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Missing you, p.27
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       Missing You, p.27

          Harlan Coben / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime / History & Fiction
Titus never asked for personal information, though once the communications began, the target always gave him enough. Once he knew the name or address or other key information he would have Dmitry run a full check on them and try to figure out a net worth. If they didn't reach high six figures, there was no reason to continue the flirtation. If they had a ton of family ties and would be missed, that was also reason to bail.

At any one time, Titus could have ten identities flirting with hundreds of potential marks. The large majority fell by the wayside for one reason or another. Some were just too much work. Some would not go away without first meeting for a coffee. Some did the research and, with IDs not quite as off the grid as Ron Kochman or Vanessa Moreau, saw that they were being tricked.

Still, there was a never-ending stream of potential targets.

Currently, Titus was holding seven people at the farm. Five men, two women. He preferred men. Yes, that might sound strange, but a single man going missing drew almost no attention. Men disappear all the time. They run away. They hook up with some woman and move. No one questioned when a man wanted to move his money to another account. People do wonder--and yes, this was pure old-fashioned sexism--when a woman starts going "crazy" with her finances.

Think about it. How often did you hear on the news that a forty-seven-year-old single man had vanished and the police were searching for him?

Almost never.

The answer becomes "completely never" when the man is still sending e-mails or text messages and even, when needed, making phone calls. Titus's operation was simple and precise. You keep the targets alive for as long as you need them. You bleed them in a way that may cause a raised eyebrow but rarely more. You bleed them for as long as it is profitable. Then you kill them and make them disappear.

That was the key. Once their usefulness is over, you don't let them live.

Titus had been running his operation at the farm for eight months now. In terms of geography, he cast his net within a ten-hour ride to the farm. That gave him a great deal of the East Coast--from Maine to South Carolina, and even the Midwest. Cleveland was only five hours away, Indianapolis about nine, Chicago was right about at the ten-hour mark. He tried to make sure that no two victims lived too close to each other or had any connection. Gerard Remington had been from Hadley, Massachusetts, for example, while Dana Phelps lived in Greenwich, Connecticut.

The rest was simple.

Eventually, most online relationships had to progress to the point where you had in-person contact. Titus had been surprised, though, at how intimate you could become without ever meeting face-to-face. He'd had some form of online sex or sexting episode with more than half his victims. He'd had phone sex, always using a disposable mobile device, sometimes hiring a woman who didn't really know what was going on, but most of the time, he used a simple voice changer and did it himself. In every case, words of love were exchanged before a face-to-face meet was even set up.

Odd.

The getaway--be it a weekend or a week--evolved into a given. Gerard Remington, who clearly had some social issues (he almost ruined the plan by insisting on taking his own car--they ended up improvising, conking him over the head in the airport parking lot), had bought a ring and prepared his proposal--this despite never laying eyes on Vanessa in the flesh. He wasn't the first. Titus had read about relationships like this, people who talked online for months or even years. That star linebacker from Notre Dame had fallen in love without ever seeing the "girl" who was conning him, even believing that she had died from a bizarre mix of leukemia and a car accident.

Love blinds, yes, but not nearly as much as wanting to be loved.

That was what Titus had learned. People weren't so much gullible as desperate. Or maybe, Titus concluded, those were two sides of the same coin.

Now his perfect operation seemed to have hit a major snag. Looking back on it, Titus could blame only himself. He had grown lazy. It had all gone so smoothly for so long that he let down his guard. Immediately after "Kat"--he recognized her as the woman who had reached out to Ron Kochman at YouAreJustMyType .com--had contacted Ron Kochman, Titus should have closed down the profile and cut the line. He hadn't for several reasons.

