If I Run, page 17
As I consider reporting Keegan and Rollins with the evidence Brent collected, I realize that if I do, I’ll be painted as paranoid and incompetent, the damaged vet who jumps at every noise. Sara Meadows’ testimony is largely speculative, not enough to conclusively nail Keegan, and the DA would give him the benefit of the doubt since cops are usually the good guys. I can’t do it. Not yet.
I have to be systematic. I start with what Brent gathered and dig deeper. I have to link the men to the other murders, find the money they’ve extorted, record the things they’ve bought with that money. I have to consider the possibility that Sara Meadows might have had dementia. But no, that doesn’t make sense. Why would she have wound up dead if her accusations were delusional?
My brain likes patterns, things lined up nice and orderly. Something about this case hasn’t added up from day one. Casey doesn’t fit the pattern of a murderer. Nothing about her suggests she could kill. But now that I’ve seen Brent’s files, the Keegan theory clicks into place. That’s a pattern that makes more sense than an otherwise decent girl suddenly cracking up.
But can I even trust myself? Doubts crest like vultures in my mind, circling my theories, swooping to feed on them. They make me second-guess my competence, my objectivity, my skills. What if I’m just being conned?
I’m not, I tell myself. I’m following the evidence. I’m doing what I was trained to do. But my self-talk doesn’t help. I need to talk to my shrink.
On the way to Georgia, I call Dr. Coggins.
She answers, and the sound of her voice reminds me it’s the middle of the night. “I’m so sorry to wake you,” I say. “I didn’t realize how late it is.”
I hear her bed rustling, her husband’s voice, then she comes across more clearly. “What is it, Dylan?”
I suddenly can’t think of what I wanted to say. I can’t tell her all that’s happened. “I should’ve waited till morning.”
“You’ve gotten me up now,” she says. “Dylan, tell me what’s going on.”
I feel like a fool. “You know how I told you I’m doing some PI work?”
“Well, I’m at a crossroad. I just got some information that flips everything around. I feel like the bad guy is really the good guy, and the supposedly good guy is really bad. Only I still have a job to do . . . to find this person who may be vicious, but is probably good.”
I know I’m not making sense. I sound like I’m drunk or high.
“Dylan,” she says. “Sometimes feelings aren’t the best things to go on, especially when you’re dealing with PTSD. When you had that nightmare and cut up your hands, you felt like you were back there, living through it again. But you were wrong.”
I consider that. “But this isn’t the PTSD. This is real.”
“Dylan, you don’t want to lose this opportunity. My advice is to finish the job you were hired to do. Stay the course. Don’t be swayed by feelings. Just practice what you know.”
I know police work, and I know I’m close to finding Casey. If I can just apprehend her, then maybe I can keep her safe while I sort out the truth from the lies. “You’re right,” I say.
She’s quiet for a moment, then says, “You sure you don’t want me to write you a prescription for something to help you sleep?”
I figure she probably wants me sleeping so I won’t call her in the middle of the night. “No thanks, Doc. Maybe later . . .”
I resign myself to staying on track and finding Casey.
I’ve e-mailed Casey’s picture and the charges against her to every police and sheriff ’s department in Georgia, asking them to contact me if they’ve seen her, but the truth is, they get dozens of these a week. In the smaller departments, they may not check their e-mail for days.
There are 536 municipalities in Georgia. It’s impossible to hit every one of them. As day breaks, I try to think like Casey, getting off at the towns along I-75 to visit libraries and post offices and stopping by police departments, just to make sure they saw my e-mail.
No one has seen her.
And my assumptions may be all wrong anyway. She may not be in Georgia at all. She could be in Florida or South Carolina . . . or almost anywhere.
What do I know for sure? I know that she got on Facebook from some server in Auburn, Alabama, at least twice, so wherever she is, she’s within driving distance of that town. She’s probably not in Alabama, because she has family there, and she would know we’d look there. East central Georgia is as good a place to start as any.
At Barnesville, I walk into the small police station populated by three people. The Barnesville sheriff ’s department hasn’t seen the e-mail, so I show them Casey’s picture and tell them that she’s going under the alias of Grace Newland. They do a quick search through recent arrest records. No one present has seen her, and they want to know what she’s done. I tell them she’s a murder suspect in Shreveport, that it’s very important that they call me if they get any clue as to where she might be. They ask me if she’s armed and dangerous.
I tell them I don’t know, that they should assume she is until they find out otherwise.
Driving away from Barnesville, I wonder if I’ve done the wrong thing. That statement alone could get her killed by some half-cocked deputy who wants to make a name for himself.
When the post office and librarians say they haven’t seen her, I shake the dust off my feet and go to the next town. I figure I’ll start with the towns along the interstate, and once I exhaust those, I’ll branch out, taking smaller roads. This could be a long process. I stop at each town along the way, leaving info about Casey.
Fatigue pulls at my body, and weird ideas work on my brain. It’s like she’s a phantom, like she doesn’t even exist. How could she always be a few steps ahead of me, unable to be tracked? This hasn’t happened to me before. I can usually find clues, disassemble carefully constructed plans, get into the head of the person I’m looking for. But Casey’s not the typical criminal.
