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Authors: Gillian Roberts

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BOOK: The Bluest Blood
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“Peter Schlemiel sold his shadow,” Mackenzie said. “A useless thing, we’d say—to a mysterious stranger.”

“The Devil?”

Mackenzie shrugged. “If you like. In return for this easy trade, he got never-ending riches. But the thing is, without his shadow, he frightened everyone, so they all rejected him and he couldn’t find friendship or love.”

“And the point is?”

“We
need
our dark sides, our shadow selves. Without that, we’re two-dimensional freaks. Inhuman.”

“And you?” I asked. “What is your shadow side?”

He ran his fingers through his salt-and-pepper hair, looked worried, and paced. “Hell,” he finally said, “you’d find out, so it might as well be now.”

The air around us hissed my mother’s warnings—see? See?

“In fifth grade, I shoplifted three packs of baseball cards. And got caught. My record was sealed because of my age, but my parents considered me a criminal and kept my butt on the line for a long while.” He winked a river-blue eye. “And now you know.”

I did. I
knew
this man even if I didn’t have all his stats, and I knew him to be good. The rest was details.

My mother should have had lots more children, the way C. K.’s mother had, to divvy up the worrying and hovering until they reached a normal level for each offspring. Or better still, to have had—and still have—a life of her own aside from the totally domesticated, other-centered one she led. Problem is that nothing much ever happened to her, so she invented demons—“What
if
her boyfriend turns out to be a mass murderer, hmm?”—then shooed them away in order to generate excitement.

I wouldn’t be as foolish as my mother. I’d enjoy what I had, completely. All was well, and it was a good evening in a good world.

This is what’s meant by “Ignorance is bliss.”

Seven

At a ridiculously early hour we arose, Mackenzie to leave for the Midwest, I to see him off. The sun wasn’t yet up, but TV never sleeps, so I clicked it on for a forecast, though I couldn’t say why. No predictions except news of the imminent Apocalypse would change the miserable days ahead. Mackenzie would leave town, the kids would protest, Havermeyer would have small strokes, and tomorrow’s dawn would bring prospective applicants to stare at me as I taught. Nonetheless, I puttered about, listening for the jolly nonsense spiel of the weatherman while I made coffee.

Meantime, I worked myself into a
Lovers Bid Farewell!
mood. I saw the letters in white on a black backdrop in a silent film. My man was flying off while I waved my hankie and wept, discreetly.

I enjoyed wallowing in the image, although my socks and fuzzy bedroom slippers, the aroma of the coffee, Mackenzie’s absentminded whistle-and-hum as he tossed toiletries into his suitcase, the chatter of the TV, and the tangle of my morning hair made it a difficult fantasy to sustain. We needed a train platform, steam billowing, possibly a fine rain as well.

Mackenzie’s biggest fan did not require props. Macavity the cat knew something was different about the morning routine, and to an archconservative feline, different means bad. Mackenzie sat down to drink coffee and Macavity plunked himself on the chair next to him. Over the oak table’s surface, the cat stared without blinking at his now-suspicious idol.

“If looks could kill,” Mackenzie said. “‘Pussycat sits on a chair/Implacably with acid stare….’”

“Tell me you made that up,” I said. “Please.”

“Can’t. It’s from a poem by Edward Horn. Seemed appropriate.”

By a remarkable act of will, I said nothing. Not about that and not about the idea that if he were going to spout poetry before dawn, it should be about my eyes, not a cat’s. But smart-ass reactions to literary show-offs did not fit the goodbye-at-the-railroad-station scenario. I went to brush my hair. Which is what I was doing when Mackenzie kissed the tip of my nose and said he had to get moving. I had offered to drive him to the airport, but he wanted his car there. It wasn’t a farewell fraught with glamour, waving goodbye at an elevator door. And in the background, the weatherman admitted this wasn’t going to be the best of all possible days, which I already knew without studying meteorology.

