An August Hanrahan Case
by Patrick Shawn Bagley
......Mike and Frank said grace over their acid. I leaned against their kitchen counter, waiting for them to finish. God forbid they postpone their lunchtime trip-out a few minutes to tell me why they'd called. I hoped they could stay lucid long enough -- and that I could stand the reek long enough -- to hear them out. A pyramid of torn trash bags filled the far corner, rancid garbage juice seeping onto the floor.
......They lived in a rusty old trailer with a sagging wooden deck. It sat in a Skowhegan trailer park that was nothing more than an open field cut into thirds by a pair of dirt roads named Sesame Street and Big Bird Street. A real happy-sounding place to raise a family. Mike and Frank kept their windows shut tight and covered with black plastic trash bags, but I still heard kids playing in the overgrown yard next door.
......I had used Mike and Frank as informants a couple of times. I called them hippies, and that's what they were -- the real, tie-dyed-in-the-wool deal. The granolas from my classes at the University of Maine were just posers. Mike and Frank still sang the old protest songs, read underground comics, and talked about Jerry Rubin and Kent State as if any of it made a difference. Their drugs of choice remained acid and pot, but they would sell you anything you wanted: crystal meth, heroin, Rohypnol, OxyContin. We Mainers love our prescription drugs.
......Mike looked a lot like the picture of Jesus my aunt kept above her TV. Somewhere along the line, probably while looking in a mirror, Mike had found religion and been born again. But he never gave up the junk. He once told me, When I accepted Jesus Christ as my own Lord and personal savior, He accepted me and all my faults. What was the point of His getting nailed to the fucking cross otherwise?
......Frank had long gray hair and a goatee to match. His dark eyes were always moving, even when he was looking right at you, and his voice was like a graveyard breeze. Rumor was he'd been a sniper in Vietnam, but I'd never felt like asking. Standing over Mike at the table, Frank held out two blotters of acid and said, Dear Heavenly Father, bless this acid. We ask in Jesus' name.
......Mike said, Amen. He stood up, and they each placed a blotter on the other's tongue in a kind of fucked-up communion. Mike got up from the table. He shook my hand and said, Hey, August. Thanks for coming over, man.
......He steered me into the living room. The air smelled bad in there too, a commingled funk of stale pot smoke, body odor, incense, cat turds and patchouli. A big-screen TV dominated the room, stacks of DVDs and videocassettes rising from its top like battlements. More trash bags, duct-taped to the window frames. Maybe that was why they never took out the garbage; all the bags were being used as drapes.
......Mike plopped down on the couch and I joined him. Frank sat Indian-style on the floor. I'd known him six years and never once seen the man sit on a piece of furniture. Maybe he slept on the floor, too.
......I watched them watch me for a moment. Then I said, All right, now what's so secret we couldn't talk about it on the phone?
......Frank said, We want to hire you.
......You dragged me away from a Seinfeld marathon for this? You guys ever read the papers or watch the news?
......Nothing in the media but lies, Frank said. He shook his head, as if my naïveté pained him.
......I said, Well, all those stories about me losing my PI license are true." I held up my left hand. The ring and pinkie fingers were gone, along with most of that side of the hand. I let them get a good look.
......Mike turned sideways, looked at me like he was trying to focus. You ain't a detective no more?"
......It's a funny thing, I said,. I lost my hand, license, and office all in the same week. Managed to keep my truck and stay out of prison, though. If I had a wife and dog to lose, my life could be a country-western song. August Hanrahan, walking clusterfuck.
......Sorry, we didn't know, Mike said.
......Frank looked up. How'd it happen?
......They had no idea how tired I was of answering that question. Standing, I dusted couch crud off the seat of my jeans and said, I'm not the one to help you.
......Mike put his hand out, took hold of my wrist. We remember what happened to your nephew last year. You couldn't help him, August. Nobody blames you for that shit. But there's a little girl who needs you right now, man.
