Authors: Gillian Roberts
“Bills and ads.” Then I remembered. “You had a message yesterday from Neddy Roederer. I forgot. Sorry. He must have called from the road, because they were scouting schools, and didn’t get home till late last night, so you couldn’t have gotten back to him, anyway.”
“Any hint as to what it’d be about?”
I shook my head. “Not specifically. A delicate issue he thought you’d understand. There was something secretive about the way he asked me for your number, and he didn’t want you to call him at home, but at his club. You’re the only copper he’s ever met socially, and a book-loving one to boot, so you’re his pick.”
Mackenzie put down his menu. “He wants to confess.”
“Confess what? How do you know?”
But there wasn’t much to do in Kansas besides think about everything you told me the last two days. Spiers was tormenting the man, blackmailing or about to blackmail him about a supposed homosexual relationship that happened behind Tea’s back. Then Spiers gets himself killed outside the Roederers’ door, saving commute time. What more do you want? If Neddy weren’t at the top of the social food chain, he’d have been arrested by now. The obvious is usually the answer.”
“I can’t buy it. He’s too…nonferocious. Besides, the police are questioning Mother Vivien. She has a record, too.” And there was still, awful or not, an unresolved question about Jake. Or Jake and Griffin together, the strong and angry young men.
Mackenzie shrugged. “You’ll see.”
I wondered if—when—I would feel ready to talk about my mother’s secret. Mine now, too. And that was another problem with tossing secrets, like stones, into the equation. The ripples expanded, touching and involving more and more. As long as I didn’t tell Mackenzie, we had a secret between us, too.
That avenue of thought dead-ended as Jake rejoined us.
“By the way,” Mackenzie said, “the answer is Edward.”
Jake slid into the booth. “What is Mr. Roederer’s first name? I love
“Edward Fairfax,” C. K. said.
“Franklin,” Jake said. “The famous Ben’s descendant, remember?”
“Edward Fairfax Rochester! Mr. Rochester’s given name,” I said. “That’s who you’re talking about.”
“Isn’t that who you asked about?”
I gave a thumbs-up. “Kansas was
boring, wasn’t it?”
“Good library, though. Great research librarian.”
“Edward Fairfax Rochester, Edward Franklin Roederer,” Jake said. “Their names are really close. Coincidence? I think not!”
“Hmm,” I said. “Rich men in enormous homes with similar names. Then the question therefore is: does a madwoman lurk in Mr. Roederer’s attic? A dark, broody secret?”
“There’s a deaf and toothless dog,” Jake said. “Gertrude. She hangs out in the kitchen, not that I’ve checked the attic much. We hang out in the basement, and nobody’s there but the computer.” Jake then ordered an all-sugar repast of pancakes, syrup, a cream doughnut, and a soda. Mackenzie, on the other hand, rebalanced the U.S. cholesterol deficit with eggs, bacon, buttered toast, and coffee with cream.
I was too tired to be hungry. “Bagel,” I said. “Dry. Coffee. Black.” I studied the fourth wall, a mosaic of broken crockery that looked both spontaneous and still in progress.
Jake had youth and sugar in his corner. He was full of energy, and in between bites and sips, he asked the detective about Kansas, extradition procedures, Interpol, and what happened in international chases. He was confusing Mackenzie with 007, but that was okay.
And then, the inevitable Jake question. “So, do you use computers much in your work?”
Mackenzie responded in painstaking detail about data banks of fingerprints, criminal records, and evidence breakdowns—plus God knows what else. Then he segued to his real love: his own expeditions on the Net. This generated a rhapsodic, endless response, and they chugged on with ever more steam, as if techno-talk itself were fuel.
They might as well have been speaking Medieval Bulgarian. I tuned out. Until Jake—apropos of what, I didn’t know—pulled the raggedy news story out of his pocket. Yet again. It wasn’t Oedipal; it wasn’t an Electra complex, so what was it? Had Freud labeled the complex that involved idolization of a father by his son?
