Authors: Lisa Scottoline
He collected a few pieces of wood, then rooted through the storage shelves and found some old soiled towels and rags. He grabbed some to-be-recycled newspapers, his bloody jeans, and the brown bag that held the bloody parka, then hustled out of the garage, glancing around to see if any of his neighbors were watching. Only his neighbor across the street, Sherry Kelly, was out, but she was already walking up her front walk, her back to him, so the coast was clear. Even so, Jake was about to do what plenty of suburban daddies did on a Saturday, which was burn some trash in a burn pile. Technically, he needed a permit, but the law was honored only in the breach.
He went down the side of the property, then let himself past their gate and into their yard, screened from view by their privacy fence. It was six feet tall, and it enclosed their backyard on the east and west sides, but left it open in back to the woods that surrounded the development. They owned a two-acre parcel, and neither he nor Pam had seen any reason to cut themselves off from the forest, a decision that would work to his benefit right now.
He hurried past their swimming pool, covered with a stretched green tarp for the winter, to the back where he kept his burn pile. He worried about a neighbor’s wandering by, or the off-chance that the police decided to start enforcing the law, or Pam’s having forgotten something, but he had prepared for all of those eventualities as best he could, using the other trash for cover.
Jake dumped the brown bag, rags, and wood on the cold ashes of the burn pile, where the lumber landed with a clatter. He bunched up the newspapers, reached into his pocket, pulled out the pack of matches, then struck the match. The newspaper began to burn, smoldering at the ragged corner at first, then catching fire gradually, curling the front-page headline
BUDGET DEFICIT WIDENS
before it burst into flames.
He glanced reflexively over his shoulder, but no one could see, and he reminded himself again that even if they could, nothing would look amiss. He burned trash all the time, probably once a month, and gray smoke rose from the burn pile like it always did. It didn’t even smell funny. A sharp-eyed neighbor might have noticed that he was standing closer to the pile than usual, but no one was watching.
Jake grabbed a stick and stirred the pile, encouraging the flames to creep over the plywood, and when it began to catch, he tossed the stick aside, bent over the paper bag, and rolled out his jeans and balled-up parka. He fed the parka to the fire, starting with the front, where the blood had been. He couldn’t get close enough to see the stains, but he knew they were there. The black nylon was stiff where the blood had dried, making shapes that reminded him of a map of the continents, so when the jacket finally caught fire, the entire globe was aflame.
He stood there, watching, waiting, and tending the fire, then threw in the bloody jeans and burned them, too, until wood, rags, newspaper, and incriminating evidence had been consumed, and all that remained were chunks of charred wood and the melted plastic zipper of his jacket, lying on the glowing ashes like the molted black skin of a snake.
Jake turned back to get the hose. Luckily, it was getting dark out and the risk of detection was miniscule, if not nil. Still, he wasn’t about to take any chances. He planned to put out the fire, gather the ashes, and dump them. Oddly, he felt no relief now that the jacket had been destroyed, and if anything, he felt worse than before. Now, if all went right, or dreadfully wrong, neither he nor his son would ever pay for the young life they had taken.
Smoke clung to his sweater and filled his nostrils, and he took a few deep breaths as he strode toward the house. He reached the hose and was about to turn on the faucet, but he looked around, yet again, to make sure no one was watching. But this time, there was a silhouette in the window on his own second floor, at the back of the house. It was Ryan, motionless, then he vanished.
Fifteen minutes later, Jake was driving a white Toyota Corolla, the “intermediate” rental car. He was hoping to make quick work of disposing of the soggy ashes and melted zipper, which he had scooped into a large coffee can and stowed in the trunk. He cruised through his development, avoiding his neighbors’ eyes, even as he scanned their trash cans. He couldn’t take a chance of being seen disposing of the ashes. It was dark, but there were still too many people around, unloading their cars.
He hit the road, heading for the first gas station, but bypassed it when there were too many people in line waiting to fill up. He cruised ahead and figured he’d stop at the Wegman’s, but as he steered into the landscaped entrance, he spotted the boxy security cameras on the stores. He decided against, curved around the turnaround, and navigated out the exit.