......Her name was Pandora. She was four years old, but did not go to preschool. Instead, Frank said, Pandora spent her days playing in her yard or wandering up and down the trailer park streets while her mother had company. Two or three men came by every day. Sometimes a guy was in and out in half an hour. Sometimes it was an hour or two.
......I'm the last dude who should judge what other people do with their own lives, Frank told me. But that's a fucked-up way to raise a kid, man.
......Pandora showed up at their door one afternoon and asked if they had anything to eat. Turns out her mother had forgotten to give her any breakfast or lunch. Frank fixed the girl a PBJ while Mike went across the way to talk to the mother. Mom's name was Amber. She told Mike to mind his own fucking business, that she'd fucking raise her fucking daughter whatever the fuck way she wanted.
......Two months had passed since Pandora had started coming to their trailer for breakfast and lunch. Frank said she was a bright kid who talked about the different places she had lived and adventures she wanted to have. The hippies didn't call the cops, for obvious reasons. DHS was not an option, either, being yet another arm of the oppressive government they had spent their lives resisting. No one else thought to call the authorities, either. The other parents just told their kids not to play with Pandora. It was that kind of neighborhood.
......Then Pandora stopped coming over.
......By the time Mike and Frank called me, they hadn't seen her for three days. She did not play outside anymore. Men still went to Amber's trailer and knocked, but the door never opened. Mike and Frank worried about Pandora and I was the closest thing to an official they trusted.
......Amber's trailer was right across from Mike and Frank's. Burdock and pig weed covered the yard, except for a narrow path to the steps and a beaten-down spot that was littered with toy cars, three naked Barbie dolls and a plastic kiddie pool. The sides of the pool were shaggy with algae, the water a greenish-brown. Even in hot July weather, it would take a few days for that to happen.
......I walked to the door and knocked, pulled a briar off my T-shirt and I waited for someone to answer.
......I knocked again. Nothing.
......Took a look around the yard again. A quick peek into the mailbox showed a bill from Central Maine Power, another from Bee Line Cable and a Fingerhut catalog. It could have been one day's mail or three. Amber didn't come out to call me an asshole or ask who I thought I was, going through her mail like that.
......And just what the hell was I doing? I told the hippies I couldn't do anything for them, but they'd known just how to play me. All they'd had to do was bring up my dead nephew and I couldn't walk away. If one of the neighbors looked out their window and decided to call 911, I was screwed.
......Honest, officer. I'm not breaking in. Investigating something? Shit, no. Just wanted to see if the neighborhood hooker was home, get a quick blowjob. You know how it is. By the way, you haven't heard anything about a little girl wandering around here, have you? A couple of drug dealers are worried about her.
......No harm in just knocking on the door, though. Yeah, right.
......I tried the knob. If it was locked, I'd go tell the hippies that Amber and Pandora were gone, probably one step ahead of the landlord. But the knob turned, so I pushed the door open. The stink hit me as soon as I stepped into the living room, and I pulled the top of my shirt up over my nose and mouth. Even then, it stank worse than the trash in the hippies' trailer, worse even than driving past a farm where they've just spread chicken dressing all over the fields. There has never been a stink to compete with rotten meat. I went down the hall. There was a small bedroom with a Dora the Explorer poster on the wall and toys on the floor. Then a bathroom and finally the master bedroom at the far end.
......Until that moment, I had seen three dead bodies in my life.
......The first was my mother, at her funeral.
......The second was my nephew Cody, lying in his tiny casket. My mom had looked at peace for the first time ever; Cody had looked like every last bit of sorrow the world could throw at me, but the mortician had done her best to cover up the bruises his father had left all over his face and neck.
......The third body was that of a homeless man who'd been beaten and then set on fire; that case had cost me half a hand and my entire career.
......Now I looked at my fourth corpse. Amber Roberge lay face-down across the queen-sized bed. She was naked and her hands were bound behind her, the wrists raw and swollen around the handcuffs. There was something strapped around her head, and it took me a few seconds to realize it was a ball gag. I looked closer. Vomit had leaked out from the corners of her mouth and both nostrils, and dried on her cheek and upper lip. It was smeared across the pillow, too, with a big glop of it right in the middle. There was also a scattering of long blonde hairs that must have been pulled from her head.
