Exit on the floor and a plastic bag over her head.” I took her hand, held onto it even when she tried to shake me loose. “They found sedatives in her system, the newspapers said at least twenty pills. Nobody forced her to take those pills. Nobody put her in that bathtub. Nobody made her read that book.”

That wasn’t entirely true, of course. She’d found the book on the table next to my bed.

“Mrs. Burke,” I said, “I know you don’t want to hear this, but Dorrie’s death—Dorothy’s death—probably was what it looked like.”

Her hand leaped out of mine. The index finger jabbed at my face while the rest of the fingers coiled into a fist. “That’s bullshit, young man, and you know it. She did not kill herself. My daughter would never do that. You should be ashamed of yourself.”

I didn’t say anything.

“What’s wrong with you?” She didn’t wait for an answer, which was just as well because I didn’t have one to give her. “I’ll find someone,” she said. “If you won’t help me, I’m going to find someone else who will. But if, because you didn’t help, the person who did this to my daughter gets away with it, if my daughter’s killer gets away because of you, I want to know how you’ll live with yourself.” She was practically shouting now, and the sound had brought Lane to the doorway from his office across the hall. He stood there in his suit jacket and his loosened necktie looking desperately unhappy.

“Mrs. Burke? Please, John has work he needs to finish up tonight.”

Dorrie’s mother stood between us, looking at each of us in turn the way a bull might look at a pair of picadors. Then she gathered herself and shoved past Lane, walking in silence down the hall to the elevator. “Let her go,” he said, but I followed her.

“I’m not finished,” she said as she waited for the elevator to arrive. The building is only five stories tall, but the writing department is on the fifth and the elevator takes forever to drag itself to the top.

Something in my face must have made her think I doubted her. “I’m not,” she said.

I didn’t doubt her. I wished I did.

“Listen,” I said. I grabbed a piece of paper someone had scotch-taped to the wall (“Submit to Quarto!”), turned it over, and took a pen out of my pocket. “I’ll give you the name of someone I know who can help you.” I wrote a name and phone number on the back of the piece of paper. “She’s very good at what she does. Better than I ever was.”

The indicator next to the elevator door lit up and the door sluggishly slid open. A maintenance man got out, pulling a cart of cleaning supplies behind him.

Mrs. Burke took the paper from me. For a second I thought she was going to say something. But instead she just folded the sheet of paper and tucked it away in her purse. The elevator door closed behind her without another word being spoken.

When I got back to my desk, I called Susan. She sounded hoarse, like I’d just woken her up from a deep sleep after a long night’s binge on cigarettes and boilermakers. I hadn’t. That’s just what her voice sounded like, what it had sounded like ever since she got out of the hospital three years earlier with one lung fewer than she’d had going in. Someone I’d known had stabbed her five times in the chest and left her for dead. Someone I’d thought I’d known.

“Hold on a second,” she said, “let me turn this off.” I heard the TV go off in the background, then footsteps approaching the phone. “I was watching the news. I don’t know why I watch it. It just makes me upset. Do you know they’re talking about passing a law in South Carolina banning the sale of sex toys? Five years in jail. You can sell guns all you want, but god forbid you should sell a woman a vibrator. So how are you, John?”

“I’m sorry I haven’t called,” I said.

“That’s okay, I didn’t expect you to. You’re busy, doing...what is it you’re doing again?”

“I’m working up at Columbia, in the writing program. I’m the administrative assistant.”

“Yeah, well,” she said. “That can keep you busy I’m sure.”

“Susan, I’m sorry. Really. I didn’t mean to—”

“Yeah,” she said. “I know.”

“You seeing anyone?” I asked.

“Let’s just say I’m glad I don’t live in South Carolina. Why’d you call, John?”

I glanced around the office. No one else was left. Lane was back behind his closed door. I lowered my voice anyway.

“I need to ask you a favor,” I said.

“Okay.” She sounded wary.

“There’s a woman who’s going to call you tomorrow, Eva Burke. I gave her your name. Her daughter was Dorrie Burke. You may have seen it in the papers, she was the Columbia student they found dead in her apartment up on Tiemann Place—”

“Sure. That was the suicide, right?”

“That’s what the police say, but the mother doesn’t believe it. She wants to hire a detective. She asked me.”

“And you didn’t take the job because being an administrative assistant pays so well you just wouldn’t know what to do with the extra money.”

“I knew the daughter, Susan.”

She was silent for a moment. “Jesus, John,” she said, “I’m sorry.”

“There are things I promised her, things about her life she didn’t want her mother to know.”

“Things like what?”

“Like how she paid her rent.”

“Was it anything like how I used to pay mine?” Susan worked for Serner, probably the biggest detective agency in the city and certainly the best known. But she hadn’t always. When I first met her, she’d been working as a stripper.

“More or less.”

“Which is it? More? Or less?”

“More,” I said.

“She was hooking?”

“Close enough.”

“Look,” Susan said. “I’m not going to tell you it’s the right thing to do, but under the circumstances I don’t see why you have to tell the mother anything. You know? Just take her money, sit on it for a few weeks, then type up a report saying I’m sorry, ma’am, but it really was suicide. You know how it’s done, John. You taught me.”

“Well, I’m asking you to do it this time.”


“Because it’ll keep her occupied while I finish doing what I have to do.”

“And what’s that?”

I felt the broken rib aching in my chest. “I’m going to find the man who murdered her daughter,” I said.

Chapter 2

Dorrie Burke was taller than I was, not quite six feet in flats but pretty damn close, and she entered a classroom as if there was a curtain at one end and a row of photographers popping flashbulbs at the other. It wasn’t something she did deliberately, but she did it nonetheless, and the rest of us all turned and watched as she found her way to an empty chair, slid her shoulder-slung messenger bag to the floor, and sat down. You got the sense she was used to this reaction and that it embarrassed her, like a fat girl used to hearing boys snicker behind her back.

She was beautiful in a way you’re accustomed to seeing on movie posters or the pages of a magazine but not in real life. Something about the shape of her face, the arrangement of her features; you did a double-take when you saw her for the first time and then found yourself staring when you didn’t mean to. I met a woman once who’d been in an automobile accident, a bad crash that tore up one side of her face. The plastic surgeons had done the best job they could, and for the most part they’d succeeded in giving her back a normal face, but there was something just a little bit off about it, and you couldn’t stop looking at her. It was similar with Dorrie. You couldn’t

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