CHAPTER 12

I looked at the piece of paper the chief had given me. Randy’s ex-wife, Sandra Van Buren. Randy and Sandy. They must have heard that a lot. Van Buren was either her maiden name or else she’d remarried. Either way, I wondered how she’d react to me calling her. I was about to find out.

I was back in my truck, in the parking garage. I dialed Sandra’s number on the cell phone I keep in the truck, an old analog piece of crap that I don’t use very often. The call didn’t go through. I tried again. The connection crackled and gave out. I threw the phone on the seat.

I got out of the truck and went down to the street, then back to the same bar. The bartender had finished washing a few more glasses. The woman was still watching her soap opera. She didn’t look up at me this time, either, even when I walked right past her. I had noticed a pay phone in the hallway by the bathroom, with a battered phone book sitting on a wooden chair. I put the phone book on the floor and sat on the chair. It creaked like it was going to give out and then decided not to.

After I keyed in my calling card, I dialed Sandra’s number. Over two thousand miles from where I was sitting, her phone rang. After four rings, she picked up.

“Ms. Van Buren,” I said. Up to that moment, I hadn’t even thought about what to say to her. “My name is Alex McKnight. I’m a friend of Randy’s.”

There was a long silence; then she cleared her throat and spoke. “Yes?”

“I’m just outside the hospital,” I said. “I saw him in the Intensive Care Unit.”

“What do you want?” she said.

There was a low humming on the line, riding back and forth across the country. “I just wanted to tell you,” I said, “that I spent a few days with Randy last week. He came all the way out here… well, partly just to see me, I guess. That’s what he said. And we…”

We what? What did we do? What could I say to her?

“It was the first time I had seen him in almost thirty years,” I said. “We played ball together back in 1971.”

She didn’t say anything.

“I didn’t know anything about what had happened to him since then,” I said.

“What do you mean, happened to him?” she said. “Nothing happened to him. He happened to us, Mr. McKnight. He destroyed everybody around him.”

“I understand that,” I said. “Now that I know, I mean… I just wanted to tell you one thing, because I have to. When I was with him last week, all he kept talking about were your children.”

“Stop right there,” she said. “Don’t even say that.”

“It’s true,” I said.

“If he said that, he was feeding you a line. Why do you think he came out there, anyway? You think he came out there just to hang out with his old baseball buddy?”

“I obviously don’t know Randy as well as I thought I did,” I said. “But I swear to God, he talked like a man who was very proud of his kids. You can’t fake that. Nobody can.”

“The policeman told me he was looking for a woman,” she said. “What do you think he was going to do when he found her? Tell her how proud he was of his kids?”

“I didn’t know why he was trying to find her,” I said. “I mean I thought I did, but…”

“It figures,” she said. “He had to go back thirty years to find somebody who’d still believe him.”

“Ms. Van Buren…”

“It’s Mrs. Van Buren,” she said. “I’m married to somebody else now. I try not to think about the past, okay? I didn’t need that policeman calling me up today, and frankly, I didn’t need this call, either.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I just had to call you.”

“Okay, you called me. You did what you thought you had to do.”

“Yes,” I said. “And I was thinking maybe I’d call your children, too.”

“I can’t stop you,” she said.

“If there’s a change in his condition…”

“Don’t bother,” she said. “I don’t care what happens to him. I really don’t.”

“All right,” I said. “All right, then. I guess that’s it.”

“I guess so,” she said.

“Good-bye.”

She hung up.

I sat there on the chair with the receiver in my lap, staring at the wall. The paneling was loose. One good pull and I’d bring the whole thing down on top of me.

The next name was Annette Wilkins. I dialed the number and got a recording telling me that the Turtle Cafe would open at 11:00 A.M. for lunch. I looked at my watch. It was 2:15 Michigan time, 11:15 California time. Somebody was late opening up the place.

I tried Jonathan Wilkins’s number next. I got a secretary telling me I had reached the law offices of about six names I couldn’t catch. When I asked for Mr. Wilkins, I was put on hold.

There was classical music for a while, and then a voice. “This is John.”

“Mr. Wilkins, my name is Alex McKnight. I’m calling about your father.”

“My father the embezzler and con artist? How much did he take you for?”

“I imagine you’ve heard about what’s happened to him here in Michigan.”

“Yes,” he said. “The police chief from Orcus Beach called last night. Wherever that is. Are you connected with the hospital?”

“No, I’m an old friend of his,” I said. “I just talked to your mother.”

“I don’t imagine that was a pleasant conversation,” he said.

“Not really,” I said. “But I had to call her, and I had to call you. Your father said some things about you when I saw him last week. I thought you should know.”

“What did he say?”

“He said that you had just passed the bar and that you were working as a lawyer in San Francisco. And that you’re going to have a baby soon.”

“That’s amazing,” he said. “Not one piece of that is a he. It’s a new record for him.”

“He also said that he was very proud of you.”

“Ah, well, there you go. The streak is broken.”

“I may be out of line, but I think he really meant it.”

“Mr. McKnight, what did he tell you about his baseball career? Did he tell you about all the games he won for the Tigers back in the seventies?”

“No, I know he only pitched in one game.”

“Aha, that’s story B. He shut out the Orioles in his one major-league appearance. Then he hurt his arm breaking up a mugging and never pitched again.”

“No, I know what happened. I know he got shelled and then never made it back up.”

“Oh, so he couldn’t lie to you about that. What a cruel twist of fate. That must have driven him crazy.”

“Mr. Wilkins…”

“I’m sorry, sir. I shouldn’t be taking this out on you. It’s just that you don’t know what he did to us. Did he tell you about his father’s company?”

