Autumn’s Veil by Judson Blake
Autumn’s Veil by Judson Blake
Ronice was absorbed in her cell when Sheila Tamm arrived dripping from the rain. The secretary was startled and looked up half amazed to see a face instead of an image. She thrust out the cell for Sheila.
“Did you know? Did you see?”
Sheila looked at the brutal headline: “Fourth bayonet murder discovered.”
Ronice’s eyes burned with insistence. “There’ll be another. I know it. They’re all the same. They just occur in different parts of town.”
Sheila read the first few lines since she generally avoided the news. With a sad turn she handed the cell phone back and acknowledged Ronice’ beautiful open worried eyes.
“Bayonet. Hm. How very odd.”
“Oh, it brings death right away,” said Ronice. “À bout portant, the French say. The bayonet reaches all the way to the heart and punctures it like that. The victims never had a chance.”
Ronice looked lovingly back at her phone. Sheila wondered how Ronice, effusive and willing and kindness personified, who obviously enjoyed her work at Wyler’s Realty, could put such a buzz in grim detail. Anyway, the task at hand for Sheila was to pick up Miss Tilly, Mrs. Wyler’s middle-aged Scotch Terrier. Sheila looked around. A man in a sleeveless shirt was sitting in the inner office, all glassed in with a glass door–we have nothing to hide, the walls said. He came out with an eager grin.
“Can I help you?”
Ronice perked up.
“Oh, Kugel, she’s just here to pick up the dog.”
“Ah.” Kugel nodded with professional assurance. “Dog. Of course. You’re on your tour, even in this rain.”
She could not help noticing the man’s arms were richly tattooed with threatening and military symbols. Sheila saw he wanted to engage her in conversation.
“The dog’s usually out here. She knows me.”
A sound caught her.
“No, Kugel. I’ll take care of it.”
From the glassed-in office Mrs. Wyler appeared leading Miss Tilly on a braided leash. The insistence of her voice made Kugel retreat. Sheila knew Mrs. Wyler (she preferred the Mrs.) for a tweedy proper business person, cordial, assured by enough commerce and wealth to have her dog walked twice a day. Indeed Mrs. Wyler had a rugged bearing. In contrast, Miss Tilly was excitable, loved to bark at strangers and Sheila thought it might be a predestined match: the hardened widow/spinster and the sweet debutante Miss Tilly had grown to be. The dog fawned, sporting a red bow on her ears, fawned on the lady’s leg, eager for her stroll with two other dogs Sheila had parked outside.
The town of Tense River, built partly on a hill, was an outskirt by the sea of the larger urban fold. It retained much of its gentrified village feeling from decades long before and there were still people in the town who remembered. The hill part, in particular Sheila’s next trip, was called Monteste, and had some of the loveliest homes. Sheila dropped off the first two of her dogs but kept Miss Tilly since she was amiable and no trouble. It was a peculiarity of the agency that they could not always finds someone to go to Monteste, so the client was obliged to pay for the dogwalker to drive. And back. Sheila knew Victoria, the woman there argued over the bill, but finally let you know that it was but a tiresome detail.
As Sheila got out beside the tapered lawn she waved at the gardener as if she were the wealthy person who lived there. By her air she had no real cares in the world. The rain had thinned. Crystal droplets hung of the bare branches. As Sheila made her was up the drive, the warning from Ronice spread its thread in her mind: there had been four murders; there would be another. Thankfully only one had been nearby. The rest were in parts of town she knew nothing about. And all were men.
To the left of the mansion was a small forest and out of a path from there a man approached her. It was Victoria’s husband.
Miss Tilly ran forward and pawed on the man’s shoe.
“Oh, she likes you,” Sheila said.
“Heh. Well, what’s it like to work in the rain?”
“I love it.” She petted Miss Tilly. “She loves it too. We have rainy kinship. See, it’s no secret.”
“No secret,” Clement laughed. He pushed the dog away. “You’re doing good work. Good work for the pooches.”
“Is the Missus home?”
“How would I know?”
Without warning he walked off and up the path, not bothering to shake off twigs and leaves that had collected on his jacket with its fashionable leather lapels. In tandem they approached the terrace before the mansion but Clement suddenly turned off and disappeared around to the left. Sheila proceeded up the steps and entered the garden area enclosed by its stone balustrade.
Iacopo, the gardener, waved again. He was a muscular man in a red shirt who leaped from his crouch at her approach.
“The bulbs,” he gasped out of breath. “Don’t bring that dog near my bulbs. They dig them up. They vicious claws, you dogs. They dig and dig. Keep it away. Away, you hear?”
“Away? Of course. Perhaps if I hook her by the porch.”
“Yah. Yah. The porch. Yah. You keep them there. You do me a big favor.”
They had met before but Iacopo had never seemed that communicative.
“I’ll take care of it,” she said and then added: “I just met Clement on the way. Mr. Worster. I guess he didn’t want to see you.”
“Me? He walked around the other side that way, didn’t he?”
“Yeah. I guess he’s shy.”
“Shy,” the gardener laughed a rough belly laugh. Sheila had never seen his eyes twinkle so. “Yeah, he’s shy all right, but, ha-ha, not of me.”
He cocked a thumb at the front door. “Yeah, not of me. Oh. Oh. Keep him off. Off, you hear.”
He reached his hoe and would have swung it like a scythe had Sheila not quickly led her follower up the last stone steps to the porch. She relaxed and gathered herself thinking she had missed an unkind gust of trouble.
On this open space were tables where afternoon drinks could be served but they sat abandoned now, black spots shiny from the rain. The house itself was made of rich stone that seemed somber despite its glittering windows and doors. Its form was built to welcome guests to cordial parties but there was none of that now. Sheila hooked the leash on a chair leg. She let herself in the front door. Usually the owner was off at work or maybe pretended to be and Sheila had to find the dog. In this house there was even a room where Caesar lived, with his own special door. He’d be there now. Sheila was passing through a library with a large table when Victoria Worster suddenly appeared.
