It’s been too long, Mr. Carlino thought, since I stole a car.
The trick, he recalled, was to find a car new enough to be reliable, but old enough to be easy to open and hotwire, and cheap enough not to have an aftermarket alarm. Luck was with him. After ten minutes’ plodding in pre-dawn darkness along Como Avenue in the teeth of a sharp April wind off the Mississippi, he found a big early-‘90s Mercury Marquis. Its maroon paint was faded. Its right rear fender looked as though some metal-eating beast had chewed it.
The street was deserted. He slid the flat metal slim-jim out of his coat. In moments he had the car unlocked; in moments more he had wires unfastened and crossed, and the engine growled to life. The blue-green dash clock read 5:11. He drove smoothly out of St. Paul through the empty streets and swung east on County Road 6.
North Oaks, he’d found while scouting the project area that day, was a tony development of Old English and French manor style homes clustered around Pleasant Lake. A paved road wound around the lake. His latest project liked to jog on this road nearly every morning.
He thought Hinton must be insane to even think of exercising outdoors on a morning like this. Even without wind, the temperature hovered around freezing. (His town, Weston Corners, boasted no gyms, so he walked and ran on a treadmill at home every day during the long Vermont winters.) But if the subject got a charge out of braving the elements, who was Mr. Carlino to deny him? …especially when it made things so simple.
“It needs to look like an accident,” Felton had told him on the untapped phone in Weston Corners a week ago. “And the client has specified a window of time. An accident, anywhere within that window, and you’re golden.”
Mr. Carlino already knew there were no patrols. He motored up to a wide point on the shoulder of the road and waited, headlights off, watching the front door of No. 41.
Name: Richard Hinton. Age: 28. Lifelong resident of St. Paul. Occupation: Executive. Married, no children.
Reason why he was the latest project? The background info from the client hadn’t said. No need for me to know, Mr. Carlino thought. Better that way.
The dash clock read 5:33 when Hinton emerged, a lean fellow in a light grey jogging suit, black watch cap, and gloves. He stretched, warming up, then trotted down to the road and turned northeast. His breath plumed in the cold like an ancient steam engine. Mr. Carlino felt the old drumbeat of blood in his ears. He crept, lights still off, along the side of the road, letting Hinton get well ahead. 5:36. The road swung north. From his recon the day before, he knew this stretch ran string-straight for half a mile. Hinton’s jogging figure flickered as he passed under a streetlight.
No cars coming in either direction. Perfect. Mr. Carlino gunned the engine.
* * *
“Guadalcanal,” Mr. Carlino responded. It was their long-time code word.
“Ah, Jack!” Felton’s voice was like warm honey. Mr. Carlino had never met him in the sixteen years he’d been handling projects for the man; he pictured Felton as looking like Orson Welles. “Success, I hope?”
“Closed the sale,” Mr. Carlino said. “No problems. When I was at the airport, the local TV news were calling it a ‘tragic early-morning hit-and-run accident.’ Narrow road, dark morning, and so forth. One of Hinton’s neighbors claims he saw a black car speed off, but he didn’t get the license.”
“And you ‘borrowed’ a car for the sales call, I trust.”
“Of course.” He’d dumped the Mercury, its front fender now a smashed match for the rear one, and walked back to his own rental car at an all-night diner. He’d made his ten a.m. plane back to Boston -– using, as he had for the trip out, one of his false IDs and credit cards — with time to spare.
“I’m curious, though,” he said. “I understand making it look like an accident. But why restrict it to a narrow time window too?”
“Come now. You know I couldn’t tell you anything about the client even if I knew.”
Mr. Carlino nodded. The client wouldn’t have contacted Felton directly, but through one of his “executives,” street-level contact men. This way, Felton could not be connected to the target’s death.
“Besides,” Felton said, “the obvious answer is usually the correct one.”
“Obviously, the client wanted to establish an alibi. It seems odd, somehow.”
“Does it matter, Jack?”
“Good. Excellent work. Your payment will arrive in the usual fashion.” Click.
Mr. Carlino hung up. He pushed out of the phone booth at the back of Crenna’s Tavern — Crenna billed it as “the last honest-to-Christ working phone booth in New England” — and finished his beer.
