cover

Contents

About the Book

About the Author

Also by Lisa Unger

Title Page

Dedication

Part One: Daddy’s Girl

Prologue

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Part Two: The Ghost

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Part Three: The Homecoming

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Epilogue

Acknowledgments

Copyright

About the Book

Love hurts… Sometimes it even kills

It’s like any other day in New York for freelance writer Ridley Jones. She collects some prints from her local photo lab expecting nothing more than a set of routine photographs. But when she looks more closely a shadowy figure of a man appears in almost every picture she’s taken in the last year, just far enough away to make identification impossible.

When she investigates further she soon discovers that everyone from the FBI to the criminal underworld wants to know who the man is – and where he is. And some people are prepared to kill to find out…

About the Author

Lisa Unger is the New York Times bestselling author of Beautiful Lies and Sliver of Truth. Her novels have been published in more than twenty-five languages. Lisa lives in Florida with her husband and daughter. Read more at www.lisaunger.com

Also by Lisa Unger

Beautiful Lies

SLIVER OF
TRUTH

Lisa Unger

image

FOR OCEAN RAE

Who, even before her arrival, changed me in

ways I never could have imagined . . .

Who has brought more love and joy to Jeffrey

and me than we knew existed.

Just the anticipation of her was the most

magnificent gift

. . . even when she was just the glow of sunshine

on the water.

We are blessed by her presence in our lives.

DECEMBER 25, 2005

PART ONE

Daddy’s Girl

PROLOGUE

She wondered, Is it possible, maybe even normal, to spend twenty years of your life with someone, to love that person more than you love yourself sometimes and then sometimes to truly hate him, so much that you think about taking your new cast-iron grill pan and bringing it down on the top of his head? Or maybe these thoughts were just a result of one of her random yet tempestuous perimenopausal moments. Or the fact that the piece-of-crap air conditioner she’d been begging him to replace for two summers was no competition for a kitchen where there were three pans on the stove and a pork roast in the oven.

The heat didn’t seem to bother him as he sat directly in front of the unit with a copy of the Times in his hands, his feet on the hassock, a glass of merlot on the table beside him. He’d offered to help; it was true. But in that kind of non-offer way he had: “Do you need some help?” (without looking up from the sports section), not “What can I do?” (as he rolled up his sleeves) or “You sit down a minute; let me mince the garlic” (as he poured her a glass of wine). Those were what she considered true offers of help. She wanted him to insist. Especially since she knew that she could never sit reading with a glass of wine while he slaved away at some annoying task like cooking for friends (friends of his, by the way), regardless of whether he’d rebuffed her offers of help or not.

She glanced at the clock and felt her stress level rise. Just an hour before their guests arrived and she hadn’t even showered. She released a sigh and banged a pot down in the sink, which caused her husband to look up from his paper.

Everything all right?” Allen asked, rising.

No,” she said sullenly. “It’s hot in here and I need to take a shower.”

Okay,” he said, coming over to her and taking the slotted spoon from her hand. He wrapped his arms around her waist and smiled that devilish smile he had, the one that always made her smile, too, no matter how angry she was.

Take it easy,” he said, kissing her neck. She leaned back from him a second, playing mad and hard to get, but soon enough she melted.

If you need help, why don’t you ask for it?” he whispered in her ear, raising erogenous goose bumps on her neck.

You should just know,” she said, still pouting.

You’re right,” he said into the space between her throat and her collarbone. “I’m sorry. What can I do?”

Well,” she said, suddenly feeling silly, “I guess it’s mostly done.”

He pulled away from her, took a glass from the cabinet, and poured her some wine. “How about this, then? You go take a shower and I’ll get a head start on the cleaning, take care of some of these pans.”

She took the glass from his hand, gave him a kiss on the mouth. After twenty years, she still loved the taste of him (when she wasn’t imagining clocking him with a grill pan). She looked around their West Village apartment, most of which could be seen from the space over the bar that separated the kitchen from the dining and living area. It was small and cramped but filled with the chic clutter of objects and books and photographs they’d collected over their life together. The couch and matching love seat were old and worn, but good quality and as comfortable as an embrace. The cocktail table was an old door from an antique shop in New Hope, Pennsylvania. Their television, like the window air-conditioning unit, was a dinosaur that badly needed replacing. Their bedroom was so small that there was barely room for their queen-size bed and two bedside tables piled high with books. They could afford something better, something much bigger . . . maybe in Brooklyn or out in Hoboken. But they were Manhattanites to the bone and couldn’t bear to be separated from the city by a bridge or a tunnel. Maybe it was silly, but between that and the fact that the rent was just six hundred dollars a month (as it had been since 1970), because the apartment had been grandfathered to Allen by his brother when his brother had moved to a lovely carriage house in Park Slope, they’d just stayed on there. The children they’d hoped for had never come; they’d never had a reason to expand. Only recently had things become uncomfortable for them.

The new landlord knew he could be getting about two or three thousand dollars a month for their apartment, so he was very slow to fix things that broke, hoping to force them out. And in an old apartment in an old building something was always broken, a fuse was always blown, something was always leaking.

