Read Death Falls Online

Authors: Todd Ritter

Death Falls (10 page)

“Then you must hate me a lot.”

“Don’t push it, Donnelly.”

They were in Perry Hollow by that point, gliding down the Main Street of the place Kat had called home her entire life. Nick hadn’t been back to his hometown in Ohio in ages. He suspected that if he ever did venture there again, he’d be haunted by his past. He wondered, not for the first time, how Kat dealt with the daily onslaught of memories.

“So,” he said, “would you like to tell me about you and Eric Olmstead?”

He thought the question would make her angry. It didn’t. She seemed to have become more mellow about the subject since seeing Eric again. Nick hoped that was a good sign.

“I thought you already had it figured it out,” she said.

“I do. Boyfriend. Girlfriend. Puppy love. Like something out of
Gidget
.”

“Yes, we dated,” Kat said. “He was a senior. I was a freshman.”

“For how long?”

Kat sighed. He was annoying her now. So much for being mellow. “Four months.”

“How did it end?”

“Badly.”

She turned left onto the cul-de-sac where Eric lived and Charlie had vanished. Just like that morning, it had an abandoned feeling about it. There were no signs of life in any of the houses except for the Olmstead residence, and there it was only Eric, sitting on the front porch. There was a cigarette in his hand and a beer bottle at his feet. He stood up and rushed toward them when he saw Kat’s car.

“I know why my mother thought Charlie was kidnapped,” he said.

Nick scrambled out of the car as fast as he could, which wasn’t very fast at all. Sometimes he hated his leg, hated his cane. This was one of those times.

“Why?”

Eric pushed them toward the house. In the process, he knocked over the beer bottle. Foam bubbled up from the neck and spread across his sneakers. He didn’t seem to notice.

“Because he wasn’t the only victim,” he said. “There were others.”

SEVEN

The board, four feet wide and three feet long, covered most of the dining-room table. Kat circled it warily, overwhelmed not only by the sheer size of the display but by all the things crammed onto it. A map. String. Newspaper clippings. Photographs. Kat didn’t know where to look first. She settled on the map, simply because it occupied the most space.

It had been marred by dozens of red circles. Some were made with pencil. Others with Magic Marker. Most of them were crossed out with a large
X
made of thick, black ink. That left only six red circles untouched. The first was in a southeastern corner of the map, exactly where Perry Hollow was located. Next to the circle, someone had scrawled a number, also in red—one.

“You think your mother did all this?” Kat asked Eric, who stood against the wall, arms crossed. He looked dazed and unsteady, like someone trying to shake off a massive shock. In his hand was a fresh beer, replacing the one he had spilled outside.

“I assume she did. That’s her handwriting.”

Kat took a closer look at the number next to her town. It had been cleanly written, the lines straight and letters methodical. A lot of precision had gone into its creation.

Poking right into Perry Hollow was a thumbtack with a string attached to it. The string led off the map, where Kat saw the same newspaper article Nick had shown her earlier in the day. She didn’t need to read it. She knew exactly what it was about.

Surrounding the map were other newspaper clippings. Just like the red circles, only six of them remained.

“Look for a number two,” she said.

Nick, standing on the other side of the board, leaned over it, index finger circling above the map. It landed in the northern part of the state, probably twenty miles from the New York border.

“Number two,” he said. “Fairmount, Pennsylvania. Ever hear of it?”

Kat shook her head as Nick slid his finger over the string attached to Fairmount. It led to a newspaper clipping at the top of the board. The headline was an echo of the first.
BOY MISSING FROM FAIRMOUNT
.

“Is there a date on it?”

“He vanished the nineteenth of November, 1969. Four months after Charlie.”

Nick read the article out loud. “Police are searching for a ten-year-old boy who vanished yesterday in Fairmount. The parents of Dennis Kepner reported him missing after he failed to come home last night. The boy was last seen playing in the park across the street from his house. A thorough search of the area by authorities yielded no clues as to the boy’s whereabouts.”

Just like the article about Charlie Olmstead, the one for Dennis Kepner ran with a picture. Instead of a school photo, it was one provided by the family. It showed a chubby, towheaded boy standing next to someone taller, probably a parent. The other person had been cropped out, leaving just a stray hand in the frame next to Dennis’s elbow.

