WRITER’S CLUB REVIEW – SON OF A GUN and FOUNDERS’ KEEPER, by Ed Markham

 

SON OF A GUN and FOUNDERS’ KEEPER, by Ed Markham

SON OF A GUN  FOUNDERS' KEEPER COVER

Based on its essential role in everything I write, buy, or watch, I expect the Internet knows me pretty well by now. Every once in a while I get a sign that that might actually be a good thing – most recently through Amazon, where a team of people behind a mysterious curtain tracks my browsing habits and online reviews to come up with books that I have a good chance of liking.

The latest recommendations are for the work of Ed Markham, author of SON OF A GUN and FOUNDERS’ KEEPER. Because the lineup I see most mornings when I log on is full of brand name authors, I hadn’t heard of him. But at some point, thanks to Amazon, I ordered his thriller, SON OF A GUN. I started it on a Sunday night with that “I’ll just read a few pages before I go to sleep.” mindset. An hour later I was a third of the way through, and completely spellbound.

SON OF A GUN is about a possibility most parents forcibly push out of their minds – the abductions of their kids. In this case they’re 13 and 14-year-old boys living in upper middle class neighborhoods with good schools and nicely tended yards – places where families are lulled into believing they’re completely safe. What the good moms and dads don’t know is that there’s a serial killer who’s obsessed with his need to hide his true nature – a need that’s manifested in his placement of white masks over the faces of the boys he murders. The masks bear no expression, conveying nothing but a blankness that shouldn’t scare you. Except that it does, especially when you realize the masks are a mental projection of the face the killer wears to blend into the regular world, right up to the point where he shoots the boys through their hearts.

This genuinely frightening narrative is underscored by the relationship between a father-son team of FBI investigators. The primary, David Yerxa, is assisted and guided by his semi-retired dad, Martin. David’s eager progress to unravel the psychologically twisted mystery that leads to the abductions and murders is supported and occasionally turbocharged by Martin’s wisdom and experience with a related case. Both characters are natural leaders – exactly the type of guys the parents of these children would wish for in investigators to the disappearances of their kids.

The ticking clock fight to catch the bad guy before he kills again becomes especially compelling in chapters from the perspective of Carson Affeldt, the latest boy to be abducted. Markham does a masterful job of getting into the head of a kid who skips school to smoke cigarettes and look “cool” to older kids, yet bursts into tears in the horrifying moments when he realizes, in the killer’s locked basement, that he’s probably going to die. Fortunately, Carson has wits and gumption, and realizes he might stand a chance when he notices something that’s not quite right about the layout of that basement room. Underlying that narrative is Markham’s keen understanding of the social politics of high school and the vulnerabilities that lead 14-year-old boys to pick and choose friends who will strengthen or propel their position on the ladder of popularity.

From the first pages to the last, I kept wondering what would happen next, and was genuinely surprised by the identity of the bad guy and thrilled with the way David and Martin Yerxa brought him into the light.

It was only then, when I got ready to post my Amazon review, that I realized Markham had another book, FOUNDERS’ KEEPER. This is an astoundingly original story that actually turns the Constitution into an instrument of terror for a serial killer. It’s also pretty scary – first because every one of the murders is vividly wrought with imagery that stayed in my mind; second because the possibility – in a world where people could actually elect a whacko to become the next president – of the possibility that the killer’s justification for the murders could happen in real-life.

In this book – which was written prior to SON OF A GUN – Martin Yerxa’s deep knowledge of American history and the Founding Fathers era becomes an essential compass in the efforts by Martin, David and another FBI agent to navigate their way toward an understanding the killer’s mindset. The trail is lined with clues based on where the murders take place, the ways in which the victims are killed, and the language of the Constitution. Along the way we meet one of the creepiest murderers I’ve seen in recent thrillers, a perfectly realized character who embodies what happens when victims of terrible childhoods grow up to wreak terror in their adult lives.

Once again I was mesmerized by the story and the characters, and sent into that wonderful place where reading becomes more important than just about anything else. I was also genuinely stunned by the ending, which was more surprising than anything I’ve read in recent months. I was also confounded by yet another mystery: why hasn’t a major publisher seized the opportunity to send both of these books right up to the tops of the bestseller lists? Based on more than 250 customer reviews, Amazon knows they’re absolute winners – and if Amazon knows this, publishers should likewise know that Ed Markham is a master storyteller who has everything it takes to become one of those brand-names who commands that first row of “recommendations” every time you log on.

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WRITER’S CLUB REVIEW – CAPITAL OFFENSE, by Kathleen Antrim

 

CAPITAL OFFENSE, by Kathleen Antrim

Capital Offense

Hey, you! Yes, you – in the dark blue suit, second row; the one who can’t stop looking down at your screen in hopes of finding a trailer for the next season of House of Cards. The one who binge-watched all of the previous seasons – twice – spellbound by the suspense and wondering all the while if you’d ever see one single honorable moment in the lives of Frank or Claire Underwood.

I’ve got bad and good news for you. The bad is that you probably won’t see any teaser trailers for the next season until at least January of 2017. The good is that Kathleen Antrim’s CAPITAL OFFENSE gives you another opportunity to be pulled into a story that chronicles the same kind of scheming, betrayals and outright charisma it probably takes to get the keys to the residential floors of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

That said, there are a few key differences. First, you’ll meet a lead character who becomes First Lady with every bit of the intelligence we’ve seen in Claire Underwood but with a moral center and likability that Claire certainly doesn’t have. Second, you’ll see many more murders. That’s what happens to the individuals (and in some cases their families) who threaten a carefully laid-out plan to get Missouri Senator Warner Hamilton Lane into the White House. The bad guys behind the plan are wealthy and extremely powerful political power brokers. Their assassin is a single woman who knows how to tinker with airplane engines and fashion bullets to be fired out of high caliber rifles that disappear on impact with the victim. The bodies pile up between chapters that artfully describe the deals and deceits that enable the plan for getting Lane into the White house to fall into place.

The story is a lot of fun for people who work in Washington – and probably for anyone involved in politics at any level, particularly if their experiences have led them to become more cynical about the “calling” to serve, or whatever. The audacity of the misdeeds will also be fodder to the millions of people who rage online about “conspiracies” that will put the next president into office (none of which have been proven and most of which are fed by the mentality that saying it makes it so). In fact, when the first edition of this book was published in 2005 tens of thousands of readers found it immensely entertaining but probably doubted any of it could actually happen.

No one will feel that way now, given what actually has happened. In fact, CAPITAL OFFENSE is an irresistible story for everyone who’s interested in both the substantive elements of political discourse in our country right now, and in the family dramas of the two most interesting candidates. And if you’re really into conspiracy theories you’ll love it even more.

What you’re likely to remember and appreciate in the long run though are the two protagonists, First Lady Carolyn Alden Lane and veteran journalist Jack Rudley. As a prosecutor driven by her need to protect innocent children and win the everlasting battle against illegal drugs, Carolyn enters the story in the place where she has the most power – the courtroom. She’s immediately appealing, and you know by a few pages on that she deserves so much better than the trap her husband and father in-law pull her into. Rudley is an investigative reporter accustomed to breaking big stories. He also has a very personal stake in Carolyn’s quest to expose the bad guys and right the scales of justice.

Through a strategic alliance they mount a thrilling effort to strike back at people who believe they simply can’t be taken down. Given the powerful forces they’re up against, you might doubt Carolyn and Jack can pull it off. What they actually achieve is even better and more surprising – the perfect wham-bam ending that shows how a combination of true investigative journalism and righteous political gamesmanship can ultimately bring honor back to the highest office in the nation.

# # #

WRITER’S CLUB REVIEW – THE FIXER, and other stories by Joseph Finder

 

THE FIXER, by Joseph Finder

THE FIXER

Joseph Finder’s bestselling novels frequently incorporate mysteries that must be unraveled by lead characters we can instantly empathize with. They’re typically smarter-than-average guys who are emotionally wired to play by the rules, but who are tempted to roll the dice and score something far more exciting than what their simple lives might otherwise deliver. Virtually always, they’re good guys caught in desperately bad situations that force them to commandeer their moral compasses to save their souls while simultaneously striving to save their skin.

These were the thoughts that ran through the subterranean part of my mind as I fell headlong into last summer’s Finder novel, THE FIXER. I went into it knowing I was apt to experience a fast-paced story about a single protagonist mortally endangered by conspiracies and secrets. I knew the high-stakes of those conspiracies would make the villains especially violent. I also knew, based on all of the Joseph Finder novels I’ve read, that the protagonist would be a likable but far-from-perfect everyman, and that his success in staying alive would ultimately save other lives, take down powerful people, and lead to personal redemption.

THE FIXER delivers all of this in a fast, thrilling read. Without giving away much of the plot I’ll tell you of the elements that play into the intrigue. There’s an enormous pile of cash that out-of-work journalist Rick Hoffman discovers behind a closet wall. There are violent bad guys who might once have been vigilantes with the Irish Republican Army who have Rick in their crosshairs. And there’s a compellingly plausible description of political corruption in Boston that’s becomes an irresistible subject for an expose that ultimately enables Rick to better understand certain mysteries in his past while laying a path toward a far brighter future.

I loved this book every bit as much as Paranoia, Company Man, Buried Secrets and High Crimes, which forced criminal defense attorney Claire Chapman to square off with military lawyers intent on putting her husband to death for a horrific crime (a book that was also made into a great movie at the end of the 1990s with Ashley Judd and James Caviezel). As someone who’s spent three decades behind a desk and weathered quite a few economic recessions, I appreciated Company Man and Paranoia (which also became a film starring Harrison Ford) for Finder’s ability to thrust characters who are living unremarkable lives into deadly, high-stakes conspiracies. They’re stories that capture the insecurities of white collar workers who occasionally feel as if they can’t trust the authority figures who have so much power over their lives. People who know what it’s like to clench their fists under a conference room table and wonder why certain people are inside their boss’ office with the door closed. While your own job may not turn office politics into life-or-death situations, you can probably recognize elements of your own experiences in these stories. Buried Secrets is a bit different because main character Nick Heller actually is a “private spy” who basically goes looking for trouble, yet once again Finder makes that trouble personal, and terrifying.

Taken together, all of Finder’s stories stand out in a crowded thriller field because they mix escapism with realism. They’re a perfect read after a long day at the office when you want to slip into a “what’s going to happen next?” kind of story with characters who take extraordinarily dangerous measures to stay alive and solve crimes while staying true to moral values that may or may not be in their best interests. Stories that will probably intensify your white collar insecurities en route to satisfying conclusions where the good guys win the day.

 

WRITER’S CLUB REVIEW – FOREIGN AND DOMESTIC and THREE MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT, by A.J. Tata

FOREIGN AND DOMESTIC and THREE MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT, by A.J. Tata

FOREIGN AND DOMESTIC UPDATED COVER   THREE MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT COVER

Thriller fans have all kinds of reasons to love hit shows like 24 and Homeland. There are the high stakes of the interpersonal and geopolitical conflicts that get all mixed up in the minds of Jack Bauer and Carrie Mathison. There’s the pacing and cliffhanger plotting (which is faster and scarier in 24 but more nuanced and perhaps more rewarding in Homeland). And there’s the realism. You don’t really believe Chloe can instantaneously send schematics where bad guys glow green to Jack’s PDA every time he enters a warehouse with his gun drawn. Yet the terrible things that happen in both shows aren’t any less terrible than the things that are happening in real life right now.

What makes both shows most compelling to me are the changing faces of the enemies. They hide behind the uniforms and credentials of military and government authority. They are concealed by the charisma of sociopathic schemers who prove to be deranged only after you’ve come to think of them as good guys. And more often than not, they’re U.S. citizens whose minds have become corrupted by an insane need for power or wealth or faulty psychological wiring.

That’s a good way to explain how I felt when Sgt. Nicholas Brody of Homeland emerged as a POW from the Iraq war and set in motion a precise plan to kill the Vice President. I was far more unsettled, however, by the homegrown bad guys in A.J. Tata’s bestselling FOREIGN AND DOMESTIC.

One is a reptilian murderer born and raised in the U.S. He could easily be compared to Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, except for a level of intelligence and bloodlust that makes him more lethal. Another is a lieutenant general and Pentagon power-player determined to make story’s protagonist, Jake Maheegan, a pawn in a scheme to make money and settle certain family conflicts. And then there are the private military contractors who are sleeping in a bed of snakes thanks to financial dealings with terrorists.

All of the villains are perfectly wrought, with motivations that range from emotional to financial to simply wanting to kill as many innocent people as possible. They’re scary because they’re so believable. Yet you also believe from the beginning that none are going to be a match for Maheegan, a Delta Force captain disgraced by a bad but completely understandable decision in the heat of an operation to capture a terrorist.

I won’t give away any more of the plot but will spotlight a few elements that drive the page-turning suspense. There are thuggish U.S. Army warrant officers acting on the general’s behest to permanently destroy Maheegan’s professional reputation. There are Afghan prisoners who become foot soldiers in acts of terror on U.S. soil. And there are many situations that have Maheegan fearlessly squaring off, Jack Reacher style, with an I don’t give a #$@&^ about your authority attitude toward the corrupt general, which makes Maheegan even more likable to hard-working guys and gals who have been forced to face up to the fact that life really isn’t always fair and just.

Amid all of this there are two elements to this story that will stay on my mind forever. The first is the characterization of Jake Maheegan. He’s of native-American ancestry. He’s beginning his own mission to reconcile terrors and ghosts of his own past when he returns to the coastal North Carolina town where most of the action takes place. He’s emotionally wired to live a good life protecting good people despite the horrible things that have been done to him in the past. He’s also a physical marvel who can swim miles a day in the ocean to recover from a war injury and, in one especially gripping scene, jump out of a plane flying several thousand in the air and land precisely on a boat loaded with terrorists.

The other element that stays with me is the way A.J. Tata made me think. He’s a retired brigadier general, combat infantryman and paratrooper who has deployed on combat missions in Kosovo, Afghanistan and other dangerous places, so it’s easy to see how life experiences prepared him to write thrilling action scenes. He also has advanced degrees and credentials from the Army School of Advanced Military Studies, Catholic University and Harvard University’s JFK School of Government, and served as the Chancellor for Washington, DC schools working alongside Michelle Rhee.

This second realm of life experience in public policy became especially interesting in the telling of this story. General Tata isn’t afraid to expose how military contractors could jeopardize the lives of innocent Americans to make a quick buck. He’s willing to challenge – perhaps for the sake of a good story but in a completely believable way – the conventional wisdom that ascendance to the highest ranks of the military is always driven by character and patriotism. And he’s deftly successful at deconstructing the notion that war can simply be viewed as good guys from the US verses bad guys from somewhere else.

True to its name, this book is about enemies foreign and domestic. While they’re equally scary, those who look like the college kid or high ranking military official who might live next door might encourage many readers to learn more about opportunists in our war on terror.

I had planned to end my current review of General Tata’s work after reading this book in a day and a half. Fortunately the version on my Kindle ended with a teaser to the sequel, THREE MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT. I kept going, and was immediately sucked in to a story that’s even more personal for Jake Maheegan.

The plot of THREE MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT incorporates everything readers will love about its prequel, albeit with higher stakes (eg: a nuclear threat that could murder millions) accelerating into a race-against-the-clock climax featuring a heroic and heartbreaking death. Yet it’s General Tata’s decision to drill down farther into Jake Maheegan’s psyche that yields the greatest reward. Through a narrative blending another smart soldier who makes a series of bad decisions, corrupt law enforcement officials and, not incidentally, a subplot of sexual blackmail, THREE MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT turns out enough surprises to keep you reading into the night, and forcing you to reconsider any assumption that the greatest threat to American’s safety comes from across the border or on the other side of the world.

# # #

FATAL OPTION – EXCERPT

PROLOGUE

 

FATAL OPTION cover

 

 

The blizzard winds hit the bedroom windows with brute-force, the wump sounds registering in the recesses of Stephen Porter’s mind as he hugged the extra pillow and yearned for a blackout sleep to take the sad night away. His arms and legs were heavy, his sinuses swollen from the emotions that had struck the moment he had climbed into bed. From downstairs he heard the faint chimes of the grandfather clock—a lonely sound resonating through the sparsely furnished rooms of his sprawling suburban house.

Wump

The windows shuddered again as he slipped into a deeper doze. He sensed a vague threat in the sound—a notion the glass might break as it persisted—

WumpWUMP

—louder now, nudging its way into the dream-space between wakefulness and sleep, still a part of the physical world of his bedroom and his house . . . but with a reverberation of the past.

No, he thought.

Not again—

Not tonight—

He tightened his hold on the pillow, as if it would slow the backsliding feeling; tried to move against the solid weight on his chest as the sound and the memories took him back to another kind of storm, with gusting winds and thunder and lightning shattering the heat of an August day. Back to the rapid-fire deluge of rain on the roof. And the sight of it overflowing the gutters and pooling in the streets. And the conversation at the front door, riddled with assurances that did not ring true.

“It’s 9 o’clock.”

“But I have to go—”

“It’s not safe—”

The voices had a tinny, ethereal tone, and gave way to images triggered by both certainties and imaginings of what must have been:

The Lexus, silver-gray in the steely downpour, backing up and driving away.

The rain obscuring visibility as it traveled from the neighborhood streets to the highway and then toward the mountain to the north.

The Lexus moving too quickly for the weather or the narrow road as it climbed, up and up toward the mountain’s highest perch.

The Bluetooth ringing, the calls ignored as the speedometer needle swept higher, and higher—

50

60

70

“STOP!”

He felt a jolt in his neck as his eyes flew open, the sound of his voice—either imagined or spoken—still echoing through his mind as he sat up—

And heard the ringing phone, a dislocated sound amid the nightmare images still flickering through his mind as he looked at the clock:

12:13

He rubbed his eyes as the room began a slow turn around him, and listened as the next ring was interrupted by the click of the answering machine kicking in with his own recorded voice:

You’ve reached the Porters. We’re not here right now—”

His temples throbbed as he reached for the receiver, and knocked it to the floor.

He groaned as he picked it up.

“Hello?”

He heard nothing in response. The connection had broken. He thought of his son, Kenneth, soundly asleep in his room down the hall, and his daughter, Sara, at her friend Madison’s house, just four blocks away.

Nothing to worry about.  He sucked in a deep breath, willing his mind to calm. Everybody’s okay.  

He gazed at the empty space beside him as the phone rang again.

There was a mild tremor in his hand as he answered.

“Hello.”

“Daddy . . .”

The line filled with static as the windows shuddered from another gust of wind.

“Sara?” He pressed the phone against his ear and spoke louder. “I can barely hear you.”

“Something happened—”

There were several seconds of silence before her voice came through again.

“—scared. I don’t know how—”

He heard a dial tone. His heartbeat quickened as he turned on the bedside lamp. His cell phone was on the dresser, plugged into the charger. He scrolled to Sara’s number, and went straight into her voice mail.

The landline rang again. He snatched it up.

“Sara, what’s wrong?”

He heard more static. “The Jeep won’t start—I’m stranded. Can you come pick me up?”  

Stranded? The word hit him wrong. He remembered that she had driven to Madison Reidy’s house; remembered cautioning her about the icy roads. But if she had had car trouble it would have taken no more than five minutes to walk back home.

“Is Madison with you?”

Sara sniffled. “No.”

“What do you mean, no?”

“I’m somewhere else. I really need to get out of here.”

“Where’s Madison? Where’s her mom?”

“I don’t know. I’m not with them.” She paused, and took a deep, audible breath, as if mustering her composure. “I’m really sorry daddy—”

And then she started crying—with hard sobs that made it sound as if she was struggling to catch her breath.

Stephen pressed the phone harder against his ear as he opened the bedside table drawer and scrambled for a pen.

“Sara, tell me where you are. What’s the address?”

“I’m . . . at a house, with a boy from school. It’s 4334 Rolling Road. Off 15 North. Up on the mountain. Can you please hurry?”

And then they were cut off again.

He sat on the edge of the bed and tried to process what he had just heard. Sara was not with her friend Madison. She had lied to him about where she was going. And now she was stranded, at a house on the mountain.

On Rolling Road

Images from the nightmare rushed back—with memories of that same narrow, two-lane roadway, hemmed in on both sides by towering trees, undoubtedly coated with snow and ice—             

“Hell,” he whispered, his heart racing as he reached for his jeans and pulled on a heavy corduroy shirt. On the table next to the bed was an empty glass, a reminder of the last shot of straight bourbon; one on top of way too many before. He remembered sitting alone and sipping it slowly, doing his best to blot out the sadness that had followed him up to his room.

It had been less than an hour since that last drink and he knew it was still coursing through his system as he went into the adjoining den where he kept his computer. He turned on the overhead light—a bright white flash that sharpened the pain at his temples—went to Google, and typed in the address.

A map came up. He recognized the arc of Route 70 and the bisecting line of Route 15, and then the turnoff to Rolling Road, a zigzagging thoroughfare that led up to the top of the mountain.

The address Sara had given him—4334—was marked by a green arrow on the screen. He stared at it for a long moment, wondering how tonight—of all nights—she had found her way there.

And then he got moving, returning to the bedroom, where he pulled a pair of woolen socks from the drawer and took a wintergreen Life Saver from the bedside table, the taste reminding him of the antacids that he had been downing almost every day. A wave of nausea made him gag as he moved out to the hall and down the curved stairway. Into the foyer with its green marble floor. Through the kitchen of granite and steel. Into the two-story family room, where the air had grown chilly in the deepening night.

He scribbled a note—GONE TO RESCUE YOUR SISTER IN THE SNOW—on the family message board on the extremely unlikely chance that Kenneth would wake up and come downstairs before they got back, then grabbed his barn coat from the mudroom and stepped into the garage.

Harsh overhead lights flickered on as he pushed the button for the automatic door. It rose a few feet and came to a squealing stop halfway up. He cursed and hit the button again. Like every other upgrade in the new house, the mechanized door had been installed by the builder. It had been on Stephen’s mental list of things that needed to be fixed for over a month but he still hadn’t found the time.

A gust of wind blew a spray of snow into the garage as the door finally rose all the way. He took the shovel from its hook on the wall and moaned, “Good God Sara, you’re gonna kill me,” and stepped out into the brutally cold air to clear a path from the driveway to the street.

He was panting and sweating when he finished, his vision vibrating as he reached for the handle of the driver’s side door.

You drank too much, he thought. Shouldn’t drive.

He swung the door open anyway, and dropped heavily into the seat of the Ford Explorer and turned on the ignition and backed slowly down the sloped driveway and tapped the brake, which sent the car into a sideways skid before stopping at an angle just before the sidewalk.

It’s a blizzard.

Nausea crept up the back of his throat.

Probably even worse, at the top of that mountain.

He sat for several seconds before another option came to mind, then reached into the back pocket of his jeans for his wallet, wincing at the dull twinge of pain that the shoveling had brought to his lower back. He turned on the Explorer’s overhead light and sifted through the unorganized jumble of credit and business cards until he found the worn membership certificate for AAA. The print was small, blurry in his vision, readable only when he squinted.

He tapped the number into his phone and cleared his throat as he looked out at the snowbound night. There were five other houses on the street, all equally grand and new, and all lived in, Stephen expected, by middle management executives who had migrated to the outermost suburbs in the quest for bigger houses, better schools, and safe distance from urban problems. After five months he still knew his neighbors solely by sight since most, like himself, left by 7 a.m. and returned after dark as a result of monstrous commutes to work.

He felt a twinge of loneliness as his gaze came back to his own house, and as he thought of the all the empty rooms inside.

The operator from AAA sounded harried when she finally answered and he had the feeling she was only half-listening as he told her about the disabled Jeep and gave her the address Sara had called from. There wasn’t a trace of give in her voice when she told him there was absolutely no chance of getting it towed any time soon.

His offer to pay a premium was answered with a weary sigh.

“I’m sorry, there’s nothing we can do. We have three tow truck operators in your area and all are backed up with calls because of the storm.”

