April night in Atlanta between thunderstorms: dark and
warm and wet, sidewalks shiny with rain and slick with
torn leaves and fallen azalea blossom. Nearly midnight.
I had been walking for over an hour, covering four or
five miles. I wasn't tired. I wasn't sleepy.
would think that my bad dreams would be of the first
man I had killed, thirteen years ago. Or if not him,
then maybe the teenager who had burned to death in front
of me because I was too slow to get the man with the
match. But no, when I turn out the lights at ten o'clock
and can't keep still, can't even bear to sit down in
my Lake Claire house, it's because I see again the first
body I hadn't killed.
was twenty-one, a rookie in a uniform so new it still
smelled of harsh chemical dyes. My hat was too big.
My partner and I had been called to a duplex on Lavista.
It was me who opened the bathroom door.
soon as I saw that bath water, I knew. Water just doesn't
get that still if the person sitting in it is alive:
the pulse of blood through veins, the constant peristaltic
squeeze of alimentary tract, the soft suck of breath
moves the liquid gently, but definitely. Not this water.
It was only after I had stared, fascinated, at the dry
scum on the bar of soap, only after my partner had moved
me gently aside, that I noticed her mouth was open,
her eyeballs a gluey blue-grey where they should have
wake up at night seeing those eyes.
sidewalks around Inman Park are uneven hexagons, mossy
and slippery even without the debris of the recent storm.
I walked in the road. A pine tree amongst the oaks smelled
of warm resin, and the steam already rising from the
pavement brought with it the scents of oil and rubber
and warm asphalt. I smiled. Southern cities. People
often say to me, Aud, how can you stand the heat?
but I love it. I love to feel the sun rub up against
my pale northern skin, love its fingers reaching down
into muscle and bone. I grew up with the sub-zero fjord
winds edged with spicules of ice; to breath deep and
feel damp summer heat curling into delicate bronchioles
is a luxury I will never tire of. Even during the teenage
years I spent in England, when my mother decided the
embassy could get along without her for a week or two
and we all went up to Yorkshire to stay with Lord Horley,
there was that endless biting moan over the moors, the
ceaseless waving of heather and gorse. No, the American
south suits me just fine.
is lush. The gates and lawns and hedges I walked past
were heady with the scents of trumpet honeysuckle and
jasmine, the last of the pink and white dogwood blossom.
By June, of course, all the small blooms would wilt
in the heat, and the city's true colours, jungle colours,
would become apparent: black-striped tiger lilies, orchids,
waxy magnolia blossoms. By the end of August, even those
would give up the ghost and the city would turn green:
glossy beryl banana trees with canoe-sized leaves, jade
swamp oak, and acre upon emerald acre of bermuda grass.
And as the summer heat faded into the end of October,
the beginning of November, the green would fade with
it. In winter Atlanta became a pale black and white
photograph of a city with concrete sidewalks, straw
coloured grass and bare, grey trees.
rumbled to the southwest and lightning turned the clouds
the pink of Florida grapefruits: a long, long wait until
lengthened my stride, enjoying the metronomic thump
of boot on pavement, the noisy sky, and when I took
a corner wide walked smack into a woman running in the
steadied each other for a moment--long enough for me
to catch the expensive scent of her dark, rain-wet hair--then
stepped back. Looked at each other. About five seven,
I'd say. Slim and sleek. Face smooth with wariness:
after all, I'm big; I'm told I look frightening when
I want. And that made me think how fragile she was,
despite the hard muscle I had felt under my hand. It
would be so easy--a step, a smile, swift whirl and grab,
and snap: done. I even knew how she would fall, what
a tiny sound her last sigh would be, how she would fold
onto the pavement. Eight seconds.
stepped back another pace. It was meant to look casual,
but I noted the weight on her back foot, the set of
her shoulders. Funny the thoughts we have at nearly
midnight. I clasped my hands behind my back in an effort
to appear less threatening then nodded, stepped to one
side, and walked away. All without a word spoken. As
I moved past the big houses shrouded by dripping trees
I fought the urge to look over my shoulder. Looking
back would frighten her. I told myself there was nothing
unusual about a woman walking the streets at midnight--I
did it--but my hindbrain was stirring.
