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Private Showings

PRIVATE SHOWINGS

A NOVEL BY MALACHI STONE

Published by Malachi Stone for Shakespir

 

 

 

©2011 by Malachi Stone

 

 

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without permission of the author. All the characters in this book are fictitious and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is coincidental.

 

 

 

for Maria, my first inspiration then, now, and always.

 

 

 

Shakespir Edition, License Notes

 

 

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Shakespir.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

 

 

 

TABLE OF CONTENTS

 

Chapter One – The Tower

Chapter Two – The Magician

Chapter Three – The High Priestess

Chapter Four – The Hierophant

Chapter Five – The Chariot

Chapter Six – The Emperor

Chapter Seven – The Wheel of Fortune

Chapter Eight – The Empress

Chapter Nine – The Enchantress

Chapter Ten – The Hermit

Chapter Eleven – Justice

Chapter Twelve – The Lovers

Chapter Thirteen – The Hanged Man

Chapter Fourteen – Temperance

Chapter Fifteen – The One of Cups

Chapter Sixteen – The Seven of Swords

Chapter Seventeen – The Moon

Chapter Eighteen – The Devil

Chapter Nineteen – The Judgment

Chapter Twenty – The Nine of Coins

Chapter Twenty-One – The Two of Cups

Chapter Twenty-Two – The Ace of Wands

Chapter Twenty-Three – The Queen of Swords

Chapter Twenty-Four – The Nine of Swords

Chapter Twenty-Five – The Star

Chapter Twenty-Six – The Fool

Chapter Twenty-Seven – The World

Epilogue

About the Author

Connect with me Online

 

 

 

Chapter One – The Tower

 

The Bluetooth headset vibrated in Kyrie Wilde’s left ear. She took the call waiting for a train, meanwhile continuing the kegel exercises she’d been doing in the privacy of her car. She’d synchronized the pleasant springing sensations within her to the rhythmic monotony of boxcars trundling through the crossing. Ten boxcars per clench, with no end in sight.

It was the charge nurse at Black Forest Care Center. “Ms. Wilde,” she said without emotion, “I’m afraid your father has eloped again.”

“My God, can’t you people even hold on to a patient for what I’m paying you? This is the third time in a month he’s gotten away from you. I have a showing in ten minutes and I’m stuck behind this damn train.”

“Resident, Ms. Wilde.”

“What?”

“Resident, not patient. You had said patient.”

“Whatever.”

“Even for a skilled nursing care facility such as ours, Mr. Wilde presents a unique challenge.”

“It’s Doctor Wilde.”

Kyrie’s call waiting vibrated. She cut the nurse off to take it. Tippi, her mother-in-law, was on the other line. Kyrie mentally kicked herself for not pulling out the earpiece and checking the caller ID first.

“He’s out again,” Tippi said, in a tone that sounded like gloating. “The nursing home just called. Went over the wall. What’s that make it, the third time this month?”

“Tippi, call Reverend Hoffmann. Sometimes he goes there, to the church. He thinks he’s still choir director, I guess. It’s the disease.”

“Disease? Since when’s it a disease to turn queer and try and blow your brains out over it? Nobody in my family—”

Kyrie hung up against the ugliness of the remark, exceptional even for her mother-in-law. There would be hell to pay tonight, but now she didn’t care. The caboose had passed her by, and she was almost late for her showing.

Kyrie drove rapidly, her tires singing against the antique brick streets of the Hexenhut historical district. She pulled up to 903 Kirk Street: the Harmony house. There was no buyer in sight. “Stately chateauesque dwelling,” the multi-listing read. “Seller anxious. Old-world elegance in a quiet location. Formal dining room. Eat-in kitchen boasts updated appliances and butler’s pantry. Unique twin turrets offer two third-story bonus rooms.”

Peg Krause had written the copy. It was her listing, one of “Peg’s Picks.” Kyrie and Peg would split the commission if Richard made an offer today. The old place really did have a certain indefinable curb appeal.

The Harmony House stood apart from all the others, towering over the neighborhood from its perch on a sloping hill. The steep peaked roofs of its twin turrets had given the surrounding district the name that had survived for well over a century: Hexenhut. Witch’s hat.

Kyrie turned down an alley and parked in the rear of the house, behind the moldering detached garage, its roof ready to collapse. She hurried along the narrow broken sidewalk skirting the side of the house and opened the lock box to retrieve the front door key. The train hadn’t made her late after all. Kyrie made it a point always to be inside the home before the buyer arrived. It put him at a psychological disadvantage—a door-to-door salesman importuning the lady of the house, instead of the other way around. It only seemed to work on the men, though. And the buyer she was meeting today was a man by any definition.

She tried the key. The “elegant double doors” dragged on the worn sill. The owners had tried weather-stripping, in a desperate bid to seal the huge old barn against escape of the precious heat generated by the two furnaces installed when Ike and Mamie still called the White House home. Spice potpourri competed with old house smell.

The Harmonys, non-tenured CIU music professors with three small children and a live-in mother’s help, had transferred to Tulsa and were indeed anxious to unload. “Harmony House” had become synonymous among local realtors with “white elephant.” Most of the furniture still remained uncovered. Dust was everywhere. She thought of her own home, where eyeing one glaring cobweb, Tippi had once remarked, “I could make a noose and hang myself.” Be my guest.

Kyrie remembered the sign-in sheet attached to a plastic clipboard on a kitchen counter by the back door, beside one of the “updated appliances”. She signed her name, then wrote “Twin Cities Realty”. In the “client” column she printed “Richard Mandrake,” then filled in the date and sign-in time.

The Black Forest Board of Realtors insisted on its members’ voluntary compliance with the sign-in procedure, to reassure sellers of continuing activity and a measure of perceived security. At least the people roaming and ranging through one’s furnished home in one’s absence could be identified by name, or so the sellers were led to believe.

Kyrie scanned the list. Four showings had preceded her last private showing with Richard here: Boris Day Dream Homes (apparently a quick walk-through, the sign-in and sign-out times only six minutes apart); Peg herself, three days ago; Verna Hoffmann, the minister’s wife, two days later, and most recently Anna Geist, a Jill-of-all-trades who dabbled in real estate, storage rental, health food and God knows what else. None of the buyer names were especially legible, probably by design. The only one that surprised her was Boris Day. What was Boris doing in Black Forest? Boris had the Dutch Hollow bond for deed market sewed up. He was the man to call if you were looking to buy a fixer-upper on the installment plan. The first late payment and all your sweat equity went back to Boris in foreclosure like a magician’s homing coin. He’d probably made millions over the years selling and reselling half of Dutch Hollow bond for deed. The little man had an undertaker’s appearance about him, an essential creepiness Kyrie couldn’t quite define. He was reputed to make all his own collections door to door.

The antique brass twist doorbell jangled. Kyrie started. She saw Richard Mandrake’s rugged profile through lace window treatment and thick leaded glass. Handsome the way Ted Bundy was handsome. She rushed to throw open the doors to him.

“Punctual as always, Professor,” she said, appraising his appearance. Tweed jacket over a silk shirt unbuttoned at the collar. Casual jeans and shoes. Leg muscles of a fanatical runner. During the two prior meetings she had learned he jogged six miles a day. Dark wind-tousled hair. A tan unseemly for October. Clear skin, perfect teeth. At thirty-four a full professor in the Department of Psychology at Central Illinois University, with a keen interest in abnormal psychology and something called “psychobiology”. He cradled a single red rose.

“Is that a symptom of something? Compulsive punctuality, I mean,” Kyrie asked as he entered. Without answering, Richard offered the rose to her. She took it, closed her eyes and sniffed its perfume, then circled around him and leaned against the doors to push them closed.

“Second showing’s the charm, I guess,” she said, her own voice suddenly strange to her. “Where would you like to begin today?”

He embraced her in his sinewy arms. She shivered, feeling his pounding athlete’s heart, his male urgency pressing up against her.

“Let’s play hide and seek,” he said at last. “I’ll be ‘it’.”

Giddy with excitement, she bounded up the front staircase, down a corridor, then through a narrow door concealing another, steeper flight of stairs leading to one of the turrets. The turret room had been used for a child’s bedroom, circular with sloping ceiling, its high windows overlooking the front lawn filled with mature trees. She raised one window, which stuck at first, then wouldn’t stay open, its counterweight cord long broken. Improvising, she propped it open with a foot ruler, thinking naughty thoughts of Richard. She undressed quickly, her hands shaking with anticipation.

An Indian summer breeze spun a flurry of saffron and crimson leaves against the corroded window screen. She breathed in autumn’s incense of smoke and ripeness. The buzz and whine of traffic on the brick street below blended with the noise of a power mower mulching away in the distance.

“This will make a nice room for one or two of our kids,” he said from behind her where she crouched below the window, genuflecting to nature, looking out like a child, hiding her nakedness from everyone in the world but him. She turned to regard him over one shoulder, watched him standing in the doorway to the bedroom preening himself for her, flexing his workout abs, his risen manhood saluting her from a triangle of Speedo tan lines in full view of the street.

Kyrie yelped with surprise and pretended dismay at his immodesty. She tried to throw a blanket over him, but it hung up on his fleshy peg, adding to the ridiculous lewdness of the pose he continued to hold. Hooting with hoarse laughter, she scrambled under the Raggedy Ann and Andy bedcovers. Throwing the blankets aside, he leaped to join her.

As with the previous time she had made love to Richard in this house, Kyrie played a secret game with herself. Extending her arms above him, behind his head, she glanced at her watch—not from boredom or excess of punctuality, but to time herself.

Richard was the only man who had ever made her come.

This time, Kyrie meant to surpass all her prior efforts at driving back her climax. For fifteen full minutes, her body refused to surrender to his grinding mortar-and pestle insistence. Then, just when she felt herself bruised and stretched beyond all endurance, the breakpoint offered itself and she seized it. She screamed once, then again.

A pigeon, startled from its roost by Kyrie’s orgasmic cri de coeur, flapped away from the eaves outside the bedroom window. Kyrie’s paroxysms of laughter merged easily with Richard’s persistent thrustings, and brought him off as well.

Her husband Charlie would always roll over and snore like a pig after their infrequent and unsatisfying lovemaking. Richard poised his muscle-defined arms in a pushup position, raised his torso free of her breasts, then took his time surveying her as would one in possession. She felt a tiny bonus thrill when he unsheathed his firmness from her; he then drew up his knees and began brushing its tip in wild, swirling Van Gogh strokes all over her abdomen, undulating his pelvis, becoming rock-hard again as he mesmerized her with his enraptured dark eyes, painting her body with the fruits of his passion.

Marking another man’s territory as his own. Kyrie did not resist.

Black Forest. Perfect home for Professor Richard Mandrake. He painted away with abandon. Unlike Charlie and every other man she had ever known intimately, Richard seemed energized after climax.

“I really do love the house,” Richard said, turning onto one side after leisurely painting her for many minutes, yet still fully erect. She stroked him, not wanting their time to end.

“You’ll need to use a more conventional writing instrument to sign the contract, Professor.”

His expression was impish, his dark hair falling down almost into his eyes. “Let’s not talk contracts yet. I’ll make an offer, but only if that Nazi gets cut out of her commission.”

“I can’t leave Peg out of the deal, Richard. It’s her listing. I’d be blackballed; my career in real estate would be over. We’d both wind up in a lawsuit.”

“Tell her I won’t sign unless you get one hundred percent of the commission. And there’s one other contingency, of course.”

“What’s that?” Kyrie knew what he meant, knew his persistence.

“Leave your husband and come live in it with me.”

“Richard, please. We’ve already had this discussion. I can’t leave Charlie and the twins. Not now.”

“Ah, then there’s hope for the future?”

“I mean, Lori and Larry need me right now. They’re just starting high school and all.”

“But they’re not your kids. You’re nurturing some other woman’s offspring, while the man of your dreams—me—languishes here.”

“My, aren’t we sure of ourselves?” She swept a damp lock of hair from his brow.

“Reticence is maladaptive, a psychobiological dead end,” he said. Kyrie feared a lecture. “And in the most basic sense, all we are and all we ever will be is in our DNA. Our whole self is encoded into that double helix of genetic material, that spiral staircase of nucleotides. Self-preservation is literally equivalent to reproduction with the ideal human specimen. In my case, specifically, reproduction with you.”

“How romantic.” Her hand crept toward the conjuncture of his thighs. His voice quavered at her touch, but he continued.

“It’s psychobiologically pre-determined, in our genomes, in our pheromones, in our bones and hormones, and in your erogenous zones. It’s futile to resist my advances, Kyrie—purest folly on your part. Nature programs an irresistible drive into every human being to reproduce his genetic material with his ideal biological mate. He cannot help but do so. He will literally die trying until that goal is attained.”

“Feeling any drives kicking in at the moment, Professor?”

Richard sighed. “You agree with me intellectually, don’t you? You concede my point?”

“Yes, Professor. It’s not your point I’m interested in right now, though. At least, not that point.”

At the unquiet center of her mind, the remnants of Kyrie’s interrupted liberal arts education stalked her, whispered to her that Richard was right. Her realtor’s training, which had come later, offered up a truism of its own: the buyer is a liar.

“What’s the most basic human need, Kyrie?”

“I don’t know. Good credit?”

By way of answer, he burrowed his face between her breasts, his mouth making rude noises. She laughed low in her throat, then said: “Self-preservation. I’ve taken psychology, you know. I’m so much more than simply a realtor.”

Richard raised his head. “What does your realtor’s code of ethics say about making love to a buyer? Not that I care, of course, but are buyers off-limits, in the same sense that my students are off-limits to me?”

She positioned herself over him, heedless of the naked windows, the tower room whitewashed in morning sunlight. “As long as I haven’t committed a felony or racial discrimination my license is secure.”

“Are you racially indiscriminate?” Richard entered her again, his face flushed, neck muscles taut. She thought of the carload. The shy black boy. She ran her fingertips through Richard’s chest hair. One exultant thrust of his brought her over the edge once more. Sounds of a motorcycle engine, probably a chopper, reverberated from the street up to the third-story open window, close enough and loud enough to drown out her cries.

Kyrie’s Bluetooth vibrated where she’d forgotten it, still in her ear. Business before pleasure, she extricated herself from Richard, who bolted out of bed and left the room while she took the call. It was Reverend Hoffmann.

“Dr. Wilde just dropped by for a visit, Kyrie. We’re sharing old memories over a cup of Earl Grey’s finest.” His voice was kind and soothing, as if Daddy was within earshot.

“Oh, Reverend, I’m so sorry! I hope he hasn’t disturbed you or Mrs. Hoffmann.”

“Not at all. He’s a delightful man, your father. He’s always more than welcome here. It’s a testament to his faith that, even after his devastating injuries, he still considers our church his spiritual home.”

Kyrie caught herself doing her exercises and stopped, suddenly ashamed. “I’m right in the middle of a—a showing, but if you can keep him at bay a few minutes longer, I’ll be right over. That is, if you don’t mind.” Reverend Hoffmann’s kind voice told her to take all the time she needed. After disconnecting, she called out Richard’s name, but there was no response.

Dreading the embarrassment sure to be caused by her father, Kyrie took her time getting dressed, then made the bed. After giving the unique room a final once-over, she retrieved her purse and went downstairs. She again called out Richard’s name. Silence. She treated herself to a walk through the two-story great room, admiring its twenty-foot stuccoed ceiling, filigreed cherry wood accents and musician’s gallery. Peg would call this room a “show-stopper.”

Kyrie stopped. Something had caught her eye.

A solitary female figure sat motionless in an armchair facing the window. Peg Krause, the listing agent, judging from her carrot-orange hair clashing with her chartreuse jacket. Peg Krause, legendary scandal monger, probably waiting stealthily all this time, ears attuned, listening in as Kyrie abandoned herself to Richard.

Kyrie’s pulse pounded in her ears. She winced at the keen fear of discovery and imminent disgrace.

“Peg?” No response. Kyrie took one step towards her, then another. Was Peg giving her the silent treatment? Pausing for dramatic effect, drawing Kyrie in closer before unloading on her? The tittle-tattle mill would churn today. Black Forest was no different from any other small town. Gossip and rumors would fly. How long would it be before Charlie and Tippi heard?

She tried nonchalance. “Peg, have you seen my buyer anywhere? I seem to have misplaced him.” She rounded the chair, then gasped.

Peg Krause’s face was suffused with purple, cheeks puffed from a silk scarf stuffed into her mouth. Her dull eyes, pupils fixed and dilated, stared unseeing at the stained-glass panel above the window seat. Her hands and feet had been bound in a makeshift arrangement using a drapery cord. Her tape measure, tied in a huge yellow bow around her neck, a streak of fresh blood on its blade edge, buried into her neck wattles. Voided urine discolored the lap of her skirt. And there was something else, something like drool across her forehead.

Kyrie heard someone give the doorbell a powerful twist. Peering around a corner, she could clearly make out the figure standing at the unlocked front doors: Boris Day, ready to show the house to his buyer. She sprinted through the house to the kitchen, to the clipboard for the sign-up sheet.

It was gone.

 

 

 

Chapter Two – The Magician

 

Saint Christopher dropped into the Hoop just after midnight, his attire out of sync with the college crowd shoehorned into the campustown bar. His black leather Patrick Cox coat flared open when he put his hands on his narrow hips as he was doing now, revealing a tall-cut Ralph Lauren Collection pinstriped charcoal suit over a blood-red shirt. His black adder snakeskin belt seemed to come alive at the smoke and rowdy noise of the place. The flash finish of his Paul Stuart shoes reflected the beer-sign lights and caught the flicker and glow from the music videos playing on the wall-size television screen.

Once Saint Christopher’s eyes dilated in the dim lights he spotted Wendell pulling beer taps two and three at a time. Saint Christopher summoned him with a new fifty on the damp bar, pinning it down with his fingertips as though it were a live thing liable to escape. Wendell rescued it; a vodka gimlet took its place as if by magic.

“I bet your outfit cost more than half the cars in the lot outside,” Wendell said, pocketing the bill without offering to make change.

“Whaddaya mean, half?”

“You check out that red Ferrari, though? Looks more out of place than you do in this toilet.”

“Yours?” Saint Christopher took a hummingbird sip of the gimlet. His eyes darted around the room.

“Thanks for the compliment. Belongs to a frat lad. Get this: he’s tired of it. Told him I’d put you in touch. That’s him over there, with the blonde in the fuck-me sweater. Watch out for her, though. She’s got an attitude bigger’n her tits. And as you can plainly see, them ain’t small.”

Saint Christopher nodded in appreciation. A slim young man of about nineteen sat chasing a shooter with big gulps of draft beer from a pewter tankard inscribed Paisan. Some of the beer slopped onto his denim jacket. He did not appear to notice or care. The twenty-something woman across from him in the booth sat poised behind a margarita glass that looked as drained as she did. Her bored expression remained unchanged when her date headed for the men’s room without excusing himself. She seemed to liven at the sight of Saint Christopher, the only GQ-dressed man in the place, standing at the bar. He lifted his glass to her. She took a long drag on a Merit and surveyed his clothes with an expression like a model in a print ad for women’s cigarettes. Wendell signaled the lone waitress, in conversation with a barfly graduate student, to bring fresh drinks to the booth. When the drinks arrived before her date, the young woman raised her glass to Saint Christopher with a conspiratorial smirk.

“Bet you could cut yourself a piece of that right now, if you wanted,” Wendell marveled, scratching his steel-gray brush cut with the knuckle of his middle finger. “She’s over eighteen. I seen her ID’s.”

“What do you mean, ‘if I wanted’?” Saint Christopher stared over at the woman. When she made eye contact once more, he flashed her a cavalier smile. “Cardiologist wouldn’t like it, though.”

“So what’s a little chest pain when you got something like that under you to take your mind off it? You don’t get a chance like her every night. Leastways, I don’t.” Wendell mopped the bar. Two tables of frat rowdies began an antiphonal chorus of “Chester Pheeters” over a few pitchers of draft.

“You got any humpties for me?” Saint Christopher asked, never taking his eyes off the woman.

“Do I got any humpties for you? Spent the better part of the night putting car pools together. Four crash dummies so far.”

“No repeaters?”

“No, but Boog and Shoog been in here asking for you.”

Saint Christopher slipped another fifty from a flat wallet in his breast pocket. “Keep the drinks flowing for my new friends and business associates,” he told Wendell.

“What about Boog and Shoog?”

“Tell them I got lucky and left early.” He shrugged. “Hell, maybe I’m psychic.” Saint Christopher carried his drink the length of the bar, until he stood over the booth where the young woman, practicing a French inhale, pretended to ignore him. He watched a video on the big screen. Paula Cole thrashing around, rolling on the floor, emoting. Singing something that sounded like “Idowanna wait” in a reedy soprano that managed to hit all the notes without seeming to.

“When I went to school, it was Janis Joplin and Hendrix,” he said. “Nowadays you have groups like Toad the Wet Sprocket, Goo Goo Dolls and Chumbawamba. Mind if I sit down?” He slid into the booth beside her. She didn’t seem to mind.

“Are you an archeo-musicologist? Time-traveler, maybe?” she asked with a sorority girl’s irony. “Because those groups are, like, so nineties it’s painful. Exquisitely painful, in fact.” Her manicured fingers moved with easy grace to cover a fraternity pin fastened to her sweater above her right breast. God, her makeup was perfect, her delicate facial features without flaw. At a distance Saint Christopher thought she might have had a little surgery, but now he saw that her nose was something no surgeon’s skill could have crafted. Fine and aristocratic—a model’s nose. No, a supermodel. The video ended and another began.

“I’m a businessman,” he said with a casual toss of his hand. “I bring people together, arrange highly specialized encounters for their mutual benefit. And mine.”

“How nice for you. Of course you realize these are old, old videos. The cocktail lounge strings them together on ladies’ night because they’re all female artists. It’s part of a gender theme, get it?” She looked away as her date approached.

“Hey, I was sittin’ there,” the young man said, reckless behind a Jack Daniels and beer buzz. Silhouetted against the big video screen. Alanis Morissette and three of her clones gesticulated and thrashed around in a moving car. The woman, seated unconcerned beside Saint Christopher, sang “isn’t it ironic?” along with Alanis, her voice releasing little puffs of smoke.

“You tired of living, friend?” The young man was dressed like The Boss in the Philadelphia video.

“Moderately,” Saint Christopher said, looking past him to watch the screen, thinking about Janis. Big Brother and the Holding Company. Getting older.

“Chill, Gary. He bought us these drinks.” The young woman fingered the fraternity pin as though it were a sweater pill she might pull off and discard.

“Gary, Jack Saint Christopher.” Saint Christopher extended his hand to the young man, who appeared unused to such social gestures. “Wendell asked me to stop by and say hello.”

Gary finally began putting it together. He slid into the booth and sat facing Saint Christopher and his date, who said “Adrienne,” and offered a surprisingly firm handshake. Saint Christopher found her hand cool and dry, like her personality.

“So, Jack, are you married?” Adrienne asked.

“Single and ready to mingle. Gary, what are you studying?”

Gary put down the beer mug. His face was deep red in the light of the bar. “Pre-law,” he said in mid-belch.

Saint Christopher nodded. “I took a run at that myself years ago. Hope you have better luck than I did.”

Adrienne slipped another Merit from the pack in her purse. Saint Christopher flicked her tortoise-shell lighter like magic and lit her cigarette for her almost as soon as the filter tip was between her lips. She touched the back of his hand with her fingertips, although it did not need steadying. Her cheeks hollowed as she dragged in the smoke, taking her time to study him. A woman like her wouldn’t have looked twice at him in college or law school. His life might have turned out differently if one had.

“You went to law school, Jack? Sounds exciting. Tell us about it.” She leaned toward him in the booth until their shoulders touched. Gary drank off half the contents of his personalized tankard in one uneasy gulp.

“I’ll tell you the whole story, Adrienne. The whole, sad story. The first day of class I was what you’d call highly motivated. I’d pulled an all-nighter reading as far ahead as I could in contracts, torts, the whole first year curriculum. I go to my first class—contracts—at eight the next morning.” He smiled when Adrienne shook her head, incredulous at the incivility of the hour.

“Anyway, the first year contracts professor is some kind of closet sadist.” Adrienne smiled strangely at the word. “I think it’s a tradition,” Saint Christopher went on. “They always pick out the meanest bloodsucker to teach first year contracts class, scare the snot out of you. We’re all sitting there in the lecture auditorium with our new twenty-dollar casebooks—they only cost twenty bucks in those days—and our empty spiral notebooks and this natty little guy walks in. He was strictly Ivy League—Harvard or Yale, I forget which—had practiced a couple years in some white-shoe corporate law firm back East, and to make a long story short, you could tell he thinks he’s God.”

“This going to be a long story?” Gary suppressed a belch and sprawled in the booth. Another of a faded decade’s ladies flaunted herself on the big screen.

“I’d like to hear it, Jack,” Adrienne said, ignoring her date. “I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of law school.”

“Oh, so was I,” Saint Christopher said. “I was in love with the idea. It was the force majeure in my life back then, the idea of law school, the powers of justice, helping the little guy.”

Gary waggled his head, muttering “force majeure” in purse-lipped pidgin French. Saint Christopher leaned in, focusing his attentions totally on Adrienne. “Especially personal injury, what they call torts. I’d read way ahead in the torts casebook. But not far enough, as things turned out. I hadn’t quite gotten to what they call ‘result within the risk’. Cardozo.” Adrienne gave him a quizzical expression, wrinkling her model’s nose.

“The Palsgraf case. Palsgraf versus Long Island Railroad. A railroad porter tries to assist a passenger board the train, jostles his arm and causes him to drop a package of fireworks onto the tracks. The explosion knocks over one of those old-fashioned coin-operated weight machines a hundred feet away on the platform, injuring the plaintiff. You with me so far?”

“I gotta take a wiz,” Gary said. He reeled toward the men’s room again, carrying his beer mug like it was part of him. Several young men in turn hailed him by his moniker.

After Gary was out of sight, Saint Christopher said, just loud enough to be heard over the rock music, “It’s none of my business, but a girl, I mean a woman like you can do better, you know?”

“Gary’s taking me to the Bahamas for midterm break. Fun in the sun. And exactly what is your business, Jack?” She cocked her head and gave him another ironic smirk.

“I already told you, Adrienne.”

“Yeah, I know. You set up specialized encounters for everybody’s mutual benefit. That’s pretty vague, don’t you think?”

“And what do you do, Adrienne?”

“What do I do? I date Gary. And in my spare time, I study speech pathology and audiology at CIU, which, by the way, is a nationally-renowned program, particularly their labs.”

“Labs,” Saint Christopher mused. “The last time I set foot in a lab was for a college chem course back in 1969. That was also the first time I saw a girl—they were still occasionally referred to as ‘girls’ in those days—who proved to be unwaveringly loyal to the ‘no-bra’ look. Or is it waveringly loyal? Anyway, she wound up being my lab partner. Distracted me so damn much I couldn’t concentrate, ended up dropping the class, eventually changed my major from pre-med to pre-law. Like your friend Gary, here.”

“Seems like an excessive reaction to a mere jiggle. You must be a very sensual, passionate man. Are you?” The coal of Adrienne’s cigarette burned bright in the subdued lighting. She inhaled about half of it, seemed greedy for more.

“Why don’t you try one of mine?” Saint Christopher reached into his suit coat and withdrew a filigreed silver case containing twenty machine-rolled cigarettes specially prescribed by a financially-strapped out-of-state physician for his glaucoma, though Dr. Patel the cardiologist would never have approved.

As soon as the tip of her tongue met the unfiltered shag, Adrienne’s eyes widened. She said, “In here?”

“Wendell the bartender’s a friend of mine.”

“I love a man with the right connections.” She accepted another light from Saint Christopher. He watched her practiced deep inhale. At first it didn’t seem to do a thing to her. Then the dark vortices of her eyes began to dance. She pushed her drink away untouched and took Saint Christopher’s hand in hers on the bench between them. His heart betrayed him then, treated him to a jolt of angina to put him in his place. Awkward to take a nitro now. He should have worn the patch.

“Finish your story for me, Jack. The one about Palsgraf versus Long Island Railroad.” She had remembered it perfectly. Beauty plus intelligence. Within his easy reach.

“Well, all the students naturally thought the railroad should be found liable. But Justice Benjamin Cardozo, lionized by all the professors as this towering intellect, finds a way to let the railroad slither out of paying for the woman’s injury. The way he pulled it off was something called the ‘result within the risk’ doctrine.”

“Meaning?”

“Meaning that even though the injury was directly caused by the act of the railroad’s employee, it wasn’t proximately caused, according to that eminent jurist and black-robed whore to the moneyed railroad interests, The Honorable Justice Benjamin Cardozo. Proximate is the magic word.”

“Proximate is the magic word,” Adrienne repeated.

“Magic to the robber barons who owned the railroads. No, Adrienne, what the Palsgraf case and others like it proved to me over and over again is that the whole legal system is, and always has been, rigged to favor the rich and powerful. It’s not even arbitrary, it’s a deliberate subterfuge, hidden behind legal curtain one, two or three. The law dismisses the general working public as a gaggle of idiots. The law says to that public: ‘You have to be a lawyer to understand things like proximate cause and result within the risk doctrine, so don’t even try. Take our word for it. You lose. Case closed.’ Down comes the gavel and the majesty of the law is served.”

Holding in the smoke, Adrienne offered him a hit, but Saint Christopher waved it off, saying “I’m good.” She shrugged, then exhaled and took another hit herself. Out with the bad air, in with the good. Her capacious breasts heaved with the effort. It looked good on her. In fact, everything was good. Saint Christopher felt like laughing. He thought he must be getting a contact high. His chest pain had passed. The next time she offered, he would take a hit, taste her saliva on the paper, sample her lipstick secondhand.

“Sometime during that first all-nighter I read another torts case. I can’t remember the name of it—Wagon Mound One or Wagon Mound Two or some g-darn thing. A longshoreman drops a plank into the hold of a ship, causing a spark. No problem, except the ship is loaded with nitrate fertilizer and goes up like Oklahoma City. Held: direct but not proximate cause. See, there it is again, that magic incantation: proximate cause. No liability. Condolences to the next of kin. Their well-being and financial security sacrificed to a corrupt intellectual conceit.”

“So what is it you do, Jack? Fight the system? You a radical, is that it?” The marijuana seemed to fuel Adrienne’s mordant wit like lighter fluid.

“Makes no sense to fight it, Adrienne: you can’t beat the system. But take it from me, you can cheat it a little bit. So I guess you could say that what I do now is cheat the system, just a little bit at a time. I have my own doctrine of result within the risk, my own proximate cause. My own magic words.”

“Gary says you set up car accidents for a piece of the action.”

“Gary’s an idiot.”

“Gary’s taking me to the Bahamas for midterm break.”

“Paris is nice this time of year.”

“Is that an invitation?”

Another spike pierced Saint Christopher’s ruined chest. Adrienne must have taken his expression as a turn-down, because she changed the subject. “What about the contracts prof?” she said.

“Oh, yeah. The contracts prof. He calls on me, the sonofabuck. First day of class discussion, first student. First sacrificial lamb to be slaughtered on the much-bloodied altar of the Socratic Method. Remember, I’ve already read half the textbook, but unbeknownst to me, he’s one of these a-holes who can’t go through the book in order. He’s started in the middle, right where I left off bleary-eyed at about six AM, in a section about the statute of frauds. I’m the only one apparently not clairvoyant enough to know that this prof posts all his scrambled reading assignments on a three-by-five card taped to his office door. So his first words to me are: ‘Mr.,’ ah, ‘Mr. Saint Christopher—’”

“Not your real name, obviously,” Adrienne said.

“Jack’s my real name, Adrienne. Saint Christopher’s my professional name. Anyway, he says, ‘Give us the narrow holding of the case on page three hundred and six.’ I don’t know a narrow holding from a crown molding. It’s the first day of law school. I’ve just stayed up all night studying, I have no idea what he’s talking about, plus I’m too embarrassed to ask. So I try a dodge. In a handout that first day, this prof says he doesn’t want the class discussion to drag because students aren’t prepared, so if you haven’t read the case yet, just announce ‘unprepared’ and he’ll pass over you.” Adrienne passed the joint.

“So I say, ‘unprepared.’ That smirking little…”

“Cocksucker?” Adrienne offered, with the perfect enunciation of a speech pathology major, running her tongue over the consonants and modulating the vowels.

Saint Christopher had never sworn in front of a woman, except at each of his two weddings where he had sworn to love, honor and obey, until death do us part.

“Thank you,” he said. “The little c.s. made me read the entire opinion to myself while the whole class of about two hundred sat waiting in silence. Finally I raise my head like I’m going to get it shot off. He asks me have I finished, I say yes. He says, what’s the narrow holding? I say I still don’t know. He says, here’s an easier one: what’s the issue in the case? By now I’m panicking; some of the women law students are giggling like it’s a guillotine party, which it is, in a way. All I want to do is run out the door and join the Army. He says, let me help you out by giving you the first word. It’s a Latin word: Quaere. I’m lost. He says, I’ll spot you two words in English, then: Query whether.” Saint Christopher held the joint concealed behind the fingers of his cupped hand and pulled on it until the tip bloomed a ruby glow. Adrienne’s lipstick tasted like rose petals.

“God! What did you do?”

“What did I do? What could I do? I slammed my book closed. There was a movie playing back then where a first year law student tells off his contracts professor. Ever see it?” Adrienne’s blank stare told him she hadn’t.

“The professor was played by that same actor—he’s dead now—who did all those commercials.” Still uncomprehending. Generation X. Or Y.

“‘What a drag it is getting stoned’, huh?” he said. The same obtuse stare, out of place on a smart girl like her. Had Adrienne even heard of the Rolling Stones? Hell, they were still touring, weren’t they? He felt the familiar rush from the prescription-quality grass. Something impelled him to finish the story for her, only for her. He had never told another living soul the whole story, even his two ex-wives.

“I still don’t know the answer to Query whether,” he said, passing the remnants of the joint, now no more than a good-sized roach, back to her below table level. She dropped it into her six-dollar drink where it sizzled out. Easy come, easy go. “I still have a nightmare that wakes me up in a cold sweat about once a month where I’m stuck back in that same auditorium thirty-some years ago being asked that same question. Query whether.”

“So what did you wind up doing, Jack? Join the Army and see the world?”

“I walked out of class, drank up the rest of my student loan in campustown bars while I watched the Watergate hearings on television for a few weeks, then got a job with an insurance company. For all I know, that prof is still standing there in the auditorium waiting for my answer.” Saint Christopher’s bitter laugh was almost a cough.

“I’ve never been in a car accident,” Adrienne said. “Does it hurt?”

“Not the way I do it.”

“Not at all?”

“Think of it as high-impact aerobics. Or Space Mountain, except at the end they pay you money.”

Gary wandered back from the rest room. Saint Christopher summoned the waitress. Gary ordered up another shot and a wash. Although she hadn’t touched her drink except to drown the doobie in it, Adrienne accepted Saint Christopher’s offer to exchange it for a fresh margarita, which she likewise ignored.

After the waitress had resumed her conversation barside, Saint Christopher leaned confidentially toward Gary.

“Rumor has it you’re tired of your ride,” he said.

“Yeah, well, some ready cash would come in handy by midterm.”

“I hear you. Let me see your proof of insurance.”

Gary fumbled in his wallet. Two ribbed pastel condoms dropped out onto the table before he came up with the card. Adrienne rolled her eyes.

Saint Christopher glanced at the card, then slid it back toward Gary, satisfied. “Here’s how it’s going to happen,” he said. “Wendell’s gonna call you a cab tonight. Anybody asks, he thought you were too drunk to drive and took your keys. Keys’ll stay here behind the bar. Leave your house key on there too, to make it look good. Your buddies’ll let you in. Just act plenty drunk when you get back to the frat house. You can handle that, can’t you? I thought so.”

“Hey, what about her?” Gary said, pointing to Adrienne.

“What’s this ‘her’ shit? I have a name, you know. It’s Adrienne, or are you too drunk to even remember?”

“You don’t want Adrienne mixed up in this, do you? I’ll take care of everything. You’re talking to a professional here. If you’re ever questioned by anyone, you got drunk, she got mad, you don’t know how she got home. Got it?”

“When do I get my money?”

“Tomorrow, but not before noon, you call CIU campus police and report your car stolen. Tell them you think you parked it here last, but you’re not sure. Give them your phone number but transpose two of the digits. That means reverse them. By the time those campus cops quit screwing around and realize we’re in Dutch Hollow police jurisdiction, it’s after two PM and they can’t get you on the phone, at least not without doing some detective work to locate you, which of course is beyond their capacity. By the time they do pass it off to city police, you’re tooling back from the airport in a rental, your own ride is totaled, and your cash flow problem is magically solved. As an extra professional courtesy I’ll even call it in to your insurance agent for you.”

“What’s your cut?”

Saint Christopher sat very still, not breathing. Here it comes.

“One-third off the top. Best deal you’ll get anywhere.”

Gary bared his teeth like a rottweiler. “Bullshit, one-third! No way! Why should I give you one-third of my fuckin’ car? And what’s all this shit about the airport?”

Saint Christopher visibly winced at the expletives. “Gary, keep your voice down. I’m going to show you how to make back that third and more besides, if you’ll please hear me out,” he said.“Tomorrow afternoon, right after you call campus police, you’re going to the airport to rent a Cadillac on your credit card. When they ask, you want to use your own car insurance, not theirs, ok? They’ll try to get you to buy theirs, but you insist on using your own policy. Makes it easier to collect in the event of a collision.”

“There gonna be a collision?” Gary’s face twisted into a loutish grin. A grinning rottweiler.

“You can count on it.”

“I want in on this,” Adrienne said, squirming in her seat, her voice wired.

Gary hesitated. “Is this illegal? I mean, seriously illegal?”

Saint Christopher stole a glance at Adrienne, who rolled her head and moaned softly, kicking out her legs under the table in frustration. Gary, comic-strip buffoon that he was, actually said “Ow!”

“Only two things affect the insurance business,” Saint Christopher began. “The stock market and the weather. A federal reserve guy twitches one eyebrow at a congressional hearing, short-termers bail, the Dow drops five hundred points and all the insurance carriers’ investments tank.” Adrienne, in rapt attention, moistened her lips. He thought of offering her another glaucoma cigarette. Later, after Gary took his cab ride to the frat house.

“Tornadoes and floods in the Midwest, fires and mudslides in California, Hurricane Katrina, pick your disaster. Damages in the millions and in the billions, but it’s all part of the cost of doing business for the majors. What real harm can one guy like me do, on the scale we’re talking about, compared to George W. or global warming? The most a guy like me can do is chip a little bitty pebble off the rock. Who’s going to miss a little pebble when we’re talking about the fricking Rock of Gibraltar?”

It was a familiar spiel to Saint Christopher, but Adrienne hooted with excited laughter.

“Insurance company money isn’t really money anyway—it’s funny money,” Jack explained. “Look, when a claim lands on some insurance adjuster’s desk, one of the first things he does is reserve it: set aside an arbitrary amount of money he thinks, or hopes, is the upper limit of what it’s worth. An accounting trick, but once he sets the reserve, he’s married to it, see? It doesn’t mean that’s really what the claim is worth in the real world, because we’re not operating in the real world anymore, we’re inside some insurance peon’s head, dealing against a number he’s pulled out of his hat. Funny money.”

“So what?” Gary enunciated each syllable in stentorian belch-tones. Adrienne glared at him. Jack could tell how badly her choice of an escort grated on her tonight. She looked to be growing more tired of Gary than he was of his Ferrari.

“So,” Jack went on, “when we settle a case with that adjuster within his reserve, we’re giving him something worth more than money: peace of mind. He’ll sleep better at night just knowing that that particular claim is settled. It’ll look good on his annual performance evaluation, too. He’ll look like a ‘closer’ to his superiors. If I settle enough claims with him, each one under his reserve, pretty soon the company’s bound to pick up on his potential. They’ll promote him out of his dead-end job and into sales. Then his worries will be over. And isn’t that what insurance is all about, anyway? Peace of mind?”

“Peace of mind and helping people,” Adrienne agreed.

“Better believe it,” Jack said. But Adrienne was still curious.

“So what’s your function in all this, Jack?” she asked. “What is it you bring to the party?”

“Your typical insurance adjuster is not a people person,” Jack said. “Insurance adjusters do everything by a chart. They have whiplash charts, fracture charts, tooth loss charts, scar charts, disability charts, paralysis charts, amputation charts, blindness charts, burn charts, road rash charts, life expectancy charts, verdict expectancy charts, death charts—”

“Enough, already!” Gary hollered. “Somebody shut this guy off.”

“You better mute it before I tell Wendell to shut you off, Gary,” Adrienne snarled at him. “Your brain’s turning to sour mash, in case you haven’t noticed.” She turned to Jack. “Go ahead, we’re listening,” she smiled. In total control.

“It’s supply-side economics,” Jack said.

“I’m flunking economics,” Gary interrupted, obviously in his cups.

“Do tell,” Adrienne sneered under her breath, still looking at Jack.

“Adjusters have to settle almost all of their cases. It’s their job, and they need documents to do it. They love documents—the more, the better. People cease to be real to them. They’re like mistrustful ghosts. Paper is their only reality. Paper and electronic impulses in a computer. That’s where I come in.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’m the magician in their cyber-universe, creating their reality for them. A virtual reality. I provide the claims to make their system work, give them a reason for being. Lots and lots of claims. Mine are as real to them as any of the others in their paper files and in their hard drives. And mine pay just as well, maybe better.”

“What kind of money are we talking about, Jack, for being in an accident?”

“I’m kind of a silent partner to a number of local attorneys and doctors in the twin cities. I have my own doctrine of result within the risk, my own proximate cause. For those willing to take the risk, the result is money. And for every car accident I proximately cause, I make a reasonable profit for those I help. Always. One-third for my client, one-third for the doctor, and one-third for my services in putting the whole deal together. Plus I pick out the lawyer and pay his fee all out of my one-third. Every case is different, but we’re talking many thousands of dollars, Adrienne. Many, many thousands.”

“I definitely want to get in on this,” Adrienne said, her voice lowering with excitement. “Do you put together a lot of these deals, Jack?”

“Let’s just say I take good care of my friends, and I don’t have an enemy in the world.”

“Lemme understand one thing,” Gary said. “What’s there to stop me from collecting the insurance on my own car after it disappears and keeping the whole wad?”

Adrienne hissed with impatient frustration and turned away. Saint Christopher reached for her hand and stroked her palm with his middle finger.

“You don’t want to try and stiff me, Gary,” he said. “What if my good friend Wendell suddenly remembers you coming back to get your car and driving off drunk in it after all, or forgets putting you in the cab? Insurance companies are like vampires: they live forever. And they’ll hold out forever if they smell fraud. They’ll sic a platoon of investigators and defense lawyers on you, with more time and resources than the government. It might even mess you up getting into law school. Character and fitness committee, all that nonsense. Your dad is sure to get wind of it, too. You need that aggravation? I didn’t think so.” Saint Christopher deliberately shook his head. “No, you don’t want to stiff me, Gary. You need me to make all this work. You sent for me, remember? You asked for my help. Me and all the people behind me. And I do have people behind me, people you don’t want to torque off.”

Saint Christopher had not raised his voice. He might have been explaining an annuity policy to a young couple. But the speech had worked; Gary was cowed. “I’m just asking, is all,” he muttered into his tankard.

“Soon, Gary, very soon, lying on that Bermuda beach soaking up rum cokes, checking out those coppertoned beach bunnies in those MTV wet t-shirt contests, you’re going to be very, very glad you and I had this conversation. Trust me to do right by you.”

“So what is it I have to do again?”

“Go home now in a cab, leave me your keys and your insurance card. Tomorrow report your car stolen to the campus police, but screw up your phone number like I said. I’ll call in the theft to your carrier. Go to the airport tomorrow about two, and rent the biggest Cadillac they got. Use your credit card. Remember to use your own insurance, not theirs. Then call me from a pay phone at the airport. Don’t use a credit card for that call, by the way. Here’s my cell phone number. Write it down on a napkin and don’t lose it. And no drinking; I’m going to need you back on campus, cold sober with the Caddy, by four P.M. Got it?”

Gary scrawled the number and stuffed it halfway into his pocket.

“I have an idea,” Saint Christopher said. “Since Adrienne is going along for the ride anyway, why don’t you pick her up in the cab to the airport and bring her back in the Cad? Adrienne, can I give you my number, too, just in case?”

Adrienne wrote the number down from memory in a little address book she kept in her purse. Saint Christopher scooped the keys and insurance card up off the table and brought the keys to Wendell behind the bar.

“Call our hero a cab, and keep these in your lost and found. I’ll put Boog and Shoog on it. Keeps them busy.” He handed two hundreds, folded, to Wendell, who pocketed them without looking.

“What about the humpties?”

“Gather ye humpties while ye may, auld time is still a’ flying. I’m escorting a young lady home at the moment.”

Wendell nodded, suitably impressed.

“I’ll tell you what,” Saint Christopher said. “Have them all meet me at five P.M. tomorrow in the field house parking lot by the tennis courts. I’ll need them all to bring their insurance cards.” By way of acknowledging the instructions, Wendell mopped the bar.

“And Wendell,” Saint Christopher added, “remind them to wear clean underwear. They’ll all be going to the hospital.”

Saint Christopher bought a round for the bar, to general acclamation. He personally put Gary in the cab, then walked hand-in-hand with Adrienne through the parking lot, all the while planning how best to date her. Dinner first, at a nice place, better than she’s used to. No fumbling grope sessions after. Maybe a chaste goodnight kiss at the door to her sorority house, the ivy-festooned trellis arches sheltering them from the eavesdropping moonlight. He would set himself apart in her nubile mind as a man of the world, a real man who knew how to pace a relationship with the right woman, not like those post-adolescent drunken rowdy boys she’s probably dated all her life. Then, after a couple more dates, maybe they’d share a little wine by candlelight at his place. Unhurried and unpressured physical intimacy would in time add a new dimension to the warming glow of their friendship.

They lingered beside his new maroon Mitsubishi Eclipse Spider convertible. Saint Christopher was lost in heady thoughts of romance.

When he opened the car door for her, she leaned with gentle pressure against his extended arm.

“Quick blow job ok?” she asked. “I have my period.”

 

 

 

Chapter Three – The High Priestess

 

Snow Seal Walgreen, the whitest white boy in the whitest high school in the State of Illinois, tilted back his chair in freshman English composition class. His hoarfrost albino skin shone in the fluorescent light. His pager—unlawful on school premises—was turned to vibration mode. Its weight rested against his thigh in his front pants pocket.

The lithe freshman girl with long honey hair had taken her place at the head of the class. She began to read.

“‘A Tale of the Twin Cities, by Lori Zweig. Black Forest, Illinois boasts a population of 41,850. Black Forest was founded in 1820 A.D. by German immigrants. In fact, only German was spoken and taught in the schools of Black Forest until 1918. Black Forest grew up in central Illinois along railroad lines running from Chicago, Illinois to St. Louis, Missouri. Therefore, Black Forest is nearly seven miles long and shaped like a big wiener.’“

There was laughter from the class. Lori’s voice became more animated.

“The first streets were cow paths, then mud roads, then cobblestone, then brick. The early settlers worked hard to build their community and watched it grow. They built churches, too. Black Forest has Illinois’ oldest continuously-standing Lutheran church.’“

“Somebody oughta tell ‘em to sit down,” Snow Seal said. More laughter. Lori looked up from her paper and smiled at him.

Mrs. Baden addressed him in a stern voice: “Derek, pay attention.” But Lori had begun playing to the crowd—theme reading elevated to performance art.

“‘Dutch Hollow, Illinois, population 52,386, surrounds Black Forest like the bun around the wiener.’“ Her voice dropped and she giggled. Mrs. Baden pursed her lips. “‘Dutch Hollow was established in 1873 by Italian and Polish workers who labored in the slaughterhouses, foundries and coal yards which had grown up around the railroad. The slaughterhouses gave Dutch Hollow the nickname ‘Pig Town’ that it still bears even to this day. The laborers worked hard and played hard. Even today, statistics tell us there are more taverns per capita in Dutch Hollow than in any other community in the State of Illinois.’“

A cheer erupted from the students.

“I don’t like this silliness,” Mrs. Baden said.

Lori returned to her theme. She began reading the passage of comparing and contrasting that had been the gist of the assignment.

“‘Black Forest is Protestant; Dutch Hollow is Catholic. Black Forest is white-collar; Dutch Hollow is blue-collar. Black Forest votes Republican; Dutch Hollow votes Democrat, alive or dead, early and often. Black Forest stands on high land; Dutch Hollow lies on low land. In Black Forest the basements are dry; in Dutch Hollow the basements flood. Home purchases in Black Forest are financed through lending institutions; in Dutch Hollow homes are bought bond for deed or at a tax sale. Black Forest homes have lawns; Dutch Hollow houses have yards. CIU professors live in Black Forest; CIU students live in Dutch Hollow. There are more big-screen TVs than homeowners in Dutch Hollow and more cuckoo clocks than unwed mothers in Black Forest. In Black Forest we eat breakfast, lunch and dinner; in Dutch Hollow they eat breakfast, dinner—from a dinner pail, and supper. In Black Forest we rarely embrace. In Dutch Hollow they often embrace; teen pregnancy and venereal disease rates in Dutch Hollow are among the highest in the state.’“ Another cheer, louder than the first. A husky adolescent voice yelled, “Yay, VD,” above the crowd. Mrs. Baden took one step toward the door. Lori continued.

“‘Test scores at Dutch Hollow secondary schools fall well below the state and national averages. In Dutch Hollow there are many drug dealers; in Black Forest there are none. Consequently, our high school test scores rival those of the nation’s most challenging and excellent institutions.’“

The last line seemed to win Mrs. Baden over. “Thank you, Lori, for a most interesting and thought-provoking piece.”

Lori loped back down the aisle to her seat. She passed too close to Snow Seal’s dangling left hand. The tip of his ring finger brushed against her calf by accident. The unaccustomed electric thrill of fingertip on silky skin caused him to sit up straight. He turned to look at her seated at her desk; she held his gaze for the length of a sigh.

His exhilaration had not passed before Snow Seal realized his pager was vibrating against his leg.

Snow Seal Walgreen worshipped Lori Zweig with the unrequited passion of a cavalier or a chivalric knight. He had never until that day touched her in any way, except in his imagination. In his imagination he never withdrew his touch from her. He dug into his pocket to shut off his pager and raised his hand.

“Yes, Derek?”

He half-stood at his desk. Without embarrassment, he grabbed the crotch of his sagging jeans.

“Bafroo’,” he said.

Mrs. Baden averted her eyes. Two more weary years until retirement. She motioned for him to go ahead.

Midway down the hall, Snow Seal checked the number displayed on his pager. It was a familiar Black Forest number. The text message read, “Four P.M. My place. The usual.”

Seal really did go to the bathroom then. After he was finished and on his way back to class, he said a silent prayer. The prayer involved Lori Zweig.

 

 

At her seat, Lori basked in the approbation of teacher and class. She imagined a lunar phosphorescent sheen where Snow Seal’s touch had brushed her leg. A blushing, shimmering luster, no larger than a fingertip but shaped like a shooting star, traced by his caress. Pure and white. Wild and mysterious. His skin had radiated unsuspected warmth. Lori had always dreamed he would be cold, like a ghost in a haunted house, yet he was warmer than she. Waiting for his return, she longed to explore that warmth. Maybe he’d ask her to the haunted house for Halloween. Or would he be too lost and shy? Lori determined to ask the cards. Halloween was only three weeks away.

 

 

Snow Seal’s Reeboks grabbed the sidewalk. An effortless skateboard dismount. Jim Rheinhardt Law Offices, right on time. Used to be the shoe repair place before it closed. Smell of cowhide and Kiwi still filled the place like the inside of a brand-new shoe; the smell of it hit you as soon as you walked in the door.

The 2006 Green Bean Princess, reigning at her receptionist desk, greeted him with a smile. Not a pageant smile; more of an upturned corner on one side of her mouth. A smile reserved for the paper boy. She said, “Have a seat, I’ll let him know you’re here.”

The phone rang. She marked her place in Cosmo Girl with her nail file and answered “Jim Rheinhardt’s office.”

Snow Seal sat down in the lobby, as far away as possible from the two mohawked young men, identical in appearance except for spray-in hair color, who had not stopped staring at him like twin raptors since the time he walked in. Finally, the one with the magenta dye job said to the other, “I haven’t seen so much pancake on a male since Freddie Mercury died.”

“Fred’s dead?” the green-haired one said. “Is it too late to send flowers?”

“Gave his life for rock and roll,” the first one replied, his voice wired with tension. He began laughing, sullen-faced, forcing a taunting falsetto giggle from high in the back of his throat. The other grinned like a jack o’lantern but made no sound. They looked to Snow Seal like a punk version of the two masks at the beginning of the Three Stooges.

The Green Bean Princess passed the call through to Rheinhardt and went back to her magazine. Snow Seal focused on its cover, to take his mind off the derision. The blonde Cosmo girl made Snow Seal think of Lori Zweig. Everything and everyone made Snow Seal think of Lori Zweig.

The insane tittering continued for at least three minutes. At last, the receptionist looked up annoyed, saying: “Do you have to keep doing that?”

Green-hair said, “Please accept my sincerest and most heartfelt apologies on behalf of my brother. He’s behaviorally disturbed. Have you forgotten to take your Ritalin again, Bro?”

“Yes,” the other one simpered, in a baby-girl voice. The giggling continued. A singularly uninfectious laugh. Green-hair reached into his fatigue jacket and pulled out a brown prescription vial. He shook out three white tablets and tossed them upward one by one. Magenta-hair caught each in his mouth in mid-air like a trained dog. Snow Seal heard the crunching as he chewed and swallowed. Then Green-hair took two himself.

The intercom sounded. The princess put Rheinhardt on speaker so she wouldn’t lose her place holding the receiver.

“Jennifer, give this asshole Charlie Zweig’s number. She says her mom’s got ‘dreamentia’. Mom’s got some CD’s—that’s certificates of deposit—and she wants somebody to help her play keep-away with the nursing home. I don’t need this dog shit. I told her Charlie’s an estate planning specialist.” After Rheinhardt hung up, Snow Seal heard two men laughing through the door.

“I got CD’s, too,” Magenta-hair said. “Dead Kennedys. Hole. Marilyn Manson.”

“Classic rock,” said his doppelganger.

Jennifer said, “You can go in now.” The two brothers rose.

“Not you,” Jennifer said, pointing with a newly lacquered nail. “Him.”

“Crotch-you,” Magenta-hair said, imitating a sneeze, eyeing her.

“Can’t you put a leash on him?” Jennifer said to Green-hair.

Magenta-hair fished a finger inside the collar of his black-leather shirt, and showed her the studded choker with leash-clasp. Green-hair slid off his chain belt and clipped it to the choker. Magenta-hair began to bark, a maddening Chihuahua yip. Jennifer looked at her watch. It was only four P.M.

Snow Seal carried his skateboard into Rheinhardt’s private office. A tall man, older than Rheinhardt and dressed like an anchorman, was saying “Six cookies. Carrier will cash out in two to three months, guaranteed. All college kids, no priors. I’m thinking sixty/forty on these, found money. You won’t have to put anything into these, Jim.”

Rheinhardt ignored Snow Seal. “Sixty/forty? You mad at me, Jack? Plus I’m giving one away.”

The anchorman shrugged. “The driver. You get the wrong adjuster on the wrong day, some gunslinger, wants to argue conflict of interest, you have to give the whole carload away. That what you want, Jim? Plus, I have people to pay.”

“I dunno. What’s the doctor’s taste? A third?”

“No. That’s what makes this deal work, how I earn my sixty. I got a guy willing to do a Kinko job for a flat five hundred per cookie.”

“Anybody I know?”

“Let’s just say I want to bring this guy along easy. He gets too many referrals from you, you may burn him out for me.”

“Show me a doctor with financial problems, him and me will make beautiful money together. I bet he likes to gamble, right? It can’t be drugs, doctors got free access. Speaking of which….” Rheinhardt swiveled his executive chair in Snow Seal’s direction.

“Seal, my man. Mighty white of you to make a house call, nothing personal. This here’s Jack. Jack is what you might call an extreme sports promoter.”

Anchorman looked pissed. Rheinhardt sniggered. “Seal’s ok, Jack. What did you bring for us today, Seal?”

Snow Seal produced a Winston pack, open.

“Bet I can sniff out the sherm stick,” Rheinhardt said. He took the pack and snuffled at it like an animal, tapped the edge against his palm, then slid one cigarette out.

“That’s right!” Snow Seal pretended amazement. “How can you do that?”

“I just ask my angels which one’s got the angel dust,” Rheinhardt said, digging into the pack until he found a white folded paper packet hand-stamped with a figure of a circus seal balancing a ball on its nose. He handed Snow Seal a $100 bill and said, “Keep the change.”

“Ain’t no change to keep.” Snow Seal repeated the response to a familiar litany.

“Seal can sure make change, though, if he has to, can’t you, Seal? Show Jack here your roll. Kid carries something like three grand around with him alla time, got a roll the size of a thing of duct tape. I should have such a roll.”

With a shy smile, Snow Seal said, “Not any more. Times are tough.”

“I hear you.”

As the door closed behind him, Snow Seal heard Rheinhardt say, “Join me, Jack? It’s the cocktail hour.”

Out in the lobby, Magenta-hair was still yipping, down on all fours now. Green-hair tugged at his chain, saying “Check it out, I’m the fucking dog whisperer!”

 

 

 

Chapter Four – The Hierophant

 

The overgrown bushes and ramshackle garage smelling of musty sawdust completely concealed Kyrie’s car from the view of anyone except passers-by in the alley. Kyrie started the car’s quiet engine and stared at herself in the rear view.

Million Dollar Club inductee. Black Forest’s Young Businesswoman of the Month. The picture of civic responsibility, with no motive for murder. The police would be able to ferret out the real killer before he got very far away. Boris Day would surely call the police. No one could tell she had ever been there. Except one person.

Make that two: the person who had the sign-in sheet, and Richard. Maybe those two were the same person. She assumed Richard must have taken it, to protect her. She thought of DuPage County. The carload. Lewd touching. Intent to arouse or gratify herself or another. No, that couldn’t touch her. She wouldn’t allow it to. She couldn’t allow this murder to touch her, either. Rude questions from the police about Richard. She and Richard questioned in separate rooms, away from each other. The unclean bed upstairs in the tower room, waiting to offer its signature of body hairs and fluid residues more defining than a fingerprint to a crime lab’s prurient, unforgiving omniscience. Richard’s DNA he was so proud of and anxious to share with her at every opportunity.

She resolved to talk it all over with Reverend Hoffmann. He would know the right thing to do. Together, they would decide.

Kyrie shifted the car into reverse and eased back into the alley. Loud scrunch of gravel and impatient blast of a car horn startled her. A Cadillac driven down the alley by a blue-haired Teutonic troll of an old woman, glaring at her over the wheel. Kyrie stared at her. She did not remember braking. The horn sounded again, more insistent this time. Realizing she was still blocking the old woman, she made a gesture of helplessness, mouthed the words “I’m sorry”, and pulled forward a yard. The Cadillac paused, then proceeded at five miles per hour, too slow to endanger its well-preserved casket finish with a stray gravel chip. Frantic to escape, Kyrie waited until the sound of it had gone, then pulled out and drove down the alley in the opposite direction and onto the street.

