Color Me Dead by Bill Capron
Death is the dark side, the shadow that follows us down the streets of life, darkening with each passing year until it has the body, and we are its complimentary empty shell. But without us, death has no substance, and once we’re gone, it too passes from the world of the living, from blackness to nothingness, out of conscious recognition. There is nothing after death, and puns aside, I can live with that. I want to go on as long as possible, but it will be my final triumph to take stalking death with me.
Marion Cramer brought her blackening shadow into my office that cold rainy winter day in Portland. It hung on her, under the light gray helmet of her hair, like a second staring set of eyes, almost half a beat behind the living version. It wasn’t that she was old, maybe thirty-five, but her gray damp skin bore witness to a losing battle. When she eased herself into the visitor’s chair, it appeared briefly she had lost some of the resolve to remain erect in an uncaring world, but she fought it and straightened her shoulders with a visible effort.
I knew Marion from her previous life, long before the cancer started eating away her insides. She was a beautiful girl, with a handsome body and a winsome personality. We shared a single thing, a common trait, a bond of separateness, we were both color-blind, the rare kind, total. Though we seldom really saw things the same way, from politics to music to sports, there was the mutual attraction of two people who could talk in black, white and gray without confusion. When we parted, she said it was the only thing we shared, but later, when we were a thing of the past, and just friends, she told me our problems were her fault, but I never really believed her. She was the best year of my life; I sometimes think I was the worst year of hers; but that’s a story too long for the telling.
I hadn’t seen her in nine months. I didn’t know she was sick. I said, “Marion…” but I couldn’t put any words after it.
She shrugged shrunken shoulders. “It’s okay, no one knows what to say.” She took in the office with a slow turn of her head, her eyes focusing, then moving on. “You could really use a little color in here, CB.”
I almost stammered, “What do you mean?”
She put her elbows on my desk, her still young hands steepled together and her lips pressed to her thumbs. “A week ago, I started to see color, like I was awakening from a horrible black and white dream. Now I can see everything. It’s a whole new world, so much different than I’d ever imagined.”
My eyes widened in disbelief. “That’s not possible.”
She placed those lovely hands with stony gray nails on my desk. “That’s what my doctor said, but I can see the green of the grass, the yellow of the canary, the red in a rose.” She turned her hands to me and said, “Bob, these nails are navy blue, not navy gray. It’s a real color. I don’t need to describe everything in grays any longer.” She looked at me hard. “You’ve got brown eyes, but there’s little green flakes of color in them. Did you know that?” I shook my head, and she continued, “I have blue eyes, not baby grays as you use to call them. Real blue eyes, like everyone else in my family. Blue eyed people can’t be color-blind, did you know that? And now I’m not.” She seemed to look out from within at the wonder of it all. “I don’t know why this gift has been given to me, and for such a short time, but I want all of it I can get.”
I read the pleading in her light gray eyes, that blue I’d never see. “And?”
She was matter-of-fact, “Somebody wants to kill me.”
Marion Cramer wasn’t rich, she was way beyond rich. At twenty-eight, a couple years after we broke up, though we were both still living in San Francisco, her father died and she went home to Portland. Suddenly she was the sole owner of one of the largest independent oil companies in the nation. I’d seen one of those magazines rating the richest, and they placed, no, they guessed her value to be four to five billion, with a ‘b’. So she explained how, since then, she had become the center of a whirlwind too much resembling the TV show ‘Dallas’, with endless intrigues of her grasping aunts and uncles and cousins, all too gainfully employed by her company.
I didn’t need the world of colors to know her problem. “Somebody can’t wait for their inheritance?”
She nodded. “I don’t have proof; it’s the way some of them are looking at me, treating me like I’m some sort of temporary inconvenience.”
I had to ask, “And you’re sure it’s not all in your head, some product of this color-infused world of yours?”
A brief look of irritation marked her face, then it was gone. “Of course I’m not sure. That what I need you for.”
I took another tack, “Why don’t you leave it all to a charity and disown the whole bunch of them. They’ve always hated you, even before you were rich.”
“That’s not true.” Her eyes met mine, and then she averted them. This sea of color she now lived in must have blinded her. “Well, not completely true. It’s been tough on them, getting nothing.” She saw the start of a sneer on my face. “It feels like nothing to them. They had hopes, and when my father died, he dashed them. They have hopes again, I see it in their eyes, and it scares me.”
I said it again, “If it were me, I’d disown the whole bunch.”
