immer keeps firm hold of my hand as we stand beside the grave, shivering in the chill as Father Bishop pronounces the words of committal. Freeman Bishop, who has been rector of Trinity and St. Michael, it sometimes seems, since before the Deluge, is in the Episcopal tradition of scholarly priests, possessing the deep knowledge of theology and church history that was once the common expectation for clergy of the Anglican communion. My father, however, always spoke ill of the man. The reason was politics. The Episcopal Church has lately been battered by stormy conflicts on everything from the ordination of gays and lesbians to the authority of the Bible. Father Bishop, in the Judge's view, was on the wrong side of every fight. They don't understand, my father would moan, referring to those with whom he disagreed, that the church is steward and custodian of moral knowledge, not its originator! They think they're free to change whatever they want to fit the fashion of the moment! Right or wrong, the Judge was always strident; and, always, he seemed more comfortable mourning the world that had passed away than planning for the one rushing toward him.
As for Freeman Bishop, whatever his complicated politics, he is a man of enormous faith, and a considerable gift for preaching. He puts on a fine show, the Judge used to say, and this is true: with his pleasantly bald brown pate, his thick spectacles (as he likes to call them), and a heavy, rolling voice that seems to roar up like a hurricane from somewhere well down the Atlantic coasthe is actually from Englewood, New JerseyFather Bishop could easily pass for one of the great preachers of the African American tradition . . . as long as one does not listen too closely to the content. And, for all the Judge's disdain for the man, they were, if not exactly friends, at least on relatively warm terms. Recently, my father's ever-smaller circle of intimates along the Gold Coast even admitted Freeman Bishop to their own most sacred institution, the Friday-night poker game. So, although a couple of well-known conservative preachers called to volunteer their services, there was never really any question about who would officiate at the funeral.
I have always loved cemeteries, especially old ones: their satisfied sense of the past and its connection to the present, their almost supernatural quietude, their stark reassurance that the wheel of history turns indeed. For most of us, cemeteries exude a mystical power, which explains both the hold the vampire myths have on our imagination and the fact that the desecration of gravestones, whenever it happens, will always be the lead story on the local evening news. But I love cemeteries most as places of discovery. Sometimes, visiting a strange city for the first time, I will find the oldest burial ground and walk there, learning the local history by studying family relationships. Sometimes I will stroll for hours to find the grave of a great figure from the past. A year or so before Bentley was born, Kimmer and I both had to be in Europe on businessI was in The Hague for a conference on how the tort law of the European Community should compensate for pain-and-suffering damages, she was in London doing goodness-knows-what for EHPand we stole a day and a half for a visit to Paris, where neither of us had ever been. Kimmer wanted to see the Louvre and the Left Bank and the Cathedral of Notre Dame, but I had other plans, insisting that we take a taxi all the way out to the grim Montparnasse Cemetery in a furious thunderstorm to look at the grave of Alexander Alekhine, the raving anti-Semite and alcoholic who was chess champion of the world back in the 1930s and possibly the most brilliant player the game has ever known.
More evidence, if my wife needed any, that I am moderately raving myself.
And now another cemetery. The brief graveside ceremony passes in a blur. I find myself unable to concentrate, looking around for the bulldozer that will cover the casket after the last mourner has drifted away, but it is too well hidden. I gaze briefly at the polished marble headstone, where my mother's name is already carved, and the small marker, off to the side, for Abby. The family plot my father purchased years ago tops a little rise; he always said he bought it for the view. From up here, we can see most of the grounds. The cemetery is wooded and vast, headstones marching away in implausibly straight rows over sloping hills. Even in the sharp autumn sun, there are shadows everywhere. In the middle distance, some of the shadows seem to movereporters, perhaps. A trick of the light? My fervid imagination? If I am not careful I will catch my sister's paranoia. I focus on the graveside once more. This is my third burial on the quiet little hill, and the family is smaller each time. First we buried Abby here, then my mother. Now the Judge.
Murdered, I remind myself, glancing over at my sister, who wept throughout the service. A chilly breeze carries a few fresh leaves to the earth: every year, the trees seem to shed them a little bit sooner, but I am watching with the eyes of age. Mariah says the Judge was murdered. We are burying our father next to Abby, and Mariah thinks Abby's godfather killed him.
Possible. Not possible. True. False.
Insufficient data, I decide, fidgeting with worry.
