“Route 109”: Literary Suspense Short Fiction By Kevin Roller
Kevin Roller, author of Route 109, has published literary, horror, and mystery short fiction in Mystery Tribune, Pilcrow and Dagger, Ink Stains Anthology, and Blue Lake Review, among other publications.
“Let her speak,” said Dana Carmoody.
A damp tissue meshed between her white knuckles. Her eyes were rimmed with red and her third chin was quivering. Dana was prone to hysterics; she’d had the same reaction when her favorite dry cleaner went out of business, or when her dead great uncle was in an uncommunicative mood during one of her weekly séances.
The fact that she displayed the same level of hysterics when her son had gone missing seemed to surprise no one but Violet—though her curiosity was detached, impersonal, the way a child feels about scorching ants under a magnifying glass on a sunny day.
She didn’t suspect Dana of anything—except, perhaps, a low threshold for hysteria. Now that she was staring down the barrel of a real crisis, she probably didn’t know what to do. Basic stuff, Violet thought, from a basic woman.
The fact that she displayed the same level of hysterics when her son had gone missing seemed to surprise no one but Violet…
“You let her speak,” said Dana Carmoody, wagging her abused tissue at the police officers in her living room. “You’re not getting anywhere with—with this, are you? And this is my son, okay? My only—” She choked on her words, the knot in her throat rising with perfect dramatic timing. “My only baby boy,” she managed.
“Ma’am, we understand,” said one of the police officers. “But try to see things from our perspective. This friend of yours isn’t exactly—”
“Damn your perspective!” she shouted. “How about my perspective? How about my life and my family and my little boy? Doesn’t that count for anything? Shouldn’t you want all the help you can get, no matter where it comes from?”
The police officer looked Violet up and down—perhaps noticing for the first time that she was young and attractive, and not the haggard witch he had anticipated. He turned to consult with another police officer (this one quite aware; she’d felt his grubby eyes wandering over her since she’d arrived) in hushed tones. She heard him whisper, if it helps her, then who cares. The other disagreed.
The front door opened. Two men entered the room.
The first she recognized immediately as Steven Carmoody, Dana’s portly little husband. Dana complained about him often, which probably meant that he was a relatively good man. Some of her clients had husbands who were drunks or husbands who were chronic philanderers, but very few had the luxury of a husband whose major faults were an obsession with baseball and saving up empty cans for the bottle deposit.
The other was different: a tall man in a wrinkled suit, with a badge on his belt and the hint of a pistol’s grip under his sportcoat. There was an air of authority about him, too—something that made the policemen in the room stand up a little straighter, to focus their wandering eyes on faces and hastily-jotted notes in notepads.
She didn’t need to feign psychic ability to figure out that this was a detective. (Though, if she needed to do something like that, the tan line around his left index finger and the way his socks were mismatched told her everything else she needed to know. Pallid skin, yellowish fingernails. A stain on his lapel – a bloodless red, probably dried ketchup. But no stubble. That was obvious too.)
She didn’t need to feign psychic ability to figure out that this was a detective.
The detective exchanged a look with Steven. Violet had met Steven only once, at a seance for his dead mother (Dana’s idea). He froze when he saw her, his plump lips drawn taut. Whatever the opposite of blushing was, Steven seemed to be doing it.
“Are we interrupting something?” asked the detective.
Dana turned her tissue to the detective.
“This is Violet Marion,” she said. “I know this will probably sound funny to you, but—but she’s a psychic. And she says she can help—that she’s received a message from the shades about—about—”
“Okay, okay,” said the detective with a sigh. “I understand.”
Dana didn’t miss the clear resignation in his voice; she resumed her baseline hysterics almost immediately.
“How could you,” she spat. “You’re just like the others. Unbelievers. Too proud to accept help because they don’t like the source.”
“I don’t have a problem with the source, Mrs. Carmoody. It’s the source’s source that lacks credibility.”
“That’s because you haven’t seen the truth,” Violet said. She felt every eye in the room turning to her—for one reason or another. “The truth only the shades can share.”
The detective scoffed. “Why don’t you save it, all right? We’re looking for a missing kid here.”
“I know,” Violet said. “The shades have told me many things. In fact, just last week they told me that Dana would encounter some hardship with her family. And look at what’s happened.”
“It’s true,” Dana said, her voice soggy with awe. “It’s sotrue, Detective Maxwell. They said there would be a trial, and that I would emerge victorious.”
“And that doesn’t sound at all vague to you?” he said.
“Watch it,” said Steven, his tone more warning than threatening, as if she were an unseen puddle he was about to step into. “I didn’t buy it either, but—the things she knew. About my family. About my mother.” He stared at her again with that same blanched look as before. “It was uncanny. It wasn’t right.”
