New book! As usual, I’m providing a free sample to pique your interest, but this time, I thought it would be best to drop all the sample chapters into one post. They aren’t very long and I think it reads better this way.
Curious what the books about? The description is here.
AN UNWELCOME PARTY GUEST CATCHES A GLIMPSE OF HIMSELF
Evening had fallen on Seattle, and there were a great many people going somewhere they didn’t want to go. An ER nurse with an aching back, a recent graduate about to ask his father if he could move back in, a middle-aged woman facing another evening of her boyfriend’s tedious anime and even more tedious sex—all felt the helpless resignation that comes before an unpleasant, unavoidable task.
Of those thousands of people, none were expecting a warmer welcome than the man standing at Marley Jacob’s front gate, and none were more mistaken.
Aloysius Pierce was a man of extraordinary self-regard, especially considering what he’d achieved in life. His education was marked only by his concerted effort to pass with as little effort as possible, and his law career, being run with those same priorities, had foundered. He had a knack for attracting women and then quickly driving them away, and did much the same with his professional clients. Having recently turned thirty, he considered himself a paragon of self-reliance, largely because the only people in his life were as uninterested in community and friendship as he was.
Aloysius possessed an absolute certainty that he would Make His Mark Very Soon Now. All he needed to do was win a few cases in a row, or perhaps just win the right case (his current client had become terse with him, and he could tell their relationship was about to end unhappily). Or he might be introduced to someone influential and be brought into a pivotal role on some sort of project, possibly in the high-tech industry, or filmmaking, or women’s clothing. Not that Aloysius had any expertise in those fields—or in anything, really—but he simply couldn’t imagine a future for himself that did not include great things.
And why not? He was a good-looking white man, raised in a wealthy family. At least, they’d been wealthy right up until he left for college. He could tell a joke, mix a drink, and convincingly tell a woman she lit up the room just by entering it. Why shouldn’t the world give him whatever he wanted?
He believed he was the man who could thaw the infamous Seattle Chill. He was the one who could bring back the Sonics. He was the one who could manage that thing with the monorail, whatever it was. His plans weren’t definite, but he was sure they needed to be big. Only then would he get the house, the boat, the bespoke suits from London.
If only Aloysius Pierce had realized that the life he was truly suited for was “glad-handing politician,” he might have achieved those things.
On a chilly May evening, he stood at the front gate of his Aunt Marley’s urban mansion, uncharacteristically hesitant. Behind him, the street was congested with parked Mercedes, BMWs, and Lexuses, most the color of gold or sable. Every time Aloysius looked at one, he felt as though he’d been cheated somehow.
All the windows were brightly lit, and the din of the party could be heard on the sidewalk. The revelers mingled and laughed within, not realizing a drop of rancid oil was about to land in the froth.
Aloysius couldn’t stand Aunt Marley’s parties. She knew this and he knew she knew. From the dizzying heights of his own vanity, he was certain that his willingness to endure one of his aunt’s soirees would impress upon her the gravity of the favor he intended to ask. With a sigh, he started up the front walk.
Weathers opened the door before Aloysius could ring the bell. As usual. Aloysius greeted him warmly—always be kind to servants, no matter how lowly, was his rule—but the man responded with all the human kindness of a cutlery set. Once again, as usual. Aloysius entered the house, noting with dread the sound of something that might pass for music coming from the front room.
“If you would, sir,” Weather said, gesturing toward the end of the entryway. There was a tall stock pot on a table, and beside it stood a young woman wearing nothing but colorful paint.
Aloysius blinked. Despite his imagined quick-wittedness, he needed a moment to take in what he was seeing. The woman was a short, slender blonde with her hair tied up in a frizzy ponytail. She stood with arms akimbo and her chin held high and facing away from him. What he’d first taken for green tattoos or body art turned out to be cash money. The pot on the table beside her was full of papier-mâché glue; guests had dipped bills into the glue before laying them on her. She was slowly being trapped into this pose.
Weathers shut the door firmly and went back to his duties. Not that Aloysius noticed. His body tingled and the whole of his attention was focused on the young woman and, he dimly realized, the broad-shouldered brunette beside her. He was about to ask the second woman to step outside, but before he could embarrass himself, he noticed a holstered Taser under her arm and realized she was a chaperone.
That was fine. Aloysius had operated under more difficult circumstances than this.
He reached for his wallet. He knew better than to show up at one of his aunt’s parties without a few bills, although his plan to declare his donation as a way of earning even more goodwill now seemed shaky.
He dipped a twenty into flour water. “What’s the cause of the day?”
He’d addressed the chaperone, but it was the model who answered. “We’re from the Noon Shadow Arts Collective. We’re in danger of losing our studio space, and Ms. Jacobs offered to throw us a benefit.”
Aloysius had always considered his own good looks to be something special—simultaneously manly and what he secretly thought of as elfish. But as he side-stepped into her line of sight, the model only glanced at him and looked away.
“Aunt Marley will do that, won’t she?” Aloysius let the bill drip into the pot and stirred with his finger. The mention of his relationship to their sponsor didn’t earn the spark he’d hoped for: there was no second appraisal, no fluttering eyelashes, no licking of the lips, not even a little smile. She’d seen his face, knew he had money, knew he was related to a great deal of money, and somehow she still wasn’t interested.
As though a gauze had been taken from his eyes, Aloysius suddenly realized the model was not as pretty as he’d first thought. Her brown eyes were large but not quite symmetrical, her nose slightly too long, and worst of all, she had the hard, lean strength of an endurance athlete. He didn’t like that in a woman.
She must have taken his hesitancy for shyness, because she offered him a distant but kindly smile. In return, he fell in love with her just the tiniest bit, the way he often did with cheerful women he’d decided weren’t good enough for him. He laid the twenty on the small of her back—the best parts were already covered with much larger bills—and it felt so nice that he did it twice more.
Why hadn’t his aunt told him about this? He would have been the first one at the door.
As he wiped the flour and water from his hands, the model thanked him politely. Aloysius could feel the chaperone watching, and her unfriendly expression spoiled his mood. He spun onto his heel and plunged into the party.
By his aunt’s standards, this gathering was almost sedate. The music playing over the speaker system was wholly new to him—he was sure it would turn out to be Sri Lankan trip-hop or something equally outré. By the window a pair of androgynous twins—one dressed in a tweed suit with elbow patches and the other in a diaphanous white dress—talked with an austere older woman in a boxy gray pantsuit. On the couch, a man in a black suit and wingtips was deep in animated conversation with a bodybuilder wearing nothing but a Speedo and, on his back, a modified horse’s saddle.
Each and every one of them would have been startled to discover that Aloysius felt a wave of pity and disdain for them. As he glanced at them, he imagined he could instantly spot their faults. Too much exercise or not enough. Too much money or not enough. Too fashionable. Too conservative. Like a great many unsuccessful people, Aloysius had a reflexive contempt for everyone he met.
Suddenly, all conversation stopped, and even the music hushed. A figure in a tattered black cloak and ghostly white mask glided through the room. It loomed almost eight feet tall and trailed an unearthly chill behind it: the bodybuilder shuddered as it passed. The figure floated through the open French doors onto the balcony and then beyond, the black cloak dragged across the railing like a hanging blanket. Then it disappeared into the night.
The music and conversation resumed. Aloysius scanned the room. Most of Aunt Marley’s more unusual guests were in attendance, including the silent and watchful ninety-year-old Guatemalan man with his two burly bodyguards, but she herself was nowhere to be seen. Aloysius wandered into the kitchen, onto the balcony, then into the sun room.
There he found three naked models—Aloysius knew his aunt would refer to them as “nude”—standing on platforms, each with a half-dozen easels set up in a semi-circle around them. Seven guests, all of whom could have come from the same corporate boardroom, struggled to capture the figures in charcoal.
Of course his aunt had set them up right in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows, where any of the neighbors could have seen them. He sighed, wondering if this was a sign of encroaching senility and if it was finally time to file that power of attorney for her estate.
The nearest model was a tall woman, at least fifty years old, who had a scar where her left breast should have been. The second was a small, effeminate man of about the same age. He had a bit of a belly and he’d painted his long, pointed fingernails a sparkling purple.
Beside the third model—a short, dark-haired woman who must have weighed over three hundred pounds—Aunt Marley perched on a stool, struggling to accurately depict the shape of the woman’s leg. Aloysius had no interest taking over an easel himself, and carefully pretended not to notice the donation jars set up beside the models.
“Hello, Aloysius,” his aunt said without turning to him. Aloysius thought she must have seen his reflection in the darkened window even though she’d never looked up from her canvas. “I didn’t expect to see you here. I thought you didn’t like my parties.”
“It’s not that I… I’m sorry, but…”
“It’s all right, dear. A person can have a perfectly happy life without ever attending my little events. At least, some reliable friends have told me it’s possible, so I guess I believe it. I assume you have a problem?”
