Authors: Kate Wilhelm
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #General
THE BEST DEFENSE by Kate Wilhelm
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A Fawcwtt Crest Book Published by Ballantine Books Copyright 1994 by Kate Wilhelm
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc.” New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. I
No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 942039
This edition published by arrangement with St. Martin’s Press, Inc.
Manufactured in the United States of America First Ballantine Books
Edition: September 1995 10 9 8 For Chris and Rosanne
paula kenner man is lost, confused. Thursdays are her best days, she keeps thinking. She is off work on Thursday;
there is time to play with Lori, take her to the park, or shopping, or the library. Thursdays are good days.
Packing, she was packing their things, hers and Lori’s.
Yes, that was Thursday. Packing. And now she is here, someplace with a curtain around her bed, needles in her arms. Thursday, she reminds herself.
“What the fuck are you doing?” Jack demands, standing in the doorway.
“Packing. Leaving. I told you.”
“You’re not going anywhere! Don’t give me this shit.”
She closes her eyes and drifts away. Leaving. He took the money out of the bank. She sees herself on the floor, stunned, clutching the door frame because the floor tilts crazily. There was no pain, she realizes, puzzled, because now there is so much pain. She watches herself watching him as if from a terrible distance. He picks up Lori and throws her down on the bed.
“Next time, out the window,” he says.
Her eyes jerk open. In her head Lori screams and screams.
There was a fire, she remembers, seeing it again through a window, a kitchen blazing, flames licking against the door. Running. She took a taxi, but not to that house, another house. No suitcase. She could not lift the suitcase because something was broken, and she had to hold Lori’s hand. She drifts again.
She is on the edge of a woods waiting for Lori. An other little girl comes running out.
“She’s sleeping,” she says, and from somewhere else a second child calls, “Annie, come here. Look what I’m making.” Annie darts away.
Sleeping, she thinks, standing against a tree, using it for support. She is so tired; and she hurts so much.
Sleeping. What if Lori wakes up alone? What if she screams, in there alone?
“If she wakes up alone, she’ll be afraid. I’d better go back.” There is someone by her, she remembers, walking away from her, a woman.
“Whatever you want.”
The woman is heading toward the children playing under a big bouquet. Paula moves slowly; every step brings a stabbing pain through her side, across her shoulder, down her arm. Two cracked ribs, they said.
“I won’t go to the hospital,” she remembers crying.
won’t leave Lori. Let her come with me.” The other side hurts as much as the side with the cracked ribs.
From being slammed against the door frame, she re calls, thinking how crazily the floor kept tilting.
At the kitchen door. Flames. The kitchen blazing. She is running, running, like nightmare running: all that effort and so little gain. In the front door, up the stairs, screaming, “Lori! Lori!” The bed is empty. She plummets into oblivion again.
“Mrs. Kennerman, can you hear me?”
Against her will her eyes come open. Her tongue is thick and dry.
“Take a sip of water,” a voice says, and a straw is placed in her mouth. The water helps.
“I can hear you,” she whispers hoarsely.
“Can you tell us what happened back at the Canby house? Do you remember?”
“I couldn’t find Lori,” she whispers.
“I looked in every room, under the beds, in the closets, and I couldn’t find her.” She pulls against restraints on her arms.
“Where is she? Where is Lori?” She is crying, her voice wild and out of control.
“Where is she?”
“Mrs. Kennerman, here, a little more water.” A washcloth is against her eyes, gently wiping her cheeks. It is removed and she opens her eyes.
Now she can see them, a man and a woman. She is very broad, with a broad, almost flat face; he is tall and heavy, thick through the shoulders, with thick gray hair.
“Who are you?” she whispers.
“Tell me where my child is, please.”
“Don’t you remember the rest of it?” the man asks.
Now she does.
“I kept yelling for her to come out, not to hide, because the house was on fire. I went down the stairs, and then … I don’t know what happened. I was outside on the ground and people were all around and the house was burning, all the windows, the door, everywhere. Lori!” It was not a question this time. Lori!
Later the same man came back with the same woman.
“Why would she hide from you? Was she afraid of you?”
“Did you see anyone?”
“What did she say to you? Did she want to go home again? Did she want to go back to her father?”
“Why do you say you went upstairs? She fell asleep watching television, and the TV is in the living room downstairs.”
“Mrs. Kennerman, you’ll feel better if you just tell us exactly what happened. Believe me, you’ll feel better then.”
In her mind Lori is screaming, screaming. Dreamlike slow motion: Jack picks her up and throws her onto the bed. Next time, out the window. Lori whimpering in her sleep in a strange house, a strange bed; her every movement brings jabs of pain to Paula. Lori waking up, crying out, screaming in her sleep.
“Just tell us what happened, Mrs. Kennerman.”
