From the top of the jetty to the rocks below was roughly twelve feet, give or take. Not enough to break much more than a few limbs, the man standing at the far edge thought wryly. Hardly worth the jump.
Not for the first time, he wished he’d had the jetty built higher.
“Hey! Buddy! You there on the jetty!” a voice called from the beach. “That’s private property.”
The would-be jumper turned to see a man in an Irish knit sweater and jeans picking his way carefully across the rocks, headed straight for him. As he drew closer, the newcomer said, “Most people aren’t aware that the jetty is privately owned. I don’t know that the owner wants the liability of having people walking around out here.”
“I try to keep an eye on the place since the owner doesn’t seem to. We’re just across the street. Never met the guy who owns it. None of us has. Wouldn’t know him if I tripped over him. Realtor says he’s a real nice guy, though.” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder in the direction of the house. “Imagine building a place like that and never moving in?”
He turned to look back at the house. “Then again, I guess it’s understandable. Guy who owns it lost his wife, his only child, too. Disappeared just like that.” He snapped his fingers. “Went off to a party or something and never came back.”
It was a baby shower. Her cousin’s baby shower.
“Yeah, I guess it’s something else inside,” he continued. “But when you consider who built it...” He stopped to watch his brown Lab chasing seagulls along the waterline, then resumed his chatter.
“You probably read about it. Robert Magellan, the gazillionaire? That’s his place. Built it for his wife, just before she went missing. Sad as hell, you know? I couldn’t imagine that, the wife and kid just, poof. Gone.”
Robert stared blankly as the man continued to babble.
He shook his head. “There was some talk early on that maybe he had a hand in it, but no one around here ever bought in to it. You don’t do something like that” --- he pointed to the house --- “as a surprise for someone you’re planning to get rid of. The money it must have cost aside, I heard he picked out everything himself, didn’t even use a decorator. That says something to me about the man, like it must have been real important to him that everything be just right for her, you know?”
“Yes, I know.”
“You must have heard about the guy. Hell, you’d have to have been on another planet not to have. The news coverage last year was nonstop for weeks after it happened. We couldn’t even park in front of our own house with all the news vans and gawkers. Some days we couldn’t even get into our own driveway.”
“That must have been a difficult time for all of you.”
“It was. It sure was. You have no idea what it was like. Of course, now all the neighbors are wondering what he’s going to do with it. We keep watching for a sale sign to go up. Every once in a while, I run into the Realtor --- Janice Wilson, if you’re looking to buy a place down here.” He paused. “You looking to buy a place in Carlson’s Beach?”
“I haven’t decided what I’m going to do.”
“Check in with Janice, Beach Realty, right down there on Bay Avenue. Tell her Ben Miller sent you.”
“Maybe I’ll do that.”
The man whistled for his Lab, but the dog was more interested in the gulls.“Looks like I’m going to have to go after him. Nine years old and he’s still nothing but an overgrown pup. Guess I’d better catch up with him.” He laughed good-naturedly and took a leash from his back pocket, then looked back at Robert. “So you won’t be hanging around here, right? The police do patrol once in a while, try to keep people off the property. Since it is, like I said, private...”
“I’ll be moving on.”
“Okay, well, be careful up there,” Ben Miller called over his shoulder as he made his way down the rocks to the sand below. “It’s a long way down.”
Not long enough.
Robert Magellan watched the man and his frolicking dog until they disappeared over the dune. He took off his dark glasses, rubbed a hand over his face, and tried to decide if he was pleased to know his neighbors believed he’d had nothing to do with Beth and Ian’s disappearance, or pissed at the reminder that the investigation had once focused on him.
“Don’t take it personally,” Joe Drabyak --- chief of police of Conroy, Pennsylvania, their hometown --- had told him. “The spouse is always a suspect. Because usually, when a person goes missing, someone close to that person is the one who made them disappear.”
