The profound chasm that lies between the exercise of simply ‘looking’ and the prize of actually ‘seeing’ begins here with the twists and turns of a novel about Love and Murder in Perfect Matrimony called THE REMOVAL.
My name is Jim Finch. These are the pieces of my life.
While I am somewhat of an aged man now, I met my present wife Elizabeth when I was twenty and she was seventeen. She worked in the office next door as a receptionist, while I toiled day and night to get my new company off the ground. We dated six months. Elizabeth did the breaking-up. She said I wasn’t ready for her, said I’d been a “ball of stress” through our entire time together. It was many years — I had a wife and child in between — before we got back together.
After Elizabeth left me, I married Carol on the rebound. Fast rebound — Rebecca was born the first year of our marriage.
Until Rebecca turned seven, things with Carol seemed okay. That was right up until my engineering company became important in Colorado business circles and the money started rolling in. The real problems with the marriage surfaced then. Not only did Carol start spending (delete) like there was no end, she also began sleeping around. One of her affairs, I suspected, was with a doctor who gave her prescriptions to various highly addictive painkillers.
At the height of my marital problems, by some miracle or prayer, Elizabeth re-entered my life. She and I wed before the ink on the divorce settlement with Carol had dried. Elizabeth and I had our son Stuart right after.
The divorce from Carol — Rebecca’s mother, I should say — was ugly. Early in the process, as I sat with Elizabeth having a romantic dinner in a quiet eatery, Carol showed up and demanded to know why I couldn’t reconsider my decision to divorce her. The whole prenup thing I had with her, must have got to her.
Unable, or unwilling, to sugarcoat my words, I said, “Try, you’re more interested in my money than you are in me.”
“Hah!” was her first response. Her second was to point abruptly at Elizabeth and exclaim, “What do you think she’s interested in, you fool?”
Those are the pieces of my life. I’d scribbled them in the diary of my conscience, in an indelible last bastion of a hemorrhaging paternal ego.
Now, see me as I am…
Jim Finch walked back to his table. With his waitress nowhere to be found, he decided he’d get his own refill of Cabernet at the bar.
He visited Rebecca in these outskirts of St. Louis about once every six months. He would’ve wanted more frequent visits, but it appeared she didn’t. She’d finished college and was attending grad school, while working full-time as a design assistant at a local fashion company. Despite his wealth, she supported herself financially, refusing money from home, claiming politely that she didn’t need it. Unlike every other problem Jim had confronted in his difficult personal life, this one, with his daughter, seemed intractable, and had lingered over the last twenty-one years.
Jim took his seat by his wife. He slid his chair close to her. Elizabeth welcomed him with her emerald eyes. He was glad to have her there.
He found a place to set his glass down. Theirs was a big table, but it had got cluttered.
They requested the larger table because Rebecca, as usual, had brought a friend along for what was supposed to be a family gathering. And Stuart, Jim’s son with Elizabeth, was now expected to show up with a friend as well.
Stuart called from aboard the delayed flight to say that he and his companion couldn’t make it in time for the start of lunch, but would try to make coffee and dessert. Coffee and dessert had come and gone.
Stuart typically saw Rebecca when she came back home to Colorado for occasional breaks. During those visits, they’d spend an entire day with each other. They were good together. For a half-brother and half-sister, they were really good together.
This was Stuart’s first trip to see her in Missouri. Rebecca didn’t seem overly enthused about the prospect of everyone gathering at the same place, though.
The restaurant was large and crowded, with a dozen or so waiters fluttering around. Tables were served quickly, in conveyor belt manner. The menu wasn’t bad, but the commotion gave it a fast-food aspect. The dishes came in a hurry, and were whisked away as soon as one set the fork down. The wine selection was uninspired. The clatter of dishes in the kitchen was distant but present.
To make matters annoying, their waitress, a talkative woman, came around more often than needed. With Stuart late, she became a reason of concern to Jim. To put her off from presenting their table with a check — that was all the excuse Rebecca needed to bid farewell and leave — Jim kept ordering little things from the kitchen, requesting one item at a time, everything from grated cheese and olives to peanuts and toothpicks, all of which ended up cluttering the table. When the entire list of minor items that could be asked for had been exhausted, Jim resorted to slipping the woman a $50 and whispering in her ear that he’d cherish some privacy with his family. After that, finally she went away.
Of course, he would’ve preferred a more private setting to have this meal, but Rebecca had done the choosing. It was a place she knew. She said she dined there periodically, because it served a wide variety of decent and affordable pastas. It was strange to Jim to hear his daughter worry about affordability eating out.
Elizabeth turned to Rebecca’s new friend, Annie. “So how did you girls meet?”
Annie spun her freckled face to Rebecca as if probing for an answer to the simple question. “We’ve been to a couple of classes together,” Rebecca said for her.
Annie’s entire lunch had been only a few nibbles into a plate of organic greens. Rebecca appeared to approve of that, for reason that didn’t appear to be dietary.
Except for Elizabeth, everyone reached for his or her drink. Elizabeth simply stayed her way, filled with amused curiosity, her chin cupped in her hand.
It was easy for her to be cool in moments like these, Jim thought. Rebecca was not her daughter, after all.
Rebecca’s auburn hair hung to the side over her right shoulder. She wore no make-up. In Jim’s eyes, she still radiated.
Many seconds elapsed. Rebecca’s gaze shifted constantly to people at other tables, as if searching for something they had at theirs that hers didn’t.
Jim swallowed down a mouthful of his wine, waited for it to warm him, then said to his daughter, “Thanks for wearing that dress today.”
A delicate look made its way across her lightly tanned face. Her mild brown eyes softened in the instant as an unmistakable intimation of belonging flickered in them. But then she looked away.
He noticed her dress the second she entered the restaurant. He’d bought it for her long ago. It was an Yves St. Laurent creation — red, blue, white, and yellow blocks on a field of black wool, sleeveless, and hung to just above the knee. Her slender body was imperceptible under it, her curvature hidden in the grid of seams.
He caught Elizabeth trying to get his attention. “Jim,” she asked, “what made you pick that out for her?”
He thought he understood Elizabeth’s purpose in posing the question. He saw it had alerted Rebecca’s curiosity. He knew he couldn’t blow it, so he measured his response carefully. “Well, I thought it fit her personality.”
Elizabeth sat forward, maintaining her poise. “How so?”
He felt his heart beating.
If only his wife hadn’t made the question that hard.
The ticking of his watch, he could now hear like a timer. “I had … uh, originally seen it in a catalog. The way it looked on the model, I knew it would be … uh, just right for Rebecca.”
The mild disappointment that flashed across Elizabeth’s face told him he’d blown it. Rebecca turned away for the second time in less than a minute.
He felt angry at his wife. He’d been doing fine until this point. Why’d she have to put him on the spot like that?
Then he felt angry at himself. If this had been a business situation, a tough question posed during a corporate negotiation, he would’ve breezed right through it. Maybe he wasn’t that smart, after all. He had failed where it really mattered.
He clenched a fist under the table, and held it. Elizabeth’s fingers touched his hand. He met his wife’s eyes, exasperated. She seemed to say ‘it’s okay.’ Circulation returned to his fingers.
Rebecca’s chair went back. “Dad, I’m sorry, but we have to go.”
Okay, there it was. “Why?” Jim asked for the sake of asking.
“We’re behind on a paper for finance class, and it’s due.”
“Won’t you have another coffee, at least?”
“Rebecca” — Elizabeth’s firm and saving voice — “Stuart will be here soon. He came all this way to see you. Please give it fifteen minutes, at least.”
Rebecca summoned her watch, but stopped short of reading it. “You’re right, I should wait for him. If I don’t see him now, I probably won’t get a chance later anyway. I bet he’s got the next twenty-four hours mapped out for an all-out entertainment binge.”
“Doesn’t he sleep?” Annie asked wryly.
“My brother thinks as much about sleep as you do about steaks, Annie.”
Jim smiled. Unfailingly, it made him happy to hear Rebecca call Stuart her brother.
Her remark still hung in the air when Stuart came strutting in through the doors. Elizabeth’s face lit up as she announced, “Here he is, the devil.”
Stuart’s white shirt was wrinkled and out from a prior tucked-in position in his faded blue jeans. He had his typical wet look to his ruffled hair, and his eyes reveled above his solid grin. “Sorry I’m late, but I knew you guys would wait for me,” he said. The confidence in his voice was unassuming and yet extravagant — quite rare, Jim thought, for a mere 21-year-old.
Stuart went to Rebecca. “Hi, sis.” He gave her a big kiss on the cheek.
She accepted fondly. “How are you?”
Annie giggled shyly.
“Who’s this?” Stuart asked.
“My friend, Annie.”
“My friend Annie, hello.” He gave her a kiss, as well. Annie squirmed, enjoying it.
He moved next to his mother, and embraced her devotedly. “Mom, as beautiful as ever.”
Jim stood for the invariable reception his son gave him. It didn’t matter that they’d seen each other only the day before.
Stuart held him tightly. “Dad, you know I love you.”
Jim felt a bit of the wind squeezed out of him. As much as he treasured these demonstrations of Stuart’s affection, they also reminded him of his advancing frailty.
When Stuart let go, Jim’s spectacles were tipped off-balance on the bridge of his nose. Stuart adjusted them for him. “You ought to switch to contacts, Dad. These glasses just don’t fit anymore behind those ears of yours.”
Jim laughed heartily, especially at the insinuation that his ears were growing.
Rebecca smiled slightly, a trace of emotion darting across her eyes, too fleeting to isolate.
“Where’s your friend?” Jim asked Stuart.
“Edmund? He’s arguing with the cabby about the fare.”
“Why, was there a problem?”
“Not really, it’s just that he brought us here a way that felt like the long way. I didn’t want make a big deal out of it, but I understand where Edmund’s coming from … it’s principle to him.”
“Maybe I should go out and help,” Jim volunteered.
“Don’t bother, Dad. Trust me, Edmund will do just fine by himself.”
A moment later, Edmund walked in, and Jim understood why Edmund didn’t need anyone’s help. He was a formidable presence. Very tall — about 6’6” — broad-shouldered and solidly built.
“See what I mean,” Stuart said, tucking his shirt back in.
Edmund’s eyebrows were thick and shapely, his hooded eyes glimmering dark. He had jet-black hair waved back to reveal a wide forehead. The exact formation of his nose, the precise angling of his lips, the chiseled bone structure, all together gave him the presence of a physically powerful runway model. An ideally tailored suit, minus the tie, enhanced his overall appearance. Rebecca took immediate note.
When Edmund came close, it became apparent there were dents to his perfection. He had a scar above his left eye, which caused a squint. Also the side of his mouth was scarred.
“Motorcycle accident,” Stuart explained quietly to his father.
Jim’s hand disappeared into Edmund’s vast palm as they shook. Jim felt the band of the diamond ring on Edmund’s finger press against his skin.
Edmund went through the formalities introducing himself to everyone, then settled his large frame into a chair by Stuart.
‘What happened with the taxi driver?” Jim asked.
‘I took care of it,” Edmund replied.
There was an undercurrent to his accent. Obscured by the deep resonance in the voice, Jim failed to identify it.
“I’m sure you did,” Stuart chimed in. “Let’s get some booze. Where’s our waiter?”
“Dad paid her to go away,” Rebecca said.
Stuart reached out end tapped a waiter passing by. “Could you call our waitress, please?”
The man nodded. Stuart turned to Rebecca. “So, how’s school been since I last saw you?”
“Pretty good.” She didn’t elaborate.
Stuart didn’t accept that. “Pretty good?” He nudged an elbow into her. “What’ve you been studying — solitary confinement? Give me details, sis.”
Rebecca laughed and gave him details.
Stuart’s easygoing ways of dealing with Rebecca were quite something, Jim thought. Stuart effortlessly overcame the barriers Rebecca routinely erected. Her defenses never deterred him. He simply barged right in — and she never retreated. It was a cause for envy to Jim.
Elizabeth swung her dark blond hair behind her ears and asked Edmund, “How did you meet Stuart?”
“He saw me performing at a nightclub.”
“You’re an entertainer?” Jim asked.
“Entertainer? No,” Stuart interjected. “He’s practically a virtuoso on the piano. His music is unbelievable.”
Edmund smiled. “He’s exaggerating, I assure you.”
“He doesn’t usually when it comes to talent,” Elizabeth said. “You must be exceptional.”
Edmund acquiesced graciously. “In any case, your son’s been kind to me. He’s been a true friend.”
“All right, all right, enough of the gooey talk for one day,” Stuart said. “Where the hell’s our waitress?”
No sight of her, still.
Stuart rose to his feet. “How much did you pay her to go away, Dad? Looks likes she retired on it.” He saw the bar at the perimeter of the dining area. “I think we need to get our own drinks. Come on, Edmund. The rest of you want anything — wine, beer, Southern Comfort?”
Stuart turned to Rebecca’s friend. “What about you, Annie, would you like something? And don’t feel any pressure from Rebecca to say no.”
“I’m fine, thanks.”
Stuart and Edmund made their way to the bar. Rebecca watched them go.
A bit later, the waitress reappeared at the table. “Sorry for the delay, folks. Went out for a couple of smokes since you told me to get lost. Anything else I can get for you?”
Jim shook his head, hoping she wouldn’t use that to drop her check. “Not yet,” he said to make sure.
“By the way,” the waitress remarked, “are those two boys yours?” Before Jim could reply, she said, “They’re gorgeous. Some of the girls were asking about them. Wish I were thirty years younger.” She went away.
Elizabeth observed the boys striking up a conversation with the girl behind the counter preparing their drinks. “Looks like they’ll be juggling some hearts tonight,” Elizabeth commented.
They returned with their drinks. Stuart had two of what appeared to be his usual, bourbons splashed with Coke, and Edmund had two tall shots of something clear. Everyone toasted and drank. The boys downed their first drinks and sipped on the seconds.
Edmund turned to Rebecca. “Tell me, what are the hot spots we should hit tonight?”
Rebecca met his eyes for a brief interlude, then recited the names of a bunch of places.
“Why don’t you join us?” Edmund suggested.
She smiled. “Thank you for asking, but I can’t.” With that, Rebecca got up suddenly, kissed Stuart, almost dragged Annie to her feet, and declared she had to leave.
Barely a minute later, Jim excused himself from the table and ran outside after her. He hadn’t even kissed her goodbye.
But she was nowhere to be found.
He looked in every direction, up and down the road and into the empty faces of a crowd that seemed to converge on him out of thin air.
But his daughter was long gone.
Three years later…
From his Jeep, Jim saw that Rebecca and her fiancé Edmund were almost through the doors of the diner when Elizabeth said to them, “Go on, find a table. Let me talk to him one more time.”
Rebecca nodded. Edmund had no particular reaction. Before going in, Rebecca looked in Jim’s direction and gave him a shrugging wave.
Elizabeth skipped down the steps, two at a time, and came to Jim’s side by the rental. “Are you sure you won’t join us?”
“Want me to go with you?”
He shook his head.
She understood. “All right. We’ll see you around eight.”
“Should I bring you food when we come?”
“No, I’m not hungry.”
“Make yourself a tea then. Remember, you have to take your medication.”
He watched her go, her cloak waving behind her. She blew him a kiss as she went in.
Around him, the townsfolk fluttered. Several women gathered by the bakery to talk. A few men, carrying mugs, huddled by the entrance to the local tavern. Few young people to be seen. They had left for the cities in search of careers, someone said. A sad dog, resting its head on its forepaws and looking down the road out of town, seemed a reminder of that.
Businesses in the area were generations old. Only one of them was new — a company catering to the security needs of the wealthy part-time residents who had chosen the frosty terrain of the high ground for their scenic getaways. Absent were the hotels, restaurants, and tour buses that could have turned the place into the usual Colorado resort experience.
He peered up at this destination. It was difficult to pinpoint, but he felt its faraway presence.
The sun was an orange ball, beginning to fume. He boarded the Jeep and strapped on the seatbelt. Bauer, his driver, stepped on the gas and set them in motion.
It had been a while since Jim last came to these mountains … a while since the tragedy of his life. It had been two years since Stuart died.
The Jeep sped through the evening up a steep incline. They passed a grassy ridge carpeted by a galaxy of wildflowers that set the hillside softly ablaze.
Jim rolled down the window. The air seemed to be cooling as fast as they were climbing. He didn’t mind the arriving cold. There was something fortifying to it.
The carpet of snow high up beckoned. Gusts of wind blew trails of icy dust around. Steamy halos crowned the summits.
It had been Elizabeth’s idea to come to the mountains again.
He wondered if he had done the right thing skipping dinner with the others. After all, he was supposed to be on this trip to spend time with Edmund and Rebecca, to get to know Edmund better.
He glanced at his watch, settled into his seat, and raised the window a notch.
Hopefully, Rebecca was not upset. She was upset easily by him. Edmund didn’t seem offended. He appeared to sympathize.
With the lodge still a distance away, the mountains got sharper, the snow nearer. The sun continued to cinder and wither.
They slid around a sharp corner. The tires jerked and skidded. He took a shuddering breath and held it. The vehicle held its balance. But it was a while before he let go of the handle of his door, before the falling sensation faded.
Stuart had come up to these mountains alone, gone skiing in turbulent weather, and slid over the edge of a precipice. The vicious snowstorm raged into the next day.
Jim lowered his head and rested his chin on his chest. He made an effort to calm himself.
“Are you okay, sir?”
“Are you okay?”
He didn’t answer Bauer immediately. He found himself staring blankly before he could think up a word. “Yes.”
“I’m sorry about taking the turn that way. I didn’t see it till the last second.”
Jim took off his glasses and wiped the cold sweat from his brow. Ahead, the dirt road entered a dense tangle of stunted trees.
Elizabeth didn’t hate this place for having taken her only child away. After Stuart died, Jim wanted to sell the lodge, but she urged him not to. She recalled how excited Stuart had been when they’d bought it. “Everything’s a memory of him,” she said, “here, there, everywhere. We cannot sell everywhere.” So ‘here’ remained theirs to go back to someday, this day.
Stuart’s death had devastated Jim. The anguish acutely weakened him. His heart nearly failed him.
Elizabeth handled it better. Better, that is, on the surface. Inside, the loss must have ravaged her as well. She was graceful as she suffered.
