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Authors: John Grisham

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BOOK: The Rooster Bar
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7

B
y the time they arrived, the three westbound lanes of the bridge were blocked and traffic was backing up. Todd parked on a grassy knoll near a ramp and they hurried to the scene. Half a dozen D.C. police cars were parked haphazardly on the bridge with their doors open and blue lights flashing. Radios squawked as cops milled about. Two of them were standing on the sidewalk at the railing, peering into the dark river below. An ambulance with its siren wailing was inching through the stalled traffic trying to reach the scene. A hundred feet onto the bridge, a cop stopped them.

“Get back!” he growled. “Where do you think you're going?”

They stopped and absorbed the mayhem before them. Over his shoulder and beyond the police cars they saw Gordy's blue Mazda, sitting dead still with its lights on in the center lane. Its driver's door was open.

“What happened?” Mark asked the cop.

“None of your business. Now get away from here.”

Todd said, “Sir, we know him. He's our friend. What's happened to him?”

The cop took a deep breath and relaxed. He said, “He jumped, okay? He stopped his car and jumped.”

Zola screamed and buried her face in her hands. Todd grabbed her before she fell. Mark's knees buckled and he almost vomited. He managed to say, “No, there's no way.”

The cop took Mark by the shoulders and nodded to his left where two officers were consoling a middle-aged woman. He said, “That woman was driving behind him when he stopped. She saw him run to the edge and jump. I'm sorry.”

“There's no way,” Mark said again, and Todd led Zola to the wide sidewalk a few feet away. She sat down hard with her back against the concrete railing of the bridge and wailed inconsolably.

“I'm sorry,” the officer said again. “We're running his tags. He's from West Virginia, right?”

“Right. His name is Gordon Tanner. We're students.”

“Come with me.” Mark followed him past the police cars and the cops and they stopped behind Gordy's car. Mark stared at it in horror and shook his head. “Over here,” the cop said, and he led Mark to the edge of the bridge. Two cops with handheld search beams were shining lights on the dark waters of the Potomac. A speedboat with more blue lights was racing toward them.

The cop said, “This is where he went over. There's ice down there. No one could last more than two minutes.”

Mark stared at the water and watched the speedboat go under the bridge. He covered his eyes and began sobbing.

A detective in a trench coat walked over and asked, “Who's this?”

The cop said, “He's a friend, knows the guy.”

Mark looked at the detective and tried to compose himself. The detective said, “I'm sorry, son. What can you tell us?”

Mark wiped his eyes and gritted his teeth. In a shaky voice, he managed to say, “He's our friend and he's been having some trouble lately. Got a DUI last night and we've been keeping an eye on him all day. We were afraid he might do something stupid.”

“Does he have mental problems?”

“No, he's just off his meds.” His voice cracked and he wiped his eyes again. “I can't believe this.”

“I'm sorry, son. I'm Detective Swayze, DCPD. Here's my card with my cell number.”

Mark took the card and managed to say, “Thanks.”

“We're searching now and it'll take some time, but we'll find him. Do you know his family?”

“Yes.”

“Where's he from?”

“Martinsburg, West Virginia.”

“Do you mind giving them a call? They'll probably want to get over here.”

That was the last phone call Mark wanted to make, but he nodded and said, “Sure. Can we help with the search, or something?”

“Sorry, son, there's nothing for you to do but wait. Text me your phone number and I'll call when we find him.”

“How long will it take?”

The detective shrugged and said, “You never know with something like this. I suggest you go someplace warm and wait. I'll call you later with an update. Tell the family they can call me too. And look, we've searched the car but there's no note. Do you know where he lives?”

“I do.”

“Okay. Do you mind checking his place to see if he left behind a note? They usually do. If you find something, call me at once.”

“I'll do that.”

Swayze put a hand on Mark's shoulder and said, “I'm sorry, son.”

“Thanks.” Mark began walking along the sidewalk. Another ambulance was approaching from the west and traffic was backing up in that direction as well. There seemed to be a million flashing lights. Two larger boats with search beams had joined the first and they circled under the archways of the bridge.

Mark and Todd helped Zola to her feet. They were freezing, numb, but too shocked to feel anything. They half carried her back to the car, which was blocked by traffic. Todd started the engine and the heater and they sat in stunned horror and watched the nightmare. Zola wept in the front passenger's seat. Todd slumped against his window and looked like a ghost. Mark sobbed and tried to catch his breath. Minutes passed as his phone kept vibrating. He finally took it out of his pocket and said, “Brenda's called four times. Someone has to tell her.”

Todd said, “That someone is you, Mark. You have no choice.”

“Why can't you call her?”

