Chapter 15

It was hot—summer hot, already. She smelled something sweet and rotten in the air—maybe just last night’s spilled beer—as she walked across the lawn and then pushed into the knee-high meadow weeds on her way to the river. “He’s out back,” the bodyguard who answered the door had told her. She could see Seth on the rocks in the distance, staggering and clambering, then throwing something off the rock. Then she tripped, and started watching her feet instead. There were hunks of brick and concrete, some orange survey tape, some rusty metal bits in the tall grass.

She hitched her camera bag up on her shoulder. She waved to him and walked toward him at the same time he jumped off the rock and walked in her direction, doing a fake slow-motion leaping run with open arms across the field. She stood and waited for him. A hangnail on the side of her thumb was driving her crazy. She picked at it for a second, trying to tear it off.

“Hey,” he said.

“Hey,” she said. “Still OK for me to come by and shoot a little of your house?” she said, lifting up her bag. “You said last night I could come by,” she lied.

“Sure,” he said, stopping awkwardly a few feet away from her. He seemed wary, but maybe that was the shadow of her guilt coloring things. “Make it look good.”

“Can I shoot you a little here, around the rocks?” she said. “You looked good up there. Very rock star.”

“Funny,” he said, cocking pointed fingers at her as he backed away, then turning around and running toward the rocks, jumping, feinting, playing ninja. He veered to the left and ran up and down a dirt hill left by the construction. “Oughta brink a bike out here,” he shouted, panting. “BMX action.”

She shook her head and kept heading to the rocks. She was starting to sweat a little.

He was climbing the rocks now. “This? You like this?” He was draping himself over the rocks in parody poses, doing soulful teen idol, sultry porn star. She could almost have found his frantic clowning funny, human.

“No posing. Look at me.” She started shooting.

“You paid a lot for this place,” she said, from behind her camera.

“People are paying a lot for real estate now. That’s all it is to me.”

She lowered her camera and looked around. “With the studio and all? It seemed like more than a business transaction to you. Aren’t you going to stay here?”

“I could sell it to some IT douchebag tomorrow for double,” he turned and tossed a rock toward the water as she got closer. “They’d love the studio. They like to pretend they’re real rock stars. You know how that works.”

“Ow.” Malone climbed up on the rock next to him. She couldn’t tell if he knew he’d insulted her and was letting it sink in, was pretending not to know, or didn’t realize. The expression on his face was perfect—friendly but knowing. A face that told you that you were going to like what happened next, whether you would or not. Seductive. It had gone a little slack with the drugs and the years, but it still worked. It was tempting, the prospect of not having to think. Of just letting it happen, getting swept along. Why say anything? It’s not like she really knew anything.

She felt the paper of the photo printout in her back pocket, and through that the heat coming off the rock. “What I mean is, it’s a lot to pay for one of Sinclair’s properties. Lots of people are paying a lot for his properties. Too much.”

She wanted to shoot him now, because he looked different. Finally, something she hadn’t seen before. She raised her camera.

“Where do I look?” he said.

“Try toward the house,” she said. “People have noticed the prices. Things could start changing really quickly. The magazine noticed. They’re gonna run something. They asked me to get a comment from you, about why you paid so much.”

He didn’t say anything. She lowered her camera, and waited. She lowered the camera and looked at her thumb, then ripped the hangnail off with her teeth. Blood welled up and flowed into the well around the nail, like a creek running into a familiar rut. She reached down and wiped her hand on a weed, a tall queen-anne’s-lace flower growing next to the rocks. Early bloomer.

“This is bullshit,” he said. “The price was fine. It’s worth it. I’ve got comparables. I don’t have to talk to you. You’re being—you came out here under false pretenses. What the fuck.”

She expected him to start storming and raging, but his tone was almost mild. Maybe he couldn’t believe this was coming from her.

“Yes, it was false,” she said. “I was giving you a heads up. That’s not my place. I could get in trouble for that.”