rumbled again, and water sluiced down in sheets as sudden
and cold as spilled milk, beating itself into a froth
on the sidewalk. The air was full of water and it was
getting difficult to breathe. Lightning streaked down
to my left just a bit too close for comfort. I turned
for home and started to jog. No sense drowning.
road jumped under my feet. Transformer, I thought,
but then the sound hit, batting at me from both sides
like huge cat's paws. My eyes widened and promptly filled
with rain. I shook my head, trying to get rid of the
ringing in my ears, but the world jumped again, pavement
slamming the soles of my feet, only this time the sound
was as solid as a punch in the gut, and this time I
recognized it--an explosion. Then I was turning and
running back to where I had just come from, back to
the corner, towards a house unfurling in orange flame
and black smoke, a brighter yellow at the center, like
a gigantic tiger lily. I skidded to a halt in confusion.
It's too early for lilies...
stood helpless, face getting hotter and hotter. I lifted
my hand to shield my eyes but it didn't help much. I
had to step back a few yards. The flames roared. People
began to appear in their doorways. Blinds twitched.
I did nothing. Let the neighbours look their fill; if
there had been anyone in that house, they were beyond
aid, and no doubt someone had called the fire department.
Not that there was much point: the fire burned very
neat and clean; the neighbours' houses were safe; I
doubted even that the garage would catch.
was far too good a torch to be the work of an amateur
firebug who wouldn't be able to resist sticking around
to watch their work, but I looked anyway. No sign of
the woman with the rain-wet hair.
hindbrain was beginning to stretch and snuff now, so
I thought about that woman. What was it about her that
put my senses on red alert? She hadn't done this: most
accelerants had very particular scents, difficult to
hide, and, besides, she had been running towards the
house, not away.
whooped in the distance. The police and fire fighters
would be all burly and adrenalin-hard in their uniforms.
They wouldn't want me there, wouldn't know how to act
around me, and tonight I could not be bothered to put
them at their ease just so they would call me Loot out
loud but wonder silently what I was doing wandering
the streets alone at midnight.
flames were dying quickly, leaving dark images like
shrivelling leaves on my retina. I backed into the shadows.
stripped off my wet clothes and sat cross-legged on
the silk rug to rub my hair dry with a towel. Rain beat
on the windows. Blood beat in my veins. Turning the
a simple thing. If you walk tight around a corner, you
can be surprised by anyone who is waiting on the other
side. It's like sitting with your back to the door,
like chambering a round and leaving the safety off,
wearing a dress that will restrict your legs, or walking
with your hands in your pockets: stupid. But so many
people do it. Every now and again I go into a school
to teach self-defence classes to young women. I ask:
How many of you know which way to look before crossing
a busy street? And every single hand will go up. So
then I ask: Who knows the fire drill? And most of the
hands stay up. Even if I ask: Who knows CPR, or what
to do if you smell gas, there are a lot of hands. But
if I ask: how many of you know how to walk around a
corner properly--or escape a stranglehold, or find out
if the man behind you really is following you--they
lower their hands in confusion. Yet they are all sensible
precautions. It's just that women are taught to not
think about the danger they are often in, or how to
prevent it. We're taught to feel fear, but not what
to do about it.
used to people thinking I'm paranoid. I just tell them
it doesn't take any extra effort to walk around a corner
properly, or sit with my back to walls in strange places
because it becomes automatic, like looking left then
right then left again before crossing the road, and
it could save your life. It's saved mine more than once.
I'm used to being the only one who believes that, the
only one who takes these routine precautions. But that
woman last night had also been taking the corner wide.
And she had remembered to do it while she was in enough
of a hurry to run.
was no trace of the rain when I woke next morning. The
tree outside my bedroom window was golden-green with
sunshine and birds were singing blithely. I stood under
the shower a long time, letting the water quench lingering
thoughts about that house burning like a hot lily.
have a big kitchen; square, with a terra cotta floor.
French windows open onto the deck I built last year.
