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The Cruel Ever After
By Ellen Hart
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2010 Ellen Hart
All rights reserved.
Even before Chester Garrity opened his eyes, he knew this wasn't going to be one of his better days. Birds trilled, a lawn mower hummed in the distance — signs pointing to a beautiful spring morning, and yet the pounding inside his head was so intense that every bird chirp sounded like a horn blast.
Rolling onto his back, he stretched his aching limbs. When he worked up the courage to pry his eyes apart, he saw that he was lying outside under a pergola, his right leg hard up against the side of a hot tub. He couldn't imagine why he hadn't tried for something more comfortable, but then he couldn't remember much of anything about last night, except an excess of liquid celebration.
The next thought to pierce his throbbing consciousness was that he was back in Minneapolis. Once upon a time, he'd promised himself that he would never return to the Midwest unless it was in a body bag or at the point of a gun. Cows and milk-fed morons weren't his idea of culture. He'd lived all over the world, most recently in Istanbul, but money, as it always did, had grown tight. The need to replenish his dwindling bank account was the only force on earth that could have pulled him back to the middle of nowhere.
Propping his back against the plastic faux wood, Chess counted to three and then heaved his girth to a standing position. He wobbled a little, steadied himself, and finally dragged himself into the back entry of Melvin Dial's house, glad to see that Dial hadn't locked him out. He made a mental note to cut back on the booze. At fifty-one, he wasn't old exactly, but his out-of-shape body couldn't tolerate the level of abuse he'd once considered the price of a good time.
He entered the kitchen, rubbing his eyes, not really watching where he was going. He nearly stumbled when his foot hit something hard. Struggling to focus, he saw that all the drawers and cupboards had been opened, the contents dumped out. It looked like a high-priced kitchen equipment store had belched all over the travertine tile.
Shuffling through the mess into the living room, he pressed a palm to his eye. "Oh, right," he whispered. The card game. He wondered how much money he'd lost. Dial had deep pockets. More to the point, he wasn't the least bit frightened of illegalities. He was just the man they'd been looking for.
The living room was every bit as torn apart as the kitchen. Sitting down on the edge of a chair to get his bearings, he saw that the card table was still upright, covered with not only cards but empty glasses and filled ashtrays. A champagne bottle rested on its side — and, Jesus, a bottle of absinthe. Not a drop was left in any of them. No wonder he had a hangover the size of the Great Pyramid of Giza. But where was Dial?
A crumpled potato chip bag lay on the floor next to one of the wing-back chairs; chips were scattered across the tabletop and onto the bijar rug, as if someone had tossed it in a fit of temper. With a hand resting on the back of a chair to steady himself, he bent down to pick up one of the larger chips. He wasn't the least bit hungry, but the taste in his mouth was so foul that anything to make it go away seemed welcome. As he scooped the chip up and into his mouth, he spied a dark red stain near the footstool. The sight of it kick-started the part of his brain that was still asleep.
His gaze zipped from the stain to a pair of brown Cole Haan tassel loafers. The rest of the body was hidden behind the couch.
As Chess edged forward, his breath caught in his throat. "I am so screwed," he whispered, fighting back a burst of panic.
Dial lay on his back, the front of his white dress shirt soaked in blood, the beautiful Kurdish rug beneath him stained a dark red. The old man's eyes were open and staring blankly at eternity, leaving no doubt in Chess's mind that he was dead. He bent down to examine the deep gash in Dial's chest. Someone had knifed him and left him to die.
What, exactly, had happened last night? Chess recalled the bar where they'd cemented the deal. Irina, knowing the area much better than he did, had picked the place for its old-world charm, its pricey wine list, and the absence of blaring music. With adrenaline flowing as freely as the wine, none of them had wanted the evening to end, but end it had when Irina announced that she needed to get home to her baby and her husband. Chess and Melvin Dial had been left to their own devices for the shank of the evening.
Shivering as he lowered his aching body down onto one of the wing-back chairs, Chess closed his eyes and tried to picture what had happened after they arrived back at the house. He thought he remembered Dial popping a champagne cork and pouring them each a glass of bubbly. He made the same ironic toast he'd made at the restaurant: "To Don Rumsfeld's magnificent myopia." They took chairs on either side of the antique card table. Chess had shuffled the deck, recalling that they felt sticky. He thought he'd won the first few hands, although he couldn't be certain. With all he'd had to drink he couldn't even remember leaving the table and going outside. He'd been dead to the world, with no memory of anyone coming to the house, the sound of a doorbell or a fight. The fact that he'd slept right through a murder propelled him out of the chair.
