Clay Reynolds is one of the contributors to the recent anthology Dallas Noir. He is a master of using small details to create mood as shown here in this short story, “A Perfect Marriage“.
“Perfect Marriage“ by Clay Reynolds
Lane Schroeder caught an earlier flight than planned, arriving a full five hours ahead of schedule. He had been standing at the gate at Phoenix Sky Harbor, first in line ahead of a half-dozen other pre-dawn customers, innocently asking if it was possible to snag his way onto the plane that was leaving momentarily. The harried ticket agent said the flight was full. At that moment, a flight attendant, an airport security guard and one of the pilots and escorted an elderly man in a wheelchair off the plane and into the gate area. Lane overheard their explanation to a pair of sturdy EMTs, who instantly arrived, that the man had chest pains, and they wheeled him away. Lane boldly asked if he could have the vacant seat. The ticket agent quickly waved him on through the gate without even checking his boarding pass. In a matter of moments, he was comfortably seated in first-class, his carry-on shoulder bag neatly stowed, cell phone dutifully turned off, a morning newspaper on his lap, and flying into the sunrise with a sense that this, truly, was the dawn of a new day.
He idly wondered how they would handle the paperwork, especially since he had initially booked coach, something he usually did on domestic flights as a nod to fiscal responsibility. He ordered a coffee and elected not to worry about it. It was, he thought, a piece of luck. Lucky events seemed to be stalking him of late. Three additional cups of coffee later, he stepped out into the brilliant sunshine of an exquisite spring morning. His good fortune held. A gypsy cab cruising through the arrivals drive caught his wave and wheeled over. In tough economic times, he liked helping out people who were trying hard to make it on their own. He once had driven a gypsy cab, himself. Gypsy drivers also tended to use full-sized sedans, not downsized compacts or vans. Lane hated riding in vans. They reminded him of the kind of person he had never wanted to be.
As he settled into the backseat and the Crown Victoria pulled away from the curb, he noted that the meter’s LED read-out was blank. “Where?” the driver asked, glancing in the rearview. Lane looked for an ID tag. There wasn’t one. He studied the driver and concluded that he probably didn’t speak much English.
Lane needed to go by the office, as he had a signed contract that needed to be executed no later than tomorrow. But this was not an ordinary day, and he decided to postpone business. “Continental Heights,” he said. “Out off of the Loop. Near the lake.”
The driver nodded. He didn’t start the meter. It didn’t bother Lane. Just so he didn’t try to hold him up. “What’s the freight, by the way?”
“What?” the driver glanced in the rear-view.
“The fare?” Lane said. “How much?”
“Forty bucks,” the driver said. “Okay?”
“With the tip,” Lane said flatly. The driver nodded, gripped the steering wheel hard.
Ordinarily, Lane drove himself to the airport and parked in the infield parking. It was a company perquisite, one he particularly enjoyed. This week, though, his car, an Audi RS5, was in the shop. The MP3 player had stopped working, somehow, and it was also time for the 15,000 mile check-up. It was a lease, on the company—another perk—so he made sure to keep up the maintenance. He didn’t want to seem unappreciative, even though he didn’t plan to be with the company much longer.
Lightly running a thumb and finger along the crease of his gabardine pants, Lane adjusted himself and looked forward to his homecoming. Mariana would be surprised to see him so early. Maybe they could have a leisurely breakfast before she took off for whatever errand she had on the day’s schedule. She had a perpetually full calendar. Some weeks, he only saw her late in the evening or early in the morning. He often wondered how she could keep herself so busy, but he knew that she was the kind of person who could not just relax, let things go. Type-A personality, he thought. Always active, always seeking ways to contribute, to be productive and involved. Although now past forty, she was still a gorgeous woman. Another piece of luck in his life and something else he appreciated.
The cab left the highway at the appropriate exit, turned down a small hill and then into the private, gated drive and stopped. A work crew was resurfacing the drive, and behind a surly-looking flagman who held up a big “STOP” sign, the entrance was blocked by a front loader and a dump truck.
The cabbie idled for a bit, strumming his fingers on the wheel, and Lane tapped his own fingers on his shoulder bag. Traffic exiting the neighborhood had backed up, but the flagmen were holding both directions at once. This could take a while. It was too pretty a morning to waste sniffing hot tar and watching a bunch of sweaty men work.
“I’ll just walk from here,” he said abruptly. He flipped a pair of twenties into the front seat, then stepped out. He shouldered his bag and moved to the sidewalk that led to his house, a four-block walk up a tree-lined street that featured high-end housing for successful young executives. Lane was no longer that young, but when they moved in twelve years before, he had been. Or he felt that way. He saw the neighborhood as just right for them, then. But things had improved since. It was time for a move up.
The neighborhood seemed deserted. He didn’t even see a gardener in evidence. It was one thing he disliked about the area. He knew no one—had met no one—since they moved in. People went wherever they went then came home, parked in back, never came out front. Once in a while, somebody might run past, out on a jog, maybe walking a dog, but no one ever stopped to talk, to get acquainted. Of course, he didn’t either. And he didn’t jog. Neither did Mariana. And no dog, no pets, at all. And no kids, although there were two top private schools in the area. In the four years since they moved in, they actually couldn’t have identified anyone in the area by sight or by name. The truth was, he thought as he walked, he hadn’t been out in front of his house more than a half-dozen times since they moved in. They came and went through the garage in back. Their mailbox was right outside the front entryway, and the neighborhood association took care of putting up holiday lighting, when it was wanted. He had no occasion to go out and meet the neighbors.
