Troy noticed that the two men standing in the adjacent line of the crowded restaurant were eying his thirteen-year-old daughter, Ellie. The men were both in their mid-thirties, probably only a few years older than Troy. But unlike Troy, they were big, hard men, dressed like painters or roofers. Both had full beards. One was blond, and the other had black hair.
Their interest in Ellie was more than simply casual, and they were making little effort to be discreet, let alone secretive. Troy met their stares and neither of them turned away, as grown men would ordinarily do when caught in such an act of impropriety. On the contrary, they were laughing and ribbing each other while they looked at Ellie.
Troy and Ellie were waiting in line in the Julep’s BBQ, just north of Knoxville, Tennessee, during the evening rush hour. This was one of Troy’s last dinners with his daughter, at least for the summer, and he didn’t want it to be spoiled by two random perverts. And there was also the very real possibility that these two men would turn out to be a significant problem, rather than a passing annoyance.
She’s only thirteen, Troy thought. What kind of men look at a thirteen-year-old girl that way?
Nevertheless, he turned his attention back to his daughter.
“Do you know what you want?” he asked her. He was somewhat relieved to see that Ellie seemed not to have noticed the men’s attention. “When we stopped here in June, you had the pulled pork, I think.”
Ellie nodded, after giving the question the full attention that it deserved. “I’ll have the pulled pork again.”
Julep’s was one of those establishments where you placed your order at the counter, fast-food style. It was hot and crowded at this hour of the evening. The last week of August in eastern Tennessee.
Troy was an outsider in this part of the world, even though he had made numerous trips this way since Ellie’s mother had remarried and relocated from Ohio to Florida. Knoxville was one of the logical stopping places along the long southerly trek down I-75, and of course on the way back north.
“Will you eat here on the way back from Florida?” Ellie asked. They were the next ones in line.
“No,” Troy said. “Julep’s is our restaurant. I’ll stop at Wendy’s or Hardee’s or Chipotle, but not Julep’s.”
Ellie smiled. “Maybe I can come back with you. Mom doesn’t really need me.”
She said this in a light-hearted manner. They both knew that Kylie loved Ellie. But Kylie loved her daughter in her own way, at a different intensity. Different people had different ways of loving, of expressing their love. This was a matter that Troy and Ellie had discussed at some length over the summer.
“We can just go down to Gainesville and I can come home with you, then,” Ellie pressed. “I’ll pop in and say hi to Mom—and to Joe, I guess.”
Troy put his arm around his daughter’s shoulder. She hadn’t yet acquired that don’t-acknowledge-me-in-public attitude that teenage girls so often adopt toward their parents between the onset of puberty and the end of high school. It gratified Troy when Ellie said things like that, and he was more than a little glad to see that she still loathed Joe, Kylie’s “new” husband of three years—even if Joe wasn’t, on balance, such a bad guy.
“I wish you could,” Troy said. “But we both know how it has to be.”
Troy glanced over at the adjacent line. The two men were still there, still looking at his daughter. They were just out of earshot, given the buzz of the busy restaurant. But there was no doubt about what they were doing, whom they were looking at.
Troy stepped around Ellie and placed himself between his daughter and the leering men. Don’t give them anything to look at, he thought.
Troy wished he were the sort of man who could simply walk over to the men and tell them to look elsewhere, and be confident that his words would carry the necessary weight. But there were two of them; and the truth was that either one of them would be more than a match for Troy. He wasn’t that sort of a guy, but he would protect his daughter however he could.
He turned back to Ellie and noticed that her cheeks were reddened. She looked up at him knowingly. So she had noticed the two men.
Troy was also suddenly aware of what Ellie was wearing: shorts and a halter top. It was summer, after all; and they were on a long drive through the South. Moreover, Troy still saw Ellie as the little girl she had been just a few years ago, eating cereal in front of the television in her pajamas on Saturday morning, her smile showing the gap of a missing baby tooth.
Wanting to freeze time in place, he hadn’t fully acknowledged the changes that had taken place. Had he not made that mistake, he thought, he could have made sure that his daughter dressed more modestly. Then she wouldn’t have drawn the attention of these two perverted men in their thirties.
So he had failed to protect her twice: first, preemptively, and now, that these two men were actively making her uncomfortable.
Troy took a deep breath, and put his shoulders back, as if trying to expand his five-feet, nine inches to a brawny six-four. Ridiculous, and probably transparent, even to Ellie.
“Don’t worry about those two,” Troy said. There was no need to specify which two he was talking about. “I’m here.”
