SOMETHING OF VALUE
In the halo of the lens, the flush in Justin’s cheeks, the flutter of his hair, the rise and fall of his chest were all subject to capture. He wore the beauty of youth casually, as if he knew it would last. A line of poetry flitted through Lynn’s mind, something about the shortness of summer’s lease.
Lynn watched as Justin’s gaze swept the parking lot full of teenagers and lit on the slender back of a girl just moving into the school building. Maybe something? Lynn held down the shutter button. The camera took nine clear images with barely a sound.
She zoomed out to watch Justin cross the lot, book bag slung over one shoulder as he chatted with Tim and Evan, and then enter the building. AP Biology first period. Wouldn’t want to be late, even if he was a senior. As the door closed behind him she felt the tension in her shoulders ease. No more watching for a while.
She set the camera down and reached for a notebook. A sharp rap on the driver’s window made her jump.
A young patrolman with a crew cut. She rolled down her window. “Yes?”
He stared at the equipment on the seat next to her. “Can I ask what you’re doing here, ma’am?”
“Bird watching,” she said.
“Bird watching? In a parking garage overlooking the high school?”
“The big Maple down there? Batsforbirds spotted a Swamp Sparrow in it yesterday morning.” She picked up her copy of California Birdlife and flipped it open to a dog-eared page. “This one.”
He glanced at the photo and turned to look at the tree. Then he turned back to Lynn’s ten-year-old SUV. “What’s that?” He pointed to the bright pink Shewee case on the floor of the car. “Let me see it.” He held out his hand.
“Oh, I don’t think you want to—”
“Just hand it over, ma’am.”
She leaned down and picked it up, her hand trembling. “Okay, but I haven’t washed it since I used it last.”
He froze, his hand an inch from the case. “What is it?”
“It’s for . . . when there’s no toilet and I can’t wait.”
He retracted his hand and stepped back from the door. He searched her face as if trying to place her. She’d cropped her hair and lost weight since the publicity, but cops learned to focus on features. “Can I see your driver’s license, please?”
She set the Shewee down, used a wet wipe to clean her fingers, and pulled her license out of her wallet.
Lynn watched him in the rear view mirror as he returned to the patrol car. Something about him, his posture and haircut and the clipped way he spoke, made her think he was one of those by-the-book types. An appeal for sympathy would be lost on him. She slid the notebook under the seat, closed her eyes and took long, slow breaths. After a few minutes he returned and handed her the license.
“Thank you, ma’am.” He gave her another long look. “Have a nice day,” he said, and turned to go.
The rest of the day was uneventful. She grabbed a sandwich before Justin got out of school and was in place in time to watch him leave the building and get into his friend Tim’s Range Rover. She followed it back to Justin’s house and saw him go inside. Then she watched the house until midnight, when his bedroom light went off. Standard weekday night. Nothing useful.
She logged a final entry in the notebook and drove to her apartment, where she stood in the kitchen and ate tuna from the can. She hoped the patrolman wouldn’t return to the parking structure. There wasn’t a better location for watching the school. When she finished eating, she took a shower, pulled on some sweats and sat at her computer, glancing through hundreds of images. Justin, rarely alone, rarely with his mother, almost always surrounded by friends. Photos taken through windows of cafes and restaurants and stores of Justin playing with his latest tablet or phone, Justin shopping and eating pizza and playing tennis and water polo. Justin talking and smiling and laughing and occasionally snarling. She studied these last the most, searching for clues, anything that would help her read his inner life.
She printed a new photograph, the best of the day, and added it to the latest album. Justin laughing, mouth open, head thrown back, sun in his hair. She stared at it, ran her finger along the line of his cheek, then flipped through the rest of the album, pausing to relish her best shots.
Finally she stretched, switched off the computer, and went to bed.
Lynn woke to the alarm and rose, groaning at the pain in her lower back. Mornings were the hardest. She’d learned to get up fast and keep moving. The scent in the air told her the coffee maker had done its job. She dressed in her standard outfit—jeans, tee, sweatshirt, athletic shoes—filled a thermos, stuffed a power bar in her pocket and was out the door and parked a block from Justin’s at seven, an hour before he had to be at school. She picked up the log and wrote in the date. Almost time to buy another notebook.
The morning went as usual. Tim rolled in front of the house in his Range Rover and honked. Justin came loping out and got into the car. They arrived at school eleven minutes before eight. Then something new happened. Justin waved to a girl and she smiled and approached. He put an arm around her shoulders and they walked toward the school entrance together. It looked like the same girl Lynn had noticed the day before, petite with dark hair down her back.
