Viola avenue, p.19

Viola Avenue, page 19

 part  #9 of  Rose Hill Series


Viola Avenue

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  “So they knew he was dead?”

  “They knew, all right.”

  “What did you do with the photographs?” Claire asked.

  “I burned the porn but I couldn’t destroy the record of his career, even after what he did to me. He actually did give some of his students their start, but he led us all on, I know that now. But he was a wonderfully gifted actor and director. It doesn’t excuse what he did, but it doesn’t erase the fact of it, either. Plenty of gifted creative people are monsters in their personal lives. I hated the things he did, but his gift was a separate thing, at least it was for me. I couldn’t destroy the record of that, the beauty of that. So, I brought the photo albums back, to give to the college. They can decide what to do with them.”

  “What did the woman look like?”

  “Around mid-thirties, maybe; I’m not good with ages,” Rafe said. “I never saw her face clearly; she had long dark hair; she was tall and thin.”

  “Why didn’t you call the police?”

  “I wasn’t thinking clearly. I hadn’t slept for a couple of days and I didn’t know what I was going to do next, where I was going to go. I knew it looked bad. Everything had fallen apart and I was broke. Alan was dead and I thought I could just disappear and no one would know I’d even been there. I couldn’t go home; my folks are not theater people, they don’t understand; it was just not possible.”

  “Where did you go?”

  “I went back to New York, called up a guy who worked for the caterer they used in Sagaponack. He had said if I was ever in Brooklyn to look him up, so I did. He and a couple other guys rent a basement flat there; they let me sleep on the couch and got me a catering job so I can contribute my share. I’m going to start going on auditions, and try hanging out with people in the same boat as me for a change. It’s been great; I wish I had done this instead. I thought there was a shortcut, you know? You hear about that happening.”

  “I’m glad it worked out for you.”

  “Do you think I should to talk to someone, like, the police or something?”

  “I think you need to talk to the chief here in Rose Hill,” she said. “He’s a friend of mine, and he’s a good guy. Tell him everything you told me, and he’ll help you.”

  “Should I leave the photograph albums with you?”

  “Better take them to Scott,” she said. “They’re evidence now.”

  “I’m really scared,” he said. “It’s like stage fright but even worse, you know?”

  “Did you know anything about last semester’s party with the underage kids?”

  “I was there.”

  “Did someone put drugs in a young girl’s drink?”

  “I didn’t see that happen,” Rafe said. “I heard about it the next day.”

  “What did you hear?”

  “That someone drugged the teenagers.”

  “More than one teenager?”

  “Yeah,” he said. “I don’t know any more than that. Just rumors.”

  “Be sure to tell Scott about it,” Claire said. “It will help you.”

  “Could you go with me?”

  “I can’t; but you’ll be all right,” Claire said.

  Then she remembered something.

  “Did you happen to take the bust of Shakespeare off the top of the fridge in Alan’s apartment?”

  “No,” Rafe said. “It was gone when I got there. Maybe the kid took it.”

  “Was he carrying anything when he left?”

  “A backpack,” Rafe said. “The bust could have been in it, I guess.”

  Claire called Scott, who was just leaving the funeral. When he arrived, Claire introduced them, he shook hands with Rafe, and they walked off toward the police station.

  Claire thought about what Rafe had said about still celebrating Alan’s talent while acknowledging what a horribly flawed person he was. There was this question of whether or not to support or reward the artistry of certain creators and performers despite the heinous acts they were accused of, regardless of whether or not they had ever been convicted for their alleged crimes.

  For over twenty years, Claire had worked for a narcissistic, cut-throat movie star who wouldn’t hesitate to destroy anyone who got in her way. That said, even Sloan Merryweather had some scruples, and as a consequence of her own horrible childhood, molestation and statutory rape were abhorrent to her. She had refused to work with an award-winning director who was rumored to prey on children, even though the work would have brought her even more awards, money, and fame than she already possessed.

