I stayed in front of that damn computer and started drinking pretty heavily. I tried logging on to the site a dozen different ways. I used Explorer and then I used Netscape. I cleared my cache and reloaded the pages and signed off my provider and signed back on again.
It didn't matter. I still got the error message.
At ten o'clock, Shauna headed back into the den. Her cheeks were glowing from drink. Mine too, I imagined. "No luck?"
"Go home," I said.
She nodded. "Yeah, I think I'd better."
The limousine was there in five minutes. Shauna wobbled to the curb, fairly wasted on bourbon and Rolling Rock. Me too.
Shauna opened the door and turned back to me. "Were you ever tempted to cheat? I mean, when you two were married."
"No," I said.
Shauna shook her head, disappointed. "You know nothing about how to mess up your life."
I kissed her good-bye and went back inside. I continued to gaze at the screen as though it were something holy. Nothing changed.
Chloe slowly approached a few minutes later. She nudged my hand with her wet nose. Through her forest of hair, our eyes met and I swear that Chloe understood what I was feeling. I'm not one of those who give human characteristics to dogs - for one thing, I think that it might demean them - but I do believe they have a base understanding of what their anthropological counterparts are feeling. They say that dogs can smell fear. Is it such a stretch to believe that they also smell joy or anger or sadness?
I smiled down at Chloe and petted her head. She put a paw on my arm in a comforting gesture. "You want to go for a walk, girl?" I said.
Chloe's reply was to bound about like a circus freak on speed. Like I told you before, it's the little things.
The night air tingled in my lungs. I tried to concentrate on Chloe - her frolicking step, her wagging tail - but I was, well, crestfallen. Crestfallen. That is not a word I use very often. But I thought it fit.
I hadn't fully bought Shauna's too-neat digital-trick hypothesis. Yes, someone could manipulate a photograph and make it part of a video. And yes, someone could have known about kiss time. And yes, someone could have even made the lips whisper "I'm sorry." And yes, my hunger probably helped make the illusion real and made me susceptible to such trickery.
And the biggest yes: Shauna's hypothesis made a hell of a lot more sense than a return from the grave.
But there were two things that overrode a lot of that. First off, I'm not one for flights of fancy. I'm frighteningly boring and more grounded than most. Second, the hunger could have clouded my reasoning, and digital photography could do a lot of things.
But not those eyes...
Her eyes. Elizabeth's eyes. There was no way, I thought, that they could be old photographs manipulated into a digital video. Those eyes belonged to my wife. Was my rational mind sure of it? No, of course not. I'm not a fool. But between what I saw and all the questions I'd raised, I had semi-dismissed Shauna's video demonstration. I had come home still believing that I was to receive a message from Elizabeth.
Now I didn't know what to think. The booze was probably helping in that respect.
Chloe stopped to do some prolonged sniffing. I waited under a streetlight and stared at my elongated shadow.
Chloe barked at a movement in the bush. A squirrel sprinted across the street. Chloe growled and feigned a chase. The squirrel stopped and turned back toward us. Chloe barked a boy-you're-lucky-I'm-on-a-leash sound. She didn't mean it. Chloe was a pure thoroughbred wimp.
I tilted my head the way Chloe does when she hears a strange sound. I thought again about what I had seen yesterday on my computer - and I thought about the pains someone had gone through to keep this whole thing secret. The unsigned email telling me to click the hyperlink at "kiss time." The second email setting up a new account in my name.
Someone was working hard to keep these communications under wraps.
If someone - okay, if Elizabeth - had simply wanted to give me a message, why hadn't she just called or written it in an email? Why make me jump through all these hoops?
The answer was obvious: secrecy. Someone - I won't say Elizabeth again - wanted to keep it all a secret.
And if you have a secret, it naturally follows that you have someone you want to keep it secret from. And maybe that someone is watching or searching or trying to find you. Either that or you're paranoid. Normally I'd side with paranoid but...
What did that mean exactly? Who was watching? The feds? And if the feds were behind the emails in the first place, why would they warn me that way? The feds wanted me to act.
I froze. Chloe's head snapped in my direction.
Oh my God, how could I have been so stupid?
They hadn't bothered to use the duct tape.
Rebecca Schayes lay upon the table now, whimpering like a dying dog on the side of the road. Sometimes, she uttered words, two or even three at a time, but they never formed a coherent chain. She was too far gone to cry anymore. The begging had stopped. Her eyes were still wide and uncomprehending; they saw nothing now. Her mind had shattered mid-scream fifteen minutes ago.
