Excerpt: Candy From a Stranger

Coming in 2015.


I was too late to save the young boy. I had known all along that I would be, but that didn’t stop the pain in my gut…my heart. I had stupidly thought that I had steeled myself for this moment, knowing that two murders would not be enough for a predictable pattern to emerge and I would be unable to prevent anything—but nothing prepares you for the death of an innocent. Not even the death of your own.

Even as I watched outside the yellow tape-line, I suspected that I would not learn much more beyond what an earlier “AmberAlert” had told the public: a young boy, Josh Herndon, eight years old, clad in blue shorts, black and white striped t-shirt, and orange “flip-flops” was reported missing; and if the public should see anyone matching this description they should call 1-800-252-T-I-P-S.

I knew without a doubt that this time tomorrow Josh Herndon would still be missing and the growing numbers of police searching Fowler Park in front of me would not put much hope in finding him. They knew the statistics…they lose so many each year. That’s what the detectives had finally told Jeanie and me. “You lose so many, you know?” As if the scores of missing children each year were analogous to the amount of socks one loses in the clothes-dryer. “It just happens”. When Lieutenant Perez told me that, I wanted to lose him.

The creek in Fowler Park is so shallow that the little boy’s father, James Herndon, would later remark that he had no fear of the boy drowning because: “It’s barely a spit of water…it barely comes up to your ankles.” I would note that the tone of his voice, carried by the local TV station’s microphones, would sound exactly like all those other people on the mid-day news around the country that would remark that their neighbor, who had killed two-or-three people, “…seemed like a nice, quiet man.”

In this case, the father was correct not to worry…at least not about a drowning. There was no small body found floating in the thin water. Nor would a body be found at all. It was only the second boy but somehow I presciently knew for a certainty that little Josh Herndon, shortstop for Smithville’s Youth League’s Stompers, and son of James and Vicki Herndon was gone. Disappeared. And he wouldn’t be the last.

I believe my son, Lucas Cain, may have been the first. I’m not a big believer in intuition, or little voices that come in dreams late in the night, but something compelled me to purchase a radio, a scanner, that would let me listen to the local police bands, and that is the only reason I am now standing outside the Smithville Police Department’s crime-scene tape, mute as stone as the police walk over the park’s creek-area and a young, acne-faced rookie cautions the bystanders, including me, to stay behind the line.

There were few at my shoulders: two I did not recognize and one woman that I knew from the local “Quik-Stop” convenience store where I got my morning coffee fix. Was one of them the kidnapper? The killer? Lieutenant Perez, the officer who has come to loath my presence and the one who had first informed me of the realities of my “situation”, has told me that quite often the “perpetrators” stand and watch the crime scene as it unfolds. Lieutenant Perez explained that the kidnapper gets a thrill out of watching the police investigate the crime; that they get some kind of sick satisfaction from knowing only they know how it happened. I know from my own studies that the killer will relive the crime in his memory in the days that follow. I look at the faces around me now and I only see confused despair.

The woman from the “Quik-Stop”, who I only accidently know as Jolene, is a true Texan: a pile of pale-highlighted dishwater hair atop a uniform of tank-top and jeans. Some sort of open-toed sandals focuses the eye on vermillion-painted nails. Jolene, smoking a cigarette and wearing a disgusted frown caught my eye and gave me a look that said: “Can you believe this shit?”

I didn’t know if Jolene had any children of her own but yes…yes I could believe this shit and if she did have children—was there some small part of her wondering if little Johnny or Suzy actually did go to Grammy’s for the day as promised—or was she/he playing hooky down at the local playground? It was Sunday; probably other children would be there…maybe some adults, too, so maybe Jolene shouldn’t worry…

I wanted to shake her senseless. Or more accurately…shake her till she got some sense.

A man next to me says, “They’ve found something…” startling me out of my reverie.

I look in the direction he is staring and a group of three policemen is retrieving something from the slow moving water. One of the three has on latex gloves and he slowly lifts up a bright orange shoe, a “flip-flop”, and as he slowly rotates it a look of recognition goes through the other two cops and through the bystanders. Smithville is a small Texas town and all had seen Smithville’s sole local TV affiliate, KNET. Josh Herndon had been wearing flip-flops…bright orange flip-flops. Jolene steps away from the yellow line, throwing away her cigarette butt and pulls a cellphone from her tight jeans pocket to perhaps check on the whereabouts of a Johnny or a Suzy.

