“On Christmas Day?”
“I have an atheist boss and a Jewish physical therapist. Come on. We can find someplace open for lunch afterward, go over the case files for next week.”
“Sure,” Hunter griped. “Make it a business lunch, so I have to pay for it.”
Chadwick felt a lump in his throat—grateful that he had friends, grateful that Olsen had given escorting—and him—a second chance. But he also knew his facade was about to crumble, the intricate patchwork of shock and adrenaline and false composure he'd relied on the last few weeks—hell, the last nine years. Now that he was out of danger, now that Mallory was safe, he felt that shell breaking up at last, and he wasn't quite sure what was underneath.
“You go ahead,” he told them. “I'd better elevate my foot, maybe catch up on my reading.”
Chadwick went inside, focusing his eyes on the cactus petal wreath that hung over the lodge fireplace, telling himself he could make it a few more steps, just to the stairs that led to his apartment.
Olsen and Hunter stood in the entry hall, watching Chadwick walk away. He moved up the stairs as if the pain he was worried about was in his chest rather than his leg.
“It's still hard for him,” Hunter told her. “All that guilt over Katherine, stirred up again. I hope to hell that'll pass now.”
“I wish I understood him,” Olsen said.
“I've been working on that thirty years. It's a good hobby, but don't quit your day job.”
Hunter held the door for her, let in a gust of Christmas morning air that smelled of wood smoke.
Olsen stepped outside, thinking about her own family—her little sister, her mother, her former stepfather in prison. She was ready to trust Chadwick. She had put aside her fear of leaving Mallory, her fear of believing a man could actually be a good and caring person, even if he did remind her of the father figure who had betrayed her. She was willing to believe, for the first time in her life, that there might be good men in the world, and she had stumbled across two of them in Hunter and Chadwick.
“I don't understand why he kept sabotaging himself,” she told Hunter. “Even at the end, he couldn't fire on Kindra.”
“Easy for us to replay it, with hindsight, say what he should've done.”
“I almost think part of him wanted to get killed. Punished. I'm not sure why—whether that's about Katherine, or what happened in Thailand.”
Hunter gave her a strange look. “What makes you say that?”
“Before I changed to counseling, I asked him about the day Race Montrose drew a gun on him, why he froze up . . . Chadwick told me about that Thai boy—the one you and he had to shoot in the Air Force, on guard duty. He told me that story.”
Hunter stared off into the distance. “Did he?”
“He said that's why he hates using a gun.”
She could see Hunter pulling the blinds over his thoughts, shutting himself off, backtracking from the new closeness they'd been developing all week. “Chadwick tells you something, he must have his reasons,” Hunter said.
And before he got his expression completely under control, she saw the discomfort in his eyes, his intense desire to close ranks to protect a friend, even if he didn't understand the nature of the threat.
Truth sank into her like a stone, leaving slow heavy ripples.
She gripped the railing of the deck, the pain from the gunshot wound in her side suddenly making her dizzy.
The next Saturday at Laurel Heights, decorations from the canceled auction were finally put to use. Satin ribbons fluttered from the chain link fence. Loops of yellow and pink crepe paper coiled down the staircase railing. Classroom chairs were set outside in rows, with helium balloons tied to the legs, so the basketball court looked like a lollipop orchard.
Chadwick and Olsen left the seats for the paying customers—parents still arriving with kids in tow, bringing baskets of homemade sugar cookies and bundt cakes and coolers of lemonade for the reception.
The major construction would not start until the summer, but Ann had insisted on having the ground-breaking ceremony now, to mark the new year, and the restoration of a dream.
She had convinced the construction company to pour wet cement for a new sidewalk in the little yard behind the building, so the children could put their names on the project from the beginning. Already, most of the younger kids were running around with sticky white hands, their parents scrubbing the cement off with cocktail napkins, wincing as some got smeared on pleated slacks and taffeta skirts. Finally, the teachers cordoned off the yard, deciding that their overzealous headmistress's cement maybe wasn't such a good idea after all.
Middle- and upper-schoolers, much too cool to get their hands dirty, hung out on the back deck, shoving each other, talking too loud, showing off their new hair dyes—fuchsia and green and indigo.
At the edge of the group sat Race Montrose, the only high-schooler who'd heeded the dress code for the event and worn a jacket and tie. His clothes underscored what was already obvious from the body language of the other teens—Race could sit with them, but he would never be one of them.
Chadwick's mouth tasted like metal. He wished he could force the kids to be nicer, but he knew the parent gossip network at Laurel Heights had been hard at work, disseminating the lurid details of the damaged life of Race's sister. They made sure everyone understood that Kindra Jones had murdered at least three people, including her own mother. She had targeted Laurel Heights and the Zedman family for destruction. And as evidenced by her grandmother, schizophrenia ran in the Montrose family.
