Herman Mosley counted the hours, ten in all, since he had left his Midwestern town for the Florida panhandle as he had done for the past five years. The delay at the airport had thrown him two hours behind schedule, so he now squinted against the nighttime glare of oncoming traffic. He pulled into the local grocery store to purchase enough alcohol for the evening, along with a few toiletries and snacks. He teetered on the short walk to the store's entrance, having stopped briefly at Beachside Bistro, and inside he steadied himself against the sturdy shopping cart. He compared wines, settled on two Californian Merlot bottles, and then tossed a 6-pack of German beer into his cart. Twenty minutes later, he pulled onto a side street for the short drive to the rented condo that belonged to his friend, Chuck.
With the temperatures still hovering in the nineties, he lowered the window and inhaled the balmy beach air, fantasizing about hanging out in the condo hot tub when it happened. From the corner of his eye, he caught a glimpse of a figure dart out in front of his vehicle as if out of nowhere. He locked the brakes, but not before he heard a thud against the front end and the passenger tire bounced over something, like a speed bump. Unable to think or move, he sat in the car and stared straight ahead.
Then he craned his neck, looking up and down the street for anyone who might help. But with no other cars in sight, and only a few houses several blocks down, illuminated by faint porch lights, he unlatched his seatbelt. On shaky legs, he climbed from the SUV. Nausea crept into his throat, and he leaned his head against the edge of the car door and took deep breaths. He hadn't really had a good look. It could just as easily have been a loose dog or maybe a deer.
He crouched down on both knees to look under the vehicle. When he said, "Oh God!" it wasn't in his adult voice, but in a child's voice, like the time he had accidentally run over his little brother's leg with his dirt bike.
Under the vehicle, a child's body lay mangled and jammed right next to the passenger tire. He couldn't have been more than six or seven. Herman whimpered. What kind of mother would let her child run the streets all alone after dark? Blood ran from the boy's mouth as it had from the injured deer Herman had hit a year ago while driving to work early one morning.
He pulled his cell from his pocket and then froze as his entire future evaporated right before his eyes. Nothing could be done for the boy, so what could he say? No one could have avoided the accident. With no forewarning, the child had swooped in front of him, like a disoriented bird that splatters onto the windshield. Just a senseless tragedy. But Herman knew they'd blame him. He wasn't drunk, not really, and he had only intended to have one glass of Merlot with his dinner, not an entire carafe. He normally would never drink and drive, but he was on vacation and with the condo only a few short blocks away. Oh God, what had he done?
Herman's heart pounded so hard that he thought it might burst. As his mind raced, he scanned the neighborhood once more for any witness to the accident. He couldn't leave the child there on the street. In a matter of minutes, cops would be combing the area, searching for any sign of the hit and run driver. They may even question the grocery store manager just a block away, and Herman had used his credit card to purchase the alcohol. He'd be labeled an alcoholic, a derelict; not a responsible accountant, who once a year just wanted to kick back, relax and enjoy a few drinks.
He'd do the only thing he could do. He'd hide the boy in the car and dispose of his body late at night when the town slept. No one could help the boy now, and he couldn't lose everything and go to prison. He'd already started over ten years ago, after a nasty divorce, and now at sixty-three, only two years from retirement…no.
Herman grabbed the boy's limp legs and dragged him out from under the SUV, his tiny back sliding over pebbles. There he lay, a glassy-eyed child staring up at the night sky. He might as well have been star-gazing. Herman opened the hatchback and gently lay the boy into the back compartment, and slammed the door shut fast before anyone drove past. He stared down at his bloody palms and mindlessly wiped them on his clean Bermuda shorts, and climbed back into the driver's seat. Just as he put the vehicle into drive, a police cruiser with flashing lights turned onto the street up ahead and slowed near a park, and then stopped.
Herman's leg trembled uncontrollably as he placed a shaky foot against the gas pedal and eased past the officer. No way could he get stopped with alcohol on his breath and the dead boy in the back. When he glanced in his rearview mirror, the policeman stood on the edge of the street, shining a flashlight over the weeds. It would be only a matter of minutes before he discovered the boy's fresh blood on the street, and then, the massive manhunt would begin.
When the cruiser didn't follow him, Herman turned right onto Scenic Beach Highway and straight into the condo parking lot. He spotted six people on a nearby patio, drinking and laughing, and so made sure to park away from the street lamps, as he didn't know himself the extent of damage to the vehicle. He removed his luggage and walked past the party, careful to act as normally as possible. He nodded and forced a smile at a man about his age who wore a Hawaiian print shirt and grasped a beer can.