“Well, I don’t have the problem, Aunt Marley. It’s someone else who needs your help, but—“ He looked around at the partygoers and disturbingly unashamed models. Their casual confidence had dented his smug disdain, and he wanted to retreat to someplace he could feel good again. “Is there anywhere more private where we could talk?”
She sighed, obviously irritated to be dragged away, and turned toward him. Aloysius was once again struck—and not in a happy way—by his aunt’s resemblance to his mother. Both had the same long, triangular face and wide brown eyes. The main difference between them was that his mother’s hair had turned dull gray and her face had gone dark and pouchy. Aunt Marley, despite being the elder sister and well into her sixties, had the silver hair and complexion of a wealthy woman of leisure. Aloysius’s mother had spent her inheritance guzzling chocolate liqueurs, wrecking Italian sports cars, and marrying worthless men. Aunt Marley, with her huge house and crazy parties, was merely eccentric.
She stood. A group of partygoers had come into the room, dragging a few of the dilettante artists from their stools. Marley went to the nearest easel, mounted with a crude charcoal of the model with the painted nails, and marred it with a long ink squiggle drawn with a pen that she took from her pocket. No one saw but Aloysius. “Very well, dear. Let’s talk in my study.”
She led him upstairs although he knew the way very well. The soft carpet muffled their steps, and the hall had been left dark to discourage wandering guests. Aunt Marley didn’t switch the lights on. The darkness made Aloysius feel a little unwelcome but he was certain—absolutely certain—his aunt would not have given that impression deliberately, no matter how it seemed.
At the office door, she waited for him to open it; it was one of her eccentricities that she never touched a doorknob.
The room was soundproofed against the music from downstairs: They might as well have been on a space station for all the noise they heard. Marley crossed to a pair of comfortable chairs and gestured for Aloysius to sit. “Would you like a cup of coffee, dear?”
He glanced at the elaborate Italian coffee machine on the table by the window. It made the best coffee he’d ever tasted, but he fought his usual impulse to indulge himself and declined.
“Thank you!” he said with the effusive display of heartfelt appreciation that was so effective at getting what he wanted from people, “but I’ll be fine. It’s quite a party you have down there. Those weird life-drawing models are a little outlandish, am I right?” He wasn’t sure why he’d said that, but it had bothered him to see them there, naked and unashamed. He certainly wouldn’t have posed naked in front of strangers, and he had a body to be proud of.
“They’re not outlandish, dear,” Marley’s tone was disapproving. “And they’re not weird. They’re the artists this party is meant to help. They’re human beings, Aloysius. They look the way human beings look.”
Aunt Marley had a way of saying things that made a person feel guilty without really understanding why. “Of course! I mean, I didn’t mean to say anything rude, honest.”
“I know you didn’t mean to be rude.” She put a bit more emphasis on the word mean that he would have liked. “What we intend is often beside the point. The artists downstairs are not on display. This isn’t an exhibit of curiosities. It’s a party. It’s a chance to meet and mingle with people outside your usual experience. To expand your horizons. Everyone’s horizons, in fact, But then, you’ve heard this little speech before.”
Few people could squeeze as much smug condescension into an apology as Aloysius. Marley took a deep breath, reminded herself that this was family, and steered the conversation back to the matter at hand. “Who is this person you want me to help?”
Aloysius took a deep breath and leaned toward her. It was time to make his case. “First, I want to say that I know there are certain things Mother told me never to discuss with you.”
“For good reason, dear.”
“But we’re past that, aren’t we?” He began talking faster so she wouldn’t interrupt. “I know you can do things for people. Unusual things. For instance, White Mask just made an appearance downstairs, and I know it’s not a party trick or a special effect. I know that, whatever White Mask is, it’s for real… and you could stop it if you wanted.”
“Why should I? She doesn’t hurt anyone.”
“Sure. Okay. But my point is that I know you have a connection to… unusual things. And that you have certain abilities.”
“You still haven’t told me about the friend you want me to help.”
She didn’t react, but he didn’t expect her to. “I hope you don’t expect me to get in the middle—“
“Oh, no, nothing like that. I know you know about me and her, and maybe you also know that she’s stopped returning my calls.”
“I guess you should stop calling her, then.”
“But she’s making a mistake! I know you can help—“
“What do you want me to do, Aloysius? Fire her?”
“No!” he said, although he secretly wondered if Jenny might be forced to come to him for help if she lost her paycheck. Not that his aunt would really do so. Aloysius lowered his voice, trying to keep a gentle tone. “Oh no, I don’t want to do anything bad to her. Not at all. You know how I feel.”
“You’ve certainly told me enough times, darling.”
He laughed at that, and brushed his hair back. “I guess I have. Okay. So. I know that you… I know you can do things to help people. Tricks.”
There was a quiet knock at the door, then Weathers let himself in. “I’m sorry to disturb your meeting, madam, but there is a bit of a row downstairs. One of the guests, a Mr. Caldwell, has discovered that the portrait he was creating has been defaced with a slash of ink, and he has accused his brother-in-law. I’m afraid they might come to blows.”
“Hmm,” Marley said. “Weathers, inform them that physical violence in my home is unacceptable, then offer to let them work out their competitive streak at the ping-pong table.”
“I will do so immediately, madam.”
“Some of the other guests will want to gamble on the outcome. Be sure to take their wagers from them.”
“… As donations.”
Weathers bowed and backed out of the room.
Marley turned back to Aloysius. He was smiling and shaking his head, but her expression was quite pleasant and quite still. “How do you want me to help you?” There was a chilly note in her voice that her nephew did not have the wit to notice.
“I don’t! I want you to help Jenny. She doesn’t realize what a good thing we could have. I have a great job and I care about her very much, and—“
“But does she care about you?”
Aloysius bit his lip. They both knew the answer to that. “That’s how you can help her,” he said. “I know you sometimes make potions for people—“
Marley started to stand but Aloysius laid a gentle hand on her forearm. He didn’t hold her down, but she let his touch kept her in place all the same. “I know,” he pressed on, “you could make a love potion for her.”
She settled back and laid her soft, wrinkled hand on Aloysius’s. “Are you quite sure you understand what you’re asking, dear?”
Aloysius began to realize that Aunt Marley did not truly appreciate the ordeals he was willing to endure to ask this request. Hadn’t he come to her party? He leaned back in his chair and laughed with the exasperated air of someone who can’t believe he has to state the obvious. “I’m asking you to make her happy!”
“With a rape spell?”
“What?” His grip tightened on her arm. “No, I don’t want… that. I want a love potion.”
Marley leaned toward him, prompting him to take his hand off her arm. “But dear, that’s what love spells and love potions are. Rape magic. I get this too often, I’m sorry to say. Someone will hear a rumor—“
“Aunt Marley… Aunt Marley, no. That’s not what I mean at all. I don’t want to force her to do anything. I just want her to let me make her happy.”
“Dear, it’s only love if she chooses you. Do you understand? What you want is to take away her ability to say no. You want her to never deny you anything again.”
Aloysius leaned back in his chair. His mouth was open and moving as though he couldn’t make the right words come out. Suddenly, being downstairs beside the naked models seemed preferable to being in this room, in this skin, having said what he’d just said. He looked at his aunt as though she’d just slapped him awake. “All I wanted…” He didn’t know how to finish that sentence.
“I know what you wanted.” Marley laid one hand on his smooth, warm cheek. Her touch was cold and ghostly. “Do you understand who you are?”
“Oh, damn.” Aloysius looked down at his trembling hands. “What is wrong with me?”
Marley leaned back in her chair, smiling with relief. “I’m glad you said that, dear. I’m glad you gave the correct response.”
It was Aloysius’s habit to ignore remarks if he did not know how to respond. “She’s not here, is she? I came at night because I thought she’d be gone.”
“She isn’t here. Shall we?
They stood. Aloysius walked to the door, strangely hyper-aware of his whole body, as though he was paying attention to it for the first time. He opened the door for them both.
The music downstairs seemed louder than before. Aloysius didn’t want to be down there with them, not again. He felt too small and fragile for crowds and loud music.
At that moment, a middle-aged woman in a scarlet pantsuit raced up the stairs to them. She wore a black eyepatch adorned with a silver skull and crossbones.
“Marley, come and see! Fred and Freddy are playing ping pong, and they’re ferocious!” She clutched at Marley’s hand.
Marley glanced at Aloysius. He waved at her. “I’ll go the back way,” he said. “It’ll be quieter. Aunt Marley, tell Jenny… I’m sorry to ask this of you, but I don’t want to talk to her myself—please tell her I won’t bother her anymore.”
“Thank you. I’ll call you.”
* * *
Marley let herself be led away, feeling unexpectedly light-hearted.
