Frank felt the back of the caravan shift to the right and knew it was time to stop for a while. He rested his hand on the device sitting on the seat beside him, looking for vibration or for warmth, as he always did. If he felt nothing in the next twenty kilometres, he’d have to stop anyway.
His destination was three day’s drive away; he was in no hurry to get there. What he wanted may be there, maybe not, but it was worth a look. He’d set the address into his GPS after a police friend said to him, “You’ve been good to us, Frank. You’ve helped a lot of families. A file’s just been released to the public record. Look, it’s been gone over dozens of times but I dunno. There might be something.”
This ‘help’ he’d given went back decades. He remembered his first successful find. It was not long after the grave-sniffing handheld devices were released. Most considered them junk; Frank persisted until he understood how the thing worked.
At first, he couldn’t differentiate between adult and child.
With some fine tuning, he could skim over the bodies of anyone over the age of sixteen. Often he didn’t; he knew these lost people had loved ones somewhere regardless of their age. Someone who missed them, wanted closure. He liked to help them, as he hoped someone would help him when they found his daughter.
The first time, he was on a picnic with his ex-wife and her family. The nieces and nephews grown now, some of them parents, and he wondered how his wife could bear it. This was a year after his release from jail. He was grateful the family still spoke to him.
He wandered off, collecting wildflowers to give to her and her sisters because they were good women who deserved to be thanked. He had the device in his backpack; was never without it, especially in places where his daughter had been.
It shuddered. He dropped to his knees to twist his backpack off. He didn’t want to drop it. Then he walked a slowly increasing circle until it shuddered so hard it almost vibrated out of his hands.
It wasn’t her. It was another young woman and he hated himself for the relief he felt. This woman was badly damaged, cut up and he prayed this would not be his daughter’s face.
The ghost followed for a while then disappeared. This was before he figured out what they wanted.
He figured it out when he found a forty-seven year old man under the compost in a suburban backyard. The only thing the widow was surprised about was that Frank had found him. She stood, open-mouthed, glancing at the shed (she’d killed him there, Frank guessed) and back at the pile.
Frank felt a clutching at his ankle. He was only sixty-three then, still capable of rapid movement. He thought it was a cat but it was a kind of mist, or steam. As he watched, it formed into the murdered man, crawling on the ground. Frank stepped away, but the ghost followed, nudging one ankle then the next, herding him to the shed like a cat does, herding you to their food bowl.
He’d seen these ghosts before on finding bodies. Always they left him alone once he took a few steps, but this one stuck to him as he backed away. They’d shimmer when he held the gadget to them; if he didn’t have it, no ghosts would appear.
As he neared the shed, the ghost reared up like an adder then thrust forward as if impatient. “Take me back,” Frank thought he heard. He opened the shed door and stepped inside.
It was a concrete floor and he could see straight away where the man had died; a large, dark stain.
“Oil,” she said. “Or petrol. He was always clumsy.” The man sank into the stain and disappeared. It was the first time Frank realised what the ghosts wanted.
This was the first of many he took back. He kept searching, hoping and hoping to find his daughter.
He pictured his daughter doing this. Pictured her crawling. Dragging, moving through dirt like it was water.
He went time and time again to the place she’d last been seen. The ghosts wanted to go back. Had she? Had someone led her back?
It was a dance party. She was on tape there, some documentary maker, capturing the vibrancy of it all, and he watched it, they watched it, a thousand times.
He’d followed her path precisely in this abandoned factory, jumping forwards and back in moves that made him cry because she was so alive then, so full of future possibilities, so excited.
He’d watched the footage on his phone, standing as she had, on the top step, looking over the street. Then down and into the darkness. Nothing more.
Even when he wasn’t looking he was looking.
He yawned and felt tiredness take him. The device was cool and silent. He carried it close by on the seat beside him in the car, or in the back of his pants when walking, where other old men carry their newspaper. He lifted his hand to wave at an old couple driving a caravan larger than his, felt his wheels veer, and that was it. Time to call it a day.
