The History Professor and the Two Women
When Scott Freeman first read the letter that he found in his daughter’s top bureau drawer, crumpled up and stuffed behind some old white athletic socks, he knew immediately that someone was going to die.
It was not the sort of sensation that he could instantly have defined, but it overcame him in much the same way that any feeling of impending dread might, finding a distinct cold place deep within his chest. He remained rooted in his place, while his eyes repeatedly traveled the words on the sheet of paper: No one could ever love you like I do. No one ever will. We were meant for each other and nothing will prevent that. Nothing. We will be together forever. One way or another.
The letter was not signed.
It had been typed on common computer paper. The type font had been italicized, to give it an almost antique sensitivity. He could not find the envelope that it had been delivered in, so there was no handy return address, not even a postmark that he could check. He put the letter down on the bureau and tried to smooth out the creases that gave it an angry, urgent appearance. He looked again at the words and tried to imagine them to be benign. A puppylike protest of love, nothing more than a temporary infatuation on the part of some college classmate of Ashley’s, a crush, and that she had kept it concealed for no real reason, other than some misplaced romantic foolishness. Really, he told himself, you are overreacting.
But nothing he imagined in that moment could overcome the sensation icing him inside.
Scott Freeman did not think of himself as a rash man, nor was he quick to anger, or prone to swift decisions. He liked to consider every facet of any choice, peering at each aspect of his life as if it were the edge of a diamond, examined under a microscope. He was an academic both in trade and nature; he wore his hair shaggy-long, to remind himself of his youth in the late sixties, liked to wear jeans and sneakers and a well-worn corduroy sports coat that had leather patches on the elbows. He wore one set of glasses for reading, another for driving, and he was always careful to have both pairs with him at all times. He kept fit by a daily dedication to exercise, often running outdoors when the weather was suitable, moving inside to a treadmill for the long New England winters. He did this, in part, to compensate for the occasions when he would drink heavily alone, sometimes mixing a marijuana cigarette with Scotch on the rocks. Scott took pride in his teaching, which allowed him a certain daily flamboyant showmanship when he looked out across a packed auditorium. He loved his field of study and looked forward to each September with enthusiasm, and little of the cynicism that afflicted many of his colleagues at the college. He thought he had the most steady of lives and feared that he put too much excitement in the details of the past, so occasionally he indulged in some contradictory behavior: a ten-year-old Porsche 911 that he drove every day unless it snowed, rock and roll blaring from the stereo. He kept a battered, old pickup truck for the winters. He had an occasional affair, but only with women near his own age, who were more realistic in their expectations, saving his passions for the Red Sox, the Patriots, the Celtics, and the Bruins, and all the college’s sports teams.
He believed that he was a man of routine, and sometimes he thought that he’d had but three real adventures in his adult life: Once, while kayaking with some friends along the rocky Maine coast, he’d been separated from his companions by a strong current and sudden fog and found himself floating for hours in a gray soup of quiet; the only noise surrounding him had been the lapping of the wavelets against the plastic kayak sides, and the occasional sucking sound of a seal or porpoise surfacing close by. The cold and damp had enveloped him, creeping closer, dimming his vision. He had understood that he was in danger, and that the extent of his trouble might be far greater than he could imagine, but he’d kept calm and waited until a coast guard boat had emerged from the vaporous mist that had enclosed him. The captain had pointed out that he’d only been yards away from a powerful offshore current that in all likelihood would have swept him seaward, and so he became sig- nificantly more frightened after his rescue than he’d been when he’d actually been at risk.
That had been one adventure. The other two were of greater duration. When Scott was eighteen and a freshman in college in 1968, he had refused to obtain a student deferment from the draft, because he felt it morally unacceptable to allow others to be exposed to dangers that he was unwilling to share. This heady romanticism had sounded high-minded at the time, but had been eviscerated by the arrival of a letter from the draft board. In short order he’d found himself drafted, trained, and on his way to a combat support unit in Vietnam. For eleven months he’d served in an artillery unit. His job had been to relay coordinates received over the radio to the fire mission commander, who would adjust the height and distance on the battery of guns, then order the rounds released with a great whooshing sound that always seemed much deeper and more profound than any thunderclap. Later, he had nightmares about being a part of killing beyond his sight, beyond his reach, almost out of his hearing, wondering, when he’d awakened in the deep of night, if he had killed dozens, maybe hundreds, or perhaps no one. He’d rotated home after a year, never once having actually fired a weapon at anyone he could see.
After his service, he’d avoided the politics that gripped the nation and delved into his studies with a single-mindedness that surprised even himself. After seeing war, or, at least, an aspect of it, history comforted him, its decisions already made, its passions reverberating in time passed. He did not speak of his time in the military and now, middle-aged and carrying a degree of tenured respect, doubted that any of his colleagues knew he’d been a part of the war. In truth, it often seemed to him as if it had been a dream, perhaps a nightmare, and he’d come to think that his year of conflict and death only barely existed.
His third adventure, he knew, had been Ashley.
Scott Freeman took the letter in his hand and went over and sat down on the edge of Ashley’s bed. It had three pillows on it, one of which, inscribed with a needlepoint heart, he’d given her on Valentine’s Day more than ten years earlier. There were also two stuffed bears, which she’d named Alphonse and Gaston, and a frayed quilt, which had been given her when she was born. Scott looked at the quilt and remembered that it had been a small joke, in the weeks before Ashley’s birth, when both her prospective grandmothers had given the child-to-be quilts. The other one, he knew, was on a similar bed, in a similar room, at her mother’s house.
