the singer’s gun
Also by Emily St. John Mandel
Last Night in Montreal
the singer’s gun
Emily St. John Mandel
This is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2010 by Emily St. John Mandel
All rights reserved. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data St. John Mandel, Emily, 1979-
The singer’s gun / Emily St. John Mandel.
1. Families—Fiction. 2. Crime—Fiction.
3. Psychological fiction. I. Title.
1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2
Book Design by SH • CV
Something about the tanks at London’s Heathrow Airport changed my mind. Before they rolled into place, in the innocent days when security just meant men with submachine guns, a travel book could be fluffy, silly, familiar or carefully manufactured, and it hardly mattered. Afterward, every destination acquired a sudden glow of hellfire, every trip an element of thoroughly unwanted suspense. Escape has become a problem in itself. A travel book without danger—to the body, the soul or the future—is entirely out of time.
. . . We stand in need of something stronger now: the travel book you can read while making your way through this new, alarming world.
The New York Times, June 1, 2003
the singer’s gun
In an office on the bright sharp edge of New York, glass tower, Alexandra Broden was listening to a telephone conversation. The recording lasted no longer than ten seconds, but she listened to it five or six times before she took off her headphones. It was five thirty in the afternoon, and she had been working since seven A.M. She closed her eyes for a moment, pressed her fingertips to her forehead, and realized that she could still hear the conversation in her head.
The recording began with a click: the sound of a woman picking up her telephone, which had been tapped the day before the call came in. A man’s voice: It’s done. There is a sound on the tape here—the woman’s sharp intake of breath—but all she says in reply is Thank you. We’ll speak again soon. He disconnects and she hangs up three seconds later.
The woman’s name was Aria Waker, and the call had taken place fifteen days earlier. The incoming call came from an Italian cell phone but proved otherwise untraceable. Police were at Aria’s apartment forty minutes after the call went through, but she was already gone and she never came back again.
Broden went down the hall for a coffee, talked about the baseball season with a colleague for a few minutes, went back to her office and put the headphones back on. She listened to the recording one last time before she made the call.
“Is that it?” she asked when the detective answered.
“That’s it, Al.”
“Please don’t call me that. And you think they’re talking about Anton Waker?”
“If you’d seen what his parents were like the morning after that call came through, you wouldn’t ask me that question,” the detective said.
“How’s the investigation going?”
“Horribly. No one knows anything. No one even knows the dead girl’s name.” The detective sighed. “At least it’s not as bad as the last shipping container we dealt with,” he said.
“I suppose I should be grateful that only one girl died this time. Listen, I’m going to talk to the parents.”
“I tried that two weeks ago. They’re useless,” said the detective, “but be my guest.”
On the drive over the Williamsburg Bridge Broden kept the radio off. She called her six-year-old daughter from the car. Tova was home from school, baking cookies with her nanny, and she wanted to know what time her mother would be home.
“Before bedtime,” Broden said.
On the far side of the river she drove down into Brooklyn, grafitti-tagged warehouses rising up around her as the off-ramp lowered her into the streets, and she circled for a while before she found the store: an old brick warehouse on a corner near the river, almost under the bridge, with Waker Architectural Salvage in rusted-out letters above the doors. She parked at the side of the building and went around to the front, where a woman was sitting on the edge of the loading dock. The woman was looking out at the river, at Manhattan on the other side. She turned her head slowly when Broden said her name.
“Yes,” the woman said.
“Mrs. Waker, I’m Alexandra Broden. I work with the State Department, Diplomatic Security Service division.” Broden walked up the steel steps to the loading dock. She flashed her badge at the woman, but the woman didn’t look at it. Her gaze had drifted back to the river, moving slow and gray on the other side of a weedy vacant lot across the street. There were dark circles under her eyes and her face was colorless. “I’m sorry to bother you,” Broden said, “but I need to speak with your son.”
“He used to sit here with me,” Miriam said.
“Is he home?”
She said, “In a far-off country.”
Broden stood looking at her for a moment. “Is your husband here, Mrs. Waker?”
“Yes,” she said.
Broden entered the warehouse.
“This one was saved from the sea near Gibraltar.” Samuel Waker had been interrupted in the middle of repainting a figurehead. He had stared flatly at Broden when she came in, but seemed unable to resist giving her a tour of his collection. The Gibraltar figure-head depicted a strong-faced woman rising out of foam, her arms disappearing into the folds of her dress. Her gown ended squarely in an odd cut-out shape where she’d been attached to a ship. Another figurehead had been recovered from the waters off France, her entire left side splintered by the coastline. One had been pulled from the rocks off the Cape of Good Hope, and this was the one Samuel Waker was restoring. The Cape of Good Hope figurehead had hair the color of fire, and her eyes were a terrible and final blue. In her arms she cradled an enormous fish: a block away from the nearest river, it opened its gasping mouth to the sky.
