JACQUELINE HALSTEAD RUSHED OUT of the bedroom to the study in the adjoining suite. The briefcase was on her husband’s desk, closed, and as had been his practice over the past several weeks, locked. That had been the first piece of hard evidence, this practice of securing his briefcase at home, though it had taken her far too long to see it for what it was. Evidence. The moodiness, the weight loss, the late nights had finally brought the picture into focus.
Her movements were carefully devised and practiced. She positioned herself around the briefcase, then made a note of the numbers on the lock: 70412. He was changing the combination daily now, though she knew from his demeanor that the distrust was not meant for her. She had a finely tuned sense for these things, for detecting the truth within an embrace, a look. No. He trusted her, she was certain. It was not the fear of being discovered that had him twisted in so many knots, but instead the guilt of a caring man. His wife, their children, and all that was at stake were the worries that were eating at him from the inside. And still the lock was changing.
Thinking back over the past months, she realized how tightly she had closed her eyes, not wanting to see, not wanting to believe that the life that had lifted her out of darkness could itself be in peril. She had become complacent over the years, trusting and as close to carefree as her history would allow. She had come to think of her past as something she had shed, like a snail outgrowing its shell and slipping into a new one. Her stupidity was maddening.
There was a saving grace. Her proficiency at seeing into the hidden corners of a life, especially her own, had not completely vanished. Not even with seventeen years of being Mrs. David Halstead. The wires of suspicion were still there inside her head, the ones set in place by a childhood of fear. And now thoughts moved across them freely, the consequences of different scenarios weighed. Plans of escape devised.
She took a long breath and listened for the shower. With her children and nanny at a movie, and their dog, Chester, locked outside, the house was unusually quiet. The shower, with its oversized head and powerful jets, was still pounding against the marble tiles, broken only by the body of her husband as he moved about, unaware that his wife was breaching his trust for the third time in the course of a week. With nothing but a towel wrapped around her slender body, her long dark hair dripping wet on her face, she turned the knobs with shaky hands. One after the other, she entered the digits of the fail-safe code that had come with the briefcase. She finished the code sequence and popped open the lock. Her movements quicker now that she was committed to the treason, she flipped through the papers, sorting out the work documents from those related to the U.S. Attorney’s investigation. The letter was still there, tucked deep within a back compartment. RE: INVESTIGATION OF HALSTEAD, WHITTIER, ET AL. Daniel’s firm. The government had not filed any charges, satisfied at the moment to make inquiries about the location of certain funds. Nothing had made it to the public eye. Not yet. And as far as she could tell, only a handful of the investors in David’s hedge fund suspected that their money might have been mishandled. None of this concerned her as profoundly as the name on that letter. She looked at it again, as though seeing it there in the bold black ink one more time would make her believe it any more or less than she did. DAVID HALSTEAD.
Working quickly, she found what she’d been looking for—a new letter. It was the first one in eight days, and it was not from the government. This one was from a law firm, one she’d heard of because of its reputation for high-profile criminal defense work. Dirty cops. Public corruption. And now her husband. She reached for a pencil, wrote down the name of the lawyer who’d signed the letter. She jotted down the numbers of federal statutes that were being threatened. There would be little time now, so she worked furiously, trying to analyze what she could, writing down the rest. She felt her stomach tighten, but she forced herself to continue as though she were not reading the blueprint for her own life’s destruction.
Finishing the last paragraph, she tucked the letter back where she’d found it, then made a quick study of the briefcase contents. She pulled some papers up, others down, until she was as certain as she could be that they were laid out the way she’d found them moments before. The sound of the shower dying to a drizzle made her stop by reflex, but there was no time. She willed herself to move faster now, to concentrate as she pulled down the lid of the case, clicked the clasps into place, then spun the number dials back to 70412.
Outside the study, she felt it again, the wave of panic as she held the door. Had it been open or closed, the study door? A small detail, but one more detail that would have to be explained. And it was just that very thing, the slow disintegration of explanations, that had given David away and could easily work toward her own exposure.
"Jacks?" He was calling for her. She’d left the bathroom the moment he’d stepped into the shower, and by any accounting, she should now be in her closet dressing for the nursery school benefit.
She didn’t answer—if she could hear him, she would have no excuse for her absence other than being in a place she had no business to be.
