Old Words Kill by Bill Capron
I remember a world where librarians wore wire-rimmed glasses, had gray hair pulled in tight buns, and their main verbs were tsk and shh. They were never good-looking, and they didn’t know any more about sex than how to spell it. The times they have achanged, and librarians have strayed —
~ ~ ~
Everybody dies, but not usually in a manner and time of their choosing, and that’s good. Then there’s suicide, the ultimate step into the unknown, and with it the inevitable second-guessing, no matter how short the span from decision to death. But if she jumps from a building, there’s plenty of time for reflection on the way down, like ‘What am I doing?’ or ‘Is this going to hurt?’ or “Wonder if I made a mistake.” She’d run through the usual gamut; fear, regret, anger, but not triumph; dying is never a victory …
… and she didn’t hear the impact as her brain shut down before the sound made its way through the ear canals.
I never met the woman, I didn’t know her demons, and I couldn’t tell how hard she loved, or how easily she died. I never saw her beauty light up a room. I never saw the police photos of her laying an ashen grey in her black blood. She was dead three months before I was involved.
She didn’t die over something important like love, but something insubstantial like sex, and I learned new things about the human condition I didn’t particularly want to know.
Whatever, she got her piece of my soul with a plaintive ‘Help me’ from the grave.
Chapter 1 – Sunday
Often when Becky reads to me I get lost in the process of watching her black lips against the pure white teeth, and I don’t hear the words. When that happens, I’m usually of two minds, one for my eyes and one for my ears; the eyes actively engage and the ears record in the background. Becky finds it disconcerting, as if I’m not really listening. She’s wrong, usually.
Becky finished the last line, “… this is the happiest day of my life.”
I noted the worn cover of the oversized paperback; a strongly built white guy, no shirt, overly puffed up pecs, hair to his waist and a partially-clothed black woman in his arms. “It seems a bit corny for a romance novel.”
She turned the open pages which were handwritten in pen; the words were cramped but legible, a cross between cursive and printing. I leaned in to look closer. Many of the words were in a vowel-less shorthand, but I made them out on the fly from the context.
She hates one word questions, they are so content free, but I’m full of them. She got by it. “It’s Joan’s diary. I found it when I was looking in a box Uncle John left in her room. I think the box came from her desk at work.”
It begged the question of why she picked it up. “You were looking for a book with that Mandingo-in-reverse touch?”
Anger marked her face. “Stop it, CB. This is serious.”
I put on a frown and her features smoothed. “So let’s have it.”
“This was dated May 3rd, the day before she killed herself.”
I wondered if I hadn’t been listening at any level. “Who’s Joan?”
She shook her head and the flyaway black hair flattened before settling into the short page boy that had been out of style since forever.
“She’s Uncle John’s daughter. She jumped from a building at Ormand College.”
I recollected the story. Becky went to Seattle for the funeral. I was in upstate New York at my uncle’s funeral when her cousin died. It was two weeks after the event when we saw each other again, and the topic didn’t come up. We aren’t people to dwell on the morbid, especially after the last year when we got our full share of it.
“Does this,” she waved the book, “sound like a girl who was going to commit suicide.”
I searched that recording part of my mind, but it was empty. “I don’t know.” She got irritated anew with my oblivion, but it wasn’t intentional; it was her lips. “Hey, I can’t figure out women. You know that.”
She put a little stop at the end of each word. “Well. I. Can. And. It. Doesn’t.”
“So you want me to look into it.”
The anger left her face. “Please, CB, could you?”
Becky doesn’t ask for much, but she gives a lot; and I’ve got a long way to go before we’re even. “I guess that means I’ll have to interrogate your Uncle John?” I chose that verb to make my reticence clear.
“No, let me talk to him first.”
I breathed a silent sigh of relief. Uncle John was John Tomay, known in the regional media as the Prince of Torts, and to his victims as the Prince of Darkness. For me the jury is out, though I lean to his victims’ view. We’re on different sides – and there are a lot more than two – of the law, and justice, if he sees her first, he’ll slam the door in her face. To spend more than five minutes together, we have to avoid what we do for our livings. Beyond that we don’t share much except Becky.
