We walk down the long hallway lined with those art photographs, passing by one
of the California Coast. The gorgeous coast near Big Sur. The photograph is at
least seven feet long, a bird’s-eye view of that almost impossible stretch of road
carved into the divide of steep mountain, rock, and ocean. I’m so focused on it,
taking some comfort in the familiar landscape, that I almost miss it when we pass
the dining room. I almost miss the dining room table inside. My dining room
table—the one that was featured in Architectural Digest. The table that helped
launch my career.
It’s my most reproduced piece. A big box store even started replicating the
table after the AD feature came out.
It stops me. Nicholas said his wife carefully picked every piece of furniture in
this house. What if she came across the feature in Architectural Digest? What if
that was what led her to the table? It was possible. The feature was still on their
website. Enough clicks in recent years could have led her to her lost
granddaughter, if she had been searching closely enough, if she had only known
what to be searching for.
Enough moves, after all, led me here, to this house I don’t want to be in—a
piece of my past nding me here, as if I need another reminder that everything
that matters in my life is at the mercy of what happens now.
Nicholas pulls open a thick, oak door and holds it for me.
I avoid looking back at Ned, who is a couple of feet behind us. I avoid looking
at the drooling dogs, who stroll by his side.
I follow Nicholas into his home oce and take it in—the dark leather chairs
and reading lamps, the mahogany bookshelves. Encyclopedias and classic books
line the shelves. Nicholas Bell’s diplomas and accolades hang on the walls.
Summa cum laude. Phi Beta Kappa. Law Review. They are framed, proudly.
His oce feels dierent from the rest of the house. It feels more personal.
The room is lled with photographs of his family—on the walls, on the
credenza, on the bookshelves. The desk is devoted entirely to photographs of
Bailey, though. Photographs that are framed in sterling silver, photographs that
are blown up into twice their normal sizes. They are all of small Bailey with her
dark eyes, wide like saucers. And her tender curls—none of them yet purple.
Then there is her mother, Kate. She holds Bailey in nearly every photograph
displayed: Bailey and Kate eating ice cream; Bailey and Kate cuddling on a park
bench. I focus on one of Bailey at a few days old, in a little blue beanie. Kate lies
in bed with her, her lips to Bailey’s lips, her forehead against her forehead. It just
about breaks my heart. And I assume that is why Nicholas keeps it in his view—
why he keeps all of them in view—so every day they will just about break his.
This is the thing about good and evil. They aren’t so far apart—and they
often start from the same valiant place of wanting something to be dierent.
Ned remains in the hallway. Nicholas nods in his direction, and he closes the
door. The thick, oak door. The bodyguard is in the hallway, the dogs in the
And the two of us are inside the oce, alone.
Nicholas walks over to the bar and pours us each a drink. Then he hands
mine over and takes a seat behind his desk, leaving me the chair in front of it—a
deep, leather chair with gold etchings.
“Make yourself comfortable,” he says.
I sit down with my drink in my hand. But I’m not happy about having my
back to the door. I have the thought, for a second, that it isn’t impossible
someone could walk in and shoot me. One of the bodyguards could surprise me,
the dogs could spring to action. Charlie himself could storm in. Maybe I have
misunderstood what Owen put in his will. Maybe in this attempt to get Bailey
and Owen out of what I have gotten them deeper into, I have left myself alone in
the lion’s den. A sacrice. In the name of Kate. Or Owen. Or Bailey.
I remind myself that’s okay. If I do what I came here to do, I’ll accept that.
I put my drink down. And my eyes travel back to the photographs of baby
Bailey. I notice one of her in a party dress, a bow wrapped around her head.
It provides me some comfort, which Nicholas seems to notice. He picks it up
and hands it to me.
“That was Kristin’s second birthday. She was already talking in full sentences.
It was amazing. I took her to the park, maybe the week after that, and we ran
into her pediatrician. He asked her how she was doing and she gave him a twoparagraph
answer,” he says. “He couldn’t believe it.”
I hold the photograph in my hands. Bailey stares back at me, those curls a
prelude to her whole personality.
“I believe it,” I say.
Nicholas clears his throat. “I take it she’s still like that?”
“No,” I say. “Monosyllables are more her speed these days, at least when it
comes to me. But, in general, yes. In general, she is a star.”
