A grieving journalist surfaces from the wreckage of her shattered life.
Their unlikely alliance leads to a dangerous cat and mouse game that will leave you breathless.
Who can you trust when you can’t trust yourself?
DO YOU KNOW ME? Of course I’d seen those billboards, the posters, the full-color composite drawing plastered on every TV screen and newspaper—so has everyone else in Boston, if not everyone on the planet. “The poor little girl,” everyone said. “Who is she?Someone must miss her.” And those who still had daughters of their own drew them closer, or whispered warnings, or kept one protective hand on the cart as they shopped for groceries.
“Mercer? Can you handle it?” Katherine’s voice on the phone softens with concern. “You need to get back to work.”
I guess I’ve been silent, thinking about “Baby Boston” longer than I realized.
“You okay?” she persists.
“Yeah. I’m fine.” Kath wants me to write the inside true story of this gruesome crime. I sink into my chair in the study. Can I handle it? To be honest, I’m not sure.
“The book will be an instant bestseller, kiddo. It’ll put you back on the map.” Katherine charges ahead, persuading me. “Toddler killed and dumped in Boston harbor? And now the mother’s on trial for the murder? Sorry, I’m horrible. And I know it’s short notice. But you’re the only writer who can do this justice. Can I tell them yes?”
Good thing she can’t see the look on my face. Having the sensationally tragic murder of a child be the best thing that’s happened to me in a while is probably not socially acceptable. Since people finally left me alone, I’ve gotten out of practice being socially anything. I hadn’t heard from my former editor for months. Not since I stopped returning calls. And now this. A job offer.
All I’d have to do, Katherine Craft explains is—starting tomorrow—watch the courtroom testimony through the same video feed the TV stations use, then write an “instant book” about the Baby Boston murder trial. “Of course you could watch it on regular TV,” she says. “But what if some moron producer decides it’s boring? Or they cut away for the dog in the well or some phony news? Can’t rely on them deciding what to broadcast. So getting you the full feed is perfect. I tried to get you a seat in court, sweetheart, but it was too late.”
Just as well, I don’t say. Face all those people? Kath then offers me fifteen thousand dollars up front, with another fifteen thousand after the verdict when the book hits the market. Hefty royalties after that. I do need the money.
“Unless she’s not guilty.” Katherine’s voice is infinitely dismissive. “Like that’s gonna happen. But when Ashlyn Bryant is convicted? You’ll be Mercer Hennessey, bestselling author. I promise.”
That’d be good. More important, though I’ll never admit it to Kath, the book might give me a reason to get up in the morning.
“It’s never the mother, right?” She keeps up the pressure, and assumes she knows best. “The boyfriend, maybe. Or the father. But the mother? This is pure crazy.”
Right. It’s never the mother. Except when it is.
In this case, it is. And yes, pure crazy. Kath’s in her Back Bay office; I’m in my little suburban study. But I can picture my former editor’s expression. It’s the same baffled one I see on the TV talk shows and when I fidget in line at the coffee shop. People asking each other: what kind of monster mother could kill her own two-year-old?
“She’s . . .” I search for a gruesome enough word. The mother is definitely guilty this time. I’d already devoured every newspaper and magazine article and watched every newscast and feature story revealing every heartbreakingly disgusting detail about the missing-then-found little girl, even the online TV stories from the Ohio stations. At first I couldn’t stop weeping for that poor dead child. Then more tears as I shared her mother’s certain anguish. Easier to fill my brain with someone else’s grief, hoping to replace my own. Not completely successful, but better than emptiness.
When Tasha Nicole was finally identified, I actually considered calling Ashlyn, thinking (ridiculously) I could comfort her by sharing some maternal bond, each of us lost in grief and mourning our treasured baby daughters. Now it turns my stomach to think of it. How she duped me. Duped everyone. After the breaking news of her arrest? I could have murdered Ashlyn myself.
And no jury would have convicted me.
“Merce? You there?” She’s in full pitch mode, as if we still work together, still talk every day. “Go for it, honey. Say yes. It’s been long enough. You have to get back to work. You have to do something.”
