Authors: Joseph Hansen
The Little Dog Laughed
In memory of Eric Walter White
HE CONDOMINIUMS, RAW CEDAR
beams supporting shake roofs and plank decks, the sun glaring off glass walls, looked easy to get to from the coast road, but there turned out to be gates. Beside these was a raw cedar and glass guardhouse. When Dave drove up and halted the brown Jaguar behind a new BMW, a guard, a tall, lean, white-haired black in wonderfully unwrinkled suntans, stood in the doorway of the guardhouse listening to a stocky woman in suede boots, designer jeans, and a gaucho hat, who was going to lose patience before he did. She was blinking hard. And not just because the wind off the ocean was blowing in her face.
“I tell you, she left specific instructions I was to feed her damned cat.” She jerked back the cuff of a fringed leather jacket and read a wristwatch. “At precisely four in the afternoon, every damned day. And water the plants.”
“She didn’t leave those instructions with us.” The guard tried a smile of regret and sympathy. “I’m sorry. Her husband—Mr. Gernsbach—he didn’t say nothing, either.”
“But the damned cat will starve,” the woman cried. She dug into a shoulder bag, came up with keys, jingled them in the man’s face. “She gave me her door key. What more proof do you want?”
“Don’t you worry,” the guard said. “We’ll feed the cat.”
“She has to be petted, too,” the woman said.
“That cat?” The man gave a little dry laugh. “No, ma’am. Not that cat. You try petting her, she turn around and rake you hand open.”
“Oh, you know her, do you?” The woman dropped the keys back into the bag. “I don’t know why Lily keeps her. Pedigree is one thing, but she’s not civilized.”
“Pretty, though,” the guard said. “We’ll feed her.”
“And water the plants?” the woman said.
“Yes, ma’am. Thank you for calling it to our attention.”
The woman seemed uncertain. She started to speak again, then saw Dave waiting. Turned, turned back, and at last got into the BMW, slammed the door in annoyance, and drove off.
“Yes, sir?” the guard said. “Who did you wish to see?”
“I have an appointment with Christina Streeter.” Dave laid a business card in the guard’s hand. He read it, stepped up into the guardhouse, took down a telephone receiver there. He pushed buttons, waited a long time, spoke into the receiver, and hung it up again. “She’s expecting you,” he said.
“What kind of cat is it?” Dave said.
“Big orange-color Persian,” the guard said. “One of those with a little pug nose and big saucer eyes. Beautiful. Her mama and papa were both champions, blue ribbons galore. She worth a lot of money.” He laughed and wagged his head. “But she sure grumpy.” He reached for something inside the guardhouse. “Grumpiest cat I ever did see.”
Dave got into the Jaguar, slammed the door. What the guard had reached for was a switch. An electric motor whined, and the high wire-mesh gates that matched the razor-wire-topped fencing that surrounded the place swung open. He took a curving drive of cleanly swept fresh blacktop and parked in a square surrounded by azalea bushes. The shadows of gulls flickered over him as he walked among carefully tended plantings to the door marked twenty-seven in brass numerals. He pushed a button under a hanging wooden cricket lantern whose paper panels wind and seaspray had shredded. An electronic chime pinged inside. And in half a minute, the door was opened by a scrawny six-foot adolescent in wet, floppy swim trunks, a blend of purples, magentas, and pinks, all faded. He was drying spiky red hair with a yellow-and-green-striped towel. Acne flared angrily on his face, neck, shoulders. He squinted at Dave against the sun.
“Brandstetter,” Dave said. “To see Miss Streeter?”
“Oh, hi,” the boy said indifferently, and turned away to call, “Chrissie? It’s the insurance guy.” He stumped away on skinny bowlegs, telling Dave, without looking back at him, “Come on in.” He disappeared up a spiral steel staircase.
Dave came in and shut the door. The room was down a couple of steps from the entryway. The furniture was Chinese, carved wood, lacquered black. The rug was Chinese too, old, camel’s hair, quiet designs in blue and rose, the biggest Chinese rug Dave had ever seen, and beautifully kept. The splayed wet footprints of the acned boy lay on it like blasphemy. The room was a great square, shadowy under beams and lofts and skylights two stories overhead. A large bronze Buddha sat with crossed legs, hands together, palms up in his lap, and smiling serenely. Not Chinese. Burmese, perhaps. Superb gold lacquer cabinets of silk stretched on bamboo rested their fragility on low ebony stands. A Japanese screen pictured a procession among mountains. Over the fireplace hung a Tibetan banner of some fierce, fanged demon, once borne aloft in parades.
At the far end of the room, French doors opened on a patio where a swimming pool shone an unreal blue back at the unreal blue of the sky. A slim, dark girl in a white bikini appeared in the doorway and stood there, flapping into a white terry cloth robe and stretching her neck a little, seeming to peer into shadows darker than those the room created. She then drew dark glasses from a pocket of the robe, put them on, and, from where it leaned in the doorway without Dave’s having noticed it, groped out for and found a slender white cane with a red tip. She stepped down into the room, barefoot as the boy had been, and came toward Dave, smiling, moving the cane at about shin level back and forth in front of her, and tracking damp footprints on the priceless rug as the boy had done.
“Mr. Brandstetter?” She stopped a yard off, and he saw that he had been mistaken about her smile. It was not a smile. It was some sort of habitual grimace that had to do with her not being able to see, a kind of wince, maybe, already in place for the moment when she ran into something. In fact, when she stopped moving, and the grimace went away, her expression was sad. “You said you had questions. I thought I’d answered every question there could be. For the police.”