As he walked, Lane remarked on the developer’s overall taste. Each house was unique, but there was a theme—what was called an “idée real” in the architecture business, he recalled. Each home was actually a free-standing condominium, a town home, or a “garden home,” as the brochure proclaimed. That meant that there was very little if any grass lawn in front, but each house was surrounded by a particular garden landscape, larger in back than in front, that reflected a unique design. A Tudor cottage was next to a Tuscan bungalow. A Mexican hacienda gave way to a Chinese pagoda, and beyond that was a German hunting lodge, followed by a sort of combination South Sea Island cabana and beach house. The styles were repeated, of course, on different blocks, but even within the individual strains of the theme, there were special differences that marked each home as singular. No two floor plans were alike.
Lane and Mariana had chosen a modified French country home design. It was truly different. Built on a three-story plan with a triangular shape, it offered only two bedrooms, one of which—the one on the second floor—doubled as Lane’s office. On the same floor was a television and electronics room, and a full bath. The ground floor was occupied by an oversized kitchen with breakfast nook, a formal dining room, and a living room, all designed for entertaining, which, somehow, they never did. The third floor was entirely occupied by the master bedroom and bath and all three floors were connected by an open, spiral staircase.
Surrounded on three sides by dense flowerbeds and gnarly rows of dense hedges, suggesting a Norman setting, theirs was the tallest home in the area. Taking advantage of this, the designer had constructed two miniature balconies on two of the walls, each one a mere semi-circular platform surrounded by a short concrete rail resting on what was supposed to look like a row of marble urns. Lane especially liked the balconies, with their French doors. He liked opening the doors when the weather was nice. It was a special treat this time of year, when the temperatures were moderate and the winds light, to sleep with both sides of the room open.
When he reached his house, a gradually growing and now profound need to urinate made itself known to him. He didn’t have his house keys on him, so he followed the winding flagstone walkway through the trees to the side door that led to the living room. They kept a key to the side door under a fake rock in the garden. The urge to piss was becoming acute, so he dropped his carry-on by the sofa when he stepped inside and moved toward the stairs. From the kitchen, he heard Mariana’s voice. She was on the phone, he could tell, and her light laughter indicated that she was enjoying the conversation. As he had big news to tell her—happy news—he didn’t want to spoil the momentum of their reunion, so he dashed up the stairs to the second floor bath, the urge to piss now critical. When he arrived, though, he found his entrance blocked by a large plastic bucket with mop and a plunger. He glanced past it quickly, noting the toilet seat was up, and determined that, once again, the commode had backed up. It was a problem he had been intending to take up with the builder, but he kept forgetting about it.
His need was now painful, so he bounded quickly and quietly up to the master bedroom—noting that the French doors were wide open and sunlight streamed in pleasantly—then strode directly through the bedroom to the bathroom, where he opened his pants and relieved himself with a sigh. As he stood there, though, he became aware of something being wrong, out of place, out of kilter. He shook off, focused hard as he zipped up, but he couldn’t put a mental finger on anything specific. He washed his hands, then stepped out into the bedroom, where he was momentarily stunned. There was on his bed the sleeping form of a blond man wrapped in the sheets. He lay on his stomach and was snoring lightly, one arm beneath the pillow—Lane’s special ergonomic pillow, as it happened—cradling his head, his face to one side, mouth open, a line of drool tracing out onto the pillowcase. His back was heavily muscular and deeply tanned and his partly covered outline suggested to Lane that he was naked beneath the peach-colored bedclothes.
For a moment, Lane stood perfectly still, listening to the young man’s soughing. He glanced at a settee in the corner and saw there a pair of fashionably ripped jeans, a tangerine-colored tee-shirt and paint-splattered work shirt, a pair of worn cowboy boots, socks and a pair of briefs draped over the tops of the tubes, and a sweat-stained ball cap. On the dressing chair, he saw one of Mariana’s silk blouses neatly folded over a pair of black slacks, and a delicate bra-and-panty set folded on the chair’s cushion. An end-table held a mostly empty pair of crystal flutes next to an empty bottle of the fairly expensive champagne he and Mariana had been saving for a special occasion. An ashtray displayed what were apparently a half-dozen tiny butts of what he identified as hand-rolled joints, something he confirmed when he spied a small baggie of grass that had fallen off onto the floor.
Lane stepped closer to the bed and studied the man’s face. He thought he knew him or, at least, had met him. He bent down and stared at him. He had one of the perpetual three-day beards that for some reason was regarded as sexy and fashionable for younger men, and a diamond earring peeked out of shoulder-length yellow hair that, Lane assessed, was badly in need of a wash. There was also a tattoo on his right shoulder depicting some kind of Asian lettering.
He suddenly remembered that this was a young artist he and Mariana had met some weeks ago at a show in an avant-garde gallery downtown. Jackson, Lane thought—no, Jakeson. That was it. An odd name. But it was odder, even than that, Lane remembered from seeing it in white paint on the bottom left of every canvas on display: Jakeson Sanchez. He didn’t look Hispanic, Lane thought. If anything, he looked Germanic. His paintings were grotesque and highly abstract depictions of violence being done to horses. He had five or six over-sized canvasses, as well as a dozen or more prints scattered around the exhibit, most of them priced beyond the usual limits for new and unproved art, even among the tony crowd that always turned out for such fêtes.
Art, Lane considered, was Mariana’s bailiwick. Lane knew little about it and truly had little interest in it, beyond what an old master’s work might bring or be worth as an investment. Mariana had gushed over Sanchez’s paintings, though. Her demonstrable enthusiasm for them compelled Lane to stand off and take a serious look at the canvasses, trying to see something in them besides wild swirls of red, yellows, and greens against black and brown and gray backgrounds that were, more or less, suggestive of horses in panic. A good many sharp blades were always included: spears, arrows, knives, swords, cutlasses, scimitars, and the like, Lane recalled. When Mariana asked him what he thought about the work, he said, “It looks more or less homoerotic to me.” That was all he said, but he remembered her scowl when he said it. He especially remembered it, now.
