Missing you, p.31
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       Missing You, p.31

          

  He was near the SUV now. The back door opened. He put the phone to his ear and heard a barking dog. "Hello?"

  "Brandon, listen to me."

  His heart stopped. "Mom? I'm almost at the car."

  "No!"

  Brandon heard a man shouting in the background. "What was that? Mom?"

  "Don't get in the car!"

  "I don't un--"

  "Run, Brandon! Just run!"

  Brandon stopped, tried to back up, but two hands reached out of the back of the car and grabbed his shirt. His cell phone dropped as a man tried to drag him into the SUV.

  *

  Kat welcomed the walk across the park, a chance to clear her head and think, but the familiar sites didn't offer any of their usual solace. She thought about the Ramble a few blocks north, how her father had worked the area, what must have been going through his mind.

  When she looked back on it, when she looked back at her father's behavior, his drinking, his rage, his disappearances, it all made sad, pathetic sense. You hide so much. You hide your heart. You hide your true self. The facade becomes not just the cruel reality.

  It becomes your prison.

  Her poor father.

  But none of this mattered anymore. Not really. It was in the past. Her father's pain was over. To be the best daughter she could be, to honor his memory or offer whatever comfort you could offer to the dead, she had to be the best cop she could be.

  That meant figuring a way to nail Cozone.

  Her cell phone buzzed as she exited the park on the west side. It was Chaz.

  "Were you just here?"

  "Sorry, yeah. I was with the captain."

  "He told me you're coming back."

  "Maybe," she said.

  "I'd like that."

  "Me too."

  "But that isn't why I called," Chaz said. "I'm working the missing people angle like you asked. What I have is only preliminary."

  "But?"

  "I have eleven missing adults, including Dana Phelps, Gerard Remington, and Martha Paquet, across four states. All had recently met someone online."

  The hairs on her neck stood up. "My God."

  "I know, right?"

  "Did you contact ADIC Keiser?" she asked.

  "I sent it to his point man. They're going to dive into it further. But eleven missing, Kat. I mean . . ."

  Chaz just left it at that.

  There was nothing more that needed to be said. The feds would know what to do now. They had done more than their part here. Kat hung up the phone as she crossed onto 67th Street. That was when she saw the ruckus down at the Columbus Avenue corner.

  What the . . . ?

  She broke into a sprint. As she got closer, she could see Brandon Phelps struggling. Someone was trying to pull him into the back of an SUV.

  *

  The old dog ran a few steps into the house, almost sliding on the mix of hardwood floors and blood, and kept barking at Dana.

  She knew, of course, what that meant. Juicehead--the computer guy she had just killed had called him Reynaldo on the phone--would hear the distress in his beloved dog's bark. He would hurry back here.

  Her first thought was to hide.

  But that was not going to happen.

  A strange calmness spread across her. She still knew what she had to do.

  She had to save her son.

  There was no mobile phone in sight. The only phone she could see, the only one on the desk, was a regular gray house phone connected into the back of the computer. It wasn't portable. If she wanted to use it, she would have to stay where she was. In plain view.

  So be it.

  She lifted the phone, put it to her ear, and dialed her son's phone number. Her hand shook so badly that she almost misdialed.

  A voice shouted, "Bo!"

  It was Reynaldo. He wasn't far away. It would be only a matter of time. Still, she had no choice. From what she had overheard, Titus was planning on grabbing her son. She had to stop him. Nothing else mattered. There was no question, no regret, no hesitation.

  The phone began to ring. Dana braced herself, but when she heard her son say, "Hello?" she almost lost it.

  Footsteps pounded heavily on the porch now. Bo stopped barking and trotted toward his master.

  No time left.

  "Brandon, listen to me."

  She heard him gasp. "Mom? I'm almost at the car."

  "No!"

  Reynaldo shouted, "Bo!" again.

  "What was that?" Brandon asked. "Mom?"

  Her hand tightened on the receiver. "Don't get in the car!"

  "I don't un--"

  Reynaldo would be at the door any second now.

  "Run, Brandon! Just run!"

