Missing you, p.13
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       Missing You, p.13

          

  Brandon waved away the compliment about his mother. "Are you sure she was alone?"

  "Definitely. The camera has views from down low and overhead. She was by herself."

  Brandon fell back in his seat. "I don't understand." Then: "I don't believe you. You just want me to stop. You could have known about the yellow dress some other way."

  Stacy frowned and finally spoke up. "Come on, kid."

  He kept shaking his head. "It can't be."

  Stacy slapped him on the back. "Be happy, kid. She's alive and well."

  He shook his head some more. He stood and began to pace, cutting across the tiles that made up the Imagine mosaic. A tourist yelled, "Hey!" because he had ruined their picture. Kat hurried after him.

  "Brandon?"

  He stopped pacing.

  "You said you found something about Jeff."

  "His name isn't Jeff," Brandon said.

  "Right. You said he called himself Jack online?"

  "That's not his name either."

  Kat sneaked a glance at Stacy. "I'm not following."

  He took his laptop out of his backpack. He flipped it open. The screen came to life. "It was like I said before. I Googled him and found nothing. But, well, I don't know why I didn't think of it before. It should have come to me right away."

  "What should have?"

  "Do you know what an image search is?" Brandon asked.

  She had just done one on his mother, but there was no reason to tell him that. "It's when you search for someone's picture."

  "No, not that one," he said, a hint of impatience in his voice. "That's pretty common. You want to find, say, a picture of yourself online, so you click IMAGE and you type in your name. What I'm talking about is a bit more sophisticated."

  "Then no, I don't know," Kat said.

  "Instead of searching for text, you search for a particular image," Brandon said. "So, for example, you upload a picture onto the website, and it searches for anyplace else where that picture might exist. More sophisticated software can even find a person's face in other photographs. Stuff like that."

  "So you uploaded, what, a picture of Jeff?"

  "Exactly. I saved the images from his profile page on YouAreJust MyType.com and then I put them in the Google image search."

  "So," Kat said, "if any of those pictures were somewhere else on the web . . ."

  "The image search would find them."

  "And that's what happened?"

  "Not at first. At first it came back with no hits. But here's the thing. Most search engines only look through what is currently on the web. You know how parents are always trying to scare us kids by telling us that anything on the web is on it forever?"

  "Yes."

  "Well, that's true. It becomes a cached file. This is getting more technical, but when you delete something, it isn't really gone. It's like you're painting your house. You're just painting over the old color. The old color is still there if you take the time to scrape off the new paint." He thought about that. "That's not really a perfect analogy, but you get the point."

  "So you scraped off the new paint?"

  "Something like that. I found a way to search through deleted pages. A buddy of mine who runs the computer lab at UConn wrote the program. It's still beta."

  "What did you find?"

  Brandon spun the computer toward her. "This."

  It was a Facebook page. The profile picture was the same photograph Jeff had used for YouAreJustMyType.

  But the name listed on the top was Ron Kochman.

  There was nothing much on the page. The exact same photographs had been posted. There were no posts, no activity, since the day the page was created four years ago. So the pics were four years old. Well, maybe that explained why Jeff aka Jack aka Ron looked so damned young and handsome. The last four years, Kat thought, had probably aged him a ton.

  Yeah, right.

  But of course, the greater question remained: Who the hell was Ron Kochman?

  "May I take a hopeful shot in the dark?" Stacy said to her.

  "Sure."

  "Are you certain that's your old fiance and not some guy who looks like him?"

  Kat nodded. "It's a possibility."

  "No, it's not," Brandon said. "You instant messaged him, remember? He knew you. He told you that he needed a fresh start."

  "Yeah," Kat said, "I know. Plus, Stacy knows better too, don't you, Stacy?"

  "I do," she said.

  "How?" Brandon asked.

  Kat ignored him for now, trying to put it together with Stacy. "So eighteen years ago, Jeff moves to Cincinnati. He gets in a bar fight. He changes his name to Ron Kochman--"

  "No," Stacy said.

  "Why no?"

