Read Hints of Heloise Online

Authors: Laura Lippman

Hints of Heloise

H
is face didn't register at first. Probably hers didn't either. It wasn't a face-oriented business, strange to say. In the early days, on the streets, she had made a point of studying the men's faces as a means of protection. Not because she thought she'd ever be downtown, picking someone out of a lineup. Quite the opposite. If she wasn't careful, if she didn't size them up beforehand, she'd be on a gurney in the morgue and no one would give a shit. Certainly not Val, although he'd be pissed in principle at being deprived of anything he considered his property. And while Brad thought he loved her, dead was dead. Who needed postmortem devotion?

So she had learned to look closely at her potential customers. Sometimes just the act of that intense scrutiny was enough to fluster a man and he moved on, which was the paradoxical proof that he was okay. Others stared back, welcoming her gaze, inviting it. That kind really creeped her out. You wanted nervous, but not too nervous; any trace of self-loathing was a big tip. In the end, she had probably walked away from more harmless ones than not, guys whose problems were nothing more than a losing card in the great genetics lottery—dry lips, a dead eye, or that bad skin that always seemed to signal villainy, perhaps because of all the acne-pitted bad guys in bad movies. Goes to show what filmmakers knew; Val's face couldn't be smoother. Still, she never regretted her vigilance, although she had paid for it in the short run, taking the beatings that were her due when she didn't meet Val's quotas. But she was alive and no one raised a hand to her anymore, not unless they paid handsomely for that privilege. She had come a long way.

Twenty-seven miles, to be precise, for that was the distance from where her son had been conceived in a motel that charged by the hour and the suburban soccer field where he was now playing forward for the Sherwood Forest Robin Hoods. He was good, and not just motherly pride good, but truly skilled, fleet and lithe. Over the years, she had persuaded herself that he bore no resemblance to his father, an illusion that allowed her to enjoy unqualified delight in his long limbs, his bright red hair and freckles. Scott was Scott, hers alone. Not in a smothering way, far from it. But when he was present, no one else mattered to her. At these weekend games, she stayed tightly focused on him. It was appalling, in her private opinion, that some other mothers and fathers barely followed the game, chatting on their cell phones or to one another. And during the breaks, when she did try to make conversation, it was unbearably shallow. She wanted to talk about the things she read in the
Economist
or heard on NPR, things she had to know to keep up with her clientele. They wanted to talk about aphids and restaurants. It was a relief when the game resumed and she no longer had to make the effort.

She never would have noticed the father on the other side of the field if his son hadn't collided with Scott, one of those heart-stopping, freeze-frame moments in which one part of your brain insists it's okay, even as another part helpfully supplies all the worst-case scenarios. Stitches, concussion, paralysis. Play was suspended and she went flying across the still-dewy grass. Adrenaline seemed to heighten all her senses, taking her out of herself, so she was aware of how she looked. She was equally aware of the frumpy, overweight blond mother who commented to a washed-out redhead: “Can you believe she's wearing Tod's loafers and Prada slacks to a kids' soccer game?” But she wasn't the kind to go around in yoga pants and tracksuits, although she actually practiced yoga and ran every morning.

Scott was all right, thank God. So was the other boy. Their egos were more bruised than their bodies, so they staggered around a bit, exaggerating their injuries for the benefit of their teammates. It was only polite to introduce herself to the father, to stick out her hand and say: “Heloise Lewis.”

“Bill Carroll,” he said. “Eloise?”

“Heloise. As in hints from.”

He shook her hand. She had recognized him the moment he said his name, for he was a credit card customer, William F. Carroll. He had needed a second more, but then he knew her as Jane Smith. Not terribly original, but it did the job. Someone had to be named Jane Smith, and it was so bogusly fake that it seemed more real as a result.

“Heloise,” he repeated. “Well, it's very nice to meet you, Heloise. Your boy go to Dunwood?”