Ellie nodded and looked up at the lighted menu board behind the counter. The young woman at the cash register nodded for them to place their order, and they stepped forward together. Troy felt more inadequate than he had in a long time, probably since Ellie’s mother had first left him.
Five minutes later they had their food and had taken a seat out on the dining room floor. They both ordered the pulled pork.
Troy noticed, as they departed from the counter, trays in hand, that the two men were still waiting in line.
The tables at Julep’s were varnished wood, covered with checkered red-and-white vinyl tablecloths. Julep’s was decorated in a faux country motif: The walls were rough-hewn, bare plank boards. There was a restored gasoline pump from the 1930s in one corner of the dining room. In another corner was a life-size wooden cigar-store Indian. The planks of the walls were adorned with vintage photographs from the early twentieth century. There were old signs for bygone brands: Walter’s Beer and Gem soap flakes. Ben-Bay cigars.
“Are you looking forward to school starting?” Troy asked Ellie as they sat down. He now realized that he had involuntarily avoided this question all summer, even though it was something that a father ought to inquire about. This was because the start of the school year meant the end of the summer, and the summer was theirs.
Ellie shrugged. “I guess so.”
Ellie was going to be in the eighth grade this year. She was growing up so fast. To Troy, the news of her impending arrival in the world seemed like just yesterday. Troy had been a college student, two years away from graduation, when his girlfriend Kylie had told him that she was pregnant.
There was no question about marrying Kylie then, even though he and Kylie had been dating for a little less than a year, and she seemed ambivalent about the entire situation. The pregnancy had not made her less ambivalent. Maybe we should consider our options, Kylie had said. But Troy had talked her into it.
He now reflected that when you had to talk a young woman into marrying you, that was probably a warning sign. Didn’t women always leap with joy at marriage proposals in the movies?
For the better part of ten years they had made a go of it, amid numerous disappointments and recriminations. Then four years ago, the inevitable had happened.
Kylie had wasted no time remarrying, starting a new life, while Troy’s own life was stalled: He had no romantic prospects to speak of, and he was stuck in the same dead-end job that he had held at the time of the divorce: He was an assistant manager at an electronics shop—or more properly, a video game store, as that was all the establishment really sold anymore. And he had once planned to be an engineer.
But Troy had no regrets about getting Kylie pregnant, even though common sense told him that he should feel otherwise. He couldn’t feel otherwise—sitting across the table from his daughter.
“The eighth grade is an important year,” he told her. “This time next year, you’ll be a high school student.”
She was about to reply when they were interrupted by a boisterous male voice, audible even above the buzz of the dinnertime crowd.
“Whataya think, Dennis? Where should we sit?”
Troy knew without turning around that the words had been spoken by one of the two men who had been leering at Ellie in the line at the counter.
“There’s a good spot!” the other one replied.
Troy didn’t know if they were speaking at an excessive volume to make sure he and Ellie heard them, or if unnecessary volume was simply an aspect of the way these two men moved through the world. Either answer was possible. The men—one of whom Troy now knew was named Dennis (though he could not have said which one)—noisily took a seat at a table behind Ellie, a significant distance to one side of them.
Troy was grateful for the crowd, and the relative scarcity of seats. He had no doubt that these two would have claimed the table directly beside them, had it not already been claimed by another group of diners.
Ellie shifted uncomfortably in her seat. He should be doing more to make her feel comfortable, to reassure her, to behave in a protective manner.
The two of them had had a good summer together, a summer of reconnecting. It had been a little awkward at first, as it often was when she came to visit after an extended period in Florida with Kylie and her husband, Joe. In another day they would be in Gainesville. He didn’t want their fleeting time together to be ruined by two Podunk buffoons from Tennessee.
At that moment he blamed a little bit of everyone. He blamed Kylie for taking so little time to remarry, and for “marrying up” to an older man who made more money than Troy was ever likely to earn. He blamed the judge who had signed off on the revised custody arrangement, the one that placed his daughter in Florida for much of the year. He blamed the lawyers who were involved on both sides.
But most of all Troy blamed himself: He had let Kylie get away when he should have done something—anything—to keep her (if he had ever really had her in the first place, that was). He had not fought long enough and hard enough when Kylie had first announced her plan to take his daughter out of Ohio due to Joe’s job transfer.
And now Troy was failing to protect his daughter in an obviously uncomfortable situation. Maybe he should say something. Yes, he decided, if the two men said anything more, he would say something—even if that meant fighting them both in the parking lot, and getting beaten half to death.