I realize that she’s growing larger in my mind, taking on mythical powers and insight. She’s human, I remind myself. She can’t have thought of everything. I finally check into a motel and try to sleep, but fail again. After a while, I go into the business office where the computers are. Instead of using my own laptop, I get on theirs, open up the new e-mail account I’ve created, and check to see if she’s contacted me.
I’m shocked to see that she has. The e-mail handle she’s used is NotGoingDown. I quickly click on it, open the message.
“Here I am,” she wrote. “What do you want?”
My breath catches in my chest. I whisper a quick prayer—Please, Jesus!—and start to type.
“I read and viewed everything you sent me from Brent’s package,” I type. “I found Sara Meadows and I went to talk to her. She told me to come to her house that night, that she had some things to say, but when I got there, she was dead.”
I start a new paragraph as sweat prickles my skin.
“I have to consider that maybe what Brent found was true. That puts me in a hard position.”
I wipe my hands on my jeans and place them on the keyboard again. I can’t think what to say. I have to appeal to her, one human to another. This might be my only chance, so I open my heart and try to be honest.
“I think you and I have a lot in common. We both have PTSD. You can’t look into the eyes of a dead human being, someone you loved, and not have your soul changed. I believe in God, and it feels like he’s telling me to listen to you. But I need more hard evidence. I don’t blame you for hiding, but maybe it’s time to come back. Maybe it’s time to get the truth out. Maybe I can help you.”
I don’t know why my heart is racing like I’ve run five miles, or why my eyes are watering like I’m running into the wind. “Do you have nightmares?” I type.
“Do you startle easily? Do you have crazy reactions to things that shouldn’t cause such a response? Do you sometimes think you’re going
I lean back and wipe my damp face, check the door. No one lurks in the hall.
Hands back on the keyboard, I type, “Tell me what I need to know. Give me facts that can be verified. And if you can call me, I have a burner phone that no one has access to. The number is 318-555-2753. Memorize it so you can use it when the time is right.”
I don’t sign my name. I leave it blank, as if I don’t know who I am anymore. But she knows.
Before I hit Send, I press my face into my hands and say a silent prayer that God will sort this out, that he’ll get the e-mail to her, that she’ll see it quickly, that we can get a good correspondence going, and that the Holy Spirit will lead me into discernment and truth.
I wait a few minutes, hoping she’ll write back immediately, but I know better than that. She’s not going to check on her own phone or computer. She’ll drive across state lines, use a library computer. It could take days before I hear again.
I close out of that window, get the computer back to the login screen, and go back to my room. I try to sleep, but it continues to evade me.
I take shallow catnaps during the night, hoping it’s enough to keep me from being a zombie the next day. Before I leave, I check the computer downstairs again. She hasn’t responded, but she will. She wouldn’t have contacted me, risking exposure, if she didn’t have something to say. As I drive out of town, I find myself praying for her protection, her strength, and her courage to tell the truth. And I pray that I’ll find her before Keegan does.
I watch the Dotsons’ house again, waiting for Frank and Arelle to leave. For several nights they stay indoors, not showing their faces. Since I have to work I can only come at night, but I can’t stop myself. It’s like an obsession.
By Saturday, I’m exhausted, but I still can’t sleep. I can’t even eat. I chew food, knowing I need fuel, but somehow I’m too tired to swallow it. I force myself nonetheless.
I drive three hours down to Mobile to see if I got an e-mail from him. I get to a library that smells of mildew and dust. The computers are right out in the open, around the edges of a big round table. People sit there for hours on Facebook, wasting time. I have to wait for an opening, and after an hour, someone finally leaves. I get their place and sign in to my e-mail with my NotGoingDown alias. There’s an answer in my inbox.
I shiver as I read the message, and I look around to make sure no one is reading over my shoulder. I zoom out on the screen so the font is smaller.
“I think you and I have a lot in common. We both have PTSD. You can’t look into the eyes of a dead human being, someone you loved, and not have your soul changed. I believe in God, and it feels like he’s telling me to listen to you . . .
“Do you have nightmares? Do you startle easily? Do you have crazy reactions to things that shouldn’t cause such a response? Do you sometimes think you’re going crazy? I do. And if you found your dad murdered when you were twelve years old . . .”
His words make me sweat. It’s as if he’s peeked into my psyche and seen those videotapes that play so often in my head.
Murdered. He said murdered, not suicide. He believes Brent. He isn’t yet convinced of my innocence, but he is beginning to at least consider that Keegan is dirty.
Or is it an act? For all I know, this could be Keegan himself.
I press Reply, then type, “No, I don’t sleep much. Nightmares are painful bedfellows. And you’re right about my not trusting justice. I’m glad you believe in God. I hope that brings you comfort.”
I try to think of something I can tell him, some morsel of truth that, even if I’m talking to Keegan, will penetrate.
