The Third Brother

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The Third Brother Page 11

by Andrew Welsh-Huggins

“As are the prejudices, it sounds like. And both are dangerous.”

  “I’m starting to see that, believe me.”

  We raised our glasses and toasted moody princes. After a couple more minutes of conversation I excused myself to use the restroom. I was walking back out of the park’s dark-brick recreation center when I looked up and to my surprise saw Helene Paulus strolling toward me. She stopped, uncertain.

  “Small world,” I offered.

  “I guess so.” Her colorful outfit—a long, red floral summer dress with a blue jeans vest—didn’t match her cold expression.

  “I live around the corner. I’m here with some friends.”

  “How nice. I’d tell you where I live, but I’m assuming you already know.”

  “Why would I know that?”

  “Isn’t that what private eyes do? Snoop?”

  “You’re thinking of Cold War spies. Mostly I sit around and drink rye whiskey and let the afternoon sun cut shadowed patterns on my desk through the blinds. Speaking of rye, you’re welcome to join us.” I gestured back toward Roy and Lucy. “My friend brought wine. He’s an Episcopal priest, but don’t hold that against him. The wine’s actually drinkable. A nice Lake Erie Riesling.”

  She kept at it. “You snooped on Barbara.”

  “I thought we went over this already.”

  “Given the unusual coincidence of me seeing you here, this week of all weeks, I thought it worth mentioning.”

  “‘Unusual coincidence’ is redundant. It’s like saying an astonishing surprise. More to the point, lots of like-minded people in Columbus come to Shakespeare in the Park.”


  “Books and art appreciation, remember?”

  “I’ve been trying to forget. Do you enjoy doing that, by the way?”

  “Doing what?”

  “Needling people. I think I know what a coincidence is.”

  “As a matter of fact, I don’t enjoy it. It’s one of my worst habits, right after politely asking for information that could help rescue a lost kid.”


  “Forget it. I’m sorry if my methods offended your sensibilities.” I paused, trying to figure out a way to salvage the conversation. “You heard about the fire, I presume?”

  She nodded.

  “If I may just say, one more reason it would be helpful to speak to the counselor.”

  “Just the opposite, in my opinion. She’s even more upset now.”

  I was about to ask her about Faith Monroe and Abdi when a young man walked up.

  “How’s it going?” he said. “I’m Gabe.” He stuck out his hand. I shook it, taking measure of a firm, friendly grip. What was it with guys and their handshakes anymore?

  “My son,” Helene said, frowning.

  “Nice to meet you. Are you looking forward to the play?”

  He laughed. “Sort of.”

  “Sort of? It’s Hamlet.”

  “It’s my fifth time seeing it. My girlfriend plays Ophelia. But it’s still good,” he added quickly. “And she’s really good.”

  We chatted for a couple minutes while his mother stood silently beside us. He was a sophomore at Ohio State, majoring in history. His girlfriend went to Otterbein. He was a good-looking kid, black hair flopping over his eyes that he pushed back now and then with an easy brush of his fingers.

  “If you’ll excuse us,” Helene interrupted. “We packed a picnic, and we haven’t eaten yet.”

  “Drop by for some wine if you want.”

  “Sounds good,” Gabe said, his expression not exactly mirroring his mother’s.

  I turned to let them pass. Gabe walked ahead of Helene, who hesitated a moment.

  “It just doesn’t add up,” she said.

  “What doesn’t?”

  “Abdi. Attacking a church. It’s not the student we knew.”


  “Those of us at school.”

  “Including Barbara Mendoza?”

  Her face darkened and she turned away, following her son without responding.

  “She’s cute,” Lucy said when I returned to my chair. “Someone you know? Or were you just exerting your usual animal magnetism?”

  “My poles reversed recently, so my magnetism’s been on the fritz. She’s the principal at Abdi Mohamed’s school. I’m not in her particular good graces at the moment.”

