“Yes, we had a good little chat. Her grandson finally had surgery on his cleft palate. He’s doing very well.”

“You can’t take off without warning. You need to tell people what you’re up to.”

“Well I didn’t really have time, you know.”

“Mom, I’ve been worried sick.”

“I don’t think I like your tone of voice, Charlie.”

“Don’t you understand what it does to someone when you disappear without saying anything?”

“I’ve never liked it when you’ve talked to me like that, and I don’t like it now.”

“Mother, please try to be sensible.”

There was a sharp click, then a dial tone.

3.

The next note came by mail, two days later. The postmark was local.

Charlie Darling,

You are my son and I would never say you are insensitive but I do think you could be a little more concerned about my plight. I am captive to people who have the potential within them to be very unkind, though they won’t say exactly what sort of unkindness they might unleash. Not that you bothered to ask but so far they have treated me pretty good except the first night when they didn’t let me pee for too long and there was a little accident. Otherwise they feed me on very healthy things, healthier than I was eating at home I’m ashamed to say and I get to watch some TV. So I am doing okay you don’t have to worry about my health. NOT THAT YOU BOTHERED TO ASK. Only they don’t have much sense of humor especially Mr. Vitek who says he means business and I believe him. Though I’m not very clear about just what his business is. But he says to stand by and wait for further communication. Also he says and I quote “If you inform the police all bets are off.” That is all for now Charlie.



All my love,
Your Mother Elsa

4.

Detective Pete Milero fiddled with the thin parenthesis of his mustache, pinching the hair between the nails of his thumb and forefinger as though scraping off dried snot. He stared at the photo of Elsa Sofer for a while — too long, in fact — until his eyes finally rolled upwards and spied Charlie from behind wildly bushy gray brows. “Stunning woman,” he said with the authority of an art critic.

“That picture is from several years ago. She’s changed some. She’s aged — not just her body but, you know, her brain.”

“I’ll tell you something about women and beauty. If you have the right eye, you look at an old woman, even a very old woman, and you see what she once was. You see it and then you feel it — sometimes you can almost taste it. Same with a young girl: if you know how to look, you just dial forward through puberty and there’s your coming attraction.” He stood and leaned over with his palms on the desk, as if to make sure that Charlie could smell his breath and appreciate the sheen of his waxy bald head. “Did your mother have any boyfriends?”

“Not in years,” Charlie said.

“How the hell would you know?”

Charlie thought a moment. “I’m pretty sure she didn’t have a boyfriend.”

“I’m gonna write a book: The Secret Lives of Widows. When an old person disappears, it’s not to go join the circus. It’s not to go crash in the basement of some abandoned building with eleven other crackheads. Only reason an old broad takes off is to follow the scent of love.”

“I’ve never thought of my mother as an old broad.”

“No shame in being old. And no shame in enjoying a little nookie, if you’re seventy, eighty, whatever. It’s a blessing.” He looked back down at the photo, his large, languid eyes moving in odd patterns under their half-closed lids.

Charlie’s impatience warped into exasperation. “What are you going to do to find her?”

“Let’s wait a while. See what her next move is.”

“Do you want to see the notes she wrote?”

Milero shook his head. “She’ll let you know when she’s ready to see you. Maybe when she decides if this Vitek guy is just a good lay or if he qualifies as family.”

“Detective, I don’t believe there is any Vitek guy. I think she’s off hiding somewhere.”

“Uh-huh. Well that’s not a police matter then, is it.”

5.

No other messages came for another four days. Then, on a foggy Saturday afternoon, a short note in the mail:



Okay Charlie,

Please please come to the phone again, it is very important, they say they mean business and you can bet they mean what they say. 3pm





Mom

As the cab crawled through downtown traffic, it occurred to Charlie that the note didn’t say what day the phone call would be coming. He arrived at the corner a few minutes after the hour, and the phone began ringing as he approached it. When he lifted it, he heard his mother’s voice — she was weeping, in the childish, complaining sort of way she did when things weren’t going her way. “Oh Charlie, I’m so glad you’re there. They say they want to talk turkey now, and I was afraid you wouldn’t be there.”

“Mother, are you all right?”

“Well thank you for asking Charlie, I’m in good health, but I’m worried. They are not being so gracious to me anymore. Things are going downhill.”

“What’s going on? Are you in some kind of pain?”

“I’m fine Charlie. For now. But they’re changing their tune. There’s a chill in the air, if you know what I mean.”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“I believe they want something.”

“What do they want, Mother?”

“I think they want ransom. I believe that’s what they’re working up to.”

“Let me talk to them.”

There was a short silence. “They don’t want to talk now.”

“What do they want?”

“I don’t know.” Another short silence. “Mr. Vitek says he wants a tooth.”

“I don’t understand. What sort of tooth?”

“He says he wants one of your teeth.”

“That’s ridiculous. I can’t give him a tooth.”

“He says it would be a gesture of good faith.”

“That’s crazy.”

“He wants your upper left bicuspid.”

“He can’t have it.” Charlie thought a moment. “How would he know it was my tooth?”

There was a longer silence. “He says he has your dental records. He says the tooth has a porcelain crown. He’ll know it when he sees it. He is a very intelligent man.”

“That’s ridiculous, Mother. You’re talking crazy stuff.”

“You better give him your tooth, Charlie. He means business.”

“Nobody’s getting my tooth.”

A pause. “He wants you to leave it in the phone booth, taped under the shelf. He says he’ll know it’s yours. He can read x-rays.”

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