The Crossword Puzzle (#7)

Ming Zhen Shakya
Ming Zhen Shakya
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The Crossword Puzzle

by Anthony Wolff (Ming Zhen Shakya)

To see all published chapters of “The Crossword Puzzle” click here

PART 7: ELIMINATING THE IMPOSSIBLE

 

Meanwhile, the Thanksgiving Day holiday had ended and there was no need for Mrs. Eglington to keep trudging up and down the old attic steps or for Gladys to stay in her upstairs room, either.  They stayed in the house to serve Paige for whom they had no affection or respect.  They agreed to stay on until the probate procedure was concluded; “I’m going to see about moving into the master bedroom,” Mrs. Eglington confided to Gladys, “and you can see about taking Nola’s bedroom.   I’ve got enough money of my own saved to buy a new mattress… and besides, he wasn’t killed in that room.  Master Roland is a kind man.  He’ll understand.”

The two women approached Paige who definitely did not want her servants going around town telling tales about life at Ghent house, and she was also lonely living alone on the second floor.  At first she seemed reluctant and didn’t quite know what to say.  “You can’t use my room or the children’s rooms; and I don’t know what to do if one of them brings a friend home to spend the night. And I miss my sister,” she began to cry.  ”When she returns she will be given her choice of bedroom so one of you will have to leave the room immediately.”

Mrs. Eglington allayed her fear.  “If you ever require the rooms, we’ll move back into the attic in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.  Have no fear, Madam.  And no one in town will know that we’ve come down to the second floor.  You have our word.  It’s just that the stair to the attic is so difficult for me,” she pleaded.

“All right,” Paige agreed.  “But tell no one.”

Telling no one did not include Gregor, Jules, or Hines.  Jules waited for his inheritance, but Gregor and Hines had no specific reason to stay.  Jules knew only that he had been named as a beneficiary.  He did not know to what extent Hines had lied to him.  The atmosphere in the house did not conduce to contentment in any form.  Often the servants did not reply normally, but snapped or snarled, or said something sarcastic in response to each other’s questions or comments.

Hines Whitman was furious when he heard that Mrs. Eglington was moving her things into the master’s bedroom.  “I wanted that room for myself!” he announced as if what he said had any significance.

No matter how he grumbled about having to live in the turret, the others each had a remark that sealed him in the uncomfortable quarters.   Gladys said, “When Nola comes back, I’ll have to move out of her room and I’d just as soon stay in the carriage house as go back to the attic.”  Gregor grunted but did not voice an objection.

“Carriage house?  You can live there but I can’t?” Hines complained.

“Maybe you have attic to yourself,” Gregor grinned malevolently.

“You can continue to live with Jules over the Four-car garage,” Gladys noted.

“I’d leave today but I have to think about references,” Hines countered.  Since he had been needed to stay on to help with the unusual paperwork associated with a death in the family, Paige had asked Roland to let Hines use his room, but Roland declined saying that he did not want his privacy violated.  Gregor had not wanted his privacy invaded either and so he had drapes hung on the windows that faced the turret.

 

At the beginning of December, Paige called Nola and asked to meet with her to get some needed advice, and despite Ellis’s advice not to meet with her, she agreed.  “Let me do a little more investigating,” he insisted.

“I can be investigating at the same time,” Nola said.   Paige came to the house.

“After the funeral but before the kids left for school after Thanksgiving,” Paige anguished, “all hell broke loose.  Previously Pierre had blamed you for causing trouble between Spence and me.  And then the Will was just read and he found out that I control all the assets except the house.  Spence assigned a huge amount of our liquid assets to furnish that clinic.  We’re far from broke, but nowhere near where we used to be.  The house is now Roland’s – but we all have the right to live there as long as we stay single.  Pierre didn’t know this.  He thought he’d get a big chunk of cash and wanted an expensive Italian sports car for Christmas. He told all his friends who laughed at what they considered his fantasy.  So he asked me for money to buy the car and I refused.  It’s outrageous.  He’s not even a freshman in college!”

“What was his reaction?”

“He called me every name in the book.”  Paige began to cry.  “He says he doesn’t care who knows what a tramp I am.  One of the servants must have told him about Gregor and me. He keeps referring to the pain I must have caused his father by carrying on with Greg right under his nose.”

“You brought me on board,” Nola said.  “You’re responsible for Spence’s recovery. Prior to my coming there Spence was being killed slowly by his well-meaning servants.”

Ellis’s car pulled into the driveway and Paige, not wanting to talk to anyone else, decided to leave.  “Pray for me,” she said as she left the house and gave a nod to Ellis who met her in the doorway.

 

Later that day, Pierre Ghent went to the police station to recant his earlier statement.  Dave Rowan called Ellis to tell him.  “He now wants to be truthful and reveal that it was his mother’s sexual relationship with numerous other men that caused the trouble.  Nola was innocent.  She actually helped his dad.”  Rowan chuckled. “We’ve taken his statement.  You can drop by and read it whenever you want.”   He paused, “Listen, do you have any idea why he reversed himself so completely?”

“My guess would be that the kids knew that originally their mother was going to control the purse strings, and they regarded that as history from back in the days that Spence loved her and she was honorable and they were little.  Spence did a lot of talking to his attorney recently and the kids probably thought he’d rectify that outdated provision and let them inherit the money directly.  I doubt that they were aware of just how much money Spence had spent lately.  He let his partners buy him out and didn’t have a personal income from his investment company for years. But while he worked, the family could have lived on his salary alone.  Without it, they dipped into their considerable portfolio. He lost a lot in the last recession, too, and didn’t have the wherewithal to recoup his losses.  Then in the last year, Nola and Hines were hired and Spence went flying first class around the world and made a Swiss Spa his home away from home and committed a fortune to the new clinic addition… and the woman who went with it.  Big bucks, all told.”

“So Pierre thinks that by discrediting his mother he can have her removed as executrix.  Nice kid.”

“What’s flesh and blood compared to money?”

“Why am I surprised?”  Rowan grimly chuckled.  “Listen, Ellis, in some of Spence’s papers there were other puzzles – normal ones – that he seems to have started just before he died.  They don’t have themes listed, but there are clues.  I’m stymied but maybe Nola can give us some answers. I’m gonna see about bringing her back here to have a look at them.  Is that ok with you?”

“Sure… just let us know. I’ve got to go out again to Corbin’s office.  You can reach me there if you need me.”  Ellis disconnected the call.  He felt good about Rowan’s attitude. Clearly, Nola was not seriously considered the prime suspect any longer, despite the legal machinery that was still chugging away.

 

Nola called Paige to tell her about Pierre’s recantation.  “He’s just a kid,” she said, “looking out for his own interests in the only way he can figure.”

Paige cried and blew her nose. “They have no respect for me.  Spencer poisoned them.”

Nola switched to another related topic.  “I’ve been thinking about the study. There are ground-level windows on two sides of the room.  At the far end there are drapes between the windows and Spencer always used to keep a loaded rifle behind one of the drapes.  Tell me about that.”

“There are lots of feral dogs and coyotes that come out of the woods and attack our goats.  While Spence was sick in bed, Jules would sometimes check the area and if he saw the goats being threatened, he’d lower a window and ask Gregor to shoot the dog and then dispose of the dead animal.”

“Did you say, ‘Lower a window?’” Nola asked. “Why not raise it?”

“Because they’re all near ground level.  If you lower the top, you can lean on both window frames for stability when you take a shot. Since the windows are so easy to raise and lower, anybody could have climbed in and out without the rest of the house knowing it. i just thought I’d mention it.”

“So,” Nola noted, “any servant could have climbed in to help carry Spence into the bathroom.”

“It needn’t have been a servant,” Paige said.  “The windows at the far end are close to the rocky hill that was too steep for us to use.  But the workmen did rig a rope at the side.  They pounded down a few posts and strung a rope to help them get up.  They’d often throw stuff down that side to save them the extra steps of going all the way around the estate to approach it from the front.   Anybody could have climbed up without being seen on the driveway.”

“Jesus,” Nola said.  “We have to start someplace and the sooner, the better.  Paige… talk to whichever one of the servants is still on good terms with you.”

“That’s probably Mrs. Eglington,” Paige said.  “I’ll see what I can learn.”

 

“Give me an honest answer.  How do your children care for you and Spence?” Nola asked with Incredulous concern. “There doesn’t seem to be much mourning for his loss or sympathy for you.”

Paige sighed as tears filled her voice,“There was a time when we were a loving family… a unit.  But kids have a way of taking their own path.  They want to create their own personality and make themselves appear to be independent. They don’t want to walk beside you anymore.  They separate themselves by letting the only things they have, love and loyalty, convert to disloyalty and hate.”

“Do you believe that Spence killed himself because Ingrid Hesse died in a car crash? Between losing her and investing all that construction money, I think he believed life was over for him, and that it’s possible one of your servants took the gun.  I don’t believe that someone entered the study and just shot him.”

Paige sighed. “It’s always a mistake to think that because you pay someone, they feel love for you. Sure… all of them were capable of such mischief.  Everybody looks out for Number One, even people who cash a paycheck you signed.  It might help if we found out what plans Spence had for him and Ingrid. They must have had domestic plans… respectable ones. He never asked me for a divorce, but maybe that was one of the things he talked to his attorney about. They’ve been waiting for the Lucerne execs to return from Europe to question them. And as far as moving Spence’s body into the bathroom to wash the gun shot residue from his hands and arms, I might as well admit that Gregor is my candidate for the job.  He used to think that he had some sort of power over me… well… I might as well specify it… photos and videos.  But miraculously he seems to have lost the pictures.  He accused me of stealing them, but I didn’t do it.  I have a guardian angel someplace. I’m so sorry I started seeing that bastard.  Gregor thought that with Spencer out of the way, he’d have me to himself.”  Paige shuddered.  “Or even since I was in control of the money…” she hesitated and then sighed again.  “It’s not worth talking about.”

“All along I’ve thought that he must be taking photos or videos of you – whether or not you knew it. I don’t know why he’s sticking around unless he’s waiting for a payoff for helping one or more of the servants who got an inheritance.  He’s the type who would stoop to gaining control over someone no matter what it took.”

Paige began to cry.  “Yes,” she whispered, “he had many photos and videos of me.  Some of the photos I knew about, but not until he accused me of stealing them did I learn about the videos. He wasn’t above blackmailing me about them. How would my children ever have lived it down?  He won’t speak to me now.  I’m so alone.”  She began to sob.

Nola tried to redirect her emotions. “Then you better stop whining and start taking control of that house.  I’m willing to bet that the turret hasn’t been renovated.  Even if Hines doesn’t live in it, the house will belong to Roland and you might as well not incur his displeasure by leaving it in any shabby way.  People say it was once the pride of the estate.   And notice what your servants are doing.”

“All right!  All right! I know that Gladys has a crush on Gregor.  Ever since he first came here she looks at him with those kewpie-doll eyes.  I’ve seen her staring at him when he works in the patio or garden with his shirt off.  If the men are working outside in the heat and Mrs. E. makes a pitcher of lemonade for them, Gladys will squeeze an extra half lemon into the glass she hands him. She gets a thrill out of changing his bed linens and picking up his dirty clothing.  It’s sickening.  And Hines is the same way.  Any excuse to talk to Greg is a good excuse.”

Nola grinned. “That’s the kind of thing you need to notice… special friendships between any two of them. So toughen up!  Start running things properly; and if you find anything about Spencer’s future plans with ingrid, let Ellis or me know.  How he defends me will depend on all this little stuff that’s in his lawyer’s head.”

 

 

Ellis sat with Dave in the cafeteria.  “I expect that you’ll not be filing any charges against Nola. That house was a real snake pit. None of them appreciated the good work that Nola did nursing him.  I think everyone of them expected him to die within a matter of weeks or a few months at most.”  Before picking up his cup, he asked, “Have you looked into this Doctor Hesse?  Did anyone around her stand to gain or lose, financially or romantically, with Spencer Ghent in or out of the picture?”

“Yes, we looked.” Dave got out his notebook.  “We even ran her through Interpol.  She was forty, a widow of a poor poet who, for some reason, she stuck with for 16 years.  A hard worker.  No scandal whatsoever. She worked for the Lucerne people for five years.  The investigator over there said people wept when they found out she died.  Years ago she inherited some money from a patient, but she donated it all to the clinic.   The Minister of Health plus a bunch of other bigwigs attended her memorial.  She was related to Austrian aristocracy but didn’t acknowledge it. She liked to ski and ice skate.  Beyond that there was her job as an officer at the clinic.   Nothing… you will find nothing in her past.  After ten years doing hands-on medicine, she went to college at night or on the net, studying economics. She had a few office positions and then became Chief Financial Operator and you don’t deal in other people’s money in Switzerland but that you are vetted with a capital V.”

“Nola also reeks of competence.  If Paige didn’t like Spence’s improvement under her care, she’d have found a way to get rid of her.  She gave Paige complete control whenever she was out of the house.  She didn’t want him dead and I don’t think she killed him.”

“Ok,” Ellis finished half of his coffee.  “What about that Japanese kid who was released early?”

”He’s been in federal custody waiting to be deported but I don’t know when that will be. He was here on a Japanese student visa which expired when he was incarcerated.  I’ll have to check with Immigration.”

“The guy from India might have wanted to get Spence out of the way.  When Nola didn’t come up with the money, he faced fraud charges.  Spencer wouldn’t have given him a nickel but Paige might have saved him.  We need to find out if he crossed the border and returned to the U.S.”

“I still want Nola to look at those partially done crosswords.  Let’s go to your place and I’ll release her ankle bracelet and let the sergeant know.”

Nola was delighted to get the bracelet removed.  “When I walk I often bang it with my other ankle and I can’t get my skinny jeans over it.  What a relief!”

They left in Rowan’s unmarked police car.

Nola and Paige greeted each other as though they hadn’t seen each other in years.  They began to babble and Rowan had to step in and remind Nola that she had a job to do.  She and Paige went to the dining room where all of Spence’s loose papers had been boxed once Mrs. Eglington moved into his room.  Paige summoned Mrs. Eglington and told her to prepare an extra special afternoon tea for all her guests.

After tea, everyone attended to other chores or business.  Detective DeFazio and Jules went into the Four-car garage to inspect the vehicles; Rowan and Ellis were examining the windows in the study; Mrs. Eglington put the “good” tea service away in a special cabinet; Gladys put a clean apron on and went to build a fire in the living room fireplace; and Hines and Gregor were out of sight somewhere on the premises.  The presence of the pickup-truck and cars indicated that no one had left the area. It had begun to rain and low clouds shrouded the hilltop in mist.  The temperature had also dropped.  In the study, Rowan looked at his watch. It was after four o’clock. “I’ll call my wife and tell her I’m running late.  We have to check to see if Nola’s gotten anywhere.”

Paige and Nola had been in the dining room, but a member of Paige’s “Fun Lovers Club” (as it was unofficially called) called and was driving up to the house to pick her up for an “impromptu.”  Paige began the conversation with a solemn reticence but her caller seemed to be somewhat intoxicated and insisted that he was going to make her cease mourning; and rather than have him come to the house and encounter the police, she agreed to meet him down on the road at the base of the steep incline.  “I’ll try to get back within two hours,” she said to Nola and slipped out of the kitchen door.

Nola was working on a puzzle and read a clue that referred to a “Logo of farrier’s major equipment” and went to see if an old blacksmith’s anvil or hammer was stored in the farrier’s shed.

As Rowan and Ellis left the study, expecting to find Nola and Paige in the dining room, they saw that the room was empty but before they could even comment on the absence of the women, a shriek came from outside the house, a shriek that kept repeating.  The two men ran out of the house towards the source of the noise.  Hines was screaming.  Nola came out of the farrier’s shed to see what the commotion was about.  Gladys scrambled down from the attic where she had gone to get some personal things she had left there when she prepared to move into Nola’s room.

On the ground under the turret’s corner Gregor Nikolov’s body lay crushed from having fallen four storeys.  The back of his head had stuck an upright edging stone and had split his head almost into two parts.  The sight was hideous and the man who had seemed so sturdy and solid, now seemed like a bloody heap of blood and skin covered by a denim shirt and pants.

DeFazio was calling for additional police detail as he ran to the fallen man.  When he reached Rowan and Ellis, who could barely look at the body, he announced, “So Gregor Nikolov has just committed suicide. Think it was guilt?”

“Suicide?” Rowan asked with anger and incredulity.

“What else?” DeFazio answered.  “The roof of the turret is conical.  He wasn’t sun-bathing up there.”

“You stupid ass,” Rowan said, walking back towards the house as the other servants began to appear.

“What’s wrong with him?” DeFazio asked Ellis.

Ellis pointed up at the turret.  “Suicides do not usually stop to shut the windows after they’ve defenestrated.”

“Oh, Jesus,” DeFazio whispered.  “I didn’t notice that they were all shut.”

“Live and learn,” Ellis said and began to follow Rowan.  He turned and saw Nola standing in the doorway of the farrier’s shed.  “What are you doing out here?” he shouted.

“I’m trying to find a clue that Spence left in one of the puzzles.  ‘Name of smith’s important tool.’  I thought it might be the anvil.”  Her eyes immediately followed the direction of the screaming. “Is that Gregor on the ground?”

Ellis spoke harshly. “Yes. You were not supposed to leave the dining room.  Gregor’s been killed and you have no alibi.  What the hell is wrong with you?” Ellis pulled her from the shed and told her not to look at the bloody heap on the ground beside the main house.

“I’m sorry,” Nola whispered.

“Don’t go near the body,” Ellis hissed, “and just give yes and no answers. It looks like somebody pushed him out of a turret window. Where’s Paige?”

“She went out on one of her Fun Lovers prowls. She didn’t want to go, but he was drunk and on his way.  He apparently picked her up about half an hour ago. She’s supposed to be back within another hour and a half.”

“You shouldn’t have been left alone,” Ellis snapped. He looked at the clouds, “It’s going to rain.”

Inside the house, Rowan did a head-count.  “Where’s Paige Ghent?”

Ellis answered.  “Some friend picked her up about thirty minutes ago.  I didn’t see the car so she must have… I don’t know… is it possible to descend that steep hill.  She could have met them down there.”

“Let’s go see,” Rowan said, before the rain or other police vehicles destroy any tracks.  DeFazio!” he shouted, “call the coroner and forensics and when the uniforms come have them secure the scene… from down on the road all the way up here.  I’m gonna check the hill in back.”

Paige’s heel marks were clearly evident as she held the rope and descended the sharp decline. “Well, that’s how she left without us seeing her,” Rowan said.  There were fresh tire marks in the road.  He took off his trench coat and laid it over one set of tire prints.  Ellis did the same for another.

In a few minutes two police cars with flashing red and blue lights came up the road and were stopped by Rowan.  “Wait here until forensics can take tire impressions.”  In another minute the forensics van arrived and took the needed tire impressions.

Rowan herded everyone into the living room. “Am I missing anybody besides Mrs. Ghent?”

“Pierre,” Hines said meekly.

“Good Christ! I forgot about him.  Who’s the last person to have seen him?”

“You… probably,” Hines offered.

“Brilliant!  Where are the other two kids?”

“They went back to school.  Pierre was too upset to travel, he said,” Jules answered.

“Call him and Mrs. Ghent and tell them both to get the hell home now!  Does anybody know why Gregor was up there in the tower?”  He looked at Gladys whose red eyes and nose indicated that she had been crying.

“I know,” Mrs. Eglington said.  “Gladys said that he was going to tighten the leaded glass to the window frame.  The trim that held it came loose. I think Gregor must have tried to hold onto one window frame while he stood on the sill and worked on the upper frame. Upper or down, who knows?”

“Was Gladys there when he fell?” Dave asked her, ignoring Gladys.

“No.  As far as I know she was alone in the attic.  Gladys came scrambling down when she heard the shouting.  She started screaming, ‘Call 9-1-1!’ I was a bit confused because of the smoke I had just seen.  I didn’t know which way to turn.”  Mrs. Eglington tried to comfort Gladys.  “And in case you’re interested, Nola wasn’t here and neither was Mrs. Ghent.  Pierre was home but he drove away this morning to see you. I saw Hines on the stairs leading up to Gregor’s apartment.”

“That was early,” Hines snapped. “Then I thought that before I bothered him I ought to check the turret to see if it really would be fit to live in once the renovations were made. Gladys was with me and I approved of the changes. And then I went to my space in the Four-car apartment. I don’t know about anybody else. I was looking out the window and saw Gregor with a screwdriver standing on the sill outside the stained glass window he was trying to fix… tighten the screws that held the panel to the frame.”

“Was the clear glass window open or closed?”

“I don’t know.  He had to open one to get outside so I guess I just assumed the window he came through was open.  But then I saw him fall.”

“Describe his actions,” Rowan asked gently.

“He fell backwards… the way a person looks when he goes to sit on a chair and it isn’t there. Then his arms started flailing. So I screamed and ran down the side stairs and kept screaming.”

 

“Detective DeFazio and I were in the garage when we heard Hines shout,” Jules said and DeFazio nodded affirmatively.

Mrs. Eglington thought for a moment.  “I was in the kitchen and Gladys came down from the attic when we both heard the screams.”

“People around here like to die mysteriously,” Ellis said.

The forensics’ and the coroner’s van both arrived.  Dave Rowan looked at DeFazio.  “Stay with the uniforms and get statements from everybody.  Think you can do that?”

Ellis touched his arm.  “I could use a Jack Daniels along about now,” he said.

“I saw some in the study,” Rowan whispered.  “It’s after 5 p.m.  I’m off duty.  Let’s go.”

Dave Rowan poured a couple of inches in each glass.  “Every one of those sons-of-bitches, including the son and the widow, could have killed that man.”

As they stood in the study, a car pulled up to the portico and a sleepy, staggering Pierre got out His eyes were half closed and he had to hold onto the wall as he climbed up to the entrance.

“He’s wearing the same clothes he wore when he came to my office this morning,” Dave Rowan said.  “But he’s not feigning being swacked.  The kid is stoned… or loaded.”

“Maybe both,” Ellis said.

 

THE SOLUTION

 

Two new detectives appeared in the parking spaces beside the portico.  “Yeah,” Rowan said,

“I’m officially off.   I’ll go talk to one of them and tell them all that I know which ought to take me

about four seconds.”

DeFazio stayed to guard the servants in the living rooms.  “No talking!” he kept repeating.

Paige got out of a car and stomped up the portico steps.  She went directly into the living room and sat beside Pierre on a Victorian love-seat.  Until she and Pierre arrived, DeFazio did not want to start the interview process which proved to be as pointless as the previous one.  This time, however, the servants did not want to disrupt the probate process by finding Paige guilty.  If the Will was voided what would happen?  Would Pierre, Roland, and Samantha get the money as natural heirs and just discard the provision that gave them their bequest?  They didn’t know.

One after the other they gave their statements.  Everyone was someplace else and didn’t know anything about the incident.  Paige and Pierre, though embarrassed enough to try to be vague about their whereabouts, finally named names and their alibis were verified.  Pierre had been smoking marijuana and drinking with his friends and his clothing had carried the smell of marijuana and beer into the living room.

Dave Rowan, calmer and more disposed to be logical, re-entered the living room. He called Ellis Foyle aside and said, I’m trusting you to keep Nola in your house without the use of phones or visitors. We’ve got her driver’s license and passport but please, for Christ’s sake, don’t make things any more difficult.”   Ellis agreed and Nola left the house with them.

 

Before Dave Rowan left the scene he ordered the carriage house; the main house; the steep hill behind the house; the farrier shed; and the garage wrapped in yellow crime scene tape.  “I’d put you each in your goddamned rooms and put yellow tape on the door,” he hissed.  “Fucking death house. So you’ll stay incommunicado.  It’s either that or I’ll let you spend the next forty-eight hours at the police station writing your alibis in detail.”

Ellis was still angry with Nola.  “Why the hell didn’t you two stay put?  This is a murder investigation.  If you had to leave the dining room you should have called one of the uniforms who were on duty not that far from here… or called me or Dave.  Jesus, now you’re a suspect in two murders.”

All the cell phones in the house were collected and despite the protests the land lines were disconnected. Leading Detective Rowan was definitely disgusted.

Nola did not try to offer an explanation.  She remained silent and wondered when she would be able to speak to Paige again.

Ellis cancelled several appointments so that he could stay home and verify her movements.  He went so far as to ask Rowan for a spare set of handcuffs to secure her to a bed at night.  Rowan thought it was a great idea and gave him his own cuffs to use.  “Let’s see what the D.A. says,” Rowan responded. “He may want her back in a cell.”

Ellis kept Nola handcuffed during the day… re-securing her to the bed during the night.  “You brought this on yourself,” he said, still angry as he snapped the second cuff around a headboard post

“Ooh,” Nola teased, “bondage.”   Ellis was still smiling as he left the room.

 

Dave Rowan lent Paige his phone to make funeral arrangements for Gregor once the coroner had finished with the body. “You can do everything you need to do from home.  You’re not under arrest so you don’t need lawyers, but if you want one, now’s the time to call.  We have to straighten out some if this mess before one of you kills somebody else.”

Court was back in session and the District Attorney was no longer so friendly.  He said that he intended to order Nola to return to the county correction facility but, at Rowan’s request, he held off 24 hours before signing he order.

Ellis Foyle was depressed.  With Nola, her right wrist handcuffed to Ellis’s left, sitting silently beside them as if she were not there at all, Ellis and Dave Rowan sat in a cafeteria and grumbled about ungrateful people… people whose self-interest takes precedence over promises. “God damn it!” Ellis said. “All she had to do was stay put.  I put myself out for someone and get crapped on.”

Nola said nothing as she stirred her coffee with her left hand,

“People!” Rowan agreed as his cellphone rang.  He listened to the call and shook his head and smiled.  “Hold on,” he said to his caller, an expression of amazement on his face.  “You cannot guess just what happened,” he said to Ellis. Paige was asked to go to the coroner’s office and pick up Soencer’s unneeded personal effects… clothes, watch, chain he wore around his neck. But because she was so susceptible to hysterics, Gladys was asked to go with her.  Naturally, a uniform was with them.  They opened the paper bag and Gladys says, “This isn’t Mr. Ghent’s stuff.’

“The tech pulls out a shirt and looks at the identity tag and says,’Yes it is.’ Gladys says, ‘Mr. Ghent wouldn’t be caught dead in this shirt.  All his shirts had tails.  This is one of those casual shirts…and it’s an ugly shade of green. I know his preferences because I do his laundry.’  So the tech looks at the label again and it was purchased in France.” Rowan grinned mischievously.  “Do you know what this means?”

Ellis yelped and hit himself on the head to indicate that he had just realized his mistake. “Yes I do! Tell the uniform cop with them to tell Paige to sign for the stuff and for both of them to come back to the Ghent’s house immediately. We’ve just solved this stupid case… both deaths,” Ellis said. ”I’ve always wanted to do one of those ‘Get all the suspects in the parlor’ scenes.  While you call the coroner’s office, I’ve got to make a few phone calls.”  He unlocked Nola’s handcuffs with the warning that Nola was not to move or speak unless she had something valuable to contribute to him… in private.

 

With two uniformed officers guarding the exit, everyone gathered in the Ghent’s living room.  Ellis and Dave Rowan both leaned an elbow on the mantlepiece.

“This is just like Hercule Poirot,” Hines said. “Will you be using an accent?”

“Shut up and sit down,” Rowan snapped.

Ellis looked at everyone who sat in the room. “We’ve got a few questions and need a few answers. I’ll let Detective Rowan do the honors.”

Rowan opened the paper bag and withdrew the green shirt.  “First we’re going to consider Mr. Ghent’s death.  This paper bag contains his personal effects that were not needed as evidence.  His watch, underwear, jewelry and so on.  Who did Mr. Ghent’s laundry?”

“I did,” Gladys said.

“Is this his shirt?” Rowan asked.

“‘He wouldn’t be caught dead wearing a shirt like that… not even on vacation.”

“Whose shirt is it.. this shirt that was purchased in Marseilles?”

“Mine,” Hines said.  “It came from one of the best shops in Marseilles. I guess Mr. Ghent liked it so much that he borrowed it. I still have a few garments hanging in his closet.  He would know that I wouldn’t object.”

“No. No,” Ellis said.  “The reason it was on Spencer Ghent’s body is that the shirt he was wearing got wet when you washed the gun shot residue from his hand and arm. And you feared the GSR would also be on his shirt in the wrong place. So you exchanged shirts.”

“Ridiculous!” Hines sneered.

“I don’t know police procedures,” Gladys said, “but I do know Mr. Ghent’s wardrobe.  And there is nothing like that ugly shirt in his wardrobe; but there is one in yours.”

Rowan continued, directing his comments to Hines.  “My guess is that you and your accomplices intended to kill Spence and blame it on the Japanese kid. – as a home invasion or revenge.  We called the Immigration Service and learned that they had just taken the kid in custody on Tuesday.  So he had an alibi.  You had to find someone else to blame.  But then you saw that such plans were worthless.  You entered the study and found Spence loading that old 22 from the collection.  You knew how depressed he was so you quietly left and called Jules who called Gregor.  At any moment there would be a gunshot… which would have invalidated the insurance policies; so you called Jules to help you make the suicide look like a murder.  You knew that there would be gun shot residue on his hand, arm and shirt and you knew that to wash it off, he’d have to be taken to the bathroom  You couldn’t carry him and Jules has a bad back and can’t carry anything heavier than a food tray and you probably couldn’t even carry that.  So, since Jules thought he was going to collect a lot of money from the Will and needed Ghent dead sooner than later and knew that Gregor needed money, he offered to pay him well just to move a body back and forth to the bath room. Gregor never signed on for a murder even though he did involve himself in that letter business.”

Jules and Gregor protested the scenario Rowan had given, but Detective DeFazio silenced them.

“Nola,” Rowan continued, “was taking a shower and Mrs. Eglington was back in the kitchen with Gladys.  So you, Hines, ran out to where Jules and Gregor were doing yard work and told them of the change in plans and asked them to move closer to the study.  As soon as they heard the gunshot, Gregor was going to enter the study through a window. Jules would act as though he were continuing the yard work and maybe even say that he hadn’t heard any shot… while Gregor moved the body.  After you cleaned Spence’s hand and arm, you’d go back to your room and then come back running to investigate the shot. You entered through the foyer while Gregor left through the window.  Jules didn’t have anything to do but fix that letter of Nola’s in order to make her look guilty.  He changed the date and Gregor gave it to Detective DeFazio during his interview.”

Ellis picked up the charge. “Gregor carried Spence’s body into the bathroom and you and he washed his arms and hands and then you saw that Spence’s shirt was wet and so you exchanged shirts with him.  Mrs. Eglington and Gladys had already seen Jules that morning and knew what he was wearing. But no one had seen you. So you took Spencer’s shirt and put a little cold water on the blood stains, washing them out of the collar, and tucked Spence’s shirt into your jeans and maybe put a sweater on.  Nola walked in while you had Spence in the bathroom.  You answered, ‘Left.’ She took the wrong envelope to the newspaper and you two put Spencer’s body back and went your separate ways.

“Gregor probably disposed of the gun.  It will have to be here on the property.  The police will find it along with a few sets of fingerprints I hope.”

Rowan asked, “And why is Gregor hanging around?  Why was he suddenly in need of money? Why did our inspection of his apartment reveal so much camera equipment?  Why does the drug store in town comment on the old-fashioned film that they still keep in stock for him?  Who was he photographing that made him feel so secure?”  He looked at Paige.  “Whose photos were being developed in the farrier’s shed?”

“It’s true,” Paige admitted, wiping her eyes.  “He had some embarrassing photos of me and intended to blackmail me into marrying him.  He didn’t know that the house would belong to Roland or that Spence committed so much money to the new building.  And then somebody stole the photos and, I hope, destroyed them.”

“How did any of the servants find out about the photos?” Ellis asked rhetorically.  “No one really appreciated the view from the turret until Hines was slated to move into it.  Then Hines and Gladys got that unexpected view of the interior of the rear rooms of the carriage house and saw Gregor’s hiding place for the photos.  You all had seen his camera equipment and you all knew he wasn’t photographing goats or sunsets.  Maybe you also saw him developing photos in the farrier’s shed.  You all knew he was carrying on with Paige Ghent.  You all knew that Spence had a new woman in his life and that he was about to fund an extension of the clinic for her… a very expensive building project.  What you didn’t know were the terms in Spence’s last Will.  None of you knew whether he had dropped the old $15,000 bequest in favor of a more up-to-date life-insurance policy – one that wouldn’t be paid if he killed himself. Paige was incontrovertibly alibied by the hairdresser. Also, Spencer was so in love he might have given all that was available to Ingrid Hesse where it was stashed in some Swiss bank.  You didn’t know anything except it was better for you to have Spencer dead than alive,  sooner than later, and by someone else’s hand than his own.

“So while some of you knew about the secret cache of photos, those pictures were particularly valuable to only one of you, one who was in love with him… Gladys or Hines.  Who could get them first?  Hines tried but Paige was in the apartment.  So it was Gladys who got the photos and destroyed them and effectively severed Gregor’s connection to Paige.  The police found the ashes in the barbecue pit… Mrs. Eglington got a whiff of the smoke, but Gladys knew that ultimately Gregor would blame Hines.

“And Hines?” he turned to him, “You wanted Gregor and saw a way that you could kill Spencer, make the bond even stronger between you two since he’d then be able to blackmail Paige or marry her and you’d be able to force Gregor to pay you for your copies of the pictures. When he got enough out of her you’d plan a more private future with him. So you told Jules about those imaginary bequests, money that would not come if Spencer killed himself.  Jules believed your lies and more, he wanted Nola blamed so that she wouldn’t get such a large bequest from the will and jeopardize the money intended for him.  Hines knew how Spencer was carrying on with Ingrid.  Jules also knew about the phone traffic between Spence and his attorney.  Money was getting tight.  He didn’t want Spencer to short-change him or cut him out of the will completely.  The three of you made a suicide look like a murder.”

Detective Rowan moved on to the second death.  “Then we come to Gregor and the turret. It wouldn’t have taken long for Gregor to learn that Paige would never own the house and couldn’t live in it romantically with anyone.  But she would get money, but when he tried to check his photos, they were gone.  He probably looked up and could see that from the turret window it was possible to look down into the carriage house apartment.  Both Gladys and Hines could see what was in those empty rooms… the junk Gregor stored there, among them a mysterious box he hid there.  But Gregpr didn’t particularly like Hines, and he didn’t want him living with him. Yes, Gladys did have a crush on him and he knew it… but every woman he knew was vulnerable to him.  He didn’t take Gladys seriously.  She went to his apartment pretending to pick up his laundry, but she went right to the hidden box and took the contents and burned them. Now Paige was free of Gregor.  The small amount of smoke Mrs. Eglington had seen coming from behind the carriage house was what confused her when Gladys told her to call 9-1-1 when Gregor fell. Hines was still staying in Jules’s apartment and when Gregor hit the ground, Detective DeFazio could give him and Jules alibis.

But Gladys surely had no intention to kill Gregor.  When she asked him to tighten the screws that held the stained glass panel, he was happy to oblige because he was happy to remove any obstacle that prevented Hines from pressing him to move into the carriage house.

“But where was everybody when he fell? Paige and Pierre were away from the premises.  Nola was in the farrier’s shed. Hines was doing his chores in Jules’ place in the presence of Detective DeFazio. Mrs. Eglington was in the kitchen.  That leaves Gladys to be the one in the turret who foolishly closed the window.  No doubt Gregor was standing on the outside of the sill, tightening some screws, and the bottom window was up high enough for him to slide in and out of. Did Gladys proposition him?  Did she say that there now was no profit to be had from a relationship with Paige?  Did he tell her that she just wasn’t his type or laugh at her when she told him about how she’d share her inheritance with him which was peanuts to him? Or, go into the glamour shot business as partners?  He didn’t need her for that.  So it was all for nothing.  And maybe he laughed at her love.  And all she had to do was reach out and pull on his ankles and down he went.  And then she shut the window and ran down the circular staircase to the attic floor, came through to the staircase and scrambled down it as if she were responding to the screams.

Gladys sat there and stiffly said, “And none of that fantasy can you prove.  Wouldn’t you like to have been a fly on the wall and know what happened?”

“I’d like to know,” Rowan said,  “and it looks like we’ll have to take a trip to the station for a little interrogation.  I’m placing you under arrest.”

While he handcuffed Gladys, charged her with murder, and read her her rights, he asked, “Does anyone know what happened to the gun?”

Detective Martin DeFazio said, “If there’s a deal to be had, now’s the time to make it.”

“Cuff Mr. Whitman, charge him with obstruction of justice – we’ll add the rest later… and read him his rights.”  Again he asked, “The gun?”

Hines whimpered.  “If I tell you will I get a break with the D.A.?”

“All I can do is put a good word in for you,” Rowan replied. He turned to DeFazio. “Hook up Jules, too.  He’s part of the conspiracy.”

“It’s buried under one of the rocks on the steep slope behind the house,” Hines said.  “I saw Gregor put it there.  Just remember, I didn’t kill anyone!”

The police left and Pierre went to bed while Mrs. Eglington served more tea and pastry to Ellis, Nola, and Paige.

“This is the time for Church,” Mrs. Eglington said, as she began her return to the kitchen.

“Or to go to a Zen Center and have a talk with a qualified master.  We could always start a new group,” Ellis said.

Nora put down her tea and looked at him sternly.  “Maybe they need one in the outskirts of Anchorage.”

“Look,” Paige said, “I need religion… something significant in my life.  I’ve made a mess of things.  I want to get away from here… to get a job, maybe as a salesgirl.  I know shoes… clothes.   I could be a receptionist at a hair salon or a restaurant.  Roland will marry.  It’s only a question of time.  And then we’ll have family squabbles… historically it has happened that way with every generation.”  She began to cry.  “Pierre has turned on me and Samantha acts like she’s the only one who has a right to miss Spencer.  I’m an embarrassment to her and I don’t blame her.”  She sighed deeply.  “So while I do have enough cash to start a little mission someplace… I could also work as a receptionist or an assistant to a doctor.  Maybe the tropics.  Yes, maybe taking care of poor people or animals in some distant outpost of the Amazon.”

Nola sighed.  “Heaven and hell exist and they exist here and now and in your own head; and you can live in one place or the other.  But wherever you go, unless you’ve been decapitated, you carry your heaven and hell with you.  So if you’re truly inclined to ‘pick up the cloth’ even in a layman’s capacity, you can start right here in town.  In the outskirts, there are a few abandoned churches.  You can buy one of them cheaply and turn it into a little Buddhist temple. You’ll have to do a lot of studying and learning to love living the austere life.”

“I can do that,” Paige said without knowing what the austere life entailed.

“What about in Schuylkill County?” Ellis suggested.  As Spence’s widow, you may have a claim on the other sixty acres. Maybe Roland will see to it that you get clear title to them.  You’ve got a good case since they were obtained before the marriage.  He’ll be cooperative.  You can go ahead and build those retreats.

Nola interjected, “But the real thing, real Wabi Sabi and not this fashionable nonsense.  Elegant simplicity, loyal useage.  No more meretricious displays of wealth.   Spencer committed himself to half a dozen pre-fab cabins.  It could be a wonderful place to change attitudes and habits. Maybe people can conquer addictions there or just deepen their religious beliefs… some place that’s their own that they can get away to whenever life gets rough. Or just stay their forever, contented with his or her own self and the simple life.”