In summer the whole thing is in shade but when the leaves
are still small with spring, sunlight shivers lightly
over the planking. I took my toast and tea outside and
cut up an orange while a cardinal landed on the bird
feeder. Someone burnt down a house practically under
my nose. My curiosity was piqued, but it wasn't my problem.
My problem was to beat the morning traffic and get to
the Spanish consulate in time for my nine o'clock appointment.
ate my breakfast and thought about the second daughter
of the Spanish cabinet minister, who was coming to Atlanta
for four days next week. I hoped she didn't want conversation.
I dislike clients who try to be my friend. The Spanish
hadn't told me, yet, the reason she was visiting. I
hoped it was something boring, and safe. I like excitement
but only in situations I have planned and can control.
I don't like to risk my life, or anyone else's, to protect
those I don't know and care about even less.
wiped my hands on a napkin, put the napkin on my plate,
carried the plate and cup into the kitchen. Napkin in
the laundry, dirty dishes in the dishwasher, butter
in the fridge. Orderly house, orderly life. I dressed
carefully. Although Philippe Cordoba would have checked
me out thoroughly before calling about the job and no
doubt knew I didn't need the money, it never did any
harm to emphasize that fact. It saved time down the
road. So I picked one of my handmade Kobayashi suits
in soft grey, put gold at my ears and moussed my white
blonde hair behind my ears. Boxy European shoes. Pearl
felt sharp, rich, very good looking. It pleases me to
wear silk couture and gold and pearls. I like the way
it feels on my skin, the way it fits.
jacket I wore last night was on a hanger in the bathroom,
still drying. I transferred the leather fob of the car
key to my pants pocket, the house keys to my jacket,
dipped into the inside breast pocket...and found it
empty. I checked again, then in all the other pockets.
My wallet was gone.
knew it wouldn't be on the table by the door, or on
the dresser, or on the floor or behind a cushion on
the couch, but I checked anyway. I caught sight of myself
in the long mirror in the hall. I looked utterly calm.
I strode over to the phone, dialed Cordoba's private
line at the consulate. While it rang I remembered the
smell of the woman's rain-wet hair, her wary face.
Aud. How is your schedule? It looks as though I'll be
twenty or thirty minutes late." I didn't offer
an explanation, he didn't ask. People don't, usually.
put the phone down, breathed hard through my nose. Others
hate the mess of crime, and the pain, the loss and bewilderment
and anger, but what I resent is the inconvenience. Driver's
license, gun permit, insurance card.... I looked at
the phone again but didn't pick it up. Something told
me I wouldn't have to make all those phone calls this
time, and if I was wrong, well, two more hours wouldn't
had my wallet had my address. When I left the house
I set the alarm system.
the birds still sang, the sun still shone. Trees shivered
in a light breeze, dropping clouds of pollen. The screened
porch was thick with it. My maroon Saab had turned greenish
gold. It looked like a small furry hill in the driveway.
I backed out into the road, and left the motor running
while I went back up the driveway and placed a few twigs
and leaves in unobvious places. I memorized the pattern
of footprints and car tires in the pollen.
wallet was poking out from under a bush about four feet
from the corner. I squatted down but didn't touch it.
It was clearly visible to anyone looking. The arson
inspectors would have looked.
touched the leather gently with a fingertip. Dry. I
leafed through it. Nothing missing. I tucked it away
in my inside breast pocket and stood.
have a strange kind of face; people trust me. More than
that, they see in my face what they want to be there.
One old man I pulled from a car wreck said I had a face
like a holy angel. Some think I'm the girl next door--the
way she should have been if only she didn't hang out
with the wrong crowd, if she didn't drink, if she hadn't
gotten pregnant when she was sixteen. Those I have killed
have never expressed an opinion, though several did
look surprised. My face is my most useful tool.
uniformed officer standing by the tape around the burnt-out
shell was young. He had no idea who I was. Wearing any
other clothes I would have smiled and pretended to rubberneck,
and he would have thought I was just like him and ended
up telling me things he shouldn't have. But I was dressed
for the Spanish consulate. I walked up briskly and nodded
at the figure in protective gear poking about in the
ashes behind a wall thirty yards away. "Who's the
smiled pleasantly. "Bertolucci or Hammer?"
slid his eyes sideways, unsure how to deal with this
pushy civilian who was obviously more important than
she seemed. Perhaps my impatience showed through. He
stepped back uneasily.
mind." I stepped to one side. "Hoi!"
figure in the hard hat jerked upright and scowled.
knew that expression. "Bertolucci?"
who wants to... Torvingen?"
took off his hat and wiped his forehead and stepped
over the rubble towards me. "Been a while."
