It was Saturday morning, November 3, and the fi rst thing I noticed when I entered my office was that my telephone message light was blinking. Since I’d left the building late the night before, it meant someone had called my extension during the night. Odd.
My name is Jack McGuane. I was thirty- four years old at the time. Melissa, my wife, was the same age. I assume you’ve heard my name, or seen my image on the news, although with everything going on in the world I can understand if you missed me the first time. Our story, in the big scheme of things, is a drop in the river.
I was a Travel Development Specialist for the Denver Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau, the city agency charged with bidding on and hosting conventions and encouraging tourism to Denver. Every city has one. I worked hard, often staying late and, if necessary, coming in on a Saturday. It’s important to me that I work hard, even in a bureaucratic environment where it’s not necessarily encouraged or rewarded. You see, I’m not the smartest guy in the world, or the best educated. My background doesn’t suit me for the job. But my ace in the hole is that I work harder than anyone around me, even when I don’t have to. I am the bane of an offi ce filled with bureaucrats, and I’m proud of it. It’s the only thing I’ve got.
Before doing anything, though, I punched the button to retrieve my voice mail.
“Jack, this is Julie Perala. At the agency . . .”
I stared at the speaker. Her voice was tight, cautious, not the confident and compassionate Julie Perala from the adoption agency Melissa and I had spent hours with while we went through the long process of adopting Angelina, our nine-month-old. My first thought was that we somehow owed them more money.
“Jack, I hate to call you at work on a Friday. I hope you get this and can call me back right away. I need to talk with you immediately—before Sunday, if possible.”
She left the agency number and her cell-phone number, and I wrote them down.
Then: “Jack, I’m so sorry.”
After a few beats of silence, as if she wanted to say more but wouldn’t or couldn’t, she hung up.
I sat back in my chair, then listened to the message again and checked the time stamp. It had arrived at 8:45 Friday eveining.
I tried the agency number first, not surprised that it went straight to voice mail. Then I called her cell.
“Julie, this is Jack McGuane.”
“You said to call immediately. You’ve got me scared here with your message. What’s going on?”
“You don’t know?”
“How would I know? Know what?”
There was anger and panic in her voice.
“Martin Dearborn hasn’t called you? He’s your attorney, isn’t he? Our lawyers were supposed to call him. Oh dear.”
My heart sped up, and the receiver became slick in my hand. “Julie, I don’t know anything. Dearborn never
called. Please, what is this about?”
“God, I hate to be the one to tell you.”
“Tell me what?”
A beat. “The biological father wants Angelina back.”
I made her repeat it in case I hadn’t heard correctly. She did.
“So what if he wants her back,” I said. “We adopted her. She’s our daughter now. Who cares what he wants?”
“You don’t understand—it’s complicated.”
I pictured Melissa and Angelina at home having a lazy Saturday morning. “Of course we’ll work this out,” I said. “This is all some kind of big misunderstanding. It’ll all be fine.” Despite my words, my mouth tasted like metal.
Said Julie, “The birth father never signed away parental custody, Jack. The mother did, but the father didn’t. It’s a terrible situation. Your lawyer should have explained all of this to you. I don’t want to be the one going over legalities because I’m not qualified. As I said, it’s complicated . . .”
“This cannot be happening,” I said.
“I’m so sorry.”
“It doesn’t make sense,” I said. “She’s been with us nine months. The birth mother selected us.”
“I know. I was there.”
“Tell me how to make this go away,” I said, sitting up in my chair, leaning over the desk. “Do we pay off the kid, or what?”
Julie was silent for a long time.
“Julie, are you there?”
“Meet me at your agency now.”
“You can’t or you won’t?”
“I can’t. I shouldn’t even be talking with you. I should never have called. The lawyers and my executives said not to make direct contact, but I felt I had to.”
“Why didn’t you call us at home?”
“I got cold feet,” she said. “You don’t know how much I wished I could erase that message I left for you.”
“I appreciate that,” I said, “but you can’t walk away. I need to understand what you’re saying. You’ve got to work with me to make this kid go away. You owe us that.”
I heard a series of staccato sounds and thought the connection was going bad. Then I realized she was crying.
Finally, she said, “There’s a restaurant near here called Sunrise Sunset. On South Wadsworth. I can meet you there in an hour.”
“I might be a little late. I’ve got to run home and get Melissa. She’ll want to hear this. And on such short notice, we’ll probably have Angelina with us.”
“I was hoping . . .” Her voice trailed off.
“Hoping what? That I wouldn’t bring them?”
“Yes. It makes it harder . . . I was hoping maybe you and I could meet alone.”