Amazingly, Wu had left no marks. No marks, but she looked twenty years older.
Rebecca Schayes had known nothing. Dr. Beck had visited her because of an old car accident that wasn't really a car accident. There were pictures too. Beck had assumed she had taken them. She hadn't.
The creeping feeling in his stomach - the one that had started as a mere tickle when Larry Gandle first heard about the bodies being found at the lake - kept growing. Something had gone wrong that night. That much was certain. But now Larry Gandle feared that maybe everything had gone wrong.
It was time to flush out the truth.
He had checked with his surveillance man. Beck was taking his dog for a walk. Alone. In light of the evidence Wu would plant, that would be a terrible alibi. The feds would shred it for laughs.
Larry Gandle approached the table. Rebecca Schayes looked up and made an unearthly noise, a cross between a high-pitched groan and a wounded laugh.
He pressed the gun against her forehead. She made that sound again. He fired twice and all the world fell silent.
I started heading back to the house, but I thought about the warning.
Why take the chance? There was a Kinko's three blocks away. They stay open twenty-four hours a day. When I reached the door, I saw why. It was midnight, and the place was packed. Lots of exhausted businesspeople carrying papers and slides and poster boards.
I stood in a maze line formed by crushed-velvet ropes and waited my turn. It reminded me of visiting a bank in the days before ATMs. The woman in front of me sported a business suit - at midnight - and big enough bags under her eyes to be mistaken for a bellhop. Behind me, a man with curly hair and dark sweats whipped out a cell phone and started pressing buttons.
Someone with a Kinko's smock pointed at Chloe.
"You can't come in here with a dog."
I was about to tell him I already had but thought better of it. The woman in the business suit didn't react. The curly-haired guy with the dark sweats gave me a what-are-you-gonna-do shrug. I rushed outside, tied Chloe to a parking meter, headed back inside. The curly-haired man let me have my place back in line. Manners.
Ten minutes later, I was at the front of the line. This Kinko's clerk was young and overly exuberant. He showed me to a computer terminal and explained too slowly their per-minute pricing plan.
I nodded through his little speech and signed on to the Web.
That, I realized, was the key. The first email had said kiss time, not 6:15 P.M. Why? The answer was obvious. That had been code - in case the wrong people got their hands on the email. Whoever had sent it had realized that the possibility of interception existed. Whoever had sent it had known that only I would know what kiss time meant.
That was when it came to me.
First off, the account name Bat Street. When Elizabeth and I were growing up, we used to ride our bikes down Morewood Street on the way to the Little League field. There was this creepy old woman who lived in a faded yellow house. She lived alone and scowled at passing kids. Every town has one of those creepy old ladies. She usually has a nickname. In our case, we'd called her:
I brought up Bigfoot again. I typed Morewood into the user name box.
Next to me, the young and exuberant Kinko's clerk was repeating his Web spiel to the curly-haired man with the dark sweat suit. I hit the tab button and moved into the text box for the password.
The clue Teenage was easier. In our junior year of high school, we'd gone to Jordan Goldman's house late one Friday night. There were maybe ten of us. Jordan had found out where his father hid a porn video. None of us had ever seen one before. We all watched, laughing uncomfortably, making the usual snide remarks and feeling deliciously naughty. When we needed a name for our intramural softball team, Jordan suggested we use the movie's stupid title:
Teenage Sex Poodles.
I typed in Sex Poodles under the password. I swallowed hard and clicked the Sign In icon.
I glanced over at the curly-haired man. He was focused on a Yahoo! search. I looked back toward the front desk. The woman in the business suit was frowning at another too-happy at-midnight Kinko's staff member.
I waited for the error message. But that didn't happen this time. A welcome screen rolled into view. On the top, it read:
Underneath that it said:
You have 1 email in your box.
My heart felt like a bird banging against my rib cage.
I clicked on the New Mail icon and did the leg shake again. No Shauna around to stop it. Through the store window I could see my tethered Chloe. She spotted me and started barking. I put a finger to my lips and signaled for her to hush up. The email message appeared:
Washington Square Park. Meet me at
the southeast corner.
Five o'clock tomorrow.
You'll be followed.
And on the bottom:
No matter what, I love you.
Hope, that caged bird that just won't die, broke free. I leaned back. Tears flooded my eyes, but for the first time in a long while, I let loose a real smile.
Elizabeth. She was still the smartest person I knew.