“Such is the nature of shades, Mr. Carmoody,” Violet said. “And it’s good to see that you’ve regulated your sodium intake, just as the doctor suggested. I can tell from here that the Darkest Shade is much farther away than it was before.”
Steven’s jaw wagged. “How—how did you—”
Detective Maxwell raised a hand.
“I’m not here to disprove the credibility of psychics or witches or wiccan or whatever the hell you call yourself. I’m here to find a missing kid. Not to let some charlatan freak make a sideshow of herself.”
Dana sucked in a breath. Before she could get started, Violet said: “It’s been three days. Hasn’t it, Detective?”
“Try fourteen hours,” he said. “Maybe you should do a quick Google search about these things before—”
“I’m sorry,” she interrupted. “You misunderstood. I mean, hasn’t it been three days since your wife kicked you out? And I’m told there’s another woman involved?”
The room went quiet, save for the ticking of an antique grandfather clock in the corner. She could tell by the way Maxwell’s cheeks started to go red that she’d been right on the money; most of the signs were obvious enough, but the other woman was a guess. Why else would a guy in a downward spiral bother to shave?
“I’m not here to disprove the credibility of psychics or witches or wiccan or whatever the hell you call yourself. I’m here to find a missing kid.”
“I’ve struck a nerve,” Violet said. “Forgive me. I only know what the shades tell me, and that’s what they told me. About you, that is.”
“You don’t fool me,” Maxwell said. “You’ve irritated me, but you haven’t fooled me.” He turned to Dana and Steven. “Now we have actual leads we need to discuss. Actual information. I’d recommend you ask this woman to leave so we can—”
“She’s not leaving,” spat Dana. “Not until she’s had a chance to share her visions with you.”
“Which would be easier to do,” Violet said. “If I had all the details of this case at my disposal.”
That got a laugh out of him. She thought it was pretty funny herself.
“Oh, I bet it would,” he said dryly. “We don’t share leads with anyone outside the family—not media, and definitely not mediums—unless we absolutely have to.”
“Well consider yourself compelled, then,” Dana said, folding her chubby arms. “I’m not listening to a word you say unless Violet can be included. End of story.”
Maxwell scoffed—a dry kind of scoff, the kind that was meant to express disgust, incredulity, and exhaustion all at once. He turned to Steven, who just shrugged and lowered his eyes. Maxwell ran his fingers through his hair.
“Okay. Fine.” Maxell pulled his iPhone from his pocket and adjusted his posture; he was facing the Carmoodys now, with his back to Violet. She nearly smiled at that. She loved a petty man. “Based on the security camera footage we have,” Maxwell continued, “Scotty Carmoody was last seen at Forest Park Elementary School.
He walked into the school at 7:25 A.M. During recess at 10:12 A.M., Scotty was seen by one of the recess monitors at the edge of the playground, but never returned to class. After recess was over, the same security cameras at the front of the school picked up a blue Honda sedan leaving the premises at high speeds.
The license plates on the vehicle had been removed.” He paused and looked over his shoulder. “Any questions so far? Or is this old news to you and your—what’d you call them?”
“Shades,” Violet said. “Messengers from the spirit realm. But you’re not interested in shades, are you?”
“Guess you are a psychic,” he muttered, not meeting Dana’s eye. “Anyway, we alerted all the major news outlets, police officers, and toll booth workers almost immediately, and we sent out an amber alert, but so far nothing’s come back. Helicopters have been scanning the roads and woods, and we’ve organized a search party to comb through—”
“They won’t find anything,” Violet said. “The forest is the wrong place to look. Focus your efforts upwards. My shades keep telling me to look to the skies.”
“Isn’t there anything else?” Dana said, her tears beginning to ebb. “I mean, didn’t you say the shades had told you something new? About Scotty?”
Violet sighed—a slow, heavy breath. She put her fingers to her temples and started to hum.
“I see blue skies. Green. Jagged teeth of brown and grey. The shades are pointing to something—a road, yes, I see a road. I can’t see the Great Shade among them, but I can feel his presence; he is near, but not too near.”
“Oh thank God,” Dana said, her hands clasped together. “The Great Shade—that’s death, Steven. Death isn’t near our baby boy.”
“And—and jagged brown and grey—could those be mountains?”
“Mountains, yes. Yes. It has to be! Mountains, Steven. They’re headed north. Did you hear that, Detective Maxwell?”
“I did,” he said. “Forgive me if we continue to look south, too. Just for the hell of it.”
“You do not believe,” Violet said. “It’s okay. I’ve met and converted many non-believers. But the signal—the signal is weak here. My shades communicate best in the dark, in a setting they’re familiar with. Perhaps if we could relocate to my shop, I’ve set up my back room for just this sort of thing.”
