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Chapter 2

My heart is pounding the way it does on the all-too-rare occasions when I run for exercise. Im sitting in front of the St. Stephens Preparatory School with one of the most distinguished alumni who ever attended it, and hes 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. Thats statutory rape in Mississippi. Especially with the age difference between you. Its what, twenty years?

Almost twenty-three.

I shake my head in disbelief.

He takes my arm and pulls it toward him, forcing me to look into his eyes. Im not crazy, Penn. I know you think Ive lost my mind, but I loved that girl like no one Ive 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 isnt 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?

What?

They were in love.

He snorts with disdain. You know this isnt like that.

Do I? Jesus Christ, man.

Pennuntil youre in a situation like this, you simply cant understand it. I was the first to condemn that coach who got involved with that senior over at the public school. I couldnt fathom it then. But nowI see it from the inside.

Drew, youve thrown your life away. Do you realize that? You could go to jail for twenty years. I cant 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 didnt 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 theres something pretty damned cold in your tone.

If you dont like my tone, wait till you hear the district attorney. You and Kate Townsend? Holy shit.

I didnt kill her, Penn.

I take another deep breath and let it out slowly. No, of course not. Do you think she committed suicide?

Impossible.

Why?

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 thats saying something these days. These kids arent like we were, Penn. You have no idea. By fifteen theyve gone through things you and I didnt experience until our twenties. Some of them are jaded by eighteen.

That doesnt mean they understand what theyre doing. But Ill be sure and run that argument past the jury.

Drews eyes flicker. Are you saying youll represent me?

I was joking. Who else knows about this relationship?

No one.

Dont be stupid. Someone always knows.

He sets his jaw and shakes his head with confidence. You didnt 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. Im six-foot-one, two hundred pounds; Drew has two inches and twenty pounds of muscle on me, and he hasnt let himself slip much from the days he played tight end for Vanderbilt. Its 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 Kates life. And if they probe deeply enough, they might find something that connects me to her.

Like what?

I dont 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.

Im not sure I believe this, but right now thats not the point. What about Ellen? I ask, meaning his wife.

His eyes dont 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 Drews 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. Ill die if I stay in that marriage.

They always sound like this before the divorce. Any rationalization to get out of the marriage.

I dont want to say anything negative about Ellen, Drew says softly. But the situation has been difficult for a long time. Ellens 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. Ive 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.

Thats kind of hard for me to believe, Drew.

You cant imagine Ellen popping Lorcet Plus like M amp;Ms? Thats the reality, man. Ive 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 dont think so. Youve seen her. Shes wide open all the time. But theres 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 cant believe shes 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 cant help wanting to defend Ellen. We all start turning into our parents, Drew. Im 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 dont want to know the gory details of Drews personal life. Ive heard too many drunk friends pour out the stories of how their lives fell short of their dreams, and its always a maudlin monologue. The odd thing is that by almost anyones estimation, Drew Elliott has led a dream life. But as my mother always said: You never know whats cooking in someone elses pot. And one thing is sure: whatever happens as a result of Kate Townsends death, Drew Elliots 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?

Ill do what I can, but Im not sure thats much. Lets see what happens tomorrow.

He nods and looks into his lap, clearly disappointed. I guess thats the best I can hope for.

Im about to get out of the car when Drews cell phone rings. He looks at the LED screen and winces. Jenny Townsend.

My chest tightens.

Shes 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. Ive 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 Kates perfectly planned future to smithereens?

Ill 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. Im not out of my mind. It wasnt a midlife crisis that led me to Kate. Id been starving for love for a long time. Ive 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 couldnt 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, thats 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. Ive already taken the Massachusetts state medical boards. I scored in the top five percent. Ive already put a deposit on a house in Cambridge.

Im speechless.

And now none of that will ever happen, Drew says, his face tight with anger and confusion. Now someone has murdered her.

You dont know it was murder.

His eyes narrow. Yes, I do. It had to be.

I gently disengage my arm. Im sorry for your pain, man. I really am. But if it gets out that you were involved with Kate, youre going to be crucified. Youd better start-

I dont care about myself! Its Tim Im worried about. Whats 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 Annies 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, shes been crying.

You all right? I ask, crossing the sidewalk.

She nods and wipes her cheeks. I dont know why Im crying so much. Kate and I werent 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. Shes wearing jeans and aLIFEHOUSE T-shirt, and shes 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.

