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About The Dead Student

About John Katzenbach

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Also by John Katzenbach

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“And if you wrong us, do we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.”

WM. SHAKESPEARE, The Merchant of Venice

Contents

Cover

Welcome Page

Epigraph

Part 1: Conversations Between Dead Men

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Part 2: Who’s the Cat? Who’s the Mouse?

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

Chapter 45

Chapter 46

Chapter 47

Chapter 48

Chapter 49

Chapter 50

Chapter 51

Epilogue: The Next Day and Beyond

Preview

About The Dead Student

Reviews

About John Katzenbach

Also by John Katzenbach

An Invitation from the Publisher

Copyright

Part 1

Conversations Between Dead Men

This is what Moth came to understand:

Addiction and murder have things in common.

In each, someone will want you to confess:

I’m a killer.

Or:

I’m an addict.

In each, at some point you’re supposed to give in to a higher power:

For your typical murderer, it’s the law. Cops, judges, maybe a prison cell. For run- of-the-mill addicts, it’s God or Jesus or Buddha or just about anything conceivably stronger than the drugs or the drink. But just give in to it. It’s the only way out. Assuming you want out.

He never thought either confession or concession was part of his emotional makeup. He did know that addiction was. He was unsure about killing, but he was determined that before too long he would find out.

1

Timothy Warner found his uncle’s body because he woke up that morning with an intense and frighteningly familiar craving, an emptiness within that buzzed deeply and repeatedly like a loud off-key chord on an electric guitar. At first he hoped that it was left over from a dream of happily knocking back shots of iced vodka with impunity. But then he reminded himself that this was his ninety-ninth day without a drink, and he realized that if he wanted to see the hundredth he would have to work hard to get through the day sober. So as soon as his feet hit the cold floor by his bed, before he glanced out the window to check the weather, or stretched his arms above his head to try to force some life into tired muscles, he reached for his iPhone and tapped the application that kept a running count of his sobriety. Yesterday’s ninety-eight clicked to ninety-nine.

He stared at the number for a moment. He no longer felt heady satisfaction or even a twinge of success. That enthusiasm had fled. Now he understood that the daily marker was just another reminder that he was always at risk. Fail. Give in. Let slip. Slide a little.

And he would be dead.

Maybe not right away, but sooner or later. He sometimes thought that sobriety was like standing unsteadily on the edge of a tall cliff, dizzily staring down into some vast Grand Canyon while being buffeted unceasingly in the midst of a gale. A gust would topple him off, and he would tumble headlong into space.

He knew this, as much as any person can know anything.

*

Across the room was a cheap, black-framed, three-quarter-length mirror propped up against the wall of his small apartment, next to the expensive bicycle that he used to get to his classes—his car and driver’s license having been taken away during his last failure. Dressed only in his baggy underwear, he stood and looked at his body.

He did not really like what he saw.

Where once he’d been attractively wiry, now he was cadaverously thin, all ribs and muscles with a single poorly executed drunken-night tattoo of a sad clown’s face up on his left shoulder. He had thick jet-black hair that he wore long and unkempt. He had dark eyebrows and an engaging, slightly cockeyed smile that made him seem friendlier than he actually thought he was. He did not know whether he was handsome, although the girl he thought was truly beautiful had told him once that he was. He had the long, thin arms and legs of a runner. He had been a second-string wide receiver on his high school football team and a straight-A student, the go-to guy for help on any upcoming chemistry lab or perilously overdue English essay. One of the biggest players on the team, a hulking lineman, stole four letters from the middle of his name, explaining that Tim or Timmy just didn’t suit Moth’s frequently driven look. It stuck, and Timothy Warner didn’t mind it all that much, because he believed moths had odd virtues and took chances flying dangerously close to open flames in their obsession with seeking light. So Moth it was, and he rarely used his full first name save for formal occasions, family gatherings, or AA meetings, when he would introduce himself saying, “Hello, my name is Timothy, and I’m an alcoholic.”

He did not think his remote parents or his deeply estranged older brother and sister still remembered his high school nickname. The only person who used it regularly, and affectionately, was his uncle, whom he hurriedly dialed as he stared at his reflection. Moth knew he had to protect himself from himself and calling his uncle was pretty much the first step at self-preservation.

As expected, he got the answering machine: “This is Doctor Warner. I’m with a patient now. Please leave a message and I will get back to you promptly.”

“Uncle Ed, it’s Moth. Really had the big crave this morning. Need to go to a meeting. Can you join me at Redeemer One for the six p.m. tonight? I’ll see you there and maybe we can talk after. I think I can make it through the day okay.” He didn’t know about this last flimsy promise.

Nor would his uncle.

Maybe, Moth thought, I should go to the lunch meeting over at the university’s student activities center or the mid-morning meeting in the back room at the Salvation Army store just six blocks away. Maybe I should just crawl back into bed, pull the covers over my head, and hide until the 6 p.m. meeting.

He preferred the early evening sessions at the First Redemption Church, which he and his uncle called Redeemer One for brevity and to give the church an exotic spaceship name. He was a regular there, as were many lawyers, doctors, and other professionals who chose to confess their cravings in the church’s comfortable, wood-paneled meeting room and overstuffed fake leather couches instead of the low-slung basement rooms, with their stiff metal folding chairs and harsh overhead lights, of most meeting places. A wealthy benefactor of the church had lost a brother to alcoholism, and it was his funding that kept the seats comfortable and the coffee fresh. Redeemer One had a sense of exclusivity. Moth was the youngest participant by far.