The scarlet pirate was quite correct: the two men battling at ping pong in the play room were grim and furious, and they played a hard, fast game. Marley asked Weathers for a special bottle out of her private collection and gave each contestant a glass during a break in the game. “For refreshment.”
It was a potion, of course, but not a love potion. The effect was quite mild: their physical exertions became pleasurable, and by the end of the match the men were laughing together over a close game well-played. Their wives stared at them with wet, shining eyes; It seemed that the end of their long feud had finally come and both women were on the verge of tears at the prospect.
As the crowd cheered the final point, Marley wandered without purpose—as she often liked to do—to the window. She saw Aloysius standing beside the sundial in her rose garden, absentmindedly stroking it with one hand. He must have been standing out in the chill for quite a while, thinking.
As she watched, he seemed to come to some sort of decision and stalked off along the path toward the front of the house.
She never saw her nephew alive again.
BREAKING FAST IN THE USUAL WAY
Marley had her breakfast a little later than usual the next morning. Weathers prepared a bowl of milk-cooked steel-cut oats with a sunny-side egg laid gently over the top; the egg white was perfectly circular, and the trembling yolk lay in the exact geometric center. There were four thin, curled shavings of Italian parmesan near the edge of the bowl at the cardinal points, with the largest at North and each shaving at West, South and East slightly smaller.
With Weathers, everything was done widdershins and everything was done perfectly.
Marley lifted her spoon then set it down again. “Oh, Weathers, it’s lovely! It seems a shame to subject it to something as mundane and destructive as eating.”
“Thank you, madam.” Weathers inclined his head by the barest degree. “However, I must point out that the cook’s art is wasted if it is not consumed. Eating is not destruction; it is culmination.” He turned toward the back of the house. “Ms. Wu has arrived.”
“Oh, good. While I play my meager role in your artistry, she can walk the dog.”
When Marley finished, she carried the bowl and spoon to the kitchen. Weathers stood at the cutting board, peeling cloves of garlic. He’d spent the entire night cleaning and it would have been cruel to leave yet another mess for him, even though he would never complain.
Beside him, leaning against the granite countertop, stood Albert. He held a little plastic cup of yogurt in his damaged right hand and peeled off the top with a little grimace of pain. He was Aloysius’s half-brother, younger by a dozen years, and he also had their mother’s pointed chin and sandy hair. But where Aloysius’s hair was limp and floppy, Albert’s was short and unruly, and where Aloysius was short and slender, Albert stood six-foot-four and had the build of a linebacker.
Marley set her bowl in the sink and smoothed the lapel of Albert’s sport jacket. “Good morning, dear. Another interview today? On a Sunday?”
“And on the seventh day, he bussed tables,” Albert said. “Good morning, Aunt Marley. I think this one will go much better.”
“Of course it will. I have every confidence in you.”
“Afterwards, I have physical therapy at the VA, so I’ll be back late.” He raised his right hand and flexed the thumb, ring finger and pinkie. They nearly closed into a fist. Well, half a fist.
“I’ll make sure Weathers leaves you something in the fridge. But I wish you had come downstairs for my party last night. You might have found something amusing.”
“I’m sorry. I wasn’t up for talking to strangers about…. Next time.”
“That would be wonderful. Would you mind, please?” Albert set down the yogurt and opened the back door for her. She thanked him and went outside.
It was a chilly morning for May in Seattle. The cloying humidity of the night before had given way to a faint blowing mist, and the air held a creeping rawness. Jenny Wu stood by the gazebo, leash in one hand and scooper in the other. Marley’s dog snuffled around the edge of the shrubbery, looking for a place she had not already marked as her own.
Once that was cleaned up, Jenny approached the house, looking warily at each window and along the path. Her shoulders were almost touching her ears and she took each step as though she thought a trap door might open beneath her.
“Aloysius isn’t here,” Marley said. “He’s asked me to tell you he won’t be bothering you anymore.”
“Oh!” Jenny was startled, then a little nervous. “Did you…”
“Did I talk to him? Well, yes, but not the way that makes it sound. Mainly I listened to him, and he listened to himself, too, for the first time in a long while.”
Being the sort of person who crossed a room to look out a window whenever someone told her it’s raining, Jenny glanced from one side of the house to the other. Then she sighed. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. I wish you had come to my party last night, Jenny. I don’t invite you out of politeness, you know! I think you would have had fun and met some interesting people.”
“I’m sorry, Ms. Jacobs, but sometimes your parties are a little too interesting for me. Besides, I was afraid you-know-who would be there.”
“Hm. You have a point, dear. He did drop by for that conversation, after all. Still we’re not going to pretend it’s the first of my parties that you’ve avoided, I hope. I invite you for a reason.” Marley took a deep breath and looked around. “I love this time of year, don’t you? A brisk wet chill makes me feel so alive! And it makes me appreciate the comforts of the house all the more. Still, it’ll be nice to lunch together in the gazebo this summer.”
An odd look came over Jenny’s face as she opened the kitchen door. After Marley entered, she shooed the dog into his play room, hung the leash by the door and finally noticed Albert. She made a small surprised sound and leaned back to look up at him.
“How’s it going?” she asked.
“You must be the visiting nephew I’ve heard so much about. I’m Jenny.” She took a tiny, tentative step forward and raised her hand, stiff-armed, like the minute hand of a clock.
Albert slid away from the counter and crossed the room to shake her hand. “I’m Al Smalls.” They didn’t break eye contact.
Acting as though he was all alone in the room, Weathers was deboning chicken breasts and placing them in a bowl of salted water. Marley crossed to him and touched his elbow. He glanced at her, then turned his flat, somber gaze toward Albert and Jenny.
“That’s some tie you have there,” Jenny said, sounding a little nervous and awkward. “The knot is perfect.”
“It’s a clip-on.”
“No, I’m kidding.”
She laughed suddenly, like the bark of a seal, then covered her mouth with her hand. “Damn, you made me do my embarrassing laugh.”
For the first time since he’d come to visit, Albert smiled. “You shouldn’t be embarrassed. I liked it. I’d like to hear it again.”
Jenny flushed a little. “Well, maybe we can arrange that.”
“I’ll even wear a clip-on tie.”
Glancing at the top of his head, Jenny looked ready to run her fingers through his hair. “And maybe we can arrange a haircut for you. A clip-on tie needs a flat top, or—“
But Albert had already turned away from her, his smile gone. He dropped his spoon into the sink with a jarring clatter. “I have to get to that interview.” He didn’t look at anyone as he went out the door.
Jenny’s face was still flushed, but she looked confused as well.
Weathers turned to Marley, and there was the slightest hint of satisfaction and curiosity in his expression. For Weathers, that counted as uncontrolled ebullience. “Madam, thank you.” He turned his attention to his cutting board again.
Marley glided over to Jenny and put her arm around the girl’s shoulders. “Not to worry, dear. Not to worry.”
“I always say the dorkiest thing.”
“We all make unfortunate remarks, Jenny dear, and we often don’t know it was the wrong thing until it’s too late.”
Marley’s bright blue spring rain coat hung by the door like a stooping servant awaiting a command. In the car port, Jenny let her employer into the back seat of the Town Car before getting behind the wheel.
They went first to the athletic club for Marley’s morning yoga class and Jacuzzi. After that they had lunch, attended a talk on irrigation technologies in developing countries at the downtown library, visited the nearly deserted site of a preschool Marley was having remodeled, took a casual browse of a bookstore that only Jenny knew she owned, and finally indulged in a quick but fruitless tour of an antique store.
In all, a perfectly ordinary Sunday. Marley rode in the back of the Town Car. Jenny drove. Sometimes they chatted amiably. Sometimes Marley read a magazine or stared out the window. Jenny carried the umbrella—bright red today, Jenny had given up hoping for a sensible black one—and opened every door. Marley’s hand never fell on a knob or latch.
When they returned to the house, they sat together in the dining room under the glowing chandelier, with Marley at the head of the table. Weathers served them chicken soup with mushroom ravioli, salad, and a small crusty roll on the side. When Jenny had been hired four years earlier, they would talk over their meal, but over time Marley had grown less interested, and now they sat in companionable silence.
At least, right up to the moment Marley laid down her spoon and said “Well?”
Jenny glanced up at her, surprised. “Well what?”
“There’s something you’ve been dying to tell me all day. Are you going to let it out, dear, or are you going to burst?”
Jenny picked up her roll as though she might delay the rest of the conversation with a sizable bite, but she set it back down untouched. “Is it that obvious? Okay. There’s really no easy way to say this, so I’m just going to blurt it out. I’m going to graduate school in the fall.”
Marley clasped her hands under her chin. “Well that’s wonderful, dear! Truly wonderful! Do you need a letter or something? I’ve always heard schools need letters. Oh! I know an amazing woman who runs a program in the mountains outside of Santa Fe. She’s a one hundred percent original thinker and it would be quite educational! You’d be out in nature, working toward your degree, and you wouldn’t have to wear a stitch for weeks and weeks. You aren’t planning to study snakes, by any chance?”
