FIRST Ron Hill made sure that neither Betsy nor the twins were home. Then he headed up to his dead boy's bedroom.
He didn't want anyone to know.
Ron leaned against the doorway. He stared at the bed as though that might conjure up the image of his son-that he could look so hard that a figure would eventually materialize and it would be Spencer and he'd be lying on his back and he'd be staring at the ceiling the way he did, silent and with small tears in his eyes.
Why hadn't they seen it?
You look back and you know the kid was always a little morose, always a little too sad, too even. You don't want him labeled with words like manic depression. He's just a kid after all, and you figure that he will outgrow it. But now, with the wonder of hindsight, how often had he walked past this room and the door was closed and Ron would open it without knocking-this was his house, damnit, he didn't have to knock-and Spencer would just be lying on that bed with tears in his eyes and he'd look straight up and Ron would ask, "Is everything okay?" and he'd say, "Sure, Dad," and Ron would close the door and that would be the end?
He blamed himself. He blamed himself for what he missed in his son's behavior. He blamed himself for leaving the pills and vodka where his son could so easily grab them. But mostly he blamed himself for what he'd been thinking.
Maybe it had been a midlife crisis. Ron didn't think so. He thought that was too convenient, too easy an out. The truth was, Ron hated this life. He hated his job. He hated coming home to this house and the kids not listening to him and the constant noise and running to Home Depot to get more lightbulbs and worrying about the gas bill and saving for the college fund and, God, he so wanted to escape. How had he gotten trapped in this life anyhow? How do so many men? He wanted a cabin in the woods and he loved being alone and just that, just being deep in the forest where no cell phone could reach him, just the way he could find an opening in the trees and raise his face up to the sun and feel it.
So he wished this life away and longed to escape, and pow, God answered his prayers by killing his son.
He dreaded being here, in this house, this coffin. Betsy would never move on. There was a disconnect between him and the twins. A man stays out of obligation, but why? What's the point? You sacrifice your happiness in the thin hope that it will make the next generation happier. But does that come with a guarantee-I remain unhappy but my kids will be more fulfilled? What a load of crap. Had it worked for Spencer?
He flashed back to the days after Spencer's death. He had come in here not so much to pack things away but to go through them. It helped. He didn't know why. He was drawn to sifting through his son's stuff, as if getting to know him now would make a difference. Betsy had walked in and threw a fit. So he stopped and never said a word about what he found-and though he would continue to try to reach Betsy, though he'd hunt and search and beckon, the woman he fell in love with was gone. She might have left a long time ago-he wasn't sure anymore-but whatever had remained had been buried in that damn box with Spencer.
The sound of the back door startled him. He hadn't heard the car pull up. He hurried toward the stairs and saw Betsy. He saw the look on her face and said, "What happened?"
"Spencer killed himself," she said.
Ron just stood there, not sure how to reply to that one.
"I wanted there to be more," she said.
He nodded. "I know."
"We'll always wonder about what we could have done to save him. But maybe, I don't know, maybe there was nothing. Maybe we missed stuff, but maybe it wouldn't have mattered. And I hate thinking that because I don't want to let us off the hook-and then I think, well, I don't even care about hooks or blame or any of that. I just want to go back to another day. You know? Just another chance and maybe if we could change just one thing, the smallest thing, like if we took a left out of the driveway instead of a right or if we painted the house yellow instead of blue, anything, it would have all been different."
He waited for her to say more. When she didn't, he asked, "What happened, Betsy?"
"I just saw Adam Baye."
"In the backyard. Where they used to play."
"What did he say?"
She told him about the fight, about the calls, about how Adam blamed himself. Ron tried to process it.
"Over a girl?"
"Yes," she said.
But Ron knew that it was far more complicated than that.
Betsy turned away.
"Where are you going?" he asked.
"I have to tell Tia."
TIA and Mike decided to split the load.
Mo met them at the house. He and Mike drove back toward the Bronx while Tia took to the computer. Mike filled Mo in on what had happened. Mo drove without asking for elaboration. When Mike was done, Mo simply asked, "That instant message. From CeeJay8115."
