Missing you, p.26
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       Missing You, p.26

          

  Strike one. Or maybe the more apropos baseball term would be safe.

  Then Chaz called Martha Paquet's house. A woman answered the phone and said, "Hello?"

  "Is this Martha Paquet?"

  "No," the woman said. "This is her sister, Sandi."

  *

  Smiley Leslie and the silver Mercedes dropped Kat back at Chaz's yellow Ferrari. Before she got out, Leslie said, "I'll call you when I have an address."

  Kat almost thanked him, but that seemed woefully inappropriate. The driver handed her back her gun. She could tell from the weight that he had removed the bullets. Then he handed her back her cell phone.

  Kat got out. They drove away.

  Her head was still spinning. She didn't know what to make of what Cozone had said. Actually, even worse, she knew exactly what to make of it. Wasn't it obvious now? Stagger had gone to visit Monte Leburne immediately after his arrest. He hadn't told Suggs or Rinsky or anybody else. He made a deal with Leburne, so that Leburne would take the fall for Dad's murder.

  But why?

  Or was that getting obvious too?

  The real question was, what could she do about it? It wouldn't pay to confront Stagger anymore. He would just continue to lie. Or worse. No, she would have to prove him a liar. How?

  The fingerprints found at the murder scene.

  Stagger had covered them up, hadn't he? But if they belonged to Stagger, they would have shown up in the first fingerprint search Suggs and Rinsky ran. All cops' prints are on file. So they couldn't belong to Stagger.

  Still, when they did get a hit, Stagger had inserted himself in the investigation, pretending (or probably pretending) that the prints belonged to a random homeless guy.

  The fingerprints were the key.

  She called Suggs on his cell phone.

  "Hey, Kat, how's it going?"

  "Good. Have you had a chance to look at those old fingerprints?"

  "Not yet."

  "I hate to be a pest, but they are really important."

  "After all these years? I can't see how. But either way, I put the request in. All the evidence is boxed up at the warehouse. They tell me it'll take a few more days."

  "Can you push it?"

  "I guess, but they're working active cases, Kat. This isn't a priority."

  "It is," she said. "Believe me, okay? For my father."

  There was silence on the other end of the line. Then Suggs said, "For your father," and hung up.

  Kat looked back toward that damn stretch of beach, and now she remembered what she'd been thinking about before Leslie had shown up, leaning against Chaz's car.

  It's Kat.

  She had been the one to type that in an instant message to Jeff/Ron. First, she had sent him a link to the "Missing You" video. Then he had responded as though he didn't know who she was. Then she wrote . . .

  It's Kat.

  Her body felt cold. She, Kat, had told him her name. He hadn't said it first. He started referring to her as Kat, as though he knew her, after she had already told him her name.

  Something was wrong.

  Something was very, very wrong with Dana Phelps and Gerard Remington and Jeff Raynes aka Ron Kochman. She couldn't prove it yet, but three people had disappeared.

  Or two anyway. Gerard and Dana. As for Jeff . . .

  One way to find out. She slid into the Ferrari and started it up. She wasn't going back to New York City. Not yet. She was going back to Ron Kochman's house. She would knock down his goddamn door if she had to, but she was going to learn the truth one way or the other.

  When Kat turned back onto Deforest Street, the same two vehicles were in the driveway. She pulled her car right behind them and slammed the stick into park. As she reached for the door handle, her cell phone rang.

  It was Chaz.

  "Hello?"

  "Martha Paquet went away last night for a weekend getaway. No one has seen her since."

  *

  Titus thanked Dana for her cooperation.

  "When can I go home?" she asked.

  "Tomorrow, if all goes well. In the meantime, Reynaldo here is going to let you sleep in the guest quarters in the barn. There's a shower and a bed. I think you'll find it more comfortable."

  Dana had the shakes, but she still managed to say, "Thank you."

  "You're welcome. You can go now."

  "I won't say a word," she said. "You can trust me."

  "I know. I do."

  Dana trudged toward the door as though walking through deep mud. Reynaldo waited for her. The moment the door closed behind them, Dmitry coughed into his fist and said, "Uh, we got a problem."