Think! But her mind was on the letter, the notes in her hand, and the work that needed to be done. She would scan their bank statements, the weblike array of the family’s personal investments, their 401(k)—their only nest egg after all this family-raising was said and done and they were put out to pasture by a world that favors the young. There was little equity in the house after the loan for the new wing they’d put on last year, and the severe drop in the housing market. Nothing remained in the checking account beyond what was needed to pay the bills. Where could it be, the money that was missing from the fund? And why, good God, why, would David take it?
Closed. She felt the air reach her lungs. The study door had been closed. She turned off the light then pulled the door shut, turning the knob to slide it into place without a sound.
The hallway was quiet again. With light steps, she returned to the bedroom where David was standing inside his closet, dry and partially clothed in boxers and a fresh undershirt. He was visibly distracted, and Jacks knew in that instant that she had not been discovered.
"Aren’t you going to get dressed?" he said to her without turning around. He was so thin now, she could see his ribs protruding through the cotton undershirt.
"I won’t be long." Sitting on the bed so she could slide the notes under the mattress, she kept her eyes glued to his back. She felt the sickness in her gut, the same restlessness of an insurgent that she’d had for days now. That was what she had become, an insurgent in her own life, a spy embedded within her own family. In every room it followed her—the bright, sun-filled kitchen, the cozy family room, the delicate pink enclaves of her three daughters. The places that had been her haven, that had held her in the embrace of comfort and safety, were now the places where she had to hide what she knew, what she felt. And with every breath her husband took, she waited for him to drop the bomb.
David was humming as he moved about his closet, surely out of nerves. He was a good man, no matter what he’d done. He loved their children as much as she did, and it would be killing him to know that their fate might be sealed by whatever crimes he had committed. Their reliance on him had been the unwritten contract between them, the standard agreement between men and women in places like Wilshire. Husband works. Wife tends to the house, children, and the husband’s needs. And she had done that, produced three children, overseen their care, managed the house. She had cultivated one of the most envied social lives in Wilshire. They were close friends with the most coveted family in this town, the Barlows, and that had been her doing. Hours of lunches, exercise classes, reading groups, and school benefits. From the book fairs to the nail salon, she had done the social research and placed herself wherever she needed to be. Getting to this position had been her job, and she had done it well.
That they would lose all of that was a given, and she didn’t care. Everything she’d done for them socially had been calculated to keep David happy so he could do his job—the one that brought home the money. And it was the money that paid for the rooms, the schools, the happily-ever-after. That was the end goal of the professional’s wife. They had nothing without the job, which was the very thing David had placed in jeopardy. Even if he avoided prison, no one would ever trust him again. And for Jacks, the working world was as far gone as her own childhood. It had been more than seventeen years since she’d earned a paycheck as a waitress. What would she put on her résumé now? Still attractive after bearing three children? What about her perfectly decorated house? Her trendsetting taste? Her honed sense of timing that made it possible for her to get so close to the Barlows? No. None of that would be worth a damned thing. After seventeen years, she would return to the workforce exactly where she’d left it. If they really lost everything, if David went to jail, how could she raise three children on the salary of a middle-aged waitress?
She was in her closet now, moving robotically from section to section as she chose the various items. Undergarments, skirt, blouse, shoes. She could smell David’s cologne drifting in from the bathroom, and it brought back, for the smallest moment, the feeling of him—David the man, beyond the provider, the father. There had been times when he’d held her and she’d felt herself lost in his strength, his certainty, when he’d been able to reach behind the curtains where she kept her true self, the one with the memories and the pain. And in those instances, she had believed that the struggle could finally end, that her life might actually be what it appeared from the outside. Good. Happy. Normal. She inhaled deeper and pulled back the tears that were starting to come. No matter what he meant to her outside all of this, she could not leave her life, and the lives of her girls, in his hands. She would not lay herself down in the arms of faith. That was not the way of a survivor.
She’d been through it in her head and kept coming back to the same conclusion. Seventeen years ago, she’d let go of her raft, the one that had kept her afloat but could never fight the tide, and climbed onto David’s cruise liner. If what she believed now was true—if that ship was about to go down, taking her and the kids along with it—then it was time to find a lifeboat.
Excerpted from Social Lives by Wendy Walker.
Copyright © 2009 by Wendy Walker.
Published in September 2009 by St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.