She was a small woman wearing a red dress that sported a gold pin of a leaping fish. Hanging from her right hand was a small handbag dangling rough cloth and strings of beads. Sheila looked at it curiously.
“Are you all right?”
The woman looked around, astonished at the question. She looked strangely at what she was carrying.
“Oh, this. How I…. I must be missing something. I was in the middle. It just happened to be in my hand when you interrupted me.”
She put the handbag on an inlaid table. Involuntarily Sheila moved closer. The handbag was of cheap patent leather and was thoroughly burnt on one side.
“Yes, it’s old,” Victoria said, seeming embarrassed that such a shameful artifact would be on display.
“Old yes, but…”
“Oh, come on. Let’s not be morbid. You’ve come for Caesar. He’s here. He’s in the other room.”
Sheila knew that the woman had a certain protocol about Caesar: he was not allowed in all parts of the house but he disobeyed when he liked. She followed Victoria into another room and the dog barked his approach. He was a lovely golden retriever that tried to leap on Sheila, so she pushed him to the side.
“See you in an hour,” she said, taking the leash and strolling back.
Kneading her hands the woman followed, her eyes wondering if she might have forgotten something.
“Yes. Yes. You will. We’ll be different then. We’ll be our happy self.”
“Of course,” said Sheila without caring what that meant.
The pleasant part of walking Caesar was that she could take him into the forest along paths that divided and turned and divided again until they lost themselves and there was no path. She wandered that way now. She sat for a while on a soggy log and petted Caesar who put his chin on her knee. Miss Tilly foraged among dried leaves for their rich and always new smells. The day had begun with a jarring note but was peaceful enough now where she could see beyond the forest where children played in the open green of neighboring land.
When she went to return Caesar Victoria came forward to make a point of being there waiting.
“He’ll find his way,” she said, dropping the leash Sheila handed over. The woman turned and hesitated and then turned back, forming by her gesture and the turn of her lip some insistence that Sheila should not leave.
“I know you saw. Why you’re only here to…. What I… Won’t you sit down?”
“The purse. It was burnt. Did you see? Here. I can imagine what you thought. It’s so out of place. A daughter should respect her mother, don’t you think?”
Sheila hesitated. The woman’s face turned away and up and turned again to lintels of the windows where imaginary beings might be flying. With sudden directness she turned back to Sheila.
“People shouldn’t think things when they don’t know them. They will of course. You have to put up with that. But they shouldn’t….”
Sheila gazed intently at the woman and spoke slowly:
“Perhaps if you showed me the purse I’d get a better idea.”
Victoria started, turned and then composed herself anew.
“Of course. Of course. You’re going to know anyway and you’re only the dog walker. I mean… of course. Who else could know? Or would care about knowing?”
“It’s in the other room, isn’t it?”
“What? Oh. Oh, yes. Go in there. Go ahead. You’ll see it right away. Then you’ll invent your stories. They all do.”
The woman directed; she would not lead. Sheila went in the other room and looked around. The curtains lay still and shielded the brightening day to a waning purple gauze. A soft shaft fell across the rug beneath a heavy table on which were arranged five framed pictures of a smiling young woman. In the center in a silver frame was one with a single calligraphed word: Adelle. The setting was carefully arranged with symmetry and a special shelf for the center picture. It might have been the design of a quiet domestic altar meant to be seen by as few visitors as ever came. The purse was there and beside it a newspaper clipping that described a fire in San Francisco. Sheila read that several people had been killed, their bodies unrecognizable. The date was fourteen years ago.
“There you see,” said Victoria from behind her. Her voice had the soft snap of an accusation.
“A daughter is known by how she respects her mother. It’s in her character. If she has character. If she has love for her mother.”
Sheila turned to the woman and tried to add some quiet pause to a conversation that seemed insinuating and starting to get out of whack.
“Daughter? But your daughter is… dead?”
“Oh. But that is still a thing we don’t know. Can never know.”
“She died in a fire. Long ago. Far from here. In San Francisco.”
“Oh. Well.” Victoria gave a wince of pain and looked around at the walls. “Why would she go there? What for? She could be perfectly happy here. I would have taken care of her.”
“Then she’d be a missing person. If she went off on her own. Or she could be dead.”
“Dead to me, you mean. Is that what you mean? Is that what you meant to imply?”
“Who would send you such a thing?” Sheila asked, lightly holding up the purse chared to carbon on one side. “Meant to imply death.”
Victoria leaped forward.
“It could be a ruse, don’t you see? Yes, you could be right in your little way. Doing what you do. I only show you because you look like her. She could come back. Knowing. Knowing how I suffer.”
“Or the death could be real.”
“Could be real in a sense, you mean. Dead to her mother. Is that what you mean? You brought up the topic of death. But death is the most disloyal thing, I think. Well, she might not have died. It doesn’t say. Does it? Do you see it say?”
The talk became confused and back and forth, the woman affirming the death in one breath and then denying that such a thing was possible. What emerged was that the pictures arranged on the polished walnut table were of a young woman, Victoria’s daughter now it was clear, who for years was nowhere to be found and might be in another world. Sheila looked at the photographs anew. In them she saw a young woman’s bright face, happy in a way but somehow wounded. In one picture the smile was clearly forced. But in the eyes there lingered some other wound, and still the strange question of how it had actually turned out, what way the story ended. It was sad anyway.
Sheila had found conversations with lonely people, some who, like Victoria, never left the house and so needed their dogs walked, oddly confessional sometimes. Usually she never met the owner. The agency took care of that. But now she felt she had fallen into a trap and was being taken advantage of. Why would the handsome dog accompany a woman who lived in a cavern she only showed to a pointless visitor?
–Because I’m not important, Sheila thought. Thank heaven at least for that.
