Authors: Sean Black
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Thrillers & Suspense, #Crime, #Murder, #Serial Killers, #Vigilante Justice, #Spies & Politics, #Conspiracies, #Suspense
The dispatcher did her best to tell him that he should take Eve Barnes back to her home and wait for a patrol car to arrive. Malik agreed, killed the call and kept driving.
Now he finally understood why everyone had been so cagey. Aubrey Becker wasn’t just a respected pillar of the community. He wasn’t just wealthy, and one of the biggest donors to the university: he pretty much owned this corner of the state. And he just happened to be the brother of the governor, Tom Becker, who was hotly tipped to be making a run in the next presidential election, with the opinion-poll ratings and the cold, hard cash to stand a good chance of making it all the way to the White House.
Malik followed Eve’s directions down a narrow country road, with switchbacks and sharp bends that loomed out of the darkness. As he drove, she managed to fill him in on a little of the history. He got the feeling that she was still overwhelmed by the whole thing.
On the one hand, in her gut, she knew that Malik was right. But part of her wanted to be protected from the horror of it. And the best way of protecting herself was to come up with reasons why it couldn’t be true. From his own experience, Malik knew that the truth can be a lot harder to take than what you want to believe, but sometimes you can’t avoid it. This time the truth had to be faced. No matter how painful.
They pulled up to a set of black gates set into a seven-foot-tall stone wall that ran as far as Malik could see in either direction. A police cruiser was already parked outside, its roll bar sending a red wash splashing across the entrance. A lone trooper pushed off the side of the cruiser as Malik stopped his car. He seemed casual for a cop who’d just turned up to the scene of a possible child abduction.
Malik tried not to let the paranoia he’d begun to develop get the better of him. Maybe the trooper was relaxed because Jack had already been found.
Malik hit the button to lower his window. ‘This is Jack Barnes’s mother. We called in that her son was missing.’
It wasn’t a promising start. What the hell was ‘uh-huh’ supposed to mean? Malik wondered.
‘Can we go up to the house?’
The trooper took off his hat. ‘And you are?’
‘Malik Shaw. I work at the university in Harrisburg.’
Eve leaned over Malik. ‘Is my son here or not?’
The trooper ignored her. But his features did soften. ‘The NBA player Malik Shaw? Guy that coaches the Wolves?’
Malik tried not to roll his eyes. ‘That’s me. Now, can we go up? You have people there, right?’
‘Yeah, the captain’s up there now. Hasn’t found the boy, though.’
‘I need to find my son,’ said Eve. She was bordering on hysterical.
Malik didn’t blame her. If it had been Landon, he would already have driven through, whether the gates were open or not.
‘Your captain’s going to want to talk to Mrs Barnes here in any case.’
That piece of logic seemed to work. ‘Yeah, okay.’ The trooper turned and waved at a man in a dark blue private-security-guard uniform. The man was about six feet even, 240 pounds, with fair hair that ran to his collar and a three-day beard. He didn’t look to Malik like your standard-issue mall-cop type.
The man shrugged, and said something into a walkie-talkie that Malik didn’t catch. A few seconds later, the gates began slowly to open.
Driving through them, he had an uneasy feeling. Here they were, looking for a boy presumably abducted by a pedophile, and they were being treated with suspicion. He hadn’t liked the look of the guard either, and now he wished he’d asked for a name, or at least that of the company he was working for.
The driveway was long. They drove slowly. On either side open land sloped upward. After a full thirty seconds they breached the top and saw the house. It looked as if a typhoon had picked up an estate from the Hamptons and dumped it there.
Three cars were parked at the front of the sprawling house. Malik pulled up next to them and got out with Eve.
The cops here must have known they were coming because an older guy in a grey suit headed them off as two uniforms spoke to a distressed blonde woman, whom Malik assumed was Becker’s wife. She was in her late forties, with perfect hair and makeup, and was clutching to her chest the kind of small, yappy designer dog that Flint, his retriever, hated.
The guy in the grey suit introduced himself as Detective Johanssen from the state’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. Once the pleasantries were out of the way, he said, ‘So, tell me what happened.’
Malik took him through both of his visits with the Barnes family, all the way up to Jack’s disappearance.
Johanssen listened patiently. ‘I’ll need to get all that in a statement from you. Including what you saw at the stadium.’