......They way it looked to me, the john had wanted a little rough trade. So he'd cuffed Amber and put the ball gag in her mouth, then bent her over the bed and did his thing while he grabbed her by the hair and held her with her face shoved into the pillow. Maybe she had struggled. Maybe the guy thought that was part of the deal. Maybe he just didn't care. At some point, Amber had vomited. It filled her mouth because of the gag and, with her face in the pillow, she could not breathe through her nose. Some of it came out through her nostrils, but not enough. An empty bottle of Allen's coffee brandy stood on the dresser, so she might have been drunk. I didn't know. What I did know was that Amber had choked on her own puke while some guy fucked her doggy-style.
......But where the hell was Pandora? Did the john take her when he left? Was she in the trailer at the time? Had she seen it happen? I wanted to go home and take a shower to get the stink off me. I wanted to drink a whole goddamn case of Corona and watch TV and forget about it all.
......I walked down the hall to Pandora's bedroom. The bureau drawers were full. Stuffed animals lay scattered across the bed.
......I returned to the master bedroom and looked around, but it was too much to expect the john to leave his wallet behind. There was a cell phone on the bedside table. I flipped it open and thumbed through the menu. Amber had several numbers stored. Only one meant anything to me: Spoonie. I left then, using the bottom of my shirt to wipe down everything I touched, and breathing through my mouth while I did it.
......Spoonie Pinkham lived in Cornville, about ten minutes north of Skowhegan. His remodeled farmhouse sat nestled against the foot of a steep, wooded ridge and ran a cleaning business out of an office above his garage. He also ran half a dozen whores in Skowhegan, Madison, and Canaan. People think small Maine towns are free of prostitution just because they never see hookers or pimps on street corners. Spoonie did business over track phones or through e-mail.
......I parked my truck behind a maroon minivan with Pinkham's Cleaning LLC: Home and Commercial Cleaning Services painted across its sides. The only other vehicle on the property was a PT Cruiser. A yellow lab barked at me from a fenced-in run behind the house, but no one came outside. I walked up a flight of stairs that hugged the outside of the garage and knocked once on the door before going inside.
......Spoonie's secretary looked up and smiled. She sat behind a small desk, typing away at a keyboard and keeping one eye on a flat-screen computer monitor while she said, Can I help you?
......I nodded toward the closed door right of her desk. Is the boss in?
......Do you have an appointment? She stopped typing and cocked her head to one side. She was in her mid-thirties, a little on the chunky side--though it looked good on her--with hair the shade of red that only came from a box. Mr. Pinkham has a very full schedule today, but maybe I can help you out. My name's Trudy. Were you interested in setting up a regular account? Music came from the other side of the door. It sounded like Guns 'n' Roses doing Sweet Child o' Mine.
......I said, Take an early lunch. By the time Trudy made it out of her chair to try and keep me away from the door, I was already across the room and turning the knob.
......Spoonie Pinkham sat on a leather sofa playing Guitar Hero on a TV that would have taken up half my apartment. He missed a note and tossed the guitar-shaped controller onto the couch.
Fuckin' A, Trudy, he said, reaching down for the can of Coors Light between his feet. I told you not to bother me.
......I closed the door behind me, shutting Trudy out. I said, That game's for morons too lazy to learn real guitar.
......Spoonie looked up. He said, The fuck're you doing here, Hanrahan? Spoonie had been a year ahead of me in high school, a football player with no real talent for the game, but more than enough bulk to knock other kids down. That was more than twenty years ago, though, and the tough guy stare he tried on me didn't work. Spoonie had lost most of his hair and gained a beer gut. I heard you might need a job. You do windows?
......"I want to talk about one of your girls.
......Get the fuck out of here.
......Wrong answer. Spoonie must have thought he was still that varsity D-lineman everyone feared.
......I crossed the office in two long steps, grabbed the plastic guitar by the headstock, and whipped it across Spoonie's face.
