signs of the all-night café cast an eerie glow.
“Listen kid, I don’t know who you are and I don’t give a rip what your dad thinks one way or the other. What in blazes are you doing in my truck? How did you get here? Why me? Why this truck?”
Jake realized his voice had grown louder with each question, and the kid was returning his anger glare for glare. He tried to speak more quietly, but frustration roughened his tone.
“Kid, I want to know what your name is and what you are doing here. And I want to know it now!”
Austin appeared to listen attentively, then pulled back his shoulders and stood as tall as he could.
“I’m here because I got out of the van to go potty and then I saw your new Freightliner Coronado.”
Jake noticed that he recited the truck name with pride.
“My whole entire life I wanted to see inside of one for real, so I just climbed in—and I guess I fell asleep.” He squinted his eyes. “And I don’t like to be yelled at, neither.”
“All right, I’m not yelling, but you’d better tell me your name and where you belong, so we can get you back to your folks.” Jake wasn’t accustomed to being corrected by a kid. “So no more back talk out of you. Didn’t your mother tell you not to get into other people’s cars?”
“Ha!” Austin stuck out his chin. “I didn’t get in other people’s cars. This is a truck. Don’t you even know what you drive, Mister?”
“Very funny. Just give me your dad’s name.”
The kid looked sullen and refused to make eye contact. Now what?
“Listen, I’m a dad, too, so I know how worried your father must be. Let’s see…my little boy, Joey is six years old now and you’re lots bigger. How old are you?
Almost eight?” Jake didn’t think the boy was quite that old, but he knew boys like to think they look bigger and older than they really are.
Austin kept his chin in the air, and didn’t answer or look at him.
“Hey, I’ll tell you my name. I’m Jake. What do they call you?”
“You’re gonna make me guess, aren’t you? Okay, let’s see: Oscar? Is your name Oscar? No. Willie Wonka? No. Uh…Leroy? That’s it. Leroy. Okay, LEEroy, where’d you come from?”
The kid finally looked at him. A trace of a grin.
“I’m six, you silly! Well, almost seven. And my name is NOT LEEroy. I’m not telling you my name.”
“Okay, six-year-old Not-LEEroy. So when did you get in my truck? Can you tell me that?”
“Last night. Before I went to sleep.”
“Do you know where you were? Were you near your house?”
“We were at the place with all the trucks, only the other ones were farther away from my daddy’s van.”
“But was that near your house?” This was like pulling teeth. He found himself clenching his.
“That’s it, Not-Leroy? Just ‘no’ it wasn’t near your house? How do you know it wasn’t near your house?”
“Because we rode in the van all day already before we got to the place with all the trucks,” Austin explained patiently, as if it were obvious.
As they idled there on the shoulder of the off-ramp, three other tractor-trailer rigs passed Jake’s truck, but didn’t appear to slow down or check him out. While it was more usual for trucks to rest on the edge of an on-ramp, sleepy truckers might occasionally take a short break on the off-ramp. All the same, the longer he sat here, the greater the likelihood that someone might take note, and right now, staying out of anybody’s notice ranked as numero uno on Jake’s short list of objectives.
He had to give it another try, although extracting information from Not-Leroy was shaping up to be a job for a better sleuth than he considered himself to be.
“Well, Not-Leroy, did your mom and dad know you got in the truck with me?”
Pay dirt. The kid enjoyed a bit of deceit; he could tell it by the twinkle in his eyes, as he bragged, “No I am a biotechnicoid boy…”
“Hold on there, Not-Leroy, I never heard of a biotechnicoid anything! Don’t you be making things up on me!”
“Of course you never heard of it. I invented it, is why. I’m faster than Superman, more sneaky than Spiderman. I can swoop into a room before anybody knows it.”
Arms straight out as wings, Austin dived and swooped to the limits of the cab.
Jake had to smile; the child had the commanding presence of a half-grown chicken.
Austin sat down and faced Jake, apparently sure he had made his case. “You didn’t see me get in your truck, did you? See, I told you! And if I wanted to get out of the truck I could do it and you wouldn’t see me then, neither.
“You know what? You watch way too much TV. Your mother didn’t teach you any manners, either, did she? You’ve got a lot of nerve sassing me right after you scared me half to death by showing up!”
“There! You said you were scared. I’m not scared. Biotechnicoid boys do not get scared.” Austin had apparently forgotten his alarm in those first couple of minutes when he woke up and Jake talked so loud.
“I always wanted to ride in a truck like this and now I can,” he went on. “There’s plenty of room in here for me, and I can pour coffee for you and, and lotsa other stuff while you drive. We can be partners.” He crossed his arms, satisfied with himself.
Jake leaned back in his seat looking out of the windshield at the tired glare of the station’s lights, trying to think. He knew he should take the child to a police station.
Yeah, right, he thought, I’ll drive myself up to the next highway patrol car, and tell them this little blond boy just happened to show up in my truck, and anyway, that kidnapping deal two years ago was bogus. Yep, that’s what I’ll do. And Mr. Patrolman, friendly peace officer in blue or khaki or whatever they wear around here, will say “That’s all right, Jake, my man. You go on your way and God bless you.” Sure he will. Right. And then my fairy godmother will exchange this kid for my own boy and we’ll all ride into the sunset together. Happy ever after, amen.
Another truck rolled down the ramp. He couldn’t stay here. He had to find a safe place to try to figure out what to do.
Safe. But where?
A gentle memory tweaked the corner of his mind. Crazy idea.
Maybe not so crazy. He’d only met them once, but there was something about them…He didn’t trust too many people, but he knew they were solid; trustworthy.
He made up his mind.
“You go on back there and get back to sleep. We’ll talk later.”
“Easy,” he told himself, “easy does it.”
He coasted down the off-ramp and into the parking area of the truck stop. In a neatly parked row, about a dozen big rigs idled while their owners napped in the sleeper beds. Jake managed to position his truck between two others.
He reached for his cell phone and started keying in the number when he remembered what time it was. And how traceable cell phones were. Replacing the phone after clicking it to the “off” position, he ran his hand over his face and rubbed his palms on his jeans.
Ignoring the “No Drop Zone” sign, he kept the engine at a low idle speed, jumped out, unhitched his trailer—a flatbed loaded with pallets of five-gallon bulk paint cans covered with a tarp—and hopped back into the cab. Then still at a gentle, quiet speed that wouldn’t awaken other drivers, he glided away from them and headed back out to the highway.
At the next exit, he turned south into the Ozarks and disappeared.