The Last Thing He Told Me (15 page)

BOOK: The Last Thing He Told Me
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“He lied to me,” she says.

He nods, like that is enough for him. Professor Cookman. First name Tobias. Nickname Cook. Award-winning mathematician. Our new friend.

“Come with me,” he says.

Some Students Are Better Than Others

Professor Cookman takes us back to his office, where he puts on a pot of coffee, and Cheryl, the graduate student manning his desk, is much more attentive than earlier. She powers on several computers on Cook's workstation as a second graduate student, Scott, starts going through Cook's filing cabinet—both of them moving as quickly as they can.

While Cheryl downloads a copy of Owen's photograph onto the professor's laptop, Scott pulls out an enormous file, slamming the cabinet closed, and then walks back over to the desk.

“The exams you have in here only go back to 2001. These are from 2001–2002.”

“Then why are you handing them to me?” he says. “What am I supposed to do with these?”

Scott looks dumbstruck as Cheryl puts the laptop on Professor Cookman's desk.

“Go and check the filing cabinets in the archives,” he says. “Then call the registrar and get me the class list from 1995. Also get 1994 and 1996, just to be thorough.”

Scott and Cheryl head out of the office, tasked, and Cook turns to his laptop, Owen's photograph covering the screen.

“So what kind of trouble is your father in?” he says. “If I may ask.”

“He works at The Shop,” Bailey says.

“The Shop?” he says. “Avett Thompson's operation?”

“Exactly,” I say. “He did most of the coding.”

He looks confused. “Coding? That's surprising. If your father is the same person that I taught, he was more interested in mathematical theory. He wanted to work for the university. He wanted to work in academia. Coding's not a natural extension of that, really.”

That may be why he decided to do it, I almost say. It was a way to hide in a field adjacent to the field he was interested in, but far enough away that no one would look for him there.

“Is he officially a suspect?” Cook asks.

“No,” I say. “Not officially.”

He motions toward Bailey. “I imagine you're just interested in finding your father. Either way.”

She nods. And Cook turns his attention to me.

“And how does the name change fit in, exactly?”

“That's what we're trying to figure out,” I say. “He may have been in trouble before The Shop. We don't know. We're only just learning about all the inconsistencies between what he's told us and…”

“What's true?”

“Yes,” I say.

Then I turn and look at Bailey, to see how she's processing that. She looks back at me, as if to say,
It's okay.
Not that she is okay with what's going on, exactly—but maybe that it's okay, all the same, that I'm trying to get to the bottom of things.

Professor Cookman stares at the computer screen, not saying anything at first. “You don't remember all of them, but I do remember him,” he says. “Though I remember him having longer hair. And being much heavier. He looks quite different.”

“But not entirely?” I say.

“No,” he says. “Not entirely.”

I take that in—trying to imagine Owen walking through the world, looking the way Professor Cookman is describing. I try to imagine Owen walking through the world as someone else. I look over at Bailey and I can see it on her face. I can see it in her frown. How she's doing the same thing.

Professor Cookman closes the laptop and leans across the desk, toward us.

“Look, I'm not going to pretend to imagine what this all feels like, but I will say, for whatever it's worth, in my years of teaching, I've discovered one thing above all else that makes me calm in moments like this. It's an Einstein theory originally, which is why it sounds better in German.”

“You may have to go with English,” Bailey says.

“Einstein said,
So far as the theories of mathematics are about reality, they are not certain; so far as they are certain, they are not about reality.

Bailey tilts her head. “Still waiting on the English there, Professor,” she says.

“It basically means, we don't know shit about anything,” he says.

Bailey laughs—softly but genuinely—and it's the first time she's laughed in days, the first time she's laughed since this all started.

I'm so grateful that I almost leap over the table to hug Professor Cookman.

Before I do, Scott and Cheryl walk back into the office.

“Here's the roster from the spring semester, 1995. In 1994, you were teaching two different senior seminars. And in '96 you taught graduate students exclusively. Spring '95 was when you taught underclassmen. So that's the class the student would have been in.”

Cheryl hands over the roster triumphantly.

“There were seventy-three people in the class,” she says.
“Eighty-three the first day, but then ten dropped out. That is pretty common in terms of normal attrition. I'm assuming you don't need the names of the ten who dropped?”

“No,” he says.

“That's what I figured, so I went ahead and crossed those out for you,” she says, like she just discovered something smaller than the atom. And, in my book, she has.

