Dont let go, p.3
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       Don't Let Go, p.3

          
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  "Huh?"

  Reynolds holds back a chuckle. I can't believe Bates has never heard this one before. He actually tries it out, saying softly to himself, "Master Bates," before he figures it out.

  "You're an asshole, Dumas."

  He pronounces my last name correctly this time.

  "So you want to get to it, Nap?" Reynolds says.

  "Ask away."

  "You're the one who put Maura Wells into the AFIS, correct?"

  AFIS. Automated Fingerprint Identification System.

  "Let's pretend the answer is yes."

  "When?"

  They know this already. "Ten years ago."

  "Why?"

  "She vanished."

  "We checked," Bates says. "Her family never reported that she was missing."

  I don't reply. We let the silence linger a bit. Reynolds breaks it.

  "Nap?"

  It won't look good. I know that, but it can't be helped. "Maura Wells was my girlfriend in high school. When we were seniors, she broke up with me via a text. Cut off all contact. Moved away. I looked for her, but I could never find her."

  Reynolds and Bates exchange a glance.

  "You talked to her parents?" Reynolds asks.

  "Her mom, yeah."

  "And?"

  "And she said Maura's whereabouts were none of my business and I should move on with my life."

  "Good advice," Bates says.

  I don't take the bait.

  Reynolds asks, "So how old were you?"

  "Eighteen."

  "So you looked for Maura, you didn't find her . . ."

  "Right."

  "So then what did you do?"

  I don't want to say it, but Rex is dead and Maura may be back and you have to give a little to get a little. "When I joined the force I put her prints into the AFIS. Filed a report saying she was missing."

  "You really didn't have any standing to do that," Bates says.

  "Debatable," I say, "but are you here to bust me over a protocol issue?"

  "No," Reynolds says. "We are not."

  "I don't know," Bates says, feigning dubious. "A girl dumps you. Five years later, you break procedure by putting her in the system, so you can, what, try to hook up with her again?" He shrugs. "Sounds stalkerish."

  "Pretty creepy behavior, Nap," Reynolds adds.

  They know some of my past, I bet. They don't know enough.

  "I assume you looked for Maura Wells on your own?" Reynolds asks.

  "Some."

  "And I assume you didn't find her."

  "Correct."

  "Any thoughts on where Maura's been the past fifteen years?"

  We are on the highway now, heading west. I am still trying to put this together. I try to place my memories of Maura in terms of Rex. I think about you now, Leo. You were friends with them both. Does that mean anything? Maybe, maybe not. We were all in the same graduating class, so we all knew one another. But how close was Maura to Rex? Had Rex perhaps recognized her by chance? And if so, does that mean she killed him?

  "No," I say. "No thoughts."

  "It's odd," Reynolds says. "There has been no recent activity for Maura Wells. No credit cards, no bank accounts, no IRS filings. We're still checking the paper trail--"

  "You won't find anything," I say.

  "You've been checking."

  It's not a question.

  "When did Maura Wells fall off the radar?" she asks me.

  "Far as I can tell," I say, "fifteen years ago."

  Chapter Four

  The murder scene is a small stretch of the kind of quiet back road you might find near an airport or train depot. No residences. An industrial park that has seen better days. A sprinkling of what were either abandoned warehouses or ones on the way out.

  We step out of the squad car. A few makeshift wooden horses block off the murder scene, but a vehicle could drive around them. So far I have seen none do so. I keep that in mind--the lack of traffic. The blood hasn't been cleaned up yet. Someone did a chalk outline of where Rex fell. I can't remember the last time I saw one of those--an actual chalk outline.

  "Walk me through it," I say.

  "You aren't here as an investigator," Bates snaps.

  "You want to have a pissing contest," I ask, "or you want to catch a cop killer?"

  Bates gives me the narrow eyes. "Even if the cop killer is your old flame?"

  Especially if. But I don't say that out loud.

  They take another minute to pretend to be difficult, and then Reynolds starts in. "Officer Rex Canton pulls over a Toyota Corolla in this area at approximately one fifteen A.M., purportedly for a DUI."

  "I assume Rex radioed it in?"

  "He did, yes."

