Authors: Todd Ritter
“Unless he never left,” Nick said. “So our perp would have lived in Centralia in 1972. When did the Fairmount incidents occur?”
“Dennis Kepner vanished in 1969.” Kat leaned over the board and checked the article for Noah Pierce. Once again, she found herself lifting the fragile newspaper to see the date that was partially printed on the other side. “February fifth, 1971.”
She could tell from the date’s size and placement that it had been located on the newspaper’s front page. And just below it, in much larger type, was the day’s top headline:
MAN PAYS THIRD VISIT TO THE MOON.
A small shiver hurried up her arms and seemed to zap directly into her heart, making it beat faster. She thought back to ornery Owen Peale and his recollections about the night Charlie Olmstead vanished. It happened on July 20, 1969.
“The moon,” she whispered. “Just like Charlie.”
Nick had been watching her with his face scrunched in confusion. “What are you talking about?”
“Charlie Olmstead, the first victim, disappeared the night man first walked on the moon. Noah Pierce, our third missing kid, vanished the same day astronauts landed for the third time.”
Through the doorway of the dining room, Kat had a clear view of the kitchen. Sitting on the counter was Eric’s laptop. She rushed to it and immediately did a Google search. A few clicks later, she was on NASA’s official Web site, looking at the dates of all the Apollo moon landings.
The first was July 20, 1969, which they had already established was when Charlie vanished.
“When did Dennis Kepner go missing?” she called to Nick, who remained in the dining room.
A second passed as Nick checked the board. “November nineteenth, 1969.”
Kat looked to the Web site and found the date. November 19 was the same day
landed on the moon.
—and Noah Pierce—both occurred February 5, 1971.
“That explains the gap,” Kat said.
Nick poked his head into the kitchen. “What?”
“Almost a year and a half passed between the second abduction and the third,” she said. “The reason was
The crew of that famous mission never actually made it to the moon. According to Maggie Olmstead’s map, no boy from Pennsylvania suddenly vanished, either. It couldn’t have been a coincidence.
Nick returned to the board in the dining room and read the other three dates to Kat—July 30, 1971, April 21, 1972, and December 11, 1972.
Dwight Halsey, Frankie Pulaski, and Bucky Mason.
When Kat returned to the dining room, she looked at the board with fresh eyes. Six successful moon landings. Six missing boys. And one person sticking to a deranged schedule that spanned years.
“We need to tell Eric,” she said.
She found him on the back porch, slumped into a lawn chair that looked as bedraggled as he did. His beer bottle, now empty, sat at his feet. He took a drag off his cigarette as he stared out at the backyard. Kat settled into the chair next to him.
“There’s something we need to tell you.”
Eric’s voice was emotionless as he said, “I know. I overheard you and Nick talking inside.”
“How much did you hear?”
“That if Neil Armstrong hadn’t stepped on the moon that day, my brother might still be alive. Isn’t that the gist of it?”
“It is. And I’m sorry.”
“When I found out my mother wanted me to do this, I didn’t think anything would come of it,” Eric said. “I figured I’d hire Nick, give him some money, and let him poke around a few days. I never expected to find out something like this.”
Tears began to leak from his eyes. One slipped down his cheek and plopped onto his arm. When Kat absently wiped it away, her hand remained there.
“I know this is hard,” she said. “But I promise that Nick and I are going to find out who did this.”
Thinking she might have promised too much, Kat said no more. She didn’t know if they’d be able to find out who took all those boys. That was ages ago, and evidence and witnesses were probably few and far between. But she at least had to try. Charlie and the other boys deserved that much. So did Maggie Olmstead, whose dogged pursuit of information had led them to that point in the first place. And so did Eric, who was grappling with feelings he never knew existed for a brother he had barely known.
Sitting on the porch, looking out across an expanse of grass that had been rendered brown by the summer sun, Kat leaned over and wrapped an arm around him. She gently guided his head to her shoulder. Then, sitting in stillness and quiet, she let Eric weep.
“Why the hell didn’t anyone see this?” Kat said.