The Bluetooth vibrated before she had driven a block. For some reason, Kyrie expected to hear Boris Day’s creepy Russian accent when she answered. Instead, it was the school, wondering about Larry’s absence.

“He’s out sick today,” she explained. “I’ll write a note. He was up all night, I think it’s some kind of a bug, whatever’s going around.”

“I wouldn’t disturb you, Mrs. Zweig, but every time I called your home this morning, the number was busy,” the secretary said.

“I’m sure someone has just left it off the hook,” Kyrie said. “He’s probably trying to get some rest.” Tippi yapping on the phone again.

“I hope you understand it’s my job to call. This is his third absence in two weeks.”

“Of course. I’m going to look in on him later. His grandmother lives with us. I’m sure she’s there with him now.”

The secretary, her truancy fears allayed, thanked her and hung up.

Kyrie had reached St. Mark’s. The gothic stone church shone in the late-morning sunlight, its steeple aiming a trajectory at Heaven. The sign in front announcing church service schedules and the sermon title had not been changed since last week. Maybe Reverend Hoffmann had not decided yet on a topic. What about unconfessed witness to murder? The woman taken in adultery? Last week’s sermon, An Embarrassment of Riches, had been left on the sign, and some kids had scrambled the letters to make it read in part: bare ass itches.

Kyrie remembered the sermon. She regularly attended with the twins. It was all about how it was the love of money that was the root of all evil, not the money itself, that it was okay to have money as long as you did the right things with it and didn’t love it for its own sake, as an end in itself, a be-all and end-all of existence.

Charlie had slept in that morning, as he did every Sunday morning. Kyrie had by then been intimate only that first time with Richard. She’d sat in church last Sunday silently asking for forgiveness and guidance. Now it had been two times with Richard. And Peg was dead, murdered while she and Richard writhed in bed together, her life run out even as Kyrie’s was beginning.

Kyrie knocked at the door to the parsonage. She heard a familiar voice through the open window, “Drop your cocks and grab your socks!” Her father’s voice.

She looked around her to see if anyone in the street had heard, then knocked again. After a moment, Verna Hoffmann answered. Her warm smile welcomed Kyrie. They embraced. Kyrie whispered, “I’m so sorry, Verna.”

“Our home is always open to him, you know that, Kyrie.” Verna’s gray hair and the lines in her face put her close to sixty-five; her twin vocations—minister’s wife and realtor—competed to dominate her appearance. She wore an expensive gray tailored suit, but no jewelry except a wedding ring, and no eye makeup or lipstick. Kyrie knew from their chats after Board of Realtors meetings that Reverend Hoffmann forbade her to color her hair. For showings, she kept a huge, flamboyant, Bella Abzug hat in her car, and a rainbow of scarves and wigs to choose from, to steal a flair of style. The hat and wigs helped conceal her Bluetooth earpiece. It was Verna who had introduced Kyrie to the technology, putting the Bluetooth bug in her ear.

Kyrie bit her lower lip. “It’s just that he invites himself so often,” she said.

Daddy was in the den. Verna tapped at the open door, smiled again at Kyrie, then peeked in.

“Company, Dr. Wilde.” Her tone was soothing and compassionate, like a good nurse after thirty years’ experience.

“Verna, come in, Dear.” Reverend Hoffmann, a gentleman of the old school, stood whenever a lady entered the room. When Verna passed near Daddy’s chair, he reached out, patted her backside and said, “Ring-a-ding-ding.”

“Daddy!” Kyrie shrieked.

Verna twisted, then quickly regained her iron composure. Admirably agile, Kyrie thought, under the circumstances.

“Now there’s an expression I hadn’t heard in years,” Verna said. “The ‘rat pack’ used to use that, didn’t they, Dear? Back in the sixties, wasn’t it?”

“You’re much too young to remember the rat pack, Dear. Must have been a lucky guess.” Reverend Hoffmann winked at Kyrie.

“My, aren’t you sweet. And diplomatic.” Verna crossed the room, her trim flank this time keeping a double arms-length away from Daddy, and kissed her husband on the cheek, standing on tiptoe like Donna Reed. “I have a showing in twenty minutes, so if you all will excuse me—”

“A woman’s work is never done, eh, Kyrie? Especially if she’s in the real estate racket.” Reverend Hoffmann, taller than six feet, towered over them, as if he were standing in the pulpit on Sunday. His leonine head, weathered features and silver hair swept back in a pompadour always made Kyrie think of a westerner. He seemed to belong to a world of string ties and turquoise jewelry, Stetson hats and wide-open spaces. Verna turned like Lot’s wife and gave him a wan smile as she left.

“Sugar Bear!” Daddy had noticed Kyrie’s presence for the first time. He peered at her through the thick corrective lenses, his left eye crossed. A legacy of his life’s tragedy.

She hugged him. Pushed his hands away from her breasts with practiced efficiency, and pretended not to hear him say, “Torpedo tits.”

“The spitting image of her mother, before she got so damn fat on me,” Daddy said to Reverend Hoffmann, spraying his words a little. Kyrie fought against grief and shame at her father’s ruin.

Only when Kyrie sat across from her father did Reverend Hoffmann resume his seat at his desk. He folded his huge, gnarled hands beside a gilded statuette of praying hands with a clock at its base. Kyrie knew she needed a session. A counseling session with Reverend Hoffmann. Somehow he would make it all right, cite the very Scriptural passage to give her comfort and strength, reassure her and help her straighten out the godawful mess she had made of her life and the lives of those around her.

Daddy farted audibly. Kyrie’s eyes darted with alarm to Reverend Hoffmann, who gave her an indulgent chuckle. She was about to offer to drive Daddy back to Black Forest Care Center when Verna reappeared at the door, briefcase in hand, and volunteered. Kyrie was apprehensive. Daddy alone with the minister’s wife in her car?

“Verna, are you sure?” Kyrie hoped her relief at Verna’s help wasn’t too obvious.

Verna turned and whispered in Kyrie’s ear so Reverend Hoffmann couldn’t hear: “We’ll be fine. It’s the damn buyers I worry about.” She giggled like a naughty child in Sunday school.

Daddy shambled along beside her as she left, dragging his feet like boots through snow.

“Ophthalmologist, wasn’t he?” Reverend Hoffmann asked.

“Optometrist.”

“A shame. You’ve had more than your share of tragedy in your young life, Kyrie.”

Hot tears burned at the corners of her eyes. “Oh, Reverend Hoffmann, we need to talk again. I’m sorry to be such a baby…”

Reverend Hoffmann sprang up from his desk with a younger man’s agility, took her hand in his and patted it. Passing silently behind her, he closed the door to the den.

“Your pastor is always available for counseling, Kyrie. It’s in my job description. Day or night. I have no clock to punch here,” he said. “Coffee? Tea? Kleenex?”

She laughed. Reverend Hoffmann always knew when and how to make her laugh and break the tension. She accepted his offer of tea, and joined him in the kitchen while he boiled the water: “The zenith of my culinary skill,” he said. They carried their cups and steeping teabags into the den.

“I guess it’s when he talks about Mommy so rudely, in that way he has now, as if she were still alive and at home baking cookies or something. It just brings it all out for me, how many awful things have hit us these last few years.”

Reverend Hoffmann had resumed his seat. He nodded, his blue eyes never leaving hers, drawing her out of herself. He waited, non-threatening, until she was ready to speak again.

“Since the court-ordered counseling, I’ve been doing pretty well, I guess. Got married to Charlie. My real estate career’s really taking off. I’m good at it, if I do say so, and I love it, love the feeling of competence and the success, making my own way in the world, even if Charlie helped me get started. And I love Lori and Larry. Tippi can be a pain sometimes, but she goes with the territory.”

“Tippi qualifies you for sainthood.” Reverend Hoffmann’s smile and soft voice filled her with warmth. He was like a second father to her, provided by God’s grace after her own father disappeared. Someday she would tell him that. Today, though, it would sound like she were sucking up. Other things weighed on her, had brought her here.

“I’m no saint, Reverend Hoffmann. Especially after today.” She hesitated. He leaned back in his chair, giving her all the time she needed.

“I’ve met another man. He knows I’m married. He fills an emptiness inside me—God, what a stupid choice of words.” Kyrie looked at her hands in her lap and shook her head.

“You’ve made love, then.”

“Yes, Reverend. Twice. I just came from him. I was in his arms, what, no more than fifteen or twenty minutes ago. He wants me to leave my husband and be with him, have his children. He’s very persistent.”

“Charlie doesn’t know anything?”

“Charlie doesn’t know anything. My husband and I pretty much lead our own separate lives, especially since Tippi came to live with us.”

“Trouble at home?”

“Not so much trouble as indifference, Reverend. He talks about work all the time, and I mean all the time. Tippi walks all over me and he lets her do it, never comes to my defense. I’m a nice person, not a slut. I was raised to be a nice person.”

“Will you leave your husband?”

“I don’t know, Reverend. How does our church feel about divorce?”

“How does Kyrie feel about divorce?”

“I’m afraid to even say the word. I feel so evil.” Kyrie picked at a cuticle. “There’s more.”

Reverend Hoffmann sat forward. The kind-hearted benevolence on his face comforted her. Behind him she saw the familiar painting of Jesus holding a lantern and knocking at the cottage door, the same picture she remembered from the counseling years ago, and Sunday school papers from her girlhood.

“When I last made love to Richard—the other man I told you about—I was supposed to be showing him a house. The Harmony House, have you heard of it?”

Reverend Hoffmann smiled. “Verna tells me it’s not moving.”

“I found Peg Krause dead in that house, Reverend. Murdered. And I just left her there, not more than half an hour ago.”

“Are you sure?” Reverend Hoffmann’s normally ruddy face went almost as white as his hair.

“You mean, am I sure it was her, or am I sure she was dead? I’ve seen dead people before, you know. I found my mother, remember? And yes, it was her. I knew her from Board of Realtor meetings, and she was one of my husband’s divorce clients, came to our offices all the time.” Kyrie pictured Peg sitting in the lobby of the office space she shared with Charlie—how would divorce affect that arrangement?—her legs crossed, foot jumping impatiently while Charlie and his dumb secretary made her wait. What had been the hurry? She described to Reverend Hoffmann in detail all she could remember about Peg’s body. The way she’d found it. How afraid she had been.

“Where was the man you were with, all this time? Did he abandon you?”

“He’d left a few minutes before me, for appearances’ sake, I guess. No, he’d never abandon me. He loves me.” Kyrie noticed Reverend Hoffmann’s left eyebrow elevate. She told him about the missing sign-in sheet. Boris Day. Running out the back door.

“What should I do, Reverend?”

He sat back in his chair and looked at a corner of the ceiling, as if seeking and confident of receiving Divine guidance, then returned his gaze to her, met her eyes.

“First of all, you’ve done the right thing by coming here to see me,” he began.“Church should always be our first thought whenever we’re troubled, and everyone encounters trouble at some time in his life. Even your pastor. And confession is good for the soul. It’s not merely a truism. Martin Luther practiced the sacrament of confession all his life, did you know that? Us good Lutherans of today don’t want that little detail to get out, though, so let’s make it our little secret.” He had gotten her to laugh again.

“Should I have called the police, though?”

Reverend Hoffmann seemed to hesitate. “I’m not an attorney, of course,” he said, “but I think it may be a little too late for that, don’t you agree? It might even cast false suspicion on you and divert the authorities from zealously searching for the real killer.”

“You may be right, at that.”

“How well do you know this man you were with, Kyrie?” It was the question she had been asking herself since finding Peg, and she recoiled against it.

“Oh, Richard couldn’t have done this.”

“Couldn’t, or wouldn’t? While we were talking, one thing occurred to me: why would anyone take the sign-in sheet, of all things? Unless he was guilty, that is. After all, each of you has the perfect—what do they call it on television—alibi in the other, don’t you? Leaving out the part about the, er, indiscretion.”

She flinched from the unanticipated sting of the remark. “God, I feel like a criminal.”

“You’re not a criminal, Kyrie,” Reverend Hoffmann said quietly. “But you may have been sleeping with one.”

A tap at the door of the den. Verna entered, more ashen-faced than her husband had been a few moments before.

“I’ve just come from the Harmony House,” she said, wide-eyed. “We’ve had a terrible tragedy.”

Kyrie spun to face Reverend Hoffmann again. Nonplussed, he responded with probably the first signal he could think of, and solemnly winked at her. She felt like an eavesdropper as Verna described the scene of the murder, the police presence, the curious and the ghoulish standing around and gawking at the scene. Boris Day.

“That horrible little man was there,” she said. “Do you know what he said to me, in that KGB way he has? ‘House vill never move now.’ Can you imagine?” Verna shuddered. “He discovered the body. He told them something so awful I almost refuse to believe it.”

“What’s that, my dear?” Reverend Hoffmann was standing by her side, ever the comforter.

“He said that when he found her, Peg’s camera was missing. Kyrie, you know how Peg never went anywhere without her camera, the one she used to take pictures of the listings, inside and out. It was like she wasn’t dressed without it. Someone had stolen it.” Verna sniffed, then wiped her eyes on a kleenex her husband had offered.

“Don’t you see? Somebody must have killed her for her camera,” Verna said. “How could anyone be so selfish, so…wicked?”

“Do the police have any suspects?” Reverend Hoffmann asked, glancing at Kyrie.

“They don’t tell you anything, just ask you questions, dear. I gave one of them my card like he was a buyer, and told him to call me if I could be any help, and they thanked me, very politely.” Verna began sobbing and collapsed into a chair. Kyrie ran to embrace her.

“I suddenly remembered them wheeling her out,” Verna said.“The attendants were like moving men in white coats. I thought I heard one of them say, ‘Once around the park, Chauncey,’ right before he slammed the back door of the ambulance. Like her whole life was nothing more than a bad joke at the end.”

Reverend Hoffmann stood over Kyrie and Verna. “This is not the end,” he said. “She has abundant life now.” Verna wiped her eyes. There was no mascara to smear.

“I interrupted you two. I’m sorry,” she said. The pastor’s wife. “I’ll telephone Elmer Krause and offer my condolences.”

“They were divorcing,” Reverend Hoffmann called out as she left the room.

“He still needs to hear a few comforting words.” Verna pulled the door closed behind her.

“I guess my choice about going to the police has been made for me,” Kyrie said. “It’s too late now, isn’t it?”

Reverend Hoffmann nodded. “What else have you decided?” he asked.

“I feel all mixed up inside,” she said. “What did you always say when you were counseling me before? ‘Listen to your feelings and follow your heart?’ I’ll try and do that now.”

“Let me add one more bit of wisdom, then,” he said. “Be careful, Kyrie. Be very careful. You may be in more danger than you know.”

The clock beneath the praying hands read almost noon. She rose, then circled around Reverend Hoffmann’s desk. To his surprise, she planted a silent kiss on his parchment brow.

“Thank you, Reverend,” she said. At the door, she turned and said, “I just remembered I promised to look in on Tippi.”

“God be with you.”

In the hallway, Kyrie heard Verna’s soothing voice. Comforting the grieving ex-husband over the telephone.

 

 

 

Chapter Five – The Chariot

 

“Hello, Tippi.” Valdemar always addressed her by name, before she had even spoken.

“Hi, Valdemar. What do you see for me today?”

“Tarot or crystal?” Valdemar might have been a bag boy asking paper or plastic.

“You tell me, you’re the psychic.”

“I sense more energy and insight flowing into you through the crystal.”

“Suits me. What am I thinking right now?”

A long exhale of breath. “Your psychic energy fields are troubled by many things, Tippi. I see turbulence and disquiet all around you.”

“Well, then, answer me a riddle: is Miss High-and-Mighty fooling around on my son?”

“I see a man with three horns growing out of his head. He holds a trident, and wears a three-cornered hat. It’s a triple conjunction.”

“Tell me in plain English. I can take it.”

“Infidelity, Tippi. A triangle. I’ve never been more certain.”

“I knew it. She’s too young for him, too young and irresponsible. I tried telling him, but he wouldn’t listen. That’s how men are. Couldn’t think any farther than getting her into bed. Not that I blame him for it. She’s a cute little thing now that she’s not so damn fat. Of course that’s the only reason she went and lost that blubber in the first place, to get all the men to look at her. I always knew that. It was plain as the nose on your face. Tell me, Valdemar, do you see the two of them getting divorced?”

“I see the card of Justice. Legal solutions.”

“You said you were using the crystal ball.”

An ominous pause. “I’m turning the cards as we speak. The crystal is clouded with negative images and energies of adultery, betrayal and lust. At four dollars per minute, I thought you’d prefer value.”

“The card of Justice means divorce, is that it?”

But Valdemar was still indignant. “Really, Tippi, our relationship must be based on mutual trust. I can’t read for you accurately if you endlessly attempt to second-guess me, as if I were trying to cheat you. What tools I choose to utilize aren’t important. What we need is that clear channel of faith between us, binding us together, if I’m to do this for you.”

“I trust you, Valdemar. Now tell me everything about the divorce.”

“And I trust you, Tippi. Your daughter-in-law is younger than your son, and that age disparity has created tensions in their relationship. Your suspicions are valid. She is some sort of paraprofessional—a realtor, is it?”

Tippi gasped. “Right! She is a realtor!”

“There is a ‘k’ sound in her name, sounds like ‘Karen’—no, more unusual and exotic. Eastern. I keep fixing on Kyrie eleison. Lord have mercy.”

“My God, Valdemar! You are amazing, I can’t believe it! Her name is Kyrie!”

“She’s met someone through a professional association or contact. Her card falls upside-down, meaning she’s already fallen in love with this man, head-over-heels. The other man is younger than your son, closer to her in age. Your son knows nothing about him, not yet. I see a definite sexual dimension to the illicit relationship. She has had sex with this other man. The cuckold husband’s first name contains an ‘a’ or an ‘r’, possibly both.”

“It’s Charlie. My son’s name is Charlie. I call him Junior or Little Charlie. Is she after Charlie’s money?”

“No, I see no money signs, only sexual ones. Kyrie and Charlie have grown apart. I see golden rings, five of them. The last is almost black with soot and tarnish.”

“They’ve been married five years.”

“I see that marriage ending before the year is out.”

“I’ll warn Charlie to organize things accordingly. No reason she should clean him out like his first wife tried to do.”

Valdemar paused for thirty seconds before continuing the reading. “You have other fears, Tippi.”

“I always was an open book to you, Valdemar. Yes. Yes I do.”

“You needn’t worry. That health problem that troubles your mind will turn out to be inconsequential. Your son’s business will flourish. You will live to see your great-grandchildren, if only you learn to avoid being anxious about these things.”

Tippi paused for nearly a dollar’s worth of time. “Valdemar,” she said finally, “do you see anybody, well, looking for me? Coming after me? Anyone who means to do me harm, that is? Have you ever seen any signs of that in any of our readings?”

“I would certainly have warned you if I had, Tippi,” Valdemar said. “Don’t you trust me? That’s what I do, warn people. In a way, that’s all I do.”

Tippi said, “She’s home. I’ll call again tomorrow. Take care, Valdemar.”

“Until tomorrow, then.” The phone went dead.

 

 

Kyrie set her briefcase down beside the hall tree. Someone had already gotten the mail. Circulars and bills had been spread, like a proscenium arch of playing cards with the keystone card removed, on the writing desk. Relieved that her mother-in-law’s bedroom door was closed, Kyrie tiptoed further down the corridor to Larry’s room and tapped gently at his door.

“Still among the living?” she asked. Larry lay on his side across the bed, facing the wall. Professional-quality photographs decorated the bedroom walls. Black Forest High sports heroes pole-vaulted, caught touchdown passes, hit homers and burst finish line tapes chest-first in Larry’s photographs. Some had been published in the local paper with a photo credit: a major accomplishment for a fourteen-year-old.

A certified letter lay torn open beside Larry on the bed. Drawing closer, Kyrie saw it was addressed to Attorney Charles Zweig, Jr., Esquire. She picked it up and began to read its contents. It was an ARDC complaint: Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission. She had never seen one before. A form letter on the Commission’s letterhead was attached to a photocopy of a handwritten complaint letter:

 

 

“I would like to register a complaint against Attorney Charles Zweig, Jr. who until recently represented me in my divorce. He treated me very unprofessionally and I would like to see him lose his license over it so he doesn’t go on and do the same thing to some other poor unsuspecting woman. I am not afraid to state my age: 55. I sure didn’t expect or appreciate some man at least ten years younger than me offering to have sex, especially my lawyer. I would have said no, but unfortunately he had already handled my case for six months and was in the final stages of settling it. He told me if I complained or told anyone about it, he would have to withdraw as my lawyer and that it would take another six months and I would wind up paying some other shyster thousands of dollars more. Instead, he offered to wrap up my divorce for what I’d already paid if I’d agree to have sex with him. Nothing kinky, he said, as if sex with your divorce clients is the most normal thing in the world for him. So I finally gave in and let him do what he wanted. It happened right there in his office. It was over PDQ, too. After I got the final divorce papers in the mail, I found out he’d charged me another $3500, got it reduced to judgment and put a lien on my house. I want the man to lose his license. If he can be put away for a sex pervert, I want that, too.

 

Sincerely yours,

Margaret ‘Peg’ Krause, NAR, CRS, ABR, CRES.

A Licensed Real Estate Broker

 

 

“I hate him,” Larry said.

Kyrie bolted from the room. She opened her briefcase and stuffed the letter inside. She thought of throwing some of her clothes into a suitcase and running to Richard. Showing up at his doorstep like a waif. No, leaving one’s husband took more planning than that, especially when that husband held the deed to your home and office, and had your signature on a fifty-thousand dollar note for the initial investment in your business. And there were Lori and Larry to think about.

Larry. She returned to his room. He was sitting up on the edge of the bed.

“Ever since the mail came this morning, I felt like puking,” Larry said.

“Well, Larry, you know you can’t believe everything you read,” Kyrie said, trying to convince herself as much as him. “This may be a vindictive way to escalate a dispute over money. That’s probably what your father will say, anyway. And it does happen, you know. Some people are terribly mean and spiteful when it comes to money.” She put her arm around his waist.

“You won’t leave us like Mom did, will you? I swear I’ll kill him if you do.”

“Larry, don’t talk that way about your father. I’m still here for you. Did the school call? They called me this morning.”

“Maybe Grandma answered it. I was in my room all day.”

“Feeling any better?”

“I monkeyed around on photosmart a little. Want to see what I made?”

Kyrie nodded. Larry brought her a photo of a cheerleader, with breasts blown up to the size of watermelons. Despite herself, Kyrie laughed.

“Her boyfriend’s captain of the frosh-soph football team. I’m going to slip it into his locker anonymously. He pulls my shorts down in gym whenever there’s girls around so I’m standing there in only my jockstrap. And he’s always calling me ‘pindick’ in front of everybody. Now I’m going to get even.” Larry sneered, surveying his handiwork. “I always get even.”

“You’d better be careful, Larry.” She thought of Reverend Hoffmann telling her the same thing that morning. Good all-purpose advice.

“He won’t catch me doing it.”

“Maybe not, but he’ll figure it out unless he’s stupid.”

“He is stupid.”

“Larry, why don’t you give me the picture? You think it over, sleep on it, and if tomorrow you still feel the same way, I’ll give it back to you. Deal?”

“Deal.” A hint of a smile insinuated itself onto Larry’s face, then disappeared.

 

 

“Charles Senior never wanted me to work, all the years we were married,” Tippi said. Six P.M. Charlie insisted everyone eat together precisely at six every evening. Life with father. Napkins and the good silverware. Hamburger Helper for everyone but Kyrie.

“I didn’t even have my own social security number until Big Charlie died. Didn’t need one, but let me tell you I always had a good meal put on the table waiting for him as soon as he got home. Made from scratch, not like this store-bought glue all full of nothing but fat and salt. I’m going to bloat up tonight like a corpse from it.”

Kyrie winced, already losing what little appetite she had, although the meal had scarcely begun. “You’re welcome to share what I’ve fixed for myself,” she offered.

Tippi shook her head and pursed her lips. “Rabbit food,” she said. “I’m talking about real food. Roast. Ham. Something that sticks to your ribs so you’re not hungry later. That’s what makes you gain weight, all the eating between meals because you get hungry later. Last night I was so hungry I wanted to get up, go to the kitchen and whip up a batch of fudge.” She picked at her Hamburger Helper. “Looks like somebody already had it,” she grimaced.

“Grandma!” Lori cried.

“Well, it does. But you can’t fix real food like I used to if you’re always out gallivanting around.”

Kyrie looked up from her salad at Charlie feeding his face. Heedless of her pain, he kept eating. Give her a break, Ma, he might have said, she’s lost one hundred twenty-five pounds, I think she knows a thing or two about dieting. Kyrie tried and failed to visualize Charlie over Peg Krause, moaning and pumping away, hammering out his fee in trade. One comment troubled her more than anything else in the letter: the PDQ crack. That was her Charlie, all right. Also millions of other middle-aged men, she told herself. Kyrie hunched her shoulders over the salad. Mealtime for her in this house was as much about avoiding confrontation as cutting calories.

“Nowadays they both have to go off to work so they can pay for all these big houses they think they need, always keeping up with the Joneses,” Tippi said. “Meantime who’s home taking care of the kids, I ask you? Nobody, that’s who.”

“Did the school call this morning about Larry?” Kyrie asked. “The secretary reached me on the cell but I was already on my way to a showing.”

“Is that what they’re calling it now? A showing?” Tippi’s pretended omniscience unnerved Kyrie.

“I’m just trying to earn some extra money, get some experience under my belt,” Kyrie offered.

“How about above your belt?” Tippi cackled. Charlie was focused on eating and seemed not to have heard.

“Grandma, please pass the mashed potatoes,” Larry said.

“Tastes just like glue,” Tippi said, reaching for the serving dish. “And so full of salt. Not like homemade. You ought to sue them for false advertising, Charlie, for saying on the label how they taste just like homemade.”

Charlie talked with his mouth full. “I ought to sue that new guy for false advertising. Jim Rheinhardt. Did you see what he’s got in the paper today? ‘Personal injury and trial specialist.’ I’ll bet he’s never even seen the inside of a courtroom. Nobody knows him around the courthouse. Business is bad enough as it is without some hotshot Johnnie-come-lately hustling away all the auto clients, skimming the cream. Leaving me with their damn divorces and DUI’s. Encroaching eaves. Sewer backups. Dog running at large. All the crap.”

“No, you don’t need all the crap, that’s for sure,” Tippi consoled him. “Not all the crap, that’s for sure. Doesn’t the paper even check these ads out before they print them?” Her face brightened. “I know, why don’t you run your own ad?” From the look on Charlie’s face, it was obvious Tippi had planted the seed of a hare-brained idea.

“You could call it the PDQ Law Firm,” Kyrie said. Then regretted it, thinking of Larry reading the letter. The telephone rang.

“We’re eating!” Tippi yelled, annoyed. “Can’t anybody look at a house during normal business hours without bothering us at mealtime?”

Kyrie ran to answer it, half-expecting it to be Richard. An adolescent male voice asked for Lori, who took the call in her room, returning flushed and excited.

“It’s that new guy in my class, Derek?” she said. “He asked me out roller-skating tomorrow night. Can I go, Daddy? Please?”

“That guy’s weird,” Larry said. “He’s like, genetically defective.”

“Well, you take pictures of guys all the time and hang them up in your room, you call that normal? What are you, gay?”

Larry knocked over his chair in his rage, running out of the dining room. Kyrie heard his bedroom door slam.

“Speaking of which, did they ever round up your father today? Did the men in the white coats manage to throw a net over him?” Tippi asked.

“Can I, Dad?”

“If your stepmother chaperones, I guess it’ll be ok. It’s a school night, come home early.”

“He went to Reverend Hoffmann’s,” Kyrie said.

“They close at nine.”

“I don’t know what they get out of it,” Tippi said.

“Who, Ma?” Charlie asked.

“You know who,” Tippi said, then lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “Fags.”

The telephone rang again. “Call back tomorrow! We’re closed!” Tippi hollered. This time Lori answered.

“It’s for you, Mom,” she told Kyrie.

“Mom?” Tippi smirked. “What’s this Mom stuff?”

“Some man,” Lori added.

“Oh, so now it’s ‘some man,’ is it?” Tippi chortled. “You hear that, Charlie? It’s ‘some man’ on the phone. Look who’s getting calls from ‘some man’ at mealtime.”

Kyrie said, “I’ll take it later.” She took the cordless phone from Lori’s hand and walked to the sideboard to hang it up. Then her cell phone rang. Answering on her Bluetooth she heard Richard’s voice say, “My house has a twin. I must see it. Show it to me.”

“That home is currently listed with another agent,” Kyrie said evenly.

“Got that hearing aid thing jammed in her ear just like a nigger,” Tippi complained, “even at the dinner table.”

“Can’t you talk?”

“It’s a multiple listing. I could show it to you if you like.”

“Just run out the door at the drop of a hat, day or night. Why doesn’t she join the fire department and have done with it? We’ll get her a pole to slide down,” Tippi said to everyone still at the table. “Or better yet, a pole she can dance around, show herself to all the men. She’d like that, I bet.”

“Tomorrow night then, after my evening class. Meet me in Lecture Hall C, the psych building.”

“The utilities aren’t connected, you know. The house is unfurnished.”

“I’ll bring candles. Scented ones. And a blanket.”

 

 

Lori helped with the dishes. Gushing with trivia about the roller rink, high school freshman society, who was going with whom, who wasn’t worthy of whom. Kyrie scraped the plates into a kitchen garbage bag, pulled the full bag from the container and carried it to the curb where Larry had already set the cans for tomorrow morning’s pickup. She removed the lid from the nearest one. It was empty.

She jostled the other two cans. All three were completely empty. No one was in sight. There was no sound but the rustling leaves. She dragged two of the cans back behind the side porch and went inside. Lori was playing one of Kyrie’s old Cranberries CD through her bedroom door down the hall, like the ethereal Bronze-Age yodel of a Celtic princess echoing down through prehistory, sounding over bog, fen and faery ring.

 

 

Lori lit votive candles and placed them at the five points of the pentacle. She unboxed a deck of tarot cards and held them to her breast. Three times she repeated, “For the highest good of all concerned,” breathing deeply after each time with her eyes closed. Then she shuffled and spread the cards, first in a simple Celtic cross, then a semicircle on the dark carpet beside her bed.

The first card was the Fool. Good: the reading would be directed unmistakably at her tonight. Grandma had told her it was dangerous and deceptive to read your own cards, but Lori needed answers tonight about things she didn’t care to discuss with anyone, especially Grandma.

To the right of the Fool was the Emperor. Dad, part of her past, symbol of leadership, wisdom, law and order. To the left of the Fool, into the near future, she had dealt the Moon, and close by it the Sun. Joyous, happy marriage to a sensitive, dream lover. Mrs. Derek Walgreen. Lori Zweig-Walgreen. Attorney and Mrs. Charles Zweig Jr. request the honor of your presence.

She read for her father then. Directly above the Emperor in the semicircle was the Temperance card, reversed. Conflicts of interest in his profession. Lori read on. Her stepmother’s significator card tonight, the Enchantress, was near her father’s. A psychic force, bewitching and powerful, but also a call for self-restraint. But whose?

Grouped together to the left of the Enchantress were the Lovers, the Devil, and the Nine of Swords. Choice between the prudent and the sensual, good and evil.

The very personification of evil lurking nearby.

Dire threat of multiple murder.

Shocked, Lori blew out all the candles and sat alone in the dark.

 

 

 

Chapter Six – The Emperor

 

Charlie was already tilted back in his chair behind his desk in his private office reading the paper by the time Kyrie arrived after washing and putting away all the breakfast dishes. The converted auto showroom, now housing Charlie’s law office with a carrel in back reserved for Kyrie’s real estate business, lacked no parking space. In the two years since his father Big Charlie had died and Charlie inherited and converted the dealership, he had not bothered to take down the strings of pennants that crisscrossed the air space above the lot. Suzie was well on her way to wasting the whole morning trying to solve the riddle of the roses.

A dozen long-stemmed red roses, arranged with baby’s breath and a white satin bow in a tall green vase, dominated Suzie’s reception desk.

“There’s a card but no name!” she shrieked to Kyrie. “I’ve been racking my brain all morning trying to figure out who could have sent them to me! All it says is ‘To my secret lover and partner in crime.’ Pretty mysterious, huh?”

“Why don’t you call all the local florists and ask if there’s been any recent deliveries here?” Charlie asked her.

“What a brilliant idea, Charlie,” Suzie said.

“That’s why they pay me the big money.” Charlie rattled the newspaper, flipping through the classifieds. “Rheinhardt’s looking for a secretary,” he said.

“Jennifer Grabowski works there,” Suzie said. Suzie knew everything, especially all the gossip surrounding the legal profession. Her brain was a bar sponge thirsting for courthouse trivia, gleaned from endless gab-offs on the phone during office hours, or conspiring with her compatriots at the legal secretaries’ meetings held at various cocktail lounges after work. Charlie considered her an invaluable asset to his practice. Kyrie wasn’t so sure.

“She probably can’t type a lick,” he said.

“As long as she knows how to lick, she won’t have to type,” Suzie said. They both laughed like comedy club ringsiders.

“I’m going to get to the bottom of this flower thing, though,” Suzie said, catching her breath at last.

“Well, who brought them?” Charlie asked, his cross-examination skills coming to the fore. “How were they dressed? Did they have a uniform on?”

“I was in the ladies’ room powdering my nose,” Suzie said. “When I came out, there they were.”

“Why don’t you try Hartz’s? They do a lot of deliveries.”

Suzie looked up the number. Before she could call, the phone rang. She passed the call through to Charlie. He put the paper down, acting irritated, and answered “Charles Zweig.” He listened without saying much for about a minute.

“You say she’s got what? ‘Dreamentia’? That’s what I thought you said. No, see I do mostly personal injury. Car accidents, medical malpractice, worker’s comp, that sort of thing. No, I don’t know who could have given him that idea. No, nobody comes to mind. I suggest you look through the yellow pages, make some more calls. Good luck to you. No, thank you.” He slammed the phone down.

“Now this Rheinhardt’s sending me dog shit. Well, two can play that game. You know what they say: whatever goes around, comes around.”

Suzie had hit pay dirt with her first call to a florist. “That’s right, at about nine this morning. Law Offices of Charles Zweig. Used to be Zweig Auto. Who?” Suzie wrote on a pad.

“Charlie, I need the key to our safety deposit box,” Kyrie said. “I have to do an escrow in a bond for deed closing this afternoon.”

“Where’s your key?”

“You have my key. You lost yours, remember?”

“Get it from Suzie.” Charlie was engrossed in the personals. “It’s in her desk.”

“I don’t even know a Richard Mandrake,” Suzie was saying. She had written Richard’s name on a telephone message slip. “Oh, I get it. It’s a, what do you call, a nom de plume, like Mandrake the Magician. Well, thank you.” She hung up. “It just keeps getting curiouser,” she said.

“Suzie, I need the safe deposit key,” Kyrie said. “I’m almost late for the house tour.”

Suzie rummaged in her lap drawer, handed Kyrie a red packet. “Bring it back when you’re done, it’s the only one we’ve got,” she singsonged. Kyrie was halfway out the door when a young man of about thirty-two, clean-shaven, clean-toothed and with a ravenous look about him, sauntered in.

“Counselor! Jim Rheinhardt.” He had a Windy City accent, all nasal sneer, with a Chicago Hawk edge to it. Her small-town girl’s guard was up even before Rheinhardt’s eyes started to roam freely over her body. And he didn’t waste any time.

“Do I know you?” he said, heavy on the soft palate.

“That depends. Are you in the market for a house?” She tried to match his tough exterior with her own.

“I never forget a face,” he said. “It’ll come to me. Knowledge is power.”

“Jim! Charlie Zweig! Come on in and have a seat!” Charlie was patting him on the back, ushering him toward his inner sanctum like he was trying to sell him a Buick. “Meet the missus,” Charlie said as an afterthought. “Jim Rheinhardt, my wife Kyrie. Kyrie, Brother Rat.” Both men laughed. They could have been fraternity brothers. In a way, they were.

Suzie crossed her legs and lolled back in her secretary chair, leaving nothing to the imagination. “And Suzie Toddmann, my gal Friday,” Charlie said.

Suzie said, “Hi,” twiddling her fingers at Rheinhardt in a girlish wave.

“Charlie, I have that house tour, I’ve got to run.” Kyrie leaned in to give Charlie a peck on the cheek, but he grabbed her in a clinch and forced his tongue between her lips, showing off for Rheinhardt.

Kyrie had the front door open before Rheinhardt said, “DuPage County. Ever been to DuPage County?”

“I don’t believe so,” she said. “I think I’d remember if I had.”

“It’ll come to me,” Rheinhardt assured everyone. “I never forget a face. Never.”

 

Rheinhardt stayed twenty minutes. After he had left, Charlie strolled back out to the lobby. Suzie met him with a crooked smile.

“It was you, Mister Smarty, wasn’t it? You sent me that bunch of roses. You with all your smart talk about calling the florists. You sure knew which one to call first, though, didn’t you? That’s what let the cat out of the bag.”

“You’re way too smart for me, Suzie,” Charlie said. “How’d you like our boy Rheinhardt?”

“Seems like kind of a wise guy to me.”

“Runyonesque.”

“Run you what, Charlie?”

As if suddenly unsettled, Charlie locked the front doors to the showroom, drew the floor-length curtains, then hurried back to Suzie’s desk where, breathing heavily, he unzipped his fly and stood posing with his hands behind his back.

Suzie spread a Handi-wipe like a bib over the front of her dress. Her granddaughter had given her that dress for her sixty-fourth birthday, and she didn’t want to spoil it.

 

 

After the house tour and the bond for deed closing, Kyrie waited out two old pensioners before the safety deposit attendant, herself AARP material, could assist her.

“And what’s that number again, Mrs. Zweig?”

Kyrie handed her the key packet. The old woman pulled a signature card. “Oh, my,” she said. “I’m afraid this box is for the law firm, not your family box.”

“Please, I’m in a hurry. Could you let me in the law firm box, just this once? I hate to carry these deeds around with me when they’re supposed to be escrowed. You can come in the room with me if you like.”

“No, dear, that won’t be necessary. After all, it’s all in the family, really, isn’t it?” She showed Kyrie where to sign the card, then punched it in a time clock. Charlie had signed in late yesterday afternoon, almost closing time.

Kyrie carried the lockbox to a tiny private room just outside the vault. With a click, the door locked automatically behind her. She opened the lid to deposit the deeds—quitclaim and warranty—when she noticed something black in a far corner of the box under some papers.

It was a digital camera with a machine label strip on the bottom that read: Property of Peg Krause. If found return to Krause Realty. Reward offered.

Although she was in a locked room, Kyrie fought the urge to look over her shoulder. Instead, she looked up for a security videocam. There were none in sight. Peg’s camera was still there in the safety deposit box when she looked back. She slipped the camera into her purse, returned the box to the attendant and hurried out of the bank.

 

 

That afternoon she showed Larry the camera, after having peeled off the label strip with a nail file.

“It’s a good one,” he said. “Seven megs. Whose is it?”

“I want to keep that to myself right now, Larry. Can you develop it?”

“You mean download the pictures off it? Soon as I get on the manufacturer’s website for the right drivers.”

“Take all the time you need. Only don’t show it to anybody else, ok?”

“Ok…Mom.”

It was the first time he had ever called her that. Kyrie hugged him there in his room for a long time before letting go.

 

 

 

Chapter Seven – The Wheel of Fortune

 

“I’m giving this asshole five more minutes, then I’m goin’ to the Hoop for a few brewskis,” the bull-necked junior said.

“You’re ready to walk out on many many thousands of dollars for a few brews, don’t let me stop you,” said one of the sophomores. “Me, I can go to the Hoop anytime, but many many thou, that’s a whole ‘nother story.”

A cobalt-blue Cadillac Sedan de Ville tooled into the field house parking lot before the sophomore had finished speaking, tailgated by a maroon Eclipse convertible. Gary lowered the power window of the Caddy. Adrienne was riding shotgun.

“Hey, Paisan,” the junior said, drawing it out like a Sicilian gangster in the movies. “Adrienne, howya doin’? You got the death seat, huh?”

Saint Christopher counted four humpties. “All right, we have enough seat belts. And buckle up, guys. We don’t want anybody getting hurt.” He laughed out loud at his own irony, glancing over at Adrienne in the right front passenger seat. She wasn’t laughing. Her white sweater looked expensive; it was a man’s sweater, maybe Emporio Armani, over a lavender silk blouse. He couldn’t tell from this far whether she was wearing a bra. Maybe he’d make her a special gift, after the wreck.

“Everybody gets a card from the lawyer and a card from the doctor,” he said. “Here you go. Tell them Saint Christopher sent you. Very important that you do that, if there’s going to be a big payday for you. And there is.” Saint Christopher handed out two business cards to each player. “Put these in your wallets and don’t show them to the cops, whatever you do, ok? Ok.

“All right. I’m going to be in constant cell phone contact with your driver here. Paisan, right? You got your cell phone on you? Good. I have mine. If yours gets broken, you can put in for that, too.”

Gary didn’t seem concerned about it. “Right before the hit,” Saint Christopher said, “I’ll say a prearranged code word over the phone. That means everybody put both hands behind your heads and lace up your fingers. Except you, Paisan. You’ll be driving. When I give that code word you stand on the brakes of the Cad and hold it in your own lane on the interstate. The code word is ‘Blue Hair’. I’ll be right behind you, but you never saw me, understand? Once you tinkle I’ll take off. Nobody gets out of the car until the ambulance shows up. Remember, whenever anybody asks, your necks are on fire, your backs feel like they’re broken. You don’t think you can walk.

“Now I want no laughing, no small talk out of any of you, just a pitiful moan every so often. When you get to the hospital, act like you’re killed. Doctors and nurses are human, too. Whatever you do, don’t tell them you’re ok. When you’re in x-ray, tense up your neck, tense up your back. If they catch you at it, tell them it hurts too much to do anything else. Radiologist’ll write down severe posttraumatic spasms for every one of you, guaranteed. Any questions?”

“What if the hospital says there’s nothing wrong with us?” one of the sophomores asked him.

“Hey, man,” Jack said, “you’re not dealing with amateurs here. You’re going to tinkle three minutes away from the dumbest, Medicaid-billingest, most fiscally challenged hospital in the State of Illinois: Dutch Hollow General. They’ll put anybody up in a private room for a week at the corporate rate if you have the right insurance. And you do, trust me on that. Now as soon as the squat and scoot car gets here we can get this helldriver show on the road.”

They waited twenty minutes, Saint Christopher sitting in his car. Finally an ‘07 white Corvette convertible with the top down turned into the lot. Halfway across the mostly deserted expanse of asphalt, the driver began doing donuts, the last skidding perilously close to the Cadillac. The Corvette’s license plate read: DMN8TRX.

The driver of the Corvette had dyed his mohawk robin’s-egg blue and spiked it until he looked like a kingfisher. The passenger had fashioned his into stubby, Agent Orange cornbraids. “I’m Boog, he’s Shoog,” he said. “We’re identical.”

“Identical to what?” the junior muttered under his breath.

“Gentlemen, might I suggest you make the rest of the trip with the top up to protect your coiffures?” Saint Christopher asked. The driver began a forced cackling that showed no signs of abating. Saint Christopher ignored it. The humpties bridled a little once they got a load of Boog and Shoog, but nobody showed any signs of dropping out.

“All right, when I give the signal, Boog and Shoog here will cut from the center lane into the slow lane, directly in front of you, Paisan, where you’ve been holding it at a nice, steady forty-five. That’s when you slam them on. You don’t want a direct hit to the ‘Vette or your air bags will deploy and things might get complicated. All we’re looking for is a simple two-vehicle rear-ender here, after which Boog and Shoog rabbit and all you can remember is there was another car that cut right in front of you and then took off. In the excitement and what with all your pain and suffering you couldn’t get a license plate number. Think you can handle it, Paisan?” Asking him in front of his girlfriend and a bunch of the guys.

“Let’s bounce,” Gary said.

“Here’s your boarding pass, then,” Saint Christopher said, handing him his insurance card. “You’re paid up. I called your agent, reported your car stolen, too. Let’s rock and roll.”

 

 

The afternoon sun was low in the western sky. Saint Christopher listened to the police band on his scanner. They were closing in on the last Dutch Hollow exit westbound when he spotted the elderly Japanese couple in a late-model Volvo with Massachusetts plates. Even better than a blue hair. The old lady was trying to read the map while the four-eyed husband drove.

“Ok, heads up,” he said. “We’re going for the Hirohitos in the late-model Volvo coming up in the right lane. Copy?”

“I got him in my rear view,” Gary said over the cell phone.

“All right, slow down a little. I said forty-five.”

Saint Christopher heard Gary saying, “Hey, you better fasten your seat belt,” and saw Adrienne turn toward him in the front seat, overheard her starting to go off on him: “How many times do I have to tell you my name’s not ‘hey, you?’ And if you think I’m going to ruin the crease of my brand-new designer skirt—”

Gary flipped the phone shut and began waving his arms. Saint Christopher had the Volvo boxed, but Gary was doing easily 55 MPH and accelerating a little, Boog and Shoog pulling ahead of him in the center lane, jacking around, playing with him. The Japanese couple were less than a car length away from the rear end of the Cad, their heads tucked snugly up their assholes.

Saint Christopher tapped the horn of the Spider to get Gary’s attention and make him put the phone back on. Suddenly, with a puff of exhaust and a quick engine whine from the Corvette, Boog and Shoog cut to the right, a foot from the Cad’s front end. Gary’s tires screamed against the pavement. Dust and black smoke roiled out from underneath the Cad. As Jack passed them he heard them crash, louder than a huge cash register drawer slamming open. Another winner. Call 911 and it’s Miller time.

Saint Christopher watched Boog and Shoog duck down the exit ramp and out of harm’s way. Then he glanced back and saw Adrienne’s face smashed up against the inside of the windshield, blood spurting from her nose all over her white sweater like ketchup on a no-yolks omelet.

 

 

 

Chapter Eight – The Empress

 

Lori answered the door in her black denim Cruel Girl jeans, vintage skater girl top under a man’s white shirt, loose and unbuttoned, and high-heeled platform shoes like Gwen Stefani wore on that red carpet. Snow Seal’s pants were the biggest she’d seen him in: FUBU baggies, sagging, with a camo jacket and black bill cap.

“You look awesome,” he said.

Lori spun around once for him, reveling in the attention. Her long honey-colored hair flared along with the shirt. “My mom wants to come along with us. You don’t mind, do you?”

“Can she skate?”

“Sure she can skate. She’s only twenty-something, and really cool, you know, for an older person, that is.”

“For an older person? Thanks a bunch.” Kyrie emerged from the archway to the bedrooms in tight faded jeans and a long-sleeved, low-cut tan sweater with a bare midriff. She caught Snow Seal staring at her breasts, where she had dabbed some gold body glitter earlier, borrowed from Lori.

“Good evening, Mrs. Zweig. You and your daughter are looking lovely this evening.”

Kyrie suppressed a giggle at the formal delivery. “Good evening, Derek. Call me Kyrie, that’s my name when I’m double-dating. Congratulations, you’ll be squiring around two women tonight.”

Snow Seal wasn’t too sure what “squiring around” meant, but hoped to find out. Kyrie drove them to the Sonic Rink, where she paid for the tickets and the skate rental. Snow Seal had three thousand dollars cash in his front pants pocket, but the baggies were so loose it didn’t show. He could have been packing an AK-47 in there and nobody’d notice.

Lori Zweig on roller skates gliding around the rink looked as weightless as Tinkerbell. Snow Seal watched her so intently he almost forgot to lace his skates up. The first sight he saw when he raised his eyes again was Kyrie, looking taller and somehow even more queenly with her skates on. Of course, everybody seemed taller in skates. Snow Seal bet he was taller than Kyrie in his. He thought he was going to cream when she bent at the waist to adjust hers. He followed the thoroughbred lines of her ankles up to the forbidden zone nestled in the faded center of her jeans. The cheeks of her rear made him want to write a poem. Or kneel beside his bed, but not in prayer.

And the girl could skate. Snow Seal watched in awe as Kyrie shot the duck, speed-skated, and spun around the rink like a latter-day derby queen. His eyes couldn’t always follow her in the starry ballroom lighting as she weaved in and out of the pedestrian crowd. Snow Seal clumped across the carpet onto the rink and pushed off when Lori rounded the far corner. He worked to catch up to her. She impudently raised her shirttail as if to moon him, then clutched his hand in hers. They passed a pair of video machines; the perilous cartoon twists and turns made the screens look like the eyes of a madman caught up in some schizophrenic ecstasy.

Kyrie slowed to join them, panting and exhilarated. To Snow Seal’s astonishment she took his other hand. All three skated together to the retro disco rhythm of the music.

“Lori, can I borrow your hairbrush?” Kyrie asked. “Lori and I are competing growing our hair,” she explained to Snow Seal. From somewhere in her ensemble, Lori produced a folding hairbrush. Kyrie drew it through her red-gold tresses in languid strokes, moving to the beat. Both mother and daughter’s hair hung nearly to their waists, but Kyrie seemed to be edging Lori in the competition.

“Race you,” Lori yelled, letting go of his hand and taking off ahead of them. He caught her at the turn in a clumsy embrace. She glanced down, shy. Before the moment could pass, he kissed her, the first time for both.

 

 

Larry Zweig squinted behind his sunglasses into the dim light and saw them. So did his bike buddy, Jason Gottlieb. Both were wearing trench coats and shades.

“Snow Seal’s nibbling on your sibling.”

“Hey, GFY, Jason.”

“The truth hurts, don’t it?”

Ignoring him, Larry got a few available light shots on Peg’s digital. Most of them were of Kyrie. He figured she had spotted him the second lap around the rink, so nothing after that was technically candid. She speed-skated the length of the rink, then squatted with one foot off the floor, one leg crossed over the other. She then lowered herself down on the remaining skate, making herself smaller, focused on performing the ever more difficult balancing act as she rolled slower and slower.

“Hey, your mom can shoot the duck,” Jason cheered.

Kyrie yelped and went on her butt. “You jinxed her, man,” Larry said.

“Feel like cheesing down a shitload a nachos?” Jason the jinx asked.

“Nah. You go ahead.” Jason lumbered over to the snack bar just as Kyrie approached, rubbing her backside.

“I hope you didn’t get any still lifes of me resting on my laurels,” she said.

“I printed the digital pics you wanted.”

“So that’s why you’re wearing that outfit. You look just like a secret agent, Larry.” They sat down on a bench. Larry handed her a brown manila folder of pictures.

Houses. Duplexes. Inside and out. Multi-listing photos. Never any people in them. It was as if a neutron bomb had gone off, saving the buildings but wiping out the entire population.

The last few were of the same duplex. She scrutinized the photos until she recognized it. Three-twenty-four Abend. A run-down “income producer” rented out mostly to a series of CIU students, who more often than not became CIU dropouts, tearing up the property in the process. Some kind of foreign sports car parked out front, probably worth more than the building.

“I saved all of them on my hard drive at home,” he said, “in case you need them.”

“Thank you, Larry. Why don’t you come skate with us?”

“Nah, Jason brought me my homework. I gotta go, soon as he sucks down those nachos.”

Kyrie checked the photos in her black purse with her street shoes and went back to skating. She kept one eye on the Coca-Cola clock over the snack bar. Eight-ten. Another twenty minutes and she had to leave, if she were going to meet Richard when his class let out at nine.

 

 

Snow Seal would lose sight of Lori every so often. His big jeans slowed him down; hers didn’t seem to affect her. Plus from time to time he had to tend to a little business. Impulse buyers. More than once he thought he had spotted Lori, her white skates catching the whirling disco-ball lights, only to discover it was Kyrie skating away. Mother and daughter became confused in his imagination. He wanted to run after both, to have all three skate together again, holding hands. At a couples’ skate, Lori had to use the rest room, so Kyrie took the lead, skating around the rink with Snow Seal as her partner, holding onto him with both her hands in his.

She brought him back to reality when she asked him, “How do you like Black Forest High, Derek?” Mainly his grandmother and his teachers called him Derek to his face.

“It’s pretty cool. I moved in with my grandma so I can be in this school district.”

“Don’t you miss your parents?”

Snow Seal’s parents were a whole other story. He hated to give her the standard lie, but he had to.

“They’re in Europe. Both military officers. What about you?”

“Do I miss my parents? My mother’s dead. My father’s alive, but he’s not very strong.”

“How did she die?”

Disarmed by his 14-year-old’s innocence, she heard herself say: “She committed suicide. Shot herself with a shotgun after my father left us.”

Snow Seal panicked. Say something. All he could come up with was, “Did he leave her for another woman?”

“God, you’re direct!” Kyrie shook her head in amazement. “Pretty soon I’ll be telling you more than I tell my husband.” Then realized she might be giving him the wrong idea.

“No, actually, Derek,” she said, looking him in the eye, “I guess you could say he left her for another man.”

“Whoa,” was all Snow Seal could manage.

“That’s what I say, Derek. Whoa.”

They skated without conversation then, until the song ended and Lori returned. Kyrie told them to get ready to leave after a couple more songs, she had a showing at nine.

 

 

“If any of you interface with those two renowned scholars Donny and Ronny Ohlendorf, please inquire whether either of them intends to grace us with his presence before finals. I insist upon a mandatory attendance policy in this class.” Richard in his professorial mode: arch sarcasm in an authoritarian environment. Kyrie waited, sitting in the back, watching the eighteen and nineteen-year-olds pack up and herd out of the auditorium. After the last of them had left, Richard approached.

“Do you have permission to audit this course?”

She tilted her face for his kiss. “No, but I have hot pants for the prof. Does that qualify?”

“Permission granted. I was afraid you couldn’t get away for the showing tonight.” Richard picking up her realtor’s lingo already. Her gift for euphemism.

“I was roller-skating, chaperoning Lori and her date. Hope you don’t mind a little healthy perspiration.”

“Actually, I prefer it. Brings out the pheromones.”

“Did you remember the candles?”

“And the blanket. We can’t have you catching a chill.”

 

 

The Harmony House’s twin stood violated on a hill. The present owners, staring foreclosure in the face after going broke midway through the restoration process, had left the ceilings stripped down to plaster lath, walls reduced to exposed brick in some places, and debris and dust everywhere. Someone had broken in and tagged the place with graffiti all over. Swastikas and upside-down pitchforks competed with monikers like “Kikeslayer” and “Prince Fuck.”

“Looks as if some of my students have been partying in here,” Richard said. “I think ‘Kikeslayer’ aced Abnormal Psych last semester.”

“Oh, Richard, I think it’s creepy. Are you sure you want to do it in here?”

“I’m sure ‘Prince Fuck’ won’t mind.”

 

 

She awoke naked and alone between twin comforters on the floor. The unaccustomed exercise of the skating had commingled with the heady thrill of their lovemaking, leaving her exhausted. She must have drifted off into a deep sleep. Flickering colors cast from the scented votive candles, surrounding her as if she were the guest of honor at a requiem for the dead, still illumined the bare, high-ceilinged inner room. The candles were liquid pools in their hobnail glass vessels. How long had she slept? She reached for Richard, still felt his warmth where he had lain next to her. Her watch said ten-thirty.

Richard appeared, nude in the doorway, tiptoeing satyr-like toward her until he saw she was awake.

“Where were you?” she asked.

“Exploring. You still haven’t shown me the house.” He put down the flashlight he had been carrying and slipped between the blankets beside her. He chafed his hands together before caressing her all over, enlivening her again.

“Did you know, I have something in common with Albert DeSalvo?” he said.

“Who’s Albert DeSalvo?” she asked.

“The Boston Strangler.” Richard’s expression was whimsical. “They say he was capable of ejaculating every twenty minutes.”

“How romantic.”

“What say to a bit of romance right now, between us?” He found her spot. She pulled away, but with infinite reluctance.

“I have to go, Richard. How can I ever explain this at home?”

“A quick tour, first.” He sprang to his feet, serious as a completely nude man could be in an obvious state of semi-arousal. Sighing, she wrapped one of the comforters around her like an imperial vestment.

“Richard, put something on.”

“Can’t a man be by God naked in his own home? At least in the home he’s thinking of buying?”

Not to be denied, Richard led her from room to room, mindless of the chill, shining the flashlight beacon ahead of them. Kyrie cringed whenever they passed a window. At last they came to the great room. Richard swept its length and breadth with the beam of the flashlight.

“I thought you said this house was unfurnished.”

Positioned facing the night-darkened window of an alcove was an overstuffed winged-back upholstered chair. Her curiosity piqued, Kyrie took the flashlight from Richard’s hand, approached the window and circled the solitary chair. The flashlight dropped from her hand; its eerie gleam flickered and died.

But not before she saw Verna Hoffmann’s strangled corpse keeping vigil there.

Kyrie’s screams tore the blackness. She heard Richard’s bare feet run, then stumble over a bucket of debris. He swore. After that she heard nothing but her own terrified whimpering. She genuflected in the moonless gloom, groping for the flashlight. Where had it rolled? Under Verna’s feet?

Fear closed around her with the deep dark. She cowered alone, too paralyzed by shock to run, dreading the last lover’s touch of murderous cold hands around her neck.

Richard calling her name. Scintillating blue light, the color of a gas flame, reflected wider and wider along the walls of one corridor. Richard carrying a candle vessel between the tips of his thumb and forefinger. A naked acolyte, now completely detumescent in the close presence of the dead.

Richard set the candle on the floor. Its light only magnified the horror of the scene. Verna’s neck constricted by the tape measure tied in a bow. Death agony contorted her face; eyes open wide, head lolled left at a crazy angle. A gluey tear drained from her right eye. More was clotted in the matted spit curl of the black wig she wore.

“Semen, probably,” Richard said. “Like the other time. Don’t touch it.”

“Don’t worry,” she said. Richard resurrected the flashlight by hitting it once against his palm.

“Come with me,” he whispered, taking her arm. She went with him, too fearful to think or do anything else as he led her away, hand-in-hand. In the hallway they passed the neglected sign-in sheet, placed on a writing stand like a guest book at a funeral parlor. Kyrie snapped.

“What did you mean, ‘Like the other time’?” She let the words spill out of her. “You mean you saw Peg’s body? And then deliberately left me there, alone in that house with a murdered woman? The killer might still have been hiding somewhere and watching me, for God’s sakes!”

Richard pulled his hand away and massaged his forehead, as though his third eye were fatigued.

“There was no one else in that house,” he said. “I searched it thoroughly, looking for the killer all the time you were busy on the phone with Reverend Hoffmann and getting dressed. I…didn’t know how to tell you and I guess I panicked when I heard you calling my name. When I saw that greasy little realtor in front, standing around by his car waiting for somebody, I knew he was going to be coming in soon, so I ran out the back.”

“Leaving me to take the blame. Thanks a lot.”

“I knew you wouldn’t be accused, given the killer’s distinctive calling card. I also knew you were dressed and ready to go. As a realtor, you had a perfect right to be in that house.”

