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Authors: Linda Peterson

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BOOK: The Devil's Interval
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Michael reached up and grabbed my hand.

“One other thing you should know, Maggie.”

“What? That sounds ominous.”

Michael turned around to face me. “I know Frederick Plummer. Not well, but I know him.”

I sank back down into the chair next to Michael.

“The widower of the murdered woman? Grace Plummer? You
know
him?”

Michael nodded. “I hadn't said anything because I didn't know
if this was going anywhere. And I certainly don't know him well. He's a client of the firm, or at least, the nonprofit foundation he started is a client.”

“You know him?” I repeated, a little dazed by this news.

Michael shrugged. “I've met him a few times, that's all.”

“My goodness,” I said. “
Small Town
all around.”

“You shouldn't be that surprised,” said Michael. “There are only a handful of law firms in the city that serve business-linked nonprofit foundations. And it's not like I play hockey with him or anything.”

“So what do you think I should do?” I asked.

“Give the information to Isabella and, if this goes any further, to Mr. Gifford, and to your publisher. Most of all, remember that promise you just made not to get into mischief.”

I thought about that promise as I chattered away to Isabella, all the way from her Berkeley office to the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, until she suggested I slow down and take a breath. She seemed unflapped by the news that Michael had a connection, however tenuous, to Frederick Plummer. But I still couldn't stop talking. Instead of being relaxed and ready for anything as we approached San Quentin, as I assumed a seasoned journalist would be, my hands were icy and I felt the kind of breathlessness you associate with high-altitude hikes. The night before, I had asked Isabella if there were special instructions about what to wear. “No denim, no green—and make sure you don't have on an underwire bra.”

“Beg pardon?”

“Metal detector,” she said. “It's really sensitive, and the underwires set it off. One time, I had to go into the ladies room, cut holes in my bra and rip the wires out. Wrecked a fifty-dollar Cosabella. You don't want to screw around with that detector. They only give you three tries through, and then you're out.”

“You couldn't just stash your bra?” I asked.

“Are you kidding? That's another rule. No braless women visitors. No exceptions.”

As we curved off the bridge, we were at sea level, and the exit to San Quentin was ahead on our right.

We pulled off the road and up to the entry gate. Isabella said, “Look at that view. If San Quentin weren't already here, some developer could throw up some condos and get top dollar in the real estate market.”

Sure enough, looking out from the parking lot, the San Francisco Bay beyond, spanned by the Golden Gate Bridge, expensive cars were wending their way from Marin County's privileged hillsides into Everybody's Favorite City. A perfectly trimmed and edged lawn stretched beyond the parking lot, and the walkway from the lot to the reception building was lined with early-blooming rosebushes. “Inmate-gardeners,” said Isabella, “they're the best. They're not working on anybody's clock.”

“People would kill for this view,” I said, “but I guess that's an awful and old joke.”

“Punch line doesn't work,” said Isabella. “No view from Death Row. Say your prayers,” she said to me, “we're here.”

In fact, the duties and rituals associated with getting from the front gate guardhouse to sitting down across the table from Travis Gifford did remind me of a religious ceremony. There was a hierarchy at San Quentin, and you had to navigate it just right, or the indulgence you sought—an interview with Isabella's client—could be withheld. It reminded me of the first time Michael had taken me to Mass with his family. Even though I'd gone to St. Agnes, I still felt like the quintessential outsider, the Jewish girl ignorant of the language, the culture, even the scents, and the responsibilities of all those people in all those elaborate costumes. The costumes were less off-putting here than at Sts. Peter's and Paul's—khaki for the guards, denim for the prisoners, instead of all those billowy white getups the priests and acolytes went in for, but there was just as much mystery.

Isabella seemed to know most of the correctional officers, big, buffed-up guys almost without exception. It was near noon when we arrived, and many carried handled coolers on their way to and
from lunch. “Why do they look like they're going on a picnic?” I asked Isabella.

“You mean the coolers? They're all into bodybuilding, so they eat massive amounts of food. No little brown sack could possibly accommodate what they've got in there.”

It wasn't a regular visiting day, Isabella explained to me, so she and I had the family room almost to ourselves. “On a family day, this place is filled with people,” she said. “People come with plastic see-through containers, filled with change for the vending machine.”

“No cakes with files in them,” I joked.

“You can't bring any outside food,” she explained. “So visitors bring enough change so they can get stuff from the machines. Keeps the kids busy, and gives people a chance to feel as if they're having a meal together. It's quite a scene on visiting day with all the kids wandering around, people playing checkers, people holding hands.” She gave a dry laugh. “I always think it looks a little like a Jane Austen movie. You see couples strolling around the room, the woman with her arm tucked into the man's, as if they're promenading.”

Today, the room felt like an empty dining hall at camp, just the two of us, alone in a sea of tables and chairs. Suddenly, the door swung open and a correctional officer gestured Travis Gifford in. “One hour, Ms. Fuentes,” he said to Isabella. She nodded. “Travis Gifford, Maggie Fiori.”

We shook hands and sat down, Gifford on one side of the table, Isabella and me on the other. Pale, pale blue eyes, close-cropped graying blond hair, faint freckles across his nose and visible under the gold hairs on his forearms. He didn't look bodybuilderish like the correctional officers, but his shoulders were broad and straight, and suddenly a picture of a young Nureyev floated into my head. Muscles under artful control.

“I feel as if I know you already, Mrs. Fiori,” he said.

