She didn't realize she was crying until Chadwick offered her a handkerchief, a pure white square of linen.
How many guys still carried a handkerchief in their pocket? She wondered if it was a tool of his new trade—did he need it on a daily basis, the way he needed Mace or plastic handcuffs? She wiped her cheeks.
“The minute I open my mouth about John . . . The board, the police—they all see it as a weak defense. Bitterness. Of course I would blame him. They don't believe me.”
“I'll talk to him,” Chadwick said.
“What for? You know why he did it—to ruin me. To get custody. One more year, Chadwick, and Mallory turns sixteen. She can refuse treatment, sign herself out of any program. If John gets her now, I'll never have another chance to help her. I'll lose her forever. Just like Katherine.”
Immediately she wished she could retract the comment.
He turned his head, as if from an icy gust. She wished she could kiss him, like she had the last time he was here, when the whole world had momentarily shifted into perfect balance. But he'd pulled away from her that time, and she'd ended up feeling cheap and desperate.
He was so unlike John. He was a grounding wire, a steel-beamed foundation, and even though she knew she didn't need a man to feel safe, something about Chadwick made her want to fold up inside him, take off the mental armor she had to wear as a leader, a professional, a mediator, and let him protect her.
Back in the old days, back in high school—that's the very feeling that scared her away from romance with him. She could be his friend, but she'd known instinctively that if they got involved, she would never become who she needed to be. She would become his shadow.
And ever since then, she'd been attracted to the wrong men—volatile, flashy ones, men who required her to be on her toes, to be calm and steady to balance them out. She remembered the day she'd met John—her first year as a kindergarten teacher, at a Noe Valley school long since defunct. He'd been dating a single mother whose child was in her class, and he'd come to the school picnic in Golden Gate Park, stood against a eucalyptus tree, and started lighting Kleenexes on fire for the children—throwing them into the air as they ignited—a dangerous and wildly inappropriate magic show. She'd known he was trouble, and known she would marry him, at almost the same moment.
What was wrong with her, that she had to marry the wrong person before she could recognize the right one?
“A woman called the bank,” Chadwick said.
“John has plenty of secretaries.”
But she could tell he wasn't comfortable with that explanation.
She thought about Norma, about the e-mail that had supposedly been sent from her computer. The past week, Ann had had her moments of doubt. Was Norma's friendship, her apparent forgiveness of Ann for stealing her husband, all a ruse leading up to this—one huge moment of revenge? But that was insane. Norma wasn't a plotter. She couldn't hide her anger that well.
Chadwick said, “Did Talia Montrose have any connection with John?”
“What do you mean?”
“Race Montrose warned Norma about the money. He knew this was going to happen.”
Hearing Race's name again made her shiver. It brought back the day she'd pulled the dull black pistol out of his lunch bag, the smell of gun oil mixing with pencil shavings and bologna and mayonnaise.
“I don't see how,” she said. “John hates Race. The Montroses are the last people he would tell anything.”
“Why did Mrs. Montrose send Race to Laurel Heights?”
“I told you—”
“Race is gifted. She wanted the best for him. And yet the morning before she was murdered, she sold her house, cashed in her checking account, and was getting ready to leave town, maybe without her son. Why?”
Ann wanted to rise to Talia's defense. She knew that Talia, in her better moments, really did care for her son. But she also remembered the parent conference Talia had come to stoned, the many other conferences she'd failed to make, the paperwork she never sent in. She remembered the time Talia had changed her phone number and forgotten to tell them—Race having an allergic reaction to a bee sting at school, an ambulance en route, and no emergency form on file from the mother. She remembered one particular argument between Talia and John, when they'd brought the fifth-grade People in Profile show to a standstill—Mallory and Race on stage, dressed up like Susan B. Anthony and Booker T. Washington, while John and Talia yelled at each other in the back of the room about which of their children was the bad influence. It had been such a nightmare Ann had blocked out exactly what Talia had said that night, but she'd been critical of Laurel Heights, as if she'd put Race there against her will. Almost as if it had been someone else's idea. Two days later, John and Ann had had the final argument of their marriage. He had struck her, permanently shattering any illusion that they should stay together for Mallory's sake.
“Talia wasn't perfect,” Ann said. “But if you're thinking she would make any kind of deal with John, forget it. They hated each other.”
“Race got a scholarship?”
“A half scholarship.”
“That's what—eight thousand a year?”
“She always pay on time?”
“I don't see what that's got to do with anything, but yes. Quarterly installments. Always cashier's check in the mail. It was never late.”
“Her handwriting on the envelopes?”
“My god, do you want me to dig one out of the files?”
His eyes stayed locked on hers, and she began to understand why he was asking.
