The problem was, Megan had just taken the second half of the ecstasy when her father called with the news.
Earlier that day, her roommate had bundled up and trudged out into a raging Front Range blizzard to buy two green clover-shaped pills: one for herself, and one for Megan, as a kind of pre-Christmas present. Natalie had meant to wrap them up in a little box. But the day got a little hectic, what with exams and all, so after dinner, when they were back in their dorm room together, Natalie simply dug in her pocket and took out the little pills and without any fanfare set them on the open page of Megan’s biology text. “And don’t wuss,” she warned.
Megan screwed up her face. The green pills reminded her of those pastel dots you got when you were a kid, the kind you peel off a long strip of paper. She didn’t have time for this tonight. She scooped up the pills and put them into a clay pinch pot that sat in the back corner of her desk. Lumpy and chipped, the pot looked as though someone had stuck his elbow into a ball of clay. Which is exactly what Ben, her brother, had done, eleven years ago. A major accomplishment, for Ben.
But Natalie wouldn’t let the matter go, pointing out that they could start with just half. And so instead of studying for her biology exam as planned, Megan Thompson, pre-med freshman at the university, found herself giving in to something larger and decidedly more fun that evening. Not only that, but she gave in with no clue as to what had transpired earlier that evening two miles west, in the two-story stucco house she’d grown up in—the house that had been on the Home Tour three years in a row, the one that backed up to Open Space, with the model solar heating panels and the evaporative cooling system that kept the temperature inside a mere seventy- five when outside it soared above a hundred. She had no suspicions, no worries, no funny feelings that might have caused her to think twice, to resist the temptation and opt out of what she knew from experience would be another evening of all-night bliss. Forgetting about everything else—her exam, the argument with her mother earlier that morning, that last very strange e-mail from Bill—Megan placed half the pill on her tongue, washed it down with water, and waited.
That was at eight o’clock.
At eight-thirty they weren’t feeling much different.
At quarter to nine Natalie wondered if they should take the other half.
And it was right after they split the second pill that the phone rang. Natalie recognized the number on Caller ID. “It’s your mother again,” she announced.
When Megan didn’t reply, Natalie said, “I think you ought to straighten things out. Maybe she changed her mind. Maybe she’ll buy you the plane ticket. I’m answering it.” She picked up the phone, singing “Yell-low?” before even bringing the phone to her ear.
Seated cross-legged on her bed, Megan slumped against the wall. The reason she didn’t want to talk to her mother was simple. That morning they’d argued over whether or not Diana would buy Megan a ticket to Mexico for spring break. Mean things were said—by both of them—and Megan shuddered when she recalled how pleased she’d felt with that last wicked remark about killing babies. Why did it make her feel so good to make her mother feel so bad?
Speaking of feelings, the drug was kicking in and she was beginning to feel pretty good—so that when Natalie told her it wasn’t her mother but rather her father on the phone, she felt a welcome surge of love and affection.
“That’s my dad,” she said fondly, “wanting to play the guy in the middle. He’s always doing that, you know? Whenever Mom and I get into a fight, there he is, Mr. Mediator. It wasn’t even a big fight,” she went on. “He just wants everything perfect, since it isn’t with him and Mom. Freaks him out to think that she and I—”
“Take the fucking phone,” said Natalie.
Megan took the phone and cradled it to her ear. “Hi, Dad.”
“Sweetheart,” he began.
“It wasn’t a major fight,” she told him. “Did she tell you? A bunch of people are going to Mexico. I’ll pay for the ticket, I’ll pay for everything. I didn’t mean to lay it all on Mom.” She heard her father clear his throat but felt a rush of apology coming—not just for things said earlier that day but for all the wrongs she had committed over the course of her nineteen years.
“I was rude,” she said. “I shouldn’t have yelled at her. Jesus, it’s Christmas. What was I thinking? I hate it when I yell.”
“Megan,” her father said.
Megan stopped. There was something black and buggy in his voice that made her heart skip. And it took her less than a second to realize why. It was the voice he’d used ten years ago, when he’d called her at summer camp with the news about Ben.
“Megan,” he began.
Frank Thompson couldn’t tell if it was the reflection of pool water bouncing off the windows, or the shriek of his daughter over the phone, or the flapping sound of the sheet as the paramedics covered his wife that made his legs begin to wobble and shake. All he knew was that the ground beneath him was falling out from under, and he had to get down, fast, or he was going to be sick.
He squatted, set the phone on the slate floor that Diana had chosen when she put in the pool, and covered his face with his hands. He listened to the pool pump as it sucked and squirted from somewhere underground, and breathed in the moist, chlorinated air that filled the solarium. A few feet away a young woman in a police uniform was conferring with the paramedics. Next to him lay Diana’s peach-colored bathrobe, along with a pair of purple flip-flops with the darkened imprints of her heels.
