Unfinished Business (Kit Tolliver #12) (The Kit Tolliver Stories), page 1
A KIT TOLLIVER STORY
* * *
Copyright © 2013, Lawrence Block
All Rights Reserved
Cover Design: Jayne E. Smith
Ebook Design: JW Manus
“The Sumatra Blue Batak Tarbarita Peaberry,” the man said. “Could you describe that for me?”
It’s coffee, she thought. From Sumatra. What more do you need to know?
“Well, it’s a sort of medium roast,” she said. “And it has a good deal of body. I would say that it’s assertive without being overbearing.”
He nodded encouragement. He had a high forehead and an academic presence, the latter reinforced by his clothing—an olive-brown corduroy jacket with leather elbow patches, owlish glasses with heavy tortoiseshell frames, clean jeans, chukka boots. A strip of lighter skin on the appropriate finger showed he’d once worn a wedding ring. But the lighter skin was starting to blend in, so he’d stopped wearing it a while ago.
“As for the taste,” she went on, “that’s always hard for me to describe.”
“It’s so subjective. And yet I’ve a feeling you’ll get it right.”
Getting ready to hit on her. Well, she’d seen that coming.
“Hmmm. Well, how can I put it? I’d say it’s autumnal.”
“And . . . dare I say plangent?”
She caught a glimpse of Will, the shop’s co-owner, rolling his eyes.
“Brilliant,” her customer said. “Let me have a pound, then. Who am I to pass up a beverage that’s at once plangent and autumnal? And that’ll be whole bean, please. It’s the sheer aroma of freshly ground beans that gets my heart started in the morning, even before I get the coffee brewing.”
As she was ringing up the sale he asked her name, and she provided one. He said he’d remember it, and that his was Alden.
When the door closed behind the man, Will said, “Cordelia, eh? When did your name become Cordelia?”
Will was tall and thin; his lover and business partner, Billy, was short, with the muscularity of a relentless weightlifter. They’d both gone by Bill when they met, but found it confusing, so one became Will and the other Billy.
Will—and Billy, for that matter—knew her as Lindsay. And she might have given that name to Alden, but there was an instant when she couldn’t think of it. Not Lynne, not Linda, now what the hell was it? And the result was Cordelia.
“I don’t know,” she said. “For some reason I didn’t want to give him my name. And what came out was Cordelia.”
“Better than Regan or Goneril, I suppose. This way you’re the good daughter.”
She didn’t know what he was talking about, but she often didn’t. Better than gonorrhea? What was that supposed to mean?
“Anyway,” she said, “I figured it had a nice autumnal sound to it.”
“Oh, that it does. Not to mention plangent. Where the hell did you come up with that one, sweetie?”
She shrugged, but she knew exactly where she’d gotten it from. A few years ago, a very brief stint in a seafood restaurant in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. A customer had never had orange roughy before, and asked what it was like. A firm, white-fleshed fish, she’d told him, which was something you could say about almost everything but salmon and squid. And as for the taste, well, dare I say plangent? The line, she remembered, had gone over well enough. If it worked for a fish she’d never eaten, why wouldn’t it do for a beverage she’d never tasted?
“Plangent. Do you even know the meaning of the word?”
“It’s hard to define.”
“Oh, really? Try plaintive. Think of a sort of lingering sadness.”
“So? He’ll be having a cup of coffee on the porch, with his feet up on the railing, and he’ll find himself thinking about the woman he used to be married to, and wondering why he married her in the first place, and why the marriage failed, and why all his relationships seem to fail. But he won’t be heartbroken, because he’s got tenure at Willamette, and everybody says he looks good in corduroy, and he grinds his own coffee beans every morning, so it’s a good life, even if it is a sad one.”
He stared at her. “You did all that on the spur of the moment,” he said, “just to cover the fact that you’d been caught using a word you couldn’t define. There’s a short story of Saki’s that you remind me of. ‘Romance at short notice was her specialty.’ That’s the last line, and doesn’t it just fit you to a tee? Aren’t you the plangent queen of romance at short notice? Now don’t go rolling your eyes, sweetie. That’s my trick. I’ll tell you this, Cordelia, or Lindsay, or whoever you are this afternoon. You’re the tiniest bit scary.”
“Don’t worry,” she told him. “You’re safe.”
She was in Salem, the capital of Oregon, working afternoons at the Bean Bag, and living in a rooming house near the Willamette University campus. When she left Provo she’d planned on heading back east, but the first bus available took her north to Salt Lake City, and from there she continued north and west to Boise, and she’d kept gradually drifting north and west, and here she was in Salem, and Google Maps had already informed her that she was less than two hundred fifty miles from Kirkland, Washington.
Not hard to see a pattern here.
