Myron didn't wait for an invitation. He pushed past her. Again he was struck by the impersonal feel of this house. Not one picture. Not one remembrance. But now he understood why. The TV was tuned on the tennis match. No surprise there. The women were midway through the first set.
Deanna Yeller followed him.
"It must torture you," he said.
"Watching Duane on TV. Instead of in person."
"It was just a fling," she said in a monotone. "It didn't mean anything."
"Duane was just a one-nighter?"
"Something like that."
"I don't think so," Myron said. "Duane Richwood is your son."
"What are you talking about? I only had one son."
"And he's dead. They killed him, remember?"
"That's not true. Errol Swade was killed. Not Curtis.
"I don't know what you're talking about," she said. But there wasn't much conviction in her voice. She sounded tired, like she was going through the motions – or maybe she just realized that Myron was beyond buying the lies.
"I know now." Myron showed her the book in his hand. "Do you know what this is?"
She looked at the book, her face blank.
"It's the yearbook from Curtis's high school. I just got it from Lucinda Elright."
Deanna Yeller looked so frail, a stiff breeze would send her crashing into the wall. Myron opened the yearbook. "Duane has had a nose job since then. Maybe some other surgery too, I can't be sure. His hair is different. He's gotten a lot more muscular, but then again, he's not a skinny sixteen-year-old anymore. Plus he always wears sunglasses in public. Always. Who would recognize him? Who would even imagine Duane Rich-wood was a murder suspect killed six years ago?"
Deanna stumbled over to a table. She sat down. She pointed weakly to the chair across from her. Myron took it.
"Curtis was a great athlete," Myron continued, fingering through the pages. "He was only a sophomore, but he was already starting varsity football and basketball. The high school he went to didn't have a tennis team, but Lucinda told me that didn't stop him. He played as often as he could. He loved the game."
Deanna Yeller remained still.
"You see, from the beginning I never bought the robbery angle," Myron said. "You were quick to call your son a thief, Deanna, but the facts didn't back it up. He was a good kid. He had no record. And he was smart. There was nothing to steal out there. Then I thought maybe it was a drug deal gone bad. That made the most sense. Alexander Cross was a user. Errol Swade was a seller. But that didn't explain why your son was there. I even thought for a while that Curtis and Errol had never gone to the club, that they were just scapegoats. But a fairly reliable witness swears he saw them both. He also said he heard tennis balls being hit at night He also saw Curtis and Errol each carrying one tennis racket. Why? If you're robbing the place, you carry as many rackets as you can. If you're doing a drug deal, you don't carry any rackets. The answer was obvious in the end: they were there to play tennis. They jumped the fence not to rob the place, but because Curtis wanted to play tennis."
Deanna lifted her head up. She was hollow-eyed. Her movements were sparse and slow. "It was a grass court," she said. "He'd watched Wimbledon on TV that week. He just wanted to play on a grass court, that's all."
"Unfortunately Alexander Cross and his buddies were outside getting high," Myron went on. "They heard Curtis and Errol. What happened next is not exactly clear, but I think we can probably take Senator Cross's word on this one. Alexander, high as a kite, created a conflict Maybe he didn't like the idea of a couple of black kids playing on his court Or maybe he really thought they were there to rob the club. It doesn't matter. What does matter is that Errol Swade took out a knife and killed him. It might have been self-defense, but I doubt it"
"He just reacted," Deanna said. "Stupid kid saw a bunch of white boys, so he stabbed. Errol didn't know any different"
Myron nodded. "They ran away then, but Curtis got tackled in the bushes by Valerie Simpson. They struggled. Valerie got a good look at Curtis. A very good look. When you are fighting with someone you believed killed your fianc'e, you don't forget the face. Curtis managed to break away. He and Errol jumped the fence and ran down the block. They found a car in a driveway. Errol had been arrested several times already for stealing cars. Breaking in and hot-wiring one was no problem for him. That's what first gave it to me. I talked to the officer who supposedly shot your son. His name is Jimmy Blaine. Jimmy said he shot the driver of the car, not the passenger. But Curtis wouldn't have been driving. That wouldn't make any sense. The driver was the experienced thief, not the good kid. So then it dawned on me: Jimmy Blaine didn't shoot Curtis Yeller. He shot Errol Swade."
Deanna Yeller sat still as a stone.
"The bullet bit Errol in the ribs. With Curtis's help they managed to round the corner and crawl in through the fire escape. They made their way to your apartment By now sirens were sounding all over the place. They were closing in on all of you. Errol and Curtis were probably in a state of panic. It was pandemonium. They told you what happened. You knew what this meant – a rich white boy shot at a fancy rich white club. Your son was doomed. Even if Curtis had only been standing there – even if Errol told the police that it was all his fault – Curtis was finished."
"I knew more than that," Deanna interjected. "It'd been almost an hour since the murder. The radio already said who the victim was. Not just a rich white boy, but the son of a United States senator."
"And," Myron continued, "you knew Errol had a long record. You knew it was his fault. You knew he was going away for good this time. Errol's life was over, and he had no one to blame but himself. But Curtis was innocent. Curtis was a good boy. He'd done everything right, and now because of the stupidity of his cousin, his life was about to be flushed away."
Deanna looked up. "But that was all true," she insisted, sparking up just a bit "Can't deny any of that, can you? Can you?"
"No," Myron said. "I guess I can't What you did next probably didn't take much thought You'd heard the police fire two bullets. You saw only one in Errol. Most important Curtis didn't have a record. His mug shot wasn't on file. His description wasn't on file." He stopped. Her eyes were clear and on him. "Whose gun was it Deanna?"
"He had it with him?"
