Even in the highest, hottest days of summer, when the tourists were in bloom and ripe for the plucking everywhere you looked, even on the rare occasions when she deigned to spend several days in a row at the beach, her books and notepads in tow, Alex still looked like a city girl. For one thing, there was the matter of her body. Only a city girl, the locals always said, could be so tall, so skinny and so totally . . . unhealthy looking. And there was her skin, always deathly pale. Her jet black hair made it even more striking. Not only didn't she tan, she didn't even have the decency to burn and blister. She just stayed pale and translucent.
Vinnie spent too much time with Alex to think very much about how she looked, but he was aware of it again when they spent Monday evening at the BatCave with starling.
Now, starling was somewhat more attractive, by Vinnie's standards, than Alex was. She was blonde, a little shorter and fuller than the emaciated Alex (though still nothing to get too excited about), and her skin was a little closer to the preferred shade of bronze. Just a little closer. But she still didn't fit in, and he couldn't quite figure out why this was so obvious. There was nothing physical he could point to, but it was palpable and he felt very conspicuous at a table with these two strange women. He shrugged, drained his mug and went to the bar for a refill.
"I don't get it," starling said quietly. "What's the big deal with this guy? He doesn't seem like anything special."
Alex shrugged and smiled.
"You two an item?"
Alex shook her head. "Don't worry about it. It'll come clear–"
She was interrupted by Vinnie's return. He sat down and looked around. "Pretty good crowd. I didn't see Lenore. She said she'd come by later."
"Of course she'll be here," Alex said half-humorously. "Where else is there to go?"
Vinnie didn't pay much attention to that. He was used to how Alex talked. "You meet Alex's dad yet?" he asked starling. She shook her head. "He's quite a guy. Today he tells me this story–"
"Let's get out of here," Alex said suddenly, finishing her beer. Before they could respond, a dark-haired woman came up to them with an evil smile on her face.
"Mind if I join you?" she asked Vinnie, pointedly ignoring Alex and starling. "I want to meet your new friend." She sat down, reversing the empty chair and straddling the chair back.
"What are you doing here, Lauren?" Alex asked wearily. "What trouble are you trying to cause?"
Lauren brayed a laugh. "That's good. Sweet little me cause any trouble? Why don't you introduce me to your new friend, and I'll forget your usual bad manners."
starling held out her hand. "I'm starling. I've heard a lot about you."
Lauren shook her hand. "Don't believe everything you hear from the drop-out twins here. So, where did you pop in from? And how long are you staying? And where are you living?"
"I'm from out of town. I'm gonna stay as long as I like. And I'm living with Alexandra."
Lauren raised one eyebrow. "Oho. I must say this is a surprise, Alex. I never suspected . . ." She smiled. "Well, maybe once or twice. No wonder your marriage didn't last." Vinnie's hands tensed on the table-top. "I guess that's what comes from starting out with the barbarian–"
Vinnie started to stand up, but Alex said, "Vin, don't. It's not worth it."
Lauren stood up. "Keep him on a tight leash, dear. He needs to learn some manners before he's ready for civilized–" As she moved away from the table, starling's leg swung out, tripping her up. She went down, drink flying, and Vinnie emptied his beer over her head. Ian, two tables away, applauded, which was taken up by others around the room. Two of Lauren's friends came and took her out. Everybody settled down again. The crowd at the BatCave was used to occasional outbreaks of senseless violence.
starling reached across the table and shook Vinnie's hand. Alex beamed.
Ian came over and sat down. "You should introduce me. Anybody who'd do that to her is okay with me."
starling stuck out her hand. "starling. I'm from out of town."
"Well, you're learning fast. May I buy you ladies a drink?"
They nodded and he got up and went across the crowded room to the bar. starling asked, "Who's that?"
"His name's Ian," Alex said. "He's the captain of a charter boat that takes people out on fishing trips and like that."
"And he's your boyfriend. Does Vinnie mind?"
