She saw the police cars as soon as she turned the corner, and knew immediately, instinctively, that they were parked in front of her house. Her first reaction was panic. She dropped the few parcels she was carrying and stood, unable to move, staring straight ahead, her breath holding her stomach in tightly, pressing into her back. In the next instant she was running toward her house, unmindful of the bags she had dropped, seeing only the police cars, knowing as she glanced down at her watch and saw that it was seventeen minutes after four, that for her time had stopped.
Later, much later, when the sedative they would give her was starting to take effect and her mind was hovering in the mid-ground between dreams and reality, her thoughts would keep returning to how her day had been spent, how things might have been different. That somehow it was her fault. She had changed the routine.
Lesley Jennings' mother had called first thing in the morning, just after Jack and the girls had left, to tell her that Lesley had spent the better part of the night throwing up and must have picked up some flu bug at school and therefore would not be able to have her regular Friday afternoon piano lesson. Gail had commiserated with the young mother, remembering how upset she used to get whenever Jennifer came down with anything, realizing how calm she was with Cindy, and telling the young woman what she was sure her doctor had already told her, to keep the child quiet and in bed, no solid foods and lots of liquids. Mrs. Jennings seemed grateful for the advice, confiding with obvious guilt that she was desperately trying to locate someone to come and stay with Lesley while she ran off to work. Gail told her about the daughter of a friend who had recently dropped out of school and might be interested in picking up a few extra dollars by baby-sitting, and again Mrs. Jennings was grateful, adding that she hoped Gail's children would be spared the flu bug which seemed to be sweeping the Livingston school system, probably because of all the rain they'd been having lately and wasn't it just typical that the child would get sick when it finally looked as if the weather was starting to break. Children were just little incubators for germs, Gail remembered thinking as she hung up the phone.
On impulse, and because it was such a surprisingly nice day, too nice to spend indoors, she had picked up the phone again and called her friend Nancy, the most frivolous of all her friends, frivolous because Gail doubted that a serious thought had ever passed through the woman's head. She was forty-two years old; her husband had left her five years earlier for a younger woman, and now Nancy Carter divided her time between visits to her masseuse and tennis lessons at her club. She was an avid, no, a fervent
consumer, and she was never happier than when spending money, specifically her ex-husband's money. She was a follower of astrology, the occult and ESP. She believed that she could tell the future, although when her husband had announced his intention to leave her for the woman who regularly manicured his nails, she had been the only one in their immediate circle who was surprised. She never read past the entertainment section of the newspaper, and would have been hard-pressed to name either of her state's senators, although she knew all about Dustin Hoffman's private life and Joan Collins' rather more public affairs. Despite what her other close friend, Laura, referred to as Nancy's lamentable lack of depth, Gail had always found her shallowness and utter self-absorption entertaining, and today a little light gossip and some heavy-duty shopping seemed just what the sunshine ordered. The girls needed some new spring clothes, and for that matter, so did she. Gail had reached Nancy just as she was about to leave the house for a reading with her psychic and they arranged to meet for lunch at Nero's.
Lunch had been entertaining and fun. Gail didn't have to contribute much. She just had to sit there and smile as Nancy did the talking. Nothing was required of her except to listen and look attentive. If Nancy said something about which she disagreed, she kept this to herself. Nancy was not interested in her opinions; she was interested only in her own. Gail thought as she listened to Nancy talk about her visit to the psychic that Nancy Carter was probably the most self-centered woman she had ever met. No matter what anyone said, no matter what was happening in the world, she would find some way to relate it to herself. If the talk turned to Indira Gandhi and the precarious political position she found herself in, Nancy Carter would say, "Oh, I know just how she feels. The same thing happened to me when I was running for president of my club." It was her greatest failing as a human being and her greatest charm. Gail's friend Laura professed shock at this attitude, rolling her eyes skyward at the slightest provocation whenever the three women were together, but Gail had long ago learned to accept the fact that if you wanted to talk to Nancy Carter, you talked about
Gail listened as Nancy explained that her psychic had told her she was suffering from lower back pain (not bothering to interrupt to tell her that most people over the age of forty suffered from some sort of lower back pain), knowing that for all the faults she could find to list about her friends, they could undoubtedly list an equal number where she was concerned. In the end, as with a marriage, a successful friendship depended upon accepting people for what they were. The only alternative was learning to live alone. Gail had never liked living alone. She liked having friends. She liked being part of a family.