He didn’t recall meeting Sanchez personally, but he remembered seeing him there, unshaven and disheveled as he was now in sleep. He determined his age to be around thirty, somewhere, but that was just a guess. He was one of those men who would always look youthful, Lane thought at the time. He was typically arrogant, somewhat petulant in his manner, Lane also remembered, dismissive of those who weren’t either obviously rich or attractive, talking mostly to women. Had he and Mariana talked together? Had she mentioned him later? Lane couldn’t remember. Obviously, he concluded as he stood statue-still and studied the sleeping form before him, they’d talked at some point.
Lane wasn’t sure precisely what his next move should be. He had returned from Phoenix with the big news that the country house he and Mariana wanted to buy was theirs. When he realized six months before that he had made enough money to take an early retirement and become an independent consultant—a business he could run from anywhere—they decided to relocate in the Arizona desert, a place Mariana—whose latest passion was photography—could pursue her dream and artistic ambitions amidst the rugged terrain of the Southwest. As they had no responsibilities except to themselves and no really close friends to speak of, they wouldn’t miss—or be missed, really—by anyone. They assured each other that they had each other, and that was enough. They visited the Valley of the Sun four times in the past several months, finally settling on a house situated on a pine-covered mountain bluff overlooking a dry riverbed and small canyon, off the interstate near Sedona. It was isolated, to some extent, but accessible and only two hours from Phoenix and Tempe, where Mariana wanted to take some graduate classes in photography. It caught both the morning light and the evening shade, and it was thoroughly modern. Initially built by some country and western singers—a couple Lane had never heard of—it had gone on the market following what he was told was an ugly divorce. But the price of $5.5 million was out of his and Mariana’s range.
Lane figured that it was probably worth it, even so. There was a pool with a diving platform and lap lanes, a huge hot tub set up high to gain a view of a narrow canyon below, a tennis court, a fitness room, and a completely equipped home theater. The five bedrooms were more than he and Mariana would ever need, but one would serve as an office and another as a studio. The kitchen was ultra-modern with Viking appliances and Spanish tile giving way to a massive patio floored with polished marble. It wasn’t a mansion, Lane knew, but it was close. If he could get the price down by a million or more, he wanted it.
That took some doing. The broker, Alma Hoffman, told him she had complete discretion to negotiate the price, as the house was being held by the owners’ managers, and after the divorce, neither could really afford to keep it. Moreover, it had been on the market for nearly two years, and the maintenance was eating them alive.
Still, Alma, a slightly plump but still quite attractive redheaded divorcee who was on the down side of her thirties, wanted all she could get out of it—both for them and, naturally, for herself. Lane saw the challenge as soon as they met, and he knew what to do. The first step was to take advantage of meeting with a company client in Phoenix to sign some papers—the contract in his bag—and conveniently, to arrange for a personal negotiating session at the house with Alma. “Another look-see,” he told her on the phone. “I’ll bring some refreshments.” It took three vodkas and four consecutive orgasms to get her to the point of dropping the price, but as a tired and actually quite bored Lane resumed an oral massage of her vital negotiating points for the fifth time and was close to giving up and start looking elsewhere, she declared in a gasping scream that she was willing to come down to $3.5 million, so long as he didn’t stop. That was close enough, so ten minutes and another $250,000 off the asking price later, Lane pulled the trigger and they signed the papers as soon as they’d showered.
Mariana, he knew would be thrilled with the purchase, if not with the method by which it was consummated, but if she ever found out—and Lane had no plan ever to see Alma again, at least in that way—she likely would have approved after considering the amount of money they saved and the amount of house they now would own.
He realized that one foot was tingling; he hadn’t moved for some time. He glanced at his watch and reckoned that he had been standing by the bed for a full five minutes. Too long, he thought. But what should he do? If he slipped out and went downstairs, he’d have to confront Mariana with what he had discovered. If he waited until Sanchez woke up, or if he woke him, he would have to confront him. Neither prospect seemed appealing.
Lane stepped silently back to the bathroom. He studied himself in the mirror. At fifty-one, he was fairly well preserved, he thought. He had a respectable amount of gray at the temples, and his hairline, though receding, was not obnoxiously vacating his scalp. He wore glasses, but only to read, and his chin remained strong and well outlined. In all, though, he had to admit that he was fairly ordinary-looking. Although he played tennis twice a week, when he could find someone to play with, and worked out on the treadmill at the gym, he was in nothing like the physical specimen presently snoring in his bed. His teeth were not as straight or as white as they once were, and the slight mustache had cultivated since he turned forty truly did not give him the distinguished look he had hoped it would provide.
In a way, though, his ordinary, mostly average looks had always been an asset. For some reason, women were attracted to him, possibly because he didn’t intimidate them or make them worry that they were, in some way, inadequate to his standards. Men, by the same token, were not threatened by him, felt no need to demonstrate their superior prowess in any way. Both genders tended to trust him, a considerable
asset in his line of work. He sometimes thought that his mediocre andslightly below-par physical appearance accounted for his success in business. He knew, somehow, that it accounted for his success in bed.
He was, he believed, a good lover. He could give a woman—any woman, if he was even slightly attracted to her—pleasure. The first secret, he thought, was to make her pleasure the priority of his lovemaking. After the initial arousal, his own satisfaction wasn’t in play. The second secret was stamina. He could “hold it,” as he phrased the act, a considerably long time. Years before he met Mariana, he learned that women appreciated that more than anything. The sad truth, though, Lane thought wryly, was that he actually didn’t much like sex. It was a lot of trouble, messy, and often had repercussions that were awkward and embarrassing. He had had occasional “slips,” as he thought of them, maybe a half-dozen over the years, small and always brief indiscretions that had never amounted to anything. Most of them were in one way or another associated with business. He just felt no need to look elsewhere for adventure. He and Mariana had a reasonable sex life, and that had always been good enough. Their love-making was more or less regular—once or twice a week, usually—although their sessions had grown less frequent in the past year or two, less passionate than perfunctory. But they did find each other appealing, and sufficient. Or so he thought. He suspected that she probably had had affairs—with artists, certainly, and several before the young stallion sleeping off the champagne and marijuana in the other room—with a writer, when she went through her poetry phase, with a musician when she thought she needed to learn to play jazz piano, and there was that other time with some kind of Japanese fellow when martial arts came on her menu of trial ambitions. But this was the first time she had ever been so obvious, first time she had brought a man into their own bedroom, into their own bed. Or so Lane believed. The truth was that, now, he wasn’t sure, and the question irritated him.
