- Grand Central Publishing
- Publication date:
Read an Excerpt
A Clifford Driscoll Mystery
By William L. DeAndrea
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated MediaCopyright © 1990 William L. DeAndrea
All rights reserved.
He had expected it to be horrible—burning the house, burning Pina—but it was really sort of pretty.
He stood in the doorway and watched the flames, orange and yellow and blue, crawl their way across the floor toward her body as the linoleum bubbled beneath. He knew he should leave, knew he shouldn't waste time standing there, watching, but he couldn't bring himself to leave her so abruptly. He had been very fond of Pina. He would miss her.
He himself was in no danger from the flames. The layout of the bungalow was such that a fire might believably start at the space heater near the cheap bedroom curtains and incinerate the bed before ever endangering the front door, and he had set things up just that way.
It occurred to him that Ainley Masters would be proud of him. A problem had come up, and he'd dealt with it without panic. Not just without visible panic, but without panic of any sort. He hadn't shown panic to anyone outside the family and a few trusted family retainers since he was five years old. Gramps had made it clear that a Van Horn must always be seen to be in control, whatever he might be feeling inside. And that old man's cold contempt had been stronger than Hank's terror. Hank Van Horn got back on the horse—though the horse had round, rolling eyes, and big yellow teeth, and made a noise like lightning in his throat—he got back on the horse and rode it until Gramps said he could stop, and then he went home to the room Gramps kept for him in the big house, and he went into his bathroom and threw up until he felt he was going to turn himself inside out.
Since then, Hank Van Horn had felt a lot of strange things inside, but only the chosen few had ever seen them.
But tonight was different. Tonight he'd faced an impossible situation, and he hadn't panicked at all. Inside or out.
Well, he had, just at first, of course he had, or else Pina wouldn't be dead. But after that first, familiar moment, when the world and his name and History were all crushing in on him, when he couldn't stop his ears from hearing or his hands from doing, he broke through to a garden of peace and calm. He'd known precisely what to do and how to do it. Fire. Fire would conceal. Fire would purify.
Fire had reached the foot of the bed now, climbing the sheet he had artfully left trailing on the floor, playing with Pina's feet and legs, and he knew he should leave now, but he was frozen in the doorway. It was fascinating to him that she didn't try to get herself out of the fire. He knew it was ridiculous to feel that way—of course, she's dead, dead people can't feel anything—but he watched with amazement just the same.
The smoke was getting a little thick now, but the smoke, and the smell of the smoke, really, were no worse than at one of Gramps's famous family barbecues. Gramps had died at the last one. He'd been roasting an ox, and he'd let no one else near the job. In control, as usual. He stood by the coals, watching the carcass darken and drip and sizzle, turning the spit himself more often than not. The doctors said he'd given himself a stroke from the heat and the exertion. But stroke and all, when Gramps had keeled over and fallen into the barbecue pit, he'd tried to get away, clawing at the coals with the unparalyzed arm, trying to push himself free with the leg that could move. Some of the men pulled Gramps out, some of them burning themselves badly in the process, but it was too late. Hank hadn't been among them. He was too busy being seen to be in control. He'd thrown up that night, too. He'd strained his throat, but he had recovered sufficiently to deliver the eulogy at Gramps's funeral. The hoarseness made it seem as if Hank had been choked up with emotion—Ainley Masters said that had probably won Hank another twenty-five thousand votes in that year's election. Not that it made a difference—in that district, the Van Horn name was magic.
The fire had conquered most of the bed now. Hank had left Pina naked—he wondered if he shouldn't have put a nightgown on her or something, if she wouldn't have burned more thoroughly with cloth around her. He shrugged it off. Too late to worry about it.
Hank watched. He watched Pina's long, black hair first crisp, then turn gray-white, then disappear. He watched the fire attack her pretty face, distort it, corrupt it, until it looked just like Gramps's face when the men had pulled him out of the fire.
And suddenly, overwhelmingly, it was horrible, and the spell was broken. Hank Van Horn turned and ran for his life.
He had never meant to kill her. Why in the name of God should he kill her? He liked her. She was a lot of fun. Smart, too. Dedicated. A hard worker. Pina had organized Hank's out-of-state fund-raising phone calls more efficiently than in any of his previous campaigns.
She was even nice to Ella. That was the really amazing thing. Hank Van Horn had dallied with a lot of girls, and all of them but Pina had shown it when they came in contact with his wife. There was always some kind of smirk on their faces, or some icicle-sharpness to their voices when they talked to Ella, as though they were scoring some big points off her.
