Authors: William Lashner
For my mother
PART ONE: OF BLOOD AND JASMINE
1. GUY FORREST was sitting on the cement steps…
2. GUY FORREST was sitting now at the dining room table…
3. I CARED for him as best I could.
4. GUY FORREST and I attended law school together.
5. THE BEDROOM window was closed.
6. SHE SITS across from me, leaning away from me…
7. I COULD barely look at Guy as he sat next to me.
8. IT WAS my phone the detectives were looking for…
9. BERWYN IS the story of American sprawl…
10. DRIVING HOME through the narrow suburban streets…
11. ‘SO WHAT do you think?” said Beth.
12. ‘WHO DO you think killed her, Guy?” asked Beth.
16. STANDING AT the reception desk on the ground floor of the Dawson
17. “YOU KNOW if this leaks,” said.
19. I LISTENED to his story with horror…
20. THE RECEPTIONIST behind the glass window…
21. FIRST PHILADELPHIA, Market Street Branch…
22. AH, LAS VEGAS. Neon, flash, the crush of crowds…
23. HENDERSON, NEVADA, used to be a little desert town…
25. MY FIRST Words when I came to were for Beth.
26. IN A curtained alcove of the emergency room of the St. Rose.
27. “WHERE THE fuck is my money, you scabrous piece of shit?”
28. A MAN sets up a meeting, wants me to spy on his wife.
29. I HAD never imagined, before driving into it…
30. PIERCE, WEST VIRGINIA, was a county seat…
31. ‘COURSE I remember,” said.
33. I DROVE unsteadily down the rutted drive…
34. THE LOG Cabin was a rough-looking roadhouse on the way…
35. “YOU KNOW that guy at every high school,” said.
36. THERE WAS one last place to visit in West Virginia.
37. ‘IT WAS a quiet, rain-swept night on Raven Hill Road,” Said…
38. WE STOOD as the jury was let out for the day…
39. CROSS-EXAMINATION IS a witch’s brew.
40. IF THIS had been a first date…
41. FALL HAD come to Pierce with a suddenness that stunned.
42. SHE CAME around shortly after I arrived…
43. ‘SO THAT is the story, gentlemen,” said the Reverend Henson…
44. “AND YOU think this bastard, Hailey’s Uncle Larry…
45. SO FAR it had been an ordinary sort of trial.
46. THAT NIGHT, back at my apartment…
47. ‘THAT’S RIGHT,” said the police technician from the stand…
48. WE HAVE time for one more witness this after noon…
50. MR. CUTLIP, this is my client, Guy Forrest,” I said…
51. ‘IMAGINE,” SAID Judge Tifaro, leaning back in the chair…
52. THE SEABRIGHT Motel squatted on a desolate commercial section…
53. “YOU WERE in there for an hour and a half,” said.
54. I AWOKE with a start from my sleep.
was sitting on the cement steps outside the house when I arrived. His head was hidden in his hands. Rain fell in streams from his shoulders, his knees, tumbled off the roof of his brow. He was slumped naked in the rain, and beside his feet lay the gun.
From his nakedness and the diagonal despair of his posture, I suspected the worst.
“What did you do?” I shouted at him over the thrumming rain.
He didn’t answer, he didn’t move.
I prodded him with my foot. He collapsed onto his side.
“Guy, you bastard. What the hell did you do?”
His voice rose from the tangled limbs like the whimperings of a beaten dog. “I loved her. I loved her. I loved her.”
Then I no longer suspected, then I knew.
I leaned over and lifted the gun by the trigger guard. No telling what more damage he could do with it. Careful to leave no prints, I placed it in my outside raincoat pocket. The door to the house was thrown open. I slipped around his heaving body and stepped inside.
Later on, in the press, the house would be described as a Main Line love nest, but that raises images of a Stanford White–inspired palace of debauchery—red silk sheets and velvet wallpaper, a satin
swing hanging from the rafters—but nothing could be further from the truth. It was a modest old stone house in a crowded Philadelphia suburb, just over City Line Avenue. The walls were bare, the furnishings sparse. A cheap table stood in the dining room to the left of the entrance, a television lay quiet before a threadbare couch in the living room to the right. There was a Jacuzzi in the bathroom, true, but in the furnishings there was a sense of biding time, of making do until real life with real furniture began. In the bedroom, up the stairs, I knew there to be a single bureau bought at some discount build-it-yourself place, a desk with stacks of bills, a fold-up chair, a mattress on the floor.
A mattress on the floor.
Well, maybe the press had it right after all, maybe it was a love nest, and maybe the mattress on the floor was the giveaway. For what would true lovers need with fine furnishings and fancy wallpaper? What would true lovers need with upholstered divans, with Klimts on the wall, with a grand piano in the formal living room? What would true lovers need with a hand-carved mahogany bed supporting a canopy of blue silk hanging over all like the surface of the heavens? Such luxury is only for those needing more in their lives than love. True lovers would require only a mattress on the floor to cast their spells one upon the other and enjoin the world to slip away. Until the world refused.