"Hey, neighbor," the man said to Herman. "Join us for a drink." He walked over and slapped Herman on the back.
"Maybe later. Had a long day. Just drove straight from the airport." He figured if anyone asked questions, no one would suspect him if they knew he'd just arrived into town.
The man nodded. "I understand. We'll be here if you change your mind. Just hope we don't keep you awake. We're a little rowdy tonight."
"Sure thing. No problem." Herman hurried around the corner and into Chuck's condo. Inside, he dropped his bag onto the blue tile floor and slumped into a rattan chair by the closed patio blind. What if the police searched the lot, or someone from the party peeked inside the SUV? He couldn't risk going back to the vehicle with his neighbor's party going on. He'd wait and keep a low profile. In the dark of night, maybe around 2 am, he'd wrap the child in a blanket and carry him across the street and down the steps to the beach, where he'd walk out into the water and drop him into a surging wave. That would carry him away, but what about the blood in the vehicle and any damage to the front end? In the light of day, the dented car would be screaming for all to see, Look at me. See what I did last night.
Herman poured himself a drink with unsteady hands, but when he lifted the glass to his mouth, he felt sick and choked back a salty fluid swelling in his throat. He slammed the glass down on the counter and ambled over to the sofa. Filled with dread, he clicked the remote and turned on the big screen TV to search for local news. Thirty minutes later, he'd heard all he cared to about the local weather and details of city council meetings, but nothing about the boy. He turned off the TV, and on the sofa bed in the living room, he pulled a blanket up high around his neck, hoping for sleep and relief from the agony of worry. He clenched his eyes shut, but headlights in the parking lot slashed through the blinds, followed by hooting and hollering next door.
When his cell rang, Herman flinched. Who would be calling him at this hour? Maybe Chuck checking to see that he had made it okay? Or perhaps the cops? Maybe they'd discovered the blood and had taken down his license number as he drove past and had tracked his cell from the rental car company. When he didn't answer, a gentle chime indicated a message, but he ignored it. He'd check his phone tomorrow.
With no sense of time or how long he'd been dreaming, Herman blinked sleep from his eyes and saw flashing blue lights outside his patio door. He rose and peeked through the blinds. A police cruiser had parked right outside, near his SUV. His chest clenched tight. They knew. They'd tracked him down from the rental car. They'd be knocking on the door soon, eager to read him his rights, cuff him, and drive him away into the darkness. Up until now, his most serious offense had been a speeding ticket twenty years ago.
But ten minutes later, the police led a man out of a neighboring condo, pushed him into the cruiser's back seat, and drove away. Herman couldn't be sure, but he thought it looked like the man who had invited him to join the party earlier.
Too jarred to sleep, he checked his watch. One am. Maybe if he waited, he'd be able to bundle up the boy and drop him into the ocean. Soon, in less than an hour, the child could be floating away, a burial at sea, and Herman would figure out what to do about the car so that no one need ever know. He pushed the TV remote once more, and right there in front of him flashed the picture of a missing boy. An officer identified as Chief Owens described the boy as Noah, a six-year-old who had gone missing from his home around 5 pm near the Emerald Coast Highway. When asked if the police had any leads, the officer nodded and said, "Yes, a significant lead came in earlier tonight."
The remote slipped from Herman's hand and onto the floor. A significant lead. Now that he had a name to go with the boy's face his body shook. He thought of Noah's frantic parents, maybe even grandparents, and tears sprang to his eyes. Herman had an eight-year-old grandson. He had just taken him camping a couple of weeks back. Maybe he should just turn himself in and explain that it was all an accident and that he had panicked when he discovered Noah dead. They couldn't charge him with drunk driving, now, maybe just negligence, and he'd negotiate a plea deal. But then, they'd investigate and discover his credit card bill from the Beachside and see the wine he'd ordered. They'd talk with his waiter from the restaurant first and then maybe the grocery store manager. He'd call an attorney for advice if only he had one. As it was, he'd better keep silent.
With no further police action at the complex, Herman forced himself up from the sofa at 2 am and dressed in dark clothes. He removed a blanket from the bedroom closet and clicked open the lock on the patio door. He stepped out into the humid night, and after scanning the parking lot for vacationers, he popped open the back of the SUV. Even in the darkness, he could see Noah's tiny body, bloodied and mangled where bones had broken. He looked away for a moment and then swaddled the child in the blanket and lifted him, the body now stiffer, less limp than it had felt earlier. Then, quietly, he lowered the back of the SUV and took quick, purposeful steps toward the road.
