Prologue | LIES AND VIDEOTAPE
I'D ALREADY TOSSED the driver a twenty and was bouncing up and down like a preschooler last in line for the potty when my taxi finally stopped across from the Hudson hotel on west 58th. I didn't wait for change, but I did nearly get clipped by an express bus as I got out on the street side and hightailed it across Eighth Avenue.
I didn't even look at my iPhone as it tried to buzz out of my jacket pocket. By this point, with my full workday and tonight's party of all parties to plan, I was more surprised when it wasn't going off.
A sound, deafening even by midtown Manhattan standards, hammered into my ears as I made the corner.
Was it a jackhammer? A construction pile driver?
Of course not, I thought, as I spotted a black kid squatting on the sidewalk, playing drums on an empty Spackle bucket.
Luckily I also spotted my lunch appointment, Aidan Beck, at the edge of the crowded street performance.
Without preamble, I hooked elbows with the fair, scruffily handsome young man and pulled him into the chic Hudson. At the top of the neon-lit escalator, a concierge who looked like one of the happy, shiny cast members of High School Musical smiled from behind the Carrara marble check-in desk.
"Hi. I called twenty minutes ago," I said. "I'm Mrs. Smith. This is Mr. Smith. We'd like a room with a large double bed. The floor or view doesn't matter. I'm paying cash. I'm really in a rush."
The clerk took in my sweating face and the contrast between my sexy office attire and my much younger companion's faded jeans and suede jacket with seeming approval.
"Let's get you to your room, then," the über-happy concierge said without missing a beat.
A cold wind hit me as I came out of the hotel with Aidan an hour later. I looked up at the New York spring light glistening off the blue-tinged towers of the Time Warner Center down the block. I smiled as I remembered how my daughter, Emma, called it the world's largest glass goalpost.
I looked at Aidan and wondered if what we just did was right. It didn't matter, did it? I thought as I dabbed my eyes with the sleeve of my knockoff Burberry jacket. It was done.
"You were amazing. You really were," I said, handing him the envelope as I kissed his cheek.
He gave a theatrical little bow as he tucked the thousand into the inside pocket of his suede car coat.
"Hey, it's what I do, Nina Bloom," he said, walking off with a wave.
"It's Mrs. Smith to you," I called as I hailed a taxi back to my job.
"OK, MOM. You can open your eyes now."
My daughter, Emma, stood before me in our cozy Turtle Bay apartment in her sweet sixteen party dress. I took in her luminous skin and ebony hair above the sleeveless black silk and began to cry for the second time that day as my heart melted.
How had this magical, ethereal creature come out of me? She looked absolutely knockdown amazing.
"Really not bad," I said, catching tears in my palms.
It wasn't just how beautiful Emma was, of course. It was also that I was so proud of her. When she was eight, I encouraged her, as a lark, to take the test for Brearley, Manhattan's most prestigious girls' school. Not only did she get in, but she was offered an almost complete scholarship.
It had been so hard for her to fit in at the beginning, but with her charm and intelligence and strong will, she stuck it out and now was one of the most popular, beloved kids in the school.
I wasn't the only person who thought so, either. At a classmate's birthday party, she'd wowed the mom of one of her friends so much with her love of art history that the gazillionaire socialite MOMA board member insisted on pulling some strings in order to get Em into Brown. Not that Em would need the help.
I was practically going to have to get a home equity loan on our two-bedroom apartment in order to pay for tonight's 120-person party at the Blue Note down in the Village, but I didn't care. As a young, single mom, I had practically grown up with Em. She was my heart, and tonight was her night.
"Mom," Emma said, coming over and shaking me back and forth by my shoulders. "Lift up your right hand and solemnly swear that this will be the last time you will puddle this evening. I agreed to this only because you promised me you'd be Nina Bloom, très chic, ultrahip, cool mom. Hold it together."
I raised my right hand. "I do so solemnly swear to be a très chic, ultrahip, cool mom," I said.
"OK, then," she said, blowing a raspberry on my cheek. She whispered in my ear before she let go, "I love you, Mom, by the way."
"Actually, Emma, that isn't the only thing," I said, walking over to the entertainment unit. I turned on the TV and the ten-ton VCR that I'd dragged out of the storage bin when I came home from work. "You have another present."