The mattress on the floor. That’s where I would find her.
Rain dripped off my coat like tears as I climbed the stairway. My hand crept along the smooth banister. Around the landing, up another half flight. As I rose ever closer, my step slowed. A complex scent pressed itself upon me like a smothering pillow. I could detect the sharpness of cordite and something sweet beneath that, a memory scent from my college days touched now with jasmine, and then something else, something lower than the cordite and the sweetness, something coppery and sour, something desolate. A few steps higher and then to the left, to the master bedroom.
The door was open, the bedroom light was on, the mattress on the floor was visible from the hallway outside. And on it she lay, her frail, pale body twisted strangely among the clotted sheets.
There was no need to check a pulse or place a mirror over her
mouth. I had seen dead before and she qualified. Her legs were covered by the dark blue comforter, but it was pulled down far enough to reveal her cream silk teddy, shamelessly raised above her naked belly. Crimson spotted the blanched white of her skin. The teddy was stained red at the heart.
I stood there for longer than I now can remember. The sight of her unnatural posture, the colliding scents of gunpowder and pot, of blood and jasmine, the brutal mark of violence on her chest, all of it, the very configuration of her death overwhelmed me. I was lost in the vision, swallowed whole by time. I can’t tell you exactly what was flailing through my mind because it is lost to me now, just as I was lost to the moment, but when I recovered enough to function a decision had been made. A decision had been made. I’m not sure how, but I know why, I surely know why. A decision had been made, a decision I have never regretted, an implacable decision, yet pure and right, a decision had been made, and for the rest of my involvement in that death and its grisly aftermath that decision guided my every step, my every step, starting with the first.
I took a deep breath and entered the bedroom. I squatted, leaned over the mattress, touched her jaw. It was still slightly warm, but the joint now was not perfectly slack. The skin at the bottom of her arm had turned a purplish red. I pressed a finger into the skin; it whitened for an instant before the color returned. It had been about an hour, I calculated. Still squatting, I leaned farther forward and stared closely at her face.
Her name was Hailey Prouix. Black hair, blue eyes, long-necked and pale-skinned, she was thirty years old and lovely as a siren. While still alive she had peered out at the world with a wary detachment. She had seen too much to take anything at face value, her manner said as clear as words, she had been hurt too much to expect anything other than blows. She wore sharp, dark-rimmed glasses that were all business, but her mouth curved so achingly you couldn’t look at it without wanting to take it in your own. And her stare, her stare, containing as it did both warning and dare, could weaken knees.
To gaze at Hailey Prouix was to have your throat tighten with the wanting, and not just sexual wanting, though that of course was
part of it, but something else, something even more powerful. There is inevitably, I suppose, a gap between all we ever wanted and all we ever will have, and that gap can be a source of bitter regret. But sometimes there is a glimpse of hope that the gap might be narrowed, might even be obliterated by one brilliant leap. In Hailey Prouix’s detached beauty, and the silent dare to break through her barriers, there was a glimpse of that hope. That her detachment might prove absolute and her barriers inexorable was no matter. To take her and hold her, to squeeze her arms, to kiss her, to win her and make her yours seemed to offer a chance to conquer life itself. Oh, yes, she was as lovely as a siren, and like a siren, she had drawn Guy Forrest from his wife and two children, from his high-powered lawyer’s job, from his finely appointed mini-mansion deep in the suburbs, onto the mattress on the floor of her small stone house just over the city line. And now, I suppose, as was inevitable from the first, he had crashed upon the shoals.
Before I pulled away from the corpse, I gently took hold of the bottom edge of her teddy and tugged it down to cover the exposed dark triangle.
On a crate by the mattress, along with her glasses, an alarm clock, a lamp, and a couple of books, sat two phones, a small red cellular thing and an old-style, corded phone. If anyone saw me arrive at the house, I didn’t want there to be too much of a time discrepancy between when I entered and when 911 logged the call, so I picked up the handset of the line-locked phone, dialed 911, and reported the murder. Then I went to work.
I’m a criminal lawyer. People like Guy Forrest, in the depths of the deepest troubles of their lives, call me in to clean up their messes. It is what I do, it is my calling, and I’m damn good at it. I reach my hand into the mess, rummage around, and pull out evidence. That’s what I work with, evidence. I accept what evidence I must, discredit what I can, hide what I might, create what I need, and from this universe of evidence I build a story. Sometimes the story is true, more often not, but truth is never the standard. Better the credible lie than the implausible truth. The story need only be persuasive enough to clean up the mess. But I don’t always win, thank God. Some messes are too big to be cleaned, some stains can
never be rubbed out, some crimes call out for more than a story. And some victims deserve nothing less than the truth.
If this house had been in the city proper, I’d have had plenty of time to rummage around the crime scene and do what I needed to do. But this house wasn’t in Philadelphia County, it was in Montgomery County, the suburbs. There is crime in the suburbs, sure, but of a different quality and quantity than in the city. City cops are overworked, their attentions stretched taut, not so in the suburbs. Out here a murder call trumps shoplifting at the mall. The call was already out, the cars would arrive in minutes, in seconds.