With no traffic in either direction, he punched in the code at the security gate to access the beach, but a buzzer sounded, and the gate didn't budge. With shaking fingers, Herman entered the code once more, and the buzzer sounded a second time. They must have changed the code, and Chuck had forgotten to tell him. In the distance, a car approached, its dim headlights growing brighter.
Unwilling to get caught carrying the dead child, Herman rushed back across the road and to the SUV, the child now feeling heavier than ever. But with the temperature predicted to climb to near one hundred degrees by late afternoon, he couldn't leave the boy in the back of the vehicle, rotting and decaying, so with the boy in his arms, Herman stumbled up the three steps to the patio door and carried him inside, thinking he might hide him inside the bedroom closet. Even if Chuck's property manager dropped over to check on the condo, he'd have no reason to look inside there, and Herman would now have to wait until the following night to dispose of the body. What had already happened to the child was bad enough. Herman couldn't bear the thought of his the tiny body decomposing in the sweltering heat.
Herman lay the swaddled boy onto the bed and opened the closet door. To make room, he removed a vacuum cleaner and an old suitcase. When he moved the boy, he stumbled and dropped him onto the closet floor with a thud, and he felt a pang of remorse. Herman tucked a second blanket around the corpse as if to make the child more comfortable.
Now in shock, Herman clicked off the bedroom light and shuffled back out to the sofa, his mind numb, unable to process what had happened. The leather crunched against the weight of his body, and he buried his face in his hands. Overcome by exhaustion, his eyes felt as heavy as if filled with sand. He clenched the blanket around his trembling body and curled up in a fetal position and prayed he'd open his eyes later, only to discover it all a nightmare. But somewhere in the early morning hours, a child's voice startled him, shouting, "Wake up! Wake up!"
A tiny hand shook Herman's shoulder until he opened his eyes and bolted straight up. Disoriented, he grasped the blanket in his sweaty palm and took shallow breaths. With the only illumination being the tiny stove light he'd left on, the condo looked like an abandoned building, with a mishmash of old furniture scattered throughout. He shook his head and pressed the blanket to his face. When he looked up, he caught a glimpse of a body darting into the bedroom, where the closet door clicked shut.
A knot gripped Herman's stomach. Someone must have gotten into the condo and discovered the boy's body. He remained still and waited for a police officer to come around the corner and interrogate him. But then it came again out of nowhere, a child's voice pleading, "Help me!"
Could the boy have been in a coma and have just awakened? Years ago, he'd seen a documentary about people who had been buried alive, only to awaken six feet under the earth's surface. He couldn't just leave the boy in there, all broken up and suffering. He pushed himself up from the sofa bed and, on trembling legs, took slow steps into the bedroom. Maybe he could drop the boy off near a hospital entrance, but with camera's everywhere…..
He flipped on the overhead light, expecting to see Noah standing there, all bruised and bloody. The dim overhead bulb cast eerie shadows off the walls as he placed his shaky hand on the closet knob. Suppose Noah called out to him for help? And then, Herman suppressed the thoughts and jerked the door wide open.
A lump lay on the floor, shielded by blankets. Herman crouched down and, with his clammy hand, pulled off the covers, and Noah lay on his side, his dead eyes staring straight ahead. A crusty patch of blood had dried on the side of his face.
A moan filled the room, and Herman didn't know if it came from his own body or that of the boy's. Was he losing his mind? His body quivered as he considered his limited options. Soon, it would be daylight, and he couldn't just walk out of the condo with a blanketed corpse in his arms. Maybe he should have left Noah in the van. No. But he'd have to make good use of the few remaining hours of darkness, and he'd have to be careful with the police searching the area. Carefully, he lifted the child from the closet and lay him on the bed. He unzipped his duffle bag and scooped up Noah, meaning to place him inside. But he felt a movement, ever so slight at first, as if the boy's limbs were moving. But Noah was dead. He'd seen him dead. Herman briefly looked away and then arranged the boy's body inside the bag and zipped it shut. He forced his mind blank as he carried the duffle bag into the kitchen, where he rummaged through the utility drawers for a flashlight. Five minutes later, he left the condo with the boy stuffed inside the bag. If he were stopped and interrogated, there would be nothing unusual about an out-of-towner driving around with his luggage inside the vehicle.
