Where Has the Little Girl Gone?
By: Walter Giersbach

I whispered, "Oh, Jesus!" when Kevin's name came over the wire service. The headline read "Tragedy Averted by Good Samaritan" and explained how he'd saved a kid's life.

I saw Kevin several times a year — holidays, when I'd drive down to South Jersey to see my sister, Lauren. My nephew was a high school senior — about 17. Lauren was a real estate agent whose daytime energy translated into writing inspirational wisdom at night.

"Where's the hero?" I asked Lauren when I arrived.

"Jamie!" Lauren held me at arm's length. "Thanks for coming. Doctors are releasing Kevin this afternoon. I'm on my way to Shore Medical. Come with me."

It was a pleasure escorting a beautiful lady, me in my late 30s and Lauren three years older. I display an in–your–face attitude, within the bounds of a reporter's civility. Lauren was the DNA carrier for Kevin's introverted personality.

"Just burned the back of my hands," Kevin said, sitting on the edge of the hospital bed. "They'll heal."

"Poor kid." I gripped a shoulder, careful of the bandages.

"You've changed your clothing," he said. "More style. New Yorky."

"Time for a change. I did some assignments on men's fashion, accessories, jewelry bullshit."

"Jamie," Lauren snapped. "Language, please."

"So, tell me what happened." The boy was smooth–faced, blond with neatly combed hair, and an insouciant curl to his lips. He didn't act defiant as much as he appeared to be living in a world of his own making.

"Kevin was driving down Bay Avenue and saw smoke coming out of a house," Lauren said. "He stopped and saw a child in an upstairs window. Flames were absolutely gushing out of the house."

"Yeah, gushing," Kevin said.

"He banged through the front door, which was unlocked, thank God, and ran upstairs, where this lovely child… How old was she?"

"Twelve or thirteen."

"And carried her out to the front yard."

* * *

"It's kind of extraordinary," I told Kevin after dinner. Lauren had gone to bed, but I suspected she was tapping away on her laptop, writing about how some heavenly intercession changed her life.

"Cut the drama crap, Jamie." He had dropped the "uncle" title. "What am I going to do? Like nothing? Maybe the kid could grow up and change history." A scowl crawled over his face, as though heroism was a distraction.

"I only mean you're introspective. Not a person of action."

"Not a Joseph Conrad hero? Nostromo and all that BS? I acted rationally. Anyway, Conrad only wrote about men. I think he was gay."

"Should have known not to argue with a student of the King's English."

He sighed. "Yeah, English major. So I can end up a librarian paid by our cheap town council."

"What did you mean, ‘change history'?"

"Maybe she'll find a cure for cancer or be the first woman to go to Mars. Sort of thing my sister might have accomplished."

I stared at his pale skin and blond features. He said "sister" first. He was still thinking about his twin, the girl who left two years ago. Caitlin had become the Voldemort of the household, the one whose name was never to be spoken.

"You think of Caitlin often?"

He snatched my glass of Scotch, stared at the ice, then drained the glass. "History. Can't escape it."

"Kev," I said, removing my glass from his hand, "we don't see each other much, but I respect the hell out of you. I love you and your Mom. You're my only family."

"You're a class act, Jamie, but you'll never make it as a reporter in Jersey. Gotta go to Afghanistan. Get wounded a little."

Two hours later, I lay in the guest bedroom sifting through the family's events. Maybe I'd always be a suburban hack without a wife and children, fated to chase newspaper deadlines and short–term romance. Was this state of affairs better than Lauren being widowed when her husband was killed by a mugger?

Opening the window to the spring evening, I stuck my head out and lit a joint. The weed I got from a photographer was good Mexican stuff and I inhaled deeply.

A hand lightly touched my shoulder.

Kevin stood at my side. "Share that?"

After ten minutes of silence, he clasped me in a headlock and looked ready to do something weird. Was he communicating teenage angst? I'd've punched out my nephew if he kissed me, but he abruptly got up and left.

Strange kid. Strange with his wacky body language, strange as an androgynous guy who'd never get a prom date. Did he have a girlfriend? Ever pick up girls in the high school parking lot? Not likely.

* * *

I looked up from my black coffee when the doorbell rang, became interested when Lauren began talking to the plainclothes cop, and got very alert when she shouted, "Kevin! Get down here."

Kevin had put on a T–shirt over his pajama shorts.

"Kevin O'Reilly, I'm Detective Krajic. About the young girl you saved two days ago?"

"How's she doing?"