Becky’s uncle raised her after her parents died, put her through college, and was her safe harbor after the journalism imbroglio that got her blacklisted for doing good, and the first of two bad stupid marriages. When I found her she was a fully-mended woman running a tattoo shop in central Portland; Becky was a gold nugget in the trash.
A year ago she sold the shop to become head honcho of the Golden Plots, the largest Mystery Writing confab outside the Edgars in New York. Though the group was four years old, it got big overnight when a lying, thieving, cheating wordsmith left them five million dollars and a string of dead bodies and broken lives. Becky was in the right place at the right time, which is putting an unbelievably positive spin on it. Now she has a mysterious job with a truly mysterious history, and she’s become a bit of a cult figure.
Me? Well, I faded into the woodwork, right where I like to be.
We were in Seattle for The Golden Plots. The annual event was three weeks away and Becky was busting her hump to keep to the schedule. Uncle John asked her to stay in the house though the Four Seasons comped her a room; she couldn’t say no. So the hotel room became her office while she lived up the hill overlooking the hotel and the harbor. I wasn’t happy with the decision.
“So tell me about your cousin.”
“Where do I begin?” Becky scratched a lovely chin. “I was like her big sister, six years older.” She laughed at her words; at five-one, she’s nobody’s big sister. “I was in the house off and on until she graduated from high school. That sort of made me an adult to her, and not. You know what I mean?”
I nodded to move the conversation forward, but I don’t know what anyone thinks, and about teenage girls I am less than clueless. I’m not alone in that.
“She was very good-looking, tall, auburn hair, bosomy even at fifteen. She looked a little like Denise. The way you like them.”
Becky is a flat-chested ninety-five pounds. “I like them like you.” And Auburn is a college in Alabama.
She accepted the compliment and said, “Despite that, Joan wasn’t a popular girl, more into books than guys, but there was this hidden side to her. I never knew what she was thinking. She kept secrets. Like she had a stash of food in her room, stuff Uncle John wouldn’t let her eat in the house. But she didn’t eat them. It was her way of rebelling, silent but no less determined. I think she had a lot of those, what, undeclared rebellions. In fact, that might describe her. She wasn’t showy, didn’t brag, but she was stubborn, except that no one knew it because she kept it to herself.”
It was wasted effort. “Why be stubborn then? And stubborn to whom?”
Becky put a look of confusion on her face. “I think it was to herself, the part of her that wanted to be different, but was afraid to be. She always seemed conflicted to me.”
I took a shot at the next level down, where women communicate with each other. “You could explain that to me.”
She shook her head and laughed. “Not a chance you’d understand. Anyway, I don’t think there are words for it.”
“Wouldn’t need words with Denise, right?”
The women in my life have become intertwined though all they share is me; and they shared me at the mental dissection level, as if I were a lab specimen they’d never seen before, turning me over, slicing, dicing and analyzing. They don’t know that I know, but it’s my job to know. I’m not worthy of that attention. And it feeds a forever sexual tension between Denise and me because she’s wanted me forever, but she doesn’t know I’m more appealing from a distance; and that’s about all the woman doesn’t know.
Becky laughed as if she heard what I was thinking. “You’re right, she’d understand. It must be tough being a man. You guys wouldn’t know a feeling if it wasn’t attached to the end of a two-by-four upside the head.”
I wasn’t going to go there. “So, I never met her, right?” That was my way of asking the more intrusive ‘Why?’
She shrugged her shoulders and shook her head. “No. We weren’t close. There wasn’t anything pushing us apart, but then nothing was pulling us together, if you know what I mean.”
She darkened as if the memory embarrassed her. “Here it is, she lived in Portland, fifteen miles from my house, and we hadn’t seen each other outside of my uncle’s house in ten years. I’ve never been to where she died. I don’t even know where she lived.”
There was more there than met the eye; it could be secrets that are more important to a woman than a man. “Okay, just the facts, ma’am.”
Becky knew the facts, but they were devoid of information. She is very insightful, but Joan was a closed system without close friends, yet she wasn’t a loner. I had trouble with the concept, but Becky took it in stride.
