Authors: Eileen Goudge
“Thanks, but I get enough grief from my mom for being single without her thinking I’m gay,” he said with a chuckle, as she took a seat on the sofa. “What can I get you to drink?”
“White wine, if you have it.”
He fetched a bottle from the kitchen, leaving Franny to ponder his remark. If he was still single, she didn’t think it was for lack of opportunity. Keith, though not classically handsome, had a Matt Lauer-ish appeal that made him irresistible, if the collective female pulse in the newsroom was any indication. He was balding, like Matt, but kept his dark hair cropped close to his head, which made you focus on his thick-lashed brown eyes and killer smile instead. He was, in the words of Liv Henry, the kind of man who could make you forget you were married.
“Well, here’s to your book deal,” Stevie said, after he’d poured them each a glass. She lifted hers.
“It wouldn’t have happened without you. You’re the one who hooked me up with Franny.” He sank into the leather club chair facing the sofa, looking a bit dazed still by his windfall despite the grin he wore. “I can’t thank you enough.” He added with a wry look, “Now all I have to do is write the damn book.”
She followed his gaze to the room beyond, his office from the looks of it, where she could see through the open door piles of papers and folders covering the desk and floor, and a wall stuck with scribbled Post-its. “How’s it going so far?”
“Slow.” He picked up a paperweight off the table beside him, idly toying with it. “I thought researching it would be the hard part. But it’s winnowing it all down into something that makes sense that’s the real challenge.” The Lauren Rose paperwork alone filled one whole box, he said.
Stevie’s pulse quickened. “Anything that’ll come as a surprise?” She kept her tone nonchalant.
He cocked his head, smiling at her. “If I told you, you wouldn’t buy the book.”
“I might,” she said, smiling back. “It depends.”
“On whether or not I’d be getting my money’s worth.”
He eyed her intently. “Why do I get the feeling you’re not just asking out of curiosity?”
Stevie put her wineglass down on the coffee table and sat back, folding her arms over her chest. “Okay. I’ll give it to you straight. I need your help.”
“Anything,” he said without hesitation.
“I need to know everything you know about the night Lauren Rose was shot.”
His smile faltered a bit but remained in place. He set the paperweight back down on the end table and leaned forward, elbows on his knees, to fix her with a keen gaze. “Maybe you should start by telling me why it’s so important.”
“If I tell you, you have to promise to keep it confidential. At least until the book comes out.”
“What would you say if I told you Grant had an illegitimate child?”
“I’d say prove it.” He sounded more than a little skeptical.
“You want proof? You’re looking at it.”
His jaw dropped. “Are you saying—?”
“Grant Tobin is my father,” she finished for him, taking a moment to relish the dumfounded look on his face before continuing, “Don’t feel bad—there’s no way you could’ve known. I didn’t know myself until a few months ago.”
“How did you find out?”
“My mom finally came clean.”
“So all that time he never tried to see you?”
“He didn’t even know I existed. At least, that’s what he told me, and I believe him.”
“You’ve met him?” Keith’s eyes gleamed like those of a hound picking up a scent.
She nodded. “He’s not what you’d expect,” she told him. “He’s actually kind of sweet, in an offbeat sort of way.” She’d been to see him twice more since that first visit, and each time she’d come away more convinced of his innocence. Nonetheless, she’d need more than her instincts to go on.
Keith leaned forward, all ears. “Did he ever mention Lauren Rose?”
“No, and I haven’t asked. I’m waiting for the right moment.”
“I’m not sure how much help I’ll be,” Keith said, frowning slightly as he sat back. “I spent months interviewing everyone connected to the case, and never really got to the bottom of it. The only one I haven’t talked to is Lauren herself. Lauren and Victor.”
“The keeper of the gates.”
“Big tattooed guy with shoulders out to here?” She spread her arms wide. She’d known him only by his nickname, Gonzo, short for Gonzalez. “He didn’t strike me as the chatty type. In fact, I got the impression he’d be just as likely to break your arm as give you a hand.”
Keith acknowledged this with a grim smile. “The one time I tracked him down I wasn’t sure I was going to get away in one piece.” Keith didn’t rattle easily, so it must have been pretty scary. “The one thing I did manage to find out, from one of the maids, was that Victor was there the night Lauren was shot. There’s a good chance he saw the whole thing go down.”
“That’s not what he told the police.” According to the report, Grant’s bodyguard had stated that he’d been bringing the car around to drive Lauren back to her place when he heard the shot. By the time he got to her, she was sprawled, unconscious, in a pool of blood.
