OUR NINETEENTH-CENTURY CAMBRIDGE house is on the northern border of the Harvard campus, around the corner from the Divinity School and across from the Academy of Arts and Sciences. We have our share of people who take shortcuts through our property. It’s not fenced in and the wall is more an ornamental ruin than a barrier. Children love to climb over it and hide behind it.
Probably one of them with too much time on his hands now that school is out.
“Did you notice what’s on our wall?” I make my way across sun- dappled grass, reaching the stone bench encircling the magnolia tree where Benton has been reading the paper while I prepare brunch.
“Notice what?” he asks.
Sock is stretched out near his feet, watching me accusingly. He knows exactly what’s in store for him. The instant I pulled out luggage late last night and began an inventory of tennis equipment and scuba gear he set- tled into a funk, an emotional hole he digs for himself, only this time it’s deeper. No matter what I do, I can’t seem to cheer him up.
“Pennies.” I hand Benton an espresso ground from whole beans, a robust sweetened stimulant that makes both of us very hungry for all things of the flesh.
He tests it carefully with the tip of his tongue.
“Did you see someone put them there?” I ask. “What about when you were lighting the grill? Were the pennies there then?”
He stares in the direction of the shiny coins lined up edge to edge on the wall.
“I didn’t notice and I’ve not seen anyone. They certainly weren’t put there while I’ve been out here,” he says. “How much longer for the coals?” It’s his way of asking if he did a good job. Like anyone else, he enjoys praise.
“They’re perfect. Thank you. Let’s give them maybe fifteen more min- utes,” I reply as he returns to a story he’s reading about the dramatic rise in credit card fraud.
MIDMORNING SLANTED SUNLIGHT POLISHES his hair bright silver, a little longer than usual, falling low on his brow and curling up in back. I can see the fine lines on his sharply handsome face, pleasant creases
from smiling, and the cleft in his strong chin. His tapered hands are elegant and beautiful, the hands of a musician I always think whether he’s holding a newspaper, a book, a pen or a gun. I smell the subtle scent of his earthy aftershave as I lean over him to scan the story.
“I don’t know what these companies are going to do if it gets any worse.” I sip my espresso, unpleasantly reminded of my own recent brushes with cyber thieves. “The world is going to be bankrupted by criminals we can’t catch or see.”
“No surprise that using a keylogger has become rampant and harder to detect.” A page rustles as he turns it. “Someone gets your card number and makes purchases through PayPal-type accounts, often overseas and it’s untraceable. Not to mention malware.”
“I haven’t ordered anything on eBay in recent memory. I don’t do Craigslist or anything similar.” We’ve had this discussion repeatedly of late.
“I know how irritating it is. But it happens to other careful people.”
“It hasn’t happened to you.” I run my fingers through his thick soft hair, which turned platinum before I knew him, when he was very young.
“You shop more than I do,” he says.
“Not hardly. You and your fine suits, silk ties and expensive shoes. You see what I wear every day. Cargo pants. Scrubs. Rubber surgical clogs. Boots. Except when I go to court.”
“I’m envisioning you dressed for court. Are you wearing a skirt, that fitted pin-striped one with the slit in back?”
“And sensible pumps.”
“The word sensible is incompatible with what I’m fantasizing about.” He looks up at me, and I love the slender muscularity of his neck.
I trace the second cervical vertebra down to C7, gently, slowly digging my fingertips into the Longus colli muscle, feeling him relax, sensing his mood turning languid as he floats in a sensation of physical pleasure. He says I’m his Kryptonite and it’s true. I can hear it in his voice.
“My point?” he says. “It’s impossible to keep up with all of the mali- cious programs out there that record keystrokes and transmit the informa- tion to hackers. It can be as simple as opening an infected file attached to an email. You make it hard for me to think.”
“With the antispyware programs, one-time passwords, and firewalls Lucy implements to protect our server and email accounts? How could a keylogger get downloaded? And I intend to make it hard for you to think. As hard as possible.”
Caffeine and agave nectar are having their effect. I remember the feel of his skin, his sinewy leanness as he shampooed my hair in the shower, massaging my scalp and neck, touching me until it was unbearable. I’ve never tired of him. It’s not possible I could.
“Software can’t scan malware it doesn’t recognize,” he says. “I don’t believe that’s the explanation.”
My techno-genius niece Lucy would never allow such a violation of the computer system she programs and maintains at my headquarters, the Cambridge Forensics Center, the CFC. It’s an uncomfortable fact that she is far more likely to be the perpetrator of malware and hacking than the victim of it.
“As I’ve said what probably happened is someone got hold of your card at a restaurant or in a store.” Benton turns another page and I trace the straight bridge of his nose, the curve of his ear. “That’s what Lucy thinks.”