  That is protocol. If you stop a car, you radio in or look up the license plate number, see if the car is stolen, if there are any priors, that kind of thing. You also get the name of the car owner.

  "So who owned the car?" I ask.

  "It was a rental."

  That bothers me, but a lot about this bothers me.

  I say, "It wasn't one of the big chains, was it?"

  "Pardon?"

  "The rental company. It wasn't, like, Hertz or Avis."

  "No, it was a small place called Sal's."

  "Let me guess," I say. "It was near an airport. No advance reservation."

  Reynolds and Bates share a glance. Bates says, "How do you know that?"

  I ignore him and look at Reynolds.

  "It was rented by a guy named Dale Miller from Portland, Maine," Reynolds says.

  "The ID," I ask. "Was it fake or stolen?"

  Another glance exchanged. "Stolen."

  I touch the blood. It's dry. "CCTV cameras at the rental agency?"

  "We should be getting the footage soon, but the guy working the desk said Dale Miller was an older man, sixties, maybe seventy."

  "Where was the rental car found?" I ask.

  "Half mile from Philadelphia airport."

  "How many sets of fingerprints?"

  "In the front seat? Just Maura Wells's. The rental agency does a pretty thorough cleaning between customers."

  I nod. A truck makes the turn and cruises past us. This is the first vehicle I've seen on this road.

  "Front seat," I repeat.

  "Pardon?"

  "You said fingerprints in the front seat. Which side--passenger side or driver's?"

  Yet another glance exchanged.

  "Both."

  I study the road, the position of the fallen body in chalk, try to piece it together. Then I turn and face them. "Theories?" I ask.

  "Two people, a man and your ex, Maura, are in the car," Reynolds says. "Officer Canton pulls them over for a DUI. Something spooks them. They panic, shoot Officer Canton twice in the back of the head, take off."

  "The man probably does the shooting," Bates adds. "He's out of the car. He fires, your ex slides to the driver's side, he jumps in as a passenger. That would explain her fingerprints as both a passenger and a driver."

  "As we said before, the car was rented with a stolen ID," Reynolds continues. "So we assume the man at the very least had something to hide. Canton pulls them over, figures something isn't right--and it gets him killed."

  I nod as though I admire their handiwork. Their theory is wrong, but since I don't yet have a better answer, there is no reason to antagonize them. They are holding out on me. I would probably do the same if the roles were reversed. I need to find out exactly what they aren't telling me, and the only way to do that is to be nice.

  I force up my most charming smile and say, "May I see the dash cam?"

  That would be the key, of course. They don't often show everything, but in this case, it would show enough. I wait for them to answer--they would have every right to stop cooperating now--but this time when they do the exchange-a-glance thing I sense something different.

  They appear uncomfortable.

  Bates says, "Why don't you stop jerking us around first?"

  So much for the charming smile.

  "I was eighteen," I say. "A senior in high school. Maura was my girlfriend."

  "And she broke up with you," Bates says. "You told us this."

  Reynolds shushes him with a hand gesture. "What happened, Nap?"

  "Maura's mother," I say. "You must have tracked her down. What did she say?"

  "We're asking the questions, Dumas," Bates replies.

  But again Reynolds gets that I want to help. "We found the mother, yes."

  "And?"

  "And she claims she hasn't spoken to her daughter in years. That she has no idea where she is."

  "You talked to Mrs. Wells directly?"

  Reynolds shakes her head. "She refused to speak with us. She issued this statement via counsel."

  So Mrs. Wells hired an attorney. "You buy her story?" I ask.

  "Do you?"

  "No."

  I'm not ready to tell them this part yet. After Maura dumped me, I broke into her house. Yep, stupid, impulsive. Or maybe not. I was feeling lost and confused with the double whammy of losing a brother and then the love of my life. So maybe that explains it.

  Why did I break in? I was searching for clues to Maura's whereabouts. Me, an eighteen-year-old kid, playing detective. I didn't find much, but I stole two things from her bathroom: a toothbrush and a glass. I had no inkling I was going to become a cop at the time, but I saved them, just in case. Don't ask me why. But that's how I got Maura's prints and DNA into the system when I could.

