Authors: Joseph Hansen
In memory of Wayne Placek
Music, and lights, and laughter,
And after these, the dark…
E CROSSED AIRPORT TARMAC
in the rain, and climbed a cold, wet steel staircase to a DC-8. He had been waiting for this. Six days in Fresno were plenty. The death claims division of Sequoia Life had been right in their suspicions. They had hired him to find proof that what looked like death by accident in a fire at a small printing plant had been murder. The wife had killed the husband for his insurance. But digging out the proof had been slow going.
The aircraft smelled stale inside. Freshener sprayed through the ducts was trying to dispel the spent breath and smoke and body warmth of the load of passengers who had just got off, but the crowd boarding with him was bringing new smells of rain-damp clothing. He stowed attaché case and raincoat in an overhead compartment, then settled into a window seat and buckled his belt. The seat was in the non-smoking section. He was trying to quit.
The plane sat for half an hour by the terminal, and another twenty minutes out on a runway. Dave looked up from the pages of the in-flight magazine, now and then to gaze off at the rainy outline of the Sierras looming to the east. The plane lifted off, rain hissing against the small windows, at 10:40
and touched down in the rain at LAX at 11:25, so there was still something left of the day. Standing, waiting, at the luggage-go-round, he forgot and lit a cigarette, then remembered and dropped it and put a foot on it.
Outside, under a massive gray concrete overhang, he stood on cement, attaché case and grip at his feet, the raincoat hung over his shoulders because it was cold and damp as a tomb here. He watched cab drivers and airport cops scream at each other, watched jitneys stop and take on hotel-bound arrivals, watched passenger cars jockey for spaces at the curbs. Finally he saw Cecil’s flame-painted van, glossy with rain, picked up the bags, jogged to where it waited for him, the horns of twenty cars clamoring behind it.
Cecil leaned across, opened the door, grabbed the bags, dumped them into the back of the van. Dave climbed in and slammed the door. Cecil gave him a kiss, put the van in gear, they moved on, and the honking stopped—most of it. They inched along for a time in bumper-to-bumper traffic, then were on a broad, curving stretch of roadway swinging past looming glass and metal buildings, office complexes, hotels. Then they were on a boulevard and pointed northward. And Cecil said, “I was glad to get your call. Those taxi drivers, from what I hear, they’ll take you for every dime before they let you out at home. Drive you to Northridge, just to run up the meter.”
“Tell me about it,” Dave said. “Thanks for coming.”
Cecil stared ahead past the swinging windshield wipers that pushed aside the rain, pushed aside the rain, pushed aside the rain. Red traffic lights glowed at a broad intersection. He braked the van, glanced at Dave, and said, “I’ll come anytime you ask, anywhere. You know that.”
Dave nodded curtly. “I know that.”
“All you have to do”—Cecil moved the gearshift lever—“is ask.” The signal switched to go. He moved the van on across the intersection, and started it up a long slope ’tween green hills where abandoned oil pumps rusted in the rain. “I keep waiting for you to ask.”
He was a tall, gangly, good-looking black who worked as a field reporter in television news. He was twenty-five years old. Dave had met him on a case up the central coast a few years back. Later they had settled in together in Dave’s house. And worked together. Until Cecil had been shot almost to death, until Cecil had been forced to kill a man to save Dave’s life. After that he had gone back to the newsroom. Tried. But another case had forced him to help out again. He was smart and resourceful and had got Dave out of trouble. But he had made trouble for himself. It was still not over.
“You want to come back?” Dave said. “Come back. You were the one who left. It wasn’t my idea.”
“It was your idea to take Chrissie in,” Cecil said.”
“It was your idea to marry her.” Dave lit a cigarette with shaking hands. “I only wanted to shelter her till things could be worked out by the courts.”
“The courts.” Cecil stopped himself, pressed his mouth tight, drew in air through his nose. The van topped the long rise, and below lay the west side of the city, stretching miles in the rain, under tattered clouds, mountains off to the north, shrouded in mist. Cecil said, keeping tight control over his voice, “Did anybody ever tell you, you have ice water in your veins?”
“Several people.” Dave blew away smoke, groped for and found the ashtray in the blue dash. “On several occasions. Always when they knew I was right and they were wrong. Emotions doesn’t change facts. And they hated believing that.”
“I’ve told you from the start, it wasn’t emotion,” Cecil said. “Her father was dead, murdered, the only one who loved and cared for her. Her grandmother wouldn’t have let her come to harm, but she was dead too. Her damned mother wanted to control her so she could control all that money Chrissie had coming. You know what her mother is. Her mother’s boyfriend tried to rape Chrissie. The County wanted to put her in a foster home. Somebody had to do something.”
“You’ve told me,” Dave said.
“It was a cool, calculated decision,” Cecil said. “No emotion involved. Except yours. It only took a day to drive her to Las Vegas and marry her, so she’d be her own boss, and nobody could rip her off. She’s blind, Dave. She’s only seventeen years old, for Christ sake.”
“And that day,” Dave said, “was the first day of the rest of your life—right?”
“No way.” Cecil shook his head hard. “Dave, she’ll get over it. It’s a teen-age infatuation. She’ll get tired of me and ask out.” He braked the van behind a long line of rain-washed cars at the foot of the grade. “Not the rest of my life—no.”
