Sparrow Lea was a lazy berg of no great distinction, I believe, founded by a family, the Crammers, when a wheel on their wagon broke and the wagon train left them behind. As the story was told, the family survived their first winter living off the only thing they could catch – sparrows. Another sordid tale added their two youngest children to the menu. Of course, there are no historical records of either and the stories dance in folklore repeated by old men and women, usually at night.
Much folklore, as everyone seems to know, is based on actual occurrences. In my experience, sometimes the actual occurrence is simply someone wanting to tell a story. What really happened or didn’t happen to the first family settling Sparrow Lea will forever dance in the shadows, where most truth dances. Sometimes when someone creates a story, he has a reason and that reason often has to do with intentionally hiding the truth in the shadows. That’s where I generally enter the tale.
Sparrow Lea is a closed society, a small farming community with some manufacturing, a population of less than five thousand on a good day with a quick count. No one ever passed through Sparrow Lea, located far from any interstate. The main road dead-ended into town. Urban sprawl amounted to an outcropping of twenty-five or thirty residential blocks.
I first heard of this berg soon after my telephone rang. I looked at the glowing numbers on my bed stand clock, fumbled for the speaker button and grumbled: “This had better be good.”
A baritone voice invaded the darkness. “Why do you say that, Ms. Locke?”
I rolled my eyes. “What’s up, General?” I didn’t bother asking Do you know what time it is? I knew he didn’t and if he did, it wouldn’t matter to him.
“I want you to drive out and take a look-see at some crop circles –”
“Go to hell. Wait two weeks and read the debunkers in the newspapers, save the taxpayers some money.” I killed the connection and rolled over. The telephone rang again.
“Three teens missing.”
“Hiding from a beating for ruining Uncle Charlie’s crops. There, mystery solved. Transfer my fee.” I cut the connection again.
Again, the telephone rang. “The usual retainer has been transferred. All the info is on your desktop. Randy, you’re going to want to look at this one.” He took his turn at cutting the connection.
I knew nothing on my desktop couldn’t wait until morning. The assuredness in his voice and my curiosity told me different. I made coffee while I waited for the file to download and decrypt. The General was correct, but my interest had nothing to do with crop circles. I printed the file and a map. I cursed my current obligations. I tapped the speed-dial and after the forth ring, a voice said: “This had better be good.”
I chuckled. “It’s all good, Eve. I gotta leave town for a day or so.”
“Oh, oh, Randy. What’s up? Where’re we going?”
“I wish. You need to pick up the Smith deal and Janet was picked up – again.”
“I hate the domestic dogging. What for this time?”
“Simple possession. Throw my weight around a little. We have some credit with Richardson –”
“He doesn’t like me.”
“Only because you won’t date him.”
“He’s old enough to be – well, my much older brother and married.”
“He’s a good dancer, fair conversationalist and a poor drinker. He will pay for dinner. Smith’s got a two o’clock. Notes are in the file. We need pictures and then we’re done with it. Oh, and be careful. He’s not going to be happy.”
“Roger that, Randy. Where you off to? In case you drop off the radar, I’ll know where to start looking.”
“Place called Sparrow Lea –”
“Sounds like it’s for the birds.”
“It is. A nothing of a nowhere. File’s in the office now.”
“Gotta be missing kids involved.”
“Am I that predicable?”
“Nah – I just know you. How’d you catch it?”
“The General.” I hung up.
Aristotle Harrison, I doubt that’s his real name, is not really a general that I know of. I call him General as a joke. I suspect, and he denies, he works for the government. I’ve never met him. When he calls, the call can’t be traced. When he transfers files, the origin of the transfer can’t be discovered. He’s a shadow and I like that. Measured in dollars, he’s my best client.
I’m not really a private investigator. I’m a consultant. I’m a private citizen and I work for no one. I often consult with the authorities, when the authorities need someone to work under the radar. I, like Aristotle Harrison, am a shadow. I can’t be found in the telephone book. If you’re smart enough and good enough, you can find me in some official records under Derby Consulting.
Children, teenagers, going missing, particularly in the summertime, is not an odd occurrence. They tend to show up when they get hungry or when they tire of adventure. Even before I hit puberty, I disappeared for two to four weeks at a time in the summer. In my case, no one really cared and often didn’t know I was gone. I don’t, as Eve knows, scan the milk cartons for just any missing kids. Some kids don’t want to be found. Some kids, it’s better they’re not found.
We just don’t live in an ideal world.
The three teenagers in Sparrow Lea had been missing for six weeks. They disappeared the same night. They went to bed and were gone in the morning. The missing-person reports weren’t filed until a week later, giving no details. Obviously, the locals and the parents figured they were runaways. The two girls, Joey Lichen age fourteen and Lisa Corning age fifteen were best friends since childhood. The only apparent connection between the two girls and the other teenager, Jack Pratt, which I thought was a joke until I pulled his birth certificate, was he disappeared on the same night and just as mysteriously.
With any investigation, I start by pulling the birth records on all the principals. I look for people who aren’t supposed to be where they are or who they are. So far, I have found few people fitting this profile. I am one of these few. My mother holds my birth certificate, a certificate that appears in no records anywhere.