Following breakfast at the 4B’s west of Missoula–the KO Café didn’t have much appeal, now that Judi no longer worked there–we headed on out to Dr. Jake Willard’s place, which Jack said was a few miles southwest of Frenchtown, off grid.
When Mom and uncle B.J. had called in the previous evening, they’d given us something to think about.
Mom had spoken only briefly, leaving most of the talking to her big brother. “We found the minivan,” he’d stated for openers. I hadn’t even gotten on the line; with a ten minute time limit per call, passing the phone back and forth made no sense. The exchanges were terse, jam packed with information going in both directions, no word wasted.
I couldn’t have done as well myself. Besides, I was still in the tub when the call came in. After the call, once I was toweled off and dressed, we’d gone out for a bite at the Stockman Bar, which had a surprisingly decent restaurant, before the ancient Protector filled me in. It was a weekday, but our booth was tucked into a surprisingly private corner, and our voices didn’t carry when we didn’t want them to.
Neither member of our strike team had seemed surprised by the information that kidnapping victim Blessing Devonia was a BDSM freak. It turned out Mom already knew some of it; she and the younger woman had become pretty good friends, their time together made easy by the connection between their rancher employers (and lovers), Sim Bowles and Billy Davis.
“How’d they find the van?” I asked the question while we sipped bar coffee, which wasn’t bad, and waited for our corned beef and sauerkraut sandwiches to arrive. “They beat the FBI to it?”
“They did beat the Feds,” he replied. “In fact, as far as we know, it still hasn’t been found officially. As to the how of it, turns out Lou never has given up her old cop habits. For all the years she’s been in Idaho, literally since before you were born, she’s been cultivating contacts, just like any detective does. Street informants and such. Not that there are many streets out in ranching country, but you know what I mean. And it paid off.”
“Wow. I never knew….”
He chuckled. “Most parents don’t really know their kids, Tree, but it cuts the other way, too. Not that many youngsters get their heads out of their asses long enough growing up to really know everything about the secret double lives of parents, either.”
“Cynical today, are we?”
“Every day. Wups, here come our sandwiches.”
We shut up then, long enough to chow down and let the waitress drop by with the coffee pot one more time. This one was probably in her fifties, graying hair, significant breasts held up by what must have been steel girders under her uniform. Varicose veins in her legs, too. Not that I noticed.
Hill took up where he’d left off.
“Anyway, Lou talked to somebody–one of those many somebodies who wouldn’t give law enforcement the time of day. He’d been visiting relatives in Wilson, Wyoming.”
“Wilson. Population 500 or so, give or take. Just over the Idaho line. So, this fellow had finishing his visiting and was heading back–he lives in Rexburg–and he’d just gotten back over into Idaho on the highway, not quite to Victor–”
“Population maybe 300. Hold your water, would you, Tree; I’m losing the thread here.”
“Sorry. Go on, please.”
“Okay, so he’s not quite to Victor, westbound, and he sees this hitchhiker. It wasn’t the day of the kidnaping, more like two days later, he thought, getting on toward dusk. The guy had a gas can he was carrying, and then our informant remembered noticing a car at a pullout just over into Wyoming. Must have run out of gas, he figured, eastbound, and hitched back to Victor not knowing Wilson was closer from where he was parked.
“He was going the other way from Lou’s contact, though, so he left him to it. Thing is, it wouldn’t have amounted to much of a lead, but the pedestrian was described as being built kind of low and squatty.”
Low and squatty. Like a frog.
Hill addressed himself to his coffee then, before it got cold. I seized my chance.
“So…he’d gotten rid of the van, then?”
“That’s what Lou and B.J. figured. If it was him, but it was all they had to go on. So then the question was, if it was him, how on Earth could he be dumb enough to run out of gas? Unless he’d stolen a vehicle with a bum gas gauge or something.”
Long story short, it was B.J. who’d put himself inside the fugitive’s head. Figured he’d acquired the car, maybe even legitimately, for cash, forget the paperwork, but he wanted to get rid of the minivan. With only him, no accomplice except some innocent who might give him a ride, how would he manage that?
Then B.J had decided how he’d do it if it was him on the lam. What if he’d driven the car from wherever he purchased it–probably paid for it, since he’d left it right out in the open for a while. What if he’d driven it out to that wide spot, parked, then hitched back to the minivan? He’d want that hidden and/or destroyed pretty thoroughly, since his prints and DNA would be all over it. Maybe Blessing’s, too.
So my uncle had Lou drive, parked his Hudson in Victor and rode with her in the Jeep, just slow-tooled on toward Wilson. And he’d spotted it right off. Told Lou to stop, that if he was doing it, that spot right there, steep bank off to the right, plenty of trees and brush, the rig likely wouldn’t be found for years unless a stray hunter got lucky.
