I’m serializing a short story I wrote five years ago called The Last Stop, which is appearing in bite-sized pieces throughout the week. It’s probably unpublishable for a few reasons, but I put effort into the thing, so I’m posting it. You are the beta readers.
The Last Stop
© 2009 by Eric John Baker
“Hello. Are you calling because of the flier?”
A hesitation. “Um, yeah. Is the girl in the picture home?”
Riley looked at his handset a moment then put it to his ear again. “Can you say that once more?”
“I’m calling for the girl in the picture. Did I get a wrong number?”
Riley shook his head and balled his left hand into a fist. “It’s a missing-persons flier, not a personal ad, dumb ass. Can’t you see the big M-I-S-S-I-N-G across the top?”
“Hey, I found it on the ground with the top part ripped off. What’s your problem, asshole?”
Riley dropped the handset into the cradle and buried his face in his hands. The phone rang again.
“Hello? Are you calling about the missing persons flier?”
A woman’s voice, broken and fading, said, “That’s my daughter, Judy.”
Riley jumped to his feet. Judy! “Do you know what happened to her?”
The woman hesitated. “She was murdered.”
The room began to spin and Riley fell back into his chair, unable to breathe. His arm remained in place, holding the phone to his ear, but he barely heard the woman say, “I can’t believe you knew her.”
Riley stared at the wall, destroyed. His voice came out as little more than a whisper. “I just used to see her around… I didn’t even know her name.”
“I can’t believe you remember her after all this time.”
Riley’s eyebrow went up. “What?”
“I say, I can’t believe you’ve been looking for her since 1985. Do you think we could meet sometime?”
His grip tightened on the handset until the plastic groaned. “I’m sorry for your loss,” he said through his teeth and threw the phone across the room. Then he took the picture he hated of Madeline from the end table and punched it, shattering the glass.
Monday morning, he sold his Toyota at a car-cash place for four thousand dollars. Thank god for the resale value of Japanese cars, he thought as he rode the bus downtown.
He alighted on Jamaica Park Road, the site of a private detective agency. Andre Rodgers, proprietor, motioned for Riley to sit.
“Welcome to Rodgers Agency. How can I help you?”
Riley handed him a flier and told the story.
“So, if I read you,” said Rodgers in a confident baritone, “You want me to find a girl based on nothing but a sketch and a redhead at a bus stop.”
Riley had no time for games. “If you can’t do it I’ll find someone else.”
Rodgers’s hand went up. “I didn’t say that. I can find her if she exists.”
“The police won’t even-”
“The police get paid whether they find her or not,” he said. “In fact, it’s easier for them if they don’t. Me, I’m a businessman. My closing ratio is pretty important to me.”
“Fifteen hundred, and I’ll have a solid lead by the end of the week. If I got nothing, I’ll give you the money back, less two hundred for expenses.”
Andre Rodgers’s words elevated him to the status of minor deity. He was going to find Sophia! Like it was easy. Why didn’t I come to this guy right away, Riley thought. Private enterprise is always the answer. No feat is too great for a man with willpower.
Riley wrote out the check and stood to shake Rodgers’s hand. Rodgers remained in his chair.
Outside, on the sidewalk, Riley felt free from the burden of the heavy chains.
His cell rang. “Hello?”
“Riley.” Patrick. “I’ve been trying to get a hold of you for over a week. Please come in. We need to talk.”
He didn’t have time for this. They were so close to finding Sophia. “I’ll be there in 20,” he said with cheerful blankness, back in character.
Riley rode Sophia’s line, bound for the city. He departed at the last stop, where she normally got on.
He bustled through the main doors of his company on the fourth floor, brushed past the reception desk and someone dressed for an interview—an applicant trying to steal his job, he surmised—and trotted down the hall to Patrick’s office.
Patrick stood and closed the door. “How are you doing, Riley? Do you want to take a seat?”
“I’m fine standing,” Riley said. “Before you tear me a new one, which I deserve, I just want to apologize for the way I’ve been-”
Patrick was doing the boss stare. “Listen. I’ll just come out and say it. You’re being terminated.”
(to be continued)