Missing you, p.11
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       Missing You, p.11

          

  Kat gave her name and rank. "A young man named Brandon Phelps came to see me today."

  "Wait, didn't you say you were NYPD?"

  "Yes."

  "So Brandon visited you in New York City?"

  "Right."

  "Are you a friend of the family or something?"

  "No."

  "I don't understand."

  "He thinks his mother is missing," Kat said.

  "Yeah, I know."

  "So he wanted me to look into it."

  Schwartz sighed. "Why the hell would Brandon go to you?"

  "You sound like you know him."

  "Of course I know him. You said you're NYPD, right? Why did he go to you?"

  Kat wasn't sure how much she wanted to go into Brandon's illegal hacking activities or the fact that she was frequenting a dating site. "I'm not sure, but he said he first asked you for help. Is that true?"

  "It is."

  "I know his claim seems crazy," Kat continued, "but I'm wondering whether we can do something to put his mind at ease."

  "Detective Donovan?"

  "Call me Kat."

  "Okay, call me Joe. I'm trying to think how to put this. . . ." He took a moment. Then: "I would say that you haven't been told the full story."

  "So why don't you fill me in?"

  "I have a better idea, if you don't mind," he said. "Why don't you take a drive up to Greenwich in the morning?"

  "Because it's far."

  "It's only forty minutes from midtown. I think it might benefit both of us. I'm here until noon."

  *

  Kat would have driven up, there and then, but she'd had too much to drink. She slept fitfully and, figuring she would wait until after the traffic eased, headed over to yoga class. Aqua, who was always there before the first student arrived, never showed. The students mumbled, concerned. One student, a too-skinny older woman, decided to lead the class, but it didn't take. The students slowly dispersed. Kat waited around a few more minutes, hoping Aqua would show. He didn't.

  Figuring most of the traffic had cleared out, Kat rented a Zipcar at nine fifteen. The ride, as advertised, took forty minutes.

  Look up "tony" in your figurative dictionary (the adjective, not the name) and lush and flush Greenwich, Connecticut, pops up. If you run a hedge fund exceeding a billion dollars, it was pretty much a federal law that you had to live in Greenwich, Connecticut. Greenwich had the wealthiest residents per capita of anywhere in the United States, and it looked it.

  Detective Schwartz offered Kat a Coke. She accepted it and sat on the other side of his Formica desk. Everything here in the station looked sleek and expensive and unused. Schwartz had a handlebar mustache, complete with the barbershop-quartet waxed tips. He wore a dress shirt with suspenders.

  "So tell me how you're involved in this case," Schwartz said.

  "Brandon came to me. He asked for my help."

  "I still don't get why."

  Kat was still not ready to tell him everything. "He said it was because you guys didn't believe him."

  Schwartz gave her skeptical cop eyes. "And he thought, what, a random cop in New York City would?"

  She tried to steer him away from all this. "He came to you guys, right?"

  "Yes."

  "And you said something on the phone about knowing him from before?"

  "Something like that, yes." Joe Schwartz leaned in a little closer. "This is a small town, you know what I mean? I mean, it's not a small town but it's a small town."

  "You're asking for my discretion."

  "Yes."

  "You got it."

  He leaned back and put his hands flat on the desk. "We in the police department are a little too familiar with Brandon Phelps."

  "Meaning?"

  "What do you think I mean?"

  "I checked," Kat said. "Brandon has no record."

  Schwartz spread his hand. "I guess you missed the part where I said this was a small town."

  "Ah."

  "Ever see the movie Chinatown?" he asked.

  "Sure."

  He cleared his throat and tried to imitate Joe Mantell. "'Forget it, Jake. It's Greenwich.' Don't get me wrong. He's only been arrested for petty crap. He broke into the high school a few times, drives too fast, vandalism, deals a little pot, you get the drift. And to be fair, none of this happened before his old man died. We all knew and liked the father, and the mother, well, Dana Phelps is good people. Salt of the earth. Will do anything for you. But the kid . . . I don't know. There's always been something off about him."

  "Off how?"

  "No big deal, really. I got a son Brandon's age. Brandon didn't fit in, but this isn't an easy town."

  "But he came to you a few days ago. He told you he was worried about his mother."