Stephen cleared his throat, conscious of the tightness of his grip on the phone.

“Look, I’m really worried. My daughter’s only seventeen. She was very upset when she called me. She was crying—scared. I think she’s in trouble.”

“Then maybe you need to call the police.”

He shook his head. The idea of cops going to Sara’s rescue made him even more uneasy. He wanted to believe her crying was an overreaction, perhaps to the heavy snow and the lateness of the hour and the fear that she was going to be in trouble for lying to him.

“You have to help her,” he said.

The dispatcher hung up.

“Shit!” He punched his fist against the seat as a hard gust of wind hit the Explorer, blowing the snow sideways and nearly obscuring the sight of the house at the top of the long driveway. He narrowed his eyes, seeing a double image of the gauges on the dashboard, and swallowed back the sickly-sweet blend of wintergreen and the lingering taste of alcohol in his mouth; the sensations hitting him like a warning, urging him to heed the dispatcher’s advice.

He dialed 911 and nervously tapped his fingers against the wheel.

“911. What is your emergency?”

Stephen told her about Sara’s call.

And realized his voice was slurring.

The pause that followed worried him; made him wonder if she had figured out what kind of condition he was in. As the silence lengthened he heard the voices of other dispatchers in the background, an undertone of tension among them.

“Hello—you still there?”

“Sir you need to call the non-emergency line at 445—”

“This is an emergency! She’s stuck by the side of the road in a goddamn blizzard!”

There was another pause; the sound of typing on a keyboard.

“I’ll notify the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office, sir.” The woman’s voice was a monotone. “We’ll ask a deputy to respond.”

“You have to…please.”

The call ended.

He leaned forward and pressed his forehead against the wheel as he replayed the conversation. He considered the possibility of doing what he had been told and simply waiting until someone from the Sheriff’s office reached his daughter, and then realized that the dispatcher had not even asked for a number where he could be contacted.

He sat back, gripping the wheel with both hands as he thought about the panic in her voice, and about Rolling Road with its blind rises and sharp descents; the hairpin curves that led to Brighton Gorge—

You can’t just sit here.

Can’t leave her up there.

“God help me,” he mumbled, and backed out of the driveway and into the street, the Explorer’s back-end sliding sideways over the icy pavement as he righted the wheel, a torrent of snowflakes blowing into the windshield as he drove into the night.

# # #

Part One

The Day Before

1

The day began in the pre-dawn darkness as Stephen stared at the LED numbers on the alarm clock and counted the minutes until the verdict would be delivered.

I’ll send you a text when the decision comes in, the insurance agent had told him, but we’ll need to talk it through on the phone.

The agent had told him not to expect the text before 7:30 a.m. but he checked his cell the moment he got out of bed any way, and checked it again after he stepped out of the shower. He thought about making the call himself—catching the agent on the way into the office, but decided to focus instead on getting Kenneth and Sara off to school.

They were at the breakfast bar when he stepped into the kitchen, arguing about some kind of special shampoo, purchased by Sara, appropriated by Kenneth, and now at the center of an argument that made him wonder if his two children were about to come to blows.

“It cost me six dollars Kenneth.”

Kenneth gave his sister a cool sideways look under the shaggy honey-brown hair that swept down to his eyebrows.

“I told you I’d pay for some of it,” he said as he reached for the box of cereal.

“Even though you used more than half the whole bottle. Which you took from my closet.”

“The closet’s in the hall. It’s not all yours.”

“Well you have your own closet, with your own stuff. Which is twice the size of mine.”

“God, are you really fighting over closet space?” Stephen wrinkled his brow in mock anguish as he poured a cup of coffee and sat down between them. “If so I wish you’d stop.”

Sara crossed her arms over her chest. “You’re going to take his side?”

“No.” He kept his eyes on hers, but reached across the countertop, his palm up. “Kenneth, give me a dollar.”

With a slight, knowing smile, his son reached into the pocket of his jeans and put a buck in his hand.

Stephen squinted down at the money, and shrugged. “Well, maybe.”

“Dad!” Sara’s eyes widened with indignation.

He laughed. “What can I say? Money talks.”

“And bullshit walks.”

“Whoa . . .” Stephen sat back and frowned at the harsh language and the sour expression on his daughter’s face. “When did you start talking like that?”

“What does it matter?”

“It matters. I’m your father, and I don’t like it.”

She said nothing. Her insolent look spoke for itself.

“You’re going to apologize, right?”

Her eyes turned glassy.

“Sara?”

“I’m sorry I said that to you. But sometimes I just hate him.”

Kenneth, appearing unfazed, poured the cereal into his bowl.

“You don’t hate your brother,” Stephen said.

“Sometimes. He acts like such a queer.”

Kenneth looked at her. “Which is better than being a bitch.”

Jesus, would you two stop?”

His children went silent, but continued to radiate a smoldering anger at each other. Stephen was once again amazed at how the bumpy rhythms of stress and hormones could flip their moods in an instant. Even so he knew it was only a matter of time—minutes or even seconds—before they slipped back into the natural rapport that had bound them together from the earliest moments of childhood. They had been born one year and one day apart and he often found himself thinking of them as if they were twins, linked on some kind of emotional see-saw, their moods interdependent, with the happiness of one always balanced on that of the other.

Sara picked up the milk carton, read the label, and set it back down.

“What’s wrong with the milk, Sara?”

“It’s whole milk. Which means it’s loaded with fat.”

“You don’t need to worry about fat.”

“Right, tell that to my butt.”

Stephen smiled at her self-deprecating humor, then reached over and brushed her hair away from her cheek. Sara had her mother’s gray-green eyes and clear, pale skin, and a lovely, heart-shaped face that still projected a pensive innocence even under the heavy makeup she had been favoring.

He glanced at his watch, knowing he needed to get a jump on the traffic, but decided he wanted to sit with his kids for a few minutes longer.

“So, what kind of day are we going to have today?”

“Terrible,” Kenneth said.

“Horrific,” Sara added.

“Well all righty.” He clasped his hands together, grinning as if all was well. For a fleeting moment the gesture made both of his kids smile. “Really, what’s happening?”

Sara poured a dash of milk into her cereal bowl. “A test in physics and a stupid role-playing thing in Spanish, followed by various grossities in the cafeteria.” She picked up her spoon and tamped down the cereal. “Drama club this afternoon. I won’t be home till late.”

“What about you, Kenny boy?”

“Just the usual stuff. Classes. Studio art—”

“Getting clobbered,” Sara interrupted.

“Shut up!”

“Well you know it’s going to happen.”

Kenneth was glowering at his sister, his strawberry blond complexion blotchy with embarrassment.

Stephen treaded carefully. “What‘s going to happen?”

Kenneth stared down at the table without responding.

“Yo, Ken.” Stephen used his buck up voice. “Somebody giving you a hard time about something?”

Kenneth pushed his cereal bowl aside and avoided Stephen’s eyes. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

But you have to, Stephen thought. He wanted to get up and hug his son, but at fifteen, that was the last thing Kenneth would tolerate.

So talk around it. But let him know you understand.

“You know, high school basically sucks,” he said.

“Now who’s cursing?” Sara countered.

“It does!” Stephen laughed, and turned to Kenneth. “Tell her I’m right.”

Kenneth gave him a grudging smile. “Yeah, you’re right.”

“So, what the heck. Before you know it, it’ll be over. Then you’ll go to college, graduate and get a job. Get a big mortgage. Add a few lumps to the waistline. End up like your old man.”

 Kenneth met his eyes. “Oh. Great.”

“I can’t believe you said it sucks,” Sara said. “Especially after giving me a hard time about my BS comment.”

“Well, you know my approach to the whole parenting thing. Do as I say, not as I do. Besides, I’m the dad. I have special rules.”

Sara sighed. “Whatever.”

“Yeah, whatever,” Stephen replied. “Who loves you?”

Sara gave him a weary look. “You do.”

“Kenny?”

“You.”                                                                                   

“God it’s so easy living with teenagers. I should write a book about how great I am at it.”

Kenneth and Sara both managed a brief smile across the table, a moment of solidarity in acknowledging the absolute lameness of anyone over thirty. Stephen saw it and relaxed, hoping that enough had been said. His daughter was troubled but undoubtedly tough enough to withstand the pressures of boys and body image that her mother had always predicted. His son was a sensitive kid who was being forced to deal with bullies, but Stephen was almost certain that the smart-ass Porter attitude would carry him through.

His cell phone chirped. He glanced over to the kitchen counter where he had set it down, and anxiously looked at the screen.

It was an incoming call from his office, not the insurance agent.

He put the phone back down.

“Are you going to get that?” Sara asked.

He shook his head, and tried to smile, feeling desperate to maintain the happy feeling the moment of humor had given him, like catching a ray of sunlight breaking through gray clouds.

Focus on something to look forward to, he thought. Something to keep this connection going.

He thought of his brother and his wife and their twin teenage daughters, who were lifelong friends of Kenny and Sara.

“We should talk about this summer. Instead of going to the beach, I’ve been thinking about Uncle Frankie’s place in the Finger Lakes.”

Another cell phone rang. Kenneth reached into his pocket. Sara gave him a don’t bother look, said “It’s mine,” and grabbed the purse slung across the back of her chair.

“Can you answer it later?” Stephen asked.

She retrieved her phone, and frowned at whatever she saw on the screen.

“Sara, please?”

She stared at the screen for a moment longer, and put the phone face-down on the table.

Her posture was suddenly stiff. She looked past him, toward the window that offered a view of the backyards of the neighboring houses.

Stephen sighed. “Frankie emailed me yesterday. He’s got a new boat—”

 The cell phone on the counter rang again.

 “Damn it!” Stephen snapped.

The spell was broken. Sara and Kenneth both stood up and rinsed their bowls and put them in the dishwasher, and then trudged up the house’s second stairway, which led from the family room and kitchen to their bedrooms. Stephen stayed at the table, determined to finish the mug of coffee without interruption. A brief chime from the phone told him that a message was waiting. He glanced at the clock, thinking of another ten-hour day at the struggling public relations firm where he’d worked for more than a decade. Lately every block of time he had with his kids could be measured in minutes, and almost always with an underlying sense of fear they were slipping away from him completely.

“Oh, crap,” he muttered as he stood up and then dumped the coffee into the sink and headed into the foyer and up the front stairway into his own wing of the house. He took the last few steps of the morning ritual: brushing and gargling, then tightening his tie and checking the slight jowl under his chin and the exhaustion and sadness that now seemed permanently ingrained in his face.

“Okay, wheels up!” he called out.

He went to Sara’s room and realized she had already gone downstairs as he stood at the threshold to what had recently become an “off-limits” space. For as long as he could remember his daughter had been fascinated by costume drama movies and historical fiction, and had decorated her walls with movie posters and artistic photography. He recognized the images that he had glimpsed on the rare occasions when her door had been left open, but noticed they were now interspersed with dark and disturbing images that didn’t seem to belong: Gargoyles, robed figures, strange shadows under arched doorways.

Goth

He felt a sense of unease. He was still trying to get used to the dark clothes she had come to favor, and to worry less about the great stretches of solitude that she seemed to crave behind her bedroom door. He wanted to believe that he was witnessing nothing more than a harmless phase of adjustment to the new realities of his family’s life.

Yet the anxiety lingered as he stepped back and moved down the hall to Kenneth’s room, an airy haven built over the garage. He started to call out, but through the half-open door he caught a glimpse of his son in front of the mirror over the bathroom sink. Kenneth was tilting his head and gazing at the way the light struck his hair as he combed it. There were highlights that Stephen was fairly sure hadn’t been there a few days earlier, which explained the special shampoo, another one of his son’s experiments …

He remembered the recent, nasty bruise that Kenneth had claimed to be from a fall. Thought of him being clobbered amid taunts as the high school mob mentality gained its inevitable momentum.

Jesus

He took another few steps back so Kenneth would not know what he had seen, his voice unsteady, as he called out “Time’s a wastin’, Kenny boy.”

There was another moment of silence, long enough to make him wonder what else his son was up to as he waited outside his bedroom door.

“Kenny?”

“Ready.” Kenneth stepped into the hall and shut the door behind him, as if sealing off his personal territory.

Stephen followed him down to the foyer and opened the door to a blast of Arctic air under a light gray sky. He turned on the radio as he warmed up the Explorer. The weathercaster was going on and on about the incoming “weather situation” and its likely impact on traffic later in the day as he headed out of the subdivision, then heard the beep of an incoming text.

Violating his rule to keep his hands off his phone whenever he was behind the wheel, he looked down and saw the message from Denise Wong had finally come.

He tapped it open.

Stephen, the investigative committee has reached a decision. Please call me to discuss this.

 He set the phone down on the console and gripped the wheel with both hands. Denise Wong had been his insurance agent for more than twenty years and he knew that she too had anxiously awaited the “decision” that would be part of his family’s history for the rest of their lives.

He was still thinking through the best and worst scenarios when the sharp blast of sirens filled the air.

He froze, his arms and shoulders rigid as he looked in the rearview mirror and tried to see past the column of SUVs and trucks behind him. Three Frederick County Sheriff’s cars and an unmarked sedan streaked by on the shoulder and made sharp right turns into the garden apartment complex ahead.

An ambulance came next, but it was moving slowly, the driver making only a marginal effort to get through the heavy traffic. Stephen pulled over to the shoulder, and waited for it to pass. Its ambling, lumbering pace felt like an omen for the news that Denise Wong had to share. Ambulances raced to accidents to save lives, but they were also called to carry away the dead, when nothing else could be done.

The thought was like an undertow, pulling him toward the darkness. He took a succession of deep breaths, and swiped the moisture from his eyes as he prepared for the day ahead.

# # #

2

Madison Reidy pulled her Range Rover diagonally across two spots at the inner edge of the Langford Secondary parking lot—a fairly bitchy thing to do since spaces were limited, but totally necessary given the probability of dents and scratches from juniors in crappy cars who were still learning how to drive. She was glad to be there fifteen minutes early, which gave her ample time to re-do her eyes and figure out the best way to get even with Sara Porter.

She turned off the ignition and checked her phone. Sara had ignored her text message from twenty minutes before, which only made her angrier as she dialed Marco Niles.

He answered after the first ring. “What?”

The sharpness of his tone startled her. Her mind raced with worry that she might have done something to annoy him. “Are you okay?”

“What the fuck’s that supposed to mean?”

“You sound mad.”

“I lost my wallet.”

She exhaled, feeling relieved. His anger had nothing to do with her. “Oh no. Where?’

“I don’t know. Somewhere.” He sounded short of breath, as if he had been running. But then she heard a rumble of an engine, and guessed that he was behind the wheel of one of his father’s Hummers, on his way to school. “Any way, what do you want Madison?”

She paused, and brought a wounded sadness to her voice. “Sara Porter is such a bitch.”

“What—why?”

He sounded surprisingly anxious. She knew she had his full attention.

She made a vague sniffling sound, as if she had been crying.

“She called me a whore.”

Silence on the other end. She had an uncomfortable sensation—a sense that he might be smirking, given the lengths she had gone to over the weekend to try and keep him happy.

“Marco?”

“Why did she do that?”

“I don’t know!”

“What are you gonna’ do about it?”

The question set her back. In her mind, Marco would be the one doing something about it, not her. She tilted the rearview mirror down to look at her face. Her eyes were what her mother called Indigo Blue and they looked absolutely gorgeous in contrast to the dusty rose blush on her cheeks and the fresh, sunny highlights in her thick dark blonde hair. She would need more lip gloss before she saw Marco at lunchtime.

She squinted slightly, and found just the right words. “I think her brother wants to give you a blow job.”

What?

“I’m serious. You should have heard him working on that display outside the Art League yesterday, talking to one of the other freaks about the aesthetic symmetry or some shit. But of course he got distracted when you walked by.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“He said you had a nice ass Marco.”

She heard him gasp.

“And I wasn’t the only one who caught it,” she said. “Tyrone Nichols and Jerome what’s-his-name were walking by and I could tell by the way they glanced at each other they heard it too.”

She waited a moment, for effect.

“I hope they don’t jump you in the locker room or whatever. You know, once word gets around—”

“Holy shit.”

His voice was breathless, as if he’d been punched in the stomach.

“You really shouldn’t be surprised Marco. You already knew Kenneth Porter is that way.”

She heard the squeal of brakes, and imagined him pulling off of the road and overcome with anger. A flighty sensation coincided with the quickening of her heart as she saw Sara Porter’s beat-up Jeep heading toward her, with Kenneth in the passenger seat. Kenneth met her eyes with a shy smile and a tentative wave. She felt a fleeting moment of guilt over the lies she had just told, but decided that in essence they were pretty much true.

“Marco, are you okay?”

“No, Madison, I’m not okay.”

She thought of her mother and the soothing voice she sometimes used after a couple of hours with her “life-coach;” the post-orgasm moodiness that usually precipitated a night of boozy psychobabble.

“It’s really bad for your karma to be angry, Marco.”

She gave Kenneth Porter an exaggeratedly sweet smile as the Jeep rolled by, and then glanced at a group of fellow cheerleaders who had gathered on the sidewalk; all of them waiting for her to step out and accompany them so they could proceed, as a group, into the school.

“But you need to find a way to deal with it if you are.”

* * *

Sara had a bad feeling in the brief moment of eye contact with Madison in the parking lot and tried to ignore it as she dropped Kenneth off and watched him head into school. He hadn’t said a word to her in the car, and had been noticeably nervous, gripping his black leather portfolio as if he was terrified someone was going to suddenly rip it away. She felt badly about the way she had talked to him at breakfast, knowing that she had only added to the anxiety of another day at a new school without a single friend to count on.

The sense of doom stayed with her all the way into the afternoon, and spiked with the text message from Madison that arrived during the last class of the day.

fuck u

It was a clear escalation from the one-word text—FREAK—from the morning. The message had stunned her when she had read it in the kitchen, in front of her father and Kenneth. It was cruel, even for Madison, and she could only hope that eventually her former friend would get bored and find someone else to torture.

She glanced at the clock over the door and was relieved to see the hour ending. She closed her laptop and slipped it into her shoulder bag just as the bell began to ring. On the way to the door she had to walk past a girl who was part of the clique that followed Madison’s every move. She made a feeble effort to offer the girl a distant smile. Over the past few days she had attempted to adapt an attitude—or at least an appearance—of indifference to her lack of friends, but she knew that her emotions were betraying her. She was almost certain that Madison and her crew knew she spent much of every day on the very edge of tears.

Just get past her, she told herself. Don’t give her another thought.

Langford Secondary combined grades seven-through-twelve and sprawled over acres and acres of what had once been a big farm. Sometimes it took a full five minutes to get from one class to the next. Fortunately, her next period was in the immediately adjacent wing, and designated as her tutoring time for Aidan O’Shea, a sweet, sensitive, autistic eighth grader who probably wouldn’t have even been at Langford without the guidance of Kieran, his beloved older brother.

As always her mood lifted with the certainty that Kieran would come by the tutoring center at the end of the session. After so many weeks of “friendship” she still felt as if she was under some kind of spell every time she looked into his beautiful pale blue eyes or ran her fingers through his wavy, black hair, or simply gazed at him as he walked the hallways, a teacher who somehow got away with wearing jeans and steel-toed boots and silver studs in his ear, projecting an almost forbidding sense of authority and a mysterious, irresistible vibe.

The happy feeling stayed with her as she passed the Art Wall, a large cinder block space at the interior of the building that had skylights instead of windows and a long wall that had been turned into a display space for the most creative and least popular oddballs in the entire school.

As expected, Kenneth was there, sitting on the tile floor, his attention focused on the sketchpad on his knees. Last week he had told her that his art teacher had given him his first “commission”—a large collage for the wall that would combine photography, graffiti art, and picture frames placed in what Kenneth had called “a deliberately random way along the whole piece.” She had rolled her eyes and called him “pretentious” but had actually been interested in what he came up with. So far the wall was blank but there were two large leather satchels leaning up against it, most likely containing some of the photographs Kenneth had either taken or gathered from the innumerable places in the cyberspace where he spent most of his time.

Even from a distance she could tell he was completely absorbed in whatever he was drawing. She glanced at her watch, told herself don’t worry, he’s fine, and turned around to head to her class.

Everything that happened next occurred very quickly. At the far end of the hall, amid the dense crowd of students in motion, she caught sight of Kieran, standing with his arms folded across his chest, playing the role of hall monitor but somehow finding her, focusing on her across the vast space. The connection between them felt like an electric current, a hum that vibrated through her whole body as she gazed back. She stood completely still but she felt him touching her from a distance; felt a tingle in her breasts and the feather-light brush of his lips, his hands stroking her neck and running through her hair . . .

She wanted to walk toward him but found that she couldn’t move. Even so her knees were vibrating as if an electrical current bad become trapped within her. She stayed that way for an infinite moment before a loud smack made her turn around. She saw Kenneth standing, and then walking backwards, his eyes wide with terror at the sight of Marco Niles advancing. There was a forward hunch in Marco’s broad shoulders and his fists were balled at his sides. She had a brief view of the tile floor as the crowd parted around them, saw the scattered photos and realized that the smacking sound had come from the leather portfolio, upended by Marco and then tossed back down.

Marco shouted “Faggot!” the word cutting like a firecracker through the air.

Panic flooded her thoughts but she remembered what she had told herself she would do when this finally happened.

A witness; a teacher; you need a teacher to witness—

She spun around; searched frantically for Kieran; saw nothing but the blur of teenagers; turned back toward Kenneth, hidden now, hemmed in by a tight circle of football players—Marco’s friends—blocking the view. But then Kenneth’s head rose briefly above the crowd. She realized then that he was being lifted off his feet by Marco Niles and heard a sickening umph as he was slammed backward against the wall; heard it again as she rushed toward her brother and screamed “GET AWAY FROM HIM” just as a fist flew backward, hitting her hard in the stomach and knocking her to her knees.

Bright white light flashed in her vision as Marco finally stepped aside and gave her a full-on view of Kenneth, his eyes half-open and dazed, the blood streaming from his nose as he slid down the pale yellow cinder block wall.

* * *

“They’re ruling it as a suicide, Stephen. I’m really, really sorry.”

Denise Wong’s voice sounded as if it was coming from the end of a long tunnel, her tone as surreal as the message she was conveying. Unable to respond, Stephen pinched the space between his eyebrows and shut his eyes. In quick, flickering images he saw his wife coming briskly down the stairs and pulling her jacket and umbrella out of the hall closet; recalled her drawn, anxious expression during the mysteriously awkward conversation in the foyer; his mind capturing in freeze-frame the downward tilt of her head as she stepped out the door and into the rain.

Her last-minute appointment with the decorator they had hired for the new house had been scheduled for 9 p.m. At 8:45, according to the official police report, a driver had rounded a bend and seen her Lexus at the bottom of Brighton Gorge, filling with water from a flooded stream. The man had called 911 and then climbed down the embankment, and had nearly been swept away by the fast-moving current as he tried to reach her.

“The investigators are wrong,” he said. “Lori would never . . .”

He looked at the closed door of his office and fought to hold back the tears.

“I honestly don’t believe it either.” Denise told him. “Unfortunately the lead investigator said he can only look at the physical evidence.”

The evidence. No seat belt despite the fact that Lori always buckled up. No sign that she ever touched the brakes. No way to challenge the investigator’s estimates that his wife had hit a speed of 70 mph as the car struck the guard rail, then flipped and tumbled down the gorge.

“They’re only seeing what they want to see,” he said.

Denise was silent. In the weeks leading up to this moment she had advised him of his right to contest the decision that would be made by the insurance company’s claims department if it wasn’t what he wanted to hear. She had assured him there would be “due recourse,” but not without expensive lawyer fees, and depositions, and arguments that would dredge up the details of Lori’s death again and again.

He had also endured numerous conversations with the Frederick Sheriff’s Department Detective, which had been repetitive and draining.

Something’s not right, Mr. Porter.

Call me Stephen.

All right, Stephen. I think we need to go over this again.

