rue story,” George said, his voice hoarse, the way it always is late at night. “A cop jumps in and rescues someone who's taken a dive into the East River. Three days later he finds out this is the guy who shot his mother in the head.”
I burrowed into my comforter. “What's your point?” An attic beam groaned overhead while the wind played with the tiles on the roof. As I closed my eyes, I wondered if that was the beam that needed shoring up. It was after two, and all I wanted to do was sleep.
“My point,” George replied, sounding aggrieved that I hadn't gotten it, “is that you never know whether or not you're doing something good or bad until later. You can do something that you think is good at the time but then it leads to a bad result.”
“So don't do anything.”
“Doing nothing is still doing something.” I heard the rustle of sheets and then felt George's breath on my face as he turned his head toward me. “Doing nothing is a physical impossibility. A black hole is still energy. Negative energy. Robin, are you listening to me?”
“More or less.” I opened one eye. It was too late for metaphysical discussions. It was too late for any discussions. Especially since I had to open the store in the morning.
George sighed and went back to staring at the ceiling. The headlights from a passing car swept over his profile before illuminating the cracks on the far wall. All planes and angles, his face looked as if it were carved from ebony.
“What the hell am I going to do with a fourteen-year-old boy?” he demanded for what must have been the tenth time that evening.
“The same thing everyone does. Get an ulcer.”
He grimaced. “Seriously.”
I shrugged and adjusted my pillow. “So tell your sister that Raymond can't come up.”
“I can't do that.”
“Because it's family. What am I going to say? âCecilia, sorry, but I'm too busy to help you out'?”
I studied the view out my bedroom window. The wind was whipping the cedars in the yard back and forth. They looked as if they were bowing to someone off in the distance. Tall, skinny, and shallow-rooted, two out of the five had already come down in the storm we'd had in February and were now lying across the hill, anticipating their demotion to the mulch pile when spring came. If I were smart, I'd hire someone to have the remaining three taken down at the same time instead of waiting for them to fall in the next big storm, but I probably won't. I don't like second-guessing fateâeven when the outcome is fairly predictable.
George's voice intruded on my thoughts, and I turned back toward him.
“Well, mine doesn't work that way.” He looked as if he wished that it did. “Big families don't. It must be nice being an only child.”
“Not really,” I murmured. I closed my eyes again. Why, I remember thinking, did George always pick the exact moment I was falling asleep to want to talk? His timing was impeccable. I'd been available all evening. I would have been happy to have any number of conversations then. I'd even tried to initiate several. Instead, George had spent the evening watching TV and reading the paper. We might as well be married, for God's sake.
“By the way,” George continued, his voice floating out on the darkness, “I almost forgot. Bryan Hayes is going to call you tomorrow morning.”
“Who?” I mumbled. The name sounded familiar, but I couldn't place it.
“Hayes. His sister Melissa is the one that went missing around Thanksgiving.”
“Right.” I'd seen the flyers on the hill but hadn't paid them much mind other than to think, another person gone. There'd been a spate of disappearances in the last couple of years, enough that I'd stopped paying more than perfunctory attention.
“He's in one of my classes. He was asking if I knew anyone that could help him, so I gave him your name.”
I sat up. “What does he want me to do?”
But George didn't answer. I glanced over. His eyes were closed. He was asleep. I, on the other hand, was now wide awake. It figured.
Bryan Hayes called me at the store shortly after ten. By then I'd remembered what I'd read about the story, which wasn't much. We set up a meeting at four-thirty that afternoon at the Yellow Rhino, a campus hangout that was known for its bad beer, greasy chicken wings, and cardboardlike pizza. I arrived on time, but Bryan didn't. Twenty minutes later I was still tapping my fingers on one of the tables and surveying the scene. It could have been the twin of the bar I'd hung out at when I'd been in grad school.
The place had the same smell of old cooking grease, the same dusty green spiky plantsâmaybe they lived forever and just got moved from place to place by the great bar owner in the skyâthe same rickety tables, brown metal chairs, and earnestly talking college students sitting on them. The only thing the room lacked was the bluish haze of smoke hanging in the air. No Smoking signs were prominently tacked up on the wall in several places, which was why I was standing in the doorway digging around in my backpack for my lighter, when a kid tapped me on the shoulder.
“Are you Robin Light?” he asked, his breath coming out in little gasps. A light sheen of sweat covered his forehead. He looked as if he'd been running.
“And you're Bryan Hayes?”
He nodded. I pegged him for mid-twenties. He was about six feet two inches, medium build, with a roundish face, and brown eyes set a shade too close together. He had on hiking boots, khakis, a plaid flannel shirt, an unzipped ski parka, and the inevitable baseball hat. His only sartorial extravagance was a pair of those small, perfectly rounded Japanese titanium eyeglasses that go for four hundred dollars a pop. In short, Bryan Hayes would have looked at home at any college campus in the country.
“Sorry I'm late. I got held up.”
I put my lighter away reluctantly and followed him in. He bounded along in front of me, greeting people he knew. Just watching him move made me feel tired.
I snagged a table while Bryan went to get a couple of beers. He came back with four pieces of pizza as well. I took a bite from one. It was as bad as I remembered it being, but Bryan either didn't share my view or didn't care, because he gobbled down two pieces immediately.
“First thing I've had to eat all day,” he explained abashedly when he saw me watching him.
I made a polite comment and took a sip of my beer. It was warm and flat and reminded me of the kind everyone drank before beer went upscale.
Bryan reached for the third slice, then stopped, hand hovering. “Do you want this?”
I shook my head. “Go ahead.”
“So,” Bryan Hayes asked after he was through, “how do you know George?”