I look up and see Nicholas’s face. He looks angry. I’m not sure why. Is he mad
that I have done something to make Bailey not like me the way I wish she
would? Or is he mad he has never been given the chance himself?
I hand him back his photograph. He places it back on his desk, moving it
obsessively to the place where it was before, keeping each piece of her that he has
exactly where he can nd it. It feels like a bit of magical thinking, like if he holds
on to her just so, that will help him nd her again.
“So, Hannah, what can I do for you, exactly?”
“Well, I am hoping we can come to an agreement, Mr. Bell.”
“Nicholas, please,” he says.
“Nicholas,” I say.
I take a breath, moving forward in my seat. “You didn’t even hear what I have
to say yet.”
“What I mean is no, that’s not why you’re here, to come to an agreement,” he
says. “We both know that. You’re here in the hopes that I’m not who everyone is
telling you I am.”
“That’s not true,” I say. “I’m not interested in who was right or who was
“That’s good,” he says, “because I don’t think you’d like the real answer.
People don’t tend to work that way. We have our opinion and we lter
information into a paradigm that supports it.”
“Not a big believer that people can change their minds?” I say.
“Does that surprise you?”
“Not usually, but you’re a lawyer,” I say. “Isn’t convincing people a large part
of the job?”
He smiles. “I think that you’re confusing me with a prosecutor,” he says. “A
defense attorney, at least a good defense attorney, never tries to convince anyone
of anything. We do the opposite. We remind everyone you can’t know anything
Nicholas reaches for the brown box on his desk, a smoke box. He opens the
lid and takes out a cigarette.
“I won’t ask if you want one. Disgusting habit, I know. But I started smoking
when I was a teenager, there wasn’t much else to do in the town I came from.
And I started smoking again in prison, same issue,” he says. “Haven’t been able
to kick it since. When my wife was still with us, I’d try. Got those nicotine
patches. Have you seen those? They help if you have the discipline, but I don’t
pretend to anymore. Not since I lost my wife… What’s the point? Charlie gives
me grief about it, but there isn’t much he can do. I gure I’m an old man.
Something else will get me rst.”
He puts the cigarette to his mouth, silver lighter in hand.
“I’d like to tell you a little story, if you’ll indulge me,” he says. “Have you
heard of Harris Gray?”
“I don’t think so,” I say.
He lights up, takes a long inhale.
“No, of course not. Why would you have? He introduced me to my former
employers,” he says. “He was twenty-one when I rst met him and very low on
the totem pole. If he had been any more senior, the gentlemen at the head of the
organization would have called in one of their in-house lawyers to help him out
and I wouldn’t be sitting across from you now. But he wasn’t. And so I was
called in to defend him by the city of Austin. Random assignment sent to the
public defender’s oce on a night I was working late. Harris was caught with
some OxyContin. Not a ton, but enough. He was charged with intent to
distribute. Which, needless to say, was his intent.” He takes another drag. “My
point is, I did my job, maybe a little too well. Usually Harris gets locked up for a
period of time, thirty-six months, maybe seventy-two in front of the wrong
judge. But I got him o.”
“How did you do that?” I ask.
“The way you do anything well,” he says. “I paid attention. And the
prosecutor didn’t expect that. He was sloppy. He didn’t disclose some of the
exculpatory evidence, so I got the case dismissed. And Harris went free. After
that, his employers asked to meet me. They were impressed. They wanted to tell
me so. And they wanted me to do it again for other members of their
organization who found themselves in trouble.”
I don’t know what he expects me to say, but he looks at me, perhaps just to
make sure I’m listening.
“These gentlemen at the head of Harris’s organization decided I showed the
kind of prowess that was integral to keeping their workforce… working. So they
ew me and my wife to South Florida on a private plane. I had never own rst
class before, let alone on a private plane. But they ew me there on their plane
and put us up in a waterfront hotel suite with our own butler and made me a
business proposition, one that felt dicult to say no to.” He pauses. “I’m not
quite sure why I mention the plane or the oceanfront butler. Maybe to suggest
to you I was more than slightly out of my depth with my employers. Not that
I’m saying that I didn’t have a choice in working for them. I believe you always
have a choice. And the choice I made was to defend people who, by law, deserve
a proper defense. There’s honor in that. I never lied to my family about it. I
spared them some of the details, but they knew the general picture and they
knew I didn’t cross any lines. I did my job. I took care of my family. At the end of
the day, it’s not all that dierent from working for a tobacco company,” he says.