“You’re wasting time,” Robert had replied angrily. “While you’re sitting here trying to build a case against me, someone else has my wife. My son --- ”
“Let’s get one thing straight, Mr. Magellan.” Drabyak’s voice had gone ice cold. “I’m not trying to ‘build a case’ against anyone. I’m only trying to get to the truth. Right now, my only priority is to find your wife and your son and I couldn’t care less whose toes I step on to do it. Even yours. So I’ll be asking you questions and you’ll be answering them. Believe me, everyone is doing everything they can to locate your family. Every cop between here and Gibson Springs is looking for them, okay? Don’t think for a second that you’re the only person we’re talking to. They’re all looking out there, looking for your wife and your baby boy, but you are here, in my town, and that makes you mine, got it? Trust me, I’m not going to be the only one questioning you. The boys out in the western part of the state want to talk to you, the state wants to talk to you, and the FBI is waiting in the wings. The longer you and I play this game, the longer it will be before we get out of here, so let’s get on with this, shall we?”
Robert may not have liked it, but he couldn’t deny that the police had pulled out every stop to find Beth and the baby. Even he had to admit that the fact that they’d failed was no reflection on the effort. He’d personally witnessed Drabyak’s growing frustration that neither his force, the state police, the FBI, nor any of the private investigators Robert had hired had been able to pin down any real clues to his missing family.
How was it possible that a woman, a baby, and a Jeep Cherokee could disappear into thin air?
He glanced once more at the dark water swirling around the rocks below and pulled up the collar of his jacket. A brisk breeze blew in off the ocean, and clouds were starting to gather overhead. As the sky darkened, Robert walked back along the jetty toward the house. The man-made wall of rock extended along the entire line of his property on one side, gradually diminishing in height until it reached the road out front. He checked to make sure the outbuildings --- the guesthouse, the garage, and the playhouse --- were all securely locked before going up the back steps and into the main house.
He made his way through the silent rooms, trying not to think about the countless hours he’d spent designing this home. So many times, Robert had tried to imagine Beth’s reaction when he brought her here for the first time. He knew she would have loved the fact that he’d bought the weathered shingles from a house that had been demolished in Maine, and that he’d had a guesthouse specially designed where Beth’s sister, Pam, and her husband, Rick, and their children could stay. There was a walled yard where the kids could play safely, and a playhouse that Robert had sketched out for the architect, his own childhood fantasies come to life in clapboard and brick. The master bedroom in the magnificent main house had a balcony with an expansive view of the ocean where he and Beth could watch the sun rise over the water every morning.
He’d just about given up on the dream of sharing that view with her.
His plan today included a stop at the Realtor’s office to tell her he was putting the place on the market, but after having spent the better part of the afternoon here, he realized he wasn’t up to having that conversation today. Tomorrow he’d have Susanna, his assistant, call Janice Wilson and tell her he’d like her to handle the sale of 1217 Heron Place.
Robert walked through the empty rooms, his footsteps echoing on the hardwood floors, and reset the alarm before leaving by the front door just as the first fat drops of rain began to fall. Once outside, he turned the key in the lock and slipped it into his pocket for what he knew would be the last time.
The decision to sell had not been made easily. In Robert’s heart, it felt like a betrayal, because it meant he’d given up on ever seeing Beth and Ian again. But coming here was nothing short of torture for him. It was just one more reminder of that day when his entire world tilted and everything that mattered to him vanished.
“Fuck it,” he said aloud. “Just... fuck it.”
He turned his back on the house, got into his car, and drove home through the rain, the wipers slapping against the glass.
Hours later he found himself seated in his car, the engine turned off, in front of the wide iron gates outside his house. He had no recollection of having driven the five hours from the beach house near Stone Harbor, New Jersey, to his home in Conroy, Pennsylvania, and started to tune back in now only because he had to key in the code to open the gates. That morning, he’d taken the first of the cars that he’d come to when he walked outside. It was the only vehicle that didn’t have the remote for the gates built in.
See how easy it is for something like that to happen? he told himself as he tapped the numbers on the keypad. You take the wrong vehicle and it’s a minor inconvenience. Beth borrowed a car and we lost her forever.
Don’t say forever, a voice inside his head pleaded. Maybe it’s not forever...
He drove around to the back of his house and parked near the brick walk that led to the kitchen.
“Good. You beat the worst of the storm home.” Trula Comfort, Robert’s housekeeper and his late grandmother’s best friend, greeted him as he came in through the back door. “You look like you need something warm. I have fresh coffee made, just put the pot on for Father Kevin. He’s in the den. Been waiting for you for an hour or so. If you’d told me he was coming, I’d have planned one of his favorites for dinner.”
