Authors: Domenic Stansberry
“When was the last time you saw her?”
“About three weeks ago. We were planning to go to Cabo together, but…”
“You didn’t go?”
“I went.” Solano stopped, drank some water. Thinking about Cabo San Lucas, maybe, and those hot sands in Baja. “I liked Angie, I liked her a lot—but she wanted something more. I mean, I got divorced a couple of years back … And I’m so involved here, with the company. I just wasn’t ready.”
“I broke it off, to be blunt. And she had a very hard time with it. She quit her job with us. I didn’t mean for her to do that, but she got angry and stomped out.”
“You didn’t see her again?”
“She came to a meeting, that afternoon. She was professional… but that was it. And the next day, I went to Cabo alone.”
Dante remembered how he and Angie had broken up. Or he remembered a street corner somewhere, the expression on her face. He didn’t want to think about it.
“It’s bit risky, isn’t it, getting involved with an employee?”
“I shouldn’t have, I suppose,” Solano said. “But it was mutual, and well …” His eyes darted away, and Dante could see his confusion and something like remorse. “Listen, I want to be cooperative. Our company, though … We’re going up for a new round of venture funding.” Solano paused then, as if catching himself, but Dante had seen the cornered look and understood. This world was everything to Solano. If it came unhinged …
“I wish I could help more. It’s just that after Cabo, I went to New York on business. I haven’t seen her since.”
“How long were you gone?”
“Until the twentieth.”
Dante went through the dates in his head. By the time Solano returned from his trip, Angie had been in the water a couple of days. Solano had not been in town when she died.
“Angie worked in publicity?”
“We are not quite as formal with our titles here. The old business hierarchies, the old boundaries, some of that just doesn’t apply anymore.”
“The other employees, did they resent her—this woman, hired off the street, working with you so closely?”
“Maybe some people felt that way, but like I said, we aren’t beholden to those kinds of boundaries. Besides, everybody in the company has stock options. We’re all rooting for success.”
The last time Dante had run into Angie had been some years ago, down at Carlo’s bar, and she’d had that look newspaper people get: cocky and world-weary at the same time, with her innocence all smudged up. He guessed he could see how she would be attracted to this man. Angie liked being at the center of things. And Solano, with the twist in his smile, the pivot to the hips, slouching against his desk, here in this office …
Dante had with him the photos he’d taken from her apartment.
“I was wondering if you’d mind taking a look at these.”
Dante showed him the photos one at a time. The first was of Solano himself.
“That was on her refrigerator.” “Oh?”
“When was the last time you were in her apartment?”
“I’m not sure. About a month ago.”
He showed him another photo. Angie skittery in an electric blue dress, on the deck of a boat, with the California coast in the background.
“Where was this taken?”
“Catalina, I think. We were on a business trip, courting investors.”
He handed him another.
“That’s Bill Whitaker. He’s our vice president of technology. He was there to provide a reality check. We have to make sure everything we do here, it’s feasible. And the investors, they like to talk to him.”
“And the empty place, there, who was sitting in that?”
“Right—but I see the wineglass is full. And somebody must have taken that picture.”
“You know, you’re right. I am trying to remember …”
Dante handed him the last picture.
A thin-faced young man, with reddish hair, good-looking in a middle-of-the-country kind of way. He stood alone on the deck, with that same piece of California coastline behind him.
“Oh, yes. Jim Rose. Jim was also with us that evening. At the table. He took the pictures, I remember now.”
The voice on the message machine.
“Yeah—he’s an engineer. He was along, on the technical side.”
“He works for you.”
“Jim left the company.”
“We get turnover, like every other business. The competition for talent is intense right now.”
“Do you know where I could find him?”
“You could ask our personnel department. They may have a forwarding address.”
“Angie and Jim Rose—they were friends?”
“At work he gave her the technical information for the press releases—and her job was to put a glow on it.”
“How well did Rose know her? Did they socialize?”