Returning to the lodge, she suggested, would heal his wounds. “You have to come to terms with it, as I have,” she said. His wife was so adept at camouflage, Jim seriously doubted she’d actually come to terms with any of it.
After Stuart died, Jim hated everything he used to enjoy. Tennis was not the same. Reading was not the same. Breathing was not the same. Elizabeth helped him at least endure the breathing. Without her, he would have lashed out at the world. She was a beautiful woman, a wonderful and strong woman, the plaster that held his fragments together.
They crossed a clearing in the forest. A distant valley with a turquoise lake in its lap came into view. A cliff came down to the coastline, its jagged edges rouged by mineral deposit. Glacier-carved amphitheaters draped an adjacent coastline. Meltwater streams trickled over their ledges.
They crossed a log bridge over a rushing stream, and began the steepest part of their ascent. Bauer shifted gears.
The scenery changed. A heavy mist developed, hiding everything past the early rows of pines. The pines angled down, as if struggling to hold their balance under the constant threat of rockslides. Other trees were barren, their foliage lost to temperature, to neighboring trees falling on them and de-rooting them. On the ground, the leaves were crusted brown and dusted with powdery snow.
Jim braced himself for the intersection they were about to pass. There it was…
A small side road wound its way into the interior of the forest. A shapely mist flowed down the road, like a phantom in its passageway. Two years ago, this was the scene disturbed by police cars and the hypnotic lights of an ambulance. Stuart’s lifeless body was found shattered at the bottom of a vertical drop somewhere beyond.
Something crashed into the windshield. A large hailstone. Seconds later, low clouds pelted the vehicle with more. He gazed in awe, wondering if the windshield would crack.
The hailstorm subsided, giving way to a gauzy veil of big flakes that shrouded the landscape in a blanket of white.
They arrived at the stone lodge. Nestled in its rocky cradle, it blended into the surroundings.
Jim stepped out into ankle-deep, crisp, bright snow that crunched under him. He tossed his driver a wave, and proceeded toward the entrance. Behind him, the Jeep reversed, its headlights sweeping over his head as it turned to begin its descent. The awaiting darkness crept up to consume everything.
When his eyes adjusted, he saw that the edges of the white curtains in the windows closest to the attic weren’t moving anymore. They used to, swaying gently at the hand of an invisible occupant, an intruding current of air. That too had changed.
He opened the door and stepped through. It swung shut behind him, clicking to a close. He had to act before a minute was up. He turned a switch for the overhead light, found the device prompting his haste — a flashing keypad — and entered the code. He walked quickly through the corridor to the nearest telephone in the living room and dialed. Barely half a ring and, “Security. Bill Bellows, at your service.”
“Hello, this is Jim Finch.”
“Welcome back, Mr. Finch. How are you?”
“What’s it like to be back, sir?”
He didn’t want the question. “Do you have me logged in?”
Bellows got the message. “Yes, sir. Enjoy your stay.”
It was neat and comfortable inside, a wintry freshness to everything. At a pine refectory table, he passed a finger over the surfaces of an assortment of earthenware jars. No dust, even though no one had been here to attend to such things. Around him, the rosewood floor and battered wall finishes had aged naturally, acquiring character with the years.
Rustic — that’s the defining theme he felt about this place in past visits. This instance, however, something else permeated the interior, something that evoked feelings of remoteness, solitude, of forlorn loneliness.
The hour transpired.
Above him, through a thick mullioned window cut into the roof, snow got blown to bits by a new wind that howled against the crevices. Punctuating the sound of the wind, the exposed pipes under the beamed ceiling made an intermittent tapping sound as they expanded to heat. He stood in the center of the living room where quilts were thrown over a slouching sofa, piled high with pillows. A basket chair sitting atop a kilim rug invited him with the promise of comfort. He turned away.
A ladder leaning against a sloping wall led to the loft level that Stuart had taken for his own. Jim went to the ladder and climbed it halfway.
The loft floor was covered with layers of overlapping wool carpets that waved up to a lush white bed draped in mosquito net. There were no mosquitoes here — Stuart had used it as a lure for his girlfriend at a New Year’s party thrown at the lodge. They’d had a few bumps in their relationship, and Stuart thought the netting would have a romantic pull to it — because of its “colonial and bridal associations,” as he had put it.
Jim went back down the ladder.
He felt better than expected. Most everything around him was a reminder of times past, but didn’t hurt that much. He smiled. It was okay coming back.
He was in the mood for a drink. The tea that Elizabeth recommended didn’t interest him. The whir of the refrigerator came to his ears. It would be empty, he’d been told. He wondered if something mild, a red wine perhaps, could be found where the alcohol was stored. He went to the liquor cabinet, opened its door, and was disappointed. Just the hard stuff — a lone bottle of vodka, nearly empty, a mere inch left off the bottom.
He froze. Stuart must have been drinking from it the night he died. The doctor who examined the body determined that Stuart was intoxicated. To ski at night in inclement weather, required drunken recklessness in the equation.
Jim shut the liquor cabinet, fast.
He settled for tap water, and took his medication. An exhaustion came over him. He lit the fireplace, lay down on the sofa and rested. The last thing he heard was the sound of burning firewood crumbling under its weight.
By her own admission, Elizabeth had rushed the dinner. Still, Edmund appeared to have found enough time to get a bit flushed from whatever he’d had to drink.
“The lamb was just perfect,” Rebecca said, returning to the subject of her dinner. She swung a dangling curl of her hair back. “On the way back, you really should try it, Dad?”
Edmund stroked the intricate diamond ring on his right hand. He was sporting a beard recently. It was trim and added maturity, Jim thought. Better even, it concealed the scar on the side of his face.
Casual conversations hummed on.
Edmund sat close to Rebecca, demonstrating a togetherness that Jim found relieving. He was glad she had a man in her life.
Edmund had entered all their lives at a critical juncture. After the loss of his son, Jim no longer felt the pillar of strength he used to be. The family needed a strong male presence. Even Elizabeth, with all her poise, seemed to appreciate that. They looked a nice couple too, Jim thought, smiling to himself. They were even the same age.
“Bedtime chamomile anyone?” Elizabeth asked.
“Yes, please,” Rebecca said enthusiastically.
His daughter’s enthusiasm was unusual. Inspired, Jim announced, “Me, too.”
They looked to Edmund for his response. His strong mouth parted in a grin. “No, thanks. It would be a waste to beat my very nice buzz on scented flowers and leaves.”
Elizabeth rose. “Let me go start up the kettle.” She turned to Jim, “Before I forget, luv, did you take your medication?”
Jim felt annoyed — he wished she hadn’t asked about the medication in front of Edmund.
Edmund got up. “Excuse me,” he said, and headed for the little door at the far end of the living room, where the bathroom was.
Elizabeth headed for the kitchen.
“Need some help, Elizabeth?” Rebecca called after her.
“None at all.”
Jim would have preferred Rebecca calling her “Mom,” but that hadn’t changed through the years. Even after Elizabeth gave birth to Stuart, it hadn’t changed. In that way also, his divorce from Carol had exacted its price on Rebecca long ago.
He gathered himself, turned to his daughter, and said, “I’m glad we decided to stay up longer.”
“Me too,” she said, without making eye contact. She wasn’t being rude. She was trying.
He cast about for something else to say, but his mind felt slow. He gave up. It was no good trying to force a conversation with her, he knew.
Rebecca glanced around the room, from one fixture to another with little interest, and eventually reached into her handbag for a cigarette. She came up with one, set it between her lips, and held a flame to it. She continued holding the flame to it until the toilet flushed in the distance. By then the lighter had become so hot in her hand, she practically dropped it back into her handbag.
She pulled hard and long on the cigarette, inhaled the smoke deeply, and exhaled only after Edmund came back out.
As Edmund rested back against the leather, she got up, announcing, “I need an ashtray from the kitchen,” and went in the direction.
Edmund slid closer to the armchair Jim was in.
Jim was encouraged. Lacking anything better to launch the conversation with, he remarked, “I see you knew where the bathroom was.”
Edmund pondered the statement.
Jim hoped it wasn’t too odd a way to start off.
Edmund nodded. “Yes.”
“Then you must have been here for Stuart’s New Year’s party.”
“Well, I didn’t quite make the party in time, I was working. But I dropped by late, made sure I shared a toast with Stu, before heading back out early to make another appointment.”
“It was thoughtful of you to do that, considering the great distance you had to travel.”
“I like long drives — helps clear the head. Besides, Stu would have done the same for me.”
Rebecca returned without her ashtray. Elizabeth returned with the tea.
Jim’s home was about a 200 mile drive from the lodge. On a clear day, from a vantage point on the roof, it was possible to see the mountain range leading to the lodge in the distance.
After returning, his week passed uneventfully. Most days, the weather was lousy with overcast skies and drizzle. To make matters duller, little of interest happened at the office, at least that required him. With over five hundred employees, his business had become largely self-sustaining. With Elizabeth running the company’s daily affairs, his input had become somewhat redundant. In many ways, he yearned for the entrepreneurial days of long past.
He didn’t complain too much, though. The days of long past had also taken a toll on his health. Years of chain-smoking, stress, and white nights had rendered his health fragile.
Elizabeth became involved in Finch Corp. soon after they married. She said her involvement would reduce the burden on his shoulders. It did, for a while — the business grew rapidly after she teamed up, increasing the burden eventually on both their shoulders.
He came to discover his wife had remarkable management skills. In her tenure as co-CEO with him, the company extended its reach to some of the nation’s largest industrial centers. Much of the expansion and success, Jim had to admit, was to her credit. For her tenth anniversary at the company, in appreciation of her immeasurable input, he transferred half ownership of the corporation to her.
As their wealth increased, Elizabeth insisted they give some of it back. And that’s how the Finch Family Foundation came about. A charity of sorts, its principal role became the provision of counseling services to those struggling to cope with broken homes, broken families. Watching her in action at the Foundation, seeing her talk to victims of domestic abuse, Jim came to realize his wife was gifted. Attentive and perceptive, she could quickly read someone’s mind. Unfortunately, she hadn’t translated that skill into deciphering Rebecca for him.
After Stuart’s death, a heart attack made Jim semi-retire. Mostly, his health was to blame for his life now. Sometimes he was jealous of Elizabeth’s hectic schedule. She seemed to be having all the fun.
His cell phone was on the charger. He grabbed it and pressed the power button. He preferred conducting business strolling the vast lawns of his estate. It had also become part of his exercise routine — doctor’s orders. He was just about to take such a walk when the phone began to ring. Elizabeth was at the hairdresser. As always, he hoped it was her. “Hello?”
It took him a second to recognize the voice. She had been Stuart’s more or less steady girlfriend, the mosquito net girl. “Hi, Sandra.”
“Hi. You remember me.” She sounded flattered.
“Guess you notice I still have your number.”
At one time he’d given it to her because she asked to interview him for a business term paper. The last time Jim had seen her was at the funeral. “To what do I owe this pleasure (delete)?”
“Can I be straight with you, sir?”
“I need a job.”
He chuckled under his breath. That was pretty straight.
“If you can give me one, I promise I’ll meet every expectation you have.”
“I’ve got the feeling you will.”
“I want to come back to Colorado, Mr. Finch. Los Angeles isn’t treating me so well.”
“Is that where you’re calling from?”
“Yes. And I’m sorry to call you for the first time in two years because I need a favor.”
“I don’t mind,” he said, and didn’t.
“Do you think you can help me?”
“Call me back in a few days and I’ll have something lined up for you.”
“How can I ever thank you?”
“It’s the least I can do for a friend of Stuart’s.”
There was an extended pause. “I was more than a friend to him, you know.”
He felt she wanted to talk. “I know that.”
Another pause. “I phoned last week on this number and didn’t get a response. So I called the office and they said you’d gone to the mountains. To the lodge?”
“Was it the first time since…?”
“Hard going back?” she asked softly.
“It was in the beginning.”
“Did you go up with your wife?”
“And my daughter, and Edmund.”
“The whole family, wow. How’d Rebecca and Edmund like the scenery? I remember it being spectacular.”
“They liked it. We had fun.”
“What did they think about the lodge?”
“Rebecca loved it, it was her first visit. But I don’t think it’s changed much from the last time Edmund saw it.”
“Edmund’s been there before?”
“Yes, the New Year’s party.”
“How many New Year’s parties were there?”
“Uh, just one.”
“Strange, I was there on that one and I didn’t see him.”
That was strange. “Oh, he did say he got there late and left early.”
“Anyway, he was there to make a toast with Stuart before leaving again.”
“That was nice of Stu, to not mention it to me at breakfast.”
“He didn’t mention it?”
“I’m sure he had a reason.”
“It was probably…” She paused to sneeze.
“Thanks. It was probably one of their big secret meetings. Everyone used to get left out of those.”
“They had big secrets?”
“Oh, yeah, the things they knew about each other, they’d make the tabloids.”
“Well, I’m glad they were the best of friends.”
Pause. “I wouldn’t say that exactly.”
“More like they were two hyper-competitive alpha-males grudgingly sharing the same stage.”
Strange how she put it, Jim thought. He realized he didn’t know as much as he would have liked about his future son-in-law. The trip to the lodge was supposed to have been venue for getting to know Edmund better. But he hadn’t taken advantage. He hadn’t felt up to it. So he asked Sandra, “What do you mean by that?”
“They were incessantly in contest, comparing war stories almost, trying to outperform each other with their conquests, fighting to be badder and meaner than the other. Half the time it was like a teenage rivalry. The other half, it would get more serious.”
Jim went out the front door and into his yard.
“Then they did these immature macho male bonding rituals, like downing a whole bottle of vodka in record-stupid time, then pounding a last round straight out of the bottle before running around bothering everybody that wasn’t irresponsible enough to participate.”
Jim reached down to flip over a beetle that had ended up on its back by the side of the lawn.
“They helped each other a lot with business and stuff like that… so, sure, they were special friends but… nah, they weren’t best, best friends. Not like girls become best friends, if you know what I mean.”
He may have. “So they had their ups and downs?”
“Now and then they’d get mad at each other, till we made them make up. Except the last time…” She quieted in mid-sentence.
“What happened the last time?”
She said nothing at first. “It’s not important anymore.”
Jim was curious. “When did they have the last falling out, Sandra?”
He heard her exhale. “It was before the New Year’s party.” Sandra went into thought again. “That’s why it’s kind of odd that Edmund showed up for that party. As far as I remember, Stuart was still upset with him. Unless they met to make up.”
Several seconds elapsed.
“Thank you once more for the job.”
“I’ll talk to you soon.”
“Bye, Sandra.” Jim pocketed the phone. A moment later, he retrieved it and powered it off.
Jim liked having his study at the back of the house. He liked the privacy. When Stuart was around and brought friends over, the commotion was a bit much — the guys were loud, the girls were loud, and one souped-up Trans Am was particularly loud. Any ruckus was toned down by the study’s hardwood door.
Morning turned to afternoon. Jim wondered why Edmund might have lied to him about attending the party.
A curt rap on the door accompanied the arrival of his private secretary. “Good afternoon, sir.”
He eyed the cardboard box of paperwork and correspondence she’d brought along. “Hope we don’t have much there.”
“No more than usual.”
Eager to get started, she deposited the box on his desk. Emptying its contents, she briefed him on the relevant events of the week. After reciting a few crisp memoranda, she put a stack of documents in front of him and pointed out areas for signature. Each document was whisked away as soon as his pen left the paper, and subsequently re-entered the cardboard box. He was glad when she left.
A sizable column of private business mail remained after her departure. He waded into the pile of envelopes, resolving to at least open every one.
As he progressed, he came upon a bill from the mountain lodge security service. It gave him an idea. In one of the filing cabinets, he located the binder that contained all the invoices from that company. He was about to open it when there was a light tap on the door. Good, he thought, it had to be the maid.
The family maid was a young girl, originally from Quebec. Elizabeth didn’t want a live-in maid — she liked to cook and manage chores herself. Marie did the big cleaning. Today was one of her days. “Come in,” he said.
The door opened and Marie’s small head poked in. She beamed the usual shy smile to presage her usual greeting. “Bonjour, Monsieur.”
“I am sorry to disturb. I clean this room later.”
As the door began to close, he called out, “Wait.”
She poked her head back in.
“Come in for a minute, will you?”
She came in and approached his desk. The oversized pockets on her apron were filled with an array of containers of multicolored cleaning fluids, sponges, cloth, brushes and dusters, a hand-vacuum, paper rolls, and garbage bags. Everything added up could have weighed a quarter of what she did, explaining why she had to lean back to keep her balance.
“You were there to help with Stuart’s New Year’s party in the mountains, weren’t you, Marie?”
“Um… yes, Monsieur.”
He had a very specific question in mind for her, but thought it best not to ask it too directly — she also did the cleaning at Rebecca and Edmund’s apartment and spoke with them regularly. “I’ve received some overdue bills from the lodge that I need to settle,” he lied, knowing he didn’t have to be too creative with her. “So, tell me about the party.”
“About the party?”
He knew she would open up once he got her started. “The funny things, Marie, the memorable things, the things you didn’t expect. Tell me about them.”
She seemed hesitant.
“It’s okay. I know Stuart’s parties were on the wild side. You’re not going to surprise me. So please feel free.”
She relaxed. Her small round mouth puckered in thought. “They play drinking games,” she began. “Monsieur Stuart enjoys this the most. They are very noisy. They sing and dance, clapping. The boys take off their shirts, some girls too.” She started to giggle. “This is embarrassing for me. I try to stay in the kitchen. But I cannot. Someone is always calling my name — Marie more ice, Marie more Coca, Marie more chips, Marie, Marie, Marie.”
She shifted focus. “The drinking games stop. They must stop.”
“Because they do not have any more alcool, it is all finished. They cannot go down to the village to buy because of the roads, too much snow is falling.
Monsieur Stuart thinks to call a…” She rotated her hands over her head to demonstrate.
“C’est ca.” Marie smiled. “It is funny — it is the same word in French, almost, except one letter — “
Jim wasn’t in the mood to hear what that letter was. “Go on about the party.”
“Of course. Um, the helicopter is to bring them more to drink. Monsieur Stuart telephones the security company, but they say there is no possibility. The helicopter, it is only for urgences.”
