RIVERSIDE, CONNECTICUT, IS about an hour’s drive from midtown Manhattan. Channeling my inner Mario Andretti, I drove it in forty minutes flat. All I wanted to do was get home and hug my boys.
“Jeez, Dad, you trying to crush me or something?” chirped Max, who was throwing a baseball against a pitchback on our front lawn when I pulled in. For a ten-year-old, the kid could really rifle it—all fatherly bias aside, of course.
I finally unwrapped my arms from around him. “So are you all packed?” I asked.
School had been out for a week. Max and his older brother, John Jr., were heading off to sleepaway camp the next morning for a month.
Max nodded. “Yeah. Grandma helped me get everything together. She even wrote my name in all my underwear with a Sharpie. Weird. Whatever.”
I would’ve expected nothing less from Grandma Judy. “Are she and Grandpa here?”
“No. They’re out shopping for dinner,” said Max. “Grandpa wanted steaks for our last night all together.”
When Susan died, her parents, Judy and Marshall Holt, insisted on moving up from Florida, where they’d retired. They said it would be impossible for me to raise the boys alone while I was still working at the Bureau, and they were right. Also, I think they knew that being around Max and John Jr. would help—if only a little bit—ease the pain of having lost their daughter, their only child.
They’d been nothing short of incredible since the day they arrived, and while I could never fully express my gratitude for their time, love, and sacrifice, the least I could do was treat them to a four-week Mediterranean cruise while the boys were off at camp. I was just glad I paid for it while I was still getting a paycheck from the Bureau. Not that I would’ve changed my mind. It’s that Marshall and Judy would’ve never accepted the trip. That’s the kind of people they are.
“Where’s your brother?” I asked Max.
“Where else?” he answered with an eye roll underneath his Yankees cap. “On his computer. The geekazoid.”
Max went back to striking out imaginary Red Sox batters while I headed inside the house and upstairs to John Jr.’s room. Naturally, the door was closed.
“Knock, knock,” I announced, walking right in.
John Jr. was indeed sitting at his desk, in front of his computer. He immediately threw up his hands at the sight of me.
“C’mon, Dad, can’t you knock for real?” he said with a groan. “Haven’t you ever heard of the right to privacy?”
I chuckled. “You’re thirteen, dude. Talk to me when you can shave.”
He rubbed the peach fuzz on his chin, smiling. “It might be happening sooner than you think,” he said.
He was right. My older boy was growing up fast. Too fast, maybe.
John Jr. was eleven when he lost his mother, a very tricky age. Unlike Max, J.J. was old enough to feel everything an adult would feel—the full pain and anguish, the overwhelming sense of loss. But he was still just a kid. That’s what made it so unfair. The grieving forced him to mature in ways no kid should have to endure.
“What are you working on?” I asked.
“Updating my Facebook page,” he answered. “They won’t let us do it at camp.”
Yes, I know. That’s one of the reasons why you’re going, sport. No video games, cell phones, or laptops allowed. Only fresh air and Mother Nature.
I walked behind him and shot a peek at his MacBook. He instantly flipped out, slapping his palms against the screen. “Dad, this is personal!”
I never wanted to be a parent who spied on his kid or secretly logged on to his computer to make sure he wasn’t saying or doing things he wasn’t supposed to. But I also knew that there was nothing “personal” about the Internet.
“Once you post something online, anyone in the world could be looking at it,” I said.
“So you need to be careful, that’s all.”
“I am,” he said. He was looking away.
It was moments like these when I really missed Susan. She’d know just what to say and, equally important, what not to say.
“John, look at me for a second.”
Slowly, he did.
“I trust you,” I said. “The thing is, you have to trust me, too. I’m only trying to help you.”
He nodded. “Dad, I know all about the creeps and stalkers out there. I don’t give out any personal information or stuff like that.”
“Good,” I said. And that was that.
Or so I thought. Walking out of J.J.’s room, I had no idea, no clue at all, that I was just about to crack one of the biggest and craziest cases of my career.
And as fast as you can say “Dinner is served,” it was all about to begin.