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Archive for the ‘Miscellaneous’ Category Review of The GoodLife

THE GOODLIFE is tagged on the back cover as being “Based On a True Story” — and indeed, it is a very fictionalized account of an actual event, that being the ransom kidnapping of a high profile CEO by a desperately broke suburban couple a few years ago. But even if you happen to know that particular story by chapter and verse, you will still find reading THE GOODLIFE a rewarding experience.

Keith Scribner, author of THE GOODLIFE, wisely chose to focus his literary camera on the emotions of the principals involved. The reader accordingly gets to take long, revealing looks into the psyches of members of two families, the Wolkoviaks and the Browns, whose lives are about to collide and be irrevocably changed for the worse. Theo Wolkoviak is on the long downside of 40. He is married to his high school sweetheart, a homecoming queen princess who can still turn heads, and has a son in college and a daughter with an eating disorder that appears to be out of control. Wolkoviak has two major problems: an inability to control his impulses and an ability to blame everyone but himself for anything in his life that goes wrong. A series of job terminations and financial reversals leave him and his family no option but to return to the home of his parents to live and to hopefully regroup. Malcolm Wolkoviak, a former police chief who is inexorably succumbing to emphysema, can spot the results of his son’s weaknesses but is unable to see the root causes, giving his son opportunity after opportunity to redeem himself long after any redemption is reasonably possible. Theo purportedly is working on a major project for the president of a local country club, a project he claims will straighten out his financial problems. What Theo and his wife are plotting, however, is the kidnapping for ransom of Stona Brown, an oil company CEO, for 18 million dollars.

Theo has everything plotted down to the last detail, and it is here that Scribner demonstrates that he has the chops to become a major literary talent. He quite deftly presents Theo as a man who is detail-oriented yet, before a single element of the kidnapping is carried out, also shows him to carry the seeds of his own destruction and failure. It is quite clear within the first few pages of THE GOODLIFE that if Theo succeeds it’s going to be by accident. It is far more likely that for all his attention to plan and detail things are going to go horribly wrong for Theo, his wife, his children, and his parents — and, of course, for Stona as well. As the story of Theo’s big plans unfold, we learn his motivation, his wife’s pie-in-the-sky-dreams, and the secret sins of all involved. Yet as one dream decomposes and simultaneously explodes, in the end another is born. No one wins in THE GOODLIFE; a couple of people, however, break even. Sometimes that is the best that can be expected.

THE GOODLIFE is Scribner’s first novel; he reportedly is working on a second, which, on the strength of THE GOODLIFE, should be worth a long, lingering loo k. This is an important work that reads as if it was a collaboration between John Cheever and Donald Westlake. Very highly recommended.

—Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub

(c) Copyright 2001, All rights reserved.

The Oregonian Review of Miracle Girl

The Oregonian BooksWeek

Religion, morality, ethics at heart of Miracle Girl

Keith Scribner’s first novel, The GoodLife, was a fictionalized account of the botched kidnapping of an Exxon executive by a New Jersey couple. It walked a thin, dangerous line between satire and moralism but never toppled over, an impressive accomplishment that was achieved through intelligence and tight control on all the characters. It was obvious Scribner knew he had set an ambitious task for himself and equally obvious that he had the skill to pull it off.

When The GoodLife was published in 1999, Scribner was teaching at Stanford University. He has since moved north to Oregon State, where he teaches creative writing. His second novel, Miracle Girl, has a more conventional first-person narrative structure than The GoodLife but is similar in its edgy subject matter and treatment of morality and ethics.

The hero, John Fitzgerald Kennedy Quinn, is a real-estate manager for the Catholic diocese in Hudson City, a gritty, seen-better-days industrial town in upstate New York. Quinn is a little cynical and more than a little burned-out. He dislikes his job. He suspects his girlfriend is having an Internet affair. He’s being forced by a friend into a real-estate deal that’s testing his limits and his scruples.

With that stage set, Scribner introduces the miracle girl of the title, a 30-year-old Vietnamese American named Sue Phong who appears to the residents of Hudson City in their dreams. Those who see her find that their ailments, up to and including deafness, are cured. A frenzy ensues.

Church officials, particularly a most skeptical bishop, are not amused by this miracle-girl business and enlist Quinn in their efforts to find and debunk Sue Phong. She’s become too much of a sensation, even though nobody has really seen her.

Well, almost nobody. Quinn’s encounters with Sue Phong force him to examine his life and allow him to look at where he lives and whom he lives with in a new, different light. Miracle Girl is a smart, savvy novel that combines emotional insight with a surprising dose of humor and establishes Scribner as one of the best novelists working in the Northwest.