That explained the virtually empty liquor cabinet found back at the lodge, Jim thought.
“After, I begin to clean. There is so much to clean. I clean until the sun shines. I have to clean, Monsieur Stuart tells me we must all go home after breakfast. So I have no time to sleep. But I do not mind, I am not sleepy. I am happy I do not sleep because the sun is so magnifique over the mountains.”
“What about Edmund?”
Confusion on her face.
“How was he doing that night?”
She shook her head profusely. “But he is not there.”
He expected the answer. “Not even after morning?” Jim pretended to yawn as if it were an unimportant question.
She shook her head only once this time. It was emphatic. “I am awake until we leave, and he is not there. I remember if he is there.”
“And Stuart?” he asked quickly, to veer her off the sensitive path.
“He sleep like a baby. I do not even have to be quiet, he does not hear anything.”
She paused. “I see him with one lady, sleeping in her arms.”
“Yes, I think that is her name. She is very pretty.”
“You said the weather was bad, yes, Marie?”
“Yes, we are not able to leave until very late. The roads are terrible. Maybe that is why Monsieur Stuart’s friend Edmund is not able to arrive.”
“Thank you, Marie.”
“Am I helpful?”
She was visibly pleased. “I am happy to help.”
“Thank you, Marie,” he said again.
She bowed respectfully and went out.
Why did Edmund lie to him about attending the party?
Edmund lied after an unusual thing occurred. At the mountain lodge, he had not been shown or told where the guest bathroom was. The unmarked door to it was away in a corner of the large living room. Yet, Edmund had walked straight to it, which meant he had to have been there before.
When was he there?
Jim reached for the binder of invoices from lodge security that he’d brought out before. He opened it to the section he needed, tallying up the total visits to the lodge. The list was short, there were only five. He set a blank piece of paper in front and reached for a pen.
Visit 1. Myself, Stuart.
Visit 2. Myself, Stuart, Elizabeth, Marie.
Visit 3. The New Year’s party.
Visit 4. Stuart dies.
Visit 5. Myself, Elizabeth, Rebecca, Edmund.
So, if Edmund had been there before Visit 5, and he clearly wasn’t there Visits 1, 2, or 3, then…
Jim rose rapidly.
He looked back at the record. Five visits to date. He looked at his writing. All five accounted for.
He sat back down and reached for his land line. He dialed the number from the letterhead.
“Security. Bill Bellows, at your service.”
“Jim Finch here. I have two questions.”
“Good day, Mr. Finch.”
“First, how many entries to our lodge, to date, according to your records?”
“From doing paperwork just yesterday, I know that off-hand, sir. It’s five.”
“Can you make sure?”
“Yes, sir.” There was sound of keys being struck on a keyboard. “Confirmed, five it is.”
“Second question. Is it possible to enter the lodge without it making your log?”
“Not with the system we have in place there, sir.”
“What about a special access code that could have been issued for the keypad to stop a visit from making your records?”
“We have no such thing.” The man cleared his throat. “If I may ask, is there a problem?”
“I was just wondering whether there could’ve been a visit to the lodge that didn’t register.”
“Five visits it is, and that’s it.”
It couldn’t be.
Jim stepped out of the house onto the white-rock walkway, heading for the gravel driveway. The driveway rambled up to the house from a high iron gate, always kept open. The gate looked small in the distance. Ten acres of barely undulating land made everything at the periphery of his estate appear diminutive.
Clouds obscured the sky. Humidity was high.
His breathing elevated, he sought diversion for his mind. He desired mundane thoughts. He pulled his shirt out of his cotton slacks, opened the top two buttons, kicked off his loafers, and began to walk.
This had been his home for almost 25 years. He purchased it and a company, together. “Consider it a package deal,” the seller had cackled from the confines of his wheelchair.
Young and brash back then, Jim used to enjoy showing off the three-story, twelve-bedroom mansion. Older and wiser in so many ways now, he often reconsidered the house’s utility. For starters, it felt overwhelming, instances that were not difficult to come by on any given day when he had to go in search of something.
So many years, yet there was almost a third of his home he still wasn’t altogether familiar with. He’d been in that part, the third floor, only long ago. What was even up there, he remembered little of.
He strolled halfway along the length of the mansion. The driveway carried him past the two-car, polished-stone garage that sheltered his Aston Martin. Since the heart attack, he hadn’t driven it much at all.
His car sat alone inside. Elizabeth preferred not to pull hers alongside. Too much of a maneuver for her liking, she liked her Cadillac in the shade of a tree further on. Occasionally, she took his car out for a spin to keep the engine tuned.
He meandered on.
So far, he had done well finding the mundane thoughts he’d sought. The slight pressure in his chest had eased.
He arrived at the east side of the mansion. Here, the giant elm stood towering over a lawn that extended out to the evergreens traveling the inner circumference of his estate. A brick wall, once red and now covered in a green of creeping vines, formed the scenic limit of his personal fiefdom.
When Rebecca was a little girl, she would come out to the elm to brood after the nasty divorce.
He did his best to shelter her from the lawyers, the poison they brought with it. He had wanted custody of her, regardless of the price. There was never any choice.
To Rebecca, the divorce must have been a shocker. Only weeks earlier, her parents appeared unified.
He’d been careful to hide all signs of marital tension from her. Maybe, in retrospect, that was a bad move. It might have been better if she’d had a chance to acclimate. Instead, the world she’d grown accustomed to, came crashing down on her, without warning.
He didn’t discuss the issue with his daughter even after the whole mess wound down. He figured she was too young to understand. How could he explain to a seven-year-old that her mother liked his money more than she did him, or that she was screwing around? He let Rebecca make sense of it herself, in whatever way she could. That seemed a healthier option to him than lying to her — at the time.
Carol had long since disappeared from the scene. The last he heard, she had relocated to another state.
After the lengthy custody battle, Carol terminated all contact with Rebecca, making it evident that her interests in Rebecca were strictly monetary. Rebecca, little as she was, must have got a sense of it, and likely suffered an acute sense of abandonment because of it.
Rebecca never asked about Carol as she grew older. In the absence of her mother, Jim became the sole recipient of his daughter’s disillusionment, anger and resentment. That was his take on it.
The Cadillac’s tire tracks led to the spot where Elizabeth typically parked her car. The grass there was anemic. It stood out from the bright green of the well-manicured lawn. Long ago, he watched his little daughter circle the off-colored area aimlessly for nearly an hour. He didn’t know what to say to her. So he stayed away and did nothing.
A second time, shortly thereafter, he watched her crisscross the yellow patch a hundred times. That time, he ran out to her. “What’s wrong,” he asked her. “Elizabeth’s killing the grass!” she exclaimed.
Jim stood on the spot, and looked down at the faded grass.
By her own choice, Rebecca grew up in a mixture of boarding schools, then left for college. He became concerned she would be gone forever when he heard from Stuart that she was checking into buying an apartment in St. Louis. But, then, after an appearance at Stuart’s last birthday party, hosted by Edmund, she made the decision to return close to home.
Jim peered at the uniform row of high windows that ran the entire length of the north face. Evening was coming. The sun reflected off the windows at an angle. The glass glittered.
He turned the corner.
His throat felt parched. He followed a garden hose, disconnected it from its source, and opened the tap. He let the water run until it cooled, ducked under the overhead phone box, and quenched his thirst.
His thick spectacles were sprayed. Reaching into his trouser pocket, he found a handkerchief and began to wipe the drops of water off the lenses.
As he concentrated on his glasses, he felt a pronounced urge to look up at the east side of the mansion. He looked up.
At the third floor window, curtained on the sides by drooping velvet, he perceived a dark blur inside the glass at about the height of the ledge. Wondering its nature, he set his spectacles back on.
It was a crow. A big black crow, staring down, glaring at him.
Suddenly, the crow erupted. It swung and spread its wings into flight. An instant later, it flew off into the interior.
The new day carried with it only the semblance of a plan.
Jim placed his hands on the arms of his chair and forced himself up. His feet and most everything below his waist felt numb. He raked his fingers through his gray head of hair, and just moved around, looking for blood to circulate again. In his hand was a copy of his will.
It felt heavy. He put it back in the wall safe, and resumed pacing.
An open window overlooked his backyard. The breeze he’d hoped for hadn’t materialized.
When the air-conditioner’s fan began rattling, he’d been forced to turn it off. The repairman wasn’t due until the next morning. To stir the air for now, opening the window was the best he could do.
Rebecca stood to inherit an immense fortune.
His general counsel arrived for the appointment. Jim skipped the formalities and sat him down. Arthur Byrne dropped his lanky frame onto the padding of an armchair.
“I need a change made to my will,” Jim said.
“What do you need done?” Arthur’s thick gray mustache budged little above his gravelly monotone.
“I don’t want you talking to anybody about this, not Elizabeth, not Rebecca, no one, is that understood?”
“I thought that went without saying, Jim.”
“I need you to make the necessary changes so that everything’s left to Elizabeth.”
Arthur tilted his head. “And by everything, you mean — ”
“I mean 100%.”
Arthur went into number-crunching mode. “For starters, that’s over $260 million in just company stock you’re taking away from Rebecca, based on the last estimate of market value we did, which has probably appreciated by now.”
“I’m not taking anything away from her. I’ll probably be changing it back.”
“Do you want to tell me why you’re doing this?”
Arthur turned pensive. “You know that Rebecca can contest the will even if you don’t change it back. And she can win, considering Elizabeth isn’t her real mother but you are her real father. Judges might not look too favorably at stepmothers getting all the money, especially at the expense of children that have worked hard all their lives to support themselves despite that money.”
Of course he knew all that, but there was always the chance that Rebecca wouldn’t contest the will. “She might not have to,” Jim said. He was getting a little impatient with the questions. “Will you do it?”
“You’re the boss.”
“Do it quick.”
Arthur left quick.
Jim rocked back and forth in his seat. If Stuart’s death entailed foul play, Rebecca’s safety was at stake. Rebecca had to be separated from Edmund, pending a hunt for any evidence of wrongdoing.
What if he let Edmund learn that Rebecca had been cut out of the will? Would Edmund then leave Rebecca voluntarily?
The will would be contested, because Edmund would make her do it.
Jim began pacing again.
Edmund could not be expected to simply walk away.
Could he ask Rebecca to leave Edmund based on information at hand? Jim shook his head. He had nothing concrete to substantiate anything. Suspicions might have been enough if the father-daughter relationship had been rock-solid. Theirs couldn’t be further from that.
He heard Elizabeth call his name to announce her arrival.
She’d phoned earlier to say that Edmund and Rebecca were with her, and that they would all be dropping by. He didn’t want to confide in his wife. Not yet.
She came in, pulling the door to a close behind her.
The white, wide-brimmed hat, worn at an angle over her left eye, didn’t stay on long. She tapped it off with the flick of a finger, caught it neatly on the tip of another, and sent it hurling through the air onto the attending sofa. Her checkered skirt, the hemline worn just above the knee, swung at numerous pleats with her action.
The dynamics of her approach were so athletic, so well defined, he felt she still moved the way she did the first day he saw her. It made him feel even older now. In front of him, her eyes opened wide. “Edmund likes your car, Jim.”
He only heard “Edmund.”
“Rebecca’s showing it to him.”
He finally registered. “Hasn’t he seen an Aston Martin before?”
She eyed him inquisitively. “Not yours.”
She was still studying him, so he nodded.
“We had a great day,” she said.
She let the silence grow between them. “Aren’t you going to ask me about it?”
“I’m sorry, how was the film?”
“It was good. Could’ve been better.”
That was always her assessment of the few movies she did elect to watch in a theater. He nodded again.
She kissed him on the tip of his nose with lips that had no lipstick. “What’s with you?”
He went over to his seat, lowered himself into it, stretched a bit, and came to a position at which he folded his arms. She came over and sat at the edge of the mahogany close to him. She was only an inch or so taller than him, but her shapely form made her appear longer.
“Well?” she tried again.
“Aaah,” he uttered, waving his hand, “it must be the freaking heat in here. The air-conditioner’s still busted, and it was frustrating trying to get anything done. Plain frustrating.”
“You know it’s not as warm in here as you think it is.” She noticed the open window. “Rather cool outside, actually.”
The heat being generated inside him intensified.
“What happened to the repairman?” she inquired.
“Some kind of parts related problem.”
“Do you want me to make you a frozen drink, to cheer you up?”
“No, thanks. I’m getting better now. It was the first part of the afternoon that drained me.”
“Since it’s cool outside, why didn’t you work in the deck out back?”
“I was outside earlier, it was still hot.”
“Really? I thought it was rather pleasant.”
He paused, then asked cautiously, “Tell me, have they made up their mind about a date?”
“For the wedding?”
“Not yet, but I don’t think they’re looking more than three or four months out. Why do you ask?”
“Three or four months sounds a little hasty, doesn’t it?”
She had nothing to say.
“I mean, they’ve only been engaged a few months.”
“I don’t think that’s long enough.”
“That’s a matter of opinion.”
If was a harsh thing to say. “What’s your opinion?”
“I don’t have one.” It was effortless, a wholly effortless statement of fact.
He felt weakened. He tried another avenue. “Don’t you think they should be giving us a little more time to prepare, I mean with all the arrangements that need to be made?”
“They want to get married, Jim.” She bent down and, taking her time, began adjusting a strap on a sandal that had come loose.
“I guess it’s her decision,” he said, figuring he had to wiggle his way out of where he’d got to.
The strap fixed in a flash. “You mean it’s their decision.”
Her decision, their decision — what the hell was the difference, he wondered, his temper flaring. “Yeah, whatever,” he retorted angrily.
Elizabeth gave him one of those hard looks he’d come to recognize. “I hope you’re not extending me the same insensitivity you’ve at times shown Rebecca. Because in my case, husband, you’d better follow it up with an apology.”
He wasn’t feeling weakened anymore. He felt provoked. “I don’t know why you keep saying I’ve been insensitive to Rebecca.”
She held her ground. “I think you do. Look at the time we were at the lodge. You had every chance to open up, instead you kept her at bay.”
He held his ground as well. “You’re missing the point, Elizabeth. It’s not insensitivity. It’s the perception of it. You’re confusing the two. It’s not my fault she doesn’t respond well to everything I try. You forget, it was that goddamn divorce.”
“There you go again, Jim, blaming the divorce.”
“Well, too bad, because that happens to be my opinion.”
“Look,” she said, “this is an important time for Rebecca. This is her first real relationship we’ve seen. You need to understand, this could be a whole new chance for you to improve things with her. So I’m going to be more straight with you than before…”
He wanted to hear this, especially considering the things he now knew that his clueless wife didn’t.
“You need to take a long hard look inside. I married you because I know the feelings you’re capable of. But Rebecca’s never stopped to look into you as closely as I have. It’s not the check-enclosed birthday cards you sent, or the plane tickets you offered, or the credit cards you tried to pay off that’s important. That should be obvious to you by now, because everything monetary you’ve held out to her she’s said “no, thank you” to. I wish I had the precise answer to what’s between you two, but I don’t. I do know this however: that you were much better with Stuart than you were with her. Just about perfect with your boy, I should say.”
“Well then, the same should apply to you with Rebecca,” Jim responded.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means, it should be you doing the connecting in the case of Rebecca. Stuart and I connected because we were both men. You’re a woman… and Rebecca’s a woman.”
“Did you figure that out all by yourself?”
“Come on, you know what I mean.”
“No, I’m not sure I do. And I don’t think you do, either.” She waved her hair behind her ears. “Let me put it to you like this: Rebecca’s link to me is through you. That’s how the chain fits. You’re blood to her. I’m not. That doesn’t change, no matter how good I might be at connecting.”
“So what you’re telling me is that I’m the weak link in the chain. Is that it?”
Elizabeth leaned forward to within inches of his face and seared her eyes into his. “Yep.”
He let it sink in. When it did, he felt a notch disarmed. Elizabeth had criticized him in the past for his “mechanized” responses. But this was saying it a bit more bluntly.
Okay, so she’d said her piece. He could argue a counterpoint, but this wasn’t the time. Why was he even having this stupid discussion with her? She was clueless.
He scratched his head.
“What are you doing?” Elizabeth asked.
“What do you mean?”
“You’re clawing at your head, Jim.”
He realized he’d scratched his head until it hurt. He brought his hand down and saw strands of hair clinging to his nails. “I’m thinking about going up to the lodge again,” he announced. The lodge seemed like a logical place to begin his quest for answers.
The swift change of subject surprised Elizabeth. “Really? When?”
“Why so out of the blue?”
“I liked it there. It’s cooler. And I feel like going up, reading a book, coming back the next day. I can enjoy the view, take it easy, you know.” It was coming out worse than he expected.
She made a funny face. “Boy, are you weird today.”
“I suppose it’s intended to be a wife-less trip.”
“It’s only a day. Besides, you have your spa. I know how you hate missing your spa.”
She made another funny face. “I hate missing my spa? Really? You sure you’re not thinking of someone else, on one of the afternoon soaps, maybe?”
He plucked out the strands of hair caught in his nails.
“Fine, but you’re not going up there all by yourself, Mr. Finch.”
That was reasonable. “All right. I’ll take Bauer with me.”
“Elizabeth?” They heard Rebecca’s voice.
“By the way,” Jim whispered hurriedly to his wife, “don’t mention to them that I’m going to the mountains again. Okay?”
“Okay,” she whispered back sarcastically.
Rebecca came in, followed by Edmund.
“Hi, Rebecca. How are you?”
“Fine. Would you mind if I show Edmund your study?”
First the car, now the study. Why’d his life have to be such a spectacle?
He looked at Edmund. It was for no more than a second. The man seemed unusually large and still.
“Hello, Jim.” And his voice sounded like a trombone.
“Hello.” Jim didn’t feel very well. Breathing became harder. He could hear his pulse. He quickly looked back at Rebecca. “Go ahead, dear, of course you can show him around.” He felt Elizabeth’s eyes turn on him, and realized that wasn’t what he was supposed to say. He gathered himself, got to his feet, and conceded, “Come on, let me show you.”
“Wonderful,” Edmund said from the very depths of his throat.