“They have DNA tests, don’t they? I watch CourtTV. You could have proven the ‘calling card’ didn’t come from you, either. If you were innocent.”

“I told you, I panicked. And what do you mean, if I were innocent?”

“Richard, did you take the sign-in sheet?”

“What sign-in sheet?” he said.

She thought of Charlie. Peg’s camera in Charlie’s safe deposit box. Where was Charlie tonight? Kyrie’s mind impelled her to ask.

“Richard,” she began, her voice hoarse from her screams, “did—”

He took her in his arms. Held her like no man ever had before, and kissed her. Held her for what seemed an eternity of bliss. She let the comforter fall away. Before he released her from his embrace, she had resolved never to ask him, or herself, the question again. Then she saw the flickering orange flames reflected in his eyes. Felt him tense like just before climax. Heard herself say, “Oh, jeez,” like a schoolgirl.

Neither of them had to yell “Fire!” They scrambled to throw on their clothes as the conflagration spread from out of nowhere through the great room. They ran headlong through the darkness to her car, the blankets and comforter flapping behind them. Kyrie tweaked the alarm, popped the door locks, started the engine and lunged for her purse containing her cell phone. Richard’s hand forced itself down on hers.

“They record all incoming calls on audiotape,” he said. “Can’t take the chance. She’s beyond helping, you know.” His hand brushed against her breast, lingering there under her open coat.

“Please, Richard,” she said. “A dear friend of mine is dead. Horribly murdered. And you’re right. I can’t help her at all.” She gently pushed him away. “I love you. I’m sorry.” The two expressions seemed to go together at this moment. A siren in the distance split the night air.

He took the phone from her trembling hand. The siren grew louder, closer. A diesel engine labored up the hill to the twin house. Revolving red lights reflected off the stately trees.

“Looks like somebody called it in already,” Richard said. “Better get us out of here. Drive me to my car, ok?”

Kyrie sped through the intersection. In the periphery, she glimpsed the glint of eyeglasses and the shambling gait of a man walking downhill, silhouetted against the swirling red lights and the house in flames. She risked driving once around the block, but he was gone.

“Where are you going?”

“I thought I saw someone. Someone familiar”

“Who?”

“My father.”

“He’s institutionalized, isn’t he?”

“He’s an elopement risk, as they say.”

“Call them. Call them now”

“It’s after hours. They’ll get mad at me. I must be imagining things.” She resumed speed, then took Richard’s hand in hers across the console.

“When will I see you again?” he said. A second fire truck, then a third, screamed up the hill before she spoke, never letting go of his hand, holding it for reassurance.

They rode in silence the rest of the way to his car, where they kissed once more. He pulled away ever so slowly, his touch gliding over her fingertips as he gazed into her eyes.

“Tomorrow,” she said. “Call me on my cell.”

 

 

At home, Kyrie checked the grandfather clock in the foyer against her watch. Eleven-ten. Tippi was sitting up waiting for her in the living room.

“People certainly pick the oddest hours to look at houses these days,” she said.

“Where’s Charlie?”

“Working, I expect. Somebody has to pay for all this extravagance.”Her arm’s broad gesture took in everything but ended pointing directly at Kyrie. Tomorrow Tippi’s snow-white hair would be combed out into the Farrah Fawcett ‘do she had worn since the seventies. Now she was an accusing specter in a pink terrycloth bathrobe, big rollers on her head.

“I had coffee with a buyer, Tippi,” Kyrie said, glaring at her.

“Going to church this week?” Tippi never asked her about church. Never. She was on to something. But how?

Kyrie heard the front door. A few moments later, Charlie slouched in, bleary-eyed. “You two still up?” he said. He kissed his mother, then Kyrie.

“Burning the midnight oil at the office?” Tippi asked.

“Cleaning up some paperwork. Then Suzie dragged me to bosses’ night at that hen party they call a legal secretaries’ association. I’ve had it.”

“So has Kyrie, haven’t you, dear?” Tippi said with a mischievous gleam in her eye.

 

 

 

Chapter Nine – The Enchantress

 

 

Saint Christopher made his evening hospital rounds. All the humpties had been admitted to Dutch Hollow General according to plan. Even Gary had managed to pull it off. Saint Christopher presented each with a pint of Jack Daniels and his best wishes for a speedy recovery “in the monetary sense of the word.”

By the time he reached Adrienne’s room, all that was left in the shopping bag was a gift-wrapped box. He tapped at the half-open hospital room door. Heard a low moan he took for a greeting.

Adrienne’s private room smelled of disinfectant and bowel movement. The face that met his made him hesitate for a moment, thinking he had mistaken the room number. But it was her, all right: both eyes blackened into a raccoon mask, her nose heavily bandaged, cheeks reddened and swollen. She had lost a front tooth, he saw when she tried to smile. Actually, it came out as more of a snarl. Her fractured jaw had been wired. No more blow jobs for a while. There went one hospital room fantasy.

He attempted a smile of his own. A compassionate lover’s smile. Wordlessly, he handed her the gift box. She tore it open with practiced fingers.

It was a bra. Thirty-eight C, studded with Austrian crystals. Victoria’s Secret, $200.00 on eBay.

Adrienne’s raccoon eyes narrowed. “You son of a bitch,” she said. It sounded like “You hun ob a bith” through the deviated septum and the wired-shut jaw. She hurled the brassiere overhand across the room at him. It clattered onto the tile floor. Saint Christopher was glad the bedpan was not within her arm span.

He affected the conciliatory tone and plaintive voice he had always used whenever his first wife was on the rag. “I know things look pretty bleak right now, Adrienne,” he said, “but trust me, just follow my advice from here on out and you’ll wind up a rich young woman.”

“Huck you,” Adrienne whistled through the space where her tooth had been.

“Are they giving you anything for pain?”

“Huck you in the ath.”

Saint Christopher bent over and retrieved his present. “I’ll just put this in a drawer here with some of your other things,” he said. “You can look at it later when you feel better, maybe try it on.” In the mirror, he saw her rise up in bed behind him. Just in time to duck the ice water pitcher she sent flying at his head.

The accident sure hadn’t affected her throwing arm.

 

 

Boog raced the Ferrari’s engine. His Isotoner driving gloves gripped the wheel. He wore a football helmet, goggles and a soft cervical collar. “You like my motoring outfit?” he asked Shoog through his mouthpiece.

“You look like Rusty fucking Wallace,” Shoog said, standing beside the car.

“Good night for a drive in the park,” Boog said. Before Shoog could step away, Boog gunned the engine. The Ferrari’s tires squealed in reverse, a distance of about thirty feet, smashing into the rear of the Corvette scoot car where it sat parked in a driving lane of the long-term storage lot on the far edge of the CIU campus. Demolishing the Corvette’s rear end.

Shoog loped the distance to the Ferrari.

“Omigod, Mabel, there’s been a horrible accident,” Boog whinnied over the chin guard.

“Hit it again, Dude,” Shoog said. “You drive like a blue-haired old granny in a nursing-home demo derby.”

“Fuck you, scrotum,” Boog said. “Jack says torch this red piece of shit way out by University Farms tonight. I don’t want to fuck up the suspension or bend the frame. A dude could bust his ass on those gravel roads.”

“Jack happen to mention money?”

“You know how Jack is, Dude. Jack thinks it’s vulgar to talk about money, honey. He’s got it, though.”

“Fuckin’ A he’s got it. Wonder where he keeps it, though?”

“Hope we get enough to buy that big telescope. We can go cunt-gazing, check out some of those tower dorms.”

 

 

A week later, Adrienne and Gary entered Dr. Besoin’s cramped and crowded waiting room for the first time. Gary, his blood-alcohol level a resting point one-five, tapped on the glass of the tiny sliding partition for the nurse-receptionist.

“Saint Christopher sent us,” he said, speakeasy-style.

“No shit,” the nurse replied evenly. She handed him two questionnaires attached to clipboards, without looking at him. “You’ll need to fill these out. Where it says ‘referral’, put ‘a friend’.” Gary and Adrienne sat and worked on the forms.

“What’s a surname?” he asked her. “Like an alias?”

“Ow,” Adrienne said. It hurt whenever she tried to sneer now. The bandages had been replaced by a white clip she wore over the bridge of her nose. There was still a crooked bump in it, but it was no longer mashed to one side like a prizefighter’s, or misaligned where it met her brow.

“I asked Saint Christopher about this Besoin guy, and he told me he’s the kind of doctor that can cure you in one visit,” Gary said.

Adrienne lowered her voice to a whisper and leaned toward Gary. “That means he’s a quack who’s going to fake a bunch of office calls on the bill,” she said. “If he even tries to touch my nose or my jaw I swear I’m going to cry ‘rape’.”

Dr. Besoin worked quickly. The twenty or so people in the waiting room turned over in less than an hour, replaced by twenty more. He took Adrienne and Gary in together.

“Looks like you’ve been in an accident,” Dr. Besoin said. “Bend down.”

“Both of us?” Adrienne asked.

“Both of you, one at a time, what do I care?”

They both bent at the waist and touched their toes. Dr. Besoin stepped behind them and laid his hands on their lower backs like a faith healer, lingering a bit longer on Adrienne’s.

“Stand up,” Dr. Besoin said, circling around them. “Look up. Look down. Look left. Look right.” Bored and perfunctory as a driver’s license examiner.

“Undress to the waist. I need to examine your breasts,” he said, facing Adrienne.

“Go to hell,” she said.

“Worth a shot,” he shrugged. “Ok, you’re done. Tell them where you got it and how easy it was.”

“That’s it?” Gary asked.

“I’m going to prescribe the two of you rent some Marx Brothers movies at Blockbuster and laugh yourselves back to health,” Dr. Besoin said. “Also some Tylenol 3’s and muscle relaxers. If you don’t want them, sell them to your friends.”

“Do we need to come back?” Gary still didn’t get it.

“Our door is always open, but it isn’t really necessary, unless you need something stronger. Like maybe Percodan? Seconal? Quaaludes? Valium? Anabolic steroids, to bulk out? I’ve got Android 5’s, 10’s, or 25’s.”

Adrienne and Gary were out the door of the examining room. Dr. Besoin followed after. “Something to take the weight off? Methamphetamines, maybe? I’ve got Desoxyns—lemon-yellow and orange-orange. Tell your friends about me!”

 

 

“So you’re a Jim Rheinhardt referral?” Charlie said. “Jim’s a good friend of mine, sends me personal injury cases all the time. I specialize in personal injuries, you know. Auto cases most of all. Have you seen my new billboard? You came to the right lawyer. It’s obvious to me you’ve suffered a serious injury.”

Charlie put on his professional mourner’s face and empathized into Adrienne’s eyes, her raccoon mask now purple changing to brown. “Like the leaves,” Saint Christopher had told her, after she’d calmed down in the hospital.

“Is this where I say ‘Saint Christopher sent me’?” Adrienne asked.

“I know exactly why you’re here. Jim explained everything. We work together, you know.”

“Do you work with that quack doctor, too? Besoin? My boyfriend and I were both in and out of his examining room in under three minutes. Jack says he’s going to generate a big bill with a lot of nonexistent visits. Can we trust him? He didn’t look too stable to me.”

“How do you spell that doctor’s name?”

She told him. Charlie made a note on a yellow legal pad.

“What are you noticing about yourself now, Adrienne?”

“Everything I say here is confidential, right?”

Charlie put down his pen. “This is a privileged conversation. I couldn’t repeat anything you say here, even if I wanted to, which I don’t, by the way. I’d lose my license and go to jail. And I don’t want to go to jail, do you?” Charlie gave her a hearty chuckle. Adrienne studied him like a museum exhibit.

“No, Charlie. I don’t want to go to jail either. What I’m noticing is that I was promised ‘many many thousands of dollars’ for being in a set-up fender-bender and pretending to be injured, and now I’m really injured and nobody’s done what they promised. When I met with that other lawyer, Rheinhardt, he sent me to you as soon as he heard how much money I wanted. I haven’t been to a real doctor or a competent hospital yet. My nose is disfigured. The quack at Dutch Hollow General let it heal like this. Now he says they’ll have to ‘re-break’ it. I’m definitely going to need reconstructive surgery, by somebody who knows what he’s doing this time. My jaw is broken and wired shut. They say I’m probably going to have something called TMJ syndrome as I get older. One of my front teeth was broken. They would have had to pull it anyway so I could fit a straw into my mouth. I’ve been living on baby food and milkshakes.”

“That doesn’t do any good for your figure, I’ll bet,” Charlie said.

“This accident was staged by Jack. You do work with him, don’t you? This whole thing has to be illegal. I don’t care, except that I don’t want to get caught without any way to collect.”

Charlie looked at the clock. “The point is,” he said, “your injury was accidental from your standpoint. You didn’t intend to be injured, did you?”

“Of course not.”

“Maybe I’m missing something then. Where’s the problem?”

“Where’s the problem? Just look at me!”

“What about your neck?”

“I don’t know, what about my neck?”

“Many people who’ve been in accidents similar to yours complain of neck pain, stiffness, referred symptoms down one arm, tingling, numbness. Headaches. Have you noticed any of those problems?”

Adrienne paused. Cocked her head.

“No, not really,” she said, shrugging.

“Think carefully,” Charlie said.

“You do work with Jack, don’t you? You sound just like him sometimes. Yeah, ok. I think maybe I do have some of those things, all right?”

“You know who I think might do you some good?” Charlie hit the intercom button on his phone. “Suzie? Bring me one of Zelia’s cards.”

 

 

When acting as a healing professional, Anna Geist called herself Zelia. She lived and officed in the gatehouse of Fort Knox Self-Storage. The sign outside advertised Pranic Healing, Therapeutic Massage, and Foot Reflexology. As she waited, Adrienne inspected some of the certificates and diplomas adorning the walls and discovered that Anna was also a licensed real estate broker. The smell of boiled cabbage filled the building.

The six-foot-tall woman who came to greet her looked like she might once have felt at home wrestling in mud: mid to late fifties, straight shoulder-length hair dyed Scandinavian blond, muscular build, sinewy arms, barefoot in black stirrup pants and fishnet tank top. Her breasts hung practically to her waist; worm-like umber nipples tried to nuzzle shyly out from under the big top to peek at Adrienne.

“So how is Charlie?” Zelia asked. She spoke in a soft voice, higher than Adrienne would have expected, and with more than a trace of a German accent.

“How should I know?” Adrienne said. “He looked all right when I saw him.”

“Good,” Zelia said. “You will come with me, please.” Used to being obeyed, she turned and strode down a corridor. Adrienne followed her to a room containing only a massage table, a toilet, a sink, and a hook on the back of the door.

“Disrobe and lie supine,” Zelia said.

“Aren’t you going to ask what’s wrong with me?”

“My hands will have a conversation with your body; it will tell them what is wrong with you.” Zelia turned to the sink and began scrubbing with medicinal soap like a surgeon. By the time she had finished, Adrienne stood beside the table undressed to her panties and bra.

“Disrobe, please, and lie supine,” Zelia commanded once more.

Adrienne crossed her arms and looked away.

“The body is not shameful,” Zelia said. “You are beautiful young woman. I am like your doctor or your mother. Shame has no place.” She extended an insistent hand for the underthings, then positioned them on the toilet seat, where they made a lewd jack o’lantern face. Adrienne was unsure whether the arrangement was Zelia’s idea of a joke; Zelia wasn’t smiling. Adrienne climbed onto the massage table and lay down on her stomach.

Zelia’s hands were surprisingly soft and warm. Adrienne soon discovered that Zelia’s practiced touch offered her more comfort than all the doctors and nurses in the hospital put together. Caressing Adrienne’s lower back, she said, “You have much anger. I too was angry when I was young.

“Charlie is a good friend to know,” Zelia went on. “A fine, smart lawyer friend. I helped him work through some problems of his own earlier this year.”

“What sort of problems?” Adrienne said, making conversation. God, these two were a mutual advertisement for themselves!

“I told you, I am also sex therapist.”

The session went on for half an hour, during which Zelia’s hands never touched Adrienne’s jaw or the other injured areas of her body. The disarming luxury of it felt so good over Adrienne’s neck, back and legs that she determined to come back often. Even if it meant she had to pay her own money for the visits.

“You must return every day for two weeks, then three times per week for a month,” Zelia said, as if reading her mind. “Don’t worry, the insurance company will pay the massage therapy bill for so many sessions.”

Zelia began pressuring the soles of Adrienne’s feet like calculator keypads. Strange sensations awoke in Adrienne’s body with each computation.

“What are you doing?”

“Treating you with foot reflexology,” Zelia said. “Each part of the body corresponds to an area of the foot which can be stimulated by application of tactation and palpation. For instance, here is your liver. And here is your spleen. Now I will show you my own invention.”

Zelia did something to manipulate the ball of Adrienne’s left foot. At the same time, she ran the knuckle of her right middle finger from between Adrienne’s shoulder blades down to the small of her back, hard. And brought her off better than Gary ever had.

“For being such a good girl,” Zelia said, “and so you will not forget your next appointment.” She patted Adrienne’s rump.

When the waves of orgasm finally subsided, Adrienne panted: “But how did you….”

“Did I not mention I am also sex therapist?”

 

 

Two men sat waiting in the anteroom when Adrienne’s session was finished. One was Jack Saint Christopher. The other, a small man with a Stalinesque mustache and dressed in a dark suit, sat with his knees together, hat in hands. He leaned toward Jack and said something that sounded like: “Vooman is sax man yek.” He nudged Jack and gave him a conspiratorial grin. Jack looked uneasy, reached into his jacket pocket for a prescription vial and the tiny white pill he slipped under his tongue.

“Nitro,” he grunted. “Little angina.”

The little man pointed to the back room. “She can manipulate the feet to aid the heart.”

“Maybe some other time,” Jack said, seeing Adrienne.

“Come here often?” she said, brushing by Jack in the tiny waiting room. Her body still tingled from the treatment.

“Just here to drop off a check,” Jack reassured her. “Need a lift?”

“Gary brought me.”

“I don’t see him.”

“That’s ‘cause I have to call him.”

“Call him off. I’m glad I caught you. I have a little surprise waiting for us in the car, after I do some quick business with Zelia.”

“One moment, Boris,” The small man looked envious when Zelia held up an index finger to him before ushering Jack behind a glass showcase and into what appeared to be her studio apartment. In the case was a mini-health food store, offering mandrake root, oil of evening primrose, rattlesnake violet, tincture of goldenseal, spirits of lavender, high cranberry bark, black cohosh, and a host of other nostrums in dark glass hand-labeled bottles, hearkening back to a day when the corner drugstore sold cocaine over the counter. Adrienne stood poised by the display, inspecting its contents. Behind her back, she sensed Boris’s horny eyes massaging her contents.

“She is also herbalist,” he said.

Adrienne gave him an impatient blow-off nod, but said nothing.

“You were long time with her,” he persisted. “She helped you, yes?”

“She helped me yes,” Adrienne said, facing off with him. “Does she help you with your own little problem? She is sex therapist, yes?”

Boris drew himself even smaller. “She could not have told you,” he said. “No, she could not possibly have told you.” He looked like he wanted to make a home inside his hat.

A moment later, Jack led the way out of Zelia’s apartment. Adrienne found herself wanting to know how she had it decorated.

“Viper’s a lotta car,” he called back to Zelia. “Just be careful in that thing. We don’t want any more accidents.” The two laughed immoderately. He took Adrienne’s arm like a prom escort. “Ready?”

They left together; Boris followed Zelia back to the treatment room.

Jack opened the passenger door of the Spider for Adrienne. “Hop in.”

“What’s your big surprise?” she asked. Her voice sounded close in the tiny sports car.

By way of answer, Jack reached over her into the glove compartment and took out a leather pouch. Inside was a white folded paper packet with a picture of a circus seal balancing a striped ball on its nose. There were also a mirror and a single-edged razor blade.

“Rheinhardt’s supplier is now my supplier, too,” he said. He began chopping big chunks of white on the mirror, resting it on one knee. “A little cocaine, to jump-start the brain?”

“It’s really none of my business, but should you be doing blow if you have a bad heart?”

“My doctor lets me.” Jack separated the white powder into two lines, then handed Adrienne a new hundred-dollar bill, rolled tight. Ladies first.

Adrienne had never done coke, but had seen enough old seventies movies to fake it. She vacuumed up one line into her good nostril, unembarrassed by the snorting rale.

The cold was like the first breath of winter air Christmas morning. The frosty numbness ran from her nose down into her throat. She felt the buzz rush through her veins like a first kiss first love first fuck first everything. Even her snot tasted like peppermint from the coke. Zelia’s art had already loosened every muscle in her body. They tightened again, a good, excited tightness, like after aerobics, only better. She wanted to stay with Jack and do coke all the time. Go to Zelia, go to Jack, do coke. More coke. Jack did a line and looked younger already.

“Like a Concorde takeoff,” he said. “Ever take a ride on the Concorde, baby?” He emptied the rest of the coke from the packet onto the mirror, then unfolded and licked the paper. “You haven’t lived until you’ve done coke a mile high on the Concorde.”

“Midterm break’s coming up,” she said. “Where you taking me, Jack?”

“How about the ‘moveable feast’?” he said. “Just the two of us.”

“Is that like Mardi Gras?”

“Paris,” he said. “The City of Lights.” The white crystals glimmered and sparkled like prisms in the sunlight. Adrienne couldn’t take her eyes off them. Jack lined it up for two and passed mirror and bill to her again. The superfine cold slid down her throat once more.

“I’ve got plenty more coke,” Jack said. “Plenty more. But not on me. We could go to my place. In fact, why don’t we?”

“When do we leave? For Paris, I mean?”

“As soon as you settle your case with Charlie and I make a few more scores. I may retire to the south of France, permanently. Care to join me? How’s your French?”

Adrienne unzipped his fly, letting his jack-in-the-pulpit erection spring forth. He remained at half-mast despite her best efforts. Did Jack go to Zelia, too? Was that the reason for the keloid Z cauterized into the chicken flesh of his abdomen just above the crest of his pubic hair?

“Is my mouth cold on you?” she said. “It feels cold to me, anyway.”

“No,” he sighed. “No, it’s hot. Red hot.” He tensed; she thought he was all ready for the big moment. Then he said, “Oh nuts! Sit up, sit up!”

A step van decorated with primer and a Redi-Tool emblem pulled up beside them and stopped. The two thirty-something freaks—dormites frozen in time—who had driven the pace car, Boog and Shoog, leered down at them. One’s mohawk showed the French Tricolor; the other’s was black with a single white streak down the middle. Butthole Surfers blared from low-fi speakers.

Skunk-hair was heavily into a Pepe LePew accent. “Love ees een ze air, no?” he groaned through pursed lips.

“I never should have told you guys I was thinking of going to France,” Jack said. “To what do I owe the—”

“Vanity plates off the ‘Vette,” said the other. “Frau Eva can transfer these to her new Viper.” He climbed down and handed a set of damaged license plates through the car window. Adrienne saw that they read DMN8TRX. She wiped her mouth, then her nose on a kleenex. Skunk-hair smiled at her like Bogart.

“Doing a little blow?” he said.

“Medicinal, for a deviated septum,” Jack offered.

“My brother and me are deviated.”

“Sorry, Boog. I’m not holding.”

“You didn’t bring nothing?” Boog whined. “That ain’t like you, Jack, to forget your buds. We’re the best stunt drivers you got.”

“How did I know I was going to run into you guys? There must be something else you wanted here; I didn’t ask you to deliver those license plates.”

“Maybe get our personal household shit out of cold storage.”

“Go easy on that. The settlement check hasn’t even been processed yet. You could still get a surprise visit from an insurance snoop.”

“Hey, man, our Blu-ray, our hi-def flat panel, hell, our whole home theater system is sitting in lock-down. What the fuck are we supposed to do for home entertainment without our home theater system? I’m majoring in theater.”

“And minoring in home economics,” his brother added.

“Why don’t you two go out, then? I hear it’s fifty-cent draft night at The Hoop.”

“Frottaged in there with all the Greeks? You can’t even get to the bar. I’ll come down with a terminal case of jock itch.” Boog reached inside his jeans and scratched his groin, staring bloodhound-sorrowfully at Adrienne.

“Maybe you and your brother can take turns scratching each other,” she said calmly. “I’ll bet you do everything together. I’ll bet when you were kids your mother dressed you up alike and made you tap dance for company.”

“You’re a funny cunny,” Boog said. He laughed, a repetitious, birdcall gargling sound with a lot of diaphragm in it. The laugh-track went on, even intensified after Jack warned, “Watch your language; you’re talking to a lady.”

Jack started the engine. He raised the window, backed 180 degrees, then shot out of the cyclone fence gate, taking it through the gears once he hit the street, skimming along the pavement at scofflaw speeds like a Formula One driver, showing off for her. Adrienne felt biting pressure in the back of her jaw from the g-force pull of the acceleration and from the fear that tore at her, as it did every time she sat in a moving car now, but especially in the claustrophobic confines of the Spider. Hurtling at menacing velocity through space, at the mercy of whatever player testing his skill on the joystick, threatening her with mutilation, disfigurement, crippling paralysis. Her dream self played the accident over and over like a computer game; her waking self would not let her get past level one. To everyone else in the Caddy the collision had been a joke. She was the only one who’d missed the punch line.

 

“Wonder where our good bud Jack keeps his stash?” Boog ruminated.

“Same place he keeps his money, cunny. He can’t put it in any bank without filling out a form in triplicate, explaining to Big Brother where he got it. Tax and spend, where’s it all gonna end?”

“What’s Jack doing way out here all the time, then? Paying his stash and his money a visit? Kinda makes you wonder, don’t it? How much you think it would cost to retire to the south of France, Bro?”

Shoog gazed off toward the rows of padlocked storage sheds. “I can’t even figure shit that big in my head,” he said. “And I’m a business major.”

 

 

 

Chapter Ten – The Hermit

 

“I only have ten minutes.”

Dead silence. He shouldn’t have imposed a time limitation on her. He could hear her withering silence through the computer headset.

“You limp-noodled diaper baby!” Her voice, remote and imperious, scarcely rose above a whisper. “You do not tell me how long you have, I tell you how long I shall waste with you. If you were here with me I would bend you over my knee and spank you. Naked. With a board.”

“I am naked,” he said, voice shuddering. “Can’t you see my webcam? Naked. And bad.”

“You are not bad. Not even big. You are not big enough to be bad, only a little pervert with weenie smaller than a piglet’s tail. A pervert showing his baby piglet’s tail over the Internet, afraid of what a real woman like me might do to him in person.”

“What would you do to me in person?”

“Say it first.”

“Say what first?”

“Say, ‘my penis is pitifully small.’“

“My penis is pitifully small,” he said, standing by the computer in his own bedroom, staring at his mother’s portrait on the bureau.

“‘I am ashamed of my miniature toy penis.’ Say it.”

“I am ashamed of my miniature toy penis.”

Her single scornful laugh clawed at his entrails. “You are not man enough to meet me in person. Not man enough to stand up to me or satisfy me. A real man would have put me in my place and made me screw him, but you are neither big enough or bad enough, Droopy.” Her d sounded like a t.

“I did something bad,” he said. “Something very bad with my secretary. My wife might have come in at any time and caught us together. My secretary’s been doing the same bad thing whenever I want for the last six months. I can’t break the habit, but it’s degrading. After all, she’s almost as old as my…as my mother.”

“You close your eyes and pretend she is a man. Anyhow, you are making it all up.”

“No, it’s true,” Charlie pleaded.

“You are wasting my time with your childish stories and your insignificant penis. Say, ‘I am scared little faggot with tiny penis like baby.’“

Charlie repeated her words, breathing hard as he stroked it, inches away from the unblinking eye of the webcam, positioning himself just so, trying to make it look as big as possible. He was going to hate himself after this conversation was over. He always wound up hating himself after.

“You are boring,” she said. “Perhaps if you were to meet a real man, my gentleman friend, instead of trying to talk with that mouth of yours, you might pick up, how do you say, a few pointers, not bore me with more of your pathetic fantasies.” Her voice was listless, without affect. She might have been reading him the want ads.

“No, it’s true!” Charlie glanced at the bedroom door to reassure himself, although he remembered locking it.

“You read this in a storybook. A boring storybook. Go and try on your wife’s panties, kinder girl. I will not listen to any more fairy tales from you unless you are wearing your panties.” Silence again.

Charlie rummaged through Kyrie’s underwear drawer and found the lavender crotchless bikini pair he had bought her last Christmas. Kyrie had scarcely opened the package before Tippi blurted out, “Oh, I think that’s awful.”

He hopped on one leg, nearly losing his balance trying to step into them while hurrying to expose himself again on cam, slipping the headphones back on. “Hello? Hello? Are you still there? I have them on now.”

She laughed. A lusty, Marlene Dietrich hand-on-hip laugh. “I don’t believe it! A real man would never have obeyed such an order. I was only testing you, to see if you would do whatever humiliating thing I tell you to do. Perhaps you will meet my dog instead of my gentleman companion. Polish my toenails with your toothbrush. Clean my toilet with your tongue, wearing a dog’s collar and nothing else.”

Charlie swallowed. “I…I’ll do anything you say.”

“You’d better. Wear those panties to the office then, she-male. Model them for that whore of a secretary. She must have some real problems, that one, to be wasting her time with you. I know I wouldn’t.”

“I want to meet you for real. I…I need to be punished for what I’ve done.”

“I am too much busy to trifle with that now. You are making everything up. You cannot even think fast enough to tell me a convincing story.”

“Will you meet with me in person?”

She repeated his words. Her mocking tone gave him a cringing thrill. “I live a great distance away,” she said.

Heartened, he pounced on the opportunity. “I could pay your way here. All your expenses. I have money.”

“I travel only first class—”

“No problem. I’ll arrange for the airline ticket.”

“—and with my gentleman companion. You must also pay his ticket. You must satisfy him before meeting me.”

“Now just a minute—”

“Of course, if you are not interested in meeting me as you say—”

“No. No, I’ll do it. What do you mean, ‘satisfy him’?”

A man’s voice over the headset then. “What do you think she means, asshole?”

Charlie sat in silence, stunned. As if reveling in his shock, the man said: “Don’t worry, Charlie. I’m not into pain. Just humiliation. And I don’t waste any time; I work real quick. After I’m done with you you’ll meet the princess of agony herself. I were you, I’d be plenty scared right now, shithead.”

Charlie made the arrangements with the man. He had to give the man his credit card number. He was to log on to the chat room again at exactly seven PM for the date, time and motel. “And bring two thou. In cash, nothing bigger than a twenty. No pay, no play,” the man said.

Tippi screamed. Charlie cut the computer power switch, hid the webcam and headset in the usual place, threw on his robe and ran down the hallway toward the scream. At the front door, an albino was apologizing.

“I’m Derek Walgreen,” he said, and pulled at one of his eyelids, bending his head down and cupping his other hand under the eye. Bramble-design henna tattoos decorated his ivory wrists. “I’m in Lori’s class. Her mom knows me, we all went roller-skating once.”

The young man looked to Charlie for help. “I’m sorry, sir. I didn’t mean to scare her. These are fake. For Halloween. I must have forgot I had them in.” He extended one hand to show Charlie the amber cat’s-eye contact lens. The mate was still in his other eye giving him a feral, hybrid aspect, as though something predatory lay crouching within this boy at the doorstep, stalking Charlie’s daughter. Or his wife.

“I’ll take care of this, Ma. Go lie down for a while. Why don’t you take one of your nerve pills?” Tippi muttered away to her bedroom.

“Come with me, young man,” Charlie said, his tone intended to be stern, but born of fear. He led Snow Seal into the living room. “Sit down; I want to talk to you.”

Snow Seal sat in an erect, fight-or-flight posture on the edge of the sofa. His cat’s-eye followed Charlie across the room to the recliner. An aggie, Charlie thought. That’s what those prized marbles were called when he’d played as a child. His aggie come back at last, rolling in the head of this lily-white boy, to taunt him for losing it in a keepsies match in the third grade.

“Well, Derek is it, how do you know my daughter?” Charlie assumed what he felt was his best associate judge wannabe persona, the silky panties cool beneath his buttocks.

“Uh, we’re in Mrs. Baden’s English comp class at school. And we went roller-skating once. Me and her and her mom.”

“‘She and I’, Derek. You need to pay better attention in Mrs. Baden’s class. Nominative case. And my wife is not Lori’s mother.”

“She and I and your wife went roller-skating. Once.”

“I see. Tell me, to what do we owe the pleasure of this unexpected visit, Derek? I’m afraid you’ve frightened my mother half to death by your untoward appearance—not your, er, physical appearance, let me be quick to add, but your, shall we say, adornments for the occasion. She was pale as a ghost. What I mean to say is, she seemed quite shocked. Shocked and dismayed. She’s not a well woman, you know. Her life has not been easy. Like many ladies her age, she is under a doctor’s care.”

“Sorry. I just come to see if Lori was home.”

“‘Came’, Derek.”

“Say what?”

Charlie pivoted the recliner back and forth twenty degrees. “You ‘came.’ Past tense of the verb ‘to come.’ ‘I came to see Lori,’ not ‘I come to see Lori.’“

“She home?”

“Words, Derek. People form opinions about you based on the words you use. For instance, as a practicing attorney at law, words are my stock in trade.”

Snow Seal’s parents’ attorneys had offered them plenty of words. Right up until the jury came back with his and hers convictions. Enough words to last them thirty years apiece.

“Have you given any thought to a career, Derek?”

“Thought about maybe being a stand-up comic.”

Charlie frowned. “Anything more practical, to fall back on? Will you continue your education?”

“Maybe psychology.”

Charlie brightened. “Central Illinois University boasts a nationally-renowned psychology department, you know. You could live at home while you pursue your studies, thereby completing your education at a fraction of the cost.” He sounded to Snow Seal like a guidance counselor. All adults except for his customers eventually settled into the guidance counselor mode. Even some of his customers did, occasionally.

“I live with my grandma, so I can go to school here in town.”

“Oh? Where are your parents?”

Snow Seal shouldn’t have tried a new one out on this guy, but he was starting to get annoyed. “They both died. In Iraq.”

Charlie’s mouth dropped open. Snow Seal was waiting for him to ask how it happened, but he didn’t. Maybe he should use this story from now on.

Charlie said, “I’m sorry, Derek. I didn’t know.” He crossed his legs, balancing his right ankle on his left knee, trying to recover his composure, oblivious to the robe’s yawning like a stage curtain.

“How will you use your psychology?”

Snow Seal couldn’t take his eyes away from the spectacle of this grown man lounging in his living room in robe and honeymoon lingerie, trying to do career counseling.

“I want to try and help people, maybe be a sex therapist.”

With a post-prandial speaker’s joviality, Charlie said, “You’d do a great deal of business right here in Black Forest.” Then he looked down. He scrambled to draw the velour belt around himself to a prudish cincture, but the robe gaped even wider. Snow Seal laughed.

Charlie stood. “Let me put it this way—Derek, or whatever your name is? I don’t care about anything you think you might have seen here. The point is, I don’t want you seeing my daughter any more. Not in any way, shape or form. Is that clear?”

Snow Seal was already slouching toward the door, slumped against Charlie’s rage, taunt-walking. A black teenager had walked the same walk in a Dutch Hollow crosswalk, catching Charlie behind a yellow light when he was already late for court last Monday. Charlie began screaming now, surprised at the fury of his own emotions.

“And don’t you come skulking around here anymore, either, scaring my mother half out of her wits! Next time, I’m calling nine-one-one on you, punk!”

Snow Seal was halfway out the front door. His chalk-white left hand reached back into view like a vaudeville hook. His middle finger rose in the universal gesture of contempt: an erect penis flanked by curled index finger and ring finger testicles. Snow Seal gave Charlie two lazy up-and-down strokes, then left the door hanging open. Charlie heard the retreating roll of Snow Seal’s skateboard banging over each crack in the front sidewalk. Breaking his mother’s back.

 

 

 

Chapter Eleven – Justice

 

“Here about your pee eye, Hon?”

Suzie’s Missouri accent, which Adrienne’s north suburban Chicago ears mistook for downstate Illinois, drew out the vowels. Adrienne said, “Excuse me?”

“Your personal injury case. I guess that’s why you’re here.”

“Yes. I’d like a status report.” Adrienne saw Charlie’s door move almost imperceptibly, then close without a sound.

“I can help you with that. Let me go and get your file. My garsh, your nose still has a little ole bump in it, doesn’t it?”

“I prefer to speak with my attorney. He’s the one I hired to handle this.”

“I work right alongside Mr. Zweig. I can answer any question you might have, Hon.”

“Then answer me why my attorney is hiding in his office at this very moment, refusing to speak with me?”

Suzie looked away as though she had been slapped. She said, “I’ll see if he’s in—”

Charlie came barreling out of his office, right hand extended in a hearty handshake. “Adrienne! Glad you could stop by. You look like you’ve made a remarkable recovery in, what, only two short weeks? Why, no one could tell to look at her that she’d even been in an accident, could they, Suzie?”

“She’s still got that little ole bump on her nose,” Suzie volunteered. “It’s not lopsided, though. Not really. Looks kind of cute on her. I’ll bet the boys all like it, don’t they, Hon? Believe you me, I still know what the boys like.” She looked to Charlie and laughed. Adrienne glared at her.

“Gives her kind of a distinctive look,” Suzie went on, “like Meryl Streep. Or that Gillian Anderson used to be on X-Files.” Pronouncing Meryl to rhyme with pearl and Gillian with a hard g.

“Oh, Adrienne’s by far the most beautiful client I have,” Charlie said. “And I have a beautiful clientele, as you know, Suzie. Come on into my office and have a seat, Adrienne. I’ll bring you up to speed on all we’ve been doing for you. Suzie, let me have that file, Dear.”

Perspiration began to shine on Charlie’s balding head. “I’ve really rolled up my sleeves on this one, Adrienne. Been digging like a badger, trying to find some insurance. The only people with any money in this country are the insurance companies, you know, and they do a pretty good job of hanging on to it.” He watched Suzie close his door as she left.

“Why do you keep her around? She’s annoying,” Adrienne said.

Charlie leaned back in his chair, almost losing his balance. His voice lowered, he said, “An old law professor of mine, who had himself practiced law for many years, once advised me, ‘Mr. Zweig, if you would enjoy success in the practice of law, you must be sure to hire the nosiest old woman you can find to be your secretary. She will invariably know all of the gossip, and will be only too happy to share it with you. Then and only then will you enjoy success in the practice of law.’ I’ve always followed his advice, and have found it to be well taken.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Knowledge is power,” Charlie said. “The courthouse is fueled by gossip, hearsay and innuendo. These three commodities are indispensable to any law practice With Suzie working for me, I’m the first to know when anything’s about to happen. In my profession, it’s useful to know things about people’s private lives. Who’s sleeping with whom, who has a drinking problem, who has a money problem.”

“I thought all lawyers hired young, attractive women for their secretaries.”

Charlie laughed. “You’re thinking of Jim Rheinhardt,” he said. “Jim hired that bubble headed young Polack girl right out of high school, with no references at all, and take it from me, he’ll be sorry.”

“What references did yours give you? She seems kind of ignorant to me.”

“Suzie? The best reference in the world. My mother.” Charlie flipped through Adrienne’s file. “Ah, here we are. As I was saying, we’re beating the bushes for money in this case—”

“I thought you said you were digging like a badger?”

“Well, then, digging like a badger for money, and let me tell you—”

“Wasn’t Gary insured?”

“I’m getting to that.” Charlie’s conciliatory tone was beginning to alarm Adrienne. He talked faster. “First, you have to look to the at-fault motorist, in this case the Choi’s. Bok and Pok Choi, the Korean couple who owned the car that rear-ended you. Actually they had a leasehold interest in that Volvo, they didn’t own it outright. Gary’s insurance investigated, and it seems the Choi’s had gone bare. Dropped their car insurance when their convenience store business failed in Boston. Amazing the leasing company let them get away with dropping the coverage like that. So that leaves the Choi’s out of the picture. So now we come to Gary’s insurance through the car rental company.”

“Jack told him to use his own auto policy.”

“I agree; that’s exactly what Jack would have told him. Trouble is, Gary failed to heed Jack’s advice, and bought insurance coverage through the agency out at the airport when he rented the car. Minimal insurance coverage, unfortunately.”

“How minimal?”

“Twenty-forty. Twenty thousand per person, not to exceed a total forty thousand dollar payout per accident.”

“But there were six people in the car. That’s—”

“Forty thousand dollars, max. Total. Cut up the pie six ways, if you all can agree. That’s if the carrier were willing to pay off.”

“Why wouldn’t they be?”

Charlie rubbed the bridge of his nose with a thumb and forefinger. “In my opinion, they’re suspicious of this accident. They’ve referred the claim out to what they call their ‘special investigative unit.’ It’ll probably remain parked there for months while they wait to see if we lose interest and drop out. In the meantime, they’re hiding behind the fact that Gary apparently used a fake ID to rent the car. He’s what, only nineteen?”

“Right.”

“His driver’s license, at least the one he showed the agency, which they photocopied, says he’s 21. It’s good enough to get him served at bars, but not good enough to fool the Secretary of State when the agency ran it through. Which they didn’t bother to do until after the accident, by the way.”

“Doesn’t Gary have his own insurance? Through his Dad or something? He drove a Ferrari, for God’s sake.”

Charlie leaned both forearms on his desk and laced his fingers, like an undertaker about to spring the price on the bereaved. “Not for underinsured motorist coverage,” he said. “Gary wasn’t a full-time student and he wasn’t living at home.”

“Of course he was a full-time student,” Adrienne said.

Charlie shook his head. “The policy defines ‘full-time student’ as one who’s carrying the equivalent of twelve or more semester hours. Regrettably, Gary had dropped down to nine not two weeks before the collision. He wasn’t covered.”

“Do you mean to tell me—”

Charlie held up his hand like a pupil asking permission to go to the rest room. “Now I know it’s asking a lot of you,” he said, “but patience is what’s required here. If the agency’s insurer persists in this denial of coverage, we’ll have to weigh our options, which may include litigation. Their position is untenable under current Illinois law, in my considered opinion. Contrary to public policy.”

“So what you’re saying is, the insurance is only forty thousand, divided six ways? My bills will total more than that by the time I have plastic surgery. After you take out your cut, that only leaves…”

“Nearly $4500,” Charlie said.

“You’ve already calculated it out, haven’t you? Forty-five hundred dollars won’t begin to compensate me for this injury. At least the other guy, Rheinhardt, told me up front he couldn’t get me what I wanted, before he wasted my time. What about Gary’s dad’s insurance? How much is that?”

“Half a million, if he were covered. Which, as we’ve already discussed, he isn’t.”

“Can’t you sue them or something?”

Charlie closed her file. “We’re certainly exploring all our options, as I’ve indicated,” he said.

“Meaning you can’t? Meaning we’d lose if we tried?”

“Well…” Charlie’s eyebrows rose with his intake of breath.

“Never mind. So what you’re telling me is, I’m screwed. I’m stuck with this mangled nose I can’t even breathe out of, and my jaw which is going to give me blinding headaches forever, and you can’t even get me enough money to pay my medical and hospital bills. That’s what you’re telling me.”

“We have a number of options. You’re assuming there will be an equal division of the forty thousand, which isn’t necessarily correct. Also, I may be able to convince some of your medical providers to reduce their claims of lien—”

“How long is all this going to take?”

Charlie appeared to bridle at the question. “In a few months, after the insurer’s investigation has been completed, and the smoke clears—”

“A few months! How can they refuse to pay for so long? It’s an open-and-shut case. They hit us from behind.”

“They’ve already requested a statement under oath.”

“From who?”

“From you,” Charlie said. “Under the circumstances, as your attorney I refused their request.”

“What happens now?”

“As I explained to you, the company will conduct its own investigation of the facts of the accident, other claims any of you may have had in the past, et cetera. All that takes months. They’re in no hurry. Time is on their side. Meanwhile, they’re provisionally denying the claim based on Gary’s fraudulent use of the ID card, which they claim is material to the risk. It’s riskier to rent cars to 19-year-olds than to 21-year-olds, is basically what they’re arguing. It’s not a final denial. Merely a provisional one.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

“That’s their position. I’m only giving you a status report, as you asked me to do.”

Adrienne glared with disdain at Charlie’s defensive posture. “Keep me informed,” she said, grabbing her purse to leave. The phone rang. Intercom sounded a moment later. Charlie picked up.

“Which line?” he said to Adrienne’s back, although only one line was lit. Adrienne walked out past Suzie without speaking. The caller was a woman who wanted to talk about misdiagnosed generia disease.

“‘Generia disease’?” Charlie asked her.

“What you get from having sex and all that. Only I hadn’t got none in more than a year.”

“What hospital was this?”

“Remoria.”

“Memorial?”

“That’s right. Remoria. I want to know, could you take his licen’?”

“Whose license?”

“The doctor what tol’ me I had generia disease.”

Charlie hit the hold button and bailed out of the conversation. He buzzed Suzie.

“Give her the toll-free referral number,” he said. “Or wait—better yet, give her Jim Rheinhardt’s number. Tell her he’s a medical malpractice specialist.” Charlie barked out a bitter, self-satisfied laugh.

Suzie made the referral while Charlie interlocked his fingers behind his head and tilted back to stare at the ceiling.

“A call like that, after that kind of a walk-in,” he said when Suzie joined him a moment later. “

Suzie nodded in sympathy. “A kookie call like that can jinx your whole day for you.”

“Oh, it’s poison,” he said. “Absolute poison.”

Suzie moved behind his chair and began massaging his shoulders.

“Maybe I can suck out the poison,” she said.

 

 

Charlie was standing beside his desk when the call came. Suzie interrupted her services with an audible smack and caught it on the third ring. “Charles Zweig’s office,” she said, kneeling, in the sultry telephone voice Charlie always found sexy. “One moment, I’ll see if he’s in.” She pressed the “hold” button. The red light began winking like a lecherous old reprobate.

“Jim Rheinhardt,” she whispered, as if Rheinhardt might be eavesdropping on them.

“Tell him I’m at the courthouse.”

“I’m sorry, he’s already left for court. May I leave him a message? No? All right then. Thank you for calling. Good-bye.”

“A guy sends me a wacko, I send him one right back,” Charlie said. Suzie resumed her attentions. Soon Charlie forgot all about the wacko, about Adrienne’s bitchy attitude, even about Snow Seal Walgreen.

“Oh, baby, where’d you learn to do that?” he sighed after an especially transporting turn.

Suzie paused to look up at him. She spat twice into a Dixie cup, then closed her lips and ran her tongue over the outer surface of her front teeth, upper and lower. Charlie didn’t know whether she wore dentures, and didn’t know whether he wanted to broach the subject, for that matter. When Suzie began to speak, it was with no emotion.

“Hon, men have been fucking me in the face since sputnik. One of my uncles was the first one made me do it. He called it playing ‘I’ve Got a Secret,’ you know, like the old quiz program. Then when I was twelve I started practicing on my boy cousins. We’d go out in the shed, they’d circle around and I’d take them on three and four at a time. Are you sure you want to hear all this, Charlie? Some men get kind of turned on by hearing about it, I guess.”

She reached one hand between his thighs and with thumb and forefinger tugged ever so gently at his scrotum. “Swear you won’t tell?”

“You’ve worked for me, what, eighteen years? I’ve never heard any of this before.”

She tugged again. “Swear, then.”

“I’m a lawyer, Suzie. If I can’t keep a secret, who can?”

“You sound a lot like my uncle.”

“Was he a lawyer?”

“I could of used a good one back then. Got mixed up in a holdup with a bunch of other girls. Something went wrong, and I was underage, so I got sent up to the Illinois State Training School for Girls at Geneva. Ever hear of it?”

Charlie shook his head, appalled. Suzie maintained her grip.

“I’m not surprised,” she said. “Most people haven’t. Anyhoo, I ‘graduated’ at eighteen with secretarial skills. At least it got me out of Dogtown. After that, any man wanting to play ‘I’ve Got a Secret’ with this girl had to pay for the privilege. Except you, Charlie. Why? Because I like you. I’d go so far as to say I love you, but then you’re a married man and I don’t want to embarrass myself. Woops, I’ve said it anyway. I love you, Charlie. I’ve loved you for a long, long time.”

The tap of a car horn sounded outside Charlie’s window before he could think of a reply. He tilted the louvers of the closed mini-blinds. Jim Rheinhardt sat in his car ten feet away, waving at him and laughing. Nonplussed, Charlie held up his wrist and pointed to his watch, then made a gesture of helplessness. Rheinhardt kept laughing.

“Better get decent,” Charlie said, although he was the only one even partially undressed. “It’s Rheinhardt. He’ll probably be in here any minute.”

 

 

Suzie was back at her desk sucking on a breath mint by the time Rheinhardt walked through the showroom doors. He swung both glass doors open in a theatrical gesture like one of the Pirates of Penzance.

“He’s just back from court, Mr. Rheinhardt.”

His pink nostrils twitching like a rabbit’s, Rheinhardt said, “C’mon, Suzie. I know how it works.” He took her hands, lifted her up and waltzed her around, then kissed her on the mouth. Charlie heard her cackling with excitement through his closed door. He caught himself feeling an unnamed emotion, something like jealousy’s pale cousin.

“What’s this, trying to woo my secretary away from me, Jim?” Charlie worked at his smile.

“I can’t have you giving her a generia disease, Charlie,” Rheinhardt said. Suzie whooped with laughter, then collapsed into her chair, panting and reveling in all the male attention. The phone rang again. Still clearing the laughter from her throat, she answered.

“J. Glenn Mumper on line one,” she said. Charlie led Rheinhardt into his office and closed the door again to take the call. Rheinhardt propped his heels on one corner of Charlie’s desk and began flipping through the contents of Charlie’s “in” basket.

“Charles Zweig.”

“J. Glenn Mumper here, Charlie. Fidelity Founders Insurance?”

“Glenn, how are you?” Charlie waited for the plaintive recitation of woes, and was not disappointed when it began immediately.

“Well, Charlie, I know I shouldn’t complain, but salary-wise and company car-wise, they’d be only too happy to get rid of me. I’m not a particularly healthy individual as you know, and at my age, well, frankly when you get to be my age, you’ll know what I mean. Insurance adjusters are a dime a dozen in today’s labor market. What do the scriptures say? ‘I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.’“

“My wife’s the churchgoer in the family,” Charlie said. “Saint Mark’s. Every Sunday, like clockwork.”

“That’s odd,” Mumper said. “Saint Mark’s is my church as well. Reverend Hoffmann is our pastor. I can’t boast perfect attendance, but I don’t recall anyone in the congregation named Zweig.”

“My wife chose to retain her maiden name, for professional purposes, she says. Wilde. Kyrie Wilde.”

Mumper treated it as an astounding revelation. “Of course! Kyrie Wilde. Lovely young woman. Lost over one hundred pounds a few years ago, didn’t she?”

“She did indeed, but that was before I met her.”

“Why, I’ll have to mention our conversation to her at church this Sunday. I had no idea you two were married.”

“You a married man, Glenn?”

Glenn began singing the blues again. Charlie waited for the bridge, Mumper’s ploy to turn his personal misfortune to the company’s advantage. “No, and it’s probably a good thing, truth be told. I don’t know what I’ll do if they put me out to pasture. Social Security disability, perhaps, if I’m fortunate enough to qualify.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, Glenn.” Here it comes.

“This latest case you’ve sent me a package on is a perfect example,” Mumper said. “The days when I can walk in to the supervisors and get authority granted for three times specials are over, at least for me. Plus your gal went to her chiropractor a ridiculous number of times. They’re wanting me to send his bill out for review, which of course will take weeks and will hamstring me even further. My other teammates here at Fidelity Founders are all in the same boat.”

“Teammates?”

“All I’m saying is that I can’t get this claim settled with you for the kind of money you’ve set forth in your favor. I don’t want to burn any more of my bridges with the powers that be. I know they won’t even authorize me to bid against these numbers. Or if they do, they’ll put me in a straitjacket, bidding-wise. I’m on your side, Charlie. It always makes sense to settle, but I’m swimming upstream on this one trying to plead your case for you to the front office. Given my unstable position with the company career-wise, which you well know, the most I could even hope to get out of them, and I’m not authorized to offer it to you at this time, mind you, would be $2500. Now, if you want to take that up with your client…”

Charlie covered the receiver with the palm of his hand. “Mumper just offered me specials on a rear-ender,” he told Rheinhardt, whose nose twitched with disdain.

“Glenn, tell them I’m firm at $9500,” Charlie said.

“Charlie, perhaps you haven’t heard what I’ve been saying. That figure poses the same problem.” Mumper wouldn’t even speak Charlie’s number, as if repeating it would jinx him. “They know, or at least in their infinite wisdom they think they know, that that figure is unreasonable. I’ll never get them anywhere close to that figure in a million years. And you don’t want to litigate another soft-tissue case to a Black Forest jury, Charlie. Black Forest juries think pain and suffering is good for you, builds character.”

“Fortunately, most of the people not smart enough to get out of jury duty these days live in Dutch Hollow, not Black Forest.”

“Charlie, all I’m saying is, get me a reasonable demand, and I’ll be happy to take it to them. Why don’t you sit down with your client and get her to face a few facts. Hers is not a substantial case by any means, even soft-tissue-wise.”

“I’ll mention it to her, while you’re talking it over with your people.”

“May I tell them you’re considering a more reasonable demand?”

“Tell them $9500, Glenn. Firm.”

“Let’s agree to talk again on this one in a few days, then, if your client decides to be more reasonable. I’ll be sure and say hello to your lovely wife at church next Sunday.”

“Take care, Glenn.”

Charlie shook his head. “You ever deal with Mumper? I’ll probably wind up settling this case with him for five grand, just so I don’t have to listen to him whine. Five grand is probably his authority limit on everything.”

Rheinhardt looked at him strangely. “Probably more than he paid for his car,” he said. “Must be hell to be fifty-something and clipping coupons.”

“Insurance adjusting. Talk about your dead-end job.”

Rheinhardt fixed him with a stare. “How’s our little Adrienne? And I use the term ‘little’ advisedly.”

“She came in here today breathing fire, which I succeeded in extinguishing, at least for now. Your buddy Jack seems to have stage-managed an accident in a coverage vacuum. Her case sucks so bad it’s got its own gravity. Good injury, though,” he added.

“Jack will handle Adrienne, don’t worry. They’re like boyfriend/girlfriend now. Planning on taking a Parisian vacation together, the way I hear it.”

“I’ve got enough dog cases without making one up, Jim.”

“Jack’s never fucked up like this before. I’ve been working with him for a while now. If this case morphs into feces, we’ll send you a few good ones to make up for it, guaranteed. We’re sitting on a gold mine here, Charlie, you and me. Let’s not blow it over some spoiled little rich bitch.”

 

 

Rheinhardt passed Kyrie coming in as he left. Stopping short, he said, “I know I’ve seen you someplace before.”

“How long ago?” Charlie asked, interested.

“Charlie…” Kyrie knew it was no use protesting. Everybody at Charlie’s office loved a mystery. All work stopped while each bystander offered his own solution. Charlie said, “You know, Jim, she used to tip the scales a tad more than she does today, didn’t you, Dear?”

“Yeah? I wonder if that could be it?” Rheinhardt studied her, prowled around behind her, rather like a lascivious art student set loose to roam among the nude statuary. Self-conscious and uncomfortable, she watched him over her shoulder. His eyes lingered on the trim fullness of her buttocks as though she were a Grecian figure sculpted from blue-veined marble.

“How much weight did you lose?” he said at last.

Kyrie rolled her eyes heavenward and snorted. “I have a showing in ten minutes, in case anybody’s interested,” she said, not moving.

“Try half her total body weight,” Charlie, her proud patron, said.

“Well, that helps.” Rheinhardt returned to face her, mouth-breathing while maintaining steady eye contact with her breasts. “You work out anywhere?”

“Garage looks like a health club, Jim,” Charlie answered for her. “I can’t get either car in there now. I ought to work out myself with her now and then, but you know how it is. ‘The law is a jealous mistress.’“

“I never heard that,” Rheinhardt said, as if there were a microphone in Kyrie’s bra. She wanted to cross her arms against his ranging stare. Armless as the Venus de Milo in her mind’s eye, she wouldn’t give him the satisfaction.

The telephone in her carrel went off. Its distinctive canary ring startled her into action; like a deer caught in the high-beams but granted a last-second reprieve, she sprang to catch it before the answering machine kicked on at the second ring. It was Richard.

“Any new listings to show me? I prefer to see them furnished. Without any dead bodies sitting around cluttering them up, if at all possible.”

With no hope of privacy, she tried for a steady, businesslike composure. “I believe I can show you just the property you’d be interested in. Seven-eighty-four Edelweiss, do you need directions?”

“You can’t talk, can you?”

“That’s right.” Bright, cheery and professional. Charlie, Suzie and Rheinhardt would soon lose interest in eavesdropping on her side of the conversation.

“Is there a bed?”

“Yes. Perfect for entertaining, this company-owned executive home features three fully-furnished bedrooms including a vaulted impressive-sized master.”

His breathing became an urgent pant. “I’d like to vault over the bedposts and land right inside you.”

“It’s a large accommodating split, with welcoming hardwood entry and double-hung windows. I’d be more than happy to let you in for a private showing.”

“I’ve been thinking only of you all day. I’m obsessed with you.”

“The seller is anxious, too,” she said evenly. “There is a buyer protection plan available.”

“God, you think of everything. A condom was the last thing on my mind.”

“In addition to the heart-shaped Jacuzzi, there are two full baths and a three-quarter bath.”

“See if I don’t give you a tongue bath when I get you alone, you Rabelaisian demi-vierge.”

“This listing offers all the usual amenities, plus a wet bar, eat-in kitchen, and rear entry.”

“You’re driving me mad. I don’t think I can wait an hour.”

“Are you handy with tools?”

“I’m not that impatient, thank you.”

 

Rheinhardt leaned over Suzie’s desk, picked up the phone and dialed his office number upside down without looking at the keypad. When Charlie turned his back for a few seconds, Kyrie saw Rheinhardt give Suzie the old eat-out sign. Suzie held his gaze with a cunning smile, her unblushing high-boned vampire cheeks drawn in, lips pouting. Both of them seemed unaware or unconcerned that Kyrie had observed their Machiavellian moment. Suzie had always been runway-model tall. The premarin she had taken for years had blown her breasts up like party balloons. Maybe even a guy as young as Rheinhardt could be attracted. Kyrie knew nothing of Suzie’s sex life but assumed it was still active.

“Meet you in an hour, then,” Kyrie said.

“I’ll be the three-legged man scratching at the front door.”

 

 

 

Chapter Twelve – The Lovers

 

Kyrie’s buyer turned out to be a looky-loo. A long, exasperating showing, a diffident wave and an ‘I’ll talk to my husband.’ Richard was waiting cloven-hoofed in front of 784 Edelweiss by the time she arrived.

“I intend to call you at the office every day without fail and talk dirty to you,” he said.

Wanting to bound up the front stairs and throw open the door for him, she instead walked slowly and deliberately, for the neighbors’ sake. “Why don’t you tell me a little about your research instead?”

“Later, basking in the post-coital afterglow, while we lie intertwined in each others’ arms.”

“I’m wet inside already,” she said, feeling daring.