‘No problem,’ said Malik, relieved that someone finally seemed to be taking him seriously.
Johanssen took Eve Barnes by the arm. ‘We’re doing everything we can to find your son. We’ve issued an amber alert statewide, and if we don’t locate him soon we’ll widen it.’
‘I just want him home,’ she said.
Over her shoulder, Malik could see the blonde woman with the dog growing more agitated. She kept glancing at them, and the two cops with her were trying to distract her. ‘Is that her?’ the blonde lady shouted. ‘We’re going to sue you. And your son.’
Eve Barnes couldn’t help but hear. Anyone within a half-mile radius would have heard. Malik moved in front of Eve. ‘Ignore her … That his wife?’ he asked Johanssen.
‘Gretchen Becker,’ said the detective, with a nod.
‘I mean it,’ shouted Gretchen Becker. ‘I know what this is. We have money, and you think that if you make up some outrageous story about Aubrey we’ll pay you to keep quiet. Well, think again.’
Eve pushed Malik, and began marching toward her. Malik and Johanssen had to race to catch her before the two women went toe to toe.
Behind them a car horn sounded. Everyone stopped and turned, as a grey Volkswagen sedan rolled slowly down the driveway toward them.
Malik froze. His hands bunched into fists. Even without looking at the bumper stickers on the rear, he was almost certain it was the car that had fled the stadium. Next to him, Eve was frozen too.
Johanssen stepped in front of them. ‘Let’s just stay cool, okay?’ He waved over one of the troopers.
The car rolled to a stop. Malik noted the smoky tint of the windows. The passenger door opened. No one moved. Jack Barnes got out, a hoodie obscuring his face. His right hand was swathed in a thick white bandage.
Letting him get out first was a smart move on the part of whoever was driving. Eve rushed to her son. He stayed motionless and she threw her arms around him, sobbing with relief.
The driver’s door opened. As it did so, an SUV raced up behind the sedan, skidding to a halt. The fair-haired security guard leaped out and ran toward Aubrey Becker as he emerged from the grey sedan. As he reached Becker, Malik saw his jacket ride up to reveal a gun holstered on his right hip.
Aubrey Becker looked around at all the assembled people, the cops, his wife, Malik and Eve. He didn’t look like a guilty man. He stared at everyone in turn. If anything, he looked pissed. He stood up straight, shoulders back, chest out, chin tilted upward. ‘Would someone like to explain to me what the hell is going on?’
No one moved. No one spoke. Malik had expected the cops to rush him and slap on the cuffs, private security guard or not. But they didn’t. They just stood there and stared at the man who had just shown up with a twelve-year-old boy in his car.
Malik was the first to move. He nudged Detective Johanssen with his hand. ‘What are you standing there for? Aren’t you going to arrest this guy?’
Johanssen had the look of a man to whom the idea hadn’t yet occurred. ‘Coach Shaw, I wouldn’t dream of telling you how to do your job. I’d appreciate the same courtesy.’
Malik looked at him. The two troopers were busy studying the ground, like it held some sort of ancient secret. ‘You’re kidding me. This is the guy who was with Jack at the stadium.’
‘You told me you didn’t actually see the person,’ Johanssen said.
‘It’s the same car,’ said Malik, pointing at the grey sedan. ‘His mom told me he’s been “mentoring” the boy as part of some school program.’ He lowered his voice to spare Eve the details. ‘The kid was butt naked. At midnight. You need me to draw you a picture?’ He stopped himself adding ‘asshole’, but only just.
‘We will certainly be talking to everyone involved,’ said Johanssen.
‘Talking? You should be slapping the cuffs on that goddamn freak.’
Becker wouldn’t meet his stare. He tilted his chin to avoid making eye contact with Malik. But the security guard’s hand fell to the butt of his handgun. That was enough to make Malik take a step. ‘Oh, yeah? You want a piece of me?’
Johanssen got between them. ‘Cool it,’ he told Malik.
From behind them, Gretchen Becker said, ‘Aubrey, would you please tell me what this is about?’
‘Yeah, Aubrey,’ said Malik. ‘Let’s hear it.’
Aubrey Becker finally deigned to speak. ‘Jack called me. He was in some distress. I found him wandering near his home. He was bleeding. I took him to have his hand attended to. You can speak to the doctor at the Harrisburg emergency room if you don’t believe me. Now, I don’t know what anyone else thinks happened but that’s the truth.’
