The office building was on the other side of town from the Silver Bullet, but it might as well have been on the other side of the world. Its tiny lobby smelled of stale cigar smoke and the pitted floor felt gritty under my new spike heels. A cheap white-letters-on-black office directory revealed only three tenants in the low-rise:LAW OFFICES OF VICTOR CELESTE, ESQUIRE; CELESTE LAND HOLDINGS; AND CELESTIAL ENTERPRISES, INC.
There was nothing else in the lobby except a grayish standard-issue desk, located in front of the elevator bank. An aged security guard hunched over the desk, studying the sports page as he fingered his ear, which barely held an oversized plastic hearing aid. A cigarette hung between his lips. It almost dropped out of his mouth when he saw me.
“Good mornin’, Miss,” he said, blinking as he took in my white silk tank top and black leather suit, whose skirt I’d rolled to an obscene length and paired with seamed black stockings. The personal shopper had promised “happening,” which I now understood to mean tarty. So I’d completed the ensemble with my black sunglasses, a helmet of newly red hair, and a slash of the reddest lipstick sample at the drugstore counter. I was hoping I looked like a professional call girl and not an amateur secret agent.
“Good morning to you, too, sir,” I purred, sashaying past him as if he had no right to stop me.
“Eh, Miss, wait. Wait. Please.”
“Did you want me, sir?” I pivoted on my spikes and smiled suggestively. Or what I hoped was suggestive and not merely dyspeptic. I tried to recall the serial screen hookers I’d seen in movies, Hollywood having presented so many positive images of successful businesswomen.
“Miss… do you have an appointment or somethin’? I have to know before I let you through.”
“My name is Linda. I’m a friend of Mister Celeste’s. A personal friend, if you understand my meaning.” I struck a Julia Roberts pose, hand on hip.
“Just Linda?” he asked, leaning forward in his creaky chair. I couldn’t tell if he was becoming aroused or just couldn’t hear.
“Linda, that’s all. That’s all Mister Celeste calls me, and that’s all I am. Linda.”
The old man stubbed out his cigarette. “Eh, Mr. Celeste isn’t in yet. Nobody’s in yet.”
“I know. I’m supposed to get here before Mister Celeste does. He wanted me to get everything ready for him, the way he likes it.” I waved my new black handbag in the air, as if no further explanation were required. Meanwhile, it contained a cell phone and three crumpled Tampax. Party time.
“Oh. Oh, I see,” he said, and coughed nervously. “How are you gonna get in his office? I don’t have a key.”
“Mister Celeste gave me one, of course.” I held up my Grun key. “His law office is on the first floor, is it not?” A touch of Judy Holliday, for nostalgia.
“Yeh, but how do I know you’re not gonna rob him?” the guard asked, only half joking.
“Do I look like a thief?” I pouted. All Marilyn. If she were tall as a house.
“Eh, no, not at all. But, I mean, I never seen you-”
“That’s because Mister Celeste always comes tome. ” I swiveled around and punched the greasy button for the up elevator, street-smart as Jane Fonda inKlute. Bree, that’s me.
“I don’t know about this,” the old guard fretted, rising slowly from behind the desk. “Mr. Celeste didn’t tell me you had an appointment with him this morning.” He shuffled to the elevator bank and faced me.
“Well, if I don’t get up there and get everything ready, you’ll have to explain to Mister Celeste why I wasn’t there like he said.” The elevator arrived with a tubercularding and the doors rattled open. I scurried inside and hit the button.
“Wait a minute, Miss. Linda. I can’t leave my post.” The doors began to slide closed, but the guard stuck his veined hands between them and struggled to push them apart. I gasped, alarmed. This was more vigilance than I bargained for. I didn’t want to see his hands crushed.
“Let me go, please! Mister Celeste will be real mad if I don’t show! He’s countin’ on me. He told me, it wasreal important!”
“Press theOPEN button!” he shouted, pulling the doors apart like Spartacus in retirement. The gap between them began to widen, and I punched theCLOSE button frantically. Suddenly the elevator started to sound a deafening, continuous beep.
“When Mister Celeste gets disappointed, boy, does he have a temper! He’s got a big gun, too! Did you know that?”
“A what?” the guard yelled.
The decibel level apparently wreaked havoc with his hearing aid, because the guard took one of his hands off the door and covered his bad ear. The elevator doors struggled to close. The gap narrowed. The guard’s fingertips turned white.
“Mister Celeste has a gun!”