“Well,” Ellis said, “Paige has funeral arrangements to make.  Probably Gregor didn’t have any relatives who’d care to furnish a coffin or plot.  Cremation may be the answer after she looks for them.”

Rowan added, “And then Paige should pay back those depositors.  Vikram is a lost cause in my opinion. He’ll get in trouble in Mexico and get what’s coming to him.  But, hey… I’d like to have one of those cabins.  Put me down for one.”

Ellis asked, “Will you allow a wife and kids to visit?  Think about it.  It’ll be like going to camp for the kids.  It’ll be like going to prison for my wife… but what the hell…”

“You can give her a few conjugal visits and then let her escape, Rowan teased.  “Just please… none of her boyfriends.  You gals have a lot of work to do.  I’ll get the list of depositors from Patricia Mahoney.  Say… you could also make it a yoga retreat. My wife and I are both out of shape.”

“We could put in a weight room,” Paige contributed.

“So many choices,” Nola said.  “God works in mysterious ways… but I still like the thought of Alaska.

(solution to the “theme given only”) puzzle

Theme: Nothing…  nothing left at all.

 

O B L I T E R A T E
R N O N E
A A O
S B A G E L U
E L O R I G I N
A V H A
N E T D
B U P K I S A
Q
N U L L E
Z A X
E R A D I C A T E D T A P P E D
R I I
V O I D D N
E C D I C K
P D I L T Z
N I L E M P T Y O
E A H B E R E F T
T R E
B U S T E D T R
D H

The Crossword Puzzle (#6)

Ming Zhen Shakya
Ming Zhen Shakya
 To see more literature about Zen and the Art of Investigation:
http://www.zenanthonywolff.com

The Crossword Puzzle

by Anthony Wolff (Ming Zhen Shakya)

To see all published chapters of “The Crossword Puzzle” click here

PART 6: A TOUCH OF JAIL

 

The Grand Jury had no choice but to indict Nola.  The D.A. convinced them that she was having a torrid love affair with Spencer Ghent and had gotten pregnant, as evidenced by the letter, and by her sister’s fury. Also, Nola had been cheated out of her share of the syndication money and wanted revenge. There was a relatively strong rumor that she was going to get a large Certificate of Deposit held in trust for her by Spencer.  He could, of course, had cashed that CD in himself if he had ever gotten short of money and she didn’t want to risk that because of his impending expenses on the new clinic addition.  A house employee, Hines Whitman, had seen her leave the scene of the crime moments after a gunshot had been heard.  Everyone else in the house had an unassailable alibi. Finally, she and another foreign lover had cheated local citizens out of $155,000 in a phony land deal.  She had betrayed every person who had ever shown her kindness.

On November 25th, Nola Harriman was arrested and placed in a county holding cell.   Ellis Foyle met with her.  “Unless they can find a hard-up magistrate, you’re not due to be formally arraigned until next Monday because of the Thanksgiving Day schedule.  I’m willing to pay your bail, but I just can’t get in touch with my broker. So sit tight for a day or a week and don’t worry. I’ll get you out.  Meanwhile, do not talk to anyone about anything.   Don’t make friends.  You have no friends in the joint.  I’m working on two separate cases with Graham, so my time isn’t exactly my own.  But I won’t let you down.  Meanwhile, try to figure out that goofy crossword puzzle.  He wrote, ‘There’s nothing left’ or something on the back and maybe the squares will amplify what could be a suicide note. And take care of yourself. Don’t let anybody get to you.”

“Don’t worry.  I can get into a Zen zone and nothing can touch me there.”

Ellis Foyle, looking around and startled by Nola’s casual yet indomitable attitude to jail, laughed.  “How did you get a power like that?”

Nola grinned. “Once I had an apartment in a building that burned down and idiot that I am, I didn’t have renter’s insurance.  I lost everything. I had no place to live so my master put me in a temple guest room and gave me a koan to meditate on. For a week I sat and worked on the Koan and I suddenly understood it.  It was like magic.  Everything was fine again.  Life was incredibly beautiful.”

“What was the Koan?”

Nola laughed.  “All things return to the One.  To where does the One return?”

“What was the answer?”

“You can’t be told the answer.  You have to find it for yourself.  And by the way, you look really nice in a business suit. Why don’t you wear one more often?”

“Is that a Koan?”

“Probably.”

Ellis was signing out of the facility when Nola suddenly remembered where Vikram’s letter was. She called to him, “Ellis!  I remember.  I put it inside a reference book in the study.“  Immediately Ellis reversed his logout and hurried back to the holding cell.  “I had picked the theme, ‘con men’ and was looking up the histories of some Ponzi scheme operators when I saw it was the time I was supposed to call the pension in Mexico City.  They don’t take calls 24/7.  The operator said that the person who could help me had to be called the next day. I had written a lot of Spanish stuff on the envelope and did call and learn Vik was no one they knew.  So I continued with the puzzle and stuck the letter inside that book about con men. I forget the name of the book, but it’s on the top shelf nearest the door to the foyer.  It’s a kind of yellow book.”

Ellis immediately called Rowan and together they went to the Ghent house.  They found the missing letter which left no doubt that Nola had nothing to do with the missing money.  Dave Rowan, who had thought the case against her was extremely weak, spoke to the District Attorney.  The decision was made to wait another week for arraignment which would give them more time to obtain more dispositive information.  Meanwhile, Nola having no “roots” in the community, would be moved into the county jail. By rights she could be held only 48 hours, but Ellis, afraid for her safety, waived the requirement and for the first time he saw a small candle lit in a very dark universe.

There is a certain deportment, a protocol one should follow in any specific environment.  Nola, unfortunately ignorant of holding-cell decorum, entered the strange room awkwardly. She took mincing steps to a metal slab that was held to the wall with chains.  Passively, she sat on the edge of the slab and waited for others to act. But they simply sat on the floor propped against the wall.  She could tell from the court proceedings that she had just experienced, that in the same room a murder suspect was sitting side by side with the wretched kind of citizen who doesn’t pay traffic fines on time; but what was lacked in security was compensated by brevity.  Of the dozen or so women who were with her in the cell, four of them, including the murder suspect, had their names called and the bailiff extracted them from confinement even as more women were added.  Nola could only wait in the holding cell for other unknown people to act.

The county’s holding cells were part of the police station and there were only a few such cells.  Two small ones for the mentally ill, and two large cells, one for men and the other for women who were mostly held for prostitution, shop lifting, and domestic abuse.  The women held as prostitutes waited for their pimps; those held for domestic abuse were oddly fragile and Nola wondered what kind of threat they posed to their husbands. Soon she tired of hearing all the chatter and decided that it was time to meditate. “I’ve been a life-long friend of adversity,” she told herself.  The surroundings, however, were not amenable to any friendly settling of her mind.  She continued to sit and merely listen.

Unnaturally nervous, the street-walkers were dressed in cheap provocative clothing.  Nola tried to guess their age: they looked older than they were, she thought.  They were just worn-out, distorted like over-played video tapes. Every other word they uttered was an obscene expletive in the vocabulary of a ten year old street urchin.  The only grammatically correct phrases she could associate with them were inked on their bodies.  One of the women watched Nola squint to read in full a line that had been tattooed on another woman’s back.  “Hey!” she cried out. “You gots a reader.”

The tattooed woman, in a kind of teasing dance, backed up to Nola to let her read the entire message. “Cowards die many time before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once.”

“It’s Shakespeare,” the woman said.

“Yes. I know,” Nola replied. “Julius Caesar.  A great line. It’s a nice job of tattooing.  Well-centered and spaced.  Uniform lettering.  Beautiful work.”

“You ok.  I’m gonna remember that.”  With unaccustomed girlish pride she returned to the others.  “Didja’ hear that? Uniform letterin’! That’s why it cost so much.”

Nola lay back on the metal slab that was supposed to function as a bed.  She could not sleep and neither could the others who talked, cursed, and wept the entire night.

In the morning light, they were led into a courtroom over which a visiting magistrate presided.  The skimpy, garish garments the prostitutes wore seemed pathetic in the natural wood courtroom’s staid business atmosphere.  Graham Corbin, the lawyer Nola had never seen before, represented her in Ellis’s absence.  The judge, who was personally aware of Nola’s “miraculous” cure of Spencer Ghent was glad to accommodate the seeming indifference of the prosecutor. He asked Nola if she were released on bail would she have someone to live with – with an ankle bracelet of course so that she could not leave the immediate area.   He gave her an hour to locate someone.  Graham Corbin, who had neither money nor credit, handed her his phone and she immediately called Sri Bashumitsu and asked her if she would help both with the relatively small percentage to be paid on the bond if there were one, and also if she would let her use a closet-sized bedroom that had been considered too small to rent.  This would make the Norris-Giles House an official but temporary address. “I’ll pay you back the bond percentage as soon as this mess is resolved.”  Nola waited for an answer and then repeated the request.

Sri Bashumitsu chuckled.  “Were you under the impression that we’re a bank?  We don’t lend bail money; and as far as making this temple your home when we’re just now trying to repair the damage to our reputation that you… you and you alone… have done, all I can say is, ‘Forget it.’ You should have come to me when you suspected our Tenzo of stealing medicine.  You did it your way with him just as you did it your sleazy way with our Abbot.  There is no room for you here and please do not call again.”  She disconnected the call.

Stone-faced, Nola turned to Corbin.  “I’ve got no one to help me. I’ll have to wait for Ellis to get back.”

When informed of this, the magistrate said that he did not want her returned to the holding cell. “Very well then,” he said.  “Would you mind being a guest of the county at our new jail? The food is better and so are the beds… or so I’m told. On Monday they can drop the charges or file them.”

Nola nodded and said, “Yes. Thank you, Your Honor.”  The gavel struck. A bailiff came and handcuffed her, and she was led away to a van that waited outside.

Officially in limbo, Nola was placed into the custody of women guards who were inured to the awkwardness of strip searching.  They put gloved fingers into her vagina and rectum and made sure that there was nothing hidden in her hair.  Once they were certain that she had no contraband on her, they pushed her into a warm shower and gave her prison garb to wear, along with bed linens and blanket. She was now #28956 but she was still technically in a holding cell.  The jail, she learned, held both convicted prisoners and those who were awaiting trial.  She had been moved out of the big cell and placed in a two-person cell.  The other woman who occupied it seemed mentally deranged since all she did was brush her hair and sing repeatedly, Cow-Cow Boogie in its entirety.

Now ensconced in a cellblock, Nola’s prison life was different from her holding cell experience.  The other woman, Nora supposed, was losing hair due to stress, so much that it became impossible to eat the food that was delivered through a slot in the barred side of the small room. Long black hairs were on her slim pillow and in her shoes and blanket. When Nola found several hairs on her toothbrush, she gagged and literally got down on her knees and prayed that Monday would come quickly.

As disgusting as the loose hair and song that the woman endlessly sang were, it was night that was far worse to tolerate. The jail had several tiers. At night the lower lights were extinguished and only a few ceiling lights remained, their dim light creating a kind of smothering fog – not of mist, but rather of hopeless sighs that lay over the lower floors.  It gave her a disheartening sense of permanence that drifted down into the darkness; and it seemed necessary for every one of the inmates to let the others know that she was still alive there, hidden in the dense air by shouting a version of, “I’m here.  Don’t forget me!”  Curses hurled at betraying friends and lovers; excuses and reasons for doing what the police had caught them doing; charges of incompetent lawyers, jealous relatives, and racial hatred filled the large cellblock.  On and on it went stopped only briefly by the curiosity aroused by vomiting or by everyone’s exhaustion. Nola had listened to each intelligible yell.  Morning came and it was as if night had skipped its turn. She thought of the “Fasting Buddha” whose ribs showed the terrible effects of starvation and told herself that she had already lost so much that she would hold on to her religion.  Ingratitude, betrayal, lies, pain – both psychological and physical – all these “came with the territory.”  She chanted to herself as many chants as she could remember.

Almost as an afterthought, she remembered the blank page puzzle… those twenty x twenty blank squares that had to do with having nothing left that needed to be at least partially filled.  The theme had to have been given on the back flap.  The envelope was ready to be mailed.  She knew that from the way it had been inserted into the side fold of Spencer’s desk blotter. “How do you say, ‘nothing… there’s nothing left?’  She had a notepad and a pencil stub in the cell with her and she began to write down words that signified nothing. None; no; nada; naught; empty; bereft; cipher; tapped ; dearth; zip; zilch; bupkis; null; blank;  void; zero; extinct; deplete; busted; nil; eradicated; squat; dick; diddly; and from tennis not only ‘bagel’ but “love”; from math she got Origin; and then she couldn’t think of any more words that signified nothing.

A guard was watching her.  “What are you doing?” she asked.

“Writing down words that mean nothing.”  Nola read the list to her.

“You could add ‘zot,’” the guard suggested.  “It’s legal talk that means ‘It’s nothing significant.’”

Nola added “zot” to 0the list

While the guard stayed to watch, Nola explained, “There are only two words that contain ‘K’ – blank and bupkis.  They probably intersect.  I’ll start there.”  She began to fill the white boxes in.  That was it.  After three hours of trial and error, she completed the puzzle.

 

On Monday, before she had a chance to show Ellis Foyle the completed puzzle, he had managed to obtain her release and vouched personally for her presence.  At a formal arraignment proceeding, the judge, following the recommendation of the visiting magistrate, released her into Ellis’ care, pending a formal charge. The prosecution did not object since by then, they, too, were having doubts about the case. Ellis moved to have the non-specified charges dismissed, but the judge asked for patience in this convoluted matter.

The telephone company verified the numbers Nola had called and one of the detectives personally talked to the English speaking landlady who supported Nola’s version.  Also, Nola had not been cheated out of any syndication money since there was no contract whatsoever to syndicate the puzzles.  Dr. Boyle’s description of the state Spencer was in when Nola came to the house made it clear that the patient was hardly in a lovable condition.  And Paige regarded it as an insult that her husband would have preferred her sister to her. Forgetting her previous tirade, she announced,  “If I thought for one moment that there was anything between them, I would have sent her packing.  No, my husband was enamored with that Swiss doctor.  Check it out for yourselves.”  They did and witness testimony at the clinic verified the liaison. But in the normal fashion of pit bulls and assistant district attorneys Nola was still the number one candidate, the “prime suspect.”

Ellis took her to his house to live, explaining that his wife and children had once occupied the house and Nola had a whole section of it to herself.  He gave her a key to the front door and retrieved her Explorer from the police impound station.

She cleaned the house and washed and ironed his shirts and did everything she could do to pay him back for his kindness.  She also cooked dinner which, considering his restaurant ownership, she profusely apologized for.  Luckily, his wife, he alleged, was an even worse cook.  They had pleasant conversations over dinner and she told him about the woman who had Shakespeare’s line tattooed on her back.

Ellis repeated,‘Cowards die many times before their death.  The valiant never taste of death but once.’ It’s sort of appropriate for a whore.  She risks her life every night.”

His remark touched Nola and she felt an additional admiration for the man.  “It’s funny,” she said, “but people need a concise creed to live by.  It can be a phrase or a word that gives them some kind of comfort… like Masha in The Three Sisters.  They may not know exactly what it means, but it’s significant to them in a more important way.  It’s strange that it’s a complete distortion of the singing horse story.  It’s which song he sings or how well he sings it that’s important.  It’s not that he sings at all.  When I complimented the gal in the cell she was so proud of the uniformity of the script and its spacing that she changed for a moment into an innocent little girl… a girl who didn’t know anything about Julius Caesar or what the quotation meant. Religion works in the same way.  I learned a lot from studying Zen.”

“Is that where you got your special koan?”

She looked surprised.  “No. Not at all.  It’s true that I devoted my spiritual life to Zen Buddhism but it’s not the motto that I use whenever I’m in a worrisome situation.”

“Are you allowed to tell me what it is?”

She laughed.  “Sure.  Honi soit qui mal y pense.”

Ellis put his head back and laughed.  “That’s the Order of the Garter’s motto.  ‘Evil to him who evil thinks.’ The Queen allows special people to use it when she knights them.”

“Nobody knighted me but I learned that if a person has faith, adversity becomes an opportunity – within reason, of course. But the faith has to be real. And if you think harshly about someone you suppose is your enemy, you’re the one who ends up suffering.”

“I should adopt the motto for myself.   You can call me Sir Ellis.”

“Meanwhile, let’s change the subject. How am I going to exonerate myself?”

“First, tell me the extent to which you were involved with Spencer.  I need to know the truth if I’m going to counter it.”

“It’s so hard to explain.  I don’t understand it myself.  At first he was just a patient I liked and felt sorry for.  And then he began to get better under my regimen and I was proud of him… and myself, too, for the improvement.  We started to work on the puzzles and it gave us something besides sickness to think about. We’d laugh and laugh. But he was such a strange guy.  There were days in a row that we kept the same routine.  But then, with no explanation, he’d take his medicine and then ask me to leave and just lock me out of the room.   Same thing when he got better.  He’d take his medicine and then suddenly leave the house.  And never an explanation.  Like… it was none of my business. I’d sit and worry all day.  And I guess I began to really fall for him… but then we went to the cabin and – I admit it – I’d have had sex with him except I caught the expression on his face and I could see that there was no love there, no desire… no thought of me.  So I went out and slept in the truck.  That’s as far as it went.”

Ellis laughed.  “Have you ever heard of the Razzle Game?”

“Yes.  It’s a carnival game that’s been outlawed or something.”

“In its own extreme way, it’s based on the addictive principle.  Aside from getting money, if you played a game in which you won every time you played it, you’d soon lose interest. Even with money, it’s human nature to kill the goose that lays the golden egg by dispensing with common sense protocols.  In games of chance, drugs, love, or anything risky, something mysterious happens in the brain.  It’s the whole principle behind gambling.  To keep a person playing, you’ve got to make him lose – I don’t know what the ratio is… maybe you’ve got to lose two or three times to winning once.  But whatever it is, something snaps inside your brain and you fall victim to a euphoric optimism and keep thinking that you can beat the odds… that you can win.  Love works on the same addictive principle.  A man and woman meet and really get along. They happily date and then, to initiate that infatuated desire or need, one suddenly cools while remaining friendly. Control and ego become the driving force, not love. The intention of winning, or gaining control, keeps the union functioning. They reunite and then the same one cools again. The fear of loss and jealousy replaces true love.  But the union rarely ends well. It’s rigged by the brain. It ends in murder or divorce.

“But as things begin, the way that one person can get another person into that vulnerable zone is like the Razzle Game.  Let him win a little and think that he or she can easily master the challenge. But the game… like life… is rigged against the vulnerable player.  They’re addicted to the game and try even harder to win.

“I remember lending a kid in Spence’s frat some of my notes and I needed them back.  So as he separated my stuff from his, we sat in the living room and drank beer.  Spence was there and we began to talk about Razzle.  One of the Frats had a big fund raising carnival and they hired a professional outfit to run the games.  Small but crooked stuff… throwing unbalanced balls and shooting ducks with skewed gun-sights. But in a back room they included Razzle by a different name… a football scoring game.  They made big money from the suckers who played.  And our conversation turned to sex and I remember him saying how you could get any woman you wanted to love you if you applied the gaming addiction ploy.  Treat them nice for a certain period of time and then when they thought they had you, disappear or turn cold without explanation… and this would turn on that snapping mechanism in the woman’s brain.  ‘It never failed,’ he said.”

“Jesus.  Are you telling me that I fell for that?  Lao Tzu said, ‘If you want to attract someone, take a step back.’ I guess I ought to be proud of myself that I… or maybe Ingrid…  finally freed me from such a stupid manipulation – and I didn’t even have to change my environment.  You know, during the Viet Nam war the Viet Cong flooded the market with really cheap heroin.  Hospitals and police department in the U.S. prepared for a crime wave when these soldiers got home and couldn’t afford the expensive stuff here.  But it never happened.  The guys went back to the farm were without that jungle atmosphere and just had no desire.  The only ones who reverted to drug addiction were the ones who used and were from the mean streets before they went into the service.  They were given the choice between the Army and prison. When they got home, the mean street allurements were waiting for them.”

“So you’re saying you no longer have feelings for Spence because there’s a big difference in our houses,” he joked.

“Yes.  His has nicer furniture and a built-in cook.”

“Ok.  You win.  Alcoholics should avoid bar rooms and smokers should avoid stairwells.  I get it.”

Ellis leaned back in his chair. “That, however, is of no consequence.  We have two choices: Spence committed suicide and a person or persons took the gun.  Or, Spence was murdered by a person or persons unknown.”

“Paige has the only watertight alibi.  They can stretch the time of death, but not that far to accommodate her appointment with Andre.  The other servants alibi each other.”

“What about the kids?” Ellis asked.

“Mid-terms.  Samantha lost enough time shopping and on top of that they all lost time for the funeral.  No, the servants either made his suicide look like murder or they actually did kill him.”

“But not all the servants, surely.”

“No, Mrs. Eglington can be a bitch, but she’s quite above murder or conspiracy.”

“Gregor, Jules, Hines and Gladys.  Which ones?  I doubt that all four were involved,” Ellis mumbled.

“Look… the only reason Spence was in the bathroom was to wash GSR off his hands and arms.  Now, as a nurse I’ve had to lift bodies.  Dead weight is more than a figure of speech.  Hines could never lift Spencer two feet not the needed twenty.   And Jules either has a cervical spine problem or he’s gold-bricking.”

“He’s not gold-bricking.  I remember when he was injured.  He’s lucky to be able to use his right hand at all. And Gladys?  She weighs less than Hines.  Only Gregor could have moved the body to and from the bathroom. And the Coroner said that there were no bruises on the body.  If a couple of the lightweights tried to do it, they’d make a mess of it.”

“Let’s talk motive,” Nola said.  Gregor didn’t know about that primogeniture stipulation.  He no doubt thought that he could get Paige to marry him and then he’d be master of the house.   He also strikes me as the kind of man who would take obscene photos of Paige… with or without her knowledge.  That would be his insurance in case she refused to marry him. So the sooner she became a widow, the sooner he could ride those thoroughbreds in the stable.”

“Don’t forget the money angle.  Paige was convinced… or hoped at least… that the reason Spencer was talking to his attorney so much was because of the syndication contract.   And then it became the addition to the clinic.  The sooner he died, the less he’d be spending – especially on his new lady-love – and the more they’d all inherit. She knew that things were happening fast with the addition.  And the kids, except Roland, figured they’d inherit right away.  I talked to Spence’s attorney.  That clause about making her executrix until all his children were of age was not such an unusual provision.  In a way, an insecure man would kind of guarantee his own life against being murdered for his money by his offspring.  They’d have to bump off both parents and then they couldn’t be sure whether someone else was named as executor.  So we can forget Roland.  There was enough real estate for him to sell just one property and get more than enough money to keep him for years.  Or, looked at another way, he could make life easy or hard for Paige who any day now will be living in his house as a guest. So even if she had plenty of cash, he still held the trump cards.  Still, she could have talked Gregor into helping whoever it was who changed your letter.  To me, it looks like Hines and Gregor.”

 

 

Nola sighed. “They feared that he’d change his Will and leave everything to Ingrid; but now they know that the Will was unchanged except for the insurance policy to the Clinic.  All the other rumors were just so much nonsense. And separately, he had already signed contracts for doing a land survey, buying the land, doing the excavation, and with the architect and engineering firms plus, of course, the general contractor. The kids didn’t know that the contracts were executed, but they did think they’d all be richer if he died before he could execute the documents.   How long will it take for them to get their money?”

“Pierre will be eighteen before probate is concluded and then it’s still up to Paige.  Probate,” Ellis explained in layman’s terms, “is just the period where all the bills incurred by the deceased come in and get paid.  Spencer spent time in Europe and Japan.  If he ran up any debts in these places, they have to be paid.  Taxes, too, take time.  Throwing Ingrid into the mix didn’t help. Now they fear she squirreled away a huge chunk of their cash in some Swiss bank account where they will never get it.

“They all had to be worried about his appointments with his attorney. And not only that,” he added, “but then Gregor accused Hines of stealing something from him.  They had a terrible row Mrs. Eglington told me. Hines stuck around because he wanted a good reference from Jules and, I suppose, Paige. We need to find out what the argument was about.

“Meanwhile, we’ve added nothing to your defense.”  Emphatically, he said, “Your solution to the puzzle makes it seem like a weird kind of suicide note.  I got stuck with the word ‘bereft’ – bereavement.  It’s a suicide note, all right. Think about it!”

“I have been! This puzzle may have been intended for the Japanese guy he was teaching English to. The reason that the envelope had no address was probably that he photocopied his friend’s address which had been written in Kanji.  He would have taped the address to the envelope. He said he had been fooling around with some new ways to write a puzzle to teach this guy colloquial English.  If you wanted to teach someone the different ways we say something…  you could direct him to a thesaurus – which is no puzzle or game of any kind, or you could make the puzzle a learning exercise by fitting the words into the white squares.

“He always gave the puzzle’s theme,” Nola said, “so his line on the back flap makes sense. “Nothing… Nothing left at all.’  It’s the theme of the puzzle… and a suicide note.  Spence had hit bottom.  The kids were grown and all he had to look forward to was a life with Paige and those greedy kids. He found love and purpose with Ingrid, and that was worth an investment.  But he lost her and, therefore, the purpose of the investment.  He did feel as though he had nothing left.”

Ellis immediately called Dave Rowan and explained the solution to one puzzling part of Spencer’s death.  Rowan was impressed. “In his desk we found a bunch of small papers that had identical Japanese writing on them. An address in Akita. Could be this guy’s address.”

Ellis knew that Rowan would contact the man in Japan to verify the puzzle game.  “Let’s hope he can be located.”

“It still proves nothing,” Rowan said, “no pun intended.”

 

The Crossword Puzzle (#5)

Ming Zhen Shakya
Ming Zhen Shakya
 To see more literature about Zen and the Art of Investigation:
http://www.zenanthonywolff.com

The Crossword Puzzle

by Anthony Wolff (Ming Zhen Shakya)

To see all published chapters of “The Crossword Puzzle” click here

PART 5: EMBEZZLEMENT, PHONY WABI SABI, AND LOSS

 

The Council had only to decide which of the ladies would escort the old man to the airport in Philadelphia, give him another tranquilizer, and continue on to Cairo.  The date and time were fixed and reservations made. They were delighted with the solution to their most pressing problem. Paige was happy, too, since Spence assured her he’d come home to live in Pennsylvania, not Lucerne.

Nola still was waiting for the syndication contracts to be produced and signed.  Yet, she feared that by making an issue of it, she’d antagonize Spencer and he’d end her employment in the house – which would not have helped Paige who was becoming increasingly nervous and insecure. Every day she made some kind of secret gesture or remark to Nola about needing her to stay.  The children had come home briefly for the summer.  Samantha and Pierre left immediately to vacation with friends in Canada and Roland took a long Asiatic cruise.

Spencer, despite his promise, did not return to Pennsylvania.  He reversed his route to Japan and in July stopped in Lucerne for an indefinite time.  Paige clicked off the phone and trembled.  She asked Nola to drive her to an attorney’s office in Morton and to wait in the car until she finished talking to him.  Although curious, Nola did not ask why she was seeing an attorney.  She sat in Paige’s new Jaguar and worked on the theme, “Breaking up.”

Since Paige was obviously taking steps to protect her own interests, Nola wrote another note to Spencer asking when she could expect the syndication documents and why he was showing so little interest in the hermitage land.  In a separate note she told him that despite his absence, people were visiting the site and giving her and Victoru Roshi deposits on the different plots of land and cabin construction.  She added that she deposited the few down-payments she had received directly into the Abbot’s account since he, in Spencer’s absence, had taken charge of the project.

Spencer did not respond to Nola’s notes; but he did call Paige and tell her he’d return when he felt better.  He told her he had had a minor relapse while he was in Japan.  “I’ll be seeing you soon,” he encouraged her.  “Keep the home fires burning!”

Paige told Nola about the call.  “If I didn’t know my own boy would be getting this place, I’d keep the home fires burning by burning this goddamned house down… antiques and all.”

 

Gregor, it seemed, had been spending an excessive amount of time driving the old pickup truck to feed stores to buy food for the goats and to various plant nurseries to buy potting soil, fertilizer, and rose bushes.  The few times he came face to face with Paige, he invented a chore he had to do.  She no longer cared and was beginning to wonder how she could get rid of him without any unpleasant repercussions.

 

Paige immediately began to attend services at the zendo and flirt with Vikram who was busy with the Schuylkill Buddhist Retreat – as he called it.  She praised his business acumen for selling so many plots and adding an “Indian touch” to the design of the rustic dwellings.  She had, herself, showed him the way to the site the first time he went, and let it be known through the town’s tangled grapevine that he was marvelous in bed.

The members of ZBA who gave deposits wanted to see progress of the buildings. August and September seemed the perfect time to show their relatives and friends at least the beginning of their charming getaways. Vikram began to take several trips a week to the land with a variety of prospective hermits – unmarried women mostly.  He’d sleep with them in the cabin and then he’d accept their building deposits, speak of love, and put the money in his own personal checking account.

One afternoon Paige remembered something about the wedding gift of the land and called the county recorder.  She had visions of Dr. Hesse living in Wabi Sabi splendor in Schuylkill County.  Sure enough, the county recorder told her that her sixty acres – transferred while she was still single – contained the trail that led from the highway. She decided that If Spencer had any ideas about leaving her to live in another county with Ingrid Hesse, he had better return from Switzerland without delay. Victoru Roshi was no businessman for the hermitages and the extension to the Lucerne Clinic required Spencer’s Wharton School background. Contracts needed to be signed.

In late August the Ghent family was united.  At Spencer’s suggestion they all piled into the Lexus and drove to the First Methodist Church for Sunday morning service.  They were all well-dressed which may have impressed others but did not seem to be noticed by the Pastor who was shocked to see the five of them appear at the entrance door. Dumbfounded, he shook hands with Spencer and said without thinking, “In Christ all things are possible.”

The big dinner that was prepared for them in the decorated dining room was a disaster.  The fancy ham that Mrs. Eglington had baked all morning, sat like a clove-decorated stone in the center of the table.  Paige and Samantha were on diets;  Nola and Roland were vegetarians; Spencer was angry when he learned that the hearts of palm the cook had taken such trouble to prepare were served with neufchatel cheese that had tried to disguise itself under parsley as it wormed its way into the innocent leaves.  He, having a Monday therapy session in Media, feared the inevitable results of the cheese and refused to eat anything.  Pierre had wolfed down two cheeseburgers and fries when he left the group after services to “see an old friend.”

Paige summoned Mrs. Eglington and told her to serve the 90% meal remains to the rest of the servants.  Then she went to her room and locked the door and cried into her pillow.

Paige and Nola had considered so many explanations to account for Spencer’s behavior in recent months that neither woman was surprised to read in the Sunday newspaper that there was a planned addition to the Lucerne Clinic addition in Media, Pennsylvania, that Spencer would be investing in it, and that Dr. Ingrid Hesse of Switzerland was slated to be its new CEO.  The two women were not even surprised when Spencer announced that since he’d be overseeing the construction, he’d probably be spending many nights there at the site in Media, Pennsylvania.  “I need a little more time to think about the hermitages,” he said, adding, “I’m tired and do not care to discuss anything further.”

 

At the Zen Assembly, which was now thriving, talk centered on the hermitage land.  Vikram’s natural charm enticed people of every age and sex to want to experience spiritual isolation with him, and he was able to collect $155,000.  Citing his “ecclesiastical position,” he held to secrecy every person who gave him a deposit. People began to collect rustic things… buckets, brooms, copper pots with handles that could be hung on the fireplace’s swing-out arms, Torii-gate toilet paper holders, pagoda shaped outhouses, and hand-made ceramic dishes.  Producing Wabi Sabi things became a nearly full-time occupation.

At home, Spencer’s charm returned.  In the morning, while Paige slept, he and Nola rode around the estate.  “It’s great exercise for my legs,” he said.  Then he added, “I owe you an apology for that first night in the cabin.  My only excuse is that I hadn’t had sex with a woman for so long that I wasn’t sure I’d go about it correctly.  It’s one thing when you’re a kid.  Then, anything goes.  But when you find yourself naked with a with a woman whose had all sorts of … well… respectable continental experience, you don’t want to come off as a clumsy ass. It wasn’t as though you and I were romantically involved.  I just needed re-assurance and went about it in all the wrong ways.  I’m sorry for that.”

Nola appreciated the apology even though it was somewhat “left-handed” since she was hardly the woman who had all that daunting continental experience.  She remembered that “practice” was one of the theories Paige considered to explain his sudden interest in having sex with her.   Paige, Nola concluded, was right on target. She decided not to tell her sister about the conversation since it would have only have humiliated her further.

 

On the Labor Day weekend, Spencer took Ingrid Hesse to the mountain for a day’s jaunt. Seeing an area that would have functioned well as a “beginning to Intermediate” ski slope, she suggested,“Instead of leasing the land to wanna-be recluses, why don’t we keep it as our own private hideaway? You have your own home in Morton and the clinic just won’t do as our own private place.”  Spencer gave the suggestion serious thought.

Paige knew that her land had been used to access the possible sites. When Spencer announced that he had decided on another use for the land, she laughed at him and said, “You and Ingrid can build your own road, and be prepared to make it a regular Champs de Elysee. what with the cost of getting grading equipment up there and meeting the new county specs for roadways.”  The Hermitage Project, as it was then called, met an untimely death.

Sri Bashumitsu, showed her omniscient bent when she learned that the project had suddenly been cancelled.  When Victoru Roshi quietly closed his bank account and left town, she suggested to The Council that she knew why Nola had been so eager to ingratiate herself with The Council.  “We were scammed by that phony land deal and her Wog lover.”  That Nola was still in town seemed to contradict her revelation; but it did add a new subject for conjecture.

Spencer, in a rare weekend interview, said that Nola committed a bit of pre-ejaculation by announcing to the Sangha the possibility of hermitages before he had the opportunity to discuss it with his wife and sign a proper joint-venture contract. And Paige, publicly at least, blamed Nola for inspiring Spencer’s interest in the land without consulting her first. “After all,” she said nervously, “if you hadn’t started him on that hermitage business, I wouldn’t have to visualize him roasting marshmallows with that femme fatale physician.”

Nola felt it pointless to protest to anyone except Ellis Foyle.  “The criticism I’m receiving is both harsh and confusing.  Yes, I encouraged Vikram to look at the land; but I felt sorry for him because he had been rejected by every hospital that cared to respond to his inquiry.  Where on earth did I get the idea that a gesture of mine could turn a loser into a winner?  Last week I got a letter from him from Mexico City asking me to pay back the deposits.  He said that he had gotten a position as a surgical resident and intended to reimburse me – with interest – on the installment plan, of course.  I tried to telephone him at the boarding house address on the envelope but the landlady, who did speak English, didn’t know who he was.  And where on earth did he get the idea that I’d simply pick up his $155,000 debt?”

Ellis offered a possible reason for the request.  “Between knowing that you had paid for the new roof and visiting you at the Ghent house, he probably assumed you had money… that maybe the house was yours.  You did introduce him to your sister and he put that together…”

Nola laughed at the idea, wondering how much farther her life’s spiral would go down before she hit bottom.

She decided to surrender to the cosmos and place her faith in her religion and let everything happen without any interference from herself.  She no longer danced, taught yoga, meditated in the ZBA room, or attended the book club.  Nearly every evening she would go to her bedroom and work on a koan or crossword.  She would go on as before in stolid Zen passivity. The world would turn without her help in any case.

 

Shortly after the summer vacation period had ended and the children returned to their schools, It was time for Hines to be given a permanent room. He had been sleeping on a cot in Jules’ apartment over the Four-car; and although, surprisingly, the two men became friends, this arrangement suited no one as a permanent solution.

Spencer ordered Hines to prepare to move into “the tower.”  He summoned Jules also and berated him for his tardiness in not ordering painting and carpeting for the new living space.  “There! This will be the last week you’re without your own space,” he said to Hines with commanding finality, “and you’ll be fine in the turret room.  Go get an idea of the kind of covering you want for the four clear window panes.  Jules will order whatever you want.  Give me a progress report.” he said.  “Right now I have to make a few calls.”

As Jules left the bedroom, Hines pretended that he wanted to get a book of his from the shelf and surreptitiously switched on Spence’s baby monitor.  He shut the bedroom door as he left. Then as Jules went down the rear servant’s stairs, Hines, knowing that Nola was riding with her sister and wouldn’t be back for at least another hour, went into Nola’s bedroom, and closed the door, switched on her monitor and listened to Spence’s side of his phone conversation. At first, he heard much incomprehensible talk about land and architects and a contract with Paige about rights-of-way, and then the subject changed to the household bequests in his will.  “To hell with my sister-in-law and Hines who is a royal pain in my ass. Increase Eglington, Gladys, and Jules by an additional $30,000.  They’ve been loyal and useful. Roland still gets all the Ghent real estate and since I’m divesting myself of much of my portfolio to pay for the new clinic, the rest of the money, assuming there’s any left over, will go to Paige and the kids. Roland is studying Economics at the university and after he gets his MBA he’ll be given a job I used to have.  It won’t be at the top, but he’ll make out well.  I’ve already laid the ground work for him.

“For a long time I considered replacing Paige as executrix, but she’s settled down now and say what you will, she’s still a good mother and does love those kids.  Frankly, they’re far more juvenile than I was at their age so the old stipulations remain. If I’ve got to trust somebody, I’d just as soon trust her.  It’s a modest proposal and as Swift says in defense of his strategy, “My wife is past the child-bearing age.” Get the papers ready and I’ll sign them next week.”

And that was it.  Hines heard himself described in such unflattering terms that he could barely move after he switched the monitor off.  There was no expression of appreciation for all the hard work he had done and all the nasty treatment he had had to put up with for the past half year. So, the truth came out, and he, the royal pain, knew what was in the Will.  Nobody else knew.  But what could he do with this precious information?  As he walked to the garage to meet with Jules, he mumbled, “I’m supposed to be the factotum, not the stupid chauffeur.  And I’m starting to forget all the French I knew.  Nobody in this madhouse has any refinement.” He thought about all the jobs the agency had listed as possibilities and each began to attain admirable properties in his mind.   There was nothing negative about what might have been just as there was nothing positive about what he had. A wave of contempt for Spencer Ghent rose up from his toes and he could not spit nor breathe it out.

 

Jules was in the midst of compounding Spencer’s Lexus and the car would not be ready for another couple of hours. Spencer had been to the garage earlier.  He had marched out in a foul mood.  He admonished Jules as though he were a child, calling him an incompetent ingrate.  Gruffly he called Paige and asked her if she minded if he borrowed her new Jaguar for the day.

Hines, serpent-like, spoke to Jules.  “I’ve got news,” he said.  “I know what’s in the Will.  You’re due to get a considerable amount.  You, Gladys, and Mrs. Egllington.”

Jules was in no mood to be toyed with.  “You’re full of crap,” he said. “Nobody knows what’s in that Will… not even Mrs. Ghent.”

For the second time in twenty minutes Hines had been insulted.  As a defensive instinct over which he had no control, he whispered that he had turned on the baby monitors and while in Nola’s room had heard Spencer’s conversation with his attorney.  Jules stopped rubbing the compound paste and started to take Hines seriously.  “Yes,” Hines said, “you, Gladys, and Mrs. Eglington are each going to be beneficiaries of a quarter million dollar life insurance policy… he’s already taken them out.  He took out policies for the same amount for each of the kids.   Your old bequest increased to $45,000.  Jules, happy to learn that he had not been removed from the Will and also that upon Spencer Ghent’s death he would become financially secure immediately revived his dream of soothing his cervical back problems by retiring in the tropics.

