Read Pieces of the Puzzle Online

Authors: Robert Stanek

Pieces of the Puzzle (9 page)

She says, ‘Go visit him. Stay a few weeks.’ So I go, only he’s not there, he’s here and now I’m here and he’s not. We miss
each other like that a lot sometimes.”

“So Pattie paid for the room?”

“Well, probably. Always has money, that Pattie. That’s partly why they would have been good for each other. Last year, she
racked up ten thousand dollars during just that one week.”

“Pattie?”

“No, silly. She was trying to impress Pattie, always. She likes to pretend like she has all the money in the world, but me
and Pattie, we know it’s an act. No, I didn’t tell her and don’t you tell that I told you either.”

Scott’s eyes glazed over for a moment, then he promised he wouldn’t. He started thinking about credit cards, Jessica’s credit
cards and a paper trail all across Miami. “Thank you, May,” he said, “You’ve been very helpful.”

“Well, ain’t you a dear,” May said. She finished off her cigarette, went to get another one and found the pack was empty.
As she started digging through her purse looking for a new pack, he went off in search of Helen.

Miami, Florida
Monday, 10 January

It was a three-hour drive from Tampa to Alligator Alley along I75. Helen asked why he wanted to take the tollway when I-41
would get them to Miami just fine and not that much later. It was the wee hours of a Monday morning and not a Monday afternoon.
He agreed with her on that point, only that point. So the tollway was twelve bucks, big deal.

Helen said she remembered when it was only a buck fifty. Big deal. The point was that he could, and did, go from Naples to
Andytown in an hour and not three.

He said smugly, “Miami Beach, two-fifteen in the a.m.”

“Like we’re going to do something at two-fifteen?” Helen had been in a sour mood ever since they left May’s.

He took his foot off the accelerator. ““What did I do, what did I do that was so bad?”

“You acted like you were conducting an interrogation, that’s what. Do you know how much that poor woman’s been through?”

He looked away from the road for a moment and looked her straight in the eye. “What’s this really about?”

“You know, don’t you,” Helen said glumly. “She told you didn’t she, told you how much of a disappointment I was.” He came
to a red light and stopped. “We’re all disappointments to someone.”

She started to reply. He cut her off, noticing the blue F-150 stopped in front of them and the black Excursion coming up from
the rear. Something was out of place but before he could think about it anymore, the light turned green. The F-150 continued
straight in the direction he was heading.

He changed his mind, turned right just to be on the safe side. There wasn’t a lot of traffic this early in the morning and
three cars coming to the same stop light, from the same direction, didn’t feel right. As the Excursion turned right and the
driver of the F-150 went into reverse, he yelled, “Buckle up…” just before he threw the shift into reverse, suddenly happy
that he’d taken the upgrade offered at Tampa International but also wishing the car wasn’t fire-engine red.

The back-end of the T-bird did a smooth 180. He stamped on the accelerator just as the Excursion sped past him. The driver
of the F-150 was coming around at the same time, he swerved to miss him, ignoring the next red light as he raced away.

A second Excursion came into view. The driver swerved to block the street. Scott zigged and zagged to get around him. He swung
around a corner, ignoring ONE WAY and NO TURN signs.

The F-150 was the only vehicle that could keep up at this point, but the other two drivers hadn’t given up. He could see their
headlights in the rearview mirror.

The F-150 was right on his tail. He shifted, stamped on the accelerator. The back-end fishtailed a bit but they’d surely make
a clean getaway: A pickup truck couldn’t outrun or outmaneuver a muscle car.

The T-bird topped out at 120. He was sure he could get more speed if the road leveled out but it was fast enough for now.
The narrow one-way street made it seem like the buildings were closing in on them and Helen was already screaming, “Stop the
car! Stop the car!”

He slammed on the brakes but not because she asked him to: The street was ending and a black SUV was parked in the T of the
intersection. The dim streetlight offered just enough light to see armed men standing in front of the SUV.

He slowed down, planning to make a right turn but he was going too fast to maintain control of the car. The car spun through
a half circle, the sliding back-end sent the gunmen running. As the left side of the T-bird slammed into the SUV, the driver-side
window shattered.

He pulled Helen down in the seat just before he raced off, expecting the gunmen to open fire but they didn’t. He raced down
several streets, turning randomly. At an on-ramp to the interstate, he jammed on the brakes and the T-bird skidded to a halt.
“You okay?” he asked.

Helen bobbed her head, absently saying, “You?”

