THE SUMMER SOLDIER
From where he was standing on the driveway, he couldn’t see much evidence of fire. Of course the roof and front wall of the house had been pretty thoroughly hosed down and one pane of glass in the dining room window inexplicably broken, but the kitchen, which occupied a rear corner, had sustained all the real damage.
They had even hosed down the garage door, which you would have thought well out of reach of the flames. He swept a hand over its beaded surface to leave a glistening smear. His palm, he noticed, came away covered with a milky film.
Louise had never really liked that color.
“Well, look, if you think it’s that bad I can take it back. I’ll just tell the guy it doesn’t look anything like what he showed me on the sample card.”
Twisting around from his crouch by the lower left hand panel, careful to hold the paintbrush so it wouldn’t run out onto where the cement wasn’t covered with sheets of newspaper, he had caught sight of her standing on the sidewalk, just at the edge of what, God willing, would sprout into their front lawn. She had peered through the blinding early afternoon sun, shading her eyes with one hand as she rested the other, tucked under at the wrist, on her hip.
It was a characteristic attitude.
“No, forget it. I can live with it. And you’d have to repaint the whole door.” He remembered how the hand shading her eyes had dropped suddenly, falling loose and despairing at her side. “Oh, Ray. What the hell.”
Someone from behind had taken hold of him, just at the base of the triceps, and, without thinking, Guinness snapped his arm forward to free himself. It was nothing more than a reflex, the kind he had once honed carefully but had thought long buried and forgotten, so when he stepped back it wasn’t to drive his elbow into anybody’s larynx. He even smiled, feeling slightly embarrassed at the expression of surprise on the face of the man behind him. The guy was only doing his job.
“Mr. Guinness,” the man said again, recovering himself almost at once. He was the earnest looking young detective with the tightly curling, sand colored hair—a nice kid, about twenty-six or so and working very hard on his professional dignity. “Mr. Guinness, I’m afraid we won’t be able to let you into the house. Can I take you anywhere? Some friends, perhaps?”
Ray Guinness didn’t answer immediately. Instead he glanced down at the driveway, touching an eyebrow with the tips of his first two fingers, as if to make sure it was still there. He must have looked puzzled.
“For the night, Mr. Guinness. You’ll have to have somewhere you can go for the next several days. Our laboratory people will have to keep the house sealed for some time. Until they’ve had a chance to sift through everything. There will have to be an arson investigation as well. We’ll bring you out any clothes or personal effects you need, but I’m afraid we won’t be able to allow you inside. I’m sorry.”
The young man seemed almost to be pleading with him to understand, as if he expected torrents of abuse.
But Guinness understood. Yes, it would be dark in another hour and he would have to begin thinking about a place to sleep. A hotel. He couldn’t think of anyone who was a good enough friend that he could ask them to put him up, not under the circumstances. At least not anyone he wanted the cops knowing about. No, it would have to be a hotel.
The place was crawling with police. It looked like every plainclothesman in the Bay Area was on his planter box of a front lawn. They stood around in little knots, talking quietly among themselves like guests at a party that hasn’t yet quite gotten itself off the ground.
“When can I see my wife?”
Curly didn’t much like that. He too glanced down at the cement, his face hardening with worry.
Everyone was being very cute about Louise; no one would tell him where she was or precisely what had happened to her. Except that she was dead.
The police had brought Guinness home. They had come and fetched him from his office, where he had been patiently working his way through a seven inch stack of sophomore term papers. Just as he had finished the first reading of one comparing Troilus and Sir Gawain as courtly lovers, there came a light tapping on the glass upper panel of his door. The door had opened before he had had a chance to respond.
“Mr. Guinness?” It was Curly, standing with only half of his body across the sill. “Mr. Guinness, would you come with me please,” he said softly, holding out his gold badge. ‘‘I’m afraid there has been an accident.”
