Read The Gifted Online

Authors: Gail Bowen

The Gifted (4 page)

“No,” she said bluntly. “Coming to Cleopatra’s party was just one of my pathetic attempts to spend some time with my father and, of course, he was a no-show.” Celeste looked to the dance floor, where Lauren and Julian were moving as one – their bodies pressed together, their limbs intertwined. With their raven hair and milk-white skin, they could have been mother and son, and that made the sensuality of their movements all the more disturbing. Finally, Lauren whispered in Julian’s ear, and hand in hand they left the dance floor.

Zack’s gaze followed them. “What the hell’s going on there?”

Celeste laughed the low, husky laugh of the confirmed smoker. “I told you. Payback.”

Midweek parties at the Open Skies Country Club took into account the fact that the working days of most guests began early. The formal part of events always got underway at ten. I knew that after the cake-cutting, Zack and I would be making a quick exit, so a little before ten, I headed for the ladies’ room.

Lauren Treadgold was in there alone, looking critically at her reflection in one of the mirrors above the sinks. Her private time with Julian must have smeared her elaborate makeup. She refreshed her lipstick with an expert’s hand, then she picked up a small container of iridescent turquoise eye shadow and smoothed fresh colour on her lid.

“This party was not one of my better ideas,” she said.

“We had a good time,” I said.

“But you would rather have been at home with your dogs.”

“It was a nice party,” I said.

“And you’re counting the minutes till it’s over.” Lauren dipped the tip of her forefinger into the eye shadow and began colouring her other eyelid. “To be honest, so am I. My husband chose the design on the cake. It’s an edible icing replica of my first
Vogue
cover.”

“I’m sure Vince thought the
Vogue
cover would bring back some pleasant memories for you,” I said.

Lauren pivoted to face me. “What woman wants to be reminded of how she looked thirty years ago?” She dropped the eye shadow into her evening bag, took out eyeliner, turned back to the mirror, and traced over the dramatic line from her lower lid to the outer tip of her eyebrow.

“You’re a beautiful woman, Lauren.”

Her laugh was short and bitter. “Not as beautiful as I was when I was sixteen.” She moved closer to the mirror. “I hate getting old.”

“It beats the alternative,” I said.

Lauren sighed. “I wonder.”

At ten o’clock on the nose, servers began distributing flutes of champagne and Georges rolled out the dolly that held Lauren’s birthday cake. Glasses in hand, the guests gathered round to admire the cake.

Lauren was waiting at the head table and she wasn’t alone. Julian was at her side. Their positioning was eerily like that of a bride and groom. Zack boomed out the first words of “Happy Birthday” and everybody joined in. When Lauren bent to blow out the candles, the play of light and shadow on her face had an odd effect, making her seem strikingly beautiful one second and gaunt and old the next.

After the candles were extinguished, people raised their glasses. There was an awkward moment when it appeared no one had been designated to propose a toast – presumably, Vince had planned to say some words in honour of his wife. Lauren managed the situation by raising her glass in Julian’s direction. “To youth,” she said.

From the back of the room, a male voice, slightly drunken, yelled out: “And here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson.” The reference to the woman who famously seduced a college graduate half her age elicited a burst of nervous laughter, but Lauren was not amused. She grabbed the cake knife, made a vertical slash across the icing, threw the knife onto the table, took Julian’s hand, and bolted. The scene was over in seconds, but the tension in the room lingered.

Georges called over one of the servers and handed him the knife to finish cutting the cake. Clearly, the party was over.

When I finished my piece, Zack took my plate. “So, Archie, are you about ready to call it a night?”

“I am, Mr. Wolfe. Why don’t you arrange to get the car, and I’ll see if I can track down our host to thank her for the party.”

I circled the room and peeked into the ladies’ room, but Lauren had disappeared. Finally, I gave up and came out to the lobby. The valet had brought our car around, and Zack was chatting with Georges.

“I couldn’t find Lauren,” I said. “Georges, would you mind thanking Ms. Treadgold for us?”

Georges’s smirk was knowing. “If she returns, I’ll be glad to. Mrs. Treadgold and her young friend left a few minutes ago.”

