Read an Excerpt
In Her Bones
Your life is more open than you think. You think you’re safe. You have neighborhood watches and room-darkening drapes, password-protected computers, alarm systems, and garage codes that are absolutely not your firstborn’s birthday. Even with all that, it’s practically there for the taking. Anyone can find out anything about you, and sometimes, if they ask the right way, you’ll just tell them.
People are too trusting. Naive. Even with the news blinking tragedy and fear in a nonstop cycle, we still trust. Well, you do.
I’m a good person, although on paper, it might be difficult to convince anyone. I don’t seem like a good person. I’ll tell you that I only ever use what I uncover to help. Have I taken things too far? Sometimes. Am I sorry? Almost never. In the darkest parts of the night, when the truth is laid bare, I’d like to tell you that I have regrets. I have some, everyone does. But not about the watching. Alone with my thoughts, the only question I turn over and over is Am I like her?
I pull the hair off my neck, it’s hot already and only 7:00 a.m., but that’s Philadelphia in August. The air itself sweats.
I head north on York Street, where I’ll pick up the El. I do feel a weird bubbling in my chest on Monday mornings. Not so much because I love my job, but because I love the stability of it. I enjoy being able to go somewhere, at a particular time each day, and be useful, industrious. I like sitting in my cube, tapping at my computer, hitting send or filing the latest report. I like answering emails, checking things off my list. I like being told I’m efficient. I am efficient, in every aspect of my life.
I am lucky to have a city job, a clerk, technically an “interviewer.” It’s a government job that I don’t deserve, with good pay and decent benefits. I sit on the phone with criminals for hours at a stretch, obtaining bits and pieces of boring data that the police can’t waste their time collecting: addresses, aliases, Social Security numbers, basic information for the public defenders. The other half of my day involves writing reports and processing court fees and parking fines.
Sometimes I see Brandt on my commute. Gil Brandt, the detective who arrested Lilith. The man who gave me a second, third, and fourth chance. It’s complicated, but probably not in the way you think. Or maybe exactly in the way you’d think.
Today, there’s no Brandt. Just the orange stacked seats of SEPTA, the blank, dreary faces on a Monday morning, the vaguely warm odor, like the inside of a public dryer: a little wet, a little musty. The man next to me huddles into the window, a paperback folded into his hands, his cracked lips moving to the words, even as his eyes dart up and out the window, down the metal floor, gummed with black. The seats are full, and the aisles are crowded but not packed, the faint fug of an armpit over my shoulder. I’ve taken the El every day for five years, early mornings, late nights, the train punctuating the days and giving me a structure and definition that keeps me forward-looking, which hasn’t always been my strong suit.
Two rows above, a blonde turns, her hair falling into her eyes, her fingers scraping the metal pole by her seat, and her eyes resting on me, only for a second, but long enough to feel their zing. Lindy Cook. Couldn’t have been more than twenty, her mother taken by Lilith’s rage when she was a child, maybe even a toddler. Lindy, so small when she lost her mother, a toddling, swollen towhead with a red sucker and pink-ringed mouth in all the court pictures, was now a lithe, lanky dancer, an apprentice at the Pennsylvania Ballet. That was all I knew. I search my brain, my memory for something—any detail about her life—and come up blank.
And now she was here. Here! My train. Why? She’d never been on this train before, and I took the El every day. The brakes squeal at 13th Street, the forward momentum pushing me into the pole in front of me, sending the arm over my shoulder bumping against my head. I stand and Lindy stands, and across the train we make eye contact again, her face blank as a stone. My heart thunders, my ears so filled with it that I barely hear the loudspeaker garbling nonsense. We head for the same door and I hang back, watching her step onto the platform. She tosses her hair, and I catch the smell of damp jasmine. She keeps her head low, only to look back just once (was it nervously?) at me.
Up at street level, she heads north on 13th Street, my direction, and I wonder once, crazily, if she’s coming to work with me. If she’s looking for me, if she’s found out about me, who I am and what I do, some kind of sideways revenge scheme for taking her mother, which is, of course, no more sideways than what I do to them. I follow her for two blocks, blocks I would be walking anyway, but I stay a good five people behind her, the bobbing heads of bankers and jurors, lawyers and judges, bopping headphoned dudes appearing in court to fight parking tickets, clerks at Macy’s, and cubicle swampers from the Comcast building. Lindy’s head isn’t hard to follow, the blond shining like the sun against the gray.
