Muse and I said nothing for a few moments.
Cal and Jim. The names deflated us.
The position of chief investigator was almost always held by some male lifer, a gruff guy slightly burned out by what he'd seen over the years, with a big belly and a heavy sigh and a well-worn trench coat. It would be that mans job to maneuver the guileless county prosecutor, a political appointee like me, through the rings of the Essex County legal system.
Loren Muse was maybe five feet tall and weighed about as much as your average fourth grader. My choosing Muse had caused some nasty ripples among the veterans, but here was my own private prejudice: I prefer hiring single women of a certain age. They worked harder and were more loyal. I know, I know, but I have found this to be true in almost every case. You find a single woman over the age of, say, thirty-three, and she lives for her career and will give you hours and devotion the married ones with kids will never give you.
To be fair, Muse was also an incredibly gifted investigator. I liked talking things out with her. I would say "muse"-ing them over, but then you'd understandably groan. Right now she was staring down at the floor.
"What's on your mind?" I asked her.
"Are these shoes really that ugly?"
I looked at her and waited.
"Put simply," she said, "if we don't find a way to explain Cal and Jim, we're screwed."
I stared at the ceiling.
"What?" Muse said.
"Those two names."
"What about them?"
"Why?" I asked for the umpteenth time. "Why Cal and Jim?"
"You questioned Chamique again?"
"I did. Her story is frighteningly consistent. They used those two names. I think you're right. They simply did that as a cover, so her story would sound idiotic."
"But why those two names?"
"Probably just random."
I frowned. "We're missing something, Muse."
She nodded. "I know."
I have always been pretty good about partitioning my life. We all are, but I am especially good at it. I can create separate universes in my own world. I can deal with one aspect of my life and not have it interfere with another in anyway. Some people watch a gangster movie and wonder how the mobster can be so violent on the streets and so loving at home. I get that. I have that ability.
I'm not proud of this. It is not necessarily a great attribute. It protects, yes, but I have seen what actions it can justify.
So for the past half hour I had been pushing away the obvious questions: If Gil Perez had been alive this whole time, where had he been?
What had happened that night in the woods? And of course, the biggest question: If Gil Perez had survived that awful night...
Had my sister survived too?
It was Muse.
"What's going on?"
I wanted to tell her. But now was not the time. I need to sort it through myself first. Figure out what was what. Make sure that body really did belong to Gil Perez. I stood and walked toward her.
"Cal and Jim," I said. "We have to figure out what the hell that's all about, and fast."
My wife's sister, Greta, and her husband, Bob, lived in a McMansion on a new cul-de-sac that looks almost precisely the same as every other new cul-de-sac in North America. The lots are too small for the ginormous brick edifices that stretch across them. The houses have a variety of shapes and shades but somehow still look exactly the same. Everything is a little too brushed, trying to look aged and only looking more faux.
I had met Greta first, before my wife. My mother ran away before I turned twenty, but I remember something she told me a few months before Camille went into those woods. We were the poorest citizens in our rather mixed town. We were immigrants who had come over from the old Soviet Union when I was four. We had started out okay, we had arrived in the USA as heroes, but things turned very bad very quickly.
We were living on the top floor of a three-family dwelling in Newark, though we went to school at Columbia High in West Orange. My father, Vladimir Copinsky (he anglicized it to Copeland), who had once been a doctor in Leningrad, couldn't get a license to practice in this country. He ended up working as a house painter. My mother, a frail beauty named Natasha, the once-proud, well-educated daughter of aristocratic college professors, took on a variety of cleaning jobs for the wealthier families in Short Hills and Livingston but could never hold on to one for very long.
On this particular day, my sister, Camille, came home from school and announced in a teasing voice that the town rich girl had a crush on me. My mother was excited by this.
"You should ask her out," my mother said to me.
I made a face. "Have you seen her?"
"Then you know," I said, speaking as a seventeen-year-old would. "She's a beast."
"There is an old Russian expression," my mother countered, raising a finger to clarify her point. "A rich girl is beautiful when she stands on her money."
That was the first thought that came through my mind when I met Greta. Her parents, my former in-laws, I guess, still the grandparents of my Cara, are loaded. My wife came from money. It is all in trust for Cara. I'm the executor. Jane and I discussed long and hard the age at which she should get the bulk of the estate. You don't want someone too young inheriting that kind of money, but hey, on the other hand, it is hers.
My Jane was so practical after the doctors had announced her death sentence. I couldn't listen. You learn a lot when someone you love goes down for the count. I learned that my wife had amazing strength and bravery I would have thought unfathomable before her illness. And I found that I had neither.