I stood before an old-fashioned office door, a wooden frame with starry frosted glass, figuring out how to get inside. I was a worse sleuth than I was a hooker. A graduate of the crossing-that-bridge-when-we-come-to-it school of detection. What could I pick the lock with? I didn’t have a bobby pin, they went out with pincurls. I jiggled the lock with the junk on my keychain; first my apartment key, then with my plastic-encased doggie picture. Both were spectacularly unsuccessful.
Fuck this. I checked the hall again, took off my spike heel, and broke the glass window with it. The patent pump as burglar’s tool. I slipped my shoe back on and was inside in a flash.
The door opened onto a minuscule waiting room. A plastic rhododendron gathered dust in the corner. There was a worn cloth couch and a boxy old computer on the secretary’s desk. Strictly low-tech, and I wasn’t surprised. Lawyers like Celeste avoided writing anything, it took too much time. But their fee agreements they had printed by the ream and they took 40 percent. I crossed the waiting room to Celeste’s office.
It was a piker’s law office and they’re all alike. A grandiose desk arranged against a cheap paneled wall and manila files scattered everywhere. Bookshelves that contained law textbooks left over from law school, outdated and untouched because the telephone was the only thing that mattered. Celeste’s would be a high-volume practice built on slip-and-falls, ersatz workmen’s comp injuries, and exploding Coke bottles. Turning chronic sickness into a healthy living. Until Eileen Jennings came along, and Celeste figured he’d make a killing.
I had to find her case file. I’d taken my clues about Mark’s killer as far as they could go, so I was working backward from Bill’s murder, betting on a hunch it was connected to Mark’s. And I needed to know more about Eileen to figure out Bill, so I started digging through the files on Celeste’s desk.
Ten minutes later, I had the file stuffed with the Tampax in my purse, and jumped into the elevator. It wasn’t until the steel doors slid open on the lobby floor that I realized I had no story to tell our septuagenarian Schwarzenegger. Why would I be leaving the party before Mister Celeste arrived?
“Linda,” he said, surprised, from behind the desk. “You leaving?”
“I have to go.” I walked quickly to the exit.
“But Mr. Celeste should be in any minute,” he said, rising slowly.
“Have to go. Have to hurry. Be right back. Forgot my… pliers.” I powered through the smudgy glass door without looking back.
I hit the sidewalk outside and tottered away in my stiletto heels, squinting in the hazy sun. The city was coming to life only sluggishly this Monday morning, but I walked in the shadows of the buildings in case any cops were around. I was all dressed up with nowhere to go. I needed a place to read Eileen’s file, but I couldn’t go back to my underground room until nightfall because there would be employees around during the day. Then I got an idea.
I walked quickly past the seamier blocks of Locust Street, slipped into the first Greek restaurant I could find, and ducked into the bathroom to unroll my skirt and wipe off my lipstick. I popped my sunglasses back on and left the bathroom, heading where everybody goes when they need to read quietly. The police would never look for me there, it was too public. I was there by the time it opened.
The Jenkins Memorial Law Library is frequented by only two types of lawyers in the legal caste system: Brahmins who use it to research the law of another state and the untouchables who can’t afford their own law library. This morning, Jenkins contained both extremes, and the best of times and the worst of times regarded each other warily over the marble busts. I avoided them all and crossed the pile rug to the metal stacks in the back where I found a deserted carrel. I settled in, kicked off my high heels, and began to read.
The file was a mess of yellow legal papers scribbled in a childish scrawl. Celeste had apparently conducted only a few interviews with Eileen, and his notes were filled with incomplete sentences:Grad HS. Cheerl. Drinking. Father in service. Throughout, in the margins and even across the notes, it read:
Snickers-Fun Size (small) 150
Eggbeaters 150??? (check this)
toast; margarine 80
Baby Ruth-King Size,
but only half-?????
Celeste’s calorie-counting was far more meticulous than his record-keeping. It took me a full two hours to recreate his interview with Eileen, which revealed no clues anyway. The rest of the notes were phone numbers in Los Angeles and New York, with names like William Morris scratched next to them. Evidently not witnesses, but film and book agents. Celeste’s attempts to sell the story of Eileen’s miserable little life. I put the file away in annoyance and pulled out what I hoped would be the gold mine.
The audiotapes. Four plastic cassettes I assumed were the unabridged Eileen. They were unnumbered and unlabeled. I turned them over in my hand. I’d taken a chance swiping them, but so be it, I needed to hear what they said.
I gathered my purse and file from the carrel and prowled around until I found the library’s listening booth. It had a heavy glass window in the door and a tape recorder on a built-in desktop inside. I sat down, put on the earphones, and loaded one of the cassettes.
