Patches of Paradise

By Hart Vetter

I.          Housesitting

If you ask me what I am to Royce, it gets complicated.

To his business associates, as we meet for dinner, he’ll introduce me as someone I’m really not, My special friend Marianne. In the car over, he winks, Let them fill in the blanks. Case closed.

If you ask me what I am to Royce, I say I’m a paid escort. What else can you call it?

Hardly, says he, with another wink, adding slyly, well… maybe on a technicality.

If you ask me what I am to Royce, I am a presentable dinner date. Visually we look good together. I hold up well in conversations with his high-roller clients, quite adept at making up credible stories on the fly, of imaginary weekend getaways; bantering back and forth comes easy. I have a brain for trivia and enough cultural IQ to bullshit my way through the kind of artsy talk that sometimes mushrooms with the wives. The typical venues are high-roller restaurants, with wines in the triple-digits flowing freely. In spite of the easing of general attitudes Royce still feels a lame, little charade is a must for him to keep riding high in his business career.

I’ve not been elevated to actual friend-status, nor do I want to, but I am bestowed a promotion of sorts: to dog walker and house sitter.

The parties at the Riverhouse are mostly for his gay-pals, and for those I’m not needed.    

Of course, Royce and I have nothing in common. He’s ivy-educated, I’m at best presentably refined; he is rich — me, not so much. He’s got a Klimt, a Schiele, a Picasso, a Hopper — I got posters with motivational quotes.

Playing house at his elegant digs with river view is a treat. You get to spend leisure time in what you can pretend is your own little niche of paradise.

The police detective lets out a sigh, patience running thin is my guess, “Are you all right, miss?”

“What do you mean?” I ask. I’m eerily calm, and have a hunch what he means. Why am I not responding as one would to a horrific event? Distraught. Shaken up, an emotional mess. I’ve given him enough background, I guess, is what it means. “Can you please get to the point, miss?” the detective says. From the start he’s seemed elated that here I am, willing to chat right on the heels of what has happened, even though made fully aware of my right to keep mum about the whole mess, but mum is not how I feel.

“I’m sorry,” I offer my best pained smile, “my train of thought is just rumbling along like the local commuter line that stops every block.” It must be the stress that makes me ramble past the drama there was.

“More like a train from hell,” his chuckle is terse.

The cop looks very young which must be a detriment in his field. Dustin Mayer, his name. Not a hair out of place, in spite of the breeze. The ambulance has done its thing, which means nothing much they could do. A couple of uniformed police are securing the place, and Dustin Mayer and I sit on the porch. The lead detective, I’m told, is on his way. “Talk about the gun,” Mayer says.

“When Royce tells me he keeps a gun in the house, I first throw a fit. I’m an NPR liberal, you know what I mean? No way, I say. I would not spend a night under one roof with a gun. My father was a gun nut, imagine that, and an asshole. Guns always triggered something in me. Pun intended.”

Mayer observes me with wandering eyes as if unsure how to match what he hears with what he’s seen.

“Anyway. Royce says, Here’s the spiel with this Glock: Let it sit. It’s there just in case, to even the odds if you ever find yourself in a situation. Evildoers, motherfuckers, flagrant trespassers — blow them away at the flick of a finger, if you have to. That’s how he talks, Royce.”

 “Interesting,” says the cop, “as if he gave you carte blanche.”

I shrug and nod. “We find a compromise. While he’s away he double-locks the damn gun outside. In the cabinet by the jacuzzi.”

“What happened next?”

“I take Rudy the Rottie out.… Normally he’s the sweetest, best-behaved wimp in a tough-breed disguise. You see the fresh layer of turf spread everywhere, all the way to the river?” He follows my sweeping hand motion. “Kentucky Blue Grass is what Royce has sowed. It’ll grow all  thick and rich by the next party. Anyway, we take the path to the beach, and Rudy runs there, sniffs, plays. Then I see them, a man’s shoe imprints, fresh, right across the virgin turf leading in a straight line from the river towards the house, to here, where we’re sitting.”

“The patio?”

“Well, this direction,” I say, “Somebody is on the premises. Quite unnerving,” I reflect, “I see no boat by the water.”

“What next?” Impatient bugger.

“I reach Royce’s voicemail in Aruba. There’s some intruder on the property, probably in the house by now, I report. Words to that effect.”

“Were you afraid?”

“Uneasy.” Maybe I should have a lawyer present who’d make sure I’d dramatize appropriately. Frightened for dear life. “Next… I put Rudy back on leash. The dog is tensed up as we head back, ears on high alert, but maybe he’s just sensing my apprehension. I am quite unnerved. And smart dogs with all the wildness of the wolves in their genes pick up on that.”

“Rudy’s a wimp-dog, you said…” Like he’s out to catch little errors in my story.

 I ignore. “We walk past the shed and wet-bar area by the spa. I know the combination, and that it holds a locked stainless tool chest, set it to 333 — the battle of Issus, BC, and voila, there it is. I told you I know something about guns from my asshole father, when I was a girl, I’ve held a few. Then I walk to the patio door, with double protection of gun and dog, one feels cold and weighty in my right fist, Rudy on my left growls but his choker prongs hold him in place.”

“We’ll ask you to reenact in a minute.”

 “I press 9-1-1 on my phone. If shit explodes in my face, I’ll quickly push dial.”

 Mayer stares, surprised by my word choice. Then he says, “Three hands. That requires three hands: dog, gun, phone.”

