I DIDN’T RUSH RIGHT FROM THE LUNCH with McDeiss to tell Caroline about her brother. You can’t just tell a girl her brother is dead and then leave to grab a super-sized extra-value meal at McDonald’s. You have to hug her tightly when you tell her and let her cry on you and stroke her hair and feed her soup and rub her leg as she keens, bending forward and back, arms crossed at the waist. You tell a girl her brother is dead you better be ready to stick around and comfort her through the long sleepless night as she shivers and sobs in bed. The whole rigmarole could chew up a lot of time and there was still something I had to do that day. So I didn’t tell Caroline about her dead brother right off. What I did was ask McDeiss to refrain from announcing the name of the victim to the press and instead drove back out of the city, up from the river, into the deep dark depths of the Main Line. Along the narrow road with the bending archway of trees, down to the bridge that forded the stream, up through the gate and across the wide-open field on the long winding drive that rose to Veritas.
I parked on the part of the drive that circled the front portico. Nat was working on the hedges in front of the house, pruning off defiant shoots of green. He stood on a small stepladder. He was wearing overalls, his wide straw hat, long yellow rubber gloves that gripped a set of giant silver clippers shining in the sun. When I climbed out of the car he watched me for a moment and then stepped down the ladder. The sun was bright and the air was surprisingly clear. I imagined it was always fogged or rainy or wet at Veritas, but this was a brassy spring day.
“Howdy, Mr. Carl,” said Nat. He took off his hat and wiped his forehead with his sleeve. Up close I could see the sweat dripping from his temples. The red ring around his eye was bright and proud in the sun. “Miss Caroline’s not here. We don’t know where she is.”
“I’m not here for Caroline,” I said. “I’m here to see her mother.”
“Also not here, I’m afraid. Still out of the country.”
“Then I’ll talk to Caroline’s father.”
He looked at me and then turned his head to stare up at the second floor and its shuttered windows. “Not a good day for a visit, I would guess. You’ve heard about Master Edward?”
“We reached Master Robert in Mexico with the news, but we can’t find Miss Caroline. Any idea where she might be, Mr. Carl?”
“I’ll tell her what happened,” I said, “just as soon as I talk to her father.”
He lifted the long shiny shears and laid their pointed tips on his shoulder. “Like I said, not a good day for a visit.”
“We all have work to do,” I said, “just like you and your pruning.”
He nodded at the hedges. “Mrs. Shaw wants the grounds in shape for the guests. She’s arriving from Greece tonight, cutting short her vacation. It seems the brightest social occasions we have around here now are funerals.”
“That’s about to end.”
He raised his eyebrows when I said that and smiled. There was something charismatic in Nat’s smile. He didn’t smile often or easily, but when he did it was bright and inviting. It bespoke something shared instead of something hostile.
“Sit down a spell with me,” he said. He walked over to one of the stone benches that flanked the steps leading to the front door. I sat beside him. His head was turned to the left while he talked, as if examining the uneven hedges still to be pruned on that side of the house. I looked down the long wide expanse of green, large enough to plop in an entire housing development, and wondered, silently, at the price of real estate in that part of the Main Line.
“Mrs. Shaw, the younger Mrs. Shaw,” said Nat, “she named her children after the Kennedys. Edward and Robert and Jacqueline and Caroline. She wanted the glamour, I suppose.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“This was before all the scandals erupted, all the truths emerged about their crimes and infidelities. But still, you would have thought she’d pick a less tragic family to emulate.”
“Like the Pooles?”
He reached down with his clippers and snipped at an errant leaf of grass. “Hardly less tragic.”
“What’s your last name, Nat?” I asked.
“You know, Mr. Carl, the strangest thing happened. I was in the elder Mrs. Shaw’s garden and I couldn’t help but notice that the oval plot before the statue was dug up and put back down again.
“Is that a fact?”
“I wouldn’t have minded so much, but the plants were replanted poorly. You have to almost drown them in water when you put them back. If you don’t the roots won’t properly take. It’s a damn shame to kill a good plant.”
“Among other things.”
“Find anything interesting down there, Mr. Carl?”
“Just some ancient history,” I said.
“Yes, I suppose that’s right. For your generation ancient is anything before Reagan. And what is history, really, but the register of crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind?”
“Gibbon. Have you read
“You should. Very encouraging.”
“Why, Nat, I didn’t know you were a closet Communist.”
“What do gardeners know of politics? How’d Miss Caroline take to learning all that ancient history?”
“Not so well.”
“Yep. That’s what I figured. Remember what I said about some things ought to being left buried?”
“But isn’t it better to know the truth, no matter how vile?”
