Prologue to A Stone of Hope
LIEUTENANT JOHN GREENE paced back and forth across the small, dimly lit room that appeared to serve as a makeshift kitchen. It was actually a store room at the back of what had once been an appliance store on the north side of Birmingham. The building was abandoned – scheduled for demolition – but not unoccupied. Hence the crude shelves, constructed from boards and boxes that had once cradled refrigerators, ovens, and washing machines. He had seen a lot of hell-holes in his sixteen years as a cop – whorehouses, crackhouses, rundown apartments in the projects where cockroaches and rats battled for supremacy – but this was about as austere a home setting as he’d seen.
Yet it was different. For one thing, Spartan as it was, it was clean. Not a speck of dust to be seen. Even the industrial tile floor, stained and cracked to the point of crumbling in places, looked as if it were scrubbed on a daily basis. The room was also orderly, the meager supply of canned goods, crackers and dried beans arranged neatly with labels facing out. He noticed the cans were even categorized – soups, fruits, and vegetables, each assigned their own shelf. Off to the side was a solitary can of Spam, the only can with a light layer of dust on top. Unlike the other items, it had obviously been there a while, no doubt being saved for a special occasion.
A large cardboard box resting on its side atop two concrete blocks served as a china cabinet. There was an assortment of plates and bowls, no two of the same pattern, and a stack of disposable plastic cups that had been washed and reused so many times their red coating had faded to an anemic pink. Plastic knives, spoons and forks were arranged on a paper towel next to the plates, and next to them was a short stack of Styrofoam coffee cups, also clean but stained from repeated use.
But it wasn’t just the order and cleanliness that separated this kitchen from so many other destitute households he had visited. One of the skills Greene had developed as a detective was the ability to walk into a setting and develop a “feel” for it and the people who lived there. And unlike other scenes of poverty and need, this kitchen had an aura of hope, not desperation. Family, not dysfunction.
Greene stopped pacing and stood in front of a rusting but otherwise clean folding card table, surrounded by mismatched plastic and woven lawn chairs. In one of those chairs sat a tall, thin – almost gaunt – man, his shoulders slumped and his eyes focused downward, as if her were trying to decipher some meaning from the pattern of cracks in the tiled floor.
Greene stared at the man a minute or so, then said quietly, “Mind if I sit?”
The man looked up and nodded, gesturing to a folding chair next to him. Greene pulled back the chair and sat. Noticing that the man had returned his attention to the floor, he said, “Look at me.” Again, he spoke softly, but with an air of authority he had perfected during the course of a thousand or more interrogations. The man looked up, his eyes wet, but his gaze strong and direct.
Greene had looked into those same eyes a week earlier. He had known then, just as he knew now, that this man was hiding something. He didn’t belong here, living in these circumstances. He came from a very different background, and Greene felt sure that the man’s departure from his previous life had been fairly recent. He didn’t have the look of several years, or even months, on the streets. He had not been very forthcoming the last time they talked, and Greene was sure the man would be equally reticent tonight. But this time the outcome was going to be different. It had to be. The man might not want to talk about his past, and how he came to be living this way, but he was going to have to provide some answers. At the very least, he was going to have to explain why he had blood all over his shirt and pants. And why two dead men lay right outside the kitchen door.
4 months earlier
IT ALL STARTED just as winter was beginning to loosen its seemingly relentless chokehold on the northeast. In retrospect, Brian McLean would realize that both situations began to evolve at roughly the same time, around the second week in April. He would even come to entertain the notion that the entire sequence of events had seemed preordained. After all, what is the likelihood of two separate, life-changing circumstances arising simultaneously? Yet they had, complementing and feeding off each other with cruel, synergistic precision. Like cold and warm air converging high in the atmosphere, creating a fatal whirlwind for the poor, unsuspecting souls below.
It was on a blustery Monday, more typical of March than April, that he left the offices of Russell Corporate Group several hours earlier than normal. As a regional sales vice president for RCG, the largest corporate insurance company in New Jersey, Brian was accustomed to long hours, rarely starting the drive to his four-bedroom colonial in affluent Sussex Creek before seven o’clock. Anna, his wife of eighteen years, had begrudgingly learned to expect dinner delays and cancelled engagements on weeknights, but she would accept no excuses on this particular occasion. It was opening night for the MBC, the Metropolitan Ballet Company, and arriving late would be unforgivable.