His eyes traveled over the rest of the room. Photographs of Ashley and friends taped to one wall; knickknacks; handwritten notes in the flowing, precise script of teenage girls. There were posters of athletes and poets, a framed poem by William Butler Yeats that ended with the words I sigh that kiss you, for I must own, that I shall miss you when you have grown, which he’d given her on her fifth birthday, and which he’d often whispered to her as she fell into sleep. There were photographs of her various soccer and softball teams, and a framed prom picture, taken in that precise moment of teenage perfection, when her dress clung to her every newfound curve, her hair dropped perfectly to her bare shoulders, and her skin glowed. Scott Freeman realized that what he was looking out upon was the collected stuff of memories, childhood documented in typical fashion, probably no different from any other young person’s room, but unique in its own way. An archaeology of grow- ing up.
There was one picture of the three of them, taken when Ashley was six, perhaps a month before her mother left him. It had been on a family vacation to the shore, and he thought the smiles they all wore had a helpless under- current to them, for they only barely masked the tension that had dominated their lives. Ashley had built a sand castle with her mother that day. The rising tide and waves poured over their every effort, washing every structure aside despite their frantic digging of moats and pushing together of sand walls.
He searched the walls and desk and bureau top, and he could see no sign of anything even the slightest bit out of place. This worried him more.
Scott looked down at the letter. No one could ever love you like I do.
He shook his head. That was untrue, he thought. Everyone loved Ashley.
What frightened him was the notion that someone could believe the sentiment expressed in the letter. For a moment, he tried again to tell himself that he was being foolish and overprotective. Ashley was no longer a teenager, no longer even a college student. She was on the verge of joining a graduate program in art history in Boston and had her own life.
It was unsigned. That meant she knew who sent her the letter. Anonymity was as strong a signature as any written name.
By the side of Ashley’s bed was a pink telephone. He picked it up and dialed her cell phone number.
She answered on the second ring.
“Hi, Dad! What’s up?”
Her voice was filled with youth, enthusiasm, and trust. He breathed out slowly, instantly reassured.
“What’s up with you?” he asked. “I just wanted to hear your voice.”
A momentary hesitation.
He didn’t like that.
“Not too much. School is fine. Work is, well, work. But you know all that. In fact, nothing seems to have changed since I was home the other week.”
He took a deep breath. “I hardly saw you. And we didn’t get much chance to talk. I just wanted to make sure that everything is okay. No troubles with the new boss or any of your professors? Have you heard anything from that program you’ve applied to?”
Again, she paused. “No. Nothing really.”
He coughed once. “How about boys? Men, I guess. Anything I should know about?”
She did not immediately answer.
“No,” she said quickly. “Nothing, really. Nothing special. Nothing I can’t handle.”
He waited, but she didn’t say anything else.
“Is there something you want to tell me about?” he asked.
“No. Not really. So, Dad, what’s with the third degree?”
She asked this question with a lightheartedness that didn’t match his own sense of worry.
“Just trying to keep up. Your life zooms along,” he said. “And sometimes I just need to chase you down.”
She laughed, but with a slightly hollow tone. “Well, that old car of yours is fast enough.”
“Anything we need to talk about?” he repeated, then scowled, because he knew she would notice the redundancy.
She answered quickly, “No. For the second time. Why do you ask? Is everything okay with you?”
“Yes, yes, I’m fine.”
“What about Mom? And Hope? She’s okay, isn’t she?”
He caught his breath. The familiar way she used the name of her mother’s partner always took him aback, though he knew he shouldn’t be surprised after so many years.
“She’s fine. They’re both fine, I guess.”
“So what’s with the call? Something else bugging you?”
He looked at the letter in front of him.
“No, not at all. No particular reason. Just catching up. And anyway, that’s what dads do: We’re always bugged. We worry. All we can imagine are worst-case scenarios. Doom, despair, and difficulty, lurking at every turn. It’s what makes us the uniquely boring and deadly dull people we are.”
He listened to her laugh, which made him feel a little bit better.
“Look, I’m heading into the museum and we’re going to lose service. Let’s talk again soon, okay?”
“Sure. Love you.”
“I love you, Dad. Bye.”
He placed the phone back on the cradle and thought that sometimes what you don’t hear is much more important than what you do. And, on this occasion, he had heard nothing but trouble.
Hope Frazier watched the opposing team’s outside midfielder closely. The young woman tended to overplay her side of the field, leaving the defender behind her exposed. Hope’s own player, marking back closely, didn’t yet see the way she could use the risks taken by her opposite number to create a counterattack of her own. Hope paced a small ways down the sideline, thought for a moment about making a substitution, then decided against it. She removed a small pad of paper from her back pocket, seized a stub of pencil from her jacket, and made a quick notation. Something to mention in training, she thought. Behind her, she heard a murmur from the girls on the bench; they were accustomed to seeing the notebook come whipping out. Sometimes this meant praise, other times it turned into laps after the next day’s practice. Hope turned to the girls.
“Does anyone see what I see?”From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Wrong Man by John Katzenbach. Copyright © 2006 by John Katzenbach. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, 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.