When I got back to my house, Loren Muse was pacing like a lion near a wounded gazelle. Cara was in the backseat. She had dance class in an hour. I wasn't taking her. Our nanny, Estelle, was back today. She drove. I overpay Estelle and don't care. You find someone good who also drives? You pay them whatever they want.
I pulled into my driveway. The house was a three-bedroom split-level that had all the personality of that morgue corridor. It was supposed to be our "starter" house. Jane had wanted to upgrade to a McMansion, maybe in Franklin Lakes. I didn't care much where we lived. I'm not into houses or cars and would pretty much let Jane have her way on that kind ofstuff.
I missed my wife.
Loren Muse had a something-eating grin locked onto her face. No poker player was Muse, that was for certain. "I got all the bills. Computer records too. The works." Then she turned to my daughter. "Hi, Cara."
"Loren!" Cara shouted. She jumped out of the car. Cara liked Muse. Muse was good with kids. Muse had never been married, never had any of her own. A few weeks ago I met her most recent boyfriend. The guy wasn't in her league, but that again seemed to be the norm for single women of a certain age.
Muse and I spread everything out on the den floor-witness statements, police reports, phone records, all the fraternity's bills. We started with the frat bills, and man, there were a ton. Every cell phone. Every beer order. Every online purchase.
"So," Muse said, "what are we looking for?" "Damned if I know." "I thought you had something." "Just a feeling."
"Oh, gag me. Please don't tell me you're playing a hunch." "I would never," I said. We kept looking.
"So," she said, "basically we're going through these papers looking for a sign saying, "Big Clue This Way'?" "We are looking," I said, "for a catalyst." "Good word. In what way?"
"I don't know, Muse. But the answer is here. I can almost see it." "Ooookay," she said, managing with great effort not to roll her eyes. So we searched. They ordered pizza pretty much every night, eight pies, from Pizza-To-Go, directly billed to their credit card. They had Netflix so that they could rent regular DVD movies, three at a time delivered to your door, and something called HotFlixxx, so they could do the same with dirty ones. They ordered fraternity frat-logo golf shirts. The frat logo was also on golf balls, tons of them.
We tried to put them in some kind of order. I don't have a clue why. I lifted the HotFlixxx bill and showed it to Muse. "Cheap," I said. "The Internet makes porn readily accessible and thus affordable to the masses."
"Good to know," I said.
"But this might be an opening," Muse said.
"Young boys, hot women. Or in this case, woman."
"Explain," I said.
"I want to hire someone outside the office."
"A private eye named Cingle Shaker. Have you heard of her?"
I nodded. I had.
"Forget heard," she said. "Have you seen her?"
"But you've heard?"
"Yeah," I said. "I've heard."
"Well, it's no exaggeration. Cingle Shaker has a body that not only stops traffic, it pulls up the road and bulldozes highway dividers. And she's very good. If anyone can get lawyered-up frat boys to spill, it's Cingle."
"Okay," I said.
Hours later-I can't even tell you how many, Muse started to rise. "There's nothing here, Cope." "Seems that way, doesn't it?" "You have Chamique's direct first thing in the morning?" "Yes." She stood over me. "Your time would be better spent working on that."
I did a mock "yes, sir" salute in her direction. Chamique and I had worked on her testimony already, but not as hard as one might imagine. I didn't want her to sound practiced. I had another strategy in mind.
"I'll get you what I can," Muse said.
She stomped out the door in her best lick-da-world mode.
Estelle made us all dinner, spaghetti and meatballs. Estelle is not a great cook, but it went down. I took Cara out for Van Dyke's ice cream afterward, a special treat. She was chattier now. In the rearview mirror, I could see her strapped into the car seat. When I was a kid, we were allowed to sit in the front seat. Now you had to be of drinking age before that was permissible.
