Missing you, p.9
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       Missing You, p.9

          

  "Kat?"

  "What the hell is going on, Brandon?"

  "I'm at the Hunter College Bookstore on the corner. Can you meet me?"

  "I'm really tired of being jerked around here."

  "I'll explain everything. I promise."

  She sighed. "On my way."

  Brandon was sitting on a bench outside, on the corner of Park Avenue. He fit in here, surrounded by other kids his age rushing back and forth with backpacks and hoodies and exhaustion. He huddled into himself as though he were cold. He looked young and scared and fragile.

  She sat down next to him. She didn't ask anything. She just looked at him. This was his call. Let him be the first to speak. It took some time. He stared down at his hands for a while. She rode out his silence.

  "My dad died of cancer," Brandon began. "It was slow. Just ate him up. Mom never left his side. He and Mom were high school sweethearts. They were good together, you know? I mean, I go over to my friends' and their folks are, like, always in different rooms. My folks weren't like that. When Dad died, I was devastated, sure. But not like Mom. It was like half of her died."

  Kat opened her mouth, closed it. She had a million questions, but they'd keep.

  "Mom always calls. I know how that sounds. But I mean, always. That's the thing that got me suspicious. See, all we really have is each other. And she's, like, terrified of losing someone else. So she reaches out all the time, just, I don't know, just to make sure I'm still alive."

  He looked off.

  Finally, Kat broke the silence. "She's been lonely, Brandon."

  "I know."

  "And now she's away with another man. You understand that, right?"

  He didn't say anything.

  "Is this guy her first boyfriend since . . . ?"

  "Not really, no," he said. "But, I mean, it's the first time she's gone away with someone."

  "Maybe that's it, then," Kat said.

  "What's it?"

  "Maybe she's afraid of how you'll react."

  Brandon shook his head. "She knows I want her to find somebody."

  "Do you? You just said all you have is each other. Maybe that was true. But maybe that's changing now. Just imagine how hard this is for her. Maybe she needs to pull away a little."

  "That's not it," Brandon insisted. "She always calls."

  "I get that. But maybe, well, maybe not right now. Do you think she's in love?"

  "Mom? Probably." Then: "Yeah, she's in love with this guy. She wouldn't go away with a guy she didn't love."

  "Love makes us all forgetful, Brandon. It makes us all a little self-involved."

  "That's not it either. Look, this guy? He's a total player. She doesn't get that."

  "A player?" Kat smiled at him, maybe understanding a little. He was being protective. It was sweet, in its own way. "Then maybe your mom will end up with a broken heart. So what? She's not a child."

  Brandon shook his head some more. "You don't understand."

  "What happened when you went to the cops in Greenwich?"

  "What do you think? They said the same thing you did."

  "So why did you come to me? That's the part I still don't understand."

  He shrugged. "I thought you'd get it."

  "But why me? I mean, how do you even know me? And how do you know people call me Kat?" She tried to catch his eye. "Brandon?" He wouldn't let her. "Why do you think I can help you?"

  He didn't reply.

  "Brandon?"

  "You really don't know?"

  "Of course I don't."

  He said nothing.

  "Brandon? What the hell is going on?"

  "They met online," Brandon said.

  "What?"

  "My mom and her boyfriend."

  "Lot of people meet online."

  "Yeah, I know, but--" Brandon stopped. Then he muttered, "Perky and cute."

  Kat's eyes widened. "What did you say?"

  "Nothing."

  She flashed to her YouAreJustMyType profile. The heading Stacy had chosen for her: Cute and perky!

  "Are you . . ." She felt a sudden chill. "Wait, are you stalking me online or something?"

  "What?" Brandon sat up straight. "No! Don't you get it?"

  "Get what?"

  He reached into his pocket. "This is the guy my mom went away with. I got it off the website."

  Brandon handed her the photograph. When Kat saw the face, her heart yet again plummeted down a mine shaft.

  It was Jeff.

  Chapter 13

  When Titus first started out, this was how he found the girls: He wore a suit and tie. Let his competition wear sweats or low-slung jeans. He carried a briefcase. He wore horn-rimmed glasses. He kept his hair short and neat.