She made to leave and Victoria became more animated than before. With nervous fingers she fumbled money onto the table by the pictures and turned her back. Faced with being passed over, she would ignore Sheila first. The money laid out was pointless; Sheila was paid by the agency. She took it nonetheless and exited hoping nothing more would be said.
Outside in the new sun she breathed deeply, exhaling the musty smell from Victoria Worster’s sheltered world. Iacopo was not there but Sheila left Miss Tilly wagging eagerly. She walked along the balustrade away from the way Clement had gone, really fled. The dog barked and from a ledge below Iacopo appeared from lake of bushes.
“You take them away now. Yes? Then they don’t dig. She tells me and then he tells me. Him as much.”
“Well. I saw her. I didn’t see Clement.”
“Him? Oh, you won’t see him.”
“Oh? Why not?”
In part Sheila already knew. The man avoided his wife. Iacopo only smirked and went back to his hoe. Without looking up, he worked the rocks and muttered into the loam:
“He sleeps in the forest. Has his sheets and rugs out there. Ha! Sleeps in the forest. With his arthritis. Steals inside in the night and eats when she’s asleep. Ha! They’s them has a life and they’s them has a wife. Ha!”
On her way back Sheila turned over the weird encounter and how the woman in the picture did not at all resemble herself. Why say that? She went around to Wyler’s Realty. Ronice was with a two clients on the computer. Mrs. Wyler let the dog wander in and slump beneath her desk.
“It’s turned out to be a nice day,” she said. “You have a good job.” The woman was forthcoming more than usual but still formal. They chatted idly before the topic of the murders came up. Mrs. Wyler took it as an idle bit of other people’s news.
“A woman couldn’t do it,” she quipped with a smile. “Get him around the neck? With a bayonet from behind? Have to be a gorilla. Know any gorillas?”
Sheila found a gap in the conversation and took her leave. As she walked down the steps now free of all canines, a shadow came from the side of the building and quickly vanished. Sheila walked a few steps around. From a doorway on the lower level a woman’s face blurred above a black choker and then disappeared.
Sheila knew that building had an odd history. Where it stood there had once been several floors that had burnt down. The builder, perhaps Mrs. Wyler herself, had let the nether foundation remain and only built on top of it. From the street Wyler Holdings seemed a tasteful cedar home, windows trimmed in white, with two conventional stories and an attic with real gables. It cast a welcoming image for a realtor; you entered into a place you might like to live in. It was a rosy setting warmly furnished; you’d be ready to buy.
But around the back the ground sloped quickly where bushes hid a roughly paved parking lot. The house’s rich shingles became rude concrete below, half submerged in slabs of broken pavement and rocky silt. From where she could see a kind of trench proceeded further down the back, exposing some unpaid contractor’s oversight of transoms and air ducts and unmovable plumbing nothing could use. No doubt the wily proprietress rented out rooms down there, but Sheila feared they would not get much light.
It was the next day that, returning with Caesar, she saw Clement come around from the side of the mansion. He avoided a greeting and would have turned away but out of an afterthought or embarrassed politeness he came nearer with a limp. With brutish friendliness he lifted the dog by the scruff of the neck, then dropped it down. The dog barked and circled around them both.
“Bad leg?” Sheila asked to fill the awkward silence.
“Yah. Arthritis. Comes and goes.”
Then without another syllable he turned away. He wandered in ambling broken strides but she could see he made for some path in the woods. She carefully let Caesar in the back door and departed down the graveled drive where she never parked her car. Being on foot made it easier to escape.
At the foot of the slope where the sidewalk began, Sheila saw a large woman seated on a bench. The woman had looked around twice while Sheila walked. Now she turned with wrinkled brow and then looked away, then with a bat of her hand she signaled Sheila to come nearer. The woman was shapely and with short dark hair. She was clad in a black raincoat with collar that came up to her ears even though the day was warm.
“Yes. And you are…?”
“Brunhilda. Sit down. Call me Brunie. That’s what they call me. I don’t care. Do what they want. That’s the life. You walk dogs.”
Sheila smiled and leaned nearer, open without trying.
“Um… Yes. It’s, well… not a career. It’s just to make…”
“I know. Not a bad job. You meet lots of people. Lots of men.”
Sheila looked again at the woman. The black raincoat concealed an ample chest and a curvy form below. Brunie went on as if they had known each other for years.
“I seen you. I seen you how you go and I thought something. You know people. You get around. I gotta keep it hid, you know? People get the wrong notions, you know? This. I gotta keep it hid.”
“Yeah, or the old witch and her monkey will know. You got a record? You look a college educated kinda cutie. Probably you don’t know any people like me. People got money hire a girl like you.”
“Well, I suppose they have to….”
“And that old man you was with just now. Huh? I seen you. He lasts a long time. Yeah? At least an hour. Others it’s twenty minutes in out, not him. And he always asks for Autumn. Same girl.”
“I don’t see what this has to do….”
“Don’tcha? I think you know. Know more than you say. I need to break out, Sheila. The dungeon’s going nowhere. Disgusting business creeps, impressed with themselves. Drop money on the floor. I gotta tie them up, whip their ass. Make up for what they do to other people all the day. Revenge, it goes all ways. Well-dressed creeps. Come to us drunk and smelling.”
Sheila backed off. She made her voice drift down to a wistful response in kind:
“Could be dangerous, I guess.”
“Don’t exaggerate. It’s more just a horrendous hassle.”
“But the witch as you call her. The witch. She says a woman couldn’t do it. Have to be a gorilla.”
Sheila’s dreamy lilt now made Brunie pause.
“Ow. I know whatcha talking about. Them murders? Don’t be so sure about that, Honey. I embrace a man around the neck, get his throat, he don’t want to get away. I got plenty of time. Hey, don’t get melodramatic on me. They only kill men. I don’t care. I gotta break out. Be a real call girl. But the old witch has the strings, you know. Connections. Yeah. Real estate, that’s a laugh. I’ll tellya about real real estate. She knows to keep us in her place. But I seen you. I seen you’re independent. Your own woman. I like that. That’s what I want to be.”
