Never Look Away
“He’s really out of it.”
“Look for a key.”
“I told you, I’ve been through his pockets. There’s no goddamn handcuff key.”
“What about the combination? Maybe he wrote it down somewhere, put it in his wallet or something.”
“What, you think he’s a moron? He’s going to write down the combination and keep it on him?”
“So cut the chain. We take the case, we figure out how to open it later.”
“It looks way stronger than I thought. It’ll take me an hour to cut through.”
“You can’t get the cuff over his hand?”
“How many times do I have to tell you? I’m gonna have to cut it off.”
“I thought you said it would take forever to cut the cuff.”
“I’m not talking about the cuff.”
“I’m scared,” Ethan said.
“There’s nothing to be scared about,” I said, turning away from the steering wheel and reaching an arm back to free him from the kiddie seat. I reached under the pad where he’d been resting his arms and undid the buckle.
“I don’t want to go on them,” he said. The tops of the five roller coasters and a Ferris Wheel could be seen well beyond the park entrance, looming like tubular hills.
“We’re not going on them,” I reminded him for the umpteenth time. I was starting to wonder whether this excursion was such a good plan. The night before, after Jan and I had returned from our drive up to Lake George and I’d picked Ethan up at my parents’ place, he’d had a hard time settling down. He’d been, by turns, excited about coming here, and worried the roller coaster would derail at the highest point. After I’d tucked him in, I slipped under the covers next to Jan and considered discussing whether Ethan was really ready for a day at Five Mountains.
But she was asleep, or at least pretending to be, so I let it go.
But in the morning, Ethan was only excited about the trip. No roller-coaster nightmares. At breakfast he was full of questions about how they worked, why they didn’t have an engine at the front, like a train. How could it get up the hills without an engine?
It was only once we’d pulled into the nearly full parking lot shortly after eleven that his apprehensions resurfaced.
“We’re just going on the smaller rides, the merry-go-rounds, the kind you like,” I said to him. “They won’t even let you go on the big ones. You’re only four years old. You have to be eight or nine. You have to be this high.” I held my hand a good four feet above the parking lot asphalt.
Ethan studied my hand warily, unconvinced. I don’t think it was just the idea of being on one of the monstrous coasters that scared him. Even being near them, hearing their clattering roar, was frightening enough.
“It’ll be okay,” I said. “I’m not going to let anything happen to you.”
Ethan looked me in the eye, decided I was deserving of his trust, and allowed me to lift the padded arm up and over his head. He worked his way out of the straps, which mussed up his fine blond hair as they squeezed past his head. I got my hands under his arms, getting ready to lift, but he squirmed free, said, “I can do it,” then slithered down to the car floor and stepped out the open door.
Jan was around back, taking the stroller out of the trunk of the Accord, setting it up. Ethan attempted to get in before it had been locked into the open position.
“Whoa,” Jan said.
Ethan hesitated, waited until he’d heard the definitive click, then plopped himself into the seat. Jan leaned over into the trunk again.
“Let me grab something,” I said, reaching for a backpack.
Jan was opening a small canvas bag next to it that was actually a soft-sided cooler. Inside were a small ice pack and half a dozen juice boxes, cellophane-wrapped straws stuck to the sides. She handed me one of the juice boxes and said, “Give that to Ethan.”
I took it from Jan as she finished up in the trunk and closed it. She zipped up the cooler bag and tucked it into the basket at the back of the stroller as I peeled the straw off of the sticky juice box. It, or one of the other juices in the cooler, must have sprung a tiny leak. I took the straw from its wrapper and stabbed it into the box.
Handing it to Ethan, I said, “Don’t squeeze it. You’ll have apple juice all over yourself.”
“I know,” he said.
Jan reached out and touched my bare arm. It was a warm August Saturday, and we were both in shorts, sleeveless tops, and, considering all the walking we had ahead of us, running shoes. Jan was wearing a long-visored ball cap over her black hair, which she had pulled back into a ponytail and fed through the back of the cap. Oversized shades kept the sun out of her eyes.
“Hey,” she said.
“Hey,” I said.
She pulled me toward her, behind the stroller, so Ethan couldn’t see. “You okay?” she asked.
The question threw me off. I was about to ask her the same thing. “Yeah, sure, I’m good.”
“I know things didn’t work out the way you’d hoped yesterday.”
“No big deal,” I said. “Some leads don’t pan out. It happens. What about you? You feel better today?”
She nodded so imperceptibly it was only the tipping of the visor that hinted at an answer.
“You sure?” I pressed. “What you said yesterday, that thing about the bridge-”
“I thought maybe you were feeling better, but when you told me that-”
She put her index finger on my lips. “I know I’ve been a lot to live with lately, and I’m sorry about that.”
I forced a smile. “Hey, we all go through rough spots. Sometimes there’s an obvious reason, sometimes there isn’t. You just feel the way you do. It’ll pass.”
Something flashed in her eyes, like maybe she didn’t share my certainty. “I want you to know I appreciate… your patience,” she said. A family looking for a spot drove by in a monster SUV, and Jan turned away from the noise.
“No big deal,” I said.
She took a deep, cleansing breath. “We’re going to have a good day,” she said.
“That’s all I want,” I said, and allowed myself to be pulled closer. “I still don’t think it would hurt, you know, to see someone on a regular basis to-”
Ethan twisted around in the stroller so he could see us. He stopped sucking on the juice box and said, “Let’s go!”
“Hold your horses,” I said.
He settled back into his seat, bouncing his legs up and down.
Jan leaned in and gave me a quick kiss on the cheek. “Let’s show the kid a good time.”
“Yeah,” I said.
She gave my arm a final squeeze, then gripped the handles of the stroller. “Okay, buster,” she said to Ethan. “We’re on our way.”
Ethan stuck his hands out to the sides, like he was flying. He’d already drained his juice box and handed it to me to toss in a wastebasket. Jan found a moistened towelette for him when he complained about sticky fingers.
We had several hundred yards to get to the main entrance, but we could already see people lined up to buy tickets. Jan, wisely, had bought them online and printed them out a couple of days earlier. I took over stroller duty while she rooted in her purse for them.
We were almost to the gates when Jan stopped dead. “Nuts.”
“The backpack,” she said. “I left it in the car.”
“Do we need it?” I asked. It was a long trek back to where we’d parked.
“It’s got the peanut butter sandwiches, and the sunscreen.” Jan was always careful to goop Ethan up so he didn’t get a burn. “I’ll run back. You go ahead, I’ll catch up to you.”
She handed me two slips of paper-one adult ticket and one child-and kept one for herself.
She said, “I think there’s an ice-cream place, about a hundred yards in, on the left. We’ll meet there?”
Jan was always one to do her research, and must have memorized the online map of Five Mountains in preparation.
“That sounds good,” I said. Jan turned and started back for the car at a slow trot.
“Where’s Mom going?” Ethan asked.
“Forgot the backpack,” I said.
“The sandwiches?” he said.
He nodded, relieved. We didn’t want to be going anywhere without provisions, especially of the sandwich variety.
I handed in my ticket and his, bypassing the line to purchase them, and entered the park. We were greeted with several junk food kiosks and about a dozen stands hawking Five Mountains hats and T-shirts and bumper stickers and brochures. Ethan asked for a hat and I said no.
The two closest roller coasters, which had looked big from the parking lot, were positively Everest-like now. I stopped pushing the stroller and knelt down next to Ethan and pointed. He looked up, watched a string of cars slowly climb the first hill, then plummet at high speed, the passengers screaming and waving their hands in the air.
He stared, eyes wide with wonder and fear. He reached for my hand and squeezed. “I don’t like that,” he said. “I want to go home.”
“I told you, sport, don’t worry. The rides we’re going on are on the other side of the park.”
The place was packed. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people moving around us. Parents with little kids, big kids. Grandparents, some dragging their grandkids around, some being dragged by them.
“I think that must be the ice-cream place,” I said, spotting the stand just up ahead.
I got behind the stroller and started pushing. “Think it’s too early for ice cream?” I asked.
Ethan didn’t respond.
“Sport? You saying no to an ice cream?”
When he still didn’t say anything, I stopped to take a look at him. His head was back and to the side, his eyes closed.
The little guy had fallen asleep.
“I don’t believe it,” I said under my breath. Not even at the first merry-go-round and the kid was already comatose.
I turned. Jan had returned, a bead of sweat trickling down her neck. The backpack was slung over her shoulder.
“He’s nodded off,” I said.
“You’re kidding me,” she said.
“I think he passed out from fear after getting a close look at that,” I said, pointing to the coaster.
“I think I’ve got something in my shoe,” Jan said. She navigated the stroller over to a concrete ledge surrounding a garden. She perched herself on the edge, nudging Ethan and the stroller to her left.
“Feel like splitting a cone?” she asked. “I’m parched.”
I guessed what she was thinking. We could share a treat now, while Ethan dozed. He’d get plenty of junk before the day was out, but this would be something just for us.
“Dipped in chocolate?” I asked.
“Surprise me,” she said, putting her left foot up on her knee. “Need money?”
“I got it,” I said, patting my back pocket. I turned and strolled over to the ice-cream stand. It was the soft white stuff that comes out of a machine. Not my favorite in the world-I like the real thing-but the young girl who took my order did manage a skillful twirl at the top. I asked her to dip it in the vat of chocolate, which clung like skin to the ice cream as she presented it to me.
I took a tiny bite out of it, cracking the chocolate, and instantly regretted it. I should have let Jan have the first bite. But I’d make up for it through the week. On Monday, come home with flowers. Later in the week, book a sitter, take Jan out to dinner. This thing Jan was going through-maybe it was my fault. I hadn’t been attentive enough. Hadn’t made the extra effort. If that was what it was going to take to bring Jan around, I was up to it. I could put this marriage back on the rails.
I didn’t expect to see Jan coming straight for me when I turned. Even with the sunglasses over her eyes, I could still tell she was upset. There was a tear running down one cheek, and her mouth was set in a terrible grimace.
Why the hell wasn’t she pushing the stroller? I looked beyond her, to where I thought she’d been sitting.
She came up to me quickly, clapped her hands on the sides of my shoulders.
“I only looked away for a second,” she said.
“My shoe,” she said, her voice shaking, uneven. “I was getting-the stone-I was getting the stone out of my shoe, and then I looked-I looked around and-”
“Jan, what are you talking about?”
“Someone’s taken him,” she said, almost in a whisper, her voice nearly gone. “I turned and he-”
I was already moving past her, running over to where I’d last seen them together.
The stroller was gone.
I stepped up onto the ledge Jan had been sitting on, scanned the crowds.
It’s just a mix-up. This isn’t what it looks like. He’ll be back in a second. Someone grabbed the wrong stroller.
“Ethan!” I shouted. People walking past glanced at me, kept on going. “Ethan!” I shouted again.
Jan was standing below me, looking up. “Do you see him?”
“What happened?” I asked quickly. “What the hell happened?”
“I told you. I looked away for a second and-”
“How could you do that? How could you take your eyes off him?” Jan tried to speak but no words came out. I was about to ask a third time how she could have allowed this to happen, but realized I was wasting time.
I thought, instantly, of that urban legend, the one that got called into the newsroom once or twice a year.
“I heard from a friend of a friend,” the calls usually began, “that this family from Promise Falls, they went down to Florida, and they were at one of the big theme parks in Orlando, and their little boy, or maybe it was a little girl, got snatched away from his parents, and these people took him into the bathroom and cut his hair and made him look different and smuggled him out of the park but it never got in the papers because the park owners don’t want any bad publicity.”
There was never, ever anything to it.
“Go back to the main gate,” I told Jan, trying to keep my voice even. “If someone tries to take him out, they’ll have to go through there. There should be somebody from park security there. Tell them.” The ice-cream cone was still in my hand. I tossed it.
“What about you?” she asked.
“I’ll scout out that way,” I said, pointing beyond the ice-cream stand. There were some restrooms up there. Maybe someone had taken Ethan into the men’s room.
Jan was already running. She looked back over her shoulder, did the cell phone gesture to her ear, telling me to call her if I found out anything. I nodded and started running the other way.
I kept scanning the crowds as I ran to the men’s room entrance. As I entered, breathless, the voices of children and adults and hot-air hand dryers echoed off the tiles. There was a man holding up a boy, smaller than Ethan, at one of the urinals. An elderly man was washing his hands at the long bank of sinks. A boy about sixteen was waving his hands under the dryer.
I ran past all of them to the stalls. There were six of them, all doors open except for the fourth. I slapped on the door, thinking it might open.
“What?” a man shouted from inside. “I’ll be another minute!”
“Who’s in there?” I shouted.
“What the hell?”
I looked through the crack between the door and the frame, saw a heavyset man sitting on the toilet. It only took a second to see that he was in there alone.
“Fuck off!” the man barked.
I ran back out of the restroom, nearly slipping on some wet tiles. Once I was back out in the sunlight, saw all the people streaming past, I felt overwhelmed.
Ethan could be anywhere.
I didn’t know which way to head off, but going in any direction seemed a better plan than just standing there. So I ran toward the base of the closest roller coaster, the Humdinger, where I guessed about a hundred people were waiting to board. I scanned the lineup, looked for our stroller, or a small boy without one.
I kept running. Up ahead was KidLand Adventure, the part of Five Mountains devoted to rides for children too young for the big coasters. Did it make sense for someone to have grabbed Ethan and brought him here for the rides? Not really. Unless, again, it was some kind of mix-up, someone getting behind a stroller and heading off with it, never bothering to take a look at the kid sitting inside. I’d nearly done it myself once at the mall, the strollers all looking the same, my mind elsewhere.
Up ahead, a short, wide woman, her back to me, was pushing a stroller that looked an awful lot like ours. I poured on the speed, pulled up alongside her, then jumped in front to get a look at the child.
It was a small girl in a pink dress, maybe three years old, her face painted with red and green spots.
“You got a problem, mister?” the woman asked.
“Sorry,” I said, not even getting the whole word out before I’d turned, still scanning, scanning, scanning-
I caught sight of another stroller. A blue one, a small canvas bag tucked into the back basket.
The stroller was unattended. It was just standing there. From my position, I couldn’t tell whether it was occupied.
Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of a man. Bearded. Running away.
But I wasn’t interested in him. I sprinted in the direction of the abandoned stroller.
Please, please, please…
I ran around to the front of it, looked down.
He hadn’t even woken up. His head was still to one side, his eyes shut.
“Ethan!” I said. I reached down, scooped him out of the stroller, and held him close to me. “Ethan, oh God, Ethan!”
I held him out where I could see his face, and he was frowning, like he was about to cry. “It’s okay,” I said. “It’s okay. Daddy’s here.”
I realized he wasn’t upset because he’d been snatched away from us. He was annoyed at having his nap interrupted.
But that didn’t stop me from telling him, again, that everything was okay. I hugged him close to me, patted his head.
When I held him out again, his lip stopped trembling long enough for him to point at the corner of my mouth and ask, “Did you have chocolate?”
I laughed and cried at the same time.
I took a moment to pull myself together, then said, “We have to find your mother, let her know everything’s okay.”
“What’s going on?” Ethan asked.
I got out my phone, hit the speed dial for Jan’s cell. It rang five times and went to message. “I’ve got him,” I said. “I’m coming to the gate.”
Ethan had never had such a speedy stroller ride. He stuck out his hands and giggled as I pushed him through the crowds. The front wheels were starting to wobble so much I had to tip the stroller back, prompting him to laugh even more.
When we got to the main gate, I stopped, looked around.
Ethan said, “I think maybe I want to try the big coaster roller. I’m big enough.”
“Hold on, partner,” I said, looking. I got out my phone again. I left a second message: “Hey, we’re right here. We’re at the gate. Where are you?”
I moved us to the center of the walkway, just inside the gate, where the crowds funneled in to get to the rides.
Jan wouldn’t be able to miss us here.
I stood in front of the stroller so Ethan could watch me. “I’m hungry,” he said. “Didn’t Mom come? Did she go home? Did she leave the backpack with the sandwiches in it?”
“Hold on,” I said.
“Can I have just peanut butter? I don’t want the peanut-butter-with-jam ones.”
“Just cool your jets a second, okay?” I said. I was holding my cell, ready to flip it open the instant it rang.
Maybe Jan was with park security. That’d be fine, even though Ethan had been found. Because there was somebody running around this park, taking off with other people’s kids. Not a good thing.
I waited ten minutes before placing another call to Jan’s cell. Still no pickup. I didn’t leave a message this time.
Ethan said, “I don’t want to stay here. I want to go on a ride.”
“Just hang on, sport,” I said. “We can’t go off without your mom. She won’t know where to find us.”
“She can phone,” Ethan said, kicking his legs.
A park employee, identifiable by his khaki pants and shirt with the Five Mountains logo stitched to it, walked past. I grabbed his arm.
“You security?” I asked.
He held up a small walkie-talkie device. “I can get them,” he said.
At my request, he called in to see whether anyone from security was helping Jan. “Someone needs to tell her I’ve found our son,” I said.
The voice coming out of the walkie-talkie was scratchy. “Who? We got nothing on that.”
“Sorry,” the park employee said and moved on.
I was trying to tamp down the panic.
Something was very wrong. Someone tries to take your kid. A bearded man runs away.
Your wife doesn’t come back to the rendezvous point.
“Don’t worry,” I said to Ethan, scanning the crowds. “I’m sure she’ll be here any minute now. Then we’ll have some fun.”
But Ethan didn’t say anything. He’d fallen back asleep.
Twelve Days Earlier
“Mr. Reeves?” I said.
“This is David Harwood at the Standard,” I said.
“Yeah, David.” This was the thing with politicians. You called them “Mister” and they called you by your first name. Didn’t matter whether it was the president of the United States or some flunky on the utilities commission. You were always Bob or Tom or David. Never Mr. Harwood.
“How are you today?” I asked.
“What’s on your mind?” he asked.
I decided to counter curt with charm. “Hope I didn’t catch you at a bad time. I understand you just got back. What was it, just yesterday?”
“Yeah,” Stan Reeves said.
“And this trip was a-what? A fact-finding mission?”
“That’s right,” he said.
“Yeah,” he said. It was like pulling teeth, getting anything out of Reeves. Maybe this had something to do with the fact that he didn’t like me very much. Didn’t like the stories I’d been writing about what could end up being Promise Falls’ newest industry.
“So what facts did you pick up?” I asked.
He sighed, as if resigned to answering a couple of questions, at least. “We found that for-profit prisons have been operating in the United Kingdom successfully for some time. Wolds Prison was set up to be run that way in the early nineties.”
“Did Mr. Sebastian accompany you as you toured the prison facilities in England?” I asked. Elmont Sebastian was the president of Star Spangled Corrections, the multimillion-dollar company that wanted to build a private prison just outside Promise Falls.
“I believe he was there for part of the tour,” Stan Reeves said. “He helped facilitate a few things for the delegation.”
“Was there anyone else from the Promise Falls council who made up this delegation?” I asked.
“As I’m sure you already know, David, I was the council’s appointee to go to England and see how their operations have been over there. There were a couple of people from Albany, of course, and a representative from the state prison system.”
“Okay,” I said. “So what did you take from the trip, bottom line?”
“It confirmed a lot of what we already know. That privately run correctional facilities are more efficient than state-run facilities.”
“Isn’t that largely because they pay their people far less than the state pays its unionized staff, and that they don’t get nearly the same benefits as state employees?”
A tired sigh. “You’re a broken record, David.”
“That’s not an opinion, Mr. Reeves,” I said. “That’s a well-documented fact.”
“You know what else is a fact? It’s a fact that wherever unions have their clutches in, they’ve been taking the state to the cleaners.”
“It’s also a fact,” I said, “that privately run prisons have had higher rates of assaults on guards, and prisoner-on-prisoner violence, largely due to reduced staffing levels. Did you find this to be the case in England?”
“You’re just like those do-gooders out at Thackeray who lose sleep when one inmate tears into another.” Some of the faculty at Thackeray College had banded together to fight the establishment of a private prison in Promise Falls. It was becoming a cause célèbre at the school. Reeves continued, “If one prisoner ends up sticking a shiv in another prisoner, you want to explain to me exactly how that hurts society?”
I scribbled down the quote. If Reeves ever denied it later, I had him on my digital recorder. The thing was, making this comment public would only boost his popularity.
“Well, it would hurt the operators of the prison,” I countered, “since they get paid by the state per inmate. They start killing each other off, there goes your funding. Do you have any thoughts on Star Spangled Corrections’ aggressive congressional lobbying for stiffer penalties, particularly longer sentences for a variety of crimes? Isn’t that a bit self-serving?”
“I’ve got a meeting to get to,” he said.
“Has Star Spangled Corrections settled on a site yet? I understand Mr. Sebastian is considering a few of them.”
“No, nothing definite yet. There are a number of possible sites in the Promise Falls area. You know, David, this means a lot of jobs. You understand? Not just for the people who’d work there, but lots of local suppliers. Plus, there’s a good chance a facility here would take in convicted criminals from outside our area, so that means family coming here to visit, staying in local hotels, buying from local merchants, eating in local restaurants. You get that, right?”
“So it’d be like a tourist attraction,” I said. “Maybe they could put it next to our new roller-coaster park.”
“Were you always a dick, or is it something they teach in journalism school?” Reeves asked.
I decided to get back on track. “Star Spangled’s going to have to come before council for rezoning approval on whatever site they pick. How do you plan to vote on that?”
“I’ll have to weigh the merits of the proposal and vote accordingly, and objectively,” Reeves said.
“You’re not worried about the perception that your vote may have already been decided?”
“Why would anyone perceive such a thing?” Reeves asked.
“Well, Florence for one.”
“Florence? Florence who?”
“Your trip to Florence. You extended your trip. Instead of coming back directly from England, you went to Italy for several days.”
“That was… that was all part of my fact-finding mission.”
“I didn’t realize that,” I said. “Can you tell me which correctional facilities you visited in Italy?”
“I’m sure I could have someone get that list to you.”
“You can’t tell me now? Can you at least tell me how many Italian prisons you visited?”
“Not offhand,” he said.
“Was it more than five?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Less than five, then,” I said. “Was it more than two?”
“I’m really not-”
“Did you visit a single correctional facility in Italy, Mr. Reeves?”
“Sometimes you can accomplish what you need to accomplish without actually going to these places. You set up meetings, meet off-site-”
“Which Italian prison officials did you meet with off-site?”
“I really don’t have time for this.”
“Where did you stay in Florence?” I asked, even though I already knew.
“The Maggio,” Reeves said hesitantly.
“I guess you must have run into Elmont Sebastian while you were there.”
“I think I did run into him in the lobby once or twice,” he said.
“Weren’t you, in fact, Mr. Sebastian’s guest?”
“Guest? I was a guest of the hotel, David. You need to get your facts straight.”
“But Mr. Sebastian-Star Spangled, Inc., to be more precise-paid for your airfare to Florence and your accommodation, isn’t that correct? You flew out of Gatwick on-”
“What the fuck is this?” Reeves asked.
“Do you have a receipt for your Florence stay?” I asked.
“I’m sure I could put my hands on it if I had to, but who saves every single receipt?”
“You’ve only been home a day. I’m guessing if you have one it hasn’t had a chance to get lost yet.”
“Look, my receipts are none of your fucking business.”
“So if I were to write a story that says Star Spangled Corrections paid for your Florence stay, you’d be able to produce that receipt to prove me wrong.”
“You know, you got a hell of a lot of nerve tossing around accusations like this.”
“My information is that your stay, including taxes and tickets to the Galleria dell’Accademia and anything out of your minibar, came to three thousand, five hundred and twenty-six euros. Does that sound about right?”
The councilman said nothing.
“I’m not sure,” he said quietly. “It might have been about that. I’d have to check. But you’re way off base, suggesting that Mr. Sebastian footed the bill for this.”
“When I called the hotel to confirm that your bill was being looked after by Mr. Sebastian, they assured me that everything was covered.”
“There must be some mistake.”
“I have a copy of the bill. It was charged to Mr. Sebastian’s account.”
“How the hell did you get that?”
I wasn’t about to say, but a woman who didn’t like Reeves very much had phoned from a blocked number earlier in the day to tell me about the hotel bill. I was guessing she worked either at city hall or in Elmont Sebastian’s office. I couldn’t get a name out of her.
“Are you saying Mr. Sebastian didn’t pay your bill?” I asked. “I’ve got his Visa number right here. Should we check it out?”
“You son of a bitch.”
“Mr. Reeves, when this prison proposal comes before council, will you be declaring a conflict of interest, given that you’ve accepted what amounts to a gift from the prison company?”
“You’re a piece of shit, you know that?” Reeves said. “A real piece of shit.”
“Is that a no?”
“A goddamn piece of shit.”
“I’ll take that as a confirmation.”
“You want to know what really gets me?”
“What’s that, Mr. Reeves?”
“This high-and-mighty attitude from someone like you, working for a newspaper that’s turned into a fucking joke. You and those eggheads from Thackeray and anyone else you got on your side getting your shorts in a knot because someone might outsource running a prison, when you outsource fucking reporting. I remember when the Promise Falls Standard was actually a paper people had some respect for. Of course, that was before its circulation started going to shit, when it actually had journalists reporting on local events, before the Russell family started farming out some of its reporting duties to offshore help, getting reporters in goddamn India for Christ’s sake to watch committee meetings over the Internet and then write up what happened at them for a fraction of what it would cost to pay reporters here to do the job. Any paper that does something like that and still thinks it can call itself a newspaper is living in a fool’s paradise, my friend.”
He hung up.
I put down my pen, took off my headset, hit the stop button on my digital recorder. I was feeling pretty proud of myself, right up until the end there.
The phone had only been on the receiver for ten seconds when it rang.
I put the headset to my ear without hooking it on. “Standard. Harwood.”
“Hey.” It was Jan.
“Hey,” I said. “How’s it going?”
“You at work?”
“What’s going on?”
“Nothing.” Jan paused. “I was just thinking of that movie. You know the one? With Jack Nicholson?”
“I need more,” I said.
“Where he’s a germaphobe, always takes plastic cutlery to the restaurant?”
“Okay, I know the one,” I said. “You were thinking about that?”
“Remember that scene, where he goes to the shrink’s office? And all those people are sitting there? And he says the line, the one from the title? He says, ‘What if this is as good as it gets?’”
“Yeah,” I said quietly. “I remember. That’s what you’re thinking about?”
She shifted gears. “So what about you? What’s the scoop, Woodward?”
Maybe there were clues earlier that something was wrong and I’d just been too dumb to notice them. It’s not like I’d be the first journalist who fancied himself a keen observer of current events, but didn’t have a clue when it came to the home front. But still, it seemed as though Jan’s mood had changed almost overnight.
She was tense, short-tempered. Minor irritants that would not have fazed her in the past now were major burdens. One evening, while we were getting ready to make up some lunches for the next day, she burst into tears upon discovering we were out of bread.
“It’s all too much,” she said to me that night. “I feel like I’m at the bottom of this well and I can’t climb out.”
At first, because I’m a man and don’t really know-and don’t really want to know-what the hell’s going on with women in a physiological sense, I thought maybe it was some kind of hormonal thing. But I realized soon enough it was more than that. Jan was, and I realize this is not what you’d call a clinical diagnosis, down in the dumps. Depressed. But depressed did not necessarily mean depression.
“Is it work?” I asked her one night in bed, running my hand on her back. Jan, with one other woman, managed the office for Bertram’s Heating and Cooling. “Has something happened there?” The latest economic slowdown meant fewer people were buying new air conditioners or furnaces, but that actually meant more repair work for Ernie Bertram. And sometimes, she and Leanne Kowalski, that other woman, didn’t always see eye to eye.
“Work’s fine,” she said.
“Have I done something?” I asked. “If I have, tell me.”
“You haven’t done anything,” she said. “It’s just… I don’t know. Sometimes I wish I could make it all go away.”
“Make what all go away?”
“Nothing,” she said. “Go to sleep.”
A couple of days later, I suggested maybe she should talk to someone. Starting with our family doctor.
“Maybe there’s a prescription or something,” I said.
“I don’t want to take drugs,” Jan said, then quickly added, “I don’t want to be somebody I’m not.”
After work on the day she called me at the paper, Jan and I drove up together to pick up Ethan at his grandparents’ place.
My mother and father, Arlene and Don Harwood, lived in one of the older parts of Promise Falls in a two-story red-brick house that was built in the forties. They didn’t buy until the fall of 1971, when my mother was pregnant with me, and they’d had the place ever since. Mom had made some noises about selling it after Dad retired from the city’s building department four years ago, arguing that they didn’t need all this space, a lawn to cut, a garden to maintain, that they could get along just fine in a condo or an apartment, but Dad wouldn’t have any of it. He’d go mad cooped up in a condo. He had his workshop out back in a separate two-car garage, and spent more time in there than in the house, if you didn’t count sleeping. He was a relentless putterer, always looking for something to fix or tear down and do all over again. A door or cupboard hinge never had a chance to squeak twice. Dad practically carried a can of WD-40 with him at all times. A stuck window, a dripping tap, a running toilet, a jiggly doorknob-none of them stood a chance in our house. Dad always knew exactly what tool he needed, and could have strolled into his garage blindfolded to lay his hands on it.
“He drives me nuts,” Mom would say, “but in forty-two years of marriage I don’t think we’ve had even one mosquito get through a hole in a screen.”
Dad’s problem was that he couldn’t understand why everyone else wasn’t as diligent about their duties as he was with his. He was intolerant of other people’s mistakes. As a city building inspector, he was a major pain in the ass to every Promise Falls contractor and developer. Behind his back they called him Don Hardass. When he got wind of that, he had some business cards made up with his new nickname.
He found it difficult not to share his wisdom about how to make this a more perfect world, in every respect.
“When you leave the spoons to dry like this without turning them over, the water ends up leaving a mark,” he’d say to my mother, holding up one of the offensive items of cutlery.
“Piss off,” Arlene would say, and Don would grumble and go out to the garage.
Their squabbling masked a deep love for each other. Dad never forgot a birthday or anniversary or Valentine’s Day.
Jan and I knew, when we left Ethan with his grandparents, as we did through the week when we both went to work, that he wasn’t going to be exposed to any hazards. No frayed light cords, no poisonous chemicals left where he could get his hands on them, no upturned carpet edges he could run and trip on. And their rates just happened to be more reasonable than any nursery schools in the area.
“Mom called me after you,” I said to Jan, who was driving in her Jetta wagon. It was nearly five-thirty. We’d rendezvoused at our house so we could pick up Ethan in one car, together.
Jan looked over, said nothing, figured I’d continue. “She said Dad’s really done something over the top this time.”
“She say what?”
“No. I guess she wanted to build the suspense. I got hold of Reeves today, asked him about his hotel bill in Florence.”
Jan said, without actually sounding all that interested, “How’s that story coming?”
“Some woman called me anonymously. She had some good stuff. What I need to know now is how many others on the council are taking bribes or gifts or trips or whatever from this private prison corporation so that they’ll give them the nod when the rezoning comes up for a vote.”
And you thought all the fun’d be over when Finley dropped out of politics.” A reference to our former mayor, whose night with a teenage hooker didn’t sit well with his constituents. Maybe, if you were Roman Polanski, you could screw someone a third your age and still win an Oscar, but if you were Randall Finley, it kind of played hell with your bid for Congress.
“Yeah, well, that’s the thing about politics,” I said. “When one dick-head leaves the scene, half a dozen others rush in to fill the vacancy.”
“Even if you get the story,” Jan said, “will they print it?”
I looked out my window. I made a fist and tapped it lightly on my knee. “I don’t know,” I said.
Things had changed at the Standard. It was still owned by the Russell family, and a Russell still sat in the publisher’s chair, and there were various Russells scattered about the newsroom and other departments. But the family’s commitment to keeping it a real newspaper had shifted in the last five years. The overriding concern now, with declining revenues and readership, was survival. The paper had always kept a reporter in Albany to cover state issues, but now relied on wires. The weekly book section had been killed, reduced to a page in the back end of Style. The editorial cartoonist, tremendously gifted at lampooning and harpooning local officials, was given the heave-ho, and now we picked up any number of national, syndicated cartoonists who’d probably never even heard of Promise Falls, let alone visited it, to fill the hole on the editorial page. Oh yeah, the editorials. We used to run two a day, written by staffers. Now, we ran “What Others Think,” a sampling of editorials from across the country. We didn’t think for ourselves more than three or four times a week.
We no longer had our own movie critic. Theater reviews were farmed out to freelancers. The courts bureau had been shut down, and only the most newsworthy trials got covered, provided we happened to know they were on.
But the most alarming indicator of our decline was sending reporting jobs offshore. I hadn’t thought it was possible, but when the Russells heard about how a paper in Pasadena had pulled it off, they couldn’t move quickly enough. They started with something as simple as entertainment listings. Why pay someone here fifteen to twenty bucks an hour to write up what’s going on around town when you could email all the info to some guy in India who’d put the whole thing together for seven dollars an hour?
When the Russells found how well that worked, they stepped it up.
Various city committees had a live Internet video feed. Why send a reporter? Why even pay one to watch it from the office? Why not get some guy named Patel in Mumbai to watch it, write up what he sees, then email his story back to Promise Falls, New York?
The paper was looking to save money any way it could. Advertising revenue was in freefall. The classified section had all but disappeared, losing out to online services like Craigslist. Many of the paper’s clients were becoming more selective, banking on fewer but costlier radio and TV spots instead of full- or even half-page ads. So what if you hired reporters to cover local events who’d never even set foot in your community? If it saved money, go for it.
While it wasn’t surprising to find that kind of mentality among the paper’s bean counters, it was pretty foreign in the newsroom. At least until now. As Brian Donnelly, the city editor and, more important, the publisher’s nephew, had mentioned to me only the day before, “How hard can it be to write down what people say at a meeting? Are we going to do a better job of it just because we’re sitting right there? Some of these guys in India, they take really good notes.”
“Don’t you ever get tired of this?” Jan asked, hitting the intermittent wipers to clear off some light rain.
“Yeah, sure, but I’m beating my head against the wall with Brian.”
“I’m not talking about work,” Jan said. “I’m talking about your parents. I mean, we see them every day. Your parents are nice enough and all, but there’s a limit. It’s like we’re being smothered or something.”
“Where’s this coming from?”
“You know we can never just drop Ethan off or pick him up at the end of the day. You have to go through the interrogation. ‘How was your day?’ ‘What’s new at work?’ ‘What are you having for dinner?’ If we’d just put him in day care, they wouldn’t give a shit, they’d just kick him out the door and we could go home.”
“Oh, that sounds better. A place where they don’t actually have any interest in your kid.”
“You know what I’m saying.”
“Look,” I said, not wanting to have a fight, because I wasn’t sure what was going on here, “I know most days you get off work before I do, so you’ve been doing pickup duty, but in another month it won’t even matter. Ethan’ll be going to kindergarten, which means we won’t be taking him to my parents’ every day, which means you won’t have to endure this daily interrogation you suddenly seem so concerned about.” I shook my head. “It’s not like we can take turns dropping him off at your parents’ place.”
Jan shot me a look. I regretted the comment instantly, wished I could take it back.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “That was a cheap shot.”
Jan said nothing.
Jan put her blinker on, turned in to my parents’ driveway. “Let’s see what your dad’s done now.”
Ethan was in the living room, watching Family Guy. I walked in, turned off the set, called out to Mom, who was in the kitchen, “You can’t let him watch that.”
“It’s just a cartoon,” she said, loud enough to be heard over running water.
“Pack up your stuff,” I told Ethan, and walked back into the kitchen, where Mom stood at the sink with her back to me. “In one episode the dog tries to have sex with the mother. In another, the baby takes a machine gun to her.”
“Oh, come on,” she said. “No one would make a cartoon like that. You’re really turning into your father.” I gave her a kiss on the cheek. “You’re wound too tight.”
“It’s not The Flintstones anymore,” I said. “Actually, cartoons now are better. But a lot of them are not for four-year-olds.”
Ethan shuffled into the kitchen, looking tired and a little bewildered. I was surprised he wasn’t asking about food. Mom had probably already given him something.
Jan, who had come in a few seconds after me, knelt down to Ethan. “Hey, little man,” she said. She looked into his backpack. “You sure you have everything here?”
“Where’s your Transformer?”
Ethan thought for a moment, then bolted back into the living room. “In the cushions!” he shouted.
“What’s Dad done this time?” I asked.
“He’s going to get himself killed,” Mom said, taking a pot from the sink and setting it on the drying rack.
“He’s out in the garage. Get him to show you his latest project. So, Jan, how was work today? Things good?”
I walked through the light rain to the garage. The double-wide door was open, Dad’s blue Crown Victoria, one of the last big sedans from Detroit, parked in there. My mother’s fifteen-year-old Taurus sat in the driveway. Both cars had kid safety seats in the back for when they had Ethan.
Dad was tidying his workbench when I walked in. He’s taller than me if he stands up straight, but he’s spent most of his life looking down-inspecting things, trying to find tools-so that he’s permanently round-shouldered. He still has a full head of hair, which is something of a comfort to me, even if his did start going gray when he was barely forty.
“Hey,” he said.
“Mom said you have something to show me.”
“She needs to mind her own business.”
“What is it?”
He waved a hand, which I wasn’t sure was a dismissal or surrender. But when he opened up the passenger door and took out something to show me, I realized he was going to share his latest project.
It was several white pieces of cardboard, about the size of a piece of regular printer paper. They looked like they might be the card sheets they slide into new shirts. Dad saved all that stuff.
He handed the small stack to me and said, “Check it out.”
Written on each one, in heavy black marker, all in capitals, was a different phrase. They included TURN SIGNAL BROKEN?, STOP RIDING MY ASS, TAILLIGHT OUT, HEADLIGHT OUT, SPEED KILLS, STOP SIGNS MEAN STOP, AND GET OFF THE PHONE!
They looked like the cue cards you used to see the crew holding up for Johnny Carson.
Dad said, “The STOP RIDING MY ASS one I did with bigger letters because they’ve got to be able to see it through my rear window, and I’m up in the front seat. But if they’re tailgating that close, they’ll probably see it.”
I looked at him, at a loss for words.
“How many times you seen some jackass do something stupid and you wish you could tell him? I keep these in the car, pick out the right one, hold it up to the window, maybe people will start to realize their mistakes.”
I’d found some words. “You installing bulletproof glass?”
“You flash these, someone’s going to shoot you.”
“Okay, so let’s say it’s you. You’re driving down the road and someone shows a sign like that to you.”
Dad studied me. “That’d never happen. I’m a good driver.”
“Work with me.”
He pushed his lips in and out a moment. “I’d probably try to run the son of a bitch off the road into the ditch.”
I took the cards from him and ripped them, one by one, in half, then dropped them in the metal garbage bin. Dad sighed.
Jan came out the back door with Ethan. They walked up the side of the house to the Jetta and Jan started getting Ethan strapped into the safety seat.
“Guess we’re going,” I said.
“Your problem,” Dad said, “is you’re afraid to shake things up. Like that new prison they want to build. That’d be a real shot in the arm for the town.”
“Sure. Maybe we could get a nuclear waste storage facility while we’re at it.”
I got into the Jetta next to Jan. She backed out, pointed us in the direction of our house. Her jaw was set firmly and she wouldn’t look at me.
“You okay?” I asked.
Jan said nothing all the way home, and very little through dinner. Later, she said she would put Ethan to bed, something we often did together.
I went upstairs as she was tucking our son in.
“You know who loves you more than anyone in the whole world?” she said to him.
“You?” Ethan said in his tiny voice.
“That’s right,” Jan whispered to him. “You remember that.”
Ethan said nothing, but I thought I could hear his head moving on his pillowcase.
“If someone ever said I didn’t love you, that wouldn’t be true. Do you understand?”
“Yup,” Ethan said.
“You sleep tight and I’ll see you in the morning, okay?”
“Can I have a drink of water?” Ethan said.
“No more stalling. Go to sleep.”
I slipped into our bedroom so I wouldn’t be standing there when Jan came out.
“Check it out,” said Samantha Henry, a general assignment reporter who sat next to me in the Standard newsroom.
I wheeled over on my chair and looked at her computer monitor. Close enough to read it, but not so close she might think I was smelling her hair.
“This just came in from one of the guys in India, who was watching a planning committee meeting about a proposed housing development.” The committee was grilling the developer about how small the bedrooms appeared to be on the plans. “Okay, so read this para right here,” Samantha said, pointing.
“‘Mr. Councilor Richard Hemmings expressed consternation that the rooms did not meet the proper requirements for the swinging of a cat.’” I stared at it a moment and grinned. “I should call my dad and ask if that’s actually written somewhere in the building code. ‘A bedroom must be large enough that if you are standing in the center, grasping a cat by the tail, its head will not hit any of the four walls when you are spinning with your arm fully extended.’”
“Stuff’s coming in like this every day,” Samantha said. “What the fuck do they think they’re doing? You saw the correction we ran the other day?”
“Yeah,” I said. The city did not actually own any barns, and no city employees had actually closed the barn doors after the horses had left. It was bad enough our reporters in India were unfamiliar with American idioms, but when they got past the copy desk right here in the office, something was very very wrong.
“Don’t they care?” Samantha asked.
I pushed away from the monitor, leaned back in my chair and laced my fingers behind my head. I always felt a little more relaxed when I moved away from Sam. The thing we had was a long time ago, but you started sharing a computer screen too often and people were going to talk.
It felt like the chair’s back support was going to fail, and I shifted forward, put my hands on the arms. “You have to ask?”
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” she said. “I’ve been here fifteen years. I asked the M.E.’s assistant for a new pen and she wanted to see an empty one first. Swear to God. Half the time, you go in the ladies’ room, there’s no goddamn toilet paper.”
