He sat beside Manny at the Assaggi Bistro on Nine Mile Road in Ferndale. Across the table from them sat the couple whom Manny introduced as Cheryl and Alan Geller. The Gellers sat holding hands, not, it appeared, with affection, but more like Butch and Sundance steeling themselves for the leap off the cliff.
“Thank you for agreeing to meet with us,” Cheryl Geller said. Her face was pudgy and pink. She had short grey hair peeking out from a navy blue knit beret. Early seventies. Diamond studs in her ears and a single gold chain around her neck.
Her husband looked older, with a head of sparse white hair and a white Clark Gable mustache. Where his wife was round and hale, he was thin and ashen in a cable-knit sweater that swamped him. The bones of his face were sharp beneath deep lines of sorrow. Haunted eyes.
“Alan and Cheryl asked me to look into something for them,” Manny said, “and I’m not going to be able to do it. I’m already tied up with a handful of big projects.”
Manny was a private investigator who did most of his work for an attorney specializing in automobile accidents and Social Security denials. Preuss met Manny on his last major case as a police detective, and they took a liking to each other.
“The other thing is,” Manny said, “there's a Ferndale connection. I thought this might be something you’d be interested in working on.”
“How can I help?”
Cheryl gave her husband a nudge to start him talking.
Alan said, “I don’t know where to start. I—”
He stopped when the waiter brought Preuss his coffee.
The waiter left, and Geller stared at his hands clasped in front of him on the table. The effort to begin seemed to leave him exhausted and unable to continue.
When it became clear he wasn’t going to say any more, his wife put her arm around him and said, “The beginning is as good a place as any.”
“Always good to start there,” Preuss said.
“Several years ago,” Cheryl said, “Alan told me he fathered a child by another woman when he was a young man.”
“I have a son,” Geller put in.
“This happened a long time ago, before we were married,” Cheryl said. “We were never lucky enough to have a family, so it seemed like the fact that Alan had a child out there somewhere was a kind of blessing. But he’d lost touch with the boy. And now he wants to find him again.”
“‘Lost touch with’ is my wife’s gentle way of saying I never was part of his life,” Geller said. “It happened when I was eighteen. The girl was only fifteen. We had sex just one time. When she told me she was pregnant, I was stunned. She was adamant about keeping the baby. I told her I’d be as involved in the child’s life as possible, including helping out financially and being a father to the boy. She made it clear she didn’t want any part of me. I’m ashamed to say I was relieved. I was young, and, frankly, my main concern at the time was not getting tied down with a kid I didn’t want and a girl I didn’t love. I’m not proud of the way I behaved.”
“As soon as he told me about it, I encouraged him to find his son,” Cheryl said.
“And I knew in my heart that would be the right thing to do, but . . . well . . . long story short, I didn’t. I always thought there’d be time someday.”
“And now the time has come?” Preuss said.
“Four months ago, we got some terrible news,” Cheryl said. “My husband was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.”
Preuss shook his head. “Sorry to hear it.”
“The outlook isn’t good,” she said. “All of a sudden, time has grown very short.”
“I want to find my son,” Geller said. “I want to connect with him. I want to make amends for being absent from his life for so many years. I know I’ll never be able to make up for time lost. I’ll do the best I can in the time I have left.”
Manny placed a gentle hand on Preuss’s shoulder. “Here’s where you come in.”
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