She passes my building and I nearly jump out of my skin, thinking she’s going to turn left onto Filbert and I’ll be forced to follow behind her, wanded through by security. But she passes right by, picking up speed, her long legs moving her faster than I can keep up. She stops at an intersection, picks up a paper and a hot Styrofoam cup at a street vendor, offering him a smiling hello and a laugh. The kind of exchange that evolved organically, after an established routine. She darts across Broad Street, six lanes of traffic, and disappears inside the Pennsylvania Ballet studio building. Before pushing through the revolving door, she glances back at me once with a questioning look, her head cocked to the side. I stand on the street, frozen, watching her recognize me as the girl from the train, and now, oddly, the girl who followed her here to the place where she thought was she safe.
• • •
My desk is in the basement: a gunmetal gray and fabric nothingness that lends itself to both slog and productivity in equal measure. Unlike my coworkers, even Belinda who is relentlessly chipper, I don’t mind the drear. The sides are tall enough to maintain privacy, and I tuck myself into the corner, compiling reports, processing parking and court fines with enough focused efficiency to please a myriad of bosses.
I hurl my bag onto my desk, knocking against Belinda’s cube, and her black, bobbing head appears. Her face is flat in a pretty way, her mouth and nose pressed together like she’s perpetually grinning. Her cheeks flushed with health. Belinda is simultaneously hard to like and dislike.
“Hi! You’re late. You’re never late.” She says this without judgment or curiosity, just that it is a fact. She’s right. I’ve never been late.
“I know. The train,” I offer feebly with no real explanation, Lindy’s face still fresh in my mind, her blue eyes widening with recognition, her glossed mouth parting, the faint scrutinizing dip in her eyebrows. I don’t have the patience for Belinda’s weekend recap: underground clubs with her singer boyfriend, the winding drama of her two closest friends.
“Weller is looking for you. There’s a guy on line one, been in the tank since last night.” She sucks a mint around her teeth, her tongue poking into her cheek to find it, and at the same time, takes a slug of coffee from a Starbucks paper cup. She means the interview lines, and she waves the contact forms in front of my face. Name, address, aliases, birthday, age, arrest code. Collecting information is something I’m particularly talented at. Criminals take a liking to me; I’m easy to talk to. The psychology of someone caught has always been interesting to me. Sometimes they open up, saying more than they should. Sometimes, they’re new to the system, and they clam up, terrified, forgetting their addresses, their minds wiped. Sometimes they’re high, or worse, coming down. Other times they’re straight as a beam. The women are usually less trusting, but only at first. It’s generally my favorite part of my job, talking to them.
“Can you do it? I think I’m coming down with something. My throat.” But I motion to my head, some undefined sickness overcoming me, and she shrugs and wanders off, presumably to find Weller, my boss du jour. Management cycles through like the seasons around here; only the lower levels, the drones like us, persevere.
My computer chugs to life and before I open my emails, I navigate to Facebook and search for Lindy Cook, her wide smile filling my screen. Her profile is locked down; the only pictures available to me are those used for her profile. Her email and even her username are hidden. Damnit. Quickly, I navigate to her friends list and give a silent cheer when I find it’s public. I download the profile picture of one of her lesser friends—toward the bottom of her list—and in a new tab, make a new Facebook profile. I use the same name, the same picture, and click on about twenty-five of their mutual friends and select Send Friend Request. Immediately, three of them accept. I wait five minutes, and Send Friend Request to Lindy. I push back my chair, walk purposefully to the kitchenette and make a cup of tea, dunking the bag, feeling the curl of steam against my face.
The Facebook trick was one I’d perfected on Rachel. She was so trusting. Truly darling.
