Category

Mysteries

BROADKILL BEACH

 

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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

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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.

# # #

 

 

 

 

 

DOUBLE ABDUCTION – EXCERPT

EXCERPT FROM DOUBLE ABDUCTION

ONE

Stealing a child in broad daylight could be tricky, but the shopping mall almost made it simple. Blending easily with the crowd, the abductor followed Mary Bennett and her brother Michael from a distance of 30 feet, feeling a restrained sense of excitement as Mary’s son, five-year-old Justin Bennett, took advantage of a moment of inattention and slipped away.

Eyes trained like a laser at the top of Justin’s head, the abductor followed. There was a moment of hesitation when the child stood among a large, slow-moving group of shoppers, looking back at his mother and his uncle to see if they had turned around and noticed his absence. Seeing their backs, Justin followed through, heading quickly and more deeply into the crowd.

The abductor moved swiftly, following the child back toward the direction from which Michael, Mary and Justin had come earlier. Spotting the boy’s likely destination long before Justin could see the store sign above the adult bodies in the crowd, the abductor walked ahead, passing within four feet of him. Justin Bennett had a dark red wine stain on his right cheek. It was a birthmark that would have brought him misery in adolescence. As a five-year-old it made him easy to identify, which made taking him riskier still.

Moving ahead, but glancing occasionally back to ensure Justin was making progress, the abductor made quick notice of two exits, one on each side of the mall, and both within a 30 second walk of the store where Justin Bennett was surely headed. Once the grab was made, it would be easy to get to the van on the second level of the garage. Once inside, his little body would be laid down on the back seat floor and covered with a blanket, unnoticeable to the attendant as the van exited the lot.

After that the task would be simple, nothing to do but get Justin Bennett to the relay point one hour away. Shortly afterwards, the boy would be dead.

The store that drew Justin away from his mother and uncle sold discount shoes from shelves that went up nearly six feet, with narrow aisles in between. The aisles were crowded with stray samples and half-empty shoeboxes, and the single clerk on duty was flustered by a long line of customers at the counter.

The child was apparently drawn back to the store by a double life-sized standup cutout of Captain Steel, a Saturday morning cartoon character that was now branded to a line of children’s shoes. Today for Justin Bennett the character was like a Pied Piper, a bright burst of color from 20 feet away. For marketing purposes the cutout had been placed in the middle of the store, to draw customers deeper into the midst of the merchandise.

Hidden by the tall shelving, the abductor stood four feet behind the display – a perch that was just a little over an arm’s length away from the statue. The abductor was fairly certain that the child wouldn’t have time to protest, but it was important to plan ahead just in case. With a quick but careful movement, the prick of the needle would feel like nothing more than a light scratch on the boy’s arm. Within 30 seconds the liquid Valium shot into his bloodstream would render him semi-conscious. He would be carried silently away, the wine-stained cheek hidden by the abductor’s shoulder, looking like an anonymous child headed for an afternoon nap.

A muscular little boy in denim coveralls, Justin approached the display with a grin. His eyes were wide as he stared open-mouthed, then quietly uttered “cool.”

“Justin!”

The abductor jumped back at the woman’s voice, retreating behind the tall shelves an instant before Mary Bennett rushed down the aisle and grabbed her son. Mary was shaking, holding Justin as if protecting him from an attack of pit bulls. Attracted by the commotion, the other shoppers had left their own aisles and were gathering around her now.

Still concealed, the abductor watched through a narrow opening in the shelves as Michael Bennett came through the crowd. Apparently brother and sister had split up for the panicked search. Michael’s face was pale, his breathing labored. He looked as if he’d run two miles.

Stopping a few steps away from Mary, who still held the boy tightly, he leaned forward, his hands on his knees, and waited until his sister met his eyes.

“He okay?” Michael asked her.

She nodded, and looked back down at her son.

“We were worried little buddy.” Michael reached over and touched Justin’s shoulder. “We got scared when you ran off like that — .”

“You were supposed to be holding his hand.”

The coldness in Mary Bennett’s voice made Michael visibly tense.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“I know you’re sorry Michael. But that wouldn’t have helped us.”

Even through the narrow space between the shelves it was easy to see the sag of Michael Bennett’s shoulders. At 25, Michael was in peak condition and he had obviously been working out with heavy weights, trying to look like the bodyguard he no doubt imagined himself to be. From the tone in his sister’s voice the moment of inattention would cost him dearly.

And it would hurt her trust in him even more.

The abductor felt a small sense of satisfaction, something to counter the frustration of losing a perfect opportunity. Michael and his sister were standing near the front now, chatting with the clerk, who was offering Justin a lollipop. Mary was shaking her head, saying no. Her light brown, shoulder-length hair had the texture of silk and during the search several strands had loosened from a barrette and drifted forward across her high, narrow cheeks. She was 5’8 and a good 10 pounds thinner than she should have been, one of those wiry women who always seemed harried and nervous.

But beautiful still.

It hurt to see her so close to being happy. After five years she seemed to be healing, but the blow that was coming would take her down hard. It might even push her over the edge. Loveless, childless, empty, she would be reduced to a shell of her former self.

The abductor thought about that for just a moment, acknowledging that the horror ahead was far worse than she deserved.