I know this is being recorded. I know my words will be analyzed. “You’re such a cop,” I chide. “Let’s see, the phone I have in the left pocket of my windbreaker.” I’m still wearing it, a sleek purple-green thing.

 I stand up to mimic what I recall.            

“I make Rudy sit. Pull the loop of the leather leash over my wrist. Scoop the phone out.”  He sees my left thumb is dial-flexible. “I slip the phone back in the pocket.” I remain standing and continue the acting out. “I’m holding the leash extra-tight. I slide the patio door open just a little, not with my third hand. Because I gently put the gun in my windbreaker first, here, right pocket. I open just a few inches. Rudy goes ballistic. My left hand gets slammed into the door frame. I see stars, yelp like a dog — he pulls himself loose, storms in, dragging the leash. Instant angry barking pandemonium inside… I fear… the house, the dog, both under my watch, both under assault.I pull the gun back out. There’s human yelling, howling, growling, barking agony, whimpering.” I pause.

The cop looks noncommittal, his brain on error patrol, I can tell. “What on earth made you enter the house where holy fracas was going down?”

“The dog, detective. The whimpering. I had to step in. The intruder, masked, stood by the kitchen island, a huge meat cleaver thing in his hand swinging up with heft. He must’ve struck the dog already once, fur was flying… some blood, it was awful.”

“He saw you?”

“He saw Rudy for sure, down on the floor, hurt, yet in attack mode, crazed, fangs going after his leg, as he was jamming the cleaver down.”

“Wow”, he whispers, shocked or impressed, rather than speechless which cops never are. “So you shot him?”

  “Yeah.”

  I exhale and sit back down.

  He looks at me for more. Or perhaps to see if now I break down.

“Once,” I say. “The cleaver thing tumbles. He staggers backwards, collapses, Rudy still pursuing his leg. He doesn’t react. Right then he’s a goner… sounds horrible, I realize. Disrespectful. It’s because respect I have none. Anger, sure. Outrage. More than fear. To put me in this position. Unforgivable.” As I’ve said it, I know a lawyer would have asked me to stress that of course I felt fear, anyone would.

“You’re very composed. Thank you, miss, for telling your story.”

“I left the Glock on the counter for you people. I grab the dog. I finally push 9-1-1. Send police, an ambulance, and a vet would be good, while I check over sweet Rudy. His hind flank got graced, but not terribly. You mean Animal Control? she asks. I think he’s gonna be okay, I say. I’m sure, detective, you’ll get to hear the tape of the call.”

“Did the perpetrator seem familiar?”

“I was not going to pull off his mask! I was too frightened, overwhelmed really, to look at him. Earlier, when he stood, threatening, all I saw was this scary, shiny slaughter instrument in his hand. Next I kenneled Rudy, cleaned up his wound. He licked my shooting hand. Yeah, he’ll be fine. Probably needs a cone.”

“You left the scene untouched?”

“Of course.” My eyes seem moist. Maybe it’s all getting to me finally. “To think I killed someone during my glorious little guest appearance here in paradise.”

“At the very least we can say you saved a dog and stopped whatever it was the crook was after. We’ll figure that out. Royce hasn’t called back?”

“No. Another thing I am to Royce: The fiercest defender of home and hound.”

“One more question,” he says, stalling a moment, “did you feel in danger?” As if throwing a bone so I’ll say it for the record.

“I had to act or would have been next.” I think I nailed it.

***

There’s a protocol they need me to sign at the precinct. Mayer takes me to a small meeting room. The lead detective joins in.

Mayer sits to my left. Brian McComb across from me, big-boned, grayish-white hair with a hue of oil, reddish skin, round face, baggy eyes, at first glance someone I can outrun, not that I’m going to. Strikes me as the poster child of an individual with too many bad habits he’ll never bother to quit. “Marianne Frey, thank you for coming by. Ms. Frey, what line of work do you do?”

“I’m a social butterfly,” I try an icebreaker, probably inappropriate.

 McComb roars, his face turning redder.

 “Seriously,” prompts Mayer.

“I’m a translator.”

“Makes sense now,” says Mayer, clarifying, as McComb looks at him, “the way you speak. More descriptive than we normally get.”

“Like what?” his boss asks me, “an interpreter?”

“I translate tech books and brochures, German to English.”

“Housesitting and acting as a convenience-date are not your main source of income then?” asks McComb. His buffoonery is an act, I decide, he’s competent and sharp.

“Right. Only for Royce.”

 “How did you meet? I mean what started the arrangement?”

 “A friend of mine who’s now working in London was part of Royce’s circle of friends. He told me Royce was looking for a safe date.”

 “Safe date, that’s a laugh,” chuckles the big guy. “Are you married?”

 “Happily divorced.”

“Are you dating anyone?”

“Wait a minute,” I play coy, “you either harbor expectations that I’d call unfulfillable or you feel you need to scrutinize me, a harmless, albeit foxy, near-middle-aged lady from the suburbs who wouldn’t allow herself to be victimized.” Touche, I think.

The big guy seems to be enjoying the chat, “It’s just to round out the picture, Ms. Frey.”

“Am I dating anyone?” I reflect, “on and off, mostly off. Off for a while.”

“How long have you done it, this pseudo dating of Royce Donnelly? I mean… he’s put a lot of trust in you?”

