Ned Bryson and the Missing Girl

I stopped at Harry’s Diner for coffee after a late-night surveillance mission in a very rich neighborhood. My client was a landlord who owned a top-ticket apartment complex—mostly townhouses. He wanted to know what was going on there. One of his townhouses was exceptionally busy after dark. I kept an eye on the place and got close to some of the visitors and concluded that it was a methamphetamine outlet. Nothing like meth—amazing what it does to people’s faces. My report would fetch a decent reward.

Please understand—I’m not an anti-drug zealot. I wouldn’t touch an illegal drug, but the drug laws are more dangerous than the drugs. They’re making criminals rich, adding an army to the prison population, and allowing doctors to create a separate army of drug-dependent souls. But these amateur meth labs were a special problem. They engaged in cookbook chemistry and, too often, burned or blew up—not the kind of thing tenants and landlords wanted to have happen.

Anyway, I was about to discuss my stop at Harry’s Diner. It was a clean, pleasant little place where a poor, but honest, private eye like me could get coffee or even breakfast anytime, day or night. I had pulled into Harry’s parking lot and was walking to the door, when I noticed one of the waitresses standing outside. She was talking to a man—not unusual in itself. But the woman was pure white, and the man was Hispanic, one of those so determined to be non-white that he wore long curlicues, loose imitations of dreadlocks. I recognized the man—Jorge Diaz. He had already done time for robbery and assault with a deadly weapon and was likely dealing some drug or other. The waitress was a pleasant girl, and I thought of her as decent. But what was she doing with this bit of fallout from immigration madness?

Well—I kept that meeting in mind as I entered the diner and sat down at the counter. It was three in the morning, the middle of the week, and just two other customers sat at the counter. About a minute after I sat down, the waitress who had been talking to Jorge came inside and appeared behind the counter.

“May I help you?” she said with a smile, ready with her book and pen. She had a pleasant face, short blond hair, and was maybe a bit chubby.

“I’ll have coffee,” I said—and then decided to stay longer. “And the number-five breakfast, the eggs over easy.”

“You get juice with that.”

“I’ll have orange juice.”

“Be right up.”

I glanced through the big window, but didn’t see Jorge. He had gone off into the darkness, one of the crawlers who make life dangerous for good people and tough for the cops. I was trying to think of a way to engage the waitress in conversation. But when she brought the juice and coffee, she was anxious to talk. Her name was Melissa Patterson, and she was a student at the community college and working nights to support herself and her young daughter.

“You working late?” she asked at one point.

“Yes—but it’s not my usual schedule.”

“Aren’t you Ned Bryson?”

“Yes—how did you know?”

“Oh—I heard about you.”

I’m always flattered when somebody has actually heard about me. I decided to press my advantage, as they say.

“Melissa—you’d better watch who you hang out with.”

She didn’t accept the admonition gladly. “It’s still a free country. I can hang out with anyone I choose—regardless of race, creed or color.”

“Jorge would be a crumb if he was red, white, and blue.”

“And you’re the white knight?”

“I like to think I’m one of the good guys.”

She looked at me sadly. “I was looking for something—you know, to keep me awake.”

“See a doctor—or get more sleep.”

“Doctors are expensive, and I’ve got school work to do and a daughter to raise.”

“If Jorge gets you on dope—well, he may try to pimp you off.”

“You reckon?”

“Yes—I reckon. It’s part of the culture he likes to imitate.”

I sure did reckon—and it bothered me, and come to think of it, a lot more was bothering me. For instance, it bothered me that the worst people in town kept winning over the best. Where was the outrage?—all the law abiding people were afraid to stand up and say crumbs like Jorge and his heroes, the Rayshawns and Tyquans, should be in jail, not out on the street. Of course, none of the white people wanted the racist label. And many even hated to appear “judgmental.” And no one in the neighborhoods would say to Jorge and his heroes, “Knock it off.” Well—what could a non-affluent private detective do?  Maybe I shouldn’t complain—to some extent, I made my living through the existence of bad guys.

Anyway, I ate breakfast, drank the coffee, and said good night to Melissa. I drove home to my bungalow on Wilson Lane. The house was a family heirloom, built just after World War II by productive people in a productive town. That was the old town, dominated by business and industry, not by sniffish intellectuals, idiot leftists, and clueless academics. The old town’s architecture was disappearing, house by house, building by building, to make way for a highway, or some architectural nightmare.

