Five hours of sleep. I rub my eyes, head out front, and bend down
to extract my rolled-up copy of The Washington Post from beneath an
azalea bush. I never know where I'm going to find the thing;
whoever pitches it never got past T-ball.
"Good morning! Beautiful day in the neighborhood." It's Yasmin
Siegel, my eightysomething neighbor from across the street, with
her black Lab, Cookie.
"I guess." I slide the paper out from its transparent plastic
"Seriously, Alex, a day like this in Washington, D.C." She shakes
her head in disbelief. "It's a gift. End of May? You can get some
real stinkers." She points her finger at me. "You enjoy it, you and
"I was hoping for rain," I tell her, looking up at the cloudless
"Ri-ight," Yasmin chuckles. "O-kay, Cookie. I get the message." She
gives me a jaunty wave and heads toward the park.
Actually, I was hoping for rain. I check the weather map on the
back of the Metro section, just in case.
No. No rapidly moving front, no storm pelting toward D.C. from
Canada or the Outer Banks.
A beautiful day.
Back in the house, I set up the coffeemaker. While I wait for it to
do its thing, I put out bowls and spoons for the boys, pour two
glasses of orange juice, tear off a couple of bananas from the
bunch, toss them onto the table, get the giant box of Cheerios down
from the cabinet.
The problem with the beautiful day is that I've got work to do,
last-minute cuts on a piece scheduled to air tonight. But cuts or
no cuts, I promised the boys--my six-year-old twins--that every
Saturday they could pick out some kind of excursion. And they're
dead set on this Renaissance festival, which naturally enough is
all the way to hell and gone, way out past Annapolis. The drive
alone will take more than an hour each way. It's going to kill the
And since this is the boys' first visit since Christmas--and only
their second visit since Liz and I separated--this is the first of
these excursions. No way I can bail.
I tell myself there's nothing for it. Get on with it. I need to
make the cuts in time to drop off the file at the station on our
way out of town.
The boys and I are doing great so far--although after only six
days, I'm already wiped out and playing catch-up at the station.
This would make Liz happy, both the sleep deprivation and the fact
that after less than a week, I'm already falling behind at work.
She built in the time crunch when she set up the conditions for the
visit. She wouldn't let me take the boys on a trip, for instance,
not even for part of the month. "How can I compete," she said, "if
every time they're with you, it's a vacation?" (I took the kids
skiing in Utah during my allotted four days at Christmas.)
What Liz wants is a month of "regular life," as she puts it. She
works full-time at the Children's Museum in Portland. She wants me
to experience the reality, 24/7, of having kids and a job, wants me
to hassle with car pools, laundry, bedtimes, picky eating habits,
friends, the parents of friends. If there's any chance for a
reconciliation, I have to see that I can't just phone it in--having
a wife and kids. Being a single parent for a month will force me to
put family first.
Instead of work. In the station's official bio, I'm the guy who
"goes after the toughest stories in the hardest places." This has
won me several awards, but it's beginning to look as if it might
cost me my marriage. And my family. I was in Moscow when the twins
took their first steps, in Kosovo when Kev broke his arm, in
Mazar-al-Sharif on their first day of kindergarten.
"Minute for minute," Liz said, "you'll probably see more of the
boys this month than you have for the past two years. Maybe you'll
even like it."
Coffee's ready. I splash some milk into it and I'm about to leave
the plastic bottle on the table for the boys, when I remember that
Kev won't touch milk if it's the slightest bit warm. I put it back
into the fridge.
The thing is I do like it, having the guys around, even with the
hassles. Liz was right about that. I guess it was always easier to
let her do most of the "parenting," or whatever you want to call
it. Turns out, that routine stuff is when you really get to know
your kids. I forgot how much fun they are, their bursts of insight,
the earnest concentration they bring to certain tasks. How much I
This Renaissance thing, though--I'm not looking forward to that.
After a long and traffic-choked drive, I'm guessing it will be a
hokey and overpriced tour through what amounts to a faux
Elizabethan amusement park. Costumed knights and ladies. Jousts and
faked swordplay. Jugglers and magicians. Not my kind of thing. Not
I tried to promote an O's game, a trip to the zoo, a movie and
pizza--but the boys wouldn't budge. They've been relentless about
the festival ever since they caught the ad on TV.
