Just One Look

Chapter 21


At 5 A.M., Grace threw on a bathrobe-Jack's robe-and headed downstairs. She always wore Jack's clothes. He'd kindly request lingerie, but she preferred his pajama tops. "Well?" she'd ask, modeling the top. "Not bad," he'd reply, "but why not try wearing just the bottoms instead. Now that would be a look." She shook her head at the memory and reached the computer room.
The first thing Grace did was check the e-mail address they were using to receive replies from their spam of the photograph. What she saw surprised her.
They were no replies.
Not one.
How could that be? It was conceivable, she guessed, that nobody recognized the women in the photograph. She'd been prepared for that possibility. But by now they had sent out hundreds of thousands of e-mails to people. Even with spam blocks and all that, someone should have responded with at the very least an expletive, some crackpot with time on his hands, someone fed up with the overflow of spam who'd need to vent.
But she had not received even one reply.
What should she make of that?
The house was quiet. Emma and Max were still asleep. So too was Cora. Cora was snoring, stretched out on her back, her mouth open.
Switch gears, Grace thought.
She knew that Bob Dodd, the murdered reporter, was now her best, perhaps only, lead, and let's face it, it was a pretty flimsy one. She had no phone contact for him, no next of kin, not even a street address. Still, Dodd had been a reporter for a fairly major newspaper, the New Hampshire Post. She decided that was the best place to start.
Newspapers don't really close-at least, that was what Grace figured. Someone has to be manning the Post desk in case a big story broke. It also figured that the reporter stuck working at 5 A.M. might be bored and more apt to talk to her. So she picked up the phone.
Grace was not sure how to approach this. She considered various angles, pretending, for example, to be a reporter doing a story, asking for collegial assistance, but she wasn't sure she'd be able to talk the talk.
In the end she decided to try to keep as close to the truth as possible.
She pressed *67 to block the Caller ID. The newspaper had a toll-free line. Grace didn't use it. You can't block Caller ID from toll-free numbers. She had learned that somewhere and stockpiled it in the back brain closet, the same closet where she stored information about Daryl Hannah being in Splash and Esperanza Diaz being the wrestler dubbed Little Pocahontas, the same closet that helped make Grace, in Jack's words, "Mistress of the Useless Factoid."
The first two calls to the New Hampshire Post went nowhere. The guy at the news desk simply could not be bothered. He hadn't really known Bob Dodd and barely listened to her pitch. Grace waited twenty minutes and tried again. This time she got routed to Metro, where a woman who sounded very young informed Grace that she had just started at the paper, that this was her first job ever, that she didn't know Bob Dodd, but gee, wasn't it awful what happened to him?
Grace checked the e-mails again. Still nothing.
It was Max.
"Mommy, come quick!"
Grace hurried up the stairs.
"What is it, honey?"
Max sat in his bed and pointed to his foot. "My toe is growing too fast."
"Your toe?"
She moved next to him and sat down.
"See what, honey?"
"My second toe," he began. "It's bigger than my big toe. It's growing too fast."
Grace smiled. "That's normal, honey."
"Lots of people have a second toe that's longer than their big one. Your daddy has that."
"No way."
"Yup, way. His second toe is longer than the big one on the end."
That seemed to appease him. Grace felt another pang. "You want to watch The Wiggles?" she asked him.
"That's a baby show."
"Let's see what's on Playhouse Disney, okay?"
Rolie Polie Olie was on, and Max settled into the couch to watch. He liked to use the cushions as blankets, making a total mess of the place. Grace was beyond caring. She tried the New Hampshire Post again. This time she asked for features.
The man who answered had a voice like old tires on a gravel road. "What's up?"
"Good morning," Grace said, too cheerfully, smiling into the phone like a dimwit.
The man made a noise which, loosely translated, said: Get on with it.
"I'm trying to get some information on Bob Dodd."
"Who is this?"
"I'd rather not say."
"You're kidding, right? Look, sweetheart, I'm going to hang up now-"
"Wait a second. I can't go into details, but if it turns into a major scoop-"
"Major scoop? Did you just say major scoop?"
