Under Water, page 1
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Copyright © 2017 by Casey Barrett
Epigraph reprinted with the permission of Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. from ISLANDS IN THE STREAM by Ernest Hemingway. Copyright © 1970 by Mary Hemingway. Copyright 1970 by Charles Scribner’s Sons. Copyright renewed 1998 by John, Patrick and Gregory Hemingway. All rights reserved.
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First Kensington Hardcover Edition: December 2017
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To the Linus
“That’s why I like it better underwater,” David said.
“You don’t have to worry about breathing.”
Ernest Hemingway, Islands in the Stream
She’s already taken her last breath. It was inhaled in one great hyperventilating gulp that will extend this final plunge for a few reflective minutes. She recognizes the irony in wanting to extend her life at the same moment she’s decided to end it. As she settles onto the pool’s bottom, she exhales. Bubbles burst from her mouth and float away like last words.
She looks up. The surface above her is shimmering and clear. She feels as if she’s already crossed over, or under, into another world. It’s quiet down here, not like the dry-land world. Her body feels weightless and, finally, free.
She remembers the story of dolphin suicide. Depressed in captivity, certain tortured Flippers will close their blowholes and sink to the bottom of the tank, drowning in desperation. A noble decision, she thinks.
Her throat is starting to constrict, her diaphragm starting to spasm, her lungs deflating. Carbon dioxide is building like a rising red tide through her blood. The urge to breathe is overwhelming. She could swim up at anytime, but she won’t. She can feel herself beginning to lose consciousness, her brain deprived and demanding oxygen, or else.
Not much time left.
She looked determined to stop time. Tall, maybe sixty, though she’d never admit it. Her face was feline; pulled and ironed and injected until the mask bore little resemblance to the original product. Aging and gracefully were two words that she had never paired. Below a long neck was a chest that stood too high, framed for admiration like fine art. She stood above me in bare feet, looking down with distaste. Pale, pedicured toes curled over the edge of the pool.
“Lady says she has some business with you, Duck,” called the lifeguard from across the deck.
She crossed her arms and waited, and did not remove her oversized sunglasses. A sleeveless ivory dress covered a body denied indulgence; an excess of gold jewelry matched the color of her dyed, chin-length hair. The chlorine hung heavy in the uncirculated air. Whatever it was she wanted to talk about, it couldn’t wait.
I climbed out and extended a wet hand. She offered a dry one.
“Duck Darley,” I said. “What can I do for you?”
“You don’t remember me,” she said. “Do you, Lawrence?”
“I’m sorry, you are . . .”
She took off her sunglasses, and I took a closer look. Beneath all that work was a woman I couldn’t forget. The memory floated up like a dead fish from the bottom of a dark lake. Her name was Margaret McKay, the mother of an old friend, an old teammate who went all the way. Charlie McKay: he won Olympic gold some Games ago, days after the death of his father. Appeared on a Wheaties box a few weeks later. We hadn’t stayed in touch.
“Mrs. McKay, wow, how have you been?”
“It must be twenty years,” she said. “You look well. I’m glad to see you’ve stayed in the water.”
“Only way I stay sane,” I said. “How’s Charlie?”
“He’s fine, gone into finance like his father. Long hours, lots of stress, but he seems to enjoy it.”
She spoke with a crisp cluck of permanent annoyance. Looking at her cosmetic re-creation, I mourned the beauty that had been there as I remembered. She was the mom crush of every boy on the team back then, a source of endless innuendo for her son. I went off to grab my towel from a bench, began to dry off as I let her gather her thoughts.
“Lawrence, my apologies for meeting you so early,” she said. “But I could use your immediate assistance with something.”
The name on my birth certificate reads: Lawrence James Darley, Jr. The Senior version of that name achieved enduring shame after it turned out my father’s fortune was built on a far-reaching fraud. I was twelve years old when the story broke, a scandal made to order for the New York Post: the wretched excess of a crooked king. Things went bad after that. Everything in my once-privileged life was stripped away, except the nickname. I’d become Duck in grade school, due to a waddling walk and a natural affinity for the water. Someday I’ll have my given name officially changed and shed the disgrace of it for good, but it always feels like too much work.
“Who told you I’d be here?” I asked.
“Lorraine Hart? She said you did some work for her last year. When I heard the last name, I was very surprised to make the connection.”
“Did Lorraine also mention that I have a phone number and can be reached during normal business hours?”
She gave a slight smile that didn’t move her cheeks. “Lorraine informed me that you weren’t the easiest person to reach, that you have no email and seldom return calls. She suggested that this might be the best place to find you. She’s a dear friend; I trust you remember the work you did for her.”
