I richard, p.4

I, Richard, page 4

 

I, Richard
 


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  He strode through the buttery. From there, he went out into the courtyard. So sure he was of what he was about to do that he dismissed the Germans and the two English families and waited in grim silence while they left the courtyard. When they had done so, he sought out Polly Simpson and without ceremony, he took the camera from her shoulder.

  She protested with, “Hey! That's mine. What're you—”

  He silenced her by opening the first of the film containers that were affixed to the strap of the camera. It was empty. As were the others. He said, “I've been noticing you taking pictures since we arrived. How many would you say you've exposed?”

  She said, “I don't know. I don't keep count. I just keep taking them till I run out.”

  “But you've brought no extra film, have you?”

  “I didn't think I'd need it.”

  “No? Curious. You began taking pictures the moment you stepped into the garden. You haven't stopped, except during the crisis in the gallery, I expect. Or did you photograph that as well?”

  Emily Guy gasped. Sam Cleary said, “See here…” and would have gone further had his wife not clutched at his arm.

  “What's this all about?” Victoria Wilder-Scott said. “Everyone knows Polly always takes pictures.”

  “Indeed? With this lens?” Lynley asked.

  “It's a macro zoom,” Polly said, and as Lynley grasped the lens forcefully, she cried, “Hey! Don't! That thing cost a mint.”

  “Did it,” Lynley said. He twisted it off. He upended it smartly against the palm of his hand. Two pieces of silver tumbled out.

  Several people gasped.

  “A dummy,” Cleve Houghton said soberly.

  And every eye in the courtyard went to Polly Simpson.

  It was a sombre History of British Architecture class that returned to Cambridge late that evening. They were, of course, minus three of their members. What remained of Ralph Tucker was undergoing the postmortem knife while his widow made the most of her circumstances by accepting the hospitality of a solicitous Augusta, dowager countess of Fabringham, who was well aware of Americans' bent towards litigation at the drop of the hat and was eager to avoid a close encounter with any form of American jurisprudence. And Polly Simpson was in the custody of the local police, charged with the primary crime of murder and the secondary thwarted crime of burglary.

  Polly Simpson was heavily on the minds of her fellow students, needless to say. And needless to say, they all felt rather differently about her.

  Sam Cleary, for one, felt a perfect fool for having failed to recognize that Polly's fascination with him had in reality extended only as far as his knowledge of botany. She'd hung on his every word and story, it was true, but hadn't she guided him most towards his work, till she had what she needed from him: a poison she could put her hands on simply by taking a walk along the college backs in Cambridge.

  Frances Cleary, for another, felt reassured. True, Ralph Tucker was dead so the cost was high, but she'd learned that her husband wasn't the object of young girls' fatal attraction that she'd thought he was, so she rested far more secure in her marriage. Secure enough, indeed, to allow Sam to ride home in the mini-coach right next to Emily Guy.

  Emily Guy and Victoria Wilder-Scott felt disappointed and depressed by the day's events, but for different reasons. Victoria Wilder-Scott had just lost the first enthusiastic student she'd had in a summer session from America in years while Emily Guy had discovered that a pretty young girl, so much admired because she had no weakness for men, had a weakness for something else instead.

  And the men themselves—Howard Breen and Cleve Houghton? They thought of Polly's arrest as a loss. For his part, Cleve mourned the fact that her arrest would put an end to his hopes of getting her to bed despite the twenty-seven years between their respective ages. And for his part, Howard Breen was happy to see the last of her… since her departure left Cleve Houghton available to him. After all, one could always hope, at the end of the day.

  And that's what the Americans actually ended up learning in the History of British Architecture class that summer in Cambridge: Hope hadn't worked for Polly Simpson. But that's not to say it wouldn't work for the rest of them.

  Introduction to

  The Surprise of His Life

  The inspiration for this story came from a double homicide that caught my attention in the early 1990s. It received a great deal of publicity at the time and although the defendant was found not guilty of the charges, I spent a lot of time considering his potential for guilt and how, if indeed he committed the crime, the killing might have come about. Here's what I concluded:

  Although there were two victims of that crime—a young man and a slightly older woman—it seemed to me that the wife was the target.

  The husband was an obsessive man estranged from his wife. His life was dominated by thoughts of her, specifically with thoughts of how she had left him and, in leaving him, how she had humiliated him. He was a minor celebrity. In his mind, she was nothing. Yet she walked out on him and, to make matters worse, she no longer gave any indication that things might work out eventually between them. She'd initially said she wanted a

  cooling-off period because their relationship was so volatile. He'd agreed to that. But now she was talking about divorce and the d-word made him feel like a fool. Not only would he probably lose his kids—they had two of them, a boy and a girl—but a divorce was going to cost him a bucket and she didn't deserve a dime of what he had.

  Thoughts like these began swarming in his mind until every hour of every day was torture for the husband. Only when he slept was he free from the wife and from her plans to take his kids, take his money, and no doubt hook up with some young stud… all at his expense. But even then, at night, the husband dreamed about her. And the thoughts during the day and the dreams at night were driving him so crazy, he thought he'd die if he couldn't do something about them.