“Look,” said Hines, “I get nothing.  I’ve not been here long enough to count.  But I’ve got an employment contract.   So I get paid… in full… until next spring.  And it’s iron clad.  I get paid whether he dies tomorrow or lives another ten years. I like you, Jules. You’ve been decent to me.  I’ve heard his conversations with that woman he’s in love with. He intends to live another fifty years. Those treatments he supposedly gets are bullshit. The two of them make love like a couple of teenagers; and when they’re not in bed, they’re having lunch at some really posh restaurant. She’s smart and will get every nickel he’s got – and if he dies after dipping into his liquid assets, his accounts will be too short to cover the money allocated as bequests.  Are you getting my drift?”

“Sure I am.  And I know too that the hospital extension he’s planning to build will cost more money than he figures.  Builders bid low and then hit you with ‘change orders’ or ‘contract addenda’ and the final cost is double the original bid.  I know that.  So what you’re saying is that the servants named in the Will will find that the premiums on their policies weren’t paid and that their money has been spent on some spa for the rich.”

“Or as diamond rings for his new lady love.”

Jules, still angry at the way Spencer had chastised him, let his guard down. “He’s been a rotten boss.  I’ve worked here for thirty years.  For Christmas he gives us a $25.00 saving’s bond.  I loved his old man.  And his grandfather.  They were men.  He’s been a cheapskate roach since the day he became master of the place. And I’ve had to be his nursemaid for the last five years.  How much is he giving Nola?”

Hines lied again. “He plans to take out a $100,000 Certificate of Deposit and hold it in trust for her. He says, ‘After all, she saved my life.’  As if that wasn’t what she was paid to do.”

“The three of us have had to put up with him for years.  Always, he’s held that goddamned Will over our heads.”

“I sympathize with you. And don’t forget that if he stops paying those insurance premiums, you can kiss that $250K goodbye.  He’s talking about cutting back here and renting some space in Media. And he’ll be signing the documents in a week or so.”

“I know.  He’ll be back here only to see the kids when they’re home… after he squanders his money on that Swiss project.  And Mrs. E., Gladys and I can be terminated without cause or severance pay.  And we won’t get any inheritance until his other debts are paid.  I’ve been sick about it, so’s Mrs. E.  We’re too old to find other employment.”

“Please don’t let me shock you… and if I’m out of line, I apologize.  The only suggestion I can offer is the statistic about highway fatalities on the road to Media. The quick demise of Spencer Ghent doesn’t affect me financially, but it’s something for you to think about.” He had not realized how often servants think about fatal accidents.

“You’re the one who drives him to Media,” Jules huffed.  “And an accident in one of his high-end cars isn’t likely to kill anybody.  There isn’t even a river big enough to crash into.  You’ll have to come up with something better than that… something that won’t get yourself killed in the process.”

Hines suddenly felt like the puppet master.  Here he was, standing in the garage, and the butler was appealing to him.  His position in the conspiracy became the superior one.

Gladys called to Hines from the portico.  “I’ll be there in a minute,” Hines replied pleasantly.

Jules was worried. “One way or another I’m going to be let go once he moves down to the new clinic’s residence.  All my years of service won’t matter.  I’ll end up in Scranton living in one of my sister’s bedrooms.”

“He’d never give me a good reference – that’s how spiteful he is; but If you’d promise to give me good… really good references,” Hines said, trying to make his efforts seem more legitimate by getting something for himself.  “Ah,” he said with feigned disgust, “what’s the use. You know me.  All brains and no brawn.  I’d need a second person to help with any plan. He’s going to sign the documents soon, and then he’s going to start spending money like a drunken sailor. We don’t have weeks to make a plan and get the wrinkles out.  He may not come back here for months. A project like getting rid of him takes thought.”

Jules was impatient.  “Weeks? I just got word of a house in the tropics I could buy at a bargain price – cash only – and while a down payment would hold it, I’d need the money sooner than later.  We’ll have to think of a good way.  How about a home invasion of some kind?   In town recently there have been a few.  And did I tell you that the Japanese guy who stole Ghent’s medicine – the kid who’s been in prison – is going to be let out on good behavior.  The ZBA sangha in town is really worried that he’ll come to them to make them fulfill the contract obligation about letting him reside in the old Norris-Giles house they call their monastery.”

Paige and Nola could be seen coming towards the paddock.   “After I finish the car,” Jules said, “I’ll go into town and try to find out exactly when that kid is due to come back. Then we’ll work out the details.”

“Roger,” Hines nodded creating a military kind of precision, and left to join Gladys.  Hines could hardly believe that Jules had so easily become his ally.  It suddenly occurred to him that perhaps he was going to be set-up for the attempted crime. He decided to be extra careful.

Hines and Gladys entered the turret staircase from the study. Gladys lugged a bucket of water and a mop up the stairs. A net bag of cleaning supplies hung from her waist.  He did not offer to help her carry the water.  “You’ll need more than that pine smelling stuff and water to make this place livable,” he groused.  “Look at the windows.  Once they must have been beautiful… all that leaded-in stained glass in the top frames.   But now you can’t even tell what season the design is meant to convey.”

Gladys, delighted to learn that Hines would not be sleeping near Gregor, laughed at the thought that cleaning them would present a problem.  “It all depends on whether the sash cords still work well,” she explained as she unlocked one window and pulled down the top and then pulled up the bottom.   She tested all four windows.  “One needs some work, but the others are good as new,” she pronounced.  “As a matter of fact, I think Mrs. E. told me that Mr. Ghent’s father had the sash cords replaced.”

“We’re too high up for you to do the outside where the dirt has mostly collected,” Hines griped.

Gladys had already brought glass-cleaning liquid and paper towels to the turret.  “It’s old fashioned, I admit,” she said.  “You hardly ever see windows washed this way any more for some reason.”  With that she pulled up the lower clear window, sat herself on the sill with her behind sticking outside the structure, and lowered the upper window so that the stained glass window’s exterior was completely in her reach.  She sprayed the glass several times until it the paper towels gave no indication of dirt, and then she raised and lowered the windows until she had thoroughly cleaned the clear glass window.  She slipped back into the room and, standing on a small step ladder she cleaned the inside of both frames.  The effect was startling.

“My God!” Hines exclaimed.  “I never would have believed it possible.  It’s beautiful! Go ahead and do the others.  I’m amazed.”

She completed the others, saying that Gregor would have to bring a screw driver and tighten the screws on the fourth window. The trim that held the leaded-in glass to the frame was loose. But Hines barely heard her.  The colorful light that shone through the stained glass was mesmerizing him.

“It’s going to be lunch time soon,” Gladys said.  “You can get Gregor to help you bring your bed up here after the painting and carpet guys are finished.  You’ll be warmer with a good carpet under your feet.”

Hines thought he’d choose the cheapest window treatment to please Spencer and Paige.  “Those bamboo slatted windows shades will do nicely,” he said.

 

Hines drove Spencer into Media and on the return trip they saw Jules come out of a drug store.  Jules saw them and gave a quick thumb’s up sign to Hines.  Yes, Hines thought, the Japanese kid could be blamed for the crime. There would be no difficulty.

And so it was that Hines and Jules learned that the tenzo had already been released but that he might be deported to Japan shortly. But ‘shortly’ to the government did not mean swirt.  “It would probably take them another matter of weeks to type up the paperwork. We’ll have to act quickly nevertheless,” Jules said when he and Hines were finally able to speak.  “I’ve already called the agent in Antigua.  The house is still available.  I’ll forward the deposit as soon as we set our plan in motion.”

 

Except for the crossword puzzles, Spencer had ceased to speak to Nola or Paige or anyone else except Hines. He kept to himself so much that no one could tell the difference between “Spencer the indifferent” and “Spencer the depressed.”

The children, especially Samantha, worried about Spence’s strange absences from home.  She called regularly, wanting her father to take her to New York to buy her a new winter wardrobe.  (Her mother was not nearly so liberal a spender as her father.) Paige assured her that she’d talk Spencer into taking her to New York when her school had a long mid-term break.

Although Spencer was not at first agreeable, Paige casually mentioned how the girl could use some decent jewelry and that a trip to Tiffany’s was definitely in order.  She could see his pupils change as he imagined buying a few “trinkets” from Tiffany’s for his new girl friend.  Feigning reluctance, Spencer acquiesced and said he’d escort his daughter to New York the following week. “We’ll only be gone a few days – a week at most,” he said.  “You can lose a few days of school. We can visit your great aunt Helena in her house on the Hudson.”   Since Ingrid had several important meetings scheduled, he decided the time for her to get close to his daughter was propitious.  As they drove home from the trip, he’d introduce Samantha to Ingrid during a posh Friday lunch.

Spence left to pick up Samantha on a Monday, planning to return in five days.  Although he had promised his daughter that he would not give a “smidgeon” of his attention to anyone else, he did try to call Ingrid on Tuesday and left a voice mail message that she did not return.

Wednesday morning Paige read on Page 6 of the newspaper the uplifting news that Doctor Ingrid Hesse had been killed on Tuesday in a car accident when she hit a bridge support on a back road. Paige anonymously called the clinic and asked how long they expected Ingrid’s body to remain in the U.S.  She learned that the doctor’s remains were scheduled to be flown back to Switzerland on Thursday.  She did not know if Spence had tried to call the doctor again but if he had called, he could leave only a voice mail.

Wednesday Spence called home and asked, “What’s new?”

Paige answered, “Nothing. Everything’s under control.  We all miss you.” When she ended the call she confided to Nola, “With a little luck, Dr. Ingrid Hesse will be six feet under in Switzerland, pushing up Edelweiss, before Spence even knows about the accident.”

When he stopped at the clinic as they drove home on Friday, he learned about her death. He collapsed and could not drive.  The confusion was so great that Samantha, bewildered by this unknown facet of Ghent life, frantically called Paige who sent Jules and Hines down to Media to drive them home.

At the Ghent house, Spence locked himself in his bedroom and listened to a sequence of dirges.  Judging from his wet pillows, he wept constantly.  Nola finally succeeded in getting him to let her in so that she could make sure he took his medicine.  “You want to be in good condition if you decide to visit a certain grave in Lucerne,” she said.  He, holding her to privacy, wept in her arms and Saturday, at his suggestion, they worked on a puzzle that he themed, La Belle Dame Sans Merci.  He was not much help, but at least he was roused from his depression long enough to come down to his study to check references of a few individuals who had met an untimely death.  It was his habit to hand-address the envelopes to complete the illusion that he was the sole author of the work.

 

And this is what preceded Nola’s trouble that began on Wednesday, October 22nd, the day that she called out, “Is the envelope the one on the right side of the blotter or the left?”

The Crossword Puzzle (#4)

Ming Zhen Shakya
Ming Zhen Shakya
 To see more literature about Zen and the Art of Investigation:
http://www.zenanthonywolff.com

The Crossword Puzzle

by Anthony Wolff (Ming Zhen Shakya)

To see all published chapters of “The Crossword Puzzle” click here

PART 4: THE NEW WOMAN AND THE CABIN IN THE WOODS

For several days Paige and Nola visited Spencer at the clinic; but he barely acknowledged their presence.  And then one day as they were leaving, a nurse told Paige that her visits upset him and it would be better if she let him rest and digest his meals without stress.  Paige, shocked but still in control of her ability to scheme, said she understood completely, but began to walk back to Spencer’s room, “to get my watch,” she explained.  “I left it there until I could get his repaired.”  She had a way of sliding past all opposition.

Paige saw that an attractive blonde doctor was taking his pulse and immediately sensed that something was going on between her husband and the Swiss doctor whose name, she learned, was Ingrid Hesse. “This Dr.Hesse has the hots for my husband,” she muttered to Nola.  “I can see it in her eyes.”

Nola tried to remove such thoughts from Paige’s mind, but she was not particularly convincing.  There was little concern for alarm, she insisted, since Dr. Boyer had assured her that Spencer would be home within the week.

Paige found the printed note on her vanity.  “Gregor intends to film you in the carriage house. Beware.”  She gasped and then made sure that In the several additional days that her husband was gone, she stayed away from Gregor. Nola had reclaimed her bedroom and aside from being annoyed by the little holes in the walls that Hines had made by hanging so many of his framed posters, she was able to resume her daily schedule with Spence when he returned. She refused, however, to be on call during evening hours since gossip made it impossible for her to remain in the house after hours.  Although Spence thought the nightly flights entirely unnecessary, he agreed.

Several days had passed and at every meal eaten in the servant’s kitchen, Gregor expected Hines to beg him to allow him to stay in the two back rooms. Mrs. Ellington persisted in presenting the case for such a purpose, but Hines claimed to be content with the turret room provided it was renovated as promised. Gregor was puzzled by Hines’ new enthusiasm for the tower chamber and when he discovered that his photos and tapes had been stolen, he believed he now knew why: Hines had taken the photos and would somehow, someway try to use them to get even with Gregor for refusing to allow him to live in the back rooms.

Gladys, meanwhile, began to wonder how Gregor had gotten the photographs developed.  They were too pornographic for him to take into town for processing.  Gregor had no friends in town – at least none that she knew of – so where were they processed?  The kids all had digital cameras and there were few places that still had dark-rooms.  On a hunch she went to the old farrier’s shed and even though the thick curtains were open, she found red bulbs in a string of sockets.  “So this is where he does it!” she said, and her admiration for the man she had regarded only as a stableman and groundskeeper grew.  She thought of glamorous movie star posters and imagined herself, hair styled and face made up, wearing sexy lingerie.  “Yes, he and I could go into business together doing glamor shots,” she murmured. Her inheritance would be enough to get the business started.

With Spence’s approval, Hines had an entertainment unit installed in the master bedroom along with two reclining chairs and a small refrigerator.  He used satellite feed to bring in all possible channels and In the evenings, he would build a fire in the fireplace and the two men would sit in the room and enjoy the “henless” evenings.

Nola’a new evening schedule began as dinner ended.  Forlornly, she’d watch Spencer as they ate and kept remembering the evenings they spent laughing and exchanging ideas; but she knew how volatile Paige was and that it was best for her to keep herself out of harm’s way. The relief she had experienced doing Zen meditation put visiting the Zen Buddhist Assembly of Morton at the top of her list of things to do. She did not know that The Council had already decided to end their operation on the last day of July; yet when she entered their office in February and asked to become a member, they said nothing and simply charged her a full year’s membership.

It was a cold night when, carrying her own zafu (cushion) and zabuton (mat), she entered the shabby meditation room and was appalled by its condition – the scraped and blistered clashing paint schemes, the faulty hinges that prevented doors from being shut, the holes and stained areas of what was once a beautiful walnut floor – she nearly left without saying a word.  There were only eight shivering people sitting facing a dark or multicolored wall in the meditation room and yet a Council member walked around like a drill sergeant carrying a kyoasaku (hitting stock) ready to whack them on the shoulder should anyone slump into dreamland. Hypothermia and not lack of sleep, Nola thought, would soon have them all verging on unconsciousness.  She turned and looked at the fireplace. The room was so cold and so much cold draft came down the chimney that she again wanted to leave; but then she thought of Paige, who had expressed a desire to include religion in her life, and especially Spencer, who had actually expressed a desire to join the Assembly, and kept her place.

At the first fifty-minute break, she asked the woman sitting next to her, “Is it possible to close the flue?”

“No,” the woman replied, “it’s broken and they have no more money to repair the zillion things that are broken in his house.”  Then she added, “The roof leaks so bad that the snow turns the attic into a kind of mini-Alps.”

After services, Nola approached the council and offered to pay for the roof’s repair.  Over the years she had accumulated government saving bonds and she still had the Certificate of Deposit that Paige had given her.

The initial ecstatic response could hardly be put into words.  If or when, the ZBA sold the building, a good roof would raise the asking price.  But then, the intrusion of divinity into their dilemma occurred to them.  Nola was surely divinely sent and, accordingly, the council blessed her and wondered how, as Buddhists, they could properly thank her while still respecting the mandate of humility.  The roof, after all, would cost $20,000 to repair or replace.  And she was willing to pay this amount? Yes, she could just about afford it.  To her it was an investment in her social future.

But as the roofing contractor proceeded with the work, the ardor of the council cooled and the role of divinity lessened. They began to wonder why Nola was being so generous.  What was in it for her?

Roofers seize whatever opportunity the weather affords them, and in a matter of cold but dry and windless days, the work was completed. The repairs took all of Nola’s savings, but she did not regret the expense.  Fate or Faith had delivered her from alienation with her sister and the charges of scandalous behavior from which she might never recover.  She also did not want to be ashamed of the assembly that she expected both Spencer and Paige to join.  In its present state the building was an embarrassment.

In Mid-February, Nola stopped into the Council’s office to announce, “Since the roof is finished, I’d like to undertake an immediate renovation of the meditation room.  I’d like to make it suitable for two evening classes of yoga a week, which I, as a certified teacher, would conduct if you agree to it.  The Council would, of course, fix the fees, collect and keep the money. As you know, in Soto Zen the practitioners face the wall, so walls must be painted a very light color.”

“And why is that?” Sri Bashumitsu (Patrician Mahoney) the Council president obtusely asked.

Nola, who after all was going to do the work and spend her own money on the project, did not feel like a supplicant. In a tone that was somewhat less than obsequious, she said, “Because it all depends on the Ganzfeld principle.  When we stare into a bright, featureless space, the light bounces back from the space and has a salubrious effect on the eye.  Psychologically, it conduces to the meditative state.  As the wall is now, it is a dark jumble of color and stickers and some graffiti and is not anything that will induce the mind to relax.” Then she turned and added,

 “When the building’s repaired, you’ll attract more Zen people.  You could fix the bedrooms and rent out the rooms to paying guests.  Some of them may want to study to become lay-ordained monks or nuns.  You could even open a shop to sell home-make religious articles and garments!”

Someone murmured, “What excellent ideas!”  Eyes furtively glanced at other eyes as the council secretly smirked.  “Why didn’t we think of that?” one asked as she looked around at the others and snickered.

Sri Bashumitsu dismissed her with a tart, “Thank you so much.”

Undaunted, she paid a carpenter to repair the flue, windows, and doors, and hired a local painter to cover the ceiling and walls in a neutral cream-color paint. She rented a sanding machine and with a few male members spent evenings grinding away years of abuse from the parquet floors. A coating of spar-varnish was applied and the room began to hint of its former beauty.  Paige donated several brass candlesticks and an old wind-up clock for the mantlepiece and supplied a banzai tree and an ikebana floral piece for the plaster statue of the Buddha (the only one she could find) on an old walnut table she had to the room’s decoration.  The result of the renovation was startling and everyone marveled at the change.  More than a dozen new members joined the sangha. The Council decided to postpone ending their monastic venture.

Though the Council members felt renewed hope that they could create a monastic center, they still couldn’t understand Nola’s desire to help. The more renovation she did and was praised for, the more they resented her interference.  When she was present, they regarded her with polite distain, but when she was not present, they referred to her as “LB” which stood for Lady Bountiful, and, as beggars inevitably do, they assumed further entitlements.  In front of the congregation, Shi Bashumitsu pointedly asked, “Do you intend to use the same cream color paint for the bedrooms?”  Nola said that she regretted that she could not afford to pay for more than the meditation hall. The president expressed regret, and thus began in earnest the denigration of Nola and her gifts.  Yes, the Council conceded amongst themselves, it was nice to have a polished wood floor in the meditation hall for her to use for yoga classes; but it surely was not the salvific boon that Nola was undoubtedly boasting about.   What was she up to giving yoga classes on Monday and Wednesday evenings?  Was she trying to secure the good opinion of others in order to exploit them for some ulterior commercial purpose?  Who knew where she would take her yoga devotees once they helped to establish it?  Yes, Nola had to be up to something.  Despite many theories, they had not come close to guessing Nola’s motive.

At the Ghent house nothing had been done to the turret to accommodate Hines. Since Gregor adamantly refused to allow Hines to live in the two unused rooms – a decision Paige wholeheartedly supported, Hines still used Roland’s room – without the wall posters – and would have been content to make the arrangement permanent were it not for the upcoming Easter holiday when Roland was expected to return.  The few times that Roland called the house, he spoke to Jules who gave his uninhibited opinions about Hines.  Roland, a natural peacemaker, responded, “Let him stay with you. You have plenty of room and he can sleep on a cot.  It won’t kill either of you. Keep my bedroom locked.”

At the Zen Center, membership immediately increased; but news from the Ghent house was not nearly so encouraging. Spencer Ghent, secretly indulging in coconut cream candy, relapsed and needed to be taken to the clinic in Media.  After a few days he announced that he was transferring to the main clinic in Lucerne, Switzerland, for additional treatment which he said he needed.  Although he was able to use a computer for one hour a day to contact Nola about the puzzles, he still had no phone capability and could be reached otherwise only by mail. Isolation was considered part of the cure and Paige and all other family members and friends were not welcome in or near the sanatorium.  Ghent was to have a stressless period in which to recover from his dietary rule-breaking during the Easter holiday.

The children, who spent most of their home visit with their friends, returned to school, and life for Nola returned to its unusual normal.  Paige, at first, showed a kind of defiance and spent nights and even a several days at a time away from home.  She was jittery and uncommunicative; and when Nola pleaded with her to spend some time doing Zen meditation, she expressed a reluctance to join the Zen Assembly, saying that she needed a little more time to consider what such a move would do to her position in society.  She did attend yoga classes as did Ellis Foyle, a man Paige found strangely exciting.  She decided that she would attend at least until the kids and, she expected, Spencer, came home for the summer vacation in June. Meanwhile, having been told by one of the local dilettantes that she had a talent for art, she began to take lessons in town twice a week.

The time Spencer had spent in the clinic seemed to improve his health and good humor. He gained nearly ten pounds and although he still wore “safety” underpants, his libido benefitted greatly by the absence of unexpected bowel movements.  The Lucerne “spa” as he called it had an interfaith chapel and he had been able to meditate sitting on a cushion for an hour each week.  He had Jules mail to him his old Buddhist robes and were it not for his thick, wavy hair he would have looked like a true abbot and not one of the numerous candidates the Council was testing to replace the old man they were still stuck with.  Spencer’s executive poise returned to him and he began to give Dharma talks whenever other Buddhists were present in the Chapel.  He found in the sanatorium’s library several books on Buddhism that he regularly consulted.  That they were in both the Pali (old school) and Prajnaparamitra (reform school) Canons did not seem to matter much to him or to his audience.  There was an ego.  There was no such thing as an ego.  There was reincarnation.  There was no such thing as reincarnation.  In true professorial style he seemed to make sense no matter what he taught; and he naturally relied on the universal diversities of the Buddha’s Message to support any position he took.  Aside from all this, he had become more handsome, albeit in a more mature way.  He had sent photographs of himself; and while Paige showed them to anyone who would look, Nola spent hours alone in her bedroom praying to dislodge the man from her mind. Just before Memorial Day in May, he returned to his home in Morton, Pennsylvania.

The crossword puzzles continued to pour out of his and Nola’s bubbling imaginations, but this time Paige made no comment about their teamwork. Nola, determined to establish a “non-Spence” social life for herself, had joined a book club that met on Friday evenings.  On Saturday night she had joined the local Square Dance Society and learned old forms of folk dancing as well as modern Texas line dancing.  On Sunday, after riding horses around the estate with Paige, she’d return to her room to write her own diary, embellishing it with the intention to someday write a novel that would be at least as good as the books she reviewed at the club on Friday evenings. Unfortunately, she used fictitious names when referring to real people, and the servants who in secret regularly read the private pages all tended to assume that she had somehow learned about their more colorful histories.  Contempt for Nola rose concomitantly.

Paige, along with oil paint and charcoal, had found the solace of leather once again – but not with Gregor – and all seemed to be well at the Ghent house. When Gregor told her that he missed their sessions together, she explained that she and Spence had entered a new phase in their lives here and she could no longer be the cause of jealousy or embarrassment to her husband. Claiming that their insurance agent should clean out the two back rooms lest the debris there catch fire, she asked him to remove everything that he kept there and to record for insurance purposes the serial numbers of any equipment and to list all personal property he considered valuable. When he submitted only his television’s serial number to Jules.  She believed that she was no longer vulnerable to blackmail images of herself and never ascended the steps to his apartment again.

Spencer was a completely different man when he returned.  He spoke on the phone frequently with his children, but otherwise kept to himself and Hines. Since Mrs. Eglington was now thoroughly convinced about dietary matters, she kept his colitis under control.  He did require “maintenance” treatments and twice a week Hines drove him into Media to the Clinic’s branch for day-long hydrotherapy and massage sessions. Hines would go to the library or the movies while he waited.  Spencer would return from his treatment so enthusiastic about the procedures that he expressed a need to share the Lucerne’s methods with the world.  An architect was summoned and a large addition to the small clinic was planned.  The project took so much of his time that for many weeks Nola had to create one-hundred percent of the Chat R. Box puzzles.

Spencer did find time to attend a few evening meditation sessions at ZBA’s renovated “temple” and he and Hines practiced yoga at home in private, using the instructions offered on a DVD.  Whenever he went to the temple, he’d be asked to speak; and, invariably, he testified glowingly to everyman’s need to spend at least a few hours of his week in contemplation of the really important things in life.

He also accompanied the entire sangha when they went to the Masonic Temple’s auditorium to watch a showing of the film, Amongst White Clouds.

“You know,” Spence privately said to Nola as an appreciative comment on the film, “For twenty years we’ve had a hundred-twenty acres of reclaimed land in Schuylkill County.  I bet the trees have grown back in all that time.  It would make a great place to establish a colony of hermitages for folks who just want to get away from this irritating so-called civilized life. Let’s go up this weekend and have a look at it.  I want a woman’s opinion.”

Paige had made other plans and insisted that the two of them should go and report on the condition of the area.   Since the land had been given to them as wedding presents by an eccentric uncle of Spencer’s, the parcels were separate. Paige owned the sixty acre half of the property that contained the trail into the land; and Spencer owned the other half, the hilltop that contained an old cabin.  “There’s probably bears and mountain lions to contend with,” Paige warned, “and maybe a few snakes and spiders, but otherwise you might have good shelter there.  It should require only one night to decide whether or not the place is fit for hermitages.”

Nola, also enthusiastic about living in an isolated hermitage, agreed to go.  She discussed the possibilities with Ellis Foyle who, since his wife had not returned as planned, was also interested in joining the independent group of people who lived alone without distractions.

Also joining them in their expectation of the un-interfered with life, was the latest candidate for the abbacy, a handsome young man from Kerala, India, Vikram Chaudan, whose purpose in coming to the U.S. was actually to find a hospital to accept him as a surgical resident.  But he needed a permanent and respectable place to stay and a Zen monastery that charged him nothing was certainly that.  He read a few books about Soto Zen on the evening before he came to the ZBA to apply.

The Council found him to be an acceptable candidate and had even adjusted his name to sound more Japanese, calling him Victoru Roshi.  Vikram was a graduate of a third rate medical school in India in which he had finished at the bottom of his class.  Nevertheless, his good looks and charm carried him along the waters of social refinement, “like Shiva’s seed on the leaf,” as The Council ladies put it, and delivered him to them. When Vikram learned that Nola was a registered nurse who could also type, he asked her to help him to write to the various medical institutions – of which there were hundreds – in the United States and Canada to ask to be considered for a position as a surgical resident.  Included in his resumé was a copy of his academic record which, Nola thought but did not express, should have resulted in paroxysms of laughter in the various Admission’s offices. The photograph he chose to submit with the requests failed to convey his good looks.  To Nola, he looked rather sleepy in the photos. To Paige, it was providential that most of the work they did was done in the Ghent house.  Seeing him banished the ugly thoughts she had about her own husband and gave Gregor some needed competition.

Spencer decided, “We can go to the land this weekend. We’ll go in our old Ford truck that Gregor uses. “It’s a great idea for a puzzle theme.  We can call it Roughing It.  What do you think?”

Nola did not know what to think. Without approaching erotomania, there is a state in which lonely people tend to magnify or even transmute the meaning of a simple statement or gesture made by someone whom the lonely person considers a potential lover. “Nice jacket!” said casually by someone passing, is examined for all possible meanings, none of which has anything to do with garments.  “You look really nice today,” is practically a proposal of marriage. At the very least, the conclusion will be reached that not only were such statements an overture to an affair, but that an overt admiration of the figure wearing the garment was a public announcement of romantic interest.  People in a normal love affair hear many such remarks. They tend to smile automatically in response and forget the compliment.  But lonely people are like starving beggars – though they do not realize this.  A crumb thrown to them is devoured with desperate hopes for more. Another response to such a remark may be had by more sober persons.  The compliment then flits around the mind like a mayfly, titillating it briefly with possibilities.

Knowing this did not prevent Nola from giggling to herself about Spencer Ghent’s frequent shows of sexual desire and his intended week-end jaunt.  Perhaps some kind of priapic medicine had been prescribed for him in Switzerland.  “What if?” began to play its tantalizing game in her mind as she got into bed that night and pulled the covers up.

Nola looked forward anxiously to spending a night in an isolated cabin with Spence. How would he react to her when they were alone?  She remembered what Ellis Foyle had said about Razzle games and wondered how Spence was responding to her absences from home in the evening.  One night at dinner he had said to her in a joking manner, “Go ahead and go do your vampire things or whatever you do when the sun goes down.  I only know it gets pretty lonely around here.”  Paige immediately changed the subject.

Perhaps it was those unproductive years that gave him such a proprietary attitude toward the puzzles, but, increasingly he realized that he no longer needed an in-home registered nurse and that that the larger salary Paige had given Nola could justifiably be considered payment for her contribution to the puzzles. Though he had promised that the syndication would be in their names jointly, he now decided that Nola had already been paid for her part of the work.  “Oh,” he responded when she mentioned the syndication of the puzzles, “my attorney’s working on it.  It’s more complicated than we thought.”  He went to his gun collection and selected a revolver and a rifle. “Who knows what we’ll find, on the land,” he said. “Gregor can do without the truck for a few days.  If bears bother us in the cabin, we can always move and sleep in the truck bed.” He found an old tarp and two of the kids new sleeping bags and tossed them it in the back of the truck.

As they drove to Schuylkill County, Nola decided against bringing up the issue of syndication in fear that she’d start some kind of argument.  She knew that Spencer had been talking to his lawyer quite frequently in recent days, and she was content to believe that the subject of their conversation was, as Spencer had said, the syndication problem.

It began to rain, and having been told that the cabin was old and run-down, she noticed on the map that there was a motel and gas station just before the turn-off to the land.  “According to your map,” she said, “this is the last point of civilization for miles.  Why don’t we check in here?  There’s a cafeteria of some sort attached to the station.  They’re open and maybe the owner can give us some news about the place.”

Spencer responded harshly.  “Whose investigation is this?  Yours or mine? Our one chance to sleep together in privacy and you want to check into a motel.  What do we get? Two rooms?” he asked sarcastically.  “One for smokers and one on the other end of the place for non-smokers?Or were you planning to register as my wife?  Proof? Is that what you’re looking for? Some kind of sexual harassment?” He drove past the station and made a sharp left onto the dirt trail that led onto the land.

Nola, stunned by his outburst, said nothing.

The land was beautiful.  The deciduous trees were still bright green and the pines stood like sentries every fifty feet or so.  “I’m sorry,” Spence said.  “I don’t know what’s gotten under my skin. I know the bears have stopped hibernating and anything with fur on it is protecting its young.  But Nola! I’ve missed you so much at night.  And this is my first big outing.  I was really looking forward to being alone with you.”  He reached across and mussed her hair.  “Please forgive me.  I’m an old crank who’s nuts about a beautiful young thing.  It’s hell sitting home alone watching Tv.  Hines gets on my nerves.  A little of him goes a long way, indispensable as he has become.”

 “There are times I just don’t understand you,” Nola forced herself to reply.  She changed the subject to the land.  “The place looks perfect for hermitages.”  Someone had planted fruit trees as part of the reclamation project after strip mining had all but destroyed the land. “I see peach trees and apple… and cherry, too; but the fruit’s tiny and hardly ripe enough to pick.  And there are blackberry bushes all over the place.”

The trail led up to the cabin.  “Well, lookie here!” Spence said affecting delight.  “Hunters or visitors of some kind have repaired the cabin, or so a real estate agent in the county has told me.”  This was a lie, of course. Spencer had ordered immediate repairs.  “Bully for them that they’ve made the cabin more livable.  A key to the front door is supposed to be in a geranium pot on the left side of the door.”

Nola looked around and said, “There doesn’t seem to be another thing that needs doing to this place.  It will furnish a great headquarters while the smaller hermitages are being built.”  Spencer agreed. He even tested the water from a nearby stream and found it to be pure and delicious.  There were chamberpots under the beds and an outhouse, but these, he allowed, were part of rustic living.

As Nola unassembled the camping gear she had brought, Spencer suddenly said, “Zip the two sleeping bags together.  We’ll need each other to keep warm.  It gets cold as hell up here at night.” There was an odd subtlety in the way he made the request that made her hesitate.  Clearly, his intention was to make love to her, but his request lacked even a hint of romance.  Yet, she acquiesced and joined the two sleeping bags.  Regardless of his crude approach, she had wanted to make love to him for a long time.  And that time had come.

After dinner they sat before the fireplace and talked about the rustic life and then he simply said, “It’s bedtime now. Let’s have at it.”

He followed her into the sleeping bag and roughly tried to remove her nightgown.  In the flickering light of the fireplace, she could see the expression on his face.  He did not try to kiss her or make even a tender gesture.  He rubbed himself a few times against her thigh, and then lifting himself up he shifted his weight until he was on top of her.  Nola suddenly pushed him away and began to scramble out of the sleeping bag. “If this is your idea of love making, buy yourself one of those plastic blow-up dolls.”  She finally got free of the bag and began to change into her outdoor clothing.

Nola did not even try to make sense of his performance.  She began to unzip her half of the sleeping bag while he cursed her for being a “cock teaser.”

“Is the truck locked?” she asked.  “I’ll go sleep in it.”  She saw the keys on the table and quickly picked them up.  “I’ll see you in the morning when maybe your sanity has returned.”  She retreated to the truck still hearing Spencer curse her for having deceived him.  The truck was old and did not have bucket seats.  “Thank God!” she said as she wiggled into the sleeping bag and curled up on the seat.  “A blow up doll!” she whined; and then she began to cry.

In the morning, Spencer took the truck to check the property for more streams that could be used by the hermitages.  The smell of coffee and bacon filled the hill top as Nola made breakfast; but an hour passed and Spencer did not return.  Fearing that he had had an accident with the truck, she took the rifle and some extra rounds and went to look for him.  There were the usual bird sounds as she trudged down the trail and suddenly she detected the sound of laughter.  She stepped carefully to get closer and saw Spencer speaking on a cell phone to someone in an excited voice.  She listened and could tell he was speaking to a woman.  She retreated, walking up the trail until she came to the cabin.   She drank some coffee and ate a few pieces of “fireside toast.”  Then she walked outside the cabin in a circle some hundred feet in diameter.  From what she could see, the lower land looked fit for vegetable gardens.  To be sure, they’d need a geologist’s opinion.

Spencer’s opinion differed.  He returned ebullient, “I’ve given the place a good going over,” he said, and I figure we can charge $30,000 per leased unit.  Everything’s pre-fab and it wouldn’t be Wabi Sabi unless the floor was dirt.The walls have to be strong because of the bears.  And they will all need fresh water. We’ll build cisterns and outhouses. Some may want hothouses attached.  We’ll have to get prices for those.”

After they had eaten he announced that regardless of what he had promised Paige, they’d have to stay another night.  “We need to experience life here on the mountain before we subject greenhorns to the dangers of the wild.”  Knowing how Paige would react, Nola objected.  Spence silenced her by telling her that he was still her boss.  “My wife is my responsibility,” he said.  “You can miss square dancing or whatever it is you do with those farmers.”

There was a small waterfall near the cabin. Nola, trying to be conciliatory, suggested, “After we clean up the kitchen let’s take some photographs of it.”

Spencer grunted and said simply, “Maybe. First I want to bathe there.” Nola cleaned the breakfast and lunch dishes while Spencer went to the falls to bathe and dress. Feeling that she was being punished for not capitulating to him the previous night, she was awkward and confused.  The guilt for hoping to use the weekend as a romantic getaway mixed with the anger she felt at his behavior towards her.  Nothing was happening the way she assumed it would; and she didn’t know how to approach him to regain some semblance of the friendship or teamwork that they had for so long enjoyed.  They were antagonists in the cabin and she was hurt and bewildered by the situation.

After Spencer dressed he checked the truck.  Nola came out of the cabin and joined him, using the excuse that she wanted to make sure she had removed all of her things. “Listen,” he said, I saw some interesting rocks – colorful ones – throughout the upper areas of the site. They’ll make a nice fireplace or entrance adornment.  I’ll recheck and photograph the waterfall while you gather the stones.”

Nola said that she would and then added, hoping to continue the conversation, “I don’t know how the others feel about killing deer, but I did see deer scat all over the place.”

“Hmm,” he said as he checked his watch and got into the truck.  “You keep looking for rocks but make sure you take the rifle with you… not for the deer, but for the bears.  I don’t think you’ll see any snakes.”

He drove away, but she could see in the damp clearing that the truck had not taken the trail to the falls, and his distinctive hiking boots had left no marks on the damp ground, either.  Suspicion spurred her to clarify the confusion.  She walked down to the lower part of the hill that was more level and with a long hundred-foot measuring tape she did mark with orange tags good places for cabins and gardens to be built.  She wrote a number on each tag and recorded it in a notebook.  She saw no colored rocks anywhere and continued to go down the trail.

Noon had come and he had not returned and she could hear no sound of an engine.  She continued to follow his tire tracks to the road and the motel came into view.  His truck was parked outside one of the rooms and beside the truck was a new Volvo that had a sticker bearing a medical insignia of some kind on the windshield.  Staying as far back as she could, she recorded the Volvo’s license plate’s number. Slowly, and letting her suspicions fill in all the gaps that had been blank, she returned to the cabin.  She marked a few more hermitage sites and then went into the cabin and found a tattered book on camping in a cabinet and, tucked inside her sleeping bag, tried to read it, but she was crying and could not concentrate on anything except her overwhelming disappointment and childishness. Soon darkness fell and the light from a single kerosene lamp was the only light in the cabin.  Finally, she fell asleep.

It was late in the morning when Spencer returned. She had remained in bed, trying to read. “Come on!” he said gruffly.  “Let’s go!  Paige is gonna have a fit.”

Nola dressed quickly and got into the truck.  She did not ask him where he had been all night, but he volunteered that he had gotten stuck in a ditch and had to go down to the motel to ask some men there if they’d help him.  Naturally, they couldn’t do anything until morning.  Nola pretended that she believed him and asked routinely curious questions. “How deep in the mud were you?”  “Did they pull you back out with a chain?”  “I guess that we ought to stay on the trail until we can lay gravel down.”

After thirty minutes of silence, he began to talk about Paige’s sexual preferences. “What does she say Gregor does to her?” he asked in the most innocent voice he could create. Nola refused to comment about Paige, saying that she didn’t know and wouldn’t discuss it if she did.  Spencer revealed in sordid detail what the last groundsman had told him.  “Yes, rough.  My lady likes the rough stuff.”

Nola wondered, “How did I ever let myself get romantically involved with him?” She repeatedly asked herself this as she tried to forget how witty and charming he usually was.  She thought about the car parked next to his at the motel.  It probably belonged to that blonde Swiss physician.  It had to be a torrid love affair for him to get her to drive an hour and a half all the way up there.