  “Really? From the way she was looking at you I wouldn’t have guessed.”

  “Sarcasm has never suited you.”

  “I’m serious. Could you really not tell?”

  “Since I was trying to avoid the little daggers coming out of her eyes, I guess not.”

  “Your loss, then. Also, ‘particular good graces’ is redundant, just so you know.”

  “Thanks for the tip.”

  Roy poured more wine and Lucy produced a pecan pie. As I took a bite and washed it down with a swallow of Riesling, I thought about my encounter with Helene and her son. What struck me, I realized, was not her continued anger at my methods, including contacting Barbara Mendoza. It was how bewildered she remained by the accusations against Abdi, even after the fire. Finally, something—after books and art appreciation—we had in common?


  I WAS STILL THINKING ABOUT ABDI WHEN I woke up the next morning and headed out for a jog along the bike path running south of downtown to the Scioto Audubon metro park. It’s not the student we knew. But what did that mean anymore, such surprise at unexpected wrongdoing? We’d grown accustomed to disparities in people’s lives as tragedies flashed across our screens with depressing regularity. The husband who guns down his wife and kids before killing himself. He always said hi. A student opening fire in a high school cafeteria. He was quiet, never bothered anyone. The serial arsonist. I just talked March Madness with him the other day. Was it possible to know anyone anymore in an age of mass violence, when calamity was a trigger pull of a legally owned weapon away? Of course, it always turned out that trouble stalked most good guys who did bad things. A little digging turned up what casual encounters missed. A pleasant façade can only take you so far when the devil has you by the short hairs. But was this true in Abdi’s case? Could everyone—his family, his friends, Helene Paulus, even Barbara Mendoza—have missed something so fundamental in his character? Failed to see that the amenable class clown and aspiring diplomat was headed down the same path as his black sheep brother?

  On my way back up the trail I approached the Town Street Bridge and saw that the expanse was lined with food vendors. Yet another downtown festival was under way. Before circling around the Statehouse and heading back down to German Village I checked out the variety of food trucks lining the bridge. I decided I might have some deep-fried eats in my future, even if they were kale balls.

  I was out of the shower and eating breakfast when the phone rang. It wasn’t blocked, but I didn’t recognize the number. A telemarketer was all I needed right now. I answered anyway.

  “Is this Andy Hayes?” A woman’s voice.

  “That’s right.”

  “You’re a detective?”

  “Investigator. Was there something—”

  “You the guy got beat up helping that Arab lady in the parking lot?”

  “Beat up might be a little strong. And she’s Somali, not Arab. And if you’re calling to harass me about it, you might want to read the Constitution and then take a ticket—”

  “Calm down, soldier. I’m not calling to harass you. I need your help.”

  “With what?”

  “Finding those two.”

  “Which two?”

  “The two that beat you up.”

  I didn’t correct her this time. “I wouldn’t mind finding them myself. But first I need to know who they are.”

  “I’ll tell you who they are. It’s my brother and his boy. They’re missing. And I need them found.”

  HER NAME WAS PATTY Bowden. She’d pulled my number off the website Bonnie set up for me. “Columbus Investigative Servi
ces.” Not quite the ring of “Pinkertons,” but I was getting there. She told me she lived east of Columbus, not all that far from Zanesville.

  “So your brother’s missing?”

  “My brother and his boy. Mike Bowden’s my brother. His son Todd is my nephew.”

  I described the tattoo I’d seen on the skinny guy.

  “It’s them, all right. I figured as much when I saw it on the news.”

  “Why’s that?”

  “Kind of thing Mike would do. Can’t stay out of trouble. And his boy’s no better.”

  “They live near you?”

  “Closer to Newark.”

  “Any idea what they were doing in Columbus?”

  “Up to no good, I guess. They’d been going there a lot recently.”

  I thought back to Henry Fielding’s call while I sat at Betty’s Bar. I said, “The police think they were scoping winners out at the casino. Maybe looking to rob them.”