The ex-drunks and onetime addicts who went to Redeemer One all came from the distant worlds Moth had been told over and over he was destined to join. At least, being a doctor or a lawyer or a successful businessman was what others who probably didn’t know him all that well thought he should become.

Not a drunk doctor, addicted lawyer, or strung-out businessman.

His hand shook a little and he thought, No one tells their kid they’re gonna grow up to be a drunk or a junkie. Not in the good old USA. Land of opportunity. Here we say you’ve got a chance to grow up and be president. But a lot more people end up as drunks.

This was an easy conclusion.

He smiled wanly as he added, Probably the one or two kids that actually do get told they’re gonna grow up into drunks are so motivated to avoid that fate that they become president.

He left his iPhone on the counter in the bathroom so he could hear it ring and hurried into the steaming-hot shower. Thick shampoo and blistering water, he hoped, could scrub away caked layers of anxiety.

He had half dried off when the phone buzzed.

“Uncle Ed?”

“Hey Moth-boy, I just got your message. Trouble?”

“Trouble.”

“Big trouble?”

“Not yet. Just the want, you know. It kinda shook me up.”

“Did something specific happen, you know, that triggered...”

His uncle, Moth knew, was always interested in the underlying why because that would help him decide the overarching what.

“No. I don’t know. Nothing. But this morning there it was as soon as I opened my eyes. It was like waking up and finding some ghost seated on the edge of the bed watching me.”

“That’s scary,” his uncle said. “But not exactly an unfamiliar ghost.” Uncle Ed paused, a psychiatrist’s delay, measuring words like a fine carpenter calculates lengths. “You think waiting until six tonight makes sense? What about an earlier meeting?”

“I have classes almost all day. I should be able—”

“That’s if you go to the classes.”

Moth stayed quiet. This was obvious.

“That’s if,” his uncle continued, “you don’t walk out of your apartment, take a sharp left, and run directly to that big discount liquor store on LeJeune Road. You know, the one with the big blinking goddamn red neon sign that every drunk in Dade County knows about. And it’s got free parking.” These last words were tinged with contempt and sarcasm.

Again, Moth said nothing. He wondered: Was that what I was going to do? There might have been a yes lurking somewhere within him that he hadn’t quite heard yet but that was getting ready to shout at him. His uncle knew all the inner conversations before they even happened.

“You think you can turn right, start pedaling that bike nice and fast, and head toward school? You think you can get through each class—what do you have this morning?”

“Advanced seminar on current applications of Jeffersonian principles. It’s what the great man said and did two hundred and fifty years ago that still means something today. That’s followed by a required two-hour statistics lecture after lunch.”

His uncle paused again, and Moth imagined him grinning. “Well, Jefferson is always pretty damn interesting. Slaves and sex. Wildly clever inventions and incredible architecture. But that advanced statistics class, well, boring. How did you ever end up in that? What has that got to do with a doctorate in American History? It would drive anyone to drink.”

This was a frequently shared joke, and Moth managed a small laugh. “Word,” he said, the historian in him enjoying the irony of employing teenage-speak already in disuse and discarded.

“So, how about a compromise?” his uncle said. “We’ll meet at Redeemer One at six, like you said. But you go to the lunch meeting over at the campus center. That’s at noon. You call me as you walk in. You don’t even have to get up and say a damn thing unless you feel like it—you just have to be there. And you call me when you walk out. Then you call me again when you walk into the statistics class. And when you walk out. And each time figure on holding that phone up so I can hear that professor, droning on in the background. That’s what I want to hear. Nice, safe, boring lecture stuff. Not glasses clinking.”

Moth knew his uncle was a veteran alcoholic, well versed in the myriad excuses, explanations, and evasions of everything except another drink. His personal tally of days sober was now well into the thousands. Maybe nearly seven thousand, a number that Moth believed he would find truly impossible to attain. He was more than a sponsor. He was Virgil to Moth’s drunken Dante. Moth knew his uncle Ed had saved his life and had done so more than once.

“Okay,” Moth said. “So, we meet at six?”

“Yeah. Save me a comfy seat, because I might be delayed a couple of minutes. I got an emergency appointment request for late this afternoon.”

“Someone like me?” Moth asked.

“Moth, boy. There ain’t nobody like you,” his uncle replied, slipping into a fake Southern drawl. “Nah. More likely some sad-eyed suburban housewife depressive whose meds are running low and is panicking big-time because her regular therapist is on vacation. All I am is a glorified, overeducated prescription pad waiting to be signed. See you tonight. And call. All those times. You know I’ll be waiting.”

“I’ll call. Thanks, Uncle Ed.”

“No big deal.”

But of course, it was.

*

Moth made the specified phone calls, each time safely bantering about nothing important for a few moments with his uncle. Moth had not thought he would say anything at the noontime meeting, but near the end of the session, at the urging of the young theology professor who ran the gathering, he had risen and shared his fears over his morning desires. Almost all the heads had nodded in recognition.

When he exited from the meeting, he took his Trek 20-speed mountain bike to the university’s playing fields. The high-tech rubberized quarter-mile track that encircled a football practice field was empty and despite a warning sign that told students to keep off unless under supervision, he lifted the bike over a turnstile gate, and after a quick look right and left to make sure he was alone, started riding in circles.