The first was, he was close to nailing two other victims using that profile. It had taken a lot of work to get there. He didn't want to lose them over what at first blush seemed to be nothing but contact with an ex. Second, he had no idea that Kat was an NYPD officer. He hadn't bothered to check her out. He had simply assumed she was a lonely ex-girlfriend and that his "let's not go back to the past" spiel would be the end of it. That had been incorrect. Third, Kat hadn't called him Ron. She called him Jeff, making Titus wonder whether she had mistaken him for another guy who looked like Ron, or Ron had once been known as Jeff, therefore making it even harder to find him and an even better fake profile.

That too had been a mistake.

Still, even if hindsight is twenty-twenty, how had Kat put it together? How, from a small communication on YouAreJustMyType, had Detective Kat Donovan found Dana Phelps and Gerard Remington and Martha Paquet?

He needed to know.

So now Titus couldn't just kill her and be done with it. He had to grab her and make her talk to see the level of threat. He now wondered whether his perfect operation had run its course. That could be. If he learned that Kat was closing in on him or had shared the information with anyone, he would hit the DELETE button on the whole enterprise--that is, kill the rest of the targets, bury them, burn down the farmhouse, move on with the money they'd made.

But a man had to find balance too. A man could panic under these circumstances and make the mistake of being overcautious. He didn't want to make a final decision until he knew more facts. He needed to get ahold of Kat Donovan and find out what she knew. He would have to make her disappear too. For some reason, there seemed to be this myth that if you killed someone, the law would come down on you harder. The truth was, dead people tell no tales. Missing bodies give no clues. The risk was greater, far greater, when you let your target or enemies work with impunity.

Remove them entirely and you're always better off.

Titus closed his eyes and leaned his head back. The ride to New York City would take about three hours. He might as well take a nap so he could be well rested for what might come.





Chapter 36


Kat stood frozen in the backyard of this ordinary house in Montauk and felt the earth open up and swallow her whole. Eighteen years after saying that he no longer wanted to marry her, Jeff was a scant ten feet away. For a few moments, neither one of them spoke. She saw the look of loss and hurt and confusion on his face and wondered whether he was seeing the same on hers.

When Jeff finally spoke, it was to the old man, not Kat. "We could use a little privacy, Sam."

"Yeah, sure thing."

In her peripheral vision, Kat saw the old man close the book and go in the house. She and Jeff didn't take their eyes off each other. They had either become two wary gunfighters waiting for someone to draw or, more likely, two disbelieving souls who feared that if one of them turned away, if one of them so much as blinked, the other would vanish into the eighteen-year-old dust.

Jeff had tears in his eyes. "God, it's so good to see you."

"You too," she said.

Silence.

Then Kat said, "Did I really just say 'you too'?"

"You used to be better with the comebacks."

"I used to be better with a lot of things."

He shook his head. "You look fantastic."

She smiled at him. "You too." Then: "Hey, that's becoming my new go-to line."

Jeff started toward her, arms spread. She wanted to collapse into them. She wanted him to take her in his arms and press her against his chest and maybe pull back and kiss her tenderly and then just wait for the eighteen years to melt away like the morning frost. But--and maybe this was more a protective maneuver--Kat took a step back and held up her palm to him. He pulled up, surprised, but only for a moment, and then he nodded.

"Why are you here, Kat?"

"I'm looking for two missing women."

She felt on firmer ground when she said this. She hadn't gone through all this to rekindle a flame her old fiance had long ago extinguished. She was here to solve a case.

"I don't understand," he said.

"Their names are Dana Phelps and Martha Paquet."

"I've never heard of them."

She had expected this answer. Once Kat put together that she was the one who said, "It's Kat" first, the rest had fallen into place.

"Do you have a laptop?" she asked.

"Uh, sure, why?"

"Could you get it, please?"

"I still don't--"

"Just get it, Jeff. Okay?"

He nodded. When he went inside, Kat actually dropped to her knees and felt her entire body give out. She wanted to sink to the ground and forget about these women, just lie on the earth and let go and cry and wonder about all the what-ifs that this stupid life brings us.

