Dont let go, p.14
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       Don't Let Go, p.14

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  She doesn't have to finish. We all get it. A total shit show. I'm almost glad now I'm not the lead on this one.

  Alan Manning walks past us like we aren't there. He stands by Hank's slightly swaying remains and makes a show of inspecting him. I know Manning. He's not a bad detective. But he's not a good one either.

  Muse takes a step back. Augie and I follow her.

  "Augie tells me you spoke to the mom who posted the video," she says to me.

  "Suzanne Hanson."

  "What did she say?"

  "That she lied. That Hank didn't really expose himself."

  Muse slowly turns toward me. "Come again?"

  "Mrs. Hanson just didn't like an undesirable hanging around the school."

  "And now he's dead," Muse says with a shake of her head.

  I don't reply.

  "Ignorant, stupid . . ." She shakes her head again. "I'm going to see if we can charge her with something."

  I have no issue with that.

  "Do you think maybe Mrs. Hanson is involved in this?" Muse asks.

  No, I think to myself. And I want to be honest. I don't want to lead Manning off the scent, but I also want what's best for the case, which may involve slight misdirection. So I say, "I think the Hansons might be a good place for Manning to start."

  We stare up at the body again. Manning is circling underneath it, his face scrunched up. His manner is too showy, like something he saw on TV, and I half expect him to whip out a giant magnifying glass a la Sherlock Holmes.

  Augie still has his eyes on the corpse. "I know Hank's father."

  "Then maybe you should be the one to notify him," Muse says. "And with the press already buzzing around, the sooner, the better."

  "Do you mind if I go with him?" I ask.

  She shrugs a "suit yourself."

  Augie and I start walking away. Franco Cadeddu, the county medical examiner and a good guy, has just arrived. He passes us with a stern nod. Franco is always all business on the scene. I return the stern nod. Augie does not. We keep walking. The crime scene guys, dressed in full body suits and surgical masks and gloves, hurry past us. Augie doesn't so much as glance at them. His face is set, trudging toward a dreaded task.

  "Doesn't make sense," I say.

  It takes a moment or two for Augie to reply. "How's that?"

  "Hank's face."

  "What about it?"

  "It isn't purple or even a different hue than the rest of his body."

  Augie says nothing.

  "So he didn't die from strangulation or a broken neck," I say.

  "Franco will figure that out."

  "Another thing: The smell--it's beyond rancid. You can see the start of decay."

  Augie keeps walking.

  "Hank disappeared three weeks ago," I say. "My guess is, he's been dead that long."

  "Again, let's wait for Franco."

  "Who found the body?"

  "David Elefant," Augie says. "He was walking his dog off leash. The dog ran this way and started howling."

  "How often does Elefant do that?"

  "Do what?"

  "Walk his dog here. This ravine is somewhat out of the way, but it isn't that remote."

  "I don't know. Why?"

  "Let's say I'm right. Let's say Hank has been dead for three weeks."


  "If Hank's body had been hung up on that tree all that time, don't you think someone would have spotted it by now? Or noticed that smell? We aren't that far away from civilization, right?"

  Augie doesn't reply.


  "I hear you."

  "Something isn't right."

  He finally stops and turns back toward the crime scene in the distance. "A man was castrated and hung from a tree," he says. "Of course something isn't right."

  "I don't think this is about that viral video," I say.

  Augie doesn't reply.

  "I think it's about the Conspiracy Club and that old military base. I think it's about Rex and Leo and Diana."

  I see him flinch when I say his daughter's name.


  He turns and starts walking again. "Later," he says.


  "We'll talk about it later," Augie says. "Right now I just need to tell Tom that his boy is dead."


  Tom Stroud stares down at his hands. His lower lip trembles. He has not spoken, not one word, since he opened the door. He knew. Right away. He looked at our faces and knew. They often do. Some claim that the first step in the grieving process is denial. Having delivered my share of life-shattering news, I have found the opposite to be true: The first step is complete and immediate comprehension. You hear the news and immediately you realize how absolutely devastating it is, how there will be no reprieve, how death is final, how your world is shattered and that you will never, ever be the same. You realize all that in seconds, no more. The realization floods into your veins and overwhelms you. Your heart breaks. Your knees buckle. Every part of you wants to give way and collapse and surrender. You want to curl up into a ball. You want to plummet down that mine shaft and never stop.