“I’ve read their report,” Dave said. “I’ll try not to ask the same things again.”
She sighed and gestured with the slim cane at one of two long couches that faced each other with coffee tables in between, lamps at either end. One couch was cushioned in a nubby wool dyed the same quiet blue as that in the carpet, the other in the same quiet hue of rose. It was the rose-color couch she pointed at. “Will you sit down?”
“Thank you.” Dave went past her and sat. She seemed to listen to his passage, as if she could detect a turbulence in the air around him. Certainly the carpet didn’t allow his footfalls to sound. When he sat, the cushions received his weight without comment. She seemed to know exactly where he was even before he spoke. She sat at the other end of the couch and turned her sad face with its big dark glasses resignedly toward him. Dave said, “Do you think your father killed himself?”
She gave a little bleak shrug. “They told me the gun was in his hand. There were powder burns on his hand. And at his temple, where the bullet went in.” She braced a foot on the handsome coffee table, leaned forward, and dried her toes with a corner of the robe. “I guess he killed himself. But I don’t know why.”
“He wasn’t depressed?” Dave said. “He wasn’t in some kind of trouble you know about?”
“He was angry at my mother.” Chrissie gave a mirthless little laugh. “But he was always angry at her. She was raising hell. Again. About me. I’m a bone of contention between them.” She dried the other set of toes, then drew her legs under her on the couch, pulling the robe across them as neatly as if she could see. “I mean—I was. I don’t know what’s going to happen to me now. My father had custody, you see. He had Brenda ruled unfit by a court. She drank and popped pills. Still does. Judge Farmer made her check into a hospital, but after she came out, she started right in again, same as before. It’s not her fault. It’s a sickness.”
“You’ll be all right,” Dave said.
“Not unless I get married, I won’t be,” she said.
As if this were his cue, the gangly boy came down the stairs, barefoot but in floppy camouflage pants now, and a camouflage tanktop he had scissored short just below his ribs. His shoulders were spare as coat hangers. He had blow-dried his Raggedy Andy hair. A strong deodorant smell came off him. When he got to the foot of the staircase, he mumbled without looking their way, “Anybody want a soda?” and before he got an answer, went off out of sight behind the broad mellow-brick wall that held the fireplace.
“He looks too young to marry,” Dave said.
“He is,” Chrissie said. “A year younger than me. Sixteen.” She twitched Dave a smile. “Are you single, by any chance?”
“That’s the nicest offer I’ve had all day,” Dave said. “But we hardly know each other. What about your father’s work? Was there something wrong with that?”
“Everything was great. He just got a hundred thousand dollars from cable TV for a series of articles he did a year ago for the
New York Times
Sunday magazine. On Cambodia. They’re going to make a miniseries.” She laughed. “He bought French champagne and opened a big can of caviar they gave him in Russia when he was doing that Siberian railway story.” She giggled. “First time I ever had champagne. First time I ever had caviar. I don’t know if I like caviar. But I like champagne. If I wasn’t afraid of getting like Brenda, I’d have champagne for breakfast every day.”
“It gets expensive,” Dave said, “does French champagne.”
It couldn’t rightly be said that she looked at him, could it? Or looked away, when she looked away. She turned her face away, and said to the beautiful room, “I can afford it.” There wasn’t much happiness in the statement. It was just that. Her fingers found the end of the terry cloth sash and fiddled with it. “Gandy died last week,” she said.
Dave frowned. “Gandhi died forty years ago.”
“Not him. My grandmother. I couldn’t say
when I was little. I said
, and it stuck, you know? She left me everything. That’s why Brenda wants me back. If she was my legal guardian, she’d have control of the money.”
“Maybe she loves you,” Dave said. “Mothers have been known to do that.”
The boy came back, holding three dewy soda cans in his knuckly hands, and set them on the coffee table in front of the rose-color couch among a scattering of netsuke, little yellow and white and brown ivory carvings of monkeys and mice and insects. He sat on the floor. “Not her mother,” he told Dave. “Her mother’s a witch.”
“What about her father?” Dave said.
“I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about half the time,” the boy said, “but you had to like him. He didn’t act old, you know. He watched me skateboard a little out there in the parking space one day, and said could he try it, and he was as good as I was. Right away, man. No practice. He was flaky. He stood on his head for five minutes every morning—said it prevented kidney stones.” The boy reached for one of the soda cans and drank from it. “He did those Chinese exercises, tai chi, where you make gestures”—he stretched out an arm, and soda slopped from the can and splashed on the carpet—“in slow motion, right? Almost like dancing. He said it will keep you alive and healthy till you’re a hundred and ten years old.”
“Not him,” Chrissie said. Slow tears ran down her face.
“Oh, Jesus,” the boy said. “I’m sorry. I forgot.”
“It’s all right,” she said. “I like to hear you talk about him. Go on.”
“He always used a typewriter,” the boy said. “Electric, sure, but really old. I mean, it didn’t even have a type ball. It had keys, okay—clackety-clack? Really noisy. And the one he took on trips was even older. The cloth was coming off the case in shreds. He went everywhere, man. All over the world, wherever there was trouble. When they blew up those Marines in Lebanon, he was there. He actually saw that damned truck loaded with explosives when that crazy—”