Authors: Susan Russo Anderson
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Lorraine’s face soften.
Cookie pulled out her mirror and began to apply color to disgruntled lips. I’d have to deal with her mood later.
* * *
I decided to light a fire under Thomas Marsh. As I was redialing his company’s line, my phone started vibrating, and the man himself was on the other end. When I told him we couldn’t find his sister, I could feel great waves of his fear scalding me through the ether.
“That’s not like Whiskey, not to show up for work.” Silence except for his gulping. “She’s got a child, for God’s sake. God!”
I was silent.
Again, heavy breathing. “She’d never leave Maddie, not without calling me first. She’d get me involved. We’re close, Whiskey and I are. We had to be, growing up with a mother like ours. What am I going to do without her?”
There was a long pause, so I slipped in the question about other relatives who might know where she is. “Another brother or a sister, an aunt she’s close to, or a cousin, maybe.”
I could feel the air shaking around him.
“I’m it, all she’s got. What am I saying, she’s all I’ve got! Oh, God, I should have known when she phoned. I should have known right away something was wrong.”
“She phoned you? When was this?” I asked.
“I knew it,” Cookie said.
“Middle of the night. Call woke me up. What day is this? Oh God, it was this morning, wasn’t it? Very early, that’s when she phoned.”
I pressed speaker and sat on the couch, Lorraine and Cookie flanking me.
“What did she say?”
“Her voice was garbled. Something about they’ve got me. I couldn’t hear anything else. Maybe she said something about Maddie.”
Lorraine looked at me.
“At least I thought it was Whiskey. At first I was sure it was my sister. Sounded like she was in a car. It was so strange. She was fading in and out, and I’d been drinking the night before, nothing I couldn’t handle, but you know how it is, and I was afraid I’d wake Bertha.”
“My friend.” He stopped.
“Go on. Tell me again what she said.”
He repeated as how he couldn’t remember what she said. Something about they’d gotten her and something else about Maddie.
“How did she sound?”
“Scared. She was whispering.”
“And he didn’t call the police?” Cookie got up and began pacing.
“She almost sounded like she was on something. Suddenly the woman on the phone didn’t sound like my sister at all. She’s always in control. Oh, God.”
“I heard shuffling noises, muffled sounds.”
When he stopped, I prodded. “And?”
“We were disconnected. I redialed … a bunch of times. I guess I panicked.”
“Each time I dialed her cell, I heard voice mail.”
“Her voice mail?”
“No. The canned message, you know.”
“You left a message?”
Nothing from the other end.
Cookie poked me. “Get the time. The time of the call.”
There was silence still, but I could feel his head shaking, so I asked, “What time was this exactly?”
“You didn’t call the police?”
“Happened so fast!” He was pleading now, whimpering.
“Had you just gone to bed, or were you awakened from a deep sleep?” As if I expected precision.
He was silent for a few minutes. At first I thought he’d hung up, but finally I heard moaning, heavy breathing. The guy was having a panic attack.
Lorraine hunched forward, pressing hands to her cheeks.
“Tell him to breathe into a bag,” Cookie said.
I was about to prod him, but he started up again. “I … paced for a long time before trying to reach her again. By this time it was about four in the morning, I know, because I looked at the clock. Bertha hadn’t moved, thank God.”
“Why ‘thank God’?” I shouldn’t have interrupted him, but I wanted the big picture.
“Bertha and Whiskey aren’t the best of friends.”
I let the information sink in, waiting for him to continue.
“I was about to call the police, but decided not to.”
Lorraine held her head.
“I started thinking, you see. After all, how did I know the caller was really Whiskey? The call could have been a hoax. Heard about that stuff happening. They lure someone outside, rob them.”
“Jerk,” Cookie said.
“At first it sounded like Whiskey, and I don’t know anyone else who’d call in the middle of the night, but then it didn’t sound like her
—know what I mean?
It could have been anyone, thugs, a prank, a wrong number.”
“But you said you recognized her voice.” I said it slow and syrupy, using my shrink voice. You know how they are—warm, glowing, accepting, no matter what you say. He could have said he’d just murdered Whiskey with an ax, and I’d be, like, oh, that’s interesting. “Didn’t you hit redial?”