Kimmer squeezes my hand. Mariah is still sniffling; Howard, straight and strong, cradles his wife as though worried she might float away. They seem to have brought only part of their brood, but I lack the energy to get the count straight. Standing just beyond the Denton children, Addison seems bored, or perhaps he wishes he could say a few words here, too. His girlfriend, or whatever she is this week, has wandered irreverently away, evidently engrossed in a study of the other headstones. Next to Addison, Mallory Corcoran, pale and wide, glances at his watch, making no effort to hide his impatience. But Father Bishop is finished anyway. His bald brown head reflecting the sun, he adjusts his glasses and utters the final words of the final prayer: "O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, we pray thee to set thy passion, cross, and death, between thy judgment and our souls, now and in the hour of our death. Give mercy and grace to the living, pardon and rest to the dead, to thy holy Church peace and concord, and to us sinners everlasting life and glory; who with the Father and the Holy Spirit livest and reignest, one God, now and for ever."
We all recite the Amen. The service is over. The mourners stir, but I stand for a moment, awed by the frightening power of this prayer: between thy judgment and our souls. My father, if all I have tried to believe is true, now knows God's judgment on his soul. I wonder what that judgment is, what it might be like to leave mortal existence behind and know there are no more second chances, or, perhaps, to find forgiveness after all. To the atheist, the cemetery is a place of the dead, vulgar and absurd, ultimately pointless; to the believer, a place of scary questions and terrifying answers. I gaze at the casket, poised on its runners, surrounded by plastic grass, ready to slide into the ground as soon as we have dispersed.
Give pardon and rest to the dead.
Kimmer squeezes my fingers to snap me back into the secular world of post-funeral handshakes. The leave-taking begins. Friends and cousins and law partners gather round again. A black man who looks to be about a hundred years old throws skinny arms around me, whispering that he is the uncle of somebody else whose name means nothing to me. A tall, striking woman in a veil, another member of the darker nation, replaces him, explaining that she is the sister of some aunt of whom I have never heard. I wish I knew my extended family, but I never will. Still embracing unknown relations, I spot Dana Worth, who waves sadly and then disappears. I suffer a bear hug from a teary Eddie Dozier, Dana's ex, who then turns to hug Kimmer, who cringes but allows it. I say goodbye and thanks to Uncle Mal and his wife, Edie; to the Madisons, who, as usual, say all the right things; to Cousin Sally and her longtime boyfriend Bud, a onetime boxer of no distinction whose jealous fists sometimes mistake anybody who looks at her too long for one of his opponents. I lose track of the people whose hands I am shaking and begin to get their names wrong, an error my father would never have committed. Head of the family, I remember.
Kimmer slips an unexpected arm around my waist and squeezes, even offering a smile to jolly me from my reverie. She is trying, I realize, to comfort menot out of a wifely instinct, I know, but out of deliberation. Her other hand clutches Bentley's tiny one. Our son looks tiny and lost in his long black coat, purchased just yesterday at Nordstrom's. He is also beginning to yawn.
"Time to go, baby," says Kimmer, but not to me.
We stroll back toward the cars, bunches of people no longer united in the commemoration of a life; we are individuals again, with jobs and families and joys and pains of our own, and my father, for most of the mourners, is already in the past. Mariah continues to whimper, but seems alone in this activity. A cell phone burrs somewhere, and a dozen hands, including my wife's, dig into pockets and purses to check. The lucky winner is Howard, who listens briefly, then launches into a quiet dispute over the proper valuation of convertible debentures, and is still blabbering happily as he squeezes into the limousine.
A few more handshakes and hugs and kisses, and then we are alone again. Addison, I notice, is still up at the grave. He is hunched over, hands thrust into his coat despite the warmth of the afternoon, gazing forlornly into the shadows. What is he thinking about? Beth? Ginnie? The unwritten book on the movement? Next week's lineup of guests? I tell Kimmer I will be right back, release her hand reluctantly, and head back toward my brother. I would like to say that the sight of Addison in his loneliness has touched some wellspring of empathy or even love, but that would be a lie; more likely, I am worried that my brother is experiencing an epiphany, communing with great forces, learning some mystical truth that I am missing. Like when he knew, and I did not, that Santa was a fraud. Tawdry though it may seem, it is the old jealousy, the Why Addison? , that drives me back to his side.