There was a hard finality to her words, “No, I’m not going to punish them all for the greed of one. That’s something my father would do, and did do. I need you to find out what, if anything, is going on, then I’ll take care of it myself.”
So we talked for two hours as I made notes about the whos and whats of the family, and the business. There were fifteen of them, all sharing equally in the company, all someday getting their six percent, plus a little. I asked why she didn’t give it to them now, but her father’s will expressly forbade it with a couple of poison pills she was unwilling to invoke. She couldn’t even give them money, or a fake salary, they had to work for it, and work hard enough that an independent arbiter approved the salaries on an annual basis. I asked if her father so much distrusted them, and she said no, but he so much hated them. Now she was afraid his hate would end in her death.
~ ~ ~
Marion floated the story that I was her new estate planner, there to ensure the government did not get the business on her death. She ensconced me in an office on the top floor of the company’s tower. I had a view of the waterfront, the bridges, downtown, like moving postcards. From here it was so antiseptic, like living a level above the scum that moved in and out of our at times still healthy city. Every so often, I’d see the number on the top of a cop car, like specific white cells targeting some human germ or virus, but too often after the damage was done. The executives in this hermetically sealed building made their way from their safe homes, to the protected halls of the building and back again, almost never confronting the reality of the diseased city. Their brief forays for shopping, shows, dinner exposed them to the threat, but generally they made it through without pain and suffering.
My life brings me close to the dark underbelly on a regular basis. I am hired by both the winners and losers of life’s lottery, generally to either hold onto, or get back, what was theirs. Too often the chattel are children, the painful pawns in today’s divorce actions. Used to be the kids of single parents merely had a lousy home life, but now they were expected to bear witness, usually false witness, against one of their parents, almost always the father. Talk about screwing up children in the name of their protection; the courts wielded the sword of Solomon for the aggrieved wives with all the restraint of Atila the Hun. And society, through this perversion of the law, not only condones it, but promotes it, extracting a last ounce of pain, a final poison pill that festers in the Petrie dish of the future until its spawn resurrect the story line to destroy families still unborn.
The Cramers were a rich family, and their hatred would fester forever. Dysfunctional is a term reserved for the poor; these people were way past dysfunctional. Petty hatreds backed by big time dollars, they’d wasted the capital of their futures by exercising every opportunity to extract pain from each other. I’d never met a group who seemed to love life so little.
Marion gathered us in a conference room next to her office. The gray mahogany walls were her father’s intentional slap at political correctness. The giant table was cut from a single piece of wood with a grain like leather. There were twenty chairs, of which all but three were occupied. Marion had a flip chart at the head of the table and she started the meeting by introducing me. She said I needed to talk to each of them to come up with individualized plans to meet their personal needs, for the obvious reasons of her uncertain health. She wanted to be sure they were all properly taken care of. She went through some of the optional methods of transferring wealth, but it wasn’t new to these people. They may have been shocked that she hadn’t done it already, but I more read suspicion in the serious gray-eyed gazes.
I spent the next six hours interviewing them one at a time. It appeared to be a company without closing hours, people without families to go home to. But I knew that wasn’t true because of the biographies Marionhad prepared for me. So I ran them through the questions we’d developed, to add a personal feel to the hard black words. To a man, and woman, there was a distrust of Marion, her motives, and of course all the other relatives. It wasn’t in what they said, but how they said it, a nuance of hatred. They seemed invested with a fear of being cut out, of not having authority, of reporting to some other despised kin. Still, to a man and woman, not a one wanted out of the business, and each thought they should be the top dog when Marion was gone. Marion had honed in on two as the most likely to expedite her demise, her cousin Sandra, and her half-brother, John. But when I finished, I thought any one of them would gladly pull the plug on her if they could be guaranteed the future they wanted.
Sandra Cramer was thirty-nine, five-three, bleached white-gray hair, attractive in a country club way, aggressive, pouty, whiney all in one very unappealing package. I could only assume she must be different outside the bounds of the corporate fold, otherwise she’d be friendless. When I was done with the interview I opted for friendless. She was the next to last interviewee and spent so much time pumping me about Marion and the other kin, I could barely get a word in edgewise. She had hated Marionso long, she was unable to convey even the slightest caring about her fate, although she trotted out some practiced sympathetic lines every so often. They only made it worse. I was ready to disown the family and I wasn’t even related.