“Number three is nearby,” Nick said, pointing to a circle less than an inch from Fairmount. “There’s no town here. Just a blank space.”

Kat hurried to his side. Surrounding the thumbtack was nothing but paper turned yellow with age. She let the red string attached to the tack guide her to the corresponding headline.
BOY,
9
, VANISHES IN STATE PARK
.

The photo under the headline identified the boy as Noah Pierce. He smiled for the camera, grinning like a fool. His hair was neatly combed, except for one cowlick on the top of his head that couldn’t be tamed. The image made Kat’s heart break just a little.

She scanned the article and began to read it for Nick and Eric. “A boy from Winter Haven, Florida, was reported missing yesterday in Lasher Mill State Park. Noah Pierce, age nine, was visiting his grandparents in Fairmount. His grandmother said they went to the park because Noah wanted to play in the snow.”

“Snow?” Nick said. “When did it happen?”

Kat looked for a date somewhere on the clipping and found none. Lifting the paper gently, she looked at the other side. There was a date there, slightly cut off by Maggie Olmstead’s scissors decades earlier. Still, Kat could make out a month, a day, a year.

“February sixth, 1971,” she said. “Considering this was the next day’s newspaper, Noah Pierce vanished on the fifth.”

“That’s a long time between victims.”

It was spoken by Eric, who remained against the wall.

“Come on,” he said. “We’re all thinking the same thing my mother thought. All of these boys, my brother included, were taken by the same person.”

This was hard on him. Kat saw it in his eyes and in his ashen face. He was a writer, someone who plied his skills in the world of fiction. His crimes were made up. These were real, and one of the victims was his long-lost brother. It was bound to shake up even the most jaded soul.

“We don’t know that for sure,” Kat said, not even believing it herself.

Eric approached the board and located the fourth victim. Again, the thumbtack wasn’t on a specific town, just a blank area of the map that was shaded green.

“Boy missing from local camp,” he said, reading the headline that went with it. “The owner of Camp Crescent, a summer camp for neglected, disadvantaged, and delinquent boys, reported that one of the campers vanished from his cabin during the night. Dwight Halsey, age twelve, lived in upstate New York. Police are searching the woods surrounding the camp under the assumption the boy tried to run away. The article is dated July thirty-first, 1971. Which means he disappeared the night before.”

All three of them crowded around the article. The photo that ran with it showed a tall, lanky boy with dark curly hair. He stood in front of what appeared to be a cabin, most likely at the camp he vanished from. Unlike the others, Dwight Halsey didn’t look so innocent. His smile was more of a smart-ass smirk, and his eyes contained a mean glint. He looked like the kind of kid Kat warned James to stay away from.

She rounded a corner of the board, stopping at the location where the fifth victim disappeared. It was Centralia, Pennsylvania, and instead of one circle, this town had two, one engulfing the other like a target. In the bull’s-eye were two tacks and two strands of string that veered off in different directions. Kat used her finger to trace one of them, coming to a newspaper clipping that showed a stout boy in a shirt and tie sitting in front of a nondescript background. Another school photo.

Above the picture, the requisite bad news:
CENTRALIA BOY, 11, REPORTED MISSING
. Beneath that was a smaller headline that said,
POLICE BELIEVE HE FELL DOWN ABANDONED MINE SHAFT
.

Kat scanned the article. The boy’s name was Frankie Pulaski. He went outside to play on April 21, 1972, and never came home. Because he lived deep in the heart of Pennsylvania’s coal country, the police’s first instinct was that a sinkhole had consumed him. It had happened before and according to the article about the sixth and final victim, it happened again on December 11, 1972.

ANOTHER CENTRALIA BOY VANISHES
was that headline.

She read from the article beneath it. “A boy from Centralia is missing, police say. William Mason, ten, failed to come home from school yesterday. After an exhaustive search for the boy, who goes by the nickname ‘Bucky,’ police believe he may have fallen into one of the many mine shafts that dot the area. In April, another Centralia youth, eleven-year-old Frankie Pulaski, also disappeared. The police concluded the boy likely fell into a sinkhole. His body was never recovered.”