He jiggled his leg and looked away from her, pretending to be distracted. “We done here?”

“I don’t think so,” she said, shaking her hair back and looking at him.

“What, you want to pretend to take more pictures? Maybe I should let you roam around inside?”

“The design’s kind of tired. Looks like you haven’t changed it a bit since he left.”

He was looking toward the river. “He did a lot to it. That’s why I paid. That’s the reason. I’ve got comparables.”

“Can you tell them how you found the place? Did he have a lot of parties? He liked to bring music people in? All kinds of music people? Local bands, kids just starting out?”

He stood up abruptly and she flinched, then pretended she was just reaching for her camera. He tossed a stone into the water.

“I’m from his district,” he said. “I develop for his company. We share the same views. Everyone knows that.”

She squinted up at him. “The same views? I really hope you don’t in too many ways, man, because that man is a fucking nut job,” she said. “If a bullshit magazine like Capital Life feels free to call you a nut job, you’re a for-real nutjob. He’s loose about things. Stupid. I’ll show you.”

She leaned forward, shaking, one hand digging in her back pocket against the tight jeans, her hands sweaty. “I have to know this, Seth, I have to know whether it was you or him. Who owned the house when he was here. Who took this. Who sent this to Jackson.”

He was looking at her like she was crazy. Not tracking. The printout had some blood from her hand on it. She couldn’t keep her patience anymore. “Look at this! Who took this? Who sent it?”

Seth looked at it and started to babble. “I was fucked up. Just fucking around. I just wanted to give him a virus. I threw a bunch of stuff on there. Some of my pictures and files stuck to it. I didn’t care! It wasn’t that big a deal! I was always fucking around and sending weird stuff. I didn’t know it was going to end up like that for him!”

She couldn’t hide her shock. “Dead?”


“End up dead, Seth.”


“This guy.” She stood up next to him, shaking with anger, jabbing her finger at the printout, at the picture of the kid and his band, clowning around. “This kid. Look at him!”

He stared. He swayed a little on the rock.

“I meant Jackson. I was talking about Jackson. I was always hacking around on him. I meant I didn’t mean for Jackson to get busted. I forgot about that. He was there. That kid was there.”

“He was here! What happened to him?”

Seth pulled away from her, stepping one foot back to another rock. “Hey,” he said. “We had a lot of parties here. People always walk out on their feet. They might be fucked up, but they walk out OK. On their feet.”

She waited. “What happened?”

“I don’t know! I left! It was back before I had to buy this place.”

He heard what he said, and backed off a little more. “People got fucked up, but everyone always walked out OK.”

“When was he here?”

“It was Sinclair! It was his place then. Nobody can blame me.”

He jumped over a trickle of river and onto another rock. She wanted to scramble back down, get in her car and go. Her hand was throbbing where she’d torn into the skin. She could feel sweat in her hair. Like she’d been dancing, at a club.

“Seth!” she called. “Where are you going?”

“Gonna take a swim,” he called. “Hot.”

“Seth! Not a good idea, man!”

He kept going, pulling at his flannel shirt. She saw a glint of metal, hoped it was his belt buckle.

“Come on! I don’t give a shit if you tell me, but you’ve gotta tell somebody! His family, come on! They need to know. Just tell me you’ll tell somebody, and I’ll leave, I swear. Please!”

He turned around, up to his knees in rushing water. The glinting metal was in his right hand. “Fuck off!” he called, waving.

A sense of outrage welled up inside her, mixed with fear. No, she thought. Not like this, not with this poor dumb son of a bitch. No. She saw black spots, and crouched down and jumped off the rock. That was when she should have run back to the house. Instead, she looked back at him. He pointed the gun at her. Then he waved his arm wide and pointed it at himself. Then he raised his arm and pointed at the sky.

She ran a few feet, stumbling and skidding. Back at the house, too far away, she saw a glint of light. The glass back door. A bodyguard coming out for a smoke. He didn’t look alarmed. He wasn’t running. She stopped and forced herself to look back.