He turned his attention back to Denise. “Did the committee look at Detective Caruso’s statement?”

He heard the click of her fingers on a keyboard and a sense of resignation in her voice as she responded.

“They looked at everything, including the report that came in last week.”

Stephen sat up straighter. “Last week?”

“There was an addendum from Detective Caruso. Basically just saying that the investigation would be ongoing, which means, I think, that he also still has questions. But he reiterated the medical examiner’s determination of the cause of death.”

Stephen pressed his fist against his lips and thought once again about the circumstances that had been in the initial report:

The malfunctioning airbag.

Her head hitting the windshield.

The water rushing in.

“He also conveyed his concerns about the note,” Denise said.

The note had been addressed to “My Wonderful Family.” Stephen had found it underneath the hand mirror on Lori’s chest of drawers the day after she died. It was typewritten, and printed out on plain white paper, and unsigned. Just a simple short letter describing her “deep sadness” and desire to end her life. It had been dated the day of her death, but Stephen had found no trace of it on the computer he and Lori shared, nor on those used by Sara and Kenneth.

“I told Detective Caruso, Lori did not write that note.”

“Well I’m here for you if you have any other questions,” Denise told him. Her voice sounded more grounded now, more in tune with her professional persona as a representative of the insurance company that went by the slogan, “Agents for Life.” Stephen remembered her office walls were covered with Asian art conveying various symbols of luck and fortune.

The thought of those images only made him feel more worn-out as he whispered the question that had been at the front of his mind for five months.

“What am I gonna tell my kids?”

Your mother loved you, he thought. She would never leave you.

“Stephen, I’m so sorry. If you need to talk to someone—”

He set the receiver down on the desk, disconnected the line, and felt a hollow, scraping sensation at the back of his throat as the receptionist buzzed him.

He hit the speaker button. “I’m not taking any calls, Carole. I need to be left alone.”

“It’s Sara calling. From school. She said it’s urgent, Stephen. I think she’s crying.”

# # #

 


THE DIVER

The Diver 2

Whenever the small feeling hits, Patrick takes deep breaths, clenches and unclenches his fists, and purposefully imagines a billion nuclear missiles obliterating every trace of the virus from the cells of his body.

One, two, three, four; He counts the breaths until the calm settles in. Propped up on one elbow on a towel in the grass outside the city pool, he gazes at the length of his right arm, outstretched and pointed up towards the sky.

Of course it’s not shrinking, he thinks. You’re as fit and healthy as ever.

It’s an affirmation he’s working hard to believe as the humid August air brings out a beaded sweat on his forehead and chest. He reminds himself that there’s no biological reason for his grogginess – it’s simply a result of the uncomfortable weather and the call from his sister, Allison, which woke him about an hour too early for a Saturday morning.

“Do you still dive, Patrick?” Allison had asked. For some reason the words echo over and over like a song stuck in memory.

“Not really,” he had replied. “I mean I just don’t think about it anymore.”

“Remember how good you were? I couldn’t believe the stunts you pulled up there.”

He had been good, with enough talent and effort to make the USA Diving Winter Championships two years in a row. Back when physicality was simple and natural, and when the future stretched ahead with infinite possibility and nothing to fear.

The memory stays with him as he turns his head towards the pool behind the chain link fence, a flattened “Z” of shimmering aqua, and looks at the board. It’s a one-meter, not a three, because of liability issues at city pools. But it’s easy to see himself taking three steps and a hurdle toward the edge, the fiberglass springing him up into the nine-foot space above it, his hands touching his ankles in the perfect pike formation, the world spinning around once and a half again; his outstretched arms spearing the water with a tiny, momentary splash.

Ten years ago at the age of 17 the flights were brief, but it always felt as if he could just keep rising, up and up into the space above that board, steered by the radar that was so natural back then.

Don’t let it go to his head, but he has a special talent,” his first coach had told his mom and dad. “I’m not sure what it’s called, but there’s a phrase to describe it. Means something like cat sense.”

Cat sense?” His mother, Faith, had frowned.

When a cat falls or leaps from high distance, it always lands on its feet. It’s automatic because they always have a sense of where they are in the air. They can turn themselves around like expert acrobats. When Patrick twists upside down or spins around he still knows exactly where he is in relation to everything else. It’s very rare.”

So we’ll call him Cat Man,” Faith had said then. “Maybe we won’t think so much about him killing himself.”

God, she worried a lot. Patrick turns his face back to the sky and remembers. At the meets 15 divers would take their turns and 15 mothers along with a few fathers would sit in aluminum mesh chairs and watch from behind the judges. His mother, Faith, had once let out a sharp scream when the back of his head skimmed the edge of the board. He’d heard it the instant he hit the water, then surfaced to see all of the women around her laughing with relief. They were supposed to pretend that the dives weren’t dangerous and that death didn’t happen at nice suburban swimming pools, and certainly not to born athletes who exuberantly defied it in that wonderful, perfect space above the board.

But it still happened, out of nowhere –

Give yourself a break, he thinks, and summons a self deprecating grin.

Don’t dwell . . .

Dr. Jaffe tells him a sense of humor is the single best thing for his mental outlook. She conveys it happily at every Friday session, ignoring professional conventions by greeting him with a hug, her stout body jiggling beneath the loose and garishly colored clothes she always wears. Part psychiatrist, part comedian, she always finds a way to make him hopeful even when he falls apart behind the closed door of her office. She’s the antithesis of the first shrink, a 50ish guy with a gray beard and beady eyes who spent most of their one and only meeting asking probing questions, as if making him squirm was something he had to endure to feel better.

Even now he has a physical reaction to the memory of leaving the gayshrink’s office, his face red and hot; the whole episode a stark reminder of how out-of-place he sometimes feels around the other men he encounters at his gym and at the clubs and in the random meeting spots of his urban neighborhood; never quite connecting with the pulsing music they all seem to love or the faddish clothing they crave; feeling that he simply can’t fit in among them –

“There you go with the lost little boy thing again.”

Dr. Jaffe has used the expression so many times, chastising him in her characteristically cheerful voice, urging him to look beyond the out-of-place feeling that comes to him so often these days. The sense that he’s lost his bearings, especially when he thinks back to his teens; the friendships that endured despite his understanding that he was different; realizing that might have been a good thing because he could do things they couldn’t do, in that amazing space above the board, high in the air.

“You should dive again.”

His sister’s voice comes back to him; with the underlying anxiety that she tries to disguise. She’s his closest friend, and the only one in his family who knows. Unfortunately her devotion to him is sometimes more than he can bear, because he knows she would never recover if his health went in a different direction. Which is why he’s compelled to keep her at a distance, with phone calls as opposed to visits even though she lives just two hours away. It’s the only way to fortify himself against the interactions that remind him of his potential frailty, the moments when he looks into her eyes and knows that, because of her fear for him, she will never be completely happy again.

Still, the conversation was a good one that ended on an upbeat note when he told her about how well things are going at work. It was only after hanging up that the sense of melancholy came back, replete with memories of the high school trophies and the college scholarship and the business degree and MBA earned with ease. The cat sense of always knowing where he was staying with him as the trajectory of his life continued to that magical second job. A real estate development firm that was making serious money as people moved back to the city.

The best part of your life, he thinks now, remembering the long days and late nights and camaraderie. His life in the year 2015, with the good job and good apartment and good friends.

And then it happened . . . or started to happen. On a beautiful Saturday afternoon in October, when he recognized from a distance the gaunt face of an acquaintance from college; and remembered the drunken haze of a certain night and the afterward feeling that had made him sense, even then, as if something had changed.

Don’t hate,” Dr. Jaffe has told him so many times. “It’s terrible that this thing has happened to you Patrick. Just awful. But bad energy won’t get you anywhere. You have to love yourself and envision yourself beating this.”

Some theories sound so good unless you’re forced to rely on them. No one’s ever proved that seeing yourself well is anything more than some kind of nonsense to give sick people some kind of mental lifeline. But he holds the thought close as he thinks back to the weeks that followed – the nagging dread of the worst and the desperate hope for the best, all leading up to the decision to get the test at the anonymous city clinic.

That day: a cold, rain-soaked Tuesday in November.

That moment: when the doctor shut the door to the tiny white room and met his eyes.

That feeling: of time stopping and accelerating as the terror came crashing down.

He was seated on a paper-wrapped gurney when the doctor spoke the words; the shock making it almost impossible to move or even breathe; a sensation that took him instantly back to the day 10 years earlier when his lanky, slim body was slammed down flat by a block during a high school football scrimmage. A sudden, complete lack of feeling below his neck as he stared up at his teammates, and then his father, running from the sidelines where he had been watching. The horror of it all magnified by the rage of being there on that field, playing a game he wasn’t built for but acquiescing because his father, the legendary Kevin O’Donnell, had wished more than anything that he would.

It was the turning point, cemented in his mind by the change in his father’s appearance in the weeks that followed: the deepening lines around his face and the graying of the hair at his temples and his recognition that he understood there were other, better things he was built to do.

The diving came next, a whole year of waking up at 4 a.m. for private coaching at the membership club, with Kevin and sometimes Faith watching from the low rise bleachers beside the pool. A year of astounding physical recovery and the discovery of that special cat sense.

The wheels of a bus marked “YMCA Camp” squeak to a stop in front of the pool’s main gate. When the doors open the kids stream out: at least a dozen black children in their early teens, all shouting and jumping around. Patrick sits up and watches as a lifeguard unlocks the gate of the chain link fence. The kids rush past in a swarm. Most simply drop their towels onto the cement and charge into the water, their thrashing severing the calm; their delighted laughter rising and echoing through the air.

He smiles at their exuberance, and thinks of his earliest memories of the suburban pools of his childhood; recalls his father calling out to him as a four-year-old and urging him to jump in and swim to him. A memory of the splash and the sensation of his legs kicking at the nothingness beneath him, the panicked gulping of air until he managed to swim a few strokes forward, and then a few more; his father slowly backing up, beckoning him forward until they reached the far end of the pool. Remembers even now the triumph of making it. The wonderful strength of his father’s sudden celebratory embrace.

His throat tightens as he sits up and watches another wave of people arriving at the pool: several Hispanic adults and children who emerge from a run-down Taurus station wagon and a pockmarked van with the faded logo of a landscaping company, an older couple frowning into the hazy sunlight; three 20-something guys in trendy, skin-tight swimsuits.

One of the guys makes eye contact. Patrick looks quickly away but not before he detects the pursing of the guy’s lips; the subtle sign of awareness.

“Love them Patrick. They’re your brothers.”

Dr. Jaffe’s voice comes to him again, with its gentle insinuation that everything will be better if he simply embraces his genetic disposition; as if he can somehow accept where he is even if it wouldn’t have happened if he was wired a different way. She knows it isn’t quite happening. Yet she’s the first person to remind him of his resilience since his diagnosis, after almost a year of weekly visits, all built around the same theme:

You’ll beat this.

 You must.

On the way through the locker room leading to the pool, he stops to take off his shoes and to slip off his shirt. The walls and floor are slick with disinfectant that has the same sharp pine, dirty-clean scent he remembers from the clinic. A dozen or so black and Hispanic kids from another summer camp bus jump around, tossing swim swimsuits and tennis shoes into the air. Two of them shriek with Caribbean accents, another curiously eyes a man standing under the shower spray, his ragged, urine-stained underwear drooping from the water filling it, his legs covered with sores. The pool is free, and all kinds of people can wander in – from hipsters to day-laborers to the mentally ill and homeless – and today it calls to mind a melting pot of exotic body oils, sweat and bacteria amid gallons of chlorine.

The air is hotter and muggier as he steps out onto the deck and lays his towel flat and reclines on his back and thinks of the week ahead. The once-a-day miracle pill that keeps him symptom-free. The deadlines that he will meet on the job. The workouts with the trainer who continues to push him to be in the best shape of his life. All part of the routine he’s discussed at length with Dr. Jaffe, who keeps telling him there are things – mental things – that he still needs to do.

“You’re a man of conflicts.” It’s one of her favorite expressions, and often accompanied but a typically unprofessional but welcome massaging of his shoulders. “You’ve got so much tension that’s you’ve just got to work out. And the only way to do that is to sit down with your sister and your mom and tell them the truth about what you’re going through. Tell them the truth – .”

“No,” he says out loud, and shuts his eyes against the brightening sun. “Not a chance – .”

He doesn’t even want to think about what it would be like to tell his mother about the perpetual closeness he now has to death; doesn’t want to think about her mind going back to that one high school diving meet and the millimeter’s distance between his skull and the board. Doesn’t want to imagine her being as bereft as she was after the death of his father, taken by lung cancer the year the diving scholarship took him to college.

He feels a catch in his breath as he sits up on the uncomfortable concrete and looks out at the city kids filling the pool, the Hispanic families who wear shorts and shirts instead of swimsuits, the homeless man with the legs full of sores who appears to be arguing with the lifeguard, a muscular black man in a wife-beater T-shirt decorated with a photo of a rapper holding two pistols crosswise over his chest.

The sense of melancholy comes back; his eyes sting as he thinks of the clean, clear water of those suburban pools and listens to the rapid-fire Spanish between bouts of laughter coming from the young families.

“Poppy!” An Hispanic boy who looks to be about six-years-old stands on the edge of the diving board. Then with an excited wave of his outstretched arms he jumps in . . . and sinks to the bottom and swims a few strokes before coming back to the surface. At the edge of the pool his parents clap their hands and watch as he does an awkward dog-paddle toward the shallower end.

Two of the gay 20-somethings are there, squatting down into the water that comes up close to their necks. One of them calls out – “Earnesto!” – an instant before the boy reaches him.

And then they’re all standing in the water, sharing high-fives as the little boy climbs onto the guy’s back.  Patrick watches as the boy pats his hands on the top of the guy’s head as if it’s a drum.

The guy winces slightly from the motion, and then suddenly, from across the pool, looks at him again and smiles, rolling his eyes in a happy, good-natured way.

He finds himself smiling back, as surprised by his own reaction as he is to the sight of the family and their friendship with the men. The kind of friendship that happens in a city, in this kind of pool.

“Here in the land of misfit toys.”

The phrase comes to his mind. He imagines the joking tone he would use in recounting the experience to Dr. Jaffe; imagines her laughing with him; seeing his lightheartedness and acceptance of the oddity of the scene and his place in it as a sign of progress.

But then again he hears Allison; from the back of his mind. Her bangs covered in sweat and her knees under her chin like the eight year old she once was:

Do you still dive?”

He shuts his eyes and thinks about the bad block again; the feeling of paralysis and the look on his father’s face as he was carried on a stretcher from the field and the terror of never being able to move again.

 Yes, he thinks.

 I still dive.

He feels slightly dizzy as he stands, imagines the way he might look from a distance, getting up after being knocked down; his knees quivering as he walks across the warm concrete, his hands and fingers flexing at his sides – an ingrained, reflexive motion to relax his muscles. 

He tests the water with his foot and finds it oddly lukewarm. He blinks, winces from a drop of sweat in his eye and gazes out at the chain link that surrounds the pool. And then he looks back toward the Hispanic family and the guy who smiled at him, all of them watching as he grips the metal rails and steps up the short ladder to the board.

It’s only a meter – three feet above the water instead of nine. He wonders if it’s a metaphor for his new life and his new condition – and then purposefully shakes the thought away.

The motion brings on another wave of dizziness as the sweat drips into his eyes and he looks out toward the other end of the pool and the faint haze that seems to have fallen over the whole day.

His mother, Faith, is there; one leg tightly crossed over the other, alongside his father, Kevin, a globe of oxygen hanging from a pole at his side. They shimmer briefly in what feels like a wide-awake dream as he looks down at his torso and arms and legs; and thinks of the medication working its way through his cells.

And then he moves, his memory and his muscles in perfect rhythm for three steps and a hurdle, the balls of his feet in a perfect strike at the end of the board, launching him upward into the air and that perfect space, up and up into the jackknifing motion and adding a perfect one-quarter twist, knowing then and there exactly where he is. Knowing –

You’ll beat this.

 You will.

# # #

RED MAZDA

Man in red convertible

They meet at the tennis courts four days a week, reminding me of kids descending on a playground even though they’re all in their 60s or 70s or early 80s. They arrive with straps and wraps to support their knees and elbows, and wide-brimmed caps and sunscreen to protect their lined faces, and stories about doctor visits and grandchildren to be told on the benches while they wait their turns to step into the round-robin play.

I meet them for the first time at the invitation of my friend George, who’s been giving me private lessons and telling me again and again to stop tensing up and grinding my teeth and to simply flow through the strokes of the game. They smile and shake hands when he introduces me and joke about hitting with “a teenager” because I’m only 56.

And then we play, each of us rotating in at the end of every game when the server goes out. I learn right away that I’m the odd one. I swear when I mishit; they tend to laugh. I keep track of how many games I’ve won or lost while they have trouble just keeping score. I stand on the balls of my feet at courtside when I’ve rotated out while they enjoy the opportunity relax and sip their water and chat about all of the things that are on their minds.

If you were a bird flying overhead and looking down you’d see all of us as a group, but even then you’d be able to distinguish the one guy who’s a part of us and apart from us: the one who brought us all together.

His name is Rennie. He’s 85, the oldest of the bunch, and for the last few years he’s told more stories about knee and hip replacements and laughed and cheered about more bad and good shots than anyone in the group. But if you were that bird you’d have to go back exactly four weeks to see us all on the courts at the same time. Four Sundays ago, to be precise. That’s the day I broke Rennie’s heart.

* * *

In retrospect I think the events were probably set in motion the night before, during my weekly Saturday night phone call with my dad. We do it during cocktail hour; me with my bourbon over ice as my wife prepares our best meal of the week, my father sipping good gin next to the fireplace in our family home 200 miles away. My father’s still the first person I want to talk to when something good or bad happens. Lately most everything with us is good, now that we’re at the peak of our working lives, secure in our professions and enjoying the kind of confidence we wouldn’t have dreamed of two decades ago. The only bad moments come from worries about my dad, living alone.

“Before I forget, remember to check your email tonight for something I sent you,” he says.

When I ask him what it is he tells me “it’s a PDF that you have to right-click and save to your desktop. It’s a big file so I had to download what they call a sharing program to squeeze it down so it could be emailed.”

I smile, because it’s the kind of response I get some times when I ask him a question and he either responds by answering a different question, or starting a new train of thought.

“I mean, what’s in the email, dad? What’s it about?”

“Oh,” he says, as if he’s just caught up to me. “I bought a scanner for my computer here at the house. I put a bunch of our old family pictures on it. There are some real cute ones of you and your sister when you were little, and some real good ones of mom.”

“Ah – can’t wait to see ’em,” I say, as the scent of sautéed peppers and onions wafts in to the room. I glance at the Netflix envelope on the bookshelf, containing a film we’ve been looking forward to seeing. It’s one of those ordinary moments when I’m happy to just be home on a Saturday night, looking forward to a great dinner and a movie with my best friend: my wife of 30 years.

After a few more minutes of small talk it’s time to sign off, but not before I confirm what time he’ll arrive for our Thanksgiving celebration the following week. And then I pour another shot and use my laptop to log onto my email and find the document. I skim through dozens of photos and am just about to close it out when I encounter one that surprises me.

I stare at it for a long moment, wondering if I’m seeing it wrong.

“Okay everything’s prepped,” Linda tells me as she steps down into our family room.

There’s a pause while I continue staring at the photo.

“You okay?” she asks.

I show her the photo. It’s me as a toddler, standing up in our living room with my arms outstretched and a big smile on my face. Something about the pose tells me my balance is unsteady, but the sight of my father kneeling behind me with his fingertips just barely touching my arms confirms it.

Linda frowns, taking notice of the same thing that surprised me: the thick metal braces around my ankles and knees.

“You never told me you had problems with your legs,” she says.

“I haven’t,” I say. “Because I don’t remember.”

“You’re wearing metal braces.”

“I have no recollection of them at all.”

* * *

I’m still thinking of the braces as I step onto the court the next day. I’ve always been a bit pigeon-toed; always a bit shorter than average, but never had any indication that I was born with any physical problems that needed to be fixed. Although I’m still wondering why my parents never mentioned them I have to assume the braces were a short-lived measure and that they did whatever they were supposed to do.

These thoughts slip away as we ease into the game in picture-perfect autumn weather. I’m more tense than usual because there are 11 players on our two courts. At any given time there are three on the bench waiting to cycle in one-by-one when servers go out, which means I spend a lot of time standing still instead of playing. I’m antsy and unfocused when I finally rotate in, and over-hit several balls past the baseline and miss two easy volleys in the very first game.

Half an hour later I’m acutely aware that I’ve been on the losing team for six games while winning only four. I’m frustrated by the sense that I can’t get into the right rhythm, a feeling that’s exacerbated by the long breaks between games. It’s always this way when the players sitting on the bench get into a conversation and stop paying attention to what’s happening on the court. They’re slow to get up when it’s time to rotate in, and often delay things further by deciding just then to shed a jacket or re-strap a knee support or take a long drink from their plastic bottles before they finally step in and play.

I’m telling myself to keep calm as they determine that it’s Rennie’s turn to come in and be my partner for the next game. Unfortunately he’s telling one of his jokes to the people on the bench. He has to finish it, with pauses that characterize his perfect timing.  I take deep breaths and stare down at my strings as he gets to the punch line and slaps his thighs and joins the laughter, then walk in a little circle as he looks for his sunglasses. As always when I’m down a few games I start thinking about what it will take to get back up. I know I’m going to be at a disadvantage because Rennie doesn’t move very fast anymore, and has suffered a bit after his second cataract surgery. And also because he no longer takes the game too seriously.

Just like to come out here and be with my friends,” he’s apt to say.

After a moment my mind wanders. I find myself thinking about the point at which I’ll be able to play tennis any day of the week. It depends a great deal on our current finances and future earnings and investments, which should get us to the perfect retirement date on my 60th birthday. And then because of the bizarre way my mind works I think of the plan in context of the last three months of tennis. Thanks to a couple of bad weekends I was only at the break-even point for wins and losses before now, and I’m now two games behind for the season. I want to end up at least a dozen games ahead by the time Christmas rolls around; want to be able to go into the New Year feeling like I’m on track with my tennis and my plan for our future.

I’m still thinking all of this through as Rennie finally ambles onto the court. He smiles at me an instant before his cell phone rings.

I stand there, almost disbelieving as he answers it.

The rest of the crew is laughing, making good-natured fun of him for taking the call from his wife and assuring her he’ll pick up things from the store on his way home. I can’t manage to laugh; I’m just too uptight as I stare down at my legs and try to shake the tension loose.

And then, when he’s finally ready to play, I double-fault on my first serve.

“That didn’t work out to well son,” Rennie says with a laugh.

I respond with a tense “I know.” Then in a brief moment of easy athleticism I hit a fast, deep serve that forces my opponent off balance.

The ball comes back as an easy sitter right in Rennie’s perfect hitting zone. Everyone watches, ready to cheer.

But then he hits it down into the net.

“Awww shucks,” he mutters, then looks back at me with a sheepish smile.

“What happened there?” I ask, in a tight voice.

He tilts his head, as if he didn’t quite hear me.

And then his smile vanishes. “Beg pardon?”

I’ve clearly hurt him with my reaction – my expression and my tone of voice.

“Nothing,” I say. “It’s okay.”

I try to smile to reassure him but can’t get my face into the right shape. So instead I turn my back and walk purposefully back to the baseline, concentrating on my strings in preparation to serve again.

Each of the next two returns comes right back at Rennie. He misses them both, and nearly trips in going for the second one.

“Goddamn it!” I snap, and in a flash of temper over losing the game I pull a ball out of my pocket and hit it hard into the chain link fence at the side of the court.

My reaction draws a heavy silence from the group. I stand there for a moment before I hear someone asking Rennie if he’s all right, and turn to see that he’s limping off toward the bench.

He looks back at me, his eyes red underneath bushy gray eyebrows

“Sorry about that, son.”