I’m not surprised by the presence of the shoe. When I heard the call on the police band of a “citizen’s report of possible abductee clothing”, I knew they would find a shoe, or a shirt, or a cast-off wristwatch. Something. With my Lucas it had been a plastic-sheathed “Yugo” card. My nights are tormented by what force caused that prized possession to leave the protection of my son’s back pocket. I had given Lucas that hard-to-find card when he got an “A” on his third- grade math quiz. It’s resting now in an evidence locker in Austin.

From the tape-line my focus is on a square piece of plastic trapped between a small rock and the scrubby grass/brush at the water’s edge. My mind is crying out: There! Look there! It’s staring you right in the face! One lone policeman must have sensed my urgency because he knelt in a catcher’s stance and stared at the plastic as if he were a biologist and he had just discovered some unknown species of pond life.

I didn’t need to wait for him to announce to the other cops just what this discovery was. From my vantage point the logo on the plastic wasn’t visible but I knew what it read: “Keeley’s…Keeley’s Red Hots!” Little pieces of red, cinnamon-oil infused candies that promised to “Light up your mouth like an Atomic Fireball!”

They found the same packaging at the playground where my Lucas, my sweet fragile boy, was playing the day he disappeared.

As the policeman called to summon the others to where he was kneeling, “Quik-Stop” Jolene folded her cellphone with a relieved look and turned to study me.

I shouldn’t be surprised by her interest. I had only been in Smithville for three days, since the very first Amber Alert, and my three days of stopping for a morning pick-me-up of caffeine was not enough to engender any sort of familiarity other than recognizing my haggard face. I imagine she was staring at me the same way I was staring at the others: He’s a stranger. Is he the one? After all, a tall, thin, stranger; longish brown hair and blood-shot blue eyes just like a thousand others who have passed through sleepy little Smithville—could I be the one? The one who seemed like a “nice, quiet man”?

Quiet…yes. Nice? Not hardly. I was looking for a man to kill.

The officer with the latex gloves had placed the orange flip-flop into a plastic evidence bag and was now gingerly holding up the red and white Keeley’s bag of “Red-Hots”. I noticed there were still some candies left. Keeley’s….maker of fine products everywhere and guaranteed not to exceed the FDA maximum levels of preservatives and red-dye number two. If Josh Herndon’s fingerprints showed up on the plastic bag wrapper of the “Red-Hots”, the candies could be the link between the disappearance of eight-year old Josh and my eight-year old son, Lucas Rutherford Cain.

However long the dark jester above us lets me live on this earth, I will wait. Wait and pray. At this moment I pray that the red candy will lead me to the man who will turn me into a killer.

Chapter Two

It’s the fourth of May and even though it’s slightly overcast in Smithville, the sparse clouds above are only a lie in the hazy spring morning. Nearly all of Texas has been in drought conditions for years. One only had to look at the emaciated form of Fowler Park Creek to see that. It’s hot and muggy. The Josh Herndons of this world couldn’t have hoped for more than a shallow wade through the creek water and all of the people standing in or out of the crime scene were stained with early morning perspiration and all of the policemen were struggling to mop brows without moistening handheld radios and papered clipboards. Just about the time Jolene must have decided that I wasn’t a crazed madman or even a traveling salesman with too much time on my hands, a white pickup bearing the legend “Smithville Signs” (“A Sign for YOUR times!”) pulled into the park’s few parking slots and a young man jumped out.

Even if the young rookie attending the yellow tape hadn’t raised the line to allow the man into the scene I would have understood the man to be Josh Herndon’s father. He had the same look on his face that I once had: stunned, confused, anguished and yet still hopeful that this was all a dream, no…a nightmare. A nightmare from which he would wake up and tug on his sleeping son’s shoulder to tell him this was Sunday and even though Little League was over with, it was Sunday and Sunday meant church and then a short trip down Curtis Street for pigs-in-a-blanket at the IHOP.

All it took was one look at the orange flip-flop in the sealed plastic bag for James Herndon to fall to his knees and realize the nightmare was real and there would be no Bible school, no “Amazing Grace”, no pigs-in-a-blanket.