I handed Emma the dusty black tape box that was on top of the VCR.
"TO EMMA," it said on the index card taped to its cover. "FROM DAD."
"What?" she said, her eyes suddenly about the size of manhole covers. "But I thought you said everything was lost in the fire when I was three. All the tapes. All the pictures."
"Your dad put this in the safety deposit box right before he went into the hospital for the last time," I said. "I know how badly you've been dying to know who your dad was. I wanted to give this to you so many times. But Kevin had said he wanted you to get it today. I thought it would be best to honor his wishes."
I started out of the room.
"No, Mom. Where are you going? You have to stay and watch it with me."
I shook my head as I handed her the remote. I patted her cheek. "This is between you and your dad," I said.
"Hey, Em. It's me, daddy," a deep, warm, Irish-accented voice said as I left. "If you're watching this, it must mean you're a big girl now. Happy Sweet Sixteen, Emma."
I turned back as I was closing the door. Aidan Beck, the actor I'd hired and filmed with a vintage camcorder at the Hudson that afternoon, was smiling from the screen.
"There are a few things I want you to know about me and about my life, Em," he said in his brogue. "First and foremost is that I love you."
DOWN THE HALLWAY, I went into a large closet, otherwise known as a Manhattan home office, and shredded the script I'd written to fool my daughter. I sifted the confetti through my fingers and let out a breath as I heard Emma start to sob.
No wonder she was crying. Aidan Beck had performed the script impeccably. Especially the accent. I'd met and hired the young off-Broadway actor outside the SAG offices the week before.
As I sat there listening to my daughter crying in the next room, some part of me knew how cruel it was. It sucked having to be a Gen-X "Mommie Dearest."
It didn't matter. Emma was going to have a good life, a normal life. No matter what.
The ruse was elaborate, I knew, but when I spotted Emma's Google searches for Kevin Bloom on our home computer the week before, I knew I had to come up with something airtight.
Kevin Bloom was supposed to be Emma's idyllic, loving father who had died of cancer when she was two. I'd told Emma that Kevin had been a romantic Irish cabdriver / budding playwright whom I'd met when I first came to the city. A man with no family, of whom all trace had been lost in a fire a year later.
The fact, of course, was that there was no Kevin Bloom. I wish there were more times than not, believe me. I could have really used a romantic Irish playwright in my hectic life.
The truth was, there wasn't even a Nina Bloom.
I made me up, too.
I had my reasons. They were good ones.
What I couldn't tell Emma was that nearly two decades ago and a thousand miles to the south, I got into some trouble. The worst kind. The kind where forever after, you always make sure your phone number is unlisted and never ever, ever stop looking over your shoulder.
It started on spring break, of all things. In the spring of 1992 in Key West, Florida, I guess you could say a foolish girl went wild.
And stayed wild.
That foolish girl was me.
My name was Jeanine.
Book One | THE LAST SUNSET
MARCH 12, 1992
Party till you drop, man!
Every time I think back to everything that happened, it's that expression, that silly early-eighties cliché, that first comes to mind.
It was actually the first thing we heard when we arrived in Key West to start the last spring break of our college careers. As we were checking into our hotel, a very hairy and even drunker middle-aged man wearing goggles and an orange Speedo screamed, "Party till you drop, man!" as he ran, soaking wet, through the lobby.
From that hilariously random moment on, for the rest of our vacation it was our mantra, our boast, our dare to one another. My boyfriend at one point seriously suggested we should all get "Party till you drop, man!" tattoos.
Because we thought it was a joke.
It turned out to be a prophecy.
It actually happened.
First we partied.
Then someone dropped.
It happened on the last day. Our last afternoon found us just as the previous afternoons had, giddily hungover, lazily finishing up burgers under one of our hotel beach bar's umbrellas.
Under the table, my boyfriend Alex's bare foot was hooked around mine as his finger played with the string of my yellow bikini top. The Cars' classic song "Touch and Go" was playing softly from the outdoor speakers as we watched an aging biker with a black leather vest and braided gray hair play catch with his dog off the bar's sun-bleached dock. We laughed every time the collie in the red bandanna head-butted the wet tennis ball before belly flopping into the shallow blue waves.
