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hi dad i

hi dad

I stop. I should turn off the phone and strip the battery and throw it all away, somewhere into the woods where it’ll get rained on and short out, and it’ll be like I never had it at all.

I can’t do this. I shouldn’t do this. It’s bad. It’s dangerous.

But it’s like the impulse to light those matches. This time, Lanny won’t walk in and yell at me to stop before I burn the house down.

There’s nobody but Boot, gazing up at me with sad eyes.

I press the “Send” button.

The second I do it, I know it’s wrong, and I wish I could take it back. I feel sick, and I grip the phone so hard I think I might break it. Turn it off. You have to turn it off. Boot looks at me like he can tell I’m upset; he gets up and sits taller so he can lick my face. I can hardly feel it, but I put my arms around him and hug him, tight.

He whimpers a little and wiggles in my grasp. I’m going to turn it off and throw it away, I promise, even though I’m not sure who I’m really promising it to. Me? Lanny? Mom? I slide the cover off. I reach for the battery.

And then it’s too late, because the phone shakes in my hand.

I let go of Boot, and I open the phone and stare at the words on the screen.

hi son

I should throw it away. I know I should. I’m not crazy.

But just looking at the phone, I can hear his voice. I can feel the way he hugged me on the good days, the days when everything was right. I don’t think about the other days, most of them, when Dad drifted through the house like a ghost and looked at us like strangers. Sometimes, he’d go days without talking to us. Sometimes, he wouldn’t be there at all. Working, Mom always said, but I could feel how worried she was that he wouldn’t come home.

This message feels like Good Dad. I’m back home, and I’m not scared anymore, and everything is finally . . . safe.

Just this once, I think. I’ll get rid of the phone tomorrow.

That’s how it starts.

 

 

11

GWEN

After leaving the warehouse, we head back to the coffee shop. Nursing more caffeine, and I ask for a phone book from the counter lady, who gives me a disbelieving look and finally unearths a water-stained copy that must be nearly ten years old from the back of a cabinet. I don’t tell her why I’m such a Luddite, and she doesn’t ask, thank God.

The directory gives me the phone number and street address for Rivard Luxe.

I work through six choose-a-number menu options before I reach the cool, disinterested voice of an operator, who calmly informs me that Mr. Rivard is not available for calls. I expect that. I say, “Please send a message to him and ask him if he’s missing an investigator he hired a few months ago. If he is, I’ve found his man. He’s dead.”

There’s a short silence while the operator parses that out, and she doesn’t sound quite so serene when she replies. “I’m sorry, did you say dead?”

“Absolutely. Here’s my phone number.” I read it off to her. I’ll have to buy a new disposable after this, but that’s an acceptable trade-off, because I was planning to do that anyway. “Tell him he has one hour to call me back. After that, I won’t answer.”

“I see. And . . . your name?”

“Miss Smith,” I say. “One hour. Understand?”

“Yes, Miss Smith. I’ll see he gets the message right away.”

She sounds off balance enough that I believe her. I hang up and raise my eyebrows at Sam, who nods. We’re well aware that he could do a variety of things, including calling the Atlanta police, and we’re fully prepared to ditch the phone into the trash the second we see a cruiser. We watch the comings and goings of patrons. Nobody pays attention to us. The hot topics are, as in most coffee shops, schoolwork, writing, politics, and religion. Sometimes all at once.

Ten minutes later, my phone rings. “Please connect me to Miss Smith.”

“I’m Miss Smith,” I tell him. “Who’s this?”

“Ballantine Rivard.” He has a southern accent, but it isn’t Georgia. It’s an unmistakable Louisiana drawl, rich as cream sauce.

“And how can I be sure it’s you, sir?”

“You can’t,” he says, and he sounds amused about it. “But since you reached out to me, I suppose you’ll have to take your chances.”

He’s right. I can’t prove I’m talking to the right man, but what choice do I really have? “I want to talk to you about the man you hired. The one who’s gone missing.”

“The dead man, according to your discussion with Mrs. Yarrow.”

“Yes,” I tell him. “He’s dead. I can tell you what I know, if you meet with us.”

“If you knew anything at all about me, you’d know I don’t meet with anyone.” He still sounds polite, but there’s a new firmness. I can sense I’m losing him. “Please call the police with your story, Miss Smith. I have no money for whatever scheme you’re—”

“I’m not looking for money,” I interrupt him. I decide to take a chance. “I’m looking for Absalom. And I think you are, too.”

There’s an electric silence that stretches on forever before he says, “You have my attention. Talk.”

“Not on the phone,” I say. “We’ll come to you.”

Sam is watching me intently, coffee forgotten now. He’s as surprised as I am that the great Ballantine Rivard returned my call, and that he’s still on the phone.

“You’ll be thoroughly searched,” Rivard says. “And you’d best not be wasting my time, or I promise you, I’ll have you arrested without a second thought. Do you understand?”

“Yes.”

“Then come to the Luxe building, downtown Atlanta. I assume you are in town?”

“Yes.”

“And what are your real names? The ones on your identification you will be showing my people?”

I don’t like doing it, but he’s right; I’m going to have to show ID. “Gwen Proctor,” I tell him. “And Sam Cade.” I know that he’ll have minions Googling us in seconds, providing him with a complete dossier of every news report ever written about Gwen Proctor, and Gina Royal. It’ll be a thick enough file. Sam’s will be far thinner.

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