First thing I did was grab the cellular phone off the crate and dump it into my pocket. I was glad it was there in the open, it would have been the first and most crucial thing I searched for. Then I took a quick look around.
In the bathroom, soapy water still filled the Jacuzzi tub, gray and wide, with its water jets now quiet. A Sony CD Walkman and a large pair of Koss headphones sat on the rim, along with a small plastic bag of weed, a pack of papers inside. I left the Walkman and the headphones but stuffed the weed into my pocket with the gun. I didn’t need the cops taking Guy in now on some drug misdemeanor—there were things he and I needed first to talk about. I took out a handkerchief, covered my hand with it, and opened the medicine cabinet. I ignored the cosmetics and over-the-counter remedies and went right to the little plastic bottles. Valium prescribed to Hailey Prouix. Seconal prescribed to Hailey Prouix. Nembutal prescribed to Hailey Prouix. The whole Marilyn Monroe attitude-adjustment kit. And then something else. Viagra prescribed to Guy Forrest.
Well, that, at least, was a cheery sight.
Back in the bedroom I started opening drawers, looking for something, anything. Not much in the bureau other than clothes, cuff-links—Guy was a fancy dresser when he was dressed—loose change, condoms. I picked up one of the foil packages. Lambskin. Fifteen bucks a sheath. It pissed me off just looking at it. Under the clothes in the middle drawer was an envelope filled with cash. New hundreds. Two thousand, three thousand. I counted it quickly and put it back.
The top drawer of the desk held stamps, pens, business cards, golf tees, loose change, nothing. One by one I checked the side drawers. File cards, batteries, Post-it notes, bent paper clips, an old driver’s license, knicks and knacks, the unexceptional detritus of a now expired life. Who designed these things? Who manufactured them, sold them, bought them, kept them well beyond any useful purposes? I didn’t know, all I knew was that there was some great underground industrial complex filling every desk and kitchen drawer in the world with this stuff. I picked up the license and examined it.
It was Hailey’s. It had expired eighteen months ago. The picture didn’t really look like her, she was scowling, her hair was flat, the glasses were less than flattering. Hailey Prouix was glamorous and cosmopolitan, this woman in this picture looked anything but. Still, I took it anyway, put it in my pocket as a keepsake.
And then, in one of the drawers, I spotted a little paper box filled with change, staples, a staple remover, paper clips, keys.
Car keys, house keys, old file-cabinet keys. I used the handkerchief to shield my fingers as I rummaged. I was tempted to take them all, willy-nilly, there was no telling what secrets lay behind their locks, but I had to leave something for the suburban detectives. So I took only one, slipped it in with the license before closing the drawer.
As I searched, I tried not to think of the body on the bed. When I remember back, I am amazed that I could still move with such alacrity, still make snap determinations, no matter how warped. I wasn’t thinking so clearly—if I had been I might have taken the money. I might have taken the condom because, well, because it was lambskin. I might have checked those file cards more closely. But even so, what I took proved to be valuable and I am stunned at my level of functioning. If it all sounds so calm and deliberate, so bloody cold-blooded, then that is only in the voice of the remembering, for I assure you my knees were shaking uncontrollably as I moved about that room, my eyes were tearing, my stomach was roiling upon itself from the scent of her blood, her perfume, the sickly sweet smell of smoked marihuana. A decision had been
made, and that had calmed me some, but I was still only an inch away from vomiting all across the floor. The Forensic Science Unit technician would have been so pleased as she took her DNA samples.
But then it was time. They would be here any second, and it would be so much better for everyone if I was outside with Guy. At the head of the stairs I took one last look at Hailey Prouix, wiped at my eyes, climbed slowly down.
From the hallway closet, I removed Guy’s black raincoat. He was still collapsed on the steps, naked, drenched. I gently placed the raincoat over his body and squatted beside him, like I had squatted beside Hailey. It was strangely peaceful on that suburban street, leafy and quiet except for the stutter of the dying rain and Guy’s weeping. The world smelled fresh and full of spring. I stayed silent for a moment, let the rain cleanse the bitter scent from my eyes.
“Why?” I said finally, in a voice just soft enough to rise above the quiet roar of the rain.
No response. He just lay there, sobbing.
“Why did you kill her, Guy?”
Still no response.
I slapped the side of his head. “Tell me.”
“I didn’t,” he said through his sobs. “I loved her. I gave up. Everything. For her. And now. Now.”
I stayed silent, let my emotions cool.
“I gave up,” he said. “Everything.”
“I know you did, Guy.” I reached down and petted his hair. “I know you did.”
“I swear. I didn’t. I didn’t.”
“Okay. I’ll believe you for now.”
“Oh, God. What? What am I? What?”
“Shhhhhh. You’ll be all right, Guy. I’ll do what I can. The police are going to come. They are already on the way. Do not talk to them. Do not say anything to the police until we can talk first. I’ll do what I can.”
“I loved her.”
“Victor. God. I loved her. So much.”
“I know you did, Guy. I know you did. That was the problem.”