* * *
On Monday, as she often did, Bernice came with him to the store when he opened up.
“Mail’s on the counter, dear,” Bernice said. She was a sturdy woman, attractive rather than pretty. “I’ll go look over those Time magazines we got on Friday.” She kissed him on the cheek and sailed off to the back room.
Mr. Carlino watched her go and wondered for the umpteenth time what she saw in him. He settled on his stool and flicked through the flyers. One blue envelope caught his eye. He was still staring at the return address when the bell over the front door tinkled and a young woman in a green stadium coat stepped in. “Hi. You must be Mr. Carlino.”
“If I must,” said Mr. Carlino, “I must. Welcome to the New Curiosity Shop. What brings you to town?”
About twenty-five, petite and red-haired, she had an oval, pretty face and pale blue eyes. She appeared tired, as though she hadn’t slept well. Looking at her, he felt uneasy, though he didn’t know why.
“I’m visiting my aunt,” the young woman said. “Alice Madar? She lives on the West Hampshire Road?”
“How is she? And that crotchety old basset hound of hers?”
“Oh, fine.” The young woman gazed around at the scuffed Ray Conniff records, the mint Malibu Barbie and the broken Chatty Cathy, the 1961 Look magazines. “I just don’t believe this place. How long have you been in business?”
“My father-in-law opened it in 1969. When he retired in ’92, Bernice and I moved here from New York to help him run it. We’re still here.”
“Oh, I understand. Weston Corners is so New England. Richard, my husband, says he can’t imagine a better town than St. Paul, but he’s never seen this place.”
He sat still. “St. Paul?” he said.
“Minnesota.” The young woman held out a hand. “I’m Cameron, but everybody calls me Cammie. Cammie Hinton.”
He kept his face and voice carefully neutral. “A pleasure, Mrs. Hinton. Will you be in town long?”
Mrs. Hinton looked away. “I . . . I don’t know. Richard and I . . . we’re kind of taking a little vacation from each other. You know how it goes.”
A silence fell. After a moment Mrs. Hinton said, with forced gaiety, “I had an ‘Eight Is Enough’ lunchbox just like that one! How much is it?”
The phone rang, and Mr. Carlino swiveled to it. “The New Curiosity Shop, good morning.”
“Jack?” Alice Madar’s flat Midwestern voice sounded urgent. “Alice. Is my niece there? She said she wanted to check out your shop. Small girl, red hair?”
“She’s here.” He beckoned Mrs. Hinton over, said, “Your aunt,” and handed her the receiver. Rising, he came around the counter and busied himself with the record bin.
“Aunt Alice?” Mrs. Hinton said. “What is it? . . . My cell? I had it off. . . . Well, yes, I didn’t want Richard to — well, never mind. What is it? . . . No, just tell me. . . . Dear God, NO!”
Horror, grief, and razor-sharp loss, all in one gasp. Mrs. Hinton dropped the phone. Face dead white, she turned slowly to Mr. Carlino, but her gaze went straight through him.
“Richard,” she said. “He’s dead.”
Mr. Carlino caught her before she fell.
* * *
“Poor thing,” Alice Madar said. “She’s in shock.”
She stood with him in the shop. Through the office door he glimpsed Bernice on the threadbare sofa with a huddled Cammie Hinton, a comforting arm around the girl’s shoulders.
“I hated to be the one to tell her,” Alice said in a low voice. Like her basset hound, she had jowls and a perpetual mournful expression. “Danny, her father’s attorney, couldn’t reach her because she had her cell phone turned off. So he checked her address book and called me.” She sighed. “A tragedy. I liked Richard the one time I met him. Some people thought he married Cammie for her money.”
“Not my side of the family, unfortunately. Cammie’s grandfather McCrory started his furniture store in St. Cloud, and her father built it up into the biggest furniture and appliance chain in the upper Midwest. He’s retired now — his health — and he was training Richard to run the business. So I can see some people might have thought Richard was a fortune hunter. He was devoted to her, though.”
“But she came out here alone,” Mr. Carlino said. “With her phone off so he couldn’t call her. It sounds like more than just a spat.”