There was silence for some time. “I’d have to go back and think.” He hesitated again. “No, I didn’t. Whoever it was called my landline. And that’s unlisted. No one else knows it. Besides sis, just my close friends, but they wouldn’t call in the middle of the night. Not their style. And none of my clients have my home phone. But then I decided it couldn’t be my sister. Not like her. She wouldn’t leave her daughter. It must have been a wrong number.”
Cookie muttered something about squirming like a fish on a line.
“Take a few minutes. You’re doing fine.” Me, in shrink mode again.
“And I had to be in court early in the morning and hadn’t prepared, so I … you know how you can forget some things when you’re on deadline.”
Cookie shot me a look.
“I had to be in court that morning, you see. I buried myself in my work. I have this nightmare of a case. Got to defend this guy, this … so I forgot about the call. It just fled my mind.”
While his last words hung in the air, I asked him where he was. He told me he was on Court Street about to take a subway back to his office. I gave him the McDuffys’ address and told him to get there as fast as he could—we had to talk about Maddie.
I watched Cookie’s mind explode. “Get serious. You don’t expect him to show, do you?”
By this time Cookie was studying a troublesome zit in the mirror.
“So now what do you think about Whiskey?” I asked.
She stowed her glass and shrugged.
“Good,” Lorraine said. “We need to meet the uncle before we decide what to do about Maddie.” I opened my mouth, but Lorraine cut me off. “Just in case Whiskey doesn’t show up by this evening.”
“Dream on. The brother’s a loser. He won’t show,” Cookie said.
Just then a door opened. A blast of canned laughter followed Robert into the room. “You’re not going to meet with him.”
“I told you not to rent out the upstairs. Now the tenant’s gone off to God knows where and we’re stuck wondering what’s going to happen to her kid.”
Lorraine’s voice was calm. “Think about what you’re saying.”
“What kind of a private dick are you? You should have phoned the precinct hours ago.” Robert strode over to the phone and picked up the receiver. “I’ll call Jack for you. He’ll get whoever’s on duty to come over. I’ll be in the kitchen while you girls”—he jerked a thumb at me and Cookie—“talk to him.” He craned his neck toward Lorraine. “And it’s time for you to start dinner.”
Lorraine didn’t budge. “Are you sure you want to call the police now? They’ll want to question us, too. Isn’t that more involvement?”
I watched Robert’s face change from seething macho to confused male.
Lorraine hadn’t finished. “You love Maddie. You feed her fudge, begging her to read to you.”
He crossed his arms, working his jaw.
“Think of the child, a helpless, innocent person’s well-being is at stake. How would you live with yourself if Whiskey doesn’t return and Maddie goes into care?”
“Innocent, maybe, but not helpless. Little bugger beats me in Monopoly every time.”
Lorraine nodded, smiling.
I watched Robert’s smirk morph into a grin.
I was about to lose it when Lorraine finished up with Robert, asking him to field the phone in case the neighbor called while we were talking to Whiskey’s so-called brother. “Tell Maddie we miss her. You’ve got that child adoring you, so don’t fail her. And turn off that blasted TV.”
Robert’s eyes shot a limp dagger toward me. “The kid’s as close as I’ll ever get to a granddaughter.”
Maddie entered the parlor, smelling of school. When she spoke, her voice had the pitch of an eight-year-old with the command of a grown-up.
“Is my mom back yet?”
Lorraine shook her head and wrapped an arm around Maddie’s shoulder.
Something in the girl’s face flattened and she stared at her shoes.
Taking her coat and pointing to where we sat, Lorraine said, “Robbie can help you with homework, but first, I’d like to introduce you to our visitors.”
I kept my mouth shut, just looked into her woebegone eyes while my throat got raggedy and I tried for the wrinkle-free look.
Cookie studied the contents of her purse.
“Where’s Robert? He owes me two squares of fudge.” She edged closer to Lorraine, glanced at me and Cookie, and flipped through a magazine on the coffee table before plopping down on the sofa.
I asked her about the fudge.
She grinned. “I beat Robert in Monopoly almost every day. Wanna see?” She held out a small book she’d squirreled into the pocket of her sweater. “The scores.”
I thumbed through it, a notebook filled with smudged writing and cyphers. It caught the mid-afternoon sun.