As the huffing, drenched collie paddled back to shore, a stiff breeze off the water began jingling the bar's hanging glasses like wind chimes. Listening to the unexpected musical sound, I sighed as a long, steady hit of vacation nirvana swept through me. For a tingling moment, everything—the coolness under the Jägermeister umbrella, the almost pulsating white sand of the beach, the blue-green water of the Gulf—became sharper, brighter, more vivid.
When Alex slipped his hand into mine, all the wonderful memories of how we fell in love freshman year played through my mind. The first nervous eye contact across the cavernous Geology classroom. The first time he haltingly asked me out. The first time we kissed.
As I squeezed his hand back, I thought how lucky we were to have found each other, how good we were together, how bright our future looked.
Then it happened.
The beginning of the end of my life.
Our wiry Australian waitress, Maggie, who was clearing the table, smiled as she raised an eyebrow. Then she casually asked what would turn out to be the most important yes-or-no question of my life.
"You motley mob need anything else?" she said in her terrific Aussie accent.
Alex, who was leaning so far back in his plastic deck chair that he was practically lying down, suddenly sat up with a wide, strangely infectious smile on his face. He was average-sized, slim, dark, almost delicate, so you wouldn't guess that he was the place kicker for the nationally ranked University of Florida Gators football team.
I sat up myself when I realized that he was sporting the same slightly touched, let's-get-fired-up smile that he wore before he took the field in front of seventy thousand people to drill a fifty-yarder.
Or to get us into a bar fight.
Our vacation had been everything the travel brochure headline—"Five days, Four nights in Key West!"—had promised. No school. No rules. Nothing but me and my friends, the beach, cold beer, Coppertone, loud music, and louder laughs. We'd all even managed to stay in one piece over the previous, hard-partying four days.
Uh-oh. What now? I thought.
Alex looked around the table at the four of us slowly, one by one, before he threw down the gauntlet.
"Since it's our last whole day here, who's in the mood for some dessert?" he said. "I was thinking Jell-O. The kind Bill Cosby never talks about. The kind served in a shot glass."
The Cars song broke into a frolicking guitar riff as an expression of piqued interest crossed my best friend Maureen's face. My pretty roommate and fellow co-captain of the Gators women's varsity softball team was apparently game. So was her boyfriend, Big Mike, judging by his enthusiastic nod. Even our studious, usually pessimistic, sunburned pal Cathy looked up from her paperback at the interesting suggestion.
"Jeanine?" Alex said as my friends turned to me in silent deference.
The questionable decision was all mine.
I pursed my lips in worry as I looked down at the sand-covered bar floor between my sun-browned toes.
Then my face broke into my own mischievous grin as I rolled my eyes. "Uh...definitely!" I said.
All around the bar, people turned as my friends whooped and high-fived and pounded playfully on the sandy table.
"Shot, shots, shots," Mike and Alex started to chant as our waitress quickly turned to get them.
As a responsible 3.9 GPA English major and student athlete, I was well aware that vodka and gelatin was a highly hazardous afternoon snack. But then again, I had an excuse. Actually four of them.
I was a college kid. I was in Key West. And not only was spring break '92 quickly coming to a close, but it was three days after my twenty-first birthday.
Yet as I sat smiling, looking through the happy, crowded bar out over the endless Tiffany blue Gulf, I still had the slightest moment's doubt, the slightest moment's wonder if maybe I was pushing my luck.
The feeling was gone by the time Maggie returned with our drinks.
Then we proceeded to do what we always did. We raised our paper cups, tapped them together, and screamed, "Party till you drop, man!" as loud as we could.
I SAW a video once of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. It was recorded at some beachfront resort in Sri Lanka, and in it, as the ocean bizarrely recedes, a group of curious tourists wander down to the beach to see what's going on.
Staring at the screen, knowing that the receding water is actually already on its way back to kill them, what disturbs you the most is their complete innocence. The fact that they still think they're safe instead of living out the very last moments of their lives right in front of you.
I feel that same sick way whenever I go over what happened to me next.
I still think I'm safe.
I couldn't be more wrong.