But of course, Sigmund the Victorian Papa probably called such adulation standard operating procedure. Normal. And pronounced it good.
“After I picked up on it, my father went into the morgue—you know, where the newspaper keeps its records—and found this, and sent it to me,” Jake said.
I would have cried, if I’d had the energy. I hoped Mackenzie realized what it was about. At the moment, he looked confused. He read the weathered copy and looked at Jake blankly, waiting for more information.
“Someday, the Net will have all the articles on it, too. The whole newspaper morgue. Wouldn’t need to physically hunt this one down,” Jake added. He chuckled. “I mean, what if my father wasn’t a journalist?” I could hear how much he liked even the taste of the word
Mackenzie reread it with serious attention, nodded, and said, “I see what you mean.” I’d been wrong. As far as C. K. was concerned, Jake had presented the article not to demonstrate his father’s fabulous skills, and not to illustrate tight father-son bonds, but simply as an example of the Internet’s possibilities.
“This Katt,” Mackenzie said. “Nobody’s found him?”
Jake shook his head.
“Picture isn’t sharp enough to ID him anyway.”
“It’s so many generations away,” Jake said. “A newspaper reproduction of a snapshot taken at some office party. Maybe never crystal-clear. Then scanned into my father’s computer, sent to mine, and printed off the monitor.”
“He looks ordinary enough. Easy to disappear,” Mackenzie said.
He was indeed extraordinarily bland. Tall and pudgy, with thin, pale hair and a pale mustache. A caricaturist’s nightmare, with not an exceptional feature that would stay in your head, except, perhaps, the tortoiseshell glasses frames.
It was interesting to speculate how many unsolved crimes there were around the world, but beyond that, what was the point? Surely not to alert the general populace and have these perps apprehended. If this guy had enough intelligence to change his glasses since the snapshot, he’d be unrecognizable.
I nursed my coffee, the morning’s caffeine slapping my exhaustion like an electrified irritant.
Either that or my innate selfishness made me impatient. I was more than ready to deposit Jake where he belonged and get on with the student-free weekend I deserved.
We drove north. Jake lived in the Fairmount area, named, like so much else, by William Penn, who’d deemed the bluff where the Art Museum now stands, a “faire mount.” Nowadays, our enormous city park, a major thoroughfare, and this neighborhood all bear the name. Which is lucky, because Fairmount area sounds a lot better than Penitentiary area, a more logical label for this part of town. Penn’s rocky bluff is not visible here, but the turrets and towers of Eastern State Pen are. Covering eleven acres, it and its thirty-foot-high stone walls cannot be ignored.
“Another Philadelphia first,” Mackenzie said without preamble, obviously feeling the looming presence as intensely as I did. The prison lolled hugely, pressing against the neighborhood. I wondered how the sight of it affected Jake the morning after being behind bars. “The world’s first penitentiary,” C. K. added.
My man possesses a fund of historical knowledge, and he is generous to a fault about sharing it, so I was familiar with these facts. I tried hard to stifle a yawn, but the contortions such attempts required—flaring nostrils, tight lips, dropped jaw, bugging eyes—felt like work, so I gave up and yawned away.
“Until this place was built,” Mackenzie said, “bad guys were tossed in dungeons until they got a physical punishment—a whipping, a beheading, whatever. Here, the punishment was complete loss of freedom and solitary confinement. Once inside, you never saw another inmate. This was a place to do penance. That’s why it’s called a
“I never knew that,” Jake said.
“Books are good things, too,” Mackenzie said quietly, turning onto Jake’s street. “Once, the governor of Pennsylvania sentenced a dog to life imprisonment here for murdering his wife’s cat.”
“For real?” Jake smiled, ready to be told it was a joke.
“For real,” I said. “Pep the dog went to prison in the 1920s.” I remembered historical facts of that sort. The irrelevant sort.