One side of her mouth twitched, enough to say she knew details. I had done some divorce work for the lovely Lorraine a few months back. It ended in a not unusual way: proved husband was cheating; evidence secured her an eight-figure settlement. She paid me with a generous check and a grateful blow job on her ex-husband’s former oceanfront deck in East Hampton. We’d stayed friendly. I hadn’t worked since, but now that check was long spent. I make it a policy never to seek work. It has to find me. I’ve seen where ambition can get you.
“How is your father?” she asked. “Do you see him often?
“Still incarcerated. And no,” I said.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to pry.”
“So, how immediate is this problem of yours? I’m hungry, and you’re sweating. Let’s not catch up on the bad old days.”
Margaret McKay gave me a look, then turned and headed toward the exit. She said, “Then go dress and take me somewhere where we can speak in private.”
I followed her out like the scolded oversize brat she remembered. Two decades go by, and some impressions never change.
Out on the sidewalk, it was a brilliant blue September day, the sort of too perfect morning that makes you look out toward the Hudson and search for low-flying planes headed for tall buildings. Margaret had slipped back into high heels that capped a pair of long yoga-toned legs. She dropped her phone into a reptile-skin handbag and waited for me to lead the way.
I guided her to my local diner, Joe’s, on the corner of 16th and Third. There was an open table toward the back by the bathrooms. The rest of the seats were claimed by self-segregated groups of NYPD cadets. Fresh-faced Irish boys, thick Latina women, and stern black guys, all huddled in packs of three or four over their eggs and coffee. They had that itching insecure energy of almost authority. A year from now their chests would be puffed out with cop pride as they busted kids for scoring blow outside East Village bars.
Manuel the waiter brought over a coffee and a Beck’s and no menu. He looked at Margaret and waited for some instruction. She told him water would be fine, and he called over for Joe to start on my western omelet, nothing for the puta.
“How long have you been doing this sort of work?” she asked, eyeing the morning beer.
I took a searing gulp of the coffee, chased it with a long pull. “What sort of work is that?”
“The sort that involves helping those in need,” she said. “For a price.”
“Like a superhero for hire?”
“Don’t be assy, Lawrence. You’re an investigator, correct?”
“Listen, if you’re looking for some former cop with a tragic tale and an obsession for justice, you should probably look elsewhere. I’m a finder. Private eyes are passé. Besides, the state of New York won’t grant me a license to practice.”
“And why is that?”
She considered that. Some demand specifics, and depending on my sense of the client, sometimes I share them. Sometimes I leave it at two words open to interpretation. If they get up and leave, seek out someone with a gold plate on a door and a team of snoops with all the latest spyware, so be it.
Margaret McKay didn’t ask for details. Maybe she already knew them. They’re not hard to find. I used to deal a little weed. A little became a lot when I wasn’t looking. One rainy day when I was twenty, getting off the 4 train at 59th Street, I got stopped with a backpack full of the stuff—two pounds, to be exact. Part of which was separated into two-gram plastic canisters, meaning intent to distribute—meaning, a Class C felony, punishable by up to five years. If my family still had any money, an expensive lawyer would have been hired, and I would have been freed with a dismissal to “Drug Court” and a bit of community service. Instead, the judge, a righteous fat woman named Susan Duvel, relished the shame of my name. She gave me two years. I served thirteen months. Enough time for a formerly rich white kid to find out that his fears about prison were well founded.
“Well, license or not, it appears you’ve earned a fine reputation,” she said. “Lorraine said you were excellent.”
“Guess I know where to look for things.”
She liked that. Her cheeks tried to lift with her smile.
“So, I do divorce work, mostly. Find the occasional fuck-up. Which one is it for you?”
She took off her sunglasses and set them on the table. I doubted she removed them often. That’s where the years hid. No amount of work around the edges could erase the worry and the decades of mean wisdom. Her eyes were the darkest brown, almost black, like the tinted windows of a celebrity’s car. They could see out, but you could never peer in without pressing your nose to the glass. And no one would ever let you get that close. Those eyes narrowed, and I lost the staring contest.
“It’s the latter, I’m afraid. The fuck-up in question is my eighteen-year-old daughter. She’s been missing for the last week.”
“I didn’t know Charlie had a sister,” I said.
“No reason you should. Madeline was much younger. You quit the team before she was born. I didn’t think I was able to have children any longer. Steven and I were content being the parents of an only child. But somehow I became pregnant again in my forties. It was not an easy pregnancy, and Madeline has not been any easier since the day she was born. Then, of course, Steven died when she was very young . . .”