He picked up his pace quickly, energized by the clicking of the gears beneath him, the torque as he leaned dangerously into each turn, the steady accumulation of speed mixed with the high cloudless azure sky of a typical Miami winter’s afternoon. As he pumped his legs and felt muscles tightening with energy, he could sense the crave being pushed aside and buried within him. Four laps rapidly became twenty. Sweat started to burn his eyes. He could hear his breath coming harder with the exertion. He felt like a boxer whose roundhouse right has staggered his opponent. Keep throwing punches, he told himself. Victory was within sight.

When he finished the twenty-eighth lap, he pulled the bike to a sudden stop, tires squealing against the red synthetic track surface. Chances were good a campus security officer would swing by any second—he’d already pushed that envelope.

What would he do, yell at me? Moth thought. Give me a citation for trying to stay sober?

Moth lifted the bike back over the gate. Then he leisurely retraced his route to the wrought-iron stand adjacent to the science building where he could lock up the Trek and head to statistics. He passed a security guard in a small white SUV and gave a cheery wave to the driver, who didn’t wave back. Moth knew he would probably start to stink as the sweat dried after he entered the air-conditioned classroom, but he didn’t care.

Miraculously, he thought, it was turning into a small, but optimistic day.

A hundred now seemed not only attainable, but probable.

*

Moth waited outside a bit, right until a minute shy of six, before going inside Redeemer One and heading to the meeting lounge. There were already twenty or so men and women seated in a loose circle, all of whom greeted Moth with a nod or a small wave. A thin haze of cigarette smoke hung in the room—an acceptable addiction for drunks, Moth thought. He looked at the others. Doctor, lawyer, engineer, professor. Tinker, tailor, soldier, spy. And then himself: graduate student. There was a dark oaken table at the back of the room with a coffee urn and ceramic mugs. There was also a small shiny metal tub filled with ice and a selection of diet soft drinks and bottled water.

Moth found a spot and set his tattered student backpack down beside him. The regulars would easily have guessed that he was saving a space for his uncle—who had, after all, been the person who introduced Moth to Redeemer One and its high-class collection of addicts.

It was not until perhaps fifteen minutes into the meeting that Moth began to fidget nervously when there was no sign of his uncle. Something felt misshapen, a note out of tune. While Uncle Ed would sometimes be a few minutes late, if he said he was coming, he always showed up. Moth kept turning his head away from the speaker toward the door, expecting his uncle to make an apologetic entrance at any moment.

The speaker was talking hesitantly about OxyContin and the warm sensation that it gave him. Moth tried to pay attention. He thought that was a most commonplace description, and differed little whether the speaker was sharing something about morphine-based pharmaceuticals, home-brewed methamphetamine, or store-bought cheap gin. The plummeting, welcoming warmth that permeated head and body seemed to wrap up an addict’s soul. It had been true for him during his few years of addiction, and he suspected his uncle, during his decades, had felt the same.

Warmth, Moth thought. How crazy is it to live in Miami, where it is always hot, and need some other heat?

Moth tried to focus on the man talking. He was an engineer—a likeable guy, a middle-aged, slightly dumpy, bald-headed man of tolerances and stresses, employed by one of the larger construction firms in the city. The realist in Moth wondered just how many condo buildings and office skyscrapers might have been constructed down on Brickell Avenue by a man who cared more for the numbers of pills he could obtain each day than the numbers on architectural plans.

He turned to the door when he heard it open, but it was a woman—an assistant state attorney, probably a dozen years older than he was. Dark-haired, intense, she wore a trim blue business suit and carried a leather portfolio case instead of a designer pocketbook and even at the end of the workday, she looked carefully put together. She was a relative newcomer to Redeemer One. She had attended only a few meetings and said little on each occasion, so she remained largely a mystery to the regulars. Recently divorced. Major crimes. Drug of choice: cocaine. “Hello, I’m Susan and I’m an addict.” She mumbled her apologies to no one and everyone and slid quietly into a chair in the back.

When it was his turn to share, Moth stammered and declined.

The meeting ended without a sign of his uncle.

Moth walked out with the others. In the church parking lot he shared a few perfunctory hugs and exchanged some phone numbers, as was customary following a meeting. The engineer asked him where his uncle was, and Moth told him that Ed had planned to come, but must have gotten hung up with a patient emergency. The engineer, plus a heart surgeon and a philosophy professor who’d been listening in, had all nodded in the special way that recovering addicts have, as if acknowledging that the scenario Moth described was most likely true, but just maybe it wasn’t. Each told him to call if he needed to talk.

None of the people at the meeting were so rude as to point out that his earlier exercise on the track had resulted in a stale, ripe odor about him. Since he was the youngest regular at Redeemer One, they all cut Moth some slack, probably because he reminded them of themselves—just twenty years or more earlier. And everyone at the meeting was familiar with the foul scents of nausea, waste, and despair that accompanied their addictions, so they had developed tolerances for rank odors that went far beyond the norm.

Moth stood around, shuffling his feet. He watched the others disappear. It was still warm: a humid, thick blanket that made it seem like the evening had wrapped itself around him, cloaking him in tightening shadow. He could feel himself sweating again.