“I didn’t know he was coming,” Robert told her as he accepted the mug she held out to him. He stole a glance at it. bloom where you are planted was apparently the message of the day. “And what about having one of my favorites?”
“You’re here every day. Father Kevin hasn’t been here in two weeks.”
“So what you’re saying is I have to leave to get special treatment.”
“Well, dessert should make you both happy. I picked up some strawberries --- the first of the season --- from that nice young Amish couple who bought the Turners’ farm. You probably don’t remember the Turners --- the family owned that land for, good Lord, must be a hundred years or so.” She fixed her gaze on him to let him know she was not oblivious to the fact that he was inching toward the door. “But now that you bring it up, a nice vacation away would do you good. Be a vacation for me, too, a few weeks without you around. And you could use a little color in your face. Here it is, almost summer, and you’re as pale now as you were in February.” Trula was winding up, Robert could feel it. If he didn’t move quickly, she’d be at full blast and he’d be stuck in here for way longer than he’d like.
“And I’ll probably be just as pale next month.”
“You make a joke, but you could use the vitamin D you get from the sun.”
“I thought those vitamins you make me take every day had lots of D in them.”
“There’s no pill that’s as good as getting it right from the source.” She pushed open the kitchen door and pointed down the hall in the general direction of the den. “Go, make sure Father Kevin doesn’t try to sneak out before dinner.”
“Yes, sir.” Robert followed the pointed finger.
“Funny man,” Trula muttered as he passed.
Robert opened the half-closed door to his den and stepped inside the large well-lit room.
“Trula wants you to stay for dinner,” he said by way of greeting.
“She already invited me,” Father Kevin Burch replied without looking up from the book he was engrossed in. “She tempted me with fresh sea bass. How could I say no?”
“I thought priests weren’t supposed to give in to temptation.” Robert took a chair near the windows opposite his cousin. It occurred to him that when either of them had something on his mind that he wanted to discuss, somehow they both always ended up here, in the den, in these chairs, facing each other.
“We’re also supposed to honor our elders.” Kevin smiled. “You know many people more elderly than Trula?”
“And the last thing Gramma asked was that we take care of her, Trula being on her own and not having any family and all.”
“Trula can take care of herself,” Robert noted. “But I like having her here. Like having her in charge.”
“You like not having to deal with the house,” Kevin pointed out. “Even if she weren’t as efficient as she is, you’d still let her run things. Between her running the house, and Susanna running your life, do you have to make any decisions at all anymore?”
“Not if I can help it.” Robert pulled a small table closer and placed his mug on a coaster. “So to what do we owe the honor?”
Kevin closed the book he’d been reading without marking the place --- uncharacteristic for him --- and Robert knew there was something on his mind.
“We have... a situation in Conroy.” Kevin cleared his throat. “You’ve heard about the two boys who were shot and killed at the playground a couple of weeks back, I’m sure.”
“I may have heard something about it.” Robert tried to think back to the last news report he’d heard. He paid so little attention these days, rarely turning on the television and rarer still opening a newspaper. The events of last year had pretty much cured him of seeking out the reports of the latest local, national, or international tragedies. These past few days, all the talk had been about a sniper on the loose. After the initial story, Robert had pretty much tuned it out. “Refresh me.”
“Four teenagers --- three boys, one girl, all seniors at our school, by the way --- went to the playground on Dexter Street around ten pm two Fridays ago. The next morning, two of the boys were found shot to death. One shot each to the back of the head.”
“And the other two?”
Kevin held out his hands in a gesture of hopelessness. “No one knows what happened to them. They just seem to have vanished.”
There was an awkward pause. Both men had spent the past year dealing with the uncertainties of unexplained disappearances.
“And this involves me how?” Robert asked flatly.
“The boy who disappeared --- he’s Mary Corcoran’s grandson.”
“Mary Corcoran... your Mary Corcoran who works in the rectory?”
Kevin nodded slowly. “She’s raised the boy since he was a baby. His mother, Kathleen, was Mary’s only child. She would have been about thirty-five if she hadn’t died when Ryan --- that’s the boy’s name, Ryan --- was two. Some kids found Kathleen in an abandoned building in Philly, the needle still in her arm, Ryan curled up next to her on the floor.”
