Authors: Kate Wilhelm
Tags: #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #Women Sleuths, #Suspense, #Fiction, #Novel, #Oregon
THE DEEPEST WATER
Copyright ©2015 InfinityBox Press
First published in 2000 by St. Martin’s Press
All rights reserved. Except for the use of brief quotations in critical articles and reviews, no part of this book may be used or reproduced in any form by any electronic, mechanical, or other means in any manner without the written permission of the publisher.
All characters, groups, places, and events portrayed in this novel are fictitious.
Cover: Richard Wilhelm
InfinityBox Press, LLC
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Portland, OR 97217
The Deepest Water
Afterward everyone said the memorial service had been poignant yet beautiful, exactly what Jud would have wanted. But not yet, Abby protested despairingly, silently, not at forty-eight years old! For days she had said little or nothing, as if her vocal cords had frozen, she had lost the power of speech. People held her hand, embraced her, patted her, and she understood that they were trying to express something, but she could feel herself adding layer after layer of protective, invisible shielding against every touch, removing herself in a way that kept her numb and rigid, unresponsive to their sympathy, unable to stop adding to the cocoon that might keep her safe. Shock, they said; she was still in shock.
Exactly what her father had ordered, the funeral director assured her, even to the box that Jud had provided along with his instructions. He placed the box in her hands deferentially, then walked away with his head bowed until he had cleared the crematorium chapel, when he straightened and walked more briskly. “Honey, we have to leave now,” Brice said at her elbow. He took the box from her, held it under his arm, and put his other arm about her shoulders, guided her toward the door. People were waiting. Jud’s parents from California, Lynne—Abby’s mother from Seattle—Brice’s parents from Idaho, friends, strangers… Lynne had said the family would have to go back to the house after it was over; everyone would expect coffee, wine, something to help ease them back to the world of the living. She would take care of things, she had promised, that’s what she had come for, to help Abby; then she wept. Abby had looked at her in wonder. Her parents had been divorced for so many years, why was she crying now?
“Mrs. Connors?” Another stranger, another outsider.
She paused, expecting him to hold out his hand, kiss her cheek, something.
“I’m Lieutenant Caldwell,” he said apologetically. “State special investigations. I need to talk to you—”
Brice’s hand tightened on her shoulder. “You can’t be serious!” he said. “Not now!”
“No, no,” he said quickly. “Of course not now. But tomorrow? Around ten in the morning?”
Abby accepted this as numbly as she had accepted everything else. She nodded.
“We’ve already told the police everything we know,” Brice said. He tugged at her shoulder; she started to move again.
“I understand,” Caldwell said, still apologetic. “I’ll explain in the morning. I’m very sorry, Mrs. Connors.” Then he was gone, and they walked out into a fine light rain.
There were a lot of reporters, a camera crew, others waiting. After years of struggling, Judson Vickers had become an overnight best-selling author; his death by murder was news, at least today it was news. Abby walked past the crowd blindly.
That night, after the mourners had gone, and only her mother remained for one more night, Lynne said almost pleadingly that she didn’t have to go back to Seattle yet if Abby wanted her to stay on a few days.
Abby shook her head. “There’s no point. In the morning the police are coming to ask more questions, and in the afternoon Christina Maas is coming. There are things we have to talk about. That’s how it’s going to be for awhile.” Her voice sounded strange, as if muffled by layers of cotton.
Lynne looked at Brice and he shrugged helplessly. “It’s been a tough few days,” he said. “We’ll be okay after we’ve had a little rest. I’ll take you to the airport in the morning.”
Her mother was going to cry again, Abby thought guiltily, and she still didn’t know why, and couldn’t ask. Not now. And Brice… She knew she was closing him out exactly the way she was closing out everyone else, and she knew it was unfair, even cruel, but she couldn’t help that either. He wanted to hold her, to comfort her, to wait on her, do whatever he could, and she was like a stick in his arms. Silently she began to gather plates, cups and saucers… Her friends Jonelle and Francesca had brought food, she remembered; it all looked strange and unfamiliar.
“Honey, please, go take a long bath, try to relax,” Brice said. “We’ll take care of this.”
