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Missing you, p.8
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       Missing You, p.8

          Harlan Coben / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime / History & Fiction
"My name is Brandon." He stuck out his hand. "Brandon Phelps."

She shook his hand. "Nice to meet you, Brandon."

"You too."

"Is there something I can help you with?"

"It's about my mom."

"What about her?"

"She's missing. I think you can help me find her."

*

Kat canceled lunch with Stacy. Then she came back up to her desk and sat across from Brandon Phelps. She asked the first question to come to mind.

"Why me?"

Brandon swallowed hard. "Huh?"

"Why did you come to me specifically? My partner said you wanted to wait for me."

"Yes."

"Why?"

Brandon's eyes darted around the precinct. "I heard you were the best."

A lie. "From?"

Brandon shrugged like a teenager, somehow both lazy and melodramatic at the same time. "Does it matter? I wanted you, not that other guy."

"That's not how it works. You don't get to choose your investigator."

He suddenly looked as though he were about to cry. "You won't help me?"

"I didn't say that." Kat didn't get this, but it didn't feel right. "Why don't you tell me what happened?"

"It's my mom."

"Right."

"She's missing."

"Okay, first things first." Kat took out a pen and paper. "Your name is Brandon Phelps?"

"Yes."

"And your mother's?"

"Dana."

"Phelps?"

"Yes."

"Is she married?"

"No." He started biting a fingernail. "My dad died three years ago."

"I'm sorry," she said, because, well, that was what you said. "Do you have any siblings?"

"No."

"So it's just you and your mom?"

"Right."

"How old are you, Brandon?"

"Nineteen."

"Where do you live?"

"1279 Third Avenue."

"Apartment number?"

"Uh, 8J."

"Phone?"

He gave her his mobile number. She grabbed a few more details and then, seeing his growing impatience, Kat said, "And the problem is?"

"She's missing."

"When you say she's missing, I'm not sure exactly what you mean."

Brandon raised his eyebrows. "You don't know what missing means?"

"No, I mean . . ." She shook her head. "Okay, let's start with this: How long has she been missing?"

"Three days."

"So why don't you tell me what happened?"

"Mom said she was going on a trip with her boyfriend."

"Right."

"But I don't think she did. I called her cell. She didn't answer."

Kat tried not to frown. For this she was missing lunch at the Carlyle? "Where was she going?"

"Someplace in the Caribbean."

"Where?"

"She said it was going to be a surprise."

"Maybe the phone service is bad."

He frowned. "I don't think so."

"Or maybe she's busy."

"She said she'd at least text me every day." Then, seeing the look on her face, Brandon added, "We don't do that normally. But this was her first time going away since Dad died."

"Did you try calling the hotel?"

"I told you. She didn't say where she was staying."

"And you never asked?"

He shrugged again. "I figured we'd just text or whatever."

"Have you tried contacting her boyfriend?"

"No."

"Why not?"

"I don't know him. They started dating when I went to college."

"Where do you go to school?"

"I'm at UConn. What difference does that make?"

Fair point. "I'm just trying to put this together, okay? When did your mom start dating this guy?"

"I don't know. She doesn't share that kind of stuff with me."

"But she told you she was going away with him?"

"Yes."

"When?"

"When did she tell me they were going away?"

"Yes."

"I don't know. A week ago, I guess. Look, could you just look into it? Please?"

Kat stared at him. He flinched. "Brandon?"

"Yes?"

"What's going on here?"

His reply surprised her. "You really don't know?"

"No."

Brandon looked at her skeptically.

"Yo, Donovan?"

Kat turned toward the familiar voice. Captain Stagger stood by the stairway. "My office," he said.

"I'm in the middle of--"

"This won't take long."

His tone left no room for debate. Kat looked at Brandon. "Wait here a second, okay?"

Brandon looked off, nodded.

Kat rose. Stagger hadn't waited for her. Kat hurried down the stairs and followed him into his office. Stagger closed the door behind her. He didn't circle back to his desk or delay.