“I know. But the maid claimed, to me at least—she was too scared to say anything to the police—that he didn’t take the car out of the garage until
he called 911.”
“So you think he’s covering for Grant?”
Keith shrugged. “Your guess is as good as mine. There are only two people we know for sure were in the room that night. One of them is Grant, who’s sticking to his story. The other is Lauren, who hasn’t exactly been in a position to tell her version.”
“Until now.” Stevie felt a ripple of unease in the pit of her stomach. Word had it that Lauren was making good progress with her speech therapy. The only thing that remained to be seen was how much she remembered about that night.
“Are you sure you’re prepared for it, if turns out he’s
as innocent as he seems?” Keith asked in a quiet voice.
Stevie thought for a moment, then nodded, smiling thinly. “I’ve spent most of my life in the dark as far as my father’s concerned. Believe me, anything’s better than not knowing.”
nock ’em dead, boss,” said Inez as Jay was breezing past her on his way to the conference room.
He paused for inspection. “Is my tie on straight?”
She half-rose out of her chair to give it a tweak. “It is now.” Her gaze dropped. “Let’s just hope they don’t notice you’re wearing navy socks with brown shoes.”
In the six years he’d been with Beck/Blustein, he couldn’t remember a day that Inez hadn’t been looking out for him. Two parts administrative assistant and one part nursemaid, she had a mouth that far exceeded her diminutive size—the top of her bleached-blond head barely came to his shoulder—and drawers stocked with items for every contingency: Band-Aids, breath mints, shoe polish, lint remover, and, for dire emergencies, a fifth of Glenlivet. It wouldn’t have surprised him right now if she pulled out a pair of socks.
He continued on his way, down the corridor walled with laminated glass, on the other side of which he could see his coworkers on the phones or at their computers, and here and there in groups of two or more, bent over drafting tables or seated around tables in the smaller conference areas. All part of the ebb and flow of daily life here at Beck/Blustein, except that this wasn’t just an ordinary day, as the steadily growing knot in his stomach was reminding him. The two Starbucks coffees he’d grabbed on his way to work hadn’t helped, either. Now, on top of an upset stomach, he had heartburn.
It was the same before every presentation. Never mind that he’d been at this for more than a decade; Jay couldn’t walk into a pitch meeting without that spike in blood pressure and tumbling in his gut, thinking that this time for sure he’d be unmasked, his true identity revealed: a Wisconsin farm boy who wouldn’t know a bright idea from a bucket of slop.
He knew his fears were unfounded. But they were like the bone in his left foot that he’d broken ice-skating when he was nine and that had never healed properly, leaving him with a crooked toe: a legacy of his childhood. Growing up, whatever he did, it was never good enough. His dad never yelled at him or hit him, but Jay would feel his displeasure all the same, radiating off him like the chill off the refrigerated truck in which the stainless-steel canisters of milk were carted off each day to the creamery. Every morning, as he headed out to the barn to help with the milking, he’d feel the same knot in his stomach he did now. At school it would abate—schoolwork was the one thing he
good at—only to return later in the day as he trudged home up the long, dusty hill from the bus stop.
It had been a shock, when he got to Princeton, to discover that he was no longer the smartest kid in the class. Being the star pupil and valedictorian of his class at Woodrow Wilson High hadn’t prepared him for the rigors his college classmates who’d gone to elite prep schools seemed to take in stride. He’d had to struggle to keep up, each day like three down with long yardage and a minute to go in the game. By the time he’d caught up, he’d forgotten how to stop running.
He strode into the boardroom with minutes to spare, pleased to find his team all assembled—chief designers Darren Block and Jay’s good buddy Todd Oster, who’d worked with him at Saatchi & Saatchi; his multimedia guy, Michael McCort; writers Phoebe Kim and Sebastian Beccera. They were standing in readiness, as alert as any military corps.
Jay welcomed the Uruchima executives as they filed in, shaking hands and greeting everyone by name, even remembering to ask after Mr. Uruchima’s wife, whom he’d heard was in ill health. A quick survey of the long cherry table satisfied him that Inez had seen to every detail: Neatly laid out at every place was a Mount Blanc pen and a copy of the material they’d had printed and bound. Refreshments included steaming pots of green tea in addition to thermoses of coffee, delicate rice cookies from Takashimaya along with the usual bagels and sweet rolls.
