The Elusive Mr. McCoy - cover image

published by NAL

represented by April Eberhardt

cover design by Mimi Barks

The Elusive Mr. McCoy

 

Intriguing for its concept as well as the surprisingly captivating cast of secondary characters, the story is an ultimately satisfying tale of staggering betrayal, startling revelations, and the possibility of eventual redemption in the most unexpected of ways.   Julie Trevelyan, Booklist

Lesley McCoy works in a daycare center and dreams of the day when she and her husband, David, will have their own family.

Kendra McCoy has no interest in starting a family; shes too busy snaring wealthy clients for her event-planning business. Fortunately her husband, Eric, doesn’t want children either.

Lesley and Kendra discover their shared surname is no coincidence when a man carrying two wallets collapses in a coffee shop.  While their bigamist husband lies in a coma, these two very different women reluctantly join forces  in an attempt to piece together a true picture of the man they both fell in love with. Instead, they discover he has a third life that neither of them suspected.

Scroll down to read the opening chapters.

 

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Chapter One: Man of Mystery

To a casual observer, the man standing in line at the Well Roasted Bean is the visual equivalent of Teflon, so unremarkable he is almost invisible. He is shorter than some men, taller than others. His thinning hair, halfway between blond and brown, frames tidy, regular features that are too lined to be young but not lined enough to be old. Nothing about him receives a second glance from most of the other late-night latte addicts checking out the quality of fix available at the newly opened coffee shop.

But Jason Cheddick is not a casual observer, and from where he’s sitting, on an uncomfortable wrought-iron chair at a tiny faux-marble table, this man is easily the most interesting person in the room. Jason is intrigued, not by the man’s appearance but by his behavior. The man’s alert brown eyes study the other customers with an intensity beyond casual curiosity. He shifts his stance slightly to mimic the posture of the person he is looking at and avoids looking directly at Jason in a way that indicates he knows he’s being studied in return. As a former police officer, Jason tends to view unusual behavior with suspicion. He sips his espresso and wonders if the man is a pickpocket looking for an easy score, or maybe a con artist scoping out a gullible mark.

The customer in front of the interesting man, a stocky East Indian woman with steely hair pulled into a severe bun, finishes interrogating the barista about every pastry in the glass case by the cash register and decides on a chocolate biscotti. As she picks up her snack and moves with heavy dignity to collect her drink at the end of the bar, the man steps up and places his hands on the counter, palms down. The barista gives him the same bland half smile she gave Jason a few minutes earlier. Most men would be unable to resist the attraction of the spiderweb tattoo adorning the exposed upper slope of the barista’s impressive breasts, but this one keeps his eyes fixed on her face. He grins at her and says something Jason can’t hear. Her polite mask fractures into animated amusement. She giggles and reaches out to touch the man’s hand in an unconscious gesture of attraction.

Annoyed by this rapid conquest of a woman who hadn’t given him a second glance, Jason unfolds his newspaper but is unable to concentrate on the front-page article about a high-profile divorce trial.

Jason is far from vain, but if he were, he’d have every right to be. By any standard, he is a good-looking man, having inherited the best genetic material from both sides of his family. He has the black curls and intensely blue eyes of his Welsh mother, along with the arrow-straight nose, angular cheekbones and blunt jaw of his father’s Slavic forebears. Only his eyelashes are a complete mystery. No one else in the family has anything approaching their length and thickness. He has always thought his looks gave him an advantage when it came to women, but even his best opening lines have never produced a response as warm as the barista’s. He wonders what the man said to make her laugh.

The chair across from Jason’s scrapes across the floor. He glances up to see the interesting man place a coffee mug on the table.

“So, what did you decide?” the man asks, as though they are in the middle of a conversation.

Shocked by this bizarre approach, Jason replies without thinking. “About what?”

“About me. You’ve been watching me.” The man slings his backpack off his shoulder and slides it under the table before sitting down. “I’ve been watching you too. I think you’re a cop.”