He wasn’t told that his wife had been killed until after they had gotten him there. But he had guessed. Curly—was his name Peterson? He thought so, yes it sounded right—Detective Peterson had been very reluctant to say much. He gave the impression of having been ordered to keep things dark, or maybe he just didn’t fancy his charge getting hysterical on him at forty miles an hour. Anyway, he was acting the way people do when someone is suddenly dead.
They had parked most of a block down from the house, and as he got out of the car Guinness had caught sight of a man in white coveralls stepping into the rear of a police van and closing the double doors behind him. For just a second the inside of the van had been visible, and there was what looked like a litter on the floor and on the litter was something covered with a black plastic tarp.
Had that been Louise?
So when he had finally been told, it hadn’t been much of a surprise. But death had stopped being much of a surprise a long time ago.
A Sergeant Creon had been the one to break the news, if you could call it that: “There was a body found in the house. Female, Caucasian, a hundred and ten to a hundred and twenty pounds. About five foot four, with dark brown hair worn to the shoulder. Wearing a printed cotton house dress, dark tan with pictures of fruit on it. We assume it to have been Mrs. Guinness. That sound about right?”
“We assume it to have been Mrs.Guinness.” Guinness swallowed hard and nodded. He had been married to the woman for five years, and now she was just a series of identifying characteristics.
“Sorry,” Creon responded nervelessly, not even bothering to look up from the little pocket book in which he was making notations. A few seconds later he closed it and sauntered off without another word. Guinness watched him go, measuring his back for an appropriate sized bullet hole.
Not a gent you warmed up to right away.
Could that really have been Louise? Five feet four in a tan dress. Yes, that was her. It had to be her. Still, it was hardly possible to think of her as a corpse.
Sadly, it would no doubt become easier. It always happened that way.
“They might be able to let you see her tomorrow,” Peterson answered finally, apparently having made up his mind that it would be safe to risk that much. Creon must have been a real peach of a guy to work for. “They will have finished the preliminary examination by then, and there will have to be a formal identification. I should think by tomorrow, but you had better check with the sergeant.”
The hell with the sergeant. He would be seeing Louise soon enough in any case. What there was to see.
When had been the last time—breakfast? No, lunch. He had come home for lunch. He always came home for lunch on Thursdays, and it was a Thursday. Somehow it seemed important and strangely difficult to keep such things straight.
Yes, he had come home for lunch. On Thursdays he had two hours between his morning and afternoon classes, and so there was time to come home.
Louise had been wearing that dress. She called it her French dress because all the little printed apples and onions were labeled underneath and the labels were in French. She always wore that dress whenever she planned to do a lot of dusting. He hadn’t the faintest idea why.
So they had had lunch together, or at least she had served him his lunch. She didn’t eat lunch very often, saying it was hard on her waistline, but she had sat at the table in the little breakfast nook off the kitchen and had kept him company while he ate. That had been—when?
Not quite seven hours ago. He had had a ham and cheese sandwich and a glass of iced tea.
Had they talked? Not precisely, no. She had talked and he had eaten, putting in a yes or a no as the situation seemed to demand. She had been after him to do something, but for the life of him he couldn’t remember what it had been. Would it be important later that he should remember? What had she been talking about?
Yes, of course; it had been something about the venting for the clothes washer in the basement. It was backing up, and she had thought perhaps one of the hoses was clogged and wanted him to check when he got home from work. He couldn’t do it right then because he would have had to change out of his slacks and jacket and there hadn’t been time.
No, he couldn’t imagine that it would be important to remember that.
They had sat there like that for maybe half an hour. Him eating a ham and cheese sandwich, thinking with one half of his mind about how that afternoon and evening and the next and the whole fucking weekend were hostages to his sophomore term papers, and with the other half helping her worry that perhaps it might be something major with the washing machine, something he wouldn’t be able to fix with a pair of pliers and a screwdriver and a straightened clothes hanger. He would have liked to have stayed and seen if he couldn’t have taken care of it right then and there, just so she wouldn’t have to spend the whole afternoon tormenting herself over it.