"What about it?"
Mo kept driving.
"I don't know. But there is no way that there's eight thousand one hundred and fourteen other CeeJays out there."
"So numbers are never random," Mo said. "They always mean something. It is just a matter of figuring out what."
Mike should have known. Mo was something of an idiot savant when it came to numbers. That had been his ticket to Dartmouth- perfect math SAT scores and off-the-charts arithmetical testing.
"Any thoughts on what it could mean?"
Mo shook his head. "Not yet." Then: "So what next?"
"I need to make a call."
Mike dialed the number for Club Jaguar. He was surprised when Rosemary McDevitt herself answered the phone.
"It's Mike Baye."
"Yeah, I figured. We're closed today, but I was expecting your call."
"We need to talk."
"Indeed we do," Rosemary said. "You know where I'm at. Get here as fast as you can."
TIA checked Adam's e-mail, but again there was nothing relevant coming in. His friends Clark and Olivia were still sending messages, each somewhat more urgent, but still nothing from DJ Huff. That worried Tia.
She got up and headed outside. She checked the hidden key. It was where it was supposed to be. Mo had used it recently and said he put it back. Mo knew where it was and in some ways, she guessed, that would make him suspect. But while Tia had her issues with Mo, trust was not one of them. He would never harm this family. There were few people you knew would take a bullet for you. He might not for Tia, but Mo would for Mike and Adam and Jill.
She was still outside when she heard the phone. She sprinted back in and picked it up on the third ring. No time to check the caller ID.
"Tia? It's Guy Novak."
His tone was like something dropping from a high building with no place safe to land.
"The girls are fine, don't worry. Have you seen the news at all?"
He stifled a sob. "My ex-wife was murdered. I just identified the body."
Whatever Tia had been expecting to hear, this was not it. "Oh God, I'm so sorry, Guy."
"I don't want you to worry about the girls. My friend Beth is watching them. I just called the house. They're fine."
"What happened to Marianne?" Tia asked.
"She was beaten to death."
Tia had only met her a few times. Marianne had run off right about the time Yasmin and Jill had started school. It had been juicy town scandal-a mother not able to hack the pressures of motherhood, cracking, running off and leading some rumored wild life in warm weather, no responsibilities. Most of the mothers talked about it with such disgust that Tia couldn't help but wonder if there wasn't a little envy, a little admiration for shedding the chains, albeit in a destructive and selfish way.
"Did they catch the killer?"
"No. They didn't even know who she was until today."
"I'm so sorry, Guy."
"I'm on my way back to the house. Yasmin doesn't know yet. I need to tell her."
"I don't think Jill should be there when I do."
"Definitely not," Tia agreed. "I'll come pick her up right away. Is there anything else we can do?"
"No, we'll be fine. I mean, it might be good if Jill could come over later. I know that's asking a lot, but Yasmin might need a friend."
"Of course. Whatever you and Yasmin need."
"Thank you, Tia."
He hung up. Tia sat there stunned. Beaten to death. She couldn't wrap her brain around that. Too much. She had never been much of a multitasker, and the last few days were playing havoc with her inner control freak.
She grabbed her keys, wondered if she should call Mike, decided against it. He was laser-focused on finding Adam. She did not want to interrupt that. When she stepped outside, the sky was the blue of a rob- in's egg. She looked down the road, at the quiet homes, at the well-tended lawns. The Grahams were both outside. He was teaching his six-year-old how to ride a two-wheeler, holding on to the seat as the boy pedaled, one of those rites of passage, a question of trust too, like those exercises when you let yourself fall back because you know the person will catch you. He looked hopelessly out of shape. His wife watched from the yard. Her hand was cupped over her eyes to block the sun. She smiled. Dante Loriman pulled into the driveway in his BMW 550i.
"How are you?"
Both lying, of course. She looked up and down at the block. The houses were all so alike. She thought again about the sturdy structures trying to protect lives that were much too fragile. The Lorimans had a sick son. Hers was missing and probably involved in something illegal.