The man started cackling. "And what, you think I'm like Pavlov's dog or something. Say major scoop and I'll salivate."
"I just need to know about Bob Dodd."
"Because my husband is missing and I think it might have something to do with his murder."
That made him pause. "You're kidding me, right?"
"No," Grace said. "Look, I just need to find someone who knew Bob Dodd."
The voice was softer now. "I knew him."
"Did you know him well?"
"Well enough. What do you want?"
"Do you know what he was working on?"
"Look, lady, do you have information on Bob's murder? Because if you do, forget the major scoop crap and tell the police."
"Nothing like that."
"Then what?"
"I was going through some old phone bills. My husband talked to Bob Dodd not long before he was murdered."
"And your husband is?"
"I'm not going to tell you that. It's probably just a coincidence."
"But you said your husband is missing?"
"And you're concerned enough to be following up on this old phone call?"
"I've got nothing else," Grace said.
There was a pause. "You're going to have to do better than that," the man said.
"I don't think I can."
"Ah, what's the harm? I don't know anything. Bob didn't confide in me."
"Who would he confide in?"
"You can try his wife."
Grace almost slapped herself in the head. How could she not have thought of something so obvious? Man, she was over her head here. "Do you know how I can locate her?"
"Not sure. I only met her, what, once, maybe twice."
"What's her name?"
"Jillian. That's with a J, I think."
"Jillian Dodd?"
"I guess."
She wrote it down.
"There's another person you might try. Bob's father, Robert Senior. He must be in his eighties, but I think they were pretty close."
"Do you have an address for him?"
"Yeah, he's in some nursing home in Connecticut. We shipped Bob's stuff there."
"Cleaned out his desk myself. Put the stuff in a cardboard box for him."
Grace frowned. "And you sent it to his father's nursing home?"
"Why not to Jillian, the wife?"
There was a brief pause. "Don't know actually. I think she freaked after the murder. She was there, you know. Hold on a second, let me find the number of the nursing home. You can ask yourself."
Charlaine wanted to sit next to the hospital bed.
You always see that in movies and on TV-doting wives sitting bedside, holding the hand of their beloved-but in this room there was no chair made for that. The one chair in the room was too low to the ground, the sort of thing that opened up into a sleeper, and yes, that might come in handy later, but now, right now, Charlaine just wanted to sit and hold her husband's hand.
She stood instead. Every once in a while she sat on the bed's edge, but she feared that might disturb Mike. So she'd stand again. And maybe that was good. Maybe that felt a little like penance.
The door behind her opened. Her back was to it. She did not bother turning around. A man's voice, one she hadn't heard before, said, "How are you feeling?"
"I'm fine."
"You were lucky."
She nodded. "I feel like I won the lottery."
Charlaine reached up and touched the bandage on her forehead. A few stitches and possible slight concussion. That was all she had suffered during the accident. Scrapes, bruises, a few stitches.
"How is your husband?"
She did not bother replying. The bullet had hit Mike in the neck. He still had not regained consciousness, though the doctors had informed her that they believed "the worst was over," whatever that meant.
"Mr. Sykes is going to live," the man behind her said. "Because of you. He owes you his life. A few more hours in that tub..."
The man-she assumed that he was yet another police officer-let his voice drift off. She finally turned and faced him. Yep, a cop. In uniform nonetheless. The patch on his arm said he was from the Kasselton Police Department.
"I already talked to the Ho-Ho-Kus detectives," she said.
"I know that."
"I really don't know any more, Officer...?"
"Perlmutter," he said. "Captain Stuart Perlmutter."
She turned back toward the bed. Mike had his shirt off. His belly rose and fell as if it were being inflated at a gas station. He was overweight, Mike, and the act of breathing, just breathing, seemed to put undue stress on him. He should have taken better care of his health. She should have insisted on it.
"Who's with your kids?" Perlmutter asked.
"Mike's brother and sister-in-law."
"Anything I can get you?"
