The Secret History by Donna Tartt

“He gave the police one. Not these people.”

  “What difference does it make? Why would they want to talk to him?”

  “I don’t know, Camilla.”

  When we got to the twins’ apartment we were relieved to find Charles there, alone. He was lying on the couch, a drink on the table beside him, talking to his grandmother on the telephone.

  He was a little drunk. “Nana says hi,” he said to Camilla when he got off the phone. “She’s all worried. Some bug or something has got up into her azaleas.”

  “What’s that all over your hands?” said Camilla sharply.

  He held them out, palms up, none too steadily. The tips of the fingers were black. “They took my fingerprints,” he said. “It was kind of interesting. I’d never had it done before.”

  For a moment we were all too shocked to say anything. Henry stepped forward, took one of his hands and examined it beneath the light. “Do you know why they did it?” he said.

  Charles wiped his brow with the back of his free wrist. “They’ve sealed off Bunny’s room,” he said. “Some people are in there dusting for prints and putting things in plastic bags.”

  Henry dropped his hand. “But why?”

  “I don’t know why. They wanted the fingerprints of everybody who’d been in the room on Thursday and touched things.”

  “What good will that do? They don’t have Bunny’s fingerprints.”

  “Apparently they do have them. Bunny was in the Boy Scouts and his troop went in and was fingerprinted for some kind of Law Enforcement badge, years ago. They’re still on file somewhere.”

  Henry sat down. “Why did they want to talk to you?”

  “That was the first thing they asked me.”


  “ ‘Why do you think we want to talk to you.’ ” He dragged the heel of his hand down the side of his face. “These people are smart, Henry,” he said. “A lot smarter than the police.”

  “How did they treat you?”

  Charles shrugged. “The one called Davenport was pretty brusque. The other one—the Italian—was nicer, but he scared me. Didn’t say much, just listened. He’s much more clever than the other one.…”

  “Well?” said Henry impatiently. “What is it?”

  “Nothing. We … I don’t know. We’ve got to be really careful, that’s all. They tried to trip me up more than once.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “Well, when I told them Cloke and I had gone down to Bunny’s room around four on Thursday, for instance.”

  “That’s when you did go,” said Francis.

  “I know that. But the Italian—really, he’s a very pleasant man—began to look all concerned. ‘Can that be right, son?’ he said. ‘Think.’ I was really confused, because I knew we went at four, and then Davenport said, ‘You’d better think about it, because your buddy Cloke told us you two were down at that room for a solid hour before you called anybody.’ ”

  “They wanted to see if you and Cloke had anything to hide,” Henry said.

  “Maybe. Maybe they just wanted to see if I would lie about it.”

  “Did you?”

  “No. But if they’d asked me something a little touchier, and I was kind of scared … You don’t realize what it’s like. There are two of them, and only one of you, and you don’t have much time to think.… I know, I know,” he said despairingly. “But it’s not like the police. These small-town cops don’t actually expect to find anything. They’d be shocked to know the truth, probably wouldn’t believe it if you told them. But these guys …” He shuddered. “I never realized, you know, how much we rely on appearances,” he said. “It’s not that we’re so smart, it’s just that we don’t look like we did it. We might as well be a bunch of Sunday-school teachers as far as everyone else is concerned. But these guys won’t be taken in by that.” He picked up his glass and took a drink. “By the way,” he said, “they asked a million questions about your trip to Italy.”

  Henry glanced up, startled. “Did they ask at all about the finances? Who paid for it?”

  “No.” Charles finished off the glass and rattled the ice around for a moment. “I was terrified they would. But I think they were kind of overly impressed by the Corcorans. I think if I told them that Bunny never wore the same pair of underpants twice they would probably believe me.”

  “What about that Vermonter?” Francis said. “The one on television last night?”

  “I don’t know. They were a lot more interested in Cloke than anything else, it seemed to me. Maybe they just wanted to make sure his story matched up with mine, but there were a couple of really strange questions that—I don’t know. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s going around telling people this theory of his, that Bunny was kidnapped by drug dealers.”

  “Certainly not,” said Francis.

  “Well, he told us, and we’re not even his friends. Though the FBI men seem to think he and I are on intimate terms.”

