Flesh and BloodThomas H. Cook
Flesh and Blood
Thomas H. Cook
Open Road Integrated Media ebook
For Justine Cook and Bryan Furman
We read in this hand
how it hath healed a
bitter wound; and in that,
how it hath locked the
door against a cry.
LOUISE IMOGEN GUINEY
As his eyes moved about the apartment, shifting from one cluster of party guests to another, Frank realized what a good job Karen had done with the place. He’d been living with her for well over a year now, but it seemed that he’d only just noticed the way everything fit together, the brocade sofa and softly muted oriental carpet, the thick burgundy drapes and polished antique furniture. He assumed that everything around him had some sort of name or was from some particular place. Maybe the buffet table at the end of the room was Chippendale. Maybe the carpet at his feet had been handwoven in some remote, but oddly prestigious, village of the Middle East. Karen would know the name, know the place. He sometimes thought that she’d been born with such distinctions already in her mind, a refinement that was beyond him, and which he could never reach because he’d come out of a dusty rural world of hardscrabble Southern farms and hand-me-down clothes. He remembered rough hands and coarse speech, hard biscuits and redeye gravy. The taste and feel of his past never seemed to leave him, and none of the glitter of Karen’s high-rise Manhattan world could ever change it.
“Well, I understand that you and Karen are quite an item these days,” someone said.
Frank glanced up from his seat and saw a large man in a dark blue velvet coat. His long, slender fingers were wrapped so delicately around the crystal stem of his champagne glass that for an instant Frank felt like taking it from him before it slipped from his grasp.
The man sat down beside Frank and offered his hand. “I’m Zachary Chapman,” he said, “an old friend of Karen’s.”
Frank nodded politely. “Nice to know you.”
“I’ve been in Europe for the past two years,” Chapman said, “so this is the first time I’ve seen Karen in quite some time.” He shook his head sadly. “I wrote to her when Angelica was killed, but I wasn’t able to come to Atlanta for the funeral.”
Frank said nothing.
He looked at Frank intently. “No one knows how Karen survived it.”
For an instant, Frank remembered the first time he’d seen Angelica’s body sprawled in the little weedy field where Toffler had dropped her. He could still remember the heat of that long Atlanta summer, thick, stifling, the kind that grew around you like a choking vine.
“Angelica was such a beautiful girl,” Chapman added. “I met her when she was only nine, but even then, she was very beautiful.”
Angelica’s face swam into Frank’s mind, her eyes staring up at him from the littered ground where they had found her body, her hair splayed out around her head like a fan of spun gold.
“But then, I hear,” Chapman said, “her beauty was part of what killed her.”
“Yes,” Frank told him. All around him the other people were laughing quietly, and for a moment he felt his own mind as something entirely out of place among them, alien and detached, like something floating in their midst, yet utterly withdrawn. Within a few feet, perhaps thirty people chatted politely while they ate and drank leisurely in the spacious living room. He could hear their voices quite plainly, and yet they seemed vague, bodiless, and as he let his eyes wander from one face to the next, each seemed to blend featurelessly into the other, become a soft white haze.
“And you’re the man who caught her killer,” Chapman said brightly.
“It was my job,” Frank said crisply.
“Did he die?” Chapman asked.
For a moment, Frank thought he meant Caleb, his partner, and he saw Toffler’s hand grab for the chisel and plunge it into Caleb’s back, saw Caleb tumble forward as Toffler clung to him, the chisel rising and falling again and again in the steamy air. Then he realized that Chapman was asking about Toffler, had Toffler died.
“No,” he said.
Chapman looked surprised. “Why not?” he asked. “The South being what it is.” He smiled. “I mean, that area’s not exactly known for being lenient in such things.”
“Toffler was insane,” Frank said dully. “At least that’s what the jury thought.” Across the room, and through the milling, well-dressed crowd, he could see Karen making the rounds, talking to each guest in turn, the perfect hostess. She seemed happy, unexpectedly happy, and he wondered why he found her happiness so disquieting, something he had not bargained for when he’d fallen in love with her that summer, then followed her to New York. Now her happiness made him restless and uneasy, and he yearned to return to someplace where the cliffs were higher and more dangerous, where the fall was quick and clean.
“Is that what you think?” Chapman asked.
Frank turned toward him. “Pretty much,” he said. He could see Toffler quite clearly in his mind, a blond young man with piercing blue eyes who sat beside his lawyer, staring toward the witness stand while Frank meticulously described what he had done to Karen’s sister, how he had injected her with lye until she’d finally died, and then dropped her body in a vacant lot and thrown a fistful of dirt into her beautiful dead face.
“Any chance of him getting out?”
Frank shook his head wearily. “Not much,” he said, turning his eyes back to Karen. She was wearing a long dress of dark red silk. It was sleeveless and deep cut, and it made the most of her smooth white skin. Still, he preferred the way she’d looked the first day he’d met her, the faded jeans and spattered artist’s smock which now seemed like little more than relics from the past.
“But it could happen, couldn’t it?”
