When Jessica exited Callaway's, she spotted Max and Barney, the country club’s security officer, deep in conversation. If trouble trouble was afoot, she didn't want to be kept in the dark. She charged over to the two men and demanded, “Okay, guys. What’s up?”
Reacting to her panicked expression, Max reached out to steady her. “Calm down. It’s okay, Jess. There’s been a development, but it’s a positive one.”
Her worried expression melted away.
Max held out his smartphone. “Do you know him, or have you seen him at Callaway's recently or in the past?”
She scrutinized the photo. “His face doesn't look familiar." She looked at Max and grinned. "Don't tell me he has been hanging out at Callaway's. He looks like your typical computer nerd who is more likely to frequent a coffee house instead of country club.”
“The server who took the note from him made the same observation. He used the term generic looks when describing the man. Average height and weight. Shaggy light brown hair. Wears wire-rimmed glasses. The manager, Brian, noticed him because he seemed out of place. Most of the males who dine at Callaway’s are older, and most are accompanied by a spouse or date.”
Jessica took a second look and shook her head. “His description could apply to a half dozen guys I know. Barney, did you see him?”
“I saw him when he entered the restaurant tonight, but he must have left when I was taking a break.”
“Have you seen him before?”
“That’s what Max and I were discussing. He has come on Thursday evenings a couple of times. He hasn’t caused any trouble, so I don’t have a record of the dates he was here.”
Jessica turned to Max. “Did Brian send the photo to the server who took the note?”
“He did, but the server hasn’t replied. According to the manager, the server turned in his resignation two weeks ago, so there is no guarantee he will feel obligated to reply.”
“Barney, did you approach the suspect?”
“No. By the time I received the photo, he was gone.”
Jess winced. “So, where do we go from here?”
“The lead may not be a smoking gun, but at least we have a lead.”
“Now that we know that he’s been an occasional diner at Callaway’s, will you be on the lookout for him, Barney.”
“Definitely. If Max isn’t on the grounds, I’ll call him. If the subject starts to leave before Max arrives, I’ll find a reason to detain him.”
“There’s something a little creepy about the way he’s playing us. If he has information about Kathryn, why doesn’t he come forward?”
“We could be way off track, Jess. We may have the wrong man.”
“True, but I think I’ll dig out my senior annual and see if I can find a match.”
Groggy from lack of sleep, Jess dragged into the kitchen. Max was sitting at the kitchen table reading the newspaper.
“Is that coffee I smell, or is it wishful thinking?”
Max popped up from his chair. “Yikes. Since when did you start hitting the bottle? Sit. I’ll pour the coffee.”
“Thanks, Max. My hangover wasn’t caused by booze. Yesterday was emotionally tough, and then I woke up at one and couldn’t go back to sleep. Finally, I crawled out of bed, located my senior annual and pored over photos for two hours. Now, I feel as though the Little Drummer Boy is using my head as his drum.”
“To say I’m disappointed is an understatement.”
“It was a long shot, Jess.”
“I’m still having a difficult time processing the fact that a person can disappear without a trace.”
“If Kathryn’s friend Duffy is telling the truth, she worked on a plan of escape for years. She obviously anticipated the steps Springer would take to find her.”
“Maybe we should back off.”
He shrugged. “Let’s get back to you. Why was yesterday such a tough day? I thought you were looking forward to the end of school.”
“Let’s just say the good-byes were bittersweet, especially since I won’t be back at Laurinburg High in the fall.
Max’s eyebrow shot up. “Does that mean you accepted the position at the music school in Clinton?”
“Yes. The school is called Lehman’s School for the Performing Arts. The day Mom told me she said yes to your marriage proposal, I called and accepted the position.”
“Since you are moving out, maybe she won’t change her mind about marrying me.”
“She wouldn’t do that, Max.”
“I’ve been trying to get her to say yes for four years. I won’t believe she’s serious until she says I do in front of a pastor.”
Jess laughed. “Mom can be a hard sell, but once she makes a promise, she doesn’t break it.”
“Don’t get me wrong, Jess. You’ve been a rock, but you worry entirely too much about her welfare, and not enough about your own. Your mom is a strong woman.”
Jess took a sip of coffee. “She can take care of herself financially and most of the time she’s a pro at handling her physical needs. It’s her emotional needs I worry about. When she gets down, she needs a prod.”
“She handles the depression better now that she has Thor.”
“As amazing as Thor is, he can’t talk to her.”
Max laughed. “Thor doesn’t need words to communicate. Sometimes he recognizes her needs before I do.”
“True, but he can’t convince her that she still has value. It’s you who put the twinkle back in her eyes."
“Speaking of twinkle, she’s excited about going to the festival at Milner Park today. Two local bands will be performing, and several of Helen’s artist friends will be exhibiting their work. If you are interested in going, you are welcome to join us.”