What little Becky knew of the death was from the newspapers. There was a suicide note, a technology-age email she sent to her father and her boyfriend before she took her life. It read, “I’m sorry, goodbye.” Then she jumped from the top of the Library Sciences building where she worked as an archivist; end of story.
Becky wasn’t the only reason I was in Seattle that day, though she was enough. “I’ll see you at the restaurant at six.”
She nodded as she sorted through a stack of reports.
I put the breakfast dishes in the dishwasher. “So explain to me why I have to meet your ex-husband.”
She kept her eyes on the papers. “He’s in town for an action film he’s starring in. He called Uncle John. They were always good buddies. He wanted to know how I was doing. You’re the big part of how I’m doing.”
Her cloud gray eyes met mine; they said, ‘Humor my uncle, I owe him.’ Becky didn’t owe anybody, but I wasn’t going there either.
~ ~ ~
“What do you mean; it’s all in my head?” I tapped my skull. “Like my golf swing?”
I’d known Dr. David Welles for twenty-five years, since I took part in a psych experiment at the University of Buffalo for beer-drinking money. He figured out right away that I was color-blind, so he put me in another testing program for more money. In the strange world of total color-blindness I was the strangest because I had no sensitivity to the light, and I could see like a cross between a hawk and an owl. He told me my affliction was different, more different than he first imagined, and he’d be back to me when the technology was up to the job of parsing out what went on in my head.
Except for the thinning shock of white hair, the man hadn’t changed. He was the same three hundred pounds on a six-four frame that put us eye-to-eye, but he was two years past the age of retirement. His clothes were rumpled in the way a really big man’s clothes wrinkle about ten minutes after he puts them on, but the look fits the man. He spoke with an English accent retained from his youth when he came to the U.S. as an exchange student.
He answered my question. “Yes, sort of.”
“And you came all this way to learn that?”
He parted with a fat-man chuckle. “Yes, CB, you’re the only reason I’m here.” He waved both hands like a mad scientist. “I know, I got this grant, and though it doesn’t have to do with you, it was the idea of getting another shot at you that brought me west.” In fact, the grant was at OHSU in Portland, my home base, but he’d needed a unique piece of experimental equipment available in Seattle.
He discounted it with, “Yeah, well it wouldn’t have been necessary if you’d come back to Buffalo. I’d be retired by now.”
I shrugged. It wasn’t my fault, I didn’t need Buffalo, I didn’t need the doctor, he needed me. That’s why he was here.
We’d spent five hours running through tests, including brain tomography and functional MRI scans. I looked at the charts; a lot of grays; same old, same old.
“So what’s the bottom line, professor?”
“Don’t rush me, let me look at the results.” He shuffled a set of gray pictures the computer spit out. “And this stands out.”
He put the two scans in front of me; they were the same. “Well, when I show you a colored scene, then a black-and-white photo of the same picture, your brain signals are different.”
That wasn’t news to me. “You knew twenty-five years ago I could tell which was from a black-and-white camera.”
He did the hand signals again. “I know, I know, but seeing it verified,” he tapped one of the scans, “in black and white and color is special. It says I was right the first time.”
“Your eyes see color. I’m sure of it.”
I’m a private detective, so I drew a conclusion. “You’re saying I’m color-blind because I want to be?”
“No, of course not.” He thought more on it. “Well, I don’t know.”
“So which is it?”
“It’s not intentional.” There was a lingering note of doubt in his voice.
“You can’t be absolutely sure the color’s getting to my brain.”
He dismissed that thought. “Yes, I’m certain, and these scans prove it. Still, I’m going to compare your results to two control subjects coming in tonight. One is completely color-blind, the other is normal.”
I got defensive. “I’m more normal than most of your patients.”
He smiled. “You got me there.”
My logical brain was working. “Let me see if I understand. My eyes are sending the signal for blue, but my brain converting it to gray, like a computer program. And since it doesn’t do it perfectly, it doesn’t match the black-and-white photo. Is that it?”
He raised light gray eyes from the scans. “Yes, in a nutshell. The program, as you call it, has flaws. That’s why you know that shade of blue, persimmon, even though you can’t see it.” He tapped his fingers on the table. “It has its advantages, though. All your rods and cones act like rods. It’s why you see so sharply in the dark.”