And now she was so much cold meat in some locker in a police morgue.
A light blue Chevy sedan, identical except in color to the half dozen or so police cars parked along the street in both directions, pulled into the curb in front of the driveway and stopped. On the driver’s side the front door opened and a man with black hair pared down to a crew cut got out and slammed the door shut behind him. He wasn’t very tall, so it wasn’t until he came around to the trunk of his car and bent over to open it with a key that his slate gray suit appeared to be a couple of sizes too large for him.
Out of the trunk came a small black satchel, and the man with the crew cut and the baggy suit carried it into the house, amiably waggling his free hand at Creon as he passed. The good sergeant wasn’t wasting any time in getting his sifters out on the job; probably by morning they would have collected enough fingerprint cards and samples of carpet fluff to keep them all out of mischief for a month.
Accident hell. Louise hadn’t had any accident. Nobody dies in a stupid little kitchen fire, not in a kitchen from which there are two exits and which isn’t much bigger to begin with than a good sized bathroom.
Something was going on here that nobody was telling him about, and he didn’t like it. Louise hadn’t simply set fire to the place and died. Louise didn’t have accidents, she wasn’t the untidy type.
She even kept a small fire extinguisher, shaped like a can of whipping cream, in a drawer on the left hand side of the sink. No, Louise wasn’t the type to have accidents.
Guinness took a handkerchief out of his trousers pocket and used it to wipe his hand of the cream colored paint dust from the garage door. When he had done the house, shortly after he and Louise had moved in, they had told him at the hardware store he would be smart to use an oil based paint; the powdery film it left on the surface when it dried was supposed to keep it from blistering. What it really did was come off on your clothes every time you ventured near it.
He did not like the idea of the police poking around in his house. All of this business was an exercise in futility; they would never find out who had murdered Louise. Settling that score would have to be his own private concern.
Murder. It had been murder all right; of that, suspicion had hardened into certainty. The working axiom of Guinness’s adult life had been that nobody dies until he’s murdered.
No, the police would only muddy things up. And, besides, there were things in the house it wouldn’t do for them to chance across—the evidence of older crimes than this one.
Of course they never would, would never think to rip up the carpeting in his study and find where he had cut through the width of three slats in the hardwood flooring. Why should they?
The slats could be lifted away to uncover a metal tray he had had to go under the house to screw into position between two of the floor supports—his little hiding place. They would never find it. In five years Louise had never found it, had never even suspected that it was there to find.
But it was there, under the floor in his office. A locked steel box containing a little over eight thousand dollars in fifties and hundreds, a wad of bills wrapped tight in multiple thicknesses of Saran Wrap to keep out the dampness. If it worked for Bermuda onions, why not for money?
It wasn’t the money that mattered, though. It was the notes. His working notes, carefully preserved from all the little jobs he had done for MI-6, all the little problems he had taken care of for them so that all the frightened little undersecretaries in the Foreign Office could sleep at night. Among his notes, and his memories, Guinness would find his answer, but it wouldn’t be an answer that would be of any service to the police.
The stupid cops, what the hell were they doing here anyway? Why couldn’t they all just buzz off, like good little tykes, and leave questions of retribution to the grownups?
Well, that wasn’t likely to happen.
Across the lawn, with the broad tan back of his suit jacket turned to Guinness, Sergeant Creon stood on the walkway to the front door, smoking a cigarette. His nibs looked perfectly at home. Finally, with proprietary calm, he took the cigarette from his mouth, dropped it on the cement, and ground it out with his heel. Guinness watched him through narrowed eyes, and the hand that held his handkerchief slowly tightened into a fist. Just where did the son of a bitch think he got off? Police investigation or no, the name on the mailbox was still Guinness. It was still his house, his and Louise’s. It made him feel naked to think of some clown like this boorish constable pawing over the contents of his dresser drawers and constructing elaborate theories about Louise’s sexual behavior. The law would pick its sordid way through their private life, subjecting his wife to a personal indignity only a very little less degrading than murder itself, and then come up with nothing.