And in this cultural ragout, Melissa Patterson went missing. I discovered this some nights later. I had been checking out a local social club, looking for a man with a wife not his own. When I arrived at Harry’s Diner, I found Harry himself working the counter.

“Where’s Melissa?” I asked.

Harry shook his partly bald, fifty-year-old head. “I don’t know. She never showed up for her shift. When I called her, I got no answer.”

“When was she due here?”

“At midnight.”

“Who was here?”

“Angela Lopez—nice girl. She called me when Melissa didn’t show.”

“Did you alert the police?”

“No—not yet.”

The next evening, Melissa was still missing. By that time, her parents had notified the police. I stopped by Harry’s early enough to speak with Angela Lopez. At the time, I had other clients and was trying to earn a living. But I was suddenly concerned about Melissa. Too often, the missing turned up dead.

Angela Lopez was a Mexican girl with looks similar to Salma Hayek’s. In other words, she was very pretty. She and Melissa had worked the same shift on weekends and become friends. I learned from her that Melissa lived in a mobile home park near the county line. Her mother lived nearby and helped care for Melissa’s five-year old daughter.

“I don’t know what to think,” Angela said at one point. “Melissa would show up for her shift and this guy—I think he was a gangster or something. He was always hanging around—waiting for her.”

I described Jorge Diaz.

“Yeah—that’s the guy. I don’t think she liked him. She got upset when he was here.”

“Did he ever come inside?”

“Not while I was here. Sometimes, when we were busy, I would stay late. But I never saw him in the diner.”

The police were now fully involved in the case. But after several days, they still hadn’t found a trace of Melissa. I decided to pay a visit to my one friend in high places—Maynard Cheek, Chief of Detectives, Brightown Police Department. We had become friends several years ago, when I helped rescue a young cop surrounded by gangsters.

Arriving at Police Headquarters, I checked with the desk sergeant and found Maynard in his office. He was a huge Anglo-Saxon presence, six-six and broad across the shoulders, with a bumper crop of gray hair. He was raised on a farm, when tobacco was king, when Brightown had tobacco auctions, warehouses, and an annual influx of farmers at marketing time. He still spoke wistfully of those days. Farming was a joy, police work a necessary evil.

“Maynard, may I come in?” I said as I stood in the office doorway.

“You know you can, Ned,” he drawled. “What’s on your mind?”

“I’m interested in the Melissa Patterson case.”

“Nothing new to report.”

“I saw her with Jorge Diaz. He was showing up at Harry’s Diner.”

“Why would she be hanging around with that sorry person?”

“Their association may have involved drugs.”

“There’s plenty of home-grown dealers.”

“I can think of another reason for their association—and it’s troubling.”

“She could get in a lot of trouble. I’ll send somebody to question Diaz. He’s a known felon—we might catch him with a gun, or maybe drugs.”

Jorge Diaz was, of course, well known to the police. Maynard’s detectives found him on the east side of town, in a neighborhood where little wooden houses with peeling paint and rickety walls lined streets with infamous names. Brightown’s drug dealers often lived well behind sad little doors in poor neighborhoods. Behind such a door, Jorge had stashed an AR-15, a shotgun, and a dozen bags of heroin. He was carrying a Glock 17, which, in itself, qualified him for arrest.

But Melissa Patterson was still missing. Her parents were without their daughter, and her daughter was without a mother. Jorge couldn’t or wouldn’t give information about her, though he did admit to speaking with her more than once. I worried about Melissa, especially when a body turned up somewhere in town. And one day, while on yet another surveillance job, it occurred to me that I hadn’t addressed an important question—who were Jorge’s friends, his co-conspirators? Heroin doesn’t just materialize—it flows into town like a river with many tributaries. Who were his associates in the drug trade? Could one or more of them be responsible for Melissa’s disappearance?

I knew that people in Jorge’s neighborhood did a lot of bitching and marching. They were always “taking back the night,” or holding “prayer vigils” for murdered dead, or marching to protest “police brutality.” But they never complained about the rich white drug dealers, who supplied Jorge and his heroes, who in turn, supplied the minority kids with dope. And one white family dominated the upper echelons of the local drug market. What did I know about them? Hmm—well, there was one odd episode. As it happened, some members of the family had formed a satanic cult, an association of devil worshippers, preoccupied with “carnality.” All of this was too much for their neighbors on Oakleaf Lane, mostly good families with proper breadwinners. When I drove by that devil house, I found it empty and with a For Sale sign out front. The cultists’ landlord had convinced them to move—though they did claim First Amendment rights.