Alex laughed. "You'll have to ask Vinnie about that." Vinnie smiled. "And, no, Ian's not my boyfriend. No one is, or will be. Ian and I slept together night before last. Everything else is still under negotiation."
starling was about to ask another question, but Ian came back, drinks in hand, and she decided not to.
"So, what did Lauren say that got you people so riled up?"
"It's not worth repeating," Alex said quickly. "That woman just likes to start trouble."
Alex suddenly realized something, and kicked herself for not thinking of it sooner. Ian was assuming that he was going to sleep with her that night. That was obvious. Under most circumstances she might have resented anybody making that kind of assumption. But she did feel like getting laid.
The only problem was that starling was obviously assuming that she could sleep at Alex's apartment that night. Also not an unreasonable assumption, but Alex couldn't have Ian in her bed and starling on her couch at the same time. Not in her little one-room apartment
She glanced at starling.
"It's okay. I don't want to mess up your love life. I'll find somewhere else to stay tonight."
Alex felt the small hairs at the nape of her neck stand up and her scalp tighten. Without knowing quite what she was doing she replied silently, "Okay, thanks. But when will I–"
"I'll come by in the morning. Sleep well."
Ian and Alex got up, said good night and left. starling shrugged and looked at Vinnie. "Well, it looks like you're going to need a place to stay tonight," he said. "I can probably–"
starling shook her head. "Thanks for the offer. Let's just see how it goes, okay?" He nodded. "So, what do you folks do for thrills around here?"
He laughed. "This is about it. Don't wear it out all in one night."
"Oh, well. Want to go for a walk? You can show me the town."
It was pretty cold out, but the snow had stopped and Vinnie shrugged. Why not? They finished their drinks and got their coats on.
Outside, the air was cold and still, the snow on the ground still almost completely unbroken by footsteps. "Which way?" starling asked.
"Well, that way is the pier, and the center of town beyond that. The other way is the beaches, and eventually the highway."
"Some choice. Let's go down and look at the boats."
"Not much to see in the boat department," Vinnie said as they set out. "Most of them have been pulled up for the winter, or they're all covered with tarps. Pretty unexciting to look at."
She shrugged, her hands jammed deep in the pockets of her army jacket. "I'm not really here in town for the sights, you know."
He wondered if she was inviting him to ask why she was there. He thought not, any question about that would probably get him an evasive answer and not much else.
They were silent for a few minutes, trudging through the snow. They walked in the center of the road except when a car drove by.
"So, who's this starling?" Ian asked as he started his car. "She looks familiar to me."
"I'm not really sure," Alex said evasively. She didn't want to tell anybody what she'd been thinking, or what Kevin had told her.
"Wait a minute, I've got it," Ian said suddenly as he pulled out on the road to town. "Remember that woman who ran the big protest about the nuclear power plant a couple of years ago?"
"Stella Case? Sure. She's pretty hard to forget. I met her when she had an office here in town and Ruth was doing volunteer work for her."
"Well, she chartered my boat to look at the shore line to plan the big boat blockade. And then again after it was all over, to look at the half-built power plant that never would be finished. She wanted to take pictures of it. Her daughter came with her both times. I didn't pay much attention to her, the mother was much more interesting to me, but that's her. starling is Trina Case. I wonder how she ended up back here, and how she got to seem so different."
Alex wondered if she should speak, and decided there was no reason not to. "Kevin told me she's Rockwell Jordan's daughter. He says he met her at one of those big balls up at the country club a couple of years ago."
Ian shook his head, pulling into the alley next to the General Store. He turned off the motor. "No, she's Trina Case. Besides, I've met Samantha Jordan. She's much better looking."
Alex was tempted to jump to the defense of her new friend, but Lauren's joke came back to her, and she didn't want Ian to get the wrong idea.
There were no cars parked at the pier, no signs of activity on any of the boats. Vinnie and starling walked to the railing and looked down at the water. It reflected the stars and the half-moon above.
"So, Mr. Vinnie," starling said, "what do you do?"