He was unsure when he made the decision to go to his uncle’s office. He just looked up and found himself on his bicycle, pedaling fiercely in that direction.

Cars sliced through the night around him. He had a single flashing red safety light attached to the rear wheel frame, though he doubted that it would do much good. Miami drivers have loose relationships with the rules of the roadway, and sometimes yielding to a person on a bicycle seemed either like a terrible loss of face or a task so difficult it was beyond anyone’s innate ability. He was accustomed to being cut off and nearly sideswiped every hundred yards and secretly enjoyed the ever-present, car-crushing danger.

His uncle’s office was in a small building ten blocks away from the high-end shops on Miracle Mile in Coral Gables, which was only a mile or two from the university campus. After the shopping district, the road became a four-lane too-fast boulevard, with frequent stoplights, east and west to frustrate the Mercedes-Benz and BMW drivers hurrying home after work. The road was divided by a wide center swath of stately palms and twisted banyan trees. The palms seemed puritan in their upright rigor, while the ancient mangroves were Gordian knots and devilishly misshapen, gnarled with age. Each direction seemed almost encased, tunnels formed by haphazard sweeping branches. Auto headlights carved out arcs of light through the spaces between the trunks.

Moth pedaled quickly, dodging cars, sometimes ignoring red lights if he thought he could zip safely through the intersection. More than one driver honked at him, sometimes for no reason other than the fact that he was there and using up space that they believed they both needed and deserved for their oversized SUV.

He was breathing hard, his pulse throbbing, when he arrived at the office building. Moth chained his bike to a tree in front. It was a dull, redbrick building, four squat stories with an old, slightly decrepit feel to it, especially in a city devoted to modern, young, and hip. There were wide windows in the back of the office that overlooked a few side streets and the rear parking lot and a single tall palm tree and not much else. It was, Moth had always thought, a very unprepossessing place for a man so successful in his practice.

He walked around the back and saw his uncle’s silver Porsche convertible parked in its designated slot.

Moth did not know what to think. Patient? Emergency?

He hesitated before going up to the small suite. He told himself that he could simply wait by the Porsche and sooner or later his uncle would emerge.

Something important must have come up. That appointment he said was going to make him late at Redeemer One. Something far more serious than a new prescription for Zoloft. Maybe mania. Hallucinations. Loss of control. Death threats. Hospital. Something. He wanted to believe the story he’d told a few minutes earlier to his fellow Redeemer One regulars.

Moth took the elevator up to the top floor. It creaked and jerked a bit on the fourth-floor landing. The building was silent. He guessed that none of the dozen other therapists in the building were working late. Few of them used secretaries—their clientele knew when to arrive and when to leave.

His uncle’s top-floor office had a small, barely comfortable waiting room with out-of-date magazines in a rack. In an adjacent larger room, Uncle Ed had space for a desk, a chair, and an analyst’s couch, which he used much less frequently than he had a dozen years earlier.

Moth quietly entered his uncle’s office and reached for the familiar small buzzer just by the door. There was a friendly handwritten sign taped above the buzzer for patients: Ring twice nice and loud to let me know you have arrived, and take a seat.

That was what Moth intended to do. But his finger hesitated over the ringer when he saw the door to his uncle’s office ajar.

He moved to the door.

“Uncle Ed?” he said out loud.

Then he pushed the door open.

*

This is what Moth managed:

He stopped himself from screaming.

He tried to touch the body, but the blood and greasy viscous brain matter from a gaping head wound splattered over the desk and staining his uncle’s white shirt and colorful tie made him pull his hand back. Nor did he touch the small semiautomatic pistol dropped to the floor next to the outstretched right hand. His uncle’s fingers seemed frozen into a claw.

He knew his uncle was dead, but he couldn’t say the word dead to himself.

He called 911. Shakily.

He listened to his high-pitched voice asking for help and giving his uncle’s office address, each word sounding like it was some stranger speaking.

He looked around, trying to imprint everything in his memory, until all that he absorbed exhausted him. Nothing he saw explained anything to him.

He slumped to the floor, waiting.

He furiously held back tears when he gave the policemen who arrived within a few minutes a statement. Then he gave a second statement an hour later, repeating everything he had already said, to first-names-only Susan, the assistant state attorney in the blue suit whom he had seen at Redeemer One that evening. She did not mention that as she passed him her business card.

He waited until the medical examiner’s half-hearse, half-ambulance arrived and he watched as two white-suited technicians loaded his uncle’s body into a black vinyl body bag, which they placed on a stretcher. This was routine for them, and they handled the body with a practiced nonchalance. He caught a single glance at the red-tinged hole in his uncle’s temple before the body was zipped away. He knew he was not likely to ever forget this.

He replied “I don’t know” when a tired-sounding police detective asked him, “Why would your uncle kill himself ?” And he had added, “He was happy. He was okay. His problems were all behind him. Like way behind him.”

He had abruptly asked his own question of the detectives: “What do you mean he killed himself ? He wouldn’t do that. Absolutely no way.” Despite his insistence, the detective seemed unmoved, and didn’t reply. Moth had looked around wildly, knowing something was telling him he was right.

He turned down the assistant state attorney’s offer of a ride home. He stood outside in the waiting room while crime scene analysts perfunctorily processed the office. This took several hours. He spent that time trying to make his mind go blank.

