The Empty Chair
. . . chapter one
She came here to lay flowers at the place where the boy died and the girl was kidnapped.
She came here because she was a heavy girl and had a pocked face and not many friends.
She came because she was expected to.
She came because she wanted to.
Ungainly and sweating, twenty-six-year-old Lydia Johansson walked along the dirt shoulder of Route 112, where she’d parked her Honda Accord, then stepped carefully down the hill to the muddy bank where Blackwater Canal met the opaque Paquenoke River.
She came here because she thought it was the right thing to do.
She came even though she was afraid.
It wasn’t long after dawn but this August had been the hottest in years in North Carolina and Lydia was already sweating through her nurse’s whites by the time she started toward the clearing on the riverbank, surrounded by willows and tupelo gum and broad-leafed bay trees.
She easily found the place she was looking for; the yellow police tape was very evident through the haze.
Early morning sounds. Loons, an animal foraging in the thick brush nearby, hot wind through sedge and swamp grass.
Lord, I’m scared, she thought. Flashing back vividly on the most gruesome scenes from the Stephen King and Dean Koontz novels she read late at night with her companion, a pint of Ben & Jerry’s.
More noises in the brush. She hesitated, looked around. Then continued on.
“Hey,” a man’s voice said. Very near.
Lydia gasped and spun around. Nearly dropped the flowers. “Jesse, you scared me.”
“Sorry.” Jesse Corn stood on the other side of a weeping willow, near the clearing that was roped off. Lydia noticed that their eyes were fixed on the same thing: a glistening white outline on the ground where the boy’s body’d been found. Surrounding the line indicating Billy’s head was a dark stain that, as a nurse, she recognized immediately as old blood.
“So that’s where it happened,” she whispered.
“It is, yep.” Jesse wiped his forehead and rearranged the floppy hook of blond hair. His uniform—the beige outfit of the Paquenoke County Sheriff’s Department—was wrinkled and dusty. Dark stains of sweat blossomed under his arms. He was thirty and boyishly cute. “How long you been here?” she asked.
“I don’t know. Since five maybe.”
“I saw another car,” she said. “Up the road. Is that Jim?”
“Nope. Ed Schaeffer. He’s on the other side of the river.” Jesse nodded at the flowers. “Those’re pretty.”
After a moment Lydia looked down at the daisies in her hand. “Two forty-nine. At Food Lion. Got ’em last night. I knew nothing’d be open this early. Well, Dell’s is but they don’t sell flowers.” She wondered why she was
rambling. She looked around again. “No idea where Mary Beth is?”
Jesse shook his head. “Not hide nor hair.”
“Him neither, I guess that means.”
“Him neither.” Jesse looked at his watch. Then out over the dark water, dense reeds and concealing grass, the rotting pier.
Lydia didn’t like it that a county deputy, sporting a large pistol, seemed as nervous as she was. Jesse started up the grassy hill to the highway. He paused, glanced at the flowers. “Only two ninety-nine?”
“Forty-nine. Food Lion.”
“That’s a bargain,” the young cop said, squinting toward a thick sea of grass. He turned back to the hill. “I’ll be up by the patrol car.”
Lydia Johansson walked closer to the crime scene. She pictured Jesus, she pictured angels and she prayed for a few minutes. She prayed for the soul of Billy Stail, which had been released from his bloody body on this very spot just yesterday morning. She prayed that the sorrow visiting Tanner’s Corner would soon be over.
She prayed for herself too.
More noise in the brush. Snapping, rustling.
The day was lighter now but the sun didn’t do much to brighten up Blackwater Landing. The river was deep here and fringed with messy black willows and thick trunks of cedar and cypress—some living, some not, and all choked with moss and viny kudzu. To the northeast, not far, was the Great Dismal Swamp, and Lydia Johansson, like every Girl Scout past and present in Paquenoke County, knew all the legends about that place: the Lady of the Lake, the Headless Trainman. . . . But it wasn’t those apparitions that bothered her; Blackwater Landing had its own ghost—the boy who’d kidnapped Mary Beth McConnell.
Lydia opened her purse and lit a cigarette with shaking hands. Felt a bit calmer. She strolled along the shore.
Stopped beside a stand of tall grass and cattails, which bent in the scorching breeze.
On top of the hill she heard a car engine start. Jesse wasn’t leaving, was he? Lydia looked toward it, alarmed. But she saw the car hadn’t moved. Just getting the air-conditioning going, she supposed. When she looked back toward the water she noticed the sedge and cattails and wild rice plants were still bending, waving, rustling.
As if someone was there, moving closer to the yellow tape, staying low to the ground.
But no, no, of course that wasn’t the case. It’s just the wind, she told herself. And she reverently set the flowers in the crook of a gnarly black willow not far from the eerie outline of the sprawled body, spattered with blood dark as the river water. She began praying once more.