She told them and told them, and then she stopped telling them, and in her head Lori screamed.
frank holloway felt out of place here in the Whiteaker neighborhood; his car was too big and expensive and shiny clean, his suit, a very nice blend of silk and wool, was too well tailored. He drove slowly past the small houses, most of them well-kept and neat enough, he had to admit, past the mural wall he had read about—not exactly pretty, but impressive, he also had to admit: a jungle with unlikely creatures and more unlikely variously colored people who all seemed happy. Continuing, he passed a black beauty shop, a small appliance repair shop, a Mexican grocery store with a sale advertised in big white letters on the window:
JICAMAS, TOMATILLOS, PLANTAINS, SIXTY-NINE CENTS
He spotted Martin’s Fine Food stenciled in white letters on a picture window out of the fifties and drove past, parked with misgivings at the curb, and sat for a moment rethinking his plan. Finally he left the car and approached the small restaurant housed in one of the old buildings. Some of the first houses built in Eugene were in this neighborhood, dating back a hundred years or more, now qualifying for historical preservation status;
this probably was one of them. The structure was frame, freshly painted white, with a neat row of petunias and marigolds bordering the walkway to the entrance. Two large picture windows had been installed, and a fancy front door with a brass handle. The improvements looked hideously out of place on the building they made him think of an aged woman wearing a Gabor wig and too much makeup. White half curtains hid the bottom of the glass panes, hid the diners from the public, but at the moment three people were standing in a tight group clearly visible, obviously yelling a tall black man, a tall brown man, and his daughter, Barbara
Frank drew in a breath and opened the door, entered.
The trio did not glance his way, and it seemed that a squad car with siren blaring could have gone through without their noticing. Frank shook his head at another black man leaning against a door frame; he was wearing an apron and was very large and very black. There was an amused expression on his face. Frank passed him to take a seat in a booth near the rear of the dining room.
There were only three tables and four booths altogether.
Barbara and her two companions were by the front window, all standing up, holding down the table as if it might float away without their intense effort.
“What’s the matter, you can’t walk?”
“My mother can’t walk that late. I told you!”
“Don’t give me that shit, man!”
“I said that’s enough!” Barbara yelled, leaning closer to the tall black man.
He was yelling loudest. He was skinny, over six feet, dressed in stained chino pants and a white T-shirt.
“What you mean, that’s enough? He stole! He’s a robber That ain’t enough!”
“You don’t just want your money back, you want revenge, and I told you what the court would do. Roberto, what are you studying at LCC?”
“I’m going to be a dental technician. You know, false teeth, caps, bridges, braces, stuff like that.” Roberto was also thin; he was brown, with long hair caught up in a ponytail. Barbara looked small and vulnerable between the two angry men.
“I told you, I pay you back! I already paid some back!”
Abruptly the black man sat down.
“You going to make false teeth? No shit?”
“Yeah. You got a problem with that?”
“Man, take it easy, okay? False teeth? Bridges?”
Barbara put her hand on Roberto’s arm, and they both sat down again, and their voices faded, became too faint for Frank to catch the words. The aproned man vanished behind the swinging door to the kitchen and quickly reappeared with a tray that had two Cokes and a cup of coffee. He took it to Barbara’s table, patted the other black man on the shoulder, and then approached Frank’s booth.
“Just coffee,” Frank said.
The waiter went to the next booth. Frank had passed it without noticing anyone sitting there.
“You sure you don’t want something to drink, miss? A Coke or juice or something? No charge if you’re waiting for Barbara.”
“No, no. I’m fine. Thank you.” Her voice was very nearly inaudible.
By the time Frank’s coffee came, Barbara and her clients were standing up again, but this time peaceably.
She reached over the table to shake hands with the black man, and then shook hands with Roberto, and the two men walked out together. The
black man was say8 Kate Wilhelming, “You gonna make false teeth! That’s a hoot and a half!”
Prank stood up and watched Barbara without moving toward her. She looked tired, he thought with regret. It was often a shock to see her when she didn’t know he was there; how like her mother she was in appearance, although not at all like her in any other way. She had fine bones, and she had let her hair grow out longer than he had seen it in years. Fine dark hair with just a touch of wave, enough to soften it. He knew there were a few gray hairs, but since he couldn’t see them from this distance, he didn’t have to think about them. She had lost weight in the last few months and her jeans were a touch baggy; she looked fragile, too young to be thirty-seven, thirty-eight, whatever it was. Fragile, he repeated in self-derision. She was about as fragile as a six-foot length of re bar Actually, he didn’t want to think about her age any more than he wanted to think of her hair turning gray.
She had faced the door during his swift scrutiny; now she turned toward him, her face brightening as she took a quick step in his direction.
“Dad! How long have you been here?”
The woman in the next booth stood up and started to walk toward the door.
“Did you want to see me?” Barbara asked.
“Yes, but not if you’re too busy. I mean, I’ll come back some other time.”
“That’s just my father,” Barbara said easily.
“He’ll wait. Won’t you, Dad?”
“Yep. No problem.” He sat down again and watched the woman
approaching Barbara. Plump, in black 9 stir rip pants and a red top, sandals. Not the way people dressed when they came to his office, he thought grumpily, and Barbara, in jeans and a ridiculous T-shirt, was not dressed the way anyone expected an attorney in a prestigious office to dress either, he added, and picked up his coffee. Just the father. He could wait. The coffee was very good.
Barbara had been surprised to see her father, but not terribly. She had known curiosity would bring him to her “office” sooner or later. When he sank back down into the booth, she turned her attention to the young woman, who had been crying recently. Automatically Barbara examined her arms for bruises, marks of any kind, and found only nice pink boneless limbs. She motioned to the table where Martin already had cleared away the Coke cans and glasses and her cup. Even as she was resuming her own chair, Martin came back with a tray and two cups of coffee and put them on the table wordlessly.