And then, when the last flashing light from all the police cruisers clicked off, he descended into a maelstrom of helplessness and without thinking about what he was doing, or perhaps thinking it was the only thing remaining he could do, Moth went hunting for a drink.

2

You’re a killer.

No I’m not.

Yes you are. You killed him. Or her. But you did it. No one else. You, all alone, all by yourself. Killer. Murderer.

I didn’t. I didn’t. I couldn’t. Not really.

Yes you could. And you did. Killer.

One week after her abortion, Andy Candy lay in the fetal position, curled up in pink frills and pastel throw pillows on her bed in the small room in the modest home where she had grown up. Candy wasn’t her actual name, but a playground rhyme used since her birth by her once-doting, now-dead father. His name had been Andrew, and she was supposed to be a boy and named after him. Andrea had been the best at-the-hospital compromise her folks could arrive at when presented with a girl baby, but Andy Candy it had been ever since, a constant reminder of her father and the cancer that had stolen him prematurely, a weight that Andy Candy carried permanently.

Her last name was Martine, pronounced with a slightly frenchified tone to it, a family acknowledgment of ancestors who had come to the USA nearly 150 years earlier. Once Andy Candy had dreams of traveling to Paris as an homage to her ancestry and to see the Eiffel Tower and eat flaky croissants and sweet pastries and maybe have an affair with an older man in a sort of New Wave romance. This was just one of many pleasant fantasies about what she would do as soon as she graduated from the university equipped with her shiny new English Literature degree. There was even a colorful travel poster on the wall of her bedroom showing a quite stunning hand-holding couple walking next to the Seine in October. The poster underscored the simplistic Paris Is for Lovers travel agency vision of the city that Andy Candy believed absolutely had to be true. In reality, she did not speak French, indeed no one she knew spoke French, and other than a high school trip to Montreal for a theater presentation of Waiting for Godot she had never been anywhere special. She had never even heard the language spoken out loud by anyone other than a teacher.

But, in any tongue, Andy Candy was now in pain, in tears, in utter despair, and she continued to argue with herself, one second a hand-wringing supplicant, forlornly pleading for forgiveness, the next haranguing herself, like something more than a housewife kitchen scold, more even than a zealous prosecutor: a cold-blooded, dark-hooded, and relentless inquisitor.

I had no choice. None. Really. What could I do?

Everyone has a choice, killer. Many choices. It was wrong and you know it.

No it wasn’t. I had no alternative. I did the right thing. I’m sorry sorry sorry, but it was the right thing.

That’s so easy, murderer. Just so-o-o-o easy. Who was it the right thing for?

For everyone.

Really? Everyone? Are you sure? What a lie. Liar. Killer. Liar-killer.

Andy Candy hugged a worn toy teddy bear. She pulled a handmade quilt decorated with red hearts and yellow flowers over her head, as if she could shut away the fury of the argument. She could feel two parts warring within her, one whiny and apologetic, the other insistent. She wished she could be a child again. She shivered, sobbed, and thought that by hugging a stuffed toy animal she could somehow shed years, travel backward to a time when things were much easier. It was as if she wanted to hide in her past so that her future couldn’t see her and hunt her down.

Andy Candy buried her head into the toy’s fake fur, and she sobbed, trying to muffle her voice so she couldn’t be heard. Then, gasping slightly, she held the stuffed animal over one ear and cupped her hand over the other, as if trying to block the sound of the argument.

It wasn’t my fault. I was the victim. Forgive me. Please.

Never.

Andy Candy’s mother fingered a crucifix hanging around her neck, then touched middle C on the piano keyboard. She held her fingers out over the ivories in much the same way that Adrien Brody did in her favorite movie, The Pianist, and without making a sound, shut her eyes and played a nocturne from Chopin. She did not actually have to hear the notes to listen to the music. Her hands rolled above the array of glistening keys like whitecaps upon the ocean.

At the same time, she knew that her daughter was sobbing uncontrollably in the back bedroom. She could not actually hear these sounds either, but just like the Chopin, the notes were crystal clear. She sighed deeply and rested her hands in her lap, as if a recital had finished and she was awaiting applause. The Chopin faded, replaced by the concert of sadness she knew was playing in the back of the house.

Shrugging briefly, she spun about on the bench. Her next student wasn’t due for at least a half hour, so she knew she had time to go to her daughter’s side and try to comfort her. But she had attempted this many times already over the last week, and all her hugs and back rubs and hair stroking and softly spoken words had merely ended in more tears. She had given up on being rational: “Date rape isn’t your fault...” And sensitive: “You can’t punish yourself...” And finally, practical: “Look, Andy, you can’t hide here. You’ve got to start pulling yourself together and facing life. Bringing an unwanted child into this world is a sin...”

She didn’t know if she believed this last statement.

She looked over to the frayed living room couch, where a half-pug, half-poodle, a goofy-looking golden-colored mutt, and a sad-eyed greyhound were all assembled, eagerly watching her. The three dogs had that What’s next? How about a walk? look about them. When she made eye contact, three tails of different shapes and sizes started wagging.

“No walk,” she said. “Later.”

The dogs—all rescue dogs adopted before his death by her husband, a softhearted veterinarian—continued to wag, even though she knew they just might understand the reason for the delay. Dogs are like that, she thought. They know when you’re happy. They know when you’re sad.

It had been some time since anyone would have used the word happy to describe the house.