“Over a year.” Why does it feel they’re putting me through the ringer? “Things were going too well, almost. Royce has said so many times, because I seem to make such an impression on his business associates that they kept asking him, weeks later sometimes after they’ve met me, So how’s Marianne? And isn’t it time you two get serious?” I laugh like it’s the biggest compliment which in a way it is.

McComb’s baggy eyes see the humor, “It takes an awful lot of fine acting for a perfect deception to work.”

I nod, my glance matching up with his, calm, serious, sincere, “I’m sure Royce has told you the same thing, detectives.”

“Do you know much about Royce Donnelly’s inner circle?”

“I don’t. For private get-togethers I wasn’t needed.” I might as well start asking questions. “Thanks for keeping my name out of the papers. There wasn’t much I read about the dead person. What have you found out?”            

“A thief, burglar, the papers got that right. A thief with a plan. He wore a mask because of security cams inside the place that monitor the artwork, and they captured him taking a couple of pieces off a wall. Even brought a large portfolio bag to haul away the pieces. Outside cameras were centered towards the front of the house; the ones to the back had been turned off, oddly. ”

“We did find a little outboard moored a little downriver,” reports Mayer, ”and a beat-up pickup and boat trailer a few miles from here by the boat launch.”

“Looks like you pieced a lot together in a short time.”

“He’s one Randal Smith.” McComb scrutinizes me casually, with curious, baggy eyes that stand out in his big, puffy face, “Has a long record. Violence, the whole gamut, at just twenty-two years old.”

“Such a terrible shame. He didn’t give me a choice.”

“The pooch, I know,” weighs McComb.

“Too bad you can’t stay at the place at the moment, or maybe you don’t want to,” says the young detective. “Too bad Rudy’s at a kennel.”

“What did they say about his little scrape wound?” asks McComb as if it’s a tennis routine between them.

“Inconclusive, not terribly cleaver-ish.” He looks at me for comment but I won’t. “Anyway, by late tomorrow our work on site should be finished.”

“Meanwhile, Mr. Royce Donnelly will continue his Aruba vacation, unperturbed,” says the big guy. “Wonder what that’s in German.”

 “Ganz gelassen.”

 “Gesundheit.”

 “I can’t blame him,” I say. “What’s done is done. Nothing he can do here right now.”

“Did he voice any suspicions to you?” Mayer’s sounds like a trick question.

“No. Seems like someone with inside knowledge of house and layout.”

“That’s what he says?”

 “I don’t remember if I said it or he. Detectives, I bet you talked to Royce at length, if not you may want to call him back.” There’s a pause. “Will this be all?” I dare.

“He did confirm your arrangement with the 9mm Glock 43 — the outside safekeeping,” Mayer recaps calmly.

 “Of course he did.” My patience is running thin.

“And he’ll get us a list of dudes who’ve come to, or at, his place.

“Detective Mayer, please! That’s crass and unnecessary!” It’s the most irate they’ve seen me.

“No Randal Smith among them,” he adds.

“Ms. Frey, where did you learn to shoot?” inquires the big guy, measured and curious.

“I told him.” My head nudges left. “Detective Mayer, I mean. From my dad.”

Mayer is flipping through papers in front of him, the protocol, I assume. “I’m afraid I didn’t get a clear read from you,” he says.

“Did you guys go hunting?” asks Big.

Mayer’s still flipping.

“He took me to target practice a few times. I was maybe 14.”

“Thanks for clarifying.

Mayer reads from a passage he’s been looking for, “I told you I know something about guns from my asshole father, when I was a girl, I’ve held a few.

“Precisely,” I confirm. It feels as if the young guy tries to trip me every chance he gets.

“Makes sense then,” concludes McComb, “Sounds like you didn’t just hold a gun, but fired bunches of times. No wonder you’re a great shoot.”

“I can’t say that my asshole father ever uttered a word of praise.”

“Why was he such an asshole, your daddy, I wonder,” the sad bags under his eyes try to play a grandfatherly supporting role.

“There’s not been a worse beating, cheating, lying piece of shit, that’s why,” I say, and my voice cracks just a little.

I feel drained and relieved by the time I get to leave.

***

RYAN SMITH, reads the caller ID. I’m in the bathroom of all places.

Fuck. I debate whether to just hit Decline Call. I probably should, but can’t resist, “Don’t call me! I told you not to call. Not right now. Stay put a few months,” I say in my most pressing whisper tone

“I know, hon, but it’s hitting me harder than I thought.”

“Get over it. We agreed where we meet: Bear Mountain State Park, rain or shine, Bastille Day, our first anniversary. I delete all contact now.”

END CALL.

I’m trembling.

That’s how upsetting it is.

I erase all contact information. Maybe I should throw the phone away. Will it make a difference? The data is still going to be there, always there in the forever ether.

I resolve to throw my phone in the river and get a new one, a new number, new everything. At least make it as difficult as I can for the nosy heavyweight snoop and his snarky lieutenant.

***

Royce rewards me handsomely. My dating days with him are over.

***

July the fourteenth.

It’s a most pleasant hike. Just Ryan and me.

Nobody nearby or lingering at inconspicuous spots along the way.

And my Ryan is not one to get himself wired to see me nailed.

He’s free for me now. To just imagine, how many restraining orders are there, ever, against one’s kid? His brutal, good-for-nothing black sheep of an only son out of the picture. Who strangled him once to within an inch of his life. Who was a nightmare, loud and scary, or subtly brooding, but constantly lurking. Other than Hitler, his very own son is the only one whom this sweet, sweet man called evil.

