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The Ex(5)
Alafair Burke

And then in the next news cycle, the photographs of the victims started to emerge. Thirteen lives lost, their faces and short bios filling half a page of the New York Times. A forty-six-year-old cancer researcher. A twenty-one-year-old Korean exchange student. A sixty-six-year-old Vietnam vet who’d survived Agent Orange. A forty-year-old teacher. A ten-year-old Alabama boy visiting New York City for the first time.

Todd had chosen them indiscriminately—white, brown, and black; male and female; young and old; rich and poor. A small but representative New York City melting pot, their fates bound together only by the misfortune of being within a bullet’s reach from Todd that horrible morning.

My gaze had circled back to the photograph of the teacher. I froze at the immediate recognition but checked the name anyway. “Molly Harris, 40, New York City, substitute teacher,” the text beneath the photograph read. I had seen her face on Melissa’s refrigerator for more than a decade’s worth of Decembers: Jack; Molly; their daughter, Buckley, moving from baby to toddler to girl to tween.

I scoured the Internet, rereading the media coverage with a new focus. According to multiple survivors, a middle-aged woman in a blue dress was seen speaking to Todd right before she became the first of his victims. Todd froze as the woman fell to the ground. Some witnesses said that his face was so distraught that they failed to notice the gun in his hand. And then the pause was over, and he began shooting.

A Daily News article identified the woman in the blue dress as a mother and teacher. “Those who knew the woman have suggested that, in light of her training in how to respond to school violence, she may have tried to talk him out of his deadly intentions.” I reexamined the New York Times tribute. Molly had been the only teacher. Instead of running or ducking, Jack’s wife had died trying to save complete strangers.

Within weeks, it wasn’t just the faces of the slain on news pages and television stations. Family members came forward to speak of their loved ones. From a shared and unwanted bully pulpit, they called for reforms like increased security on mass transit, better mental health services, and increased regulation of firearms. And some were even willing to say aloud what many people had been wondering from the beginning: what the hell was that father thinking?

And then a year ago, after train ridership had returned to pre-shooting levels and victims’ names had faded from public consciousness, those survivors—led by “the husband of the heroic teacher”—went further and filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the shooter’s father, just before the statute of limitations was set to run out. Last month, newspapers barely noticed when a New York County trial court dismissed the families’ lawsuit for failure to state a claim of action.

And now this morning, the city had suffered another report of shots fired, followed by terrified New Yorkers fleeing for safety. And, once again, this time, not everyone had made it out alive. Only three dead, according to Detective Boyle, not thirteen. But for immediate purposes, what mattered most was the identity of one of the three: Malcolm Neeley.

I didn’t need to do any research to know that Malcolm Neeley had been a multimillionaire, an investment banker to some of the wealthiest and most powerful people in the world. He was the kind of rich that made celebrities look poor. Yet few people knew his name—until his fifteen-year-old son, Todd, opened fire in Penn Station, killing thirteen people and wounding eight others.

He’d made it through the wrongful death lawsuit only to be killed this morning. And now the hero-teacher’s husband was in custody, and the closest thing he had to an alibi was a woman he didn’t even know.

Chapter 4

ON THE OTHER side of the conference table, Jack’s eyes were closed and he was whispering to himself that he couldn’t believe this was happening.

My mind jumped back to our sophomore year in college. Jack banging on my door, breaking down into tears once he stepped inside my dorm room. His father had died of a heart attack. Charlotte was on one of her weekend trips to somewhere fabulous. I can’t believe this is happening. That’s what he kept saying over and over again as he sobbed with his head in my lap. His mother had died of cancer when he was still in high school. He and his brother, Owen, would now be on their own.

I stroked his hair until he fell asleep and then sat there on the bed, my back against the wall, for the rest of the night. When he finally woke up, he told me he didn’t know what he would do if I weren’t in his life. Until that moment, I had no idea how much I meant to him.

Leaning forward now, I touched one of his handcuffed wrists for emphasis. He needed to focus.

“What else could the police possibly have?” I asked. “Other than your statement.”

He shook his head, sounding dazed. “I told you. I have no idea. I mean, I get how it looks. I did try to sue Malcolm Neeley. But I wasn’t the only plaintiff. The lawsuit was on behalf of all the families, a united front.”

I was probably one of the few people who had followed the failed lawsuit in the news. At one point, I had even looked up the attorney’s phone number, tempted to offer help.

Jack may not have been the only plaintiff, but the media certainly had chosen him as the face of the lawsuit. It was a role that suited him. He was a successful literary author with three acclaimed novels, now raising a daughter on his own. His wife had been the hero who tried to talk Todd down. The most in-depth stories even managed to throw in the fact that Jack’s brother, Owen, was an NYPD cop who died in a car accident shortly after Jack graduated from college.

He was the poster child for hard knocks.

“Jack, if those handcuffs haven’t made it clear, you’re under arrest. They don’t do that unless they have probable cause. They must think they have something more than your problem with Malcolm.”

“I had more than just a problem with him. It’s because of that man that my wife is dead.”

I shushed him. “That’s the kind of stuff a prosecutor will use to bury you in front of a jury.”

“A jury? It’s going to get to that?” His voice cracked. “Sorry, Olivia. I hated that man—if you could even call him that—but, I swear to God, I did not do this. Find Charlotte. She’s got keys to my apartment. She can bring my laptop, and I’ll show the police the e-mails. Madeline will back me up. I was only there this morning to meet her.”

“Jack, if I had to guess, the police are probably searching your apartment right now. And trust me, they’ll scour every byte of your computer.”

“Well, good. They’ll see that I’m telling the truth.”

I’d seen this before—someone so certain that the truth would set him free. I still had no idea what evidence the police had against Jack, but I could read the tea leaves. He wasn’t going home tonight. But I couldn’t bring myself to tell him that. We both had learned the hard way that I was incapable of breaking bad news, at least when it came to Jack.

I started rattling off the names of some excellent lawyers, but he was shaking his head. “No, I don’t want that. I want you.”

“Jack, I came here because I assumed it was some mix-up I could get straightened out right away. But this is serious.”

“Yeah, no shit.”

“Let me find you someone, okay? Without our . . . baggage.” I had always wondered what it would be like if I ever ran into Jack again. Once, I went so far as to schedule a coffee appointment at a café next door to one of his signings, hoping he might spot me through the window as he passed. Would he come inside to say hello, or pretend he hadn’t recognized me? I didn’t stop monitoring the sidewalk until long after his event would have ended. Now we were finally in the same room, and he was in handcuffs. All those conversations I had imagined would have to wait. “I’ll make sure they see you through this.”

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