Suspect


I stare out a window of the diner, wondering if there will be even a glimmer of recognition. I check the time on my phone; he’s only five minutes late. I look at my hand as I signal the waitress for another cup of coffee, and know I’m not anything like the skinny teenager he once knew. When I saw his picture a few weeks ago, I was surprised to see a scrawny old man staring at me. Well, it was a prison photo. Maybe he’ll seem more familiar in person.

I was shocked when I saw his name on the suspect list for a rape at the dunes: Peter Horatio Meltvine. Can’t be two people with a name like that, can there?

“I know him!” I said, pointing to the name when I got the list during briefing.

“How?” Captain Berwin scrutinized me.

“I dated him in high school,” I said.

“Was it serious?”

“For me, yes. For him, not so much,” I said.

“And that was, how long ago?” The captain smiled this time.

“Forty years ago.”

“Have you seen him since?”

“Once.”

And he’d shown up in my dreams for years as, I guess, first loves do.

“Why do you think it might be him?” I asked.

“He’s one of the men on the sex offender registry that lives within ten miles of the crime scene.”

“Petey? A sex offender?” He’d barely kissed me that lovely summer I was 16. That he might be a rapist was inconceivable.

“People change. Or maybe they don’t. See me after this,” the captain said.

 

I forced myself to pay attention for the rest of the briefing. The victim was with a group of high school kids having a party around a fire in the dunes. A man came up behind her as she was looking for a place to pee or throw up – the victim was unclear on this point – covered her mouth, threatened her, then punched her when she went for his face. An amorous couple looking for privacy found her lying in some beach grass about a quarter mile from their bonfire. Someone had seen an older man in the poorly lit parking lot. Really short hair, or maybe balding. The victim said the man wore a watch cap over his eyes and ears. Had a full beard. She thought she scratched him.

But my thoughts kept wandering to the first time I’d seen him that summer of 1968, standing at the top of the stairs scanning the beach. I knew who he was, but didn’t remember him being quite so gorgeous. His sun-bleached hair fell over his eyes as he scanned the beach. He would be mine, I’d decided right then.

“Vandee. In my office,” the captain said.

“You probably shouldn’t be involved in tracking down your Petey,” the captain said, “but whatever you can tell us about him might help rule him out. Or in.”

“Why not? It was forty years ago,” I said. “That can’t be a conflict. You’ve interrogated guys you knew in high school, men you go to church with now.”

“Do you still have feelings for him?” the captain asked.

I hesitated.

“Exactly,” he said.

“I thought I loved him back then. First loves are hard to forget. That doesn’t mean I can’t be objective now,” I said.

“Can you?”

“Yes. It’s a long shot anyway. The Pete I knew was no rapist. You change my mind, you can convince a jury,” I said.

“He’s a sex offender,” he said.

“For what offense?”

The captain shuffled through a stack of file folders on his desk. “All I have is sexual contact with a minor.”

My stomach jumped, and a little bile came up.

“I’ll have Katy pull all the boxes. What they did would be good to know. He could have pled to a lesser charge.”

“Is there a picture?” I asked.

He handed me a headshot of a thin old man in a bright orange shirt, smirking for the camera.

“That’s Pete? What’s his birthday?”

The captain handed me the file. “You didn’t think he’d still be a young stud, did you?”

The birthdate was right. And the birthplace. A great sadness flushed over me. What happened to you, Petey? I handed the file back to him and nodded.

“So, tell me about him,” the captain said.

 

“Well, I only saw him during a few summers when I was a teenager. He lived near where my family stayed every summer. He was in college the summer I dated him; I was 16. He was always a perfect gentleman with me. Took me to church!” I looked at the picture again. I could see nothing of the Pete I knew in the gaunt face and thin, white hair.

“Any rumors?”

I hesitated. I’d never believed them. “He dated an eighth-grader that same summer. I thought that was a little creepy, but that was probably jealousy.”

“A college boy with an eighth-grader? No, that’s creepy,” the captain said.

“Never any rumors of rape, though. Got a girl pregnant that fall and married her. The next summer he was drafted, and I never saw him again once he left for boot camp. Heard Viet Nam messed him up some. I met someone from his hometown in a bar once who told me he’d gotten addicted and started selling when he got back. This guy also said he was dead, killed in a drug deal gone bad, so I’m not sure who he was talking about.”

“A perfect gentleman?” he asked.

“To me? Absolutely,” I said.