I thought back to high-school biology. “But cones don’t fire in the dark?”
His voice dropped a notch. “Yeah, well that’s one of my problems. Yours do.”
“So it’s more than programming?”
He grunted a reluctant “I’m not sure.”
“Is this rare?”
“Yes it is, you and a woman who died two years ago. Coincidentally, she lived in Portland too. She had a brain tumor, and she was suddenly able to see colors. I wish I’d gotten to her before she died. No one told me.” The last sentence came out as if an actual person were to blame. “And she was cremated, so I didn’t get the brain.”
I didn’t tell him I knew the woman, that I dated her when I was in New York, that she was a student at Columbia. That might blow him away by stretching the math of serendipity. And what would he think if he knew it was me who found her justice, but the good doctor doesn’t know what I do for a living because he never asked. Denise would call him a typical man.
I said, “What a coincidence.”
We agreed on a time to meet in Portland. From the lobby I called Becky.
Uncle John picked up on the first ring. “Oh, CB, you missed her. Kevin came over early, so she’s showing him the plans for the Golden Plots. He might fill in for the keynote speaker who cancelled.”
I picked up the oily satisfaction lawyers’ voices take on when they think they’ve got you; it’s a shared trait with used car salesmen.
“She said she’d see you at dinner. Do you want to drive down together?”
It was sixteen blocks from his house, downhill, and he could take a cab. “No, John, I have to get back to Portland tonight.”
“That’s too bad. I’ll be sorry to see you go.”
Right, me and the cold he’d been nursing for three weeks.
Becky told me Uncle John thought Kevin was the best thing that ever happened to her, but he didn’t know the drinking and drugs, his serial unfaithfulness, his anger. He thought she’d let the man of her life get away.
Now Kevin Karnes was a big-name Hollywood movie star, and I was a small-time private detective in one-horse Portland, but Uncle John doesn’t know about me either. I’ve been a good person for a long time, and I have more money than Karnes, but I wasn’t about to tell him, because money has nothing to do with my being the right guy for Becky Tomay.
~ ~ ~
The three of them were seated at Dinty’s, a hole-in-the-wall restaurant with a beer-bottle name and champagne prices; they looked like a complete unit. I sat down and the symmetry shattered; new allegiances formed spontaneously as Becky moved closer to me and John gravitated to Kevin.
We shook hands and made our introductions. Karnes was five-nine, a trim one-sixty, with normal-sized hands and feet; his suit set him back three grand and the Rolex ten times that. I’m six-four and trim myself, but I am outsized and a little out of place, and clothes don’t mean enough to me to spend that much money on them. My one jacket cost two-twenty and is cut to hide the bulge from my shoulder holster. Ninety-nine out a hundred women would find Karnes handsome. I’m not that pretty, but I appeal to half the women half the time, but not at that moment.
Becky’s clothes are expensive too, and because she’s tiny, they hardly notice she’s in them, and they last forever. It was a bit disconcerting seeing how well the two of them matched up sartorially and physically; they made a beautiful couple, but there was much too much bad history, though I wouldn’t know it from the expectant gray flush on my girl’s cheeks. She was looking star-struck, and stranger yet, so was he.
My beer arrived. “So how long are you in town?”
He had an actor’s voice and pacing. “We’re filming for another thirty days. It’s great to find Becky here. I can never find anyone to hang with when I’m on one of these shoots.”
Yeah, right! He was more than cute, and finding friends was no problem. I got in a dig. “It’s too bad you’re both so busy.”
Uncle John added his two cents. “Work can always make time for old friends.” The hopeful note was not lost on Karnes or me.
Becky shook her head. “Not a chance, Uncle John.” She put a hand over Karnes’, tapped it lightly, and took it away. “Kevin will have to find another play buddy to hang with. I’m up to my ears, and it’s won’t get any easier in the next three weeks.”
I’d like to think she said that for my benefit, but the swirl of male emotions was lost on her – I’m usually the one who is oblivious – and despite the history she was smitten by the movie star. I could be overly sensitive, reading into it what wasn’t there. Who’s to know?
