“I know you never liked the Slaters,” Maggie said.
“But …” Paul said.
“Come on,” Paul said.
“Karen’s back in town.”
“She wanted to stay here but…”
“Ray and I,” Paul said, “parted ways a long time ago.”
“I know, I’m just saying.”
“What are you saying?”
“Do you think it’s possible that Rick Lowe, I mean he’s too weak to overpower her, but maybe he’s the one, maybe he shot or stabbed Liz Burns …”
“The husband did it.”
“All right, I don’t like the Slaters.”
Maggie, hands on hips, said: “Oh, and just how do you know?”
“Ninety percent chance,” said Paul. “Always. Come on, I’m a numbers guy.”
“Karen and Rick wanted money so they could run away to California and open a cafe.”
“How’d she look?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“She was starting to look like her old man. Gaunt.”
“Gaunt?” scoffed Maggie. “She’s a beautiful women. You just don’t like them. You just don’t like the Slaters.”
“All right, I don’t like the Slaters.”
“I just did.”
“She doesn’t know about us.”
“Oh, sure she does.”
“She’s been out of town more than a year.”
“Well, the gossip in this town, she’ll find out.”
“She’s going back to California any day now. So could you…”
“Stay away? From my own apartment?”
“She knows I’ve got a male roommate and that’s all she knows.”
“So I should check in to the Motel 6?”
“Stay in The City a few nights. That’s all.”
“So you can take her in?”
“They’re desperate, Paul. They’ll be gone in a few days.”
Paul grumbled and headed for the bathroom. Seated on the toilet, gray flannel trousers at his ankles, he plucked a book from a crammed shelf: The Devil You Know: Six murders in Shipwreck Bay.
It was the only national bestseller ever written about his hometown. And it didn’t make anybody look good, with the singular exception of its reluctant, nearly-silent hero, Daniel Burns. It described the cops and sheriff’s deputies as lazy, the media as veering from clueless to hysterical, and the citizens as uncaring. The fact that the victims were all prostitutes was, the writer claimed, the root of all that heartless incompetence.
But in Paul’s opinion, the writer of that book was a fool.She got the details right, but her account made a hero out of Dan Burns. The hero worship gave Dan a feeling of invulnerability, and enabled him to think he could get away with murdering his wife. Motive? Very likely, she was about to leave him.
That’s how Paul had it figured. He flipped the pages of the book, finished his toilet business, set the book on top of the vanity. He cracked open the door.
“Mags!” He bellowed.
She was on the phone, had her back turned.
“I’m taking a shower,” he said.
“I just wanted you to know,” Maggie said into the phone, “how much I admire you. Nothing’s changed. I consider you like a daughter. I really hope we can … Penny! Penny! Please.”
She clicked off, shrugged, dropped her phone to the sofa.
Give her time, Margaret, she told herself.
Maggie sighed. Paul’s showers could take a half hour. She wandered to the big window and looked out to Wilson Street, in a distracted way, not really seeing the street life. She felt like her head was humming, as if it were a high-frequency antenna. These noises in her head. Tinitus? She promised herself she’d get her hearing checked.
The phone rang.
Maggie answered to sobbing.
“You should know something,” Penny said. “He touched me. When I was little. When I was twelve. He did more than touch me. He did things no father should do to his daughter.”
The ringing in Maggie’s ears intensified to a high, high frequency.
“What … what are you talking about?”
Into a stifled silence, Maggie said: “Are you saying what I think you’re saying? You’re making this up, aren’t you? You’re making this up to hurt me and hurt your father.”
But Penny had killed the connection.
Maggie punched in the numbers.
She thew the phone at the couch. “Little tart,” she muttered.
She walked back to the window, stood in the folg-filtered sunlight. Paul’s cascade of water seemed louder somehow, as if it were flooding through the bathroom door.
“How dare she,” Maggie muttered.
She was struck by a lightning bolt of paranoia. Penny worked for the Sheriff on weekends now. Was it possible she was telling the Sheriff the same story. My God, they’d all be ruined.
She walked to the door and listened to the man in the shower.
He was singing “Hail to the Chief” da da da dum dum dum dum dum dum dum dum dum.
Had she ever seen him cast a lacivious glance at a child?
Was he a particularly sexual man?
No. In fact he could rarely perform.
What did Penny hope to accomplish by spreading this vile tale?
If I thought you’d done something like that, Paul, she said to herself, I’d kill you with my bare hands.
Maggie mixed herself a heavy bourbon and soda, and stood once again looking out at Wilson Street, reviewing her relationship with this funny, cynical and generous man.
Yes, he was a criminal, but the gentlest, most civilized kind. He had connections, that’s all it amounted to. Maggie didn’t know exactly what was in the containers he shipped nor where it was destined. Smuggling had a long history in Shipwreck Bay, and in fact, was the original foundation of the city’s economy. Paul had merely updated the trade for the container age. And Paul, the work he had done with the Knights charities, that all flowed out of his big, sentimental heart.
Behind her the bathroom door opened, and she could feel the release of steamy water. She did not turn. Transfixed now by her own reflection in the windows, she heard him mixing a drink at the bar. He joined her at the windows, towel wrapped at his waist.
He coughed, cleared his throat, tossed down half his drink.
“Well, I’ve got my gruesome bedtime reading,” he said.
“You read it, I thought.”
“Nah, I quit halfway through.”
“That book gave me nightmares.”
“I’m so proud of that kid.”
“Who are we talking about?”
“Penny for Christ’s sake. The strangler murders? She’s author of a report. My kid, an author, Jesus.”
