for Barbara Struncova
On the night of December 4, 2010, Barbara and Jim went out with the Czech friends for dinner and drinks. Jim was tired. He’d surfed all day with the Czechs, and while they could sleep in if they wanted, he would have to get up and open the shop in the morning. When the party decided to move from the restaurant to a bar down the street, he told Barbara he was going home.
Barbara wanted to stay. They were telling funny stories, and it was only 9:00 o’clock. So Jim said goodnight and rode his bike home, while Barbara stayed behind with the group. At 1:00 o’clock they left the bar, but the Czechs weren’t letting Barbara ride her bike home alone at that hour. They put the bike in their rented van, and dropped her off at her front door. They watched her open it and go inside. She waved and smiled and said good night. See you tomorrow.
The house was quiet. Everyone was asleep. No one heard anything unusual during the night.
The next morning Jim was up first, as always, but he wasn’t his good-naturedly grumpy self. He was agitated. He sneered. As his housemates woke up and wandered to the kitchen for coffee, he cursed and paced.
“Barbara left me,” he said. “Crazy bitch,” and a bitter laugh. “Last night. She just fuckin’ left, that bitch. She said some damn shit about goin’ to the Caribbean side. I don’t know. She has some ex-boyfriend. Some guy named Martin or somethin’. She put some shit in a backpack and left. Got on the bus to San Jose.”
They stared in disbelief. Barbara? Left Jim? Left them all? At three in the morning? Without saying goodbye? What? What ex-boyfriend? Are you kidding?
None of it made any sense.
“Crazy bitch,” Jim spat.
“Jim started acting really weird,” Rebecca told me, “but we figured he was in shock. We were all in shock. That was so not like her. We didn’t want to ask him a lot of questions because we felt so terrible for him.”
Who wouldn’t? What an awful thing to do. The break-up we all half expected, hadn’t looked anything like that in our imaginations. It more likely involved Jim riding off into the sunset on his longboard, while Barbara cried him an ocean of tears.
On December 6, the day after Jim said Barbara left him, he went to the surf shop and asked for a board bag. He told the cashier on duty that one of the Czechs needed it, just to add it to their bill. No one asked any questions until weeks later, when the Czechs were settling their accounts and discovered the charge for a board bag big enough to hold three 9 ½ foot surf boards. None of them had asked for it. None of them had seen it. No surfer in his right mind would travel from Europe to the Americas with longboards—the longboarders rented from the shop. But Jim was nowhere to be found, by that time. And he had not taken his longboard.
That same afternoon, Jim called Randy, a fellow Texan who worked next door to the surf shop, asking to borrow his car. Randy said he was sorry, but its tags had expired and he didn’t want it on the road illegally. Jim became agitated, he said, insisting—demanding, even—but refusing to say why he needed it, or where he would go. Randy finally gave in, frightened by Jim’s desperation and the rage boiling in his voice. The next morning, the car was back just like Jim had promised, and Randy forgot about it until Jim disappeared and questions started circulating.
Everyone was frantically worried about Barbara, only Jim laughed it off with a bitter chuckle, saying he didn’t care where she was. On one hand his anger wasn’t surprising. On the other hand, after five years together, his disregard for her complete silence, compared with everyone else’s worry, was eerie.
Jim cursed and spat, saying she was crazy and messed up. That was all.
Finally Marco and Jake couldn’t stand it anymore, and they reported Barbara missing at the town’s little rural police office, where, if you want something written down, it’s a good idea to bring a pen.
He started keeping his room locked, which wasn’t like him. None of the others locked their door while they were home, and neither had he and Barbara. Now, he locked it behind him every time he came into the common area, which was suddenly almost never. He spent hours enclosed in there. When the cleaning lady came, he said it was clean, and left with the key. He was sullen, skittish and mean. He didn’t go surfing.
One afternoon, Jake was scouring the house for surf wax. Having no luck anywhere else, he tried Jim’s closed door and to his surprise, it opened. He found several rolls of saran wrap and some duct tape lying on the bare mattress, stripped of sheets. No surf wax lying around anywhere, though, so he left the room empty handed.
He brought a few bars of wax home from the surf shop that night and tossed one to Jim, saying, “Dude, you’re out of wax. I brought you some.”
“What do you mean?”
“I looked everywhere.”
