Among Friends

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The Call Back

THE CALL BACK

Toby Hughes drove his Volvo sedan through the gateposts of River Run Academy with his son Ryan sitting next to him in the passenger seat. Ryan was sixteen years old, on his way back to school following the 1985 Spring Break. Toby was proud that his only child was attending the old boarding school even if Ryan pretended not to like some of the academy traditions. But from the first semester on, the boy never asked to be transferred back to public school and was perhaps not damning River Run with faint praise when he told his parents the place was “okay”.

Ryan was already taller than either Toby or Betsy, his mother and Toby’s ex-wife, but didn’t tower over either of them. He had Betsy’s pale complexion but Toby’s build. That meant Ryan was not a major athlete but his grades were fine if not exceptional. Betsy had mentioned Ryan’s circle of close friends at the academy the last time Toby had spoken to her; this brought on a flood of personal memories about the cabin and Graham’s trial. Only just before the long drive from Albany to Winooski had Toby found out that Graham was now dead.

“I’ll carry my stuff to the residence hall,” Ryan said. “Don’t get out of the car, Dad.”

“No kiss goodbye?”

Ryan snarled by way of an answer and quickly exited the idling Volvo. He opened the door behind the passenger seat and plucked out his small suitcase and backpack. Toby smiled as the boy shut both doors and gave him an impatient wave. He watched Ryan disappear into the noisy crowd of returning students before shifting into drive.

Toby wheeled his way out of the academy and thought of the first time he’d seen Natalie Dvorak walking outside the library, all five-foot-one of her, practically the age Ryan was now. As a teenager, Toby hadn’t been much of a smooth operator nor did he ever grow into one. But he’d felt compelled to meet a girl small enough to look up into his eyes even if she was wearing high heels. This one girl had eyes of her own that demanded watching: they had dark blue irises that stood out along with high cheekbones and an adorable, aquiline nose.

His awkward approach amused and attracted Natalie; Toby actually offered to walk her to the library even though she’d just gone past it. But she asked his name and gave him hers all the same. They checked their respective mimeographed semester course lists and found two in common.

“Well, then we can study together,” Natalie said. “I’ll bet you’ve got the brains.”

And you have the looks, Toby had thought without daring to say it to her.

But, two days later, in a lonely section of the non-circulating book stacks, Natalie took the glasses off Toby’s face to kiss him. He was finally able to tell her what he’d been thinking when they first met.

Toby sighed and wondered whether he should try to reach his old flame now. They hadn’t spoken since the day he’d called Natalie about the verdict. It bothered Toby that Graham Wright should be the pretext for hearing Natalie’s voice once again. But with Graham’s name in news, would Natalie wonder why Toby hadn’t tried to reach her if he did chicken out?

Reaching Burlington, Toby parked his car and went to look for a pay phone. He moved into his journalist mode to overcome personal trepidation. Wasn’t Natalie a detective now? Like him, she understood the importance of following up on leads.

Toby went into a hotel lobby and found a row of pay phone booths with doors for privacy. He chose a booth where he pulled out his phone credit card and a small notepad with a stubby pencil from his jacket. First, he called information for the State Police barracks in Rutland, noted the number, and dialed it.

The receptionist told him that Sergeant Dvorak was out on an assignment but offered to put Toby through to her partner, Detective John Billings.

“Thank you,” Toby said and was put on hold for a moment.

“Billings here.”

“Detective, my name is Toby Hughes. I’m a reporter and editor at the Albany Transcript.”

“You can’t be calling about a local story.”

“Listen. I’m an old friend of Natalie Dvorak’s. It’s about that man who was killed yesterday, that ex-con.”

“Graham Wright?”

“Yes. Maybe you and the sergeant were talking about it earlier.”

“Mr. Hughes, were you at the cabin the day Ashley Vickers was murdered?”

Toby was startled but then realized he shouldn’t have been surprised.

“Yes, that’s right.”

“Sergeant Dvorak wants to speak with you. She went up to State Police Headquarters a short time ago, won’t have gotten there yet. I’ll call and leave her a message to reach you if you can leave a number.”

“Um, I’m calling from a pay phone. But it’s in the lobby of a hotel in Burlington. I can take a room here and she can reach me through the switchboard.”

“Sure. Which hotel, Mr. Hughes?”