When her shift ended she picked up a small pizza and a fruit-flavored iced tea on her way home. She ate in her room, took a shower, and wrapped up in a towel. She picked up her phone, then decided she wanted to be dressed for this conversation. She put on clean underwear, jeans, a loose-fitting top, and was on her way to the mirror when she told herself she was being ridiculous. She sat down in the room’s one chair and made the call.
“Kimmie, two calls in what, three days?”
“I guess. Listen, if you don’t feel like talking—”
“You’re kidding, right? There’s never been a time when I haven’t felt like talking to you.”
It was the same for her. But she wasn’t ready to say it.
There were things, though, that you had to say whether you were ready or not. If you waited until you were ready they would never get said.
She said, “Rita, there’s a conversation we need to have.”
“Should I put on a nightgown? And get my toys ready?”
“Not this time.”
“Kimmie, this sounds serious.”
“Sort of, yeah. See, there’s things you don’t know about me. I was never a graduate student, I didn’t have a thesis to write.”
“You figured that much, huh?”
“Kimmie, every time I hear from you you’re some place else and you’ve got a new phone number. It’s pretty obvious you’ve got a whole life that I don’t know anything about.”
“And that doesn’t bother you?”
“It makes me wonder. And, you know, I can’t help having my own fantasies.”
“Which I’m sure are miles from the truth.”
“This is just crazy guessing, but—”
“Go ahead, Rita.”
“Well, what I decided is you’re sort of a spy. Like with some super-secret government agency? And you travel around on assignments, and when I don’t hear from you for a really long period of time, that’s because you’re out of the country.”
“I told you it was crazy. And then I thought—now this is even crazier, and maybe I shouldn’t say it.”
“No, say it.”
“Well, I thought whatever it is t
“But what I realized was I don’t care. What side you’re on, I mean. I don’t care if you’re really an alien and you’re working for the Flying Saucer people. It doesn’t matter. You’re still my Kimmie, and I get tingly when I pick up the phone and it’s you, and I’d rather jill off to one of your stories than fuck Brad Pitt while I’m blowing George Clooney.”
“Although that does sound like fun.”
“Yeah, it sort of does, doesn’t it?”
“I don’t work for the government, Rita. Not ours or anybody else’s, either. I work in a pretentious coffee shop in Salem.”
“Where they burn the witches?”
“That was in Massachusetts, wasn’t it? Somewhere in New England, anyway. I’m in the one in Oregon, and all we burn is the French Roast coffee.”
“You’re in Oregon?”
“That’s not so far, is it?”
“It’d take a while on a bicycle,” she said. “Rita, it’s not far, not really, and anyway I wouldn’t have to take a bike. I know how to drive. But first there are things I have to tell you, and the only way this is going to work is if you just listen and don’t interrupt. And then when I’m through you can ask anything you want, or say anything you want. Or just tell me you don’t want to have anything to do with me, and hang up, and I’ll have to live with that.”
“My God, Kimmie.”
“So here goes.”
Long pause. “Kimmie?”
“Yeah, I’m here. I’m just having a little trouble getting started.”
It was very difficult to get started, and not much easier once she did. She couldn’t say anything without worrying about the way it would be received. But she forced herself to keep going, and there was a point where she stopped being concerned by Rita’s reaction.
She’d asked Rita not to interrupt, and she didn’t, not even with an occasional sharp intake of breath. She found herself entertaining the notion that Rita wasn’t listening at all, that she’d put down the phone and left the room, that her own carrier had dropped the call.
None of that mattered. She was speaking of things she had never confided to anyone, and it was as if all those words had been dammed up somewhere within her, and the effect of releasing them was surprisingly powerful.
All those years of being the good little soldier, and you couldn’t say they’d ended when she killed her parents. That just gave her another secret to keep.
She’d shared bits and pieces with some of the men she’d been with, just before or after she killed them. And she’d told a bit of her story to Angelica while she got the woman to tell her where the money was stashed, and while she slipped the Hermés scarf around her neck.
Maybe those brief confidences had been an attempt to break the dam, to let it all out and relieve the pressure. But this was vastly different, and somewhere along the way she slipped into an altered state, as if she were a trance medium channeling her own thoughts.
When she stopped, when the words ran out, she couldn’t have guessed how much time had passed. Nor would she have been able to say what incidents she’d recounted and what ones remained unreported. All she knew, really, was that she was done, that she’d said all she needed to say.
She was waiting for a response from Rita, but Rita was silent herself. She knew she was still on the line, though. Her breathing, while shallow, was audible.
When it was clear Rita wasn’t going to speak, she said, “That’s it. You can talk now. Or not, if you don’t want to.”
“I wasn’t sure you were done.”
“Oh, I’m done.”
“I never would have guessed any of that, Kimmie. Except—”
“Well, you know. Thinking you were a secret agent. I wondered if you ever had to kill anybody.”
“And what did you decide?”
“That you probably had to, and that you were probably good at it.”
