Missing you, p.6
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       Missing You, p.6

          
Jeff had gone off-line.

  Chapter 8

  If it was Jeff.

  That was the other thought that suddenly entered her mind. Maybe the widower in the profile wasn't Jeff. Maybe it was just some guy who looked like her ex-fiance. The pictures, now that she studied them anew, were grainy. Most of the shots were outdoors, at something of a distance. There was that one in the woods, one on some barren beach with a broken fence, one on what might have been a golf course. In some, he wore a baseball cap. In others, he wore sunglasses too (never indoors, thank goodness). As in Kat's own photographs, the Maybe-Jeff never looked completely comfortable, almost as though he were hiding or caught off guard or avoiding a photographer who had made it a point to include him anyway.

  As a cop, she had learned firsthand the power of persuasion, of want, of the unreliability of the eyes when it came to full-on suggestion. She had seen witnesses pick out the person in a lineup that they, the cops, wanted them to pick out. Your brain can fool you with simple inducements.

  What can it do with all this want?

  Last night, she had been scanning quickly though a website in search of a lifetime partner. Weren't the odds better that she would conjure up the one man who had been closest to that in her life than actually seeing him again?

  The doorman intercom buzzed.

  She pressed the button. "Yes, Frank?"

  "Your captain is here."

  "Send him up."

  Kat left her door ajar so Stagger could walk right in without knocking--the last thing she wanted were more memory flashes to that day eighteen years ago. She exited YouAreJustMyType.com and, just to be on the safe side, cleared her browser history.

  Stagger's whole being emanated exhaustion. His eyes were red and sunken. His normal five o'clock shadow had darkened into something closer to midnight. His shoulders stooped like a buzzard too tired to go after its prey.

  "You okay?" she asked him.

  "Long day."

  "Can I get you something to drink?"

  He shook his head. "What's up?"

  Kat decided to dive right into the deep end. "How sure are you that Monte Leburne killed Henry?"

  Whatever he had been expecting her to say--whatever guess he had made as to why she so desperately wanted to speak with him--it wasn't that. "Are you serious?"

  "Yes."

  "So I guess you got to see him today?"

  "Yes."

  "And what, he suddenly denied that he shot your father?"

  "Not exactly."

  "Then what?"

  Kat had to be careful here. Stagger wasn't just by the book--he was the book, binding, pages, printing press, the whole deal. If he heard about Nurse Steiner and the twilight sleep, he would throw a fit and then some.

  "Okay, I want you to listen to me for a second," she began. "Just go in with an open mind, okay?"

  "Kat, do I look in the mood for games?"

  "No. Definitely not."

  "So tell me what's going on."

  "I get that, but just bear with me. Let's go back to the start."

  "Kat . . ."

  She pushed through it. "Here is Monte Leburne, right? The feds nail him as a triggerman for two hits. They try to get him to flip on Cozone. He doesn't. He isn't that type. Too dumb maybe. Or he thinks they'll hurt his family. Whatever, Leburne shuts up."

  She waited for him to tell her to get to the point. He didn't.

  "Meanwhile, you guys are searching for whoever killed my father. You don't have a lot, just rumors and a few loose threads, and suddenly, voila, Leburne confesses."

  "It wasn't like that," Stagger said.

  "Yeah, it was."

  "We had leads."

  "But nothing solid. So you tell me--why did he suddenly confess?"

  Stagger made a face. "You know why. He killed a cop. The heat was ridiculous on Cozone's operation. He had to throw us something."

  "Exactly. So Monte Leburne takes the fall. And Cozone gets away with it. How convenient. A guy who is already spending his life in prison gets another life sentence."

  "We tried for years to nail Cozone for it. You know that."

  "But we never could. Don't you see? We could never tie Cozone and Leburne together on that case. You know why?"

  He sighed. "You're not turning into a conspiracy nut on me, are you, Kat?"

  "No."

  "The reason we couldn't tie them to it is simple: That's the way the world works. It isn't a perfect system."

  "Or maybe," Kat said, trying to keep her tone calm, "maybe we couldn't tie it together because Monte Leburne didn't shoot my dad. We were able to independently connect Leburne to the other two murders. But we could never do that with Dad. Why? And what about those fingerprints we were never able to identify? Don't you wonder who else was at the scene?"

