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Missing you, p.20
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       Missing You, p.20

          Harlan Coben / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime / History & Fiction
"Even if it hurts a lot of people."

"Even if."

Tessie nodded, digging the spade deep into the fresh soil. "It's getting late, Kat. I think maybe it's time you headed back home."

*

The revelation began to sink in during the subway ride home.

It was easy to feel angry and betrayed and disgusted.

Her father had been her hero. Kat got, of course, that he wasn't perfect, but this was the man who climbed up a ladder and hung up the moon for her. She had honestly believed it--that her father had taken the ladder out of the garage and put up the moon just for her benefit--but, of course, when you stop and think about it, that had been a lie too.

Sometimes she imagined that her father used to disappear because he was saving lives, working undercover, doing something grand and brave. Now Kat knew that he had abandoned and terrified his entire family to shack up with a hooker.

So that would be the easy way for her emotions to go--in the direction of disgust, anger, betrayal, maybe even hate.

But as Tessie had warned her, life was rarely that simple.

Her overwhelming emotion was sadness. There was sadness for a father who was so unhappy at home that he ended up living a lie. There was sadness too for Kat's mother for all the obvious reasons, for also being forced to live the lie, and when she looked at it carefully, maybe there was sadness because this news didn't shock Kat as much as she might now claim. Maybe Kat had subconsciously suspected this kind of ugliness. Maybe this had been the root cause for her tense relationship with her mother--a stupid, subconscious belief that somehow Mom didn't do enough to make Dad happy and so he would go away and Kat would be scared that he would never come back and it would be Mom's fault.

She also wondered whether Sugar, if that was her name, made her father happy. There had been no passion in his marriage. There had been respect and companionship and partnership, but had her father found something approaching romantic love with this other woman? Suppose he had been happy with this other, forbidden woman. How should Kat feel about that? Should she feel anger and betrayal--or some form of joy that Dad found something to cherish?

She wanted to go home and lie down and cry.

Her phone didn't work until she was out of the subway tunnel. There were three missed calls from Chaz's cell phone. Kat called him back as soon as she was at street level.

"What's up?" she asked.

"You sound like crap."

"Rough day."

"It may get rougher."

"What do you mean?"

"I got something on that Swiss bank account. I think you'll want to see this."





Chapter 26


Titus got tired of the prostitution ring.

The world was getting dangerous, tricky, and even boring. Whenever you had a good thing going, too many dumb people with overly violent tendencies had a habit of getting involved. The mob moved in and wanted a piece. Lazy men saw this as easy money--abuse a desperate girlfriend, make her do what you want, collect the cash. His mentor, Louis Castman, had long since disappeared, retiring, Titus figured, to some island in the South Pacific. The Internet, which made so many retail businesses and go-betweens obsolete, had made the pimp that much less valuable. The whore-to-john connection became much more streamlined with the web or with larger consolidators who swallowed the smaller pimps in the same way that Home Depot swallowed the mom-and-pop hardware store.

Prostitution had become too small-time for Titus. The risks had started to outweigh the benefits.

But like any business, when one aspect became obsolete, the top entrepreneurs found new avenues. Technology might have hurt the street business, but it also opened up new worlds online. For a while, Titus became one of those consolidators, but it became too rote, too distant, sitting behind a computer and making appointments and transactions. He moved on and ran online cons with some backers in Nigeria. No, he didn't run the easy-to-spot spam e-mails about helping someone who owed or wanted to give away money. Titus had always been about seduction--about sex, about love, about the interplay between them. For a while, his best "romantic scam" was to pretend that he was a soldier serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. He would set up fake identities for his soldiers on social media sites and then start to romance single women he would meet online. Eventually, he would "reluctantly" ask for help so he could purchase a laptop, or airfare so they could meet in person, or maybe he would need money for rehabilitation after a war-related injury. When he needed quick cash, Titus would pretend he was a soldier being deployed and needing to sell a vehicle on the cheap, sending perspective buyers bogus registration and information and having them wire the money to third-party accounts.

