“Yes. And the spring after you left, Mrs. Montrose applied for Race to come here. It was no accident. She knew about the school because of Katherine. She desperately wanted her youngest son to have a good education.”
All Chadwick could do was stare at her—waiting for something. An apology? An explanation? Something.
Ann came around the desk. She sat on the edge, in front of him. Her hair, he saw, was frosted with the slightest tinge of gray. A fine web of wrinkles spread from the corners of her eyes. She smelled like a holiday kitchen—cider and nutmeg.
“Would you have advised me to turn him away?” she asked. “Race has three older brothers, all criminals. Samuel left town years ago. The other two—nineteen-year-old twins—they're in jail for a convenience store robbery. He has a sixteen-year-old sister who's pregnant and living in L.A. with a boyfriend. He has a schizophrenic grandmother, and a mom who's attracted to abusive men. Why do you think Talia Montrose brought her youngest son to me, Chadwick?”
“You know it wasn't. She wanted the best for her son. She wanted one of her children, her baby, to escape. She knew he was special, and she didn't know where else to go. And he is brilliant, Chadwick. I could tell he was gifted even in first grade. Was I going to turn him away because someone in his family had done something evil? Look into that seven-year-old's eyes and say, ‘I'm sorry, you can't come here. I have to assume you're going to grow up to be a bad person'?”
“Because now you're paying the price. Race became best friends with your daughter. You wish it had never happened.”
“You're talking like John. That's why he wants custody so badly. He'll tell you Mallory is an innocent victim and I'm not worthy to be her mother, because I didn't protect her from bad influences. But you know better than that, Chadwick. Mallory is who she is. No one corrupted her. No one made her a troubled child. Not Race. Not Katherine.” Ann's eyes were the color of a waterfall. “Not even you and me.”
Chadwick tried hard to be angry with her. He resented that she knew his guilt so well. He resented that she would even consider giving Race Montrose a chance.
But that was Ann—what he'd always loved and always feared about her. Her infinite, infuriating capacity for faith. She had believed in Chadwick in high school—urged him to go ahead into the Air Force for the education benefits, told him not to settle for a blue-collar job. She had sold him on the dream that someday, they would be teachers together, help kids more than they had been helped. She had believed in her vision of rebuilding Laurel Heights, ignoring the indisputable reality that $30 million was too big a goal for such a small school. And she had forgiven Chadwick after Katherine's death, immediately and unconditionally. She had insisted he wasn't to blame, insisted they could still be together. That had been the real reason Chadwick left Laurel Heights—not Norma's condemnation, not even the memories of Katherine or the pain of watching her class progress without her. Chadwick couldn't bear to be forgiven. He couldn't allow himself to be near Ann, for fear he would begin to believe her.
His trip tonight across the Bay Bridge had been so much like that other trip long ago, from the Oakland Police Department, when Katherine confided what she'd been doing at the party, how far she would go for Samuel Montrose's drugs.
After her death, the police never found Samuel to question, never looked that hard, never dispensed any kind of justice. Katherine had overdosed on almost pure heroin, but it was treated as a suicide. If Chadwick wanted to blame others, the cops' eyes said, then perhaps he should look in a mirror.
And now, Ann dared to believe in Samuel's brother, even at the risk of her daughter. How could Chadwick accept that? If he were John, wouldn't he be demanding full custody of his daughter, too?
“Race brought a gun to school,” he said.
Ann nodded. “Another student tipped me off. The gun was . . . I forget what the policeman said. A .38.”
“Did Race bring it? He denied it was his, wouldn't give me any explanation. I can't imagine he meant to use it, but of course I had to expel him. You can imagine the panic it caused with the parents.”
“You still don't regret taking him.”
“Honestly, Chadwick? Of course I have moments when I regret taking him. But that's not fair to Race. Until the gun incident, two weeks ago, Mallory was the one who usually got them in trouble.”
“He was supplying Mallory with heroin.”
“Race is no dealer.”
“Ann, he was armed again tonight. He almost killed me.”
“No. Race was a good student—angry, always struggling to fit in, but not a bad kid. When he was expelled—he took it calmly. He just left. Mallory broke everything in our house. She ran away to be with him.”
“And a few days later, Mrs. Montrose was murdered.”
“Goddamn you, Chadwick.” She hit his chest, but she wasn't Norma. She had no experience, no talent for hurting. Chadwick clasped his hand around hers.
“The police want to talk to Mallory,” he guessed. “That's why you called. You need to get Mallory away from the police.”
“Chadwick, she's only fifteen. She's gone through so much already. You of all people—you have to understand.”
“You weren't honest with me.”
“I didn't know where else to turn.”
“Do you think she saw the murder?”
“No. No, of course not.”
“But the police do?”
“I didn't say that.”
“Well, no shit—”
“Your hand is trembling.”
She looked up at him, those gray-blue eyes pressing on his heart with the weight of Niagara.