He walked through the front door promptly at four o’clock. He found Anna in their bedroom, already decked out in a simple but flattering black, scoop-necked dress that revealed a tantalizing glimpse of cleavage as she bent over her jewelry box to retrieve a strand of pearls. She looked up and gave him an approving nod. “Right on time. Very considerate.”
“Considerate, nothing. I was motivated by fear.”
“Oh, come on, I’m not that fanatical, am I?” She stepped over and gave him a quick kiss. “It’s not like I’d actually inflict any physical pain if you caused us to be late.”
“Withhold sex maybe, but no pain.”
“Withhold from whom?” he said, stepping behind her and wrapping his arms around her waist. “You can’t be talking about me. I’m not getting any to begin with.”
“Shhh, you, the girls are right down the hall.” She turned and tapped his nose with her finger. “Maybe tonight. You know how the ballet puts me in a romantic mood.”
“Promises, promises.” Brian began removing his tie. “You’re sure you’re okay leaving the girls alone tonight? We’ve never left them by themselves except when we’ve stayed local, and they could reach us by phone.”
Allison, fourteen, had been babysitting in the neighborhood for two years, but Brian was still unsure about leaving her alone with eleven-year-old Jenny. At least, not without a referee.
“They’ll be fine,” Anna said. “The Levitts will be home all night, and Sarah said she’d call around nine to check on them.”
She turned to face the mirror and held the pearls to her neck. “Could you fasten this for me? The clasp is a little tricky.”
“Sure,” he said, stepping behind her and admiring her reflection. She was tall, only a few inches shorter than Brian, and shapely. He liked to tell her, whenever she fretted about gaining a pound or two, that she had one of those classic hourglass figures that all the Hollywood glamour queens had sported before the anorexia crowd took over.
He brushed her dark brown hair aside as he fidgeted with the necklace clasp. “When did they start making these damned things so tiny?” he muttered.
“Never mind, I’ll do it,” she said, reaching her hands behind her head. “The clasp is the same size it’s always been. It’s your eyes that are changing.”
“Falling apart at forty,” he sighed as he emptied the contents of his pockets on the dresser. “I think I’ll take a quick shower before I squeeze into that damned monkey suit.”
“It’s hanging in the closet,” she said. “I picked it up at the cleaners this morning.”
An hour later the two of them descended the stairs arm in arm, eliciting the requisite oohs and aahs from their two daughters. Even Chelsea, their chocolate Himalayan, meowed approval.
“Hey, you two are color coordinated,” Jenny said, admiring her mother’s black dress and white pearls alongside her dad’s tuxedo. “You look beautiful, Mom, like a movie star or something.”
“Thank you, sweetie,” Anna said, smiling broadly. “And doesn’t Daddy look handsome?”
Allison’s face broke into a smug grin. “Yeah, like one of the waiters at Le Cirque.”
Brian shot his older daughter a glance of mock scorn as Anna reviewed her long list of instructions one final time. At five o’clock, right on schedule, they walked out the door. Within minutes they were on the entrance ramp to Route 80 where, leaving the quiet security of the north Jersey suburbs behind them, they headed east toward the bright lights of Manhattan.
TRAFFIC ON THE George Washington Bridge was unusually light, and they pulled into the Lincoln Center parking lot over an hour before the start of the seven-thirty performance. Brian suggested they walk across the street to one of their favorite pubs, but Anna preferred to stay out of the wind, so they went to the restaurant on the second level of the Metropolitan Opera House and paid an exorbitant price for a light dinner of shrimp salad and chardonnay. It was not as substantive a meal as Brian would have liked, but its location allowed them to sit comfortably, sipping their wine, until just before the start of the performance.
At one point Anna looked up from the MBC bulletin she’d been studying. “Do you remember Veronica DuPage from last season?”
“Can’t say that I do. What did we see her in?”
“Several things, but she was never featured. It was her first year and she was in the corps, but she really stood out from the others. Great extensions and absolutely beautiful feet.”
Brian smiled. “Yeah, that’s the first thing I notice about a woman…her feet.”