  Stagger just looked at her. "What happened up at Fishkill?"

  Kat knew she had to play this delicately. "He's bad."

  "Leburne?"

  She nodded. "I don't think he has more than a week or two."

  "So you drove up," Stagger said. "And he agreed to see you."

  "Sort of."

  He gave her the eye. "What does that mean?"

  "He was in the infirmary. I talked my way in. No big deal, nothing shady. I flashed my badge, kept it vague."

  "Okay, so?"

  "So when I got to Leburne's bed, he was in pretty bad shape. They had him drugged up with a hefty dose of painkillers. Morphine, I guess."

  Stagger's eyes narrowed. "Okay, so?"

  "So he started muttering. I didn't question him or anything. He was too out of it. But he began to sort of hallucinate. He thought the nurse was his dead sister, Cassie. He apologized for letting their father abuse her or something. Started crying and telling her he'd be with her soon. Stuff like that."

  Stagger pinned her with his eyes. She wasn't sure if he was buying it, but then again, she wasn't sure how hard she was selling it. "Go on."

  "And he said he never killed the cop."

  The sunken eyes bulged a bit now. It wasn't exactly the truth, but for the sake of this conversation, Kat figured that it was close enough.

  "He said he was innocent," she continued.

  Stagger looked incredulous. "Of everything?"

  "No, just the opposite. He said that they already had him dead to rights for two murders, so what harm was there to confessing to one more if it provides?"

  "If it provides?"

  "His words."

  Stagger just shook his head. "This is crazy. You know that, right?"

  "It's not. It actually makes perfect sense. You're already going to serve a life sentence. What's one more murder conviction?" Kat took a step closer to him. "Let's say you were closing in on the killer. Maybe you were days or even hours from putting it all together. Suddenly, a guy who is already caught and going to serve life confesses. Don't you see?"

  "And who would set that up exactly?"

  "I don't know. Cozone probably."

  "He'd use his own man?"

  "A man he knew--and we knew--would never talk? Sure, why not?"

  "We have the murder weapon, remember?"

  "I do."

  "The gun that shot your father. We found it exactly where Monte Leburne said it would be."

  "Of course Leburne knew. The real killer told him. Think about it. Since when does a hit man like Leburne save the gun? He gets rid of it. We never got the weapons for the other two murders, right? Suddenly, after he kills a cop, he decides to save it, as what? A souvenir? And again, what about those fingerprints? Did he have an accomplice? Did he go it alone? What?"

  Stagger put his hands on her shoulders. "Kat, listen to me."

  She knew what was coming. This was part of it. She'd have to ride it out.

  "You said Leburne was drugged up, right? On morphine?"

  "Yes."

  "So he hallucinated. Your word. He muttered some imaginary nonsense. That's all."

  "Don't patronize me, Stagger."

  "I'm not."

  "Yeah, you are. You know I don't buy into nonsense like"--she made quote marks with her fingers--"'closure.' I think it's crap. Even if we nail everyone involved in his murder, my father is still dead. That will never change. So closure, I don't know, it's almost an insult to his memory, you know what I mean?"

  He nodded slowly.

  "But this arrest . . . it never worked for me. I always suspected there was something more."

  "And now you've made it into that."

  "What?"

  "Come on, Kat. This is Monte Leburne. You don't think he knew you were there? He's playing with you. He knows that you've had your doubts all along. You wanted to see something that wasn't there. And now he's given that to you."

  She opened her mouth to protest, but suddenly, she thought about the Maybe-Jeff on her computer. Want can twist your perception. Was that part of it? Had she so wanted to find a solution--to find "closure"--that she was creating scenarios?

  "That's not it," Kat said, but her voice held a little less conviction now.

  "Are you sure?"

  "You've got to understand. I can't let this go."

  He nodded slowly. "I do understand."

  "You're patronizing me again."

  He forced up a tired smile. "Monte Leburne killed your father. It isn't neat or a perfect fit. It never is. You know that. The questions about the case--all normal and routine and easily explainable--eat you up. But at some point, you have to let it go. It will drive you mad. If you let it get to you like this, you end up depressed and . . ."

