Authors: Creston Mapes
Margaret’s head snapped toward her daughter. “Granger Meade.” She raised her right hand and pointed. “Right over there, watching your father’s funeral.” Her head swiveled toward Pamela. “They’re all watching … all of the bad ones.”
Galen insisted that LJ, Bo, and Travis get their lazy bones out of bed early Sunday morning and go with him to church. Between his father’s poisoning, the break-in, and the confrontation with the man in black, Travis was wide open for some spiritual intervention. And, based on the vision standing next to him in the narthex, God was indeed still on His throne.
Her name was Claire Fontaine, and she and Travis had been in the same class in the second and fifth grades at Trenton City Elementary. They remained friends through high school, after which Claire went off to college and eventually became a social worker in downtown Columbus. Since then, she’d worked in many different roles with various grassroots organizations, always helping people who were less fortunate. Travis spotted her thick, shoulder-length auburn hair and pale freckled face several rows over during the sermon—which just so happened to be about how God could flip your world upside down in an instant.
When Travis approached her after the service, Claire beamed and gave him a prolonged hug, smelling like a lemon tree. Her green eyes twinkled, and her smile melted his insides. They talked a blue streak, laughing about school days and comparing notes about classmates. She was thin and looked light as a feather in her loose jeans and baggy sweater; she wore no makeup or wedding ring, or any other jewelry for that matter—and didn’t need any of it to shine like a star.
Bo and LJ were pestering Travis from across the room to hurry up so they could beat the Baptists to Ryan’s for the buffet. Meanwhile, an older woman approached Claire and whispered something.
“That’s fine, you go on,” Claire said. “I’ll see you back at the house.” She turned back to Travis. “That was my aunt Genevieve. I brought her, but she’s going to brunch with friends. Who’d you come with?”
Travis hated to have her even look over at LJ and Bo, who resembled two of the Three Stooges, all hot and bothered about how long he was taking to join them for lunch.
“I’m with my dad and my brother and LJ’s boy, Bo.”
Claire gave LJ and Bo a wave and asked about Travis’s mother, whom she remembered from their youth. Travis told her she had passed, and Claire seemed genuinely sorry.
LJ was making his way over.
“Excuse me, miss.” He towered over Claire, wearing his best black eye patch. He leaned into Travis. “Come on! You’re takin’ longer than Daddy, for Pete’s sake. You know how crowded it’s gonna be.”
Then he steamrolled out of there, grabbing Daddy and Bo on his way.
“I’m afraid I’ve got to go. We’re going to lunch. That was LJ—”
“I think I remember him, except for the eye patch.”
“Yeah, that’s a relatively new look for him.”
Claire smiled. “Well, it sure has been amazing seeing you.”
“I wish I’d have driven separately. I could talk to you all day.”
She laughed. “Wouldn’t you miss your lunch? I mean, I could take you home if you want to talk some more.”
Travis got chill bumps head to toe. “Are you serious?”
“Sure. We could get coffee or something.”
Travis just about went to the moon and back.
“Have you tried the Jittery Joe’s that went in over on Brubaker?” he said. “It’s my treat, okay?” He motioned for her to stay right there while he hurried off to tell the boys. He called back over his shoulder, “We can go wherever you like, wherever you like … coffee, lunch, brunch … it’s up to you. Don’t you move now.”
He had turned his excitement into a joke, and Claire Fontaine had gotten it.
She was laughing.
And Travis was thinking that was the best sermon he’d ever heard.
* * *
Derrick was deep in thought as he sat on the couch in his loft apartment that frigid Sunday night in Trenton City. He’d just hung up with a distraught Jenness Brinkman. She and Tatum had been at Trenton City police headquarters, where they were informed that their father’s car had been found that afternoon, abandoned beneath a bridge near the interstate. Spivey Brinkman was officially a missing person.
Derrick had planned on questioning Jenness and Tatum when he finally met up with Spivey, but now that was on hold indefinitely.
His phone rang. It was Jack. He and his family—and the mother-in-law—were back from the funeral in Cleveland. Pam had taken Jack to the Randalls’ place to pick up his car, and he was driving home.
“I got a call today from Leonard Bendickson’s personal assistant,” Jack said. “He needs to move our interview up to tomorrow at three, at his office. Can you do it?”
Derrick hesitated. “I think so. I’m sure not going to tell Cecil.”
“I’m not sure if the son is going to be there or not; they won’t give me a straight answer.”
“Dude, is this thing starting to freak you out at all?”
“How do you mean?”
“All that’s happened to the Randalls? Now Spivey’s missing. What if Demler-Vargus really is behind this?”
“Then we need to stop them! That’s what I’ve been trying to get across to the Randalls. I think they’re in more danger than they realize.”
“You think it’s safe for us to do this interview … with Bendickson?”
Jack chuckled. “Well, they aren’t going to murder us in broad daylight at their own offices!”
Derrick didn’t laugh.
“It’ll be fine, man,” said Jack. “We’re going to find out the truth. Who knows? Maybe Demler-Vargus is completely innocent.”
“You don’t believe that.”
“No, I don’t, but right now we’ve got nothing solid on them.”
Derrick checked his laptop while Jack talked about some of the things he planned to ask Bendickson.
