??So what??s the connection between Lawson and Wu???
??I don??t know.??
??Maybe Wu works for him.??
??Could be. We just don??t know. What we do know, however, is that Lawson??s alive?ªor at least he was alive after Conwell was killed.??
??Right, because he called his wife. When she was at the station. So what happened next???
??Damned if I know.??
Perlmutter watched Charlaine Swain. She just stood down the hall, staring through the window of her husband??s room. Perlmutter considered going over, but really, what could he say?
Daley jostled him and they both turned to see Officer Veronique Baltrus walk off the elevator. Baltrus had been with the department three years. She was thirty-eight, with tousled black hair and a constant tan. She was in a regulation police uniform that somehow hugged as much as anything with a belt and holster could, but in her off-hours she preferred Lycra workout clothes or anything that revealed the flat tan of her stomach. She was petite, with dark eyes, and every guy in the station, even Perlmutter, had a thing for her.
Veronique Baltrus was both exquisitely beautiful and a computer expert?ªan interesting albeit heart-racing combination. Six years ago she had been working for a bathing suit retailer in New York City when the stalking began. The stalker would call her. He would send e-mails. He would harass her at work. His main weapon was the computer, the best bastion for the anonymous and gutless. The police did not have the manpower to hunt him down. They also believed that this stalker, whoever he was, would probably not take it to the next level.
But he did.
On a calm fall evening Veronique Baltrus was savagely attacked. Her assailant got away. But Veronique recovered. Already good with computers, she now upped her ability and became an expert. She used her new knowledge to hunt down her assailant?ªhe continued to send her e-mails discussing an encore?ªand bring him to justice. Then she quit her job and became a police officer.
Now, even though Baltrus wore a uniform and worked a regular shift, she was the county??s unofficial computer expert. Nobody in the department but Perlmutter knew
her back story. That was part of the deal when she applied for the job.
??You got something??? he asked her.
Veronique Baltrus smiled. She had a nice smile. Perlmutter??s ??thing?? for her was different than the rest of the guys??. It was not built simply on lust. Veronique Baltrus was the first woman to make him feel something since Marion??s death. He wouldn??t take it anywhere. It would be unprofessional. It would be unethical. And truth be told, Veronique was waaaaay out of his league.
She gestured down the corridor toward Charlaine Swain. ??We might have to thank her.??
That, Sykes had told Charlaine, was the name Eric Wu used when he pretended to be making a delivery. When Charlaine asked who Al Singer was, Sykes jolted a little and denied knowing any Mr. Singer. He said he opened the door anyway out of curiosity. Perlmutter said, ??I thought Al Singer was a fake name.??
??Yes and no,?? Baltrus said. ??I went through Mr. Sykes??s computer pretty thoroughly. He??d signed up for an online dating service and had been corresponding fairly regularly with a man named Al Singer.??
Perlmutter made a face. ??A gay dating service???
??Bisexual, actually. That a problem???
??No. So Al Singer was, what, his online lover???
??Al Singer doesn??t exist. It was an alias.??
??Isn??t that common online, especially at a gay dating service? Using an alias???
??It is,?? Baltrus agreed. ??But here??s my point. Your Mr. Wu pretended to make a delivery. He used that name, Singer. How would Wu know about Al Singer unless . . . ???
??You saying Eric Wu is Al Singer???
Baltrus nodded, rested her hands on her hips. ??That would be my guess, sure. Here??s what I think: Wu goes online. He uses the name Al Singer. He meets some people?ªpotential victims?ªthat way. In this case, he meets Freddy Sykes. He breaks into his home and assaults him. My guess is, he would have eventually killed Sykes.??
??You think he??s done this before???
??So he??s, what, some kind of serial bisexual basher???
??That I don??t know. But it fits the action I??m seeing on the computer.??
Perlmutter thought about it. ??Does this Al Singer have any other online partners???
??Have any of them been assaulted???
??Not yet, no. They??re all healthy.??
??So what makes you think it??s serial???
??It??s too early to say for sure one way or the other. But Charlaine Swain did us a huge favor. Wu was using Sykes??s computer. He probably planned on destroying it before he left, but Charlaine flushed him out before he had time. I??m piecing it together now, but there??s definitely another online persona in there. I don??t know the name yet, but he??s working out of yenta-match.com. Jewish singles.??
??How do we know it??s not Freddy Sykes???
??Because whoever accessed this page did so in the past twenty-four hours.??
??So it had to be Wu.??