“The same moral calculation needs to be made.”
“Except I wouldn’t work for a tobacco company either,” I say.
“Well, we don’t all have the luxury of your strict moral code,” he says.
There’s an edge to how he says this. I’m taking a chance, arguing with him,
except it occurs to me that this may be precisely why he is walking me through
his history, the version of it he wants me to see. To test me. To test whether I’m
going to do exactly that—argue, engage. This has to be why he presented his
story this way—this is the rst test. He wants to see whether I’ll blindly let him
spin in order to ingratiate myself to him or whether I’ll be human.
“It’s not that my moral code is so strict, but it seems to me that your
employers are causing all sorts of harm and you knew that,” I say. “And you still
chose to help them.”
“Oh, is that the distinction?” he says. “Do no harm? What about the harm
you do when you rip a child from her family right after she loses her mother?
What about the harm you do when you deprive that child of knowing everyone
who could have reminded her of her mother? Everyone who loved her?”
That stops me. And I understand it now. Nicholas didn’t run me through his
story to present himself in a better light or to see if I’d engage with him. He told
me so I’d lead him here, exactly to this place, where he could put his fury out
there. He wanted to wound me with it. He wanted to wound me with the harm
Owen caused—with the price of what he chose to do.
“I think it’s his hypocrisy that I nd the most staggering,” he says.
“Considering that Ethan knew exactly what I was doing and what I wasn’t doing
for my employers. He knew more than my own children. In part because he
knew about encryption and computers. In part because he and I became close
and I let him in. Let’s just say he helped me do certain things. That’s how he was
able to cause the trouble that he did.”
I don’t know how to argue with that. I don’t know how to argue with
Nicholas about any of this. This is how he sees himself, as a family man, as a
wronged man. And he sees Owen as the man who wronged him, which makes
Owen just as guilty as he is. I can’t argue with something so intrinsic to his
understanding of himself. So I decide not to. I decide to go another way.
“I don’t think you’re wrong about that,” I say.
“No?” he says.
“The one thing I know about my husband is that he would do anything for
his family. And that’s who you were to him, so I imagine he was quite involved
with whatever you asked him to be involved with.” I pause. “Until he decided he
couldn’t be anymore.”
“I’d already been working for my employer for a long time when Ethan came
into my daughter’s life,” he says. “For other clients too, mind you. I continued to
ght for people you’d approve of, I still work for those clients, though I’m sure
you’re less interested in my good deeds.”
I don’t say anything. He isn’t looking for me to say anything. He is looking to
make his point, which is when he starts to get there.
“Ethan blamed me for what happened to Kate. He blamed the men I worked
for when they had nothing to do with it. She was working for a Texas Supreme
Court judge, a very inuential Texas Supreme Court judge? Did you know
I nod. “I did.”
“Did you know this judge had shifted the Texas court sharply to the left and
was imminently set to cast the deciding vote against a large energy corporation,
the second largest in the country? If you want to talk about real criminals, these
gentlemen were dispelling highly toxic chemicals into the atmosphere at a clip
that could make your eyes swell shut.”
He watches me.
“My point is that this judge, Kate’s boss, was writing a majority opinion
against the corporation. It would lead to sweeping reform and cost the energy
corporation close to six billion dollars in improved conservation eorts. And the
day after my daughter was killed, the judge came home to a bullet in his mailbox.
What does that sound like to you? A coincidence? Or a warning shot?”
“I don’t know enough,” I say.
“Well, Ethan decided he knew enough. He couldn’t be reasoned with that the
men I had spent two decades protecting wouldn’t do that to my daughter. That
I knew these men and they had their own code of honor. That wasn’t how they
did things. Even their most nefarious colleagues didn’t do things like that
unprompted. But Ethan didn’t want to believe it. He just wanted to blame me.
And he wanted to punish me. As if I wasn’t punished enough.” He pauses.
“There is nothing worse than losing your child. Nothing. Especially when you
are someone who lives his life for his family.”
“I understand that,” I say.
“Your husband didn’t. That was the part he could never understand about
me,” he says. “After his testimony, I spent six and a half years in prison as
opposed to putting my family at risk by sharing my employer’s secrets. Which
they also view as service. So my employers continue to be generous with me now.