“Oh, I think she mentioned that. Before she stopped talking to me, that is.”
“Aw,” Paul waved a big paw. “She’ll come around. She’s all excited, that’s what counts. She’s got her name on it, right up front. Hey, Sheriff Joe liked her so much he gave her a part-time job. How do you like that?” He finished his drink. “So, did the quarterlies come in? How we doing?”
Maggie slowly shook her head.
“That bad, eh?”
“The kids are drinking at home now,” Maggie said. “Drinking and texting and Netflix streaming and cruising the dating apps. You’d have a word for it, it’s …
Paul thinks it’s time to get out of town. Maggie’s not so sure.
“A secular trend.” He retreated to the bar to refresh his drink. “Well, the Wonder is a write-off anyway. Be easier if we had a little cash flow, though, you gotta look good to the federals. Always.”
He returned to the window. “You know, this time of year, winter on the way, makes me think …” he spread his hands … “Costa Rica.”
“What do you mean, Costa Rica?”
“Unload this dump …”
“Prices are crashing.”
“And it’s only going to get worse. I’ve got my eye on a condo on the beach in Montezuma.”
“It’s a beach town in Costa Rica. Out by itself on a peninsula.”
“It would look bad. You have a wife. In a wheelchair.”
“She’s got a nurse.” He retreated to a black leather lounge chair and swiveled. “I’m a bum. I’m a rat. I know that. Look at me, I’m covered in rat fur, what am I supposed to do?”
He picked up a framed photo of Penny, taken when she was maybe ten, at the seashore.“That kid, I don’t deserve her. I wish the hell she would stay away from that church.”
“You raised her Catholic.”
“A good Catholic doesn’t mess around with these enviro-nuts. Who the hell figured Holy Trinity would have a Climate Change Committee? They bought a statue of Jesus and painted him green, for Christ’s sake. Jesus doesn’t give a fuck about the environment. Saving the souls of turtles? It’s a disgrace to religion.”
Maggie shrugged. “She’s got a good heart, then.”
He leaned toward Maggie. “Costa Rica’s out? You’re sure?”
“You can buy all the condos you want, I’m not moving down there. I still haven’t been to France.”
“They don’t speak English in France.”
“And they speak English in Costa Rica?”
“The smart ones do. And they take American dollars.”
“I’ve got two cans headed for Panama.”
“You’re not making sense.”
“Regime change in Argentina. South America’s going right down the tubes. Central America is the future. She’s just breathing, that’s all. It’s been almost ten years. Hell, you know good Catholics don’t divorce, but we were talking to Father Sullivan about an annulment. Before the … I mean when Megan …”
“I’m not going to run off with you.”
Paul heaved a long sigh. “We’d all be better off, you know.”
“Better off how, why?”
“Don’t make me say it. Even she’d better off. Come on, be honest, you know it. She’s miserable in that wheelchair.”
“Better off dead?”
“Yes, better off dead, goddamn it.”
He sat down and sank low in the chair. He spun the bourbon bottle, and the liquor in there rushed like a tide, side to side.
“I woke up once with my hands around her throat.” He gulped. “Years ago, when she first … but it tells you something. I’m a rotten son of a bitch and you know it. I knew it was a mistake, we weren’t married a year and I knew it, but goddamn it, there was no way out if you wanted to be a good Catholic.”
He looked at the framed photo of Penny.
“And then my daughter. I stayed for her. I put up with a lot of bullshit on her account. I promised myself I’d get her through college and then …” he shrugged. “Here we are. I never had my own time, you know, time of my life. High school, to college then up to The City, then dealing with Crazy Ray Slater, and then the Knights. But what about me? Who am I, Paul LaFero?”
He shrugged. “Never found out.”
He poured a drink. “What the hell. Join the club. Nobody gets to live the dream, do they Maggie?”
Maggie shook her head. “I’d go with you to Paris. One week. We leave on separate days, you can claim a business trip.”
“Your daughter already hates me, Paul. I’m not going to rub it in her face by moving to Costa Rica with you. How about a week in Pari? I want to kiss the feet of Dega’s Little Dancer. Is that too much to ask? I want to eat a croissant at a sidewalk café and watch Paris stroll by.”
“I can get us a good fare. Elroy can watch the bar.”
Paul muttered: “He’ll watch the bar all right.”
“You know what I never get from you? Emotional satisfaction.”
“Aw for Christ’s sake.”
“I’m scared, Paul. I love Karen Slater. She’s like a daughter to me. And I see her going wrong, wrong, wrong, and I’m helpless to stop her. I couldn’t sleep last night thinking oh my god, it’s just possible that she looked the other way while Rick killed Liz Burns and dumped her body in Shipwreck Bay.”
“Have a drink.” He pushed the bottle across the bar toward her.
“Do you ever worry about your liver?”
“My liver’s just fine.”
Maggie stretched to her full height. ‘I love you, Paul. And that’s funny, because I don’t believe in love. But I must love you because otherwise I’d despise you. You’re the most remote man I’ve ever known. And now you want to move to some remote island where everybody speaks Spanish.”
“It’s a peninsula, and half the people speak English.”
“Remote, that’s the key. And look at your business. You run the bar by remote control. You run your export business with phone calls and a computer keyboard. You’re out of touch, you’re out of contact, I’m desperate, can’t you see that? Every day I wake up and I’m a little more confused.”
“Confused about what?”
“Confused about who you are. Who we are.”
Paul stood, steadying himself on the heaving deck of his drunkeness. He opened his arms and took Maggie in. He whispered: “We’re the kind of people who can afford Paris.”