Maybe Justin was finally starting to care about someone. Lynn took a series of shots, closeups of his face and then a few of the two of them walking together and a couple of her face so she could identify her. After they went inside she set the camera down, pulled a high school yearbook out from under a blanket in the back seat, and began searching the student photos. So many girls with long, dark hair; they were almost interchangeable. She stopped midway through the juniors. “Hello, Tessa Mahler,” she whispered, and wrote the name in the log.
At the end of the day she ate a cup of instant ramen for dinner, transferred the photos to her computer and printed the best of the day for the album. She was about to turn off the computer when someone pounded three times on her apartment door, loud enough to wake the neighbors. She popped off her chair and glanced at the clock. After one. She moved to the front door and set her hand on the knob, trying to decide if she should open it.
“Open up, Lynn. I know you’re in there.”
She swung the door open and caught LeBlanc with his fist raised. “Detective LeBlanc,” she said. “You’re out late.”
He stepped into the apartment and pushed the door closed. He glanced around the room, taking in the blank white walls, the desk in one corner and the mattress on the floor in another. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” he said. “The Astins have a restraining order. You could end up in jail.”
So the patrolman with the crew cut had discovered who she was. “One hundred feet,” she said.
“You had a camera. The judge warned you about—”
“—I was birding.”
He shook his head and paced, looking disgusted. “That’s your line? Your honor, I’ve decided to use my considerable stalking skills on birds now. There just happened to be a purple assed fuck warbler perched on Justin Astin’s nose.”
He flung his arms out. “You’ve got to quit this, Lynn. It’s been over a year.”
They stared at each other in the quiet of the apartment, his hard, dark eyes pushing at her to admit defeat. She shifted her gaze to the framed photo on her desk and let all that cop intensity slide over her.
“This obsession is—” he started.
“—bad things happen to good people. Save it, I’ve got it memorized.”
LeBlanc sighed. “Look Lynn, you’re a beautiful woman. You could still—” He reached for her shoulders.
She stepped back and cut him off with a dry laugh. “You think I care about that?”
“No. No, I know you don’t.” He turned his back on her abruptly, his hands clenched.
She might have felt bad for him once, back when she’d been more profligate with emotion. “Go find someone who wants saving, Dave.”
He moved to the door without looking at her. “If you end up in prison, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
She wondered if this would be his final warning. “Can I ask you something?”
He froze, his hand on the doorknob.
“If I send you a message, will you look at it? Or just delete it?”
“Do us both a favor,” he said. “Don’t send me anything.”
Lynn was taking a lot of photos again. Before school, after school, whenever Justin and Tessa were together. She didn’t bother taking photos of Tessa. She didn’t want to watch her too closely.
As it was there had been that one moment, Lynn was looking at both of them through the lens. Justin pushed a stray lock off his forehead and said something. Tessa answered and ducked her head, embarrassed. The gesture, such a small thing, made Lynn cry out in pain. She had to set the camera down and rest her head in her hands. “Bad things happen to good people,” she whispered. And then she called up the four faces, silently repeating their names, saving Millie for last.
In the early days Lynn had taken hundreds of snapshots a day, as if merely photographing Justin could take something of value from him. Now her shots were selective. If Justin fell in love, it probably wouldn’t last, but it might provide a narrow window of time when he cared about someone more than himself.
That was the time to strike.
Every night she pored over the day’s haul, the laughter and kisses, looking for confirmation that it was time. In the end it wasn’t smiles or kisses that told her, it was something more dramatic. Justin and Tessa were walking together downtown after school, Tessa slightly ahead as she stepped off the curb, when a motorcyclist came roaring through the intersection. Justin grabbed Tessa and yanked her back onto the sidewalk and from a block away, through the lens, Lynn caught it all: the color draining from his face, the anger followed by relief as he clutched her.
Sometimes Lynn liked to imagine she trained a high-powered rifle on him instead of a camera. She could aim at his Adam’s apple and with one pull of a finger, sever his head from his shoulders.
It was Saturday evening and Lynn expected someone to pick Justin up, Tim or Tessa or one of his other friends. Usually there was a party or gathering of some kind on Saturdays, which meant watching a house until well past midnight, hoping for a glimpse of Justin. But this Saturday he came out of his house a few minutes after seven, got in his mother’s red Mercedes roadster, and backed out of the driveway as if he was in a hurry. Lynn took several shots as he got into the driver’s seat, her heart pounding, and then set the camera down and followed. He pulled in front of Tessa’s house and honked and she came out. There was a delay while they discussed something in the car, and then they were off, Justin still at the wheel.
