Leaving Dallas Tuesday
“Grande two-raw-sugar latte’, please.” Tina glanced at her watch. 12:55.
I hate this, she thought. I hate everything about it. I hate the idea of going up there to bring back this bratty little kid who messed up Jake’s life. I hate not knowing what’s going on with Jake—if he’s in jail now or what. I hate caring one way or the other. And I really hate being under time pressure. I’ll have to push it all the way to McAlester to be there when they arrive. And they’ll worry if I’m late, they always do.
She paid for her coffee and stepped aside for the next customer. She felt a little guilty for taking time to stop at Starbucks in north Plano, but it was on her way out of the Metroplex, anyway. She needed the caffeine, too. Well, okay. Not needed, exactly. Her insides were already jumping around like crickets on uppers. But this was supposed to be her afternoon off, and she felt entitled to treat herself to compensate for having to spend a beautiful spring day staying between the lines on the interstate.
With a theatrical flourish, rolling his Rs, the young man in charge of making up coffee orders announced “Grande two-sugar latte.” Probably an actor who hasn’t caught a break yet, Tina thought. She slipped a cardboard sleeve over the heavy paper cup and hurried back to her car.
FBI agents Gabe Turner and Frank Moldenauer kept their eyes on Alex as Turner keyed in the home office number. Speaking softly into his cell phone, he reported their hunch to their supervisor. After telling everything he knew about Tina, he hung up and resumed leaning against the wall.
Alex felt as if he were wearing a hair shirt as their stares crawled up and down his neck. He grew more and more certain the limited conversation they conducted out of the sides of their mouths concerned Tina. They knew something—they were too happy for any other explanation. He wished they’d let him in on it. His client, a 70-something matron, had taken out her hearing aid as soon as she stepped into the salon, so he didn’t even have the distraction of conversation.
Despite the usual hum of stylists and their customers talking, and the almost constant ring of phones, he jumped at the unfamiliar chirp of Agent Turner’s cell phone and accidentally touched his client’s ear with the hot curling iron, inducing a little yelp from her before she covered the burned spot with her hand. Busy applying lotion and eloquent apologies, he didn’t hear the first couple of minutes as Turner responded to information he was receiving from the head office.
“Yessir, thank you, sir! 27 years old. Divorced. Yessir.”
Alex tuned back in as he heard him continue.
“Christina VanderLeiden Hilbert. What’s that address again, sir?”
“Yessir!” He lowered the phone. “Say, Albert!” he said. “Did you know the red-head lives in the same apartment complex as you do?”
Alex, determined that the agents would not see that they had evoked any emotion from him, blinked hard and turned his head, only to face a wall of mirrors. It didn’t matter; Turner hadn’t noticed; he had gone back to writing information in his leather notebook.
“No criminal record. Only known relatives, Peter and Katherina VanderLeiden, of Newton County, Arkansas.”
Alex didn’t even pretend not to listen. So that’s where she’s heading, he thought. This Arkansas connection surprised him. He knew her grandparents had raised her, and that shortly after she married Richard, they had moved to the most remote place they could find, but he now realized she hadn’t told him their names or where they lived.
“Newton County.” Turner continued. “What part of Arkansas is that, do you know? You don’t say!” He turned toward his partner, apparently forgetting for an instant that he was on the phone with his supervisor.
“Say, Frank, the grandparents live in the Ozarks. Can you beat that? The Ozarks is where they figure this trucker took the victim, you know.”
Moldenauer couldn’t pass up an opportunity to display his comprehension of the obvious. “This is a real break, then,” he said, his voice dropping to an authoritative baritone for the pronouncement. “It had not been determined whether he went north or south after dropping his trailer.” He stood a little taller and tucked in his shirt. “Looks like we’ll be the ones to break this case after all.”
As Turner turned his attention back to the phone, Moldenauer went on muttering about how underused they were, their boring assignment tailing Alex not being up to their competence level.
“Yessir, I sure will, sir!” Turner said. “That sounds like a great idea, yessir. We’ll get right on it.” He was about to hang up, but remembered something. “Sir, are you still there? Sir?” Evidently receiving an affirmative answer, he asked, “What is she driving, do you know, sir? New Saturn. Texas tags, NHC-29C…oh, 29Z. Uh huh. Sure. Uh…repeat on the color, sir? That spelled T-E-A-L? Yessir. Thanks.”
He jammed his phone back in his pocket and announced, “We’re going on over to little Red Riding Hood’s residence now and have a nice talk. See if she thinks the big bad wolf might be hiding at Grandma’s house. Somebody’s checking there, too. If she’s not at home, we’ll try to enlist the cooperation of the Texas PO-lice and find her on the road.” He gave Alex a mock salute, inclined his head sharply at Moldenauer, and the two left, marching smartly in step all the way.
About the time they reached the door, Alex heard Turner ask Moldenauer, “What color is teal, anyway?”
Alex glanced at the clock as Agents Moldenauer and Turner slunk back into the salon. 2:30. Noticeably missing was the air of allied smugness that had dominated the room earlier. Gone, too, Turner’s annoying pocket jingling. Turner had parked himself uninvited in the unoccupied styling chair next to Alex’s area. Moldenauer hesitated but must have decided he was tired of standing, too, and opted for a comfortably reclined chair at the shampoo sink.
“Dear me,” Alex crooned. “You boys seem so, well…depleted. Has the starch in your shorts relaxed? And Mr. Muldoon, honey, you’re all slumped over. I do so admire your usual posture. A model for us all, I’m sure.”
“You weren’t such a smart mouth when we started closing in on your brother-the-felon were you, Albert?” Turner taunted. “Something cheered you right up. What happened, did you hear from dear Jacob?”
“No, I haven’t heard a thing. But you haven’t either, have you, sugar? And what about Tina? Did she slip through your little dragnet?”
What’s the matter with me, Alex wondered. What is it about those guys that sets me off? I’m not doing Jake or Tina any good by making them mad.
“No, we didn’t find Ms. Hilbert. She evidently expects to be away for some time; we talked to a neighbor who was walking her Schnauzer.” Moldenauer sputtered. “And of course we couldn’t interest the Texas highway patrol to watch for her.” He noted the smile on Alex’s face. “You can laugh now, Nancy-boy, but before this is all over, we’re going to have a tea party for y’all. In prison. You, Hilbert, and probably her grandparents. It’s against the law to aid and abet a felon, you know.”
Alex’s last client tipped him and left, allowing him to devote his full attention to the agents. He felt suddenly, dreadfully weary, too weak to stand. He dropped into his styling chair and pivoted so he could look directly at each of them.
“Yes, I do know that.” No affectation now. “And I’d willingly aid and abet Jake if it were in my power to do so. I’d go to prison for him if I could.” His voice thick, “I’d take a bullet for my brother, but the deal is, he feels the same way about me, and wouldn’t put me in any kind of danger physically or legally if he could help it. I’m sure that’s why I haven’t heard from him.”
Both men were sitting up straight now, listening.
“I know my brother’s character, and I’m absolutely certain that the little boy, if Jake has him, is safe. Just as his own son was safe two years ago.” He paused, looking from one to the other. “The last chapter in this story hasn’t been written, gentlemen, but when it is, you will find the situation is not as it appears at this moment.”
He stood up and prepared to go home. As he watched them stand and finger-press the front creases in their pants, compassion moved him. He spoke gently,
“Some day you men will realize your assignment to follow me was even more of a slap in the face than you think it is.”