When Kevin hiked off to the men’s’ room, Uncle John said, as if I wasn’t there, “How did you ever let him get away?”
Becky frowned, working her tongue against the back of her teeth. She looked her uncle in the eye. “I didn’t let him get away, Uncle John, I ran as fast as my skinny legs would carry me.”
Uncle John was taken aback and his end of the conversation was a bit stilted for the rest of my night. I left the three of them discussing what Kevin might say at the awards banquet, about screenplays and the need for actors to apply their own artistic imprints. I’m not much for that kind of small talk; and actors? They should read their lines.
I had a meeting in the morning and a three-hour trek in front of me.
~ ~ ~
I was feeling a bit jealous – I didn’t much care for that – and every mile I put between me and Becky and Kevin increased my doubts. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt that way. I’m not a man quick to commit; I’ve been married once – twenty-plus years ended – and Becky is my second commitment in that time. Rhonda, the woman I expected to love forever, was dead, else there’d be no Becky, but fate has a way of moving us on after it kicks us in the face.
I am committed to Becky, but at thirty-seven she wants kids before her biological clock runs out, and I’m not sure I want to be a father again. I have a twenty-six year-old son who’s a lawyer in New York, and I’ll probably be a grandfather in the next two or three years. It would be like a bad movie script starring Kevin Karnes.
Stop it! Stop looking for reasons to be less to Becky.
Yeah, that’s right, losing her scares me more than a little.
~ ~ ~
Portland loomed ahead like an empty alien city as the specter of my missing love hung in the air; as if I didn’t belong there. The feeling left me as I exited the highway.
It was midnight when I got into my three-story office-slash-apartment. My usual routine is to take an hour to put my day notes into the computer, but they were few enough that they could wait until morning. The computer is my memory, and I generally update it before the great eraser of sleep cleans the slate, unless the slate is pretty much empty.
But I wasn’t tired either, so I opened Joan’s diary. She’d written three hundred pages starting two years ago. I got used to the deciphered shorthand pretty quickly and made good time. I got a feel for the woman; she loved her work as an archivist, she tutored a girl as a favor to an old friend, she had her regular routines and a few people she liked, but the writing reflected an underlying aloofness. It wasn’t what she wrote, but the words she used, a little too clinical when she described human-to-human contact. That feeling went away when she met Harold Hesse, the love of her life. She was a changed woman; it was an all consuming love, full of passion, at least from her perspective. Every so often there would be a heart in front of the date. I guessed those were the days they made love, twice a week, usually Sundays and Wednesdays, but that was too much like a guy, the recording of the event.
Joan had a way of writing the details, like my day notes, but with less embellishment, more like what a woman needs to cue a memory or relive a moment. Men lose those memories to their disremembered pasts; it’s why I need the detail. Joan didn’t do that, but in my head I could construct a day of Joan’s life from her cryptic pages and build a continuous flow from waking to bedtime. Though I couldn’t put a finger on the how of it, she wove her moods throughout the text, with the high days and the blue days rising and falling in the background like a leit motif.
But it wasn’t all there; hours here and there were missing, usually a night or a Saturday afternoon. The omissions weren’t overt, it was hard to say when they were, or if they were, but it was as if the day were incomplete. Twice a week or more; it was a feeling I had.
So much for the best laid plans of mice and men; I sat at the computer and splayed the day like a dead body in an autopsy room. An hour later it was thoroughly dissected, sloppily, but I’d clean it up as I reprocessed it over the next week and committed it to the past. It’s the way I work; it’s that level of detail that makes me valuable on the witness stand. What I recorded was Joan, not the words of the diary which I could reference any time, but the feeling of her which might not survive the night.
And I had to get down that idea of what wasn’t there. It was important, the way it tied into how Becky described her cousin as secretive. But keeping secrets from your diary?
~ ~ ~
I put on Sinatra’s ‘She Shot Me Down’ album, made long after his voice had died, and thought about losing Becky. My life is black-and-white, but the nuances of gray look a little too much alike at times. I often discount the shades as unimportant, but that’s not always true.