  “I hope you took pains to correct them,” said Henry, lighting a cigarette.

  “I’m sure Cloke would have set them straight on that account.”

  “Not necessarily,” said Henry. He shook out his match and threw it in an ashtray; then he inhaled deeply on his cigarette. “You know,” he said, “I thought at first that this association with Cloke was a great misfortune. Now I see it’s one of the best things that could have happened to us.”

  Before anyone could ask him what he meant, he glanced at his watch. “Goodness,” he said. “We’d better go. It’s almost six.”

  On the way to Francis’s, a pregnant dog ran across the road in front of us.

  “That,” said Henry, “is a very bad omen.”

  But of what he wouldn’t say.

  The news was just beginning. The anchorman glanced up from his papers, looking grave but at the same time very pleased. “The frantic search—thus far a fruitless one—continues, for missing Hampden College student Edward Corcoran.”

  “Gosh,” said Camilla, reaching into her brother’s coat pocket for a cigarette. “You’d think they’d get his name right, don’t you?”

  The picture cut to an aerial shot of snowy hills, dotted like a war map with pinprick figures, Mount Cataract looming lopsided and huge in the foreground.

  “An estimated three hundred searchers,” said the voice-over, “including National Guard, police, Hampden firefighters and Central Vermont Public Service employees, combed the hard-to-reach area on this, Day Two of the search. In addition, the FBI has launched an investigation of its own in Hampden today.”

  The picture wobbled, then switched abruptly to a lean, white-haired man in a cowboy hat who the caption informed us was Dick Postonkill, Hampden County sheriff. He was talking, but no sound came from his mouth; searchers milled curiously in the snowy background, raising on tiptoe to jeer silently at the camera.

  After a few moments, the audio lurched on with a jerky, garbled sound. The sheriff was in the middle of a sentence.

  “—to remind hikers,” he said, “to go out in groups, stay on the trail, leave a projected itinerary and carry plenty of warm clothing in case of sudden drops in temperature.”

  “That was Hampden County sheriff Dick Postonkill,” said the anchorman brightly, “with a few tips for our viewers on winter hiking safety.” He turned, and the camera zoomed in on him at a different angle. “One of the only leads so far in the Corcoran disappearance case has been provided by William Hundy, a local businessman and ActionNews Twelve viewer, who phoned our TIPS line with information regarding the missing youth. Today Mr. Hundy has been cooperating with state and local authorities in providing a description of Corcoran’s alleged abductors.…”

  “ ‘State and local,’ ” said Henry.


  “Not federal.”

  “Of course not,” said Charles. “Do you think the FBI is going to believe some dumb story that a Vermonter made up?”

  “Well, if they don’t, why are they here?” said Henry.<
br />
  This was a disconcerting thought. In the brilliant, delayed-tape noontime sun, a group of men hurried down the courthouse steps. Mr. Hundy, his head down, was among them. His hair was slicked back and he wore, in lieu of his service station uniform, a baby-blue leisure suit.

  A reporter—Liz Ocavello, a sort of local celebrity, with her own current-issues program and a segment called “Movie Beat” on the local news—approached, microphone in hand. “Mr. Hundy,” she said. “Mr. Hundy.”

  He stopped, confused, as his companions walked ahead and left him standing alone on the steps. Then they realized what was going on and came back up to huddle around him in an official-looking cluster. They grabbed Hundy by the elbows and made as if to hustle him away but he hung back, reluctant.

  “Mr. Hundy,” said Liz Ocavello, nudging her way in. “I understand you have been working today with police artists on composite drawings of the persons you saw with the missing boy on Sunday.”

  Mr. Hundy nodded rather briskly. His shy, evasive manner of the day before had given way to a slightly more assertive stance.

  “Could you tell us what they looked like?”

  The men surged around Mr. Hundy once more, but he seemed entranced by the camera. “Well,” he said, “they wasn’t from around here. They was … dark.”


  They now were tugging him down the steps, and he glanced back over his shoulder, as if sharing a confidence. “Arabs,” he said. “You know.”