They’d talked more about moving recently, but prices in the city were so outrageous. They’d lived a life where experience and travel had always mattered more to them than a status apartment or a flat-screen television. And though they’d done well, she as a crime reporter for various city newspapers and finally, now, at the Times, and he as a commercial photographer, choices had to be made along the way. Live well, travel well, and save for retirement, while doing without where the apartment was concerned. It had never been a difficult trade. They’d seen the world and were still explorers at heart. In their early fifties they were in good shape to retire in the next ten years, though they’d never owned any property.

She thought about these things in the shower, felt good about them. Blessedly, the hot-water heater was working today. Ella and Rick, Allen’s friends from college, would arrive carrying a hundred-dollar bottle of wine; Ella would be wearing something outrageously chic and expensive, Rick would talk about his new toy, whatever that happened to be. They weren’t snobs; they were unpretentious and kind. But they were very wealthy and it came off them in waves, demanded noticing, begged comparisons. And when she wasn’t feeling good about herself, it bothered her in a way it shouldn’t. Allen wouldn’t have understood; his mind didn’t work that way. He enjoyed his friends’ successes, their toys, their vacation homes, as much as he would if they’d been his own. He didn’t believe in comparisons.

She thought about this as she rinsed the conditioner from her hair. Somewhere in the apartment or maybe above or below them, there was a loud knocking, loud enough to startle her. It could have been the hot-water heater, or something on another floor. She just prayed, prayed that it wasn’t their guests arriving early. Or the landlord, wanting to finish the fight they’d had with him earlier about the terrible leak in the bathroom when the people above showered. Today they’d threatened to start putting their rent into escrow until he fixed it once and for all. The conversation had devolved into him reverting to his native tongue, something harsh and Eastern European, and screaming at them unintelligibly. They’d shut the door in his face and he’d stormed off, yelling all the way down the stairs.

Those Eastern Europeans are a hot-blooded lot, aren’t they?” Allen had remarked, unperturbed.

Maybe it’s time. Interest rates are low. We have the money for a sizable down payment. Jack has been telling us we have to invest in real assets to be truly comfortable in retirement,” she said, referring to their accountant.

But the maintenance costs . . . And who’s to say prices don’t plummet in the next ten years.” He paused and shook his head. “We couldn’t afford to buy in the city.”

She shrugged. It was an old conversation that neither of them felt very passionate about. She’d let it go and headed off to the farmers’ market in Union Square for dinner ingredients. On the way back, she passed her landlord in the street and tried to smile. He marched right past her, yelling into his cellular phone in that guttural language.

She stepped out of the shower now and covered herself in a towel, wrapped her long red hair in another, and brushed her teeth. She could hear the stereo in the living room and thought it was louder than her husband usually liked it. But she didn’t hear voices and she was grateful for that—no early dinner guests, no screaming landlords. She felt better from the shower and smiled at herself in the mirror. She thought that she was still pretty, with her big green eyes and lightly freckled skin, which was still relatively young looking if you didn’t count the laugh lines around her mouth and eyes.

She hummed along with the radio, a catchy tune by one of those American Idol kids, and thought it was strange that Allen had chosen that on the radio and not popped in a Mozart or Chopin CD, which was more his taste. But he did try to be “hip” sometimes, especially when Rick was coming over. Because Rick was hip—or so he claimed. She didn’t want to tell either of them that anyone who used the word hip probably wasn’t. She and Ella always shared a secret smile when Rick and Allen tried to pretend they were up on recent trends.

There it was again, a knocking. This time, though, it was more of a heavy thud, and it seemed to come from the living room. She opened the bathroom door and called her husband’s name. There was no answer, and the music seemed very loud now that the door was open and she was heading past the bedroom and toward the kitchen. Her heart started to flutter as she called his name again.

She saw something on the floor ahead of her. A glove? No, a hand. Her husband’s hand on the floor. Everything seemed to slow down then. Her first thought was, Heart attack! as she came around the corner and found him lying there. She knelt down to him and he fluttered his eyes at her, tried to talk.

Allen, it’s okay, honey,” she said, amazed at her own inner calm. Her voice sounded solid and sure. “I’ll call an ambulance. Hang in there, baby. Don’t worry.”

It would be all right, she told herself with an odd stillness. Heart attacks were so survivable these days. He’d been taking his aspirin. She’d get him to sit up and take a dose while they waited for the ambulance.

But then she saw the blood pooling out from beneath him and the terror in his eyes. And then she saw the men standing by the door.

They were fully dressed in black. One of them held a gun, the other a terrible serrated blade red with blood. Both of them wore ski masks. They blocked her passage to the phone.

What do you want?” she asked, her calm starting to retreat. “You can have anything you want.” She looked around her apartment and realized they had nothing of any real value. Even her wedding ring was just a simple band of gold. She had twenty dollars in her wallet; Allen probably had less than that. She felt a wet warmth against her feet and realized the blood pooling out from beneath her husband had reached her. His face was pale; his eyes were closed now.