......He dropped his beer and rolled to the side, squealing, "Motherfucker" with his hand over his mouth. When he took his hand away, some blood trickled from his lower lip. Not much. Not enough. You're paying for that if it's broke, he said, pointing at the controller.
......I threw it against the wall. It bounced off a framed Ansel Adams poster and hit the floor, but didn't break.
......Trudy came back. She said, I'm calling the police.
......You do that, I said. But Spoonie here is a pimp, and the cops will probably be interested in how much you know about his little sideline.
......Spoonie said, Go on home, Trudy.
......She gave him the finger and left.
......Spoonie dabbed at his lip with a tissue. Why are you giving me shit, anyway? You ain't a private dick no more. Just a dick. He laughed at his own joke, his confidence returning.
......I said, Amber Roberge.
......No games, Spoonie. Amber was one of yours, right?
......He sat down on the couch and leaned back. So what?
......I need to know who her regulars were.
......Go fuck yourself.
......I grabbed him by what was left of the hair on the back of his head and dragged his fat ass off the couch. He tried to slap my arms away and get to his feet at the same time. I kicked him in the gut, not hard enough to knock the wind out of him but enough to let him know who was in control. Amber's regulars, I said.
......I have a list. What the fuck do you want with it?
......The back of his neck was sweaty, even with the air conditioner humming. I let go of his hair and stepped back. Amber's dead.
......I nodded. Figured you did. I couldn't imagine you letting her go three whole days without checking in or answering the door for her appointments. So what did you do, find her there and just leave? Pretend like it never happened? Did it occur to you to wonder what happened to Amber's daughter?
......Spoonie sat there on the floor, rubbing his head. He said, What the fuck would you have done, smartass?
......Call the cops.
......Yeah? Well, how come you're talking to me right now and not them?
......I looked away. I don't even need the whole list, just the ones that like S&M or a little bondage. I figure you keep track of what each john likes and charge extra for the kinky stuff. Am I right?
......Fuck yeah, I do. Seems like nobody wants a plain old screw anymore, Spoonie said. You wouldn't believe the freaks around here. Guys you'd never know to look at them, they were into that kind of shit. Fisting, pissing, you name it. Hey, I'd let some guy cornhole my dog if he paid me enough.
......Names, I said. I picked up the guitar controller. It was a tough little piece of plastic.
......Spoonie shook his head. There's only one guy of Amber's who likes to use the gag. Joel Danforth. He's a college professor, lives way the fuck over in Wilton, but he comes to Skowhegan to get his rocks off 'cause nobody knows him here.
......Give me the address.
......Spoonie heaved himself up and wrote Danforth's address in a notepad at his desk.
......I took the paper, looked at it once and shoved it in my pocket. Does he have the girl?
......I hit him in the face with the guitar again.
......It shattered that time, and Spoonie's nose went with it.
......Wilton is a bedroom community in the western Maine foothills. It's about thirty miles from Skowhegan, but only a short commute from Farmington, where--a quick Internet search told me--Joel Danforth worked as an English professor. His photo on the university's website showed him to be an average-looking guy in his late fifties, fit, with shoulder-length gray hair and an open face. He didn't look much like a sex-crazed killer, but what did that mean? Danforth was a poet, with three collections and a handful of awards to his credit. Big deal.
......I reached Danforth's house just after two. It was one of those big gambrel-roofed things, shingled in alternating bands of white and dark red. A woman knelt beside a flower bed that ran below the front porch, pulling weeds. She stood as I went up the walk. She wore a sleeveless denim blouse and white shorts. Her face, legs and arms were tanned, her bare shoulders dappled with freckles. I guessed her to be about the same age as her husband. She looked damn good.
......Hi, I said. Is Professor Danforth home?
......She smiled. No, sorry. Joel's at our camp today. A tree limb fell on the roof during that thunder storm a few days ago, and he's been staying there to do repairs.
......That must be quite a job. I didn't know he was so handy.
......Mrs. Danforth placed a hand flat against the tops of her breasts. I'm sorry. I'm terrible with faces. Are you a student of Joel's?
