Authors: GRAHAM MASTERTON
Tags: #General, #Fiction
He had been searching for her for so long, twenty empty and irritating years, that when at last he caught sight of her sitting in the darkness of the cocktail lounge of the Arizona Biltmore Hotel, her freckled hands cupped around a large mimosa, he regurgitated some of his lunch into his mouth, and had to walk quickly across to the Men’s Room to spit it out and stand there staring at himself in the mirror over the washbasin in both triumph and jangling alarm.
Jesus, I’ve found her. After all these years, I’ve actually found her. Jesus. But, looking down at his hands on the rim of the washbasin, hands that were twenty years older than the day he had first started trying to find her, he suddenly thought to himself: I hope it isn’t her. I hope I’m hallucinating. If it’s her, I’m going to have to kill her. They want me, quite literally, to bring back her head.
And apart from that, what am I going to do now, for the rest of my life? Who’s going to employ a man who has done nothing for twenty years but cross and re-cross America; from rainy days in Philadelphia to snow-bound Januaries in Oregon; looking for one woman?
He came out of the Men’s Room and the door squeaked loudly behind him. She was still sitting there, alone, in one of the bulky 1920s sofas, under the tinkling art-deco chandeliers. The Arizona Biltmore had been designed in the mid-1920s by Frank Lloyd Wright, outrageously modern, a Jazz-Age resort for America’s rich and notorious, with pre-cast concrete bungalows in floral gardens, dining-rooms with deco fountains and combed-plaster
ceilings, hand-made carpets in geometric motifs. And here she was, amidst all this decadent splendour - fat, as he had imagined she must be, at least 185 pounds, in a pleated lilac tent-dress, with skin as pale as milk. Her hair was gingery-brown, with streaks of grey, and drawn back tightly away from her face and fastened with combs. It would have been a better disguise if she had stayed platinum-blonde, he thought, or dyed her hair henna-red. But he had always believed that she would be brunette when he found her, and so she was.
There were no obvious signs of plastic surgery. To anyone except a man who had spent twenty years of his life studying photographs and sketches and clay simulations of her face and head from every possible angle, in every kind of light, the fat would have made surgery unnecessary. Her eyes were puffed into Mongoloid slits, and she had developed a deep double chin. She had probably believed that as soon as she reverted to her plain unglamorous self, the self she had been born with, she would be safe. Unknown, unwanted - an ugly-duckling orphan whom nobody wanted to adopt. Her lack of deviousness had betrayed her all her life. Now it had betrayed her again.
He sat down opposite her, quite close, crossing one Evvaprest leg over the other; and lit a cigarette; and watched her. If she was conscious of being watched, she didn’t show it. She sipped her mimosa, and fiddled with the single gold band on her wedding-finger, and occasionally glanced towards the sliding doors which led out to the lawns and the bungalows and the brilliant afternoon sunshine; and once she smiled at a three-year-old blond-haired English boy who ran past her calling for his mummy. The sad, indulgent smile that any 56-year-old woman would have given, childless after three marriages, and precluded from marrying again because she was a fugitive from vengeances far more terrible than justice.
The cocktail waitress had just come on duty. She came over and asked him what he wanted. He thought about it, and then said, ‘A Bud, and some nuts,’ mainly because
it seemed appropriate to order beer on an occasion like this, kind of dated, a baseball-park drink. Maybe it was a nod to Joe DiMaggio. He wondered how she had coped with that; knowing that Joe DiMaggio had so regularly laid roses on that grave in Westwood. He rubbed his eyes, and smoked, and the past twenty years came silently crowding into the cocktail lounge like a coach party of unwelcome ghosts.