  His words trailed off.

  "Like my grandfather?"

  "I didn't say that."

  "Didn't have to."

  Stagger found her gaze and held it for a long second. "Your father would want you to move on."

  She said nothing.

  "You know that I'm telling the truth."

  "I do," she said.

  "But?"

  "But I can't do it. My father would know that too."

  *

  Kat filled yet another shot glass with Jack Daniel's and started printing out her father's old murder file.

  This wasn't the official police one. She had, of course, read that one many times before. This one was of her creation, loaded up with everything in the official file--the detectives who'd closed her dad's case had both been family friends--plus everything, even rumors, she had managed to nail down on her own. The case had been pretty solid, the two keys being that they had a confession from Leburne himself, plus the murder weapon, found hidden in Leburne's home. Most of the loose ends had been tied up nicely, with one notable exception that had always haunted Kat: There were unidentified fingerprints found at the murder scene. The lab guys had found a full, clear print on her father's belt and had run it through the system but got no hits.

  Kat had never been fully satisfied with the official explanation, but everyone, including Kat herself, had written that off to her personal connection. Aqua had said it best one day when she ran into him in the park on one of his more lucid days: "You are seeking something in this case that you can never find."

  Aqua.

  Here was something odd. She could talk to Stacy about her father's murder, but Stacy had never met the man. Stacy didn't know "old Kat," the Before Kat, the one who dated Jeff and smiled freely and existed before Henry Donovan's murder. But the first name to come to mind--the one person who would understand more than any other what she was going through--was, well, Jeff.

  That didn't seem like a good idea, did it?

  No. At least, it wouldn't at six in the morning or ten o'clock at night. But right now, at three A.M. with a few belts of Jack coursing through Kat's veins, it seemed like the most brilliant idea in the history of the world. She looked out the window of her apartment. They say New York is the city that doesn't sleep. That was nonsense. When she stayed in other cities, even smaller ones like St. Louis or Indianapolis, people seemed to stay up later, though it seemed more out of desperation than anything else. We aren't New York City, so we will work harder to have a good time. Something like that.

  The streets of Manhattan at three A.M.? Still a cemetery.

  Kat wobbled toward her computer. It took her three tries to log on to YouAreJustMyType.com because her fingers, like her tongue, were thick from drink. She checked to see if by some chance Jeff was online. He wasn't. Well, that was too bad, wasn't it? She clicked the link to send him a direct message.

  Jeff,

  Can we talk? Something happened here and I would really like to bounce it off you.

  Kat

  Part of her brain realized that this was a really bad idea, that this was the online dating equivalent of drunk texting. Drunk texting never worked. Never, ever, never.

  She sent the message and managed to half pass out, half fall asleep. When the alarm went off at six A.M., Kat hated her pitiful self even before the hangover rushed in and started shooting pain sparks through her skull.

  She checked the messages. Nothing from Jeff. Or Maybe-Jeff. Right, hadn't she realized at some point that maybe it wasn't Jeff, just some guy who looked like him? Didn't matter. Who cares? Where the hell is the Extra Strength Tylenol?

  Aqua's yoga class. Uh-uh. No way. Not today. Her head would never take it. Plus, she went yesterday. She didn't have to go today.

  Except . . .

  Wait, hold up a second. She ran back to the computer and brought up Jeff's profile. Other than Stagger, the only person who was really still in her life, who knew her with Jeff and her dad and knew the old her, was, well, Aqua. Aqua and Jeff had grown close via her, even rooming together in that crappy two-bedroom on 178th Street. She hit PRINT, threw on her clothes, made the run over to the east side of the park--arriving, as usual, when everyone was meditating, their eyes closed.

  "Late," Aqua said.

  "Sorry."

  Aqua frowned and opened his eyes in surprise. Kat had never apologized before. He knew something was up.

