Gibson Vaughn sat alone at the bustling counter of the Nighthawk Diner. The breakfast rush was in full swing as customers milled about, waiting for a seat. Gibson barely registered the crescendo of knives and forks on plates or the waitress who set his food down. His eyes were fixed on the television mounted behind the counter. The news was playing the video again. It was ubiquitous, part of the American zeitgeist dissected and analyzed over the years, referenced in film, television shows, and songs. Like most Americans, Gibson had seen it countless times, and like most Americans he couldn't look away no matter how often it aired. How could he? It was all he had left of Suzanne.
The beginning of the video was grainy and washed out. The picture stuttered and frames dropped; distorted lines rolled up the screen like waves pounding an undiscovered shore. By-products of the store manager having recorded over the same videotape again and again and again.
Shot down at an angle from behind the cash register, the footage showed the interior of the infamous service station in Breezewood, Pennsylvania. The power of the video was that it could have been anywhere. Your hometown. Your daughter. Viewed in its entirety, the silent security camera footage was a melancholic homage to America's most prominent missing girl Suzanne Lombard. The time stamp read 10:47 p.m.
Beatrice Arnold, a college student working the night shift, was the last-known person to speak to the missing girl. At 10:47 p.m., Beatrice was perched on a stool behind the counter, reading a tattered copy of . She would be the first to recall seeing Suzanne Lombard and the first to contact the FBI once the disappearance hit the news.
At 10:48 p.m., a balding man with long, stringy blond hair entered the store. On the Internet, he'd come to be known as Riff-Raff, but the FBI identified him as Davy Oksenberg, a long-haul trucker out of Jacksonville with a history of domestic violence. Oksenberg bought beef jerky and Gatorade. He paid cash and asked for his receipt but idled at the counter, flirting with Beatrice Arnold, in no apparent hurry to get back on the road.
The first and best suspect in the case, Oksenberg had been questioned repeatedly by the FBI in the weeks and months after the disappearance. His rig was searched and searched again, but no trace of the missing girl was found. Grudgingly, the FBI cleared him, but not before Oksenberg lost his job and received dozens of death threats.
After his departure, the store fell still. An eternity ticked by . . . and then you saw her for the first time the fourteen-year-old girl in an oversized hoodie and Phillies baseball cap, a Hello Kitty backpack slung over one shoulder. She'd been in the store the whole time, standing in the camera's blind spot. To add a layer of intrigue, no one could say for certain how Suzanne came to be in the store in the first place. Beatrice Arnold didn't remember seeing her enter, and the security tape offered no answers.
The hoodie hung off her in great, draping folds. She was a pale, fragile stalk of a girl. The media liked to contrast the black-and-white footage with colorful family photographs the smiling blonde girl in the blue bridesmaid's dress, the smiling girl at the beach with her mother, the smiling girl reading a book and gazing out the window. They stood in bold relief to the grim-faced kid in the baseball cap, hands thrust deep in pockets, hunched low like an animal, watching warily from its burrow.
Suzanne wandered up and down the aisles, but her head was cocked toward the front window. One hundred and seventy-nine seconds passed. Something out the window caught her eye, and her posture changed. A vehicle perhaps. She snatched three items off the shelves: Ring Dings, a Dr Pepper, and a box of Red Vines licorice. A combination now known eerily as the Lost Girl's Picnic. Suzanne also paid in cash, dumping crumpled dollar bills, quarters, and pennies on the counter before shoving her purchases into her backpack.
The security camera caught her eye, and for a long moment Suzanne gazed up at it an expression frozen in time and, like Mona Lisa's smile, interpreted a thousand different ways.
Gibson stared back, as he always did, locking eyes with Suzanne, waiting for her to smile shyly at him the way she had when she wanted to tell him a secret. Waiting for her to tell him what had happened. Why she'd run away. In all the intervening years, he'd never stopped hoping for an answer. But the little girl on the security video wasn't talking.
To him or anyone else.
In a final gesture, Suzanne drew her baseball cap low over her eyes and looked away for good. At 10:56 p.m., she stepped out the door and into the night. Beatrice Arnold would tell the FBI that the girl seemed anxious and that her eyes were red as if she'd been crying. Neither Beatrice nor the couple pumping gas noticed whether she got into a vehicle. One more frustrating dead end in a case of dead ends.