“There is real evil in this world,” I type. “I’ve seen it up close. Hiding for the rest of my life would be an acceptable cost for avoiding that evil. If only it weren’t everywhere.”
I pause for a moment, wishing I were more prepared.
“I’ve given you everything I have. Do you have the courage to go after the evil that plagues me, even if it means that the job you’ve been hired to do is an extension of that evil?”
Tears come to my eyes, but I blink them back.
“Here are the names. Keegan, Sy Rollins, for sure. Don’t trust their close friends or Keegan’s son. Keegan and Rollins are not just dirty, they are brutal. Evil sits in the Major Crimes Unit, making proclamations on people like me.”
That’s all I dare say. I send the e-mail and hurry back to my car. I feel like Dylan has read some journal that I haven’t even written. How does he know those things about me? Facts are one thing, but truth goes deeper. It cuts to the heart. He can’t possibly know what’s in my head.
Yet he nailed it.
I wonder about the nature of his PTSD. Was he diagnosed, or is he like me . . . struggling with the aftermath without giving that struggle a name? His words about looking into the eyes of the dead . . . they haunt me. He knows.
I feel exposed . . . violated, in a way. But also validated. In some ways, it’s good to be seen, even if he’s never laid eyes on me.
When I reach Shady Grove, I don’t want to go home. I know I’m too wired to sleep tonight, and I don’t want to stare at my ceiling and think.
I go to my latest hangout—the shadowy places on Frank Dotson’s street. Evil sits in that house too. At least maybe I can do something about that.
After two hours of no activity, I see the lights of their car coming on. They’re coming out. As they get into their car and pull out of their driveway, I use my binoculars to see if the woman is in the car with him. Yes, his wife is sitting there, her angular features a silhouette against the streetlight. Once again I follow them to the bar.
This is my chance.
I can go back to their house and walk around back, see if all those basement windows are boarded up.
I go to Home Depot just before it closes. I buy a crowbar, two screwdrivers, and a flashlight. I have a backpack in my trunk, which I get out when I return to my car. I shove my purchases into it and put it on my passenger seat.
I sit in my car for a moment, staring at the windshield. Am I really contemplating breaking and entering? No, I tell myself. Just breaking and rescuing. But even as I consider it, I know how crazy that will sound if I’m caught.
But I challenged Dylan to have the courage to go after evil. I have to be willing to do it myself. That’s the kind of person I want to be. There’s a life at stake—probably two—and if I can just get evidence that they’re in there, it could save them. I have to do it.
I head back to the Dotson house. My heart thumps as I park my car at the curb a few houses down between yards, so that neither resident will think I’m at their house. I walk in the darkness back to the Dotsons’.
I slip through the gate into the backyard and shine my flashlight. The two other basement windows are boarded up from the outside. Why would anyone do that, unless they didn’t want someone to get out? I go back to the window where I heard the baby. There’s a broken patio in front of it, and I almost trip over the cracked brick pavers. I get down on my knees and look for the screws in the board covering the window. It takes a while, but I get the first screw out, then I locate four others. I work slowly, steadily, sweat dripping into my eyes. The light in the backyard next door comes on, and I freeze for a moment and watch to see if anyone is looking over the fence. When it stays quiet, I keep working, but I get impatient by the time I get to the last two screws. My wrist is hurting, and I’m not moving fast enough. Frank and his wife could come home and then I’d lose this chance. So I use the crowbar and pry the board off the last two screws. It creaks and cracks, and I glance back at the neighbor’s light. I still don’t see anyone, so I keep going.
I bang hard on the glass, listening. There it is. The crying baby again, as if I’ve startled it. It’s not the TV. This is a real baby. I’m not going to leave here without knowing who’s in that basement.
I know that if I break the glass, one of the neighbors might hear, but I can’t seem to stop myself. I get the crowbar, tap the glass. It makes too much noise, but the glass cracks. I tap it again and it shatters. I pull away the shards, cutting my hand, but I keep going. When I get to the board on the other side, I bang again.
“Is anybody there? Can you hear me?”
Suddenly, there’s a tap, then a girl’s voice. It sounds distant, far away. “Help me!” she cries.
My heart jolts. “I’m trying!” I say. “Who are you?”
“Laura,” she says. “Laura Daly.”
The name shatters me. I force myself to get a grip. I sit back on the dirt and kick with both feet, trying to break through the board. When I can’t budge it, I look around. There’s a cellar door that I didn’t notice before, between the two windows. I try to throw it open, but it’s locked. If only I had bolt cutters.
I go back to the window with my crowbar and jam it against the casing. “Hold on,” I say as loudly as I dare. “I’m coming to get you. Just wait!”
The baby keeps screaming, but I can tell that they’re closer, waiting at the window for their escape. I whisper a prayer while I work. “I know you don’t know me, and I don’t know you. But you know Sandra and Miss Lucy, and they trust you.”
I kick again and again, trying to crack the boards loose, but it’s screwed too tight. I wedge the crowbar in, hoping to splinter the board. If I just have enough time, I know I can get through.
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