Jenny’s eyes were wide and her lips pursed. “Entertainment Technology, actually. I’ve already been accepted at Carnegie Mellon.”
“Oh. Isn’t that in Pittsburgh? Well, I’m sure they have a good program and I guess the rest can’t be helped. But you should have told me ages ago, dear. I could have been a help. I’m sure I know someone who could have given you an in.”
“I know, Ms. Jacobs. That’s why I didn’t tell you. I wanted to do it on my own.”
“Oh, of course!” Marley jumped out of her chair. Jenny stood, too, and they embraced. “I’m so excited for you!”
They parted. Marley noticed Weathers standing in the doorway watching them. “Weathers! Good news! Jenny has just given her notice! How much longer will you be with us, dear?”
“Until the end of July, I think.”
“Oh we still have weeks together! Good! That will give us plenty of time to sort out the money.”
“You don’t have to—“
“Now dear,” Marley took Jenny’s arm in hers, pinning her close. “You wouldn’t let me help you get into college, but you will certainly let me help you attend. My mind is made up! Don’t argue, you’ll only hurt my feelings.”
“Okay, I guess.” Jenny was a little relieved and a little overwhelmed. “I’m going to miss you, though.”
Marley hugged her again. “I’m going to miss you, too, dear, but I knew you’d be moving on someday. And it’s good.”
Jenny broke the embrace. There were tears in her eyes. “I need to walk the dog again, and… I’ll see you tomorrow morning.”
Marley squeezed her hand and let her go. Jenny hurried to the kitchen with Weathers close behind. “Oh, look,” Marley said. “I didn’t let her finish her soup. Ah, it doesn’t matter. Who can eat?”
She bustled into the library and settled in behind her oak roll top desk. First she looked up Carnegie Mellon on her computer to confirm it was in Pittsburgh. That done, she pored over her paper and electronic contact lists. Surely she knew someone in the area. Jenny had worked for her for four years, and letting her move to a new state without making a few calls was out of the question. The girl needed protection.
* * *
The next morning, Marley asked Weathers to prepare something simple for breakfast. He brought her toast with strawberry jam and coffee. As she forced herself to sip and nibble, Albert walked in. He wore the same jacket and tie as the day before.
“Another interview, dear?”
He looked embarrassed. “I think I’ll do better today.” He ran his good left hand through his unruly hair.
But Marley barely heard him. “Albert, dear, would you do me a favor? There’s a Cheval standing mirror in my office, nearly as tall as you, oval, with a walnut frame. Would you bring it out here, to the dining room?”
Albert was surprised by how much it weighed, but he was quickly learning that rich people liked owning dense, heavy things. Having only the smaller two fingers of his right hand made the mirror difficult to carry, but he arranged it just the way Marley asked. When he was finished, she could stand in the doorway to the library and see into the foyer.
“Wonderful. Now please go down to the basement and get me the fishing line off the shelf by the stairs.”
“Fishing line?” Albert said and, receiving no response, fetched it for her. She was letting him live in her house and eat from her pantry; indulging her eccentricities without question was the least he could do in return.
“Thank you,” she said as she took it from him. “Weathers?” He stood in the kitchen doorway, awaiting her instructions. She held out a deadbolt key for him. “Go upstairs and move the Scribe computer down to the library, please.”
As always, Weather’s somber face was inscrutable, but this was the first time Albert had ever seen him hesitate. “Of course, madam,” he said, and went to the stairs.
Albert followed Marley into the sitting room. She got down on her knees and tied the fishing line to a chair leg at ankle height. She then strung the line across the floor and tied the other end to the couch leg. She plucked it and it twanged.
“Um, Aunt Marley, is today Booby Trap Day?”
She stood and examined her handiwork. “You have to keep your eyes open if you’re going to live here.” Weathers strode around the corner with a Macbook in his hand. He stepped over the line without even glancing down. “Like Weathers.”
Albert had grown used to a casual joyfulness from his aunt, but right now he could detect none. In fact, she sounded almost nervous. “Are you all right?”
She went to the dining room and sat in her usual chair. “All morning I’ve had the strangest feeling. Someone is coming, dear, and I’m not going to like it.”
Weathers came back into the room. “Detective Lonagan has arrived.”
GOOD FRIENDS SHARE BAD NEWS
“This time I’ll meet him at the door, Weathers, not in the library.” Weathers nodded and started toward the front of the house.
Marley grabbed Albert’s undamaged hand and pulled him toward the front of the house. They carefully stepped over the fishing line. “Weathers, has Jenny walked the dog?”
“No, madam,” Weathers answered. “Ms. Wu has not yet arrived.” Then he opened the door.
Detective Charles Lonagan was a homicide detective for the Seattle Police Department. He was a few years younger than Marley, having celebrated his sixtieth birthday only two weeks earlier, but he looked older. His thinning hair was stark white and his wrinkled, sagging skin gave his face a grouchy, morose look that didn’t match his personality. He sometimes consulted with Marley on odd cases—he was one of the few people in Seattle who understood what she did and why—but today was not one of those days.
His longtime partner, Detective Sharon Garcia, entered with him. She was about five foot five with broad shoulders and muscular arms. In her twenties, she’d been what would be politely called curvaceous. Three children and two decades later, she had added forty pounds around her middle and seemed much more comfortable with herself. Garcia knew her partner had a relationship of some kind with Marley, but since no one had ever explained who Marley was or what she did, that relationship was a mystery. Garcia hated mysteries. As far as she was concerned, whenever anyone withheld anything from her—ever—they were up to no good.
“Hello, Ms. Jacobs,” Lonagan said. He liked a little formality. “May we come in?”
“Of course,” Marley answered. Weathers had already returned to the kitchen. Whatever was going to happen here, it held no interest for him. “Please come in. And hello to you, too, Detective Garcia. I’m sorry I don’t see you more often. Let’s talk here in the foyer instead of the library. I don’t think you’ve come bearing good news, not if you’ve brought your partner and that expression.”
“It’s true. I’m afraid that this time I have some bad news.”
“Oh, no. It’s Jenny, isn’t it?”
Garcia’s eyes narrowed. “What makes you say that?”
“She was supposed to be here half an hour ago. Has something happened to her?”
“She’s being held for questioning,” Lonagan said, “for the murder of your nephew, Aloysius Pierce.”
Marley clasped Albert’s hand. She did not exclaim, cry, or break down. She only closed her eyes and became very still for ten seconds. When she looked at Lonagan again, Albert and the police detectives both thought she seemed smaller than before. “I suppose you need me to identify his body?”
“No, the medical examiner will take care of that.”
“Charles, I insist on seeing him. I won’t believe it’s really him until I do.”
“Oh. Well, of course. After the autopsy, the medical examiner will release the body to a funeral home of your choice. Probably by tomorrow morning. You’ll be able to view the body there. For right now, we’d like you to come down to the station to answer a few questions.”
“Of course. I’ll be happy to help in any way I can.”
Albert looked from the detectives to his aunt to Weathers and back at the detectives. Everything he knew about police work came from television, but he was still young enough to think himself well-informed. “Can’t she answer questions here? Unless you’re planning to charge her…”
Garcia spoke up sharply. “We aren’t planning to charge her at this time.” In truth, she and Lonagan believed witnesses were more helpful if they could be questioned someplace where they didn’t feel comfortable. “However, that’s where our equipment is. Doing the interview at the station makes it easier to catch the guilty party.”
“It’s all right,” Marley said. “I prefer it, too.”
“Excuse me,” Lonagan said, addressing Albert, “but we haven’t been introduced.”
“Oh! I’m sorry,” Marley exclaimed. “My manners. This is Albert, my nephew.”
Feeling vaguely as though he was admitting to something he shouldn’t, Albert said, “Aloysius was my older brother. I assume you’ll want to talk to me, too.”
“Thank you for agreeing to come downtown with us,” Lonagan said.
Marley laid her hand on her throat. “Er, Charles, you don’t really think Jenny…”
“I think of us as friends, Ms. Jacobs.” Lonagan’s expression made him look annoyed, but his voice was as calm and soothing as a funeral director’s.
“So do I.”
“Well, I hope you understand that I won’t be able to answer any of your questions right now. I wanted to give you the news in person, because we’ve known each other for so long, but—“
“That’s all right,” Marley said. “We should start. There’s so much to do.”
Albert agreed to drive her, so she asked him to walk the dog, too. Ten minutes later, after Marley had changed into a cashmere turtleneck, a cotton sport jacket, and a long cotton skirt, all in black, they went to their cars and drove downtown.
“It doesn’t feel right,” Albert said.
Marley was searching through her cell for a number. “What doesn’t, dear?”
“Me following a police car. It should be the other way around, shouldn’t it? I feel like the universe has been reversed.”
