by Marge Burke
part 1 of 2
“Get it handled, and hide it away someplace. I don’t want to see it.” Max stood by his chair, the phone held to his ear. His eyes were drawn to the photo of his pup. Pup! Ha! For almost fourteen years, she had been one of the best parts of his life, and still was.
“Stop by and I’ll give you my credit card,” Max continued, forcing his eyes away from the photo. “I know we’ll need it someday, but by god, I don’t want it to be any time soon.”
He nodded silently, ignoring the fact that the person on the other end of the line could not see him. He tugged at the starched blue collar of his tailored dress shirt and loosened his tie. The cut of his trousers hung just right; he liked the way the pleated panel under the belt loops on each side gave the illusion that he was thinner than he was.
“All right.” He hung up and sighed heavily. The thought of making an irrevocable decision about Lace’s illness played at the back of his mind. He let it creep forward. Suddenly all the different aspects of his life - ones he had been so careful to categorize - tangled up together and he could not separate them.
Like this infernal triangle he was in. If only the two women in his life were embodied in one. He could have the efficiency of domain that Angeline provided, yet the excitement that he felt at Zoe’s touch. Zoe’s smile alone could send him reeling. What if one of them were...gone? Just disappeared? He could do it; he hadn’t become CEO of a million dollar operation by being careless and stupid.
This business of doing nothing irked him. He felt that by doing nothing he was doing everything. The whole issue was clouding his senses.
Max paced back and forth. He sighed, walked to the window and looked out. He was past retirement, but he wouldn’t give in. The corporation needed him; more to the point, he needed the corporation. It was the very air he breathed, his ticket to travel all over the world. It was the life he had chosen for himself all those years ago, when life was simpler.
Angeline had at one time washed her own dishes and he had mowed his own yard. Then his father had retired and handed him the business, knowing he would move it forward. Now there were servants to do dishes and mow and whatever else needed to be done. His father would be pleased with the way the corporation had expanded. Max doubted, however, that his father would approve of the life he led out of the public eye.
When the phone rang again, he barely said hello before the voice on the other end began listing issues--what he needed to do, where he should go, what their children expected of them over the weekend. He lowered himself into his teal leather chair.
“All right. I’ll be there.” He listened absently. “No, not early. It’ll be late.” He held the phone just a tad away from his ear. When it got quieter he got a word in. “I have to come in tomorrow for an hour or so, but then I’m done until Monday. Tonight I have a meeting in...” He paused, trying to remember where he said the meeting would be. “Pittsburgh.”
He hung up and stared at the phone. How can you love a person so much and still be driven so absolutely crazy by her? He couldn’t imagine life without her, but frequently he let his mind speculate on the whole scenario.
She ran his empire. Oh, not the stores. Not the clothing empire he had built up after his father had left the whole affair to him. Just his home life, his family, his several homes. She directed the two daughters-in-law as though she were stage manager of a Broadway theatre. The grandchildren adored her, and even the dogs were in awe of her. There was absolutely nothing out of place anywhere. She was nearly perfect. But she was not Zoe.
Zoe kept him excited, kept him laughing. Angeline kept him sane and organized. The business was his very existence, and he rose each morning focused on making his next million. It propelled him out of bed and to the office. But these women. Ahhhh, well.... They both distracted and focused him.
Why he was so fascinated with European clothing styles and manufacturing, he didn’t know. He just knew that it came from deep within him and he poured over each new fashion as though it would offer world peace. Which ones would he alter just enough to create the fashion hit of the season? Which of those would be manufactured and imported?
One more fabulous design award and he might consider retiring. He could still go to shows; he couldn’t imagine life without them. Vegas and Paris and Fifth Avenue all drew him like magnets.
He looked at his watch and smiled. He picked up the phone and punched in the numbers, whistling while he waited.
“Hello, yourself,” He breathed into the phone when she answered. “Is tonight still on?” His face stretched into a smile. “Give me half an hour. Same place.”
Still grinning, he hung up and let out a deep breath. He hadn’t realized he was holding it until his lungs were clear. This was the forbidden fruit that kept him going. Not because he loved her, not at all. He did feel love for her, a certain kind of exciting, forbidden feeling that aroused every inch of his being. If he ever had to make a choice.... But he’d been very careful and would continue to be; there would be no choice. And for now, he had to be in...where was it? Oh, yes. Pittsburgh.
“Ha!” He laughed aloud, then turned off the lights and locked the door. This appointment couldn’t wait.