"Monte Leburne died this morning."

She slumped against the wall. "Damn."

"Well, that's not exactly my reaction, but I thought you'd want to know."

For the past two weeks, she had tried repeatedly to get close to him again. It hadn't worked. Now time had run out. "Thanks."

The two of them stood there awkwardly for a few moments.

"Anything else?" Kat asked.

"No. I just thought you'd want to know."

"I appreciate it."

"I assume you've been investigating what he said."

"I have, yes."

"And?"

"And nothing, Captain," Kat said. "I've found nothing."

He nodded slowly. "Okay, you can go."

She started for the door. "Is there going to be a funeral?"

"What, for Leburne?"

"Yes."

"I don't know. Why?"

"No reason."

Or maybe there was. Leburne had a family. They'd changed names and moved out of state, but maybe they'd be interested in the remains. Maybe they'd know something. Maybe, now that dear Monte was dead, they'd want to prove his innocence, at least in one case.

Long shot.

Kat headed out of Stagger's office, trying to sort through her feelings. She just felt numb. So much of her life felt like unanswered questions. She was a cop. She liked closed cases. Something bad happened. You figure out who did it and why. You don't get all the answers. But you get enough.

Her own life suddenly felt like one giant open case. She hated that.

Didn't matter. She could have her little pity party later. Right now, she had to get back and concentrate on Brandon and his missing-mom case. But when she got back up to her floor, the chair in front of her desk was empty. She sat, figuring that maybe the kid had gone to the bathroom or something, when she spotted the note: HAD TO GO. PLEASE FIND MY MOM. YOU HAVE MY PHONE IF YOU NEED TO REACH ME.--BRANDON

She read the note again. Something about the whole thing--the missing mom, seeking Kat out specifically, all of it really--felt more than wrong. She was missing something here. Kat took a look at her notes.

Dana Phelps.

What harm could it do to take a quick look into the name?

Her desk phone trilled. She picked it up and said, "Donovan."

"Hey, Kat." It was Chris Harrop from Corrections. "Sorry it took so long to get back to you, but like I said, the logs aren't computerized and I had to send a man up to the warehouse in Albany. And then, well, I had to wait."

"Wait for what?"

"Your boy Monte Leburne to die. It is complicated but basically showing you this could be a violation of his rights unless he waives them or you get a court order, blah, blah, you know the deal. But now that he's dead . . ."

"You have the list?"

"I do."

"Could you fax it to me?"

"Fax? What is this, 1996? How about I send it to you via Telex? It's in an e-mail. I just sent it. Besides, there's nothing on it that's going to help you."

"What do you mean?"

"The day you asked for, the only person who visited him was his attorney, a guy named Alex Khowaylo."

"That's it?"

"That's it. Oh, and two feds. I got their names here. And an NYPD cop named Thomas Stagger."





Chapter 12


Stagger wasn't in his office.

Still standing in front of his office door, Kat typed up a text saying that she needed to talk to him right away. Her fingers shook, but she managed to hit the SEND button. She stood there and stared at the screen for two full minutes.

No reply.

This made no sense. Monte Leburne had been picked up by the FBI, more specifically the feds working RICO, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. NYPD wasn't involved in the arrest at all. The feds suspected him of murdering two members of a rival crime family. A few days later, they'd also uncovered information that Leburne had been the triggerman in the death of her father.

So why had Stagger visited Leburne before that, the day after his arrest?

Kat needed some air. A small twinge sent a reminder that she had also skipped lunch. Kat wasn't good when skipping meals. She tended to lose focus and get grumpy. She hurried down the stairs and asked Keith Inchierca at the front desk to contact her as soon as Stagger came back. Inchierca frowned.

"I look like your secretary?" he said.

"Good one."

"What?"

"Please? It's important, okay?"

He waved at her to go away.