But there was no other choice. Tomorrow, or the next day — whenever the chance arose — Justin Bennett had to be eliminated, his voice silenced long before the inevitable questions could be asked.

Michael and Mary Bennett were walking out of the store and back into the mall now. Between them, holding their hands, Justin Bennett was a tiny, beloved, flesh and blood link.

A bond about to be broken.

TWO

Steps away from the dance floor, near the front of a swelling crowd, Harland Till watched as Bobby Freed spun and swayed to the thumping beat.

A white male in his mid-20s, Freed was dressed to lure in a sleeveless white t-shirt and tight, tattered jeans. His hair was shorn military-style above broad cheekbones and a heavy jaw. His skin was pockmarked and leathery from years of sun. Blue-gray tattoos on his biceps shined with sweat.

Looking past him, Till had a spectacular view of Club Night and its crowd. Up to the mezzanine where the couples – male-female, female-female, male-male – kissed and groped. Back toward the long, curving bar, tended by men and women moving in swift, easy rhythm as they tilted the bottles to fill glass after glass. Toward the two mirrored walls at the corner of the dance floor, where he watched a reflection of Bobby Freed’s pumping fists, the swaying of his muscled arms, the gyrations of his hips.

Watched and waited, knowing that Freed would eventually meet his eyes.

Till glanced away when it happened, but he glanced back a moment later, wearing the hint of a smile as he moved closer, his shoulders rolling with the beat as the hip-hop music video morphed into soft-core gay pornography on a screen rising two stories high.

As if on cue, the light around the dancers became a rapid-fire strobe, capturing Freed in hypnotic poses. Poses that tempted, and provoked, as Till held his gaze, then nodded toward the bar at the rear of the room.

The rendezvous happened exactly as Till had hoped it would, free of small talk and any other diversion as he pressed Freed’s back against the bar, slipping his leg between the man’s thighs and speaking directly into his ear.

Minutes later they were in the nightclub’s back parking lot, agreeing to the specifics about what would happen next. With only the slightest bit of indecision Freed consented, giving Till the address and room number of a hotel just a few minutes away from the club.

Till watched as Freed got into a beat-up pick-up truck, but felt a twinge of anxiety at the sight of the truck’s burned-out taillight and out-of-state license plate. Mounting his Harley, giving the man a bit of a head start, he made sure he followed at a safe distance, from which it would be easy to simply speed away if Freed happened to be pulled over. Till had already been back to Club Night too many times since the last incident, and he wanted to minimize the chances of having a D.C. cop doing a check of his own license.

The hotel was what Till expected, and hoped-for, a rundown low-rise on New York Avenue. He watched Freed park the truck, then drove the bike around the block twice to plan his exit. Interstate 95 was nearby and it cut right through the center of the city. He knew that he could be on it and heading north or south in less than two minutes.

He parked several car lengths behind the truck, in the darkness under a burned-out streetlight. The Harley had a small, locked compartment behind the seat, inside of which Till kept the backpack with all of his traveling gear. The bag was heavy and there was a distinct clinking sound as Till brought it out and set it down. He kept a baseball cap with a large bill in one side compartment and a roll of duct tape, two thin towels, some sturdy twine and several pairs of sheer rubber gloves in the other. The condoms he had bought earlier in the evening were in the pocket of his jeans.

Wearing the cap with the bill pointing slightly downward, he slung the backpack onto his back and walked into the lobby. The clerk was reading a magazine behind the counter. Till headed straight to the bank of elevators, hoping to look like a guest accustomed to coming and going. But with a stroke of luck a phone underneath the counter rang as he walked by. The clerk answered it, and turned around to face the boxes that held the room keys as Till moved swiftly across the lobby.

He pushed the button for the elevator but thought better about it as he listened to its slow, groaning approach. It was already past 2 a.m. but the hotel looked like a place accustomed to all-night traffic. People who might remember him. The stairs were a better option, and he was relieved to find the heavy stairwell door unlocked.

He exited at the third floor. The hallway was brightly lit, the carpeting tattered. The sweet, fruity scent of cleaning fluid filled his lungs as he moved toward Bobby Freed’s room.

He knocked lightly, stepping inside immediately as Freed came to the door. With only a hushed “hello” Till clasped him by the belt and pulled him close, halting any possible conversation with a long, open-mouthed kiss, pausing only to turn the deadlock and slip the chain into place.

He was pleased to see the drugs that had been laid out before his arrival: Several lines of cocaine on a pocket mirror, a fat marijuana cigarette in the ceramic ashtray, a bottle of amyl nitrate on the table next to the bed. Stripping down to white cotton briefs, Freed did three lines and took two long hits of the joint as Till set the backpack next to the bed and slowly undressed in front of him. Freed did not seem to notice as Till then pushed both his clothes and his shoes far underneath the bed.

Reggae music from the radio was low and rhythmic as Bobby Freed slipped out of his briefs and reclined back on the bed, stretching his arms and catching his breath as Till bound his wrists. For a long moment Till’s mind skipped back to the dozens of photographs of Bobby Freed that he had committed to memory. Under the light of the bedside lamp, Freed’s long body bore several more tattoos. As Till had expected, Freed’s nipples and navel were pierced with several small silver rings. The skin at the underside of his penis was pierced with a ring of gold.