“I wish I didn’t have to go to high school in Florida,” Ellie said. “I wish I could live with you instead.”
Ellie had expressed this sentiment several times over the course of the summer, and Troy never got tired of hearing it. But the custody agreement was the custody agreement. It was fair—at least according to the way the law measured things—and Troy knew that he had no chance of successfully fighting it.
To make matters worse, Kylie’s new husband had turned out to be a reasonably decent guy—and what many women in their thirties would call “a good catch”. Joe was ten years older than Troy and Kylie. He was nevertheless more athletic than Troy. Tall, fit, and tan, Joe was an avid tennis player.
When Joe’s high-paying finance job had necessitated the move to Florida, the three of them—Joe, Kylie, and Troy—had had to go back to court. Joe, consummately gallant and reasonable, had offered to kick in an annual stipend to defray the travel expenses that Troy would incur going to and from Florida. Troy had refused, not wanting to take any of Joe’s money. Not a single cent.
There was no abuse of Ellie on Joe’s end, either physical or emotional. Not even a hint of it. Troy had subtly probed in that direction, and found nothing. Ellie had made no intimations of late-night visits to her bedroom, or of angry slaps. Based on what Ellie had told him, Joe kept his tone studiously neutral, allowing Kylie to be the face of discipline on the rare occasions when it was necessary.
So there would be no change in the custody agreement—at least not anytime soon.
“I wish you could go to high school in Ohio, too,” Troy said. “But well, I suppose your mother has rights, too. And the court said that her rights mean you live with her for most of the year. Also, she loves you, too.”
“Mmm,” Ellie replied. “Yeah, I guess so.”
There was a loud, unmistakable whistle from one of the men. Troy looked up and Ellie turned around. It was the blond one who had made the wolf-whistle. He winked obscenely at Ellie.
The men were both laughing now. A few of the other patrons briefly noticed, then turned away. Either the entire context of the situation wasn’t clear to them, or they didn’t want to get involved.
Troy met the men’s stares and shook his head. Come on, now, he was trying to say with the gesture. You’re adult men; she’s an adolescent girl. This isn’t right.
The men returned Troy’s look, directly and without any fear or restraint whatsoever. These two weren’t going to be shamed. They weren’t going to back down.
Troy glanced across the table at Ellie. He saw her embarrassment, of course; but he was also acutely aware of the way his features mingled with Kylie’s in the child that the two of them had made. He realized now that because of Ellie, some part of him would always love Kylie, despite everything that had happened.
Troy started to stand up, knowing that he would be hopelessly over his head. But he couldn’t let this go. If he couldn’t defend his daughter against these two men, then what use was he as a father? He had let Ellie down in so many ways already.
The men leaned back and smiled expectantly when they saw Troy begin to rise. Come on over, their smiles seemed to say. This should be fun.
“Dad, no.” He felt Ellie’s hand on his. “Sit down, Dad.”
“I can’t let them carry on like that with you,” he said.
“It’s okay,” Ellie said—though it couldn’t be okay. “It’s just talk. This isn’t the first time. There are guys like that at school, you know. And besides, you can’t fight them both.”
“I can try,” Troy replied. “What I can’t do is let them carry on like that.”
“Dad, please: sit down. You can’t fight them both.”
Troy saw that Ellie was more distressed by his proposed suicide mission than by the men’s behavior. His daughter was standing up for him. That realization made Troy both proud of and sad for her. She was growing up even faster than he thought; and she deserved better.
Troy allowed himself to be persuaded by Ellie’s beseeching. Or am I simply glad that I’m off the hook now? He looked quickly over at the men: They were shaking their heads; they had known all along that Troy was a paper tiger. On the brighter side, though, they were now turning their attention to their plates, loaded with smoked meat and baked beans. Maybe it was finally over.
“Okay,” Troy said, sitting again. “But I won’t let anyone treat my little girl that way. They’re grown men and you’re only thirteen. And I don’t like hearing about guys your age showing you disrespect. What’s that all about?”
He wondered, briefly, if Joe would stand up for her in situations like this, if Joe was aware of the boys at school. He was going to ask her, but he knew how transparently self-serving that question would come across.
“It’s no big deal, Dad. They don’t touch, and they don’t necessarily single me out for special attention. It never amounts to more than a little whistling or a silly comment. Just like these guys.”
“They aren’t ‘guys’, Ellie. Boys your age might be ‘guys’. They’re grown men.”
“Dad, please: Can we talk about something else now?”
