I don’t drive much. Thirty minutes one-way is as far and as long as I go if I can help it. More than that and my head gets fuzzy, which means the shakes can’t be far behind, especially on the return trip. Jackknifing with spasms while in the driver’s seat is not something I’m anxious to do. So I take the bus, which teaches you patience and the importance of a warm coat during the winter and a daily shower during the summer.
Joy and I live in a midtown neighborhood called Brookside where the trees tower over the rooftops and the houses are modest and close, like the people who live in them. Lucy inherited it from her father and sold it to me when she moved in with Simon. The house is a couple of blocks from Sixty-third and Brookside Boulevard, an intersection where I can catch a bus headed in any direction.
Monday was a bus day. I got off near Thirty-eighth and Broadway and walked to Simon’s office, which was on the second floor of a two-story, block-long building. The first floor was anchored on the north by a bar called Blues on Broadway, the rest of the block filled with a dry cleaner, tattoo parlor, health food emporium, and used bookstore. Wilson Bluestone, aka Blues, owned the bar and the building.
Simon’s office was on the south end of the second floor, five hundred square feet filled with his computers and flat screens, and Lucy’s file cabinets. He was digital, handling his cases electronically, and she was analog, preferring hard copy.
A sometime lawyer named Lou Mason had the office on the north end. He was as likely to be tending bar at Blues on Broadway as standing before the bar in court, depending on the status of his license and his latest run-in with judges that didn’t admire his hit-and-run style.
The middle space was for lease. The last tenant had been Decision Making Consultants, run by Kate Scranton. Kate was a psychologist and jury consultant who could read lies in the involuntary facial movements none of us can suppress. We met while Joy and I were still married, Joy accusing me of having an affair with her. Though I wasn’t yet sleeping with Kate, I gave her my heart and left Joy with my pain. After the divorce, I saw my future with Kate until her ex-husband moved to San Diego, taking their troubled teenaged son, Brian, with him. Kate couldn’t bear being separated from her son and followed them to California. She asked me to come with her, telling me there was nothing to keep me in Kansas City.
That’s when Joy’s cancer was diagnosed and I realized that Kate was wrong. When I asked Joy to move in with me until she was better, I asked Kate to understand. Kate tried, but couldn’t. I postponed my trip to San Diego. Kate returned my phone calls with e-mails and answered my e-mails with silence.
One door opened as another closed. At first I thought Kate and Joy had done the opening and closing. Then I realized that those doors swung both ways, that the choices had been as much mine as theirs, and that I was where I needed to be, with Joy, whether her time was long or short. Still, I lingered outside Kate’s door for an instant, jiggling the knob, images of her flashing in my mind. It was unlocked, but I didn’t go in.
Simon was at his desk, which is to say that he was in heaven, three twenty-one-inch monitors arrayed before him, his hands flying across his keyboard, windows flashing on the screens, his head nodding to an internal rhythm. He was a computer genius, catching bad guys in a net of ones and zeros.
“You’re late,” he said, not breaking eye contact with his screens.
“I can’t be late. I’m a consultant. We have no hours, and you and I don’t have an appointment.”
“A consultant is someone who travels, and you don’t travel.”
“I took the bus. That qualifies. And, I have miles to go before I sleep.”
“What about promises, Robert Frost?” he asked, spinning around in his chair to face me. “You have any of those to keep? Like the one you made to me that you’d watch Lucy’s back. She told me what happened at LC’s. For Christ’s sake, Jack, how could you have left your gun at home? She could have been killed!”
“Slow down, Simon. I couldn’t take my gun into the Municipal Farm. I don’t like leaving it in the car, and, besides, LC had a sign on his door that said no guns. That’s the law.”
“How about today? Are you carrying?”
I was, my Glock 23 holstered on hip, beneath my jacket. Carrying it was more a way of staying connected to what I used to be than it was a necessity. My work for Simon and Lucy rarely required that I be armed, and, notwithstanding yesterday’s barbeque shoot-out, Kansas City wasn’t a war zone.
He jumped out of his chair and snatched a page from his printer. “I looked up Missouri’s concealed-carry law, and guess what, it’s not a crime to take a gun into a public place that posts one of those signs as long as it’s not a church or a school. If LC had found out you were carrying, he could have asked you to leave and you could have been fined if you refused, but it wouldn’t have been a crime if you had done your job and protected Lucy.”
Simon was five-five on a tall day and pudgy enough that he needed more time in the gym and less at his desk. He was bald on top, thin on the sides, with a light complexion that flushed full red whenever he got angry, like now.
“There was no way to know what was going to happen.”
He slapped his palms together. “Exactly my point. That’s why you don’t leave your gun at home in your underwear drawer. I’d rather pay your fine than pay for Lucy’s funeral.”