  That's when the denial kicks in.

  Denial saves you. Denial throws up a protective fence. Denial grabs hold of you before you leap off that ledge. Your hand rests on a hot stove. Denial pulls your hand back.

  The memories of that night rush in as we enter Tom Stroud's home, and part of me longs for that protective fence. I had thought that it was a good idea to come, but seeing Augie deliver bad news--the worst news, just as he did that night you died--is hitting me harder than I had anticipated. I blink and somehow Tom Stroud becomes Dad. Like Dad, he stares down at the table. He, too, winces as though absorbing punches. Augie's voice--a blend of tough, tender, compassionate, detached--brings me back more than any sight or smell, the nightmarish deja vu, as he tells yet another father about the death of his child.

  The two older men sit in the kitchen. I stand behind Augie, maybe ten feet back, ready to come off the bench but hoping the coach doesn't call my number. My legs feel wobbly. I am trying to put it together, but it is making less and less sense. The official investigation, the one undertaken by Manning and the county office, will, I'm certain, concentrate on the viral video. It will seem simple to them: The viral video goes public, the public is outraged, someone takes matters into their own hands.

  It is neat. It makes sense. It may even be correct.

  The other theory, of course, is the one I will follow. Someone is killing off the old Conspiracy Club members. Of the six possible members, four have been killed before their thirty-fifth birthday. What are the odds that there is no connection? First Leo and Diana. Then Rex. Now Hank. I don't know where Beth is. And of course, there's Maura, who saw something that night that caused her to run away forever.


  Why now? Let's say somehow they all saw something they shouldn't have that night. Again, this may sound like paranoid thinking, even if the group was called the Conspiracy Club, but I need to play it out.

  Suppose they all saw something that night.

  Maybe they ran--and the bad guys only, what, caught Leo and Diana? Okay, stay with that. So then--again, what?--they dragged Leo and Diana to the railroad tracks on the other side of town and made it look like they were killed by a train. Okay, fine. Let's assume the others ran. Maura they couldn't find. That all works.

  But what about Rex and Hank and Beth?

  Those three never hid. They stayed in high school and graduated with us.

  Why didn't the bad guys from the base kill them?

  Why would they wait fifteen years?

  And talk about coincidental timing--why would the bad guys finally kill Hank around the same time that viral video came out? Did that make sense?


  So how is the viral video tied into this?

  I'm missing something.

  Tom Stroud finally starts to cry. His chin goes down to his chest. His shoulders start to sp
asm. Augie reaches across and puts a hand on Tom's upper arm. It's not enough. Augie moves closer. Tom leans forward and starts sobbing onto Augie's shoulder. I see Augie in profile now. He closes his eyes, and I see the pain on his face. Tom's sobs grow louder. Time passes. No one moves. The sobs start to subside. Eventually they fade away. Tom Stroud pulls back and looks at Augie.

  "Thank you for telling me yourself," Tom Stroud says.

  Augie manages a nod.

  Tom Stroud wipes his face with his sleeve and forces up a smile of some sort. "We have something in common now."

  Augie looks a question at him.

  "Well, something horrible," Tom continues. "We've both lost children. I know your pain now. It's like . . . it's like being members of the worst club imaginable."

  Now it is Augie who winces as though absorbing blows.

  "Do you think that awful video had something to do with it?" Tom asks.

  I wait for Augie to answer, but he seems lost now. I take the question for him.

  "They'll certainly be looking into that," I say.

  "Hank didn't deserve that. Even if he did expose himself--"

  "He didn't."

  Tom Stroud looks at me.

  "It was a lie. A mother didn't like Hank hanging around the school."

  Tom Stroud's eyes grow big. I think about those grieving steps again. Denial may be quickly giving way to anger. "She made it up?"