“There’s always a chance,” Frank said, without looking at him. Karen drew the glass from her lips and laughed lightly at something the man in front of her had said. His name was Lancaster, and Karen thought a lot of his work. She hung it in the gallery she’d bought on Madison Avenue, and sold it for what she told everyone were steadily increasing sums.
“I guess that’s a policeman’s nightmare, isn’t it?” Chapman said.
Frank looked at him. “What?”
“That someone like Angelica’s murderer would get out.”
“And come after you, I mean.”
Chapman’s eyes narrowed. “And what would you do if that happened?”
“I’d kill him,” Frank said. He could sense a peak rise beneath him, lift him up toward what he needed, a raw and dangerous edge. “I’d kill him,” he repeated. “Without a second thought.”
Chapman laughed, but a little nervously. “I don’t expect that an attitude like that would get you very far among New York’s finest,” he said hesitantly.
“I’m not a cop anymore,” Frank said. In his mind he saw the shabby little basement office he’d rented on West 49th Street. There was a gray metal desk and a few chairs he’d picked up at the Salvation Army store only a few blocks away. There was a sofa, a telephone and an answering machine. It was all bargain basement, except for a single beautiful brass lamp, a gift from Karen, which gleamed brightly in the grayish air and made everything around it appear just a little more dreary.
“Really? What is it that you do, then?”
“A private eye?”
“Well, that must be exciting,” Chapman said enthusiastically. “I don’t believe I’ve ever met a real flesh-and-blood private eye.”
“Well, it’s not all that interesting,” Frank said with a du
ll smile. He’d tried to sign on with the New York Police Department, but after what he’d done to Toffler, beating him almost to death in his spattered little artist’s studio, he’d been officially marked VP, violence prone, the kiss of death as far as getting another job was concerned. So he’d finally gone through the paper chase of getting a private investigator’s license, spent his last dollar on the office, and set up shop. Not much had come in until Karen started talking him up among the smart set. After that, he’d had reasonably steady work.
“So you like the work?” Chapman asked casually.
“It’ll do,” Frank said quietly as his mind did a quick run through his cases. He’d been hired by a fancy jewelry store to catch a thieving clerk, by a wealthy Park Avenue doctor to find some dirt on a man who was suing him for malpractice, and by a matron on Central Park West whose dog had disappeared on the Sheep Meadow and which she suspected had been kidnapped by her malicious son. “It’s not what I’m used to,” he added, “but it’ll do for now.”
Chapman looked as if he were about to start another round of questioning when a tall, slender woman sat down beside him.
“Good to see you again, Zack,” she said. “Are you back in New York for good?”
The two of them began to chat amiably together, and Frank took the opportunity to let his eyes drift about the room again. The walls were a light pink with white trim, and Karen had decked them with paintings she’d collected over the last year. Her taste had softened a great deal since she’d moved to New York, the old somberness giving way to light pastels. Frank had watched it happen painting by painting, and it was as if Karen had decided to dull the edges of her life, to surround herself with steadily more passive colors, the sort that fought against the darker vision that he thought must still prowl about inside her head. It was her right, of course, given all that had happened to her, but something in it gnawed at him nevertheless, and he often found himself turning away from the gay street scenes and unobtrusive bowls of fruit that now watched him from every wall and made him feel faintly rancid in their midst.
“This is Frank Clemons,” Frank heard Chapman say suddenly.
He turned toward the woman and nodded.
“I’m Imalia Covallo,” the woman said.
“Glad to meet you,” Frank said.
“Frank’s a private eye,” Chapman announced.
Imalia looked at him wonderingly. “Really?”
Frank nodded dully.
The woman smiled quietly. “Well, if I ever need any detective work—”
“I’m in the book,” Frank said coolly.
For a time the three of them continued to talk together. Then Chapman and Imalia drifted away. Others came in their place, joining Frank for a little while on the sofa, then moving off into the crowd. He knew some of them, and some of them he didn’t, but as the hours passed, he found that it didn’t matter either way. Toward midnight he wandered into the back bedroom and stretched out on the bed, fully clothed, his long legs dangling over the shining brass rail. He thought of Karen, still out with her guests, and then of Sheila, the ex-wife he’d left in the South, then of that unfathomable female presence which seemed to follow him everywhere, a distant, ghostly figure which the slightest touch dissolved.
He was in the twilight of half-sleep when Karen finally came into the room. She sat down on the bed beside him and shook his shoulders softly.
“That was less than polite, you know,” she said.
He rubbed his eyes with his fists. “What was?”
“Coming in here while we still had guests.”
“I’m sorry,” Frank said. “I was tired, that’s all.”
“Was it the quality that bothered you?”
“The quality of what?”
“No,” Frank told her. “They are fine. Your friend Chapman—he seemed like a very nice man.”
Karen looked somewhat relieved. She leaned toward him, touching first his shoulder, then his neck. “Why don’t you get undressed,” she said tenderly. She smiled. “I will, too.”
He sat up slowly. “I thought I might go out.”
“It’s three in the morning, Frank,” Karen said, almost pleading.
