Saving Sarkis, contd.
Orange, California, Present Day
I’ve always considered the disappearance of my fiancé, Jayson Carpenter, and my decision to give up our infant son for adoption the two worst things that could ever happen to me.
I was wrong.
The morning of the kidnapping started normally enough, and then it all went to hell.
I’d come into the office early, made coffee, perused the morning paper, and was about to tackle a stack of files on my desk when my partner, Ralph, walked in.
“You look like you’ve had a rough night,” I said.
“Didn’t sleep much.”
“How’s Lynne?” I knew his wife had been suffering a persistent sore throat for nearly three months. A few days earlier, Ralph finally had insisted she see a doctor. “A couple of her tests came back positive. We had an appointment today, but the doctor was called out on an emergency. We rescheduled for Friday.”
“Positive for what?” I steeled myself. Please, not the word that elbowed into my mind.
“Lynne says she’ll wait for the doctor’s diagnosis, no sense in giving energy to what it could be.” Ralph plunged both hands into his pockets and gave me a searching look. “I’ve been reading up on her symptoms. It doesn’t look good.”
My voice caught. “I… I don’t know what to say, Ralph. Can I do anything? Anything at all?”
“Nope. Just be patient like the rest of us.” The silence between us lingered a minute.
My phone rang. With a quick wave Ralph ducked into his office.
“Jenna Paletto.” I swiveled to face the window. “This is Jenna Paletto the investigator? “That’s me.”
“My name is Sophie Alexakis. I, I uh, I need help. My husband’s been kidnapped.” The woman on the phone sounded shaky.
I wrote down her name. “Are you sure? Have you contacted the police?”
“You helped my friend, Helen Fincher, with her divorce. She said for a private investigator you were honest and fair.”
“Have you notified the police?” I asked again.
“Wait, there’s more. This morning I found the body of a man on my front lawn.”
I straightened. “There’s a dead man on your front lawn and your husband’s been kidnapped?”
The woman’s voice quivered. “I thought he’d had a heart attack! He was just lying there when I went out to get my paper. Then, I found out from the police that he’d been shot. He died right on the lawn.”
“Then, at about eight thirty, the college called,” she continued. “They told me my husband never showed up to teach his class. I tried calling him a dozen times, but he doesn’t answer his cell phone.”
“You have to understand. My husband never misses his classes. Not ever!”
“That may be, but…”
“Then I received a call from some men. They spoke with an accent I didn’t recognize. What English they did speak was garbled, but they made it plain they have my husband, Sarkis! I’m scared!”
“Have you informed the police?!” I demanded.
“No! Because the man who called said not to contact the authorities. And the police have been right outside my home all morning because of the murdered man on my front lawn. The kidnappers said they’re watching me.”
“Do you know what these men want from your husband?”
“Well…” she hesitated. “I think it might be our family Bible.”
I closed my eyes. Oh. Please.
“He didn’t call it a Bible; he called it the ‘book,’” Sophie Alexakis went on. “Why they want this Bible is a mystery to me, but Professor Takmaz at Chapman College had an appointment with Sarkis between classes this morning and my husband didn’t show up. ”
“Okay, okay, stop.” Already confused, I needed a face-to-face. “Where do you live?”
“No! You can’t come here. I think it stands to reason that the police might know you. If you just show up out of the blue, they’ll wonder why. And they’ll suspect something’s up, right? And so far, the police have no idea my husband’s been kidnapped.”
At last, she paused. I could tell she was holding her breath. She had a point. A lot of the local cops know me, and they’d put Mrs. Alexakis on the top of their list of murder suspects if I just happened to show up at their crime scene. Who was I kidding? With a dead body on her front lawn, she was their number one suspect.
“Where’s your car?” I asked.
“In the driveway, and they’re still doing all their forensics. Miss Paletto, I need to meet Professor Takmaz at the Starbucks at Beckman Hall at Chapman College in an hour. He has an eleven o’clock lunch date with his wife, so I have to be on time. He has the Bible. I obviously can’t walk all the way to the college.” Her voice broke.
“Tell you what, I want you to try to find a way to leave the house in, say, ten minutes. Meet me two blocks from your house. Where do you live?”
“Orange Park Acres. How about Palm Reed Court? That’s two blocks away.” She gave me directions.
“I’m leaving now, Mrs. Alexakis. I’ll be driving a black Toyota Forerunner.”