Even though I’m retired, they consider me family.”
“Even though your son-in-law caused many of them to go to prison?” I say.
“The people in the organization that were sent to jail along with me were
mostly lower level,” Nicholas says. “I took the hit for the upper management.
They haven’t forgotten that. They won’t.”
“So you could ask them to spare Ethan? Theoretically? If you wanted to?”
“Haven’t you been listening to what I’ve been telling you?” he says. “I have
no desire to do that. Besides, I can’t pay o his debt. No one can.”
“You just said they’d do anything for you.”
“Maybe that’s what you wanted to hear,” he says. “What I said was they are
generous with me about certain things. Not everything. Even families don’t let
“No,” I say. “I guess they don’t.”
This is when I realize something else that is going on. I gure it out in what
Nicholas isn’t owning—not yet, at least.
“You never liked Ethan, did you?” I say.
“Excuse me?” he says.
“Even before all of this, when you rst met him, he wasn’t your choice. For
your daughter. This poor kid from South Texas, wanting to marry your only
daughter. That couldn’t have been what you wanted for her. He could have been
you. He grew up in a town like the one you came from. He was a little too much
like what you had organized your life to be better than.”
“Are you a therapist?”
“Not at all,” I say. “I just pay attention.”
He looks at me amused. Apparently he likes this. He likes me throwing his
words back at him.
“So what are you asking me?” he says.
“Everything you did, you did so your children would have dierent choices
than you did. Kate. Charlie. Easier choices. So they’d have a promising
childhood. The best schools, the greatest possibilities. So they wouldn’t have to
struggle so hard. And yet, one of your children drops out of architecture school
and decides to take over your wife’s family bar. Gets divorced.”
“Careful,” he says.
“And the other one chooses someone who was the last person you’d want for
“As my wife used to say, we don’t get to pick who our children love. I made
my peace that she chose Ethan. I just wanted her to be happy.”
“But you had a feeling, didn’t you? He wasn’t the best person for Kate, he
wasn’t going to make her happy.”
Nicholas leans forward, his smile gone.
“Did you know when Kate and Ethan started dating she didn’t speak to me
for a year?”
“I didn’t even know Kate existed yesterday,” I say. “So the details as to how
that relationship played out aren’t something I’m familiar with.”
“She was a freshman in college and she decided she didn’t want to have
anything to do with us. With me, rather… her mother she never stopped talking
to,” he says. “That was Ethan’s inuence on her. We came through it though.
Kate came home again and we made peace. That’s what daughters do. They love
their fathers. And Ethan and I…”
“You came to trust him?” I say.
“I did. I clearly shouldn’t have,” he says. “But I did. I could tell you one story
about your husband and you’d never see him the same way again.”
I stay quiet. Because I know Nicholas is telling the truth, at least the way he
sees it. Owen, in his eyes, is bad. He has done bad things to Nicholas. He
betrayed his trust. He stole his granddaughter. He disappeared.
Nicholas isn’t wrong about any of that. He may not even be wrong about
me. If I choose to wade into the chasm of doubt Nicholas wants to create about
Owen, it won’t be hard to go there. Owen isn’t who I thought he was, at least
not in the details. There are parts I wish didn’t exist, parts I can’t look away from
now. In one way or another, this is the deal we all sign when we love someone.
For better or worse. It’s the deal we have to sign again and again to keep that
love. We don’t turn away from the parts of someone we don’t want to see.
However quickly or long it takes to see them. We accept them if we are strong
enough. Or we accept them enough to not let the bad parts become the entire
Because there is this too. The details are not the whole story. The whole story
still includes this: I love Owen. I love him, and Nicholas isn’t going to sway me
that I shouldn’t. He isn’t going to sway me that I’ve been fooled. Despite
everything, despite any evidence to the contrary, I believe I haven’t. I believe I
know my husband, the pieces and parts that matter most. It’s why I’m sitting
here. It’s why I say what I say next.
“Regardless of that,” I say, “I think you know how much my husband loves
“What’s your point?” he says.
“I want to make you a deal.”
He starts to laugh. “We’re back to this? Darling, you don’t know what you’re
saying. It’s not your deal to make.”
“I think it is.”
“How do you gure?”
