The Divorcee Wore Black
by E. Michael Lewis
What is it with horror writers and women in black?
Not that I know many horror writers. Only one, in fact. Bob Gordon was my cubicle mate at Morris, Kennedy and Perotta — divorce, paternity, family law. Enough horror dressed up as slick, crisp legal briefs to last three lifetimes.
But not for Bob. Bob would go home and write about ghosts and vampires, about insane jealousy and diabolical revenge. He showed me his work now and then, between the Responses to the Petition for the Establishment of Paternity and the Orders for Continuance. I couldn’t deny the man had talent. I also couldn’t deny that his taste in women was as predictable as a Greek tragedy.
“She’s coming in today,” Bob said to me as we stood at the water cooler. “I get to take her deposition.”
He didn’t have to say her name. I knew who he meant. She was impossibly tall and slender in a glamorous, unapproachable sort of way. Her hair, straight and black, hung heavily to her waist and swayed as she walked on thin, spindly legs. A grieving divorcee, she never wore anything but black.
I remember the first time I saw her. I went to the waiting room at a dull moment to talk up the new receptionist. A lone woman lurked in the chair nearest the door. Her weeping foiled my first move. The receptionist, a bright young intern named Alice, shrugged. Then Jack Morris, Bob’s boss, walked in and called a name.
The weeping lady stood. She wore a long black crepe dress and a wide brimmed hat with a black veil. Her necklace was set with a ruby, bright like a fresh wound. He swept her away into his office.
“Jeez,” I said. “I wonder who died.”
Alice snickered and rolled her eyes. “She just found her husband with another woman,” she said. “Like that’s never happened to anyone else before.”
While I am not a cynic, I believe in cynicism, but I believe it is best used on lawyers, not clients. “Keep it up,” I said. “You’ll be practicing law before the year is out.”
“Ha-ha. Seriously, she told me the story. Couldn’t shut her up. Cried so much she smeared the signature on her check.” She showed it to me, two big smudges running through the spidery penmanship that paid her consultation fee.
I clucked my tongue. “It’s not easy being you.”
“Hey, she wants to talk her troubles out, she can go to her analyst. She should come see us when she wants to lawyer his ass out of her life.”
I laughed with her — what else could I do — and returned to my cubicle. Bob sat in his, clacking away.
“Morris’s got a live one,” I told him. “A real looker.”
“Did you say ‘looker’ or ‘hooker’?” he asked without turning.
“You’ll like her. She’s just your type.”
“What type is that?”
“Pale, slender and grieving.”
“Can I help it if I have a rescuer complex?”
A noise jumped out of his intercom. “Bob,” Jack Morris’s voice droned, “can you come to my office for a moment?”
“Speaking of which,” he said as he stopped typing and picked up his legal pad.
When he returned he slipped into his chair and let the rotation carry him around a few times.
“How was she?” I asked.
“Decadent,” he replied. We spoke no more of her that first day.
Later, Bob showed me a story of his, with Larene Ney thinly disguised as a character. She walked lightly and somberly from room to room in some medieval tower, newly inherited by the hero — a man remarkably like Bob. It turned out that she was a cross between a ghost and vampire — a “banshee” or something. But the Bob character saves her and brings her back to life. What joy is fiction.
Then the trial drew near. Bob, standing with me at the water cooler, beamed like a lighthouse.
“You gonna let her read your story?” I asked.
“Ha-ha,” he said through his paper cup. “I’m interested, though, to hear her tell me her story.”
“You know what you are,” I told him for the hundredth time. “You’re a voyeur.”
“When I see you peering through the doorjamb of the conference room, I’ll remember you said that.”
I clucked my tongue. “You think she’d go for you?”
“It could happen.” Bob smiled. “The Bar Association doesn’t care when it comes to paralegals.”
He had me there. Still, I did not look forward to his fall. Women in black come and go, but cubicles are forever.
Bob’s cube was quiet the rest of the day, so I was surprised to find him back.
“Bob,” I exclaimed, placing my hand on his shoulder. “How’d it go?”
“Don’t talk to me,” he said. He looked at my hand as if it were a bug he wanted to slap.
Alarmed, I removed it. I bent down next to him. “What?”
He didn’t respond, but he didn’t busy himself either. He just sat there. I rose just as he did.
“I don’t feel well. I’m going home.” He grabbed his coat and walked out of the office.
Poor Bob! I never thought from all his witty banter that he was deadly serious. I asked around — Mrs. Ney’s soon-to-be ex-husband’s falling into a coma had complicated the case, but no one seemed to think anything else was amiss. What had or hadn’t happened between Bob and Jack Morris’s mysterious, ebony-clad client had brought the old boy some pain. I could only hope he’d feel better tomorrow.
