If I Run, page 12
She seems to snap out of her deep reverie. “It’s not mine. It’s here for everybody, but nobody ever uses it this time of year. Too humid, they say. Like they expect Georgia to be Ottawa.”
I take that as a yes, so I sink into a pollen-covered Adirondack chair. I don’t lean back. “I like it here. It’s good for the skin, right?”
She smiles as she looks at me now. “Southern girl, huh? I took you to be a Yankee.”
I haven’t heard anyone use that word since some book I read in fifth grade.
“Where are you from?” she asks.
I try to remember Grace Newland’s history. “Oklahoma,” I say weakly.
She looks at me like I just appeared from the moon. “No way. You sound like me. Deep South, not cowboy.”
She’s got a deeper accent than mine, I hope, but I don’t correct her. “I’ve lived a few other places along the way. In the South.”
“Can’t be a very long way. You’re too young.”
How did we get here so fast? Maybe I made a mistake coming out here. I stand back up, straighten my jeans. “Anyway . . . I just thought I’d say hi.”
“You don’t have to run off,” she says quickly. “For heaven’s sake, sit down.”
I hesitate for a minute, then slowly lower back down.
“My name’s Sealy,” she says.
“Hi, Sealy.” I try to redirect the conversation. “Are you traveling through?”
“Traveling? Me? No, I live here.”
“All the time?” I ask.
“That’s right,” she says briskly. “You got a problem with that?”
“No. It’s a nice place to live.”
She broods for a moment as she stares toward the parking lot. “It used to be nice. Folks who opened it were this decent family, did everything themselves. Treated the guests like they were royalty. Real homey-like. Then they died, and their ungrateful kids sold it off to some corporation somewhere. Owners have prob’ly never seen the place. Cigar face in there runs it now and couldn’t care less.”
I want to ask her why she lives here then, why she doesn’t just go get an apartment or a house if she has enough to pay a weekly motel rate. But I don’t want to rile her again. “There’s bird poop on that chair,” I mutter, pointing to the chair across from me.
“Been there forever. Nobody ever cleans this area.”
I get up. “I’ll be right back.” I go into my room and get a washcloth, wet it and scrub soap on it, then grab a bottled water. I take them back to the courtyard. Sealy looks up at me.
“I can take care of this right now,” I say. I kneel in front of the chair and scrub off the caked bird droppings. “What kind of birds do you see here?”
“I don’t know,” she says. “I don’t notice birds.”
“Really?” I ask as I scrub. “I love birds. We had these two cardinals that used to hang around my backyard when I was a kid. I loved when they came. It was like a bright-colored message. Oh, and my mom always has these hummingbird feeders out. Lots of them, really. She kind of collects them. She collects everything, actually. But these hummingbirds just float there, their wings moving so fast they’re invisible. I love watching them. They should get a hummingbird feeder here.”
“Then there’d be more of that on the seats.”
“Comes off easy,” I say, moving so she can see my work. The chair is now suitable for sitting in. “You could hang it off to the side, over the grass. It’s fun to watch them.”
“Management would never buy the food. Probably wouldn’t even let me hang one.”
I have another friend like Sealy, back home in Shreveport. You would think that Molly would be the name of someone light and fluffy. But Molly sees only the dark side of the world, the part that shows on negative film. She misses all the good stuff.
I get her perspective. But I respond to life differently. I feel challenged to see beyond that dark part and find the good stuff. I take pleasure in pointing out the bright sides to Molly, because when I do, I remind myself they exist. Maybe Sealy can be my new Molly.
Later, when I go out, I stop by a hardware store and buy a hummingbird feeder. Not thirty, like my mom has. Just one will do. I mix up the sugar water when I get back, fill it to the line, then take it outside. I hang it from a lower branch on an unhealthy tree in the courtyard.
It’s a shock of red in a colorless place. I wish I could paint the chairs some bright color. That might make Sealy smile.
She’s inside now, and I grin at the thought that she’ll see the feeder the next time she comes out to sit. I hope the hummingbirds give her a show. The thought lifts the heaviness that weighs on me like an oversized wool cloak.
I sleep better tonight than I have since this whole thing began.
There’s one thing you need to know. Brent Pace loved Casey Cox.”
The declaration comes from Brent’s best friend Kip, a coworker and fellow reporter at the Shreveport Times, who hung out a lot with Brent when they weren’t working. I know this from asking around and from studying Brent’s Facebook page.
“Loved her?” I ask. “Did they ever date?”
“No,” Kip says. “Casey didn’t feel the same. I mean, she always told him she loved him, but she told all of us that. She made it clear that she thought of him as a friend.”
“Brent was okay with that?”
“I think he felt like Casey was wounded. That if he helped her heal, she could finally move on and see him as more.”
I know what he means by “wounded,” but I want to hear his take on it. “Wounded in what way?”
“Her dad’s death,” he says. “It haunted her. Don’t get me wrong. She wasn’t morose. She didn’t mope around about it. She’s always friendly and upbeat, and she doesn’t talk about it. But he told me she let her guard down with him once and opened up about it. He couldn’t stop thinking about it.”