With the unquestioning obedience of a good child she left the room to go take a long bath. She could hear their voices as she went up the stairs, talking about her, the state she was in, she thought distantly. The house was usually spacious-feeling, with three bedrooms, two baths, stairs with a plush, pale green carpet, a nice Aubusson rug in the living room, carpet in the den, drapes throughout, room enough, with sound-deadening furnishings, so that voices carried no farther than from one room to another, yet she imagined she could hear them all the way up the stairs, through the hallway, the bedroom, on into the bathroom, even after she turned on the water. She went back to the bedroom for her gown and robe, and came to a stop holding them.
The voices were not her mother’s and Brice’s, she realized, but her mother’s and her father’s, or her father’s voice talking to her, telling her something important. That’s what he would say, “This is important, listen up now.”
She took a step and staggered, and only then recognized her fatigue, that she was reeling, maybe even hallucinating from sleeplessness. Tonight, she told herself, tonight she would take one of the pills her doctor had prescribed. She would give herself half an hour and if by then she was still wide awake, she would take a pill. Dimly she remembered that she had made the same promise the previous night, but instead had sat huddled in a blanket on the couch in the dark living room, dreading today, the relatives, the memorial service, remembering Jud, denying his death, willing him not to be dead, willing it not to have happened, afraid of the pill that promised sleep, because it seemed to offer a kind of death to her.
Later, while Brice was getting ready for bed, Abby went to tell her mother goodnight, to thank her for coming. She felt awkward, as if in the presence of an acquaintance, not her mother.
Lynne was in the guest room, the room Abby called her study. She stood in the middle of the room, wearing her robe, holding the dress she had worn earlier, and for a moment they simply regarded each other. Then Lynne dropped the dress and took Abby in her arms. “I wanted to be with you,” she said softly, “but I didn’t know what to say, how to act with you. Abby, baby, please say something, talk to me. Yell at me. Anything!”
Abby gazed past her mother silently and offered no resistance to the embrace, but neither did she return it. People always had said she looked like her mother, and she had denied it, had seen only the difference, not the similarities; they were the same height, and Lynne was only a few pounds heavier, her hair was as dark as Abby’s, and, out of the chignon she had had it in, it hung straight to her shoulders, like her daughter’s. They both had dark blue eyes and heavy eyebrows, bold and thick, without a curve much less a peak. The likeness, remarkable as it was, appeared superficial to Abby. The image of her mother that rose in her memory was of a face contorted with anger, a mouth pinched in fury or down-turned in resentment, glaring, red-rimmed eyes, her voice loud and shrill, out of control in her rage, or whining in self-pity.
She disengaged herself and drew back, picked up her mother’s dress and took it to the closet, placed it on a hanger.
“I can’t talk right now,” she said, her back to Lynne. “Not right now. I’ll come visit you in a few weeks.”
“No, don’t come up to Seattle. Call me and I’ll come down here. We’ll go to the coast for a day or two. Will you do that?” She was pleading again.
Abby closed her eyes hard for a moment, then opened them and turned around. “Yes. I’ll call you when things settle down again. We’ll go to the coast.” She didn’t know if she was lying or not. But they both had known she wouldn’t go to Seattle; she didn’t like Lynne’s husband, or her own half-brother Jason. “Goodnight, Mom. Sleep well. I’m glad you came. Thanks.”
Back in her own room Brice was already in bed. They had twin beds pushed together, his mattress not as firm as hers, but he was on her side, waiting for her.
“I need a little more time,” she said taking off her robe. “I’m sorry, but I need a little more time. I took a pill and I think I’ll sleep okay tonight.”
“I just want to hold you,” he said. When she got in beside him, he held her tenderly, stroking her shoulder, demanding nothing. She stared dry-eyed into the darkness of the room.
Later, when he kissed her cheek and moved to his own bed, she pretended to be asleep, and listened to his breathing change. He had a little snore, one that she was used to and sometimes even found comforting, but she felt herself go tense when he snored now. She waited longer, then silently got up, felt for her robe, and left the bedroom.
The third bedroom had been turned into a study where Brice often worked at home. She entered and closed the door. There was no need for a light; his computer monitor was enough. An endless stream of aircraft flew silently by: Zeppelins, the Wright brothers’ first plane, SSTs, 747s, biplanes, helicopters, forever flying from the void, going nowhere. Their ever-changing light flowed over the top of the funereal box, which Brice had placed on his desk.
She had seen the box before; it was mahogany so dark it looked black, finely carved all over with intricate patterns of flowers and birds—a souvenir from his R&R on Bali, Jud had said.