“I don’t know,” said Solano. “I’m not sure.” He looked at his watch. “I’m sorry, this meeting, they’re waiting for me.”
“Something else … Angie introduced you to her father?”
“Yes, I met him. Just once.”
“You have a business relationship?”
“Not me, specifically, no. Listen, I’d be happy to talk about all this later … I don’t know how clearly I’m thinking, I’m a little stunned … and the design group …”
Dante understood. The man didn’t want to talk. But he knew also that Solano would be on the phone soon enough, consulting his public relations people, or his lawyers, or the venture people themselves, trying to figure out how to control the damage if the news got out about his affair, about the dead employee in the bay. Though Dante knew such maneuvering was inevitable, the kind of contingency planning a man like Solano had to consider, it nonetheless gnawed at him, and no doubt would have gnawed yet more if he had known how quickly Solano would be on his cell, dialing, doing just as Dante imagined. Solano’s call, though, had to be patched. The connection was not immediate. As Solano waited for his call to go through, he could not help but think of Angie’s death, and he felt a certain fear in his chest, a certain irreality, a sense of things veering out of control, of wheels within wheels, and in his fear he touched himself, looking for solidity, and Solano thought of the girl at the front desk, of all the people waiting to talk to him, and then he touched his cock, feeling winsome, thinking it was not half so big as the detective’s nose.
ante went down to the house on Fresno Street to see if he could determine the problem in the attic. Lisa had sounded blue on the phone, but a few months ago, when he’d let her and Tom rent the place, the couple had been happy enough. The pair had come out a year earlier from Philadelphia, but apartment space had been hard to find, and they’d been living for months in a motel in South City, down by the airport. So they had been pleased as hell with the house on Fresno Street, at least at first, loving everything about it, from the lath plaster to the ancient sink to the furniture Dante’s father had left behind and the pictures still hanging on the wall.
Now Lisa opened the door. She was a dark-eyed young woman, friendly by nature. Usually she was pretty talkative, but today she was quiet, as if there were something on her mind. She followed Dante into the kitchen and stood with her arms crossed, standing sentry as he climbed the ladder.
Dante didn’t get far. The attic hatch had been padlocked.
His father had put the lock up there, Dante remembered, because
his mother had become obsessed with the attic. She had not been able to let things alone: pictures, old clothes, memorabilia. She’d unpacked, repacked, then unpacked again, all the time in conversation with people whose photographs lay strewn about the attic floor. Over time the conversations had become increasingly strange.
Now the lock was rusted, and anyway, Dante did not have the key. He could see the lock was not going to come off easily.
Toward the end, his mother had ripped up some of the photographs and burned others, but a number had survived. Among those was an uncropped copy of the communion photo. That day, it had not just been Dante and Angie standing on the steps in front of the church. In the original, there were other people behind them and to the side, some of whom his mother did not approve.
La Rocca and his Chicago friends.
Or so Dante’s mother had said. But Nick Antonelli had been there, too, in the background, and relatives from both families and a number of other children, including a little boy off to the side, his face oddly blurred, out of focus, because the camera had caught him in motion.
Dante could not quite remember the boy, but something had happened, he knew, and the kid had left the school.
His mother had not liked these people in the background, so she had had them edited out. Dante, though, had been fascinated, and at some point he had spirited the original away, into his cigar tin. As far as he knew, that childhood tin was still on the other side of that padlocked hatch.
He climbed down the ladder.
“I’ll have to come back,” said Dante. “With bolt cutters.”
Tom, Lisa’s boyfriend, had wandered into the kitchen at some
point and stood alongside Lisa, looking as if he had just woke up, unshaven, in his sweat pants and a T-shirt.
“At night, that’s when I hear the noise,” Tom said. “It sounds like someone’s moving things around up there.”
Dante nodded. There was loose planking beneath the soffits, and there were animals who made their living prowling the roofs. Also, he knew how the old house rattled and creaked, and how sound traveled in the alley.