She managed to get back up a few seconds before he returned. He turned on the laptop and handed it to her. She sat at a picnic table. Jeff sat across from her.

"Kat?"

She could hear the pain in his voice too. "Not now. Please. Let me just get through this, okay?"

She got to the YouAreJustMyType page and brought up his profile.

It was gone.

Someone was closing ranks. She quickly opened up her old e-mail and found the link Brandon had sent her with Jeff's inactive Facebook page. She brought it up and spun the laptop toward him.

"You were on Facebook?"

Jeff squinted at the page. "That's how you found me?"

"It helped."

"I deleted the account as soon as I found out about it."

"Nothing online is ever deleted."

"You saw my daughter this morning. When she was going to school."

Kat nodded. So the daughter had called him after she made contact. Kat had figured as much.

"A few years ago, Melinda--that's her name--she thought I was lonely. Her mother died years ago. I don't date or anything, so she figured that the least I could do was have a Facebook page. To find old friends or meet someone. You know how it is."

"So your daughter set up the page?"

"Yes. As a surprise to me."

"Did she know you used to be Jeff Raynes?"

"She didn't then, no. As soon as I saw it, I deleted it. That's when I explained to her that I used to be someone else."

Kat met his gaze. His eyes still pierced. "Why did you change your name?"

He shook his head. "You said something about missing women."

"Yes."

"And that's why you're here."

"Right. Someone used you in a catfish scheme."

"Catfish?"

"Yeah. I mean, that's what they call it. Have you seen the movie or TV show?"

"No."

"A catfish is a person who pretends to be someone they're not online, especially in romantic relationships." Her voice was flat, matter-of-fact. She needed that now. She needed to just spout facts and figures and definitions and not feel a damn thing. "Someone took your pictures and created an online profile for you and put it on a singles site. Two women who fell for the catfish-you are missing."

"I had nothing to do with it," Jeff said.

"Yeah, I know that now."

"How did you get involved in all this?"

"I'm a cop."

"So was this your case?" he asked. "Did someone else recognize me?"

"No. I joined YouAreJustMyType. Or a friend did for me. It doesn't matter. I saw your profile and I contacted you." She almost smiled. "I sent you that 'Missing You' video."

He smiled. "John Waite."

"Yeah."

"I loved that video." Something like hope lit up his eyes. "So you're, uh, you're single?"

"Yeah."

"You never got--"

"No."

Jeff's eyes started to well up again. "I got Melinda's mother pregnant in a drunken haze during a really self-destructive period for both of us. I managed to get out of the self-destruction. She didn't. That's my former father-in-law inside. The three of us have lived together since she died, when Melinda was eighteen months old."

"I'm sorry."

"It's fine. I just wanted you to know."

Kat tried to swallow. "It isn't my business."

"I guess not," Jeff said. He looked to the left and blinked. "I wish I could help you with your missing women, but I don't know anything."

"I know that."

"And yet you still came all this way to find me," he said.

"It wasn't all that far. And I had to make sure."

Jeff turned back so that he was facing her. God, he was still so damn handsome. "Did you?" he asked.

The world was crashing around her. She felt dizzy. Seeing his face again, hearing his voice--Kat hadn't really believed it would happen. The pain was more acute than she would have imagined. The rawness of how it all ended, the suddenness, was made all the worse by seeing his beautiful, troubled, haunting face.

She still loved him.

Goddamn it to hell. Goddamn it all and she hated herself for it and she felt weak and stupid and like a sucker.

She still loved him.

"Jeff?"

"Yes?"

"Why did you leave me?"

*

The first bullet hit the tree six inches from Dana's head.

Bits of bark hit her left eye. Dana ducked and scampered away on all fours. The second and third bullets hit somewhere above her. She had no idea where.

"Dana?"

She had only one conscious thought: Keep as much distance between her and the juicehead as possible. He had been the one who locked her in that damn box. He had been the one who made her take off her clothes. And he had been the one to make her wear the jumpsuit with only socks.