“Sure, Ellie. Sure. Of course we can.”
They started to talk about other things: the upcoming school year, and the texts Ellie had recently received from her two best friends in Florida, Jenny and Taylor. Troy had not met any of Ellie’s Florida friends, but he had deliberately learned all the major ones’ names over the summer, along with their distinguishing characteristics.
Troy hoped that Ellie had forgotten about the two men, though he doubted this was so. Whatever she said about boys her age whistling and staring, how could a thirteen-year-old girl coolly overlook attention like that from two men who were at least her father’s age?
The two men ate more quickly than Troy would have expected. He and Ellie were still talking about Jenny’s latest adolescent crisis (some conflict with her overly protective parents) when the men stood up from their table. Troy was not surprised to observe that they did not dump their disposable plates and plastic silverware in one of the many trashcans positioned about the dining room, as was the practice at a semi-fast-food restaurant like Julep’s. They left their empty trays on the table to inconvenience the next party of diners. That much figured: Men like that would also be inconsiderate, wouldn’t they?
They paid no more notice to the lone man who was obviously eating with his daughter. In fact, they seemed to be almost in a hurry.
Troy watched them over Ellie’s shoulder, half-listening to her in a way that he knew would be called distracted parenting. Troy’s seat faced the big window that looked out onto the parking lot; and he was able to watch the two men climb into an old Ford van. The vehicle was brown, with a long dent along its passenger side. For all Troy knew, the accident that resulted in the dent might have occurred twenty years ago. The van was that old.
Just as the van was rumbling out of the parking lot, Troy noticed another diner several tables away: a fortyish, burly man in a police uniform. He was obviously on-duty, as he was not only wearing a uniform, but also carrying a sidearm and radio.
Did the sudden departure of Ellie’s tormenters have any connection to the equally sudden appearance of the policeman? Troy had no way of knowing. It didn’t really matter. The important thing was that the men were gone.
But the two men were not gone. An hour after dinner, Troy saw the dented brown van again.
They were south of Knoxville, on the outskirts of the city, checked into the Holiday Inn where he and Ellie would be staying for the night. Troy had thought about driving farther—possibly even attempting Chattanooga. But that idea had been a nonstarter. The long stretches of Tennessee highway between the major towns were unpredictable where accommodations were concerned. He and his daughter had been driving for the better part of the day since leaving Ohio late that morning.
And finally, every mile closer to Gainesville was a mile closer to losing her for the summer.
Troy saw the van as he was coming back from the Holiday Inn’s ice machine. Despite the imminent sunset, the day was still muggy as hell. In the distance he heard a vacationing family frolicking in the waning daylight in the outdoor pool. The ice bucket, its contents already beginning to melt, was tucked in the crook of one arm. Ellie was waiting for him in the hotel room.
He dismissed the van as an imposter at first. How many brown Ford vans were there in the state of Tennessee? How many old brown Ford vans?
Then he spotted the long dent along the passenger side. There might be a lot of old Ford vans in the state, and possibly a lot of old brown Ford vans. But there wouldn’t be all that many old brown Ford vans with the same dent in the same location, traveling this particular stretch of I-75 through Knoxville at the same hour.
The two men had found them.
That was a ridiculous thought, of course. The two men had left Julep’s before them, and had therefore arrived here at the Holiday Inn first. Unless they had waited for Troy and Ellie alongside the highway. No—that was ridiculous, too. The two men had bolted out of the BBQ restaurant at the sight of that policeman. Or so it had seemed.
The two men couldn’t have been following them, nor had they tracked them here. And when Troy gave the matter a bit more thought, it really wasn’t such an amazing coincidence. Knoxville was perhaps the third or fourth largest city in Tennessee, but it was still Knoxville. Knoxville wasn’t a huge metropolis; and there were only so many hotels along the main highway leading through town. If the two men were traveling somewhere, it didn’t take a leap of improbability for them to land here in the same Holiday Inn.
But still—if the van hadn’t been brought here by the deliberate artifice of its two drivers, Troy’s more superstitious side made him wonder: Had the van been brought here by something else?
He was about to exhale and stopped himself when he heard the two men’s voices—over-loud and uncouth as before—approach from the far side of the van. Troy held his breath and took a step backward. He had a split-second to wonder if a tiny rattle of the ice bucket would give him away.
The men opened the rear double doors of the van, shielding most of the opening with their bodies. They glanced cursorily around and miraculously missed him. Well—not that miraculously. They were careless types. Moreover, it was now almost full dark, and this end of the parking lot was poorly lighted. In daylight they would have seen Troy. A more observant pair would have seen him.