  It seemed to him that the only way to wipe her out of his mind was to kill her. She deserved it anyway. He'd always watched how she came on to men. She'd probably been unfaithful to him a dozen times already. She was a lousy wife and a lousy mother and he'd be doing his kids a favor at the same time as he'd be wiping her out of his mind if he just got rid of her.

  So he laid his plans.

  He and the wife lived no great distance apart. If he got his timing down to the second, he could zip over to her house, kill her, and be back at his own place…all within about fifteen minutes. Maybe less. But he knew that the cops would want him to account for every second on the night his wife was murdered, so he decided to set things up for a night when he had a flight to catch to another part of the country. To make things look even tighter, he'd phone a limousine to take him to the airport. Who the heck, he thought, would ever figure that a killer would off his wife barely a half hour before a limo was picking him up?

  The question of the weapon was a tricky one. He couldn't use a gun for obvious reasons: It was a crowded neighborhood and one gunshot would have everyone out in the street wondering what was going on. He couldn't shoot her inside her house, either, because their children would be upstairs in bed and the last thing he wanted was to have them wake up and come running down to find their dad standing over their mother's body with a smoking gun. There was always a garrote, but that allowed her to be able to fight him off. So, no. He needed something quick like a gun but silent like a garrote, and a knife seemed like the only answer.

  So on the night in question, he dressed in black. So as not to leave any forensic evidence behind, he wore gloves on his hands and a knitted cap on his head. He was a big man—tall, hefty, muscular, and strong—and she was small. If everything went according to plan, he'd have her out of the way in less than a minute and then he'd be free of her at last.

  He went to her house, a townhouse which was set back from the street behind a wall. He knocked on the door. She had a dog, but the dog knew him and shouldn't be a problem.

  Oddly enough, she opened the d
oor to his knock instead of asking who it was the way she normally did. But that also was of no account. He asked her if she'd just step outside so they could talk for a minute without waking up the kids.

  I'm heading out in an hour, he told her. I wanted to talk to you about…

  What? His decision to go ahead and not contest the divorce? The settlement she wanted? One or both of their children?

  It doesn't matter because whatever he asked to talk to her about was what got her to step outside the house. And when she did that, he was upon her so quickly that she never knew what

  hit her. He spun her around, plunged the knife into her neck, and he slashed it across her throat with a power that came from the fury he felt toward her: because she wouldn't get out of his mind, because she was going to take his children, because she was going to rob him blind, just because.

  It was over in an instant. He lowered her dead and bloody body to the ground and turned to leave… just as the gate opened and a young man entered.

  He was on a friendly errand: simply returning a pair of sunglasses to their owner. He was on his way home from work and the last thing he expected to see was the husband with a knife in his hand and his wife's mutilated body on the ground before him.

  The young man's first reaction was to draw a breath in shock. He said, What the—but he had time for no more. The husband leapt upon him with the knife in his hand, slashing and stabbing.

  There was no noise. This was not a Hollywood movie where men fight for their lives to the accompaniment of sound effects and music. This was real. And in a real fight, there is only silence broken by grunts or groans, neither of which are audible behind a wall.

  During the fight, the husband lost the knitted hat he had on. He lost one of the gloves. He was covered with blood and his own knife had cut him on the hand. But he prevailed. The young man died, his only crime being helpful.

  The husband now had a problem on his hands, though. Valuable time had been lost in the second killing. He couldn't stop to find the hat and the glove. He also had to get home, throw his clothes into the washer, get into the shower, and get out to that limousine.

  This was what he did, losing the second glove in his haste.

  As for the knife, that was not a problem. He put it in his golf bag which he was taking with him on his trip. The golf bag might have been X-rayed at the airport with the baggage set to go into the hold of the jet. But among the golf clubs, it would hardly be noticed and even if it was, it didn't constitute an explosive so it would hardly be remarked upon.

  When he arrived at his destination, his plan was simple to execute. He dressed in sweats and went out for an early-morning run. He took the knife with him and disposed of it somewhere along the route.

  Within a scant few hours, he would be notified of his wife's murder. But he had his alibi and even if that didn't hold up, he had plenty of money to hire lawyers to get him out of whatever mess that kid with the sunglasses caused him.

  When I considered that crime and the husband's potential for guilt, it triggered within me the idea for the short story that follows. In it, a husband begins obsessing about his young wife's faithlessness… with unexpected results.

  The Surprise of

  His Life

  When douglas armstrong had his first consultation with Thistle McCloud, he had no intention of murdering his wife. His mind, in fact, didn't turn to murder until two weeks after consultation number four.

  At that time, Douglas watched closely as Thistle prepared herself for a revelation from another dimension. She held his wedding band in the palm of her left hand. She closed her fingers around it. She hovered her right hand over the fist that she'd made, and she hummed five notes that sounded suspiciously like the beginning of “I Love You Truly.” Gradually, her eyes rolled back, up, and out of view beneath her yellow-shaded lids, leaving him with the disconcerting sight of a thirtysomething female in a straw boater, striped vest, white shirt, and polka-dotted tie, looking as if she were one quarter of a barbershop quartet in desperate hope of finding her partners.