“Why do you think that?”

“The way you look at people. Like you’re searching for clues. Are you a cop?”

“Not anymore.”

“But you still have a professional opinion, right?”

Despite his annoyance, Jason finds himself responding to the man’s friendly insistence. “The way you got the barista to laugh? Made me think con artist.”

A lopsided grin punches a deep dimple into the reddish stubble on the man’s left cheek. “Pretty close.”

Intrigued, Jason folds his paper and drops it on the table. “How close is pretty close?”

“You mean is it legal?” The man picks up his coffee. “I’d be pretty stupid to approach a cop—”

The mug drops, splashing coffee in a wide arc as it hits the tabletop, sending a scalding Americano waterfall over the edge and into Jason’s lap. He leaps up to pull his soaked slacks away from his thighs. His chair clatters to the floor. Conversation in the coffee shop dies as customers look over to see what caused the commotion.

The man’s eyes squeeze shut. His lips press together. Then his face relaxes. Slowly, as though he’s falling asleep, his body curls forward until his forehead comes to rest on the coffee-soaked newspaper with a wet thud.

Jason strides around the table. “You okay, buddy?” No response. He pulls the unconscious man to a sitting position and gently lowers him to the floor. “Hey!” he calls out to the barista. “Call 911. Tell them there’s a medical emergency.”

She stares back, her scarlet mouth a perfect O, then reaches beneath the counter for the phone.

The woman who ordered the biscotti drops to her knees on the opposite side of the unconscious man. “I’m a doctor. What happened?” She presses blunt fingertips on the carotid artery.

Jason squats back on his heels. “Nothing. He just passed out.”

The doctor’s lips move silently as she looks at her watch. She places a thumb on one eyelid and pulls it open. “Do you have a flashlight?”

“Not on me.”

She checks the other eye. “Any strange behavior? Blinking? Choking? Shaking?”

“His face squeezed up for a second. Like he had a headache.”

“Show me.”

Feeling a little silly, Jason folds in his lips and scrunches up his eyes.

The doctor pulls up the man’s gray sweatshirt, exposing well-defined abdominal muscles. Jason is suddenly aware of his belt buckle poking into the upholstery of his own, less-impressive torso. She leans down, pressing her ear to the hard curve of the deltoids. “No medical bracelet. Does he have a bag?”

“There. Under the table.”

“Check it. See if he’s carrying medication.”

Jason pulls the black canvas backpack out from under the table. In the main compartment he finds three comic books, a bag of trail mix, and a bottle of water. A zippered pocket contains a cell phone, an electronic key for a Lexus, and a slim leather wallet. “No meds.”

“Check his pockets. There might be an inhaler or pill bottle.”

From the right front pocket of the well-worn jeans, Jason pulls a handful of change. The left pocket produces a rabbit’s foot key chain. He slides his hands under the man’s body to feel the back pockets and pulls out a shabby rawhide wallet. Keeping hold of it as he stands, Jason informs the doctor there is no medication.

“His pupils seem a bit sluggish, but there’s no obvious trauma.” She pulls the sweatshirt back down over the muscular chest. “He’s breathing properly. Heartbeat is normal. No fever or congestion or abnormal posturing. I can’t check his blood pressure, but he’s in good shape, doesn’t have any signs of hypertension.” She extends her hand toward Jason like an empress giving an audience. “Help me up.” As he complies, she makes a sound, very ladylike but definitely a grunt.

The barista comes over to report. “I called 911. There’s a fire department over on Fifteenth. It shouldn’t be long.” She looks down at the unconscious man with wistful eyes. “I hope he’s okay. He’s a really nice man.”

“You know him?” Jason asks.

“No, he just seemed nice when we spoke. I’d better get back to work.”

Jason watches the sway of her red miniskirt as she walks back behind the counter. He considers asking her what the man said to make her laugh, then reconsiders when he remembers the soggy condition of his pants.