“Yes—unless you tell her. You should never have let her take you to bed. You’ve got brains that absolutely stagger me. How could you be so stupid?”
“She was sad and lost and alone in the dark,” Cecil said. “She needed somebody to hold her.”
“And you think she’s going to get tired of that?”
“You did,” Cecil said. “You shut me right out.”
“It was your decision, not mine,” Dave said. “You are the dearest thing in life to me. You’re bright and funny and gentle and decent and full of life. And I will never get tired of you, and neither will Chrissie. It’s not up to her anyway. You’re the adult. Tell her the truth—that it was an act of kindness that got out of hand.”
“I can’t hurt her like that,” Cecil said.
“It will hurt more the longer you let it go on.”
“Dave, she needs somebody who gives a damn.”
“And sex is the only way to convey that?” Dave asked.
“It beats gin rummy,” Cecil said. The cars ahead began to crawl. He shifted gears and followed. The rain-sleek band of white concrete bent westward. He touched a signal switch and eased the van into the leftmost lane. He would use the Santa Monica Freeway on-ramp at La Cienega. “Dave, what do you want from me?”
Dave laughed bleakly, twisted out his cigarette, pushed the ashtray shut with a clack. “You’ll brace anybody—truck bombers, homicidal maniacs, terrorists. But you haven’t got the guts to tell one young girl the truth.”
“It’s not the same thing,” Cecil said, “and you know it.”
“And you know what I want from you,” Dave said. “I want you to stop living a lie.”
“I’m not living a stupid lie,” Cecil shouted. “I’m not sleeping around. God knows, I’m not sleeping with you.”
“God may not,” Dave said, “but I sure as hell do.”
“Yeah, well, that’s how you wanted it. You made the rules. Only you’re forgetting one today, aren’t you? You weren’t going to talk to me like this. It was none of your business. It was up to me to sort it out and do the honest thing, right?”
“Right. But I didn’t know it would take you months.” The blue velvet passenger seat was on a swivel. Dave turned it so as to face Cecil. “You know what I’ve begun to think sometimes, these nights alone? That I was wrong. When you came to find me, and said you wanted to stay, I thought this is nice but it can’t last. He’s young, he’ll move on. But then I got to know you, and like a fool I let myself believe we had a bond between us nothing could break.”
“We did.” Tears ran down Cecil’s face. “We do.”
“Don’t do that.” Dave reached across and wiped away the tears with his fingers. “Nature decides. We like to think we can control it, but we can’t.” He swiveled the seat again, stared woodenly ahead. Past the moving wipers, cars crawled up the freeway on-ramp between banks of rain-washed ground ivy. “So, now it’s Chrissie’s turn. Lucky Chrissie.” He forced a smile. “Well, you and I had four good years. When we get home, we’ll drink to that. One last drink together.”
“God damn you,” Cecil said.
And no one said anything after that for a long while. Cecil jounced the van down into the yard of Dave’s place from crooked, climbing Horseshoe Canyon Trail. Shrubs and trees here dripped onto uneven brick paving and made puddles. Dave’s brown Jaguar stood by the long row of French doors that were the face of the front building. The storm had strewed the car with leaves and twigs.
It was noon, but the light here was dusky when they got down from the van, and Cecil dragged out of it Dave’s grip and attaché case. Dave draped the trenchcoat over his shoulders again, and followed Cecil as he rounded the shingled end of the front building to a bricked courtyard shadowed by the gnarled branches of an old California oak. Cecil made a sound, stopped in his tracks, Dave blundered against him and banged a shin on the suitcase. He opened his mouth to ask, then didn’t have to ask. He saw what Cecil saw.
A circular wooden bench hugged the thick trunk of the oak. On the bench stood potted plants. But a space had been left in case anyone wanted to sit on the bench. And a man was seated there. He leaned back against the tree trunk, head lolling to one side, hands open in his lap. The rain had soaked his hair and clothes, tweed jacket, wool slacks, good shoes.
“Is he asleep?” Cecil said.
“In this weather? If he is, he must be drunk.” Dave went to the man, bent over him. His eyes were closed, but he wasn’t asleep. He wasn’t breathing. A pink stain was on his shirt, to the left of the breastbone. The rain had washed the bright red away, but it was a bloodstain. Dave laid fingers against the man’s face. “He’s dead.”
“What’s this?” Cecil bent and picked up something white and soggy and small from the wet bricks at the man’s feet. A business card. He squinted at it in the gray light, gave a soft grunt, and passed the card to Dave. Dave dug reading glasses from a jacket pocket, put the glasses on, and read the printing on the card. He blinked surprise. “It’s mine,” he said, and put the reading glasses away.
“Who is he?” Cecil said.
“Beats me,” Dave said. “Come on. He’s sat here too long already.” He moved toward a rear building, almost the same as the front ones, long and low. Both had been stables in some far gone past. The front one was now a rangy living room, the rear one had lofts for sleeping, a long couch in front of a big fireplace, Dave’s desk and files. “He’s cold as ice. Must have been here all night.” He fitted a key into a door, pushed the door, and moved down the long room between knotty pine walls under naked pine rafters, to lift the receiver from the telephone on his desk. “At least all night. Maybe longer than that. Maybe days.”
“Wouldn’t the coyotes have found him?” Cecil laid the attaché case on the desk, and carried the grip up raw pine stairs to the north loft. “What do you think? Could they smell him in the rain?”