“Call me Sophie, please.”
“See you in two shakes, Sophie.”
As I passed by Ralph’s door, he glanced up. I was about to tell him where I was going when I heard the front door open and the sound of footsteps. It was nine forty-five. Appointments always started after ten.
“You expecting someone?” Ralph asked. I shook my head ‘no.’
“Jenna Paletto?” a voice called out. “Is Jenna Paletto here?”
Wary, I took a few steps into the small reception area. Ralph followed me.
A young man stood in the semi-dark reception room, his face shaded. In one hand, he gripped a small duffel bag and in the other the strap of his backpack. He wore a black t-shirt with the words, ‘Quit Staring At Me,’ in bold, white type across the chest.
His stance seemed oddly familiar. I inched forward for a better look. “May I help you?”
He stepped into the light, the corner of his mouth sliding into an uncertain half-grin. “I probably should’ve called first.”
“Oh, my God…” My voice caught as I tried to take a breath.
Ralph, standing beside me, asked, “You know him?”
“Yeah … I know who he is.” I grabbed Ralph’s arm for support while a mirror image of the man I would always love stared back at me.
The kid straightened. “My name is Isaac Carpenter. They call me Zach.”
Ralph’s eyes widened. “Are you sayin’ you’re Jayson Carpenter’s kid?”
“That’s what the birth certificate says.” Zach kept his eyes fixed on me.
“You’re my Isaac.” My heartbeat thrummed in my ears. Ralph, for once, was as stunned as I was.
“I’ll be damned.”
“This is my partner, Ralph.”
Zach stepped forward and shook his hand. “Pleased to meet you.”
“Your … your father disappeared twenty years ago.” I dared to move even closer, taking in every inch of him, devouring the shades of white blond in his hair, the deep blue of his eyes, and the hard angles of his face. Handsome. And, oh so familiar.
He leaned close, obviously searching for words. Sweat beaded his upper lip. “As soon as I found out about you, I wanted to meet you.” His chin lifted.
There was something defiant, perhaps even angry, about him.
“Found out? Found out what? I don’t understand,” I said. But I began to suspect what I’d always feared.
“That I was adopted!” He hurled the words at me. “I found my adoption papers last week.”
I blinked back surprise. “They never told you that you were adopted?” Deep regret stabbed at my heart, even though I’d always known that my wishes hadn’t been a priority with his parents.
Ralph leaned against the doorframe. “Hell of a way to find out something that important, kid.”
“I Googled your name and found you. Cop, ex-cop, detective, private investigator, and all around bad ass.” He took a deep breath, and then exhaled a gust of air. “Now, I’d like some answers. I’m sure not getting any from my parents.”
I bit back a smile. From my years as a police officer and working with teens, I recognized Zach’s impatient vulnerability for what it was. Fear.
“Look, Zach, more than anything I want to sit down and talk to you every minute of the next twenty-four hours. But, I’ve just been called out for an important appointment.” I wavered over not telling Ralph someone wanted my help without police involvement. “I have to leave. Do you have a cell phone?”
For a split second, his face fell. Then, he recovered.
My heart broke as I took in his obvious fatigue and disappointment.
“Well, then… Can I come with you? Please? I’m a good listener. I just want to talk, to get to know you.”
“Zach, it’s not that simple.” I dug through my purse for my keys. Abruptly, I stopped. What in the world was I doing? After nineteen years, my son had finally found me, and I was about to walk out the door? I couldn’t leave him to wait for me in my office. Everything in me said it was wrong. Here he was in the flesh. I pushed the alarm bells ringing in my head away. Ah, the consequences be damned. My son wanted to know me. I mentally added a grudging justifi-cation: I had a strong suspicion I might be calling the police in on this case anyway.
Planting myself in front of him, I folded my arms. “Can you keep quiet and be inconspicuous?”
His blue eyes widened. “My lips are sealed.”
I studied him. “Okay. You listen to everything I say. Anything I tell you to do, you do. Got that?”
“Are you kidding me? I’m going to work on a case with you?”
“You’re not working on anything. One false move and I pull over and haul you out of the car. Leave your stuff here, but bring your jacket. Let’s go.” I turned and opened the door.
Zach nodded goodbye to Ralph, who shook his head at me. I read his glare: You and I are definitely going to have a talk.