“We’ve got some questions for you,” Lorraine said, pushing up her glasses.
Cookie fumbled with her mirror and lipstick, and I watched Maddie beacon in her direction.
“What are you looking at?” the girl asked.
“Trying to find my comb,” Cookie said.
“Just now. You were staring at me.”
Cookie crimsoned. “No, really.” She paused. “Well, okay, you’re right. I was wondering how often you have to shave your head to maintain such a sleek look.”
In a quiet voice, Maddie said, “I don’t have hair. Zip-ola. And I won’t ever have hair.”
The clock on the mantel ticked, and Lorraine’s gaze shuttled from Cookie to Maddie.
Maddie sidled closer to Lorraine. “So what’s your first question? Do I get a piece of fudge if I answer it correctly?”
“There are no correct answers,” Lorraine said. “We need to ask you about your mom.”
Maddie shoved her hands inside her pockets.
“When did you last see her?” I asked.
When Maddie didn’t answer, Lorraine pushed up her glasses and waited.
“Last night. She tucked me in as usual, and I asked her to read
.” Maddie pushed out her lower lip. “It’s my favorite story, but she was reading it too fast, so I asked her to slow down. She gave me a mom look, that’s what I call it, you know what it’s like.”
I nodded. “And that was the last time you saw her?”
“Well, I got up for water a little bit later.”
“And she was still in the room?”
“Pretending to sleep.”
“What was she like last night?” Cookie asked.
Maddie got even closer to Lorraine. If she could have, she’d have disappeared into the couch. “How should I know?”
Lorraine to the rescue. “She means, was your mom happy, sad, in a hurry, thinking about something—you know.”
“One of those adult questions, I know.” Maddie shrugged. “She was her usual.”
There was silence again and I could feel Maddie’s fear. “I was stalling again.”
“I don’t like sleeping in the dark, and Mom was tired. She doesn’t like it when I don’t turn out the light. I’ve got to get up for school the next day, that’s what she says, and she’s got to be at work by eight, and I hadn’t finished my homework. We sleep in the same room.”
“But yesterday afternoon Robert helped you with all your homework,” Lorraine said.
“Yes, but … maybe I still had more.” She gazed at the rug.
“What time was this?” Cookie asked.
I shot her a look. As if Maddie was into time of day and its passing. I tried to think back to see how much it mattered to me when I was eight, whether I’d even bother to look at a clock, and remembered my gran giving me a watch for my birthday and my mom reminding me every week to wear it.
Maddie shrugged. “I should have been asleep, but I hate going to bed. And Mom was tired, I know she was. It’s my fault she left.”
Lorraine held the girl in a fierce hug. “It’s not your fault. Never, ever think that.”
“Then how do you explain she’s not back yet? She’s gone. Mom left, and it’s all my fault. I didn’t mean it. It’s just that I wanted to read.” Maddie’s tears started.
Cookie looked down at her lap, about to lose it.
Our rescue came from an unlikely source. Robert, the guy with his head up the tight butt of the 1950s, the guy who can’t stand his precious son dating the likes of me, that Robert walked into the room.
“Get a grip, kid,” he said. “We’ve talked about this over and over. You can’t explain why adults do what they do, you know that. Take me, for instance.” He made a face that involved crossing his eyes and sticking out his tongue, stretching his already big mouth way out of proportion so he looked like Clarabelle the clown.
“Robert!” Maddie ran to him. “What took you so long? You should be ashamed, leaving me all this time with them. And where’s my fudge?”
“Don’t let these old biddies bully you. And as for the no-hair deal, look on the bright side, you crazy dunder fluffer, you’ll never have to shave your legs or worry about granny hairs on your chinny-chin-chin. Where’s your war paint? Didn’t you put it on this morning?”
“Too tired. And I missed Mom. Where is she? Why hasn’t she come home?”
“I don’t know, kid, and that’s the honest truth. If I knew where she was, I’d be the first to say. But we’re looking for her, that’s why she’s here,” he said, pointing to me. “And Lorraine’s helping her and Cookie too, which is a good thing, because that demented redhead over there”—he flapped an arm at me—“needs all the help she can get.”
Maddie grinned. “They were asking me questions.”