Randal, we knew, would instantly fall for a scheme, advanced via a crony, promising him a huge return. The worst case scenario for Ryan and me, we agree, would have been to see junior getting caught redhanded and put away for ten years. The best case: he’s out of our lives.

Which opens up a new, precious little patch of paradise.

My mom, driven over the cliffs of sanity by my asshole father, she should have been so lucky.

***

II.        Escort to my Sofa

Good looks on a man are wasted on me.

No wonder Royce and I harmonized.

It’s all because my asshole father was a handsome devil. I swear it’s the last time I’ll bring him up. Ryan fits the bill, hair blackish unruly, eyebrows untamed, thick and close to uni, tiny wire-rimmed glasses that never sit quite straight on an assertive-angular nose in a face that’s well weathered and creased like your favorite leather coat, an inconsistent two-day stubble unafraid of gray, his voice irresistibly understated, awake brown eyes.

We go to Avinash’s for a little celebration, Ryan’s favorite eatery. We eat and sit and sip some decent house wine for an hour and a half, and lose ourselves in the relaxed candlelight ambiance in each other’s enthralled eyes — unusual for forty-somethings, but far from freaky. Ryan is relaxed and at ease, as I’ve only seen him when we were on vacation, Crete, Corsica, a long flight away which is when we both realize what setting him free could accomplish.

“All will be good, Im telling you,” I can’t help telling him. I feel a girlish prickle of excitement how things are going that I haven’t felt, well, since I was girlish.

When I make a joke at some point, how wonderful it is that from now on we’re tied to each other for life, and our fates are intertwined, truly for better or worse, because one can sink the other, he almost chokes on his palak paneer with bits of green getting caught in his stubble. “Please don’t ever, hon, don’t even think it,” he says.

As we pass the bar area, out of the corner of my eye I barely notice this massive older fellow on a stool, from his rear, broad shoulders, thick neck stuffed into a blue sports coat, hair thinning, greasy gray. Not sure if he’s with someone. McComb, I think, but can’t venture a positive ID without getting a glimpse of his trademark baggy eyes. He may be facing the mirror on the opposite wall of the bar, but I don’t want to look closely, and nudge Ryan past the greeter who thanks us for our patronage, out the door. Parking being a pain, Ryan found us a spot three blocks away. Because of my heels and one little stumble on the way in he insists I wait and he’ll run to get the car. If your man wants to perform a tiny little good deed, accepting with grace is your best bet and encourages future sprinkles of gallantry.

I take a few steps from the entrance and peek in the side window for a glimpse of the bar, maybe I can make out a face.

“Oh hi,” the voice I recognize immediately. I turn around. McComb, in the door, leaving as well, big frame, big smiling face, bags grotesquely amplified by lantern light, “If it isn’t Ms. Frey. Marianne. We met when we were almost young.” Quoting some murky line from Cohen’s So Long Marianne, not what I’d expect.

Deep in the green lilac park,” I recite what comes next in the song. I can play ball. “Officer, I mean detective? Night on the town?”

“McComb. Brian McComb,” he steps down and holds out his hand, acting all thrilled to see me.

 I shake. His hand is moist. Gross.

“What brings you here?” I say stupidly. “I mean, all by yourself?”

“As are you, I see. How have you been?

“Fine. I’m waiting for my… ride. Good-bye, detective.”

“I’m retired.”

“Oh. Good for you. You’re awfully young to retire,” I lie. The stupidities of spur of the moment. He lingers. Ryan is at least another five minutes away.

He looks around. It’s just us by the steps. With calm, friendly urgency he says, “Marianne, I know what you’re up to.”

“That’s not a line from Leonard.”

“You need to give me two minutes.” Creepily insistent.

“Have you been following… me?”

“Meet me at 2 PM tomorrow in the lobby of the Granger. No funny stuff, and all will be fine. Have a good night, Marianne.” He turns and walks into the night.

I stagger and fear I’m about to faint, right as Randy pulls up. He must’ve run. All will be fine, he said, in the same tone, kind of, as I told Randy minutes ago, all will be good. I was referring to the here and now, following the death of his asshole son.

I have an inkling McComb was talking about the same thing.

Ryan walks around to open my side. “I should drive,” I say.

“I’m fine. I didn’t drink more than you.”

“I know, but I got something to tell you, and I’m better at talking and driving.”

He makes a long face.

“Please,” I beg. We’ve been through it. When I first floated the Randal idea, he tried to merge smack into an eighteen-wheeler, with twelve wheels to go.

He lets me drive.

No need to pussyfoot. “I just saw McComb, the elephant detective. He’s onto us.”

He gasps.

“He’s no longer with the police. Wants to see me tomorrow.”

“What? What? I told you this would never work. What do you mean, no longer police?”

“Retired. I don’t know what any of this means. We should have waited a year to get back together. He said not to try funny shit, and all would be good.”

“Oh my God.” It’s a wail. His glasses in his breast pocket, both hands now cover his eyes. He would have done the same if he were driving.

“What are we going to do?” I try to ground the conversation.

“Oh my God,” he whispers. I put my right hand on his knee, and pet it gently, like one would do to calm a sweet dog like Rudy in a bad thunderstorm

“We’re in this together,” I say, “We get through this together.” I hope this talk-through helps calm me down as well.

