“So we're going to shift the blame again?”
“Because what I think? I think you knew about Katherine and Samuel a long time ago. That's why you went to Texas the week before she died—you didn't know what to do. So you ran to Hunter. You and Hunter came up with some fucking scheme to send my daughter to that . . . place. And meanwhile you don't tell me shit. Not only are you sleeping around behind my back—you are hiding things about my daughter. And if I'd known . . . if you'd bothered to fucking tell me . . .”
She pushed the air away, a gesture that reminded Chadwick a little too much of the crazy old woman Ella Montrose, mother of a murdered daughter.
“That night of the auction,” she told him, “I knew you were going to confess something. I thought you were going to tell me about your fling with Ann. But now I'm trying to believe it was something more important—that you were finally going to tell me the truth about my daughter. Maybe bring me into the problem so we could solve it. If that were the case, I could almost forgive you, Chadwick. I could almost forgive you for being too late.”
Her eyes were hungry. She seemed to be asking forgiveness, rather than offering it.
Chadwick wanted to tell her she was right. He wanted to buy her amnesty by agreeing with her, but the words wouldn't come.
Norma sensed his hesitation.
“You think Samuel holds a grudge,” she said. “He loved Katherine and he blames us for Katherine's death. All of us who failed her—you and me, Ann and John. The school, too. But what's bothering you is that he started with John. Why he went after the school's money and left you alone. That's it, isn't it?”
Chadwick didn't reply.
Norma traced her fingers down the wall, following the faint line of grime that marked the place where Babar the Elephant once hung. “What I want to say now—I'm afraid to say.”
“Norma Reyes, afraid to speak?”
“You're going to put it down to spite. When Race came to see me, he said, ‘She ain't going to be satisfied until they're both dead.' She.”
“Mallory? She'd probably complained to him about her parents.”
Norma shook her head. “I've been thinking about why Race would come to me. Why me, why not somebody else? You see it, don't you?”
“Norma . . .”
“Ann needed the money. When I told her about the embezzlement, she wasn't shocked. She was . . . nervous. Calculating. Her biggest concern was buying time. I don't think she meant for anybody to find out until after the auction, when the fund was complete. After that she'd have two weeks over Christmas break to leave town, nobody at school, nobody checking up on her. A head start.”
“Norma, you're talking about Ann—”
“You were fucking her—you don't know her at all. She puts on a brave face, but she's in desperate shape. Her school's sinking. She'd been taking a salary cut every year to mask how bad it is. She's frantic about not having enough money to fight another custody battle, scared she's going to lose her daughter. You don't know what that will do to a mother, Chadwick, the fear of losing your child.”
“No.” Norma's tone was as sharp and proprietary as a barbed wire fence. “Being the mother is different, pendejo. You don't know.”
Chadwick studied her face—the familiar wisp of black hair looping over her ear, the half-moon curve of her chin.
“I have a job tonight,” he said. “I need to go.”
“Who you rescuing this time—some drug addict? Some kleptomaniac?”
“I'm stopping by John's house first. Anything you want me to tell him?”
Norma's face reddened. She turned toward the hallway, her face in the sunset. “Don't go there. It won't help.”
“Good seeing you, Norma.”
“I'm serious. I keep thinking about the two people Ann might want dead, like Race said. The two who stood in the way of everything she wanted. You know what she wanted, don't you? She wanted you.”
“Turn off the stereo, will you?”
“Ann is the one who brought you back here. Think about that, Chadwick.”
He was at the bottom of the stairwell when she called him one last time. Against his better judgment, he turned to look up at her, and in that moment he could imagine it was ten years ago, fifteen years ago. She could've been reminding him to get milk at the corner grocery, or tossing him Katherine's jacket and mittens, laughing because he and Katherine had once again forgotten them.
“I'm not bitter, Chadwick. I'm empty. You understand the difference? The difference is you see more clearly when you've got nothing left.”
Chadwick opened the door of the house, stepped out into the growing gloom of the evening. Down the block, he could hear the lowrider cruising, its stereo setting off car alarms all across the neighborhood like a bloodhound flushing quail.
By the time Chadwick returned to John's house in Marin, it was full dark, the fog settling in over the hilltops.
No cars in the driveway. No lights in the windows.
Chadwick thought it unlikely that John would've gone out, given his frazzled demeanor earlier, but there was no response when he rang the bell.
After two more tries, he felt the weight of the silence build on him, the need to do something. He tried the door. Locked.
He went around to the side window—the one that John always used to leave unlatched, even when Ann scolded him for doing so. It was latched, but easily undone with Chadwick's penknife. He jimmied it open and slipped inside.
He moved through the house, sensing that there was no one here, but feeling he should call out, just in case—make a pretense of respecting John's property.