He opened a drawer and located a pack of filterless Camels. He and Mariana had been inveterate smokers for years, total addicts. When they decided to quit some fifteen years ago, mostly because smoking had become so socially unacceptable and discomfortingly inconvenient, they began a process of success and failure that led to frustration and some of the most acrimonious arguments their marriage had ever seen. During every period of cessation, they both were on edge, fractious and easily provoked. And both were soon cheating, sneaking smokes behind one-another’s backs, hiding them in stashes all over the house. It was ridiculous and led to even more arguments. Finally, they hit on a compromise. They would no longer carry cigarettes anywhere, and they would never bum one off of anyone. But they left them in pre-arranged, strategic locations around the house so that if the urge to cheat became unbearable, they could take one out, openly, smoke it, then be done and back on the “Quit Train”—Mariana’s term for the process—once more. As part of the deal, Lane insisted that the cached smokes be strong and filterless, and that if either of them smoked the last one in the pack, he or she had to replace it the same day. That discouraged late-night binging on tobacco, and often it delayed the smoking of the last cigarette in the pack for days, hopefully andeventually forever.
He drew the pack out and was relieved to discover that five white cylinders remained. He shook one out, took a disposable lighter from the drawer and then quietly strolled across the room’s carpet, through the French doors and out to the small balcony. Outside, he stepped sideways, just out of the doorway, and eased down onto a miniature wrought-iron chair, placed there more for décor than comfortable sitting. He lit the smoke and tried to sit back, although an awkward perch was about all he could manage. Over the concrete urns that supported the narrow, thigh-high railing, he observed the well-tended French garden below. Carefully selected flagstones formed a sort of winding pathway through a maze of shrubs and flowering plants that shielded the lower floor’s windows and immediately surrounding grounds from the neighbor’s windows and the side-street. There were frequent patios—“turn-outs,” Lane called them—where oak benches and carved chairs offered an opportunity to sit and enjoy the verdant ambience. Song birds were one of Mariana’s delights, he remembered, bringing to mind a young, scruffy ornithologist who she had wanted to move in for a few days to “study the variety of feathered fauna” around their home. Lane had said no, and Mariana had pouted for days.
He drew the smoke into his lungs, holding it and letting it burn there, fending off a reminder of the pot that Mariana and Sanchez had indulged in the night before, and tried to decide what the best way of handling this might be. In their twenty years, they simply had never openly revealed their “inappropriate” activities to each other. They also didn’t question one another too closely about anything that might be revealing. He loved her, after all, and he was sure she loved him. She was a fine-looking woman , still girlish and appealing. Strawberry blonde hair, full and lustrous, fell to the middle of her well-formed back when she wore it down, and set off perfectly chocolate eyes that belied her Celtic heritage. She had long, slender arms and coltish legs, no paunch or hip spread—thanks to their decision to live their lives without children—or cellulite or varicose veins to mar a young adult beauty she worked hard to retain. He knew that in the past few years her breasts, which were, truly, larger than they probably needed to be, had begun to sag a bit, and her complexion, when not enhanced by fairly expensive make-up and spa treatments, had lost some of its freshness and tone. But, overall, he considered, she was still a highly desirable piece of ass. It was a phrase he seldom used, but somehow, in this context, it seemed to fit.
He didn’t want to make a scene, and, above all, he didn’t want to have a big fight that could only escalate into disaster. Even divorce. The prospect was unthinkable. That was the main thing. He didn’t want a divorce, and he didn’t want to force her to admit to what, he suspected, was an impulsive dalliance with a man ten years—at least—her junior who probably gave her a few moments’ illusion that she was still the cheerleader-quality, young rich bitch she had been when she and Lane met. Again, it was not a phrase that came easily to him, but he also remembered her college yearbook. Some wag had scrawled in bright red ink, “Mariana Choo-Choo! Most Likely to Pull a Train!” on the flyleaf. He always wondered who did it, and he also wondered if the sentiment was prompted by unreciprocated affection or something more sinister.
He smoked slowly, listened intently, but only songbirds trills came to his ears. Mariana might still be on the phone, he thought. Or she might be plunging the toilet on the second floor. This was Wednesday, no maid till Friday. Gardener’s day was Monday, he recalled, leaning over slightly and peering into the foliage below.
Suddenly, Sanchez appeared on the balcony. Lane hadn’t heard him approach, and he was momentarily startled. His start was seconded by the realization that, except for a cheap, Rolex knock-off, Sanchez was totally naked. He stepped out, past Lane, who held the cigarette in his fingers and stared at him. Sanchez never saw him. He lifted his arms and stretched them toward the sky, his eyes closed, mouth open in a deep yawn. He reminded Lane of a mural he once saw of some Aztec priest making supplication to the sun. His body was more than merely in shape. It was virtually chiseled, every muscle group standing out in relief. To Lane’s surprise, since he recalled Sanchez as being somewhat short, he was at least six-two or six-three, taller than Lane by several inches.