  Nothing in his expression changes, but you can feel his temperature rising. "What's her name?"

  "We can't tell you that."

  "Do you think she did it?"

  "Do I think she killed Hank?"


  I answer honestly. "No."

  "Then who?"

  I explain how the investigation has just started and offer the expected "doing all we can" platitudes. I ask him if he has someone he can call to be with him. He does--a brother. Augie barely says a word, hanging by the door, rocking back and forth on his heels. I settle Tom in as best I can, but I'm not a babysitter. Augie and I have been here long enough.

  "Thanks again," Tom Stroud says to us at the door.

  Just in case I haven't uttered enough banalities, I say, "Sorry for your loss."

  Augie heads out first, starting up the walk. I have to hurry to catch up with him.

  "What's up?"


  "You got awfully quiet in there. I thought maybe you got an update on your phone or something."


  Augie reaches the car and opens the door. We both get in.

  "So what gives?" I ask.

  Augie glares through the front windshield at Tom Stroud's house. "Did you hear what he said to me?"

  "You mean Tom Stroud?"

  He keeps glaring at that door. "He and I have something in common now." I see a tremor hit his face. "He knows my pain."

  His voice is thick with disdain. I can hear his breathing thicken and grow labored. I don't know what to do here, how to play it, so I just wait.

  "I lost a beautiful, vibrant seventeen-year-old daughter, a girl with all the promise in the world. She was my everything, Nap. You get that? She was my life."

  He looks at me now, the same glare. I meet his eyes and don't move.

  "I woke Diana up for school in the morning. I made her chocolate-chip pancakes every Wednesday. When she was a little girl, I took her every Saturday morning to the Armstrong Diner, just the two of us, and then we'd go to Silverman's and buy ponytail holders or neon scrunchies or those tortoiseshell clips for her hair. She collected hair stuff. I was just the clueless dad, what do I know? All of that stuff was still there when I cleaned out her room. Threw them all away. When she had rheumatic fever in seventh grade, I slept in a chair at Saint Barnabas for eight straight nights. I sat in that hospital and watched her and begged God to never hurt her. I went to every field hockey game, every holiday concert, every dance recital, every graduation, every parents' day. When she went on her first date, I secretly followed them to the movies because I was so nervous. I stayed up every night she went out because I couldn't fall asleep until I knew she was home safe. I helped her work on college essays no one ended up having to read because she died before she could apply. I loved that girl with all my might every single day of her life, and he"--Augie practically spits the word out toward Tom Stroud's house--"he thinks now we have something in common? He thinks, what, that he, a man who abandoned his son when things got tough, knows my pain?"

  He hits his own chest when he says the word "my." Then he stops, grows quiet. His eyes close.

  A small part of me wants to say something comforting, something along the line that Tom Stroud just lost his son and so we need to cut him a little slack. But most of me gets exactly what Augie means and doesn't feel the need to be that generous.

  When Augie opens his eyes, he stares at the house again. "Maybe we need to look at this in a new way," he says.

  "How's that?"

  "Where was Tom Stroud all those years?"

  I stay quiet.

  "He claims he was out west," Augie continues, "opening a fish-and-tackle business."

  "With a gun range in the back," I add.

  Now we both stare at the house.

  "He also claims he came back every once in a while. Tried to bond with his kid, who rejected him."


  Augie doesn't answer for a moment. Then he lets loose a long breath and says, "So maybe he came back fifteen years ago."

  "Seems a stretch," I say.

  "It does," Augie agrees. "But it might be a good idea to check on his whereabouts."

  Chapter Eighteen

  When I arrive back home, the Walshes are outside. I give them the big Mr. Friendly smile. Look how harmless the single guy is. They wave back.

  They all know your tragic story, of course. It's legend in these parts, as they say. I'm surprised none of Westbridge's wannabe Springsteens has written the "Ode to Leo and Diana." Still, they all think that it can't happen to them. That's how people are. They all hunger for the details not solely because they are ghoulish--that's part of it, no question--but more because they need to know that it can't possibly happen to them. Those teens drank too much. They took drugs. They took foolish chances. Their parents didn't raise them right. They didn't watch close enough. Whatever. Can't happen to us.

