Long Bright River

After I drop him off, I wait for a while, watching as he runs up the steps. The shades on the house have been lifted, and I can see inside it. Each lit-up window contains within it the possibility that Kacey will pass by.

But she doesn’t, and doesn’t, and finally I drive away.

* * *

My phone, after a long day of being out of the house, has died completely, which adds to my sense of unease. I don’t like being out of contact with Thomas.

No one is on the road. It’s snowing lightly. A fat yellow moon sits in the sky. I try to picture Thomas and Mrs. Mahon, and I try to tell myself that they are tucked in and cozy, watching something to do with Christmas on television. Maybe, I think, Thomas will still be awake when I get home. It will make me feel better, less guilty for leaving, if I can at least say good night to him.

* * *

When I park the car and walk up the back stairs, I see a low flickering light through the window next to the door. I turn my key as quietly as I can, in case Thomas is sleeping already. But the door stops an inch from its threshold. I push it again, more frantically. There’s something blocking it.

Through the window at the top of the door, I see Mrs. Mahon’s round concerned face. She looks past my shoulder for a moment, too, as if making certain I haven’t been followed.

—Mickey? she says through the door. Is that you?

—What’s going on? I say. It’s me. Are you all right? Where’s Thomas?

—Just hold on, she says. Hold on one second.

A scraping sound as she drags something away.

At last, the door swings open, and when I enter the apartment I scan the room quickly for my son.

—Where’s Thomas? I say again.

—Asleep in his bedroom, says Mrs. Mahon. Then she says, Thank God you’re home. They’ve been looking for you.

—Who has? I say.

—The police, says Mrs. Mahon. The police came here about an hour ago and rang your doorbell. Poor Thomas was terrified. I was terrified, Mickey. When they turned up in your doorway, I thought they were going to tell me you’d died. They said they’d been trying to call you but couldn’t get through. They came to find you at home.

—My phone’s dead, I say. Who was it? What officer?

Mrs. Mahon fishes in her pocket, takes out a card. Hands it to me. Detective Davis Nguyen, it says.

—There was another one too, she says. Another man. I can’t recall his name.

—DiPaolo? I say.

—That’s the one, says Mrs. Mahon.

—What did they want? I say.

I move to the corner of the room, where I keep a charger on an end table, and plug in my phone.

—They didn’t tell me that, says Mrs. Mahon. Only said to have you call them when you got in.

—All right, I say. Thank you, Mrs. Mahon.

—I wonder, though, says Mrs. Mahon, if it has anything to do with the news.

—What news?

Mrs. Mahon inclines her head toward the television, and I follow her gaze. It’s not a Christmas movie playing in the background: a correspondent is standing on Cumberland Street, near an empty lot that’s been taped off. The same light snow that’s falling on Bensalem is falling there.

Christmas Day Murder, says a caption below the reporter’s pale face. She’s bundled into a purple parka. Into her microphone, she’s saying, Two weeks ago, the Philadelphia Police Department was assuring the public that they had a suspect in custody. Today, however, there is speculation that this homicide may be connected to the string of homicides that took place in Kensington earlier this month.

Mrs. Mahon is shaking her head, making small disapproving noises. Poor girl, she says.

—Who, I say. Have they named the victim?

—No, says Mrs. Mahon. Not yet. Only said it was a female.

—Anything else? I say.

—Said she was discovered around noon today. Seems like she’d only been dead a short time.

I’m still holding my phone in one hand. At last, it is sufficiently charged, and it comes to life at my command.

—Mrs. Mahon, I say. Would you mind staying here a moment while I make this call? I don’t want to send you away if they’re going to need to bring me to the station.

—That’s what I was thinking, Mrs. Mahon says. I don’t mind at all.

It’s DiPaolo I phone, not Nguyen. I know DiPaolo better.

He answers right away, sounding alert. He’s outside someplace: I can hear traffic in the background.

—It’s Mickey Fitzpatrick, I say. I heard you stopped by my house.

—Glad you called, he says. Where are you right now?

—At home, I say.

