Authors: Jeremiah Healy
"Not surprised, Inés?"
"I was expecting you." She motioned at the
other chair. "You will have some cider?"
"A pity. It is new sidra, just opened. It will
be very sweet."
When I stayed standing, Roja got to her feet, picking
up the bottle in one hand, the glass in the other. She held the
bottle high over her head and the tumbler at waist level.
Pouring three inches of cloudy yellow liquid in an
exaggerated arc into the tumbler, Roja said, "To carbonate the
sidra." She held the glass up to the sunlight and spoke to it.
"The professor is dead, then?"
I waited a beat. "Yes."
A dreamy smile this time. "And you have come to
"Then to . . . arrest me."
I didn't say anything to that.
Roja shook her head. After drinking the cider down,
she poured another few ounces. Back in her chair, Roja set the bottle
on the table and sipped from the glass. "Sit, John."
I couldn't see any weapons. Angling the empty chair
away from the cliff, I sank into it. "You seem awfully at home
here for a refugee from Cuba."
Roja closed her eyes. "If you have come this
far, that tragic tale no longer persuades you."
"It doesn't. Still, the Marielito story was
clever: nobody would inquire too much about a Cuba you never knew. Of
course, your father didn't die on a boat at sea."
A small grimace.
"Your father committed suicide, here in Candas.
Just after his cover-up came to light."
"Does it amuse you to hurt me, John?"
Roja's tone was flat, emotionless.
I short-formed Steven O'Brien's clippings in
Providence. "Your father was Luis Loredo Mendez, basically the
local prosecutor. His old friend Dr. Enrique was dying. The doctor
had saved the life of the prosecutor's young wife, Monica Roja
Berrocal, in childbirth. Your mother, Inés, having you. Your father
looked the other way when Maisy Andrus helped the doctor along. When
everything came out, your father was disgraced."
Tears began to gather next to the nose under each
"He killed himself, you and your mother leaving
Spain for New York. Eventually, you found out that Andrus was still
rich and famous, while you and your mother — "
"Lived in a rathole, John." Same flat tone,
no trace of rancor. "A vile, crumbling tenement in the Bronx. I
spent years thinking about Maisy Andrus, about what she had done to
my family. While my mother died slowly, cleaning for other people of
means like the good professor."
I lowered my voice. "So you got the job as her
secretary in Boston."
Roja finished her glass and poured some more, minus
the exaggerated arc. "It was easy. Growing up in New York, I
read the newspapers, articles about the great Maisy Andrus. Giant of
the law, champion of those without hope. But I never forgot what she
did to us. Last year, the week my mother died, I saw such an article.
It was . . . intolerable. I took the train to Boston. I went to the
law school, to see Andrus. To think out a proper way to kill her.
"But the great professor was interviewing for a
new secretary that day. She came from her office, hardly glancing at
me. 'Are you my next interview?' she said. Realizing she did not
recognize me, I said yes. In her office, Andrus said, 'What is your
name?' I replied in the American fashion, 'Inés L. Roja.' I was
thinking to add 'The L is for Loredo,' my father's surname, when she
said, 'I have property in Spain. If you speak Spanish, it would be a
great help to me.' If Andrus had not done that, I don't know how I
would have dealt with her."
"But she did."
"So poor with the memory of names, so ignorant
of our language and culture. She did not recognize even my mother's
"And that gave you the idea."
"Yes. " The dreamy smile again. "Manolo
had never met me here, and her stepson Ramon never visited the law
school or her home in Boston. I decided it would be better to stay
close to her for a time. To make her die slowly, like those she had
"The reason you volunteered for the AIDS
A shiver. "It was horrible. But I learned. I
learned that the AIDS was a fitting death for the good professor.
However, it was uncertain and could take years in the coming. That
was too long."
"So you went to the veterinary clinic instead."
"I read first. I researched and studied until I
found what I wanted. Then I went to the clinic. A doctor there was
beginning a new project. He needed help. It took me only a short time
to gain his confidence."
"And then it wasn't so hard to get what you
"I knew the incubation period could vary, so I
had to be careful."
Roja took more cider. "But when she comes back
from her rich lady vacation in the Caribbean, she has a little
problem from a mosquito bite. It is nothing, but it is enough."
Andrus had said that it was like someone's spit on
her neck. "So that's how you administered the rabies."
The voice of a teacher, explaining the instructions
to a test. "I scrape the skin. I watch the little points of
blood come up. I have the saliva specimen on a gauze pad, and I
spread it on her. Later she tells me how much her neck itches. I know
from then that I have done it, that I now can just wait and enjoy
There was something very wrong. Roja was too calm,
feeding it to me too freely. "The notes, Inés. Why the notes?"
"To bring on her worry. To ruin her peace of
mind even before I have the chance to give her the rabies. Do you
see? To make her think about dying, like my father, my mother. And
"The notes were risky."
"Yes, but I researched them as well. I read the
files of hate letters she received. I made certain that my notes
sounded as though a man had sent them."
