The call came while Blow was walking. He had dropped Mary off at the house, where she had parked her car. After he watched her car disappear down the street, he started toward his office door. As he trod up the walk from the parking pad he became aware of a weakness in his knees. It worsened as he mounted the steps, and he grabbed the wrought-iron railing to steady himself. Fumbling with his key ring at the lock he was alarmed to see how badly his hand trembled, so badly it extended past his wrist up the forearm.
He breathed deeply and let the air gush out of his lungs. He did this several times until he felt a dizziness and realized he was in danger of hyperventilating. With a panicking rush that came as a blackness surrounding him and that reduced his muscles to palsied rubber and bathed his upper body in sweat, he leaned heavily against the door and then, feeling collapse was imminent, managed to lower himself to a sprawling position on the top step. There he found comfort leaning against the vertical rail struts, both as something benignly solid and, oddly, despite the breezy afternoon chill, from the metal's bracing cool.
It wasn't until he'd forced himself back to his feet and was walking, away from the house, that he sensed his mind was beginning to restore him to a functional equilibrium. He began to understand he'd experienced a physical revulsion at the prospect of entering his own house. He'd not only persuaded Mary Lloyd the house might be bugged with hidden eavesdropping devices, he realized, he'd persuaded himself, and had no idea who if anyone might be listening or watching on the other end. He laughed when he recognized the irony. Laughed with a gusto of relief so unusual he knew any witnessing neighbors would think he was coming unglued. This notion made him laugh even harder. He was laughing when he heard his cellphone's annoying Beat me, Daddy ringtone.
The number did not ring a bell. Neither did the voice that addressed him as “Mr. Stone”. Her name was vaguely familiar.
“Cheryl? Cheryl who?”
“You know a close relative of mine. Please do not mention his name.” The voice was low and confident, although it sounded tense. Blow remembered that Salzwedel's wife's name was Cheryl.
“Can you tell me why you are being so careful? Is someone with you?”
“Yes, but I'm in no danger from him. We're being careful because we know about recognition databases—name and voice. We feel there's a good chance your phone is being monitored. We think it is less likely that ours is. Of course if someone's listening to your calls I suppose they're in the process right now of trying to trace ours. So please listen carefully. I'm going to hang up as soon as I finish passing his message to you.”
“OK, I'm with you.”
“The girl is missing. Ran away, her mother thinks. Hopes. Please go to their house as soon as you can. He will meet you there. Wait...” Blow heard faint voices. “OK, take your time and make sure no one is following you. Did you get all that?”
“I did. Yes.”
“Thank you. Goodbye.” The connection went dead.
Blow stood dumbfounded for a couple of seconds as a variety of urgent-seeming notions jostled for position in his head. He was on a sidewalk staring vacantly at an inviting, well-maintained three-story shuttered white house four blocks from home. He was never sure who lived in the house he was staring at, but he knew they had children evidenced by the occasional appearance of a tricycle on the front walk or a bicycle leaning next to the porch steps. At the moment nothing like this registered with him except a vague sense of friendliness the house and its nicely trimmed yard conveyed. What he wanted now more than anything else was to be in his own home, the same house that moments earlier had terrified him with its possibly compromised privacy.
Maybe he was coming unglued, he thought, breaking from his trance and reversing his steps at a jog that quickly accelerated into a sprint. On the way, he speed-dialed Homer Price, whose phone was busy.
“Homeboy, it's Blow,” he said into the voice mail recorder. He knew Homer would recognize his voice, and hoped his friend would understand why the odd play on his name with a word neither of them used on each other. “I need to borrow your ve-hickle. Emergency. I'll park my truck in back so nobody sees it from the street. Seriously, buddy. I'll be there before you can shake a stick.”
Homer was sitting on the loading dock behind Price Hardware when Blow drove up fifteen minutes later.