“Very funny. Anyway, she’s been promoted to soloist, which is very unusual after only one year with the company. We’ll see her tonight in the first ballet, Les Sylphides.”
“How many different things are we seeing tonight?”
“Three short ones, and then the patrons’ champagne reception.”
Brian sighed as he stood. “I can’t wait. What could be more fun than a roomful of gay men and bony, flat-chested women?”
They walked past the grand staircase as the last of the crowd filtered in, and were ushered to the front row of Grand Tier. “Nice seats,” Brian said as they leaned back in the cushioned chairs. “Do we have these for the whole season?”
“Yes, aren’t they wonderful?” Anna replied, her eyes sparkling with the anticipation of a child on Christmas Eve.
Brian tilted his head to whisper into her ear. “So, how much did this set us back?”
Apparently anxious to evade that particular question, she put a finger to her lips. “Shhh, the lights are coming up.”
The dozen or so lights suspended on long cables over the orchestra seats had indeed begun their slow, graceful ascension to the lofty ceiling, dimming along the way. A moment later a noticeable stillness descended upon the orchestra pit, and the audience erupted into enthusiastic applause as the conductor made his way to his stand. Bowing to the audience in acknowledgement, then extending his arms to include the musicians seated behind him, he finally turned to face the stage and lifted his baton.
The delicate, haunting strains of Chopin’s “A major Prelude Opus 27” permeated the cavernous hall as the thick curtains parted to reveal a moonlit clearing in a lush, green forest. With the ruins of a medieval castle as a backdrop, the Sylphides, spirits of air and water, gathered around four dancers – three ballerinas and one male. Cupping her hand over her mouth, Anna leaned toward Brian and whispered, “That’s Veronica DuPage, on the left.”
More to placate Anna than for any other reason, he focused on the new soloist for the remainder of the twenty-five minute ballet. She was indeed stunning – blond, lithe and taller than the other two ballerinas – and her solo variation, even to Brian’s untrained eye, was a study in graceful motion. The ballet had no discernible plot, creating the impression of a beautiful but meaningless dream, but the audience seemed not to care. As the curtain closed after the final ensemble waltz, they signified their appreciation with thunderous applause, punctuated by shouts of “Bravo” for the male dancer and “Brava” for the ladies.
“See, I told you she was wonderful,” Anna said when Veronica’s curtain call elicited the loudest ovation of all. “I knew it last year when I first saw her. That girl’s going to be a star.”
They could not go to their usual intermission retreat prior to the second performance. The Belmont Room, the large, elegant parlor reserved for the MBC’s more generous contributors, was closed in preparation for the ten o’clock patrons’ reception. Brian passed the time tagging behind Anna as she perused the various tables set up with autographed pictures, pointe shoes and other mementos for the incurable balletomane.
The second performance was Etudes, a tribute to the arduous training required for classical ballet, followed by another intermission. The evening’s finale was the ever-popular Paquita, a lively, colorful story of two young Spanish lovers, which left the appreciative audience in a buoyant, festive mood.
As the crowd began to slowly vacate the hall, the majority streaming for the exits as a select minority, including the McLeans, headed toward the Belmont Room, Brian admitted to himself that he’d actually enjoyed the performance. He was also looking forward to the champagne and hors d’oeuvres, his expensive shrimp salad now a faded memory. As they approached the line at the door to the Belmont Room, where an elderly gentleman with a snow white Vandyke beard was collecting the invitations, Anna noticed that Brian was limping. “What’s the matter, foot asleep?”
“It’s not my foot, it’s my hip.”
“I guess you’re not used to sitting in one place for so long.”
Brian grimaced as he took a step forward in the slow-moving line. “Actually, it’s been bothering me off and on for a month or two. Right where I fractured it in that skiing accident.”
“That was four years ago. I thought you’d fully recovered.”
“So did I. But I remember Dr. Hinson telling me that a break like that can start causing aches and pains when you get older. I thought he meant my fifties or sixties, not my early forties.”
Anna fished through her purse for a small plastic vial. “Here’s a couple of aspirin. Wash them down with some champagne and see if that helps.”
Brian smiled. “If I get my money’s worth of champagne, I won’t need the aspirin.”