John Cramer made Sandra look like Mary Poppins. He was thirty-one but his heart was as hard as coal. He must have been born that way; it didn’t seem possible to acquire such a deep-seated animosity in a single lifetime. All that shone through an urbane exterior. John stood six-three, a shade shorter than I, was very good looking, had a hundred dollar haircut and a thousand dollar suit. He was egocentric to the extent of seeing life through blinders, and that life revolved around John Cramer, his position in the company, and its reflection on his standing in the world. He was without a wife, and my guess is he didn’t date, it would be too humiliating. He worked, primped, ate and slept. He didn’t like sports or celebrities, but he wanted to be one. When he took over the reins of the company, he expected to be a very famous person, making the company a living memorial of self-aggrandizement. When he left the room, he took the entirety of his personality with him, leaving a void across the table from me, like the actual reality of the space had gone with him and left a hole in the room, without atoms or substance.
They were all gone. Marion entered the room and plopped into the visitor’s chair with an audible sigh. “Well, what do you think?”
I put on a plastic smile. “I hope they look better in color than black and white. I’m glad their not my relatives.”
Her lips flattened, then twisted up at the corners, a pale reminder of the joyful girl I’d known so long ago. “Without the colorless commentary, please,” she answered, but there was no anger in it.
“If you were all in that room and you had a heart attack, there isn’t a one who’d give you CPR. They’d wait out your last breath taking a vote on who’s going to succeed you.” I looked her in the eyes, still baby grays to me. “One condolence, no one would get more than one vote. You’re the current magnet for their hate, but they hate each other almost as much.”
We spent an hour going through my notes, making some decisions; then we reminisced about a past better remembered than lived. I learned that the reason her father left control to her was that he’d never learned to hate her, because he’d never had any expectations for her. So when the end came, she was the one person he didn’t hold a grudge against. She had wanted to turn down the inheritance, but the will was structured such that if she did, no one would get anything. So she took the helm for the family, the family that hated her. When I said maybe she should let them know that, she said they did, but sentimentality wasn’t in the genes.
~ ~ ~
I hired Bob Sunday, another operative who worked with me when I had more than one person to keep track of. He was an ex-Los Angeles homicide cop and he’d helped me a lot in my transition from my past life to detective work. Bob had a sense of humor that left him almost unscathed from his twenty years of dealing with mankind’s filth, the worst of which had picked LA to call home. But he’d gotten out the first chance he had, and now augmented his pension and his wife’s real estate work doing tailing jobs for detective firms and lawyers. He was working, but not working really hard at it.
Bob took Sandra and I followed John out of the building that night. At eight o’clock John stopped at a ritzy cafe and had a sandwich before taking a room at the Hilton. Hidden under the hood of my Gore-tex, I listened in as he told the receptionist he was having a meeting and would be out of the room in two hours. I took the next elevator up to the fourteenth floor, then mosied around keeping the elevators in sight, but trying not to look like I didn’t belong there. She came out of the elevator fifteen minutes later, minimal makeup, dressed to the nines, flat heels. She looked more like a business woman on the make than a hooker, but I knew who she was, one of the real lookers working the high class convention trade. They usually floated some line about saving their money to get out of the business and retire to the easy life, but somehow they never made it, eventually hooked on drugs and doing tricks on some lamplit street corner in Sandy. I guessed John couldn’t be wasting time trying to entice a girl, especially if he had to compete with the riff-raff, and in the process be beaten out by some nobody. No, it was too much effort for a zero commitments kind of guy, he’d rather relieve the stress and get on with life.
I went downstairs to the lobby. After an hour the girl left, and John was close behind. I saw the knowing smile from the receptionist who made a comment to the concierge; they both laughed. I expected John to have a little more bounce to his step, but he seemed deflated, as if he’d left some small piece of himself in that hotel room. I followed him to his home in the West Hills and sat in my car until the lights went out in his house. Then I walked around the house and put vibration microphones on the downstairs windows. I went home, caught four hours of sleep and was back outside of his house at five o’clock.
~ ~ ~
They started arriving at six, with Sandra first. Bob Sunday drove past the driveway, did a u-turn and parked behind my van. He pulled open the back door and sat down. Through the translucent side window, we saw another car arrived with two more of the Cramer kin.
“Big confab, eh?” I nodded. “You want me to stick around?” I shook my head. He said, “Good luck. Give me a call when you can tell me what’s going on.” He clicked the door shut, then used his hip to fully latch it.
I listened in on the conversations, but they were passing time, and every couple of minutes another one would arrive. Finally at six-twenty, all fifteen were there, drinking coffee and eating danish, but the small talk had ended.
