Chapter 22

Nursing home residents are always in and happy to have a visitor. Grace called the number and a perky woman answered. "Starshine Assisted Living!"

"I'd like to know about visiting hours," Grace said.

"We don't have them!" She spoke in exclamations.

"Excuse me?"

"No visiting hours. You can visit anytime, twenty-four-seven."

"Oh. I'd like to visit Mr. Robert Dodd."

"Bobby? Well, let me connect you to his room. Oh wait, it's eight. He'll be at exercise class. Bobby likes to keep in shape."

"Is there a way I can make an appointment?"

"To visit?"

"Yes."

"No need, just stop by."

The drive would take her a little under two hours. It would be better than trying to explain over the phone, especially in light of the fact that she didn't have a clue what she wanted to ask him about. The elderly are better in person anyway.

"Do you think he'll be in this morning?"

"Oh sure. Bobby stopped driving two years ago. He'll be here."

"Thank you."

"My pleasure."

At the breakfast table, Max dug his hand deep into the box of Cap'n Crunch. The sight-her child going for the toy-made her pause. It was all so normal. Children sense things. Grace knew that. But sometimes, well, sometimes children are wonderfully oblivious. Right now she was grateful for that.

"You already got the toy out," she said.

Max stopped. "I did?"

"So many boxes, so crummy a toy."

"What?"

The truth was, she had done the same thing when she was a kid-digging to get the worthless prize. Come to think of it, with the same cereal. "Never mind."

She sliced up a banana and mixed it in with the cereal. Grace always tried to be sneaky here, gradually adding more banana and less of the Cap'n. For a while she added Cheerios-less sugar-but Max quickly caught on.

"Emma! Get up now!"

A groan. Her daughter was too young to start with the trouble-getting-out-of-bed bit. Grace hadn't pulled that until she was in high school. Okay, maybe middle school. But certainly, definitely, not when she was eight. She thought about her own parents, dead for so long now. Sometimes one of the kids did something that reminded Grace of her mother or father. Emma pursed her lips so much like Grace's mom that Grace sometimes froze in place. Max's smile was like her dad's. You could see the genetic echo, and Grace never knew if it was a comfort or a painful reminder.

"Emma, now!"

A sound. Might have been a child getting out of bed.

Grace started making one lunch. Max liked to buy it at school and Grace was all for the ease of that. Making lunches in the morning was a pain in the ass. For a while Emma would buy the school lunch too, but something recently grossed her out, some indiscernible smell in the cafeteria that caused an aversion so strong Emma would gag. She ate outside, even in the cold, but the smell, she soon realized, was also in the food. Now she stayed in the cafeteria and brought a Batman lunchbox with her.

"Emma!"

"I'm here."

Emma wore her standard gym-rat garb: maroon athletic shorts, blue high-top Converse all-stars, and a New Jersey Nets jersey. Total clash, which may have been the point. Emma wouldn't wear anything the least bit feminine. Putting on a dress usually required a negotiation of Middle East sensitivity, with often an equally violent result.

"What would you like for lunch?" Grace asked.

"Peanut butter and jelly."

Grace just stared at her.

Emma played innocent. "What?"

"You've been attending this school for how long now?"

"Huh?"

"Four years, right? One year of kindergarten. And now you're in third grade. That's four years."

"So?"

"In all that time how many times have you asked me for peanut butter in school?"

"I don't know."

"Maybe a hundred?"

Shrug.

"And how many times have I told you that your school doesn't allow peanut butter because some children might have an allergic reaction?"

"Oh yeah."

"Oh yeah." Grace checked the clock. She had a few Oscar Mayer "Lunchables," a rather disgustingly processed premade lunch, that she kept around for emergencies-i.e., no time or desire to fix a lunch. The kids, of course, loved them. She asked Emma softly if she'd like one-softly because if Max heard, that would be the end of buying lunch. Emma graciously accepted it and jammed it into the Batman lunchbox.

They sat down to breakfast.

"Mom?"

It was Emma. "Yep."

"When you and Dad got married." She stopped.

"What about it?"

Emma started again. "When you and Dad got married-at the end, when the guy said now you may kiss the bride..."

"Right."

"Well"-Emma cocked her head and closed one eye-"did you have to?"

"Kiss him?"

"Yeah."

"Have to? No, I guess not. I wanted to."

"But do you have to?" Emma insisted. "I mean, can't you just high-five instead?"

"High-five?"

"Instead of kiss. You know, turn to each other and high-five." She demonstrated.

"I guess. If that's what you want."

"That's what I want," Emma said firmly.

Grace took them to the bus stop. This time she did not follow the bus to school. She stayed in place and bit down on her lower lip. The calm façade was slipping off again. Now that Emma and Max were gone, that would be okay.

When she got back to the house, Cora was awake and at the computer and groaning.

"Can I get you something?" Grace asked.

"An anesthesiologist," Cora said. "Straight preferred but not required."

"I was thinking more like coffee."

"Even better." Cora's fingers danced across the keyboard. Her eyes narrowed. She frowned. "Something's wrong here."

"You mean with the e-mails off our spam, right?"

"We're not getting any replies."

"I noticed that too."

