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Missing you, p.28
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       Missing You, p.28

          Harlan Coben / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime / History & Fiction
She hadn't run a marathon since Jason died. She knew that she never would again.

Dana had heard all the great lines about death, but here was the universal truth: Death sucks. Death sucks, mostly because it forces those who stay behind to survive. Death isn't merciful enough to take you too. Instead, death constantly jams down your throat the awful lesson that life does indeed go on, no matter what.

She tried to run a little faster. Her muscles and lungs may have been willing, but her foot would not cooperate. She tried to put weight on it, tried to fight past the shooting pain, but every time her left foot hit the ground, it felt as though a dagger was being jammed through the sole of it.

He was getting closer.

The woods were spread out in front of her as far as the eye could see. She could keep running--would keep running--but suppose she didn't find her way out? How long could she keep going with this splinter in her foot and a maniac chasing her down?

Not very.

Dana jumped to the side and rolled behind a rock. He wasn't far away now. She could hear him pushing through the brush. She had no choice now. She couldn't keep running.

She would have to stand her ground and fight.





Chapter 37


Why did you leave me?"

Jeff winced as though the five words had formed a cocked fist. For some reason, Kat reached across the table and took his hand in hers. He welcomed it. There was no jolt when they touched, no huge spark or grandiose physical current. There was comfort. There was, oddly enough, familiarity. There was the feeling that despite everything, despite the years and heartache and lives lived, that this was somehow right.

"I'm sorry," he said.

"I don't want an apology."

"I know."

He threaded his fingers in hers. They sat there, holding hands. Kat didn't press it. She let it happen. She didn't fight it. She embraced the connection with this man who had shattered her heart, when she knew she should have pushed it away.

"It was a long time ago," Jeff said.

"Eighteen years."

"Right."

Kat tilted her head. "It seem that long ago to you?"

"No," he said.

They sat there some more. The skies had cleared. The sun shone down upon them. Kat almost asked if he remembered their weekend in Amagansett, but what was the point? This was dumb, sitting with this man who gave her a ring and then a pink slip, and yet for the first time in a long time, she didn't feel the fool about him. She could be projecting. She could be deluding herself. She knew the dangers of trusting instinct over evidence.

But she felt loved.

"You're in hiding," she said.

He didn't reply.

"Are you in the Witness Protection Program or something?"

"No."

"So what, then?"

"I needed a change, Kat."

"You got into a bar fight in Cincinnati," she said.

A small smile came to his face. "You know about that, huh?"

"I do. It happened not long after we broke up."

"The beginning of my self-destructive period."

"And sometime after the fight, you changed your name."

Jeff stared down, as though noticing for the first time that they were holding hands. "Why does this feel so natural?" he asked.

"What happened, Jeff?"

"Like I said, I needed a change."

"You're not going to tell me?" She felt herself start welling up. "So I, what, just get up and leave now? I drive back to New York City and we forget all this and never see each other again?"

He kept his eyes on her hands. "I love you, Kat."

"I love you too."

Foolish. Dumb. Crazy. Honest.

When he looked up at her, when their eyes met, Kat felt her world crash down on her once again.

"But we don't get to go back," he said. "It doesn't work that way."

Her cell phone buzzed yet again. Kat had been ignoring it, but now Jeff gently pulled his hand away from hers. The spell, if that was what you'd call it, broke. Coldness spread up her abandoned hand and up her arm.

She checked the caller ID. It was Chaz. She stepped away from the picnic table and brought the phone to her ear. She cleared her throat and said, "Hello?"

"Martha Paquet just sent her sister an e-mail."

"What?"

"She said all is okay. She and her boyfriend ended up at another inn and they're having a great time."

"I'm with her supposed boyfriend right now. It's all a catfish."

"What?"

She explained about the use of the faux Ron Kochman. She left out the part about Ron being Jeff and her connection to him. It wasn't so much embarrassment anymore as much as not wanting to muddy the water.

"So what the hell is going on, Kat?" Chaz asked.

"Something really, really bad. Have you spoken to the feds yet?"

"I did, but I mean, they just sort of go silent on me. Maybe this catfish thing will help move things along, but right now, there is almost no proof of a crime. People do this all the time."

"Do what all the time?"

"Have you watched the Catfish TV show? People set up fake accounts on these websites all the time. They use photos from someone who is hotter-looking. To break the ice. Pisses me off, you know? Chicks are always talking about how all they care about is personality, but then, bam, they fall for the cutie too. That might be all this is, Kat."

Kat frowned. "And what, Chaz--this ugly guy or girl ends up getting them to transfer hundreds of thousands of dollars to Swiss bank accounts?"

"Martha's money hasn't been touched."

"Not yet anyway. Chaz, listen to me. I need you to look for any missing adults over the last few months. Maybe they were reported, maybe they just claimed to run off with a lover. There wouldn't be major attention because there would be texts or e-mails or whatever, just like with these three. But cross-reference any kind of concern with singles websites."

"You think there are more victims?"

"I do."

"Okay, I get it," he said. "But I don't know if the feds will."