The paramedics from the fire department arrive. The Indian woman introduces herself as Dr. Chandra and fills them in on the results of her examination while Jason looks through the two wallets for the man’s identification.

The Oregon driver’s license in the black leather wallet belongs to Eric McCoy, forty-two years old. He lives in an upscale apartment building in Portland. The rawhide wallet contains a Washington driver’s license for David McCoy, also forty-two, a resident of Brockville. The ID photos seem to belong to two different people. Eric McCoy’s hair is slicked back and looks dark. His eyes are narrowed, and his mouth is compressed into a straight line. David McCoy looks into the DMV camera wide-eyed from under a receding tangle of sun-bleached hair. A short beard obscures his jawline and makes his lips appear full. The picture is overexposed, hiding the shape of the nose. The birth dates on both driver’s licenses are the same, but the signatures, like the photos, are completely different.

The ambulance and police cruiser arrive at the same time, turning the plate-glass window of the coffee shop into a blue, red, and orange light show. While the ambulance team takes over from the paramedics, Jude Connelly, the uniformed officer responding to the call, approaches Jason. He knows better than to hug his sister while she’s in uniform, so he limits himself to a smile and a brotherly, “Hey, squirt.”

Jude pulls her notebook out of her back pocket. “That’s Officer Squirt to you, civilian. Were you here when this happened?”

“He was sitting at my table. We were talking when he collapsed.” Jason describes the man’s collapse in the concise phrases he once used to make his own notes. He hands her the two wallets.

She checks the driver’s licenses. “The signatures aren’t similar. Twins?”

“He was behaving strangely when he came in. Tense, paying too much attention to the other customers. It’s a long shot, but he could be a pickpocket who just happened to lift a wallet from a guy with the same birth date and last name.”

One of the paramedics approaches. “Dr. Chandra says you have the guy’s ID.”

Jude passes the wallets to the paramedic. He glances at the photos on the driver’s licenses, then at the unconscious man. “Jeez. Bad pictures. Which one is his?”

“The Oregon license looks more like him, but he was carrying the Washington license in his pocket,” Jason offers.

Jude takes the wallets back from the paramedic. “I’d better check them both out before contacting anyone.”

“We’ll list him as a John Doe for now. We’re taking him to West General. When you get a name, you can contact the ER there.” The paramedic returns to help his partner pack up their equipment.

“Can you do me a favor?” Jude asks Jason. “Before I try to contact anyone, I want to take statements from the other customers, see if anyone recognized him, or if anyone named McCoy is missing a wallet. Can you ride along in the ambulance, just in case he wakes up and can tell you who he is? Unless you’re on a case.”

“Nothing that can’t wait. But how will I get back to my car?”

“I’ll give you a lift back here when I’m done.”

Jason reaches into the pocket of his soggy slacks for his house keys. “Can you swing by my place on the way? Pick me up a pair of dry pants?”

The man does not regain consciousness in the ambulance. At the hospital, a hard-eyed nurse who reminds Jason of his army drill sergeant takes down all the information he can give her, then asks him to take a seat in the waiting room while the doctors examine the unconscious man. Jason evaluates the two available chairs and sits beside a wild-haired elderly woman with her hand wrapped in a tea towel. He spends the next fifteen minutes listening to a graphic description of her husband’s struggle with prostate cancer and wishing he’d chosen the chair next to the hygienically challenged man with a bad cough.

When the nurse calls his name, he gets up gratefully. She buzzes him into the emergency room, where a harried young man who doesn’t look much older than Jason’s sixteen-year-old son introduces himself as Dr. Bennett and asks, “Are you a relative?”

“Just a bystander. There’s a complication with finding next of kin. The police asked me to stay with him until it’s sorted out, in case he wakes up.”

“He’s not waking up anytime soon. He has a cerebral aneurysm. We’ve sent him up to surgery to stop the bleeding into his brain.”

