Just One Look

Chapter 18

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Grace and the famous rocker known as Jimmy X were alone in the den-cum-playroom. Max's Game Boy was lying on its back. The battery case had broken, so now the two double As were held in place by Scotch tape. The game cartridge, lying next to it as if it'd been spit out, was called Super Mario Five, which, according to Grace's less than sophisticated eye, appeared to be exactly the same as Super Mario One through Four.

Cora had left them alone and returned to her role as cybersleuth. Jimmy had still not spoken. He sat with his forearms against his thighs, his head hanging, reminding Grace of the first time she'd seen him, in her hospital room not long after she regained consciousness.

He wanted her to talk first. She could see that. But she had nothing to say to him.

"I'm sorry to stop by so late," he said.

"I thought you had a gig tonight."

"Already over."

"Early," she said.

"The concerts usually end by nine. It's how the promoters like it."

"How did you know where I lived?"

Jimmy shrugged. "I guess I've always known."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

He didn't answer and she didn't push it. For several seconds the room was dead silent.

"I'm not sure how to begin," Jimmy said. Then, after a brief pause, he added, "You still limp."

"Good opening," she said.

He tried to smile.

"Yes, I limp."

"From...?"

"Yes."

"I'm sorry."

"I got off easy."

The shadow crossed his face. His head, the one he'd finally worked up the nerve to lift, dropped back down as if it had learned its lesson.

Jimmy still had the cheekbones. The famed blond locks were gone, from either genetics or a razor's edge, she couldn't tell which. He was older, of course. His youth was over and she wondered if that was true for her too.

"I lost everything that night," he began. Then he stopped and shook his head. "That didn't come out right. I'm not here for pity."

She said nothing.

"Do you remember when I came to see you at the hospital?"

She nodded.

"I'd read every newspaper story. Every magazine story. I watched all the news reports. I can tell you about every kid that died that night. Every one of them. I know their faces. I close my eyes, I still see them."

"Jimmy?"

He looked up again.

"You shouldn't be telling me this. Those kids had families."

"I know that."

"I'm not the one to give you absolution."

"You think that's what I came here for?"

Grace did not reply.

"It's just..." He shook his head. "I don't know why I came, okay? I saw you tonight. At the church. And I could see you knew who I was." He tilted his head. "How did you find me anyway?"

"I didn't."

"The man you were with?"

"Carl Vespa."

"Oh Christ." He closed his eyes. "Father of Ryan."

"Yes."

"He brought you?"

"Yes."

"What does he want?"

Grace thought about that. "I don't think he knows."

Now it was Jimmy's turn to stay silent.

"He thinks he wants an apology."

"Thinks?"

"What he really wants is his son back."

The air felt heavy. She shifted in her chair. Jimmy's face had no color.

"I tried, you know. To apologize, I mean. He's right about that. I owe them that. At the very least. And I'm not talking about that stupid photo op with you at the hospital. My manager wanted that. I was so stoned I just went along. I could barely stand." He stared at her. He had those same intense eyes that had made him an instant MTV darling. "Do you remember Tommy Garrison?"

She did. He had died in the stampede. His parents were Ed and Selma.

"His picture touched me. I mean, they all did, you know. These lives, they were all just starting out..." He stopped again, took a deep breath, tried again. "But Tommy, he looked like my kid brother. I couldn't get him out of my head. So I went to his house. I wanted to apologize to his parents..." He stopped.

"What happened?"

"I got there. We sat at their kitchen table. I remember I put my elbows on it and the whole thing teetered. They had this linoleum floor, half coming up. The wallpaper, this awful yellow flowered stuff, was peeling off the walls. Tommy was their only child. I looked at their lives, at their empty faces... I couldn't bear it."

She said nothing.

"That was when I ran."

"Jimmy?"

He looked at her.

"Where have you been?"

"Lot of places."

"Why?"

"Why what?"

"Why did you just give it all up?"

He shrugged. "There wasn't all that much, really. The music business, well, I won't go into it, but let's just say I hadn't received much money yet. I was new. It takes a while to get serious money. I didn't care. I just wanted out."

"So where do you go?"

"I started in Alaska. Worked gutting fish, if you can believe that. Did that for about a year. Then I started traveling, played with a couple of small bar bands. In Seattle I found a group of old hippies. They used to do IDs for members of the Weather Underground, that kinda thing. They got me new papers. The closest I came back here, I played with a cover band in an Atlantic City casino for a while. At the Tropicana. I dyed my hair. I stuck to the drums. Nobody recognized me, or if they did, they didn't much care."

"Were you happy?"

"You want the truth? No. I wanted to come back. I wanted to make amends and move on. But the longer I was gone, the harder it was, the more I longed for it. The whole thing was a vicious circle. And then I met Madison."

