Donna Rand had been in the north-central Massachusetts town of Ashburton for less than an hour and was already frustrated. She had run up against nothing but dead ends and roadblocks in her first visits to the town's Police Station and Town Hall in her preliminary investigation into the missing Ashburton girl, Emily Puckett. Then she met Roxanne Pumczak, publisher of a local paper long ago run nearly out of existence by rising costs, slumping sales and the internet. Pumczak had managed to keep the Oakmont Gazette alive, at least on-line, by doing all the jobs of a newspaper staff herself. She sold ad space, covered local school board and town council meetings; did whatever she could to hold the local politicians and functionaries accountable. Donna knew she had an ally from the moment Pumczak uttered her first four words to her.
"It's about damn time."
Donna had just entered the paper's offices in an old brick building in an old mill complex that now passed for an office park in Garnerville. The crisp air of the autumn afternoon trailed her, along with the smell of wood fires. The bell over the door had not yet finished ringing when she encountered Pumczak rising from a broad table behind a high counter. Judging by her greeting, Donna guessed the deceptively youthful, smiling owner of "The First and Oldest Newspaper in Western Massachusetts" was expecting her.
"Hello. I'm Donna..."
"Rand, Donna Rand, I know!" She interrupted, grasping Donna's still-cold hand and giving it a vigorous pump.
"You've been ruffling a few feathers around these parts. As I said, it's about time you showed up here!"
Donna was puzzled. "Thanks. I'm happy to meet you..."
"Roxanne Pumczak, publisher and chief bottle washer of the Oakmont Gazette. Pleased to meet you."
Donna could tell they would be fast friends. Roxanne was sprightly in appearance and energy; had to be to keep the paper, even in its online-only form, up and running. Donna pegged her at around sixty-five, though possibly the healthiest and most beautiful sixty-five she'd ever met. She also sensed a kindred spirit.
"So you know why I'm here then."
The publisher smiled. "I do. And I've been waiting for you. Even put together a little presentation. You know, old news clippings, that sort of thing. Come on in!"
She led Donna to a large back room. It was packed with metal shelving, bowing under stacks of old issues of the paper in water-stained disarray. Further back, under a hanging fluorescent light fixture, was a large black desk, upon which stood a high slanted drafting table.
"Take a look. I think you'll agree that the disappearances of five girls in 15-years is no coincidence. In fact, I believe many more have been lost, over many more years."
Roxanne handed Donna a stack of time-stained clips and gray print-outs of on-line articles.
"Those are all about the most recent victims. Five since the year two-thousand."
She reached across the desk to pick up another wad of ancient newsprint and note paper.
"And these are reports of missing girls from the end of the twentieth century."
Donna nodded, flipping through the pile of papers in her hand.
"Emily Puckett. She's the latest, right?"
"Yes," Pumczak nodded from behind a bottle of Mountain Dew she tilted to her lips. "She just stopped showing up to school six weeks ago. Good kid. Athlete. Top of her class. Volunteer. Local law enforcement intern. She worked for me for a couple of summers ago. Last seen at her night job in the cafeteria at the community college."
Donna gestured toward the pages in Pumczak's hand.
"And those? How far back do they go?"
Roxanne deposited her soft drink on the desk and squared up..
"The earliest case, as far as I can tell, occurred in 1978. Eight in total from then until 2000. Five more girls have 'run away,' according to the local constabulary, since then. That makes thirteen of 'em, by my count; a baker's dozen. Lucky thirteen..."
Donna looked up, shocked, from the old newsprint.
"That many? What are you saying?"
"These aren't 'disappearances', Donna. I don't even know what that means; 'hocus pocus, now we see you, now we don't'? They're not runaways, either. They're abductions. And I'm afraid that not a single one of these girls ever really left town."
Donna looked over the woman she'd only met minutes before, but in whom she'd already developed considerable trust. "So you're saying..."
"They're dead, Donna. Every single one. Except, maybe, Emmy. And if she's not, I don't want to think of what kind of hell she's in right now."