Don’t make a move,” one of the men said, she couldn’t tell which. The whole situation had taken on a foggy non-reality. Her mind struggled to keep up with what was happening. “Don’t say a word.”

One of the men came at her quickly, and before she could even put up a fight, he’d grabbed her wrist and spun her around, placing a black shroud over her head and tightening it around her neck. In her deepest heart, she knew what this was about. She just couldn’t bring herself to believe it. Then there was a stunning pain at the base of her neck and a star shower before her eyes. Then there was nothing.

1

I’M RUNNING BUT I can’t run much farther. The pain in my side already has me limping; there’s fire in my lungs. I can’t hear his footfalls. But I know he’s not far away. I know now that he’s been right beside me all my life in one way or another. I’m the light; he’s the shadow. We’ve coexisted without ever meeting. If I’d been a good girl, the girl I was raised to be, I never would have known him. But it’s too late for regrets.

I’m on Hart Island in the Bronx, a place known as Potter’s Field. It’s the city cemetery for the unknown and indigent—a grim and frightening place. How we’ve all wound up here is a long story, but I know the story will end here—maybe just for some, maybe for all of us. A tall abandoned building that seems to sag upon itself looms ahead of me. It’s a darker night than I have ever known, in more ways than one. The sliver of moon is hidden behind a thick cloud cover. It’s hard to see but I watch as he disappears through a door that hangs crooked on its hinges. I follow.

“Ridley!” The call comes from behind me. But I don’t answer. I just keep moving until I am standing at the entrance to the building. I hesitate there, looking at the crooked, sighing structure and wondering if it’s not too late to turn around.

Then I see him, up ahead of me. I call out but he doesn’t answer me, just turns and slowly starts to move away. I follow. If I valued my life and my sanity, I’d let him get away and hope he did the same for me. We could go back to the way things have been. He dwelling in a world I never even knew existed, me going about my very ordinary life, writing magazine articles, seeing movies, having drinks with friends.

Fear and rage duke it out in my chest. Hatred has a taste and a texture; it burns like bile in my throat. For a moment, I hear the voice of someone I loved: Ridley, you can release the hatred and walk away. It’s nothing more than a single choice. We can both do it. We don’t need all the answers to live our lives. It doesn’t have to be like this. A few minutes later, he was gone.

I know now that those words were lies. Hatred doesn’t release. Walking away is not one of my choices. Maybe it never was. Maybe I’ve been in the path of this freight train all my life, lashed to the tracks, too weak, too foolish, too stubborn to even try to save myself.

As I enter the building, I think I might hear the rumble of boat engines. I feel a distant flutter of hope and wonder if help is coming. I hear my name again and look behind me to see a man who has become my only friend moving unsteadily toward me. He is injured and I know it will take him a while to reach me. I think for a second that I should go to him, help him. But inside I hear movement and the groaning of an unstable structure. My breathing comes shallow and quick. I step deeper inside.

“Stop running, you coward!” I yell into the huge darkness. My voice resonates in the deserted space. “Let me see your face.”

My voice bounces off the surfaces around me again. I don’t sound scared and heartbroken, but I am. I sound strong and sure. I take the gun from the waist of my jeans. The metal is warm from my skin. In my hand, it feels solid and righteous. This is the second time in my life I’ve held a gun with the intent to use it. I don’t like it any better than the first time, but I’m more confident now, know that I can fire if pressed.

He steps out from the shadows, seems to move silently, to glide like the ghost that he is. I take a step toward him and then stop, raise my gun. I still can’t see his face. A milky light has started to shine through the gaping holes in the ceiling as the moon moves through a break in the cloud cover. Shapes emerge in the darkness. He starts moving toward me slowly. I stand my ground but the gun starts shaking in my hand.

“Ridley, don’t do it. You’ll never be able to live with it.”

The voice comes from behind me and I spin around to see someone I didn’t expect to see again.

“This is none of your business,” I yell, and turn back to the man I’ve been chasing.

“Ridley, don’t be stupid. Put that gun down.” This voice behind me sounds desperate, cracks with emotion. “You know I can’t let you kill him.”

My heart rate responds to the fear in his voice. What am I doing? Adrenaline is making my mouth dry, the back of my neck tingle. I can’t fire but I can’t lower the gun, either. I have the urge to scream in my fear and anger, my frustration and confusion, but it all lodges in my throat.

When he’s finally close enough to see, I gaze upon his face. And he’s someone I don’t recognize at all. I draw in a gasp as a wide, cruel smile spreads across his face. And then I get it. He is the man they say he is.

“Oh, God,” I say, lowering my gun. “Oh, no.”

2

I BET YOU thought you’d heard the end of me. You might have at least hoped that I’d had my fill of drama for one lifetime and that the road ahead of me would not hold any more surprises, that things would go pretty smoothly from now on. Believe me, I thought so, too. We were both wrong.

