Last Words (Mark Novak #1) - Michael Koryta

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For Jayd Grossman—

Many thanks to a great friend. Hard to say which conversations helped which pages here, but I absolutely know that they did.

History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors.

—T. S. ELIOT

St. Petersburg, Florida

September 13, 2012

The last words he said to her: “Don’t embarrass me with this shit.”

In later days, months, and years, he will tell everyone who asks, and some who do not, that the last words from his lips to her ears were “I love you.” Sometimes, during sleepless nights, he can almost convince himself that it is true.

But as they walked out of their building and into the harsh Florida sun that September day, Mark Novak didn’t even look his wife in the eye. They were moving fast even though neither of them was running late. It was the way you walked when you were eager to get away from someone.

“It’s a leaked photograph,” he said as they reached the sidewalk. “She knows two things that would both be available through a single leaked photograph.”

“Maybe. If it is, wouldn’t it be good to know how she got it?”

“She’s not going to admit that. She’s going to claim this psychic bullshit.”

“You need to open your mind,” Lauren said. “You need to consider accepting that it’s a complex world.”

“You need to be able to have the common sense to identify a fraud when you see one.”

“Maybe she is a fraud. I won’t know until I look into it.”

“Nobody’s stopping you from wasting your time.”

She looked up at him then, the last time they ever looked at each other, but any chance of eye contact was prevented by her sunglasses.

“Mark.” She sighed, still patient. “Your personal understanding of the world doesn’t invalidate another’s.” Her last words to him. She’d stopped walking because they’d reached her car, an Infiniti coupe that was parked a block closer to the building than his Jeep. Here he had the chance for the customary kiss, or at least a hand on the shoulder, a quick squeeze, some eye contact. Here he had the chance to say I love you.

“Don’t embarrass me with this shit,” Mark said. He had a hand over his eyes, rubbing his face, and his voice was weary and resigned and the words were soft, and though now he likes to allow a few beers to convince him that she didn’t hear them, she did.

By the time he was behind the wheel of the Jeep, she was already at the end of the street, waiting to turn left onto Fifth Avenue and head for the interstate. The hole in traffic held, and he made it through just behind her. For two blocks they were together, and then they pulled onto I-275. The added height of the Jeep allowed him to see down into her smaller car, catch a glimpse of tan skin and blond hair that made her look like she belonged to the beach, which was true enough, as she’d grown up on it. Her eyes were hidden behind her sunglasses, so he never knew if she glanced in the mirror to look back at him. He likes to believe that she did, and that his face was kind.

For a few hundred yards he was tucked in just behind her, and then the interstate split. One ramp peeled right, north toward Tampa, and the other peeled left, south toward Sarasota. The Infiniti glided north. Mark turned south.

He wasn’t angry. He was annoyed. They’d known that there would be conflicts when they began working together, but so far those had been minor, and they were both happy to be part of the dream team—Innocence Inc. was doing the best pro bono legal work in the country, challenging death row, freeing the wrongfully convicted. Seventeen successful exonerations in just three years. Mark and Lauren knew that it was going to be their life’s work. Lauren would be playing at a higher level—what lay ahead for her was the actual courtroom, while Mark was part of the investigative team—but that separation was never a discord. If anything, the interview