“Oh, He must have been there for the boy, when you consider what could have happened to him. The police turned him over to social services, who tracked down the boy’s father, some punk who had no interest whatsoever in the kid. The father suggested they contact Kathleen’s mother, which was the best thing that could have happened. Mary dedicated her life to raising that boy right. I’ve known them --- him and Courtney, the girl who went missing with him --- since they were in grade school. They’re good kids, Rob. There’s no way they had a hand in what happened to their friends.”
“So what were four ‘good kids’ doing in that park after dark on a Friday night? Dexter Street isn’t in the best part of the city.”
“That’s the far end of my parish.” Kevin bristled slightly. “I know the neighborhood has seen better days, but it isn’t exactly a slum. It’s strictly working class, Rob. The whole city is pretty much blue collar these days.”
“So how much do you want?” Robert asked. “I’m assuming you want me to put up the reward money.”
“It’s not reward money I’m asking for.”
Kevin took a deep breath. “One of the two dead boys had taken money out of his savings account the day before, almost a thousand dollars. He’d looked at a car that afternoon but decided he didn’t want it. According to his mother, he still had the money in his pocket when he left the house that night, but the police report indicates there was no money found on either of the bodies. The current thinking is that Ryan --- and possibly Courtney, they’re not sure what her involvement is at this point --- killed the other two and took off with the cash.” Kevin stood and walked to the window. “Mary believes her grandson is innocent. And frankly, so do I. But in the absence of any other suspects...”
“The police have locked in on him as the shooter.”
Kevin nodded. “They keep coming back to the fact that if Ryan and/or Courtney had nothing to do with the murders, at the very least they would have contacted their families by now.”
“Maybe they’re dead,” Robert said bluntly. “Maybe the killers took them along with them and killed them elsewhere.”
“That’s definitely a possibility. Or maybe they were taken and are being held hostage for some reason.”
“Has there been a ransom demand?”
“Not yet.” Kevin paced from the windows to the fireplace and back again.
“Well, as we both learned, if there’s no ransom demand within the first forty-eight hours, there isn’t likely to be one, so kidnapping is probably not what you’re looking at here. What else is on your list of possible scenarios?”
“They could have run when the shooting started, but that doesn’t explain why they haven’t come back or at least contacted someone,” Kevin admitted. “The only thing we know for certain is that they are gone and the police have already decided their guilt.”
“Go back to the part about why you’re telling me this.”
“Mary’s ready to mortgage her house to hire an investigator to find her grandson. She can’t afford to do that. This is a woman who worked two jobs for almost thirty years to pay for that house and raise her daughter’s child. She shouldn’t have to strap herself with another loan at this stage of her life.” Kevin leaned over the back of the chair he’d been sitting in. “I want you to hire an investigator to find out what happened that night, to find Ryan and Courtney.”
“You may have noticed that I haven’t had particularly good luck with private investigators over the past year. I’ve lost track of how many I hired. Not one of them was worth shit.”
“Maybe there’s someone else... someone you didn’t speak with.”
“Are you kidding?” Robert laughed hoarsely. “Every PI on the East Coast descended on this house after Beth and Ian disappeared. And I shouldn’t have to remind you, of all people, not one of them found a damned thing. Five firms, no leads. Every damned one of them spent weeks spinning their wheels and running up exorbitant fees. Sharks circling a bleeding swimmer, Susanna called them. Sorry, but I don’t have much faith in PIs, pal.”
“How about if we try someone for a week and just see if --- ”
“Rob, Mary is going to hire someone whether you help her out or not. You not helping her means she’ll be taking on a financial burden she really can’t afford.”
“Sorry, Kev,but no.”
“Then make a loan to me, and I’ll hire someone.”
“Because you believe in the kid, or because you’ll feel guilty if you don’t help the grandmother?”
“Both,” Kevin answered without hesitation. “I do believe Ryan is innocent, and I’d never be able to look myself in the face again if I didn’t do everything I could to help Mary now.”
