Saving Sarkis, contd.
CHAPTER ONE

 

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.

 

“Hey, Jen.”

 

“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.”
 
“Did…”
 
“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.”
 
“Have you…”
 
“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.

CHAPTER TWO

We bolted for my Forerunner, jumped in and soon we were sailing up Chapman Avenue to the high-rent district known as Orange Park Acres. It was ten in the morning.
 
As I guided my car up the hill, I couldn’t help stealing a quick glance here and there at Zach in the passenger seat, his long eyelashes, and that jaw line. My son. My son was actually sitting next to me.
 
“I’m sorry I didn’t call ahead, but I’ve got a million questions.”
 
“I understand. I’ve always wanted answers, too. I still want them. Your father’s case was never closed. I was pregnant with you. We were happy, we planned to get married, and then, Jayson just…evaporated into thin air.”
 
I stopped. A little information at a time would have to do. When Jayson disappeared, my life changed. My former self crumbled away; the new Jenna Paletto became hard, resolved.
 
I felt his gaze as he studied me. “You loved him?”
 
“Oh, yes.” The memory made me smile.
He gave me a pointed look. “You’re prettier than I thought you’d be.”
 
“Thanks.” Heat crept up my neck.
 
“I’m really surprised you don’t have blond hair.  And you wear your hair kinda short. For some reason    I thought you’d have longer hair. Do people ask you if you’re a model, or something?”
 
I stared out my windshield, and gave a short laugh. “Nope. Nothing like that.” I do  have  my  mother’s  good looks and am thankful for it. But it’s so far from important. I dress casually, jeans and tee shirts with a jacket or long shirt. I probably rotate two dozen ball caps most of the time.
 
“So, listen up.” I gave him the facts on Sophie Alexakis’ phone call. “And the kidnappers said no police, or else.”
 
Zach frowned. “What do they want?”
 
“The Alexakis family Bible, apparently.” I sighed. “Don’t ask, I don’t know too many details. And then she gets another call from a professor at the college, and he says her husband missed their appointment this morning. And surprise, surprise, he tells her he has the Bible.”
 
“So now we’re gonna do what?”
 
“We pick up Sophie, and then meet the professor.”
 
“This is awesome!”
 
“Settle down. When we meet Sophie, you sit in the back and stay quiet.” I opened the console and handed him a notepad. “Take notes, be invisible, and remember our client is going to be really stressed. We’ve got a dead guy, a missing husband, and she won’t tell the cops.”
 
“She’s gotta be totally freaked.”
 
“Exactly. So keep still, and be sympathetic.”
 
A serious expression settled on his face. “I understand.” We drove by Sophie’s cross street.
 
“Check it out. Police are still there, the Fire Department, ambulance, and, of course, news vans,” Zach reported.
 
I noted the usual onlookers were present, restrained by yellow crime-scene tape. I wondered if Sophie Alex- akis had made it past the police to Palm Reed Court.
 
I saw Palm Reed up ahead and turned into the cul-de-sac, where a woman was pacing on the sidewalk.
 
She signaled me. The designer sweat suit she wore let me know we came from different fashion police. I pulled up to the curb and lowered my window.
 
“Sophie?”
 
Sophie nodded as she dabbed at her eyes with a tissue.
 
“Thank you so much for meeting me. I’m desperate.”
 
Sliding my aviators up on my head, I clambered out of the car, and reached out to shake her hand. “Think nothing of it. Why don’t you get in, and we’ll go meet that professor? What’d you say his name was?”
 
“Professor Takmaz. He’s the dean of Arts at the college. He and his wife collect art and antiquities from all over the world. We’ve known them for years.”
 
Zach got out of the front seat and moved to the middle seats. “This is Zach Carpenter, my… assistant.”
 
Sophie extended her hand. “Hi, Zach.” “Hi.” They shook hands.
 
“We’ve got thirty minutes or so. We can talk in the car on our way.”
 