Donna felt an emptiness in the pit of her stomach, as if she were cresting a roller coaster. She gently grasped her new friend's shoulder.
"Can I count on you?"
Roxanne put her hand upon Donna's.
"I think you already know you can."
Donna sat on a tall metal stool beside the desk. She pointed at the soft drink sweating before her. "You got any more of those? I think I'm going to need an energy boost."
Roxanne reached into a dorm-sized fridge on the floor between a pair of steel filing cabinets and pulled out a pair of green plastic bottles..
"Oh, jumping right in are we? I like your style, Donna Rand."
Donna held up the printout of an article about Emily Puckett. It featured a photo of a dark-haired beauty, posing just a little awkwardly for what was obviously a school picture.
"From what you tell me, time is of the essence."
"It is indeed, Donna." The publisher pulled up another stool. "It is indeed."
The bell above the door of the premises of the Oakmont Gazette jangled. Donna Rand and her newfound friend Roxanne Pumczak were poring over old articles out back. A map of Ashburton was duct taped to a whiteboard; green and red writing scribbled on the board itself.
The publisher looked concerned. "Now who could that be? I'm not expecting anyone. Are you?"
Donna wrangled her phone out of her duck hunting jacket and checked the time. It was 6:45. They'd been at it for over two hours. She yelled through the open door leading to the front.
"Charles, is that you?"
A voice came back, thinned by distance and muffled by the half-closed door. "It better be. Who else would dress me like this?"
"Come on back!" She turned to Roxanne and grimaced apologetically.
"Sorry; is it okay? He's my..."
Just then the door swung wide, filling the darkness with light.
"There you are. Weren't we supposed to meet at six?"
Donna stood and stretched. "Sorry. Time got away."
She waved from Charles to her new friend.
"Roxanne, this is Charles. Charles, this is Roxanne. She runs the paper."
Roxanne stepped toward Charles as he completed his walk into the back room. She extended her hand.
"Roxanne Pumczak, Publisher of the Oakmont Gazette, the First and Oldest Newspaper in Western Massachusetts."
"Charles is my..." Donna hesitated. She knew that if she didn't affix some sort of platonic label on their relationship, they'd be taken as lovers. Again. Charles interrupted.
"I'm her Kato. An assistant who handles the car keys."
Roxanne looked at Charles then at Donna.
"No mask? I thought Kato wore a mask."
Donna could see that Charles was pleased with Pumczak's recognition of his Green Hornet reference. He replied, nodding toward Donna.
"No, she won't let me. Says I'm nuts enough without broadcasting it to the world."
All three shared a laugh. Charles poked around the stacks and Roxanne whispered to Donna.
"So... You two aren't..?"
Donna appreciated her new friend's directness. She shook her head.
"Nope. Just friends. Great friends. But no romance."
Roxanne raised an eyebrow. "No sex?"
Donna squirmed just a little. "Nope. Not that, either."
"Hmm. He's kinda cute..." Roxanne lifted an eyebrow. If I were twenty years younger..."
Just then Charles bounded back from his explorations.
"So... Dinner?" He turned to Roxanne. It's on me, if you can direct us to someplace decent."
"My favorite place is closed on Mondays, but I think I can find a joint or two." She slid her stool to the side of the desk, and said to no one in particular, "I think it's a good idea to get a fresh start in the morning." She grabbed her coat and bag from a hook on a beam along the far wall. She took the first step toward the door, signaling the others to follow.
"Wouldn't you agree, Donna?"
Donna's stomach growled.
"You don't have to ask me twice." She took her jacket from atop a pile of old newspapers and followed. Charles brought up the rear.
"I take it you found something," he whispered conspiratorially in Donna's ear.
"And then some." She spoke in full voice, announcing her new friend's trustworthiness. "C'mon, we'll tell you over dinner."
"'We?' Have we found ourselves a kindred spirit?" Charles spoke loudly enough for Roxanne to hear. She showed no indication she had.
