This is the first chapter of the prequel-in-progress to Bonnie Hearn Hill’s Kit Doyle suspense series (If Anything Should Happen, 2015; Goodbye Forever, 2016, I Wish You Missed Me, 2017).
I went to Big Bob’s memorial service. How could I not?
I’d learned of his death from someone named Crystal, who’d phoned me at the radio station, and in a trembling voice, provided the details. Stunned, I had managed to say, “Thank you,” and hung up, not an appropriate response, but the best I could do at that moment. Only later, when I was driving home, was I able to cry.
Brent Roberts, aka Big Bob Runyon, was dead, killed by a fall in his home. He had been my friend, my protector, that first year I worked in radio. More important, he’d been beside me in the underground garage that October night I’d been trying to forget ever since – the night that Natalie had died.
Although I’d witnessed his fights with his ex-wife, I wasn’t convinced that she was the reason he decided to start a new life after their divorce. There had to be more behind it, but he disappeared before I got a chance to press him. His method had been drastic, a fatal “accident” he’d warned me about in advance. I hadn’t seen him since.
At first he moved to Hawaii and then finally Sacramento, where I had also landed after leaving Pleasant View. Every time I suggested getting together, Big Bob had an excuse not to, and finally I stopped asking. He kept in touch only by email. I let that be enough, afraid that if I pushed, he would end all contact with me.
The service was held in one of those neighborhood Baptist churches off Martin Luther King Blvd., a church he’d told me that he had to work his way through Sacramento to find. Big Bob, a born-again-and-proud-of-it Christian, could never settle on a place of worship that completely chased away his demons, but I guessed that he’d come closer to demon-chasing than I had.
Yellow, brown and rust-colored leaves that looked cut from construction paper crunched beneath the rose-colored suede ballerina slippers he’d forced me to buy four years before, because he’d said, I was the one redhead who could wear pink. The rest of my attire was funereal black, purchased for this event. I knew that I would never wear this shapeless dress again.
Fall in the San Joaquin Valley smells of hope—damp and earthy, the way it smells in the summertime if you spray a hose onto a hot sidewalk. The scent tried to remind me of other times. I left it at the door.
Once inside, I slipped past the human bottleneck around the easel of photos at the entrance and made my way to a back pew on the left side.
A large woman with a long, low-cut black dress and matching jacket approached me. Her hair was a deep chestnut color and even thicker and curlier than mine.
“You’re one of only two people here I don’t know,” she said, “so you must be Kit Doyle.”
“How’d you guess?” I forced myself to smile.
“’Cause the other one’s a guy.” She nodded two pews ahead of me.
“You’re Crystal?” I wasn’t certain how to continue since Big Bob had never mentioned her to me.
“He left word that you should be notified.” In spite of her swollen eyes, she seemed in control of her emotions, caught in that refuge of exhaustion and calm that follows an outpouring of grief. “Said he taught you everything you know.”
That made me smile in earnest. Big Bob was never short on hubris. I nodded and said, “He was wonderful to me. I’m working in a talk radio format now.”
“Rehashing those old unsolved crimes. We listen to you and Farley all the time.” Then she put her hand over her lips and said, “Listened.”
I knew that he tuned in to our show. He often emailed his encouragement. The surprise was that he hadn’t been listening alone.
“I never thought Big Bob would give up radio for good,” I told her. “But from what he said, he really liked his graphics and advertising work.”
“Not that he needed the money.” She gave a little laugh and added, “It’s so weird to hear you call him that.”
A dark-haired man two pews ahead of us turned around with a look that managed to be both hesitant and expectant, as if he wanted to join our conversation and didn’t know how.
I realized that they were both waiting for me to respond. “Did everyone in your church call him Brent?” I asked.
“Of course,” Crystal said. “That was his name.”
Hadn’t he told her? Maybe I should just shut up, but I was already in too far. Besides, what difference did his identity change make now? “When I knew him, his name was Bob Runyon,” I said.
“That’s just what he called himself on the air back then.” She studied her acrylic nails and looked up at me. “He was born Brent Roberts, and he died Brent Roberts.”
Big Bob used to say that I never backed down when I thought I was right, but his memorial was no place to prove the point. A nice, neutral reply was what I needed.
That seemed to cheer her a bit. “Surprised you didn’t know,” she said, “considering how close you claim you were.”