“Is this figurehead fairly new?” Broden was looking at the iridescent scales of the fish. “It looks perfect.”
“Restored,” Samuel Waker said. “Had it before, bought it back from someone.” He picked up a palette, and as he spoke he resumed retouching the figurehead’s hair. His voice was reverent. “Can’t believe my luck, getting it back again. I think I might keep it myself this time.”
“Mr. Waker, I was hoping to speak with your son.”
“Don’t know where he is, exactly. Traveling, far as I know.” Samuel Waker’s voice was steady, but the hand that painted the figurehead’s hair was trembling.
“Traveling where, Mr. Waker?”
“Europe, last I heard. He hasn’t been in contact.”
“What about your niece? You spoken with her recently?”
“Not recently. No.”
“Mr. Waker,” Broden said, “a shipping container came into the dock at Red Hook last week. It held fifteen girls who were being smuggled into the country from Eastern Europe, and one of them died in transit. I think your son and your niece may have been involved in the shipping operation.”
“I wouldn’t know anything about that.”
“Mr. Waker, is your son dead?”
Anton’s father was silent for a moment. “I’m offended by the question,” he finally said. “Here I just told you that he’s traveling, and now you’re calling me a liar.”
“I think I’d like you to leave,” he said quietly. He didn’t look at her; he was filling in a worn-away section of the figurehead’s hair with tiny, meticulous brush strokes. “I don’t think I have anything to say to you.”
Broden stepped out into the end-of-day light. The sun was setting over the island of Manhattan and Miriam Waker was a shadow on the edge of the loading dock, slumped over her coffee cup. It was November and the air was cool but no steam rose from her coffee; the coffee hadn’t been hot in a long time and she hadn’t sipped at it for longer. Broden sat down beside her, but Miriam Waker didn’t look up.
“Mrs. Waker,” Broden said, “I know you were questioned about your niece by a detective two weeks ago. Has she been in contact since then?”
“What about your son? Have you spoken with Anton recently?”
“Mrs. Waker, I’m afraid that something may have happened to him.”
“I don’t know where Anton is.” Her eyes had dropped to her coffee cup, and she was almost whispering. “I don’t know where he is anymore.”
“Well, where was he last?”
“The island of Ischia,” Anton’s mother said.
For reasons that were difficult to think about in any great detail, let alone explain to his wife in New York, Anton had rented a room on the island of Ischia for the off-season. In exchange for a hundred euros a month and the understanding that he’d wash his own towels, he was given a small blue-painted room overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea with the outline of Capri visible in clear weather against the edge of the sky. For the first few days the silence was miraculous, and he thought he might finally have found what he was looking for.
His wedding had taken place six days prior to his arrival on the island, after a long and frankly disastrous engagement: Sophie found a dress, bought it, had a panic attack when she tried it on at home, and canceled the wedding. This was a fantastically costly maneuver involving several dozen hours of therapy at three hundred dollars an hour and a mailing of two hundred uninvitations: “The wedding of Sophie Berenhardt and Anton Waker has been post-poned for personal reasons. Thank you for your understanding.” She informed him that there was no hyphen in “postponed,” took up meditation in addition to the therapy, and came to him a month later with the news that she’d had an epiphany: the wedding was meant to be. Two hundred and fifty all-new wedding invitations were mailed out, in shades of spring violet; the flowers blossoming in the corners of the invite, she told him, represented rebirth. Anton had just been reading about how violets pinned to a girl’s lapel in a certain era had represented lesbianism, but chose not to mention this. Two hundred and one RSVPs arrived without incident. She showed up at work during his lunch break in tears, clutching the two hundred and second. All it said was “We’re so glad for you! We’ll be there!” and it was only from someone’s obligatory aunt, but he knew before she spoke that the wedding was off again. She was scared, she said. It wasn’t him. She just needed more time.
“Because I really love her,” he told his friend Gary, in response to a question.
He canceled the hall and the caterer and sent out two hundred and fifty uninvitations in shades of blue. The wording on these was much the same, except that she removed the hyphen between “post” and “poned,” and then he added the word “indefinitely” right before he sent it to the printers, and then he had to sleep on the couch for two nights. They spent a polite six weeks avoiding the topic. He wasn’t sure what to do, but he told himself he’d always known she was flighty and should have seen this whole mess coming. Marrying her was the only course of action that seemed honorable. He was living in a strange limbo wherein he couldn’t remember if he loved her or not and he sometimes felt he was losing his mind. He took endless walks through the streets of Manhattan and didn’t sleep well. In the evenings while Sophie was working he spent a lot of time with his cat; Jim lay across his lap and purred while Anton read.
