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Missing you, p.17
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       Missing You, p.17

          Harlan Coben / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime / History & Fiction
Take another cold, hard step back: What evidence did they have that Dana Phelps was in trouble?

None.

Brandon was a scared kid. He had loved his father and felt that his mother dating other men was a betrayal. Naturally, he would twist what he saw into some kind of conspiracy.

So what was Kat's excuse?

Sure, some of Jeff's behavior might be considered bizarre. But so what? He had changed his name and was living his life. He had made it clear that he didn't want to go back to the past. Kat had been hurt. So, naturally, she too saw conspiracy rather than rejection. The past--her father, her ex-fiance--was all coming back at her in a rush.

There was nothing more to discuss. It was time to put this behind her. If the man Dana Phelps ran off with had been someone other than Jeff, she would have let this go a long time ago. The problem was--a problem she had really never wanted to face--she had never let Jeff go. Yes, this thought was a corny "ugh," but in her heart (if not her mind) it had been because they were somehow destined to be together, that life would take some weird twists and turns, but somehow--and no, she never consciously thought this--she and Jeff would end up back together. But now, sitting on the floor, eating pizza with Brandon, Kat realized there was probably more to it. Yes, it had been a period of her life of so much upheaval, so much raw, concentrated emotion, but more than that, it had all been cut off before its time. It felt incomplete.

Falling in love, the murder of her father, the breakup, the capture of the murderer--all of it demanded some sort of closure, but she never got it. In her heart, when she looked past all the ridiculous lies she'd told herself, Kat had never really understood why Jeff ended it. She had never understood why her father was murdered or why she had never believed that Cozone ordered a hit carried out by Leburne. Her life hadn't just taken detours or even gone off the rails. It was as though the rails had vanished beneath her.

A person needs answers. A person needs them to make some kind of sense.

They finished the pizza in record time. Brandon was still groggy from the earlier assault. She blew up the air mattress and gave him some pain meds she had picked up at the twenty-four-hour pharmacy. He fell asleep quickly. She watched him for a while, wondering how he would handle his mother's upcoming big news.

Kat slipped under the covers of her bed. She tried to read, but it was pointless. The words on the page swam by in a meaningless haze. She put the book away and lay in the dark. Concentrate on the possible, she thought. Dana Phelps and "Ron Kochman" were beyond her reach.

The truth about her father's murder, even after eighteen years, still needed to be unearthed. Focus on that.

Kat closed her eyes and fell into a deep, black sleep. When her phone rang, it took some time to swim back up to consciousness. She reached blindly for her phone and put it to her ear.

"Hello?"

"Hey, Kat. It's John Glass."

She was still groggy. The digital clock read 3:18 A.M. "Who?"

"Officer Glass from the Central Park Precinct."

"Oh, right, sorry. You know that it's three in the morning, right?"

"Yeah, well, I'm an insomniac."

"Yeah, well, I'm not," Kat said.

"We caught the guy who assaulted Brandon Phelps. Just as we suspected. He's homeless. No ID on him. He won't talk."

"I appreciate the update, but I'm thinking it could have waited until the morning."

"Normally, I'd agree," Glass said, "except for one weird thing."

"What's that?"

"The homeless guy."

"What about him?" Kat asked.

"He's asking for you."

*

Kat threw on workout clothes, wrote Brandon a note in case he woke up, and jogged north the twenty blocks to the Central Park Precinct. John Glass met her at the front door, still in uniform.

"You want to explain?" he said to her.

"Explain what?"

"Why he asked for you."

"Maybe I should see who he is first?"

He spread his hand. "This way."

Their footsteps echoed through the near-empty bulletproof glass atrium. From Glass's brief description on the phone, Kat had some idea of who would be waiting for her in the holding cell. When they arrived, Aqua was doing his tight-formation pace. His fingers plucked at his lower lip. It was an odd thing. Kat tried to remember the last time she had seen him in something other than yoga pants or at least women's clothes. She couldn't. But right now, Aqua wore beltless jeans that sagged like an insecure teenager's. His shirt was torn flannel. His once-white sneakers were a shade of brown you might achieve if you'd buried them in mud for a month.