Brunie’s generous bubbling contrasted with her brusque words. Sheila thought to fall in with it.
“And you’ll cut me in for a share, won’t you do that?”
“Of course, Sweetie. I mean Sheila. Of course. Forty sixty. I get ten big ones, you’ll get four.”
Brunie yawned with a large vacant gasp. “I gotta get sleep somehow.”
Sheila decided as the conversation went on that she would not out of hand push the woman away. Brunie, she imagined, could be very rough and going along with her, or not, might bring retribution of obscure kinds let alone the police. Rejecting her entirely felt gross, even possibly unwise. In the back of Sheila’s mind was her own sisterly wish to help the woman in whatever strange or flimsy way she could. Maybe get her into something else. But making assignations? Sheila quailed at the complications, the cloying strung out attachment that would follow on. She accepted Brunie’s cell number, but withheld her own. Sensing impatience and impatient herself, the buxom woman yawned. They made to part in a non-committal way.
–Are we sisters now? Sheila thought as she went for her car. We’re so habituated after a single talk that we don’t even need to embrace.
Sheila drove back and parked some distance from her home. She took time to walk through sunny streets thinking how strangely the day had gone, how differently from the quaint leafy bowers she had grown to feel were her own. As she planted her steps along an ancient cobbled street, suddenly a yellow-eyed cat leaped out from a trashcan and fled before her, then stopped and turned to wait. By its furtive stare it recalled a funny thought come back with no reason: Clement lasts a long time.
Sheila and her friend Titus sometimes went to Elfie’s Gnome, a bar not far from Wyler’s Realty. There actually was an Elfie, a cheerful retired wrestler who shook hands with everybody, listened to their stories but told none of his own. That evening when they walked in, Titus greeted Laszlo, a hefty man past fifty who had not shaved in a week.
“Too much good times,” Laszlo said when Titus remarked.
“Laszlo hates women,” Titus confided.
“Ah, not true,” said the other. “Ah, no, no. I see I have given you the wrong impression. I didn’t get along with my ex-girlfriend. She didn’t get along with me, better way of saying it. I love women. But who wants the hassle? A couple hundred bucks, maybe a little more, heh, I get what I need. More.”
“Do you now? And how often is that?”
Laszlo was evasive. “Whenever I need. I know a special place. I’d turn you on, but I’m swore not to tell, know what I mean?”
“Of course. Don’t want to lose what works for you.”
Titus cast his eye over the crowd at the bar and waved at two other men he knew. He went over to them and left Sheila.
“I suppose,” she said with some shyness, “your special way with women is something only men talk about.”
“Oh, well of course,” Laszlo came back with a drink-slurred guffaw. “Things you don’t want to let on to ladies. We like to be delicate, you know. Otherwise the good things, they trickle away, know what I mean? I tell a man everything. A woman I don’t. It ain’t smart. She gets to know too much, she throw it back at you.”
“But you have a special way. With women, I mean.”
He slyly smiled from the corner of his eye.
“Eh, yeah. It costs. But in the long run you save. You save big. Every week or so I know a special person, special place. You’re Sheila, ain’t you? I seen you around. You know Titus and Titus knows a lot of people.”
“Not like you,” she said and drifted into the crowd.
While Titus revolved in jocular conversation with his buddies, Sheila relaxed in the raucous blur of the bar and waited for nothing to happen. The encounter with Brunie still clung to her; the woman was blunt and unaffected, so how could such a free-wheeling person be under the thumb of anyone? Didn’t call girls have a network? Business cards? A pimp? But a pimp could be the reason. The whole tangle in some way had to make sense of itself; the woman’s strange history, all her past decisions whatever they were, they all led to where she was now and how she saw herself. And Mrs. Wyler, an intelligent business woman, why did she have to get involved in any sordid mess like that? Was there that much money in it?
As Sheila sat in the shadow in her singular non-drinking way, a woman in a raincoat entered alone and looked around. Usually women, like herself would go to bars with a friend. Being a loner was a man’s style. This person was thin and pretty and sported a ponytail above the collar of her coat. She looked intently at each figure at the bar then turned very quickly to Sheila. As she came closer Sheila saw the woman wore a black choker on her long neck. With some shyness she introduced herself:
“Are you Sheila?”
The woman looked around, assessing the gathering of strangers, accepted what she saw and turned back to Sheila.
“They call me Selene. Like the moon. I’m a friend of Brunie’s.”
Sheila nodded and motioned for Selene to sit down. Selene preferred to stand.
“Well, I’ve only met Brunie just today.”
“You, you’re the one who walks the dogs.”
“Well, that’s what I do some of the time.”
“You know Clement.”
Sheila paused. There was some urgency in the woman’s demeanor, as if she were a spy on people and had a map of their interconnections that she was ready to slip under Sheila’s arm.
“Well, I know him to say hello.”
Selene leaned nearer.
“He wouldn’t talk to someone like me. He wouldn’t listen. He wouldn’t take it in. You gotta know that about certain people. But you gotta tell him. Autumn said. She says tell him to stay away. That’s all. He’ll listen to you. She only read the news. He’s got to stay away. Will you tell him? It’s a favor for her.”
“To… stay away. Yeah, I guess so. If I see him. Away from where?”
“Away from her. From her, whatta you think? She wants nothing to do with him.”
Sheila tried to demur.
“I don’t know Autumn. You want me to give him a message from… who?”
“You don’t have to know. Just say Autumn said and she means it. To stay away. It’s simple. Will you do that?”
“Um… sure. As I say, if I….”
“You will. You’ll see him before it’s too late. Autumn knows you will. That’s all.”
Before Sheila could invite her to share a drink, the woman twisted on her heel and made for the door.
But the lady and her choker were gone.
Sheila grabbed her bag and skirted through the crowd. Outside it was getting dark and not obvious at first which way the woman had gone. Sheila saw her down the street and followed. In a minute she caught up.