Freed watched him put on a condom and groaned with pleasure as Till climbed on top of him, showing no fear as Till grasped Freed’s wrists and used his weight to hold him down.

The rest happened quickly, in seconds of gasps and moans over the creaking bed and the pulsing music and the flurry of images spinning through Till’s mind; Till forcing himself not to cry out loud with the sudden, final release.

For several seconds afterward Freed appeared to be completely relaxed, his eyes fluttering shut. He was already beginning to doze as Till rolled over and reached down to the backpack next to the bed.

Slipped his hand into the center pocket and gripped the leather-bound handle above the long, narrow steel blade.

Turned his face back toward Bobby Freed, who was breathing calmly, wearing a subtle, contented smile. Till felt his own desire dissolving completely as he ran the fingers of his left hand down the man’s torso, tracing the sign of a cross over Freed’s abdomen as Freed opened his eyes.

“You wanna untie me now?”

Freed’s voice was an unexpected interruption to the reverie. Till had hoped he would simply drift off to sleep. But if he was talking he could soon be screaming . . .

“Yeah,” Till said. “Let me get somethin’ to cut it with.”

The roll of black duct tape was between the two thin towels. Till glanced back and saw Bobby Freed’s eyes fluttering shut again as he let go of the knife and leaned down just a bit lower. He cleared his throat to cover the sound as he pulled off a long piece of tape and bit the edge to tear it off the roll. Then with a quick but careful movement he pushed the whole bag underneath the bed so that it sat next to his clothes and shoes.

Holding both ends of the tape, he slowly rose, keeping the tape out of sight as he climbed back on top of Freed. Till used his weight to hold him down as Freed opened his eyes again.

Till let Bobby Freed look into his eyes for a long moment, and felt the angry smile coming to his own face.

“Get ready,” Till whispered. “Cause here it comes — .”

Till brought the tape down quickly, slapping it over Freed’s half-open mouth, pressing with both hands to secure it as Freed reared up, eyes wide with panic, his bound hands slapping Till’s chest as Till reached down to the floor, Till still managing, just barely, to hold him down as he grabbed the knife again, Freed’s eyes going even wider as Till raised it high above his chest, holding the handle with both hands in a tight double fist, holding it as if he were about to perform a ritual as he whispered . . .

“Fucker . . . ” and thrust the knife down, the blade plunging between Bobby Freed’s ribs; Freed bucking and lurching as Till pulled it free . . . and brought it back down again, and again; out and down and out and down in a spastic flurry, the blood shooting up like a bright red geyser with Bobby Freed’s last silent scream.

* * *

The afterward feeling came on quickly, sweeping over him in gentle, peaceful waves as he slid off the body and stood next to the bed. The blood had drenched both of them and the stink of it filled the room. There were splatters on the lamps, the tables and virtually every other surface that Till could see. Taking a long, deep breath, he turned in a slow circle to survey the scene that surrounded him.

The scene like so many others, in hotel rooms and apartments and distant houses in several different states. Some of the victims, like this one, wore familiar faces on familiar bodies. Others were simply anonymous; men who had made themselves available for quick, furtive thrills with virtually no questions or worries about what could happen.

Till looked back at the victim, remembering the first time he had seen him on a Web site, his slim, muscled body naked and tense with arousal, eyes looking straight into the camera. Till had felt the victim’s stare calling him, luring him.

You got what you deserved, Till thought. Yessir . . . got it in spades.

The clock next to the bed read 2:20. Time to get moving. Till’s mind cleared quickly as he began the steps for a secure exit.

He went first to the bathroom, ran warm water in the sink, rinsed the blood from his hands and wiped them dry. Slipped the condom from his wilted penis and wrapped it in a washcloth that would be carried away in his bag and discarded later. He then went back into the room and carefully reached underneath the bed, putting one hand below the backpack and the other above it to keep it up off the carpet as he brought it out.

He took it straight to the bathroom, which was still clean and white, laid it down on the back of the toilet. Went back and repeated the same motion with his clothes and shoes, keeping them away from the blood, clean and dry.

The shower came next — hot, soapy and not too long — Till becoming more aware of the time and everything he still needed to do. He gave the knife a good washing as well, even though it would need to be fully soaked and cleaned of all residue later, when he was safely away. When he was dry he put on most of his clothes, leaving his socks and shoes on a clean spot of carpeting just inside the hotel room door and rolling up the legs of his pants.

Back in the bathroom, he pulled a pair of rubber gloves from the backpack and grabbed a clean towel. At the bathroom doorway he paused, remembering every surface that he had touched. He had little reason to worry. He had never been arrested, or fingerprinted, so there was no evidence that he knew of to link him to any of his crimes. But he was never sloppy or overly confident, and the steps that he took next were crucial to the ritual.

He started at the doorway, wiping the deadbolt and the chain, moved to the bedside table and headboard, finished with the shiny metal and porcelain surfaces in the bathroom. Went back to the entrance to the room and mentally traced his actions to make sure there was no place he had missed.

It was nearly 3 a.m. now. Time to get out. But the last step of the ritual beckoned as Till went to the pile of clothes that the victim had left next to the bed. They were splattered with blood, but with his fingertips he was able to lift the wallet out of the back pocket. The plastic sleeves inside revealed a driver’s license from West Virginia and a membership card to a health club. Till carefully took out the cash: two $50 bills and three 20s. Not a lot, but a nice addition to his own stash. Slipping the money into his pocket, he glanced over at the shoulder bag that the victim had placed in the corner of the room. If the victim had traveled here from West Virginia without credit cards he probably had more cash, which he probably would have left back at his hotel room to avoid carrying it around.