She found a falafel stand on Third Avenue and then, remembering Brandon Phelps's home address, she figured, well, why not? She started walking north. Seven blocks later, she arrived at a fairly unassuming high-rise. On the street level, there was a Duane Reade pharmacy and a store called Scoop, which Kat had wrongly assumed was an ice-cream parlor when, in fact, it was a trendy boutique. The apartment building entrance was on 74th Street. Kat flashed her badge at the doorman.

"I'm here about Dana Phelps," she said. "Apartment 8J."

The doorman stared at her badge. Then he said, "Wrong building."

"You don't have a Dana Phelps here?"

"We don't have a Dana Phelps. We also don't have an apartment 8J. We don't do letters. The apartments on the eighth floor run from 801 to 816."

Kat put her badge away. "Is this 1279 Third Avenue?"

"No, this is 200 East 74th Street."

"But you're on the corner of Third Avenue."

The doorman just stared at her. "Uh, yeah, so?"

"But it says 1279 Third Avenue on this building."

He made a face. "You think, what, I'm lying about the address?"

"No."

"Please, Detective, by all means. Go up to apartment 8J. With my blessing."

New Yorkers. "Look, I'm trying to find apartment 8J at 1279 Third Avenue."

"I can't help you."

Kat headed back outside and turned the corner. The awning did indeed say 200 East 74th Street. Kat moved back to Third Avenue. The 1279 was actually above the entrance to Duane Reade. What the hell? She entered, found the manager, and asked, "Do you have any apartments above you?"

"Uh, we're a pharmacy."

New Yorkers. "I know that, but I mean, how do I get to the apartments above you?"

"You know a lot of people who walk through pharmacies to get to their apartment? The entrance is around the corner on 74th."

She didn't bother with follow-up questions. The answer was now pretty damn apparent. Brandon Phelps, if that was his name, had given her the wrong--or, more likely, a false--address.

*

Back at the precinct, Google gave Kat some of the answers, but they didn't clarify much.

There was a Dana Phelps with a son named Brandon, but they didn't live on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The Phelpses resided in a rather tony section of Greenwich, Connecticut. Brandon's father had been a big-time hedge fund manager. Beaucoup bucks. He died when he was forty-one. The obituary gave no cause of death. Kat looked for a charity--people often requested donations made to a heart disease or cancer or whatever cause--but there was nothing listed.

So why had Brandon sought out a specific NYPD cop?

Kat checked out other residences the Phelps might have owned. There was, of course, a chance that a wealthy family from Greenwich might own a place on the Upper East Side, but nothing in Manhattan came up. She ran Brandon's cell phone number through the system. Whoa. It was a prepaid phone. Most rich kids from Greenwich don't use those. Most people who use them either have poor credit ratings or, well, don't want to be traced. Of course, what most people didn't know was that it was rather easy to trace disposable phones. In fact, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit had ruled that you could even "ping" a location without getting a warrant. She didn't need to go that far. At least not yet.

For now, she played a hunch. All prepaid phone sales are registered in a data bank. She typed in the number and found out exactly where Brandon had purchased his phone. The answer didn't surprise her. He bought it at a Duane Reade, located at, yep, 1279 Third Avenue.

Maybe that explained why he chose that address.

Okay, maybe. But it explained nothing else.

There were other links to explore, but they'd take more time. Brandon Phelps had a Facebook account, but it was set on private. It would probably take only a phone call or two to find out how Brandon's father had died, but really, what was the relevance of that? The kid had come to her because his mother had run off with some guy.

And there was the rub: So what?

This could all be nothing but a stupid hoax. Why was she wasting her time with this nonsense anyway? Didn't she have anything better to do? Maybe, maybe not. Truth was, work was slow today. This was a welcome distraction until Stagger got back.

Okay, she thought. Play it out.

Let's say this was a hoax. Well, for one thing, if this was a joke on Brandon's part, it was almost pathetically lame. The hoax wasn't funny or clever in the slightest. There didn't seem to be much of a punch line or big payoff.

It didn't add up.

