They buried Joe three days after his murder.
Maya wore black that day, as befit a grieving widow. The sun pounded down with an unflagging fury that reminded her of her months in the desert. The family pastor spouted the clichés, but Maya wasn’t listening. Her eyes drifted up to the schoolyard across the street.
Yes, the cemetery overlooked an elementary school.
Maya had driven past here countless times: the graveyard on the left, the elementary school on her right, and yet the strangeness if not obscenity of the placement had never really registered with her before. Which came first—the schoolyard or the cemetery? Who’d been the one to decide to build a school next to a cemetery—or vice versa? Did it even matter, this life-ending and life-beginning juxtaposition, or was it, in fact, somewhat poignant? Death is so close, always, a breath away, so perhaps it was wise to introduce children to that concept at an early age.
Maya filled her head with inanities like this as she watched Joe’s casket disappear into the earth. Distract yourself. That was the key. Get through it.
The black dress itched. Over the past decade, Maya had been to a hundred-plus funerals, but this was the first time she’d been obligated to wear black. She hated it.
To her right, Joe’s immediate family—his mother, his father, his brother, his sister—wilted from the combination of high temperatures and deep sorrow. To her left, getting antsy and starting to use Maya’s arm as a rope swing, was her (and Joe’s) two-year-old daughter, Lily. The cliché states that children do not come with instruction manuals. That never seemed more true than today. What, Maya had wondered, was the proper etiquette for a situation like this? Do you leave your toddler at home—or do you take her to her father’s funeral? That was an issue that they didn’t cover on those know-it-all, one-size-fits-all mommy websites. In a fit of pity anger, Maya almost posted that question online: “Hi, everyone! My husband was recently murdered. Should I bring my two-year-old to the graveyard or leave her home? Oh, and clothing suggestions? Thanks!”
There were hundreds of people there, and in some dimly lit corner of her brain, she realized that this would please Joe. Joe liked people. People liked Joe. But of course, popularity alone wouldn’t explain the crowd. Mourners had been drawn in by the horrible lure of being near the tragic: a young man gunned down in cold blood, the scion of the wealthy Burkett family—and the husband of a woman mired in an international scandal.
Lily wrapped both arms around her mother’s leg. Maya bent down and whispered, “Not much longer, sweetheart, okay?”
Lily nodded but held on even tighter.
Maya stood back at attention, smoothing the itchy black dress she’d borrowed from Eileen with both hands. Joe would not have wanted her in black. He’d always preferred her in the military formals she’d worn back in the days when she’d been Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Maya Stern. When they’d first met at a Burkett family charity gala, Joe had walked straight up to her in his tails, gave her the rakish smile (Maya hadn’t understand the term “rakish” until she saw that smile), and said, “Wow, I thought the turn-on was supposed to be men in uniform.”
It was a lame pickup line, just lame enough to make her laugh, which was all the opening a guy like Joe ever needed. Man, he had been so damn handsome. The memory, even now, even standing in this stifling humidity with his dead body feet away, made her smile. A year later, Maya and Joe were married. Lily came not long after that. And now, as though someone had fast-forwarded a life-together tape, here she was, burying Joe.
“All love stories,” Maya’s father had told her many years ago, “end in tragedy.”
She had shaken her head and said, “God, Dad, that’s grim.”
“Yes, but think about it: You either fall out of love—or if you’re really one of the lucky ones, you live long enough to watch your soul mate die.”
Maya could still see him sitting across from her at the kitchen table in their Brooklyn town house, Dad in his cardigan sweater, surrounded by the essays he’d have to grade. He and Mom had died years before, but in truth, it was still hard for Maya to know which category of tragedy their love story fell into.
As the pastor prattled on, Esther Burkett, Joe’s mother, took hold of Maya’s hand in the death grip of the grieving. “It’ll never be okay,” the old woman whispered, her simple words cutting through the air like a reaper’s scythe. “Never.”
“It’s my fault,” Maya said.
She hadn’t meant to say it. Esther looked up at her.
“I should have . . .”
“There was nothing you could have done,” Esther said. But there was still something off in the tone. Maya understood because others were probably thinking the same thing. Maya Stern had saved so many in the past. Why couldn’t she have saved her own husband?
