I sat in my car and stared out the window at the front of the Denniston house.
It looked altogether less disturbing in the late-afternoon sun. A lovely home in a lovely neighborhood where a loving family could pursue its lovely future. Which of course I knew to be a lie. This wasn’t a home that protected with its warm embrace, it was a heap of stone and wood in which the twisted destinies of flawed people played out to their bitter ends. Usually that meant divorce and desolation, other times it meant a slow descent into decrepitude and madness, and sometimes it meant murder.
Yet I couldn’t help myself from driving over, parking on the street, waiting as if in stakeout for some blessed arrival. Gwen had called with the ring of excitement in her voice. Mr. Swift was waiting at the police station with his car. He had worked out something with the authorities. The missus was coming home.
Shortly after I showed up, a boxy black Volvo pulled into the circular drive and parked behind the BMW. Clarence Swift bounced out of the driver’s seat of the Volvo, jumped around the car, bent at the waist as he obsequiously opened the passenger door. He remained in a bow as Julia left the car and headed toward the house as casually as if she had just come back from a routine day of shopping and lunch. Clarence Swift slammed shut the door and slipped into position beside her, his mouth at her ear, talking and whispering and importuning as they walked inside the house. The big green door closed behind them both.
I had the urge to run over, yank open the door, grab hold of Julia, and swing her around in the air, which was peculiar, because Julia was not a grab-hold-of-and-swing-around-in-the-air kind of girl. I could just imagine her puzzled expression, wondering what on earth I was doing. But I also had the paranoid urge to get the hell out of there, to run away and stay away and not allow myself to be drawn any further into the murderous mess she had made of her life. I was poised between two equal urges that left me paralyzed.
So I sat and thought about our shared past, our blighted present, our possible futures. One involved a lovely life in that very house, drinking champagne bought with Julia’s dead husband’s money, making love on Julia’s dead husband’s bed. The other involved me sitting in prison, growing old with my roommate Bubba while Julia shopped for scarves at Nordstrom. I thought about what I had found in the purse snuck behind my desk drawer and wondered which future that made more likely.
Clarence had said she had a cold. A cold indeed.
About half an hour after they had arrived, Clarence left the house and closed the door behind him. Before entering his car, he lifted his chin as if he had sensed something. I crouched down lower in my seat and kept staring. With his head swiveling back and forth like a dog’s head sniffing the air for a stray squirrel, it was as if a mask had slipped from his features. No more was he the humble and overmatched attorney. In this unguarded instant, I saw something else, the truth behind his fawning manner, and this is what I saw: Dylan Klebold in the flesh.
You remember Klebold, the quiet boy who went to school one day and started blasting away with a sawed-off shotgun and a TEC-DC9 semiautomatic. Before his big day at Columbine, Klebold wrote in his day planner, “The lonely man strikes with absolute rage.” And now here was Clarence Swift, scanning the landscape with a cold anger, as if everything his gaze alighted upon were about to be obliterated.
And then Clarence Swift was in the Volvo, and then he was pulling out of the circular drive. I ducked lower as his car passed mine and stayed down until I was certain he was gone. Not the bravest of acts, I admit, but something about that meeting in my office had told me to be cautious of the peculiar Mr. Swift. And it wasn’t just the threat of unpleasant consequences if I tried to see Julia that was causing my caution, though the flash of Klebold in his features added a little jolt to his warning. Swift had known about my meeting with Julia in a hotel bar. How had he known that if Julia wasn’t talking? And why did it bother him so much? Between the time he stepped out that door and the time he drove away, in my eyes he had morphed from an overmatched attorney to something far more frightening.
When I was sure he was gone, I popped up and stared again at the big green door. Was I going to go in and see her? Was I going to start it all anew, despite the fear that had blossomed along with the desire? As I dithered, someone else beat me to it.
