by Elizabeth Sims
©Elizabeth Sims 2014
EVER SINCE I’D KILLED A PERSON in hot-blooded self-defense, my life had been kind of sketchy. During that messy time—two years ago, it was—I’d had to abandon my car, euthanize my best friend, and come to realize that my taste in women was really, really shitty.
Well, was that last thing entirely true? My luck in love was calamitous, but how could I know at the start that a woman was going to turn out bad? Love is like reason in reverse: instead of starting with some little idea or premise and developing a logical body of thought from there, you start with this thunderbolt, this immense passionate storm of pelvis and heart; you jump into it, and one day you realize you’re in so deep you can’t even see the place you jumped from anymore. So the possibility of making a measured, considered descent is impossible. It’s past. You’re in.
I’ve spent my entire adult life trying to figure that out.
The best friend I referred to a minute ago was my beloved pet rabbit, Todd. I’d had to mourn him and my 1985 Chevrolet Caprice, and I’d had to come to grips with the new capacities I’d discovered in myself. (Fortunately, my best human friend, Truby, was alive and well in California.)
You’re probably wondering about the life I took in self-defense and how it happened. She was a lover who turned out to be a murderer, and she was in the act of trying to kill me, because I had uncovered the things she had done. So, yes, self-defense. Still, it’s a pretty heavy trip when you feel the heart that you were at one time ready to defend to the death quiver, then stop beating, through the haft of your knife.
Had the capacity for killing always been inside me, the product of some unknowable synapse development, buried deep? Or had it developed on the instant of necessity and from now on was my quiet little companion, to be called up at will?
Will I go to heaven or hell?
Should these questions ever plague you, and you arrive at something solid, give me a call.
Eventually I figured out that mystery and ambiguity form the core of an active human life, and the only way to stay sane—or return to sanity—is to accept that fact. And live with it. And thrive with it.
That’s the trick.
While my mind and spirit were occupied with all that, I retreated into brainless temp jobs where I threw around cartons of cheddar popcorn and jam in a food warehouse; rotated the stop/slow sign on a godforsaken road project in Lapeer County; and collected garbage at the Renaissance festival in wench costume.
No, I hadn’t gotten a new pet. There was no way. Todd had been such a wonderful little companion, so warm and sensible, that—well, there could be no replacement.
By now, however, I was more or less in the process of collecting myself. I’d gotten a regular gig as a phony private detective, which I felt was at least a start toward normalcy.
I was thinking about normalcy when I parked in front of the Pomeroy mansion in Detroit one warm June morning, intent on taking advantage of the two eccentric women who lived there. The neighborhood magnolias had escaped frost this year and were busy heaving open their sweet-tart hearts. Spring had come late. Buds swelled on the apple trees.
I told myself what I was about to do was OK because: 1) I had to pay my rent; 2) I couldn’t take a lot of stress yet; 3) they needed somebody to order around for reassurance; and 4) they could afford it. Four solid rationalizations.
The front door appeared to have been torn from a German cathedral—thick oak, with black iron hinges and a square leaded-glass window. The bell didn’t work, so to get the attention of either Flora or Domenica Pomeroy you had to ball your fist and pound on the weathered planks like you were trying to break out of a dungeon.
I always set down whatever I was carrying and used both fists.
I pounded my usual seven times—both fists in unison—then added one more bam after a brief pause so Flora would know it was me.
One would expect such a door on such a mansion to be opened slowly and with much rusty creaking. But Flora was in pretty good shape, and she flung it open as she squinted into the sun, shading her eyes with a box of Kix cereal. A few pieces dribbled out of the open end of the box and I sensed a squirrel behind me, ready to pounce.
I stood on the palace-width stone stoop in my standard uniform of linen blouse, blue jeans, and Bass Weejun loafers.
Flora said, “Dear, come in! Dear-m’-dear, come in! We’ve been waiting like starving artists!”
Flora Pomeroy was a middle-aged woman who somehow had kept her waist through the years. It looked all the trimmer in contrast to her meaty, curving hips, which seemed built to ride horses in a rodeo. Her eyes were large and light gray and could look a little blind sometimes when she drifted away from the situation at hand. But her face had that French spareness—high cheekbones, strong chin, long, tapering nose—that communicated social competence, and, perhaps, a readiness to be amused. I suppose Pomeroy was originally spelled Pomerai or the like.