 

 

The “vaulted master bedroom” had no windows. The wall air conditioning unit’s laboring failed to cool the unseasonable warmth of October. Compressor probably shot. Kyrie finally turned it off, preferring closeness to the noise.

Never undressing in front of her, Richard always preferred to make his big entrance. By the time he first emerged, nude, from the full bath off the master suite, her lewd reverse kowtow, splay-cheeked and heedless of his size, lay in wait for him on the bed, beside a packet of hero-proportioned ultra thins and a tube of K-Y jelly. Anal sex a first for both of them, he’d popped his cork within seconds of entering her. They spent the next ninety minutes going around the world.

Richard, still stiff with desire, lay back on the bed and wiggled his eyebrows licentiously at her. “Hint, hint,” he said.

Kyrie drew herself up her knees and sighed, “Well, here goes.”

She fellated Richard until her jaws ached, watching the strangeness of her own face in the mirror on the bedroom door. Soon she made him come like a fountain of wedding champagne overflowing into her mouth, letting its warmth erupt down over her fingers to touch her plain gold wedding band.

Richard was uncharacteristically speechless.

“Yum,” Kyrie said. “Professorial DNA. Breakfast of Nobel prize winners.”

“Mostly prostatic secretions,” Richard said. “Proteins, cholesterol, fat, enzymes, citric and other acids, complemented by a spritz of clear alkaline fluid from Cowper’s glands. Imagine having a gland named after you. Especially that one. Anyway, the whole wad, at least in a typical robust American male, equals only 36 calories, give or take. I figure you just caught about a granola bar’s worth.”

“Sometimes a list of ingredients is more than a girl needs, or cares, to know,” Kyrie said, wiping her lips on a tissue. “And I thought your field was psychology, not biology.”

“Psychobiology.”

Kyrie propped her head on her elbows and looked at him, her long hair deep red in the soft incandescent light. “When are you going to tell me about your research, Professor? I’m already basking in the afterglow, aren’t you?”

His hand crept down the expanse of her breasts to the delicate downy hair of her belly, down further, into the dark fleece, into her, nudging the hooded boatsman awake again.

“Psychology, biology, genetics, and a bit of criminology,” he said. “It’s our thesis that there are genetic determinants for all human characteristics, even the higher functions such as intelligence. Criminality is our particular interest. We know for instance that the double-y chromosome predisposes its unfortunate possessor to criminality of a particularly brutal sort, witness the late Richard Speck. Query whether an individual possesses the notorious double-y or whether it possesses him.”

“‘The Double-y’. Sounds like the name of a ranch,” she said, her voice quavering from his attentions.

“It’s not a bad analogy,” he said. “The double-y is like a brand, a mark of Cain predictor of criminality, of violence and aggression. We hypothesize that all criminal behavior is genetic in origin. We’re seeking to prove our hypothesis one gene at a time. For instance, is there in women, comparable to the double-y, a sex-linked criminal gene or gene combination? A biochemical blueprint for delinquent behavior? We think there is. Have you ever heard of the ‘Dogtown Debs’ studies?”

“No. Should I have?”

“Not unless your field is criminology and you know the literature. The Dogtown Debs were a girl gang in the late fifties, based in south Saint Louis but they’d take road trips all over. Holdups were their specialty, with a twist. One or two of them would hit on some unsuspecting man and pretend to seduce him. About the time things got hot and heavy, the others would appear out of nowhere, hold a gun on him and make off with his wallet while it was still in his pants.”

“I’ll bet they were all pointy-bra’d Ed Wood types. Sounds lucrative.”

“It was, until one john, not too far from here, actually, fought a little too zealously for his trousers and got shot to death for his trouble. The five Debs were all apprehended, adjudicated juvenile delinquents and turned over to the Illinois Youth Authority. The Debs were the Spice Girls of juvenile delinquency back in the ‘fifties. They were studied and studied by every University of Chicago aspiring psychologist, sociologist and criminologist needing a subject for his doctoral dissertation. Although they went all over the map in their findings, every one of these studies concluded that no single determining factor pointed these five girls to a life of crime: not home life, not early childhood, not family constellation, not education, not economic deprivation, not comic books. The one factor everybody had totally ignored at the time was genetics.”

“Maybe it’s not too late to track them down for a follow-up study.”

“My very thought. The problem is, that’s where the Dogtown Debs pass into legend. They escaped, or at least four of them did. During one of the interviews, they were left unattended, simply got up during a break and walked away from an unsecured U of Chi classroom while nobody was looking, hopped a CTA bus and disappeared. It was a great academic embarrassment. The newspapers at the time were full of accusations and recriminations.”

“What about the fifth one?”

“When the grad eggheads came back from the rest room, there she was waiting for them, doodling dirty pictures on the blackboard. She wasn’t the trigger gal anyway; at least nobody thought so at the time. She got released at age eighteen. The rest were never found.”

“So your study hopes to prove they went bad because of some bad seed? That idea went out with phrenology, didn’t it?”

His raised eyebrows and sly smile acknowledged the reference. “‘The Stone of Folly’, Lombroso’s measurements, and now this. It’s politically incorrect, we’ll grant you.”

“What do you mean ‘we’?”

“I’ll introduce you to my research partner. It’s time you met Joey.”

“Ok,” she said, her curiosity piqued, “but we have to make one stop first. I promised myself I’d check in on my dad.”

“All in good time, my Dear,” he said, his meaning conspicuous. “All in good time.”

 

 

Black Forest Care Center was a single-story modern building set far back from the street. Walking in side-by-side with Richard, Kyrie thought she detected alarm on the face of the day nurse seated behind the semicircular counter separating the patient rooms from the visiting area in front. Without slackening her brisk step, Kyrie waved her fingers in greeting as she passed. The nurse called out, “Ms. Wilde!” and scrambled after her like a code-blue. Out of breath, she blocked Kyrie’s way to the corridor.

“I’m afraid now may not be the ideal time for a visit,” she said, forcing an institutional smile. “He’s been a little more, well, aggressive than you may be accustomed to seeing him.”

“I’m not accustomed to seeing him walking the streets unattended at eleven o’clock at night, either,” Kyrie said. The woman’s startled expression was all the acknowledgement she needed. “He escaped again, didn’t he? He escaped again and I wasn’t informed. I’m going back there to see him. Now. You try and stop me and I’ll yank him out of here so fast your cap will fly off, Florence Nightingale!”

Following Kyrie, Richard smiled, then shrugged at the discomfited nurse.

Dr. Wilde lay spread-eagled on his bed. Kyrie gave a short wail when she discovered the leather wrist and ankle restraints binding him.

“He’s not violent,” she hissed at the nurse, who had followed at a safe distance. “Take him out of these or I’ll report you to the authorities.” Consternation incarnate, the nurse obeyed without a word.

“Sugar Bear,” Dr. Wilde said, surprised to see Kyrie, triggering her memory of running and jumping onto her parents’ bed at the age of five. He fixed Richard with his good eye. “Hiya, Charlie. Pleased to meet you, at last.”

Kyrie was about to correct him, but Richard acknowledged the greeting and embraced her dad like an old friend.

“You taking good care of this little sugar bear of mine?” Dr. Wilde asked him.

“Well, I’m doing the best I can, Sir.”

“I know you are. I can see it in her eyes. The eyes are the windows of the soul, you know. A dad can always sense these things. He knows when his daughter’s happy.” Then Dr. Wilde turned to Kyrie and asked, “How’s your mother?”

“Same as ever,” Richard answered for her, probably concerned by the look of shock evident on Kyrie’s face.

“I could have sworn I saw you out walking last night, Dad, up by Wolffs’ old house,” Kyrie began.

“The damnedest thing,” Dr. Wilde said, looking out the window. “I was watching Nightline last evening when Verna Hoffmann called and asked me to go meet her up there. I got a little turned around. By the time I found the old place, believe it or not the damn thing was on fire. So I left. Still don’t know what it was she wanted. Guess I should call her up and ask her. I keep forgetting.”

“Never mind, Daddy,” Kyrie said. “I’ll ask her for you at church. You know you really shouldn’t leave here without telling anybody. I can take you wherever you want to go if you’ll just call me.”

“Why doesn’t your mother ever come and visit me? Is she still mad about what happened at the Manassas Hotel?”

“No, Daddy. She forgives you,” Kyrie said, near tears. They sat in silence for several minutes. Dr. Wilde’s good eye wandered from the blank TV screen to his daughter’s face and back again. Once he seemed to focus on Richard, who nodded and smiled. When an overdeveloped twenty-year-old CNA student came in to check on him and showed her inexperience by turning her back, Dr. Wilde reached under her white skirt with unsuspected speed and goosed her Argus-eyed. Her whoop split the air.

“You wanna mark your menu?” she asked, after sitting down and regaining some of her composure.

“How about a mutton sandwich, with a little piece of ewe?”Dr. Wilde said.

The young woman removed one big white corrugated-sole nurse’s shoe to massage her instep.

“If it’s on there, Darlin’, mark it and I’ll bring it to you,” she said with a crooked smile. Turning to Kyrie and Richard, she added, “I just started here, but all the other girls have been telling me how Dr. Wilde is a real sweetie. I think we’re going to get along just fine.”

A sense of urgency seemed to seize Dr. Wilde. “Sugar Bear, Charlie, don’t let me keep you,” he said. “She’s going to want to feed me pretty soon.” He winked his good eye at the CNA.

 

 

On the way to the parking lot, Richard said, “Fascinating. I’d love to know more of his history.”

“I don’t know you well enough yet,” she said, thinking of her impetuous revelations to Snow Seal.

“Just tell me one thing. What did he mean by the Manassas Hotel? Is that a long-term or a short-term memory?”

“In his mid-forties, instead of a mid-life career change, Daddy apparently decided he was gay, that he’d really been gay all his life. I don’t know all the details myself, but he’d met his, well, paramour there, at the Manassas Hotel. It’s a roach farm downtown. The gay crowd favored it at the time, I’m told, because the name makes a kind of rude pun. My mother found out about it, about the affair. He’d written her a note confessing everything. The grief and shame of it were too much for her. She killed herself with a shotgun on my twenty-second birthday. So I guess that makes it a long-term memory, at least for me.”

They had reached her car. “It’s been documented,” Richard said, “that patients with gunshot injuries to the brain can often recover a good portion of their faculties over time, even their memories, other than those immediately preceding and following the ballistic insult. In the meantime, they confabulate.”

“They what?” Kyrie asked, distracted.

“Their minds fill in the blanks, supplying plausible but false memories which they perceive to be the truth. What caliber did he use?”

She fumbled for her keys, dropped them onto the pavement. “I—I don’t know. Some little target pistol, I think. A twenty-two, does that sound right?”

“Phineas Gage,” he said.

“What?”

He kissed her on the crown of her head. “The famously unfortunate Phineas Gage was a nineteenth-century railroad worker in Vermont,” he said. “An explosion on the job drove a one-inch diameter iron bar through his head, shivering his skull and piercing his frontal lobe, doing massive damage. Although experiencing only transitory loss of consciousness at the time of his injuries, he suffered a profound loss of impulse control thereafter, manifested by gross sexual immorality and total inability to restrain his appetites. He was given to intemperate explosions of profanity and emotion at the least provocation. He was noted by his fellow workers to have undergone a complete change in personality. But he survived.”

“What does this have to do with Daddy?”

“There is no reported case in the literature, to my knowledge, of brain injury such as your father’s causing a change in sexual preference. And he’s completely unaware of your mother’s suicide. I assume someone has told him?”

“Of course. He seems to block it out. That’s why he—did what he did, you know. He wanted to join her.”

“Probably psychogenic retrograde amnesia,” Richard said. “But there seems to be no problem with anterograde amnesia. He recalls recent events, unless he’s confabulating.”

“Of course he is, Richard. You don’t believe Verna called him last night, do you? To go visit her in the twin house? There’s no phone up there. She was probably already dead by ten-thirty-five when Nightline comes on.”

“What about a cell phone? Did she carry one? All you realtors do, don’t you?”

“Did you see one anywhere near her body? You had as good a look as I did, maybe better.”

“Unless the killer took it with him.”

She did not speak again until the car was well away from the Black Forest Care Center. “Do you suppose,” she said, “that the killer was there both times, at the same time we were, I mean? Maybe watching us? It’s really too much of a coincidence, don’t you think? What if the killer knew each of the victims, had their confidence, and lured them to a quiet place where he could kill them?”

Richard shook his head and looked at his palms. “I don’t know,” he said. “There was never a sound either time, and no signs of a struggle. I can’t look at a body and tell you the time of death. I don’t have the training. Maybe Joey could, but I can’t. It seems as if there should have been more noise, more activity, though, even if you’re correct in your assumption.”

“I’m not assuming anything,” she said. “I just can’t help feeling responsible, somehow.”

 

 

When they reached the CIU campus, Richard had to direct Kyrie along the winding, bicycle-pathed streets to the Biology department. She had taken an intro course there eleven years ago, and felt frustrated needing his help to find the building, a local architectural marvel resembling a huge alien spaceship landed in a clearing, hunting for indigenous life forms to abduct.

They found Joey in a laboratory where the nearest thing to any life forms were the computers. Phi Beta Kappa key dangling from his platinum wristlet, he held up a tarot card-sized x-ray film to the fluorescent light, inspecting a pattern that looked like a bar code.

“Kyrie Wilde, meet Joey Mendelssohn, one of the most brilliant minds working in the field of forensic and research genetics today. Joey, I’d like you to meet Kyrie, my fiancée.”

With an exasperated sigh at Richard’s presumption, Kyrie nevertheless managed a smile, taking Joey’s sweaty palm in hers for an introductory handshake. To her surprise, he jumped to attention, heels together, clasping her hand in both of his.

“At last we meet. I’ve heard so much about you. Other than our work, Richard speaks of little else.” There was something vaguely juvenile and military prep school about Joey’s mannerisms. His pale-blond hair cropped severely close to the scalp, he looked too young to shave. His bright blue eyes darted from her to Richard, then back again, like a child of divorced parents hoping desperately for a reconciliation.

“As one of his many talents, Joey does Cellmark-quality DNA work here at the CIU lab,” Richard said. “In fact, he’s been tapped by the Black Forest police to analyze the seminal material found on a murder victim at a recent crime scene, isn’t that right, Joey?”

Joey gave a bashful tilt of his head. “I’m supposed to keep that confidential, Richard. But I guess it’s all right, seeing it’s Kyrie, and all.” Only then did Joey release his grasp of her hand. “Are you familiar with autoradiography, Kyrie? Recombinant DNA?”

She shook her head.

“The scientific process is foolproof. All we need now is a suspect.”

“You sound pretty sure.”

“Oh, the probability of a mismatch is infinitesimal,” Joey said. “DNA is more reliable than a fingerprint. Once we test the right subject’s DNA and compare it to the sample, we’ll have Peg Krause’s killer.”

“You mean you can tell just by looking?” Kyrie asked him.

“Now you’re getting into Richard’s and my research territory.”

“Really?”

“We’re nearly ready to begin testing some preliminary hypotheses,” Joey said. “While we’re definitely in the pre-publication stages, Richard somewhat prematurely has settled on a choice of two titles.”

“Oh, tell me, Joey,” Kyrie said.

“Very well,” Joey said, looking uncertainly to Richard as though for approval. “It is our thesis that there is an undiscovered sex-linked gene which determines female criminality and antisocial behavior, just like the double-y chromosome in males. We intend to place ourselves in the running for the next Nobel prize for science by mapping that very gene. Isn’t that right, Richard?”

“Precisely.”

“Richard and his assistants have done complete psychological profiles on twelve hundred female student volunteers who are paid a modest stipend and given undergraduate credit for participating in the study,” Joey explained. “Blood samples are drawn from each of them. These samples are analyzed in much the same manner as I have described to you. Those with a criminal history are identified by means of a confidential questionnaire, and compared with a statistically significant non-criminal control group.”

“Students with criminal histories are allowed to enroll at CIU?” Kyrie asked with mild surprise.

“You’d be amazed at the number,” Joey replied. “The university doesn’t have the capacity or the inclination to run a background or security check on matriculating students. We’re under a financial austerity program. Whatever the prospective enrollee puts down on his or her application is accepted without question, like the honor system. If a particular student becomes a problem or an embarrassment, expulsion is always possible if they are discovered to have lied on their application about having a criminal record. However, our study guarantees our young women’s questionnaire responses will remain sacrosanct from secondary disclosure by means of a double-blind. It’s our little secret.”

“Have any of these volunteers admitted to serious crimes?”

“Depends what you mean by serious,” Richard offered. “There’ve been quite a few drug offenders, of course. Thefts. Property crimes. Assaults. Even one murder.”

Kyrie gripped the lab counter. “You mean to tell me one of the little coed volunteers in your study admitted to murdering somebody? On a questionnaire? How?”

“She blackened the right circle,” Richard said with a shrug. “You have to understand all this is protected by therapist/patient privilege. Moreover, as Joey mentioned, it’s a double-blind study where the volunteer is identified only by a number and a blood sample.”

“I mean, who did she kill? When? How?”

“The data is not that fine-tuned,” Richard said. “We’re fortunate to have her included in our pool of subjects, though. Who knows how long we might have had to search otherwise before finding a murderess in the general female population?”

“Unless you can find one of the Dogtown Debs, right, Richard?” Joey snorted.

“I thought that trail was about fifty years cold,” Kyrie said.

“Apparently you two haven’t been sleeping together as often as I’d thought,” Joey said. “Hasn’t he told you? Richard thinks he’s nearly tracked them down. To Black Forest, Illinois no less.”

 

 

 

Chapter Thirteen – The Hanged Man

 

“Like seeing my first nigger,” Tippi was saying to Charlie, her face trained away as usual from Kyrie at the dinner table. “Scared me half out of my wits. Albinos are the same thing as niggers, only without the pigment. No granddaughter of mine’s going out on any dates with any white niggers. Not while I’m alive.”

Lori sat in mute rage. Tippi raised her voice even louder, for her granddaughter’s supposed benefit. “Decent boys won’t touch a girl after she’s been with the colored. It was true forty years ago and it’s still true today.” Her pronunciation of forty sounded like farty. Larry laughed.

“Shut up,” Lori said to him. “He’s not that way,” she pleaded with Charlie. “He already took me out once, skating. Everything went fine. Mom came along.”

“Oh, well,” Tippi rolled her eyes. “As long as Mom thinks it’s all right to make a spectacle of yourself, dating a freak of nature, I guess that’s all right, then. Whatever Mom thinks is right.”

“Tippi…” Kyrie glared at her mother-in-law. She dreaded confrontation, sought to avoid it at all costs, especially at mealtime. Her parents had always bickered with each other, vying for her attentions, contending with each other whether she had had enough to eat, whether she was eating enough nourishing food, getting enough vitamins, every meal, year upon year, even after she had packed on all the humiliating cocoon of flesh, a burden she would carry until well after her twenty-second birthday and her mother’s death. Why wouldn’t Charlie say something, anything, in her defense?

“Yes?” Tippi’s icy tone might have been directed at an insolent salesgirl or a cheeky waitress. Charlie shoveled in another mouthful of corned beef. Kyrie didn’t know whether to loathe or pity him. Strange, she thought to herself, that she harbored no fear of him, despite the ARDC complaint and the dreadfully incriminating trophy she’d found in his safety deposit box. At the moment, she had pity only for herself and fear only of Tippi.

“Would you care for more vegetables?” she asked Tippi in defeat. Tippi’s unwavering stare at her, over the table Kyrie had set and the dinner she had prepared but would scarcely eat, seemed to take predatory notice of her for the first time that evening. An unloving omniscient glower, devoid of compassion or empathy, hating her beyond reason.

Charlie looked up from his plate as if he’d thought of something. “You’ll never guess what Suzie told me today,” he said, chewing and swallowing as he spoke. “Did you know she’s been in reform school? Industrial School for Girls. Boy, it really blew me away when she let that slip.”

Kyrie saw Tippi blanch. The stare abated. “I don’t believe it,” Tippi said. “That girl’s been known to tell tales. Don’t you believe everything you hear from that one. The closest she’s ever been to Geneva is the Kane County Flea Market.”

“You’re the one who recommended me to hire her, Ma. And who said anything about Geneva?”

“I didn’t recommend her, exactly, I only knew she had worked for Big Charlie and that she wanted to try something different. You needed a legal secretary when you were just starting out, and I thought you’d be better served by someone of her…maturity. That’s all. You’re the one who mentioned the Industrial School for Girls in Geneva.” Tippi removed her napkin from her lap and flung it down like a gauntlet. “And I won’t be cross-examined at the dinner table. Not by a young man I paid to send through law school! What in the world has gotten into everybody in this family?” She shook her head as though fighting tears and bolted for her bedroom. Moments later, the sounds of a horse opera blared from her television.

“Been with the colored,” Larry mush-mouthed.

“Shut up, I mean it,” Lori said. “Daddy, don’t listen to her. Derek is nice. Ask Mom.”

“Lori,” Charlie said, “your grandmother is in tears. Don’t you care at all about her feelings? This Derek person frightened her to death; she practically lives on antidepressants as it is. I really don’t think it’s a good idea for you to see him anymore, for her sake. In fact, I forbid it. Now go and see about Grandma.”

Lori screamed “I hate you!” and ran from the room, upsetting her chair over backwards where it crashed onto the quarry tile floor. Her bedroom door slammed and locked.

Charlie looked at the kitchen clock. “Is that thing right? Is it seven o’clock already?”

“Yes. Why?” Kyrie replied.

“I’m expecting an important call, if that’s all right with you,” Charlie muttered. He left the table, plaintively called Lori’s name a couple of times through her closed bedroom door, then slipped into the master bedroom..

“Looks like just you and me, Mom,” Larry said with an ironic grin. “Hey, wait here, I want to show you something. I blew up one of those pictures from the camera you gave me.”

“I didn’t exactly give it to you, Larry.”

“Whatever.” Larry disappeared into his room for about thirty seconds, returning with a picture featuring an indistinct image of a license-plate holder. The plate read PAISAN.

“That’s from the Ferrari parked out in front of the duplex,” Larry said. “I told you, seven meg is awesome.” He picked up the phone. “I’m going to see if Jason wants to hang out. Ok?”

Kyrie shrugged, still holding the picture by its edges.

Larry hung up before dialing. “Dad’s online again.” he said. “We need to dump that dialup and get DSL. Or at least put in a dedicated line for the Net.”

“Why do I have to overnight you two plane tickets?” Charlie whispered into the headset. “What about my credit card? I already gave him my master card number.”

“The stupid credit card would not work. I think it is a phony piece of crap, like you are too perhaps. Two tickets, by ten AM next day. Remember, I and my gentleman friend travel only first class. Unless of course you are having second thoughts about our meeting.”

The woman gave Charlie a post-office box in Torrance, California. Then she said, “You will reserve the hotel room for us. The best suite. Nothing less will do.”

“I have reservations already. The Manassas Hotel. It’s an elegant old—”

“No!” she shouted into the phone, with a force that startled Charlie. “I told you, it must be near the airport. There are no elegant old hotels by the airport. We will not stay in your rathole. Ten AM, next day. See that you do not forget.”

Charlie said, “I won’t forget. You’ll see, I’ll arrange everything.”

“How will you arrange to satisfy my gentleman friend before meeting me? Have you made up your mind, resolved yourself to be humiliated by another man, a strange man in a hotel room, and to pay for this high privilege?”

“Well, I wanted to talk to you about that,” Charlie said in an anxious whisper. “I’d prefer to avoid that part of it, if you could see your way clear to meet me one-on-one instead, this time.”

“What?” A man’s deep voice, contemptuous and angry. “You’ll play it our way or not at all, Charlie.” The man talked like a drill sergeant, addressing him as though his name were an obscenity. “Before you get to do your weird shit with her, I will make you my little girlfriend. The things I’m gonna make you do will be an absolute fucking disgrace. Do we understand each other, maggot?”

“As long as you understand—”

“Overnight the God damn tickets, gal-boy. John Wayne Airport to Black Forest-Dutch Hollow Regional, nonstop. Two first-class round trips.”

“There are no direct flights. I’ve already explained to your friend. You’ll have to stop over in Chicago—”

They were offline. With self-revulsion, Charlie realized he had been absent-mindedly touching himself while talking with the man.

 

 

Too upset even to utter the “highest good for all concerned” incantation, Lori shook her Book of the Dead tarot cards loose like demons from a Pandora’s box. Through her tears she watched the garish figures spill out onto the bedroom carpet. She shuffled them furiously, then began laying out the Great Figure of Destiny—the grand ambitious spread unveiling the past, present and future in a seamless skein of divination. Disturbing cards presented themselves right away. All the really Goth cards lined up like faces on an occult Mount Rushmore.

The Hanged Man. Upside down, no less. Questioning of cherished beliefs and values. Disenchantment. Perversion.

The Devil. Bondage to evil. Menace and peril near at hand. Wickedness personified and enthroned.

The Tower. Calamity and ruin. Macabre revelations. Dire consequences. Unspeakable change.

Lori cast down card after card, until the Great Figure of Destiny was complete. A linear progression of cards at the top. Two semicircular configurations below it, forming catlike eye slits. In the midst of it all a circle, staring unblinking like a third, evil orb. The Fool stood at the circle’s center, in the vortex, surrounded by this Stonehenge of cards.

The Fool was the reader in this case: Lori. Who says the Tarot is mere chance? Lori didn’t know the odds of her dealing the Fool card so that it appeared right at the center of the circle in the Great Figure, but they must be, like, astronomical. She’d have to get out her math book and try to figure those odds later.

Far to the left, into distant future, Lori saw the Sun and the World. A happy ending. The Moon was there, too, with plenty of encouragement from the minor arcana, especially coin and cup suits. Romance and prosperity abounding, with Snow Seal at her side.

She would continue to date Snow Seal, only secretly. It was predestined in the cards. Maybe her stepmom would cover for her.

Her stepmom. The Empress was her card tonight. Threatened on every side by the forces of evil, even after Lori had shuffled thoroughly. The Devil, the Tower and the Hanged Man lurked too near Kyrie’s significator card to be safely ignored. Death was closest of all. Only the Hierophant offered any encouragement.

Lori needed to warn her. A warning to be very careful.

The cards never lied.

 

 

“Hello, Tippi.” New Age music in the background, out of the ether. Valdemar, as always, ready for her call.

“More trouble, Valdemar.”

“Indeed.” Inscrutable as any psychiatrist, Valdemar waited for her to go on.

“People close to me are not who they seem. Not who they pretend to be, even though the likenesses are almost perfect,” Tippi said.

“I saw the Hanged Man, the Devil and the Tower in juxtaposition before you spoke one word, Tippi. There is much in what you say.”

“Valdemar, what do these things mean?”

Valdemar seemed to ponder her question in the musical silence. Finally he said, “What meaning do they have for you?”

“How in hell should I know? You’re the psychic.”

“You are much more psychic than you know, Tippi, more finely attuned. The Tarot, particularly, speaks best to a sensitive like yourself, someone whose awareness extends far beyond her five senses.”

“I know this much, Valdemar. For a long time now, I’ve been suspecting various people. Do you know what a Doppelganger is?”

“Of course. A spiritual double to a living person.”

“Except that these are no ghosts. They’re solid flesh and blood clones of people I know, people I would have trusted with my life. Did trust with my life, as a matter of fact.”

“Is your daughter-in-law, Kyrie, one of these Doppelgangers?”

Tippi’s sharp intake of breath betrayed her amazement at Valdemar’s abilities. “Yes, and she’s not the only one, either.”

“Tell me, how did you discern this change?”

“I’ve suspected her for some time, but she finally gave herself away tonight at dinner, screamed at me without cause, brought me to tears. If I don’t expose her soon, she’ll destroy my son and my grandchildren, too.”

“How did you first come to suspect her?”

“It always starts with one of them looking in through the windows at me at night, bold as brass. Before I know it, they’ve disposed of the real person and assumed their identity. This thing is sleeping with my son, having sexual relations with him, and with God knows who else. It’s totally amoral, you see. It’s not human.”

“Have you informed anyone else? The authorities? Your son, perhaps?”

“You’re the only other person in the whole world who knows this is happening. They know I’m onto them. That’s why they peek in my windows at night like goblins, taunting me, daring me to try and stop what they’re doing. Once I see a face at the window three nights running, then the double replaces that person. You can set your watch by it. I never know whose face I’m going to see next at the window, and always with the same scary-looking expression. Like they’ve been watching us all our lives, invisibly, just waiting for the chance to take our places. Unfeeling imposters.”

“And yet these are not spirits?”

“Demons taking on human form, maybe. Or space aliens. One of them is trying to date my granddaughter. Came right up on the porch this afternoon in broad daylight.”

“How can you recognize one of them?”

“They have dead eyes. They can’t get the eyes right. They have no souls. People say the eyes are the windows of the soul.”

“Someone I once knew often said that.”

“Are they coming after me, Valdemar? Is that why they’re not afraid of showing themselves to me? Will I see my own face at the window next, leering back at me like something demented?”

Valdemar turned the cards. Time passed. “You must call me for daily readings from now on, without fail. This phenomenon must be observed carefully. We must remain watchful together, you and I.”

“Anything else?”

“Your coins cards are clustering around the major arcana portending evil. Tell me, Tippi, are you hoarding money anywhere, money that could be a snare to you?”

“My husband left me well off when he died.”

“No, I’m talking about money that may be the fruit of a crime. Lies may have been told over this money, yes?”

Tippi let four more dollars of her inheritance slip away before answering Valdemar. “Supposing there were such money, what does that have to do with what’s happening around me?”

“The answer to your question is obvious, isn’t it? You have to get rid of that money. All of it. There’s a curse on it. Put it away from you as soon as possible, and these things you fear will flee from you and follow the accursed money. That’s what they’re interested in. You’re merely in their way.”

“How do I get rid of it properly? To break the curse?”

“How do you get rid of anything you don’t want anymore? Simply put it in the garbage can and take it out to the street. Do it tonight, Tippi. There’s not a moment to lose.”

Tippi hung up the phone and sat in silence. The muted television cast flickering shadows across her bedroom. After many minutes she opened her closet, removed an old fishing tackle box from its hiding place and opened it on the bed. Silver coins glimmered in the dim light. Old silver, not today’s devalued copper-centered Oreos. She felt for the stacked bundles of silver certificates nestled under the tackle trays. Still there.

A sound like a groan outside her window. Tippi slammed the tackle box shut, afraid to raise her eyes to look out. With a furtive glance, she confirmed her worst fear. Valdemar’s suggestion had been prophetic.

Her own face leered back at her through the darkened window pane in greedy, unearthly caricature. Only the eyes were wrong.

 

 

 

Chapter Fourteen – Temperance

 

 

It seemed the entire congregation of Saint Mark’s and most of the town of Black Forest had turned out for Verna’s funeral. Kyrie walked down the aisle of the crowded church alone, wearing the new black dress she had bought for the occasion. Charlie was at the office. Charlie was always at the office. He had never set foot inside a church all the years of their marriage. Not even their wedding was in a church. Well, at Charlie’s church, maybe: the courthouse. The chief judge had performed the ceremony with two bailiffs as witnesses. Tippi had refused to attend.

Although the church was nearly packed, she spotted one seat open midway down a center pew, next to Glenn Mumper. Poor Glenn, awkward and shy, seemed lost after his wife had left him. Kyrie couldn’t imagine anyone marrying Glenn in the first place. He was fiftyish, grizzled and haggard after working for the same insurance company for years, adjusting claims. Charlie always spoke disparagingly about Glenn Mumper, Fidelity Founders Insurance Company, how cheap he was, what a lowball artist. Everybody in the family knew all about Glenn Mumper, Fidelity Founders, from Charlie bitching incessantly about him at the dinner table. Behind his back Charlie referred to him as “calling-hour Glenn, last of the old-time widow robbers.” To Kyrie, Glenn seemed a nice man, almost painfully soft-spoken. Week after week he sat silently by in adult discussion group before church, seemingly afraid to open his mouth. Strange for a man who did almost all his business by telephone. Maybe he was a different person on the phone.

Next to Glenn on the side opposite was Jim Rheinhardt, probably schmoozing him about a pending case. Kyrie, excusing herself, slipped past Rheinhardt. His knees brushed against her thigh, accidentally on purpose. He looked up at her like she had her top off.

“This is weird,” he stage-whispered. “I know I’ve seen you somewhere before.” It still sounded like a pass.

Kyrie sat down, said, “Hello, Glenn,” and gave him a funeral-appropriate subdued smile. Glenn met her glance for an instant before his eyes darted away again. Still shy as ever.

“Ms. Wilde,” he acknowledged. He may have blushed; it was difficult to tell given the overall pallor of his complexion.

With house-counting eyes, Kyrie noted that nearly all the members of the Black Forest-Dutch Hollow Board of Realtors were in attendance, except for Boris Day. She couldn’t find Boris. Maybe he was Russian Orthodox or something and wasn’t allowed in a protestant church, she guessed.

She spotted Anna Geist near the front. No problem for her to find a black dress to wear; all her wardrobe was black, her signature couture, in stark contrast to her ash-blond hair, now piled high like a Teutonic Queen’s headdress. The hair accentuated Anna’s height of over six feet. Next to Anna was a shapely young woman Kyrie had never seen before. She was attractive, but her nose seemed oddly bent out of shape. Occasionally they would lean and whisper to each other.

Reverend Hoffmann, impassive as stone, sat behind the pulpit from where the eulogies were spoken over Verna’s gleaming silver casket surrounded by floral arrangements in the center of the church. Kyrie at one point and as discreetly as possible looked behind her to check who else had come in, and saw the red light of the video camera trained at the pulpit for local access cable broadcasting.

Although Reverend Hoffmann looked too despondent to speak at all, at the last minute he stood and gazed out over the crowd, his deep-purple robe in austere contrast to his white, leonine hair. His craggy, once-handsome face now appeared hollow-eyed and old, perhaps ten years older than when Kyrie had last seen him less than a week ago. More than one member of the congregation gasped at the transformation. His big-knuckled but now unsteady hand trembled as he gripped the pulpit.

Even Rheinhardt expressed shock, in the only way he knew. “Holy shit,” he said under his breath. Glenn pursed his lips and shook his head.

“Verna,” Reverend Hoffmann began in a tired voice, “worked, as realtors do, to provide homes for families. She didn’t have to work; she wanted to work. She was a woman dedicated to her calling. She found satisfaction in service, in finding homes for deserving people, in giving them and their families hope and comfort for the future. That was her stewardship, that is what she was doing the night she died.” His voice broke then under the strain. He gripped the pulpit with both gnarled hands.

“Now the Lord has called Verna home, to a mansion He had prepared for her before the foundation of the world.” A male voice from the back of the church said “amen,” startling Kyrie. Saint Mark’s congregation wasn’t usually so vocally demonstrative.

“Now Verna knows that Peace which passeth all understanding,” Reverend Hoffmann continued, his emotion rising. “Her body may have been ravaged by earthly flames; her soul shall be forever untouched by the unquenchable fire. She has truly gone on to abundant life in Jesus Christ.” He set his jaw and looked out over the congregation like the captain of a ship.

“We, too, must keep watch over our souls and wait, must wash ourselves from every stain of sin, so that each and every one of us, like Verna, may one day inherit a heavenly mansion prepared for us in the house of the Lord. Let us pray.” He bowed his head. The congregation followed suit. Kyrie, head bent and eyes closed, heard Rheinhardt sigh with what might have been impatience or scorn.

Reverend Hoffmann prayed for Verna’s soul to have everlasting life in Heaven. He prayed for all members of the congregation and all present to avoid the tempter’s snare and not fall into sin. Finally he prayed for understanding of the tragedy. Kyrie was in tears before he had finished. Glenn handed her a kleenex.

At the big double doors of the church, all offered their condolences to Reverend Hoffmann. When it was Kyrie’s turn, she embraced him moist-eyed. As she started to leave, he held her hand in both of his and said, “Come by the church tomorrow. I want to give you something of Verna’s. She would have wanted you to have it.” Kyrie patted his hand and thanked him, too emotional to say anything else, guarding against dissolving completely in tears.

Rheinhardt waited for her, leaning against the railing at the foot of the concrete church steps. Glenn had already disappeared.

“Walk you to your car?” he said. She nodded.

“You know, I told you I never forget a face,” he said. “I have a photographic memory. I just have to throw it a bone now and then. It was the crying that set it off this time. The particular way your face scrunches up when you do that. It was DuPage County, wasn’t it?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Kyrie pretended nonchalance, but her heart was a caged wild bird fluttering to burst forth from its prison.

“You sure shit have lost a helluva lot of weight since then, Charlie was right about that,” he said, eyes wide and smiling. “How much you weigh now, about one twenty-five?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “You must have lost half your body weight. A whole shit load, right?”

“My friend just died and we’re burying her, in case you haven’t noticed, Rheinhardt. Spare me the trip down memory lane.”

“Nobody’s burying anybody,” Rheinhardt sneered. “Verna’s being cremated. Talk about your redundancy.”

Kyrie’s heart told her to slap Rheinhardt for his last remark, but her natural reticence prevailed. She walked faster; still Rheinhardt dogged her pace, hanging behind her like a floorwalker at a furniture store. She opened her car door and fastened her belt. Rheinhardt blocked the door. In easy conversational style, he said, “It was a guilty plea hearing, wasn’t it? You went by the name ‘Carrie Wilde’ for the occasion. Did pretty well for a class two felony, as I recall—non-reporting probation and court-ordered counseling on the felony, drop the DUI. I guess they just wanted you out of Dodge.”

“I still don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I told you, I’ve got a photographic memory,” Rheinhardt said. “I remember you could have heard a pin drop after that assistant got done reciting the evidence against you. It was so damn comical.”

Kyrie relived the scene again, like her life flashing before her eyes. The bored, cynical assistant state’s attorney: the devil’s advocate, at first fighting to be heard over the din of lawyers making deals in the crowded courtroom as he began to read the charges, what the People hoped to prove, from a looseleaf manila folder. A file haphazard as his manner. Then, as the scandalous accusations in the offer of proof unfolded in all their lurid detail, the unruly courtroom seemed spontaneously to come to order, the sound level lowering by decibels with every disreputable imputation. Sexual insinuations unnecessary to the crime, but meant only as entertainment for the spectators. General laughter, then even more profound and prurient silence prevailed.

All true. Hurtful, more hurtful and ugly than any slurs about her body weight. Making a spectacle of her, a figure for public humiliation. Lawyers after hours over cocktails would talk and laugh about her shame, even drink to it.

The judge, the assistant, the arresting officer, even her own attorney, all men. The officer who’d arrested her had lounged in the jury box with a smirk on his face the whole time the judge gave her the admonitions, heard her guilty plea and entered judgment of conviction.

All true, but unfair and somehow incomplete. She had pled guilty; in fact she had been numb with guilt since that night.

The afternoon of her twenty-second birthday. Her mother pressing her to ‘go out and have a good time, honey. Take my credit cards, take my whole wallet, I’ll be in all weekend anyway. Take my car. Stay out as late as you want.’ A three-hour aimless drive. Too many screwdrivers at a campus bar happy hour in DeKalb. An impulsive roundelay to area shopping malls. A carload of young black men cruising. They had wine, and something stronger, which they offered to her if she’d take a ride with them. A party girl, she’d show them she wasn’t afraid to drink. The cloying fortified wine burned her throat when she’d chug-a-lugged it in big gulps, showing off.

The shy black boy, looking almost scholarly in Malcolm X glasses. Tomorrow was his twenty-first birthday, the others in the car told her. Dateless throughout high school and college, and emboldened by the attention and most of all by the wine, she impetuously offered to give him a “special birthday present” while the others watched. She hadn’t meant it, of course; it was the wine doing all the talking for her. But she had set in motion a force she could not control. When the driver parked the car on a deserted country road and the others gathered around the car offering noisy menacing encouragement, the birthday boy’s shyness seemed to vanish. Panicked, she kicked him where it hurt and threw open the door.

He had been only fifteen years old.

“Got shitfaced and jacked off a nigger boy, didn’t you?” Rheinhardt said. “Cops caught you red-handed, too.”

“What do you want, Rheinhardt?”

“What do I want?” Rheinhardt seemed to muse on his answer. “Let me put it this way,” he said at last. “Some evening real soon what say I have you over to my office for a little after-hours party. An intimate little get-together, no spouses.”

“Suppose I don’t want to play?” Tough girl exterior was the only way to come on with a guy like Rheinhardt.

“Then maybe I’ll tell hubby how his little wifey likes to put out for carloads of spades in the parking lot of the mall. I’m betting that you and my old buddy Charlie never made pillow talk about that little escapade. No midnight confessions from you, right, babe?”

“Maybe I tell my husband more than you realize, Rheinhardt.”

“No, forget it, I’m not buying,” Rheinhardt smiled. “And please, my friends call me ‘Jim’.”

“You’ve got nothing, Rheinhardt.”

He acted like he hadn’t heard her. “And how long do you think they’d let you hang onto your realtor’s license once they find out you lied on your application and left out the felony conviction? You’re looking at some heavy jail time right there, for perjury.”

Kyrie stared at the odometer as if dumbly waiting for it to roll over. Her keys in the ignition sounded a warning bell and a flashing light. Rheinhardt wasn’t finished.

“And what if I tell a certain assistant state’s attorney I know up in DuPage County—who’s a real prick, by the way—that you lied about your name, perpetrated a fraud on the court at that guilty plea hearing. Willfully and contumaciously concealed and misrepresented your true identity to a court of law in a felony case. He might actually move to vacate your probation and return you for re-sentencing. You could even do a stretch up in Dwight. Dyke heaven. How did you pull off that name thing anyway?”

Her mother’s driver’s license. People always said they resembled each other. Two overweight women; they even dressed alike, often wore each other’s clothes. When asked to give her name, she did, truthfully, but Chicago-attuned ears heard Carrie when it was Kyrie she had said.

“Stay away from me, Rheinhardt.”

“Nice-looking broad like you, maybe you have somebody on the side. I bet he dumps you too, this ever comes out locally. Black Forest’s a small town. Small towns are unforgiving, and they have long memories. So you see, I can do you a lot of damage with what I know. Knowledge is power. With no license and no lawyer husband, think about how you’re going to keep that crazy father of yours in the nursing home. They’ll pack him off to some state-run snake pit the minute you stop paying his bills. So think about what I just said, before refusing my kind invitation. And have a nice day.”

Rheinhardt swaggered away like he’d already had his way with her. Kyrie stared at his retreating form with her car door standing open, the reminder bell still tolling.

He can’t prove anything, she told herself. Then she remembered the fingerprints. The cop squirting black ink from a tube onto a pad, rolling each of her fingertips in it one at a time, then onto a paper form bearing the typed name Carrie Wilde. Signing that name on a receipt for her mother’s possessions after a sympathetic and loyal girlfriend, summoned by Kyrie’s tearful call, drove all night to post the three-thousand-dollar bond, drawn from an ATM and representing her whole student loan. Fat girls sticking together. Telling her friend she’d borrow from her father to pay her back, blame it on a credit-card max-out.

Finding the note with egg on it when she got home. A smell like an electrical fire in a butcher shop. Her mother dead on the floor, her face a disassembled jigsaw puzzle from the self-inflicted shotgun blast.

Her mind raced down each angled corridor like a rat in a maze. She had lied about her name, to save face. For all she knew, Rheinhardt was right, and she could be sentenced all over again because of it. It was worse, much worse than the dream where she found herself, naked and fat, back in college at the final exam for her hardest statistics course, her mind a blank and her degree hanging in the balance.

The shame and humiliation of the guilty plea hearing had accomplished what a lifetime of taunts and jeers had failed to do: compel her to lose weight. Slim attractiveness as a disguise against recognition by anyone present at her ceremony of degradation.

Now she had literally reformed herself, cast away the stigma of identity and risen like Botticelli’s Venus as depicted in her art-appreciation textbook. Only Rheinhardt, with his twitching nose and his cocky attitude, held the key to her prison cell and her personal ruin within his photographic memory.

It was true she had lied on her realtor’s license application. Was Rheinhardt right—was there jail in it for her now? And her real estate license: she’d be lost without it. It had been her life’s one great accomplishment, her bridge to financial and personal independence. She’d had the real estate license even before meeting Charlie five-and-a-half years ago.

Charlie. Charlie and Tippi. Knowing nothing of her secret shame. Tippi would hound her out of the house and out of the marriage if anyone told her now. Charlie would stand idly by and let her do it, would accelerate the fifty-thousand-dollar note and plunge her into bankruptcy. What would happen to her father then? A nightmare vision assaulted her, a college student’s memory of that jabbering homeless lunatic who roamed the CIU campus like a specter, no doubt cast off—mainstreamed—from some tax-supported hellhole of a madhouse. He always pissed his pants, then wore them around in public. The students called him “Drip Dry.” Would her father succeed him as CIU’s de facto mascot?

Saint Mark’s carillon bells began to sound: Ivory Palaces, a funeral hymn now for Verna. Ashes in a lachrymal vase would soon be all that was left of her earthly form. Kyrie closed her car door to shut out the bells and drove away.

 

 

When Kyrie returned to the office she found twelve messages waiting for her on her answering machine. A fax from another broker told her the escrowed deeds had to be re-done; there had been a scrivener’s error in the legal description. Charlie was out. Suzie looked up from signing his outgoing afternoon mail and said: “They give Verna a nice sendoff?”

Put off by her choice of words, Kyrie asked, “Did you know Verna, Suzie?”

Suzie shifted her attention to moistening envelopes, drawing the flap of each one in turn over a wide expanse of tongue. “We were kids together,” she said after a pause.

“Well, it was a beautiful service. Very moving. You should have gone.”

“I’m not much for funerals. Or for churches either. I knew Verna way back when, before she started putting on that sanctimonious front of hers.” Suzie had an infuriating manner of always seeming to know more than she was telling.

“What do you mean by that?”

Instead of answering, Suzie scooped up a double armload of mail and carried it the three steps to the postage meter. A switch lighted when she pressed it. The machine began its familiar humming and whirring sound.

“I won’t speak ill of the dead, that’s all.” Suzie fed envelopes into the machine. Each one banged through.

“That new young attorney was there,” Kyrie said, watching Suzie for any change of expression. “You know him. That Jim Rheinhardt?”

Suzie weighed another piece on the digital scale. The postage meter sales rep had managed to sell Charlie a mini post office of equipment. An attractive young man, he had gotten to Charlie through Suzie.

Suzie brightened, then began prattling like a boy-crazy schoolgirl. “Oh, yeah? He’s kinda cute, isn’t he? Enough to give a girl impure thoughts, like they say in church.”

Kyrie pretended to read her fax. “Where’s he from, anyway?”

“Don’t know. He came to town about six months ago and hung out his shingle right down the block. Charlie was real mad at first about him advertising in the paper for new pee eye clients. That’s personal injury,” she added.

“I know, Suzie.”

Suzie let out a horse laugh. “That’s right. Of course you do. You’re the one married to him, aren’t you? Anyhoo, Jim turned out to be just the sweetest guy, even started referring Charlie some pee eye cases. Good ones, too. You know, bad is good in this business. If they’re injured bad, that’s good for business.” She leaned her hip against the counter and stared dreamily out the front window, sighing, “I have a feeling we’re going to like working with him.”

“Don’t you think it’s a little funny, a guy with no real ties to the area comes down here out of the blue and opens up a law office? In Black Forest, Illinois, no less?”

“I don’t know. I came here over forty years ago without a friend in the world until Charlie’s dad Big Charlie hired me on. What’s so funny about that?” Suzie shut the postage meter off.

“Nothing, I guess.” Looking at the fax, Kyrie remembered the escrowed deeds. “Suzie, I need a favor. I have to use Charlie’s key to the safety deposit box again.”

“I gotta run these out to the mailbox. It’s in my lap drawer. Help yourself.”

Kyrie searched for the key to the law firm’s box, finally locating it marking Suzie’s place in a steamy romance novel. More red on the cover than the Quotations from Chairman Mao. A painting of a Fabio hunk locked in a wind-machine clinch with a bustiered heroine, both of them astride a white stallion, its nostrils flaring. She removed the law firm key packet, switched keys, then slipped it into her purse, replacing it in the book with the packet that had contained her and Charlie’s personal safety deposit box key. Other than the box number, the two were identical in every way. She waited at the door until Suzie returned from the corner mailbox, then rushed to the bank.

 

 

The elderly attendant, preoccupied with some clerical chore, barely looked up at her when she presented the key. Kyrie signed Charlie’s name again. She saw that Charlie had been in the box earlier that same afternoon, about midway through Verna’s funeral, according to the time punched on the card. She followed the old woman into the vault, removed the box and carried it to a private viewing room. Anxious to retrieve the deeds and get back to her practice, she nearly missed the small oblong shape in one corner of the box. Removing it, she recognized it as a Bluetooth.

The kind Verna always wore.

Something to remember her by?

How had Charlie gotten it?

On an impulse, Kyrie hit the redial button and listened. After fourteen rings, a voice answered: “Black Forest Care Center.”

Kyrie threw the headset into her purse, closed the lid of the box and opened the viewing room door before remembering the deeds she had come for. She turned back to gather those up and tossed them into her purse as well. Then, after summoning the old woman for assistance, she returned the box to the bank vault and rushed out to her car.

Kyrie drove for an hour. Driving helped her think clearly. There were only two situations where she felt at all in control of her life: driving her car and closing a sale. Holding her breath waiting for that one last signature, dreading the one more hesitation or uncertain question that would mean second thoughts—all her work wasted, all the showings at inconvenient evening or weekend hours, all the wear and tear on her wardrobe, her car and her home life gone for nothing.

But it was in her car where she felt in control most of all. Even waiting for one of the endless freight trains, as she was doing now, at the railroad crossing that cut across Black Forest like a Cesarean scar, she felt safe, wrapped in virtual empowerment. She had her satellite radio, her CD player, her Bluetooth. And now Verna’s, too.

While waiting, she decided to practice her love muscle exercises. One time she’d brought herself close to orgasm before the crossing gates lifted to let her pass. She tried again, tensing and relaxing to the cadence of the tank car and boxcar procession. Unspeakable toxic wastes probably carried within them. Several were even marked radioactive. Shocking malignancies transported unnoticed, slithering like a poisonous reptile through her quiet community. Kyrie half-expected to see a skull and crossbones next, as her evocative workout progressed.

She thought of Richard. No, she couldn’t tell him. He would go right to the police with it, to eliminate Charlie, whom he saw as his rival for her. With Richard it was all the law of the jungle: oust the genetic adversary at all costs. If Charlie were sent to prison, the law office would close. Her fledgling real estate practice would be totally inadequate to support a family or pay his legal bills. As suspicions grew in Black Forest’s small-town paranoiac heart, there would be few if any listings. Nothing like a couple of dead bodies to damp down sales.

What if she were accused, charged as an accomplice? She had no alibi; she had been present at both murder scenes. It was she who had the motive in each case, not Charlie. Both women were realtors, hence her competitors. Although Charlie was the subject of Peg’s disciplinary complaint—the certified letter Kyrie now kept concealed inside her green jacket pocket close to her heart—he had no reason to murder Verna, whom he had never met. It was Kyrie, not Charlie, who knew Peg had become a mortal threat to her husband’s professional life. It was Kyrie who had a criminal record she’d kept a secret from everyone until this very moment. And now Rheinhardt was holding that over her head. She knew he wouldn’t waste any time before approaching her again with his insolent, smirking proposition.

True, there was the semen on both corpses, but suppose the police tried to say she and Charlie did it together? What would she say then? I was carrying on an adulterous affair with my buyer at the scene of each crime, at the very time and place of each murder, but it was just a coincidence, officer. What’s that you ask? My buyer’s name? Oh, he happens to be the same guy who reported his suspicions about my husband to you. You know, my husband? The man with the trophies in his safety deposit box? Or do you think it was me hiding the camera and headset there, handing the friendly, helpful little old bank lady a song and dance about a lost key?

The boxcars were followed by a string of empty flatcars. As they passed by, Kyrie noticed for the first time a new billboard on the other side of the tracks. A huge picture of her husband leered down at the traffic over the slogan Charlie and Tippi had finally come up with over the kitchen table, all spelled out in big red letters: Attorney Charles Zweig, Jr.: He Knows Exactly What He’s Doing.

Kyrie marveled then at her own selfishness. If Charlie had indeed murdered two women, what did it matter whether her real estate practice suffered, when weighed in the balance against the compelling need to expose him, bring him to justice and prevent even more killings? Kyrie searched her heart, just like Reverend Hoffmann had always counseled her to do, and realized that she simply could not convince herself that Charlie was guilty. That was why she had never been afraid of him, even after finding Peg’s camera hidden away. There had to be some perfectly innocent reason for Charlie to have the camera, and now Verna’s headset, in his possession. But what was it?

She thought again of Richard. This time the thoughts took on a distinctly erotic flavor. Her pace quickened like a runner’s after a second wind. Her exertions intensified in anticipation, pleasure heightened. Suddenly she stopped.

Joey. The forensic DNA work for the police. She could satisfy herself beyond any doubt whether Charlie was the killer. What was it Joey had said? More reliable than a fingerprint. All she had to do was obtain a sample of Charlie’s semen and have Joey run one of his little lab experiments.

All prospect of solo sexual release had fled from her now. She would have sex with Charlie tonight. Soon she would know whether she had been sleeping with a murderer.

 

 

 

Chapter Fifteen – The One of Cups

 

“Tell me about perjury, Charlie.” Kyrie snuggled naked next to him under the cool sheets. Charlie took off his glasses and set aside the soft-cover Legislative Update he had been reading in bed.

“Perjury? What do you want to hear about that for?”

“I saw something about it on television and I wanted you to explain it to me.”

“Television? It’s like radio with pictures.” Charlie slapped his knees and stage-chuckled over that one. The misdirected non sequitur represented the absolute zenith of humor in his mind. Kyrie forced a smile but persisted.

“No, really. I’m serious.”

“So what do you want to know?”

“Like for instance how long does a person have after committing perjury to get charged with it? Isn’t there some kind of time limit or something?”

“You mean a statute of limitations?” Charlie scratched his head. “Three years, I guess. Why?”

“Just because I find the law interesting.”

“That’s a first. Help yourself. You might learn something.” He roughly tossed the booklet onto her lap.

“What if a person lied to a court about who they are? Is that perjury?”

“Among other things. Could be contempt of court, obstruction of justice, all kinds of charges come to mind, and all of them big trouble.”

To change the subject, Kyrie made a gentle stealth attack on Charlie’s privates. He shuddered involuntarily. It had been a long, long time.

Rubbing him aroused, Kyrie thought of Peg. If the allegations in the complaint letter were true, what must it feel like to have lain with a woman now dead? The object of one’s misspent passions now languishing in her grave, overtaken by a new and unsought-after corruption.

Did Charlie feel old? Charlie, who’d wept the day Joey Bishop died, mourning his own lost youth. Did he feel of one flesh with Peg? The two mystically made one—one flesh in the eyes of God. Had she and Charlie, Peg and Elmer Krause, and now Richard—and God knew who else—all become members of one another?

“Remember these?” She struggled to tear open the condom wrapper, nearly breaking a nail.

“Going to put a raincoat on this old soldier? What about your pill?” Charlie was clearly disappointed. Her mission depended on his unwitting cooperation.

“I let the fucking prescription run out,” she lied. Charlie visibly perked up. He liked her to talk dirty to him in bed, though she choked on the words themselves. They were men’s words, locker-room words, not hers. “And I do mean the fucking prescription,” she cooed, unrolling the tightly-wound latex onto him with nimble, manicured fingers. She knew blood-red nails turned him on, and had done them late that afternoon for the occasion. A Z-shaped redness peeked from within the shifting folds of his abdominal flesh when he settled back and propped his head and shoulders higher against the pillow to watch her.

After some preliminary breast-sucking, Charlie was ready for action. He rolled onto her. Five years married, she still had to steady his clumsiness and help him insert. After a couple of strokes, the phone rang. Too soon for her to feign impending orgasm and keep him going. Charlie paused in mid-thrust.

“Charlie, let the machine get it. Please.”

“Might be a new client. Don’t want them to wake Ma.” He reached for the bedside phone. His voice deepened by half an octave. “Charles Zweig speaking.”

A long conversation with a stranger, something about a used car purchase gone sour. By the time Charlie had finished, the rubber hung on him loose as a becalmed windsock. She had to re-stimulate him with gliding fingers and torrents of tantalizing whispered obscenities. She endured the suckling again, closed her eyes and tried thinking of Richard, but it was useless. Finally Charlie looked up, mistook her revulsion for passion and mounted her again. She waited for him to fall short of the mark once more in a rapid finish. Then she would capture the evidence for Joey. PDQ, as Peg had written.

But this time Charlie did something new, something he had never done before, all the other times they had been together in bed.

He closed his fingers around her throat. Hard. And kept them there, watching her expression.

No pain. Only the urgency of absolute fear. Underwater. Five years old. Someone else, a mean older child, holding her head under. Cutting off her air.

In his most erotic, velvety voice Charlie said, “You know your eyes bug out like crazy when I do this.”

She kicked her legs but couldn’t reach to kick him where it hurts. He kept pumping inside her, hard and big as a stallion.

“Don’t fight it,” Charlie said. The spider advising the fly.

He knows, she told herself. He knows about Richard. He knows I suspect him. He knows everything. Menacing, irresistible pressure on her carotid arteries. I’m the next one on his list. Charlie, rigid within her, his probing fury rapid as a heartbeat now.

A buzzing, first like a fly just out of reach, then louder and closer. Deafeningly loud and near. Then a rush, more delicious than the first time she had smoked grass in college. An explosion of celestial fireworks. So this is what it must be like to die. Music. The same music Peg heard? And Verna? The music of the spheres. Choirs of angels singing. Comin’ for to carry me home. The ineffable sweetness of the music synergized with the free-floating bliss of strangulation as Charlie’s loving hands closed around her neck and Kyrie drifted away from her body. The thrill became so intense it overcame the music altogether.

 

 

There was something funny about David Letterman tonight. He seemed preoccupied, like he was keeping a secret from her, a secret he was burning to tell. He’d let the whole studio audience in on the secret, too; they were giddy with conspiratorial excitement. David Letterman, Paul Shaffer and the others must have cooked it all up during a commercial break.

They were going to play some kind of a trick on her. Tippi, fascinated yet wary of them all, couldn’t look away.

At last the suspense seemed to get to David Letterman. He looked straight into the camera, laughed right into her eyes through the TV screen and said: “You’re next.”

She couldn’t mistake the threat, even though he nodded fake encouragement to her, putting her on with his goofy jack-o’lantern grin. The audience screamed with laughter at her. Paul played organ riffs, then a few bars from Strangers in the Night.

“You’re next, Tippi,” David intoned, his mouth a ghastly rictus. “Or should I say Joan?”

 

 

 

Chapter Sixteen – The Seven of Swords

 

 

Adrienne felt the crystal bra’s underwires cutting into her flesh. She didn’t dare wear it under a sheer sweater or it would snag, so she wore a cable knit maroon one instead, one she no longer cared about. She wanted to flash Zelia with the bra, watch the look in her eyes when she started to undress, peeled off the sweater, whirled around and there it was, like big Amazon breastplates.

