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Missing you, p.18
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       Missing You, p.18

          Harlan Coben / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime / History & Fiction
"Well, when you put it like that," Kat said. Then: "You're a good friend."

"The best," Stacy agreed.

"But you know what? Let it go."

"Really?"

"Yeah."

"You sure?"

No, Kat thought. God, no. "Positive."

"Look at you, being all Miss Brave and whatnot," Stacy said. "Drinks tonight?"

"They're on me," Kat said.

"Love you."

"Love you too."

Brandon had felt well enough to leave after the cupcake. So Kat was alone, getting undressed and turning on the shower--she had a full day of binge-TVing in bed planned--when the second call came in.

"Are you home?"

It was Stagger. He didn't sound pleased.

"Yes."

"I'll be there in five minutes," Stagger said.

It took less. Stagger must have made the call standing right outside her building. She didn't greet him when he entered. He didn't greet her back. He stormed in and said, "Guess who just called me."

"Who?"

"Suggs."

Kat said nothing.

"You went to Suggs, for crying out loud?"

It was funny. Last time she saw him, Kat had thought how much Stagger still looked like a little boy. Now she thought the opposite. He looked old. His hair was receding, growing flimsy and flyaway. His jowls sagged. There was a belly now, not a big one, but there was still the feeling of age and softness. His children, she knew, weren't babies anymore. The trips to Disney were being slowly replaced with college visits. That, she realized, could have been her life. If she and Jeff had married, would she have joined the force? Would she right now be some aging soccer mom raising her family in some shiny-brick McMansion in Upper Montclair?

"How could you do that, Kat?"

"You're kidding, right?"

Stagger shook his head. "Look at me. Okay? Really look at me." He came close and put his hands on her shoulders. "Do you really think I would hurt your father?"

She did as he asked and then replied, "I don't know."

Her words hit him like a slap across the face. "Are you serious?"

"You're lying, Stagger. We both know it. You're covering something up."

"And so, what, you think I had something to do with your father's murder?"

"I just know you're lying. I know you've been lying for years."

Stagger closed his eyes and took a step back. "You got anything to drink?"

She headed over to the bar and held up a bottle of Jack Daniel's. He nodded and said, "Neat." She poured him a glass and figured what the hell, poured herself one too. They didn't clink glasses. Stagger brought the glass quickly to his lips and took a deep gulp. She stared at him.

"What?" he said.

"I don't think I've ever seen you drink."

"I guess we're both full of surprises."

"Or we don't know each other very well."

"That may be true," he said. "Our relationship, as it were, was really based on your father. When he was gone, so was our connection. I mean, I'm your boss now, but it isn't as though we communicate much."

Stagger took another gulp. She took her first sip.

"Then again," he went on, "when you form a bond in tragedy, when you have a history like ours . . ." He turned and gazed at her door as though it had just materialized. "I remember everything about that day. But the part I remember most was when you first opened that door. You had no idea I was about to destroy your world."

He turned back toward her. "Can't you just let this go?"

She took a deep sip. She didn't bother answering.

"I haven't lied to you," Stagger said.

"Sure you have. You've been lying to me for eighteen years."

"I've been doing what Henry would have wanted."

"My father is dead," Kat said. "He doesn't get a say in this anymore."

Another deep gulp. "It isn't going to bring him back. And it isn't going to change the facts. Cozone ordered the hit. Monte Leburne carried it out."

"How were you onto Leburne so fast?"

"Because I already had an eye out for him."

"Why?"

"I knew Cozone had killed your dad."

"And Suggs and Rinsky missed it?"

He took another swig, emptying his glass. "They were like you."

"How so?"

"They didn't think Cozone would kill a cop."

"But you thought differently."

"Yep."

"Why?"

He poured himself another glass. "Because Cozone didn't view your father as a cop."

She made a face. "What did he view him as?"

"An employee."

A hot flush hit her face. "What the hell are you talking about?"

He just looked at her.

"Are you saying he was on the take?"

Stagger poured himself another. "More than that."

"What the hell is that supposed to mean?"

