It’s a little over two hours from Grand Rapids to Farmington. On a day when you’ve been up since before dawn, it feels like a hard two hours. I found the house on Romney Street, the same house where Randy and I had been handcuffed in the basement and shown both barrels of a shotgun. It didn’t look any different than the first time I had seen it. It was still the same brand-new split-level ranch in a neighborhood of brand-new split-level ranches. But I knew I would never forget it.
It was after four o’clock when I got there. The driveway was empty. No little red car, and no truck with ladders on it, which meant no Delilah and no Leopold. I didn’t know if Anthony had a car, or if he drove around in his father’s truck, or if he just stayed home all day lifting weights. No matter what, I was sure that Madame Valeska, or whatever the hell her real name was, probably didn’t get out much, not if she had to lug around that tank of oxygen.
When I knocked on the door, I got none of the above. An old man wrestled the door open, trying very hard to get out of its way without falling over. He had a wooden cane in his left hand, but he wasn’t leaning on it. When he finally had the inside door open, he stood there and looked at me. He must have been a tall man at one time, maybe twenty years ago. Now he was stooped over and a good six inches shorter.
“Hello!” I said. “Is anyone else here?”
He just stood there behind the storm door.
“Anybody?” I said. “I need to speak to somebody. I’m a friend of the family.”
He cocked his head. The man couldn’t hear a word I was saying through the glass. So I opened it.
“Hello!” I said.
He tried to grab the door handle. “What are you doing?”
“I need to speak to somebody,” I said. “Is Leopold here? Or his mother?”
“Close that door!” he said.
“Excuse me, sir,” I said, stepping into the house. I had just enough room to edge by him without knocking him over.
“You can’t come in here!” he said. “Who are you?”
“Sir, please take it easy. My name is Alex. I need to know who’s home right now.”
“Nobody!” he said. “It’s just me! And you have to get out!”
“Where’s Leopold?” I said. “Is he out on a painting job?”
“You can’t be in here!” he said. “Out with you! Out!”
“Sir, where is Leopold?”
“I’m going to call him right now!” he said. “I’m going to tell him you’re in his house!”
“Good. Please do that. I need to talk to him.”
“You can’t just walk into his house like this!”
“Sir, will you please relax and go call him?”
“I’m going to call him right now!”
“Listen, I’ll wait right here,” I said. “You go call him.”
“You get outside!” he said. “You can wait outside for him!”
“This will be much more comfortable in here,” I said. “Now please, go call Leopold.”
“I will,” he said. And then he finally started moving away from the door. He shuffled through the living room, into the dining room, where Randy and I had sat a few days before. The old man grabbed a hold of the wall when he reached it and took a hard right toward the kitchen. “Just walking right into the house,” he said to himself. “Like he owns the place. Walking right in.”
When was around the corner, I opened up the hall closet and looked inside. There were coats and umbrellas and everything else you’d expect to see in a hall closet, but no shotgun.
I took a few more steps into the living room, looking for a gun cabinet. I could hear the old man still talking to himself in the kitchen. The way he was racing to the phone, he’d get there within the hour.
I took a peek in the dining room. Nobody keeps a shotgun in the dining room, but I had to look anyway. The old man caught sight of me from the kitchen and let me have it. “What the hell is wrong with you? Where are you going?”
“Don’t mind me,” I said. “Just making myself at home.”
“You get out of here right now!” he said. “I’m warning you!” He was holding the phone and shaking it at me.
“Did you call Leopold yet?” I said.
“I’m going to! Right now! You just wait until he gets here! What that man is going to do to you!”
I shook my head and looked down the hallway to my left. There were four doors in the hallway. One of them was closed. As I walked toward it, I started to hear a hissing sound.
“Don’t you dare go down there!” the old man said behind me. “Do you hear me? That’s her room, goddamn you!”
“Make the call,” I said.
“Do not disturb that woman! I swear to God, you’ll be sorry! She’ll give you the evil eye and you’ll have festering boils all over your body!”
That one stopped me long enough to roll my eyes. Then I gently knocked on the door.
“Festering boils!” he said. “I’m warning you!”
I knocked again, a little louder.
“Come in,” she said. When I opened the door, I saw Madame Valeska sitting in a rocking chair next to her bed. The clear tube ran from the hissing oxygen tank to her nose, just as it had when I saw her the week before. The same smell of medicine and menthol hung in the air around her. There was a lace blanket wrapped around her legs, and a book resting on her lap.