Scott waited, watching the rearview mirror. “Nothing a few stitches won’t fix.” He leaned over, turned his left shoulder to
her. “You any good with a needle and thread?”

Seeing the blood and glass brought Helen back to reality. She unwrapped her arms from around her shoulders, stopped shaking.
“You should see a doctor.”

He shifted, accelerated, started onto the interstate. He took the next exit, came back around to the Ritz-Carlton. He didn’t
pull up front. Instead, he went around back. “Switch places with me,” he told her.

She furrowed her brow but did as he asked. As he came around the car, he opened the trunk. His garment bag had a field kit.
He tossed it to Helen. “Always pays to be prepared.”

“Well just what do you want me to do with this?” She took a closer look at his arm, started pulling out the glass shards.
“You need stitches.”

He reached over with his right hand, pushed in the lighter, waited. “Get the needle and thread.”

“You want me to stitch you up. Here?”

“Here.”

“I’m liable to stitch you up crooked.”

“Just like conducting, Helen, only use small, deliberate strokes. There’s a bottle under the driver’s seat.”

“You don’t need a drink,” she shot back. “Sober or drunk the result will be the same.”

“Not for me, for the shoulder. Douse the shoulder. Bourbon’s a pretty good antiseptic, trust me.”

She poured the booze on the shoulder, sterilized the needle with the cigarette lighter and went to work. She put in twelve
stitches along the jagged gash. He sat still, unflinching when the needle went in, and just as steady when the thread was
pulled tight and knotted.

Afterward, she helped him put on a clean shirt and a light jacket. A few minutes later he drove the T-bird around to the front
of the Ritz-Carlton.

He unlocked the trunk for the porter, gave the car keys and an Abraham Lincoln to a kid who looked barely sixteen, then escorted
her into the hotel. They both ignored questions about the broken window and the battered fenders.

Following Scott’s nod, Helen went to the counter. She asked if they could check back in to Room 908. The room was available.

Not long afterward, Scott found himself eyeballing the single king-size bed in Room 908. Helen went into the bathroom to freshen
up. He removed his jacket and shoes, then claimed the left side of the bed.

Helen emerged from the bathroom a few minutes later. She was naked. No surprise. He ignored her and closed his eyes. She said,
“Are you going to sleep with that thing strapped around your shoulder?”

“The gun stays where it is. Turn off the light.” “It could get in the way.”

“Nothing’s going to happen, Helen.”

She turned off the light, climbed in bed and started blowing in his ear. “Even now?”

“Go to sleep.” He rolled onto his side. “I can’t sleep.” She turned the light back on.

He rolled onto his back, stared at her.

She turned onto her side facing him. She said softly, “Who did you disappoint?”

Scott was quiet. He tried not to let himself feel anything.

She repeated, “Who did you disappoint?”

“My father wanted me to be a doctor. My mother wanted me to be a lawyer. But I sort of went into the family business instead.”

“Would you hate me forever if I disappointed you, like you hate them for making you something you’re not?”

“I don’t hate my parents, and nobody made me what I am. I made me what I am.”

“That’s not the truth, I see it behind your eyes. May saw it. I see it. That’s why she said we’d be good together. She’s never
wrong.”

“There are things I choose not to remember because I don’t want to.” He reached over her and shut off the table lamp. “Get
some sleep.”

When he awoke it was almost noon and he thought the world had surely ended. Beside him, Helen was still sleeping. He went
to the window and drew back the drapes. As bright sunshine bathed the room, Helen moaned and pulled a pillow over her head.
He went into the bathroom and took a shower. Soap and hot water tore away the stiffness of a long and fitful sleep. He was
careful not to get the bandaged shoulder wet but the bandage got soaked anyway.

He was in the midst of washing that spot in the middle of his back that he could never quite reach when he heard the bathroom
door open. Helen folded back the shower curtain. He expected her to step into the shower with him. Instead, she just poked
her head in and said, “The phone’s ringing. Should I answer it?”

He looked at her. She smiled. “You couldn’t have said that from over there?”

“And miss this?” She smiled again. “Should I answer it or not?”

“Answer it if that’s what you want to do.”

“That’s not what I want to do, but I’ll do it.”

He soaped up his underarms, rinsed the conditioner out of his hair, then let the hot water soothe him for a moment more before
getting out of the shower. If there was one thing he would remember about the Ritz-Carlton, it would be their towels: soft
and plush. His garment bag was in the closet. He took out a clean pair of slacks, a matching jacket, and a button-down cotton
shirt. No tie, he felt constrained in a tie, and only wore one when it was a necessity.