When I was with the FBI, my friends were the agents I worked with and depended on. The job didn’t leave time for another life. When my movement disorder forced me out of the Bureau, those friendships faded, not because they weren’t real or strong, but because they were born out of shared lives we didn’t share anymore. It didn’t help that some of my brethren believed I should have taken the fall for corruption in the Violent Crimes squad I led. With the exception of one of my agents named Ammara Iverson, there were no mutual promises made in good faith to stay in touch only to be broken without malice. There was only a double yellow line between then and now.
Not long after I left the Bureau, Simon asked me to help him with a case he believed in but couldn’t prove. He needed someone who knew how to interrogate witnesses and put together a case that depended on the human elements of motive, means, and opportunity that eluded computer analysis. He’d read the newspaper coverage of my last case with the FBI and asked me if the rumors about my involvement in the corruption were true. I told him no, and he didn’t ask again.
I put the case together for him, and that led to as much work as I could manage and a friendship that grew beyond our work after I introduced him to Lucy. She was my surrogate daughter, which made him my surrogate something or other. Together with Joy, I had more family than I’d had in a long time, and family members are entitled to yell when they are afraid for one another.
“Okay,” I said, my hands up in surrender. “Next time, I’ll shoot the people who catch us in a cross fire. I’m sure they won’t panic when they see me reach for my gun and shoot me before I can get it out of my holster. And, if they do notice what I’m doing, I’ll just ask them to wait a minute so you won’t get mad at me for not killing them first.”
He flipped the paper onto his desk, shaking his head, unable to hide his grin. “Fine, fine, fine. Make fun of me, but remember this. Nebbishes like me don’t get women like Lucy. I mean never. She’s smart. She’s pretty. She’s funny. And she’s got the longest legs I’ve ever seen up close. And, you know what is the most amazing thing of all? She loves me! Me! And I love her. Sometimes I can’t tell whether the gods are smiling on me or laughing because they’re going to pull the rug out from under me.”
“The gods are smiling, so enjoy what you’ve got and don’t worry so much. Life is too unpredictable. I can’t shoot everybody.”
“Which makes you a lousy consultant. Lucy says Jimmy Martin stiffed you on the kids.”
“That he did.”
“Where’s that leave you?”
I shrugged. “Same place as the FBI and the cops. No place. Some of the neighbors are sticking up fliers with the kids’ pictures all over Northeast, and they’ve organized search parties.”
“Where are they looking?”
“Kessler Park, the bluffs, and the river, anyplace you could bury two little kids without being noticed.”
“Any chance they aren’t dead?”
“Not much. There’s been no ransom demand. The FBI has checked out the rest of Jimmy’s family to make certain he didn’t stash the kids with one of them, and they’ve run down his known acquaintances and come up empty. If Evan and Cara are still alive, someone has to be taking care of them, and there aren’t any likely candidates.”
“What else can you do?”
I shook my head. “Keep looking, go back to the friends and family, and hope somebody remembers something or lets something slip. It’s not much of a plan, but it is what it is.”
“So what can I do?”
“A couple of things. A gun dealer that lived at Lake Perry died on his way home from a gun show in Topeka last month. Hit a deer and had a heart attack. Somebody stole his inventory before his body was found. See what you can dig up on it.”
“Because someone is going to pay me or because you’re asking me?”
“Because you’re a humanitarian. And, because one of the stolen handguns was used in the shooting at LC’s.”
“Lucy told me, the guy who killed his wife. Why do you care?”
“Roni Chase, the woman who shot him, may be in over her head.”
“Is she going to pay me?”
“I was thinking it would work the other way. You pay her.”
“That would make me a moron, not a humanitarian.”
“Actually, it would make you her employer. You’ve been looking for someone who can help you analyze financial records. She’s got an accounting degree and runs a bookkeeping company. You remember the Jensen case from last year, the one where the bookkeeper embezzled a couple hundred grand from that construction company?”
“Give me a set of the records, let her take a look at them, see if she can put it together. You already know what’s there. If she can find it, maybe you can use her. Plus, she’s a good shot and takes her gun into restaurants.”
He shrugged and pursed his lips. “I’ve got a better idea.” He pulled up a file on his middle screen, tapped a few keys, copied it to a CD, and handed it to me. “These are the financials on a new case I’ve got for an electrical supply company. I redacted the company name. Tell her if she finds what I think is buried in those numbers, she can be a consultant making the middle money just like you.”
“What are you looking for?”
He smiled. “Like I’m going to tell you.”
“Why not tell me?”
“Because I know that look on your face. This Roni reminds you of your daughter, Wendy, or someone else who reminds you of Wendy, so if I tell you, you’ll tell her because you think if you save enough stray cats and dogs you’ll pay a debt you don’t owe and couldn’t pay if you did.”
I slipped the CD into my side jacket pocket, not arguing because he was right.
“Jack, do both of you a favor and just give her the disc. Let her save herself.”