In my peripheral vision I see several faces turn toward me, a silent but certain chastisement in the air as I step forward along with everyone else who’s crowding around him now. Rennie’s limp is mild but two of the women players are reaching out to support his elbows as they walk him toward the bench. Someone’s talking about being a retired nurse and the importance of icing injuries, and the players on the next court have also stopped in the middle of a point to make sure Rennie’s okay.

I watch as he slowly sits down on the bench, then gives me an apologetic wave as he meets my eyes again. I stand there; part of the group and apart from it, the sound of my cursing voice still ringing in my ears; the hurt on Rennie’s face ingrained in my mind.

* * *

The winter holidays have always been a big deal in our family, the sense of joy and expectation rooted in my earliest childhood experiences and flourishing even now. Our house looks especially wonderful this Thanksgiving, with gold and rust mums still hanging on in the late November garden, and pumpkins and gourds and candles throughout the house.

I keep reminding myself of how wonderful it all is despite my troubled sleep over the past several nights. I’ve awakened several times to the memory of Rennie’s face the moment I lost my temper and haven’t been able to shut the images away. My exhaustion is yet another reason to make Thanksgiving an especially simple event for Linda, my dad and me, with single servings of turkey, stuffing, a couple of vegetables, and fresh fruit for dessert.

It doesn’t work out that way though, because my father shows up the night before and surprises us with a small ham, and a bag of sweet potatoes, green beans and mushroom soup for a casserole along with apple and pumpkin pies. “All my favorite things,” he tells me, “just to add to the table.”

Linda and I are both a little unnerved at the extra work this is going to entail but manage to stay relaxed and even jovial even though it takes two hours to cook everything, about 15 minutes to eat it, and a solid hour of cleaning afterwards.

And then it’s time.

As planned, Linda tells us she’s going for a walk with friends. After stoking the fire I open another bottle of Cabernet and ask my dad to come sit with me. The long-awaited “talk” that I’ve planned immediately becomes more difficult as he describes how great the fall fishing has been in the spring-fed lake enjoyed by the few neighbors in his semi-rural community, and how good the gutters looked after he cleaned them out, and how he’s switched to a riding mower to deal with the two rolling acres of grass that surround our family’s house.

I see the segue, and take it. “I think I’ve got a lot better proposition for you,” I say.

There’s a small drawer in our coffee table. I open it and pull out a glossy brochure for the retirement community near our home. I tell him I want him to downsize because his house and property are obviously too much for him, and because I know he’ll enjoy a more simplified life with a one-bedroom apartment with its own kitchen, plus the common dining room for when he doesn’t want to cook, plus the community library and nearby walking trails.

He looks at the brochure for a moment and puts it down.

“I’m going to finish off the space above the garage for Mandy,” he says.

He’s referring to my niece, who’s in her senior year of college a couple of miles from his home.

“Why?” I ask.

“So she can save money by not renting an apartment.”

I remember a conversation I had with Mandy a couple of weeks before, when she told me she was looking forward to moving into the house that her fiancé, who runs a small but prosperous construction company, just built for the two of them. I can’t even imagine her deciding to live in my father’s house instead.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” I say. “It would take a lot of work – “

“I did the basement for our rec room but your mom always wanted to do the attic.”

I feel a slight tremor around my heart; the warning of an uncomfortable memory as he leans slightly forward on the couch across from me.

“I’ve got plans drawn up,” he says. “Some guys to do the electrical and plumbing, so I’ll just do the drywall once I get my balance back.”

I frown. “Your balance? What do you mean?”

He presses his right index finger against his temple. “Been having some dizzy spells. I’ve got an appointment next week.”

I sit up a little straighter, my breath coming up short at the thought of him trying to stand up straight under the cumbersome weight of drywall . . . and cleaning gutters high atop a ladder . . . and riding a mower that could easily tip over on the slope of his property.

“Dad, you’re almost 80.” I pick the brochure back up. “Now’s the time to relax. Enjoy your retirement – “

“I can get it done in less than three months if I time it right.”

“You’d still be making a big mistake,” I insist, thinking of all the money my father and I have already spent on Mandy’s tuition – the tens of thousands he and I still have to pay off once she finishes.

“You should also think of the money you can save by downsizing and being closer to us –.”

“There’s room for a living space and a bedroom that faces north for the light your mom always loved –.”

Jesus, have you heard a word I’ve said?”

It comes out like a reprimand – a verbal slap in the face.

His lower lip starts to quiver as his eyes mist over.

I feel a panicky sensation in my chest, and purposefully lighten my voice. “Come on, pappy. Just please consider it. Think of how great it will be to have us close by to spend time with, all the things we can do together – “

“I wish you wouldn’t talk to me like that, son,” he says.

I sit back on the couch as my own eyes begin to sting. For most of the last two days I’ve been keenly aware of his physical agility and sense of humor and still-bright mind, but in this one moment he looks as if he’s aged 10 years.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I’m just trying to –.”

“It hurts my feelings when you talk that way.”

* * *

I lie awake most of the night. My whole body is rigid with tension, and every time I shut my eyes I see alternating visions of my dad’s face the moment I barked at him and Rennie’s face when I lost my temper on the court. I know I’ve been a complete idiot in both instances, and feel more like a temperamental preschooler than a grown man who’s been brought up to genuinely respect his elders.

As Linda has reminded me time and again, however, every day brings an opportunity for a fresh start. The thought is foremost in my mind until I come downstairs and see my father’s overnight bag next to our front door, then step into the kitchen to find him sitting by himself at the table.

“I thought you were staying till Saturday,” I say, in a shaking voice.

He leans forward, his shoulders slumping as he grips his coffee cup with both hands. “Nah, I gotta’ get on the road. Got a long drive ahead.”

I feel a dry, scraping sensation at the top of my throat. “It’s going to be a beautiful day,” I say. “We can walk on the beach.”

He stands up, his posture awkward as he turns and pours out his coffee and rinses his cup. “I appreciate that – appreciate everything you and Linda did to make it a nice holiday.”

I stare at his back as he walks out of the kitchen. I follow him to the door. He picks up his bag and steps out to the porch and looks up at the pale blue sky.

“Looks like a good day to drive,” he says.

I try to think of something – anything – that I can say to keep him with us as he pops the trunk. I look in and see his tennis racquet and envision how the day would go if I hadn’t hurt him; what it would be like to pull up to the courts and introduce my dad to my friends.

My eyes tear up. “Dad, I am so sorry about last night.”

He sighs, looking past me for a moment, then offers me a weak smile. “It’s really okay. I’m just not as tough as I used to be. That happens with old people.”

I swallow hard against the lump at the top of my throat.

“I didn’t mean for it to come out like that,” I say.

He nods, looking more worried about my feelings than his.

“I know you didn’t. You’re still my best boy.”

I nod back, trying to convince myself that everything is going to be all right between us as I lean against the car and feel a soreness in my lower spine, undoubtedly from the lack of sleep.

And then I remember our conversation the Saturday before.

“I went through all the pictures you sent us,” I say. “I saw the one that showed me with braces on my legs.”

He squints, as if he needs a moment to remember, then nods. “Yeah you were a pitiful little thing for a while there. Wasn’t sure you’d be able to walk without tripping over your own feet.”

My surprise lingers, because I still have no memory of being hobbled at any point in my life.

“Well I’m glad you fixed me up.”

“Yeah.” He looks me in the eye. “I always knew you’d grow up to be a champ . . . just needed to help you out a bit.”

He gives me a brief wave as he slides into the driver’s seat, his posture telling me he wants to avoid a goodbye hug, because it would be an emotional tipping point that he just can’t deal with now.

I wave back, and stand on our porch and watch him drive away.

* * *

Five minutes later I’m back in the kitchen, gazing down at his empty coffee cup in the sink and just barely resisting the urge to burst into tears. Then with a manic sense of avoidance I go straight out into the yard to rake the leaves and then go for a long run, doing my best to stave off the mixture of sadness and guilt that clings to me like a physical presence.

Later in the day Linda and I sit down to have a drink. I briefly consider the possibility of telling her about the outburst that hurt Rennie and the way I talked to my dad but know she’ll probably verify that I’m at fault. That’s the way she is – my most stalwart ally, but never one to keep quiet when she thinks I’ve screwed up.

We watch a movie together on the couch, which limits our conversation, and go to bed. By now I’m so exhausted sleep comes easily, as if my body and my nerves finally give in. After a good 10 hours I feel more rested than I have in a week and realize, as I drive to the tennis court, the best way to make things right with Rennie. I’m going to start off right away suggesting we pick partners and play alongside them for at least four games. I’m going to pick Rennie as my partner with the hope that we’ll win while staying relaxed and supportive of him if we don’t. In my mind I see it as the righting of a scale, a chance to make amends to a friend and become a better sport in my favorite game.

None of that happens, because as soon as I arrive George announces to the group:

“Rennie’s decided he’s not going to play anymore.”

There are murmurs all around; questions about why.

“He thinks he’s too old,” George says.

The players look at each other with disbelief, and make comments about how the gatherings won’t be the same without him.

No one mentions my outburst, but after a moment I pull George aside and whisper: “it’s because of the way I reacted when we lost that game, isn’t it?”

He looks down at the ground, and sighs.

“Just tell me the truth,” I say.

“It didn’t help.”

I feel a shadow passing over me as I look toward the rest of the crew, who are still talking about Rennie, sharing memories formed over decades of friendship.

“I’m so sorry, George.”

He sighs again, then makes an unconvincing effort to shrug. “Rennie’s a tough old guy. He’ll be okay.”

He leaves it at that as the first round of players head onto the court.

I sit down on the bench, my sense of shame coming back tenfold as I watch them. They’re noticeably subdued; there’s much less of the usual banter without the presence of the beloved ringleader. “Rennie started the whole group 20 years ago,” I remember George telling me, “but he’s been playing with some of these guys and gals even longer.”

I think about everything else I’ve learned about Rennie over the past few months. The 40 years he spent as one of the most beloved teachers at our local high school; his early country-boy life on a large plot of wooded land on the back bay that he eventually transformed into a campground for vacationing families; the tennis court erected at the center of that campground, a testament to his lifelong love of the game.

And then I think of his friends on the court. Most have been playing tennis since they were teenagers, transitioning from singles to doubles only after they finally admitted they couldn’t run as fast as they once had. They learned to emphasize the power of spin as opposed to the undependability of power itself, to work better as teammates regardless of who they were paired with; to simply enjoy the camaraderie and appreciate their ability to play.

I’m reminded again of the contrast to the way I play – running hard and hitting hard and thinking of nothing beyond a way to win every point as I watch Lucas Shoup – the handsomest man among us – shank a volley off to the side of the court.

The reaction is exactly what I expect – laughter and good-natured jeers and even a high five from one of the opponents on the other side of the net, coupled by a joke from the other opponent – Lucas’ wife – “That’s my hubby – Mr. Smooth!”

The laughter continues as they get into position for the next point, the moment of levity momentarily lifting their spirits past worries about Rennie, and bringing back the feeling of how it’s always been with him there. True to the cliché, the laughter is contagious, boosting my own mood as I suddenly imagine myself 10 years from now, thicker at the waist; braced up at the knees and elbows; knowing that I’ll live for these moments on the court with my friends.

A short beepbeep comes from the roadway beyond the courts.

I turn around on the bench, and watch as Rennie drives by in his 30-year-old red Mazda RX 7 convertible, his silver hair reflecting the sunlight, smiling and waving as he slows to a stop.

Everyone waves back. There are a few catcalls urging him to get off his lazy butt and get back on the court.

He cups a hand to his ear, pretending he can’t hear any of it, then pauses and gives us all a long, intent look, as if he’s memorizing the sight of us here.

There’s a long moment of near-silence as we look back at him. His smile is a little shaky, as if he’s working hard to convey high spirits even if he doesn’t feel them.

“He can’t play anymore but he’s still checking on us,” says one of the players.

“Yeah, checking on his kids,” says another.

* * *

I go home in a funk, back to our beautiful house, decorated now for Christmas. Linda and I both have extra time off to enjoy our life over the holidays. I should feel grateful but am still saddled with worries about my father and flashbacks over the way I treated Rennie.

The melancholy feeling is bad enough on its own – but it worsens on the two consecutive Sundays when Rennie drives by the tennis courts in his red Mazda again, slowing down and waving and lingering for a few moments before driving off.

Watching us, I think.

Keeping watch.

I learn from George that since giving up tennis Rennie has eased into a Saturday and Sunday morning routine. There’s the 8:30 a.m. breakfast, where he charms all of the waitresses at Denny’s, then a visit with his older brother at a nursing home, then the drive past the tennis courts, where he slows down, and waves and watches us play for a few moments before driving on.

The courts are close to his home, so it’s plausible to think he’s simply passing by, yet I know that to do so he has to take a few extra turns and sit through two traffic lights in order to get there. So there’s really no doubt: He’s checking on us because he misses us. I know everyone else in the group simply regards him as an 85-year-old man making a conscious decision to step away from an activity that could cause injuries while still wanting to stay connected to the people who made it matter. But I’m more conscious than ever of what I did to drive him to this point – that one verbal outburst; that one disparaging look across the court.

Eventually it all becomes too much – and on the last Saturday before Christmas, after a brief hour of hitting with the crew-minus-Rennie in blustery, chilly weather, I tell Linda everything that’s happened.

I tell her I want her honest opinion, expecting her to tell me I’m a jerk.

She laughs, a bit uncomfortably, and confirms it: “yes, you were, but who isn’t from time to time?”

Her candor over my confession relaxes me a bit.

“I talked to your dad a bit too,” she says. “On my own. Truth is, he isn’t as unhappy as you think he is, but probably won’t ever be as happy as you want him to be.”

“I know that,” I say.

“He misses your mom.”

The words hang in the air. I look past her, toward the neat lines of our patio and empty winter planter boxes, my mind drifting in the direction of memories I’ve shut away.

And then after a long moment she adds:

“He’s at an age where he has to acknowledge how many things have changed . . . and all of the things he wishes he could have changed.”

I think about that for half a minute or so before she leans over and kisses my cheek. We’ve been cooking, Italian this time. The house smells wonderful, and the happiness I feel in our companionship reminds me once again of the emptiness of my father’s home, with my mother gone.

“He’s going to be fine,” Linda tells me, as if she’s reading my mind. “He’ll spend Christmas with your sister and then he’ll go home to where the memories are, which is where he wants to be.”

The memories, I’m conscious of the nervous blinking of my eyes as I think of childhood Christmases and Thanksgiving spreads with all of the same dishes my dad brought to our house this year . . . and recall the easy companionship between my mom and dad living alone in our family house after my sister and I went off to college and onto our lives . . . and remember my father tending to my mom day in and day out as she struggled to beat cancer, and beside her in their bedroom as she passed on.

“I should have realized how important it is for him to be there,” I say. “And sure as hell should have held my temper -.”

“Enough of that,” she says, with a touch of impatience. “You didn’t singularly tear your dad’s world apart . . . and you don’t have to be completely on your own to fix it. Remember, you’ve got a niece nearby.”

“Mandy,” I say.

“Who’s got a fiancé who’ll do anything for her . . . just like you and your dad have done everything for her. Last I heard, college doesn’t come cheap these days.”

I remember the last weekend we spent with Mandy and Brandon, two lovebirds who will soon head to the altar for a marriage that I expect will stick for the duration.

“Well he is pretty crazy for her,” I say. “What are you thinking?”

“I’m thinking about a way to fix half of what’s bothering you about your dad.”

I start to say I’m all ears, but then I ask “what’s the other half?”

“Rennie,” she says. “In his red Mazda, with those drive-bys.”

I nod, then get up to mix another round of drinks as we make a plan.

* * *

December 24th has me on edge . . . the rule for the group is that the Fahrenheit has to hit 45 for us to play. The forecasters promise that’s the temperature we’ll see that at midday but it’s barely 40 at 8:30 when I head out of the house. I drive out to the tennis courts first. The gang won’t be there till the 10 a.m. gathering time but I want to make sure I’ll be able to snag a single court away from those that will be occupied by everyone else.

On the way I take a mental inventory of everything in the back of my Jeep; all of the devices of my deception, then call George to verify that his wife Janine has likewise bought into that deception.

And then I think about the text message I received from my niece the night before:

Brandon’s on-board – and super excited.

I make the call. My father picks up on the second ring, answers with a “Merry Christmas.”

There’s half a minute or so of small talk about the season and about how happy he is to spend the holiday with my sister. And then he lowers his voice just a touch.

“Got a call from Mandy and her boyfriend last night,” he says. “And a nice little surprise.”

I can hear the emotion in his voice, and it’s easy to imagine his reaction to the news that a team from Brandon Myles Construction will soon be transforming the space above his garage, in gratitude for the big bucks we’ve spent on Mandy’s education.

“I’m glad you’re happy,” I say, remembering his need to be independent. “They’ll do it all according to your plan. You’ll be in charge.”

He laughs, sounding decades younger, and says:

“Your mom would have loved this.”

I try to laugh as well, but feel just a little shaky as I think about that room over the garage and all the times my mother suggested it would be a good space for her to paint in, because of the nice northern light over the lake . . . and remember my dad’s decision to build a basement recreation room for his pool table instead.

And then I recall Linda’s words – He’s at an age when you regret things you might have changed, and regret what really has changed – and imagine what that space will be like – a shrine to her absence but also to their life together.

I tell him I love him, and choke up a little as I say goodbye.

I sit for a few moments, knowing we’ve left things on a high note, but still feeling a bit shaken as I glance at the clock. I expect that Rennie’s close to finishing up at Denny’s but I drive over and scan the parking lot just to be sure. I spot the red Mazda immediately because it’s at the edge of the lot, far from the doors, probably because he wants to minimize the chances of dings and scratches from other cars. I know from our conversations that it was rescued from a parts auction and brought back to life by his oldest son, a working-class guy who loves taking things apart and putting them back together. It’s one of those cars that would be described in a catalogue as being in “mint condition” and so much more attractive now than it was in its day. A relic from the 80s, I think, when Rennie was my age, and probably near the top of his tennis game.

Convinced that we’re on schedule, I head back to the road that runs alongside the courts. I park near the entrance to the complex, at a spot I know Rennie will travel past, then wave to George and Janine as they step out of their own car 200 yards away and onto a court that’s set apart from those that will soon be occupied by the rest of our crew. As promised, George has a compression sleeve around his elbow, black and shiny against his pale skin.

So far, so good, I think, and reach into my tennis bag. I pull out a roll of gauze and wrap it around my right knee, then strap supports under both knees, then take a few steps around the Jeep, mimicking the motion of someone just barely on the mend after an injury. I figure I need the practice because the real injuries won’t be long in coming. There will be a day, fairly soon, when I’ll be just like the rest of the gang, wrapped up and braced up and happy to simply be in the game.

I take a few deep breaths, convincing myself that everything will work out the way I imagine, but worried that the routine will change as I watch all of the other players gather on the other courts where we play. But then I turn and look back toward the entrance to the development just in time to see the red Mazda turn in.

Rennie’s driving with the top down, wearing mirrored sunglasses and and scarf around his neck.

I quickly step out of the car, with an open tube of Ben Gay. I quickly squirt about half of the entire contents into my hand and rub it on my legs and pretend to notice – just then – the red Mazda’s approach.

I wave and step into the roadway, so Rennie has no choice but to slow down. I give him a big smile, which he sort of returns, with a twitch of nerves in his cheek.

I step closer, with a barely perceptible limp, as he eases to a stop. His ears are red from the cold; his hair glinting bright white in the sun.

I reach over and squeeze his shoulder. “What’s happenin’ young man?”

He makes a visible sniffing motion, a reaction to catching a lungful of the menthol from the Ben Gay, then glances down at my legs. “Doin’ good – but what’s with you?”

I loosen my knees and make a slight up-and-down motion. “Ah, I’ve got all kinds of problems today. Sore joints, stiffness.”

He frowns slightly, still taking it all in.

“Gettin’ a little older,” I say, with a smile, “and now I’m in a bind. I set up doubles with George and Janine and Lucas because I wanted to play slower and easier . . . probably not even for real points but just because I wanted to get out here and move around . . . unfortunately Lucas just called and told me he’s got a cold.”

There’s a minor false note in my voice; an anxious shortness in my breath. Rennie’s eyes are hidden behind the mirrored sunglasses, but I know he’s looking straight into mine.

“That’s too bad, son” he says.

I make the loose-kneed up and down motion again; shake out one leg and then the other as I look toward George and Janine. They’re on opposite sides of the net. They should be hitting, warming up. Instead they’re anxiously watching me and Rennie.

Rennie follows my gaze. I notice the rise and fall of his chest, a slight tilt of his head, and know almost for certain that he’s on to us. I think of what I’d planned to say next – my suggestion that since he’s here he should join us; the underlying understanding that with my injuries and his age that it’ll make good sense for us all to be playing together.

I’m still trying to figure out how to say it just right when he says:

“George looks a little off today too.”

“He is!” I say, a bit too emphatically. “I told him he shouldn’t even try to play with that thing on his elbow but he can’t stop himself. Which means we’re both a little crippled I guess.”

There’s another twitch in Rennie’s cheek, another rise and fall of his chest. My heart quickens as I ask him:

“Can you join us, Rennie?”

When he looks at me again there’s absolutely no doubt that he knows exactly what we’ve planned. For one moment I think he might call me on it – maybe even reprimand me like he might have done to one of his students, back in the day. Yet in the next moment all I can think of is him saying no, and driving away.

“Please,” I say in a quiet, pleading voice. “We really need another player.”

He sits very still, giving me no indication of which way it’ll go as I stand there, my knees genuinely quivering now – a nervous sensation that recalls that picture of me as a toddler, the braces around my legs, my father propping me up.

“I’ve got an extra racquet in my bag,” I say.

I see another twitch in his cheek, an unmistakable sign of emotion as he absently glances down at the floor of the Mazda’s passenger side. I lean a little farther over the car, and see the Slazenger logo on the dark gray bag that’s lying there.

I smile, realizing then that he gave up playing but kept the bag in his car; realizing that he never gave up hope that he’d be back in the game.

And then I sigh, breathing in deep, as he tells me, “I’ve got that covered, son,” and just barely manage to hide the tears as he gives me a little salute, then eases into a parking place and then gets out with his bag on his shoulder.

I sway on the balls of my feet as I watch him, my heart quickening with happy anticipation.

“Merry Christmas, by the way,” he says as we walk together, slow and easy, toward the court.

# # #

BROADKILL BEACH

 

Meth-fills-hospitals-with-burn-patients-JUSM4P2-x-large

 

Lucas feels a phantom pain beneath the scars on his cheek and nearly winces from memories of the flash fire and the burning meth and the concrete jail cell as he meets Chase Raythorne’s eyes across the room.

“You should consider yourself lucky,” Chase tells him. “You could’ve been locked up a lot longer.”

He hesitates for what he knows is an instant too long before answering.  “Yeah well it was plenty long enough.”

“You get any extra sympathy for those burns?”

Chase’s tone is taunting, and there’s a smirk on his darkly handsome face. He’s wearing a fancy blue sweater and is deeply tanned following a late October golf weekend down south – clear evidence of the kind of money you make practicing law, the kind that also pays for what Chase has promised is “pure as the driven snow” coke in the vial that he’s holding between his thumb and forefinger.

“Sympathy’s the last thing I deserve.” Lucas answers.

“Yeah well it’s still good to have you back.” Chase is still smirking, and Lucas thinks it’s because he knows how talkative he used to be on blow; thinks Chase probably wants him to talk, because he suspects –

“I can’t touch that.” He nods toward the vial. “Drug testing’s a mandatory part of the parole.”

Chase frowns theatrically and says. “Ah . . . shucks” as he slips the vial back into his pocket. And then he stares at Lucas again, his eyes just a bit harder, a bit more challenging.

“So tell me, Lucas, how did you get out so soon?”

He sucks in a deep breath, thinking again of the promise – “I’m gonna’ fix this; make you proud” – that he made to Detective Darrell Brown.