Charlaine changed her grip on Mike's hand.
"I was going over your statement."
She did not reply.
"Do you mind if I ask you a few follow-up questions?"
"I'm not sure I understand," Charlaine said.
"I live in Ho-Ho-Kus. What does Kasselton have to do with it?"
"I'm just helping out."
She nodded, though she had no idea why. "I see."
"According to your statement, you were looking out your bedroom window when you saw the hide-a-key on Mr. Sykes's back path. Is that correct?"
"And that's why you called the police?"
"Do you know Mr. Sykes?"
She shrugged, keeping her eyes on that rising and falling stomach. "To say hello."
"You mean like a neighbor?"
"When was the last time you talked to him?"
"I didn't. I mean, I never really talked to him."
"Just the neighborly hellos."
She nodded.
"And the last time you did that?"
"Waved hello?"
"I don't know. A week ago maybe."
"I'm a little confused, Mrs. Swain, so maybe you can help me out here. You saw a hide-a-key on the path and just decided to call the police-"
"I also saw movement."
"Movement. I saw something move in the house."
"Like someone was inside?"
"How did you know it wasn't Mr. Sykes?"
She turned around. "I didn't. But I also saw the hide-a-key."
"Lying there. In plain sight."
"I see. And you put two and two together?"
Perlmutter nodded as if suddenly understanding. "And if Mr. Sykes had been the one to use the hide-a-key, he wouldn't have just tossed it onto the path. Was that your thinking?"
Charlaine said nothing.
"Because, see, that's what's weird to me, Mrs. Swain. This guy who broke into the house and assaulted Mr. Sykes. Why would he have left the hide-a-key out in plain sight like that? Wouldn't he have hidden it or taken it inside with him?"
"And there's something else. Mr. Sykes sustained his injuries at least twenty-four hours before we found him. Do you think the hide-a-key was out on that path the whole time?"
"I wouldn't know."
"No, I guess you wouldn't. It's not like you stare at his backyard or anything."
She just looked at him.
"Why did you and your husband follow him, the guy who broke into the Sykes place, I mean?"
"I told the other officer-"
"You were trying to help out, so we wouldn't lose him."
"I was also afraid."
"Of what?"
"That he'd know I called the police."
"Why would you worry about that?"
"I was watching from the window. When the police arrived. He turned and looked out and saw me."
"And you thought, what, he'd go after you?"
"I don't know. I was scared, that's all."
Perlmutter did that over-nod bit again. "I guess that fits. I mean some of the pieces, well, you have to force them down, but that's normal. Most cases don't make perfect sense."
She turned away from him again.
"You say he was driving a Ford Windstar."
"That's right."
"He pulled out of the garage in that vehicle, right?"
"Did you see the license plate?"
"Hmm. Why do you think he did that?"
"Did what?"
"Parked in the garage."
"I have no idea. Maybe so no one would see his car."
"Yeah, okay, that adds up."
Charlaine took her husband's hand again. She remembered the last time they'd held hands. Two months ago, when they went to see a romantic comedy with Meg Ryan. Strangely enough Mike was a sucker for "chick flicks." His eyes welled up during bad romance movies. In real life, she could only remember seeing him cry once, when his father died. But at movies Mike sat in the dark and you would see a little quake in the face and then, yes, the tears would start. That night he reached out and took her hand, and what Charlaine remembered most-what tormented her now-was being unmoved. Mike had tried to interlace their fingers, but she shifted hers just enough to block him. That was how little it meant to Charlaine, nothing really, this overweight man with the comb-over reaching out to her.
"Could you please leave now?" she asked Perlmutter.
"You know I can't."
She closed her eyes.
"I know about your tax problem."
She stayed still.
"In fact, you called H amp;R Block this morning about it, isn't that right? That's where Mr. Sykes worked."
She didn't want to let go of the hand, but it felt as though Mike was pulling away.
"Mrs. Swain?"
"Not here," Charlaine said to Perlmutter. She let the hand drop and stood. "Not in front of my husband."