“Because you know her better. She's calling you, not me.”

Mark clutched his phone and waited. A tow truck with yellow lights inched its way through the stalled traffic and weaved around the police cars. Someone with authority decided the ambulances would not be needed, so they left, along with a few of the police cars.

“You gonna call her?” Todd asked.

“I'm trying to find the courage,” Mark said.

“This is my fault,” Zola said, sobbing.

“It's no one's fault and you know it,” Todd said, but with little conviction.

“I did this,” she said. “I did this.”

The yellow lights turned around, and they watched the tow truck come toward them in an eastbound lane. It passed them with Gordy's car on its rear wheels. More boats arrived and the flotilla fanned out south of the bridge, searching. The police cleared two of the westbound lanes and the stalled traffic began moving slowly.

Mark said, “What do I tell her? I can't say he's dead because we don't know for sure, right?”

Todd said, “He's dead, Mark. Tell her he jumped off a bridge into the Potomac River and they're searching for his body.”

“I can't do it.”

“You have no choice.”

Mark took a deep breath but did not make the call. He said, “I was with him when he made his decision. We were at the Waterfront, and Gordy was staring at this bridge. When he turned around he was calm and smiling. He made up his mind and was at peace with his plans. I was too stupid to realize it.”

“We are not doing the blame game, damn it,” Todd said.

“Well, you can bet your ass Brenda will point fingers and I'll be the target. I lied to her all afternoon. I should've told her the truth and let her deal with him.”

“We did what we could. It's not our fault he cracked up.”

“It's all my fault!” Zola shrieked. “All of this.”

“Stop it, Zola!” Todd snapped.

A cop with a flashlight motioned for them to move, and Todd eased off the grass and onto a westbound lane. They moved slowly over the bridge. Three patrol cars were parked bumper to bumper in the outside lane. A group of cops huddled on the sidewalk, near the spot where Gordy jumped.

“Where are we going?” Mark asked.

“I don't know.”

They crossed the river, turned south onto the GW Parkway, and got off on Columbia Island. Todd parked in an empty lot at the LBJ Memorial Grove, with a marina in front of them and hundreds of boats rocking gently at the docks. They stared into the darkness as the car's heater strained and heaved. Mark's phone began vibrating in his pocket.

“Are you going to call her?”

Mark looked at his phone and said, “I don't have to. She's calling me.” He opened a rear door, got out, and started walking toward the dock. He put the phone to his ear and said, “Brenda, something terrible has happened.”

8

T
hey took Zola to her apartment and laid her on the sofa. Mark covered her with a quilt and sat at the end, holding her feet. Todd made a pot of coffee and as it brewed he sat on the floor with his back to the sofa. Zola placed a hand on his shoulder. For a long time nothing was said; the only sound was that of the coffeepot rattling and hissing.

Mark's phone vibrated and he pulled it out. “It's Brenda's father again.” He tapped the screen, put the call on speaker, and said, “Yes, Dr. Karvey.”

“Mark, we're driving over now, should be there in about an hour. We'll check in at the Marriott in Pentagon City. Can you meet us around seven?” The voice was calm and assured.

“Sure, Dr. Karvey. I'll be there.”

“Thanks. I made contact with Detective Swayze and he has my number.”

“Good. See you at seven.”

Mark ended the call and said, “That's exactly what I want to do. Deal with a hysterical woman.”

“I'll go with you but we're not going to be abused,” Todd said.

“We will definitely be abused. She's already screamed at me twice. It's all our fault because I lied to her, because we let him get away, because we didn't call the family, because we didn't take him to the doctor, because of everything.”

“It's all my fault,” Zola mumbled without opening her eyes.

“It's not your fault and your name has not been mentioned,” Mark said. “Let's keep it that way.”

Todd said, “If she starts yelling I'm walking out. I feel rotten enough without a lot of drama from Brenda and the families.”

Mark said, “When we were driving away from the city pound yesterday Gordy threatened to kill me if I called her. I mean, it wasn't a serious threat, I think, but that was his frame of mind. He didn't want her to know. And he refused to talk about going to the doctor. What were we supposed to do?”

“We've hashed this out already, Mark,” Todd said. He got up and poured three cups of coffee. It was almost 4:00 a.m. and they were physically and emotionally exhausted. Zola sat up on the sofa, took her cup, and tried to smile. Her eyes were red and swollen; she seemed on the verge of another breakdown at any moment. She said, “I don't think I'll go with you guys.”

“No, you need to stay here and rest,” Mark said.

“Good idea,” Todd added. “You really shouldn't be around Brenda.”

“I met her once. She thinks we're all just good friends. Gordy said she didn't have a clue about us.”