He’d tucked the gun back into the back of his waistband and had waded into the river, up to his knees.

“You don’t want to do that, man,” she called, and he stopped and stood still. He knew about the currents; he knew this wasn’t a place to swim. “You really, really don’t,” she called. She wanted to go to him, but that was not going to happen, not for him. But she had to try something.

“You can get past this. Look at Jackson! You know he’ll get past it!”

He was silent so long that she didn’t know what to expect. Then he turned around and shouted at her: “Yeah, look at fucking Jackson! He’ll never get past it! You don’t get it, Malone! We’re not big enough to get past it! We’re nothing anymore!”

She could talk him in. She swallowed. “But your songs. Your songs have meant a lot to a lot of people. There are people out there who really admire you.”

He was sloshing back toward shore, both his hands out for balance. She snuck a look toward the house and saw the bodyguard standing smoking, but looking in their direction. Just keeping an eye on things. At least there would be a witness. She kept her distance, poised to run again.

“They think I’m a sellout. You do.” He wiped his face with his hands.

She laughed in spite of herself, shocked at how silly it sounded. “I think everyone’s a sellout. What do you care what I think?”

She backed away a little more. Almost through the meadow now. “It’s Sinclair,” she called out. “Sell him out. He’s crazy, everyone knows that. Seth. People would admire that.”

He hauled himself up onto one of the big rocks and lay down on it, face down, then turned his face toward her. His arms were outstretched on the rock. She knew it was stupid, but she walked a few steps back to him.

“You know how they love to see us play hurt, man,” she said. “Just tell someone. Please.”

“Yeah,” he sighed.

“Promise me you’re not going swimming,” she said.

He nodded. “OK.”

“You can do this.”

He nodded, and smiled a little. “Hey. Sorry about that, scaring you, you know. You really have to defend yourself out here.”

“Sure, man,” she said, backing away. “But please be cool, Seth. Listen. Lee loves you. Don’t hurt her more.”

She could feel a target on her back as she turned around and walked away, back to her car. She forced herself to slowly put the camera and camera bag inside before getting in. She slid across the seat in her own sweat even as she shook with chills. The road back from the river was too damn long.

Chapter 16

She should have been a wreck, a mess, falling apart. She wasn’t.

She felt better than she had in at least a year.

She crossed back to DC over Chain Bridge, across the same river, just downstream but with current much more dangerous. She was going against afternoon rush hour and the going was slow. At the light on MacArthur Boulevard, she flipped open her phone and called Andy: “Pretty much no comment,” she said. “But he was babbling about having plenty of comparables. I know you have that in there.”

She got Linney from Jessica’s, with many thanks. “Hot out there,” she said. “But it went a lot easier than I thought it would.”

She got home, actually cooked—chicken, pasta, salad—ate dinner with Nils, telling him only what had happened in the office, mentioning nothing about her trip to Seth’s. She gave Linney a bath and they sang together, then she fed her and put her down. She had a glass of wine while Nils watched Sports Center, then pulled him into the shower with her and got inventive with the towel rack, which she was still light enough to hang onto without pulling it out of the wall.

She scanned the news all weekend, enjoying hearing the occasional burbles about Sinclair. She avoided calling Bebe or Lee. Saturday, they saw the Sisters, and when they made their suggestions about what she should be doing, she smiled and sailed on.

Life could, apparently, be made more than tolerable if one were going around secretly almost getting shot at. It was a discovery she would have to learn to work with. She suspected in the future she would need a secret adrenaline source, just like an addict would have a hidden stash. Maybe she could take up rock climbing—skydiving was too expensive. Or a decent project. As she drove Sunday to meet the Sisters for a brunch on Capitol Hill, she took the route down North Capitol, and watched a mother pushing a stroller when she was stopped at a light. Was anyone giving her duct tape and Cipro in case of a terrorist chemical attack? But the post office at Brentwood, where the two workers had died of anthrax, wasn’t far away from that corner. They’d never let her in to the post office, of course—it had all gone federal. And the people in the neighborhood might never trust her. But she could try. It was evil, the way the people there had been treated. The government had given the workers on Capitol Hill all kinds of protections against anthrax, but had waited to treat the postal workers at Brentwood—waited too long, it turned out. She’d have to see what she could get away with. There might be a shitstorm with her name on it to deal with come Monday.