  “I don’t know about that. Not out of the realm of possibility, you know what I mean.”

  I glanced at my kitchen clock. “So what can I do for you, Mrs. Bowden?”

  “Mrs. Bowden was my mother. Call me Patty. I want to hire you.”

  “For what?”

  “To find them.”

  “Have you talked to the police?”

  “No, and I ain’t going to.”

  “Why not?”

  “I’ve got my reasons. Any chance you could come over here? Let me explain a little. I can pay, don’t worry.”

  “I’m a little, ah, busy at the moment.” I didn’t mention the urgency of the job at hand: finding Abdi Mohamed before further disaster struck. “When were you thinking?”

  “How about right now?”


  “You heard me.”

  “I’m not sure that’s going to work. Any chance you could come here?”

  “I don’t get around so good. Won’t take you that long to get over here. Like I said, I’ll pay.”

  I balled my left fist in frustration. It went against my nature to turn down a paying client. But I didn’t have time for this kind of random field trip, despite my curiosity at who those two guys might be. And why they were missing.

  “Tell you what. Give me the directions. I’ll see if I can make it this afternoon, depending on what’s going on.”

  “Is that a yes or a no?”

  “Yes,” I said, after a moment.

  I wrote down her address and told her I’d be in touch. I tried to decide if that were more a white lie or a straight-out prevarication. I didn’t have the opportunity to think much more about it. My phone rang again, with another unfamiliar number. My lucky day, I guess. I answered and found myself listening to the voice of the last person in the world I expected to hear from just then.

  “It’s Barbara Mendoza. Please. I need your help.”



  “Help with what?”

  “My . . . my daughter. She’s missing.”


  A whisper. “Someone has taken her.”

  “Taken? You need to call the police.”

  “No. I can’t.”

  “Why not?”

  “I just can’t. Please. I don’t know who else to go to.”

  “How long has she been gone?”

  “Since yesterday evening.”

  “And you know for sure she’s been kidnapped.”

  A long pause. “Yes.”

  “You really should—”

  “I can’t. Please.”

  I stared across the dining room at one of my framed James Thurber cartoons, one of the few pieces of art in the house. My mind ground out possible responses. None of them were good.

  “OK. I’ll be right over. We’ll figure it out when I get there.”

  “No. I don’t know—”

  “Don’t know what?”

  “If someone is watching me.”

  “Watching you?”

  “My house. I can only assume. The other day, when you came by . . . They knew about that.”


  “Whoever took Angela.”

  “Are you home now?”

  “I’m at the airport.”

  “The airport? Are you leaving town?”

  “I knew they had payphones here. It was the only place I could think of that did. I’m worried they may be tracking my calls somehow.”

  I tried to remember the last time I saw a payphone. Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity came to mind, but it may have been more recently than that.

  “OK. I can be there in twenty minutes.” So much for my field trip to eastern Ohio.

  “No. If they followed me, if they see you—”

  My mind raced through several more possibilities. I said, “What if I had someone else meet you? Pick you up at the curb outside.”


  “A friend.”

  “Is he . . . someone I can trust?”

  “It’s a she I’m thinking of. And yes.”

  I told her to call me back in ten minutes, and if I didn’t answer to try again in five. I hung up and punched in the number I had in mind. She answered on the third ring.

  “QB,” Theresa Sullivan said on the other line. “I got a good one for you. You know why Toledo doesn’t have a professional football team?”

  “Listen, I don’t have time—”

  “Yes or no?”

  “No. I give up.”

  “If it did, then Cleveland would want one, too.”

  “Very funny. Now listen—”

  “Thought you’d like that. You played for Cleveland, right?”

  “Very briefly, yes, between snowstorms. Now would you please pay attention?”

  I told her why I was calling. And what I had in mind.

  “You can’t ever just call to see how I’m doing?” she said when I finished.

