My heart is pounding the way it does on the all-too-rare occasions when I run for exercise. I’m sitting in front of the St. Stephen’s Preparatory School with one of the most distinguished alumni who ever attended it, and he’s telling me he was screwing a high school student. A student who is now dead. This man is my lifelong friend, yet the first words that pass my lips are not those of a friend but of a lawyer. “Tell me she was eighteen, Drew.”
“Her birthday was in two weeks.”
I suck in my breath and close my eyes. “It might as well have been two years. That’s statutory rape in Mississippi. Especially with the age difference between you. It’s what, twenty years?”
I shake my head in disbelief.
He takes my arm and pulls it toward him, forcing me to look into his eyes. “I’m not crazy, Penn. I know you think I’ve lost my mind, but I loved that girl like no one I’ve known in my life.”
I look away, focusing on the playground of the middle school, where water has pooled on the merry-go-round. What to say? This isn’t a case of some horny assistant coach who got too chummy with a cheerleader in the locker room. This is an educated and successful man in the grip of a full-blown delusion.
“Drew, I prosecuted a lot of child molesters in Houston. I remember one who had regularly molested an eleven-year-old girl. Can you guess what his defense was?”
“They were in love.”
He snorts with disdain. “You know this isn’t like that.”
“Do I? Jesus Christ, man.”
“Penn…until you’re in a situation like this, you simply can’t understand it. I was the first to condemn that coach who got involved with that senior over at the public school. I couldn’t fathom it then. But now…I see it from the inside.”
“Drew, you’ve thrown your life away. Do you realize that? You could go to jail for twenty years. I can’t even…” My voice fails, because it suddenly strikes me that I may not have heard the worst of what will be revealed in this car tonight. “You didn’t kill her, did you?”
The blood drains from his face. “Are you out of your mind?”
“What did you expect me to ask?”
“Not that. And there’s something pretty damned cold in your tone.”
“If you don’t like my tone, wait till you hear the district attorney. You and Kate Townsend? Holy shit. ”
“I didn’t kill her, Penn.”
I take another deep breath and let it out slowly. “No, of course not. Do you think she committed suicide?”
“Because we were planning to leave together. Kate was excited about it. Not depressed at all.”
“You were planning to run away together?”
“Not run away. But to be together, yes.”
“She was a kid, Drew.”
“In some ways. Not many. Kate had a different kind of upbringing. She went through a lot, and she learned a lot from it. She was very mature for her age, both psychologically and emotionally. And that’s saying something these days. These kids aren’t like we were, Penn. You have no idea. By fifteen they’ve gone through things you and I didn’t experience until our twenties. Some of them are jaded by eighteen.”
“That doesn’t mean they understand what they’re doing. But I’ll be sure and run that argument past the jury.”
Drew’s eyes flicker. “Are you saying you’ll represent me?”
“I was joking. Who else knows about this relationship?”
“Don’t be stupid. Someone always knows.”
He sets his jaw and shakes his head with confidence. “You didn’t know Kate. Nobody knows about us.”
The na"ivet'e of human beings is truly breathtaking. “Whatever you say.”
Drew puts his big hands on the wheel and squeezes it like a man doing isometric exercises. In the small space of the car, his size is intimidating. I’m six-foot-one, two hundred pounds; Drew has two inches and twenty pounds of muscle on me, and he hasn’t let himself slip much from the days he played tight end for Vanderbilt. It’s not hard to imagine Kate Townsend being attracted to him.
“It comes down to this,” Drew says in a steady voice. “The police are going to start probing Kate’s life. And if they probe deeply enough, they might find something that connects me to her.”
“I don’t know. A diary? Pictures?”
“You took pictures?” Why am I asking? Of course they did. Everyone does now. “Did you videotape yourselves too?”
“Kate did. But she destroyed the tape.”
I’m not sure I believe this, but right now that’s not the point. “What about Ellen?” I ask, meaning his wife.
His eyes don’t waver. “Our marriage has been dead for ten years.”
“You could have fooled me.”
“I did. You and the rest of the town. Ellen and I mount a major theatrical production every day, all for the sake of Tim.”
Tim is Drew’s nine-year-old son, already something of a golden boy himself in the elementary school. Annie has a serious crush on him, though she would never admit it. “What about Tim, then? Were you going to leave him behind?”
