I sat in a booth at a sushi restaurant in downtown Palo Alto.
Outside the sky bellied low. Intermittent rain pricked the pavement.
Peter Franchette glanced at his phone again.
“She’ll be here,” I said.
He frowned dubiously and reached for his green tea.
I understood his pessimism. Every element of this meeting—its timing, location, the terms under which it could occur—was the product of a lengthy and fragile dance. It had been moved, postponed, called off. This wasn’t the first booth Peter and I had shared.
Since leaving Half Moon Bay, some five months prior, I had not spoken with Audrey Marsh face-to-face. At her insistence, I hadn’t attempted to contact Carol Marsh. Nor had I spoken to Buddy Hopewell or anyone currently at the FBI.
I did return the case file to Special Agent Tracy Golden, saying it contained some interesting stuff. I’d follow up if and when I had anything worth pursuing. She dumped the box in the trunk of her car and raced out of the Coroner’s Bureau lot, bumper scraping.
In her emails, Audrey continued to refer to Carol and Floyd Marsh as her parents. She did not bear them any ill will. She saw no upside to having her mother prosecuted, and she made clear she would not cooperate with an investigation. Her willingness to connect with Peter was in direct proportion to my willingness to look the other way.
I had either an immense amount of leverage or none.
I worked that through for a while. Was the goal to punish past injustices? Or was it to bring two people together, so that they might be able to build a future?
I could scarcely imagine the level of cognitive dissonance Audrey was grappling with, love and lies, mixed in equal measure.
Twice more I had raised the possibility of a DNA test. Twice she had declined, calling it putting the cart before the horse.
Her attitude baffled Peter. Establishing a genetic link was the horse.
I counseled patience. Pestering her risked driving her away for good.
The real reason for her reluctance, I guessed, was that she agreed with Peter. A match tied them to each other—permanently. Audrey Marsh didn’t know anything about the Franchettes except what I’d told her, and based on my description, they didn’t sound like people she wanted to spend time with.
We don’t usually get to choose our blood relatives. By refusing the test, she was leaving herself an exit ramp.
It hadn’t helped matters when she’d called Gene, only to have him hang up on her.
“We should probably order something,” Peter said.
He flagged down a server and asked for an Asahi. “Anything?”
I shook my head.
The server smiled obligingly and went to fetch the beer.
Peter rubbed gently at his overturned phone, as if coaxing it to ring. “I meant to ask you how the party went.”
One of our previous meetings had to be scrapped after I realized Amy had scheduled Charlotte’s first birthday party on the same day.
“It was fun, thanks. The baby got her first taste of chocolate.”
“I bet that went over well.”
I took out my own phone and showed him the video: Sitting in my mother’s lap, on Paul and Theresa’s back patio, with a crowd cheering her on, Charlotte opened her mouth to accept a forkful of devil’s food cake. The novelty of texture and taste caused her to shudder. Then a new kind of confusion set in, and she began swiveling her head, at Amy; at me; at the tines of the fork, smudged with frosting. Her little face etched with betrayal.
Why the fuck have you people been keeping this from me?
The server brought his beer. He took a sip and moved it aside. “The party’s really for you and your wife, making it through a year. Listen, I hope you don’t mind: I got your daughter something. You don’t need to say it,” he said. “You’re not allowed to accept gifts.”
“It’s for her, not you.”
“That doesn’t make a difference.”
“Well, you can think about it and do what you want.”
I started to object, but he was no longer listening, his attention riveted to a point over my shoulder. Palms to the tabletop, he rose partway, eagerness checked by nerves. The light moved, occasioned by the opening of the restaurant door, and above the swell of street noise, above the soft tap of chopsticks, a woman’s voice said I’m with them.
FOR FIVE-PLUS MONTHS I’d given Audrey Marsh and her mother a respectful distance.
I hadn’t stopped looking for Chrissy Klausen.