Still wearing the gloves, Till carefully lifted the bag and reached inside.

On top of the victim’s clothing was a camera, in a leather case, along with a snap-on telephoto lens. It looked expensive, and would probably be worth at least $100 if he could fence it, Till thought, although he had never been stupid enough to take anything that could connect him to a victim. Tilting the bag toward the light, he fished around some more, then turned the bag around to check the pockets on the other side.

He felt two envelopes as he reached in; one large and thin and another smaller one from the PhotoExpress store he had seen just down the block.

He glanced at the clock again, knowing he needed to get moving as he opened the larger envelope. It contained an issue of the Washington Blade, a gay newspaper, and what looked like transcripts from an Internet chat room. Till had always had trouble reading but he usually managed by going through passages several times and finding familiar words. The type on the transcripts was small and hard to read but there were several words that did stand out . . . words that made him feel lightheaded as his eyes went back and forth over the first two pages . . .

Damnation,” he whispered.

His hands were shaking as he opened the second envelope and reached inside . . . panic fluttering in his chest as he flipped through the photographs of the little boy playing in a yard . . . a beautiful little boy laughing and running and jumping into the arms of a grown man . . .

A beautiful little boy turned nearly ugly by the dark red wine stain on the side of his face.

* * *

Officer Gloria Towson took the call at 9:45 a.m., cutting quickly through the alleys even through she knew the call about a “disturbance” at the Capitol Hotel would probably amount to nothing more than a fight to oust one of the homeless white guys who occasionally tried to sleep in the lobby. But she quickened her pace at the sight of the maid who looked as if she had collapsed in the lobby chair and the shock on the face of the clerk who simply said “room 305” as she came through the revolving door . . . took the stairs two at a time to reach the third floor . . . felt the muscles tensing between her broad shoulders as she saw the wide-open door near the end of the hall . . .

And gasped as she reached the threshold.

“Oh God.” Her hand went to her gun as the images and smells assaulted her mind . . . the naked man who had been savaged on the bed . . . the odor of stale marijuana lingering in the air . . . the blood splattered into every corner of the room.

She stepped back, wondering if she had already screwed up by getting too close to the scene, then looked down at the dry, clean carpeting under her feet and realized she had stopped just in time. She heard the ding of the elevator door and turned to see the clerk getting off, his eyes wide with curiosity as he said something about the floor being “nearly empty” and the only other “guests” running straight down to the lobby after glimpsing the sight that had caused the maid to scream.

“Good, that’s good.” She held her arm out, motioning him back. “I need to ask you to go back downstairs now. Please. And don’t let anyone leave. Keep that lady — the maid — who saw this in the lobby till we can interview her. Please. Jesus.”

“Are you okay ma’am — .”

Yes.” She paused, took a deep, calming breath. “You’ll need to stay down there for awhile too, until we can get a statement.”

She turned away, back toward the room. Priority one at a scene was “officer safety.” She did not believe she was in danger; the killer was surely long gone.

Priority two was the “health and welfare of the victim” and under most circumstances she would be expected to check for life signs but . . . no, not here.

Priority three was “protection of the scene.” She pulled the radio from her belt, a surreal chill radiating through her whole body as she called it in, blurting out that the victim’s wrists were bound even though it was a detail the dispatcher did not need to know. She stayed just outside the doorway to make sure that no one — from curious guests to the first wave of patrol officers who would soon be filling the hallway — contaminated the crime scene.

She realized then what she had forgotten. The hotel room was small and from the doorway she could see every corner, but the bathroom was only partly visible through the open door. Procedure dictated that she check for any other victims without damaging the scene.

Gloria took out her gun. “Police. Is anyone here? We’re coming in.”

There was a narrow perimeter of carpeting that appeared to be free of bloodstains and she walked sideways along it toward the bathroom. She crouched and peered around the doorway and was relieved to see that she could do a visual sweep of the inside without entering. The curtain in the tub was open; the tub was empty. There was no other victim.

She retraced her steps as she moved back to the hall, eyes sweeping side to side and taking in more details. In the far corner, the victim’s traveling bag appeared to have been emptied; a pile of clothes left on the floor. The radio was on, tuned to a station where the newscaster spoke with a lilting Caribbean accent. There were marks in the bloodstained carpet that looked like they had been made by bare feet. And there was a photograph lying in blood near the foot of the bed.

A little boy. Gloria squinted, but the photograph was partially obscured by the tousled bedspread and it was difficult to pick out the details from five feet away. There was a strange shadow on the child’s face and he appeared to be looking sideways, not at the camera.

The sound of an approaching siren took her attention back to the doorway and the crime scene that had to be protected. Less than a minute later there were four other patrol officers in the hallway. Gloria stayed at the door to stop anyone from entering and pulled the notebook from her back pocket to begin her log, writing down the names and badge numbers of the other officers as they arrived and assuring herself that she had done everything right as Louis D’Amecourt stepped out of the elevator and met her eyes.