“We have a new problem, but for once, I think we’ve come up with a solution!”
If Flora liked you, she would touch you. She took my hand and pulled me into the vast, cool foyer. Four stone gargoyles, little fat men in hats, leered down from the corners.
Flora eyed my canvas messenger bag. “Well, did you track it down?”
I patted the bag. “Yes, I did. I have it right here.”
She smiled with cautious happiness.
About ten rooms opened off the main-floor hallway; dim gray light spilled from all of them. Junk littered the hallway—not low-class hoarder junk like newspapers and crates of baby clothes but stuff like a festoon of colorful scarves on a coat hanger hooked to a chandelier, a dented globe on a gaudy stand, and about a dozen unfinished needlepoint projects, some of them left on side tables, some on the floor. For a while they’d had a nephew from Philadelphia living with them while he attended Cranbrook, so you would also come across stuff like a lacrosse stick, an old copy of Wired, a necktie draped over the back of a chair.
Then there was the crap art they collected: pottery pieces with cracks and holes pretentiously built in, as well as paintings of feral-looking people that you couldn’t tell whether they were meant to look that way or if they came out that way inadvertently, due to a lack of skill.
Flora saw me glance at some of the stuff in the hallway. “Yeah,” she said with a bit of pride, “I’ve been tidying.”
A huge staircase that widened grandly at the bottom seemed to gather us into its banister arms, and we started up.
“Domenica!” Flora shouted as we ascended. “Lillian’s here, and”—her shout turned musical—“I think she’s brought us something!” Her clear enunciation rang in the high cavern of the staircase.
Domenica, Flora’s mother, welcomed us into the throne room on the third and topmost floor of the house. It used to be the master bedroom, but the (doubtless massive) bed had been removed and a large chair installed.
Chair is a poor word to describe the setup, so I called it a throne, even though the chair was not gilded. It was at least six feet tall and made of heavy old wood—mahogany?—with a carved-leather back. Garbo had sat in it, I was told, in a scene in Queen Christina that was cut from the finished movie.
Needle-pointed cushions supported the thin, elderly shanks of Domenica Pomeroy, who ate, drank, napped, and lounged in the chair most of the day and night. When she wanted to get horizontal, she hobbled a few steps to a maroon velvet couch in a bay window that overlooked the excessively lush back lot.
She liked the windows open most of the time. They had no screens, therefore the occasional member of the natural world took up residency in her room: mostly spiders and mosquitoes. They didn’t seem to bother her. The breeze was pleasant.
Domenica said, “Yes, yes. You’ve found it, Madame Detective?”
Slightly nervous now, I said, “Yes.”
“She tracked it down!” Flora slapped my back and pulled me close to Domenica. “Now don’t bother her, give her time to tell it. Sit there.” I took my customary spot in a straight chair, one of two on opposite sides of an exquisite small table inlaid with multicolored parquet.
Flora kept bustling. “We’ll have coffee! We should celebrate with a morning meal! I’ll start the Sanka. Where did I put that cereal?” She turned toward the huge bathroom, where they kept a hot plate, a bin of cookware, and no refrigerator.
“Wait,” I said quickly, “I brought some bagels and stuff.”
“Oh!” they said.
I pulled a paper sack of fresh bagels from my bag, plus a thing of cream cheese and a pound of ground actual coffee. “This’ll do, don’t you think?” I said. “I even have a knife.”
The last time I’d come at breakfast, Flora had fed me bacon that made me sick for two days. I don’t know how their stomachs took it. And Sanka, my God.
“Ohh, I’ve died and gone to heaven!” said Flora, feeling the still-warm bagels. “Straight to heaven!”
“You can’t die yet, you have to hold my funeral,” said Domenica. She was in her early eighties, gray and elegant, with the same angular French nose as her daughter.
“All in good time,” muttered Flora, taking the coffee bag.
In a few minutes we were all enjoying a nice little breakfast.
“So?” said Domenica.
I swallowed and wiped my mouth with a paper napkin. “This one wasn’t easy,” I began, and that much was true.
FIRST CHAPTERS AND EXCERPTS:
The Rita Farmer Mysteries
The Lillian Byrd Crime Series