by Jaye Maiman
Private Eye Robin Miller trudged down the ice-slick sidewalk wondering which was worse: the miserably cold New York winter, the dead-end case she couldn’t seem to crack, or the fact that her lover K.T. Bellflower’s entire family had just descended upon them like an army of Kentucky locusts. Of course, that was before Robin’s sultry ex-lover arrived on the scene…and K.T.’s 15-year-old niece disappeared in the middle of Times Square!
Robin Miller Mystery Book 7.
Originally published by Naiad Press 1999.
If she talked, he’d kill her. There was no other way, really. No one would understand. And everything he’d built, everything he worked so hard to achieve, would be gone. Because of her.
So ironic. When he was younger, when she was younger, it was so different. They had understood each other so well. Words weren’t necessary. He’d probe her body in the dark and her breath would snap in two. Pure bliss. Body to body, soul to soul.
She didn’t judge him, didn’t talk back. Everything he did was for her, for both of them. And she’d known it. He showered gifts on her, took her to places she would never have seen except for him.
It’d been a good life so far. Money. Fast cars. Slow sex. It’d been so good. Until now.
The last few months she seemed edgy, unsettled. When she started talking about going away, challenging him, he knew what it meant. The end was near. He just didn’t know how it’d end. If she kept her mouth shut, it might work out okay. They’d drift apart. The silence between them would calcify. But he could live with that. What he couldn’t live with was the fact the whore seemed ready to betray him.
He still had the power. And he would use it.
He’d have to practice first. It had been a long time since he last gutted a creature, felt fresh, warm blood on his hands. This would be different, he realized. But he could do it. To protect what he cherished most. What his own mother had sacrificed her body to obtain.
No one knew the truth. No one ever would.
The odd thing was, when he thought about it, thought about wrapping his hands around her neck and squeezing, or thundering into her body with a blade, or pressing the pillow to her face, he got hard. It was a new dimension for him.
And he liked it.
Breakups. Why the hell was I thinking about breakups? The names and faces flashed inside my head. Women I’d loved. Women I’d left. Women who slunk away with fragments of my life, leaving me a personal history filled with holes. Who stayed with me in that log cabin in Jasper? Good-byes. The instant in a relationship when everything stopped. A door-slam. A packed box. Silence. Intimacy evaporating like sweat on the skin. Had it ever been there?
Stress was getting to me. Otherwise I wouldn’t be thinking about breakups, not when I was so much in love. I forced myself back into the moment.
A solitary lamppost spilled light the color of veins you see in the wrists of thin, elderly women. Mist streamed across the street and congealed along the ice-caked curb. I rolled down the car window and watched the fog curl toward me, smoke signals from the frozen ground.
It was Sunday, Groundhog Day, and if a hole had opened up in the frozen earth, I would’ve gladly crawled inside. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen the sun or felt warm. Eliot was wrong. February, not April, is the cruelest month. Spring seems an impossibility. Misery drips steadily from low, unrelentless clouds.
My throat constricted. How much longer would I have to wait? She’d been inside for nearly thirty minutes. Too long.
I blew on my cold hands and slapped them together. I’d give her another five and then I was going in. Her plan wouldn’t work. She had to know that by now.
Using the tip of my scarf, I rubbed the steamed-up windshield. I couldn’t afford to be caught off guard. Once I got K.T. out, I’d need an escape path, adequate ammunition to ward off the inevitable assault. I rolled down the side window and let in a blast of frigid air. Looming on either side of the street were massive Victorians and turn-of-the-century colonials. Dark windows. Dim porch lights that cast a haunting glow. No people. You could scream bloody murder out here and the neighbors, entombed in their hundred-year-old homes, would blithely pass the salt and pepper to their 2.5 perfectly groomed kids and chat in muted tones about today’s piano lessons. A tremor ripped down my spine.
Whatever depravity lurked behind these plaster-and-lath walls was carefully sealed from public eyes. Wife beaters, drunks, coke addicts, embezzlers and pedophiles swept their porches, salted their driveways, smiled serenely at passersby, all with the same guarded “hi, neighbor” squint. Appearances count. So do fences. Four feet tall, white, with tips just slightly more blunt than spears.
