“The kids aren’t really interested in swimming,” I tell my mom, without the slightest inflection of dismay that she brought up the subject at all. “We do run pretty often, though.”
“Yeah, the path around—” Lanny starts, and lightning-fast, I reach out and hit the mute button. She realizes her mistake in the next instant. She’d been about to say the lake . . . And even though there are thousands of lakes in the country, it’s a clue. We can’t afford even that much. “Sorry.”
“I mean, we run outside a lot,” Lanny says. “It’s nice.” It’s hard for her not to be able to provide any details—the temperature, the trees, the lake—but she leaves it at that. Generic. My mother knows enough not to push. It’s a sad fact of life.
I’ve wondered before what their life was like without me; my own experience behind bars was hell, constantly burning with fear for my kids. I thought from the glad way they always greeted these phone calls that Grandma represented something peaceful in their lives—a vacation from the awful reality they’ve been shoved into. At least, I hope that’s what it is.
I hope that my kids aren’t that good at lying, because that, too, is a Melvin Royal signature trait.
Mom spins tales of Newport and the coming summer, and we can’t reciprocate with what the weather will be like near us; she knows that, and the conversation is mostly one-sided. I wonder if she gets anything out of these calls, really, or if it’s a duty for her. She might not have bothered if it had only been me, but she truly does love my kids, and they love her back.
The kids’ faces dim a little when I end the call and put the phone away until next time. Lanny says, “I wish we could Skype or something, so we could see her.”
Connor immediately frowns at her. “You know we can’t,” he says. “They’d figure stuff out from Skype. I see it on cop shows and things.”
“Cop shows aren’t reality, dumb-ass,” Lanny shoots back. “You think CSI is a documentary?”
“Easy, you two,” I say. “I wish we could see her, too. But this is good, right? We’re good?”
“Yeah,” Connor says. “We’re good.” Lanny says nothing.
Sicko Patrol the next day yields nothing much new, but then again, I’ve grown so accustomed to the general horror of it that I’m not sure if I’d recognize new if it bit me. I do some freelance editing work, then some freelance web design work, and I’m deep into an especially demanding piece of coding when a brisk knock strikes the front door. Despite my startled flinch, the sound reminds me of the way Officer Graham knocks, so I am cheerful when I head to answer it. Sure enough, as I check to see who it is, I see Lancel Graham’s face.
After the first rush of relief, I hope he hasn’t misunderstood my warm welcome the other night, or seen it as an opportunity. I’m not in a place that needs romance. I had enough of that with Mel’s letter-perfect seduction, his model-husband performance art. I don’t trust myself that way anymore, and I can’t bring myself to allow the lowering of barriers that comes with even the most casual of relationships.
I’m busy thinking about that as I disarm the system and open the door, but that train of thought hardly even leaves the station. There’s something different about him this time. He’s not smiling.
He’s also not alone.
“Ma’am.” The man standing behind him is the one who speaks first. He’s an African American man of medium height who has the build of a former football player, going soggy around the middle. He’s got a sharp-edged haircut and heavy-lidded eyes, and the suit looks hard-worn and off the rack on its best day. He’s got a tie on, too, a blunt, red thing that just slightly clashes with the gray of the jacket. “I’m Detective Prester. I need to speak to you, please.”
It isn’t a question.
I freeze in place and involuntarily look back over my shoulder. Connor and Lanny are both in their rooms, and neither of them has come looking. I step out and shut the door behind me. “Detective. Of course. What is it?” Thank God, I don’t have to fear for the safety of my children in that moment. I know where they are. I know they’re safe. So this, I think, must be about something else.
I wonder if he’s dug around and put the trail together to connect Gwen Proctor to Gina Royal. I hope to hell not.
“Can we sit down a moment?”
I indicate the chairs on the porch, instead of letting them inside, and he and I settle into them. Officer Graham lingers at a distance, watching the lake. I follow his gaze, and my heart speeds up with a kick.
The usual fleet of pleasure craft is absent today. Instead, there are two boats out near the middle of the calm surface, both painted in official blue-and-white colors, with light bars on top that strobe slow, red flashes. I see a diver in scuba gear pitch backward over the side of the second one.
“A body was found in the lake early this morning,” Detective Prester says. “Was hoping you might have seen something out there last night, heard something? Anything out of the ordinary?”
I scramble to order my thoughts. Accident, I think. Boating accident. Somebody out at night, drunk, tips over the side . . . “I’m sorry,” I say. “Nothing unusual.”
“You hear anything after dark last night? Boat engines, maybe?”
“Probably, but that’s not really unusual,” I say. I’m trying to remember. “Yes. I heard something around nine, I think.” Long after dark, which falls early behind the pines. “But there are people here who go out to enjoy the stars. Or do some night fishing.”
“Did you happen to look outside at any point? See anyone around the lake or on it?” He looks tired, but there’s a sharpness behind that facade, one I wouldn’t want to play around trying to avoid. I answer him as honestly as I can.
“No, I didn’t. I’m sorry. I was working really late last night on the computer, and my office window looks up the hill, not down. I didn’t go outside.”
He nods and makes some notes in a book. He’s got a quiet sort of confidence, the kind that makes you want to relax around him. I know that’s dangerous. I’ve been lulled into underestimating police before, and I suffered for it. “Anybody else in the house last night, ma’am?”
“My kids,” I say. He glances up, and his eyes flash dark amber in the sunlight. Unreadable. Behind that disguise of the tired, slightly frayed, overworked man, he’s sharp as a scalpel.
“Can I talk to them, please?”
“I’m sure they don’t know anything—”
It would seem suspicious not to agree, but I’m tense and anxious as hell. I don’t know how Lanny and Connor will react to being questioned again; they’d been subjected to many, many interviews during the course of Mel’s trial, and my own, and even though the Wichita police had been careful about it, it left scars. I don’t know what kind of traumas it will tear open. I try to keep my voice calm. “I’d rather not have them questioned, Detective. Unless you think it’s absolutely necessary.”
“I think it is, ma’am.”
“For an accidental drowning?”
His amber eyes fix on me, and they seem to glow in the light. I feel them probing into me like searchlights. “No, ma’am,” he says. “I never said it was accidental. Or a drowning.”
I don’t know what that means, but I feel the pit open under me, I feel the drop. Something very bad has just begun.
And I say, in half a whisper, “I’ll get them.”
Connor goes first, and the detective is gentle with him, good with kids. I see the gleam of a wedding ring, and I’m glad that he isn’t like the cops back in Kansas. My kids had developed a real fear of police, and for very good reason; they’d seen the anger of the ones who’d arrested Mel, an anger that had only increased as the depth and breadth of his crimes was revealed. Those police had known not to take it out on small children, but some of it had spilled over. Inevitably.
Connor seems tense and nervous, but he gives his answers in short, effective sentences. He hasn’t heard anything except—as I’d said—maybe a boat engine out on the water around nine at night. He didn’t look out, because it isn’t unusual. He doesn’t remember anything out of the ordinary at all.