"Hey, Misha," he murmurs as I reach the top of the hill, as insistent on using my nickname as Mariah is on avoiding it. He does not turn his head but manages nevertheless to reach out and lay his hand on my shoulder. It occurs to me that I have interrupted him at prayer. And that, in his eulogy, he did not mention God once.
"You okay?" I ask, trying to figure out what he is looking at. All I see are trees and headstones.
"I think so. I don't know. I was just thinking."
"Oh, you know. What Guru Arjan said about the tortures of death."
Well, of course. That was my next guess.
A moment passes. I have long admired and envied my big brother, and we have had a lot of fun over the years, but, just now, we have little to say to each other.
"It's beautiful up here," says Addison. "I guess I'll be up here one day. You, too."
It takes a few seconds for me to understand that he is talking about death. No, not talking about it: worrying about it. My big brother, who was never afraid of anything, and whose charm and grace have carried him effortlessly through his life, is suddenly worried about dying. Did he really rely on my father that heavily? I wonder. Or maybe I am the abnormal one, to watch my father's casket lowered into the ground and feel no twinge of concern over my own mortality. In either case, my brother wants comfort. Plainly, Beth Olin is not the comforting type. But neither am I.
"Come on," I whisper, taking his elbow. "We should go."
He shakes off my arm and points. "You know, Misha, every time I look at Abby's grave, I still hope we'll find them."
"The folks in the car that killed her." In my older brother's voice I hear all my father's bitter fury. I stare at him for a moment, puzzled.
"Right," he says. "You go on, I'll be down in a minute. Go on."
I wait a few more seconds, but Addison does not budge, so I turn at last and head back down the path toward the cars. Drawing near, I notice that Kimmer is now on her cell phone, her strong back to me, awkwardly taking notes on a piece of paper she has flattened on top of the limousine. Howard and Mariah are already gone, but a few family loyalists still wait, including Uncle Mal, who should have been back at the office a long time ago. I flush with warmth at his affection for us, until I realize that he, too, is on the phone. I shake my head at the ways of the corporate world. Maybe he and Kimmer are talking to each other.
I spin around at the sound of my name, first thinking it is Addison, but he is now on the path, moving in this direction, and he, too, has heard the call and is craning his neck toward a nearby hill.
"Talcott! Talcott, wait!" But faintly, more an echo than a voice.
I turn toward the back of the cemetery, where bare trees cast lengthening shadows in the late-afternoon sunlight. A low mist is gathering, so the vista has lost a bit of its crisp brightness. At first, I see only shadows and more shadows in the direction of the voice. Then two of the shadows detach themselves and turn, wraithlike, into people, two men, both white, striding in my direction.
I recognize one of them, and the autumn sky goes gray.
"Hello, Talcott," says Jack Ziegler. "Thank you for waiting for me."
The first thing I notice about Uncle Jack is that he is ill. Jack Ziegler was never a very large man, but he always seemed a menacing one. I do not know how many people he has killed, although I often fear that it is more than the numbers hinted at in the press. I have not seen him in well over a decade and have not missed him. But the changes in the man! Now he is frail, the suit of fine gray wool and the dark blue scarf hanging loosely on his emaciated frame. The square, strong face I remember from my boyhood, when he would visit us on the Vineyard, armed with expensive gifts, wonderful brainteasers, and terrible jokes, is falling in on itself; the silver hair, still reasonably thick, lies matted on his head; and his pale pink lips tremble when he is not speaking, and sometimes when he is. He approaches in the company of a taller and broader and much younger man, who silently steadies him when he stumbles. A friend, I think, except that the Jack Zieglers of the world have no friends. A bodyguard, then. Or, given Uncle Jack's physical condition, perhaps a nurse.
"Well, look who's here," Addison seethes.
"Let me handle this," I insist with my usual stupidity. I discipline myself not to speculate about what Mariah suggested as we sat in the kitchen Friday night.
Before Jack Ziegler quite reaches us, I warn Kimmer to stay down by the car with Bentley, and, for once, she does as I ask without an argument, for no potential judge can be seen even chatting with such a man. Uncle Mal steps forward as though to run the same interference for me that he does for his clients as they leave the grand jury, but I motion him back and tell him I will be fine. Then I turn and hurry up the hill. Mariah, of course, is already gone, which is just as well, for this apparition might push her over the edge. Only Addison remains nearby, just far enough away to be polite, but close enough to be of help if . . . if what?