“The Lakeshore.”

“Got it. Wait there for Sergeant Dvorak’s call.”

Toby had no luggage with him but the desk clerk showed no concern over the fact. After all, the guest had no one joining him for what looked to be a short term visit. The room was on the third floor with a view of Lake Champlain. Toby splurged on a small bottle of scotch from the minibar, hoping to sooth his nerves as he waited.

It was a slow forty minutes before the bedside phone rang.

“Hello?”

“Toby, is that you?” Natalie’s voice was that of an excited old friend instead of a cop about to question a witness.

“Yes!”

“My God, how are you?”

“Fine. And you?”

“I’m well. What have you been up to? My partner says you’re some kind of journalist now.”

“Yes, I’m with the Transcript out of Albany. Alternative press.”

“Really? You always did have what my brother would call a social conscience.”

“Sure, you can say that. I’ve known about you being a cop for a few years now.”

“You have?”

“Some of your cases have made the regional news. I even saw you on TV last fall, that press conference about the Canadian fugitives.”

“We caught them in that hotel you’re in.”

“Oh, that’s interesting.”

“Did I look good on TV?”

“Beautiful.”

“Thanks.”

“Listen, I should’ve called you years ago.”

“It was my turn to pick up the phone.”

“But you didn’t know where I was.”

“I could’ve found out. As a matter of fact, I was just about to do that: find out where you are.”

“And all because of Graham, huh?”

“Before we get into that―and I need to get into that―tell me more about you. How long have you been in Albany?”

“Sixteen years now.”

“You have a family?”

“One kid, my son Ryan. He’s sixteen.”

“Are you married?”

“Divorced. I was married to Ryan’s mother until he was twelve.”

“Not that Betsy, was it?”

Toby chuckled nervously.

“Yes.”

“Oh, wow.”

“Ryan’s enrolled at River Run.”

“No kidding. Does he like it there?”

“More than he’ll admit, I think.”

Natalie laughed softly.

“What about you?” Toby asked. “Married?”

“Oh, yes, to my second husband, Dan. We’ve been married for about two years now. I was divorced from my first husband a long time ago. No children with him but Dan came with a daughter. My stepdaughter Elaine. She’s eighteen. Lives in Albany, it so happens.”

“What’s your husband do?”

“He’s the constable where we live, a little town called Holbrook. Did you know where I live?”

“No. I was aware you’re based in Rutland. I assumed that was your home.”

“Holbrook’s a little to the northeast, just over two hundred population. Dan’s the only cop in town. My first husband was a cop, too, with the Burlington P.D.”

“Is he still on the force?”

“No, he’s a convict. He could’ve been in the same cell block as Graham.”

“Wow, what’d he do?”

“Accessory after the fact in a homicide and some other felonies; we arrested him the summer before last. Maybe I can give you the details later.”

Natalie paused for a short moment.

“Are you dating anyone?”

“Not really. I mean I’m not seeing anyone exclusive. I just dropped Ryan off at River Run and decided to call you. I heard about Graham this morning.”

“Me, too.”

“Did you know he’d been out of prison?”

“No. Did you?”

“Yes. It was a wire service story. I just happened to see it at my office.”

“Kind of like how I found out Tom was killed back in ’68.”

“Tet Offensive,” Toby said with a nod.

“Did Rick or Sharon hear about Graham getting out of prison?”

“I don’t know.”

“Haven’t you asked them? Or am I the first one you called about Graham?”

“Natalie, I can’t talk to either of them. They’re both dead!”

There was a heavy silence on Natalie’s end of the connection.

“Toby, I need to see you in person.”

“Uh, yes.”

“Are you needed back in Albany right now or can you stay at the Lakeshore until I get there?”

“I… I can stay,” Toby replied with a quavering voice.

“I’m gathering some material about the case, Ashley’s murder, and I’ll take it along with me. First, tell me: how did those two die and when?”

“Rick died from a heroin overdose October of last year. Sharon…”

“What about Sharon?”

“She owned a gift shop here in Burlington. One night she was robbed and killed on her way to put a bag of cash into an overnight deposit box at her bank. Shot to death.”

“When?”

“Late December, I think.”

“I’ll pull the police reports while I’m here. Stay put, Toby. I’m serious.”

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