As Professor Cookman studies the list, Cheryl turns to us. “There's not an Owen on the list. Or even a Michaels on the list.”

“That's not a surprise,” he says.

Cook keeps his eyes on the list, but he shakes his head.

“I'm sorry I don't remember his name,” he says. “You think I would know, having had his work framed above my head for all that time.”

“It was a long time ago,” I say.

“Still. It'd be far more helpful if I could recall that much, but these names aren't adding up to anything for me.”

Professor Cookman hands the list over and I take it from him, gratefully and quickly, before he changes his mind.

“Seventy-three names are a whole lot more manageable than a billion. This is a whole lot more manageable than having nowhere to start.”

“Assuming he's on there,” Professor Cookman says.

“Yes, assuming that.”

I look down at the printout, seventy-three names staring back at me—fifty of them men. Bailey peers over my shoulder to look too. We need to find a way to go through them as quickly as possible. But I am more hopeful than I have been that we have somewhere to start from. That we have a list of names to cull from, Owen somewhere among them. I feel certain of this.

“You don't know how much we appreciate this,” I say. “Thank you.”

“My pleasure,” he says. “I hope it helps.”

We stand up to go, Cookman standing up as well. He is not particularly eager to get on with his day. Now that he is invested, he wants to find out more. He seems to want to know who Owen used to be, how that led him to where he is now—wherever that is.

We start walking toward the office door when Cookman stops us.

“I do want to say… I'm not sure what is going on with him now, but I can tell you that back then, he was a nice kid. And smart. It all starts to blend, but those early years I remember some of them. Maybe because we try harder in the beginning. But I do remember. I remember he was a really good kid.”

I turn back toward him, grateful to hear something about Owen, something that feels like the Owen I know.

He smiles, offers a shrug. “It wasn't all his fault. The crappy midterm. He was just too focused on one of the women in the class. He wasn't the only one. In a class of mostly men, she stood out.”

This is when my heart stops. Bailey turns back in Cookman's direction too. I can almost feel her, forgetting to breathe.

One of the few things Owen has told us about Olivia, repeatedly, one of the few things Bailey had to hold on to about her mother is that her father had fallen in love with her in college. He said they had been seniors—that she had lived in the apartment next door. Had that been a lie too? The smallest detail changed to avoid any trace of the actual past?

“Was she like… his girlfriend?” Bailey says.

“Can't speak to that. I only even remember her, at all, because he made the case that she was why his work was suffering. That he was in love. He made the case in a long letter and I told him I was
going to put it up, right next to his terrible exam, unless his work improved.”

“That's humiliating,” Bailey says.

“Apparently it was also effective,” he says.

I look down at the list, scanning the names of the women. Thirteen in total. I search the list for an Olivia, but don't see one. Though of course, it may not be an Olivia I need to find.

“I know this is asking a lot, but you don't remember her name, do you? The name of the woman?” I say.

“I remember she was a better student than your husband,” he said.

“Wasn't everyone?” I say.

Professor Cookman nods. “Yes. There's that too,” he says.

Fourteen Months Ago

“So how does it feel? Being a married woman?” Owen asks.

“How does it feel being a married man?” I say.

We were sitting at Frances, an intimate restaurant in the Castro, at the farm table where our small wedding dinner had taken place. The day had started with the two of us getting married at city hall. I wore a short white dress, Owen put on a tie and new Converse sneakers. And it was ending with the two of us, time rolling toward midnight—as we finished the champagne, shoes off, now that our handful of guests had left.

Jules had been there, and a few friends of Owen's—Carl, Patty. And Bailey. Of course, Bailey. In a rare display of generosity toward me, she arrived at city hall on time and stayed at the restaurant until after we cut the cake. She even gave me a smile before leaving to spend the night at her friend Rory's. I hoped that meant she was at least a little happy about the day. I knew it probably meant she was a little happy that Owen let her have champagne.

Either way, I was taking the win.

“It feels pretty great being a married man,” Owen said. “Though I have no idea how we're getting home tonight.”

I laughed. “It's not a bad problem.”

“No,” he said. “Not as far as problems go.”

He reached for the champagne bottle, filled his glass, and refilled
mine. Then he moved his chair away, sat down on the back of mine. I leaned back against him, breathing in.

“We've come a long way from our second date when you wouldn't even let me drive you to dinner,” he said.

“I don't know about that,” I said. “I was pretty crazy about you, even then.”