  *

  Kat pulled out her gun and sprinted down the block.

  In the distance, she could see Brandon was putting up a good struggle, almost breaking free. Someone on the street came over to help him, but then the driver of the SUV got out.

  He had a gun.

  Pedestrians began to scream. Kat yelled, "Freeze!" but the distance and the screams drowned her out. The Good Samaritans backed away. The driver hurried around toward Brandon.

  Kat saw him lift the gun and bring it down hard on Brandon's head.

  The struggle ended.

  Brandon fell inside. The back door slammed shut.

  The driver hurried back toward his door. Kat was getting closer now. She was about to take a shot at him, but something akin to instinct made her pull up. There were too many civilians on the street to risk a gun battle, and even if she got lucky and hit him, whoever was in the backseat--whoever had grabbed Brandon--could be armed too.

  So what to do?

  The black SUV quickly shot out and made the left onto Columbus Avenue.

  Kat spotted a man getting out of a gray Ford Fusion. She flashed her badge and said, "I'm commandeering this car."

  The man made a face. "You're kidding me, right? You're not taking my car--"

  Without breaking stride, Kat showed him the gun. He raised his hands. She grabbed the keys from his right hand and hopped into the car.

  A minute later, she was heading down 67th Street behind the SUV.

  She grabbed the cell phone and called Chaz. "I'm following a black SUV, turning right on Broadway at 67th Street."

  She gave him the license plate and quickly filled him in on what had happened.

  "Someone on the street is probably already calling nine-one-one," Chaz said.

  "Right, look, make sure they keep all marked squad cars away. I don't want them spooked."

  "You have a plan?"

  "I do," Kat said. "Call the FBI. Tell them what's up. Let them get a chopper in the air. I'll keep tailing them."

  *

  Sitting in the back of the SUV, Brandon was still dazed from the blow to his head. Titus pointed his gun at him.

  "Brandon?"

  "Where's my mother?"

  "You'll see her soon enough. For now, I want you to stay still. If you do something I don't like, your mother will be killed immediately. Do you understand?"

  Brandon nodded and stayed still.

  Titus was nervous as they crossed the George Washington Bridge. He feared that the police might be on them, that someone who had witnessed Clem's exuberance on 67th Street might have notified the authorities. But the traffic had been slim on the West Side Highway. The ride took less than fifteen minutes, not enough time, Titus surmised, to start mounting a full-fledged APB on their SUV. Still, Titus had Clem pull over at the Teaneck Marriott right off Route 95. He debated stealing another car, but it would be better to just change license plates. They found another black SUV parked in the back and using a battery-operated screwdriver, Clem switched plates in a matter of seconds.

  They drove back onto the New Jersey Turnpike and headed south toward the farm.

  *

  "Do they have the chopper up?" Kat asked.

  "They said it'll take another five minutes."

  "Okay, good," she said. Then: "Wait, hold up."

  "What?"

  "They just pulled into the Marriott."

  "Maybe that's where they're staying."

  "Let the feds know."

  She took the ramp, staying two cars behind them. She saw them pull into the lot and circle toward the back. She stopped on the side, inching her way so that she had an angle but could stay out of sight.

  The driver got out. She considered making a move, right here and now, but as long as she couldn't see what was going on with Brandon in the back, it would be too risky. She waited and watched.

  A minute later, she was on the line again with Chaz.

  "They just switched license plates and headed back onto the road."

  "Which way?"

  "South. Looks like they're getting on the New Jersey Turnpike."

  *

  Reynaldo ran with everything he had toward Bo's bark.

  If that woman has done something to Bo, if she has so much as touched a hair on his head . . .

  Reynaldo now wanted her to die slowly.

  Bo was still barking when Reynaldo reached the clearing. His legs pumped hard as he ran with everything he had toward the house. He leapt the steps, landing hard on the wraparound porch.

  Bo had stopped barking.

  Oh God, oh God, please don't let anything happen to . . .

  He started running toward the front door when Bo appeared. He dropped to his knees in relief.

  "Bo!" he shouted.

