The most wanted, p.6
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       The Most Wanted, p.6

           Jacquelyn Mitchard

  We both knew. Not right away, but early on. It was like you had been waiting all your life, hungry for one sweet food; and finally you got it in your mouth, and you knew you would never need anything else to fill you again. Like God didn’t make one, but two, and you were born knowing everything in each other before you ever laid eyes on each other or said one word.

  Dillon later said that what convinced him I was his special waiting someone was the way I described my dream, the very last thing I wrote, the thing I almost left out of my letter.

  Dillon thought that numbers were significant, and he thought that since the first letter I wrote him was about the first dream I remembered, and because he was my first love, we were meant to share that dream. I reckon that’s at least one thing he never had to lose.



  THERE WAS NO good reason to drive over to Avalon to see Arley that Wednesday. There was no good reason to see Arley at all, in fact, for the time being.

  I had a dozen cases in which time pressed more urgently. But there were plenty of things to do for Arley’s sake. One thing was to phone Ray Henry Southwynn, the warden at Solamente River, to see whether a few minutes of plain talk could derail the potentially expensive path of this petition somewhere short of court. But first, I needed to be more of an authority on the matter. For me, hell is being embarrassed. And there’s nothing that can short-sheet you faster than a lack of information.

  I flipped through Arley’s file. I could call a few of her teachers. I could call her mother. I could do all those things if I could sit still, which I couldn’t. A dangerous bout of buying anything I could find in the office vending machine and slathering it with frijole dip threatened, so I took a walk down the hall, looked in to see if Patty could be distracted into wasting some time with me, ended up settling for a bag of pretzels and the tepid coffee that was Lilia’s specialty—today, everything in Texas would be boiling except the coffee in our office.

  Back at my desk, I decided to call my sister. We hadn’t spoken in weeks. I looked at my watch. She’d still be home, flying around the kitchen, stuffing clients’ business plans and her sons’ forgotten homework papers into the same huge, worn doctor’s black bag (formerly my father’s) that Rachael had used as a briefcase since graduation. I lifted the receiver and listened to the harsh buzz, but I didn’t dial her number. There was something I wanted to ask Rachael. Something that pertained to my business with Arley. I just wasn’t sure what.

  Still restless, I sat on the windowsill and flipped open Arley’s purple folder. Here was Dillon, in one early letter, on the night of the crime: “I should never have been used the way I was at the Humble station with Kevin and his buddy. I let myself get victimized by greed. The only thing that hurts is that I ended up taking the fall for everyone else. But there’s no point complaining about it. I could tell you a great deal about that night that would put it in perspective, but it would only be scratched out by the censors (hello, gentlemen!), and it will suffice to say that I had never had a gun in my hand outside of the pasture back home until that very night—though I must admit, I am a dead shot. . . .” Nothing special here, or at least, not really. Lots of tough-guy talk and that ever-present savor of conspiracy. In Stuart’s experience, he always says, plenty of bad eggs are eager to admit what they’ve done and treat you to the Technicolor version. But in my job I seem to encounter the kind of mopes who were always on their way to either choir practice or a tryout with the Mets when nasty fate intervened. I couldn’t get what little I’d seen of Arley to stick comfortably to the flypaper of Dillon’s quite ordinary self-pity—she seemed to have such preternatural grace and sanity for a girl her age. How had things escalated, in mere weeks, from ordinary lonely-pen-pal-in-the-pen chatter—“Gee, there’s nobody like you”—to “Instead of going out on your first date, how about marrying an armed robber?”

  I read on. It was all the fault of younger brother Kevin, who had been “wild as a hard rain since the day he was born and given our mom no end of suffering.” But enough about good old Mom: Dillon quickly got back to number one. “If only that kid at the Humble had not jumped down on me like the damned Sundance Kid—I’m surprised he didn’t kill us both—nobody would’ve been hurt. He didn’t have to do that. He didn’t have to be no hero. All Kevin wanted was beer money, anyhow. And now here I sit. I can see about four inches of sky through the window just across of my cell and down the hall. My big excitement for the week is when I see a storm cloud. The whole place gets jumpy when there’s going to be a storm. We’re like cattle in a barn, trying to feel changes in the air.”