Lane was about to open his mouth to speak when, to his shock, Sanchez released a strong, bright yellow flow of urine out over the balcony’s railing, watering the bougainvillea and peonies below, Lane considered, with bodily processed champagne laced with cannabis. It was a powerful blast, Lane observed, wondering if he should clear his throat or say something, to make his presence known in some way before the young man embarrassed himself further. What might he do? Lane wondered: turn around and take a seat on the narrow ledge and defecate into the garden of the aging sexpot he just took to bed the night before? Somehow, looking at the artist’s narrow profile, at the sharp, almost cruel nose above fleshy lips, Lane thought that such an outragemight well be within his repertoire.
For the first time since his discovery, though, Lane felt himself become genuinely angry. It was wrong, he thought, to defile the garden, but it was more than indiscrete or merely vulgar. It was disrespectful. Mariana deserved better than that. In spite of herself, she was a good person. A little flighty, from time to time, a little undirected and silly from time to time. Spoiled rotten since childhood, to be sure, and not nearly as smart as she thought she was. But she was a good and generous person with a big heart, and she didn’t deserve to have her garden pissed on by some wanna-be hippie artist with a pretentious tattoo. This decided things. He would confront Sanchez, about the pissing and about fucking Lane’s wife. Let matters work themselves out later. There were limits, after all.
The coal of the cigarette burned down and suddenly seared Lane’s finger. Reacting to the sharp pain instantly, he flicked it over the railing. Sanchez, spotting the fleck of white paper from the corner of his eye, leaned over to follow the butt’s trajectory as it floated down to the greenery below, stretching to see, perhaps, what exactly, it was. As he bent at the waist, he presented his boyish buttocks to Lane, about twelve or fourteen inches from his face. Without hesitation, Lane raised his right foot and shoved it against Sanchez’s left hip, vaulting him directly over the railing and into the empty air beyond.
Exactly what Lane expected to happen at that point, he didn’t know. In the fraction of a second that passed from the instant he felt the sole of his shoe depress the muscular flesh of Sanchez’s hip and the moment when he realized that the young man was no longer standing on the balcony against the low railing but was out into the vapidity beyond, he considered that Sanchez would, like an animated character, flail his arms and legs, virtually swimming in the atmosphere, that he might turn and stare at Lane in the horrible understanding that he had been murdered, that he might cry out the name of his assassin in a vengeful attempt to gain justice postmortem. At the very least, he thought he might scream. But none of this took place.
Lane merely watched with a curious detached feeling as Sanchez’s body dumped itself over the concrete railing and silently disappeared. One second he was there, bending over the concrete urns, the next he wasn’t. The only sound Lane heard was a cardinal’s song, and from the corner of his eye, he spotted two squirrels scurrying up a drain pipe, one pursuing the other. Somewhere in the distance, someone had started up a noisy motor, probably a leaf-blower.
For a long moment, nearly a whole minute, Lane remained perched on the wrought iron, faux French chair and considered what had just taken place. He felt nothing in particular, which surprised him. He should, he thought, have been horrified, or at least surprised at himself. But he had no particular sensation at all. He fully expected to hear hysterical screams coming from the kitchen below, since the main window of the breakfast nook would have looked out over the precise spot where Sanchez should have landed.
“Landed?” Lane asked aloud, surprised by the sound of his own voice. “Is that the right word?” Landing, he considered, implied a deliberate action, an alighting, a setting down on purpose. A falling body did not land. But what did it do? He considered the problem another beat or two, still waiting to hear Mariana’s screams, hear her rushing up the stairs to accuse him of murdering her lover. It wasn’t a “crash,” Lane thought, or a “collision.” He said, “smash,” aloud. That was more it. The sound any loosely packed body of mass, like a tomato or a pumpkin—or perhaps a sack of shit, he considered wryly—would make if was dropped from a tall height, certainly from a third floor balcony. “Smash,” he repeated. “It would be the same sound a sack of shit would make. Especially if it was fresh,” he added.
The leaf-blower, or whatever it was, ceased. Finally, the silence, broken only by birdsong and the buzzing of insects that he now, for some reason, could hear distinctly, became too much to bear. He rose and carefully peered over the railing. Sure enough, three floors below, in the middle of one of the flagstone “turnouts,” he could see Sanchez’s body. Below the blond swirl of hair, a dark, crimson pool had formed and was seeping into the cracks between the flat rocks. The body was twisted in a grotesque fashion, Lane observed, one arm beneath him, the other fanned out, not entirely unlike the posture in which he first saw him in the bedroom. He was obviously dead. That, Lane had expected.
After a few beats, Lane felt foolish just standing there, looking down at what he had done. He had just killed a man, after all. He still thought that he ought to feel something—panic, fear, regret, or possibly even satisfaction or justification—but he didn’t. He didn’t feel particularly good or bad. Mostly, he thought, he wanted another cigarette. He decided to resist.
He went back into the bedroom and looked around. The bed with its rumpled sheets glared at him, but he fought a sudden impulse to make it. Instead, he cocked an ear once more, listening for Mariana’s voice. The house was silent. He stepped down the stairs to the second floor. The bathroom was in the same state it was when he ascended, and his office door was open, revealing a sunsplashed desk and dormant computer. He listened again, but there was no sound. He descended to the ground level and entered the kitchen. Mariana was not there. The place was spotless, as was her habit, and the only thing out of order was a bright yellow note stuck to the front of the refrigerator with an oversized plastic clothespin-magnet. He went over to read it.
“San,” it read. “Must dash. I’m hosting a bruncheon at the club. There’s an egg salad sandwich in the fridge. Nuke on medium for 1 min. or eat cold. Help yourself. Juice or milk. Or beer! Hah! Champers is all gone. It was such fun! That was some good shit, as you said! Awesome!” It was signed “M,” and there was a small heart drawn next to her name. Then a postscript, hurriedly scrawled, “Lane home by four! Be a doll and clean up. Make the bed!! Be a spelunker! Leave nothing but memories! Eat this note for dessert!”