My cheeks felt so hot that I was sure she could tell she’d gotten to me. I didn’t do well hiding my emotions under the best of circumstances, but I had to try.
“We were close.”
“Excuse me.” The man who’d been observing us leaned over the back of his pew. “I couldn’t help overhearing your conversation about Big Bob Runyon.”
“Brent Roberts,” Crystal said through tight lips.
He looked at her and then at me. If I had to guess, I’d say that he’d prefer to remain silent if he had a choice. Apparently, he didn’t.
“I’m Richard McCarthy,” he told her.
“Richard, the vet,” Crystal said, then hurried away from me toward his pew. “You and Brent went to high school together, right?”
“Yes. We met in kindergarten, actually.” He turned back around again and directed the rest of the statement to me. “His name was Bob Runyon then. We called him Bobby.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Crystal sputtered.
The sparse group of mourners drifted into the church. Women, mostly, they wore dark colors and hair-sprayed styles that probably hadn’t changed much over the years they’d occupied these pews. I watched them settle into their places with the ease that comes from habit, and hoped Big Bob had found comfort among these people.
Crystal thumped off, her dress swinging behind her. Richard McCarthy slipped out of his pew and stopped beside me.
“Do you mind?” he asked.
I moved over to make room for him. The pianist in front was already hammering out a hymn, and the minister had appeared out of nowhere in front of us. Richard McCarthy gave me a sort-of smile, and I settled back in the pew wondering how many secrets Big Bob had hidden in addition to the one we shared.
The memorial turned into an amateur talent show, with just about everyone but the two of us going to the front to share tearful memories of “Brent.” The emotional display didn’t feel right to me, but maybe nothing would have felt right just then.
After Crystal’s second trip to the pulpit, Richard nudged me and pointed down at the booklet in his hand. Brent Elliot Roberts. Born March 18. I met his eyes. Big Bob was born right before Thanksgiving.
When the service was finally over, Richard and I walked out together.
“So do you think Bobby changed his identity legally?” he asked, keeping his voice low. “The girlfriend is adamant that he was really Brent Roberts.”
“If she is the girlfriend.”
“What do you mean?” he asked in a calm voice that failed to hide his wariness. He hadn’t made up his mind about me, any more than I’d made up my mind about him.
“Were you and Big Bob in touch?” I asked.
He grinned and nodded. “Sure. If someone made a grammatical mistake on television, or worse, in the newspaper, I’d get an email about it the next day.”
“Me too,” I said. “But he never mentioned a girlfriend to me.”
“Me either.” We reached the foyer. He stopped and stared at me so intensely that I wanted to turn away. “The only woman he ever mentioned was you. Other than the ex, of course. I’m guessing she’s the reason Bobby did this whole identity switch.”
“That’s what he told me,” I said. “He lived in Hawaii until last year, you know.”
“He told me Canada.” Richard shook his head. “Bobby wasn’t the easiest person to understand.”
For the first time since Crystal’s call, the reality of what had happened began to sink in. “I didn’t understand him,” I managed to say. “But I did love him.”
“So did I.”
The intensity in his eyes had been replaced by an unreadable, distant expression. He moved away from me, as if ready to walk out the door, and I almost followed. Instead, I looked back at the easel of photos that had been blocked by the church members when I’d come in earlier. Now, I could see them clearly. High school photos similar to the ones Big Bob had shown me when we’d worked together. A studio portrait he’d used at the station back then. I touched Richard’s arm to keep him from moving past me, and said, “Look.”
“I gave the minister copies of his high school pictures,” he said.
The other photos showed Big Bob hugging kids, standing next to his pastor and sitting on a sofa, Crystal beside him, a Christmas tree in the background. Something about him was wrong.
“Is this the way you remember him?” I asked.
Richard followed me closer to the easel. “He was always a big guy.”
“I’m not talking about his size.”
“No. Of course not.” We stood side by side before the easel now. The man in the photo could be a distant relative perhaps, but there was something wrong, something about the nose, the cheeks, the chin. I couldn’t deny the similarities, but I couldn’t deny the differences either.
“That’s not Big Bob, is it?” I asked.
And Richard said, “God, no, it’s not.”
Goodbye Forever, Bonnie Hearn Hill’s thirteenth novel, will be published by Severn House in summer of 2016.