All in all, the Honorable Leslie F. Puckett was not a bad draw for a trial judge.
Three times in the past, as both prosecutor and defense attorney, Jordan had been involved in cases over which Puckett presided. Rumor had it that his severe approach and razor-sharp critiques of trial attorneys were grounded in his own insecurity about his given name-Leslie not being as masculine as he would have liked-but he dispensed barbs to both prosecution and defense with equanimity. That aside, the only caveat to a case with Judge Puckett was his affinity for almonds, which he kept in glass jars on his desk in both the courtroom and chambers, and cracked open loudly with his teeth.
Pretrial hearings were usually held in open court, but the severity of Chris's charge and the publicity it had attracted led everyone involved to believe the meeting was best conducted in the judge's chambers. Puckett, black robes fluttering around his ankles, strode into the room with Jordan and Barrie Delaney hurrying in his wake. All three sat down, and Puckett slid an almond out of the glass jar and popped it into his mouth.
At the hideous crunch, Jordan looked at Barrie.
Although attorneys were extremely formal in the courtroom, even the most cutthroat prosecutors and defense lawyers let their guard down outside. Jordan, as a former prosecutor, maintained a decent rapport with most of the assistant attorney generals. Barrie Delaney was another story. He'd never worked with her-she'd arrived at the AG's office after he'd left, with fists swinging-and she seemed to take it personally that Jordan had defected to the other side of the law. Hell, she seemed to take everything personally.
She was sitting like a convent school girl, hands folded, black skirt tucked around her legs and a glazed smile on her face, even as Leslie Puckett spit out the almond shell into the his palm.
The judge shuffled papers on his desk. Jordan coughed to attract the prosecutor's attention. "Nice police work, Delaney," he said under his breath. "Nothing like a little coercion for my client."
"Coercion!" she hissed at Jordan. "He wasn't even a suspect when he was in the hospital. That interview was totally aboveboard and you know it."
"If it's totally aboveboard, how'd you know I was talking about that interview?"
"McAfee," the judge said, "and Delaney. You two about finished?"
The attorneys turned toward the desk. "Yes, Your Honor," they said in unison.
"Good," he said sourly. "Now, what needs to be docketed?"
"Well, Your Honor," Barrie jumped in, "we have a specialist looking at the blood spatters who needs some time; plus the DNA testing we're doing is backed up at the lab." She consulted her Filofax. "We'll be ready by the first of May."
"Anything you're planning to hand in?"
"Yes, Your Honor. Several motions in Umine dealing with the defendant's so-called expert witnesses and other objectionable evidence."
The judge plucked another almond from his jar and rolled it around on his tongue, turning to Jordan. "How about you?"
"A motion to suppress an interview that was done in the hospital with my client which clearly violated his Miranda rights."
"That's bullshit!" Barrie cried. "He could have walked away at any time."
Jordan bared his teeth in a semblance of a smile. "Blatantly illegal," he said. "My client didn't feel much like walking away when he'd just suffered seventy stitches to close a scalp wound and was under the influence of various painkillers. And your detective damn well knew that."
"Keep this up," the judge said, "and I won't have to read the motion."
Jordan faced Puckett again. "I can have it for you in a week-"
"Which I'll gladly respond to," Barrie added.
"Waste of your time, Barrie," Jordan murmured. "Not to mention my client's."
Jordan cleared his throat. "My apologies, Your Honor. Ms. Delaney gets my dander up."
"So I see," Puckett said. "You'll both have these motions to me by the end of next week?"
"Not a problem," Jordan said.
"Yes," Barrie nodded.
"All right, then," Puckett said, spreading his hands over his calendar, as if to divine a date. "Let's start jury selection on May seventh."
Jordan gathered up his briefcase and watched Barrie Delaney collect her files. He remembered that from being a prosecutor-the incredible number of files, with too little time to do justice to each case. For Chris Harte's sake, he hoped this still held true.
Out of long habit, he held the door to chambers open for Ms. Delaney, although he personally rated her more on a par with a pit bull than a member of the fair sex. They walked down the hall of the courthouse, both furious and silent and filled with visions of winning. Then Barrie turned toward Jordan, blocking his progress. "If you want a plea," she said flatly, "we're offering manslaughter." Jordan crossed his arms. "Thirty to life," Barrie added.
When Jordan didn't even blink, Barrie shook her head slowly. "Look, Jordan," she said. "He's going down, no matter what. You and I both know I've got the case locked up. You've seen the hard evidence-the fingerprints, the bullet, the trajectory through the head-and you and I both know she couldn't have shot herself like that. A jury isn't going to get far enough past those facts to even pay attention to whatever you're going to throw at them for a diversion. If you take thirty years, at least he'll be out before he's fifty."
Jordan waited a moment, then uncrossed his arms. "Are you finished?"
"Good." He started walking down the hall again.
Barrie ran after him. "So?"
Jordan stopped. "So. The only reason I am even going to tell my client about that ridiculous heap of shit you just produced as an offer is because I'm obligated to." He stared at Barrie, a hint of a smile on his face. "I've been around a lot longer than you have," he said. "In fact, I used to be on your side. I used to play the game the same exact way you are, now. Which means that I also know you aren't nearly as convinced of a conviction as you say you are." He inclined his head briefly. "I'll talk to my client," he said, "but all the same, we'll be seeing you in court."
When Jordan finished talking, Chris drummed his fingers on the table. "Thirty years," he said, his voice breaking in spite of his tight rein of control. He looked up at his attorney. "How old are you?"
"Thirty-eight," Jordan said, knowing exactly where this was leading.
"That's, like, your whole life," Chris said. "And twice mine."
"Still," Jordan pointed out, "it's about half a true life sentence. And there's parole."
Chris stood and walked to the window. "What should I do?" he said softly.
"I can't tell you," Jordan said. "I said there were three things you needed to decide by yourself. Whether or not to go to trial is one of them."