He had his shirt halfway buttoned when he remembered his shoulder and the bandages that needed to be changed. “Helen?”

he called out, “Can you help me with this?”

There was no answer. He took the field kit out of the bag and set about cutting gauze and taping it over the wound.

He finished buttoning up the cotton shirt in front of the bathroom mirror and went to find his boots. He noticed the hotel
room door was ajar. The TV was on, so he presumed Helen was watching it. He called out, “Helen?”

He walked toward the blaring TV. “Helen?”

The room was empty. The phone rang. Scott snatched it up. “Helen, where are you?”

“Are you watching the TV?”

“Who is this?”

“Are you watching the TV?”

He turned toward the TV. “Who is this?”

The phone went dead. He noticed this only vaguely as he stared at the TV. The twelve o’clock news was on. He sat down on the
edge of the bed. His stomach muscles bunched up in knots.

“Tampa firefighters have been battling this four-alarm fire since dawn. Local residents say there was an explosion around
5 a.m., what appears to be a gas explosion, and that the building went up in a huge fireball that threatened to consume its
neighbors. The neighboring apartment buildings were evacuated within minutes, but the fire here at Emerald Grove burned so
hot and so quick firefighters are not sure if anyone survived. This is Tina—”Scott clicked off the TV, his thoughts turned
to Helen. He slipped on his boots as he stumbled to the elevator. When the elevator opened on the first floor, he raced through
the lobby to the street. The street was a moving mass of humanity. He closed his eyes for an instant to recall what Helen
wore the day before, which he hoped she was wearing now—a baggy, yellow sun dress. He stared up and down the street. Baggy,
yellow sun dress. Baggy, yellow sun dress.

He ran back to the hotel lobby, went to the front desk. “Did anyone see a woman with long black hair, wearing a yellow sun
dress?”

One of the clerks shrugged. Another recommended he try the pool area or the beach. He went out to the pool and the beach,
but didn’t find Helen. He went back to the room thinking she might have returned there. The room was just as he left it. His
mind started working. The keys, the car keys. Where were they?

They weren’t in his pocket. They weren’t on the nightstand.

He pulled at his hair and shouted at the walls, but it didn’t help. He searched the room in case the keys dropped out of his
pocket. Helen’s purse was on the table. The gym bag full of money was tossed casually in the closet right where the porter
left it. Helen’s overnight bag was beside the bed. Only the car keys were missing.

He called down to the front desk, told them he was checking out and asked if they would get the bill ready and send up a porter.
He hung up the phone and closed his eyes as he tried to think. If he were Helen, where would he go? Would she drive back to
Tampa? Not likely, not Helen. Would she go home?

Would she go back to Boca Raton? Maybe, if she thought Jessica might be there.

He rented another car. Hertz delivered it to the Ritz-Carlton.

It wasn’t rush hour, so it was only a forty-minute drive to Boca Raton, and in less than an hour, he was parking around the
corner from J. Wellmen & Associates. He looked for the red T-bird he rented in Tampa, but didn’t see it.

The front door of the office was closed and locked. He walked around to the back door. He took a set of lock picks out of
his inside jacket pocket, not bothered by the fact that it was broad daylight and the little side street wasn’t deserted.
He opened the door, glanced back over his shoulder, then entered.

His eyes went wide as he closed the door behind him. The reception area was a mess. The desk was on its side. The couch was
ripped apart. One of the closet doors was off its hinges. He raced into the back room. The floor of the room was wall-to-wall
gizmos before but now it was clean swept, as if someone went over it inch by inch with a magnifying glass. The little desk
in the far corner of the room was the same way, stripped bare—or was it?

He saw something on the desktop. Papers maybe. No, a note. A note from Helen.

He started reading:

Scott,

Made amess of things, didn’t I? Don’t hate me. I
didn’t have achoice. Don’t look for me. You won’t find
me. No one will find me ever again. No one will hurt
me ever again.

Iwanted to help you. You have to know that, but I
couldn’t. Do you see now what happens when Isay
things Ishouldn’t? Ihave something he wants. He has
something Iwant. Do you understand?

Probably not. Well, you don’t need to. Ileft something
for you, Scott. You’re my ace in the hole. Check your
beige jacket.

Helen of Troy

Scott ran back to the car, unzipped the garment bag and took out his beige sports coat. He worked his way through the pockets
one at a time, carefully, because he wasn’t sure what he would find. In the inside left breast pocket, he found three pieces
of folded-up paper. He unfolded them. They read:

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