  Two decades ago, Aqua and Kat had been classmates at Columbia. That was where they met freshman year. Aqua was, quite simply, the most brilliant person Kat had ever known. His test scores were off the charts. His brain was revved up, worked too fast, finishing homework assignments in minutes that would take others all night. Aqua consumed knowledge like some consume fast food. He took extra classes, worked two jobs, started running track, but there was nothing that could stop the mania.

  Eventually, Aqua's engine overheated. That was the way Kat thought about it. He cracked, though in truth he was just sick. Mentally ill. It was no different, really, from having cancer or lupus or something like that. Aqua had been in and out of institutions since. Doctors had tried everything to cure him, but his mental illness, like those physical ones, was, if not terminal, chronic. Kat didn't know where he lived now exactly. Somewhere in the park, she guessed. Sometimes Kat would bump into him away from the morning class, when his mania was at a more fevered pitch. Sometimes, Aqua would be dressed like a man. Sometimes--okay, most times--Aqua would dress like a woman. Sometimes, Aqua wouldn't even know who Kat was.

  At the end of class, when the others closed their eyes for Corpse Pose, Kat sat up and stared at Aqua. He--or she, it got very confusing when someone was a part-time transvestite--stared back, a flash of anger on his face. There were rules in this class. She was breaking one of them.

  "I want you to relax your face," Aqua said in that soothing voice. "Relax your eyes. Feel them sink down. Relax your mouth . . ."

  His gaze never left hers. Eventually, Aqua acquiesced. He rose from a Lotus Position in one effortless, silent move. Kat rose too. She followed him through a back pathway heading north.

  "So this is where you go after class," Kat said.

  "No."

  "No?"

  "I'm not showing you where I go. What do you want?"

  "I need a favor."

  Aqua kept walking. "I don't do favors. I teach yoga."

  "I know that."

  "So why are you bothering me?" His two hands formed fists, like a little kid about to throw a tantrum. "Yoga is the routine. I'm good with routine. You calling me out, wanting to talk like this, it isn't part of the routine. It's not good for me, losing my routine."

  "I need your help."

  "I help by teaching yoga."

  "I know that."

  "I'm a good teacher, aren't I?"

  "The best."

  "So let me do what I do. That's how I help. That's how I stay centered. That's how I contribute to society."

  Kat suddenly felt overwhelmed. They'd been friends a long time ago. Good friends. Close friends. They would sit in the library and talk about anything. The hours would fly by--he had been that kind of friend.

  She had talked to Aqua about Jeff after their first date. He got it. He saw it right away. Aqua and Jeff had become close too. They became roommates, moving into off-campus housing, though Jeff ended up spending most nights at Kat's. Looking at the bewildered look on Aqua's face right now, she realized yet again how much she had lost. She had lost her dad. Obvious. She had lost her fiance. Also obvious. But maybe--not so obvious--she had lost something else, something real and deep, when Aqua came apart.

  "God, I miss you," she said.

  Aqua started picking up his pace. "This doesn't help anything."

  "I know. I'm sorry."

  "I have to go. I have things to do."

  She put her hand on his arm to slow him down. "Will you look at this first?"

  He frowned, not slowing down much. She handed him the printouts from Jeff's YouAreJustMyType profile.

  "What is this?" Aqua asked.

  "You tell me."

  He didn't like it. She could see that. This whole break in his routine was agitating him. She didn't mean to do that. She knew there was a danger in upsetting him.

  "Aqua? Just take a look, okay?"

  He did. He looked at the sheets of paper. She tried to read him. His expression remained perturbed, but she thought she saw something light up in his eyes.

  "Aqua?"

  There was fear in his voice. "Why are you showing these to me?"

  "Does he look like someone you know?"

  "No," he said.

  She felt her heart crash. Then Aqua started to hurry away.

  "It doesn't look like Jeff, Kat. It is Jeff."

  Chapter 9

  Kat had just hung up the phone, replaying Monte Leburne's words in her head for the umpteenth time, when the computer dinged as "YouAreJustMyType Instant Message!" popped up on her screen.

  The instant message request was, she could see from the tiny profile picture, from Jeff. For a moment, she just sat there, almost afraid to move or click the READ button because this contact, this connection seemed so fragile and tenuous that any sudden act on her part could snap this thinnest of a frayed thread.

 
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