“I hear the Russells may be looking to sell,” I said. It was the number one rumor going around the building. “If they can pare down the costs, get the place showing a profit, they’ll have an easier time unloading the place.”
Samantha Henry rolled her eyes. “Seriously, who’d buy us in this climate?”
“I’m not saying it’s happening. I just heard some talk.”
“I can’t believe they’d sell. This place has been run by one family for generations.”
“Yeah, well, it’s a very different generation running it now than ten years ago. You won’t find ink running through the veins of anyone on the board these days.”
“Madeline used to be a reporter,” Samantha said, referring to our publisher. She didn’t need to remind me how Madeline got her start here.
“Used to be,” I said.
What with papers shutting down all over the country, everyone was on edge. But Sam, in particular, was worried about her future. She had an eight-year-old daughter and no husband. They’d split up years ago, and she’d never gotten a dime of support from him. A former Standard staffer, he’d left to work on a paper in Dubai. It’s pretty hard to chase a guy down for money he owes you when he’s on the other side of the planet.
When she was newly divorced, with a baby, Sam put up a brave front. She could do this. Still have her career and raise a child. We didn’t sit next to each other back then, but we crossed paths often enough. In the cafeteria, at the bar after work. When we weren’t trading reporters’ usual complaints about editors who had held or cut their stories, she let down her guard about how tough things were for her and Gillian.
I guess I thought I could rescue her.
I liked Sam. She was sexy, funny, intellectually challenging. I liked Gillian. Sam and I started spending a lot of time together. I started spending a lot of nights at Sam’s. I fancied myself as more than a boyfriend. I was her white knight. I was the one who was going to make her life okay again.
I took it pretty hard when she dumped me.
“This is too fast,” she told me. “This is how I fucked things up last time. Moving too quickly, not thinking things through. You’re a great guy, but…”
I went into a funk I don’t think I really came out of until I met Jan. And now, all these years later, things were okay between Sam and me. But she was still a single mother, and things had never stopped being a struggle.
She lived paycheck to paycheck. Some weeks, she didn’t make it. She’d had the labor beat for years, but the paper could no longer afford to devote reporters to specific issues, so now she reported to general assignment, and couldn’t predict the hours she’d be working. It played hell with her babysitting. She was always scrambling to find someone to watch her daughter when a last-minute night assignment landed on her desk.
I didn’t have Sam’s week-to-week financial worries, but Jan and I talked often about what else I could do if I found myself without a job. Unemployment insurance only lasted so long. I-and Jan for that matter-was worth more dead since we signed up for life insurance a few weeks back. If the paper folded, I wondered if I should just step in front of a train so Jan would be up $300,000.
“David, you got a sec?”
I whirled around in my chair. It was Brian Donnelly, the city editor. “What’s up?”
He nodded his head in the direction of his office, so I got up and followed him. The way he made me trail after him, without turning or chatting along the way, made me feel like a puppy being dragged along by an invisible leash. I wasn’t even forty yet, but I saw Brian was part of the new breed around here. At twenty-six, he was management, having impressed the bosses not with journalistic credentials but with business savvy. Everything was “marketing” and “trends,” “presentation” and “synergy.” Every once in a while, he dropped “zeitgeist” into a sentence, which invariably prompted me to say “Bless you.” The sports and entertainment editors were both under thirty, and there was this sense, at least among those of us who had been at the paper for ten or more years, that the place was gradually being taken over by children.
Brian slipped in behind his desk and asked me to close the door before I sat down.
“So, this prison thing,” he said. “What have you really got?”
“The company gave Reeves an all-expenses-paid vacation in Italy after the UK junket,” I said. “Presumably, when Star Spangled’s proposal comes up before council, he’ll be voting on it.”
“Presumably. So he’s not actually in a conflict of interest yet, is he? If it hasn’t come up for a vote. If he abstains or something, then what do we really have here?”
“What are you saying, Brian? If a cop takes a payoff from a holdup gang to look the other way, it’s not a conflict until the bank actually gets robbed?”
“Huh?” said Brian. “We’re not talking about a bank holdup here, David.”
Brian wasn’t good with metaphors. “I’m trying to make a point.”
Brian shook his head, like he was trying to rid his brain of the last ten seconds of conversation. “Specifically about the hotel bill,” he said, “do we have it a hundred percent that Reeves didn’t pay for it? Or that he isn’t paying back Elmont Sebastian? Because in your story,” and now he was looking at his computer screen, tapping the scroll key, “you don’t actually have him denying it.”
“He called me a piece of shit instead.”
“Because we really need to give him a chance to explain himself before we run with this,” Donnelly said. “If we don’t, we could get our asses sued off.”
“I gave him a chance,” I said. “Where’s this coming from?”
“What? Where’s what coming from?”
I smiled. “It’s okay, I get it. You’re getting leaned on by She Who Must Be Obeyed.”
“You shouldn’t refer to the publisher that way,” Brian said.
“Because she’s your aunt?”
He had the decency to blush. “That has no bearing on this.”
“But I’m right about where this is coming from. Ms. Plimpton sent the word down,” I said.
While born a Russell, Madeline Plimpton had been married to Geoffrey Plimpton, a well-known Promise Falls realtor who’d died two years ago, at thirty-eight, of an aneurysm.
Madeline Plimpton, at thirty-nine, was the youngest publisher in the paper’s history. Brian was the son of her much older sister Margaret, who’d never had any interest in newspapers, and had instead pursued her dream of having a property worthy of the annual Promise Falls Home and Garden Tour. She managed to be on it every year, which I would never suggest, not for a moment, was because she was tour president.
Brian had never actually worked as a reporter, so you almost couldn’t blame him for not understanding the thrill of nailing a weasel like Reeves to the wall. But Madeline, when she was still a Russell, had worked as a general assignment reporter alongside me more than a decade ago. Not for long, of course. It was part of her crash course in learning the family business, and in no time she was moving up the ranks. Entertainment editor, then assistant managing editor, then M.E., all designed to get her ready to be publisher once her father, Arnett Russell, packed it in, which he had done four years ago. The fact that Madeline had, however briefly, worked in the trenches made her willingness to turn her back on journalism-to tiptoe around the Reeves story-all the more disheartening.
When Brian didn’t deny that his aunt was pulling the strings here, I said, “Maybe I should go talk to her.”
Brian held up his hands. “That’d be a very bad idea.”
“Why? Maybe I can make a better case for this story than you can.”
“David, listen, trust me here, that’s not a good plan. She’s this close to-”
“No. She’s this close to what?”
“Look, it’s a new era around here, okay? A newspaper is more than just a provider of news. We’re an… an… entity.”
“An entity. Like in Star Trek?”
He ignored that. “And entities have to survive. It’s not all about saving the world here, David. We’re trying to get out a paper. A paper that makes money, a paper that has a shot at being around a year from now, or a year after that. Because if we’re not making money, there’s not going to be anyplace to run your stories, no matter how important they may be. We can’t afford to run anything that’s not airtight, not these days. We’ve got to be sure before we go ahead with something, that’s all I’m telling you.”
“She’s this close to what, Brian? Firing me?”
He shook his head. “Oh, no, she couldn’t do that. She’d need some sort of cause.” He sighed. “How would you feel about a move to Style?”
I settled back in my chair, absorbed the implications. Before I could say anything, Brian added, “It’s a lateral move. You’d still be reporting, except it would be on the latest trends, health issues, the importance of flossing, that kind of shit. It wouldn’t be something you could file a grievance over.”
I breathed in and out a few times. “Why’s Madeline so worked up about the prison story? If I was writing about another Walmart coming into town, I could see her freaking out over lost ad dollars, but I kind of doubt Star Spangled Corrections is going to be running a bunch of full-page ads about weekly specials. ‘License plates fifty percent off!’ Or maybe, ‘Need your rocks split? Call the Promise Falls Pen.’ Come on, Brian, what’s she upset about? She buying the argument that this is going to mean jobs? More local jobs means more subscribers?”
“Yeah, there’s that,” Brian said.
“There’s something else?”
Now Brian took a few slow breaths. There was something he was debating whether to tell me.
“David, look, you didn’t hear this from me, but the thing is, if this prison sets up here, the Standard could wipe all its debts, have a fresh start. We’d all be able to feel a lot more secure about our jobs.”
“How? Are they going to get inmates to write the stories? Let them start covering local news for free as part of their rehabilitation?” Even as I said it, I thought, Not too loud. Give the bosses around here an idea-
“Nothing like that,” Brian said. “But if the paper sold Star Spangled Corrections the land to build their prison, that would help the bottom line.”
My mouth was open for a good ten seconds. I’d been a total moron.
Why had this never occurred to me? The twenty acres the Russell family owned on the south side of Promise Falls had for years been the rumored site of a new building for the Standard. But that talk stopped about five years ago when earnings began to fall.
“Holy shit,” I said.
“You didn’t hear it from me,” Brian said. “And if you go out there and breathe a word of this to anyone, we’re both fucked. Do you understand? Do you understand why anything we run has to be nailed down, I mean really nailed down? If you find something good, really good, she won’t have any choice but to run it because if she doesn’t, the TV station’ll find out and they’ll go with it, or the Times Union in Albany will get wind of it.”
I got up from my chair.
“What are you going to do, David? Tell me you’re not going to do anything stupid.”
I surveyed his office, like I was sizing it up for redecorating. “I’m not sure this room meets the cat-swinging code, Brian. You might want to look into that.”
I sat at my desk and stewed for half an hour. Samantha Henry asked me five times what had happened in Brian’s office, but I waved her off. I was too angry to talk. Despite Brian’s warning not to, I was seriously considering walking into the publisher’s office, asking her if this was what she really wanted, that if we had to abandon our principles to save the paper, was the paper really worth saving?
In the end, I did nothing.
Maybe this was how it was going to be. You came in, you churned out enough copy to fill the space, didn’t matter what it was, you took your paycheck, you went home. I’d worked at a paper like that-in Pennsylvania-before coming back to the hometown rag. There’d always been papers like that. I’d been naïve enough to think the Standard would never turn into one of them.
But we were hardly unique. What was happening to us was happening to countless other papers across the country. What might buy us some time was the Russell family’s ace in the hole-a huge tract of land it hoped to sell to one of the country’s biggest private prison conglomerates.
If things didn’t work out here, maybe I could get a job as a bull. Wasn’t that what inmates called guards?
I picked up the phone, hit the speed dial for Bertram Heating and Cooling. If I couldn’t save the state of journalism, maybe I could put a bit of effort into my marriage, which had been showing signs of wear lately.
A voice that was not Jan’s said, “Bertram’s.” It was Leanne Kowalski. She had the perfect voice for someone working at an air-conditioning firm. Icy.
“Hey, Leanne,” I said. “It’s David. Jan there?”
“Hang on.” Leanne wasn’t big on small talk.
The line seemed to go dead, then Jan picked up and said, “Hey.”
“Leanne seems cheery today.”
“Why don’t we see if my parents can hang on to Ethan for a couple of extra hours, we’ll go out for a bite to eat. Just the two of us. Rent a movie for later.” I paused. “I could get into Body Heat.” Jan’s favorite film. And I never got tired of the steamy love scenes between William Hurt and Kathleen Turner.
“I guess,” she said.
“You don’t sound very excited.”
“Actually, yeah,” said Jan, warming to the idea. “Where were you thinking for dinner?”
“I don’t know. Preston’s?” A steakhouse. “Or the Clover?” A bit on the pricey side, but if the newspaper business was going into the dumper, maybe we should go while we could still afford it.
“What about Gina’s?” Jan asked.
Our favorite Italian place. “Perfect. If we go around six, we probably won’t need a reservation, but I’ll check just to be sure.”
“I could pick you up at work, we’ll go back for your car later.”
“What if you get me drunk so you can take advantage of me?”
That sounded more like the Jan I knew.
“Then I’ll drive you to work in the morning.”
Taking a shortcut through the pressroom on the way to the parking lot, I spotted Madeline Plimpton.
It was the pressroom that most made this building feel like a real newspaper. It was the engine room of a battleship. And if the Standard ever ceased to be a paper, these monstrous presses-which moved newsprint through at roughly fifty feet per second and could pump out sixty thousand copies in an hour-would be the last thing standing, the final thing to be moved out of here. We’d already lost the composing room, where the paper’s pages had been, literally, pasted up. It had vanished once editors started laying out their own pages on a computer screen.
I saw Madeline up on the “boards,” which was pressman-speak for the catwalks that ran along the sides, and through, the presses, which were not actually massive rollers, but dozens upon dozens of smaller ones that led the never-ending sheets of newsprint on a circuitous route up and down and over and under until they miraculously appeared at the end of the line as a perfectly collated newspaper. The machinery had been undergoing some maintenance, and a coverall-clad pressman was directing Madeline’s attention to the guts of one part of the presses, which ran from one end of the hundred-foot room to the other.
I didn’t want to pass up this opportunity to speak to her directly, but I knew better than to clamber up the metal steps. The pressmen could be a bit sensitive about that sort of thing. They weren’t as hard-line as they used to be, but the men-and handful of women-who ran and maintained the presses were staunch unionists. If someone from anywhere else in the paper got up on the boards without their permission-especially management-it suddenly got a lot easier to carry on a conversation. The presses would stop dead. And they wouldn’t start running again until the trespassers left.
But the pressmen, while still a force to be reckoned with, had softened with the times. They knew newspapers were in a tough period from which they might never recover. And the people who worked in this room found it difficult to dislike Madeline Plimpton. She’d always been able to connect with the average working guy, and knew the names of everyone who worked in here.
Madeline was in her publisher’s outfit: a navy knee-length skirt and matching jacket that was not only impervious to printer’s ink, but set off her silver-blonde hair. She was a curiosity in some ways. Designer duds, but down here on the boards, I wondered if, in her heart, she wouldn’t have been more comfortable in the tight jeans she’d worn as a reporter. She’d look just as good in them today as she did then. I’d only seen Madeline age in the time since her husband had died, and even after that she’d managed to keep any new lines in her face to a minimum.
I managed to catch her eye when she glanced down.
“David,” she said. It was normally deafening in here, but the presses weren’t currently in operation, so I could hear her.
“Madeline,” I said. Considering that we’d come through the newsroom together, years earlier, it had never occurred to me to call her by anything other than her first name. “You got a minute?”
She nodded, said something to the pressman, and descended the metal staircase. She knew better than to ask me to join her up there. The boards were not a place to hang out.
Once she was on the floor, I said, “This Reeves story is solid.”
“I’m sorry?” she said.
“Please,” I said. “I get what’s going on. We like this new prison. We don’t want to make waves. We act real nice and play down local opposition to this thing and we get to sell them the land they need to build.”
Something flickered in Madeline’s eyes. Maybe she’d figure out Brian had told me. Fuck him.
“But this will end up biting us in the ass later, Madeline. Readers, they may not get it right away, but over time, they’ll start figuring out that we don’t care about news anymore, that we’re just a press release delivery system, something that keeps the Target flyer from getting wet, a place where the mayor can see a picture of himself handing out a check to the Boy Scouts. We’ll still carry car crashes and three-alarm fires and we’ll do the annual pieces on the most popular Halloween costumes and what New Year’s resolutions prominent locals are making, but we won’t be a fucking newspaper. What’s the point in doing all this if we don’t care what we are anymore?”
Madeline looked me in the eye and managed a rueful smile. “How are things, David? How’s Jan?”
She had that way about her. You could blow your stack at her and she’d come back with a question about the weather.
“Madeline, just let us do our jobs,” I said.
The smile faded. “What’s happened to you, David?” she asked.
“I think a better question would be, what’s happened to you?” I said. “Remember the time you and I were covering that hostage taking, the one where the guy was holding his wife and kid, said he was going to kill them if the police didn’t back off?”
She didn’t say anything, but I knew she remembered.
“And we got in between the police and the house, and we saw everything that went down, the cops storming the place, beating the shit out of that guy, even after they’d found out he didn’t have a gun. Just about killed him. And the story we put together after, laying it all out just like it happened, even though we knew it was going to cause a shit storm with the police, which it sure as hell did when it ran. You remember the feeling?”
Her eyes went soft at the memory. “I remember.” She paused. “I miss it.”
“Some of us still care about that feeling. We don’t want to lose it.”
“And I don’t want to lose this paper,” Madeline Plimpton said. “You go to bed at night worried about whether your story will run. I go to bed worried about whether there’s going to be a paper to run it in. I may not sit in the newsroom anymore but I’m still on the front line.”
I didn’t have a comeback for that.
I parked out front of Bertram’s a little after five-thirty. Leanne Kowalski was standing in the parking lot like she was waiting for someone.
I nodded hello as I got out of the Accord and headed for the door. “How’s it going, Leanne?” I said. I’d met her enough times to have known better than to ask.
“Be a lot better if Lyall ever turns up,” she said. Leanne was one of those people who seemed to have only two moods. Annoyed, and irritated. She was tall and skinny, narrow hipped and small breasted, what my mother would call scrawny. Like she needed some meat on her bones. While she kept her black, lightly streaked hair short, she had bangs she had to keep moving out of her eyes.
“No wheels today?” I asked. There was usually an old blue Ford Explorer parked next to Jan’s Jetta any time I drove by.
“Lyall’s clunker’s in the shop, so he borrowed mine,” she said. “I don’t know where the hell he is. Was supposed to be here half an hour ago.” She shook her head and rolled her eyes. “Honest to God.”
I offered up an awkward smile, then pulled on the office door handle, a cool blast of A/C hitting me as I went inside.
Jan was turning off her computer and slinging her purse over her shoulder.
“Leanne’s her usual cheerful self,” I said.
Jan said, “Tell me about it.”
We both happened to look out the window at the same time. Leanne’s Explorer had just careened into the lot. I could see Lyall’s round face behind the windshield, his sausagelike fingers gripped to the wheel. There was something bobbing about inside, and it took me a moment to realize it was a large dog.
Instead of getting in the passenger side, Leanne went to the driver’s door and yanked it open. She was pretty agitated, waving her hands, yelling at him. We couldn’t make out what she was saying, and as curious as we were to hear it, we didn’t want to venture outside and run the risk of getting in the middle of it.
Lyall slithered out of the driver’s seat. He was almost bald and heavy-set, and his tank top afforded us a generous glimpse of his armpits. He slunk around the front of the Explorer, Leanne shouting at him across the hood the entire time.
“Must be fun to be him,” I said as Lyall opened the passenger door and got in.
“I don’t know why she stays with him,” Jan said. “All she does is bitch about him. But you know, I think she actually loves the loser.”
Leanne got behind the wheel, threw the Explorer into reverse, and kicked up dust as she sped off down the road. Just before Leanne backed out, I saw Lyall give her a look. It reminded me of a beaten dog, just before it decides to get even.
Gina showed Jan and me to our table. Her restaurant had about twenty tables, but it was early and only three of them were taken.
“Mr. Harwood, Mrs. Harwood, so nice to see you again,” she said. Gina was a plump woman in her sixties whose eatery was a legend in the Promise Falls area. She, and she alone, possessed the recipe to the magical tomato sauce that accompanied most of the dishes. I hoped it was written down someplace, just in case.
“When did you tell your parents we’d be coming for Ethan?” Jan asked around the time we got our minestrone.
“Between eight and nine.”
She had her spoon in her right hand, and as she reached with her left for the salt her sleeve slipped back an inch, revealing something white wrapped about her left wrist.
“They’re really good with him,” she said.
That seemed something of a concession, given how she’d been talking about my parents only the other day.
“They are,” I said. It looked like a bandage wrapped around her wrist.
“Your mom’s in good shape. She still has lots of energy,” Jan said. “She’s, you know, youthful for her age.”
“My dad’s pretty good, too, except for being a bit, you know, insane.”
Jan didn’t say anything for a moment. Then, “It’s good to know that if something… if something happened to me-or to you-they’d be able to help out a lot.”
“What are you talking about, Jan?”
“It’s just good to have things in place, that’s all.”
“Nothing’s going to happen to you or to me,” I said. “What’s that on your wrist?”
She left her spoon in the bowl and pulled her sleeve down. “It’s nothing,” she said.
“It looks like a bandage.”
“I just nicked myself,” she said.
“Let me see.”
“There’s nothing to see,” she said. But I had reached across the table, taken hold of her hand, and pushed the sleeve up myself. The bandage was about an inch wide and went completely around her wrist.
“Jesus, Jan, what did you do?”
She yanked her arm away. “Let go of me!” she said, loud enough to make the people at the other tables, and Gina by the front door, glance our way.
“Fine,” I said quietly, taking my hand back. Keeping my voice low, I said, “Just tell me what happened.”
“I was cutting some vegetables for Ethan and the knife slipped,” she said. “Simple as that.”
I could see injuring your finger while cutting up carrots, but how did a knife jump up and get your wrist?
“Just drop it,” Jan said. “It’s not… what it looks like. I swear, it was totally an accident.”
“Jesus, Jan,” I said, shaking my head. “These days, lately, I don’t know… I’m worried sick about you.”
“You don’t have to be concerned,” she said curtly and studied her soup.
“But I am.” I swallowed. “I love you.”
Twice she started to speak and then stopped. Finally, she said, “I think, sometimes, it would be easier for you if you didn’t have both of us to worry about. If it was just you and Ethan.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
Jan didn’t say anything.
I was frantic with concern, but there was anger, too, creeping into my voice. “Jan, answer me honestly here. What kind of thoughts are going through your head lately? Are you having-I don’t know how to put this-self-destructive thoughts?”
She kept looking at the soup, even though she wasn’t eating it. “I don’t know.”
I had this feeling that we had reached a moment. One of those moments in your life when you feel the ground moving beneath you. Like when someone calls and says a loved one has been rushed to the hospital. When you get called in by the boss and told they won’t be needing you anymore. Or you’re in a doctor’s office, and he’s looking at your chart, and he says you should sit down.
You’re finding out something that’s going to make everything that happens from here on different from everything that has gone before.
My wife is ill, I thought. Something’s happened to her. Something’s come undone. Something’s wrong with the circuitry.
“You don’t know,” I said. “So you might be thinking about hurting yourself in some way.”
Her eyes seemed to nod.
“How long have you been having thoughts like this?”
Jan’s lips went out, then in, as she considered the question. “A week or so. These thoughts come in, and I don’t know why they’re there, and I can’t seem to get rid of them. But I feel I’m this huge burden to you.”
“That’s ridiculous. You’re everything to me.”
“I know I’m a drag on you, like an anchor.”
“That’s crazy.” I immediately regretted my choice of word. “Look, if you’ve been feeling this way a week or so… what’s brought this on? Has something happened? Something you haven’t told me about?”
“No, nothing,” she said unconvincingly.
“Has something happened at work?” After seeing Leanne going at it with Lyall, I wondered whether she was dragging Jan down somehow. “Is it Leanne? Is she making your life hell, too?”
“She’s… she’s always been hard to deal with, but I’ve learned to cope,” Jan said. “I can’t really explain it. I just started feeling this way. Feeling that I’m a burden, that I have no purpose.”
“That’s ridiculous,” I said. “You know what I think? I think maybe you need to talk to-”
“I don’t want to hear this,” Jan said.
“But if you just talked-”
“What, so they could put me away? Lock me up in some loony bin?”
“For God’s sake, Jan. Now you’re just being paranoid.” And again, I managed to pick a word I really should have avoided.
“Paranoid? Is that what you think I am?”
I sensed Gina approaching.
“That’s what you’d like, isn’t it?” Jan said, her voice rising again. “To be rid of me for good.”
Gina stopped, and we both looked at her.
“I’m sorry,” Gina said. “I was just going to-” she pointed at the soup bowls, “take those away, if you were finished.”
I nodded, and Gina removed them.
To Jan, I said, “Maybe we should go home and-”
But Jan was already pushing back her chair.
I didn’t sleep much that night. I tried to talk to Jan on the way home, and before we went to bed, but she wasn’t interested in having any further conversations with me, particularly when I brought up the topic of her seeking some kind of professional help.
So I was pretty weary the following morning, walking with my head hanging so low on my way into the Standard building that I didn’t even notice the man blocking my path until I was nearly standing on his toes.
He was a big guy, and he seemed ready to burst out of his black suit, white shirt, and black tie. Over six feet tall, he had a shaved head and there was a tattoo peeking out from his shirt collar, but not enough for me to tell what it was. I put his age at around thirty, and the way he carried himself suggested that he was not to be messed with. He wore the suit as comfortably as Obama sporting bling.
“Mr. Harwood?” he said, an edge to his voice.
“Mr. Sebastian would be honored if you would join him over coffee. He’d like a moment to have a word with you. He’s waiting down at the park. I’d be happy to drive you.”
“Elmont Sebastian?” I said. I’d been trying for weeks to get an interview with the president of Star Spangled Corrections. He didn’t return calls.
“Yes,” the man said. “By the way, my name is Welland. I’m Mr. Sebastian’s driver.”
“Sure,” I said. “What the hell.”
Welland led me around the corner and opened the door of a black Lincoln limo for me. I got into the back, settled into a gray leather seat, and waited while he got in behind the wheel. If this car had a glass partition, it wasn’t in position, so I asked Welland, “Have you worked long for Mr. Sebastian?”
“Just three months,” he said, pulling out into traffic.
“And what were you doing before that?”
“I was incarcerated,” Welland said without hesitation.
“Oh,” I said. “For very long?”
“Seven years, three months, and two days,” Welland said. “I served my time at one of Mr. Sebastian’s facilities near Atlanta.”
“Well,” I said as Welland steered the car in the direction of downtown.
“I’m a product of the excellent rehabilitation programs Star Spangled facilities offer,” he said. “When my sentence ended, Mr. Sebastian took a chance on me, gave me this job, and I think it says a lot about the stock he puts in second chances.”
“Do you mind my asking what you were serving time for?”
“I stabbed a man in the neck,” Welland said, glancing into the mirror.
I swallowed. “Did he live?” I asked.
“For a while,” Welland said, making a left.
He stopped the car by the park that sits just below the falls the town takes its name from. Welland came around, opened the door, and pointed me in the direction of a picnic table near the river’s edge. A distinguished-looking, silver-haired man in his sixties was seated on the bench with his back to the table, tossing popcorn to some ducks. When he spotted me and rose from the bench, I could see he was as tall as Welland, although more slender. He smiled broadly and extended a large sweaty hand.
I made a conscious effort not to wipe my hand on my pants.
“Mr. Harwood, thank you so much for coming. It’s a pleasure to be able to speak to you at last.”
“I’ve been available, Mr. Sebastian,” I said. “You’re the one who’s been hard to get hold of.”
He laughed. “Please, call me Elmont. May I call you David?”
“Of course,” I said.
“I love feeding the ducks,” he said. “I love watching them gobble it down.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“When I was a boy, I had a summer job working on a farm,” he said, tossing more kernels, watching the ducks lunge forward and fight over them. “I grew to love God’s creatures back then.”
He turned and pointed to the table, where a couple of take-out coffees sat in a box filled with creams, sugars, and wooden sticks. “I didn’t know what you took in yours, so it’s black. Help yourself to what you need.”
He turned himself around and tucked his legs under the table as I took a seat opposite him. I didn’t reach for a coffee, but did go into my pocket for a notepad and pen. “I’ve left several messages for you.”
Sebastian glanced across the park lawn at Welland, who was standing guard by the limo. “What do you think of him?” he asked.
I shrugged. “Model citizen.”
Another laugh. “Isn’t he, though? I’m very proud of him.”
“Why did you pay for Stan Reeves’s trip to Florence?” I asked. “Is that standard policy? To reward people in advance who’ll be voting on your plans?”
“That’s good.” He nodded. “You get right to it. I appreciate that. I like directness. I’m not one to pussyfoot around.”
“If you can find another way to say it, you can put off answering my question even longer.”
Elmont Sebastian chuckled and pried off one of the coffee lids and poured in three creams. “As it turns out, this is exactly why I was hoping to meet with you. To deal with that question. I brought you here to show you something.”
He reached into his suit jacket and withdrew an envelope that had his name written on it. The flap was tucked in, not glued. He pulled it back, withdrew a check, and handed it to me.
Was this how Elmont Sebastian operated? He cut reporters checks to back off?
I took it in my hand and saw that it was not made out to me, but to him. And it was written on the personal account of Stan Reeves, in the amount of $4,763.09. The date in the upper right corner was two days ago.
“I know you think you were onto something where Councilor Reeves is concerned,” he said. “That he accepted a free side trip to Italy from me, but nothing could be further from the truth. I had already rented a couple of rooms in Florence, expecting to entertain friends, but they had to cancel at the last minute, so I said to Mr. Reeves, while we were still in England, that he was welcome to take the extra room. And he was pleased to do so, but he made it very clear to me that he was not able to accept any gifts or gratuities. That would put him in an untenable position, and of course I understood completely. But the reservation was all paid for, so we made arrangements that he would settle up with me upon his return. And there’s the check that proves it.”
“Well,” I said, handing it back, “I’ll be damned.”
Elmont Sebastian smiled, revealing an uneven top row of teeth. “I would have felt terrible had you gone ahead with a story that impugned the reputation of Mr. Reeves. And myself, for that matter, but I am used to having my name besmirched by the press. But to see Mr. Reeves harmed-it would have been my fault entirely.”
“Isn’t it great that that’s all cleared up,” I said.
He returned the check to its envelope and slipped it back into his coat. “David, I’m very concerned you may not appreciate what my company is trying to do. I get the sense from your stories you think there’s something inherently evil about a private prison.”
A for-profit prison,” I said.
“I’m not denying it,” Sebastian said, taking a sip of coffee. “Profit is not a dirty word, you know. Nothing immoral with rewarding people financially for a job well done. And when it turns out to be a job that serves the community, that makes this country a better place to live, well, what’s wrong with that, exactly?”
“I’m not on a one-man crusade, Mr. Sebastian.” He looked hurt, my not calling him by his first name. “But there are a lot of people around here who don’t want your prison coming to Promise Falls. For a whole host of reasons, not the least of which is that you’re taking what has traditionally been a government responsibility and turning it into a way to make money. The more criminals that get sentenced, the better your bottom line. Every convict sent to your facility is like another sale.”
He smiled at me as though I were a child. “How do you feel about funeral home directors, David? Is what they do wrong? They make money out of death. But they’re providing a service, and they’re entitled to make money doing that. Same for estate lawyers, the florists you call to send flowers to loved ones, the man who cuts the lawn at the cemetery. What I do is, David, is make America a better place. The good citizens of this country are entitled to feel safe when they go to bed at night, and they’re entitled to feel that way knowing they’re getting the best bang for their tax dollar. That’s what I do, with all the facilities I run across a great many of these wonderful United States of America. I help people sleep at night, and I help keep their taxes down.”
“And all you get out of it is, if last year is any indication, a $1.3 billion payoff.”
He shook his head in mock sadness. “Do you work for free at the Standard?” he asked.
“Your company’s actively involved in trying to see minimum sentences raised across the board. You’re telling me your only motive there is to make Americans sleep safe at night?”
Sebastian glanced at his watch. I thought it might be a Rolex, but the truth was, I’d never seen a real Rolex. But it looked expensive.
“I really must be going,” he said. “Would you like me to make a copy of the check for the purposes of your story?”
“That won’t be necessary,” I said.
“Well then, I guess I’ll be off.” Sebastian rose from the bench and started walking across the grass back to his limo. He brought his take-out cup with him, but even though he walked right past an open waste bin, he handed it to Welland to dispose of. Welland opened the door for him, closed it, got rid of the cup, and before getting into the driver’s seat he looked at me. He made his hand into a little gun, grinned, and took a shot at me.
The limo drove off. It was looking very much like they weren’t going to be giving me a lift back to the paper.
Ten days after our dinner at Gina’s, Jan got us tickets to go to Five Mountains, the roller-coaster park. It seemed the perfect metaphor for her moods since our dinner at Gina’s. Up and down, up and down, up and down.
She’d been doing her best to be herself around Ethan in the ten days since she’d said I’d be happy to be rid of her, and my tactful suggestion that she might be paranoid. If Ethan had noticed his mother was not well, he hadn’t been curious enough to ask what was up. He usually asked whatever question came into his head, so that told me he really hadn’t noticed. Jan had taken a couple of days off from work in the last week, but I’d still taken Ethan to my parents’, thinking maybe what she needed was time to herself. She’d never actually come out and said she wanted to kill herself, but I still felt a low-level anxiety when I thought about her home alone.
The day after Gina’s, I snuck out of the office for a hastily booked afternoon appointment with our family doctor, Andrew Samuels. When I called, I told the nosy receptionist, who always wanted to know why you were seeing the doctor, I had a sore throat.
“Going around,” she said.
But when I was alone in the office with Dr. Samuels, I said, “It’s about Jan. She’s not herself lately. She’s down, she’s depressed. She said she thinks Ethan and I would be better off without her.”
“That’s not good,” he said. He had some questions. Had something happened recently? A death in the family? Financial problems? Trouble at work? A health matter she might not have told me about?
I had nothing.
Dr. Samuels said the best thing was for me to suggest she come and see him. You couldn’t diagnose a patient who wasn’t there.
I started pushing her to go talk to him. At one point, I said that if she refused to go, I’d go see him without her, never letting on I’d already done it. She was furious. But later she came into the kitchen and told me she’d made an appointment to see him the following day, which she was taking off.
The next evening, I asked how it had gone. I tried hard not to make it the first thing I asked when I saw her.
“It was good,” Jan said without hesitation.
“You told him how you’ve been feeling?”
And what did he say?”
“Mostly he just listened,” she said. “He let me talk. For a long time. I’m sure I ran into the next appointment, but he didn’t rush me at all.”
“He’s a good guy,” I said.
“So, I told him how I’ve been feeling, and I guess that’s about it.”
Surely there was more. “Did he have any suggestions? Did he write you out a prescription or anything?”
“He said there were some drugs I could try, but I told him I didn’t want anything. I’ve already told you that. I’m not going to become some drug addict.”
“So did he do anything?”
“He said I’d already taken the first positive step by coming to see him. And he said there were some people who were better at this sort of thing-”
Jan nodded. “He said he’d refer me to one if I wanted.”
“So you said yes?”
Jan eyed my sharply. “I said no. You think I’m crazy?”
“No, I don’t think you’re crazy. You don’t have to be crazy to go see a psychiatrist.” I’d almost said “shrink.”
“I’m going to try to deal with this on my own.”
“But those thoughts you were having,” I said. “About whether to harm yourself.” I couldn’t bring myself to say “suicide.”
“What about them?”
“Are you still having those?”
“People have all kinds of thoughts,” she said, and walked out of the room.
That same day Jan ordered the tickets, an email arrived in my in-box at work:
“We spoke the other day. I know you’re looking into Star Spangled Corrections and how they’re trying to buy up all the votes on council. Reeves is not the only one they’ve treated to trips or gifts. They’ve gotten to practically everyone, so there’s no way this thing is not going to go through. I’ve got a list of what’s being paid out and who’s getting it. I don’t dare phone you or say who I am in this email, but I’m willing to meet you in person and give you all the evidence you need for this. Meet me tomorrow at 5:00 p.m. in the parking lot of Ted’s Lakeview General Store. Take 87 north to Lake George, up by the Adirondack Park Preserve. Take 9 North, which goes for a ways alongside 87. There’s an area where the woods opens up, and that’s where Ted’s is. Don’t come early and hang around and don’t wait long for me. If I’m not there by 5:10, it probably means something has happened and I’m not coming. I’ll tell you this much: I’m a woman, which you probably figured out when I called you, and I will be in a white pickup.”
I read it through a couple of times, sitting at my desk in the newsroom. Rattled, I signed out, went to the cafeteria for a coffee, took a couple of sips, left it there, and returned to my desk.
“You okay?” Samantha Henry, at her desk next to mine, asked. “I said hello to you twice and you ignored me.”
The Hotmail address it had been sent from was a random series of letters and numbers that offered no clues about the author. I made a couple of notes, then deleted the email. Then I went into the deleted emails and made sure it was purged from the system. Maybe I was paranoid, but ever since learning that the paper’s owners had an interest in selling land to Star Spangled Corrections, I’d been looking over my shoulder a bit more.
I didn’t trust anyone around here.
“Holy shit,” I said under my breath.
Someone had dirt on the members of Promise Falls council who were accepting bribes, gifts, kickbacks, whatever you wanted to call them, from Elmont Sebastian’s prison corporation.
My story on Reeves’s Florence vacation had never made the paper. His check to Sebastian was obviously written after he’d found out I knew about his Florence trip, but it was enough to bury the story as far as Brian was concerned, and I wasn’t sure I blamed him. I needed something that really nailed Reeves and possibly other council members to the wall.
This anonymous email might just be it.
I certainly had no confidence in Brian to champion my stories on this issue. Only a couple of days earlier, in an editorial that wasn’t actually written in some far-flung part of the country and wired to us, the Promise Falls Standard proclaimed that a private prison would bring not only short-term construction jobs to a recession-weary town, but long-term employment. If the citizens of Promise Falls expected to be protected from those who would break the law, they could hardly adopt a “not in my backyard” attitude when it came to hosting a facility that would lock up those lawbreakers. And as for the prison being privately run, the paper had taken a “let’s see” attitude. “This concept, while it has met with mixed results in other jurisdictions, deserves a chance to prove itself here.”
The piece had Madeline Plimpton’s fingerprints all over it.
It made me sick to my stomach to read it.
I went to Google Maps to find the rendezvous point. Even though I had no doubt I was going to head up to Lake George, I had to admit the email was short on specifics. I still didn’t know who this woman was, or who she worked for. Someone at city hall? Could it be a clerk? An administrative assistant? Someone in the mayor’s office who saw everyone come and go? Some pissed-off prison guard from one of Sebastian’s other facilities? Whoever she was, she knew about Reeves and his free hotel stay in Florence. Maybe it was someone right in his office. The guy was widely regarded as an asshole; it wasn’t hard to imagine one of his staff sticking a knife in his back.
I guessed I’d have to wait until I got to Lake George to find out.
• • •
“I’ve bought us tickets to go to Five Mountains,” Jan said when she phoned in the afternoon.
“The park north of town? The one we drive by with all the roller coasters?”
“I know what it is.” Everyone knew about Five Mountains. It had opened just outside Promise Falls in the spring to much fanfare.
“You don’t want to go?” she asked. “I already bought the tickets online. I don’t think there’s any way to take them back.”
“No, no, it’s okay,” I said. “I’m just surprised.” One minute, she was talking like someone who wanted to kill herself, the next she was booking tickets to a theme park. “You booked tickets for all three of us?”
“Of course,” she said.
“Those coasters are huge. They won’t let Ethan on them.”
“They’ve got that area for little kids, with the merry-go-rounds and everything.”
“I guess.” Then, a worry. “You didn’t book these for tomorrow, did you?” It wasn’t like Ethan was in school yet. He could go any day, and for all I knew Jan was planning to take the next day off, assuming I might be persuaded to do the same.
“No, they’re for Saturday,” she said. “Is that a problem?”
“No, that’s perfect. It would have been hard for me to go tomorrow.”
“What’s up tomorrow?”
I lowered my voice so Sam, who was tapping away at her computer, wouldn’t hear. “I have to meet somebody.”
“I don’t know. I got this anonymous email, a woman claiming to have the goods on Reeves and some of the other councilors.”
“Oh my God, that’s just what you’ve been waiting for.”
“Yeah, well, I don’t know whether it’ll pan out.”
“You meeting her in some dark alley or something?”
“I’m driving up to Lake George.”
Jan didn’t say anything for a moment.
“What is it, hon?”
“Nothing. I was just, I was just thinking of taking one more mental health day tomorrow. It’s really slow in the office. If we were having a real heat wave, the phone’d be ringing off the hook with A/C service calls, but the weather’s been not so bad, so it’s pretty quiet.”
I hesitated just for second. “Why don’t you ride up with me?” I could use the company, and given Jan’s dark thoughts lately, it would be a way to keep tabs on her for the day. Not that I was going to offer that up as a reason for her to join me.
“I couldn’t do that,” Jan protested. “Wouldn’t that freak out your contact, you not coming alone?”
I thought about that. “If she asks, I’ll just tell her. You’re my wife. We made a day of it. Combined meeting a source with a drive in the country. If anything, it should put her more at ease.”
Jan didn’t sound entirely convinced. “I suppose. But if this is some secret Deep Throat kind of meeting, are we going to be safe?”
I managed a chuckle. “Oh, it’s going to be very dangerous.”
I didn’t think it would take much more than an hour to drive to Lake George, and even though I was supposed to meet this person at five, I thought it made sense to get on the road at three. The woman in the note had made it clear that there was only about a ten-minute window for us to connect. I was to be there at five, and if she hadn’t shown up within ten minutes, I was to turn around and go home.
Jan decided to keep Ethan with her for most of the day, then drive over and drop him off at my parents’ around two. It didn’t seem to matter how many times we imposed on them, they didn’t mind. Mom adored him, and loved the novelty of having a male under her roof who’d actually do what she asked. Dad was talking about setting up a train set in the basement for Ethan to play with when he was over, although I suspected Dad was using Ethan as a cover story. Dad probably needed a project, and he’d always loved model trains, the big Lionel engines that made a huge racket and spewed smoke. I couldn’t imagine Mom being crazy about the idea, but if it kept Dad from making more instructional signs for his fellow motorists, she’d probably be on board.
I got to the house about quarter to three, thinking Jan might be waiting for me on the front porch-we live in an old part of town where they still have such things-but she wasn’t there. I bounded up the steps, opened the screen door, and called out Jan’s name.
“You all set?” I said.
“Up here!” she said.
I bounded up the single flight, talking the entire way. “I think if we hit the road now, we might be in Lake George in time to grab a bite to eat or a coffee or something before I meet with-”
I walked into our bedroom. Jan was in the bed, under our covers, her head resting on her crooked arm.
“What-are you sick?” I asked.
