Cold Springs Page 25


She froze when she spotted the news van, then kept walking toward her Audi, which sat directly across the street.

Chadwick got out of the car.

“Hey,” Jones shouted after him, “we get paid hourly, right?”

Norma was chirping off her car alarm when Chadwick caught her.

Her makeup was smeared from crying, her hair a chaotic swirl of black, her wrinkled dress and overcoat two mismatched shades of red. The furious set of her mouth made her look like she was walking through a dust storm.

“Oh, so you're the cavalry, again?” she demanded.

“What?”

She thrust the newspaper at him. “Good luck.”

A-1, below the fold, the headline read: $27 Million Scandal Unfolds at Bay Area School.

“The boy was right,” Norma said. “He told me to check, and I'll be goddamned, but there it wasn't—the entire account. Gone. Transferred to fucking Africa.”

“What? What boy?”

“Race Montrose. Goddamn it, Chadwick, I sat on the information for a week. I gave her a chance to explain. I couldn't be quiet anymore. This isn't a fucking clerical error.”

The television reporter was watching them now, mumbling something to his cameraman. Chadwick felt as if he were bleeding, as if the scratches Norma had put on his face three weeks ago in Ann's office were reopening.

“You called the media?” he asked. “You told them Ann stole money from her own school?”

“Fuck the media. I told the police and the board. Only two people had access to that account, Chadwick. Ann and me. You think I'm going to fail to come forward on this? You think I'm going to risk jail time on top of a ruined career? Chíngate.”

“Two people. What about John?”

“Oh, no, no.” Norma's hands flew in front of her like a warding spell. “Don't try that. You know goddamn well John didn't need that money. He wouldn't risk his career.”

“And Ann would?”

The anger in her eyes turned brittle. “I will not do this. I will not have another argument with you about the Zedmans.”

“What did Race tell you? How did he know about the money?”

“No,” she repeated. “I will not—”

The reporter called, “Ms. Reyes? Norma Reyes?”

Norma's lips started trembling.

Chadwick stepped toward her, some involuntary reflex telling him to protect her, despite all their history. The familiar rose scent of her hair made him feel hollow, hungry in a way he did not want to admit. He cupped his hand around her arm. “Get in your car. Come on.”

Norma pulled away. “Go back to Texas, Chadwick. Just . . . get away, all right?”

She slipped into her Audi, started the engine and pulled away from the curb, almost clipping the reporter's leg. The faint scent of rose remained on Chadwick's clothes.

“Sir?” the reporter asked.

Chadwick walked across the street. The reporter followed him, his cameraman lumbering behind.

“Sir? Excuse me—”

Chadwick turned on the reporter, made him back straight into the camera lens.

He couldn't have been more than twenty-five. Whatever hard-edge attitude he'd put on that morning along with his foundation and rouge crumbled immediately.

“Leave,” Chadwick told him.

“But—”

“Now,” Chadwick said, rolling Norma's newspaper into a tighter baton. “Or I show you why I prefer print.”

“Ah,” the reporter said.

He scurried back to the news van, pulling the cameraman along by his belt loop, hissing at him, “You weren't filming? What do you mean you weren't filming?”

Another minute and they were packed and gone.

Chadwick glanced at his rental car.

If Kindra Jones had watched the exchange, she gave no sign. She was still reading her novel, chewing gum, bobbing her head to whatever music she'd found on the radio.

Chadwick looked up at Laurel Heights.

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It seemed impossible that potato-print pictures could still hang from clothespins in the windows, that children could still shriek with delight on the playground. If $27 million had really vanished, the place should collapse. The yard should be silent, the gate draped in black.

The color and energy of Laurel Heights suddenly made him resentful, the way it had nine years ago, when the world had also failed to stop.

He took a deep breath, then walked up the steps of the school.

Ann would not allow her knees to shake. She would not let her hands tremble, or her voice quiver.

She told herself she must stay in control. This was her school—her legacy. They would not take Laurel Heights away from her with their well-meaning concern, their polite questions, their uncomfortable silences.

They sat in a semicircle—an impromptu Star Chamber made from student desks: five board members and Mark Jasper, the president, who until today had been Ann's biggest supporter. David Kraft, poor David, who'd been up forty-eight hours straight, trying to help her figure out the disaster, was slouched against the radiator in the corner, his eyes bleary, the tails of his dress shirt untucked.

“So you don't know.” Mark Jasper spread his hands. “You have no idea.”

He'd come straight from his art studio, smelling like turpentine, his polo shirt and faded jeans flecked with paint from whatever million-dollar commission he was completing.

His expression was calm and sympathetic, but Ann knew better than to trust his friendship. Mark was the archetypical Laurel Heights parent—a liberal artist who doubled as a cutthroat businessman. As much as he professed to love Ann's idealistic vision for the school, if he began to consider her a liability he would orchestrate her firing with as little remorse as an auto plant manager ordering a layoff.