Jason follows the doctor’s directions to the surgical wing, where he checks in at the nurses’ station, then takes a seat in a small alcove behind the elevators and calls Jude. He tells her about the aneurysm and asks how much longer she’s going to be.

“I just left your place,” she says. “I’ll be there in ten minutes. We couldn’t establish an identity, so I had to call both families. They’re on their way in now. I’m going to have to stick around until he’s identified. Sorry.”

A pretty nurse in a flowered smock walks by the alcove. Her eyes focus briefly on Jason’s crotch as she passes. He grabs a tattered copy of National Geographic off the low table in front of his chair and flips it open to cover his lap. “Just bring me my pants.”

 
Chapter Two: Not My Husband

At about the same time the unconscious man is being wheeled into surgery at West General Hospital, Kendra McCoy is behind the bar in the Shalimar ballroom packing up unopened bottles of white zinfandel to return to the supplier.

Most event planners believe their work is done when the last guest walks out the door. Kendra is not one of them. This is why her company, Perfectissimo, continues to grow while other, less-dedicated event planners are being forced out of business by a recession economy. She knows the real work, the work that gets repeat customers and word-of-mouth references, starts after the guests leave. So an hour after the last guest has carried her bag of designer goodies from the ballroom, Kendra is still on the job.

The flower arrangements have been sent to Golden Spires Retirement Home accompanied by a graceful note from the organizers of the banquet, because it never hurts to give the client credit. The catering team has packed up the leftover food and delivered it to the Harbor Light Shelter, garnering more favorable PR for the organizers. Kendra has collected all the personal items left behind by the guests. Tomorrow she will return each item to its owner in a tasteful gray satin bag with her company name and logo discreetly embroidered on the outside. Now she’s down to the slog jobs. Laundry count, breakage reports, insurance documentation, liquor inventory— everything gets her personal attention. She’s been at the Shalimar since before noon and doesn’t expect to be home until after midnight. She doesn’t mind getting home late, though, because Eric is on assignment again. He planned to attend this dinner with her and she’s disappointed he couldn’t make it, but she accepts the frequent and usually unscheduled travel required by her husband’s new contract.

As Kendra places the last of the bottles into the box, Charise Pelter, the woman who hired Kendra to organize the event, comes into the ballroom. Charise has taken off her shoes and holds up the hem of her gown to avoid tripping over it. Watching her client approach, Kendra reflects that a woman with those hip measurements should avoid satin in any color, but especially turquoise.

“Kendra!” Charise is one of those people who speaks almost exclusively in exclamation points. “We’ve just finished adding up the proceeds from the silent auction. You’ll never guess how much we made on your free event planning voucher!”

Kendra doesn’t really care how much they made. She donated the voucher to get her company name in the auction catalog. While she hopes it benefited the National Breast Cancer Foundation, the important thing for her is that nearly every charity matron in Portland now has firsthand experience of a Perfectissimo event. Charise is not aware of this, of course, and nothing in Kendra’s expression indicates anything other than curiosity and hopeful anticipation. “How much?” she asks.

“Four thousand dollars!”

Kendra is genuinely impressed. “Fantastic.”

“People are so generous!”

“Well, it’s a worthy cause.”

“And you did such a good job for us!” Charise gushes. “Everyone just loved the all-pink menu you put together for the dinner!”

“So glad they enjoyed it.” Having worked for Charise before, Kendra knows the older woman is perfectly capable of exclaiming all night. Fortunately, Callum is standing in the service doorway that leads to the kitchen, thick arms folded across his chest and bushy eyebrows lowered ominously. “I wish I could stay and talk, Charise, but the caterer is waiting to go home and I have to check in with him before he leaves. I’ll be sure to tell him how successful his efforts were.”

Charise wiggles chubby fingers at Callum, then pats Kendra’s arm maternally. “Well, don’t stay too late, dear,” she says before waddling toward the ballroom’s double doors.

Kendra allows her smile to drop, then pins it back on when Charise turns around. “Oh yes, and I wanted to tell you. I have a fantastic idea for next year’s dinner!”