Nancy had dragged her to shop at the Short Hills Mall. They went from store to store, ostensibly looking at clothes for Gail's daughters, but Gail quickly noted that Nancy grew restless after only minutes in the girls' or teen departments, and relaxed only when she found something that she herself could try on. The afternoon had proceeded at a faster pace than Gail had been prepared for, and when she looked down at her watch and saw that it was after three and that she could never be home in time for her daughters' return, she had called the school and left a message for Jennifer to be sure to go right home so that someone would be there for Cindy. It was only after Nancy had rushed off to make a three-thirty hair appointment that Gail was able to accomplish any real shopping for herself and her children. Since Gail had not taken her car, and since the day was such a lovely one, she found herself walking a good part of the way home, turning the corner onto her street at just after four-fifteen. Normally, she would have been home by three-thirty. Normally, she would have been there for her children when they came home from school. Normally, by this hour, she would be halfway through her piano lesson, and thinking ahead to what the family would be doing over the weekend. But she had changed her routine.
"What's going on here?" she cried, pushing against the cordon of police officers who blocked her front door.
"I'm sorry, ma'am, but you can't go in there," one officer said.
"This is my house," she shouted. "I live here."
"Mom!" she heard Jennifer yelling from inside.
The front door flew open and Jennifer threw herself into her mother's arms, sobbing hysterically.
Gail felt her entire body go ice-cold, then numb. Where was Cindy?
"Where's Cindy?" she asked in a voice she didn't recognize.
"Mrs. Walton," a voice said from somewhere beside her, "I think we better go inside." She felt an arm around her shoulder, felt herself being drawn across the threshold of her front door.
"Where's Cindy?" she said again, slightly louder.
The hands led her into the living room and sat her down on the peach and green print sofa. "We've called your husband. He's on his way."
"Where's Cindy?" Gail screamed. Her eyes sought out those of her older daughter. "Where is she?"
"She didn't come home," Jennifer was crying. "I got home from school right away like you asked me to, and I waited but she didn't come back. So I called Mrs. Hewitt's to see if Linda was home yet, and her nanny said that Linda had gotten sick at school and she'd had to go pick her up early. She said she called to tell you but no one was home."
"She must have gotten lost," Gail said quickly, blocking out the knowledge that her house would not be filled with policemen had her younger child simply gotten lost on her way home from school. "She's never gone home by herself before. I would never allow it."
"Mrs. Walton," the policeman beside her said gently, "can you tell us what your daughter had on when she left for school this morning?"
Gail frantically looked around the room trying to picture what Cindy had been wearing, able only to see the child's dark blond hair falling over her forehead and into her eyes, remembering that she had thought about clipping the bangs before they got so long that Cindy wouldn't be able to see. She saw the laughing blue eyes, the once fat cheeks now slim and finely structured, the small, full mouth with its missing two bottom front teeth. And the purple velvet dress at least one size too small. "She was wearing a purple velvet dress with smocking across the front, and a little white lace collar," Gail told them as quickly as she remembered. "I told her that it was too small and that it was too hot to wear velvet, but once she makes up her mind, there's no talking to her, and so I just gave in and let her wear it." She paused. Why had she told them that? She could see by their expressions that they had no interest in the suitability of the dress to the weather. "She was wearing white socks and red shoes," Gail continued. "Party shoes. She didn't like running shoes or shoes with laces. She only liked shoes with buckles. And dresses. She would never wear trousers. She was a very feminine little girl." Gail's hand flew to her mouth with the shock of what she had just said. She only liked
shoes with buckles. She was
a very feminine little girl. She had been talking about her daughter in the past tense. "Oh my God," she moaned, falling back against the pillows, wanting to pass out, trying to will her body into oblivion. "Where's my little girl?" she asked in a voice so low and distant it was barely audible.