Chris turned slowly. "If you were eighteen; if you were me-what would you do?"
A grin crept across Jordan's face. "Do I have the same kick-ass lawyer?"
"Sure," Chris laughed. "Be my guest."
Jordan stood too, and settled his hands in his pockets. "I'm not going to tell you winning's a sure thing, because it's not. But I'm not going to tell you we're flat-out going to lose either. I can tell you, though, that if you take the plea bargain, you're going to spend thirty years wondering whether or not we could have beaten them."
Chris nodded, but did not say anything, staring out at the vista of snow outside the jail. "You don't have to decide now," Jordan said. "Think it over."
Chris splayed his hand on the cold glass, making a ghost of a shadow. "When is the trial supposed to start?"
"May seventh," Jordan said. "Jury selection."
Chris's shoulders began to shake, and Jordan moved toward him, alarmed that the thought of being incarcerated for three more months had set Chris over the edge. But when he touched his client's shoulder, he realized Chris was laughing. "Are you superstitious?" Chris said, wiping at his eyes.
"May seventh is Emily's birthday."
"You're kidding," Jordan said, slack-jawed. He tried to imagine what Barrie Delaney would do when she pieced together that information. Probably wheel in a fucking ice cream cake for the jury to enjoy during her opening argument. He frantically tried to think of a motion he could file or a witness he could detain in order to request a continuance; he tried to evaluate how much of a bleeding heart Puckett could be.
"Do it," Chris said, so softly that Jordan did not hear him at first.
"The plea bargain." Chris's lips twitched. "Tell them to go to hell."
There was NO written RULE that said Gus and Michael had to keep their weekly lunches secret, hoarded like a smile at a funeral, but they did this all the same, furtively slipping inside the delicatessen as if they'd crossed enemy lines. In a way, it was like that-a battle-and they might as well have been spies, taking comfort from someone who had every reason to betray you the minute you turned your back. But in another, very elemental way, they might have been each other's lifeline.
"Hi," Gus said breathlessly, sliding into the booth. She smiled at Michael, who was flicking the laminated menu with his thumbnail. "How is he today?"
"He's okay," Michael said. "Looking forward to seeing you, I think."
"Is he still sick?" Gus asked. "Last week he had that horrible cough."
"It's much better," Michael assured her. "He got some Robitussin from the commissary."
Gus settled her napkin on her lap, a thrill running through her chest and shoulders at the sight of him, like a schoolgirl with a crush. She had known Michael for twenty years, but was only beginning to really see him, as if this situation had not only changed her perception of her world, but also the people who inhabited it. How had she never noticed that Michael's voice could soothe so easily? That his hands seemed strong, his eyes kind? That he listened to her as if she were the only person in the room?
Gus was fully, guiltily aware of the fact that the conversation she was having with this man was the very conversation she should have been having with her husband. James still refused to talk about his son, as if Chris's name and the accusations against him were a great black bat, which once freed would spread its wings and shriek and refuse to go back from where it had come. She had begun to eagerly look forward to these weekly lunches, arranged around the visiting hours of the Grafton jail, because she'd have someone to speak to.
That it was Michael was sometimes odd. Since his wife had been Gus's best friend for-well, nearly forever-they knew a great deal about each other, secondhand. There were things that Melanie had told Gus about Michael, and things Melanie had told Michael about Gus. It made them uncomfortably intimate, brimming with knowledge of each other they otherwise should not have had.
"You look very nice today," Michael said.
"Me?" Gus laughed. "Well, thank you. So do you." She meant it. Michael's flannel shirts and faded jeans, chosen because of his messy profession, made Gus think of soft, overstuffed words, like comfort and nestle and snug.
"You dress up for your visits, don't you?"
"I suppose I do," Gus said. She glanced down at her printed dress, and smiled. "I wonder who I'm trying to impress."
"Chris," Michael answered for her. "It's how you want him to remember you, in between."
"And how would you know that?" Gus teased.
"Because I do the same thing when I go to Emily's grave," he said. "Jacket and tie-can you imagine me in that?-just in case she's looking."
Stricken, Gus lifted her face. "Oh, Michael," she said. "I forget sometimes that this is so much worse for you."
"I don't know," Michael said. "At least it's over for me. For you, it's just beginning."
Gus ran her finger along the edge of her saucer. "How come I remember the two of them catching frogs and playing tag, like it was yesterday?"
"Because it was," Michael answered quietly. "It wasn't all that long ago." He glanced around the little deli. "I don't know how we got here," he said. "Those days are so clear to me I can smell the grass I just mowed and see the pine tar streaking the back of Emily's legs. And then, bam. I'm visiting my daughter's grave and Chris in jail."
Gus closed her eyes. "It was so easy then. It never crossed my mind that something like this would happen."
"That's because it's not supposed to happen to people like us."
"But it has. It is. How come?"
He shook his head. "I don't know. I keep asking myself that, thinking back. I figure it's like a root sticking out that I happened to miss the first time around, and can't help tripping over now." He stared at Gus. "Kids like Emily and Chris don't just decide to kill themselves, do they?"
Gus twisted her napkin. In spite of her newfound closeness to Michael, she had not confided that Chris had never been suicidal. In part, this was because she didn't want to betray her son's defense. And in part, because it would only reopen the healing wound in Michael's heart. "Do you remember," she said, trying to change the direction of the conversation, "how Emily used to scream when they played tag? Chris would chase her and she'd shriek so loud that you'd come running from your house and I'd come running from mine?"
A smile wreathed Michael's face. "Yeah," he said. "She made it sound like he was killing her." As soon as the words were out, Gus's eyes flew to his. "I'm sorry," he said, paling. "I... I didn't mean that."
"It's okay," Gus said. "I understand."
Michael cleared his throat, visibly uncomfortable. "All right, then. What are we having?"
"The usual," Gus said, brightening. "I still can't get over the fact that I found New York-style pastrami in Grafton County, New Hampshire."