He looked at her gently. “You know how it is.”
“No, I don’t, Frank,” Karen said. “I’ve never known.”
He stood up silently. “I won’t be gone long.”
Karen shrugged helplessly. “All right,” she said. Then she quickly got to her feet, walked to the bathroom and firmly closed the door.
Behind the door, he could hear the water running for her shower. She always took showers after a party, as if the champagne and pâté had somehow gotten under her nails or into her hair. For a while, he stood in the darkness and listened hazily to the falling water until at last it stopped. Then he knew that she’d be coming out soon, that she’d have the same questioning look in her eyes. He wished that he had an answer for her, something that would explain why, in the end, he always seemed to drift away. But there was nothing to say, nothing at all, and so when he heard the door of the bathroom open, he quickly threw on his coat and rushed away.
Park Avenue was almost entirely deserted, and as he headed downtown, he could feel the deep winter chill in the wind that swept down it. The isolated streets looked eerily blue and deserted in the early morning hours, as if, at some time during the night, a terrible alarm had sounded and everyone had fled across the bridges, filling the outer boroughs as they emptied midtown. It was the sort of solitude he wanted, but only for a little while. And so, after a time, he turned west and headed into that part of the city where the streets came alive again, and stayed alive, no matter what the hour. The ghostly blue gave way to garish blasts of neon light, and a steady flow of traffic moved up and down the major avenues. Along Eighth Avenue, the whores leaned in tavern doors, their faces lit by the marquees of the porno theaters. While they worked the sidewalks, their pimps ran poker games or sold crack in the cheap hotels which lined the adjoining streets. It was only a fifteen-minute walk from the luxury condos of Park Avenue, but it was another world, teeming, immediate, a place where people still put something vital on the line. Over the last year it had become the only part of the city in which he felt at home, and there were times when he drank alone in the dank, smelly bars, or stood in the dark corners of the slum hotels, or walked slowly through the gray, spectral streets, and felt such a sudden, surging love for the people who surrounded him that he wanted to gather them all into his arms and lift them up into that peculiar light their own dark lives deserved.
“I didn’t hear you come back last night,” Karen said as she turned toward him. Her hair shimmered in the light that streamed in from the large bay windows at the front of the room.
“I didn’t want to wake you,” Frank said. He sat up and rubbed his eyes wearily.
“How long were you out?”
She ran her fingers up his bare arm. “Why don’t you stay home today? I could have Felix handle the gallery. We could go to the park, or to a movie, anything.”
He shook his head. “No.”
She looked at him worriedly. “Frank, I’m beginning to get a little concerned about—”
He stood up quickly, silencing her, and walked to the window. He could see a large blank canvas reflected in it, and a little stool and an artist’s palette. They had all been resting together unmoved for several months, the colors unmixed, the canvas smooth and white.
“Why don’t you stay home,” he said cautiously, knowing that she did not want to be reminded of it. “You haven’t painted anything in a long time.”
Karen’s body stiffened visibly. “I’m not in the mood,” she said, a little sharply. “I’ll know when I’m ready. You don’t have to keep pushing me.”
Frank drew back the glass door that led to the terrace and felt a cool winter breeze sweep across his body. In Atlanta, she had painted in a dark, windowles
s room, and he could see it very well in his mind, spattered walls and stacked canvases, an old desk covered with sketches, a rickety wooden easel. It was a place where something happened, and in its willful disarray it had given off something he admired, a deep and unimpeachable commitment.
“Well,” Karen said as she got out of bed, “if you don’t want to stay home today, I’ll go to the gallery.” She walked stiffly into the bathroom and closed the door.
Once again he heard the shower. Once again, he imagined the water as it flowed over her. There had been a time when the sound of it had lifted him toward a strong and furious ardor. But now, he could only think of the bare canvas, the unmixed paints, and the listless life they represented, the fact that she no longer put her hands to anything that mattered. He could feel a kind of dull anger building in him at the thought of such privilege, and to choke it off, he simply did what he had always done.
“I’m going to work,” he said.
An old woman was sleeping soundly at the bottom of the stairs when Frank got to his office. She was wrapped in a thick tangle of old clothes, worn one layer on top of another, her body serving as the only closet she had. He had found her in the same place for the last few mornings, and he’d gotten used to stepping quietly over her and then moving down the narrow brick corridor to the door of his office. By nine in the morning, when he officially opened for business, she had already gathered her few belongings in her arms and crept silently up the cement stairs. A few days before, he had stood at the small window and watched her leave. For a few minutes, she had picked at her clothing, meticulously preening herself for the new day, and as he’d watched her, Frank had wondered at the kind of appalling personal history which had finally landed her on the streets. Whose daughter was she? Whose mother? Whose sister? What web of binding ties must have been severed for her to end up so alone?
A wave of warm, musty air swept out into the corridor when Frank opened the door of his office. It was pungent and faintly sweet, as if, during the night, a strange jungle rot had eaten into everything. He held the door open to clear it out, then closed it against the outer cold.