It was after midnight, and a better man might have been able to stay the hell away, but I am not a better man.
After hearing what Jamison had to say in the Jamaican juke joint, I was shaking. I know what it feels like to have your worst fears confirmed, but to have them discounted utterly was a whole new sensation. Was my luck changing after decades of relentless calamity? It seemed so very much as if it was. And it was that lethal sense of euphoric possibility that sent me scurrying right over to that mansion of death in Chestnut Hill.
I parked in the circular drive, bounded out of the car, dropped the knocker again and again onto the green door. I paced around in a circle as I waited, jammed my hands in my pockets, pulled them out again, knocked once more.
It was Gwen who answered. Her feet in slippers, her robe clutched with a strong hand about her waist.
“You know what time it is?” she said.
“I know, I know. But I need to see Julia. Can you wake her?”
Gwen glanced behind her, into the house, then peered for a moment over my shoulder before yanking me inside.
“She’s been awake,” she said. “She hasn’t slept yet, just sitting in that room, drinking and staring at nothing.”
“That room. The one. The same one the police went through again this morning before the missus came home.”
“They were here this morning?”
“Oh, we had a busy day. First the police, then Mr. Swift and the missus, then an old friend of the doctor’s, that Mr. Trocek. He just stayed a bit. A few others paid respects. It was only you who didn’t come.”
“Things were hectic, I couldn’t get away,” I lied, “but I’m here now, and I need to see her.”
“Come on,” she said. “I’ll take you.”
Gwen led me through the foyer, to the entranceway that led to Wren Denniston’s trophy room. The double doors were closed, but the yellow police tape was lying flaccid on the floor.
“You find anything yet?” said Gwen.
“Maybe,” I said.
“About Mr. Cave?”
“You need to find that Miles Cave. You’ll tell me when you do?”
“Sure I will. But what I found is even better.”
“Is it going to help her?”
“She’s in there,” said Gwen. “When the last guest left, she took a bath and then came right down to that room and sat.”
“Okay,” I said.
“I tried to make her go back upstairs. To get some sleep at least. It’s not healthy sitting there all night. In that room. With the blood still on the carpet. I’m cleaning it tomorrow, I am, Mr. Carl. I don’t care what they say.”
“You do that.”
“Go on in, then, if that’s what you’re going to do,” she said.
I thought Gwen would announce my presence, but she just stepped back to clear my path. I gave her a final glance and then put my hand on the doorknob. It felt strangely hot, but that must have been my own excitement, because I was excited, so excited I ignored the warning expressed on Gwen’s features as I turned the knob, pushed open the door, and stepped inside.
“Julia,” I said. “Julia.”
The room was dense with shadow, only a few shafts of light stabbing through the gloom. The outline of the body of the dead doctor was a mere suggestion on the carpet. Dull gleams bounced off the welter of wrestling trophies. I smelled the smoke before I spotted her, sitting deep in the corner, on a leather easy chair, the tip of a cigarette glowing. As best as I could tell, she was wearing a man’s shirt, unbuttoned, and nothing else. One bare leg was tucked beneath her, her arms were crossed. A slash of light fell across her eye and cheek.
I had wanted to rush in and sweep her up in a great hug, but a woman sitting like that, in the dark, as defensive as that, even nearly naked, is impossible to sweep anywhere. I stopped suddenly when I saw her, but it wasn’t only her posture that halted my charge. The sight of her, thin and nearly naked, in the darkness, sad and threatened, bare legs, bare throat, an air of hostility floating about her as thick as the cigarette smoke, all of it filled me with a desire that was paralyzing. It was as if the whole of my bizarre phobias and fixations were assembled into a perfect instrument for my enthrallment. The very air crackled with my wanting. If she had blown on me, right then, the mere touch of her breath would have toppled me backward onto the floor.
The glow of her cigarette rose to her face and brightened before she slowly pulled it out of her mouth and let loose a long exhale. I staggered back.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” she said finally.
“I… I…” Gather yourself, boy. “I had been told to stay away.”
“The cops. Because I’m a material witness. And also by your lawyer.”
“Clarence told you to stay away? Now I understand. He can be very intimidating. Did he brandish his bow tie at you?”
“I didn’t want to cause you any more trouble. But now I need to see you. I have great news.” I looked around. “What are you doing in this room?”
“Savoring the memories.”
“Is that his shirt?”
“And it still smells like him. The cigars I hated and the cologne that made me want to vomit.”
“You shouldn’t be in here. Wearing that. There’s still blood on the carpet. And what are you doing smoking? You don’t smoke.”
“I picked it up in prison.”
“You were there two nights.”
