Thursday, February 14, 2013

At Least Once Under Par by Michael Reilly



Everyone told him to use the five iron, but he knew his game and lifted the seven from his bag. He was right. Now he was on the 18th green, with a thirty-five-foot putt for the money. The crowd hushed and then the ball, grass-stained and dusty from being in the game since the first tee, rolled up the sloping green toward the cup. Jack’s caddy lifted the flag and Jack thought: “It’s not going to go in. I hit it too hard.” But he was wrong. The ball plopped neatly into the cup. Jack had fifty grand he didn’t have this morning.

“Just another game,” said Jack as he plucked his ball up.

“What’s just another game?” said Raines, his new partner.

“Nothing,” said Jack. “Nothing’s just another game. Daydreaming.”

He looked out the squad room window at the downpour. The rain came down so hard you could hear it in the men’s room, where there was no window. No thunder, just a relentless beating, dropping from clouds bloated with rain, black with the soot of the city’s chimneys. Dark water flushed the gutter, pooled in the alleyways. Below the window where Jack looked out, umbrellas bobbed along the sidewalks like black corpuscles.

No sign of drought, and the golf course would be flooded with new water traps: He would have to find something else to do with the weekend.

Raines pushed his desk chair on its wheels over to the coffee pot. “Slow crime day. Normally it seems the rainy days are worst. Coffee?”

“I’m trying to quit,” Jack said, taking a cigarette out of its pack and preparing to light it first chance he got. “Besides, it’s almost check-out time.” He put on his raincoat and left the squad room. The streets streamed with wet overcoats and grim-looking faces: people feeling the dampness in their bones and bowels without a thought of how the rain affects the spirit.

This had been Jack’s third day in plainclothes. Homicide. New precinct, new duty. The department’s sending him here had the appearance of a promotion, but how many promotions come after you prove you can no longer handle the streets? Jack had to get into homicide; he could not get out of the uniform fast enough. At least in homicide, the bodies are already dead when you get there. You need never know the victims as anything but dead. And, since you never looked into their living eyes, you did not worry about their souls.

In the uniform, in those dark clothes, Jack sometimes felt he had graduated the seminary rather than left it. He felt ordained, as if he had indeed taken Holy Orders. It must have been the clothes – he took the streets, filled with souls, too seriously. Not just a place to protect, but a place to save. It had to have been the clothes. Plainclothes were better. You cannot save a corpse.

Jack stepped into the storefront Chinese restaurant on the first floor of his apartment building, bought an order of spare ribs for his dinner and walked the three flights up to his apartment. There, as he did most nights, he gnawed the ribs clean, wiped his fingers on a napkin, and retired early. The next morning, his cell phone woke him.

“Hello!” he snapped, popping the phone open, sleep and hair in his eyes. “Hello!” he said.

“You ready to go to work?” It was his partner. “Lady’s got a body in her basement.”

“Is it still raining?”

“Yes it is,” said Raines. “No golf for you – ever again.”

“Yeah. Just as well. My putting’s off,” Jack said and hung up.

The woman who had phoned in the report was in her late thirties and she answered the door wearing black jersey pants and a white v-neck undershirt without a bra beneath it. Her hair was cut bluntly at the neck. Her thin face and hands and her bare feet were the pink color of coral sand. She smoked a brown cigarette.

“Are you Sara Linden?” Raines asked.

“Are you the police?” she said, waving away her own smoke.

“You phoned in a body?”

“I found him when I went downstairs to do my laundry,” she said.

“Let’s see it,” Raines said.

She stepped out and closed her apartment door and led the homicide detectives to a fire door at the end of the hall. “I’ll go down first and turn on the light. There’s no switch, just a string.” She pulled open the basement door and disappeared into the stairwell. The smell that came up from the basement as Jack and Raines waited was like the rain. Then the light appeared, and they went down. The woman’s feet had left their trail in the dust on the staircase. “Over here.”

Her voice came from the opposite side of the building’s massive oil burner. The detectives found her standing against the tar-coated wall, hands behind her back.
The body was actually a skeleton and the rib cage, like the hull braces of a wrecked ship, lay at her feet. The skull, large, clearly that of a big man, had its nose to the cement floor, and lying about like lost tinker toys were vertebrae and other bones.

