Read the First Chapter
It’s funny how life can shift on us when we least expect it. For me, the journey began on a Tuesday, my midweek day off. My to-do list that day read like a slightly condensed version of War and Peace. So when the phone rang, bright and early, while still slugging down coffee, sorting laundry, and struggling to get David out the door to school, I leaped for the receiver.
“Yes?” I asked. No polite good morning. No best-friend voice. No time for either.
“Is this Victoria Cross?” The caller was male, slightly winded, possibly elderly.
“My name is Harry Price.” There was a pause.
I tucked the receiver under my chin. “Is there some way I can help you?” I handed David his backpack. “Hurry,” I whispered, “the bus will be here any minute.”
My son gave me his trademark grin and scurried out the back door.
We live on the edge of the Pinter City School District in this midsize Illinois town. That meant David qualified for bus service, which pleased me no end. I couldn’t imagine dealing with the morning rush if I had to squeeze in chauffeur duties.
“Are you busy?” the caller asked. Apparently he’d noted my distraction.
“Actually, I am.”
“Then, perhaps I should get on with this.”
“That would be good.” I braced myself for a request for a donation to some charitable outfit or other. But he surprised me.
“You don’t know me,” Price said. “In fact, I’m sure you’ve never even heard my name. But I want you to know we’re related. I’d like to explain that relationship to you face to face. To that end, I’d like it very much if you’d join me for lunch today.”
I felt my heartbeat tick upward as hope sprang to life in my chest. “Are you from my father’s side of the family?”
“Yes, dear. I am.”
He had to have been, I thought. They were the only relatives I knew nothing about. My mind raced through all the tasks on my list for the day. They were plentiful. The auditors had arrived in the bank last week to perform their annual oversight. Even in the PR office, I’d been swamped since their arrival, and things had piled up here at home as well. Yet, how could I say no to this chance to learn more about my father and his family? “Where and when would you like to meet?”
“I thought the Golden Door might be a good choice. What do you say?”
“The Golden Door,” I replied, “is a very nice restaurant.”
“I’m glad you think so. Shall we meet at noon, then?”
I felt a brief moment of panic. I had a dentist’s appointment set for eleven. But it was a routine affair. An annual checkup and cleaning. It shouldn’t run longer than an hour. “Yes,” I agreed. “Noon’s fine.”
“Wait. How will I recognize you?”
“I’m tall with white hair and blue eyes. I’ll be wearing a navy-blue suit and will leave word with the maitre d’ to send you my way. Just ask for me by name. And thank you for granting an old man a bit of your precious time. I so look forward to meeting with you.”
“Ah, me too,” I replied. Definitely elderly. Extraordinarily polite. In all, Harry sounded nice. And he was certainly sparing no expense on our meal. The Golden Door was this town’s finest restaurant. I know that in a town the size of Pinter City that might not mean much. But in the case of this restaurant, it did.
The worst that can come of this, I thought, is that I’ll have a pleasant lunch in an extremely fine restaurant. And if things went as I hoped, out little visit might include some sorely sought information on my dad.
But a tardy dentist and heavy traffic delayed my arrival at the restaurant by nearly fifteen minutes. And much to my surprise, I wasn’t the only one running late. The restaurant’s maitre d’, John Hastings, from his name tag, told me Price hadn’t arrived yet.
I felt my brows pull together. From our phone conversation I had thought he would arrive first. But if I’d been delayed, why shouldn’t he be? I asked myself
No big deal.
But my attempt to calm my fears didn’t help much. I still worried that the man might not show, and I’d again fail to learn more about my father’s early life. It was a pattern for me, missing out on information on dear old dad.
“Why don’t you let me escort you to a table?” Hastings suggested. “I’ll bring the fellow to you the moment he arrives.”
Hastings ushered me to a table near one of the room’s large windows. After being seated and shrugging my way out of my jacket, I took a minute to admire the restaurant’s classical style. White linens. Gold chargers. Sparkling crystal. Gleaming silver. Single, tapered candles centered on each table. Large bouquets of flowers scattered here and there about the room. It was, I thought, a charming scene.
Jake and I had dined here twice. Both times to celebrate a special occasion. The first time was the night after we’d learned I was pregnant with David. It had been a special and magical evening. Both of us giddy with the thought of the life we were about to bring into this world.
Our second outing to the restaurant came on our tenth wedding anniversary. We’d sat at a table very near here. The two of us still very happy, still celebrating our marriage to each other. I gave the room another review. It was time we dined here again. Undoubtedly, we weren’t the most flush of all couples, but we were doing well enough for an occasional treat.