It wasn't as if Ella cared or anything. She had her charities and her tennis and a more than generous allowance from the family coffers; she was happy enough. And she had Mark, their son. Since he'd been born twelve years ago, he seemed to be all the man she needed in her life. Mark looked more like his mother all the time, as though proximity reinforced heredity.
And he was sharp, too. He had already learned, with a lot less pain than Hank had, what it meant to be a Van Horn. Hank was proud of him, when he thought about it. He made it a point to tell the boy whenever their schedules coincided.
This tended to happen less and less frequently these days. Ella seemed to want it that way. They'd be together in the fall, when the campaign heated up. Ella always dropped what she was doing to campaign with him. She was a fair campaigner—she could nod sympathetically when a factory worker held her hand and talked about his problems, even though she'd never seen the inside of a factory before her first campaign stop at one. Her real value, though, was in campaign photographs. Ella always photographed beautifully, and she had a way of looking at Hank that always came across as worshipful respect, whatever emotion it really reflected. The message to all who saw the picture was, "If this classy broad feels this way about him, he must really have something."
It was a big help, and it wasn't something Hank wanted to lose, so he made it a point to change girlfriends whenever they started to try to lord it over his wife.
Pina never did that, so Pina lasted much longer than any of the others, well into her second year, now. She was his Collierville girl, now, the one who got to live in the modest bungalow in the not-too-great section of town. The house had belonged to the family for years, always as a rent-free home for poorly paid campaign workers far from their own apartments. One time, a columnist in a New York paper had suggested it might be a—a "love nest" was the phrase he used—but Gramps had persuaded the paper to discourage the fellow from pursuing the point.
So when Hank was in town, he'd frequently drive Pina home from campaign headquarters when they'd work late. And he'd frequently go inside, where he and Pina would discuss campaign strategy, the way Nelson Rockefeller used to work late on a book about modern art.
That's what they'd done tonight. Hank and Pina had discussed campaign strategy in the shower, and again in the bed. He was just catching his breath after the second discussion when Pina told him she was pregnant.
Hank looked at her. "I thought you were taking care of that."
"Hank, darling," she said. "Nothing works all the time. I'm sorry."
She didn't seem sorry.
Then Hank told her she'd have to go somewhere far away, have the abortion under another name. He didn't need the anti-abortion nuts sniping at him because someone on his staff needed to get herself destorked. He told her he'd get Ainley Masters to handle all the details.
Pina went all Catholic on him. No abortion. Under no circumstances. She was going to have their baby.
That pissed Hank off. She hadn't been too Catholic to fuck a married man. She hadn't been too Catholic to suck his dick or ride his toes or do any of the other so-called sinful things they'd done together. She was just too Catholic to keep it from becoming a huge mess because she hadn't been able to keep from getting pregnant. "Sorry, darling."
What really infuriated him was that it was so trite, like a goddam outtake from Citizen Kane. If the press got hold of this, they wouldn't print much of it—the Van Horn name was magic with them, too, and they were having too much fun at the moment with the Nixon impeachment hearings—but there would be a horse laugh in the halls of the Nation's media that would kick up again every time Hank showed up.
And then Hank saw Pina's face, and there it was. The smirk she'd never shown to Ella. The self-satisfied look of someone who thinks she's getting away with something.
Hank could read the future in that face. Pina would make a big deal. She'd insist on marriage, at first. Then she'd settle for money. A lot of money. Or maybe she'd go for money right away, money to go away and have their baby (Hank remembered she hadn't said "her baby") and she'd raise it and love it, and she'd always be there for him.
Sure, Hank thought, until she decided she could use a million-dollar book-and-TV-movie deal.
"Give it up," he said. "It's not going to work."
"Hank, what are you talking about?"
"No Van Horn has ever payed blackmail, or ever will." He was quoting Gramps.
"Blackmail? Hank, I love you. Don't be silly."
There it was again, that smirk. The bitch was enjoying this.
"We'll work something out," she said.
"Work something out," Hank said. Then he said, "Bitch," and his hands jumped to her throat and started shaking her. He was not aware of wanting to do it. His hands did it, as though they were a pair of staffers who thought they knew more than the elected official they were supposed to serve.
Pina tried to talk, but her voice came out in a series of bubbling noises, like a sound effect in a cartoon. Then her eyes got wide, and her hands came up to try to pull his away. She started to scream. Hank's hands shook her harder, to make her stop. She had a lot of nerve, screaming. She was the goddam blackmailer.
She stopped screaming. Her tongue came out, and her head flopped back and forth like the head of a teddy bear, as though it were held on only by stitching on the outside.
"Bitch," Hank said again, and kept shaking for another half minute. When he let go, Pina flopped to the mattress.
"Now let's talk about that abortion," he said. He was panting and sweating. He wasn't so angry anymore.