“I'm cooperating with the police,” Ann told him. “We're working tirelessly on this.”

“Tirelessly,” he repeated. “I wish we could give the school community a better answer than that, Ann. This is a lot of money we're talking about.”

The other board members studied her—their faces morose, anger smoldering under the surface. She knew what they were thinking. She had pushed, and pushed, and pushed this capital campaign, let it drag on for ten years. She had insisted that the new building was the answer to the school's falling enrollment. She had bled the school community with constant fund-raising. And now, $3 million shy of her goal, the final auction tomorrow—this had happened. A crater, blown right in the middle of her career.

It was her fund. It must be her fault.

“You asked Norma Reyes to give you a week before she told anyone,” Mark said. “Even us. Is that correct?”

“Mark—it was Thanksgiving weekend. I didn't want to cause a panic if it was some . . . mistake. I didn't want—”

“And then when Norma informed you, this morning, that she had to tell this board, and the police, you asked her for yet more time. Is that correct?”

The floor was sand, eroding under her feet. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Chadwick appear in the classroom doorway—a tower of beige, his expression as grave as that of the members of the board. Her mind must be playing tricks on her—lack of sleep, too many days of stress. Chadwick was in Texas. But it made sense that he would appear to her now, like some Jacobean ghost.

Mark cleared his throat. “Look, Ann, the administrative leave—”

“I'm not taking administrative leave.”

From the playground came the sounds of the second-grade PE class—Red Light, Green Light. Laughter and the coach's whistle.

Ann wanted to be down there with the children. She wanted to be in the classrooms, reassuring her teachers, who had woken up this morning to reporters' phone calls.

There was an answer, if she just hung on long enough to find proof. She knew where the blame lay—oh, damn yes, she knew.

She was not a violent person. But when she comprehended the extent of John's evil, how completely she'd underestimated his capacity for hate, she wanted him dead.

“I'm afraid we have to insist,” Mark told her. “I mean, look, Ann—”

“I have a school to run.” She closed her fists. “I will not take administrative leave when the school most needs me. If you want to fire me—fire me. Until then, you all will have to excuse me. The middle school returns from the park in fifteen minutes, and I'd appreciate it if you put these desks back into rows.”

She walked out, conscious of their eyes on her back, conscious that Chadwick wasn't in the doorway anymore, David Kraft falling in beside her, saying, “Ann? Ann?”

“David, please—you'll have to excuse me.”

“Is there anything—”

“NO. No, dear. There isn't. Please.”

“They can't fire you, right? I mean, that's nuts, right?”

She kept walking, leaving David behind at the stairwell.

She pushed through the Japanese curtain into her office, wishing for once that she had a door to lock, blinds to pull over the window, anything to hide behind.

Chadwick was sitting in her visitor's chair, his eyes topaz blue, his clothes layered like wind on a sand dune. He looked so much like a natural formation that she could fancy he'd always been part of that chair—a trick of the shadows, waiting for the right light to delineate his features on special occasions—the day he'd asked for a leave of absence to go to Texas, the day he'd announced he was quitting, the day he'd picked up Mallory.

Only then did it hit her why he might be here, and her concerns about the school faded to nothing. “Mallory—?” she said.

“She's fine,” he told her, though his tone suggested he was glossing over plenty of problems.

“Then why—”

“Talia Montrose's murder. I came out hoping to clarify things. Then I met Norma and the CBS news team on the street.”

Ann sank to the edge of her desk in front of him. She pressed her palms to her eyes.

God, what she wouldn't give to be in a different place—the faculty retreat house at Stinson Beach, walking the shore, watching the lights of fishing boats out on the horizon. Or in the redwoods, or at the Russian River—all those camping trips Chadwick and she had talked about taking, some day when their lives were aligned. This was the second time she had seen Chadwick in a month, after nine years dreaming about reunion—and they were stuck here, the same place they'd said goodbye, in the office where she'd mediated crises for most of her adult life.

“John stole the money,” she said. “No one believes me.”

“You have proof?”

“He set up the account. There was a voice authorization clause—Norma tells me this, but I swear to God, if I ever knew it, I'd forgotten. John made it so I was the main signatory. I could . . . I could transfer funds to another account with just a phone call, as long as the new account was also in my name.”

“But you didn't call.”

“The bank says I did, a week ago, requesting a transfer of funds. It was a woman's voice. She had the right numbers. Knew the balance and how all the funds were allocated. They got an e-mail that appeared to come from Norma, confirming the withdrawal. The money was electronically transferred to a new account in my name, then transferred overseas to a numbered account in the Seychelles Islands. Have you ever tried to get information out of a bank agent in the Seychelles, Chadwick? Don't bother. And the bank agent here? The one who took the call? He's done business with John for years. You figure it out.”

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