His name was Henry Friend, and he had started to look for her two weeks and two days after his 38th birthday. He was now 58, two years older than she was, a tall, crumpled, offhand man with eyes that were screwed up in what looked like a permanent headache. He had a bulbous nose, loose wrists, and a funny-dry way of talking that always reminded the people he met of Walter Mat-thau. His friends had no opinion on the matter because he had no friends. He had an older brother in Bend, Oregon, and that was his only family. He spent his life in hotels, motels, boarding-houses, trailer-parks, and hostels - and (occasionally) in the arms of widows, or whores, or lonely wives, behind the dim net curtains of mid-Western bedrooms. He smoked Winston, read Playboy and Guns & Ammo, and drove, as an affectation, a 1969 Ford Thunderbird Landau. He washed his shorts in hotel washbasins, with those little sachets of powder they give you, and he talked to himself in hotel mirrors.
He had been a mechanic once, which is the polite word for killer. He had probably been the best of his entire generation. But he often wondered after twenty years if he still had it in him. Jack Ruby had once told him, ‘You can think you’re the greatest. But your talent can disappear down the goddamned toilet while you’re still washing your goddamned hands.’
Jack Ruby. Walter still smiled to himself when he thought what a transparent non-de-guerre that had been. Jack Ruby, Ruby Red, Red Jack. After all these years, nobody had twigged. It made you wonder what the FBI were doing for a living, apart from filing their nails and
going to Senate cocktail parties and jousting each other for offices with more than one widow. Jack fucking Ruby.
She had finished her mimosa too quickly, like a woman who needed to drink. In a moment or two, she would be trying to catch the cocktail waitress’s attention for another one. Henry didn’t know it, but she always came in here at five o’clock in the afternoon and drank three of them, sometimes four, always alone. Alone, after everything that had happened; after all the crowds. But she was fat now, a middle-aged Sun-Belt matron, living a life of loneliness, and beauty parlours, and failed diets, and The Price Is Right.
He said to her, quite loudly, ‘Pardon me, I couldn’t help noticing. You remind me of someone.’
She looked towards him and blinked. Her mind had been exclusively fixed on beckoning the cocktail waitress. She said, ‘What? Are you talking to me?’
‘I’m sorry,’ he smiled. ‘I didn’t mean to surprise you. But you remind me of someone. I can’t believe the resemblance
She stared back at him with those slitty little eyes. The cocktail waitress came up to her, and said, ‘How’re you doing, Mrs Schneider? Can I bring you another mimosa?’
Henry offered, ‘Will you have one on me?’
Mrs Schneider said nothing, but looked from Henry to the cocktail waitress and back again, as if she were suspicious that something was going on between them which she couldn’t quite understand. Some secret joke.
Henry said, ‘Go ahead. Another mimosa. And I’ll have another Bud.’
When the waitress had gone back to the bar, Henry picked up his beer and came over to sit right beside Mrs Schneider, not uncomfortably close, but close enough. He offered her a Winston, but she shook her head. ‘I gave up. My doctor insisted.’
‘You look well enough to me. Can I say blooming?’
She placed a hand on her chest. ‘I have to watch my heart, that’s all. It’s nothing serious. But it’s better not to smoke.’
‘Do you mind if I do?’
‘I’d rather you didn’t.’
He tucked the cigarette back in the pack. ‘In that case, okay, I won’t.’
There was a difficult pause. Mrs Schneider glanced towards the sliding door. Outside, in the heat, baize tables and bright-yellow parasols were being set up for the weekend’s Easter Fair. A hotel handyman walked past with three large wooden rabbits under his arm, green and white and red.
‘Are you staying through Easter?’ she asked Henry.
I don’t know. It depends. I’d like to.’
‘You’re here on business, right?’
He nodded. That’s right, Motorola.’
‘I guessed as much,’ she smiled. ‘If it’s not Mafia, it’s Motorola. The two big Ms in Phoenix. Well, I hope you’re having a successful trip.’
I am now said Henry.
Another pause. She looked across at him. ‘You said I reminded you of someone. Who was that?’
‘I don’t know. It was a long time ago now. Nineteen or twenty years, at least. None of us are getting any younger’
‘But who? You really can’t remember?’
‘A girlfriend, maybe,’ said Henry. ‘I never married. I guess I wasn’t cut out to be a husband. So, I’ve had girlfriends. All pretty, mind you’
‘I’m a widow, myself,’ said Mrs Schneider. The cocktail waitress brought them their drinks, and set them down.