They drove in silence, stopping only to get gas.  Nola felt both the tension of fearing what Paige would say about their being a day late in returning and more, she felt the bewildering disappointment that is created by realistic expectations that somehow go awry.  She had every reason to assume that it would be a romantic weekend or, at least, a “fun” weekend; what she did not take into consideration was what Spencer was anticipating. Projecting thoughts and desires onto someone else and then making assumptions about results is invariably a mistake. Nola knew that – a fact which made her feel even worse. Now she was sure to be admonished for having taken an extra day with Spencer. Oh yes, she thought, it would be her fault.  She prepared for the inevitable scene as they pulled up to the portico at two o’clock.

Paige did not disappoint.  “I guess you two love birds had quite a nice time nesting in that broken down cabin.”

Spencer answered.  “I drove the truck into a ditch and needed help to get out.  The muscles between my shoulder blades are in some kind of spasm.  Instead of making things worse by your ridiculous imagination, could you try to get the knots out of my back?”  With that Paige followed him into the master’s bedroom; and after hearing maudlin pleas that Nola could not quite understand, she heard the bed begin to thump.  For an hour she watched the illuminated hands of her clock measure out the grunts and groans and yelps of an old ritual before she finally took a shower and prepared for dinner.

At dinner, without explanation, Spencer announced that he intended to return to Switzerland to complete his therapy.  “Also,” he casually added, “I just got an email from a man I forgot to mention – a fellow patient I made friends with in the Clinic who runs a home in Akita on the Sea of Japan side of the island.  He had said that the home had been created to care for the homeless people who lost everything after the Fukushima disaster.  Little by little the home’s population had dwindled as the people found residences closer to their work places or went to live with relatives.  He has room, he assures me, to accommodate the old Abbot at ZBA. My friend’s term of therapy is expiring In Lucerne, and if we want to bring the old demented Abbot to him, he’ll happily accept him. Caring for the sick, he explained to me, was his way of expressing gratitude for having been spared in the nuclear catastrophe.  What do you think?”

Nola, surprised that this was the first she was hearing about such a plan, thought that The Council would be delighted.

“I’ve been teaching my friend – his name is Yoshi – colloquial English.   As one of my teaching tools I’ve gotten him interested in crossword puzzles.  I’ve developed variations on the puzzle theme which have proven to be very instructive to him.  I’ve promised to continue the exercises – much like people used to play chess.  I’m speaking, of course, before the electronic age.”

“How is the Abbot supposed to get there?” Paige asked.

“If all goes well, someone from the council has to bring the old man to meet me and him at the Cairo Airport and then I’ll personally escort him to his new home in Akita.  I’ve already checked with the Japanese authorities and there should be no problem.”

That evening, as Nola was sorting the garments she’d ask to be laundered, Paige came to her room.  “Is it true that he had car trouble?” she whispered.

“That’s what he told me.  I didn’t see it, myself.”  Nola did not tell her about the Volvo and the motel. “And for the record, this is the first I’ve heard about returning to Lucerne or going to Japan.”

“I could tell you were surprised. Did you have sex with my husband?”

“No.”

“I believe you.  I checked your two sleeping bags.  Yours was absolutely clean and his was full of semen.  He’s too lazy to get up and clean himself.”

“It was so cold up there at night.  I can’t fault him for not wanting to get up and clean himself in icy water.”

“He tried so many new positions with me this afternoon.  Why is he so interested in sex lately? I have the feeling that he’s practicing on me.”

“Maybe somebody is inspiring him.”

“That doctor from the clinic?”

“I don’t know.  As you can tell from the important things he “forgot” to tell us, I don’t know too much about his private life.  I do know that I think it’s time that we considered him to be as cured as he’s ever going to be of colitis.  Really, Paige… I’m no longer needed around here.  We can compose the crossword puzzles by email, text, or phone.”

“No! I don’t want you here for him.  I need you.”  She began to cry.  “My life is falling apart.  Things that I was so sure of have not come to pass; and things I never expected are deluging me. Things are so upside-down that I don’t want Spence to know that I’m personally asking you to stay.  If he thinks that, he’ll fire you for sure. He’s been seeing his attorney lately and I hope and pray it’s about your puzzle stuff.”

All Nola could say was, “I know exactly how you feel about the upside-down business.  But I’ll stay awhile longer if you think you really need me.”

The Crossword Puzzle (#3)

Ming Zhen Shakya
Ming Zhen Shakya
 To see more literature about Zen and the Art of Investigation:
http://www.zenanthonywolff.com

The Crossword Puzzle

by Anthony Wolff (Ming Zhen Shakya)

To see all published chapters of “The Crossword Puzzle” click here

Part 3 – LEGAL ADVICE OBTAINED & A FLY IN THE SOUP

 

Nola sat on a bed in a motel room, crying in humiliation and trying to understand what had just happened.  Thought requires a mood and the distraught emotions she felt did not conduce to it. Exhausted, she finally retreated into her religion; and resorting to years of training got herself into deep meditation. There is a condition that is worse than guilt and that is wishful-guilt.  Nola had never slept with Spence, but she had wanted to; the accusations, therefore, were true in thought if not in deed.

In Zen there is a principle based on the Lex Talionis that the Bible and  Karl Menninger disclosed to the world: the law of like punishment.  In his clinical experience Menninger observed that there were rules that the conscience followed.  The most surprising one was that a person’s ego suffered in direct proportion to the sin or ill fortune it wished would happen to someone else. The instinct to destroy stays inside the ego and ultimately connives to harm the ego with some kind of self-caused adversity that was akin to the ill wish it had against someone else. This he regarded as a form of the Lex Talionis, the law that makes the punishment equal to the crime. It extends to thoughts as well as deeds. The punishment may bear no obvious relation to the “crime.”  We easily forget that we have harshly considered someone’s conduct as sinful or were unkind to someone in our home or workplace; but oddly, though we may have driven a section of the freeway a thousand times, keeping within the posted limits, we suddenly find ourselves accelerating through an area and getting stopped by the police.  We may have stepped over the edge of a carpet a thousand times, but suddenly one day it becomes an obstacle that causes us to stumble and fall. We may also become inexplicably ill. Yes, there may be other reasons for our adversity, but they do not easily lend themselves to differentiation. However much we may have cheated or secretly sought harm to come to someone, we don’t connect the events.  This, explains Menninger, is the self-destructive act that has followed our act or wish that someone would make a mistake or get sick or injured. The law also bears a resemblance to the doctrine of Karma.

There was no doubt that Nola had mocked her sister and had secret;y wished that something would happen to provoke a divorce between Paige and Spence.  She wanted him for herself; and this could only mean – regardless of Paige’s scandalous conduct – that it would cause her sister’s unhappiness.

Guilt, professional as well as sisterly, had to be dealt with; and this required some rather difficult Zen cogitation. Nola was torn between being innocent of illicit behavior and knowing that she wanted to commit it; and further, that although she and Spencer had been misquoted, they had, in fact, laughed at Paige’s expense.  She had accomplished what she had been hired to do – help to restore Spencer’s health.  There really was no reason for her to stay on at her sister’s house – certainly creating crossword puzzles was not within her nursing duties.  She should have made arrangements to leave the residence weeks before and not waited to be thrown out simply because she wanted to be near a patient to whom she felt attracted.  It was a problem that only a Zen adept could even begin to examine and that only a saint could completely solve.  Nola was no saint but she did proceed accordingly to accept her responsibility in the debacle. She had reached the guilty stage, which, she knew, that Zen or no Zen, would precede a resentful phase and a desire to distance herself from the entire problem.  In short, to flee from it.   Alaska entered her mind.  She had always wanted to see it. She knew that she should have persisted in her Zen program, but she was exhausted and could not concentrate.

She lay back on her bed and grieved the two things that still remained unresolved: Spencer’s failure to defend her morally and her exclusion as co-author of the crossword puzzle series, which had begun to be a regular Sunday feature in the local newspaper.

“Ah, well,” she said, unable to think constructively by so much self-examination, “Spence is still coming back from a serious disease.  Let’s not expect too much gallantry from him.”  She went into the shower, hoping that the water would help to wash away the last vestiges of the disagreeable experience.

As she closed the drapes against the outside world’s darkness, she decided to lay on her bed and chant quietly until she fell asleep, but before she could finish the first chant, she slipped into a fitful sleep.

 

In the morning a strange irritation – not one normally associated with low blood sugar or the unexpected announcement of bad news – seized her, and her nerves sizzled inside her like so many lit fuses.  How had she become the victim of such injustice?  She had left a good job to come and live with her sister.  Through her professional care, her patient had regained his health.  Was she to be terminated as an incompetent servant?  No.  She showered and as her hair dried, she looked under “Attorneys at law” in the Yellow Pages of the slim phone directory and saw that there was a law office less than a block away that had hours on Saturday.  And, it was near a coffee shop.

She walked to the coffee shop, had a muffin and coffee for breakfast, and then headed for the lawyer’s office.

It was a shabby store-front office and she almost decided not to enter when she reminded herself that she only wanted to ask if she had a case against Paige for such an undeserved dismissal.  Painted on the door were the flaking letters that spelled Graham Corbin, Esq.  Were it any day but Saturday, she would not have entered.

Inside, sitting at a battered receptionist’s desk, she encountered a man of about forty, wearing denim shirt and pants and hiking boots which he casually propped on the only visitor’s chair in the small room.  He looked up and said, “Come in. Graham’s with a client.  I’m Ellis Foyle, his gumshoe… you know…  his private investigator.”  He took his feet off the chair and wiped the seat cushion.  “It’s clean.  You can make yourself comfortable while you wait.”

Nola pulled the chair to the front of the desk.  “I don’t have an appointment.”  She sat down.

“I can tell from the way your eyebrows are trying to touch each other that you’ve got a problem.  I’m covered by the laws of agency. I work exclusively for Graham.  Anything you tell me is confidential.  What’s your problem?”

“I don’t need a private investigator, and Mr. Corbin is not my attorney so there is no privileged communication.  I was only hoping to get some legal advice.”

“I’m a licensed attorney, too; but I don’t like practicing law.  I prefer to be Paul Drake to Perry Mason, if you know what I mean.  I like the excitement of the chase not the roasting of the venison.”

Nola stood up.  “Just the same, I think I’ll wait until Mr. Corbin is free.”

“I can tell you that you may not be given interview time until Monday.”

“Then I’ll call and make an appointment for Monday.”

“No,” Ellis Foyle said emphatically.  “If you wait until Monday, everything will seem to be all right again.  You’ll feel that you can cope with the problem and make some kind of half-assed decision and leave town.  But you’ll take the problem with you.  It won’t go away.  So tell me now what the trouble is while you’re still steeped in the emotion of it;” and, he added, ”give me a penny for my thoughts and to make our relationship legal.”

Nola searched the bottom of her purse for a coin until she found a quarter.  She placed it on Ellis’s desk and then blurted out, “This is crazy,” and for a reason she would never be able to articulate, she sat down and burst out crying. In painful detail – which included her own culpability in the problem – she gave a complete history of the situation to Ellis Foyle.

“Let’s restate it as this,” he said.  “You left a good job because your sister Paige literally begged you to come.  You’ve disposed of your possessions because she assured you that you could use her furniture and appliances. Now you’ve no place to go.  If you leave you won’t have a job and you can hardly expect glowing references from them.  You did not have a sexual relationship with your employer so if anyone says that you have, they are adding slanderous insult to your injury.  This is your professional reputation we’re talking about… a reputation you are obliged to protect.  You cannot afford to be dismissed like a thieving, oversexed servant.   You’ve worked all day, been on call all night – even weekends – and the proof of your efforts is in Spencer’s obvious recovery. Everyone in town knows how close to death he was. When you next talk to your sister, tell her that you have been unjustly treated.  She isn’t going to get rid of you that easily.”

Nola wiped her eyes.  “I wish I wrote this all down,” she said.

“Don’t worry.  You’ll recall the points because they’re true and you don’t have to worry about deviating from or omitting anything.  Oh…  for your trouble demand an increase in salary if you return.  Also demand punitive remuneration.  And insist on getting your share of the credit for the crossword puzzles which, as it happens, I do and like very much, particularly the theme aspect.   And if things don’t work out this way, I know lots of medical people who would gladly give you a nursing position.”

“What makes you think it will be so easy?”

“I went to school with Spence.  He may have gotten twenty years older, but otherwise he hasn’t changed. I know Paige, too.  Around here, who doesn’t.”

“And suppose she says, “‘Sue me!”  Then what?”

“Well, that is the reason why you should stay on here to threaten them, but I don’t advise you to sue.  That can be only a lose-lose situation for you.  First of all, you’re not technically a tenant.  Eviction laws don’t apply.  So you’ll be asking for slander’s big money.  You don’t have much in the way of damages to show. More importantly, what you need to remember is that Paige has no money and anything you’d get in settlement would be Spence’s money.  Now think about it.  If he tells the truth, that you never had sexual relations with him, he loses the case and a big chunk of his money.  If he lies and says he did have sexual relations with you, your reputation is ruined and he has given Paige the right to increase an alimony demand.  I know Spence and despite all this, he will lie.  It will make him seem like a macho man since, as everybody in town knows, Paige screws anything that ain’t nailed down, as we say.  You will restore his manly honor.  And don’t think he regards perjury as perjury.  No. No.  Spence comes from an old aristocratic family and unless he’s tried by his peers, to him it doesn’t count.  He’s expected to lie in such an over-reaching peasant assembly, a comical version of a court to him.  He may not yet have shown you this side of his nature.  He’s been too busy coming back from the dead.”

“And when do you expect all this drama to occur?  Next week?  Next month?  I’d like to go back to work sooner than later.”

Ellis Foyle stood up.  “I’ll make a deal with you.  They know it was through your skill that he regained his health.  They know it is through your contributions to the crossword puzzles that have made them so popular. Paige will call you and apologize.  Here’s my deal.  I’ll give her one week. If she doesn’t call by next Saturday, I’ll pay for your entire motel bill.”

Nola laughed.  “You are crazy.  A lumberjack with a law degree.  A social peer of Spencer Morton Ghent who derides his own class. Ok.  I’ll pull myself together and see about moving to Alaska which is one of those impetuous moves you think will get me nowhere. And I’ll try to rest and put faith in your judgment.  My Buddha Self led me here.  Surely, there’s a reason for that.”  She paused, “How much do I owe you, Brother Foyle?”

“Next week when we’re discussing how much you should require in a lump sum from them to return to your position there… discussing this at lunch time, wherever I take you, you will have paid me in full.”

Nola laughed at him as she left the building and returned to her motel room.

 

The week passed quickly.  Nola had forgotten that she had lent her bib-like Zen rakusu to a friend in Philadelphia along with her cushion and mat.  She went to a fabric shop and bought enough material to make a rakusu completely by hand (as it is supposed to be done) and also a kapok filled cushion and foam-rubber sheet to cover as a mat.  She watched television and washed, repaired, and ironed all her old nursing uniforms.  She also laundered and starched all her old nursing caps.   She bought new white shoes and white panty-hose.  She checked the want-ads for nurses, but, as expected, the hospitals used employment agencies to get their new employees.

It was on a windy Saturday morning that Nola – not knowing whether or not the lunch bet was still good – exited the bathroom wearing only a bathrobe and a towel turban and lay upon the bed.

As she considered her options, Paige called, begging to be forgiven and blaming an unladylike tendency to listen to the servants’ gossip which, she later learned, had been modified to cause her even more pain. As far as Spencer was concerned, he had become incommunicado – only Hines, the male secretary she had just hired, gained access to him and they spent most of their time in the master’s bedroom.   “If that’s the way he wants to be, fine.  I’m not going to kiss his ass. On one hand he seems indispensable to Spence but on the other, judging from remarks made by Hines Spencer regards him as a fly in the soup.  It’s all for my discomfort, I know.”

Again, Nola vehemently denied that she had had any sexual relations with Spencer and thanked her sister for having taken the trouble to call.  “I should tell you,” she added, “that I have consulted an attorney.” There was a pause in the conversation and Nola assumed that it was over and wished Paige good luck and said that she’d be in touch to let her know the address where she could send her W2 form for income tax purposes. Since Paige did not immediately respond, Nola disconnected the call.  Much relieved, she lay back on her bed and grieved the two things that still remained unresolved: Spencer’s failure to defend her and her exclusion as co-author of the crossword puzzles. Thirty minutes later, a knock at the door roused her.  It was a tearful Paige who had come, determined to confess the true state of her marital affairs.

The two women sat on the bed, and, as a transfixed Nola listened, Paige launched a confession which began with Jules’ playful distortion of the comments and went on to Spencer’s refusal to meet her ever increasing sexual needs – which, she mentioned, had become sort of masochistic in the last few years or so – and which she recommended that Nola try before condemning what she couldn’t understand.  She invited Nola to attend a friend’s “swinging” style of party life which was far more exciting, she assured Nola, than Nola could possibly imagine.  She finally ended by explaining that her own jittery nerves caused her outburst – since she had been late with her period but, “Thank God,” it had finally arrived, saving all those “nasty trips to the abortion doctor.”

Nola, literally wide eyed and open mouthed, offered no comment; and Paige concluded her astonishing remarks with a plea that Nola return to the house.  Spencer, who was not only experiencing diarrhea again, demanded that she do whatever it took to bring Nola back.  But more, she had need of someone she could trust – things were getting so complicated at home that she needed a sounding-board for her decisions.  Spencer had mentioned returning to Zen and she would even try to give that religious business some attention.  Also, she would increase Nola’s salary and make sure that she would have more time for herself and her own “needs.” Lastly, she apologized for Spencer’s attitude towards ownership of the house. “Primogeniture is some dynastic thing with him.  We joke about his aristocratic pretensions.  Jules will call himself, ‘The Lord Chamberlain.’ and someone told Eggie that the word ‘cook’ is a blending of two words, ‘bend’ and ‘stoop.’ So she refers to herself as the ‘Royal bender and stooper,’ and always clarifies the double entendre title as ‘in the kitchen, that is.’   And Gladys… the poor girl who was jealous – if you could believe that – about my fun with Gregor since she’s got quite a crush on him – but who doesn’t? –  never knew if she should be a ‘scullery maid’ or ‘Maid in Waiting.’”

“So I’m the Royal Physician’s Assistant,” Nola said, adding, not too deftly,“You know, I am co-author of those puzzles. Maybe I’m some kind of court jester, but whatever I am, I deserve half of the recognition for them. I put a lot of work into their creation. Many nights I’d be in my room at midnight scrounging for words.”

“Of course,” Paige said.  “You deserve co-authorship and in addition you should get some sort of remuneration for any inconvenience or damage done to your reputation.  I’ll set everything up and call you again. Spence needs help again. Can you plan on coming back… say… Monday?”

Nola stood up and walked around the motel room from bureau to Tv to window drape and back again, trying to think of what to say.  Paige watched her and said, “Of course you’ll be given evenings off so that you can have your own private life – or stay in your bedroom – whatever you want – and naturally you’ll be given the recognition you deserve.  The puzzles are so successful that Spencer’s attorney is seeing about some syndication deal.  I don’t know much about it but you can ask him.

“Dr. Boyer took Spence to some upscale Swiss clinic in Media to meet with other doctors there. It’s a small place but it’s related to the spa he went to in Lucerne. There was a doctor visiting there who is supposed to be really knowledgeable about Spence’s type of colitis. She approved your regimen 100%. But he’s still not getting better.  I think he misses you and the fun you two had with those puzzles. As I told you, I did ask an employment agency to send young men who could type and knew foreign languages… French and German preferably… and to help care for a somewhat incapacitated person. I hired the first man they sent, a young man named Hines Whitman, which ought to show you how desperate I am. I mean… I wasn’t about to hire some pretty young gold-digger! At least he should help to lessen my load and maybe help Spencer who has been going downhill since you left.  Sis, please… do it for me.  I need you badly.”

“Type? You mean you hired a secretary?” Nola asked, wondering if the new man was being groomed to take her place with the puzzlecreation.

“Yes. For bill-paying and correspondence. And the kids are getting social and that means idiotic announcements I’m supposed to respond to. Frankly, I’m too upset to bother about any of it. And naturally,” she added, “it never hurts to be able to read foreign correspondence. Hines has been staying in your bedroom. I wanted him to move into the turret but he had a fit when he and Gladys went up there.  He’s the nosy type and should enjoy seeing a 360 view of the grounds. I’ll have Gladys clean it out.  Jules will attend to the major renovations. I think Hines already has a crush on Greg.”  She suddenly stopped speaking.  After a long pause she said, “You know… he’ll be able to look down into Greg’s apartment from up there. I’d better tend to the carriage house window treatments.’’ Then her mind returned to the Ghent house as Nola waited patiently for Paige to remember where she was.

Presently, Paige sighed and exclaimed, “I can’t tell you how grateful I am to Jules’s conscience for forcing him to be honest with me.”  In fact, Jules had not really started to be uncomfortable about his distortion of the remarks he overheard until he saw that Paige had selected a flighty young man who made ludicrously strict conditions about his employment. (“My morning toast must be on stone ground whole wheat bread buttered with salt-free creamery butter.  I prefer Kenyan coffee and can give you the name and address of the grocery in town where you can purchase it.”)  And so on for an endless list.  It was not until the new man insisted that all house personnel refer to him as Mr. Ghent’s factotum that Jules decided to tell Paige the truth.  Also, for years there had been rumors that Spencer intended to enlarge his bequests to the servants, and then, when he got sick and irritable, to eliminate bequests to his servants entirely.  Since Spencer had not died within the anticipated time and was showing a definite preference for Hines’ opinions, Jules had given up hope of any posthumous gifts and was rather hoping Paige would dismiss him so that he could collect unemployment compensation; but instead he confessed and set in motion Nola’s return. Jules wanted her back as the lesser of two evils: If she did agree to return, she would come back to her bedroom, and, as he happily told Hines, that would mandate the factotum’s move into the turret room.

 

While Paige and Nola were still speaking in the motel and Hines was in the basement looking over some useable Civil War antiques that had been stored there, Gladys entered the master’s bedroom expecting to collect dirty clothes and to change the bed linens.  Instead, she gasped to find Spencer lying in blood and groaning.  She screamed for Mrs. Eglington to come. The cook immediately called Dr. Boyer on the bedroom’s landline.  She tried to call Paige, but since Paige had her cell phone turned off at the time, she could only leave a breathless voice mail message.  Doctor Boyer came to the house within minutes.  He checked Spencer and then called for a private ambulance from the Swiss clinic to come to the Ghent house.

Paige, knowing none of this, had not checked her phone while she joyfully went shopping after she left Nola’s motel.  When she returned home she was reduced to a state of shock to discover that Spencer was now critically ill.  Mrs. Eglington nervously tried to establish a degree of innocence and explained, “In the week that Nola was gone, Hines had asked for milk shakes and scoops of ice cream along with the food and, we assumed that Mr. Ghent had been taking his medicine or maybe was cured, so we sent up everything Hines asked for. ‘It was a triple whammy,’ Dr Boyer told us.  ‘Milk and other indigestibles, no medication, and distress about some kind of gossip.’  Thank God Nola’s coming back.’”

Hines who knew nothing until the ambulance para-medics made noise on the floor above him, became hysterical immediately and had not succeeded in calming himself by the time that Paige returned.  Jules drove her immediately to the clinic; but, seeing Paige’s hysteria, the nurses in charge asked that she postpone her visit until the next day.  They returned home in silence. As Jules put her car away, Paige went into the kitchen to review again the morning’s events with Gladys and Mrs. Eglington and to admonish them for not following the successful routine that her sister had instituted.  Jules joined them and tried not to look guilty of anything.

He did not succeed.  “Why didn’t you use some of your valuable time to look in on my husband when you carried up the food?” she asked him sarcastically  “Do you leave everything to Hines?”

Jules, miffed by the presence of Hines Whitman in the house, decided to speak candidly.  “First of all,” he said, pulling out a kitchen chair to sit opposite her, “I told the absolute truth as it existed to my knowledge. I did not eavesdrop on the entire conversation about putting the last groundsman on the front lawn as a sexual ornament.  My retelling part of It had been a joke – a poor one, I confess. I admitted my exaggeration and would have said more to correct the impression I had given, but bringing Hines into this house inhibited me.  He has been an insult to all of us.  He intimated that the money Mr. Ghent had promised to leave us was now going to be diverted to some charity or other.  The three of us counted on those funds for our retirement.  But his influence over Mr. Ghent has been both sudden and great and we are extremely worried.  Before Nola came it seemed obvious that Mr. Ghent would not live the year out.  But after Nola restored his health, she was fired and Hines was brought in. It took him only two days to destroy Nola’s good work.  He restricted our access to Mr. Ghent and what could we do about it? It was Hines who ordered the milk shakes as though they were for himself. He restored the practice of eating meals in the master’s bedroom.  Hines was never supposed to occupy Nola’s bedroom and share Samantha’s bathroom, but that is what he did.  I objected and Mr. Ghent informed me that Hines could use his bathroom.  I tried to be more assertive about diets and was told to mind my own business. Hines had taken Nola’s position and with it, her authority. So if I was less attentive it was because I didn’t feel wanted or needed and because I was extremely disappointed about losing the bequest. Frankly, I had assumed that Hines was hired to replace me and I hoped to collect unemployment compensation.”

Paige slammed down her teacup.  “You have an imaginative mind and fear of fools.  I have an appointment now so I can’t waste any more time on this fantasy of yours. My sister’s routine will be completely reinstated.  Do you all understand?”  She checked her fingernails and then stood up and prepared to leave the room, presumably to get ready for her appointment.  “Let’s not bother Nola about Mr. Ghent’s condition.  I don’t want her to get so furious with the lot of you for breaking the diet she imposed that she decides not to come back.  You’ve all been working against her since she first came here.”  She turned to Gladys. “Is the turret habitable?”

“Hines is looking through some of the antiques we took to the basement when we moved into the attic.  We can go up there and see what else is needed,” Gladys said sheepishly.

“Yes.  Take care of that turret room and give me an honest opinion.”  Paige ended the discussion.

 

Beyond expecting to return to work on Monday, Nola knew nothing of the trouble in the Ghent house when she told the motel desk clerk she’d be leaving on Monday morning. She then began to ply her way down the windy avenue to Corbin’s office to tell Ellis about the latest development.

No one was in the front office, but she could hear Ellis speaking with a definite urgency to someone on the phone in the inner office.

When he finally concluded the call and came into the front office, Nola was prepared to say brightly, “I lost the bet. Paige came to see me and everything’s fine.”  But the expression on Ellis’s face let her voice dwindle down to a whisper that had something to do with a bet.

“Bad news,” Ellis said.  “This morning Spencer was taken to the hospital.  He relapsed.  I’m trying to find out which place he went to right now.”  The phone rang in the inner office and he ran to answer it.  “Got it,” he said, “and I won’t forget I owe you one.”  He turned to Nola.  “They took him to a private clinic… a small branch of a Swiss spa or sanatorium, the Lucerne Clinic in Media.  You wanna go see him?”

Nola mumbled, “Sure.”  Ellis locked the office and escorted her to his new Lincoln.

Nola deliberately tried to avoid giving any indication that she was pleased that it had taken only eight days without her care to fell Spence. “P.I. pays well,” she said as she buckled her seat belt.

“My salary wouldn’t buy you lunch at a fast-food joint,” he countered.  “I inherited the dough.”

They drove to the clinic but were not permitted to enter since they were not on anyone’s list and were not members of the immediate family.  “Come on,” Ellis said, “I’ll take you to a classy joint.”

“But we’re not dressed!  You’re in denim – no jacket or tie – and I’m a mess.”

“I own the place.  Who’s gonna object?”

The lunch lasted four hours.  It was the crush of dinner reservations that finally made them leave.

As if they did have more than just privileged communication, they talked about Spencer and Paige and various groundsmen.  Ellis also revealed his unfortunate marital situation – his wife and four kids that he loved and missed and who lived in Philadelphia – and Nola admitted her bad taste and worse luck with prospective mates. Strangers, especially when they see no future social contact with each other, are usually more candid than they are with close relatives or friends whose interest usually ends in their own entanglement in the subject.

 

On Sunday Nola left a voice-mail message with Paige, saying that she’d be at the house around noon.  She looked forward to seeing everyone again.  Paige did not return the call.

At noon on Monday, when she arrived, Paige presented her with a Certificate of Deposit of $10,000, a “small token of repentance.”  Nola thanked her and went directly to her bedroom where she found that Hines Whitman was refusing to move from the room he had decorated to suit himself. Jules had told him about Nola’s return, but Hines was adamant.  “I’m not going up to that god-forsaken tower. I did look at it, but it just won’t do.  A winding stairway runs straight down the inside all the way to the cellar and a draught runs right up it. There’s no privacy since every floor has an entrance to the stairway.  Furthermore, the room was cold and will no doubt be too hot in the summer and the iron steps are difficult to climb and descend.  I intend to use the room that had been assigned to Nola and Mr. Ghent supports my intention.  She may have shared Samantha’s bathroom but I share Mr. Ghent’s.” And then he added smugly, “If you have no objection to that, of course.”

“Mr. Ghent is not here and you do not have the right to waltz in and out of his private bedroom,” Jules said emphatically.  “Now get your shit out of Nola’s room!”

Nola did not want to hear any more arguments and told everyone that she’d be going to her bank.  “Just have the problem resolved by the time I get back.”

Hines Whitman sauntered down to the kitchen for his one o’clock sharp lunch.  As Jules and Gladys glowered at him, Mrs. Eglington tried to calm the agitated atmosphere.  “Never any room! The barn’s gone now.  It burnt down in l932.  My grandfather worked for Mr. Ghent’s grandfather in those days.  I’ll tell you an old story because there might be a solution for you in it.  Lightning struck a pine tree beside the barn and the fire spread to the barn.  My grandfather was seriously burned rescuing the dray horses that were stabled in the building but he was a tough old bird and Mr. Ghent was deeply appreciative.  He asked him for advice, ‘Tom, do you think we should start rebuilding right away?’  My grandfather – who knew how Mrs. Ghent hated the smell of that old barn – had a better idea.  ‘Horses and buggies are no longer used by the well-to-do.  We don’t do any farming up here, but you own a half dozen farms down in the valley.  Give the Clydesdale horses to the farmers.  Now, as far as the carriage house and stables are concerned, you don’t need six thoroughbreds to ride.  Two of the mares are ready for the glue factory anyway. Four horses are enough.  Buy yourself one of those new Fords.  You can give your farmers the carriages – they still like those horse and buggies – and use the empty stables for storing hay.  And you’ll be able to empty out those rooms on the second floor that you keep all those spare buggy parts in.’  In those days they needed replacement wheels, isinglass, yokes, reins and God knows what else. There used to be a way to enter the back rooms by a separate staircase…. an old wooden thing that was falling apart.  One good push and the whole stairway would have fallen away from the wall it was nailed to.  The door is still there, but the outline of the stairs has long been painted over.  The insurance people were glad to see it go. A bad staircase is just a liability,” she advised.  “Well, old Mrs. Ghent was all for the idea and they got rid of the barn and all the horse and buggy paraphernalia.

“Gregor has already had his lunch or else we could ask him if the back rooms of the carriage house apartment are still empty.  We could fix them up nicely, though you would probably have to share a bathroom with him.”

Hines, hoping that his fluttering heart had not been noticed, thanked her for the suggestion and left to go to the carriage house to discuss the possibility with Gregor.  He climbed the exterior stairs and was just about to knock on the door when surreptitiously, through a parting in the curtain on the door window, he saw Gregor giving Paige a punishment session. Both, fortunately, had their backs to him.  He also noted a surveyor’s tripod propped against the wall, a camera that hung from a strap, and the recognizable old yellow boxes of Kodak film sitting on a shelf.  He quickly and quietly retreated, annoyed that none of the servants had apprised him of the kind of relationship Gregor had with Paige Ghent.

Gregor, naked to the waist, displayed his muscles as he used a leather belt to spank Paige; and his well developed physique and machismo had thrilled the young assistant.  “Things will change,” Hines assured himself and, grousing under his breath, he returned to the main house and removed a series of framed travel posters from the walls of the disputed bedroom.  As what he considered a compromise, he temporarily moved into Roland’s bedroom, but he brooded about the sexual adventure he had witnessed. He knew enough of life to know that a person who has nothing does not willingly serve someone who has everything – and in his experience, Paige Ghent had everything.  Gregor was poor and uneducated.  He had to get more than sexual satisfaction from his efforts.  Hines lacked access to the household accounts, but, he imagined, it would be a small thing – barely noticed except to one who specifically looked for it – to hide extra payments to him.  Gregor was also handsome and while he was certainly not the type to escort someone to a social function, he had to be compensated for his role in some way or other.  Maybe, he thought, it was not beyond the possibility that the groundsman was actually in love with her.  What, then would the future hold for him if Spencer Ghent again became healthy?  Or worse, if he died from his disease and Gregor married into the family?  ”Ah!” he stopped speculating.  Gregor as master of the Ghent hilltop was too ludicrous to consider.

Mrs. Eglington was hopeful that her suggestion of using the two rear carriage house rooms would be adopted, but Gladys did not want Hines or any other person except herself living so closely, so intimately, with Gregor.  Visions of the two of them using the same bathroom  jolted her into action and she smiled and saw an opportunity to sabotage one or her competitors.  As soon as she saw Paige emerge from the groundsman’s apartment, she suggested that Paige and Mrs. Eglington might like to visit a new high-end vegetarian grocery in a nearby town to select a few “welcoming” meals for her sister. It seemed like a very good idea and as soon as the two women left, Gladys went to the carriage house to look at those two back rooms.

Gregor had just finished taking a shower.  “I came to tell you that you may be having company,“ she said as she pulled the sheet off Gregor’s bed and gathered his socks from the floor.

“Who?” Gregor asked.

“Hines wants to clean out the two back rooms and move into them.  He can share your bathroom or so Mrs. E. suggested.

“I don’t want that Hines fellow in here,” Gregor told her emphatically.  “This is my place.  Tell the old woman to keep suggestion to herself.

“You can count on me to talk them out of it,” Gladys said sweetly.   “He’s supposed to live in the turret chamber.  But it needs a lot of work.”

“I’ll do anything I can.  Fix woodwork.  Plaster walls.  Put in new light fixture.  But he don’t live here with me.”

“I don’t blame you one bit,” Gladys said.  “You have a right to your privacy and he is one big busy-body.  I’ll take a look at the room up there and tell you what I think.”

Gladys had her arms in front of her as if she were embracing the soiled linens. Gregor gathered the rest of his dirty clothes and rolled them into a ball which he pushed down against her breasts into the bundle.  Leaving his hand linger there more than a moment longer than necessary, he said, “You do that.  Make things easier for me.”  He winked and she giggled as he opened the door that led out onto the landing.

In the laundry room she sorted the items into bleach and non-bleach piles and went to look for Hines.  Finding him in the kitchen, she picked up a cookie and happily said to Hines, “Come on, let’s at least see if the room has potential.”  Mrs. Eglington took an old-fashioned bronze skeleton key from a panel of house keys and handed it to her.

Gladys led Hines out of the kitchen, down the hall and foyer, and into the study.  “We can go up to the top from here.”  The tower door, a solid walnut panel built into the corner of the room, matched the walls and was virtually invisible.  It had not been unlocked or opened in years and Hines had to help her push it open.  Carefully, they ascended to the turret, noting each floor’s entrance, and opening the door, as they went.  “Old medieval houses always had a series of hidden passageways.  I guess this turret stairwell is a Civil War version of the secret stairway.”

When they reached the third “attic” level, she pointed out a room that had plumbing fixtures that dated from the 1930’s installed.  “We haven’t turned on the water to the pipes up here,” Gladys explained, “but you can see you’ll have a toilet, tub, and sink to yourself.  I’ll see to it that you’re well stocked with towels and such.”

They climbed another storey and reached the famed turret room. Now that her attitude had changed, the room seemed bigger than before.  It was dirty and filled with cob webs.  The windows had not been cleaned in many years and when Gladys looked down from the window that had Summer leaded-in as its upper frame, she could see the iridescent sheen on the lower clear glass pane.

Summer gave a view of the woods and the bridal paths that led into them.  The Fall window looked over the house top and gave a view of distant hills; but Winter showed the front and left side of the estate, while Spring looked down upon the carriage house, paddock, and, in the distance beyond the steep decline at the edge of the property, the town of Morton.  Hines and Gladys each blew their breath on the clear glass of the Spring window and wiped the circular haze clean with handkerchief and apron. Neither of them said anything nor gave the slightest indication that even at a distance, they could look down into Gregor’s apartment or that they saw Gregor put a metal box under a pile of clothes in one of the back rooms.  Gladys wondered what was in the box, but Hines, who had already noted the camera equipment Gregor kept, was certain that it contained pornographic pictures of Paige Ghent.  So, he thought, if I am right, this is what Greg thinks will compensate him in the future.  He also wondered whether Paige knew that the hidden cache of photo existed.

His attitude towards the turret chamber changed.  Yes, he could now see the possibilities, he assured Gladys.  “But it will be awfully cold in the winter and hot in the summer”  Besides, with the photographs in his possession he had as much control over Gregor as he would have over Paige.

“Don’t worry,” Gladys assured him.   The electricity’s been disconnected, but when we re-connect it, you can get a good space heater and even one of those portable air conditioning units.  Meanwhile you’ve got room for a bed, a desk and dresser, a Tv and all kinds of things.”

She could hardly wait to tell Gregor that she had solved the problem.  Hines would no longer pester anyone to be allowed to live in the carriage house.  That he could arrange for himself.

Hines continued to pretend to gripe about the room’s limitations but he was wondering if the pawn shop carried a telephoto lens that would fit his camera.  It was one thing to watch perversion and something else entirely to record it.

In time of great decision when there is little time allowed for concentration and consideration, thoughts instinctively arise without opposition. The following morning, when Paige and Nola went into Media to visit Spencer in the clinic, Gregor drove into town to buy more animal feed, and Jules was bringing the household account journals and ledgers up to date, Gladys, pretending to deliver fresh linens to the carriage house, went directly to the rear room to find out what was hidden in the metal box.  She carefully opened it and found scandalous photographs of Paige Ghent, strips of negatives, and a few VCR cassettes.  None of the TVs in the main house played VCR tapes so she had to return to Gregor’s bedroom to watch the tapes.  Fearing that at any moment someone would walk into the unlocked apartment, she had to content her curiosity with a few fast-forward glimpses; but what she saw was sufficient.  She made note of the static angles and easily found two hidden videocameras, old ones that recorded onto a tape attachment.  She removed the tape cartridges and checked his old Canon camera for any spools of film and finding none, took the tapes, negatives, and photographs, hid them in her laundry bag, and left the apartment.  Gregor would soon miss his treasure trove of photographs and he’d look for someone to blame.  No one had seen her enter the apartment, but she could ask Hines to go to Gregor’s apartment to ask him if he knew a good house painter and floor finisher in town.  She’d see to it that Hines would be blamed.  After all, why would anyone suspect her of taking them?  She had just severed the future connection between Gregor and Paige.  An anonymous note left in Paige’s bedroom, warning her that Greg was filming her, would cool off that relationship in record time.