“Did you find ’em like this?” Raines said.

“Uh, yeah. Just like this. I didn’t touch them.”

“Have you ever looked behind the burner before?”

“Why would I do that?”

“You don’t know, then, if these have been here long?”

“I don’t know anything about them. I just found them. He could’ve died here and been rotting for years, for all I know.”

“Have you ever smelled anything?”

“What? No!”

“Probably they were dumped here. The bones, I mean.” Raines turned to Jack. “I’ll go and call.” He went up the stairs, heading for the car.

“Does the super live on the premises?” Jack asked Sara.

“No. It’s a management company.”

“Do you have the phone number? We have to close off the basement till we get forensics.”

“I’ve got it upstairs. Come on up.”

Jack followed her up the basement stairs, noticing, as he walked behind her, how black the soles of her bare feet were from the oily dirt on the basement floor. He walked beside her down the hall, glancing at her a couple of times. She held her arms folded tightly across her white undershirt and said nothing. At the end of the hall, she unfolded her arms only long enough to open her door and Jack followed her inside. Sara’s apartment appeared to be an art gallery, flooded with light from a glass brick wall and filled with sculpture.  The flood of light was gray from the rain and most of the sculpted pieces were abstract twists, frames, questionable junk. One piece was not: When Sara had pushed open the door, a life-sized statue of a woman, nude, seated on a bluestone base, carved out of quartz, attracted him. Jack considered his appreciation of the nude to be infantile, not that of the sophisticate, yet he cultivated it and he wanted to view the sculpture a step or two closer, although he was embarrassed to do so with Sara beside him.

When she left the room and went up the spiral staircase to the second floor to get the super’s phone number, Jack touched the sculpture’s belly. It was not plainly Sara from a distance, as its glistening white surface, face included, was polished smooth, without detail, like ice, but as he pressed his palm against her side, placed his fingers in her hand, became acquainted with the character of the pose, the statue became clearly Sara. Jack dropped his hand along the inside of the thigh, to the arched, pointing foot.

“My husband did it,” Sara said, suddenly beside him.

Jack pulled his hand back. “It’s very good.”

“It’s the last thing Mike did before he died.”

“Your husband is dead? I’m sorry,” Jack said uncomfortably.

“It was six years ago. But thank you. He was lost in a shipwreck, you know.”

“No. How could I know?”

“Right.” She chuckled. “How could you. It was stupid, his death, but what death isn't? Still--a death at sea has mystery, doesn’t it? He could have been killed in an auto accident, in a plane crash, or he could have fallen from one of his scaffolds. Mundane deaths threaten us all, don’t they. But whenever people ask me about Mike, I can say the sea swallowed him.”

Sara in the flesh was as compelling as she was in stone. Aware of the proximity of her shoulder to his and the sweet scent of a soap she bathed in or a fragrance she applied every day, Jack told himself he was admiring the way the statue had captured the breath of the model. As Sara continued to talk, her histrionic speech made him uncomfortable: Who talked like this?

“Of course no remains were found, no flotsam from the wreck. I could, if I so desire, decide the boat is still out there, meandering some Odyssean course, with Mike aboard trying to get home.”

Then Raines pushed the apartment door open and said, “Everyone’s on their way.”

John Doe

When Jack got home that evening, he discovered, when he reached to turn on the light and remained in the dark, that the storm had knocked out the electricity. He used the little light from his cell phone to make his way to the kitchen where a flashlight lay in a drawer. Aiming the beam at the clock, he saw by the stopped time that the power had gone only moments ago, as he had been walking up the stairs.

Had he bothered to flip the light switch in the entry way, or had he paused on the first landing to peer out that window--or had he not been preoccupied with the fact that Sara Linden’s skeleton had been discovered to be missing one rib--he would have witnessed the outage.

Now he stood waiting. Perhaps the power would return at once. But it did not.

