There was a brief movement to one side. Turning, Smithback saw a small, neat woman with well-coiffed brown hair seated at one end of a sofa. She was wearing a dark, simple dress. Without speaking, she motioned him to sit down. Smithback selected a wing chair opposite Mrs. Wisher. A tea service had been laid out on a low table between them, and the journalist’s eye roved over the array of scones, marmalades, dishes of honey and clotted cream. The woman made no move to offer any, and Smithback realized the setting had been for the intended appointment. A brief uneasiness came across him at the thought that George—no doubt the real eleven o’clock arrival—might appear at any moment.
Smithback cleared his throat. “Mrs. Wisher, I’m very, very sorry about your daughter,” he said.
As he spoke, he realized he might actually mean it. Seeing this elegant room, seeing how little all this wealth mattered in the face of ultimate tragedy, somehow brought the woman’s loss forcefully home to him.
Mrs. Wisher continued to gaze back, hands folded in her lap. She may have made a barely perceptible nod, but Smithback couldn’t be sure in the dim light. Time to get the show on the road, he thought, reaching casually into his jacket pocket and slowly pressing the record button.
“Turn off that tape recorder,” said Mrs. Wisher quietly. Her voice was thin and a little strained, but remarkably commanding.
Smithback jerked his hand out of the pocket. “I’m sorry?”
“Please remove the recorder from your pocket and place it here, where I can see that it’s turned off.”
“Yes, yes, of course,” Smithback said, fumbling with the machine.
“Have you no sense of decency?” the woman whispered.
Smithback, placing the recorder on the low table, felt his ears begin to burn.
“You say you’re sorry about my daughter’s death,” the quiet voice continued, “while at the same time turning on that filthy thing. After I invited you into my home.”
Smithback shifted uncomfortably in his chair, reluctant to meet the woman’s eyes. “Yes, well,” he babbled. “I’m sorry, I’m just… well, it’s my job.” The words sounded lame even as he spoke them.
“Yes. I’ve just lost my only child, the only family I had left. Whose sensitivities do you think should take precedence, Mr. Smithback?”
Smithback fell silent, forcing himself to look at the woman. She sat unmoving, staring steadily back at him across the gloom, hands still folded on her lap. A strange thing was happening to him, a very strange thing, so foreign to his nature that he almost didn’t recognize the emotion. He was feeling embarrassed. No, that wasn’t it: he was feeling ashamed. If he’d fought for the scoop, unearthed it himself, perhaps it would be different. But to be brought up here, to see the woman’s grief… All the excitement of getting assigned a big story drained away beneath this novel sensation.
Mrs. Wisher raised one of her hands and made the briefest of movements, indicating something on a reading table beside her.
“I assume you are the Smithback who writes for this paper?”
Smithback followed her gesture and noticed, with a sinking feeling, a copy of the Post. “Yes,” he said.
She folded her hands again. “I just wanted to be sure. Now, what about that important information regarding my daughter’s death? No, don’t say it—no doubt that was a ruse, as well.”
There was another silence. Now, Smithback found himself almost wishing that the real eleven o’clock appointment would show up. Anything to get out of here.
“How do you do it?” she asked at last.
“Invent this garbage? It isn’t enough for my daughter to be brutally murdered. People like you have to sully her memory.”
Smithback swallowed. “Mrs. Wisher, I’m just—”
“Reading this filth,” she continued, “one would think that Pamela was just some selfish society girl who got what she deserved. You make your readers glad my daughter was murdered. So, what I wonder is simple. How do you do it?”
“Mrs. Wisher, people in this town don’t pay attention to something unless you slap them in the face with it,” Smithback began, then stopped. Mrs. Wisher wasn’t buying his self-justification any more than he was.
The woman sat forward very slowly on the sofa. “You know absolutely nothing about her, Mr. Smithback. You only see what’s on the surface. That’s all you’re interested in.”
“Not true!” Smithback burst out, surprising himself. “I mean, that’s not all I’m interested in. I want to know the real Pamela Wisher.”
The woman regarded him for a long moment. Then she stood up and left the room, returning with a framed photograph. She handed it to Smithback. A girl of about six was pictured, swinging on a rope tied to a massive oak branch. The girl was hollering at the camera, her two front teeth missing, pinafore and pigtails flying.
“That’s the Pamela I’ll always remember, Mr. Smithback,” Mrs. Wisher said evenly. “If you really are interested, then print this picture. Not that one you keep running that makes her look like a brainless debutante.” She sat down again, smoothing her dress across her knees. “She was just beginning to smile again, after the death of her father six months ago. And she wanted to have some fun before starting work this fall. What’s criminal about that?”
“Work?” Smithback asked.
There was a short silence. Smithback felt Mrs. Wisher’s eyes on him in the funereal gloom. “That’s correct. She was starting a job in a hospice for AIDS patients. You would have known that if you’d done your research.”
“That’s the real Pamela,” the woman said, her voice suddenly breaking. “Kind, generous, full of life. I want you to write about the real Pamela.”
“I’ll do my best,” Smithback mumbled.
Then the moment was over, and Mrs. Wisher was again composed and distant. She inclined her head, made a brief movement of her hand, and Smithback realized he had been released. He mumbled his thanks, retrieved his tape recorder, and headed for the elevator as quickly as he dared.
“One other thing,” Mrs. Wisher said, her voice suddenly hard. Smithback stopped at the French doors. “They can’t tell me when she died, why she died, or even how she died. But Pamela will not have died in vain, I promise you that.”
She spoke with a new intensity, and Smithback turned to face her. “You said something just now,” she went on. “You said that people in this town don’t pay attention to something unless you slap them in the face with it. That’s what I intend to do.”
“How?” Smithback asked.
But Mrs. Wisher withdrew onto the sofa, and her face fell into deep shadow. Smithback walked through the foyer and rang for the elevator, feeling drained. It wasn’t until he was back on the street, blinking in the strong summer light, that he looked down again at the childhood picture of Pamela Wisher, still clutched in his right hand. It was beginning to dawn on him exactly how formidable a woman Mrs. Wisher was.
= 5 =
THE METAL DOOR at the end of the gray hallway was discreetly marked FORENSIC ANTHROPOLOGY in stenciled capitals. It was the Museum’s state-of-the-art facility for analyzing human remains. Margo tried the knob and to her surprise found it locked. This was odd. She’d been here countless times, assisting in examinations of everything from Peruvian mummies to Anasazi cliff dwellers, and the door had never been locked before. She lifted her hand to knock. But the door was already being opened from the inside, and she found her rap falling onto thin air.
She stepped in, then stopped abruptly. The lab, normally brightly lit and bustling with grad students and curatorial assistants, looked dim and strange. The bulky electron microscopes, X-ray viewers, and electrophoresis apparatus sat against the walls, silent and unused. The window that normally boasted a panoramic view of Central Park was covered by a heavy curtain. A single pool of brilliant light illuminated the center of the room; at its edge, a semicircle of figures stood among the shadows.