Authors: Domenic Stansberry
“I can order this for you. There might be a delay in the service—and there is also the issue meantime of storage. For the remains. And sometimes, it is better, for the sake of closure, to proceed
a little more immediately. I have some very beautiful vessels, available more immediately.”
“No,” said Nick. “We will wait. I want this done right.” Nick stood up then. He made a gesture as if dusting himself off. It was a gesture you saw the old Italians make as they got up from the table, dusting bread crumbs from their shirt. It didn’t quite make sense in this context, but Nick made it anyway.
“Before you leave, the release form.”
“So we can get her remains from the city.”
“I’m not signing that.”
“I’m not signing.”
Gucci said nothing. He had seen a lot over the years, and he knew how people could be. He cast his eyes toward Barbara Antonelli—a beautiful woman, he could not help but think, even now, in her grief, with old age around the corner—but she did not look back. She followed her husband out to the street, and Gucci felt himself becoming insubstantial again, a ghost behind the door, a figure from an old clock disappearing back into the mechanism.
ick and Barbara were in their car now, heading home from the city. Nick was an aggressive driver, and his daughter’s death had not slowed him down. He was stewing inside, blaming himself—then his wife. Because Angie was still living alone in that apartment at age thirty-two, unmarried. Because Angie had foolish ideas in her head that came from her mother’s vague dissatisfaction with her life, from her mother’s dissatisfaction with him. And it was that dissatisfaction, Nick told himself, that had made him act the way he did.
“I was going to give Angie this car,” he said.
“I know,” said Barbara.
“If she would take it. You know how she was. Try to give her something, and she says no.”
They were in the BMW, the Series 7 Sedan: midnight blue with leather interior. It was true, he was about due for a new car. The sedan was going on three years old now—and he didn’t care about the trade-in value. Except he knew how Angie was. He had tried to give her his Series 5 a few years back, but she’d said no. Like she was too good for the damn thing. When the truth was, she had a low opinion of herself. Didn’t want to be seen driving around in anything nice. Better to give her father a little slap in the face.
“The police haven’t finished their investigation. I don’t see how they can put her in the ground until they’ve finished their investigation.”
“Angie wanted to be cremated,” Barbara said again.
“Angie said lots of jackass things. All I know—the police in Europe keep the body until there’s a trial. They don’t put the goddamn evidence in the ground.”
Barbara didn’t say anything. Her face was growing paler. He was being cruel, he knew. Cruel to her, cruel to himself, but he couldn’t help it. The anger he felt was crisp and real and at least kept the self-pity at bay. He drove in the left lane, fast as he could, headed down 280, over the rolling hills, back toward San Mateo. He felt like driving into a post.
“It’s a money thing,” he said. “It’s easier for the police to call her death an accident. That way, they don’t have to devote the personnel.”
“Either way, we have to make arrangements,” said Barbara. “We have to take care of our daughter. We can’t just leave her at the
morgue. Besides, you heard what the police said. It doesn’t mean they have closed the investigation.”
Nick had heard, of course. The whole goddamn story. They had done the forensics, they had done all the tests, and these tests were part of the permanent record in the event Angie’s death was ruled a homicide and a suspect emerged. It was how things were done. There was no reason to keep the body in indefinite storage. The tests had been conducted, and the tests themselves served as the evidence, as the medical facts.
“But what if the defense comes in with some hotshot attorney and challenges the tests. We’re supposed to rely on the SFPD? On their goddamn lab work and some scatterbrained cops?”
Nick had given the same argument down at the station, and the cop had sat there in silence, stoic as a rock. Barbara was quiet now, too, but she didn’t have that kind of fortitude. He was wearing her down—refusing to let go—but once again he could not help himself. At the same time, though, he noticed the stubborn beauty in her face.
“I’m not putting Angie in the ground,” he said. “Even if I have to pay the storage costs for thirty years, I’m not putting her in the ground.”
He took the off-ramp too quickly, almost losing it. They descended onto Rancho Road, then wound around the hill back toward their house.
“I can’t bear thinking of her in storage,” said Barbara.
“The Italian oak.”
“Gucci’s going to get the Principessa. From Italian oak.”
“Yes.” Her voice was resigned.
“I’m not burying her in some cheap fuck laminated box. Not my daughter. And she’s not going in the ground until I know what
the hell happened. She could have had this BMW if she wanted. Goddamn you.”
“Yes. Goddamn me.”
“I would have done anything for her.”
His wife didn’t respond. The line of her jaw had gone rigid. It was a hard look, one she did not show in public, cold and uncompromising. A look only a husband got to see.
“I would have done anything,” he said again.
There was a plea in his voice, but it did not soften her, and it occurred to him that all these years, everyone else, himself included, had had it backward. She was the rock. He was the one being worn away.
Next to their house, on the other side of the oleanders, there was a fire road that went back into the open space—and as he swung the car around he happened to catch sight of a vehicle parked in there. A van, maybe. Teenagers, he thought. Teenagers parked behind the oleanders, making out, smoking dope, doing whatever teenagers did. Sometimes the kids wandered up into the hills, hooting and making noise all night, getting into mischief. Last time around he’d had to call the cops. Seeing the van now, for some reason, reminded him of the young woman with the clipboard, the solicitor whom he’d left standing at their door this afternoon. They didn’t get many solicitors up in here, but either way she’d vanished by the time he’d returned.
Nick pulled into their drive and killed the engine. He and Barbara sat a moment in the darkness. The voices of the neighbors carried down from across the way, and closer by there was a skittering noise, a stirring in the gravel—but the hills were full of things, raccoons, burrowing creatures.
“Do you want me to come in?” he asked.
In a way, it was an odd question. He usually did pretty much as
he pleased. If he was going to spend the night away, he did not ask her permission.