As she descended the carriage house’s exterior stairs, she quickly calculated the probable future.  Mrs. Eglington would retire but not as far away has they had often joked they’d go.  The old cook had too many relatives in town and would probably buy herself a small condo or stay with relatives – depending on the inheritance if Mr.Ghent didn’t pull through.  But Mrs. Eglington, in either case, would be available for special events.  Meanwhile Gladys could do the cooking – such as it was – by herself and see to it that Gregor’s responsibilities were increased so that he could replace Jules.  Hines would have to go.  Or, better yet, since Gregor knew so much about “glamour” photography, he could go into business with her help.  He was not supposed to get any money from the Will, but she was.  She could set him up in business and run the clerical end of things while he photographed women for them to give sexy photographs to uninterested husbands.

 

Although there was a basket incinerator beside the carriage house, she decided not to use it.  She found a small depression in the crest of the steep incline behind the carriage house and put a few fuel-impregnated charcoal briquets and dried sticks into it and then, as the fire started, put the negatives and photos on the flames as she pulled yard-by-yard of tape from the cassettes and committed the long twisted strands to the glowing briquets.  She could not see the main house and could not see that Mrs. Eglington had pulled back a kitchen curtain and was wondering whether someone was burning debris on the crest of the steep hill behind the carriage house or whether the wind had kicked up some dust.

Gladys entered the kitchen and said that she had not noticed any smoke.  “It’s windy,” she said and then changed the subject. “We’re going to need the walls painted and wall to wall carpeting installed in the turret room,” she said.  “And it will be necessary to cover the bottom windows. “I like the bamboo slats,” she said, “or those narrow venetian blinds, and these have to be ordered ahead of time; but Hines will be doing the choosing.  I don’t know what will go best with them.”

“Ask him at dinner,” Mrs. Eglington advised.  “He’ll tell you want he wants.”

The Crossword Puzzle (#2)

Ming Zhen Shakya
Ming Zhen Shakya
 To see more literature about Zen and the Art of Investigation:
http://www.zenanthonywolff.com

The Crossword Puzzle

by Anthony Wolff (Ming Zhen Shakya)

To see all published chapters of “The Crossword Puzzle” click here

 

Part 2 – NOLA GETS TO KNOW HER PATIENT

 

Their first meal together was not without both problems and pleasure.  Mrs. Eglington assured her that she knew how to feed Mr. Ghent.  She’d been doing it since he was a child.  “Milk never hurt a human being.  We probably wouldn’t have survived without it.”

“Just the same,” Nola said, “there will be no more dairy products served to Mr. Ghent.  You can give him soup – just so it is not soup with a creamy base.  And green tea and sherbets.  Later he may have steamed vegetables.  Do you have a steamer?”

“Oh, it’s probably down in the basement with all of the other junk we have no use for.”

“You’ve got a use for it now.  So please locate it and thoroughly clean it.  We’ll have our meals – you can just duplicate his tray for me – at the regular time.”

Nearly an hour later Jules came to the room carrying one large tray.  “Where do you want this?” he asked.

There was a card table in the room that was covered with the pieces of a jig-saw puzzle.  He pushed the pieces into a box, and covered the table with a linen cloth.  He also placed a centerpiece of chrysanthemums on the table.  “I hope they’re as you ordered,” he said to Spencer.

Spencer Ghent looked at the soup Jules served.  “No more milk-toast?”

“Consider it a thing of the past,” Nola said as Jules stood in the doorway, waiting for an opportunity to speak.  Nola and Spencer looked at him expectantly.

“I know that the tray should be taken downstairs,” Jules said, “but I’ve sustained a serious but manageable cervical spine injury and if you don’t mind I’ll leave the tray here outside the door.  It’ll save me from having to carry it down and back to collect the dishes.”

“That’s fine,” Nola said.  “And if you’re ever in any particular distress and could use my help, please don’t hesitate to ask.” Jules bowed his head, closed the door, and turned down the hall.

She helped Spencer to sit at the table. “That,” he said, referring to Jules, “is his way of discouraging you from asking to be sent up anything other than the three meals he’s obliged to carry. They all have their little tricks.  You’ll get used to them.” He looked up at her coquettishly.  “Would you do a sick man a favor and close the drapes and then take those candles on the mantlepiece and put them here on the table.”  He reached across to a book shelf and pushed the play switch of an old CD player.  “I hope you like Errol Garner.  It’s his Concert By The Sea. I haven’t listened to it in months.”

“I love Garner,” she said.  “Play on.”

With the drapes closed and the candles lit, everything became soft and lovely in the room.  Spence smiled. “This is such a pleasure… eating without stuff dripping down my cheeks into my collar and pillow.”

“We aim to please,” Nola said, noticing how pale his blue eyes were in the candlelight.  He once must have been extremely handsome.  “Who is your favorite composer?” she asked.

“I know that one,” he said, grinning.  “I’m supposed to say, ‘You mean… after Mozart?”

They laughed and talked about music and the things they liked and disliked.  For dinner, they decided, they would play the Garner disc again only this time they would listen to the music.  When Spencer finished dessert, Nola helped him back into bed and sat quietly with him while he listened to the end of the CD and fell asleep. Then she went to her own room and called the kitchen to tell Mrs. Eglington that though Mr. Ghent was sleeping, if the procedure could be quietly done, Jules could collect the dishes.

 

Spencer Morton Ghent, 42, had suffered for more than five years with ulcerative colitis, a condition which caused him to experience frequent bouts of diarrhea.  He was the head of a firm of financial consultants and, since his position afforded him his own private bathroom, he stubbornly thought he could manage the disease.  And then, after one particularly nasty episode which caused him to be hospitalized, a proctologist whistled ominously at the condition of his anus and suggested that the removal of his rectum would soon be necessary.  At that point, Ghent accepted an alternate solution offered by his physician, which was to resign his position in his high tension work environment and stay home until rest and decompression could assist the medicines prescribed for him and help him to rid himself of this affliction.

Paige Ghent was not, however, appreciative of having her husband at home with her twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.  Ghent was physically weak: over a period of several years his weight had dropped from one hundred eighty pounds to one hundred twenty pounds.  A gradual weigh loss is not much noticed by those who see the person every day, and so it was generally assumed by those who saw him when he weighed close to one hundred fifty pounds, that he worked out by choice in this private weight room, swam in his private pool, and hiked or rode horses through his wooded estate.  Retired, he became much thinner and few people knew that he owed his thinness to a disease of his digestive system – not even Paige who slept in the opposite side of the house.  She remained indifferent to his condition until he called out to her in anguish one evening; and when she came to help discovered the extent of the debilitating episode.  The work she was forced to do embarrassed her and she lived in terror that their servants would spread the news of his infirmity – and her part in it – around town.  For a week she tried valiantly to keep the patient, his underwear, pajamas, and the bed linens clean without anyone else being aware of such laundry, but it became too much for a woman who had had full-time nannies diaper her three children.  The stench and the filth encountered when diapering a husband, impinged seriously upon her sense of self-worth and were he not already so worn-out by the problem, would have adversely affected his, too.

Candidly, she explained her problem as she saw it to her sister.  “I know I’m a spoiled brat of a woman.  But I’m simply typical of my circle of friends.”  Though this group regarded themselves as independent, they limited their existences to sex, beauty parlors, fashion shows, luncheons, charitable committees, and the places to which they brought art and its refinements to those in the community who were in dire need of them.  And none of this was compatible with putting her hands or nose near the former contents of her husband’s bowels.  Not without reason did Paige fear that if news of his disease and her part in it ever became publicly known, she’d become a laughing-stock.  Her class simply did not dabble in such things.  She was comforted by the ethical requirement that bound Nola, a registered nurse, to a certain confidentiality.  Her friends were not unlike the ladies who formed the Zen council.

It wasn’t that these ladies who were in the same economic class as the Zen Council were uneducated. No, like the others, they had unfortunately majored in French Literature, Art History, or Philosophy, subjects which rendered them virtually unemployable, which was a fact of no consequence since they always seemed to marry Wharton School of Business graduates who went into Philadelphia regularly to their offices and made enough money to keep fat portfolios and summer homes.  At cocktail parties and other obligatory functions, French Literature, Art History, and Philosophy were considered meritorious achievements. Otherwise, they maintained a coffee-klatch mentality and contented themselves by doing the things that prosperous wives were supposed to do, including unrestrained sex.

Perhaps it was an exercise in psychological compensation that let The Council decide that Christianity lacked a certain patrician cachet, and one and all they happily turned to the more exclusive Zen, which, after all, provided better opportunities for meeting new friends.

 

Once Spencer was asleep, Nola got her coat and purse and went to the kitchen to tell the cook that she was going to an organic vegetable store she had seen on her way to the house.

“What peculiar vegetables are you planning to buy?” Mrs. Eglington asked with more accusation than curiosity.

Nora, offended by the cook’s attitude, saw Jules’ laptop on the kitchen table.  “If I buy something you’re unfamiliar with, I’m sure Mr. Grover will do a net search to provide you with instruction.  I suspect that Mr. Ghent is lactose intolerant so I’ll be getting special milk for him and also some probiotic pills that I regard as most effective.  Don’t forget to scrub that steamer.”  She pulled on her driving gloves, “Now if Jules will see to getting the other things from the drug store, I’ll leave – with your permission, of course.”

The departure was not tearful.

Nola became a regular customer of the health food grocery store.  On her first visit in September she chatted with the clerk who managed to get more information than she gave.  But on the check-out counter was a stack of flyers announcing the presence in town of the new Zen Buddhist Assembly of Morton.  She read that meditation services were held on Tuesday and Thursday evenings.  The clerk watched her read and then gushed, “If you’re interested in Zen you really ought to go.  They’re wonderful people!”

“Soto or Rinzai?” Nola asked.

The clerk did not know what she was talking about and simply shrugged. They’re the kind that just sit there for fifty minutes and then take a break and sit another fifty minutes.  Somebody told me that they try not to think.”

“That sounds like Soto Zen,” Nola said as she noted the address of the Zendo.

When she returned home she told Spencer about the new facility.  He had not heard about it.  “So,” he said pleasantly, “you’re a Zen person.  I used to go regularly to a temple in Philadelphia.  I miss the quiet contemplation… the peace and that great sandalwood incense they use.”

“When you’re strong enough,” Nola promised, “I’ll take you to one of their Tuesday or Thursday meditation sessions.  She did not mention that she followed Rinzai Zen and did not care to spend hours sitting on a cushion trying to erase thoughts from her mind.

 

In the weeks that followed, Spencer’s health improved remarkably.  He gained weight, ate more and slept less. His depression vanished and he began to avail himself of a stack of books that contained crossword puzzles, formerly his favorite pass-time. Nola was happy to compete with him in solving the puzzles.  Since Spencer did not like electronic equipment, he would also get daily exercise going up and down stairs to his study to consult his many reference books. Soon the two of them got so good at solving the puzzles that they began to create their own.  This challenge created much good will and they began to act as old and trusted friends.  Spencer liked to follow a single theme, one that would be appreciated by members of his economic class… equestrian, nautical, social dances and events, and such.  Eventually, he had to expand the theme to include names and terms people of every class would appreciate.

His moods and his adherence to routine also began to change.  He asked Jules to air-out clothing he wore when he weighed one hundred fifty pounds.  The garments were of course too large for him, but he explained that he didn’t like to go downstairs in pajamas and robe.  This was understandable, but what was beyond Nola’s comprehension was that on some days he would take his medicine, eat his breakfast, and then dismiss her, locking his bedroom door.  When Nola would ask, he’d say he had private phone calls to make.  He would never explain and some days Nola was frantic wondering what she had done to cause him to exclude her from his bedroom.

It became so troublesome that she asked her sister why Spencer behaved in such a way.

Paige laughed and said, “Look at the phone bill when it comes in.  There won’t be any calls made.  At the rate he’s improving, he’ll fit into those clothes and then he’ll say that he had personal business to attend to and he’ll leave the house.  Usually, he won’t say anything. He’ll just leave.  You’ll wonder where the hell he went or what he’s doing, but he’ll nicely say that his private life is no concern of yours.  Then you’ll see new garments… shirts, ties, pants, suits…  and they didn’t just materialize out of thin air.  So all his personal business was visiting men’s shops, and if you take the trouble to look, you’ll find a few movie ticket stubs in his car or pants’ pockets.  Same thing with his moods.  Usually he’ll want to do thepuzzles.  But you’ll find that some days he just locks his bedroom door without any explanation.”

“Paige… That’s exactly what he does.  Not often, but enough to concern me. He’ll say, ‘I took my medicine.  I’ll see you later.’   I go back to my room and worry about him.”

“Do yourself a favor and don’t worry.”  With that advice, Paige ended the discussion and announced that she needed to buy a new pair of heels to go with a dress she had just purchased.

 

The three kids came home for the Christmas holiday early, and Jules took them into town to buy a siamese kitten for Paige and a boxer puppy for Spencer. Nola did not spend enough time with them to form an opinion about any one of them.  But, she did assure herself, they certainly looked and acted like normal teenagers… even better behaved than most.

At Christmas dinner, as dessert was being served, Roland looked at a collection of puzzles.  “These are really great, Dad,” he said.  You ought to have them published.”

“Surely,” Paige said sourly, “not under the Ghent name.”

“Let’s make up a name!” Samantha gushed.

Nola secretly had been thinking about a joint name for them to use.  “Spenola” she had decided on and was just about to blurt it out when Paige shouted, “Chat R. Box!”  Chat for my Christmas cat and box for Daddy’s new puppy!”

Every one squealed in approval and the name “Splenola” stuck in Nola’s throat, nearly choking her.

Although she was responsible for at least half of each created puzzle, Spencer was being given full credit.  It was a small thing, but so, she reasoned, was a mosquito bite. It itched her psyche, but with discipline, she almost overcame it.  “What the hell was I thinking?” she asked herself when she went to bed that night.  She wondered why she was so upset by Spencer taking – no… being given – the whole credit for the puzzles.  The problem disturbed her far more than it should have.  First of all, it was only natural that at a celebratory moment he was not going to stop and correct his son.  Well, then, what was it?

As Nola lay on her bed and pondered the problem, applying the harsh self-defacing requirement of a Zen inquiry into one’s mind, it soon became clear that what disturbed her was that she wanted to link her name with his.  It wasn’t love, she told herself, although she had to admit that she felt years younger when she was with Spencer.  In fact, she felt a little high… like a good marijuana high… when they worked on the puzzles.  Yet she still did not realize that she had eradicated boundaries.  They were neither nurse and patient nor sister and brother-in-law. In either case, he was off-limits to her.  She had allowed herself to cross a forbidden line.

Before the New Year, the family left for a ski trip to Gstaad, Switzerland.  Everyone except Spencer returned in a few days.  Friends had advised him to get a kind of make-over in a spa in Lucerne.  The regimen was strict, but guaranteed to clean old unpleasant memories from his mind.  He’d be a new man.  Communication with the outside world was limited.  There was one public-use computer that functioned for one hour each day and phones and visitors were not permitted. He could get and receive mail though this was not encouraged.  Nola, wanting to keep her dispute with him out of the Ghent house, wrote a brief note to him asking that he include her as co-author of the crossword puzzles.  She received no answer.

In the middle of January he returned and did seem much more pleasant.  In addition, Editor John Daly began to relay the compliments the newspaper received about the puzzles. Everyone loved the name Chat R. Box and perhaps, Nola thought, the euphoria of such a clever name and enterprise drew Spencer even closer to her.  Whatever the reason, the two of them began to discuss family secrets in a critical way.  It was on Ground Hog day, she would later remember, that they were in the study, at ground level, watching Paige return from the carriage house, her hair and clothes disheveled, Spencer said, “It’s getting worse with Paige.  Rougher.  You do realize that she’s sexually insatiable. She’s bopping the Bulgarian now.” He nodded quizzically.  “Gregor looks strong.  I hope he can handle her. The last groundsman we had sent up a white flag after three months.” Then he added impishly, “I was afraid we’d  have to bury him in the front lawn.  Or…” he began to laugh and could not complete the statement.

Nola finished it for him.  “Or have him stuffed and put on display in the game room.”  They laughed so hard that Jules came to the study doorway to hear what it was that had made them laugh.

“No,” Spencer wheezed, “not the game room.. the front lawn  We cold play quoits with his Johnson.” They laughed again and he assured her that they had, ”A meeting of the minds.”

Jules then turned around and went back to the kitchen to tell Mrs. Eglington and Gladys that Spencer and Nola wanted to stuff Gregor and put him on the lawn for Paige to play with his penis.  Gladys told Gregor who naturally told Paige.

The following day, Friday, near noon, as Nola and Spencer sat on his bed surrounded by reference books on the theme of “Horses,” they were laughing and could not think of an “across” word that had an “s” “t” and “u” in the spaces that would meet the same letters required in three “down” slots.  Suddenly Nola shouted the obvious, “Stirrups!” and they laughed more as they felt the excitement of solving a puzzle.  Spencer offered the “across” clue:  “audio and sole.”  They were howling triumphantly at the word and the clue as Paige burst into the room.

“How cozy!” she snarled.  “You,” she indicated Nola, “no doubt found something else about me that amuses you!  Well you can just pack your things and get the hell out of my house.  Go find your own man to have a good laugh and fuck with.  This one’s taken!”

Nola stood up.  “What has gotten into you?  We’ve been laughing about a puzzle word.”

“Don’t bullshit me!  You can just get your spinster lust out of my house!  My husband?  You lay there in bed with my husband!  My own sister! I brought you here to care for my husband not have an affair with him.  And then you mock me? Oh, no. Get out of my house, and get out now!”

Spencer was indignant.  “Where do you get off calling this ‘your’ house.  We have a prenuptial agreement and no part of this estate will ever belong to you.  It’s Ghent property and lady, you’re no Ghent. “

That he spoke no word in her defense against such a licentious charge, stunned Nola.  Dazed, she realized that he was more worried about his property than he was about her reputation; and she was not only innocent, she was the woman who had restored his health. She went into her bedroom and packed her suitcases.  She carried everything she owned without assistance to the garage, and with no idea about where she was going, she began to drive towards town.

Driving down main street she noticed that she needed gas and pulled into a station. She fretted with disconnected thoughts.  Finally, the gas pump clicked off when the tank had filled.  In a state that was purely automatic she withdrew the nozzle, hung it up, put on the gas tank cap, and withdrew her credit card.

She got into her car and for the first time experienced a clarity of mind that made her feel appalled by the rejection she had received.  A car behind her beeped and she roused herself, immediately deciding that she would not drive aimlessly.  Instead she’d check into a motel at the edge of town and try to figure out how she should respond to Paige’s tirade.

 

The Crossword Puzzle (#1)

Ming Zhen Shakya
Ming Zhen Shakya
 To see more literature about Zen and the Art of Investigation:
http://www.zenanthonywolff.com

The Crossword Puzzle

by Anthony Wolff (Ming Zhen Shakya)

 

Part 1 – PRELUDE TO AN UNNATURAL DEATH & AN INVITATION

 

It is one of the more peculiar acts of human nature that among adult acquaintances a gift is rarely received in the same spirit as the giver had assumed it would be.  No matter how sincere the giver is and how genuinely he desires to help or to please, his generosity is bound to cause him to suffer a loss of esteem.  It should come as no surprise that this sudden loss of status may puzzle the giver, and if so, he may find himself drawing the wrong conclusions about the origins of his social demotion.

What he, or in this case, Nola Harriman, failed to understand is that the giver of a gift automatically places himself in a superior position which can only mean that he places the receiver in an inferior one – a shift which the latter usually finds intolerable.  However subtle the shift, it evokes feelings of resentment in the receiver who is expected to thank the giver and praise the gift, though he may personally wish to do neither.  A much needed utilitarian gift that is given to, say, the governing council of a small religious organization, is practically an accusation of incompetence  The members will make the giver pay dearly for the public imputation.

Few things in life are as difficult to sustain as being grateful.

The circumstances that brought Nola Harriman to the uncomfortable edge of a fold-out metal bed in a Morton, Pennsylvania holding cell, could not possibly have been imagined a day or even a year before the event.  No one had given her a clue that the faults she had found in Spencer Ghent could be lethal in nature. Nola was an important person in her society, not a particularly well-liked one; and people who conceal personal dislikes are often loathe to inform others of their secret contempt for fear that they may be blamed for any misfortune that befalls the object of their scorn.

It was in the last week of August, 2013, that Nola was working as a registered nurse in a hospital in Philadelphia.  All summer she had chaffed under new regulations imposed by a recently hired Director of Nursing.  She had just reached the Flight or Fight stage of the dispute when, fortuitously, her sister Paige Harriman Ghent called, begging her to come to live and work in her home in Morton, Pennsylvania, some eighty miles distant. Paige’s ailing husband, Spencer, was afflicted with ulcerative colitis; and since the nature of the disease involved certain intimacies, rather than hire a stranger to live in the house and see things that Paige thought should be kept private, she sought her sister’s help.

Though their past history might, in an excess of kindness, be considered sibling rivalry (they had spoken only briefly to each other twice in the last fifteen years), both women believed that people could change and, certainly, to Nola, hearing her sister weep and beg her to come and stay at her house and pay her well to do so, was proof that Paige had indeed changed.  Prior to that call she had regarded Paige as the most stubbornly self-centered and irredeemably uncaring person she had ever met.  But now her older sister was pleading piteously in obvious distress.  Nola accepted the offer.

 

A few months earlier, in February, 2013, the Zen Buddhist Assembly of Morton, Pennsylvania was and had been for years an ad hoc, but self-supporting assembly that met weekly in each other’s homes for tea and at least the semblance of meditation.  The members wished that they had their own temple and a qualified teacher with whom they could regularly interact; but renting or purchasing such a facility was, given their loose confederation, impractical.

And then, miraculously, someone donated an old, once-grand house to them, a house that had originally been the residence of the prominent Norris-Giles family.

On a pleasant morning in March, 2013, six of the regular hostesses of the Zen Assembly inspected the building that would be theirs if they wanted it.  Of course they could see that it needed extensive repair, but desire, tending always to diminish disadvantage, let them quickly glance at the problems and focus instead on the advantages – a paved parking lot; stained glass windows; a fenced half-acre of arable land on which they could grow their own flowers and vegetables and turn the building into a real monastic center.  No-less than seven upstairs bedrooms could be rented out as guest or novice facilities.  As housewives they had often been confronted by dirt and disorder which they corrected by calmly ordering their servants to clean, discard, sew, pr paint.  But for devotion’s sake, they decided to do most of the original cleaning of the “temple,” themselves.  They saw the dust and disarray as a challenge and looked forward to conquering them with their own humble and devoted “elbow grease.”

The giver of the gift, having chosen to remain anonymous, allowed his attorney to convey his hope that Morton’s ‘Bodhisattvas” – though he did not quite know what a Bodhisattva was he did seem to mean them – would make his humble gift of the Norris-Giles House a permanent home for Lord Buddha.

Not one of the council cared to question his largesse.  They had been faithful to the religion and deserved such approbation and a house, too.

They also did not inquire about his motives when he included a condition precedent to the transfer of deed which obliged them to provide living accommodations for five years to two Japanese men: an elderly gentleman who had formerly been an abbot of a Zen monastery in Kyoto; and a younger man who had for years functioned as a handyman and a tenzo(cook.)  The thought of having a real Japanese abbot to lead their group and an authentic Japanese cook made the strange condition irresistible.  In their euphoria, costly repairs would be done by contractors they would hire; while trivial repairs would be relegated to the less enthusiastic. With a flick of a down-turned palm they dispensed with a hundred or more trifles that bore to them no connection to the word “habitable.”

The worst decision they made was to decline to seek legal advice.  The donor had an attorney and the women reasoned that retaining an additional one for themselves would appear to be “looking a gift horse in the mouth.” Also, the saving of a legal fee would increase the sum they planned to spend on decorating the new headquarters of the Zen Buddhist Association (ZBA) of Morton. They obtained six copies of the contract and each, at her leisure, perused its contents.  Having applied the same criteria of inspection to the document’s contents as they had applied to the building, they accepted the gift and conditions, providing the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania would grant their articles to incorporate as an eleemosynary organization.  This, the Commonwealth did, and by July, armed with a non-profit charter and six duly elected officers, they met again with the donor’s attorney.  Legally empowered and filled with irrational hope, they accepted the deed and signed the two-man support contract.

Everyone knew that the Norris-Giles House had once been proud and beautiful, but time and the de-gentrification of the neighborhood had changed its zoning so that the heirs were able to rent out sections of it to people who would use it as professional offices.  Unfortunately, the most respectable of the professionals were two young related attorneys who shared the same waiting room and insisted that they were trying to steal each other’s clients.  The disagreements soon passed the misdemeanor stage and the family disputants became the only clients the young attorneys had.  They abandoned their leases ( a not unreasonable act since the air-conditioning and running water were not always reliable) and moved out.

The tenants descended in respectability until a transvestite seamstress had been robbed twice and a shoemaker’s equipment had been critically damaged by vandals. There remained only a tap dance instructor and persons who engaged in after hours entertainments. It was regrettable that each tenant jury-rigged its plumbing and electrical needs to suit individual requirements. Some had removed non-load bearing walls that managed to gouge holes in a once-flawless walnut parquet floor.  The last group of tenants included two psychics who competed with each other, arguing fiercely and often in a language no one understood.

Despite all this business trouble, in the gamesmanship of selling, sentiment held the higher hand; and the owners, each having his own Utopian solution about the building’s future, disagreed about every solution proposed.  Not until an assortment of condoms clogged the drain, did the cost of repair trump the power hand and everyone surrendered to the inevitable and offered the entire lot to anyone who would pay for the dilapidated building and the taxes due on it.  A Japanese businessman was the first to hear of the proposition; and he immediately instructed his attorney to procure the property under the conditions he imposed.

This businessman, though not being a Zen Buddhist himself, claimed to have seen the wisdom of having a Zen Buddhist Center in town and, with the condition that his father-in law and nephew – the old abbot and the new cook – be given living quarters for five years in the Norris-Giles House or any equivalent accommodation that was at least fifty miles from his personal residence, purchased the building and presented it as a gift to these sincere followers of the Buddha.

The council ladies did not discover that by this act of generosity the donor had gained his own domestic tranquility.  Even his wife so enjoyed her new fatherless and nephew-less environment that she insisted that the house her husband had purchased would have been cheap at twice the price.  She did not fully understand what her husband knew and the new owners would soon learn: the contrariness and unaccustomed slovenly habits that her father had been demonstrating during the last few years were symptoms of untreated dementia.  She also did not know that her ill-tempered nephew had become a drug user and often stole items from her house to pay for cocaine.  Naturally he would blame the old man for the thefts; and she was all too willing to accept The Spitefulness Of The Aging – an article she had read in a hair salon – as the old man’s deliberate attempt to ruin her married life.  He had never liked her husband.

With great excitement the new owners – who called themselves, “The Council,” became officers and directors of the new corporation.  As such they made immediate and somewhat quixotic plans to convert the dwelling into a monastic center   They immediately founded a new order of American Zen priests, selected Japanese names for themselves from the list of Patriarchs and then, after ordaining themselves, informed others that as soon as the bedrooms were renovated, they would rent the rooms at bargain rates to anyone who was desirous of becoming lay-ordained.  As part of their spiritual training such persons would then be obliged to oversee household maintenance, laundry, and kitchen policing.

An industrious lot, they assumed that they could pay for the repairs by selling hand-made wooden bead necklaces, bracelets, and made-to-order bib-like rakusus, robes, cushions, mats, and sundry items.  Incomprehensibly, although they made prototypes of these items to display, they failed to grasp the not altogether obscure fact that the seller completes only half of the commercial transaction.  New members were the targeted buyers, but for so long as the building was in such deplorable condition, they could not attract new members.  They also could gain no income from rented bedrooms since the leaking roof permitted rain to accumulate on the attic floor from which it would seep through the wooden floorboards and create ugly brown stains in the second floor’s plaster ceilings.  From there, rain or melted snow would drip into the many buckets and pans set out to capture it and halt the water’s course.  The lowest estimate to replace the roof was a prohibitive $20,000.

Meanwhile, in addition to the costly re-wiring and heating and other plumbing necessities, they were obliged to support the two men who came as a condition of the gift, and The Council was unprepared to cope with the unique set of problems this condition entailed.

They set to work making the house’s original solarium and morning room into suitable quarters for him and the handyman.  They painted the suite and put wall-to-wall carpeting throughout the several rooms.  Beds and rudimentary furniture were acquired from Thrift Shops; and dishes, flatware, hot plates, microwave, refrigerator, and dishwasher were brought from their own homes.  Less than a block away were an all-night laundromat which, the ladies assumed, the handyman could use, and half a dozen fast-food restaurants and grocery stores.

The ZBA sangha,(congregation) followed the northern Soto Zen “sitting” school.  Although they lined up, kneeling at his doorway for dokusan (personal advice), the language problem reduced his utterances to subjects for them each to solve.  They tended to hail the old man as a holy man who walked around, chanting incessantly.  They learned the chants but were baffled by the way he occasionally smiled, raised a finger, and pronounced some kind of admonition in Japanese.  They purchased new red and gold master’s robes for him and, since he seemed always desirous to perform kin hin (walking meditation) outside, they pulled out the weeds from the fenced side of the house, planted shrubbery, and laid flagstone pathways for him to use.  Regrettably, he extended the range of his meditation path to include neighboring sidewalks, and the police notified them that the barefoot old man was following children to school.  The ladies had assumed that his strange mumblings were somehow oracular, and a secretary of Japanese descent at the nearby police substation did indeed confirm that the mumblings were of a spiritual nature.  She was a follower of the Rinzai Southern school of Zen and the lines the old man repeated were from the Dun Huang version of the Platform Sutra, a scripture particularly dear to the Southern school. And so they learned that not only was their new master from a rival school of Zen, but the mystery of the raised finger and its accompanying advice was also disconcertingly solved.  The secretary translated what he was saying as, “You can make a mirror polishing a brick sooner than you can make a Buddha sitting on a cushion.”  This presented a serious theological problem.

They could read the koans associated with the Southern School, but they could not understand them; and they knew no other Zen but the kind that required hours of sitting and striving to stay awake while not thinking. No one knew how to respond to this apostasy or to the Abbot’s refusal to remove any of his clothing for laundering.  The handyman, who was supposed to be a college student, owned no books at all and disappeared for days at a time. A visiting physician told them he suspected that the Abbot had Alzheimer’s Disease. This, he allowed, might be troublesome: hospitalization would be expensive, if, of course, they could get past the problem of not being blood relatives of his. He advised them to speak to the attorney who had handled the “gift.”  They called him and were informed that they were obliged to provide for the two religious men.  As officers and signatories to the transfer documents, they were individually and severely liable to fulfill the accompanying contract’s terms.

As to the nephew, they learned quickly to keep their purses under lock and key; but this did not, unfortunately, prevent the young man from making house calls to solicit funds for a variety of non-existent projects.  He invariably had to relieve himself and while doing so raided the medicine chests for salable pharmaceuticals and an occasional piece of jewelry.  The sangha compared notes about missing things and all their homes were quickly closed to him.

It was during an October, 2013, visit to a suburban home, the Ghent residence into which Nola Harriman had recently moved, that he attempted to steal several prescription bottles of tranquilizers and Nola happened to notice a bulge in his jacket pocket that had not been there before he went to the bathroom.  She positioned herself so that she could look down into the pocket and, seeing the tops of prescription bottles, checked the bathroom and then quietly called the police. He was driving away from the residence when the police apprehended him.  Convicted and sentenced to a term of not less than two years, he did remove one of ZBA’s more serious irritants; but his absence did not, however, overcome the other insoluble problems, and the Council planned their exit strategy.  Embarrassing newspaper articles about the incident mentioned the ZBA’s address and executives along with the information that Tuesday and Thursday evening meditation sessions were held at the old Norris-Giles House. The Council voted to “ride out the storm” and extend their termination date. They also resented Nola (who claimed to be a Zen Buddhist) for the way she handled what they thought should be an ecclesiastical matter.

By the spring of 2014, several month’s before Spencer Ghent’s death, the ZBA council, having waited for the legal sturm und drang to subside, accepted defeat and tried to find the easiest way to undo what they had done. Clearly, they needed to dissolve the charter, abandon the building, and sue the donor for having failed to disclose pertinent facts in the negotiation.  However gracefully they could accomplish these goals, they decided that the thirtieth day of July  2014, would be their last official day.

Patricia Monahan, (Shi Bashumitsu) the Council president, had learned the address of the Japanese donor. She met with no resistance when she suggested that on the eve of their last day, they drive to the donor’s home and, like kids leaving a burning bag of dog turds on the step, would ring the door bell and run, leaving the old man standing there alone to be figuratively stomped on.  It was not exactly a Zen thing to do, but they were in debt, nagged constantly by their husbands, and desperate. They certainly did not expect that Nola Harriman, whose respect for the law had exposed so many of their problems, would be the one who would rescue them from such an ignominious end.

 

 

It was in late September, 2013, that Nola first drove the winding rocky road to the hilltop Ghent house, an old Civil War mansion that was smaller than she had expected. During their long conversation Paige had described her home in detail and Nola had converted every brick into a Hampton Court.  She laughed at herself for having seen too many Bridesheadtype television shows.  Her sister wasn’t British royalty.  “It’s still a pretty place,” she said aloud.  But as houses of the period went, this was not a good example. The dominant feature was a turret that stood as an attachment to one front corner of the house.  The towering top floor, which actually rose only one storey higher than the attic, contained, according to Paige, stained-glass windows that had come all the way from Venice.  Each window faced a standard geographical direction and its leaded-in design depicted the season that supposedly went with the direction. Paige had said that they must not get a lot of snow in Venice. Fortunately, given the comprehensive view of the entire area that the turret provided, only the top panel of each window bore the colored lead-seamed glass.

At the house’s ground level there were four windows on either side of the portico’s columned entrance.  The portico, itself, was the façade of the foyer, one side of which was her husband’s large study, and the other being part of the family’s living quarters.  A second storey contained five and a half bedrooms – the peculiar slicing having been done when modern plumbing was installed. Paige had also said there was a “finished” cellar and an attic.

Smaller buildings stood near the main house:  a carriage house which had living quarters above a six-stall stable;  an all-purpose tack and farrier shed also used tor storage; a modern four-car garage with a curtained-window apartment as its second floor; a pool house and patio; and a marble building that was obviously a mausoleum.

Where, she wondered, did Paige intend that she should sleep? Paige had promised her her own space. She had casually mentioned that the kitchen staff lived in apartments in the attic, the groundsman occupied the carriage house, and the houseboy lived in the new garage apartment.  She had said that she slept in her own bedroom and that her three children – a boy Roland, nineteen; a girl Samantha, seventeen; and a boy, Pierre, sixteen; each had his own bedroom.  Five bedrooms then had already been accounted for.  The house did not look big enough for six – except for that fishy half-bedroom, and although there was an additional space in the turret, it surely was never intended to be anything but decoration or a protected place to view the countryside. Running straight down the inside wall of the turret was a circular stairway that led from the top down to the cellar and had an exit at each level. It must, Nola thought, afford the privacy of a lighthouse and she hoped her sister did not plan to install her in it.  Later, she would learn, that the top semi-room would be occupied by Hines Whitman, Spencer Ghent’s secretary, a location Hines was not happy about. The turret room was cold in the winter and hot in the summer and the circular staircase was iron and difficult to climb and descend.  Hines wanted the room that had been assigned to Nola – the “half” guest room next to Spencer’s Master bedroom, the half-bedroom which had been the main plumbing sacrifice to the modernizing effort.  But Nola found the room pleasant and more than adequate for her needs.  She was to share a bathroom with Samantha.

 

On that September day, as Nola first approached the house she could see that the garage doors were open, but since the sun was behind the building, she could see only four dark squares and the suggestion of cars inside.  On the other side of the main house, quieted now with autumn chill, the pool waited to be covered and the patio to be relieved of its furniture.

Suddenly a flock of goats came up from a small arroyo and stopped in front of her.  Paige had told her that they kept goats to act as lawn mowers and had instructed her that if the animals wandered into her path she should just blow the horn and they would move away.  Nola beeped her horn and the goats disappeared again into one of the many deep rills in the lawn.

Paige stood on the portico and waved to her.  The wind swirled around her, whipping blonde strands of hair across her face, and as Paige pulled them away and smiled broadly, Nola could see her teeth glitter in the morning sun.  Until that moment she had not realized how much she missed her sister. Nola smiled back and waved.  A connection had been made and she felt a thrill.  Considering that this was the first time she had seen her sister’s house, it was odd that she felt as if she had finally come home.

After the standard yelps, air-kisses, hugs, and arm-in-arm conviviality, they entered the house that was surprisingly well furnished.  The Ghent family had invested in beautiful antiques.

Nola was led into the kitchen to meet Mrs. Eglington, the cook; Gladys Jones, the chambermaid and kitchen assistant; Jules Grover, the houseboy; and Gregor Nikolov, the groundsman, who kissed her hand.  Two “cleaning ladies” who lived in town and came to work only three days a week, passed through the kitchen and acknowledged Nola with a wave and nod.

Inexplicably, Paige made the stern announcement that in her absence her sister was in charge of the house and all who lived and worked in it – a remark that made Nola uncomfortable and did not endear her to the staff. Additionally, Nola’s disposition had a sharp edge to it and Paige’s decree had not served to soften it.  Her personality invited criticism: she was casually generous which inspired ingratitude; she was well-built and attractive which inspired jealousy; but what was worse was that she was also an outsider, educated, and forthright – a woman who possessed none of the slickness of con artists who could become anyone’s best friend in a matter of minutes.  She also tended to be somewhat bossy and, especially when surrounded by what she considered “air-headed” women, she tended to flaunt her license as a registered nurse along with the knowledge of many classical books she had read as giving her some lofty hierarchical rank. She was also an avid Zen Buddhist of the Rinzai School.

Still, as the servants looked at one another with expressions of disdain, Nola smiled and tried to think of something to say that would mitigate the announcement’s severity, when suddenly Gregor, a man of about thirty – for whom the word swarthy could have been coined – stepped forward and, using a feather duster as a plumed hat, made a grand obeisance to Paige. “Your vish is our law,” he said humorously.  While his head was deeply bowed, Paige reached out to ruffle his long black wavy hair, and then to run her long acrylic fingernails through it to comb what she had disturbed. He looked up at her. “Is not how is said ve vill behave?”

“Isn’t he the limit?” Paige asked as she winked at him.  Gladys smiled at his little joke, but no one else acknowledged it. Paige turned and playfully sashayed to the foyer, pausing at the foot of a wide staircase.  “Now we go up,” she said portentously, “to meet the star of the show.”  Nola and Jules followed.

They walked down the hallway’s tufted runner, stopping as Paige opened the door to a guest room.  “This is yours, Sis,” she said.  “You’ll like it.  The mattress is brand new and very comfortable.” Despite all its odd angles, the room was large and sunny.

They continued on and stopped outside the next room, the master bedroom.  Paige made a quick toss of her head to Jules.  As he stepped forward, she asked Nola, “Are your keys in the car?”

“Yes,” Nola murmured.  ‘I didn’t know where it should be parked.”

“The Four-car – that’s what we call the new garage – is full now, I’m afraid… what with Roland’s new birthday sports car.”  She brightened and turned to Jules.  “After you put my sister’s luggage in her room, take my car out of the Four-car and put it in the carriage house carport.  Then put her car in the Four-car and be careful you don’t scrape the sides when you squeeze it in.”  As he murmured some remark of obedience and turned back down the corridor, Paige confided, “”Before we had the new garage built we’d often have to stick the cars in a kind of overhang or in the stable.  What a nuisance.  And the horses didn’t like it either.”