“He was a drinker,” Alice said. “Oh, he never hit her or anything; Cammie’d never have stood for that. It was getting worse, and she told him they needed some time apart. Told him to get some help, rehab, whatever. He’d beg her to come back; that’s why she had the phone off. Last night she told me she believed he’d quit — for himself, not just for her. She thought there was a real chance they could rebuild things. She was going to call him today.”
A sigh. “Instead she gets this. I wonder if the poor baby’ll ever get over it.”
Alice went into the office and shut the door, cutting off the sound of Cammie Hinton’s weeping.
Mr. Carlino stood restlessly for a moment. Then he moved to the record bin and began to mark down selected albums. It was a task his fingers and part of his mind could do automatically, while the rest of his brain hummed.
On every count she fits as the client. Found out he’d married her for her money, or that he’d been cheating on her. Arranged (How? How would that girl find one of Felton’s contact men?) to have her husband removed. Any hint of a violent death, and the police look first at the spouse. So, an accident while she’s far out of town, visiting her aunt. Except . . . Mr. Carlino prided himself on his ability to read people. He recalled Cammie Hinton’s gasp of horror, of heartrending loss. No actress in the world could have faked that.
Why do you care? He had no answer for that question. As for the first, he knew where to start.
* * *
“Jack?” Felton sounded puzzled. “I hadn’t left any messages. Something I can do for you?”
“Yes.” Mr. Carlino pushed the phone booth door shut to block out the LeAnn Rimes music from Crenna’s jukebox. “Who was the client on the Hinton project?”
“I can’t …”
“You listen. When I started contracting for you, I told you I’d never take anything close to home; never anything in this state. Now you give me a project whose widow is visiting a relative in my town right now — and she got the news about her husband while in my store!”
“No need to be upset. Of course I checked the client’s bona fides. In my judgment there wasn’t any reason to examine his wife’s ….”
“Our deal was that you’d never give me any project that could touch my life here. You owe me, Felton. If you can’t come across, we’re done. Now who was the client?”
“Be reasonable. I can’t ….”
“Been nice knowing you,” said Mr. Carlino. “Watch out for your ear, here comes the phone.”
“Jack? Wait. Jack?”
“I’m still here.”
Dead silence from Felton’s end. He waited.
“Why?” said Felton at last.
“If I could tell you,” Mr. Carlino said wearily, “I would.”
“If you weren’t the best I’ve ever known, I’d tell you to go to hell. Very well. I’ll have to make some calls. Two hours.”
Mr. Carlino nodded. It would take Felton time to get to the right man. “Two hours, then.”
* * *
Felton picked up on the dot of eight o’clock. “I don’t have a name….”
“I’m hanging up.”
“Will you listen, please?” Felton sounded exhausted. “I don’t have a name because my executive can’t tell me anything. His account has been closed.”
“As in . . .?”
“As in no longer breathing, yes. Tommy Cahuenga was his name. He was crossing the street in front of his office in Minneapolis this morning, and a car hit him and kept going. The witnesses say he tried to leap out of the way, but the driver swerved to hit him. The car was stolen, of course. The police have no leads.”
They were silent for a moment, until Mr. Carlino said it for both of them.
“Somebody was snipping off a loose end. . . .”
* * *
Tuesday morning he was at the counter in the store, examining the instructions for a 1960s plastic model kit -– if all the airplane’s parts were present, he could ask a higher price — when the street door tinkled.
“Good morning. Could you tell me how to get to the West Hampshire Road?”
IRS from Burlington? Mr. Carlino wondered. The newcomer was short and pear-shaped. He had the dusty pale look of the low-level, middle-aged bureaucrat who toils in an office under fluorescent lights. But the soft dark topcoat, too dear for the usual office drone wasn’t right, and neither were the neat Errol Flynn mustache under the pointed nose and the ruby stickpin in the blue silk tie.
Mr. Carlino retreated to “New Englander” mode. “I might. Who’s asking?”
“Forgive me.” The man trotted up and held out a hand. “Daniel Tamblin. Attorney for Mrs. Hinton’s father. I’ve come to accompany her back to St. Paul. The funeral is day after tomorrow. I’m staying at the hotel here.”
Mr. Carlino mentally kicked himself. When Alice had mentioned “Danny,” he’d pictured a youngster fresh out of law school. He shook the moist hand. “Long trip for you.”