He hit the gas and found himself surveying every stoplight for a camera meant to catch traffic violations, but which could also catch him. He tried to think where he could dispose of the ashes. He needed a place where there was no development, but developments surrounded him, commercial and residential. There was only one place he could think of that would have no cameras, because it was still natural. He’d grown up here and always thought he’d move away, but when he met Pam, she liked the hominess of the area, so they’d stayed.
Jake pulled up to the quarry and parked next to a lighted sign that must’ve been new.
FUTURE SITE OF LIMEKILN CORPORATE MEWS
, it read, and underneath that,
BURNER CONSTRUCTION COMPANY, WILL BUILD TO SUIT.
He got out of the car, not completely surprised. It was the site of an abandoned limestone quarry, typical of the kind that pockmarked the Lehigh Valley. He and his family used to picnic on its far side, the three of them spreading raggedy bathtowels on the hard rock, with only one beach chair, a faded plastic lattice affair that his father commandeered as the head of the family, if not its breadwinner.
Jake shook off the memory, which wasn’t a good one. William “Bucky” Buckman couldn’t hold a steady job but he’d acted like a king on a throne, placing the plastic chair on the flattest rock he could find, where it would nevertheless wobble uncertainly, representing one of the many trials his father had to endure. The open secret of the Buckman household was that his mother’s secretarial job was the one that put food on the table. Still, Jake and his mother would be relegated to the rocky ground, while his father would sit in the chair and complain about how unappreciated he was by his family, his various bosses, and the universe in general.
Story of my life,
his father would always say, in his sad-sack way. Or,
just my luck.
Jake hurried around the car in the light from the sign, popped the trunk, grabbed the can with the ashes. He hustled through the rubble and overgrowth toward the quarry, then slowed his step out of caution. He could barely see where he was going because the lighted sign was behind him and the night was moonless. He wasn’t sure where the edge of the quarry was, but it was several hundred feet down to the water and the last thing he needed was to fall in.
Story of my life.
Jake tried to ignore his father’s voice. He and Pam had come here once or twice when Ryan was little, but by then, swimming had been prohibited, for which Jake was grateful. He had too many bad associations with the quarry and had vowed long ago never to become his father, which was only one of the reasons why he’d taken losing his job so hard.
Just my luck.
Jake almost tripped on some black netting on wooden stakes, but stepped over it, guessing he was approaching the edge. The underbrush reached to his knees, scratching his jeans, but he took a few more steps and stopped. He was close enough, and the undergrowth anchored his feet. He took a deep breath, and the air smelled the way it used to, fishy and vaguely gritty, as if it were still leavened with limestone silt.
Construction of the new corporate center must have begun, because klieglights glowed on the opposite side of the quarry, and Jake could make out job trailers and the hulking outlines of backhoes, dump trucks, and Dumpsters behind cyclone fencing. He couldn’t see anyone walking around, and it was too great a distance for anyone there to see what he was up to. He gazed into the massive crater, dark as night, with the water below glinting like pooled ink.
The sky above him was black, the water below him was black, and he stood at the edge of an abyss that he tried not to see as metaphorical. He couldn’t fathom how he had fallen so low, so fast. He had killed a young girl, left her in the street, and counseled his son into a nightmare. He was no better a man than his father; on the contrary, he was far worse.
He raised the can and dumped the ashes and melted zipper into the quarry. It was too dark to see if it all came out, so he tossed the entire can into the water.
Then he turned around and hurried back to the car.
Jake showered and came out of the bathroom, a towel around his waist, surprised to find Ryan waiting for him in his bedroom, fully dressed in a white polo shirt, jeans, and sneakers, and sitting in one of the chairs. He had a good guess about why Ryan was dressed up, but he wasn’t sure.
“Ryan, feeling better?” Jake asked, concerned.
“Not really. Where were you?”
“Did you burn the jacket?”
“The less you know the better.” Ryan’s eyes were puffy, but his mouth a firm line.
“Don’t treat me like a baby, Dad.”