Bertolucci had never liked me; he'd never disliked me,
either. He was just cautious.
after you were kicked out you took a job in some podunk
town north of here." He waited, looked at my clothes.
I said nothing. "Your name came up last night.
Some woman told us you were walking around here just
before show time." He looked assessingly at the
rubble. "You'd know how."
compliment. It had been a beautiful job. Fast and clean.
Nothing touched but the target. "I watched it burn
for a while. Did it reach the garage?"
you should ask that." This time the assessing gaze
was turned on me. He made up his mind. "Come and
look at something. Mind your clothes."
stepped under the tape, past a late-model Camry that
took up the driveway. "I'm thinking about getting
one of these," Bertolucci said. Too massive for
garage was brick, unusual in Atlanta. The door was open.
The walls were cluttered with the usual stuff: caked
paint rollers; a rake and shovel, with red dirt still
on the blade; a hose that had been badly coiled and
was permanently kinked. Why were Americans so careless
inside was unfinished: raw bricks with mortar squeezing
between them like cake filling. The mortar was grey
and crumbly with damp and age. Spider webs smoothed
all the corners. Bags of potting compost that looked
about fifteen years old were piled against one wall.
There was a lazy humming over my head--some kind of
hornet nest. It was an ordinary garage. I wondered what
I was supposed to see.
that woman came by and talked about you, Detective Nolan
laughed and said, Oh, Aud used to be one of us, and
sent her away. But you know he had to have wondered."
I bet they'd all wondered. I knew my reputation. "He
didn't wonder long, though. Not after what we found
what did you find?"
A lot. Six, seven keys."
with that and the professional torch, and the guy who
died, he figured it for a drug hit. Revenge, or a lesson."
sounded plausible, until you stopped to think about
it. "Recognize the torch?"
Haven't come across this one before."
of Lusk. Jim Lusk. Some kind of art professor."
close relatives show up yet?"
was found in the house?" He nodded. "And the
coke was in here?"
here." He patted the shelf that ran the length
of the garage. "Interesting, don't you think?"
It was, very. "I have to get back to work. Feel
free to take a look around." He grinned, a hard
grin that said: you owe me a favor now.
took a closer look at the shelf. Swollen with damp,
pulling away from the wall at one end. Powdery holes
and termite wings. A faint outline of white powder crisscrossed
with silvery snail trails. It made absolutely no sense.
No one in their right mind would store coke in a damp,
insect-ridden garage. And if the torch had known the
drug was here, he or she would have taken it.
knew what Bertolucci wanted: someone outside to know
that he knew the obvious explanation didn't make sense.
It would make him feel better when the APD accepted
the obvious explanation and shelved the case. There
was too much work to keep chasing after a murder that
already had an explanation, even such a flimsy one.
Politically, too, it made sense. Mayor Foley was fighting
hard to get a special federal grant for the war on drugs.
The APD, being smart enough to know that the war was
unwinnable, would take the money and use it on something
that might make a difference: five new cruisers, six
months' worth of ammunition, a week-long training course
for half the SWAT teams. Jim Lusk's death was just another
ledger entry on the grant form, something to be used
as a weapon in the increasingly bitter fight for money.
The detective second grade who was in charge of the
investigation would have four other homicides and dozens
of assaults to deal with. His lieutenant would spend
most of her time juggling meetings, writing duty rosters,
dealing with an increasingly angry public. The precinct
captain would be faced with a nightmare of budget stretching,
trying to decide whether the squad room should have
new terminals, which it needed, or that new air conditioning
system to replace the one that was responsible for the
sick building syndrome that meant officers on his precinct
were overrunning their sick time and bringing down the
wrath of the city accountants. Lusk's killer would never
that wasn't my concern. I wanted to know about the woman
who thought this was something I had done, but I wasn't
in any particular hurry. Let her come to me.
was halfway to the embassy when the car phone rang.
