Authors: Kat Richardson
To hell with it; it wasn’t late over there. It was . . . I checked the clock and did the math . . . about 3:30 in the afternoon. I picked up my cell phone and poked the button for his number. In a minute, a male voice answered.
“Hi. Michael? It’s Harper Blaine.” Michael was Will’s much-younger brother. He was attending college somewhere in London since they’d moved there more or less permanently when Will and I broke up. Will worked researching provenances—the backgrounds of antiques—for Sotheby’s. It had been a dream offer just when he’d needed it most. We’d tried to keep the relationship going, but the distance and my bizarre job had killed it.
“Oh. Hi, Harper. Umm . . . can I . . . help you?” I hadn’t called since Will and I had broken up, and Michael sounded confused to hear from me.
“I just wanted to talk to Will. Is he home?”
“No. He’s at work. He’ll be home in about three hours, if you want to call back.”
“How are you guys doing?”
He replied cautiously. “We’re fine. I’m working on a bike for a motorcycle rally this summer and Will’s OK, I guess. Works a lot. You know: the big brother thing.”
“Yeah, I know that thing. Is he still on your case about school?”
“I’m out for the summer hols soon. He still doesn’t like the bikes, but we get along OK if I don’t cut class too much for them.”
That sounded like the Novak brothers I knew. Michael plunging into his enthusiasms and Will watchdogging him.
So my harrowing dream had been only that—a dream—however disturbing and realistic. No one had chopped off his limbs or stuffed him in a box, and Michael wasn’t a burned skeleton on a garage floor, either. I was still unsettled, but I took a long breath and made myself calm down.
“OK. Well. I guess I don’t need to talk to him, after all. Thanks, Michael.”
We both hung up in an awkward silence. I must have sounded nuts. I felt a bit nuts, too, for giving in to the need to check on them. The sense of something being out of joint lingered, although there seemed to be no reason for that feeling—just the aftereffect of the dream—and I chided myself for calling. Of course, I wouldn’t have forgiven myself for not checking if there had turned out to be something wrong. Still . . . crazy ex-girlfriend was not a part I liked playing.
I left a string of numbers on Quinton’s pager that meant I’d been thinking of him. It made me feel a bit like a clinging girlfriend, and yes, it was mushy, but it made me smile and that was a good trick after the fright that had awakened me.
It was too early to show up at my mother’s house. I had no desire to intrude on any private moments between her and Damon. The thought of observing Mother setting another matrimonial trap made me gag, and the false friendliness her current prey displayed on meeting me was just as cloying. My reaction might be due to the contrast between reality and my now-ruined fantasy of what life had been with my father, but I still found Damon and his presence repulsive. Unfair and irrational of me, maybe, but that’s how I felt.
I could just guess at the sorts of heavily varnished tales about me that my mother had been laying on him. Since he hadn’t thrown me out of the house, I had to assume it was the Darling Daughter version and not the Ungrateful Spawn of Satan version—I’d been both before. Considering her performance the previous day, I figured I was probably growing horns in her mind right now. Yet another reason to hold off arriving until after the man du jour had gone and avoid any scenes.
A short workout and a shower didn’t help mitigate the fact that it was the morning after a terrible day and night as much as I’d hoped. It still felt too early, and I hadn’t even changed time zones. I called room service for a pot of expensive coffee and some food and sat down on the bed to prowl through my father’s box again. If I couldn’t talk to him or his no-doubt-dead receptionist directly, I could still try to get some sense of the real man from what he’d left behind. I knew I had romanticized him, just as I had romanticized Cary, but I needed truth now, not fantasies.
Most of the paper in the box was business files, which told me about his patients and his work habits but not much more. I noticed that his handwriting was very precise when in business mode, small and neat. The office as I’d seen it in the past had been wrecked, but the simple Grey memory of it had been squared away and orderly. The writing on his business correspondence didn’t quite cross the line to fussy, but it was careful. In the journals it had been looser but still very legible, which I couldn’t say for most people’s casual writing.
