Man overboard, p.14

Man Overboard, page 14


Man Overboard

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  That, Odin thought with a self-congratulatory smirk, is entirely fitting.

  Frigg had ordered a limo to take him to LAX to catch his fictional flight from L.A. to Atlanta, with a return trip scheduled on Monday afternoon. The flight numbers were correct coming and going, but Owen Hansen wasn’t a passenger on either of them.

  At the airport, he entered the Terminal 5 departures lounge dressed in casual business attire and dragging two enormous and mostly empty pieces of rolling luggage. From there he went directly downstairs to the arrivals lounge. In a restroom there he changed out of his sport coat, slacks, and dress shoes into worn sandals, a pair of khaki cargo shorts, and a neon-green Hawaiian shirt. Only then did he continue on to the shuttle area reserved for long-term parking vendors. After riding a bus to the QuikPark lot, he didn’t bother going inside. Instead, he walked to the strip mall just up the street, where his rental for the weekend was already parked and awaiting his arrival.

  It wasn’t a rental in the conventional sense. Arranged via his go-to dark Web guy, Eduardo Duarte, and paid for entirely in Bitcoin, Eduardo had purchased the nondescript red Grand Caravan minivan for Odin on Craigslist and had packed it full of camping gear. Odin had paid a premium for the transaction due to his two additional requirements: The vehicle—whatever it was—had to have a valid license plate that wouldn’t show up on any stolen vehicle lists. Once Odin was done with it, and within twenty-fours hours of being returned to a predetermined location, the vehicle was destined to land in some junkyard’s crusher, thus guaranteeing that it could never be traced back to Owen Hansen.

  He located the key fob in the left rear wheel well, and then opened the side doors to inspect the goods: a much used pop-up tent, a brand-new bedroll, a camp stove, a cooler filled with ice, beer, and several meals’ worth of deli-style picnic provisions. A battered surfboard filled the entire passenger side of the vehicle, from its resting place on the front dash to the lift gate at the back. Odin wasn’t a surfer—had no interest in surfing—so the board was there solely as a prop, but it fit in with his persona for the weekend, that of a recently divorced IT guy, taking a two-week Highway 101 road trip in hopes of repairing his broken heart and damaged ego.

  Odin’s wallet was loaded with a set of credit cards and photo ID under the name of Phil Harkins. That was also the name on the reservation for an overnight camping spot at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. Odin planned to be on hand for Beth Wordon’s wedding festivities all right, just not as an invited guest.

  As Odin headed north on the six-hour drive from LAX to the campground, he felt powerful and totally in control. This was all going to work out exactly as he’d planned, and soon he’d have another killer video to add to his collection.


  As Ali drove down I-17 on her way to Carefree, she listened to the audiobook Stu had sent her, streaming it through the Cayenne’s sound system. She noted that The Poisoned Family Tree was both written and narrated by the author, Dr. Amelia Cannon. When Ali first heard the title of the book, she had wondered what would cause someone to devote a lifetime to the study and prevention of suicide. The foreword made that blazingly clear:

  I was six years old when my father committed suicide by slamming into a bridge abutment on Highway 99 just north of Sacramento. He was driving ninety miles an hour at the time. He died instantly. There were no seat belts in his bright red 1947 Mercury convertible. The single-vehicle crash might have been treated as an accident had it not been for the suicide note he left at home, under my mother’s pillow.

  At the time, his death left me with uncountable unanswered questions. Why was he dead? Where had he gone? Then, when I overheard one too many sotto voce adult conversations where someone wondered in passing why my father would have taken his own life, I had to try to come to grips with the awful knowledge that he had left us behind because he wanted to leave us behind. He was gone because he didn’t want us anymore. For a six-year-old girl, those were bitter pills to swallow.

  My father was part of the entertainment industry. In the days before World War II, he had worked as a writer on several motion pictures, two of which were nominated for Academy Awards. When the war started, however, he joined the US Army as an enlisted man. Many others with similar backgrounds spent their wartime enlistments creating the soundstage props and trickery that kept the Allies’ plans for D-Day secret from the Third Reich. My father chose to serve in the US infantry. He landed in Normandy on D-Day plus one and was gravely injured during the Battle of the Bulge.

  He returned home with a lame leg and a whole collection of combat medals. The studio treated him as a conquering hero and gave him a welcome-home bonus that he used to purchase the convertible in which he died.

  For a time it looked as though things were fine. My father went back to work. My mother, who had taught school during his tour of duty, became a stay-at-home mom once more. For me and for my sister Janelle, three years older than I, life went back to what we thought of as normal.

  But things were neither fine nor normal. It took me years to sort out that my father came home from the war with what we now recognize as a fatal case of PTSD. He was angry and unpredictable. He yelled at my sister and me, and finally he hit our mother—the girl he had loved from grade school on. The very next day, he drove his car into the bridge.

  For the funeral, my mother wore a hat with a net that covered her face. She wore the hat to the mortuary and to the cemetery, and she also wore it later at the house during the reception. She didn’t want people to see her blackened eye.

