A Novel of Historical Suspense
April 7, 2002
I was in my home office preparing an undergraduate elective on Alexander the Great when my wife poked her head through the partially opened door. She was holding two steaming mugs.
“Sorry to interrupt the war strategist,” Lorie said. “Ready for a break?”
“Sure thing. The coffee smells great,” I said with a smile. “I thought you were working on the family tree.”
“It’s driving me crazy,” Lorie said as she flopped on the couch. “There’s plenty of information on your father’s ancestors—all the way back to the 1700s when they came here from England—but there is no record of him until 1920. And, Aunt Jenny is listed as an only child in the 1910 Census.”
“But she’s younger than Dad.”
“I don’t understand it either. Could you ask your father about it when you visit him this afternoon?”
“I’ll try,” I said as I checked my watch. “Maybe today will be a good day.”
Since Dad is lost in the haze of Alzheimer’s disease, I never know how he will be on a given day. But the one thing he always seems to know is when to expect a visit from me. It’s uncanny.
I grabbed my bag of haircutting tools and drove the familiar five miles from our home in Sommerville, NY to Woodland Health Center. Nurse Porter, a recent addition to the staff, recognized me immediately and released the door to the dementia ward.
“Good afternoon, Dr. Swete,” she said. “It looks like Paul will be getting a haircut today. You can find him walking down corridor B whistling for his dog.” She smiled and shook her head.
When Dad saw me, the slight hesitation before his eyes lit up with recognition almost broke my heart.
“It’s about time you showed up, Stefan,” he said. “I could use some help here. That darn dog will come soon enough when I fill his dinner plate.”
For some reason, Dad recently developed the annoying habit of calling me by a variation of Steve, my given name. Rather than risk upsetting him, I decided to ignore it. At least he was in the right ballpark.
“Let’s look over here, Dad,” I said as I guided him to his room. “Are you ready for a trim?”
All thoughts of the dog instantly vanished. Dad obediently sat down and launched into a story about helping his father stack wood for the winter when he was seven years old. The amount of detail he included is amazing, and I knew Lorie would want to add this one to the Swete genealogy.
When there was a lull in his monologue, I said, “I may have mentioned Lorie’s research on the Swete family.” Since there was no response, I continued clipping around his right ear. “Well, she’s run into some kind of glitch. She can’t find any record of you until the 1920 Census.”
The muscles in my father’s face tightened. His mouth twisted in rage. He jumped to his feet and the chair went flying. I staggered backward, astonished he could still move so fast.
“What’s the matter with you?” he shouted. “Can’t you control your own wife? Did I raise a weakling?”
He ripped off the protective cloth and threw it in my face. Specks of white hair flew in all directions. If my instincts hadn’t kicked in, the framed photo he sent in my direction would have caused serious damage.
“Tell her to keep her nose in her own business! And I don’t want to see you again until you do! Now get out of here! Don’t waste any more of my time.”
The noise coming from Dad’s room must have carried down the hall. Within seconds, Nurse Porter arrived with a young orderly. While he quickly corralled my father, the nurse pushed me into the hall and waved away the curious residents gathering outside Dad’s room.
“Are you all right, Dr. Swete? This is so unlike Paul. Tell me what happened.”
My mind was racing. I couldn’t stop shaking.
“Were you giving him bad news?” She carefully eased the scissors out of my hand.
“I don’t think so. It all happened so fast.” I wiped the beads of sweat from my forehead and tried to breathe normally again. “I was trying to get some background information from Dad. The census reports for him in 1910 and 1920 are inconsistent, and he just . . .”
“Have you discovered something unusual about Paul’s background, something he may not want you to know?”
I stared at her in bewilderment. Exactly what was she insinuating? Instead of acknowledging her question, I said, “Why would Dad react like that?”
Nurse Porter’s back stiffened, and her eyes narrowed. Her words exploded in rapid-fire. “Dr. Swete, refusing to cooperate with me will not help Paul. You know very well all concerned parties must work in partnership to maintain a dementia patient’s emotional stability.” Her lips curled into a sneer. “I will code you out. It is best you leave immediately.”
She turned abruptly and walked briskly down the hall.
Anger washed over me. I was being dismissed like a naughty boy. My words came rushing out too loudly. “I need to make sure my father is alright. I insist on seeing him right now.”
Porter stopped and whirled around. “Absolutely not!” She arched an eyebrow and said, “Of course, if you prefer to prolong your father’s distress—”
She had me, and we both knew it.
Before the door locked behind me, I caught a glimpse of Porter at the main desk snatching up the phone.
When I reached the car, I sat there in a daze asking myself what just happened. I wanted to report Porter’s bullying tactics, but her behavior paled in comparison to Dad’s shocking reaction to a simple question. He should have been confused, not violent—unless there is something he doesn’t want us to know.
I slumped in my seat. Suddenly, Porter’s question took on new meaning. Has Dad been hiding something all these years?
When I joined Hawthorne College as Dean of the Graduate School, I didn’t realize how much I would miss the spirited classroom interactions with students. Although adding teaching duties for an undergraduate history course each semester created a heavier schedule and more stress, along with a few disparaging remarks from my less industrious colleagues, it kept me sane. Even the fifty-mile commute from Albany to Sommerville was not a problem; I used it as an opportunity to wind down and catch my breath. However, on the Monday afternoon following the disturbing episode with Dad, I was far from relaxed—more like in a panic.
As soon as I pulled out of the parking lot, a black Cadillac Escalade with heavily tinted windows appeared in my rearview mirror and remained there long after the regular suburban traffic thinned out. Even though I tried to shake him by taking side roads, he followed me like a bobcat stalking its prey. And when I crossed the bridge into the village, he was still behind me.