About a year ago, a series of mundane events and ordinary decisions led my life to connect with the life of a toddler by the name of Justin Wheeler. I happened to be standing across the street from him on a cool autumn morning as he wandered into the path of an oncoming van. In an unthinking moment, I leapt out into the street, grabbed him, and dove us both out of the way of the vehicle that certainly would have killed him . . . and maybe me if I’d been thirty seconds earlier or later arriving on the scene. Still, that might have been the end of it, a heroic deed remembered only by Justin Wheeler, his family, and me, except for the fact that a Post photographer standing on the corner got the whole thing on film. That photograph (a pretty amazing action shot, if I do say so myself) led to another series of events that would force me to question virtually everything about my former perfect life and ultimately cause it to unravel in the most horrible ways.

The funny thing was, even after my life had dissolved around me, even after everything I thought defined me had turned out to be a lie, I found that I was still me. I still had the strength to move forward into the unknown. And that was a pretty cool thing to learn about myself.

My life may have looked as if it had been on the business end of a wrecking ball, but Ridley Jones still emerged from the remains. And though there were times when I didn’t think it was possible, my life settled back into a somewhat normal rhythm. For a while, anyway.

If you don’t know what happened to me and how it all turned out, you could go back now and find out before you move ahead. I’m not saying the things that follow won’t make any sense to you or that you won’t get anything out of the experience of joining me on this next chapter of my vida loca. What I’m saying is that it’s kind of like sleeping with someone before you know her name. But maybe you like it like that. Maybe you want to come along and figure things out as we go, like any new relationship, I guess. Either way, the choice is yours. The choice is always yours.

Well, I’ll get to it, then.

I’m the last person in the world without a digital camera. I don’t like them; they seem too fragile. As if getting caught in the rain or clumsily pushing the wrong button could erase some of your memories. I have a 35-millimeter Minolta that I’ve been using since college. I take my rolls of film and then drop them off at the same photo lab on Second Avenue I’ve been using for years.

I had a friend who thought that there was something inherently wrong with picture taking. Memory, he said, was magical for its subjectivity. Photographs were crude and the direct result of a desire to control, to hold on to moments that should be released like each breath that we take. Maybe he was right. We’re not friends anymore and I have no pictures of him, just this memory that resurfaces every time I go to pick up photographs. And then I think about how he liked to sing and play the guitar after we made love (and how he was really terrible at it—the guitar playing, the singing, and the lovemaking, for that matter) but that the sight of Washington Square Park outside his windows always seemed so romantic that I put up with the rest for longer than I might have otherwise. My memories of him are organic and three-dimensional, pictures that exist only for me; there’s something nice about that after all.

So I was thinking about this as I pushed through the door of the F-Stop to pick up some photos that were waiting for me. A desk clerk I’d never seen before looked at me with practiced indifference from beneath a chaos of dyed black hair and twin swaths of eyeliner.

“Help you?” he said sullenly, placing a paperback binding up on the surface in front of him. I saw the flash of a tongue piercing when he spoke.

“I’m picking up photographs. Last name Jones.”

He gave me a kind of weird look, as if he thought it was a name I’d made up. (A note about New York City: Here, if you leave a plain or common name, people treat you with suspicion. Meanwhile, if your name would sound bizarre or made up anywhere else in the world—for example, Ruby Decal X or Geronimo—it wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow in the East Village.)

The clerk disappeared behind a dividing wall and I thought I heard voices as I glanced around at some black-and-white art shots on the wall. After a short time, he returned with three fat envelopes and lay them on the desk between us. He didn’t say anything as he rang up the sale. I paid him in cash, and he slid the envelopes into a plastic bag.

“Thank you,” I said, taking the bag from his hand.

He sat down without another word and returned to his book. For some reason, I turned around at the door and caught him staring at me strangely just before he averted his eyes.

I paused on the street corner at Second Avenue and Eighth Street. My intent had been to stop by the studio and bring the photos to Jake. They were some shots we had taken over the last few months: a long weekend in Paris where we’d tried and failed to reconnect; an afternoon spent in Central Park, where we fooled around on the Great Lawn and things seemed hopeful; a miserable day with my parents at the Botanic Garden in Brooklyn, characterized by heavy awkward silences, mini-outbursts, and barely concealed dislike. Faced now with the reality of dropping in on Jake, I balked, loitered on the corner staring at the sidewalk.

I don’t want to tell you that my world has gone dark or that the color has drained from my life. That sounds too dramatic, too self-pitying. But I guess that’s not too far off. When last you heard from me, I was picking up the pieces of my shattered life. I think we ended on a hopeful note, but the work has been hard. And like any protracted convalescence, there have been more lows than highs.

As of last month, Jake moved out of the apartment we shared on Park Avenue South and is living semi-permanently in his studio on Avenue A. Far from finding peace with his past and coming to terms with what he has learned, Jake has become obsessed with Project Rescue and Max’s role in it.

By Max, I mean Maxwell Allen Smiley, my uncle who was not really my uncle but my father’s best friend. We shared a special connection all my life. And last year I learned that he was really my biological father. I am currently struggling to recast him in my life as my failed father instead of my beloved uncle.

