Missing you, p.12
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       Missing You, p.12

          

  To his credit (or maybe patience?), Aqua hadn't seemed to care. "How do you think we get views to evolve?" he'd say. He took it as a challenge even. Aqua would breeze into O'Malley's, either not caring about--or, more likely, making himself ignore--the sneers and snickers. After a while, most of the cops moved on, got bored, barely looking twice when Aqua strolled in. Dad and his buddies kept their distance.

  It pissed Kat off, especially coming from her father, but Aqua would shrug and say, "Progress."

  As they reached the pub door, Aqua pulled up short. His eyes went wide again.

  "What is it?" Kat asked.

  "I have to teach class."

  "Right, I know. That's tomorrow."

  He shook his head. "I need to prepare. I'm a yogi. A teacher. An instructor."

  "And a good one."

  Aqua kept shaking his head. There were tears in his eyes now. "I can't go back."

  "You don't have to go anywhere."

  "He loved you so much."

  She didn't bother asking who he meant. "It's okay, Aqua. We are just going to grab a bite to eat, okay?"

  "I'm a good teacher, aren't I?"

  "The best."

  "So let me do what I do. That's how I help. That's how I stay centered. That's how I contribute to society."

  "You have to eat."

  The door to O'Malley's had a neon sign for Budweiser in the window. She could see the red light reflecting in Aqua's eyes. She reached for the handle and pulled the door open.

  Aqua screamed. "I can't go back!"

  Kat let go of the door. "It's okay. I get it. Let's go somewhere else."

  "No! Leave me alone! Leave him alone!"

  "Aqua?"

  She reached out for him, but he pulled away. "Leave him alone," he said, his voice more a hiss this time. Then he ran down the street, back toward the park.

  Chapter 17

  Stacy met her at O'Malley's an hour later.

  Kat told her the entire story. Stacy listened, shook her head, and said, "Man, all I wanted to do was help you get laid."

  "I know, right?"

  "No good deed goes unpunished." Stacy stared a little too hard at her beer. She started peeling off the label.

  "What is it?" Kat asked.

  "I, uh, took the liberty of doing some of my own investigating on this."

  "Meaning?"

  "I ran a full check on your old fiance, Jeff Raynes."

  Kat took a quick swallow. "What did you find?"

  "Not much."

  "Meaning?"

  "After you two broke up, do you know where he went?"

  "No."

  "You weren't curious?"

  "I was curious," Kat said. "But he dumped my ass."

  "Yeah, I get it."

  "So where did he go?"

  "Cincinnati."

  Kat stared straight ahead. "That makes sense. He was from Cincinnati."

  "Right. So anyway, about three months after you two broke up, he got into a bar fight."

  "Jeff did?"

  "Yes."

  "In Cincinnati?"

  Stacy nodded. "I don't know the details. The cops came. He was arrested for a misdemeanor. He paid a fine and that was that."

  "Okay. And then?"

  "And then nothing."

  "What do you mean?"

  "There is nothing else on Jeff Raynes. No credit card charges. No passport. No bank accounts. Nothing."

  "Wait, this is preliminary, right?"

  Stacy shook her head. "I ran it all. He's gone in the wind."

  "That can't be. He's on YouAreJustMyType."

  "But didn't your friend Brandon say he used a different name?"

  "Jack. And you know what?" Kat slapped her hands down on top of the bar. "I don't really care anymore. That's in my past."

  Stacy smiled. "Good for you."

  "I've had enough of old ghosts for one night."

  "Hear, hear."

  They clinked beer bottles. Kat tried her best to dismiss it.

  "His profile said he was a widower," Kat said. "That he had a kid."

  "Yeah, I know."

  "But you didn't find that."

  "I didn't find anything after that bar fight almost eighteen years ago."

  Kat shook her head. "I don't get it."

  "But you don't care, right?"

  Kat gave a firm nod. "Right."

  Stacy glanced around the bar. "Is it me or is this place extra douchey tonight?"