“He mentioned something about his father being in commercial real estate, and him taking over the business.”

“That’s rich,” he said. “I love that. He took over the business all right. He took it over and drove it right into the Pacific Ocean. Which is basically what he got caught trying to sell. He did time in a federal prison for what he did to his father’s company. Did he tell you that?”

“No,” I said. “But the chief told me about the prison time.”

“And then when he got out? His new hobby? Charming wealthy women and then draining their bank accounts? I don’t imagine my father mentioned that, either.”

“No.”

“I didn’t think so,” he said. “He’s funny that way.”

“Well, I don’t think there’s anything else to say, then.”

“No, although you know what?” he said. “Out of all his kids, I’m probably the only one who really owes him something.”

“How’s that?”

“I became a lawyer just so I can take guys like my father to court and make them pay back everything they steal from people. It’s the only way I can make up for being related to him.”

I didn’t have anything to say to that. Not that he would have heard it. He gave me a “Good day” and hung up.

“Well, this is going beautifully,” I said to the wall. “It was such a brilliant idea. If I had a brain in my head, I’d stop right now.”

I looked at the youngest son’s name on the list. If I was going to keep doing this, I wanted to save him for last. I dialed the daughter’s number at the restaurant again. This time, I got a real voice.

“Can I speak to Annette Wilkins?” I said.

“This is she.”

“My name is Alex McKnight,” I said. “I’m calling about your father.”

Click. And then a dial tone.

Okay, so much for the daughter, I thought. This is getting better and better. I’ll go for the last one while I’m hot.

There was nothing on the sheet but his name and number, but I remembered Randy telling me that Terry was a freshman at UC-Santa Barbara. I didn’t know what to believe anymore, but I assumed that’s where I was calling him. When the phone was picked up, I heard a lot of noise and music in the background. It certainly sounded like a college dorm to me.

“Hello,” I said. “I’m looking for Terry Wilkins.”

“Hold on.”

There was just the music for a while; then finally the phone was picked up again.

“Hello?”

‘Terry, my name is Alex McKnight,” I said. “I’m calling about your father.”

A long pause. “What about him?”

“Look, I’ve already talked to your mother and your brother,” I said. “And your sister just hung up on me. I know nobody wants to hear about him. But I’m an old friend of his from the minor leagues.”

“You played baseball with my father?”

“Yes,” I said. “I was his catcher. He told me that you’re a catcher, too. He said you can really hit the ball.”

“I don’t know how he’d know that,” he said. “He hasn’t seen me play in like seven years.”

“Wait a minute-”

“Yeah, the last time was before he went to Folsom. Gotta be seven years ago, back when I was in Little League. I haven’t even seen him since then.”

“He talked about watching you play ball there on the college team,” I said. “He said you were good behind the plate, like I used to be. That you could really drive the ball. For God’s sake, Terry, are you sure he hasn’t seen you play at all?”

“If he saw me, he did it without me knowing about it.”

I didn’t know what to say. Was he lying about that even? About his own kids?

“I’m sorry, Terry. I just felt like I should call you and talk to you. All I’ve done is make your whole family unhappy today.”

“It’s all right,” he said. “I don’t mind. Did you see him today?”

“Yeah, I saw him. He’s not conscious now, so… I don’t know what’s gonna happen, Terry.”

He didn’t say anything.

“Wait a minute,” I said. “UCLA. You were playing a game against UCLA, he told me. When I dropped him off at the airport, he mentioned the game. That would have been…” I thought about it. “Saturday. The game would have been Saturday.”

“Yeah, we did have a game against UCLA on Saturday,” he said. “But I didn’t end up playing myself.”

“But you did have a game,” I said. “He was right about that.”

“Yeah, I guess he was. Whatever that means.”

“Well, for what it’s worth, he kept talking about how proud he is that you’re his son and you’re a catcher like I was.”

A long silence.

‘Terry? Are you still there?”

“Yeah, I’m here. I just, um… Thanks for calling, okay? I gotta go.”

“Okay, Terry. Good-bye.”

I sat there tapping the receiver against my hand a few times; then I banged it back in place and stood up. When I went back out into the bar, the woman finally looked at me. She was close enough to the hallway to have been listening to my end of the phone calls, and apparently I was more interesting than her soap opera.

I sat at the bar and had one more beer while I thought about what to do next. There was no point in seeing Randy again. I had nothing to say to Chief Rudiger. He was probably back home in Orcus Beach already, investigating the shooting.

Hell, like he was going to lose any sleep over it. A California con man comes to his little town to make a score and gets a shotgun necktie instead. The chief will work hard on that case until he finds the shooter or until dinner time, whichever comes first.

Which leaves what? Me trying to figure out what happened? The chief was right. He got what he deserved.

And yet…

Something. I don’t know what.

Was he really just using me to find her? So he could run a scam on her? After all these years?

You heard about his record, Alex. You heard what his family said. His own family. Randy looked you in the eye and lied to you. It’s that simple.

So why don’t I believe it? Why does my gut tell me it wasn’t all lies?

Because your gut is wrong. You think you know him better than his own family? Just because you caught him for one season in 1971?

You can’t lie to me, Randy. That’s what I said to him. Before I knew better. I can see right through you.

It’s crazy. It’s completely insane. Just leave it alone.

“Hey, barkeep,” I said. “You got a good map of the county?”

“Somewhere I do,” he said, looking up from the sink. “Where you looking to go?”

“Little town called Orcus Beach. You know it?”

“Not much up there,” he said. “But I’ll tell you how to get there if you want.”

“I’d appreciate it.”

“Here, I’ll draw you a map. You going up there right now?”

“In a little while,” I said. “First I gotta go have my fortune told.”

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