Beside the flashlight, the sole light in the apartment came from the glow-in-the-dark crucifix his uncle, the priest, had given him when Jack had entered the seminary. Jack looked out the window at the blacked-out neighborhood. To a man living alone, experience is more penetrating than to a man in company: As realization came upon Jack he felt a tide of panic from deep within his belly, and the blackness, the intensity of which could have been lessened by another face in the flashlight beam, occupied him unbearably.  He still had his coat on and decided to go out to see how far the dead power lines reached. If he could find a spared neighborhood, at least he could get something to eat, maybe a cup of coffee, smoke a few cigarettes, in the light.

Driving through flooding streets, Jack encountered the West-End Bridge, its darkened girders taking him by surprise like some great beast, and he crossed the inky river into his old precinct. He was surprised to discover dim lights in the windows of a diner on his old beat, a place where he and his former partner used to break between double shifts.

Jack pulled the car to the curb and went inside where he found candles burning, little votives with foil to catch the wax, on the tables. The diner had a gas range and so it could be open for limited business, and Jack took off his wet raincoat and hung it to drip onto the rubber mat below the coat tree. Before he had selected a table, he thought he recognized Sara. However, she did not see him. Her head was down as she strained to see in the candlelight, and her hand scribbled in a notebook. Jack could have passed her up.
But he thought she might be interested in the missing rib.

He sat at her table. “Some storm, huh?” he said. And she did not look up, did not even start, simply replied as though he had sat there all along, as though she knew his voice blind: “Police work must be tough by candlelight.”

“It looks different,” he said.

“If you came by for food, they’re not serving much. You can get coffee. But don’t take that as an offer to buy. I have no money.”

“Then how about if I buy you a cup.”

“I’m not broke. I have money at home.” She spoke defensively. “If you came to my apartment, ever, I could give you the money.”

Jack walked over to the coffee maker, set up in serve-yourself fashion, poured two cups and took them to the table.

“Do you know who he is yet?” she asked, taking her coffee and continuing in her notebook, as if the lines of poetry she wrote were more important than Jack’s answer. He waited for her to look up but she did not. Her hair, with a few strands forming a wisp around her head, glowed as a halo in the light from the candle’s flame. The ashtray beside her notebook was piled high with half-smoked cigarettes, crushed into a mound of gray dust.

“You mean the victim? No. He’s still a John Doe.”

“Some guys remain John Doe all their lives, don’t they?”

Sara closed her notebook, placed the pen neatly on top of it--the way children must in Catholic school, to show the nuns they are through with their work, want more.

“You like police work, Detective. Dealing with dead John Does. We really should stick to the weather.” She opened her notebook suddenly, angrily, and scratched out a line, nearly ripping the page with the point of the pen.

“I’m distracting you,” he said.

“I’m distracting myself,” she sighed. “It’s the environment. Mike used to say you shouldn’t write in public places. He said you shouldn't be dressed when you write. No one can write clothed, he used to say.”
Jack wondered what reaction she wanted--a smile? a blush?--to the image of herself sitting in front of her notebook, naked, ink spotting her pink-coral skin.

“If this chapbook gets the right attention,” she said, “I can get a grant out of it and I won’t have to worry about bills anymore.”

“Must be some grant.”

“It’s just a grant. But it’ll get me publicity.”

Jack said, “Ah.”

“What is it?”

“Now you sound more like a mercenary than an artist.”

“How should an artist sound?”

“Like someone who really believes she can only write when she’s naked.”

Sara frowned. “Writing naked was something my husband only believed in when I was working and he wanted to distract me.” She paused and curled her lower lip pensively beneath her front tooth. “I’m practical. My mercenary attitude keeps me alive. And I still get to do what I was born to do. Maybe that’s more than you can say.”


“We all have a destiny, Detective.”

“Jack,” he insisted and pulled out a cigarette, which he did not light.

“You don’t seem that interested in destiny, Jack.”

“I'm not sure I buy it.”

“What made you become a cop?”

“Certainly not destiny. Failure more likely. I tried a few other things. They didn’t work out.”

Jack lit his cigarette, leaning forward, cupping his hand around the candle to suck a light off the bit of flame, and Sara lit a cigarette, the momentary flare of her match giving Jack a better look at her eyes.