  “If I did that, would you tell me?”

  “Probably not. Call me back when it’s set up.”

  I hung up and waited for Barbara Mendoza’s call.

  THERESA SULLIVAN WAS PROBABLY the closest thing I had to a friend who happened to be a girl and not the other way around, as they say. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions from the fact the only woman who fits this bill is an ex-prostitute whose heart is definitely not made of gold. When I first met her she was a foul-mouthed wraith who could count the number of weeks she’d been sober and free from a pimp’s controlling fists on less than one hand. These days she ran an outreach center for trafficking victims sponsored by Roy’s church. When you came right down to it, we didn’t have much in common other than a bunch of demons we kept in locked closets of the mind, difficulty committing long term to the opposite sex, and an abiding hatred of bullies. As with me and Roy, friendships have been forged on less, I suppose.

  If someone had seen me at Barbara Mendoza’s house, there was a chance they knew where I lived. So my place in German Village was out for the purposes of meeting her. The church was an option, except I didn’t want Roy pulled into anyone’s crosshairs. I ran through a list of other locations before settling on one that just might work.

  Fitzy’s twenty-four-hour diner sits on Schrock Road on the north side, just a hop, skip, and clandestine jump from the airport if you come up the Interstate 270 outer loop as I instructed Theresa to. I was sitting in a corner booth under a poster of Marilyn Monroe when Theresa and the counselor walked in right on time forty minutes later. I looked not at them but outside, where Theresa had parked her Honda Civic beside a Suzuki bike a man had ridden up on a few minutes earlier. He didn’t look like a kidnapper, but I kept my eye on him just in case. Theresa and the counselor slid in opposite me, sitting side by side.

  We waited while the waitress brought us waters and coffee and dropped off menus. I told her we might need a couple of minutes. When she was on the other side of the restaurant, I nodded at the counselor. She looked up at me, shell

  “I don’t know what to do,” she said.

  “We can help, I promise. But the first thing is, I have to repeat what I said before. If your daughter’s been kidnapped, we need to call the police. The FBI. I know people—”

  “No.” She glanced around the diner, panic on her face.

  “Why not?”

  “We can’t. They’ll . . . they’ll harm her.”

  “They said that?”

  She nodded, misery filling her eyes.

  “Barbara. I’m sorry. But if a crime’s been committed—”

  “You don’t understand. The harm I’m talking about. What Angela will face, if they find out.”

  “If who finds out?”

  “The police. The government.”

  “Find out what?”

  A long pause. “That she’s not really my daughter. And that she’s here illegally.”


  SHE STARTED TO CRY. THERESA YANKED napkins from the dispenser on the table and handed them to her. All my instincts screamed to shake the details out of the counselor. If the girl was in danger and there was something we could do to help, we needed to do it now, and fast. Instead, I let Barbara compose herself. After a minute the waitress returned. I ordered us all omelets and home fries and bacon and more coffee when she had the chance. She had the chance. They always do at Fitzy’s.

  Barbara apologized, blew her nose, and started speaking.

  “I’ve raised her like my own. But she . . . she’s my niece. And she isn’t documented. And—”

  We waited.

  “And I’ve lied about it on forms and papers.” She started to cry again.

  As gently as I could, I said, “Where is she from?”

  “Mexico,” she said, recovering a little. “Like me. But I came a long time ago, for college. I’m the oldest in the family. I’d been here more than ten years when my youngest sister came up. Angela was just a year old. Then my sister had to go back home and she left her with me. I promised I’d take care of her. It was only supposed to be for a little while. Maybe a few months. But months stretched into years. I thought eventually her mother would come back and we’d work things out. But then something bad happened, and I had to make a decision.”

  “Bad like what?”

  “My sister was killed six years ago in Tijuana. Shot on the street. No one was ever arrested. And Angela’s father—they never married—he disappeared. He’s in prison or perhaps dead too. So Angela has no one.”


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