"Hello, Uncle Jack," I say as Abby's godfather and I arrive, simultaneously, at the grave. Then I wait. He does not extend his hand and I do not offer mine. His bodyguard or whatever stands off to the side and a little bit behind, eyeing my brother uneasily. (I myself am evidently too unthreatening to excite his vigilance.)
"I bring you my condolences, Talcott," Jack Ziegler murmurs in his peculiar accent, vaguely East European, vaguely Brooklyn, vaguely Harvard, which my father always insisted was manufactured, as phony as Eddie Dozier's East Texas drawl. As Uncle Jack speaks, his eyes are cast downward, toward the grave. "I am so sorry about the death of your father."
"Thank you. I'm afraid we missed you at the church"
"I despise funerals." Spoken matter-of-factly, like a discussion of weather, or sports, or interstate flight to avoid prosecution. "I have no interest in the celebration of death. I have seen too many good men die."
Some by your own hand, I am thinking, and I wonder if the other, rarely mentioned rumors are true, if I am talking to a man who murdered his own wife. Again Mariah's fears assail me. My sister's chronology possesses a certain mad logicemphasis on the adjective: my father saw Jack Ziegler, my father called Mariah, my father died a few days later, then Jack Ziegler called Mariah, and now Jack Ziegler is here. I finally shared Mariah's notion with Kimmer as we lay in bed last night. My wife, head on my shoulder, giggled and said that it sounds to her more like two old friends who see each other all the time. Having no basis, yet, to decide, I say only: "Thank you for coming. Now, if you will excuse me"
"Wait," says Jack Ziegler, and, for the first time, he turns his eyes up to meet mine. I take half a step back, for his face, close up, is a horror. His pale, papery skin is ravaged by nameless diseases that seem to mewhatever they arean appropriate punishment for the life he has chosen to live. But it is his eyes that draw my attention. They are twin coals, hot and alive, burning with a dark, happy madness that should be visited on all murderers at some time before they die.
"Uncle Jack, I'm s-sorry," I manage. Did I actually stammer? "I haveI have to get going"
"Talcott, I have traveled thousands of miles to see you. Surely you can spare me five of your valuable minutes." His voice has a terrible wheeze in it, and it occurs to me that I might be breathing whatever has made him this way. But I stand my ground.
"I understand you've been looking for me," I say at last.
"Yes." He seems childishly eager now, and he almost smiles, but thinks better of it. "Yes, that is so, I have been looking for you."
"You knew where to find me." I was raised to be polite, but seeing Uncle Jack like this, after all these years, brings out in me an irresistible urge to be rude. "You could have called me at home."
"That would not beit was not possible. They know, you see, they would consider that, and I thoughtI thought perhaps . . ." He trails off, the dark eyes all at once confused, and I realize that Uncle Jack is frightened of something. I hope it is the specter of prison or of his obviously approaching death that is scaring him, because anything else bad enough to scare Jack Ziegler is . . . well, something I do not want to meet.
"Okay, okay. You found me." Perhaps this is forward, but I am not so frightened of him now; on the other hand, I am not very happy about spending time in his company either. I want to flee this sickly scarecrow and retreat to the warmth, such as it is, of my family.
"Your father was a very fine man," says Uncle Jack, "and a very good friend. We did much together. Not much business, mostly pleasure."
"The newspapers, you know, they wrote of our business dealings. There were no business dealings. It was nonsense. Trumped-up nonsense."
"I know," I lie, for Uncle Jack's benefit, but he is not interested in my opinions.
"That law clerk of his, perjuring himself that way." He makes a spitting noise but does not actually spit. "Scum." He shakes his head in feigned disbelief. "The papers, of course, they loved it. Left-wing bastards. Because they hated your father."
Not having exchanged a word with Jack Ziegler since well before my father's hearings, I have never heard his opinions about what happened. Given the tenor of his comments, I doubt he would be interested in mine. I remain silent.
"I hear the fool has never been able to get a job," says Uncle Jack, without a trace of humor, and I know who has been pulling at least a few of the strings. "I am not surprised."
"He was doing what he thought was right."
"He was lying in an effort to destroy a great man, and he is deserving of his fate."
I cannot take much more of this. As Jack Ziegler continues to rant, Mariah's nutty speculations of Friday seem . . . not so nutty. "Uncle Jack . . ."
"He was a great man, your father," Jack Ziegler interrupts. "A very great man, a very good friend. But now that he is dead, well . . ." He trails off and raises his hand, palm upmost, and tilts it one way, then the other. "Now I would very much like to be of assistance to you."
"Correct, Talcott. And to your family, naturally," he adds softly, rubbing his temples. The skin is so loose it seems to move under his fingers. I imagine it tearing away to leave only an unhappy skull.
I glance over at the cars. Kimmer is impatient. So is Uncle Mal. I look down at my baby sister's godfather once more. His help is the very last thing I want.
"Well, thank you, but I think we have everything under control."
"But you will call? If you need anything, you will call? Especially if . . . an emergency should arise?"
I shrug. "Okay."
"With your wife, for instance," he continues. "I understand that she is going to become a judge. I think that is wonderful. I understand that she has always wanted this."
"It isn't certain yet," I answer automatically, surprised that the secret has spread up into the Rocky Mountains, and also not wanting Jack Ziegler anywhere near her nomination. He has already spoiled one judicial career too many. "She isn't the only candidate."
"I know this." The burning eyes are gleeful again. "I understand that a colleague of yours believes the job to be his for the taking. Some would call him the front-runner."
I am thrown, once more, by the breadth of his knowledge; I choose not to wonder how he knows what he knows. I am glad that Kimmer is not within earshot.
"I suppose so. But, look, I have to"
"Listen, Talcott. Are you listening?" He has drawn close to me again. "I do not think he has the staying power, this colleague of yours. It is my understanding that a fairly large skeleton is rattling around in his closet. And we all know what that means, eh?" He coughs violently. "Sooner or later, it is bound to tumble out."
"What kind of skeleton?" I ask, sudden eagerness overwhelming my caution.
"I would not concern myself with such things if I were you. I would not share them with your lovely wife. I would wait patiently for the wheel to turn."
I am mystified, but not precisely unhappy. If there is information that would kill off Marc Hadley's chances, I can hardly wait for it towhat did he say?tumble out. Even though Marc and I were once friends, I cannot resist a rising excitement. Perhaps America's obsession with the use of scandal to disqualify nominees for the bench is absurd, but this is my wife we are talking about.
Still, what can Jack Ziegler possibly know about Marc Hadley that nobody else does?
"Thank you, Uncle Jack," I say uncertainly.
"I am always happy to be of assistance to any of Oliver's children." His voice has assumed a curiously formal tone. I am chilled once more. Is the skeleton something that he has somehow created? Is a criminal maneuvering to help my wife attain her longed-for seat on the bench? I have to say something, and it is not easy to decide what.
"Uh, Uncle Jack, I . . . I'm grateful that you would think to help, but . . ." His disintegrating eyebrows slowly rise. Otherwise his expression does not change. He knows what I am trying to say but has no intention of making it easy.
"Well, it's just that I think Kimmer . . . Kimberly . . . wants to have the selection go forward so that, um, the better candidate wins. On the merits. She wouldn't want anybody to . . . interfere." And I am suddenly sure, as I say the difficult words, that what I am telling him is true. My smart, ambitious wife never wants to be beholden to anybody, for anything. When we were students, she made a name for herself around the building with her outspoken opposition to affirmative action, which she saw as just another way for white liberals to place black people in their debt.
Maybe she was right.
Uncle Jack, meanwhile, has his answer ready: "Oh, Talcott, Talcott, please have no fear on that account. I am not proposing to . . . interfere." He chuckles lightly, then coughs. "I am only predicting what is to occur. I have information. I am not going to use it. Nor do you need to do so. Your colleague, your wife's rival, has many, many enemies. One of them is certain to unlock the door and allow the skeleton to tumble out. The service I am doing for you is simply to let you know. Nothing more."
I nod. Standing up to Jack Ziegler has drained me.
"And now it is your turn," he continues. "I think perhaps you, Talcott, might be of assistance to me."
I close my eyes briefly. What did I expect? He did not travel all this way to tell me that Marc Hadley's candidacy is going to collapse, or to pay his last respects to my father. He came because he wants something.
"Talcott, you must listen to me. Listen with care. I must ask you one question."
"Go ahead." I want suddenly to be free of him. I want to share his odd news with Kimmer, even though he told me not to. I want her to kiss me happily, overjoyed that she seems to be on the verge of getting what she wants.
"Others will ask this of you, some with good motives, some with ill," he explains unhelpfully in his mysterious accent. "Not all of them will be who they say they are, and not all of them will mean you well."