She threw back the covers to reveal that she was naked. “Do I look like I’m sick?” she asked.
“Well,” I said, smiling, “even in August you’re bound to catch cold if you head up to Lake George like that.”
“If you really want to get up there in time to get coffee, I suppose I could throw on my clothes and we could go right now.”
“To be honest,” I said, “I had coffee this morning.”
Fifteen minutes later, we were on the road.
For the first twenty miles, I was starting a conversation in my head that wasn’t going anywhere.
“You seem better,” I wanted to say to Jan.
“You haven’t been as down the last day or two,” I nearly said.
“It’s good to see you like this,” I contemplated telling my wife.
But I said nothing out of fear of jinxing things. If Jan was coming out of this downturn, I didn’t want to fuck it up by making a big deal out of it. I worried she might get defensive, accuse me of watching her every little tic, overanalyzing her every word. Which, of course, was exactly what I’d been doing for a couple of weeks now.
So I decided to act as though there was nothing out of the ordinary. That Jan wasn’t taking a day off work because she’d been so troubled. She was just playing hooky. Keeping me company on my way to an interview.
I’d brought along my pen and notepad and digital recorder. If possible, I wanted to get this woman’s revelations on tape-okay, it’s not really tape anymore, but I’d yet to find another way to say this that didn’t sound funny. But I had my doubts she’d want to have her voice recorded.
I had the recorder tucked into my pocket just in case.
“Not bad traffic,” I said as we headed up the interstate.
Jan turned slightly sideways in her seat, not an easy thing to do in the Jetta. She alternated looking at me, the scenery, the road behind us.
“There’s something I should tell you,” she said.
I suddenly got that feeling again, the one I’d had in the restaurant. “What?” I said.
“Something… I did,” she said.
“What did you do?”
“Actually, it’s more like something I didn’t do,” she said, looking out the rear window, then back out the front.
“Jan, tell me what’s going on,” I said.
“You know that day we took a drive in the country?”
I shook my head. “We do that a lot.”
“I can’t even remember the name of the road, but it’s a place I can find, you know? Like, make a right turn at the white house, keep on going until you go past the red barn, that kind of thing?”
“You’ve always been able to find your way around,” I said. “You just don’t have much of a memory for street names or road numbers.”
“That’s right,” she said. “So I don’t know if I can even tell you where I was, I mean, the road or anything. But you know that back road, it’s well paved but it’s out in the country and it doesn’t get a lot of traffic? On the way to the garden center?”
That narrowed it down a bit.
“And you come up to this bridge? You know where the road narrows a bit to go over it, and even though there’s still a line down the middle, if there’s a truck coming the other way you slow down and let it go through first?”
Now I knew exactly where she was talking about.
“And it goes over the river there, and the water’s moving really fast over the rocks?”
Jan glanced out the back window again, then looked at me. “So I drove up there the other day, parked the car, and I walked out to the middle of the bridge.”
I don’t want to hear this.
“I stood there for the longest time,” Jan said. “I thought about what it would be like to jump, wondered if a person could survive a fall like that. It’s not all that far, but the rocks, they’re pretty jagged down there. And then I thought, if I’m going to jump off a bridge, I should just use the one that goes over Promise Falls. Remember you told me that story, about the student who did that a few years ago?”
“Jan,” I said.
“I stood up on the railing-it’s made of concrete and it’s quite wide. I stood there for a good thirty seconds, I’m guessing, and then climbed back down.”
I swallowed. My mouth was very dry. “Why?” I asked. “What made you not do it?”
Because she loves us. Because she couldn’t imagine leaving Ethan and me behind.
She smiled. “There was a car coming. A farmer’s truck, actually. I didn’t want to do it in front of anyone, and by the time I was back down, the moment had passed.”
I have to take her to a hospital. I need to turn around and drive her to a hospital and have her checked in. That’s what I need to do.
“Well,” I said, trying to conceal my alarm, “it’s a good thing that truck came along.”
“Yeah,” she said, and smiled, like what she’d told me was no big deal. Just something she’d thought about, and then the moment had passed.
I asked, “What did the doctor say when you told him about this?”
“Oh, this happened since I saw him,” she said offhandedly. She reached out and touched my arm. “But you don’t have to worry. I feel good today. And I feel good about tomorrow, about going to Five Mountains.”
That was supposed to be reassuring? So what if she felt good right now? What about an hour from now? What about tomorrow?
“There’s something else,” Jan said.
I gave her a look that said, “What?”
“It might be my imagination,” she said, glancing out the rear window again, “but I think that blue car back there has been following us ever since we left our place.”
It was maybe a quarter of a mile behind us, too far to be sure what make of car it was, definitely too far to read a license plate. But it was some kind of American sedan, General Motors or Ford, in dark blue, with tinted windows.
“It’s been following us since we left?” I said.
“I’m not positive,” Jan said. “It does kind of look like a million other cars. Maybe there was one blue car behind us when we were driving out of Promise Falls, and that’s a different blue car.”
I was doing just under seventy miles per hour, and eased up slightly on the accelerator, letting the car coast down to just over sixty. I wanted to see whether the other car would pull into the outside lane and pass us.
A silver minivan coming up on the blue car’s tail moved out and passed it, then slid into the long space between us.
“I can’t quite see it,” I said, glancing at both my side and rearview mirrors, while not taking my eyes off the road ahead. Even slowing down, we were gaining on a transport truck.
Jan was about to turn around in her seat but I told her not to. “If someone’s following us, I don’t want them to know we’ve spotted them.”
Aren’t they going to figure that out since we’ve slowed down?”
“I’ve only slowed a little. If he’s on cruise control or something, he’s going to catch up to us pretty soon.”
The van had moved back into the passing lane and whipped past us and the truck ahead. I looked in the mirror. The blue car loomed larger there, and I could see now that it was a Buick with what appeared to be New York plates, although the numbers were not distinct, as the plate was dirty. “He’s catching up,” I said.
“So maybe it’s nothing,” Jan said, sounding slightly relieved. “And it is a pretty long highway, without that many exits. It’s not like he can just turn off anywhere.”
I put on my blinker to move over a lane. Slowly we overtook the truck.
“That’s true,” I said, but I wasn’t feeling any less tense. I was puzzling out the implications if in fact the blue car was tailing us.
It would seem to indicate that someone knew I was meeting with this anonymous source. I couldn’t think of any other possible reason why anyone would want to follow me.
And if someone was tailing me to this rendezvous, it meant, in all likelihood, that the email the woman had sent me had been intercepted, found, something. Maybe it had been found on her computer. Or she’d told someone she was going to meet with a reporter.
Could this be a setup? But if so, who was doing it? Reeves? Sebastian? What would be the point of that?
I passed the truck, moved back into the right lane. Now I couldn’t see the car at all, and I had to maintain my speed or the truck was going to have to pull out and pass me. Gradually, I put some distance between the truck and us.
Jan was checking the mirror on her door. “I don’t see him,” she said. “You know what? I think-you’re going to love this-maybe I’m just a bit paranoid today. God knows, with everything else I’ve been feeling, that might actually make sense.”
Which was worse? To find out we were being followed, or that Jan, already troubled with on-again, off-again depression, was starting to think people were following her?
The blue car passed the truck, moved in front of it.
“He’s back,” I said.
“Why don’t you speed up a bit,” Jan suggested. “See if he does the same.”
I eased the car back up to seventy. Gradually, the blue car shrank in my rearview mirror.
“He’s not speeding up,” Jan said. “You see? It’s just me losing a few more marbles. You can relax.”
By the time we got off at the Lake George exit, I’d stopped checking my mirror every five seconds. The car was probably back there, but it had fallen from sight. Jan was visibly relieved.
It was 4:45 p.m., and my sense of the Google map I’d printed out before we’d left told me we were only five minutes away from Ted’s Lake-view General Store. We wound our way up 9 North. I wasn’t pushing it. I didn’t want to arrive too early, and I didn’t want to somehow speed past Ted’s without seeing it.
As it turned out, it would have been hard to miss. It was the only thing along that wooded stretch of highway. It was a two-story white building set about fifty feet back from the road, a full set of self-serve gas pumps out front. I hit the blinker, came slowly off the main road, tires crunching on some loose gravel.
“So this is it,” Jan said. “We just wait?”
I looked at the dashboard clock. Five minutes before five. “I guess.” There were some parking spots off to one side, an old Plymouth Volare in one of them. I swung the car around in front of them, backed in alongside the Volare so I’d have a good view of the highway in both directions, then powered down the windows and turned off the engine.
There wasn’t a lot of traffic. We’d be able to spot an approaching white pickup long before it turned in to the lot.
“What do you think this source is going to have for you?” Jan asked.
I shrugged. “I don’t know. Private memos? Printouts of emails? Recorded phone calls? Maybe nothing. Maybe there’re just things she wants to tell me. But it’ll be a lot better if she has some actual proof. The Standard’s not going to run a word if I haven’t got this thing cold.”
Jan rubbed her forehead.
“Just getting a headache. I’ve had one most of the way up. I feel like I could nod right off, to tell you the truth.”
“You got some aspirin or Tylenol or something?”
“Yeah, in my purse. I’m going to go in, get a bottle of water or something else to drink. You want anything?”
“An iced tea?” I said.
Jan nodded, got out of the car, and went into the store. I kept my eyes on the road. A red Ford pickup drove past. Then a green Dodge SUV. A motorcyclist.
My dashboard clock read 5 p.m. on the dot. So she had ten minutes from now to show up.
Whoever she was.
A truck loaded with logs rumbled past. A blue Corvette convertible, top down, went screaming by, heading for Lake George.
Then, coming from the north, a pickup truck.
It was a couple of hundred yards away, pale in color. The way the afternoon sun was filtering through the trees, I wasn’t sure whether it was white, pale yellow, or maybe silver.
But as the truck approached, I could see that it was a Ford, and that it was white.
The truck’s turn signal went on. It waited for a Toyota Corolla coming from the south to get past, then turned into the lot. The truck rolled up to the self-serve pumps.
My heart was pounding.
The driver’s door opened, and a man in his sixties stepped out. Tall, thin, unshaven, in a plaid work shirt and jeans. He slipped his credit card into the pump and started filling up.
He never once looked in my direction.
“Shit,” I said.
I looked back out to the highway, just in time to see a blue Buick sedan drive by.
“Hello,” I said under my breath.
The car was driving under the speed limit. Slow enough to take in what was going on at Ted’s Lakeview General Store, but fast enough not to look like he was going to stop.
The thing was, I didn’t know that it was a “he.” The windows were well tinted. It might have been more than one “he.” It might have been a “she.”
The car kept heading north and eventually disappeared.
It was 5:05 p.m.
Jan came out of the store, a Snapple iced tea in one hand, a bottle of water in the other. She was talking even before she opened the passenger door.
“I’m in there and I’m thinking, what if he sees his contact and ends up driving away, leaving me here?”
“There’s been no sign,” I said. The white pickup at the pump had left before Jan returned. “But there was one interesting thing.”
“Yeah?” she said, handing me my iced tea and cracking the plastic cap on the water.
“I saw what I think was our blue Buick driving by.”
Jan said, “You’re shittin’ me.”
“No. It was headed north and kept on going.”
“Do you know for sure it was the same car?”
I shook my head. “But there was something about it as it drove past. Like whoever was inside was scanning this place.”
Jan found some Tylenols and popped them into her mouth, then chased them down with the water. She looked at the clock. “Four minutes left,” she said. “Is that clock right?”
I nodded. “But her clock might not be, so I’ll hang in a few minutes extra. There’s still time for her to show up.”
I drank nearly half the iced tea in one gulp. I hadn’t realized, until the cold liquid hit my tongue, just how parched I was. We sat for another five minutes, saying nothing, listening to the cars go by.
“There’s a pickup,” Jan said. But it was gray, and it did not turn in.
“From the north,” I said, and Jan looked.
It was the blue Buick. Maybe two hundred yards away.
I opened my door.
“What are you doing?” Jan asked. “Get back in here.”
But I was already heading across the parking lot. I wanted a better look at this car. I wanted a look at the license plate. I reached into my pocket and took out my digital recorder. I didn’t have to write down the plate number. I could dictate it.
“David!” Jan called out. “Don’t do it!”
I ran to the shoulder, recorder in hand. I turned it on. The Buick was a hundred yards away, and I could hear the driver giving more gas to the engine.
“Come on, you fucker,” I said as the car closed the distance.
It was close enough now to read the plate. I’d forgotten it was plastered with dried mud. As the car zoomed past the general store, I waited to get a look at the back bumper, but that plate was muddied up as well-save for the last two numbers, 7 and 5, which I spoke breathlessly into my recorder. The car moved off at high speed and disappeared around the next bend.
I clicked off the recorder, put it in my pocket, and trudged back to the car.
“What were you thinking?” Jan asked.
“I wanted to get the plate,” I said. “But it was covered up.”
I got back into the car, shook my head. “Fuck,” I said. “It was the same car, I’m sure of it. Someone knows. Someone found out about this meeting.”
Which was why I wasn’t surprised when, by 5:20 p.m., no woman in a white pickup had showed up at Ted’s Lakeview General Store to give me the goods on Reeves and the rest of the Promise Falls councilors.
“It’s not going to happen,” I said.
“I’m sorry,” Jan said. “I know how important this was to you. Do you want to hang in for a while longer?”
I gave it five more minutes, then turned the key.
On the way home, Jan’s headache didn’t get any better. She angled her seat back and slept most of the way. When we were almost to Promise Falls, she woke up long enough to say she didn’t feel well and asked if I could drop her at home before I went to get Ethan.
By the time I got back with our son, Jan was in bed, asleep. I tucked him in myself.
“Is Mommy sick?” he asked.
“She’s tired,” I said.
“Is she going to be okay for tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow?” I said.
“We’re going to the roller coasters,” he said. “Did you forget?”
“Yeah, I guess I did for a minute there,” I said, feeling pretty tired myself.
“Do I have to go on the big ones? They scare me.”
“No,” I said. “Just the fun rides, not the scary ones.” I put my lips to his forehead. “We want it to be a good day.”
I kissed him good night and went down the hall to our bedroom. I thought about asking Jan whether a trip to Five Mountains was really a good idea, but she was asleep. I undressed noiselessly, hit the light, and got under the covers.
I slid my hand down between the sheets until I found Jan’s. I linked my fingers into hers, and even in sleep, instinctively, she returned the grip.
I felt comforted by the warmth of it. I didn’t want to let go.
“I love you,” I whispered as I slept next to my wife for the last time.
“Where’s my son?” I asked.
I was sitting in the air-conditioned reception area of the Five Mountains offices. They were tucked away, camouflaged, behind the old Colonial street front just in from the main gates. There were a number of people there. The park manager, a thirtyish woman with short blonde hair named Gloria Fenwick, a man in his twenties who was identified as her assistant and whose name I had not caught, and a woman barely twenty who was the Five Mountains publicity director. They were all dressed smart casual, unlike the other park employees in attendance, who were dressed identically in light tan shirts and slacks with their names embroidered on their chests.
But I wasn’t asking any of them about Ethan. I was speaking to an overweight man named Barry Duckworth, a police detective with the Promise Falls department. His belly hung over his belt, and he was struggling to keep his sweat-stained white shirt tucked in.
“He’s with one of my officers,” Duckworth said. “Her name’s Didi. She’s very nice. She’s just down the hall with him, getting him an ice cream. I hope that’s okay?”
“Yeah, sure,” I said. “How is he?”
“He’s good,” Duckworth said. “He seems fine. But I thought it would be better if we had a chance to talk without your son here.”
I nodded. I was feeling numb, dazed. It had been a couple of hours since I’d seen Jan.
“Tell me again what happened after you went out to the car,” Duckworth said. Fenwick, her assistant, and the park publicist were hovering nearby. “I wonder if I might be able to speak to Mr. Harwood alone?” he asked them.
“Oh, sure, of course,” said Fenwick. “But if you need anything…”
“You already have people reviewing the closed-circuit TV?” he asked.
“Of course, although we don’t really know who or what we’re looking for,” she said. “If we had a picture of this woman, that would help a lot.”
“You’ve got a description,” he said. “Mid-thirties, five-eight, black hair, ponytail pulled through baseball cap with… Red Sox on the front?” He looked at me for confirmation and I nodded. “Red top, white shorts. Look for someone like that, anything that seems out of the ordinary.”
“Certainly, we’ll do that, but you also know that we don’t really have all the public areas equipped yet with closed-circuit. We have cameras set up on all the rides, so we can see any technical problems early.”
“I know,” Duckworth said. “You’ve explained that.” Now he looked at them and smiled, waiting for them to clear out. Once they had, he pulled out one of the reception chairs so he could sit looking straight at me.
“Okay,” he said. “You went out to the car. What kind of car is it?”
I swallowed. My mouth was very dry. “An Accord. Jan’s Jetta we left at home.”
“Okay, so tell me.”
“Ethan and I waited by the gate for about half an hour. I’d been trying to reach my wife on her cell, but she wasn’t answering. Finally, I wondered whether she might have gone back to the car. Maybe she was waiting for us there. So I took Ethan back through the gates and we went to the car, but she wasn’t there.”
“Was there any sign that she might have been there? That she’d dropped anything off there?”
I shook my head. “She had a backpack, with lunch things and probably a change of clothes for Ethan, with her, and I didn’t see it in the car.”
“Okay, then what did you do?”
“We came back to the park. I was thinking maybe she showed up when we went out to the parking lot. We showed our tickets again so we could get back in, then waited around just inside the gate, but she didn’t show up.”
“That was when you approached one of the park employees.”
“I’d talked to one earlier, who asked security if Jan had been in touch, and she hadn’t. But then, when we came back from the car, I found someone else, asked him if they had any reports of anything, like maybe Jan had collapsed, or fallen, you know? And he said he didn’t think so, and he got on his radio, and when he couldn’t turn up anything, I said we had to call the police.”
Barry Duckworth nodded, like that had been a good idea.
“I need a drink of water,” I said. “Are you sure Ethan’s okay?”
“He’s fine.” There was a water fountain in the reception area. The detective got up, filled a paper cone with water, and handed it to me before sitting back down.
“Thank you.” I drank the water in a single gulp. “Are you looking for that man?”
“What man is that?” he asked.
“The man I told you about.”
“The one you saw running away?”
“That’s right. I think he might have had a beard.”
“Anything else you can tell me about him?”
“It was just for a second. I really didn’t get a close look at him.”
“And you think this man was running away from your child’s stroller.”
“Did you see this man take the stroller?”
“You didn’t see him pushing it away?”
“How about when you found the stroller, was he holding on to it, standing by it, anything?”
“No, I told you, I just caught a glimpse of him running through the crowd when I found Ethan,” I said.
“So he could have just been a man running through the crowd,” the detective said.
I hesitated a moment, then nodded. “I just had a feeling.”
“Mr. Harwood,” Duckworth said, then stopped himself. “Your name. David Harwood. It seems familiar to me.”
“Maybe you’ve seen the byline. I’m a reporter for the Standard. But I don’t cover the police, so I don’t think we’ve met.”
“Yeah,” Duckworth said. “I knew I knew it from someplace. We get the Standard delivered.”
Suddenly something occurred to me. “Maybe she went home. Could she have gone home? Maybe she took a taxi or something?”
I expected Duckworth to leap up and have someone check, but he said, “We’ve already had someone go by your house, and it looks like no one’s home. We knocked on the door, phoned, looked in the windows. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary.”
I looked down at the floor, shook my head. Then, “Let me call my parents, see if she might have gone there.”
Duckworth waited for me to fish out my cell and place the call.
“Hello?” My mother.
“Mom, it’s me. Listen, is Jan there?”
“What? No. Why would she be here?”
“I’m just-we kind of lost contact with each other. If she shows up, would you call me right away?”
“Of course. But what do you mean, you lost-”
“I have to go, Mom. I’ll talk to you later.”
I flipped the phone shut and put it back into my pocket. Duckworth studied me with sad, knowing eyes.
“What about her own family?” he asked.
I shook my head. “There isn’t anyone. I mean, not anyone she’d go see. She’s an only child and she’s estranged from her family. Hasn’t seen them in years. For all I know, her parents are dead.”
Again, I shook my head. “Not really. No one she spends time with.”
“There’s one other woman in the office, Leanne Kowalski, at Bertram’s Heating and Cooling. But they aren’t close. Leanne and Jan don’t really connect.”
“Leanne’s a bit rough around the edges. I mean, they get along, but they don’t have girls’ nights out or anything.”
The detective wrote down Leanne’s name just the same.
“Now, some of these questions may seem insensitive,” Duckworth said, “but I need to ask them.”
“Has your wife ever had episodes where she wandered off, behaved strangely, anything like that?”
I took probably one second longer to answer than I should have. “No.”
Duckworth caught that. “You’re sure?”
“Yes,” I said.
“How about-and my apologies for asking this-an affair? Could she be seeing anyone else?”
I shook my head. “No.”
“Have the two of you had any arguments lately? Cross words between you?”
“No,” I said. “Look, we should be out looking for her, not sitting around here.”
“There are people looking, Mr. Harwood. You sure you don’t have a picture of her on you? A wallet shot? On your cell phone?”
I rarely used my phone for pictures. “I have some at home.”
“By the time you get home, maybe we’ll have found her,” he said reassuringly. “If not, you have some you could email me?”
“Okay, so, in the meantime, let’s put our heads together to see whether there’s a way to narrow down this search.”
Duckworth said, “Let’s go back to my earlier question. The one about whether your wife has had any episodes lately.”
“What weren’t you telling me there? I could see it in your eyes, you were holding something back.”
“Okay, I was telling you the truth, she’s never wandered off or done anything like that. But there is something… this is very hard for me to even think about, let alone talk about it.”
“Are there any bridges around here?” I asked.
“Not big ones, like on the interstate, but smaller ones, over creeks or anything?”
“I’m sure there are, Mr. Harwood. Why would you be asking that?”
“The last couple of weeks, my wife… she hasn’t totally been herself.”
“Okay,” he said patiently.
“She’s been feeling… depressed. She’s said some things…”
I felt myself starting to get overwhelmed.
“I just need… a second.” I held my hand tightly over my mouth. I had to hold it together. I took a moment to focus. “The last couple of weeks, she’s been having these thoughts.”
“About… harming herself. Suicidal thoughts. I mean, I don’t think she’s actually tried to do it. Well, she had this bandage on her wrist, but she swears that was just an accident when she was peeling vegetables, and she did go out to this bridge, but-”
“She tried to jump off a bridge?” Duckworth asked straightforwardly.
“She drove out to one, but she didn’t jump. A truck came along.” I felt I was rambling. “Jan’s been feeling like… like everything was too much. She told me the other night she thought Ethan and I would be better off without her.”
“Why do you think she would say something like that?”
“I don’t know. It’s like her brain just short-circuited these last few days. It was yesterday she told me about driving out to that bridge, standing on the railing until the truck showed up.”
“That must have been very hard to hear.”
I nodded. “It was.” I was holding back tears. “Very.”
“Did you suggest that she go talk to someone?”
“I already had. I’d been to see our doctor, Dr. Samuels.” Duckworth seemed to recognize the name and nodded. “I told him about the changes in Jan’s behavior, and he said she should see him. So I talked her into it, and she saw him the other day, but this was before the bridge incident. She says she did that after she went to see the doctor.”
“Was she on any kind of medication?”
“No. In fact, I asked her about that. I was hoping he might prescribe something for her, but she said she didn’t want drugs changing who she was. She said she could deal with this without taking anything.”
“Would you excuse me a moment?” Duckworth said, reaching into his jacket for his cell phone. He slipped outside the door before placing a call. I couldn’t hear everything he said, but I made out the words “creek” and “suicide.”
I just sat there, rubbing my hands together, wanting to get up and leave that room, do something besides wasting my time while-
Duckworth came back in, sat back down.
“Do you think it’s possible that’s what she did?” he asked. “That she may have taken her own life?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I hope to God not.”
“We’re doing an extensive search of the grounds, of the park itself,” he said. “As well, we’re searching beyond the park, looking at the other cars out there, talking to people.”
“Thank you,” I said. “But I’m confused about one thing.” I shook my head. “I’m confused about a lot of things.”
“What is it?”
“My son. Why did someone run off with my son?”
“I can’t say,” Duckworth said. “It’s a good thing he’s okay.”
I felt a minor wave of relief. It was true. At least Ethan was safe. There was no indication anyone had done anything to him.
“Isn’t it a hell of a coincidence that someone would take off with Ethan at the same time as my wife goes missing?” I asked.
The detective nodded thoughtfully. “Yes,” he said.
Fenwick, the park manager, had reappeared. “Detective?” she said.
“We have something you might want to see.”
“What?” I said. I was on my feet. “You’ve found her?” But she wouldn’t look at me, only Duckworth.
“What?” I asked again.
She led Duckworth, with me following, to a cubicle with fabric-covered partitions. The young publicist was sitting at a computer with some grainy black-and-white images on the screen.
She said, “Our people in security were reviewing some images from the gate around the time the Harwoods arrived.”
I looked at the screen. The camera must have been mounted just inside the park, looking at the gate. I recalled that there were half a dozen booths, lined up in a row, where guests bought tickets, or showed the ones they’d bought online. The image on the screen showed one booth, and there, in the crush of people arriving for a day of fun, were Ethan and I.
“It was actually not that tricky,” the young woman at the keyboard said. “They entered the name ‘Harwood’ into the system, which brought up the ticket info, and that showed the time of entry into Five Mountains.”
“Yeah, that’s us,” I said, pointing.
“Where’s your wife?” Duckworth asked me.
I started to point, then said, “She wasn’t with us then. Ethan and I entered the park on our own.”
Duckworth’s eyes seemed to narrow. “Why was that, Mr. Harwood?”
“She forgot the backpack. We were almost to the gate, and then she remembered, and she told us to go on ahead, we’d meet up later by the ice-cream place.”
“And that’s what you did? You and your son came in on your own?”
“But that’s not the last time you saw your wife.”
“No, she came in later and joined us.”
Duckworth nodded, then said to the publicist, “Can your people get some pics from the area of the ice-cream stand?”
She half-turned in her chair. “No,” she said. “We don’t have any cameras there at this point. Just on the gates and the rides. Our plan is to put in more cameras, in more locations, but we’re still relatively new, you understand, and we’ve been prioritizing where CCTV is concerned.”
Duckworth didn’t say anything. He studied me for a moment before saying he wanted to check in with his people. He was moving for the door.
“I want to get Ethan,” I said.
“Absolutely.” he said, nodding his head in agreement. Then he went into the hall and closed the door behind him.
Barry Duckworth walked down the hall and turned into a room gridded with cubicles. The Promise Falls police detective guessed that on a weekday, these desks would be filled with people conducting the business end of things for Five Mountains park, but unlike the workers who actually ran the rides and sold the tickets and emptied the trash, they got Saturday and Sunday off.
The park manager didn’t have to be called in. Five Mountains was still a new attraction in the upper New York State area, and Saturdays were always the busiest. Fenwick had called in her publicist the moment she suspected this could turn into a public relations nightmare for the park. If Jan Harwood had somehow wandered into the mechanism of a roller coaster, or drowned in one of the shallow waterways that ran through the grounds, or choked on a Five Mountains hot dog, they needed to be on top of that.
As if that weren’t enough, there was this business of a kid in a stroller being wheeled away from his parents. Once that news started getting out there, hold on to your hat, buster. Before you knew it, parents would be hearing that some tot had been carved up for body parts at the face-painting booth.
There were only two people in this other office. Didi Campion, a uniformed officer in her mid-thirties, and Ethan Harwood. They were sitting across from each other on office chairs, Campion leaning over, her arms on her knees, Ethan sitting on the edge of his chair, legs dangling.
“Hey,” Duckworth said.
All that remained of an ice-cream treat Ethan had been eating was an inch of cone. His tired eyes found Duckworth. The child looked bewildered and very small. He said nothing.
“Ethan and I were just talking about trains,” Didi Campion said.
“You like trains, Ethan?” Duckworth asked.
Ethan nodded. He drew his lips in, like he was doing everything he could not to say anything.
“We’re going to get you back with your dad in just a minute,” Duckworth said. “That okay with you?”
“Would you mind if I talked with Officer Campion over here for just a second? We’re not going anyplace.”
Ethan looked from Duckworth to Campion and his eyes flashed with worry. Duckworth could see that the boy had already formed an attachment to the policewoman.
“I’ll be right back,” Campion assured him and touched his knee.
She got out of the chair and joined Duckworth a few feet away.
“Well?” he asked her.
“He wants to see his parents. Both of them. He’s asking where they are.”
“What else did he tell you? What about the person who took him away in his stroller?”
“He doesn’t know anything about it. I think he slept through the whole thing. And he said he and his father were waiting and waiting for his mother to come but she didn’t.”
Duckworth leaned in. “Did he say when he last saw her?”
Campion sighed. “I don’t know if he quite got what I was trying to ask him. He just keeps saying he wants to go home, that he doesn’t want to go on any of the roller coasters, not even the small rides. And he wants his mom and dad.”
Duckworth nodded. “Okay, I’ll take the kid back to his father in just a second.” Campion took that as a sign that they were done, and she went back to sit with Ethan.
The door edged open. It was Fenwick. “Detective?”
“I know you have your own people out combing the grounds, but Five Mountains personnel have searched every square inch of the grounds and they’re reporting back that they haven’t found any sign of this woman. I mean, in any kind of distress. No woman passed out in any restrooms, not in any of the areas that are off-limits to guests, no indication that she fell or came to any kind of harm anywhere at all. I really think, at this point, it would be best if the police presence in the park were scaled back. It’s making people nervous.”
“Which people?” Duckworth asked.
“Our guests,” Fenwick said defensively. “They can’t help but think something’s wrong, with all these police around. They’ll start thinking terrorists have put bombs on the roller coasters or something like that.”
“How about the parking lot?” Duckworth asked.
“It’s been searched,” Fenwick said confidently.
Duckworth held up a finger and got out his cell, punched in a number. “Yeah, Smithy, how ya doin’. I want someone at the exit scoping out every car as it leaves. See if there’s anyone in any of them matches the description of this missing woman. You see someone like that, if she’s acting funny, you hang on to that car till I get there.”
Fenwick looked like she’d bitten into a lemon. “Tell me you’re not going to search every car that leaves here.”
“No,” he said, but he wished he could. He wished he had the authority to make everyone pop their trunk as they left for home. Duckworth had a feeling that anything he did about cars in the lot amounted to doing too little too late. If Jan Harwood had run into trouble, if someone had stuffed her into a trunk, they could have left the lot a couple of hours ago. But you did what you could.
“This is terrible, just terrible,” Fenwick said. “We don’t need this kind of publicity. If this woman wandered off because she has mental problems or something, that’s hardly our fault. Is that man planning to sue us? Is this some setup to get money out of us?”
“Would you like me to convey your concerns to Mr. Harwood?” Duckworth asked. “I’m sure, as a writer for the Standard, he’d love to do a piece on your outpouring of sympathy for his situation.”
She blanched. “He works for the paper?”
Fenwick moved around the detective and dropped to her knees in front of Ethan. “How are you doing there? I bet you’d love another ice cream cone.”
Duckworth’s cell, which was still in his hand, rang. He put it to his ear. “Yeah.”
“It’s Gunner here, Detective. I’m down in the security area. We patched that video of the guy and his kid going through the gates a few minutes ago up to the main office.”
“I just saw it.”
“They couldn’t pick out the wife in those, right?”
“That’s right. Mr. Harwood says his wife had gone back to the car to get something and told him to go on ahead.”
“Yeah, okay, so she would have come into the park a few minutes later then, right?”
“Yeah,” Duckworth said.
“So what we did before was, because the Harwoods ordered their tickets online, and printed them out, we were able to pinpoint at what time those tickets got scanned and processed at the gate.”
“I got that.”
“So then we thought, we’ll look for when the third ticket, the wife’s, got processed at the gate, and then when we had that we could find the closed-circuit image for that time.”
“What’s the problem?” Duckworth asked.
“Nothing’s coming up.”
“What do you mean? You saying she never came into the park?”
“I don’t know. Here’s the thing. I’ve got them checking their ticket sales records, all the stuff that gets bought in advance online, and they only show two tickets being purchased on the Harwoods’ Visa. One adult and one kid.”
The door opened and Ethan ran in. I scooped him up in my arms and held on to him tight, patted the back of his head.
“You okay?” I asked. He nodded. “They were nice to you?”
“I had an ice cream. A lady wanted to get me another but Mom would be mad if I had two.”
“We never really had any lunch,” I said.
“Where’s Mommy?” Ethan asked, but not with any sense of worry.
“We’re going home now,” I said.
“Is she home?”
I glanced at Duckworth, who had followed Ethan into the room. There was nothing in his expression.
“Let’s just go home,” I said. “And then maybe we’ll see Nana and Poppa.”
Still holding Ethan, I said to Duckworth, my voice low, “What do we do now?”
He breathed in and then exhaled, his belly going in and out. “You head home. First thing, you send me a picture. If you hear anything, you get in touch with me.” He had already given me his card. “And we’ll call if there are any developments.”
“Maybe start making up a list, anyone your wife might have called, anyone she might have gotten in touch with.”
“Of course,” I said.
“Tell me again how you bought your tickets for today?”
“I told you. From the website.”
“You ordered them?”
“Jan did,” I said.
“So it wasn’t actually you who sat down at the computer to do it, it was your wife.”
I didn’t understand the point of this. “That’s what I just said.”
Duckworth seemed to be mulling this over.
“Is there something wrong?” I asked.
“Only two tickets were bought online,” he said. “One adult ticket, one child.”
I blinked. “Well, that doesn’t make much sense. There must be some mistake. She was in the park. They wouldn’t have let her in the gate without a ticket. There’s been some kind of mix-up.”
“And I’m asking them to look into that. But if it turns out only one adult ticket was purchased, does that figure?”
It didn’t. But if that was what had happened, I could think of at least one possible explanation.
“Maybe Jan made a mistake,” I offered. “Sometimes, ordering online, it’s easy to do that. I was booking a hotel online once, and the website froze up for a second, and when I got the confirmation it said I’d booked two rooms when I only wanted one.”
Duckworth’s head went up and down slowly. “That’s a possibility.”
The only problem with my theory was that, on the way into Five Mountains, Jan had taken out of her purse all our tickets. She had handed me mine and one for Ethan, and made a point of keeping one for herself so she could get into the park after she went back to the car for her backpack.
She hadn’t mentioned any ticket problem when she’d found us inside the gate.
I was about to mention this to Duckworth, but stopped myself, because I suddenly had another theory that was too upsetting to discuss aloud, certainly not in front of Ethan, who had wrapped his arms around my neck.
Maybe Jan never bought a ticket because she was thinking she might not be around to use it. Maybe that piece of paper she was flashing wasn’t a ticket after all.
No point buying a ticket if you know you’re going to kill yourself.
But could Jan have seriously thought that if she killed herself, we’d head off to Five Mountains to celebrate?
“Something?” Duckworth said.
“No,” I said. “I just, I don’t know what to say. I really need to get Ethan home and get that picture to you.”
“Absolutely,” he said and moved aside to let me leave.
Leaving Five Mountains was a surreal experience.
Once I had Ethan in his stroller, we exited the offices and were back in the park, not far from the main gate. We were surrounded by the sounds of children and adults laughing. Balloons bobbed and, when the children holding them loosened their grips on the strings, soared skyward. Upbeat music blared from food stands and gift shops. Above us, roller-coaster passengers screamed with terrified delight.
Fun and pandemonium everywhere we looked.
I held on tight to the stroller handles and kept on pushing. We went past a couple of Promise Falls uniformed cops, but they were doing more ambling than searching. Perhaps there was no place else to look.
At least not here.
Ethan swung around and tried to eye me from his stroller seat. “Is Mommy home?” It had to be the fifth time he’d asked.
I didn’t answer. First of all, I didn’t have an answer to his question. And second, I did not have high hopes. I couldn’t shake the feeling that something very bad had happened to Jan. That Jan had done something very bad to herself.
Don’t let it be true.
Once we got to the car, I placed Ethan in his seat, buckled him in, dumped his toys within reach. “I’m hungry,” he said. “Can I have a sandwich?”
“Mom put sandwiches in her backpack.”
There was no backpack. Not now.
“We’ll get something to eat when we get home,” I said. “Just hang in there. It won’t take long.”
Ethan was sorting through his action figures. Spider-Man, Robin, Joker, Wolverine. A melding of the Marvel and DC universes. “Batman!”
“I’m sure he’s there,” I said.
I searched around his safety seat and down in the crevices of the car upholstery.
“Maybe it fell out,” Ethan said.
“Fell out where?” I asked.
He just looked at me, like I was supposed to know.
I searched under the front seats, thinking Batman could have fallen and gotten tucked under there.
Ethan was crying.
“Damn it, Ethan!” I shouted. “You think we don’t have enough to worry about right now?”
I reached my hand an inch farther and got hold of something. A tiny leg. I pulled out Batman and handed it to Ethan, who took the Caped Crusader happily into his hands, then tossed it onto the seat next to him to play with something else.
There was a huge traffic backup getting out of Five Mountains. Everyone was being stopped by the police on their way out, a cop peering inside, doing a walk-around like it was a border crossing. It took us twenty minutes to reach the exit, and I powered down my window when the cop leaned forward to talk to me.
“Excuse me, sir, we’re just doing a check of cars as they leave. Just take a moment.” No explanation offered.
“I’m the guy,” I said.
“My wife is the one you’re looking for. Jan Harwood. I have to get home so I can email a photo of her to Detective Duckworth.”
He nodded and waved us on.
From the back seat, Ethan said, “The police lady told me a joke.”
“She said you would like it because you’re a reporter.”
“Okay, what is it?”
“What’s black and white and red all over?”
“I give up,” I said.
“A newspaper,” Ethan said and cackled. He waited a beat, and said, “I don’t get it.” Another pause. “Is Mom making dinner?”
As we came in the door Ethan shouted, “Mom!”
I was about to join in and shout out Jan’s name, but I decided to wait and see whether Ethan got a reply.
“Mom?” he yelled a second time.
“I don’t think she’s home,” I said. “You go in and watch some TV and I’ll just make sure.”
He trundled off obediently to the family room while I did a quick search of the house. I ran up to our bedroom, checked the bathroom, Ethan’s bedroom. Then I was back to the main floor and down the steps into our unfinished basement. It didn’t take more than a second to realize she wasn’t there. The only place left to check was the garage.
There was a connecting door between the kitchen and the garage, and as I put my hand on it I hesitated.
Jan’s Jetta had been in the driveway when we’d pulled in. So her car was not in the garage.
So at least she couldn’t have-
Open the damn door, I told myself. I turned the knob and stepped into the one-car garage. It was as messy and disorganized as always.
And there was no one in it.
There were two large plastic Rubbermaid garbage containers in the corner. It had never occurred to me before that they were each large enough to hold a person, but my mind was going places it had never gone before. I approached the cans, put my hand on the lid of the first one, held it there a moment, and then lifted it off.
Inside was a bag of garbage.
The second can was empty.
Back in the kitchen, I found our laptop, folded shut, beside the phone, half buried in mail from the last couple of days and a handful of flyers.
I took it over to the kitchen table, hit the on button, and drummed my fingers waiting for it to do its thing. Once it was up and running, I opened the photo program. We had gone to Chicago last fall, and it was the last time I’d moved pictures from the digital camera into the computer.
I looked through the photos. Jan and Ethan standing under the passenger jet at the Museum of Science and Industry. Another one of them in front of the Burlington Zephyr streamlined passenger train. The two of them wandering through Millennium Park, eating cheese corn from Garrett’s, their fingers and mouths orange with cheese powder.
Most of the pictures were of Jan and Ethan, since I was the one who usually took the pictures. But there was one shot of Ethan and me together, down by the water, sailboats in the background, him sitting on my lap.
I zeroed in on two shots that were particularly good of Jan. Her black hair, longer last fall than now, partly covered the left side of her face, but not enough to obscure her features. Her brown eyes, soft cheekbones, small nose, the almost imperceptible L-shaped scar on the left side of her chin, the one she got falling off a bike when she was in her teens. At her throat, a slender necklace with a small pendant designed to look like a cupcake, with diamondlike frosting and cake of gold, something Jan had had since she was a child.
I dug Detective Duckworth’s card from my pocket and sent the picture to the email address that was embossed on it. I added two more pictures-not quite as good, but from different angles-to the email, just to be sure he had enough.
I added a note to the last one. “I think the first shot shows her best, but I added a couple more. I’m going to look for more and will send them to you. Please call if you hear anything.” I also printed out a couple dozen copies of that first shot.
I reached over for the phone and set it on the kitchen table. I didn’t want to wait for Duckworth to check his emails. I wanted him to know he had the photos now, so I dialed his cell.
“Duckworth,” he said.
“It’s David Harwood,” I said. “I just sent you the pictures.”
“Any sign of her? Phone message, anything?”
There’d been no flashing light, and there were no new email messages. “Nothing,” I said.
“Okay, well, we’ll get those pictures of your wife out right away.”
“I’ll talk to the Standard,” I said, thinking that my next call would be to the city desk. There was still time to get Jan’s picture in the Sunday edition.
“Why don’t you let us handle that,” Duckworth said. “I think it might be better if any releases about this are funneled through a single source, you know?”
“Mr. Harwood, it’s only been a few hours. In a lot of cases we don’t even move on a missing-persons case this quickly, but given some of the circumstances, the fact that it happened at Five Mountains, well, that kind of raised the priority level, if you get what I’m saying.”
“The fact is, your wife might just walk in the door tonight and this will all be over. That happens, you know.”
“You think that’s what’s going to happen this time?”