I slammed the phone down. Stunned, I wrote down the address of the restaurant.
I sensed Linda Van Gear’s arrival before she leaned into my office. She had a presence that preceded her. It could also be called very strong perfume, which she seemed to push ahead in front of her, like a surging trio of small, leashed dogs. Linda was my boss.
She was an imposing, no-nonsense woman, a force of nature. Melissa once referred to Linda as “a caricature of a broad.” Linda was brash, made-up, coiffed with a swept-back helmet of stiff hair like the overlapping armored plates of a prehistoric dinosaur. She looked like she wore suits with shoulder pads, but they were her shoulders. Her lips were red, red, red, and there was usually a lipstick line across the front of her teeth, which she moistened often with darts from a pointed tongue. Linda, like a lot of the people who worked international tourism marketing, had once had dreams of being an actress or at least some kind of indefinable celebrity, someone who judged amateurs on a reality singing show. Linda was not well liked by the women in our office or by many in the tourism industry, but I got along with her. I got a kick out of her because everything about her was out front in spades.
“Hello, darlin’,” she said, sticking her head in the doorway, “I see you found the leads.”
I hadn’t even noticed them, but they were there: a bulging manila envelope filled with business cards that smelled of her perfume, cigarette smoke, and spilled wine.
“They’re right here.”
“Couple of hot ones in there,” she said with mock enthusiasm. “They’ll singe your fingers when you touch them. Let’s meet on them in a half an hour.” She squinted, looking me over, asked, “Are you okay?”
“No I’m not.”
I didn’t really want to get into details, but felt I needed to explain the situation to her in order to postpone the meeting.
She listened with glistening eyes. She loved this kind of thing, I realized. She loved drama, and I was providing it.
“Some boy wants custody of your baby?” she asked.
“Yes, but I’m going to fi ght it.”
“The baby obsession skipped this broad,” she said. “I guess I never really understood it.” She shook her head. She had no children and had made it clear she never wanted any.
I nodded like I understood. Fragile ground, here.
She said, “Look, you know I’m leaving for Taiwan with the governor Monday. We’ve got to get together before then. Hell, I dragged my jet-lagged ass out of bed just to meet you here this morning. We need to meet.”
“We will,” I said. “Let me call you as soon as I talk to Julie Perala. That’s all I ask.”
“That’s a lot,” she said, clearly angry.
“I’ll call,” I said. “I’ll even come meet you at your house if you want.”
“Plan on it,” she said, turning on her heel and clicking down the hallway, her shoes sounding like manic sticks on the rim of a drum in the empty hallway.
Melissa was on the floor with Angelina when I came in the door. Before I could speak, Melissa said, “What’s wrong?”
“Julie Perala called. She says there’s a problem with the adoption.”
Melissa went white, and she looked from me to Angelina and back.
“She said the father wants her back.”
“Back?” Melissa said, her voice rising in volume, “Back? He’s never even seen her!”
I met Melissa when we were both students at Montana State University thirteen years before. She was a lean jade-eyed brunette—attractive, smart, athletic, earthy, selfconfident—with high cheekbones and a full, expressive mouth that tended to betray whatever she was thinking. She sparkled. I was drawn to her immediately in a crazy, almost chemical way. I could sense when she entered a crowded room even before I could see her. She was taken at the time, though, involved in a long-term relationship with the star running back. They were a remarkably handsome couple, and I despised him for no reason other than she was his. Still, I pined for her. The thought of her kept me awake at night. When their breakup became news, I told my friend Cody, “I’m going to marry her.” He said, “In your dreams,” and I said, “Yes, in my dreams.” He said, “You’ve got it bad,” and urged me to forget about her and go out and get drunk and get laid. Instead, I asked her out and became Mr. Rebound. She thought I was solid and amusing. I found, to my delight, that I could make her laugh. All I ever wanted to do, all I still want to do all these years later, is make her happy. After we’d been married three years, she said she wanted children. That was the next step, the next easy, logical step. Or so we thought.
The look on her face now crushed me and angered me and made me want to pound someone.
I walked over and picked up Angelina, who squealed. Until this little girl entered our lives, I didn’t know how much I could care. She was beautiful—dark-haired, cherubic. Her eyes were big and wide open—as if she were always in a state of delighted surprise. Hair that stuck straight up in spots when she woke up from a nap. Four pearly teeth, two top, two bottom. She had a wonderful laugh that started deep in her belly, then took over her entire body. Her laugh was infectious, and we’d start laughing, too, which made her laugh even harder, until she was limp. She laughed so hard we actually asked our pediatrician if there was a problem, and he just shook his head at us. Recently, she’d learned to say “Da” and “Ma.” The way she looked at me, like I was the greatest and strongest creature on the planet, made me want to save and protect her from anything and anybody. She was my little girl, and like Melissa, she made me think differently about my place on earth. In her eyes, I was a god who as yet could do no wrong. I was a giant—her giant. I wanted to never disappoint her. And as the bearer of this news, I felt I had.