I’d been sober, working at the courthouse for a year before it occurred to me to use the system to look up people I knew, before things fell apart. Keep an eye on them. Rachel was washed out and plain. Married to a man with a round belly and freckled nose, an infant tucked between them on the beach, his pale skin ruddy from the sun. It hadn’t been difficult; she wasn’t hiding. She worked as a teacher for a charter school, just like Redwood Academy. Her Instagram was heavily populated with filtered images: flowers, the sky, her baby girl; her posts captioned with long, poignant statements about love and life and motherhood and teaching. If I met her now, I’d forget her immediately: she was simple and emotionally displayed. I looked at every picture, dating back two years, and chewed on TUMS the whole time. I wonder if she ever thought about the girl from high school, the one with the murdering mother? You’d never think she knew such a person, not by looking at her.
But then, you can’t tell anything about anyone by looking at them.
Mia had a Twitter account but no Facebook or Instagram. She was a journalist with bylines in the Inquirer until a few years ago. Now she’s an editor, practically invisible. She periodically tweeted out her articles, and other sociopolitical commentary. Zip on her personal life. I searched public records. No marriage. No kids. An order of protection against a man named Samuel Park, stemming from a controversial abortion story she’d written, dating back to 2012. It took some digging but I found her apartment, a condo unit in Radnor on the Main Line. Not horrifically expensive, but not cheap, either. One picture in her media files: a girl’s night (#GNO!), sleek hair and little black dresses, high heels and red lipstick. Three women, all virtually interchangeable. I couldn’t have told you which one was Mia.
Neither of them had a life I wanted.
Still. The hunt thrilled me. The flush of heat against my neck at each discovery, the way the keys flew under my fingertips, the information seemed summoned at will—almost effortless. The ease with which people gave up what felt to them like innocuous information: their first pet, their first car, their favorite teacher. Nothing about the internet felt real—to me or anyone else. I wasn’t breaking any laws, doing anything immoral or unethical, none of it was tangible. It was all bits of data flying around in space; who cared about individual little bits of data? I enjoyed the manipulation, this gentle bend of virtual facts.
Mia and Rachel were boring. Then I realized that while Brandt knew me so well, I knew very little about him. I started with his ex-wife, now happily living in an Atlanta suburb with her new husband. I friended her on Facebook, my profile picture a stargazer lily, beseechingly raw, almost vaginal. A pic from the garden! I’d called myself Lily Beck, so stupid, so traceable to me—I was my own first lesson. People choose nothing at random. Not passwords, not usernames, not pet names, nothing. A few months later came a text: Unfriend my ex-wife, Beckett. That was it. No explanation, no further instructions. I didn’t ask how he figured it out. I didn’t protest, although I’d wanted to. I hadn’t done anything wrong. I just watched her life (Her name was Mabel. Mabel! Like a storybook heroine). Honestly, what else is social media good for? The pictures of her new husband, her gabled McMansion in a plush neighborhood, dinners at the country club, her mouth wide and laughing into the camera, her skin glowing and dewy from the southern humidity. Her skin looked dipped in gold, glittering and creamy.
Why? I know this is in me, this impulse to obsess, to stand on the outside with my hands pressed against the glass. Bored with Rachel and Mia, caught by Brandt, I had punched Mitchell Cook into the system at work on a whim. I guess that’s how it started, but who’s to say? Do you ever question how anyone starts a hobby? When exactly and why did you take up knitting?
I’d imagine that everyone on the precipice of thirty examines their life and finds it wanting in some way. But as an on-again, off-again alcoholic with no life, no boyfriend, and a job in the courthouse basement—which let’s be honest, is as dank and dark as it comes—the gap between myself and everyone else my own age seemed interminable. Late one night, I saw an interview with Matthew Melnick, the fiancé of Melinda Holmes, during one of the docudramas. He had said some of them had found each other, found comfort together, in an online forum called Healing Hope. At first, I just watched them talk to one another.
Maybe I wanted to know: How did they move on?
I started to loosely keep track of them all. What had become of the people touched by Lilith? Touched by Lilith. Listen to me sanitize. What had become of the people whose loved ones were murdered by my mother?