She was slipping behind the wheel when her cell phone buzzed. She checked the caller ID. It was from Betsy Hill. Might be best not to answer it. They were after different things here, she and Betsy. She wouldn't tell her about the pharm parties or what the police suspected. Not yet.
The phone rang again.
Her finger hovered near the SEND button. The important thing here was finding Adam. Everything else had to take a backseat to that. There was a chance that maybe Betsy had found something that could give her a clue about what was going on here.
She pressed down.
Betsy said, "I just saw Adam."
CARSON'S broken nose was starting to ache. He watched Rosemary McDevitt put down the phone.
Club Jaguar was so quiet now. Rosemary had closed it down, sending everyone home after the near-fight with Baye and his crewcut buddy. They were the only two still here.
She was gorgeous, no question, a total hottie, but right now her usual tough exterior looked like it might crumble. She wrapped her arms around herself.
Carson sat across from her. He tried to sneer, but it made his nose hurt.
"That was Adam's old man?"
"We need to get rid of both of them."
She shook her head.
"What you need to do," she said, "is let me handle it."
"You don't get it, do you?"
Rosemary said nothing.
"The people we work for-"
"We don't work for anybody," she interrupted.
"Fine, put it however you want. Our partners. Our distributors. Whatever."
She closed her eyes.
"These are bad people."
"Nobody can prove anything."
"Like hell they can't."
"Just let me handle it, okay?"
"He's coming here?"
"Yes. I'm going to talk to him. I know what I'm doing. You should just leave."
"So you can be alone with him?"
Rosemary shook her head. "Not like that."
"Then like what?"
"I can work this out. I can get him to see reason. Just let me take care of it."
ALONE on this hill, Adam could still hear Spencer's voice:
"I'm so sorry..."
Adam closed his eyes. Those voice messages. He had kept them on his phone, had listened to them every day, felt the pain rip through him anew.
"Adam, please pick up..."
"Forgive me, okay? Just say you forgive me..."
They still came to him every night, especially the last one, Spen- cer's voice already slurred, already hurtling toward death:
"This isn't on you, Adam. Okay, man. Just try to understand. It's not on anyone. It's just too hard. It's always been too hard..."
Adam waited on the old hill by the middle school for DJ Huff. DJ's father, a police captain who grew up in this town, said that kids used to get high up here after school. The tough kids hung out here. The others would rather walk the extra half mile to avoid it.
He looked out. In the distance he could see the soccer field. Adam had played there in some league when he was eight, but soccer was never for him. He liked the ice. He liked the cold and the glide of the skate. He liked putting on all those pads and that mask and the focus it took to guard the goal. You were the man then. If you were good enough, if you were perfect, your team could not lose. Most kids hated that pressure. Adam thrived on it.
"Forgive me, okay?..."
No, Adam thought now, youhave to forgive me.
Spencer had always been volatile, with swooping highs and earth-crushing lows. He talked about running away, about starting a business, and mostly about dying and ending the pain. All kids do, to some degree. Adam had even started making a suicide pact with Spencer last year. But for him it was talk.
He should have seen that Spencer would do it.
Would it have made a difference? That night, yeah, it would have. His friend would have lived another day. And then another. And then who knows?
He turned to the voice. It was DJ Huff.
DJ said, "You okay?"
"No thanks to you."
"I didn't know that would happen. I just saw your dad following me and called Carson."
"I didn't know they'd go after him."
"What did you think would happen, DJ?"
He shrugged, and Adam could see it. The red in his eyes. The thin coat of sweat. The way DJ's body teetered.
"You're high," Adam said.
"So? I don't get you, man. How could you tell your father?"
Adam had planned it all out for that night. He had even gone to the spy store in the city. He thought that he'd need a wire like you saw on TV, but they gave him what looked like an ordinary pen that would record audio and a belt buckle that worked as a video camera. He would get it all there and then bring it to the police-not the local police because DJ's dad worked there-and let the pieces fall where they would. He was taking the risk, but he had no choice.
He was drowning.