Robert tapped his fingers on the arm of the chair, annoyed. He’d do just about anything for Kevin. As close as brothers, they’d grown up together --- born on the same day to sisters who entered the hospital at the same time, delivered by the same doctor, with Robert three hours older. People magazine, a fledgling publication the year they were born, had covered the story. For Christmas one year, Robert had gotten his hands on the photo the magazine had printed of the two pretty former Malone sisters holding their infant sons in front of St. Francis Hospital and had a copy made for Kevin. Robert had never hesitated when Kevin asked for something --- a new roof for the parish hall, a new gymnasium for the elementary school, a tennis court, pool, a new track for the high school; he’d never asked for anything for himself --- and Robert had always been happy to help. But this hit too close to home, and he wanted no part of it. He’d had his fill of private investigators.
“Maybe if we hired a lawyer instead,” Robert suggested, “someone with a lot of muscle who could put some pressure on the police department to...”
Kevin waved away the suggestion. “We have an attorney at the church who’s been trying that for the past ten days.”
“Maybe you need a better lawyer.” Robert stood and took his cell phone from his pocket. “Let me give you the number of someone I think highly of. Here, write this down...”
“She wants an independent investigation, Rob. The police don’t even seem to be looking for anyone else. They think they have good suspects in Ryan and Courtney, and with this sniper shooting up the highway, no one seems to have the time or the inclination to look beyond them. You know what that’s like, right?”
Ignoring the pointed reminder, Robert walked to the desk and took out a piece of paper. He found a pen under a stack of mail and wrote on it.
“Here. Matthew Day. Give him a call, tell him I referred you and to send his bill to me.” Robert passed the slip of paper to the priest, who took it without looking at it.
“He’s going to need a lawyer sooner or later, Kev,” Robert reminded him.
“We have to find him first.”
The words hung between them for a long moment.
“All right.” Robert caved. “If you can find someone who’s not a thief, hire him.”
“Thank you. I’ll get on this first thing in the morning.” Kevin put the slip of paper with the lawyer’s information on it into his pocket.
“I’ll have Susanna give you a list of agencies not to call.”
“I’d appreciate that.”
Trula’s voice over the intercom surprised them both. “Boys, dinner is in five minutes. Don’t make me come down there to get you.” Static transmitted loudly as she fumbled with the switch in the kitchen.
“Has she ever actually come down here to get you?”
“She has. She does. Whenever she thinks I’m ignoring her.”
“God forbid.” Kevin drained the rest of the coffee from his cup and started for the door. He’d only taken a few steps before turning and asking, “Rob, remember when we were kids and we used to talk about how someday, when we grew up, we’d be really, really rich and how we’d spend our fortunes helping people who couldn’t help themselves?”
“Your point?” Robert brushed aside the image of the idealistic boy he’d once been.
“Just that now you are, that’s all.” Kevin’s smile recalled that long-ago time wistfully. “And now you can...”
“Morning, Trula.” Susanna Jones rapped her knuckles on the back door seconds before she entered the kitchen. “Good morning, Susy.” Trula looked up from her newspaper. “Have you had breakfast?”
“Sort of.” Susanna dropped her handbag and a sweater on one of the chairs in the cozy blue-and-yellow breakfast room. Robert Magellan’s house may have been a mansion, but thanks to Trula it was not without its homey corners.
“‘Sort of’ means you stopped at one of those doughnut places again, didn’t you?” Trula’s eyes narrowed.
Susanna felt the finger of disapproval poking her, right between the shoulder blades.
“Guilty.” Susanna nodded and held up the paper bag. “But I did get a muffin.”
“Made with God knows what.” Trula waved an agitated hand in the direction of her employer’s personal assistant. “There’s coffee there on the counter.”
“Free trade, organic, no doubt.” Susanna reached for one of the mugs Trula had set out. She grabbed the blue one, a favorite of hers, with when all else fails, read the directions written in hot-pink script.
“No doubt.” Trula’s smile had the look of satisfaction. “And decaffeinated. You and Robert have both been revved up enough lately.”
Susanna made a face. “Some of us like a little revving on Monday morning.”
“Go to bed earlier on Sunday night and you won’t need anything to kick-start your week.” Trula turned to the op-ed page.
“Oooh, a little testy this morning, aren’t we?” Susanna added some sweetener to the mug and a little cream. As much as she liked to tease Trula, she couldn’t deny the woman made excellent coffee. Free trade, organic, decaffeinated, or otherwise.