“Mr. Harwood, we don’t know. I’m just saying we might want to give this a few more hours before we issue a release. I’m not saying we won’t, I’m just saying we’ll revisit this in another hour or so.”
“In an hour or so,” I said.
“I’ll be in touch,” he said. “And thank you for these pictures. This is a real help. Absolutely.”
I found Ethan on the floor, sitting on his haunches, watching Family Guy.
“Ethan, you’re not watching that.” I picked up the remote and killed the TV. “I’ve told you not to watch that!”
He whispered, “I’m sorry.” His lower lip protruded.
It was the second time I’d screamed at him since all of this had started. I took him into my arms, pulled him in close to me. “I didn’t mean to yell at you. I’m sorry.”
I looked into his face and tried to smile. “You okay?”
He nodded, sniffed. “When’s Mommy coming home?” he asked, probably thinking she wouldn’t be so mean to him.
“I just sent some pictures of Mommy to the police so if they see her they can tell her we’re here waiting for her.”
“Why are the police looking for her? Did she rob something?” Worry washed over his face.
“No, she didn’t do anything like that. The police aren’t looking for her because she did a bad thing. They’re looking for her to help her.”
“Help her what?”
“Help her find her way home,” I said.
“She should have taken her car,” Ethan said.
“She has the TV map in it.”
The navigation screen.
“I don’t know if it’s that kind of lost,” I said. “You know what I think we should do? I think we should head over to see Nana and Poppa, see what they’re up to.”
“I just want to stay here in case Mom comes home.”
“I’ll tell you what,” I said. “We’ll write her a note so she knows where we are. Would you help me with that?”
Ethan ran up to his room and returned with some blank paper and his box of crayons.
“Can I write it?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said.
I set him up at the kitchen table. He got his face right down to the paper, watching the path of his crayon. He’d been working on his letters, even though he wasn’t yet in school.
He randomly printed several capital letters, some of them backward.
“Great,” I said. “Now let’s go.” When he wasn’t looking, I wrote at the bottom of the page: Jan. Gone to my parents with Ethan. PLEASE call.
I had to wait while he ran around gathering a different collection of figures and cars. I wanted to get moving, but didn’t have it in me to speak harshly to him again.
I got him belted in once again and we drove across town to my parents’ house. I didn’t often arrive unannounced. I usually gave them some sort of courtesy call. But I knew I couldn’t talk to them on the phone about this.
“When we get there, you go on in and watch TV. I need to talk to Nana and Poppa for a while.”
“But not Family Guy,” Ethan said.
“That’s right,” I said.
My mother happened to be looking out the front window when we pulled into the driveway. Dad was holding the door open by the time Ethan was bounding up the stairs to the porch. He slipped past my father and ran into the house.
Dad stepped out, Mom right behind him. Dad was looking at the car.
“Where’s Jan?” he asked.
I collapsed into my father’s arms and began to weep.
Dr. Andrew Samuels hated to think of himself as a cliché, but couldn’t shake the feeling that that’s exactly what he was.
He was a doctor, and he was golfing. Cops ate donuts, postal workers shot each other, and doctors played golf.
He hated golf.
He hated everything about it. He hated the walking, he hated having to put on sunscreen when it was a blistering hot day. He hated waiting for the dumb bastards on the next green dicking around, taking their time when he was ready to shoot. He hated the tacky clothes you were expected to wear. But more than anything else, he hated the whole idea of it, using up thousands upon thousands of acres of land so men and women could chase around little balls and drop them into tiny holes in the ground. What a fucking ridiculous idea.
But despite his feelings about the game, Samuels had an expensive set of clubs and the spiked shoes and he even maintained a membership at the Promise Falls Golf and Country Club because it was more or less expected in this town that if you were the mayor or a doctor or a lawyer or a prominent businessman, you were a member. If you weren’t, all anyone could assume was that you were sliding inexorably to the bottom of the Promise Falls food chain.
So here he was, on a glorious Saturday afternoon, on the fifteenth hole with his wife’s brother, Stan Reeves, a Promise Falls councilman, first-class gasbag, and all-around asshole. Reeves had been suggesting for months that they get out and play eighteen holes, and Samuels had been able to hold him off up to now, but had finally run out of excuses. No more out-of-town trips, no weddings, and, sadly, no weekend funerals to attend.
“You’re slicing a bit to the right, there,” Reeves said after Samuels took his tee shot. “Watch me.”
Samuels put his driver back into his bag and pretended to watch his brother-in-law.
“You see how the center of my body never moves when I’m swinging? Let me just do it for you in slow motion here.”
Only three holes left after this one, Samuels thought. You could see the clubhouse from here. He could get in his cart, cut across the seventeenth and eighteenth fairways, and be back in the air-conditioned restaurant in four minutes, an ice-cold Sam Adams in front of him. It was, he admitted, the one thing he liked about the game.
“Did you see that?” Reeves said. “Perfect drive. I don’t even know where yours ended up.”
“Somewhere,” Samuels said.
“This is good, huh?” Reeves said. “We don’t do this enough.”
“It’s been a while,” Samuels said.
“Takes your mind off things. I’m sure you’ve got your share of stress being a doctor, but let me tell you, running a city, that’s a twenty-four/seven kind of thing, you know?”
Reeves was such a jerk, it made Samuels wonder whatever happened to the former mayor, Randall Finley.
“I don’t know how you do it,” Samuels said.
And then his cell rang.
“Aw, come on, you didn’t leave that on, did you?” Reeves whined.
“Hang on,” Samuels said, reaching eagerly into his pocket for his phone. Let it be an emergency, he thought. He could be at the hospital in fifteen minutes.
“Hello?” he said.
“My name’s Barry Duckworth, a detective with the Promise Falls police.”
“Detective, how are you today?”
Reeves perked up at the mention of the word.
“Not too bad. I gather you’re out on the course someplace. I called your service and they told me and gave me your number when I leaned on them.”
“No problem. What’s up?”
“I’d like to talk to you in person. Now.”
“I’m at the Promise Falls Golf and Country Club, fifteenth hole.”
“I’m already at the clubhouse.”
“I’ll be right there.” He put the phone back into his pocket. “You’ll have to finish without me, Stan.”
“What’s going on?”
Samuels put up his hands in mock bafflement. “I guess I’m going to get a taste of what it’s like for you, this being on call at all hours.”
“Hey, if you take the cart, I’m going to have to-”
But Samuels was already driving away.
Barry Duckworth was outside waiting by the pro shop, where golfers dropped off their carts. He shook hands with Dr. Samuels, who said, “Can I buy you a drink?”
“Don’t have time,” Duckworth said. “I need to ask you about one of your patients.”
Samuels’s bushy gray eyebrows shot up momentarily. “Who?”
“She’s disappeared. She and her husband, David Harwood, and their son went to spend the day at Five Mountains, and she went missing.”
“Dear God,” said Samuels.
“A thorough search has been done of the park, although I’d still like to take another run at it.” Duckworth led Samuels into the building’s shade, not just to get out of the heat, but to distance themselves from other golfers who might be listening.
“Mr. Harwood thinks it’s possible his wife may have killed herself.”
Samuels nodded, then shook his head. “Oh, this is just terrible. She’s a very nice woman, you know.”
“I’m sure she is,” Duckworth said. “Mr. Harwood said she’s been depressed the last couple of weeks. Mood swings, talking about how the rest of her family would be better off without her.”
“When was this?” Samuels asked.
“A day or two ago, if my understanding of what Mr. Harwood said is correct.”
“But it’s still possible that she’s just missing, that she hasn’t killed herself or anything,” the doctor said. “You haven’t found her.”
“That’s right. That’s why there’s a sense of urgency about this.”
“What is it I can do for you, Detective?”
“I don’t want to violate patient-doctor confidentiality here, but if you have any idea where she might go, what she might do, just how serious the threat is that she might kill herself, I’d really appreciate it.”
“I don’t think I can be much help here.”
“Please, Dr. Samuels. I’m not asking you for personal details, just something that might help us find this woman before she does any harm to herself.”
“Detective, if I knew anything, I’d tell you, I really would. I wouldn’t stand behind some privacy shield. I want you to find her, alive and well, as much as anyone.”
“Did she tell you anything, anything at all, that would indicate to you whether she might take her own life, or whether she was just, I don’t know, trying to get attention?”
“She didn’t tell me anything, Detective.”
“Nothing? A place she might go to think things over?”
“She didn’t tell me anything because she hasn’t been to see me.”
The detective blinked. “Say again?”
“I saw her… maybe eight months ago? Just routine. But she didn’t come see me about being depressed or suicidal. I wish she had.”
“But Mr. Harwood says he went to see you about her. That you told him to convince his wife that she should make an appointment with you.”
“That’s all true. David came in last week, very concerned. And I told him I needed to talk to her myself to make an assessment, and possibly refer her to someone else for counseling.”
“And she never came in?”
The doctor shook his head.
“Because Mr. Harwood,” Duckworth said, “told me she saw you.”
Samuels shook his head. “I kept waiting for her to make an appointment, but she never did. This is just terrible. I should have called her myself, but then she would have known her husband had been to see me. Oh shit. If I’d called her, maybe we wouldn’t be having this conversation now.”
Once I’d pulled myself together, Mom and Dad and I sat down at the kitchen table to talk things out. Ethan was in the living room, having a heated discussion with the various vehicles he owned from the Cars cartoon movie.
“Maybe she’s just gone to think things over,” Dad said. “You know how women can be sometimes. They get a bee in their bonnet and have to go sort things out for a while. I’m sure she’ll be getting in touch any minute now.”
Mom reached out a hand and placed it over mine. “Maybe if we put our heads together, we can think about where she might have gone.”
“I’ve been doing that,” I said. “She wasn’t home, she didn’t come here. I don’t know where to begin.”
“What about her friends?” Mom asked, but even as she asked it she must have known what my answer would be.
“She doesn’t really have any close ones,” I said. “She’s never been a joiner. She probably talks more to Leanne at the office than anyone else, and she doesn’t even like her.”
Ethan walked in, ran a toy car across the table, going “Vroom!”
“Ethan,” I said, “scoot.” He did two laps of the kitchen, “vrooming” the whole time, then returned to the living room.
“We should call her anyway,” Mom said, and I agreed that was a good idea. I didn’t know her number, so Mom grabbed the book and opened it to the K’s.
She found a listing for an L. Kowalski and I dialed as she called out the number to me.
Two rings and then, “Yep?”
“Dave Harwood here. Jan’s husband.”
“Yeah, sure, Dave. How’s it going?”
I dodged the question. “Is Leanne there?”
“She must be out shopping,” he said. He sounded hungover. “And taking her time getting back. Anything I can help you with?”
Did I want to get into it with him, about Jan’s disappearance? There was nothing in Lyall’s voice to suggest he had even an inkling anything was wrong, but he must have found it odd that I’d be calling for his wife.
“That’s okay,” I said. “I’ll try her later.”
“What’s this about?”
“I wanted to bounce a gift idea off her, something for Jan.”
“Okay,” he said, satisfied. “I’ll tell her you called.”
Everyone was quiet for a moment after I hung up the phone. Then Dad said, very matter-of-factly and just a little too loud, “I just can’t believe she’d kill herself.”
“For God’s sake, Don, keep your voice down,” Mom hissed at him. “Ethan’s just in the other room.”
It wasn’t likely Ethan would have heard over all the car noises he was making.
“Sorry,” Dad said anyway. He had a habit of talking louder than he had to, and it had nothing to do with hearing loss. He heard everything fine, but always assumed no one else was ever really listening. With Mom, it was often the case. “But still, she doesn’t seem the type to have done it.”
“The last couple of weeks, though,” I said, “this change came over her.”
Mom used her hand to wipe away a tear running down her cheek. “I know what your father is saying, though. I just didn’t see any signs.”
“Before a couple of weeks ago, I hadn’t either,” I said. “But I’m guessing they must have been there and I wasn’t paying attention.”
“Tell me again what she said to you at the restaurant,” Mom said.
I took a moment. It was hard to say these things out loud without getting choked up. “She said something along the lines of I’d be happy if she was gone. That Ethan and I would be better off. Why would she say something like that?”
“She wasn’t in her right mind,” Dad said. “Any fool can tell that. For the life of me, I can’t figure what she’d be unhappy about. She’s got a good husband, a wonderful boy, you’ve got a nice house, you both got good jobs. What’s the problem? I’m telling you, I just don’t get it.”
Mom sighed, looked at me. Her face said, Pay no attention to him. She turned to Dad and said, “Just because you’ve got a man and a roof over your head doesn’t mean your life is perfect.”
He made a face. “What are you getting at?”
Mom shook her head and looked at me. “I didn’t think he’d get that one.” It was her attempt to lighten the mood.
“I was only making a point,” Dad said. He frowned, stared down at the table. It was then that I noticed his eyes were welling up with tears.
“Dad,” I said, clutching his hand.
He pulled it away, got up from the table, and walked out of the kitchen.
“He doesn’t want to show how upset he is,” Mom said. “Any time you have problems, it tears him apart.”
I wanted to get up and go after him, but Mom held on to my hand. “He’ll be back in a minute. Give him a second to pull himself together.”
In the other room, I heard him say to Ethan, “Hey, kiddo. Did I show you the train catalogues I picked up?”
Ethan said, “I’m watching TV.”
“How much does Ethan know?” Mom asked me.
“Not much. He knows his mother hasn’t come home, and he knows the police are looking for her. He thought that meant she’d robbed a bank or something, but I told him she hadn’t done anything like that.”
Mom smiled in spite of everything, but only for a moment.
Something had been niggling at me. “There’s somewhere I have to go,” I said.
“The one Jan talked about jumping from. I mentioned to the police that they should check bridges near the park, and I think they did, but the one she told me about, it’s up that road that goes to Miller’s Garden Center, west of town.”
“I know the one.”
“The police won’t have checked it. I never mentioned it specifically.”
“David,” Mom said, “call the police and let them check.”
“I don’t know how soon they’ll get to it. I have to do something now. You’ll watch Ethan?”
“Of course. Take your father.”
“No, that’s okay.”
“Take him,” she said. “It will make him feel like he’s doing something, too.”
I nodded. “Hey, Dad,” I called into the living room. He came back, composed. “Take a ride with me.”
“Where we goin’?”
“I’ll explain on the way.”
We took my car, which made Dad fidgety. He’d never been a good passenger. If he wasn’t behind the wheel, he figured there was a pretty good chance we were going to die.
“You got a red up there,” he said.
“I see it, Dad,” I said, taking my foot off the gas as we approached the light. It turned green before we got there, and I tromped on it.
“You get bad mileage that way,” Dad said. “Hitting the accelerator hard, then hitting the brake instead of slowing down gradual. That’s what sucks up the gas.”
He glanced over at me. “Sorry.”
I gave him a smile. “It’s okay.”
“How you holding up?”
“Not so good,” I said.
“You can’t give up hope,” he said. “It’s way too early for that.”
“I know,” I said.
“So you know just where this bridge is?”
“Pretty sure,” I said. We were out of Promise Falls now, heading west. Only a couple of miles out I found the county road I was looking for. Two-lane, paved. The road went through a variety of topography. There was wide-open farmland, then dense woods, followed by more farmland. The bridge spanned a creek that flowed through a heavily treed area.
“Up ahead,” I said.
It wasn’t much of a bridge. Maybe fifty or sixty feet across, asphalt over cement, with three-foot-high concrete railings along the sides. I pulled the car as far onto the shoulder as I could this side of the bridge and killed the ignition.
It was quiet out there except for the sound of the water running under the bridge. We got out of the car and walked to the center of it, Dad staying close to me.
I went to the west side first and looked down. It wasn’t more than twenty feet down, not much of a drop, really. The creek was shallow here, rocks cropping up above the surface. It probably wasn’t much more than a foot deep any place under the bridge. A summer or two back, when we hadn’t had any rain for weeks, this creek bed was dry for a spell.
I looked at the water, hypnotized almost as it coursed around the rocks. Everything was serene.
“Best check out the other side, huh?” Dad said, touching my arm. We crossed the road and leaned up against the opposite railing.
There wasn’t a body in the creek. And if someone did jump off this bridge, there wasn’t enough depth, or force, to move one farther downstream. If someone took his life jumping off this bridge, he’d be found.
“I just want to get a good look underneath,” I said. It wasn’t possible to see everything that was under the bridge while standing on it.
“You want me to come?” Dad asked.
“Just stay here.”
I ran to the end, then cut around and worked my way down the embankment. It didn’t take more than a moment, and once there all I found were a few empty beer cans and some McDonald’s wrappers.
Anything?” Dad shouted.
“No,” I said, and climbed back up to the road.
The thing was, a person would probably survive a jump off this bridge, unless they plunged headfirst.
“This is a good thing, right?” said Dad. “Isn’t it?”
I said nothing.
“You know what else I was thinking?” Dad said. “She didn’t leave any note. If she was going to do something to herself, she’d have left a note, don’t you think?”
I didn’t know what to think.
“If I was gonna kill myself, I’d leave a note,” he said. “That’s what people do. They want to say goodbye somehow.”
“I don’t think people always do that,” I said. “Only in the movies.”
Dad shrugged. “Maybe there were some other people she wanted to see before she did anything too rash.”
“Like who?” I asked.
“I don’t know. Like, maybe her own family.”
“She doesn’t have any family. At least not any that she talks to anymore.”
Dad knew Jan was estranged from her parents, but it must have slipped his mind. If he’d thought about it a moment, he would’ve recalled that it was never an issue whose folks we spent every Christmas with.
“Maybe that’s where she went,” Dad said. “Could be she felt she needed to look them up after all these years and make some sort of peace with them. Tell them what she thinks of them, something like that.”
I stood on the bridge, looking off into the woods.
“Say that again?” I said.
“She could be trying to find her family. You know, after all these years, she wants to clear the air or something. Give them a piece of her mind.”
I walked over and surprised him with a pat on the shoulder. “That’s not a bad idea,” I said.
“I’m not just good-looking,” Dad said.
Ernie Bertram was sitting on the front porch of his Stonywood Drive home, nursing a long-necked bottle of beer, when the black car pulled up at the curb. The owner of Bertram’s Heating and Cooling knew an unmarked police cruiser when he saw one. The tiny hubcaps, the absence of chrome. An overweight man in a white business shirt with tie askew got out of the cruiser. He stood, then reached back into the car for his jacket, which he pulled on as he walked up the driveway. The man glanced at Bertram’s van, then looked up to the porch.
“Mr. Bertram?” he said.
Bertram stood up and set his beer on the wide railing. “What can I do for you?” He was about to add “Officer,” but considering that this man wasn’t wearing a uniform, he wasn’t sure that was appropriate.
“Detective Duckworth, Promise Falls police,” he said, mounting the steps. “Hope I’m not disturbing you.”
Bertram pointed to a wicker chair. “Just finished dinner. Have a seat.”
Duckworth did. “Get ya a beer?” Bertram asked, grabbing his own from the railing and sitting back down. Duckworth noticed that the man had unbuttoned the top of his pants and let his zipper down an inch. A little post-dinner pressure release.
“Thanks, but no,” he said. “I need to ask you a couple of questions.”
Bertram’s eyebrows went up. “Sure.”
“Jan Harwood works for you, isn’t that right?”
“That’s right,” he said.
“I don’t suppose you’ve heard from her today?”
“Nope. It’s Saturday. Won’t be talking to her till Monday morning.”
The front door eased open. A short, wide woman in blue stretch pants said, “You got company, Ern?”
“This is Detective…”
“Duckworth,” he said.
“Detective Duckworth is with the police, Irene. He can’t have beer but maybe you could have a lemonade or something?”
“I’ve got some apple pie left over,” Irene Bertram said.
Detective Duckworth considered. “I probably could be persuaded to have a slice,” he said.
“With ice cream? It’s just vanilla,” she said.
“Sure,” he said. “I wouldn’t mind that at all.”
Irene retreated and the door closed. Ernie Bertram said, “It’s just a frozen one you heat up in the oven, but it tastes like it was homemade.”
“Sounds good to me,” Duckworth said.
“So what’s this about Jan?”
“She’s missing,” the detective said.
“Missing? Whaddya mean by missing?”
“She hasn’t been seen since about midday, when she was with her husband and son at Five Mountains.”
“Son of a bitch,” Ernie said. “What’s happened to her?”
“Well,” said Duckworth, “if we knew that, we’d probably have a better chance of finding her.”
“Missing,” he said, more to himself than to Duckworth. “That’s a hell of a thing.”
“When’s the last time you talked to her?” Duckworth asked.
“That’d be Thursday,” he said.
“No, she took Friday off. She’s been taking a few days off here and there the last couple of weeks.”
Ernie Bertram shrugged. “Because she could. She had some time built up, so she asked if she could take an occasional day, instead of everything all at once.”
“So they weren’t sick days,” Duckworth said.
“No. And it was okay with me because it’s been a fairly quiet summer. Which is actually not that okay. Haven’t sold an air conditioner in two weeks, although it is getting late in the season. You sell them mostly in the spring or early summer, when it starts getting hot. But with this recession, homeowners aren’t willing to put down a couple thousand or whatever for a new unit. Paying the mortgage is hard enough, so they’re getting as much out of their old ones as they can. And the last few days haven’t been that scorching, so there hasn’t been that much to do repair-wise.”
“Uh-huh,” said Duckworth.
The door opened. Irene Bertram presented Barry Duckworth with a slab of pie that had a scoop of ice cream next to it the size of a softball.
“Oh my,” he said.
“Jan’s missing,” Ernie said to his wife.
“Missing?” she said, plunking herself down in a third chair.
“Yup,” Ernie said. “Gone.”
“She was up at that new roller-coaster park and disappeared.” He zeroed in on Duckworth. “She get thrown off one of the coasters?”
“No, nothing like that,” he said.
“Because those things, they’re not safe,” Bertram said.
Duckworth put a forkful of apple pie into his mouth, then quickly followed it with some ice cream so he could let the flavors mingle. “This is amazing,” he said.
“I made it myself,” Irene said.
“I already told him,” Ernie said.
“You bastard,” she said.
“How would you describe Ms. Harwood’s mood the last few weeks?” the detective asked Ernie Bertram.
Duckworth, his mouth full of a second bite of pie, nodded.
“Fine, I guess. What do you mean, her mood?”
“Did she seem different? Maybe a bit down, troubled?”
Bertram took another drag on his beer. “I don’t think so. Although I’m on the road a lot. I’m not in the office much. The girls could be turning tricks out of there and I wouldn’t know it.”
“Ernie!” said Irene, punching him in the shoulder.
“That was just a joke,” he said to Duckworth. “They’re fine women who work for me.”
“You shouldn’t make jokes like that,” Irene said.
“So if, say, Jan Harwood had been depressed of late, you might not have noticed,” Duckworth said between forkfuls.
“Only one depressed in that office is Leanne,” he said. “Has been ever since she showed up five years ago.”
“But not Ms. Harwood?”
“If anything,” Bertram said, suddenly very thoughtful, “I’d say she was more excited.”
“Well, maybe that’s the wrong word. Agitated? That’s not right, either. But acting like something was just around the corner.”
Duckworth set down his fork and rested the plate on the broad arm of the wicker chair. He noticed that the ice cream was melting, and if he didn’t deal with it soon, it would start dribbling over the edge of the plate.
“What was just around the corner?”
“Beats me. But when she came to me, asking about taking a day off here and there, or maybe just half a day, there was something-I don’t know how to describe it-like she was looking forward to something, expecting something.”
Irene said, “Ernie is very good at reading people. You go into people’s homes, fixing their furnaces and air conditioners, you get to know what people are really like.”
Duckworth smiled at her, as though he actually appreciated the contribution.
“How much time had she taken off lately?” Duckworth asked.
“Let me think… Leanne-the other girl at the-”
“They don’t call them girls anymore, Ernie,” Irene said. “They’re women. And you got some ice cream about to make a break for it there.”
Duckworth used his fork to move the melting ice cream away from the edge, then mashed another forkful of pie into it and popped it into his mouth.
Anyway,” Ernie said, “Leanne might have an idea how many days. There was yesterday, and another day earlier in the week, and a couple the week before.”
Duckworth had taken out his notepad and was writing things down. When he was done, he looked up and said, “I want to go back to something you said a moment ago.”
“About Jan being excited. Tell me more about that.”
Ernie thought. “Maybe it was a bit like when women are getting ready for something. Like a trip, or having relatives in to visit.”
“But you wouldn’t have characterized her as suicidal at all?”
Irene put a hand to her breast. “Oh my. Is that what you think happened?”
“I’m just asking,” Duckworth said.
Ernie said, “I don’t think so. But who knows how people think, what they keep bottled up inside.”
Duckworth nodded. He finished off the last of the pie and ice cream in three more bites.
“Where did they go yesterday?” Ernie asked.
“Where did who go yesterday?” Duckworth asked.
“Jan and David. They went on some outing yesterday. Jan mentioned it before she left work on Thursday.”
“You sure you don’t mean their trip to Five Mountains today?”
He shook his head. “She said David was taking her somewhere Friday. It was all really mysterious, she said she couldn’t talk about it. I got the idea that maybe it was a surprise or something.”
Duckworth made another scribble on his pad, then put it into his jacket. He was about to thank Ernie for his time and Irene for the pie when a phone rang inside the house.
Irene jumped up and went inside.
When Duckworth rose out of his chair, Ernie did the same. “David must be beside himself,” Ernie said. “Wondering what’s happened to his wife.”
Duckworth nodded. “Of course.”
“I sure hope you find her soon,” he said.
Irene was at the door. “It’s Lyall,” she said.
Ernie shook his head. “What’s he want?”
“He hasn’t seen Leanne all day. Actually, not since yesterday.”
Duckworth felt a jolt. “Leanne Kowalski?”
Ernie went into the house and picked up the receiver sitting by the phone on the front hall table. Duckworth followed him in.
“Lyall?” Ernie listened a moment, then said, “Nope, I didn’t… Since when?… That’s a long time to be shopping, even for a woman. Did you hear about Jan? Police are here-”
“May I take that?” Duckworth said and took the phone away from Ernie. “Mr. Kowalski, this is Detective Barry Duckworth with the Promise Falls Police Department.”
“What’s this about your wife?”
“She’s not home.”
“When were you expecting her?”
“Hours ago. She went out to do some shopping. At least that’s what I think. That’s what she usually does on a Saturday. She was going to the mall and then she was going to do the groceries.”
“Your wife and Jan Harwood work together?”
“Yeah, at Ernie’s. Can you put him back on? I want to ask whether he called her in on an emergency or something.”
“He didn’t,” Duckworth said.
“What’s this about Jan? Her husband called here a while ago looking for her. What are you doing at Ernie’s place? Everything okay there?”
Duckworth had his notepad out again. “Mr. Kowalski, what’s your address?”
There was something I’d never been totally honest about with Jan.
It wasn’t that I lied to her. But there was something I’d done I’d never told her about. If she’d ever flat out asked about it, maybe then I would have lied. I think I might have had to. She’d have been too furious with me.
It wasn’t that I cheated on her. I’d never done anything like that, not even close. This had nothing to do with another woman.
One time, about a year ago, I drove by her house.
This would be the house she grew up in, her parents’ place, a nearly three-hour drive from Promise Falls. It was in the Pittsford neighborhood of southeast Rochester, on Lincoln Avenue. A long, narrow two-story. The white paint was peeling from the walls, and a couple of the black shutters-one on the first floor and one on the second-hung crookedly. The screening in the metal storm door was frayed, and there were chunks of brick missing from the chimney. But while the house needed some attention, it was far from derelict.
I had been driving back from Buffalo, where I’d gone to interview a city planner who felt that conventional ideas to slow residential traffic-speed bumps, four-way stops-didn’t do anything but anger drivers to the point of road rage, and thought roundabouts, traffic circles, and landscaped medians were a better way to go. It was on the way back that I decided to take 490 north off 90 and head into the Rochester neighborhood I knew to be the one where Jan grew up.
I think I knew, even before leaving for Buffalo, I was going to take this side trip.
It never would have been possible if we hadn’t had the leak behind the bathroom sink several days earlier.
Jan was at work and I had taken the day off as payback for several late-night city council meetings I’d recently covered-this was before we’d turned that beat over to Rajiv or Amal or whoever in Mumbai. I’d gone down to the unfinished side of our basement, where the furnace and hot water tank are, and noticed a steady drip of water coming down from between the studs. That was where the copper pipes turned north to feed the upstairs bathroom.
I did what I always did when I had a household emergency. I called Dad.
“Sounds like maybe you’ve got a pinhole leak in one of your pipes,” he said. “I’ll be right over.” He couldn’t disguise the joy and excitement in his voice.
He showed up half an hour later with his tools, including a small propane torch for welding.
“It’s going to be in the wall somewhere,” he said. “The trick is finding it.”
We thought we could hear a hissing sound behind the bathroom sink, about a foot up from the floor. It was a pedestal sink, so it was easy to get up close to the wall for a listen.
Dad pulled out a saw with a pointed end on the blade that would allow him to stab right into the drywall and start cutting.
“Dad,” I said, looking at the floral wallpaper and not looking forward to tearing it all up, “would it be worth going in from the other side?”
“What’s over there?” he asked.
“Hang on,” I said. As it turned out, the linen closet was on the opposite side of the wall from the bathroom sink. I opened it and started clearing out everything on the floor below the first shelf-a basket for dirty laundry, a stockpile of toilet paper and tissue boxes-until the wall was clear. I thought, if the pipe could be reached from here, it made more sense to hack through in a place where it wouldn’t be noticed.
Once I had everything out, I got down on my hands and knees and crawled into the closet and listened for the leak.
The baseboard that ran along the inside of the closet looked loose along the back. I touched it, and noticed that it seemed to be fitted into place and not nailed. I got my fingers in behind it, and felt something.
It was the top edge of a letter-sized envelope, which was perfectly shaped to hide behind baseboarding. I worked the envelope out. There was nothing written on it, nor was it sealed, but the flap was tucked in. I opened it, and inside I found a single piece of paper and a key.
I left the key inside and removed the paper, which was folded once, and was an official document of some kind.
It was a “Certificate of Live Birth.”
Jan’s birth certificate. All the details she had never wanted to share with me were on this piece of paper. Of course, I already knew her last name was Richler-rhymes with “tickler”-but she’d gone to great lengths never to speak her parents’ names or even say where they lived.
Now, at a glance, I knew that her mother’s name was Gretchen, that her father’s name was Horace. That she had been born in the Monroe Community Hospital in Rochester. There was an address for a house on Lincoln Avenue.
I committed the details of the document to memory, folded it and put it back into the envelope. I didn’t know what to make of the key. It was a type I didn’t recognize. It didn’t appear to be a house key. I left it in the envelope, and put it back where I’d found it, pushing the baseboard back into place.
By the time I got around the other side of the wall, Dad had already made a hole. “I’m in!” he said. “And there’s your leak right there! You want to turn off the main valve?”
Before the Buffalo trip, I went to the online phone directories and found only five Richlers listed in the Rochester area, and only one of them was an H. Richler.
He was still listed as living on Lincoln Avenue.
That told me at least one of Jan’s parents was still alive, if not both. If Horace Richler was dead, it was possible his wife, Gretchen, had left the listing unchanged.
I made a call from my desk at the Standard in a bid to clear that up. I dialed the Richler number and a woman who sounded as though she could be in her sixties or seventies answered. Gretchen, I was betting.
“Is Mr. Richler there?” I asked.
“Hang on,” she said.
Half a minute later, a man said tiredly, “Hello.”
“Is this Hank Richler?”
“Huh? No. This is Horace Richler.”
“Oh, sorry. I’ve got the wrong number.”
I offered another apology and hung up.
It was hard not to be curious about them when Jan had so steadfastly refused to talk about them.
“I don’t want anything to do with them,” she’d said over the years. “I don’t ever want to see them again, and I don’t imagine they’ll be too destroyed if they never see me.”
Even when Ethan was born, Jan was adamantly opposed to letting her parents know.
“They won’t give a rat’s ass,” she said.
“Maybe,” I said, “knowing that they have a grandchild will change things. Maybe they’ll think it’s time for some sort of reconciliation.”
She shook her head. “Not a chance. And I don’t want to talk about it anymore.”
What I’d learned since first meeting Jan at a jobs placement office when I was interviewing some unemployed people for a story six years ago was that her unnamed father was a miserable son of a bitch, and her mother spent most of her time drunk and depressed.
Jan didn’t like to talk about it. The story of her parents, and her life with them, spilled out in bits and pieces over the years.
“They blamed me for everything,” Jan said one Saturday night two years ago when my parents had taken a very young Ethan for a sleepover. We’d gone through three bottles of wine-a rare event considering that Jan drank very little-and there’d been every indication we were headed upstairs for some long-overdue debauchery. Unexpectedly, Jan began to talk about a part of her life she’d never shared with me.
“What do you mean, they blamed you?” I asked.
“Him, mostly,” Jan said. “For fucking up their lives.”
“What, by being a kid? By existing?”
She looked at me through glassy eyes. “Yeah, pretty much. Dad had a nickname for me. Hindy.”
“Like the language?”
She shook her head, took another sip of wine, and said, “No, with a ‘y.’ Short for ‘Hindenburg.’ Not just because I went through a bit of a pudgy period, but because he thought of me as his own personal little fucking disaster.”
“Yeah, well, that was true love compared to my tenth birthday.”
I was going to ask, but decided to wait.
“He promised to take me to New York to see an actual Broadway musical. I always dreamed of going there. I’d watch the Tonys when they were on TV, saved copies of the Sunday Arts section of The New York Times whenever I found one, looking at all the ads for the shows, memorizing the names of the stars and the reviews. He said he got tickets for Grease. That we were going to take the bus down. That we were going to stay in a hotel. I couldn’t believe it. My father, he’d been so indifferent to me for so long, but I thought maybe, because I was ten…”
She had another sip of wine.
“So it got to be the day that we were supposed to go. I got my bag all packed. I picked out just what I was going to wear to the theater. A red dress and black shoes. And my father, he wasn’t doing anything to get ready. I told him to get moving, and he smiled, and he said, ‘There’s no trip. No bus ride. No hotel. No tickets for Grease. Never was. Disappointment’s a bitch, isn’t it? Now you know how it feels.’”
I was speechless. Jan smiled and said, “Bet you think I caught a lucky break. You’d rather die than sit through Grease.”
I found some words. “How’d you deal with that?”
She said, “I went to another place.”
“No, no, you don’t get it,” she said. Jan put her hand to her mouth. “I think I’m going to be sick.”
The next morning she refused to talk about it.
She did tell me, over time, that she left home at seventeen and for nearly twenty years had had no contact with either of her parents. She had no brothers or sisters who might have let her know, whether she wanted to or not, what had happened to her mother and father.
For all she knew, they were both dead.
Except I knew they weren’t, because of the phone call I’d made.
I’d never told Jan about what I’d found behind the baseboard. I didn’t want her to know I’d violated her privacy. I was troubled that she’d gone to such lengths to keep me from knowing about her background, but maybe she was right not to trust me. Finding the birth certificate was leading me to do the very thing she had always wanted to prevent.
Driving back from Buffalo, I took a detour to the north and found the Lincoln Avenue home, and stared at its peeling paint and shutters askew, as if some meaning could be drawn from it all. I wondered whether one of the two second-story windows had been Jan’s bedroom, or if her room had been at the back of the house.
I pictured her as a child, going in and out of that front door, perhaps playing in the front yard. Jumping rope on the sidewalk, playing hopscotch on her driveway. Maybe those images were too idyllic. Perhaps, growing up in a household where love was displaced by anger and resentment, such simple pleasures were elusive. Maybe for Jan, every time she came out that door was like being released from prison. I could picture her running to a friend’s house, returning home only when she had to.
Staring at the house really didn’t tell me anything. I don’t know what I was expecting.
Then her parents showed up.
I had been parked across the street and two houses down, so I didn’t attract the attention of Horace and Gretchen Richler as they got out of their twenty-year-old Oldsmobile.
Horace opened his door slowly and put his foot on the ground. It took some effort for him to turn in his seat and bring himself out. He was slowed by arthritis or something similarly disabling. He was in his late sixties or early seventies, a few wisps of hair, a couple of liver spots. He was short and stocky, but not fat. Even at this age, it looked like you’d have to take a good run at him to knock him over.
He didn’t look like a monster. But then, monsters often don’t.
Horace was going around to the trunk as Gretchen got out. She moved slowly, too, although she wasn’t quite as creaky as her husband. Even though he was out of the car before her, she was to the trunk before him, and waited for him to fit the key into the lock and pop it.
There wasn’t a lot to her. She was tiny, under five feet, probably no more than eighty or ninety pounds. Wiry. She reached into the trunk and looped her fingers through the handles of half a dozen plastic grocery bags, lifted them out and headed for the door. Her husband closed the trunk and followed, carrying nothing.
They went into the house, and they were gone.
They didn’t appear to have spoken a word between them. They’d run their errands, and they’d come home.
Was there anything I could read into what I’d seen? No. And yet I was left with the impression that these were two people going through the motions, living out the rest of their lives a day at a time without purpose. While I picked up no hostile body language from Horace toward Gretchen, I did detect an overall sadness about them.
I hope you’re sad, I thought. I hope you’re fucking miserable for what you did.
When the Oldsmobile had pulled into the driveway, I’d initially had an impulse to get out, march over, and tear into Horace Richler. I wanted to tell him what a terrible man he was. I wanted to tell him that a man who would abuse his daughter-even if that abuse was limited to emotional-didn’t deserve to be called a father. I wanted to tell him that his daughter had turned out well despite his attempts to sabotage her. I wanted to tell him that he had a wonderful grandson, but because he’d been such a miserable bastard he was never going to meet him.
But I didn’t tell him anything.
I watched Horace Richler go into the house with his wife, Gretchen. I watched the door close behind them.
Then I drove home, and never told Jan about the stop I had made along the way.
I thought about my visit to the Richler home on the way back from the bridge with Dad.
What if Jan had been wanting, for years, to say to her parents what I’d wanted to say when I’d parked out front of their home? What if the way her father had treated her had been eating her up for years, in ways she’d never let on? Revealing how much her father’s actions still hurt her might have made her feel vulnerable. And yet, Jan had told me over the past two weeks how fragile, how potentially self-destructive she had been feeling.
I just didn’t know anything anymore.
I tried to put myself in Jan’s position. I’m in a bad place, thinking about taking my own life. Before I do such a thing, do I want to confront my father, tell him what I think of him? Tell my mother she should have stood up for me? Tell both of them how they ruined my life before I end it?
“You okay there?” Dad asked.
“Yeah,” I said.
“It’s a good thing,” he said. “That we didn’t find her there. Under that bridge. That’s a good thing. Because if that’s the place she was talking about doing herself in, well, stands to reason that she didn’t.”
Dad was trying really hard. Driving out to that bridge, it had been a long shot at best. The fact that Jan wasn’t there just meant that Jan wasn’t there. The fact was, we didn’t know where she was. But I didn’t want to make my father feel bad by dismissing his hunt for a silver lining.
“I suppose,” I said. “I suppose.” Jan had also mentioned the much taller bridge in downtown Promise Falls, but if she’d tried something there, I told myself, there would have been witnesses. The police would have heard almost immediately.
Dad pointed up ahead. “You see that? Guy didn’t signal. How hard is it to put your blinker on? Christ almighty.”
Not long after that, we were riding behind a driver who moved into the oncoming lane in preparation for a left turn into a driveway, allowing us to scoot past.
“What the hell is that?” Dad said. “People in the country pull that stunt all the time. What if someone was passing us, or someone suddenly showed up in the oncoming lane? I swear to God, how do these people get their licenses?”
When I didn’t respond to either of these observations, Dad decided to dial it down a bit. Finally, he said, “So, you been thinking about my idea? About Jan looking up her parents?”
“Yeah, I have.”
“You got any way to get in touch with them? Your mother’s told me Jan doesn’t talk about them, that she’s never even told you who they are or where they live.”
“I think I could find them,” I said.
“Yeah? How would you go about that?”
“They live in Rochester,” I said. “I know the address.”
“So she did tell you?”
“Not exactly,” I said.
“Well, if I was you, I’d call them up, see if she’s been in touch. If they’re in Rochester, Jan would have had plenty of time to drive there by now.”
In what? I was in my car, and Jan’s was at home.
“How long a drive is it? Three, four hours?”
“Under three,” I said.
“So when we get back, we’ll give them a call. It’s long distance but I don’t care about that.”
That was a major concession on Dad’s part. He hated long-distance calls being made on his phone.
I glanced over and smiled. “Thanks, Dad. But I’m afraid the moment I say Jan’s name, they’ll hang up on me.”
He shook his head at the thought of it. “How can parents be like that?”
“I don’t know.”
“I mean, you didn’t always do what we wanted but we never disowned you,” Dad said, forcing a smile. “You could be a real pain in the ass sometimes.”
“I don’t doubt it.”
“You have to let your kids make their own decisions in life, good or bad.”
“Is that why you’re so reluctant to offer advice?” I asked.
Dad shot me a look. “Smart-ass.”
We were getting back into Promise Falls, only a few blocks from my parents’ house. It was nearly dark, and the streetlights had come on. I felt a sense of imminent doom as we rounded the corner, expecting to see one or more police cars parked out front. But there were no unfamiliar cars parked at the curb.
My mother was standing at the door. She opened it and came out as we pulled into the driveway. She had a hopeful, expectant look on her face, but I shook my head.
“Nothing,” I said. “We didn’t find Jan.”
“So she wasn’t-she didn’t-”
“No,” I said. “Any news here? Anything from the police?”
She shook her head. We all went into the house, where I saw Ethan on the third step of the stairs, preparing to jump.
He leapt down to the main floor, hitting it with a thump. “Watch!” he said, ran up to the third step, and did it again.