He was sinking and he could feel it and he knew that if he didn't rescue himself, he would end up like Spencer. So he planned and was ready for last night.
And then his father insisted that he had to go to that Rangers game.
He knew that he couldn't do that. Maybe he could postpone his plan a bit, but if he didn't show up that night, Rosemary and Carson and the rest of them would wonder. They already knew that he was on the fence. They'd already forced him with the blackmail threat. So he had sneaked out and gone to Club Jaguar.
When his father showed up, his plan all went to hell.
The knife wound on his arm stung. It would probably require stitches, might even get infected. He had tried to clean it out. The pain had nearly made him pass out. But it would do for now. Until he could put this right again.
"Carson and the guys think you were setting us up," DJ said.
"I wasn't," Adam lied.
"Your dad showed up at my house too."
"I don't know. An hour before he got to the Bronx maybe. My dad saw him sitting in a car across the street."
Adam wanted to think about that, but there was no time.
"We need to put an end to this, DJ."
"Look, I talked to my old man. He's working on it for us. He's a cop. He gets this stuff."
"Spencer is dead."
"That's not on us."
"Yeah, DJ, it is."
"Spencer was messed up. He did it himself."
"We let him die." Adam looked at his right hand. He made a fist. That had been Spencer's final touch from another human being. His best friend's fist. "I hit him."
"Whatever, man. You want to feel guilty about it, that's on you. You can't take the rest of us down for that."
"It isn't about guilt. They tried to kill my father. Hell, they tried to kill me."
DJ shook his head. "You don't get it."
"We turn ourselves in, we're done. We'll probably end up in jail. We can forget college. And who do you think Carson and Rosemary sold those drugs to-the Salvation Army? There are mob people involved in this, don't you get that? Carson is scared out of his mind."
Adam said nothing.
"My old man says if we just keep quiet, it will be fine."
"You really believe that?"
"I introduced you to that place, but that's all they got on me. It's your father's prescription pads. We can just say we want out."
"And if they don't let us out?"
"My dad can apply pressure. He said it'll be okay. Worse come to worst, we just lawyer up and not say a word."
Adam looked at him, waiting.
"This decision affects us all," DJ said. "It's not just your future you're screwing with. It's mine. And Clark is involved. Olivia too."
"I'm not going to listen to that argument again."
"It's still true, Adam. Maybe they're not as directly involved as you and me, but they'll go down too."
He looked back at his friend. "This is how it's worked your whole life, DJ."
"What are you talking about?"
"You get into trouble and your father pulls you out."
"Who the hell do you think you're talking to?"
"We can't just walk away from this."
"Spencer killed himself. We didn't do anything to him."
Adam looked down through the trees. The soccer field was empty, but people were still jogging around the circle. He turned his head a little to the left. He tried to find that patch of roof, the one where Spencer had been found, but it was blocked off by the front tower. DJ moved and stood next to him.
"My dad used to hang up here," DJ said. "When he was in high school. He was one of those bad kids, you know? He smoked dope and drank beer. He got into fights."
"What's your point?"
"My point is this. In those days you could survive a mistake. People looked the other way. You were a kid-you were supposed to blow off steam. My father stole a car when he was our age. Got caught too, but they worked out a side deal. Now my old man is one of the most law-abiding citizens around. But if he had grown up today, he'd be screwed. It's ridiculous. If you whistle at a girl at school, you can go to jail. If you bump into someone's chest in the hallway, you can be brought up on some kind of charges. One mistake and you're out. My dad says that's nonsense. How are we supposed to find our way?"
"That doesn't give us a free pass."
"Adam, in another couple of years we'll be in college. This will all be behind us. We aren't criminals. We can't let this moment ruin our lives."
"It ruined Spencer's."
"That's not our fault."
"Those guys almost killed my father. He ended up in the hospital."
"I know. And I know how I would feel if it was my father. But you can't go off half-cocked because of that. You need to calm down and think it through. I spoke to Carson. He wants us to go in and talk to him."
Adam frowned. "Right."
"No, I mean it."