  "You must think I'm the worst private detective on God's green earth. I checked through the databases. If Jeff changed his name to Ron Kochman, he didn't do it legally."

  "But you don't have to do it legally," Kat said. "Anyone can change their name."

  "But if you want a credit card or a bank account . . ."

  "Maybe he didn't want one."

  "That doesn't really add up, though, does it? You think, what, Jeff changed his name to Ron. Got married. Had a kid. His wife died. Then he went on YouAreJustMyType to look for dates?"

  "I don't know. Maybe."

  Stacy thought about it. "Let me run a full background check on Ron Kochman. If he was married or has a child, I'll find something."

  "That's a great idea," Brandon said. "I started doing Google searches on him, but I didn't find much. Just some articles he wrote."

  Kat felt her heart go thump-thump. "Articles?"

  "Yeah," Brandon said. "Seems Ron Kochman is a journalist."

  *

  Kat spent the next hour reading his articles.

  There was no doubt in her mind. Ron Kochman was Jeff Raynes. The style. The vocabulary. "Ron" always had a great lead sentence. He pulled you in slowly but consistently. Even the inane was woven into a rich narrative. The articles were always well researched, backed up by several independent sources, thoroughly investigated. Ron worked freelance. There were pieces with his byline in almost every major news publication, both in print and on the web.

  Some of those publications featured photographs of their contributors on the editor's page. There was none of Ron Kochman. In fact, no matter how much she searched, she couldn't find one article on Ron Kochman. His biography merely listed some writing credits--no mention of a family or residence, nothing about his education or background or even credentials. He didn't have an active Facebook or Twitter account or any of the now standard promotional tools all journalists employ.

  Jeff had changed his name to Ron Kochman.

  Why?

  Brandon was in her apartment, working feverishly on his laptop. When she stood up, he asked, "Is Ron your old fiance, Jeff?"

  "Yes."

  "I checked some databases. So far, I haven't been able to find when or how he changed his name."

  "It would be hard to find, Brandon. It isn't illegal to change your name. Leave that to Stacy, okay?"

  He nodded, his long hair falling into his face. "Detective Donovan?"

  "Call me Kat, okay?"

  His eyes stayed on his shoes. "I need you to understand."

  "Understand what?"

  "My mom. She's a fighter. I don't know how else to put it. When my dad got sick, he gave up right away. But my mom . . . she's like a force of nature. She pulled him through for a long time. That's her way."

  He finally looked up.

  "Last year, Mom and I took a trip to Maui." Tears filled his eyes. "I swam too far out. I'd been warned. There was a riptide or something. Stay close to shore. But I didn't listen. I'm a tough guy like that, you know?" He gave her a half smile, shook his head. "So anyway, I got caught in the riptide. I tried to swim against it, but there was no way. I was done. It kept dragging me down and farther out. I knew it was just a matter of time. And then Mom was there. She'd been swimming near me the whole time, you know, watching, just in case. She never said anything. That was just her way. So anyway, she grabs me and says to hold on. That's it, she says. Just hold on. And now the tide was pulling us both out. I start panicking, pushing her away. But Mom, she just closed her eyes and held on to me. She just held on to me and wouldn't let me go. Eventually, she steered us toward a small island."

  A tear escaped his eye and ran down his cheek.

  "She saved my life. That's what she does. She's strong like that. She'd never just let me go. She would have held on no matter what, even if I took her down with me. And now, well, it's my turn to hold on. Do you get that?"

  Kat nodded slowly. "I do."

  "I'm sorry, Kat. I should have showed you the texts. But if I had, you'd have never listened."

  "Speaking of which."

  "What?"

  "You only showed me the one text. There were two."

  He pressed a few buttons on his phone and handed it to her. The text read: Having a wonderful time. Can't wait to tell you all about it. I have a big surprise too. Phone reception is terrible. Miss you.

  Kat handed him back the phone. "Big surprise. Any idea what that means?"

  "No."

  Her cell phone rang. Talk about the perfect interruption--Kat could see from the caller ID that her mother was calling. "I'll be right back," Kat said.

  She ducked into the bedroom, wondering how long her own mother would last in a riptide, and answered. "Hey, Mom."

