In an office on the bright sharp edge of New York, glass tower, Alexandra Broden was listening to a telephone conversation. The recording lasted no longer than ten seconds, but she listened to it five or six times before she took off her headphones. It was five thirty in the afternoon, and she had been working since seven a.m. She closed her eyes for a moment, pressed her fingertips to her forehead, and realized that she could still hear the conversation in her head.
The recording began with a click: the sound of a woman picking up her telephone, which had been tapped the day before the call came in. A man’s voice: It’s done. There is a sound on the tape here—the woman’s sharp intake of breath—but all she says in reply is Thank you. We’ll speak again soon. He disconnects and she hangs up three seconds later.
The woman’s name was Aria Waker, and the call had taken place fifteen days earlier. The incoming call came from an Italian cell phone but proved otherwise untraceable. Police were at Aria’s apartment forty minutes after the call went through, but she was already gone and she never came back again.
Broden walked down the hall for a coffee, talked about the baseball season with a colleague for a few minutes, returned to her office and listened to the recording one last time before she made the call.
“Is that it?” she asked when the detective answered.
“That’s it, Al.”
“Please don’t call me that. And you think they’re talking about Anton Waker?”
“If you’d seen what his parents were like the morning after that call came through, you wouldn’t ask me that question,” the detective said.
“How’s the investigation going?”
“Horribly. No one knows anything. No one even knows the dead girl’s name.” The detective sighed. “At least it’s not as bad as the last shipping container we dealt with,” he said.
“I suppose I should be grateful that only one girl died this time. Listen, I’m going to talk to the parents.”
“I tried that two weeks ago. They’re useless,” said the detective, “but be my guest.”
On the drive over the Williamsburg Bridge, Broden kept the radio off. She called her six-year-old daughter from the car. Tova was home from school, baking cookies with her nanny, and she wanted to know what time her mother would be home.
“Before bedtime,” Broden said, hoping this was true.
On the far side of the river she drove down into Brooklyn, graffiti-tagged warehouses rising up around her as the off-ramp lowered her into the streets, and she circled for a while before she found the store: an old brick warehouse on a corner near the river, almost under the bridge, with Waker Architectural Salvage in rusted-out letters above the doors. She parked at the side of the building and went around to the front, where a woman was sitting on the edge of the loading dock. The woman was looking out at the river, at Manhattan on the other side. She turned her head slowly when Broden said her name.
“Yes,” the woman said.
“Mrs. Waker, I’m Alexandra Broden. I work with the State Department, Diplomatic Security Service division.” Broden walked up the steel steps to the loading dock. She flashed her badge at the woman, but the woman didn’t look at it. Her gaze had drifted back to the river, grey beyond the weedy vacant lot across the street. There were dark circles under her eyes and her face was colourless. “I’m sorry to bother you,” Broden said, “but I need to speak with your son.”
“He used to sit here with me,” Miriam said.
“Is he home?”
She said, “In a far-off country.”
Broden stood looking at her for a moment. “Is your husband here, Mrs. Waker?”
“Yes,” she said.
Broden entered the warehouse.
“This one was saved from the sea near Gibraltar.” Samuel Waker had been interrupted in the middle of repainting a figurehead. He had stared flatly at Broden when she came in, but seemed unable to resist giving her a tour of his collection. The Gibraltar figurehead depicted a strong-faced woman rising out of foam, her arms disappearing into the folds of her dress. Her gown ended squarely in an odd cut-out shape where she’d been attached to a ship. Another figurehead had been recovered from the waters off France, her entire left side splintered by the coastline. A third had been pulled from the rocks off the Cape of Good Hope, and this was the one Samuel Waker was restoring. The Cape of Good Hope figurehead had hair the colour of fire, and her eyes were a terrible and final blue. In her arms she cradled an enormous fish. A block away from the nearest river, it opened its gasping mouth to the sky.
“Is this figurehead fairly new?” Broden was looking at the iridescent scales of the fish. “It looks perfect.”
“Restored,” Samuel Waker said. “Had it before, bought it back from someone.” He picked up a palette, and as he spoke he resumed retouching the figurehead’s hair. His voice was reverent. “Can’t believe my luck, getting it back again. I think I might keep it myself this time.”
“Mr. Waker, I was hoping to speak with your son.”
“Don’t know where he is, exactly. Travelling, far as I know.” Samuel Waker’s voice was steady, but she saw that the hand that painted the figurehead’s hair was trembling.
“Travelling where, Mr. Waker?”
“Europe, last I heard. He hasn’t been in contact.”
“What about your niece? You spoken with her recently?”
“Not recently. No.”
“Mr. Waker,” Broden said, “a shipping container came into the dock at Red Hook last week. It held fifteen girls who were being smuggled into the country from Eastern Europe, and one of them died in transit. I think your son and your niece may have been involved in the shipping operation.”
“I wouldn’t know anything about that.”
“Mr. Waker, is your son dead?”
Anton’s father was silent for a moment. “I’m offended by the question,” he finally said. “Here I just told you that he’s travelling, and now you’re calling me a liar.”
“I’d like you to leave.” He didn’t look at her. He was filling in a worn-away section of the figurehead’s hair with tiny, meticulous brush strokes. “I don’t think I have anything to say to you.”
Broden stepped out into the end-of-day light. The sun was setting over the island of Manhattan and Miriam Waker was a shadow on the edge of the loading dock, slumped over her coffee cup. It was November and the air was cool but no steam rose from her coffee; the coffee hadn’t been hot in a long time and she hadn’t sipped at it for longer. Broden sat down beside her, but Miriam Waker didn’t look up.
“Mrs. Waker,” Broden said, “I know you were questioned about your niece by a detective two weeks ago. Has she been in contact since then?”
“What about your son? Have you spoken with Anton recently?”
“Mrs. Waker, I’m afraid that something may have happened to him.”
“I don’t know where Anton is.” Her eyes had dropped to her coffee cup, and she was almost whispering. “I don’t know where he is anymore.”
“Well, where was he last?”
“The island of Ischia,” Anton’s mother said.
Copyright © 2015 by Emily St. John Mandel. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.