A shiver passed through him, and he turned his gaze to the water in the pool, which continued to dance as though some ghost were out there sculling in the middle. It was a small elevated pool, framed in by blond birch panels—not much bigger than two hot tubs end to end, really, with a motorized current that allowed Diana to swim nonstop without having to turn. Although he hadn’t wanted to put the pool in, he’d later conceded to one of his colleagues that it was a worthy investment, since it gave his high-strung wife a chance to come home and mellow out. After twenty years of marriage, he knew that a mellow Diana was a cohabitable Diana.
Frank lifted his head, and a sparkle of light caught his eye from underneath the ficus tree across the room. Broken glass, needly shards—and Frank cringed as he recalled how earlier that afternoon he’d thrown the glass across the room to get his wife’s attention. It was wrong of him, he knew that. But after coming across the pictures online—pictures that no father should have to imagine, let alone see—well, everyone has a breaking point, and it was the way Diana was so oblivious to the problem at hand, the way she assumed he was upset because she’d skipped out on lunch earlier that day: he felt his shoulders clench, and the glass just flew.
It would seem that a man in Frank Thompson’s position, with over twenty years’ experience as a prosecuting attorney, would know better than to start tampering with things in a room with a dead person. A man in his position would get out of that room and call his own attorney. But Frank didn’t have his wits about him at the moment, certainly not his professional wits, and all he could think was that broken glass would convey the wrong impression about his marriage. (Though lord it felt good to shatter a glass like that; the gratification was unmatched, like saying shit or fuck in front of small children.)
Rising stiffly, he walked over to a little poolside closet to get a broom and dustpan. Nobody seemed to notice him; the patrol officer was on her cell phone and the paramedics were conferring with each other. As if making up for all the times during their marriage that he hadn’t cleaned up after himself, he knelt down and swept up the ficus leaves and shards of glass and emptied them into a wastebasket. He didn’t want people to have the wrong impression.
Outside, a blast of grainy snow pelted the sliding-glass doors. Now the cop and the paramedics were kneeling beside Diana’s body.
“That’s not good,” the cop said, glancing up. She was new on the force, blond and blue-eyed like someone straight off a farm in Minnesota; but she already had that bossy, black and white air that you find in cops, and older siblings. “Did you know about this?”
“Know about what?” asked Frank.
“Come see,” said the cop. “If you get down, you can see better.”
Reluctantly, Frank squatted. He hadn’t looked at Diana since the paramedics had arrived. They held the sheet away from her head, and Frank, who’d harbored the lay belief that maybe it was all a mistake, now forced himself to look.
For all the times he’d seen a dead body—and there were plenty, his having been with the district attorney’s office for twenty-four years—nothing could compare to this. His wife’s dark corkscrew curls fanned away from her face, Medusa-like. Her skin was white and waxy, her lips the color of plums. Her eyes stared up, flat and fishy. He looked away.
“What concerns us is this,” the cop said, and she nodded to the younger of the two paramedics, a man with a long straggly ponytail. Gently taking Diana’s head in both hands, he turned it slightly and splayed the hair above her ear.
“Right there,” said the cop. “You see?”
What he saw made him choke. The bruise was huge and ripe and living, a fat, blue-gray slug in her tangled hair.
“Any idea how this happened?” the cop asked Frank.
Numbly Frank shook his head.
“Well, it’s some bruise,” the cop said. “Hard to imagine what could have made a bruise like that. And look at those knuckles.”
Frank heard himself suggest that she’d perhaps fallen.
“Maybe it’s that simple,” said the cop, “but I’m calling the coroner.”
Frank stared at the cop, and for the first time he recalled that on two separate occasions he’d had her on the witness stand; both times she’d not flinched when the defense attorney had implied she was a forgetful, inattentive liar.
“—crime scene from now on,” she added. “Frank, you need to have a seat.”
“You mean you think this wasn’t an accident?”
“Frank,” she said, “your wife is a national figure. There are a lot of people out there who don’t like what she does.”
“Could she have been swimming too fast?” the older paramedic asked. “Maybe she swam into the edge of the pool.”
“This is two-four-oh-five,” the cop was saying into her radio. “Where’s Mark? I need backup now.”
Frank just stared at the three of them.
“Or maybe she tripped and hit her head and fell into the pool,” suggested the paramedic.
Frank couldn’t answer. It wasn’t sinking in. He looked at his wife’s face. The night before, she’d been complaining about the frown lines between her eyebrows; now her forehead was perfectly smooth and unlined. The night before, she’d informed him that for the past five years she’d been coloring her hair without his knowing; now for the first time he noticed that, yes indeed, it was a shade darker.
He wanted to tell her how beautiful she was, how young she looked, but the words kept catching on little fishhooks in his throat. What had he said earlier that afternoon? Something about photo ops and Ben? The great Dr. Duprey, he’d said. Now he cringed, recalling his words, and he bent down and rested his cheek against hers, wanting to take back everything he’d said that afternoon.
He might as well have tried to take back his wedding vows.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered into her ear. “I’m so, so sorry.”