His vowels were round with fake sincerity, a bad sign. Most of her regulars were adequate liars; they had to be to juggle the compartmentalized lives they had created for themselves. And she was a superb liar. Bill Carroll wasn't even adequate.

“We live in Turner's Grove, but he goes to private school. Do you live—”

“Divorced,” he said briefly. “Weekend warrior, driving up from D.C. every other Saturday, expressly for this tedium.”

That explained everything. She hadn't screwed up. Her system simply wasn't as foolproof as she thought. Before Heloise's company took on a new client, she always did a thorough background check, looking up vehicle registrations, tracking down the home addresses. (And if no home address could be found, she refused the job.) A man who lived in her zip code, or even a contiguous one, was rejected out of hand, although she might assign him to one of her associates.

She hadn't factored in divorce. Perhaps that was an oversight that only the never-married could make.

“Nice to meet you,” she said.

“Nice to meet you.” He smirked.

This was trouble. What kind of trouble, she wasn't sure yet, but definitely trouble.

 

W
HEN
H
ELOISE DECIDED TO MOVE
to the suburbs, shortly after Scott was born, it had seemed practical and smart, even mainstream. Wasn't that what every parent did? She hadn't anticipated how odd it was for a single woman to buy a house on one of the best cul-de-sacs in one of the best subdivisions in Anne Arundel County, the kind of houses that newly single mothers usually sold post-divorce because they couldn't afford to buy out the husband's 50 percent stake in the equity. She had chosen the house for the land, almost an acre, which afforded the most privacy, never thinking of the price. Then she enrolled Scott in private school, another flag: what was the point of moving here if one could afford private school? The neighbors had begun to gossip almost immediately, and their speculation inspired the backstory she needed. A widow—yes. A terrible accident, one of which she still could not speak. She was grateful for her late husband's pragmatism and foresight when it came to insurance, but—she'd rather have him. Of course.

Of course, her new confidantes echoed back, although some seemed less than convinced. She could almost see their brains working it through: if I could lose the husband and keep the house, it wouldn't be so bad. It was the brass ring of divorced life in this cul-de-sac, losing the husband and keeping the house. (The Dunwood school district was less desirable and therefore less pricy, which explained how Bill Carroll's ex maintained her life there.) Heloise simply hadn't counted on the scrutiny her personal life would attract.

She had counted on her ability to construct a story about her work that would quickly stupefy anyone who asked, not that many of these stay-at-home mothers seemed curious about work. “I'm a lobbyist,” she said. “The Women's Full Employment Network. I work in Annapolis, Baltimore, and D.C. as necessary, advocating parity and full benefits for what is traditionally considered women's work. So-called pink-collar jobs.”

“How about pay and benefits for what we do?” her neighbors inevitably asked. “Is there anyone who works harder than a stay-at-home mom?”

Ditchdiggers,
she thought. Janitresses and custodians. Gardeners. Meter readers. The girl who stands on her feet all day next to a fryer, all for the glory of minimum wage. Day laborers, men who line up on street corners and take whatever is offered. Hundreds of people you stare past every day, barely recognizing them as human. Prostitutes.

“No one works harder than a mother,” she always replied with an open, honest smile. “I wish there was some way I could organize us, establish our value to society in a true dollars-and-cents way. Maybe one day.”

Parenting actually was harder than the brand of prostitution that she now practiced. She made her own hours. She made top-notch wages. She was her own boss and an excellent manager. With the help of an exceptionally nonjudgmental nanny, she had been able to arrange her life so she never missed a soccer game or a school concert. If sleeping with other women's husbands was what it took, so be it. She could not imagine a better line of work for a single mother.

For eight years, it had worked like a charm, her two lives never overlapping.

And then Scott ran into Bill Carroll's son at the soccer game. And while no bones cracked and no wounds opened up, it was clear to her that she would bear the impact of this collision for some time to come.

 

“W
E HAVE TO TALK,”
said the message on her cell phone, a number that she never answered, a phone on which she never spoke. It was strictly for incoming messages, which gave her plausible deniability if a message was ever intercepted. His voice was clipped, imperious, as if she had annoyed him deliberately. “We have to talk ASAP.”