"Every cloud has a silver lining," Michael said, waving over their waitress. They ordered, and then settled into conversation, steering clear of the landmine topics that had been laid down by unspoken agreement: Melanie, James, and what they had all once been to each other.
Interestingly enough, one sanctioned topic was the upcoming trial. With Chris as a common link, they discussed the fact that Jordan wanted Michael to testify for the defense, and Michael's natural reservations. "I don't know why I'm asking your advice," Michael said. "You aren't exactly nonpartisan."
"I'm shamelessly biased," Gus admitted. "But you have to imagine what a jury would think, even if you barely said a word, just seeing you up on the stand on Chris's behalf."
Michael set down his corned beef. "That's exactly what I imagine," he said softly. "I think, what kind of a father am I?" He drummed the fingers of his right hand on the table. "As much as I love Chris, could I do that to Emily?"
"Emily wouldn't want Chris to be convicted of a murder he didn't commit," Gus said firmly.
Michael smirked. "Ah. So that's why you come to lunch with me. You're the secret weapon in McAfee's arsenal."
Gus's face drained of color. The secret weapon in Jordan's arsenal was that he would be lying-making the jury believe that Chris had wanted to kill himself, too. Just as she was currently allowing Michael to believe it. She settled her napkin over her unfinished lunch and reached in the far corner of the booth for her coat. "I ought to go," she muttered, fumbling open her purse to leave her share of the bill. "Damn thing," she said, her fingers slipping on the catch.
"Hey," Michael said. "Gus." He reached across the table, to where Gus's fingers were furiously knotted over the clasp, and settled his hand on hers.
Gus stilled. It is so nice, she thought, to be touched.
Two bright flags of color rode high on Michael's cheekbones. "I didn't mean it," he said. "About you working for the lawyer."
"I know," she managed.
"Then why are you rushing off all of a sudden?"
Gus looked at the edge of her plate. "I don't tell James that I'm meeting you for lunch. Do you tell Melanie?"
"No," Michael admitted. "I don't."
"Why do you think that is?"
"I don't know," Michael said.
Gus gently pulled her hand away from his. "Neither do I."
James sat down behind his desk and picked up the pink telephone message slip that his secretary had given him. Palm d'Or, the restaurant was called, and it was forty miles into the middle of nowhere, although it had been given a five-star rating by most travel and restaurant guides. Of course, that was practically guaranteed with a fixed-price menu-pay seventy-five dollars a head and get whatever they feel like serving you that day. Sighing, James peered at the number of the restaurant and reached for the telephone. It was Kate's fifteenth birthday, and she had chosen the place, and he wasn't about to let her down.
He had, in fact, been very solicitous of Kate since Christmas. They'd gotten into a routine of staying at the dinner table after all the dishes were cleared and just talking. Kate, unlike her mother, was actually interested in the cases and operations that James had undertaken that day. James listened to Kate's chatter about boys, her fervent desire to have her ears pierced, her mistrust of algebraic proofs. And he fell in love with his daughter all over again. He would watch her night after night, and think: I still have all this.
"Hello, yes," he said, when a voice answered at the other end of the phone line. "I wanted to make a reservation. You do serve lunch as well as dinner? Excellent. Yes, next Saturday. The name is Harte, H-A-R-T-E." He tapped a pencil against a stack of files on his desk. "Oh, we're a party of four," he said, and then winced. "Three," he corrected. "Make that a party of three."
He hung up the receiver, thinking of all the times over these past few months when he'd forgotten, and had looked into the backseat of his car expecting to see Chris's long legs folded up, or had gingerly opened Chris's bedroom door late at night to check on him sleeping.
A party of three. Some party.
MELANIE THUNKED A bowl of soup in front of Michael and sat down across the table, lifting up her spoon and beginning to eat without saying a word.
"So," he said bravely. "What did you do today?"
Melanie's eyes slowly came into focus. "What?"
"I asked what you did today."
She laughed. "Why?"
Michael shrugged. "I don't know. Polite conversation."
"We're married," she said flatly. "We don't need to talk to each other."
Michael stirred the soup, feeling the small resistances of overcooked celery and carrots. "I, uh-" He hesitated. He'd been about to say that he'd gone to the jail to visit Chris, but realized that was not information he was ready to reveal. "I ran into Gus today. We had lunch."
He said it lightly, but even to Michael his words sounded too casual, so offhand they were clearly practiced. "She's doing well," he added.
Melanie went slack-jawed, a fine sheen of soup glistening on her lower lip. "You had lunch with her?"
"Yes," Michael said. "So what?"
"So I can't believe you had lunch, willingly, with her!"
"God, Mel. She used to be your best friend."
"That was before her son killed Emily."
"You don't know he did," Michael said.
"And who might have told you that?" Melanie snorted, her voice thick with sarcasm. "Did she cry right in the middle of her salad? Or did she wait until she was finished eating to tell you the prosecutor's made a terrible mistake?"
"She didn't do anything," Michael said quietly. "Even if... even if. . ." He could not bring himself to say it. "It still wouldn't be her fault."
Melanie shook her head. "You're a fool. Don't you understand the lengths a mother will go to to protect her child?" She glanced up, her nostrils flared, her lips white. "That's what Gus is doing, Michael. Which is more than I can say for you."
The PLAN, the following Saturday, was for Kate and James to ride together to the Palm d'Or, and have Gus meet them after her visit with Chris. James and Kate had been sitting at the tastefully appointed table for a half hour, though, when the waiter came over for the third time. "Perhaps," he said, "you would like to start without the rest of your party."
"No, Daddy," Kate said, frowning. "I want to wait for Mom."
James shrugged. "We'll give it a few more minutes," he said.
He slouched in his seat, watching Kate play with the delicate edges of the orchid that graced the center of the table. "She's usually late," Kate said, almost to herself, "but usually not this bad."