There were problems with these scams, however. First, the money was relatively small and took a great deal of effort. People were dumb, but alas, they were getting shrewder. Second, as with anything profitable, too many amateurs heard about it and rushed into the business. The Army Criminal Investigation began issuing warnings and going after the perpetrators in a more serious manner. For his partners in western Africa, that wasn't a big problem. For Titus, it could very well be.

But more than that, it was again small-time with the lowest-case s imaginable. Titus, like any businessman, was looking for ways to expand and capitalize. These cons had been a step up from his earlier pimping days, but how big a step? He needed a new challenge--something bigger, faster, more profitable, and completely safe.

Titus had used up almost his entire life savings to get his new venture off the ground. But it was paying off big-time.

Clem Sison, the new chauffeur, came into the farmhouse. He was wearing Claude's black suit. "How do I look?"

It was a little baggy in the shoulders, but it would do. "You understand your training."

"Yes."

"No deviations from the plan," Titus said. "Do you understand?"

"Sure, of course. She comes straight here."

"Then go get her now."

*

Chaz's shift was over, so Kat met him at his apartment in the ritzy Lock-Horne Building on Park Avenue and 46th Street. Kat had come to an office party here two years ago when Stacy was dating the playboy who owned the building. The playboy, whose name was Wilson or Windsor or something else overtly preppy, was brilliant and rich and handsome and now, if rumors were true, had lost his mind a la Howard Hughes and become a complete recluse. Recently, the building had converted some office floors into residential space.

That was where Chaz Faircloth lived. Quick albeit obvious conclusion: Coming from great wealth was nice.

When Chaz opened the door, his white shirt was opened a button more than it should have been, revealing pecs so waxed they made a baby's butt look like it had a five o'clock shadow. He smiled with the perfect teeth and said, "Come in."

She glanced around the apartment. "Label me surprised."

"What?"

Kat had expected a man cave or bachelor pad and instead found the place almost too classily decorated with old wood and antiques and tapestries and oriental rugs. Everything was rich and expensive yet understated.

"The decor," Kat said.

"You like?"

"I do."

"I know, right? My mom decorated the place with family heirlooms and whatnot. I was going to change it up, you know, make it more me, but then I found that chicks actually love this stuff. Makes me look more sensitive and stuff."

So much for the surprise.

Chaz moved behind the bar and picked up a bottle of Macallan Scotch 25 Year. Kat's eyes went wide.

"You're a Scotch drinker," he said.

She tried not to lick her lips. "I don't think I should right now."

"Kat?"

"Yeah?"

"You're staring at that bottle like I stare at ample cleavage."

She frowned. "Ample?"

Chaz smiled with the even teeth. "Have you ever had the twenty-five?"

"I had the twenty-one once."

"And?"

"I almost asked it for a ring."

Chaz grabbed two whiskey glasses. "This sells for about eight hundred dollars a bottle." He poured both and handed one to her. Kat held the glass as if it were a baby bird.

"Cheers."

She took a single sip. Her eyes closed. She wondered whether it was possible to drink this and keep your eyes open.

"How is it?" he asked.

"I may shoot you just so I can take the bottle home."

Chaz laughed. "I guess we should get on with it."

Kat almost shook her head and told him it could wait. She didn't want to hear about the Swiss bank account. The realization of what her life had been--what her parents' lives had been--was beginning to burrow through her mental blockades. Every house on every street is really just a family facade. We look at it and think we know what's going on inside, but we never really have any idea. That was one thing, sure--to be fooled that way. She could get past that. But to be on the inside, to live behind the facade and still realize she had no idea of the unhappiness, the broken dreams, the lies and delusions being played out right in front of her, made Kat just want to sit on this perfect leather couch and sip this primo beverage and let it all slip into the wonderful numb.

"Kat?"

"I'm listening."

"What's going on with you and Captain Stagger?"