She paid the cab driver without looking at him. There was one other car already parked in front of Zelia’s tiny building. Adrienne was irritated. Also a little bit jealous, even though she knew the many things Zelia did for a living. A Jill-of-all-trades. She climbed the steep concrete steps and pushed open the door without knocking. Right away she could tell something was wrong.

Rolodex cards littered the floor of the waiting room. The glass case had been smashed, its contents rifled. Adrienne raced to Zelia’s bedroom.

Zelia sat in a chair near her bed, legs apart. Adrienne recognized it as a chair that didn’t belong there. A kitchenette chair. Zelia’s head lolled backward, her long white hair in a seeming windsweep behind her, like a Valkyrie’s flying toward Valhalla, her waxen complexion bluish in the pastel light. Eyes that didn’t look back. And something else, a coagulated substance Adrienne recognized, already changing to clear liquid on Zelia’s upturned impassive face.

She was wearing a see-through black jumpsuit. Garroted by the same long yellow tape measure that now trussed her from neck to wrists bound behind her back in a crude figure eight, like some dark S&M fantasy.

Frantic, Adrienne touched Zelia’s healing hands. They felt cold and unresponsive as a statue’s. No more treatments, ever. Her pleasuring hands stilled, their erotic spirits flown like a magician’s doves, never to return. Her palms were joined, fingers pressed together in an attitude of inverted prayer. Her branding signet ring remained on her middle finger, right hand.

Zelia wore her power shoes: black patent leather open-toed spike heels. She had let Adrienne try them on once after a session. Adrienne had told her, only half in jest, that the shoes made her want to go out and kick some man’s ass for drill. Zelia had confided that that’s how the shoes made her feel, too.

Whose car was that in the lot out front? Adrienne heard a mouselike noise from the dungeon. Empowered by rage and heedless of her own safety, she sprinted down the narrow hallway and threw open the dungeon door. Brass rings clanked when it slammed shut behind her.

Cowering in a corner like a shithouse mouse was the tiny man she had come to recognize from Zelia’s whispered breaches of therapist-patient privilege as Boris Day.

Boris was naked but for a leather dog collar studded with spikes, and the rings piercing his nipples and scrotum. His pale body shivered where he hid, crouched behind a rectangular upright frame of timbers: a rack worthy of Bloody Mary herself.

“You little prick!” Adrienne screamed. Boris’ miniature penis seemed to shrink away from the imprecation. She noticed the brand of the Z above his pubes—the same brand she’d seen on Jack. Zelia probably branded all her special customers with the sign of the Z.

“You filthy creep! What did you do? And why’d you have to do that to her after you’d strangled her? Was that the only way you could get off, pervert? What’d you do to get it all over her face, stand on a chair?”

The only sound was Boris’ rapid breathing, like a dirty phone call. Adrienne knew she should call nine-one-one, she really should. She looked through the rack which now framed Boris like an oversized window casing. A fully-functional torture rack. Who other than Zelia would have had one? Probably wrote it off as a business expense. What confessions had her inquisitions extracted from those suspended there? Suddenly Adrienne had an inspiration.

Towering over the cornered little man, she clasped one of his delicate wrists in one hand, and with the other reached for one of the pair of steel handcuff-gauntlets chained to the bar across the upper brace of the rack. Boris seemed not to resist. He even helped her put it on, mutely demonstrating how the glove opened up like a jello mold to place the hand in, then closed and locked with a cotter key.

Adrienne managed to secure his other hand into the device without assistance. She turned the crank. The contraption clattered like a mechanic’s hoist straining to lift out an engine. Boris’ feet danced on the air.

Through her anger she heard herself say, like a disembodied voice, “That ought to hold you.” She rotated the crank several more noisy turns before clapping Boris’s ankles in the leg irons bolted to huge steel cuffs and fixed to a stationary rod near the foot of the device. His feet were well kept: pumiced and pedicured like a woman’s.

A few more turns and the little man’s sinews would pull loose from their moorings. The rotator cuffs she had learned about in her Anatomy and Physiology prerequisite course would tear: first one, then the other shoulder would rip apart. Yet he’d live through it all. The big trick would be to keep him conscious. She cranked again. Live through this, asshole.

Boris was whispering something. It sounded like myesk. And then she noticed it, hung from a peg on the wall behind him. An iron mask, forged in a Greek-tragic expression. Boris wanted to wear the mask.

Although the mask was lighter than Adrienne expected it to be, the scalp hooks which appended it to the wearer had to be painful, not to mention the needle-sharp prickets inside it, which punished the face. She put it on him. Then slammed it with the heel of her hand, uttering a shrill martial-arts cry. A trickle of blood soon appeared, trailing down the tightened cords of Boris’s neck, finding its own level, but still he made no sound. She knew there had to be a wellspring of blood in him yet to be loosed.

And she was beginning to like the payback. Not liking it exactly. There was no word in her vocabulary for what she was feeling now. Words were beyond her after her first spontaneous outbursts. Circumstances had given license to a singularly focused yet mindless cruelty in her, to punish the senseless murder of her forbidden secret lover. The ingenious torture devices of Zelia’s dungeon suddenly seemed commonplace and inadequate to the task, falling short of her devious unrequited imagination.

She had felt like this only once before, standing over the dying body in the Cook County Forest Preserve, the sharp bloody rock still clutched in her hand.

The authorities would come for Boris, once she called them. In the meantime he wasn’t going anywhere. As long as she didn’t kill him, she could do anything she wanted to him. No one would believe Boris’ accusations, or even care about his injuries. After all, he’d asked for it, even paid for it. They’d blame it all on Zelia, and Zelia was dead.

No one would ever believe Adrienne could have done it to him. She’d get away with it again, even easier than the other time, when she’d gotten away with murder. They’d blame it all on Zelia. They’d have to blame it all on Zelia.

She left to retrieve Zelia’s power shoes, reached for them, half-expecting a painful, Wizard of Oz zap. There was none. The shoes slipped off Zelia’s feet easily. A worm like Boris had probably paid good money to slaver and suck at her imperious great toes peeping out at him through the shoes’ openings. She put them on her own feet. Walking confidently in the stiletto heels, Adrienne made her way back to the dungeon. Nine-one-one would have to wait.

 

 

 

Chapter Seventeen – The Moon

 

This time Kyrie found her way easily to the Biology building and Joey’s lab. She waited until he looked up from peering into a microscope before greeting him.

“How’s your research coming along, Joey?” Joey’s myopic expression became one of childlike joy upon seeing her. She handed him a vending machine plastic cup full of cracked ice. Joey looked at her as though he were expected to drink it. Then he saw the base of the used condom hanging limp over the brim.

“I want you to analyze something for me, Joey. Do one of your little autorads, or whatever.” Joey impetuously seized the condom and held it dangling, its milky load swelling the latex tip.

“Where’d you get this?” he asked her.

She arched an eyebrow.

“I mean, whose is it?”

“If you don’t mind, Joey, I’d rather not drop any names just yet. I’ll tell you one thing, though: I came close to dying getting it. Can you analyze it; compare it to the Peg Krause sample?”

“But why, Kyrie?”

“Just to satisfy my curious nature, ok? And please, please Joey, don’t say anything to Richard yet, will you? This has to be kept our little secret.”

“You think it’s Charlie? Wow!” There was no keeping anything from Joey’s quicksilver mind. He set about emptying the contents into a test tube, which he then sealed. Out of her hands now. “It’ll take some time, of course.”

“How much time?”

“We should know before your birthday. October 30th, isn’t it?”

“Why Joey, how did you know about my birthday?” She affectionately caressed the nape of his neck. It felt like a child’s after his first haircut. Joey fawned under her touch.

“Richard and I share everything,” he said. “That’s why it’s going to be tough keeping a secret from him. Any secret.”

“In that case, I better not tell you how old I’m going to be.”

“The big three-oh,” Joey shouted, triumphant.

“Not so loud,” she said with a wan smile. “I can maybe still pass for twenty-something in certain quarters.”

“My older sister just turned thirty. It’s not so bad.”

“How nice for her.”

Joey disappeared with the sample. When he returned a few minutes later, he seemed surprised to find her still sitting at the lab counter.

“Hey, what did you mean, you almost died getting it?”

She ignored his question. She had one of her own.

“What did you mean the other day, Joey? About Richard tracking down the Dogtown Debs to Black Forest?”

“Richard’s a geek on the subject of the Dogtown Debs,” Joey said. She savored the irony of Joey calling somebody else a geek.

“I’ve noticed. What makes him think they’re here, after all these years? You’d think they would have split up, maybe even died.”

“Oh, Richard’s a pretty good detective. It’s his avocation, you know. He’s even gone so far as to peruse other people’s garbage to find out information he can’t get anywhere else.”

She remembered the empty trash can, the windswept October night not long ago. What intimate secrets might he have learned from it?

“The tabloids go through celebrities’ trash. Some guy even wrote a book about it. Richard has it in his library. I think it may be out of print now.”

“What does all this have to do with the Debs?”

“Richard started with information available in the public records. Only one of the five Debs didn’t escape. She was released at eighteen from the Industrial School for Girls in Geneva, Illinois. Richard managed to verify that she’d obtained a social security number and a driver’s license number under her own name. She married, had one child—a daughter—then divorced, retaining her married name Toddmann. Anyway, Richard thinks, and it’s apparently no more than a working hypothesis at present, that the other four Debs—”

“What did you say her last name was?”

“Toddmann. Suzanne Toddmann. Why? Do you know her?”

Kyrie stared at the computer monitor. Finally she was able to speak.

“Richard never mentioned to you that Suzie Toddmann works for my husband?”

“I…I’m sure he meant to, that is, if he knows it himself…Wow! Is this great, or what? Do you think she’d cooperate in our study, if you were to ask her, that is? Kyrie? Kyrie?”

Kyrie had stalked out of the laboratory, heading for the Psych department and Richard’s office.

 

 

Richard’s cramped office—his benefice in this temple of science—was filled with books and computer tractor feed, with barely enough room for a desk and chair. Sitting in his chair was like climbing into the cockpit of a space capsule—a space capsule made out of clutter. Kyrie sat waiting for him. His two o’clock lecture was due to let out in five minutes. Her eyes scanned the highest bookshelf. Joey was right. She spotted a narrow volume entitled Studies in Applied Garbology. She absently flipped through a stack of papers—student midterm research papers, apparently, all with theses praising the merits of psychobiology as the synthesis of wisdom for the future, unlocking all the secrets of the human condition.

She tried one of the drawers of his desk. Unlocked. She slid it open. A familiar form lay beside a stapler and a package of labels.

The sign-in sheet from the Harmony House.

She snatched it from the drawer and stared at it. Richard had lied to her about taking it. What else had he lied to her about? It was incomprehensible that he knew nothing of Suzie working for Charlie—he knew everything else about her, things Kyrie didn’t even know.

Three of the signatures had been crossed through with red pen: Peg Krause, Verna Hoffmann, and Anna Geist. A murderer’s list of victims? Her own name next on the list? But Anna wasn’t dead yet. Kyrie had to think. The last thing she wanted to see right now was Richard’s lying face. She extricated herself from his chair and hurried down the wide sterile corridor.

 

 

An obligatory daily visit to Black Forest Care Center. What was it Richard had said? No precedent for a brain injury changing one’s sexual preference? How can one live until his mid-forties, only then realizing he’s gay? Richard considered homosexuality maladaptive behavior “from a psychobiological perspective,” as he always said. One’s genes cannot replicate from a union with a partner of the same gender.

The whole subject disgusted Kyrie. She needed a counseling session with Reverend Hoffmann, maybe later today. He’d asked her to stop by anyway, said he wanted to give her something, something of Verna’s.

The nurses’ station was deserted at three P.M. Kyrie heard the histrionics of a soap opera on television in the lunchroom. She entered her father’s room through the open door.

He lay supine, covered only by a sheet that was tentpoling. “Sugar Bear!”

“Yeah, it’s Sugar Bear, all right.”

“Did you bring Mother with you?” His sincere, plaintive expression tore at her; he was still wearing his thick glasses over crossed eyes. It was as if some school child had defaced a portrait of the father she had known, had given him googly glasses and a crazy guy expression. Convergent strabismus following a profound insult to the brain, the doctors had called it. And no, it probably never will go away. She remembered for some reason the schematic eye chart on the wall of her father’s office; the huge color lithograph of the globe of the human eye, opened and illuminated like the vault of a church. The windows of the soul.

“Maybe next time, Daddy.”

“Tell her I promise I won’t ever do it again.”

“I’ll tell her.”

“Reverend Hoffmann made me promise the same thing: ‘No more cheating’. Easy for him to say. How can he possibly understand what gets into a man when he sees a pair of big juicy ones swinging this close to his face?” He held up two undulating middle fingers and grinned. It made the strabismus worse.

Kyrie, shaken by her father’s casual remarks, said: “You should listen to Reverend Hoffmann, Daddy. I’m going there later. I talk to him all the time. He helps me, makes me feel better.”

“Maybe I’ll stop by there myself,” he said. She knew when it was his injury talking by now. Daddy could seem almost normal at times. She hadn’t remembered the term for it until Richard had supplied it. Confabulation. Her father filled in his end of a conversation, often sounding almost normal. He told others what he thought they wanted to hear, or what he was expected to say to keep the talk going, but made things up as he went along. And you never knew what he might blurt out, either. He had a fool’s innocence, the disarming frankness of a very old man or a very young child. The doctors had shaken their heads when she’d asked them whether Daddy could ever go back to practicing his profession as an optometrist. Bitter experience since then had mocked the absurdity of her suggestion. She tried to picture Daddy telling some mother about a pair of big juicy ones while fitting her preteen son for glasses.

The big black woman at the door to the room wore a size twenty-eight pink uniform and yellow Playtex gloves on her hands, holding a large plastic bowl. “Hi, there, Dr. Wilde. Are you ready for your spongie today?”

“Ready and waiting, Zola.” He threw off the sheet in a flourish.

“My, oh my,” Zola marveled, “You sure is a man-and-a-half, Dr. Wilde, just like the song say. I should get me some overtime pay for this duty.” She smiled at Kyrie. “You can stay if you want, Miss. Our Dr. Wilde here ain’t got a shy bone in his body, as you can plainly see.”

“Can’t he bathe himself?”

“I suspect he can. He just don’t want to, the old show dog.” Zola squirted liquid bath soap into the bowl, then drove it into a lather with torrents of hot water from the bathroom sink.

It was clearly time to go. Kyrie kissed her father, who was now fairly quivering, anticipating the sponge. As she retreated down the tiled corridor she heard the easy badinage of her father’s and Zola’s voices, sponge bath a familiar and welcome ritual.

One thought tortured her: how could she turn him out from these comfortable surroundings? Rheinhardt’s call surely would not be long in coming. His male urgency, bereft of any self-control or Christian values, made it inevitable. When she received that call, she truly did not know how she would or could respond.

He didn’t disappoint her. Her headset sounded even before she reached the peace and serenity of her car. She knew it was Rheinhardt on the first vibration, without even looking at the caller ID. Something told her not to answer, but she did anyway.

“Twin Cities Realty, Kyrie Wilde speaking.”

“Anybody ever tell you you’ve got a sexy telephone voice? What I’d call a dirty voice, one that talks to me between my legs. How’s it going, Dirty Voice?”

Her throat tightened. “Is this going to be one of those calls?”

“Come on over to my office. I have something to show you.”

“I’ve seen better examples.”

“I know you’ve seen younger. And blacker. But that’s your problem, isn’t it? Get your slim, trim ass over here. There’s a fax I want you to look at. From DuPage County.”

Impotent rage mixed with fear welled up in her. What was it Reverend Hoffmann had always said? Anger, what he called one of the Seven Deadlies, was a magic carpet ride to other, grosser temptations. Don’t give in to your anger. But what did giving in mean in this situation, exactly? And where would she find the five thousand dollars a month to pay Black Forest Care Center if she lost her professional license and Charlie threw her out? And how could she handle prison? She swallowed her rage, and in so doing became another person, a baser creation fit for the ignominious acts to follow. To do the work that must be done.

“I’ll be there.”

“I’ll be waiting, Dirty Voice.”

 

 

“Kyrie Wilde to see Mr. Rheinhardt.”

The receptionist’s dispassionate expression surveyed her clothes and makeup, forming silent judgments. Did she suspect anything? God, what if Rheinhardt wanted her to join in?

“Do you have an appointment?”

Kyrie glanced around the empty waiting room with what she hoped was a suitably haughty attitude, then said: “He’s expecting me.”

“I’ll let him know you’re here. What was that name again?”

Kyrie felt like she was here to interview for a job she didn’t want. The job was to do God knows what once she got inside Rheinhardt’s office.

“Wilde,” she repeated with impatience. “Kyrie Wilde.” And she thought Suzie was dumb.

“Mr. Rheinhardt, there’s a Mrs. Wilde to see you. Carrie Wilde. She says you’re expecting her. All right. OK, I’ll tell her, Mr. Rheinhardt.” She raised her eyes to Kyrie and said with a bored shrug: “He says to tell you I’m not the first one to make that mistake.”

The receptionist showed Kyrie into his office. Rheinhardt, wearing a headset of his own, told her, “Take an early lunch, Jen. Make it a long one.”

Seated in the Rent-a-Center furnished office, in shirtsleeves, his tie half undone, and wearing the headset, Rheinhardt looked like a telemarketer. Kyrie didn’t want to look him in the eye, so her gaze wandered to the wall behind him. No pictures, no diplomas, no notary certificates, no license. Only a framed street-artist caricature sketch of a bearded young man with a know-it-all expression.

Rheinhardt handed her a sheet of paper. “Look familiar?”

It was a fax from the DuPage County State’s Attorney’s office: a copy of a page entitled Judgment of Conviction from her court file. Her handwritten signature of her mother’s name was clearly legible at the bottom. The lawyer had told her it was a formality, part of the plea bargain, just play along with the typo and sign it the way it’s written to avoid any hassle. To avoid any hassle, she did. Now she crumpled the paper into a ball and threw it at Rheinhardt, wanting to follow it with her fist. He ducked and it struck the caricature.

Never losing his composure, Rheinhardt waved another photocopy of the fax in the air. Damn lawyers loved confrontation, took advantage of it, thrived on other people’s misery and fed off their anger. She should know—she’d been married to one for the past five years. Dealing with Rheinhardt was like one of those nightmares where it takes all your strength to throw pillow-punches at an adversary and he just laughs like you’re tickling him.

“These things sure can come back to haunt you, you know?” He leered at her. “Like I always say, knowledge is power.”

“That was almost eight years ago,” she said.

“Modern technology is amazing, isn’t it? I make one phone call to an old girlfriend at the DuPage County Governmental Complex and she faxes it right to me, same day service. That’s what makes the wheels of justice keep on turning: everybody giving each other hand jobs under the table.” He laughed to himself.

“What’s so funny, Rheinhardt?”

“I just happened to think, that’s what you’re gonna be doing for me any minute now.”

“Sorry to disappoint you. Maybe Jennifer can take care of you after she gets back from lunch.”

“Who says she don’t?” He twitched his nose like a horny Easter bunny. Lawyers, she told herself, were an opportunistic infection, preying on the stressed-out, the beset and the weak.

“You sayin’ you dowanna put out? Your funeral. I’ve got your husband’s office on speed-dial.” He hit a button on the telephone console. A moment later he leaned back and talked into the air: “Suzie! How they hanging, sweetmeats?”He paused, then said, “Don’t I know it.” He cackled to himself, not even looking at Kyrie.

“Whoa, girl! You’re making me hot, now. I’m taking you up on that offer later. Oh, yeah? We’ll just have to see about that, I mean it. That’s right, I’m calling your bluff. Hey is your boss around? Well, put him on for a minute, darling. I’ve got some important gossip about a mutual friend. No, Suzie, it’s guy stuff.” He laughed, relaxed and easy. “OK, deal. I promise to tell you later, even if he won’t.” He winked and nodded at Kyrie.

Kyrie lunged for the headset jack and yanked it out of the console. Confused and scared, she collapsed into a chair facing Rheinhardt’s desk, holding her temples. Her head was pounding with one of those tension headaches she’d been having since Charlie’s little foray into erotic near-asphyxiation.

Rheinhardt reinserted the jack. “Hmm. Must have gotten disconnected,” he said. Rather than redialing the call, he leaned forward on his elbows and regarded her lack of composure.

“I get the sense that you’re a smart, capable young professional woman who can’t quite get a handle on her personal life, am I right?”

“God, Rheinhardt, would you really expose me to my husband unless I give you a hand job?”

“There, see? I knew you was smart.” He slid open a desk drawer and set up a large squeeze bottle of cocoa butter lotion. “I told you, I just want what the nigger got. What was it, like a big tootsie roll in your hand?”

“You’re a disgusting racist bastard.”

“A nigger-lover like you calling me disgusting? Well, I can take criticism, I guess. I’ll just consider the source.” He sat back and shrugged, then paddled his feet and rolled his chair around the desk to face hers, still wearing the headset. When he rounded the desk she saw he was naked from the waist down, except for heavy wingtip dress shoes and black socks.

“We’d better get started,” he said, “before Jennifer gets back from lunch. Don’t want to make the girl jealous.”

The lotion bottle was about half full. It made a flatulent sound when Kyrie squeezed an ejaculation-sized dollop into her cupped left hand. She smoothed it over her palms in a rapid chafing motion, then reached for him. Defeated and resigned to it, telling herself if she did what he wanted just this once, maybe he’d leave her alone. Not even believing that one herself.

“I want you to realize, Rheinhardt, that even though I hate doing this—”

“Jeez,” he said, “at least take off the wedding ring first. Some things are sacred, you know?”

She tore at her ring as though it were white-hot with her anger, then slammed it onto his metal desktop, making that her wordless protest. His male appendage was pliable at first, but soon firmed and jutted forth as she worked on him. Richard would have made two of him.

“Those red nails are hot. I like that,” he said in a quavery whisper. The telephone rang once.

“Jack! Whaddaya got for me?” At first she thought he was talking to her, then realized it was his aggressive telephone voice again, carrying on a conversation over the headset. She paused, until he pointed to his member and silently mouthed the words don’t stop.

“I’ll take on as many as you can steer me,” Rheinhardt said, his voice wavering only slightly, but otherwise in control. “All college kids, right? Jack, you the man! Hold on a sec.”

Kyrie had redoubled her efforts to get the chore over with. The lotion helped. She couldn’t look at Rheinhardt now, so she stared at the most interesting thing on the wall, which was the colored pencil sketch of the smirking young man with dark spade-shaped beard. His blue eyes watched her every move; his expression said he knew more than he was telling.

Rheinhardt’s breath caught; he gasped twice and grunted. The sick warmth in her hand told her it was over for now. How would she bring herself to look at him in church, ever again?

Revulsion stirred within her at the mess in her left hand, cradled in her right. Rheinhardt pointed to the door. She thought he was directing her to a rest room. Then he mouthed the words take off. She was being dismissed!

She heard Rheinhardt say, “Sorry about that, Jack. I had to sneeze. Well, thank you. God bless you, too, Jack. And keep those humpties coming. I can always use the money.”

Kyrie, fighting tears of rage, stalked out the door of Rheinhardt’s office, found a tissue box on Jennifer’s desk and made the best of it. She looked for Jennifer’s wastebasket to toss the sticky wad. Two similar wads ahead of hers, and no other garbage.

 

The nice young man in the Davy Crockett hat jaywalked until he stood in the center of the intersection like a volunteer traffic cop. A warm smile, beckoning her to proceed. Holding up his other hand with authority, stopping cross traffic from the right. Maybe an Eagle scout doing his good deed for the day. The city ought to put up a four-way stop sign here. People on that cross street drive like they’re crazy, and the buildings are set up so close to the narrow sidewalks. Evelyn inched the Cadillac forward, its huge engine almost silent at such a low and careful speed.

Before she could reach the other side, a car came flying from her right and there was a terrible wreck.

They’d hit her so hard it prid near knocked her head clean off her shoulders. It was one of those hot rods, with four teenagers inside. One of them came right up to her window, screaming right in her face like a drill sergeant, calling her the filthiest names you could think of. It was a lucky thing she had the automatic windows rolled up and the doors locked. Once he ran out of cusswords he got back in his car and all four of them started going on and on about how hurt they were and how they needed the ambulance.

She glared back toward the young man in the intersection, looking daggers at him, wanting to give him a piece of her mind. Why hadn’t he left well enough alone? Where had he left his head at that morning? But before she could even ask him what was the big idea, he showed her the nastiest grin you ever saw in all your life, then grandly doffed his coonskin cap and bowed from the waist, right there in the street.

He was bald except for one of those mohawk haircuts they wear. His had been spray-painted in stripes of gray and black like a ringtail raccoon, matching his hat. As he walked away and left her there, she could hear his silly laugh going on and on.

 

 

Snow Seal had his own key to his grandma’s house. He called out to her but she wasn’t home yet. He closed and locked the door of his room and drew the shade. Standing on a chair and reaching all the way back into the far corner of the very top shelf of what had been his mother’s bedroom closet when she was his age, he retrieved the gym bag that contained his legacy.

He placed the gym bag on the heavy homemade oaken desk, the desk where he did his homework, as had his mother before him—in her case, chemistry, calculus and physics, all through her high school and college years to academic honors—unzipped it and began selectively removing its contents.

A triple-beam Ohaus scale, more precise than any in the Black Forest High School chem lab. And a cling-wrapped treasure the size of a double loaf of bread, whiter than Snow Seal’s own skin, and ounce-for-ounce a commodity more precious than gold. Ninety-three point eight per cent pure, his father had claimed, and Seal’s customers, of whom there were more and more lately, did not seem to disagree. His product represented the community benchmark of quality: once a customer went with Seal, he never went back. Nobody bitched, not really, about the hundred dollars per gram—it was a bargain. Seal could have stepped on it three times with baking soda if he’d wanted to adulterate his legacy, but at fourteen he was content selling off the pure stuff.

He removed more items from the gym bag: a sifter, a mortar and pestle and finally a stack of white papers. Seal dragged the chair back to his desk, sat and went to work folding little white paper packets like an origami master. When he had finished he removed an ink pad and stamp from a desk drawer, then stamped each packet with his trademark insignia: a circus seal balancing a striped ball on its nose, black against the pure white paper.

They had come for his parents in June. Summer school had just begun, and both his mom and dad were teaching classes at Mendota Township High School, Home of the Trojans. The MEGAN agents (Metropolitan Enforcement Group Assault Network) had converged on the high school and taken them away.

With a knife he chipped a chunk the size of the end of his thumb from one corner of the kilo brick. Sliding the knife blade under it, he dropped it into the mortar. Stone-on-stone sound as he reduced the chunk to fine powder.

Seal had been at band practice, trying to triple-tongue a passage from the William Tell Overture on his cornet. Something of a local prodigy, he had tried out and won first chair in the cornet section while technically still in the eighth grade, an unheard-of accomplishment envied by the upperclassmen. His tonguing had faltered at the fearful sight of sport-coated men in military haircuts, men who didn’t belong at the school, slipping through the hallway silent as assassins.

He poured the nearly pulverized contents of the mortar into the sifter. Separated out any smaller remaining chunks, then repeated the familiar process.

Mendota, Illinois: only thirteen miles north of the Route Eighty drug corridor. Fewer than seven thousand inhabitants. The tallest building in town was the water tower. It had been the very last place anybody would look for a major drug dealer. His dad had fucked up buying the car. A Miata on a high school math teacher’s salary. It had been his parents’ only disagreement, his mom always bitching to have it, until his dad relented. Curiosity led to a crescendo of envy and resentment among the other teachers. Nothing like a brand new Miata parked in the slot next to your eleven-year-old Hyundai to set tongues wagging.

Into each packet in turn he took pains to measure exactly one gram of the glistening white powder. He thought of the light in Lori Zweig’s eyes reflected from the disco ball at the skating rink. He had sworn an oath to God to keep himself pure from self-pollution until the day he and Lori were man and wife, an ideal couple like his parents had been until MEGAN had put them asunder.

The new car had been a two-seater. No room for him in there, as though he’d been an afterthought, a coda to the glamorous, drug-swashbuckling lifestyle his parents had dreamed for themselves. MEGAN brought the reality check at last. His beloved parents would spend the next thirty years behind bars before that check was ever marked paid.

The sexy, dirty voice of Lori’s mom stalked him again. Soon I’ll be telling you more than I tell my husband. Holding hands and gripping each other’s forearms as the weight of their bodies swayed to the rhythm of the couples’ skate under the seducing glitter of romantic lights.

He interrupted his labors and opened a drawer where two prized and secret possessions lay side by side. One was a Bible. The other, hidden deep within the drawer, was a stainless steel throwing star.

He’d left his cornet on the seat of the folding chair on the second riser in the band room, raced where the unused P.E. lockers had been stored, fumbled with the combination lock to Number 112 until the stupid thing opened, and by prearranged understanding fled town with the gym bag containing what had now become his legacy. He hitchhiked to his grandma’s house with his parents’ incriminating stash. There had been so many MEGAN informants that the legacy proved superfluous to his mother and father’s fate, although MEGAN longed to pose for pictures with it like a hunter’s trophy.

His mom and dad would have wanted him to have it. His grandma suspected nothing. Hundred by hundred, Snow Seal saved for the day he would have enough to marry Lori Zweig and run away with her to a place no one knew either one of them. Still, on awakening bothered and stiff, he sometimes imagined himself lying beside a naked Kyrie Wilde, her warmth close to him in his bed.

 

 

 

Chapter Eighteen – The Devil

 

Getting no answer at the parsonage, Kyrie tried the big front doors of the church and found them unlocked. Even though her real estate practice was probably going to hell, something like a spiritual conviction impelled her to counsel with Reverend Hoffmann today. The ‘talking ads’ would work for her to some extent: prerecorded listings of properties she wanted to move, coded to a voicemail system on her computer at home. Mostly hangups, though. Perverts like Rheinhardt, probably, calling for free phone sex, trying to get off listening to her ‘dirty voice’ reading the ads to them: Make me an offer! Gorgeous thirty-year-old Victorian, nicely loaded. Big beautiful deck and Wow! what a view. Attention all handymen! All she needs is a little tee ell see. The more you sweat, the more you get. This one’s a comer!

The smell of Murphy’s made her think the cleaning people were here, but she saw no one. She sat in a pew for a few moments and said a silent prayer for her father. Reverend Hoffmann appeared from what would have been the sacristy in a Catholic church, but which he, speaking privately only to her, called ‘stage right.’ She loved his disarming sense of humor. Would that youthfully incongruous wit survive his grieving?

A look of surprise and pleasure crossed his face as soon as he saw her. “I didn’t know we had a customer. Step into my parlor, Kyrie, my dear. It’s always a pleasure to see you in church.”

He led her through the heavy steel doorframe into ‘stage right.’ The solid closing of the door reassured her, locking out the world.

The room had now become Reverend Hoffmann’s office. He had moved all the furnishings from the parsonage office here; even the furniture arrangement was the same: the big teakwood desk faced by two comfortable chairs, a matching credenza behind it, and a big file cabinet in the corner. There was soft incandescent lighting but no window. She sat down when he gestured to one of the chairs. As was his custom, he sat in the other, not at the desk. He leaned forward as though he might take her hand. She took his instead, then began to cry, in big racking sobs, totally unself-conscious. He patted her back like her father might have done when she rested her head on his shoulder.

Finally, wiping away rivulets of her mascara into a tissue he had offered, she said, “Oh, Reverend Hoffmann, I’m so sorry to trouble you with my problems. Especially now.”

She drew away the blackened tissue and he said, “Look on the bright side, Kyrie. At least you’re not a painted woman anymore.”

“A Jezebel,” she laughed. “Well, I don’t know about that, actually.”

His smile softened into a look of compassion. “How can I help, Kyrie?”

So she told him about Rheinhardt and his threats, about her giving in to his casual lust, about her infidelities with Richard and her suspicions about both Richard and Charlie—more vague apprehensions than suspicions, really. She couldn’t have slept with these men if she’d thought either was a murderer. She left out only one thing: finding Verna’s body. How could she tell him that? Through it all, Reverend Hoffmann’s expression was that of a tender and sympathetic dad hearing the tale of his preteen daughter being jilted by her first love. Would God’s judgment be likewise—sympathetic and loving, not tyrannical but instead leading her to learning and redemption? But what had she learned, really? What was the message?

“How does it make you feel, Kyrie,” Reverend Hoffmann asked her in a still, small voice, “sleeping with one man and married to another? Visualize yourself in Richard’s arms, and ask yourself what you’re feeling about yourself. Not what Charlie or Tippi or Mom or Dad or anyone else might think. What does Kyrie think of herself in that forbidden moment?”

She asked him, “Do you want the truth?” Then felt stupid and evasive for posing the question.

With a wan smile he said, “The truth would be nice, Kyrie.”

“Well, then, honestly, when I’m with Richard, even afterward, I feel less guilty than that time last month I slipped and ate part of a McDonald’s hamburger. That’s the truth, and boy, am I ashamed of it, Reverend. I feel guilty about not feeling guiltier where Richard is concerned. Even now, when I’m finding I can’t completely trust him.”

Reverend Hoffmann nodded. He did not draw his hands away from hers, even at this last revelation. “How are you sleeping, Kyrie?” he said at last. “Sometimes our Heavenly Father speaks to us in our dreams, even when we’ve hardened our hearts to him.”

Kyrie started. “Is that what I’ve done? Hardened my heart to him? Oh, God!”

He patted her hand. “Only you know the answer to that one, my dear. My question is whether you’ve been troubled by dreams of any kind lately.”

“Well,” she began, “I do have one stupid dream, but it’s not a nightmare or anything like that.”

“Tell me about it if you like.”

“You promise you won’t laugh?”

“Try me.”

Kyrie rolled her eyes with a here-I-go expression. “Everything is exactly like my waking life, like a parallel universe or something, but populated only with the men I know, no women allowed, except me. And all the men are wearing these big enormous, like elephant codpieces on their pants, you know what I mean?”

“I have a fair idea.” His bemused expression put her at ease to continue.

“Well, these are practically dragging on the ground. And I have to have conversations with these men and, like, pretend I don’t notice.” She giggled, then said, “I’m sorry.” Not adding the part of the dream prominently featuring the man to whom she was speaking.

“Now I promised you I wouldn’t laugh, and you’re the one with a case of the giggles,” he said, smiling.

“Pretty sick dream, huh?” she said.

“There are no sick dreams, only sick interpretations of dreams. I never heard a dream I couldn’t learn something from.”

“There’s a first time for everything, isn’t there?” she said. “I’ve only had relations with two men in my life. Not counting Rheinhardt. He’s not what I’d call a man, anyway.” Realizing her audience, she added, “Listen to me. I just hope the dream doesn’t mean I’m developing a whore’s-eye-view of the world.”

“What do you think the dream means?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know. All men are the same? They’re all after the same thing?”

“And are they? Our Lord knows the hearts of men, because He became a man for our sakes. He knows our weaknesses. If He can forgive us those weaknesses if we ask Him, do you think you can forgive yourself, Kyrie, for whatever missteps are troubling you, even though you’ve buried your feelings of guilt deep inside? So deep that maybe not even you can find them without help?”

“Reverend Hoffmann, tell me what I should do. What is God trying to teach me in all this?”

“Only you can discover that. Look to your own heart, Kyrie. If you can do that, and see yourself as God sees you, sees all of us, you’ll find a radiance that shines brighter than all the stars in the universe. That radiance is Kyrie. Sin can dim our vision of ourselves. The real sin you must avoid at all costs is despair, losing hope and confidence in yourself to make the right decision, the one that’s perfect for you. No one else can make that choice for you, or walk the trail God has blazed for you, other than you yourself. Make any sense?” His face lifted into a hopeful expression, encouraging her.

“It does, it truly does. I’m just a chicken, I guess, wanting to run away from my own problems. But why can’t God take away all the trouble in our lives, you know? What purpose does it serve?”

Reverend Hoffmann took her hand, chafing it in both of his, which were big as the bronze casts of Abraham Lincoln’s hands she’d seen in a museum in Springfield.

“If we knew that,” he said, “We’d be God, wouldn’t we?”

“Rheinhardt said I can’t get a handle on my personal life. I’m beginning to think he may be right.”

“It’s none of my business, but I think If I were you, I’d avoid Mr. Rheinhardt’s counsel, avoid him entirely, in fact, from now on. Except in church, of course. He’s here every Sunday, as you may have noticed. I hope and pray that what motivates his perfect attendance is something sincere and spiritual, not simply a mercenary attempt to solicit new clients. May God forgive me if I’m judging him unfairly, but it seems to me he’s shown his true colors today. You know what the scripture says about wolves in sheep’s clothing.” Reverend Hoffmann looked down, full of regret. A father lamenting a prodigal son.

“But what if he does expose me? I did break the law, you know. I can’t face prison for some stupid indiscretion I committed years ago when I had too much to drink on my birthday.”

“And you’ve certainly more than paid the price for it.” Reverend Hoffmann stroked his chin. “What was it he said to you? ‘Knowledge is power’? Why don’t you see what juicy tidbits you can dig up on Mr. Rheinhardt? There’s no closet without a skeleton. If you can intimidate him with something negative in his own past, beat him at his own game, he’s liable to leave you alone. He’s a coward, I’m sure. All lawyers are cowards.”

“Charlie’s a lawyer.”

“Don’t you see my eyes twinkling? Maybe I need to see an eye doctor. Oh, I’m sorry.”

She knew he’d suddenly remembered her father’s former profession, and feared hurting her feelings, so she hastened to reassure him.

“It’s ok. Daddy’s getting a little better. But pray for him, won’t you?”

“Every day, without fail,” he said, whispered intensity in his voice. “For both of you.”

“And I haven’t forgotten that crack about lawyers, either,” she said, punching him playfully on the arm. Soon she’d have to say something about Verna, and try to avoid dissolving into tears again.

“Will you take my advice, Kyrie? I know it’s free, but it’s the only thing I have to give.”

“I will,” she said, standing and hugging him like she would a father.

“Consider yourself shriven, then,” he said. “Good for another three months or another three thousand miles. Oh, before I forget, I wanted to give you something.”

Here it comes. “I just want you to know, Reverend,” she said, “that I loved Verna as though she were my own mother. She was a dear, dear friend of mine, and I miss her terribly. She was an honest, generous woman—so generous with her love and with her time. I’ll never forget her.”

Reverend Hoffmann looked ten degrees away from her and said nothing. He walked to the filing cabinet and slid out the top drawer. She approached and looked inside. Green hanging folders containing manila files, each labeled with a name and an address. Verna’s listings.

“She would have wanted you to have these,” he said.

“Oh, I couldn’t,” she began. There had to be at least a hundred in the top drawer alone. Half a million in commissions if handled right, and she was the right girl for the job.

“Do this for me,” he said. “In memory of Verna.”

She was already calculating how best to approach the clients. Reverend Hoffmann would surely intercede wherever needed, introducing Kyrie as a close and trusted friend of Verna’s from church trying to carry out Verna’s responsibilities. Kyrie knew she was good at ingratiating herself to a prospective listing. She could audition with the best of them. And there were at least three drawers of hanging folders, judging from the alphabetized labels. She looked up at the painting of Jesus knocking at the cottage door and instantly felt ashamed of herself.

“You needn’t be embarrassed.” It was as though Reverend Hoffmann had read her mind. “I appreciate the fact that these contracts may prove to be very lucrative for you. In time, if you handle them capably, which I have every confidence that you will, these listings hold the key to your own personal financial prosperity and independence. I hope I’m not speaking out of turn. I want you to have them. I’ll give you any help you need as far as a personal recommendation. I do have some clout with these people, you know. Many of them are parishioners of mine.”

“But how can I ever thank you?”

“The church and my freelance counseling provide for all my needs,” Reverend Hoffmann said. “The satisfaction of seeing you on your feet and self-sufficient financially will be thanks enough.” He gestured to the file cabinet. “These things are mine to give, you know. In our wills Verna and I left everything to each other. Of course, we had no children.”

Kyrie realized then with renewed humility that she had never inquired of either of the Hoffmanns about children, had never even been curious. She silently cursed her own self-centeredness. Did Reverend Hoffmann see in her the favorite daughter he’d missed? Somehow, she believed the answer was yes.

 

 

Charlie sat rigid on the edge of the firm king-sized mattress in the Airport Radisson Hotel suite and watched a news channel without focusing. His pulse raced. More than once he thought of leaving, but they knew where he lived, knew his address and phone, his credit card number. He had promised them money. It was too late to turn back now. They might even come looking for him at home with his wife and kids. And Charlie didn’t really want to leave. Not at all. The scintillating terror was pleasant, the prospect of diabolically imaginative humiliation invigorating to him. He had not removed so much as his suit coat or shoes in the room. No one knew where he was, not even Suzie, whom he had told he was attending a deposition. The stupid bitch believed him, even though Charlie hadn’t been to a deposition in months.

There was a barely audible knock at the door, a feminine tapping. Charlie’s breaths came more rapidly. Then he heard a Hispanic-accented woman say, “Housekeeping.”

“No,” he cried out. “No thank you. I’m okay.” She knocked again. Cursing, Charlie opened the door, shaking his head and saying, “Nada, por favor.” Closing the room door against her quizzical stare, he stood and listened until he heard the creaking of the wheels on the maid’s retreating cart. She knocked, then entered the next room. Soon he heard the muffled sounds of a carpet sweeper bumping against baseboard.

Minutes later, a hard, confident knock, accusatory in its insistence, jerked him to attention. He made it to the peephole in two steps. Would she be blond like Zelia? Tall? Svelte? Zaftig? Charlie’s chest heaved like a bellows.

A tall, middle-aged man stood in the hallway, wearing a knowing and cruel expression. The house detective? Charlie strained to look through the security peephole. The man was alone.

“Yes?” he called through the door, clipping his words. “What do you want?”

The man banged on the door even harder. “Open the door, Charlie,” he said, too loudly.

“How—how do you know my name?”

“I’m her gentleman friend. Remember?”

Charlie felt unseen hands closing around his throat, and a burning feeling in his entrails. He couldn’t go through with this after all. He couldn’t let the man in! He would simply refuse to open the door. If he didn’t go away, Charlie would call down for security. This was a classy hotel, not a fleabag like the Manassas. He pounced on the phone, snatched up the receiver and poised a finger over the button to summon the front desk. Then realized he had forgotten to reset the privacy lock and the deadbolt after opening the door to the maid.

With a muffled click, the door swung open. The man stood in the doorway, poised as a male model for big and tall fit clothing, flourishing a white plastic wafer in his hand. The other key! Charlie had left it at the front desk with instructions to give it to whoever asked for it.

He hung up quietly without speaking. The man closed the door, walked to the TV remote fastened to the night table and turned up the volume.

“Get naked,” the man said. His tone was unmistakable. It was an order.

 

 

The young couple for the four o’clock showing were waiting for her in the kitchen of one-eighteen Dresden, having coffee with the owners. All of Kyrie’s experience told her it was a prescription for disaster. The owners had insisted on an advertised price of one hundred-twenty. The old place wasn’t worth even sixty-eight, using either market or cost approach, but a listing was a listing. When Kyrie walked in, late, they were already discussing the furnace. The young man shot a cunning glance at his wife as he asked the retired husband, “About how old do you think that furnace is, Howard? Looks pretty old to me.” Before Kyrie could jump in to sing the praises of steam heat, Howard replied, “Forty years if it’s a day.” Sounding proud of the furnace’s longevity.

Kyrie sat still, caught in the realtor’s freeze-frame, hoping against hope the remark might pass unnoticed.

“Oh, it’s even older than that, Howard,” Mrs. Seller chimed in. “We replaced that old coal stoker before Robby was born, and he turned forty-three this past March.”

Howard slapped the table at that happy reminiscence. “You’re right. That there furnace is forty-three years old if it’s a day, young man. I sure was glad of the day we got rid of that old coal stoker and I quit havin’ to lug them buckets of clinkers up outta the cellar.”

“Those classic furnaces were made to last,” Kyrie offered.“They sure can put out the heat, too. I grew up in a house with one. Dollar for dollar, it’s the most economical—”

“House pretty well insulated, Howard?” The young man was really starting to get on Kyrie’s nerves.

Howard nodded. “Whole house is full of asbestos insulation,” he bragged.

The showing was mercifully brief. Howard accompanied them around like an unwanted companion, highlighting the house’s many faults and how cheap it would be to fix them: “You folks do-it-yourselfers?” Kyrie couldn’t escape the old bullshitter until she stood at the curb with the prospects. She tried her best approach, but it was useless. They couldn’t wait to leave. She shook their hands like a blind date ending badly. They promised to think about it. She didn’t bother offering them her card.

Her Bluetooth vibrated while she watched the prospects drive away into the setting sun. A text message read: “Harmony House. One hour. Love You. R.M.” She held the Bluetooth to her breast until all her mistrust gave way to desire.

 

 

She climbed the steep, deteriorated concrete steps leading to the brick sidewalk in front of the Harmony house, looking for any sign of Richard. The Harmonys must have been liberal in their use of salt pellets to melt the ice last winter. Through the mulberry-stained bird droppings, Kyrie saw that the berm steps had weakened and cracked, and would need at least a thousand dollars of masonry work just to pass city inspection. Kyrie walked carefully, hoping to sidestep the purple guano as well as avoid breaking a leg where the ground had heaved up under the sidewalk during the spring thaw, leaving a minefield of loose and uneven bricks to be replaced. Finally, she stood on the wooden wraparound porch. The floorboards would need to be repainted soon, before dry rot took over. Still, the old place did have a certain charm, its oak, silver maple, ash, sumac and mulberry trees bright with Indian summer colors.

As if emanating from within the Civil War-era oak tree growing up against the foundation she heard Richard’s voice say, “I would ride through fire to rescue you from its flames, my Brunhilde.” He stepped from behind the trunk of the tree, holding a wreath he had plaited from fallen leaves, and placed it in her chestnut hair like an autumn tiara.

“Brunhilde? She’s the fat lady, it isn’t over ‘til she sings, right? Thanks a lot.”

He took her in his arms and kissed her, heedless of prying eyes and busybody neighbors: a lover’s kiss she wanted never to end. Finally he broke away to nibble at her ear and say, “It will never be over between us. Sing away, thin lady. Sing away.”

In the tower bedroom he watched her undress. She had worn the briefest of bikini panties. Nervous, she nearly lost her balance stepping out of them for him. She hopped on one foot to regain her stance, then said, “Nice move, Grace.”

“Why do you incessantly put yourself down?” he said. “You’re the most elegantly graceful woman I know.”

“Oh, yeah. A regular prima ballerina. What would you call that last move? A pirouette?” She let him see the gentle rising and falling of her breasts in the vanity mirror as she turned her back to him and, with painstaking care, replaced the garland of leaves like a precious heirloom on the crown of her head. Then, falling into bed and snuggling, enfolding her body into his, into the hard smoothness of his embrace, she rested her cheek against his chest and said, “I’m dizzily in love with you, Richard. I know that now. I think I’ve always known.”

Touching, caressing, they wrestling like wild things until, passion spent, they languished in bed, winded as two long-distance runners. Richard had still not withdrawn from her. Kyrie’s exercises worked their magic, and soon she and Richard resumed their fevered lovemaking.

“Oh, God, let me die now,” she moaned, arching her back, astride him. The two of them were caught up in a consummate oneness, a span of thoroughbreds moving in sexual synergy. The hot clove oil sweetness of her climax surged within her. Even then, she refused to break stride. She worked at it until her thigh muscles burned with the sting of a lash, pumping up and down, plunging and thrusting him into the deepest, most secret recesses of herself until, like an unhorsed rider, she fell to his side exhausted and fulfilled.

They lay close together, lulled by the sounds of one another’s soft breathing. The dry leaves on the lawn below murmured and whispered about them like gossiping old women. They listened in the evening stillness, as though hoping to separate the truths from the lies.

 

 

She awoke to a sky fading from violet to indigo. Or was it mulberry? Richard slumbered beside her, their legs intertwined in the mess of tangled bedclothes. She wanted never to leave, but this house was not her home and this man was not her husband.

“Richard,” she whispered, her longing mixed with regret, “I have to go. I won’t know how to explain myself at home as it is.”

He started awake and propped himself up on his elbows. “You’re only trying to push aside the inevitable, you know. We will be together, the two of us. I love you, Kyrie Wilde. Until the very flesh falls away from our bones, I’ll love you.”

“I know. I’ll always love you, too, but it’s difficult right now. I have responsibilities, commitments.” She thought of Rheinhardt, her father, Charlie, her license in jeopardy. She started to say, “I’ve done some things—”

Richard’s tongue thrust into her mouth. It was a passionate kiss, possessive, musky and redolent of sex, and she yielded to him utterly, remembering the sign-in sheet, the names stricken out in red, her name next to be crossed, yet not caring. Trusting this man as she had no other. When had thrusting and trusting become so confused in her mind?

She thought of Reverend Hoffmann. It seemed days since she had spoken to him, although in truth it had been no more than two hours since his kind words had washed her guilt away, given her license to search her own heart. She reveled in that license now, thrilling to the wellspring of stolen bliss that was Richard Mandrake.

 

 

The sky was dark as she stood in the center of the tower room and dressed by the amber light of the streetlamps, slipping her panties up over the smooth swells of her derriere with a demure grace, the silk-on-skin lingerie rustling soft as the beating of a butterfly’s wings, watching Richard’s fascinated expression admiring her in the mirror’s reflection.

“Come away with me, Kyrie Wilde,” he said then, breaking the near-silence.

Her sigh was ineffable in the depth of its surrender. “I will,” she told him. “Soon. I will.”

 

 

 

Chapter Nineteen – The Judgment

 

Kyrie found no comfort inside her car on the late drive home. Charlie had answered when she’d called the house. Everybody was hungry for dinner. Tippi had shut herself in her room again, pouting. Larry was moody and Lori distant. Didn’t he make enough money to support this family? He was beginning to think her job wasn’t worth the aggravation, the wear and tear on their marriage. Especially at mealtime, he added. It all sounded like recycled Tippi. She cut him off, saying she’d stop off at Chicken & Fish.

She pulled into the drive-through behind the family restaurant, its no-nonsense yellow neon sign displaying the utilitarian message Chicken & Fish as it had for decades. Neither fish nor fowl. No imagination, like the collective mind of Black Forest, Illinois. Charlie loved the place’s greasy fare. He’d gorge on it, them mercifully fall asleep in his recliner like the big capon he was. Tippi loved it, too: mother and son, gobbling up food that would stick to their ribs.

She sat in the drive-up lane long enough for them to have hatched the chicken from an egg and raised it to adulthood. The beat-up step van in front of her needed a muffler. A faded insignia on the rear doors said Redi-Tool. Its exhaust, blue with burning oil, mixed well with the overpowering fried-food odor wafting through the restaurant’s grease trap. Kyrie turned off the blower to shut out the pollution. She sat boxed in by vehicles in front and back of her, moving by peristalsis. At long last the van lunged forward, peeling rubber as though by some miracle of physics. She pulled up to the window and paid. Another interminable wait before the attendant passed over the piece de resistance in a bucket. She asked for a plastic bag to carry it in, then set the bucket on the front passenger seat where it would ride shotgun. As an afterthought, she seat-belted it in. If she ever had to slam on the brakes, the chicken was heavy enough to go through the windshield.

No one met her at the door. She set the chicken down on the stone floor. The mail lay unopened on the foyer desk. Someone, probably Lori, had arranged it into a crescent. No doubt a tarot card formation. Mostly bills. She shifted her purse strap and opened the home phone bill.

At first she thought there must be a typo. An extra couple of zeros. Had they sent the office telephone bill to the house by mistake? She checked the address. No, the home phone bill was over thirty-five hundred dollars. Page after page of calls to some nine-hundred number. Two numbers, in fact. She thought instantly of Larry.

She opened the gold card statement. It sure was a night for boxcar numbers. A staggering monthly balance, especially for Charlie, who thought a carryover on his credit card an unforgivable humiliation. A huge recent charge for airline tickets. The latest debit, to the Radisson Hotel, seemed dwarfed by comparison: one hundred thirty-five dollars, only a few days ago.

She didn’t feel like a confrontation with Charlie right now, so she left the chicken where the smell would draw the hungry. The light was on in Larry’s room. She opened the door without knocking. Seated at his desk, he threw something into a drawer and slammed it shut, pretending nonchalance.

“What do you have in there, young man?”

“In where?”

“In there.” She stalked to the drawer and yanked it open. A bra lay inside. She picked it up and looked at it, realizing with relief it wasn’t one of hers, at least. It was no training bra, either. The cup size meant business, built to carry something with some heft to it. She burst out laughing. Some disciplinarian. Larry laughed too, through his embarrassment.

“I’m afraid to ask,” she said at last.

“Remember the team captain I told you about? It’s his woman’s. I got a hall pass and lifted it out of her gym locker while she had P.E. Pretty cool, huh? I got his old lady’s slingshot. It’s even got some deodorant on it.”

“God, Larry!” Kyrie noticed him trying to slide the drawer closed. “What else do you have hidden in there?”

Larry’s face fell. He pulled the drawer back open. She reached in and found pink lace panties and pantiliner, fake fingernails and a spray can of FDS.

“You really cleaned that poor girl out, didn’t you?” Kyrie sat down on the bed, holding the telephone bill.

“You won’t tell Dad, will you?”

“You haven’t done anything like this before, have you, Larry?”

“First time. I swear.”

“I guess it’s sort of like a panty raid thing, isn’t it? A rite of passage?”

“You could say that. As a matter of fact, you did say that.”

“Don’t be a smart-aleck, young man. You’re in trouble.” Kyrie’s smile betrayed her amusement.

“Sorry, Mom.”

“Well, then if you promise to never do it again, and answer me one question, I won’t tell your father. I guess it is sort of like a panty raid thing, really.”

“I promise. What’s the question?”

Kyrie lowered her head and stared at the Ameritech envelope. “You never…play with the telephone, do you? Call, well, you know….”

“You mean phone sex? No way, mom. What do you think I am, a prevert?”

She stood, draping her forearms over his shoulders, and kissed him on the top of his head. “Put that girl’s things in the lost and found tomorrow. I don’t want you stealing.”

“Ok, mom. No problem.”

“Why don’t you go ahead and wash up now. There’s chicken.”

 

 

Kyrie set the table with paper plates, then served everybody before she even began to wash lettuce for her evening salad. Tippi, watching her every move, finally spoke. “Aren’t you missing something, Kyrie, my dear?”

“Cole slaw? Mashed potatoes? Don’t tell me they left out the gravy again!” It wouldn’t be the first time Kyrie had to get back in the car and drive out at night, making a return trip to Chicken & Fish because some idiot had left out Tippi’s gravy. But this time Tippi looked positively overjoyed.

“No, dear. I mean your wedding ring. You don’t have it on. I hope you didn’t take it off and forget it somewhere.”

Charlie looked up from his plate for the first time and eyed her left hand as though it were a chicken wing with his name on it. “Ma’s right,” he said through a mouthful. “Where is it, anyway?” His pig eyes challenged hers, demanding an answer.

Rheinhardt’s office. Rheinhardt showing her the door. In her anger, she’d left it lying on his desk.

“My goodness,” she said, “I feel flattered that everybody’s so observant of me. Let’s see. I took it off this morning so I could scour the sink in our bathroom with cleanser. I must have forgotten and left it there when I had to run out for an early showing. Thank you for reminding me, Tippi.”

“I’d be happy to run up there right now and get it for you, dear. It is your wedding ring, after all. I’d hate for it to go down the drain.” Tippi’s smile was wickedly gleeful.

“It’s really no problem,” Kyrie said, flustered.

“Eat your chicken, Ma. She’ll get it later. She knows right where it is. It’s not like it’s going anywhere.” Charlie’s voice had the tone of finality. He reached for a drumstick.

Lori had been uncharacteristically silent all evening. When Charlie got around to asking her about school, she said, “That new boy Derek finally asked me to the haunted house. Can I go, Daddy? Can I? Please? Mom’s going to be working there anyway. It’ll be almost like a chaperone, isn’t that right, Mom?”

Charlie chewed and swallowed before asking, “Who’s this Derek?”

“Derek Walgreen?” Larry sneered. “He’s that albino kid that scared Grandma. I call him Drek Walgreen.”

“I call you gay,” Lori shot back through clenched teeth.

“That’s enough!” Charlie, his broad face a sheen of exertion and chicken grease, glared at both of them. “I’m tired of having to raise my voice at the table. We’ll discuss this later. And Lori, your brother is not gay. I don’t want you even using that word again about a member of this family.”

“Will you all excuse me, please?” Kyrie said in a soft voice. “I’ve decided to change before dinner. Does anyone want anything before I go?”

“Just some more napkins, please,” Charlie said without looking at her. “I’m almost through.”

 

 

She had already undressed by the time Charlie passed through their bedroom into the master bath without speaking, his fried-chicken torpor numbing him to her twenty-nine-year-old nudity, carrying his “dance card” as he called it—the TV listing from the newspaper. She picked out her outfit for tomorrow, her red dress with the Peter Pan collar—tomorrow she’d be a thirty-year-old real-estate pixie from the sixties—then sat on their bed wearing only her bikini briefs and stared at the bills and at the ARDC letter, now dog-eared and contoured from being carried too long in the inside breast pocket of her teal jacket, close to her heart.

She had pulled on jeans and a t-shirt and was zipping up when Charlie finally emerged from the bathroom. She never could get him to spray the air freshener. He looked at her levelly and said, “It’s not in there.”

“What?”

“Your wedding ring. It’s not in there.”

Her mind said, Not now. Not tonight.

“What the hell’s going on, Kyrie?”

“What do you mean, Charlie? What would be going on?”

“I mean you never take that damn ring off, never.”

“That’s not true. Of course I take it off, to do chores and things. Don’t panic. I’ll just have to search for it.” She realized she had been looking at her hands as she spoke, massaging the fourth finger of her left hand. Say something to change the subject.

“Charlie,” she said gently, “did you ever have a problem with Larry, well, taking things?”

“You think Larry took your ring?” Charlie continued to fix an interrogator’s stare on her.

“No,” she said, turning to open her underwear drawer, “I mean, you know, things in general.”

“Just the normal stuff,” Charlie said. “Well, I take that back. Before we got married he went through a bad patch where he was going into people’s houses and stealing some small personal items. The neighbors never caught him, though. He’s a pretty good thief.” Charlie’s eyes dimmed with what could have been pride. “The worst part was the fires he set back then. Oh, and the bedwetting.”

“Did he ever have any counseling?” Kyrie sat on the side of the bed facing Charlie and pulled socks onto her feet.

“What for?” Charlie’s face contorted into a disdainful expression. “It was all my first wife’s fault. At his age, Larry took the divorce kind of hard. I don’t need to pay some faggot counselor ninety dollars an hour to figure that out. But let’s get back to the subject under discussion here. I want you to tell me the last place you took that ring off. And why.”

“Do you ever refer to me as your ‘second wife’, Charlie? Or your ‘current wife?’“

“What’s gotten into you, Kyrie? Or maybe I should say who’s getting into you?” Charlie had put on his cross-examiner’s expression. She had never hated him more. He still held onto the TV Times. A blonde starlet was on the cover, her tongue and her boobs hanging out.

