Authors: Carol Lea Benjamin
A Rachel Alexander Mystery
For Stephen, my sweetheart
Leon Spector had dead written all over him, not theâ¦
We walked pretty much in silence, or rather we walkedâ¦
I unlocked the wrought iron gate that leads to theâ¦
Everything was on the Internet now, instructions for making bombs,â¦
After a swim at the Y, I stopped at homeâ¦
I called Leon from the dog run.
When I got home, I sat on the living roomâ¦
Leon opened the door and looked more than ready toâ¦
It was almost lunchtime but I wasn't hungry. I wasâ¦
I got to Sally's block around nine and sat onâ¦
Not a nanny, I thought the moment I woke up.
I was going to go home, make some notes, checkâ¦
We took the long way home, weaving in and outâ¦
Eric Bechman, Charles Abele had told me, was thrilled toâ¦
Ms. Peach, I thought when I left Celia's apartment. Andâ¦
Madison, wearing Sally's jean jacket, a backpack that looked biggerâ¦
I woke up alone, to the smell of bacon. Orâ¦
It took ten more minutes to get a cab, thenâ¦
I sat in a booth at the far end ofâ¦
The street lamps were already on, the light smoky andâ¦
There were pretty flowers for sale outside one of theâ¦
By the time I got to Long Key, the sunâ¦
For the next three days, I woke up with theâ¦
Sally's hand stayed where it was, an eave over herâ¦
Once again I dreamed of fish, striped, dotted, patterned, piedâ¦
There was an airport in Marathon. I could have returnedâ¦
“Where's JoAnn?” I asked when Charles opened the door.
I could hear Dashiell barking as I climbed the stairsâ¦
I didn't wait until I got home to see whatâ¦
I stood across the street from Dr. Bechman's office waitingâ¦
There was no use waiting around the house all morningâ¦
I was sitting where Ms. Peach had been when myâ¦
I'd just gotten home when it occurred to me thatâ¦
There was no answer when I rang the bell. Evenâ¦
It was eight-thirty by the time I went upstairs andâ¦
Leon Spector had dead written all over him, not the kind where they put you in a box, say a few words and toss the earth back over you, not the ashes-to-ashes kind of dead, but the kind that lets the world know that whatever the battle was, you lost, the kind that says that sometime, a long time ago, you were beaten into the ground by circumstances beyond your control. I didn't know what those circumstances were in Leon's case, but on a particularly sunny afternoon at the Washington Square Park dog run the month I turned forty and my pit bull, Dashiell, turned five, Leon apparently planned to tell me.
He met me as I was closing the inner gate, a wide, multicolored camera strap slung around his neck, his Leica hanging low on his chest. I'd seen him at the run before, not with a dog but with his camera, and I'd seen him taking pictures on other occasions as well, the opening of the new park along the river, the annual outdoor art show, the gay pride parade. Someone said he was a freelance photographer. Someone else said he was working on a book. Until that afternoon, that was all I knew about Leon, but not why he carried not only a camera everywhere he went but also the weight of the world. You could see it pulling
him toward the ground, as if the gravity under Leon was working overtime.
“I've been looking all over for you,” he said as I bent to unhook Dashiell's leash. “I couldn't call you becauseâ¦”
I looked up. Leon stopped and fiddled with the strap of his camera.
“Because I'm not listed?” I asked.
Leon shook his head. “I never got that far,” he said. “The person who told me about you, who said what I needed was a private investigator and that's what youâ¦” He stopped and shrugged. “It is, isn't it?”
Leon nodded back. “She just said she'd seen you here and that your dog wore a red collar with his name on it and that you had,” he made a spiral with his left pointer, “long, curly hair. She didn't know your last name.”
I didn't know his last name either, at least not yet, but I didn't say so. Leon didn't look in the mood for small talk.
“What's the problem?” I asked.
Instead of answering me, Leon put the camera up to his face and looked through the viewfinder. I wondered if he had a deadline of some sort or if he was just one of those people who talked better if he was doing something else at the same time.
I heard the shutter click and looked in the direction Leon's camera was pointing. There was a little girl of about nine or ten sitting alone on a bench, watching the dogs. She was wearing dark glasses and a shirt that looked three sizes too big. Next to her, on the bench, there was a small see-through plastic purse the shape of a lunch pail, with something colorful inside, but I was too far away to make out what it was.
I waited. Sometimes, doing something else or not, I let the other guy do the talking, see what comes out before adding my own two cents.