??I still don??t get it. Why would he go to another online dating service???
??To find more victims,?? she said. ??Here??s how I think it works: This Wu has a bunch of different names and personas at a bunch of different dating sites. Once he, shall we say, uses one, like Al Singer, he won??t dip into that dating pool again. He used Al Singer to get to Freddy Sykes. He??d have to know that an investigator could track that down.??
??So he stops using Al Singer.??
??Right. But he??s been using other aliases at other sites. So he??s ready for his
??Do you have any of the other names yet???
??Getting close,?? Baltrus said. ??I just need a warrant for yenta-match.com.??
??You think a judge will grant it???
??The only identity we know Wu accessed recently is the one at the yenta-match site. I think he was seeking out his next victim. If we can get a list of what name he used and who he contacted . . .??
Veronique Baltrus hurried out. Wrong as it felt?ªhe was, after all, her superior?ªPerlmutter watched her go with a longing that made him remember Marion.
Ten minutes later Carl Vespa??s driver?ªthe infamous Cram?ªmet Grace two blocks away from the school.
Cram arrived on foot. Grace did not know how or where his car was. She??d just been standing there, looking at the school from afar, when she felt the tap on her shoulder. She leapt, her heart pounding. When she turned and saw his face, well, the sight was hardly a comforting one.
Cram arched an eyebrow. ??You rang???
??How did you get here???
Cram shook his head. Up close, now that she was able to get a really good look at him, the man was even more hideous than she remembered. His skin was pockmarked. His nose and mouth looked like an animal??s snout, what with the sea-predator smile locked on autopilot. Cram was older than she??d thought, probably nearing sixty. He was wiry though. He had the wild-eyed look she??d always associated with serious psychosis, but there was a comfort to that element of danger right now, the kind of guy you??d want next to you in a foxhole and nowhere else.
??Tell me everything,?? Cram said.
Grace started with Scott Duncan and moved on to arriving at the supermarket. She told him what the unshaven man had said to her, about him darting down the aisle,
about him carrying the Batman lunchbox. Cram chewed on a toothpick. He had thin fingers. His nails were too long.
She did as best she could. When she was done, Cram spit out the toothpick and shook his head. ??For real??? he said.
??A Members Only jacket? What is this, 1986???
Grace did not laugh.
??You??re safe now,?? he said. ??Your children are safe.??
She believed him.
??What time do they get out???
??Fine.?? He squinted at the school. ??Christ, I hated this place.??
??You went here???
Cram nodded. ??A Willard graduate, 1957.?? She tried to picture him as a little boy coming to this school. The image would not hold. He started walking away.
??Wait,?? she said. ??What do you want me to do???
??Pick up your kids. Bring them home.??
??Where will you be???
Cram upped the grin. ??Around.?? And then he was gone.
? ? ?
Grace waited by the fence. The mothers began to flock in, gather, chat. Grace folded her arms, trying to give off a ??keep away?? vibe. There were days she could participate in the clatter. This was not one of them.
The cell phone rang. She put it to her ear and said hello.
??You get the message now???
The voice was male and muffled. Grace felt her scalp tingle. ??Stop looking, stop asking questions, stop flashing the picture. Or we??ll take Emma first.??
Grace did not scream. She would not scream. She put the phone away. Her hands shook. She looked down at them as if they belonged to someone else. She couldn??t stop the shake. Her children would be coming out soon. She jammed her hands into her pockets and tried to force up a smile. It wouldn??t come. She bit her lower lip and made herself not cry.
??Hey, you okay???
Grace startled at the voice. It was Cora.
??What are you doing here??? Grace asked. The words came out with too sharp a snap.
??What do you think? I??m picking up Vickie.??
??I thought she was with her father.??
Cora looked puzzled. ??Just for last night. He dropped her off at school this morning. Jesus, what the hell happened???
??I can??t talk about it.??
Cora did not know how to react to that one. The bell sounded. Both women turned away. Grace did not know what to think. She knew that Scott Duncan was wrong about Cora?ªmore than that, she now knew that Scott Duncan was a liar?ªand yet, once voiced, the suspicion about her friend would not leave. She couldn??t flick it away.
??Look, I??m just scared, okay???
Cora nodded. Vickie appeared first. ??If you need me . . .??
Cora moved away without another word. Grace waited alone, searching for the familiar faces in the stream of children pouring through the door. Emma stepped into the sunshine and shielded her eyes. When she spotted her mother, Emma??s face broke into a smile. She waved.
