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Authors: Peter Abrahams

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BOOK: Hard Rain
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Jessie shifted the heavy gilt frame, which she'd detached from the canvas, and picked up a folder lying under it. She handed it to Dr. de Vraag. Inside was a lab report and a minute brown flake mounted on a slide. “I had it analyzed.”

Dr. de Vraag glanced at Mrs. Stieffler out of the corner of his eye. “What's underneath it?”

“Nothing. That's the bottom layer. Maybe we can discuss this later. I've—”

“Hey, why the long faces?” said Mrs. Stieffler. “I don't give a shit about that craquelure.” She waved it away. “It makes it look older, and that's in our favor.”

There was a long pause while Jessie and Dr. de Vraag waited to see who would speak first. Finally, Dr. de Vraag said, “Mrs. Rodney has found a layer of bituminous oil paint under the varnish. It's the cause of the craquelure.”

“Stop with the craquelure, will you? This is a coup, my friends.”

Dr. de Vraag cleared his throat. “Bitumens weren't used in oil paints until seventeen-ninety, at the earliest.”

“So?” Mrs. Stieffler said. The expression in her eyes began to change. Her neck thickened and her chin thrust forward. Dr. de Vraag couldn't meet her gaze. His lip twitched, but he said nothing. “So?” she repeated. “So, Mr. Five-hundred-a-day consultant?”

Jessie glanced at her watch. She had no more time to spar with Mrs. Stieffler. “Rubens died in sixteen-forty,” she said. “It means he couldn't have done the painting. And …”

“And what?”

“It can't be from his school, either.”

“Now,” said Dr. de Vraag, “I'm not sure we can rule—”

“Hold it,” said Mrs. Stieffler. Dr. de Vraag's jaws clamped shut. Mrs. Stieffler rounded on Jessie. “Are you telling me it's a fake?”

“In the sense that you paid for School of Rubens and that's not what it is, yes. But it's still a fine painting.”

Mrs. Stieffler's face turned pink, then red. Her eyes bored into Jessie's. “I'm not paying you for lab reports,” she said at last. “I'm not paying you to run your mouth. I'm paying you to do the cleaning.”

“It's not a Rubens, Mrs. Stieffler.” Jessie heard her voice sharpening. Mrs. Stieffler had made it sound like something done with Ajax and a mop. “And not School of.”

“Bullshit.”

“And there's nothing you can do to change that.” The remark slipped out before Jessie could stop it.

“No? For starters, maybe I'll get my painting into the hands of someone who knows what they're doing.” She picked up the frame and plunked it into Dr. de Vraag's arms. Then she put her hands on the painting itself.

“Wait,” Jessie said, trying to soften her tone.

“Worried about your fee?” Mrs. Stieffler responded, slapping her checkbook on the table. She dashed off a check and flicked it toward Jessie. It glided to the floor. “There's your money. But you'll never work for me again. Or for any of my friends. You're through in Bel Air.” She seized the painting and marched upstairs. Dr. de Vraag followed, struggling with the frame.

Jessie stood by the worktable, trembling. She'd never lost her temper with a client before, never handled her business so poorly. Suddenly she felt cold. The coldness brought her dream back to her. She went outside and drove to the house in Venice.

Everything looked the same as yesterday: no BMW in the driveway, all the curtains drawn, rolled-up newspapers on the stoop. The only difference was that now there were three of them. Saturday, Sunday, Monday. Jessie kicked them aside and went in.

The house was dark. Out of old habit, her hand flicked on the hall switch. This house still felt like home to her, much more than the little place on Idaho. But she hadn't had the money to buy Pat's share; instead he'd bought her out and stayed on.

Unopened mail was piled on the hall table. There was nothing unusual about that. The plants needed water, and the goldfish needed food. All normal. Jessie went into the dining room and stopped before a framed photograph she hadn't seen before.

Pat was standing at the wheel of a yacht, his fair hair blowing in the breeze. He wore it long, but not messy—like the Beatles' hair on the cover of the
Sgt. Pepper
album. That was the way he had worn it when Jessie met him, and he hadn't changed, as though he had found the truth, at least about hair, long ago.

