Small Town

Page 3



“Probably not, but it’s an awfully nice fantasy.”

“Well, enjoy yourself,” he said. “There’s no age limit in fantasies.”

T H E V A C U U M I N G D I D N ’ T W A K E her. Neither did the phone, which he couldn’t hear over the noise of the vacuum cleaner; he only realized it was ringing when the blinking light on the dial of the office extension caught his eye. He switched off the vacuum and listened, waiting for her to answer it, but she didn’t, and after two more rings her voice mail picked up.

He stood still for a moment, frowning. Then he went back to work. Using one of the long skinny attachments to slurp the dust off the top of a window molding, he visualized a giraffe doing a line of coke. That reminded him of the little mirror he’d found in the living room. It was in the strainer on the kitchen sinkboard now, any cocaine residue washed off and down the drain, and . . .

Maybe you should just go home.

The thought was just there, all at once. He stood still and looked at his own anxiety and wondered where the hell it had come from.

Yes, there had almost certainly been cocaine on that mirror, but Marilyn and her friend had long since Hoovered it away. And yes, there had been an open bottle of bourbon in the living room, and he’d caught a whiff of it, and smelled it again in the glasses he’d washed. And yes, he was an alcoholic, sober now by the grace of whatever God you wanted to credit, and could be rendered anxious by anything that might pose a threat, real or imaginary, to his sobriety.

But the coke was gone and the bottle capped and put away, and didn’t he start every day in rooms that smelled of beer and hard booze, with dozens of bottles just standing there, waiting to be sampled? He was like a fox with the keys to the henhouse, all alone in Death Row and Cheek and Harrigan’s, just him and all that booze. And, while his mind could conjure up no end of harrowing scenarios—a mind, his sponsor had told him, was a terrible thing to have—in point of fact it never really bothered him at all.

He’d run across drugs in the bars he cleaned, too, because people who were drunk and stoned tended to be careless, and the odd Baggie would turn up on the floor, or in the john, or, more than once, right out there in plain sight on top of the bar. And the apartments he cleaned had their stashes, legal and otherwise—the few ounces of pot in the model’s undies drawer, the huge jar of Dex-amil on the dot-com exec’s bedside table, and with all that speed wouldn’t you think the guy would do his own cleaning? Like four or five times a day?

And every medicine cabinet held pills. Valium and all its cousins, and no end of ups and downs, many of which he recognized of old—a few years in the trenches were a veritable college of pharmacological knowledge—and some of which were new to him, because the drug trade didn’t go into freeze-frame the day he stopped using. It evolved, everything evolved, and he might spot something new on the shelf next to the shaving cream and wonder where it would take him if the lid happened to pop off the little vial and if two (oh might as well make it three) pills leapt up and out and into his open-in-astonishment mouth and down his throat before he quite knew what was happening. I mean, it wasn’t a real slip, was it, if it just sort of took you by surprise like that?

Thoughts like that just helped him remember who he was. They didn’t really upset him, and weren’t cause for alarm. And if they kept him going to meetings, well, then they served a purpose, didn’t they?

So he wasn’t afraid of what was in Marilyn’s liquor bottle or medicine cabinet. Or, God help us, her undies drawer.

But really, now, couldn’t he just pack up and go? He’d cleaned everything but the bedroom, cleaned really quite thoroughly, and he couldn’t do any more without disturbing her sleep, and for all he knew she really needed her sleep, for all he knew she’d been up past dawn. Why, she could have been partying while he cleaned the bars and the whorehouse, and he might have been tucking into his omelet right around the time her companion thoughtfully closed the bedroom door and let himself out of her apartment, leaving her sleeping . . .

Sleeping?

If she was asleep, he told himself, then he would indeed just slip out and allow her to awaken on her own, and in her own good time. He’d leave a note—“I was fresh out of kisses and couldn’t figure out how to wake Sleeping Beauty. I’ll stop by tomorrow and do the bedroom. Love, Jerry.”

If she was asleep . . .

He paused at her bedroom door, took a deep breath, let it out, took another. He opened the door, let his eyes accustom themselves to the dimness.

There she was, just as he’d seen her earlier. Sprawled out on her bed, obviously in deep slumber. It looked as though she hadn’t stirred since he’d first looked in on her.

Room had an odor. Nothing too rank, but even if he was going to let her sleep he ought to open a window. Hard to sort out the smells. Sex, booze, cigarette smoke . . .

He walked over to the side of the bed, looked down at her. She was on her back, her head to one side. The sheet covered her just past her waist. He looked at her full breasts, willing them to rise and fall with her breathing, but they didn’t move, and he knew he hadn’t expected them to move, hadn’t expected her to be breathing, had known what he’d find before he opened the door.

He took another breath—yes, there were other elements in the room’s odor besides sex and booze and smoke, there was a bathroom smell and a meat-market smell—and he reached out a hand and touched the tips of two fingers to her forehead.