Suddenly Gus barreled into the tiny dining room, her camel's-hair coat nearly flying off her back into the arms of the maitre d' as she hurried toward James and Kate. "I am so sorry," she said, leaning over Kate. "Happy birthday, sweetie," she said, giving her a kiss.
"James," she greeted formally, slipping into her chair. And then, to the waiter: "Just water, please. I'm not hungry."
"How could you not be hungry?" James asked. "It's lunchtime."
Gus looked into her lap. "I ate something on the way here," she said dismissively. "Now," she smiled at Kate, "tell me how it feels to be fifteen."
"Daddy says," Kate beamed, "I can get my ears pierced if it's okay with you. Today. After lunch."
"What a terrific idea!" Gus said, turning to James. "Can you take her?" He did not hear Gus at first, because he was reveling in the smells that she had brought into the stuffy dining room-the wintergreen scent of the snow outside, the apple of her hair conditioner, and the lingering smell of perfume. But there was something else, something deep and tropical that he could not put a name to ... what was it?
"Can you?" Gus asked again.
"Can I what?"
"Take Kate to the jeweler. Her ears," Gus said, fiddling with her own lobes. Her face pinkened. "I... well, 1 can't. I'm going back to see Chris again."
"You were just there," James said.
He would not have believed it possible, but Gus's cheeks burned redder. "They have extra visiting hours today," she said, smoothing her napkin onto her lap. "I told Chris I'd see him again."
James sighed and turned toward Kate. "We'll go to the jewelry store after lunch," he told her. He faced his wife again, intending to ask why she'd bothered coming all the way to the restaurant when she was just going right back, but was stopped again by the smell of her. Something was different, he realized. After she visited Chris she always came home smelling of jail,
stale and confining, a scent that stayed in her clothes and her skin until they were scrubbed. She had been to visit Chris today, she said, but that smell was missing. There was something else in its place-that exotic element, which James suddenly recognized as the sweet, heated scent of a lie.
CHRIS SLOUCHED IN HIS CHAIR, trying not to be pissed off at his mother and failing miserably. It wasn't like he looked forward to her visits-he tried to be as nonchalant as possible about them, because if he didn't get himself psyched, then all the other days in between weren't quite so bad. But all the same, he'd been in his cell today at 10:45, which was when she always got there, and he waited and waited and didn't get the call to come down until nearly two o'clock.
"What happened to you?" he muttered.
"I'm sorry," his mother apologized. "We took Kate out for a birthday lunch."
"So?" Chris said sullenly. "You could have come before that."
"Actually," Gus said, "I had a prior engagement."
A prior engagement? Chris scowled, slouching even further down. What did she think this was, some nineteenth-century drawing room? What the hell kind of prior engagement was more important than making time to see your son, who was rotting away in a jail?
"Chris," his mother said, touching her hand to his forehead. "Are you sick again?"
He shied away from her palm. "I'm fine."
"You're not acting fine."
"Oh, really? How am I supposed to act when I'm stuck in jail for three more months before a jury gets to lock me away for the rest of my life?"
"Is that it?" Gus asked. "You're getting nervous about the trial? Because I can tell you-"
"What, Mom? What can you tell me?" He turned his face away, disgust distorting his features. "Absolutely nothing."
"Well," Gus said, "Michael and I both think Jordan's got a very good case."
Chris laughed outright. "By all means, I'd listen to Michael. The grieving father of the victim."
"You have no right to say that! He's going out of his way to help you. You ought to be grateful to him."
"For bringing charges against me in the first place?"
"He had nothing to do with that. It's up to the State, not the Golds."
"Jesus, Mom," Chris said, stunned. "Whose side are you on?"
Gus stared at him for a moment. "Yours," she said finally. "But Michael finally decided that he'll be a defense witness, which is a very good thing."
"He told you this?" Chris asked, guardedly optimistic.
"Today," Gus said.
At that, Chris's eyes narrowed with doubt. "When?" he asked.
"I saw him this morning, before we took Kate out," Gus said, her chin coming up. "We've been meeting on the days when we're both visiting you."
Chris's shoulders stiffened as he realized why his mother had been late visiting today, and he turned away, feeling oddly light-boned and jealous. "What do you talk about?" he asked quietly.
"I don't know," Gus said. "You. Our families. We just... talk." She felt the faint outline of her heart in her chest, fist-size and smooth-edged, as it pounded a little harder. "There's nothing the matter with that," she said defensively, before she could remember that she had nothing to answer for.
Chris stared at the scarred table for a long moment, during which the inmate beside them left. Gus kept her eyes trained on her son's face. "You obviously have something you want to say," she announced.
Her son turned, his expression carefully blank. "Could you ask Dad," Chris said, "if he'd come to visit?"
"I WONDER IF WORKING with you is going to make me old and fat before my time," Selena said, her mouth rounding beneath an oily triangle of pizza.
Jordan looked up, surprised. "Am I that much of a slave driver?"
"No. But your eating habits are awful. Do you even know what a salad is?"
"Sure," Jordan said, smiling. "It's that stuff they invented a sneeze-guard for." He pushed aside a piece of pepperoni. "For Thomas," he explained.
Selena's eyes darted to the closed bedroom door. "Oh? He hasn't been ruined by croissants?"
"No. In fact he lost some weight over there, said the food was too greasy for him." Jordan grimaced at the pizza, soaking through the cardboard box. "But if American junk food's what brought him back, it's okay with me."
"Oh, he would have come back," Selena reassured. "He left his Nintendo behind."
Jordan laughed. "You're so good for my ego," he said.
Like you don't do a fine job all yourself," Selena said dryly. "You pay me to investigate, not ingratiate."
"Mmm," Jordan agreed. "So what have you done lately to earn your keep?"
Selena, having finished interviewing the immediate world for the defense, was now working her way through the people on the prosecution's witness list, so that Jordan would know what he was up against. "I really don't expect any surprises from the ME or the detective," she said. "And the kid they're putting on the stand-Emily's friend-should be suitably terrified and not a hell of a lot of use to Delaney. The only wild card is Melanie Gold, who I can't get close enough to interview."