Chaz had a point. "Maybe you can set up a meet," Kat said. "Call Mike Keiser. He's the ADIC in New York. We may be able to do better face-to-face."

"So you're coming back to the city now?"

Kat looked behind her. Jeff was standing. He wore denim jeans and a fitted black T-shirt. All of this--sights, sound, emotions, whatever--was almost too much to take in at once. The rush was overwhelming to the point of threatening.

"Yeah," she said. "I'll leave now."

*

They didn't bother with good-byes or promises or hugs. They had said what they wanted to say, Kat guessed. It felt like enough and yet more incomplete than ever. She had come here hoping for answers, and as is the way of the world, she was leaving with even more questions.

Jeff walked her to the car. He made a face when he saw the fly-yellow Ferrari, and despite everything, Kat actually laughed.

"This yours?" Jeff asked.

"What if I said yes?"

"I would wonder if you grew a very small penis since we were last together."

She couldn't help herself. She threw her arms around him hard. He stumbled back for a second, got his footing, and hugged her back. She put her face against his chest and sobbed. His big hand cupped the back of her head and pulled her closer. He squeezed his eyes shut. They both just held on, changing their grips, pulling each other closer and with more desperation, until finally Kat pushed away all at once and, without another word, got into the car and drove away. She didn't look back. She didn't check the rearview mirror.

Kat drove the next thirty miles in a fog, obeying the GPS as though she were the machine, not it. When she had her bearings, she made herself concentrate on the case, only the case. She thought about all she had learned--about the catfishing and the money transfers and the e-mails and the stolen license plate and the phone calls.

Panic began to harden in her chest.

This couldn't wait for a face-to-face.

She started making pleading phone calls, working connections, until she reached Mike Keiser, the Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI. "What can I do for you, Detective? We're working an incident that took place at LaGuardia Airport this morning. I also have two drugs busts going down. It's a busy day."

"I appreciate that, sir, but I have a case involving at least three missing people across at least three states. One is from Massachusetts, one from Connecticut, one from Pennsylvania. I think there may be many more victims that we don't know about yet. Have you been briefed on any of this?"

"I have. In fact, I know your partner, Detective Faircloth, has been trying to set up a meeting with us, but we're really crazed with this LaGuardia situation. It may involve national security."

"If these people are being held against their will--"

"Which you have no proof of. In fact, hasn't each of your supposed victims been in touch with family or friends?"

"None is currently answering their phones. I suspect that the e-mails and calls are being coerced."

"Based on?"

"Look at the whole picture," Kat said.

"Make it fast, Detective."

"Start with the two women. They both have an online relationship with the same guy--"

"Who isn't really the guy."

"Right."

"Someone else was just using his pictures."

"Right."

"Which I gather is not uncommon."

"It's not. But the rest is. Both of these women go away with this same guy about a week apart."

"You don't know it's the same guy."

"Pardon?"

"Several guys could be using the same fake profile."

Kat hadn't thought of that. "Even if that were the case, neither woman is back from her trip."

"Which also isn't surprising. One had extended her trip. The other just left, what, yesterday?"

"Sir, one of the women transferred a ton of cash and is supposedly moving to Costa Rica or something, I don't know."

"But she called her son?"

"Yes, but--"

"You think the call was coerced."

"I do. We also have to look at the case of Gerard Remington. He started an online relationship and now he's gone too. He also transferred money to that Swiss account."

"So what exactly do you think is going on here, Detective?"

"I think someone is preying on people, maybe a lot of people. We've stumbled across three possible victims. I think there are more. I think someone lures them away with promises of a vacation with a potential life partner. He grabs them and gets them somehow to cooperate. So far, none of them have come back. Gerard Remington has been off the grid for weeks."

"And you think--"

"I hope he's alive, but I'm not optimistic."

"You really believe that these people have all been, what, kidnapped?"

"I do. Whoever is behind this has been smart and careful. He's stolen license plates. With one exception, none of these three has used their credit cards or ATM charges or anything else we can trace. They just vanish."

She waited.

"Look, I have to go into a meeting on this LaGuardia mess, but okay, yeah, this doesn't pass the smell test. Right now, I don't have a ton of manpower, but we'll get on it. You gave us the three names. We will put a watch on their accounts, run their credit cards, check phone records. I'll get a subpoena for this singles website and see what they can tell us about who put up the profile pages. I don't know if that will give us anything or not. Criminals use anonymous VPNs all the time. I'll also see if we can get that singles site to put up some kind of warning on their home page, but since it will hurt their bottom line, I doubt they will want to cooperate. We can also see if Treasury can go after the money trail. Two SARs were issued, right? That should be enough to get the ball rolling on that end too."

Kat listened to ADIC Keiser continue to go down his checklist and came to a horrible, awful conclusion: It wouldn't do any good.

Whoever was behind this had been efficient. He had even gone so far as to steal a license plate from another Lincoln Town Car. So yes, the feds would work the case, even though it couldn't yet be a priority. Maybe, if they got lucky, they'd find something.

Eventually.

But what else could she do?