"He's crazy, DJ. You know that. You just said it yourself-he thinks I tried to set him up."
Adam tried to sort it through, but he was so damn tired. He had been up all night. He was in pain and exhausted and confused. He had spent the night thinking and really had no idea what to do.
He should have told his parents the truth.
But he couldn't. He had messed up and gotten high too often and you start to buy that belief that the only people in the world who love you unconditionally, the only people who will love you forever no matter how you screw up, that somehow they were the enemy.
But they'd spied on him.
That much he now knew. They hadn't trusted him. That had gotten him furious, but really, when he thought about, had he earned their trust?
So after last night, he panicked. He ran and stayed hidden. He just needed time to think.
"I need to talk to my parents," he said.
"I don't think that's a good idea."
Adam looked at him. "Let me use your phone."
DJ shook his head. Adam took a step toward him and made a fist. "Don't make me take it from you."
DJ's eyes were wet. He held up a hand, took out his cell, and handed it to Adam. Adam dialed home. No answer. He dialed his father's cell. No answer. He tried his mom's. Same thing.
DJ said, "Adam?"
He thought about making the call. He had already called her once, staying on long enough to let her know that he was okay and making her swear not to tell his parents.
He dialed Jill's phone.
"Adam? Please come home. I'm so scared."
"Do you know where Mom and Dad are?"
"Mom is picking me up at Yasmin's. Dad went to look for you."
"Do you know where?"
"I think he went to the Bronx or something. I heard Mom say something about that. Something about Club Jaguar."
Adam closed his eyes. Damn. They knew.
"Listen, I have to go."
"It'll be okay. Don't worry. When you see Mom, tell her you heard from me. Tell her I'm fine and I'll be home soon. Tell her to reach Dad and get him to come home, okay?"
"Just tell her."
"I'm really scared."
"Don't worry, Jill, okay? Just keep doing what I say. It's almost over."
He hung up and looked at DJ. "You have your car?"
"We gotta hurry."
NASH saw the unmarked police car pull up to the house.
Guy Novak got out. A plainclothes cop started getting out of the car, but Novak waved him off. He reached back into the car, shook the cop's hand and stumbled in a daze toward the front door.
Nash felt his phone vibrate. He didn't need to check the incoming number anymore. He knew it would be Joe Lewiston again. He had listened to the first desperate message a few minutes ago:
"Oh God, Nash, what's going on? I didn't want that. Please don't hurt anyoneelse, okay? Just... I just thought you could talk to her or get the video or something. And if you know something about the other woman, please don't hurt her. Oh God, oh God..."
Guy Novak entered his house. Nash moved closer. Three minutes later, the front door opened again. A woman came out. Guy Novak's girlfriend. He kissed her on the cheek. The door closed behind her. The date walked down the path. When she reached the curb, she looked back and shook her head. She might have been crying, but it was hard to tell from here.
Thirty seconds later, she too was gone.
Time was limited now. Somehow Nash had messed up. They had figured out who Marianne was. It was on the news. The husband had been questioned by the police. People think that law enforcement of- ficers are stupid. They are not. They have every advantage. Nash respected that. It was one of the reasons he'd gone through such great lengths to hide Marianne's identity.
Self-preservation told him to run away, hide, sneak out of the country. But that wouldn't do. He could still help Joe Lewiston, even if Joe wouldn't help himself. He would call him later and persuade him to keep quiet. Or maybe Joe would see the light on his own. Joe was panicked right now, but he had, after all, contacted Nash to help in the first place. Maybe he would end up making the smart move.
The itch was there. The crazy, as Nash liked to call it. He knew that there were children in the home. He had no interest in hurting them-or was that a lie? Hard to know sometimes. Humans are all about self-delusion, and Nash wasn't above wallowing in that overindulgence on occasion.
But on a purely practical level, there was no time to wait. He had to act now. That meant-with the crazy or without it-the children could very well end up collateral damage.
There was a knife in his pocket. He took it out now and held it in his hand.
Nash moved toward Novak's back door and worked on the lock.