“They carve everything,” he had said that afternoon at the lake. “They’ll start carving a living tree while it’s still standing, the damnedest thing you can imagine, demons, birds, gods, snakes, flowers… And they carve it for eight feet up, ten feet… They carve the undersides of stairs, where no one will ever see the art. They carve the concrete walls at the airport…”
“I think it’s a religious act,” he said thoughtfully. “Nothing else quite explains it. They’re expressing their religion through art. Little boys, four years old, five, they’re already artists. They do the traditional things the same way their ancestors from the beginning of time did them, and then they do their own thing on the back of stairs, on boxes, whatever is at hand. In that climate nothing lasts very long except stone, and when the paint fades, gets washed away, or eaten by mold, they repaint it exactly the way it had been before. If a wooden object or building crumbles, they rebuild it exactly as it was before. You can’t tell by looking if anything was made that morning or a hundred years ago. They’re preserving the past, keeping the faith, but here or there, hidden away, they express whatever it is they need to say through their art.”
She had felt the box all over, the delicate tracery of flowers and stems, and thought it was a magic box, that it contained secrets that no one would ever decipher, except the boy who had carved it.
“Honey,” Jud had said that day, “this is important, listen up. When I die, I want my ashes to be buried in this box, here by the lake. I might never ask another thing of you but this is important. Will you do that for me?”
She had nodded solemnly. At ten years of age, she had not yet believed in dying. It did not occur to her to ask why he was telling her and not her mother. The divorce came two years after that. Perhaps he had already known Lynne would not be around to carry out his wishes.
She touched the box on Brice’s desk, and again felt the mystery of the carved wood, the unknown, unknowable mystery of the artist who had carved it.
She felt the mystery of the man whose ashes were inside it, her father, unknown, unknowable forever now.
She ended up taking the sleeping pill that night and slept until Brice shook her awake at nine.
“How do you feel?” he asked.
Human, she thought, human monster with a watermelon for a head, and leaden legs; that’s what sleeping pills did to her. But feeling anything at all was an improvement. She said, “Okay,” and pulled herself up and out of bed.
“You should have gotten me up,” she said in mild protest at the kitchen table when Brice said he already had taken her mother to the airport.
“Honey, you were a walking zombie, out on your feet. I just wish that idiot cop hadn’t said ten this morning; I would have let you sleep until noon, or even all day.” He was opposite her at the breakfast table, studying her face anxiously.
She drank her coffee, and when she started to rise to get the carafe, he jumped up and hurried across the kitchen; in passing, he kissed the top of her head.
“Let me wait on you for just a little while. You don’t know how I’ve felt, wanting to do something, anything. I watched you sleeping,” he said, pouring the coffee, “and I wanted to sit there and not even breathe, just watch you.”
“I’m… I’m sorry,” she whispered, not looking up at him. “Oh, Christ! I didn’t mean to dump a guilt trip on you. I’ve just been so goddamn helpless.”
She did know. They had been married for four years and it was a good marriage; he was a tender and passionate lover; he brought her unexpected presents, listened attentively when she talked about the museum, her work there, her dissertation that was going nowhere; he, in turn talked about his clients, the others in the office, his plans. They were lucky, she knew, especially when her friends talked about this couple or that, or their own failed marriages or affairs, or when she remembered her first marriage, especially at those times she realized again how lucky they were. She understood and cherished what they had, but this week she had not wanted anyone to touch her, not her mother, not friends, not relatives, and not him.
He touched her hair now, a fairy touch, light and tentative; although she willed herself not to flinch away, not to stiffen, something was communicated, and he drew back. “Well,” he said in a strained voice, “that cop is due any minute now. After he leaves I have to check in at the office for a few hours. Will you be okay?”
She nodded, aware only then that he had on a suit and tie, dressed for the office. She couldn’t remember if he had gone in at all that week. Had he gone in to report on the weekend meeting? He must have, she thought miserably; his world hadn’t caved in the way hers had. She simply hadn’t paid any attention, like now, not noticing that he was dressed for clients, dressed for business in a good gray suit, maroon silk tie, shirt dazzling white. At thirty-four, he was even more handsome than when they married. Marriage agreed with him, he sometimes said jokingly. She wondered if his folks had left town yet, if they were driving home to Idaho, the potato farm. His father’s hands had been spottlessly clean, she thought, and her mind skittered off in yet another direction.