The study was a circular chamber. The considerable circumference took a while to cover, more than usual today. As summarily as he could, he showed Edmund the various collections of books, paintings, sketches, sculptures, and artifacts. Even the study’s elevator, which most people were fascinated by, Jim quickly dismissed as having been in the house when he purchased it.
Edmund didn’t ask questions. He appeared interested nonetheless.
Rebecca had lowered herself onto the sofa in the middle of the room. Elizabeth stayed where she was and began to scan the newspaper on the table. He felt more comfortable when he was escorting Edmund near Elizabeth’s end of the room.
After an eternity, the tour came to an end.
Pointing to the electronic pad with the unmarked buttons that they’d passed at the very beginning, Edmund posed his first question, “Is that a security system you have there?”
The statement seriously bothered Jim. After everything Edmund saw — the literature, the artwork — couldn’t he have come up with something less sensitive to ask? In all the tours Jim had given of his study in the past 25 years, the elevator was what attracted the most attention. Instead, here was Edmund asking about the worst possible thing, about the home’s security. For a moment, he wished nobody would elaborate.
But Rebecca spoke, “Not for security, it’s for medical reasons. It was there when Dad bought the house, just like the elevator. The prior owner had a stroke and moved around in a wheelchair, spending most of his day in this room.”
“What are the buttons for?” Edmund asked her.
Jim felt worse than just bothered now.
Rebecca again: “Two buttons are for internal communication, so you can press for help to quarters downstairs and upstairs. The blue button is for emergency medical services. Press that and you’ll have an ambulance here in no time.”
Edmund acknowledged her statement without expression. Then he looked around the chamber, from the barred window to the thick hardwood door, and returned to the security keypad, as if searching for weaknesses. Jim’s apprehension increased.
Rebecca’s voice pierced the air again. “Stuart liked Dad having it. My brother was a security freak. Luckily, he wasn’t allowed to get carried away.” She turned to Elizabeth, who stayed immersed in her newspaper. “Could you imagine what this place would have been had you let Stu install everything he wanted?”
“Fort Knox,” Elizabeth said.
Edmund chuckled. “Almost is, I noticed the bars on all the first floor windows.”
Jim moved closer to his wife.
Rebecca went on, “Bars or no bars, Stu forgot this home already has the best security system in the world.”
Edmund hung on every word.
“He forgot we had Elizabeth.”
Jim wondered if that was a compliment. Elizabeth nodded, acknowledging it as such.
Jim decided it was his turn to say something. “There’s a limit to the security we need here because there’s no good reason for anyone to break in. The artwork’s inexpensive, Elizabeth keeps nearly all her jewelry at the bank, and we don’t keep a safe full of money. In all our years here, there’s never been so much as a trespassing on this land.” Only after he’d said all that, did Jim realize he didn’t have to tell Edmund that his home had no valuables.
Elizabeth took Edmund and Rebecca out for tea in the back. Jim declined the invitation to join, saying he had some work to attend to.
An hour later, after the tea, with Edmund and Rebecca about to leave, Elizabeth tried to get Jim to have a few words with Edmund before seeing him off. Jim avoided that as well, by pretending to be on the phone. He held the receiver to his ear until he thought Edmund was out of the house.
But Jim did hurry to intercept his daughter before she followed Edmund out. She appeared to have been waiting for him. “Dad, could you do me a favor?”
“You know that vase in your office at work, the marble one?”
“Yes. What about it?”
“Could you tell me where you got it, because I want to get something like it? I think it’ll be a fit for some of the furniture I picked up today. I’m changing the whole appearance of my living room,” she said, glowing.
Preparations for a happily married life. “No, you don’t have to buy one,” he said slowly. “I’ll give mine to you.”
“That’s sweet of you, but I can’t.”
Jim peered out the doorway. Edmund was in his Range Rover and out of earshot. “Yes you can, Rebecca, you’re my daughter.” After he’d said that, he realized he’d never said it that way before.
Rebecca stared at him. She might have wanted to say something, but held back. She smiled instead. It was an eager smile.
Jim turned his back to the Range Rover, and Edmund. “I need you to promise me something,” he told Rebecca.
“I’ve missed a lot of your life’s events. I don’t want to miss your wedding.”
She was bewildered. “How could you miss my wedding?”
“If you and Edmund decide to run off to Vegas or somewhere, to get hitched in the middle of the night without telling me … for example.”
She laughed. “We won’t do that.”
“Then promise me.”
A second later, Rebecca kissed him, almost gripping his arm, and hurried off to the vehicle in which Edmund lurked invisibly behind tinted windows. Jim followed his daughter out several yards. He almost wanted to stop her.
She opened the passenger door. She waved. He waved back. The passenger door closed. The vehicle drove off.
As the taillights vanished, Jim’s smile decayed rapidly and gave way to the most intense seriousness. It was a long time before he stepped back inside and shut the door.
Nearly 11 pm, and a late-night sit-down with company executives came to a finish.
Jim didn’t pay much attention to the meeting. The final agreements stared at him, and he turned a page or two to see what he might have agreed to. He gave up quickly. He’d leave it to his wife to figure.
He was on his way out of the office when he remembered the vase. It sat by the door to remind him. He took a peek at his watch, thought a while, and returned to his desk. He dialed Rebecca’s number. She picked up. “Hello?”
He heard a lot of background noise — a combination of music, voices, dishes, and something shrill. “Hi, Rebecca.”
“Is this not a good time?”
“Hang on a second.” She shouted instructions regarding the oven to someone called Jen and came back to him. “Sorry about that. Just burned a pie and set off a smoke detector. We have some friends over. Where are you?”
“I was wondering if you want me to drop off the vase. Or should we put it off for another day?”
“We’re leaving for the Bahamas tomorrow, I wasn’t told when we’ll be back, so tonight might be best.”
“What do you mean ‘I wasn’t told when we’ll be back’?”
“It was a surprise from Edmund. He said I deserved an open-end vacation where there’d be no return date until I wanted one.”
Jim wondered about Rebecca’s safety in the Bahamas. Edmund would probably protect her with his life until they were officially husband and wife.
“I thought you’d hung up because I was talking to you and you didn’t answer.”
“I was saying, it’ll be nice to see you before I leave.”
“I’ll see you in a bit. Oh and, Rebecca, where’s Edmund right now?”
“He’s here somewhere, but I can’t see him. Why?”
“Just wanted to remind you (delete) of your promise to me to never marry without me there, like on your trip to the Bahamas.”
“Promise is a promise, Dad. Not sure a Bahamian marriage certificate is automatically recognized in the U.S. anyway.”
“Still don’t, okay?”
There were few cars on the road. It shouldn’t have taken him long to get to his daughter’s, but, for some reason, it felt like every traffic light turned red along the way.
Balancing the high vase in one hand, Jim rang the bell to Rebecca’s apartment.
The door opened and the smell of burned pie came tumbling out.
“That was quick,” Rebecca said.
He didn’t realize it was. “Here you go,” he said, handing over the vase.
She took it in both hands and cradled it against her body. “Thanks. Want to come in?”
“No, it’s late, and Elizabeth’s waiting up for me.”
“Okay. Say hi to her.”
He was about to leave when a woman he did not recognize appeared behind Rebecca. “Well, hello there,” she uttered in a sultry voice.
He nodded politely.
She asked Rebecca, “So, Beckie, this is your dad, huh?”
Rebecca made the introductions. “Dad this is Jen. Jen, Dad.”
They went through the motions, and Jen asked, “Aren’t you coming in?”
“No, I have to go.”
Didn’t matter to her. She took his hand in a flash and declared, “Oh no you don’t, we’re going to have a drink first, never had one with a business mogul before.”
Before he could protest, he was escorted past a shrugging Rebecca into the fray.
Fortunately, they didn’t have to cross the living room to get to the kitchen. Most of the twenty or so people inside, and Edmund, didn’t notice him. The lights were dimmed, that helped. A drinking game in progress didn’t hurt either.
They sat at the kitchen table where the music was loud enough to make hearing difficult. He figured Jen was asking him what he wanted to drink. “Some apple juice would be fine,” he told her.
“Hmm. Apple juice — what’s that a good mixer for?”
“No mixer, please.”
Rebecca appeared next to him with the juice. He decided to finish it in a minute and leave before Jen, who was sipping martini rather provocatively, pulled him off to where everybody else was.
The opening in the kitchen wall to his side gave him a view to the adjacent living room. He could see one of the guests watching TV, a headset to his ears. Some others chatted in clusters. Beyond a piano, Edmund and two companions played a board game that entailed passing a bottle around. The alcohol was apportioned. The bottle was raised to the light after each swig. Then Edmund scratched the diamond on his ring against a subsequent point on the glass.
Realizing the minute with Jen was up, Jim got up to leave. Jen let him go with a kiss that was almost on the mouth. He said goodnight to Rebecca and stepped out. When the elevator doors closed in front of his face, he rested his weight against them and exhaled.
Jim interrupted the alarm before it could interrupt Elizabeth’s slumber. He left the lights off, hoping she would continue to sleep, quickly dressed and headed out.
As he proceeded downstairs, Elizabeth’s voice startled him, “Really, not even a peck goodbye?” She had her lips pouted.
Jim scrambled back up the stairs, and kissed her hurriedly on the cheek.
Eyeing his empty hands, she said, “I thought you were planning on some reading in the mountains.”
“I was just on my way to the study to get a book.”
Back down the stairs.
He rushed to the study and grabbed the nearest book from the nearest shelf. Approaching the front door, Elizabeth’s voice from the upper landing stopped him again, “So, what are you going to be reading?”
He looked at the cover. “Uh, Gastro…nomique.”
“Why? Are you planning on doing some cooking at the lodge?”
He read the remainder of the cover — (space) The New American Edition of the World’s Greatest Culinary Encyclopedia.
How the heck had this book even got onto his shelf?
“Well, I thought it might be a good idea to get in the kitchen once in a while … after I come back.”
“I look forward to it,” came her reply.
He was several days behind on The Wall Street Journal, so he tried to catch up during the drive. He found himself staring at the same paragraph on the same page of the same paper. He wished he could have a cigarette.
Bauer had been the company driver for as long as Jim could remember. A stocky man with a balding head, he had a birthmark on his scalp, almost Gorbachev-style. He was fifty and had a cheerful wife a few years his senior. “How’s the wife?” Jim asked, asking the usual question.
“Fine, sir.” Even when she was sick, he’d say the same thing. Not much of a talker, Bauer, and that suited Jim just fine, now especially.
Arriving at the mountain lodge, Jim handed Bauer the cookbook he’d brought from home. Another good thing about Bauer, he liked to read just about anything — if it was something he knew nothing about, all the better.
Inside a storage house by the side of the mountain lodge, Jim hit a switch that lit a dim uncovered bulb. With metal and machinery everywhere, he felt like he’d entered an armory. It was the first time he’d had that feeling.
He stood before a vertical rack, built crudely into the cracked wall, and stared at it. Stuart had two pairs of skis, one in case the other broke. Nobody else skied. The only pair that remained, now hung in its place. The other pair Stuart had died in, the police kept after Jim refused possession of them.
He reached out, lifted one of the skis, and flipped it over. Abrasions. He put the ski back.
It was cold. The windows were frosted. He shivered.
An hour passed.
He stared through the mini-sash windows of the kitchen into the sloping woods outside, observing no life among the barren trees.
He’d gone through every room of the lodge. The garage, the attic, the basement, the annex, everything. All for nothing.
Paranoia — was that what he was going through? Could there have been a logical explanation to Edmund’s knowledge of the interior of this lodge? With a stretch of the imagination, there were possibilities. Edmund could, for example, have seen a floor plan of the place. Stuart may have shown him. But could someone remember where a small toilet was from just an architectural diagram?
Jim decided he would have a drink, some wine from the stock his wife had picked up in town the last time. He got himself a glass and returned to the living room where he opened the liquor cabinet. Immediately, he saw the nearly empty bottle of vodka, the last one Stuart ever drank from. A bad feeling gutted him.
He had to get rid of the bottle. Deciding he would throw it in the back with the garbage, he raised it from its resting place. As he gripped it in his palm, the glass bit into his little finger.
There was a sharp scratch near the base of the bottle, so sharp its edge had sliced delicately into his skin.
He examined the bottle, holding it up to the light. The scratch mark was about where the remaining vodka had leveled, an inch off the bottom. For a second he didn’t know what to make of it. Then it struck him.
With the bottle concealed in the inside pocket of his trench coat, Jim rushed out of the lodge. “Let’s go,” he shouted to Bauer.
Fingerprint comparison would be a complicated thing. Besides, Edmund might have wiped the bottle down. Jim had a different idea.
On the highway, he dialed Marie’s number.
The maid picked up. “Hello, Marie speaking.”
“Marie, it’s me.”
“Did Rebecca ask you to clean her apartment?”
“Did you do it yet?”
“No, I do it soon.”
“About six o’clock.”
“I wonder if you can pass by my place before you go to Rebecca’s and water the plants in my study. I forgot to do it. I wouldn’t want them to wilt. Could you do that for me?”
“What?” he asked, agitated.
“Are you okay?”
“You sound different.”
“I’m fine, it’s just the telephone line,” he said and hung up.
Jim was glad to find Elizabeth wasn’t home. Careful to leave no indication of his return, he went up to the master bedroom and scrounged through a chest of drawers until he found the set of keys he needed. He hurried back to the waiting car.
On his cell phone, he dialed Rebecca’s number a second time. Again, no response. Good, Bahamas was underway.
Fortunately, he didn’t run into anyone at Rebecca’s building that would recognize him. The underground garage and an elevator key allowed him to bypass the doorman. Jim pressed the floor and hit the door-close button several times, even though he knew them to rarely if ever close elevator doors.
Another key got him into Rebecca’s place. He kept the lights off. Across from a line of high windows in the lounge, the rooms of a hotel lit up the skyline.
He crossed the lounge to the piano where Edmund and his group had been. Three bottles there, sitting on a coffee table. He held up the one he needed, and made sure. Satisfied, he went out of Rebecca’s home with it in hand.
“Know where there’s a jeweler around here?” Jim asked Bauer.
“Take me there.”
Bauer got him there.
Jim explained to the jeweler what he wanted done. “Police?” the man asked, at the end of the explanation.
“It’s very late for this, come back in the morning.”
Jim held $100 to the man’s face. “$100 more after.”
The proprietor grabbed the two bottles, squinted an eye, and asked, “You a private eye?”
“Something like that.”
“Doesn’t always work, this thing you’re thinking (delete). Depends on the cut, for one thing.”
“Please, just look at it, will you?”
The jeweler stepped into a room behind the counter. A bright light shot through the doorway. Its brightness faded gradually. Finally, it went off. And the man was back with his answer, “Okay, they’re identical.”
Jim bowed his head. “Are you sure?”
The man scratched his unshaven chin. “I am sure. About as identical as a matching set of fingerprints.”
Jim paced back and forth. Overhead, the bulkhead lights cast deformed shadows of his body onto the walls as he moved about.
Elizabeth had left a message on the answering machine saying she was playing late-night bridge with a bunch of girlfriends at one of their houses.
It was easier this time. The second instance of ‘evidence’ — if it could be called that — had been easier on his conscience than the first.
He thought about jurisdiction. The authorities that had jurisdiction over this matter would not be his hometown police that he knew and that knew him well. The police that covered the mountain lodge and its environs, he would have little influence on.
If Edmund had been at the mountain lodge, could he have left before Stuart went skiing? Then, why hadn’t he just said so back then? Was Edmund too afraid to mention it, in light of the tragedy that unfolded? But afraid of what?
Or could he have been there and, in some way, been unaware the accident had happened? Was that plausible?
Could they have been skiing together when an accident happened? Could Edmund have gone to Stuart’s aid, found him dead, and decided to exit the scene quietly? But why not report the incident, as any ordinary innocent person would?
About as identical as a matching set of fingerprints, the jeweler had said. Useful theoretically, but useless legally. The item and its marking weren’t even circumstantial in nature. It wasn’t as if a forensic team had found the two and recorded them in. In the end, it was just a bottle of vodka with a scratch of a diamond that a father, in mourning for his son and trying to glue the pieces of his life back together, had found while attempting to play sleuth. It was as admissible in any imaginary court proceeding as a certified report from a psychic.
Before he sought an audience with the police, he needed something more.
He’d come back home to feel grounded while he thought. His house gave him bearing.
It was hard not to question his own competence, forging ahead on his own. A private investigator, he’d considered that, but a complication loomed — if the P.I. were to fail in gathering sufficient evidence to warrant a police investigation, he or she could become an obstacle in the way of alternatives. No, the private eye wasn’t an option.
The weight of Rebecca’s apartment keys were in his pocket. Jim went downstairs and out to the car. He told Bauer he couldn’t yet relieve him of his duties.
A strip of bars and restaurants were on the way to Rebecca’s. A lot of young people outside, crowding the pavement, spilling onto the street. “What day is it?” he asked Bauer.
“It’s Friday, sir.”
“Stop there for a moment,” he pointed to Bauer.
They pulled alongside a bar called the Blue Horse. It had been one of Stuart’s hangouts.
Jim entered through one of the open glass doors, and ordered a bourbon with a splash of Coke, Stuart’s favorite. He toasted his son under his breath, swallowed the drink down, wiped swelling tears from his eyes, and returned to the car.
By the time he arrived at Rebecca’s, the emotions that heaved in Jim’s chest had stilled.
Rebecca’s private personal correspondence — he started there.
He hoped to locate something written by Edmund that expressed his actual feelings for Stuart, but found nothing of the sort.
He flipped through some of Rebecca’s books to see if she’d inserted any letters there, something she used to do. Still, no luck.
Then came the photo albums. Going through one of them, he came across something that tugged at his attention. It was a photograph of Rebecca and Edmund, one among many, taken at what appeared to be a museum. In the photograph, Edmund stood with his arms wrapped around Rebecca.
It was what she was holding…
He peeled back the cover and took out the picture, raising it to better light.
Rebecca was clasping onto a book, the back cover of which was exposed to the camera. Jim had seen that cover while going through one of her bookshelves.