  Claire had known of many people in the entertainment industry who were said to have committed terrible crimes against vulnerable people. There were villains who were never exposed let alone prosecuted due to their money and influence. When it came to these people and their work, Claire voted with her wallet and her attention, which was to say, she wouldn’t pay to see a production or listen to music associated with people whose behavior she considered reprehensible. She also didn’t buy magazines or click on Internet stories promoting their projects. It was a small stand, but she took it nonetheless.

  Alan may have been her friend for a brief period this past summer, but what she had found out about him since his death erased any loyalty or regard she had for him. He was a predator, and whether or not those kids were of the age of consent, what he did to them was wrong.

  Claire called Brenda to ask her if Rowan Gallaher had been one of the high school students in the drama internship program.

  “He was,” Brenda said. “He and Charlotte made the cutest couple.”

  Claire decided to attend the funeral reception. On her way across the central courtyard she saw Ava sitting on a bench. She was dressed in a simple black dress and heels. The beautiful Ava, who normally eschewed makeup, was fully and professionally made up. Consequently, she was a knockout.

  “Ava,” Claire said. “What are you doing here?”

  “I’m waiting for my fiancée,” Ava said. “Our engagement party is tonight in one of the alumni function rooms.”

  Ava seemed agitated and kept looking past Claire toward the college entrance.

  “You look gorgeous,” Claire said. “Everything okay?”

  Ava rolled her eyes.

  “No, Claire,” she said tersely. “Everything is not okay. My daughter’s in Switzerland and my fiancée is thirty minutes late to our engagement party, where I don’t know anyone but my in-laws, who have not exactly welcomed me into the family with open arms.”

  “I’m sorry,” Claire said. “That must be difficult.”

  “His mother keeps mentioning the fact that I have three children; she says three like it’s a dozen,” she said. “His father brought a prenup that he insists I sign before I accept the engagement ring this evening.”

  “What’s your fella say about all this?”

  “He says he’ll take care of it when he gets here. He’s coming straight from the airport. He should have been here by now.”

  “Traffic is probably bad,” Claire said.

  “I don’t know what I’ll do if he doesn’t show up,” Ava said, tears gathering in her beautiful brown eyes. “What will I say to all of them?”

  “He’ll be here,” Claire said. “He’s not that late. Now, don’t ruin your makeup; it’s a really good job and I’d hate to see it slide off your face.”

  Ava laughed a little.

  “I know I’m being paranoid, but his parents are the worst,” Ava said. “She finds fault with everything I do; the house is drafty, the sheets aren’t a high enough thread count, and the food isn’t to her liking. He can hardly stand to talk to me. He said he could see why his son was so infatuated, but that we shouldn’t be in such a hurry to make it legal.”

  “What an ass.”

  “The people at the party will be their friends, and they’re all rich and powerful,” Ava said. “I didn’t get a college education, my bigamous husband died in nefarious circumstances, I have three kids and a bed and breakfast. Who am I

  “I’ll tell you who you are,” Claire said. “You’re young and beautiful, and he’s crazy about you. That’s more power than that room full of people have put together. As long as you remember that, and act like it, they’ll have no choice but to fall in line behind you.”

  “Thanks, Claire.”

  “Ava, I’d like to ask you something.”

  A guarded look fell over Ava’s face like a mask.

  “Go on,” she said.

  “Did Alan do any special coaching with Charlotte? As part of her internship at the college?”

  “Charlotte was never alone with Alan, if that’s what you’re asking,” Ava said. “People can say anything they like about me, and I know the kinds of things they say, but I’m a good mother.”

  “No one can watch a teenager 24 hours a day,” Claire said. “I used to get up to all sorts of things my parents had no idea about.”

  “What is it you’re implying?”

  “I guess I’m asking if part of the reason Charlotte is in Switzerland now is because of something that happened at the college last spring?”