By now, I've seen it too because the kids taped it and forced me to
watch. A knight in shining armor gallops into the foreground.
Behind him, a half-timbered facade bristles with wind-whipped
pennants. Huge lance in hand, the knight reins in his horse, lifts
his faceplate, and in hearty Elizabethan English invites one and
all to "Get thyselves to the Maryland Renaissance Faire!"
It all seemed kind of lame to me, and I made the mistake of saying
that to Liz last night on the phone--looking for a little
good-natured mutual grumbling about parenthood.
What I got instead was a chilly lecture from my wife. Didn't I get
it that what parents enjoy is their kids' enjoyment? What did I
think--that Liz was crazy about Barney? Teletubbies? Return of the
Clones? "And here I was going to compliment you on finding
something that fit in so well with their after-school enrichment
program," Liz said. "I should have known."
I didn't have a clue about any after-school program and that,
unfortunately, became crystal clear. She explained: the boys have
been up to their ears in Arthurian lore.
This had gone right by me; although once Liz mentioned it, I
realized the kids had been rattling on about the Round Table and
Merlin. And they'd spent hours out in the backyard, dueling with
plastic swords. Plastic swords that, yes, they brought in their
Okay, so I demonstrated a lack of curiosity about the plastic
swords--is that so bad? Or--is Liz right and I'm the most
self-absorbed parent on the planet? Unlike their tuned-in mother up
Maine. I drop down into the chair in front of the iMac in my study.
Could she have moved any farther away? Without expatriating? The
answer, of course, is yes: she could have gone to Alaska. Hawaii.
L.A. She could have gone lots of places. But...
I tap a key and wait for the screen to shimmer out of sleep mode.
My segment--"Afghan Wedding"--was all wrapped and ready until nine
last night, when I got the word that the addition of some
promotional clips meant I had to cut another two minutes. I made
the logical cuts last night, but I still need to lose forty-four
seconds. The segment's only seven minutes long now, so cutting is
harder. Whatever goes at this point will be something I don't want
to give up.
Originally "Afghan Wedding" was part of an hour-long special about
Afghanistan, pegged around a Donald Rumsfeld
we-haven't-forgotten-you visit to that beleaguered country. I got a
nice long interview with the secretary of defense about the state
of the postwar recovery. I interviewed Karzai. We got some
excellent tape of the crew working on the reconstruction of the
Kandahar-Kabul road. And then there was a pastiche of feel-good
stuff about life in liberated Kabul and Kandahar. Girls going to
school. The opening of a health clinic for women. Exhilarated
Afghanis listening to music. Dancing. Capped off with the wedding:
Afghan couple celebrates long-postponed nuptials.
The wedding was to take place in a village near Kandahar. A safe
zone, or so we were told. The crew and I got there with our
equipment, no problem. Even with the cameras, the wedding got
started on time. And then the happy occasion turned into a
nightmare when the crew of an off-course U.S. F-16 seeking a
rumored Taliban conclave misread the wedding tableau on the
Four killed, fifteen wounded.
The segment was removed from the hour-long progress report about
Afghanistan. Now the wedding footage was going to be part of an
ambitious show about collateral damage: Gulf I (Saddam and the
Kurds), Mostar (the bridge), Gaza and Jerusalem (noncombatants
killed by both sides), Afghanistan (my wedding piece), Liberia
(chopped-off hands and feet), Gulf II (friendly-fire fatalities).
The show--Big Dave was angling for an Emmy--would finish with a
segment about the mother of all collateral-damage stories:
I cue up my segment on the iMac. On the monitor, the nightmare has
not yet begun. The camera cuts between the glowing faces of the
bride and groom, then moves in for a close-up of the tiny American
flags pinned to their nuptial finery.
"Dad, can we eat breakfast in the TV room and watch
I jump. Liz took off with the kids more than six months ago and one
week into their visit, I'm still not used to the way they just
materialize. "Jeez, I gotta put bells on you guys."
Sean says, "Can we?"
"Eat breakfast in the TV room? Please?"
I shrug. "Why not?"
"Great! C'mon, Kev."
