Lara and Vinny Jessup had a lovely May-December marriage. Initially, the sheriff in Loomis County thinks that Vinny died when his car rolled over on a bad curve on Lookout Mountain. Then he finds the gunshot wound. Was it suicide or was it murder? With a large insurance policy as her motive, Lara could have staged the death-or so it appears to the sheriff. Barbara finds herself drawn to the Oregon desert to take on this case. To Barbara, it appears there's no defense at all.
About the Author
Kate Wilhelm is an American author of science fiction and mystery novels. She began her writing career in 1956 with a series of science fiction short stories. Her debut novel was published in 1963 and was a mystery book titled More Bitter Than Death. Wilhelm’s best known series include the Barbara Hollowar mysteries and the Constance Leidl and Charlie Meiklejohn Mysteries. In 2003 she was inducted into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame. She won her first nebula award in 1968 for her short story The Planners and won her first Hugo Award for her novel Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang.
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The rising sun is veiled with desert haze, rose-redstreaks extending north and south against a royal blue that onlygradually turns mauve. A high cirrus cloud glows brilliantly pinkfor a short time, vanishes; the haze dances a morning ritual, risingand falling, then it vanishes also, and finally there is only the sun,not visible as a thing in itself, but rather as if the sky, haze, cloudsare being rent apart to reveal an intolerable brilliance. Sunlightflares on snow-topped mountains, the Wallowas, Blue Mountains,Steens, and closer, on the Strawberry Mountains; it is castback by the obsidian on Glass Butte, windows placed by giantsuntaught in human architecture. It shines on dawn-still needlesof juniper trees, on motionless sage and bitter grasses, and castspreternaturally elongated shadows as black as openings into theabyss.
On the southern flank of Lookout Mountain, sunlight, likean Aztec signal on a shard of a mirror, is blindingly bright, butno human is on Lookout Mountain to be blinded that early inthe morning. It falls on a hand that is shades darker than theground on which it has come to rest, is reflected for an instantin three fingernails; the little finger and the thumb are in shadow.The rest of the man's body lies hidden beneath the wreckage ofa van. Only the hand and part of the lower arm are exposed.
Two coyotes lift their heads simultaneously as if joined toeach other, sniffing the air, sniffing the scent of gasoline, of motoroil, of raw metal. The scent of man, of blood, of death. Thescent comes from above them, on the side of the steep, rockymountainwith scant undergrowth. They hesitate, but the smellof gasoline is too strong. They turn and trot away together.
The sunbeams light up the redwood deck of the Jessup house,the grill, chairs, and tables that gleam as if covered with ice.Sunlight races across the deck to enter the living room throughwide windows where the drapes were left open the night before.A lamp pales and casts no light of its own, overwhelmed bysunlight. Light falls on the red-blond hair of a woman; her hairis curly and short. Although her face is sunburned, with a scatteringof freckles, it has the delicacy and the sculpted beauty ofMichelangelo's Pietà. Fine hairs on her arm gleam like gold. Shestirs and turns away from the glare. In sleep she looks youngerthan her years; she is thirty-three. Stirring, she uncovers her feet,and she moves again, still sleeping, to adjust a gold and greenthrow that is too short to be used as a blanket. Now the sunlightfalls on her eyelids, and she moves restlessly, as if unwilling toleave a dream.
Then abruptly she is awake, so suddenly that she can't movefor a moment, as if her mind and body are obeying differentsignals.
For Lara Jessup, awakening is the beginning of a nightmare.
She jumped up and rubbed her eyes; then, barefooted, she hurriedto the study door and looked inside. She looked into theguest room next to the study; Vinny's bed was neat and untouched.She ran now, down the stairs to the lower level of thehouse, to look inside the garage, just to be certain, but she knew.Vinny had not come home last night.
She raced through the house, looked inside every room,looked in her son, Nathan's, room, where he was sound asleep;then she ran to the kitchen phone and hit the automatic dialerfor Manny Truewater.
She knew she was incoherent, but she couldn't control hervoice or her words, and dimly, as if he were underwater speakingto her, she heard Manny telling her to put on coffee, he wouldbe there as soon as possible.
