Authors: Linda Barnes
Tags: #Mystery & Detective, #General, #Fiction
You always called her Melody Downstairs, as though that were her name, as though it never occurred to you that she might have a proper last name that you might learn by checking the listing in the foyer. Not that I knew much more about her than you did. She never volunteered information and I never asked; she had a right to a private life.
How you’d have laughed at that, I thought, fingers skimming the handrail. You’d have called it an antiquated concept. But the people we wrote about weren’t private souls. They were different; they’d entered into a public space via their special accomplishments. Our subjects were volunteers and they set their own limits, revealed what they chose to reveal. Yes, you urged them to tell more; that was your job, our job, and some did and later regretted it. But to a large extent, they painted and framed their own canvases, got to shield awkward or intimate doodles from the public gaze.
“I thought I heard you last night. Hope I didn’t wake you.” Melody’s musical voice heralded her unlovely presence. Frizzled hair, parted in the middle, yanked into a tight bun, a dun-colored shift billowing over a shapeless body. When she didn’t invite me in, I felt relieved rather than offended. I’d never entered her domain, had no desire to witness pulleys or bars or whatever arrangements she’d installed to cope with her condition.
“The police were here.” She lowered her voice to a confidential murmur, seeming delighted to break the news and eager to gauge its effect on me. “Two of them. Plain clothes. From the Cape, about that man you worked with, the one who died?”
I found myself suddenly obsessed, wondering whether she’d always lived in a wheelchair, if she suffered a disastrous accident or had some dire progressive illness, how she’d come to live in that apartment, how she survived. Why was her life unworthy of a book? A film?
“They were looking for you.” Her words dripped portent, as though she imagined herself the oracular figure in some Greek tragedy. “They wanted to interview you about the car crash. Ask you questions? Like on a TV cop show, where you’re a witness?” Her eyes, rounder than usual behind their heavy frames, peered up at me.
I should have returned Snow’s call immediately. Policemen didn’t understand, didn’t care about shyness or panic attacks or the need to meet deadlines. They needed answers to their questions so they could fill out their forms. I could sympathize with that, but why they would imagine there were answers to an accident eluded me. An accident was an accident, sui generis, inexplicable.
It would be a matter of forms, filling in boxes, ticking off items on an official list.
“I suppose you told them I’d be back?” I had a vision of Melody savoring and sharing every word Caroline and I had shouted at each other, detailing the nights you’d spent at the apartment as well as the days.
“I didn’t tell them
you’d be back.”
“Because you didn’t know.”
Her round eyes gleamed through her thick lenses. “I wouldn’t tell them, anyway. What right do they have to ask? They wanted to know if I had a key. To your apartment. I mean, suppose I did? They could have grabbed it, used it, poked through all your belongings, pawed through your underwear drawer. And then they could have said I’d given it to them, offered it. There were two of them, big, loud men. They’d lie for each other, no problem, back each other up, their word against mine. Nobody would believe me.”
Surely some story lurked behind her anger and paranoia.
“Good thing you don’t have a key,” I said.
“I’d never tell them anything. You don’t have to worry about me.”
I had a sudden sense, almost a vision, of Melody’s living room: a huge TV for viewing crime-scene investigation shows and late-night film noirs, mismatched shelves packed with vintage murder mysteries. I saw her huddled under a shawl on icy evenings, flipping channels, turning dog-eared pages. The policemen’s visit was most likely the highlight of her month.
“I won’t,” I said gravely. “Are you still good on milk and juice?”
The drive to Lexington took longer than the entire journey from the Cape, jangling my nerves from the moment I crossed the BU Bridge onto Memorial Drive, a nightmare of honking anger that roiled and oozed with barely suppressed rage onto the Fresh Pond Parkway. I stopped at the rotary near Fresh Pond for gasoline I didn’t need, just to slide out of the car, stretch, and ease the tendons in my neck. Traffic was less congested on Route 2, but cars whizzed by at high speed on either side till I pulled into the right-hand lane and crept along doing fifty-five.
The missing tape haunted me. What could you have learned from Brooklyn Pierce that you would have withheld from me, your scribe, your amanuensis? A delicious tidbit of gossip, a tale you wanted to confirm before sharing? Did you have reason to distrust Pierce, discount his information? Had the two of you been drinking heavily, sharing a blunt? Jonathan hadn’t gotten the tape in the mail, but he’d mentioned the name of a man who’d been trying to reach you. McKay. I wracked my brain. Did you work with a McKay? Teach with him? Could you have given the tape to McKay?
Your house took me by surprise, Teddy. How odd that I never visited, that you never held a dinner party to which I was invited. I parked in front and checked the street number twice. The place was unexpectedly large, the light gray paint tasteful and fresh. Blue shutters contrasted nicely with the gray, the sheltered entryway was attractive, but it was a standard-issue Colonial, a blip of conformity, with little to distinguish itself from its neighbors. I’d assumed something stark and modern in keeping with Caroline’s coldness.
That you would choose to live behind that bland front door seemed odd, if not impossible. You were the rebel; you’d always be the rebel, but it came to me in a rush that I hadn’t truly known you, Teddy. I mean, I knew you biblically, of course, in that “Abraham knew his wife” sense. I knew you as a teacher and a mentor and an interviewer, but this house was the home of a suburban paterfamilias.
I inhaled courage and abandoned the car. While you may have been husband to Caroline, you were not the father of her children, not the father of any children. The house was a lie, the same way the marriage was a lie. Halfway up the walk, I found myself wondering which you had envied more: Garrett Malcolm’s splendid, rambling house or his beautiful and talented daughter.