He nudged her. "Come on," he said. "Don't sulk."
He pushed her hair off her face and rolled her over.
And she was dead. Her face was twisted and blue, and her tongue was out, and strands of her long black hair were clinging to the surface of one staring eye.
He'd strangled her. He hadn't meant to, but he had. The bruises on her throat might have been a tattoo reading CHOKED. He'd been shaking, of course, but he didn't remember squeezing. He had no intention of squeezing. Of course, he had no intention of shaking her, either—he'd just found himself doing it.
Well, he thought, at least she won't be coming around with a brat making trouble for me. Then he realized what kind of trouble he was in already.
But he didn't panic—he planned. He planned while he got dressed. He planned while he pushed Pina's tongue back in and got the hair out of her eyes and placed her comfortably on her back. Five minutes later, the fire was beginning to crackle.
It was a shirt-sleeve night, but Hank started shivering as soon as he reached the sidewalk. It was simply, Hank was sure, the contrast between the heat of the fiery room and the relative coolness of normal weather. All he had to do now was reach his car (parked down two blocks and over one) and drive away. He'd call Ainley Masters, and together they'd decide what Hank should say when told of the tragedy.
He heard a sudden explosion and the sound of shattering glass. Hank hit the ground and started crawling for cover, the way the family security experts taught every Van Horn. There was a roaring and a bright light. He looked back at the bungalow and saw what had happened.
The heat built up inside had popped one of the windows. Now the air was rushing in and turning the house into a furnace. The flames spiked up through the roof like bright yellow spears.
Hank allowed himself a small smile. The more heat, the less evidence.
Pina and her little bastard would burn to nonexistence. The less there was, the less there would be to react to for the police and the press.
Hank heard the voices as he was getting to his feet.
"Fire ... my God!"
"... Like a bomb, for Christ's sake ..."
"... anybody called the fire department?"
The noise and the light of the fire had drawn them, a little excitement for a run-down neighborhood. A crowd for Hank to filter through. A good thing. He worked his way toward his car.
"... hope there was nobody inside."
"... and where's the goddam fire department, will somebody tell me that? That fucker could spread!"
"Senator? Senator Van Horn?" The owner of this voice had him by the sleeve. It was a short man with brownish teeth and slicked-back black hair. "Senator, I'm Jack Smael. I'm party coordinator for this neighborhood." He held out his hand to shake. Hank took it automatically. Jack Smael went on to tell Hank how they had met a couple of years ago at the victory party for Congressman Delgado.
Hank's mind was empty. Habit and training brought the proper words to his lips. "Yes," he said. "Of course. Good to see you again. How are you?"
"More to the point, Senator, how are you? You look like you got too close to the fire. You need a doctor?"
All of Hank's resources were devoted to keeping the calm politician's smile on his face. There was nothing left for speech, or action, or thought.
"What are you doing in the neighborhood, Senator?" Jack Smael asked. "Next time, let me know, I'll arrange something. I don't have to tell you how important it is not to let an opportunity to meet the public go to—Oh, I got it. This is Miss Girolamo's house; she's on your staff. Jeez, I hope she's okay."
The smile went away. Hank could feel the muscles fail one by one. His face seemed to hang on him, dead and alien, like fungus on a tree. I've got to get out of here, he thought.
Then he heard the sirens, and saw flashes of red and white light on the black smoke billowing from Pina's house. I've got to get out of here. He threw Jack Smael's hand away like something dirty. "I've got to get out of here!" he said, and turned and ran.
Ainley Masters lived alone in an apartment on Lakeside, on the most exclusive block of that exclusive street. He had accumulated the necessary money in the course of serving the Van Horn family throughout his adult life. No one begrudged it to him—he had earned it.
He had earned his share of enemies, too. Hank had to stand on the doorstep for the better part of two minutes before Ainley peeped through all his peepholes and undid all his locks.
"Senator," he said, as he swung the door open. "What the hell happened? Have you been attacked?"
Hank's mistake was trying to tell it so it made sense. It was impossible to relate what had happened to him tonight so that it made sense. A few disconnected phrases made it past Hank's mouth. "Pina's dead ... fire ... somebody saw me—lot of people ... had to get away ..."
"Ainley, help me! The police will be after me, I'll go to jail. I didn't mean—"
"Hank, shut up!"
The Senator shut up and goggled at him. Ainley, though about ten years older, had never called him "Hank."
Hank looked at him, waiting. Ainley was thinking. He had a very good face for thinking—large, dark, sort of sad eyes, long aquiline nose, thin lips, strong chin. He was quite a small man, but he gave an impression of power all the same.
Excerpted from Atropos by William L. DeAndrea. Copyright © 1990 William L. DeAndrea. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews