Authors: Chris Bohjalian
In the dark of the theater, losing herself in a musical about a group of beached whales and the people who try to save themâit vacillated between charming and operatically sadâKristin was almost able to forget the nightmare that had occurred in her living room (in her whole house, in truth, but at the moment she kept returning to the living room) the night before. There were times during the first act when she sat acutely still, her hands atop the yellow and white Playbill in her lap, her daughter beside her, when she was able to convince herself that all would be well in the end. She felt her body relax into the red velvet cushion of the seat; she immersed herself in the world of the pickup-truck-sized puppets of whales and the plaintive singing of the desperate marine biologists.
But that hope disappeared the moment the lights came up and she switched on her phone at intermission. There were the feverish voice-mail messages. The ineludible texts. The frenzied questions from neighbors and other schoolteachers about the news stories, some of which she decided she would have to scan before returning anyone's calls. There was a message from her brother. She could feel Melissa watching her as she scrolled through the first article, reading the quotes from the police officers and detectives andâdear Godâsome gregarious friend of her brother-in-law's named Chuck Alcott who apparently was lacking both in reticence and verbal restraint. “I don't know who was more out of control, the two hookers or the guys at the party,” he was quoted as saying. He said that at least half the bankers, advertising executives, IT managers, and hoteliers (there was that word again) at the party had had sex with the girls. He said the stabbing of the fellow who had brought the prostitutes was the most horrific thing he would ever see in his life. He added that he had not witnessed the shooting of the second Russianânone of the men hadâbut it was the other girl who had gotten the gun and pulled the trigger. This Chuck Alcott insisted that he was one of the revelers who had not had sex with the prostitutes.
Her husband, she noted, was described as a wealthy investment banker; their house was called elegant and well appointed; their daughter was not mentioned at all. Thank heavens.
But the part of the story that struck her most was the paragraph about the hookers. Although the headline suggested that the girls had unleashed unspeakable violence in her home, the articleâdespite the Chuck Alcott quotesâportrayed them as victims. As Richard had said, it may have been their captors they killed, not their bodyguards. The girls may have been sex slaves. They may have been minors. No doubt, the reporter concluded, the pair was trying harder to stay ahead of Russian gangsters than they were the police.
“Is Daddy in more trouble?” Melissa asked her. All around them people were stretching and sharing how moved they were by the first act. Her little girl's eyes were the most remarkable blue, even in the muted light of the theater. Her eyelashes already were lustrous and long. She was a lovely child and Kristin was scared for her. For her future. She thought of the gentlemen's clubsânow there was a ridiculous euphemismâthey had passed in Times Square on the way to the theater and decided that, at the moment, she hated men. All of them. They turned girls into whores. Sex slaves. And not just in dark alleyways in Bangkok. Right here. There may have been two in her home.
She wondered what the hell she had been thinking allowing her husband to have a bachelor party at their house. She tried to recall whose idea it was, and couldn't. She just couldn't.
“No,” Kristin answered carefully. “He's in the same amount of trouble. There's really nothing new here. It's justâ¦”
“It's just what?”
Her brother, both because he was a therapist and because he was older, sometimes felt entitled to chide her for being averse to confrontation. Sometimes when the family was gathered for Thanksgiving or Christmas and she would mention how difficult the school principal was or how badly some parents were behaving, he would encourage her to stand up for herself. He would tell her to draw a line in the sand. Well, this time she had. She thought of her conversations with Richard since that first phone call in the small hours of the morning, and she certainly felt she had asked him the tough questions. She was furious and hurt and she felt betrayed.
“It's just that people are already talking about what happened. I guess I didn't expect that word would spread so fast,” she tried to explain to Melissa, and for the first time she saw herself the way other people might see her. She felt ashamed and (somehow) inadequate, which brought back all of the anger she had been feeling earlier that day in the guest bedroom at her mother's. Was she not pretty enough for Richard? Not sexy enough? Notâ¦erotic enough? Did her husband need more? Want more? Did he want somethingâsomeoneâelse?
She was, she realized, embarrassed. That was the word. She wasâ¦embarrassed. How could he be so cavalier with their lives? How could he go and risk ruining all they had built?
Suddenly she wasn't sure she could bear to be around him after what he had done to their marriage. To their family. At least she couldn't bear to be around him right now. Certainly not tonight.
Earlier today she had wanted stability for Melissa. That had been her goal. She wanted this nightmare behind them, and until it was she wanted to minimize the stress on her child. She and Richard had never fought in front of the girl, and she had hopedâexpected, in factâthat they never would. But what sort of role model was she for her daughter if she seemed to condone this sort of behavior from her husband? If she didn't, as her brother would have said, stand up for herself?
“The story is on TV?” her daughter was asking.
“Yes, it is.”
Melissa seemed to think about this for a second and nodded. Then she looked down at her own copy of the Playbill. Kristin realized that the girl was afraid to look at her.
“But it'll be okay, sweetie,” she said, stroking the side of the child's head, running her fingernails gently behind her ear. She could feel own her heart racing and took a breath. She had come to a decision: Richard would have to spend tonight at a hotel. Maybe tomorrow night, too. “It really will,” she added.
She didn't try to smile when she spoke; that would have been impossible. She knew the fear she was feeling for the child was unreasonable, but she was unable to reassure herself when she thought about boys and men and the images they had of women in the digital age. Men were predators, and this little girl beside herâher childâwas just too beautiful.
When Richard returned to his mother-in-law's apartment, he presented her with the flowers he had bought, and then together they went to the kitchen to put them in a large vase. The girls weren't back yet from the theater. It was awkward, but Richard took some comfort in his mother-in-law's absolutely remarkable ability to steer clear of unpleasant subjects. She asked him about work. She had him show her the things he had bought for his family, the reasons why he had gone on the shopping spree conveniently forgotten. Or, more precisely, avoided. It was impossible to forget what had occurred last night.