If his parents with their old-fashioned values had drilled one thing into him that had stood him in good stead in the workplace, it was that the personal touch, increasingly rare in today’s fast-paced world, was often what made the difference between success and failure. It had helped land him more than one account and kept many of their existing clients from going to another agency when their numbers were down. And from the smiles and murmurs of approval as the Uruchima executives helped themselves to the refreshments, he knew it was appreciated by present company.
His pulse quickened. If they landed this account, it would be the jewel in Beck/Blustein’s crown—bigger than Jacques-Bênoit Cosmetics and Performance Sporting Goods put together. Uruchima Motors, fast approaching Honda, Toyota, and Nissan in terms of U.S. sales, needed an innovative campaign to launch their new hybrid SUV, the Roughrider, and Jay believed their agency was up to the challenge.
He gave a short, punchy introduction, followed by a PowerPoint presentation outlining their main thrust. Until recently, he reminded them, the demographic for SUVs had been primarily families and young men in the eighteen-to-twenty-five age bracket, but new market research showed that a growing number of urban, white-collar males were buying them. Monster SUVs were the new status symbols—Viagra on wheels—though, with sales down due to high prices at the pump, what made the Roughrider so attractive was that it got in excess of thirty miles to the gallon. As Jay was listing the cities he saw as prime targets, he saw Mr. Uruchima’s right-hand man nod slightly. So far, so good. Now all he had to do was bring it home with the demo for the sixty-second television spot they were proposing.
At the click of the mouse, an image filled the screen, showing a computerized rendering of a man standing at an airport baggage carousel, thirties, nondescript, wearing a business suit and holding a briefcase. He was surrounded by equally nondescript-looking counterparts, all dressed more or less alike and looking equally bored with their lives.
With each subsequent click the spot unfolded: The man searching in vain for his bag amid the identical black suitcases spewing onto the carousel, only to come across a small, gift-wrapped box, his name on it, containing a set of car keys. He looks mystified but intrigued. Next, he’s shown climbing into the shiny new Roughrider SUV parked outside. Then streaking down a dirt road in the middle of nowhere, his briefcase flying out the window, followed by his suit jacket and tie, as the Roughrider disappears over the forested horizon trailing a plume of dust. The tag line reads:
LIFE IS A GIFT. DON’T WASTE IT
The lights came up, and in the ensuing moment of silence Jay’s stomach did a slow somersault. The Uruchima executives all wore the same flat, unreadable expression, and it suddenly occurred to him that he might have offended them. To some extent the Japanese viewed conformity as a virtue. They might not have taken kindly to the suggestion that there was something less than desirable about with it.
The silence was broken by Yoshiko Imurakami, the lone female of the bunch, a doll-size woman with sleek, shoulder-length hair. “What are we looking at in terms of budget?” she asked. Her English was flawless, and he remembered that she’d gone to Yale before getting her master’s in economics from Harvard.
He indicated the page in the printed material where it showed a breakdown of the projected cost. “As you can see, we have bids from several Canadian production companies we’ve worked with in the past. It’s more cost-effective to shoot there—no unions to jack up fees. Also, the exchange rate is in our favor. You’d end up saving quite a bit.”
The hint of a smile creased Mr. Uruchima’s lined face. Clearly the older man was impressed by Jay’s attention to the bottom line. He rose, a slight man who nonetheless projected an aura of power, and his executives immediately followed suit. “Thank you, Mr. Gunderson. It has been most interesting,” he said, shaking Jay’s hand on his way out. “You will be hearing from us soon.”
Jay flashed his best, west of the Mississippi grin. “Thanks for your time, Mr. Uruchima. I really hope we can work together. I think we’d make a great team.”
“Way to go, dude. You really outdid yourself.” Todd Oster, a huge, bearded bear of a man who’d have looked more at home in a lumberjack shirt and Red Wing boots than in the four-hundred-dollar suit he wore, high-fived him on the way back to their respective offices.
“Congratulate me when we have the account,” Jay said.
Inez looked up from the keyboard she was hammering on as he walked in. “How’d it go?” she asked.
He knew better than to indulge in the usual ad-man hyperbole with her—she’d see right through it—merely commenting, “No one seemed to notice my socks. I take that as a good sign.”
She gave him a thumbs-up and went back to her furious assault on the keyboard, pausing only long enough to call after him as he was stepping through the door to the inner office, “Oh, by the way, Franny called.”
He paused in the doorway. “Did she leave a message?”
“No, but she wanted you to call her as soon as you got out of your meeting,” Inez informed him without looking up.