“Ashes to ashes . . .”
Wow, had the pastor really trotted out that hackneyed chestnut, or had Maya imagined it? She hadn’t been listening. She had been around death too many times not to get the secret to getting through them: Go numb. Don’t focus on anything. Let all sounds and sights blur to the point of being unrecognizable.
Joe’s casket reached the bottom with a thud that echoed too long in the still air. Esther swayed against Maya and let out a low groan. Maya maintained her military bearings—head high, spine straight, shoulders back. She had read recently in one of those self-help articles people always e-mailed around about “power poses” and how they were supposed to improve performance. The military understood that tidbit of pop psychology way before its time. A soldier doesn’t stand at attention because it looks nice. You stand at attention because on some level, it either gives you strength or, just as important, makes you appear stronger to both your comrades and your enemies.
For a moment, Maya flashed back to the park—the glint of metal, the sound of gunshots, Joe falling, Maya’s shirt covered in blood, stumbling through the dark, distant streetlights giving off hazy halos of illumination. . . .
“Help . . . please . . . someone . . . my husband’s . . .”
She closed her eyes and pushed it away.
Hang on, she told herself now. Just get through it.
And she did.
Then there was the receiving line.
The only two places you stand on receiving lines are funerals and weddings. There was probably something poignant in that fact, but Maya couldn’t imagine what it could be.
She had no idea how many people walked past her, but it took hours. Mourners shuffled forward like a scene in some zombie movie where you slay one but more just keep coming at you.
Just keep it moving.
Most offered a low “sorry for your loss,” which was pretty much the perfect thing to say. Others talked too much. They started in about how tragic it all was, what a waste, how the city was going to hell, how they were almost robbed at gunpoint once, how they hoped the police fried the animals who did it, how fortunate Maya was, how God must have been looking out for her (the implication being, she guessed, that God hadn’t cared as much about Joe), how there is always a plan, how there is a reason for everything (a wonder she didn’t punch those people straight in the face).
Joe’s family got exhausted and had to sit midway through. Not Maya. She stood throughout, maintained direct eye contact, and greeted each mourner with a firm handshake. She used subtle and not-so-subtle body language to rebuff those who wanted to be more expressive in their grief via hugs or kisses. Inane as it might be, Maya listened attentively, said “Thank you for coming” in the same sincere-ish tone, and then greeted the next person in line.
Hard, fast rules of the receiving line at a funeral: Don’t talk too much. Short platitudes work well because innocuous is far better than offensive. If you feel the need to say more, make it a nice, quick memory of the dead. Never, ever make it about yourself.
Never do, for example, what Joe’s aunt Edith did. Never cry hysterically and become the most animated “Look at me, I’m suffering” of mourners—and never say something chillingly stupid to the grieving widow, such as:
“You poor girl, first your sister, now your husband.”
The world stopped for a moment when Aunt Edith voiced what so many others were thinking, especially when Maya’s young nephew Daniel and younger niece Alexa were within earshot. The blood in Maya’s veins thrummed, and it took everything she had not to reach out, grab Aunt Edith’s throat, and rip out her vocal chords.
Instead, Maya said, “Thank you for coming.”
Six of Maya’s former platoon mates, including Shane, hung back, keeping a watchful eye on her. That was they did, like it or not. Guard duty seemed to never end when they were together. They didn’t get in line. They knew better. They were her silent sentinels always, their presence offering the only true comfort on this horrible day.
Every once in a while, Maya could hear her daughter’s distant giggle—Maya’s oldest friend, Eileen Finn, had taken Lily to the playground at the elementary school across the street—or maybe that was just her imagination. The sound of laughing children felt both obscene and life-affirming in such a setting: She longed for it and couldn’t bear it.
Daniel and Alexa, Claire’s kids, were the last two in line. Maya swept them into her arms, wanting, as always, to protect them from anything else bad happening to them. Eddie, her brother-in-law . . . was that what he was? What do you call the man who was married to your sister before she was murdered? “Ex-brother-in-law” seemed like something more for a divorce. Do you say “former brother-in-law”? Do you just stick with “brother-in-law”?