“Two nights more than you,” she said.
She put the cigarette to her lips and inhaled again before tapping her ashes into an empty crystal liquor glass on the table beside her. Beside the empty liquor glass was an empty bottle.
“You didn’t kill your husband, Julia.”
“I know it for sure now.”
“You didn’t before?”
“How could I?”
“Because I told you I didn’t.”
“You told me you’d marry me, too.”
She took a moment to fiddle with the cigarette, take another inhale. “So that’s where we are, Victor, in an endless loop.”
“No,” I said. “Not anymore. That’s over, all of it is over. I’m going to help you now.”
“I don’t need your help. I have Clarence.”
“Clarence is out of his league. Clarence is going to help you into a jail term if you let him. But I’m not just talking about the murder investigation, Julia. I found the purse you left in my desk, I followed the clues within it. I know what you were doing at the time of your husband’s murder. You were buying drugs from a dealer named Jamison. And I can prove it.”
“I can get you cleared.”
“Keep your nose out of my business.”
“I won’t. You’re an addict. You’re buying heroin regularly from a street dealer in North Philadelphia. You have a problem, and you need help.”
“I do have a problem, Victor, but it’s not what you think.”
“Clarence said you had a cold in jail. I bet it’s gone. I bet as soon as you got out of jail and had a moment alone, you had your little fix and cured it right up.”
“If you’re so clever, sweetheart, then why are you always wrong?”
I went to her, knelt in front of her as if she were a child, placed my hand on her bare leg. Even as I knew her to be half drunk and loaded with hop, I couldn’t stop thinking how beautiful she was. I could smell the soap on her, make out the swell of her breast beneath the shirt. The skin on her leg felt warm and smooth. I patted it gently, then let my hand fall so my palm was flat on her flesh. My head swam as if it were I who had emptied the bottle, not she.
“Julia,” I said, trying to regain control of my senses.
I looked up at her. She stared down coolly.
“Now that I know you didn’t kill your husband, we still might have a future together. If you get help, go into treatment, deal with the drug thing, we’ll be free to start again and this time do it right. Without any encumbrances.”
“That’s all life is, encumbrances.”
“We can be free of them.”
“You never knew me, did you, Victor?”
“I loved you.”
“It’s not the same thing.”
“But you have to admit the truth if we have any chance.”
I grabbed her right arm, pushed up the sleeve, turned her wrist so the underside of her arm glowed dully from a dim shaft of light. She didn’t do anything to stop me. The skin was flawless. I grabbed her left arm and tried to do the same but felt a sharp, jabbing pain on the back of my hand.
I snatched my hand away, and sparks flew from the cigarette she had jammed into my flesh.
I jerked myself to standing, backed off, lifted my burned skin to my lips. She sat there calmly, staring at me with dead eyes.
“What the hell was that?” I said.
“Clarence showed me your statement,” she said. “It read like a Harlequin romance. ‘I unbuttoned her shirt. I unhooked her bra.’ If the law doesn’t work out, you can write bodice rippers.”
“I just told them the truth.”
“That’s funny. I thought we agreed not to tell them anything.”
“With all the evidence they had, the only thing that could help you was the truth.”
“It was never about the truth, Victor. It was about keeping what was ours to ourselves. About keeping what was growing again between us private, because that was the only way it had a chance to survive. And we agreed. And the first bit of pressure, you blurted out everything.”
“I was just trying to help you.”
“You were just trying to save yourself.”
“Maybe I was. But now I’m going to save you.”
“You have no idea what you are doing.”
“Where are you shooting it?”
“Are you smoking it, snorting it? How are you using it?”
“You’re refusing to believe me again.”
“But you had the kit in your purse. You were buying drugs from Jamison. And you hid it in my desk to keep it from the police.”
“Maybe all that wasn’t for me, Victor.”
I looked at her, stepped back, and thought about it for a moment. Then I turned my head until I was staring at the vaguely outlined body on the carpet.
“Your husband?” I said.
“I won’t talk about it, Victor.”
“You have to.”
“No I don’t. Leave it alone.”
“Promise me you’ll leave it alone,” she said.
“Promise me,” she said coolly as she tossed her cigarette into the empty glass, “or go away.”
“Because I’m asking. Shouldn’t that be enough?”
She unfurled the leg that was curled beneath her body and stood from the chair. Her shirt flared open, exposing the whole of her breasts, the hollow of her belly, the narrow black straps of a lacy lingerie bottom. She stepped toward me until we were an arm’s length apart. Even though we weren’t touching, I could feel her, like a heat all across the front of my body, a magnetic heat pulling me forward.
“You said you loved me,” she said.