  "Yep." There was a paper clip on his desk. Schwartz picked it up and started bending it back and forth. "But he also lied to us."

  "How?"

  "What did he tell you about his mother's supposed disappearance?"

  "He said she met a guy online, that she went away with him, that she always contacted him but hadn't."

  "Yeah, he told us that too," Schwartz said. "But that's not the truth." He dropped the paper clip and opened his desk drawer. He took out some kind of protein bar. "Want one? I got plenty."

  "No, thanks. So what is the truth?"

  He started rifling through a stack of papers. "I put it here because I knew you were . . . wait, here it is. Brandon's cell phone records." He handed her the sheets. "See the yellow?"

  She saw two texts highlighted in yellow. They'd both came from the same phone number.

  "Brandon received two texts from his mother. One came two nights ago, the other early yesterday morning."

  "This is his mother's cell phone?"

  "Yep."

  Kat could feel her face started to redden. "Do you know what they say?"

  "When he was here last, I only had a record of the first one. I confronted him about it, so he showed it to me. It said something like 'Arrived, having a great time, miss you.' Something like that."

  Kat kept her eyes on the sheet of paper. "How did he explain it?"

  "He said his mother hadn't sent it. But it's her number. You can see it right there, plain as day."

  "Did you call the mom's number?"

  "We did. No answer."

  "Do you find that suspicious?"

  "No. To put it crudely, we figure she's on some island, maybe getting laid for the first time in three years. Why, you don't agree?"

  "No," she said. "I do. I was just playing devil's advocate."

  "Of course, that isn't the only explanation."

  "What do you mean?"

  "I mean," Schwartz said with a shrug, "Dana Phelps could very well be missing."

  Kat waited for him to say more. Schwartz waited longer. Finally, Kat asked, "Did Brandon tell you about the ATM charge?"

  "Interestingly enough, no."

  "He may not have known about it when he saw you."

  "That's one theory."

  "You have another?"

  "I do. Or let's say, I did. See, that's the main reason I wanted you to take the ride up here."

  "Oh?"

  "Put yourself in my shoes. A troubled teenager comes to me. He claims his mother is missing. From the texts, we know his story is a lie. We find out some money was taken out of an ATM. So if there was foul play, who would be your number one suspect?"

  She nodded. "The troubled teenager."

  "Bingo."

  Kat had thought of that in passing but hadn't really gone there. Of course, she hadn't known about the kid's past--then again, Joe Schwartz didn't know that Brandon had broken into YouAreJust MyType or her own connection to the case. On the other hand, Brandon had lied to her about the texts. She knew that now. So what exactly was he up to?

  Kat said, "You thought that maybe Brandon harmed his own mother?"

  "I wasn't ready to go that far. But I didn't think that she had vanished, either. So I took the precaution of taking one extra step."

  "What was that?"

  "I asked for the ATM surveillance video. I thought maybe you'd want to see it too." He flipped the computer monitor around on his desk so she could see the screen. Schwartz hit a few keys. The monitor came to life. The video was a split screen, two camera angles. That was the latest technology. Too many people knew about the camera on the front of the machine and would cover it with their hand. So the picture on the left was exactly that--one of those fish-eye views of an ATM machine. The second shot, the one on the right of the screen, had been shot from above, like you see in every convenience store heist. Kat understood that installing a camera near the ceiling was easier, but it was almost always useless. Criminals wore baseball caps or kept their chins tucked. Shoot from below, not above.

  The videos were in color, not black and white. That was getting more and more common. Schwartz took hold of his mouse. "Ready?"

  She nodded. He clicked the PLAY button.

  For a few seconds, there was nothing. Then a woman came into view. There was no doubt about it. It was Dana Phelps.

  "She look in much distress to you?"

  Kat shook her head. Even on the surveillance camera, Dana looked rather beautiful. More than that, she looked ready to go on a vacation with a new lover. Kat couldn't help feel a pang of something akin to envy. Dana's hair looked as though it had just been professionally done. Her nails--Kat could see them up close when they were tapping the keys--were freshly manicured. Her outfit too looked ideal for a romantic trip to the Caribbean: A bright yellow sundress.

  Chapter 16

  Aqua was pacing in front of Kat's apartment.