Nick didn’t have an answer. His best guess was that perhaps because of distance, apathy, or simply poor police records, no one had noticed the pattern. No one had realized that six boys vanished in Pennsylvania, during each of the six moon missions. Most of the incidents looked like accidents, after all, and accidents were less likely to draw suspicion.
“Maggie Olmstead saw it,” he said.
“Then why didn’t she tell someone?”
Again, Nick didn’t know. Maybe she had been embarrassed. Or maybe no one believed her. Having been one of them, he knew how cops worked. Meek housewives who claimed to know something they didn’t rubbed them the wrong way. This was especially true forty years ago, when even the best cops had a chauvinistic streak.
All Nick really knew was that his case, the one the Sarah Donnelly Foundation had been recruited to investigate, was about to be taken away from him. If it hadn’t been clear after he helped Kat move the wall of victims from the Olmstead dining room to the trunk of her patrol car, it became so with the words Kat spoke next.
“You know this is now an official police matter.”
“I know,” Nick said. “And just to let
know, that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop my own investigation.”
“I would be disappointed if you did.”
They were sitting outside the elementary school in Kat’s Crown Vic, waiting for class to be let out. Every other car in line at the curb was a minivan or SUV. Most of them were gray. Nick wondered how James felt about getting picked up from school every day in a police car. The way kids acted nowadays, they’d think it was either badass or embarrassing. He hoped James was on the badass end of the spectrum.
“I’ve been thinking about your theory that our bad guy lived in Fairmount and Centralia. It’s logical. It makes sense.”
“It’s also wrong,” Kat said. “Isn’t that what you’re getting at?”
That was exactly what Nick was trying to say, and he was pleased Kat had come up with it herself. Upon their first meeting, Nick had to give her a crash course on the thought process of your basic serial killer. Now she knew enough to understand her first theory might not have been the correct one.
“It all comes down to the first victim,” Nick said. “In this case, Charlie Olmstead.”
Nine times out of ten, victim number one wasn’t a random killing. Most serial perpetrators stayed in familiar haunts and acted out only when triggered by something—or someone. That’s why the first victim was so vital. Often, the perp had previous contact with them. Catching the bad guy was usually the result of winnowing down where and when that contact had occurred. In the case of Charlie Olmstead, that meant—
“The killer spent time in Perry Hollow,” Kat said as she thrummed her fingers along the steering wheel.
Nick nodded approvingly. “That would be my guess. Maybe he didn’t live here. Maybe he was just passing through for a spell. But he most definitely saw Charlie before that night. He knew where he lived. He knew where he rode his bike.”
“What’s the likelihood that whoever did it lived on the Olmsteads’ street?” Kat asked.
“I don’t know, but it would certainly narrow down our list of suspects.”
“I’ll talk to the neighbors,” Kat said. “The Santangelos. Glenn Stewart. Find out whatever I can about Mort and Ruth Clark. It’s the only way we’re going to be able to dig something up.”
“While you do that,” Nick added, “I’ll hit the road and see what I can find out from the families of the other victims.”
Both of them were quiet as they contemplated the tough task ahead of them. Four decades had passed since these crimes. Even if Nick was able to track down family members of the victims, there was no guarantee they’d remember anything. Police records were most likely sparse and the crime scenes probably paved over by forty years of progress. But the prospect of getting even a hint about what happened excited the hell out of him.
Kat, however, had to play party pooper. “This is bigger than you. Or me. We just might have a ticking time bomb on our hands.”
She was talking about China and its three astronauts hurtling toward the moon at that very moment. They were scheduled to land in two days, which was good for China, potentially bad for the people of Pennsylvania.
“You think it could happen again?” Nick asked. “After all these years?”
“Your guess is as good as mine,” Kat said. “Whoever did this could be dead. Or out of state.”
“Or waiting until Friday.”
“Exactly. So you know what needs to be done.”
Nick knew. And he didn’t want to do it. Just thinking about it gave him a headache.
“If you’d like,” Kat offered, “I can do it. I still have her contact information lying around somewhere.”
