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mudluscious and puddlewonderful.
So e. e. cummings once described the thaw of spring. But this was a midwinter thaw, an early February thaw following a blizzard that had piled a foot of snow on the ground. For a week now the snow had been melting during the day and freezing up again at night, so it could melt some more again tomorrow. The mud had become a lot less luscious and the puddles considerably less wonderful.
When it's not buried beneath the drifts, wintertime Santa Fe is primarily a study in brown, and—to be fair—the thaw had added variety and texture to the portrait. In addition to the pale brown of leaf-stripped trees, the paler brown of adobe, and the tan of hillside beyond the green puffs of pinyon and juniper, we now had the cinnamon provided by the roadway grit, the milk and bittersweet chocolates provided by the mud, the café au lait provided by the runnels of meltwater.
Sally Durrell's driveway, however, wasn't nearly so appetizing that Tuesday morning. Lying on Buena Vista, a narrow street south of the Capitol Building, it was a small semicircle of rutted black gelatinous muck winding through some barren lilac trees. When I entered it, I could feel the tires slipping beneath the Subaru, and I flipped the lever that transformed the little station wagon into a four-wheel-drive daredevil. The engine coughed—something was seriously wrong in there, had been wrong since the block had taken a couple of nine-millimeter slugs a few months ago—and the car leaped forward and breezed through the ooze.
I braked it, put it in Park, opened the door. I looked down and frowned thoughtfully, the way I always frown. Unless Sir Walter Raleigh was lurking behind one of the lilac trees, to reach the flagstone walkway I would have to breeze through a broad patch of ooze myself. In a pair of ostrich-skin Lucheses that had cost me a couple of weeks' pay.
Sir Walter didn't leap to my assistance. I climbed out of the Subaru and the boots immediately sank up to their ankles, and mine, in mud. Gingerly, the way real men do it, and frowning thoughtfully, and muttering only a very little, I squished and slurped across the bog.
Maybe the mud wouldn't have seemed such an affront if the sun hadn't been so brightly shining that morning, or the sky hadn't been such a cloudless powder blue. And maybe I would've felt better about the whole thing if I could've fooled myself into believing that Sally was going to offer the agency a big chunk of cash. But I knew that I owed Sally a favor, and I was fairly certain that she was going to call it in.
Or maybe, unconsciously, I had a premonition that I was about to get myself into something even more unpleasant than what I was walking through at the moment.
Unconscious premonitions are the best kind. You can always claim, after the fact, that you remember them.
Sally's house was perched on a rise, above a steeply sloped lawn of matted brown grasses humped here and there with patches of snow. It was a wide, two-story white frame building with wooden steps leading up to the covered porch. It faced north, and more snow lay slumped in its shadow and in the shadows of the tall pine trees that flanked it, standing tall and straight like palace guards.
A wooden house meant an old house, older than the city zoning laws that required houses to look as though they were built of adobe, even when they were built, as many of the new ones were, of papier-mâché. But Sally's house appeared new, the siding crisp and unmarred, the paint bright and unsullied. It was perhaps a bit out of place in a town that favored houses made of mud and straw, but it looked comfortable and sedate and respectable. And prosperous. Which wasn't really a surprise. If they were good, lawyers usually did well in Santa Fe, where litigation was as popular as Navajo jewelry. And Sally was very good.
I climbed along the flagstones and then tried to scrape the mud from my boots, using the overhang of the first wooden step. I wasn't spectacularly successful. Well, it was her driveway, after all. And her mud. I clomped up the steps and knocked on the front door.
After a few moments, Sally opened it. "Joshua," she smiled, drying her small hands on a red plaid dishtowel. "It's good to see you again," she said.
Sally was short. Since I'm on the tallish side myself, Rita tells me that I tend to accuse everyone around me of shortness. With Sally, however, there really wasn't much doubt. I don't know exactly where the official cutoff point for midget might lie, but Sally certainly came close: in her high-heeled shoes she was just a sliver over five feet tall.
She was also beautiful. Her hair was blond and it fell to her shoulders, sweeping in a sleek curve along the right side of her face, like Veronica Lake's. Her eyes were blue and her mouth was red and her features were perfect—all of them, from head to toe. Sometimes her legal opponents—those who hadn't bothered to check out her record, and occasionally even those who had—took a look at this petite, perfectly proportioned woman and they began to treat her like a Barbie doll in court, with that overly solicitous chivalry that only barely disguises masculine desire, or masculine contempt. And Sally would smile sweetly and bat her eyes and, with a cool dispassionate competence, she would proceed to remove their jugular veins. And frequently, as they saw it, their testicles.
"Hi," I said. "You're looking good, counselor."
And so she was, in a gray wool skirt and a white lace blouse opened at the throat to display a narrow gold-link necklace.
She smiled, "So are you. Come on in. I'm just finishing up the breakfast stuff." She glanced down. "What is that all over your boots?"
"Most of your driveway."
She looked up. "Oh Joshua, I'm sorry. I was going to get it graded last fall, but I never had the time." She grinned, suddenly impish. "You wear it well, though."