Think, he ordered himself. It seemed more than probable that Chess himself would be sprawled next to Dial if he hadn't wandered outside and passed out. Whoever had come to the house had been looking for something. He couldn't be sure exactly why Dial had been murdered, but there was always the possibility that it had to do with the deal they'd just struck. That's why he couldn't call the police. He needed time to think everything through, to work out the best way to handle it, and for that he needed a cigarette. It could be hours, even days, before the old guy's body was discovered. He was retired, reclusive, lived alone. Chess had time. It might be the only thing he had going for him.
Before he left, Chess bent over the body and dug into Dial's pockets for his keys — just in case he wanted to come back. He hesitated, wondering if he should take the old guy's wallet. Hell, why not?
Stepping over to the front door, he stuck his head outside and looked around. Dial's house was located on a tree-lined street in Linden Hills, a quiet part of the city where leaves flickered in the late morning sunlight, dogs barked in the distance, and nobody, much to Chess's silent relief, seemed to be out and about. He removed a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket, tapped one out, and slipped it between his lips, cupping his hand around the tip and lighting it with a silver lighter. Then, closing his eyes, relishing the moment, he took a sweet, deep drag and held it, feeling a sense of calm spread slowly into his muscles.
Shutting the door behind him, he proceeded swiftly down the cobbled front walk. The plan forming in his mind was to simply walk away and, when he felt safe, call for a cab to take him back to his hotel. He could phone Irina from there, explain what had happened. Dial's death was a setback, for sure. They would need to look elsewhere to make the sale. Still, it was doable. This wasn't the end of the road.
"Afternoon," called a cheerful voice.
Chess coughed smoke out of his lungs.
A bald guy in a bathrobe and slippers had just come out on the front steps of the house next door. He leaned down and picked up a folded newspaper.
Cursing his wretched luck, Chess forced a smile. "Afternoon."
"Looks like we've got ourselves another gorgeous day."
Gorgeous, right. The scent of lilacs was so strong it was almost gagged him. "Sure does." Before the man could continue with his Midwestern pleasantries, Chess gave a friendly wave, then turned and headed up the street as fast as he could go without looking like he was about to break into a dead run.
"Shit, shit, shit," he exploded as he rounded the end of the block. The neighbor could put him at the scene of the crime, which would limit his ability to frame a plausible lie. He stuck the cigarette back between his lips and dug his cell out of the pocket of his jacket. As he did so, a white pickup whizzed past, driving way too fast for a residential street.
He forgot about waiting until he returned to the hotel. He punched in Irina's number at the gallery. When nothing connected, he checked to see what was wrong.
The goddamn cell was out of juice.
He turned and began walking toward the lake. He had to find a phone, which wasn't as easy as it used to be, when Ma Bell had been on every other corner.
Walking south, he felt the tension in his stomach continue to build. It surprised him that he remembered the lay of the land as well as he did. As a young man, South Minneapolis had been his playground. He'd lived in an apartment on Bryant Avenue, gone to the U of M, fallen in and out of love at least half a dozen times. Callow youth, he thought to himself, a time when everything seemed possible. Life, he'd learned, was often far more like drawing dead in a poker game. Even if you got everything you wanted, you still couldn't win.
The more distance he put between himself and Dial's house, the better he felt. His head was finally starting to clear. He flipped the cigarette away, supposing that he felt bad about the old guy's death, although he hardly knew him. Irina would take it harder, as would her mother. A guy like Dial had to have his share of enemies. Chess hoped like hell that his murder had nothing to do with the statue.
As he reached the south end of the lake, he noticed a building rising above the trees that hadn't been there twenty-some years ago. It looked like a giant log temple. Could it be? Was that the restaurant? He made a quick left into the parking lot, crossed a grassy patch that led to the front sidewalk, and climbed the log steps up to the front door. Before he went inside, he shrugged into his safari jacket and finger-combed his unruly hair back into place. He was older, for sure, but still looked pretty much the same. His body — that was a different story. Would she recognize him? Would he recognize her? He stepped up to a petite young woman behind the reception desk. "Can you tell me who owns the restaurant?"
"Sure," said the woman, pulling a menu out from underneath the reception stand. "Jane Lawless."
He digested the information, giving nothing away. Holding up his cell, he said, "Do you have a house phone? This thing's out of juice."
"Is it a local call?"
She handed him a cordless. "Dial nine to get an outside line."
Walking over to a quiet corner, he tapped in the gallery number. It rang five times before a woman's voice answered, "Morgana Beck Gallery."
"Morgana? It's Chester Garrity."
Morgana Beck was Irina's mother, the owner of the gallery and a visiting professor of the science and ethics of antiquities at Basir University in Ankara, Turkey. Irina had been working for her mother for nearly ten years.
