Calling him had been a mistake. She knew that now. She had lived. She had recovered. Sure, there was the limp. There was some pain. There was the occasional nightmare. But she was okay. She had gotten over it. They, the parents, never would. She saw it that first day?ªthe shatter in their eyes?ªand while progress had been made, lives had been lived, pieces had been picked up, the shatter had never left. She looked now at Carl Vespa?ªat the eyes?ªand saw it all over again.
??Please,?? she said to him. ??I just want to go home.??
Wu spotted the empty hide-a-key.
The rock was on the path by the back door, turned over like a dying crab. The cover had been slid open. Wu could see the key was gone. He remembered the first time he had approached a house that had been violated. He was six years old. The hut?ªit was one room, no plumbing?ªhad been his own. The Kim government had not bothered with the niceties of keys. They had knocked the door down and dragged his mother away. Wu found her two days later. They had hung her from a tree. No one was allowed to cut her down, under penalty of death. A day later the birds found her.
His mother had been wrongly accused of being a traitor to the Great Leader, but guilt or innocence was irrelevant. An example was made of her anyway. This is what happens to those who defy us. Check that: This is what happens to anyone we think may be defying us.
No one took in the six-year-old Eric. No orphanage picked him up. He did not become a ward of the state. Eric Wu ran away. He slept in the woods. He ate out of garbage cans. He survived. At thirteen, he was arrested for stealing and thrown in jail. The chief guard, a man more crooked than anyone he housed, saw Wu??s potential. And so it began.
Wu stared down at the empty hide-a-key.
Someone was in the house.
He glanced at the house next door. His best guess would be that it was the woman who lived there. She liked to watch out the window. She would know where Freddy Sykes hid a key.
He considered his options. There were two.
One, he could simply leave.
Jack Lawson was in the trunk. Wu had a vehicle. He could take off, steal another car, begin his journey, set up residence elsewhere.
Problem: Wu??s fingerprints were inside the house, along with the severely wounded, perhaps dead, Freddy Sykes. The lingerie-clad woman, if it was the woman, would be able to identify him too. Wu was fresh out of prison and on parole. The DA had suspected him of terrible crimes, but they could not prove them. So they cut a deal in exchange for his testimony. Wu had spent time in a maximum security penitentiary in Walden, New York. Next to what he had experienced in his homeland, the prison might as well have been a Four Seasons.
But that didn??t mean he wanted to go back.
No, option one was no good. So that left option two.
Wu silently opened the door and slid inside.
? ? ?
Back in the limousine, Grace and Carl Vespa fell into silence.
Grace kept flashing back to the last time she??d seen Jimmy X??s face?ªfifteen years ago in her hospital. He??d been forced to visit, a photo op arranged by his promoter, but he couldn??t even look at her, never mind speak. He just stood by her bed, flowers clutched in his hand, his head down like a little boy??s waiting for the teacher to scold him. She never said a word. Eventually he handed her the flowers and walked out.
Jimmy X quit the business and ran off. Rumor had it he moved to a private island near Fiji. Now, fifteen years later, here he was in New Jersey, playing drums for a Christian rock band.
When they pulled onto her street, Vespa said, ??It hasn??t gotten any better, you know.??
Grace looked out the window. ??Jimmy X didn??t fire the gun.??
??I know that.??
??So what do you want from him???
??He??s never said he??s sorry.??
??And that would be enough???
He thought about that, and then said, ??There was a boy who survived. David Reed. You remember him???
??He was standing next to Ryan. They were body to body. But when the crush began, this Reed kid somehow got lifted up on someone??s shoulder. He got on the stage.??
??You remember what his parents said???
She did but she said nothing.
??Jesus lifted up their son. It was God??s will.?? Vespa??s voice had not changed, but Grace could feel the hidden rage like a blast furnace. ??You see, Mr. and Mrs. Reed prayed and God responded. It was a miracle, they said. God looked out for their son, that??s what they kept repeating. As if God didn??t have the desire or inclination to save mine.??
They fell into silence. Grace wanted to tell him that many good people died that day, many people with good parents who prayed, that God does not discriminate. But Vespa knew all that. It would not comfort.
