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Authors: Linda Peterson

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BOOK: The Devil's Interval
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“Imagine if it were one of our sons on Death Row,” I said.

“I can't,” he said.

“I made myself go there,” I said. “I mean, I know they're not going to murder anybody.”

“Except each other,” he said.

“I can't even joke about this. But I'm telling you, when I can't sleep, that's what I picture. Some weird set of circumstances where one of them mistakenly ends up in some terrible place. And I would do anything, confront anyone, recruit anyone to fix what's wrong.”

“Maggie, I worry this is some projection you've got going on with that guy's mother. You don't need to lie awake obsessing about what if it were Zach or Josh.”

“I'm not
choosing
to lie awake,” I said grimly. “It's just what happens. And right now, there's a small thing I can do to help. And I want to do it.”

“Who's working the story?” asked Michael.

“Whoever Hoyt assigns,” I said. “Probably Andrea.” I felt a twinge of guilt. “I'll just be helping.”

“And you'll keep me posted?”

“Every step of the way,” I promised. “Scout's honor.”

“You were never a Girl Scout,
cara
,” he said.

“Look who's talking,” I countered. “Mr. Not So Clean in thought, word, or deed.”

“This is a perfect discussion to continue with Dr. McQuist,” said Michael. “I can't wait to hear what she thinks.”

“I don't believe she thinks independently,” I said. “She's supposed to help us think.”

“I thought she was growing on you,” said Michael.

“Oh, you were just impressed because she could translate the Italian,” I said.

“And you weren't?” asked Michael. “You're not always the smartest girl in the room, you know.”

“I am, too,” I said. “Knowing the most commonly quoted line from Dante doesn't make somebody smart. Or even educated.”

“Yeah, well, if you think it's that common, try wandering the
halls of that elitist little magazine of yours and doing a survey,” said Michael.

“I've got to go,” I said. “Very busy. Very, very busy.”

“But relaxed,” he said.

“Surprisingly relaxed.”

I hung up on his self-satisfied little chuckle.

CHAPTER 10

T
ell me,” I said to Travis, “about the moment when your relationship with Grace Plummer changed.”

He shrugged. “I told the trial lawyer. I've told Isabella. I've told the cops.”

“Uh-huh,” I said, “but you haven't told me.” We stared each other down.

“Or, don't…” I said. “Just as easy for me to get back to my day job.” Travis had seemed pleased, but not surprised, when Isabella told him I would try to help.

I flipped the pad shut, and started to tuck it in my purse. We were sitting in the visitors' center again, and this time, because it was a weekend, the place was filled with people. Kids, mothers, exhausted-looking, but making an effort—lipstick on, earrings in place.

With Hoyt's reluctant blessing, Andrea was taking on the story. Since I had access to Travis, I was working that angle. “You are so transparent,” Andrea said. “You're assuming that my cosseted Connecticut debutante self will be soiled by a trip to San Quentin. I'll have you know I've been there already. Twice, in fact. On stories, before I came to this lifestyles-of-the rich-and-famous glossy you're running. How starchy does that make me?”

“Andrea, my friend,” I said, “the fact that you used the word cosseted and debutante in a single conversation makes you plenty starchy. But we love that starch! It's like going undercover on a vice
squad, but you don't have to dress up like a hooker. You just have to look like your own sweet WASPy self. We all have our gifts and our connections and yours enable us to get inside Grace Plummer's social scene. You're our hidden asset in the City's A-list.”

Starchy Storch had seen right through me. But she was warming to the story and got busy interviewing the rich, thin, medicated, and moisturized crowd in Pacific Heights, and the people who served them—caterers, florists, valet-parkers, and mani-pedi experts. Now, with Isabella's help, I was back at the Q, trying to understand Travis's relationship with Grace, and getting impatient with his reluctance to talk.

Travis reached over and put his hand on the pad.

“Sorry, Maggie, I'm just tired of reliving, retelling, remembering, re-everything.”

I nodded. “Can't help if I don't know,” I said.

“Okay, so…first, it wasn't exactly a moment. It was more a whole string of moments. Right from the start, we'd talk while I was driving her around.”

“About?”

“Hell, everything. She'd give me the gossip on all those skinny, rich broads she hung out with at charity events. Books, movies, restaurants, the Minnesota Twins…”

“Twins? Baseball? She was a baseball fan?”

“I don't know how much of a fan she was, but much of her family was originally from the Midwest. Her grandparents had taken her to watch the Twins play the As when she was a kid, on trips back to Minnesota and when the Twins came to play Oakland.”

“Not her parents?”

Travis looked away. “I don't know; she didn't talk much about them. Just her grandparents. Her grandmother called her Amazing Gracie, which was pretty strange, because…” he stopped.

“Because…”

“Because the night our relationship went to a different place is the night I realized other people called her Amazing Gracie.”

“Other people? Like her friends?” I pushed.

“Not exactly.”

“Travis,” I said, “I've got limited time here, as you know. So, before they ring the bell and send us all home, I'd like to make some progress. Can you just talk to me, so I don't have to wring every last syllable out of you?”

“Christ, Maggie,” he said, “wait 'til those kids of yours are teenagers. You're going to have to polish up your interrogation techniques.”

“Good to know,” I said. “So,
what
other people called her Amazing Gracie?”

“The people at the Crimson.”

I flipped through the file lying in front of me, the summary of notes Travis's habeas attorney had given me.

“Crimson? The club on Tehama?”

