Chapter 23

Grace threw on a Coldplay CD for the ride, hoping it'd distract her. It did and it didn't. On one level she understood exactly what was happening to her with no need for interpretation. But the truth, in a sense, was too stark. To face it straight on would paralyze. That was where the surrealism probably derived from-self-preservation, the need to protect and even filter what one saw. Surrealism gave her the strength to go on, to pursue the truth, to find her husband, as opposed to the eye of reality, stark and naked and alone, which made her want to crouch into a small ball or maybe scream until they took her away.

Her cell phone rang. She instinctively glanced at the display before hitting the hands-free. Again, no, not Jack. It was Cora. Grace picked up and said, "Hey."

"I won't classify the news as bad or good, so let me put it this way. Do you want the weird news first or the really weird news?"


"I can't reach Gus of the small wee-wee. He won't answer his calls. I keep getting his voice mail."

Coldplay started singing, appropriately enough, a haunting number entitled "Shiver." Grace kept both hands on the wheel, perfectly placed at ten and two o'clock. She stayed in the middle lane and drove exactly the speed limit. Cars flew by on both her right and left.

"And the really weird news?"

"Remember how we tried to see the calls from two nights ago? I mean, the ones Jack might have made?"


"Well, I called the cell phone company. I pretended I was you. I assumed you wouldn't mind."

"Correct assumption."

"Right. Anyway, it didn't matter. The only call Jack's made in the past three days was to your cell phone yesterday."

"The call he made when I was at the police station."


"So what's weird about that?"

"Nothing. The weird part was on your home phone."

Silence. She stayed on the Merritt Parkway, her hands on the wheel at ten and two o'clock.

"What about it?"

"You know about the call to his sister's office?" Cora asked.

"Yeah. I found that one by hitting redial."

"And his sister-what's her name again?"

"Sandra Koval."

"Sandra Koval, right. She told you that she wasn't there. That they never talked."


"The phone call lasted nine minutes."

A small shudder skipped through Grace. She forced her hands to stay at two and ten. "Ergo she lied."

"It would seem."

"So what did Jack say to her?"

"And what did she say back?"

"And why did she lie about it?"

"Sorry to have to tell you," Cora said.

"No, it's good."

"How do you figure?"

"It's a lead. Before this, Sandra was a dead end. Now we know she's somehow involved."

"What are you going to do about it?"

"I don't know," Grace said. "Confront her, I guess."

They said good-bye and Grace hung up. She drove a little farther, trying to run the scenarios through her head. "Trouble" came on the CD player. She pulled into an Exxon station. New Jersey didn't have self-serve, so for a moment Grace just sat in her car, not realizing that she had to fill it up herself.

She bought a bottle of cold water at the station's mini-mart and dropped the change into a charity can. She wanted to think this through some more, this connection to Jack's sister, but there wasn't time for finesse here.

Grace remembered the number of the Burton and Crimstein law firm. She took out her phone and pressed in the digits. Two rings later she asked to be connected to Sandra Koval's line. She was surprised when Sandra herself said, "Hello?"

"You lied to me."

There was no reply. Grace walked back toward her car.

"The call lasted nine minutes. You talked to Jack."

More silence.

"What's going on, Sandra?"

"I don't know."

"Why did Jack call you?"

"I'm going to hang up now. Please don't try to contact me again."


"You said he called you already."


"My advice is to wait until he calls again."

"I don't want your advice, Sandra. I want to know what he said to you."

"I think you should stop."

"Stop what?"

"You're on a cell phone?"


"Where are you?"

"I'm at gas station in Connecticut."


"Sandra, I want you to listen to me." There was a burst of static. Grace waited for it to pass. She finished filling the tank and grabbed her receipt. "You're the last person to talk to my husband before he disappeared. You lied to me about it. You still won't tell me what he said to you. Why should I tell you anything?"

"Fair point, Grace. Now you listen to me. I'm going to leave you with one last thought before I hang up: Go home and take care of your children."

The line went dead. Grace was back in the car now. She hit redial and asked to be connected to Sandra's office. Nobody answered. She tried again. Same thing. So now what? Try to show up in person again?

She pulled out of the gas station. Two miles later Grace saw a sign that said STARSHINE ASSISTED LIVING CENTER. Grace was not sure what she'd been expecting. The nursing home of her youth, she guessed, those one-level edifices of plain brick, the purest form of substance-over-style that, in a perverse way, reminded her of elementary schools. Life, alas, was cyclical. You start in one of those plain brick buildings, you end there. Turn, turn, turn.

But the Starshine Assisted Living Center was a three-story faux Victorian hotel. It had the turrets and the porches and the bright yellow of the painted ladies of old, all set against a ghastly aluminum siding. The grounds were manicured to the point where everything looked a tad too done, almost plastic. The place was aiming for cheery but it was trying too hard. The whole effect reminded Grace of Epcot Center at Disney World-a fun reproduction but you'd never mistake it for the real thing.