  "Ooh, I hate that," her mother said.

  "Hate what?"

  Her voice was raspy from too many years of cigarettes. "That you know it's me before you pick up."

  "It pops up on the caller ID. I've explained this to you before."

  "I know, I know, but really, can't some things remain a mystery? Do we really need to know everything?"

  Kat held back the sigh but allowed herself the eye roll. She could picture her mom in that old kitchen with the linoleum floor, standing up, using one of those old wall-mount phones that had yellowed from ivory too many years ago. The phone would be tucked under her chin. There would be a half glass of cheap Chablis in her hand, the rest of the jug back in the fridge to keep it cold. A vinyl tablecloth with faux crochet would be covering the kitchen table. A glass ashtray would, Kat had no doubt, be perched atop it. The peeling wallpaper had a flower pattern, though many of the blooms had also turned pale yellow over the years.

  When you live with a smoker, everything starts to take on a yellowish hue.

  "Are you coming or not?" Mom asked.

  Kat could hear the drink in her mother's voice. It was not an unfamiliar sound.

  "Coming where, Mom?"

  Hazel Donovan--she and Kat's father used to call themselves and sign all their correspondences H&H for Hazel and Henry, as if this were the cleverest thing in the world--didn't bother to hide the sigh.

  "Steve Schrader's retirement party."

  "Oh, right."

  "You get time off for that, you know. The precinct has to do that."

  They didn't--Mom had all kinds of weird ideas about the lax rules for cops, all gathered in the era of her father and her husband--but Kat didn't bother correcting her.

  "I'm really busy, Mom."

  "Everyone will be there. The whole neighborhood. I'm going with Flo and Tessie."

  The Trinity of Cop Widows.

  Kat said, "I'm working on a pretty big case."

  "Tim McNamara is bringing his son. He's a doctor, you know."

  "He's a chiropractor."

  "So what? They call him doctor. And a chiropractor was so good with your uncle Al. You remember?"

  "I do."

  "The man could barely move. Remember?"

  She did. Uncle Al had gotten worker's comp for a work-related injury at the Orange Mattress factory. Two weeks later, this chiropractor healed him. It was nothing short of a miracle.

  "And Tim's son is so handsome. He looks like that guy on The Price Is Right."

  "Thanks for the invite, Mom, but I'm going to have to pass, okay?"

  Silence.

  "Mom?"

  Now Kat thought that maybe she heard gentle sobs. She waited. Her mother called only late at night--drunk, slurring her words. The call could consist of many things. There might be sarcasm. There might be bitterness or anger. There was always a mother-daughter guilt trip.

  But Kat didn't remember ever hearing sobs.

  "Mom?" she tried again, her voice softer now.

  "He died, didn't he?"

  "Who?"

  "That man. The one who ruined our lives."

  Monte Leburne. "How did you hear?"

  "Bobby Suggs told me."

  Suggs. One of the two lead detectives on the case. He was retired, living not far from Mom. Mike Rinsky, the other detective, had died three years ago, sudden coronary.

  "I hope it was painful," Mom said.

  "I think it was. He had cancer."

  "Kat?"

  "Yes, Mom?"

  "You should have been the one to tell me."

  Fair point. "You're right. I'm sorry."

  "We should have gotten together. We should have sat at the kitchen table like we used to do, like we did when we first heard. Your father would have wanted that."

  "I know. I'm sorry. I'll visit soon."

  Hazel Donovan hung up then. This was how it always went too. There was never a good-bye. There was just a hang-up.

  Dana Phelps had been missing a day or two before her son noticed and started to worry. Kat wondered how long her mother could go missing. Weeks maybe. It wouldn't be Kat who'd notice. It would be Flo or Tessie.

  She made a quick call to Joe Schwartz in Greenwich and asked him to e-mail her the ATM video. "Crap," he said. "I don't want to get involved. My captain chewed my ass off for taking it this far."

  "I just need the video. That's all. Once Brandon sees his mother, I think it'll help calm him down."