"Yes, 'we' have. Now shut up and drive."
He laughed. "Yes, ma'am. Shutting up and driving, ma'am."
He waited in the parking lot, one foot half-in a pothole, as Roxanne locked the door, then watched the women step toward his car. Roxanne walked past, and opened the door to a fifteen year old Subaru parked in the next space.
"Just follow me, hon," she yelled above the breeze. "And keep up, I drive fast!"
Donna rubbed her hands in the chill air, laughing inwardly at Charles' apparent discomfort.
"Let's go, 'hon.'" She climbed into his SUV. "You heard her: Keep up!"
Charles shook his head in mock fear.
"What have you gotten us into?"
Loose pavement flew as Charles gunned the engine and followed the taillights of Roxanne's wagon around a corner and up onto the main road.
Donna Rand awoke to the sudden hum of the heating unit beneath her cheap motel room window. She tried to judge the time from the light that intruded through the small space between the drapes. She gave up and reached for her phone. It was 8:30am. She let the phone fall with her hand to the cheap motel room bedcover and rolled over to reach the cheap motel room TV remote. A cheap motel room television came to life. What passed for local news was on. A weatherman wearing earmuffs indoors warned of the first winter storm's imminent arrival.
She clicked it off. "It's not winter yet, dummy. It's an autumn storm. A snowstorm. But not a winter storm." Donna swung her legs to the floor, pulling the covers with her. She searched her memory for the cause of her grumpiness. Dinner had certainly gone well. Maybe it was the wine.
They'd arrived at a cavernous fieldstone mill building on the Otter River, whose waters once turned a mighty wheel, which in turn spun the lathes, drills and sanders of one of the Desk-making City's old woodworking shops. The wheel remained, on display out front, refurbished and painted, on a stone and wood pedestal. Inside, the high ceiling featured displays of some of the long leather bands that had driven the machines, which were long-gone. Dining there had been Roxanne's idea.
"I don't know if their desks were worth a damn, but they sure know how to put together a nice lamb chop."
"How's the wine list?" Charles was panting, finding it as difficult to keep up with the lady publisher on foot as it had been when she was behind the wheel.
"Don't know. Fine, I guess. If you're an expert, you can tell me."
They'd been greeted at the door effusively. The owner and self-anointed "maitre'd" fawned over Roxanne and her guests before leaving them to retrieve the wine list.
"I put a very nice review on this place in the paper. I swear, I have to fight with him to stop trying to pay my check every time I come in here. There's no quid pro quo. I genuinely like the joint." She winked at Donna. “And believe me, I have been known to savage a place if I think it deserves it."
The food had turned out to be excellent, which they washed down with what Charles called a "perfectly acceptable" California cabernet, which at restaurant mark-up cost 65-dollars per bottle. He paid for two unhesitatingly.
"I think I know why you keep him around!" Roxanne laughed as Charles ordered the wine.
"You're all right by me, Chuck."
He opened his mouth to correct her, to make clear that nobody calls him "Chuck," but she had already changed the subject.
"So, that PCK thing. Must be quite a tale." Pumczak leaned in over a plate of shrimp cocktail.
Donna wasn't in the mood to rehash the still-distressing case of the Packing Crate Killer.
"Yeah, but lets leave that for later. Tell me about Emily Puckett."
Roxanne leaned back in her seat. "Oh, Emmy. Sweet girl. Smart. Not many sophomores are already narrowing down their college choices. She wanted to be a writer..."
Donna watched a transformation in hew new friend's face. Until now she had ways kept a hint of gruffness, a hard edge, to her actions and her countenance. For just a moment, though, Donna thought she saw despair cross her visage. Her eyes had clearly dampened. Donna realized she'd referred to Emily in the past tense. She reached across the table and patted Roxanne's arm. Roxanne looked up and seemed to switch off her emotions.
"Emily was, is, as I just mentioned, a sophomore. She had very high standardized test scores and excellent grades. Not a single teacher has a bad word to say about her. She plays three varsity sports, and works part time at the Community College." She eased a bit, and looked from Charles to Donna.
