Read The Last Thing He Told Me Online
Authors: Laura Dave
I wait until the morning to call him. I wait until I feel calm and I'm sure I can do what I need to do.
I gather up all of my notes and throw on a sundress. I close the door to the hotel room quietly, careful not to wake Bailey. Then I head downstairs, through the bustling lobby, and go outside, where I can walk along the street, where I can control better what he hears in the background.
It is still quiet outâthe lake placid and peacefulâeven with the morning rush, commuters on their way over the Congress Street Bridge, heading into their offices, their children's schools, on their way to start their blessedly normal days.
I reach into my pocket and pull out the napkin from Fred's, Grady's cell phone number underlined twice.
I turn on my cell phone, pressing *67 first before I tap in the number, hoping this will help block my call a little bit longerâif he is so inclined to unblock it, if he's so inclined to try and figure out where I am.
“This is Grady,” he says when he picks up.
I brace myself to lie. This is, after all, what there is left to do. “It's Hannah,” I say. “I heard from Owen.”
This instead of hello.
“When?” Grady says.
“Late last night, around two
He said he couldn't talk in case
someone was listening to the call. Tracking him. He called from a pay phone or something. It came up as a blocked number and he was talking fast. He wanted to know if I was okay, if Bailey was okay, and he was adamant that he didn't have any part in what is going on at The Shop. He said he'd had a feeling Avett was up to something, but he didn't know the depth of it.”
I can hear Grady on the other end of the phone, rustling around. Maybe he is looking for a notepad, something on which to write down the clues he seems to think I'm going to give him.
“Tell me what he said exactlyâ¦” he says.
“He said it wasn't safe for him to stay on the phone, but that I should call you,” I say. “That you'd tell me the truth.”
The rustling stops. “The truth? About what?”
“I don't know, Grady. Owen made it sound like you'd know how to answer that.”
Grady pauses. “It's early in California,” he says. “What are you doing up so early?”
“Would you be able to go back to sleep if your husband called you at two
and told you he was in trouble?”
“I'm a pretty good sleeper, soâ¦” he says.
“I need to know what's going on, Grady. What's really going on here,” I say. “Why does a U.S. marshal based in Austin, Texas, come all the way to San Francisco seeking out someone who isn't a suspect?”
“And I need to know why you're lying to me about Owen calling you when he obviously did not.”
“Why are there no records of Owen Michaels before he got to Sausalito?” I say.
“Who told you that?” he said.
“A friend? You're getting some faulty information from your friend,” he says.
“I don't think so,” I say.
“Okay, well, did you remind your friend that one of the primary functions of The Shop's new software is to alter your online history? That it helps you erase a trail you don't want to leave, correct? No online trail as to who you are. That includes online databases to universities, housing recordsâ”
“I know how the software works.”
“So why hasn't it occurred to you that if anyone expunged Owen's record, it might have been the one man who has the capability to do so?”
Owen. He is saying Owen made the trail to his past run cold. “Why would he do that?” I say.
“Maybe he was testing out his software,” he says. “I don't know. I'm just saying you're making up quite an elaborate story when there are a variety of explanations as to what your friend did or didn't find out about Owen's past.”
He is trying to throw me off-balance. I won't let him. I won't let him try to control this narrative for his own agenda, which is feeling increasingly suspicious.
“What did he do, Grady? Before all of this? Before The Shop? Why did he change his identity? Why did he change his name?”
“I don't know what you're talking about.”
“I think you do,” I say. “I think that explains why you came all the way to San Francisco for an investigation you have no jurisdiction over.”
He laughs. “My jurisdiction puts me firmly in charge of this investigation,” he says. “I think you should probably worry a little less about that and more about some other things.”
“Like the fact your pal Special Agent Naomi Wu at the FBI is threatening to name Owen as an official person of interest.”
I pause. I haven't said her name. He knew her name. He seems to know everything.
“We don't have a whole lot of time before her team shows up at your house with search warrants. I'm fighting hard to hold her off for the moment, but I can't guarantee you it will keep going this way.”