“Hold up, Jack. I got a new Facebook message from Amy Sheets’s brother Brendon … It says
Accept my friend request. Go to online chat
“Dude, score! You better hurry up and do it.”
Derrick accepted the request. “I’ve never done online chat …”
“It’s a column on the right, I think. At the bottom you click ‘go online.’ You see it?”
“Yeah, I’m doing it.”
“If he’s there you’ll see a little green light. Click it and start chatting.”
Derrick scanned the names in the chat column, and there it was, Brendon Sheets, with a green dot next to it. “Bingo. All right, I’m gonna send him a message. I’ll let you know what happens.”
They hung up, and Derrick clicked Brendon’s name. A box and blinking cursor popped up. He typed.
Brendon, this is Derrick Whittaker, are you there?
Derrick waited. The answer from Brendon came quickly.
Thanks for getting back to me. Am I correct that you are the brother of Amy Sheets, former reporter for the Trenton City Dispatch?
Brendon, we are trying to reach Amy about a story she worked on at the Dispatch. Can you give me her phone number or email address?
We don’t speak.
I’m sorry to hear that. Do you know where she lives?
Don’t be sorry. It was my choice.
We’ve heard she moved to Columbus but can’t find any listing for her there.
Derrick waited and waited but got no response. He tried again.
Can you tell me where Amy lives?
It took a while, but the screen finally showed,
Brendon is typing …
She does not want to be found.
Derrick was not about to tell Brendon that he knew about Amy’s pregnancy. He racked his brain for a different way to phrase the same question.
We heard Amy moved to be closer to your parents …
That’s the story.
Story? So is she or is she not in the Columbus area?
Have you contacted my parents?
I contacted Rebekah Sheets via FB; assuming she is your mother. She said they don’t know where Amy is.
Brendon, can we talk by phone? It would be easier. I can call you right now if you give me your number.
Why is this so urgent?
Can I call you to discuss this?
NO and I don’t want you to contact me ANY MORE after this.
We’re working on an investigative piece. Amy did some interviews before she left. We think what she learned will help us immensely in the story we’re working on now.
I knew this day was coming.
Okay, be his psychologist. Just get on the train and ride with the guy …
You mean you knew someone from the Dispatch would be trying to find Amy?
I warned them. There are no shortcuts in life.
Exactly what’s happening right this second.
Brendon, all I want to do is talk to Amy by phone. It will take ten minutes, and we’ll be done. I won’t contact either of you again.
I can’t. She couldn’t tell you the truth anyway.
Too great a risk. Please leave us alone. Find your information elsewhere. Talk to the same people Amy talked to. You’ll find what you need.
Brendon, do you know what this is about?
What I know is that if you continue to pursue Amy you will put her and my parents at great risk. Do you understand?
No, I don’t.
Amy made mistakes, but she is not the real criminal. You know who it is. Keep going after THEM and you will have the dirty party. You’re on the right track.
Who is THEM?
I’m signing off. Please don’t attempt to contact me again.
Wait, Brendon, please don’t get off yet.
If you have any mercy, you will STOP trying to contact Amy. That’s it.
Derrick tried several more times to type back to Brendon, but he was gone. Quickly, Derrick highlighted all the text from their conversation, copied it, pasted it onto a blank page, and printed it, just to make sure he had a hard copy. Next he emailed it to Jack. Then he went back to Facebook, typed in Brendon’s name, and found what he suspected—Brendon had already removed him as a friend. His status had flipped back to private.
Derrick reviewed the facts from the conversation: Brendon did not speak to Amy; Amy did not want to be found; Brendon called it a “story” that Amy supposedly moved to the Columbus area to be closer to her parents; he called it a lie that her parents did not know where she was; Amy could not tell the truth if they did find her, because it would put her at risk; Amy had made mistakes.
Derrick organized his notes around the laptop.
What did Amy find out about Demler-Vargus?
He went to Google and entered Amy’s name for the hundredth time.
Why didn’t she write about what she discovered?
Derrick was determined to find any thread that would lead them to Amy Sheets.
Was she really pregnant, or was there another reason she moved away from Trenton City? Did she really move away at all?
It was Sunday night. Everyone was tired from the funeral and the three-hour drive back to Trenton City. Rebecca and Faye were in bed—asleep, Jack hoped. He and Pam were sorting through the mail in the kitchen. They’d had no time to talk in private since the fiasco at the funeral, when Margaret thought she saw Granger.
“It’s starting.” He nodded toward Pam’s mother. Hunched slightly with her hair pulled back and cold cream on her cheeks, wearing a beige robe and slippers, Margaret was going from door to door, checking the locks, and window to window, closing the blinds.
Pam pretended to faint, and they chuckled softly.
“You know it’s going to be like that,” she said. “You better get used to it.”
“What do you think happened at the funeral?”
Pam shook her head. “She hasn’t slept hardly at all since Daddy died. She’s frazzled. She’s barely eaten anything …”
But she has found a way to drink
, Jack thought.
Pam looked around the corner for her mom.
“I think I heard her go upstairs,” Jack said.
“Thanks for helping me get her room made up. She usually has a light on all night. She reads or watches TV. She’s afraid to go to sleep.”