  Oh, and I got caught.

  By the police nonetheless. Specifically, Captain Augie Styles.

  You liked Augie, didn't you, Leo?

  Augie became something of a mentor to me after that night. He's the reason I'm a cop now. He and Dad became friends too. Drinking buddies, I guess you'd call them. We all bonded in tragedy. It makes you grow close--someone else who gets what you're going through--and yet pain is always there. A carrot-stick relationship, the pure definition of bittersweet.

  "Why don't you believe the mom?" Reynolds says.

  "I kept tabs."

  "On your ex's mother?" Bates is incredulous. "Christ, Dumas, you're a full-fledged, card-carrying stalker."

  I pretend Bates isn't here. "The mother gets calls from throwaway phones. Or at least, she used to."

  "And you know this how?" Bates asks.

  I don't reply.

  "Did you have a warrant for checking her phone records?"

  I don't reply. I stare at Reynolds.

  Reynolds says, "You figure it's Maura calling her?"

  I shrug.

  "So why is your ex working so hard to stay hidden?"

  I shrug again.

  "You must have a thought," Reynolds says.

  I do. But I'm not ready to go there quite yet. The thought is, at first blush, both obvious and impossible. It took me a long time to accept it. I have run it by two people--Augie and Ellie--and both think I'm nuts.

  "Show me the dash cam," I say to her.

  "We're still asking questions," Bates says.

  "Show me the dash cam," I say again, "and I think I can get to the bottom of this."

  Reynolds and Bates share another uncomfortable glance.

  Reynolds steps toward me. "There is none."

  This surprises me. I can see that it surprises them too.

  "It wasn't on," Bates says, like that explains it. "Canton was off duty."

  "We assume Officer Canton switched it off," Reynolds says, "because he was heading back to the station."

  "What time does he get off?" I ask.

  "Midnight."

  "How far is the station from here?"

  "Three miles."

  "So what was Rex doing from midnight until one fifteen?"

  "We are still trying to put his last hours together," Reynolds says. "Near as we can tell, he just kept the cruiser out late."

  "That's not unusual," Bates adds quickly. "You know the deal. If you have a day shift, you just take the squad car home."

  "And while turning off the dash cam is not protocol," Reynolds says, "it's done."

  I'm not buying it, but they aren't selling it hard either.

  The phone clipped to Bates's belt rings. He reaches for it and steps away. Two seconds later, he says, "Where?" There is a pause. Then he hangs up and turns to Reynolds. There is an edge in his voice. "We need to go."

  --

  They drop me at a bus depot so barren I wait for a tumbleweed to blow through it. No one is working the ticket counter. I don't even think they have a ticket counter.

  Two blocks down the road I find a "no-tell motel" that promises all the glamour and amenities of a herpes sore, which in this case is a logical metaphor on several levels. The sign advertises hourly rates, "color TV" (do some motels still offer black-and-white?), and "theme rooms."

  "I'll take the gonorrhea suite," I say.

  The guy behind the desk tosses me a key so fast I fear that I may be getting the suite I requested. The color scheme for the room could most generously be dubbed "faded yellow," though it seems suspiciously close to the urine family. I strip off the bedspread, remind myself that I'm up-to-date on my tetanus shots, and risk lying down.

  Captain Augie didn't come to our house after I broke into Maura's.

  I think he was afraid Dad would have a seizure if he saw that squad car pull into our driveway again. I'll never let go of that image--the squad car making the turn as though in slow motion, Augie opening the driver's-side door, his world-weary steps up our walk. Augie's own life had already been blown apart hours before--and now there he was, knowing his visit would do the same to ours.

  Anyway, that's why Augie cornered me heading to school about my breaking into Maura's house, instead of going to my dad.

  "I don't want to get you in trouble," Augie told me, "but you can't do stuff like that."

  "She knows something," I said.

  "She doesn't," Augie told me. "Maura's just a scared kid."

  "You talked to her?"

  "Trust me, son. You have to let her go."

  I did--still do--trust him. I didn't--still haven't--let her go.