  Years later, on the day my sister Janelle turned twenty-one, she took her own life. Instead of a speeding vehicle, she used an overdose of sleeping pills, but she, too, left our mother a note.

  My mother is in her eighties now. She’s never completely recovered from those two senseless tragedies, and neither have I. Did that first event inevitably lead to the second? Was there anything my mother or I or anyone else could have done to prevent either one of them?

  When I won a scholarship to UCLA, I enrolled as a premed student at a time when female physicians were still few and far between. Once I made it into med school, when it came time to specialize, there was no question in my mind—psychiatry was the only answer.

  I’ve spent my entire career studying the issue that became the centerpiece of my life—the impact of suicide on surviving family members, both the ones who seem to emerge whole and the ones who do not, while always maintaining a special focus on the children of suicide, who are often inordinately susceptible to suffering the same fate as their parents.

  This book is the result of that lifetime’s work.

  After listening to the foreword, Ali fully expected the rest of the book to live up to its promise. Chapter 1 proved to be a grave disappointment. It was a dry statistical study that went beyond boring. In danger of falling asleep, Ali hit the off button on the sound system long before she came to the Carefree highway exit. That was the problem with so-called “leading experts.” They maybe knew a lot about something, but they weren’t necessarily the right people to tell the story.

  When Ali located the address on Carefree’s North Tom Darlington Drive, it was in an older condo development called Sun Terrace. Nearby new construction consisted of multi-story single-family behemoths built in tile-roofed McMansion style and surrounded by puny, newly planted landscaping. Driving through Sun Terrace’s ungated entrance, Ali noticed that although the units themselves may have been modest in size, they were all shaded by thriving desert trees—lush mesquites and towering paloverdes—that had benefited from decades of TLC.

  It was high noon on a hot September day. The neighborhood seemed entirely deserted. Pulling into a parking spot designated VISITOR, Ali opened her car door to a blast-furnace of heat. No wonder all the residents were holed up inside. She located unit #1106, walked up the flagstone path, and rang the doorbell.

  The door swung open to reveal a tall
, rail-thin woman, maybe somewhere in her midseventies, with short white hair and deeply tanned skin. “Didn’t you see the sign?” she demanded, pointing to a lettered card next to the doorbell. “It says no solicitation.”

  “I’m not soliciting,” Ali replied. “My name is Ali Reynolds. I’m with a company called High Noon Enterprises, and I’m looking for Dr. Amelia Cannon.”

  The woman accepted Ali’s proffered business card but pocketed it after only a cursory glance. “What makes you think she’s here?”

  That was a question Ali had no intention of answering. “I’m here to speak to her about one of her former patients—Roger McGeary.”

  “What about him?” the woman asked.

  “He disappeared from the balcony of his cruise ship cabin and is presumed dead. The police report says ‘death by misadventure,’ ” Ali continued, “but the unstated assumption is suicide.”

  Ali watched as shock registered on the woman’s features. She sagged briefly against the doorframe for support. “Oh my,” she said. “I’m Dr. Cannon, and in that case, you’d best come inside.”

  Ali entered a living room space that was clearly in transition. Open and half-filled boxes were scattered everywhere. The walls were lined with shelves, some of which were still jammed with books and knickknacks while others were clearly in the process of being emptied.

  “Please excuse the mess,” Amelia explained, clearing a sofa of boxes so Ali could sit. “My mother came here to live with her brother and sister-in-law after she retired, and she and my Uncle Teddy lived together as roommates after my Aunt Carol died. She and Uncle Ted never had kids. When they both passed away, the place came to my mother, and now with Mom gone, it’s mine. Most of my own stuff is currently in storage while I sort through and get rid of theirs.”

  “Not an easy task,” Ali murmured.

  “No, it’s not. But tell me about Roger. I have to confess, hearing the news really rocked me.”

  Ali nodded. “I was listening to your book on the way down, so I know a little about what you did in your practice. I understand Roger was a patient of yours. I’m also aware of his history—that his father committed suicide and that, as a teenager, Roger made at least one attempt to follow suit.”

  Amelia listened but said nothing.

  “My husband and I run a cyber security company called High Noon Enterprises. One of our employees, Stuart Ramey, was a close friend of Roger’s back when they were both growing up in Phoenix. We’ve been contacted by Roger’s aunt, a woman named Julia Miller, who told us about what had happened. She’s of the opinion that Roger wouldn’t have committed suicide, and she asked Stuart if he would consider looking into the situation.”

  “Wait,” Amelia said. “You’re speaking about Roger’s boyhood chum Stu?”


  “I recognize the name,” Amelia said.

  Ali waited to see if the woman would add anything more. When she didn’t, Ali continued. “After high school they evidently lost track of one another but had reconnected some in recent years, ironically doing similar kinds of work. I think news of Roger’s death hit Stuart especially hard, which is why, when Ms. Miller asked him to help ascertain the circumstances surrounding the incident, Stuart immediately agreed. Since Stu is a valued employee, High Noon has taken the position that Stuart’s problem is our problem.”