And then he sees the shadow in the faint light just outside the glass door to the deck. And then Jade, sliding the door open and stepping in.

She’s as beautiful as ever even with her hair pulled under the black baseball cap that matches her black shirt and pants and gloves; beautiful even with the gun that she raises in a two-handed grip, and points at his face.

He stares at the gun, then looks into her eyes, seeing but not believing the sideways tilt of her head, or the words – “sorry Lucas” – on her lips, or the flash of the muzzle as the bullet pierces his skull.

* * *

The getaway happens within a minute, with nothing said beyond a few shocked curses from Chase and Jade’s whispered order for him to just get out of there.

They race away in different directions to ensure they aren’t seen together; Jade on the Harley at an unsuspicious pace on the road that runs parallel to the beach, past the few bungalows occupied by year-round residents who won’t be apt to remember her; Chase at a faster clip on the road that leads straight out to the highway.

Half an hour later Jade makes her way to Chase’s sprawling, shingle style house with its straight-on view of the ocean. The Python stolen in the drug raid is tucked into her waistband at the small of her back and her golden hair falls to her shoulders as she pulls off the cap. She feels jittery, but confident in her decision as Chase stares at her.

“Jade . . .What the hell . . ?”

“It was the only way.” She steps into his vast living room with its ocean view. “Because almost everything we worried about was true.”

His lips form a tight line. She imagines the course of his thoughts as he realizes she’s been right from the beginning. After being knocked unconscious in the meth lab explosion, Lucas Paynter had gone to jail fully aware that the massive shipment of pseudoephedrine that became available to half a dozen of the state’s biggest dealers one year earlier was in fact made possible by Chase William Raythorne, Jr., Esq. She had feared as much when she convinced him to pay a visit to Lucas’ Broadkill Beach bungalow, to “poke around Lucas’ head and see if he gives any of it away.”

Meanwhile she’d done some poking around of her own, succeeding ably thanks to the “mentorship” of Detective Darrell Brown, who’s wholly convinced that she’s nothing more than a true-blue fighter for justice and peace.

“There’s no doubt,” she adds. “Darrell suspected Lucas knew something about the shipment and visited him twice at the jail. First to put the idea of squealing in his head. And then to present the deal he was going to get for giving you up.”

She watches as the last bit of color drains from his face.

“Don’t worry, so far they really don’t have enough to hang you with,” she says with a smile. “And now without Lucas they’ve got next to nothing.”

She sees the quiver in his shoulders as he absently sits down on the arm of his antique leather chair. She puts one hand around the back of his neck, puts the other on the buckle of his belt and feels a flash of heat as she remembers the dumbfounded terror on Lucas Paynter’s face the instant before she pulled the trigger.

She wonders if Chase might be just a bit afraid of her as well. The mere thought quickens her heart and her desire as she whispers into his ear.

“The bottom line is I saved your ass. Now I’m gonna’ give you mine.”

* * *

Crazy is as crazy does, Katherine Paynter thinks. And crazy’s something you never really have to explain.

The words run in a loop through her mind as she sits in the front row of Parsell’s Funeral Home and tries to stay calm as Jade McClellan squeezes her hand. She’s always known about Jade’s prodigious abilities as an actress, but she’s truly amazed with her ability to summon actual tears.

She turns her head, sees a fresh one sliding down Jade’s model-perfect face. And then she does a bit of acting on her own – a gentle nod, an I’m all right pursing of her lips – as Jade meets her eyes. Regardless of the blackness in the girl’s heart Katherine has to admit she’s quite a sight in her perfectly pressed Delaware State Police uniform, her bottle-blonde hair pulled into a bun with a few loose strands framing her perfectly sculpted cheeks. It takes just one momentary glimpse into her mind to see the image she’s pretending to project: the trusted face of law enforcement . . . coupled with her presence as a long-term family friend, the first great love of Lucas Paynter’s life.

She just barely suppresses the shudder that comes with that quick glimpse.

Have to stop this; turn it off.

 Stick with the plan.

Which isn’t easy as the organist eases into the finale that signals the end of the service. Not surprisingly, Jade takes her arm, then stands at her side and smiles sadly through still-more fake tears as the people step up to say good-bye.

When it’s over they walk arm-in-arm to Jade’s police car; Jade talking about her absolute determination to wipe out the scourge of illegal drugs that are “ruining so many lives;” Katherine wondering what it would be like to throw a sucker punch and knock her to the ground.

Her living room at the front of the grand old Colonial house is as she left it, with the drapes pulled back from the tall windows that face the canal. By habit Jade assumes she’ll want to go straight to the kitchen and gathering room, which is lined with her prize-winning preserves of fruits and vegetables beside the walk-in fireplace and the desk where she writes and illustrates cookbooks sold at the farmer’s market and gift shops downtown.

But then as planned Katherine nods toward the living room instead, and tells Jade to please sit down as she flicks a switch for the gas logs in the hearth, then opens the bar and pulls out a bottle of the Pinot Noir she’s selected for just this occasion.

After an obligatory “I really shouldn’t even though I’m officially off-duty,” Jade accepts a small glass and sits down and says: “This is the hardest time.”

Katherine takes a hit of the Pinot, knowing what’s coming. “How do you mean, dear?”

“When the services are over, and you’re left alone – when you can’t help but think about how they died. That’s the way it was with my dad.”

Katherine wonders if the girl is intentionally playing with her, and peeps into her mind again. She sees a rush of images from the night Jade murdered her father: the round from the silenced semi-automatic pistol ripping through his neck; the spray of blood that coated the mobile home’s tiny living room; Renny McClellan’s eyes wide with shocked incomprehension of what Jade had done.

The scenes are frightening, but not nearly as frightening as her understanding of Jade’s mindset as she watched the man die – an absolute lack of conscience as she calmly stepped out of the house and drove away, knowing the crime would look as if it had been committed by an intruder.

She’s just about to turn it off when she senses something unexpected – a shakiness around the edges of Jade’s heart.

She’s at least a little scared; wondering how long she can keep it up.

How long before she’s exposed.

The opportunity comes to her in an instant, a chance to go beyond the reading of the girl’s mind and actually step in to it. She shuts her eyes; sees a photo-negative image of Jade’s brain and concentrates on her right temporal lobe, imagining the outline of a door opening toward the amygdalae within: two tiny round nerve centers for the impulses that drive fight or flight impulses of anxiety and fear.

She lingers for just a moment, just long enough for Jade to hear her voice.

You SHOULD be scared, dear.

Because you WILL be exposed.

And then because she’s fully able she squeezes her eyelids tighter and sends a jagged strike of lightening into the center of the girl’s forehead, then purposefully imagines the hot pain radiating throughout the top layer of gray matter in her brain.

She hears a gasping sound, and opens her eyes to the sight of Jade pressing her fingers against her temples.

She pretends not to notice. “I’m not alone, Jade. I can feel Lucas’ spirit comforting me, now that I finally know my affliction will do some good.”

Jade is still frowning in pain, looking a bit confused as she recovers. “Your affliction . . .”

“What else can we call it? This condition that’s ruled my life for 60-odd years? It’s only now that I can turn off the voices and the visions for the most part. The mental chaos was so much worse when Lucas was growing up – making it impossible for me to be the mother he deserved, playing havoc with my mother’s social standing and my father’s political fortunes thanks to the stigma of it all.”

She pauses, her voice shaking despite the careful planning that’s gone into the entire script.

“I know I passed a good bit of it down to my Lucas, who couldn’t resist the pull of drugs. I know that’s why things never worked out for you two, even though you were just the most beautiful couple of kids back in high school.”

Jade summons a new reaction, her face a picture of melancholy in the flickering firelight. Katherine watches for just a moment before her mind goes back to the vision that came to her at Lloyd’s grocery three nights before, when she reached toward the door of the ice cream case and suddenly saw Jade looking back at her; Jade with her arms outstretched and her hands holding a gun; Jade’s voice – “sorry Lucas” – like a whisper before the flash of the muzzle and the blackout that crumpled her to the floor.

She holds onto the vision, as horrible as it is, for a few moments longer before pouncing.

“The point is, I finally have a reason to be hopeful. Because the condition is finally going to do some good. That’s why I wanted you to bring me home, to let you know that Darrell absolutely believes in me.”

Jade’s eyes widen. “Darrell . . .?”

Your Darrell – Darrell Brown,” Katherine says, with a broader smile as she sets down her wine and undoes the top two buttons of her blouse and pulls out the small silver locket that she’s been wearing around her neck. “Believe it or not, we’re going steady.”

“Oh . . .” Jade’s surprise is apparent as she stares at the locket.

“We’ve been an item for the past six months but have kept it quiet. But Lucas’ death has brought us closer than ever, and given us a shared mission.”

She pauses, cognizant of the sudden clench of Jade’s pretty, narrow jaw, and then lowers her voice for a bit of extra drama.

“We’re going to work together expose the killer – you, me, and Darrell. It won’t be hard, because he’s already got a prime suspect in mind.”

* * *

Chase is three drinks into what promises to be a hell of a bender when he hears the crunch of gravel under tires and looks out the windows of his second floor study and sees the unmarked Crown Vic pull to a stop in the driveway.

The jolt is instant – like a hard kick to his solar plexus as he glances toward the yellow legal pad with two pages of notes about legal precedents regarding the use of second-hand informants intermixed with thoughts on the exact words he’ll use to urge the partners of his firm to mount a defense if Detective Darrell Brown actually does acquire enough evidence to destroy his life.

He wonders if it’s already too late as Brown opens the driver’s side door and languidly steps out of the car with a phone at his ear – a sight that coincides with the ringing of the burner phone that he bought to communicate with Jade.

He answers with a faint “what?” and hears a tirade about Lucas Paynter’s “spooky crazy bitch mother” who’s been “screwing that stupid ape” Darrell Brown. She talks in a breathless whisper for half a minute before pausing.

His own voice shakes as he responds:

“He’s here now.”

“Who?”

“Brown. Your mentor. In my driveway.”

The words hang in the air, and with them the insinuation that she clearly overestimated the power of her relationship with Detective Darrell Brown to protect them both.

And then he hears, for the very first time, an uncertainty in her voice.

“I’m worried, Chase.”

“You told me he doesn’t have enough -.”

“It’s not just about Darrell. It’s Katherine . . . she’s done something. To me. Something to my head.”

He thinks of the schizophrenia that Katherine Paynter’s been treated for her entire life; remembers Lucas talking about the “visions” that would send her into seclusion for days on end.

“What do you mean, your head?”

“It’s like she’s in there Chase, messing with me.”

“You’re losing your mind,” he tells her, and hangs up as Brown suddenly looks up from the driveway, meeting his eyes and pantomiming the firing of a gun.

* * *

At the front door Darrell shakes his hands and smiles, giving Chase the faint hope that the thumb and forefinger gun gesture was meant in jest. But then he frowns above the smile and tells him “looks like you’re in it deep, brother.”

He frowns back, doing his absolute best to look confused. “What do you mean?”

Brown shuffles his two-toned wingtips on the doormat and steps into the foyer and shuts the door. And lays out “some troublin’ rumors” that go beyond whatever Lucas would have told him: a disturbingly accurate account about the pharmaceutical company represented by Alexander, Bradley and Raythorne. The vast amounts of pseudoephedrine the company imports from third world countries where corruption is the cost of doing business. The impossibility of tracking every container that comes through the Port of Philadelphia. And finally, Darrell’s assertion that “someone” must of made “one hell of a windfall” from diverting enough of a shipment to “a dealer who’s got about 10,000 junkies on his gravy train.”

He clears his throat. “That’s preposterous, Detective.”

“Hey man – I’m with you!” Brown smiles like a preacher rousing up a crowd. “Though I gotta’ say I can see why people are connectin’ some dots.”

“They’re wasting their time.”

“Yeah, I know, but you understand why I had to come by and lay it out for you. Cause word’s gotten round to the dealer who got blown up in the same fire that burned Lucas Paynter. His family’s out for blood. And gotta’ admit how the dots would lead ‘em to you.”

“I had nothing to do with any drugs, or with Lucas’ death.”

“I believe you, man. I know you guys were friends from way back, even though your lives went different directions. That’s why I wanna’ help you prove you got nothin’ to do with this.”

He leans against the foyer wall, his head as light as cotton, knowing what’s next.

“Come on into the station . . . give us some prints. If we don’t find a match in Lucas’ house you’ll be halfway there.”

* * *

He calls Jade back 20 minutes later, feeling like a deflated punching bag after the back-and-forth that followed Brown’s “invitation” to be printed, knowing his refusal on legal terms wouldn’t have held up in the long run, and knowing that the path he’s chosen is the only reasonable option he has.

He tells her not to say anything, because even a burner phone can’t be trusted, then asks her to meet him back on Broadkill Beach, this time outside a seasonal home that he knows is locked for the winter.

He drives his BMW at a law-abiding pace; watching the traffic all around him, highly alert to the possibility that he’s being followed, but finds the 50 MPH expressway to Broadkill Beach deserted as he heads toward the meeting place.

He parks and heads to a spot slightly sheltered by a low dune, sits down on the sand and looks up at the sky and briefly thinks about Lucas’ love of Broadkill, with its cottages on a ribbon of sand three miles north of his family manse in the far tonier town of Lewes. And then he thinks about the bungalow Lucas moved into the first day after his release. “A little piece of heaven in the middle of nowhere,” Lucas called it. “Where nobody knows about my crazy mind.”

He senses Jade before he sees her, coming up directly behind him, carrying a knapsack, dressed once again in black.

“I’m dead,” he tells her, and stares out at the night sky as he reveals all of the ‘rumors’ that Detective Darrell Brown conveyed to him; none of it amounting to what he needs to bring charges yet, but enough to keep him in Brown’s sights forever.

“Which is why you shouldn’t have done what you did,” he says. “Because I can’t live the rest of my life under a microscope, always knowing I’m going to be exposed. Because, really Jade, Lucas had some information but not nearly enough –.”

The sound of a rapid intake of breath stops him. He turns to see her with another gun in her hand, a semiautomatic, with a silencer. He looks into her eyes and imagines for just an instant that he’s seeing a glimmer of remorse before she shoots him in the face.

* * *

Crazy is as crazy does, Jade thinks. And crazy’s something you never really have to explain.

The words run in a loop through her mind as she slips the Glock she has just used on Chase into her waistband, then reaches into her backpack and takes the Python that killed Lucas and carefully places it in Chase’s still-warm right hand. Then after grabbing his keys from his pocket she goes to his BMW and slips the Python into his glove compartment, which will be searched shortly after his body is found. It won’t take long to tie the gun to Lucas’ killing or to find Chase’s prints in Lucas’ house, thereby giving Lucas’ freak-show mother and Detective Darrell Brown the killer they’re so determined to find.

She slips away on the black Harley that would have been left to her intentionally if her father had died a natural death – which itself wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t confronted her with questions about the fire that burned Lucas and the down payment for her new house and the rumors that a Delaware State Police cop was making good money tipping off meth dealers in advance of busts.

With help from a double shot of Jack Daniels she slips into an addled sleep two hours later, dreaming for the millionth time about the parade where she was crowned as the Cape Henlopen High School Homecoming Queen and her graduation from the Delaware Police Academy and the image of true-blue perfection before awakening to the buzz of her doorbell, and a basket of jarred preserves on her front porch, and the sight of Katherine Paynter’s 20-year-old Mercedes pulling away.

Katherine has left her a note on top of the preserves, thanking her for her “support” during the service. She reads it as she sips her first cup of coffee; thinking of Katherine’s big old Lewes home and her big old fortune and the fact that there are no heirs as she sets the glass jars out on the granite kitchen counter.

And then she sees the odd item at the bottom of the basket. A piece of lined notebook paper with a caricature of Katherine’s round, smiling face surrounded by her long, wiry silver hair. A stupid drawing, reminiscent of those in Katherine’s self-illustrated cookbooks, wrapped around a thumb drive with a rubber band.

She remembers Katherine’s inane promise to give her an advance look at the recipes that will be in the next edition; thinks of how grateful she’ll act the next time she sees the crazy bitch as she slips the drive into her computer, and hears the faint sound of wind and small, lapping waves, and Chase Raythorne’s voice:

“. . . I can’t live the rest of my life under a microscope, always knowing I’m going to be exposed. Because, really Jade, Lucas had some information but not nearly enough –.”

The muffled thwut of the gunshot through the silencer comes next.

She jerkily stands up and looks out the window as a dagger of pain pierces her temples, then staggers two steps before bracing herself with her palm against the wall.

And then she remembers Katherine telling her about the plan to “expose the killer;” and Chase’s fear of being “exposed” and envisions how easy it must have been for Darrell Brown to slip the recorder into the pocket of Chase’s jacket, to run a microphone no bigger than the blunt end of a straight pin up through the top button of his shirt, enabling Chase to save himself by selling her out.

And then she envisions what will certainly happen next. Her arrest, at the time of Darrell Brown’s choosing. Her wrists in cuffs as she’s marched away.

Your heart of darkness, Katherine whispers; a soft, taunting voice in her mind.

Exposed.

Your lying, heartless life.

Exposed – .

“No,” she says, and looks toward her knapsack hanging by the hook in the foyer, and thinks of the Python in the zippered front compartment, wondering how the muzzle will feel at the back of her throat as another dagger of pain pierces her forehead and Katherine Paynter’s voice comes at her again. 

Best to end it, here and now, dear.

Here.

Now.

Dear.

# # #

 

 

 

 

 

 

SPECULATION

broken_windows_by_szorny_stock-d625zex

Seconds after stepping off the Metro, under a flickering streetlight, Alexandra feels the skin prickling at the back of her neck.

Ignore it. She stiffens her spine.  Keep moving. Walk with purpose.

The very thought makes her smirk as she approaches the corner guarded by two teenage boys and pauses, her eyes scanning the street for a passing car, knowing that neither a change in her gait nor her attitude will make a difference if she gets in the way of a drive-by in the battles over drug turf that rage day and night. 

For now the neighborhood seems eerily quiet, but she keeps her distance as she passes them, purposefully imagining a future when the Victorian wrecks that line the block will be transformed and the rising tide of property values comes within  selling distance of her own home.

And then she sees another one, stepping out of the alley up ahead, his face shadowed by a black hooded sweatshirt, coming toward her with a slouching stride.

She ignores the impulse to cross the street, but tightens her grip on the strap of her purse.

His pace quickens as he gets closer, his hand moving toward his waistband as the distance shortens to 10 feet, then five –

And passes, without ever meeting her eyes.

She exhales with relief; feels a  flash of guilt over her suspicion –

And feels his hard grip on her shoulder, like pliers on her flesh as he jerks her around.

“Give it up.”

His face is an inch away now, a long, raised scar like a half moon on his cheek.

“GIVE IT UP!”

There’s a hard pressure between her ribs. She looks down. Sees the gun —

And drops her bag. He kicks it to the side and leans down to pick it up, pointing the weapon at her face now.

“Please . . .” she whispers.

Something happens in his eyes, a flicker of emotion as he moves slightly back.

But the gun is still there.

“Take the purse,” she whispers again.  “Just please . . .don’t hurt me.”

He stares at her, the gun quivering in his hand. It’s still pointed at her as he breaks into a sideways run, the hood slipping off the back of his head.

“Next time I blow you away!” he calls out.

She thinks of how easily it could have happened.  Tonight.  Any night.  Less than 20 feet from her front door.

“Next time we gon’ bust you for real!”

* * *

“Here . . .” Enrique hands her a double shot of Booker’s single barrel bourbon in a crystal tumbler. His eyes are reddened by fatigue, and the concern in his handsome face makes Alexandra feel even worse as she lifts the glass and looks at the black police officer who has come to take the report. Officer Whitney Jones is a striking woman with broad hips and shoulders and eyes that remind her of brown velvet. She seems preternaturally calm as she gazes around the living room, with its hardcover classics lining the bookshelves, the three-masted schooner painting above the mantel, the duck and horse prints on the wall. An old money tableau in one of the worst neighborhoods in the city.

“Are you sure we can’t get you something?” Alexandra asks. “Water, or a soda?”

“No,” Jones shakes her head as she meets her eyes again. “But I do need you to try to come up with a better description of this guy. I can’t post a look-out unless I can tell the other officers what to look for.”

She nods, but senses an ironic undertone in Officer Jones’ phrasing, since the assailant is virtually indistinguishable from any of the teens and young men who roam the local streets.

But then she takes a long sip of the good bourbon, and manages to remember: “He was young, 17 or 18 maybe. “

“How tall?” Jones asks.

“I’m 5’7″. He was shorter.”

“Could you guess his weight?”

“He was very thin. 120 or 30.”

She pauses. “What I remember most was the gun. An automatic. A nine millimeter probably.”

Jones’ eyes widen a bit.

“I’ve shot one a few times, in Virginia where it’s legal. My family has a horse farm in Middleburg. I have an uncle who taught me.”

She presses her fingertips against her heart, remembers the boy’s shaking hand as he pressed the gun against her ribs.

“He actually seemed a little scared.”

“Jesus,” Enrique looks towards the bay window, disgust in his eyes. Over and over he had warned her to never walk home alone from the Metro after dark. Now, as the shock begins to subside, she feels guilty. And foolish. And angrier than ever, knowing that the purse and its contents are almost certainly gone for good.

“Are you sure that’s all you can tell me?” Jones asks.

“She said that’s all she remembers,” Enrique snaps.

Jones frowns slightly, and taps her pen against her pocket-sized notebook, then meets her eyes again.

“I want you to try something for me, Mrs. Rodriguez. Close your eyes.  Block the rest of us out.  Put yourself back to when it happened.  Tell us what you see.”

She does as the woman asks, sees the dark street, the boy approaching.  “He’s black.”

Heat rushes to her face.  “I mean it’s not the first thing I see, but . . .”

“Keep going. What’s your first impression?”

“That he’s coming for me.  He was wearing a hooded sweatshirt . . . but it fell down when he ran away. I remember . . . he had tiny braids . . . and a scar on his face.”

Several seconds tick by. Jones is frowning at her when she opens her eyes.

“The scar . . . was it on the right side or the left?”

“He was facing me.  It was on his right.”

Jones nods, and clicks her pen with several rapid, nervous motions. “Think again. Are you sure you’ve never seen him in the neighborhood before?”

“I don’t know.”

“Is it possible?”

“Yes.  It’s possible.”

“So what all did he get?”

“My purse. With my wallet and credit cards and some cash . . . and my husband’s birthday present – a pair of gold cufflinks

She feels Enrique’s forearm tense behind her neck, turns around, sees the outright pain in his eyes, then decides to reveal just a little bit more about the other incidents that have put both of them on edge.

“This isn’t the first time we’ve been targeted, Officer Jones. Two months ago someone broke into our house and attacked my husband in the middle of the day. He spent two days in the hospital with a concussion. The police who took the report weren’t helpful at all – said they couldn’t do anything with the description he gave them. It was like they didn’t even try.”

Jones frowns again. “What was that description?”

She pauses, feeling the racial awkwardness at its worst.

“It was a black guy, a teenager, in a hooded sweatshirt.” Enrique answers for her. “He ambushed me when I got out of my car in the alley. Told me to give up my wallet. Then forced his way into the house with a gun at my back.”

Jones winces slightly. “I’m sorry you had to go through that Mr. Rodriguez. I really am.”

Alexandra watches her for a moment longer, and knows the sentiment is genuine. And then she decides to tell her what scares both of them the most.

“There’s also the graffiti,” she says softly. “On the stockade fence behind our patio. It’s like a direct threat.”

“What do you mean, direct?” Jones asks.

“The message – “

She glances at Enrique again, his expression taking her back to the moment the two of them stepped through the gate and saw the bright red letters spray-painted against the weathered wood.

DIE BITCH

“We saw it this morning when we were leaving for work,” she says. “It must have been sprayed on some time last night.”

The mere mention of the graffiti has brought new lines of worry to Enrique’s face. Behind his sadness and exhaustion she detects a deeper sense of fear.