All right: He’d been a bit type A, the sort of man who wore a button-down shirt even on his days off. I could remember him smiling and being silly with me, so he hadn’t been too stiff, but if I was being honest, he hadn’t been the life of the party, either. I had idolized him and built him up as an ideal parent in contrast to my demanding, peripatetic mother. I might not have been right about her, either, but that was not the issue of the moment.
I paused to eat and pour more coffee, and then I shuffled deeper into the box. At the bottom I found a couple of paperback books:
The Stars My Destination
by Alfred Bester and Chuck Yeager’s autobiography. I’d never read either book, but I knew who Chuck Yeager was and, according to the blurb, the Bester was a sort of space-faring version of
The Count of Monte Cristo
. Space adventures, ordinary guys rising to heroism and glamour. I hadn’t pegged my dad as fanciful, but it might have explained his marriage to my mother. They had both been starry-eyed, but his romanticism had turned inward while my mother’s had turned outward. If I hadn’t seen the hole where the end of his life should have been, I might have thought his visions had gone as sour as my mother’s and written him off as merely crazy, but that void—whether it was caused by him or something else—and the terror that had poured out of Christelle changed everything. He might have been nuts—he sounded it near the end—but he hadn’t been imagining that something uncanny and terrible had surrounded him.
Melancholy seemed to ooze from the box as I piled Dad’s things back inside. I set the journals on top; I’d have to ask my mother if I could keep them and the little metal puzzle, which I put into my pocket. By then it was nearly noon, so I called her.
“Oh, hi, sweetie!”
“Are you going to be home this afternoon? I want to bring the box of stuff back and take a look at those photos.”
“Sure! Come right up.”
There was one more thing I wanted to check; a last-ditch chance but I couldn’t ignore it. “I want to drive past the old house first. What was our address when we lived in Glendale?”
“You mean the house on Louise?”
“Did we ever live in another house in Glendale?” How could she irritate me so much with so little effort? I wondered.
“Well, no, of course not!” she snapped.
“Then the house on Louise must be the one I want.”
She sighed dramatically and rattled off the address. “When will you be done?” she asked.
“In a couple of hours. I’ll bring the box by about . . . two.”
“All right,” she replied, her voice a little sharp. “We can have lunch.”
I hoped it wouldn’t be the same minuscule meal of fruit I’d seen abandoned on her breakfast plate the previous morning, but I didn’t think I should refuse. “I’ll see you then.” Hanging up was a relief. She still made me feel unreasonable and clumsy even on the phone. I hoped I’d get the last of what I needed from her today, so I could go home as soon as possible. Any good feeling I’d had for my hometown was curdling fast.
The house on North Louise Street would be my last shot at finding any trace of my father’s ghost, short of dumb luck. I couldn’t think of any other places he might linger, and the house was a long shot as it was. The strangeness in his office made me think he wasn’t going to be found just haunting around, but I might find a loop or some other trace that might tell me something.
I’d kind of expected something more . . . impressive, but once I got to it, it was just a house. Plain California stucco on a narrower lot than its neighbors, palm trees at the curb, a long driveway on one side to a garage in the back. It was only a few blocks, a short walk, from what was now Paul Arkmanian’s office.
My memory saw the house as much larger than its narrow two stories. I sat and stared at it a moment, the house looking just the same in both the Grey and the normal so it seemed to be sitting in a pale shadow of itself. Wind chimes and shiny crystals hung from the porch rafters and in the windows. A rainbow-striped flag made a curtain for one pane on the upper floor. Subtle signals of the private life the residents kept quietly confined within the walls they’d cleaned of any trace of previous tenants. There weren’t any particular lines of energy or gleams of residual emotion clinging to the house. No one loved it, or hated it, or lingered in it. It was just shelter, nothing more.
I got out of the car and walked across the street to look more closely at the house, but nothing changed. There were no ghosts here, no extraordinary extrusion of the grid or traces of more than passing emotional storms. It was as clear as scrubbed glass. Curtains twitched in nearby windows and I sighed, knowing it was only a matter of minutes before one neighbor or another called the cops to investigate me and my obsession with the house on Louise Street. I shrugged and went back to my car.