Well, not nothing. They would develop a theory; she had startled an intruder perhaps, or been killed by a faceless lover. (Did Louise have any lovers? It didn’t seem likely; but that might just be his own vanity and, anyway, it was no one’s business.)
They might even nail some poor innocent schmuck, but what of it? These kinds of murders simply didn’t happen in Guinness’s set—after all, he had been in the business himself.
“Mr. Guinness, is there anywhere you would like me to drive you? We’ll take your statement in the morning; there’s nothing you can do here now. You must want to rest. I’m sure this all must have been a terrible shock for you. Is there anywhere at all you’d like to be taken?”
Guinness looked up from the driveway in astonishment, having forgotten that the younger man was standing so close beside him. He smiled as his fist unclenched and he refolded his handkerchief and put it back in his pocket.
Curly seemed to be a nice kid, but he was working awfully hard to get him the hell out of there. It made you wonder why.
The hell with Curly. Curly could wait.
When this thing was over, he would have the kitchen put back together—hell, it was insured—and then he would sell the place. Get a couple of rooms somewhere near the school and sell the place.
He had bought the house a week before their wedding. Paid cash for it, twenty-eight thousand. Louise had asked him where he had gotten the money; after all, twenty-eight grand was a lot for an assistant professor of English to have just tucked away in an old sock.
“I’ve been rolling a lot of drunks lately.”
And she had laughed and not asked again. It was one of the things he liked about her, that she knew when not to ask again.
So that was where the money had gone, most of it. An inauspicious beginning for the House of Guinness, to be paid for with the money the British had paid him for services rendered. There was even some left, under the floorboards in his office.
As if it were something in which he had not the remotest personal interest, he wondered how much the place would bring today.
They had done a lot with it in five years. A whole new inside just two years ago, with wallpaper in the dining room and new carpeting everywhere on the ground floor. He was still paying for it—that much, at least, had come from legitimate sources.
And Louise’s kitchen was almost new. That had been their first priority, to get rid of all that antique junk the place had come with and to put in all new appliances. A side by side refrigerator and a self cleaning oven, even a fancy blender with the motor built right into the counter top. Louise had loved that kitchen with a passion that might have moved another man to jealousy.
He wondered how it happened that it was there they had found her body. It would have to have been Louise, but why just in the kitchen?
Yes, of course. The fire. He was being stupid. The fire was supposed to cover everything. A stupid business.
Did he have any stupid enemies? No, at least not ones who would have thought to murder his wife. All of those were dead.
But it had to be an enemy of his—who would want to murder Louise? It was all aimed at him somehow, and Louise had merely gotten into the line of fire.
What was the matter with him? It used to be he could smell trouble, could feel it coming the way some people can feel bad weather. This had caught him totally off his guard.
Aware that he was in danger of losing control, Guinness took a deep breath, sucking air into his lungs until they ached and then letting it out as slowly as he could. He repeated the process, three, and then four times, until his perceptions narrowed down to the patterns of the water drops on the garage door and the noise of the blood pounding in his ears. It made him feel faintly ill, faintly giddy, the way one did sometimes after coming up out of a chair too fast; but that was better than breaking into angry, hysterical weeping in front of a lawn full of homicide detectives. To hell with them too, his emotions were his own business.
The sun had dipped low enough to turn the sky a grimy orangeish color above the ragged edging made by the darkened buildings of his neighborhood. With a kind of visual pop the street lamps came on, creating long smears of shadow that ran across the lawn from the feet of the few huddled detectives who remained, like slicks of blackened water.
“I think I want to get out of here.”
Peterson was only too eager. He sprang the rear door of his unmarked police car, waving Guinness into the back seat. Settling in, Guinness noticed with distaste that he was behind a cagework grating bolted into place over the driver’s backrest. The back doors didn’t even open from the inside.
The car pulled out, and he glanced back through the rear window to watch his house recede and darken as they left it behind.