According to Solange, June Spencer was a troubled girl. With her dad out of the picture, she had lived in Philadelphia with her mother, and by the time she was fifteen she had been expelled from four high schools, arrested a half dozen times, overdosed twice and tried to slit her wrists.
“Her mother isn’t much better,” Solange said, spreading her hands in a what-do-you-expect gesture. “That woman has been in and out of rehab more times than I can count, and don’t get me started on her criminal record. She might as well have a bench named after her down there in the Criminal Justice Center. It’s no wonder that June is such a hot mess.”
Josie bristled. She knew a thing or two about moms like that. If Solange was to be believed, she also knew that June had most likely been a helpless victim in all of the chaos: a child with no resources and no one to turn to, a captive audience to her own mother’s destructive lifestyle. Sometimes even an unwilling participant. Josie pushed those thoughts aside and focused on Solange. “How did June end up here?”
Solange started to roll her eyes and then stopped when she saw the seriousness in Josie’s face. “She was Dirk’s personal crusade. He didn’t want her turning out like his sister. They were both raised by a single mom who died of a heart attack when they were in their twenties so, besides him, June really has no family at all. It took some convincing, but he got his sister to let her come live with him on a trial basis. He wanted to adopt her.”
“His sister wouldn’t allow it?”
Solange shook her head. “No. That bitch is nothing if not spiteful. The only reason she even let June come up here was because
she had to serve
six months for probation violations, and child services told her if she didn’t sign over temporary
guardianship to Dirk, June was going into
“How long ago was this?” Josie asked.
“About two years ago. She had just turned fifteen.” “Isn’t that how long you two have been broken up?”
Solange’s shoulders slumped. The bartender slid a coke across the bar to her, and she gave him a weak smile in return. With a pained look she said, “Yeah. Look, I appreciated that Dirk wanted to save his niece, I really did. But I’m, like, ten years younger than him. I wanted us to settle down, start our own family. That was our plan. Taking on a damaged, rebellious teenage girl was not something we had ever discussed.”
“So you left?”
“I tried to stick it out. I figured she would turn eighteen in a few years, and then maybe Dirk and I could start our life together, but I didn’t last that long. Dirk and I kept in touch even after I left; our break was supposed to be temporary, but at some point it became pretty clear that we were moving in different directions. Dirk asked me to keep coming around and be a ‘positive female role model’ for June, so I tried doing things with her now and then. I did my best to try to relate to June, for Dirk’s sake, but she was a closed book.”
Josie could find out from Ray or Noah if June had ever been arrested in Denton, but she didn’t personally recall any incidents involving the girl. “Did she have trouble when she came here?”
Solange put her glass back on the bar and swirled the straw around in the brown liquid, making the ice cubes clink. “She wasn’t as bad as we expected. She got in trouble for cutting school, and Dirk caught her smoking weed a few times. She smoked cigarettes. He didn’t like that very much. But mostly she was just very depressed and withdrawn. He had her seeing a therapist twice a week. We never could tell if it helped, or if she even talked to the woman. He was at the high school with her so he kept a close watch on her there, but she never made friends.”
“How were her grades?” Josie asked.
“So-so. Passing. Dirk wanted her to join some clubs at school, but she thought they were all lame.” She coughed a laugh. “Actually, what I think she said was, ‘I ain’t joining no dumbass school shit.’ Mostly she was just so depressed. Did you grow up here?”
“Born and raised,” Josie replied.
“So, you know then. Unless you’re super popular at school or find some niche there, there is absolutely nothing for a teenager to do around here.”
It was true. Josie had gotten into
some trouble when she was a teen,
but it was mostly her mother’s doing. Still, even after her mother left, she remembered being in that strange no man’s land that was pre-adulthood. You weren’t old enough to do anything that was truly interesting to you. It seemed like everyone just wanted to get drunk or high, or both, and see what the hell happened. Push the limits. If you didn’t fall into a group at school, you found yourself on the fringe, restless to explore life but unable to actually do anything. There wasn’t much left to do other than get into trouble—especially in a place as small as Denton. Even though it was a city, it still had many of the features and pitfalls of a small town.
As a teenager, Josie had had few friends. The only person who had ever really understood her was Ray, and when her other friends had mocked her sudden decision to get the hell out of Denton and go to college, he had been the only one to defend her.
Coming from a city the size of Philadelphia, Josie could see how Denton must have seemed like the most depressing place on earth for a girl like June.
“Did she keep in touch with her friends in Philly?” Josie asked.