Growing aware of my increasing hunger, I glanced down to check my watch. It was now twenty minutes past noon. And still no sign of Price. If the man was running this late, he should have called, I thought. I regretted not having asked him for his phone number or have sought some method or reaching him. If he failed to make an appearance today, I had no option but to depend on him calling me to reschedule. Which, given this session, did nothing to cheer me.
Then, recalling the man’s advanced age, my worries turned to thoughts of heart attacks or falls or other such emergencies.
All I could do, I told myself to ease my concerns, was sit here and wait. If Price didn’t arrive within another ten minutes, I’d go ahead and order lunch on my own. Perhaps with luck he’d make it here while I was still dining. At least would give him at least another half hour or more to arrive without my being tossed out, I thought with some satisfaction.
Seeing movement from the corner of my eye, I glanced back to the front of the restaurant where a middle-aged man had just come through the door. I watched with idle curiosity as he approached the maitre d’. They exchanged a few words. then unexpectedly they both looked my way.
Clearly this wasn’t Price, but the man strode straight for my table anyway. He was tall and burly, and wore an ill-fitting suit. His hair was dark, laced with gray. His eyes were hooded and watchful. As he stood before me, he pulled himself up to his full height, which I estimated to be well over six feet. “Are you Victoria Cross?
I took a deep breath. This had to be bad news. My thoughts raced to Jake at work and David at school. Even to Price, who was I knew not where. “Yes, that’s me. Is anything wrong?”
“I’m Detective Lance Quade with the Pinter City Police Department,” he replied. “May I sit down?”
I’d have rather he’d answered my question first. But I had a feeling this was not a man to offend.
I waved a hand toward one of the vacant chairs. “Of course.”
Quade folded himself into the seat. And while doing so, his suit coat gaped open. My gaze locked onto the sight of his gun. Large, dark, it looked the size of a tank next to his chest. And, for an instant, I found myself wondering how it must feel. To have the responsibility of a person’s life in one’s hand at the end of such a deadly weapon? I nearly shivered. Then Quade’s jacket swung closed and the moment passed.
“I believe you were to meet Harry Price here today,” Quade now said. “Is that right?”
“Yes, I am. Or. at least, I was. Can you tell me, has something happened to him?”
At least, I thought, this visit does not concern Jake or David. I released a breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding.
“Not that I know of,” Quade answered. “How about you?”
I shook my head in confusion. “I’m sorry?”
“Have you heard anything from him?”
“No. We were to meet here at noon.”
“He’s more than a little late.”
“What was this session of yours to be about?”
I turned his question over in my mind a couple of times before replying. I couldn’t imagine why our business should matter to this man. But he was a detective. I assumed that gave him the right to ask questions. “Ah, we plan to discuss family matters.”
“Really? So what is this guy to you, then? An uncle? A cousin?”
“I don’t know exactly how we’re related. That’s one of the things we are to take up.”
“Sounds a little odd, don’t you think?
“May I ask what your interest is in Mr. Price?”
“I’ve been looking for the man, that’s all.”
“That’s my business.” Quade offered me a superior sort of smile.
“Is he wanted for something? Outstanding parking tickets? Speeding?”
“They don’t send detectives out on those kinds of errands,” Quade said with a sneer.
His statement landed with all the force of a punch on the jaw. I slumped back in my chair. Quade had managed to make this man I’d so looked forward to meeting sound like a crook. “You refuse to tell me about your interest in him, then?”
“Look lady, in my business I get to ask the questions. Okay? Your job is to answer them.”
I bristled. “Well, if I had any answers, I’d give them. But I don’t. And unless you’re prepared to arrest me right now, I’m walking out of here.”
Quade offered me a dark glance. “Look, lady, it’s in your best interests to play square with me.”
I leaned forward over the table. “Sir, I don’t know where Harry Price is. I mean take a look around you. Obviously he isn’t here.”
My words must have come out louder than I’d intended, for I felt the gaze of several nearby diners swing to me.
I cleared my throat, lowered my voice, and tried again. “Detective, if I knew where Price was, I’d tell you. I believe in cooperating with the police. But I think you need to address your questions to the man himself. You’re getting nothing further from me. I don’t know anything more about Harry Price or what we were to discuss today than I’ve already told you.”
With that said, I stood and stormed for the exit.
From behind me, I heard Quade call out, “Wait a minute, lady. You can’t just walk out on me.”
“And you can tell that to my lawyer,” I said over my shoulder.
Outside, I raced to my car while tears gathered in my eyes. What had I just done? I wasn’t the type to offend policemen. And why, hadn’t Harry shown up for lunch?