Project Rescue is an organization developed by Max, an abused child himself, to help pass the Safe Haven Law in New York State years ago. This law allows frightened mothers to abandon their babies at specified Safe Haven sites, no questions asked, no fear of prosecution. I discovered last year that there was a shadow side to this organization. Cooperating nurses and doctors were secretly flagging children they thought were potential victims of abuse and unsafe in their homes. Through a collusion with organized crime, some of these children were abducted and sold to wealthy parents. In a sense, I was a Project Rescue baby, though my story is more complicated. Jake is a Project Rescue baby for whom things went horribly wrong.

Lately, Jake has abandoned his art. And while he and I have not formally broken up, I have become a ghost in our relationship, behaving like a poltergeist, tossing things about, making noise just to get myself noticed.

I am reminded of something my mother, Grace, once said about Max: A man like that, so broken and hollow inside, can’t really love well. At least he was smart enough to know it. They say we all fall in love with our fathers over and over in a sad attempt to resolve that relationship. Is it possible I was doing that before I even knew who my father really was?

“Ms. Jones. Ridley Jones.” I heard a voice behind me and went cold inside. Over the past year, I had developed quite a fan club, in spite of my best efforts to keep myself out of everything other than my legal obligations involving Christian Luna’s murder and the investigation surrounding Project Rescue.

Christian Luna was the man who started all of this. After seeing a clip on CNN about my heroic deed, he recognized me as Jessie Stone, Teresa Stone’s daughter, a little girl he believed to be his daughter, as well. He’d been hiding for more than thirty years, since the night of Teresa Stone’s murder and Jessie’s abduction, certain that he’d be accused because of their history of domestic violence. I watched him die from a gunshot wound to the head as he sat just inches away from me on a park bench in the Bronx. He turned out not to be my father, after all.

Anyway, thanks to the myriad articles and newsmagazine specials featuring the famous Post photograph as the point where it all started, I have become the poster child for an organization that has altered thousands of lives, not necessarily for the better. They call. They write, the other Project Rescue babies. They stop me on the street. I’ve been lauded, embraced, assaulted, and spit upon. They are grateful. They are enraged. They come to me in the various stages of grief and horror, disbelief and anger. In each of them I see a sad mirror of my own journey toward healing.

I ignored the person behind me. I didn’t answer or turn around. I have found that if I don’t answer to my name when it’s called on the street, sometimes people go away, unsure of themselves. Once upon a time, I’d heard my name called only in love or in query and I answered happily with a smile on my face. Those days are gone.

“Ms. Jones.”

The voice had a kind of authority to it that almost caused me to turn. I’ve always been a good girl and have responded appropriately to commands. Instead I started to walk away toward Jake’s studio. I heard a quickening of steps, which caused me to pick up my own pace. Then I felt a strong hand on my shoulder. I spun around, angry and ready to fight. Standing there were two men in smart business suits.

“Ms. Jones, we need a word.”

His face was stern, not angry, not emotional in any way. And that calmed me. He had strange storm-cloud gray eyes, a tousle of ink black hair. He was tall, nearly a head taller than I am, and big around the chest and shoulders. There was a cold distance to him but a sort of kindness, too. The man at his side said nothing.

“What do you want?”

He pulled a thin leather wallet from his lapel pocket, flipped it open, and handed it to me.

Special Agent Dylan Grace, Federal Bureau of Investigation.

All of my trepidation drained and was replaced by annoyance. I handed the ID back to him.

“Agent Grace, I don’t have anything else to say to the FBI. I’ve told you everything I know about Project Rescue. There’s literally nothing left to say.”

He must have heard the catch in my voice or seen something in my face because the cool mettle of his demeanor seemed to warm a bit.

“This isn’t about Project Rescue, Ms. Jones.”

His partner walked over to a black sedan and pulled open the back passenger-side door. The air was cool and the sky was a moody gunmetal. People turned to look at us but kept walking. Some thugs rode by in a tricked-out Mustang, bass booming like a heartbeat.

“What’s it about, then?”

“It’s about Maxwell Allen Smiley.”

My heart thumped. “There’s nothing left to say about him, either. He’s dead.”

“Can I have the photographs in your bag, Ms. Jones?”

“What?” How did he know about the photos, and what could he possibly want with shots of my almost ex-boyfriend and my very nearly estranged family?

He withdrew a piece of paper from his lapel pocket. I found myself wondering what else he had in there—a deck of cards, a white bunny, a ridiculously long strand of multicolored handkerchiefs?

“I have a warrant, Ms. Jones.”

I didn’t look at the paper. I just reached into my bag and handed him the F-Stop package. He took it and motioned to the car. I moved toward the sedan and slid inside without another word. By then I’d had enough experience with the FBI to know that they get what they want eventually. Whether it’s the easy way or the hard way is up to you.

They took me to a building near FBI headquarters, and after taking my bag, left me sitting in a barren room with only a faux wood table on metal legs and two amazingly uncomfortable chairs. The walls were painted a miserable gray and the fluorescent lighting flickered unpleasantly.