It didn’t wait that long to hit.

Andy called her at home Sunday afternoon, and that was something that did not happen, ever.

“Did you read the Patriot Papers?” he asked. This was a trashy but avidly read right-wing blog. It would have been ignored by most, except for the fact that right-wingers had found it a convenient place to break anonymously sourced stories against Democrats—and after that, some of these same stories had found sources and broken big and badly in the mainstream. This gave its writer, a funnel-cake addict who sometimes actually appeared in public wearing a tricorn hat, the illusion that he was a “real newsman,” although up until he had made the move to revolutionary blogger, he had by all accounts been a successful and well-liked Radio Shack assistant manager.

“Did he pick it up?” she said. “What else was it on?” She’d seen a Sinclair piece in the Post, on A16, but not bad.

“No. I mean he picked it up to deny it, but I’m talking about something else. Look, before you even see it, I want you to know I’m on it. I’ve been doing damage control.”


“It’s about you. No names. I’m the only one who would know it’s you. It’ll never fly. Please, Malone, don’t worry. No one will take this anywhere. It’ll choke and die right there where it lays, three screens in. I’m serious. No one will go with this. It’s a complete fabrication. Whatever I don’t get rid of, Harlan will shut down tomorrow.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Just check it out, and I’ll see you at work tomorrow. Don’t stay up all night. I wanted you to know I’ve already got it.”

She was entirely unprepared for what she found after a good 15 minutes of searching around the idiot Patriot Pages.

Castro-supporting D-list pop musician Jackson Hill, formerly of the band Seawall, made the news when he got into trouble about a month ago on suspicions of kiddie porn and terrorist supporting emails. But when liberal fans rushed to the Bono-wanabe’s defense, all the charges magically went away. Funny how that happens. Yet what many don’t know is that he was hanging out with an old crony—a photographer for the puffy Capital Life magazine, who has delusions of playing gotcha paparazzi on noted Republicans, without much success. And what else many don’t know: this libtard shooter won her notoriety when she photographed a series on young runaway boys. Birds of a feather, anyone?

She didn’t sleep. She pretended to read a book all night. She knew that Andy was right. This was just a side squirt of the long-running pissing match between Harlan and Sinclair, part of the latest flare-up between the East Coast and the West Coast crews.

But it was also the flip side of the energy the secret had given her, she realized. Taking action had made her feel free, and this night of fear was the payback. Fear after fear welled up—that Nils and the Sisters would somehow believe it, that they’d be able to take her daughter away, that her friends would leave her, that Jessica would spit at her, that she would be put away, medicated into submission and tied down when she resisted, like her brother—like her brother. That she was ill, like her brother, and maybe this was just the first symptom. She wrestled each one, pressing it down to nothing. She would stay cool. Sometime around 4 a.m., she remembered Bebe talking about honesty and authenticity, that the secret to looking honest was to give less away. She’d give it a try—withhold, and withhold more. The corollary was the phrase everyone lived with since the attacks: If you don’t have anything to hide, you don’t have anything to worry about. If she didn’t sleep, she wouldn’t have nightmares, and then maybe they wouldn’t come true.

Chapter 17

Another morning spend sitting in Harlan’s office with a pounding headache. She didn’t want to make it a habit.

“It’s pretty transparent,” Andy was saying. He’d been trying to explain the situation with Jackson, that it was simply a computer virus gone wild, and Harlan seemed to be tracking, despite his constant distractedness. “Now, throwing the magazine in there, he’s just trying to get back at her for the Sinclair thing.”