“I need you to find my wife,” he said.
I guess that explained the sagging shoulders, the hangdog look. He'd been a good-looking man once, you could see that. But now he looked faded, used up, worn out. You could feel the effort it took for him to form sentences, as if he could barely muster the energy to speak.
“It's not for me,” he said. “It's for my daughter. She's in trouble and she needs her mother.”
Dashiell was busy digging a hole in the far corner of the run, a hole I'd have to fill in before I left. I turned to look at Leon now to see if his face might tell me what his words hadn't. But Leon's face wasn't talking either.
“Where is her mother?”
“That's the whole point. I don't know, not since she walked out on me and Madison.”
I took out a small notepad and a pencil. I wrote down, “Madison.”
“Divorced you?” I asked.
He shook his head. “Nothing soâ¦” He scratched at the dirt with the sole of his shoe. “Nothing as clear as that.”
“Missing, you mean?”
Leon nodded. “I do,” he said. “Every day.”
I nodded. I knew what it was like to miss someone who was gone. I figured, one way or another, just about everyone did. But Leon had a bad case of it, not only being abandoned, but being abandoned with a kid.
“Come on,” I said, “let's sit down.”
We walked over to the closest bench.
“No clue as to why she left,” I asked, “or where she went?”
“You ever notice the way things look one way but they're not, they're another?”
“How did you think things were?”
“Permanent,” he said.
I felt that little stab that sometimes comes along with an unexpected truth, simply stated.
Leon lifted the camera to his face again. But this time I didn't hear the shutter click. I wrote down, “How long is wife missing? How old is Madison?”
“After the initial shock of it, the police investigation, all of that,” he moved the camera away from his face and turned to look at me, “everything just a dead end, I managed okay.” He tilted his head left, then right, as if he were arguing with himself. “At least that's what I thought. Not perfect. Far from perfect. But okay. Considering.” He shrugged. “But now.” He shook his head. “I don't know how to handle this.”
If his daughter was pregnant, I wondered if there might be some female relative who could help. Or a neighbor they were close to. Was this just an excuse to try to find his missing wife again? I was about to ask when Leon started talking again. Perhaps he was finally on a roll.
“She went out one night and never came back,” he said, covering his face with the camera. He was pointing it at the southern end of the run where a Weimaraner had dropped his ball into the water bucket and was trying to fish it out with his front paws, but I had the feeling Leon wasn't actually looking through the lens this time.
Leon moved the camera away and nodded. He hadn't taken a picture this time either. “Just like that,” he said. “Went for a walk. Didn't take a thing with her.”
“No money, no passport, not even a change of clothes?”
“Just a change of heart, I guess. And Roy.”
“That was the man she ran off with?” I asked quietly, sympathetically, finally getting it.
Leon shook his head. “That I could understand, if that's what she had done.”
“But it wasn't, is that what you're saying?” Wanting to
shake him by now. “Spit it out, Leon. I'm going to be a member of AARP before you get to the point.”
“Roy was the dog,” he said.
Leon nodded, though it was sort of a rhetorical question. “See, what I don't get is that Sally never wanted him in the first place. She said, âNo matter what you say now, Leon, I'm going to be the one taking care of it. I already have more than I can handle with the kid, going to school at night and you, Leon. What the hell do I need a dog for?'” Leon shrugged again. “Guess I was the one who needed a dog. Guess that's what she was saying. So I said I'd take care of him. I figured that would take care of the problem, you know what I mean?”
“But it didn't?”
“One night she says, âI think Roy needs a walk. I think he needs to go.' So I get up to take him out, but she flaps her hand at me, picks up the leash and walks out the door. That was the last time I saw either one of them.” He scratched the side of his nose with his thumb. “I guess she was the one who had to go, not Roy.”
He shook his head.
“What about Roy? Did heâ¦” I stopped to consider how to word what I wanted to say. But was there anything I could say that Leon hadn't thought of a thousand times over? “Did he ever turn up?” I asked.
Leon shook his head again. For a while, we just sat there. Leon didn't say anything and neither did I.
“That's why I was looking for you,” he finally said, “to ask if you could find her for us.”
“How long has she been gone?”
“Five years, two months, eleven days.” He looked at his watch but didn't report back to me.
“Without a word?”
He nodded again.
“How do you know she's still alive?”
“I don't,” he said.
“There was no credit card activity that night? Or afterwards?”