Cora sat back. Grace moved next to her and started biting a cuticle. After a few seconds, Cora leaned forward. "Let me try something." She brought up an e-mail, typed something in, sent it.

"What was that all about?"

"I just sent an e-mail to our spam address. I want to see if it arrives."

They waited. No e-mail appeared.

"Hmm." Cora leaned back. "So either something is wrong with the mail system..."

"Or?"

"Or Gus is still ticked about that small wee-wee line."

"How do we find out which?"

Cora kept staring at the computer. "Who were you on the phone with before?"

"Bob Dodd's nursing home. I'm going to pay him a visit this morning."

"Good." Cora's eyes stayed on the screen.

"What is it?'

"I want to check something out," she said.

"What?"

"Nothing probably, just something with the phone bills." Cora started typing again. "I'll call you if I learn anything."

***

Perlmutter left Charlaine Swain with the Bergen County sketch artist. He had forced the truth out of her, thereby unearthing a tawdry secret that would have been better left deep in the ground. Charlaine Swain had been right to keep it from him. It offered no help. The revelation was, at best, a sleazy and embarrassing distraction.

He sat with a doodle pad, wrote the word "Windstar" and spent the next fifteen minutes circling it.

A Ford Windstar.

Kasselton was not a sleepy small town. They had thirty-eight cops on the payroll. They worked robberies. They checked on suspicious cars. They kept the school drug problems-suburban white-kid drugs-under control. They worked vandalism cases. They dealt with congestion in town, illegal parking, car accidents. They did their best to keep the urban decay of Paterson, a scant three miles from the border of Kasselton, at a safe distance. They answered too many false alarms emanating from the technological mating call of too many overpriced motion detectors.

Perlmutter had never fired his service revolver, except on a range. He had, in fact, never drawn his weapon in the line of duty. There had only been three deaths in the last three decades that fell under the possible heading of "suspicious" and all three perpetrators were caught within hours. One was an ex-husband who got drunk and decided to profess his undying love by planning to kill the woman he purportedly adored before turning the shotgun on himself. Said ex-husband managed to get the first part right-two shotgun blasts to the ex's head-but like everything else in his pathetic life, he messed up the second part. He had only brought two shells. An hour later he was in custody. Suspicious Death Two was a teenage bully stabbed by a skinny, tormented elementary-school victim. The skinny kid served three years in juvie, where he learned the real meaning of being bullied and tormented. The final case was of a man dying of cancer who begged his wife of forty-eight years to end his suffering. She did. She got parole and Perlmutter suspected that it was worth it to her.

As for gunshots, well, there had been plenty in Kasselton but almost all were self-inflicted. Perlmutter wasn't much on politics. He wasn't sure of the relative merits of gun control, but he knew from personal experience that a gun bought for home protection was more likely-much, much, much more likely-to be used by the owner to commit suicide than to ward off a home invasion. In fact, in all his years in law enforcement, Perlmutter had never seen a case where the home gun had been used to shoot, stop, or scare away an intruder. Suicides by handguns, well, they were more plentiful than anyone wanted to let on.

Ford Windstar. He circled it again.

Now, after all these years, Perlmutter had a case involving attempted murder, bizarre abduction, unusually brutal assault-and, he suspected, much more. He started doodling again. He wrote the name Jack Lawson in the top left-hand corner. He wrote the name Rocky Conwell in the top right-hand corner. Both men, possibly missing, had crossed a toll plaza in a neighboring state at the same time. He drew a line from one name to the other.

Connection One.

Perlmutter wrote out Freddy Sykes's name, bottom left. The victim of a grievous assault. He wrote Mike Swain on the bottom right. Shot, attempted murder. The connection between these two men, Connection Two, was obvious. Swain's wife had seen the perpetrator of both acts, a stout Chinese guy she made sound like the Son of Odd Job from the old James Bond film.

But nothing really connected the four cases. Nothing connected the two disappearing men to the work of Odd Job's offspring. Except perhaps for one thing:

The Ford Windstar.

Jack Lawson had been driving a blue Ford Windstar when he disappeared. Mini Odd Job had been driving a blue Ford Windstar when he left the Sykes residence and shot Swain.

Granted this was a tenuous connection at best. Saying "Ford Windstar" in this suburb was like saying "implant" at a strip club. It wasn't much to go on, but when you add in the history of this town, the fact that stable fathers do not really just go missing, that this much activity never happens in a town like Kasselton... no, it wasn't a strong tie, but it wasn't far off for Perlmutter to draw a conclusion:

All of this was related.

Perlmutter had no idea how this was all related, and he really didn't want to think about it too much quite yet. Let the techies and lab guys do their jobs first. Let them scour the Sykes residence for fingerprints and hairs. Let the artist finish the sketch. Let Veronique Baltrus, their resident computer weenie and an honest-to-God knockout, sift through the Sykes computer. It was simply too early to make a guess.

"Captain?"

It was Daley.

"What's up?"

"We found Rocky Conwell's car."

"Where?"

"You know the Park-n-Ride on Route 17?"

Perlmutter took off his reading glasses. "The one down the street?"

Daley nodded. "I know. It doesn't make sense. We know he left the state, right?"

"Who found it?"

"Pepe and Pashaian."

"Tell them to secure the area," he said, rising. "We'll check the vehicle out ourselves."

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