“Trying to get at me, you mean,” Harlan said, practically tap-dancing around the perimeter of the huge Persian rug that separated his desk from the suite of sofas where he made minions sit. “That damn lardass son of a bitch. Who’s this guy he’s talking about anyway?”

It was James’s turn to play pop culture translator. “You know—back at Brashton, all that new wave music, out at the beach. The MTV stuff. He was pretty famous for a while. They were called Seawall.”

A bit of incredulity made it through Malone’s haze of fear. These men couldn’t be more than 15 years older than she was, but they acted as if they were from the Eisenhower era. If she was stuck psychologically at age 21, they appeared to have gone right from puberty to age 50.

“Oh, yeah,” Harlan said. “Why didn’t you say so! He was pretty good. Made some money. ‘I’m taking the Crescent back to you..these tracks will never get me through…’” he sang, in a surprisingly pleasant tenor.

Malone sucked her cheeks and didn’t dare chance looking at Andy.

“Remember that one? Used to hear it everywhere,” Harlan said. “So you sure there’s nothing to this kiddie porn thing?”

Malone let out a little gaspy scream, a sound of feminine horror quite unlike her. She wasn’t sure where it had come from, but it was the right move.

“I didn’t mean you,” Harlan said. “Of course not, dear. I meant that little guitar player.”

“It was entirely a hacking job and a virus,” Andy said. “It wasn’t even porn to begin with. It was just some photos a local band, you know, wearing crazy costumes. It wasn’t anything you wouldn’t see on TV or in a magazine.”

“Not in this magazine,” Harlan said.

“But we need to update you—in the course of looking into Sinclair’s business, some other things have come out,” Andy said. “Sinclair apparently, um, is known for making advances. To his staff.”

“Male staff,” James said, filling in the blanks.

Andy spoke up quickly: “Malone actually has some photos.”

“Holy shit!” Harlan said, covering his eyes. “That’s enough for today. Don’t you people ever sleep? Just run around getting naked and taking pictures all the livelong day?”

“No, no,” Malone said. “It’s not like that. It’s in a public place—at a party. He’s just leaning in very close, um, patting his, um, butt, that kind of thing.”

Harlan scooted behind his desk, as if to shelter his own posterior at the thought. “God damn, I knew I hated that sonofabitch for a reason.”

He sat down in his desk chair, leaned back, and laced his arms behind his head. “Well, we’re gonna stop him telling lies about my magazine right here,” he said. “There’s no call to put all that out there, no call at all.”

“What about the—the gay?” James asked.

Malone almost giggled. “The gay.” It added to the whole principal’s office flavor of the scene. This will go on your Permanent Record. She wished it were that silly. Apparently, her boss was not only racist and sexist, but also a homophobe. What Nils would call a hat trick.

“Oh, no, no,” Harlan said. “We don’t do that kind of thing. You all just forget all about that now.”

He stared up at the ceiling for a while. “OK, you, um, Andy, you go get me that lardass blogger’s number. Rest of y’all stay here and stay quiet.”

This was not a challenge for Malone, though she could see it was for James, who was obviously dying to hide in his office again.

Andy got back with the number on a scrap of paper, and they sat still and quiet while Harlan dialed.

He sighed into the receiver. “Pick up the phone, fool, this is Harlan Gaines at Capital Life. That’s more like it.”

There was some silence.

“I’m just calling to tell you how much I like having a blog! Hell, I never had a blog til just this Friday, and it already got more hits than you!”

“Well, we’re dealing in the facts, you see, public real estate records and such, things you wouldn’t understand, never having been a journalist. Facts are facts, unlike when you mention my magazine and make your speculations!”

“We got the real estate records to back us up! We’ve got a look at his company, which is a shell! It’s as empty as the infamous 10th hole at Magnolia, and everybody knows it. And don’t you count on watching Tiger play at Magnolia this year, you son of a bitch!”