  “Are you saying there’s some uncertainty about what happened?”

  Ali nodded. For the next several minutes she explained what they had learned so far about Roger’s death without, of course, revealing that High Noon had gained access to the actual police reports.

  “That’s just the general outline,” she said as she finished. “We have an operative in the UK who will board the Whispering Star tomorrow as part of our own independent investigation. For right now we’re having to rely on the information that was given to Ms. Miller.”

  “But she doesn’t believe Roger killed himself?”

  “No, as far as she knew, he was doing very well. When he was awarded the trip, he was excited about it. He’d done something remarkable, and to be given that cruise as a reward was a real feather in his cap.”

  “I knew about his upcoming cruise,” Amelia said. “He sent me a note about it. He seemed very pleased.”

  “Ms. Miller helped him prepare for the trip, making sure he had the right clothing to wear, including a tux—which, it turns out, wasn’t found in his cabin after he went missing.”

  “That’s what he was wearing when he died—a tuxedo?”

  Ali nodded. “When Ms. Miller came to see us, she gave Stuart a collection of Roger’s personal effects, including his computer. While going through his calendar files, Stuart learned that he’d been seeing you for some period of time.”

  Amelia nodded. “Two years at least,” she said, “maybe a little longer.”

  “But his appointments stopped months prior to his departure, and prior to the time you shut down your practice as well.”

  “That’s true,” Amelia Cannon murmured sadly. “He thought he was well enough to stop coming, and so did I. Evidently we were both wrong.”


  As Odin drove north on I-5, he listened in on his Bluetooth as Frigg continued to send him material gathered on High Noon and their people. Clearly Frigg remained concerned about the presence of that one investigator, Camille Lee, who was in the UK and due to board the Whispering Star.

  Based on the information Frigg had assembled so far, Odin was of the opinion that his AI was overreacting. He couldn’t imagine how a twenty-three-year-old computer science graduate, even a cum laude graduate with a double major, could pose a serious threat to him or to what he was doing. After all, if Camille was so inept that she had lost her luggage and thus attracted Frigg’s attention, she couldn’t be all that bright.

  Odin was more concerned with the idea that perhaps he and Frigg had overplayed their hand with Beth. Odin’s original plan had called for the final act in the drama to play out on a cliffside path the night before the wedding. From what she’d written overnight, he understood that she was clearly in crisis. If she called off the wedding, then all of Odin’s well-laid plans were out the window. But now there was another possible outcome: What if they had succeeded beyond Odin’s wildest dreams and Beth really was on the verge of taking her own life—right now, as in today? If that was the case, Odin sure as hell didn’t intend to miss the show.

  Halfway to Big Sur, when he was almost even with Bakersfield, Odin made up his mind. The lowly minivan didn’t contain a GPS, but with Frigg on hand and able to provide whatever guidance he needed, that was no great loss.

  “Change of plans,” he announced into his Bluetooth. “Please provide turn-by-turn directions from my current location on I-5 to Angelique’s Nail Salon in San Jose, where Beth and Marissa have appointments later this evening.”

  There was a surprisingly lengthy lag time before Frigg replied. “The purpose of turn-by-turn instructions is to guide a driver to an unfamiliar location.”

  “Yes,” Odin said impatiently. “That’s correct. I’ve never been there before, and that’s where I want to go.”

  “From your current location to Angelique’s Nail Salon on East Santa Clara Street in San Jose, California, is approximately two hundred thirty-seven miles and four hours and fifty minutes in projected traffic conditions. It is approximately one hundred three miles from your current destination in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park.”

  “I’ve changed my mind about my current destination,” Odin replied. “I’ll need you to send an e-mail to the park reservation center and adjust my projected arrival time. Let them know I’m coming in tomorrow. I don’t want them to cancel my whole reservation if I don’t show up tonight as planned.”

  “Deviating from the current destination as well as the current plan would be illogical and actuarially irresponsible,” Frigg pointed out.
  Owen Hansen did not like people. At all. He tolerated sharing those evening meals with his mother and her ever-changing cast of gay pals because it spared him the necessity of thinking about food—something else that didn’t particularly interest him. And he tolerated Magdalena’s weekly intrusions into his otherwise solitary space because they made his life more orderly and, as a consequence, more livable.

  As far as friends were concerned? He had none, male or female. Early on he had come to understand that he was entirely asexual, which his mother chose to read as his really being gay, but that was her problem, not his. He found people to be unpredictable and unreliable, and much preferred the simple dependability of machines. You touched a switch and they reacted in the way they were supposed to—that was what made Frigg such a satisfactory soul mate. But now, for the first time since he had created her, he felt a stab of disappointment.

  “I am not asking for your actuarial opinion,” Odin said abruptly. “I am asking for the information.”

  “Continue northbound on I-5 to Exit 403B, then exit to the right. At the stop sign turn left toward Gilroy. Your current projected arrival time with traffic is approximately 6:01 p.m.”

  Getting to the salon after six might make it dicey if the nail appointments had already ended. Odin realized that in that case, he’d need the address for the wine bar as well.

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