"I ask you. Does that sound like a kid who just ups and runs away?"
Donna asked, "Is there a boyfriend in the picture..?"
"Well, sure, she's had a couple of dates; nothing ever long-term. And she certainly was never one of those boob flashing, 'sex texters', or whatever they're called. She had self-respect. Her folks are good people.” She paused. “Well, the father hasn’t been heard from for years, but when he was around, he was good people.”
Charles took the wine from the waitress and waved her off. He poured them each a healthy dose and Roxanne drank deeply. She looked at Charles and raised an eyebrow, tipping her glass toward him.
"Nice choice. You're growing on me, Chuck." Donna smiled when she saw Charles surrender.
“He doesn’t like to be called, ‘Chuck,’” Donna said.
“Hmm.” Roxanne answered, then returned to the subject at hand. "So you see why this just doesn't make sense. Kids like Emmy Puckett don't just up and leave. She had everything going for her here."
Donna tucked into her salad. The balsamic dressing was a tad sharp, but the greens were fresh and crisp. She broke the brief silence, using her salad fork like a conductor's baton.
"What about the previous cases? From what I read back at your office, they seem like real achievers, too."
"They were." Roxanne closed her lips around a jumbo shrimp and pulled the tail shell expertly from the flesh. She chewed hurriedly, and continued.
"What passes for a police chief in these parts has a cockamamie theory to explain it all away."
"I'm all ears." Donna leaned back as the waitress removed her salad plate.
Roxanne waited until the appetizers had been cleared. Charles topped-off their glasses as she began.
"Remember about eight or nine years ago, that teen pregnancy story on the Cape?"
Donna searched her memory. It sounded familiar, but she wasn't sure.
Charles was. "Yeah, I remember. Something like 15-20 kids pregnant in one school year. The principal blamed it on some sort of... pregnancy pact."
Roxanne snapped her finger and pointed at Charles. "Right! But it turned out to be a load of crap!"
Donna remembered now. The pregnancy rate at a Cape Cod high school almost tripled in one year. The principal tried to make sense of it all by claiming the girls had taken a "pregnancy oath," vowing to get pregnant. He'd said one had even resorted to sex with a 30-year old homeless man to honor the pact, if not herself. The story fell apart when the kids started popping up on network morning shows, declaring the only agreement they'd made was to support each other after having already gotten pregnant.
Donna nodded. "I remember that story. It was big when I had just crossed over from radio to TV at WEEL. The principal ended up resigning."
"Bingo!" Roxanne took another sip of wine. "Now our intrepid police chief has concocted a similar story to explain away our missing girls."
Charles face was furrowed in thought. "But I don't understand. These cases have taken place over what, 15-years?"
Charles looked to Donna for an explanation. "More?"
"More. Roxanne has tracked down more than a dozen similar examples dating back to the disco age."
Roxanne took over. "That's right. And our police chief is operating under the assumption that these girls are following some... melancholic, and, frankly, obscene tradition of some kind. The story goes that among the most promising of our kids, there is a sense that nothing good could come to anyone who stays in Ashburton. And they're doomed if they don't get out before high school graduation, particularly if they come from a certain part of town." She pointed to wide triangular section of an antique map of the town tacked to the wall. "Basically around what used to be the biggest private tract of land around, Rousmanire Farm. Once home to the looniest bunch of inbred wannabe Kennedys you'll ever meet.."
Donna shook her head disbelievingly. What's his proof? I mean, what is he basing this on?
"That's where it gets really nuts. He says his proof is that it has happened. If kids go missing, and they're from a particular part of town, and they're bright, then he says the conspiracy proves itself."
Donna realized she was still shaking her head, slack-jawed. She pulled up her chin and stilled her swivel. "The only obvious thing is this guy's stupidity."
Roxanne laughed and raised her glass.
"To Chief John Roman. Dumb as a stump, and twice as lazy."