  The dog ran toward him. Reynaldo spread his arms and hugged his dog. Bo licked his face.

  From inside the house, he heard Dana scream, "Run, Brandon! Just run!"

  Reynaldo took out his gun. He was only a few steps away from the doorway now. He rose, ready to end this problem once and for all, when something made him pull up in panic.

  Bo's paws were covered in blood.

  If she hurt my dog, if she hurt this sweet innocent dog who never did anyone any harm . . .

  He checked the front paws for wounds. Nothing. He checked the back paws. Nothing. Reynaldo looked into Bo's eyes.

  The dog wagged his tail as though to tell Reynaldo he was fine.

  Relief flooded his veins, but then another thought hit him.

  If the blood didn't belong to Bo, whose was it?

  He had his gun at the ready. He put his back against the door. When he turned and entered the house, he ducked low just in case she was waiting for him.

  No movement.

  Then Reynaldo saw the mess on the floor that had once been Dmitry.

  Had Dana done that to him?

  Rage consumed him. That bitch. Oh man, she was going to pay.

  But how? How had she done that to Dimitry? Answer: She must now be armed. She must have grabbed something from the barn. There was no other explanation for so much blood.

  Next question: Where was she now?

  Reynaldo spotted the bloody footprints on the floor. His eyes followed them to where they stopped--at the kitchen door. He grabbed his walkie-talkie and called Julio. "Are you at the back of the house?"

  "Just arrived."

  "Do you see any blood by the kitchen door?"

  "No, nothing. It's clear back here."

  "Good." He smiled now. "Have your guns ready and pointed that way. She may be armed."

  Chapter 42

  Behind the copper-roofed Kerbs Boathouse in Central Park, Aqua sat cross-legged. His eyes were closed. His tongue was pressing against the roof of his mouth. His thumbs and middle fingers formed circles. His hands rested near his knees.

  Jeff Raynes sat next to him.

  "She found me," Jeff said.

  Aqua nodded. He had loaded up on his meds today. He hated them. They made him miserable and depressed, like he was underwater and couldn't move. They made him feel lifeless. Aqua often compared himself to a broken vending machine. When it was on, you never knew what you got. You may get scalding hot coffee when you asked for cool water. But at least the machine was on. When he was on his drugs, it was as though the machine was unplugged.

  Still, Aqua needed the clarity. Not for long. But for a few minutes anyway.

  "Do you still love her?" Aqua asked him.

  "Yes. You know that."

  "You've always loved her."

  "Always."

  Aqua kept his eyes closed. "Do you believe that she still loves you?"

  Jeff grunted. "If only it were that simple."

  "It's been eighteen years," Aqua said.

  "You're not going to tell me time heals all wounds, are you?"

  "No. But why are you here, Jeff?"

  He didn't respond.

  "Isn't your talking to me a futile exercise anyway?"

  "What do you mean?"

  "You saw her today."

  "Yes," Jeff said.

  "You let her go once. Do you really think you have the strength to do that again?"

  Silence.

  Aqua finally opened his eyes. The pain etched on his friend's face made him wince. He reached out a hand and put it on Jeff's forearm.

  "I made my choice," Jeff said.

  "And how did that work out for you?"

  "I can't regret it. I wouldn't have my daughter if I hadn't left."

  Aqua nodded. "But it's been a long time."

  "Yes."

  "Maybe everything happened for a reason. Maybe this was how your love story was supposed to go."

  "She'll never forgive me."

  "You'd be surprised what love can overcome."

  Jeff made a face. "Time heals all wounds, everything happens for a reason, and love conquers all? You're loading up on your cliches today."

  "Jeff?"

  "What?"

  "My meds aren't going to hold me together much longer. In a few minutes, I will crash and start panicking again. I will think about you and Kat and I will want to kill myself."

  "Don't say that."

  "Then listen to me. Einstein described insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. So what are you going to do, Jeff? Are you going to run away and crush both your hearts again? Or are you going to try something different?"

  *

  Reynaldo knew he had Dana trapped.