He couldn't make himself call. The silence was too heavy.
In the foyer, the voice-mail button was blinking on the phone. Chadwick hit redial, tried Mallory's birthday for the pass code, and was rewarded with four new messages—one from a real estate client, one from a reporter asking about the Laurel Heights scandal, one from an FBI special agent named Laramie, confirming an appointment for the next morning. The last message was the shortest, a voice Chadwick recognized as Emilio Pérez, saying simply, “Everything's cool. I'll call you.”
Chadwick hit the save button, hung up the phone. He turned on the living room lights and noticed the blank space on the wall—a space where he was sure a framed painting had hung that afternoon. He went over, touched his finger to a nickel-sized hole. It could've been where a mounting hook had ripped loose. Or it could've been a bullet hole.
He scanned the floor—found a wet spot by the fireplace where the carpet had been scrubbed. And another, closer to the stairs.
Chadwick's throat tightened.
At the base of the stairs, he heard music, very faint, like a television going softly in one of the bedrooms above.
He went upstairs, wishing for the first time in years that he carried a gun.
In the master bedroom, the television was playing a cartoon. John's bed was made, fresh pajamas neatly folded on the pillow. Nothing out of place that Chadwick could see. No sign of a struggle. On the nightstand was a picture of Mallory at about six years old. Chadwick could tell, from the brilliance of her gap-toothed smile, it had been taken before Katherine's suicide.
Chadwick walked to the bathroom, flipped on the light.
There was no shower curtain on the rod, only a few rings. A small red puddle glistened on the tile floor. Chadwick had just put his shoe in it.
He stepped back, making a red spot on the beige carpet.
Chadwick backed away, left another bloody print, fainter than the first.
His survival instinct was telling him to get the hell out.
A sudden burst of music from the television cartoon startled him. Marimbas, trumpets, a loud “Ha-ha!” He reached to turn it off, but his hand froze.
On the screen, fish danced in swirls of bubbles.
Sebastian the Crab was singing “Under the Sea.”
Chadwick made it to the bed just as his legs failed him.
He saw himself nine years ago, ejecting a video cassette of this movie, cracking it against the mantel after all the police had gone, tipping over the television and ripping cords out of the wall and picking up the black leather chair and throwing it against the wall until the Romos next door started shouting curses and pounding on the Sheetrock.
Now he stared at the “on” light of the DVD player, the flashing green circular icon that meant continuous replay.
He could barely pull out his cell phone.
His finger hovered over the 9 for 911, but he didn't dial it. He knew who that would summon—John Zedman's local police. John Zedman's lackeys.
Instead, he scrolled back through his recent calls, to an Oakland number he had dialed two weeks ago—Sergeant Damarodas, the only homicide detective he knew.
Mallory knew that wasn't right. There was no stadium in the woods—nothing brighter than stars and the campfire. But when she woke up to Leyland's voice, rain drumming on the canvas roof of her pup tent, there were blinding lights outside, down toward the river, like a goddamn UFO had landed.
“Move it!” Leyland was yelling. “This is your lucky day, Zedman! Show me your enthusiasm!”
“Yes, sir!” Mallory croaked.
It couldn't be five o'clock yet. Mallory's body told her she hadn't slept at all.
She struggled into her clothes—damp and sour from yesterday, still smelling of horse—then she stumbled out to find the line. Morrison, Smart and Bridges were already at attention, standing in the freezing downpour, letting the rain drip off their noses.
Something is wrong, Mallory thought.
She spotted Olsen, a half-dozen other counselors and white levels, even Dr. Hunter—all with grim faces, all wearing fatigues. Too many people.
Fear kicked Mallory in the gut. Had her team messed up somehow?
“Fall in, Zedman!” Leyland yelled.
Mallory joined the line, forced herself to stand straight, eyes forward, trying not to blink in the rain.
“Black levels!” Dr. Hunter said. “Who is responsible for getting you here?”
“We are, sir!”
“Who is responsible for getting you out?”
“We are, sir!”
“First step is accountability,” Hunter chanted. “You are the problem. You are the solution. You must accept that. You must take the blame if you fail. Do you understand?”
“Are you accountable?”
“Are you ready to move on?”
This was a new question—not part of their litany—and the black levels hesitated. It sounded as if Dr. Hunter was offering them a choice, and choices were not something black levels trained for.
Mallory answered first. She shouted, “YES, SIR!”
“That's funny,” Hunter said. “Rain must be affecting my ears. I didn't hear you all. Are you ready to move on?”
This time they all shouted, “YES, SIR!!!”
“We will see,” Hunter said. “Eyes front.”
He called Leyland forward. As the rain pattered down on the red granite, Hunter grabbed a mess of ropes and metal clasps from one of the white levels and started fitting the gear around Leyland's waist.