Authors: Laurence Gough
© Laurence Gough 1990
Laurence Gough has asserted his rights under the Copyright, Design and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.
First published in 1990 by Victor Gollancz Ltd.
This edition published in 2016 by Endeavour Press Ltd.
This one’s for V and for B.
There was a big round wooden door — a perfect circle the Chinese called a moon door — set in the wall about two feet above ground level. He got set and kicked hard. The heel of his cowboy boot slammed against the polished mahogany panels. The door buckled, but held. He braced himself and kicked again, aiming at the same spot. The screws holding the bolt shrieked and the door split down the middle, banged against the wall.
A bus sped past, lit up like a great big boat, tires whining on the frosty asphalt.
He knelt, got a grip under the corpse’s arms, hauled the body over the threshold.
A taxi zipped by, as if in pursuit of the bus. He saw the roof light, thought for a panicked fraction of a second that it was the cops. It was cold, well below freezing, but the sweat was pouring off him, making his clothes cling to him like a shroud. He got the body all the way inside and let go. The close-cropped skull hit the paving stones with a meaty thud. He brought the two halves of the moon door together.
He was in an open space containing a pond and several rockeries. The outer wall loomed above him, pale gray in the darkness. There was a steep mound of rock to his left — a stylized, miniature mountain about twenty feet high. The stones were grotesque, twisted. It was mid-January but the sudden cold snap had caught the staff by surprise; the taps hadn’t been turned off and a thin, silvery stream of moonlit water trickled down the slope, splashed gently on the smooth surface of the pond.
He pressed a button on his switchblade. With a jagged sawing motion, he slashed through the copper wire binding the corpse’s wrists.
Except for the irregular splash of falling water, the gardens were very quiet.
He grabbed both hands and dragged the body along a tiled path towards the knee-high wall that surrounded the pond. The corpse was stiff, inflexible as a scarecrow, the limbs hard and unyielding. The man had died sitting upright in a wooden chair. His posture, in death as in life, was excellent.
He shifted his grip and pulled and pushed until he got the body half over the wall, then scooped it up in his arms, spun around three times as if he was about to throw a discus.
And let go.
The body hit the water and the surface exploded with a weird crackling sound, a burst of startlingly loud pops and explosions. An unseen bird sped screaming into the night. His heart seized up like somebody had grabbed it and squeezed hard.
He flicked a black plastic disposable lighter, leaned over the low wall and held the flame close to the water.
The surface of the pond was covered with a thin layer of ice. He rapped the ice with the knuckles of his right hand. It felt solid as a rock. He straddled the low stone wall that surrounded the pond, stomped down hard. The ice, no more than an inch thick, shattered under the force of the blow. He leaned over, cupped his hands together and rinsed his face.
Tear-shaped beads of water hung like imperfect pearls in the jaundiced light of the moon. The ice glowed as if lit from below; a soft, radioactive luminescence. The silky black surface of the water rippled, and lay still.
Somewhere in the distance there was the faint shriek of burnt rubber. A horn blared.
The corpse was motionless. It looked as if it was still wired to the chair.
He was suddenly very cold, shivering uncontrollably, his body trembling so hard that his vision was blurred. It was like somebody’d dropped a quarter in a special machine and the whole world was vibrating. Jesus, he’d planned everything so goddamned carefully, and just
what had happened.
He lit a cigarette. His hands were shaking so bad it was all he could do to bring the flame and tip of the cigarette together. He drew smoke deeply into his lungs. Be nice to snort a couple of thin white lines right about now. A little flake would settle him right down.
Then he saw the coiled garden hose on the wall next to the outside tap, and a wonderful idea came to him, and he smiled, all his problems forgotten in the moment of inspiration.
