Cards on the Table

Тема

The card was wedged under the brass 17 on my apartment door when I got back from my morning swim. For what felt like a long time I stood dripping on the welcome mat, staring at the slightly crooked number and the colored rectangle beneath. A tarot card.

Finally, I removed the card, examined it. A castle in flames, a man and woman plummeting to the cliffs below, and the words The Tower.

Not good. Even if I turned it upside down so that the man and woman seemed to be doing handsprings through the clouds and lightning, it still looked pretty ominous. I told myself that someone was playing a joke on me. Funny stuff.

Only a handful of people even knew I was writing a book about the Aldrich case. For that matter, who would care if they did know? It was dead news in every sense.

I stuck my key into the latch and stepped into my apartment, eyes adjusting to the gloom. Dusty sunshine poured through the arched living room window. Everything looked just the way I'd left it an hour ago. In the kitchen alcove the old dishwasher was steaming,

stereo lights flashed from the entertainment center, and the screen of my laptop, which sat on the coffee table, offered a gently rolling view of star-lined outer space.

I walked through to the bedroom. The bed was stripped, sheets piled for laundry in the doorway. The mirrored closet doors were shut. I got a look at my face as I moved to open them, and was irritated to see that I looked worried – hazel eyes narrowed, tanned face grim, body tense. Jesus. The last year had turned me into an old woman.

I slid open the closet doors, jumping back as a box of photos tumbled from their precarious perch on the shelf above and dumped snapshots across the carpet.

A photo of me – in a gold-sequined sombrero, no less – and Jack celebrating my thirtieth birthday at Don Cuco's landed by my bare toes.

I stepped over the pictorial retrospective of my life and moved on to the bathroom, poking my head inside. Another glimpse of my frowning face in the cabinet mirror – and, by the way, I really did need a haircut, I reflected, momentarily distracted by the wet spikes of my chlorine-bleached hair. The shower dripped noisily. I yanked back the curtain with a plastic rustle. Nothing. Okay, bathtub ring, but otherwise nothing sinister. Of course nothing sinister. Nobody had broken in. Why would they? But why would someone leave a tarot card on my front door?

I went back to the kitchen, poured a glass of OJ, and drank it slowly, studying the tarot card. Was someone trying to tell me something? Was it some kind of clue? More likely it was just some kind of weird coincidence. Right?

And even if it wasn't a weird coincidence…what was I supposed to do about it? It wasn't exactly a lead that I could follow up. And I couldn't picture myself going to the police

over something so…vague. There was no defined threat, and I had absolutely no suspect in mind. I could always talk to Jack.

I stared out the window over the sink at the row of second-story apartments, red doors and turquoise railings glimpsed through the tangle of ivy and bougainvillea.

Jack Brady was a homicide detective with the Glendale PD. We'd gone out a couple of times. Slept together once. We were still on friendly, if distant, terms. The blinds to Jack's apartment were up so it looked like he might be home.

I stripped off the swim trunks, tossed them over the shower rod, pulled on a pair of jeans and a clean T-shirt, stuck the tarot card in my pocket, and headed upstairs to Jack's apartment.

I could hear Neil Young's Rust Never Sleeps playing behind the scarlet door. The smell of something spicy drifted out the open kitchen window. My stomach tightened, but it had nothing to do with hunger – not for chili, anyway. I'd liked Jack a lot.

I knocked and the door opened. Jack stood framed in the doorway. He was about thirty-five, just over medium height and built, gray eyes and dark hair. He had a small white scar over his left eyebrow and a dimple in his right cheek when he smiled. He was not smiling now. Music and the aroma of garlic and onions wafted around him. «Hey, Tim,» he said briefly, neutrally, after a pause.

«Hi, Jack,» I said. «Could I talk to you for a minute? I could use some advice. Professional advice.»

He hesitated – just long enough for me to realize I was making a mistake. Jack was the one who'd lost interest in pursuing a relationship. We were neighbors, not friends, and this was probably the equivalent of complaining to a doctor you'd met at a party about that pain in your neck. «Yeah, sure,» Jack said, and he stepped aside, nodding for me to come in.

Worse than looking pushy, gauche, I realized this might seem like I was coming up with an excuse to see him again. So instead of coming in, I took a step back and said, «You know, on second thought, it can probably wait.»

«Whoa!» He caught my arm as I turned away. «What's this?» He was smiling now, his eyebrows raised.

The feel of his hand on my arm reminded me vividly of our one and only night together. The warm sure slide of his palm stroking my belly, knuckles brushing the sensitive skin between hip and thigh, long strong fingers closing at last around my dick… I let him draw me into his apartment.

Jack closed the door and I looked around curiously. Tidy as a monk's cell. A stark black and white print of the desert hung over the fake fireplace. There were a few pieces of generic guy furniture, a number of paperbacks – mostly nonfiction and mostly true crime – on a low bookshelf. Nothing had changed. Jack had changed, that was all.

«Did you want a beer?» he asked, going behind the counter that separated kitchen from living room. «Sure.»

Jack returned a moment later, handed me a frosty cold bottle, fingers grazing mine, and then he dropped down on the couch across from me. He took a swig.

He wore Levi's and a yellow muscleman T-shirt that displayed his hard, tanned body to perfection.

«So…what's the problem?» He grinned and the dimple showed for a moment. I wondered if a dimple was a liability for a cop. Did bad guys ever make the mistake of overestimating that mischievous crease in Jack's lean cheek? «Jaywalking tickets piling up? Somebody finally haul you in for disturbing the peace?»

«Er…no.» I set the bottle on the glass-topped table, leaned on one hip, fished the tarot card out of my pocket, and put it face up on the coffee table. Jack studied it, one eyebrow arching. «The Tower?» «Yeah. Someone stuck it on my door while I was in the pool this morning.»

«Yeah, I saw you swimming,» he said absently, reaching for the card, careful to only touch the edges. His gray eyes lifted to mine. «And you see this as…what? A threat?»

«I don't know. I know it seems a little…» I raked a hand through my still-damp hair. «I think it has to do with the book I'm writing. About the Aldrich case. The Tarot Card Murder.» His face showed no comprehension.

«I guess it's supposed to be a joke.» I added doubtfully, «But it happened then, too.» «What happened then?» he asked. «You're not making a lot of sense, Tim.» «Are you familiar with the Aldrich case?» «No.» «No?»

He looked a little exasperated at my tone. «I'm not familiar with every homicide case that ever took place in the LA vicinity, no.»

«Well, it's just that it was kind of a high profile case. And it's still unsolved.» «I'll try not to take that personally.»

«Back in 1957, a starlet by the name of Eva Aldrich was stabbed to death at a big Hollywood party. The only clue was a tarot card pinned on her blood-stained dress.» Like one of those old press cameras, my memory flashed on those gory old black and white crime scene photos. There had been one shot of Eva's discarded and bloodstained high heel lying a few feet from her body. There was something poignant – something I couldn't shake –when I thought about that frivolous little pump splashed with her dying blood. «And you're writing a book about this?» I assented.

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