An old woman sat on a rocking chair on the front porch. She was reading the paper. She wished Grace a good morning and Grace did likewise. The lobby too tried to force up memories of a hotel from a bygone era. There were oil paintings in gaudy frames that looked like the kind of thing you'd buy at one of those Holiday Inn sales where everything was $19.99. It was obvious that they were reproductions of classics, even if you had never seen Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party or Hopper's Nighthawks.

The lobby was surprisingly busy. There were elderly people, of course, lots of them, in various states of degeneration. Some walked with no assistance, some shuffled, some had canes, some had walkers, some had wheelchairs. Many seemed spry; others slept.

The lobby was clean and bright but still had that-Grace hated herself for thinking like this-old-people smell, the odor of a sofa turning moldy. They tried to cover it up with something cherry, something that reminded Grace of those dangling tree fresheners in gypsy cabs, but there are some smells that you can never mask.

The singular young person in the room-a woman in her mid-twenties-sat behind a desk that was again aiming for the era but looked like something just bought at the Bombay Company. She smiled up at Grace.

"Good morning. I'm Lindsey Barclay."

Grace recognized the voice from the phone. "I'm here to see Mr. Dodd."

"Bobby's in his room. Second floor, room 211. I'll take you."

She rose. Lindsey was pretty in a way that only the young are, with that enthusiasm and smile that belong exclusively to the innocent or the cult recruiter.

"Do you mind taking the stairs?" she asked.

"Not at all."

Many of the residents stopped and said hello. Lindsey had time for every one of them, cheerfully returning each greeting, though Grace the cynic couldn't help but wonder if this was a bit of a show for the visitor. Still Lindsey knew all the names. She always had something to say, something personal, and the residents seemed to appreciate that.

"Seems like mostly women," Grace noted.

"When I was in school, they told us the national ratio in assisted living is five women for every one man."


"Yes. Bobby jokes that he's waited his whole life for that kind of odds."

Grace smiled.

She waved a hand. "Oh, but he's all talk. His wife-he calls her 'his Maudie'-died almost thirty years ago. I don't think he's looked at a woman since."

That silenced them. The corridor was done up in forest green and pink, the walls lined with the familiar-Rockwell prints, dogs playing poker, black-and-whites from old movies like Casablanca and Strangers on a Train. Grace limped along. Lindsey noticed it-Grace could tell the way she cut quick glances-but like most people, she said nothing.

"We have different neighborhoods at Starlight," Lindsey explained. "That's what we call the corridors like this. Neighborhoods. Each has a different theme. The one we're in now is called Nostalgia. We think the residents find it comforting."

They stopped at a door. A nameplate on the right said "B. Dodd." She knocked on the door. "Bobby?"

No reply. She opened the door anyway. They stepped into a small but comfortable room. There was a tiny kitchenette on the right. On the coffee table, ideally angled so that you could see it from both the door and the bed, was a large black-and-white photograph of a stunning woman who looked a bit like Lena Horne. The woman in the picture was maybe forty but you could tell that the picture was old.

"That's his Maudie."

Grace nodded, lost for a moment in this image in the silver frame. She thought again about "her Jack." For the first time she allowed herself to consider the unthinkable: Jack might never come home. It was something she'd been avoiding from the moment she'd heard the minivan start up. She might never see Jack again. She might never hold him. She might never laugh at one of his corny jokes. She might never-and this was apropos to think here-grow old with him.

"Are you okay?"


"Bobby must be up with Ira on Reminiscence. They play cards."

They began to back out of the room. "Is Reminiscence another, uh, neighborhood?"

"No. Reminiscence is what we call our third floor. It's for our residents with Alzheimer's."


"Ira doesn't recognize his own children, but he still plays a mean game of poker pinochle."

They were back in the hall. Grace noticed a cluster of images next to Bobby Dodd's door. She took a closer look. It was one of those box frames people use to display trinkets. There were army medals. There was an old baseball, brown with age. There were photographs from every era of the man's life. One photograph was of his murdered son, Bob Dodd, the same one she'd seen on the computer last night.

Lindsey said, "Memory box."

"Nice," Grace said, because she didn't know what else to say.

"Every patient has one by their door. It's a way to let everyone know about you."

Grace nodded. Summing up a life in a twelve-by-eight box frame. Like everything else about this place, it managed to be both appropriate and creepy at the exact same time.

To get to the Reminiscence floor you had to use an elevator that worked by a coded numeric keypad. "So the residents don't wander," Lindsey explained, which again fit into the "making sense yet giving the willies" style of this place.

The Reminiscence floor was comfortable, well appointed, well staffed, and terrifying. Some residents were functional, but most wilted in wheelchairs like dying flowers. Some stood and shuffled. Several muttered to themselves. All had that glazed, hundred-yard stare.