“He’s been a madman,” Mom said. “I let him have half a glass of Coke with his macaroni.”
Mom always liked to blame Ethan’s rowdiness on something he’d had to eat or drink. It had been my experience that it didn’t much matter.
I gave her a kiss and went into the kitchen to use the phone. I had Detective Duckworth’s card in my hand and dialed his cell.
“It’s David Harwood,” I said. “I know you’d probably have called if you knew anything, but I wanted to check in.”
“I don’t have any news,” Duckworth said. His voice sounded guarded.
“You still have people searching?”
“We do, Mr. Harwood.” He paused. “I think, if there are no developments overnight, if Mrs. Harwood doesn’t come home, we should put out a release in the morning.”
I pictured her coming through the door here, into my parents’ house. There was a loud thunk from the other room as Ethan hit the floor again.
“Okay, good,” I said. “How about a news conference?”
“I don’t know that we’re at that stage,” he said. “I think a picture and a description of your wife and the circumstances of her disappearance will do for now.”
“I think we need a news conference,” I said.
“Let’s see where we are in the morning,” he said. There was something in his voice. It sounded controlled, held back.
“I might not be here in the morning,” I said.
“Where are you going to be?”
“Jan’s parents are in Rochester.”
Mom’s eyes widened when I said it. I’d never told her about the trip I’d made to see Jan’s childhood home.
With Duckworth, I continued, “She hasn’t had any contact with them in probably twenty years. They didn’t come to our wedding, they’ve never met their grandson. But I’m thinking, what if Jan decided to go see them? What if, after all this time, she had some reason to get in touch that she didn’t share with me? Maybe she just wanted to finally tell them what she thinks of them.”
Duckworth was quiet, saying only, “I suppose.”
“I’d phone them, but I’m worried about doing this any way but face-to-face. I mean, they’ve never set eyes on me. What are they going to think, some guy phones them and says he’s their son-in-law and oh, by the way, their daughter’s missing and is there any chance she might have dropped by? And if Jan is there, and doesn’t want me to know, I’m worried that if I call, she’ll take off.”
“Maybe,” Duckworth said with little conviction.
From the other room, Mom shouted at Ethan, “Enough!”
I said, “I’m probably going to hit the road in a couple of minutes, get a hotel in Rochester, and see Jan’s parents first thing in the morning.”
Instead of addressing my plans, Duckworth said, “Tell me again about your wife and Leanne Kowalski.”
The question threw me. “I told you. They work together. That’s about it.”
“What time did you and your son get to Five Mountains, Mr. Harwood?”
Why did he ask it that way? Why didn’t he ask when Ethan and I and Jan got to Five Mountains?
“I guess it was about eleven, maybe a little after. Didn’t they have it right down to the minute, when they scanned our ticket at the gate?”
“I think you’re right,” Duckworth said.
“Is something going on?” I asked. “Please tell me if something’s going on.”
“If I have any news, Mr. Harwood, I’ll be in touch. I have your cell number.”
I hung up the phone. Mom and Dad were both standing there, watching me.
“Jan told you about her parents?” Mom asked.
“I figured it out.”
“Who are they?”
“Horace and Gretchen Richler,” I said.
“Does Jan know you know?”
I shook my head. I didn’t want to get into this. I leaned against the kitchen counter. I was exhausted.
“You need to get some rest,” Mom said.
“I’m going to Rochester,” I said.
“In the morning?”
“No, now.” I realized it was suddenly very quiet. “Where’s Ethan?”
“He collapsed on the couch,” Mom said. “Thank God.”
“Can he stay here for the night?”
“You can’t drive anywhere now,” Mom protested. “You’ll drive off the road.”
“Why don’t you make me a thermos of coffee to go while I say good night to Ethan,” I said.
Without waiting for any further protest, I went into the living room, where Ethan was resting his head on the end of the couch. He’d pulled a throw around himself.
“Gotta go, sport,” I said. “You’re staying here for the night.”
No reaction. His eyes suddenly looked heavy. “I’ll bet Mommy’s at the mall.”
“Maybe so,” I said.
“Okay,” he said, and his eyelids drifted down like flower petals closing for the night.
Barry Duckworth closed the phone and said to Lyall Kowalski, “Sorry about that.”
“Was that Jan’s husband?” he asked. He and the detective were sitting in his living room. Lyall was in a black T-shirt and dirty, knee-length shorts with pockets all over them. Duckworth wondered whether Lyall had gone prematurely bald at age thirty-five, or whether he shaved his head. Some guys, once they started losing some hair, decided to go the whole nine yards with it, make a fashion statement.
Even before he saw the pit bull coming out of the kitchen, Duckworth knew there was a dog here. The house was permeated with the smell of pooch.
“Yes, that was him,” Duckworth said.
“Has he seen my wife?”
“No,” Duckworth said, but thinking, At least he’s not saying he has. There were things about this case that were starting to bother him, even before he’d learned that Jan Harwood’s workmate was missing, too.
“Tell me again what time your wife left the house,” Duckworth said.
Lyall Kowalski was leaning forward on the couch, elbows on his knees. “Okay, so she was actually gone before I got up. I got in kind of late last night and was sleeping in.”
“Where had you been?”
“I was at the Trenton.” A local bar. “With some friends. We had a few, and Mick gave me a lift home.”
“Mick Angus. We work together at Thackeray.”
“What do you do at the college, Mr. Kowalski?”
“We’re both in building maintenance.”
“So you got home when?”
Lyall scrunched up his face, trying to remember. “Three? Or maybe five.”
“And your wife was here when you got home?”
“As far as I know,” he said, nodding.
“What do you mean, as far as you know?”
“Well, there’s no reason to think that she wasn’t.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I didn’t actually talk to her. I didn’t make it as far as the bedroom. I camped out on the couch.”
“Why’d you do that?”
“Leanne gets kinda bitchy when I come home drunk. Actually, she’s kind of bitchy even when I’m sober. Plus, I kinda forgot I was supposed to take her out to dinner last night. So I didn’t want to have to deal with that, so I didn’t get into bed with her.”
“Were you at the Trenton all night?”
“I think so. Except after they closed, I had a couple of drinks in the parking lot with Mick.”
“Who drove you home?” Duckworth said disapprovingly.
Lyall waved his hands at Duckworth, like it was no big deal. “Mick can drink a lot and still drive better than most people sober.”
“Where were you supposed to go for dinner?”
“Kelly’s?” he said, like he was asking Duckworth for confirmation. “I know I said something on Thursday about taking her there for dinner but it slipped my mind.”
“Did you talk to your wife at all last night, while you were at Trenton’s?”
“My cell was dead.”
“So you fell asleep on the couch. Did you see your wife in the morning?”
“Okay, that’s the thing? I think I might have heard her saying something to me while I was sleeping it off, but I can’t exactly swear to it.”
“So what does your wife usually do on a Saturday?”
“She kind of has a routine. She goes out around eight-thirty. Most weekends, she goes out by herself, even if I haven’t been out with my buds the night before. I’ve offered to go with her sometimes, but only because I know she’ll say no. She kinda likes to go on her own. I don’t take any offense or anything.”
“Where does she go?” Duckworth asked.
“To the malls. She likes to go to all of them. Every damn one between here and Albany. She likes Crossgates and Colonie Center. How much clothes and shoes and jewelry and makeup does one woman need?”
“She drops a lot of money on Saturdays?”
“I don’t know how she affords it. We’re kind of on a limited budget,” Lyall said. “What I don’t get is if all the malls have exactly the same stores, what’s the point in going to one after another?”
“I don’t know,” Duckworth said, thinking it was the first thing Lyall Kowalski had said that bordered on insightful.
“So after she’s done with the malls, she makes the grocery her last stop, because she doesn’t want all her Lean Cuisines melting while she’s wandering around JCPenney.”
“But you don’t actually know where, exactly, she would have gone.”
“Where does she buy groceries?”
Lyall shrugged. “Grocery store?”
The dog, built like a three-foot cross section of a punching bag with legs, walked through the room, nails clicking on the uncarpeted wood floor. He collapsed on a square of area rug in front of an empty chair.
“If this were like other Saturdays, what time would you be expecting her back?”
“Three or four? Five at the latest.”
“When did you get up?”
“Around one,” Lyall said.
“And did you try calling your wife at all?”
“I tried her cell but it goes straight to message. And she hasn’t called here to say she was going to be late or anything.”
Duckworth nodded slowly. He asked, “When was the last time you actually saw or spoke to your wife, Mr. Kowalski?”
He thought a moment. “I guess, middle of yesterday? She called me from work to check what time we were going out for dinner.” He winced, as if someone had stuck a pin in his arm.
“So you didn’t speak to her later yesterday or last night, not at all?”
Lyall shook his head.
“And you didn’t actually talk to her this morning?”
“When Mick dropped you off here last night, did you notice whether Leanne’s car was here?”
“I wasn’t all that observant at the time.”
“For all you know,” Duckworth said, “she wasn’t even here last night.”
“Where would she be if she wasn’t here?”
“I don’t know. What I’m asking is whether you can actually say, with any certainty, that your wife was here when you got home in the middle of the night, or was here this morning.”
He looked slightly dumbstruck. “I’m just assuming she was here. Wouldn’t make sense for her not to be here.”
“Do you have a list of the bank and credit cards your wife uses?”
“What for?” he asked.
“We could check, see where she used them, it would tell us where she’s been.”
Lyall scratched his head. “When Leanne buys anything, she tends to use cash.”
“We kinda had our cards canceled.”
Duckworth sighed. “Has Leanne ever done this before? Gone out and not come back until late, or maybe stayed over with a friend for the night? Is it possible-and I’m sorry to have to ask this-that she might have a boyfriend?”
Lyall shook his head, clenched his fists, and pressed his meaty lips together. “Shit no, I mean, no, she wouldn’t do that.”
Duckworth sensed something. “Mr. Kowalski?”
“She’s my girl. She’s not going to mess around on me. No way.”
“Has she ever done anything like that before?”
He waited a beat too long before answering. “No.”
“I need you to be straight with me here,” Duckworth said. “This kinda stuff, it happens to the best of us.”
Lyall’s lips moved in and out. Finally, he said, “It was years ago. We were going through a rough patch. Not like now. Things are pretty good now. She had a thing with some guy she met in a bar. Just a one-nighter, that was all there was to it. Some guy passing through.”
“Who was the man?”
“I never knew. But she told me. Not to confess, but to stick it to me, you know? Saying things like if I wasn’t going to show her a good time, there was plenty of guys who would. I cleaned up my act after that.”
Duckworth looked around the room, then let his eyes settle back on Lyall.
The man was on the verge of tears. “I’m real scared something’s happened to her. Like maybe she had a car accident or something. Have you checked on that? She drives a Ford Explorer. It’s blue and it’s, like, a 1990, so it’s kind of eaten up with rust.”
“I don’t have any report of an accident involving that make of vehicle,” Duckworth said. “Mr. Kowalski, how close are your wife and Jan Harwood?”
He blinked. “They work together.”
“Are they friends? Do they get together after work? Have they ever, I don’t know, gone on a girls’ weekend away?”
“Shit no,” he said. “Just between you and me, Leanne thinks Jan’s a bit stuck-up, you know? Think she’s better than everybody.”
Last thing, Duckworth asked Lyall Kowalski some basic questions, wrote down the answers in his notebook.
“What’s your wife’s date of birth?”
“Uh, February ninth. She was born in 1973.”
“Her full name?”
Lyall sniffed, then said, “Leanne Katherine Kowalski. Well, her name before she met me was Bothwick.”
Duckworth kept scribbling. “Weight?”
“Whoa. One-forty? No, one-twenty? She’s kind of skinny. And she’s around five-six or -seven.”
“Black. It’s kinda short, with some streaks in it.”
Duckworth asked for a picture. The best Lyall could come up with was a wedding photo of the two of them, a ten-year-old shot of them jamming wedding cake into each other’s mouths.
Before he pulled away from the curb out front of the Kowalski house, Duckworth got out his phone, waited for someone to answer, and said, “Gunner.”
“Yeah, hey, Detective.”
“You still at Five Mountains?”
“I’ve been here all day,” he said. “Just finishing up now.”
“How’d it go?”
“Okay, so, the first thing we did was check a couple more times to see if we could track down that third ticket bought online.”
“We thought maybe there was a glitch in the system, but we’ve pretty much ruled that out. If she came into the park, she didn’t do it with a ticket purchased over the Internet.”
“Okay,” Duckworth said.
“Then, with the pictures the husband provided, we spent the rest of the day looking at all the people coming in and going out through the gates, trying to spot the wife. We narrowed it down to the time frame basically established from when the husband and the kid got there, and when he called the police.”
“I’m with ya.”
“It’s not easy. There’s so many people, sometimes you can’t make them out, sometimes they’re wearing hats that cover half their face, so the thing is, she might have been there and we didn’t see her. But we looked for a woman matching her description, dressed the way the husband described her.”
“Nothing. If she’s there, we can’t find her.”
“Okay, look, thanks, I appreciate it. Go home.”
“You don’t have to ask me twice,” he said.
“Is Campion still around?”
“Yeah, she’s been here all day. I can see her outside the door.”
“You wanna put her on?”
Duckworth heard Gunner put down the phone and call out to Officer Didi Campion. Twenty seconds later, the phone was picked up.
“It’s Barry, Didi. Long day, huh?”
“I want to ask you again about the time you spent with the kid this morning.”
“Did he actually say the mother was there with them at the park?”
“What do you mean?”
“Had the boy seen Mrs. Harwood that morning?”
“He was asking about her. He was asking what had happened to her. I certainly got the sense he’d seen her at the park.”
“Do you think-how do I put this-he could have been convinced his mother had been there even if she hadn’t?”
“You mean like, the dad says we’re just going to meet your mom now, your mom just went into the bathroom, something like that?”
“That’s kind of how I was thinking,” Duckworth said.
Campion said, “Hmmm.”
“I mean, the kid’s only what, four years old? Tell a four-year-old enough times that he’s invisible and he’ll start believing it. Maybe the dad made him think his mother was there even if she wasn’t.”
“The kid was kind of dozy,” Campion said. “Like, tired, not stupid.”
“This Harwood guy, he says the three of them are going to Five Mountains for the day, but he only gets two tickets. He says his wife has been talking suicide, tells us his wife went to the doctor about it, but turns out she never went.”
“No. I talked to Dr. Samuels today. And her boss, who runs the heating and cooling company? He says he didn’t see any signs that she was depressed the last couple of weeks. If anything, she was excited about something. Kind of, I don’t know, anticipating something.”
“So far, the only person who’s saying the wife’s suicidal is the husband. Doctor never saw her, her boss says she was fine.”
“So the husband, he’s laying the groundwork.”
“This Bertram guy, the wife’s boss, said Harwood took his wife for a drive someplace on Friday. When Bertram asked her where they were going, she said it was a secret or something, a surprise.”
“So where you going with this, Detective?”
“You still on shift?”
Campion sighed. “I’m kind of doing a double. Wanna make it a triple? Having a life is hugely overrated.”
“You’ve put out news releases before, right?”
“I’ve worked that end, yeah.”
“I told Harwood we’d put out a release tomorrow, but I think we need to put one out tonight. Shake the bushes, you know? We’ve still got time to make the eleven o’clock news. Something simple. A picture of Jan Harwood, believed last seen in the vicinity of Five Mountains. Police seeking any information about the woman’s whereabouts, contact us, blah blah blah, the usual drill.”
“I’m on it,” Campion said.
Duckworth thanked her and closed the phone. He was starting to wonder whether Jan Harwood ever even made it to Five Mountains. He was starting to wonder just what her husband might have done with her.
How the hell that fit in with Leanne Kowalski, he had no idea. But two women who worked together, going missing at the same time-that was one hell of a coincidence. He decided to put his focus, for now, on Jan Harwood. Maybe he’d turn up Leanne Kowalski along the way.
I was about a half an hour out of Rochester when my cell rang.
“It was on the news,” Mom said. “They had it on the TV.”
“What?” I said. “What did they have?”
“They had a picture of Jan, and that the police were looking for help to find her. That’s good, right, that they did that?”
“Yeah,” I said slowly. “But the detective, he said they were going to make a decision about that tomorrow. I wonder what made him change his mind. How much did they say?”
“Not much,” my mother said. “They gave her name and age and height and what she was last seen wearing.”
From some distance away, my father shouted, “Eye color!”
“That’s right. They said what color eyes she has and hair and that kind of thing.”
“And where it happened?”
“Just a mention,” Mom said. “It said she was last seen near Five Mountains. But they didn’t have anything about that man trying to take Ethan. Shouldn’t they have had something on that?”
I said, “I wonder why Detective Duckworth didn’t call me. You’d think, if he was deciding to change the timing of the release, he would have let me know.”
I wondered how long it would be before someone from my own paper called, asking what the hell was going on, how the Standard could get scooped on the disappearance of the spouse of one of its own staff members. Even if we didn’t have an edition until the next day, it could have gone up on the website.
I didn’t have time to worry about that now.
“Are you almost there?” Mom asked. Dad yelled, “Tell him to keep drinking coffee!”
“Pretty close,” I said. “I was going to get a hotel, go see Jan’s parents in the morning, but now I’m thinking maybe I should just knock on the door tonight. I can’t lay in my hotel all night thinking about her. I have to do something right away.”
I didn’t hear anything on the other end.
“I’m sorry. I was just nodding. I guess I was thinking you could see me.” She laughed tiredly.
“I just left him on the couch. I’m afraid if I move him he’ll wake up and never settle down again. Your father and I are going to turn in now. But if something happens, if you have any news, you call us, okay?”
“I will. You too.”
Before putting the phone back into my jacket, I considered calling Detective Duckworth and asking him why he’d decided to go ahead with releasing Jan’s picture now. But I was almost to Rochester, and I needed to focus on my upcoming meeting with Jan’s parents.
I wasn’t exactly looking forward to it, not after all the things Jan had said about them. But I wasn’t there to criticize them for how they’d raised Jan. I wasn’t there to lay blame, decide who was right and who was wrong.
I wanted to know if they’d seen Jan. Plain and simple. Had she been there? Had she called them? Did they have any idea where she might be?
Just after midnight I got off 90 and headed north on 490. Not long after that, I got off at the Palymra Road exit and quickly found my way to Lincoln Avenue.
The streetlamps were the only thing casting any light at 12:10 a.m. You might have thought, on a Saturday night, that there might have been a house or two with the lights on, a party going on. But maybe this was a street made up mostly of older residents. No lights on after ten on a Saturday night.
I rolled down the street and came to a stop out front of the house I had seen only once before. The Oldsmobile was in the driveway. The house was dark save for one light over the front door.
I killed the engine and sat in the car a moment, listening to the engine tick as it cooled.
I wondered if Jan could be in that house.
If Jan had returned here, it was hard to imagine the kind of confrontation she was likely to have had that could have ended with an invitation to spend the night.
“Let’s do this,” I said under my breath.
I got out of the car and closed the door as quietly as I could. No sense waking any more people on Lincoln than I had to. I walked across the empty street, up the driveway, and onto the front porch of the home of Horace and Gretchen Richler.
I stood in the glow of the single bulb, looking for a doorbell button. I found it mounted in the right side of the doorframe and pushed on it, hard, with my thumb.
No bell went off inside the house, at least none that I could hear. I glanced over at the metal mailbox hanging from the wall, noticed the “No Flyers or Junk Mail!” sticker. Maybe the Richlers didn’t like to be troubled with nuisance callers or mail. One way to deal with that was to disconnect the doorbell.
Or it could just be broken. To be certain, I leaned on the button a second time, but still heard nothing from inside the house.
I opened the metal storm door and saw a tarnished brass knocker on the main door. I rapped it five times. I didn’t know whether it would wake the Richlers, but it sounded like five gunshots out here on the porch.
When I didn’t see any lights going on after fifteen seconds, I did it again. I was about to do it a third time when I could see, through the window, light cascading down the stairs.
Someone was up.
I rapped two more times, lightly, so they wouldn’t think whoever was at the front door had taken off before they’d made the decision to come downstairs. In another moment Horace Richler appeared, in a bathrobe and pajamas, what hair he had pointing in several directions.
Before he got to the door, he shouted, “Who is it?”
“Mr. Richler?” I called out. Not shouting, but loud enough that I hoped he could hear me through the door. “I need to speak to you.”
“Who the hell is it? You know what time it is? I gotta gun, you know!”
If he really did, it wasn’t in his hands at this moment.
“My name is David Harwood! Please, I need to speak to you! It’s very important.”
There was someone else coming down the stairs now. It was Gretchen Richler, in a nightgown and robe, her hair also in disarray. I could just make out her asking her husband who it was, what was going on.
“It’s about Jan!” I said.
I thought I saw Horace Richler hesitate for a second as he reached for the door, wondering if he heard me correctly. I heard a deadbolt turn back, a chain slide, then the door opened about a foot.
“What the hell is this all about?” Horace Richler asked, his wife pressed up against his back. I didn’t know whether she was using her husband to protect herself, or to keep me from seeing her in her nightclothes. Probably both.
“I’m so sorry to wake you up, Mr. Richler, Mrs. Richler. I truly am. I wouldn’t do this if it weren’t an emergency.”
“Who are you?” Gretchen Richler asked. Her voice was high and scratchy, like an old record playing too fast.
“My name’s David Harwood. I’m Jan’s husband.”
The two of them stared at me.
“It would never have been my choice for us to meet this way, believe me. I’ve driven here tonight from Promise Falls. Jan’s missing and I’m trying to find her. I thought, maybe, there was a chance she might come here to see you.”
They were still both staring. Horace Richler’s face, at first frozen, was turning into a furious scowl.
“You’ve made some kind of mistake, mister,” he said. “You better get your ass off my goddamn porch.”
“Please,” I said. “I know there’s some history between you and your daughter, that you haven’t talked to her in a long time, but I’m worried that something bad has happened to her. I thought, if she didn’t actually come here, she might have called, or you might have an idea where she might go, some old friends she might try to get in touch with.”
Horace Richler’s face grew red with fury. His fists were clenching at his sides.
“I don’t know who you are or what the fuck your game is, but I swear to God, I may be an old man, but I’ll kick your ass all the way down Lincoln Avenue if I have to.”
I wasn’t ready to give up.
“Tell me I haven’t got the right house,” I said. “You’re Horace and Gretchen Richler and your daughter is Jan.”
Gretchen came out from behind her husband and spoke to me for the first time.
“That’s right,” she whispered.
“My daughter’s dead,” Horace said through gritted teeth.
The comment hit me like a two-by-four across the side of the head. Something horrible had happened. I’d gotten here too late.
“My God,” I said. “When? What happened?”
“She died a long time ago,” he said.
I breathed out. At first, I thought he’d meant something had just happened to Jan. Then I assumed he meant that because he and his daughter were estranged, it was as though Jan was dead to him. “I know you may feel that way, Mr. Richler. But if you ever loved your daughter, you need to help me now.”
Gretchen said, “You don’t understand. She really is dead.”
I felt the wallop all over again. I really had gotten here too late. Had Jan already been to see her parents? Had she taken her life here? Was that her final act of revenge against them? To come to Rochester and kill herself in front of them?
I managed to say, “What are you talking about?”
“She died when she was a little girl,” Gretchen said. “When she was only five years old. It was a terrible thing.”
The woman opened her eyes. She blinked a couple of times, adjusting to the darkness.
She was in bed, on her back, staring up at the ceiling. It was warm in the room-there was an air conditioner humming and rattling somewhere, but it wasn’t up to the job-and in her sleep she had thrown off her covers down to her waist.
She reached down and touched her stomach to see whether she had broken out in a sweat. Her skin was cool, but slightly clammy. She was taken aback for a moment to discover she was naked. She’d stopped sleeping in the nude a long time ago. Those first few months of marriage, sure, but after a while, you just want something on.
Light from the tall streetlamps out by the highway filtered through the bent and twisted window blinds. She listened to the relentless traffic streaming by. Big semis roaring through the night.
She tried to recall where, exactly, she was.
She slipped her legs out from under the covers, sat up, and placed her feet on the floor. The cheap industrial carpet was scratchy beneath her toes. She sat on the side of the bed for a moment, leaning over, head in her hands, her hair falling in front of her eyes.
She had a headache. She glanced over at the bedside table, as if some aspirin and a glass of water might magically be there, but all she could see in the minimal light were some crumpled bills and change, a digital clock that was reading 12:10 a.m., and a blonde wig.
That told her she’d only been asleep for an hour at the most. She’d gotten into the bed around half past ten, tossed and turned and looked up at the stained tiles overhead until well after eleven. At some point, clearly, she’d nodded off, but the last hour of sleep had not been a restful one.
Slowly she stood up, took two steps over to the window, and peered between the blinds. It wasn’t much of a view. A parking lot, about a quarter of the spots taken. A sign tall enough to be seen from the interstate advertising “Best Western.” Off in the distance, more towering signs. One for Mobil, another for McDonald’s.
The woman went to the door, checked that it was still locked.
She padded softly across the room and pushed open the door to the bathroom. She went inside and felt for the light switch, waiting until she had the door closed behind her before flicking it on.
The instant, intense illumination stung her eyes. She squinted until she got used to it, then gazed at her naked reflection in the oversized mirror above the counter.
“Yikes,” she whispered. Her black hair was stringy, her eyes dark, her lips dry.
There was a small, open canvas toiletries bag on the counter by the sink. A few things had not been returned to it, including a toothbrush, some makeup, a hairbrush. She opened the bag wider, rooted around inside.
“Yes,” she said when she had found what she wanted. She had a travel-sized bottle of aspirin. She unscrewed the cap and tapped two tablets into her palm. She put them in her mouth, then leaned over a running faucet to scoop some water into her hand. She got enough into her mouth to swallow the pills. She tilted her head back to ease their passage down her throat, then cupped more water into her hand just to drink. She reached for a towel to dry her hand and chin.
She glanced down at a bandage on the inside of her right ankle and grimaced. That cut wouldn’t have healed yet. A couple more days should do it.
At that point, her stomach growled, loud enough that it seemed to echo off the tiles of the tiny room. Maybe that was why she had the headache. She was hungry. She’d had very little to eat the whole day. Too on edge. Wasn’t sure she’d be able to keep anything down.
The McDonald’s was probably one of those twenty-four-hour ones. Truckers had to have someplace to eat in the dead of night. A Big Mac would do it. She could imagine the wonderful blandness of it. There was nothing left to eat in the motel room. Not so much as a few Doritos or half a Mars bar. They’d picked up some junk to eat along the way, but she’d hardly touched it.
Hungry as she was, she wasn’t going to venture out of this motel room. Best to stay put, at least for now. She might end up drawing more attention to herself at night, a woman alone, than she would in the middle of the day.
She put her hand on the bathroom doorknob, flicked off the light before turning it. Now her eyes had to adjust in reverse, getting used to the darkness so she wouldn’t stumble over anything on her way back to the bed.
She returned to the window, half expecting to see the blue Ford Explorer out there. But that had been ditched long ago, and far from here. It would surely be found eventually, and it was hard to know whether that would end up being a good thing or bad. Lyall probably would have called the police by now. Useless as he was, he’d notice eventually that his wife hadn’t returned home. Drinking to all hours, staying out late with his friends, never helping out around the house, and that damn smelly dog. The Explorer had reeked of that beast. At least Lyall wasn’t a mean drunk. Every once in a while, he got this look, like maybe he wasn’t going to take it anymore. But it never lasted long. The guy didn’t have it in him to fight back.
Someone stirred in the other half of the bed she’d been sleeping in moments earlier.
She turned away from the window. There wasn’t much else to do but try to get back to sleep. Maybe, once the aspirin kicked in, she’d be able to nod off. She looked at the clock: 12:21 a.m.
There was no reason to get up early. No job to go to anymore. No one to make breakfast for.
She sat gently on the side of the bed, raised her legs ever so slowly and tucked them under the covers, lowered her head onto the pillow, trying her best not to breathe. If there was anything good about motel beds, this was it. The mattresses seemed to be resting on concrete, not box springs, and you could usually get in and out of bed without disturbing your partner’s sleep.
But not this time.
The person on the other side of the bed turned over and said, “What’s going on, babe?”
“Shh, go back to sleep,” she said.
“What’s going on?”
“I had a headache. I was looking for aspirin.”
“There’s some in the little case there.”
“I found them.”
A hand reached out and found her breast, kneading the nipple between thumb and forefinger.
“Jesus, Dwayne, I tell you I’ve got a headache, and then you cop a feel?”
He withdrew the hand. “You’re just stressed out. It’s going to take you a while to get over this whole Jan thing.”
The woman said, “What’s to get over? She’s dead.”
“So you better get off my porch and hit the fucking road,” Horace Richler said to me.
“I… I don’t understand,” I said, standing at the open front door, looking into the faces of Horace and his wife, Gretchen.
“Too goddamn bad,” he said, and started putting his weight behind the door to close it.
“Wait!” I said. “Please! This doesn’t make any sense.”
“No kidding,” Horace said. “You wake us up in the middle of the night asking for our dead daughter, you’re damn right it makes no sense.”
He nearly had the door closed when Gretchen said, “Horace.”
“Hang on a minute.” The door didn’t open any farther, but it didn’t close, either. Gretchen said to me, “Who did you say you are again?”
“David Harwood,” I said. “I live in Promise Falls.”
“And your wife’s name is Jan?”
Horace interrupted. “Christ’s sake, Gretchen, the guy’s a lunatic. Don’t encourage him.”
I said, “That’s right. Jan, or, you know, Janice. She’s Janice Harwood now, but before we got married she was Jan Richler.”
“There must be lots of Jan Richlers in the world,” Gretchen said. “You’ve come to the wrong house.”
I had the palm of my hand on the door, hoping it wouldn’t close farther.
“But her birth certificate says that her parents are Horace and Gretchen, that she was born here in Rochester.”
The two of them stared at me, not quite sure what to believe.
It was, surprisingly, Horace who asked, “What’s her birthday?” There was a defiant tone in his voice, like he wasn’t expecting me to know the answer.
I said, “August 14, 1975.”
It was as if the air had been let out of both of them. Horace acted as though he had taken a blow to the chest. He folded in on himself and his head drooped. He let go of the door, turned away, and took a step back into the house.
Gretchen’s face had fallen, but she held her spot at the door.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “This is as much a shock to me as it is to you.”
Gretchen shook her head sadly. “This is very hard on him.”
“I don’t know how to explain this,” I said. My knees felt weak, and I realized that I was trembling slightly. “My wife has been missing since early today-since Saturday, around the middle of the day. She just vanished. I’ve been trying to think of anyone she might have gotten in touch with, and that’s why I came here to see you.”
“Why would your wife have our daughter’s birth certificate?” Gretchen asked. “How is that possible?”
Before I could even attempt to come up with an explanation, I said, “Would it be all right if I came in?”
Gretchen turned toward her husband, who’d been listening without actually looking at us. “Horace?” she said. All he did was raise a hand dismissively, an act of surrender, suggesting it was up to his wife whether I’d be allowed inside.
“Come in, then,” she said, opening the door wider.
She led me into a living room filled with furniture that I was guessing had been handed down to them from their own parents. Only the drab couch looked less than twenty years old. What splashes of color there were came from pillows smothered in crocheted covers crudely resembling flowers. Scattered across the couch and chairs, they were like stamps on old manila envelopes. Cheap landscapes hung so high on the wall they nearly lined up with the ceiling.
I took a seat first in one of the chairs. Gretchen sat down on the couch, pulling her robe tightly around her. “Horace, come on, lovey, sit down.”
There were some framed family photos in the room, most of them featuring one or both of the Richlers, often with a boy. If the pictures could have been arranged in chronological order, I’d be able to see this boy’s progression from age three to a man in his early twenties. There was one picture of him-as an adult-in uniform.
Gretchen caught me looking. “That’s Bradley,” she said.
I nodded. I might normally have offered up a comment, that he was good-looking, a handsome fellow, which was true. But I was feeling too shell-shocked for pleasantries.
Reluctantly, Horace Richler came over to the couch and sat down next to his wife. Gretchen rested her hand on his pajama-clad knee.
“He’s dead,” Horace said, seeing that I’d been looking at the picture of the young man.
“Afghanistan,” Gretchen said. “One of those I.E.D.s.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“He was killed along with two Canadians,” she said. “Almost two years ago now. Just outside Kabul.”
The room was quiet for several seconds.
“So that’s both our children,” Gretchen said.
Hesitantly, I said, “I don’t see any pictures of your daughter.” I was desperate to see what she had looked like, even as a five-year-old. If it was Jan, I was sure I’d know it.
“We… don’t have any out,” Gretchen said.
I said nothing, waiting for an explanation.
“It’s… hard,” she said. “Even after all these years. To be reminded.”
Another uncomfortable silence ensued, until Horace, whose lips had already been going in and out in preparation, blurted, “I killed her.”
I said, barely able to find my voice, “What?”
He was looking down into his lap, seemingly ashamed. Gretchen gripped his knee harder and put her other hand to his shoulder. “Horace, don’t do this.”
“It’s true,” he said. “It’s been enough years that there’s no sense beating around the bush.”
Gretchen said to me, “It was a terrible, terrible thing. It wasn’t Horace’s fault.” Her face screwed up, like she was fighting back tears. “I lost a daughter and a husband that day. My husband’s never been the man he was once, not in thirty years. And he’s a good man. Don’t let anyone tell you any different.”
I asked, “What happened?”
Gretchen started to speak but Horace cut her off. “I can tell it,” he said, as though this was part of his penance, to confess. “I’ve lost a daughter and I’ve lost a son. What the hell difference does it make anymore?”
He reached inside himself for the strength to continue.
“It was the third of September, 1980. It was after I’d come home from work, after Gretchen had made dinner. Jan and one of her little friends, Constance, were playing in the front yard.”
“Arguing more than playing,” Gretchen interjected, and I looked at her. “I’d been watching them through the window. You know how little girls can be.”
Horace continued, “I was going to meet my friends after dinner. Bowling. I was in a league back then. The thing is, I’d got home late, ate my dinner fast as I could, because I was supposed to be meeting up with everyone at six, and it was already ten past when I finished dinner. So I ran out to the car and jumped in and backed out of the driveway like a bat out of hell.”
I waited, a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.
“It wasn’t his fault,” Gretchen said again. “Jan… was pushed.”
“What?” I said.
“If I hadn’t been going so fast,” Horace said, “it wouldn’t have mattered. You can’t go blaming this on that other little girl.”
“But it is what happened,” Gretchen said. “The girls were having a fight, standing by the driveway, and Constance pushed Jan into the path of the car just as Horace started backing up.”
“Oh my God,” I said.
Horace said, “I knew right away I’d hit something. I slammed on the brakes and got out, but…”
He stopped, made his hands into tight fists, as though that could keep the tears from welling up in his eyes. It worked for him, but not for Gretchen.
I tried to swallow.
“The other little girl started to scream,” Gretchen said. “It was her fault, but can you really blame a child? Kids, they don’t know the consequences of their actions. They can’t anticipate.”
“She wasn’t driving the car,” Horace said. “I was the one behind the wheel. I should have been watching. I was the one who should have been anticipating. And I wasn’t. I was too worried about getting to a fucking bowling alley on time.” He shook his head. “And the hell of it is, they never did a damn thing to me. Said it wasn’t my fault, it was an accident, just one of those horrible things. I wish they’d done something to me, but maybe it wouldn’t have made any difference. Anything they might have done, short of killing me, wouldn’t have stopped me from wanting to punish myself even more.”
“Horace tried to take his life,” Gretchen said. “A couple of times.”
He looked away, embarrassed by that revelation more than the one he’d made himself. When he didn’t say anything further, it was clear this was the end of the story.
“That child who pushed Jan, her life was ruined that day, too. I know she deserves some pity,” Gretchen said. “But I never had any for her, or her parents. Not surprising, they moved away after that. Sometimes, I think we should have done the same thing.”
“There’s not a single time I get in the car I don’t think about what I did,” Horace said. “Not a single time, not in all these years.”
This was the saddest room I’d ever been in.
I was definitely a mess. Listening to Horace Richler tell how he ran over his own daughter with his car would have been devastating enough. But the implications of his story were overwhelming me.
He was talking about Jan. The Jan on my wife’s birth certificate.
But Horace’s Jan had been dead for decades. And my Jan was, at least up until today, alive.
My wife had Horace and Gretchen Richler’s child’s name. She had her birth certificate.
But it was glaringly obvious that they could not be the same person.
I was dumbstruck. I was so numbed by what I’d been told that I didn’t even know what to ask next.
“Mr. Harwood?” Gretchen said. “Are you okay?”
“I’m sorry. I…”
“You don’t look well. You’ve got bags under your eyes and don’t look like you’ve had any sleep in a long time.”
“I don’t… I don’t know what to make of this.”
“Well,” said Horace, trying to put some bluster back into his voice, “we don’t exactly know what the hell to make of you, either.”
I tried to focus. I said, “A picture. Could I please see a picture of Jan?”
Gretchen exchanged glances with her husband before deciding my request was reasonable. She got up and crossed the room to an old-fashioned rolltop desk and chair in the corner. She sat down, opened the door, and reached in.
She must have stolen a look at the picture every once in a while, because it took her no time at all to put her hands on it. I could understand, from Horace’s point of view, why the picture was not on display. Did you want your daughter, the one you’d killed, looking at you every day?
It was a black-and-white portrait shot, the kind that might have been taken at Sears, about three by five inches. Slightly faded, one of the corners bent.
She handed it to me. “This was taken about two months… before,” she said.
Jan Richler had been a beautiful child. An angelic face, dimples, bright eyes, curly blonde hair.
I searched the photo for any hints of my wife. Maybe something in the eyes, the way the mouth turned up at the corner. The line of her nose.
I tried to imagine this picture on a table covered with photos of other children. I looked for anything in the shot that would make me pick it up and say, “That’s her, that’s the girl I married.”
There was nothing.
I handed the picture back to Gretchen Richler. “Thank you,” I said quietly.
“Well?” she said.
“I know it seems ridiculously obvious to say that’s not my wife,” I said, “but that’s not my wife.”
Horace made some kind of grunting noise.
“May I show you a picture?” I said, reaching into my jacket. It was one of the copies I’d printed out of the snapshot I’d emailed to Detective Duckworth, taken in Chicago.
Horace took the picture first, gave it nothing more than a glance, then handed it to Gretchen.
She gave the picture the attention I thought it warranted, considering this was a woman with her daughter’s name and all. She studied it at arm’s length at first, then brought it up close, giving it a kind of microscopic examination, before putting it down on the table.
“Anything?” I said.
“I was just… noticing how beautiful your wife is,” she said, almost dreamily. “I like to think that if our Jan had lived, she would have been as pretty as your wife here.” She picked it up to hand it to me, then reconsidered. “If this woman, your wife, is using our daughter’s name, maybe she has some ties to this area. In case I saw her, should I hang on to this?”
I had other printed copies. I supposed it was possible Jan might yet show up here, although I now couldn’t imagine why, and it would be good for her image to be fresh in the Richlers’ minds. “Sure,” I said.
She took the picture and put it in the drawer with her daughter’s, and stood there with her back to us.
Horace said, “And that woman, she says we’re her parents?”
“She’s never talked about you by name,” I said. “I figured it out from her birth certificate.”
Gretchen turned slowly and said, “Didn’t it seem odd that she’s never taken you to meet her parents?”
“She’s always said she’s been estranged from her family. That was why I came here. I thought, maybe, she was trying to reestablish contact. Say her piece. Something. Because for the last couple of weeks she’s been very troubled. Depressed. I wondered if she could be, I don’t know, exorcising her demons. Confronting things that have troubled her for years.”
“Would you excuse me for a minute?” Gretchen asked, her voice shaking slightly.
Neither of us felt the need to give her permission. After she had climbed the stairs and we heard a door close, Horace said to me, “You think you’re over it, and then something comes along and opens up the wound all over again.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Yeah, well, whatever,” Horace said.
I nodded my regrets and attempted to stand up. I was a bit shaky on my feet.
“I hope you’re not thinking of getting behind the wheel of a car,” Horace said.
“I should be okay,” I said. “I’ll stop for a coffee or something on the way.”
“You look so tired even coffee may not help,” he said, the first time since I’d come here that he sounded at all conciliatory.
“I need to get back home, see my boy. I can pull over and grab a few winks if I have to,” I said.
From the top of the stairs, Gretchen said, “How old is your son? He looks about three in that picture with your wife.”
I watched as she descended, slowly coming into view. She seemed to have pulled herself together in the last couple of minutes. “He’s four,” I said. “His name is Ethan.”
“How long have you been married?”
“How’s it going to help your son if you fall asleep at the wheel and go into a ditch?”
I knew she was right. “I may find a place to stay,” I said.
Gretchen pointed to the couch, where Horace still sat. “You’d be more than welcome to stay here.”
The couch, with its bright crocheted pillows, suddenly looked very inviting.
“I don’t want to put you out,” I said.
“Please,” she said.
I nodded gratefully. “I’ll be gone first thing in the morning.”
Horace, his brow furrowed, had his face screwed up tight. “So if you don’t mind my asking,” he said, “if your wife is going around saying she’s Jan Richler but she’s not, then who the hell is she?”
The question had already been forming in my mind, but I’d been trying to ignore it.
Horace wasn’t done. “And how could she do that to our little girl? Take her name from her? Hasn’t she suffered enough?”
Sunday morning, the Duckworths’ clock radio went off at 6:30.
The detective didn’t move. He didn’t hear the newscaster say that it was going to be a cloudy day, or that it was only going to be in the high 70s, or that it might rain on Monday.