“What’s too late?”
“I don’t know.”
“Take me to Autumn.”
“She’s not there.”
“You’re kind of abrupt.”
Selene slowed her pace.
“I guess I seem that way. She’s upset and it got me upset. I hurry more when I don’t know where I’m going. I don’t have good thoughts all the time. Brunie said you were different. A nice girl. Not like… a lot I know.”
“Well, you’re nice enough to help a friend.”
Before long Sheila saw they were going to Mrs. Wyler’s. The office was closed. The dark windows echoed back the eerie feeling Sheila had had before, that they were made to be nice, perfect in their deep brown and white trim, enough to be a home people would live in. Sheila and Selene skirted through concealing bushes and came to the door where Sheila had first seen the fleeting visage of Selene over her sexy black choker.
“You probably won’t like it when you get in. I’ll show you anyway.”
“I might not mind,” Sheila said, passing through a curtained doorway.
“It’s a good time now,” Selene said, walking down the steps. “Most johns don’t show up till later. Most of the girls are still asleep. You’ll feel superior, I know it. A tourist kind of. But you’re here anyway. Might as well see.”
Sheila stepped further down. The walls were hung with scarves behind which there were hidden lights. Bangles and trinkets marked each passageway that divided so as to bypass old air ducts and clumps of disconnected wire. A thick overhead pipe made her duck and weave around it. As she descended further Sheila saw that there was not just a cellar, but a subbasement below that. As they wound down another corridor a half-clad woman with a large coffee cup passed them without a glance or word. She almost tripped in her high heels. The place had the feel of a gypsy submarine marooned out of all connection with the world above, a world that would seem now smug in its distant commerce. Sheila wondered how Mrs. Wyler would carry herself in this place, who she would talk to and if she ever met any of the clientele herself. Her threads of control, feeding and withdrawing in their subterranean way, would bleed the substance of these dark corners and the lives they enclosed.
“Most houses, you know,” said Selene over her shoulder, “you go up the stairs. Up the stairs to paradise. Kind of funny, isn’t it? Here you go down. Exciting for the men, I guess. They’ll be along. Here a guy fell the other evening. Me and two other girls had to carry him out. Put him in his car.”
Down a bending flight of stairs Selene stopped by a door.
“Autumn’s room. It’s always unlocked. You can go right in.”
Selene pushed open the door. The room was not large enough to walk around in. The bed was most of the furniture. The ceiling somewhere above was almost hidden by crisscrossed with corroded pipes. Beside them was a kind of transom window just within reach. Over a pealing pipe the sheer trace of a black shawl was draped to keep out too much light. Sheila pushed an edge of the fabric to one side.
“Someone could see in.”
“Not likely,” Selene allowed. “You can’t reach that window from outside. But she keeps it there. Who’s going to go around and look? Some creep. As if I never thought of it. It’s just a ditch out back you can’t get to. Push it the way it was, would you.”
Sheila did. She picked up a wad of clothing and tossed it on the only chair. The room was neat enough. There was only the bed and a nightstand awkwardly placed where it did no good. An armoire took up too much space and was nearly empty. On a concrete wall hung the little picture of a farmhouse, someone’s vain denial of emptiness. There was a radio half pushed under the bed which was the only piece of furniture that made any sense. The bed was neatly made with a tasteful pure white duvet.
“So where is Autumn?”
“She’ll be along. She was nervous like a cat. Why she wanted me to tell you.”
“She could tell me herself.”
Selene was not curious. Sheila pulled the drawer on the out-of-place nightstand and saw inside a book of poetry, the work of Sylvia Plath. Selene nodded at nothing.
“Hm. Probably a john left it. Like Gideon’s bible. I didn’t know she read stuff.”
Selene let out a chuckle as she made for the hall. In the book were folded sheets of paper. Without thinking Sheila folded them again and stuffed them in her purse.
On her way out Sheila saw Brunie emerge from around a corner bric-a-brak strewn with dusty sea shells.
“We’re getting a customer,” she said. “And it’ll be night soon.”
“Where did Autumn go?”
Brunie made a face.
“Maybe she doesn’t need the money.”
As Sheila came near the door Kugel’s greedy smile rose up more boldly than before. He displayed his deltoid with a tattoo of a skull with a scimitar coming out its eye. He held her gaze while he worked into a clean white shirt.
“You looking for someone?”
Brunie called from behind her.
“Hey, Kugel, don’t bother her. She’s just a friend of Autumn’s.”
“Oh, yeah, Autumn,” he slurred his words. “She’s around I think.”
Kugel snapped a suspender on his chest.
“In fact, don’t go out that way. She might be in the parlor.”
He motioned her to follow him back down and along another passageway. He opened a door and Sheila came into a warm area with couches and an ornate rug. Three attractive women lounged to one side and did not look up when they entered. The lighting was dim crimson and Sheila noted there was a faint odor of perfume. But no Autumn.
“Ah, she probably went out.”
He led the way to an exit that fed onto another side of the parking lot. As Sheila went out she glanced back and saw the alert face of Kugel half in shadow. He cocked his chin for her to come nearer. She nodded turning away.
“Hey!” He was coming up behind her.
“What is it?” she asked, turning full toward him. Her directness brought him up short but he persisted.
“You’re Sheila. Yeah, we met. You walk the dogs. I heard you talk to people.”
He paused with silent expectation.
“No more than anyone else.”
“But you get around.”
She said nothing, waiting for him. He nodded to himself and kicked a block of asphalt out of the way.
“Yeah,” he said, coming to some silent conclusion. “Yeah. Yeah. It figures.”
He turned away and walked back avoiding her look. Sheila admired his masculine stride accented by the black suspenders.
The next day was another trip to Monteste and Sheila was hoping to avoid sentimental memoire with Victoria. But that was impossible. The woman seemed even glad to see Sheila and offered to make some tea while they could chat. Sheila demurred, pleading that she had only time to see Caesar on his duties. Even the woman’s tawny bias-cut dress promised that some new wave had been struck and she was disposed to erase what impressions had been laid the days before.
