by Jerry McGinley
The train ride from Harvard, Illinois to downtown Chicago takes two hours. I’d driven to Harvard from Madison, parked in the public lot, and bought a round trip pass for Metra. It was a one-night stay to attend the funeral of an officer I had known in the sheriff’s department. Lenny Crane had worked twenty years in law enforcement in Wisconsin before returning to Chicago to work for a private security company. Lenny and I had never been close when we worked together. But when a fellow officer dies in the line of duty, it’s a no-brainer you’ll attend his funeral. I’d never met his wife or kids, but I planned to arrive an hour early for the funeral to give me a chance to pay condolences during a scheduled showing before the service.
Lenny’s family was holding the services at a Catholic church on the city’s north side. If Lenny was ever a religious man, I don’t remember him ever mentioning it—but churches provide a comforting closure for families, so I didn’t question the venue. I planned to meet my former partner Bud Wolczyk at a hotel on West Adams where he’d a booked a couple rooms.
Though not an avid reader, I had picked up a paperback novel about an ex-special forces agent turned private detective. I was fifty pages into the book by the time the train reached the race track at Arlington Park. I marked the page because there was a lengthy delay as numerous passengers departed from the car I was in. In fact, only three or four commuters were left in my car. It was at this point that I noticed an attractive young woman looking over the magazine she was holding—looking directly at me. I should have been thrilled to have attracted her attention, and I could have been naïve enough to think she was looking because she found me appealing. But I’m old enough to know that was unlikely, and the ex-cop in me made me suspicious of any action that seemed out of the ordinary. When she noticed my gaze, she dropped her eyes back down behind the magazine. I did the same thing with my book.
Her seat was three rows ahead of mine, and hers faced the rear of the train while mine faced forward. It was impossible not to look up every few minutes to see if she was still eyeing me. Two or three times when I looked, I did catch her gazing directly at me, apparently studying me. After the third eye-contact occurrence, she put on sunglasses, stood up, and switched to a seat that was facing forward. Was she trying to prevent me from recognizing her, or was she innocently and perhaps rightfully concerned about an odd stranger ogling her?
As she stood to move to a different seat, I caught a clear view of her face. She was very pretty, probably late twenties, with pale blue eyes and straight, medium length black hair. She looked familiar, but, of course, I couldn’t make a connection. One problem with police work is you meet a lot of people but often talk to them only a few times and then never see them again. I had thousands of faces accumulated in my mental data base, but often had problems processing that data.
I returned to my reading, but couldn’t stop trying to place her face. Since I’d been retired for a few years, the woman could have been in her late teens or early twenties when I had known her. As my memory scanned through former cases, I became increasingly troubled by a thought I did not want to acknowledge. It was my final case as a sheriff’s detective. A high school senior disappeared and was never found. I’d studied her photographs during the entire time we searched for her—which was several years. I guess her image was imprinted on my brain.
For years I tried to collect the exact piece of evidence I needed to convict the man I was certain abducted and probably killed her. Somehow he always stayed just an arm’s length out of reach. That was until our final confrontation near a small lake in Upper Michigan. I finally closed the case—not necessarily to the approval of my department, the public, and certainly not the press. Could this be the girl who disappeared?
But how could she recognize me? We never met, of course, because she was abducted before I was assigned to the case. True, my face was plastered in the papers and on the nightly news, but that was years ago. I looked different then. And if she was alive, where would she have been all this time? I talked to her parents several times. There is no way they knew she was safe but kept the masquerade alive all these years. Could the whole disappearance have been a hoax? Why?
The voice on the intercom announced, “Next stop Clybourn Station.”
Clybourn was the final stop before we reached the station downtown. If I was going to speak to the woman, it had to be soon. Without really thinking, I stood up and started forward. The woman saw my movement out of the corner of her eye and straightened rigidly in her seat. I stopped, unsure of my next move. If I was wrong, I’d terrify the woman by approaching her. If I was right, I needed to know for sure.
As the train pulled to a halt, the woman stood up, gathered her bags, and moved swiftly toward the exit. Her abrupt departure told me this was not her planned destination. She was leaving the train to get away from me. I followed her and watched her descend the steps. As she pushed through the line of passengers waiting to board, I shouted, “Kelly!” Her head made an instinctive turn to look back, but she checked it and started running down the ramp. I moved ahead, but a burly construction worker intentionally blocked the opening at the bottom of the steps. I wouldn’t catch the woman without going through him. It was a gutsy gesture, and I acknowledged his chivalry with an approving nod. I stepped back to my seat, and the big man followed me, taking a seat just two rows behind mine.
When we arrived downtown, I picked up my bag, departed the train, circled through the lobby, and returned to take the train back to Harvard. I considered getting off at Clybourn and continuing the search, but thought the better of it and headed back to Harvard.
I also thought about calling the parents of the girl who’d disappeared, but I couldn’t think of anything good that would come of that conversation. Why open old wounds? The odds of the woman being the missing teenage girl were a million to one. Probably just an old cop’s imagination playing games. But what if that one chance in a million was true? It was possible. And, just as importantly, what about that man I left lying in a circle of blood near an isolated lake in Upper Michigan?
◊ ◊ ◊
Jerry McGinley is author of three books with stories featuring the character in this story. The books are MILES TO GO BEFORE I SLEEP, LAKE REDEMPTION, and THIS OMINOUS BIRD, all available through Amazon.