“Hit her assistant trainer yesterday. Day before that, she scratched and bit a white level. Day before that, kicked her counselor in the balls. Three solitary confinements. No extra privileges. Standard problems.”
“Standard, if she's a rabid mountain lion.”
Hunter's face could have been crafted from stealth bomber material—smooth hard contours, bald scalp so dark it seemed to drink the light. His eyes trapped you, studied you, released you only when they were good and ready. “The girl is resistant. We'll get to her.”
“She talk much about why she's here?”
“You need to let the program work, amigo. You got enough . . .”
Hunter's voice trailed off.
A white level, a kid named Aden Stilwell, stood waiting at a respectful distance to be recognized. Chadwick called him forward. Aden politely asked if he could go inside and use the computer to look up a word. Chadwick reached into the bin of reference materials at his side and pulled out a dictionary. He explained to Aden how it worked. Aden looked at the book, mystified, then thanked Chadwick and walked away thumbing the pages.
Hunter smirked. “Hard to believe that's the same boy tried to run you over a year and a half ago, huh? Someday—that's going to be Mallory Zedman.”
“Trying to run me over?”
“You know what I mean.”
“I need to go back to San Francisco, Asa.”
“You want to tell me why?”
Chadwick told him about the murder of Talia Montrose, Katherine's necklace at the crime scene. He told him about the letters John had mentioned from Samuel, the court order Sergeant Damarodas had threatened to get to interview Mallory.
Hunter looked out toward the hills. He sighted a deer over the tips of his combat boots, as if calculating the best shot. “You think this young man—Samuel—he's trying to get some kind of revenge?”
“I don't know.”
Chadwick was silent.
Hunter sighed. “Look, amigo. Samuel Montrose was what—her drug dealer? So maybe you brought a little heat on him for supplying the drugs that killed her. Maybe he had to leave town for a while. So what? Guys like that—they have an attention span of three seconds. They use people, throw them away, forget about them. You're telling me he's spent nine years planning some kind of revenge scheme? That he'd kill his own mother to get at you? Doesn't make sense.”
“Mallory is following the same path Katherine did, with this guy's little brother. That's a coincidence?”
Hunter's jaw flexed, as if he were chewing on something small and hard. Chadwick knew the warning sign. He'd seen Hunter do that in Korat, when an ARVN made a racial crack at Hunter's expense. Hunter had walked up behind him, real calm, yanked him out of his seat by the hair, and drove the Vietnamese's head through the hootch wall.
Years later, Hunter had taken Chadwick out to show off his new six-thousand-acre spread that would become Cold Springs—land he had bought with minority business loans and mortgages on three different houses and decades of blood and sweat, working on grants that had landed him an initial capital outlay of $5 million. When they'd gotten almost to the gates, county deputies pulled them over, said Hunter fit their description of a wanted rapist. Hunter's jaw had been going as he explained to them he didn't care if he was the only black man they'd seen all month. He was now the biggest landowner in the county, and they had best get used to it. He'd kept his cool, but he spent the rest of the afternoon down by the river, throwing his knife at a tree, impaling the blade three inches into the bark.
“This Samuel guy,” Hunter said. “He got some kind of blackmail leverage over John Zedman?”
“I don't know. It's been a long time.”
“You ever meet Samuel?”
“Once. Sort of.”
“I was picking up Katherine from a police station. She'd been busted at a party at the Montrose house. Samuel was in the next holding cell, staring at me. His eyes—you remember Galen, the arsonist kid we got a few years back, lit homeless people on fire in their sleeping bags?”
Chadwick nodded. “After Katherine died, Mallory identified the Montrose house as the place they'd gone to get the heroin. The police looked for Samuel. As far as I know, they never found him.”
Hunter's fingers made a claw against his camouflage pants, as if he'd caged something there. His jaw was still tight with anger. “Look, amigo, I've known you since before Norma, before Katherine, before God entered puberty. Am I right? I understand about guilt. I understand you help kids because you feel like you failed Katherine. But Mallory Zedman isn't your daughter. You start trying to salvage the past through her, then I made a mistake, taking her.”
The bitterness in his voice stung like sleet.
Hunter was right, of course, about knowing him. Only Ann had known him longer. That was one of the reasons Chadwick had accepted this job, when his life was at its darkest point—just after Katherine's death, when it took him conscious effort just to get out of bed and take a shower.
With Hunter, Chadwick could almost believe that his adulthood was a shell—a layer of years that could be slipped off, set aside for a while, examined impartially.
“You can help the girl,” Chadwick said. “That's why you took her.”
“I've been telling you a long time, you're too hard on yourself: Katherine wasn't your damn fault.”
“But it wasn't her dealer's fault, either. Maybe I don't like that you're so ready to believe your daughter was corrupted by the poor black kid she was hanging out with. Maybe that's been bothering me a long time. Now you're telling me his younger brother is ruining Mallory Zedman.”