Of the many old, chichi cafés in Naples, none was older or chichier than Pasticceria L’oca D’oro. Travel review sites praised its “authentic atmosphere” and ranted about the “outrageous prices,” with one user warning “their very snobby.”
I browsed a gallery of mouthwatering confections. A single shot of espresso cost eight euros. The history tab stated that the café had been in its present location, on the Piazza del Plebiscito, since its founding in 1857. The main dining room, with its numerous mirrors, abundant marble, and sumptuous floral motifs, was regarded as Italy’s premier example of art nouveau design. It had been installed later, following earthquake damage.
I reached a manager who spoke serviceable English. He confirmed that a plaque behind the bar, dated 1909, lauded the generosity of Umberto Calvatti, sixteenth conte dei Barboni di Napoli, in aiding with the refurbishment.
Wikipedia had a stub on the current title holder, the nineteenth conte dei Barboni di Napoli, Giorgio Calvatti. What minuscule noteworthiness he possessed came from having sired Massimo Calvatti, a race-car driver, also of exceedingly minor importance.
It was Chrissy’s full married name that at last yielded a hit: her charitable foundation, Benessere dei Bambini Transnazionale.
I ran their website through translation.
Contessa Christine and her husband had created Children’s Welfare Transnational in 1998, after traveling to Eritrea and witnessing the challenges faced by younger people. The foundation supported a number of projects, including one aimed at combating child labor and another to increase literacy among girls.
I sent a carefully worded email, claiming to be a reporter.
A woman named Noemi wrote back. She would be happy to arrange an interview. First, however, she would like to understand the nature of my interest. How had I come to learn of the foundation? What questions did I have? As a rule, the contessa preferred to avoid the limelight and to keep the focus on the work.
With each exchange, Noemi’s tone grew warier, until she wrote:
This is you?
She had linked to an article naming me as a deputy coroner and discussing my role in solving an old murder.
It’s hard to hide these days.
I called the number listed on the foundation website.
It rang and rang.
I sent several more unanswered emails before receiving a final response.
Thank you for your interest in Benessere dei Bambini Transnazionale (BBT, Children’s Welfare Transnational). Due to the large volume of correspondence we receive, we cannot reply to individual inquiries, however we are grateful for your support in empowering children to lead lives of greater health, education, and dignity, thereby fostering new opportunities for the future of our global community.
Benessere dei Bambini Transnazionale
“Migliorare la vita dei bambini”
ON THE FLIP side, someone unexpected had contacted me: Dr. Darren Aldrich, widower of the late Dr. Claudia Aldrich née Franchette.
He was sorry for the long delay. He’d had my name and number on a Post-it, stuck to his monitor, staring at him, for quite a while now. He appreciated my kind note. He’d meant to contact me sooner, he just hadn’t found the wherewithal. It had been a hard year; a hard few years. He didn’t know if I was familiar with ALS as a disease.
Claudia Aldrich had died at the same age as her mother. I’d assumed the same cause. “Reasonably familiar.”
“Then you know, it’s a terrible way to go. Even since we got the diagnosis I’ve been pretty much living in the Twilight Zone.”
“What I read makes her sound like a remarkable woman.”
“She was. She was. Intellectually she was in a class by herself. To lose the ability to write, or to speak—it was devastating for her. It devastated me to watch it.”
“How long were you married?”
“My condolences. And there’s no need to apologize. Thank you for reaching out.”
“It’s really at Claudia’s behest that I’m calling. If it were up to me…But it’s what she wanted.”
According to Darren Aldrich, toward the end, his wife had begun to take stock.
“On the one hand I was glad for her, because as wonderful as she was, as sharp and insightful as she could be when it came to others, she kept a lot of her own emotions bottled up. I thought it was healthy for her to work through some of that. I won’t lie: It was hard to listen to, at times. I’d never heard her express regrets.”
“The rift with Norman, for one.”
“I got that they were estranged but not how it happened.”
“It started when Helen died. Norman wanted to have her cremated, which went against her express wishes. One thing led to another…He’s not a small personality.”