“Big guns,” Andy murmured.

“You know that little guitar player ain’t guilty of anything more than getting a bad computer virus. I don’t give a shit what you say about him, but you mention my damn magazine and I’m coming down on you, what the hell you think I’m gonna do? You wanna get sued, or you wanna get put out of business? It’s your choice.”

“That was my photographer you’re talking trash on! And you know damn well she’s nothing more than a nice little housewife you’re gonna find on any society page any damn paper or magazine or what-all, blog, anywhere around the country. …

“Of course they’re a bunch of damn hippies, but since when is that a crime? If you ever actually had to run a business instead of sitting there jerking off in your basement, maybe you’d understand that! They’re all a bunch of left wingers! You can’t find nobody’s not a left-winger working in this business! …

“Yeah, well they’re not the ones making money, I am. Who’s putting up your website? Who made your software? Bunch of hippies! Who’s making the money on your website? You are! See how it works?”

He started laughing. “Now, you see? I’m glad we got an understanding.”

“No, cause I’m gonna tell you what’s next. That nice little housewife’s got film of your guy Sinclair making advances to an intern at a party out here.” There was a longer silence than there had been before.

“Everybody knows what’s going on with the man. But nobody’s saying, because it’s just gonna hurt us all and do no good to anybody on this earth. Least of all his wife and children. “

“No, I did not think any of us want anything like that to happen. So you just run a little fix that states the facts, that that guitar player was cleared and leave my damn magazine out of it, completely, and we’ll stick to the facts out here, of which we have plenty, and we’ll leave the photos and what anyone does with anyone else in private out of it, and you know this is all gonna blow over before long. …

“You know nothing more happened here than a bunch of dumbasses paying too much for their houses and getting mad about it. Everybody knows they just paid too much for their houses cause they don’t know business. Because if there’s one man dumber than a doctor when it comes to business, it’s a rock musician.”

Harlan laughed for a while longer. “Now you get it. Sure you do. Tell you what, though, you ever use my magazine’s name again except when I win an award, I’m gonna own your blog. And I’m gonna turn it into a hippie, feminazi blog for MSNBC, so you watch your ass! Ha, ha, all right, son. None meant, none taken. Sure, you come on down to Magnolia. Long as you behave yourself, ha ha! Bye now.”

He hung up. “Jesus jumpin’ Christ.”

He waved his arms at them. “OK, all y’all get out of here. Go buy some doughnuts and do a taste test. Do some damn work before I fire you.”

Malone stood up. She had to say something. “I really appreciate your doing this—“

He cut her off. “You think I give a damn about you? This isn’t about you. I’m not gonna let anyone talk trash about my magazine. You behave yourself or you’re out of here.”

He shuffled on his desk for a paper, then looked up again. “And I don’t want any of that faggy stuff getting out there. Man’s wife and children got rights. Nobody deserves that kind of humiliation.”

Chapter 18

She didn’t tell Nils any of it.

She rationalized that it was the kind of deep-buried item only put out there as a strongly coded throwdown between Sinclair and Harlan in any case. No one else would make anything of it. It didn’t use her name—Patriot Pages had been careful not to get sued, though if he had wanted to, Harlan could have found a way to do it.

Instead, she told Nils that she wanted to do an independent photo project. That she was going to try to work out a babysitting exchange with Jessica, to give her some time on her own as well.

“What are you going to shoot?”

“I’m not sure yet. I was thinking about something around the Brentwood post office. You know, after the anthrax.”

“You’ve got to be kidding. That neighborhood?”

“I’d like to talk to some mothers there. About whether they were scared. About how they feel about it.”

“There are drive bys!”

She didn’t rise to it. She waited. “It’s too much time away from Linney.”

The button was pushed. So much for the withhold policy. “Look at her, Nils. Look at how healthy she is. How she sleeps. How she cries for like three seconds and then gets over it or gets what she needs. She sings all day! She smiles at people, she’s strong and she’s beautiful! What more do you want? What am I doing so wrong, Nils? You tell me!”

