Daphne couldn’t stop thinking of Queequeg, the dog who survived a pulverizing crash unscathed but for the fact that he was now blind. Perhaps it was because of this distraction that she agreed to meet the ghostwriter when he emailed her with “Das Quartett book killed in bunker: debrief?” in the subject line. The covers of four of his books said “with Sebastian McLennan”; that was both his nom de plume and nom de guerre. He’d penned memoirs for an ex-soldier of fortune, a CIA whistleblower, and a Lebanese arms trafficker.
“The deal is off,” he said upon arrival at a café called Diesel. He of course was late—everyone not over sixty who arranged to meet Daphne at a public place usually kept her waiting ten minutes or longer.
“I’m surprised you’re not shopping it around,” she said.
Like a force of nature, he descended onto the small chair. “Eugenie might shoot me—or worse.” He reached inside his breast pocket and produced a phone that he set on the table.
She shook her head the thing. “Oh God.”
“That was retrieved from the crash site.”
“I hope you weren’t there.”
“I got it from Miki.”
“The guy hired by Sturgis to find Eugenie—or Yolanda or whatever he name is.”
She looked at the phone. “It’s gruesome knowing it was in the car with her.”
“I thought you’d want to throw it in the pond.”
She looked at him skeptically.
“Wanna go?” he asked.
On the drive to the cemetery, Daphne acquired information that would’ve been useful to know before multiple people had died. First, Miki had been Jaja Dapkunaite’s on and off boyfriend for ten years and was terribly broken up by her death. Second, Jaja and Trygve weren’t whom Sebastian McLennan was working for. It was the Lexington Group—and by extension Thornton Winkill, who held the Lexington purse strings.
“I can’t believe you could work for Winkill,” she told him.
“I had a plan.”
“How’d you know?”
“They’re all evil.”
“Technically it was Winkill with the plan, a big fat one. He told me Eugenie had been falsely claiming he’d been one of her clients.”
“It’s not like a law firm,” said Daphne. “She called them confidents.”
“Anyway, Winkill said he wanted to blow her and her operation out of the water. Trygve and Jaja were the dupes. I approached Jaja with the book proposition. They thought they were going to get a million-dollar advance from Random House.”
She looked out the window. “It’s horrid what happened to them.”
“After Winkill got plugged, The Lex went into lockdown—no book, no VF, ghost the fingerprints and shred the paper trail.”
“The Lex? That’s cute.”
“Oh and by the way,” he said with a smile, “your Helix are bankrolling them.”
She felt hopelessly naïve. “So what was your subterfuge?”
“I was going to write about The Lex ordering the reputation hit on these four lonely old guys—setting up the turkey shoot. But punking The Lex meant doing the same to the lonely old guys. I was stuck. There was no way out.”
“Except with some of them dying.”
“That’s usually how it works.”
She tapped her knuckle against the window. “How do I know you’re not lying? Linus and Simon dying within minutes of each other is a good story. Trygve and Jaja dying violently like that is a good story. Me sitting here like a fool is a good story. How do I know who’s telling the truth?”
He shrugged. “You don’t.”
“So you’re saying you were duping The Lex who were duping Trygve and Jaja who were duping the four lonely guys and me?”
“And Eugenie was duping everyone.”
“Do you know where she is?”
He shook his head. “Not a clue.”
She looked concerned. “You really think she shot Winkill?”
“I thought she was blackmailing him, threatening to tell the Garts that he’d been partaking of her services.”
“Who are the Garts?”
“The Helix, your bosses.”
She couldn’t believe the monumental mystery of her job boiled down to words like “the Garts.” “Well, thank God it’s Friday—the last day of Live Every Day.”
He laughed. “What will the world do without inspirational billboards?”
“Be like me. Collect unemployment.”
“Unemployment’s barely money.”
She shook her head. “I don’t think Eugenie would ever do anything for money.”
He laughed. “I can’t believe I’d ever hear that from someone riding in my car.”
After they’d parked and were walking up Central Avenue, he asked, “Why the hell did you come here so much?”
“I guess I was fascinated by Buckminster Fuller.”
She shrugged. “He was such an odd duck, but he understood absolute failure—he suffered a bottoming out that most successful people never know. Or maybe they know it but keep it to themselves. He taught my uncle, so my uncle always liked him. I admired him because he was so honest about his life.”
