Just One Look

Chapter 12


Grace didn't want to make the phone call.
She was still in New York City. There was a law against using a cell phone while driving unless it was hands-free, though that had nothing to do with her hesitation. With one hand on the steering wheel, she felt around on the floor of the car. She located the ear attachment, managed to untangle the cord, and jammed the earpiece deep into the canal.
This was supposed to be safer than using a handheld?
She turned on the cell phone. Though Grace hadn't called the number in years, she still had it programmed into the cell. For emergencies, she supposed. Like this one.
The phone was answered on the first ring.
No name. No hello. No company greeting.
"This is Grace Lawson."
The wait was not long. First Grace heard the static and then, "Grace?"
"Hello, Mr. Vespa."
"Please call me Carl."
"Carl, right."
"You got my message?" he asked.
"Yes." She did not tell Carl Vespa that it had nothing to do with why she was calling now. There was feedback on the line. "Where are you?" she asked.
"My jet. We're about an hour outside of Stewart."
Stewart was an air force base and airport about an hour and a half from her house.
"Is something wrong, Grace?"
"You said to call if I ever needed anything."
"And now, fifteen years later, you do?"
"I think so."
"Good. And your timing couldn't be better. There's something I want to show you."
"What's that?"
"Listen, are you home?"
"I'll be there soon."
"I'll pick you up in two, two and a half, hours. We can talk then, okay? Do you have someone to watch the kids?"
"I should be able to find someone."
"If you can't, I'll leave my assistant at your house. See you then."
Carl Vespa hung up. Grace kept driving. She wondered what he wanted from her now. She wondered about the wisdom of calling him in the first place. She hit the first number on her speed-dial again-Jack's cell phone-but there was still no answer.
Grace had another idea. She called her friend of the no-menage, Cora.
"Didn't you used to date a guy who worked in e-mail spam?" Grace asked.
"Yep," Cora said. "Obsessive creep named-get this-Gus. Hard to get rid of. I had to use my own version of a bunker buster on him."
"What did you do?"
"I told Gus he had a small wee-wee."
"Like I said, the bunker buster. Works every time, but there's often, uh, collateral damage."
"I might need his help."
Grace was not sure how to put this. She decided to concentrate on the blonde with the X across her face, the one she was sure she'd seen before. "I found this photograph...," she began.
"And there's this woman in it. She's probably late teens, early twenties."
"It's an old picture. I'd say fifteen, twenty years old. Anyway, I need to find out who the girl is. I was thinking maybe I could send it out via spam mail. It could ask if anyone can identify the girl for a research project, something like that. I know most people erase those e-mails, but if a few looked, I don't know, maybe I could get a response."
"Long shot."
"Yeah, I know."
"And wow, talk about creeps coming out of the woodwork. Imagine the replies."
"Got a better idea?"
"Not really, no. It could work, I guess. By the way, you notice I'm not asking you why you need to find the identity of a woman in a picture from fifteen, twenty years ago?"
"I do."
"I just wanted it noted for the record."
"So noted. It's a long story."
"You need someone to tell?"
"I might. I might also need someone to watch the kids for a few hours."
"I'm available and alone." Pause. "Sheesh, I have to stop saying that."
"Where's Vickie?" Vickie was Cora's daughter.
"She's spending the night at the McMansion with my ex and his horse-faced wife. Or as I prefer to put it, she's spending the night in the bunker with Adolf and Eva."
Grace managed a smile.
"My car is in the shop," Cora said. "Can you pick me up on the way?"
"I'll be there right after I grab Max."
Grace swung by the Montessori Enrichment program and grabbed her son. Max had that near-tears thing going on, having lost several of his Yu-Gi-Oh! cards to a classmate in some dumb game. Grace tried to humor him, but he wasn't in the mood. She gave up. She helped him get his jacket on. His hat was missing. So was one of his gloves. Another mother smiled and whistled while bundling up her little bundle in color-coordinated knit (hand-knit, no doubt) hat, scarf, and yes, matching gloves. She looked over at Grace and faked a sympathetic smile. Grace did not know this woman, but she disliked her intensely.
Being a mother, Grace thought, was a lot like being an artist-you are always insecure, you always feel like a phony, you know that everybody else is better at it than you. The mothers who doted obsessively on their offspring, the ones who performed their numbing tasks with that Stepford-ready smile and supernatural patience-you know, those mothers who always, always, have the right supplies for the ideal after-school craft... Grace suspected that these women were profoundly disturbed.