—And where’s your son? says DiPaolo.

I begin to answer, then change my mind. Why? I say.

—We just want to make certain you’re both accounted for.

—He’s fine, I say. He’s sleeping.

But suddenly I feel the need to know this for myself. As I speak to DiPaolo, I walk swiftly to Thomas’s room and open the door.

There he is.

He has bunched all the blankets into a nest at the center of his bed. He’s hugging them tightly. His jaw is tense. Softly, I close the door again.

—Okay, says DiPaolo.

—What’s going on? I say. Is Mulvey still in custody?

DiPaolo breathes for a bit.

—He was, he says. Until today.

—What happened? I say.

—He has an alibi, he says at last. He’s got a sober friend says he was with Mulvey for two days straight around the time the Walker girl was killed, and Mulvey’s claiming that the reason his DNA was on two of the girls who died was that he was a client of theirs. Nothing more. Both of them, Mulvey and his friend, they swear he didn’t kill them. He lawyered up. We had to let him go.

—What time was he released? I say. Was he in custody at the time of today’s homicide?

I don’t know what I want the answer to be.

—He was, says DiPaolo.

In his voice, I hear there’s something more he has to say.

—Listen, says DiPaolo, I’m sending a patrol car your way. Rookie from the 9th District. He’ll be parked in your driveway tonight, okay? Don’t be surprised when you see him there.

—Why? I say.

DiPaolo pauses. In the background, I hear a siren go by. He coughs once, twice.

—Why, Mike? I say.

—It’s just a precaution, he says. Probably an overreaction. But the name you gave me when we met at Duke’s—the woman you said made an accusation to you against someone in the PPD?

—Paula, I say. Paula Mulroney.

DiPaolo’s silent. Waiting for me to connect the dots.

—She was the victim today, he says finally.

I tell Mrs. Mahon to sleep in my bed for the night. I’ll sleep on the couch, in the room closest to the front door, where anyone entering would encounter me first.

I want us all under the same roof.

All I tell Mrs. Mahon about the cruiser that inches quietly up our snowy driveway and parks there is that my colleagues are being extra cautious because of some information I was able to give them.

—It’s nothing to worry about, I say, and Mrs. Mahon says, Do I look like I worry about much?

But I know she’s only putting on a brave face, just as I am. And while Mrs. Mahon is using the bathroom, I sneak quietly down the hall and take down, from the lockbox, my weapon.

* * *

Now I can’t sleep. I’m thinking about the cruiser in the driveway, wondering why, if DiPaolo is afraid that Paula was killed to silence her, it’s a PPD officer who’s been assigned to guard us. I would feel safer with a member of the state police, an outsider. It’s true: DiPaolo took pains to tell me that he was assigning a rookie to the watch, someone from a different district—and therefore someone, presumably, without many ties to the 24th. Still, I lie awake on the sofa until four a.m., watching the second hand of the wall clock tick in the dim light from the outdoor lamp. Shadows segment it, cast by the slatted blinds. I’d climb into bed with Thomas if I weren’t worried this would wake him up. I want to be close to him, to know I am protecting him, to know he’s right next to me in the world.

Another feeling begins slowly to take over, joining forces with my worry: it’s sadness, terrible sadness for Paula, whom I can still picture clearly as an eighteen-year-old with a sharp tongue and a quick laugh. Someone who always stood up for Kacey, just as Kacey always stood up for me. I suppose I always liked knowing Paula was out there, watching over my sister, watching over all the women of Kensington.

Last, and worst, comes guilt. If the person we’re looking for is in the PPD; and if I am the one who first spoke Paula Mulroney’s name—to Ahearn, and then to Chambers, and then to DiPaolo—then, yes. It is possible that I am the one responsible, indirectly, for her death.

I close my eyes. I put my hands to my head.

Off the record? I said to Ahearn.

Off the record, he said to me.

By the next morning, the PPD still hasn’t released Paula’s name to the news.

I spend a little while searching for information about her online. Quickly, I come across a Facebook page, set up by friends in her memory.