Like the worst-case scenario is actually coming true, she thought. Like it’s suddenly personal.

“I love you,” he says.

“I love you too,” she tells him, wondering once again if it’s going to be enough to get them through.

His shoulders sag as he turns back toward Jones. “Come on. I’ll show you.”

* * *

Three blocks away, alongside a city office building in the final phase of construction, Garrett Fiske sits behind the wheel of his BMW and squints at the screen of his phone. The images of Alexandra and Enrique’s living room are indistinct due to the low-level of light from the tiny lens tucked into the chandelier. Still, he has to hand it to the geek who installed the hidden cameras and the microphones throughout the place during its reconstruction, placing $20,000 worth of clandestine surveillance gear within its walls and fixtures. For six months it’s been easy to tune in, without a single technological glitch, to watch their lives fall apart.

He momentarily sets his phone down on the console of the $150,000 ride, knowing it won’t be difficult to explain his presence if a curious cop comes by and questions him since he owns the company that’s financing the building behind him, already framed and rising six stories into the night sky, the first of many “anchors” that will put the neighborhood on a far more prosperous course.

And then he goes back to the video he shot himself from his car an hour before; watches again as Alexandra moves along the sidewalk 200 yards from her house – watches as the boy as he approaches her, his hand hovering over the gun in his waistband, doing exactly as he was told.

* * *

Three hours into the night, they are asleep and dreaming, Alexandra incapacitated by several more shots of the good bourbon; Enrique in an addled slumber that will leave him anxious and fatigued when the morning comes.

Alexandra’s dream is a series of images that cycle through her mind in some form almost every night. She’s at the party around a dying bonfire on Martha’s Vineyard. It’s a dark night – muggy and starless from the overcast sky. She’s sitting on the sand, her arms crossed awkwardly over her chest, avoiding Garrett’s glaring looks but feeling his anger as he waves away the party’s last drunken guests. Fortunately or not she stopped drinking an hour before, right about the time she decided that whatever she and Garrett had is finally over. Since then she’s been preoccupied over how to tell her mother, and her father, thinking of their inevitable disappointment  –

She feels a tap on her shoulder, looks up to see Garrett looking down, a red plastic cup in his hand.

“No,” she tells him, despite the croaking dryness in her throat.

“It’s your favorite Ginger Ale,” he tells her, knowing how much she loves the locally brewed, all-organic soft drink. “It’d be a waste to pour it out.”

She shrugs and takes it; drinks it down, grateful for the cool, sweet taste, then tells him: “I’m turning in.”

“Me too,” he says, with a smile that provides no cover for the lingering anger in his eyes. After two years of conflict over his stifling possessiveness, which has recently morphed into full-fledged stalking, she has made a clear that her decision is final.

But the condescending gleam in his eyes tells her he isn’t buying it.

“I’ll walk you back,” he says.

She shakes her head, her whole body rigid with tension.

He continues staring at her. She wonders if anyone has ever said no to him in his entire life.

“Just go Garrett. Leave me alone.”

He stands over her, saying nothing. And then after a long moment he seems to get the message and heads back through the dunes, his stride slow and confident, as if her decision has made no difference for him.

She stays put for 10 minutes, breathing deep, listening to the surf. But when she tries to stand she teeters on wobbly knees and falls backward, her butt hitting the sand.

She groans, and has a vague thought that Garrett might have poisoned her as a wave of nausea rolls through her stomach. Her eyelids droop heavily, tempting her to simply lie back and let sleep take over.

But then she thinks of the four poster bed in her favorite room in the family house; with its diaphanous canopy and cool linen sheets, and wants nothing more than to be there, right now.

She leans forward and concentrates on her balance as she awkwardly stands back up, more certain now that the ginger ale was laced with something.

And then she heads back, along the slatted path between the dunes, wobbling but determined, until a hard shove from the darkness knocks her sideways, her arms too slow to break her fall as she goes down, face-first on the sand; Garrett’s voice – “BITCH!” – terrifying her as he lands a punch against the side of her head.

And then she feels his hands around her ankles, her body going rag-doll limp as he drags her back into the dunes.

* * *

Enrique’s dream begins in what was supposed to be a happy place: the oak-sheltered driveway aside Alexandra’s parents’ Kalorama mansion, his Ford F10 pickup looking like a vehicle left behind by their cadre of gardeners but  his mind bright and hopeful as he looks down at the glittering diamond on Alexandra’s hand.

But then as always the happy feeling fades when they enter the house to announce the engagement – to Wentworth Bancroft in his artfully distressed leather chair, his Mount Rushmore face clearly revealing his scorn, and to Clarice Bancroft on the edge of her embroidered settee, her thin shoulders quivering as she fights back tears.

“How . . . wonderful,” Clarice responds to their announcement, as if she’s taking her last living breath.

“Yes,” Wentworth says, before a long, impenetrable silence.

Biding his time, Enrique thinks, cognizant even in the dream of the naiveté that led him to think that half of his savings spent on a diamond ring would win them over, now that he so clearly understands the difference between earning money and having money, between working your way up in society and doing whatever the hell you have to do to protect your place in it.

And then suddenly he’s back in the pickup again, looking down at the diamond on Alexandra’s hand, watching it flicker and blur, changing shape into the golden cufflinks that were stolen from her tonight, taking him back to the worst nightmare of all.

* * *

The workday starts just before noon for Whitney Jones, in the second week of a diet that aims to shed 10 pounds before her upcoming walk down the aisle, where she’ll finally get the gold ring from Detective Marcus Brown.

Marcus is behind the wheel of an unmarked Crown Vic, holding her left hand and gently massaging the finger where he will place that ring as they drive past the perfectly restored row house owned by Alexandra and Enrique Rodriguez

“I still can’t believe it was our boy,” Marcus says.

The “boy” Marcus is referring to De’Andre Williams, a 19-year-old local who’s become a Confidential Informant on matters related to the deaths of two young women within a two block radius of the Rodriguez home. From his slight build to his braided hair to the half-moon scar on his cheek, De’Andre is a perfect match to the description Alexandra Rodriguez gave of her mugger the night before.

“Yeah me either,” Whitney agrees. De’Andre Williams has a handful of drug arrests that make him well known and unthreatening to the probable murderer of the two neighborhood women. Fortunately or not, De’Andre is also completely terrified of the man, which makes his mental state shaky at best.

But that still doesn’t explain why he would hold up a woman like Alexandra Bancroft Rodriguez.

Someone who actually matters, Whitney thinks, now that she knows a bit more about Alexandra and her blue-blooded family and private school education and the beleaguered path her father took en route to becoming the U.S. Treasury Secretary – from Wall Street wealth to Washington power, somehow getting past the controversies that stood in his way.

She continues to mull it all over as Marcus speeds up, going past the vacant row house where the first victim was shot in the head, then past another property, now condemned by the city, where the second victim had lived as a squatter. Ten minutes later they’re in a far better part of the city, an avenue lined with upscale retail and condos and a McDonalds retrofitted into a corner grocery store built in the art deco style. A regular meeting place for the CI, in a neighborhood where he won’t be recognized.

De’Andre Williams is already inside when they arrive, staring up at the overhead menu showcasing the meal that will be paid for by the Metropolitan Police Department. He sees them, then scans the room, as if there’s any chance an acquaintance from the neighborhood would find him here with a detective and a uniformed cop.

Whitney gives him her warmest smile and the two-handed handshake he’s accustomed to, saying nothing more as he orders the largest and most expensive combo on the menu. But she wastes no time in calling him out the moment they sit down at a booth.

“We know about the lady you stuck up last night.”

His reaction is instant; a quick, nervous blinking of his eyes, a bobbing of his Adams apple from what is probably a dry-mouthed swallow.

“We’re disappointed,” Marcus says. “We never would have expected you’d do something like – “

“I din’t . . .” De’Andre’s voice is between a whisper and a gasp.

She gives him a moment to catch his breath, then calmly tells him, “she pegged you by your hair, and your build, and the mark on your face.”

His eyes take on a mournful shine. She regrets the mention of the scar, but adds, “there’s no doubt she could pick you out of a line-up, so no reason to deny it.”

“So the question is why,” Marcus says.

They watch the slow rise and fall of his chest, and see the look of resignation in his eyes.

“He told me to.”

“He – ?” Marcus frowns.

“Obadu.”

Marcus’ mouth drops, a reaction that mirrors her own. Three months into the investigation, they have no doubt that Simon Obadu, a 35-year-old Nigerian immigrant, drug dealer and wanna-be real estate tycoon, is the killer of the two local women, both of whom were drug addicts without a dime to their names.

“So you’re saying . . . Obadu told you to hold up this white woman.” Marcus’ deliberate tone conveys his disbelief. “To just walk up to her with a gun and steal her purse -“

“No. He told me to kill her.”

Marcus sits back, and frowns, and pauses, waiting for De’Andre to go on. But De’Andre stays quiet, staring down at his Big Mac, still in its paper wrapper. Whitney feels a surprising tinge of guilt, since he’s obviously too upset to eat. She knows he looks forward to this weekly visit to McDonalds for his favorite foods, a bus ride and four Metro stops from the squalid conditions in which he lives.

“Tell us exactly what he said, Dre.” She keeps her voice calm and low, using his nickname to lessen the tension.

He sighs again, his shoulders slumping. “It was yesterday . . . in the afternoon. I went to the stash house where two of his boys was cutting up some rock. They told me he was upstairs. He wanted me to come up there. I thought . . .”

They watch another slow rise and fall of his chest as he looks past them, toward the front of the restaurant.

“Thought what?” she presses him.

“Y’all told me that’s where he killed the second girl, on the second floor of a house he owns. So I was curious . . . and scared . . . his boys were watchin’ me . . . like they was wondrin’ what I was gonna’ do. There was a gun on the table, next to the scale. I thought about how you want me to be – .”

She feels another twinge of guilt as his voice fades. “Go on.”

“You want me to look and act like just another . . . kid on the street. That’s the way it’s ‘sposed to be, right? Peddle this guy’s weed and crack and keep watchin’ him like there’s gonna’ be some sudden miracle clue about what he did.”

He pauses, his unease with the role they’ve asked him to play apparent.

She leans slightly forward, keeping her voice low and calm. “What did he say when he found out you didn’t do what he asked?”

He stares down at the unwrapped burger. “He don’t know yet.”

“So you still have her purse.”

He nods. She wonders if he’s done anything else with the contents: Alexandra’s wallet, her cash, the golden cufflinks.

“It’s in my room at my grandmother’s apartment. I was gonna’ give it up to Obadu today. Tell him I couldn’t do it cause there was cars coming by.”

She looks at the frown on Marcus’ face; knowing his mind is probably three steps ahead now, thinking of how he can possibly avoid arresting De’Andre for what he’s done; thinking of how he can still be useful as an informant.

And then she looks at De’Andre again. “Do you have any idea why he wanted you to do this?”

De’Andre makes a sniffling sound and rubs his nose with the back of his hand as he shakes his head. “No. He just give me two hundred dollars and told me he want it done. Said it was spose to make it look like a robbery.”

“Why didn’t you just say no?”

He meets her eyes, and absently touches the scar on his cheek. His shoulders quiver, revealing the same fear she saw months earlier when Marcus approached him with the idea of being an informant. There were obvious benefits – mainly the charges that would be removed from his record – but there was no disputing the danger he’d face in the bargain.

“We can’t pretend we don’t know that you did this,” she says. “You’re going to have to give us a statement – everything on the record.”

She watches as the quiver in his shoulders travels all the way down his arms; feels her own chest tighten at the thought of him being identified as a snitch, with a price on his head, once Simon Obadu is charged.

She’s still thinking about how it might work when Marcus asks him:

“What about the graffiti?”

De’Andre looks blankly back at him.

“On the fence, behind the lady’s house,” Marcus clarifies. “Did Obadu tell you to do that too?”

The blank look stays on his face as he shakes his head. Whitney feels a slight sense of disorientation – ever since she called Marcus and told him about Alexandra and her description of De’Andre Williams as her attacker, she has assumed De’Andre was also the tagger.

“Tell us the truth, Dre,” she says, using his nickname to lessen the tension. “Did you paint that message on those peoples’ fence, or do you know who did?”

He shakes his head again with a slight frown, and mutters, “No, I don’t know nothin’ about a fence.”

She knows him well enough to tell the confusion is genuine. He doesn’t have a clue.

After a moment her thoughts go in a different direction.

“So tell us what you know about the woman you held up,” she says. “Did you or any of the other guys who work that corner have any interactions with her before?”

He shrugs and stares back down at his untouched lunch.

“You ever even speak to her before?”

He looks up. “What for?”

“Well, you live a block away. And you’re selling drugs for Simon Obadu right on the corner in front of her house. So it just seems like you might have passed each other by.”

His eyes glaze over as he looks past her, toward the front of the building. She thinks of the two of them: Alexandra in her perfect house in the middle of an urban mess; De’Andre on the corner, who probably looked to Alexandra like just another neighborhood boy, dealing drugs.

Both of them aware of but kind of invisible to each other.

She sits back, feels the top of the booth at the back of her neck, thinks some more about Simon Obadu and all the reasons his public profile has so far made him virtually untouchable.

Thinks about his wealth, and his power.

And of how it might have all gone down.

* * *

Alexandra is in the stockroom of Sunny Day Style when the teenaged girl she’s hired straight out of the National Cathedral School brushes the curtain aside and announces there’s a woman police officer there to see her.

She has a feeling it’s Officer Whitney Jones and takes a moment to compose herself – her fingertips massaging the hangover back from her temples, a brief fluff of her honey-blonde hair in front of the antique gilt-mirrored frame on the wall – before stepping out into the store to greet her.

Officer Jones is waiting in one of the two smaller rooms of the store, this one showcasing the late summer collection on white shelves mounted on the Kelly Green walls. Her uniform makes it clear it’s an official visit, even though her smile is genuine and friendly, as if they’re old friends.

“Officer Jones – hello.”

“Hello Mrs. Rodriguez.”

“Call me, Alexandra, please.”

Jones’ smile widens a notch. “If you’ll call me Whitney.”

“It’s a deal.” Alexandra smiles back, trying to remember if she told Whitney about where she worked the night before.

“How did you know about my store?”

“The story in the Style section of the Post, from last year. I read it online last night, after I typed up the report.”

Alexandra thinks about the article, a profile that was practically obligatory given her father’s position. The narrative had been flattering enough, with details about her personal investment in the place, which inferred, correctly, that family money had nothing to do with it. But it also accentuated her privileged background, which might explain why she warrants a personal visit less than 12 hours after the robbery.

“It’s very nice,” Whitney says.

She nods and says “thanks” but feels a familiar sense of depression as she glances around at the showroom, decorated “cottage style” and offering preppy high-end sportswear at roughly twice what women would pay at a J. Crew in a mall – so far a failing gamble that shopping in the quaintness of Georgetown would be worth the cost.

She turns her attention back to Whitney Jones. “So . . . do you have any . . . news or whatever?”

Whitney reaches into the shirt pocket of her uniform, pulls out her phone and taps the code into the screen and stares at it for moment before responding.

“Well we know who held you up.”

Alexandra feels a catch in her breath, waits for more.

“He’s a neighborhood kid. One of the brighter ones, and one of the luckier ones too, until last year, when he got arrested for selling weed twice in one month, right after he turned 18. A couple weeks later a friend of his who happened to have a pretty bad drug problem was murdered.”

Murdered . . . “Alexandra mouths the word but makes no sound.

“We’re about 99 percent sure we know the guy who did it. Who he is and how he operates. Unfortunately we haven’t had any luck in putting him away.”

Whitney hands her the phone. On the screen is a Web site story from a local television station, with a headline: “Obadu Wins Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Seat.”

The image is of a heavy-set black man in a white linen shirt and pants and a wide-brimmed Panama hat He’s surrounded by a throng of people carrying protest signs.

“Does he look familiar?” Whitney asks.

She looks closer at his scowling face, and shakes her head.

“He’s been a fixture on the local political scene for a long time. Owns about a third of the properties within a block of your house. Most of them are the drug houses and vacant buildings. We’re pretty sure he’s also got his hand in quite a few criminal activities – drug distribution, loan-sharking, possibly prostitution since both of the dead women were working girls with drug problems. A regular Ghetto Godfather if you want to look at it that way. The detectives who are working the murders pegged him as the killer a while back, but they didn’t have enough evidence to arrest him, and were threatened with all kinds of lawsuits and bad publicity just for questioning him. So they enlisted the boy who held you up to keep an eye on him on his own turf.”

Alexandra hands the phone back, and asks the obvious question. “What does this have to do with me?”

Whitney looks at the screen a moment longer, then rests it on her thigh. “There’s a direct and an indirect answer to that question. The direct answer is that the young man who held you up tells us Mr. Obadu paid him to do it – except that he wasn’t supposed to just take your purse. He was supposed to kill you.”

Alexandra feels a tightness in her windpipe as the words hang in the air.

“The indirect answer,” Whitney says, “Is why.”

“I . . . have no idea.”

Whitney crosses her legs and drums her fingers on her knee. “Unfortunately I don’t either, but there are a few things that come to mind. You said last night that you’ve made a lot of calls to the police about drug dealing on your corner.”

“Yes,” she says. “Although it obviously didn’t make a difference.”

“And your husband was jumped in the alley, by a guy who forced himself into your house and beat him up. So it might be that you’re threatening his territory, so he’s sending the local troublemakers to threaten you, hoping you’ll give up and move away. Although the graffiti makes me wonder . . . could it be more personal?”

“Personal.”

“Based on what it says.”

Alexandra stares back at her, truly understanding the word dumbfounded for the first time in her life.

When she doesn’t respond Whitney leans forward slightly, as if they’re about to share a confidence.

“It actually seems a little over over-the-top, Alexandra. I mean . . . Die . . . Bitch . . .

Her whole body tenses at the sound of the words, spoken aloud.

“I see it differently,” she says.

Whitney tilts her head, as if urging her to go on.

“We do feel like targets, based on the glares we get from the drug dealers who are in front of our house at all hours, the break-in and what happened to Enrique. I know it’s politically incorrect, but that’s the way it is.”

Whitney stays quiet for a moment, then nods. “I guess I can understand that. But you have to know I’m wondering, how did you even up there, Alexandra? In that house. That neighborhood?”

A voice in her brain tells her the question is too personal, and maybe unprofessional. Yet she feels a strange sense of calm with the invitation to talk; to tell Whitney Jones about the incidents that brought her to this moment. About stumbling away from the dunes bruised and battered two years ago. About her assumption that Garrett Fiske would be arrested and exposed for what he did. About her parents’ ardent request for her to pretend it never happened, given the precarious nature of her father’s confirmation and the ability of Garrett’s father, Lleyton Fiske, to derail the whole thing. A betrayal that pushed her out of the nest and into the world on her own terms, even if it didn’t stop Garrett’s obsessive attachment, or his outright threat to never let her go.

But then she thinks about the underlying assumption in the question, which is that it’s just too hard to believe someone from a family like hers could end up where she is.

Time to set that record straight,” she thinks, and tells Whitney Jones everything she might have mentioned the night before.

“Regardless of what you might know about me, Whitney, my husband is a construction worker who comes from nothing. We were married last year, shortly after I kind of . . . separated myself from my family. We’ve renovated every square inch of our home and right now we’re working on four others within a couple of blocks. We couldn’t have bought property anywhere else. It was what we could afford. We’re struggling like plenty of other people, just trying, on our own, to survive.”

Whitney sits back slightly, as if she needs a moment to take that in, then says:

“But ultimately you’re banking that gentrification that Mr. Obadu wants to keep at bay.”

She stays quiet, given the significance of such a loaded word.

“It’s all right Alexandra, you can say it.”

“Yes, we were expecting that people would want to move into the properties Enrique is renovating. And that he would make a profit. Because regardless of the way we might look we’re just two people trying to make a living. I grew up with privilege but I don’t have it now – not one bit.”

It feels like an outburst, thanks to the uptick in her heart rate and shortness of breath, but Whitney Jones simply nods, with no apparent judgment, and then tells her:

“The boy who held you up can’t get away from there either. He’s living in a drug house, and working for us mainly to get revenge.”

“Revenge.”

“Against Mr. Obadu, who cut up his face.”

Alexandra absently touches her cheek, her mind going back to the sight of the scar, a curved line of raised flesh.

“It happened six months ago. A dispute over cash from the sale of some weed, or some other trifling matter along those lines. As I said, your neighborhood is my beat, and the boy was familiar enough to me. I guessed what had happened but wasn’t really able to do anything about it. On the other hand, my fiancé is an MPD detective. It was his idea to turn the boy into an informant, but it made great sense to me too. But instead of coming to us when Obadu told him to kill you, he almost went ahead.”

“Almost.”

“You might say he chickened out but I honestly think it was a matter of conscience, Alexandra. Unfortunately he’s in a really bad place now. He needs protection.”

“What kind of protection?”

“If we arrest Simon Obadu for ordering your murder we’ll have to identify this young man as the person who brought him to our attention. That means there’ll be a price on his head. Detective Brown can request federal protection but there’s no guarantee he’s going to get it. But if your family were to get involved . . .“

Whitney sounds as if she’s intentionally leaving the question hanging, but the message is clear.

“This guy’s gotten away with murder twice, mainly because the women didn’t matter much,” Whitney says. “I think the situation’s different now, don’t you?”

* * *

Garrett is reviewing a site plan that will be presented to his lead investors when the call from the “banker” comes in. As directed, the banker is using a burner phone to minimize the chance they will ever be connected. As usual, he talks in a breathless, too-fast tone as he describes the DC police car parked in front of Alexandra’s store and the sight of the woman cop coming out. It’s a sight the banker probably wouldn’t have seen from his desk off the lobby, where he talks with customers about their loan applications. But a side effect of the man’s various addictions requires a 10 minute smoke break every hour, taken habitually in the alley alongside the bank, which has a direct view of Alexandra’s Sunny Day Style.

“The cop’s back in her car, talking on her phone . . . nodding. The cop car’s illegally parked. The bitch would’ve given me a hundred dollar ticket for that. Now Alexandra’s standing at the door, watching her . . . she just looked up and saw me. She’s going to recognize me but I don’t think it matters. She probably doesn’t even remember the day we met about the loan. Never says a word to me on the street.”

Garrett almost tells him to stop with the random details but has to be careful about ruffling feelings. Up until now the banker, who Garrett alternately refers to as his “cokehead connection,” has given him the inside information he needs.

“Thanks for letting me know,” he says instead. “Really, I’m grateful.”

“So I’m done now, right?”

There’s an edge of desperation in the guy’s voice. From the beginning the banker was uncomfortable with the bargain – a two-month supply of blow in exchange for running reports on the state of Alexandra and Enrique’s finances once they were turned down for a loan.

“Yes, I’d say we are,” Garrett tells him, without really meaning it, because he’ll still need a direct line to their financial dealings as the screws tighten even further, and because he knows his easy supply of drugs will make it easy to pull the banker back in.

All according to the plan, he thinks, except for the fact that the boy didn’t kill Alexandra, and except for the extra attention from the cop, proof that Alexandra and Enrique are being watched more closely, and that anything that happens to either one of them will be intensely investigated.

Which brings him back to Simon Obadu, and the probability of more violence to come.

* * *

The place Detective Marcus Brown calls his “man-cave” is actually four rooms in the basement of his nice big house. The walls are cement, with small windows at the top, and it has soft couches and carpets and one of the biggest TVs De’Andre has ever seen. Detective Brown – who he calls “Marcus” now – is hiding him here because he’s promised to admit Simon Obadu told him to kill the white lady, which guarantees Obadu will go to prison, even if it isn’t for killing the other two girls.

But Marcus has left him alone now, letting him feel like he’s living there in the man-cave for good, with the TV and sound system in the room with the couches, and what Marcus called a “kitchenette” with a refrigerator full of food. And even a computer, although Marcus told him he’ll shoot him himself if he posts anything on Facebook or Instagram or anywhere else online.