He got up from the bed and, picture in hand, stepped into the walk-in closet connecting to the bedroom. Framed in unfinished plywood, it was fitted with floor-to-ceiling shelves. He found the glossy cover he sought. Two pages in, he read: “… Exhibition… The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York… 2006.” (dot dot dot spacing)
That was three years ago, well before Rebecca said she and Edmund began dating. She said they began seeing each other just last year. So Edmund began going out with Rebecca before Stuart died, not after, as Jim had been led to believe.
Nearly all of Rebecca’s furniture in the living room was under white dust covers. They gave the chamber a floating, ghostly character. Jim sat on a footstool by a table laden with flowers, candlesticks, and antique silverware that, in aggregate, reminded him eerily of an altar.
The cell phone was in his breast pocket. He had to call Elizabeth. She’d worry, otherwise.
“Hi.” She didn’t sound one bit worried.
“Hey, how’s the card game going?”
“That’s not unusual, is it?”
“Nope. Where are you?”
“At the lodge.” Had to lie.
“Why are you on your cell phone?”
“Why would I not be on it?”
“You left your charger behind at home, thought you’d use the phone in the lodge to save battery?”
“It’s just that I’m outside. Besides I didn’t realize I’d forgotten the charger.”
“What are you doing outside?” she asked.
“Just enjoying the view.”
“Yeah, the… stars are great.”
“Sounds romantic, just you and Bauer, huh?” she said.
He attempted to fill the silence. “I just called to see how you’re doing. You all right?”
“I’m great.” She sounded great. “How about you?”
“I’m fine. I’ll see you soon.”
“Soon? I thought you were spending the night at the lodge.”
He realized his mistake. “No, I changed my mind. I’ll be home in a couple of hours.”
“How come you aren’t staying the night?”
“I’m bored,” he tried.
“Really?” Pause. “Did you have dinner?”
He looked at his watch. He didn’t realize it was that late. He had missed both lunch and dinner. “Yes.”
“Did you take your medication?”
The question bothered him. “Would you mind not asking me that when there are people around?”
“There’s no one around, I stepped away from everyone.”
Still, he felt annoyed.
“Why does it bother you anyway?”
“Because the last time you asked me the same thing, it was in front of Edmund.”
“I’m sorry then.”
“It’s okay. And, yes, I did take my medication.”
“All right, I’ll see you at home.” She smacked him a kiss over the line, and hung up.
In Rebecca’s kitchen, Jim found a glass by the sink and filled it with tap water. He swallowed the medication he hadn’t yet taken and drank the water after it. As the tablets went down his throat, he almost gagged.
Why had Rebecca lied to him?
Jim flipped through Sandra’s résumé and saw she was adequately qualified for the job he’d picked for her. They were at his office. She sat facing him on the other side of his desk.
He didn’t need to see the résumé. This was a personal decision, and he told her so. She still insisted he feel “comfortable” with his new employee.
“I hope you’ll like the job,” he said.
“I’m sure I will, Mr. Finch.”
“Call me Jim.”
“Thank you, Jim.”
Sandra was a classic blonde. She had ocean blue eyes and glowing skin. She was tall and slender, and had an electric smile. A gray suit and a necklace of gray pearls did little to diminish her wattage.
“So, how do you like being back?” he asked.
“I’m glad to be back.”
“Anything you miss about Los Angeles?”
“Yeah, chowing down in Chinatown. But then again, I ate alone a lot there, here I have friends.” She gazed at him earnestly, her eyes beginning to moisten. “But now that I’m back, I miss Stu.”
He looked away in the moment.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “I shouldn’t mention it.”
“It’s okay. I don’t mind. How long did you date my son?” he asked, discreetly activating a miniature tape recorder under the table.
“Ever since I started college. He came by the campus one day for a friend’s lacrosse game, someone I also knew, and we were introduced. He was handsome and rich, so I asked him out,” she said, laughing.
“He wasn’t the easiest person to deal with, was he?”
“He lived life at 200 mph — nobody like that is easy.” She sighed. “You know, I left for California mainly because I wanted to get away from the memories … after the accident.”
“I didn’t know that.”
She pursed her lips. “I’m glad we’re talking about him, Jim.”
“You must have had strong feelings for him.”
“Hmm… if it wasn’t love, it was pretty darn close.”
“Did he know that?”
“I think so. Did he mention me to you sometimes?”
“Yes, quite often. And I know he once wrote you a Valentine’s Day card that had an old couple on the cover, hand-in-hand on an old porch, rocking on two old rocking chairs.”
She was flattered. “How’d you know that?”
“Because I’d originally bought it for my wife. Stuart snatched it from me, to give to you.”
Her electric smile broke out. “That sounds just like him.”
He decided to pursue a more serious line of conversation. “You must have noticed something different about him at the end.”
She didn’t respond.
“Well, I’ve been thinking about it recently,” he said, “and I recall Stuart’s attitude changed in his final weeks.” Jim didn’t actually recall such a thing, he just wanted to spur Sandra into talking. “And on his last day, he just decided to get up and leave for the mountains, all by himself. Wasn’t like him to do that. When I asked if I could join him, he acted distant, said he preferred to go alone. I wonder, did he tell you he was going to the lodge?”
“Did you try to go with him?”
“I tried, but I didn’t expect a yes. He’d been avoiding me for weeks, too.”
Good, Jim thought, he had her talking. “So, you noticed a change as well.”
“Be straight with me, Sandra. It’s important,” he said very deliberately.
“Do you mind if I have a cigarette?”
“Not at all.”
She lit herself a Virginia Slim. He gave her an ashtray. “Sure, there was a change. I’m not certain though why it’s important now.”
“To me, it is.”
“Let’s see, for one thing he did become pretty much a loner, even at the parties.”
“He’d talk much less, joke less, stuff like that.”
“Why did that happen?”
She blew the smoke of her tobacco toward the ceiling. “Okay, it was Edmund.”
She became troubled. “Do I have to do this, Jim? I understand Edmund’s looking to marry Rebecca, Rebecca loves him, and Edmund loves her… and this stuff is ancient history.”
“I’d like to lay it to rest in my mind.”
“Fine, here it is: Stuart didn’t want Edmund seeing Rebecca. There, you have it!”
“For what reason?”
“For the obvious reason — Stu and Edmund used to party together, have fun with chicks together.”
“They shared women?”
“Not on the same bed, if that’s what you mean.”
Wasn’t quite what he meant, but he got the message.
A faint affected smile appeared on her. “See, Stuart was honest with me about all that. I appreciated his candor. That’s a big reason why Stuart liked me.” She noticed Jim wasn’t interested in the moral debate. “Anyway, the boys worked as a team. And they usually got the girls when they were on the prowl. Of course, considering all of that, the last thing Stuart wanted was Edmund going after his sister. Rebecca was sacred. As far as Stuart was concerned, Edmund was crossing the line there, big-time.”
She put out her cigarette. She’d finished it fast. “I tried to explain to Stuart that it was Rebecca’s choice who she saw, and that I didn’t think Edmund’s intentions were bad. I thought Edmund genuinely felt for her. She was the kind of girl Edmund could fall for — independent, strong and ambitious … and un-slutty. But then Stuart got angry with me for that, saying I was taking Edmund’s side, and that I wasn’t being a true friend. That’s why he stopped seeing me. I thought I was doing the right thing, telling him my opinion. So much for thinking that.”
“How and when did Edmund begin dating Rebecca?” Jim asked.
“Officially, right after a party about two years ago.”
“I don’t know. I mean that’s when we all found out about it. But, obviously, it was going on before that.”
“How was it officialized?”
“Edmund announced the relationship to Stuart after the party, when they were alone.”
“So Stuart was told, he didn’t just find out?”
“As far as I know, Edmund just flat out broke the news to him.”
“Why do you think Edmund waited so long before announcing the relationship to Stuart?”
“He wanted to wait to see if Rebecca was serious about the relationship, that it was something durable, not casual — Edmund told me this. But he was having trouble reading her at first. Rebecca doesn’t reveal her feelings much, as you well know.”
“How did Edmund find out she was serious?”
“The test of time, I suppose.”
“Have you been involved with him?”
It caught her off-balance. “Do you mean, have I slept with Edmund?”
“Take no offense, Sandra. It was simply a question that required asking.”
“Has he ever hit on you?”
“I’m sorry if I’ve been a bit too blunt here,” he told her, meaning it. “Edmund ever try to talk to Stuart to calm things over?”
“Sure, he tried, but it was impossible. And then they stopped talking altogether. That’s when Stu called me for the first time in a long time.”
“What did he say?”
“That he’d forgive me for initially being on Edmund’s side, if I helped him with some hair-brained scheme to get Rebecca to go with me to England, to look at some fancy clothier in London.”
“He knew a girl that modeled for the company, and apparently she was going to convince the owner to give Rebecca an entry level managerial position, something like that. Basically, Stuart wanted Rebecca to move to London and pursue her interests in fashion. And if that didn’t work, he said he’d consider buying a semi-established designer, and convince Rebecca to run it, to take it to the next level. In fact, he even thought about presenting the idea to Finch Corp and you.”
Jim had heard nothing about it. Finch Corp was into industrial materials and alloys. Not a dollar invested in fashion, as far as he knew. “This designer, was his intention to buy it in London as well?”
“Yes. Stu said Rebecca had a thing for haute couture, and that she’d probably jump at the opportunity. I told him, for the sake of argument let’s say she does, but how’s that going to separate her from Edmund? — Edmund could, after all, accompany her to London.”
“Stu said Edmund couldn’t go to London.”
“He didn’t say. Of course, I didn’t listen to him. I told him I didn’t want to get involved, didn’t want to be in the middle of it. Anyway, Stu came to his senses that the idea was dumb and wouldn’t fly. Rebecca wouldn’t have listened to him anyway,” Sandra added, “especially leaving for a new continent. Besides, I for one doubt she had all that much interest in high-end clothing like he thought — I recall the few times we were out together, browsing through some luxury designer’s new selection, and I didn’t see her much interested in the merchandize or the sales pitches. She’d end up pulling me out of the boutique go eat a slice of pizza, or something. I once asked her if she’d ever been to a runway show, and she said no, like she didn’t care.”
“Why did he ask you to help with this London situation? Did you have some influence over Rebecca?”
“None that I was aware of.” Sandra shrugged. “He was just pulling at straws. He was desperate.”
Sandra eyed the ashtray.
“You can have another cigarette if you wish.”
She didn’t hear him. “I’m so sorry, Jim, that I wasn’t there with him when he went up to the lodge. I didn’t want to look like I was chasing him, especially with him being unfair to me, saying I was taking Edmund’s side.” She sighed. “But, really, nobody would have guessed he would have gone skiing after drinking — ”
“It wasn’t like Stuart to do that. He would not drink and drive, ever. He never let friends drink and drive. On the boat, when we were in the middle of nowhere with little chance of hitting anything but a fish, if everyone was drinking, there’d be a designated driver, captain, whatever. He was super-responsible about things like that. Always. So it made no sense to me, what happened.”
“Did any of Stuart’s friends try to convince him to take them to the mountains that day?” It wasn’t the exact question Jim wanted to ask, but a segue.
“I wouldn’t know.”
“What about Edmund?”
“Don’t know.” She thought back. “Even if Edmund had asked Stuart, there was no chance Stu would have said yes. The only way he would have talked to Edmund at that point was if Edmund swore never to see Rebecca again, and that wasn’t going to happen.”
As disarmingly as he could, Jim asked, “So everyone knew Stuart was going up to the lodge alone that day, or was it only you and Edmund?”
“I don’t know who else knew.”
Jim decided to discontinue the line of questioning. It was a minefield to go in the direction. “Did you try to call him at the lodge,” he asked instead.
“No.” It was a melancholy ‘no’.
He felt it prudent to stop there, at least for now. Quietly, he tapped off the recorder. He said, “Well, brothers can be overly protective of their sisters, and Stuart was no exception when it came to Rebecca.” He paused. “Thank you, Sandra, for addressing some of my concerns. I simply needed to know why my son was so troubled at the end, and now I know.”
He clasped his hands together. “Returning to the present and things more pleasant, I hope you enjoy your new job, and your new life here. If there’s anything else I can do, just ask.”
Her blue eyes shone. “Thank you.”
He shook her hand. She walked out of the office. He watched the door close behind her.
Folding his arms on the table, he rested his head on them. Several minutes elapsed. When he looked up eventually, his reflection on a mirrored paperweight on the desk flared back at him. His eyes were bloodshot.
He reached for the phone and pressed the extension for his secretary. “Could you call David Forman to my office?”
“Sir, he’s out for lunch.”
Jim opened a drawer and located a pair of prescription sunglasses, tinted just enough to not arouse excess curiosity. In the early days of the company, after sleepless nights, they came in useful when he had to see people in a state of fatigue. He replaced his regular glasses with the new pair.
The light on his phone lit up. “They found Mr. Forman, sir. He’ll be up in ten minutes.”
David Forman was a Stanford grad and a chum of Stuart’s from high school days. Stuart had given him a position at the company shortly before his death. It was Jim’s impression from seeing the two boys together that his son might have confided in David.
David had a penchant for flashy suspenders and jazzy ties. Dressed true to form this day as well, he mopped up beads of sweat from just under his crew cut hair and explained, “Took the stairs instead of the elevator.”
Jim pointed the chair. David sat. Jim turned on the concealed recorder. “I have a few questions for you.”
“First tell me, what did you know about Stuart’s relationship with Edmund, besides them being friends?”
David shrugged. “They were close in some ways, not so close in others.”
“Stuart liked hanging out with Edmund more than with anybody else, but their relationship was a bit of a roller-coaster ride throughout.”
“Especially at the end, wouldn’t you say?”
“Absolutely. Stu even had me check out Edmund’s employment history at the end. Came out pretty interesting, by the way.”
“What did you find out?”
David stroked his chin. “Between the ages of 17 and 22, Edmund had done everything from car wash to food delivery, in Philadelphia.”
“What brought him from Pennsylvania to Colorado?”
“Stuart saw him performing at a nightclub in Philly a few years ago and pretty much invited him here. Helped him out financially in the beginning. I thought Stu was overdoing it, but you know him — heart of gold and a sucker for talent.” David smiled cryptically, adding, “Hey, he did give me a job here at a hundred grand to start.”
“Let’s get back to Edmund’s history?”
“Right. He was a phenomenal poker player according to the manager at one of the jobs, and liked to play with his payroll to make some extra. The man said Edmund was more than good, especially with the bluffs.”
“And he was fired from another job, just one day after being hired.”
“One of his co-workers was a homosexual and got a little too friendly, it seems. Apparently, lover-boy tried to touch Edmund’s face, wanting to know about the scars, and Edmund shoved him into a wall, threatening to cut his dick off,” David said, guffawing.
Jim didn’t laugh.
David became serious. “I’m sorry, it’s not funny.”
“Did you find out anything about Edmund’s history prior to employment — his parents, schooling, etcetera?”
“Nope. We tried, but drew a blank there. Stu pulled the plug on the background check before long anyway. He said it didn’t matter, said he found out everything he needed through someone else.”
“You’ve told me what Stuart thought of Edmund. What was your opinion of him?”
“I thought he was cool, with a solid head on his shoulders.” David reflected a moment. “Very perceptive, too. More perceptive than most.”
“What makes you say that?”
“He’s got an uncanny knack for figuring out what someone’s thinking. Must be the card game skills.”
Jim recollected Sandra saying that Edmund had been having trouble reading Rebecca at first, about how serious she was about their relationship.
Jim asked David, “What exactly did Edmund figure out, that gave you the impression he had this knack for figuring someone out?”
A sheepish grin. “That I had sort of a latent but lingering crush on Rebecca.”
“When did he figure that out?”
David thought back. “I’d guess about three years ago.”
“How’d he figure it?”
“He asked me questions about her, and I suppose he saw through the answers.” David adjusted his sparkling red suspenders to a higher point on his shoulders.
“What kind of questions did he ask you?”
“General stuff, like how long she’d been away from home, whether she had had any relationships. I guess he could not ask Stuart those questions because, you know Stu, he had that rule — no messing with the sis.”
“Did you get the feeling Edmund had a romantic interest in Rebecca at the time?”
“Nope. But obviously he did.”
“What else can you tell me about him, David?”
“He had a bit of a violent temper in him. When we were at clubs, Edmund didn’t like guys pressing against him. Sometimes he’d shove a guy pretty hard for only brushing into him. Apparently, Stuart avoided crowds when he was with Edmund. That aside, I guess I liked Edmund the few times I went out with him. Although I must admit I wasn’t too crazy about the accent thing.”
Jim leaned forward in his chair. “What accent thing?”
“When Edmund was sober it was one way, and when he was drunk it was another. It wasn’t everything he said — just a couple of words, here and there, coming out differently. I talked to Stuart about it, after everyone went out bar-hopping one time, but Stu said he hadn’t noticed. Then one day, out of the blue, Stuart brought up the subject himself, and asked me what I thought the accent was. I told him it sounded like Brit English to me, and he agreed. Stu said it was probably a ploy to pick up the girls. Maybe. But I didn’t much care for it, don’t think the girls did either.”
Sandra had said Edmund couldn’t go to London if Rebecca went there. “When did Stuart bring up the subject of Edmund’s accent with you, David?”
David tried to recall. “Couple of weeks before the….”
“The skiing accident?”
Jim sat back.
“Why all the interest in Edmund, sir, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“Not at all. He’s marrying my daughter, it’s my business to know.”
“One more thing, did Stuart ever discuss my net worth, or my will, with friends?”
David got uncomfortable with the question.
“It’s no big deal, really,” Jim said to relax him. “Did he?”
“You know Stuart, sir, he was open about everything.”
“How much is our net worth, David?”
David rubbed the troubled frown on his forehead. “Half a billion, sir.”
Close enough, Jim thought. If David knew that, Edmund must have too. “And what about my will and inheritances?”
David fidgeted in his seat. “He only mentioned it in terms of Rebecca.”
“In what way?”
“Stu said you loved Rebecca so much that, even though she’d lived away from home most of her life and wasn’t close to the family, you had split your holdings between Stu and Rebecca equally.”
“Take another hour for lunch, David, and thanks for your help.”
David got up and headed for the door.
“I almost forgot,” Jim interceded.
“You must’ve had a file on Edmund when you researched him. Where is it?”
“Everything I had, Stuart took home.”
David went out the door.