“Four times since March?” But I’m thinking of our shower, the shiny white subway tile and the sounds of water falling, splashing loudly in dif- ferent intensities and rhythms as we moved.
“And you also let Bryce use it when he places orders for you over the phone. Not that he would do anything reckless, at least not intentionally. But I wish you wouldn’t. He doesn’t understand reality the way we do.”
“He sees the worst things imaginable every day,” I reply.
“That doesn’t mean he understands. Bryce is naïve and trusting in a way we aren’t.”
The last time I asked my chief of staff to make a purchase with my credit card was a month ago when he sent gardenias to my mother for Mother’s Day. The most recent report of fraud was yesterday. I seriously doubt it’s related to Bryce or my mother, although it would fit neatly with the history of my dysfunctional familial world if my good deed were pun- ished beyond my mother’s usual complaints and comparisons to my sister Dorothy, who would be in prison if being a self-consumed narcissist were a crime.
The gardenia topiary was an insensitive slight, since my mother has gardenias in her yard. It’s like sending ice to Eskimos. Dorothy sent the pret- tiest red roses with baby’s breath, my mother’s words exactly. Never mind that I went to the trouble to send her favorite flowering plant and unlike cut roses the topiary is alive.
“Well it’s frustrating and of course my replacement card will get here while we’re in Florida,” I remark to Benton. “So I leave home without it and that’s not a good way to start your vacation.”
“You don’t need it. I’ll treat.”
He usually does anyway. I make a good living but Benton is an only child and has old family money, a lot of it. His father, Parker Wesley, shrewdly invested an inherited fortune in commodities that included buying and selling fine art. Masterpieces by Miró, Whistler, Pissarro, Modigliani, Renoir and others for a while would hang in the Wesley home, and he also acquired and sold vintage cars and rare manuscripts, none of which he ultimately kept. It was all about knowing when to let go. Benton has a similar perspective and temperament. What he also absorbed from his New England roots are shrewd logic and a Yankee steely resolve that can endure hard work and discomfort without flinching.
That doesn’t mean he doesn’t know how to live well or gives a damn what people think. Benton isn’t ostentatious or wasteful but he does what he wants, and I scan our beautifully landscaped property and the back of our antique frame house, recently repainted, the timber siding smoky blue with granite gray shutters. The roof is dark slate tile with two dusky redbrick chimneys, and some of the windows have the original wavy glass. We would live a perfectly charmed and privileged existence were it not for our professions, and my attention returns to the small copper coins not far from us, flaring in the sun.
Sock is perfectly still in the grass, eyes open and watching my every move as I step closer to the wall and smell the perfume of English roses, apricot and pink with warm shades of yellow. The thick thriving bushes are halfway up the vintage bricks, and it pleases me that the tea roses are also doing especially well this spring.
The seven Lincoln pennies are heads up, all of them 1981, and that’s peculiar. They’re more than thirty years old and look newly minted. Maybe they’re fake. I think of the date. Lucy’s date. Her birth year. And today is my birthday.
I scan the old brick wall, some fifty feet in length and five feet high, what I poetically think of as a wrinkle in time, a wormhole connecting us to dimensions beyond, a portal between us and them, our lives now and the past. What’s left of our wall has become a metaphor for our at- tempts at barricading ourselves from anyone who might want to harm us. It’s really not possible if someone is determined enough, and a sensation flutters inside my mind, deep and unreachable. A memory. A buried or scarcely formed one.
“Why would someone leave seven pennies, heads up, all the same date?” I ask.
THE RANGE OF OUR security cameras doesn’t include the far corners of the wall, which leans slightly and terminates in limestone pillars com- pletely overtaken by ivy.
In the early 1800s when our house was built by a wealthy transcen- dentalist, the estate was an entire block surrounded by a serpentine wall. What’s left is a crumbling brick segment, and half an acre with a narrow driveway of pavers and a detached garage that originally was a carriage house. Whoever left the pennies probably won’t have been caught on video and I feel the same uneasiness again, a remnant of what I can’t recall.
“They look polished,” I add. “Obviously they are unless they’re not real.”
“Neighborhood kids,” Benton says.
His amber eyes watch me over the top of the Boston Globe, a smile playing on his lips. He’s in jeans and loafers, a Red Sox windbreaker on, and he sets down his espresso and the paper, gets up from the bench and walks over to me. Wrapping his arms around my waist from behind, he kisses my ear, resting his chin on top of my head.
“If life were always this good,” he says, “maybe I’d retire, say the hell with playing cops and robbers anymore.”
“You wouldn’t. And if only that was what you really played. We should eat fairly soon and get ready to head to the airport.”
He glances at his phone and rapidly types what looks like a one- or two-word response to something.
“Is everything all right?” I hug his arms around me. “Who are you texting?”
“Everything’s fine. I’m starved. Tease me.”