“Not at all. I travel quite a bit for Mr. McCrory. Besides, I’ve worked for the family since Cammie, Mrs. Hinton, was a girl. I’d have come out for her even if her father hadn’t asked me to.” The voice softened. “I think of her as if she were my very own.”
I’ll just bet you do, Mr. Carlino thought. Alarms were ringing in his brain.
He said, “Mr. Tamblin, she’s not ready to travel yet. When she left here with Alice yesterday, she was walking like a robot. She’s had a terrific shock. How about giving her a few days to come out of it?”
“I’m afraid not. Her father is very anxious about her. What she needs at this time is to be home with her family and friends. So if you could tell me . . . ?”
Mr. Carlino slid off his stool and rose to his full height. He smiled affably at Tamblin. “Well, I could tell you how to get to her aunt’s, but it’s complicated. I’ll be glad to come along and show you the way.”
Tamblin licked his lips. “Oh, no, I couldn’t put you out. Your store –-”
Mr. Carlino overrode him. “Not at all. As for the store, if anybody has an emergency need for a toy rifle or a vintage Monopoly game, well, I expect it’ll wait. Let me get my coat.”
* * *
“No, Uncle Danny!” Cammie Hinton’s voice was a fretful child’s whine. “I don’t want to go home yet.”
She sat, bundled in a fluffy bright blue robe and gray slippers, in the sparely furnished living room of Alice Madar’s small farmhouse. Alice’s arthritic basset hound snoozed by the coal fire.
“Cammie . . .” Tamblin began.
“I’m tired,” the girl muttered. “I just want to wait until Richard comes to get me. Aunt Alice? Can’t I just stay here and rest until Richard comes?”
Alice glanced at Mr. Carlino. She said helplessly, “Of course you can, dear. As long as you like. . . .”
During the fifteen-minute drive from the Corners, Mr. Carlino had tried to draw the dapper little man out, but got little for his pains. “No, I haven’t been to Vermont before.” “Yes, I enjoy my work with the McCrory family.” “Shall I turn here?” At last he gave up and contented himself with giving directions.
His first view of Cammie Hinton had shocked him. The girl seemed to have aged ten years overnight; her face white, lips bloodless, eyes glazed. Watching her, he again felt uneasy, though he still had no idea why. As they spoke with her, it became clear she believed she had been sick, had come to visit Alice for a “rest,” and that Richard was due to arrive any day now: “We’re going to have a second honeymoon.”
To his credit -– perhaps he was afraid of worsening her breakdown? — Tamblin didn’t try to correct her. Now he returned to the idea he’d been hammering at. “Your father needs you. His health . . . .”
Cammie looked wistful. “I know he does. As soon as Richard gets here, we’ll come back, I promise. Aunt Alice?” The childish fretting again. “I’m so tired. I just want to rest until Richard comes.” She rose slowly and shuffled out, her slippers whispering on the hardwood floor.
Alice set her teacup in its saucer with a click. “No need to browbeat the girl.”
Tamblin glared at her. “I merely pointed out that her father’s health is poor, and that worrying about his daughter is not good for him. Is that browbeating?”
“Yes.” Alice had apparently taken an instant dislike to Tamblin. Mr. Carlino didn’t blame her. “And I won’t have it in my house. You can show yourself out. Jack, thanks for coming.”
* * *
As they rode back toward town, Mr. Carlino said mildly, “Alice is right, you know. You were browbeating her. Why’s it so important that she come back now?”
Tamblin scowled, his lips tight. “I don’t think that’s any of your business.”
“I’ve made it my business. I like the girl. Why not postpone the funeral until she’s ready to travel?”
Tamblin shook his head. “Better to put this all behind us without delay so that Cammie can heal and move on. Hinton wasn’t right for her. He couldn’t provide the firm guidance, the control, she needs.”
“She’s of legal age; she can make her own decisions.”
“You don’t know her as I do. Cammie is still a child. Without the right guidance, she makes foolish mistakes . . . like marrying this Hinton without informing us. I mean her father, of course.”
Tamblin’s lips tightened again. “I disliked Hinton from the beginning. Good-looking enough; easy charm; but under that, he’s weak. An alcoholic. Thank goodness this happened when she was out of town, so she won’t be drawn into any investigation. Cammie is better off without him. Once she’s home, being treated by her own doctor, she can start rebuilding her life -– this time with someone who will give her the strength she needs.”