“Police work isn’t your life-long dream, then?”

“I’ve given up dreaming about everything. Except coming out under par.”

“There must be better dreams than improving a golf game,” she said.

“I’m not good at it but it’s something I can salvage.”

Sara shifted in her seat and picked up her pen, absently, as though it were another cigarette but put it down again. “This is no chance meeting, is it, Jack?” She curled her lower lip beneath her tooth.

“I couldn’t have known you were here,” he said.

She chuckled. “You’re right. How could you?”

“I wish I were clever enough to anticipate people.” He sighed. “I’d be a better detective. But the fact is I was just looking for a place with light. Same as you.”

“There’s a hurricane lamp at my place,” Sara said. “Let’s go there.”

She picked up her notebook and the two of them put on their raincoats and stepped out the door where they stood for a moment beneath the awning. Then they got into his car. Sara wiped a clear circle out of the mist on the window as Jack drove.

At the third light, which, like all the traffic lights, was out, hanging dark over the intersection, a black box swinging in the wind and rain, Jack turned onto her street. He pulled the car over and turned off the motor and they ran. Inside the building, he aimed his cellphone screen at the doorknob so Sara could find the keyhole. He stood close beside her, noting her trembling fingers as she unlocked the door, as her sweet fragrance cloyed his nostrils.

In the apartment the hurricane lamp’s globe of light was just enough to contain them both. In that little area, there was little to notice so Jack noticed everything: the grain of the hardwood floor, noted; scratches on the cocktail table, noted; the residue ash around the rims of empty Coke cans; and Sara’s sighs. As she walked about, many hideous shadows--parodies of himself, of her, of them together in each other's unfulfilled arms--danced crazily, in a frenzy on the ceiling. Outside the light, her late husband’s sculptures lost all definition. The sculptures lurked, shapes that now and then caught and reflected a glimmer from the lamp, outlines suggesting a child’s every anxiety. Sara led Jack up the spiral staircase to her bed.

On Sara’s skin a warm red glow, like an artist’s brush, suggested curves, a woman's shape in the dark. Jack wondered how his own naked body must look to Sara. She turned her back to him; the vertical chain of vertebrae, the squares of her shoulder blades on either side, lifted out of the shadows there, painted by flame.

She sat for a moment on the bed, alone, as if trying it out. Suddenly she looked startled and said, “Oh. The money. I said I’d repay you if ever you came here.” She stood up and walked into her bathroom.
Jack sat on the bed and picked up a curved piece of driftwood, which Sara kept on her night table. He hefted it in his hands and Sara returned carrying a large ceramic bowl filled with pennies. The way she held the bowl with both arms made it look heavy and her shoulders leaned forward, pushing her breasts together.
Jack realized the driftwood was too heavy, too solid, too smooth.

“Now. Tell me,” Sara said. “How much did the coffee cost me--”

She and Jack realized together what he held in his hand: A man’s rib.

“Your husband never went to sea, did he, Sara?”

“I didn’t kill him,” she said flatly, not looking in Jack’s direction. She set the bowl on the floor and sat there, too. “You’re not saying anything,” she complained. “Shouldn’t you say something here? If you think I killed him, I tried to salvage him.”

Jack strained to see her. He was still on the bed, holding the rib--which, now that he knew what it was, felt sick and familiar in his palm. He could see Sara’s shadow, cast huge and broad by the hurricane lamp onto the wall, better than he could see Sara.

“He did it himself,” she explained. He did not want her explanation, any more than a priest, on the first golden Saturday of spring, when in another kind of life the fairways would be green and there would be bright-white golf balls to hit, wants to hear a confession. But there must have been something on his face, illuminated dimly by the lamp, that made her think her explanation would not determine whether or not they would spend tonight in the same bed--but what each of them would do when the rain stopped. “It was right after I’d finished modeling for my statue. I found him, and I just decided to bury him myself. I couldn’t bear the shame. So I took him to the ocean and then I came home and cleaned up the blood with white vinegar.  But you know what: He didn’t leave. His ghost was here on the bed, still here, all this time. Through over three hundred changes of bedclothes. Through a hundred mattress flips. So I went back and got his remains--Ha! Remains! What a piece of jargon! Undertaking is a great business. Calling it like it morbidly is: He’s dead, yet...”

