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"I'm sorry for the intrusion," Danielle Barnea said to the woman seated on the couch before her. "This won't take very long."
Layla Saltzman nodded stiffly, as if it were something she had gotten quite used to doing in recent weeks. Her face was expressionless, her eyes dry and cried out. Dull brown hair hung over her face in stray locks she had given up caring about. The house, squeezed amidst other modest one- and two-story stucco-finished homes in the Jerusalem suburb of Har Adar, smelled of stale coffee and burned pastry.
Six days before, Layla Saltzman's seventeen-year-old son Michael had committed suicide. Before the case could be officially closed, a final interview was required to make sure the facts in question were all in order. Normally this would have been a matter for local authorities—in this instance the Jerusalem police—but all cases involving a firearm were automatically referred to National Police. And Danielle's superior, the commissioner or Rav nitzav Moshe Baruch, had elected not to refer it back even after suicide became apparent.
Now, seated in the suicide victim's living room, Danielle found her eyes wandering to the framed pictures adorning the coffee table between her chair and the couch on which the boy's mother sat. All showed Michael Saltzman in various poses through the years. Tennis racquet in his left hand, wearing a summer camp T-shirt. Baseball glove and uniform. His Bar Mitzvah. There was still plenty of space atop the table, but there would be no more pictures to fill it.
Her gaze lingered for a time on one shot that pictured Michael between his parents, an arm tossed casually around both their shoulders. The angle of the room's light gave Danielle a clear view of her own face, in effect projecting herself into the picture. Now that she was pregnant once again, she found comfort in the thought she might fill her own coffee table with photos some day. The comfort was short lived, though, as she reflected that the child's father in her pictures would be missing.
Danielle studied herself in the glass, seeing a youngish thirty-five year old, her face unlined by wrinkles, athletic and robust. She wore her wavy brown hair the same way she had in college, because it framed her full face better than any of the more contemporary styles would. How strange. Despite her professional reputation as a progressive innovator, she was, in this respect anyway, truly a creature of the past.
Distracted, Danielle shuffled the folder on her lap and the forensics photos spilled out onto the living room rug. She stooped to retrieve them and watched Layla Saltzman's expression waver as she peered at the pictures through the coffee table's glass top. Danielle noticed she was wearing on her wrist a man's watch with a broken face.
"I'm sorry," Danielle said, sticking the photos in the rear of the folder. "Just a few more questions, I promise."
Layla Saltzman nodded.
"You were away the day of…the incident."
"I was at work."
Danielle gazed again at the picture of Michael standing between his two parents, everybody smiling. "And your husband?"
"We're divorced. He moved back to the United States. Remarried a woman with three young children. He returned to them the day after the funeral."
Layla Saltzman shrugged as if she were tired of hearing that.
Danielle continued scanning the case report. "So the last time you spoke to your son…"
"At breakfast the day he…" Layla Saltzman's voice trailed off and she cleared her throat. "He seemed fine."
Danielle nodded, returning her focus to the case.
"I need to ask you about the gun, Mrs. Saltzman."
"He knew where it was kept, how to use it. Just in case. My husband wanted him to know. With the crime rates what they are here now, well…I forgot we even had it. Maybe if I had remembered and gotten rid of the damn thing…"
Layla Saltzman laced her hands together and wrung them raw. Danielle looked at her, trying to relate. She would have been a single mother now too, had she not miscarried her first pregnancy. And she fully intended to raise her new baby by herself. But the sight of the woman on the couch across from her started Danielle thinking. Layla Saltzman was alone now and would more than likely stay that way. Her child's father had been six thousand miles away when the boy died.
The father of Danielle's unborn child lived barely thirty miles from Jerusalem, yet she had decided to keep him out of the child's life. She tried to imagine herself on the other side of an interview like this. Alone, with nothing but photos to remind her it had not always been that way.
Layla Saltzman raised her arm and twisted it around to show Danielle the watch with the broken face. "This was Michael's watch. A present from his girlfriend last year. I was thinking about giving it back to her. Do you think I should?"
"If it makes you feel better," Danielle tried lamely.
"Nothing makes me feel better, Chief Inspector. That's the point." Layla Saltzman's eyes gestured toward Danielle's folder. "Does it say in there what a wonderful student Michael was? Does it say he spent a semester at a special cooperative school for Israelis and Palestinians outside of Jerusalem in Abu Gosh? Does it say what a tremendous soccer player he was, that American universities were sending him letters to recruit him? I didn't want him to go because that meant he'd be closer to his father than to me. Does it say that in there?"
Danielle remembered her preliminary study of Michael Saltzman's file. "There was mention of the incident involving your son's friend," she said, imagining herself having to live in a world of stale coffee and forced smiles in eighteen years time. No one to sit next to her, thanks to the decision she thought she had finally put behind her.
Layla Saltzman nodded, "Yes, a girl named Beth Jacober from Tel Aviv. They were close. I don't know how close, you understand." Her voice broke slightly. "Michael met her at his new school, the cooperative. She was killed in a car accident a week before he…"
"Mrs. Saltzman, you don't have to—"
"Everyone thinks Michael did it because he was depressed about Beth. I guess the two of them could have been closer than I thought. Who can tell with kids these days?" She balled her hands into tight fists and cradled them in her lap. "I—I didn't go to Beth's funeral with him; he didn't want me to. Michael wasn't depressed. He was dealing with Beth's death, he was coping." She flashed her son's watch with the broken face again. "It doesn't work anymore, but I still wear it."
Danielle looked at Michael Saltzman's watch, at the pictures of him on the coffee table featuring a family that would never be together again, that had squandered its chances.
Was this the kind of life she wanted for herself and her child?
Danielle flipped through the folder once more, finding the crime scene photos and the report filed in obligatory fashion by the case officers. Studied the photo picturing the nine millimeter pistol just out of the grasp of the dead boy's fingers.
"He wasn't wearing the watch when he died," she said vacantly.
Layla Saltzman shook her head. "No. It was on his dresser. I forgot to put it on his wrist for the funeral, then threw it across the room when I got home. That's when it broke." Something that passed for serenity spread briefly over her expression. "No one asked me about that before."
Danielle felt a jolt of recognition as she realized something no one else must have. She looked back at the collection of pictures on the glass coffee table, past the one of Michael with his arms around both his parents' shoulders, to the picture of the boy tossing a tennis ball into the air for the serve. Focused on him holding his racquet, ready to swipe it down in a wide booming arc.
"Is something wrong, Chief Inspector?" Layla Saltzman asked her.
"No," Danielle said, knowing no sense lay in saying anything to the woman yet, not until she was sure. "Nothing at all."
Copyright © 2001 by Jon Land