Then she wrapped her fingers around the back of his neck, and pulled him into a kiss—her lips unexpectedly bitter, like nutmeg. “Take my daughter away, Chadwick. Keep Mallory safe. You owe us that.”
“Trust your heart for once, you big idiot. What is the right thing to do for Mallory?”
She traced his jawline, stood on tiptoe to kiss the scratches Norma had put on his cheek. “I promised myself our senior year that I would never say I loved you. I would never sink a good friendship. I am such a damned fool.”
Chadwick had an unwelcome image of Mallory in the BART rail pit, her eyes those of the little girl, curled in the black leather chair on Mission Street.
Then he glanced into the locker area and saw someone there—David Kraft, watching them, just long enough to register what he was seeing. Then he was gone, back down the stairs.
Chadwick pulled away from Ann. “I should go.”
“Norma knows about the affair,” she told him. “In case you were wondering. She knows we were planning to break the news that night. After I told her, she didn't speak to me for almost two years. Now—it's funny. Over time, you realize how hard it is to really get someone out of your life.”
“I'll call you from Texas,” Chadwick muttered. “Dr. Hunter will send you a report.”
“Norma doesn't blame us anymore for what happened to Katherine, Chadwick. She's gotten over that. Why can't you?”
Chadwick closed the Japanese curtain behind him and walked downstairs. David Kraft and the after-school attendant fell silent as he passed, but neither acknowledged him.
On the tire swing, the last two children were chanting a jump rope rhyme—Cinderella, dressed in yellow—spinning in a circle of light and moths as they waited to see if their parents had truly forgotten them.
Until Race tried stealing his money, Samuel was having a good week.
The children at work would run up to him when he came in the gate, their basketballs scattering behind them. They would herd him toward the bench, plead for a story, push each other aside for the chance to climb on his knee—sometimes two on each leg, until he told them they were going to squash him like a jelly sandwich, and they would giggle. They'd ask for Anansi, or Brer Rabbit, or Pandora's Box. He would always oblige. Whatever they wanted.
After all, this was Samuel's dream. He'd gone to college so he could work with kids. Make a difference. And now here he was, doing what he'd always wanted.
Only sometimes the mask would slip a little. He'd be preparing his lunch in the staff lounge, watching the microwave, or chopping carrots—and he would find himself staring at his own hands, but they were not his hands. They were Talia's—long slender fingers, scarlet polish, gold rings.
He knew that was crazy. He would stare at the blade of the kitchen knife, and watch it cut through the orange flesh of the carrot, making little yellow bull's-eye targets, and he would remember the way Talia chopped vegetables for stew. You hold the blade like this, okay, honey? Cut away from your body.
He would imagine Ali, the worst boyfriend, between Talia's legs at night, banging the headboard and calling on the Lord as he climaxed, her children giggling in the next room and trying to keep quiet, because they knew the man had fists—Ali could peel the metalwork off the side of their house, he could damn well peel their heads off.
Except in the vision, Samuel saw himself under that big man—sour breath against his cheek, his belly crushed under Ali's weight, a hipbone grinding into his thigh. And Samuel would have to put down the knife, very carefully, and talk himself back to reality, thinking, Come on, now. Samuel has made good out of his life. He has survived. Stop it.
Talia was dead. He was alive.
It didn't matter if he had trouble keeping that straight, now and then, or if he sometimes got distracted when the kids asked him questions, or if he let the smile slip a few too many times. He would be moving on soon enough.
The moment he dropped the last letter in the mailbox, he knew he had done the right thing. He'd settled for too little too long, trying to keep things stable for Race's sake. But the prize had always been there, ripening, waiting to be taken. He'd thought about it for years. And now that Laurel Heights was ruined for Race, anyway—fuck it.
He and Race would scrape San Francisco off the bottom of their shoes like dog crap. They would move to a new country, make a new start. Mexico. El Salvador. Some place hot enough to bake the bad thoughts out of Samuel's head.
All Samuel needed was to find the girl—that was the key. The old leverage wasn't enough anymore. Zedman had made that clear when he tried to buy off Talia. But the girl—Zedman wanted the girl safe. And Samuel could control that variable. Yes, he could.
He took off from school early Friday evening, tired but content, got in his old battered Civic and drove back to Berkeley, to his condominium in the hills.
The place was much too expensive—one of a cluster of brown and blue townhouses just above the Caldecott Tunnel, in an area still bald of trees from the Oakland Hills fire. Samuel had looked up at these hills all his life. He had watched them burn in '91—the horizon rimmed with fire, ash snowing down even as far as the metal Santa Claus on his roof in West Oakland, the smell of burning wood and plaster permeating the city for days. Then he had watched the rebuilding—the gaudy new homes bought with insurance money, the gleaming new apartments on the blackened hillsides. He had loved these condos from the time they were wooden frames, back in the days when he had been rebuilding, too, re-creating himself from scratch. He had fantasized about living here, far above everyone else—a castle in the ashes.