"Well, maybe we'll get lucky," Jordan said. "Maybe she'll have a certified breakdown in the next few months and Puckett can rule her mentally in-capable of taking the stand."
Selena rolled her eyes. "I'm not holding my breath," she said.
"Neither am I," Jordan admitted. "But stranger things have happened."
Selena nodded, and propped her feet up beside Jordan's on the coffee table. "Stocking feet," she said absently, wiggling her toes. "When I was a kid, I used to think the phrase was 'stalking feet.' "
"No wonder you went into PI work."
She nudged his sneaker. "Why did you?" she asked.
"Go into PI work?" Jordan said, grinning.
"You know what I mean."
"I went to law school for the same reason everyone else goes to law school: I had no idea what to do with my life and my parents were paying."
Selena laughed. "No, I can figure out why you became an attorney-so you'd get paid to have people listen to you argue. I want to know why you switched sides."
"From the AG's office, you mean?" Jordan shrugged. "Pay sucked."
Selena glanced around the well worn house. Jordan liked his creature comforts, but was never going to be ostentatious. "The truth," she pressed.
He swung his eyes toward her. "You know how I feel about the truth," he said quietly.
"Your story, then," Selena said.
"Well," Jordan answered, "as a prosecutor, you've got the burden of proof. As a defense lawyer, all you have to do is introduce a tiny doubt. And how can't a jury have some doubt? I mean, they weren't there at the scene of the crime, right?"
"You're telling me you switched sides because you wanted the easy way out? I don't buy it."
"I switched sides," Jordan said, "because I didn't buy it either. The idea of there being one correct story. You have to believe in that, to prosecute, or what the hell is your case all about?"
Selena shifted, turning onto her side so that her face was only inches away from Jordan's. "Do you think Chris Harte did it?" She put a hand on his arm. "I know you don't think it makes any difference," she said. "You'd still defend him, and well. But I just want to know."
Jordan looked down at his hands. "I think he loved that girl, and I think that he was scared shitless when the police found them. Beyond that?" He shook his head. "I think Chris Harte is a very good liar," he said slowly. Then he looked up at Selena. "But not quite as good as the prosecution thinks."
It WAS THURSDAY, a quiet day in the cemetery, so that the voice of the rabbi seemed to carry, floating up to the branches of the trees where the finches watched with their button black eyes, their beaks closing around the words as if prayers were as nourishing as thistle seed. Michael stood beside Melanie, his dress shoes no match for the cold that came up through the packed earth. How, he wondered, did they get the stone in? And for the fiftieth time that morning, his eyes wandered to the brand new pink marble headstone on Emily's grave, the purpose for this unveiling ceremony.
The stone itself did not say much: Emily's name, the dates of her birth and death. And slightly below that, in large letters, a single word: BELOVED. Michael did not remember ordering that phrase from the stonecutter, but he supposed it was possible; it had been so long ago, and his mind had been so disordered. Then again, it would not have surprised him to learn that Melanie had had that part added. He wondered, though, if it had been her idea to put the slightest of spaces between the E and the L, or if that had been a slip of the carver's hand, so that you could not be sure if the word was a description of Emily-BELOVED-or BE LOVED, a directive issued on her behalf.
He listened to the guttural run of Hebrew coming from the rabbi, and the soft sound of Melanie's tears. But his eyes kept roaming, wandering, until he saw what he had been waiting for.
Coming up over the rise of the hill was Gus, dressed in a voluminous black parka and a dark skirt, her head bowed into the wind. She met Michael's eyes squarely and took up a spot slightly behind him, on the other side of Melanie.
Michael took a step back, and then another, until he was standing beside Gus. Hidden beneath the blowing folds of her coat, he touched her gloved hand. "You came," he whispered.
"You asked," she murmured in response.
And then it was over. Michael bent down and picked up a small rock, which he laid at the base of the new headstone. Melanie did the same, and then briskly walked past Gus as if she were not there. Gus knelt and found a smooth white pebble, walked toward the grave, and set her offering beside the other two.
She felt Michael's hand on her arm again. "I'll take you to your car," he said, turning to let Melanie know where he was going, but she'd disappeared.
Gus waited while Michael talked to the rabbi and handed him an en-velope. Then she fell into step beside him, neither one speaking until they reached the car. "Thank you," Michael said.
"No, thank you" Gus said. "I wanted to come." She glanced up at Michael to say good-bye, but something about his face-the lines at the corners of his eyes, or maybe his shaky smile-made her open her arms and let him step into them. When Michael pulled back her eyes were as damp as his.
"Saturday?" he asked.
"Saturday," she said. He looked abstracted for a moment, as if struggling internally, and then apparently came to a decision. Still holding her loosely, he leaned down, kissed her softly on the mouth, and walked away.
Gus PULLED THE CAR OVER a quarter mile from the cemetery. It was entirely possible that in the strain of the moment-and an unveiling was certainly stressful-Michael had not really thought about what he was doing. Then again, Gus would have staked her savings on the fact that Michael was clearly aware.
She was emotionally needy, she knew that. God, it had been months since she'd slept with James, longer since she'd really talked to him. And at the same time she'd lost her husband, her best friend had turned her back. Having some adult who wanted-wanted!-to talk about Chris was seductive.
But she wondered, feeling slightly ill, whether she looked forward to seeing Michael because she could talk about Chris, or whether she'd been using Chris as an excuse to see Michael.
They did speak of Chris, and Emily, and the trial. And it was good to get all that off her chest. But it didn't account for the way the hair on the back of Gus's neck stood up when he looked at her and smiled, or for the fact that she could close her eyes now, and picture his face in a variety of expressions with the same recall that she had once had for James.
She had known Michael for years, knew him nearly as well as she knew her own husband. It was an attraction born of close quarters, and false familiarity. It meant, she told herself, absolutely nothing.