Do something? Do? I almost yell at her. But she means well, and she’d stuck by me through the days the sun went out and the shadows closed in. Kath understands, as much as anyone can. It’s unfair for me to take my grief out on her. Is she right? Is there something I can do?
Maybe—for Sophie? And for Dex. Maybe to make up for what happened to them. To accept that I’m the one who’s left alive. I’m not fooling myself; I can never actually accomplish that. But at this moment, I feel Dex. Urging me to do it. To use my words to right a wrong. To strive for justice, like he always did. What’s more, he whispers, you could at least honor Sophie’s memory.
Yes. Dex is right. Yes. I’ll do it. To avenge Baby Boston. And I’ll secretly dedicate this book to Sophie. To every little girl unfairly wrenched away from the world. The more I think about it, the more I know I can do it. I yearn to do it. Physically, mentally, emotionally do it.
Plus, writing a book beat the options I’d already contemplated.
Maybe I’ll burn down the house. I’d actually said that out loud only a few days before Katherine called. Though there was no one to hear me.
I’d visualized the flames, too. Visualized the nursery furniture, its pink rosebuds and indulgent ruffles, blackened by flames. The sleek suits Dex wore to court, and Sophie’s daisy jammies and her plushy animals, the wedding photos and the toothbrushes and the . . . there’s so much of our stuff. What would I feel as the Linsdale firefighters battled hellish flames and choking smoke, attempting—yet ultimately failing—to save any evidence the Hennessey family existed? I wouldn’t live to find out.
That was the point.
“Merce?” Katherine prompts.
Putting Kath on speaker, I get up from my desk chair and retie the strings of my sweatpants, yanking them tighter. The sweats, black and soft and now grotesquely too big for me, are XL. Not mine. His. Dex won’t be needing them. No matter how many days go by, I’ll never get used to that.
“Yeah, well, maybe.” I pace to the bookshelves and back to the desk. Trying to gauge whether I’m the crazy one.
“Come on, Merce. The jury’s chosen, all the boring motions out of the way. It’s all on camera now. You just dig up the deets on the nutcase mother.” Katherine’s voice follows me, reprising the fast-talking cajoling-editor tone she’d used on me and her other underlings, when we were all at City magazine. This year she began acquiring for Arbor Inc., the mega-co that owns City and a bunch of other publications, including Arbor’s true-crime imprint.
“I know, you’re like, another body in Boston Harbor?” She goes on. “But you gotta see this one’s different. It’s not a Mob hit on a snitch, not some heroin addict’s poor abused child, not a gang turf war. The killer is the gorgeous young mother next door. Ashlyn,I mean, even her name is perfect. You can’t turn on the TV without seeing that clip of her, all petulant and pouting off to jail. So we’ll need you to convey, you know, the secret torment of the seemingly typical suburban family. Give it the feel of real.”
The feel of real. Got it. I’m a writer. I’m a storyteller. I take the facts and make them fascinating. This story doesn’t need much help in that department.
“Like In Cold Blood,” Katherine continues, as if I’ve said yes. “Narrative nonfiction. Reportage. Truman Capote simply imagined half that stuff. Made up dialogue. How else could he write it? But you can do it, Merce, I know you can.”
“Well . . . okay,” I say. “Deal.” She thinks she’s convinced me. I’ll let her believe that.
“Terrific. I’ll email the paperwork. There’s no one better for this job. You’ll kill it.” Katherine says. “Oh. Sorry, honey. But you know what I mean. You okay?”
“Sure.” She doesn’t know the half of it. “Talk soon.”
I hang up the phone, looking out my study window, down our—my—flagstone front walk and our—my—quiet neighborhood, still serenely green on a September morning, as if nothing has changed. As if my Sophie were still alive, and Dex, too. Funny what strength there is in purpose.
“Rot in hell, Ashlyn Bryant,” I say. And then, “This is for you, darling ones.”
But of course they’re not here to thank me.
Copyright © 2018 by Hank Phillippi Ryan
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