I wasn’t any closer to talking to my father or figuring out what had tied us both to the Grey or when or how. I could almost understand, in a confused sort of way, why he’d written his suicide note to me—or at least not to my mother—but that didn’t answer the questions I had. Disappointed, I turned the car around and headed back to Hollywood and up the hills to my mother’s stormy white villa.
I put the box down on one of the empty chairs—petty rebellion, that—and sat down on another, surveying the table for signs of lunch. It was just on two o’clock according to my watch, so her lack of preparation wasn’t due to me. She just wasn’t ready, which was no different from my childhood; if we had an appointment that furthered her ideas for my life, she’d be sure to have me dressed and prepped at least an hour before we needed to be gone. I would sit or stand, careful not to muss my audition clothes, until she was ready, which would always be in the nick of time, or just past it. We would rush to auditions and photo shoots in a flurry of shouting and speeding and narrowly missed traffic accidents. If we were too late, the drive home would be a misery of recrimination.
I shook off the urge to grind my teeth and put my booted feet up on the empty table while I waited. Ten minutes later, my mother unwound herself and trotted over to glare at me as she wiped her face on a designer towel.
“Really, Harper, I taught you better manners than that. Get your feet off the table. Now.”
I left them where they were. “I thought we were having lunch.”
“We certainly won’t be having anything if your feet are on the table, Snippet.”
I wanted the things from the box too much to tell her off. Narrowing my eyes in annoyance, I lowered my feet back to the ground.
My mother gave me a plastic smile and headed into the house. “Come on inside. Bring the box.”
Shaking my head at myself in disgust, I picked up the box and carried it into the kitchen. She pointed to the end of the spotless granite counter.
“Just put it there. You can make a salad while I take a quick shower. Be right back, sweetie,” she added, and whisked off, leaving me standing in the middle of the kitchen, too stunned to shoot her.
I was still trying to decide if I should make the salad or dump the entire contents of the fridge on her terrace when a round, black-haired woman about my age bustled into the room.
She stopped and blinked at me. “Oh. Hello. You’re . . . Veronica’s daughter, right?”
I blinked back. “Yes. Are you a friend of hers?”
The woman laughed. “No, I’m the maid! I’m Venezia—Vinny. She was in such a hurry to get me out of the house today, I left my bag, so I came back for it. I think she’s too excited about you coming to see her.”
“She doesn’t act like it. She just told me to make salad while she takes a shower. . . .”
Vinny snorted. “Salad! Feh! Rabbits eat salad! Crazy woman . . . Here, I’ll make the salad. You sit down.”
“No, you’re off duty. You shouldn’t do that,” I protested as she headed for the gleaming steel fridge. I followed her.
She turned to give me a deprecating snort over her shoulder and pointed at the dining table. “You’re the guest. You don’t make lunch! Sit down. Crazy woman . . .” she added, shaking her head and piling food on the counter. “Five years, I never see her eat anything but fruit and mineral water and crackers and drink wine. Today she has salad—proper damn salad.” She flung the refrigerator door wide and pointed at the full racks. “You see all this? This is not for her. This is for that man,” she added. She rolled her eyes. “Crazy!”
Vinny slammed the fridge door and grabbed a decorative glass bowl from the counter. She paused to wash it and her hands before shredding lettuce into the bowl and starting in with a knife on the fruit, cheese, and meat she’d pulled from the fridge, mincing it all furiously into tiny bits. “Salad,” she muttered. “Crazy.”
She finished up and doused the bowl with a hearty slosh of bal samic vinegar before putting it on the table. “There! Now, she’ll have to eat.”
“Oh, no, she won’t. If she doesn’t want it, she’ll just push it around the plate and nibble on the lettuce,” I said, remembering my mother’s famous food avoidance routine. She’d rather eat the parsley garnish than gain an ounce by eating the actual food on a plate.