“Yes,” I said, trying to catch my breath.
“If it was ever true, then that should be enough.”
“Okay,” I said.
“So no more questions about the drugs and who they were for. No more questions about where I was when my husband was killed.”
“No more questions.”
She stepped forward and put her hands on either side of my neck. “And we’ll trust each other again.”
“Good,” she said, and then she pulled my head toward her and kissed me.
And this is what she tasted of. She tasted of alcohol, sweet and swollen. She tasted of tobacco, dark and loamy. She tasted of yearning and desperation and a fatal sadness. And oh, yes, she tasted of deceit.
“So what do we do now?” she said after she stopped kissing me, and grabbed my wrists and pulled my hands out from beneath her dead husband’s shirt.
“Breathe?” I said.
“About the police.”
“Oh,” I said. “Them.” I bit my lip to try to bring the feeling back. “We can do nothing and see what happens.”
“Or,” she said.
“Or we can find out who the hell really killed your husband.”
“What if I don’t care who it really was?”
“The police care.”
“Do they? Or do they just want to find someone to pin it on?”
I thought of Sims and his political smile. “I don’t know.”
“Why don’t we find out?” she said.
“You want us to find someone to blame.”
“If you think it will help.”
“An innocent dupe.”
“Maybe not so innocent. But someone to draw attention away from us. At least for the time being.”
“A fall guy.”
“That’s what I thought you were making of me.”
“Oh, Victor,” she said as she grabbed my tie. She pulled me close, kissed me quick, then let me go and turned away. “Don’t be silly.”
“So who do you have in mind?”
“I don’t know. I’m just thinking.”
That’s what I did for a bit. Remember I said her kiss tasted of deceit. That’s what I was thinking of. She was keeping something from me, something crucial, I could tell. But just then I didn’t want to dig for it. So I searched where the light was better.
“Tell me about Gregor Trocek,” I said.
She spun around. “How do you know about Gregor?”
“I had an early dinner with him just tonight.”
“We shared tapas and beer. And he told me a peculiar story. That your husband tried to hire him to kill me.”
“Gregor and his stories.”
“But I believed him. And I’m afraid the cops will, too.”
“What if it’s true? Is that bad?”
“For both of us. The cops will know that your husband found out we were seeing each other again.”
“But it was almost innocent.”
“Almost,” I said. “That’s a hole big enough to drive a prison van through. It gives us both a motive.”
“So what do we do?”
“Gregor said he’s looking for Miles Cave. The police asked me about the very same name. Do you know this Cave person?”
“No,” she said.
“Ever hear of him before?”
“An old friend who had something to do with Wren’s business.”
“What was he, a patient?”
“No, not a patient. Wren had retired from medicine.”
“A little young for the old-age home, wasn’t he?”
“The retirement was not wholly by choice. Wren was sued. By a bitter transsexual whose sex-change operation went bad.”
“There was a lawsuit?”
“It didn’t go well. After the loss, the hospital suspended his privileges. So Wren, who had been losing interest in penises anyway, found a new profession in money management.”
“What did he know of money management?”
“Not enough, I suppose. The company, called Inner Circle Investments, was having trouble. And one of the names I heard Wren mention in his business conversations was Miles Cave.”
“Was he a partner?” I said.
“I don’t know.”
“I never met him.”
“And you told that to Gregor?”
“He was a bit skeptical, but he didn’t know Miles Cave either.”
“So,” I said, rounding out the vowel as I thought it through, “no one knows who this Miles Cave is.”
“A mystery man who might be the key to everything.”
Julia looked at me for a moment, her face a cipher as she worked it out, and then she smiled. “So he might be the one,” she said.
She stepped up to me and grabbed my belt. “How do we find out?”
“We do the most obvious thing.”
She leaned forward, rose on tiptoe, kissed me again. I reached inside the shirt, grabbed her waist, pulled her close, kissed her back. Even as the figure sprawled on the floor stared gape-mouthed at us both, I kissed her back.
You want to know what deceit tastes like? It’s sweet. Like honey. Charged with electricity. Laced with amnesia. It is why adultery will never go out of fashion, why sincerity fails, why sex with strangers is more fun than ever it ought to be. It is the very taste of old love reclaimed, which might be the sweetest deceit of all. The taste of her made me stupid, and the more I tasted it, the stupider I wanted to become.
She pulled away slightly, moved her chin to the side, her lips to my neck. “What do you mean, ‘the most obvious thing’?”
“You want to find the dirt in this world, there’s only one route to take.”
“Follow the money.”
I bent her back like a bow and snapped at her ear.
“Maybe it’s time,” I said, “for the grieving widow to claim her marital assets.”