“Because I’m a heartless bitch.”
“Because you’re the strongest human being I’ve ever met in my life.”
“I guess you don’t get out much.”
“I mean it, Kimmie. Should I be calling you that? That can’t be the name you started out with.”
“I like it.”
“I like it when you say it.”
“What’s so funny?”
“Oh, I was just thinking. I like when you say Kimmie almost as much as you like it when I say cunt.”
“Kimmie, you’re awful!”
“I’ve killed more men than I can remember and saying a yummy word like cunt makes me awful?”
“It is a yummy word, isn’t it?”
“If you were here—”
“If I were there what?”
“If you were here, I’d grab you like a bowling ball with two fingers up your ass and my thumb up your cunt, and I’d suck on your clitty until your bones melt.”
“You didn’t just come up with that, Rita.”
“No, it’s one of a few hundred things I think about all the time. All. The. Time.”
“But now that you know what I am—”
“You’re my Kimmie, that’s all I need to know. I love you.”
“I do, I do. I love you and I’m in love with you. And I don’t have to be jealous of any of the guys you’ve been with because they’re all dead. Not that I was ever jealous anyway, because what do I care what you do with men? What has any of that got to do with us?”
“Nothing. I love you, too.”
“I know you do.”
“You want to know something awful about me? I love that you killed them. Kellen Kimball, I liked the idea that you were going to fuck him, that we’d have him in common.”
“You said it would be a threesome with an interval.”
“And I thought he was a pretty nice guy, even if he wouldn’t go down on me. Did he go down on you?”
“He didn’t want to.”
“But he did, didn’t he?”
“Well, see, he did want to, really. He wanted to do you, too, but he had this fidelity issue. Once I got him to see that he was my proxy bridegroom Sidney, not some lucky girl’s fiancé, well, he got into the spirit of things.”
“That is so great. And he’s dead, and you killed him.”
“I guess I’m crazy, because on the one hand I liked him a little, and at the same time I’m really glad you killed him. That’s weird, isn’t it?”
“I think so,” she said. “But I’m not sure I’m the best person to say what’s weird and what isn’t.”
And, a little later:
“I know you can drive, but I bet you don’t have a car. What I could do, I could drive down and pick you up.”
“I’ll take the train.”
“Are you sure? I swear I don’t mind driving.”
“Amtrak takes a little over five hours and costs all of sixty-five dollars. I’ll get to watch the scenery, and I won’t have to worry about keeping my hands off the driver.”
“You already checked this out.”
“You were planning on coming.”
“Or leaving you alone forever, depending on what you wanted.”
“Well, you know what I want.”
“It sounds like we both want the same thing.”
“Tomorrow,” she said. “There are a couple of things I have to do. Pack my stuff, tell my boss to find someone else to sell plangent coffee.”
“Long story. There’s a train at two in the afternoon, gets to Seattle at a quart
“I’ll be there.”
“I could take a cab.”
“Yeah, right. Or maybe my bike’s still there where you left it. You never know.”
“It still bothers me about the bike. Just abandoning it like that.”
“Well, get over it,” Rita said. “I’ll be there when your train gets in. And Kimmie? I love you.”
Her morning appointment took longer than she’d thought. She’d packed first and stopped en route at the Bean Bag to pick up her pay and tell Will she was leaving, then found her way to the salon. She’d found their ad in the local alternative newspaper, and the operator wore spike heels and a lot of leather; if she wasn’t a dominatrix, she needed a new agent.
She had one more stop to make after the Leather Girl finished with her, but it didn’t take long. When she left her suitcase was heavier, but not too heavy, and she wound up catching her train with ten minutes to spare. She grabbed a window seat, plopped her bag onto the aisle seat beside her, and hoped no one would make her move it. A lot of people got on in Portland, but they all walked past her bag and found seats somewhere else, and the seat beside hers remained empty all the way to Seattle.
For five hours her mind kept offering up objections, telling her that she was crazy, that she and Rita were partners in a folie a deux. There was a rock album with that name, and it meant a shared delusion, and wasn’t that what was going on? A few hours together months and months ago, a whole bunch of deliberately erotic telephone conversations, and only one in which she’d actually let this great love of her life get a glimmer of who she really was.
She remembered a joke she’d overheard in the Daiquiri Dock:
Q: What does a lesbian bring on a second date?
A: A U-Haul.
She laid a hand on the bag next to her. Not a U-Haul, but it held everything she owned in the world, so it amounted to pretty much the same thing.
Half an hour north of Portland she started wishing she’d put her bag in the overhead rack. Someone might be sitting next to her now, some jabbering biddy with pictures of her drooling grandchildren, some gormless college boy who’d ask her a million questions, then dart off to abuse himself in the restroom. One way or another she’d be stuck with a companion who’d bore her to tears—and wouldn’t that be better than having to listen to her own wretched mind?
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