But Nick had the phone number permanently lodged in his brain, a fact Kat was well aware of. It made him the most logical person to do the calling. That and the fact that it was his former boss they were talking about.
“I’ll do it,” he said.
“Yes, for God’s sake. Tonight.”
He shifted in his seat, his right knee flaring a bit as he moved. Goddamned weather. Looking through the windshield, he saw that dark clouds had replaced the late-summer sun. A second later, the first drops of rain splattered against the glass. The storm had arrived.
By that point, the school’s front doors had opened and the first wave of students made their escape. They sprinted through the quickening rain to the curb, where the army of minivans and SUVs swallowed them up. James was part of the second wave. He trotted to the Crown Vic using his backpack as a makeshift umbrella. When he got in the car, Nick tried to give him his usual high-five greeting. James responded with a quickly muttered “Hi, Nick” and a halfhearted slap against his palm.
Nick didn’t like kids very much. He found most to be spoiled, rambunctious, and, truth be told, bratty. James was the exception. He was polite, curious, open, and intelligent.
None of those traits, however, were on display that afternoon.
“How was your first day of school?” Nick asked, making another attempt to engage the boy.
James answered with a glum sigh. “Okay.”
“Did you learn anything cool?”
“Where’s your lunch box?”
This was from Kat, who was using the rearview mirror to squint at her son. James’s answer—an unconcerned “I lost it”—didn’t placate her.
“On purpose?” she said. “Or by accident?”
James didn’t answer, which Nick took to mean that he hadn’t lost the lunch box in question at all. He had outright gotten rid of it. Kat sensed it, too, and shook her head in annoyance as she edged away from the curb and into the street.
The storm had hit full force by that point, a springlike downpour waging battle with an otherwise calm Indian summer. The rain came down in heavy sheets that instantly formed puddles on lawns and overflowed the gutters on the streets.
“So you’ll call her when you get home, right?” Kat asked Nick as she jacked the windshield wipers up a notch.
Apparently they were back on that topic again. “The minute I walk through the door.”
“You’d better.” Kat wagged a finger at him in warning. “Because I’ll be calling her just to make sure.”
Nick glanced over his shoulder at James, who nodded in unspoken sympathy. In that small gesture, he saw a flash of the old James he had grown to love. It was an acknowledgment on the boy’s part that, despite their ages and backgrounds, they were the two most important men in Kat Campbell’s life. And both of them knew from experience that they didn’t want to be on her bad side.
True to his word, Nick made the phone call as soon as he got back to Philadelphia. Sitting in the Chestnut Street apartment that doubled as headquarters for the Sarah Donnelly Foundation, he picked up the phone and dialed the number he knew by rote.
It was answered on the fourth ring. Slow by her usual standards.
“Hello?” The voice was crisp and formal, just as Nick remembered it.
“Hey, Gloria,” he said.
“Nick. To what do I owe this unexpected pleasure?”
Captain Gloria Ambrose had been his boss at the Pennsylvania State Police’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation for close to ten years. While never friends or even friendly, they had admired each other’s relentless pursuit of justice. Because of this, Nick had assumed Gloria would always have his back in times of trouble.
His assumption had been wrong. Now he was no longer a cop. Nor could he ever become one again, at least not in Pennsylvania and especially not with the state police. It was a raw deal, and hearing Gloria’s voice, which contained neither accent nor emotion, brought back all the anger and bitterness that had accompanied his firing.
Nick swallowed hard, trying to keep his emotions at bay. “I was investigating something for the foundation—”
Gloria stopped him. Interrupting was one of her specialties. “How’s that going, by the way?”
“I’m so pleased,” she replied without a hint of actual pleasure.
“During my investigation, I came across some information you might like to know.”
This time Gloria sounded interested. “About what?”
Nick spoke uninterrupted for almost ten minutes. He explained what he and Kat had discovered during the course of the day. He gave all the details he could—names, dates, locations. He even went so far as to tell Gloria that the map and newspaper clippings Maggie Olmstead had compiled were now in Kat’s possession, should the state police need them. When he finished, Gloria asked him for something he never thought she’d ever request again—his opinion.