It was too early to go to school, but too late to go back to bed. So while the news team recited traffic reports, I made much of washing our coffee cups and deciding what I would have for my solitary dinner, and then I gave up and began dressing. Given that pleasant yesterday had apparently been a tease, and March was reverting to the “winds doth blow” mode, I decided on a light blue turtleneck under my blazer. Almost the color of Mackenzie’s eyes. When he was gone, I felt at loose ends and slightly deserted, which was ridiculous, but true. I didn’t like the sensation of being incomplete when by myself. Not at all. Living with someone was getting to me, and not in altogether favorable ways.

My mind once again circled the pros and cons of cohabitation, a subject that deserved a better hour and fully activated brain cells. On about my third mental trip around the issue, I realized that the anchor’s voice had dropped into a solemnly alarmed register, the timbre that signals a Big Story. And Big Stories are always bad news.

“There’s been a tragic end to a conflict we’ve been monitoring.” His co-anchor erased her smile and nodded gravely. “Just yesterday,” he continued, “this station was preparing a special in-depth Roundtable Report—”

Tragic. Roundtable. Yesterday. A hammer banged my ear. From inside.

“—to be broadcast Saturday as part of our ongoing—”

I took several deep breaths. That did nothing except produce hyperventilation.

“This morning, police are left wondering whether a conflict over freedom of speech may have escalated all the way to homicide.”

I had been edging toward the set while he spoke. Now I sat down on the sofa and waited. One of us, one of the people in the greenroom—was dead. Murdered.

“This is the sight that greeted police late last night.” The clip showed a flaming bundle, the twin of the effigy outside Glamorgan. The anchor’s voice rode over the image. “…at first seemed another ‘guerrilla bonfire’ as the Moral Ecologists call these staged events, even while disclaiming personal responsibility for…”

They’d killed this time, crossed the line and murdered someone. It had seemed inevitable the night of the Roederers’ party, and yet now, it seemed inconceivable that anyone would kill over the right to speak freely.

“But what Radnor Township police found late last evening was not an effigy but a body—”

Radnor, where the Roederers lived? They killed one of the Roederers?
Killed
to punish them for perceived immorality?

Neddy.
I thought of the Trashman effigy the night of the party, of the raging hatred Harvey Spiers had breathed in the greenroom the day before. The man was like a dog with its fangs in Roederer’s calf. And now, in his throat. I felt ill, fearful that I had unwittingly started a ball rolling toward Neddy Roederer’s murder by involving him in our library’s future, which in turn led to the fund-raiser, which produced the first face-to-face between those two men.

“—wrapped in layers of cloth in order, police theorize, to resemble the symbolic bodies burned as protests. But this was not symbolic. Inside the wrapper was a human being.” He paused, listening, I suspected, to the voice in his earpiece. Something else had happened. His eyes widened before he resumed his neutral face.

“Radnor Township police have just now released the identity of the victim,” he said. “He is the Reverend Harvey Spiers, leader of and spokesperson for the Moral Ecologists, the same protest group that has lately…”

I found myself looking around the room, as if some other presence would validate that I’d misheard. Harvey Spiers?

Burned as if in effigy? Hoist with his own petard? But why? By whom?

“Preliminary autopsy results indicate that the victim was dead by strangulation before he was immolated, but at this time, police are unwilling to comment on motives or suspects, nor have any charges been made.”

“You think the Roederers could have had anything to do with…” I was talking to an enormous but empty room, except for the cat, who apparently had no opinion.

Besides I didn’t think the Roederers had anything to do with it. They weren’t the type—elegant madcap stranglers?—and they didn’t need to resort to violence. They could move away if they were uncomfortable. Another gift of wealth.

“...further details as they are released. And now, in another fire story, but with a more positive note,” the female anchor said, “people are cheering a valiant cat named Scarlett who yesterday returned to a burning building five times, each time to save one of her kittens. At last report, Mama was singed but with a good prognosis, and her kittens were safe and sound.”

The screen was filled with a shot of a bandaged and seared cat. Heartrending, although the segue had been in the worst taste. But even with burned flesh as the link, this was an “up” sort of story. A demagogue had been strangled, then strung up and burned, but we weren’t to think about it for a second longer.