“I have a theory about Casey,” I say. “I’m thinking she might have PTSD. It would stand to reason after finding her dad the way she did. Did she ever have extreme reactions to things? Did she talk of nightmares? Were there things she did that didn’t make sense?”
He considers that. “I know she didn’t sleep much. A friend, Molly, lived with her for a few weeks and said she would hear her talking in her sleep, crying out after a dream. She didn’t date much. She seemed to keep men at a distance, like she had some hang-up about being that vulnerable. Lots of guys were interested, but they never got anywhere. Brent just hung in there. All of his work in the last few weeks was about her.”
“His work? What do you mean?”
“He was going back through the investigation of her dad’s death.”
I plant my elbows on the table, lean forward. “So how was he doing that?”
“He kind of dug into the story like it was an article he was working on. Brent always was great with research. He used his off-hours to dig.”
“What exactly was he digging for?”
“I don’t know, just answers to what really happened. He said Casey thought her dad was murdered, and he was trying to prove it. He was interviewing people, trying to find out what happened in the days before her dad’s death, I guess to give her some kind of closure. One time he told me that Casey already suspected who the killer was, but that there was nothing she could do about it.”
“He told you that? Did he say who?”
“No, he acted like he realized he had just let something slip. He didn’t go any further.”
I make a note of that. “Did he ever send any information to you, any copies of things he had recorded?”
“No,” he says. “We didn’t get that detailed. Like I said, he worked on it off the clock.”
Didn’t Keegan tell me the police had logged Brent’s laptop and desktop computers, as well as his phone? Maybe they haven’t had time to look through the files yet. I make a note to ask them if I can take a look.
“The thing is, Casey’s too smar
He makes a good point. “You got a theory?”
He shrugs. “I didn’t see the crime scene. I don’t know what evidence the police have, other than what we’ve reported. All I know is what I know of Casey, and she is not a killer.”
I sip my coffee for a moment, looking down at the table. “You know, sometimes people have mental issues you can’t see. Sometimes they snap and do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do. If somebody is upset or traumatized, sometimes an event triggers something . . . takes them back to another time when life was out of control, and they act out in unpredictable ways. That’s how PTSD works.”
Kip rubs his chin. “I guess. But if you knew Casey . . .”
Everyone keeps saying that, so I make up my mind to get to know her better. Back home, I look for more photos and videos, this time on her sister’s Facebook page. I can’t imagine why she hasn’t made her page private after all the media attention, but I’m able to see everything posted there. There’s a video taken at Hannah’s birthday party. Casey has her baby niece on her lap and is making her giggle as Hannah videotapes. Casey is clearly enraptured with the child. Her eyes are bubbly, happy, though now and again when the camera catches her I see shadows behind her gaze.
I search for Casey videos on the social media of every friend of Casey’s I can find, cross-referencing all of their friends. I strike out on several that don’t have Casey in them, but then I find one that tags her, and I quickly click on it. Up comes a party, and I find Casey sitting on the edge of a picnic table, being interviewed about a friend’s wedding.
“When Barbie met you, Jake,” she says to the camera, “I worried that you weren’t good enough for her, but then I got to know you, and I saw how you protect her and how sweet you are and how you put her needs first, and before long, I thought, ‘This is the perfect relationship.’ You two are so compatible. They say opposites attract, but I think similars attract.”
“Similars,” Brent says, stepping up behind her. “That’s not a word.”
“It’s a word now,” Casey says. “I just used it. Didn’t you hear me?”
Brent laughs, and Casey goes on. “Seriously, you guys are so much alike, I bet you’d test exactly the same on all those compatibility tests. You’re perfect for each other, and I mean that in a good way. I know if I look you up in thirty years, you’re still going to be together. I look forward to all those anniversary parties.” Her voice cuts off as she dabs at tears in her eyes.
Brent nudges Casey. “You act like you’re never gonna see them again. Like the minute they say ‘I do’ they’ll go poof and vanish. After the wedding, we’re all still gonna hang out, you know.”
Casey smiles. “Maybe. Things change, but that’s okay. They need to focus on each other. Now they’re building a family.” She looks back into the camera. “Guys, it’s gonna be awesome. I hope someday I can find somebody like Jake.”
In the background, Brent points to himself and shrugs, as though telling the camera, and anyone who would watch it later, that he’s available. I’m sure Casey saw it later. I wonder if she realized before then that he was a contender.
That was Brent, I think. He would hang out with a girl for months before making his move, almost like he was certain he’d lose her as a friend if he tagged her as a girlfriend.
I let the video play through several other interviews and I see that this is something that probably played at the engaged couple’s reception, the rehearsal dinner, something the couple could take home and cherish forever. But Casey’s declaration is the best of all. It’s heartfelt and sweet and doesn’t hold a morsel of malice or sarcasm.
I skim through other videos, see her being adventurous, swinging from a vine and dropping into a ravine full of water, screaming all the way. Many of them show the younger Casey, when she was in her teens. She wasn’t afraid of risk.