She stood inches away from his face. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“I mean I’ve noticed how you act around that Jim Rheinhardt. He seems pretty interested in you lately. There’s no mistaking the way he looks at you.”

She laughed, collapsing on the bed, a bitter laugh filled with contempt. When she came up for air, she was waving the ARDC letter in his face. “Ever see one of these before, Sherlock?”

Charlie looked at the postmark. “Jeez,” he whined, “they only give you fourteen days to respond to these things. The deadline is already blown.” He read on in silence. By the time he got to the handwritten portion, all the fight had gone out of him.

“It’s a big pack of lies,” he said. “I’ll call them, overnight a response. Don’t worry, this will all blow over.”

“Is this a big pack of lies, too?” She threw the gold card statement and phone bill at his side of the bed.

Charlie sat on the edge of the bed and read each one in turn, every page, then looked directly up at her standing there and did something she had never seen him do since he’d found out that Joey Bishop had died.

He began to cry. Loud sobs, interrupted by heartbreaking big gasps of breath. Going on and on, until Tippi rapped anxiously at the closed door, calling out, “Charlie, are you all right, Honey?”

He broke off and said, “Yeah, Ma. I—I had to laugh, that’s all. Don’t worry.” Her footsteps padded down the hall to her room.

“There’s no need to upset her with any of this,” Charlie whispered. “I’m worried enough about her as it is. I think she’s been ratholing her medication lately.”

“The antidepressant?”

“It’s not an antidepressant,” Charlie said. He wiped his eyes on his Pierre Cardin shirtsleeve. “I think I need counseling myself. What do you think? Do you think I need counseling?”

All at once Kyrie’s underarms prickled hot with shame for him. Her stomach growled. She took his hand and sat beside him.

“I’ve had some…unwise contacts,” Charlie said. “If you must know, they were of a sexual nature.”

“Oh, Charlie—”

“Nothing I actively sought out, mind you. I want to make it perfectly clear that I was never the initiator in any of this. Never.”

“What does that have to do with it?” Kyrie wanted none of his confessions tonight. She wished she were anywhere but here, listening to Charlie indulging his conscience, his sudden mood for self-abasement.

“You remember,” he began, crossing his arms and staring at the carpet, “that slight problem I had last year…you know, that ED thing? Well, the truth is I wound up going to Zelia for it.” He turned to face her, his expression plaintive, as if seeking to justify himself. “She’s a sex therapist. A healing professional.”

“Anna Geist? You’re kidding me.” Kyrie pictured the tall German woman, pushing sixty, her lined face framed by her long straight corn silk hair. It was that sixties-a-go-go hair—parted down the middle, white-blond and flat as if ironed—that didn’t fit the seamed face, which looked like it belonged more on the prow of a ship. She guessed a middle-aged man might be intrigued by Anna’s well-preserved shape and her aloof yet come-hither manner, but how to get around that aging face?

“She’s a pretty good therapist, actually,” Charlie continued. “What they call a ‘surrogate.’”

“Oh, Charlie! You don’t mean you and Anna Geist—”

“Are you going to pay attention to me or not? I’m not going to be able to say this twice, you know. It’s too humiliating for me.”

Now it was Kyrie’s turn to cross her arms and look at the floor. “Go ahead if you want. I’m listening,” she said quietly.

“The point is, I was trying to save our marriage, improve our sexual relations. My performance had been lacking and I didn’t want to disappoint you, that’s all. And she helped me. I got to where I was doing a lot better, if you’ll remember. Almost back to normal.” Charlie studied himself three-quarter profile in the vanity mirror. “But then Zelia thought it might be a good idea if, strictly as an experiment, I tried chatting with some people over the Internet.”

“What kind of ‘chatting’?”

Charlie grimaced. “She recommended this one, well, kind of a dominance-oriented chatroom. Unfortunately, it backfired.”

“What do you mean, ‘backfired’?”

“See, Zelia recommended this particular chatroom so I could kind of clear the air, get my obsessions with submission and humiliation out into the open and deal with them harmlessly.”

“How’d that work for you?”

“Not well at all. My obsession got even stronger. I couldn’t get enough of their abuse. They were specialists at it, all right.”

“‘They?’ You mean there were more than one?”

Charlie hesitated, puffed out his upper lip and exhaled through his nose as if mad at himself.

“Look,” she said, impatient, “if you don’t want to tell me, Charlie, it’s ok. It’s your confession. I just don’t appreciate being accused of having some torrid affair with a creep like Rheinhardt, all right?”

But Charlie wasn’t finished yet. “They were a couple,” he said, “the people I met in the chatroom. As time went on, my curiosity got the better of me. I wanted to meet them.” He sighed, almost violently. “I paid for their flight. You had to meet him first, before meeting her.”

“Is that the Airport Radisson?”

He nodded, then said, “One of the times. The first time they stood me up. That would probably be the charge you saw on the credit card statement. Today I met him.”

She gave a short, surprised laugh. “How was it?”

“It was…unmanning.”

It was a word that resonated within Kyrie’s memory. Triggering old, painful associations. She put it out of her mind. “You’re telling me you charged all this money on our gold card to meet some strange man in a hotel?”

“There’s more.”

“Oh, God.” She rolled her head, then fell back from a seated position on the bed and stared at a cobweb on the ceiling. Whatever Charlie said, she’d already resolved that this wouldn’t turn into a game of truth or dare. “Tell me.”

He picked up the ARDC complaint. “This thing with Peg. It’s basically a pack of lies, but to be perfectly frank, there is one small grain of truth to it.” He paged through the document as though parsing out truth from fiction. “We did have sex. Only once,” he emphasized.

Kyrie groaned and shielded her eyes with the back of her hand.

“It was what they call a threesome,” Charlie went on. “It was all Zelia’s fault. As part of the therapy, Zelia had put different fantasies in my head, sexual fantasies I could call up whenever I needed one to help my performance. The trouble was, once they’d been summoned up enough times, it was like a Jekyll-and-Hyde thing. These fantasies would force themselves on me at the worst possible moments. I found myself daydreaming constantly about older women. For instance, well, Suzie.”

“Suzie?”

Charlie scratched at the side of his thumb as though the winning lottery number were under his skin. “I couldn’t help myself. And to my amazement, I found that she was up for it.”

“What a surprise.”

“Don’t give me that attitude,” he said in a wounded whine. “Suzie was part of the whole Peg Krause thing, the third leg of the threesome. It was Peg who brought up the subject in the first place. We were having drinks late one afternoon after a difficult, drawn-out mediation session over her divorce. You know that bottle of Chivas I keep in my bottom desk drawer at the office for clients who need to loosen up? I guess that was one time we all got a little too loosened up. Then Suzie picked up on it—you know what a dirty mind she has—saying something about taking it out in trade, forgiving Peg’s bill as a quid pro quo for ‘extraordinary services rendered,’ but it was supposed to be a joke. Peg laughed louder than anybody.” Charlie grimaced at the injustice of it all.

“I’m not laughing, Charlie,” she said. “How many times did you do it with Suzie? I want details.”

Charlie dug away at his thumb, drew blood and smeared it around trying to erase it. “One of Zelia’s big fantasies was sex at the office. Last December, the day we had that big snowstorm and none of the appointments were making it in, I just casually mentioned to Suzie about how Zelia had prescribed that I fantasize over women other than my wife. She said, ‘Like who?’ I said, ‘Co-workers, for instance. Zelia told me to fantasize how it would be to get, you know, oral sex from my secretary.’ Without saying another word, Suzie came over, unzipped my fly, and went to work on me.” He paused for a few moments. “Want more details?”

“What the hell are you trying to do, make me jealous of a sixty-five-year-old woman?”

“Sixty-four. She just turned.”

“In case you’ve forgotten, you have a wife who’ll be having a birthday, too. Tomorrow. Some birthday present.”

Charlie turned to her, his eyes rimmed red. “I swear I’ll never do it again,” he said. “You have my solemn word.”

His secret out, Charlie went on and on almost eagerly, describing in nauseating detail every aspect of his cheating with Suzie, even the part about each session ending with her dentist-office spit into the Dixie cup.

“You see what I mean about fantasies preying on your mind?” he said. “It all started with that damn Zelia. ‘The brain is the biggest sex organ,’ she used to say, you know, with that accent she had.”

“You mean, ‘has’,” Kyrie said.

“What? Oh, yes, you’re right, grammatically. I meant, she ‘had’ an accent when I was going to her. She still has one, as far as I know. I really haven’t seen her in weeks. A couple of months, actually. I did refer one client to her, though. For straight massage, not sex therapy.

“It was all that damn Zelia,” he repeated. “She knew Suzie from way back, when they were both kids in St. Louis.”

“Anna’s from Germany.” Kyrie hated the adopted name, considered it a pretentious affectation.

Charlie shook his head. “Maybe she was born in Germany,” he said, “but she grew up in St. Louis, in a neighborhood called ‘Dogtown’. They’d all known each other for years and years, her, Suzie, even Peg. The thing is, I hate being manipulated.”

“Listen to yourself, Charlie,” she said. “Why won’t you take some responsibility for your own actions? You gave in to those fantasies, after all.” What little guilt she had once felt over Richard was melting away like one of Charlie’s infrequent marital erections.

“I’m just being honest,” Charlie protested. “That’s what two people are supposed to be when they’re married.”

“What about Peg’s digital camera, Charlie? And Verna’s Bluetooth?”

Charlie paused to look at her, suddenly perplexed “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said.

“How am I going to face Suzie at the office now? What the hell am I supposed to say to her?”

Charlie cradled her hand as though to comfort her. She pulled hers away, saying “If you don’t let her go, Charlie, I swear—”

“Fire Suzie? You don’t know what you’re asking. Professionally, I’d be lost without Suzie. She’s made herself indispensable. Besides, she could be a threat to me, to us. She knows where all the bodies are buried. And what if she files a sexual harassment claim?” He reached for his pillow and held it in his lap, rocking back and forth.

“What, then?”

“I told you, I promise to stop the other right away, all right? I’ll tell her tomorrow. Don’t you say a thing to her; just let me take care of it. I can handle Suzie.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of.”

“What do the Chinese say? ‘Keep your friends close to you, your enemies even closer’? That’s what I have to do now.” Charlie squeezed his hands around the pillow, tightening them over and over. “All Zelia’s fault,” he said.

 

 

Valdemar parked half a block down, facing away from Tippi’s house for his garbage-night vigil, his neck already getting stiff from watching through his rear-view and side mirrors trained at the stretch of berm in front. He’d slumped down behind the headrest when he saw Charlie dragging the cans out to the curb. Now he emptied his mind and waited for Tippi to emerge, as his psychic instincts told him she would.

Time passed. Very little traffic on the quiet street. Warm for late October. Peaceful.

The scrape of a galvanized garbage can lid being removed woke him with a start. He twisted around in time to see Tippi in her bathrobe and slippers look both ways before cramming what looked like a shoebox into the garbage, then shuffle back into the house.

He counted to a hundred, congratulating himself on his prescience, soon to be rewarded. No one else came out. He popped the trunk lid and stepped from his car. He was halfway across the street when a streak of white passed before his eyes along the sidewalk. A kid on a skateboard. Quick as that, the kid started going through the garbage cans like a starving raccoon. Valdemar yelled at him, even ran a few steps toward him, but the kid already had the package and a head start.

 

 

The big guy came out of nowhere, hollering “Drop it, you little asshole!” Seal took off on his skateboard. Hard to balance with a shoebox under one arm and a trash bag in the other. He heard the big guy come within a few feet of him, lunge at him, then break stride, panting. Seal crouched down; less wind resistance that way. Footsteps loped back in the other direction. Quick whinny of a starter, roar of a big engine. Squealing tires. Headlights reflected off the trees first, then swept the pavement when the car humped over the crest of the hill behind him, bottoming out in a shower of sparks.

The cemetery gates loomed less than a hundred yards away; Seal could disappear like a ghost in there. The car would have no chance against him. He made it through the gate, a perfect arc sweep he had practiced many times before on this same curving stretch of roadway past Lori’s house.

The guy overshot, dropped it into reverse and burned rubber back up the hill. The sign on the open cemetery gate said “No admittance after ten P.M.” The guy didn’t believe in signs.

Seal dismounted, tucked the skateboard—worse than useless on gravel paths—under his shoebox arm, then cut diagonally across the rows of graves, running for cover behind a windbreak line of trees. The trash bag’s contents clanked and rattled with his every step. A sound like gunfire made him look back over his shoulder. The big hearse of a car had clipped a tombstone, busting out a headlight. He heard the guy swear, stopped to catch his breath. No luck. The guy backed up and started driving after him again, swerving to miss the grave markers, fishtailing when he accelerated on the wet grass, but still coming.

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty – The Nine of Coins

 

Seal tossed the trash bag, the shoebox neatly tied with twine, and finally the skateboard over the cyclone fence before scaling it himself. The pursuing car had finally stalled. By the lone headlight, he saw white steam coming from under the hood and through the grill. The guy jumped out, slammed the door, then hauled off and kicked it, roaring curses into the night, loud enough to wake the dead.

Seal roamed quiet subdivision streets until he was sure he hadn’t been followed, then skateboarded home to his grandma’s darkened house and around to the back. Unlocking the combination padlock, he opened the bulkhead doors and, like a buccaneer going below decks, carried his treasure into the basement.

He pulled a chain switch. The bare bulb lit a windowless dirt-floored room that had once been a root cellar. He closed the door, stripped nude for the dirty work ahead, hung his clothes on a nail and opened the trash bag. First he separated out the uninteresting kitchen garbage from the rest and transferred it into a fresh bag from the roll he kept there.

Below the stratum of kitchen trash he found a smaller package, a white wastebasket liner. Seal tore it open, looking for any signs of femininity. There it was, an empty plastic body-glitter jar. He opened it, electric with the realization she’d actually dipped her fingertip in it and rubbed it on her breasts. But whose fingertip had it been? Whose trash, Lori’s or Kyrie’s? Both had worn the same goo on that first date at the rink. He dug deeper. A pair of socks with holes in them. Stubby eyeliner pencil. Disposable razor. Near the bottom he found one of those intimate little absorbent things ladies put in their underpants to stay springtime fresh all day. He held it in wondering hands, admiring his prize. A few wiry red-brown pubes. Could he be sure they were Kyrie’s? He picked off every individual hair and rolled it between his thumb and index finger before saving each one, using the body-glitter jar for a reliquary. He replaced the lid and dropped it into one of the big Captain Kangaroo pockets of his baggies hanging on the door. He squatted in the corner, spat into his palm and broke his unspoken vow to Lori Zweig. His semen struck and spread in the dust like first raindrops after a drought.

He had almost decided to hit the basement shower before remembering the shoebox. He left to rinse his hands in the laundry tub, shook them dry and returned to the cellar room. The twine was double-knotted. He managed to pull it loose over one of the corners of the box.

Inside was funny-looking money. Not counterfeit, exactly. Old money. Bundles of it. Seal inspected a few of the bills. They all said Silver Certificate. He sat nude in the dirt and counted them all. There was over five thousand dollars in all. All ones and fives. He folded one of the singles to make George Washington look like a mushroom.

 

 

Kyrie had rolled out and made up the trundle bed Lori kept in her room for sleepovers and lay beside her, telling Lori that Charlie’s snoring was keeping her awake. Lori had now been still for a half-hour. Drifting off to sleep at last, Kyrie told herself it had been a hell of a day, all right.

In a scared little girl’s voice, Lori broke the silence and startled her awake, saying, “Are you and Daddy going to get a divorce?”

“Lori, I thought you were asleep.”

“I’ve been lying here in the dark staring up at the ceiling and thinking about Derek.” She rolled onto her side and peeked down over the bed ruffle at Kyrie. “You think he’s nice too, don’t you, Mom?”

“I suppose so. I don’t know all that much about him.”

“His parents are on assignment for the CIA. It’s so secret even he doesn’t know where they are. Isn’t that awesome?”

“I thought they were military officers in Europe.”

“CIA is military isn’t it? All I know is he is just so cool, so totally je ne sais quoi,” Lori sighed. “If you and Daddy get divorced, I want to go with you, Mom.”

Kyrie propped on one elbow and kissed Lori’s forehead. “Is that because you want to keep seeing Derek?” she asked with an arch half-smile.

“Daddy is so Mr. Potato Head about Derek,” she said, “and Larry is like, Onan the Barbarian. I think girls should go with girls and boys should go with boys, if you guys split up that is. You can have joint custody of Grandma.”

“Thanks a pantload.” Kyrie and Lori shared a secret laugh on Tippi. “How would I ever support both of us?” Kyrie said. “Plus keep my dad in the nursing home?”

“Have him live with us. He’s getting better, isn’t he?”

“Oh, Lori,” Kyrie said, “You don’t know what you’re asking. I’m so dependent on your dad—”

“Make him pay child support. He can afford it. You can do that, can’t you?”

“I never said we were even getting a divorce,” Kyrie said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. There are a lot of things going on right now, Lori. Changes. Besides, your dad knows all the judges and all the attorneys. I’m not even your natural mother. I probably wouldn’t stand a chance getting custody. Let alone child support or alimony.”

“It’s called maintenance,” Lori said. A lawyer’s daughter, one who listened at the dinner table. “Anyway, you’ll never know until you’ve tried, will you?”

“What’s this about you and Derek going to the Board of Realtors’ haunted house?” Kyrie asked, trying to change the subject.

“Oh, he was so cute when he asked me, standing by the lockers. He’s so shy and sweet, batting those snow-white lashes of his at me, almost afraid to look up at me with those little pink eyes, like a cute little white bunny rabbit.” Both of them giggled at the image. “I had to carry it, you know, the entire conversation and all, until he finally got up the courage to ask me. The haunted house is like, the social event of the season around here.”

“Your dad hasn’t said yes yet, Lori.”

“It’ll be like a stealth date,” Lori said with a mischievous expression. “I’ll tell Daddy I’m riding over to stay overnight with a friend and her parents, then Derek will secretly meet me at the haunted house and we’ll have our date. You won’t tell, will you?” she pleaded.

“He really likes you, I guess.” She watched Lori, envying her innocence as she went on and on about Derek.

“He likes you too, Mom. I can tell. But hands off, ok? I saw him first, and he’s not boy toy material.” Lori giggled again.

“Not to worry,” Kyrie said. “He’s way too young for me.”

 

 

Charlie had already left for traffic court by the time Kyrie made it to the office around ten A.M. Suzie was standing at the sink pouring water for coffee. Her tight stirrup pants had ridden up to almost Capri length. The stirrups dangled loose against her muscular calves. Stiletto heels made her almost six feet tall.

“I understand you think there’s some hanky panky going on between me and Charlie,” she said without turning around. Her Medusa’s face reflected fury from the chrome finish of the coffee maker.

“Suzie, I—”

Suzie whirled around and glared at her. “I think that’s the pot calling the kettle black, don’t you?”

“What?” Kyrie, barely managing to stand, feared to look away, as though breaking eye contact would mean triumph for Suzie, some damning tacit admission.

“Richard Mandrake?” Suzie went on. “The flowers? They were for you, weren’t they? I can tell right now from your guilty expression. Partners in crime, my ass.” Suzie’s face crinkled into a crooked smile, one eye half-closed. For a moment it looked to Kyrie as though she were having a stroke.

“Richard Mandrake. I knew I’d heard that name somewhere before. Peg mentioned him. He’s a professor out at the college, isn’t he? A real hunk, or so she told me. Said it gave her hot pants just looking at him when she showed him that house in the Hexenhut district. You know the one I mean, the twin to that one that burned down with Verna inside of it. The fire that gave Verna a terminal case of the hot pants.” Suzie laughed. “Lucky for you it was Peg and not Verna showing your boyfriend around, that’s all I have to say.”

“What are you talking about, I’m lucky it wasn’t Verna?”

Suzie crossed her arms over her bookshelf of a bosom.“Why don’t you ask your father?” she said.

“Leave my father out of this, you old slut.” The words were out. Kyrie could barely believe they’d come from her own mouth.

“Listen,” Suzie said, “you’ve got a lot of nerve bad-mouthing me. At least I’m not married and stepping out on my husband like you are. I’m single and ready to mingle. You think I need this job? I get plenty of offers all the time, Missy, from men a lot more interesting than your husband, and with a lot more money.”

Kyrie’s Bluetooth went off.

“And a lot better hung, too,” Suzie added.

Kyrie pressed the button and took the call. It was Joey. Murmuring a greeting, she edged toward the door.

“Is that him now?” Suzie crowed after her. “It’s him, isn’t it? Don’t you just love these newfangled gizmos?”

 

 

Classes were already changing. Kyrie dodged through crowds of chattering students to the sanctuary of Richard’s tiny office. Sat at his desk, slid out the drawer. The sign-in sheet was gone. There was only an old professional journal: Personality Digest. July 1960 issue. Richard had used a folded piece of white paper to mark his place in an article by Chortsatz and Bootz, entitled: Working toward a synthesis of the ‘Dogtown Debs’ studies: anomie, drift phenomenon, the devolution of conscience and concomitant evolution of tribal consciousness and nymphomania within a group of delinquent young women. She slipped the journal into her purse to read later.

A voice behind her said, “I thought I’d find you here.”

She spun in Richard’s chair, whacked her elbow on the corner of his desk and howled. Joey was on his knees at once, abjectly apologetic for startling her. She reassured him that nothing seemed to be broken. He took her to his lab.

“Don’t keep me in suspense any longer, Joey. What did you find out?”

“Well,” Joey said, “he is a type A secretor, just like our murderer.”

Kyrie’s throat constricted with fear. She had believed Charlie’s ‘confession’ last night. Had he held back after all? Conveniently left out two murders? Finally she managed to ask, “What does that mean?”

“Not too much, taken in and of itself,” Joey replied. “About forty per cent of Caucasian U.S. males have type A blood, and a subset consisting of seventy to seventy-five per cent of that forty per cent are secretors.” Joey pressed a switch. The fluorescent lights of an x-ray view box blinked on. He took out two autorads. Kyrie moved her chair closer and leaned her head near Joey’s to peer at them. Joey slid the two autorads together, one behind the other, as he held them up to the cool light.

“Well?” she said at last, shaking her hands with anxiety as if to pull the answer out of Joey. “Is my husband a double murderer or not?”

“You mean a triple murderer. Another woman found dead. Same M.O. Not enough time to complete a DNA match up. I’m running tests now, but it seems highly unusual for a copycat to be able to imitate the others so perfectly. Her name was—”

“Anna Geist,” Kyrie said. The third name crossed off the sign-in sheet.

Joey’s mouth dropped open. “How did you know? It hasn’t even made the papers yet.”

She hesitated. “I’m a realtor, remember? We have our own little network.”

“Then you won’t be surprised when you hear who got arrested for it,” Joey said.

“Try me.”

“Another realtor. A guy named Boris Day. Know him? Police said he was pretty beat up. The two of them were into some kinky stuff that must have gotten out of hand. Obviously, she got the worst of it.”

Kyrie reeled. Boris Day. It all fit. Richard said he had seen him hanging around the Harmony House right after Peg’s murder. She herself had run out the back after seeing him standing at the front door. Maybe he’d come in earlier with Peg while she and Richard were distracted, murdered her, then gone back out front to wait for his buyer and pretend nothing had happened. He had access to the place; the door had remained unlocked while she and Richard made reckless love in the tower room.

“Don’t you want to know the DNA results on Charlie?” Joey brought her back to reality. “I did put a lot of work in on this, on a priority basis to have it done by your birthday like I promised. Oh, I almost forgot. Richard left this for you.” He handed her a card. She opened it.

An elaborate, romantic birthday card, big as a magazine. There was a document inside: a standard Black Forest-Dutch Hollow Board of Realtors contract. Richard had made an offer, a generous one, on the Harmony House. His signature, barely legible, appeared on the buyer’s line. A post-it note below the signature said only, live and love in it with me. Her eyes filled with tears.

“I’m sorry to make you go to all that work, Joey,” she said. “It looks like it was Boris all along, right?”

“Well, Charlie’s DNA sample doesn’t match.”

She was feeling warm, loving, earth-motherly after opening Richard’s gift. It was only a matter of time, she knew, before she and Richard accepted the inevitability of their being together. She stood up to leave, turned and gave Joey a soft kiss on the lips, opening her mouth a little to show her appreciation. From his pleasantly amazed reaction, it might have been his first kiss. For her, it was like kissing Derek Walgreen.

In her car, she opened Richard’s birthday card again and re-read the note. She traced his signature with her fingertip like a preadolescent schoolgirl.

She didn’t feel like selling houses today. This one sale made all the difference. She idled the engine and ran the air conditioner. Unseasonably warm for October, or was it the note and Richard’s suggestion that was overheating her? She decided to relax a little. Might as well read up on Richard’s obsession, the Dogtown Debs.

As soon as she took the Personality Digest out of her purse, Richard’s bookmark fell out. She bent and picked it up by one corner from the floor mat. The paper fell partway open.

It was the sign-in sheet.

Boris Day’s name topped the list of realtors. Every woman realtor on the list murdered, one after the other, except of course for Kyrie. Murdered in the same brutal manner, the same bizarre perverted sex ritual desecrating each corpse. Easy to believe it was Boris doing the killings. Each of the victims was a competitor of his, every one of whom at one time or another might have closed on a property and cut Boris out of a sale. Underhanded dealing and backstabbing were par for the course in the brutal Black Forest-Dutch Hollow real estate market the past few years. Everybody in the business accepted a certain amount of piracy as a fact of life. Except maybe for Boris it got to be a bit too much to bear. Unless the police ever got a confession out of him, they would probably be poring over listing after listing, looking for any connection. Any motive.

If Boris had that motive, it would have been easy for him to gain each woman’s confidence, find the opportunity to get her alone and kill her. Yet he was a small man. How could he have subdued the first two victims so silently? Was her lovemaking with Richard so noisily passionate the two of them simply hadn’t heard the struggle? Or maybe Boris was stronger than he looked.

She studied the list. Peg’s name crossed out but not her buyer’s. She hadn’t paid much attention to the buyers’ names on the list before, while waiting to show Richard the Harmony House. Yes, that name could be “Richard Mandrake” in Peg’s crabbed scrawl, opposite her name cancelled in red. But why strike out all three murdered realtors’ names? And if death was the common denominator, how did Richard know to cross off Anna Geist’s name? How could he have known about her murder even before the police?

She scanned below Peg’s line. Verna’s buyer’s name was written in a handwriting other than hers: a signature, also illegible, but familiar. The color of ink was different, too. The buyer must have used his own pen. All she could make out of Anna Geist’s buyer’s name were the initials R.M. With a chill Kyrie saw her own name next on the list. Her two showings with Richard came right after Anna Geist, the latest victim. It was like reading the inscription on her own tombstone.

She looked over the buyers’ names again. Something almost too familiar about Verna’s buyer’s signature. Then she recognized it. But first she had to be sure. Her hands trembling, she slid the right edge of the sign-in sheet next to Richard’s signature on his offer to buy the Harmony House. It was like holding two autorads up to the light and watching the two identical patterns converge.

The handwriting was one and the same.

Someone tapped at her car window. She jumped; the papers flew out of her hands. Richard, smiling. Motioning for her to roll her window down. When she hesitated, he began conducting an invisible chorus, mouthing “Happy Birthday to You.”

She shifted into drive and sped away. His amazed expression stalked her in the rearview mirror.

 

 

The rip of Velcro told Adrienne that Jack was taking his blood pressure again. Doing coke, taking his blood pressure, taking Viagra and then taking her—that was his routine. Sitting here in Jack’s bachelor pad, as he called it, on the flower-power couch overlooked by the psychedelic poster of Janis Joplin, she wondered whether Paris was worth it. What was he, stuck in nineteen-sixty-nine? She didn’t know why she kept coming over here. Unless it was for the coke. Jack always had the best on hand; the little paper packets with the seal stamped on them meant a Get Out of Black Forest Free card, at least for a few minutes, and time flies when you’re having fun. Adrienne wasn’t having fun yet, mirror and straw in hand, waiting for Jack to come out of the john. When he finally emerged, she knew from the shape of his mouth he’d taken a nitro chaser.

“Hope you saved some for me,” she said, holding up the mirror.

Jack looked like he had indigestion. Old people got indigestion a lot, she figured. Especially old people with bad hearts who did as much coke as Jack did, plus all the Viagra and all the screwing around. Still, she could learn a few things from a mature man like Jack. Things like who his supplier was.

“There’s my girl,” he said. After a moment she realized he meant Janis Joplin. Here it comes. Another maudlin screed about mortality, about death being the greatest high of all. The Great Escape, Jack called it. She looked beyond him at the painting he’d picked up at the mall of James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis, and some other people she didn’t even know, but suspected were dead, hanging around in a dingy all-night diner. She called it the Dead Guys’ Cafe. She had Jack’s strangeness number, all right. The whole Jack thing was like she’d wandered into one of those role-playing games where every nerd becomes a sorcerer, a Druid or a vampire. Plus he made her envy the hearing-impaired children she worked with in lab. She wished she could hit the mute button on Jack sometimes. But Jack had his uses, even if he thought he was using her.

Jack went right for her breasts without asking and started kneading them, saying, “Ooh, baby.” The intake of his breath quavered with every mouse-pulse of his racing heart. The cocaine cat was chasing that Viagra mouse up the clock again, and it was only eleven o’clock in the morning.

Adrienne said, “Aren’t you forgetting something?” She held the mirror up to his face, inches from his nose, as if to check for life in a corpse. But Jack was still alive, all right, even if he was going for the fucked-up look.

“Give me a little something first,” he said. His stomach started squealing like a little pig in a sack. And what the little pig wanted was more coke. She had never seen Jack eat anything, except for her. He had lost probably fifteen pounds in the three or so weeks she’d known him, and even on his tall frame it showed.

Jack jumped up and put in a CD. Janis again, doing Me and Bobby McGee. Quaint, bluesy, it sounded like something Adrienne’s father’s friends might listen to. She couldn’t make out all the words and didn’t care

Jack took the mirror from her fingers, then handed it back to her with two lines on it. She snarfed them one by one up her good nostril.

“There’s my girl,” she said. Jack laughed hilariously in her face.

The age difference thing seemed to dissipate in the cool coke breeze. She and Jack were sophisticates, both of them too good for Black Forest. Wild and free, they were a secret society of two, taking off the system. The coke rush made it all crystal clear to her.

“Why don’t you grow your hair long like a sixties hippie?” she asked him, tugging at the gray in his temple.

“Why don’t you?” he said. It set her off laughing, a tinkling laugh tight in her throat. Jack pulled her pants off in one swooping motion.

“We can’t be too long,” she said, “I have an appointment to see my lawyer.”

She needn’t have worried, she realized later. It was over quick as a hit of coke. The only difference was it didn’t leave her wanting more.

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-One – The Two of Cups

 

Waiting for Adrienne made Charlie nervous. He had sent Suzie to an early lunch at 11:30 only because he knew Adrienne despised her, and now Adrienne was late. Suzie would be back soon.

He heard the front door open. Leaped out of his chair to greet her, met her halfway to Suzie’s desk.

“Hey, how’s my favorite client? You look gorgeous.”

Even with her eyes red and her nose a few millimeters out of joint, Adrienne really did look gorgeous in a white blouse and maroon jacket over a black skirt. She wasn’t dressed like a student at all—more as if she were here for a job interview. Charlie ushered her into his office and closed the door.

“First I want to apologize for being such a bitch the last time I was here,” she said, smiling. “I was entertaining a little visitor, if you catch my drift. Still friends?”

Charlie’s heart melted with relief and gratitude. He had expected no fee on this one, maybe even another ARDC complaint. “Absolutely,” he said. “I’m on your side, Adrienne. Always remember that.”

She sucked in her cheeks and sighed. “I know that now,” she said. “Now that we’re friends again I guess I just need to ask you a few quick questions about how all this is supposed to play out.”

“Shoot,” Charlie said, palms up.

“Well, first I have to tell you I’m kind of nervous and scared about Jack staging this accident and everything. You knew all about that, didn’t you?”

“You have nothing to be nervous or scared about, Adrienne,” Charlie said. Reassuring an anxious female client was better duty than placating a belligerent one any day. “You’re the innocent party. You have every right to make claim for your accidental injury.”

“But, see, I guess that’s the part that’s worrying me,” she said. “You and I both knew from the beginning it wasn’t accidental, Charlie. It was set up by Jack to defraud an insurance company out of money. That’s how Jack makes his money, after all, making accidents happen and then collecting insurance for pretend injuries, right?”

“What does that have to do with the price of pork bellies in Iowa? Look, don’t you think it’s a little late to come down with a sudden attack of conscience?”

“Got a light?” Adrienne had tapped out a Merit from the pack in her handbag. Charlie went searching for matches, found some in Suzie’s desk, came back and lit it for her, although it was a smoke-free building. She exhaled a thin stream of smoke at nothing in particular.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I’ve been thinking maybe I should just drop the whole thing right now.”

“Now hold on, Adrienne,” Charlie said. “Let’s analyze this before making any snap decisions. I mean, why walk away from money, even if it’s not quite as much as we’d hoped for initially? After all, money is money.”

“And prison is prison, Charlie.” Adrienne looked around, distracted by the absence of ashtrays. Charlie tried to hand her an empty soda can from the wastebasket, but she made a face at it and refused to touch it. He circled around the desk and set the can on the floor beside her feet like a peace offering. She bent and flicked ash at the aluminum lid. Some fell short onto the carpet.

“Who said anything about prison?” Charlie laughed indulgently to put her at ease. “All you have to do is keep your pretty mouth shut. I’m certainly not about to disclose any of our conversations, all of which are protected by attorney-client privilege, anyway. I couldn’t disclose my knowledge of this fraudulent scheme even if I wanted to, which I don’t. I can’t even be forced to divulge any of it, so relax. Your secrets are safe with me, Adrienne.”

“That does make me feel a tiny bit better,” she said, glancing at her designer watch.

“And Jack,” Charlie continued, “would be a fool to talk. As you say, he’s the one who faked this accident and many others. He’d be the last person in the world to say anything to the authorities.”

“You spend much time with Jack, Charlie? You two hang around together?”

“Never had the pleasure of meeting the man or doing so much as talking to him on the phone,” Charlie answered. “I know him only by reputation. I understand he’s a close friend of yours, though.”

“Oh, do you?” Charlie thought he saw a merciless sharp-edged gleam in Adrienne’s eyes through the smoke, but then it was gone. “So tell me, what else did Mr. Rheinhardt say about me?”

“Who?” he said.

“Come on, Charlie. Jim Rheinhardt. He sent me over to you, remember? How’s he figure in all this? Does he get a cut, too?”

“If he does, I don’t know anything about it, I swear to God,” Charlie said. He had Adrienne in the palm of his hand now, but she might jump if she knew about Rheinhardt’s third of a third. “You might ask Jack about that, next time you see him.”

“I will,” she said. “Next time I see him.” She continued to study him through the smoke, an indecisive expression on her face.

“Adrienne,” he said, “take my advice and hang in there a little bit longer. We’ll settle with the insurance companies. Some day real soon you’ll come in here and pick up a nice sum of money. In the meantime, let me handle things for you.”

He watched the overhanging peaks of her heavy breasts straining as she bent once more toward the impromptu ashtray. She was wearing some kind of exotic flash undergarment. He bent forward for a better view.

“Charlie, I smell smoke in here. Oh—” Suzie barged in, then stopped as soon as she spotted Adrienne in the client’s chair.

“It’s all right,” Adrienne said, dousing her half-smoked cigarette in the soda dregs. “I was just leaving.” She stood hips thrust out and shook Charlie’s hand so tightly it hurt. “You’ve answered all my questions. I want you to know I’m very, very satisfied.”

After she had gone, Suzie asked, “How’s Miss Bitchy Bertha today?”

“Oh, she’s fine,” Charlie replied. “I schmoozed her good. Didn’t you hear her saying how she’s ‘very, very satisfied’? Looks like I pulled another one out of the fire.”

“You silver-tongued devil, Charlie.”

“Maybe I should go into politics.”

“You know, I think you’d be good at it,” Suzie said.

 

Charlie sat and read the paper for twenty minutes before Suzie rapped at his door. “There are two gentlemen here wanting to see you,” she whispered. “They’re very persistent, but won’t state their business.”

Charlie folded the paper in half and set it aside. “Things a little slow around here anyway,” he said. “Maybe it’s something they’re uncomfortable telling a woman. Better show them in, Suzie. Let’s hear what’s on their minds.” When she raised her painted-on eyebrows and gave him a questioning look, he added, “I’ll tell you later if it’s juicy.” Her quizzical look transformed itself into one of anticipation.

 

 

The two men reminded Charlie of Abbott and Costello. The short fat guy was the funny one.

“Oh Grandma, what big tits you have,” he leered as soon as Suzie had closed the door. Charlie forced an uneasy chuckle and seated the two men. They both kept smiling at him too broadly for comfort, without speaking.

“What can I do for you fellas?” Charlie said at last.

“For starters,” the tall, hatchet-faced one said, “You can talk about humpties.”

“Humpties?”

The short fat one picked it up. “Humpty dumpties. Cutouts. Stunt pilots. Ghost riders. Cookies. Crash dummies. And you can tell us if you just had a conversation with a young lady client of yours named Adrienne in here.” Smoke mixed with Giorgio still hung in the air between them.

“Now, you know I can’t discuss anything about another client’s business with you, Mr., er…”

The fat guy produced a microcassette, then with a proprietary air reached over for Charlie’s Sony pocket dictator, flipped open the tape compartment and inserted it. Positioning the dictator in the middle of Charlie’s desk like a centerpiece, he slid the switch to “Listen” and turned up the volume. Charlie heard a remarkably high-fidelity recording of his own voice saying, “Hey, how’s my favorite client? You look gorgeous.” And actually sounding sincere.

“Wait,” the tall guy said as Charlie opened his mouth to protest. “It gets better.”

They all listened in silence to the entire conversation. For Charlie the whole experience was like getting beaten up. The two guys were older than he was but looked like they could take him if he tried to run.

“How about the set of tits on that Adrienne, boy,” the fat one said. “That bra of hers was a hummer, too, you know? She had a hell of a time clipping the mike onto it, what with all those rhinestones in the way.”

“CZ’s,” the tall one said. Neither one had taken off his overcoat although it was warm in Charlie’s office, and getting warmer by the minute.

“Excuse me, Mr. Home Shopping Network,” the fat one said.

“We’re talking to the wrong guy about that, though,” the tall one went on. “Our boy Charlie here can’t appreciate a rack like Adrienne’s unless it’s hanging off some old canner or low cutter like the one sitting out front answering the telephone.”

“You’re shitting me.” The fat one pretended amazement, not even looking at Charlie.

“Who are you guys?” Charlie said.

Abbott turned to Costello and remarked, “I thought he’d never ask.” He dangled a badge from across the desk. Charlie had to squint to make out IBI. Illinois Bureau of Investigation.

“What do I call you?” Charlie said.

“Call me Ishmael,” the tall guy replied.

The fat guy slid his badge over. John Uno, Special Investigative Unit of the Illinois Department of Insurance.

“Now before you go saying anything stupid, Charlie,” Ishmael said, “I need to inform you that you have been endowed by your Creator with certain inalienable rights. That among those rights is the right to remain silent.”

“That’s a good right, you know?” Uno nodded. They’d done this routine before, probably knew it better than Who’s on First.

“Bet your ass that’s a good right,” Ishmael said. “And you know what else, Charlie? Once you go giving up that right, any shit that dribbles out of that big asshole in the middle of your face can be used against you in a court of fucking law.”

Charlie’s left eyelid began to twitch uncontrollably. He threw up into the wastebasket. “I think I’m having a stroke,” he said. They didn’t even pause.

“You’re in for a stroke of luck, too,” Uno said, his wise-ass mojo rising, “because you also have the right to an attorney. Like for instance your buddy Rheinhardt. I was you, I wouldn’t hire him, though. We just got through paying him a visit this morning. He’s got his own problems now, you know?”

“You forgot to tell our boy about his most important right,” Ishmael chimed in. “Charlie, if you keep pissing away all your ill-gotten money on motels and male whores, you may qualify for our lightning round, where you could win an attorney appointed for you absolutely free. Any questions?”

Charlie stared at the two men, a wastebasket of vomit between his legs.

“You know, Charlie,” Uno began, “the way we look at things, the insurance industry is like a great big gambling casino. The odds are always stacked in favor of the house. That’s how the insurance companies can afford to build those big shiny skyscrapers up in Chicago. Ever been to Chicago, Charlie?”

“Think of you and Rheinhardt as a couple of bush-league card counters from the sticks,” Ishmael said, “barefoot hillbillies with a system, trying to beat those house odds. We got you both sweating it out in the back room of the casino right now. Rheinhardt already heard our pitch and he’s busy thinking it over. So either you give up enough for us to get over on your buddy Rheinhardt or he gives you up. However you play it, one of you’s going down. Don’t matter to us which one.”

“You’re not used to dealing with these cunts from the northern suburbs, Charlie,” Uno said. “Ruthless cunts like this Adrienne. They’re all fem-dom ballbusters who’d cut your nuts off for drill. Especially her.”

“What do you mean, ‘especially her’?” Charlie asked. The smell of his own vomit rolled up and hit him in the face, bringing on another wave of nausea. He had a second go at the wastebasket. The two men ignored him, as if puking were an accustomed side effect of all their interviews, like chemotherapy.

“He means,” Ishmael said, “that this chick is trouble with a power nailer. We think she did a murder at the tender age of sixteen.”

“Murder?” Charlie shoved the wastebasket under his desk.

Uno picked up the story. “While strolling through the Cook County Forest Preserve one day, minding her own business, bird-watching with her high school biology teacher, our little Adrienne suddenly discovers that Teach, much to her surprise, is a big bad wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

“They tried her as an adult,” Ishmael said. “I know what you’re thinking, Charlie. You’re thinking there might be some way to impeach her testimony because of a felony conviction. Sorry. She was acquitted. A jury gave her the benefit of the doubt. Twelve stupid fuckers, or maybe her old man paid them off.”

“What’s she supposed to have done?”

“There’s no ‘supposed to’ involved,” Uno said. “I mean, she did it, you know? I followed the whole trial in the newspapers. You like trials, Charlie? I love trials. My wife says I should have been a lawyer.”

“Your wife ever say that to you, Charlie?” Ishmael asked. Both men laughed.

“Anyhow,” Uno continued, “Her lawyer stipulated to the fact that she beat the schoolteacher’s head in with a rock. The only issue was why. She said he raped her, then wanted to take dirty pictures of her afterwards. It was the dirty pictures that made her snap, she said. She even took the guy’s camera, as a kind of souvenir. Funny, all the time she was pureeing his brains with that rock, she never busted the camera hanging right around his neck. The State’s Attorney never made enough out of that at the trial, you ask me. He could have eaten her ass off with that point alone, but he just gave it away. Maybe Daddy’s money had something to do with it. Daddy must have had some clout.”

“You should have seen those pictures, Charlie,” Ishmael said. “You like dirty pictures? I mean, of women too young to draw Social Security, that is? If you do, you would have loved these. I was working for the Cook County Sheriff’s Department when we investigated this case. Adrienne lucked out in a way because the guy was a known pedophile. How he ever got a job teaching high school is a mystery to me. But man, when we developed that film.”

“He jacked off right on her face, didn’t he?” Uno asked rhetorically. “The papers never came right out and said it. You kinda had to read between the lines.”

“Funny thing, though. They always looked like posed pictures to me.”

“And that’s your little playmate, Charlie,” Uno said. “So you think real hard about giving us Rheinhardt, before she throws you to the fucking wolves instead.”

“If Adrienne’s gone over to you guys, what do you need me for?” Charlie asked, his mind starting to clear at last.

“She couldn’t get dick out of him—”

Ishmael cut Uno off. “It’s between you and Rheinhardt now, Charlie. What’s it going to be? You cooperate with us now, we’ll put in a good word for you, keep you out of prison, maybe even save your license. You hold out, and Rheinhardt gets the exact same deal you’re turning down, only to give you up.”

“You don’t need Rheinhardt to give me up,” Charlie said. “You have the tape.” He smiled. “You can’t get to Rheinhardt any other way, can you?”

Ishmael glared at Uno.

“See,” Charlie said, brightening, “the thing you guys don’t understand about the tape is that my conversation a few minutes ago with Adrienne was my first indication that she may in fact have been involved in any wrongdoing. As an officer of the court, and under the Himmel doctrine, it’s my duty to report any fraud by another attorney, any moral turpitude. I was conducting my own investigation, pretending to play along with her in order to find out what was going on and get to the bottom of it.”

Uno was mad now, and it showed. “Charlie, you are so full of bullshit. I hope Rheinhardt does give you up.”

“You gentlemen should speak to your attorneys,” Charlie replied, “so they can explain to you what you’re dealing with here. You surreptitiously taped a privileged conversation. Breaching a client confidence is serious business for an attorney. I had to assure myself there truly was a genuine intent on the part of my client to commit a fraud, an ongoing scheme, not just past actions. If it’s all in the past, rather than ongoing, it’s privileged, as I’m sure you gentlemen’s attorneys will advise you.” Charlie beamed at them.

“Charlie,” Ishmael said, “this is big. This is an ongoing criminal conspiracy to commit insurance fraud.”

“So you say.”

“Let’s walk out of here, let this slimy bastard sweat a grand jury,” Uno said, red-faced. Ishmael held up one hand to him like a traffic cop.

“Aggravated conspiracy to commit fraud. Class One felony, even if your co-conspirators flee or aren’t amenable to justice. Even if nobody else but you is charged.”

“If you can prove it,” Charlie said. The shame of his vomiting a moment ago was forgotten.

“Oh, but we can prove it, Charlie,” Ishmael replied. “We have Adrienne, remember? You want to bet the farm on your word against hers in a swear-off? You ready to lose everything you worked for the last, what, twenty-five years, on the testimony of some murdering little twat? What does she have to lose? Can’t you hear them making that argument at your trial? ‘Why would she lie?’”

Charlie picked up a yellow legal pad and drew a vertical line down the middle of it. At the head of the right-hand column he wrote “Pro” and at the head of the left-hand column he wrote “Con.” In the “Pro” column he wrote “avoid prison”, then skipped a line and wrote “license.” He wrote “plausible denial” in the “Con” column, then under it, “co-conspirator—no corroboration.” He switched back to the “Pro” column and printed in big letters, “Eliminate a Competitor.” Underlining those words twice.

“His world as he knows it crashing down around him and this asshole’s doodling,” Uno said.

“Gentlemen,” Charlie said, “I’ll give you my answer in the morning.”

“This ain’t a marriage proposal, Priscilla,” Uno yelled.

“Let’s not insult Mr. Zweig’s intelligence with this good-cop/bad-cop shuck, Johnny,” Ishmael said. He turned to Charlie and said, “Tomorrow works for us, just so long as you remember all bets are off if we turn Rheinhardt in the meantime. I’m serious when I say this is big, Charlie. If the feds get interested, we’re even talking RICO. So be smart. And don’t go calling Rheinhardt, either. Because if you do, we’ll know it, and we’re going to take that as an overt act in furtherance of the conspiracy.” Ishmael stood to leave. Uno followed suit.

“Don’t make yourself the bad guy in all this,” Ishmael said, towering over Charlie. “We think you were honest as the day is long, at least until this shithead Rheinhardt hit town. Talk to us before having any conversations with him. We’ll send you in lavaliered, like Adrienne was.”

Charlie switched to a red pen and circled the last entry in the “Pro” column.

“We’ll show ourselves out,” Ishmael said.

Charlie heard Uno say, “Hey, good-looking,” and glanced up in time to see him give Suzie a jaunty wave. Her cheeks were still flushed when she boomeranged into his office as soon as they had gone.

“Well?” she said, her face eager with anticipation, then twisting into a disgusted grimace as she added, “Smells like somebody tossed their cookies in here.”

Charlie gestured for her to close the door to his office. She didn’t. “Rheinhardt’s in big trouble,” he said. “I mean big trouble. Those guys are law enforcement. They want me to go talk to him. Wearing a wire.”

Suzie said, “Ohhhh,” her voice going up. She reminded Charlie of the canned laugh track for a million old sitcoms where the woman goes, “Ohhhh, ho ho ho,” with giddy anticipation. By now she’d probably been dead for years.

“Shouldn’t you call and warn him?”

Charlie shook his head. “His phones are tapped. Anyway, why should I? I was doing okay until he got me mixed up in all this shit.”

“You mean you’re really going to go through with it?” Suzie asked.

“Not without a deal in writing for immunity,” Charlie said. “Transactional immunity from a judge, and the ARDC’s seal of approval. It’s him they really want, not me.” Just then Kyrie walked into the lobby and crossed to the library area. Charlie lay an index finger across his lips. Suzie winked.

 

 

Kyrie surveyed the library’s disarray. Suzie never threw anything out, even the hundreds of telephone directories Charlie had ordered several years ago, telephone directories from all over Illinois when he had the idea of starting a legal research contracting service and marketing it statewide. Now the Internet had made those directories obsolete. Yellow covers of all thicknesses and sizes still stood lined up on top of a long bookcase, silent reminders of another moneymaking scheme gone bad.

She thumbed through stack after stack of Charlie’s old Illinois Law Journal issues until she’d located three consecutive months from a year ago. She photocopied the Disciplinary Actions column from each one before returning them to the same haphazard order she’d found them in. She left without speaking to anyone, and drove several blocks away before dialing the ARDC’s Chicago number.

The secretary was very pleasant and helpful. There had been three disbarments in Cook and DuPage Counties over the time period in question, as well as one voluntary surrender of license. She looked up each file in turn, telling Kyrie all she could. Kyrie sat parked with engine idling in the abandoned lot. It had belonged to a failed supermarket, and now was nearly reclaimed by weeds. She furiously took down notes as the secretary spoke. She had the names and addresses of each complaining witness by the time she had finished.

“Now, once somebody voluntarily surrenders his license to practice law,” Kyrie asked, “does the person have to do anything before getting it back? Is it like a driver’s license, in other words? Do you just take the test, the bar exam thing again, or what?”

“Oh, no,” the secretary replied. “I fact you have to go through a great big rigamarole, give witnesses’ statements and evidence that you’ve been rehabilitated and so on. It’s really hard to do, but a few do manage to succeed. A lot of others don’t, though.”

“What can you tell me about a lawyer named Jim or James Rheinhardt?” Kyrie asked. She spelled the name for the woman.

“Let me just get to another screen,” she said. “Bear with me.”

“Take your time. I appreciate all your help.”

“Happy to. To tell you the truth, when I took this job I didn’t know how lonely and boring it would be. I’m glad to talk to another human being. Here it comes. ‘Good standing.’ No complaints.”

“You’re kidding.”

“Did I disappoint you?” the woman laughed. “Sorry. Finally found an honest lawyer, I guess.”

“How long’s he been licensed?”

“That will take a minute.” The woman paused again.

“More than a year?”

“Oh, yes. At least three years. Anything older than that, we have to go to the paper files.”

“Don’t bother.” Kyrie thanked her again and hung up. She had to call directory assistance several times to work her way through the gerrymandered area codes and get current working numbers for two of the disbarred attorneys in the Chicago suburbs. The third was unlisted, but was in 847, an area code for the northern suburbs of Chicago.

That left the voluntary surrender. Thaddeus Scott. No luck with directory assistance. She went home, turned on her computer and tried the yellow pages, People Finder and every other online telephone directory she could think of. Nothing. It was as if Thaddeus Scott, dying of shame from his professional disgrace, had disappeared from the face of the earth.

Kyrie dialed the number for the complaining witness on the Thaddeus Scott case. The number turned out to be a realty office in Stickney. The woman she wanted still worked there, but was out on a showing and wouldn’t be back until afternoon. Kyrie left her office number, identified herself as a real estate broker and said it was important. She had no more than hung up the phone when she heard Tippi scream.

 

 

“You little ass!”

Kyrie ran to the door to find Snow Seal Walgreen trying to hand Tippi an old shoebox tied up with twine. Tippi was going ballistic, wailing on the kid, beating him with her fists. It was all Kyrie could do to grab her behind her back and restrain her arms at her sides in a kind of modified Heimlich maneuver.

“Get it away from me! There’s blood on it!” Tippi screamed.

“I—I’m sorry, Mrs. Zweig,” he stammered, his face an even paler shade of white. “All’s I did was ask her, did she want it back? I didn’t feel right keeping it after I happened to notice it on top of your trash cans last night. I thought she must have put it out there by mistake. I was afraid somebody might come along and take it.”

“Asshole! I never saw it before in my life!” Tippi yelled. Still struggling, she aimed a swift kick at Snow Seal’s groin, missing by millimeters. Her faded blue bedroom slipper flew off onto the front lawn.

“Tippi! Calm down,” Kyrie cried.

“You’re not my daughter-in-law,” Tippi wailed over and over until she collapsed in a heap on the threshold.

“I didn’t mean to make trouble,” Seal said.

“Shouldn’t you be in school, Derek?”

“It’s lunchtime.”

Kyrie looked down past her wristwatch, at Tippi clutching the shoebox and shivering by her feet. What medication had she been ratholing? Charlie probably knew the name of her doctor, and all about her condition, but she wasn’t speaking to Charlie. Not today, anyway. For an instant she thought of asking Richard for his opinion and his help, then realized she couldn’t. She had burned her bridges at last with Richard. Maybe she’d even go to the police herself with what she knew about Richard Mandrake. Let down by both of the men in her life, she turned to Seal.

“If you’ll help me get Lori’s grandmother calmed down and into bed,” she said, “I’ll fix us both a hot lunch.”

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Two – The Ace of Wands

 

“You like chicken?” Kyrie bent at the waist and reached for the bucket on the lower shelf of the refrigerator. Snow Seal sat at the kitchen table behind her watching her every move, the way the defining lines and gentle swells of her calves moved and bulged when she kicked off her shoes, exposing toenails painted harlot red. The sinews of her thigh muscles stretched tight for him now, defining those awesome legs of hers. She’d be a witch on a skateboard. He thought of his treasure sealed within the body glitter jar in his right front pants pocket. Suddenly he wasn’t hungry. Not for chicken, anyway.

She held up the bucket. “Ok?”

He nodded, anxious to look suitably grateful. She began arranging a few pieces on a paper plate.

“Do you prefer white or dark meat?”

Seal tried for a debonair shake of his head to show he didn’t care. Say something to her. Anything.

“How’s your dad?”

“My dad? My dad’s cool, Derek. Thanks for asking. He’s getting better every day. Do you like it better cold or hot?”

Seal swallowed. “Hot,” he said. More uncomfortable silence. A minute at least. Her hands preparing food for him. Covering the plate with a paper napkin, she popped it into the microwave, hit a few buttons and said, “Shit.” She turned to him and followed with, “Oops. Pardon me, Derek. This whole thing with Lori’s grandmother has just gotten me so upset I can’t even set a timer. You almost had nuked poultry.” She cleared it and tried again, then leaned a hip against the counter and waited. He wanted to walk over and put his arm around her.

Sitting here like the man of the house. The chicken revolved and crackled in the microwave. Wonder what’s for dessert? Seal wished she would come out from behind the center island just so he could see her legs again. They were spectacular. A woman’s legs, not a teenager’s. He’d dreamed of her sitting naked on the edge of the tub, poised with her toes pointed, the pink tortoise-shell plastic safety razor stroking the creamy lather from each maddening subtle curve. Him tapping at the bathroom door, then her inviting him in to sit naked on the fuzzy toilet seat cover and watch her. Just your typical domestic scene. When she was done with her legs, where would she shave next? And would she ask him for a little help smoothing on the silky foam?

“How’s your husband?”

Kyrie looked at him strangely. Obviously the wrong question to ask. Stupid, stupid. The bell on the microwave dinged.

“Why don’t we talk about something else?” she said. Using only her fingertips, she carried the hot plate to the table, reached over and set it in front of him. He couldn’t be sure, but he thought one of her breasts may have brushed against him.

“Excuse the informality. We’re not exactly a four-star restaurant here—”

Seal turned in his chair and took her hand, ignoring the chicken. First time he had touched her since that night. He gazed up into her eyes and thought he saw the knowing expression there, the demure smile. She pulled her hand gently away, its smooth coolness caressing his palm.

In a softer voice, she said, “You’re welcome, Derek.” She walked slowly to the other side of the table. He leaped up, saw her eyes widen. She seemed to regain some of her composure when he pulled her chair out for her.

“My, aren’t you a gentleman. My husband doesn’t even—” She sat down with catlike grace, as if knowing her power over him. “But we weren’t going to talk about him, were we?”

“No,” he said. “We weren’t.”

Just the two of them now, sitting there like a married couple. She gestured to the steaming plate in front of him. “Dig in, Derek. Enjoy.”

Seal dug in. It was pretty good.

“Don’t mind me if I don’t join you. Old Grandma can’t eat like a teenager anymore.”

“She’s lying down. We better not disturb her,” he said, remembering the blows and curses.

She laughed, a musical, tinkly laugh, even though her speaking voice had a growl in it. A sexy growl, Seal had fantasized telling her. “No,” she said. “Not that Grandma. I mean me.”

“You’re not old,” Seal said through a bite of thigh. “You don’t look that much older than me.” How many men before him had fingered those inviting legs? Virginity, Seal assured himself, was overrated as a virtue.

“That’s the best compliment I’ve had all day, Derek.” She smiled like a cat. Was all this really leading up to something? Could they do anything with Lori’s grandma right there in the house? Maybe if they were real quiet. Seal thought he could be very quiet.

“Mrs. Zweig—”

“Call me Kyrie, Derek.”

Seal’s mouth was dry. Ask her. Be strong. She’s used to a strong man, it’s what she needs.

“Kyrie,” Seal heard himself say in a taut urgent voice strange to him, the words spilling out, too late to call back now, “I think you’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen in my whole entire life.” It was the first part of the fantasy marriage proposal he’d rehearsed time and again, whispering alone in his room.

“Derek, honey, I’m very flattered,” she stammered, “but it’s, well, even though it’s perfectly normal, it’s maybe kind of …inappropriate to have certain feelings, make certain compliments, at your age. To a grown woman, I mean.”

She was getting ready to shut him down, maybe even tell Lori all about it. Say the rest of it. All of it. Too late to do anything else now. Go for it, man.

 

 

“Kyrie,” she heard him say in a voice husky with desire, “I need you. The way a man needs a woman. I know I can make you happy.” His fingers, the color of chicken gristle, clung to a neck bone so tightly he would have strangled it if it were alive. A fourteen-year-old kid condemned to die of self-inflicted embarrassment unless she rescued him. A situation like this could be genuinely traumatic for him if she didn’t handle it right, she told herself. What was it Reverend Hoffmann had said in all those counseling sessions? Whenever she felt helpless over events in her life she fantasized about empowerment in verboten sexual entanglement with a taboo partner, a relationship which paradoxically she perceived as safe but which in truth posed the ultimate danger. But Reverend Hoffmann wasn’t here, the kid was obviously in psychic agony, and there was no one else around to help him.

“Tea and sympathy,” she said. “My specialty.”

“What?”