“To be honest, I haven’t heard much, not lately,” said Lisa. Tom gave her a look as if to object—and Dante wondered what was up between them. “But I’m a hard sleeper—and Tom, he’s up all hours. Researching stocks.”
Lisa laughed. It was an awkward laugh, and for a while neither of them would meet his eyes. “About the rent,” Lisa said all of a sudden. “We’re going to be a couple of days late. We’re waiting on a check … Tom’s company had to let some people go.”
“It’s just a cash flow thing,” Tom interrupted. “They’re hiring me back next week. As a contractor.”
Dante was surprised. Just a few weeks before, the couple had been all optimism. Tom’s company was soaring, ready to go public. He’d had a key position, and Lisa was working at a start-up in the South Bay.
“It will only be a few days,” Tom said. “Meantime, I’ve been day-trading. I have myself all hooked up in the den.”
ick and Barbara had left the house, and Eccentric the cat did not at first hear the strangers in the yard. He lay on the edge of the diving board, lolling in the sun. He had been fed, there was more food in his bowl, and he lay languid as an old rag, eyes in a slit, watching the shadows dance over the blue water. He had heard the gate click, but it was just another sound in a world of sounds: insects and lawn sprinklers and vague rustlings in the bushes the other side of the fence. Now there were footsteps, and pretty soon a woman and a man stood at the edge of the pool with the sun behind them. They stood there like black slits, shadows painted against the light. “Hi, there, kitty.” The woman laughed giddily. “Oh, hi, there. Kitty, kitty.” Then she stepped up on the board. Eccentric froze. The young woman edged forward, still cooing, but with a touch of mockery, and the man laughed, too, and perhaps in that moment Eccentric recognized them, their voices, their smell. Perhaps he recognized them from that time when they had rolled on Angie’s bed and he had lain hidden in the armoire.
Eccentric edged back, judging the leap, the distance over the blue water, but he was a clumsy cat, one paw already off the ledge behind him, another struggling to find purchase.
Meanwhile the woman kept coming, edging toward him, with that sound like a bird in her throat.
ater that evening, Dante headed toward Angie’s apartment. Barbara Antonelli had given him the key, and he wanted to take another look without the mother around. On the way, he walked through Mortuary Row, as it was called—the little hollow below Columbus Avenue on the way up Russian Hill. It had been a meadow once, with a spring running through. Now the Diamond Mortuary crouched on the one side and the Green Street Mortuary on the other. Each institution had an awning over its doorway, and there was almost always someone lingering under those awnings. If not a mourner, than a shadow of a mourner. A footman, perhaps, or a limo driver, or some other functionary from the inner realm.
In the old days, the Northern Italians had frequented one side of the street, the Southerners the other, but both establishments were under the Chinese wing now—and at the moment there was no one under either awning. The doors stood open but vacant, and this vacantness was somehow more unsettling than any funeral entourages might have been.
Then, around the corner, suddenly appeared the Green Street
Mortuary Band: old men with their snare drums and their trombones and kazoos. They were a tradition in The Beach, these old men, in their lime green hats and marching jackets—wending their way through the streets on the behalf of the bereaved.
Oompah this, oompah that.
Stopping at the dead man’s favorite bar. Slobbering in their tubas. Rat-a-tatting their drums and clicking their heels while the mourners followed behind and the tourists gawked. Dante remembered the old superstition: Cross the path of the parade before it had done passing, next time they will be marching for you.
This particular parade was at its end, the mourners dispersed, the band members returning. The marchers walked slowly, in no particular hurry.
Dante stood at the curb, letting them pass. He did not believe the superstition, he told himself, but abided nonetheless.
They had fallen silent now, the old men and women of the band—with their yellow-gray hair and rheumy eyes and skin like wrinkled buzzards. The only sounds were the shuffling of their shoes on the concrete and their heavy breathing and the vague tittering of the snare as it bounced against the belly of the drummer. It made a sound like a snake hissing.
They had all but passed. Dante started across.