“I was so distracted the other day,” Victoria apologized. “I know I talk too much… her, about Adelle. You remind me so much of her. The same look, the same gentle charm. I suppose I got carried away.”
Sheila felt a pang of nausea at this; from the pictures she knew she looked nothing like that waif face, the daughter of privilege long ago fled. But for a moment Sheila felt some warmth for the woman and she forgot how the daughter, whatever dark fate had befallen her, had apparently been driven away by just this solicitude in the tawny dress and what it masqueraded. The fire, the loss of the estranged child, it was all too much for the solace of the afternoon and the quiet walk in the woods Sheila had come for.
“I wonder where Clement is,” she voiced partly from blind impulse and partly from drive to change the subject.
“Oh. Oh, he’s about. Did you look in the shed? He drinks. He doesn’t want me to see, but I know. Well, when you have means, you know, it can lead to indulgence. I mean in the weak spirited. Not in everyone. I can tell you’re not like that. No.”
“Well,” said Sheila with a twist of the leash. “With a dog, this dog anyway, you don’t have that problem.” So she found a graceful way to turn away.
In the woods she and Caesar departed the obvious paths where the leaves were dry and untrod. They wandered up the slope and suddenly came to a dip in the ground. There, under a soft ledge was a tangle of bedding and loose empty food cartons.
“Clement,” she muttered to the dog which sniffed happily among the disordered mess. There were even two sticks and strips of plastic cut from sacks: he was even prepared for rain. Without looking further, Sheila wandered on, thinking there was time enough to go back. She turned by the ruins of someone’s collapsed shack and suddenly a form loomed up in front of her. It advanced very quickly and might have run into her but the dog intervened. It was Clement dressed in the same jacket as before trailing twigs and leaves.
“Oh, you frightened me.”
Indeed, he had thrust his face directly at her and his heavy fist was clenched.
“Sorry. Didn’t mean to. I’ll leave you alone. I don’t have much time. I have to be somewhere.”
“No, you’re probably busy,” she said trying to fall in with his manner. “But I have a message for you.”
“What?” The man started and stared at her with befogged red eyes. “What?” he said again.
“Autumn says to stay away.”
He put his fingers to his brow and paused till the words struck him.
“Yes. That’s what she said. For you to stay away. She’s very upset about something. She wanted to make sure you know.”
“You. You’re friends with Autumn,” he said incoherently. He nodded at this new idea. He made to step around her and a clump of saplings. Sheila backed away to let him pass.
“You have to promise,” she called after him. “You have to promise that you’ll stay away.” But he was far down the slope if her warning words even reached him.
It was only later that afternoon that Sheila remembered the papers she had taken from Autumn’s room. She unfolded them in the bar. Each page had a small picture of a man in the upper left corner. Two were likely over fifty and all but one were smiling. But there was no inscription, no happy signature, no date. Her curiosity caught Elfie’s eye but he would have said nothing had she not motioned him to look.
“They might be lovers of a friend,” she said. “They were in a book of poems.”
Elfie fingered the pages, looked at each side.
“Hey,” he said, “This is some kind of joke.”
“I don’t see anything funny.”
“Sheila, you don’t get around much. This guy and this guy were in the papers. They were killed by the bayonet killer. The other two, I don’t know. Maybe them too. Where’d you get this?”
Sheila paused, watching over the pictures, thinking they might contain some message. But maybe the message spelled out so elliptically was not that intriguing. Maybe it was only death.
“Just chance. I came across them in an old book.”
“Well, they aren’t that old. Somebody printed them out special. From a cell, maybe.”
Sheila felt impatient and scooped up the pages. She folded them back in her purse.
Around dusk Sheila called Brunie.
“I need to talk to Autumn.”
“She’s here. I’ll get her for you.”
“No. I’ll come there myself.”
But when Sheila got down the steps and knocked on the door, Autumn was gone. The door was ajar and Sheila walked in. It was the same as before, but the shawl on the pipe before the window was pushed to one side.
“She was just here,” said Brunie. “I told her to wait.”
“I’ll come back later.”
Outside in the parking lot it was dark now. The intrusive light high up threw everything into a lake of glare and black shadows. In such a light faces would be hidden when most illuminated. Walking by a parked van, she saw a shadow move on the other side. She darted around and scraped her shoe on the gravel. A woman in a light brown coat twisted around. She saw that she’d been seen and rose from stooping so that her face became clear in the glassy light. Sheila was taken aback by what she saw, a face she had formed in a rude thread of memory.
The woman’s face did not look young, but she had the same thin features from years before, features Sheila remembered from pictures on the hill. Her hard unbending eyes suddenly wilted into tears.
“I know about you. That you’d know. I didn’t want you to see. I can’t cry. I can’t cry,” she said and let herself be enclosed by Sheila’s embrace. “I heard you had been there. I was afraid you….”
Sheila held the woman’s shoulders. But after a moment of painful sobbing Adelle backed away. A comforting embrace of real kindness was too much. She turned and ran for the door to the cellar.
Sheila followed and the woman ran down the stairs to her room. She would have locked the door but Sheila edged in too quickly.
“It’s none of your business,” Adelle said.
“No, of course not. Even if Clement is killed, a bayonet in his back, it won’t matter to me.”
“Did you tell him to stay away?”
“I did. But he may not. You should tell him yourself.”
Adelle looked her up and down, assessing that she probably would not be heard whatever she said.
“He won’t listen to me.”
“He comes and stays longer than the others. He lasts longer.”
Adelle turned aside and hid her face. She came out with a broken laugh.
“Did someone say that? They would. That’s a disgusting thing to say.”
“It’s the way they see it. I should be more delicate. Especially here.”