They drove up past Grizzly Peak on narrow, winding streets and turned off onto a steep dirt road that led to an overlook where they could watch the sunset and see the lights of the Bay Area come on. Lynn backed the SUV down to the paved road below and parked on the shoulder pointing downhill, so she could leave quickly. She got out of the car, opened the trunk and took out her 9 mm pistol. She put it, a night scope and her camera in a shoulder bag and started up the incline, staying in the shadow of the trees and walking slowly to avoid making noise. She figured she had plenty of time.
She heard the murmur of their voices before she saw them. It sounded as if they were arguing quietly about something, and then Justin laughed. Then silence. She circled around until she could watch them in profile, leaning against the hood of the car, looking out at the view, two dark silhouettes against an orange and gold sky. Justin lifted something to his mouth and took a drink. Whatever it was fit in his hand and glinted in the evening sun. A flask, she decided. He was driving again, and he was drinking from a flask.
She felt her breath go and squatted so she wouldn’t fall over. She panted with rage. “Bad things happen to good people,” she whispered, and set the bag on the ground next to her while she caught her breath. She lifted her camera and took several shots of Justin, a few with him lifting the flask to his mouth. Then she had an inspiration and took a couple of photos with her phone. They wouldn’t be as clear, but . . . she texted them to Dave.
She set the camera down and picked up the gun. It felt heavy and awkward in her hand. Would the other parents understand? Would they be grateful? Probably not. Not when they heard what she’d done. Maybe a few of the cops would. They all hated how it had gone down. But no, not even they would understand. Nobody would understand except Justin.
When she’d rehearsed it in her mind, she’d always pictured Justin, his fear and then anguish. She thought of pointing the pistol, firing, seeing Tessa’s head come apart. She saw Tessa ducking her head, embarrassed, the way Millie used to. The astringent scents of Eucalyptus and Bay Laurel filled Lynn’s throat and she bent and vomited onto the ground. Then she flung the pistol into the trees. Her phone vibrated and she checked the text.
“WHERE ARE YOU?” Dave, yelling again.
She turned and ran back to her car. She sat in the driver’s seat, tears and mucus running down her face as she ripped the pages out of the log, tossing them out the window. Memories rushed back, four mangled bodies on the side of the highway, Millie’s body at the morgue, Justin’s cool, unrepentant demeanor during the trial, the smug face of his lawyer as he assured the judge that here was a “promising kid” from a “good family” who had made one unfortunate mistake.
Judge Foster must have had doubts, or maybe she’d known her decision would cause uproar. She’d lectured Justin about the serious nature of the charges and warned him about breaking the terms of his parole—no driving, no drinking, for ten years. “And I’m not talking about cushy rehab,” Judge Foster said, pointing her gavel at him. “One violation, I’ll see you do hard time, young man. Years of it.”
“Bad things happen to good people,” Dave had said to Lynn after the trial. That was the first time he told her to let it go, go away, start over.
“Good things happen to bad people,” she’d hissed at him. “As long as you’re rich, right?”
The other parents wouldn’t talk to her after a while, said they wanted to “move on.” And sure enough, in the face of endless delays and attorney bills, one family after another gave up on their day in court, settled their civil suits with Jason’s father, and moved on. But where would Lynn move to? All she’d had was Millie.
She tossed the empty cover of the notebook out the window and wiped off her face. Then she stared at the road and waited, trying to keep her mind empty. It was dark by the time the headlights of Justin’s car appeared on the dirt road. Lynn started her car and watched him turn onto the pavement. Then she pulled the SUV onto the street and floored it.
The back half of the Mercedes was crushed, but the airbags saved the kids. A patrolcar pulled up just as Justin and Tessa climbed out of the wreck. Justin took one look at Lynn, waiting by the barely scratched SUV, and started screaming at the officer.
“Do you know who that is?” He jabbed his finger at Lynn. “She . . . that’s the maniac who. . . we have a restraining order on her!”
The policeman turned to look at Tessa. “Everybody okay?”
Lynn jerked. It was the clean-cut patrolman from the parking garage.
Justin’s voice grew even louder. “She rammed into us for no reason!”
“I’ll get to her in a minute. Can I see your license?”
“Here it is,” Justin said. “Dude, the bitch is crazy. Do you realize she could have killed us?”
The cop turned his head and looked at Lynn, his face noncommittal, then looked down at the license. “Do you realize this is suspended?”
Justin pushed a stray lock of hair off his forehead and let out a huff of exasperation. “Christ, I’m telling you—”
“Sir, have you been drinking?”