“I know. I’ve met him.”
“For the record, neither was Claudia. Losing him caused her a great deal of pain.”
“She never tried to reconnect.”
“Too much pride, I think. Over the years she brooded on it, until it became a matter of principle: I shouldn’t have to be the one to apologize. Then she got sick and didn’t have the energy for a confrontation.”
“He’s still around,” I said. “I could put you in touch with him.”
“Well, maybe. Maybe. I don’t know that I want to start dealing with that. I was on the fence about whether to invite him for the funeral. In the end I decided against it. I didn’t want him causing a scene, and frankly I didn’t want to share the mourning process with him. He’d been out of her life for so long, I didn’t think he had the right. Though in retrospect I have to ask if that was a mistake, for me as much as him. I didn’t…But you’re saying she has another brother.”
“Half brother, yes.”
“Well. Unfortunately, it’s the same thing: too little, too late.”
“Not for your kids. He’s their uncle.”
“The last thing we need is more complications,” he said.
I figured the conversation was over. I didn’t know why else he’d call, if not to reach Peter. But in the ensuing silence I heard him clicking his teeth.
He said, “What you need to realize is the impact it had on her when her father walked out. It wasn’t something she talked about a lot. When we first met she didn’t want to discuss her family at all. But obviously it scarred her.”
“I don’t know how it couldn’t,” I said.
“She never forgave him. It led her to develop strong ideas about loyalty. When our daughter Alexis was young, she had a best friend whose parents got divorced. After that Claudia wouldn’t let them play together. I realize that probably sounds extreme. She had tremendous contempt for couples who couldn’t work it out, or who she thought weren’t making an effort. She did soften up, eventually. She had to, or else we wouldn’t have had any friends at all. Practically everyone we know is divorced. And I don’t mean to say we didn’t have our own ups and downs, in thirty-nine years. You see what I’m saying.”
“I think so.”
“The bust-up with Norman was especially bruising, because he was the last remaining link to her childhood. They shared those memories, even though the memories were bad.”
“Mutual witnesses,” I said.
“Yes. She felt indebted to him.”
“So far as anyone tried to take care of her back then, it was Norman. He wasn’t much of a protector. He was only a few years older than her, and in terms of emotional maturity…but. He wanted them to reconcile.”
“Him and Claudia.”
“Everyone. Him, Claudia, Helen, Gene. He tried to convince Claudia it was better for everyone to get along.”
“He didn’t seem to feel that way when I spoke to him.”
“Well, but you only met him recently. I’m talking about years ago. Claudia didn’t want to have anything to do with her father, but Norman had this idea—naïve, if you ask me—that they could sit down together and talk it out. He bugged her until she caved in and agreed to go along with him.”
“To see Gene.”
“When was this, exactly?”
After a beat, Darren Aldrich said, “It’s important to me not to sully her memory. She wasn’t proud of everything she’d done. And,” he said, “she’s gone. There’s nothing to be done. My daughters don’t know. I want to keep it that way. Certainly I don’t want to cause problems for them.”
“I can’t make you any promises. But it’s hard to think how it could.”
“What I’m asking is that you take what I’m about to say in strict confidence.”
“I’m listening,” I said.
Darren Aldrich sighed. “Shit.”
On a warm summer afternoon, a young Norman Franchette and his sister Claudia rode their bikes up to the house in the Berkeley hills where their father was living with his new family.
“The woman who answered wouldn’t let them inside. She said she’d never heard of them and threatened to call the police.”
Norman Franchette, sweating on the front porch of 1028 Vista Linda Way, asking to see his baby sister.
He never claimed to have gone alone.
Me, I’m cursed with the fatal flaw of a warm, beating heart.
“You can imagine how it made Claudia feel, to be treated that way. It’s not as though she’d gotten over Gene abandoning them. She didn’t want to be there in the first place; she let herself be dragged along. And then to have this person treat her as if she didn’t exist…It reopened every wound.”