There was a flash of a tiny penlight in the back of the van. Troy looked at the assortment of objects back there, and recalled the way the men had looked at Ellie. Troy’s mind made some instant connections, and those connections brought on a cold, sodden dread.
It was similar to the dread he had felt, five years ago, when a cardiologist had called him and his three siblings into a consultation room at Good Samaritan Hospital, and declared that their father, a lifelong smoker, would not survive his second heart attack. It was not unlike the dread that he had felt shortly after that, when Kylie had finally announced that she was leaving him.
And at the same time, this dread was wholly different. It was a primeval dread, a dread of men who knew neither goodness nor mercy.
Even though there were probably any number of hotel guests who answered to that name, Troy instantly recognized Ellie’s voice.
She was standing on the sidewalk alongside the hotel. She was aware of her father, but completely oblivious to the van, or the presence of the two men who had ogled her in the restaurant. And, of course, she had no way of knowing what Troy had seen in the back of the van, and the conclusions he had drawn.
“Did you see the pool?” Ellie called out.
This caught the attention of both men. They whirled on Troy, then looked over at Ellie. Troy noted that she was still clad in the shorts and the halter top—the outfit that had drawn their unsavory notice in the first place.
It might be summer, Troy thought, but I wish I could make her wear a sweatshirt and baggy jogging pants. To protect her from men like these.
An old story flashed into his mind—something he had read in a book or seen on TV. In olden times, men used to send their wives and daughters to the hills when the barbarians invaded, but not before shaving their heads and blackening their faces with ashes.
But the barbarians were right here, in front of him.
“Go back to the room, Ellie!” Troy called out.
“I just wanted to see the pool!” she called back, a trifle indignant.
“Yeah, let the girl see the pool,” one of the men—the one with black hair—said, and his companion laughed. They closed the van’s rear doors but not with excessive haste. What Troy had seen in the back was not incriminating, technically speaking. It required one to make certain extrapolations, based on the type of men these two were.
“Go back inside, Ellie!” Troy called back, ignoring the men.
Ellie looked ready to respond, but then she simply nodded and returned, retracing the steps that had brought her there. Troy was grateful that their room was on the other side of the building, so the men would not be able to see where she went, exactly.
“You look familiar, mister. Do we know you?” the blond-haired, blond-bearded man said.
With a supreme effort, Troy controlled his voice. He wondered if the ice bucket was shaking.
“I don’t think so.”
“Sure, we know him,” his companion said. “What a coincidence. Did you and that pretty little girl enjoy your dinner?”
Troy didn’t reply.
“Do you have a problem here, mister?”
“No, none at all.”
“Then why are you still standin’ here?”
That was a good question. There was no reason at all.
“Have a good night, gentlemen,” Troy said, before departing, giving them a wide berth.
That had been an idiotic thing to say, he thought. Those two men were not gentlemen. There was nothing gentle about them.
And there would be nothing good or gentle about this night, because of them. They had ruined the evening for him and Ellie. And they had likely ruined a lot more, besides.
Several hours later, Troy was lying in bed, listening to the wheeze of the hotel room’s ancient air conditioning unit, thinking: What should I do?
Because to do nothing would be a choice, too.
Troy was quite confident that he and Ellie could spend the night in their room, check out early in the morning, and avoid the two men. But he could not unsee what he had seen in the back of that van, he could not unmake those conclusions. That all entailed a certain responsibility.
Ellie was sleeping in the next bed over. Troy wished that there had been enough money for two hotel rooms, one for each of them. Ellie was getting to an age where she wanted and deserved privacy, even around her father.
But a single room with two king-size beds was the best that he could afford. So he had stepped outside while she showered and changed. He had also retrieved an item from the trunk of his Chevrolet Malibu—an item she would not have suspected that he even owned.
Troy had not mentioned the second appearance of the men to her. There was no point in scaring her, or making her feel even more uncomfortable. The leers in the restaurant had been bad enough. Maybe Ellie had noticed the men and recognized them, and maybe she hadn’t. In either case, there was little to gain by talking about them.
I might have been mistaken, Troy thought to himself. Maybe I didn’t see the items that I thought I saw in the back of that van.
No, there was nothing mistaken.
There was a chance that the two men were no longer at the Holiday Inn, that Troy’s presence had spooked them as much as theirs had spooked him. Those odds were slim. Those types were reckless, and cunning only for a while. Sooner or later they would make a mistake, and get caught.