I saluted the heroic cat, but I felt bad. Very. Even Harvey Spiers deserved a full moment of reflection. I turned off the set and slumped onto the sofa, still holding my pantyhose.

Harvey Spiers loomed over me, charred and smoking. I was amazed by his mortality and by the ironic method of his murder, and wondered what it meant to the other people who’d been in the greenroom.

Could Jake now go back to Canada if he still wanted to?

Would this protect the Widow Spiers and her funds so that she could more easily spend them on her son and a better life?

Would Mother Vivien exult in having lost her competitor and threat?

Without the reverend on his case, would Havermeyer relent about the books, and would that end the demonstrations?

Would Neddy Roederer let Griffin remain at Philly Prep and restore the grant? Would Jake stay in favor with the family, keep his closest friend?

Every possibility that had come into my mind was positive. A whole lot of people would be happier because Spiers was dead, and no one would be truly sorrowful.

Which was the saddest epitaph I could imagine. He’d lived in vain.

It also meant, no matter how I felt about them or their characters, any of the above could have killed him.

Sadder still.

*

Despite the edge
of rawness in the wind, the pavement in front of school was, as always lately, a solid mass of humanity. But today the decibel level was lower. Then I saw the reason. Havermeyer and the Roederers stood on the front steps. The Roederers looked ravaged, although their clothing was happy enough. Tea wore a green velvet coat and matching hat, like a feminine Robin Hood. And Neddy’s topcoat looked woven of heather. But their tightly controlled expressions and body language didn’t match their ensembles. I wondered why they were here, given their righteous anger with the school. Havermeyer himself looked as wrung out as a puffy-faced, self-important poppet could. Was all of this to do with the death of Harvey Spiers?

My headmaster repeated a request for silence three times before most of the talk subsided. This was the first time since my innocent first day at the school that I actually wanted to hear what he had to say. Mostly, to figure out why the Roederers were with him. Besides, I had no real choice. The door directly behind the trio was the only route into the school on this side of the building. I could push them aside and enter, or make a fuss getting around the crowd and to the back door. Or I could listen.

Havermeyer cleared his throat half a dozen times. “I wish first of all to say something that is not related to the announcement I had prepared. Boys and girls, a terrible thing has happened. Jake Ulrich’s stepfather, Harvey Spiers, whom some of you have come to…know…of late, was the victim of a foul and fatal crime last night, and on behalf of all of his son’s classmates and faculty, we wish to extend our condolences to his family.”

I noticed the careful wording. More coherent than was usual for my principal, but quite skillful in skirting any false expression of loss or grief and expressing only sympathy for the victim’s family.

There was a buzz of whispers as those who’d flicked on the morning news shared details about the manner in which the deceased had reached that state.

Havermeyer looked in extreme distress, and the Roederers appeared to vibrate with barely controlled rage or fatigue, or a combination of the two. They said something to the headmaster and his alarm visibly escalated as he shook his head. I thought I lip-read him asking them to “Stay, please stay.”

It took Havermeyer four more requests until the noise again subsided. “I wish this morning,” he said, “to publicly acknowledge that with the best of intentions, in an attempt to ameliorate a degenerating, inflammatory, and, I thought, potentially damaging, possibly dangerous, situation, I nonetheless unintentionally made a conceivably grave error.”

His audience blankly sifted through his syllables. Somebody abstracted the message and said in a stage whisper, “Hey! He’s apologizing!” This was greeted with applause.

Were we supposed to believe this announcement had nothing to do with the one that preceded it?

The Roederers seemed uninterested in both Harvey Spiers’ death and Havermeyer’s mea culpa. Neddy Roederer appeared absorbed in his own thoughts, his head tilted away from the crowd, as if listening to inner voices. Tea looked exhausted, with dark circles beneath her somewhat puffy eyes, and peeved—perhaps by being coerced into this ceremony, the purpose of which still confused me.

BOOK: The Bluest Blood
11.06Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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