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Daughter, First: Dia’s the Ringmaster of This Circus

The federal prosecutor has second thoughts as she closes in on the Mahoney family.

Fiction Daughter First Dias the Ringmaster of This Circus
Illustration by Najeebah Al-Ghadban

Don't miss all of Daughter, First: In part 1, we meet the Governor's daughter, Katie Mahoney Brown; in part 2, the attorney who's going to take down the administration digs into the family secrets; in part 3, the matriarch, Rosemary Mahoney, uncovers her husband's dirty business deals; and in part 4, Katie's marriage begins to unravel.

Dia wasn’t surprised when her phone buzzed with a text from her best friend, Njeri: I saw the news …

By then, everyone in Boston had seen the news. Fourteen members of MS-13 had been arrested in Chelsea, and there was her colleague Whittier on every channel. We seized 30 pounds of heroin, over $300,000 in cash, and we have sixteen assault rifles now in our possession. Though I can’t say any more at this juncture, we expect to add first-degree-murder charges. This is a win for our city, our future.

Whittier craved the flashbulbs. How many times had he forwarded Dia that Seth Meyers Boston-crime-movie parody? You gotta see this, D. Wife says he and I could be twins. And, of course, MS-13 was an ideal opponent. Whittier’s white teeth sparkled. “Our goal is to stop that cancer that is MS-13 before it metastasizes.” It seemed like the man’s stockpile of metaphors was akin to his budget for dental veneers — infinite.

Dia leaned back in her chair and rubbed her eyes. It was nearly 6 p.m., and she’d been in here for close to twelve hours, bouncing between her own investigation into the Mahoney administration and the news about Whittier. She closed the window on her browser. Enough.

Her office phone rang.

“This is Dia,” she said, longing for the modern wonders of technology, caller ID.

It was her boss, Henry. “Don’t worry,” he said. “In a couple of days, this little shit’ll be yesterday’s news. That’ll be you up there.”

She sighed. “Great. Can I send a proxy?”

Henry chuckled. “’Fraid not, kiddo. What I can tell you is that our circus will definitely be a helluva a lot more exciting than this one.”

\*\*\*

After the call, Dia leaned back in her chair and felt queasy. Even if he wouldn’t admit it, Henry knew as well as she did: Big Jim wasn’t MS-13. What would happen next wouldn’t be a circus; it would be more like a funeral. She thought of those T-shirts they started making when the Red Sox became the Yankees, when Tom Brady became our Lord, Jesus Christ: “Boston vs. Everybody.”

Not everyone likes change, but people in Boston share a particular loathing for anything different, any shift in what they perceive as the natural order of things. Even the locals whose parents had been victimized by decades of Big Jim’s slumlord shenanigans would lament his demise.

Whether you loved Big Jim or hated him, there would be townie pride in knowing the man, having watched his rise and fall and followed his family in the gossip columns. Slideshows of the Mahoneys in different stages of growth would crop up all over the place. You’d see Katie escorting Orla from school — That poor, beautiful woman, imagine them coming for your daughter like that. Big Jim would be referred to as a “complicated figure … a family man.” After all, he wasn’t Whitey Bulger. He wasn’t the Boston Strangler or — God forbid — Bill Buckner.

There was power in being a part of a family unit. Dia remembered being a kid, watching Family Feud, counting the players on each team, realizing that hers would be so small: just Dia and her parents. They were only three. Maybe she was so hell-bent on taking down the Mahoneys because they were such a unit, so fortified by their own numbers. Also, if she was being honest, because it still hurt to think about freshman year, running into Katie before Thanksgiving break, both handing in papers before the deadline.

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“Where do you guys go?” Katie had asked, that irritating innocence in her voice.

Dia was blunt. “Home.”

“So it’s just the three of you?”

What was the point of replying? Katie Mahoney would never understand a family like hers.

Instead, as Katie hoisted her Dooney & Bourke duffel over her shoulder, Dia asked, “Where do you go?” but she already knew. She’d seen the pictures in some magazine.