They drank, and tended to their chops. Donna spoke as she dug in.
"You know, I've got a meeting with that guy tomorrow."
"I'd simply like to ask a few questions about the Emily Puckett case." Donna Rand hoped she didn't sound as frustrated as she felt. A police officer stood with his arms crossed on the other side of a high Formica-covered, faux wood panel-clad counter.
"I'm sorry, ma'am, but as I just told you we're not holding any media availabilities today."
"'Media availabilities'? I just want to ask Chief Roman a few questions." Donna felt her face flushing. She hated confrontations. Especially with a human brick wall who kept echoing back the same response.
"Look, when I came here yesterday, you told me to come back today. What has changed in the past eighteen hours?"
"Nothing's changed, ma'am." The cop seemed to be enjoying this. He pointed at the oversized photo hanging on the wall behind him. If the picture, framed in ornate, gilded wood, was intended to project an image of strength, it fell short of the mark. With thinning reddish hair and beady eyes and a sad excuse for a mustache, the face that presided over the linoleum lobby of the Ashburton police station projected, to Donna's mind, the image of a ferret.
"Chief Roman was out yesterday. I invited you to return today so I could ask him if he would be available today. He's not."
Donna couldn't help rolling her eyes. She immediately regretted it. The last thing she wanted was for this cop to know he was getting under her skin. She took a more confrontational tack.
"Listen. You don't seem to understand. We're gonna run this story whether the Chief participates or not. And believe me, it won't do his image any good if we have to say the chief of police refused to comment about young girls vanishing from his town. I'm just offering him a chance to get his side on the record. That's all."
"'Side? His side'?" A gruff, yet high-pitched voice emanated from beyond the wall to Donna's right. Only then did she realize that the interior walls of the police station didn't go all the way to the ceiling. They were more like permanent partitions, painted, with moldings at their top edges.
She heard a chair scrape against the floor, then heavy, deliberate footsteps. Chief John Roman opened a door behind the front desk. His heavy-footedness belied his slight, slope-shouldered build. Even standing on the elevated floor behind the counter, he was noticeably shorter than the officer he joined there.
"So, you think there are 'sides' in a case like this?
Donna opened her mouth to respond, but Roman kept speaking.
"Nobody likes to see one of our brightest flowers strike out on her own at such a young age. But kids do it. All the time. It's regrettable, but when someone is intent on starting a new life far away, there's little we can do once they're gone."
He paused to breathe and Donna seized her chance.
"But how can you be so sure that she left of her own accord? She left no note, didn't discuss leaving with even her closest friends..."
"Right." Roman pounced. "She left no note. There was also absolutely no sign of a struggle. No evidence of foul play whatsoever. And I have news for you, young lady, there's a tradition, strange as it may sound to you, of this sort of thing happening in this town. You know how young girls are; they romanticize and they glorify. And sometimes they follow suit. That's all this is."
Donna didn't appreciate being talked down to.
"You're very kind to consider me a 'young lady,' chief, but I'm not sure you're looking at this case in the proper light. Now if I can just sit down with you..."
The chief's eyes widened as if he'd been called a name.
"That's all now. I believe officer Evans has already told you we're not planning any media availabilities today. Or in the near future. Thank you, and good day."
He wheeled and let the door slam behind him before Donna could respond to his face. So she addressed him over the not-quite walls.
"We will be running this story, Chief Roman, with your help or without it." She hoped she wasn't overplaying the "we." Even though she no longer worked there, she’d told officer Evans that she was “with” WEEL-TV, to capitalize on the notoriety of the Packing Crate Killer case. If pressed, she would claim freelancer status.
Chief Roman replied over the wall. "There is no story, Ms. Rand. Thank you again, and again, good day."
Donna heard a chair scrape the floor, then footsteps. Another door slammed shut, just as Donna heard Chief roman spit, "Fucking dyke!" She assumed the chief had holed up in the john. She paused, and looked to the officer at the counter.
"Did he just say..." She let the question linger, and the cop looked down at some papers. Donna turned to the door, pulling when she should have pushed. She yanked it open and looked over her shoulder.
"See you later."
Evans smirked. ”Looking forward to it."
She decided to let the policeman have the last word, and stepped out into the cold. It seemed to her winter was coming early this year.
Back at her motel room, Donna Rand instructed Charles on the setting up of a large whiteboard. Her goal was the establishment of a timeline, starting in 1978 and reaching all the way to present-day.
"I think we're gonna need another board, if that's your plan." Charles puffed as he lifted the shiny panel from its box and kicked out its legs.
Donna pointed to the only blank wall in the room. "Put it over there, by the bathroom. If we do need another, it should fit."
Charles placed the board as ordered and plopped onto the bed.
"So how'd it go with the sheriff?"
"Lousy. And it's 'chief', not 'sheriff.' He did mention his little so-called theory, though. I employed the old, 'we'll run it with or without you' approach. He didn't seem to care." Donna peered through the twin doors connecting her room with Charles'. She slid the empty easel box through it.
"Ha, great, thanks!" Charles laughed. "So I'm your personal assistant and your garbage dumpster! Guess I'm moving up in the world."
Donna repressed an urge to castigate herself. She hadn't meant to imply he was her underling; she was just clearing room for herself.
"Oh, quit it," she instead returned the volley. "I'll take it out if you want. Just making space here..."
"I'm just kidding," Charles said, and she believed him.
"So," he continued, rising and walking toward Donna. "Old Chief ‘Weasel' was no help? I get the impression around town that that's the case more often than not. As usually happens with three generations of nepotism."
Donna looked up from her struggle with a cellophane-wrapped box of colored markers.
"Yeah." Charles took the package from her and broke the seal. "The gal at the office store told me. His daddy was Chief before him. And his daddy's uncle before that. Just another a case of small town "dynasticism."
Donna rolled her eyes. "Is that even a word?"
Charles acted insulted. Well, I never..!" He grinned. "If it wasn't, it is now."
"Funny," Donna mused. "Roxanne never mentioned that last night..."
"Not that I can remember," Charles added ruefully. "I might have burned out a memory cell or two with all that wine."
But Donna knew they hadn't drunk enough to forget their discussion. She was certain the lady publisher never brought up the subject. Not that it really mattered. She was sure Roxanne wasn't trying to hide a secret that could so easily be found out. A question occurred to her.
"Why did you call him Chief Weasel, anyway? I didn't tell you about him."
Charles was laying out markers in order of their places in the rainbow.
Oh, that's what the check-out girl called him. It's what she called them, all the way down the family tree: Chief Weasel one, two and three."
Donna laughed. "Funny, I thought he looked more like a ferret!"
Charles raised a finger. "Actually, and you're going to hate me for this, ferrets are weasels. They come from the same genus; Mustela, if I'm not mistaken..."
Donna wadded up the marker box and hurled it at him. "Oh, you're mistaken, all right. Mistaken to think I'm interested in what your big Harvard brain has to offer. You're probably just making it up anyway!"
Charles prepared to respond. "Actually..."
Charles channeled Strother Martin. "What we have here, is failure to communicate!"
Donna playfully stared him down, pointing her finger in a mock threat. "What we have here is failure of you to zip your lips."
Grinning, Charles drew a pantomime zipper across his lips and returned to the markers.
The room phone rang so loudly they both jumped. Donna couldn't remember the last time she'd heard an actual mechanical telephone bell ring. It jangled her nerves. She lifted the handset.
The voice on the other end was familiar.
"Hi, Donna, sorry, I forgot to get your cell number last night."
Donna felt relieved, though she wasn't't sure why. Something about the ringing phone had unsettled her.
"Oh, hi, Roxanne. How are you? We're just settling in to our office away from the office. What're you up to?"
"Just hustling to get the paper out. Or, up. Posted, I mean; updated? I still don't know what to call an electronic newspaper. Website. Whatever. I was just wondering how your meeting went with the Chief."
