People go missing all the time. Often, that’s the way they want it. The world becomes too much for whatever reason and they abruptly disappear. I’ve found them living under bridges hundreds of miles from home. I’ve found them in vans, in homeless shelters, and on beaches. I found one woman working in the local greasy spoon within a bus transfer from her former house. Her husband had no idea. She was barely earning enough to stay alive and couldn’t have been happier. In fact, I would venture a guess that most of the people I have found went AWOL on purpose, except when I found them dead, but occasionally, even then.
“Hello, I’m looking for Bethany Wilbur,” I inquired.
The manager’s office at The Miller Creek Mall lived underground in the catacombs of the sprawling atrocity. Few people ever get to see what it’s like in the bowels of their local shopping mall. Hallways are almost always shiny and white. Cinder block walls are the norm, but I’ve seen standard sheetrock as well. Reckless pushcart operators and careless men in brown clothes leave black scars and gouges sometimes so long and deep that you would have to swear they were done on purpose. Maybe they hated their jobs. Things always cheer right up though at the glass door of the manager’s office.
“Hi, I’m Bethany, you must be Ms. Maximine,” she said.
“Philippine, Philippine Maximine at your service,” I said.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you Philippine. You can call me Betty. Can I get you anything? A coffee maybe?”
“A cup of coffee would be great. What do you say we get right to it? You have a couple of employees who have gone missing?” I asked.
“One employee, one store owner. Here, please, have a seat,” she said.
“You’ll forgive me for saying so, but don’t you think it’s a little odd that the real estate company would be hiring me to find them? I mean, a client in this case would usually be a family member, maybe a close friend,” I said.
“Oh I agree, but in this case our security guard, Roy Manis hasn’t had a single person come forward. Mr. Blake was widowed some years ago and he has no family that I’m aware of. It just isn’t like John to just disappear. John is Mr. Blake, John Blake,” she said.
“Ya, got it, go on,” I answered.
“We’re not even sure how long Mr. Manis has even been gone. Not to be disrespectful but if you met him, I’m sure you’d agree that this job was, well, pretty much his whole life. He took security here at the mall more seriously that any guard we’ve ever had. Honestly, probably a little too seriously if you get my drift,” she sighed.
“I might, but just in case, why don’t you tell me more,” I said.
Betty was a middle-aged spinster who I could tell went the extra mile her entire life to be overly polite.
“Um, he had run-ins with people, especially teenagers,” Betty said.
“Run-ins?” I asked.
“Yes, well, I would say he didn’t like them. We had an awful lot of complaints from parents, store owners, even some of our elderly early morning walkers about how he treated people,” she said.
“Might I ask why you continued to keep him in your employ then?” I asked.
“Well like I said, it’s all he had,” Betty said.
“Why do you think he’s missing, Betty? Loners like him sometimes just up and leave. Especially if they didn’t have family or friends to speak of. I’ve seen it many times,” I said.
“The detective said the same thing. They even checked his house. They said it didn’t look like he took anything. I’m telling you Ms. Maximine, Roy wouldn’t just leave us like that,” she said.
“The detective? Let me guess, Czerneski right?” I asked.
“Why yes, do you know him?” she asked.
“We’ve met. But that’s neither here nor there. What about Mr. Blake?” I asked.
“That’s even stranger. One day, he just didn’t open his store. He owns the hobby shop up on the second floor. He called me the night before to ask if I had a replacement mannequin. Apparently the one he had was loose, and the arms kept falling down or something. The next day I sent one up, but he was closed,” she said.
“Isn’t the store responsible for their own sales merchandise?” I asked.
“Usually, but we have a whole room full of them and they would just be sitting there otherwise so we let our stores pick and choose through them if they need one,” she said.
“I understand. So, no calls from him, no notes, nobody has seen him? He’s not in the hospital, the morgue maybe?” I asked.
“Oh heavens no, I hope not. We haven’t heard from him. The only thing was I received a call from one of the vendors that same day saying there was an altercation in front of his store, something about an angry woman. John never mentioned it though, so I didn’t really think anything of it,” she said.
“A vendor? What, like a guy who fills machines?” I asked.
“No, a vendor is a business that sells to other businesses. He was in sporting goods I believe,” she said.
“Did you get his name?” I asked.
“John, his name was John. I remember because John was calling about John. You know, the whole word association thing,” she said.
“Ya, I got it, got it. Tell me, do these men have a history of being friends? Do you think their disappearances may be connected?” I asked.
“I wouldn’t know about that. Maybe, but it’s not like they were gone at the same time,” she said.
“Betty, how long did you wait to report Roy missing?” I asked.
She sipped her coffee hard, holding her cup with both hands while staring directly into my eyes. I could see the wheels turning in her brain, desperately trying to manufacture an excuse.
“I hate to say it, but, well, like you implied, if it was going to be a disguised blessing, we weren’t going to ask too many questions. I’m sorry, but Roy was, was… But when John disappeared, well, we grew concerned,” she said.
“At the risk of sounding like a broken record, how long? And I have to ask you again why would the real estate company hire me to find these men?” I asked.
“To be perfectly honest Ms. Maximine, Roy was such a boisterous figure around here that people noticed him missing. It was like the lights were brighter, people were happier. We even saw an uptick in traffic. That is until John also disappeared. Then, people started to ask questions. And then, well then kids were saying things like, ‘Don’t go to the mall alone, the Maller might get you,’ or ‘Stay away from Killer Creek Mall’. I guess you could say we are trying to get out ahead of this thing and the police haven’t been really any help at all,” she said.