"Her name's Heather. Her mother's been murdered. Can we sit down in the living room or somewhere? I have some questions."

I tried to listen, but saw the futility when Lauren frowned at me and shut the kitchen door.

By mid–morning, the news reporter in me had tried everything to get Kevin and Lauren to speak of the visit.

"Just drop it, Jamie," Lauren snapped.

"Okay," I said. "I'm going out for awhile. See you for dinner if that's still okay."

I drove to the police headquarters where a sergeant pointed to a room full of desks. "Detective Krajic?" I asked. "I was in the kitchen when you interviewed Kevin O'Reilly this morning. He's my nephew. To my point, I'm very familiar with the police procedures where I work up in Bergen County."

"You're an officer?"

"I'm assistant editor on the Times–Courier. My policy is to work with the police, not as an adversary. I spell out the ground rules every time I send a reporter to check the blotter."

"Why're you here? Your nephew hasn't been charged."

"If I knew what was going on, I might be able to help."

Krajic looked like a guy who'd seen the good and the bad. An ugly SOB with a face like a chicken pot pie, but someone you could deal with.

"Okay," he finally said. "Thirteen–year–old was saved by the kid when her folks' house caught fire. Parents were away. Child wasn't hurt, but would've been asphyxiated in a few more minutes."

"Kevin did a brave thing."

Krajic agreed. "Problem is, the mother's been murdered. Last night. Last seen walking home from a house six blocks away."

"Shitty thing to happen. How was she killed?"

Krajic was silent, weighing a decision. "Off the record. She was stabbed, the coroner says, then she was eviscerated. Her intestines were pulled out. That's how we located her. A dog was chewing…"

I held up my hand signaling time out. "You think Kevin might…?"

Krajic shrugged. "Had to interrogate him. Find out where he was last evening. What was this woman's relationship to him? Good–looking woman who used to work for Kevin's father."

"The family — his mother, him, me — had dinner together. I also said goodnight when he went to bed."

"Officer who found Heather's mom shot the dog," he said tonelessly.

"I'm sorry," I said. "Sorry for everyone who's been involved."

"A lady on the block told us she saw a young woman running down the sidewalk. Long blonde hair, tall, a stranger. We're a small town. Strangers stand out."

"Thanks, Detective. It's totally off the record."

"Listen," he called to my back, "I want to know who that blonde is."

* * *

"Kevin," I said when Lauren had gone shopping, "about the murder."

"What! I talked to the cop. I don't know shit about…"

"A witness saw a girl at the scene, a stranger in your neighborhood."

"So, your point is…what?"

"No point. Yet." I left the room. After dinner I was overwhelmed with frustration and announced I had to get back home. The paper was falling apart without me.

"Oh, Jamie," Lauren said. "We never had a chance to sit down and have a heart–to–heart. You're always on the run."

I winked. "Truth be told, there's a rich babe who can't live without me."

Truth was, no one was waiting.

What was the story? Kevin's twin sister, Caitlin, had been a high school sophomore when she and Lauren had a world–class fight. No one could agree whether Caitlin or Lauren had traded the first punch, but Kevin broke it up. Caitlin left the house and was never found.

I would've let the matter rest, like ghosts that meander around graveyards without bothering anybody. Then another wire service story came in from the shore. "Resident Attacked Returning from Church." The three–inch story described how 44–year–old Harriet Brown had been "hit with a blunt instrument, stabbed repeatedly and violated."

I wondered if Home Depot ever discounted "blunt instruments" because of so many killings. And, how would Krajic describe "violated"?

* * *

Telephones at a newspaper office are like insistent children, demanding to be picked up. "Times–Courier, Jamie Fields." I answer loudly to intimidate readers pissed because their names were misspelled.

"My name's Felicia Sanders, Mr. Shields. I'm the forensic psychologist at the Ocean County Sheriff's Office."

"This is about the murder — murders —, isn't it?"

"Has your nephew ever seen a psychiatrist or been under the care of a doctor for disorders? Other than the usual, you know, illnesses or accidents."

The woman was abrupt, bureaucratic. A real shrink with a doctorate would've been more ambiguous.

"I don't answer questions like these from a stranger on the phone."

"I agree completely. Please call me at my office. Look up the number of the Ocean County Department of Corrections in the phone book. They'll connect you to me."

Five minutes later, I said, "Okay, Ms. Sanders. Shoot."

"Has Kevin ever been under the care of a psychiatrist?"

"Never."

"Has he ever exhibited any trauma or acted out of the ordinary? I mean, beyond normal interpersonal reactions."