***

The hotel lobby is an uncomfortable blend of modern and stuffy. I notice him right away as I enter through the automatic glass door, even though he sports an unexpected look. Standing to the side of the seating section, like a puffed-up parrot, craning what neck he has, then he sees me too, moves forward a few steps, his broad face all lit up, as we meet up. He wears a bowtie, I register and can’t unsee. Pale green with splashes of red. Weird as it is, I count it as a good sign. His dress shirt in the faintest yellow is one of those untucked ones that allows you to muddle the splurges of a waistline. His jeans are sizable, almost loose, a new pair that looks never been washed. The last man I recall with a bowtie was that weatherman who made a big deal of folks turning a hundred. Bowties give somebody a clownish element, and we all know clowns have a sinister side. So many thoughts.

Ryan has helped me set up an old cell to record for what it’s worth, stashed in my purse.

“Marianne,” his voice is too friendly, phony, welcoming, and we shake hands. A moist mess again. Not at all fear-inspiring in person, but perhaps part of his shtick, like Columbo’s ruffled raincoat. “I know it’s an inconvenience, and I thank you.” He’s too formally polite after his coercive pushiness the night before. I know I shouldn’t waste another thought on what he wears and why, but can’t help wondering if it’s intended as some blatant caricature I don’t understand or just a novice pensioner’s errant attempt to explore a new look.

The lounge area is deep blue, velvety sofas and chairs, ornate tables. Few people around this time of day, some businesspeople on the other end, and I wonder if they are cops. “Brian McComb,” I get down to business, as we sit, my purse in my lap, not unnoticed by him, “you said you needed two minutes.”

“Thank you for your time, Marianne. Long story short, you and I know you masterminded and carried out the coldblooded execution of young Randal Smith.”

I look straight at him, with focused eyes staring right through.

 “My first impulse is this: Kudos.”

There is the tiniest tremble from my neck up which may not be noticeable.

“He was scum. Good riddance. The world is a better place.”

I can’t vouch that there’s no blushing of my cheeks. Let him speak, don’t react, that’s my strategy.

“I have no interest in nailing you for a service to society. Your motive I’m a little unclear about. And of course, I strongly believe, we can’t have vigilante justice.” He’s done talking. “I’ve said my piece,” he confirms.

“You are opinionated,” I whisper.

“You are smart.”

“Thank you, Brian, I believe your two minutes are up.” I reach for my purse.

“Here’s what…” he says. “I’d like to leaf through the pages of your Bildungsroman.”

“What?” I cringe. “That’s a…the dumbest thing I’ve heard.” I have a hunch what he’s driving at.

“There’s much we can teach each other. You’ll see.” He wants to get involved!

“Brian, come on… that’s a big, fat, dumb misread.”

“I’m divorced. Six years. I don’t want a relationship. Your escort scheme, I find it intriguing. Immensely. Stimulating. However, I would never pay an actual escort. An offensive financial transaction would instantly take all the wind out of my sails, if you know what I mean.” With me not responding, he just rattles on. “Maybe one time a month we get together. Or as long as momentum carries. Till So long Marianne. The way I see it there’s going to be a mutual dimension.” How can someone of his dimensions be so sure of himself? “And nobody ever needs to know. No strings attached. And Ryan Smith and you can live — tah-tah — happily ever after. A concept conceived by your landsmen, the Brothers Grimm. May they RIP.” He beams.

I motion him to be serious. “What if…” I search to calibrate a tone of piercingly sweet innocence, “… all of this is taped and a pair of ears have been listening in.” Half the truth is better than no truth.

He is all smiles again, not sure if it’s his way to cover up concern. “Since you’re smart,” he says, “you know that you’ll wind up behind bars. While my approach can easily be construed as just an elaborate bit piece to get you to confess.” He rises. “1725, Marianne. That’s my room number. I hope to see you. You have eight minutes.”

I get up, purse in hand. He bows and kisses my hand. Theatrical, European, the quaint charm of a hundred years ago. Not what I want or expect.

***

He comes well prepared. Nothing seems transactional. He has chilled white wine ready, soft music on, the half-drawn curtains dunk the room in a golden khaki hue. As far as I know there is no switch you can flip that puts you in the mood. But seeing yourself pursued as a special someone is flattering. I sense an aura ripe for adventure. He comes across in an all-different light. The bowtie is gone, which helps. His face, eager, pinkish, going for sweet.

The way I look at it: one time is a quasi-lifesaving measure. We are asked, on occasion, to make a sacrifice, take a beating perhaps, for the sake of the whole, and all will be good in the long run. That’s the idea.

Now, if I’m asked to describe the experience in one word, I say unprepared. Me. If I get another word it’s awakening. If you give me two words: blown away. There’s a pattern.

Imagine if you find out there’s buttons you didn’t know you had. Or ones you thought were ornamental, and then you learn, geez, they can burst open like a jolly zipper exposing a vibrancy that sings with the certitude of heavenly wind chimes.

A one-time indiscretion, that’s all, I repeat to myself.

And later, as we part ways, he looks spent and pleased, and I feel both conquered and victor at the same time. Guilt washed away by a bucket of cobweb-clearing suds. Pathetic cliches infiltrate my head that could do a smitten teenager proud, that I expect soon to give birth to qualms, as I’m in the down elevator, as I’m heading back to my place, as I look at Ryan’s half-dozen texts.

Regrets are unproductive. As if I’m one who needs re-convincing in that. What’s done is done, and moving on the only viable game plan.

Ryan waits at my place. He works in real estate and can make his own schedule. “I’ve been texting, hon. I thought, fuck, if you’re taken away, I don’t think I can survive.” His glasses sit more crookedly than usual on his nose.