But that doesn’t stop him from looking back at the picture of the first girl who was killed by Simon Obadu, in the online version of their high school yearbook. It was taken when they were both sophomores, before she got on the pipe and dropped out. Her name was Sheryl and she had a nice smile for him when she saw him in the neighborhood and at school. She was shot in the head in an alley two years later, but by then she never smiled.

Rumors said she was going to snitch on Obadu for killing another girl. De’Andre knew it was true every time he reached up and touched the curved scar on his face. Obadu did it with a switchblade while two other boys held him down. Said it was because he came up short on money after working the corner all night, but made like it was mostly a warning to everyone else on his crew.

Everything got worse after that, when he stopped going to school and started spending most of his time on the street, ignoring the questions from his grandmother when he went back to the apartment to eat or sleep, but always knowing from her eyes that she knew what was happening.

Bein’ everything she didn’t want.

He wonders what she’s thinking, now that he’s disappeared with just a note about “going away to be safe.” Wonders if Officer Whitney Jones or Detective Marcus Brown paid her a visit and whether they would have told her about the weed and other drugs he’s been selling for Simon Obadu, or about he almost did to the white lady or about their promises that he’s going to be safe for his testimony that Obadu told him to kill her.

It’s all so messed up. The offer to work for the police, but to do it selling drugs, pretending or just being the criminal they said they didn’t want him to be.

Even though they act like you’re their friend.

His mind goes back to the McDonalds he goes to with Marcus and Whitney every week, sitting down and eating and talking about what he might be able to do some day. A “GED.” Learning construction. Renovating buildings in the neighborhood.

And then he thinks of the robbery and how stupid it was. Stealing the lady’s purse with the little gift wrapped box and the wallet and money inside of it. It’s still under his bed at his grandmother’s apartment but Marcus told him they’re going to send the police over later to get it and give it back.

He imagines the lady standing at the door of her house, taking the purse, remembering him, and realizes everything Whitney and Marcus told him about the lady wanting to “protect” him probably isn’t going to happen.

His eyes sting as he touches the raised skin on his scarred cheek and thinks of the other people Simon Obadu has messed up. The boy with the broken arm that never did look normal again. The dude he shot in the face in front of two other boys who work on the corner. The dead girls.

He starts to cry, feeling like a stupid little kid. After a moment his hands become fists, pressed against his forehead as he leans forward on the big soft couch. Until suddenly he feels mad; seeing himself beaten up and wounded and weak.

But now you got a gun.

The thought comes in a flash, and with it a memory of the semi-automatic pistol that Obadu gave him, now wrapped in a pair of jeans in the dresser at his grandmother’s house.

And then he starts thinking of revenge, and murder, and ending it all for good.

* * *

Alexandra sends her clerk home and puts the “Closed” sign on the door and retreats again to her tiny office, where she takes a series of deep breaths and tries to summon the kind of calm that occasionally comes after yoga and spinning classes.

It doesn’t work – all she can think about is the boy’s scarred face and the gun against her ribs and the fact that someone she’s never met wants her dead.

She powers up her computer and Googles him by name. Several stories in the weekly paper that chronicles DC politics comes up. Simon Obadu is indeed a low level politician and an adept race-baiting rabble-rouser when it suits him. One of the more enterprising reporters has done a story on his surprisingly large real estate holdings, all of which are, as Whitney told her, within a few blocks of their home. They include two large government-subsidized apartment buildings, corner stores that profit mostly on sales of liquor and lottery tickets, and more than a dozen row houses and vacant lots.

The story focuses on complaints of his tenants and citations from the city but mostly on the money he’s earning in a neighborhood full of the “downtrodden and poor.” So it isn’t hard to read between the lines of what Whitney Jones has told her – renovated homes that bring wealthier residents will undoubtedly make it more difficult to make money in illegal drugs or prostitution or whatever else Simon Obadu is guilty of. But her heartbeat quickens as she thinks through the deeper implications of what she’s reading: the fact that the neighborhood’s future isn’t completely controlled by Simon Obadu, because there are other forces at play.

She searches for Garrett Fiske and CED Enterprises next, scrolls through the same stories she’s seen so many times before. A dozen years of astonishing success in some of the region’s biggest building projects, backed by an international company that’s always been smiled upon by Wall Street, thanks in no small part to the expertise of his father, Lleyton Fiske.

Garrett’s properties dominate the edge of the neighborhood. She knows for a fact they include a large condominium and office park – properties that will likewise bring in a better class of people.

Like us, she thinks, almost . . .

She thinks back to the night she introduced Enrique to her parents; remembers the way her father looked at him from across the garden at their annual Middleburg Hunt Party. Enrique with his light brown skin and ill-fitting suit, struggling to make conversation with a crowd of people bound together by old families and good schools. Her father, so clearly troubled that she had fallen in love with someone who would never be one of them.

Which was pretty much the point. Because she married for love and not money, certain that they would survive and thrive even with her declaration of independence from her parents and their expectations.

And then she thinks about Whitney’s request – to tell her parents that Simon Obadu tried to get a teenaged boy to kill her, with the hope that her father’s power will ensure the boy is protected until they can convict Obadu for ordering her death. Which makes her wonder how much Whitney has found online about about her father and the controversies that came up after his nomination. His role as a board member of the investment bank that made billions peddling bad debt during the last real estate crisis. The millions that were rumored to be in offshore accounts that he refused to disclose. The refusal of Lleyton Fiske, a fellow board member who had all the dirt, to answer any of the hard questions during his grilling during the confirmation process.

None of it should matter, she thinks, because most of it didn’t technically rise to the level of criminality. And it shouldn’t have been relevant to the danger they are in now –

Except that it is. Because she had been well aware of Garrett’s real estate holdings and the probability that property values around them would rise sharply when she convinced Enrique that he should stake his own claim in the neighborhood as it developed. Convincing him that they could make money without the help of her parents. Pretending that it didn’t break her heart to hear him joke about trading in his Carhart working gear for custom-made suits and “cufflinks” once that happened. Believing that Enrique, who graduated from a city high school, could somehow share in the wealth that Garrett was bound to create.

She sits back from the computer in the tiny office, knowing it isn’t going to happen; knowing there’s only one way to get out.

Desperate measures for a desperate time. She thinks for just a moment of what could happen if she is prosecuted for what she’s about to do; thinks of the headlines that her family has taken such pains to avoid, then dismisses the possibility outright as she calls Enrique to give him the news.

* * *

Enrique swallows two Valium taken from Alexandra’s pillbox and stares into his laptop at the granite breakfast bar, thinking of ways to transfer overrun costs from one project to another as the call comes in from Alexandra.

He answers with a dispirited “hey.” It’s all he can say before she launches into a frantic monologue about the threat on her life and the story of the boy who nearly shot her and her certainty that they have no choice but to “get the hell out of there.” Telling him then that she’s going to rent a place somewhere in the far northwest quadrant of the city for them to live in, and that she can pull together a sizable sum of money to pay off some of their debts, either from the untouched trust left by her grandfather and possibly from “other money” that’s being hidden by her father.

Because there’s always money in families like hers, he thinks. Squirreled away in “investments” where it’s leveraged to make more.

There’s a long pause when she finishes, nearly breathless, waiting for him to respond. He tries to think of a way to tell her that none of what she has offered is going to matter, and feels more helpless than ever as he sees a shadow against the glass of the back door.

* * *

The video feed from the camera hidden in the speaker situated just under the ceiling of Enrique and Alexandra’s kitchen records the scene as it happens, the angle of the tiny camera making Simon Obadu look even more monstrous as he steps through the glass door that’s opened by Enrique.

Garrett watches as Obadu fires a taser at Enrique’s chest. Enrique’s torso lurches upward for an instant before his body drops, rag-doll limp, to the floor. Then Obadu kicks him – a hard strike at the side of Enrique’s face.

Enrique is now completely still on the marble floor, maybe even dead, Garrett thinks, as unlikely as that is. Obadu stands over him like a boxer who’s just knocked out an opponent, then reaches into his pocket, and pulls out a knife.

* * *

Whitney’s waiting for additional information from Marcus’ meeting with the Office of Taxation when the call from De’Andre comes in. He’s using the throwaway phone Marcus bought for him at the corner store, and she can only hope that he’s staying away from the neighborhood and out of site of anyone who might report back to Simon Obadu.

But then he tells her he isn’t. In fact he’s right back in the alley behind Alexandra and Enrique’s row house, and calling to tell her that Obadu has just stepped through the back gate.

* * *

Alexandra stays at the office inside her store long enough to make the call to the broker who manages the trust fund, and verify that she can still access a good bit of the money that her father thinks he has hidden away. Until now she’s just barely imagined the possibility that she might steal some of it at some point – it’s been nothing more than a fantasy of revenge. But then she thinks, the time is nigh, as the saying goes, and determines roughly how much she will arrange to have wired to her own offshore account. Within an hour his broker will learn about the theft, but they may never know exactly who’s responsible.

She drives dazedly through the late day traffic as she heads home, her thoughts focused on how quickly it will take them to pack overnight bags for the three days they’ll spend in a hotel before signing the lease for the new apartment she has rented, sight unseen, based on an online listing and recommendation from a realtor friend. A place where they’ll be safe while waiting for all of Enrique’s properties to sell, even if it’s at a loss.

She’s still thinking it through when she pulls into the alley, drives past the two burned out shells that Enrique purchased months ago, past the crack house that’s become a fire hazard, past the overflowing garbage cans the city practically ignores.

She parks her Audi carefully in the narrow spot alongside the back of the six-foot tall stockade fence, glances briefly at the graffiti, and then notices that the gate is open.

And then she sees the dent in the lock, which looks like it’s been battered by a hammer.

She steps back, once again feeling the tingling sensation in her neck, thinks of the assault the night before – the boy’s scarred face; the gun against her ribs

And then she hears her name, spoken in a faint voice.

It’s Enrique, calling to her from inside the yard. She knows he’s been hurt even before she steps through the gate and sees him, leaning against the fence. There’s a huge white bandage on his left cheek but it isn’t stopping the blood that has soaked through. His left eye is black and swollen shut.

The moment she steps toward him he pulls a gun from the pocket of his jacket.

And points it at her face.

Her eyes widen with the shock of it, seeing it but not yet believing it as the gate behind him is pushed back open.

Whitney Jones steps from the alley into the backyard, her gun aimed in a two-handed firing grip.

“Police,” she says. “Put down the gun Mr. Rodriguez.”

For a long moment Enrique stands still, the gun quivering in his hand but still aimed at her. And then there’s a slight drop in his shoulders, a look of pained resignation in his face.

“I said drop it,” Whitney’s voice shakes. “Now.”

Instead of lowering it he turns quickly around; aims the gun at Whitney. They stare at each other for a matter of seconds before his shoulders tense again and Whitney fires – once and then twice more when the first shot doesn’t take him down.

He drops to his knees, and then falls forward, face down on the ground.

* * *

Two months later it still feels surreal – the stuff of bad dreams that come too often during the day. Flashbacks that make her feel foolish and regretful but enormously grateful to be alive.

“But the point is, you’re healing fine, no doubt about it,” Whitney says, on the evening before her wedding day, in the small cinder block conference room at the police station.

“Yes,” she says, wanting it to be true. “Which means I’m ready for the news.”

Whitney holds her eyes for a long moment, as if she needs to believe it for  herself. She has promised to reveal everything about Marcus’ investigation of Simon Obadu and her dead husband and warned her it won’t be easy to hear.

Marcus is sitting next to Whitney. He nods and types a few keys on his laptop and then turns it around. An overhead shot of her own kitchen fills the screen, the angles warped, as if she’s seeing it through a funhouse mirror. Enrique is sitting at the counter, talking on his cell phone, his left hand spread palm-wide on the top of his head.

Alexandra recognizes the gesture. She’s seen it in the past, in times of distress.

His voice is hushed but just loud enough for her to hear: “Yes, the policy is for half a million.”

There’s a pause. His hand comes down, becomes a fist at his side. “Just do it.”

Marcus turns the laptop back around and stops the feed. “We’re certain it was Simon Obadu on the other end, and that that’s when your husband okayed the hit, which as we know now would have given him a good sized payoff from your life insurance.”

She presses her fingertips against her forehead and feels a chill down her back.

“This footage is on the same tape the District Attorney received in an unmarked package. There weren’t any fingerprints or any other way to trace where it came from. The disc also included video of Simon Obadu forcing his way into your house and assaulting your husband, first in the beating that he claimed was at the hands of a teenager, then again on the night your husband died.”

She takes a deep breath, puts her hands palm-down on the tabletop, and looks at Whitney again.

“You told me you suspected Enrique from the beginning. Why?”

“Not the very beginning – at least not the night it happened. But the next day Marcus and I talked with the boy who held you up and it was clear he didn’t know anything about that message on your fence. Plus it seemed – like I said to you – just a little over the top. I mean, die bitch. It was just too overt. So then I started thinking about how your husband had renovated a bunch of houses in the neighborhood. Marcus checked the property records and found out Enrique had bought them from Obadu. It took a few more hours to run your credit and learn that the purchases were owner-financed by Obadu, at ridiculously high interest rates. We guessed then that your husband was in way over his head, and that Obadu was getting violent in the hope he’d find a way to pay. That made us think of the possibility that you were targeted by your husband, who might have also tagged the fence to shift suspicion to the neighborhood guys.”

She nods absently, thinking of Enrique’s attempts to get the construction loans on his own, and how cryptic he had been in his description of how he finally succeeded in getting financing. Telling her that keeping his business finances separate was a matter of personal pride. It had sounded good enough at the time.

And then she thinks of the way he looked on the night he almost gunned her down.

“His face was bleeding . . . that night.”

“Obadu did it – it’s in video that we are not going to show you. I suppose he was sending another message, wounding your husband so he’d be left with a scar, so similar to De’Andre’s. Just a little extra evil on his part. He didn’t have any way of knowing De’Andre Williams was also in the neighborhood that night. And once it happened your husband probably thought that his wounds would enable him to tell some crazy story about some crazy guy coming after you both after he shot you himself.”

Her stomach clenches at the thought of everything else they’ve told her about the boy’s sudden decision to go after Simon Obadu on his own – to shoot him dead with the gun Obadu gave him. A decision that took him back to the neighborhood that night, where he saw Obadu stepping out of the alley behind the house, and then called Whitney to let her know.

She looks at the laptop again. “Do you have any idea how this camera was installed?”

Marcus clears his throat, his furrowed brow making it obvious he has more bad news. “Had to be while the renovation was underway. The whole house was wired with this stuff – cameras and mikes in every room, Alexandra. I’m sorry. The technology’s available to anyone with a lot of money. Since we got all of this stuff Obadu did on tape we have to guess it was done by someone who would gain a lot if he was sent to prison, which is what’s gonna’ happen.”

Alexandra looks past them, toward the closed door, thinking of the obvious answer, feels the heat rise in her face as she thinks of Garrett spying on everything that happened in her home. Garrett, who will undoubtedly realize an even greater profit as the neighborhood develops in a more prosperous direction, with Simon Obadu locked away.

She sighs, thinking for just a moment of Garrett’s victory, and how long it’s going to take to divest herself of all of the properties. It’s going to be difficult but not impossible, now that she’s getting help from her family’s financial advisors. A benefit now that they’re once again on speaking terms.

But not the best benefit, she thinks.

“Thanks for filling me in on all of this,” she says. “Now can we please talk about something happier. Like what’s up with De’Andre and this wedding?”

* * *

Twelve hours later she’s at that wedding, seated next to her parents, there out of gratitude for the police officer who saved her life. There’s still a distance between them but she’s learned to manage their guilt well enough to get what she wants. For now it’s full tuition for De’Andre at a construction trade school, plus his rent, a grocery allowance and commuting costs from his apartment in a good neighborhood far from where he grew up.

In the end she knows they’ll be gratified, if only for the opportunity to tell stories about their deep sense of noblesse oblige, the best of which is taking place at this very moment, as the sun streams through the stained glass windows and as Whitney Jones is walked down the aisle by Best Man De’Andre Williams, decked out in his tux and tails, his gold cufflinks glinting in the beautiful late afternoon light.

# # #

WHERE WE ARE NOW

Motel pool

 

We don’t belong here.

That was my first thought as I opened my eyes to the sight of this turquoise bedspread and these mirrored walls and remembered – gradually – just where it is we are.  It’s a shabbily furnished one bedroom apartment without books or toys on the eastern edge of Hollywood, California, in a neighborhood where there are a lot of people who look healthy and tanned and a little stoned at the same time.

I slowly sit up. The other side of the bed is empty, but I hear the sound of cartoons playing on the TV just outside the door. I look toward the dresser at the photo of my son Noah from last year at preschool, then step out to the tiny living room to find him sitting on the couch and munching on Oreos. I don’t know if he pulled them from the cabinet thinking I’d let him have cookies first thing in the morning, or if that’s the kind of breakfast he’s become accustomed to.

I decide to say nothing for the moment, and lean down to kiss the top of his head. He’s wearing a red swimsuit. His skinny legs are engulfed by the loose cut of the fabric and covered by goose bumps from the chill of the air conditioner. He gives me a curious look. I tell myself I’m only imagining the feeling that he doesn’t trust me simply because he seems to flinch a little every time I lift my hand to touch him.

My eyes go to the coffee mug on the kitchen counter as I step away. It’s filled with Noah’s Crayons and there’s a small Canadian flag sticking up among them – the size you’d hold in your hand and wave at a parade. It was the first thing I noticed when I arrived at the apartment last night; another shock to nerves that were already frayed after what I had found in my post office box, acquired under an alias, earlier in the day.

The adrift feeling stays with me as put on a pot of coffee and I head into the bathroom to brush my teeth and shave. My hand shakes as I lift the razor and I nick my nose at the first swipe, drawing blood. I open the medicine cabinet to look for Band-Aids. There aren’t any, but there is a tin Altoid box on the shelf. I open it, and see yet another stash of pills of different colors and sizes.

When I talked to my ex-wife Brianne yesterday she described her mother, Ursula, leaning over the john and dumping in “every pill in the house.” It was an obvious step toward Brianne’s “recovery” and a failed attempt to eliminate at least one of the clues I’m carefully documenting to prove what a danger Brianne is to my son.

Unfortunately I’m running behind schedule, still recuperating from flight delays and jetlag and a night of hard drinking after I put Noah to bed. But there’s no reason to rush. Brianne will be in a dry-out facility for two weeks, and is under the impression that Noah will stay here with me the entire time.

With a sense of regret, I pull a bottle of Nautica cologne out of my toiletry bag and take a whiff. Noah gave it to me last year before Brianne and I split. (“He liked the smell,” Brianne said, “so I gave him the money to buy it.”) I kept it in the carry-on, thinking that if I put it on immediately before landing the smell would make me more familiar when he met me, but I ended up forgetting.

Noah merely acquiesced when I knelt down and picked him up after getting off the plane, and I sensed that it wouldn’t have mattered if I’d worn the cologne or not. I know time goes by a lot slower for kids his age, and the month we’ve been apart probably seems twice as long. Who knows what Brianne told him? Maybe she said I don’t love him and that I was the one who left. I don’t know how long it will take before he accepts the truth.

I look out the window, and decide not to put the cologne on now since it will wash off in the pool. The hills in the distance are covered with scrub brush. Between here and there are a lot of rooftops, antennas and utility poles. The backyards are tiny, but in the narrow bands of earth between the buildings bougainvillea blooms as if it were wild (although I know it isn’t). When Noah and I were driving around last night in the violet-smoggy dusk it seemed to be everywhere, even on a chain link fence around a used car lot a block away from Brianne’s apartment, the blood-red flowers somehow accentuating its shabbiness amid the bright colored stucco buildings that surrounded it.

Everything seems to have been built yesterday and pummeled by abuse of the transient population. More justification, I think, for what I’ve been planning to do.

“Ready to hit the pool?” I ask as I go back into the living room. Obediently (how he got this way I’ll never know) he gets up and puts the bag of cookies back in the cabinet, then clutches the front of his swimsuit, indicating he has to pee as he heads to the tiny bathroom.

I expect he’ll be in there for at least two minutes, giving me time to scroll through some of the evidence I’ve gathered. Last night I sent the photos of the bong and rolling papers I found in the cabinet above the refrigerator to my lawyer, Tom Schroeder, and the private investigator who’s working with him. I also sent a photo of the “Notice of Intent to Evict” paperwork I discovered in the kitchen drawer, which shows Brianne hasn’t paid rent in three months.

But that’s just the beginning. My phone also has a transcript of the conversation the investigator had with the owner of the low-rent nightclub where Brianne bartended for a few months before irregularities in the till led to her dismissal, and photos of Brianne’s boyfriend and probable drug dealer, a 27-year old two-time felon.

I stare at his photo, a mug shot pulled by the investigator, weighing it with all of the other evidence in my favor.

And then I look at the email Brianne sent me last night, minutes after I arrived. The subject line – “Isosorbide mononitrate interaction” – once again sending a chill up the back of my neck.

A flutter in my chest comes next – a bad sign since I have a hereditary predisposition for problems in that area. I remind myself that 29-year-olds rarely have heart attacks, but we do get told to go easy on the booze once we’re diagnosed with treatable heart conditions, which makes me all the more stupid for finishing off most of that second bottle of wine last night, doing my best to get Brianne’s email out of my mind.

The toilet flushes an instant before Noah comes back into the room. I quickly stick my phone in my shirt pocket as I squat down so we’re eye to eye, and gently tousle his pale hair. He stands too still, begrudgingly accepting the affection.

“Did you sleep ok last night chief?”

He nods.

“Is there anything else you want to do today?”

He gives me a questioning, hopeful look. “Disneyland?”

I take a moment before responding, knowing that the vintage amusement park is over an hour away, and probably not do-able with the timetable I’ve set out.

“We’ll have to see,” I say.

And then he asks: “When is Momma coming back?”

It’s a complicated question, and a tough one given the circumstances I’m dealing with. So I pretend I didn’t hear him as I pour a mug of coffee and tell him, “that pool is waitin’ buddy,” and nod toward the door.

Despite the way I feel about Brianne, I have to admit that, based on the way my son has acted the last 24 hours, she probably isn’t a terrible mother. Either that or Noah just has an amazingly sweet nature. As we walk down the stairs (he’s letting me hold his hand) there are remnants of her movements and her features in his. Something about the tilt of his head reminds me of her, and the night of violence that put us on this path.

But that’s the last thing I want to think of as we step into the courtyard, Noah’s hand tiny and fragile in mine. Even though it’s the main reason why our time together is limited to one weekend a month and one week every three months. That’s the “agreement,” as Brianne calls it.

Except that it isn’t an agreement. It’s what she won, a legal victory that I planned to unravel with this visit.

I try to imagine that the email she sent after I got here last night won’t change everything, but then I think about her knowledge of the P.O. box and the Canadian flag and hear the steel in her voice during the short phone call right after I received it. “Don’t try anything. I’m watching.”

I realize she could have said the same at least six months ago, which was probably when she installed the keystroke logger on my laptop, and began chronicling everything I did online.

I wonder what else she might have learned as we step out into the late morning coastal fog. The air is eerily silent and the surface of the pool is as still as glass before Noah takes off his flip flops and slips into the shallow end. He’s wearing a Donald Duck flotation ring around his chest that he took from a big plastic bin of water toys next to the door of the rental office. It looks like it’s missing about half of its air, and just barely holds him up. Leaning back in my chair, I think of the immaculate pool in the private club associated with the home I just purchased, where all the toys would be perfect and new and owned by the kids’ families.

The kind of place where he belongs, I think, because it contrasts so sharply to everything I’ve seen here in the past day.

“Watch!” Noah yells, then holds his nose and ducks under the surface. He swims in an erratic underwater circle and then emerges again at the center of the float. As his arms come up there is a moment where he seems unsure of his bearings as he jerks his forearms over the sides to hold himself up.

He gasps for breath and looks a little panicked.

