Judith’s father Joe Stevens was a stern-faced, gray-haired man in a white T-shirt, black suspenders, and dirty jeans. He looked me over skeptically and didn’t shake my hand any longer than he had to. Her mother Gwen wore thick glasses like Judith, and she held my hand as if she hadn’t had a visitor to the house in months.
She offered me coffee, and we sat down in the kitchen. “What can we do for you, Mr. Jurgen?” Gwen Stevens glanced at her husband, as if she needed his permission to speak.
“Did Judith tell you what happened?” The coffee was lukewarm and watery.
Joe scowled. “We took her to the hospital, but they couldn’t find anything wrong with her, except she hadn’t been eating right. She lost a lot of weight. It doesn’t look right on a girl her age.”
“Did you notice her weight loss before?”
“She looked—different.” Gwen’s voice quavered. “She’s always had a healthy appetite. She doesn’t do drugs,” she blurted out, as if that was the next logical question.
“What’s she like?”
Again Gwen looked at her husband. “She’s very shy. She always did well in school. She—”
“She’s stubborn.” Joe broke in. “She doesn’t read her Bible enough. She doesn’t listen.”
I tried to keep my face neutral. “To you?”
“To the Lord.”
I nodded. I’m fairly agnostic, but I’d seen enough supernatural stuff not to rule anything out—even God. “Was that a big problem?”
“No!” Gwen shook her head firmly. “She’s always been so sweet. I mean, we had the normal disagreements when she was a teenager—”
“I didn’t like her friends.” Joe crossed his arms. “They were a bad influence. This girl she’s living with now? We don’t know anything about her. She could be doing drugs, or have boyfriends, or watch all kinds of things on TV or her computer. But Judy won’t come home.” He frowned. “She’d be welcome here, if she just follows the rules.”
I took a shot in the dark, mostly for the reaction: “Does she have a boyfriend?”
Gwen looked shocked at the concept. Joe’s face grew dark. “No.” It was a single syllable that delivered an entire lecture on the evils of boyfriends.
I nodded. “She didn’t mention one. When she—when it happened, Judith mentioned you were meeting with someone in your living room? Balding, skinny?”
“Oh, that’s Finn—”
Again her husband broke in. “It was just a neighbor. He was gone when she came out.”
“She was crying!” Gwen took off her glasses and wiped her eyes with a handkerchief. “Crying and staggering around like she couldn’t stand up. Her clothes were dirty, and she could hardly walk. And she kept saying that she was reading the Bible, she said that over and over . . .” Gwen blew her nose. “I’m sorry. It’s just—she’s my baby . . .”
Joe’s face was stony and disapproving, as if wives weren’t supposed to show their feelings about their children. “She was fine. Like I said, we took her right to the ER. But they kept her there. In their psycho ward. Like she was some kind of crazy.” He shoved his chair back. “Are we done?”
“I guess so.” I dropped my card on the table. “If you think of anything else, don’t be afraid to call. Thanks for your time.”
Joe stood up. “I hope she’s not spending a lot of money for your—services, Mr. Jurgen.”
“Not at all. We worked out an arrangement.”
Joe walked me to the door while Gwen picked up the coffee cups, and he watched me walked down the front sidewalk and get into my Honda. And he waited until I drove down the street.
Two blocks away my cell phone buzzed. I pulled over to answer.
“Mr. Jurgen?” Gwen Stevens was whispering. “It was Finn Markham. He lives on the next street over. He’s—I can’t tell you anything more.”
“Thank y—” But she hung up before I could finish.
By the third day I’m sick of sandwiches and water. “I could use some beer!” I shout at the air. “And maybe a coffeemaker! What kind of motel is this, anyway?”
I’m keeping track of the days by folding down a corner of each page in the Gideon Bible. I think about reading it. The Bible had apparently helped keep Judith sane, but thinking of Joe Stevens’ words—“She doesn’t read the Bible enough”—makes me want to throw it against the wall.
I’m already losing track of time. “Day” has stopped meaning a 24-hour period, I just count days by when I wake up. Each “morning” I check the door and the window, turn on the TV for a dose of static—why put a TV in here if it doesn’t work?—and eat part of a sandwich. I shower and then dress in the clothes I washed the night before.
The towels and sheets are already beginning to smell. Maybe I’m supposed to wash them out in the bathtub.
I exercise and try to think of ways to keep my mind active. I’ve read about hostages confined to small cells playing mind games to stay sane—reenacting movies they’d seen, or doing math in their heads. I’m already talking to myself out loud half the time.
I keep thinking about Rachel. And sometimes about my mother and my brother. I don’t see them that often because they live in different states. I should call them more often.
Maybe I should do a lot of things differently.
I called Rachel first the next morning, but I only got her voice mail. She was either sleeping late or working early. “I have a name. Finn Markham. Can you check it out?” I waited in case she called back. But once I was out of my shower I knew I wouldn’t hear from her for a while.
