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Excerpt from The Experiment

“Wondered if you could help me,” said Jude, robotically pasting a smile on her face. She held out the photo of Tim, fully expecting the same head shake she’d gotten all morning, and asked, “Do you recall seeing him?”

Katherine Buck stared hard at the photo and then at Jude. In a voice thick with warning, she called, “Kurt. Come over here.”

The man working with her rushed over. Graying sideburns protruded from his brown AGCO Tractors cap. His hands were large with awkward angles in the joints that suggested some arthritis. Katherine handed him the photo. His reaction was a sharp, sudden intake of breath. “It’s about time you people came for him.”

“You know him?” Jude asked in surprise, her pulse quickening.

“Damn right. What’d he do now?”

“Oh, I’m not with the police if that’s what you’re thinking. He’s a friend of mine.”

“Ah, Jesus,” he muttered.

Stunned by his hostility, she stammered, “I’m not here to give you any trouble.”

“Who are you?” interrupted Katherine.

“Like I said, he’s a friend of mine.”

“Don’t care for the people you associate with,” said Kurt, still fuming.

There was some mistake. They were not talking about the same person. “Would you look again?” Jude pleaded. “I don’t think he’s who you think he is.”

Reluctantly, Katherine did as she requested, and after another quick glance, asked, “It’s Tyler, right?”

Jude’s stomach lurched.

“What do you want from us?”

“Do you know where I might be able to find him?”

“No. Who are you?” demanded Kurt.

Jude steadied herself. She had hoped that walking the market might elicit a simple, Oh, sure, that’s the dude I see at the library all the time. But the Bucks had just shot that one down. She was going to have to tell them. She’d discussed with Gordon her next steps, and they decided that once she went to the police, there was no going back to a fabricated story about Tyler Jeffries. They had agreed, however, to provide as limited a version of the truth as possible.

“My name is Jude Brannock, and I work for an animal protection group,” she began. “So does Tyler Jeffries, but that’s not his real name. His name is Tim.”

They listened warily for a few seconds before Kurt huffed, “You’re with the  ASPCA?”

“No.”

“Lucky for them, I would have sued them for everything they’re worth.”

“Could you tell me what it is you think he’s done?” asked Jude, becoming frustrated.

“Oh, it’s not a question of think,” Kurt countered bitterly. “I know. The sonofabitch was screwing my seventeen-year-old daughter and trying to get her addicted to heroin.”

Jude could hardly believe her ears. He didn’t do drugs. And a seventeen-year-old girl? “That’s not possible,” she asserted.

“Well, it’s true,” Katherine said.

Her husband leaned threateningly toward Jude. “I found them myself with the needle practically sticking out of her arm.”

The bright colors and voices around Jude blurred into one buzz saw whine that obliterated coherent thought. Heroin? What?

“I’m … I don’t …,” she uttered haltingly.

“If my daughter hadn’t begged me not to, we would’ve had him arrested. And you can tell that sonofabitch,” continued Kurt, jabbing his finger in her direction, “that if I ever see him around Heather again, I’ll kill him.”

The whine inside her head played like a soundtrack, along with cinematic images of Tim fleeing Half Moon to escape criminal charges. What in God’s name have you done?

“And don’t think I won’t,” he added with emphasis.

But Buck had left an opening. He had not said the word rape. Nor, obviously, had he gotten the cops involved. There must be more to it. Jude lifted her head and met his angry glare. “In that case, maybe you do know where he is.”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“Just acknowledging your threat,” replied Jude. She let a stunned moment elapse before asking, “Can I talk to Heather?”

“No,” her parents said together.

“You can be present if you like. I’m only trying to understand what happened, because this is not the Tim that I know.”

“You’re not talking to her,” Kurt reiterated.

His wife, however, had a better read of the woman standing in front of them, guessing that she wasn’t going to simply slip away, and it would be preferable that when she did talk to Heather, one of them was around. She put a hand on her husband’s arm. “Let her ask her questions. I’ll go over with her.”

A few customers waiting to pay for their produce had lined up at the other end of the table, and Kurt eyed them with some frustration. He licked his lips uncertainly. “I don’t want her upset.” Then he turned to Jude and warned, “And then you leave us alone.”

Katherine walked Jude back through the market to the face painting station, where a young woman was holding up a mirror to a little boy, showing him his newly-painted tiger face.

Was this her? Jude felt a stinging pang of jealousy, and then of betrayal. The girl could have passed for twenty or twenty-one, but Tim must have known her true age. Seventeen years old. She was so delicately slim that Jude suddenly felt large-boned and awkward. Blond, sweet, young. Was this what he really wanted? Jude wondered if she had been a place holder all along.

“Heather, this woman would like to ask you some questions about Tyler, or whatever his name is,” said Katherine.

The flash of fear in Heather’s eyes was unmistakable.