“Let me guess. Someone like you?”
“Here’s your store, sir. I don’t expect we’ll see each other again; Cammie and I are leaving tomorrow. Thank you for your directions.”
Mr. Carlino stood at the curb and watched the rental Lincoln purr off toward the Manderley Hotel. Behind the wheel, Tamblin sat straight, small sleek head high, gloved hands firmly at ten and two.
Control, Mr. Carlino thought. Strength. Guidance. Ah, yes. . . .
After a moment he strolled up Main.
The Manderley was the only hotel in town, named by the owner’s wife after the estate in her favorite movie. Its charm lay in its antique flavor: large rooms, big washbasins and clawfooted bathtubs, and old-fashioned room keys, which you turned in to the desk clerk when you left and picked up when you returned.
He entered the bar -– called DeWinter’s, of course -– via the side street entrance. The bartender nodded to him. “Hey, Mr. C. Been a while.”
“Just here for a paper, Nils. New one out yet?”
“Naw, still last week’s.”
Mr. Carlino drifted over to the news kiosk by the lobby door and stood flicking through the classifieds in the Corners Gazette. From there he could see the front desk.
He’d timed it just right. Less than two minutes later, Tamblin came up to the desk — “Room 306, please. Thank you” –- then took his key off toward the elevator.
Mr. Carlino paid Nils for the paper and went back to the store.
* * *
Tuesday was Bernice’s bridge night, and Mr. Carlino usually drove her to the home of whichever friend was hosting the game that month.
“Don’t abandon me, now,” Bernice said. “About ten-thirty, okay?” She kissed him, scooped up her knitting bag, climbed out of their Oldsmobile, and trotted up the walk leading to her friend Rose’s cottage.
He watched fondly until she was inside. Then he drove up to the corner. Instead of turning right to head back home, he turned left, toward downtown.
In minutes he passed the massive white brick façade of the Manderley. He drove two blocks to Queen Street, swung left and parked, then walked back along Stout Street toward the rear of the hotel. The night was cold and damp, with a hint of wet April snow in the air, and the street was deserted.
The hotel’s steel DELIVERIES door was unlocked. He was not surprised; he knew how tight with a dollar the owner was. Hire cheap employees, he thought, you get cheap security.
Inside, a dim hallway yawned at him. He went up the service stairs to the third-floor landing.
Like a good mechanic, Mr. Carlino always kept essential tools at hand in case of emergency. From his right coat pocket he drew a flat black .32 Beretta automatic. Like all the guns he used on his projects, it was “slick,” with no serial number. From the other pocket came a chunky homemade silencer. He screwed it onto the barrel, checked the action, snicked off the safety, and slid the gun back into his pocket.
The empty corridor was narrow, with faded green carpeting. Around him the hotel was still, as if it were holding its breath, waiting.
306. With his left hand he knocked. A crucial point, this. Tamblin was no doubt out to dinner; the Manderley boasted no room service. If he answered . . .
No answer. Swiftly he fished out his Weston Corners library card. The doors and locks here were as old-fashioned as the rest of the appointments. Within a minute he had snapped the lock back with the card and was inside.
The big room, warmed by a steam radiator under the window, smelled musty. As his eyes adjusted (window curtains drawn? Good), he made out a suitcase at the end of the double bed.
On the table near the window was a flat dark case, and he peered at it. An Apple laptop. He’d expected as much; what attorney these days traveled without one?
He lifted the lid, touched a key. Microsoft Word glowed on the screen. No password; good. A power cord led to the wall outlet. He shut the lid again.
He set the gun on the table, unbuttoned his coat, settled in the chair, crossed his legs, and waited in the dark.
His luminous Omega read 9:10 when he heard footsteps in the hall. He rose, scooping up the gun, and loped over to stand behind the door.
The door opened and Tamblin stepped in. Mr. Carlino thrust the silencer up behind Tamblin’s right ear and said softly, “Yell and you’re dead.”
He pushed the door shut. Tamblin had stiffened, but he didn’t yell. “My wallet’s in my breast pocket. Take it and go.”
“Ah, if it were only that simple.”
