Cold Springs

Page 21

“He did come to the school,” John guessed. “He saw Ann . . . privately?”

Some deep instinct warned her not to share what David Kraft had told her—about Ann and Chadwick kissing in the office. As much as the information had angered her, as much as she wished she could commiserate with someone, something in John's eyes told her that subject was dangerous.

She put her hand lightly on his chest. She thought of how she'd raked Chadwick's face when she'd seen him, how she'd cried, later, as she scrubbed and scrubbed his blood from underneath her fingernails.

“Mallory needed help,” she told John.

“Ann took her away from a police investigation. Now they think my daughter murdered that Montrose bitch. I'm going to get custody, Norma. I'm going to take Ann back to court until she hasn't a dime left to pay any lawyers. You know Mallory will be better off with me, don't you?”

“A minute ago you asked me to tell you if you ever put me in a bind.”

His breath smelled of wine and peppers. In the background, Los Lobos were singing words Norma knew he couldn't understand—about the power of a gun.

He put his hand on the small of her back, his fingers spreading out to encompass as much of her as he could.

“John,” she said.

“Why are you punishing yourself, Norma? Why are you still alone, after nine years?”

Heat spread out across her rib cage. Not excitement, exactly—more the thrill of skidding on an icy road.

How many times had she wished that Chadwick were more like John? And now here was John, pressed against her—kissing her, his lips burning from Szechwan—and all she could think of was Chadwick, about the ravenous sadness that had made her lash out at him, claw his face, because she needed to be certain he was still real.

“Hey,” she murmured. “Knock it off.”

John ran a finger up her spine, sought her lips again.

All she had to do was pretend—just a little.

She pushed him away. “I'm serious, John. Stop.”

His eyes came back into focus, glowing with anger. Then he stepped back, managed that self-deprecating smile he did so well.

“I guess I got a head start on the wine,” he said. “Sorry.”

“I think you should leave now.”

“Okay. Sure.”

He gathered up his coat, looked at the bottle of wine like he was thinking of taking it, then picked up his briefcase instead. Norma hadn't noticed the briefcase before. She wondered why he'd brought it to dinner.

“I'll call you,” he said. “I guess you're busy with the auction.”

“It's next Friday. Yeah.”

“If I can help—”

“I've got it under control.”

He lifted his fingers in an anemic farewell. “It'll be nine years exactly. Hard to believe.”

He gave her one last smile, as if his reminder hadn't been calculated to wound her.

She watched the taillights of his BMW disappear down Telegraph Hill. Then she walked to the balcony. A cruise ship was passing under the Golden Gate. Rain pattered on her deck, filling up her empty flower boxes.

She cleared the Chinese food from the table so she wouldn't have to smell it. She turned off the music, then she went to her home office and stared at the dark computer screen, the empty crib of the fax machine. Everything just the way she left it.

Like what— Like John would steal her credit card numbers? Hardly.

So why did his visit tonight bother her so much?

His romantic advance was nothing new. He'd tried that twice before, never so forcefully, but she had to put it in perspective—the guy was lonely. He was dealing with a divorce a lot fresher than hers. She was a safe target. And yes—the anniversary of Katherine's death was next week. Norma wouldn't be the only one who'd have trouble dealing with that.

John understood “no.” Norma could handle him, as long as she was fair. She had to do a better job with that. She had to stop playing games with the guy. Why had she let it go so far?

She took a long shower, and thought she heard John clunking around in the kitchen, but she knew it was her imagination. Then she remembered she hadn't locked the front door, hadn't even closed the glass doors to the porch.

She knew there was nothing to be afraid of—this was hardly a high-crime neighborhood. But her heart beat faster anyway. She turned off the shower, heard nothing except the rain.

She pulled on her terry cloth robe.

It was pouring in earnest now—a rare event, especially this time of year. Rain sheeted off the awnings, drummed on the roof.

She stepped into the living room in bare feet, her hair wet and cold on the back of her bare neck, and she saw him—a lean black man silhouetted in the doorway of her deck. No, not a man. A teenager. Norma backed up and seized the phone as the boy came toward her. He was wearing a mud-splattered T-shirt, jeans drenched up to the thighs with water, and a tattered camouflage coat.

She dialed 911.

“Ms. Reyes,” the boy said. “Wait!”

She tripped over a chair, backing into the hallway. The emergency number was ringing.

“Ms. Reyes,” the boy said. “It's me.”

She realized she knew those eyes, the red hair, the strange set to his mouth and jaw, as if he'd been pulled lengthwise when he came out of the womb. She heard herself say, “Race?”

The emergency operator was on the line.

“Please,” Race said. “Please, just listen.”

“911 switchboard,” the operator repeated. “What is the nature of your emergency?”

Norma's fear was turning to anger. How dare Race—of all people.