–Jeff Baker, The Oregonian BooksWeek, 8/24/03

The Baltimore Sun Review of Miracle Girl

Reviewed by Donna Rifkind

Sunday, August 24, 2003

The challenge of faith takes a different form in Keith Scribner’s engaging second novel, Miracle Girl (Riverhead, 256 pages, $23.95). Things are not going well for John Fitzgerald Kennedy Quinn, a 30-ish real-estate salesman for the Catholic Church in an ailing industrial city in upstate New York. His live-in girlfriend seems restless. He’s afraid of his boss, a cranky bishop named Frank. His job is going nowhere, and his attempts to curry favor with a rival real-estate company are causing him nothing but grief.

Making matters worse, rumors about a mysterious half-Vietnamese, half-black “miracle girl” who has suddenly developed healing powers drives both the Church and the city into an uproar, snarling traffic with incoming pilgrims and making the bishop even crankier.

Will the miracle girl prove to be the key to the dying city’s comeback, or is she a fake? Will the unbelieving Quinn stumble upon a reason for faith, reconcile with his girlfriend and find financial satisfaction? In providing answers, Scribner’s urban comedy is spirited and often poignant.

© 2003, The Baltimore Sun


The Washington Post Book Review of Miracle Girl

Reviewed by Sanford Pinsker

Sunday, August 10, 2003; Page BW13

Finding Faith

Sue Phong, a deaf 30-year-old Vietnamese-American woman, occupies the enigmatic center of Keith Scribner’s fascinating novel Miracle Girl (Riverhead, $23.95). She is widely credited with miraculously curing deafness in others, and that is enough to create a stampede of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Catholic pilgrims to the Little Saigon section of Hudson City, N.Y. where she lives. If Phong is not exactly smoke and mirrors, she is surely mystery and shadow.

Naturally enough, the true believers believe, but some at the helm of this upstate New York diocese are suspicious. As the barrel-chested, tough-minded Bishop Frank argues, phony miracles cheapen one’s appreciation for the real thing. Add an unscrupulous real estate company that buys up church property on the cheap and then converts the buildings into high-priced condos, and the stage is set for a novel that explores how greed can compromise men of (supposed) faith.

John Quinn is one such man. He spends much of the novel agonizing about the deals he has cut. As one character rightly observes, “You’re searching for your faith.” In college Quinn was a business major who specialized in inventory theory. Now he finds himself badly needing to do a moral inventory on himself.

For much of the novel, the “miracle girl” exists chiefly in the talk on Little Saigon’s crowded streets and in the extensive media coverage Phong receives. For Bishop Frank, “she’s either an opportunist, a blasphemer, or psychotic.” But nobody ever really sees the miracle girl, much less has the chance to chat with her. At the end of the novel, Quinn does–and through his efforts, Phong escapes the unwanted attention that has swirled around her. As for Quinn, he reconnects with his faith–not just the kind that religion provides but also a deeper belief in himself, in others, and in the power of love to transform individual lives.

Sanford Pinsker teaches at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company

Library Journal Review of Miracle Girl

In this follow-up to his successful debut novel, The GoodLife, Scribner focuses on the commercialism of religious fervor. In the dying industrial town of Hudson City, NY, a deaf Vietnamese American Girl named Sue Phong begins appearing in people’s dreams and healing their ailments. As the media pick up the story, throngs of worshipers flock into the city, creating a financial boom. The impact of these miracles on the residents of Hudson City is narrated by John Quinn, a space planner for the Catholic Church, who has been taking bribes from a sleazy developer named Buddy Jensen. As it becomes more and more likely that Hudson City will grow into a commercial healing site, Quinn finds himself trapped between the money and power around him and the disillusionment in his personal life. He discovers that “people who don’t have faith in anything don’t have miracles.” It is only when Quinn decides to help Sue Phong escape from the city and destroy the growing commercialism that he finds a cure for his own failings. This is a well-crafted story with real characters and an astute insight into the lack of principles in our contemporary culture. Clearly, Scribner is a writer to watch. Highly recommended.-David A. Beron, Univ. of New Hampshire, Durham