I think of Bailey having to come home to see her room turned apartâher world turned apart.
“Why are you fighting so hard to stop that from happening?”
“That's my job,” he says.
He says it assuredly, but I'm not convinced. Because something has clicked in for me. Grady doesn't want any of this for Owen any more than I do. Grady wants to help keep Owen away from that fate. Why is that? If Grady were just investigating Owen, if he were just trying to bring him in, if he was just trying to end this, he wouldn't care as much as he does. But something else is going on hereâsomething far more nefarious than Owen being implicated in simple fraud. And suddenly I feel terrified that
something is worse than anything I have imagined yet.
“Owen left us a bag of money,” I say.
“What are you talking about?” he says.
“Really, he left it for Bailey. It's a lot of money, and if someone shows up with one of those search warrants you're threatening me with, I don't want them discovering it. I don't want it used against me or as an excuse to take Bailey from me.”
“That's not how this works.”
“I'm still new to how this works, so in the meantime, I'm telling you about the money,” I say. “It's under my kitchen sink. I don't want anything to do with it.”
He is quiet. “Well, I appreciate that, it's better that I take it than that they find it,” he says. “I can have someone in our San Francisco office come out and get it.”
I look out past Lady Bird Lake, at Austin's downtown, its gentle buildings, the trees letting through the morning light. Grady is probably in one of those buildings already, starting his day. Grady is closer than I suddenly want him to be.
“Now's not a good time.”
Everything in my body tells me to tell him the truth. We are in Austin. But I'm still not sure whether he is a friend or a foe. Or both. Maybe everyone is a little bit of both, Owen included.
“I need to get some work done before Bailey gets up,” I say. “And I've been thinkingâ¦ maybe I should take Bailey somewhere else until this all calms down.”
I think of Jake's offer. I think of New York.
“I'm not sure,” I say. “But we don't have to be in Sausalito, do we? I mean, we don't have to stay there for any legal reason, correct?”
“Not officially, but it won't look good,” he says. Then Grady pauses. He pauses as if hearing something.
“Wait. Why did you just say âthere'?”
we don't have to stay there
. Talking about your house, talking about Sausalito. If you were home, you would have said âhere.' We don't have to stay here.”
I don't say anything.
“Hannah, I'm sending one of my colleagues over to check on you,” he says.
“I'll put on some coffee,” I say.
“This isn't a joke,” he says.
“I don't think it is.”
“So then where are you?” Grady says.
If Grady wants to trace my phone call, I know he can do it. For all I know he is already trying to do it. I look out at Grady's hometown, wondering what it's been for my husband.
“Where are you worried I'll be, Grady?” I say.
Then, before he can answer, I hang up the phone.
“You think you can just pop in here whenever you want?” I said.
I was joking. But I was surprised that Owen snuck up on me, showing up at my workshop unannounced, in the middle of the workday. He didn't usually do that. He spent his days at the offices in Palo Alto, sometimes heading to downtown San Francisco for a meeting. He was rarely home on a weekday, except when Bailey needed him for something.
“If I popped in whenever I wanted, I'd be here constantly,” he said. “What are we making?”
He rubbed his hands together, happy to be in the studio with me. He loved my work, loved being a part of it. And every time I saw how genuinely he felt that way, it was another small reminder how lucky I was to love him.
“What are you doing home so early?” I asked. “Is everything okay?”
“That depends,” he said.
He lifted my face shield to give me a kiss hello. I was in my work clothesâwhich consisted of a high-necked jacket and that face shieldâa combination that made me look like I belonged in the future and the past at the same time.
“Is my chair finished?”
I kissed him back, draping my arms around his shoulders.
“Not quite yet,” I said. “And it's not your chair.”
It was a Windsor chair I was making for a client in Santa Barbara, for her interior design office, but as soon as Owen had seen it in progressâthe dark, chiseled elm; a heightened hoop backâhe decided we couldn't let it go. He decided it was meant for him.
“We'll see about that,” he said.