It was Denneny. "Denneny. I was just thinking of
you. Made that decision between the air conditioning
and the new terminals yet?"
this month. Air conditioning in June. I hear you were
at the scene of the impromptu Inman Park barbecue last
night. I thought we could observe the formalities and
get a statement."
you have any plans for lunch?"
about Deacon's at eleven-thirty?"
very young man in button-down shirt and silk tie was
waiting in the sunshine outside the consulate. He opened
the Saab door for me smartly, and I handed over the
leather key fob. He was practically salivating at the
prospect of hopping inside.
has quadraphonic CD sound, too," I said.
uncertain blink, pink lower lip caught between his teeth.
just smiled, and hoped he would have to drive around
for a long time to find a parking place. He was probably
some kind of admin intern who would be spending the
next three months chained to a work station freezing
to death in the air conditioning, all to pad out his
resume. I was willing to bet he'd never parked a car
for anyone but his parents in his life. Consulates don't
usually provide valet parking. Most people don't ask
for it. I always ask for as much as I can get. It's
a matter of principle.
hummed as I went through the heavy teak and glass doors.
The carpet was a beautiful deep green. Much nicer than
the cold marble of the English consulate. "Aud
Torvingen," I said to the woman behind the desk.
Her hair was sleek as a seal's and though she had the
dark skin and eyes of Sevilla, her grooming was Southern:
big nails, gold jewellery, an unnecessary bow on her
blouse. As jarring as a beard on a drag queen.
sat down in a comfortable chair. She glanced up at me
once, then got on with her work: probably wondering
who I was, probably also sure she would never find out.
That's what life is like in a consulate. A series of
closed, comfortable rooms that most of the help never
get to sit in.
Philippe came to get me himself. I would have been surprised
if he hadn't. He had deep gold hair and very long limbs.
According to the check I had done on him after his initial
phone call, he liked to play racket sports--squash,
racquetball, tennis--and was pretty good at it. I imagined
he surprised a lot of his opponents who expected his
arms and legs to tangle and clutter together, but his
walk was efficient, fast. I rose.
you could come." We shook hands. My mother once
showed me a dozen different handshakes. This is the
one that means I don't think you're worth my attention:
a quick shake, with her hand already sliding from mine
before it was properly finished. This one shows I
hold you in great contempt: a snake-like up and
down, bending at the wrist, fingers stiff as though
she couldn't wait to shake off my sweat. There were
others. Cordoba's was a mixture of reserve and haste:
fast, light, whippy.
office had a beautiful oak floor. We sat opposite each
other on surprisingly comfortable Georgian chairs. He
handed me a manilla folder. "Beatriz del Gato."
Consular officers love details: dates, times, places;
mother, father, lovers; education, employment, illnesses.
I took the folder and put it down next to me unopened.
"Why haven't you informed the Atlanta police department
of her arrival?"
folded his hands onto his lap. "Miss del Gato will
only be here for four days. She wishes to remain incognito,
and believes her visit is a matter of some...delicacy."
smiled, understanding. "She's doing something that
she would find personally embarrassing to have reported
in the press, but that you wouldn't, particularly?"
mouth gave away nothing but there was a smile in his
voice. "Miss del Gato wishes to work in an advertising
agency. She wishes to be offered a job without her prospective
employer giving her any special favours."
didn't she try New York?"