I take a deep breath, knowing this is the moment of truth with Nicholas. It
all comes down to how I sell him this. He’ll hear me now or he won’t. And the
only thing that hangs in the balance is my family’s future. My identity. Bailey’s
identity. Owen’s life.
“I think that my husband would rather be killed than let you near your
granddaughter. That’s what I think. He proved that by uprooting everything
and moving her away from here. As angry as you are about that, you respect him
for being that kind of father. You didn’t think he had that in him.”
Nicholas doesn’t say anything, but he doesn’t look away either. He holds my
eyes with his. I sense he’s getting angry, a little too angry, but I keep going.
“And I assume you would like to have a relationship with your
granddaughter? I think you want a relationship with her more than almost
anything. That you’d be willing to make arrangements with your former
colleagues to allow that to happen. From what you’re saying, you can insist they
leave us alone, let us keep living our lives,” I say. “If you want to know your
granddaughter, I think you know it’s your only play. Either that or letting her
disappear again. Because that is the other option, that is what I’m being told is
the option I should be considering. WITSEC, starting over. Your granddaughter
no longer allowed to be your granddaughter. Again.”
And, like that. It happens. Like a ip has been switched, Nicholas’s eyes
going dark, going empty. His face pulsing red.
“What did you just say?” he says.
He stands up. I push back my chair, almost before I know I’m doing it. I
push back closer to the door, as if it’s possible he’s going to lunge for me. It feels
possible. Anything feels possible suddenly unless I get out of this room. Until I
get away from him.
“I don’t like to be threatened,” Nicholas says.
“I’m not threatening you,” I say, trying to hold my voice steady. “That wasn’t
“So what is your intention?”
“I’m asking you to help me keep your granddaughter safe,” I say. “I’m asking
you to put me in a position where she can know her family. Where she can know
He doesn’t sit back down. He stares at me. For a long time. For what feels like
a long time.
“These other gentlemen,” he says, “my former employers… I could
potentially work something out with them. It would cost me quite a bit of
capital. And they certainly would wonder who I am becoming in my old age.
But… I think we could make sure they leave you and my granddaughter alone.”
I nod, my throat catching as I start to ask the question, the next question I
need to ask.
“And Ethan?” I say.
“No, not Ethan,” he says.
He says it without equivocation. He says it with nality.
“If Ethan were to return, I couldn’t assure you of his safety,” he says. “His
debt is too large. As I said, I can’t protect Ethan, even if I were inclined to.
Which, to be clear with you, I’m not.”
I was prepared for this, for this intractable position. I was as prepared as I
could get—a tiny part of me believing I wasn’t going to have to acquiesce to it.
To do what I came here to do. A tiny part of me in disbelief even as I start to do
“But your granddaughter,” I say. “You could keep her safe? That’s what
I stay quiet for a moment. I stay quiet until I trust myself to speak. “Okay
then,” I say.
“Okay then?” he says. “Okay then, what?”
“I’d like you to speak with your former employers about doing that,” I say.
He doesn’t even try to hide just how confused he is. He is confused because
he thought he knew what I was doing here. He thought I was going to beg for
Owen’s life, for his safety. He doesn’t understand that this is exactly what I’m
doing, even if it doesn’t look like it.
“Do you understand what you’re considering here?” he says.
I’m considering an Owen-less life. That’s what. A life that isn’t anything like
what I’d imagined for myself, but a life where Bailey gets to stay Bailey. She gets
to stay the young woman she’s become under Owen’s watchful eye, the one he is
so proud of. She’ll continue to live her life, heading to college in two years,
heading to whatever life she wants, not as someone else—not as someone she has
to pretend to be—but as herself.
Bailey and I will go on—but without Owen, without Ethan. Owen, Ethan:
the two of them start melding themselves together in my mind—the husband I
thought I knew, the husband I didn’t. The husband I don’t get to have. This is
what I’m considering.
This is the deal I’m willing to make if Nicholas is. Which is when I tell him
“It’s what Ethan wants,” I say.
“To live his life without her?” he says. “I don’t believe that.”
I shrug. “It doesn’t make it any less true,” I say.
Nicholas closes his eyes. He looks tired suddenly. And I know it’s partially
because he is thinking of himself—of the daughter (and granddaughter) he’s had
to live his life without. But also because he is feeling sympathy for Owen,
sympathy he doesn’t want to feel, but he is feeling it all the same.
