He went over to the patio doors and stared out at the yard. His reflection in the glass looked like a ghost of himself.
At seven thirty-seven that evening the doorbell rang and Frank went to answer it. Two men in suits were standing outside, holding up police badges. One of them was very tall and lugubrious-looking, with wavy gray hair and a large Roman nose, while the other was short, and black, with a pencil moustache.
âFrank Bell? I'm Lieutenant Walter Chessman from the Los Angeles Police Department and this is Detective Stan Booker. I understand that you were a witness to The Cedars school bombing this morning.'
âI also understand that your son was a casualty. I want to offer our condolences.'
âThat'sÂ .Â .Â . Thank you.'
âIf you don't want to talk to us now I'll quite understand. But I don't think I have to tell you that the sooner we find the bastards who set off that bomb, the better.'
âIt's OK. Come on in. To tell you the truth, I think I need to talk to somebody about it. My wife'sÂ .Â .Â . well, my wife's very distressed about it. SheÂ .Â .Â .'
Margot appeared from the bedroom. Her eyes were pink and swollen and she was clutching Danny's old brown teddy bear, Mr Rumbles. âFrank?'
âIt's the police. They want to ask me some questions about this morning.'
Margot nodded. âI see.' She turned to Lieutenant Chessman and said, âDo you know who did it yet?'
Lieutenant Chessman shook his head. âNot so far, ma'am.'
know who killed my son.'
âOh, yes?' Lieutenant Chessman raised one eyebrow.
Frank said, âMargot, for Christ's sake.'
âThere he is,' said Margot, pointing directly at Frank. âDanny was dying and his own father left him bleeding in the back seat of his car while he went to take care of a whole lot of people he didn't even know. His own father. Behold the man.'
Lieutenant Chessman glanced at Detective Booker and then he looked back at Margot. âI have to tell you, Mrs Bell, I've been in this game for twenty-seven years and it isn't always easy in such stressful circumstances to make the most appropriate decision.'
âOh, the most appropriate decision. I see. You don't think that saving the life of your only child is not just an appropriate decision, but a
âMrs Bell, I really need to talk to your husband alone. I want to go through his recollections, one by one, and I don't want those recollections distorted by any untoward pressure.'
âUntoward pressure? Oh, you mean guilt.'
âMrs Bell, I have to find the group or individual who killed all of those children, and the longer it takes to gather all of the information I need, the further away that group or individual is going to be.'
âYes, of course. Yes. I'm sounding aggrieved, aren't I?'
âMrs Bell, what you're feeling â it's perfectly understandable. But I haven't come here to blame anybody for anything. I've come here to collect some more facts, that's all.'
âDo you have a child?' Margot challenged him.
âYes, ma'am. Three daughters, as a matter of fact.'
âAnd if a bomb went off, would you leave them, even for a minute?'
âI'm sorry, ma'am, that's a hypothetical question that I can't honestly answer.'
âYou wouldn't leave them for a second, would you, those girls of yours? You certainly wouldn't let them die.'
Lieutenant Chessman said nothing, but shrugged and took out his notebook.
âYou wouldn't let them bleed to death, all alone, would you? Well,
âIf you don't mind, ma'am. We're kind of pushed for time.'
Frank sat hunched forward on the couch, his arms wrapped around himself as if he were feeling the cold.
âYou saw the van stop outside the school gates?' Lieutenant Chessman asked him.
He nodded. âI didn't really take any notice of it. It was just a van.'
âIt had no distinguishing markings at all?'
âNot that I recall.'
âDid you notice the driver?'
âNo. It was too far away. Besides, there was no reason to.'
Lieutenant Chessman made a few quick notes, and then he said, âIn your opinion, how tight was the security at The Cedars? The gates to the parking lot were always closed at nine
., or so I'm told. What happened if you wanted to enter the parking lot after that time?'
âYou'd have to stop at the security booth and show yourself. Or some ID, if Mr Lomax didn't know you.'
âDo you have any first-hand experience of that?'
âWell, sure, I've been late taking Danny to school a couple of times, and Mr Lomax would always take a look into the car to see who it was. And once there was a delivery truck ahead of me, and Mr Lomax came out of his booth and made quite a performance of checking the driver's ID.'
âDid he come out of his booth this morning?'
âNo, he didn't. The van only stopped for a second, and then he waved it through.'
âSo what do you conclude from that?'
âI don't know. You're the detective. He must have known the driver by sight.'
âThat's a reasonable conclusion, yes.'
The sun was gradually sinking, and it shone into Lieutenant Chessman's eyes. Frank went over to the patio window and angled the blinds. Outside in the yard Danny's swing set was casting a long-legged shadow across the grass, as gaunt as a scaffold.
Lieutenant Chessman came up behind him and laid a hand on his shoulder. âYou're sure you're OK with this?'
Frank said, âYes, sure. Yes. Let's get it over with.' He didn't want any sympathy. He felt as if somebody was squeezing his throat and if Lieutenant Chessman gave him any sympathy he wouldn't be able to speak at all.
âDid you see any kind of flash when the bomb went off?' Detective Booker asked him.
âA flash? Yes.'
âHow bright was that flash?'
âNot particularly bright. Not much brighter than a camera-flash. But there was a whole lot of smoke.'
âWould you say that was black smoke or gray smoke or brown smoke?'
âI don't know. Dark gray, I guess. What difference does it make?'
âYou'd be surprised. Different explosives produce different amounts of smoke. IMI demolition blocks produce a whole lot of black smoke, because they're almost one hundred percent TNT, while your RDX, for example, produces considerably less. Once we've identified the type of explosive, we can start to source it, find out where it was acquired, and who acquired it.'