“Grilled swordfish steaks Salmoriglio, seared, brushed with olive oil, lemon juice, oregano.” I lean into him and feel his warmth, and the cool- ness of the air and the heat of the sun. “Your favorite panzanella. Heirloom tomatoes, basil, sweet onions, cucumbers . . .” I hear leaves stirring and smell the delicate lemony fragrance of magnolia blossoms. “ . . . And that aged red wine vinegar you like so much.”
“Full-bodied and delicious just like you. My mouth is watering.”
“Bloody Marys. Horseradish, fresh-squeezed key limes and habanero to get us in the mood for Miami.”
“Then we shower.” He kisses me on the lips this time, doesn’t care who sees it.
“We already did.”
“And we need to again. I feel extra dirty. Maybe I do have another present for you. If you’re up for it.”
“The question is are you?”
“We have a whole two hours before we need to leave for the airport.” He kisses me again, longer and deeper as I detect the distant rapid stut- tering of a helicopter, a powerful one. “I love you, Kay Scarpetta. More every minute, every day, every year. What is this spell you have over me?”
“Food. I’m good in the kitchen.”
“What a happy day when you were born.”
“Not if you ask my mother.”
He suddenly pulls back from me almost imperceptibly as if he just saw
something. Squinting in the sun, he stares in the direction of the Academy of Arts and Sciences a block north of us, separated from our property by a row of homes and a street.
“What?” I look where he’s looking as the helicopter gets louder.
From our backyard we can see the corrugated metal roof the green color of copper patina peeking above densely wooded grounds. The world’s top leaders in business, government, academia and science routinely speak and meet at the Academy’s headquarters, the House of the Mind as it’s called.
“What is it?” I follow Benton’s intense stare, and the roar of a helicopter flying low is coming closer.
“I don’t know,” he says. “I thought I saw something flash over there, like a camera flash but not as bright.”
I scan the canopies of old trees and the multiangled green metal roof. I don’t notice anything unusual. I don’t see anyone.
“Maybe sunlight reflecting off a car window,” I offer and Benton is typing on his phone again, something brief to someone.
“It came from the trees. I might have noticed the same thing earlier, caught it out of the corner of my eye. Something glinted. A flick of light maybe. I wasn’t sure . . .” He stares again and the helicopter is very loud now. “I hope it’s not some damn reporter with a telescopic lens.”
We both look up at the same time as the deep blue Agusta comes into view, sleek with a bright yellow stripe and a flat silver belly, its landing gear retracted. I can feel the vibration in my bones, and then Sock is cowering on the grass next to me, pressing against my legs.
“Lucy,” I say loudly and I watch transfixed. She’s done this before but never at such a low altitude. “Good God. What is she doing?”
The composite blades whump-whump loudly, their rotor wash agitat- ing the tops of trees as my niece overflies our house at less than five hun- dred feet. She circles in a thunderous roar then pauses in a hover, nodding the nose. I can just make out her helmet and tinted visor before she flies away, dropping lower over the Academy of Arts and Sciences, circling the grounds slowly, then gone.
“I believe Lucy just wished you a happy birthday,” Benton says.
“She’d better hope the neighbors don’t report her to the FAA for violating noise abatement regulations.” All the same I can’t help but be thrilled and touched.
“There won’t be a problem.” He’s looking at his phone again. “She can blame it on the FBI. While she was in the area I had her do a recon. That’s why she was so low.”
“You knew she was going to buzz the house?” I ask and of course he did and at exactly what time, which is why he’s been stalling in the back- yard, making sure we weren’t in the house when she showed up.
“No photographer or anybody else with a camera or a scope.” Benton stares in the direction of the wooded grounds, of the cantilevered green roof.
“You just this minute told her to look.”
“I did and in her words, no joy.” He shows me the two-word text on his iPhone that Lucy’s partner Janet sent, aviation lingo meaning they didn’t see anything.
The two of them are flying together, and I wonder if the only reason they’re up is to wish me a very loud and dramatic happy birthday. Then I think of something else. Lucy’s twin-engine Italian helicopter looks law enforcement, and the neighbors probably think it has to do with President Obama arriving in Cambridge late today. He’ll be staying in a hotel near the Kennedy School of Government, barely a mile from here.
“Nothing unusual,” Benton is saying. “So if someone was there up in a tree or wherever, he’s gone. Did I mention how hungry I am?”
“As soon as I can get our poor rattled dog to potty,” I reply as my attention wanders back to the pennies on the wall. “You may as well relax for a few more minutes. He was already stubborn this morning and now he’ll only be worse.”
I crouch down in the grass and stroke Sock, doing my best to soothe him.
“That noisy flying machine is gone and I’m right here,” I say sweetly to him. “It was just Lucy flying around and nothing to be scared about.”