I forgot Uncle Jack's eerie, unfathomable certainty that all the world is conspiring, but he evidently has changed little from the days when he used to drop by the Vineyard house with gifts from foreign ports and complaints about the machinations of the Kennedys, whose irresolution, he used to say, cost us Cuba. None of the children knew what he was talking about, but we loved the passion of his stories.
"Okay," I say.
"And so I must ask what they will ask," he continues, the mad eyes sparkling.
"Well, fire away," I sigh. Over by the limousine, Kimmer is glancing at her watch and raising her hand, beckoning, to urge me to hurry. Maybe she has another telephone meeting coming up. Maybe she, too, is scared of Jack Ziegler, whom she has never quite met. Maybe I need to get this over with. "But I really only have a few minutes to . . ."
"The arrangements, Talcott," he interrupts in that wheezy whisper. "I must know everything about the arrangements."
"The arrangements," I repeat stupidly, aware that my sister is not as crazy as I have been hoping, and that my brother, sensing that something is going on but not sure what, has moved half a step closer to us, in the manner of a protector or a wary parentvery often the same thing.
"Yes, the arrangements." The hot, joyful lunacy on his face sears my own. "What arrangements did your father make in the event of his death?"
"I'm not sure what you"
"I believe you know precisely what I mean." A hint of steel: here, for the first time, is the Jack Ziegler about whom everybody was reporting back in 1986.
"No, I don't. Mariah told me you called and asked her the same thing. And I have to tell you what I told her. I don't have the slightest idea what you're talking about."
Uncle Jack shakes his sickly head impatiently. "Come, Talcott, we are not children, you and I. I have known you since you were born. I am your sister's godfather, may she rest in peace." A gesture toward the plot. "I was your father's friend. You know what I am asking, I think, you know what it means, and you know why I inquire. I must know the arrangements."
"I'm still not quite sure what you mean. I'm sorry."
"Your father's arrangements, Talcott." He is exasperated. "Come. The arrangements he worked out with you in the event of his, ah, unexpected demise."
I do not make Mariah's mistake: I am sure he does not mean funeral arrangements, not least because the funeral just ended. And then I see what I did not when Mariah grabbed me on Friday night. He is thinking about the will. The disposition of my father's estate. Which is odd, because, although my father was hardly poor, Jack Ziegler is quite rich; or so say the newspapers.
"You mean the financial arrangements," I say softly, with the confidence of a lawyer who has worked it all out. "Well, we haven't had the official reading of the"
"That is not what I mean at all and you know it," he hisses, spraying me with his old man's spittle. "Do not fox with me."
"I'm not foxing." Allowing him to see my irritation.
"I understand that your father swore you to secrecy. That was sensible of him. But you surely must see that your vow does not include me."
I spread my arms wide. "Uncle Jack, look. I'm sorry. I don't think I can help you. There just aren't any arrangements that"
In a movement almost faster than I can follow, his skeletal hand snakes out and grabs my wrist. I shut up. I can feel the heat of his illness, whatever it is, coursing beneath the papery skin, but his strength is amazing. His nails furrow my arm.
"What arrangements?" he demands.
As I stand, mouth open, my wrist still trapped in Uncle Jack's thin fingers, Addison moves a worried step closer, so does the bodyguard, and I sense more than see the two of them sizing one another up; something primal and male is suddenly in the air, a mutual scenting, as though they are beasts preparing for battle, and I see the first faint tinges of red beginning to blot out the trampled green grass.
"Please take your hand off me," I say calmly, but the hand is already off, and Uncle Jack is looking down at it as though it betrayed him.
"I am sorry, Talcott," he murmurs, speaking, it seems, more to the hand than to me, and somehow sounding not so much contrite as cautionary. "I ask what I ask because I must. I do so for your sake. Please understand that. I have nothing to gain, except to protect you, all of you, as I always promised your father I would. He asked me to look after his children if anything happened to him. I agreed to do so. And"this almost sadly"I am a man of my word." He shoves the offending hand into his pocket. The lunatic, gleeful eyes lift slowly to meet mine. Off to the side, Addison relaxes. The wary bodyguard does not.
"Uncle Jack, I . . . I appreciate that, but, uh, we're grown-ups now. . . ."
"Even adults may require looking after." He coughs softly, covering his mouth with his fist. "Talcott, there is not much time. I love you and your brother and your sister as though you were my own. I ask you now for help. So, please, Talcott, for the good of the family we both love, tell me of the arrangements."