D’Amecourt, the Fifth District Commander, coming down the hall with surprising speed and already looking as if he had something to say.

D’Amecourt grilling her but not looking at her as he stood at the threshold, staring into the room, every question putting her more on edge. What time did she get the call? Who discovered the victim? Had she trampled on, touched or done anything else to damage the crime scene?

She gave him short, succinct answers, which she knew measured up. But she was still on edge as homicide detective Tommy Payne came through the stairwell door. Payne looked warily at D’Amecourt as he approached the scene, and gave her a little wave when he met her eyes.

“Hey Glo.”

D’Amecourt flinched at Payne’s greeting, the use of her first name.

“Hey Tommy.” Her voice croaked. “Thanks for — .”

“Okay Towson, we’ll take it from here,” D’Amecourt said.

“I have witnesses to interview,” Gloria told him. “The maid downstairs and some people who were staying in the rooms on this floor — .”

“Just make sure they don’t go anywhere. We’ll talk to them in a minute,” D’Amecourt said sharply.

“I was the first on the scene. I’d like to get their statements.”

“You heard me Towson. You’re done.”

Well goddamn you too. Her jaw was locked and it was impossible to keep the anger out of her eyes as she stared back at D’Amecourt, waiting for him to look away.

“I’m sure you’ve taken good care of everything so far,” Payne came to her rescue, which only made her feel worse. But the chirping of her cell phone cut through the air before she could respond.

“You can take that down in the lobby,” D’Amecourt said dismissively.

“We’ll do a debrief in a little while,” Payne said, his gentle gaze promising her that they would.

“Okay,” she said quietly, unable to resist another harsh look at D’Amecourt as she turned away. She answered the phone while walking down the hall and was relieved to hear the voice of Booker, her husband of four months, who was also a police officer but off-duty for the day.

She gave him the details in the stairwell, telling him what a bastard D’Amecourt was, as if Booker didn’t already know.

“He came in here like a freight train,” she told him. “Like he was desperate to run me out.”

“What about Tommy Payne?”

“Payne was okay, but he knows I am pissed off.”

“D’Amecourt’s always been hands-on Glo.”

“Well he’s freakier than usual today. I think there’s something going on.”

“What do you mean?”

Gloria paused, thinking about the possibility that D’Amecourt was reacting not to her but to the crime scene itself. “Something about the way he acted. Like maybe he was scared of something.”

“Yeah right.” Booker’s laugh was short and hollow. “Only thing that man’s scared of is an empty bottle.”

Gloria looked back through the narrow glass window in the heavy stairwell door. There were two new officers guarding the scene now, and apparently D’Amecourt and Payne were both inside the room. As the Commander of the Fifth District, it made sense that D’Amecourt might have come to the scene, and that he would keep an eye on the processing carried out by a homicide detective under his watch. But it still surprised her that he was among the first to arrive.

She told Booker that she would call him later, that she needed to go down to the lobby to make sure that anyone who might have seen anything stayed put. But curiosity kept her rooted to the spot as she hung up, and moments later she was heading back down the hall and looking for an excuse to go back to the scene.

Both of the officers at the doorway, Rutherford and Sanchez, nodded stiffly as she approached, and neither man looked as if he would move an inch. But the door was still open and she had a clear view of D’Amecourt, stooping down alongside the pile of clothing on the floor.

With his back to her, she scanned the room again, her eyes coming back to the victim, the blood-soaked sheets, the empty space under the bed where she had seen the child’s photograph just moments before.

THREE

Refusing to be paranoid about premonitions, Michael Bennett sat on the edge of the bed as Justin hugged his stuffed spaniel dog and whispered:

“Momma was scarwed, Uncle Mike.”

Justin had a froggy, elfin voice, and he had always had trouble with “w”s, “l”s and “r”s.

“She made me scarwed too.”

The sadness in Justin’s eyes brought a small ache to the back of Michael’s throat as he pulled the covers up under the boy’s chin, then patted them down to create the snugness that Justin craved. Then he sat down on the bed and placed his palms on both sides of Justin’s face.

“Your mom loves you very much,” he said. “And it’s true, she does get upset when she turns around and you’re not right there.”

Justin blinked, and Michael knew he was ashamed that he had violated one of his mother’s “most important rules.” Michael decided to speak matter-of-factly, to take the opportunity to make a point.

“You have to remember, when you’re out with your mom, or with me, it’s very important that you stay close by . . . you have to hold our hands like you were supposed to today. Do you understand?”

Justin frowned for a moment, then nodded. Relaxing, finally, Michael stretched out beside him and listened to the child’s gentle breathing.

“But what about on the wides?”

“What do you mean?”

“Uncle Michael,” Justin chastised him now. “When you wide the ponies you have to hold on with both hands.”

“Oh yeah, right,” Michael smiled at the earnestness in Justin’s eyes.

“And also when you dwive the little cars,” Justin told him. “Both hands on the wheel. That’s what you said last time, remember, Uncle Mike?”

“Yeah I remember,” Michael said. His sister’s ever-present apprehension had made last month’s trip to the AdventureWorld amusement park tense at first, but she had eventually relaxed. Pestered to submission, Mary had agreed to let Justin go again. This time, tomorrow, with his Uncle Michael alone.