Cops loved to buy into their self-created myth that they have some innate ability to "read" people, that they were all human lie detectors, that they could suss out truth from deception from body language or the timbre in a voice. Kat knew that that sort of hubris was complete nonsense. Worse, it too often led to life-altering disaster.

That said, unless Brandon was either a pure sociopath or a recent graduate of the Lee Strasberg school of method acting, the kid truly was distraught about something.

The question was: What?

The answer: Stop wasting time and call him.

She picked up her phone and dialed the number Brandon gave her. Kat half expected him not to answer, to have given up on whatever little game, real or not, he was playing, and hustled his butt back to UConn or Greenwich or wherever. But he answered on the second ring.

"Hello?"

"Brandon?"

"Detective Donovan."

"Right."

"I bet you didn't find my mother yet," he said.

She decided there was no reason to play coy. "No, but I did visit the Duane Reade at 1279 Third Avenue."

Silence.

"Brandon?"

"What?"

"Are you ready to come clean now?"

"Wrong question, Detective."

There was an edge in his tone now.

"What are you talking about?"

"The question is," Brandon said, "are you?"

*

Kat switched the phone from her right ear to her left. She wanted to take notes. "What are you talking about, Brandon?"

"Find my mom."

"You mean your mom who lives in Greenwich, Connecticut?"

"Yes."

"I'm NYPD. You need to go to the Greenwich police station."

"I did that already. I spoke to a Detective Schwartz."

"And?"

"And he didn't believe me."

"So what makes you think I will? Why come to me? And why all the lies?"

"You're Kat, right?"

"What?"

"I mean, that's what they call you. Kat."

"How do you know that?"

Brandon hung up.

Kat stared at the phone. How had he known she went by Kat? Had he overheard someone in the precinct call her that? Maybe. Or maybe Brandon Phelps just knew a lot about her. He had, after all, come to her specifically, this college kid from Greenwich looking for his mommy. If indeed Dana Phelps was his mommy. If indeed he really was Brandon Phelps. She hadn't found pictures of them online yet.

None of this made any sense. So what to do?

Call him back. Or better yet, ping his location. Pick him up.

For what?

False report maybe. Lying to a police officer. Maybe he was a random psycho. Maybe he had done something to his mother or to Dana Phelps or . . .

She was considering the alternatives when the phone on her desk rang. Kat picked it up. "Donovan."

"This is your secretary calling." It was Sergeant Inchierca. "You wanted to know when the captain came back, right?"

"Right."

"The answer would be 'now.'"

"Thanks."

Just like that, concerns about Brandon and his maybe-missing mom fled. Kat was already out of her seat and rushing down the steps. As she reached his floor, Kat could see Stagger entering his office with two other cops. One was her direct supervisor, Stephen Singer, a guy so skinny he could hide behind a stripper pole. The other was David Karp, who supervised the uniformed cops on the street.

Stagger was about to close the door, but Kat got there just in time, blocking it with her hand.

She forced up a smile. "Captain?"

Stagger stared at the hand on the door as though it had offended him.

"Did you get my message?" Kat asked.

"I'm busy right now."

"This can't wait."

"It's going to have to. I have a meeting with--"

"I got the visitors' logs from the day after Leburne got arrested," she said. Kat kept her eyes on him, looking for a tell. Okay, so she wasn't above reading body language. She just didn't do it with hubris. "I really think I need your help on this."

Stagger's tell might as well have been a neon sign in Vegas. His hands clenched. His face reddened. Everyone, including Kat's displeased supervisor, could see it.

Through clenched teeth, Stagger managed to say, "Detective?"

"Yes?"

"I said I'm busy right now."

The two supervisors, especially Singer, whom she liked and respected, glared at her seeming insubordination. Somewhat stunned, Kat found herself stepping out of his office. He closed the door behind her.

*

The text came in ten minutes later. It was from Brandon's prepaid phone: I'm sorry.

Enough. She picked up the phone and dialed his number. Brandon answered on the first ring. His voice was tentative.
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