Authors: Ellen Pall
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Like many marriages and most divorces, murder is more attractive on paper than it is in practice.
Who among us has not whiled away a happy hour planning the discreet dispatch of a superfluous colleague, or plotting the deft removal of a relative gone stale? In the quiet groves of thought, we may fondle harmlessly the garotte, the razor, even the bear trap. Smothering, poisoning, rabies, an opportune train, a gentle nudgeâin soothing revery, all are ours to ponder.
Yet with murder, as Mark Twain once observed of life in general, it is easier to stay out than to get out. What begins with high hopes is apt to end in sorrow, in a welter of ugly details and frightening consequences. Or so, at least, thought Juliet Bodine, when in after-years she reflected on what she came to think of as the Summer of Too Great Expectations.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
There was a curious gracefulness in the action of the hands that held the trim little hammer. Up and down it went, up and down, always precisely, always with a certain delicate care.
Beneath the silvery head, the cake of eyeshadow first cracked, then broke into a dozen tiny shards. The neat hands swept the remains together and resumed the process of gentle pulverization. Eyeshadow had been only one of a number of possibilities. Cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, Nesquik might also have done the trick. But after some experimentation, eyeshadow had won. It was simple and effective, the perfect solution for such a perfectly simple means of assault.
When at last the cosmetic had been crushed to a satisfactory fineness, a fork was introduced to mix in an equal amount of a snowy white powder. Then, a crisp page of paper was slipped beneath the resulting mound, curled into a funnel and raised to pour the compound into a small plastic jar. The screw-on cap closed with an easy twist.
There. The jar tumbled into the warmth of a pocket. Perhaps circumstances would fall out in such a way that it need never be used after all.
Or perhaps not.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
It was a warm Tuesday evening in early July, and Juliet Bodine had decided to serve dinner to her old friend, Ruth Renswick, on the terrace of her apartment on Riverside Drive. Soft, brackish air drifted up to them off the Hudson, mingling with the fumes from the West Side Highway, the charcoal of the grilled shrimp before them, and the faint fragrance of roses in planters all around the terrace walls. Juliet, regretfully setting her fork down, sniffed cautiously at this New York potpourri and was flooded with memories of summers past. The sun had set, the dusk was gathering swiftly, and a mild coolness crept into the quickening breeze. Ruth gathered a black shawl up from behind her and pulled it over her bare shoulders.
The women had been talking about art and morality, which Juliet thought were completely unrelated and Ruth insisted had to be linked in some way. They started with Wagner and whether one might enjoy his music despite his historical legacy, then moved on through T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound to the reflexive xenophobia of the great English mystery writers of the 1930s. From there, they drifted to D'Annunzio, then HergÃ©, the Belgian author of the witty, delightfully drawn “Tintin” children's books and an enthusiastic Nazi collaborator.
At last, “Talent and ethics have exactly the same relationship as talent and height,” Juliet declared. “Which is to say, none. A tall man can be a dreadful poet and a short man can be a towering poet. A good man can be a terrible poet and a terrible man a wonderful poet. Coleridge was an opium addict who deserted his wife. Rod McKuen's probably a saint.”
When Ruth had no answer, Juliet at first imagined her adversary had conceded the argument. The silence went on for some moments, with Juliet feeling comfortably triumphant and Ruth apparently interested in a dust mote about three feet away from her in the darkening air. But suddenly, she dropped her head into her hands and groaned. After a moment, Juliet realized she was crying.
In the twenty or so years she had known Ruth Renswick, Juliet had never seen her cry. Scream, yes. Bully, threaten, rage, fume, sulk, manipulateâbut weep? It was disconcerting, like seeing a cat out of breath.
“What is it?”
“Sorry,” Ruth muttered. Hurriedly, she dashed away the tears spilling onto her cheeks. “It's this goddam ballet, this goddam
anyway. I think this project is cursed.”
Ruth lifted her face to look bleakly at the other, then dropped it again so that her graying bangs flopped into the remains of her salad.
“Today,” she went on, addressing her place mat, “I spent six hours choreographing a pas de deux for Act One. And it's all wrong. I think everything I've done is wrong. And now the Jansch has decided to have it performed at the gala that opens the season, for Chrissake.” She started to sniffle again. “Oh, shut up, Ruth,” she snapped at herself. “Damn. Hell!”
Juliet studied the top of her friend's head. When they had met in college some fifteen or twenty years before, Ruth had had no friends at all. She was a wiry, sallow girlâdark, broody, sullen, and nearly mute. It wasn't until Juliet took a modern dance class (thus fulfilling a dreaded Phys Ed requirement) that she realized Ruth would reward attention. Juliet, small, round, and blond, a compulsive smiler with a misleading little-girl voice and a peaches-and-cream complexion, was astonished to see this human anchovy transformed by movement into a kaleidoscope of passion. Intrigued, she gently cultivated a friendship, advancing the intimacy by slow degrees until she came to see that Ruth, though she had the manners of a child reared by Siberian wolves, was, inside, a sterling person driven entirely by a need to dance. Through their twenties and into their thirties, Juliet had watched without surprise as Ruth rose steadily in the contemporary dance world, first as a performer, then (after two operations on her left knee and one on her right foot) as a choreographer. In spite of Ruth's lengthy wanderings in Europe and California, they had stayed close, drawn together as much by a mutual, rather amused appreciation of the extreme differences between them as by the bond of trust they had established in school.