He shrugged. "Work, mainly. For Alex's dad, in the store. I do what I can for my family, but I don't hang out at the house too much. I go out drinking sometimes, when I can afford it. If I had a car I'd get around more, but cars cost way too much to keep going. Gas alone costs a lot of money. It's hard around here without wheels, though. We always have to ask the neighbors if they'll take my kid brother and sister to the beach with them."
"You don't go to the beach?"
He made a face. "That's for kids, or tourists. I don't care about that shit." He looked at her. "I bet people who live in New York don't spend all their time at the Statue of Liberty either."
"Well, you're right about that."
"I go swimming down here sometimes, that beach over there. People mostly don't swim there, it's kind of rocky, so I like it." His voice grew softer. "Dawn is the best time, you know. The best."
"I think I'd like that. Too bad it's a little cold right now."
They were silent for a minute, watching the empty boats bob against the dock, then starling pulled out a pack of cigarettes and lit one. "Alex is important to you, isn't she?"
"Yeah, she's a good friend. Why?"
"Don't worry. That's all. Just don't worry about me."
A car horn honked across the big empty parking lot. They turned and the headlights swung towards them as the car turned in their direction, speeding up. starling stiffened. Her hand shot into her coat and came out with a pistol.
Vinnie, who had recognized the car, grabbed her wrist and yelled something, but starling knocked him on the ground and his senses reeled.
He regained them to see Lenore standing over him, an amused grin on her face and a clear plastic glass of red wine in her hand. She reached down and helped him up.
"You try to get fresh?" she asked. "She took care of you pretty smoothly, my boy." They got into her car as Vinnie tried to remember exactly what had happened. He looked around.
"Where did she go?"
Lenore shook her head. "I surely don't know. Vanished over the railing into the water as far as I could tell, but when I looked down there wasn't any sign of her." Her voice got more serious. "Did she really pull a gun? Did I really see that?"
Vinnie nodded. "You sure did. She's kind of weird."
"Where did you get her?"
"Alex had other plans for tonight." She pulled out a pack of cigarettes, shook one out and stuck it in the corner of her mouth. Vinnie pulled out his lighter. "She seems to be a stranger in these parts, and doesn't have any other friends."
"Trust Alex to find somebody like that, and then to dump her off on someone else. So, sport, where to?"
He shrugged. "Where were you going?"
"To the BatCave to look for you, if you must know. There, you forced it out of me."
Vinnie chuckled. "God, I must be pretty tough. Didn't know I had it in me. Well, I've had enough of the BatCave for one night."
She laughed. "Me, too, and I never even got there."
She started turning the car around. Vinnie laughed suddenly.
"Wait'll you hear what happened to Lauren tonight . . ."
Vinnie made a face, looking out the window, the moonlight in his eyes.
"What's bugging you, sport?" Lenore asked gently, her mouth inches from his ear.
"That's kind of hard to explain." He hesitated, feeling foolish, given how warm Lenore's flannel sheets were, how comfortable her arm was across his bare stomach. Then he sighed.
"I just have this feeling there's unfinished business."
He laughed quietly, squeezing her. "For once, no. Am I that bad about her?" He swung his legs over the edge of the bed, the cold air in the room making the hairs on his legs stand up. She reached a hand out and pulled his head down to hers. She kissed him softly, the familiar taste of stale cigarettes.
"No, I'm just busting your chops," she said. "She's your friend, and I don't know how she'd cope without you. I just hope she never has to find out."
Vinnie closed Lenore's door gently behind him and walked down the stairs. None of her roommates seemed to be up.
Outside, he sighed, thinking that it was a long walk back to the center of town, and if he'd only ignored his uneasy feeling and slept until morning Lenore would have given him a ride.
He found starling sitting on his doorstep. She looked a bit sheepish. "I couldn't locate any other accommodations. I hope this isn't too much of an inconvenience. I guess you had other plans."
Vinnie said, "Unfortunately, she's used to it."
"Alex keeps you hopping, I'm sure. Anyway, can you put me up?"