 “Calm down, babes. Taken away sounds too much like carted off to the loony bin.”

  “Arrested. You know what I mean. What happened? Did you tape him?”

  “They’re no lies between us,” I say steadfastly.

   “What does he know? What does he want?”

  “He knows. He’s fine with it.”

  “Oh my God.”

 “We chatted… Randal was evil, he knew it, scum is the word he used. I did a good deed, he said, it’s like if Mother Hitler had smothered little Adoelfchen because she found irretrievable evil in his eyes.”

“That’s what he said?”

“He said, I said, one of us did.” We sit down on the love seat. I reach for his hand, both hands, hold them lovingly. “I need you to be strong, babes.”

“Oh my God.”

“He’s totally on our side. I’m so blessed you’re not the possessive type, you’ve said so many times. You’re the only one for me, the only one, Liebchen, trust me.”

 “You fucked him.”

 “Don’t talk like that, babes. It’s degrading. It hurts.”

 “What then?”

“We had a little involvement, that’s all. Strictly business, no romance.  Over in a flash. Nothing to be concerned. I had to. For us. You’re the only one.”

“We’ve got to… what can we do? Report him? Kill him?”

“Ryan! Get a grip! Do you hear yourself? That’s just…! I mean really, totally overboard. Nobody feels horribler,” the worst word I’ve ever uttered, “I mean worse, than me. But… we’ve handled it. He gets a kick out of me. That worked in our favor. So I turned it into a kickback. Terrible as it sounds, it’s now behind us.

“Cheating is wrong,” he looks miserable like he could cry.

“If I’m telling you, which is what I did,” I correct him like a mother straightening out her five-year-old, “it’s not cheating.”

“I want the phone. I want to hear the recording.”

“Babes, trust me. It’s all behind us.” Another phone for the river, I wonder.

“How did he find out? On his own dime? Where did we mess up?” He says it as if he really means me.

“When you called my cell right after.” A little white lie.

I reflect. “Well, also, how was anyone to know that the stainless chest in the jacuzzi shed would register the time I opened it to retrieve the handgun. That I actually got it out the day before, not on my way back from the beach walk with the dog. But that would be the easiest explain-away: maybe I didn’t want to be exposed for an anti-gun hypocrite seeking pistol protection when in the house alone, and it came in handy stumbling upon the burglar going after the poor dog.” The prior last contact with my beau, the dead man’s father, was eight weeks before, McComb had found that out too, but kept to himself

Ryan and I have our best time in bed ever. He loves exploring and eagerly picks up new ideas. Exhaustion can be a happy place. Luckily, nature tends to favor the female anatomy after a thrilling exertion.

Brian has alluded to meeting up as often as monthly. Not the kind of request I want to burden Ryan with. Especially since no clear date has been set, and for all I know, the one time may have been it. As the anniversary draws near, I wonder, with an undeniable tingle and an undeniable wistfulness if I will hear again or never.

A text from an unfamiliar number, that I come close to erasing, since I’ve had a rash of junk messages: 2PM sharp tomorrow. Same place. Watch out for room number. Do I tell Ryan? Things with us have been more fulfilling than ever. It’s a delicate balance. Secrets can erode the strongest bond, too much information can weigh it down.

In the morning I’m making us breakfast, scrambled eggs which he loves for imagined stamina, accompanied by sausage links for protein, and green pepper cubes bouncing in the pan, a liberal sprinkle of chives on much of it, two pre-made helpings of hash browns in the toaster. I have the phone on mute on the counter, and the number 1237 flashes that I may not have been the only one to notice, just as I scoop out a serving for him, a smaller one for me.

***

I am not fond of myself as I walk the long hallway with indistinct faux art in excessive frames on the walls. Anticipating, yet apprehensive is how I assess my mood. I wear a dress just a notch above business casual, no pumps but flats, no jewelry, for fear of leaving something behind. I feel a gently elevated heartbeat as I knock on 1237.

Last time the door was left ajar. There’s a bell I notice next to the card key slot. I ring. A subtle, ear-pleasing peal. He’s been so meticulous in prep and timing. To make me wait is a surprise. Maybe bathroom. Men of a certain age. Half a minute, I ring again. I hear steps.

The door opens wide.

My first impulse is to run.

The young man stares at me, not shocked as I am but curious.

“Detective,” I say. “Mayer. What…”

“That’s what I wanted to ask, Miss… Marianne? What brings you here? Come on in.”

Unflappable Marianne, that’s who I am, I remind myself. I walk in. The young man closes the door. The lighting is brutally bright; ceiling lights are on, no curtains shield the wall of windows from the brutal midday sun. I hear the hum of the AC. He points to sofa and chair for us to sit. Just be calm, I convince myself, and all will be fine. I am a mature, liberated woman free to associate with whomever she likes. I sit down on the sofa, keep my purse wedged next to me. No phone recording any of this. “Evidently this is a surprise,” I say, because I can’t think of anything else.

He takes the chair. “I help you out, Marianne.” He sounds or acts uncomfortable. “You and Brian have something going?”

“How come you are here?” I haven’t yet found my groove.

He brushes a hand over his eyes, then down to his nose, then looks at me as if tuning his thoughts. He clasps and rubs his hands. Maybe he’s nervous, too. “What do you know about Brian?”

Uncomfortable, I cite a few things. “Brian McComb is retired. He used to be your boss. Was lead detective in this unfortunate case at Riverhouse.”