“What’s that, Charise?”

“Ethnic costumes! I got the idea from your Chinese dress. It’s so nice to see people who honor their heritage.”

Kendra is no more Chinese than Charise is. Her features are inherited from her Vietnamese war bride mother. Usually she resents this kind of tactless ethnic assumption, but tonight she is more disturbed by having her five-thousand-dollar Mandy Monk original mistaken for a cheap Hong Kong cheongsam. She punches up her smile and focuses on landing the job. “What a wonderful idea,” she says, as she walks backward toward the service door.

In the kitchen, Callum is sliding empty trays into the slotted boxes he uses to transport hors d’oeuvres. He has removed the hairnet he wears when cooking and his black curls, damp with sweat, cluster around his ears. “We have a level two incident.” He turns to point at an inverted glass on the counter.

Kendra started Perfectissimo the same year Callum opened his catering business, Moveable Feast. They work together frequently and have developed a classification system for the unforeseen glitches that inevitably crop up at every event. Level one covers things like drunk clowns and too few desserts. Level five is reserved for situations like citywide power outages.

“Where did you find it?” she asks as she walks to the counter and bends over to examine the occupant of the glass. The cockroach waves its feelers in a parody of greeting.

“It was just strolling across the countertop.”

“Any other sightings?” She doesn’t bother to ask if the insect could have come in with Callum’s food. She’s seen his working kitchen, a stainless-steel temple dedicated to the culinary arts, ruthlessly scrubbed down after every job.

“Nope, just Archie here.”

Kendra begins opening cupboards, checking for other signs of infestation. “The food was a hit tonight. I think you’re going to get a lot of new clients out of this one.”

“Especially since our little friend didn’t make an appearance in someone’s gazpacho. So Eric couldn’t make it tonight?”

“Something came up. He flew out this morning.”

“He was only back for a few days. I don’t know how you do it. I’d go crazy if Zanne was gone all the time.”

Finding nothing in the cupboards, Kendra leans against the counter where Callum is working. “Sometimes I think I will. Eric hates being apart as much as I do, but he understands I can’t just drop everything I’ve built here and start over again.”

Callum slides the last tray into its slot and snaps the carrier closed. “You don’t worry when he’s away?”

“He’s a consultant. The biggest danger he faces is a paper cut.”

“I was thinking more about other women.”

Kendra laughs. “That’s the last thing I worry about. Oh, I’ve seen him looking. Hell, I look too. But neither of us would do more than look.” She pushes herself upright. “I’d better get back to work.”

“Since you’re alone, come over tomorrow. You can keep Zanne company while I test recipes.”

“Thanks, but I can’t. My mother finally agreed to take tomorrow off and buy a dress. I really have to go with her. Otherwise I’ll be sitting next to a paisley basketball at the wedding.”

“Let her wear what she wants. Your brother’s not going to care.”

“I care. I’m the only one in my family who cares.”

Back in the ballroom, the cleaning team has finished vacuuming and left an invoice on the bar. Kendra slides it into her briefcase and pulls out her new smartphone. As she’s making a note to call the Shalimar’s management and complain about the cockroach, the phone rings. The caller ID display reads, unknown. She considers ignoring the call, then answers on the off chance it’s Eric.

“Hello?”

“This is Officer Connelly. I’m with the Portland police. Who am I speaking to?”

“Kendra McCoy. How can I help you, Officer?”

“Are you related to Eric McCoy?”

Her stomach tightens. Despite her assurances to Callum that Eric is never in danger, she has secretly worried about getting a call like this. “He’s my husband. Has something happened to him?”

“We don’t know, Mrs. McCoy. A man collapsed in a coffee shop this evening. We’re looking for next of kin. He was carrying two wallets. One of them was your husband’s.”

The tension in Kendra’s body releases so quickly she is forced to lean against the bar for support. “It can’t be my husband.”

“How do you know that, Mrs. McCoy?”

“Because he’s not even in the country.”