I was amazed. Rather, if it had been anybody but my uncle, I’d have been amazed. He could always track me down, those first months when I was living with him, my head pretty much still up where the sun don’t shine. I just never could hide from that man, not even in Hartford, Connecticut, which has some pretty interesting hiding places.
Now I knew how he’d done it. He’d thought like me and rooted me right out.
“Anything of interest in the van?”
“They didn’t dare look too close. It’d been burned, anyway.”
“Burned? Didn’t anybody see the fire?”
“Don’t guess so. They think he torched it late at night, there was an early snowfall coming down hard, maybe what few drivers were on the road–if any–were focusing on not sliding off the pavement.”
From there, our bunch was guessing Shawn Hicks had gotten into his car and disappeared…somewhere in Wyoming. It was no more than 50 miles from Rexburg to Victor, another 18 or so to Wilson, and he’d put himself clear of the state of Idaho. Carrying his captive over a state line, of course. Which at this point was a small thing, considering.
He’d cleared out of Idaho in a hurry, then, and he surely didn’t seem likely to want to reenter Montana any time soon. So…why not Wyoming?
But…where in Wyoming? The Cowboy State still includes a lot of territory.
No real description of the car. Lou’s informant hadn’t been paying that much attention, except that he remembered it as having Wyoming plates. Some dark color. Nothing fancy. That was about it.
Well. Lou and B.J. were boots on the ground in Wyoming now, doing whatever they were doing. In the meantime, Hill figured it couldn’t hurt to pay this Dr. Willard a visit.
We found him up on the roof of his cabin, replacing shingles.
“How’s it hanging, Doc?” Hill called out as soon as we stepped from the Pontiac.
“Off to the left as always, Jack!” The man’s reply was cheerful, his voice booming. “Long time no see! They let you off the leash in the high country?”
I realized the good doctor, now moving as swiftly and surely down the ladder as any twenty-something oil patch derrick hand, had to be eighty years old if he was a day…but a spry eighty, and the handshake he offered when Hill introduced me could have snapped some pretty serious twigs. His full head of hair was snow white, gleaming in the morning sun. Penetrating blue eyes that were less bloodshot than my own, set in a square, craggy face that could have made him a movie star.
It didn’t take but a few seconds worth of explanation for him to invite us inside. The place was clean, homey, but sparsely furnished.
“I’m only about half moved in,” he explained. “Got this place at auction last month, owner got cancer, had to move into an assisted care unit in town. Winter’s a-comin’, but I’ll have her ready. Now, this is business, and that means coffee. Let me get the percolator going.”
Neither of us flinched, though we did both kind of glance over at the bathroom door. We hoped he had the plumbing working.
It turned out to be mighty fine java, though–he ground the beans himself–and an even better skull session.
“You’ve opened up an entire gallon can full of worms,” he said thoughtfully after we’d explained the Hicks/Devonia situation and what we knew so far. “I’ve seen cases…not exactly like this one, but similar enough to give me some insight. Let me swirl this around in my head for a bit.”
We let him swirl. From what Jack had told me, the swirling would be worth it. As a young man, Jake Willard had been a gold badge detective in Detroit, leaving the force at age 33 to go back to school, where he’d acquired a PhD in so called abnormal psychology. His doctoral thesis had been titled Resistance to Change in Sexual Behavior Among the Statistically Deviant Population and had been required reading for several correctional institutions around the country.
Like most great works throughout history, it was usually misquoted and taken out of context.
After getting his doctorate, Dr. Jake Willard had gone on to forge a stellar career, not in abnormal psychology per se, but in clinical psych. He’d only retired five years ago, at age 75.
By the time the French roast was poured, he was done swirling.
“I’m clear on Blessing Devonia,” he stated with conviction, “but too much about Shawn Hicks is still unknown.”
“Tell us what we don’t know,” Jack sighed, and I found myself nodding.
Willard chuckled. “I’m never sure just what it is you don’t know, Jack Hill. I’ve known you for more than 30 years, and either my eyesight is going or you don’t look a day older than the day we met. But,” he held up a hand to forestall any protest, “how you do that is none of my beeswax. I’ve seen just enough of this world to know I don’t know how everything works.
“But…I do know how Blessing works.”
He went on to give us the Controversial Doctrine According to Willard, which had more than once landed him in all sorts of hot water with his peers.
For one thing, Doctor Jake didn’t care one bit what had happened to Blessing when she was a child, or in a past life, or any of that.
“That’s all bullshit,” he stated forcefully. “What she needs to deal with is what’s going on Here and Now. If she’s mentally hung up on the past, obsessing on it, that’s one thing, but if she’s simply obsessing on getting her butt whipped before getting banged, focusing on the time her evil uncle raped her–if he did–that’s worse than useless. It’s f*cking criminal.”
Doc Willard, I could see, had a way with words. He tapped the printout of her collar me dot com profile we’d brought along. “This girl wants what she wants. She’s clear in her mind. There’s nothing wishy washy about her profile; it is, in fact, an example of good writing and a clear mission statement.”