Cora was waiting in the driveway of her bubble-gum-pink house. Everybody on the block hated the color. For a while, one neighbor, a prissy thing properly named Missy, had started up a petition demanding that Cora repaint it. Grace had seen Prissy Missy passing around the petition at a first-grade soccer game. Grace had asked to see it, ripped it up, and walked away.
The color was hardly to Grace's taste, but memo to the Missys of the world: Get over yourselves.
Cora teetered toward them in her stiletto heels. She was dressed slightly more demurely-a sweatshirt over the leotard-but it really didn't matter. Some women oozed sex, even if dressed in a burlap sack. Cora was one of them. When she moved, new curves were formed even as old ones disappeared. Every line from her husky voice, no matter how innocuous, came out as a double entendre. Every tilt of the head was a come-on.
Cora slid in and looked back at Max. "Hey, handsome."
Max grunted and didn't look up.
"Just like my ex." Cora spun back around. "You got that photo?"
"I do."
"I called Gus. He'll do it."
"Did you promise anything in return?"
"Remember what I said about fifth-date syndrome? Well, are you free Saturday night?"
Grace looked at her.
"I knew that."
"Good. Anyway, Gus said to scan the photo and e-mail it to him. He can set up an anonymous e-mail address for you to receive replies. No one will know who you are. We'll keep the text to a minimum, just say that a journalist is doing a story and needs to know the origin of the photograph. That sound okay?"
"Yeah, thanks."
They arrived at the house. Max stomped upstairs and then shouted down, "Can I watch SpongeBob?"
Grace acquiesced. Like every parent, Grace had strict rules about no TV during the day. Like every parent, she knew that rules were made to be broken. Cora headed straight for the cupboard and made coffee. Grace thought about which photograph to send and decided to use a blowup of the right side, the blonde with the X on her face and the redhead on her left. She left Jack's image-again, assuming that was Jack-out. She didn't yet want him involved. She decided that having two people increased chances of getting an identity hit and made the solicitation look less like the work of a crazed stalker.
Cora looked at the original photograph. "May I make an observation?"
"This is pretty weird."
"The guy over here"-Grace pointed-"the one with the beard. Who does that look like to you?"
Cora squinted. "I guess it could be Jack."
"Could be or is?"
"You tell me."
"Jack's missing."
"Come again?"
She told Cora the story. Cora listened, tapping a too-long fingernail painted up in Chanel's Rouge Noir, a color not unlike blood, on the tabletop. When Grace finished, Cora said, "You know, of course, that I have a low opinion of men."
"I know."
"I believe that, for the most part, they are two floors below dog turd."
"I know that too."
"So the obvious answer is that, yes, this is a picture of Jack. That, yes, this little blondie, the one gazing up at him like he's the messiah, is an old flame. That yes, Jack and Mary Magdalene here are having an affair. That someone, maybe her current husband, wanted you to find out about it, so he sent you that picture. That everything came to a head when Jack realized that you were onto him."
"And that's why he ran away?"
"That doesn't add up, Cora."
"You have a better theory?"
"I'm working on it."
"Good," Cora said, "because I don't buy it either. I'm just talking. The rule is thus: Men are scum. Jack, however, has always hit me as the exception that proves the rule."
"I love you, you know."
Cora nodded. "Everybody does."
Grace heard a sound and glanced out the window. A stretch limousine of glistening black slid up the driveway with the smoothness of a Motown background singer. The chauffeur, a rat-faced man with the build of a whippet, hurried to open the car's back door.
Carl Vespa had arrived.
Despite his rumored vocation, Carl Vespa did not dress in Sopranos-style velour or shiny, sealant-coated suits. He preferred khakis, Joseph Abboud sports coats, and loafers sans socks. He was mid-sixties but looked a solid decade younger. His hair was tickling-the-shoulders long, the color a distinguished shade of blond-gone-to-gray. His face was tanned and had the sort of waxy smoothness that suggests Botox. His teeth were aggressively capped, as if the front cuspids had taken growth hormones.
He nodded an order at the whippetlike driver and approached the house on his own. Grace opened the door to greet him. Carl Vespa gave her the toothy dazzler. She smiled back, glad to see him. He greeted her with a kiss on the cheek. No words were exchanged. They didn't need them. He held both her hands and looked at her. She could see his eyes start to well up.
Max moved to his mother's right. Vespa let go and took a step back.
"Max," Grace began, "this is Mr. Vespa."
"Hello, Max."
"That your car?" Max asked.
Max looked at the car, then at Vespa. "Got a TV inside?"
"It does."
Cora cleared her throat.
"Oh, and this is my friend, Cora."
"Charmed," Vespa said.