“San,” Lane said aloud, again a bit taken aback by the sound of his voice. It seemed to echo off the kitchen appliances. “The man has two perfectly ridiculous names. Why add a third?” He studied the door to the garage and realized that she must have been on her way out as he came in. She didn’t see his bag in the living room. He opened the fridge and found the egg salad sandwich wrapped in wax paper. He preferred egg salad cold, so he unwrapped it and bit into it. It was just as he liked it, with finely chopped onions and celery and a touch of sweet relish. While he chewed he poured himself a glass of milk, then with his hands full of Sanchez’s breakfast, he passed across the kitchen and out the side door.
There, just a few feet away, caught in a few rays of morning light as they filtered through the trees, lay Sanchez’s body. The position he was in seemed impossible. Lane looked up and spied the tiny balcony high overhead. He must have been twisting himself around as he fell, he thought. But whether he was trying to see where he was going to land—smash, he mentally corrected—or who pushed him over the edge was impossible to know.
Sanchez’s chest and shoulders lay flat on the stones. His face looked out across the mini-sea of blood that had fled from his smashed—he did find that word appropriate—skull. But his body was twisted almost completely around, with his lower body and legs facing up. Strange position, Lane thought. Must have been especially painful when he . . . smashed.
He studied the details of Sanchez’s body. Wiry dark brown hair covered his forearms and legs, and there was another, larger tattoo on one calf—a rampant stallion, Lane decided, although it was quite abstract and hard to tell. He had a scar on his upper bicep and a large silver ring on his left hand. The other hand was beneath him, smothered beneath his crushed chest. His watch was probably broken. Lane noted that his penis was just average-sized, and his pubic hair also was dark brown. Apart from his muscularity, which continued to impress, even in death, there truly was nothing remarkable about his physique. Lane munched his sandwich and squatted down and looked into the artist’s bright blue irises, which were fixed in a wide stare, although there was no discernible expression on his face, otherwise. His mouth was mostly closed and there was no suggestion of surprise or, Lane considered, disappointment. He was just plain dead. Lane leaned forward, careful not to touch the pool of blood, and stared into Sanchez’s eyes. An ant came up from his collarbone and walked across one exposed orb. He stuffed the final scrap of sandwich into his mouth, then reached out to close the eyelid, but then he pulled his hand back and considered.
He felt no relationship to the corpse of the young man lying in front of him. He was mildly annoyed that the blood was spilling all over the light brown flagstones, as it would create a stain that could never be removed. This would have an adverse effect on the sale price of the house, he thought. And, he added as he looked up and down the threefloors, it was a quirky house to begin with. In a lousy market, it would be hard enough to sell without this happening. Lane stood up and decided that maybe it was time to call someone. The police? He thought. He guessed so, since this was clearly a homicide. He stepped inside and took out his cell phone, which he realized he had never turned back on after the flight, then stopped. It didn’t have to be a homicide, he considered. There was no act of violence readily evident. In fact, there was no act of violence at all. His pushing Sanchez had been little more than a touch, a nudge, certainly nothing hard enough to leave a bruise or any kind of mark. The man was naked, which was telling, and he had obviously fallen from the balcony. That, too, was remarkable, but there wasn’t a single shred of evidence, Lane thought, shifting his mental gears into TV crime-show logic, to suggest that this was anything more than an accident—or maybe a suicide. More to the point, Lane thought, he hadn’t meant to kill him, even to hurt him. It was nothing but an impulse, a reaction to being pissed off, Lane surmised, momentary and purely impetuous. He considered Mariana. Re-checked the note on the fridge. “Maybe a lover’s quarrel,” he said aloud. “Or an act of despondency. Who knows?” He went over to the note and took it down. He read it again, considered, then folded it once, then again, then once more, and popped it into his mouth. Two good chews and it was swallowed. “Gone,” he said. “Dessert.”
He took his plate and glass to the sink and washed them out. The glass he replaced in the cupboard, but the plate he took returned to the counter. He opened the fridge, found the plastic container with the left-over egg salad, extracted two slices of whole wheat bread from the wrapper, and with some care for neatness, he used a plastic knife he found in the utility drawer to make another sandwich. He wrapped it in the same wax-paper wrapper Mariana had used before and placed it carefully in the fridge. He then broke the knife into three pieces and dropped them into his coat pocket.
After inspecting the kitchen carefully, he went to the laundry room, and in a small drawer beneath the drying table, he found another stash of Camels. He lit one and went back out onto the flagstones to smoke and think.
Lane’s life had, up to this point, been on a more or less upward arc. The eldest of three sons and two daughters born to a truck driver and school cafeteria cook from a small back-woods town, he started at a rural junior college and then transferred and finished at a major university with an MBA and, eventually, a law degree, all of which he had to work and borrow his way through. He passed his CPA exam and believed himself positioned for a great career in investment banking, something he soon proved true by landing a good position at a top investment firm, where he was now a partner. His family thought he was some kind of hero. He thought they were a bunch of redneck hicks, a collection of small-town losers eager to start sponging off him as soon as he started making money. Except for his parents, whom he saw only once a year, or so, and then for only a few hours’ visit on a random weekday afternoon, he broke contact with all of the rest years ago. He had a slew of tow-headed nieces and nephews he’d never met, never wanted to meet. One sister died young, and he sent flowers. He was never really sure what killed her.
A loner with only casual and random girlfriends, he held two and sometimes three jobs in addition to his class-load, he met Mariana during his law studies. She was the only daughter of a wealthy widower. Her mother, who became accidentally pregnant when she was in her late forties, had died giving birth to this only child, and her father, a judge, parked her with a series of nannies, governesses, and hired caretakers of one sort or another. She hardly knew him or he her. He had more or less showered her with material things, since he apparently felt no emotional tie to her. She had private tutors and instructors for everything, was a star athlete and top student in high school and at the same university where Lane studied law. She also had an active social and, Lane learned, sex life. She had revealed a lot of that to him when they were still dating, long before either of them thought their relationship would progress very far. A tennis pro at the country club deflowered her when she was fifteen; a swim coach hired to train her for an Olympic tryout she never went to impregnated her when she was seventeen. And that was her first abortion. There had been three others, she confessed to him when they started dating seriously, two from football players and one from a philosophy professor. But long before that, she had decided never to have children. Lane didn’t mind. He told her he had enough family life growing up and wanted no more.