Marley pressed the phone to her ear. “I know just what you mean, dear. Hello, Frederika. Marley Jacobs here. I have some work for you, I’m afraid to say. Call me when you get this message.”
After she hung up, Albert drove in silence for a while. He stared at Marley’s reflection in the rear-view mirror, correctly reading her expression as a mixture of worry and guilt.
“I didn’t like him.”
Marley glanced up, startled. “What was that, dear?”
“Aloysius. I didn’t like him.” Albert knew his aunt felt the same way, and he hoped it would be easier for her if she knew her feelings were shared.
The look she gave him was still full of worry, but she no longer looked guilty. She looked deeply sad. “No one did, once they got to know him.”
The visit to the police station to give their statements took up the whole rest of the day. When had they last seen Aloysius? Were they close? How well did Albert know Jenny Wu? Had he ever driven her car? Was he in Marley’s will? Was Aloysius?
As for Marley herself, during a quiet moment she went across James Street to the King County Correctional Facility. There was a scanner at the front door, an ID check, and limited visiting hours, but Marley, being who she was, knew a trick to get around that. Marley knew quite a few surprising tricks.
The block where she found Jenny was much nicer than what Marley remembered from her own arrests, long ago. There was a large common area, lit by garish but well-shielded fluorescent lights. The walls, doors, and door jambs were brown, yellow and red, like an extremely mellow fast food restaurant. Around the edge of the common area were the cells, and all their doors stood open. A mezzanine added a second floor and a place to look down on the common area.
Jenny was still inside her cell, sitting on the end of her bed. Marley sat beside her, startling her profoundly. “I thought this place would be more crowded.”
“Oh! Ms. Jacobs!” She glanced around in a panic, wondering how she could keep herself safe if even her elderly employer could sneak up on her. “How did you get in here?”
“I am a lawyer, dear,” Marley non-answered.
Marley tugged at Jenny’s orange, government-issued sleeve. “Tell me how you got into this mess.”
“I wish I knew! I didn’t kill him. I hope you know that.”
“I’m glad to hear it. Don’t worry. I believe you. What happened after you left my house last night?”
Jenny took a deep breath to compose herself. “I went straight home and made dinner. I made that carrot salad thing I learned from your Miss Harriet. At about nine, my roommate Cissy came home with her boyfriend. I never told you this, but they fight all the time, just arguing and saying awful things to each other. Then, after about two or three hours of this, they…” she glanced over at Marley, unsure how to continue. “They make up. That’s even louder than the arguing, if you can believe it. I swear, I can’t even live there anymore.
“So I went out. First to the 15th Street, but there was some kind of poetry reading that was completely ugh. So I went to the Purple Dot and ate dim sum really slowly. I stayed until after midnight, when I figured Cissy would be finished with her little routine, then went home to bed. The cops woke me up this morning and put me in handcuffs. I guess they searched Al’s phone and found the texts he’s been sending me… and the Facebook PMs.” Jenny sighed. “And the rest.”
“Have they checked out your alibi?”
“I don’t know. I try to pay cash at those places because it’s better for the wait staff. It was pretty crowded, and the only people I talked to were some tourists. Besides…”
Marley waited for her to continue. Jenny wiped tears from her eyes. “I’ve already packed a couple of bags for school. I’ve been so excited to go, but when the detective saw them stacked in the corner… I’m sorry, Ms. Jacobs. I didn’t like Aloysius, but I know he was your family and no matter what I wouldn’t want anything to happen to someone you care about.”
“Thank you, Jenny. As a lawyer, I’m afraid I can’t represent you. I just realized I might need to be called as a witness.”
Jenny let out her bark of a laugh, then wiped her cheeks. “You just realized that, did you?”
Marley’s phone began to play Billie Holiday’s “Nice Work If You Can Get It” and she held it to her ear. “Hello, Frederika. I’m just fine, dear, how are you? Wonderful. I’m calling with some trouble, of course, please pretend to be surprised. This time it’s my assistant, Jenny Wu. She’s at King County Correctional Facility with a murder charge hanging over her. Yes, quite serious, but I think it will be resolved quickly in her favor. Do you have time to look into it today? Wonderful. Let’s talk about the details tonight.” She hung up.
A hulking woman nearly as tall as Albert shuffled into the doorway. Her mismatched eyes bulged and her frizzy hair stuck out in all directions. “Hey ma’am,” she said in a high, strained voice, “can I borrow your phone?”
“Why of course, dear.” Marley handed it over. “Be sure to return it when you’re done.”
The huge woman gave Marley an empty look. “Oh, I definitely will.” She shuffled off.
Jenny watched her go. “Good luck getting that back in one piece.”
“What do you mean?” Marley slipped her hand into her coat pocket, pulled out her cell phone, then put it back.
“Oh, God, I wish you could do that with me.” Jenny curled up, wrapping her arms around her knees and shivering. She looked at the stainless steel toilet in the corner. “I don’t think I can do this, Ms. Jacobs. I’ve only been here a few hours, but I don’t think I can stand it. I can’t spend the rest of my life in prison, I just can’t.”
Marley took Jenny’s hand in hers. “Don’t worry, dear. I have a very sharp lawyer who will help us sort this out, and you’ll get your life back. I promise.”
“I want that. I want my life back, please. Thank you for coming to visit me.”
“I don’t know what you mean, dear. I’m not even here. See?”
Marley glanced toward the doorway. Jenny peered out into the common area, trying to see what Marley wanted to show her. When she turned back Marley had vanished.
* * *
Back at police headquarters, Detective Lonagan took a break from interviewing Albert and went into the waiting area to check on Marley. There followed a slight kerfuffle when he saw her casually reading through a copy of the General Offense Report and the patrol officer’s Statement on Aloysius’s murder, along with printouts of the crime scene photos. Lonagan and Garcia both tried to figure out who had given her a copy—the Photographic Media Envelope had not even been opened yet—but they couldn’t. They pushed as far as they could without making an incident out of it, then let it drop.
Marley insisted, in perfect innocence, that she saw them sitting on a chair, recognized her nephew’s name, and picked them up. She apologized with all apparent sincerity when she returned the file and Lonagan, at least, seemed ready to believe that she had not bribed anyone for it.
Eventually, the questions had all been answered and the statements taken. Business cards were exchanged, and Albert and Marley were asked to contact Det. Lonagan if they thought of anything else that might be important.
In the SeaPark Garage outside, Detective Garcia was waiting for them beside Marley’s Town Car. “Ms. Jacobs, I know my partner likes you. You two have history, and he’s consulted with you on certain cases over the years, although God only knows why. So for his sake, I’m going to warn you not to hold anything back from him. Not only would it be bad for you, which I don’t particularly care about, but it will look bad for him. He deserves better.” She looked directly at Albert. “Do you understand what I’m saying?”
Marley nodded. “I understand. I would never betray your partner’s trust, believe me. I think much too highly of him for that.”
“Good,” Detective Garcia said through clenched teeth. “Because if I find out you’ve held back so much as a middle initial of someone’s name, I’m going to come to your house and cuff you both in front of all your high-society friends. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“Well, I’d better get myself an interesting hat,” Albert said.
Garcia turned her full attention on him, momentarily nonplussed. “Excuse me?” The man didn’t look like a crazy, but…
“I’ll need an interesting hat to wear, for when you arrest my aunt in front of her friends. Maybe I’ll go with a Carmen Miranda thing; Aunt Marley, you might want to consider a propeller beanie, right? Because if you’re going to arrest us in front of her friends, with all their camera phones, for the crime of spending all day trying to help you catch my brother’s killer, I’ll want attractive and unique headwear. For the video.”
Garcia folded her arms. “Is that right.”
“Right,” he added. “Then who’ll look like a fool?”
The detective stared at Albert for a moment, trying to decide if making him come back into the station would soothe her annoyance, but she knew it wouldn’t. All it would do is waste more of everyone’s time. “Get out of here.”
Smiling, Marley approached the car. Albert let her into the backseat, and they left.
They arrived home at dinnertime. Miss Harriet had decided to work in the kitchen that day, and they enjoyed peerless Normandy Chicken with brine-boiled potatoes. Albert sat in Jenny’s usual place. Afterward, Marley offered to call Aloysius’s mother down in California to give her the bad news, but Albert said he wanted to do it himself. He went to his room to make the call, where he stayed behind closed doors for over an hour. That gave Marley plenty of time to check in with Frederika and to carefully examine the extra copies of the General Offense Report, Officer’s Statement, and crime scene photos, which had somehow managed to make its way into the Town Car.
Albert returned to the library looking shaken. Marley waved him toward an over-stuffed chair beside her desk. “Are you all right, dear? How did she take it?”
“With scotch.” He held up his left hand. It was trembling slightly. He clenched his fist and pressed it against his leg. “And songs. Sad, sad songs.”