“Trust me, sweetheart,” Anna whispered, “you can’t drink the amount of champagne our contribution would buy.”
Brian winced, and not from the pain in his hip. “Great.”
Once inside, he found that the champagne did indeed help to alleviate the ache in his hip, or at least take his mind off it. While Anna moved excitedly from dancer to dancer, congratulating them on their performance and bombarding them with questions about the new season’s repertoire, Brian sampled the various fruits, cheeses and finger sandwiches spread out on tables throughout the room. He was actually beginning to enjoy himself, discussing golf with another out-of-place husband over a second glass of champagne, when Anna returned with a tall, lissome blond in tow.
“Brian, I have someone I want you to meet,” Anna said, her face aglow. She was clearly in her element.
Had Anna presented anyone else in the room he wouldn’t have had a clue who they were. But for this one, he was prepared. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Miss DuPage,” he said, extending his hand. “You danced beautifully tonight.”
A quick glance at Anna told him she was as impressed as Veronica, who held onto his hand as she spoke. “Why, thank you, Mr. McLean. It’s usually just the principals who’re recognized at these receptions. I’m flattered.”
Brian detected the trace of a drawl in the woman’s voice, and the warmth of her hand matched the fire in her emerald-green eyes. Suddenly aware that he was still clutching her hand, and even more aware that Anna might be noticing it too, he released it, but felt the dancer’s fingertips trace the length of his until contact was broken. “Uh, well, Anna and I believe that’s a position you will occupy soon. Look how quickly you were promoted to soloist.”
Veronica took a sip of her champagne and stepped closer, whispering softly as if taking the two patrons into her strictest confidence. “That was simply because I was so much older than the rest of the corps. Most of those girls are in their late teens, but my dear father refused to let me pursue a dance career until I finished college. He wanted to make sure I’d be prepared to earn an honest living if the dancing didn’t pan out.”
Anna laughed. “Well, if he’d seen you dance tonight, he’d have no concerns at all about your dancing panning out.”
“That’s very kind of you, Mrs. McLean.” Veronica looked at her glass. “Well, as you can see, I’m out of champagne. And on my salary, that’s a rare indulgence. If you two will excuse me, I think I’ll get a refill and work the crowd a little. Sergei made it quite clear that that was our assignment for the evening.”
She shook hands with Anna, then with Brian. “Thank you again for recognizing me, Mr. McLean. It made my night.”
Brian was not quite sure how to respond. “Well, I, uh, hope to see you dance again real soon. You’d make a lovely Giselle.”
Veronica clasped her hands over her heart. “That, as you undoubtedly know, is every ballerina’s dream. Maybe someday…”
“It’ll happen,” Anna said. “I’m sure of it.”
Veronica smiled and dipped her head in a slight bow. “Thank you. Goodnight. It was such a pleasure chatting with you.”
As the dancer glided away, Anna turned to her husband. “I’m impressed. When did you become so conversant on classical ballet?”
Brian smiled. “It’s just like golf. It’s not so much what you know, you just have to be able to talk a good game.”
Anna laughed and took her husband’s arm, and the two of them went off in search of more dancers to engage.
ANNA NAPPED during the drive home, then headed straight upstairs as soon as they arrived. Brian checked the girls and Chelsea – all sound asleep – and made sure all the doors were locked. Just before turning off the kitchen lights he remembered what Anna had said that afternoon. Maybe tonight. Suddenly inspired, he opened the liquor cabinet and poured two small snifters of Courvoisier. He smiled as he walked up the stairs and into the master bedroom, but his smile quickly faded when he saw that his wife was already sound asleep. She hadn’t even taken the time to remove her make-up.
Who was I kidding? he thought. Why should tonight be any different than any other? Just because I busted my ass to get home early so I could drive all the way to Manhattan and spend the night pretending to be as interested in a bunch of ballet dancers as she is. He paused. Although that blond wasn’t half bad.
With a resigned sigh he began to undress and prepare for bed, consuming one of the brandies in the process. He climbed into bed and perused the new issue of Golf Digest as he drank the other one. It was a little after one when he realized he’d been reading the same sentence for half an hour. He put the empty glass and the magazine on the bedside table and turned off the lamp. He was asleep in less than a minute.
He dreamed of Veronica DuPage.