He didn’t mind the grey nomads on the road, although he envied their sense of freedom. Many had suffered losses, he knew that. But none he met had caused a daughter’s death. And all had buried loved ones. All had taken their loved ones back. They gave him scones, though, and the books they didn’t want anymore, and made him feel as if he had a community.
His pulled his caravan into a park called River’s Rest. The device buzzed hard as he neared the entrance and that was good. He hadn’t found a body in months.
There were only so many bodies.
He purchased a site for three nights. The manager passed him a small plastic bag full of washing powder. “Laundry to the left, showers to the right. We do a BBQ brekkie seven to nine if you like sausages.”
She managed three sites. One here, one down the road, one isolated. “We run on a trust basis, i.e. we trust you to leave the site clean and holy.”
She smiled at him as if old people didn’t make a mess. “If you end up staying an extra couple of days, don’t worry too much. We’re not booked out there. Empty at the moment so you’ll have the place to yourself. Lots of peace and serenity.”
It wasn’t empty. A large caravan stood in the shade of a tall tree. A small boy wearing a Batman suit squatted in the dirt near the step.
Frank parked as far away as possible but distanced from the large rubbish bin as well.
He ate a ham sandwich and drank a beer, watching the river trickle by. The device hummed on his lap, eager to get moving.
He pulled on some rubber thongs, put on his sun hat, and headed down to the water’s edge. He knew rivers were a popular dumping site. The men he met in jail told him that bodies were swallowed by the river bed, if you timed it right. Swallowed so far down no one would ever find them.
The kid in the Batman suit came to watch.
As Frank searched, he wished the water was higher. It was cool around his ankles, refreshing. He felt like a child again, swimming in the ocean on school holidays, or a young father, at the swimming pool with Susan learning how to swim.
“Is that a metal detector?” The little boy stood with one hand down the back of his pants, the other holding an ice block.
Frank nodded. “No luck yet.”
The boy made a face of sympathy. “Sorry about that,” he said. Perhaps Frank looked really sad? Too sad for one who simply hadn’t found any coins? Because later the boy’s mother brought Frank a plate of food, saying she’d made too much. Kind women always said things like that. His wife was still kind, although they rarely saw each other. He wouldn’t let go of the grief, and she thought she had let go when she hadn’t, and this clash, this wrongness of level, meant they couldn’t be with each other.
And he knew she blamed him for their daughter’s death. And for killing the man who killed her, without drawing out the information on where their daughter’s body lay. She had stuck by Frank in jail, though, visiting every week or two, always filling his bank account with enough for treats. But he thought that was because she didn’t want the guilt of abandoning him. He was the guilty one; she was happy with that arrangement.
It was his greatest regret and the one thing his wife never forgave him for, killing the man who killed his daughter. “Now we’ll never know,” she said. “We’ll never find her.”
The killer would never have told, though.
No. His greatest regret was leaving the body where it lay instead of transporting it far away. Not like his daughter, whose body was lost and whose spirit waited to be found and taken back to the place of her death.
He wished he’d known.
She was sixteen when she disappeared. Her belongings found, though, in the home of Frank’s best friend. A man he’d trusted when no one else did.
This made it Frank’s fault.
He was no criminal. He had no thoughts of escaping justice, no idea how to do so.
He was ten years inside and even now, thirty years later, he gloried in every day outdoors.
He used his time well in jail. He met many killers and he asked them all, where did you put the bodies? What sort of place? He made a list. He wanted to understand. He wanted to know what sort of place he should look for Susan.
He learnt about true rage from these men. And that his rage was nothing compared to theirs, and that every one of them said he did the right thing in killing that man.
His cellmate, Don, was a man of his own age, a gentle soul with pink cheeks who was charged with the murders of five women. He had an impish look about him as if he held secrets, and he did; there were a dozen more.
On his release, Frank began to hunt. He spent thirty years searching for bodies. In 2010 the device was released. That took some of the guess work out.
When Don had done his time, Frank was there to pick him up. Frank had been out twenty-five years by then; his cellmate had spent forty years inside and he was old, now, eighty-four, five years older than Frank. Fragile, pale, blinking in the light as if it was different.
“Thanks, mate,” he said, his voice soft and broken. “No one else’d do it.”