He lifted up his head and cackled. “Whoever told you such nonsense? One kind lie is worth a thousand truths.”
“How much do you know about everything that has gone on with this family?”
“I’m just the gardener.”
“Who killed her, Nat? Who killed Charity?”
“Oh, Mr. Carl, you said it yourself. Ancient history. I didn’t show up here until years and years after Miss Charity Reddman disappeared. How could I know a thing like that?”
“But you do, don’t you?”
“I’m just the gardener,” he said, standing up, putting on his hat. “I’ve got work still to do.”
“Ever hear of a family called Wergeld?”
“Any idea why the elder Mrs. Shaw would leave a fortune in a trust entitled Wergeld?”
“We all have our secrets, I suppose.”
“You haven’t told me yet your family name.”
“Not too much call around here to know the last name of servants.”
“I’m just a servant too, I guess. No different than you.”
“Oh there’s a difference,” said Nat. “I may just be a servant, yes, but I care about this family and its fate more deeply than you can guess, Mr. Carl. What about you? Who are you here for? You here for Caroline or are you just here for yourself?”
“Mr. Shaw’s in, I suppose.”
“Always,” said Nat, taking his clippers back to the ladder by the hedges and climbing the steps wearily, one after the other.
I watched him for a bit and then pushed myself off the bench and started for the steps leading to the door of the Reddman mansion.
“You don’t need to drag it all up to Mr. Shaw today,” said Nat as he started in again with his clipping, the blades sliding one across the other with a small shivery screech. “It’s a hard enough day for him as it is.”
I stopped and turned around to look at him. He was still working, still clipping the offending branches one by one.
“What’s your last name, Nat?”
Without looking away from the dark green hedges that surrounded the house, without slowing the pace of his shivery clips, he said, “It’s not Poole, Mr. Carl, if that’s what you’re wondering.”
I took that in and nodded to myself. Nat kept working on the hedges, as steadily and as focused as if I weren’t there watching. I spun around and headed for the house.
My shoes scraped at the granite steps as I climbed toward the heavy wooden door and pulled the knob announcing my presence. I waited a bit before the door squealed open and Consuelo, dressed all in black, faced me.
“I’m here to see Mr. Shaw,” I said.
She squinted her eyes at me and gave me an up-and-down examination. “No. Mr. Shaw is not seeing anyone today.”
“It’s very important I talk to him,” I said, sweeping past her and into the decrepit front hallway of Veritas. Even though the sun was bright outside it was still dark and damp in here, the heavy riblike beams overhead catching so little of the reflected light they seemed lost in darkness. The floor of the front hallway creaked as I passed over it and made my way around the strange circular couch and toward the formal hanging stairwell.
I could hear the slap of rubber soles as Consuelo ran to catch up. She rushed in front of me just as I started up the stairway. “Stop, please, Mr. Carl. Mr. Shaw has requested to be alone all day.”
“I need to see him,” I said. “Today.”
“If you wait down here I will see if he will make an appointment for after the funeral.”
“I can’t wait that long,” I said, “and I’m afraid if I don’t find out what’s happening as soon as possible there will be another funeral and then another.”
As lightly as I could I brushed her aside and started up the steps. As she almost caught up to me I climbed faster, keeping her a few steps below. I spun around the landing and continued on until I reached the second floor. Which way was Kingsley Shaw’s room? I waited for Consuelo to tell me, and she did, coming up around my side and grabbing hold of my arm, standing between me and the wing on the right.
I started toward that wing with Consuelo hanging on to me. She should have been yelling at me now, calling me unpronounceable names in her native Spanish, calling for help, but her voice was strangely quiet as she begged me, with an almost fearful tone, to please please stop and not disturb Mr. Shaw.
“I’m going to speak to him today, Consuelo,” I said. “If you want you can go and call the police and they, I’m sure, would be up here in no time at all to kick me out, their sirens blasting, their lights flashing, just, I’m sure, what Mr. Shaw would like to see today. Or, on the other hand, I’m willing to wait here while you go tell him that I’m here to speak to him about the deaths of his son and his daughter and about Caroline.”
She stared at me, her dark features darkening even further, and then she told me to wait right there. She turned and went to the door at the very end of the hallway, glanced at me again, knocked, waited for a moment, slowly opened the door, and disappeared inside.
The next time the door opened it opened for me. Consuelo, without lifting her gaze from the floor, said, “Mr. Shaw will see you now.” I offered her a smile as I passed her, a smile she didn’t accept as she maintained her stare at the floor, and then I stepped through the doorway into the room of Kingsley Shaw, the door closing quietly but firmly behind me.