Georges was clearly offering information, but Zack wasn’t in the market. He shrugged. “Well, when you see Ms. Treadgold, please thank her for us. Have a pleasant evening.”

Celeste Treadgold was standing just inside the front door, waiting for her own car to be brought around. When we joined her, she pulled a pack of Benson & Hedges from her bag. “That was instructive,” she drawled, tapping a cigarette from the pack. “Now we all know that if we decide to sneak a quickie, we shouldn’t do it at the club when Georges is on duty.”

“Are you all right?” I said.

“Why wouldn’t I be?” she asked. “I’m not the one being betrayed.”

Celeste’s words were angry, but there was a tremor in her voice. I touched her arm. “Why don’t we have lunch together sometime?”

“I’d like that,” she said. There were NO SMOKING signs in every room of the club, but Celeste flicked her lighter brazenly. When her cigarette was lit, she inhaled deeply and blew three careful smoke rings back into the lobby. “These are for you, Georges,” she said. “It was a swell party.”

——

When we were settled in our car, Zack put the keys in the ignition and turned to me. “Do you buy Celeste’s theory that this thing tonight is payback for Vince leaving the party?”

“I think it goes deeper than that,” I said. “Before the cake fiasco, I ran into Lauren in the ladies’ room. She was standing in front of the mirror and she didn’t like what she saw there.”

“She’s a beautiful woman,” Zack said.

“I told her that,” I said. “But in her mind, she’s thirty years past her prime.”

“So Lauren was angry at Vince tonight, and Julian was right here, available. The perfect storm.”

The Little Shop of Horrors
party was being held at the home of Taylor’s friend Gracie Falconer, and Taylor was sleeping over. When Zack and I got back to the condo, Willie and Pantera greeted us as if we had returned from a long and dangerous mission. Zack and I fussed over the dogs, and then we went to bed and fussed over each other. It was a memorable ending to a memorable evening. After we were through making love, Zack offered me the top of his yellow silk pyjamas and buttoned me up.

Zack and I both like a cool bedroom, so on pleasant nights my last chore of the day is opening the window. When I came back to bed, Zack drew me close. “I’ve been thinking about Julian,” he said.

“Not in the last half-hour, I hope.”

“Nope, in the last half-hour, my mind was wholly on bringing pleasure to Archie Goodwin.”

“And you succeeded,” I said. “So what are your thoughts about Julian?”

“When Kaye said Taylor has the future Julian dreamed of, I thought of this kid in our first year in law school. No lawyers in his family. No kindly small-town lawyer mentoring him.
No reason for him even to consider the law, but he had this burning desire to be a lawyer.”

“And he didn’t have the stuff?”

“No, he didn’t.” Zack’s voice was deep and intimate. “Jo, the first time I read a law book, I knew that I’d entered a world where everything made sense to me. Every class I took, every law book I read, just affirmed what I already knew: the law was where I belonged. And this kid worked his ass off and kept asking me to help him. I did my best, but he just couldn’t get it.”

“So what happened to him?”

“He shot another student in our class, and then he shot himself.”

My heart clutched. “You don’t think Julian would hurt Taylor, do you?”

“If I thought that, I wouldn’t be lying here beside you. I’d be making certain Julian was locked up. All the same, I’m glad the painting is finished – for Julian’s sake as well as ours. It must be tough for him to stand there and watch Taylor do what he’ll never be able to do.”

“Luckily, that chapter’s closing,” I said. “The painting’s done. Taylor and Julian live in different worlds. There’s no reason for them to continue seeing each other.”

“Thank God for that,” Zack said. A few moments later, his breathing became slow and rhythmic and before long he was asleep.

I wasn’t so lucky. It had been an unsettling evening, not simply because of the tensions in the Treadgold family, but also because Julian Zentner had revealed himself to be darker and more complex than he appeared to be when he came to our home to model for Taylor. Zack’s story about the boy in law school whose despair led him to murder and suicide had lodged itself in my imagination. It was a long time before I slept.