* * *
His skin still tingled from the feel of her touch, ten hours later. Angeline had been asleep when he had come home last night, and still was when he left this morning. He was spared giving up any of the magic that seemed to cling to him after an evening with Zoe. Max pulled into his reserved parking place by the business entrance, climbed out of the Jag and ran up the steps. Still running, still jogging at sixty-seven. Not bad. Zoe kept him young. Angeline kept him comfortable. The business gave him a reason to be young and comfortable. He wondered fleetingly if it would be nearly so exciting if Zoe were Angeline. Or vice versa.
The light was on in his office, and he paused outside the door. He was sure he had turned it off last night. Slowly he pushed the door open and walked inside. Everything was as it should be. Perfect. Thank heaven for that. Probably the cleaning people. He hung his jacket on the coat tree and sat down at his desk, pulling open the middle drawer.
His blood froze in his veins. Little prickles danced around the back of his neck. His hands trembled. He reached for an envelope with his name on it, written in gold glitter like that used on wedding invitations.
Carefully he opened the unsealed flap and pulled out a piece of brown paper. It felt like butcher paper, coarse and thick. On the paper was drawn a coffin. A small one, just like the one...
He shook his head to clear the fog. As he peered closer, he could see words sketched on the box: “YOU CAN DO IT.”
A piece of soft lace fell to the floor. He picked it up and looked at it, then at the note again. The words were an echo in his mind.
“This has to be a joke,” he said to the empty office. “But it certainly is a nasty piece of humor if it is.”
Crumpling the paper, he threw it into the trash.
Curious, he checked the other drawers in his desk, then unlocked his personal filing cabinet. At first glance nothing looked disturbed, but when he went to shut the third drawer, something caught his eye. The tab on the file folder for his life insurance policies and death benefits was sticking up slightly above the rest of the folders. Carefully he removed the folder and looked through each paper, making sure nothing was missing or altered.
The documents contained in the folder were one of a kind. There were no copies filed anywhere else. He reached for the legal document with the blue background, a separate will leaving several hundred thousand dollars to Zoe. It was tied up, of course, so it would not be obvious that it was going to her at all. She did not know he had done that. No one did. It made him feel good that he could do something for her aside from the estate that his wife would inherit.
He re-filed the folder and sat back down at his desk. He pulled the note out of the trash and read it one more time, then he ripped it in half.
Try as he might, though, throughout the morning his thoughts kept going back to the note. Someone thought he was planning to use that box he had purchased for some nasty deed. Nothing could be further from the truth. It was the most natural thing in the world to think ahead to someone’s last days and how to handle things once they were...gone. He couldn’t bear to think of her as gone. No, no. He couldn’t do it.
The plush carpet created static as he paced, and every time he picked up the phone he got shocked. Finally he grabbed his jacket, turned off the light, locked the door and left.
He noticed it on the windshield before he was halfway down the steps. The same brown butcher paper. It was tucked under the wiper blade, almost hidden below the hood.
Max looked around. The parking lot was empty. It was, after all, Sunday, and the corporate offices were closed. He glanced up at the windows but they were all empty. Slowly he unfolded the paper and saw the sketched box, trimmed in lace, and the words “DON’T WAIT ANY LONGER” written in black crayon.
He felt himself begin to tremble. It was as if the fleeting thought he had had yesterday morning had come alive by its own volition and was taunting him. He hadn’t meant a word of it...had he?
He had always admired people who could achieve a major accomplishment with no visible flaws. But as far as he could remember, every major crime or mystery had been solved - even if it weren’t proven in a court of law. Books and movies had the bad guys caught in the end, even if murder had been justified.
Murder? Where had that thought come from? God, he was really losing it. He needed to clear his head, needed distraction. He ripped the paper in several pieces and walked over to the trash can by the steps. Suddenly he stopped. He didn’t want this to get away from him. He’d burn it in the fireplace at home. He unlocked the car door, tucked the scraps into the cup holder, and started the car. He really needed a distraction. He hoped she was home.
* * *
“Are you busy?” Max winced at the abrupt tone of his own voice.
“I’m doing laundry. Why?”
“Can you get away?”
“Now? Whatever for?” Zoe’s voice sounded puzzled.
“I need to talk to you. Something’s...come up.” The cell phone was tucked under Max’s chin as he maneuvered around curves and through traffic. “Can you meet me?”