No shoes or sneakers.

So here she was, running through these woods to escape from this psycho--in her stocking feet.

Dana didn't care.

Even before the big juicehead had locked her underground, Dana Phelps had realized that she had been had. At first, the worst part of it wasn't the pain or the fear but the humiliation and self-loathing for falling for a few photographs and well-turned phrases.

God, how pathetic was she?

But as the conditions worsened, that stuff flew out the window. Her only goal became survival. She knew that there was no point in fighting with the man who called himself Titus. He would do what he had to in order to get the information. She may not have been as broken as she pretended--she'd hoped it would make them let their guard down--but the sad truth was, she had been pretty badly cracked.

Dana had no idea how many days she had spent in the box. There was no sunrise or sunset, no clocks, no light, no dark even.

Just stone-cold blackness.

"Come out, Dana. There's no need for this. We're going to let you go, remember?"

Yeah, right.

She knew they were going to kill her and maybe, from the looks of what Juicehead had been up to, even worse. Titus had made a good sales pitch when he first met with her. He tried to give her hope, which in the end was probably crueler than anything in that box. But she knew. He had shown his face. So had the computer geek and Juicehead and the two guards she had spotted.

She had wondered, lying in the dark all those days and hours, how they intended to kill her. She had heard the sound of a bullet once. Would that be how they'd do it? Or would they just decide to leave her in that box and stop throwing down the handfuls of rice?

Did it even matter?

Now that Dana was aboveground, now that she was finally in the great, beautiful, spectacular outdoors, she felt free. If she died, she would at least die on her own terms.

Dana kept running. Yes, she had cooperated with Titus. What good would it do not to? When she was forced to call to confirm the bank transfers, she hoped that Martin Bork would hear something in her voice or that she could try to slip him some kind of subtle message. But Titus kept one finger on the hang-up button, the other on the trigger of a gun.

And then of course, there was Titus's big threat. . . .

Juicehead shouted, "You don't want to do this, Dana."

He was in the woods now. She ran faster, knowing she could battle through the exhaustion. She was gaining ground on him, moving deftly through the foliage, ducking branches and trees, when she stepped on something and heard a sharp crack.

Dana managed not to scream out loud.

Her body tumbled to the side, a tree preventing her fall. She stayed up on one leg, cupping her left foot in her hand. The stick had broken into two sharp pieces, one of them slicing through and then embedding itself in the bottom of her foot. She tried to ease it out, but the stick wouldn't budge.

Juicehead was running toward her.

In a blind panic, Dana broke off what she could and left the splinter sticking out of the sole of her foot.

"There are three of us coming after you," Juicehead shouted. "We will find you. But if we don't, I still have your cell phone. I can text Brandon. I can tell him it's from you and that the stretch limousine will take him to his mommy."

She ducked down, closed her eyes, and tried not to listen.

This had been Titus's big threat--that if she didn't cooperate, they would go after Brandon.

"Your son will die in your box," Juicehead shouted. "If he's lucky."

Dana shook her head, tears of fear and fury running down her cheeks. Part of her wanted to surrender. But no, don't listen. Screw him and his threats. Her going back didn't guarantee her son's safety.

It only guaranteed that he'd be an orphan.

"Dana?"

He was gaining on her.

She hobbled back to standing. She winced when her foot hit the ground, but that couldn't be helped. Dana had always been a runner, the kind who jogged every day without fail. She had run cross-country at University of Wisconsin, where she'd met Jason Phelps, the love of her life. He had teased her about her addiction to the runner's high. "I'm addicted to not running," Jason had told her on too many occasions. But that hadn't stopped Jason from being proud of her. He traveled with her to every marathon. He waited by the finish line, his face lighting up as she crossed. Even when he was sick, even when he could barely get out of bed, Jason would insist that she still run, sitting at the finish line with a blanket on his thinning legs, waiting expectantly with his dying eyes for her to make the final turn.
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