Yet she drove home one-handed, the fingertips of her free hand gently touching her mouth, her tires sibilant on the smooth road, whispering, "Beloved."
ALTHOUGH NEITHER OF THEM had spoken of it, ever since James's forthright decision not to testify as a witness for Chris, Gus had been sleeping in a different room. Chris's room, actually. There was comfort in feeling the mattress curved beneath her where it had spooned her son's body for years; in smelling the rank collection of athletic gear fermenting on the floor of the closet, in waking up to the sound of an alarm tuned to his favorite radio station-all of which contributed to the illusion that he was still just as close to Gus as any one of these things.
It was James's late night at the hospital. Gus heard him coming in, the heavy click of the front door, the rhythm of his footsteps on the stairs. There was a slight creak as he checked on Kate, asleep hours before, and the sound of water rushing through the pipes as he turned on the shower in the master bath. He did not come to talk to Gus. He did not go near Chris's room at all.
She slipped out of the bed, her feet silent on the carpet as she shrugged into her robe.
It was strange seeing her bed. The sheets were clean and smooth, but lapped untucked from the comforter like a lolling tongue-clear evidence that she wasn't sleeping here. James liked the sheets free; on Gus's side, they always stayed tucked, the line of demarcation shifting subtly night after night.
The water in the shower stopped running. Gus imagined James stepping out of the shower and wrapping a towel around his waist, his hair standing on end from a vigorous scrubbing. Then she pushed open the bathroom door.
James turned to her immediately. "What's the matter?" he asked, certain there was no other reason, barring emergency, for her to be there.
"Everything," Gus said, as she untied the terry-cloth robe and let it fall.
She stepped toward him hesitantly, laid her palms flat on his chest. With amazing force, James's arms closed around her. He slid down the length of her, his mouth on her breast and her ribs, and rested his cheek on her belly.
She tugged him upright and led him into the bedroom. James fell back upon her, his heart pounding every bit as hard as hers. Gus ran her hands over the joinings of the muscles in his arms, the light furring of his buttocks, the smooth divots at the bottom of his spine-all places she needed to touch, and commit again to memory. As he entered her, she arched beneath him like a willow. James thrust again and Gus bit down hard on the skin of his shoulder, afraid of what she might say. And then as quickly as it had escalated, it was over, James straining above her, their hands ripping at the bedclothes and each other, still in silence.
With a shy smile, James went off to the bathroom, nail marks raking his back. Gus patted her breasts, rubbed raw with beard stubble, and looked down at the bed. It was a mess, sheets tangled, quilt discarded. There was even blood on the sheets, from James's back, and they'd knocked over a nightstand lamp. It did not look like the site of a reconciliation, or a bower of love. In fact, Gus thought, it did not look like anything so much as the scene of a crime.
Jordan unsnapped the rubber band from the small packet of mail. At the letterhead of the Grafton County Superior Court, he felt his pulse pick up. He ripped open the envelope to find the letter sent by the Honorable Leslie Puckett, in response to the pretrial motions he and Barrie had filed.
The prosecutor's motions, seeking to exclude two of his expert witnesses and the pro-choice English essay Selena had found, had been denied.
His own motion of suppression to bar the interview Detective Marrone had done at the hospital had been granted, on the grounds that Chris Harte had not felt he was free to leave the interview, and thus had been formally questioned without being Mirandized.
It was a small victory, but it made him smile. Jordan shuffled the letter to the back of the pile, walked back into his office, and closed the door.
WHEN CHRIS SAW HIS FATHER standing stiffly behind the metal bridge chair down in the visitor's area, he froze. He had told his mother that he wanted James to come, but he hadn't really expected his wish to be granted. After all, when Chris had banned him from visiting months before, they all knew he was just taking the blame for something James would have done, anyway.
"Chris," his father said, holding out a hand.
"Dad." They shook, and Chris was momentarily shocked by the heat of his father's skin. He remembered, in a quick flash, that his father's palms had always seemed reassuringly warm, on his shoulders in a duck blind, or bracing his arms as he taught him to shoot. "Thank you for coming."
James nodded. "Thank you for having me," he said formally.
"Did Mom come with you?"
"No," James said. "I understood that you wanted to see me by myself."
Chris had never said that, but that was how his mother had interpreted it. And probably, it wasn't a bad idea. "Was there something in particular you wanted to ask me?" James said.
Chris nodded. He thought of many things at once: If I go to prison, will you help Mom get on with her life? If 1 ask you, will you tell me to my face that I've hurt you more than you ever thought possible? But instead his mouth opened, rolling over a sentence that surprised Chris as much as it did James. "Dad," he said, "in your whole life, haven't you ever done anything wrong?"
James covered his startled laughter with a cough. "Well, sure," he said. "I failed biology the first term of college. I shoplifted a pack of gum when I was little. And I crashed my father's car up after a fraternity party." He chuckled, crossing his legs. "I just never came close to murder."
Chris stared at him. "Neither did I," he said softly.
James's face went pale. "I didn't mean . . . that is . . ." Finally, he shook his head. "I don't blame you for what happened."
"But do you believe me?"
James met his son's gaze. "It is very hard to believe you," he said, "when I'm trying so hard to pretend it never happened."
"It did happen," Chris said, his voice choked. "Emily's dead. And I'm stuck in this stinking jail, and I can't change what's already been done."
"Neither can I." James clasped his hands between his knees. "You have to understand-I grew up being told by my parents that the best way to get out of a sticky situation was to assume it didn't exist," he said. "Let the rumors fly ... if the family isn't bothered, why should anyone else be?"
Chris smiled slightly. "Making believe I'm in a swanky hotel doesn't make the food taste any better here, or the cells any bigger."
"Well," James said, his voice softer. "There's nothing that says you can't learn from your own children, too." He rubbed the bridge of his nose. "As a matter of fact, now that you've got me thinking, there was one thing I've done in my life that was really awful."