  I put my hands behind my head and stare at the stains on the ceiling. I try not to speculate on how the stains might have gotten there. Augie is on the beach at the Sea Pine Resort in Hilton Head right now with a woman he met on some senior online-dating site. No way I want to interrupt that. Augie divorced eight years ago. His marriage to Audrey took a fatal hit "that night," but it limped along for another seven years before mercifully being put to sleep. It took Augie a long time to start dating again, so why blow it up with speculation?

  Augie would be home in a day or two. It could wait.

  I debate calling Ellie and bouncing my insane hypotheses off her, but suddenly there is a heavy, insistent knock. I throw my feet off the bed. Two uniformed cops are at the door. They both wear scowls. They say that sometimes you start looking like your spouse. It applies to police partners too, I guess. In this case, both are white and overmuscled and have prominent foreheads. If I met them again, it would be hard to remember which was which.

  "Mind if we come in?" Cop One sneers.

  "You got a warrant?" I ask.

  "No."

  "Yes," I say.

  "Yes, what?"

  "Yes, I mind if you come in."

  "Too bad."

  Cop Two pushes by me. I let him. They both come in and close the door.

  Cop One offers up another sneer. "Nice dump you got here."

  This, I assume, is supposed to be some kind of clever insult. Like I'd personally worked on the decor.

  "We hear you're holding out on us," Cop One says.

  "Rex was our friend."

  "And a cop."

  "And you're holding out on us."

  I don't really have the patience for this, so I pull out my gun and aim it between the two of them. Their mouths make surprised Os.

  "What the hell . . . ?"

  "You entered my motel room without a warrant," I say.

  I point the gun at one, then the other, then back to the middle.

  "It would be easy to shoot you both, stick your pieces in your hands, claim the shooting was justified."

  "Are you out of your mind?" Cop One asks.

  I hear the fear in his voice, so I move toward him. I give him my best crazy eyes. I'm good at the crazy eyes. You know this, Leo.

  "You want to have an ear fight with me?" I ask him.

  "A what?"

  "Your brah"--I gesture with my head toward Cop Two--"leaves. We lock the door. We put down our weapons. One of us walks out of this room with the other's ear in his mouth. What do you say?"

  I lean closer and make a biting motion.

  "You're fucking nuts," Cop One says.

  "You got no idea." And now I'm so into it, I almost hope he'll take me up on it. "You in, big guy? What do you say?"

  There is a knock on the door. Cop One practically leaps toward the knob to open it.

  It's Stacy Reynolds. I hide the gun behind my leg. Reynolds is clearly not happy to see her colleagues. She glares at them. They both lower their heads like chastened school bullies.

  "What the hell are you two clowns doing here?"

  Cop Two says, "Just . . . ," and then he actually shrugs.

  "He knows stuff," Cop One says. "We were just doing some legwork for you."

  "Get out. Now."

  They do. Reynolds now notices my piece against my leg. "What the fuck, Nap?"

  I holster the gun. "Don't worry about it."

  She shakes her head. "Cops would be better at their jobs if God gave them bigger dicks."

  "You're a cop," I remind her.

  "Me especially. Come on. I need to show you something."

  Chapter Five

  Hal, the bartender at Larry and Craig's Bar and Grille, has a wistful look on his face.

  "She was smoking hot," Hal says. A small frown begins to surface. "Too hot for that old dude, that's for sure."

  Larry and Craig's Bar and Grille clearly has a bar and clearly has no grille. It's that kind of place. The sticky floor is coated in sawdust and peanut shells. That combo stench of stale beer and vomit wafts from said floor and fills all nostrils. I don't need to take a piss, but if I do, I know the urinal won't flush but will be overflowing with ice cubes.

  Reynolds nods at me to take the lead.

  "What did she look like?" I ask.

  Hal is still frowning. "What part of 'hot' isn't good English?"

  "Redhead, brunette, blonde?"

  "Brunette is brown, right?"

  I glance at Reynolds. "Yeah, Hal. Brunette is brown."

  "Brunette."

  "Anything else?"

  "Hot."

  "Yeah, we got that."

  "Built," Hal says.

  Reynolds sighs. "And she was with a guy, right?"

  "She was out of his league, that I can tell you."

 
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