  Still staring at the bloody footprints, he worked the mental layout of the kitchen. The table, the chairs, the cupboard--there was no place for her to hide. Her only hope was to attack him when he entered. Or . . .

  Without warning, he shoved the door hard with both hands.

  He didn't follow the door into the kitchen. She might be expecting that. If she were waiting near the door, if she were hoping for him to enter blindly so she could surprise him, Reynaldo would see it.

  She would make a move, cry out, flinch, something.

  Just to be on the safe side, he took a step backward as he shoved the door.

  It flew open, banged against the wall, and then swung closed again. The wood vacillated a few times before coming to rest.

  There had been no movement on the other side.

  He had, however, seen more bloody footprints.

  With the gun drawn now, he entered the kitchen. He aimed the gun right, then swung it left.

  It was empty.

  Then he looked down at the floor and saw the bloody footprints again.

  They led to the cellar door.

  Of course. Reynaldo almost slapped himself in the head. But no matter. He knew there was only one other exit from the cellar--an outdoor storm door with a padlock on it.

  Number Six was truly trapped now.

  His cell phone buzzed. It was Titus. Reynaldo brought the phone to his ear.

  "Have you found her yet?" Titus asked.

  "I think so."

  "You think so?"

  He quickly explained about the cellar door.

  "We are on our way back," Titus said. "Tell Dmitry to start destroying the computer files."

  "Dmitry is dead."

  "What?"

  "Dana killed him."

  "How?"

  "From the looks of it, I think she has the axe."

  Silence.

  "You still there, Titus?"

  "There's gasoline in the barn," Titus said. "A lot of it."

  "I know," Reynaldo said. "Why?"

  But Reynaldo knew the answer, didn't he? He didn't like it. He knew this day was coming. But this farm had been his home. He and Bo liked it here.

  It made him angrier than ever at that bitch who was ruining everything.

  "Start spreading it throughout the house," Titus said. "We're going to burn down the entire operation."

  *

  Kat had no idea where they were headed.

  For over two hours, she had followed the SUV down the New Jersey Turnpike, getting off on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, traveling north of Philadelphia. The FBI had sent out a chopper. It was following from a safe distance, but that didn't mean Kat was ready to relax.

  The Ford Fusion had enough gas. She wasn't worried about that. Kat was in constant contact with the FBI agents. They had no new information to give her. The black SUV's original plates had been stolen too. YouAreJustMyType.com was dragging its heels and demanding a subpoena. Chaz had located what he thought might be two more victims, but he couldn't be sure. It would take time. She got that. On cop shows, it all got wrapped up in an hour. In reality, it always took much longer.

  She tried not to let her mind wander to either her father or Jeff, but as time passed, she couldn't help it. Sugar's words kept reverberating in her ears, about what he'd sacrifice, what he'd forgive, if he could have just a few more seconds with Kat's father. She could see that Sugar's love was real. It wasn't an act. It made her wonder. Had her father been happy with Sugar? Had he known passion and love? Kat hoped he had. When she stripped it down, when she dismissed her not-so-subconscious prejudice--she was, after all, from the neighborhood too--maybe Kat could be grateful for that.

  She started playing what-if, wondering what would happen if her father suddenly materialized in the seat next to her, if she told him that she knew everything and that he had been given a second chance, what would her father do? Death was probably a great educator. If he could do it over again, would her father come clean to Mom? Would he live his life with Sugar?

  That would be what Kat would want for him. That would be what Kat would want for her mother too.

  Honesty. Or how had Sugar put it? The freedom to be authentic.

  Had her father been close to coming to that realization? Had he grown tired of the lies and deceptions? When he arrived at that club with flowers for Sugar, had he finally found the strength to be authentic?

  Kat would probably never know.

  But the larger question, when she let herself go there, when she let her mind wander away from the far more important task of saving Brandon and his mother from whatever evil this was, ended up being more present-day. Suppose her dad did indeed materialize in the seat next to her. Suppose she told him she had seen Jeff again, that she was convinced they had a chance, that when she saw Jeff, she understood what Sugar had meant about giving up anything for just a few more seconds with him.

 
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