I richard, p.13

I, Richard, page 13


I, Richard

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  “Make yourself to home,” the old gentleman said. “Have a spec around. You looking for anything special?”

  “Actually,” Charlie said as she and Bethany approached the counter, “I'm looking for a family. My husband's family.”

  The man scratched his head. He set the porcelain bottle down on his desk and placed the jeweler's lens next to it. “Don't sell families,” he said with a smile.

  “This one's called Lawton,” Bethany said.

  “Marilyn and Clark Lawton,” Charlie added. “We were… Well, I was hoping that you might… Are you Mr. Lawton, by any chance?”

  “Henry Leel,” he said.

  “Oh.” Charlie felt deflated. More, the knowledge that the man wasn't Eric's father struck her more forcefully than she thought it would. She said, “Well, it was always only a chance, driving out here. But I hoped… You don't happen to know any family called Lawton in town, do you?”

  Henry Leel shook his head. “Can't say as I do. They antiques people?” He gestured at the shop around him, crowded to a claustrophobic degree with furniture and bric-a-brac.

  “I don't…” Charlie felt a slight dizziness come over her, and she reached for the counter.

  Bethany took her arm. She said, “Here. Take it easy,” and to Henry Leel, “She's just getting over the flu. And her husband… He died about a week ago. His parents don't know about it and we're looking for them.”

  “They the Lawtons?” Henry Leel said, and when Bethany nodded, he cast a sympathetic gaze on Charlie. “She looks mighty young to be a widow, poor thing.”

  “She is mighty young to be a widow. And like I say, she's been sick.”

  “Bring her behind here then and sit her down. Mugs, get off that chair and give it to the lady. Go on. You heard me. Here. Let me get the pillow off, Miss… Mrs… What'd you say the name was?”

  “Lawton,” Charlie said. “Forgive me. I haven't been feeling well. His death… It was sudden.”

  “I'm sure sorry about that. Here. I'm making you some tea with a tot of brandy in it. It'll set you up. You stay where you are.”

  He locked the front door of the shop and disappeared into the back. When he returned with the tea, he brought a local telephone directory with him, eager to be of help to the ladies. But a search through its pages turned up no Lawtons in the area.

  Charlie quelled her disappointment. She drank her tea and felt revived enough to tell Henry Leel how she and Bethany had come to choose this shop in Temecula as the jumping-off point to find Eric's family. When she'd completed the story and brought forth the wedding picture of Eric's parents, Henry gazed at it long and hard, his brow furrowed as if he could force recognition out of his skull. But he shook his head after a minute of study. He said, “They look a touch familiar, I'll give you that. But I wouldn't want to say that I know them. Sides, I sell old pictures not much different from this, so after a while everyone in a picture looks like someone I've seen somewhere. Here. Let me show you.”

  He went to a dark far corner of the shop and brought out a small bin that stood on the shelf of a kitchen dresser. He carried this back to Charlie and Bethany saying, “I don't sell many. Mostly to tearooms, theater groups, frame shops wanting to use them for display. That sort of thing. Here. Have a look-see yourself.” He plopped the bin on the desk. “See. This here one of yours… it fits right in with this last bunch in the bin. A little more recent, but I've got some that age. Looks like… let me see for a second. Yep. It looks like a fifties shot. Late fifties. Maybe early sixties.”

  Charlie had begun to feel uneasy with the first mention of the photographs. She didn't want to look at Bethany, afraid of what her own face might reveal. She fingered through the photographs cooperatively, unable to avoid noticing the fact that they represented all styles and all periods of time. There were tintypes, there were old black and white snapshots, there were studio studies, there were hand-tinted portraits. Some of them had handwriting on the back, identifying either the subjects or the places. Charlie didn't want to think what this meant. Jessie-Lynn just before Merle's wedding.

  Henry Leel said, “So how'd you come to think these Lawton folks'd be here? At this shop in Temecula.”

  “There was a receipt,” Bethany responded. “Charlie, show him what you found in that frame.”