"I should have stopped him," she said to Manny Truewater fifteenminutes later. "I could have stopped him, or gone with him.Something!"
"Lara! Sit down. What happened? Where was he heading?"
Manny was from the Warm Springs tribe, short and thick,thick in the chest, with a broad face, black hair cut short, hisskin the color of old mahogany. In his fifties, ten or twelve yearsyounger than Vinny, he was Vinny's best friend.
She sat down hard on one of the kitchen chairs, and he placedcoffee in front of her. Her hands were shaking too hard to liftthe cup, although she had been so steady minutes earlier that shehad felt almost somnolent.
"We had fish out on the deck. With the Cornings. And Vinnyremembered that he had told Judge McReady that he would givehim some documents. He said he would take them over, and heleft."
"When did he leave?"
"Nearly ten. They left, the Cornings, and he got the paperstogether, and then he left. I wanted him to mail them or waituntil this morning, or something. I should have driven over withhim."
"Okay. You go get dressed, and I'll call the sheriff and gethim to send a car out. Vinny might be sleeping on the mountain,maybe ran out of gas and didn't want to walk home in the dark.Take it easy, Lara. Just get dressed now."
"You know how he's been these past months.... I didn'twant him to go. I was afraid.... He said it was a perfect goldenday. Yesterday."
"Lara! Go get some clothes on. I'll talk to the sheriff."
She stood up, as obedient as a child, stilled by the harshnessthat had entered his voice. For a moment his gaze met hers, andshe saw the same fear that had seized her. "It's my fault," shesaid in a low voice. "I could have stopped him."
She turned and left the kitchen. She didn't remember puttingon her robe, but she was wearing one, huddled inside it, freezing,her feet like ice on the bare hardwood floor.
At first they said it had been an accident: Vinny's van had rolledover the side of the mountain; he had lost control on that badcurve just before the driveway to the Lynch house.
"Lara, they'll have to investigate," Manny told her. "You understandthat, don't you? They'll want to ask you some questions.You don't have to talk to them now, today, if you're notup to it."
"I have to go to the hospital," she said vaguely. "I'm on today."
"Lara, pull yourself together. Listen to me. I'll call Norm andtell him what happened. You don't have to go anywhere. Thesheriff will want to know what happened last night, who washere, what Vinny said he had to do. That's all you have to tellhim, just what you told me. That's all he'll be interested in. Canyou do that now, or would you rather wait a day or two?"
"I have to call Alene and Roger...." They were Vinny's adultchildren, both of them older than she was.
The nightmare persisted, a waking nightmare; first she washere, then there, with no recollection of moving. Sitting on thecouch with Manny, then in her bedroom lying down, in thekitchen trying to drink some of the broth that Manny's wife hadplaced before her, gazing at Norm Oglespeak, her boss at thehospital, where she was a nurse. She had seen many people inshock and could deal with them gently and effectively; she didnot recognize shock in herself.
Then the sheriff suggested suicide. Alene and Roger were boththere, red-eyed and grieving; Nathan, her twelve-year-old son,was red-eyed and silent. Manny was with them. The sheriff saidmaybe Nathan could go out on the deck so they could talk, andwithout a word Nathan left. He had said almost nothing sinceManny told him about Vinny's death.
"Mrs. Jessup," the sheriff started after Nathan had gone out,"was Vinny disturbed about anything? Upset?"
She shook her head. A lie. She found it too difficult to sayany of the things racing through her head without letup. Whata beautiful sight you are! Rising like a water nymph, shaking offdiamonds. This is one of those rare and wonderful perfect goldendays. You should have a special place in your head to store suchdays so that you can open the door and walk back into themlater. You've given me so many perfect golden days. I am verygrateful.
"Was he worried about his checkup? Norm tells me he wasoverdue to check in at the hospital."
You know what I fell in love with? Your hands. You get toknow the hands that tend you in a hospital. Hard and efficient,or careless and even indifferent, some so soft and fluttery theyseem to take twice as long to do what needs doing as they should,but your hands were soft and gentle and swift. You hands knewthis old body didn't want much handling, and they got the jobdone as fast as possible without hurting. Your hands never hurtme.