  She was trying to distract me, Kat thought, but that was okay. And no, it wasn't just Stacy. O'Malley's seemed to be a verifiable United Nations of Douche Baggery on this fine evening. A guy in a cowboy hat tipped the brim toward them and actually muttered, in a Brooklyn accent no less, "Howdy, ma'am." Dancing guy--there is one in every bar who has to do the robot or moonwalk while his buddies egg him on--was working his stuff by the jukebox. One guy wore a football jersey, a look Kat disliked on men but loathed on women, especially the ones who cheer too loudly, trying too hard to prove their fandom is legitimate. It always came off as too desperate. Two steroid-inflated, overwaxed muscleheads preened in the bar's center--those guys never went to the dark corners. They wanted to be seen. Their shirts were always the same size--Too Small. There were hipster hopefuls who smelled like pot. There were guys with tattoo sleeves. There was the sloppy drunk who had his arm over another guy he'd just met, telling him that he loved him and that even though they had just met that night, they'd be best friends forever.

  One biker wannabe wearing black leather and a red bandanna--always a no--made his approach. He had a quarter in his palm. "Hey, babe," he said, looking directly between the two women. Kat figured that this was a take-two-shots-with-one-line type deal.

  "If I flip a coin," Bandanna continued, arching an eyebrow, "will I get head?"

  Stacy looked at Kat. "We have to find a new place to hang out."

  Kat nodded. "It's dinnertime anyway. Let's eat someplace good."

  "How about Telepan?"

  "Yum."

  "We'll get the tasting menu."

  "With the wine pairing."

  "Let's hurry."

  They were outside and walking fast when Kat's cell phone sounded. The call was coming from Brandon's regular cell phone now--no need for disposables anymore. She debated letting it go--right now, all she wanted was Telepan's tasting menu with wine pairings--but she answered it anyway.

  "Hello?"

  "Where are you?" Brandon asked. "We need to talk."

  "No, Brandon, we don't. Guess where I went today?"

  "Uh, where?"

  "The Greenwich police station. I had a little chat with our friend Detective Schwartz. He told me about a text you received."

  "It's not what you think."

  "You lied."

  "I didn't lie. I just didn't tell you about the texts. But I can explain that."

  "No need. I'm out of this, Brandon. Nice meeting you and all. Good luck in the future."

  She was about to thumb the END button, when she heard Brandon say, "I found out something about Jeff."

  She put the phone to her ear. "That he got in a bar fight eighteen years ago?"

  "What? No. This is more recent."

  "Look, I don't really care." Then: "Is he with your mother?"

  "It's not what we thought."

  "What isn't what we thought?"

  "None of it."

  "What do you mean?"

  "Jeff, for one thing."

  "What about him?"

  "He isn't what you think. We need to talk, Kat. I need to show this to you."

  *

  Reynaldo made sure that the blond woman--he didn't need to know any of their names--was secure before he headed up to the same path toward the farmhouse. Night had fallen. He used his flashlight to find his way.

  Reynaldo had discovered out here, at the age of nineteen, that he was afraid of the dark. The dark dark. Real dark. In the city, there was no real dark. If you were outside, there were always streetlights or lights from windows or storefronts kept alit. You never knew pure black darkness. Here, out in the woods, you could not see your hand in front of your face. Anything could be out there. Anything could be lurking.

  When he reached the clearing, Reynaldo could see the porch lights on. He stood and looked at the serene surroundings. He had never really seen anything like this farm in real life before they came out here. In movies, sure, but he hadn't believed that places like this existed, any more than he believed the Death Star in Star Wars existed. It was make-believe, these farmlands where kids could walk for miles and play in sandlots and come home to Ma and Pa and do their chores. Now he knew the land was real. The happy stories, however, were still the stuff of make-believe.

  He had his orders, but first he headed to the barn to check on his chocolate Labrador retriever, Bo. As always, Bo ran out and greeted him as though he hadn't seen him in a year. Reynaldo smiled, scratched behind his ears, and made sure Bo's water bowl was full.

  When he was finished taking care of his dog, Reynaldo made his way to the farmhouse. He opened the door. Titus was there with Dmitry. Dmitry was Titus's computer whiz kid with the bright-colored shirts and knit cap. Titus had decided to decorate as the Amish did. Reynaldo did not know why. The furniture was all quality woodwork--sturdy, heavy, plain, unadorned. There was nothing fancy. It all gave off an aura of quiet strength.