“Oh no. I hope it wasn’t ‘Danny Boy?’ ”
“Danny Boy was just the start. I hung up on her during the second verse of ‘Puff the Magic Dragon.’ ”
“Even I tear up at the end of that one.” Marley sighed. “When Daddy died, your mother insisted on a turn at the podium during the funeral. I tried to discourage her, but the rest of the family thought it only fair that she say a few words. What they got instead was a full-throated a cappella version of ‘In Dreams.’ Maybe it wasn’t entirely appropriate, considering the occasion, but her voice always did favor Roy Orbison.”
“Yeah,” Albert agreed, sinking into a funk, “after she’d had a couple of drinks to loosed up her vocal cords.”
Marley knew it was time to change the subject. “One thing, though, Albert. I just have to know: Why did you say what you said to Detective Garcia? About ‘attractive and unique headwear’?”
He shrugged. “To be random. To break her rhythm and annoy her a little without being rude. She seems basically okay—and I do want her to find Aloysius’s killer, but I had just done everything I could to cooperate and she was still standing on our necks. That wasn’t cool. Anyway, she comes across like a straight charger, and few things slow down that sort like the unexpected.”
Marley smiled. “It’s been a long day, hasn’t it?” Albert let out a long breath as he nodded in agreement. “Well, it will be longer still. Let’s get to the car.”
Albert looked mildly surprised and, before he could stand, Marley was already out of her chair and through the open doorway, heading for the car port. He hurried after her, opened the back passenger door for her, then got behind the wheel. The sun had gone down. “Where are we headed?”
“Goodness!” Marley answered. “I forgot you don’t know. We’ll be visiting Shady Lawns. Of course Jenny knows where it is, but you aren’t her, are you?”
“I’m the one with short hair.”
Marley typed something into her phone, and the dashboard GPS came to life. Albert followed the directions to a small building on the northwest slope of Queen Anne hill, tucked between rows of apartment buildings and the SPU campus.
“Pull into the spot marked ‘Director,’ darling.”
He did. “Won’t the director be angry?”
“Let’s hope not.”
He got out and opened the door for her. Together they went to the front of the building. Marley swiped a security card through a reader and a light above the door handle turned green. Albert opened it and they went inside.
The walls had been painted an institutional white, and the vase on the end table was filled with plastic flowers. The older woman with the angry scowl and strangler’s hands greeted them in the hall with a curt nod. She wore an old-fashioned collared nurse’s blouse and hat, but her shoes were black rubber clogs.
Albert stopped just inside the doorway, suddenly unable to go further.
Marley turned toward him. Her expression was strange; she searched his face as though looking for a sign of something important, but he couldn’t imagine what it could be. “Are you all right, dear?”
“Mother spent six months in a place like this once. To sober up. I visited her, once. I must have been six or seven.”
“I didn’t know. Was it awful?”
“It was like there was a huge machine,” he said, “just on the other side of the carpet and wallpaper. Like it was beaming a normal person’s thoughts into everyone’s head, hoping they’d push out what was already there. That’s how it seemed, anyway. I was just a kid.”
“Some situations are extremely difficult for people with a lot of imagination, especially when they’re young. However, there’s no one here who needs to get sober, I promise; this is a place for people who can’t get along in the modern world. Besides, you already know my opinion of the way supposedly normal people think. Come along.”
His skin tingling, Albert followed Marley down a hallway. They moved by open, empty offices to the entrance of a large common room. The furniture was chrome and leather, and the north wall was all storm glass. It could have offered a lovely terrestrial view of Fremont and Ballard, except the windows were so heavily tinted that only faint gray lights were visible through it. Marley stood silently in the doorway and followed her lead.
At the far end of the room, a woman in an angora sweater and poodle skirt lounged on a couch, flipping through a copy of Vogue. Albert gaped at her. He had expected an elderly person—maybe in a wheelchair—but she couldn’t have been older than nineteen and she was so incredibly beautiful it took his breath away. She had huge blue eyes, blonde hair pulled back in a pony tail, and the long, graceful limbs of a dancer.
“What is this supposed to be?” she said as she flipped through the magazine. “Because it’s not fashion. It’s practically pornography!”
“Don’t knock pornography, Betty,” a man said as he entered. His long dark hair was carelessly parted in the middle, hanging partway in his face like Jim Morrison. He wore a Nehru jacket and pointy-toed boots with heels, and he was just as gorgeous as the woman in his own way—tall and slender, with wide eyes and mouth and perfect pale skin. “It’s very freeing to be comfortable with our bodies and what they can do.”
In response, Betty turned the magazine toward him. “Is this what you mean, Neil?”
Neil grimaced at the page she showed him. “Aw, whoa. That’s not natural.”
“Of course it isn’t.” A third man entered the room. He looked older than the other two—maybe twenty-five years old—and he wore a double-breasted blue suit with a gray and yellow tie. With wingtips, of all things. His hair was combed straight back and he, of the three of them, was the most tall, slender, pale and beautiful.
“Nothing is natural nowadays,” he continued. “Do you see the way they wear their pants? All hanging down with their underwear showing! In my day, we wore belts! Or suspenders!”
“You’re right, Clive.” Betty said. “What’s so awful about a belt?”
Neil shook his shaggy head. “It’s the music that bothers me.”
Neil continued his complaint. “In my day, man, the music was about something. The music kids listen to now…”
Clive broke in: “It’s a bunch of noise!”
Betty shook her head. “I don’t even understand the lyrics.”
The scowling nurse came around the corner with a dark-skinned woman who was no more than four and a half feet tall. She wore a charcoal pantsuit, coke-bottle glasses and running shoes. Her graying hair partly covered her bindi.
“Hello, Naima,” Marley said. Everyone startled at the sound of her voice.
“Marley, always a pleasure.” Naima had a faint British accent. “Let’s talk in my office.” She bustled down the hall toward one of the open office doors.
The three tall slender people stood out of their chairs with startling speed. They appeared to be a little nervous, as though Marley might punish them for bad manners. “It’s so good to see you, Miss Jacobs,” Clive said.
“Hello, darlings,” Marley called to them. “Everything well, I trust? How was the museum?”
“Wonderful!” Betty said. The others nodded in agreement. “Miss Jacobs, would you like to come to our picnic on Thursday?”
“Yes!” Neil said. “We’d love to have you.”
“Oh, darlings, I don’t know. Something serious has come up. Maybe next time?”
The three of them agreed that next time would be fine. Marley thanked them for understanding, then led Albert toward down the hall.
Albert was sure something odd was going on, but he couldn’t quite get his mind around it. In a low voice, he asked: “Who are those people?”
“You tell me, dear.” She stepped into Naima’s office.
“Please sit,” Naima told them as she closed the door. They did. “I hope you’re visiting because you’re impressed by the budget reports I’ve been submitting.”
“If I did that, I’d be here every day. No, I’m afraid there’s been trouble.”
“Like summer 2007?”
“Oh yes. Last night a man had his throat cut. His body was found on the Burke-Gilman trail, just under the Aurora Bridge, lying over a storm drain.”
Naima took off her glasses and cleaned them. “And you suspect that not all that blood drained into the canal.”
“This facility has been secure, but I’ll check with the staff anyway, just to be sure.”
“Naima, the victim was my nephew.”
Naima was so startled she dropped her glasses onto the desk, then scrambled to put them back on. “Oh! Oh, no.”
Marley was brisk and businesslike. “Oh no, indeed. We’re going to be moving quickly on this.”
Naima pulled her phone close. “I see. No time to flirt with the beefcake, then. Let me make some calls.”
“I’ll let you get started.” Marley checked her watch and stood. “Excuse us.”
Albert opened the office door for her then followed her through the common room down a flight of stairs. The three guests watched Marley—and him—with strangely tense expressions. Clearly, they were charity cases of some kind, afraid of something Marley might do if she were displeased. Evict them? Albert couldn’t imagine.
There was a kitchen on the bottom floor, a walk-in fridge and a door leading to a small loading dock. They went into the alley.
A cargo van was parked beside the dock, and a large woman in white coveralls was unlocking and opening the back. She stood over six feet tall, weighed nearly three hundred pounds, and moved like John Wayne. When she saw Marley, she raised both arms in the air in greeting. “Hola, Marley!”
“Hello, Libertad. How is your knee?”
“My knee is just fine now. I am kicking asses one hundred percent.”
“Wonderful! Albert, be a dear and handle Libertad’s delivery, would you? I need to bend her ear and her schedule is tight.”
Albert shrugged, hopped down to the ground, and lifted the hand truck onto the dock. Libertad patted two Styrofoam coolers and said “Straight into the walk-in. And wear this.” From her pocket, she took an old pouch on a braided leather cord and tried to hang it around Albert’s neck.
“Whoa!” He backed away from her, his nose wrinkling. “What is in that thing and how long has it been dead?”