John Cramer spoke, “Okay guys, it’s time to get this show on the road.” There was a scuffling of chairs and some shushing. He banged what sounded like a coffee cup on the table, then continued, “It’s time we dealt with Marion.” A murmur rose and fell. “I did some research, and it’s quite possible that my sweet sister could live another five years. I don’t think we want that.”
A cousin Kate, I remembered the voice belonged to the best looking of the kin, said, “I don’t know that we should really do this, John. I mean, talking about it was one thing, but actually killing someone?”
John was curt, “If you want out, the door’s right there.” I heard no movement, so I knew where she stood.
He continued, “The man’s been hired, he’s already been paid half, and he’s waiting to get the final word. Can I give it?”
A male voice I couldn’t place asked, “Is she going to be in pain?”
Another male voice said, “Who cares. Let’s get this over with.”
A few chimed in with “Here, here.”
John again, “Anyone against the motion to proceed?”
There was no sound; he said, “Motion approved. I’ll wait til Friday to inform Mr. X, and by Monday we’ll be figuring out how to run our company.”
There was no cheering, and no complaint. The cars started leaving immediately. It was Tuesday. What was I going to tell Marion?
~ ~ ~
Marion banged the gavel at the head of the table and the conversations slowly died. I was sitting to her right. She made eye contact as her gaze traveled in a circle; she said, “I’ve called you here now to review the results of our analysis.”
She hit the play button on the tape recorder:
“Okay guys, it’s time to get this show on the road.” The scuffling of chairs, shushing, the banged cup, then “I think it’s time we dealt with Marion.” The murmur, “I did some research, and it’s quite possible that my good sister could live another five years. I don’t think we want that.”
All eyes at the table were focused, a few blushed their shame, but most held an barely restrained hate.
When the voice responded to, “Is she going to be in pain?” with “Who cares. Let’s get this over with,”Marion turned fiery eyes to her aged uncle Robert.
No one even breathed as John said, “Motion approved. I’ll wait til Friday to inform Mr. X, and by Monday we’ll be figuring out how to run our company.”
Marion hit the stop button and turned her head again to take in the progeny of hatred. When one started to protest, she said, “Cool it, Janice.” Her eyes roamed again; her thin shoulders sagged. “All of you. Do you hate me so much.” Silence. “Well, I’m going to explain a few options to you. In fact, they’re not options at all, they’re what I’ve done.” Fifteen sighs sounded like a choreographed murmur.
Marion didn’t look up from her notes. “I transferred fifteen million dollars to an account yesterday. That’s one million for each of you. A contract on each of your lives.” Fear suddenly competed with hatred on their faces. “If I die for any, any reason without turning those contracts off, two men will start killing you all, and they will get a million for each of you that dies in the first two years. If you can stay alive for two years, you can take heart in the fact that your million will benefit one of my favorite charities.”
John stuttered, “But …”
Marion interrupted, “But, nothing. From this moment on we will forget that any of this has happened, and I’m sure all of you will do your best to ensure I stay out of harm’s way.”
She stood up and left the room without looking back. I followed her.
~ ~ ~
Marion died last week. She fainted going down the stairs between the two executive floors and broke her neck. The local rag described how broken up her family was, crying and tears were the order of the day, for hours. Her brother John was named acting chairman.
I spoke to her secretary, Babs, and she told me how cousin Sandra held Marion’s head and pleaded, “Don’t die.” She said Marion whispered something, with no help from her breathless lungs. No one could make it out, but it sounded like “Thanks for the callers.” But I knew, it was, “Thanks for the colors.” Maybe deep down where I couldn’t really see it, I was jealous, but I don’t think so. I sort of think about Marion’s experience as a loss of insight, a departure of the first of her senses as a stalking death overcame her.
Babs also told me the place was overrun with security people these days, and the company had paid for a fleet of sixteen bulletproof cars as well as putting home security on the company’s tab. The joy of their new status, now that they actually owned their six percent, was tinged by the never-ending fear. They’d get used to it, sort of, until one of them died in an accident, or even of natural causes, then the fear would well up again. I was tempted to tell them Marion never hired any killers, that the money drawn from the account went anonymously to a charity, but in my world of black and white, bad and good, lies and truth, I didn’t think they deserved that. Let them sweat, a final justice.
I am, though, a little worried that Marion did not take her shadow of death with her to the grave. Instead it divided and attached itself like leaches to her family, like a value-added inheritance. If I believed in curses, which I don’t, two years from now a large oil company will be needing a new president, someone without such a well developed shadow of death.