She’s in the background of several of her friends’ videos at other events and outings. She always seems happy and smiling, engaging, talking less than others, listening most.
Before I know it, three hours have passed, and I realize that I like what I’ve learned of Casey today. I agree it isn’t normal for her to have snapped and killed somebody. She doesn’t seem like a ticking bomb.
In fact, I wish I had a friend like her, or at least the way she appears to be. I could use that right now. I hate the thought of putting someone like her in prison, but if she killed my childhood friend, then that’s where she needs to be.
It keeps coming back to her father’s death. There have to be clues hiding there. Since Brent was working on that when he died, maybe following the same trail he followed will lead me to her.
Monday morning I show up at the police department unannounced and go to the third floor where Keegan sits in his cubicle. He’s wearing headphones, watching his laptop screen. It’s a homemade video of a woman being interviewed. He doesn’t notice me as I walk toward him. “Detective,” I say.
He swings around, jerking the headphone cord out of the laptop. The audio switches to the computer’s speakers, and I hear Brent’s voice asking the woman a question. I don’t hear his whole question, but I hear the name Andy Cox. Keegan quickly closes his laptop. “Dylan, my man! I didn’t know you were coming by today,” he says, overbright, springing up and extending a hand as though he’s happy to see me. “Tell me you’ve found our girl.”
“Not yet,” I say. “But maybe you can help with that.”
He sits back down. “Shoot.”
“I was talking to one of Brent’s friends from work and I found out that Brent was working on a case.”
“What do you mean, a case? He wasn’t a cop.”
“But he was a journalist. He was trying to uncover some of the mystery involving Casey Cox’s father’s death.”
Suddenly Keegan sits straighter, and I can see I’ve hit a nerve. “You’re overstepping again, Dylan,” he says in a low voice, glancing around as if making sure no one heard. This guy’s ego is massive. “You have been hired for a specific purpose, and that’s to find Casey Cox.”
“But I don’t know where she is right now,” I say, keeping my voice as low as his. “The Paces insist that I stay on the case, so I’m doing what I can to get inside her head.”
The tips of his ears redden, then a pink color fades across his shaved head. His chin is rigid as he leans toward me, biting out words. “Why. Are. You. Talking. To. Brent’s. Friends?”
I’m not intimidated, despite his best effort. What is it with this guy? “Because they were her friends too, Detective. I’m not a bird dog sent to retrieve the prey. You haven’t found her, so I’m trying to.”
Keegan fixes me with a long, piercing stare that has accusations behind it. I’m just not sure what I’m being accused of.
“Anyway,” I say, unflapped, “what is the problem with my seeing Andy Cox’s file?”
“The problem is that I don’t need some rookie PI digging up video of Casey Cox looking all sympathetic and pitiful. I don’t want a jury deciding that it’s no wonder this kid turned into a simmering pot that blew thirteen years later.”
“You don’t think a good defense attorney would dig that up anyway?”
“Look, Dylan, I’m knee-deep in evidence that has to be turned over to the DA so he can prosecute when we find her. I don’t have time to dig up a thirteen-year-old suicide case. Of course his crazy widow doesn’t want to believe he checked out on her. Families always go into denial.”
“True, but since Brent was working on that, don’t you think it’s relevant?”
Keegan stares at me for a longer moment, then shakes his head. “I’ve given you an answer, Dylan. You’re not on the force. You ha
That strikes me as odd. Doesn’t he want her found? “I’ll find her,” I say. “And you don’t have to dig it up for me. I can go to Chief Gates. He’s friends with the Paces, and he wants her found. He can get the Cox file and the files from Brent’s computers pulled.”
Keegan has begun to sweat, beads over his lip. “Don’t bother him. He’s strung too tight. I don’t want him on my case.” He pulls out a handkerchief and wipes his forehead. “All right, let me see what I can do,” he says finally. “Maybe I can give you some of it even if I don’t give you all of it. But I’m telling you now it won’t help you. She was twelve years old. It was a long time ago. If you’re trying to excuse what she did with Brent—”
“Not at all,” I cut in. “I’m just trying to explain it. Why a girl who, by all accounts, was a loyal friend suddenly snaps and brutally murders someone. If I’m going to find her, I just need to understand.”
“But she did it,” Keegan says. “There’s evidence all over the place. I logged it myself. We don’t need to hand the Defense their case.”
“But why did she do it?” I ask. “That’s what I need to know.”
“No, that’s not really what you need to know,” he says. “What you need to know is where she is. I would’ve found her by now if I had the time and money. You’re supposed to be a pro. Do your job. Bring her back here so we can lock her up once and for all.”
His dismissive attitude irks me. Then I mentally shake myself. He’s just an overworked cop trying to get justice for my dead friend.
I take the stairs down to the first floor, and as I head for the exit I notice an old woman going into the evidence room. She looks familiar, and it hits me that she’s the woman who was being interviewed in the video Keegan was watching. I pause at the door, wondering if I should go in and talk to her, but then I hear footsteps on the stairs above me. I glance up and see Keegan coming down.