“Where is he?”

“I don’t know exactly. My husband is a freelance political analyst. He specializes in Middle Eastern politics. His work is usually classified. When he’s on assignment he can’t always tell me where he’s going, but he always tells me when he’s going abroad so I won’t call him in the middle of the night.”

There’s a long pause on the other end of the line. “Would you be willing to come to West General Hospital and verify this man is not your husband?”

“Yes, of course.” She glances around the room and estimates she has another half hour’s work at the Shalimar. She considers going to the hospital, then returning to finish up, but there’s no way of knowing how long she will have to wait, so she tells the police officer, “I can be there in an hour.”

As she goes back to work, she wonders about Eric’s wallet turning up in Portland and decides the man in the hospital is most likely a thief who stole Eric’s wallet at the airport.

 
Chapter Three: Not My Husband Either

As Kendra returns to her chores at the Shalimar, Lesley McCoy sits on the fuzzy pink toilet seat cover in her mother’s upstairs bathroom reading the instructions for a pregnancy test.

When she bought the test this afternoon, Lesley intended to wait until Dave came home before taking it, to share this once-in-a-lifetime moment with the man she loves. But she doesn’t have any practice at delaying gratification, and Dave will be in Idaho for another two weeks. Rationalizing that it would be cruel to raise his hopes and then get negative results, she has decided to take the test tonight. She justifies this change of plan by promising herself Dave will be the first person to know.

Ignoring the recommendation to collect morning urine, since the instructions clearly state a random sample works just as well, she looks around the bathroom for something to pee in. At the back of a drawer under the sink, behind a clutter of hotel toiletry bottles, she finds the drinking glass that once held her grandmother’s false teeth. As she pulls down her pajama bottoms, she hears Aunt Cass coming up the stairs. She knows it’s her aunt and not her mother because Cassandra Wilcox is a woman who stomps her way seismically through life, as though made of something more solid than normal flesh and blood. Lesley imagines she can feel the house tremble as her aunt arrives at the top of the stairs.

“Lesley, honey, are you awake?”

“I’m in the bathroom. I’ll be out in a sec.” Lesley pulls up her pajama bottoms and looks for a place to hide the unused test. The medicine chest is too obvious, and this may be one of the nights her mother takes a sleeping pill. The drawers in the vanity are likely to be opened as well. She pushes the test box deep into the basket of dusty plastic flowers adorning the lid of the toilet tank before opening the bathroom door. “What’s up, Aunt Cass?”

“Can you come downstairs, honey? We just got a phone call. You and Trixie should hear this together.”

“Sure.” Lesley follows her aunt down the stairs. “Is it bad news?”

“It’s not good.” Cassandra leads the way into the blue and white cottage-style kitchen where Lesley’s mother, Beatrice, is sitting at the table. The sisters have been playing gin rummy. Their cards lie facedown on the flowered plastic tablecloth beside half-empty coffee mugs. A cigarette smolders in the ashtray by Cassandra’s cards. Her aunt’s smoking never bothered Lesley before, but now she might be breathing for two.

“Someone’s died, haven’t they?” Never phlegmatic at the best of times, Beatrice has become something of a disaster junkie since her husband’s death.

“Calm down, Trixie. No one’s died yet.” Cassandra walks around the table and points at an empty chair across from hers. “Sit down, honey,” she says to Lesley.

“But they’re going to, aren’t they?” Beatrice insists.

Picking up her cigarette, Cassandra takes her seat. “I don’t know. I just got a call from the Portland police. Dave’s wallet turned up in the pocket of a man who collapsed in a Portland coffee shop.”

“Oh, dear God,” Beatrice whispers, pressing a plump left hand to her chest.

“But that doesn’t make any sense, Aunt Cass.” Lesley props her elbows on the table and leans on them. “Dave’s not in Portland. He’s in Idaho. How could his wallet be in Portland?”

“Maybe because that’s where he is.” Cassandra stubs out her cigarette.