© 2003 Reed Business Information

Kirkus Miracle Girl Review

The author of The Good Life (1999) returns with his second: a hardhitting, at times sidesplitting tale of trust, temptation, and redemption. Hudson City is a bust, a pockmark on New York’s upstate. You can’t even buy good coffee in this tired industrial town. Then Sue, a lovely Afro-Asian, is linked to a strange healing; citizens and officials insist, for reasons not entirely spiritual, that a miracle has occurred. People dream about the Miracle Girl, and, presto, kidney stones are dissolved, that sort of thing. Soon, pilgrims throng to the city, accompanied by oppressively hot winds. But the miracle plays the devil on Quinn, a lapsed Catholic employed by his diocese to sell Church properties. It’s all he can do to drive the big, blunt, “shut this miracle down” Bishop through crowds. (In one of the funnier scenes, the Bishop orders him to defy a police barrier.) Things worsen when Quinn, who made a pile calculating available square footage for a prior employer, is asked to work his old magic to house pilgrims. His arduous schedule coincides with three dilemmas: romantic (his girlfriend, to whom he long ago gave herpes, has grown mysteriously distant), moral (a slick-speaking “friend” proposes a shady deal with the city’s chief landowner), and spiritual (his televised fainting spell, promptly spun as religious ecstasy, leaves him confused). Scribner plants his hero knee-deep in scruples, revealing the gray side of corruption, its agonizing logic and bantering alliances. We experience up-close the weather, temper, and architecture of a city hobbled enough to justify extreme gambits; we root for a couple who cling to their fading relationship, and their fading town, with a stubbornness bordering on piety. Some touches chafe–ours is a hero who takes the measure of himself in the mirror and hasn’t had a dream he can’t remember; his meditations on physical space feel strained; Sue seems a trifle underwritten–but, overall, these are quibbles. A riotously edifying take on civic and private responsibility in an age of elaborate morals.

Albany (NY) Times-Union Miracle Girl Review

September 7, 2003

Miracles are happening in the fictitious Capital Region town of Hudson City, and thousands of pilgrims begin to descend on the sorry, has-been industrial spot.

Keith Scribner’s Miracle Girl (Riverhead; 256 pages; $24.95) is a well-crafted story about deceit, money, religion, faith, love and redemption.

Sue Phong is a young Vietnamese-American who begins appearing in the dreams of Hudson City residents, visitations that precede a series of miraculous healings.

But John Fitzgerald Kennedy Quinn, who sells real estate for the local Roman Catholic diocese, isn’t buying it. He’s a skeptic at heart, a result of growing up during the Vietnam War and Watergate. Then Quinn comes face to face with the elusive Phong, and he with little faith begins to believe–just not necessarily in the miracles.

Scribner’s edgy dialogue and nuanced storytelling make Miracle Girl an exceptional read. The author, who lives in Oregon, is a Troy native.

The GoodLife – Chapter One

The GoodlifeA screech—and Malcolm awoke. He was napping on the breezeway, an afghan over his lap. He looked out through the screen, each wire so fat with corrosion that it shaded his yard with rust. He should have stretched new screen years ago, but he’d grown accustomed to the cobwebs and flecks of dried grass caught in the mesh. Outside, Theo and Colleen were shoving a heavy plywood box into a rental van—screws and corner braces sticking through the bottom of the box gouged the paint and screeched against the metal. Theo had backed the midnight-blue Ford Econoline right across the side yard. There’d be a rut.

Malcolm dropped his hand to the end table at his side, fingered his inhaler, and brought it to his mouth. He squeezed off three puffs, and the clench in his chest subsided.

His son, Theo, had constructed the box—a large footlocker really—to hold life preservers. The whole project disgusted Malcolm. Three sheets of five-eighths plywood, the hardware, the van rental—it had to have cost Theo nearly two hundred dollars. This from a forty-five-year-old man who didn’t contribute to the grocery bill for his own family. “Spend money to make money,” Theo had told his father. The box was some kind of goodwill gesture to the owner of a marina who was considering taking Theo on as a partner. Yet Theo hadn’t spent the extra few dollars on CDX plywood, and he hadn’t put a coat of sealer on it. The wet life jackets would rot out the box within a year. “That’s what the air vents are for,” Theo had said yesterday, standing at the bench in Malcolm’s work shed, “and we’ll varnish it in situ. After it’s bolted down. We’re going to bolt it to the dock. Next to where there’s a fire hose. And an electric box.” It was the way Theo had talked since he was a boy—adding details that may or may not have been true.

“If you put a pitch to the lid, the rain’ll run off,” Malcolm had suggested.

“I appreciate you want to help, Pop, but I can handle this.” Theo was screwing corner braces on the outside of the box. His cuts were crooked, so the seams weren’t tight—gaps too wide even for silicone. “Anyway, it’s gonna be under a roof.”

Malcolm had tried to ignore it, leave his son be. An only child, Theo always had two parents butting in. Maybe he and Dot were to blame for Theo’s troubles—good intentions crowding the boy. As Theo screwed in the braces, he said, “You’d love seeing those boats down there, Pop. Gorgeous. Like you always wanted.”

Malcolm looked out the window of his work shed down the back lawn to his old boat—Theo’s Joy—rotting year by year, sinking into the ground. He lit a cigarette. He wanted to tell Theo to keep up the good work—keep the faith, they said these days. But he turned around and saw Theo using one-inch screws; the points were sticking through to the inside and would tear the life jackets. He couldn’t help shaking his head: “Half-assed.”