“Andrea,” Andy Candy’s mother said out loud, in a tired tone that reflected nothing but futility. “I’m coming.” She said this, but she didn’t budge from the piano bench.

The phone rang.

She thought she should not answer it, although why she could not have said. Instead, she reached out for the receiver and at the same moment looked over at the three dogs and pointed down the hallway to where she knew her daughter was suffering. “Andy Candy’s room. Right now. Try to cheer her up.”

The three dogs, displaying an obedience that spoke to her late husband’s ability to train animals, jumped from the couch and scrambled down the hallway enthusiastically. She knew if the door was shut, they’d bark and the pug-poodle hybrid would get up on his hind legs and start to paw frantically in Let me in insistence. If it was ajar, the mutt, the biggest of the three, would shoulder the door aside and they would all make a beeline for her bed. Good idea, she thought. Maybe they can make her feel better.

Andy Candy’s mother spoke into the phone. “Hello?”

“Mrs. Martine?”

“Yes. Speaking.”

The voice on the other end seemed strangely familiar, although a little uncertain and perhaps shaky.

“This is Timothy Warner...”

A surge of memory and a little pleasure. “Moth! Why, Moth, what a surprise...”

A hesitation. “I’m, umm, trying to reach Andrea, and I wondered if you could give me her number at school.”

A brief silence filled the air when Andy Candy’s mother didn’t instantly reply. She made a mental note that Moth, who wore his own nickname proudly, had often used her daughter’s actual name in past years. Not always, but frequently he had employed the formal Andrea, which had elevated his status in the eyes of Andy Candy’s mother.

“I heard about Doctor Martine,” he added cautiously. “I sent a card. I should have called, but...”

She knew he wanted to say something about colon cancer death, but there was nothing really to say. “Yes. We got it. It was very thoughtful of you. He always liked you, Moth. Thank you. But why are you calling now? Moth, we haven’t heard from you in years!”

“Yes. Four, I think. Maybe a little less.”

Four of course went back to shortly before the day her husband died. “But why now?” she repeated. She wasn’t sure whether she needed to be protective of her daughter. Andy Candy was twenty-two years old, and most people would have considered her a grown-up. But the young woman sobbing away in the back room seemed significantly closer to a baby this day. The Moth she had known a few years back wasn’t much of a threat, but four years is a long time, and she didn’t know what he had become. People change, she thought, and she’d been surprised by the out-of-the-blue voice on the other end of the line. Would a call from her daughter’s first real boyfriend help her or hurt her right about now?

“I just wanted...” He stopped. He sighed, resigned. “If you don’t want to give me her number, that’s okay...”

“She’s home.”

A second brief silence.

“I thought she’d be finishing up the semester. Doesn’t she graduate in June?”

“She’s had a setback or two.” Andy Candy’s mother thought this was a neutral enough description to describe a sudden, unplanned pregnancy.

“So have I,” Moth said. “That’s sort of why I wanted to speak with her.”

Andy Candy’s mother paused. She was listening to an equation in her head. More than something mathematical, it was a musical score to accompany runaway emotions. Moth had once played major chords in her daughter’s life, and she wasn’t at all sure that this was the right time to replay them. On the other hand, Andy Candy might be legitimately furious when she discovered that her once-upon-a-time boyfriend had called and her mother had blocked the conversation out of some misguided sense of protection. She did not know exactly how to respond and so she came up with a mother-safe compromise. “Tell you what, Moth. I’ll go ask her if she will speak with you. If the answer is no, well...”

“I’d understand. It wasn’t like we split on the best of terms anyway, all those years ago. But thank you. I appreciate it.”

“Okay. Hold on.”

If I promise to never ever ever kill anything or anyone again, will you leave me alone? Please.

Don’t make a promise you can’t keep, killer.

The dogs were suddenly crowding Andy Candy just as they had been ordered. They tried to get to her face under the covers, nosing aside pillows and blankets, eager to lick away her tears, irrepressible in their dog-enthusiasm. The Inquisitor within her seemed to lurk back into some inner shadow as she was besieged by snuffling, odorous, pawing demands for attention. She cracked a small smile and stifled a final sob; it was hard to be miserable with affectionate dogs nudging against her, but at the same time it was hard not to be miserable.

She didn’t hear her mother at the door until she spoke. “Andy?”

Instant, automatic reply: “Leave me alone.”

“There’s a phone call for you.”

Bitter, expected answer: “I don’t want to talk to anyone.”

“I know,” her mother replied gently. Hesitation. Then: “It’s Moth. Of all people to call now...”

Andy Candy inhaled sharply. In milliseconds she was flooded with memories, good, happy ones vying against sad, tortured ones.

“He’s on the phone, waiting,” her mother repeated unnecessarily.

“Does he know...” she started, but she stopped because she knew the answer to her question: Of course not.

This was one of those moments, Andy Candy instantly understood, where if she said No or Get his number, I’ll call him back or Tell him to call me sometime later, whatever reason he had that made him call her right then would evaporate and be lost forever. She was uncertain what to do. The rush of her past captured her like a strong current pulling her away from the safety of the beach. She remembered laughter, love, excitement, adventure, some pain and some pleasure, then anger and a different kind of heartsick depression when they’d split up. My first high school love, she thought. My only real love. It leaves a deep mark.