  There was a bench press and free weights in one of the upstairs bedrooms. They had originally set it up in the cellar, but after a while, no one wanted to go into anything underground. So they moved it up.

  Reynaldo lifted weights every day, no matter what. He also had a steady concoction of performance-enhancing drugs in the fridge and cabinet. Most he self-administered with a needle in the upper thigh. Titus supplied them for him.

  Six years ago, Titus had found Reynaldo in a garbage dump. For real. Reynaldo had been working a corner in Queens, undercutting the other hustlers by charging only fifteen dollars a pop. A john didn't beat him on that day. His competition did. They'd had enough of his horning in on their territory. So when Reynaldo got out of the car--his sixth car that night--two of them jumped him and beat him senseless. Titus had found him there lying on the ground, bleeding. The only thing Reynaldo could feel was Bo licking his face. Titus had cleaned him up. He had taken him to a gym and taught him about lifting and 'roiding and not being anyone's bitch anymore.

  Titus had done more than save his life. He had given Reynaldo a real one.

  Reynaldo started toward the stairs.

  "Not yet," Titus said to him.

  Reynaldo looked back at him. Dmitry kept his face in the computer, concentrating a little too hard on the screen.

  "Problem?" Reynaldo asked.

  "Nothing that can't be solved."

  Reynaldo waited. Titus walked over to him and handed him a gun.

  "Wait for my signal."

  "Okay."

  Reynaldo jammed the gun into his waistband, covering it with his shirt. Titus inspected it for a second and then nodded his approval. "Dmitry?"

  Dmitry looked up over his pink-tinted glasses, startled. "Yes?"

  "Go get something to eat."

  Titus didn't have to tell him twice. Dmitry was out of the room in seconds. Reynaldo and Titus were alone now. Titus stood in the doorway. Reynaldo could see a flashlight bouncing about in the woods. It came into the clearing and up the steps.

  "Hey, guys."

  Claude was in his fancy black suit. Titus had two guys working transportation. Claude was one of them.

  "So what's up?" Claude asked with a big smile. "Do you need me to pick up another package already?"

  "Not yet," Titus said in that soothing voice that even made the hairs on the back of Reynaldo's neck stand up. "We need to talk first."

  Claude's smile started to falter. "Is there a problem?"

  "Take off your jacket."

  "Excuse me?"

  "It's a beautiful suit. It's a warm night. There's no need for it. Please take it off."

  It took effort, but Claude managed a casual shrug. "Sure, why not?"

  Claude took off his suit jacket.

  "The pants too."

  "What?"

  "Take them off, Claude."

  "What's going on? I don't understand."

  "Humor me, Claude. Take off the pants."

  Claude sneaked a glance at Reynaldo. Reynaldo just stared back.

  "Okay, why not?" Claude said, still trying to pretend that nothing was wrong. "I mean, you're both in shorts. I might as well be too, right?"

  "Right, Claude."

  He slipped off his pants and handed them to Titus. Titus hung them neatly across the back of a chair in the far corner. He turned again toward Claude. Claude stood there in his dress shirt, tie, boxers, and socks.

  "I need you to tell me about the last delivery."

  Claude's smile flickered, but managed to stay on. "What's there to tell? It went smoothly. She's here, right?"

  Claude forced up a chuckle. He spread his hands, looking at Reynaldo again for some kind of support. Reynaldo stayed still as a stone. He knew how this was going to end. He just wasn't yet sure of the route.

  Titus stepped closer, so he was only inches away from Claude. "Tell me about the ATM."

  "The what?" Then seeing that wasn't going to play: "Oh. That."

  "Tell me."

  "Okay, look, it's cool. I know you have rules, Titus, and you know I'd never break them unless, well, I absolutely had to."

  Titus stood there, patient, all the time in the world.

  "So, okay, right. I started driving and then I realized like an idiot--well, not like an idiot. An idiot. I was an idiot. No like about it. A forgetful idiot. See, I left my wallet at home. Stupid, right? So anyway, I can't make the journey without any cash, right? I mean, it's a long ride. You get that, don't you, Titus?"

