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.