He nodded. "C'mon around here. I live over the garage."
starling had a lot of trouble sleeping that night. She was on the sofa in Vinnie's small room. From his army cot, only a few feet away, he could hear an almost endless series of sighs, moans and cries. From time to time he could hear her grinding her teeth. He couldn't sleep, but couldn't bring himself to be irritated with her. She was obviously in the grip of forces that were way beyond her control.
At first he'd wondered what Alex saw in this strange woman. She seemed like a stray for Alex to worry about and figure out, with enough of a touch of danger to make it interesting. But, as time passed, he began to get the idea. There was something about her that demanded attention. For one thing, much to his surprise, she was for real. He had no idea who she really was, who she had been before falling into their lives, but the way she seemed was no act.
Vinnie just couldn't figure out what it was, though. He couldn't pin it down, and neither could Alex, he knew. He had a feeling that starling had been just as glad to leave Alex's apartment for his cramped room. Being watched twenty-four hours a day can be wearing, even if you think you want an audience for your act.
He was starting to wonder again who starling really was when every thought was driven out of his head by a horrible scream from the sofa.
It seemed to go on forever, but Vinnie had a pillow over her mouth before anyone in the house was awakened. Before he could even realize exactly what had happened, her hands shot up and around his throat, squeezing with incredible force.
He fought back with everything he had, but it was like fighting a machine. As he was about to pass out, her eyes opened all the way (the pillow had fallen away) and her grip loosened immediately. He fell backwards onto his cot, clutching his throat, his face full of amazement that he was still alive and breathing. She got up and he instinctively shied away from her, almost capsizing the cot.
She sat quietly back down on the sofa, trying to look non-threatening. Vinnie managed to get back up into a sitting position and they sat that way for a minute, his wheezing breath the only noise in the room. Finally, he took a deep breath and held out his hand. Tears running down her cheeks, she looked at it, then quickly took it in both of her own.
"I'm pretty scared, Vin," she said quietly. "Right now mostly scared of myself, of what I may do. But I'm also scared of what I'm seeing in my dreams. Vinnie, I'd better get out of here. Either I'll kill you, or someone else, or somebody will get hurt when they come after me."
"Can you tell me about it?" he asked.
She shook her head. "Not yet. I don't see it very clearly yet. And I'm not going to involve you anyway." She stood up slowly. "I've got to get out of here."
Alex stood at her window, looking down on Main Street. Ian had gone home, declining to stay over. Her apartment was rather cold, but she didn't turn up the heat. She liked the way the chill made her feel. She reached over to her desk and picked up a small flask, which contained bourbon. She cradled it against her sweater for a few moments, then opened it and drank. Then she started to write.
When Vinnie was unlocking the door of the store before dawn the next morning, a police car pulled up and two officers got out. There were only six police officers in town and Vinnie knew all of them pretty well. One of the two who walked up stony-faced was Billy Fraser, who had dated one of Vinnie's sisters for a while. The other was Vinnie's cousin, Davey.
"You just getting here?" Billy asked.
"I do go home from time to time. What's up?"
"Alexandra home?" he asked, eyes straying up to the second floor window.
"I have no idea. Why don't you go up and see if you can detect if she's there or not?"
They were not paying any attention to his wise cracks, but their attitude was getting on his nerves.
"You seen her husband Rick recently?"
"He left town when they split up. Everybody knows that."
"If he did, he's back," Billy said, acting like he was doing Vinnie a huge favor by telling him. "Old Mr. Snow, from the hardware store, he opened his back door this morning to get something from his tool shed. And there's Rick, shot through the heart. And you know where the hardware store is."
They left to walk up the outside stairs to Alex's apartment.
Main Street was a bit above sea level, running parallel to Commercial Street, which ran along the shore-line. Behind the General Store the ground sloped off sharply, and if you went down that steep incline you ended up at the back of Snow's Hardware Store.
Alex stood at her window, looking down on Main Street. Her apartment was rather cold, but she didn't turn up the heat. She liked the way the chill made her feel. She reached over to her desk and picked up a small flask, which contained bourbon. She cradled it against her sweater for a moment, then opened it and drank. She sat down and picked up her pen.