"Do you know him?" Glass asked.

Kat nodded. "His real name is Dean Vanech, but everyone calls him Aqua."

Aqua kept pacing, arguing under his breath with some unseen foe. There was no sign that he had heard them enter.

"Any clue why he'd attack your boy?"

"None."

"Who's Jeff?" Glass asked.

Kat's head spun toward him. "What?"

"He keeps muttering about some guy named Jeff."

Kat shook her head, swallowed. "Can I have a few minutes alone with him?"

"Like for an interrogation?"

"He's an old friend."

"So, like his attorney?"

"I'm asking a favor, Glass. We'll do the right thing here, don't worry."

Glass shrugged a "suit-yourself" and left the room. The holding cells were made of Plexiglas rather than bars. The whole precinct was simply too sleek for her--more like a movie set than a real precinct. Kat took a step forward and knocked to get his attention. "Aqua?"

His pace picked up speed, as though he could outrun her.

She spoke a little louder. "Aqua?"

He stopped all at once and turned toward her. "I'm sorry, Kat."

"What's going on, Aqua?"

"You're mad at me."

He started to cry. She would have to take this slow or lose him completely.

"It's okay. I'm not mad. I just want to understand."

Aqua closed his eyes and sucked in a long deep breath. He released it and did it again. Breathing was, of course, a huge part of yoga. He seemed to be trying to center himself. Finally, he said, "I followed you."

"When?"

"After we talked. Remember? You went to O'Malley's. You wanted me to go too."

"But you didn't want to go in," she said.

"Right."

"Why?"

He shook his head. "Too many old ghosts in there, Kat."

"They were good times too, Aqua."

"And now they're dead and gone," he said. "Now they haunt us."

Kat needed him to stay on track here. "So you followed me."

"Right. You left with Stacy." He smiled for a moment. "I like Stacy. She's a gifted student."

Terrific, Kat thought. Even cross-dressing schizophrenic gay men found Stacy intoxicating. "You were following me?" she asked.

"Right. I changed and waited down the street. I wanted to talk to you some more or just, I don't know, I just wanted to make sure you got out of that place okay."

"Out of O'Malley's?"

"Of course."

"Aqua, I go to O'Malley's five days a week." She stopped herself. Track. Stay on track. "So you followed us."

He smiled and sang in his beautiful falsetto, "I am the walrus, koo kook kachoo."

Kat started putting some of it together. "You followed us into the park. To Strawberry Fields. You saw me talking to Brandon."

"Did more than see," he said.

"What do you mean?"

"I dress like this, I'm just another black guy to avoid. All eyes divert. Even yours, Kat."

She wanted to argue the point--defend her lack of prejudice and general goodwill toward all--but again, it was more important to keep him on track. "So what did you do, Aqua?"

"You were sitting on Elizabeth's bench."

"Who?"

He recited it from memory. "'The best days of my life--this bench, chocolate chip ice cream, and Daddy--Miss you always, Elizabeth.'"

"Oh."

She got it now, and despite herself, she welled up. Central Park has an Adopt-A-Bench program to raise funds. For seventy-five hundred dollars, a personalized plaque is installed on the bench. Kat spent many hours reading them, imagining the story behind them. One read ON THIS BENCH, WAYNE WILL ONE DAY PROPOSE MARRIAGE TO KIM (did he? Kat always wondered. Did she say yes?). Another favorite, near a dog park, read IN MEMORY OF LEO AND LASZLO, A GREAT MAN, HIS NOBLE HOUND, while yet another simply read REST YOUR TUSH HERE--IT'S ALL GOING TO BE OKAY.

Poignancy is found in the ordinary.

"I heard you," Aqua said, his voice rising. "I heard you all talking." Something crossed his face. "Who is that boy?"

"His name is Brandon."

"I know that!" he shouted. "You think I don't know that? Who is he, Kat?"

"He's just a college student."

"So what are you doing with him?" He slammed his hands against the Plexiglas. "Huh? Why are you trying to help him?"