  Liz Ocavello, behind her glasses and her big anchorwoman hairdo, accepted this disclosure so blandly that I thought I’d heard it wrong. “Thank you, Mr. Hundy,” she said, turning away, as Mr. Hundy and his friends disappeared down the steps. “This is Liz Ocavello at the Hampden County Courthouse.”

  “Thanks, Liz,” the newscaster said cheerily, swiveling in his chair.

  “Wait,” said Camilla. “Did he say what I thought he said?”


  “Arabs? He said Bunny got in a car with some Arabs?”

  “In a related development,” the anchorman said, “area churches have joined hands in a prayer effort for the missing boy. According to Reverend A. K. Poole of First Lutheran, several churches in the tri-state area, including First Baptist, First Methodist, Blessed Sacrament and Assembly of God, have offered up their—”

  “I wonder what this mechanic of yours is up to, Henry,” said Francis.

  Henry lit a cigarette. He had smoked it halfway down before he said: “Did they ask you anything about Arabs, Charles?”


  “But they just said on television that Hundy’s not dealing with the FBI,” Camilla said.

  “We don’t know that.”

  “You don’t think it’s all some kind of setup?”

  “I don’t know what to think.”

  The picture on the set had changed. A thin, well-groomed woman in her fifties—Chanel cardigan, pearls at the neckline, hair brushed into a stiff, shoulder-length flip—was talking, in a nasal voice which was oddly familiar.

  “Yes,” she said; where had I heard that voice before? “The people of Hampden are ever so kind. When we arrived at our hotel, late yesterday afternoon, the concierge was waiting for—”

  “Concierge,” said Francis, disgusted. “They don’t have a concierge at the Coachlight Inn.”

  I studied this woman with new interest. “That’s Bunny’s mother?”

  “That’s right,” said Henry. “I keep forgetting. You haven’t met her.”

  She was a slight woman, corded and freckled around the neck the way women of that age and disposition often are; she bore little resemblance to Bunny but her hair and eyes were the same color as his and she had his nose: a tiny, sharp, inquisitive nose which harmonized perfectly with the rest of her features but had always looked slightly incongruous on Bunny, stuck as it was like an afterthought in the middle of his large, blunt face. Her manner was haughty and distracted. “Oh,” she said, twisting a ring on her finger, “we’ve had a deluge, indeed, from all over the country. Cards, calls, the most glorious flowers—”

  “Do they have her doped up or something?” I said.

  “What do you mean?”

  “Well, she doesn’t seem very upset, does she?”

  “Of course,” said Mrs. Corcoran reflectively, “of course, we’re all just out of our minds, really. And I certainly hope that no mother will ever have to endure what I have for the past few nights. But the weather does seem to be breaking, and we’ve met so many lovely people, and the local merchants have all been generous in so many little ways.…”

  “Actually,” said Henry, when the station cut to a commercial, “she photographs rather well, doesn’t she?”

  “She looks like a tough customer.”

  “She’s from Hell,” Charles said drunkenly.

  “Oh, she’s not that bad,” said Francis.

  “You just say that because she kisses up to you all the time,” Charles said. “Because of your mother and stuff.”

  “Kiss up? What are you talking about? Mrs. Corcoran doesn’t kiss up to me.”

  “She’s awful,” Charles said. “It’s a horrible thing to tell your kids that money’s the only thing in the world, but it’s a disgrace to work for it. Then toss ’em out without a penny. She never gave Bunny one red—”

  “That’s Mr. Corcoran’s fault, too,” said Camilla.

  “Well, yeah, maybe. I don’t know. I just never met such a bunch of greedy, shallow people. You look at them and think, oh, what a tasteful, attractive family but they’re just a bunch of zeros, like something from an ad. They’ve got this room in their house,” Charles said, turning to me, “called the Gucci Room.”


  “Well, they painted it with a dado, sort of, those awful Gucci stripes. It was in all kinds of magazines. House Beautiful had it in some ridiculous article they did on Whimsy in Decorating or some absurd idea—you know, where they tell you to paint a giant lobster or something on your bedroom ceiling and it’s supposed to be very witty and attractive.” He lit a cigarette. “I mean, that’s exactly the kind of people they are,” he said. “All surface. Bunny was the best of them by a long shot but even he—”

  “I hate Gucci,” said Francis.