“You had a funny way of showing it. I wasn't even sure I was going to get to see you again after that night.”

“Well, you did ask an awful lot of questions.”

“I had a lot to learn about you.”

“All in one night?”

He shrugged. “I felt like I needed to learn about the could-have-been boys…” he said. “Thought it was my best shot at not becoming one.”

I reached back and touched his cheek—first with the outside of my palm, then with the inside.

“You became the opposite,” I said.

“I think that might just be the single best thing anyone has ever said to me,” he said.

“It's true,” I said.

And it was true. Owen was the opposite. He had felt like the opposite from day one, from that first meeting in my workshop, but it was more than just a feeling now. He had proven himself to be the opposite. It wasn't just that it was easy to be with him (though it was) or that I felt deepened by him in a way I never had in a relationship before. It wasn't even that we understood each other in that elusive way that you either had with someone or you could never quite find—that pervasive shorthand in which a look could tell us what the other person needed:
Time to leave the party; Time to reach for me; Time to give me room to breathe

It was a little bit of all of that and something far bigger than all of that. How do you explain it when you find in someone what you've been waiting for your whole life? Do you call it fate? It feels lazy to call it fate. It's more like finding your way home—where home is a place you secretly hoped for, a place you imagined, but where you'd never before been.

Home. When you weren't sure you'd ever get to have one.

That's what he was to me. That's who he was.

Owen pulled my palm to his lips, held me there. “So… are you going to answer my question about how it feels?” he said. “To be a married woman?”

I shrugged. “Not sure yet,” I said. “Too soon to tell.”

He laughed. “Okay, well, that's all right,” he said.

I took a sip of my champagne. I took a sip, and laughed too. I couldn't help it. I was happy. I was just… happy.

“Turns out you have a little while to decide,” he said.

“Like the rest of our lives?” I said.

“I hope longer than that,” he said.

If You Marry the Prom King…

Seventy-three names, fifty of them men.

One of them is potentially Owen.

We walk quickly across campus toward the main research library, which Cheryl tells us is most likely to house the school yearbooks. If we can get our hands on the yearbooks from the years Owen was at UT, that could be the key to getting through this list as quickly as possible. The yearbooks will offer not just student names, but they'll offer photographs too. They'll potentially have a photograph of a young Owen, if he did anything at school besides fail math.

We head inside the Perry-Castañeda Library, which is enormous—six stories of books and maps and cards and computer labs—and head to the research librarian's desk. She informs us that we will need to put a request in at the archives to get the hard copies of the school yearbooks from that far back, but we can access the archive on a library computer.

We go to the second-floor computer lab, which is mostly empty, and sit at two computers in the corner. I pull up Owen's freshman and sophomore yearbooks on one computer. And Bailey pulls up his junior and senior years. And, side by side, we begin looking up students from Cookman's class one at a time, hitting the roster alphabetically. Our first candidate: John Abbot from Baltimore, Maryland. I find him in one grainy photograph with the ski club. He doesn't look much like Owen in the photograph—thick glasses, full beard—but it
is hard to rule him out completely just based on that one photograph. We find too many potential hits when we google just his name, but when I cross-reference with skiing, I find that John Abbot (Baltimore native, UT-Austin grad) now lives in Aspen with his partner and their two kids.

We are able to rule out the next few male students on the list much more easily: one is five feet tall and has curly red hair; another is six foot four and a professional ballet dancer who resides in Paris; one is living in Honolulu, Hawaii, and running for state senate.

We are on the
s when my phone rings.
comes up on the caller ID. For a second, I imagine that it's Owen. Owen is back at the house, and calling to tell us that he has worked everything out, and we need to come home immediately. So he can explain the parts that don't make sense. Where he has been, who he was before I knew him. Why he has left these things out.

But it isn't Owen on the phone. It's Jules.

Jules is responding to the text I'd sent her at the hotel bar, asking her to head to the house, asking her to find the piggy bank.

“I'm in Bailey's room,” she says when I pick up.

“Was anyone outside?” I say.

“I don't think so. I didn't see anyone strange in the parking lot, and there wasn't anyone on the docks.”

“Would you close the blinds while you're there?”

“Already done,” she said.

I look over at Bailey, hoping she's too busy with the yearbooks to pay close attention. But I clock her eyeing me, waiting to see what this phone call is about. Maybe hoping, against hope, this is going to be the call that gets her back to her father.

“And you were right,” Jules says. “It does say Lady Paul on the side.”