  There was a quick second when Ava looked frightened, and Claire could see her make the instantaneous decision to disguise it. It was chilling. It was like watching a master class in acting. Now, her facial expression was all sympathy for how wrong Claire was.

  “Oh, Claire, is that what you thought?”

  Ava hugged Claire and then held her out at arms’ length, smiling. When Ava turned on her charm, it was overpowering. Claire felt her suspicions melting in the warm sunshine of that gaze. If she hadn’t been convinced Charlotte was drugged and raped at the rave, she would have believed every word.

  “You are so sweet to be concerned about Charlotte, but nothing happened to her at that party. That’s just gossip. I promise you,” she said. “She’s just like me when I was that age, and I don’t want her making the same mistakes I made. That’s the only reason we did what we did, for her safety.”

  “I hope she’s okay,” Claire said.

  “You’re such a dear,” Ava said, releasing her. “I’m so glad to have you in the family; no one else can relate to me like you do. It really means a lot to me.”

  Ava looked over Claire’s shoulder, gasped, and then waved.

  Claire looked around to see a tall, red-haired, red-bearded man rushing toward them, adjusting his bow tie as he ran.

  “I’m so sorry,” he said to Ava, but she laughed.

  “I’m just relieved you showed up,” she said.

  He embraced her and kissed her forehead.

  “You look like a million bucks,” he said. “I’m the luckiest man in the world.”

  Ava introduced Claire and the fiancée shook her hand with a firm grip.

  “Wilbeforce by birth,” he said. “My friends call me Will.”

  “I’m glad to finally meet you,” Claire said. “I’ve heard great things about you.”

  “I wish Ava had let me invite her family,” he said.

  “We’ve got to do this in tiny steps,” Ava said.

  “Completely understandable,” Claire said. “The Fitzpatricks are a rowdy bunch; they might be overwhelming en masse on the first meeting. We’ll liven up the wedding, don’t worry.”

  Will looked at Ava with a look of such tenderness that Claire felt warmed by the glow.

  “Whatever she wants,” he said. “I live to serve.”

  Ava beamed.

  He excused them and took his fiancée by the hand.

  “Let’s get this over with,” he said. “I want you all to myself again as soon as possible.”

  Ava smiled at Claire.

  “You’re the star of this show,” Claire said to her. “Don’t forget that.”

  Ava mouthed “thank you” and she and Will went on, hand in hand, toward the lion’s den.

  The first person Claire ran into at the funeral reception was Pip’s wife, Jessie. She was having a loud argument with Cressida Buttercombe in the corridor outside the restroom Claire had just exited.

  “Why can’t we just go back to Cabo?” Jessie was whining, a sound which was very familiar to Claire.

  “Because they’re going to cut me off unless I stay here and do that stupid job,” Cressida said.

  Now, Claire had a vested interest. She backed up into the restroom entrance vestibule and pressed herself to the wall.

  “I can’t stay here,” Jessie said.

  “It’s just for a year,” Cressida said. “If I can put up with it, you can, too.”

  “You don’t understand,” Jessie said. “My ex lives here; I can’t stay.”

  “Well, you don’t have to see him if you don’t want to,” Cressida said. “We have a house up at Glencora, and I won’t spend one minute more than I have to in this godforsaken town. You could go back to work at the spa if you wanted.”

  “You said you were going to take care of me,” Jessie said. “You said I wouldn’t have to work if I didn’t want to.”

  “I have no money,” Cressida said. “The money belongs to my parents. They have cut off my credit cards. I have to do what they say or there will be no more money. Do you understand that?”

  “I understand you lied just to get in my pants.”

  “Please, those pants were halfway down when I met you.”

  “I don’t have to put up with this.”

  “Then don’t. Honestly, Jess, it was fun in Cabo but now you’re kind of a drag.”

  Claire couldn’t help herself, she had to get a dig in.