Michael gave Justin a serious look. “I’ll tell you what. Because you’re getting to be a big boy now . . . When you’re on the rides, you do have to keep a grip on the reigns or the wheel. And when you’re with your mom or me, you have to hold her hand or mine. But guess what else?”

“What, Uncle Mike?”

“Tomorrow you get to on a couple of the rides by yourself. We’ll start with the merry-go-round, and then move onto the cars. You think you’re up for that?”

Justin nodded and grinned, then frowned again.

“But where will you be, Uncle Mike?”

Michael thought about it a moment, knowing he had to balance his own fears with Justin’s need for independence. Then with what Justin called his “crazy face,” he leaned closer.

“I’ll be right here. Grrrrrrrr,” Michael growled and giggled and tickled him. “All right, little boy?”

“All wight Uncle MIKE!” Justin let out a peal of laughter, kicking his legs under the covers as Michael tickled and squeezed him again and again.

* * *

Later he would regret the tickling and the squeezing, and he would have nightmares about what happened next.

“Michael, what are you doing?”

Mary’s voice startled him. He was in the basement, at the workbench. He hadn’t heard her come down the stairs.

“I’ve got Justin’s ID bracelet. I’m working on the clasp.”

Mary came closer. She was wearing a light blue nightgown and a frumpy white terry cloth robe. Under the harsh light Michael saw new lines around her eyes and wondered if the scare at the mall had aged her.

“Are you fixing it, or taking it apart?” Mary joked.

“I’m bending it so it won’t come loose again.”

“It came loose?”

Michael rolled his eyes. “No, Miss Overreact to Everything. I was wrestling with Justin and realized that it was about to, which is why I’m fixing it.”

Michael felt her watching as he closed the rings on either side of the clasp. Justin had been complaining about the tightness of the bracelet, and about a taunt he’d gotten from another little boy at kindergarten who told him jewelry was for girls. There was no possibility of his nephew going without the bracelet, which listed his name, address and telephone number, but Michael had decided earlier today that the least he could do was make it more comfortable. The bracelet was designed to be lengthened as Justin grew, but when he had started working on it earlier the clasp had jammed, and it had almost slipped off when he tickled Justin in bed. Michael felt responsible; the late-night repair at the workbench wouldn’t have been necessary if he hadn’t fiddled with the bracelet in the first place.

“I didn’t overreact, Michael. And I don’t appreciate you joking about it either.”

The tone of Mary’s voice made it clear she was still thinking about the morning’s incident. The rest of the day had gone by without any discussion of it. Michael had hoped she wouldn’t mention it again.

He sighed, knowing now that she would have to talk it through. “You mean at the mall.”

“Of course that’s what I mean.”

“I feel awful about it.” He lowered the bracelet and looked at her. “But it’s okay. Justin was fine.”

“Well it scared the hell out of me,” she said harshly. “Michael we have to be careful with him.”

She said “we,” he thought, with some relief. “I know.”

“I’m not saying it was completely your fault.”

“And I’m not saying it wasn’t,” he offered. “It was just for a few seconds that I wasn’t holding on to him, but that’s what you were counting on me to do.”

“Then we’ll share the blame.” Mary made an attempt to smile, and gave his forearm a squeeze. “Okay?”

“Yeah.” The look in her eyes bothered him. She still thinks you’re a screw-up, he thought.

He went back to the bracelet. The clasp felt secure now. “Okay, it’s done. See?”

He handed it to her and she held it under the light, squinting slightly as she checked it. After a moment she shuddered.

“What’s wrong?”

She looked at him, blinked quickly, then shook her head dismissively. “I just had a strange feeling.”

“What kind of feeling?”

“I don’t know. Just sort of . . . sad.”

Michael found himself nodding slightly. He had had similar feelings off and on all day. Feelings that intensified as Mary met his eyes.

“Oh never mind.” Mary tried to smile. “I’m sure it’s just my imagination, turnin’ me into an old hag.”

Michael laughed. His sister was a mere 31, the same age their parents had been when they had died. The rest of their childhoods and the past five years in particular had been a battleground of risk and redemption, both stemming from the tragedy that could have made them enemies but had brought them far closer instead.

“You don’t have time to be a hag.” He put his arm around her shoulder. “You’re too busy bein’ my big sissy.”

“I thought you were the sissy, Michael.”

“Then you ain’t seen me pumpin’ iron, darlin’.”

“Yeah well I also ain’t seen you workin’ the iron either, darlin’.” She elbowed his stomach and handed the bracelet back. “It’s your turn this week, and since I happen to work in a legitimate dining establishment I prefer it when my fine polyester aprons look nice.”

“Yikes, I fail again,” he moaned.

“Yes that’s you Michael.” Abruptly, she kissed him on the cheek. “Failure Boy extraordinaire.”

The words hung in the air as he watched her go up the narrow stairs and into the kitchen, feeling a rush of gratitude that, after everything, she didn’t really believe it. The bracelet felt delicate in his hand as he switched off the light.

And saw the flash in the window.

It had come to him in an instant, a beam of white light that hit him directly in the face. The basement windows were at eye level, and when he moved closer he realized the flash had come from headlights belonging to a car that had pulled up to the curb. The three-level townhouse Michael, Mary and Justin lived in was on a corner in the woodsiest section of Northwest Washington, on a short side street that backed up to parkland. There were only four other houses on the block. Michael continued to stare at the car at the curb, watching to see who got out.