And there it is, what Nicholas least expects to show me. His humanity.
So I decide to tell him the truth, to say out loud the one thing I’ve been
thinking all week, but haven’t said out loud—not to anyone.
“I never really had a mother,” I say. “She left when I was little, not much
older than when you last saw your granddaughter. And she hasn’t been involved
in my life in any meaningful way. An occasional card or a phone call.”
“And why are you telling me this?” he says. “For my compassion?”
“No, I’m not doing it for that,” I say. “I had my grandfather, who was
completely amazing. Inspiring. And loving. I had more than most people.”
“I’m hoping it helps you understand that even in the face of what else I may
lose here, my priority is your granddaughter. Doing what’s right for her,
whatever the cost, is worth it,” I say. “You know that better than I do.”
“What makes you say that?” he says.
“You were there rst.”
He doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t have to. Because he understands what
I’m telling him. My mother never tried to ght for her family—she never tried to
ght for me. That denes her. Apparently, I’m willing to give up everything to
do the opposite for Bailey. One way or another, that will dene me.
And if Nicholas agrees to what I’m asking him, it will dene him too. We will
have that in common. We’ll have Bailey in common. We’ll be the two people
doing whatever is needed for her.
Nicholas crosses his arms over his chest, almost like in a hug, almost as if
bracing himself against what he doesn’t know if he should do.
“If a part of you thinks that it will change one day,” he says. “That one day
this will go away and Ethan can come back to you, slip back into your lives and
they’ll let it slide… it won’t. That’s untenable. These men, they don’t forget.
That can never happen.”
I summon up the strength to say what I honestly believe. “I don’t.”
Nicholas is watching me, taking me in. And I think I have him. Or, at least,
we are moving closer toward each other. For better or worse.
But there is a knock on the door. And Charlie walks in. Charlie who
apparently stayed, despite Nicholas’s instructions. Nicholas doesn’t look happy
with him for that. But he’s about to get less happy.
“Grady Bradford is at the front gate,” he says. “And there are a dozen other
U.S. marshals standing behind him.”
“It took him long enough,” Nicholas says.
“What do you want me to do?” Charlie says.
“Let him in,” he says.
Then Nicholas turns and meets my eyes, the moment between us apparently
over. “If Ethan comes home, they’ll know,” he says. “They’ll always be watching
“I understand that.”
“They may nd him even if he doesn’t come home,” he says.
“Well,” I say. “They haven’t found him yet.”
He tilts his head, takes me in. “I think you’re wrong,” he says. “I think it’s the
last thing Ethan would want, to spend his life away from his daughter…”
“I don’t think it’s the last. No.”
“What is?” he says.
Something happening to Bailey, I want to say. Something happening because of
Owen, because of his ties to all of this, that ends with Bailey getting hurt. That ends
with her getting killed.
“Something else,” I say.
Charlie touches my shoulder. “Your ride is here,” he said. “You need to go.”
I get up to leave. Nicholas had seemed to hear me but then doesn’t seem to
want to hear anything at all. And it’s over.
There is nothing else to do. So I follow Charlie. I walk toward the door.
Then Nicholas calls out after us.
“Kristin…” he says. “Do you think she’ll be open to meeting me?”
I turn around and meet his eyes. “I think so,” I say. “Yes.”
“What will that look like?”
“She’s going to be the one to decide how much and how often she sees you.
But I will make sure that the well isn’t poisoned. I’ll make sure she understands
that a lot of what happened here has nothing to do with how you feel about her.
And that she should know you.”
“And she’ll listen to you?”
A week before the answer would have been no. Earlier today, wasn’t it no
too? She walked out of the hotel room, knowing I wanted her to stay put. And
yet, I need him to believe the answer is yes. I need him to believe it and I need to
believe it too, in order to pull this o. I know everything comes down to this.
I nod. “She will.”
Nicholas pauses for a moment. “Go home,” he says. “You’ll be safe. Both of
you. You have my word.”
I take a deep breath in. I start to cry, right in front of him, covering my eyes
“Thank you,” I say.
He walks up to me, hands me a tissue. “Don’t thank me,” he says. “I’m not
doing it for you.”
I believe him. I take his tissue anyway. Then I get out of there as quickly as I