  Titus's gaze snapped toward him. They never had a problem. Not ever.

  "What's wrong?"

  "We're getting e-mails."

  Once they got the passwords, Dmitry set it up so all the e-mail accounts for all their guests would be forwarded to him. This way they could monitor and even answer e-mails from concerned family or friends.

  "From?"

  "Martha Paquet's sister. I guess she's been calling the cell phone too."

  "What do the e-mails say?"

  Dmitry looked up. He pushed his glasses up his nose with his pointer finger. "It says that a New York City police detective called and asked where Martha was. The cop seemed worried when she said she'd gone away with her boyfriend."

  A blinding bolt of anger crashed through Titus.

  Kat.

  The balance of his internal cost-benefit analysis--kill or not kill--had now tilted to one side.

  Titus grabbed his keys and hurried for the door. "E-mail back to the sister that you're fine and having a great time and will be home tomorrow. If any other communications come in, call me on my cell phone."

  "Where are you going?"

  "To New York City."

  *

  Kat pounded on the front door. She looked through the pebbled glass for movement again. She saw none. The old man had to be home. She had been here, what, an hour ago? Both cars were there. She knocked some more.

  No answer.

  The old man had told her to get off his property. His. So Ron or Jeff might not be the owner. The old man was. Maybe Jeff and his daughter, Melinda, rented space. She could easily find the old man's name in the records, but really, what would that do?

  Chaz was supposed to notify the FBI about this case now, though again, they still didn't have much. Adults are allowed to be out of touch for a day or two. She hoped the circumstantial consistencies would give the case some urgency, but she wasn't sure. Dana Phelps had actually spoken to both her son and her financial adviser. Martha Paquet could just be holed up in bed with her new lover.

  Except for one thing: Both women were supposedly away with the same man.

  She circled the house, trying to peer into the windows, but the shades were drawn. She found the old man in the backyard on a chaise lounge. He was reading a paperback by Parnell Hall, gripping the book as though it were trying to run away.

  Kat said, "Hello?"

  The old man sat up, startled. "What the hell are you doing here?"

  "I knocked on the door."

  "What do you want?"

  "Where is Jeff?"

  He sat up. "I don't know anybody by that name."

  She didn't believe him. "Where is Ron Kochman?"

  "I told you. He's not here."

  Kat moved to the chaise, looming above him. "Two women are missing."

  "What?"

  "Two women met him online. Both of them are now missing."

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

  "I'm not leaving until you tell me where he is."

  He said nothing.

  "I will call the cops. I will call the FBI. I will call the media."

  The old man's eyes widened. "You wouldn't."

  Kat bent so that her face was inches from his. "Try me. I will tell everyone I know that Ron Kochman used to be a guy named Jeff Raynes."

  The old man just sat there.

  "Where is he?"

  The old man said nothing.

  She almost reached for her gun but stopped herself. This time she shouted, "Where is he?"

  "Leave him alone."

  Kat gasped at the sound of the voice. Her head turned toward the house. The screen door opened. Kat felt her knees buckle. She opened her mouth, but no sound came out.

  Jeff stepped out of the house and spread his arms. "I'm right here, Kat."

  Chapter 35

  When Reynaldo and Dana arrived at the barn, Bo was by the door, tail wagging. He leapt toward his master, who got down on one knee and scratched behind the ears.

  "Good boy."

  Bo barked his approval.

  Behind him, Reynaldo heard the farmhouse's screen door slam. Titus jumped the porch steps and hurried toward the black SUV. Clem Sison, who worked as the driver now that Claude was gone, got behind the wheel. Titus jumped in on the passenger side.

  The SUV sped off, kicking up dirt in its wake.

  Reynaldo wondered what had happened. Bo barked and Reynaldo realized that in his distraction, he had stopped scratching. He smiled and got back to it. Bo made his happy face. It was a wonderful thing about dogs. You always knew exactly what they were feeling.

  Dana stood perfectly still. There was a small smile on her lips as she watched him with Bo. Reynaldo didn't like that. He stood and ordered Bo to go back toward the underground boxes. The dog whined in protest.