  Charlie handed over the slip of paper. As Henry Leel squinted down at it, she said, “It must have been a coincidence. The picture … this one of his parents… it was a bit loose in the frame, and he must have been just using it to fill in the gap. I saw it and… Since I was hoping to track down his family, I made a leap that wasn't warranted. That's all.”

  Henry Leel pulled thoughtfully at his chin. He cocked his head to one side and tapped his index finger—its nail blackened by some sort of fungus—against the receipt. He said, “These're numbered. See here? One-oh-five-eight in the top right-hand corner? Just hang on a minute. I might be able to help you.” He rustled within his rolltop desk, rousing Mugs from her slumber at its side. She lifted her head and blinked at him sleepily before pillowing herself once again in her paws. Her master brought forth a worn, black, floppy-covered book of an official nature and he plopped it onto his desktop, saying, “Let's see what we can come up with in here.”

  In here turned out to be copies of the sales receipts for merchandise for Time on My Side. Within a moment, the shop owner had leafed back through them to find what was on either side of 1058. 1059 had been made out to a Barbara Fryer with a home address in Huntington Beach. “Not much help there,” Henry Leel said regretfully, but he added, “Say now. Here's what we want,” when he saw the receipt that preceded it. “Here's who you're looking for. You said Lawton, didn't you? Well, I've got myself a Lawton right here.”

  He swung the accounts book in Charlie's direction, and she saw what she'd anticipated seeing—without knowing or understanding why she would be seeing it—the moment she began fingering through the old pictures. Eric Lawton was written on receipt number 1057. Instead of an address anywhere at all, there was only a phone number: Eric's work number at the pharmaceutical company where he'd been director of sales for the seven years that Charlie had known him.

  Beneath Eric's name was a list of purchases. Charlie read gold locket (14 ct), 19th century porcelain box, woman's diamond ring, and Japanese fan. Beneath this last was the number ten and the word pix. Charlie didn't need to ask what that final notation meant.

  Bethany pointed to it, saying, “Charles, is this—”

  Charlie cut her off. Her limbs felt like lead, but she moved them anyway, turning the account book back to the shop owner and saying, “No. It's… I'm looking for Clark or Marilyn Law-ton. This is someone else.”

  Henry Leel said, “Oh. Well, I s'pose it wouldn't be this fellah. He was too young to be who you're looking for anyway. I remember him, and he was… say… fortyish? Forty-five. I remember because look here, he spent near seven hundred dollars—the ring and the locket were the big-money items—and you don't see that kind of sale every day. I said to him, ‘Some lady's going to get lucky,' and he winked. ‘Every lady's lucky when she's my lady,' he said. I remember that. Cocky, I thought. But cocky in a good way. You know what I mean?”

  Charlie smiled faintly. She got to her feet. She said, “Thanks. Thanks so much for your help.”

  “Sorry I couldn't've been more of a one,” Henry Leel replied. “Say, you want to head off right now? You're looking green around the gills. Ask me, you need a straight shot of brandy.”

  “No, no. I'm fine. Thanks,” Charlie said. She gripped Bethany's arm and drew her steadily from the shop.

  Outside, an old-time hitching rail ran along the wooden sidewalk, and Charlie clutched onto this, looking out into the street. She thought about 10 pix and what that meant: a family conveniently purchased in Temecula, California. But what did that mean? And what did it tell her about her husband?

  She felt Bethany come close to her side and she blessed her friend for the gift of her silence. It continued whi
le out in the bright street, cars cruised by and pedestrians dodged between them to dart into yet another shop.

  When she was finally able to speak, Charlie said, “What happened was that I accused him of having an affair. Not that night. A week or so before.”

  Bethany said, voice glum, “He never gave you that locket, I guess. Or the ring.”

  “Or the porcelain box. No. He didn't.”

  “Maybe he sent them to Janie? Trying to be a good dad?”

  “He never said.” In spite of an attempt to control them, Charlie's tears welled anyway, spilling onto her cheeks in a silent trail of misery. “He'd been acting different for about three months. At first I thought it was work—sales being down or something. But there were the phone calls he hung up on when I walked into the room. There were the times he came home late. He always phoned me, but the excuses were… Beth, they were so transparent.”