  Schwartz took a few moments. "All right, but that's it, okay? And I can't e-mail it to you. I'll e-mail you a secure link. It'll be good for the next hour."

  "Thanks."

  "Yeah, whatever."

  Kat came back out into the living room. "Sorry," she said to Brandon, "I had to take that call."

  "Who was it?"

  She was about to tell him that it was none of his business but decided to go in another direction. "I want to show you something."

  "What?"

  She beckoned Brandon toward her computer and checked her e-mail. Two minutes later, the message from Joe Schwartz came up. The subject read: Per your request. The message was only a link.

  "What's this?" Brandon asked.

  "The ATM video of your mom."

  She clicked the link and hit the PLAY button. This time, she watched Brandon's reaction more than the video. When his mother appeared at the ATM, Brandon's face went slack. He never, not for a second, looked away from the screen. He didn't blink.

  Kat had seen psychos who could channel Daniel Day-Lewis when it came to lying to the police. But there was no way this kid hurt his mother.

  "What do you think?" Kat asked.

  He shook his head.

  "What?"

  "She looks scared. And pale."

  Kat turned back and watched the screen. Scared, pale--hard to say. Everyone looked drawn on an ATM surveillance video. The images were often less flattering than DMV photos. You are concentrating on a small screen and trying to push buttons and there is money involved and you are basically facing a wall. No woman looks her best under those circumstances.

  The video continued. Kat watched more carefully this time. It did take Dana three tries to get her PIN right, but that didn't mean much. When the money was dispensed, Dana fumbled with it, but again, those machines sometimes held on to your bills too tightly.

  It was when Dana finished up and started to walk away that Kat saw something. She reached out and hit the PAUSE button.

  Brandon looked at her. "What?"

  It was probably nothing, but then again, no one had studied the video closely. There had been no need. All they wanted to do was confirm that Dana Phelps had taken out the money on her own. Kat hit the slow-motion REWIND button. Dana started walking backward toward the ATM.

  There.

  Kat had seen movement in the upper right-hand corner of the screen. Something--or someone--was barely there, in the distance. That wasn't too much of a surprise, but whoever it was seemed to move when Dana did.

  The video quality had enough pixels for Kat to close in on the figure, clicking the magnifying glass until the dark dot grew into an image.

  It was a man in a black suit with a black cap on.

  "How would your mother have gone to the airport?" Kat asked.

  Brandon pointed to the guy in the black suit. "He wouldn't have taken her."

  "Not what I'm asking."

  "We always use Bristol Car Service."

  "Do you have their phone number?"

  "Yeah, hold on." Brandon started tapping his phone. "They picked me up from college a few times, you know, when I wanted to go home for the weekend. Easier than having Mom get me sometimes. Here."

  Brandon read out the number. Kat plugged it into her phone and hit SEND. The answering voice gave her two options. Press one for reservations. Press two for dispatch. She went with dispatch. When a man answered, she introduced herself and identified herself as a cop. Sometimes, this made people clam up and demand proof. Most times it opened doors.

  When people are both cautious and curious, curious usually wins out.

  Kat said, "I'm wondering if a woman named Dana Phelps recently booked a ride to an area airport."

  "Oh, sure, I know Mrs. Phelps. She's a regular. Nice lady."

  "Did she book a car with you recently?"

  "Yeah, maybe a week ago. For Kennedy airport."

  "Could I speak to her driver?"

  "Oh."

  "Oh?"

  "Yeah, like, oh, wait. You asked me if she booked the ride to JFK."

  "Right."

  "She booked it, yeah, but she didn't take it."

  Kat switched the phone from her left hand to her right. "What do you mean?"

  "Mrs. Phelps canceled, maybe two hours before the ride. I took the call myself. It was kinda funny, actually."

  "Funny how?"

  "She was apologetic, what with it being so late and all. But she was also, I don't know, all giddy."

  "Giddy?"

  "Yeah, like laughing or whatever."

  "Did she give a reason for canceling so late?"

  "Kind of. I mean, I think that's why she was giddy. She said her boyfriend was sending his own black stretch limo to get her. As a surprise or something."

 
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