I thought I’d misunderstood the address or name of the meeting place as we entered because I couldn’t locate Julie Perala at any of the tables or booths. I was lifting the cell to call her when I saw her wave from a private room in the back used for meetings and parties. I pocketed the phone.
Julie Perala was broad-faced and broad-hipped, with soft eyes and a comforting professional smile. There was something both compassionate and pragmatic about her, and we had liked her instantly when we met with her so many months before for our orientation. She seemed especially sensitive to our situation without being cloying, and was by far more knowledgeable about “placements” than anyone else we had met at other agencies. Nothing made her happier to be alive, she told us, than a placement where all three parties were perfectly served—the birth mother, the adoptive parents, and the child. She was to be trusted, and we trusted her. I also noticed, at times when she let her guard down, a ribald sense of humor. I had the feeling she’d be a hoot with a few drinks in her.
“Coffee?” she asked. “I’ve already had breakfast.”
“No thanks,” I said, pausing.
Melissa held Angelina tight to her and glared at Julie Perala with eyes I hoped would never be aimed at me.
“I know the manager,” she said, answering a question I was about to ask, “and knew I could get this room in the back. Please close the door.”
I did, and sat down as she was pouring coffee from a thermos carafe.
“I’m taking a real chance meeting with you,” she said, not meeting my eyes, concentrating on pouring. “The agency would kill me if they knew. We’ve all been advised to communicate only through the lawyers now.”
“But,” I said, prompting her.
“But I like you and Melissa very much. You’re good, normal people. I know you love Angelina. I felt I owed you a frank discussion.”
“I appreciate that.”
Melissa continued to glare.
Julie said, “If this comes back to bite me, well, I’ll be very disappointed. But I hoped we could talk without lawyers around, at least this once.”
“Go ahead,” I said.
It took her a moment to form her words. “I can’t tell you how bad I feel about this situation,” she said. “This should never happen to a nice couple like you.”
“We shouldn’t have kept it a secret from you that Judge John Moreland contacted us three months ago,” she said. “Our hope was we could settle it internally, and we offered to do exactly that. Our hope was you would never be troubled about it at all, that you wouldn’t even know.”
“Who is Judge Moreland?” I asked. “The biological father?”
“No, no. The biological father is his son, Garrett. Garrett is a senior at Cherry Creek High School. He’s eighteen years old.”
“Unbelievable,” I said.
She shrugged and showed her palms to me. “I agree. But if we’d been able to resolve it internally, we wouldn’t be here now. There wouldn’t be a problem at all.”
I said, “Ninety- nine percent. Remember when you used that figure when I asked about the birth father signing away his parental rights?”
Her face clouded. “I remember. And it’s true. It really is. I’ve been involved in nearly a thousand placements in my life, and this is the first time this has ever happened. We just didn’t think it could.”
“Didn’t you say you tried to find the birth father?”
Melissa asked bitterly. “Didn’t you say he’d agreed to sign the papers?”
“We tracked him down in the Netherlands, where he was on vacation with his mother. He was staying with his mother’s relatives, I guess. I didn’t talk with him, but a coworker did. She explained the situation to him, and she said he was surprised. He agreed to sign away custody and he gave us a fax number where he could be reached. We sent the papers over.”
“But he never signed them,” I said.
“We dropped the ball,” she said. “The woman who’d made contact left the agency. If any of us had had any inkling at all that he would refuse to sign, we would have kept you abreast of the situation. But as far as we knew, it was his wish not to be a parent. We can’t coerce him, you know. We can’t pressure. It has to be his decision.”
My anger was building to the point that I had to look away from her.
“Legally, we covered our bases,” she said sympathetically, almost apologetically to us. “We placed public notices for him and did everything we’re required to do. Not having the signed papers isn’t that unusual, because the family court judge always—and I mean always—awards full custody to the adoptive parents in a case like this. After all, we can’t let a nonresponsive birth father hold up a placement, can we?”
“Did you contact Garrett’s father?” I asked. “Is that how he got involved?”
“We normally don’t contact the parents of the birth father. That’s considered coercive.”
“But you knew about him? You knew about John Moreland?”
Excerpted From Three Weeks To Say Goodbye by C.J. Box.
Copyright © 2008 by C.J. Box.
Published in January 2009 St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.