People I trust have told me I should answer my phone more often. Since I almost hung up on the call that saved my friend’s life, they might be onto something.
In my defense, two kinds of calls had been showing up lately, the have-you-thought-about-replacing-your-windows? and the would you like to vote for our candidate? variety. When this one came in, I was sitting on my front porch with my feet on the railing and my hands behind my head, gazing at the ceiling where patches of paint as big as pages in a dictionary were flaking away.
It was boring and unproductive, but I was content, so I sat there for nearly a minute with the phone in my pocket chattering like an angry cicada until, eventually, it stopped. Score one for patience, I thought . . . then, seconds later, it rang again. Aggravated, I pulled it out, my thumb hovering over the red button to end the call. But the world doesn’t go away just because you ignore it—believe me, I’ve tried. I sighed, punched the green button, and said hello.
As it turned out, this call wasn’t about windows or voting.
A woman introduced herself in a deep, confident voice as Elizabeth Reynolds. I was silent, trying to place the name.
“Elizabeth Reynolds,” the woman repeated, as if to jog my memory.
“Sorry, Ms. Reynolds,” I said. “Can you—”
“I’m Karl Schovasa’s wife,” she interrupted, then corrected herself so quickly she tripped over the words. “Ex-wife.”
“How is Karl?”
“He’s missing,” she said. “And I thought you’d want to know.”
“Why is that?”
“Because he left a message telling me you would.”
Karl Schovasa had been a U.S. Marshall and a good one. Dogged. Smart. Successful. He maintained congenial relationships with colleagues above and below him on the ladder, had a high “fugitive warrants cleared” score on the cases he solved, and avoided screwing the pooch on the ones he didn’t. It would be nice if that were all there was to say and, if I could stop there, I would.
But, throughout a career spanning three decades, he’d not only been a top-flight federal agent, he’d also been an alcoholic, dedicating himself to the bottle with as much gusto as transporting prisoners and chasing crooks.
In terms of the job, that isn’t as bad as it sounds. Heavy, habitual drinking among law enforcement officers is so common it’s cliché. By itself, it isn’t enough to end a career—if you can do the work, a lot can be forgiven, and for many years Karl had done that work well. He was, as they say, a high-functioning alcoholic . . . and better than functioning most days.
Just as retirement came in sight, however, the penny dropped in spectacular fashion. An Irish mob from Philly, working off a leak from the inside, had set out to eliminate a witness preparing to testify against the mob. Karl’s team, assigned the witness protection detail, was annihilated . . . while he’d slept off a three-day binge in a nearby motel. By some miracle, the witness and his son escaped, but Karl was ruined, professionally and emotionally.
Before he could be fired or forced into retirement, he cashed in all the personal leave he’d accumulated over years of service and made it his mission to hunt down the killers. I’d been pulled into Schovasa’s orbit when the witness and his son, no longer believing in the “protection” part of “witness protection,” had enlisted me in helping them construct a new identity and getting the hell out of there.
Karl hadn’t appreciated my interference, but he and I had found a way to work together somewhat creakily, caught the bad guys, and reached a level of grudging, mutual respect—two crusty, middle-aged cops past their prime. We approached problems differently, but we’d both been around long enough to know that there was more than one way to skin the proverbial cat.
Where I’d faced and tackled many of my demons, though, I’d never been sure Schovasa had. The last I’d seen him, he was lying in a hospital bed, recovering from a gunshot wound, looking more than ever like a haggard King Pellinore of the Arthurian legends searching for his Questing Beast, unhappy in the hunt . . . but even more miserable when kept from it. What that Beast was, exactly, I’m not sure even Karl knew.
Post-recovery, he’d called to let me know the hospital food hadn’t killed him. That had been the only contact for a year. I had no idea he’d had a wife, a divorce, or the slightest interest in contacting me if he happened to go MIA.
I met Elizabeth at Karl’s place at the Audubon Fields apartment complex in Falls Church. It was one of those apartment towers that was painfully nondescript—a bland, ashen exterior where every unit had a balcony and a picture window, but not a jot of character.