“You’re not going to give me festering boils, are you?” I said.
“I had a feeling I’d be seeing you again,” she said.
“I’m sorry to intrude.”
“It sounds like you’ve got poor William in a state,” she said. “I hope he doesn’t have a heart attack out there.”
“He’s calling your son,” I said.
“William comes over to sit with me during the day,” she said. “He’s very protective.”
“I’d just like to ask you a couple questions,” I said. “If you don’t mind.”
“Come closer,” she said. “Let me see your hands.”
I stepped into the room. It felt twenty degrees hotter than the rest of the house. The other chair, the chair William must have used when he was sitting with her, was a big old recliner on the other side of the room. I didn’t feel like dragging it over to her, so I went to her and stood in front of her with my hands out. It felt awkward looking down at her, so I went down into a catcher’s crouch. My legs didn’t like that one bit, never mind that I had spent a few years of my life doing this a couple hundred times a day.
When I was at eye level, she took my hands in her own. They were the hands of an old woman, made crooked by ninety years of use, but I could feel in them a surprising strength. “Now what is so important that you have to come into my house and make William so upset?”
“You remember Randy, the man who was here with me?”
“The baseball player,” she said. “Are you right-handed?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Your left hand shows your ancestry,” she said. “It’s what’s given to you at birth. Your right hand shows your present nature, and what the future may hold.” She took my right hand and traced the lines with a bent finger.
“He was shot last night,” I said.
“I am sorry to hear that,” she said. “He is alive, no? I would hear it in your voice if he had been killed.”
“Yes, he’s alive.”
She nodded her head. She still did not look up from my hands. “You have lived a very hard life,” she said.
“I was a catcher,” I said. “That’s why my hands are so beat-up.”
She looked up at me for an instant. “That’s not what I’m looking at,” she said. “Your fate line is ragged. It shows much misfortune.”
“He was shot in a small town called Orcus Beach,” I said. “Does the name mean anything to you?”
“No,” she said. “Your fingers are well separated. You are a very independent person. But your last finger is set very low, which means you’ve had to work very hard.”
I watched her white head as she held my hand. The oxygen tank hissed in the corner.
“Do you see how your first finger is bending toward your middle finger? That means you are a very persistent man. Very stubborn. And this separation between your head line and your life line, it means you need to work very hard on controlling your temper.”
“Orcus Beach,” I said. “That’s where Maria is, isn’t she?”
She looked up at me. “If that’s true, it’s news to me.” She looked me right in the eye as she said it. If she was lying, she was damned good at it.
“Ma’am, there’s a shotgun in this house,” I said. “Do you know where it is?”
A step behind me, and then a voice from the doorway. “You mean this shotgun?” It was William, back from his phone call, pointing the shotgun directly at my head.
“What are you doing?” I said, trying to keep my voice level. “Put the gun down.”
“William, dear,” she said. “Do as the man says. You’re going to hurt somebody.”
Hurt somebody, she says. If he unloads both barrels of that thing, he’ll do more than hurt somebody.
“William,” I said. “If you fire that weapon, you’ll kill both of us. Do you understand?”
“You can’t just barge in here without me doing something about it,” he said. The gun started to waver in his hands. His face was turning red.
“Put it down,” I said.
“You think I’m just an old man who can’t protect anybody?”
“Obviously, you can,” I said. “Now put it down.”
He looked at the gun. His face kept getting redder.
Goddamn it, I thought. The gun’s too heavy. He’s gonna slip and blow both our heads off.
“William!” I said. I could feel the sweat running down my back. “I swear to God, if you fire a shotgun from there, you’ll kill both of us! Do you understand me?”
“I’m sorry, Arabella,” he said. “I didn’t know what else to do.”
And then he lowered the gun. I got up out of my crouch, nearly falling over when my legs cramped up. The movement surprised him, and he started to bring the gun back up at me. I took it away from him. For a single moment, I felt like bashing his old fool head in with the butt of the gun. Instead, I made myself take a deep breath.
I had the shotgun barrel in both hands now. This is not what I had been planning on doing. Now with my fingerprints all over the thing, I’d have some explaining to do.