Several hours had passed since Jim requested a copy of the coroner’s report faxed to him.
Earlier, he dropped by the office because he had to, and partially tended to his daily exercise regiment because he needed to. Also earlier, Elizabeth made him endure another interaction with Edmund. He and Rebecca were back from the Bahamas and, for some reason, dropped by to have cake. Jim hated it, every second of it.
Now, back in his study, he was upset the fax had still not arrived. He checked the machine for the umpteenth time to make sure it had paper, that it was plugged in, and that it was turned on.
He didn’t know what exactly he hoped to achieve with the report of his son’s autopsy. After all, if there was any evidence of foul play in it, wouldn’t the authorities have caught it? He wondered the sensibility of exposing himself to the grisly details contained. In the end, he braced himself to go through with it.
He grabbed the phone off the hook, dialed the coroner, and held on until he was finally connected. “This is Jim Finch again. I’m still waiting for that report.”
“I thought it went through already. I told someone to take care of it a while ago.”
“No, it never came. You sure you have the right fax number?”
The man read the number back to him. It was correct. “Stand by, Mr. Finch, I’ll send it through myself in the next minute.”
Jim replaced the receiver, turned in his chair, and stared at his fax machine until the receive mode flashed. When the transmission completed, he tore the document from the machine, took a deep breath, and started reading.
There was nothing that could carve the gut out of a father as completely as this. Subdural hematoma, brain trauma, blown pupil, fractures of skull and spine — all together, they called into question not only Jim’s basic sense of being, but his conceptions of good and God.
The ultimate cause of his son’s death was hypothermia. Stuart died not of wounds resulting from impact with the ground, but from freezing to death. Could have taken hours.
Stuart’s life could’ve been saved if medical attention had reached him. Help never came. Help was never called. So if Edmund was there and it was an accident, he let Stuart die.
Both he and Elizabeth had avoided the coroner’s report two years ago, with no reason to pursue it, and no reason to compound their grief.
Jim gathered the report and tucked it into the safe along with his notes and tapes, evidence he had organized for the police. He went upstairs to Stuart’s room.
Elizabeth was at the Foundation, working on a project that would take a large group of underprivileged kids to their first pro hockey game. In summers past, every other Saturday, Stuart would take Elizabeth’s Foundation kids to a field for soccer if they were little, and lacrosse if they were a little bigger. It had been hard explaining why their coach didn’t come by anymore.
Stuart’s bedroom was special, a mishmash of things that didn’t quite go together. His bed, sheltered under a low barreled ceiling, had posts topped off with works of tribal art. The fireplace in front worked on gas — instead of logs, a heavy iron chain glowed red when hot. Above the fireplace, Stuart’s electric guitar and lacrosse stick grazed the wall.
The headboard of the bed was thick and wide. The vase that rested atop was Elizabeth’s idea after Stuart’s death. In it, she kept strange flowers that she changed periodically. Where she found them and what they were, Jim did not know. Their fragrance, like incense, filled the air.
Jim went to work.
In Stuart’s bathroom, Jim washed his glasses under the tap of a cast-bronze sink. Behind him, natural light flooded the region through sandblasted glass blocks.
He had meticulously sifted through boxes, drawers, shelves, as well as shirt, jacket, and trouser pockets. Item by item, the contents were investigated, in the hope of finding something. The effort left his glasses covered in a film of dust. But it was worth it.
Tucked away in one of boxes containing manila folders, he’d found money wiring instructions and a telephone number for a London private-eye named Albert Smyth, and photocopies of old newspaper stories from London, from fifteen years ago. Even before Jim had begun reading, he recognized the faded pictures of the boy that flashed across nearly every page. It was a much younger Edmund. Except, according to the reports, Edmund was actually John Cunningham by name.
John Cunningham lived in a middle class neighborhood on the outskirts of London. His parents owned a small jewelry store, and the family lived above it. John was the youngest member of a blues band that performed at local restaurants and pubs, and was a minor celebrity of sorts for his skills on the piano. He was a responsible kid, bringing home his pay, every week, to help his parents out.
John was 16 when the boutique was robbed in the middle of the night by an armed assailant, high on drugs. All three members of the family were savagely beaten during the assault and required hospitalization.
Days later, in what appeared to be an unrelated event at first, a man was restrained, stabbed and mutilated to death in an apartment building a few miles away. Tied to a bed with coat hangers, his arms and legs spread, the body was stripped naked and attacked with a knife. The hands and feet had been punctured, the victim’s genitalia entirely severed.
An item of jewelry discovered in the victim’s apartment was traced back to the Cunningham store. The Cunninghams were questioned. When investigators returned for a second round of questioning, they found John had fled, his parents claiming to know nothing of his whereabouts.
A subsequent crime scene investigation produced evidence of John’s involvement in the killing. A warrant for the boy’s arrest was issued. The charge was murder.
Jim walked out of the bathroom. He sat on Stuart’s bed.
The manila folder, storing the newspaper articles and the private investigator’s name, was dated about three weeks before Stuart’s death. To Jim, here’s how it seemed to add up:
• Stuart found out Edmund was seeing Rebecca. Enraged, and lacking recourse, he ran a background check into his old buddy to dig up dirt, and dug up perhaps more than he bargained for.
• Stuart felt personally responsible for the problem he’d created — he’d befriended Edmund and brought him into Rebecca’s life. With no one to turn to, Stuart decided to hold Edmund hostage to his past in London. An ultimatum was issued: break it up with Rebecca or face the music.
• Edmund, unhappy with both options, invented a third.
Jim rose from the bed and paced the floor.
Okay, he’d found capacity and motive, with motive enhanced by the prospect of fortune. With Stuart out of the way, Rebecca stood to inherit twice as much.
Jim sat back on the bed.
The wedding and the relationship had to end. Priorities had to be shuffled. Proving to authorities Edmund’s culpability in Stuart’s death, could no longer be at the top of the deck. There was no telling how long the gathering of proof would take. Separating Edmund from his daughter, had to have precedence. He couldn’t save Stuart anymore. Rebecca, he could.
Now that he had something material on Edmund, should Elizabeth be told? Jim pondered that. No, it wasn’t time yet.
As he departed Stuart’s room, Jim wasn’t sure how he felt about the things he’d learned. In a way, he felt better. At least now he understood the nature of the threat. At the same time, he was afraid of his discovery. Afraid that somewhere out there Rebecca was close to Edmund, lying next to him. He was afraid Stuart had suffered when he died.
Jim walked down the hall. As the incense of the flowers fell behind him, he wondered — truly wondered — whether everything that had happened was all a wretched dream.
Elizabeth had organized dinner out with Rebecca and Edmund for the evening. Jim didn’t mind this time. He wasn’t sure why he felt that way.
After combing his silver head of hair with a slight darkening cream, Jim relaxed in the master bedroom and watched Elizabeth transform. First, she stepped out of the shower, naked, and threw him a wink, well aware he was looking. Water in her hair trickled down the length of her back. Under a blow-drier, her waves of dark blonde reappeared. Next came a blood-red evening gown, red lipstick, and mascara. Sapphires, dangling on threads of platinum, slipped into her ears. Another stone in blue came to rest just above the intersection of her breasts. When the entirety of her transformation was over, she was scintillating. For a second, Jim hoped nobody at the restaurant would think he was the proud father of two beautiful daughters.
“Why are you laughing?” Elizabeth’s voice.
“Why are you laughing all by yourself?”
He had felt liberated in the moment, free for a second to have a bit of humor in his life again, that’s why. “No particular reason.”
“Could you call Edmund and tell him we’re ready?” she said.
“Why do we need to do that?”
“If we leave at the same time, we get there at the same time, and no one ends up waiting.” Smirking, she added, “Would you like me to draw you a picture to clarify that?”
“Wouldn’t it have been easier if you’d just given them a time to meet at the restaurant?”
Her sarcastic look held on. “Yes, it would’ve been easier, Mr. Logistics, and we did decide on a time to meet, but I promised to call anyway. Do you think that was impractical of me?”
“Then, could you please call Edmund and tell him we’re ready?”
He nodded, gritted his teeth, and went to the phone, regretting the loss of his short-lived moment of mirth. While Elizabeth filled her handbag in front of the dressing table, he dialed the number. He turned his back to her mirror.
He let it ring twice, and was just about ready to hang up and tell Elizabeth that Edmund and Rebecca must have left already, when Edmund picked up. “Hello?”
“Just called to say we’re on the way.”
“Jim, how are you?”
“Good. We’re on the way.”
“What are you wearing tonight?”
He clenched his jaws and released them. “A tuxedo.”
“That’s what I’m wearing. But I think the women are outdoing us, wouldn’t you say?”
“How’s Elizabeth looking?”
“Just fine. We’ll see you later.”
Damn, since when did he like yapping so much drivel! “I’ve built up an appetite.”
“So have I. I hear the suckling pig’s quite a splash.”
“See you soon.” He hung up, and turned around to find Elizabeth in his face. “You could have asked him how the trip to the Bahamas went, you know.”
Jim moved away. “I thought I asked him that earlier today.”
“No, you didn’t.”
“So I’ll ask him at dinner.” He picked up his jacket. “What’s so special about this dinner for it to be black tie, anyway?”
“They have a date for the wedding.”
The illumination at the restaurant was a mixture of yellow and pink hues against warm ochre walls and black marble floors. The music was live, the soft kind with stringed instruments and piano. Rebecca was in a green strapless. Her auburn hair was free and swept onto her left shoulder. A skin-tone lipstick blended with her mouth. She wore costume jewelry, as usual. Edmund looked his typical self, except for the giant tuxedo.
Rebecca kissed Jim and Elizabeth, Edmund kissed Elizabeth and shook Jim’s hand. Jim wished it had been a left hand shake, to avoid contact with Edmund’s diamond ring.
Edmund looked happy. Rebecca looked happy. Elizabeth was happy. Jim and Edmund were waiting for the women to sit before taking their chairs when Rebecca said to Edmund, “Wait, let Dad sit next to me tonight.”
“Certainly,” Edmund said, shifting willingly.
Rebecca gave Elizabeth a warm smile. “He’s mine for tonight, if that’s okay.”
“Fine by me,” Elizabeth replied.
Even though he knew all too well that a wedding was the source of Rebecca’s elevated spirits, her choice of words still had an effect on him. He took his seat by her.
The wedding date was a little over eight weeks away. Edmund and Rebecca wanted a private affair, with only a limited number of guests.
Jim kept his silence. Most of the time he stared at his hands. Occasionally he met Rebecca’s eyes, briefly. The champagne came, the food came — Edmund consumed almost an entire newborn pig — then dessert and coffee. Jim tried to savor his meal. It felt like a normal thing to do, to enjoy lobster tail and crab cakes.
“Dad, would you dance with me?” Rebecca asked.
The music in the background came rushing to Jim’s ears. “Yes,” he replied. He looked around. “Is there a place to dance?”
“We’ll make one.”
Rebecca offered her hand. He couldn’t recall the last time he’d held her hand. She led him between the tables, maneuvering until they found a spot close to the musicians. The four men playing the instruments nodded their approval.
Rebecca put her arm around his neck, and Jim put his arm around her waist.
“Ready?” she asked.
They danced to a tune by Irving Berlin.
It was the most amazing thing.
“I’m sorry about Stuart,” she said.
“I can’t replace him for you.”
“I wouldn’t want you to replace him. Just be there.”
“I will. I’m sorry I wasn’t there for a long time.”
“The same could be said of me.”
“Edmund’s changing my life,” she said softly. “He’s a good man. He’s been encouraging me to get closer to you, and Elizabeth.”
Jim wondered if that was why she was dancing with him. He peered over Rebecca’s shoulder to Elizabeth. She was in the thick of a discussion with Edmund. Elizabeth appeared so carefree.
Jim began to feel lousy. He felt a liar, not telling her what he knew.
He wouldn’t leave Elizabeth in the dark for too long. His solution was close at hand. London was about eight hours ahead of his time zone. It was tomorrow there already. “Shall we sit?” he asked Rebecca.
She kissed him softly on the cheek. “Okay.”
When the band adjourned, Edmund asked the restaurant manager’s permission to go up on stage and play a piece on the piano. The manager, reluctant at first, obliged after a thumbs-up from Elizabeth who he knew to be a VIP in social circles.
Edmund tried to go up discreetly, but the women at the many tables noticed him. He sat at the piano, laid his fingers on the keyboard, and shuttered his eyes to exhale. Rebecca said it was going to be an original, something Edmund had created for her.
As the piece progressed, the music caught the ears of every person there.
Whatever they were doing, they stopped, and gazed in fascination. As the notes resonated through the restaurant, the band returned to hear him. A chef came out of the kitchen.
Elizabeth, settled as she normally was, was awed. Rebecca’s eyes grew teary. Jim listened and he watched, unable to move. It was powerful music, full of a passion that could not be contained.
It lasted nearly fifteen minutes. Everyone gave Edmund a standing ovation. Jim only stood.
Jim woke at 5 am. By 5:30, he was at the train station, just a brisk brief walk from his home. In London, business was long open. “I’ll call back in two hours,” Jim said, and hung up the public phone.
He had been vague. He did not identify himself, only telling them he had important information to convey to the detective in charge of the Cunningham case. He didn’t specify he knew the whereabouts of John Cunningham, and didn’t reveal where he was calling from. The policeman who answered said that the detective in charge was out and would return in less than two hours. So Jim had time to burn.
Outside, things were quiet — it usually was, being the last stop on the line. He waved down the only taxi there, and asked the driver to take him to a deli nearby. At the deli, he ordered a bottle of mineral water and sat at an outdoor table.
The entirety of his plan hadn’t yet been mapped out. But he’d decided to initiate it, to see where it took him. The basic idea was to anonymously force proceedings in London, have Edmund arrested and returned to England and, after Edmund was in custody, pursue his own quest into the circumstances of Stuart’s death. Edmund’s arrest would achieve the priority of separating him from Rebecca.
Edmund’s status in the US had to be that of an illegal immigrant. He was, for starters, running around under an assumed name. Branded with a British charge of murder, he’d be extradited rather quickly. The question was, how would Edmund’s case play out in a London court.
The mitigating aspects in Edmund’s favor were obvious. At the time of the homicide, vicious as it was, Edmund was sixteen and possibly had no prior record. He’d hunted down and killed an armed robber who had grievously attacked his family. In the eyes of a jury, the Cunninghams would be presented as law-abiding citizens whose lives were altered by the assault and battery. The defense would portray Edmund as the loving son who, overcome by understandable rage, meted out a violent retribution, unthinking of the consequences of his actions — not atypical of psychologically damaged juvenile behavior.
The flip side of the argument would be: First, Edmund’s act was sadistic — a torture killing. Second, the victim had been murdered days after, in his home, miles away, indicating premeditation. Third, Edmund had fled the law, and his country, after commission of the crime.
Jim sipped on his water. It was ice cold and hurt his teeth.
Regardless of outcome, an arrest and a trial would provide time to find evidence that would connect Edmund to Stuart’s death, without the worry of a killer lying next to his daughter in her bed.
Jim consulted his watch. An hour remained.
The sky was clear. A faded daytime moon hovered over trees swaying lightly in a breeze. He raised the collar of his coat to cover his neck. The sunshine that fell on him was not warming.
“What do you mean the case has been closed and the charges dropped?” Jim asked, stunned.
“Precisely that,” the detective answered. “Don’t you read the papers?”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t keep up. What happened?”
“We received a written confession from John Cunningham’s father.”
“The father did it?”
“Didn’t I just say that?”
“What happened to the father?”
“He passed away six months ago.”
“No, at home of natural causes. We received a signed confession before he died.”
“Was there proof the father did it?”
“Yes, the confession.” Impatience in the detective’s voice.
Jim was amazed. “And you believed it?”
“No reason not to.”
It was ludicrous. The case had been laid to rest based on a confession written by a dying man, certain he would never see the inside of a cell, in defense of his only child. “Then why did John flee the country?” Jim asked.
“We have no reason to believe he fled the country.”
Jim rephrased the question. “Why did he run away?”
“It’s obvious, isn’t it? The boy wanted to deflect attention away from his father.”
As lame as that rationale was, Jim expected it.
“Look,” the detective said, “unless you have some new information to prove otherwise, let’s not waste each other’s time. Alright?”
Jim remained silent.
“Do you think the father did it?” Jim asked.
“That’s not bloody important now, is it?”
“Thanks,” Jim said. “I’m sorry I wasted your time.”
The detective wasn’t finished. “Maybe you should show some understanding, whoever you are. John Cunningham is out there somewhere, separated from his family for the past 15 years. He couldn’t even see his father die, or be there to console his mother. All because some fucking queer destroyed their lives. As far as we’re concerned, we hope John’s having a nice life somewhere, and we wish him the best of luck for all the days to come.”
“Let me ask you this, does John have any relatives on the police force?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“He has an uncle, but are you suggesting that has something to do with our conclusion?”
“Of course not, detective. Have a good day.” Jim hung up the phone.
He had barely stepped away from the phone when he paused in mid-stride. He retrieved a paper in his pocket that contained the telephone number and wiring instructions for Albert Smyth, the London private investigator that Stuart had hired and sent money to a few weeks before he died. He dialed the number.
Around him, morning travelers had begun to pop up at the station.
“I’m calling international long distance and I have an unusual request. It’s extremely important that you help me.”
“Who are you?”
“I’ll get to that.
“About two years ago, someone hired you to investigate an individual by the name of John Cunningham.”
“How could I forget, Stuart Finch from America. I remember him quite well, very pleasant fellow.”
“I’m going to call you back from a different phone.”
“Be my guest.”
Outside the station, Jim got on his cell. “Mr. Smyth, I’m Stuart’s father and I have a question. Was John Cunningham raped by the assailant who robbed the jewelry store?” Earlier, the detective had called the attacker a “queer”.
Smyth was silent.
“If it’s money you need for the information, I have your wiring instructions here.”
“Why is it that you aren’t acquiring this information from your son?”
“He’s traveling and unreachable.”
“Was John raped?”
“Yes, unfortunately he was. He was knocked unconscious, then bound and gagged. John put up quite a struggle when he realized what was happening, but the rapist cut his face open and nearly stabbed John in the eye. It was a terrible thing. The family hushed it up. So did the police.”