  Denial isn't just for the grieving.

  I still haven't heard back from Beth Lashley. That troubles me. I call the Ann Arbor Police Department and locate a detective named Carl Legg. I explain to him that I'm looking for a cardiologist named Beth Fletcher nee Lashley and am getting the runaround from her office staff.

  "Is she wanted in connection to a crime?" Legg asks me.

  "No. I just need to talk to her."

  "I'll head over to her office myself."


  "No worries. I'll call you when I know more."

  The house is quiet, the ghosts all sleeping. I head up to the second floor and pull the handle. The ladder to the attic comes down. I climb up and try to remember the last time I was up here. I guess I helped bring your stuff to the attic, but if I did, that memory is gone. Maybe Dad spared me and did it himself. Your death was sudden. Dad's was not. He and I had time. He accepted his fate, even as I denied it. By the time his body gave out, Dad had already unburdened himself and thus me of most of his worldly possessions. He gave away his own clothes. He packed up his room.

  He tidied up before the Reaper arrived, so I wouldn't have to.

  The attic, no surprise, is musty and hot. It's hard to breathe. I expect there to be a ton of boxes and old trunks, all the stuff you see in movies, but there is very little. Dad put down a few planks of wood, that's it, so that most of the floor is pink insulation. That's what I remember most. You and I would come up here as kids and we'd play a game of having to stay on the boards because if we stepped on the pink, we would fall right straight through the ceiling and land on the floor below. I don't know if
that's true, but that's what Dad always told us. I remember as a kid being scared of that, like the insulation was quicksand, and I would step on it and sink in and be gone forever.

  You never run into quicksand in real life, do you? For something so huge in movies and TV, you never actually hear about anyone getting trapped or dying in quicksand.

  This is how my mind is roaming as I spot the box in the corner. That's it. One box, Leo. You know Dad wasn't big on material goods. Your clothes are gone. Your toys are gone. Purging was part of his grieving process--not sure what stage that would be. Acceptance maybe, though acceptance is supposed to be the last step and Dad had a bunch more to go through after the purge. We know Dad was an emotional man, but his full-body sobs--the way his chest heaved and his shoulders trembled, his wails of thunderous agony--frightened me. There were times I thought he would physically break in half, that his ceaseless anguish would cleave his torso or something.

  And, no, we never heard from Mom.

  Did Dad reach out and tell her? I don't know. I never asked. He never told me.

  I open the box to see what Dad saved. Here is a thought I haven't had until right this second: Dad obviously knew that you would never be able to open this box. He also knew that he himself would never open it either. That means whatever is in here, whatever he chose to save, would hold value only to me. Whatever Dad saved, he saved thinking that I might one day want it.

  The box is sealed with tape. It's hard to peel off. I take a key out of my pocket and use it to slice down the seam. Then I pull back the cardboard and peer inside. I don't know what I expect to see. I know you. I know your life. We shared a room for your entire life. It isn't like anything huge is unaccounted for.

  But as I see the photograph on the top, I feel newly lost. It's a snapshot of the four of us--you and Diana, Maura and me. I remember it, of course. The photo was taken in Diana's backyard. Her seventeenth--and last--birthday. It was a warm October night. We'd spent the day down at Six Flags Great Adventure. Augie had a friend, a retired cop who now worked for a major park sponsor, and he was able to get us wristbands that gave us limitless access to the fast-pass lane. No lines for the coasters, Leo. Do you remember? I don't have a lot of memories of you or Diana on that day. We broke off, you and Diana staying mostly in the arcade area--I remember you won her a stuffed Pikachu--and Maura and I went on the hard-core coasters. Maura wore a crop top that made my mouth dry. You and Diana took a goofy picture with one of the Looney Tunes characters. Which one? I bet it's . . . yes, the second photo. I pull it into view. You and Diana standing on either side of Tweety Bird, the Six Flags fountain spouting water behind you.

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