“Oh, God,” Katie said, always maintaining a low buzz of friendliness, even when it would have been more natural for them to coexist in silence. “We’ll be on the Cape. It’s a total madhouse.”

Dia pictured an asylum with padded walls, even though she knew the house was more likely to have tasteful wallpaper and an entire wall dedicated to framed family pictures. “Wow, how many people will be there?”

“This year, I think there are 26 of us,” Katie said. “You don’t want to know how many turkeys we have to make.”

Later that week, Dia was home. It was Thanksgiving, just she and her parents gathered around the kitchen table. She pushed her mashed potatoes around her plate, and her father eyed her. “Whatsa matter? We’re not good enough for you anymore?”

It was an impossible question to answer. No, their three-person family wasn’t good enough, wasn’t big enough, wasn’t white enough, wasn’t black enough. Then she took one look at her mother’s face and did a 180.

“It’s just … at school, everyone has so much, you know? Cars and endless cash and fancy vacations full of family time and —”

Her father sighed. “That’s the road to hell, Dia. Comparing yourself to other people.”

“That’s not what I mean.”

Dia’s mother knew how to calm a storm. “That Katie comes from a different world,” she said. “Nobody says you have to be best friends.”

\*\*\*

It would be wrong to discount Whittier’s success, so when she got the invitation to pour one out for the local hero, Dia headed down the hall. She obligingly lifted her glass along with everyone else.

Dia wondered what she would say when it was her turn to stand at the front of the room with the whole office, clasping paper cups of cheap champagne. But wait. There wouldn’t be a pour for her. Instead, Whittier’s many admirers would be sequestered at their desks, whispering among themselves about her “witch hunt,” emailing editorials laden with phrases like “the complex nature of men in power.” Even the pictures of Big Jim with his lady friends would conjure sympathy. They’d blame the hidden first wife: I bet she told him she was on the pill … I bet she tried to take him for millions … How do they even know Stephanie is really his daughter anyway?

Dia saw Whittier making his way across the room. She nodded to Henry for the OK, and she emptied her glass before that plaid cad could get to her.

As soon as she stepped out of the room, she texted Njeri at lightning speed: I’m free. And buzzed. Be at Harvard Gardens in twenty?

The response came quickly: Done.

\*\*\*

Now that Dia’s parents were gone, Njeri was the closest thing Dia had to family. She was sensitive to Dia’s aloneness in the world — no surprise, since she was a clinical psychologist.

“So I saw that guy on TV,” Njeri said, as soon as they settled in at the bar in the glow of the Patriots game. “What a day, right?”

“You know his name is Whittier.”

Njeri shrugged. “All I know is, he was in full Affleck mode.”

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Dia was already more relaxed. “I’d say he’s more Wahlberg than Affleck. He wouldn’t even have a glass of champagne to celebrate. Said he wanted to be able to play with his kids when he got home. Please.”

Njeri grew serious. It was a stark reminder of their differences. Njeri was married, with two kids. Her husband was a pillar of the business community. If she were putting Big Jim behind bars, she’d be able to say she was doing it for her family.

“Dia, is everything OK?” Dia hadn’t divulged any of the details of her case. Emotions, however, were another story. But Dia held her ground. “I’m fine,” she said. “What about you? How’s that new nanny working out?”

Njeri wasn’t going to give up that easily. “Dia,” she said. “I see what’s happening here. You work with Whittier; you see him up there preaching about good and evil, like that’s how it’s done. But that’s not you. Don’t let him get to you.”

Dia nodded.

“And if your parents were here —”

“Which they’re not,” Dia said, signaling to the waiter for a second drink.

“If they were …” Njeri said. “They would tell you what I’m gonna tell you. They would say you were happier six months ago when you weren’t in that office day and night. You did right by them. It’s over. Take a break.”

The waiter arrived with Dia’s drink. Nothing for Njeri, who must have waved him off.

“You ever notice how some people in this world don’t get caught even when they do get caught?” Dia said. She rubbed her forehead. “I think I’m just tired.”