“At first, yeah, but then Dirk wouldn’t let her go back for visits on the weekends, and one by one they dropped off. After a year, she really had no one. I think she was pretty lonely. Dirk did his best, and like I said, I tried to have some sort of relationship with her because he begged me to, but she was miserable. I wasn’t surprised when she ran away.”
“Did she go back to Philadelphia?”
“That’s what Dirk thought, yeah, but no one who knew her ever saw her there. Then Dirk and his sister convinced themselves that someone took her.”
Josie felt her skin prickle. “Why is that?”
“Just because they couldn’t find her, I guess. He went to the police here, and then him and his sister went to the police in Philadelphia, but they never found anything.”
Josie frowned. “This was a year ago?”
Solange nodded. “Yeah. She didn’t take her phone, but some of her personal things were missing. She had this old, ratty brown messenger bag she dragged around everywhere. We never did find it.”
Josie would definitely have to get Noah to look her up. “She disappeared from home?”
“Yeah. Dirk took his car to get serviced one Saturday morning, and when he came home she was gone.”
“No sign that anyone had been in the
house?” Josie asked.
“Nope. She was just gone. We talked to all the neighbors—there’s this one really nosy older lady who is always in everyone’s business—but no one saw anything. We thought—well, I thought—maybe she had gone off into the woods, and you know, killed herself or something.”
Josie knew from experience that this was more common in central Pennsylvania than anyone would care to admit.
“You searched the woods?”
“Dirk got a bunch of other teachers from school to help. It took weeks, but yeah, we searched the woods in every direction. No sign of her at all. No one saw anything. He tried to get it on the news, but they said runaways weren’t news. He put up some fliers around town, but nothing ever came of it.”
At this, Josie felt a stab of recognition. “When she disappeared, June had dark hair,” she said, “and lots of piercings. Eyebrow and nose, right?”
“Yeah. That’s right. Dirk hated those things, but her mom let her do whatever she wanted.”
A memory floated to the surface of Josie’s mind. The mention of the fliers brought it back. She had seen June’s face before: older and with more face jewelry than in the photos on Dirk’s fridge, but definitely the same girl. Josie had asked her chief why they weren’t aiding in the search, and he had told her they’d already expended as many resources as they could to look for the girl, but that in his estimation the most likely scenario was that she’d simply gone back to Philadelphia and taken up with people there. Philadelphia was out of their jurisdiction. Josie hadn’t questioned it at the time. She had no reason to question it and no reason to seek out more details about the case. They did get runaways in Denton: troubled kids, kids with terrible home lives, kids who were addicted to drugs. Most of the time, the families’ efforts to bring their troubled souls back into the fold were half-hearted at best. By the time those kids ran away, it came as a relief. It was sad, but Josie had seen it again and again on the job.
But something about
June Spencer’s disappearance didn’t sit well with her now that she knew the
details. The only reason that June had been deemed a runaway was her tortured
history. Josie had just been out to Dirk Spencer’s house—in the boonies,
as they liked to say in Denton— and there was no way that June
had just walked off. She would have been miles from anything. She had to have
gone somewhere, with someone. Perhaps she had intended to run away, had been
walking along the lonely
mountain road and been picked
up by someone, but
there was no way she had run away from Dirk’s house alone, on foot. She may have gotten a lift, but whether she made it to her destination was another story. Josie could see why Dirk had insisted on searching.
“Does Dirk go to Philadelphia often?” Josie asked. “Hardly ever. He hates it there.”
“Does he keep in touch with anyone from there?” “Other than his sister? No.”
“No old friends who might be members of a gang?”
Solange’s eyes widened. She pointed to the television. “Oh, right. They’re saying on TV that the men in the car were in a gang, right? What kind of gang?”
“The 23,” Josie told her. “Latino.”
Solange looked even more nonplussed than she had earlier. “I never knew Dirk to have any friends from Philadelphia, much less friends who were in a gang. You’ve, um, seen him, right?”
She nodded; she knew what she meant.
“He’s kind of like, a nerd, you know? I mean, he’s not like, a tough guy or anything. He’s into books and theater and art history.”
Josie thought about the bookshelves lining Dirk’s living room walls. “Yeah, I got that.”
“I don’t think he ever even shot a gun.”
He hadn’t had a gun that morning when Josie had seen him. In fact, he’d been the only person in the vehicle dutifully wearing his seat belt. He didn’t fit. They’d come to pick him up at his home. He’d gotten into the SUV willingly. But he didn’t fit.
Nothing that Josie had heard so far that day fit.