Authors: Victor J. Banis
Tags: #General Fiction
The Kiss of Death
By Victor J. Banis
Copyright 2011 by Victor J. Banis
Cover Copyright 2011 by Dara England and Untreed Reads Publishing
The author is hereby established as the sole holder of the copyright. Either the publisher (Untreed Reads) or author may enforce copyrights to the fullest extent.
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This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to the living or dead is entirely coincidental.
Also by Victor J. Banis and Untreed Reads Publishing
Tell Them Katy Did
The Princess of the Andes
The Kiss of Death
By Victor J. Banis
He would remain like that forever in her memory: his mouth agape, sky-blue eyes wide with shock and the first hot glint of pain.
He was gone before she could speak, rushing out the door, the car’s tires shrieking accusations at her as they went down the driveway. She never saw him again. The sheriff advised against it.
“You’d never know him,” he said. “He was beat up pretty awful.”
There was no mystery to how he had gotten so “beat up.” He’d missed that bad curve on the old highway, hitting a tree at—according to the best estimates—something like ninety miles an hour. Even the car had barely been recognizable.
The mystery was how a man who almost never touched liquor could have been so drunk. “Drunk as a skunk,” the sheriff said, though he put it a bit more delicately with the widow.
“I only saw him one other time,” the bartender at The Lone Pine said. “He was in once with Doc Wister, had coffee that time. The other night, though, he must have put away a half-dozen shots, more than that, maybe, in fifteen, twenty minutes. He was drunk, all right.”
“Too drunk for me to serve,” Linda said. Linda’s Joint was out on the old highway. It was coming back from there that he missed the turn. “Couldn’t hardly stand up. I told him I wasn’t about to serve him. I poured him some coffee and went to call the sheriff to have someone fetch him, but he lit out while I was on the phone.”
“That’s how’s come I found him so quick,” the sheriff said, “I was already looking for him. The wheels hadn’t hardly stopped spinning when I came on the wreck.”
Nobody was tactless enough to suggest it to Claire, but there was a sort of unspoken understanding that went around town about why a non-drinker would be so drunk: a fight with the wife, everyone assumed. One or two of them, back in the far recesses of their mind, wondered if he’d really “missed” the turn, but no one said that aloud, even to themselves.
Claire saw the sliding-away looks they gave her, knew what they meant. The funny thing was, since the question wasn’t asked, she couldn’t answer it, but, no, they hadn’t had a fight. There hadn’t been time between the moment when he’d come in unexpectedly, and mere seconds later, when he’d dashed back out, leaving the door to swing in the wind behind him. Neither of them had spoken a word.
What words she could have spoken, though, Claire had no idea. How could she ever have told him how sorry she felt, and how ashamed? Worse, she could not even explain to herself, let alone to him, how it had come about. In all her thirty four years she had never thought along those lines, never experienced any such desires, none at least that she had been conscious of. Nothing like that at all, until she and Jason had come here, to this desolate outpost of a town in Maine’s north woods, and Jason had thrown himself into his new job, and she had found herself so terribly alone—and Lisa Meredith had insinuated herself into Clair’s life.
Claire sat in the dark in the little dining area of their house, letting her coffee grow cold, and stared morosely out the window at the falling snow. Almost from the day they’d arrived, she’d hated this house, this town, Jason’s job. She’d felt like a prisoner here. She’d lie at night beside her sleeping husband and hear dogs howling—she was sure they were wolves, but Jason laughed and said they were only dogs—and had felt like howling at the moon herself. She longed to be back in Oceanside, to kick off her shoes and walk barefoot along the beach, letting the gentle murmur of the surf coax every trace of gloom, every unhappy thought, from her.
Well, she would be there soon enough, now, wouldn’t she, back in Oceanside, back on the beach? This wasn’t how she had dreamed it, though. She had dreamed of going back with Jason, with her husband, not with a handful of ashes in a brass urn.
She pushed her chair away from the table and got up impatiently, moving cautiously around the oddly foreign shapes of familiar furniture that peopled the darkness. In the bathroom, the door carefully closed before she turned on the lights, she stared at herself in the mirror. Her eyes were red, as if all those tears had rusted them. She splashed water on her face.
She wondered, for perhaps the thousandth time, how on earth it had happened: she and Lisa in that awkward embrace…an unexpected sound…and looking around to see Jason in the doorway, staring at them, bewildered and, quickly, horrified—the way she would always remember him now, all the other images of him, of their years together, eclipsed by that one ugly glimpse. Stolen from her. From him, too, but at least he wouldn’t have to live with the loss.
It would have been less horrible to her if she could even have said to herself, if not to Jason, “But I love Lisa. I enjoyed her kiss. In her arms I felt whole at last.”
Better to be a real, an honest lesbian than a fool and a weakling. But she did not love Lisa, not in that way, assuredly. She had turned to her because she was lonely and hadn’t fitted in here, in this harsh little town, and Lisa had been brash and friendly and eager to be her companion and confidant—for reasons of her own, as it eventually turned out. Oh, how cozily Lisa had listened and advised and consoled; yes, especially consoled, whenever Claire found fault with Jason.
“Men are like that, pet, every one of them. Believe me.”
“But I love Jason,” Claire had insisted, loyal in the face of Lisa’s implied criticism.
“Why, of course you do. That’s the whole point, don’t you see? It is always the woman who loves. Really, women are the only ones who
love. That’s why men have friends, buddies, pals, but women love one another….”
And Claire had smiled, and said, in all innocence, “I do love you, for being such a friend.”