They did this for a reason, I knew, left you sitting in an unwelcoming room with only your thoughts, no clock on the wall, nothing to distract you. They want you to think. Think about why you’re there, about what you know or what you have done. They want you to wonder about what they might know. They want you to work yourself into a state of worry and anxiety so that by the time they return to you, you’re looking for a confessor.

But of course, this works only if you’re guilty or hiding something. I honestly had no idea why they wanted to talk to me, so I just became progressively more bored and annoyed. And exhausted. This encounter, and maybe my life in general, was exhausting me. I got off the chair and walked a restless circle around the room. Finally I placed my back against the wall and slid into a sitting position on the floor.

These days I tried not to think about Max, though sometimes it seemed as if the more I tried to be rid of his memory, the more he haunted me. I pulled up my knees and folded my arms over them, rested my head in the crook of my elbow to escape the harsh white light of the room. I used to do this when I was a kid when I was upset or tired, retreat into this cocoon of myself. When that didn’t work, I’d hide.

I’m not sure how it all started, the hiding thing. But I remember liking to crawl into dark places and lie quietly, listening to the chaos of everyone trying to find me. My parents didn’t think it amusing but I found it positively thrilling, the excitement of them running around, looking under beds and in closets. It was a game I always won, just by virtue of the reaction I created. It didn’t occur to me that I might be angering or frightening anyone. I was too young to care about things like that. I just got better and better at finding places to hide. Eventually I had to reveal myself or never be found. There was something great about that, too.

At some point I got the idea that there was nowhere else in the house to hide. All my secret places had been discovered by my parents, or by my brother, Ace—or by my uncle Max. He was the big gun, called in when no one else could find me. He’d say, “Check inside that wardrobe in the guest room.” Or “Try that crawl space to the attic in her closet.” Somehow he’d always know where to find me. Once my parents realized that Max had this gift for finding me, the game started to get too easy, their reactions were not as much fun and the whole thing lost its charge. I had to raise the stakes.

I don’t know how old I was, seven, maybe six— too young to go into the woods behind my house without Ace. I knew that much. It was just a shallow swath of trees about two miles long, that edged our neighbors’ properties and separated our acreage from the yard behind us. A little creek ran beneath a stone bridge. The space was narrow enough that neighborhood parents felt safe letting us play back there without too much supervision. If you went too far, you just wound up in someone’s backyard. But I wasn’t supposed to go back there by myself. So naturally it was the perfect place to hide.

It was a hot summer afternoon when I left through the back-door of my house and entered the woods. We’d built a small fort back in the thick and I climbed inside the rickety thing. It was dim and warm. I felt pleased with myself. After a while of lying there, looking out the crooked window at the leaves sighing in the light wind, I fell asleep. When I woke up later, the sky was a deep purple. It was close to dark. It was the first time in my life I was truly frightened. I looked out the fort “window,” and the woods I usually loved seemed full of monsters and witches, the trees smirked with their malice. I started to cry, curled up in a tight ball.

I don’t think I was like that for long before I heard someone moving through the overgrowth.

“Ridley? Are you out here, honey?”

I was old enough to hear the worry in his voice. But my heart flooded with relief; I cried even harder until I saw Max’s face in the makeshift doorway. He was too big to get inside.

“Ridley, there you are,” he said, sitting down heavily on the ground. I could see that he was sweating, maybe from the humidity, maybe from fear. Maybe both. He put his head in his hands. “Kid,” he said through his fingers, “you have got to stop doing this. You are going to give your uncle Max a heart attack. Your mom and dad are about to call the police.”

He lifted his head to the night and yelled, “I found her!”

I crawled out of the fort and into his lap, let him enfold me in his big arms against his soft belly. He was damp with perspiration but I didn’t care. Through the trees, I could see the glow from the lights of my own house, could hear my parents’ voices drawing closer.

“How did you find me?” I asked him.

He sighed and took my face in his hands. “Ridley, there’s a golden chain from my heart to yours.” He tapped his chest lightly, then mine. “Trust me. I’ll always find you.” I never doubted he was right. And I never hid from my poor parents again.

* * *

I lifted my head from the crook of my arm and squinted against the harsh white lights of the interrogation room. I closed my eyes again and leaned my head against the cold wall, tried and failed to clear my mind and relax.

Agent Grace walked in shortly thereafter and offered me his hand, pulled me up from the floor with impressive strength.

“Starting to feel at home here?” he asked. There was something odd in his voice. Was it compassion? For someone who was completely innocent of wrongdoing, I’d spent more time with the FBI than Jeffrey Dahmer had. Or so I imagined, in my self-aggrandizing way. I gave him a short, tight smile, then kept my eyes on the eight-by-ten envelope he had in his other hand. We sat across from each other. He straddled his chair as if he was mounting a horse. Without a word, he opened the envelope and took out three eight-by-ten photographs and spread them out before me.