“I'm sure she didn't, but she could still be jealous,” Mark said. “She didn't like the fact that Gordy was here in the big city without her.”

Another long pause as they sipped coffee. Mark broke the silence with “Oh yeah, we need to look around for a suicide note. The detective said so.”

“That should be fun,” Todd said. They walked across the hall, entered Gordy's apartment, and turned on the lights. Nothing had changed since they left in a panic. A note would be in the bedroom and they didn't find one.

“This place is filthy,” Mark said, looking around. The sheets were in a wad with half the mattress exposed. Clothes were piled on the floor. Two empty liquor bottles were on the dresser.

“I'll clean it when you guys are gone,” Zola said. “I'm sure the family will want to see his apartment.” They stepped back into the den and stared at Gordy's conspiracy wall. “Any ideas?” Todd asked.

Mark said, “Let's take this mess down and save it. The family will have no use for it.” Zola filled a laundry basket with dirty sheets, towels, and clothing, and took it to the laundry room in the basement while Mark and Todd carefully removed the poster boards and sheets of paper from the wall. Rackley's face and those of his confederates were placed in a neat stack to be hauled away. Next to Gordy's computer, Mark saw two thumb drives and he instinctively put them in his pocket without a word.

At six, he and Todd left the building and headed to Pentagon City. With no traffic, they arrived at the Marriott in twenty minutes and went to the café for biscuits and coffee. As they ate they tried to steel themselves for the meeting. “She'll probably say some horrible things,” Todd said.

“She's already said them.”

“We are not going to be trashed, Mark.”

“We have to be patient, Todd, and sympathetic. Poor girl just lost a fiancé she adored.”

“Well, he didn't adore her, not anymore.”

“She'll never know that. Or will she?”

“Who knows? According to Zola, he and Brenda fought a lot before Christmas. Who knows what he said? He might have called off the wedding.”

“He would have told us. We're his best friends, Todd, at least here in D.C. I'll bet money the wedding was still on and Brenda was dreaming of her big day. Now her childhood sweetheart is dead.”

“What should we have done different?” Todd asked.

“I don't know, but I'm not sure I would've called Brenda. Gordy would've freaked out on us and the situation would have gotten worse.”

“It got worse.”

“It did. We'd better go.”

They rode the elevator to the third floor and knocked on a door. Dr. Karvey was waiting and opened it quickly. In a soft voice he introduced himself; firm handshake, tight smile, which under the circumstances struck them as remarkable. He waved them into the room, the sitting area of a suite. He offered coffee and they declined. There was no sign of Brenda or anyone else.

Gordy had talked about his future father-in-law several times, and they knew the Karvey family was wealthy from land and a bank. Dr. Karvey was a cardiologist and highly respected in Martinsburg. He was about fifty, with lots of graying hair and a firm chin. He wore a jacket with no tie and his clothes were obviously expensive. Gordy, who habitually tossed cheap shots at everyone, had never uttered a negative word about the man.

They sat around a small table and spoke in low voices. Brenda was in the bedroom with her mother. Dr. Karvey had given her a sedative and she was resting. The police had just left after briefing the family. Gordy's parents were driving over and would be in the city within the hour.

Dr. Karvey said, “Please tell me what you know.”

Mark nodded at Todd, who swallowed hard and began the recap of the past few days. A law school friend who lived in the same building became concerned about Gordy's behavior and went to the bar where Todd worked, looking for help. They found Gordy in his apartment, where he had been holed up for a couple of days. He was a mess, drinking, detached, and obviously in need of their attention. They were afraid to leave him alone, but he sneaked out. When Todd detailed the DUI twenty-four hours earlier, Dr. Karvey grimaced and shook his head, his first visible reaction. Mark picked up the narrative, and described his efforts to keep Gordy safe throughout the previous day. Gordy refused to talk about his condition and wouldn't give Mark the name of his doctor. He threatened Mark if he called Brenda or his parents. He slept a lot, stopped drinking, and seemed to be rallying. They stayed with him again last night, but he managed to sneak out. When they discovered he was gone, they panicked and tried to find him. He would not answer his phone. They raced around the city and saw the emergency lights on the bridge.

When Mark finished, he looked at Todd, who nodded. The story was almost complete and sufficient enough for the moment.

Dr. Karvey said, “Thank you. When Gordy came home on break, he and Brenda had some serious conversations about their future, as all couples do. It was definitely a rough period, but Brenda thought they had settled things. But he left without saying good-bye and returned here.”

“We heard some of that,” Mark said.

Todd asked, “Did Brenda know he was off his meds?”

