If you’d happened to spot Riley on the train that afternoon, your eyes drifting up momentarily from your BlackBerry, iPod or other handheld device, you probably wouldn’t have made much of him. He was in his 50s then, taller than average, thinner than average, with a tendency to hunch inside the black leather coat he affected (knee-length, of a style 30 years out of date, replete with once-shining buckles, zippers and studs in the shape of miniature starbursts) and hair that would have been gray or even white but for the providence of the Clairol corporation. He’d applied a mixture called Châtain Moyen in the shower just that morning, expecting, as the label promised, medium brown but getting instead something between the color of a new penny and a jar of marinara sauce. In any case, he was oblivious. He had his head down, studying the stained typescript of his generic acceptance speech, abbreviating in the left-hand margin the title of the award he was now on his way to receive, though he already had it by heart: the Marlbane Manchester Musser Award in Regional Depiction from the Greater Stuyvesant Area Chamber of Commerce and Associated Libraries. He just didn’t want any slipups, that was all. Especially if alcohol was involved. And alcohol was always involved.
He’d left Buffalo at 7:40 a.m. and expected to be in Albany by two—at least that was what the Amtrak timetable proposed, and whether or not Amtrak would deliver was beyond his control. In Albany he was to be met by Donna Trumpeter, of the Greater Stuyvesant Women’s Service Club, who would drive him in her own personal blue-black SUV the remaining 48.5 miles to the town itself. There would be a dinner, served either in the town hall or in a school cafeteria gussied up with crepe paper and a banner, he would give his speech and read a passage from his latest novel, Maggie of the Farm, accept a plaque and a check for $250 and drink as much scotch as was humanly possible before he was presented at the local Holiday Inn for a lukewarm shower, a stab at sleep and, in the morning, acidic coffee and rubberized waffles, after which Donna Trumpeter or one of her compatriots would return him to the train station so he could reverse the journey he was now undertaking.
“Why do you even bother?” his third wife, Caroline, had thrown at him as he was shrugging into his coat that morning for the drive to the station. “It’s not as if you don’t have a trunk full of awards already—awards you never even glance at, as far as I can see.”
He had his hand on the doorknob, the slab of the door thrown back on the awakening light of a bitter morning desecrated with sleet, an inch of it already on the ground and more coming. “For the publicity.”
“Publicity? What kind of publicity you think the Greater Stuyvesant area is going to give you? Nobody in New York’s ever heard of it. I’ll bet they’ve never even heard of it in Albany. Or Troy either. Or what, Utica.”
“It all adds up.”
He sighed. Let his shoulders slump into the cavernous hollows of the coat. “For the money then.”
“The money? Two hundred fifty bucks? Are you kidding? That’d barely cover dinner at Eladio.”
“Yes,” he said, the draft raw on the left side of his face.
“Yes, I’m kidding.”
She might have had something more to say about it, but really, what did it bother her what he did—she had a car and a credit card, and a night alone never killed anybody—but she just bunched her chin and squinted her eyes as if to get a better read on him. The sleet whispered over the pavement. The air tasted of metal. “My God,” she said. “What did you do to your hair?”