"Thanks, Sally. I'll take off the boots."
"Don't bother, really, I'll get you a rag or something—or here, take this." She held out the dishtowel.
"That's okay." With the toe of my left boot against the heel of my right, I levered my right foot free. I sat down on the doorstep, wrenched off the left boot, set it beside the other. And now my hands, like the boots, were covered with mud. I looked up at Sally, who wasn't very far up. Grinning, she held out the dishtowel.
I took it. "Thanks."
"It's only mud, Joshua."
"That we know of."
She laughed. "Come on. I'll get you some coffee." She held out her hand for the towel.
I gave it to her, stood, closed the door, and in stocking feet I followed her. Past a living room on the left—Early American furniture, some watercolor landscapes on the stucco walls, a Navajo carpet atop the shiny hardwood floor—and past a library on the right: another hardwood floor, another Navajo carpet, tall mahogany bookcases filled with books, a mahogany desk supporting a Macintosh computer and a laser printer. Through a formal dining room and around a polished mahogany table and its eight high-backed chairs. Into the kitchen, where sunlight spilled between the lace curtains at the white double-hung windows. Oak cabinets and countertops, a commercial gas stove, a white double oven beside a large white refrigerator. Red Mexican tiles on the floor; off-white linen paper, pinstriped with red, on the walls. In the center of the room stood a circular oak table surrounded by four oak chairs. On the table, beside a wicker basket that held a potted plant, lay a leather briefcase, opened.
"Very nice," I said.
Sally turned to me, cocked her head. "That's right. You haven't been here before, have you?"
"No. Back then, you were living on Alto Street." The floor was warm beneath my feet. Radiant heating.
She smiled. "A long time ago." The smile changed slightly; something entered it: speculation, reflection, perhaps a shadow of regret. I didn't know; still don't. She said, "If you hadn't been carrying that torch for Rita, we might've had a whole brood of no-necked monsters by now."
"Grouchy little boys in trench coats."
She laughed. "Lovable little girls carrying legal briefs."
I smiled. "I didn't know that was what you wanted, Sally."
"No," she said. "I wanted the brass ring." Her smile changed again, became crisp, businesslike. "I forget—how do you like your coffee?"
She laughed. "Cream? Sugar?"
"Sugar. Take off your coat and sit down. Stop looming."
I unzipped the leather jacket, shrugged it off, hung it on the back of the nearest chair, and sat down. Hanging from the back of the chair opposite me was a small wool suit jacket that matched Sally's skirt.
Sally poured coffee from a Melitta pot into a delicate china cup, set the cup on a saucer, and carried them over to the table, holding the saucer in her left hand and supporting the cup with her right. She put them in front of me, I thanked her, and she sat down on the opposite side of the table, hands atop the wood, fingers interlocked, her shoulders tilted slightly forward. It was the way she sat in court. I remembered it well; she had sat next to me in exactly that way when I was on trial.
She said, "Have you read anything about the murder in La Cienega three nights ago?"
"Enough chitchat, eh?"
She smiled. "Do you know about it?"
I shook my head. I'd been down in Socorro over the weekend, on business.
"I'm representing the accused," Sally said. "Giacomo Bernardi. He's innocent."
I sipped at the coffee. "Uh-huh," I said. "Nice coffee."
"I'm working on this, pro bono, for the public defender's office. You do know that the P.D.'s office provides funds for me to pay an investigator?"
"Not many funds," I said.
Another smile. "Fifteen dollars an hour."
"That many, huh?"
"Are you working on anything right now?"
I sipped my coffee, sat back. "Well ..."
"I need help with this, Joshua."
"Okay," I said.
She smiled. "Good. Thank you. I can sweeten the fifteen." She meant using her own money.
I shook my head. "Like Pete Peterson used to sav, Money is only something you need in case you don't die."
She smiled. "Who's Pete Peterson?"
"A pilot. Borderhopper. One of the first. Used to smuggle grass from Mexico to Ruidoso."
"Last I heard, he was a guest of the federal government."
"You know such interesting people."
"One of the perks of the business. So tell me about Giacomo."
"You know, Joshua, I'm not asking you to get involved because I think you owe me something. You don't owe me a thing. I'm asking you because you're one of the best investigators I know."
"Landsakes, Miss Sally. You'll turn my head."
She smiled briefly. "And I'm going to need someone good on this. The state has a tight case. Circumstantial, but tight."
I nodded. "Tell me about it."
Giacomo Bernardi, Sally told me, was a Tarot reader. Four nights ago, on the evening of Saturday, the eighth, Bernardi was attending a congregation of New Age healers in La Cienega, at the home of a couple called Brad Freefall and Sylvia Morningstar.
"Freefall?" I said. "Morningstar?"
Sally smiled wryly. "They're New Age healers, Joshua. They've transcended their original commonplace identities."
Among the others present, with his wife, Justine, was a man named Quentin Bouvier. Bouvier, according to Sally, was not well liked. He had, said Sally, a reputation as a Satanist.