I tried to listen to what she was saying but Cara was just yakking pure nonsense the way kids do. It seems Brittany had been mean to Morgan so Kyle threw an eraser and how come Kylie, not Kylie G, Kylie N - there were two Kylies in her class, how come Kylie N didn't want to go on the swings at recess unless Kiera was on one too? I kept glancing at her animated face, scrunched up as though imitating an adult. I got hit with that overwhelming feeling. It sneaked up on me. Parents get it from time to time. You are looking at your child and it is an ordinary moment, not like they are onstage or hitting a winning shot, just sitting there and you look at them and you know that they are your whole life and that moves you and scares you and makes you want to stop time.
I had lost a sister. I had lost a wife. And most recently, I had lost my father. In all three cases I had gotten off the canvas. But as I looked at Cara, at the way she talked with her hands and widened her eyes, I knew that there was indeed one blow from which I could never rise.
I thought about my father. In the woods. With that shovel. His heart broken. Searching for his little girl. I thought about my mother. She had run away. I didn't know where she was. Sometimes I still think about searching her out. But not that often anymore. For years I had hated her. Maybe I still do. Or maybe now that I have a child I understand a little better about the pain she must have been going through.
When we walked back into the house, the phone rang. Estelle took Cara from me. I picked it up and said hello. "We got a problem, Cope."
It was my brother-in-law, Bob, Gretas husband. He was chairman of the charitable fund JaneCare. Greta, Bob and I had founded it after my wife's death. I had gotten lots of wonderful press for it. My living memorial to my lovely, beautiful, gentle wife.
My, what a wonderful husband I must have been.
"What's the matter?" I asked.
"Your rape case is costing us big-time. Edward Jenrette's father has gotten several of his friends to back out of their commitments."
I closed my eyes. "Classy."
"Worse, he's making noises that we've embezzled funds. EJ Jenrette is a well-connected son of a bitch. I'm already getting calls."
"So we open our books," I said. "They won't find anything."
"Don't be naive, Cope. We compete with other charities for the giving dollar. If there is even a whiff of a scandal, we're finished." "Not much we can do about it, Bob." "I know. It's just that... we're doing a lot of good here, Cope." "I know." "But funding is always tough." "So what are you suggesting?" "Nothing." Bob hesitated and I could tell he had more to say. So I waited. "But come on, Cope, you guys plea-bargain all the time, right?"
"You let a lesser injustice slide so you can nail someone for a bigger one."
"When we have to."
"These two boys. I hear they're good kids."
"You hear wrong."
"Look, I'm not saying that they don't deserve to be punished, but sometimes you have to trade. The greater good. JaneCare is making big strides. It might be the greater good. That's all I'm saying."
"Good night, Bob."
"No offense, Cope. I'm just trying to help."
"I know. Good night, Bob."
I hung up. My hands were shaking. Jenrette, that son of a bitch, hadn't gone after me. He had gone after my wife's memory. I started up stairs. Rage consumed me. I would channel it. I sat at my desk. There were only two pictures on it. One was the current school photo of my daughter, Cara. It had a prized spot, dead center.
The second photograph was a grainy picture of my Noni and Popi from the old country, Russia, or, as it was called when they died in that gulag, the Soviet Union. They died when I was very young, when we still lived in Leningrad, but I have vague recollections of them, especially my Popi's big shock of white hair.
Why, I often wondered, do I keep this picture out?
Their daughter, my mother, had abandoned me, right? Dumb when you thought about it. But somehow, despite the obvious pain intertwined, I find the picture oddly relevant. I would look at it, at my Noni and Popi, and I would wonder about ripples and family curses and where it all might have started.
I used to keep out pictures of Jane and Camille. I liked having them in view. They brought me comfort. But just because I found comfort in the dead, that didn't mean my daughter did. It was a hard balance with a six-year-old. You want to talk about her mother. You want her to know about Jane, her wonderful spirit, how much she would have loved her little girl. You want to offer some kind of comfort, too, that her mother was up in heaven looking down on her. But I didn't believe in that. I want to. I want to believe that there is a glorious afterlife and that above us, my wife, my sister and my father are all smiling down. But I can't make myself believe it. And when I peddle it to my daughter, I feel as though I'm lying to her. I do it anyway. For now it feels like Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, something temporary and soothing, but in the end, she, like all children, will learn it is yet another parental lie with minimum justification. Or maybe I'm wrong and they are up there looking down on us. Maybe that is what Cara will conclude someday.