“Well, we still have to check him out. The sex offender registry is the only lead we have,” he said.

“Seems like a lot of offenders in that area,” I said.

“Not the nicest part of the city. Maybe even a halfway house or two. Who knows if they still live at the addresses they’ve given,” he said.

“We have the DNA of sex offenders on file, don’t we?”

“Some yes, some no. Depends on when they were in prison.” The captain shuffled through his papers again, retrieving a list. “Apparently we don’t have Mr. Meltvine’s. He must have been convicted before they started routine collection.”

“I have the best shot at getting a sample of his DNA without spooking him, don’t I?”

“How?” he asked.

“I have coffee with him. For old times. Or something,” I said. “I read an article that said you can get DNA off clothes now. I’ll give him a hug.”

“So, you’re going to call up a guy you haven’t seen for forty years and say ‘Hey, let’s meet up’? How would you explain knowing where he lives?”

“The internet is a wonderful thing,” I said. “Internet dating sites and social media are ways to meet girls or find out where the beach parties are.”

 

I went to my cubicle and researched dating sites. Not that I needed to do much, having tried some after my divorce. What agony that was! I called Angie, my friend at the county attorney’s office, and she said she’d try to get a warrant for the sites’ membership lists. What was our probable cause? The sex offender registry, I told her. Might work, she said. A long shot, though. You know they probably would use fake names. Facial recognition software might be easier and quicker. We both laughed. As if the county had that.

I spread out the pictures I had of the offenders and marked their addresses on a map. Then I signed up on the dating sites under a false name. Maybe I’d be my own facial recognition software. Now I had to compose my introduction. That’s when I had my moment of inspiration. If I said just enough about the Lake and posted some pictures of the younger me there, maybe Pete would find me even if I couldn’t locate him.

 

Title: Sitting on the Dock of the Bay

Name: Summer Song

Age: 56

Interests: Swimming. Singing. Reading spy novels. Watching old movies

About me: Hi! I grew up in Greenville, but loved my summers at Basswood Lake so much I moved nearby as soon as I could, and have been here ever since. My favorite things to do are hiking, fishing on the Lake, or sitting on the beach at the Dunes reading a book and cooling off in the water. Still working full-time, but looking for someone to have fun with and warm up my nights. Could that be you?

 

How humiliating. I’d scan in some pictures tonight. I thought about the one of the two of us sitting on a dock at the Lake. I could crop him out, and use that. Maybe he’d remember.

Might as well start with Pete’s zip code. I put in pretty limited search parameters, and started examining faces. Two hundred fifty-two hits for men aged 55-62 in one zip code? I already had a headache. I did a quick scan and deleted the obvious mismatches. Two hours later I took a walk to clear my head, then tried the second site. A couple looked promising, so I marked them as favorites and logged off my computer. Maybe I’d do some more on my own time. The thought made me want to scream.

 

At home, as I microwaved a chicken enchilada box, I couldn’t stop thinking about all the years I spent looking for his face in a crowd. During college I kept spending my summers at the Lake, hoping he’d come by. Once I thought I’d seen him, and rushed to the spot, but no one was there. No matter how many times I told myself to forget him, I couldn’t. It hadn’t been a blissful summer of romance, either; it had been a roller coaster of yes and no. But I’d never felt so strongly about anyone before or since. Then the county sheriff was hiring, and I thought if I spent enough time nearby I’d run into him. I couldn’t call him, or ask the people we knew at the Lake; he was married. But if I bumped into him, where’s the sin in that?

Nothing. Ever. Then that guy told me he was dead. He’d still appear in my dreams, and I’d wake up with a longing I could never talk about with Gus sleeping next to me.

 

When I arrived the next morning, eighteen cardboard boxes, the files of the offenders who’d been convicted in our county, were piled next to my desk. I looked at Pete’s first. His stepdaughter had accused him of coming into her room at night; he’d pled guilty to inappropriate touching. I cringed. I’d seen way too many of those. I wanted to believe he was innocent and just didn’t want to take the risk of trial. Maybe the captain was right, and I wasn’t objective. I wouldn’t have believed those excuses from anyone else. I weeded through the rest of the files, then knocked on the captain’s door.

“Eight of these are violent rapes of girls they didn’t know. The rest are familial abuse, child pornography, soliciting a minor, that sort of thing. We should keep them all on the list, but I think the eight seem the most likely,” I said.

“And your friend Pete?” he asked.

“Charged with rape of his stepdaughter, pled guilty to fondling her,” I said.

