Back at the Cop Shop
At 1:34 Tuesday afternoon, Deputy Merle Doran returned to the police station in Jasper, Arkansas, where his boss, Sheriff Roger Staley, waited.
During Doran’s account of his morning activities, the sheriff never looked at his deputy but did what he usually did when he wished he were doing almost anything other than what he was doing, he swiveled his chair back and forth, clicking his ball point pen with each swing—left, right, click, left, right, click—a habit that may or may not have had anything to do with the fact that during Staley’s four years in office, Merle Doran was the only deputy so far who had lasted at the job for more than six weeks.
In the sheriff’s defense, Doran’s delivery tended to hover somewhere between a drone and a whine, and as he reported his visits to seven different but equally remote settlements, his inflection, or lack thereof, never changed, not even when he finally talked about the VanderLeiden place, where he had made an actual discovery: the truck the FBI had alerted them to try to find. He said the description they had been given exactly matched a truck he’d found.
“No sign of the trucker, the VanderLeidens or the kid, though.”
“Ding bust it, Merle!” Staley stood up from behind his desk, excited at last. “If the truck is there, the trucker’s there. It only stands to reason, Merle. He must be hiding. You shoulda stayed there until you found him!”
“The thing is, Sheriff, the old couple ain’t there, either, and neither is their car. According to Denny Turco—“
“Turco! Where did you see Turco? I mighta known. How is he in this mess?” Staley sat down, obviously perturbed. “You know full well he isn’t going to cooperate with us if he can help it.”
“Oh, I don’t mean he was up there at the VanderLeiden place. He wasn’t there. Nobody was. They were down by the river, counting elk or some fool thing.” Merle paced sluggishly, watching his own feet. “If I had the money that guy has, just in scopes and equipment, I could retire, too.”
“He didn’t retire, you know that. He couldn’t handle the pressure of the job is all. Not many men can. Well, how did Turco explain the truck being up there? I know he’s up there a lot. Did he know where they are?”
“What he told me was, they probably had doctor’s appointments or something. He seemed real surprised about the truck. I don’t believe I’d wanna be the trucker if anything happens to friends of Turco.”
Deputy Doran filled Sheriff Staley in on Denny’s theory regarding the unlikely possibility of anybody surprising Poppy. There followed about 20 minutes of aimless grumbling and scratching, with intermittent periods of silence—except for the clicking ball point pen, of course—while the two men stood staring out of a small front window, watching nothing move on the four-space parking area.
“What did you mean when you said ‘they?’ You said ‘they’ were counting elk.”
“I didn’t get his name. Nobody special, I don’t think. Just some little ridge-runner. Probably one of Turco’s sister’s friends. She has more’n one, from what I hear.” Doran snickered.
More silence until Staley made a decision, the weight of which was evidently more than he could handle standing up. He plopped himself down and picked up the phone.
“I’m going to put the word out to the highway patrol to keep an eye out for the VanderLeidens. They sure as thunder know something. Might even be accessories. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to find out Turco put them up to it, either. At least we need to talk to them. Then I don’t see what more we can do but wait.”
“What about the FBI?” Merle asked.
“What about them?” Staley spit the toothpick he had been chewing into the wastebasket. “We’ll tell them what we want them to know when we think they need to know it.”
“This is a federal case now, what with the trucker crossing state lines and all.”
“I know that!” The sheriff slammed down the phone. He hated being instructed by his only subordinate. “We don’t have a victim, do we? Do we have a perpetrator? Without one or the other, I don’t see why we have to call in the Feds.”
“Because we know where the truck is, is why.” Merle countered stubbornly. “If we don’t tell somebody we’ll be withholding evidence, won’t we?”
“Fine. You want to try to help the Feds, you go right ahead. But first call Harden over in Boone County. He has to hold federal prisoners in his jail there in Harrison. He’ll have a better idea how to handle it. Here: I’ll make the call for you and then I’ll put you on.”
The call to Sheriff Carvel Harden went well at first. Merle recited his account of his day’s activities so far, finally getting to the discovery of the dark blue Freightliner so perfectly matching the description of the truck in question. At that point Carvel interrupted to ask Merle for more information about the people who owned the property where the truck was located.
Merle said the VanderLeidens were in their mid-seventies, gave the sheriff a general description of them and offered the theory that they might be visiting their doctors in Harrison.
“Where did you come up with that idea, deputy?” Sheriff Harden asked.
“Denny Turco is a real good friend of theirs—” was as far as he went when Carvel exploded.
“Turco! I might have known! Anytime there’s trouble around here, find the middle of whatever’s going on and there’ll be Turco. I swear making my life miserable is that guy’s own personal lifetime goal.”
After grumbling incoherently for a minute or two, he spoke into the phone again. “Put your boss back on the line, Merle.”
“Well, Carvel, what do you think?” Staley asked.
“I think we got us a situation, is what I think. And yeah, I suppose we have to give the FBI a heads up. But let’s take some time to do a little investigating on our own. What do you say we deputize a couple of fellas to help us look through some of that fresh plowed dirt up there where the truck is located?”
“Sure thing. Me and Doran will head right up there. You think I should try to deputize anybody else?”
“No. I’ll call my regular deputy and then I’ll run over to the barbershop to see if there’s somebody hanging around there who would be willing to do a little digging for a few bucks. I’ll have a couple of squad cars, and the two of you, which should be enough. Bring yourselves some shovels. My deputy is a pretty good forensic photographer. I’ll tell him to bring a loaded camera. Who knows what we’ll find up there.”
“Uhh, Carvel, what would you think about putting out a bulletin to the highway patrol to keep an eye out for the VanderLeidens? I’m thinking they must know something. Should at least be able to tell us how the truck ended up in their yard.”
“Not a bad idea. Want me to call it in? What are they driving?”
“Sure, go ahead. They are driving a 2001 Jeep Grande Cherokee, kind of a silver or khaki color—hang on a second. Merle?” He called his deputy back to the phone. “Here. Tell Sheriff Harden whatever you can about the vehicle.”
“Which one? The truck?”
“No! The VanderLeiden’s SUV.”
“Yeah. Well, it’s kinda silver, but in the right light it looks kinda off-green; whatcha call khaki, something like that. It’s the Laredo model, the Jeep is. I called the DMV. Want the tag number?” At his boss’s exasperated ‘hrrummpf!’ Merle gave the number to Sheriff Harden and hung up.
“Grab a shovel, Merle. We’ll each take our own patrol car. We just don’t know what we’re gonna find up there. Let’s go.”