‘And what about the night before the game when you were with him in the goddamn shower?’ Malik shouted.
Becker looked at him. ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about.’
Malik turned to Johanssen. ‘What else is he gonna say?’ He glanced back at Gretchen Becker. ‘Why don’t you ask your husband what he’s been doing hanging out with a twelve-year-old boy?’
There was a flicker in her eyes. Malik caught it, even if no one else did. Then the calm, Botoxed WASPy mask went back on.
‘Am I going to have to call my attorney?’ said Becker to Johanssen. It was more challenge than plea.
It was clear to Malik that Aubrey Becker had already decided to butch it out. And who knew what he had said to Jack Barnes while they’d been alone together, or what threats he’d made? And without Jack telling the cops what had happened, where could it go?
The whole thing was playing out right before Malik’s eyes, and there wasn’t a goddamn thing he could do about it. Johanssen must have been thinking the same thing because the next thing he said was ‘Jack? Do you feel able to talk to me?’
Becker and his wife were left at home. Eve Barnes and her son were put into a black-and-white. Johanssen wanted to speak to them further. Malik was left hanging, an uninvited guest. He followed the troopers back to the station. On the way, he called Kim. He didn’t have it in him to tell her on the phone what had happened. Instead he made up a story about one of his young players being in trouble with the cops after some overly exuberant celebrating.
He parked outside the station, walked in and waited. He didn’t see Eve Barnes or Jack. After about an hour Johanssen appeared and led him into a room where he ran through what he had seen. He left Laird and the contract out of it. He mentioned Tromso and the missing picture.
When he was done, Johanssen thanked him for his time. ‘You did the right thing, Coach Shaw. Absolutely. This is a serious matter.’
‘So you’re going to arrest him?’
Johanssen looked at him, across the half-empty plastic coffee cups, with bloodhound eyes. ‘There hasn’t been a complaint.’
Malik sat up straight. ‘The kid’s terrified. Becker must have threatened him. Or someone else did. I told you he said “they”, right?’
Johanssen nodded. ‘I’m not going to let this go. I will look into it more, I promise you.’
Malik was going to get nowhere. Yeah, Johanssen and the Minneapolis would talk to Becker and his wife, but good luck with that, he thought. There was no way Becker was going to come clean, and even if the wife suspected something had been going on, he doubted she’d risk admitting she was living with a man who preyed on kids.
And Malik hadn’t actually seen Becker touching Jack.
He looked at the detective and knew he had lost.
‘What are you telling me, Malik? That you quit? That we move?’ said Kim, blowing the heat from her coffee.
Malik sighed. ‘Have you been listening to anything I’ve said? I can’t sign that deal. Not now. It would make me as bad as the rest of them.’
It was close to five in the morning. Malik hadn’t been to bed. Kim had been up since he’d arrived home in the early hours of the morning. They were in the kitchen. The kids were asleep upstairs. Or maybe not asleep after the way Malik had shouted.
He and Kim rarely fought. Sure there was tension in their marriage. There was tension in any marriage. But never anything like this.
It had been Malik who had pushed to take the job here. There were lots of reasons, some selfish. But one of the big ones had been that, in this slightly more rural part of the country, he’d figured the kids would be a little more isolated from all the crap that passed for American culture. Protecting his kids! The irony wasn’t lost on him now.
Kim smoothed her hands over the kitchen table. ‘And what if you’re wrong?’ He started to protest. She cut him off. ‘Things like this need proof. That’s all the detective was saying. And he was right. You can’t ruin someone’s life over what you think is going on.’
‘The kid’s terrified, Kim. That’s why he’s not saying anything.’
‘And how is that our problem?’
He looked at her. It had been amicable up until now. Not anymore. He couldn’t believe she’d said that. ‘And what if it had been Landon? What if someone found him in a shower with a fully grown man in a deserted locker room at dead of night? Would you just shrug your shoulders like you’re doing now? Would it be no big deal?’
She jabbed a finger at him. ‘Don’t put words in my mouth. I’m not saying that.’
‘You might as well be. Ignore it. Forget it happened? What kind of a man would I be if I did that?’
He started to get up.
He stalked out. As he walked into the front hallway, their daughter was standing at the top of the stairs. ‘Why is everyone shouting, Dad?’