Stagger looked around the apartment as though for the first time. "Nice digs, by the way." He tilted his head. "How many cops do you know can buy a place on the Upper West Side outright?"

"It's small," she said, hearing the defensiveness in her voice. "He got a deal from a guy he helped."

Stagger smiled, but there was no joy in it.

"What are you trying to say here, Stagger?"

"Nothing. I'm trying to say nothing."

"Why did you visit Leburne in prison?"

"Why do you think?"

"I don't know."

"Then let me spell it out for you. I knew Leburne had killed your father. I knew Cozone had ordered it. You still don't see?"

"No, I don't."

He shook his head in disbelief. "I didn't visit Leburne to get him to confess," he said. "I went up there to make sure that he didn't tell why."

Stagger downed the entire glass.

"That's crazy," Kat said, even as she felt the floor beneath her start to shift. "What about that fingerprint?"

"Huh?"

"The fingerprint found at the scene. You checked it out for Suggs and Rinsky."

He closed his eyes. "I'm leaving."

"You're still lying," she said.

"It was just some homeless guy's print."

"That's crap."

"Let it go, Kat."

"Your whole theory makes no sense," she said. "If my father was on the take, why would Cozone kill him?"

"Because he wasn't going to be on the take much longer."

"What, he was going to turn on him?"

"I've said enough."

"Whose fingerprint was at the scene?" she asked.

"I told you. Nobody's."

Stagger slurred his words now. She'd been right about not seeing him drink before. It wasn't that she didn't know him. He simply wasn't a drinker. The alcohol was hitting him fast.

He started for the door. Kat stepped in his way.

"You're still not telling me everything."

"You wanted to know who killed your father. I told you."

"You still didn't explain what really happened."

"Maybe I'm not the one you should be asking," he said.

"Who, then?"

A strange look--something drunk, something gleeful--came to his face. "Didn't you ever wonder why your dad would disappear for days at a time?"

She stopped, stunned. For a moment, she just stood there, blinking helplessly, trying to get her bearings. Stagger took advantage, moving toward the door, putting his hand on the knob, opening it.

"What?" she managed.

"You heard me. You want to start getting to the truth, but you just bury your head in the sand. Why was Henry always vanishing? Why didn't anyone in your house ever talk about that?"

She opened her mouth, closed it, tried again. "What the hell are you saying, Stagger?"

"It isn't for me to say anything, Kat. That's what you're not getting here. I'm not the one you should be talking to."





Chapter 24


Kat took the B to the E and then picked up the 7 train out to her old neighborhood in Flushing. She headed down Roosevelt Avenue toward Parsons Boulevard, walking toward her house without conscious thought, as you do with the places of your childhood. You just know every step. She had lived in Manhattan longer, knew the Upper West Side better in some ways, but it never felt like this. Not home exactly. This was stronger than that. This neighborhood felt like a part of her. It felt as though some of her DNA was in the blue clapboards and off-white Cape Cods and cracked pavement and small patches of lawn, like she'd been beamed away a la Star Trek but a few of her particles got left behind. Part of her would always be at Thanksgiving at Uncle Tommy and Aunt Eileen's, sitting at the "kids' table," which was a Ping-Pong table with a king-size sheet doubling as a tablecloth. Dad always carved the turkey--no one else was allowed to touch it. Uncle Tommy poured the drinks. He wanted the kids to have wine too. He'd start off with a spoonful and stir it into your Sprite, making it somewhat stronger as you got older until you reached an age where you left the Ping-Pong table altogether and got a full glass of wine. Uncle Tommy retired after thirty-six years working as an appliance repairman for Sears, and he and Aunt Eileen moved down to Fort Myers, Florida. Their old house was now owned by a Korean family who'd knocked out the back wall and built an addition and slapped on aluminum siding because, when Uncle Tommy and Aunt Eileen lived there, the paint was flaking like it had a bad case of dandruff.

But make no mistake. Kat's DNA was still there.

