FOR LOREN MUSE, there was no escaping deja vu today.
She pulled up to the home of Marsha Hunter at 38 Darby Terrace in Livingston, New Jersey. Livingston had been Loren's hometown. Growing up, she'd decided, was never easy. Adolescence is a war zone, no matter where you live. Comfortable towns like Livingston are supposed to cushion the blows. For those who belonged, maybe it did. For Loren, this was where she lived when her father decided that he really, truly did not belong anywhere, not even with his daughter.
Livingston had all the trappings: great schools, great sports programs, great Kiwanis Club, great PTA, great high school productions. When Loren grew up here, the Jewish kids dominated the honor roll. Now it was the Asians and Indians, the next generation of immigrants, the new hungry ones. It was that kind of place. You come out here, you buy the house, you pay the taxes, you get the American dream.
But you know what they say: Be careful what you wish for.
She knocked on the door to Marsha Hunter's home. Loren hadn't figured the connection between this single mom, a rarity in Livingston, and Sister Mary Rose- other than a six-minute phone call. She probably should have done some checking first, a little background work, but there was no time. So here she stood, on the front stoop in the bright sunshine, when the door opened.
The woman, attractive in a plain way, nodded. "Yes, that's right."
Loren held up her identification. "I'm Investigator Loren Muse from the Essex County prosecutor's office. I'd like a moment of your time."
Marsha Hunter blinked, confused. "What's this about?"
Loren tried a disarming smile. "Could I come in a moment?"
"Oh, yes. Of course."
She stepped back. Loren entered the home and whammo, another hit of deja vu. Such a sameness to the interiors. In here it could be any year between 1964 and now. There was no change. The television might be fancier, the carpet a little less plush, the colors more muted, but that feeling of falling back into her old bizarro-kid-world dimension still hung in the air.
She checked the walls, looking for a cross or Madonna or some hint of Catholicism, something that might easily explain the phone call from the faux Sister Mary Rose. There was nothing hinting at any religion. Loren noticed a folded sheet and blanket on the edge of the couch, as if someone had recently slept there.
There was a young woman in the room, maybe twenty years old, and two boys no more than eight or nine. "Paul, Ethan," their mother said, "this is Investigator Muse." The well-trained boys dutifully shook Loren's hands, both going so far as to make eye contact.
The smaller one- Ethan, she thought- said, "Are you a policeman?"
"Woman," Loren replied automatically. "And the answer is, sorta. I'm an investigator in the county prosecutor's office. That's like being a police officer."
"You got a gun?"
"Ethan," Marsha said.
Loren would have responded, would have shown it to him, but she knew that some mothers freaked about things like that. Loren understood it- anything to prevent Precious from understanding violence- but the gun-denial step was a woefully inadequate long-term tactic.
"And this is Kyra Sloan," Marsha Hunter said. "She helps me look after the kids."
The young woman named Kyra waved from across the room, picking up some kind of toy. Loren waved back.
"Kyra, do you mind taking the boys outside for a little while?"
"Sure." Kyra turned to the boys. "How about a game of Wiffle ball, guys?"
"I'm up first!"
"No, you were up first last time! It's my turn!"
They headed outside, still debating the batting order. Marsha turned toward Loren. "Is something wrong?"
"No, not at all."
"So why are you here?"
"This is just a routine follow-up to an ongoing investigation." It was a lot of vague malarkey, but Loren had found this particular brand fairly efficient.
"Please. Call me Marsha."
"Fine, sorry. Marsha, are you Catholic?"
"I don't mean to pry. This isn't really a religious question. I'm just trying to see if you're in any way associated with St. Margaret's parish in East Orange."
"Yes. Are you a member?"
"No. We're with St. Philomena's in Livingston. Why would you ask that?"
"Are you associated in any way with St. Margaret's?"
"No." Then: "What do you mean associated?"
Loren kept going, not wanting to lose the rhythm. "Do you know anybody attending the school?"
"St. Margaret's? No, I don't think so."
"Do you know any of the teachers there?"
"I don't think so."
"How about Sister Mary Rose?"
"Do you know any of the nuns at St. Margaret's?"
"No. I know several at St. Phil's, but no Sister Mary Rose."