“That’s a brilliant idea, Violet,” Dana said, dropping the mangled tissue. “Perhaps if we were there, imagine what we could learn. We could have Scotty home in time for supper.”
But Maxwell said nothing. He watched her with that detached, emotionless stare she’d worked all her life to avoid: the look of someone who had figured her out. Violet knew she had pushed her luck too far by suggesting relocating; it was too soon.
She needed to give the kidnapping more time, allow for more space for panic to blossom. But they weren’t ready yet, and she had been over-eager; Maxwell was obviously too pragmatic, too much a member of this world to be fooled by hers.
He watched her with that detached, emotionless stare she’d worked all her life to avoid: the look of someone who had figured her out.
“That is a brilliant idea,” Maxwell said. “We could walk right outside—past all those eager journalists and news crews—and drive over to your little boudoir. The optics there would be great: three policemen, two distraught parents, and one medium. Great optics—for you, at least.”
“I don’t care about the media. Obviously we’d be noticed, but is that really what’s important here?”
Maxwell smirked, his question implicit: Shouldn’t I be asking you the same thing?
And when she turned to the Carmoodys, looking for the backup she’d come to depend on, she saw something in their eye that wasn’t there before, something that made her stomach drop and her right eyelid twitch: doubt.
Violet ordered a double cheeseburger with bacon, extra cheese, and as many pickles as the patty would allow. Sweet potato fries, so she could at least pretend she was being healthy, and a Diet Coke. She had told the waiter, a teen with a pimpled face and slack jaw, to leave the menu. She’d want pie later, but she wasn’t sure what kind yet.
She was starving. The second she’d heard that stupid little Scotty Carmoody had managed to get himself kidnapped, she had put herself on a juice cleanse. She spun on her elliptical until her shirt was heavy with sweat, and then evaporated what was left in the sauna. She carefully covered her acne scars, then detailed her face using a television makeup guide she’d found online. By the time she was done, Violet had felt worse than she ever had in her life. But she looked amazing.
Maybe that had something to do it; maybe if she had focused less on her appearance and more on her “vision”, she would’ve been more successful. That morose detective had seen right through her—almost immediately, too. And she’d lost one of her oldest clients in the process.
“Hereyago, ma’am,” mumbled the teen as he put the crowded plate before her.
Business was still good, she consoled herself, as hot grease dribbled down her chin. There were at least seven other Mrs. Carmoodys who sought the consultation of her shades. She hadn’t raised her rates in a while (though she was planning to, after receiving some free publicity on the back of Scotty Carmoody), but she was still making enough to keep herself afloat.
Some clients trusted in nothing but tarot readings, a few who trusted nothing by seances facilitated by a faded crystal ball, and a few who trusted in nothing but her shades. Her clients were discerning people, believing in only the exact thing they chose to believe in; a tarot card client would find a crystal ball to be kitsch and perhaps a bit stupid—and the crystal ball client would feel the same way about tarot cards.
The shades, though, were her own invention; a happy blend between ghosts and angels, they told the future, told the past (that is, if her client had an active enough online presence), and paid her bills.
She finished her burger, then her fries. And once her braindead waiter remembered that she existed—and that he was dependent on her tip—she ordered a slice of apple pie.
After the pie was gone, she left the diner.
Then she started to drive. She drove uptown, then downtown. She drove past her shop, Mystical Awakenings, just to make sure that she had flipped the sign on her door to Closed. She drove past the museum, past the park, past more fast food chains than she knew about.
Violet drove aimlessly when she was stuck—a habit she had picked up in college that vexed her more environmentally-conscious friends. She once drove to the Canadian border while brainstorming for her dissertation.
She did it again when the IRS and state board busted her six years back for overcharging her therapy clients. Violet had been under the maple trees, breathing in the crisp air, when she realized that psychics didn’t answer to a state board. And, sometimes, they made television deals.
This drive was proving to be fruitless, though. She had passed through the outskirts of town—past a WalMart so huge it practically had its own zip code, then a convenience store on its rim, a rebel satellite unwilling to give in to gravitational pull. Getting Dana Carmoody back into Mystical Awakenings would be easy enough once this Scotty business had settled down. All she’d have to do was invite Dana to tea.
Violet would apologize, explain that she hadn’t been herself that day, that she’d been drained by another client. She’d keep her language purely secular—rushing back to shades and tarot and the like too soon would scare her off—and Dana, being the polite cow that she was, would accept her apology, would eventually apologize herself.
The problem she faced, as she took the onramp onto the interstate, was Scotty.
Violet would apologize, explain that she hadn’t been herself that day, that she’d been drained by another client.