Cara and Madison, my niece, were playing in the driveway. The days were starting to get longer now. Madison sat on the asphalt and drew with pieces of chalk that resembled cigars. My own daughter rode one of those motorized, slow-moving minicars that are all the rage with today's under-six crowd. The kids who own them never play on them.
Only visitors on play dates do. Play dates. Man, I hated that term.
I stepped out of the car and shouted, "Hey, kiddos."
I waited for the two six-year-old girls to stop what they were doing and sprint over to me and wrap me in big hugs. Yeah, right. Madison glanced my way, but she couldn't have looked less interested without some sort of surgical cerebral disconnect. My own daughter pretended not to hear. Cara steered the Barbie Jeep in a circle. The battery was fading fast, the electric vehicle churning at a speed slower than my uncle Morris reaching for the check.
Greta pushed open the screen door. "Hey."
"Hey," I said. "So how was the rest of the gymnastics show?"
"Don't worry," Greta said, shading her eyes with her hand in a pseudo salute. "I have the whole thing on video."
"So what was up with those two cops?"
I shrugged. "Just work."
She didn't buy it but she didn't press. "I have Cara's backpack inside."
She let the door close behind her. There were workers coming around back. Bob and Greta were putting in a swimming pool with matching landscaping. They'd been thinking about it for several years but wanted to wait until Madison and Cara were old enough to be safe.
"Come on," I said to my daughter, "we need to go."
Cara ignored me again, pretending that the whir of the pink Barbie Jeep was overwhelming her aural faculties. I frowned and started toward her. Cara was ridiculously stubborn. I would like to say, "like her mother," but my Jane was the most patient and understanding woman you ever met. It was amazing. You see qualities both good and bad in your children. In the case of Cara, all the negative qualities seemed to emanate from her father.
Madison put down the chalk. "Come on, Cara."
Cara ignored her too. Madison shrugged at me and gave me that kid-world-weary sigh. "Hi, Uncle Cope."
"Hey, sweetie. Have a good play date?"
"No," Madison said with her fists on her hips. "Cara never plays with me. She just plays with my toys."
I tried to look understanding.
Greta came out with the backpack. "We already did the homework," she said.
She waved it off. "Cara, sweetheart? Your father is here."
Cara ignored her too. I knew that a tantrum was coming. That too, I guess, she gets from her father. In our Disney-inspired worldview, the widowed father-daughter relationship is a magic one. Witness pretty much every kid film, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, A Little Princess, Aladdin, you get the point. In movies, not having a mother seemed to be a pretty nifty thing, which, when you think about it, is really perverse. In real life, not having a mother was just about the worst thing that could happen to a little girl.
I made my voice firm. "Cara, we're going now."
Her face was set, I braced for the confrontation, but fortunately the gods interceded. The Barbie battery went totally dead. The pink Jeep stopped. Cara tried to body-language the vehicle another foot or two, but Barbie wouldn't budge. Cara sighed, stepped out of the Jeep, and started for the car.
"Say good-bye to Aunt Greta and your cousin."
She did so in a voice sullen enough to make a teenager envious.
When we got home, Cara snapped on the TV without asking permission and settled in for an episode of Sponge Bob. It seems as though Sponge Bob is on all the time. I wonder if there is an all-Sponge Bob station. There also only seems to be maybe three different episodes of the show. That did not seem to deter kids, though.
I was going to say something, but I let it go. Right now I just wanted her distracted. I was still trying to put together what was going on with both the Chamique Johnson rape case and now the sudden reemergence and murder of Gil Perez. I confess that my big case, the biggest of my career, was getting the short end of the stick.
I started preparing dinner. We eat out most nights or order in. I do have a nanny-housekeeper, but today was her day off. "Hot dogs sound good?"
The phone rang. I picked it up.
"Mr. Copeland? This is Detective Tucker York."
"Yes, Detective, what can I do for you?"
"We located Gil Perez's parents."
I felt my grip tighten on the phone. "Did they identify the body?"
"What did you tell them?"
"Look, no offense, Mr. Copeland, but this isn't the kind of thing you just say over the phone, you know? 'Your dead child might have been alive this whole time-and oh yeah, he's just been murdered'?"
"So we were pretty vague. We're going to bring them in and see if we can get an ID. But here's the other thing: How sure are you that it's Gil Perez?"
"You understand that's not really good enough."
"And anyway, it's late. My partner and I are off duty. So we're going to have one of our men drive the Perezes down tomorrow morning."
"So this is, what, a courtesy call?"
"Something like that. I understand your interest. And maybe you should be here in the morning, you know, in case any weird questions come up."
"The morgue again. You need a ride?"
"No, I know my way."