I sit up straighter, ready to jump in, and caution him. “That’s great Noah. Stay in the shallow end.”

Despite what’s happened, Brianne knows I pose no danger to our son. I would die before striking him. As he spins part way around and kicks toward the end of the pool I am fascinated with his tiny legs. I remember my own swimming lessons at his age and the years on the country club swim team that followed; remember my father’s chiding voice, yelling at me to compete and win, and my shame because I rarely did.

Hate doesn’t happen overnight, especially with someone you’re supposed to love. So while I certainly didn’t hate my father at Noah’s age I was already coming to see him as the enemy. My mother’s feelings were far more evolved by then, even though you never would have known it by the face she miraculously put to the world, the genteel wife of a deep pockets real estate developer who lunched with mayors and gave millions away every year to poor people, most of it illustratively chronicled in the press. She gave it a good run, right up until the cold December morning when she drove her Mercedes Coupe into the ass end of a three-ton Mack truck without ever touching the brakes.

“That’s the end of that,”  I remember my father saying, without a trace of sadness or remorse for what he had put her through in the months before the battle over who would get what in their divorce. A battle he was clearly winning thanks in part to his financial resources and a legal team that seemed intent on leaving her penniless.

I met Brianne three months later, during my last year of law school. I was living in a state of repressed rage after being told by my father that he expected me to be the same kind of “self-made man” he professed to be. Which is why, at the age of 22, I was sitting on real estate assets that were worth well over $4 million – mostly rooming houses and run-down apartment buildings in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood – that I couldn’t touch. He had arranged for the assets to be held in a trust until I turned 30, with the assumption that by then I would have finished law school and mature enough to handle that kind of wealth.

When I wasn’t studying I spent a lot of time at a 24-hour diner where Brianne waitressed, a block away from my cramped studio apartment. On her breaks she would sit down across from me with a cigarette, and talk to me about growing up in Southern California. She had left with her father at the age of 19 “because he got a good job with his brother” and because her mother “kicked her out.”

I really didn’t have anything in common with this 20 year old-woman-child, who grew up on a steady diet of reality TV and aspired to one day become “an actress.” We were together mostly because of the sex, and because her happy-silly personality made me feel uncharacteristically cheerful. She was a diversion from my worries, and it was never too difficult to drift off into my own thoughts as soon as she went off on some tangent in her life – the drama class at her community college, some new-age fitness fad or whatever.

In other words she made me happy, holding a light up against the darkness that clung to me like a shadow, even though I knew that the feeling was temporary, set to end at some indistinct point when I broke it off but never wanting to think too much about what a mess that was going to be.

My feelings changed with her pregnancy. My instincts had always stopped me from telling her about the fortune I was sitting on, but I was nevertheless surprised when she made no demand for financial support or responsibility. It was my first miscalculation, I know now, a revelation that I had less power in the relationship than I had thought. My second surprise was my own reaction as the news sank in. Brianne made it clear that she wasn’t going to have an abortion, a decision I agreed with because I was thinking of what fatherhood could mean; how good I’d be at it in contrast to my own father, and because of the immediate connection felt to our unborn child.

That connection led us to a relationship that was fast-tracked toward the disaster we’re living now. Me, well into with my 10-year plan to make partner at my firm because my cases to date show I truly know how to win. And Brianne, fighting a battle against addictions that will surely stay with her for life.

Looking back, I know I should have fought her insistence on making things official with our courthouse wedding – know I should have recognized that as a careful step for ensuring she had control over what happened to Noah. If so I would have been far more careful the first time I cheated, with another associate at the firm, after a happy hour. I never had a chance to lie, because Brianne was sitting at the breakfast bar of our kitchen when I came in, a pile of cigarette butts filling an ashtray at her side, telling me that she “knew this was coming” with a confidence that struck me as bizarre – as if she somehow understood my brain better then I possibly could. I found out later that she had bundled Noah up into his car seat and parked outside of the bar and watched as I walked out of the bar with the woman, and sat there watching as we kissed and groped like horny teenagers in the car, and followed us all the way to the woman’s apartment and waited for half an hour, snapping photos and making notes about the chronology of it all on her phone.

The damage was irreparable, but that didn’t stop me from a half-hearted justification, telling her I had too much to drink and that I never intended it to happen. When it was clear that wasn’t working I shifted gears, telling her there were worse things I could have done. Her response reaffirmed everything that was wrong between us.

 “Andrew you – – are a dick.”

“Come on Brianne -.”

“No!” she screamed. “I’ll call you whatever I want. Every morning I watch you get up and put on your suit to go off to that boring place you work with all those stupid ass people who are as big o’ fakes as you are.”

“Don’t yell.”

“Don’t tell me what to do! I get so goddamn sick of you acting like you’re such a class act all the time when I know what you’re really like. Don’t you think I know what the people you work with say about me? Do you think I’m so stupid that I don’t know that they think I’m not good enough for you?”

Her anger seemed to peak then, as her eyes welled with tears and her whole body started to shake. The hurt in her expression surprised me, because it was suddenly obvious that her feelings about us were so much deeper than mine. It was a terrible moment, hitting me hard with guilt for allowing Brianne to believe that we could ever be the type of family she had wanted.

But I also saw something else as she stood up and met my eyes and told me: “I know there’s something wrong with you.”

I should have understood then what she was actually saying – should have recognized the significance of what she was telling me, and been far more careful from then on out.

Instead I fixated on the idea that I could earn back her trust and become the father I wanted to be. I realized within a few days that it wasn’t going to work, because Brianne’s eyes filled with tears every time I tried to touch her; and because of the dreams; images of my father watching me with a smirk on his face, telling me he knew what was coming well before the night of violence that put us on this path.

It happened on a Friday. I’d been away on a work trip all week and had come home to face the silent treatment from Brianne and begrudging affection from my son. We were eating together but apart at the kitchen counter, Brianne with her earphones, humming to whatever she was listening to on her iPod; Noah watching the small TV perched over the breakfast bar, giggling at a cartoon and then  asking her when “grandma would call again.”

Brianne shrugged – a nervous, telling movement – then tapped at her screen, raising the volume enough for me to hear it despite the buds in her ears. A few minutes later, after I’d left the kitchen and come back, her phone was on the counter and she was loading the dishwasher.

So you’re talking to your mother again?” I asked.

She shrugged, making it clear she didn’t want to say anything more.

How’d that happen?” I persisted.

It just happened,” she said.

My teacher told us all about Disneyland and the mouse ears,” Noah said, clearly only to Brianne.

“Maybe we’ll go there some day,” I said.

Noah’s face scrunched up, as if he was about to cry. “You said in Feb-uary no matter what!

I looked at her. “What’s in February?

Disneyland with Grandma,” Noah said. “And when we live there I’m gonna’ go every day.

Live where?

Losaneles with Granma.”

What have you been telling him?” I asked, in a cracking voice.

I don’t want to talk about it now.’’ Brianne quickly got up and started stacking plates. A Brussels sprout rolled off of one, bounced and landed on my phone, leaving a broad grease stain.

Shit . . . Get me a towel.”

Get it yourself.”

We are not moving to Los Angeles.”

Momma and Granma said we were moving there!

Your mother is lying.”

Lying!” she yelled, and slammed a plate into the dishwasher rack, and turned to Noah. “Your father lies – I don’t.”

I suddenly found it almost impossible to breathe. “Shut up.”

Yup,” she added. “He lies, but you’d never know it would you?

I grabbed her shoulder and spun her around. I pressed my thumb against the soft skin underneath her collarbone “You can bitch about how bad your life is, but you will not take him away.”

She shrieked and knocked my hand away. I responded lightning fast with a hard slap across her cheek.

Her eyes snapped wide open with shock – then anger – then fear as she fell back against the refrigerator.

Oh God,” I said.

In an instant I was back in my own childhood house, looking on with a little boy’s terror as my mother cowered beneath my father. I shut my eyes but couldn’t shut out the images of her bruises and bloodied noses; the violence she lived with year after year.

Suddenly I was hugging Brianne, pressing my face against the bright red handprint I’d left on her cheek. She wriggled furiously to get away, screaming “I hate you!” as Noah began to cry hysterically.

The rest of that night became a series of sensations that will stay with me forever: Noah running up behind me, defending his mother by punching the backs of my legs with his tiny fists, Brianne trying to claw my face and missing, Brianne running up the stairs, holding Noah as if she had to protect him from me.

At some point I got up to go upstairs, thinking somehow I could make amends for the heinous thing I had done. I found them lying together in Noah’s twin bed, Brianne in a fetal position with one arm around him. I started to cry in disgrace, knowing that matter what happened, I would never be forgiven.

For several days I tried to make things right. Torn between my shame for striking her, and my fear that she was indeed turning Noah against me, I never knew from moment to moment how to react. Our whole relationship rested on uncertain grounds. She remained civil, nodding but saying nothing in response to my repeated apologies, projecting suspicion in the way she shrank away from me.

I got the temporary protective order, requiring me to keep away from both her and my son, a week later.

“Come in the water Daddy!”

I lean forward, slip off my shoes and walk to the side of the pool. When I sit down, he yells “I can swim good – watch!” and paddles over, his tongue pressed tightly over his lower lip in concentration as he kicks. His eyes are wide, like Brianne’s, and his chin is narrow like mine. When he reaches the side, he stands up, his narrow chest just above the waterline. “You gonna swim?”

“Sure chief, just a few minutes.”

I think of the things that shocked me. First the realization that the week of purgatory after I hit Brianne was a front, and that she was conspiring against me the entire time. There were the photos she had taken of her “injuries” – a vague bruise on her cheekbone accentuated by harsh fluorescent light. There was the attorney she managed to acquire – a woman who made her name through domestic violence cases and agreed to represent her for almost nothing. But I was ultimately most surprised at the lengths to which she went to paint me as the kind of monster I had grown up with even though it certainly wasn’t true.

“Yeah she’s smarter than you think. That’s why we’ve got to fuck her.”

Those words from Schroeder jolt me even now; that and the memory of his bright-eyed smile, enjoying all of this as if it was a game. A memory that takes me back to my father and the game he played against my mother.

My father won, of course, just like I’m trying to do now. Unfortunately Brianne has been way ahead of me for several months now, thanks to the evidence that I hit her, and thanks to the fact that during the first round of negotiations I was too broke, with my low salary and mountain of student debt, to match her legal power. Which has left her free to spin tales to Noah about what a bad father I am, while raising him here, in a place that looks like it will be the first to fall if there ever is a big earthquake. The people going in and out of the apartments look like they’ve all seen better times – like the 40ish man sitting on a chaise lounge a few feet from me, his sun-whitened hair blowing thinly across his sunburned forehead as he scrolls through hook-up sites on his phone. And the dark-haired girl stepping into the courtyard that surrounds the pool, in cut-off jean shorts, with a sleeve of tattoos up her arm.

She meets my eyes, then glances down at Noah in the water, then abruptly looks down at the bag slung over her shoulder as she heads for another lounge chair.

I imagine how satisfied I’ll feel when I tell Schroeder about the low-rent place where Noah and Brianne have been living. It’s basically a motel, which is what it used to be. I know this from the vintage/retro post card I received at the post office box yesterday morning, right before I got onto the plane. It showed this same apartment complex as a “luxury motor court” built in the 1950s.The blood rushed from my head the moment I realized the postcard was from Brianne, and when I read the message, THIS IS WHERE WE ARE NOW – NOAH’S LOOKING FORWARD TO SEEING YOU.

It took a good 10 minutes for my breath and heartbeat to feel normal, because until then I believed that the post office box was my secret. I still don’t know how she found out about it but I know why. It’s because she doubled down on her suspicions and committed herself to keeping watch on me after she found out I cheated. She succeeded because I was careless and overly confident that I could pull everything over on her, and because, as Schroeder says, she’s smarter than I realized.

I lean back in the chase lounge and take another look around the pool with its discolored concrete, and the view of the convenience store and check cashing operation across the street. My hands become fists as I think again of where Noah should be living, in the big new house that’s all mine, a spoil of the heart attack that ended my father’s life, prematurely but not completely unexpectedly. Ironically his death was hastened by his wealth, which enabled him to live like landed gentry but alone in his 1790 manor house amid 10 acres of rural privacy in a remote community 30 miles away from the emergency room doctors who might have been able to save him under different circumstances.

The thought takes me back to Brianne’s email, and the third attachment that came with it, a reminder of the ticking time bomb in my own chest; a reminder of what I’ve done.

“Well hello there little man.”

I turn toward the voice, spoken by the dark-haired girl with the tats. She’s walked around the pool and come up alongside us, and is stooping down toward Noah, who lets out a happy little sound and slaps his hands on the surface of the water, making little splashes.

“Nice try, buster.” She takes a step back, then meets my eyes. “You must be Andrew.”

“Yes,” I say.

She extends her hand in a confident, almost business-like way. I shake it, still looking up at her. She has a tiny ring in her left nostril, and heavy black mascara on her lashes, and maroon lips; a Goth look.

“Nicolle Stabenow. I’m a friend of Brianne’s.”

I know I should offer a snarky smile, because she looks like she would be a friend of Brianne’s.

“You live here?” I ask.

“Yes this pool is very exclusive. Residents only.” She laughs, making me smile for real. “I’m in the unit above Brianne and Noah’s.”

She turns back toward Noah, who’s now kicking around in a slow circle. She pauses, until he’s farther out of earshot, but keeps her voice low. “How’s she doing?”

There’s genuine concern in her voice.

“I don’t know,” I say. “I haven’t talked with her today – just got in last night.”

“She’s so amazing.”

I look at her, incredulously. She doesn’t seem to notice, just continues talking.

“I was so happy when she told me she was finally going to get real help – beyond what I could give her. I’d been worried about her, with all the pressure she’d been under.”

“Pressure,” I say.

“Losing her job. All the fights with her mom. All the fights with Ricardo.”

Ricardo. She’s referring to the felon. “What do you mean – what fights?”

She gives me a long look, and sighs, then sits down on the edge of the pool deck with her legs in the water, like mine. “She obviously didn’t tell you. Which makes perfect sense. She’s trying so hard. . . I did what I could to help her but I’m not quite there yet.”

“There?”

“It’s a familiar syndrome; intimate partner violence that’s witnessed on an ongoing basis by children who then gravitate to what they know. You hear over and again about the boys who grow up to be abusers but not nearly so much as the girls who end up with men who do the same to them. Rationalization with an inside-out rationale.”

I realize she’s talking about me, which means Brianne has been talking to her about me. I’m still staring at her, taking it all in, when she blinks, and laughs again. “Sorry. I guess I’m talking crazy, since she’s obviously told you nothing about what I do.”

“No,” I say.

“I’m six months away from my Doctorate. I’m going to have a clinical practice some day.”

“Congrats,” I say, and look at her again: a smart girl with a disarming confidence that still seems at-odds with her appearance. A woman living in a crummy motel apartment complex who’s about to earn a degree that’s about as high as mine.

A short ring-tone notifies me of a text. I lean back and pick up my phone from the lounge chair. It’s from Schroeder.

Got the docs, photos, etc. She is dead.

Heat rushes to my face as I jerkily turn the screen to keep her from seeing it.

“What has she told you – about us?” I ask.

She looks thoughtfully up toward Brianne’s apartment. “She told me you all were a disaster together. Oil and water – that kind of thing.”

“That’s all?”

She frowns slightly, and sighs. “No, that’s not all. But what matters is that she’s absolutely determined to take care of Noah, and herself, which is why she’s getting help.”

We both look toward Noah again. He’s holding the rim of the pool at the deep end, his body buoyed by the float, and is practicing his kicking.

“He’s her whole life,” she adds. “And she’ll do whatever it takes to keep him.”

There’s a look in her eyes. She knows, I think, about the truth behind the Canadian flag and the P.O. Box, and what I’m capable of doing. I wonder if she’s afraid of me, or if, at Brianne’s request, she’s been enlisted to keep an eye on me.

“Any way, I’ve got some work to do but I wanted to say hello.”

She lifts her legs from the water and grips my shoulder for balance as she stands up, as if we’ve known each other forever. She’s clearly on Brianne’s side, but I feel a strange urge to keep her there, talking to me as she puts a hand over her eyebrows to shield the sun and calls out to Noah: “Be nice to your dad!”

We watch as he kicks his way around to face us. I want him to smile, but the expression on his face is uncertain, and maybe even a little scared because he doesn’t want her to go. After a moment he starts kicking and paddling toward us. His legs and arms are hitting the water too hard and without any rhythm, slowing him down instead of speeding him up, creating a cacophony of noise that almost obscures the sound of his voice.

“. . . coloring book!”

I hear those two words but miss everything else he was trying to say.

Nicole frowns, because she obviously missed it too. “What, honey?”

“I want to finish my coloring book!” Still paddling and kicking, and almost floundering, Noah looks almost panicked now.

Nicolle taps her forehead with the heel of her hand. “Ah, I completely forgot.” And then she stoops down, her voice noticeably calm. “It’s all right Noah, I’ve got it. Now slow down a little – swim like I taught you.”

He pauses, takes a few seconds to think. Then starts moving with calmer motions and a more natural rhythm, his hands forming cups that move him forward through the water.

“That’s right . . . kick and stroke.”

She claps as he reaches the edge of the pool, then reaches down and touches the tip of his nose. “Nice job, pardner. And don’t you worry about your coloring book. It’s right over there in my bag.”

He smiles up at her, but he’s too out-of-breath to say anything.

“You ready to take a break?” I ask him. I’m not sure if he even hears me because he’s so fixated on the sight of Brianne’s friend standing back up and walking away.

When he doesn’t respond I reach down and put my hands underneath his tiny armpits, lifting him up out of the float. I grab one of the big towels I brought from the bathroom in their apartment. It’s worn and thin and a bit musty. I scrub him down and impulsively pull him close, smelling chlorine and the sweet scent of his skin.

He stands preternaturally still again, as if he’s not sure how to react. I sit down on my lounge chair, conscious of how much time has passed since I saw him last.

Enough time to get swimming lessons from a stranger, I think, instead of me.

And then she’s back again, reaching into her shoulder bag. She pulls out a big tablet and hands it to me, then reaches back in the bag and pulls out a Tupperware container full of broken Crayons.

“Here you go poppa’ – this’ll keep him occupied for hours.”

I thumb through the tablet from back to front. Noah called it a “coloring book” but it’s actually a drawing book, with simple illustrations of animals and buildings and cars opposite blank pages for kids to copy what they see. Noah has filled most of the blank pages with busy drawings that probably use every Crayon in the box.

Nicolle turns and starts walking, speaking over her shoulder. “Give Brianne my love when you see her again.”

I give her a short wave and settle back into my chair. Without a word Noah goes over to a patio table and climbs into one of the chairs. I watch as he opens the drawing book, feeling more unsettled at how easily he retreats into his own world. After a moment I stand back up, stretch my arms to try and shake away the fatigue, and check my phone again. There are no new texts from Tom Schroeder; nothing new to pull me away from this time with Noah.

I look toward the table again. Noah’s facing me, so I see the drawing he’s working on from upside down. It’s a landscape, with bright green grass and a yellow sun and a playground swing set. Even from this angle I can see he’s drawn three people, two adults and a child. My mind goes back to a day long before the slap, when I was still trying to make amends for cheating. We had taken a family picnic to a park near our house. Noah had just turned four and was full of energy and spent most of the day showing us the tumbling exercises he was so proud of. It rubbed off on both of us, seeing him happy like that. Later on we all got onto swings, side by side with Noah in the middle. Brianne and I got into the same rhythm and swung back and forth, up into the bright sunlight. I kept looking over to her and at one point, when we both got about as high as possible; she finally looked back, squinted into the sun and smiled. I remember thinking of her at that moment as being fragile and precious, a woman-child who would never let go of her dreams – to be a movie star; to have a happy family – however unattainable they were.

I distinctly remember the light feeling in my heart as we drove home, the sun still warm on our faces, as I thought of how much better I had to be, for Brianne and Noah both.

I stand up, stretch again, and walk over to the table and lean over Noah as he colors. It is indeed a playground scene. The little boy and his yellow haired mother are standing side by side. They have upwardly turned lips and spherical eyes. The brown haired father is standing at a bit of a distance away, and I feel a shaky sensation in my gut as I gaze down at the blank circle above his neck.

It’s me. Without a face.

My breath catches in my throat. I watch as Noah draws flowers in the grass, identical daisy shapes. Watching and waiting for him to go back and finish the people, to draw my eyes and my mouth. Instead he keeps drawing the daisies, one after another. And then he looks up at me, his legs dangling and swinging back and forth as he sets the green Crayon down.

“Noah . . .” I say.

He gives me a quizzical look, his head tilted slightly to the side.

My throat tightens as I look toward the coloring book again. The page Noah was working on flutters in the light wind. I know that he’s finished with the drawing. My face is still blank. But there is no doubt that the mother and son are smiling.

Because he loves her, I think.

More than he will ever love me.

There’s another ping from my phone; another text from Schroeder. I see his bright eyed eagerness in my mind; see the two of us in his office, plotting. I shiver slightly as the sun breaks through the clouds and think of Schroeder’s text – “she is dead” – and the sting of my palm on Brianne’s face and the pounding of Noah fists on the backs of my legs.

And then I go back to the email I got last night, from Brianne. The record from the keystroke logger she installed on my laptop. Evidence of the Levitra I ordered from the online pharmacy that professes to be in Canada. Web searches describing how its active ingredient, Isosorbide mononitrate, interacts with nitroglycerin and clear warnings about the dangers that would make someone with a heart condition like mine suicidal if I ever took it. And of course there’s the reference to the post office box I had it shipped to, registered to a different name – the P.O. box where I received the vintage postcard of the motorcourt where we are now.

And then there’s the third attachment. A photo of my BMW at the top of the circular drive that fronts my father’s estate, taken from behind the wheel of Brianne’s car. It’s night outside but the inside of her car is brightly lit. The front page of the Chestertown Daily News is spread out over the steering wheel. The date is clear, and it shows that, contrary to what I told Brianne and my father’s physician, I was with him on the night he died.

Of course she doesn’t know about the four pills I ground up and put into his double shot of Glenlivet during our typically strained cocktail hour. Or about how I pretended not to notice his reddening face and strained breath as I stepped back out into the night to drive back home to our empty house, knowing that his death would give me the financial resources I needed to hire Schroeder and his investigator in the effort to win Noah back.

What she does know is dangerous but not damning, at least not completely. But it wouldn’t be good for it to surface just four months after my windfall.

My head feels light as I stand up. There’s a buzzing at the back of my brain, as if I’m about to faint as I think about the schedule – the plan for the carefully timed call to the social workers, the irrefutable evidence that Brianne is an unfit mother, the chance to win Noah back and all of the reasons his life will be better when that happens.

And then the image comes to me, of Noah and me, alone in my house, the permanently distrustful look I know I will see in his eyes weeks from now, when I’ve won him back.

The image of him hating me, as I hated my father.

I sigh as I look at her email again, knowing she’s won. And then I think of her decision to go into rehab, and about her overture in offering me the chance to be with Noah for the whole two weeks. Possibly because she’d couldn’t turn him over to her friend Nicole and certainly not to the drug dealer.

But maybe, despite everything, she still wants me in Noah’s life. And wants us to be that family she always wanted; the three of us, intact.

“Why don’t we get back in the water?” I say.

Noah’s legs swing back and forth, a sign of happiness, like a puppy’s wagging tail. And then without a word he gets down off the chair and picks up the half-inflated ring and jumps in.

Suddenly I want nothing more than to hug him. I bend my knees, lowering myself until the water comes up to my chest, so Noah and I are eye-to-eye. I grasp the float and pull him close and kiss his cheek as I wrap my arms around him. To my surprise and wonder he leans into me, accepting the hug and then patting the top of my head, as if he suddenly knows how much I need his affection.

I smile through tears, thinking once again of the cologne I wanted to wear, and the need for him to remember me at this moment, as he tilts his body back, and kicks hard, and swims away.

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