Beatriz was too stupid, or unimaginative, or something,
to be offered a job on her own merits. "I still
don't see why you can't tell the APD."
he did smile. "I did. They have no objection to
you taking the job." Why should they? It saved
them money. Besides, I doubted Miss Beatriz really was
important enough for either the consulate or the police
department to go to any trouble. But Philippe was only
doing what the diplomatic service of any country does
best: saving everyone's face.
leaned back. "Tell me, what's she like?"
rolled his eyes. "Earnest, boring, and unreasonably
stubborn. Would you like some coffee?"
gave the admin intern who wished he was a valet parker
a ten dollar tip because he had polished the pollen
off my wing mirrors, and because it really was a beautiful
day. There was still a slight breeze and the humidity
was below sixty percent. Even the etiolated young birch
trees that were spaced as carefully as nursery seedlings
every ten yards on the concrete sidewalk looked fresh
played Diamanda Galas all the way to Deacon's. I got
there five minutes early. Denneny was already there.
ago, when he still wore a uniform, when his wife was
alive, he would have been joking with the women dishing
up the fried chicken and greens behind the counter;
talking them out of a free side of cornbread; inhaling
the rich steam of grits and gravy and grease until his
ruddy complexion darkened to plum; but this morning
he was sitting at one of the rickety formica tables,
looking around at the clientele as though he were a
stranger, out of place in his city suit and silk tie.
look more like an executive than a cop," I said.
stood. "I am, these days."
good on the menu today?"
was an old joke--Deacon and now his heirs had always
served exactly the same thing--but Denneny just shrugged.
We stood in line and loaded up our trays with chicken
and greens and potatoes and gravy and bread and iced
tea. I paid for both of us and got a handful of paper
napkins. I took the seat facing the door.
look as though you're doing well. Watch your clothes
with all this grease."
why napkins were invented." I tucked two around
my neck, draped one across my lap, and picked up a chicken
wing. The best fried chicken in the city. "So.
You wanted a statement."
took one of those miniature tape recorders out of his
pocket, put it on the table and looked at his watch.
"I forgot to pick up a fresh cassette, so there's
only about half an hour's worth of tape left."
should be plenty."
in between bites of hot chicken and forkfuls of mashed
potato loaded with enough cholesterol to stun an elephant,
I told him about crashing into the woman, about the
explosion, and the flames. I gave him times, descriptions,
even a weather report. He didn't ask any questions,
just nodded and ate. When I'd finished he turned the
machine off and slipped it back in his pocket. "I'll
get it transcribed this afternoon. You can come in and
sign it any time. That should take care of the formalities."
passed the point of being surprised by anything those
don't think it was drug dealers."
drugs were there, and there isn't a single other angle
why even try when there's a nice, neat explanation?"
like that. You know how things stand, Torvingen. If
we don't get our share of the fed payout, not only won't
there be any air conditioning in June, we won't even
be able to afford batteries and tapes for this little
machine." He tapped his pocket. "So unless
you have the address and confession of the guy who did
it, butt out."
shrugged. "Just making conversation."
wouldn't let it go. "Do you have some special interest
in the case?"
because I'd hate to get our wires crossed on this."
should I care who killed whom and over what? I'm not
a police officer anymore."
you never cared much even then."
I wouldn't go that far."
applied himself to the potatoes for a while. "Do
you miss it?"
even a bit?"
even a bit."
still don't understand why you didn't take that liaison
job I offered you when you were pulled off the streets."
know as well as I do that the mayor would have had kittens
at the thought of me still walking around with a badge
and gun in an election year." I had better things
to do with my life than be photogenic for the police
So if you don't miss being a cop, why did you take that
job in the podunk town?"
was work. Only now I don't need to work."
you." It came out sounding bitter.
as though you could do with a vacation."
taking one. Two weeks in the Napa Valley starting
Saturday. Nothing but sun and the scent of the vine."
I'd first known him, he drank only beer and bourbon.
There again, he wouldn't have known a silk tie if it
had bitten him. People change.
looked at each other. I realized that his spectacle
lenses were bifocals. He wiped his fingers carefully
on a napkin. "Well, it's been good talking to you.
Come in to sign this thing tomorrow, after you finish
with the rookies."
in particular you want me to cover with them?"
stood. "Nah. Just tell them how it works in the
real world, so they don't get themselves killed the
first time they step out of the car."
real world. We had always disagreed about what, exactly,
that meant. He had always believed in the rules, but
rules are useless when lives are in danger. He never
seemed to understand that.