Across the Paquenoke River from the crime scene, Deputy Ed Schaeffer leaned against an oak tree and ignored the early morning mosquitoes fluttering near his arms in his short-sleeved uniform shirt. He shrank down to a crouch and scanned the floor of the woods again for signs of the boy.
He had to steady himself against a branch; he was dizzy from exhaustion. Like most of the deputies in the county sheriff’s department he’d been awake for nearly twenty-four hours, searching for Mary Beth McConnell and the boy who’d kidnapped her. But while, one by one, the others had gone home to shower and eat and get a few hours’ sleep Ed had stayed with the search. He was the oldest deputy on the force and the biggest (fifty-one years old and two hundred sixty-four pounds of mostly unuseful weight) but fatigue, hunger and stiff joints weren’t going to stop him from continuing to look for the girl.
The deputy examined the ground again.
He pushed the transmit button of his radio. “Jesse, it’s me. You there?”
He whispered, “I got footprints here. They’re fresh. An hour old, tops.”
“Him, you think?”
“Who else’d it be? This time of morning, this side of the Paquo?”
“You were right, looks like,” Jesse Corn said. “I didn’t believe it at first but you hit this one on the head.”
It had been Ed’s theory that the boy would come back here. Not because of the cliché—about returning to the scene of the crime—but because Blackwater Landing had always been his stalking ground and whatever kind of trouble he’d gotten himself into over the years he always came back here.
Ed looked around, fear now replacing exhaustion and discomfort as he gazed at the infinite tangle of leaves and branches surrounding him. Jesus, the deputy thought, the boy’s here someplace. He said into his radio, “The tracks look to be moving toward you but I can’t tell for sure. He was walking mostly on leaves. You keep an eye out. I’m going to see where he was coming from.”
Knees creaking, Ed rose to his feet and, as quietly as a big man could, followed the boy’s footsteps back in the direction they’d come—farther into the woods, away from the river.
He followed the boy’s trail about a hundred feet and saw it led to an old hunting blind—a gray shack big enough for three or four hunters. The gun slots were dark and the place seemed to be deserted. Okay, he thought. Okay. . . . He’s probably not in there. But still . . .
Breathing hard, Ed Schaeffer did something he hadn’t done in nearly a year and a half: unholstered his weapon. He gripped the revolver in a sweaty hand and started forward, eyes flipping back and forth dizzily between the
blind and the ground, deciding where best to step to keep his approach silent.
Did the boy have a gun? he wondered, realizing that he was as exposed as a soldier landing on a bald beachhead. He imagined a rifle barrel appearing fast in one of the slots, aiming down on him. Ed felt an ill flush of panic and he sprinted, in a crouch, the last ten feet to the side of the shack. He pressed against the weathered wood as he caught his breath and listened carefully. He heard nothing inside but the faint buzzing of insects.
Okay, he told himself. Take a look. Fast.
Before his courage broke, Ed rose and looked through a gun slot.
Then he squinted at the floor. His face broke into a smile at what he saw. “Jesse,” he called into his radio excitedly.
“I’m at a blind maybe a quarter mile north of the river. I think the kid spent the night here. There’s some empty food wrappers and water bottles. A roll of duct tape too. And guess what? I see a map.”
“Yeah. Looks to be of the area. Might show us where he’s got Mary Beth. What do you think about that?”
But Ed Schaeffer never found out his fellow deputy’s reaction to this good piece of police work; the woman’s screaming filled the woods and Jesse Corn’s radio went silent.
Lydia Johansson stumbled backward and screamed again as the boy leapt from the tall sedge and grabbed her arms with his pinching fingers.
“Oh, Jesus Lord, please don’t hurt me!” she begged.
“Shut up,” he raged in a whisper, looking around, jerking
movements, malice in his eyes. He was tall and skinny, like most sixteen-year-olds in small Carolina towns, and very strong. His skin was red and welty—from a run-in with poison oak, it looked like—and he had a sloppy crew cut that looked like he’d done it himself.
“I just brought flowers . . . that’s all! I didn’t—”
“Shhhh,” he muttered.
But his long, dirty nails dug into her skin painfully and Lydia gave another scream. Angrily he clamped a hand over her mouth. She felt him press against her body, smelled his sour, unwashed odor.
She twisted her head away. “You’re hurting me!” she said in a wail.
“Just shut up!” His voice snapped like ice-coated branches tapping and flecks of spit dotted her face. He shook her furiously as if she were a disobedient dog. One of his sneakers slipped off in the struggle but he paid no attention to the loss and pressed his hand over her mouth again until she stopped fighting.
From the top of the hill Jesse Corn called, “Lydia? Where are you?”