More inanity designed to distract.
Eddie approached more tentatively than his children. There were tufts on his face where he missed with the razor. He kissed her cheek. The smell of mouthwash and mints was strong enough to drown out whatever else might be there, but then again, wasn’t that the point?
“I’m going to miss Joe,” Eddie mumbled.
“I know you will. He liked you a lot, Eddie.”
“If there’s anything we can do. . . .”
You can take better care of your kids, Maya thought, but her normal anger with him was gone now, leaked away like a raft with a pinhole.
“We’re fine, thanks.”
Eddie went silent, as if he could read her mind, which in this case he probably could.
“Sorry I missed your last game,” Maya said to Alexa, “but I’ll be there tomorrow.”
All three of them suddenly looked uneasy.
“Oh, you don’t have to do that,” Eddie said.
“It’s okay. It’ll be a nice distraction.”
Eddie nodded, gathered up Daniel and Alexa, and headed to the car. Alexa looked back at her as she walked away. Maya gave her a reassuring smile. Nothing had changed, the smile said. I will still always be there for you, just as I promised your mother.
Maya watched the kids get into the car. Daniel, the outgoing fourteen-year-old, took the front seat. Alexa, who was just twelve and seemed since her mother’s death to always be wincing as though preparing for the next blow, took the back. Eddie waved and slipped into the driver seat.
Maya waited, watching the car slowly drive away. When it did, she noticed NYPD homicide detective Roger Kierce standing in the distance, leaning against a tree. Even today. Even now. She was tempted to walk over and confront him, demand some answers, but Esther took her hand again.
“I’d like you and Lily to come back to the Farnwood with us.”
The Burketts always referred to their house by its name. That probably should have been Clue One of what would become of her if she married into such a family.
“Thank you,” Maya said, “but I think Lily needs to be home.”
“She needs to be with family. You both do.”
“I appreciate that.”
“I mean it. Lily will always be our granddaughter. And you’ll always be our daughter.”
Esther gave the hand an extra squeeze to emphasize the sentiment. It was sweet of Esther to say, like something she was reading off a script, but it was also untrue—at least the part about Maya. No one who married a Burkett was anything but a tolerated outsider.
“Another time,” Maya said. “I’m sure you understand.”
Esther nodded and gave her a perfunctory hug. So did the rest of the family. She watched their devastated faces as they stumbled toward the stretch limos that would take them to the Burkett estate.
Her former platoon mates were still there. She met Shane’s eyes and gave him a small nod. They got it. They didn’t so much “fall out” as quietly fade away, being sure not to disturb anything in their wake. Most of them were still enlisted. After what happened near Fallujah, Maya had been “encouraged” to take an honorable discharge. Seeing no other real option, she did. So now instead of commanding or at least teaching the new recruits, retired Lieutenant Colonel Maya Stern gave flying lessons at Teterboro Airport in northern New Jersey. Some days it was okay. Most days she missed the service more than she’d have ever imagined.
Maya finally stood alone by the mound of dirt that would soon cover her husband.
“Ah, Joe,” she said out loud.
She tried to feel a presence. She had tried this before, in countless mourning situations, seeing if she could sense any sort of life-force after death, but there was always nothing. Some said that there had to be at least a small life-force—that energy and motion and the soul never die completely, that you can’t destroy matter permanently and all that. That might be true, but the more dead Maya hung around, the more it felt as though nothing was left behind.
She stayed there until Eileen came back from the playground with Lily.
“Ready?” Eileen asked.
Maya took another look at the hole in the ground. She wanted to say something profound to Joe, something that might give them both—ugh—closure, but what would be the point?
Eileen drove them home. Lily fell asleep in her protective car seat. Maya sat in the front passenger seat and stared out the window. When they got to the house—Joe had actually wanted to name it, too, but Maya had put her foot down—Maya eased Lily gently out of the back, cradling her head so as not to wake her.
“Thanks for the ride,” Maya said.
Eileen turned off the car. “Do you mind if I come in for a second?”
“We’ll be fine.”
“No doubt.” Eileen unbuckled her seat belt. “But I’ve been meaning to give you something. It’ll just take two minutes.”