"Come on, Sally. This is Alice in Wonderland stuff. Satanists. People named Morningstar and Freefall. Tarot readers. Are you sure it's a private detective you want? Not a soothsayer?"
She smiled again. "Welcome to Santa Fe, land of the free, home of the occult. It gets even better."
"I doubt that."
Quentin Bouvier, Sally told me, was not well liked in particular by Giacomo Bernardi, primarily because he had just purchased, from a woman named Eliza Remington, an antique Tarot card.
I asked Sally, "Who's Eliza Remington?"
"An astrologer. She was there that night, too."
"Sounds like a pretty nifty soiree. How come I didn't get an invitation?"
Sally smiled. "Actually, she's an amazing little old lady. I've met her. You'll like her."
"Uh-huh. So what was the deal with the card?"
"It's from an old Italian deck, apparently. It was painted in the fifteenth century. One of a kind, and very valuable. Bernardi felt that Bouvier—" She smiled. "This is where it gets better. Bernardi felt that Bouvier would be using the card for evil purposes."
"Summoning spirits." She smiled again, and shrugged, almost apologetically. "What can I say, Joshua. He believes in all that. Spiritualism. The occult."
"Great." I nodded. "Okay. Bernardi didn't much like Bouvier."
"As I said, no one much liked Bouvier. But Bernardi had an argument with him that night, a very vocal argument that nearly became a fistfight. He threatened the man. And in the morning, Bouvier was found dead in his bedroom. Strangled. The Tarot card was missing and so was Bernardi. The state police picked him up on the interstate, trying to hitchhike to Albuquerque."
"What do the state police have?"
"The argument the night before. Bernardi's leaving the scene. And his scarf. It was his scarf that was used to strangle Bouvier."
"Strangle him how?"
"Preliminary report from the medical examiner says that Bouvier was clubbed first, then the scarf was tied around his neck, slung over a beam, and Bouvier was hoisted up off the floor. The scarf was pulled down and knotted to itself."
"A long scarf."
"Over six feet long."
"Very dashing. And Bouvier was hoisted off the ground. Is Bernardi big enough to do that?"
"Bouvier wasn't a very large man. I could've done it myself."
"He was an elf?"
"He was five foot two. He weighed a hundred and thirty pounds."
"You said that Bouvier was there with his wife. Justine, is that right? Where was she while hubby was getting hanged?"
"They slept in separate rooms."
"Not a happy marriage?"
"An open marriage. She was sleeping with a man named Peter Jones in his room. Jones had been involved with Mrs. Bouvier for some time, and evidently with Bouvier's blessing."
"You know such interesting people."
She smiled. "One of the perks of the business."
"And who or what is Peter Jones?"
She grinned. "A spiritual alchemist."
"Am I supposed to ask what that is?"
"Only if you want to."
"Later maybe. Jones and Mrs. Bouvier alibi each other."
"Both of them say they were asleep for most of the night. They heard nothing."
"What was Bouvier clubbed with?"
"A large piece of quartz. It belonged to Sylvia Morningstar, and it was there in Bouvier's room."
"But the blow didn't kill him."
"No. He was still alive when the scarf was tied around his neck."
"Some. In his hair, on the bedsheets. Some on the floor."
"Would it have gotten on the murderer?"
"Perhaps. Perhaps not. There was none found on Bernardi."
"Prints on the quartz?"
"Bernardi wipes the quartz clean but he leaves his scarf wrapped around Bouvier's neck."
Sally nodded. "I pointed that out to the state police. In the heat of the moment, according to them, Bernardi simply forgot his scarf."
"What about the Tarot card?"
"It hasn't been found."
"So it wasn't on Bernardi."
She shook her head. "But he would've had time to hide it. So, at any rate, says the investigator for the state police, an Agent Hernandez."
"Yes. You know him?"
I nodded. "Yeah. But we're not exactly the best of friends." A few months ago, Hernandez had come close to arresting me for murder. "What does Bernardi say about all this?"
"To the cops and the D.A.'s people, nothing."
"Apparently the state troopers who picked him up were a bit rough. Bernardi refuses to talk to the authorities. Any of them."
"A bit rough."
"They beat him. Bernardi was resisting arrest, they say."
I nodded. It was a rough work, being a cop, and sometimes it didn't bring out the best in the people who did it. And sometimes, with a few of them, their best wasn't any good at all.
I asked Sally, "What does Bernardi say to you?"
"That he didn't do it. I believe him."
"You always believe them."
"Not always. But certainly in this case. I think he's being railroaded."
I nodded. "Okay. Standard deal. I find out what I can. If it's in your client's favor, then you and the cops get it. If it's not in your client's favor, then you and the cops get that."
She smiled again. "You don't have to tell me, Joshua."
I shrugged. "Just so you know."
"I already knew."
"When do I see Bernardi?"
Excerpted from The Hanged Man by Walter Satterthwait. Copyright © 1993 Walter Satterthwait. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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