My anger thermometer was rising. "Never, as long as I've known him."

"But he lost a sister in 2015, didn't he? Caitlin was called a runaway. Police put out a search bulletin. She was never found."

"Correct."

"How did it affect him?"

"Ma'am, I don't like fishing expeditions from a backwater Jersey shrink. Piss off." I hung up and went outside for a cigarette. Then I waited till the end of the work day and got in my car.

Traffic was snarly with tourists going down the shore. It was after seven when I pulled into Lauren's driveway. The house was dark except for a light upstairs. I knocked on the door — a family courtesy instead of ringing the bell — and let myself in.

"Lauren?" I looked through the living room and kitchen, helloed again, and then went through the slider to the patio.

"Excuse me," I said to the young woman standing in the grass swinging a baseball bat. I squinted at her silhouette against the setting sun. The figure stopped and turned in surprise, her blonde hair swinging in an arc, the same arc the bat had made. "I'm looking for Lauren or Kevin."

She was wearing a sweater over white Capri pants. Red lips frowned as she leaned forward, holding the bat under her breasts. "They're dead, my dear. Deeead!"

I stepped backward. Was this Caitlin?

"Gotcha, Jamie," the figure said.

And I realized I was looking at Kevin. The kid was in drag and makeup.

"Sorry I surprised you." He didn't sound sorry.

"My fault," I said, wanting to shout What the hell? "I should've called. This just looks weird."

"That I look like Caitlin? Did you think my dear, missing sister had come back?"

I stood dummy–like, staring at my nephew. "Maybe I think you could've been the blonde that witness saw when that girl's mother was killed."

He laughed like a dog barking. "You think I murdered that thong mommy? Just cause she had an affair with my dad? You don't know a goddamn thing. Why don't you go back to your newspaper and write some headlines?"

"If I'm wrong, why don't you correct me?"

"Listen, I am not gay! I'm trying… I'm paying my respects to Caitlin. Restoring her reputation. Protecting her."

"Kevin, Caitlin's gone. Out of our lives. Your mother said she headed for the Coast."

"Wrong! My mother tried to murder Caitlin. The way she killed our father, out of anger over his mistresses, for betraying the family. He wasn't mugged, for chrissakes! Caitlin ran away to survive. And to come back to kill Mother dear." His head jerked. "Mother dear is lying upstairs in the bathtub."

"Kevin, I'm on your side. I had a call from a police psychologist. I put her off, but you need to talk with someone. Not because of," I waved my hand at him, "you dressing up. More'n anything, you need a good lawyer. The truth. Have you killed anyone?"

"The truth? Caitlin killed all those women and Mother dear." He barked again. "I saved the woman's kid from the fire. I'm the hero!"

"Let's go, Kevin, right now." I grabbed his arm, but he wrestled out of my grip. The wig flew into my face, distracting me. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a woman with a hunting knife rushing at us like a berserk samurai. She made two passes with the blade as Kevin and I both back pedaled. Kevin was half a step in front of me as the woman plunged the blade into his stomach.

"Little bastard, I told you to shut up!" She pulled out the blade and opened a fountain of blood. Then, she advanced on me. "Now you're the problem, Uncle."

"Caitlin?" The girl — the niece I hadn't seen in years — was identical to her twin doubled up on the ground.

"Only way I live is if everybody else dies."

"You killed those women. And your mother too?" I continued slithering backward before my ankle twisted on a patio block. I went down, throwing up my arms as Caitlin sprang forward swinging the blade. On my back, I watched the knife doing a cobra weave toward my neck.

At that moment, Kevin rose like a bleeding zombie, bringing the bat down on Caitlin's head. Her skull cracked with a metallic thunk. Home run. Caitlin fell forward, looking as though she was deep in prayer. Kevin fell to his knees beside her.

"I tried to protect her since she came back." His voice was thick with gobbets of phlegm. "This was her home. Once." He choked and I wondered if he knew he was dying. "Families have to stick together. Poetic, huh Jamie?"

* * *

The bodies were all tallied up in the end. The two neighbor women, my sister in the upstairs bathroom, and Kevin were a homicidal hit parade for this ratty–ass shore town. It was all because Caitlin believed her mother had killed her father. The mistresses were killed for good measure, to purify daddy's reputation.

My story made the wire service. I was even interviewed on a New York TV station. And, as the bailiff ushered Caitlin out of the courtroom with a 25–to–life sentence, I told her I'd be there for her.

"Families have to stick together," I said.

# # #

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