Youre right, I murmur, thinking of Drew with very little charity. It is a waste.

Did she commit suicide, Penn?

It occurs to me that Mias use of my first name might seem inappropriate to some people. Its always seemed a natural informality between us, but in light of what I now know about Drew and Kate, nothing seems innocent. I dont 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 dont 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 dont 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 didnt break up with Steve. Shed still go out with him, even when she obviously didnt care about him anymore. But she stopped having sex with him, I know that. And he was going crazy from it.

Mias frankness about sex doesnt come out of the blue. Weve had many frank conversations about what goes on beneath the surface at St. Stephens. If it werent for Mias 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?

Im not sure. All I know is that she was way too sophisticated for Steve. Maybe for any guy our age.

I look hard into Mias 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 didnt 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 cant 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 Drews words are coming back to me. You play tennis, dont you?

Im on the team. Im 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.

Didnt Kate play competitive tennis with Ellen Elliott?

Hell, yes. They won the state open in city league tennis.

What do you think about Ellen?

Mias eyes flicker with interest. Are you asking for the official line, or what I really think?

What you really think.

Shes a cast-iron bitch.

Really?

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 shes reliving her youth through Kate.

How did Kate treat Ellen?

Mia shrugs. Okay, I guess. She was nice to her, but

What?

I dont think Kate respected her. I heard her say things behind Ellens 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 shes not around. They say shell 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. Shes the social arbiter of this place, in the under-forty crowd anyway. She has the life all the rest of them want.

Thats what they think.

Mia looks expectantly at me, but I dont elaborate.

I think I know what you mean, she says. I dont know what Dr. Elliott is doing married to her. No one does. Hes so nice-not to mention hot-and shes soI dont 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 youd think. Her dying changes a lot of things for me. Ill 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 didnt want to take any spotlight off of Kate by saying them in my salutatorian speech. Now I can say them, I guess. But I didnt want it like this.

Well, you certainly earned it. Kate only beat you out bywhat?

A sixteenth of a point on the cumulative. Mia smiles wryly. She wasnt as smart as people think. She acted like she never studied, but she did. Big-time. I dont know why Im telling you this. I guess I have some anger toward her. Im 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?

Fifteen-forty.

Wow. So you two were basically rivals, not friends.

Mia nods thoughtfully. Im 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, Im head cheerleader. A strange look crosses Mias face. I guess some people might say I had a motive for killing her, like that cheerleader-mom thing in Texas.

I dont think you have to worry about that. Ive never heard anyone say a bad word about you.

An ironic laugh escapes her lips. Oh, plenty gets said about me. But thats another story. And dont 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 dont 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. Mias father left her mother when Mia was two, and hes 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 cant really believe it yet. It just doesnt make sense. Its so random.

High school kids die in accidents like everyone else.

I know, but this is different.

Why?

After I called you, I got a few more calls. People are saying it wasnt an accident at all. Theyre 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 Kates 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 wasnt with Steve-or at least he claims she wasnt. It makes me wonder if maybe Steve was right.

At this point Kates 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 isnt even used anymore, Mia. A lot of girls first experimenting with sex probably feel that way.

She gives me a knowing look. Im not talking about experimentation. Im no saint, okay? But Kate knew about things Id 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?Drews words come back to me with fresh impact:These kids arent 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. Ill 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. Dont worry. Ive 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 wont 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 minds 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 wayThats just weirdI will. Later. She puts the phone back in her purse and stares blankly up the street again.

What is it? I ask.

Mias eyes betray a puzzlement Ive never seen in them before. That was Laura Andrews. Her moms one of the nurses who tended to Kate. She just told Laura that Kate was raped.

What?

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, Im assuming he is innocent of the crime. Thats a dangerous assumption for any lawyer to make, but Ive already made it. I simply cannot imagine Drew Elliott raping any woman, much less a high school girl.

Lets hope thats not true, I murmur, recalling the shattered rape victims I tried to avenge as a prosecutor in Houston.

Yeah, Mia echoes. Thats too horrible even to think about.

So dont. Think about driving.

Mia forces a smile. No worries. Do you need me tomorrow?

I may, if you can spare the time. Im 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?

Im at Kates house. I just got a call on my cell phone.

From who?

I dont know. But he told me to leave a gym bag with twenty thousand dollars in it on the fifty-yard line of the St. Stephens football field. He said if I dont, hell 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.


Chapter 1 | Turning Angel | Chapter 3