If anything, the father’s face was more confused, more anguished than moments ago and with the possible exception of one or two of the policemen there, I alone knew how that man felt.

Quik-Stop” Jolene had moved off to find her car before the local news media showed up and blocked her in, but I waited long enough to catch sight of the name-tag of the officer who appeared to be the alpha-dog milling about the creek. It read: “Sgt. D. Craig.”

Sergeant Craig”…it sounded more like a happy first name; like the guy who would show up at the local grade school with McGruff the-Crime-Dog and explain to all the third and fourth graders how a policeman is your friend and how you should always “Dare To Say No” even though mommy and daddy are knocking back a six pack every night in-between puffs of their “funny” cigarettes.

Sgt. Craig. There was no choice; I would have to talk to him, and eventually…Lieutenant Perez.

Long before I found myself back at the Crenshaw Motel, staring at my cellphone and trying to drink up the courage for a round of conversation with this “Sergeant Craig”, I was a teacher. A teacher and a father and a loving husband. Now I was none of these, though I will refer to myself as a father till the day I die.

Voltaire said that God is a comedian playing to an audience too afraid to laugh. God wasn’t being humorous when he gave me the bug to be a teacher…a teacher of psychology at that! No, God was being smarmy. God was being sarcastic. Only a God with a shitty sense of humor would throw a dead little boy into the life of a psychology teacher…like a psychology teacher is better suited than most to handle the loss of a loved one and guess what? He was wrong. In spite of his “P.R.” firm, God isn’t perfect and he isn’t always right. That’s why I can’t “handle it” and that’s why six years of study and months of grief counseling and self-help groups and “Learning to Live with Loss” books aren’t going to stop me from breaking at least two of His commandments.

Don’t get me wrong…I still pray to Him. Lieutenant Perez has told me over and over again that Lucas is still just missing and there is no evidence that he is dead but I know, in my heart of hearts (which God gave me in the middle of his little joke), that he is. But I do pray to Him. I just don’t pray to the all-loving, turn-the-other-cheek God that Lucas and I studied at Austin’s Breath of Resurrection Church on Sundays. No, I pray to the Walls-of-Jericho-falling, cast the money-changers out, kick-ass-and-blast-Sodom-and-Gomorrah-all-to-hell God that Ma Cain used to talk about. Ma Cain—what a character. I prefer to think that if God is a comedian playing to an audience afraid to laugh, Mama Cain is taking His cover charge at the door and keeping the riff-raff out. How’s that for philosophy, God?

When I married Jeanie, all thoughts of a vengeful, jealous God were far from my mind. When Lucas was born those thoughts were even more buried. I thought I had it all: a loving, beautiful wife, a healthy young son who was my spitting image, and a secure, satisfying tenure at the Austin Community College Annex where I could warp young minds and still get to the lake on weekends to cast for catfish and throw down a few Shiner Bocks when the lake Gestapo weren’t looking.

Jeanie left me six months ago.

We had been to enough counseling sessions to know that couples who lose a child do one of two things: either they cling together more tightly than ever before, or they drive each other away in guilt and remorse and maybe, self-loathing. Whether you are the type to listen to Dr. Phil or the kind that can stand those “chicken soup” books, counseling is supposed to make you choose the former and take a big pass on the latter. Well, Jeanie and I chose to love one another and drive each other away. That’s why she’s with her parents in Seattle right now waiting for me to have ten-too-many drinks and use those unlimited calling minutes to beg her to come back.

There’s a lot of grieving hearts in this world, not just the one I love most up there in Seattle, but this grieving heart is not barren and dry. All those years of deep analytical study and teaching have filled me with passion and purpose.

I am going to find the sick bastard that took my son and I’m going to kill him.

My last name is Cain. If Ma Cain was alive this day she would make a full and steady commentary on how Cain was the brother to Abel and Cain was branded for all eternity for killing his brother. Perhaps God is that comedian and I am that audience too scared to laugh. Afraid to laugh? Maybe…but I’m not afraid to kill.

Sitting in my dingy kitchen apartment at the Crenshaw Motel with three fingers of bourbon for company, I enter the numbers for the Smithville Police Department.


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