All around the city, private clubs had made a resurgence. But instead of the chlorine-smelling, faux-bath environments that had flourished in the pre-AIDS days, these were primarily straight, elegant and likely to attract the moneyed and restless. I knew about them, first from one of Michael's more adventuresome partners, and then the newspaper started covering them as a trend—which probably meant they would be so-six-weeks-ago very soon.

Travis grinned, “That's the one. You hang out there, Maggie?”

“Oh, right,” I said, “me and all the other soccer moms. We climb into our little black dresses and drive the SUVs with the spilled Cheerios in the backseat right down Tehama.”

“Actually, the Crimson Club involves more climbing out of little black dresses,” said Travis, “but I like the picture.”

“Talk,” I said, glancing at my wristwatch.

And he did. About driving Grace and Frederick together to nights out at the Crimson and other clubs. About how he'd wait in the car, reading, listening to music, until 3 or 4 in the morning, when they'd emerge. Usually Grace and Frederick together. Once in a while, another couple would come. The Brands, Frederick's business partner and his wife. Or sometimes, just the partner's wife.

“Ginger's her name. Anyway, I thought Frederick and Grace had one of those open marriage arrangements,” he said, “but they always seemed very lovey-dovey when they got in the car, even if they'd both been kinda cool with each other when I dropped them off.

“Grace once asked me,” he hesitated. “She asked if I thought it was a peculiar thing for a couple to do, hang out in a place like that.”

“What'd you tell her?”

“That I'd never been married and I had no idea what it is that makes people feel good about each other, about the person they're with. And if this was it, for them, then more power to 'em.” A quick picture of the lunchtime escapade with Michael flashed in my head.

“What'd she say?”

“She laughed. Told me she had no idea how progressive I was.”

I felt a little prickle, just as Travis said that. Somehow I thought I'd hear those words again, and it wasn't going to be in a context that promised wholesome living.

“So, did you ever go
in
to the Crimson Club?” I asked. “As opposed to just sitting outside waiting around?”

He straightened up, as if called to attention by something—some memory, some authority.

“Oh, yeah, I went in…” he said. “That's the night I was telling you about. The night everything changed with Grace and me.”

CHAPTER 11

T
ravis experimented with different reading lights. As time went by, he realized that most of a driver's life consists of sitting in a car and waiting outside Saks, restaurants, the airport, offices. And that suited him just fine. He'd always been a reader, and sometimes it seemed as if the best part of this job was sitting around and getting paid to read
.

But the map lights were crummy, especially late at night, when his eyes would be a little tired already. So, he'd bought one of those clip-on reading lights. The “book buddies,” the kind that are supposed to enable you to read into the wee-small hours of the morning, and not disturb your bedmate. Of course, when he had somebody in bed with him, there wasn't a helluva lot of reading going on. Sometimes he thought, that would be nice, to have the kind of relationship where you actually slept next to each other every night, got cracker crumbs in the sheets, read novels and worried about keeping the other person awake. But he'd never gotten around to that kind of thing
.

Instead, he looked around for a better reading light to keep him and his book company, alone in the dark car while he waited for Grace or Frederick or both to finish whatever they were up to. Once, his mom had even bought him one of those miner's-light gizmos, a strap that went around his head and shone a light directly on the page. The light wasn't bad, but Grace laughed every time she saw him in it, and told him he looked like a bit player in a Marx Brothers comedy. She told him he needed to dose up with
euphrasia officinalis.
“English, please,”
he'd said to her. Turns out it's the Latin name for “eyebright,” some little plant the gypsies use to treat tired eyes. One day, she gave him a box from The Sharper Image, and inside he found a light that clipped perfectly to the top of the steering wheel and threw a warm, clear light on the page
.

One bitter November evening, he was sitting in the Tehama alley, reading
You Can't Go Home Again,
and so absorbed, he didn't even see Grace approach. She rapped on the window and he jumped. Despite the cold, she didn't have her coat on. Her cheeks were flushed, and her throat and chest, down to the tops of her breasts, where the lacy black dress began, looked warm, and damp with perspiration
.

Travis opened the door. “Mrs. Plummer, get in the car. It's freezing out here. Where's your coat?”

She laughed and extended her hand. “It's inside. I came out to get you. It's a great night at the Crimson.” She clasped his hand and tugged
.

Travis tried to release his hand, but she tightened her grip. “No, thanks, don't think that would be my scene.”

“Oh, come on,” she said. “You'll have fun. My treat. I've already paid your cover.”

Travis considered. It's not as if he wasn't curious. Besides, she seemed a little manic to be wandering around in there—whatever “in there” was, all by herself
.

“I don't know…” he began
.

She'd already turned to head back in
.

“If you hate it, we'll leave. Just check it out with me. But get your jacket, it's coat and tie for men.”

What the hell, thought Travis. He grabbed his jacket, shrugged into it, and clicked the doors locked. Grace turned to him, tightened the knot he'd loosened on his tie, and patted his cheek. “You look fine,” she said. “Just one of the regular handsome bon vivants at the Crimson.”

“Thanks,” said Travis, and realized that his heart was beating just a little faster. She tucked her arm into his, and they headed for the unmarked door that served as the entrance to the Crimson Club for those in the know
.

Travis didn't know what he expected—loud music, ninth circle of hell, with sweaty people embracing in every available corner
.

Instead, he found a double set of glass doors, and heavy red velvet curtains inside. He parted the curtains and let Grace precede him. She was greeted immediately by a Ken-and-Barbie-like pair of welcomers, both in evening clothes, both beautiful and remarkably blank-faced
.

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