Vinny rolled her eyes and plopped down in a chair by the table. “She’s so crazy! People have to eat!” She picked a bit of fruit out of the bowl and popped it into her mouth. “It’s good—for salad.”
I opened the fridge and peered in. “You want a drink, Vinny?”
“I don’t want mineral water!”
“There’s milk . . . and beer. . . .”
“Beer? That man might not be so bad. . . . But I’m not supposed to. . . .”
“Are you driving?” I asked, glancing back at her over my shoulder. Vinny shook her head. I grabbed one of the tall brown bottles and handed it to her. “I’m her guest. You’re my guest. Here.”
Vinny laughed and twisted off the bottle cap and then toasted me with the bottle. “Thank you! You have one, too.”
“I am driving, so I’ll stick to the mineral water.”
She made a face. “Your choice . . .”
I sat down with one of the small green bottles of water and we both drank while the salad sat on the table and wilted. Mother was taking her time with the shower. My phone vibrated, but I poked it into silence, not willing to lose someone else’s perspective on my mother.
“You’re not the sort of woman I’d have expected my mother to employ as a housekeeper.”
“I’m not the housekeeper. I’m the maid. I just clean once a week. I come with the house.”
“With the house? I thought she owned it.”
“Leased. The owner lives in Dubai right now. He wants the house taken care of properly, so the tenant gets me and my husband with the house. Tahn does the garden and fixes things. I keep it clean. And I keep an eye on the tenants.” She shook her head. “Your mother . . . She’s not a bad tenant, but she’s so . . .”
“Yeah! If she doesn’t have a man around, she’s sad. When she does, she’s scared he’s going to leave.” She shook her head. “Why a rich woman like her is worried about having a man, I don’t know. I love my husband, but I wouldn’t be worrying myself into a skeleton if I didn’t have him.”
Something she’d said earlier had just worked through my brain. “Vinny, what time did you leave here?” I asked.
“When I forgot my bag? About a quarter to two. She said you were coming at two and she needed to change.”
“She wasn’t doing her yoga when you left, was she?”
“I’ve never seen her do yoga. I think she goes to the studio down the hill.”
“Oh,” I replied, thinking. Mother hadn’t been struggling with the moves, so she wasn’t faking, but it sounded like her routine didn’t normally include yoga at two p.m. And she didn’t own the house, as she’d led me to believe. I wondered if she owned the car. How much of her facade was false?
“Has she ever . . . seemed in financial difficulty?” I asked.
“Your mother? No. She pays on time, in full. Never a problem. The lease term is up soon, but I don’t think she’s too worried about it, now that her man is making with the matrimony.”
Venezia would have answered, but we both heard my mother’s clippy little heels approaching and turned our faces toward her as she entered the kitchen.
“Vinny. Dear. Did you forget something?” she asked, casually brushing her hair back from her face to hide a momentary scowl.
“Yes. My bag. When you chased me out. Your daughter was so nice,” she added in a pointed tone, “that we just . . . got to talking. And there’s salad. So now I’ll get my things and get out of your way.” She stood up and walked to the door, sweeping a tan Gucci purse off the tiles. She slung it over her shoulder and came back to offer me her hand. “I enjoyed meeting you. I hope you’ll be back down for the wedding—it should be nice.”
Then she bustled out past my mother, who glared at her, and disappeared toward the front door. I heard the door close and silence fell for a moment.
Then my mother said, “Well. I was hoping to surprise you with that little tidbit, but I guess I won’t be doing that now.”
“It’s not that much of a surprise, Mother.”
Mother made an aghast face I didn’t buy for a minute. “Don’t you like Damon?”
“That’s irrelevant. Do you love him?”
“Marriage is not a matter of love—that’s just a fairy-tale idea. It’s about security. You may be perfectly content to gad about and take whatever comes, but when you’re my age, you want to know you won’t end up in some . . . old-folks ghetto.”
I was rolling my eyes so frequently around her, they might as well have been marbles. “Please, Mother. Security I understand, but you’re being melodramatic. You’re not going to end up in a Medicare home. You’re wealthy and you’re only sixty years old.”