A Jaguar, gray and predatory, passed my car, slipped into the circular driveway, stopped at the door. The rear passenger door opened, and a man climbed out, a broad bus of a man with a huge belly and a bushy black beard. He wore sandals and white pants and a loud print shirt, as if he had just stepped off the streets of Bangkok. He looked around, much the way Clarence had looked around, and then walked quickly, almost skippingly, to the door, lifted the serpent knocker, and let it drop loudly once, twice.
Gwen opened the door, gave him an astonished stare, and let him in. I checked my watch. When the door opened to let him out, I checked it again.
Seventeen minutes. Not much of a visit.
The way he was dressed, it wasn’t a business call, he wasn’t a plumber or the air-conditioner guy, he wasn’t a banker, he wasn’t anything I could figure. And for sure he wasn’t Julia’s normal type, pretty much the opposite, actually. Maybe he was a proctologist.
He climbed back into the rear of his Jaguar. It started to rumbling, pulled out of the driveway, and drove quickly away from the house. I started my car and followed.
I don’t know how quickly my tail was marked, but after turning left and right and right again, I followed him down a rather narrow street, where he disappeared. The street was blocked by a parked truck. I stopped the car, peered through the windshield, and then checked the rearview mirror, where I spied the gray Jaguar parked right behind me and two men striding toward my car, one on either side. The first was a thin, dark man with hooded eyes and a black leather jacket. The second was Julia’s visitor.
When he reached my window, he dropped his thick hands on the edge of the door and peered down at me with a strange, dull gaze, as if I were nothing more interesting than a fly buzzing harmlessly by his ear.
“Who are you?” he said. His voice was a gravelly, accented growl that seemed to have originated somewhere in a bad Cold War movie. Russia? Uzbekistan?
“I’m nobody,” I said. I glanced through the passenger-side window. The thin, dark man was reaching into his jacket, scratching his side. At least I hoped he was scratching his side.
“Why you following me?” said the man with the beard.
I turned my head back to him. “I liked your car?”
“You have good taste for a nobody, but I think you’re lying. What is your name, nobody?”
He continued staring at me for a moment with the same dull, uninterested eyes, before his mouth, beneath the black beard, opened and closed, as if he had just swallowed the annoying fly, and his eyes snapped into focus.
“I know you,” he said.
“I don’t think so.”
“Yes, yes, I do. Victor Carl. You were the one she threw to garbage heap when she ran off with Wren. It was you.”
“Oh, don’t be silly man. Victor Carl, yes, yes. So let me guess. You were sitting in car outside her house, thinking romantic thoughts, when you saw me visiting and grew insanely jealous. For how could she prefer a skinny runt like you when she had chance with real man like me? So you decided to find out who I was. Isn’t that right?”
“That would be a little weird, wouldn’t it? Me sitting outside her house, just watching.”
“Yes, it would. Demented, actually. Are you demented, Victor?”
“Well, when you put it that way…”
“So, my friend. Let me introduce myself. Gregor Trocek, at your service. And my companion is Sandro. Go back to car, Sandro. Don’t worry. Nothing to fear from man like Victor, who can let someone like Wren Denniston steal his woman.”
Sandro stared at me for a moment, still scratching at something beneath his jacket, then nodded and bared his teeth like a hyena before heading back to the car.
“So tell me,” said Gregor Trocek. “What can I do for you, Victor?”
“I was just wondering who the hell you were?”
“A friend of the beautiful Mrs. Denniston. Through her husband. The doctor and I were business associates.”
“So you were merely giving your condolences to the grieving widow?”
“That, too.” He tilted his large head and narrowed his eyes. “But we should talk, yes. For you would not believe what wonderful coincidence this is. Even as you were following me, quite badly, I might add – you need work on your technique, Sandro could teach you – but even as you were following me, I, too, was looking for you. Are you hungry, Victor Carl?”
I quickly glanced at my watch.
“Never trust man who checks clock to see if he is hungry,” said Trocek. “Pleasure follows no timetable. What does gut tell you?”
I looked up at him for a moment. There was a merry sort of knowingness in his gaze. I wondered what it was he knew.
“That I’m ready to eat,” I said.
“Good boy. Follow me, I know a place.”
And from the size of him, I was sure he did.