“Isabella's been talking too much,” I said.

He shook his head. “I've been reading your books. The ones
you donated to the prison library? Some of them had your maiden name in them, Margaret Stern.”

I remembered the bags of books, mostly old paperbacks and some battered college texts I'd packed up and sent via Women Defenders to the Death Row Library.

“I've got plenty of time to read,” said Travis, “and to pay very close attention. We get a lot of second- and thirdhand books here, so I always read everything on the page. What people underline, notes they write, everything.”

He leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms.

“Want to know what I've figured out about you?”

Isabella protested, “We've got limited time, Travis…”

I put my hand on her arm; I could feel the heat radiating through the red wool. “It's okay, Isabella.”

“I'll be quick,” said Travis. “You don't like the romantic poets much—Byron, Shelley, those guys, hardly a mark on those pages. But you like the religious stuff—George Herbert, John Donne. If I were nineteen and trying to get you into bed, I'd send you Andrew Marvell, but not the usual, ‘To his coy mistress.'”

“Travis…” began Isabella.

Travis held his hand up to stop her, and then he lowered his hand, palm cupped upward and put it in front of me. I followed his eyes, down to his palm, and he opened it slowly, as if he were setting a firefly free to twinkle away into the air. There on his palm, written in ink, it said, “Clora, come view my soul…”

“Who's Clora?” asked Isabella impatiently, looking over her shoulder to see if someone was watching this strange scene through the pane in the door.

Travis turned his palm face down on the table, leaned forward and whispered:

       
Clora, come view my soul, and tell

       
Whether I have contrived it well
.

       
Now all its several lodgings lie

       
Composed into one gallery;

       
And the great arras-hangings, made

       
Of various faces, by are laid;

       
That for all furniture, you'll find

       
Only your picture in my mind
.

Travis sat back and smiled. A prisoner, in a cold sterile room, with big squared shoulders and an even bigger presence. His self-confidence was palpable and seductive. It took an effort to resist. And an even greater effort not to feel invaded by the idea of a man in a cell memorizing a passage for me.

‘The Gallery,' I said, coolly. “No wonder they call you Lothario. Nice parlor trick to memorize a poem I loved in college. Good thing I'm not nineteen any more.”

“Why'd you give the book away?” he asked.

“I have a hardbound copy of Marvell now,” I said. “I thought the paperback deserved a new home.”

Isabella sighed and tapped one carmine nail on her wristwatch. “Time flies, my friends.”

Travis unfolded his arms and placed his hands flat on the metal table. “Let me get this straight, Isabella. My job today is to convince Mrs. Fiori that I'm innocent so that she'll help us—before the great State of California succeeds in its goal to put me down like a stray dog. Is that about the size of it?”

“Try not to be a jerk,” said Isabella. “We do want Maggie's help, and the first step was meeting you. So, here we all are.”

Silence. Travis leaned forward suddenly, and it took all my self-control not to flinch. “What do you want to know?” he asked abruptly.

“I saw the police photos,” I said. “I'm here because I can't get them out of my head, and because your lawyer is a pretty powerful lobby on your behalf.”

“And now that you're here? Got a feeling? Got it figured out yet?” Michael's words about snap judgments based on first impressions went on replay in my head. Somehow, it was reassuring to hear Michael's voice in this particular moment.

I shook my head. “No feelings,” I said. “Not yet. Look, why
don't you just talk to me?”

And so, he began talking—about the army, about learning to love anything on four wheels, about looking for work when he'd retired from the service.

“Tell me why they call you the Limousine Lothario,” I prodded.

He sighed. “That's what's so crazy about being in here. I love women. And here I am in the worst kind of men's club. And it's not just about women and sex, by the way. It's everything. I love the way they talk and think and dress and smell. I'm sure some shrink would say it all goes back to my mother.”

“Okay, tell me about your mother.”

“It was just my mom and me when I was growing up; my dad disappeared when I was a baby. I was fascinated by my mother. She could do anything. She's the one who first taught me about cars. She could cook and she built stuff, whatever we needed when I was a kid, a go-cart for me, a kitchen table. She taught me to play poker and how to dance. I was the only guy at the senior prom who could cha-cha, mambo, and fox-trot. And she loved to read, anything and everything. In fact, she named me Travis after a character in mysteries she used to read.”

“Travis McGee,” I said. “John D. McDonald's character in all those mysteries with colors in the title.
The Deep Blue
something or other.”

“That's the guy,” said Travis. “Plus, I think she thought my name was a little trailer-trashy, seemed like the perfect way to thumb her nose at the snooty New England family she ran away from when she married my dad.” He sighed. “I think she's still thumbing her nose. My mother's taste in men…” He caught himself short. “Anyway, I grew up thinking all women were remarkable—and the only real pleasure in life I'd ever had was being close to a woman. It's not…” he stopped.

“Not what?”

“It's not like I've been out looking for a woman just like my mother. It's just that I was always happy in her company. And I kind of took something in through my pores. Something women want.”

Suddenly the oddest thought drifted into my head, that I hoped my boys would describe me that way when they grew up.

“Good thing no one's a Freudian in this room,” I said, deliberately putting some distance in my voice. “I'll bite, what do women want?”

“They need someone to listen, to pay attention.”

“To memorize a favorite poem?”

“Yeah, that was a cheap trick,” said Travis. “But, let me ask you something: Does your husband know how you feel about Marvell?”

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