......I was too old to pass as a college kid, but maybe she thought I was a non-trad. I used to be, I said. I just finished my MFA and I'm doing a little travelling over the summer. I thought, since I'm back in the area, I'd say hello.
......Well, I'm sure Joel would love to see you. If you have the time to drive up there, I can give you directions to the camp. I'd call ahead for you, but he says the phone lines are still down from the storm.
......Directions would be great. Thanks.
......Half an hour later, I drove down a narrow dirt road along Clearwater Lake. The Danforth camp was easy to find. I pulled into the short driveway, boxing in a Prius. The cabin was small and tidy, its roof intact. The surrounding trees looked to be in possession of all their limbs. It probably never occurred to Mrs. Danforth to come out and take a look at the damage herself.
......I got out of the truck at the same time Joel Danforth opened the camp's screen door enough to squeeze out onto the porch. He moved to the right, blocking my view of the cabin's interior.
......Danforth forced a smile. Something I can help you with?
......Hands clenching and unclenching, I crossed the mossy lawn and stopped just in front of him. The porch was only about a foot off the ground. I looked up and said, Yeah. I'm a friend of Pandora's.
......I grabbed a fistful of his shirt with my left hand and his nuts with my right, then yanked him off the porch. I let him fall to the ground. He curled up and lay there, cradling his balls with both hands and whimpering.
......I didn't squeeze them that hard, so don't pretend, I said. Where's the girl?
......Get up. Show me.
......Danforth didn't try to fight or run, just took me inside the cabin. That was too bad. Adrenaline had me all jittery by then and a fight would have done me some good. Maybe I would pop him a couple later, just to take the edge off. Danforth led me to a little bedroom, and there she was.
......Pandora lay on the bed, on top of a quilt. Her hands were tied behind her back with a red bandana. A blue one served as a blindfold, but she wasn't gagged. Her nightgown was stained and wrinkled, and her hair was a mess. It was blonde, just like her mother's.
......I slipped off her blindfold and untied the knots around her wrists. Pandora blinked and squinted against the sudden glare, but didn't say anything.
......I told her if she stayed quiet, I wouldn't
she'd be okay, Danforth said.
......Shut up. I knelt beside the bed and massaged Pandora's wrists. I told her, It's over. You're safe now. Mike and Frank sent me to get you.
......Pandora stopped blinking and gazed at me. Her eyes were so blue it hurt to look at them. She said, I want my momma.
......Jesus Christ, I almost lost it right there. All the shit that little girl had been through, and the only thing she wanted was to be with the mother who had made her wander the neighborhood when the johns came over. I couldn't tell her Amber was dead.
......Danforth sat on a wooden chair in the corner of the room. I didn't hurt her, he said. I never touched her. You know, in that way. The whole thing was an accident. Pandora woke up as I was leaving, and I didn't know what else to do. I didn't mean to hurt her, you know. Like keeping a little girl tied up, blindfolded, and scared for days was harmless.
......I pulled my cell phone off my belt, glad I'd left the Glock at home. My hands still shook, but any moron can punch in 911. I took Pandora outside and we sat on the porch, waiting for the sheriff. I left Danforth inside. He was no threat to Pandora anymore, and he had never been one to me. I didn't care if he drowned himself in the lake, cut his own wrists or went quietly to jail.
......The cops would listen to my story and take Pandora somewhere safe, get her some help. They would have Danforth and Spoonie. The DA might nail my ass for getting involved instead of just calling the police to begin with. The hippies would never pay me, but I knew that before I knocked on Amber's door.
......I looked at Pandora and thought about Cody. I figured, let the bastards who ran things do whatever they wanted to me. The girl was alive. That was good enough for me.
Copyright © 2009 by Patrick Shawn Bagley.
Patrick Shawn Bagley's stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Spinetingler, Crimespree, The Iconoclast and the Bleak House Books anthology Uncaged. He has written a crime novel, Bitter Water Blues (now in his agent's hands). His current project is a August Hanrahan novel, intended as the first in a series. Patrick lives on a dirt road in a one-stoplight town.
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