“Derek,” she said carefully, “I want to make you a proposition.” She saw his face come alive with excitement or fear. “Not that kind of a proposition,” she added. “I propose that the two of us pretend this conversation never happened. It’s not that you aren’t attractive, handsome even, and you sure are courageous and passionate, I’ll give you that, but you’re fourteen and I just turned thirty. Society calls that a felony. And unfortunately, we both have to live in society.”

Still, his dejection tore at her. “But I want to tell you one more thing,” she added against her better judgment, “and if you breathe a word of this to anybody, I’ll deny it to my grave.” He looked up, encouraged. His eyes did remind her of a bunny rabbit. A horny bunny rabbit.

“I’ll say this much, Derek. Only because you couldn’t possibly know what’s been going on in my life lately, you don’t know how close you just came to seducing me. Now sit down and finish your chicken before it gets cold,” she said. “You’re a growing boy.”

 

 

Tippi shivered on her bed, the shoebox beside her. For two nights in a row, the face of an aging woman—a mockery of her own face—had appeared at her bedroom window, staring at her while she feigned sleep, watching her all night, its dead eyes gleaming, envying her life and her body, biding its time. Each of those nights had ended with Tippi sleeping under her bed where she was safe from the thing’s prying and possessing eyes. But there would be no protection tonight. The third night she would be taken over.

Unless she could get rid of the money. It was the money that was invoking the curse. She’d thrown it in the garbage, following Valdemar’s instructions, but one of those things that were after her had brought it back again, and was now sitting right in the kitchen with the thing that had replaced her daughter-in-law, talking about having sex. She would have to give the money away so that it would never come back. Let it curse somebody else for a change. Before night fell once more, she would have to give it all away.

The thing that had replaced her daughter-in-law stealthily opened her bedroom door and peered down like a vulture at her pretending to sleep. She never slept anymore, had to remain vigilant and keep watch over herself. They were all waiting to steal her identity, waiting to pull off the old switcheroo. Tippi was sure it would happen tonight unless she gave away all the money.

Seeming satisfied, the thing finally pulled her door closed. She had been too smart for that one. Caught the lack of a wedding ring. Good thing she’d quit taking that brain thinner they were trying to slip her, calling it ‘medication.’ Tippi didn’t miss a trick, even though the trip to the curb putting that shoebox in the trash was the first time she’d been outside the house since coming home from Big Charlie’s funeral.

But how was she going to give away the money so it wouldn’t come back again this time? She didn’t know anybody anymore. All the people from the old days were dead, dying or being taken over one by one. Fading away like the westerns she’d always loved on television, and which were getting harder and harder to find. Now when you turned on the TV all you saw were niggers getting smart.

Tippi did know of one person from the old days who was still alive, and who’d be more than happy to take the money off her hands. She’d have to fix herself up, brush her hair out the way Big Charlie had always liked it, and go downtown. The whole idea scared her, but at least it was better than sitting here waiting to get taken over.

After she got back, she’d call Valdemar and tell him all about it. He’d be proud of her using her ingenuity. In the meantime, she lay and waited for the two things to get done talking about sex and leave.

 

 

Kyrie looked in on Tippi resting quietly. She closed the door and tiptoed away, even more angry at Charlie for not trusting her with the severity of Tippi’s illness. Tippi obviously was capable of violence now that she was off her medication. But the anger Kyrie felt now was the only novelty, the only change in their routine and loveless marriage. She’d leave him today, let somebody else clean up the mess, if it weren’t for Lori and Larry. If she left them now, she’d be no better than her own mother, and theirs.

She’d come home to an empty house that night. Empty of life. Only her mother’s corpse beside a brain-soaked Dear-Jane note, written in her father’s handwriting on church stationary. She had stared at the note, part of it illegible through the gore. She’d read, through the clotted gray matter, part of the note’s contents that could still be deciphered. He’d felt unmanned, her father had written, he couldn’t be with her anymore. He’d been unfaithful to her with another man. In the Manassas Hotel.

Pun intended. Was it the rude pun that had driven her mother to it? Blowing her mind out with a big bang of double-aught buckshot, spackling the living room ceiling with flecks of gray ooze like stars in a firmament.

Strange that she had been able to forgive her father but not her mother. Nor had she been able to forgive herself for her mother’s suicide, although Reverend Hoffmann had urged her to. She had left her mother alone the weekend of her suicide; she would not leave Lori and Larry now. The bond between her and the children had strengthened as she and Charlie drifted apart. Charlie’s disgusting revelations were merely a symptom of a terminal marriage, as were her own infidelities with Richard. She had fallen into love and into bed with him so easily, so desperately, and now she feared him. Somehow she would have to find the strength to go on.

She reminded herself to overnight Richard’s offer to the Harmonys in Tulsa, to bind the deal. No sense prejudicing a client because of her own personal indiscretions. She didn’t want to go back to the office just yet, didn’t feel like facing Suzie or Charlie again right now, so she called instead, punching the three-digit code for her messages. Three hangups: attempted “what was that all about?” calls from Richard, she suspected. A voicemail: Candace Piggotti from Stickney, the complaining witness in the Thaddeus Scott disciplinary matter. She called Candace from home. Missed her again; she was out on another showing. Kyrie left her another recorded message, then drove to the post office. Tippi would probably sleep for hours.

In her car, Kyrie’s tension cleared and she felt free. She remembered the files in the church office—Verna’s, and now hers. After overnighting the sales contract with a brief handwritten “sign here” post-it note, she drove straight through the Hexenhut district to Saint Mark’s and buried herself in the church office—“stage right”—using the key Reverend Hoffmann had given her.

She had called through nearly the entire top drawer, introducing herself to the listing clients, making small talk and ingratiating herself to them as best she could, until she reached the Elmer Krause file.

Elmer might be more difficult than the others. She knew from gossip around the dinner table that the terms of the Krause divorce required Elmer to make his best effort to sell the marital residence and split the proceeds. He had stubbornly refused to give Peg the listing or the commission. Conflict of interest, Elmer’s lawyer had argued. It took a court hearing to do it, but finally it had been decided to let Verna handle the listing. Kyrie called Elmer and got him on the fifth ring.

Elmer was sixty-something, wore bib overalls six days a week like they were part of him, and worked second shift at the feed mill in Dutch Hollow. He attended Saint Mark’s every Sunday wearing his only suit. The few times Kyrie had encountered him other than at church he’d been covered with dust and carrying a lunch pail. The grain dust made a thin doughy paste in his brilliantined yellow-gray hair, combed straight back in furrows as rigid as his thoughts and values. How he and Peg had gotten together Kyrie would never know. Elmer was getting ready to go to work. So was Kyrie.

“I see your house isn’t moving,” she asked, after the usual preliminaries. “Not too much interest?”

“No, but I’m really not that interested in selling it anymore. It was your husband pushing the deal. My lawyer says that if Peg hadn’t recorded that quitclaim deed to herself and broke off the survivorship, it all would have gone to me when she died. Now half of it goes to a couple of Peg’s cousins. I’ve talked to them already. They’re in no hurry, either. So I guess nobody’s in no hurry ‘cept for your husband. He’s slapped a lien on the house for his fees. Pretty steep, too, you ask me.”

“Elmer, if you don’t feel comfortable about me handling this listing—”

“No, no. I didn’t say that. That wouldn’t be very Christian of me, now would it? No, I’m letting you handle it. I’ll trust you to do a good job. Leastways I know you’ll be more of a professional than that one ever was.”

Surprised that she still bristled at any criticism of Charlie, Kyrie said, “Well, Elmer, just remember that I’m not my husband. After all, he had a client to represent, and—”

“Who’s talking about your husband? When I said ‘that one’, I meant Verna Hoffmann. Do you know, she called me up soon’s she found out Peg had died, and said some things to me I can’t even repeat. And her a minister’s wife. My own minister’s wife, at that.”

Sitting in Reverend Hoffmann’s chair and holding Verna’s file notes in her hand, Kyrie asked in a quiet voice, “What do you mean, Elmer?”

“Do you want me to say them? They was, you know, sex-type things.”

“Are you sure maybe you didn’t misunderstand her?”

With an exasperated sigh, Elmer said, “The day of the murder, that very same afternoon, even before the cops notified me, Verna called me up at the house and told me, and these are her exact words, excuse the language: ‘Now with Peg dead and all, I wouldn’t mind trying your peter on for size myself. I like a big one,’ she says. You think I missed her meaning, do you?”

The rattle of keys and snick of the deadbolt startled her. Reverend Hoffmann opened the office door and gave her a surprised but pleased wave. She began to get up; he gestured for her to remain seated.

“No, Elmer, I guess you didn’t,” she said. “Listen, I know you’re going out the door for work. I won’t keep you. When it’s convenient, why don’t I bring over a new listing contract to formalize things between us?”

“I guess you didn’t what?” Reverend Hoffmann asked after she had hung up.

She closed the file folder. “Didn’t want to sell the house,” she said.

“How is old Elm Krause these days?”

“Fine, I guess, considering.”

“I offered to counsel him, you know. We each lost a spouse within such a brief span of time I thought we might share our grief and console one another, but he’s a very private man, a man of considerable integrity,” Reverend Hoffmann added. “Elm Krause may be unyielding and stubborn, but he couldn’t tell a lie if his life depended on it.”

 

 

Kyrie needed quality time alone with her father. She didn’t have a showing until five, so she drove to Black Forest Care Center. The halls reverberated with the sounds of his shouting.

He would yell out a few words, then pause, then yell a few more. The words were slurred like a drunk’s. Kyrie rushed into his room to find one CNA lying across his chest. Another was pinning his shoulders, cooing soft words in a reassuring tone while she struggled to quiet him. The first one hollered, “Where’s that hypo?”

Kyrie could make out some of the words.

“The medicine man says, ‘Don’t chew it, smoke it, smoke it,’” Dr. Wilde screamed, thrashing his head on the pillow. Then a pause, like a stand-up comic waiting for a laugh.

“Just rest, now,” the CNA who had his shoulders said.

“The queer says, ‘Buddy, this just ain’t your day,’” Dr. Wilde wheezed, the weight of the first CNA on his chest. Then waited again, listening for a laugh.

“When he gets like this, he yells out the punch lines of dirty jokes,” the other CNA told her. “Just the punch lines, though. We’re supposed to guess the rest of the joke, maybe.” She shrugged.

“The fag looks at the monkey and goes, ‘You’re a shitty little bastard but you’re all mine.”

Kyrie pleaded, “Daddy, calm down.” The charge nurse hurried into the room and gave Dr. Wilde a shot in the arm. The injection did its work. After a minute, a crazy, cross-eyed look of recognition lit up his face.

“Sugar Bear! I feel like I have a four-hundred-pound woman on my chest.”

“Are you going to behave yourself now?” the first CNA, who looked like she didn’t weigh more than three-seventy-five, sing-songed to him.

“Tell me, have you ever wrestled professionally?” Dr. Wilde asked her.

“In a manner of speaking,” she said. “I’m getting a little too old for it, though, aren’t you?”

“I’d love to do this again sometime,” Dr. Wilde said pleasantly. “In mud. Naked.”

“Honey, just name your time and place,” the CNA replied, shaking her head and smiling at Kyrie. “Stay as long as you like, dear,” she told her. “He usually sleeps after he gets like this.”

When she and her father had been left alone, he asked, “How’s Mother?”

“Same as ever, Daddy.” Kyrie stood beside his bed and stroked his hand. The wild movements of his eyes gradually subsided.

“I’m having bad dreams,” he said in a drugged voice. “Remembering things.”

Kyrie caressed his cheek and asked him, “Daddy, why did you say you and Verna Hoffmann were meeting at the twin house the night of the fire?”

Dr. Wilde looked at the ceiling, like a bad boy about to be punished.

“Promise you won’t tell your mother?”

“No, Daddy, I promise I won’t tell Mommie.”

“She promised to give me a private showing,” he said. “Know what I mean? A private showing?” He winked his good eye. Within moments he was asleep.

Kyrie sat in the chair beside his bed. Too soon to leave but she had to take her mind off the escalating ugliness she’d been hearing about Verna. Nothing to read anywhere in the room. She remembered the professional journal in her purse with the article in it about the Dogtown Debs. Absently she fished in her purse for the Bluetooth and stuck it in her ear to catch any business calls. Kyrie scanned the article.

There had been five Dogtown Debs, female juvenile delinquents from the same South Saint Louis neighborhood. The authors used only the Debs’ first names and last initials: Karryn Y., Suzanne F., Virginia S., Margie D., and Zelia H.

Zelia.

It was assumed Karryn was the ringleader. The working hypothesis at the University of Chicago was that Karryn had masterminded the escape, as well. There was much speculation as to why Suzanne F., of all the others, had not gone along. Although some of the studies assumed Suzanne might have had some vestige of a conscience, later studies failed to find any evidence of one in her.

Every study concluded that all five Dogtown Debs were amoral and remorse-free over the crimes they had committed, the last of which would have been felony murder if committed by an adult. A man had been killed during one of their holdups. A traveling salesman named Leo Mandrake.

They’d readily admitted everything after their arrest. On one of their road trips, the Debs had made it as far as Champaign, Illinois before encountering Mandrake. True to form, a couple of them faked a roadside breakdown of their ‘47 Ford. Good Samaritan that he was, Mandrake stopped to render aid. One thing led to another and he wound up in the back seat with both teenagers. Right on cue, the rest of the Debs swarmed from out of nowhere and threatened to tell the police he’d molested two underage girls unless he gave them all his money. One of them had a pistol. What could have remained no more than a traveling salesman joke turned into murder when Mandrake realized he’d been set up and told them to go ahead, call the police. One of the Debs, no one would say which one, pointed the pistol right at Mandrake’s head and pulled the trigger. The ammunition was so old it didn’t fire. The Debs tried to run, but before they could make good on their escape Mandrake brandished an old service revolver he always carried with him for protection. A struggle for the weapon ensued. Unluckily for him, Mandrake’s ammo proved better than the Debs’. He got the worst of it. Because the killing took place during the course of an armed robbery it was a felony murder, of which all five Debs would have been equally guilty but for their age.

Richard had highlighted three of the five names. One he had left untouched was Suzanne F.

The Bluetooth vibrated in Kyrie’s ear. She answered “Twin Cities Realty,” in a low voice enough so as not to wake her father. A vibrating sound emanated from her open purse. She retrieved her Bluetooth. The caller ID showed Richard’s number.

Shocked, Kyrie realized it was Verna’s Bluetooth she had inserted in her ear.

Someone was calling for a dead woman.

A long silence at the other end. Then a familiar voice said “Kyrie?”

The only other sound was her father’s gentle snoring.

“Yes, Suzie?”

“We need to have a little chat, Dear.”

“I’m kind of busy right now, Suzie.”

“Just girl talk. Won’t take long.”

“So talk.”

“At the office, Hon.”

“I have a showing at five and I’m volunteering for the Haunted House at seven.”

“You’re putting me in a ticklish predicament. We both know you’ve taken some doodads that don’t belong to you. Why don’t you put them right back where you found them and forget all about seeing them there? You wouldn’t want to be late for those appointments of yours.”

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Three – The Queen of Swords

 

Lori tried something new and a little different with her hair. She had already spent more than an hour standing in front of the mirror in her bedroom, doing and redoing her hair while she got used to her retro strapped shoes with the stacked heels. She was wearing more scarves than Isadora Duncan, but strategically arranged so that with a little more practice, when she took off the velvet shrug her budding breasts would peep through the scarves and the sheer see-through top, giving Derek a moment to remember.. She took off the shrug once again, turned full circle, fashion-gazed into the mirror and said, “How do I look, Derek?” Perfect.

Lori in her costume looked like a German princess kidnapped and raised by the Gypsies. Faux gems stuck to her eyelids and forehead with a touch of eyelash adhesive gave her an exotic effect. The washable black dye borrowed from her stepmother had added more body and fullness to her long blond hair. Acting on her latest creative impulse, she’d piled her Rapunzel braids high on her head like a fortuneteller’s turban. That plus the stacked heels made her seem taller by inches. Too tall for Derek? She hoped Derek was the kind who wouldn’t be intimidated by height in a woman.

Six o’clock. Daddy had to be at the office by seven for a meeting. Her ride was due to arrive at seven. Perfect. Her mom had already put on her witch costume, complete with phosphorescent green makeup, putty nose, and washable black hair dye, and run out the door to help set up the Haunted House. Lori had forgotten to warn her and Daddy about the cards.

The cards. She still had an hour. Plenty of time. Lori flopped prone onto her bed, slid the headboard bookcase panel aside and reached in. Between Wiccan Love Spells and Black Magick, her hand fell on the boxed set containing the Hecate Tarot cards, a handful of runes and an instruction booklet.

She hadn’t learned the runes yet. Tarot cards were her thing. She was a witch at tarot cards.

Lori chose the significator for her father: The Emperor. Setting that card aside, she shuffled the remaining cards face down three times, then cut those cards into three stacks, using her left hand, and reordered them into one, bottom to top. One by one, she began turning cards left to right for the Celtic Cross spread, asking aloud, “Will Daddy go to the office on time tonight?”

She covered the Emperor with the top card from the deck: The Magus, reversed. A tall, gaunt, hollow-eyed man in a black robe with a live Egyptian cobra for a belt, its hooded head poised to strike. A hypocrite, a snake in the grass. Manipulation of others and abuse of power. The Magician stood at an altar upon which lay objects of the four suits: pentacle, sword, cup and wand. A sideways figure-eight symbol of eternity hovered as though suspended in midair directly above his head. In his right hand he held a black candle burning at both ends. With his left hand he pointed downward. Lori knew that meant, “As Above, So Below.” With the card reversed, did it also mean “As Below, So Above?”

The second card crossed the Emperor: The nine of swords, also reversed. The worst card in the deck, cutting her father in two. Lori wanted to quit right then, but dire consequences might flow from interruption of a reading. She went on.

The third card crowned the Emperor: The Enchantress. Also negative. Lori fought the urge to invert the rest of the deck, as if that could cure the evil foretold by all these reversed cards. The Enchantress head-over-heels meant physical or spiritual impotence. Disgrace. An end to all dreams. The Hecate card set depicted a nude mature full-breasted woman wrestling a lion, but also taming him by her power and poised to suckle him. She wore the infinity symbol for a headdress.

Lori turned the fourth card and placed it beneath her father’s. Justice. Lady Justice, also nude in the Hecate set, stood between two burning pillars. The pillars were as topless and bottomless as Lady Justice herself. A sword impaling a human skull in one hand, balanced scales in the other, she stared with unblinking serpent’s eyes at the reader. The card’s position mirrored her father’s, the forces of justice hidden like a land mine beneath his feet.

Rapidly, as if out of breath, Lori repeated, “Highest good for all concerned, highest good for all concerned, highest good for all concerned.” A mantra to drive away the evil. She turned the fifth card. Placed it to the right of the significator, at her father’s left hand. The Five of Coins. Whatever was troubling her father, money was the motive. The false promise of money never received.

The sixth card was the future card. The Tower. Disaster and ruin. A colossal stone watchtower struck by lightning. Two men falling from its parapet to their deaths.

Lori could go no further. Disregarding all she had ever studied or learned about the Tarot, she abandoned the reading. Instead, she reshuffled and read for her stepmother. Using only the major arcana, she prepared to do a five-card spread. Five people in the home. Five points of the pentacle. Five letters in her stepmother’s first and last names, even her maiden name. Lori chose the Queen of Wands for Kyrie’s significator. She turned the first card.

The Horned One: the Hecate deck’s euphemism for the Devil. Close at hand, directly ahead in the immediate future, unless…

She turned the second card. The Lovers. An Aphrodite figure in a verdant garden, two nude young men before her. She must choose only one.

The third card. The Hierophant. Card number five in the Hecate deck. Seated on a throne, he held a triple cross in his left hand. His face was that of a woman. Two sycophants stood one on either side of him.

The fourth card offered her mom’s escape. The Fool. She would have to trust her own impetuous instincts, blind faith and initiative to get her through.

The fifth and final card. The World. A Hollywood-style happy ending, but only if her stepmom got her shit together.

 

 

Kyrie had to remove her black sequined witch’s hat to drive. The law office was dark at last, the parking lot empty. She’d check her messages there, throw some paperwork into a briefcase and leave. There’d be plenty of time. Seven was early enough to show up at the Haunted House; it was only a dumb little voluntary thing. Still, it did help the homeless. She’d avoid Suzie and Charlie, move her things out bit by bit over the next few days and make the church office her temporary base of operations until Verna’s listings took off and made her financially independent.

At least her key still worked. She punched in the street address number to shut off the alarm system’s pitch-pipe wail. Best not to turn on the suite lights; Suzie’s attention might be drawn to come and check, if she swung by. Kyrie could navigate by the available light from the streetlamps. Suzie’s uncluttered desk lay before her. The red mongoose eye of the security laser seemed to follow her as she passed it in the near-darkness.

The safe deposit box key. It was always kept in Suzie’s desk. Was there something of Anna Geist’s hidden in that box now, some new trophy? She could switch the keys again tonight and check at the bank in the morning.

Kyrie lit the green-shaded banker’s desk lamp and slid open Suzie’s lap drawer. Another penny-dreadful romance novel with blood-red cover. A Wuthering Heights wench in long, full dress, her raven tresses swept by the night wind howling off the moors, her bodice accented by a pentagram girandole with rubies at the five points of the star. The tendril of a lovelock curled around her jeweled brooch. She seemed to be faced with a choice between the two men frozen in mid-stride running towards her. Both prospects wore tight black tuxedo pants and blousons split for the disco. Lips pursed, the heroine lay one satin-gloved hand to her cheek, index finger extended. Decisions, decisions. A castle in the background. Some kind of electrical storm going on. Lightning crackled at the battlements of the castle tower.

She opened the book. The key lay inside, marking Suzie’s place as before. Behind her, she heard Charlie’s office door open and Suzie’s voice say, “Looking for something?”

She whirled around. The banker’s lamp gave Suzie’s face a greenish cast, nearly as green as her own face in the Halloween makeup.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Suzie said. “The burglar alarm was set when you came in.”

“I—I was putting back the safe deposit key.”

“You already switched the keys back yesterday. I didn’t bother to check the numbers before going to the bank the afternoon you took Verna’s phone. Imagine my embarrassment when the key to the office safe deposit box didn’t fit. That’s when I figured out you’d switched it with yours from home.”

“Have something else important to hide in there, Suzanne? A little memento from Zelia, perhaps?” She took two steps toward Suzie. Her eyes adjusted to the light. Then saw the revolver in Suzie’s hand pointed at her heart.

“Just this,” Suzie said. “Zelia always kept it beside her bed for protection. I figured you’d stay away from the office as long as you thought I was still here, so I parked two blocks away, came back, set the alarm and played one two three red light with the motion detector. I’ve been sitting here with the lights out for half an hour, waiting for you. I knew you’d come.” She smiled, proud of her deception. “In the Industrial School for Girls I learned how to sit and wait and be quiet.” Kyrie stood and waited and was quiet.

Suzie said, “Now why don’t you take Verna’s earphone doohickey out of your purse, lay it right there on my desk and step away.”

Kyrie still did not move. “One thing I’ve been wondering about,” she said. “I know who Zelia was, and who you are. I guessed Peg was Margie and Verna was Virginia, but who was Karryn?”

“You poor girl,” Suzie said. “You mean you really don’t know after all that’s happened? Karryn was your mother.”

Suzie lowered her gun hand, walked toward Kyrie as if to embrace her, then struggled to take her purse. All the fight was out of Kyrie; she didn’t resist. In moments Suzie had Kyrie’s purse and Verna’s Bluetooth. She set it on her desk and dialed a number from the office phone.

“Spare me the bullshit. I’ve got it,” Suzie said after a pause. She listened some more. “I’m telling you, you’re being paranoid.” She switched her weight from one foot to the other, still training the gun at Kyrie’s chest. “You don’t want much, do you? Ok, I’ll ask her.” She hung up.

“Kyrie, Hon, there is concern in certain quarters that you may have gotten your mitts on certain pictures that don’t belong to you. I suggest you cough them up too, Dear.”

“You may have Verna’s Bluetooth, but you’ll never get your hands on Peg’s pictures. I’ve made arrangements so that if anything happens to me, they’ll wind up in the newspaper.”

If that idea upset Suzie, she didn’t show it. Maybe she knew there was nothing that important in the pictures, or didn’t believe the bluff. Kyrie had never been a convincing enough liar for the real estate game. And Suzie didn’t know copies of Peg’s pictures were still in Kyrie’s purse right now.

“Karryn—your mother Carrie—hadn’t bothered to establish a paper identity like the others. She was afraid to go out on her own, scared she’d be caught and forced to give up the other four. Didn’t even have a social security number. None in her new name, anyway. She used yours, a baby’s social security number, to get her driver’s license. She’d let herself get fat and lazy, never worked in her life, never accepted old Charles Zweig Sr.’s offers to help. Of course, there were always strings attached with old Hoopty Zweig. And the strings were usually attached to his pecker. No, I was the only one she could talk to about it. A listening ear. The phone was still off the hook when you found her, wasn’t it? I should know: I was at the other end of the phone when she pulled the trigger that night. Karryn couldn’t take the idea of your father leaving her.”

“What do you know about my father?”

“Think about it, Kyrie. Isn’t it a fascinating coincidence that Daddy’s taken a powder from the nursing home every time one of those Deb killings happens? Every single time?”

“At the time of Peg’s murder Daddy was blocks away, visiting Reverend Hoffmann at the parsonage.”

“Yes, but you don’t know how long Peg had already been dead by the time you discovered her body, do you, Kyrie? You’re not a pathologist. Don’t you think there might have been enough time for Daddy to get away clean? Besides, what are you worried about? He’s obviously insane. No jury in the world would ever convict him.”

“What about Zelia? Daddy was at Black Forest Care Center all day, the whole time she was being murdered.”

“Boris Day killed Zelia,” Suzie said. “Don’t you read the paper?”

“When those DNA tests come back, they’re going to clear Boris, aren’t they, Suzie?”

“What DNA tests?” Suzie must have been a good actress. She looked genuinely surprised.

Something else was bothering Kyrie. Something besides the old harpy in the Jayne Mansfield wig who might shoot her at any moment, but who, Kyrie hoped and prayed, would have done it already if she truly intended to.

“Suzie,” Kyrie asked, “what did you mean a moment ago when you said, ‘the other four?’ Wouldn’t there have been only three others my mother needed to protect?”

“Well, it sure is a night for surprises, ain’t it?” Suzie crowed. “There were six of us girls in that ‘47 Ford. Joan was the only one that got away clean. I used to think she was the smart one, until she went and married old Hoopty Zweig. I guess one of us had to, to keep him quiet. Joan even went and had a kid by him. Spitting image of his father, too, right down to his small peter.”

“You bitch,” Kyrie screamed. She remembered only one phrase from her self-defense training at the Y: flee from a knife, but rush a gun. She charged into Suzie. One stiff-arm fist hit plump breast-flesh. Suzie made a sound like she had heartburn. She fell against the desk. Kyrie grabbed the elbow and the wrist that held the revolver and slammed Suzie’s forearm against the edge of the drawer like breaking sticks for kindling. The weapon skittered across the desk and onto the carpet.

Suzie was quick for her age but Kyrie, faster and more agile, came up with the gun in her hand.

“You nearly broke my arm,” Suzie said, rubbing a red welt on her forearm. “That’s going to raise a nasty bruise.”

“Sit,” Kyrie said, gasping for breath. “Hands where I can see them.” Suzie obeyed.

“Speaking of spitting images,” Suzie said, “you’re a picture postcard of your mother the night she pumped five slugs into that asshole.”

Kyrie’s knees wobbled; the revolver all at once felt ten pounds heavier.

“My mother never hurt another living thing.”

“Whatever you say, hon. Whatever you say.” Suzie, remarkably calm, sat with both hands spread on the desk like a medium about to do some table-tipping.

“What else do you know about my mother?”

“Her real name was Karryn Youngblood. You might say she corrupted my morals. As a matter of fact, that’s exactly what that cute young defense attorney said at my trial, how I was a mere child, easily led. We were all pretty famous at the time, even made it into Confidential magazine and the Police Gazette. Ask your mother-in-law, she may have saved the clippings.”

“You mean to tell me Tippi’s mixed up in this? And why did you call her Joan?”

“Because dat’s her name,” Suzie said, talking out of the side of her mouth like Edward G. Robinson. “Joan Budd. Da brains a’ da gang.” She let out a shrill cackle that made Kyrie’s legs feel weak, and she was holding the gun. What kind of psych-out was Suzie trying now?

“Tippi was the leader of the gang?”

“Tippi,” Suzie said with a sarcastic smirk. “It’s a name she got from the public library. Aristotle’s wife or something. Joan always had her nose in a book. After the shooting, Joan was the smart one. She didn’t stay with the car. That’s how all the rest of us got nabbed. As luck would have it, along comes old Hoopty Zweig, sees her jailbait little ass hanging her thumb out and offers her a ride, as I got the story.”

“How did you all know to find her here in Black Forest?”

“It was brilliant,” Suzie said. “Joan started sending us clippings about ourselves from all the tabloids and newspapers, in the same envelope with phony fan letters written to look like they’d come from some lovesick teenage boy, then mailed them from Chicago every time she and Hoopty drove up there for car auctions, so there’d be no local postmark. Finally we realized Joan was circling letters in the articles to spell out her new address, circling Hoopty’s ads in the paper, that sort of thing. The dumb screws never caught on to her system. Finally, the grad students left us alone long enough for all the rest of them to escape. Your mother had even hustled some bus money out of one of them, told him it was for cigarettes.”

“Why didn’t you go with the others?”

“Scared, I guess. Plus I kind of liked being the center of attention, mainly all the attention I was getting from one especially cute grad student in particular. Then, after I got released at eighteen, I came down here and old Hoopty gave me a job right away as his secretary. He had a license and title service so he arranged fake ID’s for all the others, except your mother. Hoopty and Joan were already married with a kid by that time.

“All that sitting at home must have finally driven Joan nuts. It got so bad she wouldn’t leave the house. Afraid somebody’d recognize her and stick her back up there in the Industrial School for Girls, I guess. As if anybody cared after all those years. It must have gotten to her, though. I hadn’t seen her in a coon’s age, but when she came by here today she looked crazier than a pet coon.” Suzie laughed. “Tried to give me a shoebox fulla money from the old days. I told her I wouldn’t touch it. Guess I kind of felt sorry for her at last, even though I always figured she’d been holding out on us other girls a deuce and a trey at a time. Just goes to show I was right about Joan.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Joan,” Suzie said. “She’s the only one who got clean away, but she still wound up doing forty years to life.”

Kyrie waved the weapon at Suzie. “Why did you tell me to ask my father about Verna, that I was lucky it was Peg and not Verna showing Richard houses?”

“Because Verna loved sex, that’s why, loved playing the whore. She fucked like a mink, especially in strange places, the weirder the better. She made a lot of sales to men that way, what with those private showings of hers. She’d drop her respectable play-acting preacher’s wife role the way a stripper doffs her duds. She liked to catch men off guard like that, seeing the look on a man’s face when she let him know what she was really after and what he was going to get. That’s how she got your father’s pants down the first time, years ago. He was even going to meet her the night she died. She called him to come to her, to fuck her brains out one more time for auld lang syne.”

“How would you know?”

Suzie pointed to Verna’s Bluetooth. “This little doodad remembers calling the number to the nursing home the night of the fire, an hour before Verna got croaked. Daddy get a little carried away, ya think?”

“How did you get your hands on it?”

“I’ll never tell.”

Frustrated, Kyrie brandished the gun again, almost shook it at Suzie. Suzie sat calmly, a bemused expression playing across her lips. Kyrie parted them for her, stuck the barrel angled upward into Suzie’s mouth. “You like giving my husband blow jobs? How’d you like to suck on this?”

Suzie spoke easily, as if accustomed to the inconvenience. “You won’t shoot me, Kyrie. With me dead, how would you ever find out who’s been doing all these killings?”

Kyrie withdrew the barrel.

“You really do know who’s behind everything that’s happened, don’t you Suzie?”

Suzie nodded and smiled like a penny arcade oracle.

“Then tell me. I’ll give you whatever you want, even go away so you can have Charlie all to yourself, just tell me.”

“Here’s a hint. It’s someone you’ve known intimately, known in a biblical sense, that is.”

“Come on, Suzie. Is it Charlie? Rheinhardt? Richard Mandrake?”

“My little hint didn’t narrow the field of prospects very much, did it? Here’s one more: it’s someone who’s working his way down a list. And you’re next on that list.”

“There was another reason the name Mandrake was familiar to you, it wasn’t only the flowers, was it, Suzie?” The buzzing of Verna’s Bluetooth made Kyrie jump. It rang five times before Suzie gave Kyrie an inquiring look. Kyrie beckoned with the revolver for her to answer.

“Hello,” she said, then added, “Who else?” She listened some more before saying, “Well, I’m a little indisposed at the moment. Sure, I’ll put her on.” She handed the headset to Kyrie and said, “It’s for you, Hon.”

Kyrie stuck the headset in her ear and listened to heavy breathing for a few moments. “Who is it?” she said at last.

“Hey, Dirty Voice. Working kind of late at the office?”

“What do you want, Rheinhardt?”

“That thing you got in your ear, for one thing. Your lovely body, for another. All work and no play makes Jill a dull girl and Jack a dull boy, know what I mean? Speaking of Jack, there’s somebody here I want you to meet. My office. On the double.” He hung up.

“You better do what he says, Hon,” Suzie said, her expression softer. “He’s got some dangerous people behind him. He’s the one gave me Peg’s camera, Verna’s doodad and Zelia’s heater, for safekeeping. He’s kinda like a cuckoo bird using another bird’s nest, I guess.”

Kyrie hated guns. Never taking her eyes off Suzie, she pulled the pin to swing out the cylinder, then extracted all six bullets, dropping them one by one into a Dixie cup of paper clips on Suzie’s desk. She slapped the cylinder back in line, threw the empty revolver and Verna’s Bluetooth into her purse, and said, “Thanks for the heads up.”

“Any time,” Suzie said. “Us witches have to stick together.”

It was a short walk to Rheinhardt’s office; much too nice a night to drive. The walk might clear her head. Besides, she feared the shame of having someone see her car parked out in front of Rheinhardt’s office more than the shame of what she knew was waiting for her there, expected of her. The walk would delay the inevitable, if only for a few minutes. Nothing unusual about a witch with a Bluetooth in her ear walking down the streets of Black Forest’s main street the night before Halloween, especially right next to the Hexenhut district. She pressed redial, expecting to hear Rheinhardt’s voice again, wanting to try and put him off, but all she heard was tinkling New Age music.

“Is anybody there?” she said, forgetting her telephone etiquette.

An ethereal voice, a man’s voice yet slightly other-worldly and effeminate, said over the music, “Hello, Kyrie. I’ve been waiting for your call.”

Kyrie stopped dead on the deserted street.

“You have some things of ours, Kyrie. Best give them to Rheinhardt. It’s for your own good. Bye.”

She stared at her own incredulous reflection in the plate-glass bridal shop window. A green-faced witch dressed in black, her image stretched and distorted until she was well over six feet tall, looking more like a dominatrix than a sorceress.

She continued to walk, her floor-length costume dragging along, sweeping the sidewalk. Less than a block away now from Rheinhardt’s office.

In her purse she carried virtually everything Rheinhardt and the others wanted: Verna’s Bluetooth, the packet of pictures Larry had downloaded and printed, and now Zelia’s revolver, sans bullets. She thought of the six bullets in Suzie’s Dixie cup. As she passed the dime store, she called Joey.

“Kyrie! Richard’s been trying and trying to get ahold of you—”

“Just answer me one question, Joey, I’m in kind of a hurry here. If Charlie’s DNA sample was contaminated, the results of your test would be all wrong, wouldn’t they?”

“False negative, sure.”

Kyrie drew a deep breath. “Could saliva, someone else’s saliva, contaminate a DNA sample? Say if someone spit the sample into a Dixie cup?”

“Wow, I like the way your mind works, Kyrie. Sure there’s DNA in saliva. Mixing the two would futz up the results big time. You mean there was someone else’s saliva in the sample you gave me?”

“No,” Kyrie said, “but there may have been on the murder victims.”

“Do you know something about the murders, Kyrie? Do you want me to call the police?”

“No!” Her shout roused a pigeon from its roost on the Carnegie library building across the street. The World War One cannon in Library Park seemed aimed directly at her head.

“No, Joey,” she said more calmly. “After all, it’s just a hunch. I don’t want to embarrass myself in case I’m wrong, okay?”

“OK by me,” Joey said, “but call Richard, will you? He’s driving me crazy. You’re all he talks about. He loves you so much, he’s like a stalker.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of,” she said.

“He’s looking for you right now.”

“I have a couple of pressing appointments, Joey.”

“He knows you’ll be at the haunted house tonight. I’ll bet he catches up to you there.”

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Four – The Nine of Swords

 

Rheinhardt’s office only a few doors away now. Another thought dogged her every step. What if Joey was working with Richard, covering up for him all this time? Who would be in a better position to conceal DNA results? She didn’t know who had initiated contact with the police when they’d tapped Joey’s professional services. Had he volunteered? Was it Richard who was ‘working his way down a list’? Why hadn’t he told her about all three murder victims showing him the same house before she had? All had been murdered, and in the very same order they had met Richard. He would have had good reason to steal the sign-in sheet. But then how could Rheinhardt have gotten possession of the murder trophies? Did he represent Richard as his attorney? Or was Suzie lying about all of it?

She stood under the awning in front of the window that advertised Jim Rheinhardt Law Office. Inside, the lower three-quarters of the store window still held the same whorled coat of whitewash from when the shoe repair shop had gone out of business. A high school kid from the art department had painted Rheinhardt’s logo on the outside of the window.

She thought of running away, but however she weighed her options, responsibilities always drew her back to Black Forest and held her here like gravity. She had too many people depending on her, and too many people to be afraid of, to even hope of escape. She tried the front door to Rheinhardt’s office; it was open.

The leather and shoe polish smell brought her back to her last visit here. This time, though, Rheinhardt wasn’t alone; she heard male voices through the paneled room divider separating his office from the makeshift lobby. And something else. She recognized the haunting sounds of Jimi Hendrix: All Along the Watchtower. Rheinhardt appeared, licking his chops like one of Pavlov’s dogs to the sound of the bell over the door.

“Hey, nice getup,” he said, flipping on a light. “Kinky. Stick around; Jack and I still have to finish up a little business. Business before pleasure, you know.”

“What business is that?”

“That’s none of your business,” he said.

They made her wait ten minutes. She had nothing to read except for Jennifer’s phone book, so she read that.

The music and the man’s demeanor when she’d redialed had sounded like some kind of psychic line. In the yellow pages between psychiatrists and psychologists, there it was, under psychics: Mystic Valdemar—Tarot and Crystal readings. 1-900-246-6633. Intrigued that the number had six sixty-six in it, she played with the letters on the dial pad and came up with 1-900-DEMONIC. Somebody answering the phone at 1-900-DEMONIC knew her name and had been waiting for her call.

Rheinhardt burst out of his office again, sweating and more pumped than a few minutes before. “Cool costume. Love the hat,” he said. “Come on in. I’ll do the honors.”

A man wearing something a designer suit lounged in a chair facing Rheinhardt’s desk, his back to the door. He turned awkwardly as Rheinhardt ushered Kyrie in.

“Jack, here’s the hot number I’ve been telling you about: Dirty Voice. Dirty Voice, meet Jack Saint Christopher.”

“Hello, Glenn,” Kyrie said.

“Don’t you recognize her through all that makeup, Jack? It’s Kyrie Wilde, from church.”

J. Glenn Mumper/Jack Saint Christopher shifted uneasily in his chair.

“Man, female beauty is, what you call, chimerical, I guess, right?” Rheinhardt went on. “I mean, you screw around with the line of the nose, add a worm-shaped wart or two, you can ruin the whole effect, can’t you, Jack?”

“I’m not complaining.” It was the closest thing to a compliment Glenn had ever paid her. His voice sounded strange and taut.

“Kyrie’s here at my request, Jack. A kind of command performance. She owes me a lot of favors, and she’s going to bestow one of them on you tonight, aren’t you Dear? A major favor. She can do the kind of things for you they never even heard about in France, my man, things even your girlfriend Adrienne never thought of. I already tried it, Jack, so I know you’re gonna like it. After tonight, you’re gonna forget that crazy idea of yours about moving to France.”

Kyrie looked imploringly into Mumper’s eyes and implored, “Do you really want to do this to me, Glenn?” Mumper gestured as if he was conflicted or about to speak, then reached and unzipped the fly of his Armani suit pants.

“How about that ‘come hither’ look she’s giving me?” he said to Rheinhardt.

“Goddamn! Jack’s got a world-class wanger on,” Rheinhardt applauded. “That new coke ratchets up the Viagra, right, Jack? You can’t get coke like that in France. Forget it.” He turned impatiently to Kyrie. “Let’s go, Dirty Voice, show us what a witch looks like naked.”

“Glenn, we’ve known each other a long time—”

Rheinhardt interrupted her. “Come on, strip for the man.” He leaned over and hissed in her ear, “You know what happens to you if you don’t.”

She looked from Rheinhardt to Mumper and back again, but found only feral expressions on both men, devoid of conscience and human feeling. There was no escape. She turned toward the door, her back to Rheinhardt.

“Help me with this,” she said, pointing to the zipper of her costume.

“My pleasure, Dirty Voice.” He unzipped her from collar to dropped waist, slowly. His fingertips played first against bare skin between her shoulder blades, then lingered at the small of her back. “Panties but no bra,” he said. “I like that in a woman.”

She slipped the black dress forward over her shoulders, giving them some back to look at while she slid the long full skirt down around her ankles and stepped out of it. She would have to be wearing the skimpiest damn panties she owned tonight.

“You know another thing you can’t get in France, Jack? Where I come from they had one of those what you call nude maid services. I’m thinking of starting one out of Dutch Hollow. Just like a regular maid service only the chick does her domestic thing topless and bottomless, you know? They’d show up at the drop of a hat, too, just like Dirty Voice here. Called themselves the Upstairs Maids. They didn’t do windows but man, they vacuumed more than my apartment a time or two, if you catch my drift. I’ll bet Dirty Voice might be persuaded to do a trick like that for you, Jack, as a token of our continuing business association and friendship, if I asked her real nice. How about it, D. V.?”

Kyrie, burning with shame, turned to face the two men. The only sound was their heavy breathing. She stood over Mumper, saying, “I hate doing this, Glenn.” She braced one hand against the chair arm; with the other she reached for his swollen exposed penis.

“Would you mind washing your hands first?” Mumper asked quietly.

“What?”

“Please respect my wishes by washing your hands first. My doctors have advised me I suffer from a germ phobia. It would detract immensely from my enjoyment of the experience.”

Rheinhardt’s snorting laugh trailed her into the rest room. “Can’t be too careful, right, Jack?” he called back over his shoulder. “After all, we don’t know where those hands have been.”

Standing at the bathroom sink under the harsh light of a naked bulb, she ran torrents of cold water over her hands. There was no soap. She dried them with toilet paper, then looked in the mirror and saw Rheinhardt at the door right behind her, watching.

“You ever notice how your nipples pucker when you get mad?” he said. “Come on, we’re keeping Jack waiting. That hard-on of his won’t last forever.” He placed one hand on her bare shoulder and said, “I’m as sensitive as the next guy, but there’s a lot more riding on this than your precious dignity.”

Kyrie crossed her arms and looked down, wanting it to be over.

“Like, for instance,” he went on, “I’ve got a few scams in the works that a year or so from now will free me up from having to carry on a pretend romance with that old bitch Suzie just so she’ll keep steering me the good P I cases away from Charlie. Yeah, you didn’t know about that, did you? There’s a whole hell of a lot you don’t know about.”

“I know everything. Suzie told me,” she lied.

“Suzie told you jack shit,” he said. “On the other hand, Suzie tells me everything, like about those two buttholes trying to put the screws to Charlie today, just so’s they could get over on me. See, Charlie’s the weak link in all this. Charlie’s a weak link, period.”

“No argument there.”

“Do I detect a note of domestic discord? Aw, look, there it goes again, that nipple-puckering action.”

She said nothing more, but stared at herself in the mirror: ridiculous green face-paint, harsh light glaring against her nipples now tightened with disgust and anger. Her face looked the way she felt tonight.

“Look what I’m doing to myself,” she said, in an ironic tone, “just because I’ve been with the colored.”

“Fuckin’ A you’ve been with the colored,” he said, “and I ain’t gonna let you forget it. I don’t know who put the bug up your ass, but you better give it up right now. Jack’s an important contact of mine. The whole idea tonight is to keep him happy. So go do it, or you’ll wind up playing with some colored prison guard’s prick. Or eating colored jailhouse pussy, medium rare.”

 

 

Snow Seal Walgreen skateboarded along the sidewalk down Main Street. A special rush order from one of his best customers. Must be partying down; he’d sold the same player a double order yesterday. He saw a light on in Attorney Charles Zweig’s office. The only car in the parking lot was Kyrie Wilde’s.

His date with Lori wasn’t for a half-hour; his customer could wait. Kyrie had told him how close he’d come at lunchtime. The thought of those words from her lips had stalked him all afternoon. Maybe the evening would bring more surprises. Hoping for another look at her, another few words from her, Seal dismounted and walked across the asphalt lot toward the office like a moth drawn to a flame.

 

 

Charlie’s office phone rang. “I’ll get it,” he told Suzie, where she kneeled at his waist. “You’re occupied with more important things at the moment.”

The dipping of the voice. “Charles Zweig speaking.”

“Do you handle estate cases?”

“Yes, we do.” Estate work meant money at hand. Suzie worked away.

The voice at the other end was that of a young woman, nervous and upset. “Well, I had a guardian appointed over my estate and I want it taken off so I can get my Tiger back. He’s a good little dog and my mom she don’t take good care of him. She only feeds him once a day and never waters him so my Tiger got’s to drink out of the toilet—”

“Wait a minute. Wait a minute,” Charlie said, ignoring the wisdom of the seminar he had taken advising attorneys to give a new client the first sixty to one hundred-twenty seconds to talk without interruption. “I thought you said this was an estate matter.”

“—his name’s Tiger like I said and she don’t feed him the good stuff no more, just table scraps, and she never brushes him or takes him out for his walk—”

Acting on a hunch, Charlie asked her, “Are you institutionalized in some facility, by any chance?”

“—so that’s why I need a lawyer to get the guardianship lifted off my estate right away. I musta called all the lawyers in the book but she buys them all off, one after the other. I gotta get out of here so’s I can take care of my little Tiger.”

“Do you have a pencil? Do they let you have sharp things like pencils in there? I’m going to give you a number,” Charlie said. Suzie’s attentions were putting him in a playful mood. “The guy I’m going to put you in touch with is a lawyer named Jim Rheinhardt.”

The albino kid threw open the inner door to the office. His amber cat’s-eyes widened at the sight of Suzie on her knees fellating Charlie still talking on the phone.

“Grandma!” the kid finally managed to blurt through his astonishment.

Suzie was saying, “Now, Derek—” but the kid had already bolted out into the night.

It took Charlie another ten minutes before he could quiet Suzie down enough to finish.

 

 

Rage was a living thing inside Snow Seal. He boarded along the sidewalk past the bridal shop, the dime store, and the library, wanting to do something humiliating to the man who’d thrown him out of his living room and barred him from seeing Lori. The same man who was now putting his dick where it didn’t belong, where Grandma used to kiss him goodnight. There had to be something he could do. But first they were wanting some of Snow Seal’s finest at Jim Rheinhardt’s office.

He tried the door. It was unlocked. Nobody locked their doors in Black Forest. Seal opened it and moved toward the light like a lost soul.

“Seal, my man,” Rheinhardt called out, “how they hanging?” Rheinhardt was standing on one side of the small interior office going through a black purse. Opposite him, a naked Kyrie Wilde sat straddling an old guy in a chair. When the old guy turned his head, Seal saw it was the same guy Rheinhardt had first introduced as Jack, now one of his best and most escalating customers.

Kyrie said, “Oh, God,” hung her head and tried to hide her face behind her long black hair. Why had she dyed it black? It had looked beautiful the way it was. She looked beautiful all over, especially now, from the crazy face paint on down.

“Didn’t you even bother to lock the door, Rheinhardt?” she wailed.

“I was expecting a delivery,” Rheinhardt said. “Seal, after we do business, you wanna get in on this? She’s still got both hands free. How’s about a little ski-pole action?”

Seal tossed the white packets onto Rheinhardt’s desk, the primal scene of Charlie and Grandma still flashing against the backs of his eyes.

 

 

Charlie felt the familiar thrill and pull of Suzie’s mouth on him again, like the ebb and flow of the tide. If that old law professor were here tonight, Charlie would show him another good reason to hire an older, experienced woman for your secretary. In and out, in and out. Charlie was about ready; Suzie had her Dixie cup handy.

The tap of a car horn sounded just outside the window. Charlie twisted the wand and tilted the louvered blinds. The shotgun blast tore him in two at waist level. Suzie’s Jayne Mansfield wig stuck to the door opposite like a bird hitting a picture window, then fell blood-soaked onto the carpet.

 

 

Glenn didn’t even stop what he was doing more than the moment it took him to snort cocaine from the tiny spoon he had hanging around his turkey neck. She felt his slimy worm moving inside her.

“Is he your delivery boy now, Rheinhardt?” she asked, jerking her thumb at Derek.

“Delivery boy?” he said. “Seal’s my connection.”

She turned to Derek with a look that asked, Is this true? He merely shrugged

“And what the hell are you doing in my purse, Rheinhardt?”

“I’m taking back a few things, client entrustments to me, like this headset and this rod. Suzie was supposed to be keeping all this attorney-client shit hidden for me in Charlie’s safe deposit box. These, for instance.” He held up the packet of pictures he was in the midst of studying. “Stupid fuckers,” he muttered.

 

 

Jack coughed.

His head lolled to one side. Waves of frothy pink-laced sputum big as vomit erupted from his mouth and rolled down his chin onto the collar of his designer shirt. The pumping motions of his pelvis had ended.

“Oh, shit,” Rheinhardt moaned. “Oh, fuck! “

Kyrie struggled to extricate herself from Jack’s death embrace in the chair, then backed away. His tool was still hard, standing like a monument.

“Get dressed and get the fuck outta here now,” Rheinhardt yelled at her. “Don’t you have a house to haunt?” He stared at Glenn sitting stupid and motionless. “Goddamnit, Dirty Voice, you fucked him to death!”

“Shouldn’t we call 911?” Kyrie said, frantic.

“911 your ass,” Rheinhardt said. “I’m calling six sixty-six.”

She dressed as though the place were on fire. As she and Derek ran out, she swept headset, gun, and photos into her witch’s hat. Rheinhardt was too preoccupied to notice. She transferred them back to her purse when she reached the sidewalk, then stood there staring at Derek without speaking. His was the forlorn face of a waif who had lost his family and his religion in the course of a single evening.

Derek spoke first. “I guess we better go,” he said.

“Guess so. Need a ride?”

A child again, uncomfortable alone with an adult, Derek said, “No thanks. Got my board.”

“Well, ok then. ‘Bye.” Kyrie began to turn away for the walk to her car. She felt numbed and in shock, but she did have a house to haunt, and people depending on her.

“See ya,” Derek called out, and skateboarded off in the opposite direction.

Curtains enshrouded the showroom windows of Zweig Law Office. An inner light managed to filter through. She spotted Charlie’s Mercury parked beside the front door, but no other sign of activity. Angry confrontation lay in wait for her inside. She sped away before the car alarm’s tweak could draw anyone’s attention.

This year the Black Forest-Dutch Hollow Board of Realtors, over Kyrie’s unheeded objection, had perversely selected the Harmony house’s twin as the site of its annual haunted house fundraiser for the homeless. The owners, newly invigorated by a restorative infusion of fire insurance settlement money and hoping for a quick sale, had readily agreed to the loan of their vacant and damaged property for such a worthy charitable purpose. The State Fire Marshall and the City Building Inspector had concurred that none of the fire damage appeared to be structural and that the house was still fit for occupancy. It was everyone’s tacit assumption that the notoriety and mystique of a recent unsolved murder on-premises could not fail to pique local interest and boost attendance to record levels.

Kyrie’s scene was set up in one of the “Gemini rooms”: twin parlors separated by a pocket door. Visitors passing through would be confronted by her impersonation of a cackling witch stirring a black cauldron. The cauldron concealed a forty-gallon galvanized washtub brimful of fresh ice and generously stocked with Budweiser longnecks, for sale to the public at four bucks a throw. The Board’s special events liquor license enabled guests to help the homeless and cop a beer buzz at the same time. Black Forest, Kyrie knew, never did anything without a beer concession.

The last thing Kyrie needed tonight was the haunted house gig, but she’d promised to help, and she knew it was too late for them to find anybody else on short notice. She took her position behind the cauldron and waited for people to start arriving.

Minutes passed with no visitors at all. She hadn’t had a drink in nearly eight years, but all at once the thought of a beer appealed to her, diet or no diet. The opener dangled invitingly from a string tied to the washtub handle. Mentally promising four bucks to the till, she popped the cap of a longneck with the heel of the church key and tipped the bottle back like one soon to join the ranks of the homeless herself.

Her first swill was cold as winter surf washing on a deserted shore. The heady brew on an empty stomach hit her right where she lived. She took another big pull, trying to mellow out. It was going to be a long night.

She was already on the cuff to herself for twenty-four bucks by the time Richard walked in dressed like a vampire.

“Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble,” she cackled, the beer bubbles percolating in her unaccustomed head.

Richard replied: “Yon comely witch hath murdered Shakespeare.

“‘Her husband’s to Aleppo gone, master o’ the Tiger;

But in a sieve I’ll thither sail,

And, like a rat without a tail,

I’ll do and I’ll do and I’ll do.’“ He made a sweeping bow worthy of a Transylvanian count.

“Show-off,” she chided.

“Kyrie?” He feigned astonishment. “Is that really you?”

Kyrie knew there was something she was supposed to be angry with Richard about, but a six-pack of reasons kept her from remembering what it was. And those six reasons were making her bold.

“I’m mad at you.” She tried for a stern look, but her smile broke through. She laughed out loud.

“Mad at me? Why, whatever for?”

She struggled to regain her composure with what she hoped was a sly expression of her own. “You know,” she said.

“Just how many beers have you had, pray tell, my fair witch?”

“Six,” she said with a demure tilt of her head. “One for each of the Dogtown Debs.”

His smile faded a bit. “That’s one too many,” he said.

She drained the last mouthful of beer from bottle number six before saying, “You think you’re such a big expert. Well, I happen to know from a very reliable source, unimpeachable actually, that there were six. So there.”

“Who’s this unimpeachable source of yours?”

“That’s for me to know and you to worry about.” She laughed again, too loudly.

“What do I have to worry about?” His playful expression had vanished; he was wary now. Even in her condition, Kyrie could tell it.

“I don’t know. You tell me,” she said.

“Name them.”

“What?”

“Name the six Dogtown Debs.”

“Let’s see,” she began, “there was Donder and Blitzen, and Rudolph, we can’t forget poor Rudolph—”

“Come on, I’m serious. How many can you name?”

“Very well, then,” she replied in a drunkard’s arch tone. “There was Suzie, and Verna, and Zelia, and Karryn, and Peg….” She paused.

“That’s five. Five Dogtown Debs. Not six.”

She tilted her head again, surveying him over the crooked green nose, centering him in the crosshairs of her wart. “What will you give me if I tell you?”

“I’ll take you out for coffee, how’s that? Strong, black coffee.”

“Considering the other offers I’ve been having today, Professor, I’m tempted to take you up on yours,” she said.

“Tell me one thing first,” he said. “Why this sudden interest in the Dogtown Debs?”

“Why don’t you tell me why you’re so interested?”

His expression became even more serious. “In my business, Kyrie, the only axiom is ‘publish or perish.’ I needed a hook to get published, get the jump on all the other boring monographs competing for space in the journals. The Dogtown Debs are the stuff of legend in the annals of psychology and criminology. I saw the opportunity to distinguish myself nationally if I could somehow say something new, discover something unique about the Debs after so many years, and use it as my lead-in to present my theories and my research. Make sense?”

Kyrie tried to match the intensity she saw in him with a rapt attention of her own. “So you found three of them,” she said. “What then?”

“Four, actually,” he said. “Only one refused to cooperate. At least on terms I found acceptable.”

“Cooperate how?”

“Kyrie, I know you’re a little high right now,” he said, “but I’m trusting you not to repeat a word of what I’m about to tell you, at least until Joey and I publish our article.”

She elaborately crossed her heart and lay a finger against her lips, then waited for him to tell her the secret.

“All right, then,” he said. “I needed their blood. No, it’s not what you think,” he added when he saw her react. “I got them to voluntarily give me blood samples for DNA research, on condition that I guarantee their continuing anonymity. I can do that, you know, under therapist-patient privilege in Illinois. Trouble was, I didn’t have a large enough sample. For the kind of statistical analysis we wanted to perform, Joey and I needed all five, if possible, so that our results would withstand challenge in Chapter the academic community. I never got more than three of the Debs to cooperate with me. Now all three of them are dead.”

“Richard, you didn’t—”

He stared at her. “Of course not! What do you think I am, a murderer? Is that why you were hiding from me these last lonely twenty-four hours? You think I killed those women?” He shook his head open-mouthed. “I’d much rather have them alive, actually, so my research results could be duplicated and verified by others. Unfortunately, some sicko cost me that chance. I still have the three blood samples I collected, though. Joey’s analyzing them for me even as we speak.”

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Five – The Star

 

“How did you ever find those women after almost fifty years?”

“How does anyone obtain information in a free society? I bribed somebody. The weakest link in a system attempting to keep its records confidential is the lowly clerk, who day after day is underpaid to meet the public and take their abuse. The bribe is older than Romeo and Juliet.”

“Teach literature, too, Professor?”

“Do you want to hear this or not?”

She nodded. The exaggerated motion of her head made her a little dizzy.

“I bribed a secretary to give me copies of the Department of Corrections’ files on the Debs. Mug shots half a century old, Suzie’s last address, and not much else other than some fingerprints. I figured the Debs would run true to form and stay together as a group after their escape, so I followed the trail on Suzie. The file indicated she’d been released to a job working for Charlie’s father here in Black Forest. Incredible stroke of luck: when I located her she was still working in the same town. Same building, even.”

“How did that help you find the others?”

“I had a brainstorm that since they hadn’t ever been apprehended, the Debs must have established new identities, probably in the same locale where Suzie was working. Suzie likes to party, so I started hanging out in the same bars as she did with her cronies. Suzie’s a good hang.”

Kyrie gave him a look.

“Well, she is, for her age,” Richard said. “I let on to her that I might be interested in buying an older, Victorian house here in Black Forest. That’s how I met Peg. Suzie introduced us. Once I realized that one of the Debs was working as a realtor, I checked for who else had been licensed as a real estate broker at about the same time frame in Black Forest, and came up with Verna and Zelia. Impressed?”

“You want a beer? They’re four dollars.”

Richard drew himself up and threw his cape around him with one arm crossing his chest for dramatic effect. “I never drink…beer,” he intoned, with a Hungarian stage-accent, then added, “Oh, well, just this once, if you’re having one.” He handed her eight dollars.