  "Go," Reynaldo said again.

  Reluctantly, the dog left the barn and started toward the path.

  Dana watched the old dog go, her smile fading away to nothing. "I have a Lab too," she said. "Her name is Chloe. She's black, though, not chocolate. How old is your dog?"

  Reynaldo didn't reply. From where he now stood at the barn entrance, Reynaldo could see the old Amish pruning saw on the wall. Reynaldo had once wondered whether the blade could cut through finger bones. It had taken a while. It had been messy, more of a ripping and tearing of bone than anything resembling a clean cut, but Reynaldo had made it all the way through one finger at a time. That man--he had been in Box Three--had screamed. The noise bothered Titus, so Reynaldo jammed a cloth in Number Three's mouth and then sealed it with duct tape. That muffled the shrieks of agony. Number Three started passing out when the blade got caught up in the cartilage. The first two times, Reynaldo had stopped what he was doing, gotten a pail of water, and threw it on the man. That woke him back up. After he passed out for the third time, Reynaldo had kept pails of water by his side.

  "Would you like some water?" he asked Dana now.

  "Yes, please."

  He filled two buckets with water and placed them at the ready on the tool table. Dana lifted one to her lips and drank straight from it. Reynaldo found a hand towel that would make a good gag, but he couldn't find duct tape. He could threaten her, of course, tell her that if the towel came out of her mouth, he would make it much worse, but on the other hand, Titus had just driven off, so he wouldn't be bothered by the noise.

  Maybe Reynaldo would just let her scream.

  "Where's the bed?" Dana asked. "And the shower?"

  "Sit," he said, pointing to the chair.

  He had tied Number Three down with rope and trapped whatever hand he was cutting in the large vise on the tool table. Number Three had started to resist when he first saw the ropes, but Reynaldo had silenced him with the gun. He could do that again here, he supposed, but Dana seemed more pliant. Still, once the cutting began, he would need restraints.

  "Sit," he said again.

  Dana immediately sat in the chair.

  Reynaldo opened the bottom tool drawer and pulled out the tying rope. He wasn't good at knots, but if you stayed near your victim and if you wrapped it enough times around, you didn't have to be.

  "What's that for?" Dana asked.

  "I need to make up your bed. I can't risk you running off while I do that."

  "I won't. I promise."

  "Sit still."

  When he wrapped the rope around her chest, Dana started to cry. But she didn't resist. He wasn't sure if that pleased or disappointed him. Reynaldo was about to do a second go around, when he heard the familiar whimper.

  Bo.

  Reynaldo looked up. Bo was standing right outside the barn door, looking at his master with sad eyes.

  "Go," Reynaldo said.

  Bo didn't move. He whimpered some more.

  "Go. I'll be down in a few minutes."

  The dog started pawing the ground and looked toward his bed. Reynaldo should have anticipated this. Bo liked his bed. He liked the barn, especially when Reynaldo was here. The only time Reynaldo had locked Bo out was when he was working on Number Three. Bo hadn't liked that--not the part about sawing the man's fingers off; Bo cared only about Reynaldo--but he was upset at being locked away from both his bed and his master.

  For days afterward, Bo would sniff where the blood had spilled.

  Reynaldo rose and moved toward the barn door. He gave the dog a quick scratch behind the ears and said, "Sorry, boy. I need you to stay outside." He backed the dog away from the doorway and got ready to close it. Bo started toward him.

  "Sit," Reynaldo said sternly.

  The dog obeyed.

  Reynaldo's hand had just taken hold of the handle on the barn door when he felt something crash into the back of his head. The blow knocked Reynaldo to his knees. His head vibrated like a tuning fork. He looked up and saw Dana holding the metal chair. She reared back and with a guttural scream swung it at his face.

  Reynaldo ducked just in time, the chair flying over him. He could hear Bo starting to bark out of concern. Reynaldo reached up, grabbed the chair, and pulled it away from her.

  Dana ran.