Cora looked at the car, then at Vespa. "You single?"
"I am."
Grace repeated the baby-sitting instructions for the sixth time. Cora pretended to listen. Grace gave her twenty dollars to order pizza and that cheesy bread Max had become enamored with of late. A classmate's mom would bring Emma home in an hour.
Grace and Vespa headed toward the limousine. The rat-faced driver had the door opened and at the ready. Vespa said, "This is Cram," gesturing to the driver. When Cram shook her hand, Grace had to bite back a scream.
"A pleasure," Cram said. His smile brought on visions of a Discovery Channel documentary on sea predators. She slid in first and Carl Vespa followed.
There were Waterford glasses and a matching decanter half-filled with a liquid that appeared both caramel and luxurious. There was, as noted, a television set. Above her seat was a DVD player, multiple CD player, climate controls, and enough buttons to confuse an airline pilot. The whole thing-the crystal, the decanter, the electronics-was overstated, but maybe that was what you wanted in a stretch limousine.
"Where are we going?" Grace asked.
"It's a little hard to explain." They were sitting next to each other, both facing forward. "I'd rather just show it to you, if that's okay."
Carl Vespa had been the first lost parent to loom over her hospital bed. When Grace first came out of the coma, his was the first face she saw. She had no idea who he was, where she was, what day it was. More than a week was gone from her memory banks. Carl Vespa ended up sitting in her hospital room for days on end, sleeping in the chair next to her. He made sure that plenty of flowers surrounded her. He made sure that she had a good view, soothing music, enough pain medication, private nursing. He made sure that once Grace was able to eat, the hospital staff didn't give her the standard slop.
He never asked her for details of that night because, in truth, she really could not provide any. Over the next few months they talked for countless hours. He told her stories, mostly about his failures as a father. He had used his connections to get into her hospital room that first night. He had paid off security-interestingly enough, the security firm at the hospital was actually controlled by organized crime-and then he had simply sat with her.
Eventually other parents followed his lead. It was weird. They wanted to be around her. That was all. They found comfort in it. Their child had died in Grace's presence and it was as if maybe a small part of their souls, their forever-lost son or daughter, somehow still lived inside of her. It made no sense and yet Grace thought that maybe she understood.
These heartbroken parents came to talk about their dead children, and Grace listened. She figured that she owed them at least that much. She knew that these relationships were probably unhealthy, but there was no way she could turn them away. The truth was, Grace had no family of her own. She'd thrived, for a little while at least, on the attention. They needed a child; she needed a parent. It wasn't that simple-this malaise of cross-projection-but Grace wasn't sure she could explain it any better.
The limo headed south on the Garden State Parkway now. Cram flipped on the radio. Classical music, a violin concerto from the sound of it, came through the speakers.
Vespa said, "You know, of course, that the anniversary is coming up."
"I do," she said, though she had done her best to ignore it all. Fifteen years. Fifteen years since that awful night at the Boston Garden. The papers had run all the expected "Where Are They Now?" commemorative pieces. The parents and survivors all handled it differently. Most participated because they felt it was one way to keep the memory of what happened alive. There had been heart-wrenching articles on the Garrisons and the Reeds and the Weiders. The security guard, Gordon MacKenzie, who was credited with saving many by forcing open locked emergency exits, now worked as a police captain in Brookline, a Boston suburb. Even Carl Vespa had allowed a picture of him and his wife, Sharon, sitting in their yard, both still looking as if someone had just hollowed out their insides.
Grace had gone the other way. With her art career in full swing, she did not want even the appearance of capitalizing on the tragedy. She had been injured, that was all, and to make more of it than that reminded her of those washed-up actors who come out of the woodwork to shed crocodile tears when a hated costar suddenly died. She wanted no part of it. The attention should be given to the dead and those they left behind.
"He's up for parole again," Vespa said. "Wade Larue, I mean."
She knew, of course.
The stampede that night had been blamed on Wade Larue, currently a resident of Walden Prison outside Albany, New York. He was the one who fired the shots creating the panic. The defense's claim was interesting. They argued that Wade Larue didn't do it-forget the gun residue found on his hands, the gun belonging to him, the bullet match to the gun, the witnesses who saw him fire-but if he did do it, he was too stoned to remember. Oh, and if neither of those rationales floated your boat, Wade Larue couldn't have known that firing a gun would cause the death of eighteen people and the injury of dozens more.