I had got the scent, so to speak, and now, I had to find the lair. This family that ruled many of the local stash houses had a history of violent behavior toward women. But who among them had lived in that vacant house? Well, the agency selling the property was likely the same one that handled it as a rental. When I visited their office, I found this to be true, and when I identified myself, they gave me the name of the former lessee—a woman named Jill Upchurch. But her forwarding address was a post-office box. What to do?—stake out the post office? No, I decided to check with one of my favorite sources, Officer May Belle Briggs, maybe the prettiest cop in the history of law enforcement.

“Hello—May Belle? I said, when she answered the phone.

“That you, Ned?” she said. “I’m sorry, but I’ve got plans for this weekend.”

“That’s not why I called. I’m trying to locate Jill Upchurch. I think she was

involved with that satanic cult on Oakleaf Lane.”

“Yeah—I was patrolling that area at the time. I’m not sure where that crowd is now. Let me get back to you.”

A day later, May Belle called me back “Hey, Ned—about this Jill Upchurch. She and her crowd are meeting at 4721 East Main Street.”

“I didn’t know there was such an address.”

“It’s way out.”

“Have a nice time this weekend.”

“Maybe I will, maybe I won’t—don’t stop calling.”

“I won’t.”

And so, early one morning, I got into my old Sunbird, drove to Main Street, and kept on driving. It was the main thoroughfare of downtown Brightown, lined with shops, and then with the old town’s wooden mansions, now dilapidated. Then I passed a housing project, vouchsafed by the taxpayers, and then those little wooden houses. At last, the asphalt road became a dirt road. I found myself in a part of town overlooked by time and the developers, once an area of small tobacco farms, now just woods, fields and scrub. I hadn’t traveled this bit of road in many years, and I was enjoying the adventure.

I drove until the road narrowed. I decided to park the Sunbird and continue on foot, following the dirt road as it led among the pine and oak and maple. It was late winter, the hardwoods were still bare, and the grassy areas still brown. I reached a small clearing and noticed a shack sitting there. Its wooden walls were dark with age, and its metal roof bulged here and sagged there. I went to what I guessed was the front door, knocked, and then waited. It opened slowly, and a skinny old man appeared. He was seldom washed and had gray hair extending to his shoulders and a beard of similar length. He looked at me calmly, his blue eyes clear and alert.

“Hello,” I ventured.

“What can I do for you?” he replied in a steady voice.

“I’m looking for 4721 East Main Street.”

“Oh—that’s down yonder,” he said, pointing farther along the road.

I showed him a picture of Melissa Patterson. “Have you seen this woman?”

He examined it for some moments. “I don’t recollect seeing her. But there’s folks that drive by here at night.”

“Where do they go?”

“That house down yonder, I reckon. It’s the last one—the road don’t go much farther.”

I thanked the old man and continued my journey. A half-mile farther, I discovered a small, well-maintained house in a broad, grassy field. The shingles and siding of the house were clean, and the grass in the front yard was mowed short. There was a driveway and, behind the house, a smaller building with windows—perhaps a bunkhouse. The front door of the main house bore the address—4721. Was this the haunt of the Satanist trolls?

Well—I simply walked to the front door and knocked. This time, the person who appeared at the door wasn’t an old man—but an attractive woman, long and willowy, with dark hair that fell to her waist. Her eyebrows and lashes were overdone and emphasized her frown as she looked me over.

“Jill Upchurch, I presume,” I said.

“That’s right,” she replied.

Then she did something odd with her hands, made a sign of some kind, arranging the fingers of one hand on the palm of the other. I was puzzled.

“Huh—you don’t know the sign?” she said.

“What sign?”

“I’d rather not say.”

“I’m looking for a young woman named Melissa Patterson.”

“Never heard of her,” she said, perhaps too quickly.

I stared at her for a moment—at her fine face, painted to look mysterious, and at her even finer physique. Then I showed her the picture of Melissa, one that I clipped from the morning paper. “Does that face look familiar?”

“No—not at all.”

Again, a little too quickly—and her eyes darted here and there.

“Do you know Jorge Diaz,” I said—just as quickly.

“No—never heard of him,” she replied, looking away.

“All right—thanks for your time.” I said finally.