Their friends went to absurd lengths to avoid bringing up the wedding. Everyone was terrifically sympathetic. The therapy bills were stupendous. Topics of conversation seemed to change abruptly when they entered rooms where their friends were sitting. He tried to protect her from all this as best he could and to make things generally as pleasant as possible—coffee in bed in the mornings whenever feasible, flowers every Saturday—and he could tell she was trying to keep the mournful cello music to a minimum and tried to appreciate the effort. He sat on the sofa outside the closed door of her study with the cat on his lap and lost himself in the unspeakable beauty of her music.
“I don’t mean to state the obvious, but being in awe of some-one’s talent isn’t really the same thing as being in love with them,” Gary said, when Anton told him at the end of spring that Sophie was finally ready to get married again. “But what the hell, maybe third time’s the charm?”
“Third time’s more or less my outer limit,” said Anton, and tried to convey this to Sophie in much gentler terms later on (“I don’t want to pressure you, sweetie, but . . .”) and she took it fairly well initially, but then played what sounded like funeral music in her study for days. When he cracked open the study door to see if she wanted to talk about it she just murmured, “I’m working,” without looking up from the score, which forced him to close the door again because they’d agreed that when Sophie was working no one could talk to her. He took long walks, read in cafés, went out for drinks with Gary and made very little progress on anything that week.
The manager of the hall he’d booked for the two previous wedding attempts laughed and hung up on him, so he booked a new hall that was slightly more expensive and had been his first choice from the beginning, mailed out three hundred new invitations with a completely different color scheme, agreed with Sophie that it would probably be best if she let him handle the RSVPs this time, and set about relaunching the catering, floral decoration, and wedding-music operations. Some of her old friends from Juilliard had a rock band on the side, so he booked them against his better judgment and tried not to think about what the music might sound like.
All three hundred guests RSVP’d in the affirmative almost immediately—most, he suspected, out of sheer curiosity—and Sophie seemed happy and uncharacteristically calm, although she was playing a lot of frenetic atonal modern music in the evenings. On the day itself she was a vision, dark curls and white silk and the plunge of her neckline, blue necklace on pale skin. It was an evening wedding in a church lit with nearly a thousand candles, and time skipped and moved strangely in the half-light. He was watching her float down the aisle, there were candles everywhere and so many roses that the scent and the candle smoke made him dizzy, she was beside him, they were listening to the priest and he couldn’t retain a single word that was being said. She was a mirage in the candlelight and he stood beside her in a kind of suspended animation, he was kissing her, Gary hadn’t forgotten the rings, I now pronounce you husband and wife. The band wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been, his new wedding suit was less uncomfortable to dance in than he would have expected, they stayed at the reception til three in the morning, at intervals he heard himself laughing and he felt that he was observing the scene from some distance away.
Time seemed to be moving very rapidly now. He drank champagne and danced with his bride. His friend Ilieva put a flower behind his ear and he left it there for an hour. He felt strangely still inside through the whole thing, calmer than he thought a man getting married really should be—but it wasn’t until he was thirty thousand feet over the Atlantic Ocean the next day, Sophie asleep in the seat beside him, that he realized he’d been confusing calm with indifferenc
e. He wasn’t, now that he thought about it, calm at all. Nor had he fallen out of love, exactly—indifference was the wrong word, it was something softer and more precise—but he also wasn’t at all sure that he should have married her. His exhausted bride slept on unaware.
He made his move on the island of Ischia. They arrived in the harbor village of Sant’Angelo in the late morning; a taxi let them off outside an archway beyond which no cars were allowed, and they dragged their suitcases down a cobblestone street to a pink hotel that stood by the water. It was a small two-story building with a half-dozen rooms on the second floor, the first floor taken up by a restaurant. There was no reception desk; the owner, a perpetually smiling man in his fifties named Gennaro, took reservations from a phone set up in a corridor by the door. The corridor led to the restaurant, and a flight of stairs led up to the rooms.
They checked in and spent the day wandering the streets of Sant’Angelo, and Anton thought it was the most beautiful place he’d ever seen. The village allowed no cars and couldn’t have accomodated them; the streets rising up from the harbor were open-air corridors between the pale walls of villas, rough cobblestones turning every now and again into stairs. There were walled gardens glimpsed through iron gates, vines spilling over the tops of plaster walls. They turned a corner and the sea was brilliant far below them, bright-painted boats bobbing in the harbor waters. Three cafés competed on a large open piazza, and from the hillside above the harbor their umbrellas were sharp white circles and squares in the sunlight. Sophie and Anton ate dinner in the hotel restaurant and went to bed early, and in the morning they went down to the piazza and sat for a while reading the paper and drinking coffee together.
“You know,” Anton said, as casually as possible, “I was thinking about maybe staying on a while.”