When ADIC Keiser finished, he said, "Detective? I need to go now."

"I appreciate your believing me," Kat said.

"Sadly, I think I do believe you," he said, "but I hope to hell you're wrong about all this."

"Me too."

They hung up. Kat had one more card to play. She called Brandon.

"Where are you?" she asked him.

"I'm still in Manhattan."

"I found the guy your mother supposedly went away with."

"What?"

"I think you were right from the start. I think something bad has happened to your mother."

"But I spoke to her," Brandon said. "She would have told me if something was wrong."

"Not if she felt it would put her--or you--in danger."

"You think that's what happened?"

There was no reason to sugarcoat it anymore. "Yeah, Brandon, I do."

"Oh God."

"The FBI is looking into it now. They will go through every legal channel they can to find out what happened." She repeated the word that she had emphasized. "Legal."

"Kat?"

"Yes?"

"Is that your way of asking me to break in to the website again?"

Screw the fancy talk. "Yes."

"Okay, I'm at a coffee shop not far from your house. I'm going to need more privacy and a stronger Wi-Fi."

"Do you want to use my apartment?"

"Yeah, that'll work."

"I'll call and tell the doorman to let you in. I'm on my way too. Call me if you find anything--who put up the profiles, if they put up any other profiles, who else they've contacted, anything. Get your friends to help, whatever. We need to know everything."

"On it."

She hung up, called her doorman, hit the accelerator, though she felt as if she were rushing to nowhere. Panic was beginning to creep in and take hold. The more she learned, the more helpless she felt. Professionally and personally.

When the phone sounded again, the caller ID read BLOCKED.

Kat picked it up. "Hello?"

"This is Leslie."

Cozone's thin man. Even his phone voice had a creepy smile. "What is it?" she asked.

"I found Sugar."





Chapter 38


Juicehead was getting closer.

From her spot behind the boulder, Dana Phelps searched for some kind of weapon. A rock maybe. A fallen branch. Something. She started digging her hands around the dirt near her, finding nothing more lethal than pebbles, and twigs too flimsy for a bird's nest.

"Dana?"

The timbre of his shout told her that he was closing the gap in a hurry. Weapon, weapon. Still nothing. She wondered about the pebbles. Maybe she could mix them with the dirt and then fling it in his face, hitting his eyes, blinding him for a second or two and then . . .

Then what?

The whole plan was moronic. Dana may have been able to temporarily escape using the element of surprise. She may have been able to put some distance between them because of some fortuitous blend of lifelong training and adrenaline. But when she stopped and looked at it now, he had a gun and size and strength. He was well fed and healthy while she had been locked underground for she had no idea how long.

She had no chance.

What did Dana have on her side in this David and Goliath battle? Not even a slingshot. The only thing she maybe had was, again, the element of surprise. She was ducking behind this boulder. He would be passing by it any minute now. She could leap out, catching him off guard. She would go for the eyes and the balls and attack with the ferocity only someone fighting for her life could muster.

But did that even sound feasible anymore?

No, not really.

She could hear that he had slowed his pace. His steps were more deliberate now. Terrific. Even the element of surprise was gone.

So what did she have left?

Nothing.

Exhaustion emanated from every part of her body. Part of her wanted to just stay here, on the ground, and get it over with. Let him do what he wanted. He could kill her right away. Probably would. Or he could bring her back to that barn and do whatever monstrous thing he had been planning in hopes of extracting information relating to that police detective Titus had asked about.

Dana hadn't been lying. She had no idea who Kat Donovan was, but that didn't really seem to matter to Titus and Juicehead. Pathos never entered the equation with these two. She was less than an animal (witness Juicehead's dog) to them. She was something inanimate, something lifeless, like this boulder, an object to be removed or bulldozed or broken into bits, depending on their want or convenience. It would be one thing if they were simply cruel or sadistic. What they were, though, was something worse.

They were completely pragmatic.

Juicehead's steps closed in on her. Dana tried to adjust her body, tried to find a way to pounce when he passed, but her muscles wouldn't obey. She tried to find hope in the fact that this Kat woman had spooked Titus.

Titus was worried about her.

Dana could hear it in his voice, in his questions, in his leaving her in the hands of Juicehead. Dana remembered seeing him rush out the door and drive away.

How worried was he?

Was Detective Kat Donavan, with the sweet, open face Dana had seen on that computer screen, onto him? Was she right now on her way to rescue Dana?

Juicehead was fewer than ten steps away.

Didn't matter. Dana had nothing left. Her foot ached. Her head thrummed. She had no weapon, no strength, no experience.

Five steps away.

It was now or never.

Mere seconds until he reached her . . .

Dana closed her eyes and chose . . . never.

She ducked low and covered her head and said a silent prayer. Juicehead stopped at the boulder. Dana's head was down, her face almost buried in the dirt. She braced for the blow.

But it never came.

Juicehead started up again, pushing his way through the branches. He hadn't seen her. Dana didn't move. She lay still as that boulder. She couldn't say how long. Five minutes. Maybe ten. When she risked a look, Juicehead was nowhere in sight.
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