The first was a photo of me in front of Notre-Dame in Paris. I was eating a crepe filled with Nutella and bananas, gazing up at the cathedral. I wore my leather coat and a beret I had bought on the street just to be a dork. Hazelnut chocolate dripped down my chin. Jake had taken the candid. I think to the casual observer I would have looked silly and happy. But I wasn’t. I remember waking up next to Jake that morning in our posh hotel room with the yellow morning sun beaming in. I looked at him as he slept and thought, I’ve been with this man for a year. He seems more like a stranger to me now than when I was first falling in love with him, when there were so many secrets and lies between us. How is it possible to know someone less intimately the more time you spend with him? The thought had filled me with sadness. He woke up as I stared at him and we made a slow, desperate kind of love to each other, both wanting so badly the connection we’d once shared. I carried the sadness of that lovemaking with me all day.

The next photo was a shot of me and Jake on the Great Lawn in Central Park. The grass looked a bright and artificial green and the skyscape rose up over the tall trees painted gold, orange, and red in the changing season. We’d asked a young woman strolling by to take a picture of us on our blue picnic blanket and cuddled in close. She got only our heads near the bottom of the frame and everything irrelevant behind and above us. It had been a good day. In the photo I noticed that our smiles looked forced and fake. But they weren’t. At least mine wasn’t. I felt hopeful for us, I remember, like a terminally ill patient who thinks a brief cessation of symptoms heralds a miraculous recovery.

The final photograph before me was a snapshot from the miserable Sunday we’d spent with my parents. We went to the River Café in Brooklyn for lunch and then on to the Botanic Garden. This used to be one of my favorites dates with my father when I was younger. Arranging this get-together was my pathetic and desperate attempt to pretend we could act like a family. Well, we did act like a family, a hateful and unhappy one. Ace, who was also invited, didn’t show and didn’t call. My mother took an attitude of stoic endurance, issuing the occasional passive-aggressive comment under her breath. My father and I chattered on like idiots, mirroring each other in our efforts to keep the faltering conversation flowing. Jake was silent and sullen. We shared an awkward meal. Then, unable to admit defeat, we proceeded to the Botanic Garden. My father used my camera to take a photo of me, my mother, and Jake. I put my arm around my mother’s shoulders and smiled. She turned up the corners of her mouth reluctantly, but I swear she shrunk from me. Jake stood near us but just slightly apart. He looked distracted, seemed to have gazed off in the last second before the picture was snapped. We looked like a group of strangers, uncomfortable and forced together.

A powerful sadness and embarrassment washed over me. I looked up at Agent Grace with what I hoped was barely concealed hostility.

“It’s not a crime to have a shitty relationship with your family, is it? Or to document your sad attempts to save your failing love affair?”

I leaned away, looked at the wall over his head. I didn’t want to look at his face.

“No, Ms. Jones, it isn’t,” he said softly. “Can I call you Ridley?”

“No,” I said nastily. “You can’t.”

I thought I saw a smile tug at the corners of his mouth, as if he found me amusing. I wondered how much trouble you could get in for slapping a federal agent.

“Ms. Jones,” he said, “what interests us about these photographs is not the subjects, it’s the background. Take another look.”

I glanced at each picture and saw nothing unusual. I shrugged at him and shook my head. He kept his eyes on me, nodded again toward the photos. “Look closely.”

I looked again. Still nothing.

“Why don’t you just cut the crap,” I suggested, “and tell me what you see.”

He took a black Sharpie from his lapel pocket and circled the figure of a man behind us at the Botanic Garden. He was more like the specter of a man, tall and thin. His face was paper white, little more than a ghostly blur. He wore a long black coat, a dark hat. He leaned on a cane. He seemed to be looking in my direction.

Agent Grace circled another figure behind us in Central Park. Same coat, same cane; this time the man in the picture wore sunglasses. The figure in the photograph was so far away it could have been anyone.

He took the Sharpie again and marked another man in the doorway of Notre-Dame. This time he was caught in profile, more clearly, closer. Something about the shape of his brow, the ridge of his nose caused me to lean in. Something about the slope of his shoulder made my heart flutter.

“No,” I said, shaking my head.

“What?” he asked, raising his eyebrows. Those eyes of his were weird, at once sleepy and searing.

“I see what you’re trying to do,” I said.

“What?” he repeated, leaning back. I expected to see smug satisfaction on his face but I didn’t.

“It’s impossible.”

“Is it?”

“Yes.”

I looked again. They say it’s a person’s carriage that allows you to recognize him across the room or across the street. But I think it’s a person’s aura, the energy that radiates from within. The man in the photograph was greatly dissimilar in physical appearance, perhaps as much as a hundred pounds thinner than the man I remembered. He looked twenty years older. He seemed a damaged, hollowed-out person lacking any of the radiant warmth I’d basked in most of my life. But still there was something familiar about this man. If I had not personally seen his dead body moments before cremation, had I not with my own hands scattered his ashes from the Brooklyn Bridge, you might have been able to convince me that I was looking at the man I’d once known as my uncle Max, who was my biological father. But the fact was I had done all those things. And dead was dead.

“I’ll admit there’s a resemblance,” I said finally, after a brief but intense staring contest.

“We think there’s more than a resemblance.”