A woman deep into her eighties jangled her keys and started for the elevator.

Lindsey asked, "Where are you going, Cecile?"

The old woman turned toward her. "I have to pick up Danny from school. He'll be waiting for me."

"It's okay," Lindsey said. "School won't be out for another two hours."

"Are you sure?"

"Of course. Look, let's have some lunch and then you can pick up Danny, okay?"

"He has piano lessons today."

"I know."

A staff member came over and steered Cecile away. Lindsey watched her go. "We use validation therapy," she said, "with our advanced Alzheimer's patients."

"Validation therapy?"

"We don't argue with them or try to make them see the truth. I don't, for example, tell her that Danny is now a sixty-two-year-old banker with three grandchildren. We just try to redirect them."

They walked down a corridor-no, "neighborhood"-filled with life-size dolls of babies. There was a changing table and teddy bears.

"Nursery neighborhood," she said.

"They play with dolls?"

"Those that are more high functioning. It helps them prepare for visits from great-grandchildren."

"And the others?"

Lindsey kept walking. "Some think they're young mothers. It helps soothe them."

Subconsciously, or maybe not, they picked up the pace. A few seconds later, Lindsey said, "Bobby?"

Bobby Dodd rose from the card table. The first word that came to mind: Dapper. He looked sprightly and fresh. He had dark black skin, thick wrinkles like something you might see on an alligator. He was a snappy dresser in a tweed jacket, two-tone loafers, red ascot with matching hanky. His gray hair was cropped close and slicked down.

His manner was upbeat, even after Grace explained that she wanted to talk to him about his murdered son. She looked for some signs of devastation-a wetness in the eye, a tremor in the voice-but Bobby Dodd showed nothing. Okay, yes, Grace was dealing in heavy generalities, but could it be that death and big-time tragedy did not hit the elderly as hard as the rest of us? Grace wondered. The elderly could be easily agitated by the little stuff-traffic delays, lines at airports, poor service. But it was as if the big things never quite reached them. Was there a strange selfishness that came with age? Was there something about being closer to the inevitable-having that perspective-that made one either internalize, block, or brush off the big calamities? Can frailty not handle the big blows, and thus a defense mechanism, a survival instinct, runs interference?

Bobby Dodd wanted to help, but he really didn't know much. Grace could see that almost right away. His son had visited twice a month. Yes, Bob's stuff had been packed up and sent to him, but he hadn't bothered opening it.

"It's in storage," Lindsey told Grace.

"Do you mind if I look through it?"

Bobby Dodd patted her leg. "Not at all, child."

"We'll need to ship it to you," Lindsey said. "The storage facility is off site."

"It's very important."

"I can have it overnighted."

"Thank you."

Lindsey left them alone.

"Mr. Dodd-"

"Bobby, please."

"Bobby," Grace said. "When was the last time your son visited you?"

"Three days before he was killed."

The words came quickly and without thought. She finally saw a flicker behind the façade, and she wondered about her earlier observations, about old age making tragedy less hurtful-or does it merely make the mask more deft?

"Did he seem different at all?"


"More distracted, anything like that."

"No." Then: "Or at least I didn't notice, if he did."

"What did you talk about?"

"We never have much to say. Sometimes we talk about his momma. Most of the time we just watch TV. They got cable here, you know."

"Did Jillian come with him?"


He said that too quickly. Something in his face closed down.

"Did she ever come?"


"But not the last time?"

"That's right."

"Did that surprise you?"

"That? No, that"-big emphasis-"didn't surprise me."

"What did?"

He looked off and bit his lower lip. "She wasn't at the funeral."

Grace thought that she must have heard wrong. Bobby Dodd nodded as if he could read her thoughts.

"That's right. His own wife."

"Were they having marital issues?"

"If they were, Bob never said anything to me."

"Did they have any children?"

"No." He adjusted the ascot and glanced away for a moment. "Why are you bringing this all up, Mrs. Lawson?"

"Grace, please."

He did not reply. He looked at her with eyes that spoke of wisdom and sadness. Maybe the answer to elderly coldness is far simpler: Those eyes had seen bad. They didn't want to see more.

"My own husband is missing," Grace said. "I think, I don't know, I think they're connected."

"What's your husband's name?"

"Jack Lawson."

He shook his head. The name meant nothing to him. She asked if he had a phone number or any idea how she could contact Jillian Dodd. He shook his head again. They headed to the elevator. Bobby didn't know the code, so an orderly escorted them down. They rode from floor three to one in silence.

When they reached the door, Grace thanked him for his time.

"Your husband," he said. "You love him, don't you?"

"Very much."

"Hope you're stronger than me." Bobby Dodd walked away then. Grace thought of that silver-framed picture in his room, of his Maudie, and then she showed herself out.