  He stopped and waited for Titus to respond. Titus did not.

  "So, okay, yes, we stopped at an ATM. But don't worry. I kept it in state. I mean, we were still within twenty miles of her house. I never got out of the car, so there was no way the surveillance camera could see me. I just kept the gun on her. I told her if she did anything, I'd go after her kid. She got the money--"

  "How much?"

  "What?"

  Titus smiled at him. "How much money did you have her take out?"

  "Uh, the max."

  "And how much was that, Claude?"

  The smile flickered one more time and went out. "A thousand dollars."

  "That's a lot," Titus said, "of cash to need for a journey."

  "Well, hey, come on. I mean, she was taking money out anyway. Why not get the max, am I right?"

  Titus just looked at him.

  "Oh, right, stupid me. You're wondering why I didn't tell you. I was going to, I swear. I just forgot."

  "You're pretty forgetful, Claude."

  "Look, in the larger scheme of things, it's a pretty small amount."

  "Precisely. You put all of us at risk for petty cash."

  "I'm sorry. Really. Here, I have the money. It's in my pants pocket. Go see. It's yours, okay? I shouldn't have done it. It won't happen again."

  Titus moved back across the room to the chair where he'd hung the trousers. He reached into the pocket and pulled out the bills. Titus looked pleased. He nodded--the signal--and put the money in his own pocket.

  "Are we good?" Claude asked.

  "We are."

  "Okay, great. Can I, uh, put my clothes back on?"

  "No," Titus said. "The suit is expensive. I don't want to get bloodstains on it."

  "Bloodstains?"

  Reynaldo was right behind Claude now. Without a word or warning, he pressed the barrel of the gun against Claude's head and pulled the trigger.

  Chapter 18

  Brandon was waiting on a bench by Strawberry Fields near 72nd Street. Two guys competed for attention (and handouts) by strumming guitars and singing Beatles songs. One went with the obvious, "Strawberry Fields Forever," but he wasn't doing nearly as brisk a business as the guy in the Eggman T-shirt singing "I Am the Walrus."

  "Let me explain that text," Brandon said. "The one Detective Schwartz said my mom sent."

  Kat waited. Stacy was there too. Kat was already feeling too close to this. She wanted someone with a little distance to give her perspective.

  "Wait, I'll show you." He hunched over and started fiddling with his phone. "Here, read it for yourself."

  Kat took his phone and read the message:

  Hi. Arrived safely. So excited. Miss you!

  Kat handed it to Stacy. She read it and handed it back to Brandon.

  "It came from your mother's phone," Kat said.

  "Right, but she didn't send it."

  "What makes you think that?"

  Brandon almost looked insulted by the question. "Mom never says 'miss you.' I mean never. She always finishes with 'love you.'"

  "You're kidding, right?"

  "I'm dead serious."

  "Brandon, how often has your mother gone away on her own like this?"

  "This is the first time."

  "Right, so naturally she might use 'miss you' at the end, no?"

  "You don't get it. Mom always signed her texts with x's and o's and with the word Mom. It was like a running joke. She always announced herself. Like if she called me and even though I had caller ID and knew her voice better than my own, she would always say, 'Brandon, it's Mom.'"

  Kat looked at Stacy. Stacy gave a small shrug. The kid always had an answer.

  "I also saw the surveillance video," Kat said.

  "What surveillance video?"

  "Of the ATM."

  His eyes widened. "Whoa, you saw it? How?"

  "Detective Schwartz was more thorough than I would have been. He got the tape."

  "So what did it show?"

  "What do you think it showed, Brandon?"

  "I don't know. Was my mother on it?"

  "Yes."

  "I don't believe you."

  "You think I'm lying?"

  "What was she wearing?"

  "A yellow sundress."

  She saw his face fall. The guy in the Eggman T-shirt finished singing "I Am the Walrus." There was a smattering of applause. The guy bowed deeply and then started singing "I Am the Walrus" again.

  "She looked fine too," Kat said. "Your mother is a very beautiful woman."

 
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