I rang the bell twice in quick succession. I wanted to get this over with quickly, return to the driver’s seat, speed back to the Cape, return to Malcolm and my chance at life. I thought I’d catch Caroline with her guard down, in jeans or sweats or gardening clothes. I thought I’d catch her unaware. There was a moment as she opened the door during which her features readjusted, like a Polaroid snapshot coming into focus, but she was blurred only for an instant. Then she was cool and organized again, in total command. Does she sleep in makeup, Teddy? Is she always perfectly dressed and groomed?
She wore a chocolate brown slim skirt, with sweater to match. The scarf at her neck had a touch of crimson. Her face was pale and perfect, a cool mask I couldn’t help but envy. What a strength it must be to never show what you feel. I wondered whether she experienced it as strength or burden, whether she seethed under her perfectly arched eyebrows.
She nodded curtly and stepped aside, taking my wish to enter for granted. It didn’t occur to me until later that she might not want the neighbors to witness a confrontation. It didn’t occur to me until later that she might have been waiting for someone else. Indoors, the high-ceilinged foyer was pure Caroline, cool white walls, veined marble tile, harsh abstract art.
“I came for the other tape.”
“And you never travel. Why Teddy believed your bullshit, I’ll never know. You’ve got a nerve, throwing me out of his place, then demanding anything.”
I tried to smile. “It’s important that I have all Teddy’s notes, all his tapes, so I can finish on time. You don’t want to repay the advance. Really, you don’t need that on top of everything else.”
“How thoughtful of you.” Her voice was mocking. “I gave you what I found at the Cape house.”
That wasn’t quite true; I’d grabbed it and run. Instead of pointing out the lie, I said, “There’s another tape. Number 128.”
Her lips stretched into a no-warmth smile. “Isn’t it possible that my precious husband didn’t do as much work as you thought he did? Ever think of that?
“Maybe you should engage your brain. As you leave.”
“Once I have the tape I’ll be happy to leave.” I wanted to rip her eyes out, but I managed to stay calm. “Do you know a friend of Teddy’s named McKay? A colleague? A former colleague?”
“I don’t know Teddy’s friends. That should be obvious, even to you.”
“Do you have his laptop, his iPod, his—”
“Is this an endless list?”
“The police returned his phone.”
“Can you check to see if someone named McKay called him?”
She ignored the question. “I imagine they’ll give everything back eventually. There are”—she hesitated, searching for a word—“formalities.”
“Who told you that? Detective Snow?” My stomach lurched. It occurred to me that I might have made the trip for nothing. Tape 128 could have been in your car when it happened. The police could be holding on to it. They might have listened to it.
“Yes, that’s the name. He wanted to talk to you.” She turned and her heels clacked up the stairs, four-inch heels in the morning, in the privacy of her own home. I considered following, but the house seemed forbidding and my knees felt weak and unequal to the task. I thought she might have simply deserted me in the foyer, hoping I’d show myself out, but then I heard drawers open and bang shut.
I tried to rub heat into my hands. The bench poised near the foot of the stairs was constructed of metal and glass, and topped with a pristine white cushion. I couldn’t imagine having the nerve to dent that icy whiteness, couldn’t imagine anyone slumping there to remove dirty boots.
In time the goddess descended, both hands clenched as though she were playing a game, preparing to ask which hand held the treasure. My heart started racing, but I kept my mouth shut.
“Two things,” she said. “Then I want you out of here.”
She pursed her lips, as though coming to a decision. “First, what do you think about this?” Her left hand opened to reveal a slip of paper, small and folded. She watched as I unfolded it.
“It’s a check.” I felt stupid even as I said it.
“Of course it’s a check. I found it on Teddy’s desk, tucked under the printer.”
“Unsigned.” It wasn’t dated, either, but it was your personal check in the amount of one hundred eighty thousand dollars, a washed-out blue rectangle drawn on Bank of America, the address of the Lexington house printed clearly at the upper left. The “Pay to the Order of” line was completely blacked out with heavy lines from a felt-tip pen.
“Did he have that much in his account?” I asked.
“I’ll have to see, won’t I? Who do you think he was paying?”
I shrugged. “You said two things.”
The black microcassette had made a deep mark in her palm. I took air in through my nose and reached for it gratefully.
“Don’t get all excited,” she said. “It wasn’t at the Cape house, so it’s probably an old one.”
I glanced at the label: 048. Not 128. 048 would be a tape made closer to the beginning of the project. A tape I’d thought safely in the office, like the Sylvie Duchaine tape. “Where did you find it?”
“In a kitchen drawer.”
If I hadn’t heard you descant on the endless variety of Caroline’s lies, I might have believed her. My hand closed over it. “Are you sure there weren’t any others? It’s important that I have all of them, every one.”
“You have no idea what he was like, do you?”
“I knew him better than you did.”
That unamused smile again. “You’re such a child.”
“Did you think you were the first, the last, the true love of his life? Believe me, he specialized in little mice like you. Or did you think you were the only one he was banging?” She hurled the spiteful words like knives at a target, checking to see which would stick.
I clamped my lips shut and wished I could stop my ears as well. I tried to feel sorry for her, the aging ice queen locked in the ice palace.
“I wasn’t really going to divorce him. Did he tell you I was?”
“Don’t you miss him?” I said.
“I used to. But that was a long time ago.”
If you’ve read the trial transcripts, you know it all. No reason to look me up.
Just a couple of questions.
Sure, sure, everybody’s got questions.
You have trouble with that?
Let’s just say I’m uncomfortable speaking on the record.
Then off the record.
Off the tape?
I don’t have a problem with that. [Click.]
Okay, I guess. You know, divorce work, I do so much of it, you asked me about anybody else, I’d have to send my girl for the records, look it up. After a while they’re all the same. People lose interest, the guy strays, the woman doesn’t want to screw him anymore, the kids are grown. They can’t even remember why they wanted to get hitched in the first place. You know the deal.