The Lost Boys - Faye Kellerman

Chapter 1

Four decades of detective work had taught Decker a thing or two. One of the delights of Missing Persons cases was that they often had happy endings. But sometimes not. Because people disappear for a variety of reasons.

Some individuals vanished by accident: a wrong turn on a hiking trail or a rogue wave that hit while sailing on otherwise navigable seas. Sometimes lives evaporated by wicked intent—a pickup gone awry or a stranded motorist meeting the wrong type of help. Sometimes souls perished in seemingly innocuous encounters that went terribly wrong, leaving the horrified perpetrators attempting to hide the evildoing, keeping a corroding secret that they were unwilling or unable to confront.

But sometimes people disappeared because they wanted to.

So far, no one was quite sure which reason fit Bertram Lanz—a thirty-five-year-old man with cognitive disabilities who disappeared from a field trip arranged by the Loving Care facility: a residential home. On the trip, there were fifty mentally challenged men and women. Bertram was alive and well when chaperones herded the group back into the bus after a two-hour leisurely hike. But after a one-hour stop at a local diner, while boarding the bus to go home, the supervisors quickly realized that the head count was off by one. And no matter how many times the recount was taken, the Loving Care chaperones came up a body short. It took even more time to discover who was gone from the roster.

That was six hours earlier, and it was now ten in the evening. Since the call to Greenbury Police Station, officers as well as volunteers had been combing the nearby area for Bertram. Nightfall had now blanketed daylight: no moon and an inky sky pierced by a million pinpoints of light. The many forested areas were now as black as pitch and impossible to search. Even in the town proper, street lighting was more for atmosphere than for illumination. Detective Peter Decker had moved from the woods to the residential areas and he had been circling the streets for the last two hours, running into local citizens covering the same blocks. He was worried for the man’s safety. Bertram wasn’t ill and he wasn’t on lifesaving medication, but his limited life skills probably hampered him from negotiating a complex world. Since it was summer, Bertram would at least have the advantage of a warmer night.

Fishing out his cell phone, Decker called his wife, Rina, who had joined the search party. In another life, five years ago, he had been a detective lieutenant with LAPD. He had retired from big-city life, but he still wanted to keep his foot in the door with something. And when a job at Greenbury PD opened up, he welcomed the opportunity to work in a sleepy little college town in Upstate New York. It wasn’t that crime didn’t exist here, but when it came, it was always unexpected.

She answered after two rings. He said, “Hi, darlin’. Anything?”

“I was going to ask you the same thing.”

“No, unfortunately.” A pause. “Why don’t you go home, Rina? We’ve got help from neighboring departments now. There’s no reason for all of us to keep scouring the same streets.”

“Where could he have gone, Peter? The diner is in the middle of nowhere.”

“If he’s on foot, he couldn’t have gone too far. The problem is the woods. If he decided to go for a walk, it’s so easy to become disoriented even during the day. Right now, it’s too dark to search. We’re thinking that he might be holed up in some garage or cabin. You know how this town is. It’s filled with part-timers and no one’s home. We’re trying to get hold of the owners to ask permission to go inside the dwellings. All this takes time.”

“What did you mean by ‘if he’s on foot’?”

“There’s a possibility that this was planned. You have to consider everything even if it’s unlikely.”

“That might make some sense,” Rina said. “Otherwise how do you lose a person?”

“We’ve initially talked to the four chaperones albeit briefly. Once the bus reached the diner, it was a free-for-all. People piled inside, placing orders and looking for chairs. The diner has a maximum seating of thirty-five and there were fifty plus people.”

“They were in violation, then.”

“Yes, they were. But it’s a rural stopover and I suppose the thought of paying dinners outweighed the thought of being cited.”

Rina said, “Then the chaperones lost sight of him?”

“They weren’t checking off individuals. They were doing head counts. As the residents boarded