Theo pointed the cordless screw gun at his father. “Out,” he ordered, calmly. But the disgraceful beard he’d been growing twitched on his face with the same furious tics that Malcolm saw in his son at age four when it was bath time, at age eight on the Little League field, at age sixteen when Malcolm refused to buy him a convertible, at age twenty-four when Malcolm first suspended Theo from the police force. Theo’s face grew redder, more frustrated, and when Malcolm didn’t budge, Theo jabbed the screw gun forward and squeezed the trigger, holding it on Malcolm as he moved to the door, the whir of the Phillips tip spinning.

Now, from the breezeway, Malcolm watched his son slam the doors of the van. Why on earth would a man grow a beard when he was looking for a job? Colleen hopped into the driver’s seat, and Theo directed her with sloppy signals around the boxwood tree and the concrete mother duck with her ducklings in tow. The smallest duckling, Malcolm noticed, was knocked on its side.

The engine was straining as they rushed away. Malcolm hated to see them go off with such a shoddy piece of workmanship. It violated everything he’d tried to instill in the boy.

He rocked in his chair, springs squeaking, and slipped a Tareyton from the pack in his bathrobe. The grass, wet from dew and disgracefully tall, showed a darker green where Theo and Colleen had trampled it down. Here it was Memorial Day weekend, and Malcolm hadn’t cut the grass yet. The spring had been bone-dry, but even so, getting out the mower two weeks ago would not have been premature. The truth was Malcolm didn’t think his lungs were up to it, especially now that the days were turning hot. He’d been hoping Theo might pitch in and cut the grass. Malcolm had mentioned it once or twice.

He set the cigarette between his lips and looked down the yard. Years had passed since he’d even thought of repairing the boat, but he kept it in the yard to spite himself. It was his reminder of the mistakes that we make in this life. She hadn’t been a bad boat, but as Dot was quick to point out, she hadn’t been a particularly good boat either. The twin Liberty V-12’s had wanted regular tinkering, but when she was timed like a watch, he’d get the full 380 out of them and then some. For five years they’d motored on the river and down the shore. The boat had brought them pleasure—Theo, Dot, and himself—and Colleen had loved it too, posed like a magazine model in her bikini on the little bow deck that first summer she and Theo were dating. It was already a collector’s piece when he bought it—a 1941 Chris-Craft barrel-stern runabout with triple cockpits.

Now the boat was covered with moss, not a lick of paint left on her mahogany hull, the brass railings black as iron. It was propped up on stilts in the backyard, the trailer sold out from underneath, the keel sunk a foot into the ground. Where Malcolm had been able to reach in with the mower over the years, the grass was cut. Not exactly a junk car with a sprung hood and shattered glass, but there was no denying it was an eyesore. And Colleen said there was a smell—the nose on that girl, God bless her, she’d know if you passed gas at the other end of a telephone wire. If there was a smell, then there’d be a smell. Because what was clear to Malcolm was that on the day of his funeral, Theo’s Joy would be a bit more rotted, a bit deeper in the ground, and still sitting comfortably on that spot. The boat represented the biggest blunder of Malcolm’s life. It was his penance to look at that decaying boat every day, and if it was an eyesore for anybody else, well, life was like that. One life spills over into others: The joy and love—we welcome that, but the rest of it spills over too. The pain, the stupidity, and the wreck of someone else’s life splash like vomit on your shoes from some drunk you’re hauling in for Disorderly.

Before long Dot was standing in the doorway wearing her housecoat, her face misty with sleep. Her stance was getting wider with time. She would ask him as she had every morning for the last dozen-odd years if he’d had coffee, then she’d ask him what he felt like for breakfast. He’d say yes or no, nothing or an egg. And this morning he didn’t want to have that conversation, because his son was going off to make a fool of himself with this half-assed box and Malcolm was to blame. Before Dot could speak he said, looking out through the corroded screen, “I wish I never had to eat again.”

Malcolm lit the cigarette he’d been worrying between his lips, and as he watched a squirrel dart in and out of a hole in the hull of the boat, he realized he couldn’t remember what hunger actually felt like. But more, he couldn’t remember when his hunger had passed—that bearlike hunger of two or three decades ago that had seemed to consume him when he was unable to satisfy it. He remembered feeling it on the boat—swallowing deviled eggs like grapes, gulping tuna fish sandwich triangles, the bread cold and moist from the cooler, swishing down cans of beer. Still hungry, he’d watch the paper plates and empty tin cans bobbing in the wake of the boat, the water churned full of air, the color of dishwater. He’d watch the trash as it floated away, keeping inside the neat track formed by the wake. The hunger of those days had never been satisfied. At some point, like a pain, he had stopped noticing it, and when he thought of it later, the hunger was missing.