"When you've had cancer," she said in a very low voice,"you're always concerned about the next checkup. It's impossiblenot to be concerned."
"But no more than usual?"
She shook her head.
"What's this all about?" Roger demanded then.
He was sitting on one side of Lara on the couch; Alene wason her other side, as if Lara needed protection. They had notstarted out on friendly terms; their hostility to her, to their father'sunseemly marriage to a woman younger than his ownchildren, had been open and vocal. Then Vinny had taken themout somewhere, and when they all arrived home that night,Alene had held Lara and wept. Lara never had learned what hesaid to them.
"Well, Roger," the sheriff said, "it's this note that turned up.Here's a photocopy; we'll have to keep the original for a while."
He handed a sheet of paper to Roger, who read it and turnedvery pale. "It's a lie!"
Alene reached across Lara and took the paper from him, thenshe and Lara read the typewritten words together.
I'm sorry about this. But it's best this way. Forgive me, Lara.Manny knows what to do with the practice. It was unsigned.
Lara looked up to find the sheriff regarding her with an unblinkinggaze; he looked cold and hard. She had met him, SylvesterGouin, going on sixty, going to fat, but he had been genialand smiling before. The town children called him Silly Gooey.
"It's a lie," she said. "It's a fake." Her voice was a hoarsewhisper.
Manny yanked the note from Alene's hand and read it, thentossed it down on the coffee table. "Where'd you get that?"
"In his shirt pocket. They found it when they peeled off hisclothes. Mrs. Jessup, is there a typewriter in the house?"
"No. A computer and printer. In his study."
He stood up and motioned to a deputy leaning against thedoorframe. "Maybe we can have a look."
Afterward they padlocked the study. "You folks have a bitof trouble?" the sheriff asked at the door of the guest room.Inside, a few folders and loose papers were on a bedside table.
"No," Lara said. "Vinny had the flu back in the winter, andhe had a persistent cough. He wanted a room where he wouldn'tdisturb me."
They padlocked the guest-room door also. She wished Vinnyhad taken him out for a talk, that he had taken them all out fora talk, the whole town, all the old men who looked at her likethat, all of them speculating on the May and December marriage,wondering what a "girl like her" was doing with an old man likehim. She had heard a whisper, had been meant to hear it: "A girllike her, she's out for money. What else?" Honey, they're sojealous, they see you and jerk off before they even get home totheir wives. And know what? I don't blame them.
Then, nightmarelike, the sheriff was gone and she was sittingwith Alene, Roger, and Manny. Roger was furious.
"That note's a fake, and even that dimwit should see throughit!"
"Maybe he does, maybe not," Manny said. "McReady saysVinny never showed up that night. McReady, his wife, and herfolks waited up for him until nearly eleven, then they went onto bed. No papers turned up in the wreckage on the mountain.So the question is, What happened to them? And another questionis, What was in them? They're going to do an autopsy. Allwe can do is sit tight and wait it out. After the funeral, some ofus will go over all of Vinny's files. The sheriff will get a courtorder to allow a court-appointed attorney to oversee the wholething, and try to spot those missing papers, just in case Vinnychanged his mind and went back to the office or put them in hisfiles here."
Manny was executor of the estate, and now he said that Vinnyhad given him instructions about what to do if the hospital decidedto keep him awhile. "You know, when he went in yearsago, it was four months before he got back home. He knew thatcould happen again. So I have instructions." Vinny had knownthat many of his clients would refuse to have a Native Americanattorney, although he and Manny had worked together manytimes in the past. Manny would get in touch with those peoplewhose legal business had anything to do with Indian affairs, hesaid that day, and Robert Sheffield would get in touch with therest of the clients and offer his services. "It's all going to taketime," he said soberly. "And the insurance isn't going to comethrough until the case is settled one way or the other. Lara, howare you fixed for money? Your joint accounts and your safe-depositbox will both be frozen pending the outcome of theinvestigation."
She moistened her lips. "When I started working, he said Ishould have my own account."