Bob stayed out for a week. In his absence, we hired a cute little blonde that I had just charmed into bed when Bob returned. He looked haggard, like he hadn’t rested at all. He had changed, too. He seemed helplessly sober. He had been writing, he said. A new novel — something as monumental as Dracula, but he didn’t want to jinx it by showing me anything.
So I never saw it. Didn’t really want to anyway. With Bob in his quiet, artistic mode, I just left him alone. The blonde and I began to get serious. I had my own cubicle to worry about.
Later, Bob got a call from his agent. He’d just left his cube and I thought I could catch him.
I found him three steps from Jack Morris’s door. Sweat was dripping off of him.
“Bob, your agent’s on the phone.”
“Take a message for me,” he said unconvincingly. “Tell him I’ll call him right back.”
I started. This wasn’t the Bob I knew. Then I heard a throat being cleared in the office beyond, and there sat the woman in black, in a flattering silk gown, more like an evening gown than day wear. She still wore her veiled hat, making the skin tone of her face look normal compared to the paleness of her hands. The scarlet jewel on her necklace caught the light and winked. Jack Morris drummed a pencil on his desk.
“You sure? Could be good news.”
“Yeah. Tell him I’ll call him back.”
“Yeah. Fine,” he said.
With that he went into Morris’s office and closed the door. Within seconds, someone pulled the blinds.
Needless to say, I took a message.
It’s hard to tell whether or not Bob was preoccupied in those next weeks — I certainly was. Michael Kennedy, my boss, kept me hip deep in litigation. Bob could have appointed himself Pope and led the Charge of the Light Brigade and I would not have noticed. What little attention I had to spare I focused on my blonde co-worker, so I must admit Bob and I were distant.
Then came the day I didn’t take my lunch. I usually did, no matter what, but Kennedy had me over a barrel. So, I asked my blonde colleague to bring me back something. Pouting, she said she would.
About twelve thirty, I heard a scream. I bolted instantly, following the cry through the sea of cubicles to the large conference room.
The woman in black stood in the open doorway. Before I had time to wonder at this, I saw Bob on the floor behind her, black foam coming from his mouth as he convulsed uncontrollably. I pushed past her.
“Hold his feet!” I yelled, bending down and restraining his arms. I looked around desperately for something to shove into his mouth. Something like a bruise was rising from his cheek and his lips were already swollen.
The woman nominally did what I said. Alice rushed in, looked at both of us and said, “I’ll call 911.”
A second after that, Bob stopped struggling. The woman stood as I tipped his head up a little and asked him if he was okay.
He tried to speak but it all came out gibberish.
“Help’s on the way,” I told him. “Try to lie still.”
Then I began to understand him.
“Hourglass,” he said, his arm raising. “Hourglass.”
I wiped the odd, black bile from his lips and followed his arm up to the woman in black. She towered over us, cruelly indifferent, her necklace a radiant crimson. Her veil was torn away and a smile played around the edge of her lips and she wiped them with the back of her hand. My eyes traced the heartless beauty of her curving lines down her body and stopped cold. Bob grabbed my collar and tried to say more, but black vomit garbled his words.
As the paramedics arrived, so did the ebony divorcee’s tears. Over the din, I heard her describe how Bob just fell over in the middle of their interview. My blonde bedmate returned with my lunch and asked me what happened. That took me away from the action.
After Bob’s episode, the woman in black never returned to the office. There was no need. Her husband had suddenly died and the divorce was dismissed. She mailed Jack Morris a check for his services and a card for Bob. When no one was looking, I dropped the card in the shredder. There was something about the way she wrote, “I wish you unfailing recovery from your attack” that I didn’t think Bob would appreciate.
He got out of the hospital after two months. When he came in to clean out his desk, he cornered me with a strange question.
“Did you see?” he asked.
I thought back to his seizure in the conference room. Bob, lying in my arms on the floor and that horribly beautiful woman standing above us like some haughty Egyptian queen.
“Hourglass,” he had said, and for the first time, I saw her gleaming red necklace from up close, and I realized that Bob was right: it was shaped like an hourglass.
I also remembered looking down that silky gown, admiring the way such a dress could shimmer on her when she moved, until I realized she wasn’t moving. As my eyes fixed on the source of the movement, her slender legs, and for a moment, the dark cloth seemed to hide more than two of them. Many more.
I suppose it could have been the dress, its light fabric rippling in the circulated breeze. It was a very sexy dress.
I don’t like to think about it. I have enough horror in my life.
I work in a law firm.
Copyright © 2007 by E. Michael Lewis