“It’s a little early to pat ourselves on the back.”

“Well, when were you planning to? It’s good for her to see other kids. It’s going to be good for her to have a mother who is doing what matters to her, not someone creeping around afraid of every little thing.”

“Well, if you’re willing to be so reckless—” “I’m not reckless! Reckless is going without a carseat! Reckless is smoking crack! Using soap that’s not organic, that is not reckless! Having a life, having friends, that’s not reckless!

“I didn’t say—”

“Well, do say! Say what kind of life is appropriate. What, I’m supposed to work and come home and we’re supposed to have a date night every two weeks and the date night needs to be at some upper northwest restaurant Cap Life gives three stars. Not four, cause that’s a little too extravagant for us. And go see a show where we sit down in the seats and the performers are all on All Things Considered. God help me if I don’t do what everyone expects me to do.”

“Growing up,” he said through clenched teeth, “means not going out and partying all the time.”

“This isn’t about partying! This is about what I do! Growing up means making your own damn decisions, not taking a fucking poll to see what your demographic is supposed to be doing and buying what they say to buy. You used to like that I did that!”

“It’s different now. I don’t trust—” he stopped himself.

“You don’t trust what? Me? Maybe you shouldn’t. But you should trust what you see in front of you. Trust what you see. You have a beautiful, healthy child and a wife who’s about to go crazy if you don’t stop trying to control her every move. Now what are you gonna do?”

He looked at her. “I never said you were a bad mother.”

“Nils. I don’t care. Trust what you see, not what everyone is telling you to believe. Buying the right shit is not going to defeat terrorists. Controlling me is not going to keep the planes in the air.”

Her phone rang. “I think it’s work,” she said. He said nothing. She saw it was Bebe only after she’d flipped it open, too late to let it go to voice mail.

“Mal,” she heard her gasping.

“You sound awful,” Malone said.

“It’s Seth. Seth’s dead. They found him in the river.”

The official word was accident, though the more romantic attributed it to suicide.

There were a number of memorials planned and held. Malone went to one, a smaller one. His drugged-out father dominated the news for a while, making big statements and gunning for any money he could get.

Tuesday, the day after she got the news, Malone went out for lunch. She road the bus to Brentwood and walked to the Party Time liquor store. She went inside and bought a phone card and a Coke. There was still a pay phone out front. It worked.

“This is about Seth Tower,” she told the tip line, using her boy’s voice. “I’m a fan. Him and that other guy who died, we used to party all the time at that house when that senator lived there. Everyone partied there. You want to know what happened to that guy, he died cause he was really fucked up one night. He OD’d. That’s why Seth killed himself. Cause that kid OD’d. Ask his band. I’m just a fan. I’m a fan.” She hung up.

Then she used the phone card code and called Alexis. “I can’t talk. Yeah, how about that! I’ve seen you’re on it. You remember how we saw him with the staffer? Well, I heard something I have to tell you, because there’s no way Harlan would let me say anything. And if you say anything about me, ever, I will lie and lie and lie. And I will get Harlan to fire your ass.”

She laughed. “It’s pretty sick. Apparently that kid who was missing OD’d at Sinclair’s house one night. I know…it’s just what they say. They say Seth knew and that’s why he killed himself. Yeah, it would be nice to leave him out of it. Who knows? But with Sinclair being out there in LA, I figured maybe. I have to go. Good luck! I mean it! Don’t call me, ever! Bye!”

The following week she was enjoying her day off by folding baby laundry on the couch. The rest of the house was clean and uncluttered; keeping it that way was her end of the bargain so she could earn the right to start on a project.

She heard the doorbell and a knock. Two men in suits were outside. She opened the door with the chain still on. They showed their badges and identified themselves, and she let them in, her face displaying a little distaste, a little curiosity.