I, thought Troy, I am their mistake.
If that was true, then fate had indeed brought them together. Fate had brought them together twice—once in the restaurant, and now here again, at this Holiday Inn south of Knoxville.
He could not simply let the matter go. He would have to do something.
After a few more minutes of steeling himself Troy decided, and he woke his daughter up.
“What’s wrong, Dad?” Ellie asked. Once again, she reminded him of the little girl she had so recently been. She was wearing a pair of gym shorts and a long Florida Gators tee shirt.
A memory came to the surface, unbidden: It might have been six or seven years ago: happier times, semi-happy though they were, when he and Kylie were still married, and they were all living together as a family in Ohio. Ellie had awakened in the night from a bad dream, cried out, and he and Kylie had gone into their daughter’s bedroom to comfort her.
Now Ellie was growing up, and some bad dreams had turned out to be real.
Ellie was still half-asleep. Troy was kneeling beside her bed, dressed, with two objects in his hands.
“What’s wrong?” she repeated.
He regretted having to wake her up—as he regretted so much. But he was required to act—he fully understood that now—and his action required him to wake her. Otherwise, she might awaken while he was completing his errand, and wonder where her father had gone. He could imagine her then going outside to look for him, and all the dark possibilities that would entail.
“I have to go out for a while. I won’t be long, but you need to know.”
Bleary-eyed, she looked down at the tools he held and instantly grasped the entire situation, or so it seemed to Troy.
“It’s something to do with those men, isn’t it? I saw them, you know, back there in the parking lot. They’re perverts, aren’t they?”
“Yes, honey. They’re definitely perverts.” He couldn’t tell his daughter that he now knew them to be much worse than garden-variety perverts. But he was determined to put a stop to them.
Ellie looked at his tools: The cell phone was innocuous enough. But Ellie had never seen his hunting knife. It had been a gift from Troy’s grandfather during his early teenage years, when Troy had shown a flash-in-the-pan interest in camping and the outdoors. The knife had been in Troy’s possession for almost twenty years now. Unused, it was as sharp and potentially deadly as it had been on that Christmas morning from long ago. You could penetrate a man’s heart with this knife, Troy thought. You could ram it through his ribs and thrust it right though his heart.
“Don’t—” she suddenly pleaded. “They won’t bother us anymore. Just let them go.”
That was a perfectly natural reaction on her part. She would want him to leave the men for someone else’s father to take care of. They were his responsibility, now, though. He could not rest until he did what had to be done—however difficult and risky it might be.
“Go back to sleep,” he said, standing. “And don’t open the door if anyone knocks.”
“What if it’s you? Don’t you want me to open the door for you?”
“That won’t be necessary. I have my key. Now go to sleep, Ellie. Everything will be okay when you wake up, I promise. This will all be over soon.”
They were delayed several days in Knoxville, while Troy gave his testimony to the police.
Ellie’s mother was worried, but ultimately resigned. She made a series of frantic calls to Troy.
“Are you sure Ellie isn’t hurt, or traumatized? Joe and I can drive up and get her, you know.”
What was unsaid in the background of this was that her time with Troy was up, anyway. He was to have delivered his daughter to Gainesville forty-eight hours ago. Never mind that he had stopped along the way to help the police capture two serial killers.
For a brief few hours, Troy actually considered Kylie’s proposal. This was unpleasant business. And since Ellie had not been directly involved in the apprehension of the two men, there was little for her to do while her father talked to the police and the prosecutor’s office.
Then Ellie got on the phone with her mother, practically ripping the phone out of Troy’s hands.
“I want to stay up here with Dad,” she insisted. “I don’t start school until next week, and he’s almost finished with getting this stuff all sorted out.”
That put an end to Kylie’s complaints. Ellie would arrive in Florida when Troy arrived, whenever that might be.
The tone of the Knoxville police was generally laudatory, but Troy was made to repeat his story several times.
“When they opened the back of that van I saw a pair of handcuffs attached to one of the inner pillars of the vehicle by a chain,” Troy reported. “Also a roll of duct tape.”
Troy then went on to explain the obvious conclusion: handcuffs, duct tape, and the odd behavior of the men—these all added up to something sinister.
Troy had taken a chance, though, when he had performed his next action:
“Then I took my hunting knife and punctured two of their tires. After that I called 911.”
Troy reflected that he had known he was taking a chance: Had he been mistaken about the van and the men, he would have been both civilly and criminally liable for vandalism. As things turned out, though, his instincts had been correct. The two men were changing one of the tires when the police arrived.