The houses on her block had always been crowded together but with all the bloated additions, they were even more so. TV antennas still stood atop most roofs, even though everyone had gone to either cable or a satellite dish. Virgin Mary statuary--some stone, most plastic--overlooked tiny gardens. Every once in a while, you'd see a house that had been totally razed in favor of shoehorning some over-the-top faded-brick McMansion with arched windows, but they always looked like a fat guy squeezing into too small a chair.

Her phone buzzed as she reached her old house. She checked and saw the text was from Chaz: Got license plate off gas station video.

She quickly typed back: Anything interesting?


Black Lincoln town car registered to James Isherwood, Islip, New York. He's clean. Honest citizen.

She wasn't surprised. Probably the name of an innocent limo driver hired by her new boyfriend. Another dead end. Another reason to put Dana and Jeff behind her.

The back door off the kitchen was unlocked, as always. Kat found her mother sitting at the kitchen table with Aunt Tessie. There were grocery store coupons spread out on the table and a deck of playing cards. The ashtray was filled with lipstick-tainted cigarette butts. The same five chairs from her childhood still circled the table. Dad's chair had arms on it, thronelike; the rest didn't. Kat had sat between her two brothers. They too had abandoned this neighborhood. Her older brother, Jimmy, graduated from Fordham University. He lived with his wife and three kids in a garish mansion on Long Island, in Garden City, and worked on a crowded floor as a bonds trader. He had explained to her a hundred times what exactly he did, but she still didn't get it. Her younger brother, Farrell, had gone to UCLA and stayed there. He supposedly filmed documentaries and got paid to write screenplays that never get made.

"Two days in a row," Mom said. "This has to be a world and Olympic record."

"Stop it," Tessie scolded. "It's nice she's here."

Mom waved a hand of dismissal. Tessie rose and gave Kat a kiss on the cheek. "I have to run. Brian's visiting and I always make him my famous tuna fish sandwich."

Kat kissed her back. She remembered tuna fish at Aunt Tessie's. Tessie's secret: potato chips. She sprinkled them on top of the tuna. They added crunch and flavor if not nutritional value.

When they were alone, Mom asked, "You want some coffee?"

She pointed to her old coffee percolator. A tin of Folgers sat next to it. Kat had bought her a stainless steel Cuisinart coffee pod machine last Christmas, but Mom said it didn't "taste right," meaning, in her case, that it tasted good. Mom was like that. Anything more expensive wouldn't work for her. If you bought a twenty-dollar bottle of wine, she preferred the one that cost only six. If you got her a brand-name perfume, she preferred the knockoff she'd get at the drugstore. She bought all her clothes at Marshalls or T.J. Maxx and only off the sale rack. Part of this was because she was frugal. Part of it was something much more telling.

"I'm fine," Kat said.

"You want me to fix you a sandwich? I know nothing I'd make could ever be as good as Aunt Tessie's tuna, which is really just Bumble Bee, but I have some nice sliced turkey from Mel's."

"That would be great."

"You still like it with white bread and mayonnaise?"

Kat didn't, but it wasn't as if her mom had a seven-grain option on hand. "Sure, whatever."

Mom lifted herself slowly, making a production of it, using the back of the chair and the table to assist her. She wanted Kat to comment. Kat didn't bother. Mom opened the refrigerator--an old Kenmore model Uncle Tommy got them at cost--and pulled out the turkey and mayo.

Kat debated how to play this. There was too much history between them for games or subtlety. She decided to dive right in.

"Where did Dad go when he used to disappear?"

Mom had her back to her when Kat asked. She'd been reaching into the bread drawer. Kat looked to see her reaction. There was the briefest pause--nothing more.

"I'm going to toast the bread," Mom said. "It tastes better that way."

Kat waited.

"And what are you talking about, disappear? Your father never disappeared."

"Yeah, he did."

"You're probably thinking of his trips with the boys. They'd go hunting up in the Catskills. You remember Jack Kiley? Sweet man. He had a cabin or a lodge or something like that. Your father loved to go up there."

"I remember him going up there once. He used to vanish all the time."

"Aren't we dramatic?" Mom said, arching an eyebrow. "Disappear, vanish. You make it sound like your father was a magician."

"Where did he go?"