Lara, that's your money. I went broke years back, but we'renot broke now. Keep it for Nathan's education. You don't supposeCurtis is likely to help out with that, do you? His eyes hadbeen knowing. Curtis begrudged every penny he had to pay insupport for his son. Let's talk just a bit about money. I could say"if anything happens to me," but I won't. No euphemisms. WhenI die, you'll get the insurance. That's what I got it for, to takecare of my wife if the day came that I couldn't do it myself. It'syours, or will be. Just wanted you to know that. But his wife haddied first, and then he had fallen in love with gentle, capablehands. I nearly let it lapse, but ! kept thinking of the nurse withthe magic hands, and I kept up my premiums. If you'd said no,I would have chucked it and spent the money on booze or videopoker, or down in Vegas.
She was blinking back tears again.
The next time the sheriff came back, he had several other menwith him; he was grimmer than ever, and he had a court orderto search the house.
"We got the autopsy report," Sheriff Gouin said curtly."Vinny died of a gunshot wound in the head."
Lara and Alene huddled on the couch while the sheriff andhis detectives searched; Roger stayed with the officers. Whenthey were done, he told Lara about it. "They were looking forweapons, guns and ammunition, and drugs," he said. "The autopsyturned up narcoticscodeinein his system. And theytook the tape from the answering machine."
Lara groaned. Late the night before, Curtis had called and leftan ugly message. "Pick up the phone, damn you! I know you'rethere. Now that old moneybags fart is gone, get your ass backhere where you belong."
They released Vinny's body, and the funeral was scheduled.Roger's wife and Alene's husband arrived with their children.Alene wept when Lara said Vinny should be buried next to hisfirst wife. They had been married a long time; their children andtheir grandchildren should come first. Then even that was donewith, and a stillness settled over Lara and her house.
Sometimes during the night she imagined she could hear thecreak of a wheelchair, an old-fashioned chair, not a modern motorizedone. She could imagine Marilyn, Vinny's first wife,wheeling herself through the silent house, looking for something,always looking for something.
Marilyn never was really alive after Lewis vanished. A nervousbreakdown, prescription drugs that turned her into a zombie,then the strokes started. It was never her house. I doubt sheever really saw it or knew where she was. It's your choice, Lara.If you want to move to a different house, we will.
It had never bothered her. She knew that Marilyn couldn'thave gone up and down the different levels, that the house heldno ghosts, no memories of a creaking wheelchair, but now andthen she strained to identify what she imagined she heard.
In a few days school would be over for the year, and Nathanwould go to Portland to stay with his father for a month, andfor the first time in her life, she would be alone. Alone in a townwhere the residents whispered about her and stared openly ather, where rumors about Vinny's death circulated and becamemore and more vicious. Alone in a house where she would hearthe wheelchair creaking and groaning.
She yearned for the door to open into one of the perfectgolden days, but behind every door there was only more of thenightmare.
Over and over, as if acting under an irresistible compulsion, sherelived that last day and night. They had come home in theCorning van, Nathan and Tod Corning sunburned and ripe withfish smells and mud, and very happy. They grilled fish on thedeck, and then as they were all clearing dishes, carrying utensilsback inside the house, Vinny uttered a soft curse. "I forgot something,"he said. "Excuse me a minute." She heard him on thetelephone, heard his call to Harris McReady, heard him say, "I'llbring them over at ten. I don't want to come in; just meet me atten down by the road."
"Tonight! For heaven's sake, let it go until morning. You'retoo tired now." He was too tired; everything he did exhaustedhim. She was nearly shrill in her protest.
"Can't let it go. They plan to be out of here first thing in themorning. It won't take long. Don't fret."
The Cornings had looked embarrassed, perhaps sensing anargument; everyone seemed to expect to see them arguing, eventheir friends. Lara didn't press the point then. Later, after theCorning family was gone, she brought it up again.
"You can put things off only so long before time runs out onyou," Vinny said. "I've put this off long enough, more than longenough. Take a bathuse some of that nice bath oil, the lemonykindrelax, and go on to bed. You're sunburned. Be sure to putsome lotion on your nose and cheeks, or you'll peel. A nursewith a peeling nose is the last thing a patient needs to see."
Then he touched her cheek gently and smiled at her. "Ah,Lara. Lara. Don't wait up for me. I have a few things to do inthe study when I get back."