When she finished reading, Kat stared at the photo of Bucky Mason. He looked like a Bucky—bowl haircut, chubby cheeks, two prominent front teeth that hung slightly over his bottom lip.

She took a step back until she could see the contents of the entire board. The faces of the missing boys looked at her with their myriad expressions. Some happy. Some sad. All hopeful, except for Dwight Halsey and his smirk.

And every single one of them gone.

“You were right, Eric. They’re all related.”

Kat was certain of it, just as certain as Maggie Olmstead had been when she put together this morbid collage. The scratched-out red circles made it abundantly clear that Maggie had spent a lot of time winnowing down the board’s contents to these six cases. There might have been other missing boys on that board at one point, but these were the only ones that mattered to her. The question they now faced was why.

“Nick,” she said, “this used to be your thing. What do you make of all this?”

When he worked for the state police, Nick was an expert on the criminal mind. He wasn’t a profiler, but he knew enough to understand why people sometimes did unthinkable things. When such a person had targeted the residents of Perry Hollow, Nick had been there to guide her. Kat hoped he could do the same now.

“Clearly, it’s a serial killer,” Nick said.

Eric cleared his throat. “Killer?”

“There are three types of abductions,” Nick replied. “The most common ones are among family members. Custody disputes. Desperate parents. It’s usually very obvious early on who the perpetrator is.”

“I know,” Eric said. “I wrote about one in a Mitch Gracey book.”

“The second is acquaintance kidnapping. The victims are mostly teenagers and mostly girls. The perps are normally other teenagers, perverted neighbors, guys who get off on abusing girls.”

Nick approached the board, studying it with those green eyes of his that always seemed to be noticing something Kat had missed. His gaze darted from photo to photo and from town to town, examining the big picture.

“The third type,” he said, “are the ones that can’t easily be explained away.”

Kat knew all about those cases through AMBER Alerts and statewide APBs. These were the kids snatched from the grocery store. The ones who got into the van with the guy offering candy. The ones who, like Charlie Olmstead, rode off on their bikes and were never seen again.

“So,” Eric said, a noticeable catch in his throat, “you think whoever did this took and killed all of them?”

Nick nodded solemnly. “If any of these boys were still alive, we’d have heard about it by now.”

From across the room, Kat watched as Eric Olmstead took a deep breath and nodded. He lifted the beer to his lips and gulped. Then he excused himself, hurrying out of the dining room, through the kitchen, and onto the back porch. She envied his ability to escape. She wanted to flee the room, as well, and not have to look at the sad gallery in front of her. So many boys. So many victims. Yet she had to look. This was no longer just a matter to be handled by Nick and his foundation. This was now a police matter.

“What do you think the link is?” she asked. “I know there has to be one. You taught me that.”

“The first thing I noticed was the ages,” Nick said. “Who was the youngest?”

Kat pointed to the photo of Noah Pierce. “He was nine.”

“The oldest was twelve,” Nick said, gesturing to Dwight Halsey’s picture. “That makes sense. Usually killers who prey on children like to stick to the same age range.”

“He also stuck to similar locations,” Kat added. “All six boys vanished in small towns or rural areas. Charlie disappeared around Sunset Falls. Both Dennis Kepner and Noah Pierce were in parks. Dwight Halsey vanished in the forest. And Frankie Pulaski and Bucky Mason went missing in Centralia.”

“So we have who he preyed on,” Nick said. “And where.”

Kat scanned the red circles on the map, pausing at the two places where more than one crime occurred. The second and third incidents were in or around Fairmount. The fifth and sixth took place in Centralia. Unless the killer liked the locations so much he went back twice, there was a reason they took place where they did.

“He lived there,” she said. “In Fairmount and in Centralia.”

Despite the grim nature of their conversation, Nick allowed himself a proud smile. He had taught her well.

“Why do you think so?” he asked.

“Fairmount. I’ve never heard of it and I’ve spent my entire life in this state. So if I haven’t heard of it, then there are a lot of other people who never have, either. Unless they lived there. Same goes for Centralia. A killer doesn’t go back to the scene of a crime—”

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