No we don't, she thought. Let it go. I know and you know. I know you know I know. You know I know you know. Talking is the one thing we don't have to do.

But she called him back.

“There's a Starbucks near my office,” he said. “Let's meet accidentally there in about an hour. You know—aren't you Scott's mom? Aren't you Billy Jr.'s dad? Blah, blah, blah, yadda, yadda, yadda.”

“I don't think we really need to speak.”

“I do.” He was surprisingly bossy in his public life, given his preferences in his private one. “We need to straighten a few things out. And, who knows, if we settle everything, maybe I'll throw a little business your way.”

“That's not how I work,” she said. “You know that. I don't take referrals from clients. It's not healthy, clients knowing each other.”

“Yeah, well, that's one of the things we're going to talk about. How you work. And how you're going to work from now on.”

 

H
E WASN'T THE FIRST BULLY
in her life. That honor belonged to her father, who had beaten her when he got tired of beating her mother. “How do you stay with him?” she had asked her mother more than once. “You only have one true love in your life,” her mother responded, never making it clear if her true love was Heloise's father or some long-gone man who had consigned her to this joyless fate.

Then there was Heloise's high school boyfriend, the one who persuaded her to drop out of college and come to Baltimore with him, where he promptly dumped her. She had landed a job as a dancer at one of the Block's nicer clubs, but she had gotten in over her head with debt, trying to balance work and college. That had brought Val into her life. She had worked for him for almost ten years before she had been able to strike out on her own, and there had been a lot of luck in that. A lot of luck and not a little deceit.

People who thought they knew stuff, people on talk shows, quack doctors with fake credentials, had lots of advice about bullies. Bullies back down if you stand up to them. Bullies are scared inside.

Bully-shit. If Val was scared inside, then his outsides masked it pretty well. He sent her to the hospital twice and she was pretty sure she would be out on the third strike if she ever made the mistake of standing up to him again. Confronting Val hadn't accomplished anything. Being sneaky, however, going behind his back while smiling to his face, had worked beautifully. That had been her first double life—Val's smiling consort, Brad's confidential informant. What she was doing now was kid stuff, compared to all that.

“Chai latte,” she told the counterwoman at the Starbucks in Dupont Circle. The girl was beautiful, with tawny skin and green eyes. She could do much better for herself than a job at a coffee shop, even one that paid health insurance. Heloise offered health insurance to the girls who were willing to be on the books of the Women's Full Employment Network. She paid toward their health plans and Social Security benefits, everything she was required to do by law.

“Would you like a muffin with that?” Suggestive selling, a good technique. Heloise used it in her business.

“No thanks. Just the chai, tall.”

“Heloise! Heloise Lewis! Fancy seeing you here.”

His acting had not improved in the seventy-two hours since they had first met. He inspected her with a smirk, much too proud of himself, his expression all but announcing: I know what you look like naked.

She knew the same about him, of course, but it wasn't an image on which she wanted to dwell.

Heloise hadn't changed her clothes for this meeting. Nor had she put on makeup, or taken her hair out of its daytime ponytail. She was hoping that her Heloise garb might remind Bill Carroll that she was a mother, another parent, someone like him. She did not know him well, outside the list of preferences she had cataloged on a carefully coded index card. Despite his tough talk on the phone, he might be nicer than he seemed.

“The way I see it,” he said, settling in an overstuffed chair and leaving her a plain wooden one, “you have more to lose than I do.”

“Neither one of us has to lose anything. I've never exposed a client and I never will. It makes no sense as a business practice.”

He looked around, but the Starbucks was relatively empty, and in any event, he didn't seem the type capable of pitching his voice low.

“You're a whore,” he announced.

“I'm aware of how I make my living.”

“It's illegal.”

“Yes—for both of us. Whether you pay or are paid, you've broken the law.”

“Well, you've just lost one paying customer.”

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