NINE YEARS AGO
A rustle of movement around her, the scrape of chairs and feet. Alice was slower to react, her senses dulled, as if by blunt instrument, by two days of testimony: dry, reasoned discourses on skid patterns, blood-alcohol levels, and degree of vehicular damage in relation to bodily injury, all of which seemed to have as much to do with her son, with David, as a chalk outline on pavement with the living, breathing person brought to such a cruel end.
With her palms flat against its surface as leverage, she pushed herself up from the table at which she sat. Her lawyer, Warren Brockman, shot her a look, his gray eyes kind and concerned, and she nodded almost imperceptibly to let him know she was okay. In fact, she was anything but. The blood was draining from her head, and she felt unsteady, a faint, persistent buzzing in her ears, the muscles in her legs quivering like after a mile run.
Lies! she had screamed silently as her son’s killer sat up there on the stand, visibly remorseful, as only an innocent man would be—or one who was going out of his way to appear so—giving his distorted version of events. She’d listened and she’d screamed in her head, biting down on the inside of her cheek until it bled to keep her mouth from flying open, her outrage from spewing out into the courtroom.
Now the jury was back with a verdict.
She glanced to her right. Owen White’s attorney, a boxy, graceless woman in an unflattering chartreuse dress, stood beside her client, a hand resting lightly against the small of his back. Her strategy had been to paint him as the victim, an innocent man relentlessly hounded by a mother unhinged by grief. He even looked the part, soft and harmless, with his pale, forgettable face and blameless blue eyes, his thinning hair the same flesh tone as his skin, and off-the-rack suit that belied his wealth. He might have been any of the nameless, faceless middle-aged men you came into contact with out in the world, in banks and insurance offices and rental agencies, the ones who smiled at you and chatted easily as they pushed a form across their desk for you to sign.
On the witness stand, he’d answered her lawyer’s questions in a quiet, respectful tone. She’d detected no gleam of sweat on his brow, and his eyes behind the wire-rim glasses he wore had been clear as a baby’s conscience, only turning sorrowful as they’d come to rest briefly on Alice from time to time, as if he weren’t unsympathetic to her plight.
But she knew the real story. Which was why she’d spent the past eighteen months and nearly all of her and Randy’s savings trying to bring the man responsible for their son’s death to justice.
If only Randy were here now! Her husband had scarcely left her side through the dark tunnel of days following David’s death. But once the criminal investigation had been put to rest, he’d grown increasingly impatient with her as the months had dragged on and her pursuit of justice showed no sign of flagging. When she’d insisted on filing a wrongful death suit, he’d gone along merely to appease her and had attended the subsequent court proceedings only sporadically, using the excuse of not being able to miss any more days of work.
In a way she didn’t blame him. All he had wanted was to mourn their son in peace. Randy wasn’t even convinced they had a case. Wasn’t it possible she’d been mistaken? he’d challenged her. The light would have been fading at that time of day and David was all the way down the block, a distance of at least a hundred yards. A little boy they both knew had been prone to taking risks, he could easily have darted out into the road on his bike, just the way Owen had told it.
But she knew she wasn’t mistaken. And now, suddenly, she found herself despising Randy almost as much as she did the man responsible for all this. Why wasn’t he as outraged as she? What kind of a father would allow his son’s murderer to walk free? Randy’s glaring absence might even have swayed some of the jurors in Owen’s favor. How must it look to them? A crazy lady who couldn’t convince her own husband.
Do I look crazy? Alice wondered. No, she thought, taking a mental inventory of herself. She’d chosen her dark gray suit with the navy piping and a pair of low-heeled navy pumps for today’s court appearance. Her brown hair was pulled back in a ponytail, fastened at the neck with a tortoise-shell barrette, her only jewelry a single strand of pearls and the tiny diamond studs in her ears.
Throughout the proceedings she’d been a model of restraint as well, someone of whom her parents could be proud. She hadn’t indulged in any outbursts, and except for the one time she’d wept silently into her hands, at the coroner’s description of David’s injuries, she hadn’t given in to tears. It was as if she’d been training all her life for this; it was what she did, what she was good at. Even at the funeral, she had felt it was her job to provide solace to others. Grieving was something you did in private, with a minimum of fuss.
She looked over her shoulder at her parents. Her mother wore a bright, expectant look as she gazed up at the bench, as if confident that the judge, a large, fleshy-faced man now settling into his seat, would make sure the jury did the right thing. Lucy Gordon believed that anything could be overcome with the right attitude. Like when Alice had been little and prone to car sickness; her mother, convinced it was a case of mind over matter, would press her to join in on sing-alongs and play games like I Spy on long trips to distract her until the nausea passed. (Though, if Alice had managed to keep from throwing up those times, it had had less to do with positive thinking than with a deep-seated terror of making a mess.). Now, with her perpetual schoolgirl’s face tipped up in a firm, fixed smile and framed by a ruffle of graying auburn hair, Lucy was once again refusing to let pessimism get the better of her.
In contrast, Alice’s father stood rigidly at Lucy’s side, his austere face frozen in a kind of grimace. Was he angry at her, for putting the family through so much grief? Alice wondered. It was hard to know with her dad. He was a man of few words, an architect whose language was that of line and space .The only time she’d ever seen him cry was as his grandson’s coffin was being lowered into the ground, and even then she wouldn’t have known if she hadn’t seen the tears leaking from under the dark glasses he’d worn.
Denise, six months pregnant with her second child, stood beside them, a hand resting on the dark head of Alice’s younger son, Jeremy. There were those who might have questioned Alice’s judgment in having her seven-year-old here for the reading of the verdict, she knew, but Alice had felt it was important for Jeremy to be a part of this moment, one that, either way, would define the rest of their lives.
She turned around, focusing now on the ornately framed painting on the wall to the left of the bench, to keep her stomach from going into free fall as the judge banged his gavel and court was called back into session. Ironically, it was a portrait of Owen’s father, Lowell White, who’d donated the land upon which the courthouse sat—a bit of history she hoped hadn’t factored into the jurors’ decision. A handsome, florid-faced man, with thick black brows and dark, wavy hair gone gray at the temples, he bore little resemblance to his son. His eyes seemed to meet hers, dancing with bemusement as if he knew something Alice didn’t, and she was reminded of the unsolved mystery surrounding his disappearance when Owen was a small boy, a mystery, passed from one generation to the next, which had become a part of Grays Island lore.