He turned on the tap. There was a muted gurgling, and then the hose stiffened as it filled with water. The tap was insulated, or heat leaking from the building had kept it from freezing. He lifted the hose off the metal hook, shook loose the coils…
He walked until he found a coffee shop, sat down at the counter. The joint was empty except for a single waitress. She brought him a menu, loitered with pen and order pad in hand. She’d hennaed her hair to death and had a diamond chip earring in her left nostril. He could tell by the way she stood there, hip cocked and ready for action, that she thought she was cute as a button. She was wearing a white uniform kind of like a nurse’s outfit, the name
stitched above the breast in red thread. There was a small tattoo on the back of her right hand. A blue and red butterfly. Or maybe it was a moth. The tattoo, the earring. He rolled the menu into a tight cylinder and bounced it off the chrome top of a napkin dispenser. If she was into self-mutilation, maybe she’d think he was a drummer in a heavy metal band, it’d give her a buzz. He said, “It hurt when you sneeze?”
She gave him a look. He could see she didn’t always get the picture, things often had to be explained to her, and she was used to it. He tapped his nose. The moth or whatever fluttered up to her nostril and then dropped away. She shook her head, gave him a warm smile. He knew what she was thinking. She was closing in on the end of her shift. From the look of her — kind of worn around the edges — he figured she’d been around long enough to know that when you were interested, the smart thing to do was show it.
“Know what you want, honey?”
He nodded, thinking,
. She was about a million years too old, for starters. And anyway, he had a meeting. He stuck the menu back in its slot behind the napkin dispenser and ordered a coffee and a slice of apple pie.
He shook his head.
“You sure?” She hesitated. “It’s on the house. My treat.”
He watched her get up on her tippy-toes to fetch the pie out of the glass cabinet. Flashing her legs, which he had to admit weren’t too bad at all even if she was a bit thick in the ankles. The hips moved as she sliced the pie. He said, “You mind working all alone, this time of night?”
“The boss had to go home early, kid’s got the flu. Don’t tell me you’re gonna rob me, I couldn’t stand it.” She laid a napkin down on the counter in front of him, put a stainless steel fork and spoon on the napkin and poured his coffee into a thick white mug, put the coffee and pie down in front of him. He dug right in.
“How is it?”
He shrugged, poured some sugar into his coffee and stirred it in with the fork.
She said, “I got a boyfriend, but a couple weeks ago he rode his bike into the back of a truck at about eighty miles an hour. Broke both his stupid legs and he’s gonna be in traction until sometime in July.”
She gave him a sly smile. “What’s that, honey?”
“A ride home.”
“Bike’s too cold, this time of year. I was thinking of ditching him anyway.”
She had a nice voice, low and throaty. But probably it got that way from all the yelling she did at her dumbass pal in extended care. He finished off his pie, used the fork to scrap clean his plate. She offered him a refill but he turned her down.
He said, “What time you get off?”
“We close at midnight. Takes me about ten minutes to lock up.”
If it’d been a good day, there might be two or three hundred bucks in the till. He wondered if she did a night deposit or just stuck the money in a brown paper bag and hid it somewhere clever.
It was twenty minutes to twelve by the big electric clock over the cash register. He said, “I got to meet a guy, but if you’re interested, I can make it back by twelve thirty at the latest.”
She hesitated, pretending to think it over. He saw that when she got thoughtful, she had a habit of licking her lips with the tip of her tongue. Was she trying to be sexy? After a moment she gave him another smile and said, “Yeah, okay. Sure. Why not?”
The pie was a dollar fifty, the coffee eighty cents. He stood up, got his wallet out of the back pocket of his tight black Levis, dropped three dollars on the counter. Leaning way over the counter, giving him a nice view down the front of her blouse if he wanted to take it, Beverly said, “It’s on me. Who said there’s no such thing as a free meal?”
“No, I couldn’t do that.”
“A slice of pie, who’ll ever know?”
He said, “That’s real nice of you,” and shoved the money in the pocket of his black leather bomber jacket, crumpling the bills as if they meant nothing to him.
