There was a way in which their marriage had been divided in half. The first half of their marriage, they had been normal, hardworking midwesterners, trying to raise two boys. Russ had his job selling corn syrup, and Irene was a full-time mother who picked up freelance editing work once the boys were in school. They lived in a nondescript ranch on Clover Street, a cul-de-sac east of the university, close to the high school. Irene won’t lie: those had been lean years. She might even characterize them as tough. If Irene and Russ wanted to do anything fun or special—even a night out to dinner at the steakhouse in the Amanas—they had to budget. When Irene’s minivan died, they had to ask Russ’s mother, Milly, for a loan.
When Russ got the job offer from Todd Croft, it had seemed nothing short of a miracle, or like God’s benevolent intervention finally lifting them up. Suddenly there was money—so much money! They were able to send Baker to Northwestern without taking out any loans. Then they were able to buy the fixer-upper of Irene’s dreams on Church Street. A scant year after Russ got this new job, Irene was offered a full-time editorial position at Heartland Home & Style. Between the renovation and the new job, she had been so consumed, so busy, that she had barely taken notice of the dark side of their good fortune: Russ became less like a man she was married to and more like a man she dated whenever he was in town. But she had liked that, hadn’t she? It had been nice to have Russ out from underfoot, to have freedom and autonomy when it came to making decisions about the new house, which was especially sweet since she no longer worried about their finances. Irene had been complicit in the change to their relationship; she had preferred their new situation to the slog of everyday married life. Irene’s friends and coworkers asked why Irene never joined Russ on his business trips. He was in Florida, right? Didn’t Irene want to enjoy the sun?
Irene used to answer, “I’ll join him one of these days! I just need to find the time.”
Deep down, she knew she should have been asking Russ questions: How did he like the new job? What were its downsides, its challenges? She should have kept track of where he was on certain days, who his clients were. She should have made plans to travel with him. But she didn’t. And that’s really all she can say: she didn’t.
And so, as much as Irene wants to believe that Russ was an evil, deceptive charlatan with unfathomable secrets, she understands that she is partly to blame.
She is disturbed that Todd Croft made the unilateral decision to cremate Russ’s body. He should have asked her permission. He should have given Irene control.
Baker spoke to someone at border control and discovered that because the crash happened in British waters, the British authorities—Virgin Islands Search and Rescue (VISAR), in conjunction with Her Majesty’s Coastguard—needed to give the FAA the authority to investigate the cause of the crash. But there were loopholes and regulations, as with any bureaucracy.
“I can’t tell if they’re giving me the runaround or if it’s just a lot of red tape,” Baker told Irene. “I haven’t talked to the same person twice, so I don’t have an ally. I did find out that the pilot’s name is Stephen Thompson and he was a British citizen. The helicopter apparently belonged to him. So it’s a British helicopter with a British pilot that crashed into British waters.”
They are essentially being held hostage here as they wait for the ashes and the findings from the crash-site investigation. The only upside is this gives Irene time to do some detective work. She sits down at the desk in Russ’s study. There is nothing in any of the drawers but pens and some paper clips, nothing on the shelves but one lonely legal pad. Someone came in and removed everything else.
The phone on Russ’s desk works, and once the boys have left, Irene dials the 305 number that Marilyn Monroe called from on Tuesday night. Area code 305, she now knows, is Miami. This, at least, makes a certain kind of sense.
The phone rings three times and Irene’s stomach clenches. She will demand to talk to Todd Croft. She deserves answers. She deserves answers! What kind of business was Russ involved in? What was going on down here? She fears Todd won’t tell her.
The phone clicks over to a recording, telling her that the number she has dialed is no longer in service.
No longer in service.
Somehow, Irene isn’t surprised.
She tries Paulette’s cell phone next but is shuttled right to voicemail. There’s a magnet on the refrigerator from the real estate company that provides a phone number.
A woman answers on the first ring. “Afternoon, this is Welcome to Paradise Real Estate, Octavia speaking. How can I help you?”
“Yes, hello,” Irene says. “May I please speak to Paulette Vickers?”