Donna sat on her bed. The maid had knocked and was entering Charles' adjoining room. He went to head her off.
"Well, it wasn't so much as a meeting as a rejection. The cop at the front desk was fending me off, but I made enough of a fuss that chief Weasel-face came out of his den for a minute."
"And..? Anything of substance?"
"Well, he did allude to that loony conspiracy theory you mentioned last night. But then he hightailed it. Said no 'media availabilities' were scheduled."
"Ha!" Roxanne was clearly amused. "Media availabilities. They must've taught that to his father at the Kennedy School."
"His father went to Harvard?"
'I know, right? In addition to being Police Chief, he was on the town council for a decade or two. Apparently that's enough to get into their graduate school of government."
That reminded Donna. "Roxanne? How come you didn't mention the town's dynasty last night?"
"Didn't I? No, I guess I didn't. You have to realize, Donna: when in Rome, the Romans don't seem so peculiar after a while." She paused, and her tone changed.
"You don't think I was withholding anything from you, do you Donna?"
Donna regretted asking, or at least asking so brashly.
"No! Not at all. As you say, it's certainly no secret. Please, believe me. I know we're on the same side. I guess I just worded the question wrong.
Roxanne's response was a relief. "Oh, don't sweat it, kiddo. It was a reasonable question. No harm done. Listen, I do have a favor to ask of you. You said you still have excellent relationships at your old stomping grounds. Do you think you could have somebody check on something for me? It's just a hunch, but if I''m right..." She broke off for a moment, and Donna was about to prompt her when she resumed.
"Well, let's just say it could shed some new light on the whole story."
Donna leaned against the cheap motel chain headboard, just as Charles returned from shooing away the maid after getting a supply of towels for both rooms.
"Ask away, Roxanne. I'm all ears."
Donna Rand climbed down from Charles' SUV and onto the fractured pavement in front of the offices of the Oakmont Gazette. Charles tapped the horn to signal their arrival. Donna reached over the front passenger door and opened it from the back seat. The bell rang above the wind and soon Roxanne Pumczak stepped out, turning her back as she locked the door. Donna leaned forward and shouted. "Hop in!"
Roxanne was still pulling on her gloves as she approached.
"Oh, Donna; I'm perfectly happy in the back seat."
Charles spoke up. "She's happier back there, trust me!"
He was right, Donna knew. While it was clear that her anxiety over driving (or being a passenger in) a car had decreased immensely, she always felt safer in the back, where she didn't have to look at the onrushing scenery and traffic.
"Okay, if you say so..." Roxanne climbed up, grabbing for purchase and ending up flat on her belly, ass out the door.
"I don't know how you drive these monstrosities," she grunted as she righted herself. "I shudder to think of your gas mileage."
"You get used to it," was all Charles had to say. When Roxanne's door was shut, he began the silent duties of a chauffeur.
Donna spoke up.
"I really appreciate you setting this up. I thought Mrs. Puckett wasn't speaking to the press."
"She wasn't." Roxanne craned her neck up and to the right. "But we've known each other since Emmy applied for her job with me last year. She insisted on meeting her daughter's potential boss. Wanted to make sure I was on the up and up."
Donna shifted forward. "I'm just surprised she'll speak to me."
"I put in a good word. Not that you needed it though. She heard of you from the whole PCK thing. Said if anyone's gonna get to the bottom of this mess, you and I will."
They traveled the rest of the way in a silence interrupted only by directions barked at them by the dashboard GPS system. In time, Roxanne spoke out.
"There it is. On the right."
Charles directed the vehicle down a sloping driveway, along a gentle left hand curve that ended in front of a stone and shingle bungalow. Donna thought it reminiscent of the rangers cabins built at national parks during the depression.
Roxanne nodded in agreement. "It's one of the old servants homes from before they subdivided Rousmanire Farm. Better-built than anything you'll find today, and a lot bigger than it looks."
A woman came out to meet them before they'd stopped rolling.