"Why did you come to me?"
Roja frowned. "The notes in the mail were not
working on Andrus, John. Not even the one I put in the mailbox of the
house. I got Alec concerned about them, but he could not cause the
great professor to worry either. Even when I went to the police, the
idiot Neely I know will never think of me. No, even then she is not
"So you bring me in, to make it seem like
something she should be worrying about."
"That was taking a bigger risk, wasn't it?"
The dreamy smile was making me chilly. "You
flatter yourself, John, It was some risk. But I needed you for
another reason also."
I said, "Manolo."
A gentle tipping of the head. "Manolo fired the
shots at us. Outside the house, to make the good professor more
scared, but also to keep everyone thinking it is a man behind the
notes. A rifle is a man's weapon."
I didn't bother to debate her. "How did you get
Manolo to do that?"
Roja poured more cider. "I explained to him that
a bad man was trying to scare the great professor with the notes,
that she had to take the threat more seriously. That he had to help
me persuade her."
"So Manolo shoots to miss."
"But to hit the mailbox, to lead you to the new
note in it."
"Why didn't you send any notes to San Diego?"
A shrug. "The one at the school had no effect on
Andrus when she came back from Sint Maarten. Also, I found the notes
were not . . . satisfying unless I was near her, to see her reaction
to them as they arrive."
"And last Wednesday night, at the house?"
"Simple. I tell Manolo, 'The professor is in
danger, go get your rifle!' Then, downstairs, I unlock the door for
you. When Manolo comes back from his room, I sign to him about you. I
tell him, 'Cuddy. Cuddy is the bad one.' "
I said, " 'He is going to shoot the professor.'
Now a wicked smile. "I tell him the same thing I
can yell at you when I hear your voice downstairs."
"You hit Manolo's arm, threw off his aim."
"I can't let him kill you." A condescending
glance. "I thought you were a professional, that you would shoot
him with ease. Then you stumble on the stairs, and I realize that he
will kill you. That is not sure enough."
"Not sure enough of Manolo being out of the
"And you couldn't let him live because — "
"Because he would discover that I killed the
woman he took an oath to the old doctor to protect. Manolo would not
rest until he found me." The wicked smile again. "That is
the other reason I needed you, John. I did not want to die the way
Manolo would avenge Andrus's murder."
I kept my voice as neutral as possible. "After
that, in the hospital, why did you tell me you thought somebody else
was helping Manolo'?"
"Because I thought you would see it anyway.
Also, I cannot dare being there as she suffers the seizures, so I
wanted to be sure you are bothering her with questions. Questions
that she would have no patience for as the disease grew within her."
"Why come back here, Inés?"
"To live in this house as my home! Andrus
destroyed my family, took my father from my mother and me. We left in
shame for what she did. Now the great professor repays her debt."
The pupils danced in Roja's head. "The irony,
John, do you see the . . . exquisite irony? Andrus could not live
here, not even for a day, because she killed her husband. I will live
here, for the rest of my life, because I have killed her."
"Inés, the Spanish authorities aren't going to
"You know them so well?"
"I know the police in Boston. And the
prosecutors. They'll pursue you through the government here."
"Extradition?" She slurred the word.
I said, "Yes."
"Do you really believe I will let that happen,
"You confessed to me. No compulsion, no threats.
The scientific evidence from the autopsy will establish Andrus was
killed by rabies."
"Only three persons ever lived once the rabies
fit comes. I know, I did my research well." Roja blinked,
shifting clumsily in her chair.
"Andrus always . . . spouted her message, John,
that it is right to die. Now she has become her message. It was right
for her to die."
"Inés, I'm going to the police here. They'll
hold you for the authorities in the States. The law will catch up to
"The law?" Roja laughed, that merry sound
from the St. Patrick's Day party. "John, John. The great
professor had such faith in the law. So much faith. Well, I do not.
When my father was disgraced and Andrus went unpunished, I lost my .
. . taste for the law."
Melodramatically, Roja swung her gaze around us. I
looked quickly, but saw only a gull, landing at the edge of the
"This is where I should have spent my life,
John. I may have lost my taste for the law, but I have found revenge
to be quite sweet."
She lifted the tumbler, a little unsteadily. "Like
new sidra on the tongue."
I was about to tell her she'd had enough when the
glass slipped from her hand and thumped onto the grass. Roja's eyes
rolled up into her head as she slid down and out of her chair,
hitting the ground before I could catch her. The impact knocked loose
one of her silver combs.
On my knees, I cradled Roja's head in my right palm.
"What did you take?"
Her lips barely moved. "It is too late."
"Inés, what did you put in the cider?"
The eyes came back, but unfocused. "I did all my
research well. See, I even cheat the hangman."
"Inés — "
"Tell me, John. Do you really believe in the
The wind whipped a hank of hair across her face. I
brushed it away from her mouth. "Like you once said, Inés, I'd
rather put my faith in people."
The merry laugh spooked the gull. Its shadow passed
over us as Inés Loredo Roja went slack against my hand.