"Whoa." Kat stepped back, startled by his sudden aggression. "Don't turn this around, Aqua. This is about you. You attacked him."

"Of course, I attacked him. You think I'm going to let someone hurt him again?"

"Hurt who?" she asked, while a small voice in her head--because this is how crazy life could be--heard Stacy correcting her grammar with a gentle hurt whom.

Aqua said nothing.

"Who is Brandon trying to hurt?"

"You know," he said.

"No, I don't." But now she thought that maybe she did.

"I was hiding right there. You were sitting on Elizabeth's bench. I heard every word. I told you to leave him alone. Why didn't you listen?"

"Aqua?"

He closed his eyes.

"Look at me, Aqua."

He didn't.

She had to make him say it. She couldn't put the idea in his head first. "Who do you want us to leave alone? Who are you trying to protect?"

With his eyes still closed, Aqua said, "He protected me. He protected you."

"Who, Aqua?"

"Jeff."

There. Aqua had finally said it. Kat had expected that answer--had braced for it--but the blow still landed with enough force to knock her back a step.

"Kat?" Aqua pushed his face against the glass, his eyes shifting left and right to make sure no one could hear him. "We have to stop him. He's looking for Jeff."

"And that's why you attacked him?"

"I didn't want to hurt him. I just need him to stop. Don't you see?"

"I don't," Kat said. "What are you so afraid he'll find?"

"He never stopped loving you, Kat."

She let that one go. "Did you know that Jeff changed his name?"

Aqua turned away.

"He's Ron Kochman now. Did you know that?"

"So much death," Aqua said. "It should have been me."

"What should have been you?"

"I should have died." Tears ran down his face in free fall. "Then it would all be okay. You'd be with Jeff."

"What are you talking about, Aqua?"

"I'm talking about what I did."

"What did you do, Aqua?"

He kept crying. "It's all my fault."

"You had nothing to do with Jeff breaking up with me."

More tears.

"Aqua? What did you do?"

He started to sing. "The gypsy wind it says to me, things are not what they seem to be. Beware."

"What?"

He smiled through the tears. "It's like that old song. You remember. The one about the demon lover. The boyfriend dies and so she marries someone else, but she still loves him, only him, and then one day, his ghost comes back to her and they drive away and burst into flames."

"Aqua, I don't know what you're talking about."

But there was something about the song that was familiar. She just couldn't place it. . . .

"The last lines," Aqua said. "You have to listen to the last lines. After they burst into flames. You have to listen to that warning."

"I don't remember it," Kat said.

Aqua cleared his throat. Then he sang the last lines in his beautiful, rich voice: "Watch out for people who belong in your past. Don't let 'em back in your life."





Chapter 23


Aqua shut down after that. He just kept singing the same thing over and over: "Watch out for people who belong in your past. Don't let 'em back in your life."

When she Googled the lyrics on her phone, it all came flooding back to her. The song was "Demon Lover" by Michael Smith. They had all seen him live in some dingy venue down in the Village twenty years ago. Jeff had scored the tickets, having seen him perform in Chicago two years earlier. Aqua had come with a fellow cross-dresser named Yellow. The two ended up working a drag-queen act out of a club in Jersey City. When they broke up, Aqua naturally claimed: "Aqua clashes with Yellow."

The lyrics didn't trigger any more information. She found the song online and listened to it. It was eerie and wonderful, more poetry than song, the story of a woman named Agnes Hines who loved a boy named Jimmy Harris, who died young in a car crash and then came back to her years later, after she was married, in that same car. The song's message was clear: Keep past lovers in the past.

So was Aqua's ranting just influenced by a favorite song? Had he simply listened to it and felt that if she kept searching for her demon lover Jeff, they'd both end up bursting into flames like Agnes and Jimmy? Or was there something more?

She thought about Aqua now, how Jeff's dumping her and returning to Cincinnati had affected him. He had already gotten worse, but Jeff's departure really set him off the rail. Was he already institutionalized when Jeff left? She tried to think back. No, she thought, it was after.