After a bowl of cereal I called Diane Atkinson and left a message to call me when she had a chance. She called back between early patients—oops, clients. “What can you tell me about Judith’s parents?”
Atkinson hesitated. “There are still some confidentiality issues to consider, but . . . I can tell you that they’re very religious, very conservative, and her father is very strict. She had to come directly home from school every day when she was younger. No dating, and he basically vetted all her friends—and he didn’t like most of them. That didn’t necessarily stop her from forming friendships, but she was conflicted about it.”
She paused. “Her mother seems to have tried to deflect his impact, but she comes across in Judith’s telling as being completely dominated by her father. It was a traditional setup from the 1950s—he worked, she stayed home, cooking and cleaning, all her friends screened by her husband.”
“That pretty much matches what I saw last night. Has she mentioned a man named Finn Markham?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Okay. Thanks. I’m not sure I’m getting anywhere here, but I’ll keep you posted.”
“Wait.” Atkinson cleared her throat. “I should mention that despite all that, Judith says she has a very close relationship with her parents. She has a hard time criticizing them. Of course . . .” She paused again. “That’s sometimes an indication of abuse.”
“Right.” I’d been involved in a few ugly cases. “I’m on it.”
So I spent the rest of the morning looking for Finn Markham online, but all I found was a real estate transaction for a house in Judith’s neighborhood. Other than that, he seemed to keep a low profile.
I called Judith. Her roommate picked up. “No, Judy’s at class. Can I take a message?”
“Tom Jurgen.” I gave my number.
“Oh, it’s you!” She sounded surprised, but cheerful. “Judy told me about you. I’m Lindsay. I hope you can help her.”
“I’ll certainly try.” I decided to take a chance. “Lindsay, could I ask you a few questions?”
“Well . . .” She wavered. “I suppose. But I can’t really tell you anything very personal. I mean, don’t take this the wrong way, but I don’t really know you?”
“Sure. I understand.” Part of the job was asking questions that didn’t make people hang up, or walk away. “Just tell me you can’t answer anything you don’t feel comfortable about. Has Judy ever mentioned a man named Finn Markham?”
“No.” She sounded relieved that she didn’t have to tell me to go to hell. “No, I don’t think so.”
“What do you know about her parents?”
“Well . . .” This made her nervous. “They sound kind of weird? I mean, she told me once that they made her read the Bible every day until she was 21. And she had to go to church all the time, not just on Sunday, and when she started to say she didn’t want to go, they’d punish her.”
“Punish her how?”
A long silence. “I think that’s one of the things I can’t tell you.”
“That’s fine.” It told me a lot, actually. “Is she reading the Bible a lot now?”
“Just for classes. She’s studying religion. Like me. But I asked her about it once, because when I first met her she’d read it in the cafeteria, on the bus, everywhere. But ever since she moved in, she says she doesn’t want to open it every day. I mean,” she added quickly, “she still goes to church, and we say grace together, and sometimes she comes to my church. It’s not like she’s given up.”
“That’s good.” I don’t go to church much myself, but I try to respect people’s faith. “Well, thank you, Lindsay. You’ve been a big help.”
I spent the rest of the morning and some of the afternoon working other cases from home, online and on the phone. I was just taking a break when Judith called me back.
“I just got back from class.” She sounded of breath. “Lindsay said you called?”
“Yes. I was wondering if you’ve ever heard the name Finn Markham?”
She gasped. For a second I thought she’d dropped the phone. “Judith? Are you okay?”
“I’m here. I’m fine.” She gulped loudly. “I’m sorry. It’s just that, well, when I was kid? ‘Finn’ was sort of the boogeyman in our neighborhood. Parents would say that if we didn’t behave, we’d get a visit from Finn. I never heard a last name, though.”
“Was he a real person?”
“Oh, yeah. He lived a few blocks away. But he hardly ever came out of his house. We’d ride our bikes real fast past it so he wouldn’t see us. But nobody ever saw him.”
“Right.” For a moment I wondered what the truth might do to her. But I’d have to talk that over with Diane. After I confronted the boogeyman.
I see Rachel all the time now. I know it’s just a hallucination, but I keep thinking it’s her, in the corner of my eye, and when I turn she’s gone. I pound the mattress. Sometimes I yell her name. Sometimes I cry.
I’ve been in this room for 15 days. Nowhere close to how long Judith was here, but already I can feel my mind slipping away. Sometimes I sit for hours staring at the static on the TV. I wish a spider would crawl up the wall. Or even a fly buzzing around the room. It would be some sort of company.
I open the Bible every day to turn down a corner. Sometimes I read the first line at the top. But I can’t always focus my eyes. And sometimes the words are just gibberish, like an alien language.
I try to remember what a breeze feels like, and what fresh clothes smell like. And the taste of any kind of food that isn’t a sandwich.