“How did you get the medical records?”
“I used to be a constable.”
“Do you think it was John who killed the assailant?”
“Definitely. John’s father was a slightly built man. His mother is the large one, but obviously I don’t think the mother did it. The depth of the stab wounds, the way the victim was tied with hangers, indicate it was all done by someone who was big and strong. At 16, John was already very tall and muscular.” Smyth paused. “It’s sad really. He was a good kid, I’ve learned — hard working and responsible. Who knows what this horrible episode did to him, what it turned him into.”
Jim asked, “What did Stuart tell you as reason for wanting to investigate Mr. Cunningham?”
“He gave me no reason. Your son sent me a photograph of someone he wanted checked out that he thought was English, and asked me to see if that person had a criminal record in this country. I found out he did. And that’s that. I wasn’t curious as to how your son acquired the photograph, or where the person in it was living. Ex-cop that I am, I’m still not the least bit interested in seeing John prosecuted. I’m assuming both you and your son know where he is.”
Jim didn’t respond to that.
Smyth continued, “In any event, it might be futile to try to prosecute him. A jury would be hard pressed to send him to prison for what he did, considering his plight and that he was a youngster at the time.”
“Did you make that clear to Stuart?”
Jim said, “John’s father confessed to the crime prior to succumbing to illness six months ago.”
“Well, then so be it.”
“Is there anything else you can tell me?”
“Not really. But I can tell you that your son is a splendid young man. Very charming. And a gentleman. How’s he faring, Mr. Finch?” Smyth asked enthusiastically.
“He’s well. Thank you for asking.”
“Then give him my regards. And, on second thought, don’t bother with wiring me anything. Just tell Stuart he owes me a beer if he ever sets foot in London someday.”
“Goodbye, Mr. Smyth.”
Jim folded the cell phone and began to walk home.
Smyth had made it clear to Stuart that the case against Edmund in London was a loser. Stuart’s ultimatum to Edmund was not: ‘leave Rebecca, or he’d inform London authorities’ but rather: ‘leave Rebecca, or she’d be informed’. Stuart’s threat was to bring back Edmund’s appalling and humiliating past to haunt his comparatively pristine present.
Stuart had the benefit of holding Edmund hostage to his past. Edmund’s father had not yet confessed and died. So Rebecca would have had to believe that Edmund did the killing.
I don’t have that choice, Jim realized. If he were to tell Rebecca now, Edmund would simply counter that his father did it, that he was only 16 and couldn’t have done it. It was Edmund’s and the London police’s word against Jim’s and some private eye with an opinion.
I don’t want to tell her anyway. Telling her means losing access to a number of solutions better left available.
Jim began to walk faster. The breeze had turned to wind. The sun felt remote.
Stuart issued Edmund an ultimatum. Knowing Stuart, it was likely not worded delicately. To Edmund, it was a threat and more — a deep and personal insult, the eruption of an old and insidious wound. After being sodomized, Edmund had spent more than a dozen years redefining his manhood. He’d chased women relentlessly and consummated sexual relations with them to prove what he had to, to himself.
In Stuart, Edmund thought he’d found someone to show it off to and match talents against. In Stuart, Edmund found a practitioner as much as an admirer of his prowess for hunting, cornering, and consuming the female. Stuart’s admiration was Edmund’s vindication of his past. And then Stuart took it all away by telling Edmund he was not good enough for his sister, that he wasn’t man enough for the woman that mattered most.
From that instance on, Stuart became a bad memory, personifying all of Edmund’s resurfacing inadequacies.
Then there was the money. Stuart was the sole entity that stood between Edmund and a pot of gold. All roads led to a mountain lodge encounter.
As Jim entered the gates to his home, he began to run. In the background, he thought he heard rolls of thunder. It could’ve been his heart pounding in his ears. He didn’t stop running until he made it inside the safety of his home.
Elizabeth searched him for an answer.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Jim responded breathlessly. He had barely gotten back after a really bad morning, and here was his wife making matters worse. He sat behind his desk and bent to take off his shoes. His feet had begun to ache and swell. It was the first time he’d run in years.
Elizabeth came next to him. She had rollers in her hair. “Jim, you should know by now that I can read you like a book. And I’ve notice a marked change in your attitude toward Edmund. So stop jerking me around. What’s going on?”
He considered his answer.
“I discovered something about Edmund’s history that bothered me. That’s why I had such a hard time with him.”
He selectively educated her of the Cunningham case. He didn’t mention Stuart’s private eye, or the sexual assault on Edmund. Gory details of the assailant’s murder were edited out as well. He simply told her the victim was found dead in his apartment. The case was closed, he concluded, and all charges had been dropped.
“Why,” she asked solemnly.
“Because of a confession from the father.”
“Did the detective say they had proof it was the father, besides the confession?”
“What was the proof?”
“Something about fingerprints.”
“And you believed him?”
“Yes.” He knew he had handled the set of lies expertly. He looked her straight in the eye each time.
She relaxed. “So, there’s no problem then.”
“Fine.” She turned to go, but paused halfway. Her blue nightgown swung and came back with her. “Why didn’t you tell me about this earlier?”
“I just wanted to have all the facts first.”
“So why didn’t you mention it to me ten minutes ago when you did have all the facts? Why’d I have to yank it out of you?”
“I wasn’t sure it needed mentioning, considering Edmund was innocent. I didn’t want to change the way you thought of him, I guess.”
“Why would I think of him differently if he’s innocent?”
He shrugged. “People look at people differently, Elizabeth, when they know there’s something sordid to their past.”
Before going out the door, she asked, “What do you want for breakfast?”
“Whatever you’re in the mood for.”
“I’m in the mood for bacon and eggs and you’re not allowed to have that.”
To hell with his doctor’s orders, Jim decided. “Let me have it anyway.”
“I’ll give you egg whites. And you can have a bite of my bacon.” She smiled for the first time.
“Fine, no cholesterol,” he said, thinking he did have to live long enough to solve his problem.
“How did you find out about Edmund?”
“Not knowing enough about him, I took the initiative.”
“Okay.” And she went out.
Jim made notes of his conversations with the London police and Albert Smyth, and stuffed them into the growing file in his safe.
He sat on a chair and waited for Rebecca to come out of the dressing room. Elizabeth was in the room with her.
“Is your daughter getting married?”
He looked up at a man, beaming from under pudgy cheeks. “Uh-huh.”
“So, is my daughter.”
“Congratulations.” Now, go away.
“It’s hard, letting her go, isn’t it?”
That was all Jim could handle. “Do you know where there’s a restroom in here?”
The man acted like he understood his reaction, and pointed him to an attendant. “She’d know.”
Jim zeroed in on the attendant, asked her, and managed his way to the men’s room she directed him to.
As he walked past people, everyone smiled at him. Everyone seemed so blissful. The whole world seemed blissful. Even the mannequins.
The restroom was a private one that accommodated one person at a time. Glad about that, he shut the door and locked it.
He took off his glasses and washed his hands. Then he slapped cold water on his face several times, until he cooled down. He stared at himself in the mirror for several seconds. His face was bloodless.
There was no way he could confront Edmund with his knowledge, and hope he’d simply go away. Even if he did go away, how could that be a legitimate and conclusive end to this story? His son’s death had to be avenged before he could call anything a solution.
He opened the hot water, let it flow till it turned really hot, then slapped that onto his face to bring some color back. Having told Elizabeth that all was resolved, that everything was fine and dandy, he had to look the part. He peered at his face in the mirror again. Rinsed in steaming water, it was still bloodless.
He went out of the bathroom. Elizabeth and an attendant were at Rebecca’s side, sticking a few last pins in. Rebecca was complete in her dress of ivory colored silk. She looked ravishing, in spite of his mood.
“Dad, come here.”
He made it to her side.
“How do I look?”
“Do you like the dress?”
“It’s fabulous,” Elizabeth added, pouring on.
Rebecca was ecstatic. Elizabeth was ecstatic. He felt alone, starkly alone.
When Rebecca was a child and Stuart still a toddler, they shared a bedroom.
Having grown into a pre-teen, Rebecca still preferred Stuart around, sleeping in close proximity. After Rebecca went to boarding school, and young Stuart graduated to his own bigger quarters, the original room they shared was kept the same, unchanged from the day it was last occupied.
Jim treaded though it, taking his time, winding in between the pieces of furniture.
Rebecca’s half of the room was neat and humble. Stuart’s side was crowded. It had a play tent, used as hideaway every time mother came looking for completion of some minor chore. It also had an authentic wigwam, where little Stuart — chief of the tribe — convened secret war meetings with imaginary fellow feather-heads, on how to regain the West from the bad ol’ cowboys. Details, like the play hatchets sprawled across the floor, were positioned as they were from back in the day.
The children’s safety had been an obsession of Jim’s. He had low beds custom built, in case anyone fell out at night. He didn’t permit Elizabeth to put in any heavy-lidded chests that could drop and crush fingers. Once, catching Stuart climbing layers of shelves to get to the top, Jim had taken a whole half-day off from work to put in a second round of bolts on every shelf, to secure them further to the wall.
Elizabeth criticized him for the obsession. By preempting the kids’ every move, he was stifling the development of their “internal defense mechanisms,” she said, and dulling their “innate sense of danger.” Jim couldn’t help wondering if that was why Stuart was not alive today, if that was why Rebecca couldn’t see the peril that now lurked around her.
The phone rang in the distance. Jim hurried out of the room and into the master bedroom.
“Hi, Dad. How are you?”
“What are you doing?”
“Oh, just moping around your old room, the one you shared with Stu.”
She was quiet a second. “Reminiscing?”
“Dad, how many people do you think you want to invite to the wedding?”
“I don’t know. I think Elizabeth’s working on that.”
“You must have some idea.”
He felt Rebecca wasn’t particularly seeking an answer, just wanting to talk.
“Mom’s thinking of a string quartet instead of an organist. What do you think?”
Mom! He didn’t realize his ex-wife was attending. “When’s she coming to town?”
“Not her. I’m talking about Elizabeth.”
Wow, Rebecca had finally come around to calling Elizabeth her ’Mom’. “I think that’s a lovely idea.” He sank back into the pillows on the bed.
“Do you think you want to invite a lot of people from the company?”
Hadn’t she originally wanted it to be a private affair? “I don’t think so.”
Jim heard Edmund’s voice suddenly rise in the background, “There’s only so many people we can fit into a church, baby.”
Whatever good Jim was feeling seconds earlier, flickered out.
“Don’t listen to him, Dad. Invite as many people as you want.”
“Okay.” Every positive development in Rebecca’s attitude clearly bore a double edge.
Edmund’s voice again, “I’m stepping out to pick up dishwasher detergent. Want me to get you anything?”
“Yeah,” Rebecca said, “cigarettes.”
A door closed audibly as Edmund went out.
“You see, Dad, I picked a good man. Even got him doing the dishes.”
A silence passed between them.
“I need to ask you a favor. Edmund needs to take his truck to the garage for repairs, some time before the wedding. Do you think he can borrow your Aston Martin when he does?”
“What’s wrong with his truck?”
“It was my fault. I pulled back into a pillar in a parking lot. Anyway, I’m hoping after he drives your car, he’ll trade in the truck.”
“It’s complicated. Sometimes, when he’s on the piano at home, when he thinks I’m in the shower or sleeping and not listening, I detect a deep sadness to his music. There’s a hurt in him I can’t place.” She paused. “Like I said, it’s complicated to explain. But I’d like him to drive something more lively, instead of a dark dreary truck. Maybe a sports car, a bit of flash and pizzazz, will take some of the somber out of his life. I’ve saved some money over the years, so I want to offer him a down payment as wedding gift. But first I need to get him wanting, and the only way to do that is to put him in one, driving.”
“Why don’t I just buy you a sports car and let him keep the truck? This way he can borrow it from you from time to time, to raise his spirits.”
“Dad, you’re not listening.”
He was, he just didn’t want to hear it.
“Besides,” she said, “I like my little Volkswagen. The truck’s a real pain, so I don’t mind seeing it go. When we go out on the town, barhopping, and Edmund drinks, I’m made designated driver. But, even sober, it’s too big for my parallel parking skills. Just need to get Edmund to part with it. It’ll be hard — it’s his second Range Rover, you know. He’s so faithful, he got this one right after the last one was stolen.”
“Stolen? Around here?”
“Yeah, in town. About two years ago.”
“Did they ever recover it?”
“Nope, gone without a trace.”
Jim was silent.
“Do you think he could borrow it, Dad?”
He gathered himself. “Which dealership does he use?”
“There’s only one for Range Rovers around here. It’s on Mercer. Why do you ask?”
“Uh, I might want to check into getting myself something different, as well. I’m using the company car a lot and sometimes the company needs it. Listen, Rebecca, I have to go. Got a report to finish.”
“But you didn’t say if Edmund could borrow your car for a day or two when his truck goes in for repair?”
“He can. Bye.”
“Good afternoon, Mr. Finch.” The manager of the dealership motioned him to a chair.
“Finally glad to meet the man behind the company that sends all those Finch Corp trucks on that road every day,” the manager said, pointing to the road in front as if it were necessary. “Where are they headed?”
“Lots of places. Um, can we get started?”
“Sorry, I forget you must have other things to attend to besides this.” The man somehow fit his severely overweight frame between the handles of his chair. “As you can see, I have no choice but to drive an SUV,” he said, splitting his thick lips to chuckle morosely. “How can I help you?”
“Well I’m considering my options for something spacious.”
“If it’s space with class you’re looking for, you’ve come to the right place.”
Jim felt the man was going to begin his sales pitch, so he spoke swiftly, “My daughter’s fiancé buys his trucks from you.”
“Really, did he refer you to us?”
“No, my daughter did. But perhaps you can pull him up on your computer.” Jim rolled his chair around the desk as he said that, to a position from which he could see the monitor.
Surprised only slightly by Jim’s action, the manager reached for the keyboard. He punched in commands, in slow motion almost, as he struggled to avoid striking several keys at once, given the width of his fingers. “Okay, what’s his name, your son-in-law?”
“He’s not my so-in-law.”
“Didn’t you just say — ?”
“No, he’s my daughter’s fiancé — not my son-in-law.”
“Uh-okay. What’s his name?”
The manager typed in the name, and brought up the file. “Oh, yes. Mr. Barringer has bought two Range Rovers from us so far.”
Jim peered at the monitor. “Where does it say WHEN he bought the second one?”
The manager indicated the line, leaving a sweaty grease mark to highlight it.
Edmund had bought a new truck the day after Stuart’s funeral.
“I heard he had his first truck stolen,” Jim said.
“Around here? Strange.”
Strange? — No. More like convenient.
“He got this one right after the last one was stolen,” Rebecca had said. So, Edmund had purchased a new vehicle within days of Stuart’s body being found, quite certain the old one — the ‘stolen’ one — would not be recovered.
After Jim got home, he made careful notes of his meeting at the dealership.
Each time he wrote Edmund’s name, his pen went through the paper into the table underneath.
After he completed the report, he neatly stacked it inside his safe, and went upstairs to pack for an evening flight to Las Vegas.
If he were to die in a plane crash — if he were to die, period — or be mentally incapacitated by a stroke or whatever, arrangements had been made for Elizabeth to learn everything. The notes in the safe were part of the notification.
Rebecca’s relationship with Edmund, like many a relationship, was based on trust. Misplaced trust, put to the test, could be cracked and broken.
It’d been a short flight to Vegas. After landing, Jim made the necessary phone calls, arrived early at the lounge, and nursed the same glass of wine until the company he expected arrived.
He studied the two women who sat before him. They were both exceptional brunettes, tall, sleek, and curvaceous, as expected. They were probably in their early-twenties. He had asked for twins, if that were possible, and had received something close enough. “You’re not twins, are you?”
“Depends what part of us you’re looking at.”
So far, the same girl named Sabrina had done much of the talking. She’d done much of the grinning as well. “We’re about a year apart.” Sabrina may not have been the leader, though.
And that showed soon enough. “All right, Jim,” the ‘twin’ named Kelly said, “we understand you have a very special job for us, and you’re willing to pay top dollar.”
“So, let’s get on with it.”
It took him fifteen minutes to explain what he wanted done. “Remember, you’ve got one week. After that, you fly back to Vegas whether you’re successful or not. Don’t overdo it and don’t make it obvious, that’s important. Your target will likely not respond if you come on to him. He’s had numerous women under his belt, and can add many more to his scorecard if he wants. He’ll respond only if you pose a challenge to him. What he relishes, I hear, is the conquest, and not the actual act itself.”
Sabrina said, “Got it.”
“When you angle this video recorder” — it was camouflaged into the fabric of a ladies’ handbag that Jim pointed to — “make sure it’s positioned to also catch an image of the TV channel I told you, to validate the date and time of your recording. No TV picture, no tape. You understand?”
Kelly spoke. “Before we agree to anything, why don’t you tell us how much you’re paying, because this isn’t exactly routine stuff you’re asking us to do?”
“$1000 cash now, for your twenty minutes here tonight. Plus $1000 more, for your plane tickets. $8000 when you arrive in town for a hotel of your choice, meals, etcetera. And $90,000 if you get me the tape in good order. Grand total: $100,000 … provided you succeed”
Sabrina beamed. As did Kelly.
He reached into his pocket and produced an envelope, containing airfare and first installment.
Jim’s cell phone rang just as he came out of the shower. It was Sabrina. “We have him in a fancy bar called Mark’s. Kelly’s with him, I’m on the phone by the pee-room.”
Sabrina and Kelly had been in town three days. “Was he alone?”
“He was with some woman before. He called her ‘Elizabeth’.”
Elizabeth had said she would be discussing wedding details with Edmund. “She didn’t notice you two, did she?”
“No, but we gave him the eye every now and then, just to warm him up.”
“Did you succeed?”
“He did stay behind after the woman left, that’s a good sign. He thinks we’re college students from Long Island, New York, on vacation.”
“Do you look like students?”
“No, we look like strippers — come on, Jim, have some faith.”
“What if he asks you questions about your major?”
“We’d tell him the truth.”
“You actually went to college in New York?”
“Didn’t exactly try for Dean’s List, but yeah.”
“What did you give him as a reason for coming here?”
“Bachelorette party, for a sorority sister of ours.”