Nola wasn’t paying attention to Paige’s words. It was the unmistakable undercurrent of intimacy with Gregor that intrigued her.  Realizing that she was expected to comment, she asked, apropos of nothing, “What do you do with the goats in bad weather?”

Paige was not surprised by Nola’s non sequitur.  Her mind was equally on the subject that underlay her casual speech.  “Under the stairs in the carriage house is a pot-bellied stove – a small one – that keeps the stables from smelling like a morgue.  Horse sweat, shit and piss mixed with dampness.  Ugh! We’d never be able to keep Greg or any other groundsman for long.  The goats are herded into the room where the stove is. We keep food and water there.  They’re happy when it snows.

“And here,” she whispered as they approached the closed door of the master bedroom, “is Spence’s room.”  She lowered her voice even more.  “Look,” she said, “you didn’t know Spence before, and you’re a nurse and understand how emaciated this illness can make a person, so I know you’re not expecting to see an NFL lineman in there.  But you may not be expecting to see a skeleton… and Nola, my dear, prepare yourself to see one.”

She rapped and then immediately opened the door to a smoke-filled room.  She had not exaggerated.  Spencer Ghent turned his head and smiled weakly at Nola.  In a hoarse voice, he said, “Come in.  Come in.  And sit on my bed here so that I can get a good look at you.”

“Well,” Nola said brightly, “I’m disappointed.  I expected to see someone who would challenge my nursing skills.  But you, as we say in nursing jargon, are gonna be a piece of cake.”

He managed to free his hand from the comforters and tentatively held it out. He hesitated.  “Maybe you’d rather not.. not without a surgical glove… you know… eat that piece of cake.”

The remark was odd and lent itself to so many meanings that Nola was startled by it; but in her career patients often made bizarre statements, and she concealed her confusion. “Nonsense,” she said, shaking his hand and giving no indication that it felt like skinless chicken bones.   “As long as I’m at it,” she said in a switch of demeanor, “I’ll take your pulse.  So, quiet!”  His pulse was only slightly elevated.

“Since you two seem to be getting on so well,” Paige smiled, “you don’t need me.”  She returned to the doorway. “Is there anything you want me to get?”

“I don’t see a baby monitor.  If you don’t have one, could you get a pair and put one in my room and one in here?”  She picked up the large bed pan that was on the foot of the bed.  “And could you ask someone to go down to a drug store and get a smaller pan… one that’s easier to mount.  And I don’t see a walker.”  She picked up a prescription bottle that lay beside an overflowing ashtray and read, “Mesalamine.  It’s an effective medicine,” she said.  “There should be more.”

“Oh,” Paige said, returning to the bedside, speaking as though she were talking about a child, “but he refuses to take them. Then he lies to Doctor Boyer.  He’s written a dozen different types of medicines for him, and Spence doesn’t take any of them.”

They don’t help!,” Ghent said emphatically.

“What do you take them with?” Nola asked.

Paige answered.  “A nice cold glass of milk.”

Surprised, Nola responded critically.  “Surely his doctor didn’t recommend that.”

“No, water.  But Spence prefers cold milk.  He’s a very fussy patient, you’ll find. He’s supposed to quit smoking, but he won’t.” She returned to the topic of the walker.  “You don’t mean one of those things old ladies use?”

“Yes. Lightweight aluminum with good rubber tips. And yes, we’ll have to cut back on those cigarettes and then eliminate them altogether.   And does this phone connect to the kitchen?”

“Yes.  But Mrs. Eglington knows what to make for Spencer.”

“Fine.  But I’d like to approve of it first.  I have strict dietary rules.”

“Call her,” Paige said, pointing to an old-fashioned house phone.  “She knows you’re the boss.”  She turned, waved her fingertips, and without explanation left the room.  As she scampered down the stairs, she called.  “I’m running late.  See you at dinner.”

Nola left the room to put her coat and purse into her bedroom.  She glanced out her bedroom window and saw Jules strolling back from the carriage house and Paige marching towards it.  When she returned to Spencer’s room, he was sitting up, looking stronger than he had looked before.  “I think,” he said, “that I have to go to the bathroom.”

Nola helped him to get his feet over the side of the bed and then she bent forward, put her arms around him and pulled him to his feet.  His body was flat against hers and she could tell that he had an erection.  “You naughty boy,” she said, smiling.

“Sorry about that,” he whispered; and with Nola supporting him as if they were doing a macabre dance, she led him all the way into the bathroom.  She tugged on his pajama bottom and when it was low enough, she guided him down onto the seat.  “I’ll ring the bell when I’m done,” he said, indicating a cow bell that was on the sink.

“I’ll be in my room,” she said.  “Have fun.”

When the bell rang she rushed to his bathroom and found him standing, supporting himself by holding onto the shower door.  “Just help me to get back into bed,” he said.  “I sometimes get dizzy walking.”  He still had an erection and saw that she noticed it.  “You’re such a pretty woman, that I wouldn’t insult you by having just a piss hard-on.”

Nola raised her eyebrows.  The job was going to be more difficult than she had assumed.

The Landlord

Yin Cai Shakya
Yin Ts’ao Shakya

If you like “The Landlord”, check for more stories in AlphabetGumbo.com

 

“GOD DAMN IT, ROBBIE DOMINGUE,” she shouted, “deposit the god damn rent check already! It’s the eighteenth for crying out loud!”

He heard her over the din blasting from his headphones. Not her exact words per-se, but the sounds she was making. He removed the cans at once.

“What’s that, babe? Everything okay?”

“NO!”

She stormed from the kitchen into his office, smartphone in-hand, on-line banking app open, account balance at-the-ready. Reaching him she thrust her hand forward, forking-over the latest evidence of their Landlord’s ineptitude for him to examine.

He took it, and after adjusting his glasses, he peered at the cool, luminescent screen.

“Oh wow, there’s almost twenty-five hundred dollars in our checking account!”

“Yeah, because once-again that lazy-ass Robbie Domingue has yet to deposit our rent check!”

He chuckled to himself and shook his head.

“It must be nice y’know, to have so much money that you could just ignore a check for twelve-hundred dollars.”

“Repeatedly.”

“Yeah.”

She was pissed.

He pushed himself and his office chair backward, then reached for her and pulled her onto his lap. She couldn’t not giggle, and her little nose crinkled when she did. He adored it when she giggled like that. Her petite body resting on his lap felt good. She nuzzled his neck with her face, and that felt good to him too.

“Babe, what are we gonna do?” She asked him.

The next track on the playlist roared from his headphones, and she stopped.

“My Lord that’s loud! What’s that ‘song’ you’re listening to?” She used her fingers to put air-quotes around the word “song” when she said it.

“That’s ‘Cashing In.’”

(Ha-ha-ha-ha, ho-ho-ho. How do you do, I don’t think that we’ve met. My name is Ian, and I’m from Minor Threat!)

She giggled again, and declared “It sounds terrible.”

He growled, then pulled-up her shirt and gave her a vigorous raspberry, right in the middle of her tummy. Her giggling turned to laughter and her nose crinkled again.

They lived in a three bedroom, two bathroom house which they referred to as The Love Nest. They rented it from one Mr. Robbie Domingue, an affable but terribly absent-minded and lazy Landlord who had never, in their entire history at that address, deposited any of their rent checks in a timely manner.

“But seriously, though! It’s like he doesn’t even want our money!”

“Who on Earth doesn’t want money?”

“Yeah. Even Ian from Minor Threat likes money!”

(I’m takin’ a walk on the yellow-brick road. I only walk where the bricks are made of gold. My mind and body are the only things that I’ve sold. I need a little money, ‘cuz I’m gettin’ old…)

She was laughing again.

It wasn’t just the fact that their Landlord was forever making a liar of their checking account, though. It was so much more than that and sadly, a lot of it had to do with The Love Nest itself, and the fact that Robbie Domingue materialized to fix the various problems they’d had with that house with roughly the same frequency as he’d materialize at the bank the first of every month to deposit their rent checks.

She’d settled into the tub one evening to enjoy a steaming-hot bubble bath after work. The tub was filling up, and he was in the kitchen, pouring a glass of wine for her, when the silence was broken by an abrupt shout- “Oh my God I broke the hot water!”

He set the wine bottle on the counter and rushed into the bathroom. There she was, up to her neck in bubbles, while the hot water ran with reckless abandon. She was holding the knob in her hand.  “It just popped right off!”

“No problem babe, hold on just a sec!”

He dashed to the hall closet and rifled through the shoeboxes full of pictures, the shopping bags full of Christmas ornaments, and all the other sundry stuff looking for anything that resembled a useful tool.

He returned with vice grips, and torqued their toothy mouth parts down hard onto the little screw part protruding from the wall. Once secured, he gave it a few good turns, shutting off the water.

Later that evening, she’d texted Robbie Domingue about it. Not long after he answered her, apologizing. He mentioned that the previous tenants had problems with the hot water knob too, and that he’d “swing-by to fix it ASAP.”

Several months passed, and the vice grips remained the primary apparatus for turning the hot water on and off in the shower. Robbie had texted another apology a few weeks after it happened:

Hey! really sorry I haven’t been by to fix the faucet been traveling for work I’ll come by this week and fix it ASAP!!!!

But that had been it. Robbie never got around to actually coming over and fixing it. And they had never heard from Robbie about it again after that.

The twenty-fifth rolled around, and according to her on-line banking statement, the rent check had finally been deposited. The drier gave a loud buzz, alerting her to the fact that dry, toasty-warm bedsheets that smelled fantastic awaited her behind its flip-down door. She put down her cellphone, and went to unload the drier.

Moments later she walked into their room to put the fresh sheets on the bed. Entering the room she flipped the switch on the wall by the dresser. The ceiling fan began to turn, but the lights mounted to it did not spring to life. She reached for the chain suspended below and gave it a tug. The ceiling fan, the entire thing lights and all, came crashing down onto the bed, followed by a cascade of plaster dust, and little bits of pink insulation from the attic.

“Fuuuuuck!” she shouted.

He was on his way home from fly fishing when he got her text:

You won’t believe this. The ceiling fan in our bedroom fell out of the god damn ceiling a minute ago.

While stopped at a red light, he texted-back:

Oh for fuck’s sake.

And she text-replied-back with:

Yeah. Texting Domingue.

Later that evening, while he was cooking dinner, he heard her phone ding-ding twice from the table. It was a text from Robbie Domingue. He picked up her phone and walked down the hall to the bathroom with it. He gave a soft knock at the bathroom door.

“Yeah?”

“Hey baby, it’s me.”

“Yeah? Me who?”

“Me. Your husband. Do you recognize my voice?”

Giggling- “What?”

“Are you peeing?”

She giggled again, and then added “Not that it’s any of your business, but yes.”

“Well, Robbie Domingue texted you back, finally.”

“Yeah, what did he say? Will he be here to fix the ceiling fan in the bedroom ‘A-S-A-P’?”

“Winner winner, chicken dinner,” he deadpanned.

She cackled. He smiled and went back to cooking dinner.

Several weeks and a smattering of text messages from Robbie Domingue begging them to forgive him for his tardiness in getting-around to fixing their ceiling fan later, an electrician friend of theirs came by the house and fixed it for them, asking for nothing more in return than an invitation to stay for dinner. They happily obliged.

Not long after, on a Friday, he was returning home from an absolutely shit day at the ponds. His Boss had given him the day off. He’d wanted to go catch fish, but hadn’t felt like driving out to Lake Martin, or to the bar pits in Henderson. He’d opted instead to visit the small, two-acre drainage ponds he was fond of, in a nearby neighborhood. Hardly anybody fished there, and most of the time he could catch blue gill all the livelong day and not be bothered. It hadn’t been one of those days though. Nothing was biting.

His sour mood lifted when he returned home and saw her ‘vette in the driveway. He knew she’d gone to veiller with her mother and aunt earlier that afternoon and figured she’d still be there.

He parked, unbuckled his seatbelt, made sure to turn the volume on the stereo down from a 42 to a 6 lest she get punched in the ears by his music the next time they got in there to drive somewhere together, killed the engine and exited the Jeep.

He came in through the back door, to the kitchen. And there she was.

On entering he announced, “There’s my baby!” with a happy exuberance in his voice.

She didn’t respond. She just stood there, looking up at the ceiling.

“What’s going on, babe?” he asked.

Her eyes remained fixed on the ceiling and she raised her index finger, pointing in the direction she was looking just as a large water droplet fell, landing on his head with a soft, wet thump.

“What the Hell?”

He looked up. The ceiling was soggy from the edge of the fluorescent light fixture up there, all the way to the back door.

“Something’s leaking up there!”

“Uh-huh.”

“Fuck, could it be the roof?”

“No, I don’t think it’s the roof. It hasn’t rained in a couple of weeks.”

The Love Nest’s attic was accessible by way of a panel in the ceiling of the spare bedroom. He gave the cord affixed to it a tug. It opened, and out came the fold-up wooden steps. And what piss-poor shape they were in, too. The bottom segment barely held on to the frame of the segment above it, and several of the steps on both segments were broken. It looked like nobody had ascended them to the attic in years, which made perfect sense to them because Lord knew, it’d probably take another several years for Robbie Domingue to show up and take care of which ever tenant’s request it was -probably the first, probably fifteen fucking years ago- to come and fix them.

“You’re way too heavy to get up those steps safely, babe. I’ll have to go.”

“You’re probably right. But I don’t want you on those steps, either. Look at them!”

“Yeah.”

“Okay, No problem. Here’s what we do. I’m going to lift you up, and you’re going to grab that top step up there. It looks solid. Then, I’ll boost you up by your feet, and you can pull yourself the rest of the way in. Sound good?”

“Mmmhm.”

He took his petite wife by the waist and hoisted her up overhead. She took hold of the top step and it did indeed feel solid. Next he stooped, took her by the feet, and boosted her the rest of the way in while she pulled herself up.

“Alright babe, make your way in the direction of the kitchen and see if you can find the source of the leak.”

Moments later she hollered-back to him, “Found it! It’s a little clear plastic tube. It’s all wet, and I can hear it hissing.”

“I bet that’s the line that runs water to the fridge!”

“Huh?”

“The water and the ice maker in the fridge;” he hollered more loudly, then adding, “I bet that’s where it gets the water from.”

“Oh yeah, definitely! It looks like it’s coming from where the pantry is, I think.”

The water heater occupied a small alcove just off the pantry. He wasn’t a plumber, but it still made sense in a plumbing sort of way that the line which fed water to the fridge would terminate in that alcove somewhere. It also made sense in a Robbie Domingue sort of way that it would pick today to start leaking.

“Alright, stay up there and keep your eye on it. I’m gonna go see if I can find where it ends. Stand-by.”

“It’s absolutely soaking-wet up here!”

A second or two later he was in the pantry, opening the makeshift door which hid the alcove in which the water heater stood. Four clear plastic tubes like the one she’d described snaked up the wall.

“Babe?”

“Yeah?”

“There’s a couple-few down here. I’m gonna pull on each one. Shout if you see it move.”

“Okay!”

He took hold of the first and gave it a yank.

“Anything?”

“Nope.”

He tried the second. Nothing.

Then he gave the third a yank, and she shouted, “It moved!”

“Okay! Stay there and keep watching. I’m gonna see if I can find a shut-off knob or something down here.”

He began to trace the tube, down the wall, part-way across the floor where it coiled several times over, and then into the wall the alcove shared with the kitchen, by way of a large, raggedy hole. He remembered seeing similar coils of tubing under the sink.

“Hang tight, baby!”

He dashed into the kitchen, opened the cabinet below the sink, and peered in. Sure enough, way in the back, were two more of those tubes. One in particular had a little metal valve on it.

“I think I’ve got it. Holler if the hissing stops!”

He flipped the valve into what he figured would be the “off” position.

“It stopped!” she shouted.

After helping her down from the attic, he sent a text message to Robbie Domingue:

There was a leak in the attic ceiling in kitchen soaked. Shut-off fridge water to stop leak. Ceiling will need to be repaired.

Several minutes later Robbie returned the volley, with:

Really sorry!!!!! In Shreveport for work till next fri

And:

will handle that for ya’ ASAP when I get back!!!!!!

And the dingy-looking brown stain on the kitchen ceiling, and the bubbled, peeling sheetrock the stain clung to, had henceforth remained un-handled, even until the day they found the dead body.

He didn’t want her climbing into, or around in, that attic ever again. If the condition of the rafters up there was anything like the shape those steps were in, he surmised, it was better that he should fall through the ceiling than her.

They had been cleaning-up the other spare bedroom, the one they called The Calamity Room. It was where they’d put old clothes, all the things they didn’t use like that old bicycle, and boxes of Christmas ornaments, stuff like that.

For want of storage space anywhere else in the house, he set about moving the bike, the bins full of old clothes, the boxes of computer parts and old CD’s, and so forth, into the attic. He climbed the decrepit steps as gingerly as he could, and was relieved when he reached the attic safely.

From below, she hoisted the boxes and bins up to him. The bicycle was trickier, but they managed.

Once finished, he stopped to have a look around. Aside from their things, there wasn’t much else up there, save for a large cardboard box or two in corner, along with an old rocking horse and a large steamer trunk. The dust and the cobwebs on them were thick, like they’d been left there the day after the house was built and were forgotten about.

“Babe,” she called up to him, “are you about done? I don’t like you being up there so long.”

“Yeah baby, I just want to check out this stuff I found over here in the corner.”

“What, that old hobby horse?”

“Yeah.”

“That fucking thing’s evil-looking.”

And it was. What he could see of it’s painted-on expression through the dust, anyway. And the scaffolding of cobwebs that arose from the beams up to it’s nose enhanced the effect. He gave it’s nose a tap and it rocked, and stirred up some dust which looked like smoke in the beam of his flashlight.

Next he turned his attention to the old steamer trunk. A large thing, it reminded him of the kind of trunk you’d see floating around in the icy water near the Titanic while it sank. There was no lock, its lid was sealed only by a film of dust, and a buckle affixed to a leather strap.

“There’s a big-ass trunk up here! I’m going to have a look inside, maybe there’s something valuable in there.”

“Okay.”

“Antiques Roadshow here we come!”

He heard her giggling. “I’m not holding my breath!”

He unfastened the buckle and removed the leather strip from it. He raised the lid, and a gentle creek emerged from the hinges. What greeted him next was the musty scent of dry rot with notes, oddly enough, of old beef jerky. It wasn’t so much a stench but rather, what remained left-behind after whatever had caused a stench had run its course.

He shined his flashlight into the trunk.

His heart stopped mid-beat and his lungs stopped mid-breath at the sight of what greeted him from inside the steamer trunk.

There before him lie what was left of the body of what appeared to be a smallish woman -definitely a smallish old woman- curled up in the fetal position, with a multicolored mumu clinging to her desiccated frame. Her head was turned sharply to the left, several degrees farther than a human head is supposed to turn. The vista of her skull, replete with empty eye sockets and patches of preserved tissue still clinging to it, looking up at him and grinning wildly, gave his mind the impetus it needed to command his brain to flood the rest of his system with adrenaline, freeing him from the suspended animation the fright had gripped him with.

With no regard for safety he bolted across the attic, negotiating each beam with wild, clumsy, ambling strides in the direction of the light which shone through the open trapdoor.

She dove out of the way of his feet and watched from the floor as the rest of his body followed, assholes-and-elbows, in a cloud of dust and cobwebs. A split second later he, too, was on the floor, and he launched his body toward the corner opposite them in a frantic lunge. Once there he stood, and pressing the palms of his hands against the walls as hard as he could, in an effort to center himself, he tried to get his breathing under control.

“Fuck. fuck. fuck. fuck,” he whispered, on every quick exhalation.

She dashed to him.

“Baby, baby what is it? What happened?” she asked, with the tone of a calm-but-urgent concern for her husband in her voice.

“Fuck. fuck. fuck. fuck.”

“Baby? Baby? What is it?” she asked again, with a voice still concerned, but more soothing this time, while she rubbed his chest firmly with the palm of her hand.

“Fuck. Fuck. Fuck! Fuck!”

“What is it my baby?”

“Body. Fuck. Dead body in the trunk. Dead body in the fucking trunk!”

She thought of the trunk of her car first, but that wasn’t rational. Obviously he was being irrational. So she rubbed his chest harder, and squeezed his upper-arm with her other hand.

“Baby, what body? What trunk?”

He gasped and then his knees buckled. His ass hit the floor hard. He looked up at her, and after a deep breath, offered, “That trunk in the attic. There’s a dead body in it, so help me God a dead body in the fucking trunk.”

He joked around with her all the time. It was one of the things she loved about him. But his demeanor was not indicative of any light-hearted bullshitting and playful skullduggery. He was telling the truth. And where the truth had rendered him scared shitless when first he glanced at it, it had now rendered him completely horrified after validating its existence up there in the attic, by speaking it out-loud.

Her eyes, which always reminded him of Princess Jasmine’s from that Disney movie, immediately became red at the edges, and welled-up with tears. Seeing this, he felt the sutures she’d fastened the fissures in his heart back together with begin to burn, and he snapped-out the horror-induced fugue. He was on his feet with a jolt, in time to catch her as she collapsed in a fit of tears against his body.

He held her for a long time. Then she held him.

Robbie Domingue set his tallboy of Budweiser down on the deck next to the folding chair he was sitting in, and dug after the vibrating cellphone in his pocket. There hadn’t been so much as a nibble on any of his lines all evening. The boat bobbed up and down gently in the water. He removed the cell from his pocket, inspected the screen, and answered forthwith- “Hey there! How’s it going at the house?”

“Robbie *crackle* fucked, Robbie *crackle* completely *crackle* fucked!”

“What’s that? I’m sorry, I’m having trouble hearing you, I’m out here on the boat and the signal is terrible.”

“This is important *crackle* important God damn it *crackle crackle* big problem!”

“A problem? Hello?”

“Hello? *crackle* Big fucking *crackle* ass here right fucking now!”

“Aw gee I’m sorry. I’m out here at my camp for the next two weeks.”

“*crackle* the fuck you are!”

“I’m really sorry about this. But listen, you or your wife just text me. Whatever it is, text me a reminder in the next week or so, and when I get back I’ll be out there to fix it ASAP!”

“You *crackle* be fucking kidding *crackle*!”

“Alright got that? Just text me a reminder! Thanks!” *boop*

*sound of dead air*

The impact against the tile floor exploded his cellphone into a million shiny pieces. It made her jump.

“Baby!”

He stretched-out his arms, extended the index fingers on both of his hands upward, and then lowered his head, and took-in an inhalation through his nose so gargantuan as to inflate his belly so much that it made him look fat. He held the air inside him, and stood motionless. Then, with a huge heave he exhaled and slowly lowered his arms, placing his hands on her shoulders gently.

“I’m really, really sorry about that, my baby.”

“What did he say?”

“Well, you’ll be relieved to know that while we’re tidying-up around the house and discovering bodies in the attic, our erstwhile Landlord is relaxing, and taking-in a beautiful evening on his boat.”

“What?”

“Yeah.”

“Where?”

“I have no idea, his signal kept cutting-out. He could be all the way out in Gulf Shores for all I know. He could be anywhere!”

“Did he say anything else? And please don’t tell me what I think he told you.”

“I caught ‘reminder in the next week’ and ‘when I get back I’ll be out there to fix it ASAP’.”

“Oh my God this is such fucking bullshit!”

Level-headed, rational individuals sometimes make not-level-headed, irrational decisions when pushed beyond their collective wit’s end and by-and-large, they oughtn’t be faulted for it. They discussed calling the Police as they sat at the table, poring-over the day’s events and what to do about them. Neither of them were thinking clearly but then, who would be? They hadn’t had much luck with the cops when trouble arose in times past, and the whole story- the house, the problems with the house, their absentee landlord, all culminating in the grizzly discovery of a desiccated corpse upstairs seemed too ridiculous to believe.

“It’s insane!” she exclaimed.

“Yeah, and there’s no way they’ll buy it. Getting the cops involved will probably just make it all worse.”

“Mmmhm.”

“Probably best to not report it. Just let sleeping dogs lie, y’know?”

“Yeah. But what do we do about-”

“About the body?”

“Yeah?”

“Well it goes without saying she can’t stay here!”

“I can’t believe we’ve been sleeping under the same roof as a corpse. Oh my God, I’m gonna throw up…”

He loaded the steamer trunk into the back of his Jeep. It was 1:30 AM, and the humidity still hung heavy in the air.

He opened the door for her and helped her up into her seat, then he piled-in. He turned the key, the engine roared to life, and after grabbing the volume knob on the stereo and turning it the rest of the way to zero -neither were in any mood at all for music- he flipped-on the headlights, and they took off.

She gripped his hand tight and stared straight ahead, as he drove.

Finally, she spoke-up. “Do we have anything that even vaguely resembles a plan?”

“Well, I’ve never gotten rid of a dead body before.”

“I should hope not…”

He laughed uncomfortably, then offered “That said, I was thinking we could just dump her over the swamp bridge. Hopefully what’s left of her will sink, and it’ll be like she’s been down there under the water for years if anybody finds her, and that’ll be that. So, I move that we dump her over the bridge into the Basin. What do you think about that?”

“Sounds faster than digging a hole somewhere and it gets her the fuck out of our house. I second that motion.”

“Motion seconded. All in favor, say ‘aye.’”

They said “aye” in unison.

“All opposed?”

Silence.

Several minutes later they were heading East on I-10 toward the Atchafalaya Basin Bridge. There they’d have twenty-six miles-worth of water to decide where to dispose of the corpse.

It didn’t take long for them to reach the bridge, and that was a relief. Once on it, they began to discuss where, exactly, to drop off their passenger.

“I’m thinking the Whiskey Bay Pilot Channel would be a good place,” she said.

“Sounds like a good bet, to me.”

She looked to him and they nodded slowly together, sealing their agreement.

He checked the rear-view, nobody was behind them. He brought the car to a halt cautiously, on the shoulder. He killed the headlights. A few moments passed before several eighteen-wheelers passed-by, opposite them. Things settled down not long after that, and soon there were no headlights approaching from either direction, signaling in-bound company.

Before leaving The Love Nest, after bringing the trunk down from the attic, he’d wiped it clean of dust and fingerprints. He had also grabbed a fresh pair of those yellow, rubber dishwashing gloves from the cabinet underneath the kitchen sink. He withdrew them from his back pocket and put them on.

“Stay here, baby. I’ll be back in a jiffy.”

“Please let me help you.”

“I don’t want you to have to see her. Plus, I only brought one pair of gloves and I don’t want your fingerprints on anything.”

He got down, and after he closed the door, she hopped over into the driver’s seat and took the wheel. “It’ll be way faster for us to get the Hell out of here,” she thought to herself as she buckled-up.

He removed the steamer trunk from the back of the Jeep. It was heavy, but easy enough for him to manage. He set it down on top of the concrete guardrail, and flipped the lid open. He didn’t care to see her himself, either, not again. No way.

He tipped the trunk over, and felt the weight of the contents take leave of it. Hearing a series of soft splashes below, he let go of the trunk, and another, slightly louder splash assured him that they had once again successfully handled a problem that Robbie Domingue should have taken care of, “ASAP.”

He didn’t have to look at the Jeep to discern what she’d been thinking moments earlier. He had just to turn, open the passenger’s side door, and jump in. And just as soon as his ass was in the seat, her foot was on the pedal.

[…]

They awoke the following morning to an incessant pounding coming from the living room. He was still clutching her to him, just as he had been earlier that night when they were finally able to retire after the previous day’s ordeal. She was still clinging-fast to his arms. Neither had moved.

*bang* *bang* *bang*

They rose and made themselves relatively presentable- she in her robe and he, in his pajama pants. They went to the front door. He opened it.

They were greeted by a young couple, each twenty-something, and behind them was a large moving truck.

“Oh what’s this happy horse shit?” she inquired of their morning visitors, with more than just a dash of irritation peppering her voice.

“Hi,” the husband said, “we’re really sorry to bother you-”

His wife interjected, with “Yes! Really, really sorry, but-”

The husband continued, “I’m Robbie Domingue’s nephew, Ted. Two months ago he said we could rent this house.”

“Yes,” Ted’s wife affirmed, “Ted is Robbie Domingue’s nephew. Robbie said we could rent the house.”

“Yeah, uh, we saw your Jeep out there, and your Corvette in the driveway, and wait,” Ted peered inside, “is that your living room couch in there?”

“Has Robbie talked to y’all about this?”

“Uncle Robbie told us month before last that your lease was about to end, and that he’d tell you he’d decided to rent the house to us, ‘ASAP,’ so you’d have plenty of time to move-out and stuff. Gave us today as our move-in date, and everything.”

Staring slack-jawed at the couple, in silence, was the only response they could muster. Neither of them could believe it, but at the same time, it totally made sense. All of it.

Ted and his wife just stood there, looking at the two of them.

Answering Ted, after several more moments of gobsmacked silence, he said “No problem, just give my wife and me until noon to be out of your way.”

Ted and his wife were nodding in perplexed agreement as the front door closed on them.

He put his arms around the small of her back and held her close. She felt good pressed against him, and he gave a huge sigh. She placed the palm of her hand on his chest, and began to laugh. And after a moment, he was laughing right along with her.

Death among the peaceful

Yin Cai Shakya
Yin Ts’ao Shakya

If you like “Death among the peaceful”, check for more stories in AlphabetGumbo.com

 

HE’D LIVED BACK EAST IN PITTSBURGH FOR FIVE YEARS before moving South to Louisiana. He stood on the patio by the back door, watching the pup as he vacillated from prancing to ambling about the yard gaily. As he watched he thought about how, in the entire time he’d lived in Pittsburgh, he’d never seen a Sunday afternoon so beautiful. He’d lived in Louisiana for one month and aside from a passing thunderstorm that welled-up to welcome him home the day after he’d arrived, there had been no slow, incessant drizzle, no soul-crushing, gray skies; just day after day of glorious sunshine. He marveled at it. A smile broke as he watched the pup chasing after a butterfly at the precise moment that the thought “And I’ll never have to shovel snow ever again” occurred to him.

“Okay! I’m just about ready to go!” her voice arose from inside, in the kitchen.

His smile widened when he heard her. He always either smiled, or smiled wider, when the silence was broken by her voice.

“Alright, babe. Let me get our little gargoyle back inside…”

He called for the pup, who’d taken to answering to his name damn-near right away when they’d gotten him, and he came quickly, assholes-and-elbows as all fat-and-happy pups do when their master calls for them, offering treats. A minute later, as she was putting the grocery list they’d been writing-up into her purse, the pup was fast asleep in his little dog bed by the sofa, snoring and giving soft barks.

She giggled at the audible wuffs and snarls and said “I love that. That never gets old.”

“He’s probably dreaming about chasing those butterflies.”

They were off and he was driving. Errands helped him learn how to find his way around, and though “shopping for groceries” probably seems like the most mundane of all the things you could be doing together on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, he was enjoying himself. She was singing along to Eva Cassidy and her hand rested on his thigh. He took her hand, and sighed. It didn’t matter much to him what they were doing, his elation that they were doing it together, finally, was all.

“Oh babe! Quick, turn Right, here-” she said as they approached the side-street that would take them the other way across town and eventually spit them out on the Interstate.

“Here? But isn’t the store the other way?”

“Yes, but we need honey and we’ll get that from the farm first.”

“Honey from the farm? Sounds like a hot ticket to me” he said, making a hard right and hammering the accelerator. Had it not been for the seatbelt she was wearing, she’d have ended up in his lap. She giggled loudly.

“Yeah, it’ll be fun, you’ll enjoy the drive out there and back.”

The sky that stretched-out above the interstate was expansive and the horizon looked to be a thousand miles away. The long stretch of flat, straight road pleaded with him to let it all unwind, go Wide-Fucking-Open, and make all those cylinders work for a living. The windows were down and the fresh air that buffeted them, and the sound of the road, and the music, had the effect of a dose of morphine administered straight to the soul, everything melted into a feeling of deep wellbeing.

Four exits whizzed-by before he rolled the windows up half-way, so he could ask where, exactly, they were going.

“You’ll be taking the next exit, and making a Left,” she told him.

“Next exit, then Left. Got it!”

Two and a quarter miles and a Left at the exit later, they were cruising down a back country road that cut through the sugarcane fields and crawfish ponds. Occasionally colorful little shotgun houses or larger Acadian-style homes would appear. Some were built-up, the result, she said, of the insurance companies demanding that they be raised after flooding had damaged them. Spanish moss and resurrection fern draped the ancient oak trees that lined the road and that stood immovable in the yards of the people who lived there. Some of them were gargantuan.

“Alright babe, what’s this place look like, what am I looking for?”

“I always get mixed-up down here, have we passed the little cattle farm yet? It’s about a mile or two down the road from there.”

“I don’t think so, all I’ve seen is cane fields and houses, and crawfish ponds.”

“Those crawfish ponds will be re-purposed into rice paddies soon as crawfish season is over.”

“Really?”

“Mmmmhm.”

“Crawfish season? That’s a thing?”

“Yep, sure is.”

“When’s it end?”

“In another month or two.”

“Well shit. We need to go eat crawfish again before that happens. Probably three or four more times at-least.”

She laughed.

“Oh! I see cows!”

She leaned forward to have a look.

“That’s the one, we’re almost there, but–”

As they approached he slowed the car. There were indeed cattle in the pasture that faced the road. From farther away, when he’d first taken notice of them, they looked as if they were lying in the field, lazing in the warm afternoon sun. But as the picture slowly came into focus the closer they got, an altogether different reality emerged.

The cows weren’t lying down relaxing. They were dead. Fifteen head of cattle in that small pasture lie there, swollen and bloated in the sun.

“That’s… That’s… “ she stammered.

He brought the car to a halt in the middle of the road. He hadn’t seen another motorist since they’d made that Left.

He answered her, with- “That’s not normal, that’s what that is.”

A small farmhouse stood at the end of a long driveway which was flanked on both sides by pasture. Pasture littered with dead cattle that looked like large red and white boulders. The front door stood open, and a Sheriff’s car was parked nearby next to a large pickup truck.

“No. Not normal at all…”

He checked the rear-view. Still not a car in-sight. They could rubberneck all the livelong day it they wanted to, it seemed, and that seemed not normal to him, too. No, not normal at all, and neither of them wanted to rubberneck.

She spoke up- “At least the cops are here.”

“They’ll figure it out, whatever it is.”

He eased-off the brake and once again they were moving down the road toward their destination. The feeling in the car however, was different. The air inside felt thick. The feeling in his stomach had changed, too. Where there was once jubilance and the warmth of calm wellbeing, there was now heaviness. Thinking she might be feeling the same, he reached for her hand and took it.

He wanted to tell her that everything was probably okay, that the cops would adjudicate and follow-through with a resolution where needed, and that there was absolutely no reason to let that macabre spectacle set the tone for the rest of the day. But something in his head told him that it would be stupid to say those things. Not because they would come out sounding trite or placating, but because in all actuality everything was probably not okay, the cop was wholly unprepared for whatever it was that greeted him when he’d arrived and could not in any way, shape, or form adjudicate and resolve anything, and that things, by-and-large, would be getting a whole Hell of a lot worse, today. He opted to adjust the volume knob on the car stereo instead, bringing Otis Redding up from a 4 to an 18. He took notice of her settling into her seat. Her hand felt soft as he took it. They didn’t speak, just breathed together.

Not long after, she spoke-up- “Alright, it’s going to be coming-up on the Right. Look for the yellow mailbox. It’s coming up, it has a sign underneath it with a cute bumblebee on it.”

He took notice of it just ahead, flipped the blinker, and checked the rear-view. There was still nobody behind them.

The mailbox was a bright canary yellow, and there was indeed a sign under it.

“FRESH, LOCAL HONEY!” proclaimed the speech bubble that emerged from the smiling, chubby bumblebee with the cartoony eyes.

He steered the car into the driveway, and at her direction, drove past the farmhouse.

The house was very old, little paint remained clinging to the exterior, most of which having given-up and fallen off in ragged chunks years earlier. There was a tractor which sat in a state of extreme disrepair nearby. He kept driving.

Directly ahead of them was a large shipping container, a small wooden shack, and to the right there was a barn and several wooden boxes set side-by-side which presumably held hives.

“That shack is where they keep the honey. You can go in, fill-up as many jars as you’d like, and leave four dollars for each jar. It’s on the ‘Honor System’” she said.

He stopped the car by the shack, while she rummaged in her purse for her wallet. He looked around as she dug. It all looked relatively normal except for one thing- the faint cloud that seemed to undulate over everything.

He adjusted his glasses, thinking he wasn’t seeing things properly, and asked- “Uh, baby? Are those bees?”

She looked up from her purse, fixing her eyes on the small wooden shack.

“Yes. Yes they are, look at them all!”

He directed her attention toward the hives that sat on the ground by the barn. The cloud was thicker there.

“It looks like they’re swarming” he told her.

“Yeah, it sure does. You okay?”

“Oh yeah, I’m fine. I’m just a little confused, aren’t they supposed to be in their hive, or something?”

“It’s probably no problem babe, just wait right here and I’ll go get the honey. It’ll only take a minute.”

She reached for the latch on her door and he stopped her. “Wait!”

“What?”

He pointed at the shack. There were bees all over the two small windows, and on the door as well.

“I don’t like this. This doesn’t seem right.”

“It’s okay, babe. I’ve been here lots of times. There’s always bees around.”

“Look closer though. I mean, they’re crawling all over that shack. Hundreds of them. It’s like the God damn patients are running the asylum!”

She looked closer. But what captivated her attention was not the bees he’d tried to call her attention to, but an arm. On the ground, by the far corner of the shack, a human arm.

“Oh my God” she exclaimed before clasping her hands tight over her mouth and nose.

He saw it too, and gently urged the car forward, bringing it to rest adjacent to the body. It was an elderly man, wearing a pair of overalls and a white t-shirt. A green mesh trucker’s hat lie in the dirt next to his head. His other arm was bent, and his hand clutched his chest.

He urged the car forward again more quickly this time, and turned sharply, to get a better look. The elderly man was dead from what looked like thousands of bee stings. Every square inch of his exposed flesh was pocked, and his eyes were swollen shut. The legs of his overalls changed color from dark blue to brown and appeared to be alive. So did the back wall of the shack. Each was crawling with bees.

He heard her gasp through her hands.

He slammed the shifter into reverse, and nailed the accelerator while cutting the wheel hard. He was about to shift into drive and launch them back down the driveway after an abrupt stop, when she screamed.

There were three more bodies. A woman and a dog lying in the backyard, and a man on the back porch by the door. They’d been ravaged. Blood and red welts covered their skin.

The next scream came from him. It escaped his throat without him realizing it, when a teenage boy ran from the direction of the barn to the driveway and collapsed, enveloped in a violent black cloud. The boy’s arms were flailing and he whipped his head back and forth so fast and hard it looked like his neck could break. The cloud intensified in fury, and the boy’s screams, which rang out while his body heaved up and down, were audible over Otis Redding. The screams were audible over everything.

Inside the car grew an incipient dark, as if thunderheads were blotting-out the sun. Bees. They’d begun to coat the driver’s side windows, and the rear windshield. The eyes of his love, which peered out above her still-clasped hands, showed a primal terror that he was certain must be totally new to her human experience. He caught his reflection in the rear-view mirror and beheld in his own reflection that same inexorable terror.

He let off the brake and brought his foot down on the accelerator. The car shot backwards. He nailed the brake again, sending both his, and her head forward, into the wheel and the dashboard. The impact brought them both to their senses immediately.