I have more in common with the collateral damage of Lilith’s crimes than with anyone else. The only people I feel any affinity toward are people I’ve never met. Lilith Wade shelled me, scooped out my insides with her thin matchstick fingers, and derailed any meaningful life I might have had—and she’d done the same thing to them, too. I’d wondered how they moved on, grew up, became adults, had children. Did the rest of them move away, start over, remarry? Some did. Most stayed in the area, many within city limits: the Dresdens, the Hoffmans, the Mayweathers. Lindy Cook. Walden Holmes.
Peter Lipsky. Yes, I have favorites. Why? I don’t know. He’s the hardest, so there’s that. I’ve always liked a challenge. I can hardly ever find anything interesting on him at all. It has to be there, though, it always is.
How quickly it became second nature, not something I did here and there, but rather something I now do. Repeatedly, if not daily. I find all their speeding tickets, their jury duty summonses, and once a public urination fine—Walden was a bit of a drunk—and simply erase them. Delete. Mark as PAID IN FULL. It’s an easy reach and makes the rest of it seem fine. Justified, even. A few months ago, Walden got into a bar fight. I’d wanted to dismiss the arrest record, but I don’t have access to that system. Yet.
Now it felt as routine as making coffee in the break room.
Back at my desk, Lindy accepts. I open her profile and scan through, looking for an email. Most people set their privacy to the default friends only and never think about it again.
LBaker62998. Lbaker. Lindy Cook. Cutesy.
In the Google search bar, I type in LBaker62998. A long list of results pops up, all the places she’s been, the places she’s logged on. Comments on Wordpress blogs, a Flickr page, a forum for dancers, and a long list of posts whining about the corps, being looked down upon as an apprentice, a question about back flexibility and bunion pain, and inexplicably, a forum for pregnancy, which I slot in the interesting-although-not-immediately-relevant column. Then I see it, a post, made six months ago on Healing Hope. I click on it, my hands shaking. My mother was killed in a famous crime. I can’t tell anyone. I think about it all the time now and I don’t know why. I can’t stop reading old newspaper articles. I was only a baby. Should I get counseling? 722 responses.
“Beckett.” Weller is hovering over my shoulder, a scrim of stubble along his jaw, his voice wet and garbled, a thin sweep of gray across his red, gleaming crown. He cranes to look around me, to my screen, and I angle in front of it and give him a smile. “Can you get the guy on line one? 5505, nothing major. He’s drying out.” 5505 is a drunk in public; these are most of my interviewees. These guys also like to fight, so sometimes I get the aggravated assaults, too. Which is fine, they all sound the same on the phone.
“Weller, I’m feeling kind of sick.” I clear my throat, force my voice froggy. His eyebrows shoot up, I’ve never begged off a job in my life. “I think Belinda said she’d take it?” I hate the upward lilt in my voice, the question. It’s unlike me and Weller knows it. He rubs his palm against his cheek and grumbles.
“Check your email. We’ve got a department meeting at one, okay?” He ambles away, stopping at a desk down the hall to pluck a Hershey’s bite size out of an open candy jar. His pants hike up as he walks, exposing a thin, vulnerable strip of pink above his black socks and work shoes.
I swivel around, look back at my computer, and start skimming the responses. The first hundred are standard and repetitive.
Yes, you need to see a professional.
Please get help. Don’t read the articles, you’re fixating on it.
Have you tried hypnosis? Helped me tremendously!
Then, I see it. Lindy, can you get in touch with me? PLipsky@gmail.com.
I knew I had seen Lindy’s username before. She and Peter Lipsky talked sometimes, but I hadn’t connected LBaker62998 to Lindy Cook. Why would I? Maybe I’m slipping. I feel the odd, unwelcome pang of jealousy, a thing I can barely justify, as I imagine Lindy and Peter, exchanging late-night texts, emails. I wonder if they’d talked on the phone, met in person? I imagine her long, gold-spun hair twisting around her finger as she listened to his doe-eyed talk about the grief that wakes him up at two in the morning, keeping him awake until his alarm goes off.