But Maureen Duckworth heard everything because she was already awake, and had been for some time. A nightmare-another one involving their nineteen-year-old son, Trevor, who was traveling around Europe with his girlfriend, Trish, and hadn’t phoned or sent them an email or anything in two days, which was typical of him, never giving a thought to how much his mother worried-woke her around four. In this dream, her son had decided to go bungee jumping off the Eiffel Tower, except somehow while he was on the way down he was attacked by flying monkeys.
She knew there were a lot of things that could happen to a kid away from home, but had to admit this particular scenario was unlikely. She persuaded herself that this nightmare held no special meaning, that it wasn’t an omen, that it was nothing more than a stupid, ridiculous dream. Having done that, she might normally have gotten back to sleep, had her husband’s snoring not been almost loud enough to shake the windows.
She gave Barry a shove so that he’d roll off his back and onto his side, but it didn’t do a damn bit of good. It was like sleeping next to a chain saw.
She twisted in the earplugs she kept next to her bed for just such emergencies, but they were about as effective as heading out naked in a snowstorm with nothing on but lip balm.
She had, in fact, been staring at the clock radio when it read 6:29, and was counting down the seconds in her head, waiting for it to come on. She was off by only two seconds.
She’d gotten Barry to try those strips that stick to the top of the nose, supposedly open up the nasal passages, but they didn’t do anything. Then she bought him some anti-snoring capsules he could take just before going to bed, but they struck out as well.
What she really thought would help would be if he lost a little weight. Which was why she’d been serving him fruits and granola at breakfast, packing him a lunch with plenty of carrot sticks, and cutting back on fried foods and butter at dinner.
She got out of bed and collected dirty clothes in the room. The clothes she’d taken off the night before, the slacks and shirt Barry had tossed off after coming in late from work. He’d put in an extra-long day, looking for this woman who went missing at the roller-coaster park.
She looked at the slacks. What was that on them? Was that ice cream? Mixed in with some kind of pie?
“Barry,” she said. He didn’t move. “Barry,” she said, a little louder so she could be heard over the snoring.
She walked around to his side of the bed and touched his shoulder.
He snorted, opened his eyes. He blinked a couple of times, heard the radio.
“Yeah, okay,” he said. “I didn’t even hear that come on.”
“I did,” Maureen said. “You sure you have to go in today?”
He moved his head sideways on the pillow. “I want to see if that release we put out last night turned up anything.”
“You want to tell me what this is?” she said, holding the stained trousers a few inches from his nose.
He squinted. “I was working vice undercover. Had to get a hand job in the line of duty.”
“You wish. That’s ice cream, isn’t it?”
“Maybe,” he said.
“Where’d you have ice cream?”
“The missing woman? I went to see her boss. You’ve seen that Bertram Heating and Cooling truck?”
“Him. His wife got me some pie.”
“With ice cream.”
“What kind of pie?”
Maureen Duckworth nodded, as if she suddenly understood. “I’d eat apple pie for breakfast if we had it.”
“What do we have?”
“You’re getting fruit and some fiber,” she said.
“You know torture’s not allowed now, right? New regime and all.”
The phone rang.
Maureen didn’t react. The phone could ring anytime, day or night, around here. “I’ll get it,” she said. She picked up the receiver on her side of the bed. “Hello… Yeah, hi… No, don’t worry about it, I was already up… Sure, he’s here… We’re just bringing in the hoist to get him out of bed.”
She held out the phone. Barry leaned across the bed to grab it.
“Duckworth,” he said.
“Hey, Detective. You got a pen?”
Barry grabbed the pen and paper that were always sitting by the phone. He wrote down a name and a number, made a couple of notes. “Great, thanks,” he said and hung up.
Maureen looked at him expectantly.
“We got something,” he said.
Duckworth waited until he was showered and dressed and had a cup of coffee in his hand before he dialed the number from the phone in the kitchen.
Someone picked up after two rings. “Ted’s,” a man said.
“Is this Ted Brehl?” Duckworth asked.
“Did I pronounce that right?”
“Like the letters for the blind, right.”
“This is Detective Barry Duckworth, Promise Falls police. You called in about half an hour ago?”
“Yeah. I saw that thing on the news last night. When I got up this morning, came in to open the store, I thought maybe I should give you a call.”
“Where’s your store?”
“Up by Lake George? On 87?”
“I know the area. Real pretty up there.”
Maureen put a bowl of granola, topped with bananas and strawberries, in front of her husband.
“Yeah, so, I saw that woman.”
“Yeah, she was in here.”
“When was that?”
“Friday. Like, must have been around five?”
“Five in the afternoon?”
“That’s right. She came in to buy some water and iced tea.”
“Was she alone?”
“She came into the store alone, but she was with a man, her husband, I guess. He was out in the car.” Ted Brehl’s description of it matched the vehicle owned by David Harwood.
“So they just stopped to buy some drinks and then left?”
“No, they sat out there for quite a while, talking. I looked out a couple of times. I looked out again around five-thirty, and they were gone.”
“You’re sure it was her?”
Brehl didn’t hesitate. “Oh yeah. I mean, I might normally have forgotten, but she struck up a conversation with me. And she’s a nice-looking lady, the kind you remember.”
“What did she talk about?”
“I’m trying to remember how she put it. She said she’d never been up this way before, first of all, at least not that she could remember. I asked her where she was going, and she said she didn’t exactly know.”
“She didn’t know?”
“She said her husband wanted to take her for a drive in the country, up into the woods. She said maybe it was some sort of surprise or something, because he’d told her not to tell anyone they were going.”
Duckworth thought about that.
“What else did she say?”
“That was about it, I guess.”
“How was her mood?”
“Was she happy? Depressed? Troubled?”
“She seemed just fine, you know?”
“Sure,” Duckworth said. “Listen, thanks for calling. I might be in touch again.”
“Okay. Just wanted to help.”
Duckworth hung up the phone, then looked down at his cereal. “You got some sugar or whipped cream I can put on this?” he asked.
Maureen sat down opposite him and said, “It’s been two days.” Barry knew instantly she was talking about their son, Trevor. He reached out and held her hand.
I woke early on the Richlers’ couch, but that was okay because they were early risers themselves. I heard Horace Richler banging around the kitchen shortly after six. From my vantage point, I could see him standing at the sink in slippers and robe. He ran some water into a glass and popped a couple of pills into his mouth, then turned and shuffled back toward the stairs.
Once he was gone, I threw off the crocheted blanket that Gretchen had told me she’d made herself. It was so huge I marveled that anyone under two hundred years of age could have stitched it. Even though I’d packed a small bag, I’d opted to sleep in my clothes, taking off only my jacket and shoes before I’d put my head down on an honest-to-God bed pillow, not a crocheted one, that Gretchen had provided.
“I’m sorry about not having anything better than the couch,” she’d said. “You see, no one sleeps in our son’s room. We’ve left it just the way it was. And the guest bedroom has kind of turned into storage, you know? We don’t get a lot of company.” She’d thought a moment. “I don’t think we’ve ever had any overnight guests, to tell you the truth. You might be our first, ever.”
I could have used a shower, but I didn’t want to push it. I grabbed my travel kit and went into the first-floor bathroom at the back of the house and shaved, brushed my teeth, and wet my hair enough to get the bumps flattened. When I came back out, I smelled coffee.
Gretchen was dressed and in the kitchen. “Good morning,” she said.
“How did you sleep?”
“Pretty good,” I said. Even though I’d gone to bed troubled and on overload, my body had been exhausted and I’d conked out right away. “How about you?”
She smiled, like she didn’t want what she had to say to hurt my feelings. “Not so great. Your news, it was disturbing. And it brought back a lot of bad memories for us. Especially for Horace. I mean, we both took the loss of Jan hard, but when you consider how it happened, he…”
“I understand,” I said. “I’m sorry. I had no way of knowing.”
“Something like this, it touches so many people. Us, our relatives, the school Jan went to. Her kindergarten teacher, Miss Stephens, had to take a leave for a week, she was so upset. All the kids in her class were devastated. The little girl who pushed her… If it happened today, they’d have probably put her in therapy. Maybe her parents did, who knows. Mr. Andrews, the school principal, he got them to put up a little plaque at the school in Jan’s memory. But I could never go look at it, and Horace, he couldn’t bear to see it. He didn’t want the fuss, except he wished they’d have put him in jail or something, like he said. So a lot of people, they were affected by this.”
“And then me,” I said.
“And then you. Coffee?”
“Except with you,” Gretchen said, “it’s different.”
She filled a mug with coffee from a glass carafe while I waited for her to continue.
“You didn’t know our Jan. Not ever. You don’t know any of us. And yet, here you are, sitting here, connected to us somehow.”
I poured some cream into the coffee, watched the liquids interact without stirring, and nodded. “And I don’t know exactly how,” I said.
Gretchen put both hands flat on the countertop, a gesture that seemed to foretell an important announcement, or at the very least, a direct comment. “Mr. Harwood, what do you really think has happened to your wife?”
“I don’t know,” I said honestly. “I’m worried that she may have harmed herself.”
Gretchen took half a second to understand what I was getting at. “But if she hasn’t, and you find her alive…” Gretchen was struggling with something here.
“Let’s say you find her, and she’s okay, is it going to be the same?”
“I’m not sure I follow.”
“Your wife can’t be Jan Richler. Isn’t that clear to you?”
I looked away.
“If she’s not the woman you’ve always believed she was, how are things going to be the same?”
“Perhaps,” I said slowly, “there’s just been some kind of a mix-up. Maybe there’s an explanation for this that’s not immediately obvious.”
Gretchen kept her eyes on me. “What kind of explanation?”
“I don’t know.”
“Why would anyone take on someone else’s identity? Why would they do that?”
“I don’t know.”
“And why, of all the people whose identity someone could take, why take my daughter’s?”
I couldn’t say it again.
“Horace was right, last night, when he asked how someone could do that to our girl. How could someone use her like that? All she is to us now is a name, and a memory. And all these years later, someone tries to steal that from us?”
“I’m sure Jan-” My wife’s name caught in my throat. “I’m sure there’s an explanation. If, for some reason, my wife had to take a name that was not her own, I’m sure she would never have intended any harm to you or your husband or the memory of your daughter.”
What the hell was I talking about? What possible scenario was I trying to envision?
“Suppose,” I said, thinking out loud, and very slowly, “she had to change her identity for some reason. And the name she had to take, that she was given, say, happened to be your daughter’s.”
Gretchen eyed me skeptically. I looked down at my untouched coffee.
“Horace couldn’t sleep last night,” she said. “It was more than just being upset. He was angry. Angry that someone would do such a thing. Angry at your wife. Even without knowing her.”
“I just hope,” I said, “that there’ll be a chance for you to tell her face-to-face what you think.”
Before I left, just in case Jan somehow turned up here, I wrote down my home and cell numbers and address, as well as my parents’ number and address.
“Please get in touch,” I said.
Gretchen placated me with a smile, like she knew she wasn’t going to have any news for me.
My cell rang on the way home. It was Mom.
“What’s happening?” she asked. “We’ve been worried sick, wondering why you haven’t called.”
“I’ll be home in a few hours,” I said.
“Did you find her?”
“What about the Richlers? Did you find them?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Did Jan go see them? Have they heard from her?”
“No,” I said. I didn’t want to get into it. I was almost afraid to ask how Ethan was, given his rambunctious nature, but did anyway.
“He’s fine. We thought a truck hit the house this morning, but it was just him jumping on the stairs. Your father’s got him in the basement now to-”
Mom actually laughed. “He and your father are in the basement talking about building a train set.”
“Okay. I’m going to go by the house on the way. Then I’ll come and pick up Ethan.”
“I love you,” Mom said.
“Love you, too.”
The interstate’s a pretty good place to let your mind wander. You can put your car on cruise, and your brain as well, if you want. But my thoughts were all over the place. And they all circled around one thing.
Why did my wife have the name and birth certificate of a child who had died years ago at the age of five?
It was more than some crazy coincidence. This wasn’t a case of two people having the same name by chance. Jan’s birth certificate details had led me to the Richlers’ front door.
I thought about the things I’d speculated to Gretchen. That maybe Jan had been required to take on a new identity.
I tried to work it out. Jan Richler, the Jan Richler I’d married, the woman I’d been with for six years, the woman I’d had a child with, was not really Jan Richler.
It was hardly a secret that if you could find the name of someone who’d died at a young age, there was a good chance you could build a new identity with it. I’d worked in the news business long enough to learn how it could be done. You applied for a new copy of the deceased’s birth certificate, since birth and death certificates were often not cross-referenced, certainly not several decades ago. With that, you acquired other forms of identification. A Social Security number. A library card. A driver’s license.
It wasn’t impossible for someone to become someone else. My wife had become Jan Richler, and when she met and married me, Jan Harwood.
But before that, she had to have been someone else.
And what was the most likely reason for someone to shed a past life and start up a new one?
Two words came to mind immediately: Witness protection.
“Jesus Christ,” I said aloud in the empty car.
Maybe that was it. Jan had witnessed something, testified in some court case. Against whom? The mob? Was it ever anyone but the mob? Bikers, maybe? It had to be someone, or some organization, with the resources to track her down and exact revenge if they managed to do it.
If that was the case, the authorities would have had to create a new identity for her.
It was the kind of secret she might feel she could never tell me. Maybe she was worried that if I knew, it would expose me-and more important, Ethan-to risks we couldn’t even imagine.
No wonder she’d hidden her birth certificate. The last thing she wanted me to do was nose around and blow her cover. Not because of what it would mean to her, but because of what it might mean to us, as a family.
And if she was a protected witness, relegated to living out a new life in some new location, what, if anything, did it have to do with her disappearance?
Had someone figured out where she was? Did she believe she was about to be discovered? Did she run to save herself?
But if she did, why couldn’t she have found a way to tell me something?
And if Jan’s life was in danger, was I doing the right thing in trying to find her? Would I end up leading the person or persons who wanted to do her harm right to her?
Assuming, of course, that any of my theories about Jan being in the witness protection program were anything other than total horseshit.
I’d have to tell Barry Duckworth what I’d learned. He’d no doubt have connections, people he could talk to who might be able to reveal whether Jan-under another name-had ever been a star witness in an important trial. Maybe-
My phone rang. I’d left it on the seat next to me so I could grab it quickly.
“David, Jesus, you’re the biggest story on the news and you don’t let your own goddamn paper know about it?”
Brian Donnelly, the city editor.
“Brian,” I said.
“Where are you?”
“I-90. I’m coming back from Rochester.”
“Man, this is terrible,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said. “Jan’s been gone since about-”
“I mean, shit, by the time the cops issued their release, the paper had already gone to bed, so TV and radio have it, but we haven’t got anything in the edition, and it’s about one of our own people! Madeline’s totally pissed. What the hell? You couldn’t call us with this?”
“Sorry, Brian,” I deadpanned. “I don’t know what I was thinking.”
“Look, I want to put Samantha on the line, she can get some quotes from you for the main story, but I want to know whether you could write a first-person. ‘Mystery Hits Close to Home for Standard Reporter.’ That kind of thing. I don’t mean to come across as an asshole or anything, but-”
“No worries there,” I said.
“But a first-person perspective would be really good. We haven’t gotten much from the cops about what actually happened, and you could give us some of that, and you know, this kind of play, it might help you find… uh, find…”
“Jan,” I said.
“Exactly. So if you-”
I flipped the phone shut and tossed it back over on the passenger seat. A few seconds later it rang again. I flipped it open and put it to my ear.
“Dave? It’s Samantha here.”
“I just heard what Brian said to you. My God, I am so sorry. He’s the King of Doucheland. I can’t believe he said those things.”
“Yeah, he’s something.”
“Is Jan still missing?”
“Can you talk about it? Is there anything you can say, for the record?”
“Just… that I’m hoping she’ll be home soon.”
“The cops are being real weird about it, I have to tell you,” she said.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“They’re just not saying much. Duckworth’s the head of the investigation. You know him?”
“Oh yeah, stupid question. He’s releasing very few details, although we learned that something happened at Five Mountains, right?”
“Sam, I’m on the way home. I’m going to see Duckworth when I get back, and maybe then we’ll have a better idea what we’re dealing with. I honestly hadn’t expected them to release anything until this morning. The news last night, that caught me off guard.”
“Okay, off the record. How are you holding up?”
“Not so good.”
“Listen, I’ll call you later, okay? Give you some time to get your shit together.”
I pulled into my driveway shortly before noon.
Once I was in the door, I called out Jan’s name. Just in case.
For the last twenty miles, all I could think about was the birth certificate I had found. I needed to see it again. I needed to prove to myself that I hadn’t imagined it.
Before I went upstairs, I checked to see whether there were any phone messages. There were five, all from different media outlets asking for interviews. I saved all of them, thinking at some point I might be willing to give as many as I could if it meant more people would know Jan was missing.
Then I went upstairs.
I opened the linen closet and dragged out everything from the bottom. I crawled into the closet and pried away the baseboard along the back wall with a screwdriver I’d found in the kitchen drawer.
The envelope, the one that had contained a birth certificate for Jan Richler, and a key, was gone.
She was actually asleep when the man in the bed next to her threw back the covers and padded across the bristly carpet to the bathroom. She’d stared at the ceiling for a long time after getting back under the covers, wondering whether she’d ever nod off. Thinking about what she’d done, the life she’d left behind.
The body they’d buried.
But at some point, it happened. Her anxiety surrendered, at last, to weariness. If only it had been a restful sleep.
Like her, Dwayne had slept naked. Dwayne Osterhaus was a thin, wiry man, just under six feet tall, with a small tattoo of the number “6” on his right buttock. It was, he believed, his lucky number. “Everyone picks seven, but I like six.” His lean, youthful body was betrayed by his thinning gray hair. Maybe prison did that to you, she thought, watching him with one eye open as he crossed the room. Turned you gray early.
He closed the bathroom door but she could still hear him taking a leak. Went on forever. She reached for the remote and clicked on the TV, thumbed the volume button to drown him out. It was one of the morning news shows out of New York. The two hosts, a man and a woman, were jabbering on about which couples were in the lead to get married on live TV.
The bathroom door opened, filling the room with the sound of a flushing toilet.
“Hey,” he said, glancing at the set. “I thought I heard voices out here. You’re awake.” She hit the mute button as he crawled back into the bed.
“Yeah, I’m awake.”
“How’d you sleep?”
“Me, any time I woke up, I kept listening for the sounds of other guys breathing, snoring, having a middle-of-the-night wank. As much as that can fuck up your sleep, the sounds all start blending together, you know, and you get used to them. I guess it’s a bit like when you live in New York or something, and you hear horns honking all night, after a while you don’t notice it. Then you go sleep someplace where all the noises are gone, at least the ones you know, you really notice the difference. That’s how it was when I woke up. I thought, hey, where the fuck am I? Lot of truck traffic on the highway all goddamn night, but that’s not what I’m used to. You still got your headache?”
“In the night, you had a headache. You still got it?”
“No,” she said, and immediately regretted it.
Dwayne shifted closer to her under the covers, slipped his hand down between her legs.
“Hey,” she said. “You’ve been away so long you think you have to get to the main event right away. No one’s marching you back to a cell in five minutes.”
“Sorry,” he said. She’d mentioned this before, but in a different context. At last night’s dinner at the Big Boy just off the interstate, he’d had his meal half eaten before she had her napkin unfolded and on her lap. He was shoveling it in like the restaurant was in flames, and he wanted his fill before his hair caught fire. When she mentioned it to him, he explained he’d gotten into the habit of finishing his food before someone else tried to grab it away from him.
He moved his hand away, lightly played with one of her nipples. She turned to face him. Why not be a bit accommodating? she thought. Play the role. She reached down to take him in her hand. She wondered what he might have done in prison. Had he had sex with men? She knew he wasn’t that way, but half a decade was a long time to go without. You made do. Had he? Maybe she’d ask him sometime. Then again, maybe not. A guy might be touchy about that kind of thing, asking whether he’d engaged in a bit of knob gobbling while he was away.
Not that it mattered to her one way or the other. She was just curious. She liked to know things.
Dwayne figured thirty seconds of foreplay was more than enough to get her motor running. He threw himself on top of her. The whole thing was over in a minute, and for that she was grateful.
“Wow, that was great,” she said.
“You sure?” he asked. “I kind of, you know, could have gone longer, babe, but it just happened.”
“No, you were terrific,” she said.
“Listen,” he said, propping himself up on his elbow, “what should I call you now? I need to get used to something other than your regular name. Like if we’re in public. I guess I could call you Blondie.” He nodded toward the wig on her bedside table and grinned. “You look hot as shit when you’re wearing that, by the way.”
She thought a moment. “Kate,” she said.
“Yeah,” she said. “From now on, I’m Kate.”
Dwayne flopped onto his back and stared at the cracked plaster overhead. “Well, Kate, sometimes I can’t believe it’s over. Seemed more like a hundred years, you know? Other guys, they just did their time, day after day after day, and it’s not like they didn’t want it to be over, but it wasn’t like they had anything waiting for them when they got out. Me, every day I just kept thinking about what my life would be like when I finally got the fuck out of there.”
“I guess not everybody had waiting for them what you had waiting,” said Kate.
Dwayne glanced over. “No shit,” he said. “Plus, I had you waiting, too.”
Kate had not been foolish enough to think he’d been talking about her in the first place.
“I know you probably still think I’m the stupidest son of a bitch on the planet,” he said.
She said nothing.
“I mean, we were all set, and then I get picked up for something totally unrelated. You don’t think I wasn’t kicking myself every single day, asking myself how I could be so fucking stupid? The thing is, that guy provoked me. I never should have gone down for that. It was justifiable. My lawyer sold me out, that’s what he did.”
She’d heard it before.
“A guy takes a swing at you with a pool cue, what, exactly, are you supposed to do? Stand there and let him hit you in the head with it?”
“If you’d paid him the money you owed him, it wouldn’t have come to that,” she said. “Then he wouldn’t have taken a swing at you, and you wouldn’t have picked up the eight ball and driven it right into his forehead.”
“Good thing the son of a bitch came out of his coma before sentencing,” Dwayne said. “They’d have sent me away forever.”
Neither of them said anything for a couple of minutes. Dwayne finally broke the silence with “I have to admit, babe, every once in a while, I’d get a bit worried.”
“About what?” she asked.
“That you wouldn’t wait. I mean, it’s a long time. Even when it’s something good at the end, it’s a long time.”
Kate reached over and lazily traced circles around his nipples. “I don’t want to make it sound like I had it as bad as you,” she said, “but I was kind of in a prison of my own while you were in yours.”
“You were smart, I gotta hand it to you, the way you did it, getting a new name, disappearing so fast.”
The thing was, she’d already had that in place, even though she hadn’t started using it right away. Just seemed like a good idea. Planning ahead and all that. Even she hadn’t expected to be needing it so soon.
Dwayne had already been going by another name around the time it all went down-not that he had all the documents Kate had-and was confident if that guy started asking around, things wouldn’t get traced back to him. When he got arrested for the assault, it was his real name that went in the paper, so no major worries there. But once things went south, even before Dwayne did the dumbass thing with the eight ball, she started playing it safe. With so much waiting for her at the end of the rainbow, she didn’t want to end up dead before she got there. She didn’t want to leave anything to chance. Not when she realized the courier had lived.
“So this guy,” Dwayne said.
“Whaddya mean, what guy? The guy you married. That guy.”
“What about him?”
“What was he like?”
She wasn’t going to answer, then said, “He loved me. In spite of everything.”
“But what was he like?”
“He’s… never realized his potential.”
Dwayne nodded. “That’s what I’m about. Realizing my potential. You’re going to have a much brighter future with me, that you can count on. You know what I’d like to do? I’d like to live on a boat. You’re so totally fucking free. You don’t like where you are, you cast off, you go someplace else. And you get to see a whole lot of the world. What about you? You want to live on a boat?”
“I’ve never really thought about it,” she said, and stopped running her finger on his chest. Now she was looking at the ceiling, too. “I think I might get seasick. One time, when I was a kid, my parents took that ferry across Lake Michigan and I puked over the side.” She paused and became briefly reflective. “I like the idea of an island, though. Someplace with a beach, where you could sit all day and watch the waves roll in. A piña colada in my hand. No one to bother me, pick on me, ask me for anything. Just a place where I could go and live the rest of my life in peace.”
Dwayne hadn’t listened to a word. “I’d like to get a big one. A boat with whaddyacallems, staterooms or something. Little bedrooms. And they’re not like sleeping on some fucking submarine or something. It’d be a nice size bed. And every night, when you’re going to sleep, you hear the water banging up against the boat, it’s real relaxing.”
“Banging?” she said.
“Maybe not banging. Lapping? Should I have said ‘lapping’?”
“Have you ever even been on a boat before?” Kate asked him.
Dwayne Osterhaus screwed up his face momentarily. “I don’t think you have to have done something to know you’d like it. I never been in the sack with Beyoncé, but I got a pretty good idea I’d enjoy it.”
“She’s been waiting for your call,” she said. She threw back the covers. “I’m going to take a shower.”
Walking to the bathroom, she wondered what had happened in the years since she’d last been with Dwayne. Something was different. Sure, he was no rocket scientist when she was with him before, but there’d been compensations. Living on the edge, the almost constant, awesome sex, the thrill of taking chances, not knowing what the next day would bring.
Dwayne seemed to fit the bill back then. He suited her purposes. He helped her get the things she needed. It was no surprise that he’d be different now. A guy gets sent up for a few years, he’s not going to be the same guy when he gets out.
Maybe it wasn’t just him. Maybe someone else had changed.
“I need some breakfast,” he said. “Like a Grand Slam, you know? The whole thing. Eggs, sausage, pancakes. I’m goddamn starving.”
At Denny’s, they got a low-rise booth next to a man who was taking two small children out for breakfast. The man, his back to Dwayne, was telling the boys-they looked to be twins, maybe six years old-to sit still instead of getting up and standing on the seat.
The waitress handed them their menus and Dwayne said, smiling ear to ear, “Kate and me could use some coffee.” While the waitress went for the pot, Dwayne grinned and said, “I thought I’d start getting used to it.”
“You say it like that, she’s going to know there’s something fishy about it,” she said.
The waitress set two mugs on the table, filled them, then reached into the pocket of her apron for creams.
Dwayne said to Kate, “I’m thinking sausage, bacon, and ham. You should get that, too, put some meat on your bones.” He grinned at the waitress. “You keep these coffees topped up, ya hear?”
“You bet,” she said. “You know what you want or you need a few minutes?”
“I want a donut!” one of the boys shouted behind Dwayne.
“We’re not getting donuts,” the father said. “You want some bacon and eggs? Scrambled the way you like them?”
“I want a donut!” the boy whined.
Dwayne was grinding his teeth as he ordered his Grand Slam with extra meat, while Kate ordered as basic an order of pancakes as was possible. “No home fries, no sausage, just pancakes,” she said. “Syrup on the side.”
As the waitress walked away, Dwayne glanced over his shoulder at the kid that was annoying him, then leaned toward Kate and whispered, “I think your wig’s a bit cockeyed.”
She reached up and adjusted it, trying to make it look like she was just patting her own hair, making sure everything was in place.
“You look good like that,” he said. “You should keep it that way. You should dye it.”
“And if the cops somehow figure out they’re looking for a blonde, what am I supposed to do? Dye it again? I’d rather get myself a couple more wigs.”
Dwayne smiled lasciviously. “You could wear a different one every night.”
“That how they do it inside?” she asked. “Guy’s a redhead one night, brunette the next, takes your mind off the fact he’s a man?”
She couldn’t believe she’d said it.
Dwayne’s eyes narrowed. “Excuse me?”
“Forget it,” she said.
“There something you want to ask me?” he asked.
“I said forget it.”
The twins, when they weren’t whining because their father wouldn’t let them order french fries for breakfast, were jabbing at each other. The father yelled at them both to stop it, prompting each to accuse the other of starting it.
Dwayne’s eyes were boring into Kate.
“I said forget it,” she said.
“You think I’m a faggot?” he asked.
“No,” she said.
“‘Cause a person might do things and still not be a faggot,” he said.
No more wondering now, she thought.
“You want to go places you shouldn’t?” he asked. “I can do that, too, Kate.”
“How’s it feel, putting your friend in the ground?”
“She wasn’t my friend,” she said.
“You worked in the same office together.”
“She wasn’t my friend. And I get it. We’re even. I’m sorry.”
“He did it first!” one of the boys whimpered.
Dwayne closed his eyes. Through gritted teeth, he said, “Fucking kids.”
“It’s not their fault,” she said, relieved to be able to channel Dwayne’s thoughts to the kids, and away from her comment. “They have to be taught how to behave in a restaurant. Their dad should have brought something for them to do, a coloring book, a video game, something. That’s what you do.”
Dwayne took a few deep breaths, inhaling and exhaling through his nose.
The waitress served the father and twins, and a moment later, brought plates for Kate and Dwayne. He was on it like a bear on a bag of trash.
“Eat your breakfast,” the father said behind Dwayne.
“I don’t want to,” said one twin.
The other one suddenly showed up at the end of Kate and Dwayne’s table. He inspected their breakfast until Dwayne said, “Piss off.”
Then the boy began strolling up to the cash register. The father twisted around in his booth and said, “Alton, come here!”
Dwayne looked at Kate and mouthed, “Alton?”
She poured some syrup on her pancakes, cut out a triangle from one and speared it with her fork. There’d been plenty of things to lose her appetite over in the last twenty-four hours, but she was hungry just the same. Had been since the middle of the night, when she’d stood at the window looking at the McDonald’s sign. And she had a feeling that she needed to eat fast, that they might not be staying here much longer.
Dwayne shoveled more food into his mouth, put the mug to his lips, mixed everything together. His mouth still full, he said, “What were the odds, huh?”
She couldn’t guess where his mind was. Was he talking about the odds that they would be here, today, getting ready to do the thing they’d been waiting so long to do?
When she didn’t answer, he said, “That we’d run into her? That she’d see us?”
“Alton, come back here right now!”
“But I gotta say,” Dwayne continued, “I think we turned a bad situation into a positive.”
“Alton, I’m warning you, you better get back here!”
“My eggs are icky!” said the twin still at the table.
Dwayne spun around, put one hand on the father’s throat, drove him down sideways and slammed his head onto the bench. The man’s arm swept across the table, knocking coffee and a plate of eggs and bacon all over himself and the floor. His eyes were wide with fear as he struggled for breath. He batted pitifully at Dwayne’s arm, roped with muscle, pinning the man like a steel beam. The boy at the table watched, speechless and horrified.
Dwayne said, “I was going to have a word with your boys, but my girl here says it’s your fault they act like a couple of fucking wild animals. You need to teach them how to behave when they’re out.”
She was on her feet. “We need to go,” she said.
“When was this again?” Barry Duckworth asked.
Gina tried to think. “Around the beginning of last week? Maybe Monday or Tuesday? Wait, not this past week, but the week before.”
“I’m not saying you have to do this now,” the detective said, getting a whiff of pizza dough baking in the oven, “but if I needed you to find the receipt for that night, do you think you could?”
“Probably,” she said. “Mr. Harwood usually pays with a credit card.”
“Okay, that’s good. Because at some point I may need to know exactly when this happened.” Duckworth was already thinking about Gina on a witness stand, how a defense attorney would slice her up like-well, that pizza he thought he could smell cooking-if she couldn’t remember when the incident took place.
“So Mr. and Mrs. Harwood are pretty regular customers at your restaurant here?”
Gina hesitated. “Regular? Maybe every three weeks or so. Once a month? I really wonder if I’ve done the right thing.”
“About calling the police. I think maybe I shouldn’t have done this.”
Duckworth reached across the restaurant table, covered with a white cloth, and patted her hand. “You did the right thing.”
“I didn’t even see it on the news at first, but my son, who works here in the kitchen, he saw it, and he said, ‘Hey, isn’t that those people who come in here once in a while?’ So he showed me the story on the TV station’s website, and I saw that it was Mrs. Harwood, and that’s when I remembered what had happened here that night. But now that I’ve called the police, I think I may have done a terrible thing.”
“That’s not true,” the detective said.
“I don’t want to get Mr. Harwood in trouble. I’m sure he’d never do anything to hurt his wife. He’s a very nice man.”
“I’m sure he is.”
“And he always leaves a fair tip. Not, you know, huge, but just about right. I hope you’re not going to tell him that I spoke to you.”
“We always do our best to be discreet,” Duckworth said, promising nothing.
“But my son, he said I should call you. So that’s what I did.”
“Tell me what the Harwoods are usually like when they’re here.”
“Usually, they’re very happy,” she said. “I try not to listen in on my customers. People want to have their private conversations. But you can tell when a couple are having a bad evening, even if you can’t hear exactly what they are saying. It’s how they lean back in their chairs, or they don’t look at each other.”
“Body language,” Duckworth said.
Gina nodded enthusiastically. “Yes, that’s it. But the last time they were here, forget about the body language. I could hear what they were saying. Well, at least what she was saying.”
“And what was that?”
“They’d been talking about something that couldn’t have been good, because they both looked very upset. And I was coming over to the table, and that was when she said to him something like ‘You’d be happy if something happened to me.’”
“Those were her words?”
“It might have been different. Maybe she said he’d be happy if she was dead. Or he was rid of her. Something like that.”
“Did you hear Mr. Harwood say anything like that to her?”
“Not really, but maybe that was what he said to her just before she got so upset. Maybe he told her he wished she was dead. That’s what I was thinking.”
“But you didn’t actually hear him say that?” Duckworth asked, making notes.
Gina thought. “No, but she was very upset. She got up from the table and they left without having the rest of their dinner.”
Duckworth sniffed the air. “I can’t imagine leaving here without eating.”
Gina smiled broadly. “Would you like a slice of my special pizza?”
Duckworth smiled back. “I guess it would be rude to say no, wouldn’t it?”
When he got back into his car, after an astonishing slice of cheese-and-portobello-mushroom pizza, Duckworth made a couple of calls.
The first was to his wife. “Hey,” he said. “Just called to see what was going on.”
“Not much,” Maureen said.
“No emails or anything?”
“He’s five or six hours ahead, so he has to be up by now.”
“Don’t be too sure.”
“Don’t worry. Just do your thing. Did you eat the salad I packed you?”
“I won’t lie. I’m still a little hungry.”
“Tomorrow I’ll put in a banana.”
“Okay. I’ll call you later.”
The second call was to see whether Leanne Kowalski had come home. He didn’t call her husband-he didn’t want to get into a discussion with him right now-but he knew he’d be able to find out what he needed to know by calling headquarters.
She had not come home.
The detective felt it was time to step up efforts where she was concerned. Someone needed to be working exclusively on that while he worked the Harwood disappearance, and they’d need to compare notes several times through the day to see where the two cases intersected, assuming they did. He put in a call to the Promise Falls police headquarters to see what could be done on that front.
Duckworth was thinking he might need to take a drive up to Lake George before the day was over, but there was at least one other stop he wanted to make first.
Along the way, he thought about how this was coming together:
David Harwood called the police to tell them his wife had gone missing during a trip to Five Mountains. But there was no record of her entering the park. Tickets to get him and his son in were purchased online, but there was no ticket for his wife.
This is what trips them up. They try to save a few bucks and end up in jail for the rest of their lives.
You think they’re too smart to make a mistake that dumb. And then you think about that bozo who helped bomb the World Trade Center back in 1993, gets caught when he’s trying to get his deposit back on the rental truck that carried the explosives.
The surveillance cameras at the amusement park failed to turn up any images of Jan Harwood. Not conclusive, Duckworth thought, but not a very good sign for Mr. Harwood. They’d have to go over the images more thoroughly. They’d have to be sure.
David Harwood’s story that his wife was suicidal wasn’t passing the sniff test. No one he’d spoken to so far shared his assessment of Jan Harwood’s mental state. Most damning of all-Harwood’s tale that his wife had been to see her doctor about her depression, and Dr. Samuels’s report that she’d never shown up.
Now, Gina’s story about Jan Harwood telling her husband he’d be pleased if she weren’t in the picture anymore-what the hell was that about?
And the Lake George trip. David Harwood hadn’t mentioned anything about that. A witness had put Jan Harwood in Lake George the night before she disappeared. The store owner, Ted Brehl, reported that Jan had said she didn’t know where she was headed, that her husband was planning some sort of surprise. And her boss, Ernie Bertram, had backed this up, saying that Jan was headed on some sort of “mysterious” trip with her husband Friday.
Was it possible Ted Brehl was the last person to see Jan Harwood? Not counting David Harwood, of course. Duckworth was becoming increasingly convinced that David Harwood was the last person to see his wife alive.
And he was getting a gut feeling no one else ever would.
Arlene Harwood tried to keep busy. Her husband, who could sometimes get underfoot and be-let’s be honest here-a real pain in the ass when he started telling her how to do things, was entertaining Ethan. That was good. Don had gone into the garage and found an old croquet set, and with Ethan’s help had set it up in the backyard. But Ethan quickly adopted a playing style that had little to do with hitting the wooden balls through the hoops. Just whacking the balls in any old direction kept him occupied, and Don quickly abandoned plans to teach his grandson the game’s finer points.
Arlene, meanwhile, went from one activity to another. She did some dishes, she ironed, she paid some bills online, she tried to read the paper, she flipped through the TV channels. The one thing she did not do, at least not for more than a minute or so, was use the phone. She didn’t want to tie up the line. David might call. Maybe the police.
When she wasn’t feeling desperately worried for her daughter-in-law, she was thinking about her son and grandson. What if something had happened to Jan? How would David deal with it? How would Ethan deal with losing a mother?
She didn’t want to let her mind go there. She wanted to think positively, but she’d always been a realist. Might as well prepare yourself for the worst, and if things turned out better than you’d expected, well, that was a bonus.
She racked her brain trying to figure out where Jan might have gone, what might have happened to her. The thing was, she’d always had a feeling that she’d never shared with her son or her husband. She certainly couldn’t tell Don-he’d never be able to keep his mouth shut about how she felt. But there was something about Jan that wasn’t quite right.
Arlene Harwood couldn’t say what it was. It might have had something to do with how Jan handled men, and didn’t handle women. David had fallen for her hard soon after he met her while doing a story for the Standard on people looking for jobs at the city employment office. Jan was new to town, looking for work, and David tried to coax some quotes out of her. But Jan was reserved, didn’t want her name in the paper or to be part of the piece.
Something about her touched David. She seemed, he once disclosed to his mother, “adrift.”
Although she wouldn’t be interviewed for the piece, she did disclose, after some persistent questioning from David, that she lived alone, didn’t have anyone in her life, and had no family here.
David had once said if it hadn’t been so corny, he would have asked her how a woman as beautiful as Jan could be so alone. Arlene Harwood had thought it a question worth asking.
When David finished interviewing other, more willing subjects at the employment office, he spotted Jan outside waiting for a bus. He offered her a lift, and after some hesitation, she accepted. She had rented a room over a pool hall.
“That’s really-I mean, it’s none of my business,” David said, “but that’s not really a good place for you to live.”
“It’s all I can afford at the moment,” she said. “When I get a job, I’ll find something better.”
“What are you paying?” he asked.
Jan’s eyes widened. “You’re right, it’s none of your business.”
“Tell me,” he said.
David went back to the paper to write his story. After he’d filed it, he made a call to a woman he knew in Classified. “You got any rentals going in tomorrow I can get a jump on? I know someone looking for a place. Let me give you the price range.”
She emailed him copies of four listings. On the way home, he parked across from the pool hall, went upstairs and down a hallway, knocking on doors until he found Jan.
He handed her the list he’d printed out. “These won’t be in the paper until tomorrow. At least three of these are in way better parts of town than this, and they’re the same as what you’re paying now.” He tried to peer past her into her room. “Doesn’t look like you’d have that much to pack.”
“Who the hell are you?” Jan asked him.
That weekend, he helped her move.
Someone new to rescue, his mother thought, after Samantha Henry made it clear she could manage on her own, thank you very much.
It was a short courtship. (Arlene grimaced to herself; there was a word nobody used anymore. “Courtship.” Just how old was she, anyway?) But damn it all, things did move fast.
They were married in a matter of months.
“Why wait?” David said to his mother. “If she’s the right one, she’s the right one. I’ve been spinning my wheels long enough. I’ve already got a house.” It was true. He’d bought it a couple of years ago, having been persuaded by the business editor that only saps paid rent.
“Jan wants to rush into this, too?”
“And remind me how long you knew Dad before you got married?”
“Got you there,” Don said, walking in on the conversation. They’d gone out for five months before eloping.
The thing was, Don had loved Jan from the first time David brought her home. Jan ingratiated herself effortlessly with David’s father, but did she really make the same effort with his mother? Maybe Arlene was imagining it, but it struck her that Jan had a natural way with men. She got them to give her what she wanted without their even realizing it.
No great mystery there, Arlene thought. Jan was unquestionably desirable. She had the whole package. Not a supermodel’s face, maybe, but the full lips and eyes, the pert nose, went together well. Her long legs looked great in everything from a tight skirt to tattered jeans. And she had a way of communicating her sex appeal without it being tarty. No batting of the eyelashes, no baby girl voices. It was just something she gave off, like a scent.
When David first started bringing her around, Don made an absolute fool of himself, always offering to take her coat, freshen her drink, get her another sofa cushion. Arlene finally spoke to him. “For Christ’s sake,” she said one evening after David and Jan went home. “What’s wrong with you? What’s next? You gonna give her a back rub?”
Don, awakened to the fact that he’d gone overboard, managed to tone it down from that point on, but never stopped being entranced by his son’s girlfriend and future wife.
Arlene, however, was immune to that kind of charm. Not that Jan had ever been anything but cordial with her. (“Cordial”? There I go again, Arlene thought.) But Arlene felt the girl knew that what worked with men wouldn’t pass muster with her.
What kind of girl, Arlene wondered, cuts off all ties with her family? Sure, not everyone came from a home as loving as the one she made, but come on. Jan didn’t even let her parents know when Ethan was born. How bad did parents have to be not to let them know they had a grandson?