“This holds necessary things,” Libertad said. “You must wear it for your health.”
“Thanks, but I’ll have a salad later instead.” Albert lifted the coolers onto the loading dock, then set the hand truck under them. “Back in a few.” He started toward the door.
Alarmed, Libertad looked to Marley, who waved him off with a placid smile. “Hope so.”
Once he was inside, Marley took Libertad’s hands and helped her onto the dock. They embraced. “I don’t see enough of you, my friend.”
Libertad nodded in return. “You have so much to do. I understand. And now you have some new problem, I suspect?”
“Yes, dear. I’m afraid so. Has your grandmother heard anything recently? Any new, beautiful, young faces at the Bingo hall?”
“No, Marley, not for months.”
Something about the way she answered prompted Marley to move close. “Has anyone come to you about your special deliveries? Has anyone tried to buy from you?”
“Not from me, no, but I got a call today from a man named Sylvester. He works for PSBC and, while they were at Fatima Church Hall yesterday, a man offered him five hundred dollars for three pints, half then and half on delivery. The man gave Sylvester the money and an address, then told him to make the delivery at 10:30 that night.”
“Yes. Sylvester, he was stupid enough to make the deal, but not so stupid that he kept it. He dropped off the pints at seven, shortly before dark, and decided he did not need the rest of the money too badly. He called me today because he said someone is watching his house.”
“May I have his address, dear?” They took out their phones and Libertad transferred the information. “Thank you so much. We really must have dinner together again. It’s been too long.”
“Yes, but at my place,” Libertad said with emphasis. “Isabeau wants to cook for you this time.”
Marley smiled and clasped her hands. “Of course, dear. Now let’s see what has become of my nephew.”
Libertad opened the door to the darkened hallway. They heard low voices, like the murmur of lovers.
Marley put her hands into her pockets and went into the hall. Albert and Betty stood in the corner by the open refrigerator door, close enough to kiss. Albert leaned against the wall, his expression blissful and vacant. Betty laid her hand on his chest and moved her face near his cheek. She whispered something that made him sigh. With her other hand, she pulled her shawl closed.
“Hello, Betty, dear. You know you’re not supposed to do that.”
Betty brushed her lips against Albert’s jaw. “I’m tired of drinking from plastic. I want the feel of a man on my lips.”
At a gesture from Marley, Libertad took her hand truck and retreated to the van. “You can drink from a man if you want, dear. You just can’t do it here, in my city.”
“Or what?” Betty turned away from her victim and hunched her shoulders like a cat about to pounce. Albert stared vaguely at the ceiling. “You won’t do anything. You never do anything!”
Marley was still smiling, but her face was downturned and her expression wolfish. “Would you like to guess what I have in my pocket?”
A YOUNG MAN DISCOVERS A LARGER WORLD
“Lint?” Betty said, her tone challenging and a little unsure. “Nothing?”
“It’s a little beam of sunshine, dear. Shall I take it out and show you?”
Like a swarm of startled moths, Betty’s confidence fluttered away and deserted her. She glided back, releasing Albert and leaving only a smear of pink lipstick on his throat. “You don’t have sunlight in your pocket.” Her high, strained voice didn’t have the bravado she’d hoped for. “You’re nothing but an old woman. A useless old woman! You don’t have anything!”
Marley’s expression hadn’t changed. “You’d be surprised what I carry around, dear. And any time you’d like to start feasting on people again, you just let me know. I’ll arrange to have you and your things moved to any city you choose, just like poor Sterling.”
“Sterling isn’t dead!” Betty couldn’t help it. She’d begun to wail. “He’s going to visit at Christmas. I have his letter.”
Marley sighed. Threatening her charges always made her feel sour. “Dear, that was three years ago.”
“Three?” Betty squeaked.
“Yes, dear. Bring today’s newspaper to your room and compare the dates. After he left us, Sterling… Well, he was gone before Memorial Day.”
Betty slumped against the open fridge door and covered her face with her hands. She didn’t sob or shed a tear, but her grief was genuine.
Hasty footsteps squeaked from the hall. Marley took her hand from her pocket as Naima bustled around the corner. “What is going on?!” she demanded. The nurse was close behind.
“Betty and I were reminiscing about Sterling, the poor dear.”
Clive and Neil loped into the hall like school kids about to see someone get detention. Everyone needed only to glance at Betty—and at Albert, still standing against the wall, entranced—to know what had happened. Naima sighed and took Betty gently by the elbow.
“I’m sorry, Miss Jacobs,” Betty said. Her cheeks were dry, but Marley knew her anguish was real. “I shouldn’t have said those things. It’s just…”
“Don’t worry, Betty. I understand. You’re under a lot of stress. Take a few days to rest and think things over. I’ll visit again so we can talk about what you want for the future. Would that be all right?”
Betty nodded gratefully. Naima and the nurse led her up the stairs. Everyone followed except Marley and, of course, Albert.
Marley pinched him and he came awake. “What’s going on?”
“You didn’t wear the pouch. Now close the refrigerator so we can go.”
He did. Marley didn’t follow the others up through the building, so Albert opened the back door for her. They went into the alley. Libertad’s van was already gone. Marley led Albert up a set of concrete stairs on the outside of the building.
“Aunt Marley, who were those people? They talked like senior citizens but they looked like they’re about my age. And I peeked in the cooler. It was full of bags of blood.”
“What do you think they are, dear?”
Marley stopped and turned around. Even though she was several stairs above him, they were eye to eye. “Oh Albert.” The disappointment in her voice was unmistakable; Albert was surprised by how much it stung.
Back at the car, Albert let her into the back seat, then got behind the wheel and started the engine. He didn’t shift out of park. He just sat there for a moment, his hands in his lap, staring at nothing at all. “I almost died, didn’t I?”
“Of course they are.”
“But the way they talked, like a bunch of crotchety old people…”
“They are old. Clive is over ninety.”
“Vampires. Whoa. Vampires! I’m… What about being young forever and going to nightclubs every night?”
“Oh, goodness,” Marley said. “Nightclubs.”
Albert shut off the engine and placed his trembling hands on the wheel. “I need a moment.”
“Take nine or ten moments,” Marley said with all sincerity. “They’re a good investment.”
He took out his phone and opened a game of Tetris. They sat unmoving in the dark car, and the only sounds were the beeps of the game. After about ten minutes, he shut it off and slipped the phone back into his pocket.
“This is a rest home for vampires, and you’re paying the bills. You have your own squad of vampires.”
Marley sighed. “They’re hardly a ‘squad’, dear, although you’re not the first person to make that insinuation. They’re my guests.”
“They’re killers. Aren’t they? Aren’t vampires killers?”
“Yes, when they have to be. It’s how vampires survive.”
“Doesn’t that make them evil?”
“Albert, until just a few short months ago, you were a soldier. You volunteered for a job where you might have to kill. And I think you did kill.”
“I’m not criticizing you, and I’m not saying you’re evil. Far from it. Risking your life to serve your country is a noble choice. You had your reasons for signing up, for swearing an oath to serve, for taking the uniform and weaponry of our nation at a time when you knew we were fighting overseas. You had your reasons, and I don’t question them. I know you well enough to know you’re an honorable young man.”
Marley sighed, then added: “Besides, I’ve killed, too. With guns. With knives. With… other weapons. Oh, it was many years ago, when I was a young woman—and I may not have had a uniform or sworn an oath, but I was doing what I thought was right.”
Albert looked into the rear view mirror at his aunt. A security light from across the street shone into back window, highlighting her gray hair and casting her face in shadow. He couldn’t judge her expression, which made it hard to understand the point she was making. For an uncomfortable moment, he was sure she wanted it that way. “So,” he said, “we’re no better than them?”
“No, dear; we’re worse. Whatever our reasons, good or bad, we chose to kill. Vampires, almost without exception, are victims. They don’t get a choice. Picture it: A cab driver, waitress, or other average person is attacked on their way home. Murdered. They awaken in their own grave and suddenly find themselves thirsting for blood. It’s not a choice on their part and doesn’t have to be justified morally. That’s why it’s wrong to call them evil.”
“And you bring them here, where they can survive on the donated blood Libertad delivers, without killing anyone.”
“Yes, dear. Exactly. This is a safe place. For everyone.”
“Mother said…” Albert paused, trying to figure a way to approach this subject. “Mother said it wasn’t safe to know you. She said you hung around with dangerous people and took crazy risks.”
“Your mother and I have a complicated relationship. More than most sisters, I think.”
“Mother can make turning on a lamp into something complicated. She once said you know how to do magic. Not sleight of hand, but the real thing.”
“What a thing to say!”
“She was drunk, but… Did Aloysius know about the vampires?”
“He did, and more besides.”
“And his murder? Why are you ‘going to be moving quickly’ on it?”