"I need to speak to Irina," said Chess.
He shoved a hand into his pocket. "Do you know when she'll be —"
"I'm with a client right now. Call back later."
"Could you at least give me some idea of when she'll be in?"
Morgana and Chess had met on several occasions over the years, but for some reason, the great Morgana Beck didn't seem to like him.
"She and Steve drove down to Rochester this morning."
Steve was Irina's husband. "So, later in the day? Three? Four?"
"Is something wrong? You sound upset."
"Will she be in at all today?"
"I don't know. I'm hanging up now."
Chess turned his back to the receptionist as he cut the line. Morgana understood just how to yank his chain, and seemed to take great pleasure in it. Morgana Beck, a fifty-eight-year-old St. Paul matron, believed down to the soles of her Jimmy Choos that she was better than everyone else. People were always disappointing her, or trying her patience, or boring her into a state of stupefaction. People like Chess. This from a woman who'd undergone more cosmetic surgery than Michael Jackson and who had all the personal charisma of a boiled egg.
Pulling his shirt cuffs out from under his jacket sleeves, Chess gave himself a brief pep talk and then turned around and walked back to the receptionist, handing her the phone.
"Is Jane here?"
"She is," said the receptionist. "But she's tied up at the moment. If you'd like to make —"
"She'll see me."
"If you could give me your name —"
"Garrity." He allowed himself a small smirk. "Just tell her that her husband is here and wants to talk to her."CHAPTER 2
"Where are we on the birthday invitations?" asked Jane, easing back in her chair as a waiter poured more coffee into her cup. Coffee was the last thing she needed. She'd been thoroughly buzzed since seven.
"I sent them all out at the beginning of last week," said Cordelia, gazing through her rhinestone-studded horn-rimmed glasses at her notes. She never went anywhere these days without her Moleskine notebook. In its pages were her overwrought thoughts on life, her to-do lists, and famous quotes — often her own — she wanted marked down for posterity. "What else needs to be done?" She whipped off the glasses, all business today.
"Have you heard from my brother and his wife? They're coming, right?"
"Haven't you talked to them?"
Cordelia knew there was a rift between Jane and her brother, she just didn't know why. "I haven't talked to him in months."
"You two are behaving like children. Just bury the hatchet — not in each other's backs — and get on with it."
"It's not that simple."
"You know, Janey, if you told me what was going on, I might be able to help. I've had vast experience when it comes to empiric family warfare. Besides, Peter adores me."
"Everyone adores you."
"It's my cross."
Jane gazed past Cordelia to a table at the rear of the deck. A waiter appeared to be having an extended conversation with a customer who didn't look happy.
"Excuse me," she said, getting up. She wove her way through the tables. "Is there a problem?" she asked, moving up next to the waiter.
"You seem to be out of everything," said a sandy-haired man in a business suit.
"He wanted the lamb stew," said the waiter, looking apologetic, "but we ran out."
"So I ordered the Galway corned beef and cabbage. Your waiter just informed me that you're out of that, too."
Jane recalled that they'd been shorted on their corned beef order on Monday. "I'm the owner. Let me suggest a couple of specialties you might like. Have you tried our savory beef and mushroom cottage pie? It comes with a cup of potato leek soup and a small salad. Our Cumberland sausage and mash is another favorite. Or you might like today's fish entrée — pan-fried striped bass in a citrus butter. Comes with sweet potato chips. I sampled it this morning, and it's wonderful."
"I suppose the fish," said the man, glancing at the woman across from him. "If you can make it fast."
"We can," said Jane, "and it's on the house."
He looked up at her, no longer quite so disgruntled.
"I'm truly sorry for the inconvenience. I want you to be happy with your food. If there are any more problems, just let me know." She nodded to the waiter, and he took off. On her way back to her table, she spotted a pair of longtime customers — an older couple, with a grandson in Afghanistan.
"Nice to see you," she said, smiling down at them. "Everything okay with your order?"
"Wonderful as always," said the woman.
"How's your grandson doing?"
"He should be home next month," said the man. "We're keeping our fingers crossed."
"When he's back, bring him by for a piece of our turtle cake — on me." The grandson loved sweets.
"We'll do that," said the man with a grin.
Sitting down again, Jane picked up her coffee cup and took a sip. She should probably have been working the lunch crowd, seating customers, expediting orders in the kitchen, but because Cordelia had arrived ready to discuss Jane's father's birthday "extravaganza," she had decided to take a break.
Excerpted from The Cruel Ever After by Ellen Hart. Copyright © 2010 Ellen Hart. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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