As he walked over the lawn towards the girl, a driver of BMW, who was irritated at the location of Leighton’s car, honked his horn, and began shouting abuse at him. Without turning around, Leighton withdrew his badge, and held it backwards. The BMW driver fell silent, and drove off, revving his engine as he went.
‘Can I help you, Miss?’ Leighton asked from a comfortable distance.
‘What?’ She blinked, and wiped her eyes in embarrassment.
‘My name is Leighton Jones, I’m a detective.’ He turned the badge around so she could see it, and moved a tentative step closer to her. ‘I overheard you speaking to my colleague at reception.’
‘For all the good that did.’ the girl sniffed, and rubbed at one eye, smudging her eyeliner into a bruise.
‘What was the problem?’ Leighton persisted.
‘The stupid woman at the desk didn’t believe me.’
‘Do you mind if I sit down, Miss?’
He took a seat next to the girl, but was careful to maintain a non-threatening distance from her. He could see by her folded arms she was already reluctant to trust him.
‘Were you reporting a crime, back there at the desk?’
‘Trying to.’ The girl wiped again at her smudged eye make-up, and looked wearily at the detective’s face.
‘I don’t know,’ the girl shrugged, ‘I was supposed to meet my friend yesterday, and she didn’t show up.’ She leaned forward a bit, and held her face in her hands. ‘Have you ever had a feeling something just wasn’t right?
‘Many times – comes with the job. So, this friend didn’t show up.’
‘I know how it sounds,’ she sighed, looking at the ground. ‘I’m not a total idiot, but something’s not right.’
‘Look, Miss, it is Miss, isn’t it?’
‘Well, Miss, people go missing all the time. Most of them just have a change of plan, and forget to tell anyone. On occasion, they forget by accident; mostly, it’s a choice. Some are runaways, some are lost, but they almost always show up again.'
‘This is different.’
‘Okay,’ Leighton spoke slowly. ‘Tell me what happened.’ He mentally produced a notepad. It was a visual technique her had used for years. All too often, witnesses would clam up when an investigating officer started writing down details. So, he created a strategy to get around this. Instead of a physical pad, he would imagine a black leather notepad, and open it to a clean white page and record the details as he spoke to the witness. Then, in the privacy of his car, he would commit the information to paper.
‘I arranged to meet my friend off the bus yesterday afternoon.’
‘Yesterday?’ Leighton relaxed. In his head, he closed over his notepad. There was nothing to worry about in this type of case.
‘Who is your friend?’ he asked.
‘Laurie…Laurie Taylor. She is college friend, from Barstow – well, from near to Barstow.’
Leighton suppressed a flicker of emotion. Most of the older officers associated the town of Barstow with one of their colleagues, who had raped and murdered a young woman there back in the 1980s. He had been sentenced to ninety years, but died in jail. The association was just a trace memory—nothing more.
‘And where were you meant to meet this friend?’
At the bus station, but she didn’t show up,’ the woman breathed in shakily, trying to contain her tears. ‘And I know that’s nothing major, but it’s the other stuff that’s wrong.’
‘What other stuff?’ Leighton produced a neat handkerchief and gave to the girl.
‘She told me she had booked a ticket on some new bus company. She was pleased because it was a cheap ticket.’
‘How do you know this?’
‘She sent a text message to my cell phone.’
‘Could she have changed her mind?’
‘Maybe, I guess.’ The woman’s voice took on a doubtful tone.
‘Well, have you tried calling her?’
‘I did at the bus station. Her phone rang a couple of times, then cut out.’
‘Okay. What’s your name?’
‘Well, if I’m honest, Vicki, it all sounds pretty normal to me. You might find that in a couple of days she gets in touch.’
‘I went home to look at the bus company’s web site, but it doesn’t exist.’
‘Maybe your friend made it up. Perhaps she was a bit strapped for cash, and invented the company.’
‘But, I saw the bus come into the terminal. The doors opened, but she never got off.’
‘Could you have been mistaken? I mean, there are hundreds of buses coming through there every hour, and I know from experience a worried mind can get confused.’
‘You think I’m being stupid, don’t you?’
‘No.’ Leighton smiled. ‘Just being a good friend.’
‘It’s okay. I’m starting to doubt myself, too.’
‘Miss, I’m going to give you a card, with my number on it.’ Leighton reached into his jacket pocket, and handed the girl a plain white card, with neat printed text on both sides.
‘That’s my office number at the top, and cell phone on the back. If your friend gets in touch in a couple of days’ time – as she most probably will – well, then you can just go ahead and toss that card in the trash, but if you still don’t hear anything, give me a call.’
‘Thank you for this,’ Vicki said, as she clasped her hands between her knees. ‘I know I could be wrong.’
‘Well,’ Leighton said, as he stood up, and brushed at nothing on his trouser legs, ‘if you’re not, we can get this passed on to the Missing and Unidentified Persons Unit, and they can get the ball rolling. Okay?’
‘Yeah, thanks, I am,’
‘Okay, good day to you, Miss,’ Leighton said, with a genuine smile, and turned and walked away.
As he got back into his Ford, Leighton felt a sense of purpose he had not known for many years. It seemed somehow timely one of his final duties as a working police officer would be to help reassure a worried member of the public. He smiled sympathetically at the petty worries of youth, and recalled a quotation from Mark Twain about how most of the troubles he had known in his life had never happened.
Pulling back out on to the boulevard, the Detective imagined over the next few days the young woman would finally be reunited with her friend, and perhaps the two of them would laugh over a couple of clinking Mojitos. Maybe the young woman would even speak fondly of the friendly old police officer, who had rightly assured her everything would turn out fine. If that turned out to be the case, then maybe Leighton could finally be the type of person he had always failed to be.
Driving home on that warm afternoon, the Leighton pushed a cassette into tape player on the dashboard – it had cost him two hundred dollars to have the CD system removed. The sound of sweet sound of Son House playing “Delta Blues” filled the car. Leighton began to drum his hands rhythmically on the wheel. As he sunk into the sanctuary of the music, he was blissfully unaware his cosy vision of the future could not be further from the truth.
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