Chris leaned forward, intrigued. "What was it?"
James smiled with so much of his heart that Chris had to look away. "I stayed away from here," he said, "until now."
Steve's murder trial had lasted four days. His lawyer was a public defender, since neither he nor his parents could afford someone more glitzy. And although he didn't talk to Chris about his case, Chris knew that he grew more and more nervous as the close of the trial drew near.
The night before the jury was supposed to return a verdict, Chris woke to the sound of a slight scratching. He rolled over in his bunk to find Steve rubbing a razor blade over the edge of the toilet.
"What the fuck are you doing?" Chris whispered.
Steve looked up. "I'm going to prison," he said, his voice heavy.
"You're already in prison," Chris said.
Steve shook his head. "This is a country club compared to the State Pen. Do you know what they do there to guys serving time for killing kids? Do you?"
Chris smiled a little. "Make you the company whore?"
"You think it's so frigging funny? Because you could be in the same goddamned boat three months from now." Steve was breathing harshly, trying not to cry. "Sometimes they just beat you up, and the guards look away 'cause they think you've got it coming. Sometimes they go so far as to kill you." He picked up the silver sliver of razor, a gleam in the half light of the cell. "I thought I'd save them the trouble," Steve said.
Still muzzy with sleep, it took Chris a moment to understand what Steve was saying. "You can't do that," he said.
"Chris," Steve murmured, "it's about the only thing I can do."
Chris suddenly remembered Emily, trying to explain to him how she felt. I can see myself now, she said. And I can see what I want to be, ten years from now. But I don't understand how I'm going to get from here to there. Chris watched Steve lift a shaking hand, the blade of the razor trembling like a flame. And he jumped off his bunk and started pounding at the bars of the cell, screaming to attract the attention of an officer and do for this friend what he had not done for Emily.
Rumors flew through a jail, pervasive as gnats and just as difficult to ignore. By breakfast the next day everyone knew that Steve had been taken to the suicide cell down in maximum, where he was monitored by camera in the control room. By lunch, he was being led away by the sheriff, to the courthouse to hear the jury's decision.
At a little after three-thirty, one of the officers came into Chris's cell and started packing up Steve's things. Chris set down the book he was reading. "Is the trial over?" he asked.
"Yup. Guilty. Sentenced to life in prison."
Chris watched the officer pick up the broken shards of the plastic razor, the one Steve had pried apart for its blade. He pulled his pillow over his head, sobbing as he had not since the day he'd arrived at the jail. And he did not allow himself to ask whether he was crying for Steve or for himself; for what he had done, or for what was certain to happen.
At first, Barrie Delaney had called Melanie often, giving her updates on evidence that had dribbled in from the ME's office, or the forensics lab. Then the telephone calls had been made from Melanie's end, periodically, just to keep Emily on Ms. Delaney's mind. Now, Melanie called maybe once a month, not wanting to take from the prosecutor any amount of precious time that would be better served preparing for the trial.
So Melanie was rather surprised when Barrie Delaney tracked her all the way to the library to talk to her.
She picked up the phone, certain that the other librarian had gotten the caller's name wrong, only to hear the prosecutor's clear, clipped voice.
"Hi," Melanie said. "How is everything?"
"I should be asking you that," Barrie said. "Actually, everything is fine."
"Have they changed the date of the trial?"
"Oh, no. Still set for May." She sighed into the phone. "You see, Mrs. Gold, I was wondering if you might be able to help me with a bit of research."
"Anything," Melanie assured her. "What do you need?" "It's your husband. He's agreed to testify for the defense." Melanie was silent so long that the prosecutor began calling her name. "I'm still here," she said faintly, remembering Gus at the cemetery, certain she'd put Michael up to this. She felt her head start to pound. "What can I do?"
"Ideally, you can get him to back down," Barrie said. "And if he refuses, maybe you can find out what he's going to say that's so useful to the defense."
By now, Melanie's head was bowed, her forehead grazing the reference desk. "I see," she said, although she did not. "And how do I do this?" "Well, Mrs. Gold," the prosecutor said. "I guess that's up to you."
The first thing Michael noticed when he entered the house, sweaty and tired and reeking of sheep dip, was that the stereo was on. After months of prolonged silence, music seemed sacreligious, and he had the absurd urge to turn it off. But then he came around the comer of the kitchen and found Melanie chopping vegetables, the jewel tones of the peppers dotting the countertop like confetti. "Hi," she said brightly, so much like the woman she'd been a year ago that Michael started. "You hungry?"
"Famished," he said, his mouth dry. He heard the swell of a horn on the CD, and resisted the desire to reach out his hand and touch Melanie to make sure she was really there.
"Go clean up," she said. "I've got a nice lamb ragout cooking."
He walked up to the bathroom like an automaton, his head spinning. This was what he had heard about grief, after all-it could change a person drastically, then, one day, they'd be all right. It had certainly been that way for him. Maybe it was Melanie's turn to come back to life.
As he soaped himself in the shower and lathered his hair with shampoo, he kept envisioning Melanie as he'd seen her in the kitchen, her back to him, the curve of her spine graceful beneath her turtleneck, the highlights in her hair winking gold and roan and russet in the afternoon sun.
He came out in a towel, only to find Melanie sitting on the bed with two steaming plates and two glasses of red wine.
She was wearing a green silk robe that he remembered from a second honeymoon a million years ago, its sash slipping open. "I thought you might not want to wait," she said.
He swallowed. "For what?" he asked.
Melanie smiled. "The ragout." She stood up, the colorful delicacy on the plates jiggling with the movement of the mattress, and lifted a glass of wine. "Want some?" When Michael nodded, she took a sip, and then leaned up to kiss him, letting the wine run over his lips and into his throat.
He thought he was going to come, right then and there.