“And how are you affording all this?”
“Daddy — who happens to live in King’s Point, Nassau County, where people like you would fit right in, if you weren’t stuck here.”
“Why are you going with this rich daddy charade?”
“There was this customer, a young man, early twenties, in a sharp suit, solid gold Rolex watch, who threw a $100 tip at the bartender for just one $45 round of Chivas Regal Royal Salute. We noticed our target glare at him a few times. So we got the feeling the target holds some kind of grudge against rich kids. Saying we’re rich kids, might make him want to fuck us like cheap back-alley whores — that’s why we went with the rich daddy thing.”
“What’s he doing?”
“Be careful, he can handle his alcohol. If Kelly gets drunk trying to keep up with him, and says something…”
“All right, go back to him now. Do your thing.”
Jim made up his mind to drive. It had been a long time. He rolled his car out of the garage, and drove slowly.
If Edmund bit, and the videotape got made, Jim would have it land in Rebecca’s hands. She would never know its source.
Jim pulled to the roadside across the street, from where he could observe Sabrina and Kelly in action through the floor-to-ceiling glass that went around the establishment. It appeared they were doing well. They had Edmund drinking shots, they had him laughing and putting his arms around them. They weren’t overly provocative, or overplaying the seduction. Sometimes they hit on the handsome bartender who served them, and ignored Edmund for a while. All of that was good, Jim thought. They weren’t coming across as easy lays.
Twenty minutes went by.
Suddenly, Edmund got up, dropped some money on the counter, kissed both girls on the cheek, and walked out.
After Edmund was long gone, Jim called the bar and Sabrina came to his car.
“What happened?” he asked.
She shrugged. “He just … got up and left. He asked us where we’re staying. I told him the hotel. He asked us what we’ve got planned. I told him we’d go back to our room, change, and head out to dinner and a club.”
“He didn’t press for an invitation to the club.”
“Nope. Didn’t ask or offer even a phone number. Just said thanks for the laughs, wished us a great time in town, and … like I said, just got up and left. Oh, he did mention something about there being a woman in his life as he went out the door.”
Jim was silent.
She could see that he was thinking. “Jim, if you’re thinking we should try again, I don’t think so. There’s nothing we’d want more than to earn the other ninety grand, but the guy’s rock solid. If we couldn’t break him today, we’re not going to break him tomorrow. I mean Kelly’s good at reading people, and I checked with her — she thinks the fella’s unbreakable. Besides, he’s gorgeous — if we thought it possible, we’d be willing to ride him for free.”
Jim gazed at her a long time.
She sensed his despair, put her hand on his shoulder, and said, “Sorry.”
Even if, somehow, Jim could get Edmund deported back to England, two complications loomed. One, would Rebecca follow him? There was always a chance. If Rebecca followed Edmund to England, the threat to her life would magnify. Two, how difficult would it be to have him extradited back to the U.S. to face trial for Stuart’s murder if it came to that?
Edmund sat with his sixth drink in his hand. The man drank undiluted vodka like water.
This time it was Jim’s idea to bring Edmund to his home-office. The table separated them. Elizabeth was with Rebecca in the garden.
Was Edmund downing the alcohol out of nervousness or habit? Jim didn’t mind Edmund drinking. Maybe some degree of inebriation would make him careless. Maybe he’d say something incriminating to the hidden recorder and camera operating in the room.
Edmund appeared to like three-piece suits. This time it was a gray pinstripe, with a burgundy tie, and the usual dark shirt.
Edmund downed the sixth vodka in one gulp.
Let’s say one could put aside the fact that this here was a murderer for the moment, Jim thought — that being said, did Edmund realize the obnoxiousness of drinking like a fish in front of the father of the girl he was intending to marry?
“So,” Edmund spoke, “what’s the important thing you wanted to talk to me about?”
“I wanted to talk about your career,” Jim replied, carefully observing Edmund’s reaction. There was none.
“Well, you’re marrying my daughter, so it’s of concern to me.”
“Now, I understand you’re in the garment import-export business.”
“It’s not import-export, only import — from Malaysia.”
Whatever, Jim wanted to say.
“It’s good business, there’s money in it,” Edmund said, “But I have to give it more of me, to make it really happen.”
Why give it more of you when there’s a quicker way to get rich, Jim also wanted to say, but instead said, “I’m working on a reorganization at my company.”
Edmund’s expression didn’t change.
“I can’t be as involved anymore. I’m thinking of putting together a three-man executive committee to pretty much replace me. Of course, none of this has been carved in stone. But I’m leaning towards it. Two members of the committee will be from within the company. The third, I’m thinking, should be from outside.”
Still a blank face.
“When I formally retire, I’m inclined to think Elizabeth will follow. The executive committee may then serve as stepping-stone for one of the three becoming CEO.” Jim paused. “Without Stuart, and with you marrying my only other child, you could be the early favorite to fill that slot.”
Not a flicker of anything showed in Edmund’s face. It disappointed Jim. The video camera wasn’t catching anything. Jim felt like he was making a home movie.
“I’m flattered, Jim. But I don’t think I’d be the right man. Your company’s large. You employ more people than some public companies. And I don’t know anything about your business.” Edmund shook his head. “I wouldn’t be qualified, really.”
Jim decided to try again. “My purpose in asking you is that I think the company needs an outsider on the committee, to give … an outside perspective on things. The best candidate for that might be an entrepreneur, a sole proprietor, like you — someone who has the discipline of running a cost-conscious operation. Because a dollar might appear worth more to a small company than to a large one, when actually it should be the same. You’d recognize that, and bring it to bear on management decisions.”
“You seem to have a high opinion of me,” Edmund remarked.
At least that part of the con was working. “How much do you make now?”
“About $120,000 gross last year.”
“Executive committee would base pay twice that, plus you get shares of the company, performance based. The CEO position, whoever ascends to that, pays high six figures with a major options package. What do you think?”
Edmund got up from his seat before Jim could gauge a reaction. He made his way to the bar and poured a seventh vodka. In spite of all that hard liquor consumed straight-up, Edmund was unimpaired. He walked a beeline back to his seat, and sat down. This time he didn’t touch his drink. He lay it down on the table in front, and became pensive.
Jim became irritated. Why work for six figures when, by way of marriage, a heckuva lot more is coming to me anyway — is that what you’re thinking, you sonofabitch?
Edmund’s dark eyes suddenly tore into Jim. “I say, why don’t we chat about it another time,” Edmund said, an English accent surfacing in his voice for the first time. “Why not go up to the mountains one of these days, just you and me, and hash it around. What do you think?”
Jim froze. Edmund’s eyes clung to him like crosshairs. Jim’s mind raced. If Elizabeth had recognized the drastic alteration in his attitude toward Edmund, Edmund must have too. Had he underestimated his opponent? Had he gone too far with the CEO and big-salary bluff?
Not so fast. More likely, this is a test. Edmund’s not sure what to think, so he’s playing me for an answer. The poker player is playing me for an answer.
Jim rose from his chair, walked to where the liquor was, and poured himself the same thing Edmund was having. He returned to his seat, took a sip of his drink, and looked Edmund in the eye. “I’m not up to returning to the lodge again, Edmund. The last time I went up, I was in a bad state. I loved my son.” Jim revisited his drink. “Forgive me, but the place still brings chills to my spine.”
Edmund relaxed. Or gave the impression of relaxing.
Jim feigned a smile. “But I would be pleased to go fishing with you sometime. We have a boat, I’m sure Stuart must’ve showed it to you.”
Jim leaned back. “By the way, was that an English accent I detected in your voice?”
Edmund seemed to like the question. The fog in his eyes began to recede. “Yes. It’s a little thing I’m practicing.”
“There’s something I need to tell you,” Edmund said, the English accent gone. “I wanted to talk to Rebecca about it first, but I may as well tell you now, if you can keep a secret for a while.”
Jim wondered where this was heading.
“I’ve made a decision about where we’re going after the wedding.”
“As in, the honeymoon?” Jim asked, perplexed.
Edmund laughed. It was a guttural laugh. “No, not that simple. Actually, I’m planning to take her to England, to London, to settle down there.”
Okay, round two.
“You alright, Jim?”
Jim wondered why Edmund asked that question. He hadn’t shown any overt emotion to the moving to London announcement.
Maybe he should’ve.
“Yes,” Jim said, inserting some disapproval into the response.
“For a second you looked like you spaced out on me there,” Edmund said.
Jim let his expression lapse from one of disapproval to another of irritation. “When?”
“No,” Jim said, adding resentment to the equation. Then, with a bit of borderline anger to his voice, he asked, “When are you planning to move to London?”
The trick question “when?” seemed a good idea. It appeared to tip Edmund off-balance. Edmund blinked.
Jim felt he’d succeeded, but didn’t assume it.
“Soon,” Edmund said.
“Why London?” He tossed the question swiftly, to avoid giving Edmund time for recovery.
“It’s where I’d like to live. I know some people there.”
Jim bit his lip intentionally. “Does Rebecca have even the faintest idea of this plan of yours?”
“No, but I think I can convince her.”
Jim knew he had to show reaction. He looked up at the ceiling, then shifted his gaze down to his hands. His hands were cold and clammy, but firm. “You do realize this doesn’t make me happy. I see very little of my daughter as it is, and here you are telling me you’re planning on taking her where I’ll see her even less.”
Jim couldn’t tell if that was a concession. “I’m not sure you do. But let’s leave it at that for now.”
The ensuing silence between them lasted only seconds, but felt longer.
“As you requested, I won’t mention any of this to my daughter. However, after you do finally inform her of this, please don’t expect me to support your decision if she comes to me for guidance on the matter. I will tell her quite plainly how I feel about it.” Jim raised a stern finger. “That, too, you should understand.”
Edmund grinned this time. He had no immediately readable expression beyond the highly confident grin. Then, suddenly, he whispered something silently under his breath.
Jim didn’t pick it up with his ears. It was inaudible. But Edmund’s lip movement was unmistakable. “Not bad, Jim. Not bad at all,” was what he’d inaudibly said. It was the silence to its issuance that made it so eerie. Jim felt the hairs on his neck rise. An instant later, in spite of all his will, effort and prayer, his hands began to quiver.
He tried to arrest the quivering. But failed. Edmund drifted his line of sight and stared straight at Jim’s quaking hands. Jim wanted to raise his hands off the table and set them on his lap under the table. But they froze to the surface of the wood in Edmund’s icy glare.
Edmund’s grin disappeared in a flash, and his demeanor changed to something almost serenely vicious. He slammed his seventh vodka, stood to his full towering height, and near bellowed, “I’m going to go join the girls now.”
Jim merely nodded.
Edmund walked out of the study.
Jim swung his chair to face the other way. He grunted to release his profound self-directed ire.
As soon as he’d released it though, a terrifying fear took over and seized him in its frigid grip. Jim’s whole body began to shake.
Until yesterday, he had picked up only the trail of a killer. But, today, he’d seen its face.
He’d been here before.
Jim drove his vehicle to near the edge of the precipice, got out and advanced a few paces. A thin layer of snow crunched under his shoes. The air was heavy. The sun was turning red.
Within a human length of the edge, he lowered himself to his hands and knees and moved with care, keeping a grip. He came as close as he dared. His feet steady, he rose. The slight incline necessitated he lean backward to maintain balance.
A jagged morsel of ice broke off the end and plunged down the precipice. As it fell, a gust of wind propelled it into view. A trail of snowy dust chased its trajectory, like a meteorite’s tail. After an extended free-fall, it impacted the rocky bottom and shattered into fragments without a sound… about where they’d found his son.
Behind Jim, the gradient leading to the edge was a slight one. It was highly unlikely Stuart could’ve generated much speed on it. It was relatively open terrain all around, with nothing sizable to obscure the view for some distance. Even in weather that offered limited visibility, it was somewhat unlikely his son could’ve missed seeing the vertical drop.
Sandra did say that Stuart valued his sobriety when sobriety mattered — as it would in a matter of risk to life and limb. And skiing on the side of a mountain in a snowstorm, was exactly that.
To have not seen the precipice, Stuart must have been unconscious.
Jim looked over his shoulder. His car was close enough. Edmund must have incapacitated Stuart somewhere along the way. Or at the lodge.
Jim looked over his shoulder again. Instead of his Aston Martin, he now imagined a Range Rover. And with that, he let his mind roam and his imagination run…
Edmund appeared at the lodge and knocked on the door. Stuart was surprised to see him. Edmund said they needed to talk. He held up a bottle of vodka in his hand.
Stuart peered over Edmund’s shoulder, asking, “Where’s your truck?”
“It stalled a ways down. Can you let me in, I’m freezing.”
Stuart let him in. “Want me to hang your coat?”
“Let me keep it on a while, till I warm up,” Edmund suggested, with a different reason in mind for keeping it on.
Edmund told Stuart he was willing to stop seeing Rebecca. “Your friendship is more important to me,” he said.
After some convincing, Stuart accepted the gesture as genuine, and began a renewal of their frayed friendship. Edmund proposed they drink to celebrate.
They finished a good part of the bottle in short order. Stuart got drunk and sat. Edmund suggested one last shot out of the bottle. By then, Edmund, not quite as drunk but under the influence, obeyed a force of habit and made a first mistake, marking the bottle with his diamond to indicate the level Stuart had to drink to. As Stuart chugged downed to the spot, Edmund traveled behind him.
Jim tensed. The scene conjured up by his mind, his imagination, suddenly materialized in front of him.
Jim now stood behind the chair his son sat in.
Edmund’s face, emotionless, came around.
Jim saw the back of Stuart’s head — the light brown hair, waved back with a hint of gel, curling as it fell onto his neck.
Jim began to breathe harder. He stepped away from the precipice, and moved backward toward his car.
Jim now stood in front of Stuart.
Stuart’s warm eyes rose to meet him. Stuart smiled, his handsome face full of boyish charm.
“Hi’ya, Dad,” a slurred and sad voice uttered, I’m sorry, I’ve been drinking too much.
Jim smiled back, reaching out to touch him.
Their hands met. Jim felt a warmth in his palm.
Behind and unseen to Stuart, Edmund reached into the pocket of his coat. His hand emerged, fingers curled around a dark object contained in a thick translucent bag, the kind of resilient bag a heavy new tool would come packed in. Edmund pulled the object out of the bag and raised it high in the air. As it rose and approached the light, Jim saw it was a rock.
Jim looked at Edmund’s face. Edmund did not look back. Jim looked at Stuart’s face. Stuart had no idea. There was still a sparkle in his eye.
Suddenly, Edmund threw the bag over Stuart’s head and brought the other hand down in a rapid descent.
Jim tugged at Stuart’s hand to pull him out of his chair.
Jim fell backward onto the hood of his car.
Through the thick translucent bag, Stuart gazed at his father one last time, confused by the sudden partition that covered him.
The next instant, the rock smashed into the back of his head with a sickening thud.
Blood splattered the inside of the bag. The light in Stuart’s eye went out in a flash. His face blanked out as the last remnant of his smile vanished. His mouth dropped open to gasp for air. His head rolled back, and his neck bulged forward.
Edmund held the cover in place. Stuart’s face reappeared, stayed up for an agonizing second, his lips parted in horrifying pain, and then he slumped.
Jim slid off the hood, and dropped to his knees in front of his car.
Somewhere in the sky, a hawk shrieked.
Jim climbed to his feet. Holding onto his car for support, he walked to the driver’s door, and got inside. He shut the door, locked it, and made sure all the windows were up. He felt his seat almost swallow him over the many minutes he sat in it.
Feeling fractionally better, he sat up and turned the ignition. To restrain himself to the present time, he turned on the radio. He turned the dial until he found a channel. Music. He raised the volume.
The music quickly faded in his ears…
Stuart was still alive. A massive head injury had crushed his skull and thrust him into unconsciousness. But he was still alive.
Edmund laid Stuart down in a way that contained and managed the hemorrhage. He put on gloves and began lifting fingerprints from everything he’d touched. Knowing he needed Stuart’s fingerprints back on the bottle, he held Stuart’s limp hand to it.
In Stuart’s room, Edmund went through his winter wear. He undressed Stuart, re-dressing him in the clothes he’d wear to go skiing. The old clothes, blood splattered, were bundled for later destruction.
Edmund carried Stuart to the Range Rover, which just out of sight from the lodge, and put him inside. He went to the shed, brought out the skis, loaded them onto his vehicle, and drove it close to the precipice where Jim now was.
Edmund dragged Stuart out, with Stuart still alive, put the skis on him, carried him to the edge… and hurled him over.
Jim began sobbing.
Stuart hit the ground below. Nearly every bone in his defenseless body cracked and broke. Nearly every organ in his defenseless body punctured and bled. But he did not yet die.
Edmund drove off.
Later, perhaps much later, Stuart succumbed to the freezing cold.
And that’s how Jim saw it through his river of tears.
There was no evidence to fortify this rendition. Two years after the commission of the crime, evidence had failed to materialize. Recourse to the law, in order to exact justice for Stuart’s murder, had become impossible.
Jim had never before felt so powerless. All the money he had, all the people he employed and commanded, all the influence he wielded in professional life — all of that was useless in his current predicament.
The stuff in the safe, the things he’d worked meticulously to document in the hopes of constructing the admissible in court, to build an air-tight case against a monster, was just that — stuff — the aggregate of which was (maybe) sufficient to convince the police to launch an investigation at most, but no more.
And, if he got the police involved, he would relinquish all recourse to that one solution that would most certainly and decisively separate Edmund from Rebecca, and avenge Stuart.
Jim shut the radio off by slamming the control with his hand. The knob came loose under the impact and fell to the floor.
No, a separation was NOT enough. If it were, he could have settled for telling Rebecca everything and taken his chances. His boy’s slaughter has to be righted, before he could call anything an acceptable finality.
Edmund had not only savagely ended the life of his 22 year old, but the sick and demented bastard had also had the audacity to threaten Jim in his own home. Who the fuck did Edmund think he was!
Jim inhaled the mountain air trapped in his car. Then, with fortitude, he softly uttered, “John Cunningham, listen up. To just separate you from my daughter is to be too good to you. What you deserve in no less than this: that, from the face of this earth, I REMOVE YOU!”
CHAPTER FIFTEEN COMING SOON
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