“I’m surprised they let you out.”
“I think they forgot what I did.”
Frank wasn’t sure why he’d kept in touch over twenty-five years. It became habit. Through all the years of body finding, Don was interested. He’d say, “I’ll never get to see another. Send me pics.”
And at least they’d both been in there, and with Don around Frank was not the worst man.
He and Don had travelled together, finding Don’s victims.
“Not your daughter but could be.” Don said it every time and Frank wasn’t sure if he was trying to cause pain, or trying to make Frank feel better.
Why keep going? Because they made him believe that his little girl was waiting somewhere for him to lead her back. There were so many people to see home.
Don’s memory was long since gone. He knew they were out there in the desert (I love her wide open spaces, he said) but he couldn’t remember how many or where. It took a long time. Two old men, out for a ramble.
All ages, but mostly old ladies, Don said. By that he meant women over forty. Women who’d been through the worst of it, who knew themselves and were finally confident enough to be themselves. Frank loved women of that age. Loved them when they no longer stammered and kept quiet.
It was so hot out there, but there was no toilet so he didn’t want to drink water. He hated pissing out in the open. He felt exposed. He didn’t even like public toilets.
“Here’s one,” he said. They dug her up. It was a shallow grave because Don was lazy and stupid, but still, without Frank she wouldn’t have been found.
They spent a week there. He found six women.
None of them were his daughter.
Don liked to hear the beeping noise telling him one of his people was there.
Don didn’t mind going back to jail. He found the real world too harsh.
Frank ate the meal the mother had given him and accepted a beer from the father. They seemed a nice family. Then to bed early, and up with the sun.
Frank walked the riverbed barefoot, his toes sinking into the soft, silky mud.
The device beeped and he swept it further over to the left.
There; that was the spot.
“Found something?” It was the kid, standing there in his Batman pyjamas, rubbing sleep out of his eyes. What was he, six? He was a lovely kid.
Frank would scare him, later. Make sure he never went near strangers. Had fear.
He did that with all the kids. Scared them off strangers at least, and if he got an indication, even the slightest, of anything wrong in a family, he’d dob.
The police knew him. He’d been right often enough that they listened to him.
The little boy said, “Are you a grandad?”
The question broke Frank. They only had their daughter, no more. No grandkids.
His wife married again but he never saw them.
Couldn’t even remember their names.
The device shook in his hands, and he found it, the body, very fresh and new. Not his daughter.
It’s not her. One day he’ll find her. He’ll know her bones; he saw enough X-rays when she was born, because of her shape, her ‘defects’ people loved to say. People—more than one—had asked them, would you have kept her if you’d known? The question made him and his wife both sick.
There was the feathery feeling around his ankles, like a loose hair.
The ghost herded him up the bank. He called for the boy to help, leaning on his shoulder. The boy flinched slightly and Frank saw a bruise around the area, and there was the desire to be very helpful that sometimes came with a child who was disciplined harshly.
Frank would make some calls when he got back to the city.
The boy’s father met them.
Suddenly fearful, Frank shook his head. “No gold here,” he said, and he tried to edge past the man. But he knew the body showed clearly down there. The ghost crawled towards the family’s caravan, dragging itself using dry tufts of grass, digging its fingernails into the dirt.
“Looks like you’ve got something down there, grandpa.”
Frank shook his head. He’d been around killers enough to know this was one; he was certain of it, no matter how kind the wife was.
“Nice to meet you,” Frank said and he turned putting his back to the man, wishing he’d disappear, but the man’s hand fell heavy on his shoulder as it did, Frank was sure, on the little boy’s. Even as he spoke the ghost writhed around his feet, mouthing take me back, take me back.
The man pushed him hard, into the river.
Frank landed face first.
He regretted his daughter, “take me back, Dad,” she’d say, but he couldn’t remember her name.
He felt bad for the little boy; no one else would save him.
But he was glad. Selfishly glad as he heard the man shouting at his family, then the caravan start and drive away, leaving him where he lay, leaving him there to die, so he would not have to crawl any distance at all to find peace.
Originally published in Blurring the Line and available in The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror, 2016.