“So how was your weekend?” Susanna rested both elbows on the counter.
The question was, as both women knew, more about Robert’s weekend than Trula’s.
“Quiet. Robert drove to the beach house yesterday.”
“Will he be back this morning?”
“He came back last night.”
“He drove both ways in one day?” Susanna frowned. Ten hours on the road? “What time did he leave?”
“Long before I got up, so it must have been around four or five.” Trula lowered her voice. “Father Kevin was here when Robert came in around seven, and he stayed for dinner. They sat up talking for a while.”
“He’s going to want the high-test this morning, Trula.”
“Then he’s going to have to make it himself. All the stress he’s been under this past year, he doesn’t need to bring heart problems on himself.”
Susanna could have noted that the problems Robert had with his heart had nothing to do with the level of caffeine in his bloodstream.
“So did he say why he went to the beach house?” Susanna sipped her coffee thoughtfully.
“No, but you know Robert. He probably went there to mourn.” She shook her head from side to side. “That big place standing there empty, all the money he spent on it, all the time it took to build, just to surprise her...”
Before Susanna could remind Trula that the money he’d spent was a mere drop in his personal bucket, Trula added, “Nothing good is going to come from his hanging on to that place, you mark my words.”
The clock in the front hall chimed eight.
“And how did you spend your weekend?” Trula asked.
“Oh, you know. The usual.” Susanna smiled. “I need to get to my office. Thanks for the coffee.” She grabbed her bag and draped the strap over her shoulder, stopped at the counter long enough to top off the mug, then headed for the door. “If you need me, you know where to find me.”
She pushed open the kitchen door with her foot and entered a long, wide hall that had glossy hardwood floors under thick Oriental runners and landscape paintings on the walls. Beth Magellan had picked out most of the art that adorned the house. Susanna found it all too dark and depressing for her taste --- but then again, she rationalized, her taste was more plebeian than Robert’s former-debutante wife’s had been.
A pile of mail from Saturday had been placed in the middle of her desk in the sitting-room-turned-office at the end of the hall. The room overlooked a shady courtyard on one side and a sunny garden on the other.
Susanna turned on the overhead light and draped her sweater over the back of her chair. Robert liked the house cool, and some days it bordered on cold. Susanna thought it was almost as if he thought that if he kept the temperature low enough, he could preserve all the memories the house held. A silly thought on her part, she knew, but then again she was one of the very few people who understood just how despondent Robert had become. The more time that passed, the more withdrawn he grew.
It was killing her.
“Hey,” he said from the doorway, the same greeting he’d given every morning since that first day they’d worked together, more than eight years ago.
“Hey yourself.” She forced a smile and studied his face while pretending not to. “How was the weekend?”
Ignoring the question, Robert came into the room and pulled a chair up to her desk. “Anything important there?” He nodded in the general direction of the mail.
“I haven’t had time to look through it. If you want, I can take a minute now and...” She reached for the stack.
“It can wait.” He rested his elbows on the desk and gazed out the window. On the courtyard side, a large holly grew up close to the pane. In early spring, a pair of mockingbirds had built their nest there.
“I guess they’re gone now,” he said.
“I’m sorry?” Susanna tilted her head to one side.
“The baby birds. I guess they’re gone.”
“They’re still there, but I doubt they will be for much longer. I saw them on Friday. You have to get up really close to the glass to see down. They’re jumping out of the nest and onto the branches these days.”
Robert made no effort to move to the window.
They sat in silence for a few more moments, Susanna waiting patiently.
Finally, he said, “I drove down to the beach house yesterday. I couldn’t sleep on Saturday night, thinking about the place.”
“Did you sleep better last night for having made the trip?”
He shook his head. “I want you to call the Realtor this morning and tell her I’d like to put the house on the market. She can draw up the listing agreement and send it here and I’ll sign it. I want to be done with it.”
He spoke without looking at Susanna, a sign, she knew, that he wasn’t saying what he was really thinking.
“Are you sure that’s what you want to do, Rob?”
“I don’t know what else to do.” He steepled his fingers and asked, “What if she comes back, Suse? Will she think that I gave up?”