That puzzled me just a bit. “You’re saying she’s as healthy as the rest of us, Doc? That her masochism shouldn’t be a problem for her?”
He waved one great hand. The man, I realized, was big. Not as big as B.J., but then Big Jude is just plain ridiculous. Willard could have given Gunsmoke’s James Arness a run for his money, though.
“Nah, Treemin, I’m not saying it’s not a problem. In our culture, it damn sure is a problem. Mainstream folks will either condemn her or try to change her, most of ’em saying she’s got a self image problem, let’s fix it. That’s on the one side. On the other side are the predators, the snuff film artists, the flesh peddlers, and everybody in between. Her problem is trying to walk the razor’s edge between those two extremes, the sanctimonious on the one hand and the scumbags on the other.
“But other than that little dilemma,” he grinned, “she’s perfectly fine in my book.”
I was going to have to digest that for a bit. Not Jack, though. “So…me Blessing not out of step, world out of step?”
“Exactly. And when the whole world is out of step with you, what happens?” He answered his own question. “You usually get stepped on. The pressures on a personality in this situation are beyond the ordinary mortal’s comprehension. It’s not uncommon for the personality to split, in fact–multiple personalities, and all that. One persona to handle the so called vanilla world, one to handle pain, and so on and so forth. If Blessing survives, and if she’s had to split like that, the problem will very likely lie in her control, or lack of control.
“That is, if she can’t keep the balance going–and it’s almost impossible to do, 24/7, 365–sooner or later, the wrong persona will pop out at the wrong time.”
It was my turn to hold up a hand. This was going too fast for me; my own mind was swirling.
Okay. Got it. “Like…her desire for bondage will be expressed to a church lady in Rexburg, or something?”
He laughed uproariously, even to the point of having to wipe his eyes, though he got control of himself pretty quickly. “Sorry, Treemin. It’s really not that funny. But that’s a mighty potent image you threw up there!”
“Really. Yes. It will be something like that. I remember one case, a hot little thing in her forties, still looked like she was in her teens. She was in treatment with me for fifteen years, give or take. When we started, she had her surface vanilla personality, which was sweet and charming, goody two shoes even, though with a tendency to an explosive temper.
“That was Dawn, the name on her driver’s license. Sherry was her drunk; whenever it came time to fall off the barstool, you could bet she’d be there. Paula was the most aggressive, but oddly enough, Paula couldn’t fight, even though Dawn could. Then there was Sudi, a little ten year old girl who could handle severe pain, not masochism, but injuries or surgeries or whatever; she’d take over when Dawn couldn’t hack it. Plus Sean, a gay Irish boy; I never did figure out exactly how he functioned, but he was definitely part of the package. And probably more I never met.”
He paused long enough to pour another round of coffee and dig a package of cinnamon rolls out of the fridge. Jack and I helped ourselves without even realizing what we were doing, so caught up were we in Willard’s tale.
“I never told her any of these folks, these personalities, were bad. Not per se, I didn’t. We’d chat about them, and I’d ask her how each benefited her, and if there were any downsides.
“She was no dummy. She knew that when Sherry emptied the ex-husband’s vodka bottle, before he was her ex–but after he’d threatened to kill her one night–and aggressive Paula in Dawn’s drunk body drove the man’s Cadillac into a tree, that was a problem.
“And in the end, long story short, she threw them all out of her head. All on her own, with no help from me. Didn’t even tell me she’d done it until two years after the fact, when she was sure she really did have full control.”
I spoke around a mouthful of cinnamon roll. “She cured herself?”
He shrugged. “Not completely. To the end of her days–she died last summer–there were times she’d space out, go off somewhere. Neither she nor I ever figured out where, but at such times she wouldn’t know me. Cocked her fist sometimes, ready to punch me out. I believe that in the past, when she’d go off somewhere like that, that’s when one of the others would pop in and take over. So there were gaps.
“But overall, she was much improved mentally. Her last ten years were…relatively functional, at least.”
All I could think of, him having to deal with such things as a career choice, was, “Wow, Doc, it must really suck to be you.” But I didn’t say it.
What we really needed to know, of course, was,
1. If Blessing Devonia survived her captivity, how damaged would she likely be?
2. How could we help her after, if she did make it through?
He’d answered that, I thought. “You’re saying, Doc, that first of all, we’re right that her masochism may be the best thing she has going with Hicks, but that if she comes out alive, we need to keep her the Hell away from conventional treatment, just give her what they call a greenhouse environment and let her work through it?”
Willard gave me a piercing look. “What was your major, Treemin?”
“Uh…Philosophy. With a minor in English.”
“Aha. Well, that fits. Yes, the philosophy surrounding this woman will be the key. If this rancher, this Billy Davis, can stand by her and keep the jackals from devouring her Spirit, she might have a chance.
“If that is, he’s willing to make a lifetime commitment.”