âWell, there was a lot of smoke. Dark gray smoke, almost black. For a time it was like midnight. I couldn't see the school building at all.'
âThe officer who spoke to you at the sceneÂ .Â .Â . he made a note that you mentioned another witness, a young woman.'
âThat's right. She came up to me right after the blast. One of her shoes was blown off but otherwise she seemed OK.'
âYou said your son seemed OK, too.'
Frank stared at him. âExcuse me? What exactly are you trying to imply?'
âI'm sorry, I didn't mean it to come out like that. I was simply trying to suggest that this young woman could have been more seriously injured than she first appeared.'
âShe was walking and she was talking and she was articulate, OK?'
âDid you know her?'
âNo. No, I didn't.'
âShe wasn't a parent at The Cedars or a member of the faculty or anything like that?'
âI have no idea who she was, none at all. She asked me if I was OK, and then she asked me if I had lost anybody in the blast. I saidÂ .Â .Â .' He pursed his lips, and then he looked away, toward the window.
âI understand,' said Lieutenant Chessman. âAt that time you didn't know that Danny had been hurt.'
âWe're just trying to find as many eye witnesses as possible,' put in Detective Booker. âLike, if you saw this young woman again, do you think you would recognize her?'
Frank pictured the young woman's dusty, short-cropped hair, and her bleached-out blue eyes. She had been almost beautiful in a rather Slavic way. Not the kind of looks that usually attracted him â he had always preferred Audrey Hepburn types like Margot, small and dark and vivacious. But now he came to think about the young woman again, he thought yes, there had been something about her, something both assertive and wounded. Something that would catch you like fish hooks, and cause you a whole lot of trouble to get free.
âSheÂ .Â .Â . ahÂ .Â .Â . well. She just walked off. Shocked, I guess, like everybody else.'
âDid she say anything before she walked off?'
I've lost somebody, too. Not a child. Somebody closer than that
. What had she meant by that?
Somebody closer than that
. Who can be closer than your own child?
âSheÂ .Â .Â . no.'
Detective Booker raised an eyebrow. âYou're absolutely sure about that?'
That night he watched television until well past midnight and drank three-quarters of a bottle of Stolichnaya. For most of the time he quietly cried, his cheeks glistening in the light of
, letting out a thin agonized whine that hurt his chest.
He couldn't bear to watch the news again. The same footage was being repeated over and over â the smoke, the dust, the bloodied bodies in the schoolyard.
At last, exhausted, he switched off the television and made his way to the bedroom, walking like Captain Ahab on the tilting deck of the
. He collided with the half-open door and it was only then that he realized how badly he had been bruised when he had been blown into that parked Toyota. He unbuttoned his shirt, pulled down his sleeve and frowned at it, although he was finding it hard to focus. His shoulder was a mass of crimson and purple.
âOh, God,' he said, closing his eyes. âPlease turn back the clock. Oh, God, please let it be yesterday.'
But when he negotiated his way along the corridor to Danny's room and switched on the light, he found that Danny's bed with its X-Men bedcover was neatly made and empty, and that Danny's Star Wars figures were still crowded on the shelf, as bereaved as he was. Nobody would ever play with them again.
He sat down on the end of Danny's bed. He didn't cry any more because he didn't have any tears left. He didn't want to think about this morning ever again. He wanted to forget that it had ever happened. But even with his eyes open, all he could see was an endless silent re-run of the bomb going off, and Danny sitting in the back of the car, and the expression on the face of the paramedic who had lifted Danny out of his arms.
A few minutes after two
. he knew for certain that when dawn came it wasn't going to be yesterday, and so he shuffled along to the bedroom and tried to open the door. It was locked.
âMargot,' he called. There was no reply. âMargot, could you open the door please.' Still no reply.
He raised his fist, ready to knock, but then he thought, no, I'm too tired and I'm too drunk and she blames me for Danny's death and I can't stand the thought of a screaming, furniture-breaking argument, not tonight. Think of Danny, lying in the morgue. Show some respect.
âMargot, I know you can hear me. I'm showing some respect.'
He paused, and swayed, and held on to the door frame to catch his balance. âI just want you to know that whatever happens, whatever happens, I never wanted it to happen, not that way. Not Danny. I didÂ .Â .Â . I made the wrong decision. I know I made the wrong decision. NobodyÂ .Â .Â . nobody loved Danny more than I did. Nobody. And I made the wrong decision. I admit it.'
He pressed his ear to the door, holding his breath, listening, but he couldn't hear anything at all, not even sobbing. After a while he went back to the living room and sat down on one of the white leather couches. The living-room walls were painted pale magnolia but they were hung all around with Margot's paintings â enormous paintings, six feet by seven feet some of them,
Impressions In White I
. She had painted them all on untreated canvas, in white oil paint, and although they were textured with whorls and curls and cross-hatching, that was all they were: white.
âPainting is all about
,' she always said, crossing her legs in the lotus position. âI want people to forget about form and shape and composition. Form and shape and composition â they're all tricks, to stop people seeing what really
, Margot, is our only son lying dead and chilly in the morgue. What
is all those poor children blasted to bits in the schoolyard. But then, if people in this world are capable of acts as hideous as that, maybe nothing matters. Not hoping, not believing, not kindness, not smiling.
When we went to bed on Tuesday night, he thought, little did we know that a dark army of scene-shifters would be busy while we slept, so that when we woke up, without realizing it, we would no longer be living in a world in which we were confident and happy, but a dangerous and heartless replica in which nothing was certain and nobody could ever be trusted ever again.
He stood up and went over to
Impressions In White IV
. He stared at it for a long time. Then he took a thick black marker pen out of the box on the coffee table and drew a huge cartoon face of a boy on it, with tears in both eyes.