She walked him to the door. Jesus, what a lunatic. He opened the door and then turned and ran his hand down her back, feeling the hard bumpety bumpety of her spine under his fingers. She was shorter than she’d looked when she was standing behind the counter. Her eyes were pale green. He wondered how much the nose diamond was worth. He’d pulled a diamond ring off a woman’s finger once. It was the first and absolutely the last time he’d ever mugged anybody. The ring had been on so tight he’d had to stick her finger in his mouth to lubricate it. She’d thought he was going to bite that digit right off, opened her mouth to scream and then dropped at his feet like she’d been shot. Fainted. He’d panicked, run like hell. Two blocks away, he crouched down behind a dumpster to catch his breath, and became aware of a sharp pain in the palm of his clenched right hand. He opened up and there it was, half a bluish-green carat sparkling in a pool of blood. He’d made such a tight fist that he’d cut himself.
Beverly gave him a peck on the cheek. “See you in about forty-five minutes.”
He started off down the frosty sidewalk, the metal blakeys on the heels of his boots scratching at the pavement.
When he’d walked into the restaurant, the first thing Beverly would asked him was if he knew what he wanted. Yeah, sure.
Only problem was, he hadn’t quite figured out how to get it.
It was Sunday morning, twenty minutes to ten. Willows collapsed the aluminium stepladder and put it away in the garage. He used a scrap of rag to clean and lightly oil the pruning shears and the curved blade of the saw. Rust never sleeps. He loosened the saw’s wing nut, folded the blade into the wooden handle and tightened the nut.
There had been frost on the lawn, but it had melted under the faint heat of the morning sun. His black rubber boots were glossy from the wet.
He placed the tools in their proper places on the garage shelves and went back outside, into the yard.
On the far side of the yard, close up against the white picket fence, there was a small plum tree. The tree was about twenty feet high, and every summer the unpicked, overripe fruit had dropped from its spreading branches on to the neighbour’s driveway. Willows had been meaning to cut the branches back for years.
Now, when it didn’t matter anymore, he’d finally gotten around to doing the job.
He padlocked the garage and walked across the wet grass to the base of the freshly pruned tree, pulled on his work gloves and began to arrange the cut branches in a neat pile, the butts to one end. When he’d finished piling the branches he bound them with twine and carried them out to the lane.
The lawn needed mowing, but only marginally. And in weather this cold, he’d do more harm than good. He decided to let it go.
He stepped back and looked up at the tree. Following the instructions in one of his departed wife’s gardening books, he’d excised all the water sprouts and dead or broken branches, and then cut away most of the branches that were growing inwards. The tree was now about five feet shorter than it had been. Because he’d lopped off any and all growth that protruded over the fence, it had a slightly lopsided look.
Well, he was a cop, not a gardener.
He turned to look at the house, the home his parents had lived and died in. He’d hoped someday to bequeath the place to his children. Not any longer.
The house was two stories high, shingled, gray with white trim. He’d painted it himself, four years ago, and because he’d done a thorough job, the paint still looked fresh and new.
Willows climbed the steps to the back porch, kicked out of his boots and opened the door and went inside. It was twenty past ten by the electric clock over the sink.
He slipped on his shoes, tied the laces and went through the dining room and into the living room. In the front yard, where the bulk of the house kept the sun from the grass, the frost gleamed dully.
He stood by the window, lost in thought, until the real estate agent’s white Mercedes pulled up. The agent, a woman named Celia Cambridge, waved at him before he could turn away. He kept his hands in his pockets. She got out of the car, juggled her keys and briefcase.
Five percent on the first hundred thousand, half that on the balance. She had suggested they list the house at three hundred and thirty thousand dollars, but advised him not to expect more than three-twenty. Willows had researched current prices in his neighbourhood, but he was still shocked by the sum. Five years ago, the house had been worth a third as much. He’d worked it out on a pocket calculator, and the agent’s commission at the present value would amount to ten thousand five hundred dollars. Her company would take maybe half of that, but even so, she clearly didn’t have to move a hell of a lot of property to take home a bigger pay check than a homicide cop.
Willows watched Celia Cambridge lock her car and start briskly across the boulevard towards the house. She was wearing a stylish black trench coat with padded shoulders, shiny black leather boots. Her hair was shoulder length, honey-coloured with streaks of platinum. Willows was about ninety percent sure she wore tinted contacts and dyed her hair. Still, it was the effect that mattered. She started up the steps. He went over to the front door and opened it, smiled and said hello.