  Well, there was that: he was smarter than most.

  But guys in prison have nothing if not time, and those who can read do. They borrow from what they read; there isn’t a con without a whole storybook full of naive, romantic, grandiose, unfocused plans. Dillon certainly had his down pat: He was going to trace his roots back to County Galway, Ireland, where his mother’s people, the Dillons, were from. He was going to write poetry—after all, wasn’t there some kind of kismet in the fact that he was named Dillon Thomas (never mind the spelling). And he was going to collect antiques, and get a big cattle spread like his grandpa used to have, before the old man was forced to sell off. “And a week later,” Dillon wrote, “the land was punched for oil leases and ended up making every non-Dillon in sight richer than God.” Sheesh. The dog probably died too, run over by the pickup truck. If Dillon LeGrande’s family didn’t have bad luck, evidently, they’d have had no luck at all.

  My head began to hurt at the back, the place where I believe conundrums are stored like tightly capped jars of pickles and relish. Hadn’t there been a single person in Arley Mowbray’s life with enough brains to point out that this particular ladder of love was one any fool could see didn’t have a safe rung to stand on? And even if every single person she knew had warned her, would it have mattered?

  Any fool, I thought. My job had not done much to strengthen my belief in the common sense of women. From what I’d seen, for the love of a man, plenty of women would cut up their best friends and sell them for body parts. Good relationship? Lousy relationship? Didn’t seem to matter much. Experience with that kind of psychology had made me sort of a handicapper for certain varieties of attraction—I could pick the couples who would wind up at our office in pieces just by looking at what special sorts of trouble they’d been raised on and were predestined to seek out for themselves when they grew up. It didn’t explain, though, how a normal woman, with normal cells and an ordinary background, could pass Go at warp speed without a backward glance, headed straight for the worst man in the room. I myself had never had the kind of love that didn’t sprout from friendship. In Stuart, especially, there was the essential buddiness that outlasted simple heat. And so it had been with the ones before him—only two major candidates, really—both candid, indoorsy English majors, versions of me who buttoned on the right.

  It wasn’t that I didn’t believe in the charms of animal attraction. Attraction was a good thing. The involuntary tightening of tissues, the flutter, the sinking, the sense of wanting to steep yourself in another person’s smell. Great sex was like a good massage—a gift of being alive you could not imagine doing without. But I would never have willingly danced in traffic for its sake, or any other sake. I’d learned from meeting scores of sad-eyed old ladies who’d had only thirty birthdays that life was too short for certain risks. You definitely didn’t want it to get shorter.

  I began chewing through a pen casing, a little stress habit I’d always had and never noticed until the bitter-grass taste of the ink broke through. We were talking about a fourteen-year-old here, a girl who still considered songs on the radio renditions of her real feelings.

  But was that fair?

  Didn’t the radio sing to all fools?

  How many times had I tried to suppress giggles when Stuart got choked up trying to sing along with “Up On the Roof,” which reminded him fatally of Mary Sulliv
an, the goddess of his apartment-house terrace, who loved him with a ferocity that curled his toes, then left him for a seminarian. Twenty-five years later, he said he could still smell the vanilla of her red hair. And Jeanine. Jeanine was my best friend in Texas, sane as salt, the director of an adoption agency, who swore that, in her job, she’d seen every permutation on a loser that the Y chromosome had to offer. But she’d met Bruce at the airport and taken off with him to Key West, only to end up in an enlightening phone call with his (second) wife a week later.