Pat had one arm around a young, laughing woman: her even teeth gleamed in the sunlight; her string bikini showed she never indulged in any of the things Jessie liked to indulge in. An out-of-focus man hoisted a bottle of champagne in the background. Jessie could tell from Pat's eyes that he'd already had a glass too many; he was smiling, but his mind was somewhere else.

Cardboard boxes from King of Siam TakeOut lay on the dining room table. Their contents had congealed into a spicy goo dusted with the first hint of mold. Two chopsticks were stuck in something with shrimp and peanut sauce: the ivory chopsticks Kate had brought back from San Francisco last summer. Jessie took them into the kitchen, washed them and put them away.

She walked through the living room. It was clean and tidy: in the corners she could see the tracks of the vacuum cleaner. Pat had probably had the cleaning woman in Friday morning, just before Kate's arrival. Maybe because everything else was so neat, her eye fastened on the only untidiness in the room—the butts of two joints stamped out on the hearth. Jessie picked them up, sniffed to make sure. Pat had agreed never to do any kind of drugs when he had Kate. Jessie flung them across the room.

She went into Pat's studio. His sound equipment lined one wall; his instruments hung on the other: acoustic guitars, electric guitars, an electric bass, two banjos, a mandolin, a Dobro. One space was empty—in the corner, where Pat kept his Fender Stratocaster. That was odd, because he seldom used to play it and would never have taken it out of the house. The Stratocaster once belonged to Jimi Hendrix, who had played the “Star-Spangled Banner” on it at the Woodstock festival.

Jessie went upstairs to Pat's bedroom. He'd kept the king-size matrimonial bed. It was unmade, pillows, sheets and blankets twisted and tossed from one end to another, as if tag-team wrestlers had been working out on it. Jessie opened the drawer of the bedside table and found a mirror and a bag of white dust. In the drawer of the other bedside table, the one on the side of the bed that had been hers, she found a silk bag with
Clinique
written on it. Her fingers moved to the drawstring. She stopped them and put the bag away. For a few moments, she stood motionless beside the bedside table. The house was very quiet. Jessie reopened the drawer. She couldn't help herself.

Inside the silk bag were a diaphragm and a tube of spermicide. Jessie put them back, shut the drawer and went into the bathroom to wash her hands.

Kate's bedroom was at the end of the hall. It looked a lot like her bedroom at home, only bigger. There was a box of colored pencils on the desk, pictures of gorillas and orangutans on the walls, and a book lying open on the unmade bedding:
Jane Eyre
. Jessie picked it up.
Reader, I married him
.

Her foot brushed against something hidden by the overhanging comforter. Pulling it aside, she saw Kate's new Reeboks—the high-tops with blue stripes.

Jessie sat down on the edge of the bed, staring at Kate's shoes. Kate had worn them every day for the past two weeks. Jessie couldn't imagine her going anywhere without them, certainly not for a weekend on Catalina. She picked them up and examined the soles: perfect for sailing. She shook them, looked inside. There was nothing to see but the words “Made in W. Germany. Size 4.” Sympathetic ape eyes watched from the walls.

Jessie rose and took the Reeboks downstairs. She was picking up the phone when she noticed the writing on the kitchen blackboard. The blackboard was used for jotting down memos and phone numbers. Jessie went closer. There were no phone numbers, and the memo, if it was one, had no meaning for her: “Toi giet la toi.” The words were chalked in big block letters. A leather box, the velvet-lined one that contained the carving set Jessie had given Pat long ago—scrimshaw, but antique scrimshaw so there was no question of killing contemporary whales—lay on the ledge beside the chalk. The long-tined fork was there, and the sharpener, but not the knife.

Jessie dialed Barbara Appleman's office. “Barbara Appleman please.”

“Who's calling?”

“Jessie Shapiro.”

“One moment.”

Jessie heard a click; then Barbara was saying, “—so what? So we'll sue his fuckin' ass. That's what. G'bye.” And then, “Hi there, bubeleh. You on the line?”

“Yes,” Jessie said.

“What's up?” Phones buzzed in the background.

Jessie opened her mouth to tell her, but the words wouldn't come. Instead a bubble of emotion started up her throat.

“Hey. You still there? Say something. Time is you-know-what around here.”

Jessie forced the words out: “I don't know where Kate is.”

There wasn't even a pause before Barbara said, “Was it the schlongman's weekend?”