Dot was gone from the doorway, and after three puffs on his cigarette a clench gripped Malcolm’s chest. He crushed the cigarette in the pedestal ashtray he’d gotten at the ten-year service banquet of the New Jersey Patrolmen’s Association, and took two more hits from the inhaler. Yesterday, it had been four puffs of smoke till he couldn’t breathe; last week it was half a cigarette. This is what the doctors had told him about emphysema: in the end it comes on quick. This is what was happening. Finally, Malcolm was dying.

Colleen drove the van. She liked being out early, the dewy morning suggesting a fresh start. Before they went to sleep tonight, she and Theo would be financially secure. “Is that the traffic light by Bottle and Cork?” Theo asked her from behind the passenger seat. He was crouched on the steel floor of the van between the plywood box and a roll of carpeting. The carpeting was wrapped in brown paper and flopped over in the middle to fit inside the rear doors. To Colleen, the smells of freshly cut wood and a new carpet were the smells of an addition being built on a house, of dreams being realized.

“Bottle and Cork,” she said. “Yes.” He had it planned so well, sensing as he did exactly where they were even though he couldn’t see.

“Don’t forget your directional going into the park.”

She clicked down the blinker, her hands sweaty inside her gloves, and turned left through the first parking lot by the tennis courts, where several people were playing. She gassed up the hill to the upper lot by the picnic tables, where, exactly as Theo had predicted, there were no cars, no people, nothing.

“Seven-twelve,” Theo said, his voice with the engine shut off much closer to her, almost like her own inner voice. “Stretch for three minutes and don’t forget to lock up.”

Colleen slammed the van door and slipped the single key on its rental agency tab into the zipper pocket of her warm-up jacket; then she leaned into the hood, stretching her hamstring.

She stared at her watch. When the display turned to 7:15, she took off her gloves and stashed them behind the front tire. She clicked her fingernails on the van as a signal to Theo and jogged back down to Route 401. The traffic already seemed heavier—rich people rushing to work—a steel-gray Mercedes, a boat-sized white Cadillac. She might never work again. Or she might. What was important was she’d have the choice. A year ago, when she’d begun to set up a business selling GoodLife products, she hadn’t had that choice. Their debts from business failures, credit cards, and Tiffany’s hospital bills were growing by the day. She was hung up on devising the perfect GoodLife plan that would guarantee her Majesty Status in eight months. There was no room for error. She couldn’t relax, set up a solid front line, and take her time to build a successful network. After tonight, she’d be able to truly embrace the GoodLife philosophy—helping yourself through helping others. That is, if she chose to.

There were two blocks of sidewalk to jog along before she turned onto Carnegie Lane. She’d chosen her pink warm-up suit—elasticized ankles and wrists, Dior discreetly embroidered on the left breast and hip, a very conservative collar, not at all blousy, no shoulder pads. Among her various suits it seemed the least likely to draw attention. It was loose-fitting, really rather plain. She had to admit she had a nice figure for a forty-five-year-old mother of two. Her face was youthful, her hair still naturally blond, styled with a subtle permanent wave away from her face with enough length that she could wear it up for elegance or down, say, held back by earmuffs for skiing.

The GoodLife philosophy had taught her to think about profits not in terms of dollar figures but what those dollars could buy. She thought of Brook’s college tuition, his future. She thought of resuming therapy for Tiffany. She thought of the relief to her twenty-five-year marriage staggering under the burden of debt. She rounded the corner onto Carnegie Lane and pushed easily up the small hill.

The corner lots along 401 were landscaped natural; ivy crawling up cedar plank fences, overgrown privacy bushes. As Colleen topped the hill, the sound of traffic on the main road was washed away by the steady hush of automatic sprinklers. The low sun fingered its way through the trees, lighting the mist that sprayed from invisible nozzles hidden in the plush carpets of grass and projecting rainbows across the freshly paved winding lane. It was a sight.

She checked her watch—7:19. Theo had figured six minutes to the foot of the driveway, and by her own estimation—the bend in front of her and then one more—that seemed exactly right. She jogged on the side of the street, looping around several half-circles of water sprinkling over the curb.

The houses on Carnegie Lane were mostly hidden from the street. Long driveways wound up through the trees, which seemed to be the originals—the actual trees that were there before the houses were built. In a few weeks when the leaves were thicker, the houses would be completely hidden behind the natural foliage—intimate and private.

She saw the mailbox, russet with a dark blue flag. Nice simple taste. A vine rose was tacked to the red cedar post. She could see the newspaper at the foot of the driveway. She slowed her pace, took a deep breath, then stopped to stretch her quads as if she had a cramp. She stood two steps into Stona Brown’s driveway, as if she were concerned that a car hugging the curb too closely—someone late for work, moving too fast—could hit her. Not even trespassing. The town owns thirty-three feet from the center of the road. Theo had told her this, and it was his reassuring voice she heard now. She pulled an ankle up to her bum while standing on a single foot planted firmly next to the rolled-up newspaper.

