Cloudy and humid, it was one of those thick, breathless summer days when it feels as if something has to give.

Not long after sundown, the foreboding skies let loose with drenching rain and crashing thunder, soaking the dark, green hills of western Connecticut. The night was perfect for sliding unnoticed into the densely forested back country of Sherman and slipping away into a new life.

On the other hand, Aug. 19, 1984, was also a pretty good evening for dumping a corpse.

The next day, all that remained of 38-year-old Mary Badaracco were her car keys and a wedding ring, left on the kitchen counter. A wry parting gift, perhaps, to a husband who wanted to ditch her.

That morning dawned breezy and bright, like an open door to a new life. Maybe she really did have that sack of money -- more than $100,000, her husband, Dominic, claimed -- stuffed in her bags.

Problem is, Mary was a fighter and a hometown girl who never strayed far. A feisty, compact woman of 145 pounds, she loved but a few things dearly: her daughters, painting pictures and serving beers on a smoky Friday night.

``Mary Poo,'' her girlfriends at work called her. Her laugh could be heard clear across a noisy cafe.

She's still missing. No body. No weapon. No evidence of a new life anywhere.

But 16 years is a long while, time enough for friendships to unravel and people who know something to think about speaking for someone who can't.

And when it comes to the name Badaracco, therein lies a boozy, decades-old tale of fact and dark rumor, of murder and Hell's Angels. Wrapped within in it are violent men and unsentimental women, tough workingman's bars and the vanishing of a bereft barmaid.

`Your Mother Left Me'

Sherrie Passaro was nervous as her hands gripped the steering wheel. Driving up Route 37, a twisting blacktop that snakes from Danbury into the hills of western Connecticut, the forest seemed in places to almost strangle the highway.

She thought about her mother. At dinner the week before, there was an odd edginess.

Now, a few days after Aug. 19, her stepfather wanted to talk with her. Could they meet? Strange, she thought -- he never asks for me.

Sherrie, 21 and the oldest of Mary Badaracco's two daughters, turned on to Wakeman Hill Road and looked for the long driveway.

The rest still feels like a dream.

Mary Badaracco's car, a 1982 Chevrolet Cavalier, was parked out front, the windshield smashed in on the driver's side. Soon, Dominic Badaracco appeared. ``Your mother left me. She took some money and took off,'' he said.

It hadn't been an easy summer for Mary and Dominic Badaracco. After 15 sometimes-violent years together, they had moved recently from Danbury to Sherman, renovating a home on a few pristine acres on a hillside where the deer came from the dark woods to eat right out of Mary's hand.

Mary and Dominic had met in the late '60s. Tall and handsome, he was a man who at times could be a real charmer, driving children about on his riding lawnmower. She was a barmaid, he a bar owner of places named Fats and The Three Kings. He had four kids; she had two. They married in 1970 and made a twisted ``Brady Bunch'' go of it.