Njeri’s shoulders dropped a little. “No,” Njeri said. “You’re sad. Grief isn’t all at once. There are waves. All you can do is ride the waves.” She leaned closer. “But Whittier’s big win doesn’t mean that you lost. Why don’t you come over this weekend? I have a birthday party where I’ll probably see Katie, ugh, but you know after that I’ll need a drink.”

Dia realized she was getting what she wanted after all: her shot at Family Feud. As much as she loved Dia, Njeri wasn’t going to be there when she realized that Dia was on a mission to put Katie’s husband behind bars. Njeri ran in the same circles as Katie. Njeri had children to consider. If Dia stayed on the case, it would be Boston vs. Everybody. She would be Everybody. She would also be alone.

\*\*\*

The next morning, Dia’s head was clear. She’d always been this way, more focused with a slight hangover. Her foolproof hangover cure had helped, too: she took vitamin B and plunged her feet in ice-cold water right after she woke up.

Sitting across from Tom in the interrogation room, Dia already had enough to convict him. He thought he was being tricky, moving money into a dummy corp, an LLC called Wychmere Selections. His lawyer dragged him in here first thing, and he was humbled, but there were still flashes of pride.

“You know, I got the idea from my wife,” he said. “Wychmere, the scarves and the key chains, the jewelry. Truth be told, most businesses fail. Fashion and restaurants, especially.”

“But the start-up money,” he continued, sensing Dia’s impatience. “That was all Jim.”

“But it’s your signature on the forms,” Dia countered.

“Yes, it is,” he said. “But only on the forms you’ve seen. I forgot the others.”

Ah, so it was like that. “And you’re here to turn yourself in, then?” she asked.

He pulled at the tip of his aquiline nose. “That’s a gross oversimplification of facts.” Tom’s lawyer kept trying to shush his client, but Tom kept going, getting angrier as he went on. “This was the Jim show. See, he laughed at Katie’s ‘little business’ — as if she could just wake up one day and become Lilly Pulitzer. Do you know the story behind Lilly? Do you know she was friends with Jacqueline Bouvier? Down in Palm Beach, she started a juice stand for kicks. A rich woman with nothing to do but squeeze a few oranges and call it a lifestyle. Obviously, it exploded. But that’s the exception. Jim was shocked when Katie actually made money, for a little while.”

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Dia pointed to the Wychmere file. “Ellen Palmer is listed as the president of Wychmere Selections.”

His cheeks flushed. “Ellen doesn’t know a thing,” he said. “She’s someone we just know.”

“Through Katie?” Dia asked, knowing what that meant: someone we just know.

He twiddled his thumbs like a child. “No,” he said. “Katie doesn’t know Ellen.”

“My client is here to cooperate,” Tom’s lawyer said. “We know that you have bigger fish to fry, and we’d like to help you out with that.” Dia wasn’t making any promises. Still, Tom outlined their “magic” tricks, using Wychmere Selections as a sieve for hundreds of thousands of dollars on marketing consultants, shop-rental deposits, prototypes that never materialized. That’s the thing about privileged people. There’s delusion that comes with money. They mistakenly equate wealth with intelligence. Deep down, Tom never thought he’d be caught. But then, Tom wasn’t a very good magician.

“We’ll resume shortly,” Dia said. And it was a rush, closing the door on him, locking it.

Tom’s lawyer wanted immunity for his client — what else is new? — in exchange for his testimony about Jim.

In her office, Dia thought back to that Thanksgiving in college, her inability to process her emotions about big families, big money. Even then, she’d sensed that a blanket of money and trust could only hold so many. You couldn’t love 26 people equally. Marriage is a squeeze. Would Katie blame her husband or her father?

She watched Tom on the security feed. He paced in the interrogation room, running his hands through his hair, pulling at his pink button-down, no doubt selected for him by Katie. Katie, so often lauded for her impeccable taste in fashion, had terrible taste in men.

The story continues: read part 6.

Caroline Kepnes’s third novel, Providence, will be published by Lenny Books in June. Her first novel, You, has been adapted for a Lifetime series that premieres in September.

Special thanks to Instagram user @angelabewicknutrition for the hangover-cure detail.