But now she actually had a cramp, a spasm that made her leg shake. She dropped the leg, but the muscle pain shot into her hip. Jogging on a quiet street in a free country. She had a simple task: she kicked the newspaper across the driveway, where it nestled against the puff of English ivy encircling the roses.


And she was jogging again up Carnegie Lane, but the spasm in her hip and thigh didn’t pass. She tried to run through the stitch, to run it off, but her stride was all wrong—her leg kicked out from the hip—and at that moment she looked off to her right, up through a stand of pine trees where two white birches caught her eye, and she saw a flash through the leaves: she saw a woman in a royal-blue bathrobe holding a hose dribbling with water, a woman looking directly at her. In half a second she was hidden again behind the trees.

Colleen jogged faster until she reached the cul-de-sac. The cramp passed. She turned around, jogged in front of the house again, this time on the far side of the street, looking to her left through the trees. When she caught a glimpse of the porch, no one was there.

She jogged back past the tennis courts. Inside the van Theo told her, “Two minutes late.”

“Sorry, I had a cramp.” She sat on the edge of the plywood box and slipped gray coveralls over her jogging suit. Theo opened the rear doors and unfolded the rolled-up carpet so that it stuck out the back, a red flag dangling at the end. Then he swung the doors tight against the roll of carpet and held them fast with bungee cords.

Colleen started the engine and eased down through the park past the tennis courts, gunned into traffic on 401, then took a quick left on Carnegie Lane. Now she slowed the van to an idle, rolling as slowly up the street as she had jogged it. When she passed the house, she tried not to look but couldn’t help herself. She searched through the trees for any signs of life. All she could see was a second-long flash of sunlight shining silver off a stream of water running down the front-porch steps.

She looped around the cul-de-sac and brought the van to rest on the side of the road halfway back to the mailbox. From this spot she could see the top of the driveway and just glimpse the garage doors. She turned off the engine.

On the seat beside her was the Asherton Gazette and a bag from Dunkin’ Donuts—a coffee and a cinnamon cruller. “Anything?” Theo’s voice as soft and close as pillow talk. He was still crouched in the back with a blanket at the ready to throw over himself if there was trouble.

“Nothing,” she said, looking into the bag. The cruller was half eaten, the coffee half empty, which was a relief with her stomach all butterflies as it was. She laid the newspaper across the steering wheel, put the coffee in the dashboard rack, and set the cruller on the pullout tray above the radio. Just killing time before an eight o’clock install, she practiced, saying it in her head. Oh yeah, goes down quick. We’ll be in and out in an hour tops. It’s good work. Real steady. At the top of the driveway everything was still. She looked at her watch—7:40. The doors should open any minute. She had to say it casually. She had to flirt. But there wouldn’t be any police—all of this was backup. The coffee and newspaper were props, her script was for the unlikely event that the police happened to cruise Carnegie Lane and stop to question her. But Theo had it all worked out. It wouldn’t happen, he promised her.

And she went through the lines once more—eight o’clock install—trying to hear her voice say it naturally. But when she spoke she could only hear Theo, coaching her in bed in the grim dusty room where they slept—the same room Theo had slept in as a boy—under the rotting eaves of his parents’ home.

Stona was late. He’d spent too much time fiddling with his new ship’s clock. But what a beauty. You can take the sailor from the sea, but you can never take … et cetera, et cetera. This was neat. A ship’s clock for the house.

He pressed the garage door button, opened the car, and set his overcoat and briefcase on the front seat. He started the engine. An Italian voice blared from the tape deck … “molto piccolo.” He’d been trying to learn Italian for years. He turned the knob two clicks down. The clock in the stereo read 7:56. “Il fratello è molto forte.” He hated to be late. It was one of the things that mattered—being in the office before his subordinates. It seemed rather unsubtle to tie it all to money, but he earned a more generous salary at Petrochem for a reason—he worked better and harder. He would not coast as some of the others did. “La sorella è molto bella.”

You set a standard of attitude and behavior at the top. Then down the line that standard was emulated by management, and before long, right down to the secretaries and janitors you’d find professionalism and competence. Stona would never wear sunglasses, for instance, walking from his car through the lobby into the office. He would never sit in conferences eating pistachios, cracking the shells open like a chipmunk, as one of his colleagues did on a regular basis. Eating pistachios was an affectation. Like zinc oxide on the nose when sailing, half-glasses on anyone under fifty. They were unnecessary markers of a contrived self-image. Vacationing in Turkey, doing yoga (anything to do with India for that matter), solar power, feather beds, wood stoves, expensive cutlery … The list was always growing and changing in his mind. Basically, Stona didn’t understand what was wrong with the classics.