It didn't matter. None of it mattered, really. Whatever mess Jeff had gotten himself into--she assumed there was a mess because you don't change names for no reason--it was his concern, not hers. Despite his insanity, Aqua was the brightest man she had ever known. It was one of the reasons why she loved his yoga so much--the small truths he spoke during mediation, the little vignettes that rang deep, the offbeat way he had to teach a lesson.

For example, singing an obscure song she had last heard nearly two decades ago.

Aqua's warning, coming from a diseased mind or not, made a lot of sense.

Brandon was awake when she got back from the precinct. He had two black eyes from his broken nose. "Where were you?" he asked.

"How are you feeling?"

"Sore."

"Take some more painkillers or something. Here, I brought you a couple of cupcakes." She had stopped at Magnolia Bakery on the way from the Central Park Precinct. She handed him the bag. "I have a favor to ask."

"Shoot," Brandon said.

"They caught the man who assaulted you. That's where I was. At the precinct."

"Who is he?"

"That's the favor part. He's a friend of mine. He thought he was protecting me. I need you to drop the charges."

She explained, trying to be as vague as humanly possible.

"I'm still not sure I understand," Brandon said.

"Then do it for me, okay? As a favor."

He shrugged. "Okay."

"I also think it's time we let this go, Brandon. What do you think?"

Brandon pulled a cupcake apart and slowly ate half. "Can I ask you something?"

"Sure."

"On TV, they always talk about cop intuition or playing a hunch."

"Right."

"Do you ever do that?"

"All cops do. Hell, all people do. But when the hunch flies in the face of the facts, it more often than not leads to mistakes."

"And you think my hunch flies in the face of the facts?"

She thought about that. "No, not really. But it doesn't match up with the facts, either."

Brandon smiled and took another bite. "If it matched up with the facts, it wouldn't be a hunch, would it?"

"Good point. But I still go with the Sherlock Holmes axiom."

"What's that?"

"I'm paraphrasing, but basically Sherlock warned that you should never theorize before you have the facts because then you twist the facts to suit the theory instead of twisting the theory to suit the facts."

Brandon nodded. "I like that."

"But?"

"But I'm still not buying it."

"What about all that talk about not ruining it for your mom?"

"I won't. If this is true love, I'll let it be."

"It's not your place to say what kind of love it may be," Kat said. "Your mom is allowed to make her own mistakes, you know. She's allowed to get her heart broken by him."

"Like you?"

"Yeah," Kat said. "Like me. He was my demon lover. I need to leave him in my past."

"Demon lover?"

She smiled and grabbed a carrot cupcake with cream cheese icing and walnuts. "Never mind."

*

It felt good to let it go. For about twenty minutes. Then Kat got two calls.

The first was from Stacy. "I have a lead on Jeff Raynes aka Ron Kochman," she said.

Too late. Kat didn't want to know. It didn't matter anymore. "What?"

"Jeff didn't change his name legally."

"You're sure?"

"Definitely. I even called all fifty state offices. It's a fake ID. Well done. Professional. A complete makeover. I even wonder if he was put into Witness Protection or something."

"Could that be it? Witness Protection, I mean."

"Doubtful. Guys in WP shouldn't be advertising themselves on dating services, but it's a possibility. I'm checking with a source. What I can tell you without question is that Jeff didn't change his name legally nor does he really want to be found. No credit cards, no bank accounts, no residence."

"He's working as a journalist," Kat said. "He has to be paying taxes."

"That's what I'm following up on now--my source with the IRS. I hope to get an address soon. Unless."

"Unless what?"

"Unless you want to call me off," Stacy said.

Kat rubbed her eyes. "You were the one who told me that Jeff and I might have the fairy-tale ending."

"I know, but do you ever really read fairy tales? Little Red Riding Hood? Hansel and Gretel? There's a lot of bloodshed and hurt."

"You think I should leave it alone, don't you?"

"Hell, no," Stacy said.

"But you just said--"

"Who cares what I just said? You can't leave this alone, Kat. You're not good with loose ends. And right now? Your fiance is a major loose end. So screw it. Let's figure out what the hell happened to him, so once and for all, you can move past this dickwad who was dumb enough to dump your shapely ass."
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