"You don't want to get in the middle of that, Chaz."

"Are you coming back soon?"

"I don't know. It's not important."

"You sure?"

"Positive," Kat said. It was time to change subjects. "I thought you wanted to see me about the numbered Swiss bank account."

"I did, yes."

"Well?"

Chaz put the glass down. "I did what you asked. I reached out to your contact at the Department of Treasury. I just asked him if he could put the account on their watch list. The list is huge, by the way. I guess the IRS is going hard after the secret Swiss accounts, and the Swiss are fighting back. Unless there is a strong hint of terrorism, they're pretty backlogged, so I don't think they've picked up on this yet."

"Picked up on?"

"You said the account was new, right?"

"Right. Supposedly Dana Phelps just opened it."

"When exactly?"

"I don't know. From what her financial guy said, I'd assumed that she set it up two days ago when she transferred the funds into it."

"That can't be," Chaz said.

"Why not?"

"Because someone already issued a Suspicious Activity Report on it."

Kat put the glass down. "When?"

"A week ago."

"Do you know what the report said?"

"A Massachusetts resident transferred over three hundred thousand dollars into that same account."

Chaz opened up the laptop sitting on the coffee table and began to type.

"Do you have the name of the person who made the transfer?" Kat asked.

"No, it was left out of the report."

"Do you know who issued the SAR?"

"A man named Asghar Chuback. He's a partner at an investment firm called Parsons, Chuback, Mitnick and Bushwell Investments and Securities. They're located in Northampton, Massachusetts."

Chaz spun the laptop toward her. The Parsons, Chuback, Mitnick and Bushwell web page was the digital equivalent of thick ivory stock and embossed logos--rich, fancy, upper class--the kind of design that told those without eight-figure portfolios not to bother.

"Did you tell Detective Schwartz about this?" Kat asked.

"Not yet. Frankly, he didn't seem all that impressed with the stolen license plate."

There were links on the site for wealth management, institutional services, global investments. There was a lot of talk about privacy and discretion. "We'll never get them to talk to us," Kat said.

"Wrong."

"How so?"

"I thought the same thing, but I made the call anyway," Chaz said. "He's willing. I made you an appointment."

"With Chuback?"

"Yep."

"For when?"

"Anytime tonight. His secretary said he's working with the overseas market and will be there all night. Weird, but he seems anxious to talk. The ride should take about three hours." He snapped the laptop closed and stood. "I'll drive."

Kat didn't want that. Yes, she trusted Chaz and all, but she still hadn't told him all the details, especially about the personal Jeff-Ron connection. That wasn't the kind of thing you wanted around the precinct. Plus, much as he might be getting better, three hours in a car with Chaz--six hours round-trip--was something she wasn't yet ready to handle.

"I'll drive myself up," she said. "You stay here in case we need some kind of follow-up."

She expected an argument. She didn't get one.

"Okay," he said, "but it'll be faster if you just take my car. Come on. The garage is around the corner."

*

Martha Paquet carried her suitcase to the door. The suitcase was old, predating the invention of the rolling ones, or maybe Harold had been too cheap, even back then. Harold hated to travel, except twice a year when he did a "Vegas run" with his drinking buddies, the kind of trip that caused cringing winks and snickers from all upon their return. For those outings, he used a fancy Tumi carry-on--it was only for his use, he said--but he'd taken that, and pretty much everything else of value in their condo, years ago, before the final divorce. Harold didn't wait for the courts. He rented a U-Haul, took everything he could from the condo, and told her, "Try to get it back, bitch."

Long time ago.

Martha looked out the window. "This is crazy," she said to her sister, Sandi.

"You only live once."

"Yes, I know."

Sandi put her arm around her. "And you deserve this. Mom and Dad would so approve."

Martha arched her eyebrow. "Oh, I doubt that."