“Oh, Sheila. He’s not a client. Did you think that? They all do. Of course. You think I’d tell them? You think I’d tell any of them? He’s my father.”
There was a long pause while they sat on the bed. Outside in the hall there was a rustle of footsteps that passed and Adelle glanced there fearful the door would open.
“He loves me. The rest don’t. He talks crazy. He talks to tell me not to be here. But just as much he talks about himself. Why neither of us can go back there. With her. Yeah, he lasts longer. He leaves money and they don’t know when I pay Kugel. It’s all very simple.”
“Why call yourself Autumn?”
The woman looked around with dazed impatience. She made a sarcastic attempt to smile.
“Because my life is over, don’t you see? Just a few miles from her, from where I can’t escape from, I bet you laugh. From where I began, in that perfect sickness, so perfect I can’t name what it is. Where she owns everything she sees. Even you, if you go there, she’ll own you. Always trying to make me perfect. That’s what she thinks of me so that’s what I became. It’s a laugh. I could be in Australia. But no. I wasn’t meant to go far. This is it, this you see, this is it for me. And when my looks are gone, cream and paint will no longer work, will they…”
“I don’t laugh,” Sheila interrupted and took her hand.
Autumn bent beside her. She had talked herself to blunt dumbness. Sheila pulled out the sheaf of four pictures.
“You made this?”
Autumn would not speak. She nodded with her whole torso.
“And who are they?”
“Don’t you know?” She scraped her finger across the page by way of making the faces real. “They died. I only just found out. They all died after they’d been here. The same night. And who with? With me. That’s why if he comes, it might be him. It could be him next time.”
Autumn turned her face around and Sheila saw the open pastiness in the space around her eyes, the face of a woman who was not seeing what her own eyes saw. She scratched her cheek and went on in the tone of a condemned person.
“The dead are already dead,” she said out of nowhere. “I know you see. I know what it is. See that window? One night I saw a face in that window. As soon as it saw me looking it disappeared. That’s why that shawl is there. To keep him from seeing. Because he’s the killer. And that’s why Clement must not come any more. The next time it might be him. The killer will see and it will be him.”
Sheila went to the window and shoved the fabric to one side.
“It can be moved,” she said.
“I don’t know. Just ask Clement to stay away. That’s all. Then he’ll be safe.”
Sheila watched the bent and defeated form of the woman lean to the bed without letting herself fall. Why was she not like Brunie, brass and tactless because there was no reason for tact? How could such a person do the things she did, which had to be, Sheila imagined, insensitive and callous some of the time. Callous toward herself more than anything.
“You should tell this to the police,” Sheila said. “You could find a way.”
Autumn burst into tears again. She grabbed Sheila’s skirt and held on.
“No. No. That will blow everything. I don’t care. Just tell Clement to stay away. Stay…. away.”
Patiently Sheila untangled her dress from the clutch of bony knuckles. Autumn straightened. She reclaimed the work of standing alone, of rejection only to be expected. She brought out a mirror and propped it on the pillow, a lonely simple ritual.
“I can’t excite a man looking like this. He’s gonna get hard looking at this? I have a different face. A face whenever I like. Don’t look down on me. Don’t.”
“I don’t. I never did.”
Sheila left Autumn putting on lipstick in the empty room. On the steps she passed a trio of well-dressed men, not looking any of them in the eyes. At a corner of the stair Kugel’s angular face rose up and stopped her. With a nudge of his elbow he pushed her into a corner, a motion she could feel he had done many times before.
“You got something figured out, Sheila? Have you? Some bit of gossip you can spread over the whole town? You gonna go to the police?”
“They…. they probably know already.”
“Uh-huh. You one smart chick. They know already. And what you gonna do? What you gonna say? Because half of everything you know, I’ll tell ya, Sheila, it’s all lies. And Autumn, what did she tell you?”
“Ask her yourself.”
“She has her favorites, makes the other girls jealous. Even that old guy. They’re jealous of him. Isn’t that a kick? So they have to put on airs. To you, just like to the guys. But she must have said something, you got that look.”
“I don’t have any look. I have nothing to look at you.”
“They lie, Sheila. They all lie. The girls lie, they have to. The guys lie because they can. It’s all….”
He flared his fingers in the air, which seemed more of a threat while he backed away with his broad liquid smile.
“I gotta go,” she blurted and would have elbowed him herself had he still stood in her way.
“Just remember,” he said with a confident slur, leaning on the rail as she went up, “you can’t trust any of it, Sheila. Only a fool would. And you’re not that fool, are you? You know dogs. You let sleeping dogs sleep and sleep and sleep.” He made his arm reach away, imitating smoke.
Outside the air was cool and wet and Sheila ran to feel the breeze. In a few blocks was a park and she ran there wishing to make it rain by running. When she had run enough she slumped in an unlighted copse. She bent against a tree and felt the thick wet bark cut into her neck. The leaves were a veil before her eyes. The sky rose up through the branches a vast shelter she could see but could never tell anyone.
It was a while before the form appeared. Through the leaves it was only silhouetted against the streaking lines of cars. It was of a hulking man in a battered hat. He slouched with an awkward limp. Sheila stood up to call out but the cry caught in her throat. He shouldn’t go. She figured how she would plant her hand on his shoulder, that battered unsure lump, and speak into his ear. He would hear her then. He would know to listen from the simple urgency in her voice. It would be a voice from his daughter and Sheila would speak in tones he would knew.
But she hung back and waited by the tree till the form had become distant. From there she would not be seen either. She would be only a faceless form herself, a walking pillar on the street. He was going for Wyler’s.
–I must warn him.
No, she stopped. Now would not be as good. Better he would go in and Sheila would catch him when he left. That would be right. That would be enough. But when the form got near where she knew he would go, he ducked down another street. Sheila watched from the corner to see his silhouette get small and turn in the next block. She backed around to the parking lot and waited behind a parked car. Chance was he would not show at all, from aimlessness she saw in his walk. Perhaps he had heard what she said in the forest. But in a few minutes the man’s hat appeared. It was coming from a rough passage through a neighboring yard and only the shadow of his head let her see him limp toward the window. It was an athletic piece of work to lean over the trench and hold his weight there.