Barbara gave him a wry look, then climbed out of the car. It was not fair, that look: full of accusation, as if everything in the world were his fault. He felt the old desire to settle something with her—a desire best satisfied, he knew, by just driving off. She was at the doorstep now. He turned the ignition but in the glare of the headlights he noticed the gate to the backyard was wide open.
He walked into the backyard, but everything was in order. Nothing had been disturbed. In fact, the yard had a serenity about it, here in the foothills, under the black sky, with the lanterns along the flagstones and the blue light emanating from the pool. The remote lighting was on inside the house, and he could see through the slider into the kitchen and the living room. It was like a picture in a magazine. Outside, there was no breeze. The red maple and the bamboo and the Mexican palm were perfect in the stillness. He remembered the excitement with which they had moved in, and those first warm days, his daughter and her friends lounging by the pool in their bikinis, with their long legs and their teenage beauty. Now Barbara was on the other side of bedroom slider, pulling shut the curtains. She saw him, he was all but certain, but didn’t acknowledge his presence.
He took out his cell.
Anne Marie had left him a message earlier, about some final bit of paperwork from Prospero, regarding the Solano deal. He meant to call and tell her he was on his way, but he did not want to leave the backyard. It filled him with an emotion he could not describe. Sadness, yes, nostalgia, but something else—a sense of dread, maybe …
He noticed something then. The cat bowl his wife had placed on
the diving board. It had been knocked over and the food was scattered. He had not noticed before, he guessed, on account of the pool lights and the angle of the board and the way shadows fell against the walk. He stepped toward the bowl. Shook his head. Then, all of a sudden, he sobbed. You close the biggest deal of your life, and your daughter turns up dead in the bay. He had bought the Waterhouse Building, put a second mortgage on everything he owned to get it. It should be a time for celebration, that clever bit of business. The deal had all hinged on Solano Enterprises. Solano’s people had not put up any cash but agreed in advance to a ninety-nine-year lease that covered Nick’s payments and left him free to develop the rest of the property. Office space was scarce, going up. There wasn’t an extra inch in the city.
But now that deal was all signed, he’d begun to suspect it had been a mistake.
He bent over to pick up the cat dish and at the same time he glanced down into the blue water. What he saw then, lying in the pool, took a moment to register.
Eccentric lay in the shallow end, not too far from the edge of the pool, in maybe a foot of water. The animal was white and ragged and looked like a stuffed toy someone had thrown into the pool.
His cell rang.
He was still new to the device and it rang four, maybe five times before he managed to answer. The difficulty heightened his panic, and the voice on other end, very cool, relaxed, heightened it yet more.
“Nick?” The voice was that of a young woman, speaking softly, and for an instant he thought it might be Angie. “Have you been out to the pool yet?”
“Who is this?”
Nick thought of the open gate again … the van around the side … the woman with the clipboard …
“Maybe it would be a good idea for you to call off your investigation. That’s all I’m saying.”
He heard a man’s voice in the background, two men, maybe, laughing, stoned. The woman was not alone.
“And as for the cops, you know, how closely do you really want them to look? Just think about it, okay?”
The line went dead.
Whoever it was, they knew his cell number … They knew where he lived … They knew he was at home, they were watching the house … and just then Nick heard the van fire up, on the other side of the fence. He was tempted to chase it … tempted to call the cops… but something clicked inside him then. Since his daughter’s disappearance, the dread had been growing, an idea beneath the surface … A couple of weeks back, he’d made a phone call on Smith’s behalf … to La Rocca, goddamn La Rocca … And if he called the cops now … There was Barbara to worry about, there was Anne Marie. Soon he was on his hands and knees, peering over the edge of the pool. The water was shallow here, not even a foot deep. No, Barbara did not need to see this.
Nick rolled up his sleeves. He lay flat on his stomach and reached into the water. With one hand he took the scruff, and with the other he gripped the hind legs. The lifting was easy at first, but heavier once the animal broke the surface of the water. The cat had blood on his paws and shins. Its cheeks were abraded, too, and the upper torso. From trying to claw its way out, maybe, there at the lip of the pool. There was vomit on its ruff, and aspirated foam on its lips, and its teeth were peeled back and its eyes gone cloudy. Nick
wrapped the cat in a piece of weed cloth and headed out the rear gate, down an easement behind the house. The path ran alongside a hill of high grass and oak shrub and anise weed. There was a ravine nearby, and on the other side of the ravine the hill sloped up to the freeway. In the daylight, the hillside had a gentle, rolling look, yellow ranch land overgrown with scrub oak and eucalyptus. Right now, though, the shape of the hill was unclear, and it was just a darkness looming over him.
Nick had at first intended to take the cat down to the ravine, but his shirt was soaked through, and suddenly he could not stand holding it close to him anymore. He waded into the grass and threw the animal in the high weeds behind an oak tree. Then he went back to the house and showered. It was a hard stream of water. He stayed under the spray until the water went cold and then he got out. His black polo was soiled, and so was the front of his pleated pants. He put the clothes in the hamper and stood naked, looking back through the mirror at his wife on the bed. Barbara was lying on top of the covers, still dressed, with a handkerchief over her eyes. He got some clothes. He put on a clean shirt and some pants and stood there looking at his wife. He still had not called Anne Marie. Perhaps he should not leave his wife alone.
“You blame me,” she said. “But we both know the truth.”
“Don’t talk like that. This isn’t anyone’s fault.”
She had not taken the handkerchief from her eyes, but when Nick took a step toward her, he saw her body stiffen, and in that stiffness was a lifetime of accusation.
“Go,” she said.
Then Barbara stood up. She brushed past him on her way out of the room, but did not meet his eyes. Nick sat on the bed to lace his shoes. As he left, he could hear her in the backyard, calling the cat.