A large part of her said: Tell her to tell him, “Thanks but no thanks. I have more than enough pain in my life right now, if you please.” Tell her to say I just want to be left alone. No other explanation is necessary. Then just hang up. But she did not say this, or any of the thoughts that reverberated around within her.

“I’ll take it,” she said, surprising herself, pushing herself up, scattering dogs to the floor, and reaching for the phone.

She lifted the receiver to her ear, then stopped and stared fiercely at her mother, who immediately retreated back down the hallway and out of earshot. Andy Candy took a deep breath, wondered for an instant whether she could speak without letting her voice crack, and finally whispered softly, “Moth?”

“Hi, Andy,” he said.

Two words, spoken as if from miles and years away, but both distance and time collapsing in an instant, racing together explosively, almost as if he were suddenly standing in the room beside her, stroking her cheek. She raised her free hand reflexively, as if she could actually feel his against her flesh.

“It’s been a long time,” she said.

“I know. But I’ve been thinking about you a lot,” Moth replied. “Lately, I guess, even more. So, how have you been?”

“Not so good,” she replied.

He paused. “Me neither.”

“Why have you called?” she asked. It surprised Andy Candy to be so brusque. She thought it wasn’t like her to be direct and forceful, although she understood she might be completely wrong about that. And just hearing her onetime boyfriend’s voice filled her with so many mingled feelings she wasn’t sure how to respond; but she was alert to the idea that one of these feelings was pleasure.

“I have a problem,” he said. His voice was slow and deliberate, which also wasn’t exactly like she remembered Moth, who was more impulsive and filled with devil-may-care energy. She was trying to detect who he’d become since she last saw him. “No,” he contradicted himself. “I have more than a couple of problems. Little ones and big ones. And I didn’t know where else to turn. I don’t have a lot of people I trust anymore, and I thought of you.”

She did not know if this was a compliment. “I’m listening,” she said. She thought this was inadequate. She needed to say something stronger to get him to continue. Moth was like that. A little nudge, and he would open up wide. “Why don’t you start with—”

“My uncle,” he said quickly, interrupting her. Then he repeated himself: “My uncle.” These two words seemed accented with some despair and weighted with some ferocity that resonated. “I trusted him, but he died.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Andy Candy said. “He was the psychiatrist, right?”

“Yes. You remember.”

“I only met him once or twice. He wasn’t at all like anyone else in your family. I liked him. He was funny. That’s what I remember. How did he...?” She didn’t have to finish the question.

“It wasn’t like how your dad passed away. He didn’t get sick. No hospitals and priests. My uncle shot himself. Or that’s what everyone thinks. Like my whole tight-ass family and the damn cops.”

Andy Candy said nothing.

“I don’t think he killed himself.”

“You don’t?”

“No.”

“Then how...”

“Only one other possibility: I think he was murdered.”

She was silent for a moment.

“Why do you think that?”

“He wouldn’t kill himself. That wasn’t him. He’d overcome so many problems, something new—if there was something—wouldn’t faze him. And he wouldn’t have left me all alone. Not now, no way. So, if he didn’t do it, someone else had to.”

This wasn’t really an explanation, Andy Candy realized. It was more a conclusion based on the flimsiest of ideas.

“It’s up to me to find the person who killed him.” Moth’s voice had grown rigid, cold, and tough, barely recognizable. “No one else will look. Just me.”

She paused again. The conversation wasn’t at all what she’d expected, though she didn’t know what she had expected in the first place.

“Why, how...” she started, not really expecting answers.

“And when I find him, I have to kill him. Whoever he is,” Moth said. Unexpected ferocity. Not call the cops or even just do something about it, something vague and indistinct and actually appropriate. Andy Candy was shocked, astonished, instantly scared. But she didn’t hang up.

“I need your help,” Moth said.

Help could mean many things. But Andy Candy rocked back on her bed, as if she’d been pushed hard and slammed down. She wasn’t sure she could breathe.

Killer.

Don’t make a promise you can’t keep.

3

He picked a place to meet that seemed benign.

Or, at the minimum, wouldn’t evoke something from their past or say something about what he anticipated for their future—if there was any to be had. He rode a bus and fingered a picture he had: Andy at seventeen. Happy, looking up from a burger and fries. But this memory was crowded aside.

“Hello. My name is Timothy. I’m an alcoholic. I have three days sober.”

“Hi Timothy!” from the gathering at Redeemer One. He thought the entire group appeared subdued but genuinely glad he was back amidst them. When he had sidled awkwardly into the room at the start of the meeting, more than one of the regulars had risen from their chairs and eagerly embraced him, and several had wrapped him in condolences that he knew were sincere. He was sure that they all knew about his uncle’s death and could easily imagine what it had pushed him into. When called upon to testify, for the first time he had the odd thought that perhaps he meant more to all of them than they did to him, but he did not know exactly why.

“Three whole damn days,” he repeated, before sitting down.

*

Moth put his ninety hours of recent sobriety into a mental calendar:

Day One: He woke up at dawn collapsed on the red-dirt infield of a Little League diamond. He had no recollection of where he’d spent the greater part of the night. His wallet was gone, as was one of his shoes. The stench of vomit overcame everything else. He was unsure where he found the strength to unevenly stagger the twenty-seven blocks back to his apartment, once he’d figured out where he was. He limped the last blocks on a sole torn raw by the sidewalks. Once inside, he stripped off his clothes like a snake shedding a worthless skin and cleaned up—hot shower, comb, and toothbrush. He tossed everything he’d been wearing into the trash and realized that it was two weeks since his uncle died and he had not been home in all that time. He was mildly grateful for the blackout that prevented him from realizing what other baseball diamonds he’d slept on.