She said into the phone, “I have an intruder in my house.”

“No,” Race said. “No. Listen.”

Norma had spent years trying to follow Ann's advice—trying not to blame this boy for what his family had done. And Race had made it easy for her, most of the time. He seemed to understand her hatred. He countered it with politeness, went out of his way to treat her with respect. The older he got, the more Norma had grown to like him, and she was angry at herself for allowing that to happen.

Mallory would have been a good kid, would've gotten past Katherine's death, except the Montroses had stayed in their lives, like carbon monoxide, slowly poisoning her.

The Montrose bitch. Had John been so wrong, calling her that?

Norma remembered a few months after Katherine's death, just after Chadwick had left for Texas—Talia Montrose showing up at Laurel Heights in her pink pants and cheap satin blouse and bleached hair, looking like a hooker—her mouth trembling, but her eyes defiant, full of vengeance she had no right to want. She asked for an application for her youngest boy. And four days later, when Ann broke the news to Norma that she was actually accepting the child—Norma exploded. She'd brought up the affair with Chadwick—forced the truth out of Ann. They'd said horrible, hurtful things. Then they didn't speak for two years.

All of that was the Montroses' fault, and Race wasn't any better than the rest. He had brought a gun to school, gotten himself expelled. He'd gotten Mallory involved in drugs, and a murder.

Why would he come here now?

“Ma'am?” the operator was saying. “Can you safely exit the house? The police are en route. Is there a window or a door—”

“Please, Mrs. Reyes,” Race pleaded. “You got to listen. Please.”

The boy was shivering. He was more frightened than she was. He looked like he hadn't eaten in a week—his eyes jaundiced, his lips dry and cracked.

Her maternal instinct stirred, unwanted, the way it used to when Mallory would come over to escape her parents' arguments. She would sit at the dining table, right there, and let Norma stroke her hair while she sobbed.

Norma took the phone away from her ear, punched the off button.

“You had better explain yourself,” she told Race. “What are you doing in my house?”

His chin started quivering. He sat down on the couch, smearing it with mud and leaves, running his fingers through his red hair. “Don't say I was here. Please—don't tell anybody. Okay? You have to promise.”

“Race, I can't promise that. The police are looking for you.”

“My mother . . .” he said. “She was murdered.”

The words came out like they'd been cut from him, and suddenly Norma remembered her first reaction when she'd heard Talia was dead. She had thought, It serves her right.

Now, she realized how heartless that had been, how little Race deserved the pain.

“I'm sorry, honey,” she said. “I really am.”

“Mallory was with me. My momma—she was . . .” He curled his hands as if trying to grasp the image. “She was stabbed . . .”

“Honey,” Norma said. “You need to go to the police.”

“No! No police. I know who they're gonna blame. You got to listen to me. She ain't going to be satisfied until they're both dead.”

“Who, honey? What are you talking about?”

Race swallowed, held out his hand and watched it shake. Norma got the uneasy feeling he had been talking about his dead mother—as if Talia were whispering things in his ear.

“The money,” he said. “Check the money, you don't believe me—”

Then he stopped. Norma heard the sirens a half second later, a long way off, but getting closer.

“Race,” Norma said. “Stay with me. Talk to them . . .”

But he was out the back door faster than Norma would have believed possible—over the deck railing, the fence, then down the hillside, skidding across the black plastic tarp that was supposed to keep the slope from turning into a mudslide on nights like this. He plunged through a wet clump of manzanitas and disappeared over a ridge that dropped ten, maybe fifteen feet, straight down to Columbus Avenue.

When Norma turned, she realized the police had been closer than she realized. Red lights pulsed through her windows, casting blood-colored squares onto her ceilings.

John stopped at the Palace of Fine Arts. He couldn't face the Golden Gate Bridge traffic yet. He knew Pérez would question him, pester him as soon as he got home—and he wasn't ready for that.

He paced under the huge dome of the pavilion—the pink Grecian columns lit up for no one, the park desolate and empty, cold rain falling outside.

He set up his laptop on a trash can.

He didn't realize how on edge he was until a vagrant slipped from the shadows, attracted by the glow of the screen, and wheedled, “You got a little extra, mister—”

John's .22 was in his hand, the muzzle pushed under the old man's grimy, bearded nose, John saying, “You want something?”

“Whoa!” The bum's eyes went completely schizoid, skipping right off the top of reality like a river rock. “Whoa, fuck.”

He backed away, white palms melting into the darkness. Not until he was a tiny smudge of shadow on the far side of the lake did he yell, “Happy Thanksgiving, asshole!”

John expelled a laugh that sounded crazy, even to him. He slipped his gun back into his coat pocket.

He was going to shake to pieces. He was a test plane at the edge of the sound barrier, the bolts of his wings starting to rattle loose.

Oh, God, Norma. What had he been thinking?

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