They married in June in a lavish ceremony at the country club and honeymooned in the Grand Caymans. Her father footed the bill for it all. The wedding was attended by more monied people and political powerhouses than Lane ever imagined could be gathered without summoning the FBI to protect the nation’s wealth. Mariana’s father, though, disappointed the couple fairly soon. His death from cancer two years after they were wed revealed that he left the bulk of his personal fortune to various conservative political action committees and a few charities. He had provided well—and generously—for his daughter, as she grew up, but he didn’t want—as he said in his will—to deprive her husband of motivation.
Lane had plenty of motivation, he thought, as he finished thecigarette, stripped the butt, and brought the paper inside to flush down the disposal. Mariana, though, did not. She bounced from one cause to another, from one idea to another. She double-majored in art history and psychology, learning just enough of either to remain almost embarrassingly ignorant of both. She spent most of her college years flaunting herself in a cheerleader’s uniform at football and basketball games, shopping at fashionable boutiques, and watching her weight and her looks. Her senior year, she met Lane at a reception held for a retiring professor—probably the one who knocked her up, Lane now considered—and that was that.
He stood in their kitchen, a room she had pronounced as “perfect” four years before, but which she now deemed to be “tiresome”—an excuse she often used to avoid hosting a dinner party—and considered Mariana, as a wife, as a woman. Lane had never especially been concerned about his feelings for her, one way or another. Her attraction had always been in her looks and in what he often thought was a kind of effervescence, a bubbling brightness that concealed a fairly shallow interior. He supposed that he loved her, that he was once “in love” with her, although he had trouble conjuring that emotion. He was certainly comfortable with her. To his surprise, he realized that since this whole episode with Sanchez had begun, he had never considered the possibility that in a month’s time they would not be relocating to Arizona and she would not be happily spending tens of thousands of dollars on cameras and accessories and processing equipment and digital software, probably signing up for courses in art and photography, dragging him to galleries and museums from San Diego to Santa Fe, trying to develop some sense about the geography that she had so recently decided was their destiny.
She also, he now considered, would soon be screwing some Apache or Mexican-American shutterbug or art dealer. But that went with the territory and didn’t have much to do with anything.
He knew all of her faults as well as he appreciated all of her virtues. On the whole, one side balanced the other, with maybe a slight tilting toward the negative as time went on. Even so, he couldn’t imagine life or any kind of a future without her. He, himself, was far from perfect, and for all he could tell, Mariana was as comfortable and content with him—and with his income—as she possibly could be with anyone else. So, the key to the problem at hand—or the problem smashed just outside the kitchen door—was just how to handle it so that neither of them seemed to be responsible for it. He went over and looked out the window at Sanchez’s twisted corpse. Who was this guy, anyway? Why should he complicate their lives? This was mostly his fault, so he needed to be the one to bear the brunt of responsibility.
But some of it had to be Mariana’s, as well. That was what had to be managed.
He climbed back to the bedroom and took a look around. Police, he believed, needed a mystery to solve, so he determined to give them one. And at the same time, he would have to give Mariana a challenge or two. Strapping on a pair of disposable latex gloves Mariana occasionally filled with some kind of elixir and wore to sleep in when she occasionally worried about her hands aging, he carefully made the bed and folded the bathroom towels just so. He found a trash bag under the sink and gathered Sanchez’s clothing into it. He put in the boots and tied up the bag, then went around the room carefully checking for anything that might indicate that he was there that morning. He scooped up the roaches from the ashtray and flushed them, then washed it in the bathroom sink and dried it with a bath towel and placed it where it belonged, in the drawer next to the pack of Camels. The baggie of grass, the champagne bottle and glasses he left where they were. He also didn’t disturb the two used condoms he found tangled in the sheets as he carefully made the bed, even putting the shams back in place.
Satisfied that the room was as he wanted it and offered nothing more than a series of illogical contradictions that would arouse a legion of embarrassing questions, he closed and latched the balcony doors and the drapes , then descended to the kitchen again. As he searched around, he was arrested by the appearance of a huge, unframed painting leaning against the china cabinet in the dining room. At six-feet tall and four-feet wide, the painting was grotesquely oversized and overwhelmed the entire room. Bright swirls of red and white were cast in wild patterns over a densely brown blob that dripped down to the bottom in a pattern suggestive of equine legs. Oranges and yellows—representing a desertscape at sunset, Lane deduced—formed a deeper background, giving the whole macabre mess a kind of three-dimensional aspect. In the center of the canvas, a silver blade entered the brown mass and penetrated it, the point shaping upward to the canvas’ upper border like a sharpened phallus ramming its way through dirty fabric that, Lane realized gradually, doubled as an outsized bridle and also as a pair of beige panties. What possibly was the horse’s head was thrust through one leg-hole. Not surprisingly, “Sanchez” was scrawled across the lower left corner in white paint, lettering large enough to be visible from across a museum’s main gallery, should Sanchez’s fortune ever be to be exhibited in any museum that actually had a main gallery.