I imagine how taken he’d be with her, over a cup of coffee at Mickey’s Diner, if he’d fumble with the sugar, trying to tear four packets at once, and if she’d cover his hand with hers, deftly opening them into his coffee for him. Peter is awkward, Lindy is young, charismatic. I click through to Peter’s Facebook, only a handful of pictures. A narrow face, square jaw, blue eyes, hooded and sleepy. A thick roll of hair, scooped pockets of purple under his eyes. His cheeks flushed red against the fall backdrop of an outdoor biking trip. His smile thin, more like the memory of a smile, deep parentheses around his mouth.
• • •
Peter Lipsky is an insurance claims adjuster. He lives alone in a one-bedroom apartment on the first floor of a stone house in Chestnut Hill. His Facebook page is more public than it should be, but all I’ve been able to glean from it is that he’s a Flyers fan. He posts a few updates during the games but now, in August, he’s fairly quiet. Once a week, he checks his astrology and it automatically posts. I bet he has no idea. His smile is nice, if not vulnerable and almost wounded. In other words, he’s nearly invisible. In a crowd, I’d never pay any attention to him.
He has an older photo: a church, a white, billowing dress and big blond hair, and himself, tall and thin, the tuxedo hanging limply from pointed shoulders. This picture I save to my desktop. I blow it up, try to look at her face, but it’s too grainy. It’s a photo of a photo, the original taken sometime in the nineties, before smartphones and social media. Before the internet really took off, so there’s nothing about her online that doesn’t come from Peter, which is fine, really, because I already know her name. Colleen.
Before she died, Colleen was a pediatric nurse. Lilith never talked about Peter. She’s talked about the others: in interviews with police or psychologists or once a reporter. But if they bring up Peter she blinks wetly, confused and open mouthed. As far as I know there was no connection between them. No affair, no passionate love like Quentin. Colleen and Peter were married for nearly three years before Lilith came. Peter was at an insurance conference—who knew there was such a thing—and Colleen had taken the trash out to the Dumpster. They lived in a condo complex not far from where Peter lives now, and the Dumpster was on the dark side of the building. Lilith stabbed her three times in the chest and left her in the dark. Two of the three wounds were surface. Hesitation marks, they call them.
Another tenant found her eight hours later. They connected all Lilith’s victims through psychological profiles, victim commonalities, and stab wounds. She used the same knife: a combination serrated and plain edge utility knife, a common tool for hunters because it cuts both wood and bone. Later she’d claim she’d gotten it from her daddy, a man I’d never known or even heard her speak of.
Colleen was somewhat of an outlier. Police, investigators, lawyers, even Lilith herself could not tell you why she was killed. This, as I learned through forum posts, drives Peter absolutely crazy. Why Colleen? How do they know for sure, if Lilith Wade won’t confess? He has nightmares about it, waking up at all hours, unable to fall back to sleep until he logs into Healing Hope. He talks to whoever is there. Sometimes that is Lindy, sometimes it is a handle called WinPA99. I had no idea who that was, a search of her name turned up nothing. I only knew she was female because Peter once asked another forum member where she was. I couldn’t connect her to Lilith.
In Healing Hope, I spend my evenings watching the forum members’ usernames blink in and out. I never post, only observe. WinPA99 has never posted, either, and she only speaks to Peter. She is grieving her sister, murdered almost twenty years before. Some of their posts and responses are public. Lindy comments all the time and talks to anyone who listens. Peter is only ever active in the middle of the night, like me.
He hasn’t been online in a week. The longest I’ve ever seen him go.
The squeak of shoes brings me back to the present. Weller. I click out of the internet window and back to CrimeTrack, the city’s system for logging dispatch calls and incidents. I fake a cough, hacking into the crook of my arm. He pauses behind my desk, shielded by the half wall, and thinks I can’t hear him breathe: the hefty rasp of a man who likes his McDonald’s and cheesesteaks. Then, he’s gone.
I type Peter’s name into the search bar, and I’m surprised to see a return. Logged two weeks ago: a suspected break-in.
Lipsky, Peter. 7/19/2016: Call received at 11:27 p.m. Suspected break-in. Nothing reported missing. Caller distraught. Claims apartment is disheveled. Officer on scene says apartment appears in order. See log #769982.
I’m irritated at myself for missing this. I’d been distracted by the others.
Maybe I’ll leave early today.