The media had painted Race as the victim, living in fear for years, used as a pawn for his sister's malicious revenge. In the end, he had cooperated with the police. He had helped save Mallory's life, helped recover the stolen Laurel Heights funds by leading the police to Kindra's condominium, where the new account numbers were found. Even the gun in his locker, which had gotten him expelled in the first place, had been claimed by Mallory.
Still, the parents didn't want him back. The kids didn't want to deal with him. Chadwick could see it in their eyes, their raised shoulders, their stiffened necks. They ignored Race the way drivers ignore a flower-seller at a busy intersection. It would have been much more convenient, much easier, for all of them if Race Montrose just went away.
But Ann wouldn't let it happen.
The school board, smelling a wrongful termination lawsuit, had fallen over themselves reversing course on their treatment of Ann. She had agreed to resume her duties with no hard feelings and no legal action, as long as Race was part of the general amnesty.
Race was reinstated at Laurel Heights with a formal apology and no mark on his record. A family of alumni had even agreed to be his temporary foster family while the courts decided who would get custody.
Ann lost families over her defense of Race. Many came back after the money scandal cleared, but others had not—not if their children had to go to school with that boy. Ann stuck by her guns. Race Montrose would not be punished for what his sister had done.
When she told Chadwick this over the phone, he wanted to slug the parents who disagreed with her. He wanted to break his nine-year edict of never, ever criticizing another parent, and ask what the hell they thought they were teaching their kids. He almost wanted to reconsider the offer Ann had made him during that phone conversation. Almost.
Even now, watching her step up to the PA system, he was tempted.
She called for everyone's attention with an old brass bell that had been sitting on her desk for years. Chadwick had never heard it ring. As the kindergarteners scampered into place and the last parents took their seats, Ann wrapped her hands around the corners of the podium.
“We made it,” she announced, with all the certainty, all the absolute conviction of Asa Hunter on the drill line. “After a long hard fight and a few bad moments—”
She paused for nervous laughter.
“—we realized our goal. I'd like to thank Mark Jasper, our board chairman, for steering us through the crisis and soliciting the last three million dollars . . .”
Healthy applause. The man with the graying ponytail and the denim clothes waved, his eye twitching as Ann looked back at him—and Chadwick could tell he was a man who had lost a battle.
“And Norma Reyes,” Ann continued, “for all her hard work.”
More applause, a few appreciative whoops, a shout of Ay, qué pico! from one of the Latino parents. Norma waved the praise off with a grin.
“And David Kraft,” Ann continued, “who couldn't be with us today, but who worked very hard to see this moment.”
Halfhearted applause. Probably no one at the school had known David that well, any more than they had known him a decade ago, when he was a student.
According to Sergeant Damarodas, who had taken to giving Chadwick regular phone calls as a form of lingering punishment, David had disappeared shortly after the school scandal broke. His blue SUV had been found at the West Oakland BART station, no keys in the ignition, no signs of foul play. Missing Persons and Homicide had been notified, but David's parents told them that he'd packed his clothes before disappearing. They said David had been talking for some time about moving away, starting over, and they seemed relieved that he'd finally done it. Chadwick wasn't surprised. He wished the young man well. He thought it would be sad if the police treated him like a runaway child, rather than an adult who had the right to disappear. He hoped David finally found a place where he fit in.
Ann closed with a few comments about the construction, the new Laurel Heights they all would create together. She gestured to the corner of the court, where a small patch of asphalt had been jackhammered open, revealing soil that had not seen daylight in eighty years. This, she said, would be where the first foundation pylon was planted. She asked Norma Reyes to help her overturn the first spadeful of earth.
The elementary children craned their necks to see. They'd been sitting impatiently in front until now, but this was interesting. Digging in dirt, like writing in cement—this they could understand.
The ground was officially broken. Chadwick and Olsen applauded along with everyone else.
The crowd dispersed, adults and older kids to assault the food tables, children to scramble over their beloved jungle gym that would soon be demolished. Ann worked the crowd—inserting herself into groups of gossipy parents, seeking out the ones who were trying to avoid her and engaging them in conversation.
Norma Reyes stood by the broken ground at the far end of the basketball court, her hand resting on the shovel handle. Chadwick met her eyes, briefly, and his heart twisted. He knew she was thinking about another plot of ground, another ritual when she'd turned a spadeful of earth.
“You excuse me?” he asked Olsen.
“I'll grab a brownie,” she said. “Just remember—you know, our pickup . . .”
There it was again—the tiny hesitation after her last word, as if she were about to say something else. He'd heard that in her voice all week, and had begun to wonder if it was the residual trauma of their morning in the cornfield. Perhaps, after almost dying, she was reluctant to put a period on the end of any statement.
Chadwick waited, but she said nothing else, just squeezed his forearm and headed for the dessert table.