He backed out of the garage a little faster than usual and swung into the turnaround. It was a sunny morning. In the rearview mirror he watched the familiar quick-spinning pivot of the pines, a flash of the Japanese lantern, and a pan of the house coming to a jerky stop at the front porch. As he shifted into drive, something caught his eye: a glint in the mirror, or was it sunlight reflecting off the lens of his glasses? “Il padre è molto intelligente.” He looked over his shoulder through the rear window. Water was running off the edge of the porch and down the steps. The garden hose wound from the spigot to the porch. Nunny must have been watering this morning. How unusual for her to leave the water on. To forget like that. Stona hated the waste—the water and the water bill both: $38.58 last month and rising fast with the arrival of summer. Chimes sounded from behind the dash as he popped open his door. He glanced at the clock—7:58. He wouldn’t take the extra minute to turn off the water. Nunny would notice in no time. She was very good with those things. He slammed the door and gunned down the drive. “La madre è molto simpatica.”

When he saw the newspaper on the wrong side of the drive, he decided to let it be. An extra half-minute to stop and walk around the car. There’d be no time to look at it this morning anyway. He had a working lunch, and the afternoon was booked. Marilyn would give him a copy of the media brief at noon. He could leave the paper for Nunny. He pulled the seat belt across his chest, and then he hit the brakes hard. That’s right. Haircut at six-thirty. He’d want the paper to keep that barber from chatting him up, the inanity so tiring at the end of a day. “La famiglia è molto contenta.”

He hurried around the front of the car, pivoting on two fingers pressed to the cool steel hood, slouching as he knew he did when he rushed. He straightened up consciously. He’d always had good posture. He remembered taking Bob Hogel aside when Bob first came on at Petrochem and telling him, “If it cleans out your family fortune, donate your every suit to charity and go to Brooks Brothers and buy five of the most conservative suits they have. Get rid of those tinted glasses, and for God’s sake, Bob, stand up straight.” Bob was a little stiff at first, but in a week he was a new man and was now VP for International Oil Production.

Stona bent down in the shadow of the car and squeezed his fingers around the newspaper. He noticed a strange noise. Was it his car again? He hunkered lower to listen at the wheel well. He hated to put Nunny through the nonsense of another day at the Mercedes dealership because of a noise they could never diagnose. With one hand holding the newspaper and the fingertips of his other hand on the tire, he turned.

Still crouched, he saw the van first, dark blue with its rear doors open. Then, as if avoiding a swooping bird, he recoiled and would have fallen backwards had he not grabbed the edge of the fender: there was a man between himself and the van. Stona strained his eyes against the sunlight to focus on the man, who seemed to have been standing there a long time, waiting. And it did not occur to Stona—as the man came at him—to be frightened.

Theo was cramped. Damn it to hell. He had staked out Brown six mornings, and he always left the house at 7:45 plus or minus three minutes. Now it was 7:51. This was the kind of frustration the world was dishing out to Theo. Brown didn’t have the personality makeup to call in sick. He got sick on vacation or saved it for retirement. Theo knew the type. Maybe Brown had a business trip today. “Make sure he’s alone when he comes out. And if a limo shows up, get us out of here.”

Wearing gray coveralls like Colleen’s, Theo straddled the roll of carpet extending out the back doors to hide the license plate. The ski masks were in his left pocket—black acrylic masks that would cover their entire heads, orange-trimmed holes for the eyes and mouth. His .45 was strapped to his calf in a holster.

Seven fifty-four. He peered around the driver’s seat. Colleen’s mouth moved like she was saying the rosary. “You look tense,” he told her. “You look guilty.”

“I’m practicing,” she said. “In case of the police.”

“Watch the garage door. That’s your job. That’s your focus. And hold the newspaper up higher on the steering wheel.”

Theo knew a bit about cops. Thirteen years on the force stayed in your system. Cops were blue-collar-type guys less apt to hassle people working for a living, like carpet layers in a respectable van, a clean-cut, nice-looking woman. “You should seem bored. Tired of the routine.” This was no different from a bust … easier really. Collaring a man who’s not looking over his shoulder.

Seven fifty-five. In ten minutes they’d scrub it for today. He was sweating now, bad sign, his nerves getting the upper hand. His nerves could take control of what he did: his suspensions from the police force—a shoplifter resisting arrest and the suspect’s mother screaming obscenities at Theo, clawing at the sleeve of his uniform, obstructing. It was not until he saw the woman doubled over with her face in her hands, not until he had the kid in cuffs, and noticed the mother’s teeth covered in blood, that he’d realized his revolver had come into contact with her face. The same phenomenon—nervous excitement controlling him—had caused the boating accident so many years ago. His father had never forgiven him, and Theo wished he could’ve explained, but now he’d make it up to his father, make his father proud …

“Oh, my God!” Colleen said. “The garage door’s moving.”