  His pace was done in tight two-steps-spin-180 two-steps-spin-180 formation. Kat stopped on the corner and watched for a moment. Something was clutched in his hand. Aqua kept looking at it--was it a sheet of paper? He kept talking to it--no, Kat thought, more like arguing or even pleading with it.

  People gave Aqua wide berth, but this was New York. Nobody overreacted. Kat started toward him. Aqua hadn't been to her apartment for more than a decade, so why now? When she was about ten feet away from him, she could see what was on the sheet of paper he had bunched up in his right hand.

  It was the picture of Jeff she had given to him over two weeks ago.

  "Aqua?"

  He stopped mid-stride and spun toward her. His eyes were wide and just past the northern border of sanity. She had seen him talk to himself before, had witnessed a few of his paces and tantrums, but she had never seen him look so . . . was it agitated? No. It seemed more than that. It seemed pained.

  "Why?" Aqua cried, holding up Jeff's picture.

  "Why what, Aqua?"

  "I loved him," he said, his voice a wounded wail. "You loved him."

  "I know we did."

  "Why?"

  He started sobbing. Pedestrians now gave him wider berth. Kat moved closer. She opened her arms and Aqua fell right in, putting his head against her shoulder and continuing to cry.

  "It's okay," she said softly.

  Aqua kept at it, his body racked by each new sob. She shouldn't have shown him the photograph. He was beyond fragile. He needed routine. He needed sameness, and here she had gone and given him a picture of someone he cared deeply about and never saw anymore.

  Wait. How did she know Aqua never saw Jeff anymore?

  Eighteen years ago, Jeff had broken up with her. That didn't mean he had given up all his friends and connections, did it? He and Aqua could still be in touch, still doing what friends do, hang out, grab a beer, watch a game. Except, of course, it wasn't as though Aqua had a computer or a phone or even an address.

  But could they still be in touch?

  It seemed doubtful. Kat let him have his cry, there on the street. He pulled himself together, but it took some time. She patted his back and cooed soothing words. She had done this for Aqua before, especially after Jeff left, but it had been a long, long time. In those days, she had both taken pity on him and been angered by his reaction. Jeff had dumped her, not him. Shouldn't Aqua be the one comforting her?

  But, man, she missed this connection. She had long ago mourned the loss of this friend, accepting the yoga-teacher relationship as being the only one he could reasonably expect to give. Right now, holding him like this, she fell back and yet again felt the pang for all she had lost eighteen years ago.

  "Are you hungry?" she asked him.

  Aqua nodded, lifting his head. His face was filled with tears and snot. So was Kat's blouse. She didn't care. She started welling up too, not just for the loss of Jeff or what she and Aqua once had, but just from physically comforting someone you care about. It had been so long. Much too long.

  "A little hungry, I guess," Aqua said.

  "Do you want to get something to eat?"

  "I should go."

  "No, no, let's get something to eat, okay?"

  "I don't think so, Kat."

  "I don't understand. Why did you come here in the first place?"

  "Class tomorrow," Aqua said. "I need to prepare."

  "Come on," she said, holding on to his hand, trying to keep the plea from her voice. "Stay with me a little while, okay?"

  He didn't respond.

  "You said you're hungry, right?"

  "Right."

  "So let's get something to eat, okay?"

  Aqua wiped his face with his sleeve. "Okay." They started down the block, arm in arm, a rather bizarre-looking couple, she guessed, but again, this was New York. They walked in silence for a while. Aqua stopped crying. Kat didn't want to push him, but then, she couldn't just leave it alone.

  "You miss him," she said.

  Aqua squeezed his eyes shut as if wishing the words away.

  "It's okay. I understand."

  "You don't understand anything," Aqua said.

  She wasn't sure how to respond to that, so she went with "So explain it to me."

  "I miss him," Aqua said. Then he stopped, turned, and faced her full-on. When he looked at her, the wide-eyed look had been replaced with something akin to pity. "But not like you, Kat."

  He started to walk away. She hurried to catch up.

  "I'm fine," Kat said.

  "It should have been."

  "What should have been?"

  "You and Jeff," Aqua said. "It should have been."

  "Yeah, well, it didn't happen."