This has been a tough letter to begin, a tough letter to write, a tough letter to know... to really know what to say. Oh, I had all sorts of ideas. I had it all figured out. I was going to be this way, I was going to be that way. I was going to be tough, I was going to be really tough. And I am, I am going to be tough. As far as this, anyway: You aren't going to get any money out of me. You definitely won't get much of anything out of me. That's why I have trouble giving you the advice I was going to give you. Without giving you all the . . . without everything that went into it, all the caring and the thought. It's really hard to try to explain how I got to figure out what I've got to figure out about you. I really don't know. I tried to write this letter night before last. I guess I didn't really mean to do it or I wouldn't have tried to do it like that. No serious letters on any subject were ever written in the Batcave, that's for sure. But it came out, the letter came out as I was writing it very holy, very maternal, and that wasn't the tone I was aiming for. As I read it over yesterday, the little bit I got to finish (and there's a story in that, too, there's definitely a story in why I didn't finish that version of this letter), but as I read it over it really didn't do it. It wasn't worthy of you, I guess, or it wasn't worthy of me. It wasn't worth much, frankly. So, I don't know, don't know if I can explain what I was thinking about. I don't know–
There was a knock at the door.
After the police had left, Alex took a long drink of whiskey. Then she went downstairs and into the store.
Vinnie had already made her a cup of tea and she picked up the mug as she sat on her usual stool. They were silent for a few minutes.
"Have you seen starling?" she asked.
He shrugged. "She stayed over my place last night, but she left even before I did. I thought she was coming to see you. She didn't get here?"
She shook her head. Then she asked, "Did Davey tell you about it? What do they think happened?"
"Oh, he didn't say anything to me. You know what a prick he is when it's `police business.' Like being a cop is so fucking great."
Alex sipped her tea for a few minutes, obviously lost in thought. Then she put her mug down and left abruptly. This was rude, even for her, but Vinnie just shrugged.
Alex, for all her deliberateness in leaving, had no idea where she was going. She walked around the town for a while, keeping her mind as empty as possible. She finally ended up at the town beach, beside the dock, and she sat on a rock, oblivious to the cold early morning drizzle that fell on her.
It occurred to her that this was probably the last time she would ever sit on this rock, feeling this damp air and smelling this salt spray.
She looked out across the water, thinking about starling. She thought so hard she felt her head might burst.
"I didn't know he was your husband. I didn't have any idea who he was. He was just snooping around, so I thought he was after me."
Alex turned to face her, breathing deeply. "I thought that was it," she said. "But it was me he was after, not you, and the police found a note in his pocket. My father has it now, or he will have it soon." She looked out across the water. "If Rick was planning to betray me that way, if he was going to let my father in on that secret, then I'm not sorry he's dead."
"What do the police think?" starling asked.
"I was the person who knew him best in the area, who'd been seen having fights with him all over town before we broke up. I'm the one who started divorce proceedings against him. And he was found behind my house. I'm suspect one-and-only."
"What are you going to do?"
"I've got to get out of town. Not because of this, but because of what my father will do when he gets that note. He's forgiven a certain amount of bohemian behavior, as he sees it, but there's one thing that he will never forgive.
"What about Vinnie?" starling asked quietly.
starling pulled her gun from its holster and fired at the opposite side of the river. The sound echoed away through the hills before Vinnie said anything. "What the hell was that?" he demanded. He sounded tired.
"I might have known."
She shrugged and leaned back against a tree trunk, tilting her cowboy hat forward over her eyes. The sun glinted on the ends of her black hair as it fell around her shoulders.
Lenore sat on the edge of her bed, looking out the window. She'd been sitting there for a long time, unlighted cigarette dangling between her fingers, open bottle of Scotch forgotten on the floor beside her. She thought about the events of the evening before. Looking out her window, she wondered how long it would be until dawn. She couldn't tell if the light on the horizon was real or if it was just in her imagination, but she knew it would have to come eventually.