Hung up by traffic, I arrived after Elizabeth. She was easy to spot, standing outside of the double-glass doors to the apartment building with her arms crossed and a hip slightly cocked. Hers was a wide face, with a rounded nose and arresting gray eyes. Her black hair pulled back into a no-nonsense bun, with a white streak running from her hairline to the crown like a bolt of lightning. A large leather handbag slung over one shoulder complemented her fashionable, rust-colored pantsuit and gold camisole top.
I introduced myself and we shook hands. “I didn’t know Karl had been married.”
“I sometimes wonder if he did.” The comment dropped like a dead fish on the table and she grimaced. “Sorry. It’s been five . . . challenging years and it’s been difficult to move on. Every time I think I’ve turned a corner, he lays this kind of thing on me.”
“What kind of thing?”
“Disappearing mysteriously. Asking me to contact strangers for help.”
“How did you know to reach out to me, specifically?”
“He left a note inside his apartment.”
I said nothing, my tongue tracing circles on the inside of my cheek. In my experience, divorcees with five rough years behind them don’t often allow each other easy access to their homes.
She read my confusion. “I’ve had a key since last year when he was shot. Prior to that, we hadn’t spoken much, but Karl simply didn’t have anyone else to help, so . . . I got him home and set him up.”
I frowned. “Is he still recovering? What made you look for a note?”
She shook her head. “A colleague from the Marshals called, asked me to check on him. Karl missed an important date, the anniversary of that terrible shooting. When he didn’t show, his friend reached out to me.”
“The anniversary isn’t something he’d avoid? Too painful, maybe?”
“Karl wouldn’t miss it if he had to crawl there. It was his form of penance.” She shifted the bag on her shoulder. “When I couldn’t reach him by phone, I let myself in.”
“And found the note?”
“In the recycling.” At my raised eyebrow, she said, “I was the wife of an investigator. If I’m going to bother checking his apartment, I’m going to cover all the bases.”
“May I see the note?”
She pulled a wrinkled page from her bag and handed it to me. I smoothed it out and peered at the crabbed writing that fit neatly on the lined paper. A date nearly three weeks past was scrawled at the top.
Liz, it read, if you’re in the apartment and reading this, I’ve been gone for a while. If you haven’t heard from me at all a few weeks from the date on this letter, call Marty Singer. He’ll know what to do. Thanks, K.
My phone number was jotted beneath my name with an arrow pointing to it. I flipped the paper over. Blank. I looked at Elizabeth, an unspoken question on my face.
“I don’t know where he went or why he would write that. You know he retired last year after that business and the weeks in the hospital. I have no idea where he’d go for weeks at a time. As far as I knew, he was sitting at home drinking and watching reruns of The Rockford Files.”
The words were raw, the hurt just below the surface like an old injury that hadn’t healed and still ached when touched. Unfortunately, Karl and Elizabeth’s story was one played on repeat, worthy of its own channel of reruns: cop has a tough life, cop hits the bottle, bottle destroys marriage.
I’d had my own struggles with booze. Friends and colleagues had helped me pull myself together before I did any lasting damage but, twenty years later, I still didn’t like to dwell on where I’d been or where I might’ve ended up. I was just thankful I’d found my way out. But not all cops—or cops’ wives—were so lucky.
“The best way to figure out what he expects from me is to look around, maybe go through his stuff,” I said. “Is that okay with you?”
“Looking after his things isn’t my business anymore. If he asked for your help, he must’ve known how you’d go about it.”
There wasn’t much to say to that, so I let her show me the way to the seventh floor where lackluster, ridged wallpaper pulled the eye down the corridor. The carpeting was grayish brown, with a striped pattern meant to hide dirt and stains. Intermittent wall sconces emitting a low-wattage glow broke up the monotony.
We walked in silence to the end of the hall where Elizabeth fumbled with the keys at the door, then let us inside. She took a seat on a couch to watch as I soaked the place in.
I’d expected a bachelor pad with a décor to match that of the hallway with an easy chair parked five feet from the TV. Or, with his struggles with alcohol fresh in my mind, a slob’s nest of cast-off furniture, ripped carpeting, and trash in every corner. But Schovasa had a better sense of design than I did, avoiding all the clichés, and was apparently unafraid of expressing a complicated personality through the objects in his apartment.