“Thanks for the invite, but I’m going to vegetate today. I have the latest Camilla Roberts book on my bedside table that’s just waiting to be read.”
“Be sure to turn off your phone unless you want the outside world to intrude.”
“I’m curious, Max, how did you convince Mom to attend the festival. When I was in high school, we attended every festival and sidewalk art show in town. She was a walking advertisement for Laurinburg’s artists. A couple of years she worked in Francine Cooper’s booth and had a blast. After the accident, she lost interest. I used every argument I could come up with to refuel her enthusiasm for the arts. Nothing worked.”
“It’s all about timing, Jess.
“I purchased one of Francine’s paintings three years ago. I showed it to your mom, but she didn’t tell me she knew Francine. Six months ago, I read an article in the paper about a Francine exhibit. I attended and had the privilege of meeting her. During the course of our conversation, your mom’s name came up. She filled me in on the work Helen previously did to promote struggling artists. During our conversation, she encouraged me to attend the festival.
“In the past, I had visited museums in this country and abroad, but I focused on the work of acclaimed artists. I stayed away from sidewalk art shows and festivals. Francine’s fascinating history piqued my curiosity, so I decided to attend. I told your mom about my plan but didn’t mention my conversation with Francine. Monday of this week, she asked if she could go with me.” He shrugged. “I don’t intend to bring up the past. When she’s ready, I hope she will share her memories.” He paused before continuing, “Francine’s reaction when she sees Helen should be interesting.”
“Let’s hope they renew their friendship. Francine is good for Mom.
“Mom said you were going to spend some time at your condo today. Have you decided to sell?”
He said, “By mid-day it will be 90℉. No matter how well our morning goes, I don’t think we’ll tarry at the festival too long. After lunch, we’ll drive over to my condo. Whether to sell or rent is just one of the decisions I have to make. If I sell, I will need to sell most of my furniture.”
“Are you staying overnight?”
“Yes. My decision is too important to rush it. Besides, your mom needs a change of scenery.”
“Yes, she does. She’s been afraid to venture away from home for far too long.”
“Helen wants to travel but mistakenly believes her disability will be a burden to a travel companion. Sleeping at my condo may alleviate some of her concerns about spending the night away from home. On the positive side, I’ve caught her on several travel web sites lately. I’m feeling optimistic about a trip in our future.”
“I’m impressed. I don’t have the words to express my gratitude.”
“Gratitude works both ways, Jess. I love my family, but my interests are often at odds with theirs. I respect their dedication to law enforcement, but I don’t enjoy discussing the darker side of life at the dinner table.
“In comparison, your interests and your mom’s encompass a wide range of subjects. I find conversations with the two of you refreshing. Helen I can talk for hours and never get bored.”
“Mom has broadened her interests since the accident. Since she can no longer participate in sports, she’s turned to research. She’s becoming an authority on several different subjects.”
“You have also contributed to my pleasure in being here, Jess. It’s been a pleasure to hear you play the piano, and I’ve even enjoyed listening to some of your students play.
“The best way I can describe your home is to say that it eludes a positive vibe. Perhaps the best description is cozy and welcoming.”
Before she could respond, her mom rolled into the kitchen. “Is this a private conversation, or can I participate?”
Max said, “You’re always welcome beautiful.” He crossed the kitchen, poured a mug of coffee and placed it in front of her. Jess and I are having muffins. I will be happy to cook eggs and bacon for you if that’s your pleasure.”
“A muffin is sufficient. I have never eaten food truck delicacies. I intend to indulge today.”
“Hm-m. Maybe you should take a huge dose of Mylanta before you go.” Jess cautioned.
“Why did you two look so serious when I rolled in? Has there been a break in Kathryn’s disappearance?”
When Max’s no was emphatic, her eyebrow shot up.
Jess turned her head so her mom wouldn’t see the smile she couldn’t suppress.
Helen studied their faces as she took a bite of muffin. “Why do I have the feeling you two were plotting behind my back?”
“You’re way off base, Mom. Max wanted to know why I couldn’t sleep last night. Yesterday was more difficult than I expected it to be. I was reasonably sure my private students and my Callaway fans would miss me, but high school students tend to be indifferent about their teacher’s comings and goings. I was not prepared for their reaction. The choral students and my fellow teachers swarmed to the music room and showered me with good wishes.”
“I would have been shocked if they had not. From your first day on the job, you spent almost as many volunteer hours at the school as work hours. You were visible and you were interested in your students welfare in addition to their talent. Students aren’t indifferent to people who care.”
“Until yesterday, I had been so focused on the benefits of the job offer I hadn’t given a lot of thought to what I would be giving up. I have a very large support system here in Laurinburg. When I move, I’ll lose that!”
Her mom said. “True, but in the grand scheme of things, you are expanding your support system. In five years—if you remain in Clinton—you will have two support systems, one in Clinton and one here. How cool is that?”