  Titus always sat on the same bench in the Port Authority bus station, second floor. If some homeless guy was sleeping there, he gave it up pretty fast when he saw Titus coming. Titus didn't have to say anything. The locals just knew to stay clear. This was Titus's bench. It gave him a perfect bird's-eye view of the south terminal gates 226 through 234 on the level below him. He could see the passengers get off the bus, but they couldn't see him.

  He was, he knew, a predator.

  He watched the girls depart, like a lion waiting for the limping gazelle.

  Patience was key.

  Titus didn't want the girls from the bigger cities. He waited for the buses from Tulsa or Topeka or maybe Des Moines. Boston was no good. Neither was Kansas City or St. Louis. The best were the runaways from the so-called Bible Belt. They came in with a mixture of hope and rebellion in their eyes. The more rebellion--the more you wanted to stick it to Daddy--the better. This was the big city. This was where dreams were made.

  The girls came in demanding change and excitement--something had to happen for them. But in truth, they were already hungry and scared and exhausted. They lugged a too-heavy suitcase, and if they had a guitar that made it better. Titus didn't know why. But if he found one with a guitar, it always upped his chances.

  Titus never forced it.

  If the setup wasn't ideal--if the girl wasn't the perfect prey--he let it go. That was the key. Patience. You throw out enough nets--you watch enough buses come in--you would eventually find what you needed.

  So Titus waited on that bench and when he saw a girl who looked ripe, he made his move. Most times, it didn't work out. That was okay. He had a good rap. His mentor, a violent pimp named Louis Castman, had mentored him well. You talked politely. You made requests or suggestions, never commands or demands. You manipulated the girls by making them believe they were in charge.

  You wanted them pretty, of course, but that wasn't a prerequisite.

  Most times, Titus used the model rap. He had made up good business cards on heavy stock, not the cheap, flimsy stuff. Spend money to make money. The cards were embossed. They read Elitism Model Agency in fine calligraphy. They had his name on it. They had a business line, a home line, and a mobile phone number (all three numbers forwarded to his mobile). It had a legitimate address on Fifth Avenue and if the girls mistook Elitism for Elite, well, so be it.

  He never pressed. He was commuting, he would tell the girls, from his home in Montclair, a wealthy New Jersey suburb, and happened to spot her and thought she might do well in the modeling business "if she didn't already have representation." He pretended to be above horning in on a competitor. At the end of the day, the girls wanted to believe. That helped. They had all heard stories about models or actresses being discovered at the local mall or at Dairy Queen or waitressing.

  Why not a bus terminal in Manhattan?

  He told them they'd need a portfolio. He invited them for a model shoot with a top fashion photographer. This was where some balked. They had heard this line before. They wanted to know how much it would cost. Titus would chuckle. "Here's a tip," he would tell them. "You don't pay a real agency--they pay you."

  If they seemed too suspicious or worried, he would cut them loose and return to his bench. You had to be willing to cut them loose at any point. That was the key. If, for example, they weren't runaways, if they were just here for a short vacation, if they stayed in constant touch with a family member . . . any of those, and he simply moved on.

  Patience.

  For those who made the cut, well, it depended.

  Louis Castman enjoyed inflicting pain. Titus did not. It wasn't that violence bothered him--Titus could take it or leave it. He just always sought the most profitable avenue. Still Titus had followed Castman's methods: You invite the girls to be photographed. You take some pictures--Castman actually had an eye for it--and then you attack them. Simple as that. You put a knife to her throat. You take away her phone and wallet. You cuff her to the bed. Sometimes you rape her.

  You always drug her.

  This would go on for days. One time, with a particularly beautiful strong-willed girl, they kept her like that for two full weeks.

  The drugs were expensive--heroin was Titus's favorite--but that was yet another business expense. Eventually, the girl would get hooked. It never took much time. Heroin was like that. You let the genie out of the bottle, it never got put back in. For Titus, that was usually enough. Louis, on the other hand, liked to film the rapes, set the girl up so it looked consensual, and then, just to remove any last shred of hope the girl had, he would threaten to send the tapes to their often religious, traditional parents.