I pulled away from the curb and headed back down Chapman toward the college.
 
I drummed my fingers on the steering wheel. “Well, let’s start at the beginning. Tell me everything.”
 
The woman beside me took a deep breath. She was in her early thirties, maybe five-six, a-hundred-and-fifteen pounds. Her black curly hair was piled high in a loose- clipped bundle, and little black ringlets framed her pale complexion. Some women pay a lot of money to get that look. She didn’t really need makeup, but she wore blush, lipstick, and had a little eye shadow on, although her lower lids were smudged from crying.
 
Sophie exhaled. “Well, first I need to let you know that Sarkis and I had a terrible fight last night! I know this isn’t going to look good with the police.”
 
Crap. I wondered if the police knew about their fight. “Anyone mention the fight to the cops?”
 
“Apparently my neighbor heard us. One of the detec- tives already asked me about it.”
 
Terrific. “Your husband ever hit you?”
 
Sophie reared back as if I’d just struck her. She looked shocked. “Never!”
 
“You ever hit him?” I stopped at a red light and gave her a pointed look.
 
She swiveled her gaze right back at me. “Absolutely not!”
 
“Okay, that’s good, good. What was the fight about?” I hit my horn to get the idiot on his cell phone in front of me to move.
 
She sat erect, leaning forward a bit in her seat, and pursed her lips. She seemed to grope for words. “The fight was about, it was about…” She gave her head a quick shake and took a breath. ”My husband has two sons by a former marriage. Grant is a very successful businessman. The youngest son, Tyler, has had a lot of great ideas and made many attempts at starting up busi- nesses, but has failed often. And to tell you the truth I think he drinks too much. Over the years, my husband has bent over backwards to help him. Tyler is married with two children, and has a lot of responsibilities. His wife is a nurse, and works constantly. But Tyler has used his father’s good will and generous nature just once too often in my book. His dad has given him loan after loan.”
 
“Has Tyler ever repaid a loan?”
 
Sophie shook her head. “Not in the ten years we’ve been married. I found out last night that Sarkis wrote him  a  check  for  over  $30,000  without  telling  me. I
mean, it has to stop! I’m so done with Sarkis enabling him and Tyler’s incessant inflated stories of how this ‘new venture’ is the real deal.”
 
“Thirty thousand dollars?” I whistled. “That’s a nice chunk of change for a college professor.”
 
“Besides teaching, Sarkis is also a businessman and his investments are lucrative. But teaching is his first love.”
 
“So, how did you find out about this loan?"
 
She shot me a sheepish look. “I opened the bank statement when it came yesterday. I know I shouldn’t have but I had my suspicions. I was right.”
 
“And so when you saw him last night?”
 
“I let him have it with both barrels.” She fought for composure.
 
“And he just yelled at you, didn’t touch you?” In my rearview, I saw Zach lean in to hear her answer.
 
“No! Sarkis doesn’t yell. I yelled because he was silent and guilty. He didn’t have much to say. But he’d broken a firm promise to me, and I felt our trust had been violated.” Gazing out the front windshield, Sophie pursed her lips, and shook her head. “Wait. I don’t want to give you the wrong impression of Sarkis. He’s really  a decent man, good and kind, and generous like I said.” She shugged. “He’s just weak when it comes to Tyler.”
 
“So, what was the upshot? You two make up?”
 
“He left me standing in the kitchen and went to bed. I didn’t go up until much later. By then, he was   asleep. When I woke this morning, he was standing by the bed saying goodbye. He told me he’d call me later, but he never did.”
 
Zach leaned forward again. “Ma’am, did you say anything to him?”
 
I caught my breath. He wasn’t exactly staying invisible, but it was a good question.
 
“No, I was still mad. I pretended to be asleep.” She twisted around to face Zach.
 
“He said, ‘I love you, Sophie C.’ Those were his last words to me.”