Eileen was giggling at something Celeste had said, and just the sound of it made me angry. That voice-high, careless, flirtatious. And dangerous, cunning. Eileen had murdered a man and put me solidly on the hook for it. I turned up the volume. The interview was in a question-and-answer format:
Q: Tell me about your relationships, Eileen. The relationships that formed your personality.
A: Only the hot stuff now, right? (Giggle, giggle)
A: Well, Bill, of course, he wasn’t the first.
Q: Kleeb, you mean. Well, who was?
A: Oh, a boy from home. When I was, like, fourteen?
Q: That’s young.
A: Nah. Not for me. I was ready.
Q: Who was he?
A: Another farm boy. I just like farm boys, I guess.
Q: Why do you think that is?
A: Big muscles. Tattoos. No brains. (Giggle, giggle) I even got married, once upon a time.
Q: I didn’t know that.
A: Nobody does.
Q: When was that?
Christ. Barbara Fucking Walters. I tried to concentrate, but it wasn’t easy. I struggled to listen to this self-indulgent tripe, but I hadn’t slept all night. And I hadn’t had my coffee. It was criminal working conditions, no pliers and no caffeine.
A: When I was eighteen. He was twenty. An older man.
Q: Twenty? A regular Methuselah.
A: A what?
Q: Forget it. Go on about your marriage. It’s good background information for the character.
A: Do you really think it’ll be a movie-of-the-week?
Q: I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t. So go on, okay? I want to get the tapes to the agent right away.
A: Will I get a copy?
Q: (sighing) I’ll make one for you. Just tell the story, please.
A: Well, my husband, he was (unintelligible)-
Q: What was he?
A: He was… abusive. He used to hit me, when he drank.
A: Uh… yes. The shit.
Q: Did you ever take pictures of it, like Polaroids?
Q: Did you ever go to the hospital for it?
Q: (disappointed) Well, how often did he hit you?
A: Once a week, or twice, for a long time.
Q: Then you divorced him. You had to raise yourself up and divorce him, right?
A: No I just left him. The lawyers weren’t no help. I got the court orders, one after the other, but he just kept comin’ back. Beatin’ me. There wasn’t nothin’ the courts could do about it. Half the time the police wouldn’t even come.
My head was beginning to pound. I rubbed my eyes to stay awake. The sadness in her story was lost on me. She was a victim, so she victimized. I accept no excuses for murder. An innocent man was dead at her hand and maybe Bill, too.
I shifted in my chair and my gaze fell upon a Daumier sketch on the wall. A lawyer slipping his hand into his client’s pocket or the other way around, but the glass over the print reflected something else. A figure. A man in the library stacks, in a dark suit jacket. He was bent over reading a book. I couldn’t see his head or face, but his back looked familiar. I held my head down to avoid being recognized.
Q: So you never even divorced him?
Q: You’re married to him, now?
A: No. I heard he died. He got shot.
Q: (impressed) No shit. In a bar? Or by a gang or something?
A: No, no. A hunting accident. He always drank when he hunted, so did his buddies. Dumb shits.
Hunting. I flashed on the cabin in the woods. Bill’s cold body. Was there a connection? My eyes fell on the Daumier sketch. In the reflection, the hunched figure turned the page of his book. Who was he? Did he recognize me? Was he a cop? I tried to remember the cops I knew who worked plainclothes. I covered my face with my hand, like I was getting a headache, which I was.
Q: Okay, so let’s get on with it.
A: It was the courts, you know. They fucked it up.
Q: Eileen, I told you, don’t talk like that on the tape.
A: Sorry, but they did. I went to the law clinic, you know, to try to get whatever it’s called to keep him away from me.
Q: A TRO, a temporary restraining order?
A: Yeah, that’s it. But the courts, those judges, they don’t know the score.
The figure had shelved his book and was moving in the stacks now, right down the aisle toward the listening booth. I doubled over quickly and pretended I was coughing.
A: (excited) I don’t care, they don’t know shit.
Q: Who was your lawyer?
A: At the clinic?
A: Just one of the clinic lawyers.
Q: Can you remember his name?
Suddenly there was a hard rap on the glass door of the booth. My stomach tensed. I didn’t know what to do. I turned up the volume on the tape player and hoped he’d go away.
A: Why do you need the name?
Q: In case we need to get a release for the TV movie. You need releases if it’s real people.
A: (pausing) Oh. It was a girl. Uh… Renee. Renee something, I think. I’ll have to get back to you on that. I don’t know where she is now, anyway.
Huh? What? Renee? Could Eileen’s lawyer have been Renee Butler? I couldn’t believe my ears. I hit theREWIND button just as the door swung open behind me.