ebruary 2. Groundhog Day, my favorite holiday of the year. The pagans called it Imbolog and celebrated it, well, religiously. They drank barrels of mead, defiled virgins, and sacrificed inedible animals such as goats to the gods whom they depended on to keep the seasons turning.
February 2, as the pagans, those expert astronomers, had figured out, is a cross-quarter day, a key celestial moment precisely halfway between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox. I usually celebrated this important holiday more quietly, but no less thankfully, than the pagans. I just loved knowing that another New England winter was officially half gone and that spring was practically around the corner.
Imbolog fell on a Friday this year. Our annual January thaw had actually arrived sometime the previous nightâa couple of days lateâand outside my office window the Boston cityscape was a blurry black-and-white photograph. Thick gray clouds hung so low in the sky that they obscured the top floors of the Pru and the John Hancock Building. Raindrops pattered in the puddles on the brick plaza, and a layer of fog hovered over the dirty piles of old snow along the edges of the sidewalks.
I hoped it was also raining and thawing in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, because if it was, Phil-the-groundhog would not be spooked by his own shadow when he poked his head out of his hole. He would venture boldly where no groundhog had gone before, in search of grass to eat and Phyllis-the-groundhog to impregnate, guaranteeing, according to the ancient legend, that spring would arrive in early February rather than late March.
I'd managed to squander nearly half of this Imbolog Friday drinking coffee instead of mead, smoking cigarettes instead of sacrificing goats, gazing out the window, daydreaming about an early start to the trout season, remembering all the virgins I'd neglected to defile in my youth, and avoiding the pile of paperwork that Julie had stacked on my desk â¦ when she buzzed me.
I swiveled around, putting my back to the hopeful scene outside, and picked up the phone.
“Did I wish you a joyous Groundhog Day?” I said.
“You certainly did,” she said. “I've gotâ”
“Did I properly explain the pagan origins of this important celebration?”
“Yes, Brady.” Julie sighed dramatically. “You lecture me about Groundhog Day every year. In vast detail. Now, shush. I've got Jacob Gold on line two and he says it's urgent.”
“What's urgent?” I said. “I'm pretty busy here, you know, watching the snow melt and the rain patter in the puddles and thinking about virgins and trout.”
“Brady,” said Julie, “cut it out and listen to me. Mr. Gold sounds extremely distraught. Please talk to him.”
“Distraught, huh?” Julie tended to exaggerate. “Yeah, okay. Got it.” I poked the blinking button on the console and said, “Jake? What's up?”
“Sharon insisted I call you.” Jake cleared his throat. “I told herâI said, there's no reason to drag Brady into this. This is our own â¦ our tragedy. But â¦”
“What's going on, Jake? Where are you?”
“We're home twiddling our damn thumbs. It's Brian. There's been an â¦ an accident.”
Sharon and Jake Gold had been my clients almost as long as I'd been practicing law. Brian, their only child, was going on sixteen years old now, a sophomore in high school. I'd known him since he was a baby, seen him grow into a young man.
I remembered when my sons had been teenagers and the low-grade apprehension I lived with constantly, worrying about all the bad things that could happen to kids, dreading the phone call in the night and that awful word that Jake had just uttered:
Billy and Joey were in their early twenties now, but that dread had never diminished. I was slowly coming to grips with the likelihood that it never would.
“What happened, Jake?” I said gently.
“Automobile accident,” he said. I heard him blow out a shuddering breath. “He was with his girlfriend. She was driving. Theyâthe car went off the road and into the river. It was around nine last night. By the time they pulled the car out of the water, little Jenny â¦ she was DOA.”
I didn't want to ask the obvious question, but finally, after Jake seemed disinclined to speak, I said, “Jake, what about Brian?”
He was silent for a moment. Then I heard him sigh. “Brianâthey started diving for himâfor his bodyâat sunup. Apparently the passenger door came open when the car, um, hit the water, and they figure he got thrown out or got sucked out by the currents. You know the river there below the dam. Turbulent, deep, churning currents. Downstream, where it slows down, is iced over.” Jake cleared his throat. “They quit diving about an hour ago. Sharon and I were there the whole time, watching them look for our boy's body. It was hard, Brady. Watching, I mean. Hoping they'd find him. Hoping they wouldn't.” He hesitated. “Anyway, they haven't yet. Found him. His body.”
“So what happens next?”
“They're going to bring a boat to break up the ice downstream, see if he â¦ They figure Brian's under the ice somewhere.”
“Sharon wanted me to call you. I'm sorry to bother you. There's nothing you can do. We don't need a lawyer.”
“How about a friend?”
Jake laughed softly. “Yeah, I guess we could use a friend about now.”
“I'm on my way.”
t took me nearly an hour to drive from my parking garage in Copley Square to the old mill town of Reddington, southwest of the city just beyond Route 128, and it was nearly two in the afternoon when I got there. Normally, it was about a half-hour trip to Reddington, but because of the fog and the puddles, they had the 40 mph speed-limit signs lit on the Mass Pike. The ten-wheelers were ignoring it, and when they passed me, great gouts of rain and slush showered my car. Even with my windshield wipers on high speed, I had panicky moments of blindness.
The Groundhog Day rainstorm had moved in just about the time the sun should have come up. The previous night, I remembered, had been starlit and chilly when I checked it out from my balcony overlooking the harbor. Brian's accident could not have been caused by poor driving conditions.
Jake and Sharon lived in a pleasant middle-class suburban neighborhood on a meandering country road that had been carved out of the Reddington woods about twenty-five years earlier during the real-estate boom. All the houses were architectural variations on the same old-timey New England theme. There were colonials, full-dormer Capes, bungalows, and some homes, like the Golds', were imitations of traditional New England farmhouses with wraparound front porches and adorable little fake cupolas on top of the garages.