“Start the engine, little girl.” Theo felt a rush from the base of his spine—adrenaline for showtime. This was it. He jumped up and threw open the lid of the box. He drew the .45 and went down on one knee behind Colleen’s seat.

“Foot on the brake,” he whispered, his mouth just inches from her ear. He’d told her not to wear perfume—it was the kind of thing he planned for, the minutiae of perfect preparation. Still, he could smell faint traces of Obsession on her clothes. Well, she wouldn’t get that close to Brown. “Mask on.” He tugged them from his pocket, and they pulled them over their heads.

Through the windshield he watched Brown’s Mercedes back out of the garage and into the turnaround.

“Drop it into drive.”

The transmission clunked. In gear now, poised like a panther—nothing would throw him off.

He watched the car, stopped in the turnaround, as he tugged on Colleen’s mask, tucking in a few locks of blond hair that flicked out the back. The car crept forward, then suddenly shot ahead. “He’s really moving,” Theo said. “Now, ease off the brake.”

He had timed Brown down the driveway at nine seconds, but he was moving much faster this morning. Theo estimated his speed at twelve miles per hour. Their van was six seconds up the street.

“A little gas now.”

The vehicles were converging. It would all happen automatically. The actual moment was beyond Theo’s control. He had done the drills, but the outside force that carried him into the zone had taken over.

Brown stopped at the foot of the driveway. He scurried in front of his car, and Colleen hit the gas. Theo went to the rear doors, gun in hand, and released the bungee cords. The rumble of the U-joints and the ping of stones in the wheel wells sounded like noises heard underwater. Insulated, calm … The world was pausing for a moment so this one act could expand and fill the space.

“Go!” Colleen said as the tires scraped over sand. Theo slammed out the back. His feet hit the pavement heavy, and immediately he adjusted the picture in his mind. He had seen it a hundred times—the angle of the van, the position of Brown, the distance between the two. Now he adjusted it to reality in less time than it took to take his first stride. Momentum was on his side.

Brown turned from his squat over the newspaper and seemed stunned as Theo’s arm shot out and pulled him to his feet. Theo held him by the knot of his tie and pointed the gun at his head. Already he could see that Brown was older and smaller than he’d thought. This would be tit. “Move, Mr. Brown! Into the van.” It was Theo’s command voice. He hadn’t heard it since he left the force.

Brown resisted, tried to hold his ground like any punk Theo had arrested. And Theo was surprised for a moment—that Brown’s face was so disbelieving. Didn’t the man know that Theo was in charge now?

“I said move!” Theo shook the man so hard his glasses popped off his face.

Theo dragged Brown into the van, pressing the barrel of his gun against Brown’s ear. “Go! Go! Go!” Theo shouted, and the van started rolling.

He was hunched over, his head banging on the roof of the van, pulling Brown by the necktie down toward the open plywood box. So easy—it was nearly over. “In the box, Mr. Brown,” Theo said. He glanced out the windshield for a second, and Brown spun around. His arm clipped Theo’s face. The ski mask twisted over Theo’s eyes, his vision was completely blocked. Brown clawed at the hand clenching his tie, and Theo tugged at the mask with his gun hand. Everything was black. Brown kicked him in the shin, then again, and Theo stumbled over the roll of carpet, swinging the metal grip of his gun like a punch. The gun fired. Nobody gets hurt. Brown grunted like a man lifting a heavy weight. Colleen screamed. The van swerved. The perfect plan. Brown’s fingers loosened. Theo yanked off his mask, and Brown was looking at him—an arm’s length between them—the two men staring straight at each other; the entire world compressed into the space where their breath collided.

“You shot him!” Colleen. Shrill. “I can’t believe you shot him!”

Brown’s hand squeezed his forearm, blood seeping between his fingers. And in those few seconds of shock Theo forced him into the box, slammed down the lid, and sat on top while he hooked the latch.

The van halted abruptly—the stop sign at the bottom of Carnegie Lane—and the rear doors bounced against the carpet.

“Why did you have to shoot him?” Colleen pounded the steering wheel.

“I didn’t shoot him. The gun discharged. Accidental. Take off your mask. He just got scared. It didn’t hit him.” Theo desperately wanted to believe he was telling the truth.

“It didn’t hit him?” She screeched into traffic on 401.

Theo folded the roll of carpet back into the van, now at full speed, and slammed the doors shut. “He didn’t get shot.”

“You’re sure you didn’t shoot him?”

“I know how to handle a weapon.” It was the first time he’d shot anyone. As a cop, he’d shot three times and missed.

“It really didn’t hit him?”

Brown was shouting angrily, stomping his shoes at the bottom of the box. It was just a flesh wound.

“You hear that? He’s fine,” Theo said. “Full of piss and vinegar. Nobody shot him.”