  In many ways, it was the perfect setup. You find girls who start out already scarred, already on the run, with bad daddy issues or maybe escaping abuse. They are, yes, wounded gazelles. You take those girls and then you strip away whatever else might be left. You hurt them. You make them afraid. You get them addicted to a drug. And then, when all hope is gone, you give them a savior.

  You.

  By the time he put them out on the street or into a higher-end brothel--Titus worked both--they would do anything to please him. A few ran back home--a business expense--but not too many. Two girls even managed to make their way to the police, but it was their word against his, with no evidence, and by then, they were crack (or heroin) whores and really, who believed them or cared?

  That was all behind him now.

  Right now, Titus was finishing up his afternoon walk. He enjoyed this time, out alone in the woods behind the barn, surrounded by the lush green of foliage and the deep blue of the sky. This surprised him. He'd been born in the Bronx, ten blocks north of Yankee Stadium. Growing up, his idea of outdoor space had been the fire escape. He knew only the hustle and noise of the city, believed that it was part of him, in his blood, that he had been not only fully acclimated to brick and mortar and concrete but could not live without it. Titus had been one of eight children living in a run-down two-bedroom walk-up on Jerome Avenue. It was impossible for him to remember a time when he was alone or could bask for more than a moment or two in silence. There was little tranquility in his life. It wasn't a question of craving it or not. It was simply an unknown.

  When he had first visited the farm, Titus thought there was no way he could survive the stillness. Now he had come to love the solitude.

  He found his way into the smaller clearing, where Reynaldo, an overmuscled but loyal worker, kept guard. Reynaldo, who was playing fetch with his dog, nodded at Titus. Titus nodded back. The original Amish owner had built root cellars out here. A root cellar was merely a hole in the ground with a door as cover--an underground storage unit to help preserve food at cooler temperatures. They were virtually undetectable if you weren't looking for them.

  The property had fourteen of them.

  He strolled past the pile of clothes. The bright yellow sundress was still on top.

  "How is she?"

  Reynaldo shrugged. "The usual."

  "Do you think she's ready?"

  It was a dumb question. Reynaldo wouldn't know. He didn't even bother responding. Six years ago, Titus had met Reynaldo in Queens. Reynaldo had been a skinny teen working the gay trade and getting beaten twice weekly. Titus realized that the kid wouldn't survive more than another month. The only thing Reynaldo had resembling a family or friend was Bo, a stray Labrador retriever he'd found near the East River.

  So Titus "saved" Reynaldo, gave him drugs and confidence, made him useful.

  The relationship had started as yet another classic ruse, as with the girls. Reynaldo became his most obedient lackey and muscle. But something had changed over the years. Evolved, if you will. Strange as it might seem, Titus had feelings for Reynaldo. No, not like that.

  He considered Reynaldo family.

  "Bring her to me tonight," Titus said. "Ten o'clock."

  "Late," Reynaldo said.

  "Yes. That a problem?"

  "No. Not at all."

  Titus stared at the bright yellow sundress. "One more thing."

  Reynaldo waited.

  "The pile of clothes. Burn them."

  Chapter 14

  It was as though Park Avenue froze.

  In Kat's periphery, she could still see the students trudge by, still hear the occasional laugh and car horn, but all of it was suddenly so far away.

  Kat held the picture in her hand. It was that shot of Jeff on the sand, the broken fence behind him, the waves crashing in the distance. Maybe it was the beach scene, but it now felt as though seashells were pressed against both her ears. Kat felt adrift, numbly holding the photograph of her old fiance, staring at it as though it might suddenly explain everything to her.

  Brandon stood. For a moment, she worried that he might sprint off, leaving her with this damn picture and too many questions. She reached out and grabbed his wrist. Just to make sure. Just to make sure that he didn't vanish.

  "You know him, right?" he asked.

  "What the hell is going on, Brandon?"

  "You're a cop."

  "Right."

  "So before I reveal anything, you have to give me immunity or something."

  "What?"