  When he'd first seen Thistle, Douglas had appraised her attire—which in subsequent visits had not altered in any appreciable fashion—as the insidious getup of a charlatan who wished to focus her clients' attention on her personal appearance rather than on whatever machinations she would be going through to delve into their pasts, their presents, their futures, and—most importantly—their wallets. But he'd come to realize that Thistle's odd getup had nothing to do with distracting anyone. The first time she held his old Rolex watch and began speaking in a low, intense voice about the prodigal son, about his endless departures and equally endless returns, about his aging parents who welcomed him always with open arms and open hearts, about his brother who watched all this with a false fixed smile and a silent shout of What about me? Do I mean nothing?, he had a feeling that Thistle was exactly what she purported to be: a psychic.

  He'd first come to her storefront operation because he'd had forty minutes to kill prior to his yearly prostate exam. He dreaded the exam and the teeth-grating embarrassment of having to answer his doctor's jovial, rib-poking “Everything up and about as it should be?” with the truth, which was that Newton's law of gravity had begun asserting itself lately to his dearest appendage. And since he was six weeks short of his fifty-fifth birthday, and since every disaster in his life had occurred in a year that was a multiple of five, if there was a chance of knowing what the gods had in store for him and his prostate, he wanted to be able to do something to head off the chaos.

  These things had all been on his mind as he spun along Pacific Coast Highway in the dim gold light of a late December afternoon. On a drearily commercialized section of the road—given largely to pizza parlors and boogie board shops—he had seen the small blue building that he'd passed a thousand times before and read PSYCHIC CONSULTATIONS on its hand-painted sign. He'd glanced at his gas gauge for an excuse to stop and while he pumped super unleaded into the tank of his Mercedes across the street from that small blue building, he made his decision. What the hell, he'd thought. There were worse ways to kill forty minutes.

  So he'd had his first session with Thistle McCloud, who was anything but what he'd expected of a psychic since she used no crystal ball, no tarot cards, nothing at all but a piece of his jewelry. In his first three visits, it had always been the Rolex watch from which she'd received her psychic emanations. But today she'd placed the watch to one side, declared it diluted of power, and set her fog-colored eyes on his wedding ring. She'd touched her finger to it, and said, “I'll use that, I think. If you want something further from your history and closer to your heart.”

  He'd given her the ring precisely because of those last two phrases: further from your history and closer to your heart. They told him how very well she knew that the prodigal son business rose from his past while his deepest concerns were attached to his future.

  Now, with the ring in her closed fist and with her eyes rolled upward, Thistle stopped the five-note humming, breathed deeply six times, and opened her eyes. She observed him with a melancholia that made his stomach feel hollow.

  “What?” Douglas asked.

  “You need to prepare for a shock,” she said. “It's something unexpected. It comes from nowhere and because of it, the essence of your life will be changed forever. And soon. I feel it coming very soon.”

  Jesus, he thought. It was just what he needed to hear three weeks after having an indifferent index finger shoved up his ass to see what was the cause of his limp-dick syndrome. The doctor had said it wasn't cancer, but he hadn't ruled out half a dozen other possibilities. Douglas wondered which one of them Thistle had just tuned her psychic antennae onto.

  Thistle opened her hand and they both looked at his wedding ring where it lay on her palm, faintly sheened by her sweat. “It's an external shock,” she clarified. “The source of upheaval in your life isn't from within. The shock comes from outside and rattles you to your core.”

 
; “Are you sure about that?” Douglas asked her.

  “As sure as I can be, considering the armor you wear.” Thistle returned the ring to him, her cool fingers grazing his wrist. She said, “Your name isn't David, is it? It never was David. It never will be David. But the D I feel is correct. Am I right?”

  He reached into his back pocket and brought out his wallet. Careful to shield his driver's license from her, he clipped a fifty-dollar bill between his thumb and index finger. He folded it and handed it over.

  “Donald,” she said. “No. That isn't it, either. Darrell, perhaps. Dennis. I sense two syllables.”

  “Names aren't important in your line of work, are they?” Douglas said.

  “No. But the truth is always important. Someday, Not-David, you're going to have to learn to trust people with the truth. Trust is the key. Trust is essential.”

  “Trust,” he told her, “is what gets people screwed.”

  Outside, he walked across the highway to the cramped side street that paralleled the ocean. Here he always parked his car when he visited Thistle. With its vanity license plate DRIL4IT virtually announcing who owned the Mercedes, Douglas had decided early on that it wouldn't encourage new investors if someone put the word out that the president of South Coast Oil had begun seeing a psychic regularly. Risky investments were one thing. Placing money with a man who could be accused of using parapsychology rather than geology to find oil deposits was another. He wasn't doing that, of course. Business never came up in his sessions with Thistle. But try telling that to the board of directors. Try telling that to anyone.

  He unarmed the car and slid inside. He headed south, in the direction of his office. As far as anyone at South Coast Oil knew, he'd spent his lunch hour with his wife, having a romantic winter's picnic on the bluffs in Corona del Mar. The cellular phone will be turned off for an hour, he'd informed his secretary. Don't try to phone and don't bother us, please. This is time for Donna and me.

 
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