Several hours later, the Jell-O shots had done their job and then some. By seven thirty that evening, my friends and I were sardined into the packed Mallory Square for Key West's world-famous outdoor drunken sunset celebration. The gold of our last sunset warmed our shoulders as cold beer splattered and stuck our toes to our flip-flops. Cathy and Maureen were on my right. Alex and his Gator outside linebacker buddy, Mike, were on my left, and with our arms around one another, we were singing, "Could You Be Loved" with as much gusto as Bob Marley himself.
In front of the outdoor reggae band, I danced in my floppy bush hat, bikini top, and cargo shorts. I was as drunk as a skunk, laughing hysterically, forehead to forehead with my friends, and the feeling I'd had at the beach bar returned, on steroids. I had everything. I was young and pretty and carefree with my arms around people I loved who loved me back. For a fleeting moment, I felt truly ecstatically happy to be alive.
For a split second.
Then it was gone.
When I woke, the cheap hotel room clock read 2:23 a.m. Turning over in the cramped, dark room, the first thing I noticed was that Alex wasn't beside me. I quickly fumbled through my last memories. I remembered a club we went to after the sunset, loud techno, Alex in a straw cowboy hat he'd found somewhere, Alex twirling beside me to Madonna's "Vogue."
That was about it. The intervening hours, how I had gotten back to the hotel, were an impenetrable alcohol-induced fog, a complete mystery.
A ball of panic began to burn at the lining of my stomach like guzzled vodka as I stared at Alex's empty pillow.
Was he OK? I thought groggily. Passed out somewhere? Worse?
I was lying there, breathing rapidly in the dark, woodenly wondering what I should do next, when I heard the sound.
It was a giggle, and it had come from the bathroom behind me on my right. I rolled myself up onto my elbows and tilted my head off the bed to look through the crack of its slightly open door.
In the light of a strange, low glow, I spotted Alex leaning against the sink. Then I heard another giggle, and Maureen, my best friend, appeared in front of him holding a lit candle.
At first, as Maureen put the candle down onto the counter and they began to kiss, I truly wondered if I was still asleep and having a nightmare. Then I heard Maureen moan. realizing that I was very much awake, the enormity of what I was watching walloped into me like an asteroid into a continent. It was my worst fear, everyone's worst fear.
My boyfriend and my best friend together.
Crippling waves of anger and fear and revulsion slammed through me. Why wouldn't they? Primordial betrayal was being enacted right in front of my locked-open eyes.
I heard Maureen moan again as Alex began to peel off her T-shirt.
Then they were cut from sight as the bathroom door closed with a soft, careful click.
A T. S. Eliot quote from my last Modern Poetry class popped into my mind as I blinked at the closed door.
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
Or a moan, I thought, turning and looking at the clock again: 2:26.
If my premed boyfriend wasn't currently busy, he could have marked it down.
Time of girlfriend's death.
I didn't scream as I sat up. I didn't look for something heavy and then kick the door in and start swinging.
In retrospect, that's exactly what I should have done.
Instead, I decided not to bother them. I just simply stood.
Barefoot, I grabbed my jacket and stumbled out of the bedroom and through the hotel room's front door, closing it behind me with my own soft, careful click.
I WAITED until I was outside the hotel's empty lobby before I started jogging. After a minute, I broke into a sprint. Down the middle of the pitch-dark street, I huffed and puffed, sweating like a marathon runner, like an action movie star escaping an impending nuclear explosion.
I was fast, too. Maureen was the tall, blond, long-limbed pitcher. Cathy was the short, tough catcher, and I was the lean, mean, in-between fast one. The now-you-see-her, now-you-don't, lay-one-down-the-third-base-line-and-beat-you-to-first-base fast one.
And at that moment, I needed every ounce of my speed to take me away from what I'd seen.
Because what I'd witnessed wasn't just the two-for-one end of my relationships with my boyfriend and my best friend.
I guess you could call it the proverbial last straw.
My dad, a Maryland state trooper, had died in the line of duty when I was eleven. All dads are special, of course, but my dad actually was an extremely special human being. Exceedingly kind, deeply moral, and a gifted, natural listener, he was the person everyone he came into contact with— coworkers, neighbors, the mailman, complete strangers— turned to for comfort and advice.