I sighed here and leaned back in my chair. “Okay, say you’re right. That would mean that you think Max staged his own death for whatever reason. Why would anyone go to all that trouble just to risk being discovered a couple of years later?”

Agent Grace regarded me for a minute.

“Do you know the number one reason why people in the witness protection program get found by their enemies and wind up dead?”

“Why?” I asked, though I could probably guess.

“Love.”

“Love,” I repeated. That wouldn’t have been my guess.

“They can’t stay away. They can’t help but make that call or show up incognito at a wedding or a funeral.”

I didn’t say anything, and Agent Grace went on. “I’ve seen his apartment. It’s practically a shrine to you. Max Smiley did some terrible things in his life, hurt a lot of people. But if he loved anyone, it was you.”

His words put a crush on my heart and I found I couldn’t meet his eyes.

“I don’t get it. Were you following me? How did you know about these photos? Do you have some kind of relationship with my photo lab?”

He didn’t answer me and I hadn’t really expected him to. I took a last glance at the pictures. That man could have been anyone; could even have been three different men, I decided.

“I don’t know who this is,” I told him. “If it is who you want it to be, then it’s news to me. If you want to talk more, it’ll have to be in the presence of my attorney.”

I clamped my mouth shut then. I knew he could make life hard for me. Since the Patriot Act, federal authorities have more latitude than ever. If they wanted to, they could hold me indefinitely without counsel if they claimed it had something to do with national security. (Which in my case would have been a stretch. But I promise you, stranger things have happened.) I think, though, Agent Grace sensed the truth: I had no idea who the man in those photos might be.

He looked at me hard with those eyes of his. I found myself inspecting the cut of his suit. Not cheap, exactly, but not Armani, either. I saw he had a bit of a five o’clock shadow coming in on his jaw. I noticed that the knuckles on his right hand were broken, not bleeding but raw. He rose suddenly, gave me a look he might have meant to be intimidating, and left without another word.

Shortly afterward, his partner came and told me he’d escort me from the building. He slid the photos on the table into the envelope Agent Grace had left behind. He handed them to me with a cordial smile. “Thank you and come again,” I expected him to say.

“Agent Grace wants you to have these . . . to look over more carefully.”

I took the envelope from him, briefly fantasized about ripping it into pieces and throwing the shreds in his face, then tucked it under my arm instead.

“What about my other photos and my bag?” I asked as we walked down a long white hallway.

“You’ll get your bag at the door. And your photos will be returned to you by mail once they’ve been analyzed.”

The whole thing suddenly seemed ridiculous and I found I didn’t much care whether I got the pictures back or not. In fact, I didn’t care if I ever took another photo again as long as I lived. My friend with the guitar had been right, they were inherently wrong, taken in an impulse to control something we couldn’t control. And, frankly, they’d never brought me anything but trouble.

3

I WISH I could tell you where things went bad with Jake. I wish I could say he cheated or that I did. Or that he became abusive suddenly or that I stopped loving him. But none of those things have happened. It was more like he just slowly disappeared, one molecule at a time. There wasn’t a lot of fighting, never any unkindness. Just a slow fade to black.

There was the fact that he hated my family. Not that I could blame him, really. They hated Jake first. But even though a thorough federal investigation found my father innocent of wrongdoing concerning Project Rescue, Jake never believed that my father was completely innocent. (Note: When I refer to my father, I always mean Ben, even though Max is my biological father. Ben is and always has been my father in every way that counts. And even though a woman I don’t remember by the name of Teresa Stone is my biological mother, I’ll speak only of Grace as my mother.)

Anyway, none of them has behaved particularly well, leaving me fractured and torn between them. I was trying to heal my relationship with my parents, find a common ground where we could move forward together, but in doing so I was hurting Jake. And by loving and having a life with Jake, I was hurting my parents. (P.S. Ace, my brother, hates Jake, too. But he also hates our parents. The only one he doesn’t hate is me, or so he says.)

Maybe it was this tug-of-war where I got to play the rope that frayed the fabric of my relationship with Jake. Or maybe it was Jake’s various obsessions regarding his own past, Max, and Project Rescue, all the things I was trying so hard to move beyond. When I was with Jake I felt as if I was trying to walk up a down escalator.

He was in the apartment when I came home. I heard him move toward the door as I turned the key in the lock.

“Rid,” he said as I stepped into the apartment and into his arms. “Where have you been?”

I lingered there a minute, taking in his scent, feeling his body. The only thing that hadn’t changed between us was this ravenous physical appetite we had for each other. No matter how far apart we were mentally and emotionally, we could always connect physically. It was something about our chemistry, the way our bodies fit together. These days, there was rarely an encounter between us that didn’t end in sex.

“I was detained,” I said, feeling exhaustion weigh down my limbs. He pulled back from me, held on to my shoulders, and looked into my eyes.

“Detained,” he said. “Ridley, you should have called. I know things aren’t great between us, but I was worried about you. I expected you this afternoon.”

I looked at the clock; it was nearly eleven.

“No. I mean literally detained, by the federal authorities,” I said with a mirthless laugh.

“What?” he said sharply, looking at me in surprise. “Why?”