“To protect what I’ve built, dear. The way Aloysius was killed suggests a vampire fed on him, which I don’t allow. Seattle is my city, and the peace I’ve created here is still fragile. Always fragile. But it mostly works, and has started to inspire similar projects in other places around the country. Do you see? I’m a role model.
“But there are always those who think violence is the best, most lasting solution. It can be hard to give up old enmities, especially when holding onto them feels like virtue. Sometimes creating peace can earn you as many enemies as starting a war. But if someone out there thinks they can destroy what I’ve created without paying a price, they’re in for quite a shock.
Marley sighed. “Then again, it might just be a new arrival in the city who doesn’t know the rules. Or maybe Aloysius was killed for a reason unrelated to me, or no reason at all. It could have been a coincidence that he was stabbed above a storm drain. Whatever happened, I intend to discover the truth, and I’ll depend on you to help me.”
HELP FOR THOSE WHO NEED IT
Albert was sharp enough to recognize the end of a conversation, so he started the car and pulled out of the lot. Marley uploaded Sylvester’s address to the car’s GPS, and within half an hour they were parked outside a small apartment building ten blocks from the West Seattle bridge.
It had started to rain. Albert grabbed the long red umbrella from its place beside him and stepped out of the car. They had parked on rather narrow tree-lined street, and he couldn’t help but feel goosebumps run down his back as he looked around. Vampires are real.
As far as he was concerned, there were too few streetlights and too many oaks blocking their light. The street was heavy with night shadows and there was no one in sight.
His aunt had made clear when he came to stay with her that he was not permitted to carry weapons of any kind—it was her only rule and he’d promised to follow it. The scarred stump where his trigger finger used to be throbbed. If only…
Albert took a deep breath and opened the umbrella. Aunt Marley was no fool, and she traveled the city unarmed. He decided to mimic her courage, wisely reasoning that the guns he’d left behind when he was discharged were probably useless against the undead. He held an umbrella over the door as he opened it.
Marley climbed from the car, looking just as she always did. Was she confident she could deal with a runaway vampire or simply fatalistic? “Thank you, dear. Why don’t you wait out here while I speak to him? You look a bit too imposing for the conversation I have in mind, and you’ve just had a fright.”
A fright? Albert nearly laughed. “If you say so.” He looked up and down the still, dark street. “Are you sure you’ll be all right? I mean, if there’s a new arrival in the city…”
“No need to worry about that,” Marley said in her usually chipper tone. “You won’t be bored, will you?”
“I’ll play more Tetris. It’s something I learned during my tour; a few minutes of Tetris after a nasty encounter helps prevent nightmares.”
“How interesting! I’ll have to share that with some friends of mine.” With that, Marley marched to the apartment building and pressed the buzzer that said “Bustaverde” next to it. A man’s voice came over the scratchy intercom. “Who is it?”
“Libertad sent me,” Marley said. “To help.”
The door unlocked with a terrible buzz, but Marley didn’t move. She pressed the intercom button again and told him there was a problem with the door. Sylvester came downstairs to open it for her.
He was a small, jumpy man with dark hair and an old-fashioned pencil-thin mustache. He’d intended for it to lend him an air of suave sophistication, but it actually made him look like a comical bit player in an old movie—which was a shame, because there was nothing comical about Sylvester’s life or the danger he was in.
His face was shiny with sweat and he didn’t even try to disguise his surprise at seeing Marley. “She sent you?” he asked, as though it was an accusation. “A little old lady?”
“She did, and aren’t you lucky? Now look over my shoulder. Is the person watching you still there?”
He looked over her left shoulder. “Yeah. The Camry. And there’s a second one now, too. A Town Car.”
“That second one is mine. Let’s go inside, shall we?”
He led her up a flight of creaky wooden stairs. The stairwell bulb was dingy and weak, and the plaster walls had dust in all the cracks. His apartment door was so warped he had to lean against it to open and close it.
The apartment smelled of garbage and sour milk and the carpet needed to be vacuumed. Sylvester lifted a pile of laundry off the couch and set it on the ottoman. “That’s all clean,” he said, “but I haven’t had time to fold it.”
He gestured for Marley to sit in the space he’d just cleared and she did. He flopped into an easy chair, obviously exhausted.
Marley took a shirt off the laundry and began folding it. Startled, Sylvester sat up and joined her.
“I have two jobs,” he said. “It was three, but I got fired from the security thing because I couldn’t stay awake. That happened just this weekend. It’s hard to keep up with things here all alone.”
“Alone? Where is your wife?”
Sylvester’s left hand closed around the shirt he was holding as though he might squeeze juice from it. With his other hand, he twisted his wedding band. “My wife? What difference does that make?”
“You have a suspicious character watching your home, don’t you? Do you think that doesn’t affect her?”
“She’s away. She’s sick.”
Marley stopped folding. “You can’t lie to me, dear.”
“Okay.” Sylvester took a deep breath. “She left. Gone. She emptied the bank account on Saturday and took off.”
They resumed folding. “Aren’t you worried that something has happened to her?”
He was quiet for almost a minute while they worked together. Finally, he said: “She’ll be back. I used to worry. I used to worry about all kinds of things, but… She has a problem with gambling. She owns a cleaning company and makes more than I do—when she works—but it’s not enough. That’s why I….”
“That’s why you stole blood from the donation center.”
“I could lose my job.”
“Yes, dear, and then who would cover your wife’s debts?” They were quiet a moment. “You know why the buyer wanted it, don’t you?”
They had finished folding the laundry. Sylvester had nothing to do with his hands but stare down at them. “I guess so.”
“Where did you drop off the blood?”
Sylvester stood from the chair and took a pencil and slip of paper from his telephone table. He scribbled on it and offered it to Marley. She took it without looking at it.
“Thank you. Your wife is lucky to have someone like you looking out for her, and you’re lucky that I don’t have you run out of my city. Here’s my card. Email me, dear, and I’ll connect you with a group that can help you cope with your wife’s problem. And if you get another offer like the one you had yesterday, contact me. In fact, I insist on it, for all our sakes.”
He took the card she offered him with trembling hands.
Marley’s phone rang. She answered. “Yes, Albert?”
“Aunt Marley, there’s a guy in a Camry watching your building. And he just started dialing.”
“That’s interesting,” she said, exaggerating her usual dramatic tone. “I wonder who he’s calling?”
Not being a fool, Albert took that as a hint. “Why don’t I go ask?” He hung up the phone and stepped out of the car.
There was no way for him to sneak up on the Camry, not when both vehicles faced each other on opposite sides of the street. Albert closed the door quietly, crossed to the far curb and strolled casually down the block.
He could see the man’s face by the lights of his phone—his head was narrow and his hairline receding. He had a five o’clock shadow over a strong jaw—handsome, but he looked weary. He was forty years old, at least .
As he watched Albert approach, the man in the Camry began to get nervous. Of course he’d noticed the Town Car when it pulled in, but he’d dismissed it when he saw a little old woman get out. Then she’d stood at the door of the apartment building until his target had come to open it; he couldn’t imagine any reason for that except that she wanted to be seen with the target. Now her big, baby-faced driver was walking toward the car. “He’s coming toward me,” he said into the phone. “He looks like he might be a plainclothes cop or something.”
A voice from the backseat said: “Oh, he’s not a police officer, dear.”
The man shrieked and dropped the phone in his mad scramble to turn around. There was a small shadowy figure sitting behind him. His elbow struck the car horn, blaring it accidentally, in his mad rush to get out of the car. He ran into the middle of the street and turned to gape at the back seat of his Camry. It was empty.
“What the hell? What the holy hell?” He let out a stream of curses as he tried to control himself. He’d heard a voice and seen a figure inside his car. He was sure of it. Had it materialized like a ghost or had it been there, lurking and unseen, all day? Whatever courage he’d brought with him had fled. They should never have come to Seattle. Never.
Albert didn’t slow his approach as he sized the fellow up: His skinny arms were thick with tattoos, and he was wearing leather pants and a leather vest without a shirt. He even wore a leather dog collar. Before Albert had gone to war, he might have been intimidated.
Sylvester opened the front door to his apartment building, and Marley slipped by him into the street. She crossed directly to the man in the vest, meeting him in the middle of the street.
“Welcome to Seattle, Kenneth.” she said. She extended her hand; he shook it warily. “Although I must say, I find it hard to believe that you and your mistress didn’t know you should speak to me before settling in my city.”
Kenneth’s mouth hung open. “I know who you are!” He jumped into his car and started it up. Marley and Albert stepped back as he peeled out of his parking space.
As the taillights grew smaller in the distance, Marley said: “That poor man. His license and registration seem to have fallen out of his wallet.” She held up both pieces of identification. As expected, they were from out of state. This time it was Tennessee.
Albert grinned. “Well then, it’s good that we know where to return it.”
Marley smiled and laid her hand on his arm. “Aren’t we helpful?” she exclaimed. “I’m sure he’d love to talk with us some more.