"The lead singer of Rapture?"

"Yeah. Madison. Can you believe that name? It's huge now. You remember that movie Splash, the one with Tom Hanks and what's-her-name?"

"Daryl Hannah," Grace said automatically.

"Right, the blond mermaid. Remember that scene where Tom Hanks is trying to come up with a name for her and he says all kinds of stuff like Jennifer or Stephanie and they're walking past Madison Avenue and he just mentions the street name and she wants it to be her name and that's a big laugh in the movie, right, a woman named Madison. Now it's a top-ten name."

Grace let it go.

"Anyway, she's from a farm town in Minnesota. She ran away to the Big Apple when she was fifteen, ended up strung out and homeless in Atlantic City. She landed at a homeless shelter for runaway teens. She found Jesus, you know the deal, trading one addiction for another, and started singing. She has a voice like a Janis Joplin angel."

"Does she know who you are?"

"No. You know how Shania has Mutt Lange in the background? That's what I wanted. I like working with her. I like the music, but I wanted to stay out of the spotlight. At least that's what I tell myself. Madison is painfully shy. She won't perform unless I'm onstage with her. She'll get over that, but for now I figured drums are a pretty good disguise."

He shrugged, tried a smile. There was still a hint of the old knock-'em-back charisma. "Guess I was wrong about that."

They were silent for a moment.

"I still don't understand," Grace said.

He looked at her.

"I said before I'm not the one to give you absolution. I meant that. But the truth is, you didn't fire a gun that night."

Jimmy stayed still.

"The Who. When they had that stampede in Cincinnati, they got over it. And the Stones, when that Hell's Angel killed a guy at their concert. They're still playing. I can see wanting out for a little while, a year or two..."

Jimmy looked to the right. "I should leave."

He stood.

"Going to disappear again?" she asked.

He hesitated and then reached into his pocket. He pulled out a card and handed it to her. There were ten digits on it and nothing more. "I don't have a home address or anything, just this mobile phone."

He turned and started for the door. Grace did not follow. Under normal circumstances, she might have pushed him, but in the end, his visit was an aside, a not very important one in the scheme of things. Her past had a curious pull, that was all. Especially now.

"Take care of yourself, Grace."

"You too, Jimmy."

She sat in the den, feeling the exhaustion begin to weigh on her shoulders, and wondered where Jack was right now.

***

Mike did indeed drive. The Asian man had nearly a minute head start, but what was good about their twisty development of cul-de-sacs, tract houses, nicely wooded lots-this wondrous serpentine sprawl of suburbia-was that there was only one true entrance and exit road.

In this stretch of Ho-Ho-Kus, all roads led to Hollywood Avenue.

Charlaine filled Mike in as quickly as possible. She told him most of it, about how she'd looked out the window and spotted the man and grown suspicious. Mike listened without interrupting. There were holes the size of a heartache in her story. She left out why she had been looking out the window in the first place, for example. Mike must have seen the holes, but right now he was letting it go.

Charlaine studied his profile and traveled back to the first time they met. She had been a freshman at Vanderbilt University. There was a park in Nashville, not far from campus, with a replica of the Parthenon, the one in Athens. Originally built in 1897 for the Centennial Expo, the structure was thought to be the most realistic replica of the famed site atop the Acropolis anywhere in the world. If you wanted to know what the actual Parthenon looked like in its heyday, well, people would travel to Nashville, Tennessee.

She was sitting there on a warm fall day, just eighteen years old, staring at the edifice, imagining what it must have been like in Ancient Greece, when a voice said, "It doesn't work, does it?"

She turned. Mike had his hands in his pocket. He looked so damned handsome. "Excuse me?"

He took a step closer, a half smile on his lips, moving with a confidence that drew her. Mike gestured with his head toward the enormous structure. "It's an exact replica, right? You look at it, and this is what they saw, great philosophers like Plato and Socrates, and all I can think is"-he stopped, shrugged-"is that all there is?"

She smiled at him. She saw his eyes widen and knew that the smile had landed hard. "It leaves nothing to the imagination," she said.

Mike tilted his head. "What do you mean?"

"You see the ruins of the real Parthenon and you try to imagine what it would have looked like. But the reality, which this is, can never live up to what your mind conjures up."

Mike nodded slowly, considering.

"You don't agree?" she asked.

"I had another theory," Mike said.

"I'd like to hear it."

He moved closer and bent down on his haunches. "There are no ghosts."

Now she did the head tilt.

"You need the history. You need the people in their sandals walking through it. You need the years, the blood, the deaths, the sweat from, what, four hundred years B.C. Socrates never prayed in there. Plato didn't argue by its door. Replicas never have the ghosts. They're bodies without souls."