  "It's why I didn't tell you before. What I did. It's like the Fifth Amendment or something. I don't want to incriminate myself."

  "Coming to me," Kat said. "It wasn't a coincidence."

  "It wasn't."

  "How did you find me?"

  "That's the part I'm not sure I should tell you," he said. "I mean, the Fifth Amendment and all that."

  "Brandon?"

  "What?"

  "Cut the crap," Kat said. "Tell me what the hell is going on. Tell me now."

  "Suppose," he said slowly, "the way I found you. It was kind of, well, illegal."

  "I don't care."

  "What?"

  Kat gave him a dagger stare. "I'm about to take out my gun and jam it in your mouth. What the hell is going on, Brandon?"

  "Just tell me one thing first." He pointed to the picture in her hand. "You know him, right?"

  Her eyes dropped back to the picture. "I did."

  "So who is he?"

  "An old boyfriend," she said softly.

  "Yeah, I got that. I mean--"

  "What do you mean, you got that?" She looked at him. Something crossed his face. How had he found her? How would he know that Jeff was her old boyfriend? How would . . .

  The answer suddenly became obvious. "Did you hack into a computer or something?"

  She could see by the look on his face that she had hit pay dirt. It made sense now. Brandon didn't want to come to a cop admitting he had broken the law. So he came up with this story about hearing that she was a good detective.

  "It's okay, Brandon. I don't care about any of that."

  "You don't?"

  Kat shook her head. "Just tell me what's going on, okay?"

  "You promise it's just between us?"

  "I promise."

  He took a deep breath, let it out. His eyes were filling up with tears. "At UConn, I'm a computer science major. My friends and me. We're good with programming and designing, that kind of stuff. So it wasn't hard. I mean, it's just a dating website. The sites with the serious firewalls and security? They deal with higher-ticket items. Only thing you can get off a dating site is maybe credit card info. So that they keep secure. The rest of the site? Not so much."

  "You hacked into YouAreJustMyType.com?"

  Brandon nodded. "Like I said, not the financial stuff. That would take forever. But the other pages, well, it took us maybe two hours to get it. The files keep records of everything--who you click on, who you communicate with, what times, who you message. Even instant messages. The website keeps logs on all that."

  Kat saw it now. "And you saw mine with Jeff."

  "Yeah."

  "And that's how you knew my name. From our instant messages."

  He stayed silent. But it all made sense to her now. She handed him back the photograph.

  "You should go home, Brandon."

  "What?"

  "Jeff's a good guy. Or at least, he was. They found each other. Your mom is a widow. He's a widower. Maybe it's real. Maybe they're in love. Either way, your mother is a grown woman. You shouldn't go spying on her."

  "I wasn't spying on her," he said, defensive now. "I mean, not at first. But when she didn't call me--"

  "She's away with a man. That's why she didn't call you. Grow up."

  "But he doesn't love her."

  "How do you know?"

  "He called himself Jack. Why did he do that if his name is Jeff?"

  "Lots of people use aliases online. That doesn't mean anything."

  "And he talked to a lot of other women."

  "So? That's the point of the site. You talk to a lot of potential partners. You're trying to find a needle in a haystack."

  Jeff talked, she thought, to me even. Of course, he didn't have the balls to tell her he had already found someone new. No, instead he gave her that crock about being protective and needing a fresh start. Meanwhile, he had already hooked up with another woman.

  Why not just say so?

  "Look," Brandon said, "I just need to know his real name and address. That's all."

  "I can't help you, kid."

  "Why not?"

  "Because this isn't my business." She shook her head and added, "Man, you have no idea how much this isn't my business."

  Her cell phone buzzed. She checked the message and saw it was from Stagger: Bethesda fountain. Ten minutes.

  Kat rose from the bench. "I gotta go."

  "Where?"

  "Also not your business. This is over, Brandon. Go home."

  "Just tell me his name and address, okay? I mean, what's the harm? Just his name."

  Part of her thought that telling him was a mistake. Part of her was still a little hurt that he had pushed her aside. What the hell. The kid did have a right to know who his mom was shtupping, didn't he?

 
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