“She didn't have it with her.” He shrugged. “She'd just gone out to walk Roy.”
“Did she have a driver's license?”
“We didn't have a car.” As if that answered the question.
“What about social security payments made under her name? Did the police follow up on that?” I asked, thinking she could have a new name, a new social security card, a new life.
“They didn't come up with anything,” he said. “No sign ofâ¦”
He was probably in his forties, but he could have easily passed for sixty, the hair sticking out from under his baseball cap a steely gray, his skin the color of honeysuckle, that yellowish white that looks great on a plant and really lousy on a person. But it was mostly his eyes that made him look so old, his sad, dead eyes.
“Look, someone gone that long,” I shook my head from side to side, “Leon, if your daughter's pregnant and that's, that's a problem, there are only a few choices that can be made. Why go through all thisâ¦”
“Pregnant? Wouldn't that beâ¦” For a moment I thought he was going to laugh, but then he looked as if he was about to cry. “Madison's not pregnant,” he said. “She's suspected of murder.”
“Murder?” Why was he talking to me? His daughter didn't need her mother, she needed a good lawyer.
“They say she killed her doctor in a fit of rage. She gets them sometimes.”
“Fits of rage?”
“And did she?”
Leon looked shocked. Then his old, sad eyes looked even older and sadder. “I don't think so.”
“But you don't know?”
Leon shook his head.
“Did you ask her?”
“Well, what did she say?”
“She didn't say anything. Madison doesn't speak. She stopped talking three days after her mother disappeared.” He glanced around the run, as if to assess whether anyone might be listening, but there wasn't a soul near enough, and besides, a Jack Russell had spotted a squirrel on a branch and was barking his fool head off. “I was hoping if you could find Sally for us,” he whispered, “maybe Madison would start to talk again. Maybe she'd say what happened that day instead of letting people who weren't there say what was in her heart and what she did.”
“Does she respond at all? Does she write things down? Does she nod for yes, shake her head for no?”
“Sometimes she draws pictures, but even then, you can't always know for sure what she's thinking. There was a picture on the doctor's desk, a heart with a scraggly line going into it.”
“It could look that way.”
“And was she angry with her doctor?”
Leon nodded. “She has these tics and he was treating her with Botox, to paralyze the muscles so that she'dâ¦”
“Look more normal?”
“âPass for normal' is what he said. Can you imagine saying that to a patient? To a kid?”
Pass for normal, I thought. Isn't that what we all tried to do?
“But the last shot he gave her, he screwed up.” Leon looked straight at me. “He said it would go away, that it would wear off, but meanwhile it made one eyelid droop and she was really freaked out by it.”
“So was the picture an expression of her anger, maybe a threat, is that what the thinking is?”
He nodded. “She was his last patient of the afternoon. The receptionist was there when Madison showed up but not when she left. When she went back to the office, she found him, Dr. Bechman, dead.”
“Stabbed in the heart?”
“With the Botox injection that Madison had refused.”
That did it for me. No way could I turn down the case now.
“Alexander,” I said. “It's Rachel Alexander.” I gave him a card with my landline and my cell phone numbers.
It took him a while to find his card. It was in the third pocket he checked. I explained my fees and the advance I required. I said there might be some expenses in a case like this and that he'd have to cover those, too. And finally I told him I couldn't guarantee I'd find Sally after all these years, that there was only the slimmest chance of that, but if he still wanted me to try, I would. He said he did.
As for Madison, I hoped there'd be some other way to prove her innocence, if she was innocent, because even if I found her mother and even if the kid started talking again, told the cops what happened on that terrible day, said the blame wasn't hers, who says anyone would believe her?
Leon and I shook hands. Looking at his sad face, I wasn't
sure who needed Sally more, the husband or the daughter. And I had no idea at the time what I was committing myself to and how it would change my life.
“So the receptionist found the doctor when she got to work in the morning?” I asked, wondering why no one had called earlier to say he hadn't arrived home. “That must have been a shock.”
“It wasn't in the morning. She went back that night.”
“Why would she do that?”
“You think maybe his wife called the receptionistâif he had a wife?”
“He did. He kept her picture on the desk. They all do that for some reason.”
“So maybe she called the receptionist at home to ask where he was, if there was some meeting or conference or business dinner he'd neglected to mention?” Why call 911, I thought, when it might just be miscommunication, or a lack of communication?
“I wasn't told why she went back, just that she did.”
“And the doctor was there, dead?”