At midnight I finally allowed my mind to go where it wanted to, my sister, Camille, Gil Perez, that awful, magical summer. I flashed back to camp. I thought about Camille. I thought about that night. And for the first time in several years, I let myself think about Lucy.
A sad smile crossed my face. Lucy Silverstein had been my first real girlfriend. We'd had it so good, a fairy-tale summer romance, until that night. We never had the chance to break up, we were, instead, ripped apart by bloody murders. We were torn away while still enmeshed in each other, at a point where our love, as silly and immature as it was supposed to have been, was still rising and growing.
Lucy was the past. I had given myself an ultimatum and shut her out. But the heart doesn't really know from ultimatums. Over the years, I have tried to see what Lucy is up to, harmlessly Googling her name and stuff, though I doubt I would ever have the courage to contact her. I never found anything. My bet is, after all that happened, she'd wisely changed her name. Lucy was probably married now, like I had been. She was probably happy. I hoped so.
I pushed that all away. Right now I needed to think about Gil Perez. I closed my eyes and went back. I thought about him at camp, how we horsed around, how I used to fun-punch him in the arm, the way he'd say, "Wimp! I didn't even feel that "
I could see him now, with the skinny torso, his shorts too baggy before that was a fashionable look, the smile that needed major orthodontia, the...
My eyes opened. Something felt wrong.
I headed into the basement. I found the cardboard box right away. Jane had been good about marking everything. I saw her extra neat handwriting on the side of the box. It made me pause. Handwriting is so damn personal. My fingertips drifted over it. I touched her lettering and pictured her with the big Magic Marker in her hand, the top in her mouth as she wrote boldly: photographs-Copeland's.
I had made many mistakes in my life. But Jane... it was my one great break. Her good transformed me, made me better and stronger in every way. Yes, I loved her and there was passion, but more than that, she had the ability to make me my best. I was neurotic and insecure, the financial-aid kid at a school with very few of them, and there she was, this nearly perfect creature who saw something in me. How? How could I be so awful and worthless if a creature this magnificent loved me?
Jane was my rock. And then she got sick. My rock crumbled. And so did I.
I found the photographs from that long-ago summer. There were none of Lucy. I had wisely thrown them all away years ago. Lucy and I had our songs too - Cat Stevens, James Taylor, stuff that was syrupy enough to be gag worthy. I have trouble listening to them. Still. To this day. I make sure that they are nowhere near my iPod. If they come on the radio, I switch stations at a dizzying speed.
I sifted through a stack of pictures from that summer. Most of them were of my sister. I pushed through them until I found one that was taken three days before she died. Doug Billingham was in the picture, her boyfriend. A rich kid. Mom had approved, of course. The camp was an odd social mix of privileged and poor. Inside that camp, the upper and lower classes mingled on about as level a playing field as you could find. That was how the hippie who ran the camp, Lucys fun-loving hippie dad, Ira, wanted it.
Margot Green, another rich kid, was smack in the middle. She always was. She had been the camp hottie and knew it. She was blond and busty and worked it constantly. She always dated older guys, until Gil anyway, and to the mere mortals around her, Margots life was like something on TV, a melodrama we all watched with fascination. I looked at her now and pictured her throat slit. I closed my eyes for a second.
Gil Perez was in the photograph too. And that was why I was here.
I pointed my desk light and took a closer look.
Upstairs, I'd remembered something. I am right-handed, but when I fun-punched Gil on the arm, I used my left hand. I did this to avoid touching that awful scar. True, it was healed up, but I was afraid to go near it. Like it might tear open anew and start spewing blood. So I used my left hand and hit his right arm. I squinted and moved closer.
I could see the bottom of the scar peaking out beneath the T-shirt. The room began to spin. Mrs. Perez had said that her sons scar was on his right arm. But then I would have punched him with my right hand, ergo, hitting his left shoulder. But I hadn't done that. I had punched him with my left hand- on his right shoulder.
Now I had the proof. Gil Perez's scar was on his left arm. Mrs. Perez had lied. And now I had to wonder why.