  And look at Rachael. I knew now why she was on my mind so much. Carlos. I found a fresh pen and settled down for another chew. My own saintly sister, the princess of prudence, a woman who actually planned, in high school, to become an accountant. Rachael and Carlos. How many years had it been since I’d thought about that? About the year my sister had spent cutting classes and running up my parents’ gas cards to visit her bad-boy beau at the flat where he lived with several hundred aunts, cousins, and siblings?

  My kid sister was no turnip. Rachael had a quick brain and a hot temper, but the temper emerged only when someone tried to interfere with the excruciating slowness that her every decision required, be it buying a bra or choosing a college. Except when it came to Carlos—that once. There had been no talking to Rachael, not that I’d tried. And why hadn’t I tried? Well, Carlos had come along at an awkward time in our sisterhood—my first year of law school, which had consumed all I was and all I had. Still, Rachael was my only and beloved sibling. There had to have been more to it than that.

  There was more to it than that. I gnawed my pen. I’d given up too easily, possibly because, like every sister at some point, I wanted Rachie to stumble, trip herself up.

  And she did. Almost. For the first time, she’d gone to war with our parents. The slightest criticism about the merits of a long-term relationship between a Jewish doctor’s daughter from the Upper West Side and a dropout Puerto Rican kid from the Bronx with a thing for lighters and litter bins simply rendered Rachael as impermeable as an oyster shell. Long-distance, from law school in Wisconsin, I marveled at my parents’ restraint, as distinct from their ordinary behavior as Rachie’s obsession was from hers. I remember now how jealous I’d been of their gentle patience with the spoiled brat, always their fair one. Now, of course, I see that it was their very self-restraint that finally allowed Rachael the room she needed to turn around. Had my parents not let her alone, Rachael could easily be right now sitting vigil on Saturday nights in some parish church in Jersey.

  Once she was in college and dating solid citizens like herself, we both sort of behaved as if that time had never happened. I figured Rachael felt that she’d let everyone down. I guess I felt that I’d let her down. And I’d taken my cue from my parents: around me, at least, they’d never spoken Carlos’s name again.

  What the gap meant, though, was that there was a universe of things I didn’t know about Rachael and Carlos. All the things I’d wanted to know but never asked—or never wanted to know? My sister and Carlos met one summer when her temple youth group tutored a select group of bright JDs. He was two years younger, sixteen, and their relationship had lasted a full twelve hours before they made love, Rachael’s first time, standing up in the book-storage room of a public library—something my sister probably had imagined as likely to happen to her as running away with the Ice Capades. She’d confided as much to me, late one night over margaritas at our aunt’s place in Florida, when we were having one of those “first time vs. best time” sister talks. Those kinds of revelations weren’t ever off-limits between us. I’ve always thought Rachie’s secrets and motivations were mine by birthright. But I hadn’t taken the subject of Carlos further that time, nor had I since.

  Okay, there was the fact that the whole thing was creepy. I did know that Rachael’s adventure ended when Carlos finally had to choose between prison and the army. I imagined that I felt about the relationship the same way I’d have felt learning Rachael was bulimic but cured. Glad I knew. Glad I didn’t know too much. Glad it had all worked out for the best without me.

  Funny, at work I wasn’t squeamish in the slightest. Nothing stopped me from wanting to know about the depths of other people’s sordid experiences, down to the molecule. In lawyer life, knowing why people do things is my intoxicant, my power cell.

  It’s different, though, when it’s close. Some things you just don’t want to look at.

  The reason I couldn’t call Rachie right up, right now, and ask her about Carlos was that it would seem too little too late, to both of us. A dozen years and more had passed. How did she feel today about her passion for her free-fisted black-eyed pyro sweetheart, the boy she once swore to love forever? Did the self who loved Carlos seem, now, to have vanished in a puff of smoke, even the smell of sulfur little more than a memory? There were good and obvious reasons to talk about it today, a sort of need-to-know situation. But even a parallel with a professional incident didn’t seem like a good enough excuse to explore what was probably the major blank spot in my relationship with my sister.