“Correct me if I’m wrong,” I said. “Summer of 1969.”
“That sounds about right. It made her furious.”
“What did she do, feeling furious?”
“Nothing. At first she didn’t do anything. She stewed on it for a while and then wrote Gene a letter. He didn’t answer her. He wouldn’t take her calls, either, so she wrote another letter to hand to him in person. She got to the house—she went by herself this time—but she was afraid to knock. She didn’t want him to scream at her or hit her.”
“Had he done that?”
“What I can tell you is that she was scared of him. She’d already given him a letter. What difference would a second one make? So she left and went home.”
I said, “But she came back again.”
“A few months later. She went at night. I don’t know that she had a plan,” he said. “She was angry, she needed to express that. How it occurred was happenstance. She peeked inside the garage and saw his workshop. He had one in their old house, too. He was refinishing a table.”
Dr. Franchette told us he’d leave the windows open at night on occasion, air it out from the stink of varnish.
“All she wanted was to show him how she felt.”
Lumber, a soldering iron, wood stain, paint thinner, the works.
“How he’d hurt her. She didn’t mean for it to get out of hand.”
Once it caught, it went hell-for-leather.
Darren Aldrich said, “She was sixteen years old.”
It’s a miracle the whole place didn’t burn down to the foundation.
“Was she aware that there was a baby in the house?” I asked.
“She didn’t say so to me. She wanted to make a clean breast of it. She had me write it all down. But. I don’t know. Maybe that was too much for her to face, even now.”
“Does anyone else know?”
“Norman,” he said. “She told him, right after it happened. She didn’t know what to do. She had no one else to turn to. She was terrified they were going to cart her off to prison.”
Matter of fact he came to us.
He was practically begging us to arrest him.
He liked to bluster.
Maybe he thought it’d get him laid.
Darren Aldrich said, “You can’t judge someone by what they do when they’re young. It’s the ratio of good to bad that matters. She was a loving mother, and an accomplished scholar. That doesn’t happen overnight. You spend a lifetime becoming the person that you are. She never forgave herself, she carried it around for fifty years. Don’t you think that has to be worth something?”
I DROVE TO Forty-Seventh Street in Temescal.
On the sidewalk outside the shuttered bank, a guy in a white button-down shirt and slacks and another in a black polo shirt and jeans stood conferring over a piece of paper.
I started toward the back of the building.
The man in the white shirt called, “Excuse me. Sorry. This is private property.”
“I’m going to the record store.”
“I’ll leave him a note.”
“No no no. Closed closed.”
I came toward the men. “As of when?”
“Did he relocate?”
The man in the white shirt shrugged. “No idea.”
I saw now that he was holding an architectural sketch. “You’re tearing it down?”
“Not if we can help it,” the man in jeans said.
“The goal is to preserve as much of the original structure as possible,” the man in the white shirt said.
I scanned the block, a redoubt of shittiness amid the rising tide of gentrification. “What’s the plan?”
“We’re still in beta. Do you live around here?”
“Escabeche bar or beer garden,” he said. “What sounds better to you?”
THE DELUGE OF calls to our office from People’s Park tapered off throughout the summer, and two days before the semester opened, the site was officially declared bone-free. But the cleanup process had chewed through Professor Iliana Marquez Rosales’s allotted time, leaving none at all for the excavation. She had classes of her own to teach. She and her team returned to Seattle without having completed a single full day of digging.
Lawyers for the University of California appeared before Alameda County Superior Court judge Sharon Feeley to argue that the school had done its due diligence.
Lawyers for the Defenders of the Park countered that nine weeks remained before the deadline.
The university countered that it had taken nearly that long to agree on an archaeologist in the first place, never mind the time necessary to excavate.
The Defenders countered that the deadline should be reset.
The university countered: Did the word “deadline” mean anything or not?
The Defenders countered: They had repeatedly urged their members and affiliated groups to exercise restraint. Why should they be penalized for third-party bad actors?