She curled her lip under and appeared to bite very hard. “Anyhow, then I called the cops. Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do--to get rid of someone who refuses to leave?”


Rainwater from Jack’s coat drips onto the church floor. He is the first one here today, the first of what they called “penitents” in the old days--here before any priest, before any mournful old women dangling rosaries, examining their consciences on the beads of the Joyful Mysteries. He genuflects before the altar, which like the rest of the church has been refurbished. He steps into a pew, sits in his own silence, engulfed by the cavernous space of the renewed church, engulfed by the white noise of the rain, which is too relentless to be worth hearing. A priest, a young man, apparently younger than Jack when Jack had decided to leave the seminary, steps out of the sacristy and walks briskly, all business, toward the room that is decorated with brightly colored, joyful banners, and designated for the sacrament once called Penance, called now mere “Reconciliation.”

Jack’s hand, in his raincoat pocket, touches the missing rib. Now, standing in the church center aisle, Jack realizes he has driven up-state, returned to his home town in search of a mirror with which to discover that image, that “Jack” seen by others. Not a rational, mediated quest, it is the move of a solitary man who sought to leave behind a blacked-out city made impotent by storm. He has wound up in this church because he could not really feel he had come home until he passed through its doors.

At a time in his life that he, at the time, would not have described as innocent, but which was indeed, Jack had entered the seminary not as one with a calling to priesthood--rather as one testing a hypothesis. His uncle, the priest, by that time a monsignor, heard Jack’s calling although Jack did not. Jack contacted the bishop with none of the faith of a priest. He simply had no plans for himself and he could not explain to anyone why the lack of need for a plan--which he did feel--felt more right than any plan. So in he went. He expected to find himself surrounded by a slew of social misfits looking for others like themselves to redeem, a number of closet homosexuals, and a greater number of willfully ignorant Bible scholars sleeping in beds that would become their coffins.

He found instead a group of sincere young men, all of them certain of nothing but that God had selected them.

Apart, alone, not one of their number, Jack could only admire the symbol of those men. He wished his outward acts of piety were not mere imitation but genuine reflections of a faith. Yet Jack tasted not sacred blood but simply bad wine whenever he drank from the chalice. On the day he surrendered his candidacy for Holy Orders Jack stood in the seminary chapel, its ceiling lofting into vaulted shadow. The proscenium of the sanctuary opened before him like a great mouth, a crucifix hanging at the back of its throat. “In here, Jack, await the things men want on the outside. All the treasures--Art, Wealth, Power, Mystery--but one better: the security, the blanket, of blamelessness, assured innocence--always.”

Again Jack fingers the rib in his pocket. He cannot say why he has the rib. He has taken it from Sara not as evidence, but secretly, the next morning, like a kleptomaniac. Maybe, if the rain ever stops, he will have it carved into a handle for his three iron. Maybe Sara, its keeper, will come after him for it and he can show her all of this, bring her, along with the events of the last three days, into this place, and she may recognize why shame, and all the public censure associated with a husband’s suicide, cannot hold a candle to private guilt--which, filled with resistance and fear, cloys the human heart.

Jack long ago fled the seminary. Yet he admires still the men who stayed on, those with the ability to resist, or accept, the seduction of the blamelessness. In this refurbished church, with his hand firmly gripping the rib, Jack beholds the stone walls, which as a boy he leaned against awaiting a turn in the confessional: the walls are now painted a sunny yellow, and he wonders at what the current pastor has done to his childhood.
The church, lively, festive, resurrected, surrounds its insides as though it has by encyclical conquered guilt--as though humanity has rid itself of this worm in its heart, of this insidious beast within. The young priest walks down the aisle and sits in a room of celebration, awaiting his flock.

The flock enters the building, shaking off the rain. Jack clutches his rib (yes, he has begun to regard it as his own) as if it were his life. One by one the people go into the room and sit with the brightly colored banners, conversing with the young priest, looking their confessor in the eyes.

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