“Of course not. But I had to make the break from Ellen first. I’ll die if I stay in that marriage.”
They always sound like this before the divorce. Any rationalization to get out of the marriage.
“I don’t want to say anything negative about Ellen,” Drew says softly. “But the situation has been difficult for a long time. Ellen’s addicted to hydrocodone. She has been for six years.”
Ellen Elliott is a lawyer who turned to real estate in her midthirties, a dynamo who focuses on the upscale antebellum mansions in town. Originally from Savannah, Georgia, she seems to have pulled off the rare trick of breaking into the inner cliques of Natchez society, something outsiders almost never accomplish. I’ve never known Ellen well, but the idea of her as a drug addict is hard to swallow. My mental snapshot is a sleek and well-tended blonde who runs marathons for fun.
“That’s kind of hard for me to believe, Drew.”
“You can’t imagine Ellen popping Lorcet Plus like M amp;Ms? That’s the reality, man. I’ve tried for years to help her. Taken her to addiction specialists, paid for rehab four times in the last three years. Nothing has worked.”
“Is she clinically depressed?”
“I don’t think so. You’ve seen her. She’s wide open all the time. But there’s something dark underneath that energy. Everything she does is in pursuit of money or social status. Two years ago she slept with a guy from Jackson during a tennis tournament. I literally can’t believe she’s the woman I married.”
“Was she different when you married her? About the money and status, I mean?”
“I guess the seeds of that were there, but back then it just looked like healthy ambition. I should have seen it in her mother, though.”
I can’t help wanting to defend Ellen. “We all start turning into our parents, Drew. I’m sure you have been, too.”
He nods. “Guilty as charged. But I try to stay self-aware, you know? I try to be the best person I can be.”
And that led you to a seventeen-year-old girl?I have more questions, but the truth is, I don’t want to know the gory details of Drew’s personal life. I’ve heard too many drunk friends pour out the stories of how their lives fell short of their dreams, and it’s always a maudlin monologue. The odd thing is that by almost anyone’s estimation, Drew Elliott has led a dream life. But as my mother always said: You never know what’s cooking in someone else’s pot. And one thing is sure: whatever happens as a result of Kate Townsend’s death, Drew Elliot’s touchdown run through life has come to an end.
“I need to get home to Annie, Drew. Mia needs to leave.”
He nods with understanding. “So, what about it? Will you help me?”
“I’ll do what I can, but I’m not sure that’s much. Let’s see what happens tomorrow.”
He nods and looks into his lap, clearly disappointed. “I guess that’s the best I can hope for.”
I’m about to get out of the car when Drew’s cell phone rings. He looks at the LED screen and winces. “Jenny Townsend.”
My chest tightens.
“She’s going to want me to come by the house.”
“Will you go?”
“Of course. I have to.”
I shake my head in amazement. “How can you do it? How can you look Jenny in the eye tonight?”
Drew watches the phone until it stops ringing, then meets my eyes with the sincerity of a monk. “I’ve got a clear conscience, Penn. I loved Kate more than anyone on earth, except maybe her mother. And anyone who loved Kate is welcome in that house tonight.”
Drew is both right and wrong. He will be welcome in the Townsend home tonight; in fact, of all the visitors, he will probably be the greatest comfort to Jenny. But what if Jenny Townsend knew that her personal physician had been having sex with her teenage daughter? That he was about to abandon his family and blow Kate’s perfectly planned future to smithereens?
“I’ll give you a call tomorrow,” I say softly.
Drew catches hold of my forearm as I climb out, once more forcing me to look into his eyes. “I’m not out of my mind. It wasn’t a midlife crisis that led me to Kate. I’d been starving for love for a long time. I’ve turned down more women in this town than you can imagine, both married and single. When I hurt my knee in that car accident last summer, I was home for six weeks. Kate was there every day, watching Tim. We started talking. I couldn’t believe the things she talked about, the things she read. We e-mailed and IM-ed a lot at night, and it was like talking to a thirty-five-year-old woman. When I could walk again, I organized a medical mission trip to Honduras. Kate volunteered to come along. It was actually Ellen who suggested it. Anyway, that’s where it happened. Before we returned to the States, I knew I wanted a life with her.”