“Fifty-nine,” I agreed, putting my hands up in a placating gesture. “I’m just saying, you’re not old and you’re not going to be cast into the street. You don’t need to marry anyone. Unless there’s something you haven’t told me. I’d like to think that you’re getting married to someone you actually like and want to spend time with, not someone you think you need for financial reasons.”
“When did it become any of your business, Snippet?”
“You’re my mother.”
“That hasn’t made you care what I want in the past.”
I didn’t want to argue with her. I just wanted to return the box, take a few things, look at the family photos, and leave. I didn’t care to admit it, but I was feeling a little sorry for her. I’d always thought of her as mercenary, selfish, thoughtless, and pushy, and here she was challenging my prejudice. It was annoying.
“Let’s try this again. You’re getting married? Congratulations! I’m happy for you! Better?”
Mother pouted. “Yes.”
“Then let’s have lunch.”
We ate the salad, which was tasty but not what either of us really wanted. Mother ate more than I’d expected, but she still ended up picking out the fruit and leaving most of the meat and cheese behind. Neither of us was satisfied, but we didn’t say so.
Afterward I opened the box and asked to keep the Grey items—including the puzzle and the journals.
Mother waved them away. “Keep what you like. As you said, it’s your father’s junk and I realized I don’t really want it. You might as well have it.”
I put them aside and closed the box up before I glanced at her again.
“What happened to Dad’s receptionist?”
“Christelle LaJeunesse. Dad had a note in his journal that you thought he was having an affair with her. Then she just seemed to disappear. What happened to her?”
“Oh. Her. She just took off one day out of the blue. I never really thought Rob was . . . up to anything with her, but I think I may have said so once when I was mad at him. When he . . . died it was a nine days’ wonder, and the police did think he might have killed her, but they gave that idea up. It just didn’t fit, so they dropped it.”
“But what happened to Christelle?”
She shrugged. “I have no idea, nor do I care. I suppose she ran off with some man or changed her name and became a movie star—who knows? Does it matter?”
Only so far as determining if my father was a murderer. But I doubted that mattered to anyone but me. Was it better for him to have killed someone because he was deranged or for him to merely think he had, because he was slightly less deranged?
“No,” I lied. “I guess it doesn’t matter, really.” I picked up the box and carried it back down to the storage room. Mother followed me downstairs and perched on her ladder again as I replaced the box and pulled out the two Grey twinkling cartons of photos. They weren’t very large, but they were dense and heavy for their size, so I didn’t want to take them far. I also noticed my jeans and T-shirt were smeared with dust. I swatted the worst of it away and sneezed. Then I looked up and caught Mother’s eye.
“Is there someplace we can go through these that’s more comfortable?” I asked. “And not so dusty?” I’d forgotten how irritating the pollen-laden dust of Los Angeles in spring could be.
She hopped down from the ladder with her face alight. “Let’s take them to the living room! We can look at them on the coffee table.”
Back up the stairs and through the kitchen, I slogged with the boxes. Mother trotted ahead of me and turned through an arch that led away from the carport end of the house. I followed, still sneezing and humping boxes.
The living room was filled with flattering, cool light filtered through pale aqua curtains. The sheer panels over the windows moved in the breeze entering through the open French doors and turned the blue canyon light into rippling motes of color on the white walls. The furniture was all light and soft-looking also, made of curling gray metal and puffy overflowing cushions in pale watery colors. The coffee table looked like a mermaid’s forest of silver seaweed holding up a floating slab of sandblasted aquamarine glass. My mother scooped an arrangement of seashells and beach glass off the table and put it in the hearth of the small, white-plastered fireplace. It looked like a magical blaze of blue and green cold flames.
“Put the boxes here while I find a pencil and some towels,” Mother ordered.
She scampered back to the kitchen and returned with a handful of writing implements and yet another pile of clean white hand towels. She didn’t seem to own paper towels—at least I hadn’t seen any in the kitchen. Maybe she held stock in a laundry. . . .