She doesn't say what it is, of course. She doesn't say it's a piggy
bank that she is at our house to retrieve—Bailey's piggy bank—though it would sound pretty innocuous if she did say that out loud.

I hadn't imagined it. The small note on the bottom of the last page of Owen's will, listing the conservator, L. Paul. It was also the name on the side of the blue piggy bank in Bailey's room—
, written in black, beneath the bow. The same blue piggy bank Owen had taken when we evacuated, the one I found him with at the hotel bar in the middle of the night. I chocked it up to his being sentimental. But I was wrong. He had taken the piggy bank because it was something he needed to keep safe.

“But there is a bit of an issue,” Jules says. “I can't open it.”

“What do you mean you can't open it?” I say. “Just smash it with a hammer.”

“No, you don't understand, there's a safe inside the piggy bank,” she says. “And the thing's made of steel. I'm going to have to find someone who can crack a safe. Any ideas?”

“Not off the top of my head,” I say.

“K, I'll deal with it,” Jules says, “but have you checked your newsfeed? They indicted Jordan Maverick.”

Jordan is the COO of The Shop, Avett's number two and Owen's counterpart on the business side of the firm. He was newly divorced and had been spending a little bit of time at our place. I invited Jules over for dinner, hoping they'd hit it off. They didn't. She thought he was boring. I thought there were worse things to be—or maybe I just didn't see him that way.

“For the record,” she says. “No more setups.”

“Understood,” I say.

At a different moment this would have been all the encouragement I needed to ask her about her colleague Max, to make a joke about whether he was the other reason she wasn't interested in
setups. But, in this moment, all it does is remind me that Max has an inside source. One that can potentially help us in regard to Owen.

“Has Max heard anything beyond Jordan?” I ask. “Has he heard anything about Owen?”

Bailey tilts her head, toward me.

“Not specifically,” she says. “But his source over at the FBI did say the software just became functional.”

“What does that mean?” I ask.

Except I can guess what that means. It means Owen probably thought he was out of the woods. He probably thought any contingency plan he needed to create could be put on the backburner again. It means that when Jules called Owen and said they were coming in, he couldn't believe it. He couldn't believe that this close to being safe, he was about to be caught.

“Max is texting me,” Jules says. “I'll call you after I find a safecracker, okay?”

“I bet those are some words you thought you'd never say.”

She laughs. “No kidding.”

I say goodbye and turn to Bailey. “That was Jules,” I say. “I'm having her look into something at the house.”

She nods. She doesn't ask if I have anything to report on her father. She knows I'd tell her if I did.

“Any progress?” I say.

“I'm on
” she says. “No hits yet.”

is progress.”

“Yeah. Unless he's not on the list.”

My phone rings again. I think it's going to be Jules calling back, but the number is one I don't recognize—one with a 512 area code. Texas.

“Who's that?” she says.

I shake my head that I don't know. Then I accept the call. The woman on the other end of the line is already talking to me. She is midway through a sentence that, apparently, she thought I was there to hear.

“Scrimmages,” she says. “We should have accounted for them too. The scrimmages.”

“Who's this?”

“It's Elenor McGovern,” she says. “From the Episcopal church. And I think I may have found an answer for you about the wedding your stepdaughter attended. Sophie, one of our longtime parishioners, has a son who plays football for UT-Austin. She never misses a game. She was in here earlier, helping with the new member breakfast, and it occurred to me she might be the person to ask if I'd missed something. And she said that during the summer, the Longhorns have a series of intrasquad scrimmages.”

My breath catches in my throat. “And they're held in the stadium?” I say. “Just like the regular season games?”

“Just like the regular season games. Usually with a fairly packed crowd. People go as if it's an actual game,” she says. “I'm not much of a football fan so that didn't occur to me, at first.”

“It occurred to you to ask her, that's pretty great,” I say.

“Well, maybe. And this part certainly is. I did a cross-check for you on the dates of the scrimmages during the time we were open. We had one wedding that lines up with the final scrimmage of the 2008 season. One wedding that your stepdaughter might have been at. Do you have a pen? You should write this down.”

Elenor is proud of herself, and she should be. She may have found a link to Owen—to what Owen had been doing in Austin that weekend, so long after graduation. And to why Bailey was with him.

“I'm writing it down,” I say.

“It was the Reyes and Smith wedding,” she says. “I have all the information on the wedding here. The ceremony took place at noon. And the reception was held off-site. It doesn't specify where.”