Grace suppressed a cry of relief. Her fingers snaked through the chain-link, gripping hard, holding herself back so she wouldn??t sprint over and scoop Emma into her arms.
? ? ?
When Grace, Emma, and Max reached home, Cram was already standing on their front stoop.
Emma looked a question at her mother, but before Grace could respond, Max sprinted up the walk. He stopped dead in front of Cram and craned his neck to look up at the sea-predator smile.
??Hey,?? Max said to Cram.
Max said, ??You were the guy driving that big car, right???
??That cool? Driving that big car???
??Yeah. Yeah, it is.??
Max made a fist and held it up. Cram made one too and then they touched knuckles-against-knuckles in some newfangled high-five. Grace and Emma came up the walk.
??Cram is a family friend,?? Grace said. ??He??s going to help me a little.??
Emma did not like it. ??Help with what??? She aimed her ??eeuw gross?? face in Cram??s direction, which, under the circumstances, was both understandable and rude, but this was hardly the time for a correction. ??Where??s Daddy???
??He??s on a business trip,?? Grace said.
Emma did not say another word. She stepped into the house and ran upstairs.
Max squinted up at Cram. ??Can I ask you something???
??Sure,?? Cram said.
??Do all your friends call you Cram???
??One word.?? He wiggled his eyebrows. ??Like Cher or Fabio.??
??Why do they call you that??? Max asked.
??Why do they call me Cram???
??My teeth.?? He opened his mouth wide. When Grace worked up the courage to look, she was greeted with a sight that resembled the mad experiment of a very deranged orthodontist. The teeth were all crammed together on the left, almost stacked. It looked like there were too many of them. Empty pockets of coarse pink where teeth should have been lined the right side of his mouth. ??Cram,?? he said. ??You see???
??Whoa,?? Max said. ??That??s so cool.??
??You want to know how my teeth got this way???
Grace took that one. ??No, thank you.??
Cram glanced at her. ??Good answer.??
Cram. She took another look at the too-small teeth. Tic Tac might have been a more apt name.
??Max, you have homework???
??Now,?? she said.
Max looked at Cram. ??Scram,?? he said. ??We??ll talk later.??
They shared another fist-knuckle salute before Max darted off with the abandon of a six-year-old. The phone rang. Grace checked the Caller ID. It was Scott Duncan. She decided to let the machine pick that one up?ªmore important that she talk to Cram. They moved into the kitchen. There were two men sitting at the table. Grace pulled up short. Neither of the men looked up at her. They were whispering to each other. Grace was about to say something, but Cram signaled her to step outside.
??Who are they???
??They work for me.??
??Don??t worry about it.??
She did, but right now there were more pressing matters. ??I got a call from the guy,?? she said. ??On my cell phone.?? She told him what the voice on the phone had said. Cram??s expression did not change. When she finished, he pulled out a cigarette.
??You mind if I smoke???
She told him to go ahead.
??I won??t do it in the house.??
Grace looked around. ??Is that why we??re out here???
Cram did not reply. He lit the cigarette, drew a deep breath, let the smoke pour out of both nostrils. Grace looked toward the neighbor??s yard. There was no one in sight. A dog barked. A lawn mower ripped through the air like a helicopter.
Grace looked at him. ??You??ve threatened people, right???
??So if I do what he says?ªif I stop?ªdo you think they??ll leave us alone???
??Probably.?? Cram took a puff so deep it looked like a doobie toke. ??But the real
question is, why do they want you to stop???
??Meaning you must have been getting close. You must have struck a nerve.??
??I can??t imagine how.??
??Mr. Vespa called. He wants to see you tonight.??
She looked off again.
??You ready for some more bad news??? Cram asked.
She turned to him.
??Your computer room. The one in the back.??
??What about it???
??It??s bugged. One listening device, one camera.??
??A camera??? She couldn??t believe this. ??In my house???
??Yeah. Hidden camera. It??s in a book on the shelf. Fairly easy to spot if you??re looking for it. You can get one at any spy shop. You??ve probably seen them online. You hide it in a clock or a smoke detector, that kind of thing.??
Grace tried to take this in. ??Someone is spying on us???
??No idea. I don??t think it??s the cops. It??s a little too amateur for that. My boys have given the rest of the house a quick sweep. Nothing else so far.??
??How long . . .?? She tried to comprehend what he was telling her. ??How long has the camera and?ªlistening device, did you say??ªhow long have they been here???