Lane stood back and considered the work, idly wondering how the hell they ever got it home, let alone inside. Mariana drove a two-seater Porsche, and Sanchez didn’t strike him as the kind of guy who would make deliveries. It was ugly, garish, tasteless and unartful, words he probably should have used at the showing that night. “Amateur,” he said under his breath. “No, not even that. Crude and sophomoric,” he concluded. A resurgence of the annoyance he had felt earlier, rose within him. It was the sort of feeling, he thought, that he sometimes experienced in dealing with an obnoxious child. It made him want to reach out and strike, physically. Merely pushing the man off a balcony seemed inadequate. “Hell,” Lane muttered, “I don’t even have the satisfaction of his knowing who did it.”
On the corner of a side table, Lane spotted a small brochure. It was cheaply printed, mostly a single piece of colored paper, folded three times. It announced a “Final Show and Sale” of “Horses Rampant” at a small boutique art gallery. The date was yesterday, the time the
night before. Obviously, what had happened was that Mariana went to the show, spent some exorbitant amount of Lane’s money for this ridiculous painting, then came home with the grotesquery and the artist in tow. They smoked some dope, drank some bubbly, and bumped uglies for a while in a forlorn, even pitiful attempt to rejuvenate her fading youth.
The annoyance he had previously felt toward Sanchez transferred itself to Mariana. This was just stupid. Up to this point, he told himself, he had tried to be reasonable, tried to be mature and adult about this. But going down and picking up some overrated—actually unrated—painter and spending a small fortune on one of his ridiculous canvasses, then hauling him halfway across town just to fuck him—that was too much. It crossed a line.
He wasn’t angry with her. But he was peeved. “Irked,” he said aloud, thinking of a word his mother might have used. “I’m irked.” He decided she needed to be taught a lesson. Once that was done, they could start packing, move on and put this “irksome” incident behind them.
He went back to the kitchen, inspected the sandwich, walked over and took one more look at Sanchez’s twisted body, then collected the plastic bag and his carry-on, locked up and went out the front door. He stripped off the gloves and put them in the same pocket as the plastic knife pieces and strolled off down the sidewalk. He walked the four blocks back to the entrance, past the workmen, none of whom, he noticed, so much as looked up at him. Once back on the main road, he hiked the quarter mile up to the highway, veering off at one point toward a partly concealed dumpster, where, without breaking stride, he disposed of the plastic bag. He couldn’t walk all the way to the airport and would need a cab, but he didn’t want to call one, not from here. He hoped that he could find one up by the highway, one that wouldn’t find it too odd that a well-dressed businessman would hail him for a ride out in the middle of suburbia. At convenience store and gas station on the corner, his luck resurged. A regular taxi was parked at the air pump on the back side of the lot, the driver out and on his knees pumping up a low tire on his mini-van cab. “Say,” he said, walking up. “Can you take a fare?” My car broke down. The tow truck wouldn’t take me to the airport and I need to catch a plane.”
He asked the agreeable cabbie to wait while he went into the store to “wash up.” While in the men’s room, he emptied the plastic knife pieces out of his pocket and into the waste basket and flushed the latex gloves, making sure the commode accepted them without a problem.
A half-hour later, he entered the airport terminal, took the escalator up to the arrivals level, and checked to see if his original flight was on time. It was slated to land in just under two hours. He sat quietly in the outer waiting area until the plane was on the ground.
From time to time, he cogitated over what had transpired that morning. He acknowledged that he was a murderer, a killer, in common terminology. Criminologists would say that he was sociopathic, he guessed. Psychologists would speculate that, now that he had killed once, he was apt to kill again, that he now had a “taste” for it. But he didn’t feel that way. He didn’t think of himself as a murderer, even as the perpetrator of a crime, certainly not as a homicidal maniac. He had trouble connecting what happened that morning to himself in any practical way. Sanchez Jakeson had just been something that intruded into his life, and he basically put his foot down and squashed it—smashed it, he mentally corrected—as he would an obnoxious and bothersome insect or small reptile. It mildly occurred to him that Sanchez might have had close friends, a family—a mother, even a wife and children—who would mourn him. Recalling the man’s naked form urinating off the small balcony, though, Lane had doubts that anyone would really miss him. Thinking again about the absurd canvas back in the dining room, he was relatively sure that he would be of no significant loss to the art world. In a way, Lane felt he was owed a debt of gratitude.
Perhaps, he thought with a pang of mild discomfort, Mariana would miss him. Maybe she was planning something more extensive than a singular tryst and momentary excursion into libidinous game-playing. It could be, Lane thought with a mental squirm, she was considering leaving him and running away—although where to was an unanswerable question—with the pretentious bohemian. But after consideration, he dismissed that. After taxes, Lane cleared more than three-quarters of a million a year. There were iron-clad contractual protections against her ever getting to his accounts in the event of a divorce, particularly one when she was the primary respondent. No, he thought, he was sure that whatever was going through her mind during this dalliance, divorce was not on the table.
When he saw the overhead monitor flash “Arrived” next to his original flight, he turned on his cell and called Stephanie, his secretary. He told her he had the contract from the Phoenix client signed, and he thought he’d drop it by the office before going home. “It’s been a long day,” he said. “I think I’ll take off tomorrow.” She flirtatiously chirped that that she wished she could, too, and for the briefest moment, the image of her slender, youthful brunette form passed in front of Lane’s mind. Then he shook his head. It could never work out.
He then went to an ATM and withdrew a hundred dollars. He didn’t need the cash. He just wanted to establish where he was, when. He then strolled outside and hailed a regular contract cab.
“Devon Tower,” he said to the cabbie, an Hispanic. “It’s in Merkle Plaza, near the North Highway.” He driver nodded and started the meter. As they pulled away from the terminal, Lane pulled out his cell again and dialed their home number.
“Darling,” he said when her voice mail picked up. “I’m back, but I’m going by the office, but I should be home around five-thirty. Great news, though! Break out the champers—the good stuff we’ve been saving—and prepare to celebrate! We got the house! And for a whole lot less than we’d hoped!” He rang off, sat back, and slightly humming a tune he could not identify, he thought about nothing at all.