But Kevin doesn't budge. "When are we going to the Renaissance
I'm wondering what I can get away with. "I'm
"No way!" Kev complains. "We'll miss the whole thing."
"Kevin," his brother tells him, "it doesn't even start till eleven.
And it goes till seven." Then, because he's just learned to tell
time, Sean adds: "P.M."
Kevin gives his brother a look. "No kidding, P.M." He turns to me.
"You promise? Noon?"
I pretend to think about it. "Nahhhh, I can't promise."
Sean gives a little gulp of a laugh and then the two of them moan
in chorus: "Daaaaad."
At least they know, after a week, when I'm kidding. The first
couple of days, worried looks flashed from one to the other. To say
they'd forgotten my sense of humor understates it: they'd forgotten
what I'm like--a depressing reminder that five months had been just
about long enough to turn me into a stranger to my sons.
When the kids are gone, I cue up the bits of footage I picked out
last night for possible cuts. I mute the audio and lean back to
watch. I take some time checking out how various cuts will affect
And I decide that maybe the dark-man sequence has to go. It's
thirty-eight seconds long and if I can live without it, I'm just
about home free.
One last look.
The dark man is one of the bride's brothers. The ceremony is over
and he's holding his weapon--it's an AK--in one outstretched hand.
With a loopy grin on his face, he squeezes off a few rounds in
sheer jubilation. I like this, the irony of gunfire as celebration
in a country where the sounds of war never seem to stop. Just as
the camera closes on the man's gleeful face, the whole screen
That jolt was, in fact, the impact of the first bomb from the
The dark man's grin collapses into slack-jawed astonishment, then
turns into a puzzled contemplation of his weapon, as if it might
somehow be responsible for what's happening. He's still connecting
the dots when the second bomb detonates, this one so close the
screen instantly fills with dust and debris. Visible only in
silhouette, the dark man goes airborne, body hurtling through the
air. Then he's propped up against a rock, powdered in dust, eyes
dazed, blood seeping from an ear.
The camera shifts to me. I'm coated in dust, too, standing in front
of a rocky outcrop and talking into a microphone. Then we see a
group of women, wailing and pointing toward the sky. Me again. Then
the bewildered bride staring at the face of her fatally wounded
I roll it back, check the frame counter. The sequence is good, but
it's peripheral. I tap a few keys and it's...gone.
I tinker with a cut I made last night and shave off the remaining
few seconds I need, then roll it through. I stop when I hit the
image of the dark man--somehow a few frames survived my edit. I
delete them and roll forward, just to make sure the transitions are
clean. I freeze it when the kids come in--for what must be the
tenth time now--to remind me that it's time to go. "Past time to
go," Kev says. "Almost twelve-thirty."
"Let's be off," Kevin says in a funny, stilted voice--a knightly
voice, I realize.
"Yes! Your loyal servants Sean and Kevin beg thee!"
Suddenly, I'm engulfed by the two of them: the towheaded Lord Kevin
and his mirror image, Sir Sean. They tug at my sleeves and rock
from foot to foot, as if they have to pee.
"Just let me--"
With a sigh, I reach for the mouse. "Okay."
"Who's that?" Sean asks, pointing at the monitor.
I paused on a frame that shows the groom's face, his eyes wild, his
face obscured by a skein of blood.
"Just a guy," I tell him. I right click.
"What's the matter with him?" Kevin asks as the haunted and
battered face of the wounded groom disappears from the screen. What
the boys couldn't see was that his legs had been blown off. What
they did see was the terror on his face.
I click through the shutdown procedure to close out the
application, then pop out the disk. "He was scared," I say.
"Because he was in a war, and he was hurt and that's...that's
"I want to see it," Sean insists.
"Because we have to go," I tell them, pushing back from the
Sean bursts for the door, but Kevin stays where he is, big blue
eyes locked on me. "Is that man going to die?"
I hesitate. Finally, I say, "Yeah."
I put my arm on Kevin's shoulder and try to steer my son toward the
door, but Kev doesn't budge. "Dad?"
Excerpted from THE MURDER ARTIST © Copyright 2011 by John
Case. Reprinted with permission by Fawcett, a division of Random
House, Inc. All rights reserved.