“They were supposed to go to Catalina and be back yesterday afternoon. I don't think they went at all, but no one's been in the house since Friday.” Jessie told her about Norman Wine, the newspapers, the cutoff message from the woman on the answering machine.

“I wouldn't worry. He probably changed his mind and took her to the mountains or something instead. Then he got stoned out of his skull and slept in.”

“He wouldn't be that irresponsible.”

“No? I did your divorce, remember? And if you'd done what I told you, you wouldn't be having these hassles now. Sole custody and no overnight visitations. The Appleman rule of thumb.”

“Let's not go into that now.”

There was a silence. Then Barbara said, “What do you want from me?”

“Advice. Should I call the police?”

Barbara snorted. “And tell them your kid's with her joint custodian and they're a few hours late getting back from a legal visit? This is L.A., baby, not ‘The Andy Griffith Show.' You can't even report a child as missing for twenty-four hours, and then they don't go on the computer for thirty days.”

Jessie clutched the Reeboks in her hand. “Then what do I do?”

Barbara sighed. “Look, I've got to be in court. I should be out by three. If you still haven't heard anything by then, pick me up at the courthouse and I'll have a look around schlongman's pad on the way back.”

“But I've already had a look.”

“Yeah. But I'd like to hear that tape.” Barbara tried to make the remark sound casual; that only made it more worrying to Jessie.

“You can hear it from there,” she said.

“Not now, Jess, not now. The D.A.'s going to be chomping at my ass in twenty minutes. G'bye.” Click.

Jessie hung up the phone. She turned on the answering machine, listened again to the message: “Fuck, can't you answer your phone? Listen: you've got to split. I'm a—” Beep.

Jessie called the school. No Kate. She wandered from room to room. She looked at the apes on the wall, the king-size bed, the take-out cartons, the woman in the string bikini. Then she tied the laces of the Reeboks together, swung them over her shoulder and went outside.

A man was coming quickly up the walk. He wore horn-rimmed glasses, a button-down shirt and a tie with ducks on it: he reminded her of a commentator on TV, but she couldn't think who. He saw Jessie and stopped. “Hello,” he said. Drops of sweat clung to his forehead and upper lip. “I've been admiring your house.” He held up a card—something-or-other Real Estate—and pocketed it. “Interested in selling?”

“I'm not the owner,” Jessie said.

“Too bad,” the man replied, wiping his forehead with the back of his sleeve. “It's a nice house. Is the owner in?”

“No.”

“When is he expected?”

“I don't know.”

“Too bad,” he said again. He turned and walked away.

Jessie got into her car, put the Reeboks on the passenger seat and drove off. In the rearview mirror, she saw the real estate man at the house across the street, fist raised to knock on the door.

6

Barbara Appleman, in a dark pinstripe suit, came out of the courthouse and blinked in the brassy sun. The unkind light emphasized her pallor, sharpened her thin features, foreshadowed the lines of her face. Then she saw Jessie and smiled; and all of that somehow disappeared.

Barbara lugged her briefcase down the steps and got into Jessie's car. “You look like hell,” she said, reading Jessie's thoughts about her and preempting them. That was Barbara.

“I told you—I'm worried.”

“I was worried ten years ago, when you married him.”

“You didn't tell me.”

“You were too besotted to hear.”

“I was in love. And he was too.”

“So?”

“I was pregnant.”

Barbara said nothing. They weren't going to get into all that. It always ended in deadlock: Jessie had liked Pat—she probably still did, if she allowed herself to think about him—and Barbara never had.

As Jessie pulled away from the curb, a big man came running down the steps. “Hold it,” Barbara said, rolling down her window.

The big man put his hands on the roof and leaned in; the car sagged. Jessie could see the stubble of his beard, newly shaved but ineradicable as crabgrass.

“No hard feelings?” he said.

“No hard feelings,” Barbara replied.

“The heat of battle,” he said.

“You bet.”

He stuck out his huge hand. Barbara took it in her long thin one and pumped. Up, down. Her ring, a little emerald that had once belonged to Amelia Earhart, glowed in the sun. The man's eyes took in Jessie. He saluted. They drove off.

“What was that?” Jessie asked.

“Lieutenant DeMarco. Homicide. He was pushing for a murder one indictment of a client of mine. We just bargained it down to assault with a deadly weapon. The lieutenant got a little pissed off and said a few things he's regretting.”

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