She closed the door without another word, and I stepped off the porch. But as I walked away, I looked at that small building behind the house. The glare on the windows made it difficult to see anything inside. But I thought I saw movement behind the glass. Was that a hand waving?—maybe to me? I gazed at that outbuilding for some time, moving toward it, a few steps at a time. I took note of the brown grass and dry leaves that surrounded it. As I got close to the building, I heard a bullet crack the air near me. It passed close enough for me to feel the warm breeze. Judging by the thump that followed the crack, the bullet came from some concealed place in the back yard. I decided to leave the property—for now. There was no advantage in my getting shot. I hiked nimbly back to my humble Sunbird. It started on the first try, and I patted the dashboard. But I drove away with a growing anger. I didn’t like being shot at—not at all. It made me want to respond in person.

What I ended up doing may appear a little extreme. I returned to the 4721 area in the dark of night, carrying two weapons with me—my Charter Arms Bulldog and a box of strike-anywhere matches. I wore dark clothes—new jeans, a black sweatshirt, and black Reeboks. I parked well down the road and walked past the old man’s shack and toward that strange house. I noticed two cars in the driveway that I hadn’t seen earlier. On tiptoe, like a good soldier on patrol, I crept behind the house and its outbuilding. I stood for a moment, looking at both buildings, noticing the lights, the movement inside.

Then I did what I came to do. Judging the breeze, I chose a few likely spots and, using my strike-anywhere matches, set fire to the brown grass and dry leaves. The fire developed quickly, helped along by a few scrub pine trees. The orange flames inched toward the outbuilding, which turned out to be the place where the Satanists indulged their carnality.

Jill Upchurch ran from said building in her skivvies—an impressive sight, I must say—along with some tall stud I hadn’t seen before. So did a second couple in a similar state of undress, and they all fled to the main house. But where was Melissa?—was I wrong in my surmise? Debating the question, I hadn’t noticed the fire creeping up and around me, until I felt the intense heat. I was about to be baked on my own petard. But then, who should arrive, but that old man who lived down the road. He carried a long piece of burlap soaked in water and began beating the fire, forming a path for my escape. Once out of danger, I patted the old man on the back and headed for the outbuilding, now getting scorched across it rear.

I heard a scream and headed for the door to that pleasure shack and kicked it in without trying the knob. And inside, all alone, tied hand and foot and leashed to a bedpost, was Melissa Patterson—and she, too, was in a state of undress.

“Glad to see you,” she said, gulping the air now heavy with smoke. “Get me out of here.”

I tugged at the leash, the bindings, trying to snap them. But then, that same old man appeared with a pocket knife the size of Prince Valiant’s sword. He cut the ropes, and I pulled a blanket from one of the bunks and wrapped Melissa in it. Then I took her hand, and all three of us got the hell out of there. As we made our way down the road, some faceless male emerged from the house with an automatic rifle and fired a shot in our direction. I drew my Bulldog, jumped into shooting position, and fired a couple of forty-four slugs at him. He hustled back inside. When I turned around, only Melissa was there—the old man had gone back to his shack.

“How did you get in that fix?” I asked as we hurried toward the Sunbird.

“Jorge brought me here—after our date. Then he got busted.”

“Did you wave to me earlier?”

“Yes.”

“Why did they tie you up?”

“I don’t know—I think they were insecure.”

Now I ask you—is that an answer for the ages? No wonder the West is heading south. Anyway, I used my cell phone to call emergency and report the fire and the  discovery of Melissa Patterson, alive and mostly well. She had tried a little heroin, was commandeered as a possible object of “carnality,” but refused to go along. Hence, the Satanists were holding her prisoner—pending her conversion to whoredom. Despite some rope burns and a slight case of malnutrition, she was ready to go back to school, back to Harry’s Diner, and back to her family.

Maynard Cheek was bent out of shape when he learned I started that fire. It had turned into a major brush fire and tied up half the town’s fire trucks for much of the night and part of the next day. But he did appreciate my motives, and he could now charge Jorge and his satanic associates with kidnapping and illegal imprisonment.

And that brings me to that old man who got me out of the fire and freed Melissa from her bindings. As it happened, he was a veteran of two wars. He had been waiting for the VA hospital to treat him for a liver condition—waiting for weeks. He’s all right now—though I had to pound on a few desks and contact the American Legion. His shack had a well, but no indoor plumbing, and he was living on a pension that would starve a small dog. I made sure he got some reward for the above arrests. And through friends, I was able to get him better quarters. Guess where?—that’s right, at the recently vacated

4721 East Main Street. Life does have its interesting turns.

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