She smiled brilliantly back at him, her teeth bright as track lighting, and said, “I’m a few minutes early, is that all right?”
“Fine, no problem.”
She gave him another quick smile as she slipped past him, into the house. He remembered the perfume.
“Can I take your coat?”
“Yes, thank you.” Under the coat she wore a plain white blouse and a solemn gray suit made of a thin, shiny material that Willows thought was probably silk.
He hung the black trench coat on a wooden hanger in the hall closet. There was a long blonde hair on the padded shoulder. He’d talked to several agents and he still didn’t know why he’d chosen her; whether it was really because she was such a fireball, or because she was so goddamned attractive. It had been a little more than five months since Sheila had left him, taking his children, Annie and Sean, with her. He hadn’t even begun to come to terms with his loss.
She said, “Shall we use the table in the dining room?”
Willows nodded. “Coffee?”
“A glass of water would be nice.”
Willows led her into the dining room, pulled out a chair. She sat down, neatly tucking her skirt beneath her, and unsnapped her briefcase and pulled out the contract, six pages of documents on legal-size paper.
He went into the kitchen, ran the water until it was reasonably cold, and filled two glasses. When he came back, there were papers spread all over the table and she was nibbling at the end of a gold fountain pen, those green eyes frowning down at the close-spaced lines of type.
She glanced up, thanked him for the water and said, “The garden looks much better, now that you’ve cut back the tree. What was it, an apple?”
“Plum,” said Willows. He was determined not to be charmed by her, angry at himself that he’d even noticed she was a woman.
She went over the terms of the contract with him, the amount and type of advertising they had agreed on, her percentage of the sale price, how soon the purchasers could take possession. A black and white photograph and brief description of the property would appear in the following Thursday’s edition of the city’s West Side real estate guide. She asked him about open houses.
“I hadn’t thought about it.”
“They’re a nuisance, but necessary. I’m free a week Sunday, if that’s all right. The afternoon would be best.” She smiled. “Assuming we haven’t made a sale by then, of course.”
“Okay, let’s make it Sunday afternoon.”
She made a note in her calendar. “If I should get a hot prospect, how do you feel about me dropping by on the spur of the moment?”
“Yeah, sure. Fine.” Willows, like all homicide detectives, was used to working long hours. He’d found that the best way to keep his mind off his domestic problems was to spend as much time as possible on the job. Lately, he was hardly home at all; the only rooms he used were the bedroom and kitchen. With only himself to clear up after, the house was easy to keep clean.
“Would you like me to phone you first?”
“You could try me here. If there’s no answer, go ahead and show them around.”
“You’d prefer I didn’t call you at work?”
“If you can avoid it.”
“Okay, that’s about it.” She handed him her fountain pen. It was heavy — a solid gold Sheaffer. Her hands were slim, the skin pale. A red fingernail traced across the bottom of the sales contract. “If you could just sign there… and there.” A glossy strand of platinum-blonde hair fell across her cheek. Willows scrawled his signature. Why did he feel as if he was signing his life away?
Celia Cambridge capped her pen and put it away in her black leather briefcase. Willows stood up, stretched, and went over to the fireplace. Sheila’s key was still where she’d left it, in an envelope on the mantel. He ripped the envelope in half, shook out the key and gave it to the agent.
Willows helped her on with her coat. Her perfume smelled faintly of lilacs.
She paused at the door. “It isn’t very professional of me to say this, but I know this can’t be an easy time for you. If there’s anything I can do, I hope you’ll feel free to give me a call.”
Willows opened the door. His breath plumed. A gust of wind chased a few dead leaves across the lawn.
“Anything at all,” said the agent. She reached out and touched his arm, very lightly. “I’ve left one of my cards on the table. My home number’s on the back.”
Willows nodded, managed a smile.
