Today's Reading

PROLOGUE

Ed Herrick was playing out the string, waiting patiently to die. He was two days past his eighty-fifth birthday when I interviewed him on the back porch of a two-story frame house that was as worn and sagging under its own weight as its owner. It was a slate gray morning, cool for June, and the leaves on the sugar maples had turned up in anticipation of the storm that would blow through the Upper Ohio River Valley later that morning. We sat on a pair of paint-starved rocking chairs and watched the waters of Wheeling Creek churn under the Blaine Hill Bridge on the old National Road. It was the house in which Herrick had been born, lived, and planned to die. He seemed to be grateful for my company, even if it was to discuss the murder of his youngest child.

Herrick had rheumy eyes and features that had been sharpened by age. Translucent skin stretched taut over hands that were flecked with wine spots and appeared to have the fragility of butterfly wings. A fine line of tobacco juice flowed like a slow leak from the crevice that stretched from the corner of his mouth to his stubbled chin. He smelled faintly of urine, the tang of stale testosterone, and the chewing tobacco that was crammed into his jaw. He called it "my last vice."

"The doctor won't let me have whiskey no more," he said, rubbing at his belly. "I got bad ulcers. You ever had an ulcer?" I told him I had not. "The doc didn't have to do a lot of convincin'. You don't want whiskey with an ulcer, I can tell you that, but I sure do miss it."

He was sickly thin, a feature exaggerated by a baggy red and black checked flannel shirt that was worn thin and white around his bony elbows and green pants that were cinched tight at the waist, the excess leather from the belt lying limp between his thighs. He had outlived his wife, two daughters, and his savings. On several occasions during our talk, his sunken eyes filled with tears and he groaned that he was tired of living and wanted "to go see Mom and the girls."

Periodically, I would lose him. His eyes would drift out over the rushing waters and focus on a time and place to which I was not privy. When he turned his head back to me, he would ask, "What was I talking about?" After one such lapse, he said, "It's hell to get old." The death of Donna Herrick weighed heavily upon him, wearing down his bones and his will to live. He wished he could reverse time and go back and save his daughter. Not once in two decades had he stopped blaming himself for her death. It was an absurd supposition. How does one stop the wanton action of an unknown killer? You don't. But he was a father. It had been his duty to protect his little girl, and in his mind he had failed. He had held that belief since the day they had found her body, and he would surely take it to his grave. When his daughter needed him most, he wasn't there. "I buried my wife and that was bad, but nothing hurts like the pain of burying a child."

Donna Herrick had been young and a bit of a hellion with a quick smile and a lust for life. She was the youngest of his four children, a surprise that came fourteen years after the son that he and his wife believed would be their last. Ed Herrick was forty-eight when Donna was born, and by his own admission wasn't as strict with her as he had been with the older children. By the time Donna was fifteen and hitting her hormonal stride, her father was sixty-three and out of gas.

"She was my wild child," Herrick said. "She wasn't a bad girl, but ornery as all hell, always pushing the limits. When she was little, she would always fight with the boys; she was a scrapper, that one. When she got a little older and found out she had something boys wanted, things changed. She was fearless; wasn't afraid of a damn thing. I always figured that was what got her killed." He pulled a balled-up, yellowed handkerchief from his hip pocket and dabbed at his eyes and blew his nose. "Donna always said that she wanted to be a movie star. She used to say, 'Pops, someday I'm going to be famous.' Well, she is, but for the wrong reason." He looked out over the water and slowly shook his head. "I still miss her-every damned day."

On July 17, 1993, a Saturday, Donna Herrick left her job at an automobile parts distribution warehouse south of Wheeling, West Virginia, and drove back across the Ohio River to the three-bedroom ranch in St. Clairsville that she was renting with two friends from high school. Donna cranked up a Def Leppard CD and the three young women laughed, sang into their hair brushes, made pina coladas in the blender, and smoked a couple of blunts before heading back across the river around nine o'clock to make the circuit of the clubs on Wheeling Island—the Merriment, Lou's Voo Doo, and Tin Pan Alley. Donna was twenty-three and loving life, dancing and drinking; it was another raucous Saturday night on the island. The last time her friends remembered seeing Donna, she was at the bar at the Merriment. She had a cigarette in one hand and a bottle of beer in the other. No one saw her talking to anyone particular. No one saw her leave.

She was there.

And then she wasn't.
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