“She was a friend of Jamie’s,” Molly answered, still watching her husband.
“Friend,” Carlson muttered under his breath. It was another word he didn’t seem to like. “I didn’t say they were friends.”
“Maybe not a friend.” Molly turned away from her husband. “But they knew each other. Merci ran with a wild crowd—not Jamie’s type of people at all. I don’t think Merci received much supervision at home. She didn’t have a father, she was born illegitimate. Her momma worked all the time at the paper mill. She died—when did she die?”
“Two years, three months ago,” Carlson said. Molly seemed surprised that he knew the answer.
“They became friendly when they were both up for queen at that festival they had at the end of the school year,” Molly added. “Spring Fling. They both lost. People said it was because they were both tall with blond hair and green eyes. They split the vote and the girl with dark hair won. The girls spent a great deal of time together during the contest. They seemed to have this, I don’t know, rapport.” She turned toward her husband. “But I don’t know why you think Merci had anything to do with Jamie leaving.”
“I didn’t say she did.”
“Well, then …”
“Well, then—they both left at nearly the same time.”
“So, I don’t know, maybe they ran into each other.”
“Merci was a thief,” Molly said.
This time Carlson didn’t argue. Instead, he found his spot on the wall and stared some more. Molly sighed in resignation and went back to watching her daughter through the window.
“Tell me about it,” I said. “Anybody.”
“Merci was a waitress at the diner near the mill,” Carlson said. “Leastwise she was until she and the Steele boy, Richie, ran off with money they stole from the till. Didn’t take the deputies long to catch ’em, neither. They didn’t even get as far as Duluth. Oh, they swore they were innocent, said they didn’t steal anything, said they were running away to get married. But the money was sure enough missing and they were sure enough leaving in a hurry. After she was arrested, Merci used her one phone call to contact Jamie. Jamie used her savings to bail Merci out.”
“Why would she do that?” I asked. “You said they weren’t close.”
“I don’t know,” Molly answered.
“What happened after Merci was arrested?”
“The Steele boy, his father is big over at the paper mill,” Carlson continued. “So you know the cops went easy on him once the old man replaced the money that was stolen. Merci they told to get out of town. They said if she wasn’t gone within forty-eight hours they were going to arrest her. So off she goes.”
I nodded. It was a typical tactic of a small town police force. Whenever the rurals have a problem that isn’t worth their time and aggravation—or when the fix is in—they just tell the suspect to grab the next stage out of Dodge and don’t come back.
“That was toward the end of June,” Carlson said. “Week or so before Jamie left.”
“One thing has nothin’ to do with the other,” Molly insisted.
“I didn’t say it did,” Carlson said.
I jotted the facts down on the yellow pad along with a question: Was 18-year-old Jamie’s sense of justice so offended by the treatment of her friend that she would abandon her family and home?
Molly shook her head at her husband, then gave me the photograph, a two-by-three high school graduation shot. It showed a young woman posed against a dark, marbled background. She was beautiful. Bright green eyes, hair like a palomino pony, skin—you knew not so much as a pimple ever dared blemish that skin. I looked from the photo to the Carlsons to the little girl playing quietly outside and then back to the photo. How did Richard and Molly Carlson ever produce a child who looked like this? Twice?
“I’ll be in touch.”
Molly squeezed my hand. Again she said, “Thank you.”
I shook hands with Carlson and went to my Jeep Grand Cherokee parked in their driveway. Stacy waved as I drove away. I waved back.
Ten minutes later I parked in front of the Judy Garland Museum, Judy singing “Somewhere over the Rainbow” on a weather-battered speaker, the ticket taker singing along. Kirsten Sager Whitson was leaning against the building, waiting for me.
“Sorry I took so long.” I gestured toward the museum. “How was it?”