Now, as they sat across from each other in the gathering summer night, the women seemed mildly drawn caricatures of the girls they had been when they met. Juliet was still soft and fair, with round blue eyes and a short, pale halo of curling blond hair; if anything, in fact, she appeared softer and even less worldly than she had in college, and when she spoke, her breathy, childish voice suggested something approaching simplemindedness. For her part, Ruth had grown only more angular and unsmiling. Her short hair was streaked with silver, but her body had the same forbidding tenseness of old. If Juliet had been introduced to her now, at a party or on the street, she would have assumed something awful had just happened to her, a catastrophic medical diagnosis, perhaps, or a deep, sudden betrayal. On the rare occasions when she introduced friends to Ruth, she always warned them to expect her to be abrupt, distrait, or worse. Ruth, Juliet had been forced to admit as the years went by, was a bit of an acquired taste.
On the other hand, when Juliet's marriage had gone to hell some years ago, it had been Ruth who kept her sane. Ruth canceled her own plans to listen hour after hour while Juliet sniveled on the phone or in a cafÃ© or a bar. Ruth pulled her out of her apartment and dragged her to concerts and movies. Ruth even had the kindness to sleep in Juliet's spare room a couple of nights, until Juliet got brave enough to face the apartment alone. In her fierce, wolfy way, Ruth loved Juliet. And she loved Ruth. So it was not merely rhetorically that Juliet asked now, “Is there anything I can do?”
Ruth looked up and blew her nose in her napkin. “Make me smarter?” she suggested. “Turn back the hands of time?” The unsettling tears started again to her eyes. “I'm not sure anything can be done. I'm not sure I can pull this off. Entre nous, I'm so scared I puked on my way to the studio this morning. And I only have eight more weeks to finish.”
Unsure whether to make light of her fears or give them their full due, Juliet settled for more information. “How did this happen?”
Ruth rubbed the tears away again. “Now, that's the easy part. I made a mistake. When I wrote the synopsis, I assumed people knew the basic story of
But they don't, as I now have learned. Some of the dancers never even heard of it. One of them identified it as the name of a male escort service.”
“Soâchange the synopsis?”
Ruth made a rude noise indicative of scorn. “The music was composed exactly according to my directions, Juliet,” she said. “I gave the composer a scene-by-scene breakdown and he followed it to the second. Two-minute duet for Pip and Estella, thirty-second transition for the corps, seventy-five-second solo for Miss Havisham. Et cetera, et cetera. Now it can only be changed in the most minuscule details. I left myself no space to establish the characters, even to convey the narrative. So how do I do it? I can't use mime, it's antediluvian. I can't make things vague and impressionistic, because the Jansch is counting on a real story ballet to pull kids in, to sell tickets to families. And this stupid pas de deux today, which I thought would be so greatâ¦”
Ruth subsided into frustrated silence and sat staring off into the deepening dark. For a moment, Juliet feared she was going to start to cry again. But a few seconds later, she suddenly straightened and spoke as if deeply struck.
“You know, Juliet, maybe you could help me,” she said. “As a matter of fact, I really think you are the very person who could.”
Juliet raised her pale eyebrows till they disappeared briefly under her curly hair. “Ruth, dear, you saw me dance in Miss Lewis's class. I haven't improved. I really don't thinkâ”
“Of course I don't want you to dance,” Ruth said, with a contemptuous snort of laughter that Juliet tried to welcome as a sign of returning confidence. “I mean you could help with the storytelling, the characters, the synopsis. Why not? That's what you do best. And you must know
backwards and forwards.”
For a moment, Juliet seemed to lose the power of speech. It was true that she was good at storytelling. The very shrimp they were digesting had been bought with the proceeds of the dozen historical novels she had written under the pen name Angelica Kestrel-Haven, not to mention the Spode dish they sat in, the hand-painted table on which the dish was placed, and the wraparound terrace sixteen stories above the Hudson River that supported the table, herself, and Ruth. No one had been more surprised by the success of Angelica Kestrel-Haven than A K-H herself. Her works were historical novels, drawing-room comedies set in the English Regency era, gentle, literate farragoes of love and misunderstanding that owed much to the romance writer Georgette Heyer. When she had written the first one (
A Dandy Out of Fashion,
it was called), Juliet had been at Barnard, teaching English literature with a feminist slant. Sheer loathing of academia, combined with a low liking for genre fiction and a rainy summer misspent ten years ago in a rented cottage on Prince Edward Island, had inspired her to try (as they said in the Regency) her pen. To her astonishment, that first effort sold promptly and for a good sum. She invested it all in Microsoft (then trading at two dollars a share) and, six novels later, thanks to a series of similar forays into the stock market, gladly quit teaching and left Academe forever.