Meanwhile, the dreams got worse.
She longed to talk about them to someone, to unburden herself of the guilt and anguish, to talk openly about what had happened that fateful afternoon at the beach. But who could she talk to? Her girlfriends were all gossips and bitches. Charles Braemar Murphy hadn’t called once since the day she left Camp Williams. As for her parents, her father was too obsessed with how the negative publicity might affect his business to give a damn about his daughter’s emotional state. Walter Gilletti acted quickly to keep his Toni’s name out of the papers, issuing preemptive injunctions against a number of media outlets and TV networks, and had kept Toni under virtual house arrest since she got home. But that was as far as his paternal support went. As for Toni’s mother, Sandra, she was too busy shopping, playing bridge with her girlfriends, and self-medicating to question Toni about what had really happened on the beach that day, or how she might be feeling.
Forcing herself out of bed, Toni walked into the bathroom. Splashing cold water on her face, she gazed at her reflection in the mirror.
You left Nicholas Handemeyer to die, frightened and alone.
You let Billy Hamlin take the rap for what YOU did.
You’re a coward and a liar, and one day everybody will know it.
The trial would begin in six days.
“How do I look?”
Billy Hamlin turned to face his father. Standing in his sparse, six-by-eight-foot cell, his blond hair newly cut and wearing a dark wool Brooks Brothers suit and tie, Billy looked more like a young attorney than the accused in a major murder trial.
“You look good, son. Smart. Serious. You’re gonna come through this.”
The last three months had been a living hell for Jeff Hamlin. The carpenter from Queens could have coped with the malicious local gossip about his son. He could have dealt with the loss of half his customers and the judgmental glares of the women from his church, St. Luke’s Presbyterian, the same church he and Billy had attended for the last fifteen years. But having to sit back impotently while his adored son’s character was defiled on national television, torn to shreds by ignorant strangers who called Billy a monster and evil and a murderer? That broke Jeff Hamlin’s heart. The trial itself might be a travesty—no one, not even the Handemeyers, seriously doubted that Billy would be acquitted of the murder charge—but whether the boy was acquitted or not, the entire country would forever remember Jeff Hamlin’s son as the druggie who let an innocent boy drown.
The worst of it was that Billy had done nothing of the kind. Unlike the police, Jeff Hamlin hadn’t swallowed Billy’s story for a second.
“He wasn’t the one in charge of those kids,” Jeff told Billy’s lawyer, a state-appointed defender with the deeply unfortunate name of Leslie Lose. They were sitting in Lose’s office, a windowless box of a room at the back of a nondescript building in Alfred, Maine, just a few blocks from the courthouse. “He’s covering for the girl.”
Leslie Lose looked at Jeff Hamlin thoughtfully. The truth was, it didn’t much matter who had been supervising the children. What happened to Nicholas Handemeyer remained an accident. Any jury in the world would see that. But the lawyer was curious.
“What makes you think that?”
“I don’t think it. I know it. I know my son and I know when he’s lying.”
“Did you know that Billy likes to drink, Mr. Hamlin?”
“No,” Jeff admitted. “I mean, you know, I assumed he had the occasional beer.”
“Did you know he smokes marijuana?”
“Or that he’s used hard drugs? Cocaine. Amphetamines.”
“No, I didn’t. But—”
“All those things were found in Billy’s system the day Nicholas Handemeyer died.”
“Yes. And why were they found?” Exasperated, Jeff Hamlin threw his arms wide. “Because Billy told the police to look for ’em. He suggested a blood test, for God’s sake. Why would he do that if he weren’t trying to make himself look guilty?”
Leslie Lose cleared his throat. “I’m not suggesting Billy’s guilty. This entire trial is a grudge match dreamed up by Senator Handemeyer, and the whole world knows it.”
“I hope so.”
“All I’m saying, Mr. Hamlin, is that once they’re past the age of thirteen, none of us know our children as well as we think we do. The worst thing Billy could do right now would be to start pointing the finger at others, trying to shift the blame. He’s admitted using drugs, he’s admitted making a mistake. That doesn’t make him a murderer.”
Jeff Hamlin sat down wearily. “Billy’s a good kid.”
“I know he is.” Leslie Lose smiled reassuringly. “And that’s what’s going to win us this case. That and the prosecution’s total lack of hard evidence. The newspapers have demonized Billy. When the jury sees what he’s really like, how different he is from the monster they’ve been expecting, they’ll acquit for sure.”
“But what about the damage to Billy’s reputation? Who’s going to pay for that?”
“One step at a time, Mr. Hamlin,” Leslie Lose said gently. “Let’s get your son home first. Once the criminal charges are dealt with, we can think about next steps.”
Jeff Hamlin took comfort in the lawyer’s certainty. Jeff might know his way around a lathe and a workbench, but he knew nothing about how to win over a jury, or what did or didn’t constitute murder. Despite his name, Lose had a decent track record of winning cases a lot less cut-and-dried than Billy’s.
A prison officer appeared at the door. “Time to go.”
Billy smiled. He looked so happy and confident, even Jeff Hamlin relaxed a little.
“Good luck, son.”
“Thanks Dad. I won’t need it.”
It was a short drive from the jail to the courthouse. Billy Hamlin gazed out of the rear window of the prison van.
He was excited, and not just because he was about to go free.
In an hour, I’ll see Toni again. She’ll be so happy to see me. So grateful. When it’s all over I’ll ask her to marry me.
He wondered if she would look different. If she’d cut her hair since the summer, maybe, or lost any weight. Not that she needed to. Toni Gilletti was perfect as she was.
She’d written him one short note while he was in prison awaiting trial. Billy had hoped for more letters, but Toni had kind of hinted that her folks were all over her and it was hard to make contact. She was especially nervous about putting anything in writing. Billy could understand that.
It doesn’t matter anyway. Soon this nightmare will be over and we can start our lives together.
Although he was shocked when murder charges were brought against him, Billy didn’t regret what he’d done. There was no danger of him actually going to jail, whereas if Toni had been on trial, with her prior record, anything could have happened. He knew he’d had some bad press—he hadn’t seen a TV in months but one of the prison guards had showed him the Newsweek piece—but unlike his father, Billy wasn’t overly concerned about his reputation.
Once the trial’s over, people will forget. Besides, once they see what I’m really like, they’ll realize I’m not the monster they thought I was.
He had youth on his side, and innocence, and the love of a truly extraordinary woman. One day he and Toni would look back on this time and roll their eyes at the madness of it all.
The prison van rattled on.
Billy Hamlin’s trial was to take place at the York County Courthouse in downtown Alfred. Superior-court judge Devon Williams would be presiding in Court Two, an elegant room at the front of the colonial-style building, with old-fashioned casement windows, wooden benches, and an original 1890s parquet floor, polished daily to an ice-rink-like sheen. The York County Courthouse represented all that was good and decent and traditional and ordered about this most conservative of states. Yet within its walls, all facets of human misery had come crawling. Grief. Corruption. Violence. Hatred. Despair. Behind the pleasant, white-pillared facade of the York County Courthouse, lives had been restored and destroyed, hopes fulfilled and crushed. Justice had been served. And in some cases, denied.
Toni Gilletti arrived at the courthouse flanked by her parents. A large crowd of spectators and reporters had gathered outside the court.
“Look at all those people,” Toni whispered nervously to her mother. “Every hotel in Alfred must be full.”
Sandra Gilletti smoothed down her fitted Dior skirt and smiled for photographers as the family entered the building. She was so glad she’d decided to go couture after all. Walter had worried it might be too much, but with the NBC news cameras trained directly on her, Sandra would simply have died if she’d worn something frumpy from a local department store.