“I’m not, I don’t mean to, but we had this conversation already.” Jake padded to the dresser, leaving wet footprints on the rug. He pulled open the drawer and grabbed a fresh pair of boxers. He usually felt so good after a shower, but not tonight. He felt miserable, depressed, and guilt-stricken. He couldn’t come to terms with the notion that they’d hit Kathleen. A classmate of Ryan’s and so young. Her life had been cut short before it had even begun. In the shower, he kept thinking about her mother and her father. They would never see their daughter again. They would know she had died alone, and violently. That knowledge and burden would be with them every minute, every day they woke up and every night they went to sleep. It had to be hell on earth.
“Are you not telling me to protect me?”
“Exactly.” Jake went to his bottom drawer, pulled out a pair of jeans, then closed it and went over to the bed to put them on. The room was warmly lit by crystal lamps on their night tables.
Ryan fell silent, then asked, “Do you guys ever even use these chairs?”
“Not really.” Jake slid off the towel and into his boxers, even though he was still a little wet.
“Then why do you have them?”
“Your mom likes them. Sometimes, she uses them.” Jake stood up and put on his pants quickly, feeling strange being naked in front of Ryan, oddly vulnerable and exposed.
“To sit down, when she puts on her shoes.” Jake sensed that Ryan was trying to pick a fight, but he didn’t take the bait. He went back to his dresser, opened a middle drawer, and pulled out a plain blue T-shirt. He slipped it on, standing there. He was getting dressed for staying home, not going to any lawyer’s office.
“I don’t know why you need chairs and a table in the bedroom. Like, what exactly is the purpose of this?” Ryan gestured to the sitting area that Pam had created in front of the fireplace, a decorative upgrade that didn’t work. She’d covered its surround with Delft tile and bought a soft chair and a reclining couch in a yellow-and-blue flowered pattern, for either side. She’d finished it off with an antique pine table, its surface only large enough to hold another small crystal lamp and a stack of hardback books.
“I think your mom wanted it to be a reading area.”
“Does she ever use it for that?”
“No.” Jake finger-combed his wet hair into place, eyeing himself briefly in the dresser mirror. He had to bend at the knees to see his face, which didn’t look good. His eyes were bloodshot, and his expression showed the strain. He could still smell traces of smoke on his skin and hair. “You must be hungry. Why don’t we get some dinner?”
“Dad, I really want to go see this lawyer.”
“I said no.”
“I want to, I have to. Kathleen was in my class, Dad. I want to know if there’s anything we can do, and what my options are—”
“No, it’s too risky.” Jake palmed his wallet on the dresser and tucked it into his back pocket.
“Tell you what.” Jake sighed. He knew how Ryan felt but he couldn’t let this happen. “Let’s go downstairs and talk about it over dinner. We’ll feel better when we’ve had something to eat.”
“We don’t have time.” Ryan stood up. “I already wrote him back. He’s expecting us to meet him at his office at seven o’clock.”
?” Jake turned in disbelief, and Ryan drew himself up to his full height.
“I’m going, whether you go with me or not.”
“What are you
“I need to see a lawyer,” Ryan answered, almost preternaturally calm. “I did something horrible, something criminal. I need a criminal lawyer, so I can decide what to do.”
what to do.” Jake started to lose his temper, more out of fright for Ryan than anger. “We already did what we did. There’s no decisions left. There’s no going back.”
“Maybe there is.”
“There isn’t!” Jake grabbed Ryan’s arm, more roughly than he needed to, but he had to shake some sense into the kid. “I’m trying to keep you out of prison. I’m trying to save your life, your future.”
“I know, you’re trying to protect me.” Ryan’s eyes filmed, but he didn’t cry. “But I want to know my rights.”
“You don’t have any!”
“Yes, I do. I’m going to see the lawyer, whether you come with me or not.”
“How are you going to get there?” Jake stopped just short of saying,
You gonna drive
Ryan blinked, hearing the words that Jake didn’t say, and for a split second, father and son eyed each other, wounded and hurting in front of the pretend fireplace.