“Ah hell, as long as I’m touching it,” I said. It was a classic breach-action Parker, the kind of shotgun some of the older hunters still liked to use. I broke it open slowly so the shells wouldn’t eject across the room. They weren’t the buckshot shells I was expecting. They were slugs, which made sense if the owner was going after big game, like deer or bear.
“Well, the good news,” I said, “is that you wouldn’t have killed both of us after all. Assuming you didn’t miss.”
“I wouldn’t have missed,” he said. He was holding on to the doorframe with both hands, catching his breath.
“That’s great,” I said. “And of course blowing two slugs through my head wouldn’t have bothered the woman sitting right next to me.”
“William, dear,” she said. “You really need to think about things before you do them. You’ve always been too impulsive. You know that.”
“Go sit in the chair,” I said. “You’ve had a busy day.”
I looked at the gun again. If Leopold had used this gun to shoot Randy, I thought, then he didn’t hide it. He cleaned it and put in slugs. It was possible, but it didn’t seem likely.
“Where was your son last night?” I asked her.
“Ask him yourself,” William said as he slowly lowered himself into the chair. “He’s on his way.”
“Good man,” I said. “How long until he gets here?”
“Not long,” he said. “And he won’t be happy.”
I was waiting outside for him when he finally pulled up in his truck. He hit the brakes with such a jolt it sent one of his ladders flying off the rack. When he came charging out of the truck, I moved out onto the cold, hard ground of his front lawn, my hands in the air, about shoulder height. With your hands up, you look like you want peace, but at the same time you’ve got them ready for anything else.
He didn’t say a word. He came right at me and started swinging. He was the same little fireplug I remembered from our first meeting, built like a bantamweight boxer. Today, he was wearing his white painting overalls, complete with the little white hat.
I blocked a few of his punches and then slipped one into the ribs. I shouldn’t have enjoyed seeing the wind go out of him, but I couldn’t help myself. When you get thrown down a flight of stairs, handcuffed to the wall, and then threatened with a shotgun, it’s not something you can let go of too easily. Even if the guy admits he made a mistake.
“Little different story, isn’t it,” I said, ducking a big overhand haymaker. “When you don’t have a shotgun or your muscle-head son hiding behind the door.”
“What the hell are you doing here anyway?” he said as he backed up to regroup. “You got no business here.”
“Randy got shot yesterday,” I said.
He stopped moving. “What does that have to do with us?” he said.
“Did you shoot him?” I said.
He shook his head. “No, I didn’t shoot him,” he said.
His little white hat had come off. It was blowing away. I looked him in the eye.
He was telling the truth.
“Why would you even think that?” he said. “What reason would I have to shoot him?”
“Because he found your sister,” I said.
“What are you talking about?”
“I know where she is,” I said.
His eyes narrowed.
Here it comes, I thought. This will tell me something.
“I know she’s in Orcus Beach,” I said.
The eyes. If he doesn’t know what I’m talking about, I’ll see the confusion in his eyes. If it’s the truth, he’ll look away.
He looked away.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said. But it was too late.
“How did Randy find out?” I said. “Did he come back here? Did you tell him where she is?”
“Of course not,” he said.
“Your mother? Your son? How about…” I stopped.
“Nobody told him anything,” he said.
“Maria’s daughter,” I said. “What was her name, Delilah?”
“No,” he said.
“He’s smooth,” I said. “He has a way of making you trust him. Especially women.”
“Think about it,” I said. “He came back here when you were at work. When your son was out doing whatever it is he does. He’s got a job or something, right? Let me guess; he works at a gym.”
“Yes, he does.”
“Delilah was here alone,” I said. “He came back. He talked to her. He told her about how he remembered her mother after all these years, how he just wanted to see her again, how he was going to try to help her…”
Leopold didn’t say anything. He stood there on the front lawn, shaking his head slowly. “No,” he said, so softly I could barely hear him. “No.”
He was still standing there on the lawn when I left. The image of him looking down at the dead April grass, shaking his head, it stayed in my mind all the way back to the expressway, all the way west across the state, with the map the bartender had made to get me to Orcus Beach.
When Delilah got home from school that day, she’d find her uncle Leopold waiting for her with some tough questions. Maybe it would be a relief to tell him her secret, that yes, the man had come back and asked her about Maria. She thought she was doing the right thing. She thought she could trust him.
You charmed another one, Randy. Maybe for the last time.