“She was seventeen, man. What kind of life could you have had with her?”
“An authentic life. She was only two weeks shy of eighteen, Penn, and she was going to Harvard in the fall. I’ve already taken the Massachusetts state medical boards. I scored in the top five percent. I’ve already put a deposit on a house in Cambridge.”
“And now none of that will ever happen,” Drew says, his face tight with anger and confusion. “Now someone has murdered her.”
“You don’t know it was murder.”
His eyes narrow. “Yes, I do. It had to be.”
I gently disengage my arm. “I’m sorry for your pain, man. I really am. But if it gets out that you were involved with Kate, you’re going to be crucified. You’d better start-”
“I don’t care about myself! It’s Tim I’m worried about. What’s the best thing I can do for him?”
I shake my head and open the door to the rain. “Pray for a miracle.”
Mia Burke is sitting on the porch of my town house on Washington Street, a bulging green backpack beside her. I park by the curb, looking for Annie’s smaller form, but then I see that the front door is open slightly, which tells me Annie is still sleeping and Mia is listening for her. Mia stands as I lock the car, and in the light of the streetlamp I see that, like Drew, she’s been crying.
“You all right?” I ask, crossing the sidewalk.
She nods and wipes her cheeks. “I don’t know why I’m crying so much. Kate and I weren’t really close. It just seems like such a waste.”
Mia Burke is the physical opposite of Kate Townsend. Dark-haired and olive-skinned, she stands about five-feet-two, with the muscular frame of a born sprinter. She has large dark eyes, an upturned nose, and full lips that have probably sent a hundred adolescent boys into paroxysms of fantasy. She’s wearing jeans and aLIFEHOUSE T-shirt, and she’s holding a book in her hand: The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles. Mia has surprisingly eclectic taste, and this has probably confused the same boys who dream about her other attributes.
“You’re right,” I murmur, thinking of Drew with very little charity. “It is a waste.”
“Did she commit suicide, Penn?”
It occurs to me that Mia’s use of my first name might seem inappropriate to some people. It’s always seemed a natural informality between us, but in light of what I now know about Drew and Kate, nothing seems innocent. “I don’t know. Was Kate the type to kill herself?”
Mia hugs herself against the chill and takes some time with the question. “No. She always kept to herself a lot, especially this year. But I don’t think she was depressed. Her boyfriend was giving her a lot of trouble, though.”
“Kate had a boyfriend?”
“Well, an ex, really. Steve Sayers.”
Steve Sayers, predictably, was the quarterback of the football team.
“I don’t really know what the deal was. They dated for almost two years, then at the end of last summer Kate seemed to forget Steve existed.”
Thanks to Drew Elliott, M.D…
“The weird thing is, she didn’t break up with Steve. She’d still go out with him, even when she obviously didn’t care about him anymore. But she stopped having sex with him, I know that. And he was going crazy from it.”
Mia’s frankness about sex doesn’t come out of the blue. We’ve had many frank conversations about what goes on beneath the surface at St. Stephen’s. If it weren’t for Mia’s candor, I would have as little idea of the reality of a modern high school as the rest of the parents, and would be of as little use on the school board.
“Did Kate tell you she stopped having sex with him?” I ask.
“No. But Steve told a couple of his friends, and it got around. He thought she might be doing stuff with someone else. Someone from another school, maybe.”
“What did you think?”
Mia bites her bottom lip. “Like I said, Kate was very private. She had this charming persona she could turn on, and most people bought into it. But that was just the mask she used to get through life. Deep down, she was somebody else.”
“Who was she?”
“I’m not sure. All I know is that she was way too sophisticated for Steve. Maybe for any guy our age.”
I look hard into Mia’s eyes, but I see no hidden meaning there. “What made her so sophisticated?”
“Her time in England. After her parents got divorced, she went over to London and lived with her dad for a while. She went to an exclusive school over there for three years during junior high. In the end it didn’t work out for her to stay, but when she got back here, she was way ahead of the rest of us. She was pretty intimidating with that English accent.”
“I can’t imagine you being intimidated.”
“Oh, I was. But last year I started catching up with her. And this year I passed her in every subject. I feel guilty saying it now, but I felt pretty good about that.”
