Silent Witness: Excerpt
Two days before her seventeenth birthday, Marcie Calder killed herself; died in a fall; or was murdered.
A half hour from landing in Steelton, Anthony Lord reviewed what little he knew. From the pictures in the newspaper, Marcie appeared dark and slight and pretty. She was the oldest daughter of a family with three girls; a solid B student at Lake City High School; an observant Catholic who was a member of Tony's old parish, Saint Raphael's. The Steelton Press described her as shy; her best friend, Janice D'Abruzzi, interviewed after the funeral, said that she had not dated anyone special. The newspaper accounts of the grief counseling that followed, a chance for her fellow students to face what had happened, told Tony less about Marcie than about the feverish contagion of teenage sadness, the grim resolve of the town to cope with the inexplicable. Not since the murder of Alison Taylor, Principal Burton said, had Lake City suffered such a tragedy. The thing he most remembered about Marcie struck Tony Lord as rather sad: that she was the fastest girl on the track team and, when competing, ran with a joy and abandon that was beautiful to watch.
Four days prior to her death, in her last competition as a runner, Marcie had done poorly. Afterward, her teammates recalled, she was listless, unresponsive. On the following morning, the police had found her on the beach below Taylor Park, a ribbon of blood on her head and cheek. From the condition of the body, it was plain that she had died sometime during the night. No one knew how.
There were several theories. The drop to the beach from the cliff above was more than ninety feet; from themud on her blue jeans, and the marks on the cliff itself, it appeared that Marcie had fallen. But a rock on the beach yielded samples of Marcie's blood and hair. The man who had taken her to the park that nightthe last person to admit seeing her alivewas not available for comment. Her track coach, Sam Robb, the assistant principal of Lake City High School.
For a final moment, Tony studied the newspaper photograph of Marcie Calder and, next to it, that of Alison Taylor. He could never look at Alison's picture, Tony realized, without feeling the same rush of grief and loss, as fresh as yesterday.
He put the paper in his leather briefcase and wondered how, after twenty-eight years, Sam Robb's wife would seem to him.
They did not, at first, talk about Marcie Calder.
Sue drove the Ford Taurus away from the airport toward Lake City, through housing developments and shopping malls that Tony, squinting in the sun of a bright spring morning, recalled as flat green fields. What Tony wanted most to knowhow she was, what her life with Sam had been until nowwere things he did not ask. But eliciting more routine facts seemed to help them both. Their two kids, Sam junior and Jennifer, were both out of college. Young Sam, never the athlete his father had hoped for, was studying for an MBA at Kansas University; Jenny taught preschool in Florida. Sue had finished her degree in library science; she worked part time at the Lake City Public Library, helping with the children's section. Sue's tone seemed almost normal; it was as though, if she kept talking, her humiliation would not surface. She did not mention Sam.
"How's the town?" Tony asked. "Still the same?"
"To look at it, except the empty lots are filled with houses now. But things have changed beneath the surfacewe have drugs at high school; Protestants don't hate Catholics anymore; and about every other family is divorced or has both parents working. The kids don't have to go parking now; they can make love after school, in the privacy of their parents' home. . . ." She stopped abruptly; Tony did not have to guess at her thoughts. Softly, she added, "It's still small, Tony. At a time like this, you feel how small it is."
For a moment, the present slipped away, and Tony was back in a crowded high school gym.
"Killer, killer . . ."
"The Taylors," he asked. "Are they still alive?"
"Yes." Sue gazed fixedly at the road. "I don't know how you remember them. But to me they look like bitter old people, serving out their lives." She paused for a moment. "Katherine Taylor told my mother, only four or five years ago, that there has never been a day since Alison died that they don't remember. When I think of Marcie Calder's parents, I think of that."
Tony felt his heart go out to her. At length, he asked, "How is he, Sue?"
Her fingers seemed to tighten on the steering wheel. "Scared," she said. "You know what that's like."
Something in Tony resisted the comparison. "All I know is what it was like for me."
Sue was quiet for a moment. "He could be charged with murder," she said in flat voice. "Or, if he's lucky, all that we'll have to worry about is the end of his career as a teacher. Unless he can explain to the school board what he was doing in Taylor Park, at night, with a girl on his track team."
What had Sam told her? Tony wondered. "If he takes my advice as a lawyer," he answered, "Sam won't say anything to the school board. Not until we see what the county prosecutor does about her death."
Sue did not answer. The roads became narrow; at the edge of a field, Tony saw the first familiar landmarkthe white spire of Saint Barnabas Episcopal, where Alison's funeral had been held. Then they passed a white wooden sign, not unlike the one Tony remembered: "Welcome to Lake City, Home of the Lakers. Population 15,537."
The next few miles were strange. It had been so long that, for an instant, this seemed like entering a place Tony had seen only in pictures. What hit him first was nostalgia and then remembered traumafeelings from before and after Alison's deathfollowed by the sudden superstitious certainty that he should not have returned. Quietly, he said, "I never thought I'd come back here."
They took a curve in the narrow road, past an elementary school and some wood-frame houses, and then Tony saw something that had not been there beforea large wrought-iron gate to the entrance of a development of brick ranch houses. The contractor had left just enough maple trees to justify the iron lettering above the gate: "Maple Park Estates."
In spite of himself, Tony turned. And then he felt Sue watching him.
"Remember?" she asked.
What he felt, Tony realized, was a rush of pain and sweetness, surprise at the power of memory, the immediacy of his youth. "Remember?" he said softly. "It was the sweetest thing that had ever happened to me."
Sue smiled a little. "If I'd known that, Tony, I'd have made you do it twice."
As they drove on, silent, Tony felt his unease return, the moment slip away. More than being in Lake City, this came from thinking of Sam Robb againwhoever he might have become.
Reaching the town square, Tony saw the police station. "I have a favor to ask you," he said after a time. "As a lawyer, I suppose. Before I see Sam."
"What is it?"
Tony turned to her. "Could you take me to Taylor Park?"
From the Trade Paperback edition.