“Paulette is out of the office today, I’m afraid,” Octavia says. “Would you like her voicemail?”
“It’s urgent,” Irene says. “Is there any way I might speak to her in person?”
“I’m afraid not,” Octavia says. “She’s at a funeral. I don’t expect her back in the office until tomorrow morning.”
Funeral, Irene thinks.
“Okay, Octavia, thank you very much,” Irene says, and she hangs up.
Funeral for the local woman, Irene thinks. The local woman who was in the helicopter with Russ and the British pilot, Stephen Thompson, flying at seven o’clock in the morning from St. John to an island in the British Virgin Islands called Anegada. Who was this local woman?
Irene isn’t naive. There is no possibility that Russ lived in this house by himself, without a companion, without a woman. Irene thinks back to the day before, when Cash was searching the master bedroom. He told Irene he’d found nothing, but Irene knew he was lying.
Winnie comes banging into the study, panting and wagging her tail, sniffing at Irene’s knees. Irene rubs Winnie’s soft butterscotch head and says, “Come with me.”
She and Winnie enter the master bedroom, and Irene says, “What are we looking for, Winnie? What are we looking for?” She stands in the middle of the room and inhales, trying to divine something, anything, using her intuition. Someone came through the house and cleared it out, sweeping away all of Russ’s dirt.
But something—Cash had found something. He had that expression on his face, feigned innocence, like when he used to hide his one-hitter in his varsity soccer jacket, and years before that when he finished an entire box of Girl Scout cookies—Caramel deLites—by himself and then stuffed the box deep in the trash.
Stuffed the box deep in the trash.
Irene looks around the room for hidden nooks and crannies. She checks the drawer of the nightstand: empty.
She sees Winnie nosing the bed. Is she picking up a scent? Winnie seems pretty interested, nearly insistent, her nose working into the gap between the mattress and the box spring.
“What are you doing?” Irene asks. She lifts the white matelassé coverlet—she has to admit there is a freshness to the decor of this house that is a nice alternative to the heavy, dark furnishings of home—and slips her hand under the mattress. Bingo. She feels the edge of something.
She pulls out a frame. A photograph.
Oh no. God, no.
Irene sits on the bed, her hands shaking.
The photograph is of Russ with a beautiful young West Indian woman. They’re lying in a hammock, their limbs intertwined. The woman’s skin is the color of coffee with cream, and next to her Russ is golden, glowing. He looks healthy.
He looks happy.
Irene lets out a moan. She can’t believe the agony she feels. Russ had another woman, a lover. More than a lover: Irene can tell from the ease and familiarity of their pose, from Russ’s smile, from the woman’s eyes shining. They were together, a pair, a couple. They were in love.
Irene wants to smash the glass. She wants to go onto the balcony and throw the offending photograph as far as she can into the tropical bushes below.
But she needs it. It’s evidence.
Irene is mortified to think that Cash has seen this photo, this proof of his father’s secret life. It conveys failure—on Russ’s part, certainly, but also on Irene’s part. She wasn’t sexy, desirable, or enticing enough to have kept her husband happy at home. This photograph is proof.
Irene screams until she feels her voice reach its ragged edge. It feels so indulgent, so childish, but it’s also the release she’s been waiting for. Russ was cheating on her, living with someone young and beautiful, having sex with her, laughing with her, kissing her, eating meals with her, curling up in a hammock with her, falling asleep next to her. For how long? For years, Irene has to assume. Every single time he told her he was “working” in Florida or God knows where else, he was here, in this house, with this woman. The depth of Russ’s lies takes Irene’s breath away. Hundreds of lies, thousands of lies. He had professed his love for Irene daily, every single time she spoke to him on the phone. He had told her he loved her so often, she had stopped hearing it. She thinks of the airplane he hired to drag a banner around Iowa City on her fiftieth birthday. At the time, Irene had been embarrassed by that blatant show of devotion. What she hadn’t realized, of course, was that Russ was trying to compensate. He hadn’t hired the airplane because he loved Irene and wanted everyone to know it; he’d hired it because he felt guilty.