Code switch, she thought. Full-on Glover Park white lady.

“Can I get you…some water? Bottled water?” she said, picking Linney up from a blanket on the floor, where she was playing with some plastic nesting cups. “You can have a seat,” she said, waving at the chairs on either side of the couch. She threaded Linney’s legs through her play chair and strapped her in, and put nesting cups on the play chair shelf. Linney drooled a little, picked up a cup and started to gnaw on it.

“That’s OK,” they both said, and sat down.

“You were one of the last people to see Seth Tower,” the taller, better-looking one said.

“Oh! Well,” she said. “I thought that might be it. Because you’re from Virginia,” she said. “I was supposed to get pictures of his house for the magazine—Capital Life?” She said it as though she were used to impressing people with it, and went back to folding laundry. “You know, the interior design, the landscaping. It had some interesting architectural features. But with the scandal—“ she made a dismissive gesture with the hand holding a onesie. “Obviously, we couldn’t do anything with it. I had made an appointment, so I went out anyway, to see if I could get a comment and maybe just take a few photos, just in case.”

“You took photos of his house?”

“Well, no! It hadn’t been staged properly yet. I did take some pictures of the landscaping. He was, well, he was very excited about being in the magazine. That’s why it’s so strange. He didn’t seem to care about the scandal. He said he had plenty of comparables and he thought the house was well worth what he paid, because it had a recording studio. That’s why it seems so strange that people would say he killed himself. Doesn’t it?” She let some gossip-hunger creep into her voice. A lady like her would be into the gossip. She wouldn’t understand that you’re not supposed to ask the police for gossip, because she never would have talked to the police.

“Was he using drugs?”

“What, when I was there? Of course not.”

“Are you sure?”

“Not in front of me, for heaven’s sake,” she said. She looked quickly at the baby, as if worried that she would hear and understand, and lowered her voice. “Oh, maybe he was s-m-o-k-i-n-g sometimes or something, but you know, he was a rock star. But he seemed very happy. He always wanted to promote himself, you know. He was always very interested in that kind of thing.”

“You don’t sound so upset,” the good-looking one said.

She shot him a look. As a respectable professional and wife and mother, she was above a police officer. She made herself act it and believe it. She wouldn’t be rude, but she knew her place.

“Of course I was terribly shocked,” she said, in a slightly hushed voice, as if to keep the baby from overhearing. “I’d just seen him alive. It will take me months to really get over this.” It’s all about you, she reminded herself. Make it be all about you. Be the woman they think you are.

“And this kind of—visit—doesn’t really help. It’s very traumatizing, you know,” she said, explaining it to them, trying to remain unaware of her own condenscension. “It can be very serious for a family if they don’t deal with trauma,” she said.

“You were at his house for a party,” the larger one said.

“Yes, some of my photos were in his latest book. Things I took back in college. I do primarily interior design photography now,” she said. “Architectural work. He was fine then, too. Very happy. Really, we weren’t very close,” she said, going back to folding laundry. “We were in very different groups. Obviously, I don’t live that kind of rock star life,” she said, smiling and indicating the laundry. “Thank goodness,” she laughed a little.

They stood up. The taller one handed her a card. “Let us know if you think of anything further,” one said.

“Sure,” she said. “What do you think really happened?”

Their faces got even stonier, if that were possible. “We don’t comment on that,” the tall one said.

“Thank you for talking to us,” the other one said.

“Of course I’d talk to you. Why wouldn’t I?”

“Well, as you, um, pointed out, it can be difficult.”

“Tsk. People who haven’t done anything wrong don’t have anything to worry about.”

She walked them to the door. “It really is a terrible thing,” she said. “Thank you!” She opened the door and held it open, holding her fake smile open not quite as wide.

She closed the door behind them and locked it. She walked back into the living room and knelt in front of Linney.

The baby held her arms out to be picked up. “Mama,” she said. Malone lifted her out of the seat and held her close. One other person on earth knew who she was.