We had to get out of here before something horrible happened. Letting K.T. go in alone had been a mistake. I put on my gloves and opened the car door. My feet had just hit pavement when a high-pitched squeal, the distressed sound of a pig in a butcher’s hands, pierced the buzzing silence. Serious trouble. Now I was sure of it.
I picked up my pace and headed for the front porch, caution be damned. Slipping on the steps, slick as oil, the second shriek exploded, this time sustained, chilling. I hurtled forward and stabbed the doorbell. No response. Muted voices behind the door. None of them K.T.’s. I tried the doorknob.
“Coming,” someone inside shouted, casual, confident. My teeth ground together.
The door opened onto a center hall, seven or eight feet wide, the glare from an antique brass chandelier momentarily blinding me. I blinked twice, tried to dodge the three-hundred-watt beam.
“You must be Robin. K.T. was wondering how long it’d be before you came in.” He cupped my elbow and guided me inside. Super friendly. Like one of those dogs that humps your leg at first glance, tongue dangling, spittle hitting your shoes.
I shook him off, instantly on guard. “Where is she?” My tone was curt.
A lopsided grin, patient and knowing, flitted across his face. He looked like a Ken doll, perfectly groomed hair, sky-blue eyes. His skin even had a plastic sheen. I wanted to pinch him, hard. “She’s still upstairs, with Sally,” he said. As if I knew who Sally was, or cared. “By the way, my name’s Jim. Clear. As in ‘clear skies ahead.’ ” He chuckled at his own inanity and extended his hand to seal the introduction. Sweatless palms, despite an interior temperature upward of eighty. The source of heat was a Vermont Castings wood-burning stove set into a massive stone fireplace big enough to burn sacrifices. I sniffed the air. It smelled like wood smoke, apple pie and cinnamon. Potpourri steaming in a cast-iron teapot. Atmospheric trap. “Let me take your coat.”
“No thanks,” I said, even as sweat started to gather under my breasts.
Jim and Sally Clear. A gallery of pictures mounted alongside the carpeted staircase revealed the couple in pristine settings, many of them lakeside, their toothy smiles eerily matched by those gracing the faces of three very blonde kids, all girls. I guessed them to be two, four and six. Sitcom cute and clearly conceived on schedule. Sweet’ums, let’s shoot for an early May birth this time. It’d be so lovely to deliver when the tulips are in bloom.
Jim adjusted his cherry-red suspenders and gestured broadly at the photographs. “My girls,” he said in that proprietary tone some parents have. Dog owners, too. See them golden retrievers, they can poop right into the scoop. Smart girls. “Caitlin, Jane, and Betty. Two, four and seven. Such little angels.”
Who knew a Rockwellian American family could exist this close to New York City? In New Jersey, of all places?
It had to be a nightmare. Why else would I be here?
The drumbeat of footsteps made me glance up the stairs. Sally in the flesh. Garbed in a lemony shirt-dress dotted with faded roses. Hair pinned behind one ear. Followed by K.T., who had one of the blonde munchkins perched on her hip. I felt my eyes twitch. It was worse than I had thought. K.T. had bonded.
“Hey, hon,” K.T. said, a bit of mischief in the angle of her eyebrows. “Sally was just telling me about the local restaurants. There’s a fabulous Thai place on Bloomfield we have to check out.”
She was talking food. With a sinking sensation in my belly, I anticipated her next comment. “The Clears can close in ninety days. We can be in by early spring.” Add that to the advantages of buying directly from an owner, and I was in deep trouble.
I leaned heavily on the banister—stripped, I noticed, to the original chestnut. To a Brooklyn kid like me, wood’s wood. But not to K.T. To her, chestnut spoke volumes. “Craftsmen. Tradition. History.” Chestnut is K.T.’s favorite wood. Now you gotta ask, what kind of woman has a favorite wood? And how did I, for whom “pine” is a scent of air fresheners, end up in love with her?