This was when his phone buzzed. Owen looked down at the caller ID, his face darkening. He clicked decline.
“Who was that?” I said.
“Avett,” he said. “I'll call him later.”
He clearly didn't want to talk about it, but I couldn't leave it thereânot when I felt the heat coming off him. Not when he was getting this worked up just from a call he didn't take. “What's going on with him?
“He's being a little irrational. That's all.”
“The IPO,” he said. “It's not a big deal.”
But it was flashing in his eyesâa mix of anger and irritation. Two things he rarely displayed. Two things he had displayed more recently. And, of course, he was standing in my workshop as opposed to in his own office.
I tried to choose my words carefully, wanting to help, but not wanting to undermine him. I didn't have to work in an office, didn't have to deal with the politics of having a boss I had to answer toâsomeone, like Avett Thompson, with whom I might not agree. And yet, I wanted to figure out how to say itâthat I saw Owen's stress level rising. That it was just a job. That, as far as I was concerned, he could always find another.
Before I said anything, the phone buzzed again.
showing up on the caller ID. Owen looked down at his phone. He looked
down at it, like he was going to pick it up, his fingers hovering there. But he hit decline again, pocketing his phone instead.
He shook his head. “It doesn't matter how many times I say the same thing. Avett doesn't want to hear it,” he said. “What we need to make this all work.”
“My grandfather used to say that most people don't want to hear the thing that will make it work better,” I said. “They want to hear what will make it easier.”
“And what did he say to do about that?”
“Find other people. You know, for starters.”
He tilted his head, took me in. “How do you always know what to say to me?” he said.
“Well, it's really my grandfather saying it, but sureâ¦” I said.
He reached for my hand, a smile spreading across his face. Like nothing happened, or at least like it wasn't as important as he'd thought it was.
“Enough about this,” he said. “Let's go see my chair.”
He started pulling me to the door, toward the backyard and the deck where the chair was dryingâsanded, newly polished.
“You know you can't have that chair,” I said. “Someone commissioned it. She is paying us a lot of money for it.”
“Good luck to her,” he said. “Possession is nine-tenths of the law.”
I smiled. “What do you know about the law?”
“Enough to know if I'm sitting in that chair,” he said, “no one else is going to take it.”
the hotel cafÃ© is already busy, the lights dimmed.
I sit at the bar, drinking an orange juice while most of the people around me are starting in on morning cocktailsâmimosas and Bloody Marys, champagne, White Russians.
I stare at the row of televisions, all tuned to different news shows. They come at me in closed captions, most of them reporting on The Shop. PBS shows footage of Avett Thompson being handcuffed and escorted away. MSNBC has a preview of Belle's
show interview, Belle calling Avett's arrest a travesty of justice. CNN's chyron keeps warning that more indictments are coming, on repeat. It's almost like a promise, mirroring Grady's promise, that Owen will be in even more trouble soon. That whatever he is running from is about to catch him.
This is what gnaws at me, over and over, when I think of my husbandâthat something is coming for him, for all of us, that he couldn't stop. That he has left me to try and stop it for him.
I take out my notepad and go back over what Grady said during our phone callâtrying to recall every detail, trying to hone in on what may be important to glean from it. I keep coming back to how he said that Owen might have erased his own online history. And, as wrong as that feels, I try to move myself there, to that assumption, to see what it shows me.
Which is when I land on it. That there are certain things we can't
erase, certain things that we reveal to the people closest to us despite what we may or may not know we are telling them.
There are things, that without meaning to, Owen has told only me.
So I make another list. A list of everything I know about Owen's past. Not the false factsâNewton, Princeton, Seattle. The other factsâthe nonfacts: things I learned accidentally during our time together, things that in retrospect seem like strange encounters. Like the guy from Roosevelt High School. I look Roosevelt up, and find eighty-six of them spread across the United States. None of them are anywhere near Massachusetts. But eight of themâin places like San Antonio and Dallasâare spread out across Texas.
