I guess I’d been skip-chasing about a year when the girl got killed. The job suited me. George said it made use of what he called “my feral nature.” He was the bail bondsman I did most of my work for. I met him after I got nailed boosting a car. Somebody’d written his number on the wall by the phone in the stationhouse and I didn’t know who else to call, so I called it.
I read about the girl in the newspaper, little article on an inside page. Her body turned up in the fill-dirt piled behind a half-built housing development. She’d been missing about a week. Some kid on a dirt bike ran right over her and phoned the cops. But she was good and dead a long time before that. I read the story and didn’t think much more about it till about a week later this guy showed up in George’s office. I was there, waiting for something to pop, and I noticed him because he didn’t look like the usual run of people that had business with George. He was a nine-to-fiver — neat khaki pants, shoes as shiny as beetles, shirt tucked in tight, late forties, clean-shaven — and looked like he was somewhere he never imagined himself being, like he hadn’t slept in a long time. He gave his name to Janeece and took a seat. Sat there like he was waiting for an elevator. Didn’t pick up a magazine or anything, just looked straight ahead. George was talking to one of his regulars, a shoplifter we called Captain Kangaroo. When they were done Janeece told Mr Solid Citizen he could go in. After he left, George came out and saw me he asked if I wanted to go over to Pat’s & Gene’s for lunch. I said okay, hoping he had some work for me.
When we sat down he said, “You see that guy I was talking to? That last one?”
I said, “Yeah.”
He said, “You remember that dead girl they found behind the building site?”
I said, “Yeah. I read about it.”
He said, “She was his niece.”
I said, “You can’t bail her out of dead.”
He said, “Thanks for that tip, Doctor Einstein. He didn’t come in for her. He came in for his son. They picked him up last night. They were an item: the son and her.”
I said, “Kissing cousins. It’s been known.”
“He says the boy’s been in trouble since he learned to walk. They tried to keep a lid on it. Paid for shit he stole. Made deals with people. Says it’s been a full-time job. Now he’s killed her. He says he doesn’t know where the kid got it. He swears he raised him better.”
I said, “From the mother maybe?”
He shook his head. “He says it’s killing her. It was her sister’s daughter, the dead girl. Her and her sister were real tight. But he wants me to bail him.”
I said, “Well, he’s his son, I guess. You going to?”
“Long as he’s got the nut and signs the paper. But it sounds like I’d be doing him a favor if I didn’t.”
“If you didn’t, somebody else would.”
“It’s his decision. He’s putting up his house. If the kid doesn’t show, they’re fucked.”
“You want me to.…”
“I don’t want you to do nothing. I’m just talking. Sometimes I just feel like talking, that’s all. Who else am I going to talk to? Janeece? Forget it. Eat. Eat. When’s the last time I bought you a meal?”
I was at the court house when the kid’s prelim came up. The case was a crapshoot, so the prosecutor’d backed off on murder and was going for manslaughter instead. He and the girl were an item and he was a known bad actor and people saw them together the night she disappeared and they were always arguing, but nobody actually saw him do anything and he said the bruises on his hands were from some fight nobody saw with some guy he didn’t know. He said the girl had headed home on foot after another argument before the fight. The judge set bail and pegged the trial date. In the hall afterwards I saw him walking around with a look on his face like he thought he was some kind of celebrity. Thing that struck me was how he was dressed. Most mopes show up for court looking like Jehovah’s Witnesses: cheap suits and ties. But he looked like some mope fashion model: jeans half-way down his ass, lime-green t-shirt with a big skull on it, brand new baseball cap cocked sideways. Fucking Easter Parade for Mopes. Behind him his dad looked like he wished he was invisible, and his mom’s eyes were so red she looked like she might bleed to death from them if she didn’t shut them pretty soon. I was pretty sure the kid would show up for trial no problem. It’s the ones afraid to lose that don’t, and he didn’t seem afraid of that. He’d show up, get off, and that’d be that till next time. George would bank his ten percent, the parents would keep their house, and the girl would stay dead. The meek wouldn’t inherit the earth this time either. So I would have forgot about the whole thing except a cop I knew had showed me pictures of the girl: one from her high school yearbook and some others from the morgue. I’d never seen anybody beat to death. It was worse than you think, especially seeing how pretty and innocent-looking she’d been before. After that I couldn’t get it out of my head. It kept coming back to me like the taste of a bad anchovy. I’d be idling down to sleep and I’d think about those pictures and how it must have been for her, and for the people who saw her after, her parents and whatnot.
Then about a week before the trial the kid disappeared. Just didn’t come home one night. His mother called the cops. The cops called George. George called me.
I said, “You want me to find him?”
He said, “He doesn’t show for trial they lose the house.”
I said, “Yeah, but they lose it to you.”
He said, “Look, you want the job or not? You don’t want it, I’ll send Jerry.”
I said, “Jerry couldn’t find the bus station with a route map.”
He said, “Six days. That’s what you got.”