"Hush, now. Go take your bath." He picked up his briefcaseand walked down the steps to the lower-level garage, and shewent to the deck and watched him back out of the drive, thenturn toward Lookout Road.
Without thought, without volition, without wanting to do it,she followed minutes later. At first all she could think was thatsomething was terribly wrong, something fearful, big, important.Not just his health; she knew he was ill again. Somethingelse, something worse than that, and nothing could be worsethan that.
Then her fear of the road took precedence. She had been upLookout Mountain only one other time, and that had been on asunny afternoon. The road was hardly wide enough for two cars,and it climbed the mountain in switchbacks, perilously close tothe precipice one second, skirting the basalt cliff the next. Theroad was red lava rock that looked black in her headlights, likedried blood.
Suddenly she was seized with a rush of shame. This was whatCurtis had done to her, followed her, always checking up onher. He called her supervisor at the hospital to make sure shewas on duty; he tailed after her to the library, even to the grocerystore a time or two. And she was doing the same thing, tailingher husband.... And now she could not even be certain he hadcome up here. She had seen no car lights, no house lights, justthe bloodred road and the blackness of the chasm on one sideand the black cliff on the other.
There was no place to turn around; she had to keep driving,up higher and higher, knowing she had missed the Lynch driveway,uncertain where there was another one. Everything was tooblack, featureless.
Finally she saw two reflectors that indicated a driveway, andshe drove onto it cautiously; then, clenching the steering wheelhard, she backed out, made her turn, and started retracing thetortuous track, this time on the outside of the road all the way.Minutes later, edging around a switchback, she saw headlightssweep across the chasm below, and she realized a car was comingup the mountain. The lights vanished. Another curve, then suddenlythere was the narrow turnout, the lookout where they hadstopped before when they went all the way up, with Vinny drivingthat day.
The turnout was no more than a widening of the road, withno guardrails, no boulders to mark the edge. She pulled onto itparallel to the road, afraid to head in, too uncertain where herwheels would be, and then she turned off the headlights andrested her forehead on the steering wheel to wait for the oncomingcar to reach this point and pass. Of course there would beother cars on the road; people lived on the mountain; they droveup and down all the time. She was shaking.
When the approaching car drew near, she ducked down outof sight. She knew people talked about her and Vinny, and this,discovering her out on the mountain spying on him ... No onewould ask her about it, but there would be talk, and eventuallysomeone would mention it ever so casually to Vinny. She drewin a deep breath when the blackness was complete again and theother car noise was no longer audible, then she continued todrive on down the mountain.
Now, lying in bed in a house at once too quiet and unquietwith the imagined sounds of a wheelchair that she found herselfstraining to hear, she faced again the awareness that if she hadnot been so ashamed, so cowardly that night, she would havewaited at the turnoff; Vinny would have seen her there andstopped, and she would have followed him home to talk.
She had not told anyone. At first she had not thought of telling,then she had been too ashamed, and finally, not having told,she had been afraid to tell.
On Saturday she took Nathan to Bend, fifteen miles down thehighway, to put him on the express bus to Portland. He had notwanted to go this year.
"Mom, you aren't going to sell the house or move or anything,are you?" He was watching the highway, as if looking forthe bus, but really to avoid her gaze. He had been avoiding hergaze ever since Vinny's death. They had their meals together,but they didn't talk. They sat before the television together andwatched films or the news, or something, but they didn't talkthen, either. And he avoided looking at her.
He was as tall as she was, with her coloring, freckled fair skinsunburned most of the summer, the same red-blond hair, but hewas going to be a large man, like his father. She desperatelymissed the little boy she had been able to hug and rock and playsilly games with, the boy she could always talk things over with.She wanted to put her arms around him there at the bus station,but he had drawn himself into a place she couldn't enter, he wasavoiding her, and there was an unnatural stillness like an auraabout him that she couldn't penetrate. Her few attempts to reestablishsomething of their past closeness had been met with ablank look and an unresponsiveness that she had found forbidding.
Excerpted from NO DEFENSE by KATE WILHELM. Copyright © 2000 by Kate Wilhelm. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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