“Now? I know, I said that.” She sighed. “I only have a few minutes. We’re having dinner tonight at The Goal Line with some of Jerry’s clients. I told you that.”
“I know you did. I won’t keep you. I just can’t talk about this on the phone.” Max grabbed the phone with his right hand as it slipped from his ear. “Can you get around Jerry?”
“Of course. Anyway, he knows. He pretends he doesn’t. But he does.”
Max swallowed. “How do you know that?”
“Little things. Anyway, it’s been 14 years. He’d be a fool not to know.” There was a pause as she seemed to consider this. “You mean you think Angeline doesn’t know?”
“Of course she doesn’t. She wouldn’t put up with it. She’s too...noble.”
“Oh, and what am I? Some sleaze off the streets?”
“Now, Zoe. Don’t start. You know perfectly well what you are to me.” Just for a second his mind went back to last night, and he quickly shook his head to disperse the image.
“All right,” he heard her say through the fog in his mind. “Just give me five minutes to get there. Our usual spot?”
He agreed, hung up and swung off the road into emergency parking. His heart was pounding in his chest and he could feel a cold sweat breaking out on his forehead.
“I’ve got to get a grip on myself. None of this is making any sense. How could Jerry know and not care? How could Angeline know and pretend she didn’t?
“Anyway, that’s not my problem now. My problem is these blasted notes.” He reached in his coat pocket for his handkerchief but clutched a piece of paper instead. Frustrated, he pulled it out and started to toss it on the floor in the back seat. Then he stopped.
This time, though it was obviously butcher paper, it was white. This piece was very small, and it crossed his mind that there couldn’t be a drawing on it. Maybe it was a laundry receipt.
But no. There was a piece of lace, and a tiny drawing of a coffin done in gray pencil. On the lid was written “WHICH ONE?”
He dropped the paper as though it burnt his fingers.
He fumbled around pushing buttons until finally his window went down. He gulped in the fresh air and sat, trembling.
“You ok, Mr. Anthony?”
Max jumped, bumping the horn and startling both him and Officer Mallone. “Why, hello Mallone. Yes, I’m fine. Just having a bit of a moment, actually.” Max felt as though his face would crack and fall into a billion tiny pieces onto his lap. He wet his lips and tasted the salty moisture on his moustache.
“Anything I can do for you?” Officer Mallone asked, leaning down to rest his forearms on the window, staring into Max’s eyes. “You know, distract the dogcatcher, lose a speeding ticket, knock off old man Humphries?”
The standing joke about getting rid of Max’s competition jarred his composure, and Max nearly choked. Mallone reached through the window and pounded Max Anthony on the back.
Max waved him away, drawing deep breaths and blinking the tears standing in the corners of his eyes. “Air down the wrong pipe.” Max cleared his throat. “Really, Mallone, I’m fine. On my way home, actually.” Max realized he was headed in the wrong direction for that. “After I run a few errands. Always something, you know?”
Mallone laughed. “I sure do. I’m married, too, remember. In fact the wife and I are going out tonight. Going to The Goal Line with Annie’s boss. Business meeting, but who’s gonna balk at a free meal, especially in that place?”
Officer Mallone was smiling now and stood back up. He adjusted his belt and straightened his hat.
Max felt the blood draining from his face again. The Goal Line. That’s where Zoe was going. To a business meeting. It had to be a coincidence. It couldn’t be the same meeting.
“Take it easy, Mr. Anthony. Don’t be stealing any designs.” The officer laughed at his own joke, then turned with a wave as he got back into the car. Max could hear the two-way radio blurting out bits and pieces of the police band. The patrol car pulled back into traffic and spun away, lights flashing and siren screaming. Max cringed. He had done absolutely nothing wrong except have one fleeting, fantasy-like thought yesterday morning and now his whole world was making no sense.
The dashboard clock told him that more time had elapsed than should have. Zoe would think he had changed his mind. At the first break in traffic Max pulled back onto the highway with little regard for the speed limit. The Poolside Motel was just off the next exit, and Zoe would be waiting in Room 22. It was their room. Third door on the left around back, between the dumpster and the employee entrance. He zipped into a parking space and noticed Zoe’s black Chrysler convertible a few spaces over. The top was down. She’d be wild and windblown.
He felt the blood surge through him in an entirely different way. His hands shook as he opened the door, shoved it closed, and clicked the remote lock. Number 22 opened just a little and her smile was all he needed. He was already unbuttoning his jacket.
* * *
Copyright © 2007 by Marge Burke