"So the name Sister Mary Rose means nothing to you?"
"Nothing at all. What is this about?"
Loren kept her eyes on the woman's face, searching for a mythical "tell." Nothing was showing up, but that didn't mean much.
"Do you and your children live here alone?"
"Yes. Well, Kyra has a room above the garage, but she's from out of state."
"But she lives here?"
"She rents a room and helps out. She's taking classes at William Paterson University."
"Are you divorced?"
Something in the way Marsha Hunter said it made a piece or two tumble into place. Not all of them by any means. Not even enough yet. Loren almost kicked herself. She should have done some background work.
Marsha crossed her arms. "What is this about anyway?"
"A Sister Mary Rose recently passed away."
"And she worked at this school?"
"Yes, she was a teacher. At St. Margaret's."
"I still don't see how-"
"When we were going through the phone logs, we found a call she'd made that we couldn't quite explain."
"She called here?"
Marsha Hunter looked perplexed. "When?"
"Three weeks ago. June second to be exact."
Marsha shook her head. "It could have been a wrong number."
"For six minutes?"
That made Marsha pause. "What day again?"
"June second. Eight P.M."
"I can check my calendar, if you'd like."
"I'd like that very much, thank you."
"It's upstairs. I'll be right back. But I'm sure none of us talked to this sister."
"None of us?"
"You said, 'us.' Who did you mean?"
"I don't know. Anyone in the house, I guess."
Loren didn't comment on that. "Do you mind if I ask your babysitter a few questions?"
Marsha Hunter hesitated. "I guess that wouldn't be a problem." She forced up a smile. "But the boys will throw a fit if you use the word 'baby' in front of them."
"I'll be right back."
Loren headed through the kitchen toward the back door. She glanced out the window. Kyra was pitching underhand to Ethan. He swung wildly and missed. Kyra took a step in closer and bent lower and pitched again. This time, Ethan made contact.
Loren turned away. She was almost at the back door when something made her pull up.
Loren wasn't married, didn't have kids, didn't grow up in one of those sweet happy homes, but if there was anything more Americana- more family- than the front of a refrigerator she did not know what it was. Her friends had refrigerators like this. She didn't, and she realized how pitiful that was. Loren had two cats and no real family, unless you wanted to count her melodramatic and self-involved mother.
But in most American homes, if you wanted to find the personal, this- your refrigerator front- was where you looked. There was kid artwork. There were essays from school, all adorned with stars for mediocrity that passed for excellence. There were preprinted birthday invitations, one to a party at something called the Little Gym, the other to the East Hanover bowling alley. There were forms for class trips, child vaccinations, a soccer league.
And, of course, there were family snapshots.
Loren had been an only child and no matter how often she saw them- this magnetized swirl of smiles- it always seemed slightly unreal to her, like she was watching a bad TV show or reading a corny greeting card.
Loren stepped toward the photograph that had caught her eye. More pieces started to pour into place now.
How could she have missed this?
She should have put it together right away. Hunter. The name wasn't rare but it wasn't overly common either. Her eyes scanned the other pictures, but they kept coming back to the first one, the one on the left taken at what looked like a baseball game. Loren was still staring at the picture when Marsha returned.
"Is everything okay, Inspector Muse?"
Loren startled up at the voice. She tried to conjure up the details, but only a sketch came to mind. "Did you find your calendar?"
"There's nothing there. I really don't remember where I was that day."
Loren nodded and turned back to the refrigerator. "This man"- she pointed and looked back at Marsha-"this is Matt Hunter, right?"
Marsha's face closed like a metal gate.
"What do you want?"
There had been hints of warmth before. There were none now.
"I knew him," Loren said. "A long time ago."
"In elementary school. We both went to Burnet Hill."
Marsha crossed her arms. She was having none of it.
"How are you two related?"
"He's my brother-in-law," Marsha said. "And a good man."
Right, sure, Loren thought. A real prince. She'd read about the manslaughter conviction. Matt Hunter had served time at a max-security facility. Serious hard time, as she recalled. She remembered the folded blanket and sheets on the couch.
"Does Matt visit here a lot? I mean, he's the boys' uncle and all."
"I'd like you to leave now."