“I know that voice. You . . . The storekeeper? Carlino?”
“The same.” Mr. Carlino nudged him with the gun. “Over to the table. Wait a moment. Take off your coat. Slowly, slowly . . . that’s it. Put it on the bed. Now sit down at the table. Turn on the light, then keep your hands where I can see ‘em. Make a move I don’t like, you’re dead.”
Tamblin did as he was told. He blinked in the sudden lamplight. He stared at Mr. Carlino, who stared back, and in that instant they knew each other.
“So you’re the one they sent,” Tamblin said.
A tiny part of Mr. Carlino’s mind, the part that had been wondering if he was right, relaxed. “We understand each other, then. Good.”
“I don’t understand why you’re here.”
“That,” said Mr. Carlino, “will become obvious as we go along.”
Tamblin nodded. He sat, composed, his hands folded. Something -– tension? arrogance? — was gone from him, so that he seemed smaller, like a deflated balloon. He said, “How did you guess?”
“Things didn’t fit. Cammie Hinton was the logical person to be the client . . . but I knew she wasn’t. Then you were so determined to drag her back to St. Paul. It seemed out of character for somebody who loved her as you said you did.
“Then you told me it was a good thing Cammie was out of town when her husband died, so she wouldn’t be drawn into an investigation.”
“The cops have ruled Hinton’s death an accident. The only ‘investigation’ would be to find the car and the driver -– not into who would want him dead. Only someone who knew his death wasn’t a hit-and-run would be concerned that any investigation could focus on Cammie.”
Tamblin’s face was haggard. “I wanted Richard to die while she was out of town — so she’d have an alibi, yes, but also so she wouldn’t have to deal with so much at once, to spare her.”
“And now you think she’ll turn to you. She’ll want to marry you.”
“Once she’s back home . . .”
“It won’t wash. You’ve got, what, twenty-five years on her? And she’s always seen you as her uncle. That’s not going to change.”
Tamblin said nothing.
“Maybe,” Mr. Carlino said, “you wanted Hinton out of the way for other reasons. You’re her father’s attorney. Trusted, with access to their accounts. Maybe some McCrory money’s been sticking to your fingers, and Richard was about to find out?”
Tamblin was silent.
“And then, to cover your tracks, you killed Tommy Cahuenga.”
Tamblin looked away. “Who’s that.”
“My employer’s contact in Minneapolis. You needed somebody to take care of Richard, so you could set up your own alibi.”
Tamblin shook his head. “How could I? I didn’t know when you were going to, to . . . Who would suspect me? As long as Cammie was in the clear –”
“But Cahuenga could finger you. So you stole an unlocked car and ran him down.”
Tamblin’s voice was low. “We went to high school together. We’d have a drink now and then, talk over old times. He always bragged he had connections, knew how to ‘arrange’ all sorts of things. So I called his bluff. Then he demanded more money. I knew I’d never be safe, so . . .”
“You did a good job,” Mr. Carlino said. “You could have handled Richard yourself.”
“Oh, God, I wish I had. I didn’t think I had the nerve. You don’t know what it’s been like, keeping all the balls in the air for so long. God, I’m so tired. . . .” He covered his face with his hands.
“I can help you with that,” Mr. Carlino said.
He took two long steps, placed the silencer against Tamblin’s right temple, and fired.
Tamblin’s body leaped. He slid down in the chair, head lolling, slack in death.
Swiftly Mr. Carlino unscrewed and pocketed the silencer. He crimped Tamblin’s dead hand around the pistol butt, let the hand go; the gun thumped to the carpet just below the dangling hand. And powder burns around the temple wound. Perfect.
He swiveled the laptop around, opened it. With gloved forefingers he typed:
Cammie my darling,
Forgive me. I killed Richard to make you happy. Now I find I cannot live with what I’ve done.
Try not to hate me.
Rough, but it would serve. He left the laptop open and swiveled it back into position. One last careful check of the room. Everything in order. Open the door. Check the corridor; empty and still. Down the hall to the stairs and down and out.
He didn’t allow himself to relax until he was in his car, heading back to pick up Bernice.
* * *
“Your guess was correct,” Felton said. “My informants tell me that the police have found some, ah, irregularities in the McCrory company books. Our late friend had been siphoning cash and assets to his own pocket for quite a while.”