“FUCKING GO!” she shouted.

He shifted into drive and punched it. The engine roared as the car rocketed forward. It was blind, frantic acceleration and the still-darkening windows. That was it. No thought. No breathing. He swerved to avoid hitting the young man who was now lying perfectly still in the driveway, and nearly sent them careening across the front lawn into the ditch by the road. With his attention divided between the growing dark on the windows and keeping them on the driveway, he managed to right the car and finish traversing the driveway, and made a hard Left by the canary yellow mailbox with the cute bumblebee sign which hung beneath it.

Back on the road, with his foot and the pedal beneath it jammed firmly into the floorboard, he watched as the vibrating mass of bees coating the windows began to break-up. He hadn’t drawn a breath since the driveway, neither of them had, but neither of them had noticed. The adrenaline kept them from passing-out until the bees were gone, at which time the breaths came back in loud, deep heaves.

“We have to call 9-1-1!” she shouted.

“What about the cop at the cattle farm? Maybe he’s still there!”

The speedometer read 120 miles per-hour, and the farm wasn’t much farther. If the cop was still there he’d stop, and they would explain everything.

He saw the pastures just ahead, and let-off the accelerator almost completely. He moved his foot to the brake, and slowed to negotiate the turn.

The Sheriff’s cruiser was still in the driveway. And the front door of the house remained open.

It still felt not normal, to him.

He stopped the car two-thirds of the way up the driveway and shifted into park. After killing the ignition they both exited the car and began a slow walk toward the house, shouting as they went.

Nobody emerged, not a soul.

Someone was sitting in the cruiser, he stopped her and directed her attention to it. They approached the car silently, their minds collectively urging them to turn back more loudly with every step. They pressed-on, cautiously. It was a Deputy they found when they reached the car. His hands were clasped around the wheel, and his cheek rested against it. His eyes and mouth were wide-open, frozen in a loud utterance of pain and horror. Around the Deputy’s mouth and neck were stings. So many stings. He wanted to throw up but he couldn’t- his belly had tied itself into some kind of knot that would allow no spasm at all, it just squeezed and squeezed.

And then there was a soft thump. Something hit the driver’s side window of the cruiser from the inside. It startled them both.

Then another, and two more-

Thump.

Thump, thump!

Bees.

They’d flown out from somewhere deep-down inside the Deputy’s esophagus, or worse- “Maybe his stomach” he thought to himself without actually thinking it.

Thump!

They both jumped, and then watched in horror as a waterfall of bees poured-forth from the Deputy’s gaping mouth, before taking flight and thumping against the window.

More bees emerged from underneath the cruiser.

He took her hand and bolted with her back to the car. He felt two sharp stings on his cheek and another on his neck. She swatted at her wrist hard where a tiny assailant landed, and she felt two more sting her ankles. She turned her head and beheld the cloud forming around the cruiser. It was organizing rapidly, and soon she feared, it would be on them both.

They reached the car and the swarm pursued them. The doors were unlocked -thankfully- and they wasted no time in sealing themselves inside. The engine roared loyally to life when he turned the key, the very moment when a living, malevolent quilt began to spread its self over the hood and windshield. He traversed the driveway in reverse, while she frantically inspected the both of them, as well as the interior, for bees. None had found an ingress. Reaching the road he cut the wheel, shifted into drive, and once again hammered the accelerator. The swarm which had blanked the car began to dissipate, and he kept accelerating until it was running Wide-Fucking-Open, as he was fond of saying. The bees had lifted completely, and were left as an ominous thunderhead undulating low to the ground, visible in the rear-view mirror.

Once safely on the Interstate, she called 9-1-1 from her cellular telephone…

[…]

In the days that followed they were interviewed by the local and state police, as well as by several shadowy Government people who asked a lot of questions but never said too much. They were advised not to speak about what they’d seen that day and save for talking about it with each other, they didn’t mention any of it to family members or close friends.

Several days later, as they sat at the table eating their dinner, he turned-on the television. Wheel of Fortune would be on soon. He didn’t care much about what they watched, because -again- he was happy, elated by the simple fact that they were watching it together -and that was doubly-so in the wake of certain events they’d witnessed recently, events which the shadowy Government people and the police had advised them not to talk to anybody about. The evening news was wrapping-up, and the Anchorwoman, a chubby-but-still-kind-of-pretty Latina gave a brief report of so-called Africanized honeybees swarming in nearby counties. They both dropped their forks at the exact same time. She was still chewing. He’d been in the middle of swallowing a mouthful of chicken and the sudden reminder of the bees crawling up from deep within the Deputy’s throat made him gag hard.

As he took his love’s hand, “Government scientists,” the Latina Anchorwoman said, “are working to contain the swarms.”

© 2016 Kenneth Atkins

 

http://alphabetgumbo.com/2016/03/03/the-beekeepers-2/

The Squatters (#10)

Ming Zhen Shakya
Ming Zhen Shakya
 To see more literature about Zen and the Art of Investigation:
http://www.zenanthonywolff.com

The Squatters

by Anthony Wolff (Ming Zhen Shakya)

To see all available chapters of “The Squatters” click here

 

Part 10: The final split-up

 

Rick had seen that the kind of all-purpose nylon zip ties that Dawson used were the light weight ties that could be purchased in any hardware store. He knew the well publicized technique of putting the knot in the center of his bound hands, getting his body in a slightly bent position, and then raising his hands above his head as if he were bringing his shoulder blades together and while bending his arms at the elbow and holding them outward like wings, bring his hands and elbows down in a hammer blow against his hip bones while pulling his hands apart so that all the force had been transmitted to the knot, breaking it.  But all this depended on his ability to bring his hands from behind and in a stooping position to step through his ams until his hands were in front of him.  Helena was so agile, he thought, she could free herself from any of these amateur restraints.  But not so with her husband. True, Rick had lost a considerable amount of weight maybe… just maybe he could do it. Before Begay was tossed inside for a second time, Rick struggled in the closet. He stooped and squatted but his hands refused to step under his feet and come up to the front. A shim.  He needed a shim or a stiff piece of metal like a woman’s beret that he could adapt.  It was dark in the closet and he could find nothing that could serve the purpose of a shim.

Well then, he’d look around for something to cut the nylon band with.  There was nothing.  He was hoping that he had left an old guitar in the closet.  He could use one of the strings as a cutting tool, but no… he had moved the guitar.  There were no sharp things and not anything he could sharpen.  He had lost weigh… maybe if he got the knot in the middle he could perform the same breaking technique using his behind as an anvil instead of his hip bones.  But the closet was so narrow… not at all like a bedroom closet.  With his knees he cleared a place on the floor, made sure the knot was in the middle of his hands, and stood up and tried to balance himself on one foot.

His head scraped the coat hangars and rainware that nobody ever wore. He bent in a kind of semi-squat with his behind out as far as he could get it while standing on one foot with his ankles bound. He raised his hands behind him and brought them down against his behind.  His hands bounced off the rear and he lost his balance and fell forward on his knees.  His head struck Helena’s “gardening” coat… a raincoat she used when she had to dig in the dirt.  She liked the long coat because she could kneel on it when planting bulbs or.pruning suckers from the base of trees and shrubs. could she have left pruning shears in her coat?  . Before he could explore the coat with his mouth, Begay was tossed inside again, this time to wait for Morgan to finish in the bathroom.

“Enough is enough, Markovitz,” Begay said disparagingly.  “You lead a dangerous life.” He calmly stepped through his hands, bringing them to the front of his body.  “What’s the matter?  Too many pounds on you?  I’ll sponsor you to join the Health Club at the hotel.”

“Unlike you,” Rick replied in his effete voice, “I have been bound in two places.  The degree of difficulty is exponentially greater.”  He noticed that when Began stepped through his hands, he had turned Helen’s coat and the outline of the pruning shears showed.  “Since you’re so nimble, would you be kind enough to hand me those shears… right behind your head… in my wife’s pocket?  I’ve been wanting to get to them, but it’s been one interruption after another.”

Begay pulled the shears from Helena’s pocket. Rick turned his body and held out his hands.  “It will be so much easier for you to free me and then for me to free you.”

“Yes.  I figured that out by myself,” Begay said, snipping through Rick’s wrist tie.  Then, without asking, he cut his ankle restraint.  Rick immediately took the shears and cut Begay’s tie.

They could hear footsteps coming towards the closed.  Rick whispered, “Hold the tie in place so that it looks as if it’s still restraining you.  I’ll keep my hands behind me.”

As Andy led Morgan by the collar back into the living room, outside, near the front door, a casino security guard took out his S&W semi-automatic and holding it behind himslf, rapped lightly on the window.

“See who that is,” Dawson ordered.  “I’ll keep my gun on the driver.”  He motioned to Morgan. “Get over here beside Mrs. Begay.”  Morgan sat on the couch.

“Who is it,” Andy yelled.

The guard did not know what Rick’s last name was.  “I’ve got a special delivery for Mr. Markovitz.”

Dawson said, “Ask him who sent it.”

“Who’s the sender?” Andy asked.

Again, the guard could think of no other meaningful name.  “Dodge Rosewall.”

Dawson hissed, “I knew that son of a bitch was in on it! First I’ll put the women in the closet and then you can let him in,” Dawson pulled Anita and Helena to their feet and marched them to the closet. “Get in there!” he said.  Rick heard him and, expecting the closet door to open, went from a kneeling position into a squat. His bulk shoved Begay to the side. The moment Dawson opened the door, Rick tackled him, and Dawson stumbled and skidded backwards, falling face-up on the floor.  Rick held his legs and Helena leapt up and jumped on his chest, knocking the wind out of him.  As he gasped for air, she jumped onto his right arm and Rick grabbed the gun from his hand.  Anita kicked his head so forcefully that it was possible to hear something snap in his neck.

Clive began to whine.  “Ain’t somebody gonna answer the door?  I’m gonna lose my eye!”  His sleeves were filled with blood from using them to wipe his face.  He headed to the front door.  “Make them take me to the hospital first!” he shouted at Andy. Clive’s gun was still stuck in his belt in the small of his back.

Andy stood in the foyer not knowing what to do.  “Open the door!” Orren yelled, and Andy automatically turned the lock and let the guard in.  Rick jumped up, grabbed Helena and pulled her into the closet behind him, pushing her onto the floor on top of Begay. As soon as the front door opened, the guard pushed Andy away and, seeing Rick with a gun that appeared to be pointed at Anita, he fired at Rick, grazing his right shoulder. The slug buried itself itself into the coset wall.

Rick had no way of knowing who the guard was or what he was doing there. He could not imagine that any friend or guard of his would try to shoot him. As he grabbed his wounded arm, he shouted,”Here!” and tossed the gun to Morgan.  “Protect Anita!” He stepped in front of Helena. “Stay down!”

“Hold your fire!” Morgan shouted as he caught the gun.

“He’s my body guard!” Begay stood up, dumping Helena on the floor, and yelled at Rick as if to reprimand him.

Clive had staggered back into the living room and the guard looked at him as if to say that he wasn’t worth wasting a bullet on.  He grabbed the back of Clive’s head and forced him down onto the rug.  He removed the gun from his waist.

Rick looked at Begay. “Kindly tell your guard to be a bit more respectful of my rug!”   He went to pick up Clive. “Get your stupid ass into the garage!”

The guard had turned toward Andy and pointed his weapon at him.  “Get down on the floor and put your hands behind your head! he shouted.  Andy dropped to his knees and then flopped forward, burying his face in the deep soft pile of Rick’s $60,000 Persian rug.

“Get those shears!” Begay shouted, trying to help his wife. But Helena had already gotten them and was cutting through Anita’s restraint. Dawson was unconscious.  Clive stumbled into the garage, and sat on the floor, hosing himself down with the same hose that Rick had used the day before.

 

Paulina Sue had had enough.  She marched into the living room and checked Olivia’s jaw.  “It doesn’t seem to be broken, but it sure didn’t help those teeth.  We’ll getcha’ more cloves and cotton.”  She reached into Dawson’s pocket and got the $10,000 he had taken from Rick.   She held up the money. “I’m gonna take half of this,” she said plaintively.  “Let me give half to the kid.  Maybe he can find a cheap doctor to fix his face.” Rick nodded. She divided the money in half and tossed half to Orren.  “Do what you can with this, kid.”

Orren mumbled, “Thanks, Aunt Paulina Sue.”

Paulina Sue stood like a warrior goddess in the center of the room and gave incontestable orders.  “Now,” she said to Babs, “put the kids and the vets in the van. We’ll drop the vets off at a shelter.  We’re heading east. Put pillows in the passenger’s seat for Olivia and put the seat all the way back.” She turned to Helena. “You got any pain pills you can give her?”

Helena, had just finished putting on the dress she had been attempted to model when the trouble began.  “Yes, I do.  I’ll get them.  She’ll sleep.” She went into the medicine chest and emptied the unused half of a pain prescription into a handkerchief and brought it to Paulina Sue who thanked her.  After we go, you can call the cops and they’ll pick up the three musketeers and take ’em back to jail.”

Considering that their fingers had been in contact with all the food that was in the kitchen, Helena said, “Here, take the food with you from the kitchen.  You’ll need to feed the kids tonight.”

Paulina Sue carried a cardboard box of food into the living room.  She helped Olivia get into the van and returned to the living room. She looked at the stunned group of people who stood and stared at her. Nobody objected.  As Babs, the vets, and the children filed out of the house and got into the van, she turned to Anita.  “Hagoonee’,” she said.

Anita answered.  “A’aa, hagoonee’.”

“What did all that mean?” Helena asked.

“Nothing,” Begay answered.  She said, ‘Goodbye’ and Anita answered, ‘Goodbye to you, too.'”  He sighed. “I need a drink.”

Helena returned to the kitchen and called, “A gimlet?”

“Make that two,” Rick answered.

“If you wouldn’t mind, sir….”  Morgan had started to tremble in a kind of post traumatic response.

“Bring a whole pitcher in.” Rick called.  He looked at his rug.  “Oh, hell, let’s all go in the goddamned kitchen.”

The security guards fanned out to guard the perimeter as the van, driven by Paulina Sue, backed out of the garage.

Orren had sat quietly at the side of the garage.  He made no move to go to the van. Rick dumped Dawson’s unconscious body next to him and Begay led Andy, now cuffed, into the garage.  Rick had called the Sheriff’s Department and a car was on its way..

In five minutes, Orren, Rick, Begay, and Morgan were the only males in the house; Anita and Helena, the only females. Begay’s and Rick’s guards patrolled the area.

Orren looked at Rick.  “Please don’t call Child Welfare on me.”

“Wait a minute.  Wait a minute,” Rick said.  “What’s this business about Rosewall?”

“Uncle Don gave him $4,000 to get his money back from you.  He says Rosewall didn’t do nothin’ for Four grand.”

“I gave him ten times that, and he didn’t do anything for me either,” Helena said.

Morgan interrupted the discussion to explain Orren’s roll in the rescue. “I didn’t want to believe him at first, but my gut told me he was an honest kid.”

Rick laughed.  “Son, you are so much better off without those vermin.” He told the others how Orren had got his scars and how he and Helena had been victimized.

“Jesus,” Begay said. “You know,” he joked, “now that I look at him, he looks a little Navajo to me. I’ll tell you what.  There’s a surgeon who comes to the Rez and works pro bono. Let’s have him fix the boy’s face.  I’ll square it with him.  Orren can stay with my folks until he’s finished with the surgery.  Then he can make a decision about where he wants to live and go to school.” He looked at Rick. “Then we’re square about Anita’s portrait?”

“Ask my wife,” Rick answered.

“Sure, if you’ll also let him get himself some new clothes,” Helena said. “Actually, I did the portrait as a gift.”

“When the surgery’s finished we can enroll him in a boarding school off the Rez,” Anita said.  “A boy needs an education.”

“If you put him in a boarding school,” Rick said, “I’ll cover the cost.”

Begay shook his head, considering the squatters.  “Who the hell would believe a story like this? Squatters! Deliberate dog bites! It’s unbelievable!”

Anita sighed.  “If my mother thinks we’re making this up to keep her from getting her portrait painted, my life will not be worth living.”

Helena smiled.  “You just send your mother to my studio.  Have her call me to discuss the time.  I’ll see to it she’s painted as regally as she likes.  Should I put the feathered band on her?”

“No!” Begay snarled.  “And don’t put that band on anybody else! That band is sacred!  Only my wife can wear it.”

“Darling,” Anita said, “there is no band.  Helena made it up.”

Begay began to laugh and the others joined in.

-30-

The Squatters (#9)

Ming Zhen Shakya
Ming Zhen Shakya
 To see more literature about Zen and the Art of Investigation:
http://www.zenanthonywolff.com

The Squatters

by Anthony Wolff (Ming Zhen Shakya)

To see all available chapters of “The Squatters” click here

 

Part 9: Coming out of the closet

 

At first, Rick had regarded Helena’s facial repairs as worse than hideous. Her face was swollen and bruised, and though the doctor kept saying, “Beautiful… just beautiful!” about his work, the results did not seem to warrant such a description.  But gradually the swelling subsided and the purple bruises faded to a kind of chartreuse and then vanished altogether. She still had pink scar lines, but just as the doctor predicted, these lines were retreating from view – especially when she wore the right make-up.

Mostly, the sinus repair allowed Helena to be completely free of headaches. Her disposition was… well… Rickthought, sunny.  Yes.  And sun time was work time.  The variance had been granted, and thanks to Anita Begay’s portrait, many people wanted “to sit” for the mysterious “M.”

But Helena wanted more time to heal, not only from the surgery, but from the months of pain and humiliation. She also wanted to spend time with her husband.  They cooked, shopped, and cleaned together.  Rick was content: she was deliriously happy. Rick, however, had spent twenty thousand dollars getting “their” house converted to a professionally zoned artist’s studio.  He knew that he owed Dave Begay an explanation for his financial activities at the hotel and discussing the subject on his own turf was definitely better than being asked for an explanation at another “less convenient” venue. “Helena,” he said sternly, “I’m really disappointed by your failure to follow through with your painting. I’ve gone through an immense amount of trouble to accommodate you and you have taken a rather selfish attitude towards my efforts.”  He frowned, pushed her away, and left the room.  She immediately called Anita Begay and invited her to come the next day to see the new studio.

“Would you mind if my husband brought me?”Anita asked.  “He wants to see the new studio.” What Dave Begay wanted to see was the man behind the Markovitz disguise.  And also, with money laundering an issue, he wanted to be sure that the environment was safe for his wife and the other women in his family.  Anita wanted a portrait of him, too.  He was still thinking about that.

Helena, knowing that Rick wanted to speak privately with Begay, welcomed him to attend. “We’d love to show him our new space.  Let’s make it in the morning for brunch.  We can sit and talk about some of the portraits he said he wanted me to do of your family.  I understand your mother would like me to do her portrait.  Rick would like to speak to him about other things; and if Mr. Begay has to get back to his office, I’ll drive you home, myself.”

And so it was settled. Helena called a hair stylist and, offering to pay whatever it cost, made an afternoon appointment.   She planned to buy new clothes after her hair was styled.

The black van slowly rolled down Lafayette Street as the driver strained to determine the opposition he’d face when he confronted Rick at house #124, “his” old house. Orren Dawson was in the passenger’s seat. “What’ll ya do ifRick’s home, Uncle Don?” he asked.

“Why you askin’?  You plannin’ on helpin’ or hurtin’?” Don Dawson had reached the stage in familial relationships in which it was clear that no one was trustworthy.  “I see you givin’ me the stink-eye like you thought I set them dogs on ya.  I’m gettin’ tired of that look.  I had nothin’ to do with it.  That was your Aunt Olivia’s doin’.  Her and Babs and Paulina Sue. Blame them if you wanna blame somebody.”

“I’m not blaming anybody… not for the dogs and not for the money that was s’posed to fix my face and ear.  It’s gone now.” He paused to change the tone of his voice, edging it with suspicion. “Some people are richer, and I guess that’s life.” Orren now hated everyone he lived with, but revenge was a luxury he lacked the means to afford.  A “retaliation beggar,” he accepted anything he could get. An innuendo… a cynical tone. “A few steal. A few go broke… and so it goes.”

“You heard anythin’?  You pick up somethin’ I oughta’ know?”

Orren seized the opportunity.  “I don’t want to get in hot water by talking outta turn.”

Don Dawson ruffled Orren’s hair. “I’ll protect ya. You can trust me.  Wha’cha hear?”

Orren sighed. “Not much. Babs and Aunt Olivia were talkin’ about Hawaii.  Paulina Sue said Brazil’s the place to go. That’s all I heard.  Oh… somethin’ about needin’ passports.”

“Bitches,” Dawson hissed.  “I guess they got it all planned.  Didn’t invite me.  Didn’t invite you. I always figured they’d dump us.  That’s the kind of cheaters they are.  So… it begins to look like Dodge Rosewall was right.  My own family helped themselves to the money we was gonna give the doctor to fix your face.  Jesus… that just chaps my ass.”  Orren looked away.  He knew the money that had caused the recent trouble had everything to do with Louella Thompson being at the house and that money had never been intended for his facial repairs.

As Don approached #124 he grew angrier.  “I’ll tell you somethin’.  If I find that Rick at home, I’m gonna kill ‘im. Right after he coughs up the money him and your Aunt Olivia and their pals stole from me. Don’t you worry. I’ll make ’em tell me where they hid my money… our money.”  He passed #124.  “Garage door’s open.  And lookie there.  The son of a bitch is hosin’ down my old garage. And his goddamned dog is crappin’ on my old lawn.”  He checked both sides of the street.  “And I don’t see any guard or a car that belongs to a guard.”

“When are we gonna get him?”

“Tonight looks like a good night.  Let’s get a few six-packs and take ’em home and make a plan. And not a word to the women.”

Rick was doing some last minute cleaning.  Dave and Anita Begay were coming to see the studio in the morning and would be stopping at his house.  He had already made sure he had fresh limes and Dutch gin, Schweppes, and Kona coffee.  He had cold cuts and condiments and planned that they’d sit informally in the patio area of his newly renovated hothouse and eat brunch amid  flowers and blooming shrubs without the intrusive presence of servants.  Begay might have some private questions to ask. Helena and Anita would probably go back into the house and drink tea and bullshit about fashions.

Rick turned off the hose and went into his private bathroom to brush his teeth and floss.  He stared at himself in the mirror, wondering if Begay would recognize him without that Markovitz wig and mustache disguise.  He’d tell Begay the truth… well, his version of the truth, anyway.

Helena did not return from shopping until eight o’clock.  Rick pretended to be the frustrated wife. In a falsetto voice he complained, “I slaved over that TV dinner.  Got a paper-cut from opening the box.  Do you care?  No.  You don’t call.  You just do whatever you want with no regard for me. Then you expect me to rollover in bed and act all passionate!”

Helena laughed, blew him a kiss, and began to open boxes.  “Tell me which dress I should wear tomorrow.  And you never mentioned my hair!  Do you like it?”

Rick sat up and looked closely at her.  “You’ve put makeup on.”

“A cosmetician was in the beauty parlor and I let him talk me into buying all new makeup.  He sampled everything on me right there in the shop.  False eyelashes, too.  You like?”

“Frankly, Madam, you’ve never looked lovelier.  Model the dresses for me.  And I see you got shoes too.  Good.  Put your best foot forward.”

He had left the garage door open so that the floor would thoroughly dry and also so that the open garage would help air out the house.  There was still a faint residual stink from the fart and skunk juice. The smell was most noticeable in the living room where his new silk Persian rug lay. The sun shone into the room all morning and the light danced across the colored patterns in hypnotic beauty.  He wanted Begay to see his rug if only in passing.  He also left open the hall door that led out to the garage so that the air could circulate.

Dawson, Andy, and Clive stepped carefully, and Rick did not hear their footsteps in the hallway. Bruno heard the two men enter, but he was in the fenced-in back yard and could do no more than bark.

The three men separated in order to enter the living room from its two exit points.  Suddenly, as Helena lowered a dress over her head, Clive grabbed her from behind with her arms up and head covered, and Dawson pointed a revolver at Rick.  “Just don’t move or her neck gets broken,” Dawson said.  Helena screamed and Clive struck her the back of her head with the butt of his gun.  She sank to her knees dazed and tangled in her dress.

Andy immediately pulled Helena’s hands down from the tangle and forced them behind her, securing them with a zip tie.  He pulled her dress up and tossed it on the floor. Looking at her body, he said, “Nice underwear.”

Dawson smiled.  “Rickie boy! Get on the floor, you son of a bitch.  Markovitz!  You got my insurance money.”  He pulled a zip tie from his pocket.  “Cover me,” he said to Andy as handed him the gun.  Rick lay on the carpet and Dawson cuffed him. Then he pulled out a longer tie and bound Rick’s ankles together.  Andy returned the gun to Dawson and Clive flipped Helena onto her back.  She whined and began to sob, begging them not to kill her or her husband.

“Check the garage for some duct tape,” Dawson said, “and shut her up.”

When both Rick and Helena were silenced with duct tape, Clive said, “Let’s put ’em in the closet and while you and Andy stand guard, I’ll go get the others. We’re gonna tear this joint apart nail by nail.  He’s gotta be keepin’ our dough some place around here.  Guys like Rick don’t believe in Banks.”

Dawson agreed.  “Go get the others.  I wanna see the big reunion ‘tween him and his girlfriend. Tell ’em we’re spendin’ the night here… maybe two nights… maybe three.  I ain’t goin’ back to that dump in Apache County.”

Clive and Andy dragged the two prisoners into a closet and shut the door.  Then, as Andy stayed outside the closet door, Dawson began to walk through the one storey house and Clive drove the van out of the garage.

Clive sat in the driver’s seat and Babs, holding her infant baby, sat in the passenger’s seat. Behind them, on the floor, were the two disabled veterans who had returned to live with them. They each had a suitcase and a wheelchair. Also in the rear sat the two other wives, four children, and a few boxes of clothes and “necessities.”  Orren stood helplessly by the van’s open rear doors.  “There’s no room for you,” Olivia said. She saw the disappointment on Orren’s face.  “I’m not healed, boy. You can see that.  I’m squeezed in here as it is. Clive will come back for ya’.  Make sure all your clothes are in a box and go through the house… ‘specially the trash to make sure there’s nothin’ there with our names on it.”  She winced, trying to reach out to shut the door.

“I got it,” Orren said as he pushed the door closed.  He stood alone in the street as the van pulled away.

From the time that he and Don had seen Rick in the garage, Orren had never been alone. He knew that he couldn’t call Rick on his cellphone since that would leave a record.  He’d have to use a pay phone and there was none within walking distance of the house.  Besides, Don had borrowed his cell and had not returned it. He made a mental note to ask for its return when they came back for him. He hated being alone and the phone gave him a sense of being connected to someone, somewhere.

Rick. He owed Rick his help.  He told himself that there still would be time to help him. Dawson would want to be repaid, and that would mean that Rick would have to be escorted to the bank while Helena was held as hostage. Maybe then, when Dawson got the money back, he’d be given his share of it and he could pay to get his once handsome face restored… and he could help Rick at the same time.

He waited, walking back and forth.  He knew how long it would take to drive to Lafayette Street and back; and as the time far exceeded an even generous allowance for travel time, different images began to form in his mind.  He saw himself still scarred but, as in a video game, he had an assault rifle in his hand, and he was firing at everyone except the vets, Rick, and Helena.  Rick would understand why he needed the money.

He returned to the house and looked at his mostly unwashed clothes that were still in a cardboard box.  Yes, Dawson said he’d kill Rick.  But he wouldn’t kill him right away.  The banks wouldn’t open until the morning.  Meanwhile somebody would come back for him and he’d be there to look out for Rick.  But suppose Rick fought back?  Well, he decided, looking in the empty refrigerator for something to eat, he didn’t have a choice but to let it play out.  Once he was picked up and taken to Lafayette Street, he’d know what the situation was and he’d act accordingly.

Inside the closet, Helena’s first instinct had been to stoop and step through her hands, bringing them in front of her; but she doubted that Rick could do this and she didn’t want to show off in front of him.  No, she’d wait until he suggested it or if it seemed to be a last resort.  Instead she rubbed her face against the top of a boot and freed the tape from her mouth.  The thick “cover-up” makeup had not allowed the tape to adhere to her skin.  She leaned over to Rick and with her teeth, pulled at the edges of the tape until his mouth, too, was uncovered.  “It’s all my fault,” she whispered, crying.  “I wanted those house guards to go.  They kept staring at me.”

“How’s your head?” he asked.

“I guess there’s a bump on it, but I’m ok.”

“I can hear one of them walking around.  I think it’s Dawson.  Clive will be back with the others.  And don’t worry about the guards.  I was getting tired of those old guys intruding into every room… more Peeping Toms than protectors.”

“I’m so sorry,” Helena repeated.

“Forget it.  The drive-by service is still in effect.  One of the security men may see that something’s wrong.” He took a deep breath.  “Meanwhile, we’re on our own. But all is not lost.  I know a way to get free of these ties.”

Helena did not want to offer a better suggestion than the one he claimed to have.  Rick did not like to be out-thought.  “Wonderful,” she whispered, waiting to hear or see it.

Since Dawson had not seen any private cars parked outside either house, he assumed that Rick’s mobile home was parked in some hiding place.  It wasn’t a Hum-V, but with the title transferred to him, he could sell the mobile home.  Or, when the other guys were convinced that it was the women who had the money, they could leave all three of them behind and, with the money, go someplace new.  Alaska.  He had always wanted to see Alaska.  Andy had a license to drive an eighteen wheeler and with that license he could get a job drivin’ on one of those ice roads while he and Clive took the driving course and got their licenses.  Adventure.  That’s what was lacking in his life.  Adventure. Yes, he’d keep the Winnebago. They’d always have a place to sleep while they were on the road.

The van pulled into the garage and Dawson quickly lowered the garage door.  He assigned the bedrooms they’d have.  “Me and Olivia get the master bedroom – but put her in the closet for now. She can lay on that foam slab.” He turned to Andy.  “You and Paulina Sue get the next largest; and Babs and Clive get their pick of the remaining two bedrooms. All the bedrooms had walk-in closets.  They can set up the crib in theirs. The closets in the small bedrooms even got windows. The vets go in the last bedroom.  The kids will be comfortable in the big closet, sleeping on the floor.”  Paulina Sue and Babs helped to make up a bed for Olivia on the closet floor.

Rick and Helena listened for any word or phrase that would indicate what their plans were.  All they could gather was that before they were killed, Rick would have to divest himself of a considerable amount of money.  Helena asked, “It’s all in CDs and government bonds… right?”

“Yes. After I paid the contractors in cash – which is what they preferred – I kept 10K for our expenses and put the rest into bonds and CDs.  Maybe they’ll be satisfied with the Ten thousand.”

The closet door opened.  “Got the tape off I see,” Dawson said.  “Just as well.  We need information. Where’s the Winnebago?

“In a mobil home park,” Rick said.  “Please tell me that you intend to take it and go away… someplace far.”

“Where’s the dough?”

“What dough?” Rick answered

“The dough you got as Markovitz.”

Rick did not look at him.  “What I didn’t spend repairing my house after you all but destroyed it, I fixed Helena’s house into a studio.  You can see the little sign in front of her place. I’m not lying to you.  The rest I gambled away.  It’s gone. We kept a little for expenses.”

Babs stood behind Dawson.  “I heard she was turning the place into an artist studio.”

Dawson ignored her.  “Expenses?  How much and where are ya keepin’ it?”

“Ten thousand.  Bottom drawer, right side of my desk in the den.”

“Locked?”

“No.”

Babs announced, “I’ll get it.”

“No you won’t!” Dawson answered.  “I will!  I think you got enough.  You stay here and practice your hula dance.  From here on in, I handle all the money.”

Babs shrugged.  She did not know why Dawson had taken such an attitude. But whatever the reason was, it was making life more and more unbearable. Hula?  Where did not come from?  She went into the kitchen.  “The place is loaded with food.  Good stuff.  I’m starved.  Get everybody out here.” She motioned to Paulina Sue and the two of them went to help Olivia get seated at the table.

Orren sat on the couch and watched television.  He found a nearly empty box of corn flakes in the trash.  He pulled the waxed-paper insert from the cardboard box and mixed the flakes with some water.  There were no utensils in the drawers.  He tilted his head back and raised the bag, letting the mix slide down into his mouth.  When he looked again for something to eat, he found a large bag of trail-mix that had been pushed to the back of a cabinet’s top shelf.  He gasped with joy as if he had discovered a pirate’s hidden gold.  It pleased him to know that they had missed finding the treasure. He filled an empty bottle with tap water and returned to the couch.  He ran through the TV channels until he found a war movie.  His only ambition at the moment was to finish the bag of trail mix before they came to get him.

He fell asleep watching a late movie.  Then he had that awful nightmare.  He was pounding on the door, begging to be let in, and all his family’s faces were at the windows, looking at him and laughing and nobody would open the door.  He awakened with his heart beating fast.  For a moment he didn’t know where he was.  But the television was still on.  Another movie had just started.  He watched it until the final credits rolled and then he fell asleep again.

The morning light shone through the little windows in the garage doors, forming a row of reddish gold sculpted lamps. Don Dawson, fully awake, had shaken Clive and Andy awake in their beds.  They yawned, showing white congealed saliva in the corners of their mouths.  Mucus had crystallized in the corners of their eyes, making them squint, bleary eyed.

“What’s the problem?” Andy asked.

“Not exactly a problem,” Don said cryptically.  “I just had the best night’s sleep I had in a long time.  Big bed all to myself.”

“Terrific.  So why did you wake us?” Clive asked.

“Because I want to know somethin’.  And I want the truth.  Did you two have anything to do with raiding the ATMs.”

The two men looked offended.  “Where did you get that idea?” Clive asked.

“A little birdie told me that the women are plannin’ to leave the country.  Maybe they have to wait for their passports to come through.  Or maybe tomorrow they’ll be headin’ for Hawaii.  All I know is that they’re dumpin’ us, and it takes big bucks to do what they’re plannin’.  Fuck ’em.  I wanna take Rick’s Winnebago and head up to Alaska. Who’s with me?”

“That was a nice mobile home,”Andy said, “but if we take it we’ll need chains and snow tires and heavy-duty sleepin’ bags and fur lined gloves and boots.  Jesus, Don, it’s winter up there.”

“And we don’t have passports, either,” Clive noted.

“We can take our time gettin’ up there.  I asked a guy where I bought the six-packs.  He said if you stay on the Al-Can highway, you don’t need a passport.  And if he’s wrong, we can put the Winnebago on a ferry and ride on up to Juneau or Anchorage…. or we can stay in Seattle until we get the passports.”

Clive objected. “We’re out on bail. We ain’t gonna get passports.”

Don Dawson smiled tolerantly.  “I can use Rick’s and the two vets have plenty of identification on them. So, are you both in? Andy can drive one of those ice road tractor-trailers while we take the driver’s course. He’s got a license and can make big bucks right away.”

Andy complained.  “It’s in my name, not the vet’s.  I’ll have to be retested.”

“Why?  You can be Andy again as soon as we enter Alaska.”

“Don, for Christ’s sake, the minute you don’t show up for court, a warrant will be issued.  We can’t go back to being who we are.”

“We’ll make Rick withdraw more money. We’ve got Helena.  We got options.”

“The money won’t go as far up there.  Living’s expensive in Alaska,” Andy noted.

“Then,” countered Don, “we’re gonna have to put some hurt on Helena. Let’s see how he feels about paying for her comfort.”  Dawson led the two men back to the closet.  “First let’s let them use the John so they don’t stink up the place.  Then let’s eat.  All this thinkin’ makes me hungry.”

By 10 a.m. Orren had decided that nobody was coming back for him.  They didn’t know about the trail mix.  As far as they knew he hadn’t eaten since he had a baloney sandwich at 5 p.m. the afternoon before. They had left him there to starve.  He began to cry and then to sob in frustration. Not until he was emotionally drained did he realize that he had to go to the bathroom.  He’d put some cold water on his face, he told himself, and that would make him feel better.

The medicine cabinet’s mirror stared back at him. He gulped down a sob and turned on the cold water. He bent over the sink and repeatedly splashed his face. It felt good.  He stood up, took a deep breath, and reached for a towel.  But there was no towel there.  They had taken them all… and the tooth paste and the tooth brushes, too. He whined in despair for a moment and then, zombi-like, he wiped his face with toilet paper and walked out of the house, heading, like a programmed toy, to the expressway. He’d hitch a ride.  He didn’t care where.

As he stood on the side of the highway, he stuck out his thumb to signal passing cars.  It was cold and when nobody stopped, he’d put his hands in his empty pockets. Empty.  He had no money and he knew he needed money. Even if his Uncle Don got all the money, he’d never give him any of it.  Orren knew that now.   He didn’t want to see his family again, but maybe he could find a way to help Rick and Rick would reward him.  He continued walking backwards, sticking his thumb out.  Many cars passed. One of them was a limousine that was transporting Mr. and Mrs. David Begay to the exact location Orren was heading; but he did not know anything about their visit.

Finally, a pickup truck stopped.  Orren ran to it as the window on the passenger’s side went down. “Where you headin’?” the driver asked.

“Frenchman’s Park, just this side of Holbrook.”

“Get in.  It’s on my way.”

Clive noticed the limousine park in front of Helena’s house.  “Look at this!” he called to Dawson.

From the living room’s bay window, Don Dawson watched the chauffeur open the door for the Begays.  He shut the door and they walked up to the front door of the new studio.

“Who the hell are they?” Clive asked.

Dawson went to the closet.  “You got company next door.  Who is it?”

Determined not to help them and also to protect their guests, neither Rick nor Helena answered him. Dawson grabbed Helena’s hair and slammed her head against the door jamb.  Rick yelled, “Stop! It’s Dave and Anita Begay.”

“You should have told us you was expectin’ company,” Dawson said, and again slammed Helena’s head against the jamb. He turned to Andy.  “You got a clean shirt on.  Go out and tell them that Helena’s in here, waitin’ for them. Rick, too.  Invite them nice to come over.”  Helena was crying.  He looked at Rick.  “If she makes a noise, your friends are gonna suffer.”

Andy sounded as though he were a staff member.  “Mr. and Mrs. Begay,” he called.  Madam is waiting here for you.  She says to please come on over.”

As soon as Anita and Dave entered the open front door, Clive grabbed Anita and Andy put Dave in a head lock.  Dawson pointed his revolver at them as he tossed a handful of zip ties to Clive who flung Anita to the floor, knelt on her back, and zip tied her wrists together.

As soon as the choke-hold took effect, Begay slumped to the floor and Andy put restraints on his wrists and ankles.  “Where do you want him?” he asked Dawson.

“Put him in the closet.” Andy dragged Begay across the floor and opened the closet door.  There was not room in the closet doorway and Andy dumped Begay on top of Helena.  He tried to shut the door, but with three people stuck so close to the opening, the door would not shut.

“What about her?” Clive asked, indicating Anita. He rolled her over onto her back. “Let’s have some fun with her.”

Begay had regained consciousness.  Furious, he shouted, “Keep your filthy hands off my wife!”

Andy cupped his hand over Begay’s face and shoved him down on top of Helena.  She had been dazed from the hits to the door jam, but suddenly she shouted frenetically, “Stop it! Just stop it!  You’re all a bunch of animals!  Animals!  Pigs!”

Olivia heard the commotion and, though her legs had not been injured, she came slowly into the living room.  “What’s going on?”  She wore dark sunglasses and could not see clearly.