Mackenzie expertly parallel-parked. I had the distinct sensation Jake was fading, that his home would make him disappear like the original Cheshire cat, only without a smile in his case. He took a deep breath, nodded, thanked us both, and got out of the car with the animation of a zombie.
For no good reason, but without saying anything and in unison, perhaps because it seemed polite to see the delivery through to its destination, we scrambled out behind him.
He walked up the three front steps as if he were about to face a death squad. We followed. He turned his key in the lock.
The door flew open without his assistance. “Where
you!” his mother screamed. “My
You worried me sick!”
We stood there, Jake on the top step, I, two steps below, and Mackenzie on the pavement. Facing all of us was Betsy Spiers in bathrobe and wild flying hair, waving her hands. Our own drum major.
“I didn’t know what
Of course, if she could control her hysteria, she could have noticed her son in front of her, unmarked, hale, and as hearty as one can be who doesn’t in any way want to come home.
But I was being unkind. She was a weak woman who’d been widowed three nights ago. And I still was uncomfortable with how Jake had gone to school the next day, and to a party the following night, although it probably meant he was less of a hypocrite than I wanted him to be.
I peered around Jake feeling damned silly.
“Who, Mom?” Jake’s voice was low. I could feel him try to calm her through the power of suggestion. “Who called?”
“They did! The Roederers! I thought you were there—you said you’d be there—I’m all alone here and they called because they said you and Griffin—they didn’t know where you were.”
“Where I was or where Griffin was?”
She shook her head, negating the question’s worth. “Both! I can’t remember—Griffin, it was his mother—but what does it matter? You weren’t where you were supposed to be, where you said you’d be. I was worried sick.”
She’d been inaccessible to her son when he’d phoned, needing her, and now she berated him for not staying in touch. I had to hand it to her. She had self-centeredness down to an art.
Why had she picked up for Tea Roederer, and not for Jake? Had she been out when Jake called? Was she always where she was supposed to be?
called!” she screeched.
She’d answered that call, too. Why not Jake’s?
Jake took a step back and away from her and nearly sent me crashing to the sidewalk. “Mom,” he said, “this is my teacher. Miss Pepper, remember? And Detective Mackenzie. Could we all go inside?”
“Detective!” She clapped her hand to her mouth, flattened herself against the open door. We took it as meaning that we should come in. “What’s he done?” she asked Mackenzie. “My heart won’t take this. I can’t believe—”
“Whoa! He hasn’t done anything. I’m Miss Pepper’s friend. We… I...”
We’d forgotten to make up a cover story. Why were we here? I looked at Jake, then at the walls, waiting for a cue.
The living room was spacious, high-ceilinged, and scrubbed clean, but it nevertheless felt musty, as if its windows and doors had been kept sealed against life. Betsy’s putty-based wardrobe palette was also her color scheme for upholstery and carpets. A television on a stand was in one corner. No books were visible.
Jake took a while to come up with a story. “They—we…” He looked at his shoes, back at us, and then at his mother. “Sit down, won’t you?” he said. I was delighted to be able to, and pleasantly surprised by how comfortable the dun sofa was. I had expected it to be unyielding, a place on which to do penance.
“This is how it was,” Jake began.
There were things about Jake of which I didn’t approve, most of which had comprised the substance and offenses of this long night. But I definitely liked the way he was trying to soothe his mother. He could have, instead, battered against her, countering her hysteria with indignation. Compassion and a grasp of reality were at work here, and I respected him for it. And had hopes for his ultimate survival and triumph because of it.
“Griffin threw a party,” he said in a calming voice. “It got out of hand.”
Of all possible explanations—the truth!
“What do you mean, ‘out of hand’?” Betsy Spiers demanded.
He shrugged. “Beer, rowdiness, vandalism. Things got hurt.”
I thought again of the chandelier, that fragile symbol of opulence, and I sighed.
“Then Griffin’s parents came back a day earlier than they were supposed to, and they called the police.”
Betsy started to weep.
“Parties like that happen a lot,” Jake said. “The police usually calm things down and send the kids home.”