Which was what made his unexpected death even more devastating. It tore something deep and fundamental inside of my mom. Once an intensely religious teetotaler, she started drinking. She put on eighty pounds and stopped taking care of herself. Everything came to a head in the spring of my junior year in college when she committed suicide in my dad's old Ford F-150 with the help of a garden hose.
Maureen and Alex had bookended me throughout my mom's funeral arrangements. Since I had no brothers or sisters or close relatives, they had been more than best friends to me. They had been the only family I had left.
The trip down here had actually been Maureen's idea. She knew the anniversary of my mom's passing was approaching, and she wanted to cheer me up.
It was all too much. The pain of the betrayal I'd just witnessed hit me again like a wrecking ball. I began crying as I ran. Tears mixed with the sweat that began to drip off my face and onto the sandy blacktop and the tops of my bare feet.
I dropped to my knees onto the sand when I arrived at the beach. It was empty, just me and the dark ocean and the star-filled sky. Staring out at the black water, I remembered when I'd almost drowned at an Ocean City beach when I was nine. I'd been caught by a riptide, but my dad had saved me.
I breathed the night air in and out and listened to the lap of the waves, feeling more alone and desperate than I ever had in my entire life.
There was no one at all to save me now.
About twenty feet to the right beside me, I noticed a fat, concrete buoy-shaped marker.
SOUTHERNMOST POINT, CONTINENTAL U.S.A., was painted on it. 90 MILES TO CUBA.
I was standing, soul wrecked, about to take a shot at swimming those ninety miles, when I stuck my hand into the pocket of my shorts and realized something fascinating.
I had Alex's car keys.
The keys to his Z28 Chevy Camaro, which had brought us down here from the University of Florida in Gainesville. He'd gotten his "baby," as he called it, from sweating four summers at his dad's landscaping business. I'd sweated four years, trying to get his numb jock skull through premed, so the sudden idea of taking the sleek red car out for a little spin instead of going for a swim seemed eminently logical. To my shattered heart, it seemed downright brilliant.
I ran even faster back to the hotel parking lot. After I sailed one of Whore-reen's bags out the window, I gunned the Z28's engine like I had pole position at the Indy 500.
Then I did what any self-respecting, suicidal, recently orphaned, currently being-cheated-on twenty-one-year-old girl would do.
I neutral-dropped my boyfriend's Camaro out of the lot in a cloud of rubber smoke.
AFTER A FEW FISHTAILING TURNS, I found an open road next to a beach and drove the Camaro properly—namely, like I'd stolen it. I didn't drop the hammer. I very nearly busted it through the meticulously vacuumed floor.
Its 5.7-liter V8 engine roared hungrily, demonically, as it rose in pitch, the intro to a heavy metal song.
"Crazy Train," I thought as I slammed back into my seat. Or was it "Highway to Hell"?
Parked cars that I blurred past started making that zip zip zip zip NASCAR sound.
I tried to decide what I wanted to wreck more at that moment: Alex's pride and joy or myself. The notion of ending the utter silliness of my bad-luck life seemed very tempting. From where I was sitting without a seat belt, life was pain, and I was seriously thinking about ending mine as visibly and messily as possible.
The Z28's speedometer was hitting three figures, its rear end starting to rise like an airplane on takeoff, when I caught some movement on the dark beach to my right.
I squinted at the motion through the windshield. It was a blur, something small running. Was it a rabbit?
No, I realized as I got closer very quickly. It was a dog, a collie with a red bandanna around its neck. I recognized the belly-flopping dog from the bar at the exact moment it changed course, like a guided missile, and shot out into the beach road.
Directly in front of the car.
Immediately, instinctually, I slammed on the brakes and spun the steering wheel to the right, trying to avoid it. A high howl of evaporating tire rubber filled the car as the Z28's rear end fishtailed to the left like it was on ice. I tried to straighten it, but I must have overcompensated because the car suddenly reversed momentum and went into a rubber-barking, skidding, counterclockwise spin.
I'd lost complete control of the car. My head flew back onto the headrest heavily, helplessly, like I was on a carnival teacup ride. I held my breath as I felt the right side of the car swell, threatening to flip. Instead, it did a 180 and kept right on rotating. It was when the car completed a full 360 that I saw what was looming ahead.