The front door opened and suddenly Jack was beside her, his arms around her, his lips brushing against her cheek. "Do they know yet?" he asked.
"Know what?" Gail demanded.
The policeman who had brought her into the room now sat down across from her on a chair. Gail found her eyes being drawn to his face, surprised to find that it was quite a young face. "A child's body was discovered about half an hour ago in the bushes by the small park just down from Riker Hill Elementary School," he said evenly, careful to keep his voice nondescript. "It was found by some boys on their way home from school. Apparently, they cut through the park every afternoon. They heard some sounds coming from the bushes. They saw someone running off. When they went to see, they found the girl's body." He stopped as if waiting for Gail to interrupt, but she said nothing, kept staring at the light beige broadloom at her feet, waiting for him to continue. "At about the same time that we got there, your daughter came running up the street looking for her sister. We brought her back here and called your husband. We didn't know where to get in touch with you." He stopped again. "We're not sure it is
your daughter, Mrs. Walton. We didn't want to ask Jennifer to try to identify the body . . ."
Gail was suddenly aware that Jennifer was sobbing uncontrollably from somewhere in front of her, and she reached up and grabbed the trembling girl to her, rocking her back and forth on her lap as if she were a baby.
"Where is the child . . . the body?" Jack corrected. Gail was aware of a strain in his voice, knew he was trying to hide his own fears from her and her daughter.
"Down at the station," the policeman said. "We'd like you to come down and make an identification if you can."
Gail stared at him, thinking how odd it was that policemen really did say things like "down at the station."
"But you're not sure it's Cindy?" Jack stated more than asked.
Gail was quick to agree. "Just because she's missing, because she got lost coming home, that doesn't mean that the body you found--" She broke off, falling back into her silence. It hurt too much when she tried to speak, as if someone were plunging a knife into her chest.
"How was the little girl killed?" Jack was asking. Gail tried not to listen to the answer but was unsuccessful.
"It looks like she was strangled," the policeman answered. "And it looks as if she might have been sexually assaulted." He lowered his voice, as if aware that he was beginning to sound too clinical. "We won't know, of course, until all the reports come in."
Gail shook her head. "Those poor parents," she began, feeling the tears stinging her eyes and running down her cheeks. "Those poor people when they find out about their daughter. Such an awful thing to have happen."
"Mrs. Walton," she heard someone say from what seemed a great distance. "Mrs. Walton." The voice continued to retreat each time it called her name until it sounded as if it weren't coming from the same room at all. Even the hand touching her arm felt as if it were touching someone else. "Mrs. Walton," the voice said again, but she could hardly hear it with all the other noise that had suddenly seized control of her brain. "Do you recognize this?" the voice was asking. "Mrs. Walton, do you recognize this?" The hand was forcing her face to look at something she did not want to see, something her eye had caught a fleeting glimpse of moments before when her husband had entered the room, but something that her mind had refused to allow her to accept.
"Oh my God," Jack whispered, his head falling into his hands, his shoulders starting to shake with a grief he no longer tried to hide.
Gail felt Jennifer's head bury deep into her chest, felt her own head being pulled as if by a magnet toward the policeman's outstretched hand, saw in that hand the purple velvet dress stained by the mud of the recent rains. She tried to speak, but when she did, she again felt the pain shooting through her body, felt the force of the invisible knife as it was thrust deeper into her chest. She looked down and saw the knife slicing down the center of her stomach like a zipper opening a jacket, watched as her insides tumbled out, and waited eagerly for her own life to be over. Instead, she only fainted, and when she was revived, she stayed conscious only long enough for the doctor to give her a sedative.
Excerpted from Life Penalty by Joy Fielding. Copyright © 1998 by Joy Fielding. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.