“Shhhhh,” the boy warned again, eyes wide and crazy. “You scream and you’ll get hurt bad. You understand? Do you understand?” He reached into his pocket and showed her a knife.
He pulled her toward the river.
Oh, not there. Please, no, she thought to her guardian angel. Don’t let him take me there.
North of the Paquo . . .
Lydia glanced back and saw Jesse Corn standing by the roadside 100 yards away, hand shading his eyes from the low sun, surveying the landscape. “Lydia?” he called.
The boy pulled her faster. “Jesus Christ, come on!”
“Hey!” Jesse cried, seeing them at last. He started down the hill.
But they were already at the riverbank, where the boy’d hidden a small skiff under some reeds and grass. He shoved Lydia into the boat and pushed off, rowing hard to the far side of the river. He beached the boat and yanked her out. Then dragged her into the woods.
“Where’re we going?” she whispered.
“To see Mary Beth. You’re going to be with her.”
“Why?” Lydia whispered, sobbing now. “Why me?”
But he said nothing more, just clicked his nails together absently and pulled her after him.
“Ed,” came Jesse Corn’s urgent transmission. “Oh, it’s a mess. He’s got Lydia. I lost him.”
“He’s what?” Gasping from exertion, Ed Schaeffer stopped. He’d started jogging toward the river when he’d heard the scream.
“Lydia Johansson. He’s got her too.”
“Shit,” muttered the heavy deputy, who cursed about as frequently as he drew his sidearm. “Why’d he do that?”
“He’s crazy,” Jesse said. “That’s why. He’s over the river and’ll be headed your way.”
“Okay.” Ed thought for a moment. “He’ll probably be coming back here to get the stuff in the blind. I’ll hide inside, get him when he comes in. He have a gun?”
“I couldn’t see.”
Ed sighed. “Okay, well. . . . Get over here as soon as you can. Call Jim too.”
Ed released the red transmit button and looked through the brush toward the river. There was no sign of the boy and his new victim. Panting, Ed ran back to the blind and found the door. He kicked it open. It swung inward with a crash and Ed stepped inside fast, crouching in front of the gun slot.
He was so high on fear and excitement, concentrating so hard on what he was going to do when the boy got here, that he didn’t at first pay any attention to the two or three little black-and-yellow dots that zipped in front of his face. Or to the tickle that began at his neck and worked down his spine.
But then the tickling became detonations of fiery pain on his shoulders then along his arms and under them. “Oh, God,” he cried, gasping, leaping up and staring in shock at the dozens of hornets—vicious yellow jackets—clustering on his skin. He brushed at them in a panic and the gesture infuriated the insects even more. They stung his wrist, his palm, his fingertips. He screamed. The pain was worse than any he’d felt—worse than the broken leg, worse than the time he’d picked up the cast-iron skillet not knowing Jean had left the burner on.
Then the inside of the blind grew dim as the cloud of hornets streamed out of the huge gray nest in the corner—which had been crushed by the swinging door when he kicked it in. Easily hundreds of the creatures were attacking him. They zipped into his hair, seated themselves on his arms, in his ears, crawled into his shirt and up his pant legs, as if they knew that stinging on cloth was futile and sought his skin. He raced for the door, ripping his shirt off, and saw with horror masses of the glossy crescents clinging to his huge belly and chest. He gave up trying to brush them off and simply ran mindlessly into the woods.
“Jesse, Jesse, Jesse!” he cried but realized his voice was a whisper; the stinging on his neck had closed up his throat.
Run! he told himself. Run for the river.
And he did. Speeding faster than he’d ever run in his life, crashing through the forest. His legs pumping furiously. Go. . . . Keep going, he ordered himself. Don’t stop. Outrun the little bastards. Think about your wife, think about the twins. Go, go, go. . . . There were fewer
wasps now though he could still see thirty or forty of the black dots clinging to his skin, the obscene hindquarters bending forward to sting him again.
I’ll be at the river in three minutes. I’ll leap into the water. They’ll drown. I’ll be all right. . . . Run! Escape from the pain . . . the pain . . . How can something so small cause so much pain? Oh, it hurts. . . .
He ran like a racehorse, ran like a deer, speeding through underbrush that was just a hazy blur in his tear-filled eyes.
But wait, wait. What was wrong? Ed Schaeffer looked down and realized that he wasn’t running at all. He wasn’t even standing up. He was lying on the ground only thirty feet from the blind, his legs not sprinting but thrashing uncontrollably.
His hand groped for his Handi-talkie and even though his thumb was swollen double from the venom he managed to push the transmit button. But then the convulsions that began in his legs moved into his torso and neck and arms and he dropped the radio. For a moment he heard Jesse Corn’s voice in the speaker, and when that stopped he heard the pulsing drone of the wasps, which became a tiny thread of sound and finally silence.