  “Jessie!” she said, as she pretended to have just exited the restroom. “Where have you been, young lady? Your husband and kids have been worried sick about you.”

  “Your what?” Cressida said.

  The look on her face was priceless.

  “Oh, hey, Claire,” Jessie said. “Cress, please don’t go.”

  “Lose my number,” Cressida said, and walked away, shaking her head.

  “Thanks a lot,” Jessie said.

  “You deserved it,” Claire said. “You should be ashamed of yourself.”

  “You don’t understand what it’s like,” Jessie said. “I just get so tired of it, Claire. They’re always hanging off me and wanting something. And Pip is such a loser. I don’t know how you put up with him as long as you did.”

  “Your kids just want you to parent them,” Claire said. “You gotta grow up sometime, Jess. Those girls need you.”

  “I’m gonna call my parents,” Jessie said. “Being a grown up is so hard, Claire.”

  “Good luck,” Claire said, and walked away.

  In the reception room, the din of voices was extremely loud, and it sounded more like a party than a sad occasion. The Buttercombes were holding court with the provost and the college president. The college president’s wife looked like she would rather be anywhere else.

  Beatrice was loudly shouting a story to Agatha, who looked as if she were just about to nod off. Beatrice gesticulated wildly with her drink and sloshed it out of the glass, but didn’t seem to notice.

  Claire saw Maurice, who was watching Beatrice with a concerned look on his face. Claire read into that look fear of what Beatrice shared with others when she was drunk, but it could have just been garden variety disgust. Claire knew her time at Eldridge would soon end, now that the prodigal Buttercombe had returned. She also knew she would be glad not to have to see any of these people anymore.

  “Good evening,” she said to the assistant dean. “It’s a nice turnout.”

  “Yes, indeed,” Maurice said. “The open bar helps.”

  “Now that he’s gone you can tell me what his big secret was,” Claire said.

  “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Maurice said, but he smiled like a cat at a dead canary’s funeral.

  “Alan treated all his colleagues with disrespect, except for you,” Claire said. “I’ve heard this from several reliable sources, so I know it’s true. What information did you have that made him so afraid of you?

  He shrugged.

  “I can’t imagine,” he said. “If you’ll excuse me, I want to pay my respects to the Buttercombes.”

  Claire took a glass of wine from a tray held by a passing waiter. Someone grabbed her arm and made her spill some of it. It was Beatrice. Her face was flushed and her eyes shone with hatred.

  “What do you think you’re doing?” Beatrice hissed. “You’re making a spectacle of yourself.”

  “Nice breath, Beatrice,” Claire said. “You might want to find a mint.”

  “You listen to me,” Beatrice said. “If you know what’s good for you, you’ll stay away from Maurice. He’s a married man, and his wife is a very good friend of mine.”

  Claire bit her lip rather than say that it hadn’t seemed to have stopped Beatrice. No, Claire was determined to take the higher road.

  “Excuse me,” Claire said, shrugging off Beatrice’s claw-like fingers. “I need to see a man about a horse.”

  Claire found the president’s wife at the drinks table, where she was ordering a gin and tonic. She was tall and thin, with long brown hair pulled up into a French twist. Claire estimated she was in her late thirties, early forties.

  “Don’t be stingy with the gin,” the woman said to the bartender, and her words slurred a little.

  Claire watched the woman walk away with her gin and tonic, headed toward the floor-to-ceiling windows at the back of the room. She stepped through one of the open windows, out onto a terrace.

  Claire waited until she received her own drink and then followed her out through the open window. The woman was leaning against a stone parapet. There was no one else out there. It was chilly, the brisk wind swirled around her legs, and Claire was glad she had on a suit jacket. Claire leaned against the next parapet and sipped her drink.

  “It will be winter soon,” Claire said.

  “Bring it on,” the president’s wife said. “The sooner we leave this horrible summer behind us the better.”

  She held up her drink in a salute to the sky.

  Claire walked over and leaned back against the stone railing.

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