“We met through mutual friends.” I didn't want to tell him George had been my husband's best friend until he died, for three reasons: One, I didn't like discussing it; two, it wasn't any of his business; and three, the topic didn't make for good social conversation.
Bryan wiped his hands on a napkin. “He's interesting.”
“Yes, he is.” If Bryan wanted to make small talk for a while, that was okay with me. I watched four girls and one guy at the next table dig into their pockets for change. Pennies, quarters, and dimes materialized into several piles.
“He said he used to be a cop.”
“For eight years.” Or was it seven? I forget. From where I was sitting, I watched the stream of students coming in swell. The room was becoming packed. The noise level was rising. The place was turning stuffy. I began wishing I weren't wearing a turtleneck sweater.
“So how did he end up in grad school?”
“Why don't you ask him?”
“I did. He said he wanted a change.”
I leaned forward. “But somehow you think there's more, right?”
Bryan flushed and adjusted his hat. “It just s-seems unusual,” he stammered. “I mean, you don't associate a guy who looks like that with medieval history.”
“A guy who looks like what?” I asked innocently, curious to see if Bryan would mention that George was black or that he was enormous or that he not only looked as if he could break someone in two with his hands, but that he would enjoy doing it.
“He could be a linebacker for the Oilers,” Bryan replied, skirting the issue. “You just don't expect to find someone like that sitting next to you in a class on manors and land rights.”
“True,” I allowed. I guess the Ralph Lauren clothes George was wearing weren't as effectively reshaping his image as he hoped.
“I'd hate to get on the wrong side of him,” Bryan observed.
“Me too.” Actually George was a sweetie pie, much nicer than I was, but why tell Bryan that and spoil the image. I changed the subject to the one we'd come here to discuss. “So tell me about your sister,” I said. Even though I remembered the story, I wanted to hear it in Bryan's words.
“Right.” Bryan pushed his glasses back up the bridge of his nose with his thumb. “Actually, I think you met her. She was in your store this summer. She wanted a sugar glider, but the guy who works behind the counter said they didn't make good pets.”
“They don't.” Sugar gliders were the latest in a long line of fad pets. Tiny gliding opossums that come from Indonesia, New Guinea, Australia, and New Zealand, they are small enough to carry around in your pocket.
“He said they have complicated nutritional needs.”
“Tim said that?”
“Interesting. I always thought they did fine on fruits, vegetables, a little cheese, and mealworms, myself ”
“That's what Melissa fed hers.” Bryan took off his hat, adjusted the brim, and put it back on.
“I'm glad to hear it.” The kids sitting at the table next to us were arguing about what kind of pizza to get, and I had to raise my voice to make myself heard.
“Melissa sent for it. From a magazine.”
“It's amazing what you can get in the mail,” I said, thinking back to the viper someone had sent to one of my employees.
Bryan began folding the edge of the white paper plate back and forth. “George said you were pretty good at finding people.”
“I've had some successes in the past,” I allowed. “Why don't you tell me what happened, and I'll tell you if I think I can help you or not.”
“That's the problem. I don't know. One moment Melissa was here, the next moment she wasn't.” Bryan's voice quivered for a second, then he regained control. “I dropped her off at the dorm, and when I went to pick her up, she wasn't there.”
“That was how long ago?”
“Forever. Well, it seems like forever. Since right before Thanksgiving. ”
“And it's the middle of March now.”
Bryan looked embarrassed. “I know it's a long time, but the police have been telling me to sit tight, to be patient. But I can't be patient any longer.”
“When did you notify the police?”
“I called the campus police almost immediately. They told me to wait, so I called the city police. They said the same thing, that I had to wait twenty-four hours before I filed a missing person's report.”
“Which you did.”
“Yes. But nothing's happened. I keep calling and they keep telling me they're doing everything they can, but I don't think they are.” Bryan swallowed. “I've talked to the dean of the school here, I've talked to the head of security, I've talked to Missy's R.A” Bryan's mouth tightened with anger as he remembered the responses he'd gotten. “Everyone keeps telling me she must have run off with someone and that she'll be back. Well, she hasn't come back.”
“Maybe it's true. Maybe she has gone off with someone.”
“If you knew Missy, you wouldn't say that. She's very responsible. ”
“You really never know what's going on inside someone's head,” I observed, remembering the stunt my old college roommate had pulled. She'd been responsible too. Until the Saturday afternoon she'd walked out the door, only to reappear eight months later. Turned out she'd taken off for Mexico with a guy she'd met at the supermarket. He'd said, âLet's go,' and she'd thought, sure. What the hell. Why not. She hadn't called, she said, because she figured we'd know she was okay. If she hadn't been, someone would have notified us. And anyway, if she'd spoken to anyone, they just would have told her to come home.
Bryan hit the table with the palm of his hand. It wobbled. “Believe me. I know my sister. She'd never walk off like that. She's never even late.”
Sharon hadn't been either. “Did she take her wallet?”
Bryan frowned. “Her bag's missing,” he conceded. His voice was truculent. “But that doesn't mean anything. She always takes it with her wherever she goes.”
“Because she's had money stolen out of it a couple of times when she left it in her room. They never found out who took it either,” he said to what was going to be my next question.
“How about her clothes?”
“I don't think anything is missing.” Bryan scratched the side of his neck.
“But you're not one hundred percent sure.”
“I don't keep an inventory of her wardrobe.” Bryan's voice rose. “And even if a few things are gone, that doesn't mean she took off. Something happened to her.”
“Maybe. But you have to realize thousands of people disappear in this country every year. Most of them haveâfor a variety of reasonsâjust decided to walk away from their lives. Maybe she's one of them.”