“I’ve heard of Bucky Balls but couldn’t tell you what they do.”
“He thought the greatest scientific discoveries were really ‘the after-image inducements of tail-end events’—by which he meant earlier failed experiments. He believed we are the culmination of our history—and if that history is riddled with failures, then this is the stuff that makes for a breakthrough if a breakthrough ever happens.”
He didn’t seem to buy this. “Why do people have heroes?” he asked. “Always crushing up against a stage or hovering around a table to get something autographed.”
“You’re talking about fans,” she said. “Fans are addicts and supplicants. But you can have living heroes you don’t particularly want to meet or talk to—at least I do. I admire how a lot of people think. And also how they react when dealt a bad hand. I don’t care what they’re eating at a restaurant or who they’re sleeping with. Fuller was a pretty weird guy.”
The cemetery’s emptiness of humans seemed to be crying out like a hurt animal—the leafless trees more rigid, the artificial pond more still. Daphne pulled the phone from her bag and studied it one last time before flinging it high. The deed done, they walked along with him lagging until she turned to ask, “What were you going to call your book?”
“The Lex wanted it titled The God That Failed: Delusion and the Liberal Dementia. That was Winkill’s idea.”
“What was yours?”
“Das Blaue-Fischreiher-Quartett. German titles sell books because people think it’s about Hitler.”
“So what’s next for you?” she asked.
“I may go to Yemen,” he said. “How about you?”
She laughed. “I won’t be going to Yemen. I’ve got a book to edit.”
“That’s the ticket,” he said. “Edit, don’t write.”
“Why don’t you use your real name on your books?”
“Because it’s my father’s name,” he said. “I was his junior. I didn’t know him that well.”
“What did he do?”
“He killed two people.”
She couldn’t help laughing.
“Not two people together,” he clarified, “but at separate times. He got mad and killed someone one year and got mad and killed someone else another year—in another state and another decade.”
“Is he in jail?”
“Was he sorry for killing those people?”
“He was sorry for getting caught.”
“How do you think it feels for the ones who are sorry? Is it eternal agony?”
“You know a killer who’s sorry?”
“I don’t know him but he wants me to forgive him.”
“His case worker called my shrink. The guy’s already up for parole.”
“You’re telling parts of a story.”
“Parts are what it feels like. Little pieces of wineglass you keep finding and finding.”
“Who got killed?”
She thought for a moment. “I call him X.”
“Because X can be a number, a vector, a matrix, or even a function. He liked to say ‘To be is to be the value of a variable.’ ”
“What happened to him?”
She never knew where to begin a short version. “A car hit a motorcycle.”
“And . . . it sent the motorcycle flying into a field—in the White Mountains. He was driving and saw it happen. The car that smacked the bike didn’t even slow down, just kept going. The motorcycle crashed, and he went to help the victims. The woman was dead, and the guy driving didn’t have much wrong with him.”
“You were there?”
“We were on vacation, but he went out by himself for coffee. The guy had a gun that he didn’t have a license for. The guy shot him in the chest—the theoretical physicist coming to help him.”
“Why’d he shoot him?”
She shook her head. “He died at the hospital, right before I got there. I signed a paper so they could give away his corneas.”
After some silence he asked, “So the shooter’s the guy who wants to be forgiven?”
She stiffened her backbone. “He had all kinds of previous offenses. He lost his handgun license because an ex-girlfriend had put a restraining order on him.”
“He was probably in shock. You said the woman was dead. Maybe he thought your X was the one who hit them.”
“Other people saw,” she said, “a mother in a van with kids. She had stopped and saw the guy take a gun that was strapped under his arm and shoot the man I was going to spend my life with. That was horrific for them. The terrified mom sped away. But then a truck with two guys stopped. They said the shooter just ran around in a circle, like he was running a race. He still had his helmet on, running round and round in a circle.” She paused. “I’ll never get that image out of my head.”
“I’m sorry,” he said.
She looked up at the white sky. “It’s such a muddle of pain.”
“It was the hit-and-run driver who’s the villain,” he proposed. “For the survivor it was just bad luck. If he didn’t have a gun he probably wouldn’t have shot anyone.”
“He shouldn’t have had a gun,” said Daphne. “That’s why they took away his license.”
“So you don’t think you could ever forgive the guy?”
She tried to speak but didn’t have the answer.