I put a pin in that and keep thinking, landing on the night with Owen at the hotel, the piggy bank on the bar. Which is when I realize something about that piggy bankâsomething I've been struggling to remember. Am I remembering it correctly now, or am I conjuring up the memory out of something like desperation? I shoot Jules a text to check it out for me and keep thinking.
I keep working my way through things only I know: the anecdotes and stories that Owen has told me late at night. Just the two of us. The way you only do with the person you've chosen, the witness to your life.
Those stories, the stories he shared when he didn't even realize he was sharing, can't all be false too. I refuse to believe it. I will refuse to believe it until I'm proven wrong.
I start rolling through them, Owen's greatest hits: the time he took a boat trip down the Eastern Seaboard with his father, barely sixteen years old, the only time he ever spent several days alone with his father. The time during his senior year of high school that he let his girlfriend's dog out to play and the dog ran away, Owen getting fired from his first job for spending that afternoon searching for the dog
instead of returning to work. The time he snuck into the midnight screening of
with his pals, his parents awake at 2:45
when he finally walked in.
And a story he told me about college, about why he started to love engineering and technology so much. Owen's freshman year of college, barely nineteen years old, he took a mathematics course with a professor he adored, someone he credited with his current career. Even though the professor told Owen he was the worst student he'd ever had. Had he told me what the professor's name was? Tobias something. Was it Newton? Or was it Professor Newhouse? And didn't he have a nickname he went by?
I race upstairs and back into the hotel room to wake Baileyâthe one person who maybe has heard the story about this professor more times than I have.
I pull the comforter off and sit down on the edge of her bed.
“I'm sleeping,” she says.
“Not anymore,” I say.
She reluctantly props herself up against the headboard. “What is it?”
“Do you remember the name of your father's professor? The one he loved so much, who taught him freshman year?”
“I have no idea what you're talking about,” she says.
I fight my impatience, thinking of all the times Bailey has rolled her eyes at this storyâat how Owen has used it as a teaching opportunity. He's used it to convince Bailey to stick with something that matters to her, to commit to her plan. He's used it when he was trying to convince her of the opposite.
“You know this story, Bailey. The professor taught that impossible course in gauge theory and global analysis. Your father loves talking about him. The professor who told him that he was the worst student
he'd ever had. And how that actually made Owen want to do better. How it focused him?”
Bailey starts nodding, a slow recognition. “You mean the guy who put my father's midterm on the bulletin board, rightâ¦?” she says. “So he wouldn't forget all the ways he could improve.”
“Sometimes your passion takes work and you shouldn't give up on it just because it isn't easyâ¦” She takes on Owen's voice, imitating him. “Sometimes, kid, you need to work harder to get to a better place.”
“That's it. Yes. That's him. I think his first name was Tobias but I need to know his full name. Please tell me you remember it.”
“Why?” she says.
“Just, can you remember it, Bailey?”
“He called him by his last name sometimes. A nickname for his last name. But it started with a
â¦ didn't it?”
“Maybe. I don't know.”
“No, I don't think that was itâ¦ It was Cookâ¦ He called him Cook. So maybe it was Cooker?” she says. “Or was it Cookman?”
I smile, almost laughing out loud. She's right. I know it as soon as I hear it. It's good to know I wasn't even close.
“What's so funny?” she says. “You're freaking me out.”
“Nothing, that's great. That's what I needed to know,” I say. “Go back to sleep.”
“I don't want to,” she says. “Tell me what you figured out.”
I open my phone and I plug his name into the search engine. How many professors with the name Tobias Cookman could there be who teach college-level mathematics? And more specifically gauge theory and global analysis?
One that I find, one who is teaching theoretical mathematics. One
who has dozens of accolades and awards for his teaching. One who, from the set of photographs that pop up, looks just as surly as Owen has described him. Wrinkled brow, a deep frown. And, for some reason, in many of the photographs he is also perpetually clad in red cowboy boots.
Professor Tobias “Cook” Cookman.
He has never worked at Princeton University.
But for the last twenty-nine years, he has been on the faculty at the University of Texas at Austin.