"Matt Hunter is not a criminal. What happened was an accident. He has more than paid for it."
Loren kept quiet, hoping she'd go on. She didn't. After a few moments she realized that this line of questioning would probably not take her anywhere. Better to try a less defensive route.
"I liked him," Loren said.
"When we were kids. He was nice."
That was true enough. Matt Hunter had been a pretty good guy, another Livingston wanna-fit-in who probably shouldn't have tried so hard.
"I'll leave now," Loren said.
"If you learn anything about that phone call on June second-"
"I'll let you know."
"Do you mind if I speak to your sitter on the way out?"
Marsha sighed, shrugged.
"Thank you." Loren reached for the door.
Marsha called out, "Can I ask you something?"
Loren faced her.
"Was this nun murdered?"
"Why would you ask that?"
Marsha shrugged again. "It's a natural question, I guess. Why else would you be here?"
"I can't discuss details with you. I'm sorry."
Marsha said nothing. Loren opened the door and headed into the yard. The sun was still high, the long days of June. The boys ran and played with such wonderful abandonment. Adults could never play like that. Never in a million years. Loren remembered her tomboy youth, the days when you could play Running Bases for hours and never, not for a second, be bored. She wondered if Marsha Hunter ever did that, ever came out and played Running Bases with her sons, and thinking about that Loren felt another pang.
No time for that now.
Marsha would be watching from the kitchen window. Loren needed to do this fast. She approached the girl- what was her name? Kylie, Kyra? Kelsey?- and waved.
The girl cupped her hands over her eyes and blinked. She was pretty enough, with blonde highlights that you can only find in youth or a bottle. "Hi."
Loren didn't waste time with preamble. "Does Matt Hunter come over a lot?"
The girl had answered without hesitation. Loren muffled a smile. Ah, youth.
Kyra- that was definitely the name- shifted now, slightly more wary, but she was still young. As long as Loren remained the authority figure, she'd talk. "I don't know. Few times a week, I guess."
"Matt Hunter. Is he a good guy?"
Kyra gave a huge smile. "He's great."
"Good with the kids?"
Loren nodded, feigning disinterest. "Was he here last night?" she asked as casually as she could.
But now Kyra cocked her head to the side. "Didn't you ask Mrs. Hunter these questions?"
"I'm just reconfirming. He was here, right?"
"I was in the city with some friends. I don't know."
"There were sheets on the couch. Who stayed on it?"
She gave a shrug. "I guess it was Matt."
Loren risked a glance behind her. Marsha Hunter disappeared from the window. She'd be moving toward the back door now. The girl would not remember June 2. Loren had enough for now, though she didn't have a clue what it meant.
"Do you know where Matt lives?"
"In Irvington, I think."
The back door opened. Enough, Loren thought. Finding Matt Hunter shouldn't be a problem. She smiled and started away then, trying not to give Marsha a reason to call and warn her brother-in-law. She tried to walk away as casually as possible. She waved a good-bye at Marsha. Marsha's return wave was slow.
Loren hit the driveway and headed toward her car, but another face from her distant past- wow, this case was turning into a bad episode of Loren Muse, This Is Your Life- stood by her car. He leaned against the hood, a cigarette dangling from his lips.
"As I live and breathe," she said. "Detective Lance Banner."
"In the flesh." He tossed the cigarette onto the ground and stomped on it.
She pointed to the stub. "I may write you up for that."
"I thought you were county homicide."
"Cigarettes kill. Don't you read the carton?"
Lance Banner gave her a crooked smile. His car, an obvious unmarked police vehicle, was parked across the street. "Been a long time."
"That firearm safety convention in Trenton," Loren said. "What, six, seven years ago?"
"Something like that." He folded his arms, kept leaning against her hood. "You here on official business?"
"It involve a former school chum of ours?"
"Wanna tell me about it?"
"Wanna tell me why you're here?"
"I live near here."
"So I spotted a county vehicle. Figured I might be able to be of some assistance."
"Matt Hunter wants to move back to town," Lance said. "He's closing on a house not far from here."
Loren said nothing.
"Does that work into your case?"
"I don't see how."
Lance smiled and opened the car door. "Why don't you tell me what's going on? Maybe we can figure out how together."