——

In Regina, the sun rises at about 7:45 in early November. Willie and Pantera awaken at 5:00 a.m. At the side of our building there’s a heated dog run, but the dogs and I prefer the roof garden. It’s safe and it’s large enough for the three of us to get in some decent exercise before breakfast. As soon as the elevator doors open, the dogs are off, chasing each other around the large outdoor planters that house the garden’s evergreens and perennial shrubs.

Willie and Pantera had adjusted to condo life with surprising ease. Five months earlier our family had lived in a solid one-storey home on a pleasantly landscaped lot overlooking Wascana Creek. Its only exceptional features were the accessibility ramps for Zack. We lived the privileged lives of upper-middle-class people, and then in the early hours of a placid June night, someone blew up our solid one-storey home. It was an act of violence as stunning as it was life-changing.

By one of those strange quirks of fate that makes people believe in kismet, Zack and Taylor and I were not in our house by the creek the night of the explosion. Most weekends, we drove to our cottage forty-five minutes from the city as soon as Zack and I came home from work on Friday. But that Thursday afternoon, Zack had decided that our family would celebrate my retirement from the university’s political science department by leaving for the lake a day early. It seemed the perfect coda for the official end of my life as an academic. When I went to bed, my mind was spinning the gossamer of summer plans.

The blast that had ripped apart our house broke the shell of safety and comfort we had taken for granted. The explosion was a sobering reminder that the threads that tie us to our lives are fragile, and I had taken the reminder to heart.

Robertson Davies wrote that when fate sends a message, it is spiritual suicide to resist. We had all received the message, and we each chose to interpret and act upon what we had learned in our own way.

I looked past the darkness of our neighbourhood towards the Christmas lights that were already sparkling downtown and thought about the changes in our lives. The essentials were the same. Our lives still centred on family, but we had become active in our new community, an area that a national magazine once described as the worst neighbourhood in Canada. I hadn’t been to every neighbourhood in Canada, but ours exhibited all the ugly dividends of poverty: gangs, drugs, violence, alcoholism, prostitution, and hopelessness. So our family set about doing what we could to make our community better.

Zack gave up his law practice for a year to spearhead the building of the new Racette-Hunter Centre. As a trial lawyer, Zack was an expert advocate. He knew how to read people, marshal facts, and argue effectively. The job was large, but Zack had a knack for attracting good people, and the project was moving in the right direction.

Taylor was teaching art in a Kids at Risk program in our neighbourhood, and April’s Place, the play centre/café our daughter Mieka and her friend Lisa Wallace were starting for North Central’s young parents and their children, would be opening at the end of November.

For my part, in early September I’d finished writing the script for a television special called
For the Common Good
, which tracked the conciliation process between Leland Hunter and Riel Delorme. I still had some final editing to do but nothing time-consuming, so when Ernest Beauvais asked me to come up with a coherent statement of purpose for the new multiplex, I was interested.

Ernest and I settled on three clear goals. The first was to
dismantle the stereotypical ideas Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals had about each other. The second was to convince people outside North Central that the community’s largely Aboriginal population shouldn’t be written off, that they were a resource that could lift up the community. The third was to convince the people inside North Central that the answer to transforming their lives and their community wasn’t government assistance. They themselves were the answer, and that meant accepting responsibility for parenting, for work, for the health of their families, and for the condition of their homes.

Becoming part of our neighbourhood was an exhilarating process, but as I stood on the rooftop, I couldn’t forget that our building was still surrounded by that fifteen-foot security fence. We had a long way to go.

November 5 was Christmas card photo day for the people behind the Racette-Hunter project. When Zack came out of our bedroom showered and dressed for the day, he picked up the envelope that contained Ben Bendure’s
DVD
. “This has been sitting on the counter for nearly a week,” he said. “We don’t have to be at the construction site till nine. Do you think it’s time we took a look at it?”

“Sure,” I said. “I’ve been planning to call Ben to thank him. If I could say I’d already started watching, I’d seem more enthusiastic.”

“You don’t seem very enthusiastic now,” Zack said.

“I’m not. There’s still a lot of unfinished business in that part of my life.”

Zack’s dark eyes were probing. “Maybe it’s time to finish it.”

Zack examined the
DVDS
and chose one. “This covers Sally’s early years.”

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