By the time they pulled into the driveway, night was falling. Grace could see the silhouettes of Cora and the kids in the kitchen window. Vespa said, ??I want to help you find your husband.??
??I??m not even sure what you can do.??
??You??d be surprised,?? he said. ??You have my number. No matter what you need, call me. No matter what time it is, I don??t care. I??ll be there.??
Cram opened the door. Vespa walked her to the door.
??I??ll be in touch,?? he said.
??I??m also going to assign Cram here to watch your house.??
She looked at Cram. Cram sort of smiled back.
??That won??t be necessary.??
??Humor me,?? he said.
??No, really, I don??t want that. Please.??
Vespa thought about it. ??If you change your mind . . . ???
??I??ll let you know.??
He turned to leave then. She watched him walk back to the car and wondered about the wisdom of making deals with the devil. Cram opened the door. The limo seemed to swallow Vespa whole. Cram nodded at her. Grace did not move. She considered herself pretty good at reading people, but Carl Vespa had changed her view. She never saw or even sensed a hint of evil in him. Yet she knew it was there.
Evil?ªreal evil?ªwas like that.
? ? ?
Cora put on boiling water for the Ronzoni penne. She threw a jar of Prego into a saucepan and then leaned close to Grace??s ear.
??I??m going to check the e-mail to see if we got any replies,?? Cora whispered.
Grace nodded. She was helping Emma do her homework and trying like hell to care. Her daughter was dressed in a Jason Kidd Nets basketball jersey. She called herself Bob. She wanted to be a jock. Grace didn??t know how she felt about it, but she guessed it was better than buying Teen Beat magazine and lusting after nonthreatening boy bands.
Mrs. Lamb, Emma??s young-but-quickly-aging teacher, had the kids working on the multiplication tables. They were doing the sixes. Grace tested Emma. At six times seven, Emma paused for a long time.
??You should know it by heart,?? Grace said.
??Why? I can figure it out.??
??That??s not the point. You learn it by heart so you can build off that when you start multiplying numbers with multiple digits.??
??Mrs. Lamb didn??t say to memorize them.??
??But Mrs. Lamb?ª??
??Six times seven.??
And so it went.
Max had to find an item to put in the ??Secret Box.?? You put something in the box?ªin this case, a hockey puck?ªand you made up three clues so that your fellow kindergartners could guess what it was. Clue one: The item is black. Clue two: It??s used in a sport. Clue three: Ice. Fair enough.
Cora came back from the computer shaking her head. Nothing yet. She grabbed a bottle of Lindemans, a decent-yet-cheap Chardonnay from Australia, and popped the cork. Grace put the kids to bed.
??Where??s Daddy??? Max asked.
Emma echoed the sentiment. ??I wrote the hockey verse for my poem.??
Grace said something vague about Jack having to work. The kids looked wary.
??I??d love to hear the poem,?? Grace said.
Grudgingly Emma produced her journal.
??Hockey stick, hockey stick,
Do you love to score?
When you are used to shoot,
Do you feel like you want more???
Emma looked up. Grace said, ??Wow?? and clapped, but she was simply not as good at the enthusiasm game as Jack. She kissed them both good night and headed back downstairs. The wine bottle was open. She and Cora began to drink. She missed Jack. He??d been gone less than twenty-four hours?ªhe??d been gone longer on business trips plenty of times?ªand yet the house seemed to sag somehow. Something felt lost, irretrievably so. The missing of him had already become a physical ache.
Grace and Cora drank some more. Grace thought about her children. She thought about a life, a whole life, without Jack. We do anything to shield our children from pain. Losing Jack would, no doubt, crush Grace. But that was okay. She could take it. Her pain, however, would be nothing next to what it would do to the two children upstairs who, she knew, lay awake, sensing something was amiss.
Grace looked at the photographs lining the walls.
Cora moved next to her. ??He??s a good man.??
??Too much wine,?? Grace said.
??Not enough, you ask me. Where did Mr. Mobster take you???
??To see a Christian rock band.??
??Quite the first date.??