Her parents had been deeply religious people. After years of domestic abuse at the hands of Harold--no reason to go into that--Martha had ended up moving back here to help Dad take care of her terminally ill mom. But as it often plays out, Dad, the healthy one, had died of a sudden heart attack six years ago. Mom had finally passed last year. Mom had firmly believed she was going to Paradise with Dad--claimed she couldn't wait for that day--but that hadn't stopped her from fighting and scraping and enduring agonizing treatments to hang on to this mortal coil.

Martha had stayed with her mother the whole time, living in this house as her nurse and companion. She didn't mind. There was no talk of sending Mom to hospice or a nursing home or even hiring someone. Her mother wouldn't hear of it, and Martha, who loved her mother dearly, would never have asked.

"You put your life on hold long enough," Sandi reminded her. "You're due for some fun."

She was, she guessed. There had been attempts at relationships after the divorce, but her caring for Mom, not to mention her own wariness after Harold, got in the way. Martha never complained. It wasn't her way. She was glad for her lot in life. She didn't ask or expect more. That wasn't to say she didn't long.

"It only takes one person to change your life," Sandi said. "You."

"Right."

"You can't start the next chapter of your life if you keep rereading the last one."

Sandi meant well with all her little life aphorisms. She posted them on her Facebook wall every Friday, often accompanied with a picture of flowers or perfect sunsets, stuff like that. She called them Sandi's Sayings, though, of course, she had written none of them.

A black limousine pulled up in front of the house. Martha felt something catch in her throat.

"Oh, Martha, that car is beautiful!" Sandi squealed.

Martha couldn't move. She stood there as the chauffeur got out and started toward her door. A month ago, after much prodding from Sandi, Martha had signed up for an Internet dating service. To her surprise, she almost immediately began an online flirtation with a wonderful man named Michael Craig. It was crazy when she thought about it--so unlike her--and she had scoffed at the whole idea, how juvenile it was, how the kids today wouldn't know what a real relationship was if it bit them on the ass because they spend all their time on screens and never see the person face-to-face and blah blah blah.

So how did she fall into this?

The truth was, there were advantages to starting online. It didn't matter what you looked like (other than in photographs). Your hair could be messed up, your makeup all wrong, something stuck in your teeth--it didn't matter. You could relax and not try so hard. You never saw disappointment on your suitor's face and always assumed he was smiling at what you said and did. If it didn't work out, you wouldn't have to worry about seeing him at the grocery store or local strip mall. It gave it enough distance so you could be yourself and let your guard down.

It felt safe.

How serious could it get, after all?

She suppressed a smile. The relationship had heated up--no reason to go into details--and moving into more and more intense areas, until finally, Michael Craig wrote in an IM: Let's chuck it all and meet!

Martha Paquet remembered sitting at the computer in full blush mode. Oh, how she longed for real contact, for the kind of physical intimacy with a man she had always imagined. She had been lonely and afraid for so long, and now she had met someone--but did she dare take the next step? Martha expressed her reluctance to Michael. She didn't want to risk losing what they had--but then again, as he himself finally said in his own understanding way, what did they have?

Nothing when you thought about it. Smoke and mirrors. But if they met in person, if the chemistry was anything like it was online . . .

But suppose it wasn't? Suppose--and this must happen more times than not--suppose it all fizzled away when they finally met face-to-face. Suppose she ended up being, as she expected she would, a complete disappointment.

Martha wanted to postpone. She asked him to be patient. He said he would be, but relationships don't work like that. Relations can't remain stagnant. They are either getting better or getting worse. She could feel Michael starting to pull back ever so slowly. He was a man, she knew. He had needs and wants, just as she did.

Then, odd as this may now seem, Martha had visited her sister's Facebook page and seen the following aphorism posted against a photo of waves crashing on the shore: "I don't regret the things I've done. I regret the things I didn't do when I had the chance."

No one was credited with the quote, but it hit Martha right where she lived. She had been right in the first place: An online relationship isn't real. It could work as an introduction maybe. It could be intense. It could bring pleasure and pain, but you can live in a fake reality only for so long. In the end, it was role-playing.
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