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.