  A trio of chewed-up Bics lay on the blotter before me. I was worn out: all that introspection isn’t easy for a lawyer. Weird how a minor avenue of thought had become a huge time sink, sucking up most of a crowded Wednesday. It was nearly three. By the time I could get to Avalon, it would be close to four. Arley would have to be home from school. Unless she was working.

  I gathered my things and went out to the car. On the cell phone, I called information and asked for Taco Haven.

  The answering voice there said only “Jack.”

  “I’m trying to find Arlington LeGrande.”

  “This is Ginny Jack.”

  “Yes. I’m trying to find an employee, Arlington LeGrande.”

  “No one works here by that name.”

  “No Arley? A waitress?”

  “Arley Mowbray, you mean. She don’t work tonight. Can I please ask who’s caring about that?”

  “This is Anne Singer. I’m, well, I’m Missus LeGrande’s attorney, Arley’s attorney.”

  “She in trouble?”


  “Beyond the obvious, I mean.”

  “Ah, excuse me?”

  “Missus LeGrande, indeed.”

  “Oh. Well. No, she’s not in any trouble.”

  “She’s a sweetie pie, you know that?”

  “She seems to be.”

  “Got the wrong heritage, though.”

  “I don’t know what you mean.”

  “Well, you meet little Rita, her mama, and you see why that girl’s about half better than she should be, which ain’t saying much.”

  “Excuse me?”

  “No, excuse me. I shouldn’t be saying this stuff.”

  “I appreciate it. Really. I don’t know much of what has gone on with Arley. . . .”

  “She’s just such a nice, sweet kid.”

  “I know.”

  “She’s too nice and too sweet to be involved in all this junk. I just ain’t been able to think it all through straight. It happened so sudden.”

  “It sure seems that way.”

  “I knew Rita in high school. She was two years younger, but she was going like sixty before I knew what twenty was, if you know what I mean.”

  “Can I come by and see you, Missus. . . . Jack? I’m actually going to pass by the restaurant on my way out to Avalon today. . . .”

  “Well. Maybe. Well, no. I need to stick my nose back where it belongs. I’m sorry. I got a late lunch rush here, ma’am, so you’ll have to pardon me. I’ll tell Arley you called.”

  I wanted to know more. Despite her critical error in getting herself married to a convict, Arley had made far fewer revolutions around the block than most of my clients, and their children, not to mention their children. I’d once hosted three generations of women from the same family, all pregnant by the same man. Just sorting out the genetics was enough to make you rip out fistfuls of hair, never mind the psychodynamics. I had only Arley’s ma
nner and appearance to work from, but she seemed pretty unaffected by her upbringing. So whatever else her former schoolmates thought about her, Rita Mowbray had to be a fairly protective, consistent parent, if not a plaster saint. I knew plenty of very good mothers who somehow never managed to buy skirts long enough to allow them to sit with their legs crossed. A taste for the fiesta didn’t mark a woman as a poor parent, especially in Texas. And Rita Mowbray, as her daughter had told me, was a fully educated registered nurse. That alone took smarts and guts, particularly for a woman on her own. I was looking forward to meeting her, little Rita who went like sixty.

  And then I did.

  When I finally found the little white house, set back on a corner lot from the dusty, pitted surface of Jean-Marie Street, it was Arley who opened the door. Even through the screen, I could see her brown eyes widen and grow darker. They looked like horse’s eyes, with that tightly strung combination of challenge and fear. “Hello,” she said, but it was a whisper. It was the whisper that made me realize why I’d come at all—a sixth sense that Arley was in more trouble than even her bizarre romantic life indicated. That there was something she needed protecting from, and she was afraid to tell about it.

  “Arley, hi,” I told her. “I know I didn’t call ahead, but I told you I’d be in touch.”

  “My mama’s here,” she said. “My mama is here, though.”

  “Well, that’s okay. I probably should meet her.”

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