It had been months since he'd made love with Melanie, as long as his daughter had been dead. He would have jumped at the invitation to share a bed with her ... but this was not Melanie. In all the years they had been married, Melanie had never been one to initiate sex. He thought of her dribbling wine into his mouth, felt himself grow even harder, and then wondered what book she'd stolen that from.
Before he could stop himself, he laughed.
Melanie's eyes flickered; someone who did not know her as well as Michael might have missed the indecision that widened her pupils for that fraction of a second. To her credit-and his shock-she put the glass of wine down, reached for the back of his head, and tugged him down for a kiss.
He felt the robe open, her nipples peaked against his chest. He felt her tongue curl into his mouth and her fingers stroke the nape of his neck. And then he felt her other hand slide between them, to cup his testicles.
She had him by the balls.
Suddenly he understood why Melanie was cooking ragout, wearing silk, making love to him. She had not changed overnight. She only wanted something.
He lifted his head and drew back. Melanie made a sharp, tiny sound, and opened her eyes. "What's the matter?" she asked.
"How about," Michael murmured, "you tell me."
He saw her looking at him, felt her surprise as his penis grew flaccid in her grip. She tightened her grasp almost cruelly and then let him go, jerking the lapels of her robe closed. "You're going to be a defense witness," she hissed. "Your own daughter's dead, and you're going to stick up for her killer."
"That's what this is about?" Michael said, incredulous. "Did you think if you fucked me you could change my mind?"
"I don't know!" Melanie cried, her hands buried in her hair. "I thought that maybe you wouldn't do it. That you'd owe it to me."
Michael blinked at her, stunned that in a marriage which had lasted twenty years, she could even think of using sex as a down payment, instead of a gift. Wanting to hurt Melanie as badly as she had hurt him, Michael schooled his face into a careful blank. "You flatter yourself," he said, and walked out of the room.
He was naked, but that didn't matter. He stalked across the house and up the connecting staircase to the offices of his veterinary practice. There he dressed in the scrubs he wore sometimes for surgeries, and sat down at his desk. He could hear the quiet clatter of Melanie in the kitchen.
His hands were shaking as he picked up the phone and dialed.
Gus WALKED INTO THE Happy Family restaurant and immediately strode toward the booth in the back that they all used to frequent on Friday nights. Michael was sitting there in a pair of green scrubs, drinking what looked to be straight vodka. "Michael," she said, and he lifted his head.
She had seen that look before, but she couldn't quite place it. The vague set of the eyes, the small parenthetic downturns at the edges of the mouth. It took her a moment to recognize it as despair, an expression she'd seen on Chris's face before he remembered to pull his mask of indifference into place.
"You came," Michael said.
"I said I would."
He had called her at home, risky to begin with, and begged her to meet him right away. Trying to pick a familiar public venue that wouldn't be too busy this time of day, she suggested the Chinese restaurant. It was only as she was driving there, having lied to James and Kate, that she realized how crowded it would be with memories.
"It's Melanie," Michael said, and Gus's eyes widened.
"She's all right?"
"I don't know. I guess that depends on your frame of reference," he said. He told Gus what had happened.
By the time he finished, Gus's face was pink. She remembered, not so long ago, laughing with Melanie over coffee, discussing width versus length and other abstractions about sex that seemed too close for comfort right now. "Well," she said, clearing her throat, "you knew she was going to find out if you testified."
"Yeah. I don't think that's what upset me, really." He looked up at Gus, his eyes clouded. "It's just that this very horrible thing has happened to the two of us, you see? And I guess I always figured that if it came to this, we'd band together. Ride out the storm." He stared down at the place mat, festively decorated with a Chinese calendar wheel: the year of the rat, of the ox, of the horse. "Do you know what it's like to give your whole self to a person, and your whole heart to boot, until you've got nothing left to give-and then realize that it still isn't what they need?"
"Yes," Gus said simply. "I do know." She reached across the table and clasped both Michael's hands, giving him strength. And they thought separately of Melanie, and of James, and of how a stream of difference between two people might, overnight, turn into a canyon.
They were still holding hands when the waiter came over to take their order. "Missus! Mister!" he crowed, a wide smile splitting his face as Gus and Michael jumped apart. "It be many time since you be here to eat," he said, his voice a pidgin singsong. "When are coming the other couple?"
Gus stared at the waiter, openmouthed. It was Michael who realized the mistake that had been made. "Oh... no," he said, smiling. "We're not married. We are, that is, but not to each other."
Gus nodded. "The other two, the ones who aren't here-" she said, and then broke off as the waiter smiled beatifically at them, unwilling or unable to understand.
Michael rested his palm on the menu. "Chicken and broccoli," he said. "And more vodka."
In the awkward silence that followed the waiter's disappearance to the kitchen, Gus slid her hands under the table, still tingling with Michael's touch. Michael tapped his chopsticks against the edge of the vodka glass. "He thought that you and I were-"
"Yes," Gus said. "Funny." But she was staring down at her place mat, at the odd Chinese calendar, and wondering if the waiter was not the only one who had thought that spouses were interchangeable. It was a logical mistake, after all; anyone who'd seen the Hartes and the Golds here for years, and the rapport between the four of them, could have come to the same conclusion.
Gus peeked at Michael over the edge of her teacup, considering his thick silver hair, his capable, square hands, his heart. She had come to Michael tonight because he'd needed her. It felt perfectly natural-after all, he was almost a member of the family.
Which was, in itself, a little horrifying.
The heavy china cup clanked onto the table as it slipped out of Gus's hand. Both she and Michael had felt the odd, simultaneous ease and discomfort of this attraction. But they were old enough to move away from each other, when reality-in the form of a Chinese waiter-intruded. It might not be as simple, for someone younger.
Who was to say that Emily hadn't felt it, too, blithely pushed into a romance with a boy who might as well have been her brother?
Pregnant with his child?
Gus closed her eyes and offered up a quick prayer, suddenly realizing what no one else had been able to for many months-why the bright, lively, intelligent Emily Gold might have been confused enough to take her own life.