 “And he and you?”

It’s not a crime, I think, and want to yell, but decide on ladylike, “Things have a way.” My smile is non-apologetic business-like, no warmth, no ice. I pull my head back, I feel my hair cascading to one side and want to twirl it but resist.

“About my former colleague: He left under a cloud, that’s all I can say.” I look at him open-eyed and he says more, “People talk, you know. Improprieties there’ve been a few. He was fired, that’s what happened. And sometimes the department just wants to move on, wash its hands,” his hands brush off imaginary excess water. “Times like these, who needs more dirty laundry.”

“I’m sorry to hear. Thank you for sharing.” I hold my purse ready to get up.

 “Late this morning I got called over by McComb’s wife. Linda.”

Wife, I think. Other than a batting of the eyes, I manage no reaction.

“Brian McComb had a massive coronary. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news.”

Just breathe, steady in and out. Massive means what? Just another word for dead…

“Linda is utterly distraught. We can only imagine.”

Yes, means dead. Oh. Wow. Sad. Conflicted. What the hell. Stay focused, Marianne. “Is he…?” I can’t help myself.

“Sorry, yes, he passed.”

I open the purse for a tissue. It doesn’t make sense to spill tears over an extortionist sex fiend, isn’t that all he was? “What kind of improprieties?”

He watches me closely, such a cop thing. “He had a thing for women.”

I can’t pass up the Seinfeld line, “Not that there’s anything wrong with it.” I manage a smile.

He looks dead serious. “Some inappropriate approaches. All very unfortunate. I can’t share details. He and you, how did it come about?”

Big fat can of worms. “Why are you here?”

“This morning he probably checked in here by phone. The hotel called to confirm a text with the room number right after Linda had called for an ambulance. Linda told me. Your turn, Marianne. How did you two link up? Come on now, McComb was way below your league.

“Chemistry is what it is. It’s all about chemistry.” As if I’m teaching the young man a life lesson. “You must have noticed, there was chemistry.” I am good at fabricating on the fly. “At the precinct. When you guys were interrogating me.”

“Hardly.”

“One thing led to another. Long after. We ran into each other. Drinks.”

There’s a knocking at the door. Good. Probably room service. Anything to get away from this line of talk. I’m done. Nothing good will come from staying a second longer. We both get up. Dustin opens. The visitor, Ryan, looks him up and down, wide-eyed, and I can just read his mind that there’s nothing elephantine about this cop. Ryan looks totally flustered, I haven’t seen him like this, except maybe one time when Randal had slashed two of his tires because he refused to give him drug money.

“This is Ryan, my fiancé,” I jump in, no last name needed.

“Oh, I didn’t know it was a… multiple… event,” cop wheels turning. “Menagerie for three…”

“It is not,” I assert. “This is Detective Mayer,” I introduce, motioning to the cop, and before he can ask more questions, “We’ve got to go.” I’m in the door, gently, seeing to it that my beau retreats with me.

“I’ll be in touch,” says the cop.

***

Back at my place Ryan turns optimist, says that it’s all a giant win-win, a hail-Mary pass from God, hallelujah that the bastard racketeer rapist is out of the picture. That sort of talk. And I let him. Because nobody will understand.

I love him to death but intricate plotting is not Ryan’s thing. What all is at stake, he doesn’t quite grasp. There is zero reason to celebrate. I call Royce. Turns out he has a big corporate shindig coming up and wouldn’t mind having me there for a little guest appearance. When will this man grow a pair, I wonder. “You owe me a favor,” I tell him, “after all I’ve been through.” And I cautiously insert a delicate thread in the eye of an imaginary needle visualizing a horrendous hole that’s been torn into our security blanket and now needs hyper-urgent mending. Luckily I hold this colorful patch to sew things back together, the makings of a great quilt, better and more complete than whole. In those precarious, God-awful days under the monster whom I shan’t mention again my mom taught me needlework to help ease my mind, to quell my fears, and I still know how to do it; it can still bring me peace. Even as just a metaphor.

***

Dustin Mayer does his homework. Reopens the case, finds a hitch here or there in my story, calls me back to the office, and, with another detective, they pester me again, playing the same type of cop tennis I’ve seen before. I’m calm and hold my own, inserting minor modifications to my tale. Within a day they hear from Royce who’s found out about a lad who spent the night at Riverhouse, on occasion. The young man let it slip, innocently of course, to an acquaintance, Randal, about the beautiful pricey art on their walls. Poor Randal. Never one to let a good opportunity pass by. And then, of all things, getting blown away by a foxy middle-aged lady with surefire aim.

***

“The nightmare is over,” I enthusiastically embrace Ryan as he greets me at my place. I am so lucky. We are so lucky. We are on top of the world. We inhale each other’s serpent tongues. I gingerly extricate his glasses so they won’t get crushed in the process, because, whenever we get going, there’s been is no stopping. Fire within is a wondrous thing. We are insatiable.

As we scoot to my bedroom, oddly, my mounted hallway poster catches my eye for the first time in months. Blonde woman seated, looking away over rooftops, Be the heroine of your life, not the victim. – Nora Ephron.

