Today we are heading to Nashville to go on a case with Gregory Stout’s PI Jackson Gamble. Teenagers run away all the time, but in this case there’s so much more going on than that.
Nashville PI Jackson Gamble takes on a case that on the surface seems simple enough. All he has to do is find and return home a fourteen-year old girl named Gabrielle Hawkins who has disappeared from home. Gamble’s experience tells him the girl is just another runaway, but her mother insists she has been kidnapped. The search for Gabrielle sets Gamble on a path that leads him through the city’s underbelly of sex for hire, pornography, snake-handling religious fundamentalists, and ultimately a serial killer of teenaged girls.
With the help of an attractive woman who has a heartbreaking past of her own, he closes in on the conclusion of his investigation, with results that are both tragic and unforgettable, where the smallest mistake could spell the end of both his career and his life.
LOST LITTLE GIRL
Tuesday morning, I was out of bed before Maggie. I got cleaned up and then got on the telephone. The first call was to Woodcrest High School. I told the secretary that I was a friend of Ms. Totten. I explained that she had been the victim of a criminal assault and would not be back at work for at least the rest of the week, possibly longer. I gave her the name of Detective Lorraine Proctor at Metro Police Headquarters if the school needed to verify the information.
My second call was to the admissions office at Baptist Hospital. When I asked to speak to Delsey Hawkins, I was informed that she had not been at work on Monday, nor had she come in that morning. That set alarm bells jangling in my head.
I told Maggie I needed to go out for a while. The weather had turned quite chilly, so before I left, I turned up the thermostat to be sure she’d be comfortable. I waited until she took her meds, then warmed up a can of soup and gave her a quick tutorial on how the TV remote worked. After that, I drove over to talk to Delsey, but not before taking a detour past Maggie’s place to make certain her broken doors had been repaired.
When I arrived at the Newsome Street address, I found Jericho’s crapwagon Dodge parked on the street as it had been the first night that I visited the Hawkins home. Delsey’s car was in the driveway. Both cars being there gave me hope that perhaps Delsey’s absence from work and Gabrielle’s evident disappearance was nothing more than a case of the whole family holed up in the house with the flu.
I had to knock several times before Delsey came to the door. In a word, she looked awful, and at first, I thought my idea that the whole family had taken sick was a correct one. But when I looked closer, I saw that she had been crying, and her posture suggested that whatever energy she possessed had been all but drained out of her. I also noticed the way she was dressed, in a simple white dress like the ones the women wore at the service Maggie and I had attended a few weeks earlier.
And I knew. Something was very wrong.
I said, “Can I come in?”
She nodded and unhooked the screen door.
I entered the front room and looked around. Everything looked the same as the last time I had visited, except that the picture of Gabrielle that hung on the wall next to the picture of Jericho, Junior, had been turned toward the wall.
Once, when I was a kid, I was walking with some friends through a cemetery. We weren’t there to upend any tombstones or to smoke some dope. It was daylight, and it was just a shortcut to get where we were going. One of my friends, or maybe it was me, I don’t remember, noticed that the door to one of the private mausoleums was open. Evidently, the groundskeepers were performing some maintenance and had left the doors open while they went to lunch. It was a perfect opportunity to take a look inside a place where none of us had ever been.
The interior of the mausoleum was quite confined, about half the size of a single car garage. The overhead lights were extinguished, so it was partly dark, and although it was a hot day, it was cool inside. There were crypts set into the walls with bronze plaques indicating the names and the birth and death dates of the occupants. It wasn’t a frightening place, but being inside left me with the unmistakable feeling that this was a place where only the dead could find comfort. It was the same feeling that I got now, standing in Delsey’s front room.
I was unsure how to begin. “I wanted to come by to talk to you because there have been some developments. I won’t call it good news, but the young man who Gabrielle was planning to run away with has died. He won’t threaten your family ever again.”
“I know.” Her voice sounded flat and empty of feeling. “The police called yesterday. They said he was shot. Was that you?”
“I’m afraid it was. He didn’t leave me any choice.” I waited to see whether she would react. After a moment I said, “Does Gabrielle know?”
“She knows, and she understands. She understands everything now.”
“Is she here now? I’d like to talk to her if it’s all right.”
“She isn’t here. She’s at church, with Jericho.”
I said, “You look as though you’re dressed for church yourself. Do you want to go there now? I’ll drive you if you’d like.”
She nodded. “That would be nice, thank you. I’m not feeling quite myself today. Just let me get my coat.”
Delsey had nothing else to say to me on the drive to the Divine Light Pentecostal Congregation Church. What speaking she did was with her eyes closed, praying quietly to herself. When we got to our destination, I drove into the lot and parked the car next to the front steps. I saw that there was a length of heavy chain looped around the doorknobs and fastened with a padlock. A handwritten cardboard sign taped to one of the doors said Sunday services were cancelled on account of a family emergency.
Delsey got out of the car first. She walked up to the doors and turned a key in the lock. Then we went inside. The scene that greeted us when we went through the inner doors was like a tableau such as might be found in a wax museum. The first thing I saw was Gabrielle. She was laid out on a long table, surrounded by flowers. She was dressed in a long-sleeved white, full-length gown. Her hands, which held a crucifix, were folded across her stomach. Her feet were bare, and her hair was brushed out and arranged like flowing water around her face. On her head she wore a halo of delicate white flowers. Baby’s breath, I thought, or perhaps jasmine. Her face had been washed clean of any makeup, and her skin was pale and waxy. Dark circles were beginning to form around her eyes. From her appearance, I estimated she had died sometime late Saturday night or early Sunday morning.
Next, I saw Jericho, on the floor in front of the table. Like Gabrielle, his pose in death had been carefully arranged, except that instead of a crucifix, his hands were wrapped around a Bible. His suit jacket was buttoned, as was the collar of his shirt. However, unlike Gabrielle, who had been lovingly prepared, he was dressed in the clothes he was wearing at the moment of his death. I noticed there were still-damp bloodstains in three different spots on the front of his coat. Three shots, just like Bobby Fury, only all three were in his chest. He had been dead for only a short time, perhaps no more than a few hours.
Not knowing what to say or do, and feeling weak in the knees, I sat down in one of the front-row pews. I tried to take it all in, but it was too much, and words failed me. And although it had been decades since I last practiced the Catholic faith I had been baptized into, I bowed my head and said a silent prayer for Jericho and Gabrielle, asking a God whom I barely knew any longer to mercifully receive into a peaceful and eternal rest the souls of a sadly misguided father, and his beautiful, unhappy daughter.
Any of Greg Stout’s novels (plus several of the 22 railroad histories) are available through his website, or at the Amazon links below. The railroad titles are also available at Morning Sun Books or at the WRP Bookstore