A tired-looking Judge Feeley listened to the arguments on the Friday before Labor Day. She announced that she intended to issue a ruling when court reconvened on Tuesday.
On Sunday evening, the judge and her husband attended a barbecue at the home of friends. During the ride home to Walnut Creek, she complained of feeling nauseated and dizzy. She thought it might be food poisoning. The shrimp Louie, maybe.
Her husband pulled into the driveway. He went around to open the car door for her. She unbuckled her seat belt, tried to stand, and collapsed onto the flagstone.
She was taken to John Muir Medical Center.
MRI revealed a massive cerebral hemorrhage.
The hospital held a press conference. A spokesperson confirmed that the judge remained in a medically induced coma, alive but unresponsive. He declined to speculate if the stress had been a contributing factor.
AN EMAIL CAME to Tom Nieminen, CCing me, from Blake Tipton, the correctional sergeant who’d chaperoned us during our visit to San Quentin. Fritz Dormer had recently gotten another visitor. That alone was unusual; what happened next surprised Tipton enough that he thought we might want to know about it.
He’d attached a recording from the visitation booth phones.
The audio was poor, marred by a piercing, electronic whine. Nevertheless I had no trouble identifying the speaker as Gayle Boyarin.
Thirteen seconds of silence followed.
A new sound filled the line, like a motor straining to start. It lasted for twenty-one seconds. Then the file cut off.
At that point, Tipton wrote, Fritz had dropped the receiver and exited the booth.
For what it was worth, Tipton had never seen Dormer show any emotion, let alone cry. He figured it might be a useful lever to get additional information, if we still wanted that.
I didn’t have a chance to write back before Tom Nieminen’s account autoreplied. He was on vacation. Persons needing immediate assistance could contact Sgt. Lon Haack at the University of California Police Department, extension two oh seven.
“I’M WITH THEM.”
I joined Peter in standing, and we watched Audrey Marsh make her way past the hostess stand. Her expression was placid, in contrast with Peter’s; he kept wiping his palms down his pant legs, and as she drew near I heard his breath catch.
She showed up in image searches, and I’d described for him what it was like to see her for the first time. Theoretically, at least, he knew what to expect. But pixels on a screen did not touch the heart of it, the irreducible kernel of identity that in real life presented with astonishing force and clarity. I could see his mind fighting to integrate her into the world of the possible: his mother in black slacks and a quilted blazer, a crocodile-skin bag slung in the crook of her elbow.
“Sorry I’m late,” she said. “I got stuck on a call.”
“No no, please,” Peter said. “I’m so glad you’re here.”
For a moment nobody spoke.
Peter said, “Do you prefer…uh…You can have the inside, if you’d like.”
“This is fine.”
“I’m going to sit down now,” Audrey said.
Peter laughed. “Good. Great. Yes.”
The server came to take Audrey’s drink order. She asked for a Diet Coke, then changed her mind, pointing to Peter’s beer.
“You know what, alcohol’s a better idea,” she said. “Glass of Pinot, please.”
The server asked if I wanted anything yet.
“I’m not sure I’m staying,” I said. “Am I staying?”
They glanced at each other.
“Maybe for a little,” Audrey said.
Cautiously they waded in, leaning on subjects of mutual interest: raising teenagers, the tech world.
It emerged that they knew several people in common. Small tech world.
By the time miso soup had come out, they were talking directly to each other, and I had begun to feel vestigial.
I said, “If it’s okay with you, I think I’ll be going.”
Peter reached for his coat to tug out a white greeting card envelope. “Thank you.”
I couldn’t accept it.
I also didn’t want to embarrass him in front of Audrey.
I took it and wished them luck.
Exiting the restaurant, I walked into a stiff wind. The conversation inside had resumed, Peter gesturing excitedly while Audrey cradled her wineglass.
I still had forty minutes left on the meter. Not knowing how long I’d be, I’d paid the maximum. For a second I considered taking a walk, just to get my money’s worth. But it was cold out, and whatever I’d paid was a sunk cost.
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