  Bethany sighed. “Charles, I don't know. It looks bad. I can see that for myself. But it just doesn't seem like Eric.”

  “Did a Harley-Davidson seem like Eric? A tattoo of a snake crawling up his arm?” Charlie began crying in earnest then, and the rest of her fears, her suspicions, and her covert activities in the final week before Eric's death spilled out of her for her friend's ears. He'd denied an affair earlier when confronted, she told Bethany. He'd denied it with such incredulous outrage that Charlie had decided to believe in him. But three weeks later, he suggested casually that she slow down in her decorating of their house and especially that she hold off on their plans for a nursery since “we don't really know how much longer we're going to live in this place,” which set fire to her suspicions again.

  She'd hated the part of herself that had doubts about Eric, but she'd not been able to stop herself from dwelling on them. They led her to snooping in a despicable fashion she was embarrassed to admit to, stooping so low as to even go through his bathroom—for God's sake—for signs that there was another woman who might have been in the house with Eric when she herself was gone.

  As she told the tale, Charlie wiped her eyes and even laughed shakily at her own behavior: She'd been like a character in an afternoon soap opera, a woman whose life goes from bad to worse but all the time at her own hands. She'd studied telephone bills for strange numbers; she'd gone through her husband's address book, looking for cryptic initials that stood in place of a mistress's name; she'd examined his dirty laundry for telltale signs of lipstick that was not her own; she'd rustled through his dresser drawers for mementos, receipts, letters, messages, ticket stubs, or anything else that might give him away; she'd picked the lock of his briefcase and read every document inside it as if the convoluted reports from Biosyn Inc. were love letters or diaries written in code.

  She'd been forced to confess to all of this, however, when she sank to the depths of opening up a prescription cough syrup she'd found in his bathroom—not even knowing why she was opening it…what did she expect to find in there? A genie who would tell her the truth?—only to have it slip from her fingers and smash and spill upon the limestone floor. That had served to bring her to her senses: that rising sense of frustration at not being able to prove what she believed to be true, that muttered aha! when she saw the bottle, that clutching to her bosom of the medicine itself and unscrewing its top with unsteady hands and watching dumbly as it flew from her fingers and broke on the floor, spilling out the syrup in an amber pool. When this occurred, she had realized how futile her investigation was and how ugly it was making her. Which was why she finally confessed to her husband. It seemed the only way to get herself beyond what was troubling her.

  “He listened. He was terribly upset. And after we talked, he just went into himself. I thought he was punishing me for what I'd done, and I knew I deserved it. What I did was wrong. But I thought he'd get past it, we'd both get past it and that would be the end of it. Only, a week later he was dead. And now…” Charlie glanced at the door of Time on My Side. “We know, don't we? We know what. We just don't know who. Let's go home, Beth.”

  Bethany Franklin was reluctant to believe the worst of Eric

  Lawton. She pointed out to Charlie that Charlie's own search had turned up nothing and that, for all she knew, Eric had been squirreling away Christmas presents for her. Or birthday presents. Or Valentine's presents. Some people buy things when they see them, Bethany pointed out, and just hang on to them till the appropriate day.

  But that hardly explained the pictures, Charlie said. He'd “bought” his family at Time on My Side. And what did that mean?

  That he had another family somewhere, she decided. Beyond his earlier marriage to Paula, beyond his daughter Janie, and beyond herself.

  For the next two days, Charlie fought off a relapse of the flu and used her bed time to sort out who among Eric's limited number of friends might be able and willing to tell her the truth about her husband's private life. She decided that Terry Stewart would be the man: Eric's attorney, his regular tennis partner, and his buddy from their days in kindergarten. If there was a hidden side to Eric Lawton, Terry Stewart had to know it.

  Before she could phone him and make an arrangement to see him, however, she received her first hint of what Eric's second life might be. One of his colleagues came to call, a woman Charlie had never met, had never even heard of. She was named Sharon Pasternak (“No relation,” she said with a smile when she introduced herself at the front door), and she apologized for stopping by without phoning. She wondered if she could have a look through Eric's work papers, she said. The two of them had been assembling a report for the board of directors, and Eric had taken most of the paperwork home to put it together in a logical fashion.