  "It is like you two were traveling down separate roads for your whole lives--two roads that were destined to become one. You have to see that. Both of you."

  "Well, clearly not both of us," she said.

  "You travel down those life roads. You choose journeys, but sometimes you are forced to take another route."

  She really wasn't in the mood for the yoga woo-woo right now. "Aqua?"

  "Yes?"

  "Have you seen Jeff?"

  He stopped again.

  "I mean, since he left me. Have you seen him?"

  Aqua tightened his grip on her arm. He started to walk again. She stayed with him. They made the right on Columbus Avenue and headed north.

  "Twice," he said.

  "You've seen him twice?"

  Aqua looked up toward the sky and closed his eyes. Kat let him take his time. He used to do this back at school too. He would talk about the sun on his face, how it relaxed and centered him. For a while, it had even seemed to work. But that face was weathered now. You could see the bad years in the lines around his eyes and mouth. His "mocha latte" skin had taken on the leathery cracking of those who live on the streets too long.

  "He came back to the room," Aqua said. "After he ended it with you."

  "Oh," she said. Not the answer she'd hoped for.

  Because of how he was, Aqua had always been in a single on campus. The school tried him with a roommate, but it never worked out. Some were freaked out by the cross-dressing, but the real problem was that Aqua never slept. He studied. He read. He worked in the lab, the school cafeteria--and at night, he had a job in a fetish club in Jersey City. Sometime in his junior year, Aqua lost his single room. Housing insisted on putting him with three other students. There was no way that would work out. At the same time, Jeff had found a two-bedroom on 178th Street. Serendipity, Jeff had called it.

  Aqua was tearing up again. "Jeff was destroyed, you know."

  "Thanks. That means a lot eighteen years later."

  "Don't be like that, Kat."

  Aqua may be confused, but he hadn't missed the sarcasm.

  "So when was the second time you saw him?" Kat asked.

  "March twenty-first," he said.

  "What year?"

  "What do you mean, what year? This year."

  Kat pulled up. "Wait. Are you telling me you saw Jeff six months ago for the first time since we broke up?"

  Aqua started to fidget.

  "Aqua?"

  "I teach yoga."

  "Yeah, I know."

  "I'm a good teacher."

  "The best. Where did you see Jeff exactly?"

  "You were there."

  "What are you talking about?"

  "You took my class. On March twenty-first. You aren't my best student. But you try. You are conscientious."

  "Aqua, where did you see Jeff?"

  "At class," Aqua said. "March twenty-first."

  "This year?"

  "Yes."

  "Are you telling me that Jeff took your class six months ago?"

  "He didn't take the class," Aqua said. "He stayed behind a tree. He watched you. He was in so much pain."

  "Did you talk to him?"

  Aqua shook his head. "I taught class. I thought perhaps he spoke to you."

  "No," she said. Then, remembering that she wasn't dealing with the most dependable mind in the free world, she tried to let it go. There was no way Jeff was in Central Park six months ago, watching their class from behind a tree. It made no sense.

  "I'm so sorry, Kat."

  "Don't worry about it, okay?"

  "It changed everything. I didn't know it would."

  "It's okay now."

  They were half a block from O'Malley's. In the old days, they would all hang out here--Kat, Jeff, Aqua, a few other friends. You would think O'Malley's would have been a rough place for a biracial cross-dresser back then. It was. In the beginning, Aqua dressed like a man at O'Malley's, but that didn't really stop the sneers. Dad would just shake his head. He wasn't as bad as most from the neighborhood, but he still had no patience for "fruits."

  "Gotta stop hanging around those types," Kat's father would tell her. "They ain't right."

  She would shake her head and roll her eyes at him. At all of them. People often referred to these cops now as "old school." True enough. But it wasn't always a compliment. They were narrow and insulated. Excuses could be made (and were), but in the end, they were bigots. Lovable bigots maybe. But bigots nonetheless. Gays were treated with derision, but to a lesser extent, so was pretty much every other group or nationality. It was part of the lexicon. If someone negotiated with you too hard, you complained that they "Jewed" you down. Any activity not deemed macho was for "fags." A ballplayer choked because he was playing like an N-word. Kat didn't excuse it, but when she was younger, she didn't really let it get to her either.

 
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