“If Angie can’t get a warrant for the whole list, maybe she can for these eight. Let her know, and you concentrate on them too. That means no more county time spent looking for lost love.”

“Yes, sir.”

I got the call early the next morning. There had been another rape at the Dunes, this time of a 17-year old girl. Briefing first thing.

The State Police came to this briefing. They feared it was a serial rapist now, and wanted to take the lead. They had facial recognition software and would run all 26 prison photos. This woman definitely scratched her attacker, and they thought we’d get usable DNA this time. Their detective came to my desk, and I showed him what I had.

“Can you send me copies of your report, analysis, pictures?” he asked.

“Sure. You can sign out these boxes, too, if you want,” I said.

“No thanks.” He grinned at me. “If I need them, I know where to find them. And let me know if any of your boyfriends message you or say something interesting.”

“How about the one who winked at me?” I asked.

“Just wink back. See what happens.”

Nothing happened.

 

Two weeks later, another one, a 15-year-old girl. Again, a watch cap and beard. Somebody liked raping young girls partying with their friends at the beach. At night I would play around with my search on the free site and look at new members, telling myself I was working. Then I got a message on the free site: “Annie, is that you? If it is, message me back. Pete.” I was excited and afraid at the same time. The picture on his profile didn’t look anything like the prison photo. He was balding, but he still had that crooked smile I remembered on his old man face. No beard, thank God. I wondered how current it was. When I told the captain, he told me to set up a meeting. See if his hand is scratched. See if he wears a watch cap or has grown a beard.

And now I wait.

He’s twenty minutes late.

 

When I’d daydreamed about seeing him again it was never like this. Maybe I’d seen too many of those news stories about old people finding each other again after their spouses died and getting married. If I hadn’t promised the captain I’d try to get some DNA I’d have left by now, I told myself. The panic had been building since we’d decided to meet up. We picked this diner because we sometimes went here that summer, a kitschy place called Train Town that brought your burgers on a train that ran along tracks circling the huge front windows, then chugged along the back counter to the kitchen. It always made me laugh when it tooted its arrival. I laughed a lot that summer. When I wasn’t crying. Now the train ran on a track near the ceiling on a five-minute circle, delivering nothing. Such a disappointment.

The waitress keeps looking at me sadly. I’ve told her three times already I’d order when my friend got here. By now we w’re both pretty sure I’ve been stood up. I keep checking my phone for a message. We’d exchanged numbers and talked for maybe ten minutes the night we set this up. What a strange conversation that had been. After the “I-couldn’t-believe-it-when-I-saw-your-profile” from him, and the “I-know-I-couldn’t-believe-you-responded” from me, neither of us had much to say. We both assured each other we didn’t do Internet dating often, but it was hard to meet people at our age. I asked him how his life had been, and he said he’d rather talk about it in person. I told him about the guy in the bar telling me he was dead. Well, I’m not, he’d said, does that make you happy or sad? I’ll let you know, I’d said.

The longer I sit here, the stupider it seems. There’s no way this could end well. I’m suddenly angry at him for being an idiot, angry at myself for all that wasted pining for all those years. I decide I don’t even want to see him anymore. I signal the waitress.

“More coffee?” she says, peering into my half-full cup.

“No, the check please,” I say, “it looks like I’ve been stood up.”

“No charge, sweetie. I’ve been there.” She touches my shoulder as she walks away.

I grab a five out of my purse, and as I stick it under the sugar shaker I look out toward the parking lot. A beat-up Mustang pulls into a spot right in front of me. A clean-shaven older man in a Cubs cap gets out, and as I try to figure out if it’s him, he looks straight at me and gives me a small wave.

 

 

 

 

Patricia Boomsma is an Arizona lawyer and a recent MFA graduate from Queens University of Charlotte. She was an articles editor for the Indiana Law Review, and an editorial assistant for Qu magazine. Her publications include poems in Haiku Journal and Indolent Press, short stories in The Vignette Review and Scarlet Leaf Review, a book review in New Orleans Review, an honorable mention in the 2016 haiku contest for the Arizona Matsuri festival, and an article on John Fowles in the Journal of Modern Literature. Find out more at http://patboomsma.com/

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3 thoughts on “Suspect

  1. Pat Erickson

    Great story. I had one of those guys I never could get out of my system. Always wonder about him. Hopefully, he’s on the right side of the law.

    I enjoyed reading this…the tension, the longing, the internal conflict.

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