“What? How’d you get in there?!” Jim flashed in fury. “Oh, so now you go in my room when I’m not home?!” He slammed down the beer he was drinking and stormed into his room in a sudden rage, banging the door behind him.
Before Jim himself vanished, he took a trip for a few days. Out of nowhere, he announced that he needed to go look for Barbara—as though for some reason, he suddenly cared, and had an idea where to look. He packed a backpack and took a sleeping bag, as if he supposed that Barbara might have decided to go someplace where he would not be able to find a bed.
He told Marco he was going to look for her in Jacó. He told Jake he was going to Limón. To Barbara’s best friend at the little hotel down the street, he said that he was going to look for her in Puerto Viejo, only to email a few days later, stating that he was in surfing in Dominical, and that Barbara had gone to Panama.
Where ever he went, he did not return with Barbara or any news of her. He appeared at home again on December 21st and, in spite of his failed mission, seemed to somehow feel better, as if some troublesome load had lifted from his shoulders. He walked into the house and smiled a little when he said hello. Carrying the backpack, the sleeping bag and a plastic grocery bag of cleaning supplies.
The next day, Jim told Rebecca that he had an interview for a chef job at a restaurant down the road. He patted the dog on the head and walked out of the house, with a little bag slung over his shoulder. Marco, biking home from a surf lesson just then, saw Jim sitting outside a hotel, and stopped to ask what was up. Jim shook his head and said he was stuck there waiting for some damn guy to wake his lazy ass up and pay him for a surf trip. And he hoped he wouldn’t have to wait all day.
Shortly after, in front of that hotel, a passenger looking remarkably like Jim, but who identified himself as “Steve York,” boarded the 3 PM shuttle bus to the capital city. Two days later, on Christmas Eve, Jim arrived in The United States of America using a passport that belonged to his brother.
“We think he did something to her,” Rebecca repeated and disbelief would not let it into my head.
“We think she’s dead.”
Every day I waited for an email from Barbara, telling me that something awful had happened between her and Jim, which caused her to run away. I donated money to a search fund.
But no one had seen her. She wasn’t in the Caribbean. No bus company had sold her a ticket. Immigration verified that her passport hadn’t left the country.
Her bank account was empty, and the evidence it showed wasn’t of traveling. Two thousand dollars was transferred, in mid-December, from Barbara’s bank account into the surf shop account that Jim had access to. And then withdrawn. The receipts lay right there screaming in his drawer.
He couldn’t have killed her for $2,000.
Then Ivan, a Czech friend of Barbara’s who lives elsewhere in Costa Rica, came and took all of her things. He was a friend from Barbara’s childhood, who visited often and joined us at some of our group dinners. Ivan held no interest for me at all, and I paid so little attention to him that I would have forgotten him altogether, if he hadn’t stepped right into the middle of the story.
He came to the house scowling and scolding Barbara’s four stupefied friends for publicizing her absence. He demanded that they be quiet. Barbara’s disappearance now peppered the Czech newspapers, and this, for reasons that I have not come to understand, was against the family’s wishes. At least that’s what Ivan said. The devastated the family, he insisted, called him, explaining that they were too distraught by Barbara’s disappearance to make the trip from Europe. He said they asked him to collect her things for them—everything. So he did. While her helpless housemates looked on, he collected each and every single one of Barbara’s possessions, presumably at her family’s request, and left with them for Czech Republic.
The police got nothing.
The OIJ, the Costa Rican equivalent of the FBI, came to the house to do a different type investigation after Jim vanished and there was still no sign of Barbara. They came to the house at night this time with a special spray. The spray, they said, glows in the dark if or where there is even a trace of blood. No matter what happens, the police told them, they must absolutely not tell anyone. No whispers, no rumors. Jim may not be far away and Barbara may still be alive somewhere. We can’t assume anything. Secrecy is important for the investigation.
“So do not tell anyone,” were my instructions.
And I promised.
But I am not keeping secrets anymore.
Barbara Struncova disappeared on December 5, 2010 and is still one of Costa Rica’s cold case missing persons. This is her story according to me, as close to the truth as I am able to tell it.
I call it fiction in a fading hope that it is.
Make no mistake: I will never stop hoping that everything I have supposed is wrong.
Everyone in this story is a friend I have lost.