Her heels clattered on the porch boards. He shut the door before she reached the bottom of the steps, worried that she might turn around, burden him with yet another dazzling smile. He leaned against the door until he heard the Mercedes start up and drive away, then walked down the hall to the kitchen. A bottle of Cutty Sark stood on the counter. He thought about having a drink, decided it was too early, and poured himself a cup of coffee.
The pot had been on the warming plate all morning long. The coffee was strong, bitter — exactly suited to his mood. He went back into the dining room and sat down at the table and stared out at the backyard. A woman in an ankle-length fur coat walked by with two Samoyeds on a leash. Both dogs urinated on his pile of cuttings. The woman lit a cigarette, glanced up at the house. Willows stared at her until she looked away.
After a little while, the silence of the house began to feel claustrophobic. He became aware of the soft click of the furnace switching on, the whisper of warm air in the vents, the low hum of the refrigerator, even a tiny buzzing sound that emanated from a lightbulb that was about to go belly-up. He put his boots back on and went into the yard again.
Parker found him with a hammer in his hand and his mouth full of nails, mending a loose picket in the fence.
Willows drove home a nail.
“Nice job on the plum tree. Put the branches in the garage. Give them a chance to dry out. Great kindling.”
Willows tilted his head, dropped the nails into his hand. “I keep my car in the garage. You want me to let my car get wet so some guy I don’t even know can have a nice warm fire?”
“The real estate agent’s already been here, has she?”
“How’d you know about that?”
“You told me she was coming.”
“I did?” Willows frowned.
“Day before last. What’re you asking?”
“You think so?”
“Just kidding, Jack.”
Willows positioned another nail, drove it home with three quick strokes.
“Not particularly.” Willows stared at her for a moment. She was wearing faded jeans and white leather running shoes, a scuffed brown leather jacket he’d loaned her a month ago and that she obviously had no intention of returning. Her jet-black hair was pulled back in a kind of abbreviated ponytail. The crisp January air had brought colour to her cheeks, a sparkle to her eyes. Not for the first time, he thought that she was far too good-looking to be a cop.
“All this fresh air, exercise. I figured you had to be hungry. What’s in the cupboard, a tin of consommé soup and maybe a couple of old bones? I stopped by at a deli on the way over, bought a loaf of rye bread, some black forest ham. And I dropped in at your neighbourhood 7-Eleven, picked up one of those fire logs, guaranteed to burn for three hours minimum, all the colours of the rainbow.”
“Sounds enchanting. Who’s gonna light it, Judy Garland?”
Parker smiled. “Finish your chores, Jack. I’ll get busy in the kitchen. Just don’t tell any of my feminist friends about it, that’s all.”
They ate on the floor in the living room, in front of the silent, nearly smokeless fire. Orange and blue flames licked at the blackened bricks. Parker had brought along a bottle of Napa Valley burgundy. Willows drained his glass and picked up a crumb off the rug. When he and Sheila had moved in, the hardwood floors had been hidden beneath beige wall-to-wall carpet. They’d left the carpet in place until the children had mastered their fine motor skills, and spilt milk was no longer a regular occurrence. Then Willows had rented a huge ungainly machine and sanded and varnished the floors, and they’d spent more money than they could afford on area carpets.
He ran his fingers lightly across the polished wood. He’d done a thorough job, three layers of Varathane, the first two with a matt and the third with a glossy finish. The floor had worn well. Outlasted the marriage.
“I wonder what kind of chemicals they use to make the flames go all those colours,” said Parker.
Willows held out his glass.
“What’s the magic word?”
Parker poured half of what was left into his glass, helped herself to the rest of the bottle. She said, “I hear Eddy and Judith are finally going to tie the knot.”
“I’ll believe it when I see him wearing the ring,” said Willows. Eddy Orwell was a homicide detective. He’d had a rocky, long-term romance with a woman named Judith Lundstrom. He’d met Judith after her boyfriend had been run over by a squad car in hot pursuit of a sniper who’d shot several citizens to death. The murder investigation had terminated with the death of one of Willows’ friends, a cop named George Franklin. Willows drank the Napa Valley dry.