The two men were Dennis Smith, 35, and John Coulter, 36. Both were part-time laborers from Huntsville. They subsisted on painting and hanging drywall, but their shared passion was the abduction, rape, and murder of young girls.
Within twenty-four hours of their arrest, Smith and Coulter were charged with the kidnapping of three missing girls in Alabama, Tennessee, and Georgia.
Smith cracked in the interrogation room, and confessed that they were planning another abduction that very night. They might have carried it out, if not for a man from Ohio.
Smith also confessed to the three previous murders. The confession would help seal the prosecution’s case, of course. But even before Smith’s confession, forensics had removed genetic evidence—blood and hair fibers—from the back of the van. As Troy had suspected, Smith and Coulter were as careless as they were brutal. That blood and hair fibers would surely be traced, eventually, to one or more of the missing girls.
“Tennessee is a death penalty state,” one of the police detectives told Troy, during his second interview. “If we can’t extract the location of the bodies from them, one of them may cut a deal for life without parole. My guess is that will be Smith.”
Troy was not uninterested in the case against Smith and Coulter, but he was also anxious to get on with his life. He was more than a little relieved when the police—both Knoxville PD and the FBI by this time—told him that he was free to go.
“I suppose you’re a hero,” a Knoxville police captain told Troy. The remark was not an attempt at irony or patronization. It was matter-of-fact.
Although he supposed it was true, in a manner of speaking, the praise made Troy vaguely uncomfortable: Whether he had been a hero or not, three young girls—all within a few years of his daughter’s age, he had since learned—had had to die to pave the way for his heroism. That was no way to become a hero.
“I think we’ve got it from here,” the lead detective told Troy during the final meeting.
Troy: “Will you need me to come back?”
The detective shook his head. “I don’t think so. We’ve got your testimony on video, and your signed statements for the prosecutor. I don’t expect we’ll need to take any more of your time. The guilt here is pretty unambiguous.”
He could have easily spent a few more days in Tennessee, talking to news reporters from Knoxville, Chattanooga, and other regional cities. There was also a nice lady from CNN who slid a business card under the door of his hotel room (which was now being covered by the City of Knoxville) and called him once from the front desk.
Troy had no desire to talk to the media. His name inevitably leaked to the press. But without his encouragement, his fifteen minutes of fame were over before they began.
Troy took Ellie and left Knoxville, feeling relieved to be done with it all.
When Troy arrived in Gainesville with Ellie, he was made to feel like a hero, despite himself. Ellie wouldn’t stop telling Kylie and Joe how her fast-thinking father had punctured the bad guys’ tires, called the police, and saved the day.
Kylie and Joe were good sports about it all, and gave Troy his due. For the first time in years, Kylie looked at him with an expression that approached appreciation—even admiration. This was a vast improvement over her usual modes with him: either barely constrained annoyance or grudging toleration. Not in his wildest dreams did Troy believe that this was the deus ex machina that would somehow give him back his wife and child, a semblance of a normal life. He was happy for the respect, though.
Joe—a larger man than Troy in more ways than one—clapped Troy on the back and gave him a handshake. “Damn good work,” he said.
The two of them were on the back porch of Joe’s palatial home, looking down into the crystal blue waters of the outdoor pool. A well manicured, lushly watered hedge surrounded the pool area, along with several faux classical statues of nymphs and cherubs.
Kylie was helping Ellie unpack. Joe had suggested that the two men might go out back, to give the ladies some privacy. Troy didn’t want to go outside with Joe, but he could think of no polite words of objection. Joe’s suggestion was by no means unreasonable.
Joe was a tall man who stood nearly an entire head above Troy. He had dark chestnut hair that was bordering on black. There was no trace of grayness or pattern baldness, even though Joe was in his mid-forties. Troy’s wispy hair, by contrast, had started thinning several years ago, shortly after his thirtieth birthday.
“Don’t worry that you didn’t do anything over the top,” Joe said, almost as soon as they were alone outside.
“What do you mean by that?” Troy asked, genuinely baffled.
“I mean like apprehending them, or anything.” Joe paused, as if searching for the proper tactful phrasing. “You did the right thing—simply puncturing their tires and calling the police. No one expects you to be a tough guy hero. I’m not sure that I would have handled it any differently.”
Now that Joe’s game was clear, Troy merely nodded. Joe might think him a simpleton who worked in a videogame store, but Troy knew a backhanded compliment when he heard one.