I take a moment to think. I know I must get this precisely right.
"Uncle Jack, look. I appreciate you being here. I'm sure the whole family does. And I know it would mean a lot to my father. Please believe me, I would help you if I could. But II just don't know what you are talking about." I can feel myself botching it. "If you would just tell me what arrangements you mean."
"You know what arrangements I mean." This in a hard tone, with a touch of the fire I saw a minute ago, just enough to remind me that I am dealing with a dangerous man. The day is growing darker and my head is beginning to pound. "You appreciate that I am here? Excellent. Now I would appreciate the information."
"I don't have any information!" Finally losing my temper, for nothing causes quite so sharp a red aura as condescension. "I told you, I don't know what in the world you're talking about!" I am so loud that heads turn among the mourners who have not yet departed, and the bodyguard looks ready to grab Uncle Jack and make a run for it. Out of the corner of my eye, I notice that long-suffering Kimmer is striding heavily toward us. It occurs to me that it would be best to finish this conversation before she arrives. "I'm sorry I raised my voice," I tell him. "But there is nothing I can do to help you."
A long silence as the eerily dancing eyes search mine. Then Jack Ziegler shakes his head and purses his thin lips. "I have asked my question," he whispers, perhaps to himself. "I have delivered my warning. I have done what I came to do."
"Talcott, I must go." His hot glare fixes briefly on Addison, standing ten paces away, who frowns and turns toward us as though aware of scrutiny. Jack Ziegler crowds closer to me, perhaps afraid of being overheard. Then the skinny hand snakes out again, once more amazing me with its speed, and I take another step back. But he is holding only a small white card. "Beware of the others I have told you about. And when you decide that you would like to talk about . . . about the arrangements . . . you must call me. I will come to any place you name, at any time you name. And I will help you in any way that I can." A pause as he waits, frowning. "I do not usually make such promises, Talcott."
Now I get it. He expects me to thank him. I hate that.
"I understand," is all I can bring myself to say. I pluck the card from his fingers.
"I hope so," he says sadly, "for I would not want to see you harmed." All at once he smiles, inclining his head toward my advancing wife. "You or your family."
I cannot believe what I have just heard, and the red is suddenly very sharp and bright. My voice is more gasp than objection: "Are you . . . Is that a threat?"
"Of course not, Talcott, of course not." He is still smiling, except that it is more an ugly rictus than a sign of happiness. "I am warning you of the thoughts of others. For me, a promise is a promise. I promised to protect you, and so I shall."
"Uncle Jack, I don't really know what"
"Enough," he says sharply. "You must do what you must do. Allow no one to dissuade you." For a long moment, the dark, demented eyes bore into mine, making me lightheaded, as though part of his insanity is crossing the two feet between us, burrowing down my optic nerve into my brain. And then, very suddenly, Jack Ziegler gives me his back. "Mr. Henderson, we are going," he snaps at the bodyguard, who favors us with a final suspicious glance before also turning away. Mr. Henderson steadies his master. They walk off along the shadowy path through the marching headstones, turn a corner, and soon are lost in the deeper shadows, as though they are ghosts whose time in the world of the living is done and who therefore must return to the earth.
Still stunned, I feel Addison's steadying hand on my shoulder. "You did great," he murmurs, knowing, perhaps, that I doubt it. "He's a fruitcake."
"True." I tap the card against my teeth. "True."
My brother gives me a look, then shrugs. "See you at the house," he promises, and heads off to look for his weird little poet or whatever she is. I take a step nearer the grave, unable somehow to believe that my father, casket or not, was able to lie quietly through the entire exchange with Uncle Jack. His silence, perhaps, is the best evidence that he is actually dead.
"What was that all about?" asks Kimmer, now at my side.
"I wish I knew," I say. I consider telling her what Jack Ziegler said about Marc Hadley, but decide to wait; better she be pleasantly surprised than cruelly disappointed.
Kimmer frowns, then kisses me on the cheek, takes my hand again, and leads me down the hill. But as I ride back to Shepard Street in the limousine, clutching my wife's cold hand, Jack Ziegler's words run like a mantra through my troubled mind: The others. Beware of the others. . . . I am warning you of the thoughts of others. For me, a promise is a promise.
And the rest of it: I would not want to see you harmed. You or your family.
Excerpted from Emperor of Ocean Park by Stephen Carter. Copyright © 2002 by Stephen Carter. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.