Some of Drew’s words are coming back to me. “You play tennis, don’t you?”
“I’m on the team. I’m not as good as Kate. She was a machine. She won state in singles last year, and she was on her way to doing it again this year.”
“Didn’t Kate play competitive tennis with Ellen Elliott?”
“Hell, yes. They won the state open in city league tennis.”
“What do you think about Ellen?”
Mia’s eyes flicker with interest. “Are you asking for the official line, or what I really think?”
“What you really think.”
“She’s a cast-iron bitch.”
“Definitely. Very cold, very manipulative. How she treats you depends totally on who your parents are.”
“How did she treat Kate?”
“Are you kidding? Like her personal prot'eg'ee. Ellen was number one in Georgia when she played in high school. I think she’s reliving her youth through Kate.”
“How did Kate treat Ellen?”
Mia shrugs. “Okay, I guess. She was nice to her, but…”
“I don’t think Kate respected her. I heard her say things behind Ellen’s back. But then everybody does that.”
“What do you mean?”
“The women Ellen trains with for her marathons talk all kinds of shit about her when she’s not around. They say she’ll stab you in the back without thinking twice.”
“So why do they hang around with her?”
“Fear. Envy. Ellen Elliott is hot, rich, and married to Dr. Perfect. She’s the social arbiter of this place, in the under-forty crowd anyway. She has the life all the rest of them want.”
“That’s what they think.”
Mia looks expectantly at me, but I don’t elaborate.
“I think I know what you mean,” she says. “I don’t know what Dr. Elliott is doing married to her. No one does. He’s so nice-not to mention hot-and she’s so…I don’t know. Maybe she fooled him, too.”
“Maybe.” Mia is too bright for me to question like this for long. “You probably need to get going, huh?”
She nods without enthusiasm. “I guess. I feel sort of weird, you know?”
“Because of Kate?”
“Yeah. But not the way you’d think. Her dying changes a lot of things for me. I’ll be making the valedictory speech now, for one thing. And I wanted to do that. I have some things I want to say to our class, and to the parents. I didn’t want to take any spotlight off of Kate by saying them in my salutatorian speech. Now I can say them, I guess. But I didn’t want it like this.”
“Well, you certainly earned it. Kate only beat you out by…what?”
“A sixteenth of a point on the cumulative.” Mia smiles wryly. “She wasn’t as smart as people think. She acted like she never studied, but she did. Big-time. I don’t know why I’m telling you this. I guess I have some anger toward her. I’m not even sure why.”
“Try to tell me.”
Mia sighs and looks at the sidewalk. “Kate knew how to make you feel like shit when she wanted to. She would tear out your heart with a few words, then act like it was an innocent comment. She got Star Student because she outscored me by one point on the ACT, and she always made sure people knew that. But I outscored her by forty points on the SAT. You think she ever said one word about that?”
“What did you make?”
“Wow. So you two were basically rivals, not friends.”
Mia nods thoughtfully. “I’m more competitive than I should be, but for Kate, winning was an obsession. We were always the top contenders for everything. She was homecoming queen, I’m head cheerleader.” A strange look crosses Mia’s face. “I guess some people might say I had a motive for killing her, like that cheerleader-mom thing in Texas.”
“I don’t think you have to worry about that. I’ve never heard anyone say a bad word about you.”
An ironic laugh escapes her lips. “Oh, plenty gets said about me. But that’s another story. And don’t get me wrong about Kate. She had a tough family life. Her dad was a real asshole. When she showed her vulnerable side, it was hard not to feel for her. Especially for me. But I had to deal with the same shit, and I don’t use my intelligence to hurt people.”
Mia gazes down Washington Street, one of the most beautiful in the city, and shakes her head as though dismissing some useless thought. Mia’s father left her mother when Mia was two, and he’s hardly seen his daughter since. Economic support was the bare minimum dictated by the courts, and even that came on a sporadic basis.
“As far as Kate dying,” Mia says, “I guess I can’t really believe it yet. It just doesn’t make sense. It’s so random. ”
“High school kids die in accidents like everyone else.”
“I know, but this is different.”
“After I called you, I got a few more calls. People are saying it wasn’t an accident at all. They’re saying somebody killed Kate. Did you know that?”