“It's not about them being black.”
“Isn't it? What do we teach here? Honesty. Responsibility. Katherine was responsible for her actions. Mallory is responsible for hers. Period.”
“I can't just step back, Asa.”
“This necklace—Katherine gave it to Mallory before she died, right?”
“All that suggests to me—Mallory left it at the scene of the murder. Anybody's sending you a hate message, it's the girl.”
“If you think she was involved, maybe you should turn her over to the police.”
Hunter swirled his coffee.
Chadwick wondered if he saw something in the liquid—the faces of the thousand-plus kids he'd graduated, most of them rich, most of them white. He wondered if Hunter ever regretted the clientele he served.
With his charisma, his doctorate in education administration, his business experience after the Air Force, raising money for nonprofits, Hunter could've gone anywhere, been superintendent of any major metropolitan school district. He could've been a model for kids who grew up like he did—poor, scraping with gangs on the East Side of San Antonio, perpetually angry.
I don't want to go to work and see myself every day, Hunter had told him once. You want to help somebody, you got to have a little distance from them. White kids, I understand. I can save their sorry-ass lives.
When he said that, Chadwick got the uncomfortable impression he was talking about their friendship, too.
“Nobody gets access to Black Level,” Hunter decided. “I allow one exception, the integrity of the whole program is compromised. On the other hand . . .”
He looked at Chadwick, seemed to be weighing unpleasant options. “This Sergeant Damarodas—he could be on our doorstep next week. Court orders, I can fight. But I need to know what I'm fighting and why. I don't appreciate being kept in the dark by this girl's mother.”
“Like I said. Let me go back to San Francisco.”
“You got a full slate of pickups, and you're going to have a new partner to train.”
“What about Olsen?”
“She's asked for a different assignment. You probably guessed that.”
“I'll convince her to stay on,” Chadwick said quietly.
“Won't do any good.”
“Asa, I've had four partners in the last five weeks. I'm not going to lose another one.”
Hunter raised an eyebrow. “Why you making a stand, amigo? What makes Olsen different than the others?”
“Can I talk to her or not?”
Hunter gazed across the hills, at the land he owned all the way to the horizon. “I won't stop you. Now why don't you get some rest? I'll watch the class.”
Chadwick was about to decline the offer, but his friend's expression told him it might be best not to argue. He left Hunter at the edge of the deck, the sunrise turning the steam from his coffee red.
Inside the main lodge, tan levels were doing their chores—scrubbing floors, cleaning windows, sweeping the enormous stone fireplace in anticipation of tonight's hard freeze.
When Chadwick came near, they stood at attention. He remembered each of them by name and pickup city, and by how each had performed during Survival Week, which Chadwick sometimes led. Sarah from Albuquerque, who couldn't light a fire; Lane from Rochester, who would eat anything no matter how slimy; Tyler from Houston, who'd never been camping and got the highest marks for survival in his team. Chadwick talked to each of them, told them they were doing a good job. He hoped his tone wasn't as weary as he imagined.
Hunter had a saying—staff members find their level, then dress to it. It was not a requirement, but it was a fact.
Hunter himself, like most of the drill sergeant types, tended to wear black. They felt most at home with the new initiates. They relished confrontation.
The hands-on learning buffs, the ranch hands, outdoor ed graduates who weren't quite up to Black Level—they wore the second-level color, gray.
The therapists, the part-time teachers, the studious ones who preferred to work with kids the way jewelers worked with settings—they all wore the fourth-level color, white.
But tan was the invisible third level. Tan levels did domestic chores, lived by quiet routine, combated nothing worse than boredom. They learned tranquillity through humility. They were kitchen patrol. They were toilet cleaners. They were not the center of the world. Their therapy sessions chased the most elusive byword in Hunter's program—Honesty.
Very few people on staff dressed to that level. And though his job had nothing in common with the level, Chadwick almost always wore tan.
Partly, he envied their invisibility. It wasn't something a giant like Chadwick ever got much of. If there were other reasons, Chadwick had never thought them through. Maybe that's why he was still wearing the color.
He walked down the north wing, past the gym, the cafeteria, the infirmary—all state-of-the-art facilities built with the bulging profits of Hunter's alternative-education empire. Eight years ago, when Chadwick started escorting, none of those amenities had been there. Now Hunter had five campuses in three different countries.
His apartment was in the staff dormitory on the second floor. He didn't realize his hands were trembling until he started searching his key ring.
Every key at Cold Springs was identical except for the number, and Chadwick had never gotten around to color-coding them. He stopped at the only unique one—the gold key for the house in the Mission. He told himself for the millionth time he needed to remove it, put it in a box somewhere. He still owned the house, refusing to sell because under the terms of the divorce he'd have to share the money with Norma. But he hadn't visited in years. Had no intention of doing so.