‘I’m paying,’ Henry reminded her, and laid a ten dollar bill on her tray. ‘Keep the change
Mrs Schneider took a large mouthful of champagne and orange-juice. She closed her eyes as it fizzed down her throat. Then she said, ‘My husband used to fly from Luke Air Force Base, you know out near Litchfield Park? A major, flying F-16s. A handsome man; and a good one, too. Do you know what they paid him? One thousand seven hundred dollars a month. A major, with twelve years’ service. And one day he flew straight into the side
of the White Tank Mountains, and so that was the end of that. I was left with a house, an Air Force pension, and a small collection of dirty magazines which I found in his sock drawer.’
Henry finished his first beer and picked up his second. He gave Mrs Schneider an understanding but rather refractive nod, as if he were listening to the story of her life for the third or even the fourth time. As a matter of fact, all this business about an Air Force major flying straight into the side of the White Tank Mountains was quite new to him, but then whatever biographical details she gave him, they were all bound to be fabricated, carefully rehearsed during twenty years of hiding. To Henry, they were irrelevant, the sound of a moth beating against a blind, and that was why he scarcely listened to what she was saying. She would never deflect him from the serious task he had in hand.
In truth, he quite liked the bit about the dirty magazines in the sock drawer. That gave ‘Major Schneider’ some imaginary depth, some touch of reality. Whoever had invented that little detail for her had been a genuine professional.
She said, I never drink anything else, only mimosas. Sometimes just orange juice. If I drink too much, I can’t take my sleeping-pills, and if I can’t take my sleeping-pills, I start to panic. Do you know what it’s like when you can’t get to sleep? When your mind races over and over until it feels like it’s going to burn itself out? That’s what it’s like for me, every night - or would be, if I didn’t take my sleeping-pills. Over and over, like a wheel.’
Henry smoked, and watched her. ‘You’ve lived here long, in Phoenix?’
Ten years. They were going to post us to Wheeler, in Hawaii, that was before Martin had his accident. I was looking forward to that. I don’t know if Martin was. Before that, we were at Myrtle Beach, that’s in South Carolina. I didn’t like it there too much, at Myrtle Beach. The wives were all too upwardly mobile. Rank was everything. A major’s wife was never expected to speak to a colonel’s
wife unless she was spoken to; and nobody spoke to warrant officers’ wives at all.’
‘But Luke is friendlier?’
She patted one plump white hand agitatedly on top of the other. ‘It was. I guess it still is. I don’t see too much of my Air Force friends any more. You know how it is. Now that Martin’s gone, there really doesn’t seem to be too much point in it. What do I care if Colonel Bickerstaff trunks that Captain Willis is a cretin; or if Major Hodges is screwing Mrs Bickerstaff every Wednesday at the Mesa Motel on Indian School Road?’
Henry made a face. ‘Sure, what do you care?’
There was a silence between them; but she was not at ease. She seemed so anxious and agitated that he almost expected her to change her mind and ask him for a cigarette.
Do you have the time?’ she suddenly wanted to know.
“Well, still early she said, although she didn’t say still carry in relation to what. To dinner-time? To bedtime? To dusk? To the end of the world? ‘You shouldn’t let me keep you,’ she said. Tou must be a very busy man.’
‘You’re not keeping me,’ he said placidly. ‘I don’t have any more appointments until tomorrow.’
‘Oh? Well, there isn’t too much to do here in Phoenix. We’re still Westerners, you know. Eat early, go to bed early. Healthy, wealthy, and wise as all hell.’
That sounds like a good idea. Early to bed, I mean.’
She frowned at him. She sipped at her mimosa again, quick sips like somebody who is thinking more than drinking. Henry’s calmness obviously made her unsettled; yet he hadn’t said anything or done anything that could give her an excuse to tell him to go. She said, after a while, ‘What the hell are you doing here?’
It was then that he was completely convinced that he had found the right woman. Nobody else would have said that; no genuine Western widow would have challenged him with such arrogance, and yet expected him not to be offended. She turned to look at him, and it was