The young Charlaine smiled again. "You use this line on all the girls?"

"It's new, actually. I'm trying it out. Any good?"

She lifted her hand, palm down, and turned it back and forth. "Eh."

Charlaine had been with no other man since that day. For years they returned to the fake Parthenon on their anniversary. This had been the first year they hadn't gone back.

"There he is," Mike said.

The Ford Windstar was traveling west on Hollywood Avenue toward Route 17. Charlaine was back on the phone with a 911 operator. The operator was finally taking her seriously.

"We lost radio contact with our officer at the scene," she said.

"He's heading onto Route 17 south at the Hollywood Avenue entrance," Charlaine said. "He's driving a Ford Windstar."

"License plate?"

"I can't see it."

"We have officers responding to both scenes. You can drop your pursuit now."

She lowered the phone. "Mike?"

"It's okay," he said.

She sat back and thought about her own house, about ghosts, about bodies without souls.

***

Eric Wu was not easily surprised.

Seeing the woman from the house and this man he assumed was her husband following him-that definitely registered as something he would not have predicted. He wondered how to handle it.

The woman.

She had set him up. She was following him. She had called the police. They had sent an officer. He knew then that she would call again.

What Wu had counted on, however, was putting enough distance between himself and the Sykes household before the police responded to her call. When it comes to tracking down vehicles the police are far from omnipotent. Think about the Washington sniper a few years back. They had hundreds of officers. They had roadblocks. For an embarrassingly long time they couldn't locate two amateurs.

If Wu could get enough miles ahead, he would be safe.

But now there was a problem.

That woman again.

That woman and her husband were following him. They would be able to tell the police where he was going, what road he was on, what direction he was heading. He would not be able to put the distance between him and the authorities.

Conclusion: Wu had to stop them.

He spotted the sign for the Paramus Park Mall and took the jug-handle back over the highway. The woman and her husband followed. It was late at night. The stores were closed. The lot was empty. Wu pulled into it. The woman and her husband kept their distance.

That was okay.

Because it was time to call their bluff.

Wu had a gun, a Walther PPK. He didn't like using it. Not that he was squeamish. Wu simply preferred his hands. He was decent with a gun; he was expert with his hands. He had perfect control with them. They were a part of him. With a gun you are forced to trust the mechanics, an outside source. Wu did not like that.

But he understood the need.

He stopped the car. He made sure the gun was loaded. His car door was unlocked. He pulled the handle, stepped out of the vehicle, and aimed his weapon.

***

Mike said, "What the hell is he doing?"

Charlaine watched the Ford Windstar enter the mall lot. There were no other cars. The lot was well lit, bathed in a shopping-center fluorescent glow. She could see Sears up ahead, the Office Depot, Sports Authority.

The Ford Windstar drifted to a stop.

"Keep back," she said.

"We're in a locked car," Mike said. "What can he do?"

The Asian man moved with fluidity and grace, and yet there was also deliberation, as if each movement had been carefully planned in advanced. It was a strange combination, the way he moved, almost inhuman. But right now the man stood next to his car, his entire body still. His arm swept forward, only the arm, the rest of him so undisturbed by the motion that you might think it was an optical illusion.

And then their windshield exploded.

The noise was sudden and deafening. Charlaine screamed. Something splashed on her face, something wet and syrupy. There was a coppery smell in the air now. Instinctively Charlaine ducked. The glass from the windshield rained down on her head. Something slumped against her, pushing her down.

It was Mike.

She screamed again. The scream mixed with the sound of another bullet being fired. She had to move, had to get out, had to get them out of here. Mike was not moving. She shoved him off her and risked raising her head.

Another shot whistled past her.

She had no idea where it landed. Her head was back down. There was a screaming in her ears. A few seconds passed. Charlaine finally risked a glance.

The man was walking toward her.

What now?

Escape. Flee. That was the only thought that came through.

How?

She shifted the car into reverse. Mike's foot was still on the brake. She dropped low. Her hand stretched out and took hold of his slack ankle. She slid his foot off the brake. Still wedged into the foot area Charlaine managed to jam her palm on the accelerator. She pushed down with everything she had. The car jerked back. She could not move. She had no idea where she was going.

But they were moving.

She kept her palm pressed down to the floor. The car jolted over something, a curb maybe. The bounce banged her head against the steering column. Using her shoulder blades, she tried to keep the wheel steady. Her left hand still pressed down on the accelerator. They hit another bump. She held on. The road was smoother now. But just for a moment. Charlaine heard the honking of horns, the screech of tires and brakes, and the awful whir of cars spinning out of control.

There was an impact, a terrible jarring, and then, a few seconds later, darkness.

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