  “Do you?” said Henry, glancing up from his reverie. “Really? I think it’s rather grand.”

  “Come on, Henry.”

  “Well, it’s so expensive, but it’s so ugly too, isn’t it? I think they make it ugly on purpose. And yet people buy it out of sheer perversity.”

  “I don’t see what you think is grand about that.”

  “Anything is grand if it’s done on a large enough scale,” said Henry.

  I was walking home that night, paying no attention to where I was going, when a large, sulky fellow approached me near the apple trees in front of Putnam House. He said: “Are you Richard Papen?”

  I stopped, looked at him, said that I was.

  To my astonishment, he punched me in the face, and I fell backward in the snow with a thump that knocked me breathless.

  “Stay away from Mona!” he shouted at me. “If you go near her again, I’ll kill you. You understand me?”

  Too stunned to reply, I stared up at him. He kicked me in the ribs, hard, and then trudged sullenly away—footsteps crunching through the snow, a slamming door.

  I looked up at the stars. They seemed very far away. Finally, I struggled to my feet—there was a sharp pain in my ribs, but nothing seemed broken—and limped home in the dark.

  I woke late the next morning. My eye hurt when I rolled on my cheek. I lay there for a while, blinking in the bright sun, as confused details of the previous night floated back to me like a dream; then I reached for my watch on the night table and saw that it was late, almost noon, and why had no one been by to get me?

  I got up, and as I did my reflection rose to meet me, head-on in the opposite mirror; it stopped and stared—hair on end, mouth agog in idiotic astonishment—like a
comic book character konked on the head with an anvil, chaplet of stars and birdies twittering about the brow. Most startling of all, a splendid dark cartoon of a black eye was stamped in a ring on my eye socket, in the richest inks of Tyrian, chartreuse, and plum.

  I brushed my teeth, dressed, and hurried outside, where the first familiar person I spotted was Julian on his way up to the Lyceum.

  He drew back from me in innocent, Chaplinesque surprise. “Goodness,” he said, “what happened to you?”

  “Have you heard anything this morning?”

  “Why, no,” he said, looking at me curiously. “That eye. You look as if you were in a barroom brawl.”

  Any other time I would have been too embarrassed to tell him the truth, but I was so sick of lying that I had an urge to come clean, on this small matter at least. So I told him what had happened.

  I was surprised at his reaction. “So it was a brawl,” he said, with childish delight. “How thrilling. Are you in love with her?”

  “I’m afraid I don’t know her too well.”

  He laughed. “Dear me, you are being truthful today,” he said, with remarkable perspicuity. “Life has got awfully dramatic all of a sudden, hasn’t it? Just like a fiction.… By the way, did I tell you that some men came round to see me yesterday afternoon?”

  “Who were they?”

  “There were two of them. At first I was rather anxious—I thought they were from the State Department, or worse. You’ve heard of my problems with the Isrami government?”

  I am not sure what Julian thought the Isrami government—terrorist state though it is—should want to do with him, but his fear of it came from his having taught its exiled crown princess about ten years before. After the revolution she’d been forced into hiding, had ended up somehow at Hampden College; Julian taught her for four years, in private tutorials supervised by the former Isrami minister of education, who would occasionally fly in from Switzerland, with gifts of caviar and chocolates, to make sure that the curriculum was suitable for the heir apparent to his country’s throne.

  The princess was fabulously rich. (Henry had caught a glimpse of her once—dark glasses, full-length marten coat—clicking rapidly down the stairs of the Lyceum with her bodyguards at her heels.) The dynasty to which she belonged traced its origins to the Tower of Babel, and had accumulated a monstrous amount of wealth since then, a good deal of which her surviving relatives and associates had managed to smuggle out of the country. But there was a price on her head, as a result of which she’d been isolated, overprotected, and largely friendless, even while a teenager at Hampden. Subsequent years had made her a recluse. She moved from place to place, terrified of assassins; her whole family—except for a cousin or two and a little half-wit brother who was in an institution—had been picked off one by one over the years and even the old Minister of Education, six months after the princess was graduated from college, had died of a sniper’s bullet, sitting in the garden of his own little red-roofed house in Montreux.

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