Suddenly, with no indication that he would respond to her in such a way, Dawson punched the side of her face with his fist and she crumpled to the floor. The punch had two purposes: to scare the Begays into submission, and to let Olivia know that she was not going to get away with robbing him of the ATM money.  Olivia gasped in pain and could not speak.  Blood gushed from her mouth.  Instinctively she crawled away from him to the safety of the other side of a stuffed chair.  “Good Christ,” Rick whispered to Helena, “I can’t see from here.  Is she bleeding on my rug?’

“Where’s my wife?” Begay asked.

“I can’t see either woman,” Helena said.  “He really walloped Oliva.  I think she got herself out of his way.”

Dawson stood in the middle of the room.  “It’s like this.  I’m prospectin’ for gold.  Who gives it, lives.  Who doesn’t, dies. It’s that simple.  Two men and two women.”  He went to the closet.  “Keep Dave in here with his pal Rick.  Tape his mouth shut. And take the two women back to the master bedroom. Got a king-sized bed in there.”  He pointed at Olivia and turned to Andy.  “See to it that she stays quiet. Zip her up.  When Babs and Paulina Sue come in, tie them up too.  And tell the kids to stay in the bedroom with the vets.  Let them watch TV.”

The first time Orren saw the limousine out on the highway, it had been in the inside lane and another passing car had prevented Orren from seeing its license place.  But there was the limousine again, parked at the curb; and now Orren could see the vanity plates “DneBzd” which he knew stood for Diné Bizaad – “Navajo” in its own language. Morgan, the chauffeur, had his head back with his cap pulled down over his forehead to cover his eyes in the morning sun.  The window was down.  “Hey,” Orren asked, “your boss in there with Helena and Rick?”

Morgan pushed his cap back. “What’s it to ya?”

“They could be in big trouble. So what is it? Are they in the Studio?”

Morgan hesitated. Finally he said, “No… they went next door.” He sat up.

“That’s Rick’s house.  They’re in trouble.”

“Trouble? It’s a social call about a portrait.  You’re nuts!”

“The gang of squatters that was here before, came back… it was a kind of home invasion. They’re armed and they intend to kill Rick.”

“What the hell are you talking about?  Squatters..”

Orren stooped and shuffled his way to the passenger’s side.  The door was unlocked and Morgan did not try to prevent him from entering.  Orren knelt down on the floor under the dashboard.  “You armed?” he asked.

“No, of course not.”

“Well, if you got any muscle you can call, you better call ’em quick.  How long they been in Rick’s house?”

The chauffeur looked at his watch.  “An hour.”

“I saw her picture on a magazine.  Wanna bet Dawson’s got her back in a bedroom right now?”

“Dawson?”

“Yeah, Dawson… the leader of the pack.”

“Personally, I think you’re full of shit.  I don’t know what your game is, but I’m not buying it.”

“Prove it to yourself,” Orren countered.  “If everything’s ok, wha’cha got to lose?”

Morgan got out his cellphone and called Dave’s number.  It went to voice-mail.  While the recorded instructions were being given, he frowned and looked at Orren.  “Should I leave a message?” he whispered.  “Mr. Begay would never shut his phone off.”

Orren said, “No message.  Call his wife.”

The chauffer called Anita’s phone and again the call went to voice-mail. He disconnected the call. “What the hell is going on?”

“I’m telling you.  Your boss and his wife walked in on a home invasion.  Three guys are there and some women and kids and a couple of disabled vets.  They ain’t stupid.  They know they hit the jackpot when they got your boss.  They’ll have their way with his wife and he’ll do whatever they tell him to do… and you can bet that’ll be to force him to go back to the casino and get them a bundle of cash.” Orren suddenly saw things clearly.  “Ok…  Here’s what to do.  Call your boss again and leave a message that you just got a bout of stomach flu and are heading for a gas station to use the toilet.  Then drive around the corner and call for help.  They’re desperate so don’t call the cops. Call you own security guys.”

Morgan started the motor and pulled away from the curb. He again called Begay’s phone.  “Sir,  I’ve got a bit of stomach flu and I’ve got to get to a toilet fast.  I didn’t want to interrupt you so I’ll just head for the nearest gas station.  I’ll be back as soon as I can.”  He had reached the corner.  He turned, parked, and called Begay’s personal guard.  As briefly as possible he explained the situation.

The guard was already running to his car. “Take that kid with you back to Rick’s house,” he said. “It’s dangerous, I know, but you might interrupt them and get us some time.  We’re on our way.”

Babs, breast feeding her baby, and Paulina Sue holding Olivia’s young son in her arms, came into the living room.  “What’s all the racket about?” Paulina Sue asked and then stopped short, seeing  the open closet where Andy was bending over David Begay preparing to tape his mouth shut. Andy stopped and looked to Dawson for instructions.  Paulina Sue also saw Dawson pulling a stumbling Anita by the hair and Clive who was pushing Helena across the living room towards the hall that led to the bedrooms. Then she heard Olivia who was propped up on the other side of a stuffed chair. She went to the chair. “Olivia!” Paulina Sue gasped. “What is this?  What are you guys doing?”

The men did not want to hit either woman since both were holding babies.  Clive answered.  “Don knows all about your scheme… how you and your pals… whoever the hell they are… cleaned out the ATMs.  You ain’t going to Brazil, honey.  And you ain’t going to Hawaii.  You’re gonna tell us what you did with the money you stole.  Or the three of you are gonna end up dead.”

“Are you out of your mind?” Babs snarled.  “What bullshit is this?  How stupid can you be, comin’ up with a story like that?”

Paulina Sue was large woman. Half Navajo and half Scandinavian, she was used to defending herself.  For so long as Clive was not holding his gun, she had nothing to fear from him. She gently put the child down and as she began to stand up, she instead body-slammed him, driving her head into his abdomen.  Then she reached up onto a table and let her hand circle a bronze copy of an ancient Chinese horse. She raised her arm and hammered the horse into Clive’s face.  One of the horse’s forelegs lacerated his forehead and the other struck his eye. He screamed in agony as blood from his wound dripped down into both of his eyes.  His hands went to his face and Helena fell to the floor. Dawson released Anita and turned to strike Paulina Sue, but Babs stepped in front of him and he had to check his swing.  He flung Babs aside, and she and the baby tumbled into the stuffed chair.  Then he advanced towards Paulina Sue and grabbed his little son. He pointed his gun barrel at the child’s head and said, “Back off.”  Paulina Sue stood motionless.

Andy shouted.  “Tell her to take the kid back.”  He looked at his wife.  “And stay there. Get your ass in a back bedroom and watch those kids.  Keep ’em there.” He turned to Babs and the baby who was now crying.  “And take her with you.  Now!” Paulina Sue took the child from Dawson and with Babs following, retreated to the rear of the house.  Dawson picked up Anita, and while Clive groaned about his eye, Andy picked up Helena who was still in her underwear, and the two men tossed the cuffed women onto the couch.  Suddenly, everything, except Clive’s whimpering, was quiet.   Dawson, Andy, and Clive went into the foyer to discuss their plan.

The closet door was partially open. Dave and Rick had watched helplessly as their wives were manhandled. Dave had not been gagged.  “I should have never let you launder money in my place,” he hissed at Rick.

“In case you haven’t noticed,” Rick cooly replied, “that’s my wife… the other woman… they’ve got.  And don’t be so naive.  These hooligans have nothing to do with the money I exchanged.” He felt like his old superior self and rather enjoyed taking a kind of scolding attitude to the CEO.

“What the hell do they want?”

“My house, for starters.  They were squatting in it and Tom Wauneka helped me to get them out.”

“I know.  He told me.  And Dodge Rosewall came looking for you.  Whose attorney is he?”

“Not mine and not Helena’s. My guess is that our temporary host, Mr. Donald Dawson, hired him.”

The doorbell rang.  Dawson, holding his gun behind him, and Andy went to the door. “Who is it?” Dawson shouted.

“Orren.  Open up.”

Andy unlocked and opened the door.  Orren and a uniformed man stood at the entrance.  “Wha’cha do?” Dawson said to Orren, “call a goddamned cab to bring you here?”  Orren did not know what to say.

“Actually,” Morgan explained, “I gave him a ride on my way back from the gas station. Is my employer here?  I wanted to tell him I’m back, safe and sound.  His cellphone was off.”

“Come on in,” Dawson said.  As Orren and the chauffeur entered the living room, Dawson kicked Orren from behind and sent the boy sprawling to the floor.  He pointed his gun at Morgan and told him to sit down and be quiet.  He kicked a couple of zip ties that lay on the floor towards Andy.  “Zip the driver,” he ordered.  “This is turning into a goddamned circus.”  He sat on the couch and put his face between his hands,  “Let me think,” he said.  A moment later he began to give orders.  “As long as we got his wife, Begay don’t have a choice. I’ll take the pruning shears and cut him and the driver loose.”  He went to the closet and cut all of Begay’s restraints.  “You’ll have to go back to your office and get back here before 1 p.m.  That don’t give you much time to mess around. Any tricks and I’ll cut up her fuckin’ face up so bad she’ll have to walk around with a bag over it.”  He walked to the couch and cut the zip tie Andy had just put on the chauffeur.

Clive was useless and could only whine and hold his forearm up to his damaged eye. Rick shimmied out of the closet far enough to see Clive.  “Will someone get this man a towel!” he shouted. Nobody moved.  Instead, Dawson grabbed Anita and held his gun to her throat.  He looked at Begay and Morgan, and then he growled, “Get movin’. And don’t come back with petty cash or chips.  We want cash…. get it right outta the countin’ room.  Twenties, fifties, hundreds.  All used bills.  And as many thousand of ’em as you can carry in a big sack. Just keep askin’ yourself how much your wife’s face is worth.”

Holding Anita by the hair, he went to Orren who was still lying on the floor and kicked him. “You had to spoil everything.  Stupid fuckin’ kid.  Didn’t have enough sense to cover your goddamned face when the dogs attacked.  Then you come in here now and ruin the party.”  He kicked him again. Anita twisted away from him and tried to run to her husband. Andy blocked her and Dawson grabbed her again. He flung her onto the floor and kicked her, too.  He pointed his gun at her head.  “Get movin'” he said to Begay and his chauffeur.

“Please!” Morgan begged. “I’ve got stomach flu.  At least let me go to the bathroom first. If I get a cramp I won’t be able to drive. That’s why I had to go to the gas station.”

Orren said, “He was sick before. Got the runs.”

“Andy,” Dawson ordered, “take him back but don’t let him outta your sight.”  David Begay had knelt on the floor to help Anita who had had the wind knocked out of her by Dawson’s kick.  “Get back in the closet,” Dawson ordered, but first put your hands behind your back.  “Clive!” he yelled. “Forget your goddamned eye and cuff him again.”  Clive tightened a zip tie around Begay’s wrists while Dawson kept his gun pointed at Anita.  Begay crawled on his knees a few feet and got back into the closet.  Dawson slammed the door shut.

One of the children came running into the room, crying.  Helena knelt down and tried to comfort him. “Don’t you want to watch cartoons?” she asked.  Dawson got up, shouted at the boy to go back to his room, and pushed Helena’s head down to the floor.  She lay face down, wondering if there was anything that she could do to help.  It would be no problem for her to step through her bound hands and at least bring them in front of her.  But when should she do it?

“Don!” Clive whined.  “I’m hurt bad.  I can’t see outta one of my eyes.”

“Ya lost a fight with a woman, for Christ’s sake.  Stop advertisin’ that you’re a pussy.”  He went to the hallway and yelled, “What the hell is taking so long? Put a goddamned diaper on him and let’s get the show on the road.”

Outside, two cars filled with casino security men, passed #124 and saw the limo.  They knew which house was their target.

The Squatters (#8)

Ming Zhen Shakya
Ming Zhen Shakya
 To see more literature about Zen and the Art of Investigation:
http://www.zenanthonywolff.com

The Squatters

by Anthony Wolff (Ming Zhen Shakya)

To see all available chapters of “The Squatters” click here

 

Part 8:  One corrective surgery is completed

 

Lafayette Street was now a happy street and, leaving the security guards still in place, Rick took Helena down to Phoenix and engaged the best plastic surgeon available to correct bone damage caused by the explosion and the superficial work that had been done as emergency surgery.  Helena had four different imaging procedures to undergo before the surgeon would give an opinion.  Rick therefore went shopping for rugs and some furniture he wanted for his living room.  He also checked into a cheap motel near the hospital, telling the clerk that he had no idea how long his stay would be.

After a morning spent getting diagnostic tests, Helena had lunch alone while the surgeon studied the results.  Finally he came to discuss her case.  “You will never be without some scarring,” he warned. “It won’t be like those miraculous restorations you see in soap operas on TV.  You’ve sustained bone damage: orbital… zygomatic…nasal.  You’re fortunate that your vision wasn’t damaged.  I’ll rebuild the damaged areas and correct the distortions and replace those wide scars with very fine lines.  I’ll also prescribe a cream that will help the scars to fade, and then a good quality makeup will do the rest.  Repairing the damaged bones will be the most complicated part.  Not exactly difficult, but hard on the patient.  Delicate areas are involved and your head will have to be immobilized so that you don’t tear out any sutures. The anatomy of the face and neck is far more complicated than people imagine.”

“I’ll be a patient patient,” she said.  “How soon can you admit me?”

The doctor checked the receptionist’s “Patient Information” sheet which Helena had filled out as the vital preliminary step.  “I see you’ve got good insurance coverage, Mrs. Dubrovsky, and you’re from out of town. Since your condition predates your inclusion in your husband’s policy, we may run into trouble with the insurance company.  They tend to regard facial reconstruction as cosmetic work.  Your husband has notified the accounting department that he will deposit a letter of credit, that is, he’ll pre-assign payment to me and the hospital whatever total charges are made. And that, I assure you, makes for happy campers.  That he should think so far ahead indicates to all of us that he loves you very much.”

“Yes,” Helena said, “he is the most wonderful man God ever made.”

The surgeon stood up.  “Now, since you are from out of town, there’s no point in making you travel unnecessarily.”  He made a few calls.  “We’ll admit you today and get your bloodwork done and run a few more tests.  I’ve got an OR I can use at 10 a.m. tomorrow.  There’s no reason to operate in stages except, of course, time.  We’ll see how it goes. How does that sound?”

It sounded wonderful to Helena. She called Rick’s cell and since he was in the midst of picking out an expensive rug, she told him to come to the hospital the following afternoon.  By then, she guessed, she should be out of the recovery room.

Rick told her where he was staying and wished her well.  He had admired a silk Persian rug that cost $60,000.  “I thought it was too ritzy for Lafayette Street; but once you’ve got those scars removed, no one will notice the rug. I’ll buy it.”

He followed the store’s truck all the way back to his motel room and helped the driver to carry the rolled-up bundle, all wrapped and tagged, into his room.  Then he tipped the man, and called out for a pizza and Coke.  Things were going well.  He derived a special satisfaction from imagining the look on Dawson’s face when he realized that instead of having 500K in the bank, he owed $107K.
The beautiful portrait of Anita Begay had appeared on the cover of a Navajo Nation news magazine.  Dave Begay and his wife granted interviews and it soon seemed that there was not a news stand from Tucson to the North Rim in which her portrait did not appear. Who was the mysterious artist who had signed the portrait simply as “M”?  Dave would reveal nothing.

Thomas Wauneka, Esq. called Dave Begay to congratulate him on the portrait.  “What can you tell me about the artist?”

“I hope I’m speaking confidentially to you–”

“Dave… I’m your attorney.  All that you say is confidential.  I hope that goes both ways.”

“Ok. I can tell you that her face was scarred from several deep cuts… and her neck had burn scars. She was here with her husband.  I’d really like to contact her. The address they gave was a home in a mobile home park. And they’re gone now.  My mother-in-law is driving me crazy wanting to commission a portrait from her.”

“If I’m not mistaken, you’ve described clients of mine.  Are they in any trouble?”

“No.  Their paper was good.  They didn’t cause any disturbances.  They were nice people, But Tommy, they were laundering money big time. If it hadn’t been for the way Anita’s portrait was turning out – I would sneak down every night and look at it – I’d have sent up signals to be on the look-out for Julius Markovitz.. That’s the name he used. When I heard that other casinos were cashing so much of his paper, I probably should have said something. But as long as nobody was getting burned, I figured what the hell. He was laundering it on sovereign reservation land so fuck the feds.  Frankly, I’ve gotten more than a million bucks in publicity over that portrait and I’d like Helena “M” to do a few more.”

“I wonder what money they were laundering?” Wauneka asked.

“It wasn’t drug money.  I’d have heard.  What I do know is that Dodge Rosewall came here asking for information about Markovitz.”

“That’s interesting.  Who’s his client?”

“Probably the source of the money Markovitz was laundering. At least, that’s the impression I got when I agreed to speak to him. He described a guy and I said he didn’t sound familiar. He asked me if I ever heard of a guy named Rick Dubrovsky who lived on Lafayette Street in some upscale development near Holbrook.  I said I didn’t know the name; but I had my guys check it out and Dubrovsky is our boy. Helena’s his wife.”

“Yeah… you got it right.  I represented them in a squatters eviction and also in a zoning variance.  Helena wants to convert her house into a artist’s studio.  So I don’t want you to think that because I do criminal work that’s why he contacted me.  It wasn’t the stuff of high crimes and misdemeanors. A notice of trespass and a zoning variance.  I’m not kidding you.”

“Did they get the variance?” Neither Begay nor Wauneka had any reason to connect “squatters” with an insurance settlement or Markovitz’s money.

“As a matter of fact, they did.  But I have no idea about any money laundering.”

“Look, if this guy should need help and there’s any way you can help him on the QT, do it and send me the bill.  Don’t misunderstand me.  I’m not particularly interested in his welfare, but what happens to him happens to Helena.  And I’m definitely interested in her welfare.  You know, she wouldn’t take a goddamned nickel or let me comp her to a cup of coffee.  And then she thanks my wife for having inspired her to paint again. Unbelievable!”

“I’ll let them know that Rosewall is on their ass.  As far as Helena’s concerned, she’ll be opening the studio soon.  The renovations have started.  Incidentally, she’ll be getting plastic surgery done in Phoenix. I had a question about the variance and called Rick.  He’s in a motel down there while she’s seeing the surgeon.”

“If he wants to bring her here to recuperate, he’s welcome at no charge whatsoever.  He ain’t laundering money any more… not that I’ve heard of.”

The two men spoke Navajo for another twenty minutes and then returned to their work.

Dodge Rosewall was conflicted, not by allegiance to another client or to his own interests, but by his own distaste for Don Dawson.  He personally regarded Dawson and his family and friends as sub-human beings, a species of creatures whose chromosomes lacked any gene related to conscience or an empathetic guide to “Golden Rule” behavior.  These people were not successful criminals who operated with some sort of code or at least a semblance of communal care. Even Mafiosos, he thought, wanted to be respected and maybe even loved by the folks in their neighborhoods. Yes, these squatters were parasites who would feed on each other with the same indiscriminate regard as they had for the rest of the creatures beneath them on the food chain.  No, he corrected his thought, no animal was above or below them. They were one of a kind, a disgusting non-human species, and he hated Rick Dubrovsky all the more for having forced him to lower himself to act as their “representative.”  In no way did J. Dodge Rosewall, a fourth generation Holbrookian, represent anything about Don Dawson,  He furnished him with legal advice and that was all.

When Dawson called Rosewall, the attorney happened to be in the hotel/casino restaurant.  He knew that Dawson would be wanting a progress report and that he would not attempt to conceal where he was. “I just met with my P.I.,” Rosewall said.  “I pushed the idea that the “M” that was signed on the portrait could have stood for Markovitz but that it could also stand for Maxwell.  Dave Begay doesn’t grant interviews to inferiors, so when my guy couldn’t get in to see him, I drove over here myself.  He wouldn’t identify Dubrovsky, but when I described Helena, he agreed that she did the portrait.”  The waiter arrived with his steak.  “I can’t talk right now.  I’m in the middle of lunch.”

“That’s all you got?” Dawson asked. “This guy don’t seem too useful.”

It irritated Rosewall to be questioned by Dawson.  He decided to fabricate something that would irritate his client and justify his expenses. “There’s more. After he left here he went to a couple of casinos and talked to friends who were cashiers.  All he could learn was that the woman who was with Markovitz was a nice looking gal – definitely not Helena. We know where Helena was… painting Begay’s wife.  So I asked him who the broad with Markovitz was? A paid escort or a steady girlfriend?  He didn’t know so I sent him back to find out.  My guy got both cashiers to reveal that they overheard Markovitz call her, “Holly.” She was unknown to the staff.  That’s all he’s got so far.”

“Holly or Olly?”

Rosewall smiled at his little triumph. “He said Holly.  What?  Are you thinking Olivia was with him? My God, man… Well, I hadn’t thought of that but it wouldn’t surprise me to know that it was someone in your family. I told you that already.  Hey… you know the woman. Would she do something like this?”

“That’s what I need to find out.”  He paused, “Where is this Casino?”

“Don… for Christ’s sake… Are you like the home owner who signs a listing with a real estate agent who does the legwork and advertises the house and when a buyer shows up, the home owner tries to make a secret deal with him?  If you want the results of an investigation, you’ve got to pay the investigator.  You can’t let him do the work and then cut him out of his fee. These guys don’t take kindly to cheaters.”

“You know and I know that the guy is Dubrovsky. I wanna know more about Dubrovsky’s girlfriend.  He dumps Helena off at one joint and then he takes some gal to go play in another joint?  I was away for weeks. Who knows what Olivia was doin’?”

Rosewall tasted the wine, nodded his approval, and the sommelier poured a glass.  “Don, I’ve got to make this fast.  You’ve got to get me an alternate to blame for touching Shawna. I got a copy of the medical report.  That scarring was old.   Where did you live before you moved to Lafayette Street?”

“Phoenix.”

“Did she go to school in Phoenix and were any of her teachers male?  Or maybe you had a neighbor who was a registered sex offender?”

“How the hell am I supposed to know that?”

“You’re not.  That’s why you pay an investigator. But what you are supposed to do is think about renters or neighbors or anybody else that could have harmed her.  That’s it.  I’ve got to go.  You just keep thinking.  Make a list.”  He disconnected the call.
Dawson sat in the van, parked by the curb, waiting for Olivia to return from the market.  He preferred his van to the interior of the squatter’s house. Orren would be home from school and he’d be sitting on the couch watching television. “And I gotta look at that messed-up face and deal with knowin’ my own wife did that to him and then stole the money supposed to fix it. That just chaps my ass,” he said aloud, getting more angry by the minute.  “I’ll get it back from her and her boyfriend.”  He thought he’d pay his lawyer and then get himself a Hum-V.  Then he’d dump her.

Olivia, Babs, and Paulina Sue, pushing a baby coach and two strollers filled with kids and groceries, turned the corner.  He signaled Olivia to get into the van. “I wanna talk to you,” he called. The other women went into the house and as Olivia sat in the passenger’s seat, Dawson’s phone rang.

“We’ve got a crisis here in the bank,” the manager said.  “You opened your new account with cash and that’s fine.  But you also made quite a few deposits into the account that were written on accounts that had been closed for some time.”

“What are you talking about?”

“As of this moment, you owe this bank $107,024.29.  And the manner in which you withdrew your cash is highly suspect.  In four days you managed to make over fifteen hundred     withdrawals from a variety of ATMs. The banking fees you accumulated were huge.  I do not remember ever seeing such an ATM statement in my life.  Hundreds and hundreds of withdrawals at ATMs that did not happen to have photo records.  Many were made at the identical time miles apart.  This was a gang raid on that account.   I’ve got to warn you that unless you deposit this overdraft within twenty-four hours, the authorities will question you. I have no choice in the matter.  Bank fraud is a federal crime.  Please don’t take this matter lightly.” His attitude softened.  “I’ll look for you tomorrow. If you can’t recover it all, I’ll do my best to work with you. But one way or the other, this debt must be satisfied.  Don’t fail to make good on these checks, Mr. Dawson.  This constitutes criminal deception.  Do you understand?”

“Yes,” Dawson replied in a robotic monotone.  “I understand.” Then it occurred to him to ask, “I gave a couple of checks to Dodge Rosewall.  I wrote them on those temporary checks you gave me.  Did they clear my account?”

“No.  They were returned, ‘Insufficient Funds.’ As will be any others you wrote until you solve this problem.”

Don said nothing.  He disconnected the call and put his phone in his pocket.

“What’s goin’ on?” Olivia asked.

“I used to think you thought you were smarter than you was.  I got it wrong.  You’re smarter than I figured.  You made a monkey outta me.  You stole a million bucks from me.  Had a good laugh?  Game’s over.  Where’s my money?” he snarled.

Olivia fearfully pushed herself back against the window. “What are you talking about?”

It was not the answer Don Dawson wanted to hear.  He reached across to grab her hair with his left hand, pulled her head forward so that he could punch her repeatedly with his right fist. She tried to defend herself and he grabbed her right arm and wrenched it out of its socket.  She screamed in agony.

Clive had come out to help collapse the baby strollers.  He saw the beating and rushed to open the van door.  Olivia fell out, writhing, bloody, and screaming. He carried her into the house.

While Babs and Paulina Sue tended to Olivia, Don explained the situation to Clive and Andy.

“You sayin’ we’re broke?” Clive asked.

“Not just broke, Clive,” Andy explained, “but we’re in hock for over 100K.  Don’s got reason to believe Olivia was in cahoots with Rick Dubrovsky to get the insurance money – Rosewall got information that Dubrovsky was taking her out gamblin’. As to the ransom money, the bank manager says that in four days hundreds of withdrawals were made that emptied the account and worse, a bunch of bad deposits were made.  When they finally bounced it was against an empty account and we gotta make good on the loss.”

Oliva regained consciousness.  Six teeth on the left side of her mouth were loosened by the blows, her nose was broken, and her left eye swollen shut.  Paulina Sue went into the garage where the three men were still talking.  “Olivia’s jaw doesn’t seem to be broken but her nose is and Don knocked a bunch of her teeth loose. I can’t tell the condition of her left eye.  Her shoulder’s dislocated and there’s blood all over the place.  She’s in awful pain.”

Andy took her aside and explained the situation to his wife.  “Are you serious?” she answered.  “We’ve been together every goddamned hour of the day since we moved into this dump.  ‘Hundreds of withdrawals miles and miles apart?’  Just when do you figure she left her body here and spiritually floated over the Southwest hitting ATM machines?”

Don had been listening to her.  “Don’t take us all for fools.  You, Babs, Olivia and who the hell knows what friends you used could have done all this together.”

“You’re all sick!” Paulina Sue said disgustedly.  She went into the kitchen and filled a few cotton balls with clove powder.  Then she took them to Olivia.  “We’ve got no money to take you to the dentist, but all he’ll advise you to do is to push those teeth back into their sockets and hold them there till they root up again. Bite down as hard as you can until you feel the teeth being shoved back into their places.”  She turned to Babs. “Hold her down and help me so’s I can get her arm back in the socket.”  She put her foot into Olivia’s armpit and then pulled her arm until she heard the bone click into place. “Babs, take whatever cash you can find in my purse and go down to the drug store and get her a couple of bottles of peroxide to use as a mouth wash and a two-inch roll of the strongest adhesive tape you can find so we can set her nose.”
Don tried to call J. Dodge Rosewall, Esq. But the attorney was winning at the craps table and, like any responsible casino visitor, he had turned off his phone and left it in his room.

His luck turned after midnight and he had to use the last of his cash to pay two call girls who came, by appointment, to his room.   The attorney did not awaken until lunch time.  When he finally turned on his phone and got Dawson’s messages, he immediately consulted the “check-out” notice on his bedside and realized that he had only fifteen minutes left to call the desk. If Don’s checks were bouncing, they’d bounce against his account.  He thanked God he had had no accident with the Ferrari.  He’d find a way to cover the $30,000 in cash.  He did have $4000 from Don that was good money in his account and he had made a few other deposits that had to be good.  He called the desk to initiate his check-out and he called his office and told his secretary not to mail out any bills that he recently signed.

“Sorry,” his secretary said. “The mailman picked up everything yesterday afternoon,.. and the checks including the large one for rent.”

Rosewall groaned. The insurance check would probably bounce as would the check to the DMV.  He threw his clothes into his suitcase and without showering or shaving, left the room.
Once again, he spoke to Don and this time, as he drove back to Holbrook, he had him explain the situation very slowly.  But the more Don talked, the more Rosewall’s thoughts drifted back to his own problems.  Rousing himself, he said, “Maybe Dubrovsky depleted Orren’s account – alone or with help – but the loss of the other half million was done by many people and he doesn’t have that many friends.  For Christ’s sake, he’s new to the area.” Suddenly Rosewall’s train of thought jumped the track. “Incidentally, you do realize that at some future time the kid may sue you for mishandling the money that was entrusted to you.”  He quickly realized that he shouldn’t have said this.

“Look, you asshole, Orren ain’t my problem now.  I’m worried about committin’ bank fraud.  The Feds… you understand what I’m sayin’?  The Feds will get me for this!”

Rosewall tried to recover.  “I only mentioned Orren because I want to illustrate that you can’t trust family. Dubrovsky may be clever, but he doesn’t have a support group big enough to pull this off.  He’s not a Robinhood who overnight develops a band of thieves.  The only person he knows is Helena and you know she isn’t the thieving type. You have to consider your own circle of acquaintances as being the recipients of that money.”

“How could they turn on me?”

“Mr.Dawson, who else knew about that deposit? The Internal Revenue Service and the Drug Enforcement Agency may accept that you simply redeposited the insurance money, and Markovitz’s account didn’t exist long enough for them to waste their time poking around the sovereign Navajo nation.  So let’s forget that insurance money… and the other things. You need to help me figure out who got your half million and put you in more debt.  They represent a threat to you.”

“How do I find that out?”

“You can start by installing surveillance equipment.  Record their phone conversations.  Put a bug in their cars.  Keep your eyes and ears open.  Notice what new things they’ve bought or vacations they talk about.”

“Go ahead and buy the stuff outta the four grand I gave you.”

“Mr. Dawson, that money was compensation to me.  I was not working pro bono.”

“I don’t have more money. You’re so goddamned smart.  Why haven’t you been askin’ yourself why nobody’s raised hell about the bounced deposit checks?”

Rosewall had not given that aspect of the crime any consideration at all since the answer was obvious.  “The thieves had to do that so that there would be funds to draw from.  When a deposit is made at an ATM it is automatically credited to your account.  The bad co-mingle with the good. In a few days the bad is distinguished and charged back to you – that means it is subtracted from your account.  The checks that were deposited were from companies that went out of business a few years ago.  But so what?  They could have been printed yesterday.  Your original deposit of half a million in cash was obviously good currency. The thieves wanted it all and you might have spent some of it so they were just protecting the full extent of their theft. So the answer is that they themselves are the depositors of the phony checks.  They are not going to complain.”

“So how do I get my money back?  I got a court-date comin’ up for filing a false police report.  I need somebody to represent me. Are you tellin’ me that I need a public defender?”

“I, too, have bills to pay.  Public Defenders do win cases and one can be made that you were acting in accordance with the information you had been given.  It was a terrible mistake, one for which you are sorry. Apologize to Rick.  You’ll pay for the door’s repair and a new lock.  So stay out of trouble and you’ll be fine.”

“Bullshit. Dubrovsky is Markovitz and he’s a clever son of a bitch. He snagged my wife!  I should go beat the shit outta him till he starts talkin’.”

“Mr. Dawson, I must caution you against committing yet another crime.  You’re a man with a gifted imagination.  Surely you can come up with something that will restore the funds you owe the bank!”  He disconnected the call.

 

Helena Maxwell Dubrovsky underwent hours of delicate surgery.  At 2 p.m. Rick stood in the doorway of her room, shocked to see her head, covered mummy-like, and secured by clamps so that she would not move it and tear any of the sutures.  Two black holes with tubes protruding from them allowed her to breathe.  He had see latex suits once in an SM salon in which the submissive would be completely covered in latex and had only two tubes, fragile as soda straws, that were easy to pinch closed and shut off the submissive’s air supply. The sight revolted him. He decided that sadists were sick and, now that he thought about it, masochists were even sicker.

Helena looked so vulnerable… passive and being fed intravenously. He made no attempt to sit by her bed.  He would not have done so if he had been asked.  Instead, he said, as he passed the surgeon in the hall, “I sure hope the surgery gets a good result,” and then he bought a gallon of cheap wine and went back to his motel room and got drunk.  He intended that when he awakened and sobered up, enough time would have elapsed so that Helena would not have looked so other-worldly, so masochistic and unholy when he saw her again.

Twenty-four hours passed.  He took a cold, lingering shower to wake himself, and then he turned the hot water on and washed himself.  He drank three cans of orange juice from the self-service bar, shaved and dressed.  Finally, he felt ready to return to the hospital.

 

Lafayette Street was eerily quiet.  The relatives, each with their share of the cash taped beneath their underwear, had all gone home.  Security guards looked occasionally out of the windows of both Helena’s and Rick’s houses. No dogs – not even Bruno – barked or even chased a cat.

A black van slowly drove down the street. The driver took his eyes off the road to stare at  Helena and Rick’s houses. The junked cars were gone.  There was no trash.  Perennial rye grass sodding remained green and had been carefully mowed.  Evergreen shrubberies hinted at the lawn’s beauty which would be fully appreciated when Spring let the fruit trees blossom and the flowers bloom. “Bastards,” Don Dawson hissed. “One person in a whole house.  It ain’t fair.”

Olivia had told Orren’s physician that there was an unexpected hold on Orren’s money and the doctor softened the news by telling Orren that since he had not yet completed his adolescent growth stage, all his plastic surgery would have to wait.  During the settlement negotiations, a plastic surgeon had testified to the extent of the procedures and their approximate costs, and Orren looked forward to getting his face and ear restored to a more normal look. His leg was badly scarred, but he did not limp. It was his disfigured face that tormented him. From the day that he registered at his new school, he was the object of derision. His usually dirty clothing and worn shoes did not make him more appealing.

On the day he entered school, the nurse checked him for vaccinations and recorded his height and weight. After that initial visit, he would frequently stop at the infirmary to ask her to check his height.  He had not grown in weeks. Repeatedly he asked his Aunt Olivia when she was going to take him to the doctor to get his repairs done; and repeatedly she answered that the delay was part of his punishment for having done things he shouldn’t have done to Shawna. He hadn’t done anything that was bad, he thought. Shawna had never complained. But after the dogs, he no longer could understand anything that happened within the family.  And now, his Aunt couldn’t even talk at all.  He felt no compassion for her.  When he saw her after Don had punched her several times, he looked at her bloody face and said, in a whisper, “Now you know how it feels, Aunt Olivia.”

As the weeks passed and the mockery persisted, Orren began to search through the mail that was finally coming to “their” Apache County address.  He read bank statements and eavesdropped on conversations. He finally understood that the money that was to be set aside for him was gone.  There would never be a time when the laughter would end, and he began to feel a deep nebulous anger that tended, like a room filled with the fumes of sulphuric acid, to affect his senses.  He could see nothing through his tear-distorted squint as he tried to grope his way out.

Anger is a gateway drug.  When it is engaged in a daily basis the ability to remember, concentrate, or think constructively atrophies. The law of diminishing returns becomes the dominant rule. More and more is required to accomplish less and less.  He tried to forgive or even to understand everyone’s sins against him, but he did not have the energy to continue to tolerate even the presence of those who had harmed him. His ability to think would not have been more impaired if his head had been filled with opiates.

Sullen and withdrawn, he languished in his teen-age limbo, knowing that his sadness was perceived as a freak’s stupidity.  He could not do his school work.  His grades dropped. In the lunch room at school, no one would sit with him and so he ceased to eat lunch.  He soon began to ditch school and because he couldn’t avoid the mockery in public, he stayed home and watched television. The shows were mindless and the advertisements taunting.  He could not afford any clothes, cars, sports equipment, games or social activities.  And the beautiful people who did, reminded him constantly of his ugliness. In his nightmares he was always pounding on a door, begging to be let in.  And soon his nightmares furnished his burdened brain with the one thought he could focus on: his own family had literally thrown him to the dogs.  He hated everyone around him.  Occasionally he remembered the sound of gunfire. He remembered Rick covering him with his own body and shooting the dogs that were trying to kill him.  Everyone around him hated Rick Dubrovsky, but to Orren, there may have been six billion creatures on the planet, but only one was a human being. He had heard his Aunt Babs tell Paulina Sue that Uncle Don intended to kill Rick Dubrovsky. He decided to betray his family and tell Rick about the plan, and suddenly he became more aware of his surroundings.

On the day after the beating Don put Olivia in a wheel chair and pushed her into the bank.  Pamela Sue had made a sling for her dislocated shoulder which displayed a maximum amount of the bruised area.  Olivia wore a bra and, over it, a blouse that covered only her left arm.  Despite Olivia’s obvious agony, Don had demanded that she put on a performance that would force the manager to agree to an extension of the time he needed to confront Rick Dubrovsky and find a way to force him to return the insurance money.

Olivia could not use her right hand to hold a pen and she could not speak since her mouth was still stuffed with clove soaked cotton.  She could barely see with her right eye and not at all with her left.  Don, exuding tact and delicacy, wheeled her into the manager’s office and she, requiring twenty five minutes, typed out a message on the manager’s laptop: “i am trying to make good on the debt we owe you. it is my fault, not my husbands.  i was injured in an auto accident – the tire blew and i hit big rocks.  but i cannot afford to go to the hospital.  please give me a little more time and when i can talk on the phone i will make calls and get the money we owe.  please have mercy on me.
olivia dawson”

The manager looked around to see everyone staring at him.  Her injuries were so severe and obviously genuine that he feared that if he did not accede to her request for more time, his bank would receive an endless stream of bad publicity.  He smiled at Olivia, and said, “Dear lady… you just stay home and get your rest.  What happend?  Didn’t your air-bag deploy?”

Olive made negative groaning sounds and tried to make puffy movements with her exhausted left hand.  Don gently touched her hand and pushed it down to rest in her lap.  “It was the airbag that deployed and struck the right side of her face.  Those little cuts you see and her right arm and shoulder are from the bag exploding.”

“My God!” the manager said hopefully.  “You should sue the airbag manufacturer or the car company. Have you documented her injuries with photographs?”

“No,” Don said.  “What good would it do?  She’s in awful pain and we can’t afford stuff to ease it except aspirins.”

The manager and his secretary both quickly photographed Olivia’s face, neck, arm and shoulder. She winced in pain and pulled away when Don tried to remove her blouse to show them, “the really bad damage to her lady’s part… you know… under her bra.” He hoped her ribs had not been broken.  “We’re prayin’ all we can,” he said boldly.  “Prayer changes things.”
With Orren, Clive, or Andy, Don reconnoitered Lafayette Street, but Rick was not at home. Security guards and their company cars were always on site, but Rick and Helena did not seem to be home. Every few hours another security car drove down the street.  “Maybe they went on vacation with our money,” he said.  He drove to Rosewall’s office and was told by the receptionist that Mr. Rosewall no longer represented him.

“You go ask him where Rick and Helena are.  They off vacationing with my money?  You go ask him now!”

The receptionist entered Rosewall’s office and then quickly returned to say, “Mrs. Dubrovsky is recuperating from surgery.  That is all Mr. Rosewall knows.  I’m sorry, but if you don’t leave the office immediately, I shall have to call the police.”

“Tell Rosewall to go to hell,” Don said as he walked out.