  Reynaldo was still on his knees. He tried to get up, but his head reeled in protest. He dropped back down. Bo was there now, licking his face. It gave him strength. He made his way to his feet, pulled out his gun, and ran outside. He looked to the right. No sign of her. He looked to the left. Again nothing.

  He spun to the back just as Dana disappeared into the woods. Reynaldo raised his gun, fired, and ran after her.

  *

  Titus had been so careful.

  The setup for what he considered to be the perfect crime didn't come just with a cry of "Eureka!" It had been the result of evolution, survival of the fittest--an idea that evolved from all the other career dealings in his lifetime. It combined love and sex and romance and longing. It was primitive in its instinct and modern in its execution.

  It was perfect.

  Or at least, it had been.

  Titus had seen small-time hustlers think small-time. They'd put ads up for sex on websites, make a date with a guy, and then roll him for chump change.

  No, that wouldn't do.

  Titus had gathered all of his past operations--prostitution, extortion, scams, identity theft--and taken them to the next level. First, he created the perfect fake online profiles. How? There were several ways. Dmitry helped him find "dead," "deleted," or inactive social media accounts on sites like Facebook or even MySpace--people who had created a page, thrown up a few photographs, and then never used it. Most of the ones he ended up using were from canceled accounts.

  Take Ron Kochman, for example. According to the cache, his account had been set up and then deleted two weeks later. That was ideal. Take Vanessa Moreau. They had found her bikini portfolio on a casting site called Mucho Models. Not only had Vanessa not updated her account in three years, but when a fictional magazine tried to "book" her for a job, Titus got no reply.

  In short, both were dead accounts.

  That was step one.

  Once Titus had located potential IDs he could exploit, he ran a more thorough online search because any potential suitor would do that. It was the norm nowadays. If you met someone online--or even in person--you Googled them, especially if they were potential suitors. That was why a completely fake identity wouldn't really work. You'd be able to sniff it out in a Google search. But if the person was real and just unreachable . . .

  Bingo.

  There was virtually nothing on Ron Kochman online, though in that case, Titus had still had "Ron" be "cautious" and call himself Jack. It worked well. The same was true of Vanessa Moreau. After a ton of extra research--which the average person would never be able to muster without hiring a private eye--Titus had found out that Vanessa Moreau was just a professional name, that she was really Nancy Josephson and was now married with two kids and lived in Bristol, England.

  The next important criterion was looks.

  Vanessa, he had figured, would be a problem. She was simply too attractive in a pinup-model type way. Men would be suspicious. But, as Titus would have learned during his days in prostitution, men are also dumb when it comes to the female sex. They all have this misguided belief that they are somehow God's gift to women. Gerard Remington had even waxed on to Vanessa about how superior specimens--him in terms of brains, her in terms of looks--should naturally gravitate toward each other.

  "Special people find one another," Gerard had argued. "They procreate and thus enhance the species."

  Yes, he had said that. For real.

  Ron Kochman had been a perfect and rare find. Normally, to be on the absolute safest side, Titus used each profile to nab only one target. After that, he deleted the ID and started using another. But locating ideal identities--people who had some online presence but couldn't be found--was difficult. Kochman had also had the look and age he wanted. Wealthy women would be suspicious of someone too young and figure that they were perversely into cougars or after their money. They would have less interest in being romantic with someone too old.

  Kochman was both a widower (women loved those) and "real world" handsome. Even in photographs, he looked like a nice guy--relaxed, confident, comfortable in his own skin, nice eyes, an endearing smile that drew you in.

  Women fell for him hard.

  From there, the planning was pretty simple. Titus took the photographs he'd harvested from their old Facebook or Mucho Model or whatever accounts and put them on various online dating services. He kept the profiles simple and clean. When you do this often enough, you learn all the tricks. He was never lecherous toward the women or overly sexual to the men. Titus thought that the communications--the seduction--was his forte. He listened to his suitors, truly listened, and responded to their needs. This was his strength, going back to the days of reading the young girls at the Port Authority. He never oversold himself. He kept far away from "personal ad" speak. He showed his personality (his comments, for example, were lightly self-deprecating) rather than told it ("I'm really funny and caring").

 
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