“Hon? Are you okay?” K.T. asked as she fingered the newel at the first landing with a gaze usually reserved for me or fresh bread. I nodded and shook my head at the same time.
K.T. was hellbent on moving us out to the ’burbs. In truth, the current dilemma was strictly my fault. Two years ago I insisted that K.T. sell her Manhattan townhouse and move in with me. In a weak moment, I’d also agreed to put my Park Slope, Brooklyn, brownstone up for sale, but at an exorbitant price no one sane would ever pay. But insanity is more prevalent in the New York City real estate market than I’d realized.
A week ago, two apparently prepubescent Wall Street ninjas launched into a bidding war for my home, each offering me substantially more than my asking price. I’d swear neither of these Harrison Ford wannabes had yet begun to shave, although they’d somehow managed to sire children. The men entered into a bizarre war over who would pay more for my home. K.T. and I took turns answering the phone and jotting down figures that equaled the gross national products of several undeveloped countries. They wore me down finally and more out of exhaustion than anything else, I agreed to a number.
K.T. had been more jubilant than the top-bidding Wall Street ninja. Within twenty-four hours, she’d arranged for five appointments with real estate agents in Montclair, New Jersey, also known as Park Slope West—the town generally agreed to be one up on the food chain for progressive liberals interested in the peculiar combination of rooms with a view, space, culture and proximity to Manhattan. Since then, she’d dragged me through twenty-nine houses. The current one was looking like lucky number thirty. For K.T., at least. Me? I’d been dragging my heels big time, rejecting houses for slights as unbearable as bathrooms without enough space for a chaise lounge and coffee table. The way I saw it, the only thing New Jersey had to offer over Park Slope was physical space, so space was where I drew the line in the sand. The fact that the line kept moving was something I hoped K.T. would not notice.
The first time K.T. suggested moving to New Jersey, I laughed so hard my nose started to run. After all, I’m a Brooklyn girl down to my aversion to malls. I practically minored in New Jersey jokes. New Jersey is a state where people go to a landfill next to a turnpike on alternate weekends to cheer a team from New York. That one’s from some Republican consultant. New Jersey is like a beer barrel, tapped at both ends, with all the live beer running into Philadelphia and New York. Ben Franklin. Why are New Yorkers so depressed? Because the light at the end of the tunnel is New Jersey! I think my fourteen-year-old nephew gave me that one, and he lives in Staten Island, of all places.
When I realized K.T. was serious, I threw a wad of soggy tissues at her. She batted them away without blinking an eye and handed me a real estate agent’s business card—courtesy of my friend, former housemate and personal Benedict Arnold, Beth Morris, who moved to Montclair with her daughter, Carol, just six months ago.
I looked up at K.T., said “Can we talk?” and licked my lips. Since entering the house, my mouth had gone bone-dry.
Sally and K.T. winked at each other. “Sure. Let’s go into the sunroom,” she said.
She was already naming rooms. Not good.
“See you later, Janie,” K.T. said as she handed the munchkin back to Sally, the rightful owner. “Hope our little one’s as cute. What a wonderful home this would be to grow up in. The spirit here is so warm—and safe.”
The last comment was made with a sideways glance at me. K.T.’s volley was well-aimed. I’m a private investigator. How I went from being a successful travel and romance writer to running an agency of James Bond rejects is a long story. Suffice it to say, I’ve had more than my share of nasty action, and some of it occurred in my own home. Since moving in, K.T. has never felt entirely comfortable. She hears cats mewling in the night, floorboards creaking. Over the last few months, she’s become increasingly intolerant of what she dubs the house’s “negative energy.”
The woman had me at a disadvantage and knew it. She was sixteen weeks pregnant. Results of the amniocentesis, done just a few days ago, wouldn’t be back for at least another week. After four years on the infertility roller coaster and two miscarriages, one at twelve and the other at fifteen weeks, we weren’t taking anything for granted. Not even our relationship.
On the ride out here tonight, K.T. made it clear that she considered buying a house together to be a leap of faith, a sign of commitment to each other and to some elusive concept of hope.