I pulled into the driveway. A basketball hoop was mounted on the garage. I remembered a summer afternoon eight or nine years earlier playing HORSE with Brian and Jake in the driveway. Brian was so little he could barely heave the ball up to the hoop. Sharon had sat on the front steps watching and laughing and applauding Brian's efforts. I'd tried fancy hook shots and long three-pointers, showing off for her like a teenager.
Jake must have been watching for me, because when I got out of my car, he was waiting for me on the front porch. I climbed the steps, started to shake his hand, then gave him a hug. He held on to me for a long moment, and when he pulled back, I saw dampness in his eyes.
Jake had a long, gloomy face and bushy gray hair. He was a stooped, lanky, heronlike man somewhere in his late fifties. He was the chairman of the humanities department at Reddington Community College, and on this Groundhog Day he was wearing his professor outfitâscuffed leather boots, wrinkled Dockers, green-and-black checked flannel shirt, and brown corduroy jacket with leather elbow patches.
“Well, old friend,” he said, “thanks for coming.” He put his arm across my shoulder and we went inside.
Sharon was sitting on the sofa in the living room. She was wearing snug-fitting blue jeans and a bulky sweatshirt and sneakers. She was small and dark and cute, and she could've passed for a teenager herself.
She looked up at me and blinked. She tried a smile, which didn't work, then stood up and came over to where I was standing. “Oh, God, Brady, thank you for coming,” she whispered, and she wrapped her arms around my waist. She squeezed me hard and burrowed her face into my chest. The top of her head barely came up to my chin. I held her while she cried on my shirt.
After a minute, I gripped Sharon's shoulders and gently pushed her away from me. “Any news?” I said.
She shook her head. She had high, prominent cheekbones, a long narrow nose, and a generous mouth. Her enormous brown
eyes swam with tears. Sharon Gold was about twenty years younger than Jake. He'd married one of his students.
“Ed was here,” she said. “He promised us they'd â¦ they'd keep looking.”
“Ed Sprague,” said Jake. “He's our chief of police. He was Brian's soccer coach. He's been great.”
“Do you want some coffee or something?” said Sharon.
“Coffee would be good,” I said.
She smiled quickly and went out to the kitchen.
“Feel like a smoke?” said Jake.
“We've got to go outside,” Jake said. “Sharon has put her foot down. Says my pipe smoke stinks up the whole house.”
We went outside and stood on the front porch. I lit a cigarette, and Jake fished out his pipe and tobacco pouch.
I've always suspected that pipe smokers are not really committed to smoking the way we cigarette addicts are. Most of the pipe smokers I know love to collect pipes. They're very particular about how they break in a new meerschaum, and they hang around tobacco stores pinching and sniffing and tasting exotic Turkish blends. Cleaning and filling a pipe seems to be a ritual for them, a way to postpone saying or doing something, and Jake was taking his time. He was digging a straight-stemmed, big-bowled briar around in his leather pouch, packing and tamping in the tobacco with his forefinger. It looked as if he were having a sensual experience, burrowing around in his tobacco pouch.
Finally he got it filled, clamped it between his teeth, brought a Zippo out of his pocket, and fired it up. He blew out a big cloud of smoke. I noticed that he inhaled.
“What can you tell me?” I said.
He sighed. “They were heading north on River Road,” he said. “It happened about nine last night, they think. They went off the road right where it cuts close to the river just down
from the dam. Ed says it was the only place on the whole road where they would've gone into the water. It's about a fifteen-foot drop, almost straight down. Maybe they were going a little too fast, couldn't make the turn. Maybe a deer or something ran in front of them, or a car came at them with its high beams on.” He shrugged. “The truth is, they have no idea what happened. It was just a damn random, senseless accident.” He took a deep breath, blew it out. “None of this feels real, Brady. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have dragged you out here.”
“Cut it out,” I said. I flipped my cigarette butt out into the snow. “Tell me about the girl. The driver.”
“Jenny?” Jake pulled out his Zippo and got his dead pipe lit again. “Nice girl. Smart, pretty. Couple years older than Brian. Sharon never liked that. Figured, I don't know, that she'd lead him astray or something. Older woman, huh?” Jake snorted a quick laugh. “Hell, she was barely seventeen. Looked about twelve.” He shook his head. “Tom and Emilyâher parentsâthey're friends of ours. I guess everybody in this little one-horse town are friends. So, they spent the night at the hospital with their dead little girl, and we spent the night on the riverbank waiting for them to dredge up our dead little boy, and â¦” Jake shook his head.
“Have you talked with them sinceâ?”
He nodded. “They called this morning. We exchanged condolences. It was pretty tense. I think they're feeling guilty. Jenny was driving. Nice people. They're devastated. Sharon and I, we can relate to that.”
“Jake,” I said, “how do you know Brian was in that car?”
He cocked his head and looked at me as if I were one of his Brit lit students who'd asked a stupid question. “If he wasn't in that car,” he said, “he'd be here with us. Where else would he be?”
I nodded. It was a stupid question.
“They were always together,” Jake said after a minute. “Jenny came by, picked him up in her car around seven-thirty.
They were to be back by ten. That was Sharon's rule. Ten on school nights, midnight on weekends. Sharon's always been big on rules.”
“Where were they going?”
He flapped his hands. “Where do teenagers go in cars?”
“I mean, where does River Road take them?”
“I don't know, Brady,” he said quietly. “It doesn't really matter, does it?”