We can’t get enough of each other. “I want more,” he gasps. I barely register the phone sitting on the dresser, the one that recorded my McComb encounter. That’s not good, I realize, just as I feel a sling, faintly, leathery, around my neck, unsure how it got there. It’s more pronounced now, instantly taking up all my attention. Tightening. I can barely squeeze my fingers in-between. Asphyxiation role play has never been on my list. He knows that, I know that, no third party knows. The air is getting preciously rare. His playing rough I didn’t know was a thing. I bend my knee to kick into his groin for an equally rough response, it hits air. He giggles, as if it’s all a legitimate part of the action. We tumble to the edge of the bed. His grip tightens. I free both my hands to fight him, like a girl, my boxing is nothing but an annoying nuisance. He is heavy, half now on top of me.

“Oh honey,” he breathes hard, his voice going for soothing, “don’t you worry.” He’s gasping, strained, I think I hear a chortle, “We don’t want… an accident that everyone is embarrassed to talk about…”

I wiggle with what desperate strength I can generate, we crash to the floor, his head smashing with a nasty thud against the foot of the dresser. I land hard on my left elbow, broken, I wonder? Doesn’t matter now. We stay entangled, both moaning. I feel the noose around my neck tightening again. I’m about to go dark, I realize. Precious seconds and I’m done. I squeeze the nail of one finger back under the leather strap looped around my neck, the nail bends back and hurts like crazy. The upper digit of my index finger wiggles in, my throat siphons a tiny sip of oxygen. Precious. Dissolving immediately into nothing. Insatiable need! Second finger in. Another half a sip. More knee jams where the softies are. He feels it. We’re getting somewhere. He grunts, angry, tries to shift his upper body back on top, his eyes are rolled back, crazed. My elbow aches, and the arm feels limb. I find another half-breath, squint for a weapon, but see none.

“Time out,” he moans out of nowhere as if football rules apply. The sling loosens. I fill my lungs. An orgasmic feel indeed. Maybe close to what some weirdoes derive from such sinister games of madness. We just lay for moments. On the floor, me steadying my breath, he somewhat crooked, has rolled off me again, sideways on the floor, head against the dresser base.

“What the fuck was that?” I say. “Don’t do that again. Ever.”

Still at floor level, he shakes his head like a dog flinging off moisture or pain.

“Yeah, really,” he moans. “I need to sit up. Help me up!” he barks, “Get me some water.”

 I get on my knees. Without the use of my left arm it takes enormous effort to stagger to my feet. As I finally stand, he grabs my feet. I’m barefoot, I am trembling, kicking won’t work. “Damn it, stop that! I get you water,” I straddle, then muster concern, “that didn’t sound good, babes, you hurt your head badly.”

“Yeah,” he rubs his scalp with one hand. I step out of his reach. No blood I see. “I can feel a bump,” he whines. He can be a crybaby, I know.

Like a masochist I massage my arm. There is life. Soreness, but not broken I decide. He is all self-absorbed. My fingers respond. I think I can even clasp them.

“I make us some chamomile tea, too, it’s good against stress.”

He grunts what could be agreement.

For the grace of God, I think, on my way to the kitchen, let medicine work. I slide a steak knife in my right pants pocket, surround it with crumpled Kleenex. I fill a glass from the fridge water dispenser, place it on the counter, fill two mugs with tap water, find an Aspirin in a cabinet, while all ears for steps from the the bedroom. I crush the aspirin with a butter knife and stir the powder into one of the mugs, twirling the knife until the residue seems gone to the eye. I heat them in the micro.

“Honey,” he shouts and must mean me, “I don’t feel so good.”

“Be right there, babes.” I squash the bags into the mugs, the laced one gets a more thorough squeezing. I stir again. Particles dissolved. I take a sip. Hm. Well, chamomile, what does one expect?

Then he’s in the door, leaning on the door handle, face ashen, “I threw up.”

“You think it’s a concussion? Should I take you to the ER?”

“I feel… I’m just nauseous.”

“How’s your memory?”

“I got carried away, I know, I’m sorry. It’s the recorded screw audio I found… I can’t… couldn’t handle.”

“Here’s your water. And some tea. It’ll calm us down.” He hunches on the backrest of a stool by the island. He takes a gulp of the water. The glass wobbles in his hand. I take it, set it down on the island. “Sit,” I order.

He mounts the stool.

I slurp from my tea. Not bad, a little hot. “We need to talk. What I don’t get is this strangulation fantasy.” I lean in closer. He looks miserable. “It’s not my kind of fantasy. Didn’t think it was yours. Your son, you told me, gave you the biggest scare when he nearly choked the life out of you.”

“I know. I don’t know. I’m sorry. What got into… I do counseling. It won’t… will never. Where was I? Happen again.”

I clang my tea cup against his. I see tears in his eyes. He looks so pale. I think I can make out the swelling on the top of his head. He takes a big swig.

“It’ll calm us down. After you finish it, maybe lay down a little.”

“I need to clean up the mess.”

“I’ll do it,” I say, “always do.”

“Thanks, hon,” he nods ever so slightly. “Stupid thing… this… thwack.”

He sits, I stand. Exhausted.

The soothing powers of tea.

Eventually, he gets up. I stand by and act as his crutch escorting him while he stumbles and shuffles to the living room and slowly descends on the sofa to lie down. He is all I ever wanted. Thwack as a last word carries such a cartoonish sadness.


Bio: Hart Vetter is a writer, photographer and green activist in Nyack, NY. He likes roaming the streets of the Hudson Rivertown for ideas and motifs with his faithful rescue Lola by his side. He just finished a second mystery thriller novel, ‘God Forbid’, and seeks a willing accomplice to help see it in print. He is also marketing his freshly plotted screenplay ‘Kill Joy’.

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