If his alcoholism influenced his home life, he covered it well. Sunlight streamed through spotless double-paned windows, revealing an apartment that was tidy and clean. No stray coffee mugs or lolling beer cans, no half-empty pizza boxes or flattened chip bags. I sniffed. The apartment was a little stale from lack of use, maybe, but the air still held the pleasant smells of polish and the spa-like scent of upscale cleaning products. I knew what my place would say about me if someone were to do a spot inspection.
The furniture had simple lines and a lack of unnecessary adornment—a professor’s chair upholstered in cream-colored linen with dark rivets, a Shaker coffee table of burled maple. I picked up a piece of ebony carved in the shape of a boa constricting a hapless boar then set it down next to its neighbor, a gleaming brass marine compass. Books on a nearby shelf ranged from potboilers to a recent volume on the history of psychedelic drugs.
In a far corner sat a tower of audio equipment and a shelf of Classical music CDs, populated by Russian composers I’d never heard of and light on the Romantics I had. I turned the power on and punched play; a riot of stormy orchestral notes blared forth and I snapped it off. In the sudden silence, road noise from the street in front of the complex took over, making Karl’s choice of music more understandable.
The walls were covered with art, from rustic and comforting—a winter scene in New England—to violent, modernist clashes of blues and gold. A man playing a trumpet in one, gouts of scarlet and black in another. Cityscapes and night scenes. The pieces were confusing, compelling. I peered closer to read the signature.
“They’re his,” Elizabeth said from the couch.
I glanced over a shoulder. “His who?”
“Karl’s,” she said. “Surprised? It was his artistic side that was always getting him in trouble. If he hadn’t been so damn sensitive, he could’ve handled things better.”
The word things covered a lot of ground. Their marriage. His career. His life.
“So, Elizabeth,” I said, straightening. “You said he didn’t tell you about any side work, but did he give you any hints about what he was doing? Something that would land him in trouble?”
“I don’t keep tabs on him.”
“No calls? Texts? Emails?”
“We don’t . . . do that. Not on a regular basis.” She looked down at the arm of the couch, toying with an errant thread. “Before he was shot, months could pass between calls. But since his time in the hospital, things have been . . . abnormal. We haven’t gotten back to our post-divorce footing again, so to speak.” She paused and the next words were made of ash. “Given time, I’m sure it wouldn’t be long until we were back to not speaking at all.”
“But you helped him after he was shot?”
“Yes. After his time in the hospital, he was weak and hadn’t been home in a month or more. I picked up some groceries and got him settled.”
Her voice hitched as she said the word settled. “Had he started drinking again?”
“Yes. I think so.”
“You left him to his own devices after that?”
“If he was healthy enough to walk to the liquor store, he could get by without me.”
“When was that? Sorry, I’m trying to build a timeline here.”
She sighed and crossed her legs. “I last saw him, face-to-face, I don’t know, three or four months ago. After that, he called once a week for a while, then it dropped down to every two or three. I last heard from him more than a month ago, a quick call to let me know he’d had his last follow-up for the gunshot.”
“Then nothing until this friend from the Marshals called you, asked you to check on him?”
I did a slow turn in place, unsure what to do next. Was he missing? In trouble? Did he want me to get in touch or just keep tabs on his place? Or his ex-wife? Should I go home and grab a burger and think on it?
“Look, if it helps,” Elizabeth said, “Karl never asked for a hand. It was another stupid thing he did. He’d get in over his head, wouldn’t call or wait for backup, and land himself in a mess. Leaving a note for me to contact you is not his normal MO. It would’ve cost him to write it. Which is why I imagine he didn’t leave any details, then eventually tossed it. He would’ve been . . . embarrassed.”
I rolled the note into a tube, tapped it in against my leg like a baton. “And he didn’t call you, hint at anything?”
She shook her head.
I mulled it over. The smart play right now would be to back out, make some calls, file a missing person’s if I had to—but what Elizabeth was saying about the man synced with what I remembered. And a note written in advance says a hell of a lot more than a midnight phone call or an email dashed off mid-crisis. Whatever Schovasa was involved with, he’d looked into the future, weighed the outcomes, and decided there was a chance he wouldn’t be able to deal with it. If a simple call to a buddy in the Marshals could’ve solved his problem—assuming he hadn’t burnt those bridges—he would’ve written that on the note to Elizabeth.
But he hadn’t done that. He’d told her to contact me.