“Elenor, this is amazing. I don't even know how to thank you for this.”

“You're so welcome,” she says.

I reach across Bailey to pick up the printout of Cookman's class. There it is. No Reyes. But one Smith.

Katherine. Katherine Smith. I point to her name and Bailey starts typing quickly, searching for the yearbook index.
coming up.
. Ten page numbers by her name.

Maybe they were friends—or she had been Owen's girlfriend, the one that Professor Cookman remembered. And Owen had been in town for Katherine's wedding. He had brought his family back to help his old friend celebrate. Maybe if I could find her, she could shed light on who Owen used to be.

“Was her first name Katherine, Elenor?”

“No, not Katherine. Let me see. Bride's first name is Andrea,” Elenor says. “And… yes, there we are. Andrea Reyes and Charlie Smith.”

I feel deflated that it wasn't Katherine herself, but maybe she is related to Charlie somehow. This could certainly still be the connection. But before I can repeat that to Bailey, she turns to a page featuring the debate society and President Katherine “Kate” Smith.

And the photograph comes up.

It's a group photograph of the entire debate team. They are sitting on barstools in a small, old-school bar, more like a cocktail lounge than a traditional pub: wooden rafters, a long brick wall, bourbon bottles lined up like presents. Lanterns line the bar top, backlighting those bottles, backlighting the dark wine bottles above them.

The caption under the photograph reads:

“No way!” Bailey says. “That could be the bar. Where the wedding was.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I didn't say anything, but last night when we were at Magnolia Cafe, and you were asking me all those questions, I remembered being at a bar for the wedding,” she says. “Or, more like, some sort of small restaurant. But then I figured it was late and I was just grasping for something… anything… so I let it go. I didn't even mention it. But this place in the photo, this Never Dry bar, looks like the bar.”

I cover the phone's mouthpiece, and look down at Bailey, who is pointing with fever, almost in disbelief. She points to a record player in the corner, a weird kind of proof.

“I'm not kidding,” she says. “That's the bar. I recognize it.”

“There are a million bars that look like that.”

“I know. But there are two things I remember about Austin,” she said. “And that bar is one of them.”

Which is when Bailey makes the photograph bigger. The debate team faces growing less blurry, Katherine's face becoming delineated. Easy to see.

We both go silent. The bar doesn't matter anymore. Owen doesn't even matter, exactly.

All that matters is the face.

It isn't a photograph matching the woman I know as Bailey's mother—that, more important, Bailey knows to be her mother. Olivia. Olivia of the red hair and girlish freckles. Olivia who looks a little like me.

But the woman staring back at us—this woman Katherine “Kate” Smith—looks like Bailey. Exactly like Bailey. She has the same dark hair. She has the same full cheeks. And, most notably, she has the same fierce eyes—judgmental more than sweet.

This woman staring back at us—she could be Bailey.

Bailey shuts off the screen suddenly, as if it is too much to look at. The photograph, Kate's face matching her own. She looks over at me, wondering what I am going to do next.

“Do you know her?” she says.

“No,” I say. “Do you?”

“No, I don't know,” she says. “No!”

“Hello?” Elenor says. “Are you still there?”

I keep my hand over the speaker, but Bailey can hear her through the phone. She can hear her loud-pitched questions. It's making her even more tense than she is. Her shoulders are seizing. Her hands are reaching for her hair, pulling it tight behind her ears.

I'm not proud of this. But I hang up on Elenor.

Then I turn back to Bailey.

“We need to go there right now,” Bailey says. “I need to go to this bar… to this Never Dry…”

She is already standing up. She is already grabbing her things.

“Bailey,” I say. “I know you're upset, I know you are. I'm upset too.”

We aren't saying it yet, not out loud, who we think Katherine Smith may be—who Bailey fears and hopes she is.

“Let's just talk this through for a second,” I say. “I think our best chance to get to the bottom of all this is to keep going through the class roster. We are at most forty-six men away from getting an answer to who your father used to be.”

“Maybe we are. Maybe we're not.”

“Bailey…” I say.

She shakes her head. She doesn't sit back down.

“Let me say this another way,” she says. “I'm going to the bar right now. You can come with me or you can let me go alone.”

She stands there and waits. She doesn't storm out. She waits to see what I will do. As if there is a choice.

“I go with you, of course,” I say.

Then I stand up. And we walk together toward the door.

BOOK: The Last Thing He Told Me
12.56Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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