Just as he was starting to put the gifts back in their boxes, Philip phoned yet again. This time Richard took the call, disappearing into the guest bedroom so they could speak in private. He didn't apologize for not picking up earlier, but he began by explaining that he had been meeting with a lawyer and then had gone shopping for Kristin and Melissa. He added that the police had kicked him and his family out of his house.
“Well, thank God you're not home,” his younger brother said. “Consider yourself lucky.”
“Your place is under siege.”
Though he was alone, Richard found himself nodding. He thought of the TV news trucks on the street at the edge of his driveway.
“My building has a doorman and I'm on the fourth floor, so they can't get to me. But I'm also not going out. No fucking way. I will live on Chinese delivery and whatever the hell I have in my refrigerator. Still, I'm going to have to tip Sean big-time come Christmas,” Philip said, referring to the fellow who was on duty in the lobby that afternoon. His brother's apartment was just off the East River promenade in Brooklyn Heights.
“How many reporters are downstairs?”
“According to Sean, five. At least it was five the last time he checked. Three men, two women. Some TV, some print.”
“How is Nicole?”
“What do you mean, no idea?”
“She's not talking to me. She's holed up in her studio.”
“Well, there's your answer. That's how she's doing.”
“I wouldn't say she is overreacting exactly, but it would be nice if she saw our side.”
“We could have been killed! My God, two people were murdered in cold blood in your house. How were we supposed to know the strippers were going to go postal? It was awful.”
“They weren't strippers.”
“Fine. It wasn't our fault that the
went postal. It was still awful. And it was supposed to be just a regular old bachelor party. My bachelor party. A guy's got a right to a bachelor party, doesn't he?”
“Philip, it wasn't a bachelor party. It was aâ¦”
“It was a what?”
“It was a freaking disaster is what it was.”
“But it wasn't my fault. It wasn't your fault.”
“Philip, not trying to be judgmental hereâ”
“Look, you fucked one of the girls.”
“You did, too.”
“Fine, you took her upstairs and did whatever. None of my business. That's not the point. It was my bachelor party. Grooms fuck strippers at their bachelor parties all the time. I've told you the shit that goes down at the hotel. I'm not proud of what I did, but if the girls hadn't lost their minds, none of this would have been a problem. We would have had a good time with some jiggly little things and moved on. We wouldn't have reporters camped out on our doorsteps right now. We wouldn't have spent hours in a fucking police station last night. And my fiancÃ©e wouldn't be so royally pissed off that who the hell knows if she's actually going to marry me two weeks from today.”
Richard heard his mother-in-law turn on the radio in her bedroom. Classical music. She had turned the volume up high, either because her hearing was suspect or she wanted to give him privacy. He gently pushed the guest bedroom door closed with the toe of his shoe.
“Grooms don't fuck strippers all the time,” he told Philip.
“A, they do. The next time you're at a place like Thong, go upstairs with one of the girls to a private room. And B, it's a fine line.”
“How much worse is it really to have a naked woman grinding her crotch against yours in a lap dance andâpardon my Frenchâyou whipping it out? Obviously, the latter is worse. I get it. But, seriously, how much worse is it really?”
“Listen to yourself. It's a lot worse.”
“I'm not so sure,” his brother said, his tone petulant and defensive. “It's all just foreplay. A couple Fridays ago when Spencer and I were thereâ”
“Yeah. We took a couple of girls upstairs, got a little nasty, and when I got home, I was awesome with Nicole. A beast.”
“You made love to your fiancÃ©e after going to a strip club?”
“That wasn't my point.”
“And my point is simply that no one was hurt,” Philip insisted. But then, when he continued a second later, he had lowered his voice and sounded a little worried. “But this will blow over, right?”
“Are you asking me my opinion or trying to reassure yourself?”
“I mean, as a culture we have the attention span of five-year-olds. Don't you think? Tomorrow we will be on to the next human disaster. And, maybe a disaster we should give a rat's ass about.”
“Meaning two dead people in my house isn't a disaster we should give a rat's ass about?”
“You know what I mean: they were hookers who killed some mobster jerks. This isn't, I don't know, a bazillion starving children somewhere in Africa.”
Richard looked at his watch. The musical had probably ended half an hour ago. Kristin and Melissa would be back any minute. He tried to will his younger brother to ask him about them, but he knew it wasn't likely. Philip just wasn't hardwired that way.
“Yeah,” he said simply, allowing a sliver of sarcasm into his voice. “This isn't a job for the Red Cross. I agree.”
“You talk to Mom and Dad?”
He knew he should call them. Should
called them. Any second now, one of their friends was going to tell them what they had just seen on TV, utterly thrilled to have something to discuss other than angioplasties or Coumadin or someone's hip replacement surgery. His parents had retired three years ago to Fort Lauderdale, buying a house in one of those developments deep into what had once been the Everglades. There was a golf course that sometimes had alligators among the hazards. Everyone was between the age of sixty and embalmed. “No,” he answered. “I haven't.”
“Me neither. I think it's almost best to wait for them to call me and then I can say, âMom, I didn't want to worry you. It was scary, but I'm okay.' You know, sound brave and stoic.”
“That's you, Philip. Brave and stoic.”
“So what's next? What did your lawyer say? Spencer's wigging out. He's worried he's looking at some serious legal misery. He's convinced this little clusterfuck is going to bury him in legal fees.”
“It very well might. The retainer request I agreed to this morning was impressive.”
“And given what you bring home, that says something.”
“So what did you learn?”