My view is, why bother with hope when you can’t control results? Hope is overrated. It makes people believe they can conquer Mt. Everest even as the wind’s slamming ice slivers down their throats. Give me good, calculator-hard figures any day. And if numbers ain’t available, hell, hot fudge will do. Hope is dangerous. Hot fudge, at its worst, just makes you fat.
K.T. winked as she passed me by, then reached back and took my hand. After all this time, even these small gestures can make me quiver—though, to be honest, six months of abstinence probably contributed substantially to my heightened sensitivity.
During this last round of insemination and subsequent pregnancy, K.T. had developed a peculiar aversion to all sexual activity. As I followed her across the living room, I noted with pleasure how her tight-legged jeans revealed her shape. Still the best butt in town, no doubt about it. I followed her into the sunroom, wondering if maybe I’d get lucky tonight. She opened the French doors and stepped aside, clearly ready to measure my reaction. I clamped down on all affect.
The sunroom offered a panoramic view of ice-tipped evergreens illuminated perfectly by unseen external lights. The floors were hardwood, the ceiling beamed, the fireplace mantel inlaid with cobalt tiles. I rapidly covered my pleasure by pointing out that the windows needed to be caulked.
“Stop,” she said suddenly, her index finger raised at my nose, schoolmarm-style. “Don’t even start.” A steamy stripe of red ran across her cheeks, part hormone, part frustration. “This is a great house, at a great price. And you haven’t even looked at it. Beth and Carol are less than a mile from here. Ryan, your business partner and mentor, is ten minutes away in Bloomfield. He’s been running the satellite office out here for almost a year now, without a single complaint from any of your clients or staff. In fact, SIA’s biggest corporate clients, the ones that pay the bills, are RealData and Fast Track. And both of them are based in New Jersey. Jill and John are not sure they want to stay in Park Slope, despite your protests. The price you’re getting for the brownstone could pay for this house, a minivan, convertible, plus four years at Harvard, for heaven’s sake, and…” She paused for emphasis. “And, God willing, we’re going to have a child in a few months. This is the right place and the right time.”
I would’ve argued, I would’ve issued a pithy, nonnegotiable statement of the house’s imperfections, had the world not turned on its axis at just that precise moment.
K.T. said, “Darn it,” and all at once dug her hand into the bag clipped around her waist. “Your beeper’s been going off all day.”
“You have my beeper?” I asked, surprised and annoyed. This morning I had scrambled around the house searching for it. K.T. had remained unusually quiet.
“Yes, I confess, dear Sherlock. I stole your beeper. Today’s Sunday, and tomorrow your vacation starts. Remember? Your office has a tendency to forget that you also have a private life.” She glanced at the number. “Maybe it’s my sister. They were considering driving up tonight instead of tomorrow.”
K.T.’s far-flung family was heading into New York for one of those old-fashioned, full-scale weddings that make me crave an emergency root canal. The family had a very expensive and odd tradition of celebrating for one entire week prior to the actual nuptials. Kids were taken out of school, business trips canceled, and vacation blocks squandered without a blink of the eye. Weddings were akin to coronations, with preparations beginning at least two years in advance. This time, the one tying the noose—I mean, knot—was her younger brother and my friend Tennessee “T.B.” Bellflower (yes, yes, the family has a thing for state names and initials). Next Saturday, the eighth of February, T.B. would marry Julie Applewhite, originally from Toronto. But in Bellflower style, the party was starting tomorrow night. A sudden headache made my eyes twitch.
“Give me the beeper, K.T.”
Her eyes glinted.
“It’s probably a client,” I said. “I better take it.”
“I’m sure it can wait.”
We both knew I would’ve accepted a telemarketer’s call if it meant I could postpone the house-buying conversation. I shrugged, said “We’ll see,” and went in search of the Clears. I found them in the kitchen and cringed. Things were looking grim. It was a chefs kitchen, with a six-burner Viking stove, the kind of natural cherry cabinets K.T. has always dreamed about, a massive butcher block cooking island and more counter space than the average Brooklyn diner. Jim noted my reaction and gleefully directed me to his office, a small wood-paneled room off the back porch.