One day I exercise for hours until I collapse on the carpet, panting and exhausted. I see Rachel’s bare foot next to my head.
I don’t look up. I don’t want her to be gone.
I needed to talk to Finn Markham. But before doing that, I wanted to talk to Judith’s mother. Without Joe around.
So I parked my Honda and knocked on the door. Gwen opened up. “Oh. Mr. Jurgen.”
“Call me Tom.” I peered over her shoulder. “Is your husband home?”
She wiped her hands on her sweatshirt. “Joe works until six or seven o’clock. Every night. What do you want?”
“May I come in?”
She glanced over my shoulder at the houses across the street. “I guess so. I have to start dinner soon.” It was 3:00.
Gwen brought me coffee in the living room. A huge painting of Jesus hung over the couch. A bookcase held a handful of paperbacks with titles like Trusting God Every Day, Reasons to Believe, Based on Faith, and most of the Left Behind series.
“What can I do for you?” Gwen dropped into a chair.
“I’m sorry to bother you.” I needed to do this right, without spooking her. “I need to ask you about Finn Markham.”
She flinched. “Oh. I was afraid of that.”
“Why is that?”
She squirmed in her chair like a child with a hand caught in the cookie jar. “My husband . . . Joe wouldn’t like it.”
I nodded. “I only want to help your daughter.”
Gwen looked at me. “Do you believe in God?”
I swallowed. The wrong answer could send me away. But a lie might be worse. “No. Not really. Sorry.”
“I do believe in God.” Gwen smiled. “But I know—not everyone does, and I think that’s okay. When Judith started asking questions, I tried to answer her. But Joe—he just shut her out. I tried to tell him that questions are the way to faith, but he just . . .” She shook her head. “He couldn’t understand. And it just made everything worse.”
I tried to make my next question as soft as possible. “So what about Finn Markham?”
“I hate him!” Gwen’s face turned dark. “Oh, I know it’s wrong, but I just can’t do it. I just can’t . . .” She leaned over, weeping. “Sorry . . .”
I looked around the living room and found a box of tissues on a bookshelf near a wedding photo. Gwen Stevens, young and happy in her white dress, and her new husband in a dark suit, one arm around his bride.
“I’m very sorry to upset you.” I dropped the box on the table between us. “I just need to know—what happened? What did Finn do?”
She grabbed a tissue and blew her nose. “He—he teaches children to behave. To follow the Bible. He says it takes a long time, so we couldn’t expect to see Judith again for . . . I don’t really know.” She dropped her tissue on the floor and grabbed three more. “Don’t tell Joe. He’ll be so mad at me. Please? He’s my husband.”
“I won’t say anything.” I waited while she caught her breath. “But . . . you know, it is the 21st century. You don’t have to put up with anything you don’t like. And I don’t think God wants you to live with someone you’re afraid of.”
“But . . .” She looked up at me and wiped her eyes. “You don’t believe in God.”
Yeah. “I don’t believe in the Loch Ness monster. Or that Justin Bieber’s a musical genius. That doesn’t mean they might not be real. I try to keep an open mind.”
Gwen laughed. “I hear him on the radio sometimes. When Joe isn’t around.”
“I switch the station.” I stood up. “Look, I’m not a marriage counselor or anything, so I can’t tell you what to do or what to believe. I’m just trying to help your daughter. You can call me if you want. I know a lot of good lawyers.”
“Th-thanks.” She blew her nose again. “I’ll . . . can I have another card?”
Rachel had left a message for me while I was talking to Gwen. I’d silenced my ringtone. Her voice was quick and quiet. “Be careful with Finn Markham. He’s got a bad rap.”
I called her back, but it went straight to voice mail. So I told her where I was, and where I was going. I tried to finish with the right words, but we weren’t there yet. So I just said, “See you. ‘Bye.”
Then I drove two streets over and parked in front of Finn Markham’s house. The boogeyman.
The grass hadn’t been cut in weeks. Tree branches hung down over power wires. Weeds grew high in the concrete cracks leading up to the porch.
No wonder kids avoided the place.
I locked the Honda, took a deep breath, and made my way up to the front door.
The doorbell didn’t seem to work. After pressing it three times, I opened the screen door and knocked.
Nothing. Maybe that was better. I could go home, have a beer, and think about my next move—
The door swung back. “Yes? What do you want?”
He was short and skinny, like Judith had said. His forehead was bare, but the hair behind his ears was black. “Uh, Finn Markham?”
“Who are you?” He wore a jacket and shorts. His eyes were dark as a coal mine.
“Tom Jurgen.” I held out a card. “Could we talk for a few minutes?”
Finn took my card. “What’s this all about?”
“Oh.” He slipped the card into pocket. “I suppose so. Come on in.” He reached out to shake my hand.
Nothing else happens after that.