Could Drew be right?“Why are they saying that?”
“Some of the nurses at the hospital said it looked like Kate was strangled and hit on the head.”
Despite my friendship with Drew, an image of him choking Kate fills my mind, and I shudder. “You know Natchez and gossip, Mia. Anything could have happened to Kate’s body while she was floating down that creek.”
“But why was she half naked? And why from the waist down? I suppose she could have been skinny-dipping, but with who? She wasn’t with Steve-or at least he claims she wasn’t. It makes me wonder if maybe Steve was right.”
At this point Kate’s classmates probably know twice as much about her death as the police department. “Right about what?”
“About Kate having another boyfriend. Someone none of us knew about. Someone who might get mad enough or crazy enough to kill her.”
“Can you see Kate making someone that angry?”
“Oh, yeah. When Kate got on her high horse, she could piss you off beyond belief. And as far as making someone crazy-a guy, I mean-she was a very sexual person. We talked a few times about it. She really thought she might be a nymphomaniac.”
“That term isn’t even used anymore, Mia. A lot of girls first experimenting with sex probably feel that way.”
She gives me a knowing look. “I’m not talking about experimentation. I’m no saint, okay? But Kate knew about things I’d never even heard of. She was as intense as any person I ever met, and she believed in giving herself pleasure. She, uh, this is kind of embarrassing, but she showed me a couple of toys once, and it shocked me. I know she freaked Steve out with some of the things she asked him to do, and that was over a year ago.”
Sex toys?Drew’s words come back to me with fresh impact:These kids aren’t like we were, Penn. You have no idea…
“I know you want to look in on Annie,” Mia says, picking up her backpack and slinging it over her shoulder. “I’ll get out of your hair. Sorry if I was too frank about that stuff.”
I step to my left and give her plenty of room to pass. “Don’t worry. I’ve seen just about everything in my day.”
She gives me a sly look that belies her age. “Have you? I figured you for a straight arrow. I asked my mom about you, but she won’t tell me anything. She obviously likes you, but she gets all cryptic when I bring you up.”
I feel myself flush. “Be careful driving. Your mind’s not going to be on the road.”
Mia takes her cell phone from her purse and holds it to her ear. It must have been set to vibrate. “She did?…No way…That’s just weird…I will. Later.” She puts the phone back in her purse and stares blankly up the street again.
“What is it?” I ask.
Mia’s eyes betray a puzzlement I’ve never seen in them before. “That was Laura Andrews. Her mom’s one of the nurses who tended to Kate. She just told Laura that Kate was raped.”
“She said Kate had a lot of trauma-down there, you know?”
My thoughts return to Drew. If Kate was raped, I hope he never has to know it. But of course he will, like everyone else in town. It suddenly occurs to me that by hoping to protect Drew from this knowledge, I’m assuming he is innocent of the crime. That’s a dangerous assumption for any lawyer to make, but I’ve already made it. I simply cannot imagine Drew Elliott raping any woman, much less a high school girl.
“Let’s hope that’s not true,” I murmur, recalling the shattered rape victims I tried to avenge as a prosecutor in Houston.
“Yeah,” Mia echoes. “That’s too horrible even to think about.”
“So don’t. Think about driving.”
Mia forces a smile. “No worries. Do you need me tomorrow?”
“I may, if you can spare the time.” I’m thinking of Drew and his request for help.
“Just call my cell.”
She walks to her car, a blue Honda Accord, and climbs in. I watch to make sure she gets safely away, then walk up the steps into my house. As I close the door, my study phone rings. I trot to my desk and look at the caller ID:ANDREW ELLIOTT, M.D.
“Drew?” I answer.
“Can you talk?” he asks, his voice crackling with anxiety.
“Sure. What is it?”
“I’m at Kate’s house. I just got a call on my cell phone.”
“I don’t know. But he told me to leave a gym bag with twenty thousand dollars in it on the fifty-yard line of the St. Stephen’s football field. He said if I don’t, he’ll tell the police I was screwing Kate Townsend.”
Shit.“You told me nobody knew about the affair.”
“Nobody did. I have no idea who this could be.”
My mind is whirling with memories of similar situations when I worked for the D.A. in Houston. “When does he want the money?”
“One hour from now.”