So I made me a list and talked to everybody — his parents, his friends, the usual suspects — checked with people the places he hung out, showed around a picture I got from his mom thinking maybe somewhere a penny would drop. But it was like he’d evaporated. Gone up in the Rapture or something. But why? He was going to get off, and he looked like he knew that. But one thing you learn doing this is that the only criminal masterminds are the ones in movies. Criminals aren’t criminals because they decide to do that instead of becoming brain surgeons; they’re criminals because they’re too stupid to be anything else. I’ve seen mopes break down doors that weren’t even locked. I’ve seen them steal shit that they could have had for asking. One time I actually saw a guy on trial raise his hand like a kid in school when the prosecutor asked an old lady if the guy who’d mugged her was in the courtroom. So I figured maybe he’d ran off just because of the depth and purity of his god-given stupidity. Or maybe he was shacked up with some skank who hadn’t heard what he did to girls. Or maybe he was hibernating in a hollow log. Who the hell knew? But nobody’d seen him. I couldn’t even get a sniff of him.
His mom quit her job and stayed home in case he called or showed up. Last time I went to see her she kept staring at the phone like she was expecting Dialing For Dollars to call. Her story was he’d gone out that night, like he did a lot of nights. She didn’t know where. Hadn’t known since he was twelve. “Just with his friends, I guess. I don’t know who they were. I always told him he could have them over, but he never did.” She blamed them for him being how he was. “He wasn’t really a bad boy,” she said. I asked where she thought he might be now. She said, “He’s probably starting over someplace. He probably shouldn’t have run, but a young boy…. I can’t blame him.”
I talked to her sister too, the dead girl’s mom. The girl had been her oldest. “Always the smart one,” she said. “She was so pretty. She could have ended up with anybody, somebody nice, somebody who’d look after her. But instead she ended up with him.” The boy’s mom had been around to see her a few times since it happened, but they couldn’t even look at each other anymore. “They’re nice people,” she said. “We used to be real close.” I told her if I found him he’d do serious time. It was bullshit, but the best I had to offer. She remembered a couple of new names, names she’d heard her daughter mention. I tracked them down and talked to them. They all said they hadn’t spent time with the kid since the killing. He’d come around, but his dad had always been trailing him, on him like white on rice, so they’d kept away. One of them said maybe he split to get his old man off his back.
I went to see the dad again, caught him at his job. We went outside to talk. His wife had looked better than she had at the prelim. Hopeful, I guess. But he looked worse, like somebody’d locked him in a time machine on Fast Forward. There were dark circles under his eyes. He slumped. Whole time we were talking he never looked at me, just watched the traffic. He didn’t have much to say, just what his wife already told me. But he wasn’t waiting for the phone to ring. He just wanted it to be over. He said, “You raise a kid, you do the best you can. But sometimes there’s just something wrong, and you....”
“Nothing. There’s nothing you can do. Like I said, I don’t know anything. I’ve got to get back in.”
I gave him a card and told him to call if he heard anything, but I knew he wouldn’t.
I never did find the kid. The trial date came. George foreclosed the bond.
Must of been nearly a year after that me and George were at Pat’s & Gene’s and I mentioned the case again. He gave me this look like why was I hanging onto that. I said, “I saw the pictures. The girl. Thing like that sticks with you, you know? I wish I could have found him.”
He said, “He’ll show up someday, just like she did.”
I said, “You think he’s dead?”
He gave me another look and said, “Sometimes talking to you’s like talking to Janeece. Of course he’s dead. Why else wouldn’t he show up? If he hadn’t been eighty-sixed, he’d have made his date and walked.”
“So I guess some mope killed him, huh.”
He rolled his eyes and started counting on his fingers, “Mopes kill for three reasons, right? Money, insults, and by accident. So. He have any money?”
“Was he hanging out with anybody he might have insulted?”
“No. They weren’t hanging with him because of his dad.”
“Right. That sound like an accident to you? He just happens to kill his cousin, he just happens to get away with it, his old man just happens to follow him around, and the kid just happens to end up dead?”
“I guess not, you put it like that.”
“Well there you go.”
“So who did it?”
He looked at me like I was an idiot. “Who paid the money to spring him?” He took another bite of sandwich. “Look. You think he liked having his dad follow him around? In front of his friends?”
“I guess he wouldn’t.”
“Yeah. I guess he wouldn’t too. His dad’s just trying to keep him out of trouble, but the kid’s been in trouble ever since he comes out the gate. It’s how he is. It’s what he knows. And one night he gets tired of his old man raining on his parade and she says something, and his old man says something back…. Everybody’s got a breaking point.”
“What about him losing the house?”
He shrugged. “Probably seemed like a bargain to him at the time. For a minute anyway.”
© Kurt Tidmore
Kurt Tidmore is a former construction worker, printer, cook, illustrator, long-distance bicyclist, scientific photographer, tortilla manufacturer, paid guinea pig, salesman, magazine editor, jazz musician, tour guide, dark-room technician, truck driver, and radio disc-jockey. He’s also a novelist. He was born in Texas and lives now in Ireland.
The Skip-Chaser's Story was read by Seth James on November 7th 2012