He placed the bag into the SUV and drove south to a more isolated area of the beach. There, he'd check for damage to the vehicle and drop Noah into the sea.
But a mile down the road, a police cruiser's flashing blue lights nearly blinded Herman, who squinted against the glare. An officer was interrogating two young men who stood in front of a motel, and when Herman drove past, the officer turned and stared. Had he made a mistake? Maybe he had been better off hiding out in the condo until the light of day when he could think more clearly and devise a better plan. But, unwilling to turn around and draw more attention, he drove another few miles until the road dead-ended at a bed and breakfast.
There, he pulled into the hotel parking lot, and under a street lamp, he looked for damage to the rental. A knot the size of a bowling ball gripped Herman's gut as he came face-to-face with the SUV in the glaring light. Right there in front for all to see, a massive dent, practically in the shape of a child's body. And when he got down on his knees and shone the flashlight underneath, he gasped. Dried blood clung to the metal, clear evidence of Noah left behind. No way could he return the vehicle in this condition, with all rental companies likely alerted to the hit and run. So instead, he'd drive the car to a body shop and have it repaired, but it would have to be somewhere out of town, nothing local. First, he'd take it to the car wash and hose it down to rid it of blood. Then he'd drive to the Alabama coast over a hundred miles away and find a body shop. He'd have to pay cash and imagined the repair would be at least a couple thousand. The important thing was to get out of view and hit the road before out-of-towners emerged from their condos with picnic baskets and beach blankets. No one out of state would likely know of the missing boy yet.
He climbed back inside the vehicle to count his cash, but his wallet was missing when he reached inside his pocket. His head throbbed as he frantically patted down all his pockets and leaned over with the flashlight to search the floor. He last remembered using his wallet at the grocery store when he'd purchased the alcohol. Had it dropped from his pocket and onto the street back at the crime scene? Sweat ran down the back of his neck and collected into the collar of his shirt. If the cops stopped him, he had no identification and would be run into the precinct where he'd be interrogated. And if they had already found his wallet, they could be back at the condo, knocking on the door to ask the property manager to let them inside, where Noah's DNA had spilled all over the closet floor.
Nauseous and shaken, Herman coasted from the parking lot and headed back toward the condo. He had to find his wallet. Without it, he was finished. He couldn't have the vehicle repaired without a proper ID. He had taken a side street to avoid driving past the cruiser when he heard a gurgling sound, a gasping coming from the back of the vehicle. When he checked the rearview mirror, Herman made a guttural noise. In the eerie shadow of muted street lights, a child sat on the back seat, humming. His black eyes stared back at Herman, and a trickle of blood ran from his mouth. But less than an hour earlier, he'd seen the child curled up on the closet floor like dead prey. He swerved and narrowly missed the bumper of a parked car, and then Herman jerked the SUV back hard onto the street. He whimpered, and when he rechecked the mirror, the boy was gone.
Herman pulled into the condo lot and rushed inside, where he rifled through the blankets and inside the sofa, but still no wallet. He gasped for air and took a few puffs from his asthma inhaler he kept inside his shirt pocket. Then, stumbling into the bedroom, he threw his covers off the bed and combed through the blankets before he found the wallet on the closet floor. He now had a fighting chance. He counted his cash and peeked through the blinds, and glimpsed the first light of day on the horizon. The microwave clock flashed 6:05. Before the condo complex stirred with eager vacationers, he'd make his escape. With any luck, he'd be on a jet plane Friday afternoon, headed back to his Midwestern town, where he'd bury the nightmare deep within his subconscious, never speaking to another soul of what had happened.
In the early morning light, Herman pulled onto the freeway. Soon, he'd be in another state, leaving his problems behind. He'd find a remote strip of water where he'd say a prayer and watch the child wash away, and then, when he had cleaned up the vehicle, he'd drop it off at a body shop. He'd explain that he ran into another car and didn't want it filed on his insurance. The story was believable enough.
Then up ahead, Herman saw a stream of brake lights as a long line of traffic waited. An accident? But the flashing blue lights of police cruisers indicated a roadblock, no doubt stopping drivers as they searched for the missing boy. Desperately, he jerked his head from one side to the other, looking in either direction for an escape route, but with another cruiser blocking the opposite side of the highway, he'd be forced to come face-to-face with the officers. With the SUV's dented front end and the boy stuffed inside his bag, they'd make him step outside the vehicle as they searched. Not knowing what else to do, Herman waited. And when the officer waved through the last remaining car in front of him, Herman heard, from inside the duffle bag, the boy moan once more.