Jay’s heart was pounding as he reached for the phone on his desk. An urgent message from Franny could mean only one thing. “What’s up?” he asked when she came on the line.
“Nothing much. I just called to see if you were doing anything after work.”
He felt some of the tension go out of him. “Um, let’s see…” He consulted his calendar. “Looks like we’re having dinner with some friends.” Friends of Vivienne’s, that is; he had yet to meet them. “Why?” he asked, ever so casually.
“I was hoping we could meet for a drink.”
“I think I can manage that. I don’t have to be at the restaurant until seven.”
“Great. Paddy’s, around six?”
“See you then.” He hung up, wondering if her casual tone had been just a cover. Was there something she wanted to tell him? Something too important to say over the phone?
His heart lurched at the thought.
So far, the baby thing hadn’t been a huge issue. Other than the weirdness of having to masturbate into a plastic cup with a waiting room full of women just down the hall, the worst of it had been Franny’s obsessing over
getting pregnant. The first two attempts were a wash, and she was convinced it was because her eggs had passed their expiration date. It didn’t help, either, that Vivienne had conceived on their first try. The doctor had assured Franny it wasn’t unusual, that these things can take time, but she was convinced she’d missed the boat, a dried-up old lady at the age of thirty-six.
But what if the third time had proved to be the charm?
At six on the dot he arrived at Paddy’s, on the corner of Third and Eighteenth, a few blocks from his office. The faded gilt lettering over the door read
, but everyone called it Paddy’s after its owner, Paddy Shaughnessy, a ruddy-faced older man with billowy white hair who greeted Jay warmly, gesturing toward the table where Franny sat sipping a beer and signaling to the bartender that Jay would have the same.
“Well, isn’t this a nice surprise,” Franny remarked, as Jay pulled up a chair.
“It’s not as if you weren’t expecting me,” he said.
“You’re usually late. I figured I had at least ten more minutes of looking mysterious and alluring.”
Jay glanced about the tavern’s darkened interior. Its woodwork was stained a deep nicotine, the walls hung with framed eight-by-tens of famous patrons from another era. These days it was just the regulars, who at the moment looked as likely to pry themselves from the baseball game they were watching on the TV over the bar as of getting up and dancing a jig. “If you’re looking to get picked up, you’re in the wrong place,” he said, with a grin. “Unless you’re into old guys and a married man about to become a dad.”
“You can say that again.”
“The part about becoming a dad.”
As Jay sat there staring at her with an idiot smile on his face, the world seemed to narrow to a single pinpoint. The bartender thumping his beer down on the table might have been a moth flitting in and out of his field of vision. “Franny…are you…is it…” He was suddenly at a loss for words.
She nodded, a corner of her mouth tipping up in a lopsided smile. “Yep. It’s official. My doctor just confirmed it.” Her smile broadened into a grin. “I don’t know about you, but speaking for myself, I think it’s worthy of a toast.” Franny clinked her bottle against his, and he saw that it wasn’t Guinness she was drinking but root beer. “Here’s to our kid. Seriously, I couldn’t have done it without you.” She spoke with a wry tone, but her eyes searched his face anxiously, as if for signs of a belated attack of cold feet.
It hit Jay then and the floor seemed to roll away from underneath him. This wasn’t just a favor he was doing a friend. Franny was pregnant…with his child.
“Wow,” he said, slowly shaking his head.
“I know. It hasn’t quite sunk in for me, either,” she said. “I keep waiting for Monty Hall to step out of the wings and tell me my real prize is a brand-new washer-drier combo.”
“Which you’ll need. Unless you plan on camping out at the laundromat.”
Franny reached across the table to take his hand. It was a warm day, even for June, and in her flowered sundress, with her cheeks flushed and her hair twisted up in a haphazard knot, tendrils corkscrewing down around her ears, she looked like she had in college.
His mind traveled back to the day they’d met. He’d been sitting on the steps of Firestone Library poring over the fall schedule, trying to decide which classes to register for, when he’d looked up to find a pretty, brown-haired girl standing a few feet away, chewing on her lower lip, her brow furrowed as if she were concentrating hard, or angry with herself.
Without thinking, he’d stood up and walked over to her. “Excuse me,” he’d said. “But I couldn’t help noticing you look a little lost.”
“You got that right. Only it’s not me that’s lost,” she’d replied in disgust, explaining that she’d misplaced her wallet, with all the spending money she had for the semester.
“Maybe someone turned it in. Have you checked at the proctor’s office?” he’d asked.