“Why Professor, you’re trying to get me drunk.”

“Too late for that,” he said. “Do you know, there’s an Egyptian mummy coming to life with great regularity in the very room where you and I made love in this house?”

“That would be last year’s recording secretary. Anyway, tell me more about how you found the Debs.”

“Cooperative, for the most part. Even Verna wanted to cooperate, but as I say, her price came rather high.”

“Meaning she wanted to have sex with you, right there in the Harmony house, in exchange for her giving up the blood sample, right?”

“She didn’t even seem to care when I threatened to tell her husband. But no, that wasn’t it.”

“I’m hearing a lot of things like that about Verna, now that she’s gone. So you refused to have sex with her, huh?”

Richard sipped his beer, watching the door.

“Richard?”

He still said nothing.

“Let me ask it this way, since we’re being so honest with one another. Whose blood sample are you still missing out of the four?”

“Suzanne Toddmann,” he answered.

“Why not? Wouldn’t you play ‘I’ve Got a Secret’ with her?”

“Nothing so arcane as that. She’s deathly afraid of needles, that’s all.”

“Sounds as though Verna never met a needle she didn’t like.”

“Meeting Verna sparked a healthy professional curiosity in me,” Richard said. “Hers was about as pure a case of paraphilia as I’d ever encountered. She’d conspire to trap her partners in ego-dystonic and threatening sexual trick bags, deriving immense gratification by the pain and humiliation it caused them. I began to suspect Zelia might be into the same thing. Their untimely passings foreclosed any further study. Those portals are forever closed to me.”

“The question is, did you manage to get into any of their portals while you had the chance? And what about Suzie? She’s always ready for a little action, I’m told.”

“Look up paraphilia in the dictionary,” he said, “and then tell me whether I was looking for a little action. It was fascinating the way watching an autopsy is fascinating. It wasn’t indiscriminate either. Her victims were carefully chosen, even while they deluded themselves into believing that they were choosing her. The more dominant, self-assured and generous the personality, the greater the destruction. It was deliberate, focused, and more than I could handle.”

She took another lumberjack pull on her beer. “You ought to study my mother-in-law, you want to see crazy up close and personal.”

“Indeed. Does she exhibit any bizarre behavior? More so than the typical mother-in-law, I should hasten to add.”

“She’s always been a mean little thing, but since she stopped taking the medicine she’s been prescribed—Charlie won’t tell me what it is, by the way—she thinks I’m somebody else, like maybe I’ve been replaced by a clone of myself, I guess. This all came on suddenly. Today I caught her beating up Lori’s boyfriend with her fists at the front door. She stays up all night sometimes, too, like she’s watching for something.”

Richard rubbed his chin—a thoughtful vampire. “Sounds a little like Capgras’ syndrome, at first blush,” he said, “with a dash of paranoid illumination mixed in. I’d love to analyze her.”

“I’ll just bet you would,” she said.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” When she didn’t reply, he added, “Verna was strictly participant-observer research, Kyrie. I was out for blood, after all, just not like you’re thinking. You’ve probably already figured out that Leo Mandrake, their victim from the old days, was my grandfather, so I grew up having more than a purely academic interest in the Debs’ history, even though he died years before I was born. Vengeance is psychobiologically maladaptive; it does nothing to foster proliferation of one’s genes in this situation. I wanted to analyze the dynamics of how five ostensibly well-adjusted young women from apparently normal backgrounds could turn into merciless killers.” He smiled, but not with his eyes.

“There,” he said, “now I’ve told you my secret. What’s yours?”

“I’ll have a beer,” she said, laughing at her own play on words. Verna’s ghost seemed to laugh back at her from within the stripped and soot-blackened walls of the house, as though she were relishing some private joke at Kyrie’s expense, some dark secret which had survived even the purifying azure flames of the crematorium.

Kyrie’s lips were comb-and-tissue-paper numb against the cold rim of the next bottle. She didn’t even feel the carbonation of the beer anymore; it tasted like icy spring water.

“That makes eight, but who’s counting?” he said, handing her another ten dollars. “I’ll get this round, too. Keep the change.”

Kyrie was beyond making change. “Buy me a beer, I’ll follow you anywhere,” she sang out. Her voice reverberated in the high-ceilinged room. She covered her mouth and burped quietly.

The sound of adolescent male voices echoed down the hallway. Footsteps approached the Gemini room. Two boys not more than fifteen.

“Hey, looks like Count Dracula and Witch Hazel are partyin’ down,” one said. There was no menace of sarcasm in his voice. They were two genial small-town kids having a good time. One had a blond buzz cut and an earring, the other a tonsure that looked like a high-water version of Moe on the Three Stooges. The one with the buzz cut handed her eight dollars in quarters.

“What’s this for?”

“Couple of brews for me and my bud.”

“Let’s see some I.D’s, guys.”

“Left my driver’s license in my car,” Buzz Cut replied.

“Mine’s in my other pants,” Moe offered.

Kyrie shrugged. “Sounds good to me,” she said, breaking out two cold ones. The two boys looked at each other like they’d just won the lotto. They left quickly with their trophies. Moments later, she heard Lori saying, “Hi, Mom.” Lori and Derek had entered the room without her noticing. Better ease up on the beer. Derek looked at Kyrie and Richard strangely, then steered Lori onward without speaking.

“I’m intrigued by the idea that there were six Dogtown Debs,” Richard said. “That fact alone would represent a truly novel revelation in the literature.”

“There were six. One of them was my mother. My mother-in-law was the one that got away.”

She heard a crackle like cellophane or static electricity. Richard’s face lit up with what seemed to be the thrill of discovery, then stayed that way. Gorgonized. His whole body jerked in spasm and fell over like a tree. Two mohawked crazy-eyed punks stood behind him holding what looked like toy guns. Thin white cords led from the barrels of their twin popguns to Richard’s body lying on the floor.

The one with the blue jay hair leered at her and said, “You the widow Zweig?”

“N—No. “

“The fuck you ain’t,” the woodpecker one said. They gave each other high and low fives at that one.

“Set your phasers for stun,” she heard the first one say, over the tightening whistle sound of a battery flash recharging behind her. But by then she was already running for her life.

Tearing away at crepe paper bats and rubber cement cobwebs, she bounded up the main staircase, never daring to look behind her. The tower would be her escape. She wanted its dizzying height—the highest the house had to offer—and its dark secrecy. The entry to the tower was narrow as the door to a broom closet; her pursuers might pass it by and never find her there. She raced along the second-story corridor, playing a game of hide-and-seek where she was the unwilling quarry and the stakes were life and death.

A witch’s green glowing face leaped out at her from the near-darkness. Then she realized the face was her own; the turret entry in the twin house was mirrored. She had reached the door. Had she cried out? The beer was dulling her perception; terror fought to sharpen her wits again.

Was Richard dead? He’d looked electrocuted, or poisoned by some kind of deadly venom from those two monsters’ electric blowguns. They knew her name, knew she was married.

They’d called her a widow.

She lifted the hem of her black dress, took off her shoes in total darkness and tiptoed upwards, finding her footing on the wooden stair treads by sense of touch until she reached the top landing, where she noticed a flickering violet light emanating from the tower room. Strange—it hadn’t even been decorated for the occasion, and wasn’t part of the tour. She crouched near the top of the uppermost flight of stairs and peered in over the landing.

Derek and Lori stood embracing in the center of the bare circular room. They had lit a votive candle and placed it on the window ledge opposite in a familiar hobnail glass vessel. From her clothing, Lori withdrew a small paper packet filled with some kind of white powder. Kyrie was about to protest and give away her presence when Lori began a ritual of throwing pinches of the powder to the four winds points of the compass. The crystals captured the violet light, then fell against the bare wood floor like streaks of starlight. Lori uttered an incantation, strange words from a language Kyrie didn’t understand. She knew something of Lori’s obsessions; it had to be a love spell. And it seemed to be working; Derek’s hand crept under Lori’s diaphanous top and rested there. After many seconds, she gently pushed him away with a shy smile.

A thudding crash of shins against risers below, followed by an imprecation; somebody had tripped over her shoes where she’d left them on the stairs. They’d unwittingly served her as a distant early warning signal. She heard the mohawked twins’ insolent catcalls stalking her now: “Here, Kyrie Kyrie Kyrie. Here, Bitch Lady.”

No place to hide. No back stairway in the tower for escape. She thought of the window. There was no outside ledge. She crouched motionless and waited in silence. Maybe they’d go away. She buried her face for fear the luminous green greasepaint might betray her presence. From out of the dark pit of the stairwell, a hand grasped her bare heel; its long fingernails dug into her soft flesh. She recoiled in terror, then fired an adrenaline-charged kick in the hand’s direction. She felt lips giving way, and teeth. She kicked again, hard enough to bark the hide of her heel on eyeteeth.

A throaty voice—rendered androgynous by wounded surprise—screamed “Ow,” through his hand. Rage overcame her dread; she turned to look. It was the redheaded woodpecker one, his lips already bleeding and thickened from where her kicks had found their mark. “Fucking bitch kicked me,” he squalled in amazement. “You’re dead, bitch.”

“You are such a wuss,” said the voice behind him.

Kyrie sprang to her feet. Lori and Derek leaped apart when she entered the room. Lori asked, “Mom? What’s going on?” in a voice subdued with alarm. Kyrie turned and faced her attackers, as though her broad skirts could shield and protect Lori from them.

They were on something. Their eyes looked right through her with a drug-induced roentgen penetration. Nobody moved. Woodpecker was still nursing his injured mouth. Blue Jay said in a deadly whisper, “You hurt my brother, Cunt.” He raised his space-age weapon and aimed it at her with a madman’s deliberation, savoring her fear.

Kyrie heard a whish of air at arm’s reach beyond the periphery of her vision. She spun around to her side in time to see Derek’s throwing arm in a follow-through to a fastball pitch. An oversized silver burr stuck in Blue Jay’s forehead. Blood cascaded down his face and into his eyes.

She ran past them and down the stairs. Light at the bottom; someone must be opening the mirrored door. Buzz Cut, his cherished beer in one hand, held out her shoes with the other.

“Lose something?” he said. “Can’t get far without these.”

She heard rapid footsteps clamoring down the steps behind her. Buzz Cut and Moe must have seen the burr stuck in Blue Jay’s bloody face; Moe called out, “Fake!” Buzz Cut remarked, “Cool makeup job, Dude.” Grabbing the shoes from him, she sprinted barefoot along the worn runner and down the maid’s staircase for the back door.

She found herself in an alley at the rear of the house. The night had turned foggy; a misty rain was falling. The sharp gravel punished her feet with every step. She ducked behind a tree and slipped on her shoes, fighting to catch her breath. She cursed herself for her panic. What would have become of Lori and Derek, alone with those two monsters, if she hadn’t drawn them into a chase?

Her car was all the way around the front of the house and two blocks down a side street. Could she make it? Familiar voices cut through the mist from the direction of the rear porch. It sounded like they thought they were alone, or didn’t care.

“You go this way. I’ll circle around, we’ll meet out front.”

“She couldn’t have got far; she cut her foot on my tooth.”

“Wussy.”

“I tasted the bitch’s blood, man.”

“How was it?”

“It was bitch’s blood, good vintage.”

“Hey, how do I look, Bro?”

“Like you got a third eye. You ought to leave it there.”

“Aw, it fell out already.” Then it began, a shrill, baby-voice giggle drawn out until it seemed to go on forever, like the laugh of someone insane. She fled away from that laugh.

For fear they might hear her footsteps in the gravel, Kyrie ran through the unkempt grass alongside the alley, away from the sounds of their voices and away from the sanctuary of her car. A lightless shape loomed ahead of her blocking the alleyway. Some kind of a truck. No, a van. A step van, with the words Redi-Tool stenciled on the back. Desperate for help, she ran around to the driver’s side. The van was empty but the door was open. She ducked inside.

They might see her in the moonlit driver’s compartment. She slipped back into the narrow corridor dividing the cargo area. So black, all she could see were the two small translucent windows cut out of the rear door—the holes in the o’s of Redi-Tool, two dim eyes staring at her. Holding on for balance to the tool racks on either side of her, she minced step by step into the void.

She stumbled. Her foot hit something unyielding but soft in the aisle, something like a face under fabric. She thought she heard a soft and muffled groan. Reflexively, she said “Sorry.” There was no answer. She kneeled and groped in the direction of the floor in front of her. Padded cloth, with a zipper on one side. A sleeping bag? Her hands explored, settled against contours under the waffled fill. It was a face. She snatched her hands away. This time she heard herself cry out. Whoever was in the sleeping bag did not rouse again.

Footsteps crunched in the gravel on either side of the van. She crouched over the sleeping figure like a succubus and hid her face again, cursing herself for buying the luminous makeup now shining green as a traffic signal in a fog.

The footsteps halted beside the doors of the van. Hardly breathing, Kyrie bent even lower, almost doubled over, stopping only when her black crinoline skirt rustled. Had they heard?

Steel drum sounds of feet running up floor plate steps. Creak of seat springs. The van’s engine turned over once, then died.

“I’m going back. That Moby Dick motherfucker and his little cunny are good as dead. I’m gonna shove that throwing star arm’s length up his lily-white ass and make her watch me do it.”

“Fuck them, man. They ain’t the prey tonight. Deal with them later. We got a delivery to make.”

“They seen our faces, Bro. No one can look upon the faces of Death and live to tell about it.”

“She might of took off down this alley. C’mon, haul ass. She’s probably halfway to Pig Town by now.”

The van’s engine turned over again, and kept running this time. The driver skipped granny gear and slapped it hard into second. Kyrie almost somersaulted from the jerking start. The muffler was so far gone the engine sounded like a Harley hog when the van picked up some speed in the alley. Kyrie had to hold onto the pipes of the tool rack to keep from falling into the slumbering figure on the floor. He sure was out, probably some friend of theirs sleeping it off. The driver had to be going twenty-five or thirty over the dips and potholes. The noise of the engine reverberated against the garages and sheds close to the alley.

Then she realized why the sound seemed so familiar. She had mistaken it for a motorcycle. She’d heard it before, that time when she and Richard were making love in the tower room the day of Peg’s murder.

The van had come to the end of the alley. The driver stopped at the intersecting street, lost in thought. Finally he said, “Fuck it. Let’s make that drop first. It ain’t like she’s goin’ nowhere. We know where she lives, where she works. We got her whole trip down.” He dumped the clutch and jerked the van into motion again. Soon Kyrie heard the familiar whine of tires howling like banshees over the antique brick streets of the Hexenhut district.

Kyrie knew the Hexenhut district like the back of her hand. When the van slowed, she took a chance. Crooking both arms over her face and peeking between them so that only her eyes would show, she turned around and looked up out of the windshield, searching for something familiar.

She saw it: the spire of Saint Mark’s, floodlit in white. The van was facing Saint Mark’s. There was a stop sign and a “T” intersection. The van was creeping slower, but the driver had never made more than a scofflaw stop since the alley.

Was the van’s back door locked? If she tried for it and it wouldn’t open, she’d give herself away. But the sanctuary of Saint Mark’s was her best hope. She scrabbled over the inert figure in the sleeping bag, jounced around by the bucking of the van running too slow in third gear, and fumbled for the door latch. She drew one hand away; she’d cut herself on something sharp and exposed. Oily, sticky feel of blood on the heel of her right hand. She grasped the door handle. Pulled down. Then again. Felt unyielding steel.

The van was picking up speed, rounding a corner. On impulse, she pulled up on the handle. It turned ninety degrees and the door swung free. Kyrie leaped out of the van and hit the bricks running. The van continued on, its occupants oblivious to the open rear door flapping.

She reached the lawn of Saint Mark’s and loped through the dewy grass, purse jouncing at her side, hat long gone. Strange what trivia assaults the brain—she’d have to pay the rental shop for a new one. The welcome sign outside Saint Mark’s read Come on in, It’s Prayer Conditioned. As she neared the big medieval archway doors of the church, she rummaged in her purse for her key, but couldn’t find it. She heard the motorcycle roar of the van rumbling. They were swinging back around the block, stalking her. She tried the church door; it was open.

Slowly as a bridal procession, she walked down the center aisle of the darkened sanctuary. A warm light shone from “stage right”; the door was ajar. Reverend Hoffmann must still be working in his office. The only sound was her own heavy breathing, like a sprint runner after a hundred-yard dash. When she reached the first row of pews, Reverend Hoffmann appeared, silhouetted in the doorway.

“Kyrie, my dear! What a lovely surprise. Little early for trick-or-treat, although I’m sure you’ve heard that one enough already tonight.”

She ran to him, embraced him as one would a rescuing father. “Oh, Reverend Hoffmann! We have to call the police right away! There are two killers after me, I think one of them killed Richard, and now they’re out to get Lori and her boyfriend, too. They’re crazy! They’re the same ones killing all the Dogtown Debs!”

“Whoa, little Missy. Hold on, there,” Reverend Hoffmann said. The westerner always came out when he got excited, reminding her of John Wayne. “We’ll call, but first I want you to settle down a bit, tell me all about it so’s I don’t get it all cattywompus when I call them. You’re safe here; you’re in God’s house.” He stood holding her hands in his. It was as if his strength flowed into her like electricity. She felt renewed already.

The front door clicked closed. As she had a thousand Sundays before, peeking at latecomers, looking over her shoulder like Lot’s wife, she turned. The two mohawked crazy men panted and puffed down the aisle of the church, carrying the sleeping bag burden between them, one at either end.

She whirled back to face Reverend Hoffmann. He looked like a woodcut of Martin Luther seeing the devil.

“Oh shit piss fuck,” he said. His hands turned to manacles around her wrists. He twisted her right arm with wrenching painful force behind her back. The two killers stopped, wary of him, waiting to do his bidding.

“I swear, you boys could fuck up a wet dream,” Reverend Hoffmann said. “Do I always have to clean up your messes for you?”

“Hey, man, she kicked me in the mouth. Hard,” the woodpecker whined.

“Her little Casper the Ghost boyfriend stuck a throwing star in my forehead. I ain’t no pincushion,” Blue Jay added. They dumped the sleeping bag. It rolled, then came to rest at Hoffman’s feet, like a drunk thrown out of a saloon in the Wild West.

“Shut up,” Hoffmann said. “If I hadn’t been here, she would have called 911 and you fellas would be surrounded by the cops right now. How long you think you’d last in a real shootout with those silly-assed tasers of yours?”

Blue Jay drew a sawed-off shotgun from a holster Kyrie hadn’t even noticed before in his paramilitary attire. It had been shortened until it looked like a double-barreled dueling pistol. He flourished the weapon and slid its pump-action mechanism for dramatic effect. Two spent shells ejected and rolled onto the hardwood floor under a pew.

“I’m ready for them,” he said.

Hoffmann ignored him. “Lucky for you boys God didn’t give her the good sense to use the cell phone headset she’s got in her purse,” he said, speaking softly into her ear. “Matter of fact, little lady, you’d better hand over that purse and everything in it right now. I’m mightily tired of screwing around tonight over that gewgaw of a purse.”

Kyrie cursed herself, her panic, and her drunkenness borne out of self-loathing and desire for Richard. Although the beer had left her weary and nauseated, a white-hot current of fear and amazement ran through her now.

“These monsters work for you?” Kyrie gasped. For a response, Hoffmann lifted her off her feet in a jackroller’s hold by the leverage of her arm socket; she cried out from the searing pain. Her agony seemed to excite him. He held her there for a purgatory of time. When he finally lowered her, she felt a hard piercing protrusion between his legs pressing against her spine.

He answered her in a metallic whisper: “Everybody works for me.”

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Six – The Fool

 

Hoffmann beckoned to the sleeping bag. “Jim Rheinhardt, good churchgoer that he is, was kind enough to telephone and inform me that the Lord had unexpectedly called Glenn home. Cover her, Ronny.” Blue Jay leveled the stubby barrels of the sawed-off at Kyrie’s head. The same unsmiling nervous giggle began spewing from his mouth like vomit.

“And stop that laughing,” Hoffmann ordered. “You’re in a church. Craziest goddamn tic I ever heard. If it wasn’t for me both you boys would have been put away a long time ago.”

“Me? Me?” Woodpecker protested.

“You call mutual masturbation with your own identical twin brother well-adjusted behavior, Donny?”

“Hey, man—”

“I’ve conspired to commit five murders already, and I’m working on number six. You think under these circumstances I’m going to stand on therapist-patient confidence, minister’s privilege, whatever the hell? I’m having enough trouble keeping my own secrets. You boys got free court-ordered counseling from me; in this sinful world, you get what you pay for.”

Hoffmann knelt beside the sleeping bag. He opened the zipper like tearing off a bandage. Kyrie gasped, “Oh, God,” when she saw the face of Glenn Mumper inside, covered with a mess of drool.

“I counseled you and counseled you about all that fucking, Glenn, mixing cocaine with Viagra, what with your bad heart and that. But you never would listen, would you? No, not old prideful Glenn; you always had to be the king of the disco. Now look at you.” Hoffmann grabbed one of Glenn’s cheeks and playfully squeezed, then cuffed him on one temple. “Oh well,” he shrugged, “it was all about to come crashing down anyway, I suspect. Too many players, everybody getting too greedy. Gotta know when to hold and know when to fold, like the hymnbook says. Guess it’s time I cashed in my chips and rode off into the sunset.”

“Why?” was all Kyrie could say. “Why?”

“The eternal question,” Hoffmann replied. “Let me ask you the same question: why should I, a man of the cloth, be forced to clip coupons and live on cold pork and beans out of a can when everybody else gets to taste all that life has to offer: vacations in Barbados, jetting off to Paris, fancy cars and clothes? I knew I was smarter than all the rest of them put together. And what if it turns out that this life is all there is to it? Why, I’d have to be plum loco not to enjoy it for myself, now wouldn’t I?”

“What kind of sick game have you been playing with me? With everyone?” she asked.

“The game? You want to talk about the game? Actually we called it The Antic. Eye Doctor Wilde played. So did your late husband Charlie.”

“Oh, God! You mean it’s true? Charlie’s—”

“Dead. That’s right,” Hoffmann said, matter-of-factly. “Charlie’s dead. Suzie’s dead beside him. In fact, all the other Debs are dead too except for Joan, and she’s crazier’n a bag lady under a full moon. Handing out cash on street corners and door-to-door to strangers at last report, carrying on a sort of reverse trick-or-treat.”

A siren wailed in the distance. “Sounds like somebody’s found the bodies already,” Hoffmann said, cocking his head. “Ambulance sirens always make me think of summer parades.”

“Why kill Charlie?” Her eyes burned hot with tears for the lost hope of reconciliation that had still dwelt inside of her, its presence unsuspected. And for the children.

“Charlie was a Judas. He was going to talk to the authorities. The silly jackass even told Suzie those were his intentions. He might as well have told the Black Forest Gazette.”

“Talk to the authorities about what?”

“Phony car accidents, of course,” Hoffmann said. “He was going to give them Brother Jim Rheinhardt. Jim in turn would have burned old Glenn here. Between the two of them, they’d have blazed a trail directly to my door.”

“Why your door?”

Hoffmann bowed slightly. “Your pastor humbly acknowledges masterminding the entire scheme. Neither of them had the necessary breadth of vision.”

“But why?”

“There’s that question again. Tithes, Kyrie. Rheinhardt and Glenn religiously brought their tithes into the storehouse. Ten per cent from each as my deal-maker’s fee. Doesn’t sound like much but it adds up. Tithes to fund The Antic; tithes to set aside for my imminent retirement from the ministry. As I said, my stewardship here is nearly finished.”

“What’s he talking about, retirement?” Donny asked.

Hoffmann continued to inspect the body of Glenn Mumper. He folded the face flap of the sleeping bag under Glenn’s slack jaw, like tucking a child in for the night, then wandered over and began going through Kyrie’s purse.

“It all started with Peg somehow, didn’t it?” Kyrie said.“Peg was the first to die.”

“Peg’s fatal mistake was picking the wrong duplex to photograph.” Hoffmann withdrew the brown envelope from Kyrie’s purse and spilled the pictures out onto the pew seat. He selected a few and brought them to her.

“You see,” he said, showing her a photo of a vacant apartment, “this is Donny and Ronny’s place. And this,” he added, showing her another photograph, “is the vacant apartment across the hall. See the big-screen home theater, the electronics, and all the rest? Unfortunately for Peg, Donny and Ronny had already reported those items to the police as having been stolen in a burglary the day before, and had gone to the additional inconvenience of staking a claim under their renters’ insurance. Then along comes Peg with her camera and her passkey. You see the impending embarrassment to Donny and Ronny here if anybody put together the dates and places. Now we come to the other problem with the pictures.” Hoffmann showed her the photo of the Ferrari with the Paisan plates.

“You see that shiny new sports car? That had been reported stolen, too, the night before Peg tripped the shutter. This photo alone lays that crime literally at Donny and Ronny’s doorstep.”

“And we didn’t even steal it,” Ronny complained.

“Maybe not, but you torched it,” Hoffmann replied, “making you boys guilty not only of arson, but of felony insurance fraud conspiracy, as the law has been explained to me. When you called me and told me what you’d done to her—remember it was only my quick thinking that saved you—I told you to give the camera to Jim Rheinhardt for safekeeping. As your attorney, he could have concealed it for you, under what he called a ‘colorable’ claim of attorney-client privilege.”

“So these two killed Peg for her camera?”

“Not only her camera, but the evidence inside of it, and to silence Peg’s testimony against them if anyone ever put two and two together. With Peg’s murder, Donny and Ronny escalated all this into a scorched-earth operation. Take no prisoners.”

“What about Zelia?”

Hoffmann’s pride in the whole conspiracy was showing. “As you know,” he began, “the phony accident claims, phony burglary claims and so forth were Glenn’s little game. Fattening his heart in a time of slaughter, as the Good Book says. Laying up treasure where the moth consumes and the thief breaks in and steals. More precisely, the Fort Knox Self-Storage facility Zelia owned and managed. Glenn couldn’t use banks to store his ill-gotten gains, for obvious IRS reasons. Except that our two thieves here were too stupid to find the right storage unit for themselves, even after they’d killed poor Zelia when she wouldn’t give up her rolodex. You see, they didn’t know Glenn’s real name. I’d deliberately withheld that information from them, foreseeing the day I might be cut out of the action. Now we’ll divide Glenn’s cash three ways. Four, if you’d care to join us. You might find that, once you get used to it, The Antic can be quite enjoyable. Verna took to it like a mink takes to fornication.”

“What do you mean, The Antic?” The question filled Kyrie with dread. Impelled to ask, but thinking that in the recesses of her subconscious mind she already knew the answer.

“A little masquerade I played first with my sister Zelia, and then with Verna. Many times with Verna. We perfected it to a high theatrical art, the two of us.”

“Zelia was your sister?”

“Was, yes,” Hoffmann said with a disdainful grimace. “An embarrassment, really.”

“She was the dominatrix who was talking to Charlie on the Internet.”

Hoffmann sniffed. “I’m a better dominatrix than she ever was,” he said.

“But it was Zelia he went to meet that afternoon at the Radisson Hotel, wasn’t it?”

“You have been doing some detective work, little lady,” Hoffmann said. “But you’re wrong about Zelia. She may have turned him on to older women, but someone else led him to that hotel room.”

“Answer my first question. What is The Antic? Exactly?” She couldn’t bring herself to call him ‘Reverend’ anymore, so she didn’t call him anything at all.

“There are two main variations,” Hoffmann explained with a hint of pride. Or maybe it was sadism. “He has to satisfy me before meeting her. Or, I catch them in bed together and then coerce him to satisfy me, a twist on the old badger game. Compelled by either of those forms of persuasion, you’d be amazed how many hitherto heterosexual men succumb. No pun intended.”

His words filled her with loathing. “Satisfy you? How?”

“There are two variations on that, as well,” Hoffmann said. “I know the two holes men want to keep safe from me. ‘Know’ in a biblical sense, that is. I opened those same holes for two of the men in your life, and would have opened them for the third. I may still have that opportunity. I turn them inside out, emotionally, when I penetrate them. The first anal thrust ruptures the soul; the first withdrawal prolapses all self-respect.”

“You’re lying about Daddy and Charlie!”

“Would that I were. Neither derived nearly as much pleasure from the experience as I did. But that’s part of the fun: virgin-cornholing a man who’s been harboring unworthy designs on my wife; then, in round two, savoring the disquiet look on his face as his mouth oh so reluctantly accommodates my considerable meat. The experience has been known to shatter the more fragile ego; it ‘unmanned’ your father—his words, not mine. He couldn’t forgive himself for it, thought he had turned fag because of what he’d done with his own dear pastor. I stood and watched while he kneeled near the spot you’re standing now and pulled the trigger. He’d been reciting the twenty-third Psalm. It’s one of my more piquant memories. Regrettably, it was before the church board had seen fit to install the video equipment, so memories are all I have of his suicide attempt. How he made it to the street afterwards I’ll never know. Now I can look him right in the face and he doesn’t even remember. In a way, I guess you could say I’ve succeeded in taking more from him than from any of the others.”

There was a fond, faraway look in Hoffmann’s eye. Reminiscing over old cruelties even as he plotted new ones. She wanted to kill him, but how do you kill the Devil? Instead, she tried drawing him out, to find a weak spot if one existed, some forgotten stagnant tidepool of human decency.

“So if you loved playing your dirty little games so much, why did you kill Verna?” she asked him.

Hoffmann sighed. “Verna was becoming too long in the tooth to play The Antic any more, to draw new men for my enjoyment. Even with foundation makeup troweled on, she was getting turndowns—from your stud boyfriend Richard, as a prime example. I was disappointed, of course. I’d been hearing so much about him through your confessions lately, I wanted to check him out for size and fit myself.”

“So you killed her?”

“Little Missy, I never killed anybody. Donny and Ronny here arranged it for me, after I asked our brother Glenn to sell me a life insurance policy on her with a generous face value. More generous than the value of Verna’s face for my uses, sad to say. The crime bore Donny and Ronny’s distinctive stamp, what one might call their unique signature, isn’t that right, boys?”

“The tape-measure terminators,” Donny sang out proudly.

“Pity the local media lacked sufficient imagination to pick up on a natural hook like that,” Hoffmann said. “You boys are going places. You’re a force to be reckoned with, stylistically as well as criminally. Nothing lukewarm about you fellas.”

Hoffmann paused to look Kyrie up and down, giving her a thorough singles’ bar checking-out.

“You know,” he said, “speaking of The Antic, you sincerely might be able to replace Verna for me. That tight young cunt of yours is a lethal weapon. Just ask Brother Glenn here.”

An unearthly groan escaped Glenn’s lips at that moment. Ronny spun around and fired. Kyrie saw Glenn’s head fly apart like the puff of a dandelion gone to seed. Her screams vied with a discordant tuning fork ringing in her ears. The acoustic aftershock went on long after the twelve-gauge blast had ended, then was replaced by a deadly quiet.

“Somebody shot my parents,” Ronny whimpered, doing a pretty good Lyle Menendez impression.

“Well, well,” Hoffmann said, “Ronny’s precipitous actions have certainly limited our options.” He cursorily inspected the body again. “There’s a speck of egg on the lapel,” he said, annoyed. “The Armani will have to be dry-cleaned. I’ve had my eye on it,” he explained to Kyrie. “Glenn and I appear to be exactly the same size, although he’s wasted away fifteen pounds or so from the drug use. Pity if he’s soiled the pants.”

“What about her?” Ronny asked.

“I congratulate myself,” Hoffmann said, “that my efforts have ignited a spark in you, Ronny, that could develop into an analytical criminal mind, after all. If you’re going to be a criminal or anything else, be the very best that you can be. I’ve always taught you that, haven’t I? So let me ask you, Ronny, how would you extemporize in this situation?”

Ronny scratched at the scalp under his blue jay spiked hair.

“Then let me throw this out for general discussion,” Hoffmann said. “She killed her cheating husband and his paramour—shot them through his office window with the sawed-off, then doubled back here and killed her own lover—Glenn—with the same shotgun. Modern crime lab techniques can easily establish the fact that the same weapon was used in each shooting. Neutron activation analysis, I believe it’s called.”

“Nah,” Donny said. “It sucks. Nobody’s going to buy Jack as her lover. I mean, look at him. He’s what, fifty?”

Hoffmann bridled at that remark. “Does either one of you have an idea that doesn’t ‘suck,’ as you put it?”

“I got it.” Ronny said after a few moments’ pondering. He pointed to Glenn’s body. “He raped her. She grabbed the sawed-off and blew his head off in self-defense. Got so mind-fucked she couldn’t live with it, and ate both barrels herself.”

“Eureka!” Hoffmann cried jovially. He turned to Kyrie.“Gunshot wounds to the head do seem to run in your family, don’t they? But the question is, did Glenn come inside of you? A woman can tell these things, I know. The story limps a bit if he didn’t.”

Kyrie stood staring into the shotgun barrels big as highway tunnels leading to the next world. She turned to face the altar and spoke in a still, small voice.

 

 

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want,” she began.

 

 

“He came in you, didn’t he? He must have,” Hoffmann sneered.

 

 

“He maketh me to lie down in green pastures,” she prayed, oblivious to his onslaught,

“He leadeth me beside the still waters;

He restoreth my soul.” Preparing herself for burial.

 

 

“You fucked him to death, didn’t you?” Hoffmann said, raising his voice, trying to get her attention. “Rheinhardt told me all about it. Glenn’s dead because of you.”

 

 

“He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness

for his name’s sake.”

 

 

“Shut up,” Hoffmann screamed, holding his hands over his ears. “Shut up, goddammit!”

 

 

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,

I will fear no evil

For thou art with me;

thy rod and thy staff

they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me

in the presence of mine enemies—”

 

 

Hoffmann’s voice had calmed. “I take it the answer is no. Such a waste.” To Ronny, he said, “As soon as she finishes, set it up so she shoots herself.”

“How will I know when she’s finished?” Ronny really wanted to know.

“When she stops talking, dumb shit,” Donny replied.

 

 

“Surely goodness and mercy

shall follow me

all the days of my life;

and I will dwell in the house of

the Lord

for ever.”

 

 

Ronny jammed the sawed-off barrels tightly under her chin. He forced her hands together as if in prayer on either side of the breech, and crooked her index fingers over the triggers. His thumbs pinched and pressed down on top of them. He uttered an intense karate scream right in her face—she recognized it from her self-defense class as a kiai. Singularly useless knowledge under the circumstances. Silence, then only a metallic clicking sound.

“You forgot to reload, Bro,” Donny said.

A muffled vibration sounded from Kyrie’s black purse where Hoffmann had tossed it onto the front pew. Ronny still stupidly held the empty shotgun against her jaw. She knew it was useless to run. Hoffmann inserted the headpiece and answered, speaking almost inaudibly. The party at the other end did most of the talking. When he had finished, he carefully replaced the headset into her purse and addressed Donny and Ronny.

“Suzie’s dead, right?”

“Deader’n a fart,” Donny said. “An old fart.”

“You’re certain?”

The question seemed to grieve Ronny. “Her fucking head flew off, man!”

“She just called me from the hospital. It was her wig you saw flying off, you idiots! They’re picking pellets out of her scalp right now, but she’s alive. And she’s mad enough to burn all of us.”

“What do we do now?”

Hoffmann sighed. “The rape scenario is now completely unworkable,” he said. “Dispose of this one in any manner you see fit. I wash my hands of it.”

“You got a tape measure, Rev?”

“Do I even have to provide equipment for the two of you?” Hoffmann sighed impatiently. “Check the desk drawer in my office. It appears I have an emergency hospital call to make tonight, due to your incompetence.”

Ronny reholstered the sawed-off. Both twins stood back and aimed their tasers. With a pop, the first harpoon thread sailed toward her like a party streamer. Its porcupine quill hooked her flesh and anchored there. A second one zeroed in from the other twin’s stun gun. A sting she had not felt since the sea anemone in Florida. One all-over suppressed sneeze of burning deadness, then another, threw her into a body-earthquake of jerking spasms. Someone hurtled a piece of the floor at her and caught her on the shoulder.

The white noise humming sound. Peg must have felt it, and Verna, and Zelia. The valley of the shadow. It really wasn’t so bad once you got used to it. Charlie had given her a taste of it during rough sex. This time she wanted to give herself up to it, escape into its sparkling jewels of light, to leap and frolic like a giddy child running through a lawn sprinkler; the light’s prodigal daughter returned home, yielding up her own energy to the Source of all energy.

She dreamed of images: praying hands and passing through a door. On the other side of the door a beautiful lady, the most beautiful she’d ever seen, illuminated with a glow that made the lady’s dark hair golden and her blue mantle more shimmering azure than the clearest sky of the brightest summer’s day. Somehow without speaking she was telling Kyrie to go back.

“I want to stay here with you,” Kyrie said, crying like a child who had lost her mother.

The radiant Being didn’t move her lips, but like a cosmic ventriloquist threw her voice directly into the center of Kyrie’s awakening and expanding mind. “You have to go back,” she said. “Don’t you want to save yourself from the fire? Who else will we send to care for the children? And for your Daddy? And what about Richard?”

“Can’t you send somebody else?”

The Being smiled indulgently, like asking her to volunteer for vacation Bible school. “It’s too late to get anybody else now,” she said. “Looks like you’re it.”

Kyrie looked into the Being’s doe eyes, said, “All right,” and was immediately cast back down into her own body with an unpleasant jangling sound loud as a shotgun’s report.

She was looking at the face of Jesus. She wanted to cry at the image of Him standing outside the door, holding a lantern and knocking. She wanted to scold the world, to shake her finger in its face for keeping him waiting there on the doorstep like the Fuller Brush man. But her hands were tied.

She was seated naked on a cold steel chair, hands, feet and neck lashed together with metal. Something told her not to test its sharpness by struggling. She felt tight bands against her perinium where they’d strung the tape measure between her legs. Her head lolled back staring up at the ceiling. When she tried to sit up, the metal dug into the soft flesh at the base of her neck and pulled her arms up tighter behind her. Her right shoulder was still sore from where Hoffmann had twisted it, or maybe from striking the floor when they’d zapped her with the tasers.

“Look who’s back from the dead,” a voice said behind her. Donny or Ronny.

“I told you to cinch that tape tighter around her neck. Now we have to retie her all over again if we’re ever going to finish her off.”

“Not so fast, Bro.” His lascivious tone was unmistakable. “We never got our rocks off on a live one before.”

“Or a naked one.”

“This could be the coolest one yet.”

She heard the sound of a drawer sliding open on the other side of the room.

“Hey, check it out, the Rev’s got some lotion.”

“Lotion in motion. Care to do the honors?”

“After you, Bro.”

“No, after you. I insist.”

“I know,” they jeered in unison for her benefit, “we’ll do each other.” She heard zippers being taken down, chain belts sliding against denim, pants dropping. Two vulgar squirts of the lotion bottle, then they stood one on either side of her, two reciprocating pairs of hands rubbing on the lotion, quick with anticipation.

“The Rev’s even got a TV in here,” Ronny said. “Let’s see what’s on the boob tube.” He gave Kyrie’s left nipple a twisting pinch that nearly raised her up out of her chair before he turned on the monitor. Kyrie strained to roll her eyes toward the screen.

Hoffmann stood behind the pulpit. The lapels of Glenn’s Armani suit shone like a blue-satin vestment stole on him, gleaming under the lights he had turned up. Hoffmann knew he was on camera.

“Ah…have…sinned,” he intoned with a televangelist’s emotional fervor. When he uplifted his bowed head, his intensity dissolved into malicious laughter. Hoffmann dangled a set of keys at the camera, as though entertaining a baby. “The keys to the kingdom, boys. And it’s all ours—yours and mine. I’ve had an inspiration: Glenn is now me, wearing my clothes right down to my watch and wedding ring, with my ID’s in his pocket. Once you torch the church, Glenn’s body becomes mine forever, martyred at the cathedral altar like Thomas a’ Becket. No doubting Thomas on the Black Forest police force will probe any further than that. Our leave-taking will be made complete.”

Something made Kyrie look up. Inches above her face, two matched sets of glistening fingers blurring with exertion.

“You getting close?” Donny asked, breathless. “My wrist’s getting tired.”

“Say ‘cheese’, bitch,” Ronny groaned. Kyrie closed her eyes tight.

 

 

Once he got off, Ronny quit helping Donny.

“Hey, man, don’t stop,” Donny whined. But Ronny was watching television.

“Aren’t you afraid of DNA analysis?” Kyrie asked them.

Donny gave up on any help from Ronny and began manipulating himself. “Shows what you know,” he said. “Even if we get caught, which as you just heard we won’t, it’s impossible to convict us, as long as we both deny it.”

“I’d be interested to hear why you think so,” she said.

Ronny tore his attention away from the TV. “‘Cause identical twins have identical DNA, that’s why,” he said. “Crime lab can’t tell mine from his. If we both deny it, they can’t hang it on either one of us. Cool, huh? It’s like a license to rape and kill.”

“Who told you that?”

Ronny pointed to the TV. “The Rev’s a good guy to know,” he said.

“Suppose they charge you both with conspiracy to commit murder? Then they don’t have to prove which one of you did it,” Kyrie said calmly. “I was married to a lawyer. I know these things.” Donny and Ronny looked at each other.

“Don’t ask me,” Ronny said to Donny. “You’re the one in pre-law.”

“Can’t you see he’s setting you up for all these murders, even his?” Kyrie said. “What does he care what Suzie says now? He’s not going to any hospital; he’s taking off tonight with the cash. He’ll pop up somewhere else with a new identity and start spending all the insurance money Glenn stole, leaving you two holding the bag.”

“What was Glenn’s last name? We need to find his money stash, and fast.”

“If I tell you, will you let me go? I promise not to tell anybody about us.”

“Yeah, right.”

She had an idea, but it would take some real acting. “Truth is,” she added, “I kind of got off on it. I guess bukkake is my scene.” She tried for a sultry look, modeling Ronny’s semen on her face. “I’ll come over to your apartment every night for more. And guys,” she sighed with a lewd wink that made the gob of semen trail down her cheek like a tear, “I do mean cum.”

“Whatever you say, babe,” Donny said. “You got it. We’ll do this every night, just the three of us.”

“Promise?” she asked with a coquettish smirk.

“Hell yeah I promise.” Donny spilled his load.

“All right, then,” she said, struggling to hide her revulsion, to keep her voice even. “His last name’s Mumper. J. Glenn Mumper. Now untie me.”

Ronny made a vocal disqualification buzzer sound. “Invalid option,” he said.

“But you promised, Ronny,” she said. “Your secret’s safe with Mama. I really want to swing with you guys, every night like you said. I’ll even do your buddies while you watch.

“Nice try, lady, but you’re not a good enough liar,” Donny replied. “Besides, we got kicked out of our apartment. Me and my Bro here are tragically homeless.” He turned to Ronny and said, “Now let’s go get those keys.”

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Seven – The World

 

They pulled on their pants and left after jerking the phone cord out of the wall. Donny flipped off the light switch. The only light in the windowless office was the unearthly glow of the TV monitor. Ronny slammed the door closed after him. No retreating footsteps, though. The twins were waiting silently just outside the door.

She heard a thud, like someone bracing his weight by the heels of his hands against the door, then a rapid tapping sound followed by an excited giggle. More tapping sounds, becoming tighter and less resonant. She remembered that ominous sound from her dorm years, her fat pariah years at CIU.

They were pennying her in. The cruel prank that could imprison a hapless freshman in her own dormitory room for days without food or water and without any means to call for rescue other than to scream out the window. No windows here. No one to hear her screams.

Moments later, she heard splashing against the walls and smelled gasoline vapor from under the door. On the monitor, Hoffmann watched them working off-camera. Then they walked into range, carrying five-gallon red gas cans in each hand. Ronny set his down on the carpeted aisle.

“Careful,” Hoffmann said. “That’ll leave a ring.” Then laughed like a demon.

Ronny pulled the sawed-off shotgun in a practiced fast-draw and held it three feet from Hoffmann’s head. “Let’s have those keys now, Rev.”

Hoffmann stepped away from the pulpit, revealing the tasers he held waist-high in each hand like a gunslinger out of the old west.

“You forgot to reload, Bro,” he said.

The harpoon lines shot out, connecting with each twin; they obediently responded with a spastic St. Vitus pas de deux before falling to the floor side by side in two twitching heaps. Hoffmann moved quick as a pixie, dousing each with gasoline from the nearest can. He took a lit candle from the altar, brandished it over his head like Moses throwing the tablets, and cast it down onto their bodies. The twins screamed and writhed in agony, engulfed in greedy flames. Kyrie hid her face from the horror of it.

“Paradoxically, those who have survived immolation describe it as an excruciatingly cold sensation,” she heard Hoffmann say over the monitor. “‘Crazy cold, ‘way down there,’ isn’t it boys?”

Their only responses were crackling, popping sounds and paroxysms of blistered wriggling.

“Two nightcrawlers frying up in the pan,” Hoffmann mused.

A phone began ringing inside “stage right.” There must be a telephone in the credenza drawer. After five rings, Kyrie heard smoke detectors going off in the sanctuary. She frantically rocked the chair. Her bonds tautened. She threw her head back with all her might. The chair fell; her head struck the floor, almost knocking her out. Had it been ten rings? She might have lost count. Her mind told her to answer the phone at all costs. The hidden phone would be her salvation. Donny and Ronny hadn’t suspected a second phone.

Once she rolled away from the chair, the lashes around her legs seemed to loosen. She could slip them off her ankles. It was up to fifteen rings before her wrists, cut by the steel bands of the tape measure, could exert enough force to slide free. She sprang for the credenza, threw open the drawer and pounced on the ringing phone. “Oh, thank God,” she yelled into the receiver by way of an answer.

“Valdemar?” Tippi cried at the other end. “Valdemar? Is that you? I’m in jail, Valdemar. You have to help me! They’re trying to say I’m somebody else, somebody named Joan.”

“Tippi? Tippi? It’s me, Kyrie. Call the fire department! Saint Mark’s is burning down and I’m trapped inside! Hurry!”

In an imperious tone, Tippi demanded, “Stop playing with me, sir. I’m only allowed this one phone call.”

“Tippi, listen to me. This is Kyrie, your daughter-in-law.”

“If you’re Kyrie,” Tippi replied suspiciously. “Why do you have a deep voice like a man’s?”

“Tippi, I don’t have time for your paranoid hallucinations right now. Just call the fire department—” Tippi hung up. No, there was no dial tone. The line was dead. The fire must have burned through the telephone line.

Kyrie threw on the light and some clothes. She pressed both palms against the steel door that sealed her inside “stage right.” It was warm to the touch, but not hot yet. She returned to the phone, desperate for help. It was red. A plaque on it said Alter Ego Voice-changing Telephone. Dials and arrows offered adult to child, child to adult, male to female, and female to male. There were two lines. One was labeled 1-900-DEMONIC. The other was hooked into Hoffmann’s computer. She tried the second line. It was as dead as the first.

Smoke alarms were going off closer to “stage right”; the fire was stalking her, searching for her hiding place. Kyrie spotted the praying hands statuette with the clock base. Angling the tips of the bronze index fingers like a screwdriver, she tapped at the beveled head of the upper hinge pin in the steel door. It wouldn’t move. She struck harder, leaving tiny divots in the brass. She thought she saw the hinge pin budge. She struck at it with all her might. The hinge pin rose an inch, then two, then three before falling to the floor. The lower hinge pin was easier; Kyrie could pull it out with her fingers.

She checked the monitor; Hoffmann was nowhere to be seen. Flames licked at the varnished pulpit, now blackened like Satan’s own. With a letter opener, she pried the heavy door from its frame. The pennies dropped to the floor and rolled free.

Smoke thicker and fouler than she could have imagined seared her lungs. There was no air, only a sickening smell of roasting pork. She wanted to collapse under the curtain of smoke. The beautiful woman’s voice came back to her as in a dream, asking her, “Don’t you want to save yourself from the fire?”

“Yes,” she gasped. “Yes.” She remembered the configuration of pews in the sanctuary, imprinted on her mind from her years of perfect attendance. She crawled on hands and knees down the center aisle, below the roiling pall of blackness and the screams of the smoke detectors. Closer and closer toward the cool clear air of evening.

 

 

At the Black Forest/Dutch Hollow Airport, Adrienne stared out over the tarmac from her window seat in the first class section of the connecting flight to La Guardia, watching the ground crew. The hundred-thousand-dollar bounty Fidelity Founders had placed on Jack’s head was as good as hers. It might as well be lounging here in the wide seat next to her on the flight out. One hundred thousand dollars would almost make up for the serious and permanent injuries she had suffered at Jack’s hands. His malpractice.

She sipped her champagne cocktail and planned how to re-invest the reward in another form of extreme sport, one taught to her by Zelia, her mentor. She envisioned a career having nothing to do with little deaf children. Adrienne closed her eyes, lay back on the headrest and dreamed happy fantasies of iron maidens, of dungeons and vaults, of single-tail floggers, cats o’ nine tails, quirts and horsehide whangs, of archway hooks and five point restraints, of electrotorture, of black leather ball gags and latex jockstraps equipped with cock rings and blowup asshole expanders, of safe words unheeded when the fisting crosses the last threshold. She dreamed of the high school teacher who, just because they were alone in the woods, thought he could deliberately disobey her limits of no exchange of bodily fluids, unilaterally changing the rules in the middle of the extracurricular game he had taught her. He’d paid dearly for the crime of failing to follow his own teachings. Adrienne always played a dangerous game. And she was always the top. He had asked for it in a way, choosing an ambiguous safe word like, “Please.” Trussed up in bungee cords, he had repeated the inane entreaty to her over and over through bloodied lips and broken teeth, with only the birds and squirrels for witnesses, until his brain could no longer form the articulations. She had been the top and he the bottom even then. She’d be the top tonight with Jack, then go on to injure others, who’d reward her handsomely for it as well.

A tall and lanky silver-haired man in a blue Giorgio Armani suit—Jack’s suit—ambled down the jetway, then ducked through the hatch and into the forward cabin. He hesitated beside her as though he were about to hit on her. His carry-on resembled Jack’s leather attaché case. In fact, it was Jack’s case—she saw the silver filigreed JStC insignia.

This wasn’t supposed to happen. The tall man was saying, “Well, howdy there, little lady,” and Adrienne had no way to signal the others. He ogled her as he sidled into the seat next to hers—Jack’s seat—holding the briefcase on his lap. The hatchway door closed; the plane began to taxi. Jack couldn’t be a no-show. The reward depended on it.

“Excuse me,” she said in her coldest hauteur, “I believe that seat’s taken.” Maybe Jack was in the bathroom. Jack always spent a lot of time in the bathroom.

“Got my ticket and boarding pass right here,” the man said with a broad smile, amiable as any TV cowboy. Adrienne didn’t look at either.

“May I check that bag for you, sir?” the female flight attendant with the no-nonsense haircut asked him, reaching for it. The two businessmen in the seats ahead of them stood and surveyed the rear of the plane, as if stretching their legs.

“I’ll just slide it under my seat if you don’t mind,” he told her, his grip tightening. “My laptop’s inside; I may get some work in during the flight.” Then saw the snub-nosed .38 Colt Python in her hand. Both businessmen drew on him too: government-issue weapons from shoulder holsters concealed under their coats.

“Federal marshals, Mumper,” the woman shouted. “Both hands on the seat in front of you, and spread your fingers. I will relieve you of that briefcase now.”

“Mumper? What the devil are you talking about? That’s not my name.”

“Your ass is in his airline seat next to his girlfriend, you’re carrying his ticket and his briefcase full of undeclared cash,” the female agent said. “If you’re not Mumper, you can stand in for him until he shows up. Matter of fact, you can pretend to be him right through the trial, for all I care.”

“You should have jettisoned that payload, shithead,” one of the male agents taunted him. “The money you’re carrying has blood on it.”

Adrienne, frantic, kept asking them: “Is there a reward on this one?”

“Honey, don’t get your nose all out of joint,” the female agent said. “Honesty is its own reward.”

One male agent nudged the other and said, “Looks like Paris just wasn’t in the cards.”

 

 

 

Epilogue

 

Kyrie crossed the lobby, averting her eyes from the insurance company’s people cleaning Charlie’s office. In the law library she sat and tried to work on Verna’s listings. The acrid smoke smell still clung to the files. Her mind wandered. Rheinhardt found her there poring over a Stickney phone book. Her wedding band tinkled like a golden coin when he tossed it onto the conference table toward her by way of a greeting.

“Thought you might like to have that as a keepsake. You left it at my office the other day, remember?”

Without looking up, she said, “Why don’t you put a ring guard in it and wear it around your dick?”

Rheinhardt looked offended. “Do you know who you’re talking to?” he said.

“I do now.” Her voice still remained a hoarse whisper from the smoke inhalation and the respirator. “Where you from, Rheinhardt? Originally?”

“Chi-town,” he said proudly, flexing his shoulders. “City of the big scrotum.”

“Funny, I thought it was Stickney.” She slid the open copy of the 2001 Stickney directory across the table. A half-page yellow classified ad featured a photo of a smirking, self-satisfied young man with a full beard. The same young man she had seen in street-artist caricature on Rheinhardt’s wall. The ad read, Attorney Tad Scott: No Recovery, No Fee. She opened the Black Forest yellow pages to Rheinhardt’s photo ad and began penciling in a beard.

“Fools’ names and fools’ faces,” she said.

Rheinhardt turned a shade of pale to rival Snow Seal Walgreen’s. “So what’s your point?” he said. “I just came by to pay my respects because I heard you were out of the hospital.”

“I called the ARDC again,” she said, “because I really couldn’t believe someone like you was actually licensed and in good standing, I was almost ready to give up when the girl told me they’d waived your annual registration fee. It seems you’ve been practicing law in Illinois for over fifty years.”

Rheinhardt’s attitude was fatalistic, one of stoic defeat. He looked like a card-counter playing no-peek blackjack who’d just doubled down against a face card showing, then watched the casino dealer flip over the ace in the hole.

“The real Jim Rheinhardt,” she said. “You were an associate of his, or what?”

“Summer intern,” he said. “Third year of law school. The old guy had no family; I was like a son to him. He crappied off about the same they were cranking up to disbar me—’legal death,’ they call it. Seemed almost too easy to change his address with the ARDC, then forge his signature to the annual renewal.”

“Why Black Forest, of all places?”

“Ass end of nowhere,” he said.

She could tell he wanted to say something more. “Look, Kyrie—” he began.

“Aren’t you calling me ‘Dirty Voice’ anymore? It fits now,” she said.

“You’re not making this easy for me, are you?” he said. “Anyway, I just want you to know the killings had nothing to do with me. I was as afraid of those guys as you were.”

“I doubt it.”

“Maybe you’re right. At any rate, I never would have told Hoffmann about Charlie if I’d thought he’d send those guys out to do him in. I kind of liked Charlie.”

“So did I, Rheinhardt,” she said. “So did I.”

Neither of them spoke for a count of thirty. “Where do we go from here?” Rheinhardt asked her.

“I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about that,” she said. “Here’s how I want to play it: You’ll represent Tippi for nothing, what you guys call pro bono publico. How badly could they want her? It’s been almost fifty years and she’s obviously insane. And you’re going to represent me in a couple of stepparent adoptions, same fee arrangement to apply. I don’t think either adoption is likely to be contested. And I need guardianship over my father. Another freebie. I’m thinking of taking him out of the nursing home to live with us. Oh, and I want you to call in a major favor from your friends at the DuPage County Courthouse. They’re going to expunge all records of my arrest and conviction.”

“Not saying I can even do that, but what’s to stop you from turning me in once I do?”

“Nothing,” she said. “Absolutely nothing. I found out what you did to that lady realtor up in Stickney, and I sure do remember what you did to me. So if I ever find out about you harassing another woman, just remember I’ll have the ARDC’s number programmed into my speed dial. Knowledge is power, Tad. Haven’t you heard that one somewhere?”

“What if I kick town?”

“Speed dial, Tad. No, you’re not going anywhere. You’re staying right here where I can keep my eye on you. And I’ll have Suzie to report back to me. Oh, by the way, she’ll be working for you as your new secretary as soon as she gets out of the hospital. Jobs are hard to come by at her age, poor thing, even though I’m told her skills are extraordinary. She’ll work her head off for someone like you, someone who’s been trying so hard these past few months to convince her he’s hot for her. No, Tad, I see you living out the rest of your life in Black Forest. That’s your punishment, and take it from a home-town pixie realtor, it’s punishment enough.”

“Drugs help.”

“Then you’ll have to find yourself a new connection, Tad. I told Derek that if he’s going to be dating my daughter, a few things had better change. So we had a little ceremony: Derek, Lori, Richard and I. Larry took pictures; remind me to show them to you. A very beautiful Celtic true love ceremony that involved standing in a meadow and throwing salt to the four winds. Except that Derek provided another white powder to substitute for the salt in the recipe. I think we Americans use entirely too much salt anyway, don’t you, Tad?”

Tad cringed. “You didn’t!”

“The spell seemed to work even better that way.” She sighed, savoring the memory of it while Tad implored the ceiling.

“Derek must truly be smitten,” she said at last. “He tossed nearly half a million dollars’ street value into the wind, to prove his love for her.”

 

 

Richard was waiting for her at the restaurant with Derek and the twins. She knew there would be lawsuits and a skein of liens: RICO liens, IRS liens, jeopardy assessments, forfeitures, and a legacy of other legal trouble in the wake of Charlie’s death. None of it mattered to her anymore; none of it could touch her where she lived. Within the deepest recesses of her heart she carried the light of the hereafter she had brought back from her own private showing: the everlasting light of love.

Snow Seal left a fifty-dollar tip. Not bad for a Denny’s.

 

 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 

Malachi Stone is a practicing attorney. He is the author of eleven novels and RUDE SCRAWLS, a book of short stories. All are available online.

 

 

CONJURER’S OATH

DEAD MAN’S ACT

DEVIL’S TOLL

GREEDY AS THE GRAVE

HARD BREAK

HEARTBALM

OZARK BANSHEE

PRIVATE SHOWINGS

SHARP FORCE TRAUMA

ST. AGNESEVE

WICKED KING DICK

and

RUDE SCRAWLS

 

 

 

CONNECT WITH ME ONLINE

 

 

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[+ Malachi Stone+]

 

 

Email: mailto:[email protected]

 

Be sure and listen to the FREE MP3 version of the first ten chapters of HEARTBALM performed by the author. Start here:

 

[+ http://archive.org/details/MalachiStoneHeartbalmChapterOne_AndNowaWordFromMySponsor+]


Private Showings

Danger lurks around every dark corner when Kyrie Wilde, a young woman realtor, cheats on her husband with a handsome and mysterious college professor whose specialty is abnormal psychology. Kyrie secretly meets her lover for passionate "private showings" in those spooky Victorian houses she pretends to be selling him. But when women realtors start turning up murdered in those same homes where Kyrie has been meeting her paramour, she begins to fear that the killer is someone close to her, maybe so close that she might become his next victim. You'll thrill to the romantic suspense of PRIVATE SHOWINGS!

  • ISBN: 9781311779588
  • Author: Malachi Stone
  • Published: 2015-11-26 14:40:13
  • Words: 95018
Private Showings Private Showings