Chapter 45 - Block Party

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In the five days since his son and mother disappeared, Frank’s mind and body had deteriorated quickly. The shock and strain were grinding him up as he spent every waking moment figuring out how to avoid Lester Cummings, and at the same time find Johnny and Stella.

On Friday, the same day as the robbery at Great American, Frank frantically made his rounds, following up with his mother’s friends for any signs of her whereabouts, while still making time for his desperate attempt to sell more homes and come up with money for Lester. Checking himself in the rearview mirror of his SUV as he sat in traffic, he noticed his eyes were bloodshot, and squirted in drops from a bottle of Visine he kept in the glove compartment.

Earlier in the week, the visit from Detective Rebecca Little on Monday, coupled with the sudden call from his mother, had sent Frank into an initial scramble. He cancelled all his sales appointments for the week and stayed on the move constantly, leaving his home and checking into different hotels each night so it would be difficult for Lester to find him. At the same time, he left multiple messages on Lester’s cell phone, trying to make it seem he wasn’t intentionally avoiding the big man.

His messages avowed no knowledge of his mother and son’s whereabouts, let alone the details of any robbery that might have occurred at Shady Palms. Lester returned his calls, cursing, yelling, and demanding a meeting. It was a high-stakes game of phone tag. Frank continued the dance, wanting to keep Lester engaged for a while, but not actually meet him in person. He knew instinctively that to cut off contact completely might seem like an admission of some kind of guilt and lead Lester to the conclusion that Frank was really behind the robberies.

Frank carried on a separate juggling act in his communications with Detective Little over the course of the week. Each day he would check in with the detective by cell phone, informing her politely there’d been no further contact with his mother and son except for the brief phone call on Monday mentioning that they were safe. At the same time, he didn’t give the detective all the details of his own private search for his mother and son. He secretly hoped he could find them before the police and everyone else, and somehow steer their pursuit in another direction.

Frank spent hours each day that week checking any lead from among his mother’s usual haunts and activities, including her women’s club, the church bake sale committee, the rotating card games held by friends, and the Italian cooking classes at the community center. He questioned every old friend or acquaintance he could find, and there were plenty all over the city. Nobody admitted any knowledge of Stella and Johnny’s whereabouts.

On Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, Frank called Millie several times each day, but got no response. Frank had always worried that Millie didn’t know how to operate her own answering machine, so he stopped by her house in front of Saint Jude’s Church each afternoon. No one answered the door, and this struck Frank as strange, because his mother always said that Millie was such a homebody.

Frank walked around the house, looking in the windows to see if he could make out any figure inside. During one visit, he thought he heard footsteps, but he couldn’t be sure.

Emotionally, Frank felt like he’d traveled through some kind of unimaginable tunnel, like the astronaut being sucked through a black hole in some science fiction film he had seen as a young boy on late-night TV. He passed through waves of panic, fear, and anger, until finally his mind emerged upon an altered landscape, a separate universe, with his core values completely rearranged.

The things that once preoccupied him—his ambition for wealth, his fear of business failure, his frustrations with the imperfections of his family—these things no longer mattered. He found himself immersed in a deeper struggle for his own survival and that of his family. In the throes of this crisis, he realized how much he loved them. It was too late for regret. It was too late to think how this might not have happened if he’d been a better son and father. He had to find them.

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