Her shoulders sagged, but she recovered quickly. I remembered the whole sad story. The media had lapped it up when Charlie McKay was the golden boy Olympic swimming champion du jour. He dedicated his gold medals to his recently deceased father and his rock of a mother. The strongest woman on earth, he told the cameras. Madeline would have been about six at the time. I didn’t remember her in a single shot.
“A week isn’t very long,” I told her. “Maybe she’s just . . .”
“It is for her,” she said. “My daughter maintains frequent contact with me. It is often troubled and unpleasant, but we speak or exchange text messages almost daily. That is, until seven days ago.”
“Have you considered notifying the police, filing a missing persons report?”
She gave a quick snort. “Please. I have no faith in those dim little blue men. And I certainly don’t want them sniffing around in my life.”
Two cadets stiffened behind her and glanced back. They were a pair of big-backed Irish guys with buzz cuts and emerging neck fat. A silence stretched over their table, their eggs frozen on forks in mid-bite.
“When was your last contact?” I asked.
“It was last Monday, Labor Day. She sent a text that said ‘I’m so sorry.’ Nothing else. It is not like Madeline to apologize—for anything. I’ve no idea what she was referring to. It could have been any number of things. She was last seen, by her brother, the day before at our country house in Rhinebeck. It seems she left in a state soon after he arrived. Things have not been . . . easy for her. I wrote back, left voice mails, notes at her apartment. No response. I’m worried.”
“How have things not been easy?”
“Madeline has always struggled,” she said. “She came out angry, as some children do, I suppose. It was mostly manageable when she was younger, and she was so talented as a swimmer, just like her brother. For a time, that seemed like the outlet that would save her. But soon after she turned twelve, it got bad. Her temper became uncontrollable, her grades awful. I found cocaine in her bedroom when she was thirteen.”
I let her relive the memory and waited as the silence stretched. She put her sunglasses back on; then almost immediately she took them off again. Manuel brought over a fresh Beck’s, my western omelet, and an unopened bottle of Tabasco. I shook it and unsealed it and drenched my eggs while Margaret continued the tale of her problem child:
“We tried therapy, of course. She refused to speak. We tried putting her on medication, but she stopped taking it after a short time, and went back to her self-medicating. She was almost expelled from Miss Hewitt’s when they caught her high on several occasions. But Madeline kept swimming, in her uncommitted way, coming and going whenever she felt like it. We wanted to make it the one constant in her life, the one place where she would always be special. She really is so talented. Even as she’s spiraled downward she remains nationally ranked in the butterfly. We keep praying that at some point she’ll embrace her gift and get through all that anger and self-destruction.”
“I’m sorry, Mrs. McKay, I know your husband passed away; who is we?”
“Myself and Coach Marks,” she said. “You must remember him.”
Sure I did. The g
Teddy Marks was a legend in the swimming world. Charlie McKay wasn’t the first Olympian he’d coached, and he wouldn’t be the last. He started Marks Aquatics, fresh from the Navy SEALs, back in the mid-eighties out of a narrow dungeon pool on East 26th Street. Now it was a national powerhouse, an Olympian factory. He was a long, angular man, a menace of motivated energy, with a whistle through his teeth that I still hear in my sleep. He had that coach’s magic; he believed in you more than you believed in yourself. I understood why Madeline kept coming back. Quitting had been easy, but disappointing Coach Marks had left years of guilt.
“He’s a good man,” I said.
She nodded, took a sip of water. “He’s been a saint.”
“How has Madeline’s relationship been with Marks?”
“Much like my own, I suppose. One filled with bottomless patience and diminishing hope.”
“And you’ve reached out to her friends, to anyone in her life who might have heard from her? Does Madeline have a boyfriend?”
Margaret McKay reached down and opened her bag. She removed a folded brown envelope and placed it on the table. She said, “Maddie has had her own apartment since graduating from Hewitt last spring. I pay for it, of course. It’s my name on the lease and all the bills come to me, but she insisted that she needed her own space. It’s on Barrow Street in the West Village. She’s enrolled nearby at the New School, but we’ll see.”
She reached inside the envelope and took out two pictures. I wiped my hands and picked one up. Madeline’s yearbook shot from her senior year. She wasn’t smiling. She had unwashed brown hair that fell from her head like a moldy shower curtain. The prim Hewitt’s uniform looked like a Halloween costume on her. There was a stud in her nose, but no other jewelry and no makeup. All that effort to look unattractive wasn’t working. Her cheekbones were model high; her eyes were dark and dull, ready for the runway. She had the wide, fishy mouth of a Hollywood starlet. Her lips looked like a dirty Internet search.