On the remote possibility he was taking a round-about route to Lake Placid, I took my time filling up at Jake’s Garage and grabbing a gallon of milk at the EZ-mart. But the Escalade pulled off to the side both times. He was watching me and wanted me to know it.
I decided to call the guy’s bluff by stopping to visit Clarence Conover, a good friend who also happens to be Sommerville’s Police Chief.
After listening patiently, Clarence said, “If I have this right, you spotted someone following you all the way from Albany.” His eyes crinkled and a smile played at the corners of his mouth. “If it’s an unhappy father threatening the mean professor who didn’t give his precious baby a decent grade—I may have to bring a Federal agent in on this one.”
I cringed. “Okay, maybe I’m overreacting a little,” I said. “But I could swear this guy is trying to shake me up.”
He walked over to the window and glanced outside. “There is no Escalade out there now. If it will ease your mind, I can stop over to the house later and take a look around.”
By that time, I was feeling extremely foolish. We shared a laugh, and I headed for home. All thoughts of the Escalade were gone by the time my Jeep grunted up our steep, meandering driveway. To be honest, I was more concerned about Lorie waiting supper for me.
Around midnight I surrendered to sleeplessness. Leaving Lorie purring away, I crept into the kitchen for cookies and milk.
There is something soothing about our Victorian home at night, like hot chocolate after a day on the ski slopes. I think of it as a faithful sentry overlooking Great Sacandaga Lake in one direction and the village of Sommerville in the other. Lorie and I settled in almost thirty years ago, raised three sons under its watchful eye, and now we were empty nesters except for Sporty, our highly spoiled Lhasa Apso.
I ended up in my home office crunching cookies and staring at the framed family photographs covering one wall. I ran my finger along the frame of my favorite: Dad with his arm casually draped around me. I was only a gap-toothed nine-year-old proudly holding up my first smallmouth bass, but I can still remember how important Dad made me feel, especially since I am the only boy in a family of girls. The hours we spent together tying flies will never be forgotten.
Dad’s image blurred, and I quickly wiped my eyes. At least now I knew the real reason for my insomnia. How could the loving father in the photo turn into yesterday’s angry mass of confusion? And, how could I possibly believe, even for one minute, Dad had a secret he was hiding?
I opened my Bible. After spending time in the Psalms, I was drawn to the window. It was one of those clear nights that can only be captured by the camera of your soul: the waning crescent moon reflecting off the lake with the wild beauty of the ancient Adirondacks rising majestically in the background. I have never wanted to live anywhere else.
A sudden shaft of light caught my attention. Since April is off-season and most of the summer camps on the lake are unoccupied, it’s odd to see any type of activity coming from the vacant cabin down the road. After a few seconds, the light disappeared. Out of curiosity, I kept squinting toward the cabin before admitting it must be my imagination.
Without warning, thoughts of today’s episode with the black Escalade returned. I took a deep breath. What was happening to me? I pushed aside the uneasiness and decided to give sleep another try.
The sudden brightness from the Escalade’s dome light quickly caught the older man’s attention. Surprisingly adept in spite of his expansive bulk, he dove for the back door of the cabin and gestured wildly at his partner.
“Hey Yakov,” he growled. “You mudak!” (moron)
When the much younger man took his time closing the car door, the jowls of the pudgy man flapped wildly as he continued to grouse. “I step in the kitchen for a cup of coffee and you pull this shit.”
Yakov shrugged. “Bol’shaya sdelka. (Big deal.) Told ya I need a beer. Coffee don’t cut it tonight, Boris.” He bent down to pick up the cooler he had retrieved from the Escalade and swaggered defiantly toward the cabin’s kitchen. “Besides, nobody’s gonna see nothing.”
“Yeah, you think so now,” Boris replied. “But if the boss finds you drinking on the job, you’re the one ain’t gonna see nothing.”
Boris grabbed the binoculars and, ignoring the mumbled retorts behind him, scanned the classy Victorian up the road. He checked his watch and said, “Maybe we’ll get us a break here—the lights are out at 1:15 a.m. The guy’s finally in bed.” He glanced at his partner and barked, “Now what’s eating you?”
“Supposed to shake this guy up, right?” Yakov took a swig of his beer. “Tailing ain’t nothing. When we gonna see some action? Hate being stuck in the sticks all night.” He took another swig.
“Quit your bellyaching. So we got the night shift. Decent pay, right? Just keep track of a guy and his wife.”
They were interrupted by the ringing of a cell phone.
“Gotta be the boss,” Boris said as he pushed the binoculars toward Yakov. “Take over.”
He rushed over to the table and unzipped the leather briefcase protecting his large cellular phone. “The boss will be ticked off if this call drops. Anybody who lives in the sticks without—” His voice mellowed abruptly as he said, “Hello, Boss.”
Yakov reluctantly set down his beer and kept his eyes on the darkened Victorian as he listened intently to his partner’s side of the conversation.
“No, nothing going on here, Boss. Nice and quiet. Upstairs room lit for a while, but its dark now—Yeah? What ya got?” He tilted his head and scowled. “Nobody said nothing about that—I can tell ya right now, two grand ain’t enough. Make it four and we’re in business.” Boris winked at Yakov who had put down the binoculars and was completely fixated on Boris’s side of the conversation. “Sure thing, Boss. Just give the go-ahead, and we’ll be right on it—whatever you say, Boss.”
With a smirk that passed for a grin, Boris replaced the phone. “Looks like we’re gonna get us some action after all. We’ll hit the Doc hard, and at two grand a piece.”
“Now you’re talking!”