Talia had never been late with a tuition check. Not once. And she'd never shown up to pay in person. It was always a cashier's check, never a personal check.
“Typed,” Ann remembered. “The envelopes were always typed.”
“You're suggesting someone else was paying the bills for Race?”
“I'm suggesting someone was blackmailing John, taking his money, turning right back around and using it to fund Race's tuition at Laurel Heights. Talia went along with it, but I don't think it was her idea.”
“If you wanted to punish John, really drive him over the edge, can you think of a better way than putting his daughter together with Race Montrose, after what happened to Katherine?”
“I stand by what I said before— Race did not corrupt Mallory.”
“But he knows something about the missing money. He tried to warn Norma. I think John wasn't sure who was blackmailing him. He guessed it was Talia. He finally got tired of it, scared enough for Mallory that he wanted to make a final settlement, so he offered to buy Talia's house for a huge amount of cash. Talia went for it, didn't bother to tell him she wasn't the blackmailer. The real blackmailer came along, got mad at her for making the deal, and killed her.”
“But blackmail? Christ, Chadwick, blackmail for what?”
His eyes fixed on the interior window, where the board members were now walking by.
Ann didn't turn to look. She half expected Mark to walk in anyway and fire her on the spot, but no—Mark Jasper wouldn't confront her that way. He'd call her tonight at home, chickenshit style, and tell her not to bother coming back in the morning.
“The capital campaign money,” she told Chadwick. “If the Montroses found out that John was going to steal the school's money to discredit me—if they had some kind of proof, that could be what they were blackmailing him about.”
Chadwick pinched the lining of his coat. He said nothing, but Ann began to doubt her own theory. If Race's tuition had been paid for with blackmail money—then the blackmail had been going on for nine years. How could you pressure someone for nine years over a plan he hadn't yet executed? What leverage could anyone hold over John for that long, ever since . . .
She remembered her conversation with the policeman from Oakland. “Katherine's necklace. It was left in Talia's blood. Some kind of message?”
Chadwick's eyes were deadly still, their very brightness making them seem cold. “I intend to ask John, when I see him.”
She thought about that necklace around Mallory's throat—remembered how hard it had been, letting her wear it after Katherine's death, but they'd been afraid that if they forced her to take it off, it would damage her even more, take away the linchpin that let Mallory cope with what she'd seen. Mallory had clung to it, insisting that Katherine gave it to her. And so, since Mallory was six years old, Ann hadn't been able to look at her own daughter once without thinking about the night of the suicide, without seeing the words Chadwick had inscribed on that silver charm.
“John has ruined me,” she said. “The Montroses aren't the problem, Chadwick. They did not steal the school's money.”
“If Race knows who did, he may be in more danger than any of us. It may be why he brought that gun to school, to protect himself, and why he ran from the police. And if he told Mallory what he knows . . .”
Every joint in Ann's body had turned to ice. She went behind her desk, sat in her chair, and began shuffling papers—admissions forms, auction flyers, purchase orders—none meant much now.
Down the street, she could hear the whoop of the upper- and middle-schoolers coming back from PE at the Presidio, the unmistakable hormone-induced yells of adolescent girls—Mallory's classmates, her peers.
“The upstairs students will be coming in,” she said. “I need a few minutes alone. All right?”
Chadwick rose. “I'll find Race. I'll find out what's going on.”
She tried not to look at him, tried to concentrate on her paperwork as the middle school kids began to come in a few at a time, racing each other down the hall, playing tag and throwing backpacks.
“Just tell me one thing, Chadwick. Will you?”
He waited in the doorway—an enormous pillar of sand hovering on her periphery.
“The night of the auction,” she said, “before the police called—you were about to tell John and Norma, weren't you? You would've told them about us?”
She didn't look, but she could sense him struggling with what to say. Then he left, silently, his presence no longer blocking the door.
She held his linen handkerchief up to her mouth.
The children were arriving in force now, streaming past her window, high on fruit juice and snack food, yelling and slamming their way into class. Teachers passed by, glancing into her office with concern, wondering if they would have a job tomorrow, or if they would spend Christmas reading the classifieds.
Ann felt as if she were moving, rather than them—that her office was racing down a road as dark and cold as the one back to the Mission, years ago—racing back toward her daughter where she sat curled in the black leather chair, staring at an empty doorway.
Chadwick found David Kraft sitting at the bottom of the school steps, lighting a cigarette for Kindra Jones.
“Damn,” Kindra told Chadwick. “Thought the cannibals ate you, man. We're out here getting run over by a herd of puberty.”
“Things got complicated. You two know each other?”
“Do now,” Kindra said. “The man has cigarettes.”