The FBI failed to turn up a single substantial lead. No one ever came forward to claim the ten-million-dollar reward offered by the family and their supporters. Despite the frenzied media coverage, despite her famous father, Suzanne Lombard walked out of the gas station and vanished. Her disappearance remained an enduring American mystery alongside Jimmy Hoffa, D. B. Cooper, and Virginia Dare.
The news went to commercials, and Gibson exhaled, unaware that he'd been holding his breath. The tape always left him spent. How much longer were they going to keep showing it? There hadn't been a development in Suzanne's case for years. Today's big breaking story was that Riff-Raff had cut his hair short and earned a college degree while in prison for a felony drug bust. The Internet, in its infinite snark, rechristened him Professor Riff-Raff or Raff 2.0. Other than that it was all a maudlin rehash of what everyone already knew, which was nothing.
But the tenth anniversary of her disappearance loomed, which meant the networks would keep running their retrospectives. Keep exploiting Suzanne's memory. Keep trotting out anyone with even a passing relationship to the family or to the case. Staging their tasteless reenactments at the service station in Breezewood and using computer models to project what she might look like today.
Gibson found the mock-ups especially hard to look at. Suzanne would be twenty-four now, a college graduate. The images tempted him into imagining what her life might have been. Where she might live. Her career path something to do with books, no doubt. He smiled at that but caught himself. It wasn't healthy. Wasn't it time to give her some peace? Give them all some peace?
"Heck of a thing," the man beside him said, staring up at the television.
"Sure is," Gibson agreed.
"I remember where I was when I heard she was missing hotel room in Indianapolis on a business trip. Like it was yesterday. I have three daughters." The man rapped his knuckles on the wooden counter for luck. "I sat on the edge of the bed for a couple hours watching. Just terrible. Can you imagine not knowing for ten years whether your little girl is alive or dead? Hell of a thing for a family to endure. Lombard's a good man."
The last thing Gibson wanted was to get drawn into a conversation about Benjamin Lombard. He nodded to be agreeable, hoping to put a tourniquet on the subject, but the man would not be deterred that easily.
"I mean, if some sick bastard, excuse my French, can grab the daughter of the vice president and get away with it what hope do the rest of us have?"
"Well, he wasn't vice president then."
"Yeah, sure, but he was still a senator. That's no joke either. You don't think Lombard had juice with the feds back then?"
In fact, Gibson knew firsthand just how much influence Lombard wielded and precisely how much the man enjoyed wielding it. Vice President Benjamin Lombard was another subject he tried not to think about.
"I think he'll make a good president," the man continued. "To come back from something like this? Get the VP nod when most people would curl up in a ball. And now a run for president? That takes a strength you can't imagine."
As a two-term incumbent VP of a popular president, Lombard had been expected to nail down the nomination early the convention in August a mere formality, a coronation more than anything else. But Anne Fleming, the governor of California, had come out of nowhere and seemed intent on playing spoiler. The two were currently polling virtually neck and neck. Lombard led in the delegate count and was still the favorite, but Fleming was making him work for it.
That the tenth anniversary of Suzanne's disappearance fell during an election year had, in a perverse way, been a boost to Benjamin Lombard's campaign. That was nothing new, though: championing Suzanne's Law through the Senate had propelled him onto the national stage in the first place. Of course, Lombard gracefully refused to discuss his daughter. The cynic would argue that there was no need, since the media couldn't help but do it for him. And, of course, there was his wife. Grace Lombard's tireless efforts on behalf of the Center for Missing and Exploited Children had been a staple of cable news outlets throughout the primaries. She was, if possible, even more popular than her powerful husband.
"If he gets the nomination, he's got my vote in November," the man said. "Doesn't even matter who the other side runs. I'm voting for him."
"I'm sure he'll appreciate that," Gibson said and reached for the ketchup. He poured a generous dollop onto one end of his plate, mixed it with a little mayo, and scrambled it into his hash browns the way his father had taught him when he was a boy. In the immortal words of Duke Vaughn, "If you don't have anything nice to say, take a big bite and chew slow."
Words to live by.
Excerpted from The Short Drop by Matthew FitzSimmons with permission of Thomas & Mercer. Copyright © 2015 by Planetarium Station Inc. All rights reserved.