For several seconds nothing happened. As his eyes adjusted to the light he was able to see the outline of the car, something out of the late 1960s, he thought. A muscle car, maybe. He felt a catch in his breath, the mere shape of the car bringing back a memory that he instantly tried to push out of his mind.

With a revving of the engine, the car backed up, paused, and pulled away.

Probably just someone turning around. The incident at the mall had jangled his nerves, but he had to stop thinking about disaster at every turn.

Just put it out of your mind, he thought, and headed up the stairs.

* * *

The feeling of being watched struck him again as he stepped out of the shower. He had stayed under the hot water for a long time. The windows were steamy but it wasn’t hard to imagine that under the bright overhead light someone could see him from the dark woods at the back of the house. With a swipe of the towel on the glass he looked out and saw nothing but old trees and the passing headlights of traffic on the Rock Creek Parkway 100 yards behind.

He shut the blinds and wrapped the towel around his middle, then stepped into the attic bedroom that comprised the third floor of the house. The feeling of unease faded away as the thumping beat of club music filled the room. The beat was catchy, and he tapped a rhythm against his thigh as he moved toward the dresser.

He caught sight of himself in the full-length mirror and was pleased.

“So it’s working,” he said out loud as he thought of the harder-than-usual workout the day before. He flexed his right arm, then twisted to the left, a semi-serious attempt at a muscle-boy pose, which he held for no more than five seconds before he laughed and turned it into a parody. Sometimes it amazed him that despite everything he had done more than just survive. Somehow between the faith of his sister and the support of his very untraditional family he had found it possible to look forward to the common joys of everyday life. Health. Success. A future of open doors. The last few years had taught him to relish it all.

Thanks to Justin, he thought. And a second chance a hundred times better than you deserve.

The music was reaching a fever pitch. It heightened his anticipation for the night ahead as he ran his fingers through his towel-dried hair and slipped into a pair of baggy jeans and a bright white t-shirt. It was already the first week of October, but several warm days in a long Indian summer had only deepened his tan, giving his confidence another boost as he stood in front of the mirror again.

You look happy.

His mind flashed on the face of someone he had met a week before. The name and phone number that had been scrawled on the matchbook. The smile meeting his across the bar.

Ready to try again.

He was ready to slip out into the night when he accidentally kicked over the stack of magazines and papers he hadn’t gotten around to throwing out. He remembered Mary’s comment about the ironing. She was right; he hadn’t paid as much attention to his own household chores as he should have recently. Knowing it would take just a minute to make some headway, he decided to sift through the pile and toss everything he didn’t need to save.

At the bottom of the stack was an article Mary had written weeks earlier for the Washington Blade. Michael picked it up and felt a familiar clenching in his gut as he thumbed through the article, which began with a harrowing description of the abduction and death of her first son, Benjamin, five years before. He was still anxious about the many details his sister had chosen to reveal, but comforted by the way the story evolved into a description of her “deep appreciation” for his role as a father figure to Justin, and the happiness of “our odd little” family at present.

As if we’ve moved right on, he thought. No more worries. No more questions —

The attic room had storage built under the eaves. It was a good hiding place for the box that contained items he hoped neither his sister nor anyone else would ever see. Knowing that this issue of the Blade was something he would keep forever, Michael slipped it into the box.

With one more look in the mirror and a dash of cologne at the back of his neck, he headed back downstairs. On the second floor were two bedrooms, one for Justin, and a larger one at the front of the house for Mary. Her door was partially open as he walked by and he could hear the television turned to low volume. When he opened the door a little wider he saw she had dozed off. He stepped into the room and was just reaching over to turn the television off when he saw what she was holding.

His breath came up short, his mood plunging as he gazed at the light brown teddy bear in Mary’s arms. Benjamin’s bear. Michael had noticed that it was missing from Justin’s room earlier in the afternoon and carefully not asked his sister where it was.

Feeling suddenly like a trespasser, he stepped back. A creak in the floor sent a shiver up his back and made him step even more quickly out of the room.

In the hallway he felt his heart racing.

Calm down, think of something else.

Justin was afraid of the dark, and he liked to keep his door open to let in light from the hallway. Standing in the doorway, Michael could tell he was now sleeping soundly with the stuffed cocker spaniel in his arms. He stood there for nearly a minute, reminding himself that the windows were locked. The house was alarmed. Justin and Mary were completely safe.

It was a mental checklist he went through three more times as he stepped outside and slipped behind the wheel of the Jeep. He was at the end of the block before he realized he hadn’t turned on his lights. Doing so sent his mind moving forward as he headed more deeply into the city, toward the noise and distraction of Club Night, where thoughts of Mary and Justin and the incident at the mall would quickly fade away.

Down the block, forgotten by now, the muscle car pulled up to the curb again.

* * *

Mary heard the door shut: nothing more than a click that for some reason sounded louder, like a punctuation mark to all of the conflicts of the day.

She had dozed off in front of the television with her arms wrapped snugly around the teddy bear that now belonged in Justin’s room. The stress had worn her down and brought tears to her eyes as she drifted into the netherworld between consciousness and sleep. It was in that state that the memories were most difficult to manage. She had already been awake when Michael had stepped into the room, but had kept her eyes closed. She just hadn’t been up to conversation.