Mr. Carlino nodded gloomily.
It was lunchtime, and he stood in the phone booth at Crenna’s. At his elbow lay the Thursday Gazette, folded so he could see its headline. MIDWEST ATTORNEY DEAD IN LOCAL HOTEL, and below that, Authorities Rule Death Suicide.
“Cammie’ll be okay,” Alice Madar had told him yesterday. “She finally admitted to herself that Richard was dead. When she heard her ‘Uncle Danny’ confessed to killing her husband, somehow it seemed to make her stronger.”
“As though she realized everything she’d been leaning on was gone. All she has now is herself.”
“And me,” Alice said. “I’m going with her out to St. Paul to get things settled. . . .”
“No wonder he was in such a hurry to marry the boss’s daughter,” Mr. Carlino said to Felton now. “He’d have been in position to cover any shortfalls. He kept insisting he loved her . . . but if she’d gotten in his way sometime down the line, he wouldn’t have hesitated to dispose of her, too.”
Felton sighed. He said: “Normally I wouldn’t sanction such a thing. Retroactive work on a client, I mean. But it’s worked out well. Tommy was becoming a liability; I was going to have him replaced anyway.”
“And you’ll be sure to spread the word. ‘Look what happens to those who kill my people.’”
“You know me well,” Felton said.
* * *
After lunch, back at the store, Mr. Carlino sat at his desk and listened to cars grumble by in the street. The weather was warmer, the first hint that, yes, Virginia, Vermont does have a spring, and sunlight poured through the window.
Time to deal with the mail. He opened the desk drawer and blinked. Next to the letter opener was a stack of flyers, and the blue envelope he had seen the morning Cammie Hinton had walked into the store.
Bernice, he thought wryly. She liked to see his desk clean. “It looks tacky with papers all over.” And so she’d tucked Monday’s mail away, and in the furor over Cammie, he’d forgotten about it.
He sliced open the blue envelope. A handwritten letter on gray notepaper fell out, that and a color snapshot. Sadness crossed his face as he looked at it. “They could’ve been sisters,” he said aloud. His voice was husky.
He read the letter twice, carefully, the sadness never leaving his face. At last he set it down next to the snapshot.
He smiled ruefully. You’re not as complex a creature as you think, my friend. You saw her, and all the old bells rang. Well, that’s one old debt paid at least.
The street door tinkled, and a voice called, “Hello?”, and he rose and stepped out to greet his newest customer.
Behind him, sunlight fell across the desk and gleamed on the snapshot.
It showed two people. One was a girl of about eleven. Her hair was deep red, her eyes blue, and her face a pale oval, much like Cammie Hinton’s. The other was a lanky, long-jawed youth, smiling at the camera, his arm around the little girl: John Carlino at seventeen.
Between them sat a small beagle, looking impatient to be away, chasing squirrels.
I was cleaning out the attic and found lots of old pictures. Thought you might like this one of you and Michele and Snoopy. I guess it was the summer before you went for a soldier, ’78 or ’79, along in there.
Funny how the memories get to you. I’d give anything if Michele could be here. But the doctor said there was nothing he could’ve done once the Big C took hold of her, that last summer. You were off in Asia or somewhere, and didn’t get the news till too late.
She wanted you here with us. You always blamed yourself for what happened to Snoopy, and how it took the heart out of her. The doctor said she just quit fighting after that. I think that doctor didn’t know his tail from a garden snake. When Our Lord was ready to take her, He took her, and nothing would have changed that.
Now, Johnny, you listen. Michele knew all along you couldn’t help it. That silly dog was always running across the road, and how could you have seen him anyway? And Michele didn’t blame you, there towards the end. She said so. You’re the only one giving himself fits over it.
I’ll close now; I’m getting all weepy again. Write when you can.
About the Author
A native of New Orleans, Paul Sundeson grew up on Bourbon Street. A former computer analyst and technical writer, he is currently an administrator for a local N.O. college. His “amateur detective” novel, Griffin in Steel, won the Mystery competition of the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ 2004 Colorado Gold Writing Contest. While he still lives in the city with a half-Persian and a Siberian (cats, not people), after the chaos of Hurricane Katrina he wishes fervently he could live anywhere else.
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