Jan must have had her reasons, Arlene told herself. But it just didn’t seem right.
The doorbell rang.
Arlene was only steps away from the door at the time, going through the front hall closet, wondering how many years it had been since some of the coats at the ends had been worn, whether it was time to donate some of them to Goodwill. Startled by the sound, she clutched her chest and shouted, “My God!”
She closed the closet so she could see the front door. Through the glass she spotted an overweight man in a suit and loosened tie.
“You scared me half to death,” she said as she opened the door.
“I’m sorry. I’m Detective Duckworth, Promise Falls police. You’re Mrs. Harwood?”
“I’m heading the investigation into your daughter-in-law’s disappearance. I’d like to ask you some questions.”
“Oh, of course, please come in.” As Duckworth crossed the threshold she asked, “You haven’t found her, have you?”
“No, ma’am,” he said. “Is your son home?”
“No, but Ethan’s here. He’s out back playing with his grandfather. Did you want me to get him in here?”
“No, that’s okay. I met Ethan yesterday. He’s a handsome young fellow.”
Normally, Arlene Harwood might have swelled with pride. But she was too anxious about why the detective was here. She pointed to the living room couch, then realized several of Ethan’s action figures were scattered there.
“That’s okay,” Duckworth said, moving them out of the way. “My son’s nearly twenty and still collects these things.” He sat down and waited for Arlene to do the same.
“Should I get my husband?” she asked.
“We can talk for a moment, and then maybe I’ll have a chat with him. This is the first I’ve had a chance to talk to you.”
“If there’s anything I can do-”
“Oh, I know. Your son… this must be a terrible time for him right now.”
“It’s just dreadful for all of us. Ethan, he doesn’t really understand how serious it is. He just thinks his mother has gone away for a little while.”
Duckworth found an opening. “You have some reason to think that’s not the case?”
“Oh, I mean, what I meant was… I mean, we are hoping that’s all this is. But it’s so unlike Jan to just take off. She’s never done anything like that before, or if she has, David’s certainly never mentioned it.” She bit her lip, thinking maybe that came out wrong. “I mean, not that he keeps things from me. He counts on us a lot for support. We-my husband and I-look after Ethan all the time, now that we’re retired. He doesn’t go to day care, and he’ll be starting school next month.”
“Of course,” Barry said. “Have you noticed anything out of the ordinary with Jan lately? A change in mood?”
“Oh my, yes. David’s been saying the last couple of weeks Jan has seemed very down, depressed. It’s been a tremendous worry to him. Did he tell you Jan talked about jumping off a bridge?”
“I can’t imagine what might have triggered it.”
“So you observed this yourself, this change in Jan’s mood?”
Arlene stopped to consider. “Well, she’s not here all that much. Dropping off Ethan in the morning, picking him up at night. We usually only have time to say a few words to each other.”
“Keeping in mind that you’ve only seen her for short periods, would you agree that Jan’s been troubled lately?”
“Well,” she hesitated, “I think Jan always puts on her best face when she’s around her in-laws. I think if she was feeling bad, she might try not to show it.”
“So you can’t point to any one incident, say, where Jan acted depressed?”
“Not that I can think of.”
“That’s okay. I’m just asking all kinds of questions here, and some of them, I have to admit, may not make a lot of sense, you know?”
“Do you know whether Jan and Leanne Kowalski ever talked about taking a trip together? Were they close friends?”
“Leanne? Isn’t that the girl who works in the office with Jan?”
“No, I’m afraid I don’t know. I don’t really know who Jan socializes with. You’d do better asking David about that.”
“That’s a good idea,” he said. “Now, I’m just trying to nail down Jan’s movements in the day before she went missing.”
“Why is that important?” Arlene Harwood asked.
“It just gives us a better idea of a person’s habits and their behavior.”
“Do you know what Jan was doing on the Friday before she went to the Five Mountains park?”
“I don’t really know. I mean-oh wait, she and David went for a drive.”
“Oh yes?” Duckworth said, making notes. “A drive where?”
“I’m trying to remember. But David asked if we would look after Ethan longer that day, because he had to go someplace and Jan was going to go along with him.”
“Do you know where they were going? What they were going to do?”
“I’m not sure. You really should ask David. Do you want me to get him on the phone? He’s on his way back from Rochester right now.”
“No, that’s okay. I just wondered if you had any idea.”
“I think it had something to do with work. He’s a reporter for the Standard, but you probably already know that.”
“I do, yes. So you think he was going somewhere on a story. An interview?”
“I really can’t say. I know he’s been working on that new prison that’s supposed to come to town. You know about that?”
“I’ve heard about it,” Duckworth said. “Isn’t it unusual for your son to take his wife along with him when he’s working?”
Arlene hesitated and shrugged. “I don’t really know.”
“So, he asked you to babysit Ethan until they got back from this trip?”
“When was that?”
“In the evening. Before it got dark. David came by to pick up Ethan.”
“David and Jan,” Duckworth said.
“Actually, just David,” Arlene said.
“Jan waited in the car?”
“No, David came by on his own.”
Duckworth nodded, like there was nothing odd about this, but he had a strange tingling going on in the back of his neck. “So why would that be? Wouldn’t it make sense for the two of them to drop by here on the way home and pick up Ethan?”
“She wasn’t feeling well,” Arlene said.
“David told me. He said Jan wasn’t feeling well during the drive back, so he dropped her at their place, and then he came over here for Ethan.”
“I see,” Duckworth said. “What was wrong with her?”
“A headache or something, I think David said.”
“Okay. But I guess she felt well enough in the morning to go to Five Mountains. How did she seem to you then?”
“I didn’t see her in the morning. They went straight to the park,” Arlene said. Outside, the sound of a car door closing. Arlene got up and went to the window. “It’s David. He should be able to help you with these questions.”
“I’m sure he will,” Duckworth said, getting to his feet.
When I pulled up in front of my parents’ house, I spotted an unmarked police car at the curb.
My pulse quickened as I parked behind it. I was out of the car in a second and took the steps up to the porch two at a time. As I was swinging open the door, I found Barry Duckworth standing there.
“Mr. Harwood,” he said.
“Has something happened?” I asked. I’d only run a few steps but felt out of breath. It was an adrenaline rush.
“No, no, nothing new,” he said. Mom was standing just behind him, her eyes desperate and sorrowful. “I was driving by and decided to stop. Your mother and I were having a chat.”
“Have you found out anything? Did they search the park again? Did anything turn up on the surveillance cameras? Has-”
Duckworth held up his hand. “If there are any developments, I promise you’ll be the first to know.”
I felt deflated. But the truth was, I was the one with news.
“I need to talk to you,” I said to him.
“But I want to see Ethan first,” I said. I could hear his laughter coming from the backyard. I started to move past the detective but he reached up and held my arm.
“I think it would be good if we could talk right now,” he said.
My eyes met his. Even though he’d said there was nothing new, I could tell he was holding something back. If he’d had good news, he would have just told me.
“Something has happened,” I whispered to him. “Don’t tell me you’ve found her.”
“No, sir, we have not,” he said. “But it would help if you’d come down to the station with me.”
I had that feeling you get from too much caffeine. Like electrical impulses were racing through my body. I wondered if he could feel them in my arm.
Trying to keep the anxiety out of my voice, I said, “Okay.”
He let go of my arm and went out the door. Mom came up and hugged me. She must not have known what to say, because she said nothing.
“It’s okay, Mom,” I said. “I’m sorry. I was going to take Ethan off your hands-”
“Don’t be stupid,” she said. “Just go with him.” She let go and I could see tears welling up in her eyes. “David, I’m sorry, I think I may have said something-”
“That detective, he looked at me funny when I said that Jan-”
I looked over my shoulder. Detective Duckworth had the passenger door of his unmarked car open, waiting for me.
“I have to go,” I said. I gave my mother a hug and ran down to Duckworth’s car, hopping into the front seat. He was going to close the door for me, but I grabbed the handle and slammed it shut myself.
When he got into the driver’s seat, I said, “I could just follow you in. Then you wouldn’t have to bring me back.”
“Don’t worry about that,” he said, putting the car into drive, looking back and then hitting the gas. “This will give us more time to talk.”
“Why are we going to the station?”
Duckworth gave his head a small shake, his way of ignoring my question. “So you came back from Rochester, what, this morning?” he asked.
“And you went out there why again?”
“I was looking for Jan’s parents.”
“The ones she hasn’t spoken to in years.”
“Did you find them?”
I hesitated. “That’s what I want to talk to you about. But let me ask you something first.”
He glanced over. “Shoot.”
“If the FBI or some other organization, if they put someone in the witness protection program, and they resettle them in your own backyard, do they give you a heads-up about it?”
Duckworth seemed to take a long time before answering, his tongue moving around the inside of his cheek. Finally, “What’s that again?”
I repeated it.
“Well, I guess that might depend on the situation. But generally speaking, the FBI tends to view local law enforcement as a bunch of know-nothing hicks, so my guess is they’d not be inclined to share that kind of information. Also, in their defense, the more people know something like that, the more likely someone’s going to find out.”
I considered that. “That could be.”
“And you’re asking this because…?” Duckworth asked.
“I’m not saying this is what’s happened, but I think it’s just possible that-”
“No, wait, let me guess,” Duckworth said. “Your wife is a witness in hiding. And her cover’s been blown, and now she’s taken off.”
“Is this a joke to you? I thought you’d want to know about this.”
“No, no, that’s a very serious thing,” he said. “Very serious.”
“You think I’m full of shit,” I said.
I thought maybe he’d deny the accusation, and when he didn’t, I said, “I think Jan may not be who she says she is.”
Another glance. Then, “And just who is she, really? Tell me, I’m listening.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’ve… I’ve found out some things in the last day that don’t make a whole lot of sense to me. And they may have something to do with why Jan’s missing.”
“And what are these things you’ve found out?”
“I went to Rochester and found the people who are listed on Jan’s birth certificate as her parents.”
“And that’s who?”
“Horace and Gretchen Richler. The thing is, they had a daughter named Jan, but she died when she was five.”
The tongue was moving around inside Duckworth’s cheek again. “Okay,” he said.
“It was an accident. Her father hit her with the car, backing out of the driveway.”
“Man,” Duckworth said. “How do you live with that the rest of your life?”
“Yeah.” I gave him a minute for it to sink in. “What do you make of that?”
“You know what? Let me make a call when we get to the station. And while someone’s looking into that, we can talk about some other things.”
“Have a seat,” he said, pointing to the plain chair at the plain desk in the plain room.
“Isn’t this an interrogation room?” I asked.
“It’s a room,” Duckworth said. “A room is a room. I want to talk to you privately, it’s as good a place as any. But hang on for a second while I make a call about that witness protection thing. You want a coffee or a soft drink or something?”
I said I was okay.
“Be right back, then.” He slipped out of the room, closing the door behind him.
I walked over to the table, stood there a moment, finally sat down on one of the metal chairs.
This didn’t feel right.
Duckworth brings me in, says he wants to talk about something but doesn’t say what, puts me in a room, leaves me alone.
There was a mirror on one wall. I wondered whether Duckworth was on the other side, watching through one-way glass to see how I behaved. Was I fidgeting, pacing, running my fingers nervously through my hair?
I stayed in the chair, tried to calm down. But inside I was churning.
After about five minutes, the door opened. Duckworth had a coffee in one hand, and a bottled water tucked under his arm so he could turn the knob.
“Got myself a coffee,” he said. “I grabbed you a water, just in case.”
“I’m not an idiot,” I said.
“I’m not an idiot. The way this is going. Bringing me down here. Leaving me in here to sweat it out for a while on my own. I get it.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Duckworth said, pulling up a chair and setting the coffee and water on the table.
“Look, I’m not the greatest reporter in the world. If I were, I wouldn’t be at the Standard. They stopped caring about journalism a long time ago. But I’ve been around long enough to know the score. You think I’m some kind of suspect or something.”
“I never said that.”
“So tell me I’m wrong. Tell me you don’t think I have anything to do with this.”
“How about you tell me about this trip you took up to Lake George two days ago?”
“You’ve never mentioned it. Why’s that?”
“Why would I? Jan went missing the following day. Why would I bring up what happened on Friday?”
“Why don’t you tell me about it now?”
“Why is this important?”
“Is there some reason you don’t want to tell me, Mr. Harwood?”
“No, of course not, but-fine. Jan and I drove up to Lake George to meet with a source. Actually, I was meeting with the source. Jan just came along.”
“For a story I’ve been working on.”
“What story is that?”
I hesitated before continuing. Could I discuss with the police stories I was working on for the Standard? Was it ethical? Did it violate journalistic principles?
Did I really, at this moment, give a flying fuck?
“I’ve been working on stories about Star Spangled Corrections wanting to come to Promise Falls. The company has been doing favors for at least one council member that I know of. Someone sent me an email, that there were others taking payoffs or kickbacks, or whatever, to buy their votes when the prison comes up before council for zoning approvals.”
“Who sent you the email?”
“I can’t tell you that.”
“Oh,” said Duckworth, looking like he wanted to roll his eyes but restraining himself. “Confidentiality. Protecting your source.”
“No,” I said. “The email was anonymous.”
“But if you met with this person, you must know who it is.”
“She didn’t show up,” I said.
“She said in her email that I was to look for a woman in a white truck. No woman in a white truck showed up.”
“Where was she supposed to meet you?”
“At a general store/gas station place north of Lake George. Ted’s, it was called.”
“So you drove up there?”
“That’s right. Friday afternoon. She was supposed to come at five.”
“And you took your wife with you?”
“Why’d you do that? Do you normally take your wife along when you’re going to interview someone?”
“Have you ever taken your wife with you before when you were on an assignment?”
I thought. “I’m sure I have, but I can’t actually think of an instance. There was an awards dinner a couple of years ago.”
“You were covering the awards? Or you were up for one?”
“I was up for one. For spot news reporting.”
“So that wasn’t really an assignment. That was the sort of thing anyone would take their spouse to.”
“I suppose so,” I conceded.
“Did you win?” Duckworth asked.
“So then, why did you take your wife on this outing?”
“Like I told you, she’s been feeling depressed the last few weeks, and she told me she was going to take Friday off, so I suggested she come along for the ride. She could keep me company on the way up and back.”
“Okay,” Duckworth said. “What did you talk about on the way up?”
I shook my head in frustration. “I don’t know, we just-What’s the point of this, Detective?”
“I’m just getting a full picture of the events that led up to your wife’s disappearance.”
“Our drive to Lake George did not lead up to her disappearance. It’s just something we did the day before Five Mountains. Unless-”
Duckworth cocked his head to one side. “Unless?”
The car. The one Jan had spotted following us. The one that did a couple of drive-bys of the place where I was supposed to meet the woman.
“I think we were followed,” I said.
Duckworth leaned back in his chair. His eyebrows went up. “You were followed.”
I nodded. “Jan noticed a car following us up. But I wasn’t that sure. Then, when we were waiting in the parking lot for this contact to show up, the car drove by a couple of times. Went up the road, turned around and came back. I ran out to it at one point, trying to get a look at who it was, but then the car sped off.”
Duckworth folded his arms across his chest. His forearms sat on his belly like it was a countertop. He hadn’t touched his coffee yet, and I hadn’t cracked the top of the bottled water.
“You were followed,” he said again.
“I’m pretty sure,” I said.
“Who would have followed you?”
“I don’t know. At the time, I figured it was someone who found out this woman had arranged to meet me. I thought maybe that was what scared her off. She saw that car snooping about and chickened out.”
“But now you have a different theory?”
“I don’t know. You’re so interested in what happened Friday, and after what I found out from these people I thought were Jan’s parents, maybe the person in that car was following Jan. Maybe that’s what this is all about. She’s a relocated witness, someone figured out who she was, was following her, and she had to disappear.”
Duckworth, finally, took a sip of his coffee. He smiled. “You’re not going to believe this, but this coffee is fantastic. We’ve got this one guy, he works burglary, makes the best pot of coffee. Better than Starbucks. What are the odds, in a police station, you know? You sure you don’t want a cup?”
“So, what did you tell your wife about where you were going?”
“I told her what I’ve told you. That I was going up there to meet with this woman.”
“Who was going to tell you all the council members who’re taking payoffs from this prison outfit.”
“That’s what she suggested in her email.”
“I guess you wouldn’t have any trouble producing this email for me,” Duckworth said. “When did you receive it?”
“Last Thursday,” I said. “And… I deleted it.”
“Oh,” Duckworth said. “That seems like an odd thing to do. Why’d you do it?”
“Because,” I said slowly, “I didn’t want it left in the system.”
“At your own office? Why?”
I thought before answering. “I don’t think everyone at the Standard shares my enthusiasm for pursuing this story.”
“What’s that mean?”
“Just that I’m learning not to present stories on this prison thing unless they’re completely nailed down. I want to make it hard for my superiors to say no to printing something. I like to play my cards close to the chest. So I don’t leave emails around for them to read.”
Duckworth looked unconvinced, but went in another direction. “Do you remember the email address?”
I took a look around the room and shook my head, disgusted with myself. “No. It was just random numbers and letters strung together. A Hotmail address.”
“I see. Okay then,” Duckworth said, “tell me about this car that was following you. Make, model?”
“It was dark blue. It was a Buick with tinted windows. A four-door sedan.”
Duckworth nodded, impressed. “Did you happen to get a plate number?”
“I tried,” I said. “But it was covered with mud. But it was a New York plate.”
“I see. Was the whole car covered in mud, or just the plate?”
“The car was pretty clean, actually. Just the plate was dirtied up. Doesn’t that tell you they probably did it deliberately?”
“Absolutely,” Duckworth said.
“Don’t patronize me,” I said. “You don’t believe a word I’m saying. I can tell. I can see it in your face. But we were there. If you don’t believe me talk to whoever was working in the store that day. It’s called…” I struggled to remember the exact name of the place. “Ted’s Lakeview General Store. That was it. Jan went in to buy something to drink. Someone there might remember her.”
Duckworth looked at me without saying anything.
“What?” I said.
“I believe you were there,” he said. “I don’t doubt that for a minute.”
He was good at keeping me off guard. Just when I was sure he didn’t trust what I was saying, he seemed to accept that last part.
“Then what’s the problem?”
“So when did you drive home?”
“I stayed until around five-thirty, and when I was sure the woman wasn’t going to show, we drove back.”
“Both of you,” Duckworth said.
“Of course both of us.”
“Any stops along the way?”
“Just to my parents’ place. To pick up Ethan.”
“So both of you went to get your son.”
I could tell he already knew the truth here. “No,” I said. “I went alone to get Ethan.”
“I’m confused,” he said, although I doubted that. “How did you end up going to your parents’ house alone?”
“Jan wasn’t feeling well,” I said. “She had a headache. She asked me to drop her off at our house first. She didn’t feel well enough to see my parents. Or maybe she didn’t want to see them, and just said she had a headache.”
Duckworth nodded a little too hard. “Okay, okay. But isn’t your parents’ place on the way home? I mean, you’d have to pass your parents’ house to get to yours coming back from Lake George, then double back to get your son.”
“That’s true,” I said. “But sometimes my parents… they like to talk. They would have thought it rude not to at least come out to the car to talk to Jan. And she wasn’t up to that. That’s why I took her home first. What are you getting at? You think I left her up in Lake George?”
When Duckworth didn’t say anything right away, I said, “Do I have to bring my son in here? Do I need Ethan as a witness? To tell you my wife came back with me that day?”
“I don’t think there’s any need for that,” Duckworth said. “I wouldn’t want to put a four-year-old through anything like that.”
“Why’s that? Because if he backed me up, you wouldn’t believe it anyway? Because he’s a kid? And you’d think I coached him?”
“I never said anything of the kind,” Duckworth said, taking another sip of coffee.
“At least go up there,” I said. “Talk to whoever was working at Ted’s store that day.”
Duckworth said. “There’s no problem there, Mr. Harwood. Your wife’s been identified as being in the store at the time you say.”
“Trouble is what she had to say when she was in there.”
“She said you’d driven up there for some sort of surprise. She said she had no idea what she was doing up there.”
“She didn’t know why you were taking her up there. She seemed not to know what you had in mind.”
It felt like a punch to the gut.
“That’s crazy,” I said. “Jan knew why we were going up there. Whoever told you that’s lying.”
“Why would someone lie about that?” Duckworth asked.
“I have no idea. But it’s not true. Jan wouldn’t have said that. It makes no sense for her to have said that.”
“Why did Mrs. Harwood tell you that you’d be happier if she was gone? Maybe even dead?”
“What?” I said again.
“You heard me.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“Are you denying she ever said that?”
I opened my mouth to speak, but nothing came out. Not for several seconds. Finally, quietly, I said, “Gina’s.”
“Almost two weeks ago, I think. We were having dinner-we were going to have dinner-at Gina’s. This is what you’re referring to.”
“Suppose you tell me.”
“Jan was very distraught through dinner. She said some crazy things. And then she had this outburst-probably loud enough for anyone in the restaurant to hear-that I’d be happy to be rid of her. Something along those lines. But not that I wanted her dead. She never said that.”
“So you would be happy if you could be rid of her, but not if it meant she had to die.”
“No! None of it’s true. I mean, yes, she said I’d be happier without her, but it’s not true. I don’t know why she’d think that, unless it’s all tied in to her depression. Did you talk to Gina? Because if she’s saying Jan said I wanted her dead, that’s horseshit.”
“About Jan’s depression,” Duckworth said, “it’s kind of interesting that the only one who’s noticed your wife has been suffering from that is you.”
I was shaking my head violently. “That’s not true. That’s not true at all. Talk to her doctor. Talk to Dr. Samuels. He’ll tell you.”
Duckworth gave me a pitying look. “Your wife never went to see Dr. Samuels.”
“For Christ’s sake,” I said. “Get him on the phone.”
“I’ve talked to him,” Duckworth said. “Jan Harwood never went to see him about her depression.”
I think I did a pretty good impression of a slack-jawed idiot at that moment. I stared at him, openmouthed, trying to make sense of the news.
Finally, I said, “That’s a load of horseshit, too.”
But it only took me another couple of seconds to realize it was possible Jan could have lied to me about going to see the doctor, just so I’d get off her case. But this clown at the Lake George store, suggesting Jan didn’t know why I’d brought her along, that person was a goddamn liar, there was no doubt in my mind about that.
“So everyone’s full of shit,” Duckworth said. “What about the security cameras and the computers at Five Mountains? Are they full of shit, too?”
“The ticket thing?” I asked. “Is that what you mean?”
“Why were only two tickets charged to your wife’s card, Mr. Harwood? One adult, one child. Was it because you knew you wouldn’t be taking your wife with you? Did you take her card out of her purse when you were online, or had you written down the details earlier?”
“I didn’t order them,” I said. “Jan ordered them. And she was there, at the park. I can’t explain the ticket thing. Maybe… maybe, when she came back from the car, she realized she’d printed out the wrong thing, that there wasn’t a ticket for her, and she paid cash to get in.”
“We’ve looked at all the security footage at the gates, and we can’t find her. Not coming in, and not going out.”
“Then there’s something wrong with it,” I said. “Maybe there’s some footage that’s missing.”
I pointed at him, then started stabbing the table with my index finger to make a point. “Look, I see what you’re doing here, and you’ve got it wrong. The first thing you need to do is check out this thing with Jan’s birth certificate, these people I thought were her parents, but who turned out not to be.”
“So show it to me,” Duckworth said.
“I don’t… have it.”
“It’s at your house?”
I shook my head. “It had been hidden. It was in an envelope, behind a baseboard in the linen closet. But I looked today, when I got back from Rochester, and it was gone.”
“Come on. Can’t you call those things up anyway? The state has records. You can get a copy of it. Can’t you do that?”
Duckworth nodded slowly. “I suppose I could.”
“But you’re not going to. Because you don’t believe anything I’ve told you.”
“Which story would you like me to believe, Mr. Harwood? The one about your wife wanting to kill herself, or the one about her being in the witness protection program? Or have you got a third one waiting in the wings?”
I put my elbows on the table and my head in my hands. “My wife’s out there somewhere and you need to be looking for her.”
“You know what would save me a lot of time in that regard?” Duckworth asked.
I raised my head. “What?”
“You could tell me where she is. What did you do with her, Mr. Harwood? What did you do with your wife?”
“I didn’t do anything with her!” I shouted at Barry Duckworth. “I swear to God I didn’t. Why the hell would I want to hurt her? I love her! She’s my wife, for God’s sake. We have a son!”
Duckworth sat expressionless, unruffled.
“I am not lying to you!” I said. “I’m not making this up! Jan’s been depressed. She told me she went to the doctor. So maybe she didn’t go, maybe she didn’t tell me the truth about that. But that’s what she told me.”
“Look, I don’t know how to explain that no one else noticed how Jan was feeling. Maybe… maybe she could only be herself when she was with me. When she was with others, she put on this act, put on a happy face, to get by.” I shook my head in frustration. “I don’t know what to tell you.” Then, an idea. “You should talk to Leanne. Have you talked to her yet? They work together. Leanne sees Jan day in and day out. Even if Jan was able to hide how she was feeling with most people, Leanne would pick something up.”
“Leanne.” Duckworth said the name slowly.
“Leanne Kowalski,” I said. “She’d be in the book. Her husband’s name, I’m trying to think. It starts with an ‘L,’ too. Lionel, or Lyall, something like that.”
“I’ll have to check that out,” Duckworth said. There was something in his tone, like he either didn’t think Leanne was worth talking to, or he’d already done it. “How would you describe Jan’s relationship with Leanne?”
“I’ve told you this. They just worked together. Leanne generally acts like she’s got a pickle up her ass.”
“They ever do things together?” Duckworth asked.
“Lunch, shopping? Catch a movie?”
“They didn’t hang out sometimes after work?”
“How many times do I have to tell you? No. Why’s this important?”
“No reason,” Duckworth said.
“Look, just talk to her. Talk to anyone. Talk to every goddamn person you can find. You’re not going to find anyone who thinks I have anything to do with Jan’s disappearance. I love her.”
“I’m sure,” Duckworth said.
“Fuck this,” I said. “You have this so completely wrong.” I pushed back my chair and stood up. “Am I under arrest or anything?”
“Absolutely not,” Duckworth said.
“Do I need a lawyer?”
“Do you think you need a lawyer?” he asked.
There was no smart way to answer that. If I said yes, I looked guilty. If I said no, I looked like a fool.
“I’m going to need a ride back to my car and-no, forget it. I’ll find my own way back to my parents’ place.”
“About that,” Duckworth said. “Before we sat down for our little chat, I popped out to see about search warrants. We’re seizing both of your cars, Mr. Harwood, and we’re going to be conducting a search of your house.”
“So maybe getting in touch with a lawyer would be a good thing.”
“You’re going to search my house?” I said.
“We’re already doing it,” he said.
“You think I’ve hidden Jan in our house? Are you serious?”
As if on cue, my cell phone rang. I flipped it open, recognized my parents’ number.
“David?” My mother.
“They’re towing away your car!”
“I know, Mom, I just found out that-”
“I went out and told them they couldn’t do that, that you can park for free for three hours on that side of the street, but-”
“Mom, there’s nothing you can do about it.”
“You need to get here fast! They’re loading it onto the back of another truck right now! Your father’s out there telling them they’ve made a mistake but-”
“Mom! Listen to me! I’m at the police station and I need a ride-”
“One of my men can give you a lift,” Duckworth said.
I glanced at him. “Go fuck yourself.”
“What?” said Mom.
“Send Dad down here,” I said. “Can you do that?”
“Are you okay? Are you in some kind of-”
“Mom, just send Dad and I’ll explain it when I get there.” I closed the phone and slipped it back into my coat.
“You son of a bitch,” I said to Duckworth. “You goddamn son of a bitch. I’m not the bad guy here. You’re going to have people searching my house when they should be searching all over Promise Falls. What if my wife’s tried to take her life? What if she’s somewhere and needs help? What if she needs medical attention? And what are you doing? Turning my life upside down?”
Duckworth opened the door for me and I went through it. I was heading for the main lobby, with Duckworth following, making sure, I supposed, that I got out of the building without causing any trouble. I was nearly to the front doors, people going this way and that, when I stopped suddenly, turned, and said to him, “You didn’t even ask anyone to check the witness protection thing, did you?”
Duckworth said nothing.
“You have to look into Jan’s background. I know, at first, I thought maybe Jan had killed herself. That’s the way it was looking to me. But there’s more going on here than I realized. And I don’t even know what the hell it is.”
“I can assure you, Mr. Harwood, that I’ll be following this investigation wherever it goes.”
“I’m telling you,” I said, leaning in close to him, getting right in his face, “I did not kill my wife.”
“Well,” said a familiar voice off to one side.
Duckworth and I both turned to see Stan Reeves, the city hall councilor, standing there. A grin was creeping across his face.
“I’ll be damned,” he said, looking at me. “If it’s not the holier-than-thou David Harwood of the Standard. The things you hear when you’re just dropping by to pay a parking ticket.”
I broke away from Duckworth and headed for the door, glancing back only once to see Stan Reeves talking to the detective.
Dad pulled up to the curb in his blue Crown Victoria about five minutes later. I got in the passenger side and slammed the door.
“Watch it, you’ll shatter the glass,” he said.
“What’s happening at the house?” I asked.
“It’s like your mother told you on the phone. They took it away.”
I had the keys on me, but the police wouldn’t need them to remove the car, or get into it.
“It wasn’t parked illegally,” Dad said.
“That’s not why they towed it,” I said.
Dad looked at me with disappointment. “They repossessed it? Jesus, you didn’t keep up your payments?”
I suppose it was a sign of faith in me that Dad would suspect me of being a deadbeat before he’d think of me as a murderer.
“Dad, the police are looking for evidence.”
“I think the police are… I think the police are looking at me as a suspect.”
“A suspect in what?” he asked.
“They think maybe I did something with Jan.”
“Jesus!” he said. “Why the hell would they think that?”
“Dad, take me by my house.”
“She’s your wife, David! What’s wrong with them? You’d never hurt Jan. And why do they think something’s happened to her?” Suddenly it registered. “Oh my God, son, they haven’t found her, have they? Have they found a body?”
“No,” I said. “Cops, they always look at the husband when a wife goes missing.” Was I trying to make Dad feel better, or myself? Maybe my interrogation by Duckworth was just standard operating procedure. Something the cops did as a matter of course.
No. There was more to it than that. The circumstances of Jan’s disappearance were working against me. The fact that only two tickets had been ordered online. The fact that no one-other than Ethan and me-had seen Jan since before the trip up to Lake George. The fact that Jan had not disclosed to anyone else how depressed she’d been feeling the last couple of weeks.
I believed most of those things could be explained. What I couldn’t figure out was why the person working at Ted’s Lakeview General Store was lying. Why would someone tell police Jan had said she didn’t know where she was going, that her husband had brought her up there for some sort of surprise?
That was crazy.
Jan had gone in to buy a couple of drinks. Nothing more, nothing less. How likely was it that she would strike up a conversation with whoever was behind the counter about anything, let alone why she was up there with her husband? I could imagine a short exchange about the weather, but what possible reason could Jan have for telling someone she’d been brought up there for reasons unknown? Given that I’d gone up there to meet a source, it stood to reason that Jan would have said very little, even if asked what she was doing up at Lake George.
If that’s what the proprietor at Ted’s told the police, he or she was lying.
Unless, of course, Detective Duckworth was lying.
Was he making the whole thing up to rattle me? To see how I’d respond? But how did he know in the first place that we’d been up there, that Jan had gone inside to buy drinks? The person she’d bought them from must have contacted the police, after seeing the news reports about Jan.
“What?” Dad said. “What are you thinking?”
“I don’t know what to think,” I said. “Just get me home.”
I saw the police cars out front as we turned the corner. Jan’s car was no longer in the driveway, so they must have scooped it the same time as they were taking mine from my parents’ house. Dad barely had the car stopped before I was out the door, running across the lawn and up the steps. The front door was open and I could hear people talking inside.
“Hello!” I shouted.
A woman, in uniform, appeared at the top of the stairs. I recognized her as the officer who had looked after Ethan at Five Mountains yesterday while I talked to Duckworth. Campion, her name was.
“Mr. Harwood,” she said.
“I want to see the warrant,” I said.
“Alex!” she called, and a small, slender man who couldn’t have been much more than thirty emerged from the bedroom I shared with Jan. His hair was bristle short, and he was dressed in a sport jacket, white dress shirt, and jeans.
“This is Mr. Harwood,” she told him.
The man came down the stairs but didn’t extend a hand. I supposed those sorts of pleasantries were dispensed with when you were turning a man’s house upside down for evidence that he’d offed his wife. “Detective Alex Simpson,” he said, reaching into his jacket. He handed me a paper folded in thirds. “This is a warrant to search these premises.”
I took the paper from him and glanced at it, unable to see through my anger to the words on the page. “Just tell me what the hell you’re looking for and I’ll show it to you,” I said.
“I’m afraid it doesn’t work that way,” Simpson said.
I bounded up the stairs. Campion was looking through my and Jan’s dresser, rooting through socks and underwear. I saw her linger a moment on a garter belt in one of Jan’s drawers, then keep going. “Is this necessary?”
Campion did not answer. I noticed that the laptop that had been in the kitchen was in the middle of the bed. “What’s that doing there?” I asked.
“I’m going to be taking that with me,” Campion said.
“You have to be kidding,” I said. “That’s got all our finances and addresses and everything-”
I turned. My father was standing in the doorway. “David, you have to see what they’ve done with Ethan’s room.”
I crossed the hallway. My son’s bed had been stripped, and the mattress was up on its side, leaning against the wall. All the plastic bins where he kept his toys had been dumped and strewn across the floor.
“Come on!” I said. “Why the hell do you have to tear apart my son’s room?”
Simpson came up the stairs. “Mr. Harwood, you have the right to be here while we do this, but you can’t interfere as we do our work, or you will be removed.”
I was speechless with rage. I was about to say something else when the cell in my jacket rang.
“Yeah?” I said.
“Hey, Dave, it’s Samantha. What the hell is going on?”
“I can’t talk right now, Sam.”
“Dave, listen, I’ve got to be up-front with you. This isn’t just a friend calling. I’m looking for a quote. I need something now.”
The Standard’s Monday edition wouldn’t go to press until tonight, so Sam was looking for something for the online edition. I hadn’t had a chance to check the website today, but it was reasonable to assume something was on there, given that Jan had made the TV news the night before.
I took a look into Ethan’s room, a glance back into mine. What I felt most like saying at that moment was that the Promise Falls police were a bunch of morons and assholes who were wasting time harassing me while my wife remained unfound.
But instead I said, “Go ahead, Sam.”
“Is it true,” she asked, “that you’re a suspect in this investigation into what happened to your wife?”
It hadn’t been thirty minutes since I’d left the station. How could the Standard already know that-
I doubted Duckworth would have told the councilor anything, and the detective wouldn’t have had time to call any sort of news conference since I’d left him. But my stupid overheard comment would be all Reeves needed to put in a call to the paper. Undoubtedly an anonymous call. Reeves was a weasel if there ever was one. A simple call to the assignment desk to say that one of the Standard’s own people was spotted at police headquarters, angrily denying that he’d killed his wife, would be enough to get the newsroom buzzing.
The moment Reeves was finished with the Standard, his next calls were probably to the TV and radio stations.
“Sam, where did you get this?”
Dad was looking at me, mouthing, “Who is it?”
“Dave, come on,” Samantha Henry said. “You know how this works. I’m sorry, really, but I have to ask. Is it true? Are you about to be arrested? Are you a suspect? Are you a person of interest? Has Jan’s body been found?”
“Jesus, Sam. Look, just tell me this. What are the police saying? What’s their official comment?”
“I don’t have anything yet from-”
“So this is just a rumor. Someone phone into the desk, not leave his name?”
“Dave, I’m not doing anything you wouldn’t do. We got a tip, and I’m following it up. Look, if you’re going to talk to anybody, you should talk to me. This is your own paper. If anyone’s going to give you a good shake, it’s going to be us.”
I wasn’t so sure about that.
Outside, I heard the squeal of brakes. Still holding the phone to my head, I slipped past my father and down the stairs and looked out the front door.
It was a TV news van.
“I have to go, Sam,” I said, and ended the call.
“Isn’t that News Channel 13?” Dad said.
“Yeah, thanks, Dad,” I said. “We need to get out of here. If they start showing up at your place, I don’t want them bothering Ethan.”
“We’re just going to walk out calmly and get in your car,” I said.
We walked out together, paying little attention as a driver and reporter got out of the van. I recognized the reporter as Donna Wegman. Late twenties, brunette, always pulling hair away from her eyes during remote newscasts.
“Excuse me,” she called over. “Are you David Harwood?”
I pointed back to the house. “Check with the cops. They might know where to find him.”
On the way, Dad said, “I don’t know if you’ve thought of this, son, but maybe you need to talk to a lawyer or something.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I might have to do that.”
“You could try Buck Thomas. You remember him? When we were having that trouble with the Glendons’ driveway encroaching onto our lot? He’s a good man.”
“I might need someone with a different area of expertise,” I said.
Dad nodded, conceding the point. “Lawyers charge a pretty penny, you know. If money’s a problem, your mom and I, well, we have a bit tucked away. If you need it.”
“Thank you, Dad,” I said. “The thing is, the police haven’t actually charged me with anything. I think if Detective Duckworth really had something on me, he never would have let me walk out of that station.”
Dad nodded again, not taking his eyes off the road. “You’re probably right. And since you haven’t done anything wrong, it’s not like they’re going to find any evidence against you after tearing apart your house and your cars.”
If that comment was meant to put me at ease, it didn’t work.
“Jesus,” Dad said, looking ahead. “Son of a bitch didn’t even signal.”
They were cruising along the Mass Pike in Dwayne’s tan pickup, which his brother lent to him when he was released from prison. It was a fifteen-year-old Chevy, and despite all the rust around the wheel wells, it ran okay. But it sucked gas, even with the air conditioner off, which was all the time, because it didn’t work.
“Are you sure it’s not working?” Kate asked.
“Just put the fan on.”
“I did and it’s nothing but hot air.”
“You’re nothing but hot air,” Dwayne said. “Just open the window.”
Kate said, “Your brother really hate you? That why he gave you this clunker?”
“You want to walk?”
At least, if his brother gave it to him, chances were the truck was legit. If they did happen to get pulled over-God knows Dwayne had a history of getting arrested at the most inopportune times-the plates were in order. Dwayne even had a renewed driver’s license, praise the Lord.
“You know,” Dwayne said, “I used to know a Kate in high school, used to wear this low-cut thing, and when she’d bend over, she’d know you were looking and didn’t give a shit. Wonder what she’s doing now.”
“I’ll bet she’s not sitting in some antique pickup truck driving on the Mass Pike with no A/C when it’s a hundred degrees out. Maybe we should have hung on to the Explorer. It was old but the air worked.”
Dwayne shot her a look. “What’s with you? You still pissed about what happened back there?”
At Denny’s. She’d given him shit for that as soon as they’d gotten back into the truck and were on the highway.
“What the hell were you thinking?” she’d said. “Probably somebody’s already called the cops.”
“It was no big deal,” Dwayne had said. “I did that guy a favor.”
“From now on, he’ll get those kids to behave, they won’t grow up to be monsters.”
For thirty miles she kept looking back, expecting to see flashing red lights. Maybe no one saw them leaving in the truck from Denny’s.
This habit Dwayne had of losing it just when they needed to keep a low profile, it definitely was a problem. She just hoped he could keep a lid on things until they got their business done in Boston.
“Look, I’m sorry about that,” Dwayne said as they continued along the highway. “So put the bitch back in the box and cut me some slack.”
She held her hand out the window, felt the wind blow between her fingers. They didn’t speak for several miles. She was the one to break the silence.
“What was it like?” she asked.
“What was what like?”
“What are you asking, exactly?”
“Not that,” she said. “I mean, just like, everyday life, what was it like?”
“Wasn’t so bad. You always knew what to expect. You had a routine. You knew when to get up and when to go to bed and when it was lunchtime and when you got to go out in the yard. You had stuff to look forward to.”
This was not the answer she was expecting. “But you couldn’t go anywhere,” she said. “You were, you know, a prisoner.”
Dwayne hung his left arm over the sill. “Yeah, but you didn’t have to make a lot of decisions. What should I wear? What should I eat? What should I do? That kind of stuff wears you down, you know? I don’t know sometimes how regular people do it, having to make so many decisions. Every day you got up, you knew what to expect. It was kind of comforting.”
“So, it was paradise.”
“Not always,” he said, missing the sarcasm. “The food was shitty, and there wasn’t enough of it. If you got in line last, there might not be anything for you. They cut back on how many times they did laundry. Ever since the place went private, the fuckers were looking to pinch pennies every place they could.”
“The place was run by a company, not the state. Some of the guards, you’d listen to them, they got paid so lousy, they’d be talking about whether they were going to make it to payday, what with kids and the mortgage and car payments and all that shit. Almost made you count your blessings. Not that that’s going to be a problem for us very soon.”
Dwayne moved into the passing lane, went around a bus.
“You get what I’m saying?” he said. “About all those decisions? Only decision I want to make is how big a boat I’m gonna get.”
She was thinking about what he’d said. She actually got it. Wasn’t that what her life had been like the last few years? Decisions? Endless decisions? Having to make them not just for yourself but other people?
It did get tiring.
“Let me ask you this,” she said. “You feel free?”
Dwayne squinted. “Yeah, sure, of course. Yeah, I’m free. I wouldn’t trade this for being inside, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
The thing was, she felt like she’d just gotten out of prison, too. She’d escaped, gone over the wall. Here she was, heading down the highway, feet up on the dashboard, the wind blowing her hair all over the place.