Sheila grew weak from what he would see. What crazy vision was already in his mind that seeing this would enflame? What would a father do when such an image flashed upon him? It was beyond a peeping tom, beyond any sweaty voyeur, beyond any sense that could be explained or filled in. There was no right. It would be naked pain he inflicted on himself. Sheila stood paralyzed watching his humped shape and shaking arm that could with all its palsied effort move aside the scrap of fabric hung on a water pipe.
–What point would there be to rush forward now? Yank him back? Pull him with a naked scream at his obscenity, his burnt out perversion of love that was love only missed, only never meant to grow and so festered in this dark shadow before the trick of this pointless window?
Nothing could restore something so lost. Except maybe find the man who took advantage of it. A riot flamed in Sheila’s eye. Out of violent revulsion she bolted into the cold bright light and pushed her way through a gaggle of stumbling men, bolted through the mass of chests, clothes and empty faces and ran. And ran. And ran.
The vision flashed upon her how the man would see what he never want to see. He would be compelled to make it never happen again. More, make it not to have ever happened in the first place. Not again but never once and make the doer not do, not to have done, not to ever have come to that submarine cellar, that nun’s cell she would never leave not for money or plane tickets or a dark lover that would redeem it all because there would never be such a lover. For there could be no such lover that was not another john, a Kugel, the twenty-minute demon only drooling empty lies.
And as she ran she had no care for who was killed, who intended killing for it was as Autumn said: the dead were already dead, their walking around dry bony pretense, already spent, already all their options used up. And down the street she recalled in a flash the face she had run into headlong leaving the shadow of the parking lot and pushed away angrily with brute dismissal of a hated lover, the young, the innocent face of the late partier who came to prey, the too young lover who, having spent his dollar, triumphed in spending what he could never use, so useless was the lover’s pride, dark in the cellar pit where all were victims and only the sterile figure of Mrs. Wyler rose up the unkillable survivor, who lasted more than the others because she never loved or even thought about it more than she thought of an Antarctic clod of snow, so content was the icy heart that never needed anything else. But the young man’s face, a boy’s really, a too innocent face rose up, came forward again amid flashing street lights and streaks of cars, prideful but unknowing, prideful because unknowing.
Sheila caught herself clawing the brick face of another building. Eventually she would go to Elfie’s. At least there would be people, even people she could not talk to. She waited and then straggling by the park, she went.
The boy in fact was there. Laszlo was bent near him, had already bought him a drink. With a congratulatory leer, the big man winked at Sheila as she entered. The boy recognized her, afraid at first since she must have impressed him back in the parking lot as ruthless, brutal and maybe crazy. It might be a good time to apologize.
She put her hand on Laszlo’s arm and looked the boy in the eyes.
“I was kind of emotional. Pushed you away back there.”
The boy blurted something which she hardly heard over the din. Without more she took shelter at the other end where Elfie nodded without speaking. She got a mimosa and called Titus. She might not wait till he showed up, but he didn’t answer. How late was it? Midnight. Who was there?
Through a gap in the crowd she was a figure slumped alone at a table in the corner. He looked at no one, only kneaded his thigh. He did not watch television, only sat and stared with vacant eyes. His glance went to the boy and Laszlo, then slid away. Sheila walked directly over.
“Hey, Clement. You’re a long way from home.”
“Am I?” He would not go on but she stood there making him say something. “I see you got friends. I see you know the big guy.”
“We’ve met. Talk to him. I bet he’ll buy you a drink.”
Clement wiped his mouth and looked away.
“I don’t drink,” he muttered. “Not with…. that….”
“I told you to stay back. I told you to stay away.”
He wouldn’t look her in the face. She turned aside and drew up a chair.
“Yes, you were to stay far from here. I know you heard me. I was only conveying what Adelle said.”
At the name the man’s hand jerked to his knee. He looked around at her but his eyes were always on her cheek, her ear, someplace else. He made an attempt at a smile.
“I don’t know who that is,” he said with a limp slur.
“And who are you? Some friend of the wife? Of the wife’s dog? Man’s best enemy, ha-ha.”
“Adelle said stay away or you might be killed. She did that for you. She wanted to save you. That’s all. That’s all she cared about was you.”
The man’s smile broke. He choked getting out the words.
“Then why… why didn’t she leave, leave that hole? Heh? Heh?”
Sheila felt she would get sick if more of this went on. With a lunge at his pant leg she yanked up the hem.
“Hey, Elfie,” she yelled. “Hey. Look here. Look see!”
Moon faces turned to that corner where even by the bad light they could all see the shining steel blade half exposed from its crude makeshift sheaf on his leg.
Days later Sheila visited Autumn. The woman’s face was still and with so little recognition that they might never have spoken with sudden honesty only a few nights before. Autumn made out that it was foregone what happened to Clement. It was impossible he had done what he did, yet she pretended to take it for granted.
“He saw you having sex,” Sheila said. Autumn looked surprised.
“No, no. He couldn’t have.”
She casually reached for the strip of cloth strung over the window and straightened it so it had no wrinkles draping down. She strolled in the little space, her glance downward in a dream.
“No, no. It’s dark in here. Do you like it?”
She only stood before Sheila, stunned to silence and behind that, indifferent with another face.
“I know what you’re thinking. About how sad it is. But it’s not. It’s not. Oh. It was all done before. You probably don’t see, from where you are, from the way you live. It’s not a greater sorrow now. Don’t think that. The sorrow, the big sorrow, that was a long time ago.”
She turned back to her propped-up mirror, depleted and forlorn except for that little tunnel to another world. Sheila left Autumn alone, making her face with intense guidance, doing what was most important. Sheila would not go there again.
Copyright Judson Blake 2019