"So you took the gun. You pressed it against Errol's cheek. And you fired."
She nodded again.
"You blew his face right off," Myron continued. "I wondered about that too. Why would someone shoot him up close in the face? Why not in the back of the head or the heart? The answer is, you didn't want anyone to see his face. You wanted him to be an unrecognizable lump. Then you put on your big act You cradled him in your arms and cried while the police and the senator's hoods came crashing in. It was so simple really. I asked the medical examiner how they identified Curtis's body. She scoffed at such a ridiculous question. The usual way, she told me. The next of kin. You, Deanna. The mother. What else did they need? Why question that? The cops were thrilled you didn't want to make a big deal over it so they didn't look too closely. And just to cement your plan, you were smart enough to have the body cremated immediately. Even if someone wanted to go back and check, the evidence was ashes.
"As for Curtis, his escape was easy. A nationwide manhunt began for Errol Swade, a six-foot four-inch man who looked nothing like your son. No one was looking for Curtis Yeller. He was dead."
"It wasn't quite that easy," Deanna said. "Curtis and I were careful. Powerful men were in this. The police scared me, sure, but not as much as those men who worked for the senator. And then the papers all made that Cross boy out to be a hero. Curtis knew the truth. If the senator ever got a hold of my boy…" She shrugged away the obvious.
Myron nodded. He'd thought the same thing too. Dead men tell no tales. "So Curtis spent the next five years underground?" he asked.
"I guess you could call it that," Deanna said. "He roamed around, scraped by on whatever he could. I sent him money when I had some, but I told him to never come back to Philadelphia. We'd arrange times to talk on public phones and stuff. He grew up on his own. He lived on the streets, but he was well-spoken enough to get some decent jobs. He worked for three years at a tennis club near Boston. He played all the time, even hustled a few games. I saved up enough for him to get a little plastic surgery done. Just some little touches, you know, in case he ran into someone he knew. Like you said, he got a lot bigger. He grew an inch and put on thirty pounds. He also wore those sunglasses, though I always thought that was going a little too far. No one's gonna recognize him, I thought. Not anymore. It'd been too long. Worst thing happen, someone might think he resembles a dead boy they used to know. I mean, five years passed. We thought he was safe."
"That's why you started getting money recently," Myron said. "It wasn't a pay-off. The money came from Duane's turning pro. He bought you this house."
"And when I saw you two at the hotel that night, I immediately jumped to the conclusion that you were lovers. But it was actually a son visiting his mother. The embrace I saw when he left your room – it wasn't the embrace of lovers, but a mother hugging her son goodbye. In fact Duane hadn't slept around at all. That was an act on his part. Wanda was right all along. He loved her. He never cheated on her. Not with you. And not with Valerie Simpson."
She nodded again. "He loves that girl. He and Wanda are good together."
"Everything was going just fine until Valerie spotted Duane in my office," Myron continued. "His sunglasses were off. She saw him up close, and like I said before, you don't forget the face of the man you think killed your fianc'e. She recognized him. She stole his card from my Rolodex and called. What happened next, Deanna? Did she threaten to expose him?"
"There's some stuff we left out," Deanna said. "I just want to be clear, okay?"
"Curtis didn't know I was going to kill Errol that night," she said. "I just told him to hide in the basement There was a closed-off tunnel down there. I knew he'd be safe for a while. I told Errol to stay with me, I'd fix his ribs. When Curtis was out of the room, I shot Errol."
"Did Curtis ever learn the truth?"
"He figured it out later. But he didn't know then. He had nothing to do with it"
"So what about Valerie? Was she going to talk?"
Their eyes met.
"So you killed her," Myron said.
For a few moments Deanna said nothing. She stared down at her hands, as though looking for something. "She wouldn't listen to reason," she said softly. "Duane told me that Valerie called him. He tried to convince her she had the wrong man, but she wouldn't hear it. So I met up with her at the hotel. I tried to persuade her too. I told her he'd done nothing wrong, but she just kept talking this nonsense about not hiding things anymore – how she'd buried too many things and it had to all come out." Deanna Yeller closed her eyes and shook her head. "The girl left me no choice. I watched her hotel. I saw her rush out. I saw her rush to the matches, and I knew she was scared and I knew she was going to say something and I knew I couldn't wait anymore, that I had to stop her now or…" She sat still. Then she moved her hands off the table and folded them on her lap. "I had no choice."
Myron remained quiet.
"I did the only thing I could," she said. "It was her life or my son's life."
"So for the second time you chose your son."
"Yes. And if you turn me in, it'll all be for nothing. The truth will come out, and they'll kill my boy. You know they will."
"I'll protect him," Myron said.
"No, that's my job."
Tires squealed in the driveway. Myron rose and looked out the window. It was Duane. He threw the car in park and leaped out.
"Keep him out," Deanna said, suddenly out of her chair. "Please."
She ran to the door and threw the dead bolt. "I don't want him to see."
But now Myron did see. She turned toward him. She had a gun in her hand. "I've already killed twice to save him. What's a third?"
Myron looked for a safe place to dive, but for the second time in this case he'd been careless. He was out in the open. It would be impossible to miss. "Killing me won't make it go away," he said.
"I know," she replied.
There was a pounding at the door. Duane shouted, "Open up! Don't say anything to him!'' More pounding.
Deanna's eyes welled with tears. "Don't tell anyone, Myron. No need to say anything anymore. The guilty will have all been punished."
She placed the barrel of the gun against her head.
"Don't," Myron whispered.
From outside the door, Duane shouted, "Mama! Open up, Mama!"
She turned toward the voice. Myron tried to reach her in time, but he had no chance. She pulled the trigger and made one final sacrifice for her son.