Long Island, New York
I was sitting at a table on the floating deck of a high-end seafood restaurant in Port Jefferson on a nice sunny day with Tony and Leon. The place was a converted ship, spanning three decks, with half of it overlooking the water. There wasn’t much to look at except for a small armada of white yachts swaying and bobbing on the choppy surface. Seagulls screeched and circled overhead, matching the noise of tourists with screaming children all around us. For Tony, it was chamber music. Leon Harris didn’t attempt to hide his utter disdain and annoyance. I was watching someone’s teacup Yorkie wearing a collar with pink rhinestones, wandering around the deck oblivious to the busy foot traffic.
We were sharing two pitchers of beer, surrounded by a mix of cute or expensive people nibbling on salads as they sipped pastel colored drinks. In t-shirts and jeans, we were an odd sight among them. Tony was a monster between the two of us, his arms easily the size of my thighs. In the chrome, straight back chair, he looked like an adult stuck in a kindergartner's seat. Leon was a smaller man – barely one fifty and thin-framed. Although he wasn’t even forty yet, his hair had gone white. He'd grown it long and tied it into a pony tail. He wore a loose white cotton shirt with red flowers over denim Capri pants and rubber flip-flops. He was local, living two townships away.
“You think the kid just decided to go back?” Tony asked.
I shook my head, although I had no basis for my belief. I had passed on an impending assignment to Ecuador the day before Tony called me to tell me Pete was gone. Though I had left him with Tony five months ago, Leon was the one who physically checked on Pete once a week. When he took the train to visit him three days ago, the apartment I'd provided for him was empty. A call to the school confirmed that Pete hadn’t been to classes in a week.
“He wouldn’t leave everything behind,” I said.
We were quiet again; our silence was filled with the excited screams of kids, barking dogs and the shrieks of seagulls.
“Where should we start?” Tony asked. In two long swallows he drained the tall glass of beer he'd just poured, and refilled it.
“I’ll take care of it,” I said. “Could be just a case where someone spooked him and he’s hiding out. His stepfather has money and has probably hired a few PIs to look for him. One of them might have gotten too close and he just took off.”
“Which doesn’t say where he could have gone.”
Leon only nodded. He'd said almost nothing since we sat down. He didn’t know me, although he understood Tony had hired him to watch over Pete for me. I wasn’t certain why he was there, except to hand me a spare key to my own apartment. Tony had told me that Leon was a retired tech guy he used to work with. Pete was a favor. I believed it. Pete had only mentioned Leon once and called him "Grandpa" in the same sentence.
“I’ll take care of it,” I said again. “For now, it’s just a matter of sniffing out leads. I’ll call in a favor in NYPD to find out what Pete’s real name is.”
Leon pulled himself up straighter in his seat. “You mean 'Peter Kinnear' is not his real name?”
“It could be, but I suspect not. I doubt 'Pete' is even his real name.”
“He had ID cards and…whatever….”
“The kid’s a genius hacker; he knows where to buy fake IDs,” I said. “He was running away from a lot of things when I first picked him up. I doubt he would've given me his real name; he didn’t know if I'd end up being someone else he’d have to run away from.”
I finished my beer and shook my head when Tony picked up the almost-empty pitcher to refill my glass. I wanted to smoke, but there were at least four signs forbidding it.
“What do you want me to do?” Tony asked.
“Go back to Virginia for now. Not like there’s a lot that can be done until some leads turn up. He might go back there, if somehow he gets that far. Besides the place in Manhattan, your place’s the only other one he knows where he'd feel safe.”
“All right,” Tony said, looking down at the Yorkie that had come up to sniff his work boots. It quickly lost interest and spirited away, its little legs carrying it through a patio door a waitress slid open just then.
“You make sure you tell me who to hurt for scaring Pete off like that,” he said, as I pushed back my chair to get up.
“I’ll save at least an arm or a leg for you to break,” I said. I nodded at Leon, who nodded back, and left.