He told himself to climb back onto the wagon, but spent the entire day in his darkened apartment hiding, physically sick, stomach twisted, day sweats turning to night sweats, afraid to go outside. It was as if some sultry, seductive siren was awaiting him, right past his front door, and she would lure him into a trip to the liquor store or a nearby bar. Like Odysseus from antiquity and legend, he tried to rope himself to a mast.

Day Two: At the end of a day spent raw and shaking on the floor by his bed, he finally answered a succession of calls from his parents. They were angry and disappointed, and probably concerned, as well, although that was harder to discern. They had left messages and it was clear they knew why he’d disappeared. And they knew where he’d disappeared to. Not specifically. They didn’t need to know the exact addresses of the dives that welcomed him. And he’d learned that he’d missed his uncle’s funeral. This detail had pitched him into an hour-long sobbing jag.

He was a little surprised, when they’d finished talking, that he hadn’t gone out for a drink. His hands had quivered, but he was encouraged by even that small show of addiction-defiance. He had repeated to himself a mantra: Do what Uncle Ed would do, do what Uncle Ed would do. That night, he shivered under a thin blanket, although the apartment was stifling hot and the air moist and humid.

Day Three: In the morning, as his pounding headache and uncontrollable shakes started to diminish, he’d called Susan the assistant state attorney who had given him her card. She didn’t sound surprised to hear from him, nor did she think it unusual that he’d waited so long to call.

“It’s a closed case, or nearly closed, Timothy,” she had gently informed him. “We’re just waiting on a final toxicology report. I’m sorry to have to say this, but it’s designated a suicide.” She did not say why this detail made her sorry, nor did he ask. He had weakly responded, “I still don’t believe it. May I read the file before you put it away?” She had answered, “Do you really think that will help you?” It was clear that her use of the word help had nothing to do with his uncle’s death. “Yes,” he said, with no certainty. He made an appointment to come to her office later in the week.

After hanging up, he’d returned to his bed, stared at the ceiling for over an hour, and decided two things: return to Redeemer One that night because that would be what his uncle wanted for him; call Andy Candy because when he tried to come up with the name of anyone in the entire world who might listen to him and not think he was a half-grief-crazed drunken fool running his mouth irrationally, she was the only remaining candidate.

*

Matheson Hammock Park was an easy bus ride for Moth. He sat in the back row with the window cracked open just an inch or two so he could pick up the scent of hydrangeas and azaleas carried on the slippery midday heat, without compromising the steady cool wheeze of the bus’s air-conditioning. There were only a couple of other folks on the bus. Moth saw a young black woman—he guessed Jamaican—wearing a white nurse’s outfit. She had a dog-eared paperback Spanish Language Made Easy study book in her hands. Moth could see her lips moving as she practiced the language that was nearly essential to working in Miami.

At his feet, Moth had a plastic bag with a large media noche sandwich for them to share, some bottled water, and a fizzy lemonade drink that he recalled Andy Candy had liked on their other picnic-type excursions to South Beach or Bill Baggs State Park on Key Biscayne. He could not remember ever taking her to Matheson Hammock, which was, in no small way, why he had chosen that location. No shared history in this park. No memory of lips grazing, or the silky sensation of young bodies touching in warm water.

Love dreams were best forgot, he thought.

He did not know whether Andy Candy would actually show up. She had said she would, and she was probably the most honest person he knew, now that his uncle was dead. But the realist in him—a very small part, he inwardly conceded—had doubts. He knew he had been cryptic and obtuse and probably a little scary on the phone, with his sudden talk of murder.

“I wouldn’t come meet me,” he whispered to himself above the sound of the bus engine’s slowing for his stop. He rose and pushed himself into the bright early afternoon sun.

He stuck to a wide path that paralleled the entrance drive into the park. More than one jogger cruised past him beneath the cypress trees that shaded the route. He ignored the coral rock building, where a young woman sold tickets and maps and which had a large “Florida’s Disappearing Habitat” sign out front, with pictures of how squeezed for territory all the native animals were. He paused near a stand of palm trees that edged up against Biscayne Bay, where a young Latin American couple were going through a wedding rehearsal. The priest was smiling, trying to relax everyone by making jokes, which neither mother seemed to find even remotely funny.

Moth waited at the end of the parking lot on a bench that had a single palm that shaded it. He could hear high-pitched laughter from the tip of the park, where a wide, shallow man-made lagoon created a special place for small children to play. The nearby beach seemed to glow silver in the strong sunlight.

He was going to pull out his cell phone, check the time, but stopped himself. If Andy Candy was late, he didn’t want to know it. He thought, There’s always a risk in counting on someone else. Maybe they don’t come. Maybe they die.

Closing his eyes for a moment against the glare, he counted heartbeats, as if he could take the pulse of his emotions. When he opened his eyes, he saw a small red sedan come into the lot and pull into a space near the back. Like many cars in Miami, it had tinted glass, but he caught a glimpse of blond hair and knew it was Andy Candy.

Before she was out of the car, he was on his feet. He waved, and she waved back.