The case proved to be controversial. The prosecutors went for eighteen counts of murder, but the jury didn't see it that way. Larue's lawyer ended up cutting a deal for eighteen counts of manslaughter. Nobody really worried too much about sentencing. Carl Vespa's only son had died that night. Remember what happened when Gotti's son was killed in a car accident? The man driving the car, a family man, has never been heard from again. A similar fate, most agreed, would befall Wade Larue, except this time, the general public would probably applaud the outcome.
For a while, Larue was kept isolated in Walden Prison. Grace didn't follow the story closely, but the parents-parents like Carl Vespa-still called and wrote all the time. They needed to see her every once in a while. As a survivor, she had become a vessel of some sort, carrying the dead. Putting aside the physical recuperation, this emotional pressure-this awesome, impossible responsibility-was a big part of the reason for Grace's going overseas.
Eventually Larue had been put in general population. Rumor had it he was beaten and abused by his fellow inmates, but for whatever reason, he lived. Carl Vespa had decided to forgo the hit. Maybe it was a sign of mercy. Or maybe it was just the opposite. Grace didn't know.
Vespa said, "He finally stopped claiming total innocence. Did you hear that? He admits he fired his gun, but that he just freaked out when the lights went out."
Which made sense. For her part, Grace had seen Wade Larue only once. She had been called to testify, though her testimony had nothing to do with guilt and innocence-she had almost no memory of the stampede, never mind who fired the gun-and everything to do with inflaming the passion of the jury. But Grace didn't need revenge. To her Wade Larue was stoned out of his mind, a souped-up punk more worthy of pity than hate.
"Do you think he'll get out?" she asked.
"He has a new lawyer. She's damn good."
"And if she gets him released?"
Vespa smiled. "Don't believe everything you read about me." Then he added, "Besides, Wade Larue isn't the only one to blame for that night."
"What do you mean?"
He opened his mouth and then fell silent. Then: "It's like I said. I'd rather show you."
Something about his tone told her to change subjects. "You said you were single," Grace said.
"You told my friend you were single."
He waved his finger. No ring. "Sharon and I divorced two years ago."
"I'm sorry to hear that."
"It hasn't been right for a long time." He shrugged, looking off. "How is your family?"
"I sense some hesitation."
She may have shrugged.
"On the phone, you said you needed my help."
"I think so."
"So what's wrong?"
"My husband..." She stopped. "I think my husband is in trouble."
She told him the story. His eyes stayed straight ahead, avoiding her gaze. He nodded every once in a while, but the nods seemed strangely out of context. His expression didn't change, which was strange. Carl Vespa was usually more animated. After she stopped talking, he didn't say anything for a long time.
"This photograph," Vespa said. "Do you have it with you?"
"Yes." She handed it to him. His hand, she noticed, had a small quake. Vespa stared at the picture for a very long time.
"Can I keep this?" he asked.
"I have copies."
Vespa's eyes were still on the images. "Do you mind if I ask you a few personal questions?" he asked.
"I guess not."
"Do you love your husband?"
"Very much."
"Does he love you?"
Carl Vespa had only met Jack once. He had sent a wedding gift when they got married. He sent gifts on Emma's and Max's birthday too. Grace wrote him thank-you notes and gave the gifts to charity. She didn't mind being connected to him, she guessed, but she didn't want her children... what was the phrase?... tainted by the association.
"You two met in Paris, right?"
" Southern France, actually. Why?"
"And how did you meet again?"
"What's the difference?"
He hesitated a second too long. "I guess I'm trying to learn how well you know your husband."
"We've been married ten years."
"I understand that." He shifted in his seat. "You were there on vacation when you met?"
"I don't know if I'd call it a vacation exactly."
"You were studying. You were painting."
"And, well, mostly you were running away."
She said nothing.
"And Jack?" Vespa continued. "Why was he there?"
"Same reason, I guess."
"He was running away?"
"From what?"
"I don't know."
"May I state the obvious then?"
She waited.
"Whatever he was running from"-Vespa gestured toward the photograph-"it caught up to him."
The thought had occurred to Grace too. "That was a long time ago."
"So was the Boston Massacre. Your running away. Did it make it go away?"
In the rearview mirror she saw Cram glance at her, waiting for an answer. She kept still.
"Nothing stays in the past, Grace. You know that."
"I love my husband."
He nodded.
"Will you help me?"
"You know I will."
The car veered off the Garden State Parkway. Up ahead, Grace saw an enormous bland structure with a cross on it. It looked like an airplane hangar. A neon sign stated that tickets were still available for the "Concerts with the Lord." A band called Rapture would be playing. Cram pulled the limo into a parking lot big enough to declare statehood.
"What are we doing here?"
"Finding God," Carl Vespa said. "Or maybe His opposite. Let's go inside, I want to show you something."