“Well, we didn't know Gordy was bipolar until a few months ago. This was one reason for their arguments. He tried to keep it quiet, which is not unusual.”

Mark and Todd shook their heads in disbelief.

Dr. Karvey said, “Look, I know Brenda said some harsh things a few hours ago, and I'm sorry for that. She is distraught and heartbroken. We're just as stunned as you are. We've known Gordy since he was a kid and he was practically a member of our family.”

“It's okay,” Mark said.

“We're so sorry, Dr. Karvey. We weren't sure what to do. We had no idea he was capable of something like this.”

“You did your best under the circumstances,” Dr. Karvey said with his calming bedside manner. As Mark and Todd relaxed for the first time since entering the suite, Dr. Karvey, in an even lower voice, hit them with “Was there another girl?”

They flinched and stared at their hands. Mark had the presence of mind to ask, “Okay, if the answer is yes, will you tell Brenda?”

“No. It would only make matters worse.”

“Then why do you want to know?” Todd asked.

He thought for a moment and said, “Let's let it pass.”

“Good idea.”

Eager to leave before someone emerged from the bedroom, Mark and Todd wrapped things up and said good-bye. They hurried from the suite, and the hotel, and drove aimlessly past Reagan National Airport. They worried about Zola but had no desire to return to Gordy's apartment, not for a while anyway. They passed through Alexandria, drifted south, at some point turned east, crossed the river on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, and parked at the National Harbor Marina. The Potomac stretched before them, seemingly a mile wide and flowing south as if all was well. There were no signs of a search. They had seen two Coast Guard ships and the police boats near the airport, but nothing this far below the Arlington Memorial Bridge.

Mark said, “Do you suppose they can project how far and how fast a body will travel in the river?”

“You're asking me?” Todd replied.

“I thought you knew about these things. Didn't you have a friend who drowned in high school?”

“Yep, Joey Barnes. Fifteen years old.” Todd tapped his fingers on the steering wheel and thought about his old friend. “Drowning victims go under and sink to the bottom, regardless of the depth. If the water is cold it takes longer. Once on the bottom, some chemical reactions take place and these force the body to rise. Almost all of them do, usually not far from where they made a splash. There's a chance he'll get snagged on something and remain below.”

They thought about this as the heater hummed away. Mark said, “He'll wash up, don't you think?”

“They'll find him. We need a funeral and a burial and a closing to this mess. I can't imagine a memorial service someday without a body.”

“They'll find him. And then we'll bury him. And then we're supposed to hustle back to law school for our last semester.”

“I can't even think about that.”

“Law school is the reason Gordy's dead, Todd. If he'd never gone to law school he'd be fine right now.”

“Wouldn't we all?”

“I can't go back.”

“Let's talk about it later. Right now we need some sleep.”

—

EARLY IN THE
afternoon, Dr. Karvey called Mark and asked if he and Todd could retrieve Gordy's car, drive it over to the hotel, and meet with Mr. and Mrs. Tanner. They couldn't think of anything worse, but at the moment the family needed them and there was no one else available. So for the second time in two days, they went to the city pound to fetch Gordy's little blue Mazda. Seconds before he jumped, he turned off the ignition and evidently stuck the extra key in his pocket. Fortunately, Mark still had his collection of keys. The city kindly waived the towing and storage fees and saved them $200.

The Karvey suite was worse than a morgue. Brenda sat on a sofa between her mother and Mrs. Tanner, two women who supposedly loathed each other and had been squabbling over the wedding plans. Now, though, that was behind them and they were suffering in unified grief.

Once more, Todd and Mark tag teamed through the painful narrative of the past few days and tried to deflect as much blame as possible. The graciousness Dr. Karvey had shown early that morning was gone, though he tried to keep things calm. Mr. Tanner asked many pointed questions about what Mark and Todd did and didn't do. Why did Mark lie about Gordy being sick with the flu? Why didn't they simply call the family for help? How did they allow Gordy to sneak out of his apartment not once but twice? What steps did they take to control his drinking? And so on. Brenda said little. She either stared at the floor and wiped her eyes or glared at them as if they themselves had tossed him off the bridge. It was a horrible, gut-wrenching meeting, and at one point everyone in the room, including Mark and Todd, was in tears. As things deteriorated, Mark finally threw up his hands, said enough was enough, and stormed out of the suite, with Todd right behind him.

They drove away in silence, sick with the knowledge that the families would always hold them responsible for Gordy's death, but also furious that they were being blamed. It was too easy now, with perfect hindsight, to carefully dissect what they did or did not do and condemn their decisions. The truth was that Gordy was sick and they did their best to help.

Zola's name had never been mentioned.

BOOK: The Rooster Bar
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