  “I know it's awfully soon after… well, you know. And I'd wait if I could, honestly,” Sharon Pasternak said as Charlie admitted her into the house. “But the board meets next month and since I'll be putting this together by myself now… I'm really sorry to have to come around… But I need to get going on it.” She looked earnest, regretful about having even to say Eric's name, not wishing to cause his widow further grief. She made all the right noises. On the other hand, she also said she was a molecular biologist, which prompted Charlie to ask herself why one of Biosyn's scientists and its director of sales would be writing a report together.

  Cautiously, all her senses on alert, Charlie showed Sharon Pasternak to Eric's study where, on his desk, his briefcase lay. Sharon flashed her a smile, said, “May I… Is it all right if I sit here?” and put one hand on Eric's swivel chair. “It might take a while.” She gestured around the room. “He's got so many files.”

  “Sure,” Charlie said as pleasantly as she could. “Take your time. I have to go through all of this eventually, but you can take whatever relates to…” She made the pause deliberate. “To your work.”

  Sharon flushed and dropped her gaze. She said, “Thanks so much,” and she lifted her head when she went on with, “I'm so sorry about… everything, Mrs. Lawton. He was a good man. He was such a good man.” Her eyes bored meaningfully into Charlie's, fastening upon her for far too long.

  So this was it, Charlie thought in reaction. This was how it played out when you came face-to-face with the object of your husband's secret passion. Except Sharon Pasternak wasn't Eric's type. Plump, a head of no-nonsense dark hair, a smattering of makeup, ankles too thick. She wasn't his type. Yet, it had to be asked: What was Eric Lawton's type? Who was his type? Did his wife even know?

  Charlie went to her bedroom and closed the curtains. She lay in the darkness and listened to the sounds of Eric's colleague sifting through whatever she wanted to sift through in the study. Charlie herself had already been through much of the contents of the room during her frenzy of searching for evidence of her husband's infidelity. If Sharon indeed was the mystery woman, Charlie wanted to tell her, her secret was safe, or at least it had been safe till she'd showed up at Eric Lawton's front door. Dumb move, Ms. Pasternak.

  “As in Boris?” Bethany asked Charlie later. “That's not exactly
a name hanging on every tree. Did you see her ID? She could've given you an alias.”

  “Why? If she was Eric's lover, what difference does it make whether I know her name or not?”

  “She might not be Eric's lover, Charles. She might be someone else altogether.”

  Charlie considered this point and all its implications. “I need to talk to Terry Stewart,” she decided. “Terry must know who Eric was seeing.”

  “If he was seeing anyone at all. But why do you need to know?”

  “Because I…”Charlie drew a deep breath. “I need absolution. The truth will give me absolution.”

  “For what?”

  “For not knowing what to believe.”

  “There's no sin in that.” “For me, there is.”

  Eric's oldest friend, so often declared “my best friend on earth… he didn't desert me… he never would,” Terry Stewart, Charlie knew, had to be confronted without having had the time to prepare a cover for whatever it was he might be hiding about Eric. As he was an attorney—Eric's own lawyer, in fact—she knew how likely it was that he would be set upon taking his clients' secrets to the grave. So she didn't want her visit to him to be official. Which meant she would need to waylay him in a location some distance from his glass-towered office.

  The gym turned out to be that location. She saw his car parked in front of it when she was on her way to the tennis courts to check for him, and she recognized its vanity plate: 10s nei. So she pulled into the lot, saw him sweating on the Stair-master through the plate-glass windows of the establishment, and decided to wait for him to emerge. There was a Starbucks next door, and she went there.

  She was in a window seat sipping a chai latte when Terry swung open the door of the gym. He headed for his car, straightening his tie as he walked. He looked freshly showered: all damp hair and glowing skin. She knocked on the window. He swung around, saw her, stopped, and smiled. He came in her direction and, in short order, joined her.

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