And I screamed.
Lit in my pinwheeling headlights, as if he'd been conjured there by a magician, was the dog's owner, the biker from the bar with the gray braided hair.
The last thing I remember was pumping the brake again and again, savagely, as the ridges of the spinning steering wheel flickered painfully over the insides of my fingers.
I closed my eyes as the Camaro's swinging front end clipped the man in the waist with a sickening, heart-skewering thump.
There was a brief crumpling sound of rolling weight onto the metal hood followed by a squeegee-like squeak as the man slid up the ramp of the windshield.
And then there was silence. Nothing but horrible, deafening silence.
I FORCED MYSELF to open my eyes.
The Camaro had come to a shuddering stop another fifty feet to the north.
I stared at the empty road in front of me, my foot pinned down on the brake, my hands as tight on the steering wheel as a pair of vise grips. The only sound was my panicked breathing as sweat seemed to pour from everywhere at once, the inside of my elbows, the backs of my knees, even my ears.
The Camaro idled in the empty road, its engine chugging loudly like an animal catching its breath. I thought the windshield would be cracked, but it was unmarked. So was the hood. Besides losing a couple of inches of tire rubber and brake pad, the car seemed to be doing fine.
It was as if nothing had happened at all.
I didn't want to look in the rearview mirror. I stared at Albert, Alex's stupid grinning orange University of Florida Gator logo air freshener instead. Albert wasn't offering any suggestions. I sucked in a hard breath, like a diver before going under, and finally looked.
The biker lay in the middle of the right lane behind me. He was facedown on the asphalt beside my skid marks, his thick gray braid half undone, his arms flung out in a Christlike spread. Traffic cones and stanchions from a work area along the side of the road were scattered around him like nailed bowling pins. He wasn't moving.
When I noticed the dark, inky splotch in his gray hair and on the street beside his head, various parts of my body started to shake simultaneously, my knees, my hands, my lips. I let out my sour, rum-scented breath and covered my face with my quivering hands. My trembling, clenching fingers clawed at my skull like a rock climber searching for purchase.
"What have I done?" I asked myself between hysterical gulps of air.
Killed a man, came a stone-sober answering thought in response.
You just killed a man trying to save his dog.
I glanced up at the open road through the windshield. It curved away out of sight in the moonlit distance, beautiful, dreamlike, beckoning like the Yellow Brick Road in The Wizard of Oz.
That's when the cool, rational, very sober-sounding voice in my head delivered two words, a sound bite, an ad slogan.
It wasn't your fault, my interior voice-over continued. You were trying not to hit the dog. There was nothing you could do. Besides, no one saw. Take your foot off the brake and move it onto the gas. Don't look back. Don't be stupid. Just go.
It was true that no one had seen it, I realized with a swallow. I was on an empty stretch of road near the airport with nothing but the deserted beach on the right. The only structure was an abandoned-looking concrete industrial building a couple of hundred feet up on the left.
The only witnesses to the incident were a silent armada of yellow school buses parked behind a chain-link fence across the street. Their dead eyelike headlights seemed to stare at me as if wondering what I was going to do.
I looked around for the biker's dog. It was gone.
It was as if I came back online then. Having thought the unthinkable, the spell was broken, and I could once again focus.
I slid the car into park and turned it off.
I had to help this poor man. I needed to do what my father would have done. Start CPR, stop his bleeding, find a phone.
Go? I thought, disgusted, as I fumbled with the door latch. How could I have even considered such a thing? I was a good person. I'd been a lifeguard, a candy striper. That's my good girl, my daddy used to say as I'd help him off with his high-gloss police oxfords.
I was getting out of the car when I noticed a pair of headlights approaching in the distance behind the injured man. Before I could breathe, an unexpected and dazzling flash of brilliant color crowned the headlights.
I stared, paralyzed, mesmerized, as the night suddenly blazed with a fireworks burst of police lights, blinding bubbles of blood red and vivid sapphire blue.
Excerpted from NOW YOU SEE HER © Copyright 2011 by James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge. Reprinted with permission by Little, Brown and Company. All rights reserved.