“Selling that house doesn’t mean you’ve given up.” She reached across the desk and took his hands in hers. She chose her words carefully. “But it’s a very tangible reminder of a dream that hasn’t come true, and it’s clearly eating you up inside. Besides, if Beth comes back, you’re going to have more to talk about than a beach house that you built and sold.”
She watched his face for a moment, then added, “Unless you’re referring to the fact that you’re giving up on yourself.”
He turned his head so as to not meet her eyes.
“Don’t do anything foolish or stupid, Rob,” she said very softly. She knew this man so well. “Don’t do anything that can’t be undone.”
“I think about it a lot, you know?” he said flatly, not bothering to explain, knowing she understood the unspoken.
She knew, but didn’t say so.
“Some days I feel like I have nothing to live for, but then I think maybe one day we’ll find them. The thought that Beth could come back, that I could get my son back... If they’re going to come back, I need to be here for them.” He blew out a long breath. “And if I... if I wasn’t here... what would she think of me? What would she think when she realized I’d given up without knowing the truth? Would she think I didn’t think she was worth waiting for?”
“She’d think you were a coward,” Susanna said matter-of-factly. “That you were thinking only of yourself. And she’d be right.”
“You never pull punches, do you?” He turned to face her.
“I wouldn’t be much of a friend if I did.”
“You and Trula and Kevin are the only people I really trust to tell me the truth, you know that, don’t you?”
“You’d have been an idiot to have hired me a third time if you didn’t trust me to watch your back. Once, maybe. Twice... questionable. Three times...” She shook her head. “That would make you really stupid. And you are far from stupid, Rob.”
“We’ve come a long way together since those days at Tanner Intel, haven’t we?” He looked out the window at the holly again.
“A very long way.” Susanna nodded in agreement.
At Tanner, he’d hired her as administrative assistant to the group he headed up. She’d worked for him and five other techs for three years; impressed with her organizational skills and common sense, Robert brought her along when he and Colin Bressler left to start up their own company. When they’d sold their Internet search engine for an unbelievable amount of money eighteen months later, Robert kept Susanna on as his right hand. Since Beth’s disappearance, she’d run his life pretty much the way she’d helped run his company.
“I need you to prepare a list of the PIs that we used.” He changed the topic abruptly. “Kevin’s going to need it.”
“Kevin needs a PI?” She frowned.
“Someone in his parish does. I told him we’d give him a list of the ones we’d hired.”
“Well, who would you suggest we put at the top of the list?” Susanna said,scowling. “The one who convinced you that a woman and baby matching Beth and Ian’s descriptions had been sighted in the Bahamas so that we would send him --- all expenses paid, of course --- to check it out? Or maybe the one who...”
Robert held up a hand. “I want Kevin to know who not to hire. Which would be any one of the ones we had working for us, so it doesn’t matter which order you put them in.”
“Sorry.” She turned on the laptop on the right side of her desk. “I just get so angry when I think of those bastards. Not one of them gave a shit about you or Beth or Ian or finding them. They were merely milking a cash cow.”
“Thank you for the reminder.”
“Sorry. Sorry.” She flushed. Of course he didn’t need to be reminded.
“I told him I’d pay for an investigator if he could find an honest one. So if he asks you to pay a bill, just write the check. Not that I expect he’ll be able to locate one who isn’t above robbing a priest blind.” Robert stood up and rolled his head as if working out a kink in his neck, then went to the fish tank that stood along one wall and peered inside. “I also told him I’d fund the new front steps for the church, so he’ll be getting bids and giving them to you. You know the drill.”
“The usual anonymous gift?”
Robert nodded and walked toward the door. “I’ll be in my office for a while if anything comes up. Make the call to the Realtor first thing, though. I want to get moving on that.” He got as far as the door before he turned around and asked, “You really think she’d be okay about me selling the house?”
“Frankly, I think the only thing she wouldn’t be okay about is you.” Susanna turned her back, opened the computer file, and printed out the list for Kevin.
“Well, I guess it’s like the lawyers say,” he told her from the doorway. “Never ask a question you don’t already know the answer to.”
Excerpted from MERCY STREET © Copyright 2011 by Mariah Stewart. Reprinted with permission by Ballantine Books. All rights reserved.