“Hey.” It was a man whispering. “Guess what I’m doing to your wife right now?”
FOR LOREN MUSE, there was no escaping déjà 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 déjà 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.”