I sat in a pleasantly worn oak and cane rocker and tried hard not to notice the built-in desk and bookcase, the coffered ceiling, the parquet floor, the antique brass pulls. I dialed the unfamiliar number on my display.
“Beth Israel Emergency. Can I help you?”
There are moments in life that seemed to be dissected from time, isolated instances when surroundings blur, senses implode.
I gave the woman my name and waited. She shouted, “Robin Miller,” but it sounded alien. Frenzied Hispanic voices replied. Then I heard the distinct cackle of a poorly tuned television. Finally, after an eternity, the woman came back on. “Do you have a number where you can be reached?” I tried to browbeat her into giving me immediate information, but she’d been trained to act as a bureaucratic logjam. I caved, recited the number and waited, praying that the call would come in before my bowels gave out.
I’ve experienced too many deaths. Four years ago, my partner, Tony Serra, finally succumbed to AIDS. Before that my ex-lover Mary had died a violent death. There were others, a couple of them clients, others killers themselves. Some deaths were at my own hand. The one that haunted me the most was my sister Carol’s.
At age three, I accidentally shot and killed her. We were playing in my father’s bedroom closet when I found the .22- caliber pistol he kept hidden in a shoebox. The course of my life derailed in a split second of gunsmoke. My father ceased speaking to me. Any semblance of normal family life went to the grave with my sister. Sleep became a phantom I couldn’t grasp. Only now, at age thirty-seven, have I begun to come to terms with this early disaster.
I snatched up the phone before it finished the first ring. It was my sister Barbara. “Where are you?” she asked, the calmness in her tone too studied.
“It’s Mom…things don’t look good.”
The hard lump in my throat startled me. My mother was diagnosed with lymphoma in 1992. My brother Ronald and my sister, the sensible CPA with a bad taste in men, had immediately rushed to her home in Florida. They’re the good children. I stayed home, according the rules of conduct established the instant the pistol in my three-year-old hand discharged. I was the invisible daughter. Over time, the role had become oddly comfortable. My mother and I had seen each other a handful of times since she moved back to New York City and started treatments. In every instance we exchanged nothing more than a few reflections on the weather and national politics.
“The doctors here think she may be in stage three,” Barbara stated quietly. The prognosis in 1992 had been five years. Mom never liked to miss a deadline.
“I know. Talk English. The disease may have advanced to the lymph nodes in the regions above and below the diaphragm.” She hesitated. “The pain’s pretty bad and her breathing much more labored than it’s been.” Another pause, this one longer. “She really wants to see you, Robin.”
In most families, this would not be surprising news.
K.T. described the relationship with my mother as unnatural. In my opinion, she understated the case. After Carol died “at my hand,” as my family never let me forget, my mother’s eyes changed. They became tunnels with no egress. I vaguely recalled a time when they had twinkled with humor. But that was prehistory. Unlike my father, she did continue, in some oblique way, to recognize me as her daughter. We both played our parts poorly, actors condemned to a script without a modicum of authenticity.
This was the woman now summoning me to her bedside. I searched for the right line and stubbed my tongue. Barbara came to my assistance, as usual. “I’ll tell her you’re on the way. She’s being admitted now. Ron said he’ll wait for you outside the main entrance to the hospital.”
Playing the anomalous role of dutiful daughter, I agreed to the plan and disconnected.
K.T. knew something was wrong the second she found me slumped in Jim Clear’s office chair. She cupped my shoulders and gave a gentle squeeze. “I’m sorry for pushing you so hard…it’s so stupid. I never had a home like this, with a fenced backyard and old gnarled willows. I guess deep inside I’m still that scared girl from Wizard Clip, West Virginny.” Her tone was self-mocking. “It would just be so great to give this to our child.”
“I know, K.T. You’re going to be an extraordinary mother.” She hugged me, then I filled her in on what was happening with my mother. My next words sprang from nowhere, or from places I’d never understand. “Before we leave, let’s make an offer.”
It was a moment of utter insanity. But if I had known what the next few days would bring, I would’ve offered the Clears double for the right to never leave their home.