Maya held it in her hand. “A digital picture frame?”
Eileen was a strawberry blonde with freckles and a wide smile. She had the kind of face that lit up a room when she entered, which made it a great mask for the torment beneath.
“No, it’s a nanny cam disguised as a digital picture frame.”
“Now that you’re working full time, you got to keep a better eye on things, right?”
“I guess so.”
“Where does Rosa play with Lily most of the time?”
Maya gestured to her right. “In the den.”
“Come on, I’ll show you.”
“Eileen . . .”
She took the frame from Maya’s hand. “Just follow me.”
The den was right off the kitchen. It had a cathedral ceiling and plenty of blonde wood. A big-screen television hung on the wall. There were two baskets filled to the brim with educational toys for Lily. A Pack ’n Play stood in front of the couch where there used to be a beautiful mahogany coffee table. The coffee table, alas, hadn’t been child friendly, so it had to go.
Eileen moved toward the bookshelf. She found a spot for the frame and plugged the cord into a nearby outlet. “I already preloaded some pictures of Lily. The digital frame will just shuffle through and display them. Do Rosa and Lily normally play by that couch?”
“Good.” Eileen shifted the frame in that direction. “The camera built inside this thing is wide-angle, so you can see the whole room.”
“I saw her at the funeral.”
“Rosa’s family goes way back with Joe’s. Her mother was Joe’s nanny. Her dad and brother are the family gardeners.”
Maya shrugged. “The rich.”
“So do you trust her?”
Maya shrugged. “You know me.”
“I do. You trust no one.”
“I wouldn’t put it that way.”
“Fine. When it comes to your child?”
“When it comes to my child,” Maya said, “yeah, okay, no one.”
Eileen smiled. “That’s why I’m giving you this. Look, I don’t think you’ll find anything. Rosa seems great.”
“But better safe than sorry?”
“Exactly. I can’t tell you how much comfort it gave me when I left Kyle with the nanny.”
Maya wondered about that—whether Eileen had just used it for Kyle with the nanny or whether she had built a case against someone else—but she kept the thought to herself for now.
“Do you have an SD card port on your computer?” Eileen asked.
“I’m not sure.”
“Doesn’t matter. I got you a SD reader that connects into any USB port. Just plug it in. Really, it doesn’t get easier than this. You just take the SD card out of the frame at the end of the day—it’s back here, see?”
“Then you just stick the card into the reader. The video pops up on your screen. The SD is thirty-two gigs, so it should last days easily. There’s also a motion detector, so it’s not recording when the room is empty or anything like that.”
Maya couldn’t help but smile. “Look at you.”
“What? The role reversal bothering you?”
“A little. I should have thought of doing this myself.”
“I’m surprised you didn’t.”
Maya looked down and met her friend’s eye. Eileen was maybe five-two, and Maya nearly six feet tall, but with the ramrod posture she looked even taller. “Did you ever see anything on your nanny cam?”
“You mean, something I shouldn’t have?”
“No,” Eileen said. “And I know what you’re thinking. He hasn’t been back. And I haven’t seen him.”
“I’m not judging.”
“Not even a little?”
“What kind of friend would I be if I didn’t judge a little?”
Eileen came over and wrapped her arms around Maya. Maya hugged her back. Eileen wasn’t a quasi-stranger paying her respects. She’d been her college roommate in those halcyon days before Maya had been accepted into the Air Force flight school and was still, along with Shane, her closest friend.
“I love you, you know.”
Maya nodded. “Yeah, I know.”
“You sure you don’t want me to stay?”
“You have your own family to take care of.”
“It’s okay,” Eileen said, pointing at the digital frame with her thumb. “I’m still watching.”
“Not really. But I know you need downtime. Call if you need anything. Oh, and don’t worry about dinner. I already ordered you Chinese from Look See. It’ll be here in twenty minutes.”
“I love you, you know.”
“Yeah,” Eileen said, heading to the door. “I know.” She stopped. “Whoa.”
“What is it?”
“You have company.”
The company was in the short, hirsute form of NYPD homicide detective Roger Kierce.