She could still work this in her favor somehow. She could feel the answer, waiting for her miles and miles away. Violet accelerated.
Maybe once the boy had been found, she could release some kind of statement: that she had known where the boy was, that they could have found him much sooner (or, under different circumstances, she could swap out “much sooner” for “in time”) if they had only listened to her. She could vaguely allude to travelling north, too, which could also be reinterpreted in her favor; if Maxwell had let her finish, she’d say, she would’ve told him that the granite state was at their backs, not—
That’s when she saw it. Not it—but him.
He was facing forward, but his profile was clear enough.Square glasses. Red hair. A round, sallow face, like his mother’s. Big, angry tears. Also like his mother’s.
Then the car, a black minivan, pulled forward.
Violet swerved out of her lane and pulled behind the van. She kept her distance, not wanting to spook him. Not that she knew what she was going to do, anyway. Not that she had any sort of plan.
She flicked on her radio (usually these drives were done in silence) and turned to the local news station: “… are on the lookout for a blue 2007 Honda Accord, last seen leaving Forest Park Elementary School following the disappearance of Scott Carmoo-”
Violet shut off the radio. They were looking for the wrong vehicle. Maybe she didn’t need to work too hard about turning this kidnapping in her favor. Maybe this was the best thing that had ever happened to her. Violet laughed, sharp with both panic and relief.
She opened her phone and called the police department. The receptionist patched her through to Detective Maxwell.
“Yep,” he said, his voice gruff.
“Hi, it’s—it’s Violet Marion. From earlier? At the Carmoody’s?”
“Ah, yep. The psycho.”
She chose to ignore that. She wasn’t feeling witty, anyway. “Listen, you’re not going to believe this, but I know where Scotty Carmoody is.” “Oh yeah?”
“He’s in a black van on I-95, headed south. Agh! Someone just pulled in front of me, I can’t get the license plate, but I’ll—”
“And who exactly got in the way?” Maxwell said. “Abraham Lincoln? Elvis?”
She paused, not sure what to say.
“Or wait,” he continued, “let me guess. Couldn’t be Elvis because he’s still kicking, right? Your spooky ghosts tell you that?”
“Maxwell, I’m serious,” she said. “I’m—this isn’t a vision, or anything.”
“Cut the crap, lady. You and I both know what you’re about.”
“If you’d just listen—”
“That’s it,” he spat. “Frankly I think your behavior is disgusting, and I think you know that, too—deep down in that voodoo-addled brain of yours. Now quit trying to exploit this situation, or I’ll give you something to really worry about. We clear?”
She began to stammer a response, but he hung up on her.
Violet threw her phone and shouted, digging her fingernails into her plush steering wheel. How could he be so stupid? So willfully blind? She merged into the far left lane and pulled ahead of the car in front of her, but the van was nowhere in sight. Had she missed it? Did it take an exit?
Violet spotted the van about one hundred yards ahead, moving fast, swerving between cars.
And she did the same. She drove recklessly, wildly. At one moment she was closing the gap, leaning on the accelerator, and in the next she was riding someone’s bumper, flashing her high beams, using every obnoxious driving trick in the book. But they weren’t serving her well enough. The van maintained its lead. In her panic, she thought it had even increased it. Did he know he was being followed? Or was this his idea of normal, un-suspicious driving?
She caught a glimpse of Scotty’s bright red hair. He was easy to spot, even with a head that small, that delicate.
Violet merged, her engine gurgling. She felt her teeth grind as the side of her car scrape another. Her back bumper tapped the front of a pickup truck behind her. Through her rear window she could she the driver gesticulating wildly, flailing a free hand into all sorts of interesting gestures.
When she looked back to the road, the van was gone.
No cherry-red tail lights. No matte black body. No flicker of red hair.
Violet accelerated recklessly, more recklessly than ever before. People laid on their horns. People swerved. She bumped the guard rail. Someone behind her may have been forced into an embankment, but she couldn’t be sure.
She took the next exit on the highway and went in the other direction, taking the last exit she had passed on the southbound highway. Exit 16: Route 109, Dedham, Westwood.
Of course the van wasn’t there anymore—if he had taken that exit at all.
Violet pulled up to the stop light, leading to a new stretch of road: Route 109. There weren’t any signs along the border, advertising gas or fast food or hotels.
Impenetrable woods lay beyond the road, behind the red stop light. Lush, tall grass encroached on the blacktop. Route 109 was old, grey and sun-baked, though it was free of tire treads or skid marks or even litter, as far as she could tell. An untouched, rarely-traveled road. No cars passed in either direction. The road gave her two options: right, or left.
And when the light had turned green, swaying in the breeze, she still hadn’t decided.
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