Then he understood fully what he should have never allowed himself to forget: Despite this guise of decency and manly camaraderie that Joe displayed whenever they met, he and Joe were not friends. Joe was sleeping with Troy’s ex-wife, a woman whom Troy still thought of as his wife, for all intents and purposes. Troy had slept with and fathered a child with Joe’s wife. Those inexorable truths could not be forgotten or solved, and would always remain between them.
But Ellie was the only person in this household who truly mattered, as far as Troy was concerned. Joe was not to be trusted beyond the most superficial of matters. Kylie, despite Troy’s love for her, had betrayed him. Here in Gainesville, his only concern was Ellie.
A few hours after his one-sided exchange with Joe, Troy was exchanging farewells with Ellie in the driveway. Joe and Kylie had mercifully given father and daughter some privacy, though Troy suspected that Kylie, at least, would be furtively watching from a nearby window.
“Why don’t you stay for a few days?” Ellie implored. “We have a guest room. We have three guest rooms.”
Ellie gave him a conspiratorial smile, laced with sarcasm. It made her look grown-up, Troy thought.
“No honey: Don’t you think that would be trying your mother’s patience?”
“She’d let you. She’d have to, after what you did.”
Ellie had a point there. Although he had resisted the siren call of the media, he was still a minor man of the hour. And a part of him wanted to stay. It would not only allow him more time with Ellie, it would also be a way of spiting Joe.
But no—it was time for him to leave. He had already used up most of his vacation time at the shop, and he wanted to save some for Ellie’s next visit.
“All I did was poke two tires on an old van and call the police. It was nothing that any eighty-year-old woman in perfect health couldn’t have done. And besides, you need to get back into your routine here.”
“I don’t want to stay here. I want to go back with you.”
Troy was gratified to hear this. And yet, he realized that his encouragement of this line would be a recipe for conflict—a conflict that he and Ellie would ultimately lose. Like it or not, there were rules they all had to abide by. Kylie was still the girl’s mother; and Kylie had chosen to live in Florida, thereby dividing the girl’s life with the court’s blessing.
And her home here with Kylie and Joe could be a lot worse.
“You wouldn’t live like this with me,” he said. He made a sweeping gesture across the front of the house. “You’ve seen my digs in Ohio.”
Troy lived in a cramped condo built thirty years ago. The furnishings reflected the sensibilities of the 1980s. The place was stuffy in the summer and drafty in the winter.
“This doesn’t mean anything,” Ellie said. The ‘this’ was obvious: the big house, the pool, the meticulously cultivated palm trees.
But this line of conversation would bring them to no productive end.
“I’ll call you as soon as I get home, ok? And I’ll be back to get you in less than two months, when your school has its fall break.”
Ellie was on the verge of tears. Then the tears came. She threw her arms around him, and squeezed him with an intensity that belied her thin, thirteen-year-old frame. For a moment, Troy feared that he would cry, too.
Traveling back to Ohio, Troy encountered no bad people at the restaurants, hotels, rest areas, and convenience stores along the way. It was as if his encounters with Dennis Smith and John Coulter had exhausted his quota of evil for a while.
He stopped at the same Holiday Inn south of Knoxville. The hotel was filled with families with young children. Their parents were taking advantage of the final week of summer, the last chance to get away before the school year began.
Troy sat by the edge of the pool that night, watching them. He wondered if any of the parents noticed him, a solitary man in his thirties in their midst. He wondered if he aroused their deepest suspicions. None of them would know that he was the one who had stopped the two bad men who abducted and killed children.
He thought again about Joe’s taunt: What did Kylie’s second husband expect? That Troy was supposed to have captured Smith and Coulter single-handedly, armed only with a knife? What a blowhard Joe was.
Troy did his best to put Dennis Smith and John Coulter out of his mind. Smith and Coulter were significant to the lives of three little girls, and three families. In the long run, they would not be significant to Troy. With time, they would become nothing more than an incident in Troy’s life, in Ellie’s life.
But Joe, on the other hand, would likely be an unwelcome part of their lives forever.
Consider the irony there, Troy thought. With that he bade the families a wordless goodnight and returned to his room in the Holiday Inn.
The next day he continued north, through the Appalachian Mountains of Tennessee, then through the Cumberland foothills of Kentucky and the bluegrass plains beyond.
As he drove through Daniel Boone country, he reminded himself that he had, in fact, stopped two murderers. But more than that, he had been a father to Ellie this summer—an imperfect father, to be sure, but a real one, nonetheless.
While he drove, he consoled himself with the thought that he would be back this way in two months, to see her again.