“No, he can’t be.” Lesley shakes her head emphatically enough to dislodge a few strands of pale hair from behind her ears. “It must be someone else’s wallet.”

Cassandra reaches across the table and places her hand on Lesley’s arm. “It’s Dave’s, honey. He called you here last night. They got this number by tracing the last call on his calling card.”

A tendril of doubt invades Lesley’s certainty. Could the sick man in Portland really be Dave? She tests the idea and decides it makes no sense. Dave hates the city. He’s never gone there before. He doesn’t even know anyone there. And even if he had a reason to be in the city, he’d have told her on the phone last night. She pulls away from her aunt’s hand and folds her arms across her chest. “It might be Dave’s calling card. It might even be his wallet. But it can’t be Dave.”

“Well, you could be right, honey,” Cassandra says. “The man is in surgery at West General Hospital. The police have asked for someone to come to the hospital and help identify him.”

“I can’t drive at night,” Beatrice says, disqualifying herself immediately. “I’m night-blind.”

Cassandra ignores her sister. “You don’t have to go, honey. I can go.”

Lesley, although she is sure the poor man in the hospital cannot be her husband, feels the need to see for herself. In the end, they all go, Lesley because she must, Cassandra because she is worried about Lesley, and Beatrice because she hates being left alone in the house at night. It’s a one-hour trip from Brockville to Portland. Cassandra drives. Beatrice sniffles in the seat beside her. Lesley sits in the back, unsuccessfully attempting to come up with an explanation for why Dave’s calling card would be in Portland without Dave. Could he have given it to someone? It would be just like him. He’s always helping people out.

By the time they pull onto the freeway, Cassandra has lost patience with her sister’s lachrymose performance. “For God’s sake, Trixie. If it is Dave, you should save some tears for when we get there.”

“It’s not Dave,” Lesley insists from the backseat.

Beatrice pulls a fresh tissue out of the box on her lap and blows her nose. “You’re right, Cass. I’ll have to cry for both of us, after all.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Well, it’s not like you’re going to cry for him. You never liked him. You’re probably delighted this happened.”

“Oh, come on. Just because I don’t like someone doesn’t mean I want to see him suffer. Besides, I never said I didn’t like him. I said there’s something strange about him.”

“How can you say that? He’s such a nice man. Exactly like Lars was.” The memory of her dead husband causes Beatrice to pull another tissue from the box. “You never liked him either.”

Cassandra grips the wheel tighter and says nothing. The rest of the drive to Portland takes place in silence, punctuated by an occasional sniffle from the passenger seat.

Inside the hospital, a clerk at the information desk directs the three women to the surgery wing on the third floor. As they get off the elevator, they are met by a policewoman who introduces herself as Officer Connelly. She takes their names, then destroys Lesley’s theory that Dave gave away his calling card by showing them Dave’s wallet and asking them to identify it. Lesley is too shaken to speak, so it’s Cassandra who replies, “Yes. That’s Dave’s.”

After asking a few more questions about Dave, Officer Connelly takes them to a small waiting room with orange plastic chairs lining two walls and double glass doors on the far side leading into a brightly lit corridor. When they enter the room, a tiny woman wearing a long royal blue dress with a high collar and a cascade of iridescent beading down one side looks up from studying the pointed toes of her shoes. With her creamy skin and China doll hairstyle, she looks like the poster for Singapore Airlines in the window of the Far Away Travel Agency on Main Street in Brockville.

The four women exchange sympathetic half smiles appropriate for a hospital waiting room; then the woman in the evening dress asks Officer Connelly, “How much longer is this going to take?”

“The man is still in surgery,” the policewoman replies. “When he comes out, we’re going to ask for your help to identify him.”

Impatience sharpens the woman’s voice. “Obviously, this man is a thief who stole my husband’s wallet. I can’t possibly identify him.”

“Oh!” Lesley exclaims with relief. “That’s it! Dave’s wallet was stolen!”