"I just told you. Don't you listen?"

"To Jack Kiley's cabin?"

"Sometimes, sure." Kat could hear the growing agitation in her mother's voice "There was also a fishing trip with Uncle Tommy. I don't remember where. Somewhere on the North Fork. And I remember he went on a golf trip with some of the guys at work. That's where he was. He went on trips with his friends."

"I don't remember him ever taking you on trips."

"Oh, sure he did."

"Where?"

"What difference does it make now? Your father liked blowing off steam with the guys. Golfing trips, fishing trips, hunting trips. Men do that."

Mom was spreading the mayo hard enough to scrape paint.

"Where did he go, Mom?"

"I just told you!" she shouted, dropping the knife. "Damn, look what you made me do."

Kat started to get up to retrieve the knife.

"You just stay in your seat, little missy. I got it." Mom picked up the knife, tossed it in the sink, grabbed another. Five vintage McDonald's glasses from 1977--Grimace, Ronald McDonald, Mayor McCheese, Big Mac, and Captain Crook--sat on the windowsill. The complete set had six. Farrell had broken the Hamburglar when he threw a Frisbee indoors when he was seven years old. Years later, he bought Mom a replacement vintage Hamburglar on eBay, but she refused to put it up with the others.

"Mom?"

"What?" She started on the sandwich again. "Why on earth would you be asking me all this now anyway? Your father, God rest his soul, has been dead for nearly twenty years. Who cares where he went?"

"I need to know the truth."

"Why? Why would you bring this up, especially now that the monster who murdered him is finally dead? Put it to bed. It's over."

"Did Dad work for Cozone?"

"What?"

"Was Dad on the take?"

For a woman who needed help getting up, Mom moved now with dizzying speed. "How dare you!" She twirled and, without any hesitation, slapped Kat across the left cheek. The sickening sound of flesh on flesh was loud, almost deafening in the stillness of the kitchen. Kat felt tears come to her eyes, but she didn't turn away or even reach up to touch the red.

Mom's face crumbled. "I'm so sorry. I didn't mean . . ."

"Did he work for Cozone?"

"Please stop."

"Is that how he paid for the apartment in New York City?"

"What? No, no. He got a good deal, remember? He saved that man's life."

"What man?"

"What do you mean, what man?"

"What man? What was his name?"

"How am I supposed to remember?"

"Because I know Dad did a lot of good work as a cop, but I don't remember him saving any real estate magnate's life, do you? Why did we just accept that story? Why didn't we ask him?"

"Ask him," Mom repeated. She retied her apron string, pulling the ends a little too hard. "You mean, like you are now? Like an interrogation? Like your father was some kind of liar? You'd do that to that man--to your father? You'd ask him questions and call him a liar in his own home?"

"That's not what I mean," Kat said, but her voice was weak.

"Well, what do you mean? Everyone exaggerates, Kat. You know that. Especially men. So maybe your father didn't save the man's life. Maybe he only, I don't know, caught a burglar who robbed him or helped him with a parking ticket. I don't know. Your father said he saved his life. I didn't question his word. Tessie's husband, Ed? He used to limp, remember? He told everyone it was from shrapnel in the war. But he was clerical because of his eyesight. He hurt his leg falling down subway stairs when he was sixteen. You think Tessie went around calling him a liar every time he told that story?"

Mom brought the sandwich to the table. She started to cut it diagonally--her brother had preferred it that way--but Kat, ever the contrarian, had insisted sandwiches be cut to make two rectangles. Mom, again out of habit, remembered, angled the knife, cut it in two perfect halves.

"You've never been married," Mom said softly. "You don't know."

"Know what?"

"We all have our demons. But men? They have them much worse. The world tells them that they are the leaders and great and macho and have to be big and brave and make a lot of money and lead these glamorous lives. But they don't, do they? Look at the men in this neighborhood. They all worked too many hours. They came home to noisy, demanding homes. Something was always broken they needed to fix. They were always behind on the house payments. Women, we get it. Life is about a certain kind of drudgery. We are taught not to hope or want too much. Men? They never get that."
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