What a feeling. What a rush.
She wondered why she didn’t feel better about it.
The plan was pretty simple.
First, they had to go to the two banks. Then, once they had the merchandise from the safe-deposit boxes, they’d find this guy Dwayne heard about who’d assess the value of their goods, then make them an offer. If it wasn’t good enough, Kate figured there’d be room for negotiation. Or they could go see another guy. Where was it written that you had to take the first offer?
She just hoped it would be worth the wait. Hard to figure how it wouldn’t be. She-they-were going to be rich. The only question was how rich. It was the only thing that kept her going all these years. No doubt about it, money was a great motivator. Knowing that at the end, there was going to be-in all likelihood-millions of dollars.
Maybe, if she and Dwayne hadn’t swapped keys, and the moron hadn’t gotten himself thrown in jail on an assault charge, she’d have found a way to move the process along, even if it meant only getting a chance at her half. But when Dwayne got himself arrested, and the key to her safe-deposit box got tossed in with his personal effects where she couldn’t get at it, what choice did she have, really, but to hang in?
Hang in, and hide out. That last part was particularly important. Because she knew someone was going to be looking for her. She’d read the news. She knew the courier had lived, against all odds. Once he recovered, it seemed a safe bet he’d go looking for the person who’d not only relieved him of a fortune in diamonds, but his left hand as well.
She’d always figured she was more at risk than Dwayne. The courier had seen her face. He’d looked right into her eyes before he passed out. She hadn’t expected him to wake up.
It wouldn’t take long, she figured, before the courier figured out how she’d gotten onto him.
It had been through his girlfriend, or rather, his ex-girlfriend. Alanna was her name. She’d worked late nights with Alanna at a bar outside Boston. Grabbing a smoke out back during breaks, Alanna would rag on about this guy, what an asshole he turned out to be. How he was always away, going over to Africa and shit, and he’d never let her come to his place, how he was all fucking mysterious about what he did for a living. One time she’s with him, they’re in his Audi, he has to pop into a building to meet somebody, tells her he’ll be back in ten minutes, and she decides to check out this gym bag he’s got tucked down on the floor behind the driver’s seat. She didn’t even know he worked out. First thing she notices is, it sure smells good for a gym bag. Or rather, it sure doesn’t smell bad. What kind of guy has a gym bag that doesn’t smell bad? She starts rooting around in there, doesn’t find any shorts or track shoes or sweatbands, but damned if she doesn’t find these little velvet-lined boxes. One of them’s got half a dozen diamonds in it, and she’s thinking, holy shit, is this stuff real? He comes back out sooner than expected, catches her, has a shit fit, hasn’t called her since.
And the woman who now called herself Kate thought: Diamonds?
She’d been hanging out with this guy Dwayne for a few weeks at that point, told him what she’d heard. They tracked down Alanna’s ex, started watching him, figuring out his routine. Planned a bait-and-switch. They’d meet him with a limo when he came up from New York on Amtrak.
It wouldn’t take the courier long, once the painkillers started wearing off, to figure out Alanna was the leak.
A couple of months after it all went down, there was a story on the Globe website about a woman named Alanna Dysart found floating off Rowes Wharf. There was every reason to think that before she died, she gave her killer the names of everyone she might ever have blabbed to about his line of work.
She might very well have given him the name Connie Tattinger.
And so she vanished.
“So you think you’re on the news yet?” Dwayne asked.
She’d been so wrapped up in her thoughts she didn’t hear him the first time he asked.
“Get off at the next major intersection where there’s some hotels,” she said.
Dwayne aimed the truck down an off-ramp west of where 91 crossed 90, found a hotel with a business office where you could go in and check your email if you were the one business traveler in a thousand who didn’t travel with a laptop.
Kate strolled into the office, told the girl her husband was at the front desk seeing about a room. But first, she needed to check on her sick aunt Belinda. Every time she phoned, the line was busy or she got voicemail. Maybe someone had sent an update to her email address. If Belinda had taken a turn for the worse, she said, laying it on thick, they’d just have to turn right around and go back to Maine, no sense finding that out after they’d registered and-
Go ahead, the girl said. Use this computer, no charge.
She went first to the Standard website, as well as the sites of a couple of the local TV stations.
There were two things she wanted to know.
Was Jan Harwood’s disappearance getting a lot of play?
Had they found the body?
She scanned all the stories she could find, then said to the woman at the desk, “Thanks. She’s taken a turn for the worse. We’re going to have to turn back.”
“I’m so sorry,” the woman said.
Back in the truck, she said to Dwayne, “They haven’t found her yet.”
“That’s not good, is it?” he said.
“It’s only a matter of time,” she said.
Dwayne thought about that for three seconds, then said, “I could definitely go for something to eat.”
Ethan ran into my arms as I walked through the front door of my parents’ house. I hoisted him into the air and kissed both his cheeks.
“I want to go home,” he said.
“Not yet, sport,” I said. “Not yet.”
Ethan shook his head. “I want to go home and I want Mom.”
“Like I said, not right yet.”
He squirmed angrily in my arms to the point that I had to put him down. He strode forcefully down the hall and out the front door.
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“I’m going home,” he said.
“The hell you are,” I said and went out after him, grabbing him around the chest and swinging him up into the air. I brought him back inside, plunked him on the floor, gave him a light swat on the butt, and said, “Go find something to do.”
He vanished into the kitchen, where I heard him open the fridge. Ethan usually enjoyed his time here, but he hadn’t been in his own house since early yesterday morning. And as much as my parents loved Ethan, he was probably wearing out his welcome.
“Sorry,” I said to Mom.
“It’s okay,” she said. “He just misses her. David, what’s going on? Why did they take your car away?”
Dad, who’d just come in, said, “You should see what they’re doing at his house. Tearing the goddamn place apart, that’s what they’re doing.”
I steered Mom outside onto the porch where Ethan couldn’t hear. “The police think I did something to Jan,” I said.
“Oh, David.” She was more sorrowful than surprised.
“I think they think I killed her,” I said.
“Why?” she said. “Why would they think such a thing?”
“Things are… things seem to be pointing in my direction,” I said. “Some of it’s just coincidence, like the fact that no one’s actually seen Jan since I took her to Lake George Friday. This mix-up with the online tickets-”
“But then there’s other things, things that don’t make sense, where people have been telling lies. Like up in Lake George, whoever runs that store up there.”
“David, I don’t know what you’re talking about. Why would people tell lies about you? Why would someone want to get you in trouble?”
“The boy needs a lawyer, that’s what he needs,” Dad said through the screen door.
“I need to go up there,” I said. “I need to find out why that person’s lying.”
“Is anyone listening to me?” Dad said.
“Dad, please,” I said.
“Your father’s right,” Mom said. “If the police think you had something to do with whatever happened to Jan-”
“I don’t have time now,” I said. “I have to find Jan, and I have to find out why things are being twisted to look like…”
“What?” Mom asked.
“Reeves,” I said.
“The councilor?” Mom said. “Stan Reeves?”
“I was thinking he only just found out about this when I ran into him at the police station. But what if he’s known about it for a while?”
“What are you talking about?” Dad asked.
“And Elmont Sebastian,” I said. “I can’t believe-I know they’ve got it in for me, but they wouldn’t…”
My mind raced. It didn’t take long to connect the dots, but what sort of picture did they form, really?
If something happened to Jan, and if I could be framed for it, I wouldn’t be able to write any more stories challenging Star Spangled Corrections’ bid for a prison in Promise Falls.
There wouldn’t be any more attempts by me to get stories into the paper about how Sebastian was bribing councilors-at least Reeves-to see things his way.
Was that possible? Or was I nuts?
Was it worth going to that much trouble to silence one reporter? I did work for the only paper in town, and despite its decline, the Standard still wielded some influence in Promise Falls. And I was the only one at the paper who seemed to give a shit about this issue. Not just whether for-profit prisons were a good idea, but what Star Spangled Corrections was willing to do to get its way.
And while taking me out of the picture wouldn’t solve all of Elmont Sebastian’s problems, it sure wouldn’t hurt.
But even if it was true, and Elmont Sebastian was manipulating things behind the scenes to have me neutralized, how was I to explain what I’d learned in Rochester? About Jan’s past, or lack of it?
“I need a glass of water,” I said suddenly.
Mom led me into the kitchen, where Ethan was lying on the floor, his head pressed sideways to the linoleum, running a car back and forth in his field of vision, making soft, contented engine noises. Mom ran the tap until the water was cold, filled a glass and handed it to me.
I took a long drink and then said, “There’s something else.”
My parents waited.
“Something about Jan.”
I led them out of the kitchen so Ethan wouldn’t hear what I had to say.
I hit the road half an hour later in my father’s car. Now, having done it, I wasn’t sure telling my parents about what I’d learned in Rochester had been such a good idea. Dad had gone into a rant about incompetent civil servants who’d probably issued Jan the wrong birth certificate.
“I’ll just bet,” he said, “she sent in her particulars to get a birth certificate, and they gave her one for some other Jan Richler, and when she got it in the mail she never even looked at what it said. They pay these people a fortune and they have jobs for life so they don’t care how good they do them.”
But Mom was deeply troubled by the news, and spent much of her time looking out the window into the backyard where Ethan was now whacking croquet balls all over the place. At one point, she said, “What will we tell him? Who are we supposed to tell him his mother really is?”
I floated my theory about the witness protection program, which Dad found plausible enough that it distracted him from his tirade about government slackers. (It never seemed to occur to him that he had been a municipal employee himself.) His willingness to embrace the theory made me doubt its validity.
Dad was still going on about how I needed to get a lawyer even as I got behind the wheel of his car. On this, I had to admit he was talking sense, but I couldn’t bring myself at this point to explain everything that had happened in the last two days to someone new.
I had too much to do.
To placate him, I said, “You want me to get a lawyer? Go ahead and find me one. Just not someone who handles driveway disputes.”
I kept watching my rearview mirror all the way up to Lake George. I wasn’t expecting to see the blue Buick Jan had spotted the last time I’d driven up here, but I did have a feeling that Detective Duckworth, or one of his minions, would be keeping an eye on me. If Duckworth truly believed I was a suspect, it didn’t make sense for him to let me out of his sight.
If I was being followed, they were doing a good job of it. No one car caught my eye the entire drive up. I pulled off the road and into the parking lot of Ted’s Lakeview General Store shortly after three in the afternoon.
The place was far from jumping. No one was pumping gas, and there were only a couple of cars in the lot. Assuming one belonged to whoever was minding the store, that meant maybe one customer inside.
The door jingled as I went in. A thin man in his late sixties or early seventies was behind the counter. At first I thought he was standing, then saw he was perched on the edge of a tall stool. He gave me half a nod, and half a smile, as I came in.
A plump woman already in the shop reached the counter before I did and set down a bag of Doritos, a king-sized Snickers bar, and a bottle of Diet Coke before him. He rang up her purchases, bagged them, and sent her on her way.
Once she was gone, I said, “Are you the Ted?”
“That’s me,” he said. “What can I do for you?”
“I’m a reporter for the Promise Falls Standard,” I said. “The police, Detective Duckworth, he told me he was speaking to someone here about that woman who’s gone missing. Would that be you?”
“One and the same,” he said with a lilt in his voice. The suggestion that he was about to be interviewed had brightened him.
“So this woman, Jan Harwood, she was in here?”
“I’m as sure it was her as I am that you’re standing right there,” he said.
“And you called the police? Or were they in touch with you?”
“Well,” he said, slipping off the stool and leaning across the counter, “I saw her on the news the night before, them saying she was missing, and right away I recognized her.”
“Wow,” I said, making notes in the pad I’d taken from my pocket. “But how could you recognize someone who was just in here for a minute?”
“Normally, you’d be right about that,” he said. “But she was pretty chatty, gave me a chance to get a good look at her. Nice-looking lady, too.”
“What did she have to say?”
“That she was up here for a drive with her husband.”
“She just came out and said that?”
“Well, first, she said how beautiful it was up here, that she’d never been to Lake George before, and I said are you staying somewhere up around here, and she said no, she was just up for a drive with her husband.”
That all sounded plausible. Some friendly conversation. Why was Duckworth trying to make that sound like more than it was?
“So then what?” I asked. “She bought something and left?”
“She bought some drinks, I remember that. Can’t say what they were off the top of my head. An iced tea, I think.”
“And then she was gone?”
“She asked me if there was any interesting things to do around here. Something fun.”
“Aren’t you going to write all this down?” Ted asked.
I realized I hadn’t been taking notes. I smiled and said, “Don’t worry, I’ll remember the good stuff.”
“I just don’t want to be misquoted or anything.”
“Don’t worry about that. So what did she mean, something fun?”
“She wondered if there was something to do around here, because her husband had brought her up on a little car trip, and she was wondering why. She thought maybe he was planning to surprise her with something.”
“Did she give any other reason why they were up this way? Like, I don’t know, that they were meeting someone?”
Ted thought about that. “I don’t think so. Just that her husband had brought her up this way and wouldn’t tell her why.”
I set my notepad and pen on the counter and didn’t ask anything else for a moment. Ted was confused.
“There a problem?”
“Why are you lying, Ted?” I asked.
“I asked why you’re lying.”
“What the hell are you talking about? I’m telling you the truth. I’m telling you the same thing I told the police.”
“I don’t think so,” I said. “I think you’re making this up.”
“Are you some kind of nut? She was here, standing right where you are. Only two days ago.”
“I believe she was here, but I don’t believe she said those things to you. Did someone pay you to tell the police those things? Is that what’s going on?”
“Who the hell are you, anyway?”
“I told you. I’m a reporter, and I don’t like it when people try to jerk me around,” I said.
“For fuck’s sake,” Ted said, “if you don’t believe me, get the police to show you the tape.”
“Okay, I call it tape, but it’s on a disc or digital or some kind of shit like that. But look.” He pointed over his shoulder. A small camera hung from a bracket that was bolted to the wall. “We got sound, too. It’s not great, but you listen close you can hear what people say. I got robbed pretty bad here back in 2007, asshole even took a shot that went right past my ear and into the wall back here. That’s when I got the camera and the microphone.”
“It’s all recorded?” I said.
“Ask the cops. They came up here earlier today, made a copy of it. Why the hell are you accusing me of lying?”
“Why would she say those things?” I said. But I was talking to myself, not Ted.
I grabbed my notepad, slipped it back into my jacket, and started heading for the door.
Ted called out, “When’s this going to be in the paper?”
I was shaking my head, looking down as I went out the door, trying to come up with a reason why Jan would have told someone she didn’t know why I’d brought her up here. Why she would have said I was planning some kind of surprise for her. It made sense that Jan wouldn’t have told a stranger we’d taken a run up here so I could meet a confidential source. That would have been just plain dumb. But to actually start up a conversation for the purpose of saying those things-what the hell was that about?
Maybe, had I not been so preoccupied, I would have had some inkling that Welland, Elmont Sebastian’s ex-con driver, was waiting to ambush me the moment I came outside.
Welland grabbed hold of me by my jacket and threw me up against the wall of Ted’s Lakeview General Store hard enough to knock the wind out of me.
It was all I managed to say before Welland had his face in mine. “Hey, Mr. Harwood,” he said. As I tried to catch my breath I couldn’t help noticing his was hot and smelled of onions.
“Get your hands off me,” I said. Welland’s arms, like a couple of shock absorbers, had me pinned to the building.
“Mr. Sebastian was hoping,” he said with exaggerated politeness, “you might be able to have a word with him.”
I glanced over and saw the limo only a few feet away, the motor running, the tinted windows all in the up position. I’d have to take Welland’s word that his boss was in there.
“I said get your fucking hands off me,” I said to Welland, still holding me against the building.
Welland, not letting up, said, “Let me ask you something.”
I said nothing.
“Some guys, guys like you, can actually go their whole lives and never actually have to prove themselves. You know what I mean? I’m talking in a man-to-man context.” He said that last word with pride. “You ever had to do that? Or was the last time you were in a fight when you were six years old?”
I still said nothing. The door opened and Ted stuck his head out. “Everything okay out here?”
Welland shot him a look. “Get lost, old man.”
Ted went back inside.
Welland eased off on me, but placed a viselike grip on my arm and led me to the limo. He opened the back door and shoved me through the opening.
Elmont Sebastian sat on the far side of the thickly padded leather seat. In his hand was a Mars bar, the wrapper peeled back on it like it was a banana. I pulled my leg out of the way just in time to keep Welland from closing the door on it.
“Mr. Harwood, a pleasure,” Sebastian said.
Welland came around the car and got behind the wheel. He put the car in drive and sped out of the lot so fast I felt myself thrown back into the seat.
“I think they call this kidnapping,” I said.
Sebastian grinned. “Don’t be ridiculous,” he said, chewing. “This is a business meeting.”
“I never saw you following me,” I said. “Big car like this is kind of hard to disguise.”
Sebastian nodded. “We were a couple of miles back.”
“Then how did you-”
“We were sloppy last time, having you followed up here with one car, which, to your credit, you spotted. So this time, we used several to keep track of you. I brought in a few of my other staff. When you have a network of institutions such as mine, you have access to a large and varied workforce. Most of them know how to drive. Some of them probably took their driver’s test in stolen cars.” He chuckled at his own joke. “Anyway, once you stopped here again, that information was relayed to me.”
“Where are we going?” I asked as Welland pushed the car north.
“Nowhere in particular,” Sebastian said. “Just toodling about.” He finished the candy bar, wadded the wrapper down into a tiny ball, and tossed it to the floor. There was no other trash there, so I guessed Welland’s duties included more than just driving.
“This’ll make quite a story,” I said. “‘Prison Boss Kidnaps Standard Reporter.’”
“I don’t think you’ll write that,” he said, moving his tongue over his teeth, getting the last little bits of chocolate out of the way.
“Because you haven’t heard my proposal. Once you have, I think you’ll be feeling more kindly toward me.”
“What sort of proposal?”
He reached out and touched my knee. “First of all, I totally understand if you don’t give me an answer today. I know you have a lot on your plate right now, what with this unfortunate business of your wife.”
“You know all about that,” I said.
“It would be difficult not to,” he said. “I’m sure you’ve seen the news. I believe some reports are calling you a ‘person of interest,’ which has always struck me as a nice way of saying ‘suspect.’ Wouldn’t you agree?”
“How soon did Reeves call you after he left the police station?” I asked.
Sebastian grinned. “I will grant you, the only thing that travels faster than good news is bad news. But then, in your line of work, you probably already know that. Tell me this. Why do the media only focus on the negative? It’s so discouraging, dispiriting even.”
“When a plane lands safely, it doesn’t tend to warrant a headline,” I said.
“Yes, that’s true. Good point. But look at my situation. Here I am, offering a needed service, willing to bring jobs and prosperity to your little shithole town, and all I get is grief. At least from the likes of you.”
“But not my paper,” I said. “It’s been very kind. Have you made a deal yet with Madeline to buy her land?”
Sebastian smiled. “Star Spangled Corrections is exploring a number of options, Mr. Harwood.”
“What makes you think that my current problems will stop me from writing about your plans?”
“Well, I don’t know a lot about journalism, but I think even a minor newspaper like the Standard would have qualms about having a murder suspect actively reporting on the news. My guess is you’ll be on a leave before long.”
Was that something he actually knew? Just a guess? Either way, he was probably right.
“And frankly, even if your current problems, as you call them, should happen to disappear, I don’t think it’s in your interests to pursue this any further.”
“And why would that be?” I asked.
“Let’s come back to that later,” Sebastian said. “What I’d like to do now is get to my proposal.”
“By all means,” I said.
“I wondered how you’d feel about a career change.”
“A career change. There’s no future in newspapers. Surely you must be considering your options.”
“What are you getting at?”
“When Star Spangled Corrections does set up here-and we will, let me assure you-we’re going to need a sharp media relations officer. Someone to deal with the press. I think someone familiar with how the media operates is the way to go.”
“I am. Do I strike you as someone who likes to joke around, David?”
Up front, Welland snickered.
“No,” I said.
“I’m being quite sincere here. I’d like you to be my media relations officer. I can guess what you’re being paid at the Standard. Seventy, eighty thousand?”
“Your starting salary would be nearly double that. Not a bad wage for a man with a wife and young son.”
He seemed to linger on “son.”
“You haven’t even broken ground yet,” I said. “I guess, in the meantime, I’d still be doing stories about the opposition to your prison.”
“As a matter of fact, there’s so much prep work involved, I’d need you to start right away if you’re agreeable,” Sebastian said. When I didn’t say anything, he continued, “Look, David, neither of us is stupid. I don’t want to insult you. I’ll be honest. If you take this job, you solve two problems for me. Your editorial campaign against my facility ends, and I end up with a bright young man with a lot of media savvy. It’s the old axiom about having your enemies in the tent with you pissing out, instead of being outside pissing in. I’m asking you to come into the tent, David, and I’m prepared to compensate you well for your trouble.”
After a moment, I said, “As you said, I have a lot on my plate right now.”
He leaned back, nodded. “Of course, of course. What must you think of me, even making such a proposal when you’re going through such a difficult time.”
“But I can still give you an answer now,” I said.
“Oh,” Sebastian said, taken aback. “Well then, let’s have it.”
He looked disappointed, but it seemed feigned. “In that case, that leaves just one other item of business. I had hoped, had you accepted my proposal, this next thing would be a simple matter. But now I suspect it may be more difficult.”
“Who’s your source?”
“Who was it you came up here to meet?”
“I didn’t come up here to meet with anyone,” I said.
Sebastian smiled at me as though I were a child who had disappointed him. “Please, David. I know that’s why you came up here Friday. I know a woman was in touch with you. And I know she didn’t show up. Now you’re up here again, only two days later, and you’d have me believe it’s not for the same reason? Were you stood up again?”
“I’m not here to meet with anyone.”
Sebastian sighed and took in the scenery flashing past his window. Without looking at me, he said, “Do you have time for a story, David?”
“I’m something of a captive audience,” I said as the limo continued down the road.
“One time, at our facility outside Atlanta, we were having trouble with an inmate who went by the nickname of Buddy.”
Welland glanced at his mirror.
Sebastian said, “He got that name because everyone wanted to be his friend. It’s not that he was the life of the party or anything. It’s just that everyone thought it was in their interests to stay on his good side. He was a tough character. Buddy was a member of the Aryan Brotherhood, a white supremacist gang that’s insinuated itself into correctional facilities across the country. Are you familiar with them?”
I just looked at him.
“Yes, of course you are,” Sebastian said. He shifted slightly to the center of the seat and called up to his driver. “Welland, given that you are our resident expert, how would you characterize the Aryan chaps?”
Welland glanced into the mirror. “Scariest motherfuckers who ever lived.”
“Yes,” Sebastian said. “A fair assessment. Welland, would you like to tell this? I’m always afraid when I do it sounds boastful.”
Welland collected his thoughts a moment, licked his lips, and then said, “Mr. Sebastian had a problem with Buddy. He was an expert at piss-writing.”
“At what?” I asked. All I could picture was taking a leak outside as a kid, writing my name in the snow.
“You can use piss to write, and it’s like invisible ink. When you hold the paper up to the light or heat it, you can see the message. Mr. Sebastian found out Buddy was sending a lot of messages this way, communicating with his associates, and he didn’t want him to do it anymore. It wasn’t conducive to the smooth operation of the facility.”
That made Sebastian smile.
“So Mr. Sebastian here had Buddy brought to his office, keeping him cuffed, of course. One of the guards, he undid Buddy’s pants, pulled ‘em down around his ankles.” Welland coughed, cleared his throat, like maybe he didn’t enjoy telling this story. “And that was when Mr. Sebastian put fifty thousand volts to his package.”
I looked at Sebastian.
“A Taser,” he said. “A stun gun.”
“You stun-gunned the man’s genitals?”
“Not a simple task,” Sebastian said. “The wires that shoot out from a stun gun don’t have pinpoint accuracy. But I was lucky.”
A lot luckier than Buddy, I thought.
“You might as well tell the rest,” Welland said.
Sebastian said, “I explained to Buddy that when you have blood in your urine, it makes it a lot trickier to use it for invisible ink. To be honest, I wasn’t sure fifty thousand volts would do anything but make Buddy a candidate for state-supplied Viagra, but as it turned out, it achieved the desired effect.”
There was a moment of quiet in the car. Finally, Sebastian said, “I never would have thought it was possible to make a member of the Aryan Brotherhood cry.”
“I think it would be hard not to, having something like that done to you,” I offered.
“Oh, it wasn’t that,” Sebastian said. “Once he’d recovered from the shock, I showed Buddy a picture of his six-year-old son, living with his girlfriend on the outside, and explained how unfortunate it would be if any of the recently released inmates he’d sodomized and otherwise terrorized were to find out where his little boy lived. That was when I saw that solitary tear run down his cheek.”
“Well,” I said.
“Indeed,” said Elmont Sebastian. “So, I would very much appreciate it if you would tell me who wrote to you at the Standard and invited you up here to meet with her.”
“I don’t know how you know about that email,” I said, although I had a pretty good idea. “But since you clearly do, you know it was anonymous.”
He nodded. “Quite true. But there are countless other ways to get in touch with people. And I think even though your first rendezvous was unsuccessful, it’s entirely probable that this woman found another way to contact you.”
“She didn’t,” I said. “I think she must have had second thoughts.”
“Then what are you doing back here again?”
“I drove up to talk to the manager of that store back there. I wanted to ask him about my wife. She went in there to buy some drinks when we came up here Friday. I thought she might have said something to him that would help me find her.”
Sebastian appeared to be mulling that one over.
“You see, David, I can’t afford to have leaks in my organization. No company can. Not Apple, not Microsoft, and certainly not Star Spangled Corrections. I have to assume that email came from one of two places. From within my organization, or from within Promise Falls city hall, specifically someone connected in some way to Stan Reeves. Now, as I explained to you the other day, all of my dealings with political representatives have been totally aboveboard. But a false allegation can be as damaging, perhaps even more so, than one that turns out to be true.”
Welland was slowing the car. I glanced ahead and saw no obvious reason to do so.
“So it’s very important to me to find out who would contact you and suggest any kind of malfeasance on my company’s part. The author of that email admitted to a couple of things. One, that she was female, and two, that she had a white truck. My own investigation has determined that Star Spangled has four female employees within a two-hour drive who either have, or have access to, a white truck. And at city hall, among those who might be privy to the correspondence of council members, perhaps half a dozen are women. What vehicles they have I’m in the process of nailing down. I am prepared to escalate my investigation of these women unless you’re willing to save us all some trouble.”
I heard Welland repeat the word “escalate” under his breath. He had the turn signal on, and a moment later was driving down a narrow gravel road slicing its way into a thick forest.
“Mr. Sebastian, my hat’s off to you,” I said. “You’re no slouch at this whole intimidation thing. It would have been hard to miss the point of your little Aryan crybaby story. I’d toss whatever journalistic standards I might have out the window in a minute if I believed, even for a second, that you were threatening my son.”
Sebastian made a face of mock outrage. “David, is that what you took from that story? I just thought you’d find it interesting.”
I continued, “If I really thought you might hurt my boy, and all it took to save him was to betray a source, well, I’d burn that source. I wouldn’t much like myself for it, but blood runs thicker than newsprint ink.”
I added, “And if you did harm him in any way, if you so much as took away one of his action figures, I would find you and I would kill you.”
Sebastian smiled wearily. “You know what would be really interesting? What would be really interesting is if they nail you for this. If they find your wife’s body and find a way to pin it on you, and they put you on trial and convict you and send you up for ten or twenty years, and it turns out to be one of my jails. If we get this thing fast-tracked, it might actually be the one in Promise Falls. Wouldn’t that be something?” He chuckled softly. “Welland, wouldn’t that be something?”
“You know what that would be, sir?” he said, bringing the car to a stop. “That would be ironic.”
I looked outside. We were in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by forest.
I asked Sebastian, “Don’t you worry about yourself?”
“What do you mean?”
All those other Aryan Brothers out there, aren’t you afraid someone might want to get even for what you did to Buddy? Maybe pay a visit on a member of your own family?”
“If I had any family, that might be a concern. But a man in my line of work functions best when he doesn’t have the burden of loved ones.”
I looked out the window again. I didn’t want to ask, but couldn’t stop myself. “What are we doing here? Why are we stopping?”
Welland shifted in his seat so that he could catch his boss’s eye in the rearview mirror. He was awaiting instructions.
“It’s beautiful out here, isn’t it?” Sebastian said. “Only a mile off the main road, and it’s like you’re a hundred miles from civilization. Magnificent.”
I put my hand on the door handle. I was getting ready to run. I didn’t like my chances of escaping, out here in the middle of nowhere.
“But being out here, in the open, can be as dangerous as being kept behind bars in one of my facilities,” he said. “Certainly for you. Right now. At this moment.”
We locked eyes. I was determined not to be the first to look away, even though I was pretty much scared shitless. He could have Welland kill me and dump me here and my body might never be found.
Finally, Sebastian sighed tiredly, broke eye contact, and said to Welland, “Find a place to turn around and head back.” To me, he said, “This is your lucky day, David. I believe you. About your source. I actually do.”
I felt, briefly, tremendously relieved. Elmont Sebastian, by giving me something new to worry about-whether I might live to see the end of the day-and then giving me a reprieve, had made me forget, at least for a while, my other troubles.
“But we’re not done,” he said. “While you may not know who this source is, I would be most grateful if you’d make an effort to find out, and then let me know. You may be contacted again. There may be an opportunity for another meeting.”
I said nothing. The limo was moving again. Welland found a narrow intersection up ahead and managed to turn the beast around, then headed for the highway that would take us, I hoped, back to Ted’s.
“So was it Madeline?” I asked.
“I’m sorry?” Sebastian said.
“Madeline Plimpton. My publisher.”
“And what is it you think she did?”
“She fed you the email from that woman. It’s not much of a stretch to think the publisher would have some kind of clearance that would allow her to read every message attached to one of the paper’s email addresses. I deleted it as quickly as I could, but I guess I wasn’t fast enough. Is that the deal? She betrays her staff, keeps the heat off you, and in return you buy her land?”
Sebastian’s eyes seemed to twinkle.
“That’s the trouble with you newspaper types,” he said. “You’re so incredibly cynical.”
“Why the hell do you keep staring at that picture?” Horace Richler asked his wife.
Gretchen was sitting on the front step of their Lincoln Avenue home, forearms resting on her knees, holding the picture David Harwood had left with them of his wife in both hands. It was a printout on regular paper, and if she held it with only one hand the breeze would catch it and flip it over.
Horace noticed that on the step next to his wife was the framed photo of their daughter, Jan.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
“I’m just thinking,” she said.
“You want a coffee or anything? There’s still some left in the pot.”
Gretchen said nothing. She looked up from the picture and stared out at the street. She could see them. The two little girls playing in the front yard. Running around in circles, laughing one minute, arguing the next.
Then Horace, running out the front door, getting into his car, throwing it into reverse and hitting the gas.
Gretchen craned her neck around. She couldn’t move it all that far. She noticed it most when she was trying to back out of a spot at the grocery store. Couldn’t turn around to see where she was going, had to rely on the mirrors. Always came out real slow, figured if she did hit something, she’d hear it, could step on the brakes right away.
“I don’t want anything, love, thanks,” she said.
“What’s going on inside your head?”
When Gretchen didn’t reply, Horace came down the steps and plunked himself down, not without some discomfort. Both his knees hurt like the devil. Once he was settled, he leaned his shoulder into his wife’s.
He said, “I had a dream about Bradley last night. That Afghanistan never happened. That he never went over there, there never was any goddamn Taliban, that none of that ever even existed. I was dreaming that I was sitting right here, and you were sitting next to me the way you are right now, and I looked down the street that way and I saw him walking up the road in his uniform.”
A tear ran down Gretchen’s cheek.
“And he had Jan with him,” Horace said, his voice breaking. “She was still a little girl, and she was holding on to her big brother’s hand, and the two of them were coming home. Together.”
Gretchen held on to the photo with one hand and dug a tissue out of her sleeve with the other. She put it to her eye.
“And then I realized that they weren’t really alive,” Horace said. “I realized that you and I, we were dead. That Lincoln Avenue was heaven.”
Gretchen sniffed, blew her nose, dabbed her eyes.
“Sorry,” Horace said. “I shouldn’t have told you that. It was that fella coming here, I think that’s what triggered it. He shouldn’t have come here. He shouldn’t have done that, bringing his troubles into our house when we got enough of our own. I don’t know what the hell he was thinking, barging in here with a cockamamy, bullshit story like that.”
Gretchen sniffed again, dabbed again, then wadded the tissue up into a ball.
Horace picked up the photo of his daughter. His body seemed to crumple around it.
“It wasn’t your fault,” Gretchen said for probably the thousandth time in all these years.
Horace didn’t respond.
Gretchen got both hands again on the printout picture of Jan Harwood and stared at it.
Horace said, “The idea that somebody would go around using our daughter’s name and birth certificate, it just… how can you steal a little girl’s identity?”
“It happens,” Gretchen said quietly. “It happens all the time. I saw, on TV, how someone went through a cemetery, found graves where they could tell from the dates that it was a child that died, and they’d use that name to make up a whole new person.”
“Some people,” Horace said under his breath. He glanced over at the picture his wife couldn’t stop staring at. “She’s pretty.”
“It must be hard on that fella, not knowing what’s happened to her. Not knowing if she’s dead or alive. That has to be bad, the not knowing.”
“At least with not knowing, there’s always hope,” Gretchen said, not taking her eyes off the picture. “I haven’t stopped looking at this all day. I knew, when he first showed it to me last night…”
“You seemed kind of upset,” Horace said. “You went upstairs.”
Gretchen was struggling to say something. “Horace…”
He slipped an arm around his wife’s shoulders. “It’s okay,” he said.
“Horace, look at the picture.”
“I’ve seen the picture.”
“Look, look right here.” She pointed.
“Hang on,” he said, then sighed and took his arm from around her shoulders. He reached into the front pocket of his shirt, where he kept a pair of small wire-rimmed reading glasses. He opened them up, noticed they were smudged and dirty, but slipped the arms over his ears just the same.
“Where do you want me to look?”
“I don’t know what you’re looking at.”
He grasped the picture with both hands. He studied it for a moment, and then his face began to fall.
“I’ll be goddamned,” he said.
Once Welland had the limo turned around and we were well on our way, I said to Elmont Sebastian, “Suppose, just for a moment, that I did find out who emailed me, and I told you who she was.”
His eyebrows went up half an inch.
“What would you do to her?” I asked.
Sebastian said, “I would have a word with her.”
“I would tell her that she was lucky that no harm had been done, and I would explain to her that it’s not a good thing to be disloyal to those you work for.”
“Assuming she works for you,” I said.
“Or Mr. Reeves. It’s not a good thing to rat out your friends or employers.”
“But it’s okay if I rat her out.”
Sebastian looked at me and smiled.
As we approached Ted’s, I sensed the car slowing, but then it sped up. “You passed it,” I said to Welland.
“Thanks for that,” Welland said. “I never would have known.”
I glanced at Sebastian. “What’s going on?”
He didn’t seem to know any more than I did. “Welland?” he said.
His driver said, “Didn’t look safe to pull in, sir.”
“What did you see?”
“Looked like someone was waiting for Mr. Harwood,” Welland said.
Someone was waiting for me at Ted’s?
“Pull over up ahead, once we get round that bend,” Sebastian said.
The car maintained its pace for another few seconds, then Welland steered it over onto the gravel shoulder. Once the car was fully stopped, Sebastian said to me, “Always a pleasure, David.”
These guys were pretty consistent at not returning me to my pickup point.
As I opened the door Sebastian said, “I hope you’ll give due consideration to everything I’ve said.”
I got out and started walking back to Ted’s without closing the door. It wouldn’t have killed Sebastian to lean over and deal with it, but when I glanced back I saw Welland getting out of the driver’s seat, going around to the other side. I expected him to slam the door, but he leaned in briefly, came back out with what appeared to be a Mars bar wrapper in his hand, then slammed the door shut. He glanced my way, and for a second time, made his fingers into a gun and pointed at me.
This time, he fired twice.
As I walked along the shoulder my cell phone rang. It was my mother.
“It’s getting bad here,” she said.
“What are you talking about?”
“TV trucks and reporters. Everyone wants to talk to you, and if they can’t get you, they want to talk to me or your father. Or they want to get a picture of Ethan.”
“God, Mom, what’s tipped everyone off?”
“I’ve been checking the websites, first your paper’s, then others. It’s starting to spread. The headlines say things like ‘Reporter Questioned in Wife’s Disappearance’ and ‘Reporter Tells Police: I Didn’t Kill My Wife.’ But like I said, it’s not just your paper. It’s on the TV news websites, and I heard something on the radio, and, David, it’s just terrible. I can’t believe the things they’re saying about you, well, not actually about you, but it’s all the innuendo and suggestions and-”
“I know, I know. Once Reeves got the ball rolling, everyone joined in. Tell me about Ethan.”
“We’re keeping him inside, just putting him in front of the television. We’ve got some Disney DVDs and he’s watching them. David, I went onto the CNN website, and even they had an item on it. It was short but-”
“Mom, just worry about Ethan. Does he know what’s going on?”
“He looked outside a couple of times but I’ve told him to stay away from the window, because if they can get a picture of him, they’ll probably use it.”
“Okay, that’s good. Does he know why they’re there?”
“No,” Mom said. “I made up a crazy story.”
“What kind of story?”
“I told him sometimes people come by to see the house because Batman used to live here.”
In spite of everything, I laughed. “Yeah, your house is a regular Wayne Manor.”
“I don’t know why I said it. It was the first thing I could think of. Hang on, your father wants to talk to you.”
“Okay, Mom, thanks-”
“Where are you?”
“Just walking along the highway north of Lake George.”
“Why the hell are you doing that?”
“What is it, Dad?”
“I got somebody for you.”
“Got somebody who?”
“A lawyer. Her name’s Bondurant.”
It rang a bell. “Natalie Bondurant?” I asked.
“That’s the one. Is that French, you figure?”
“I don’t know.”
“I called the office and they had this weekend emergency number and I got hold of her. She said she’s willing to talk to you.”
“Thanks. That’s great, Dad.”
“You need to talk to her today. The shit’s hitting the fan around here.”
“I hear ya.”
“I got her number. Can you write something down?”
I had my notepad in my pocket. “All right, fine.” I got out the pad, flipped it open, wrote down the number Dad dictated to me.
“If you were smart, you’d give her a call right now,” Dad said.
“When I get back on the road.”
“Is my car okay?” Dad asked. Even with all that was going on, Dad never lost sight of the things that mattered to him.
“The car’s fine,” I said.
“If you’re not going to call her now, she did have one piece of advice for you in the meantime.”
“She said not to say a goddamn thing to the police.”
Ted’s had come into view. Leaning up against Dad’s car was Detective Barry Duckworth.
“Nice day for a walk,” Duckworth said as I approached. His unmarked cruiser was parked off to one side. That must have been what Welland saw before he decided to keep on driving. Unmarked police cruisers had a certain look about them.
“Yeah,” I said. Was there anyone who hadn’t followed me up here?
I fished the car keys out of my pocket, hoping to send the message that I was on my way.
“What are you doing up here?” Duckworth asked.
“I might ask you the same thing.”
“But if I don’t answer, it doesn’t look suspicious,” he said.
“I came up to talk to Ted.”
“What were you doing leaving your car here and strolling down the highway? Not much down there to see.”
I wanted to tell him about my ride with Sebastian. But the prison boss had intimidated me to the point that I wasn’t sure that was a good idea. Plus, I didn’t think Duckworth would believe me anyway.
“I was just walking, and thinking.”
“About what Ted told you?”
“So you’ve already spoken to him.”
“Briefly,” Duckworth said. “You shouldn’t be doing that. Approaching witnesses, giving them a hard time. That’s bad form.”
“He told you things that didn’t make any sense to me. I wanted to hear them for myself.”
And did you?”
“Still think he’s lying?”
“He says it’s on the security video. What Jan said to him.”
“That’s right,” Duckworth said. “It’s a little muddy in places, but we got people who can clean that up. But what he said basically checks out.”
“I don’t get it,” I said.
“I think I do,” Duckworth said.
“You would,” I said, “because you think I know what’s happened to Jan. But I don’t.”
“Who was it took you for a ride and dropped you off down the road?”
So. He already knew about that, too. Ted must have told him about seeing Welland grab hold of me.
“It was Elmont Sebastian,” I said. “And his driver.”
“The prison guy?”
“What’s he doing up here?”
“He wanted to talk to me. I’ve been trying to get some quotes from him.”
“And he drove all the way up here to give them to you?”
“Look,” I said, “I want to get back home. Things don’t sound good there.”
“Yeah,” Duckworth said. “There’s a bit of a media frenzy building. I want you to know, for what it’s worth, I didn’t set it off. I think it was your pal Reeves. Once the media started calling, we’ve had no choice but to field their questions. It’s not my style, to get something like this going.”
“For what it’s worth, thank you,” I said. “So you followed me up here?”
“Not exactly,” Duckworth said.
“Then what are you doing here?”
“I was on my way up to something else and decided to pop in and have a word with Ted myself. Another Promise Falls officer came up earlier to get the surveillance video off him, but I thought a face-to-face was in order. Ted mentioned you’d just been in, and that your car was still here.”
“So you decided to wait for me.”
Duckworth nodded slowly.
“What was the other thing you were coming up here for?” I asked.
Duckworth’s cell phone rang. He put it to his ear and said, “Duckworth… Okay… Is the coroner there yet?… I don’t think I’m any more than a couple of miles away… See you shortly.”
He ended the call and put the phone away.
“What is it?” I asked. “What was that about the coroner?”
“Mr. Harwood, there’s been a discovery just up the road from here.”