He'd been crying. He couldn’t help it, and he hated that he couldn’t. The man in the front seat had told him he’d be "home" in a few days. They'd been driving for almost a day. For six days before that, he'd been penned up in an empty apartment with just an air mattress and an olive drab green wool blanket that said “U.S. Army” on it. He was given bottled water and fed canned cold pasta in disposable plastic bowls.
Although he'd been allowed to use the toilet alone, the man had watched him through the glass sliding door when he showered. He wore the same clothes. The man had bought underwear for him from a local store, two packets of five, neatly folded with a picture of a smiling young man posing on each cover. The man had handed them to him in a plastic grocery bag from the store, that had a New Jersey phone number below a large owl logo. At least he knew where he was.
He'd heard the man speak to someone on the phone, almost angrily sometimes, as he paced the empty length of the living room. He couldn’t hear the words clearly through the locked door, but he could hear the man's tone. Sometimes he cursed loud enough for him to hear it clearly. One time, the man came in only to snap a picture of him with a camera phone and left again.
Early in the morning one day, the man suddenly shoved whatever was left in the apartment into two black trash bags. Pete made himself small in the corner of the room, frightened by the sudden flurry of activity he didn’t understand. The man ignored him. He deflated the air mattress, rolled it up and stuffed it into one of the bags, then he left the apartment. Pete wandered around the empty living room, looking out the windows.
There were three other buildings that looked like theirs – red brick and stucco, a few trees as decoration planted in neat boxes a few yards apart. Cars parked next to the curb were old, none of them expensive. Their apartment was high up – maybe on the tenth floor. The windows could only be opened a fraction.
Pete tried the front door. It was locked. The man had thought to install a double-lock, perhaps an electronic one. If Pete had managed to slip out of his room, he would still have been locked inside the apartment. He thought now to open the window and shout out to someone, but he could already hear the man’s heavy footsteps coming back up the stairs. He dashed into his room and crouched in the corner. He was becoming scared again.
When the man came back into the apartment, Pete followed his progress by his footsteps, until his figure filled the doorway. There was half a bottle of orange juice in his hand.
“It’s time to go,” the man said, gesturing for Pete to get up.
Pete shook his head and shrank even smaller into the corner of the bare room. The man merely looked annoyed and walked over to him. He crouched down and offered the plastic bottle of juice to him.
“Be a good boy and drink,” the man said, holding out the bottle that was still cold. Pete could see droplets of condensation sliding down the sides.
“Please let me go home…,” Pete said, his voice small and broken. He was trying hard not to cry. He flinched when the man reached out and raked his fingers through his hair, combing it gently.
“We are going home,” the man said, his voice soft. “Be good and drink the juice.”
The bottle was shoved into his hands and the cap removed for him. Pete held it. He was shaking hard, tears running down his cheeks in rivulets.
“Nothing to be scared of,” the man said, as he continued to stroke Pete’s hair. “Drink it all down and we’ll leave, okay?”
Pete brought the bottle up to his mouth, the rim tapping against his teeth. He squeezed his eyes shut and drank it in one long swallow. The juice was sweet and sour, chased by something bitter. It was when he'd finished it and opened his eyes again to look at the emptied bottle, that he saw a white gritty residue in a long trail left inside. He stared at it until the man took it from him.
“It’s something to make you go to sleep,” he said. “It’ll make the long drive easier for you.”
The man only smiled and gave him a quick kiss on his forehead. “Daddy misses you very much,” he said, standing up. “Be good and wait here. It’ll take about twenty minutes for me to finish packing the car.”
Pete watched the man leave and the door close. He heard the lock turn. Without a window in the room and the nightlight he'd used unplugged and thrown into the trash bag with the air mattress, he was left in the dark. He started to cry again. He couldn't hold back all of the collected fear that had been tearing him inside out for days. It gave him even more anxiety to hear his cries echoing in the empty room – his despair his only companion.
He wished he'd told Vincent Lynch the truth about everything.