“How long?” I asked again.
Betty sighed the long sigh and put her cup down on the desk.
“Three weeks. It’s been three weeks, and Roy has been gone for we think at least two weeks before that, maybe more. Between you and I John was getting pretty far behind. We let him slide because he’s one of our original stores, but in light of the situation, well, he used up his deposit for rent and I’m afraid from a business standpoint we have no choice. So honestly, by hiring you we can say we did absolutely everything we could under the circumstances,” she said.
“I understand, perfectly. Tell you what, you put your John Hancock on this contract, and I’ll get this ball rolling,” I said.
I had a strong suspicion we were talking about a dead-beat store owner who skipped town and a low life security guard who coincidentally beat feet as well, for whatever reason. There was probably a casino involved, lots of guys on their last legs try to win their way back into prosperity. It never works. Most of the time I find them spread eagle in the bottom of a bottle, occasionally alive.
“Yes, very good. After all the news lately we feel like you’re the obvious choice,” she said.
“Excellent. Can we head up to the hobby store then? I’d like to have a look around,” I asked.
I slammed the last drop of joe and waited for Betty next to the door.
“Of course. Oh my, Ms. Maximine, your limping. Should I call for a cart?” she asked.
“No, no, I’m fine. Like you said, all the news lately. Between a camping trip from hell, getting attacked by a lion, shot at and running from a burning house, well, a girl is bound to get nicked-up along the way,” I laughed.
“Oh my, I hope this case is a lot easier on you,” Betty said.
“Me too, Betty, me too.”
The intestines of the mall seemed to have two doors below for everyone above.
“Are these offices?” I asked.
“I think originally they were supposed to be, but now they’re storage. Every store has one included in their lease,” she said.
I didn’t think about it until we passed the food court on the second floor. Maybe there was something about the smell of cinnamon rolls and polyester that made me wax philosophically. A dirty freight elevator brings you up to the ground floor, but during your next lift, you’re going to be able to gaze out upon all the sunshine and glory that was your time on the first floor.
“I don’t remember you saying today was moving day,” I said.
The closed sign in the middle of a giant masking tape ‘X’ over the front display window signaled the end of the road for the hobby store. Workers were busy taking inventory of each bank of items before boxing them up and loading them onto push carts.
“Where is all this stuff headed?” I asked.
“Until everything is sorted out we are going to put everything downstairs,” Betty said.
I gave the place the once-over although there wasn’t much to see. A meager pittance of money was left in the register, maybe enough to make change for a twenty. His coat still hung on the back of his office chair and leftovers from lunch filled the top shelf of his tiny under cabinet refrigerator.
“Where was this altercation?” I asked Betty.
“Just outside the window from what I gathered,” she said.
I took a slow meander outside the store. The foreboding closed sign sucked up all my attention to the point where I felt like I had been standing there and staring at it for hours. They took everything, right down to the clothes on the mannequin.
“Hell of a shame, isn’t it?” he said.
A random man a few paces behind me obviously took note of my hypnotized state.
“Yeah, damn shame,” I said.
“Not really a surprise though considering the way he treated his customers,” he said.
“Really?” I said.
The man behind me was shockingly stark with vibrant eyes, the kind of eyes you remember for two days and then forget until you see something brighter blue than it should be, and then you think about them again.
“Did you know John?” I asked.
“A little. I spoke to him after he had what I would describe as a fight with a woman out here about a month ago,” he said.
“You saw this?” I asked.
“Yes, yes I did. What’s more is I spoke with him about the incident immediately after. I explained to him that it wasn’t in his best interest to treat customers with such contempt,” he said.
“And what did he say?” I asked.
“Well, let’s just say he carried that same contempt into our conversation. As a person with interests in the customer base of this mall I also thought it prudent to report the incident to management,” he said.
“Oh, so you’re the guy,” I gushed.
He smiled brilliantly and readily stepped forward to introduce himself amid an obvious air of reluctance.
“John,” he said.
“Philippine. Philippine Maximine. A pleasure,” I said.
“The pleasure is all mine,” he said.
“You know what, I’ve looked it over, and there’s really not much more I can get from looking inside. You’re really my best, my only lead at the moment John, John?” I inquired.
“John Buries,” he said.
“Berries? Like a blue berry?” I asked.
I thought I was being cute, my brain having inadvertently creating word play regarding his eyes. I was pleased to have thought it but I absolutely hated my mouth for saying the words aloud.
“Would you be a detective then Ms. Maximine?” he asked.
“Please, Philippine. And yes, well, sort of. I am of the private variety,” I said awkwardly.
“I see. Philippine, I couldn’t help but notice you’re favoring one leg. I would be remiss as a gentleman if I didn’t tell you about an herbal topical that works absolute wonders. As fate would have it, it’s only available right here in this mall. Right over there as a matter of fact,” he said.
He motioned to a dark little store across the mall on the same floor, Seely’s Unique Boutique.
“Allow me to escort you?” he asked.
“Trust me, you won’t be disappointed, guaranteed,” he said.
After standing there with a stupid look on my face for a week and a half, I was finally able to get my brain and my mouth on the same page.
“Um, sure, what the hell. It’s not going to kill me,” I said.
“Probably not,” he laughed.