Now that he was gone, she suddenly wished that he wasn’t.

“Sorry little brother,” she muttered into the darkness. She still felt badly about snapping at him in the shoe store, but she almost wanted to hit him, to call him stupid for letting his attention wander. And yet for the rest of the afternoon she had been haunted by the look on his face at the moment they realized Justin was gone.

You can’t keep doing this, she told herself. You have to move on.

Knowing how difficult it could be to get back to sleep, she decided to head downstairs to study. She brought Benjamin’s bear with her and propped it up on the breakfast table. She eyed the scotch bottle in the glass-fronted cabinet but opted for the more sensible choice of a club soda instead. Within minutes the words from the textbook on libel laws were blurred by tears. After reading the same page three times with little comprehension, she was ready to give up.

But still wide-awake. At 10:15 she needed to be winding down, getting ready for the day that would follow. She was working a lunch shift at O’Malley’s, the popular restaurant and pub owned but no longer managed by her Uncle Martin. She would be serving her regular tables and a special gathering, hosted by Martin, of his political supporters. It’ll be good money and an easy time, he had joked. If any one of those blowhards gives you trouble, I’ll be right there.

The recollection cheered her. Uncle Martin and Aunt Joan were the lifeblood of the recovery that her shrink had tried to convince her she had reached. In her darkest periods she prayed they would never be farther than a phone call away.

Even now, she thought as she looked at the clock, knowing that Joan usually stayed up until 11 and then “wound down” by reading crime novels for half an hour or so before going to bed. Picking up the phone, she was ready to excuse herself immediately if the woman was too immersed in one to chat, although she couldn’t think of a minute in her whole life that her cherished aunt hadn’t given her full attention.

“Hello?” Joan’s voice was upbeat, as expected.

“Are you busy?” Mary pictured her sitting in the leather club chair alongside the big carved mantel in her historic Cleveland Park home, drinking a glass of sherry. It had been three weeks since the two of them had seen each other. Joan had busy gearing up for Martin’s city council reelection campaign and Mary missed her more than ever. “Can you talk?”

“Of course I can baby. How are ya’?”

“Crappy,” Mary answered with her usual honesty, and then described the scare at the mall and the sense of fear that had stayed with her for the rest of the day.

“I can only imagine what it must have been like.” Joan’s voice was comforting as always. Mary could feel her gentle smile. “It’s so easy to overreact when something like that happens.”

“I know, but — .”

“Besides, how can you compete with Captain Steel?” Joan chuckled. “Defender of the Universe.”

“And ‘Protector of the World.'” Mary laughed. Over the past month the Saturday morning cartoon character had become Justin’s absolute favorite. But she was still anxious at how easily the 12-foot tall plastic statue had lured her son away.

She decided to change the subject. “So any way, how are you? Did you get some shopping done today too?”

“Are you kidding?” Joan had recently retired from a long, successful career as an Assistant District Attorney, a difficult job given her constant anger over the inability of the system to protect innocent victims. Working as a campaign-aide to her husband, a city councilman, had proven to be only slightly less draining.

“I’ve been pinned to the desk all day. This event of Martin’s is going to be the death of me,” Joan said. “I think I was at it for seven hours without a break before being chained to the phone for a conference call that took another two.”

“It’s going to be great.” But sad, Mary thought. She had helped her aunt write a portion of Martin’s speech for the event, which would dedicate a new pediatric AIDS wing at George Washington Hospital, where Martin would share the podium with the Mayor, the university president and probably a celebrity or two.

She heard the call-waiting beep, looked at the clock. “God, who could be calling so late?”

“You have to go?”

“I guess so,” she sighed wearily. “There’s never enough time to just relax anymore.”

“I feel the same way,” Joan said. “Especially with the pressure we’re starting to get from the Moral Minority.”

Mary recognized the reference to Martin’s most significant opposition, a Republican running on a law and order platform, who continuously bolstered his position by citing the high homicide rate in the city’s tougher neighborhoods, an implicit criticism of Joan’s previous effectiveness as a prosecutor. After an impassioned public debate two nights earlier, Louis D’Amecourt, one of the best-known police officials in the city, had been interviewed by a local newscaster. D’Amecourt had put up an appearance of neutrality, but his support of Martin’s opposition was pretty clear. Mary had had a distinct feeling that D’Amecourt was still motivated by personal animosity, and that he would have done anything to see her uncle defeated.

“So you’re pretty sure they’ll be back?” she said.

“Oh yeah, marching on that same old bandwagon –.”

The call-waiting click came again.

“Ugh!” Mary snapped. “It’s probably a damn telephone solicitor.

“Probably. You take care honey.”

“You too.” She felt another pang of regret at having to say goodbye, a renewed uneasiness as she disconnected.

With another click she was on the new line.

“Hello?”

“Mary. It’s me. Scott.”

Scott. The voice knocked her breathless as she pressed her back against the wall, looked at the locked door. The kitchen window. The darkness outside.

“I’m home,” Scott said. “In D.C. I need to see you.”

She gripped the phone tighter, and thought of the last time she had seen him, five years earlier, on his way to prison. Thought of the letters, the phone calls, the lurking presence of him every day since.

“I’ll beg you if I have to. Come on Mary, please . . . “