She hadn’t loved her, though, not in the way Lisa meant it. In that way, she loved Jason. Good heavens, of course she loved Jason. He was her husband. She wouldn’t have been here at all if she hadn’t loved him so.
She had loved Lisa as a friend, had even been willing to overlook the gossip about her.
“Lisa is fast.” Everybody said so. It wasn’t just the numbers of men, either, of which people talked. It was the marital status of so many of them.
She’d refused to share in the gossip, had never brought the subject up with Lisa. She was too glad to have Lisa’s friendship, someone to spend the long evenings with while Jason burned the midnight oil. Anyway, it was a small town, cold, and not from climate alone. Lisa was divorced, rich, and beautiful enough to make other women feel threatened, even good-looking women.
“It’s no wonder they talk about her,” Claire told herself more than once. “They talk about me, too, I’m sure.”
The big old clock on the mantle struck the hour. It was time to go. She turned off the bathroom light before she opened the door, bumped into a chair that wasn’t where she expected it to be. She got the car keys from the hook by the back door, left the house and the errant chair to their darkness. The realtor had the house keys. The house would sell with everything in it. She wanted no souvenirs of her time here. Those ashes were reminder enough.
The car was already packed. Everyone thought she’d left hours ago. That was what she told them: “I’ll be starting out about noon, no later than one. I want to make Portland before night.”
She drove out of the garage now with the headlights off, did not turn them on until she was nearly two blocks away. No one was likely to recognize the car. She’d sold Jason’s new Buick the day before, for a price so cheap the buyer had hardly been able to keep from clapping his hands and dancing. They’d almost never used the wagon, and it was about as nondescript as a car could be. The streets were already deserted. She might as well have been invisible.
She parked down by the bridge, where no one was likely to see the car—though there was little enough traffic here—and walked up the curving drive. She’d have taken the path through the woods, which was shorter, but there was too much snow there and the driveway was clear. She didn’t want to leave prints. The wind fretted around her, whispering urgently, things she didn’t want to hear.
Lisa was surprised to see her. Claire had sent her away that night, mere minutes after the sound of Jason’s car had disappeared down the driveway.
“You’d better go,” she’d said, and Lisa had said, “Oh, honey, he won’t be back for hours.”
“Get out.” Loud, curt, like slamming that door swinging in the wind, and Lisa, without another word, had gone, closing the door softly behind her.
They hadn’t spoken since. What was there to say? Whatever it was that had existed between them, whatever it conceivably could have become, had died in that crash with Jason.
“Claire,” Lisa said, eyebrows lifted. “I didn’t hear your car.”
Claire offered no explanation for that. She walked wordlessly past her and into the front room without waiting for an invitation. A startled log cracked loudly on the hearth. A half-empty brandy snifter sat on a table near the fire. Frank Sinatra sang in the background, some song about loneliness. They were all about loneliness, weren’t they?
After a moment’s pause, Lisa closed the front door and followed her. “Actually, I thought you’d left already,” she said. “I thought somebody told me that.”
Claire turned to face her. Despite the fact that she was obviously alone, Lisa looked stunning. She always did. Hostess pants of a yellow so pale it was nearly white, the silk tunic, her raven hair perfectly coifed; she might have been entertaining a roomful of people, the best people. She had always made Claire feel dowdy. She made
women feel dowdy.
“I couldn’t leave without saying goodbye, could I?” Claire said, only the slightest edge to her voice.
“No, I guess not,” Lisa said, her tone, her manner, a bit uncertain. Lisa was rarely uncertain. They stood, regarding each other, the silence growing awkward. A turntable whirred and clicked, and Sinatra, too, went quiet, waiting.
“You weren’t at Jason’s funeral,” Claire said.
Lisa took a cigarette from a china dish, lit it with a silver lighter, made a show of exhaling slowly. “Actually, I hardly knew Jason,” she said, not looking at Claire.
“You know me. I thought we were friends. You said often enough that we were.” Lisa’s shrug was pointed, deliberate. “If not friends, then what were we?” Claire insisted.
“Can I get you a drink? Don’t you want to take off your coat?”
“No. I want you to tell me what we were, Lisa. You and I. If not friends.”
Lisa sighed, stubbed the barely smoked cigarette out in a crystal ashtray. “Christ, I hate scenes,” she said. She flicked a phantom bit of tobacco from a crimson lip. “If you really must know, darling, you were a challenge. You were so, oh, I don’t know, so married, so virtuous. I find innocence tempting. It’s a trait of mine. I never said I was a nice person.”
“Is that all I was?” Claire asked. “A score?”
The corners of Lisa’s mouth turned up a little and she cocked an eyebrow. “Well, of course, one doesn’t get a score for a fumble. Or were you planning to…?” She left the question unfinished, staring instead at the gun Claire had taken from the deep pocket of her coat. She looked from the gun into Claire’s face, saw there the answer to the question she’d been about to ask.
“Ah,” she said, long and drawn out. Claire said nothing. “You can’t get away with it, you know. People get caught for murder. They never get away with it.”
“Well, but, we wouldn’t hear about the successful ones, would we? If someone got away with it, I mean.”
Lisa said nothing. Under the expert makeup, her face paled, making her lips redder still, as if they were berry-stained.
“You have a reputation, Lisa,” Claire said. “All those married men, all those jealous wives. Who on earth would ever suspect me? And everyone thinks I left town earlier today, you’d heard that yourself. I’m on my way to California already. That’s what everyone believes.”