Like a priest, he thought, anointing the dead.

And of course her flesh was cool to the touch. He couldn’t will it into warmth, any more than he could make her chest rise and fall.

“Oh, Mairsie,” he said aloud. “Oh, baby, what the hell did you do to yourself?”

He reached for the bedside lamp, then drew his hand back. You weren’t supposed to touch anything, he knew that much, but wasn’t it permissible to turn on a light? Otherwise how could you know for sure what you were looking at?

He touched only the switch, turned it, blinked at the brightness.

He looked at her and saw the marks on her throat and said, “Oh, God, somebody did this to you.” And covered you to the waist, he thought, and closed the door on his way out.

He reached for her wrist, felt for a pulse, but that was ridiculous, he wasn’t going to find one, she was dead, his friend Marilyn was dead. He didn’t want to touch her, hadn’t wanted to put his fingers to her forehead, but he did anyway, perhaps to make sure of what he already knew, perhaps to demonstrate to himself that he could do this if he had to. And her wrist was cold, lifeless, and there was no pulse, and he let go of her and took a step back from the bed.

Before he opened the door, he’d considered leaving. Now, though, it was no longer an option. He had a moral obligation, and a legal one as well, and he knew what he had to do, however little he looked forward to it.

There was a phone on the bedside table, but he stopped himself and used the one in her office instead. He dialed 911 and gave his own name and her address. Yes, he was certain she was dead. Yes, he would stay where he was until the officers arrived. No, he wouldn’t touch anything.

He hung up the phone and started to laugh. It was wildly inap-propriate, his friend and client was dead in the next room, his buddy Marilyn, and he supposed it was shock that propelled the laughter.

But it was funny, wasn’t it? You had to admit it was funny.

Oh, no, he wouldn’t touch anything. God forbid he do anything to compromise the integrity of the crime scene. He’d used his thumb and forefinger to switch on the lamp, he’d nudged the door open with his foot. He’d been ever so careful.

Locking the barn door, he thought, after all the horses had bolted. Because, God help him, he’d already cleaned the apartment to the best of his professional ability. You could eat off the fucking floor, if you were so inclined, and what do you suppose that did to the integrity of the crime scene?

two

SHE WAS ATher desk by ten. She turned on the radio—it was preset to WQXR—and raised the volume a notch. She’d lower it in the afternoon, when people who were so inclined made the rounds of art galleries, but for now she could play it as loud as she liked. Not rock-concert loud, not even Carnegie Hall loud, but with sufficient volume so that it was real music, not just background noise.

Though it might as well have been background noise for all the attention she paid to it. She busied herself in correspondence, real mail and e-mail, made phone calls, and sprang up from her chair from time to time to walk around the gallery, straightening a painting that had gotten itself tilted, dusting a piece of sculpture, and just claiming the place as her own, like a cowboy riding his fences.

Mornings were her favorite time. No one came to the door, and the phone hardly ever rang. She had the place to herself, and the work to herself, and she liked it that way. Chloe would come at one o’clock and station herself at the reception desk, and potential customers would drift in, stare thoughtfully at the work, and wander off again. She enjoyed it when one of them wanted to talk about the art, enjoyed it even more when someone actually bought something. (And it did happen sometimes. You knocked yourself out making phone calls and working your mailing list, you eighty-sixed the jug wine and cheese cubes and got Fabulous Food to cater the opening, and then someone walked in off the street, someone you never heard of who never heard of you, either, and he fell in love with something and wanted to know if you took American Express. Damn right she did.)

She enjoyed all that, and couldn’t have stayed open without it, but the sheer contentment of her morning routine, all by herself in her ever-changing private museum—that was the real payoff. That was close to heaven.

But there was something she was supposed to do, and she couldn’t remember what it was.

At eleven o’clock they interrupted the music for a five-minute news summary, and she wasn’t paying any attention to it until she heard a name she recognized. “Marilyn Fairchild,” the announcer said, and said something else about the police pursuing several leads, and then the item was past, and he was saying something no doubt important about India and Pakistan.

Marilyn Fairchild, murdered the other night in her West Village apartment. She’d been aware of the murder, she was always aware of it when a woman was murdered in Manhattan, but either the name hadn’t registered or, more likely, they hadn’t announced it.

Pending notification of kin—wasn’t that what they always said?

And now she could understand the policy, because she could imagine how a person would feel, getting the news of a loved one’s death over the radio. She was a little bit shocked and stunned herself, and she barely knew Marilyn Fairchild.

She’d been found in her bed, strangled. She hoped they’d find the bastard, hoped some slick son of a bitch didn’t get him off, hoped—

That’s what she couldn’t remember!

Maury Winters’s number was on her speed dial, and she pushed the button and drummed her fingers waiting for the receptionist to pick up. She said, “Susan Pomerance for Mr. Winters,” and looked up when a buzzer sounded. There was a young man at her door.