table with inlaid wood in a geometric design; an old-fashioned kaleidoscope stood upright beside a leather bound tome of great size. It lay open, its language foreign. She caught the musty scent of yellowed pages, but doubted somehow that it was the Bible.

Another corner held a sculpture of a female nude. Along with a lush hanging plant, it lent a sensual quality to what otherwise had the air of an archaeologist’s study, filled as it was with all manner of curious objets d’art she lacked the expertise to catalog.

And then all at once she understood.

It was in the analytical way he was studying her, like a shrink. She recognized the room as a stage with props, designed to trigger a response from the humble trespasser. In Robin Dresden’s codex, each piece probably possessed revelatory power. Yes, now she saw the shapes: the masculine elements, the feminine, the empty spaces, the claustrophobic ones; metamorphosing images like a room of Rorschach inkblots. She had, she saw, chosen the masculine chair.

She met his eyes. “This room says a lot about you.”

“And you.” An ironic half-smile. “Would you care for a drink, Amanda?”

“Yes, thanks. Some water would be nice.”

He turned to the bar. “I prefer scotch in mine; are you similarly inclined?”

“Oh. Er, no. Just ice.” She heard the clink of ice against crystal, and then he handed her a tumbler and sat behind the desk with his scotch.

“Now. To your story, Amanda. I’d be very interested to hear it. You see, I know the editor at Reflex quite well and he has no writer called Amanda Miller on his staff.”

“Oh. Well, I…” she hesitated. “Well, that’s right. I’m not a staff writer. I’m only freelance. I should have said so at the gallery.” She gave him her most ingenuous smile, ignoring the fact that her mouth felt like cotton. “The truth is I’d hoped to make an impression with this story.”

Robin sipped his scotch. “I see.”

But Amanda had the distinct feeling he wasn’t seeing what she wished him to see.

 She cleared her throat and opened the notebook she’d brought along, a prop to suit the room. After years of college, she at least knew how to take notes convincingly. “Well. To start, can you tell me a bit about the artist, Luke Farrell? He burst onto the scene very suddenly.”

“Didn’t he?” Amusement played on his lips, as if he knew she knew nothing of the “scene.” A shrug. “He’s thirty-three years old with an indifferent education. A few years at the University of Virginia, no degree. A great many aspirant art seminars in Seattle. Apparently a natural talent.”

“You sound doubtful.”

“I’m in very little doubt as to his talent.”

“Well, how did you become aware of it?” Awful. She sounded like a halfwit.

“I’m close to the family; he sought my opinion and it was favorable.”

“And he paints only his wife?”

An indecipherable expression. “That’s all he seems to paint well.”

This is getting nowhere fast. “It must have been a passionate relationship.”

“Do you think so?”

Amanda felt her cheeks grow hot. “I think it must have been, yes.”

“Do you think Monet had a passionate relationship with his water-lilies?” He turned in his chair, gazing out the window. “He studied them in different light; he was seeking to know them in all their guises.”

She said carefully, “Did she have many guises. Gisèle?”

“I think so, yes.” She heard the first note of sorrow in his voice. “She had more than most.”

“To die so young,” Amanda murmured. “She was only thirty, isn’t that right?”

Robin gave only a curt nod.

“Born in February?”

His gaze was unnervingly direct. “June.”

But birthdays, like names, could be changed.

“You are considerably more interested in the model than the artist.”

Amanda started. “But she’s more than that. From what little I’ve seen of the paintings...”

“How would you characterize them?”

She shifted in the leather seat. “Well, technically, they’re—”

“Not technically, Amanda. How do they make you feel?”

Who’s conducting the interview? “They made me uncomfortable.” A little like now.

“Why?”

“They’re, I don’t know, uncomfortable. Compelling. She is. The way she’s in pieces.” Amanda gave a small shudder. “I wouldn’t like anyone to study me so closely, so unkindly.”

“Unkindly?”

“The reviewer for Reflex found them erotic. Maybe that’s the male perspective. I found them critical and claustrophobic.” She swallowed. “I had the feeling Gisèle lived in a fishbowl.”

He held her eyes. “And yet it was a passionate relationship?”

“No. No, I guess not. A smothering one.”

“Of course, the two aren’t mutually exclusive.” Robin tipped his head. “Is that the reason she interests you?”

She didn’t know how to answer, and had begun to expect him to do it for her. Swallowing the last of her water, she straightened. “I don’t mean to be morbid, Doctor Dres… er… Robin, but I’d always intended Gisèle to be the focus of the article. I promise you I’ll deal with her death in a respectful way. But in order to give any depth to my story—”

Robin scratched his head, idly. “Come, Amanda, I know you’re no journalist, freelance or otherwise. Start at the start, build to the middle, come to the end.” He made a little conductor’s motion with his hands. “You have a rapt audience.”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“I instructed Rolf to send you over in an hour so I’d have time to research you…”

She flushed. She’d liked him better as a prop.

“Don’t look so mortified… I research everyone with whom I do an interview. It saves time. And so I’ve just finished your article in Psychology Today. ‘The Empathetic Effect?’ Fascinating. And a very impressive publication for a graduate student.” Robin rolled a pen back and forth across the blotter beneath his long fingers. “But I’m not entirely convinced of the results.”

She straightened, bristling. “Excuse me?”

“Oh, I’m not questioning the validity of your process, or your results, simply the outcome.”

“That’s no small thing...”

“Well, it’s simply that according to your research, subjects with a history of trauma were less affected by violent imagery. Scar tissue of the mind, you concluded. But the mind scars in one area only to increase awareness in another. It’s the thing of a moment to be horrified and quite another to be haunted.” She focused on the pen. Back and forth, back and forth. “Can empathy be measured in the same way as initial trauma? I think not. I’d be more interested in the after effects of your study. Take your two experimental groups: Group A: the fucked-up and Group B: the boring—”

“Those weren’t quite the technical terms.”

A shrug. “Well, my guess is that Group B, the happy well-adjusted subjects who displayed such great stress in the short window of your analysis, washed their hands of it immediately afterward. It’s called healthy in our society, but true empathy can only be born of experience. I’d be very interested in the dreams of the traumatized set. In their emotional states after such an experiment.” The pen went still; he gazed up at her. “How was your state of mind afterward?”

It went on leave. “Do you mean, am I fucked-up or boring...?”

“No, no.” He tipped his head. “I only wonder, have the nightmares stopped?”

She stared. He was manipulating her, she knew, a magician dazzling her with his tricks, but for a moment she held his gaze, and there was a strange kind of comfort in it. Too much. She dropped her eyes. “I’m sorry about the reporter bit,” she murmured, “I’m not a very good liar.”

“You mustn’t write yourself off so quickly.” Robin swept the beautiful lock of dark hair from his brow, and gave her a dry smile. “It was merely a bad lie.”

“Well, I don’t get much practice.”

“Personally, I prefer it when people lie to me. It’s far more revealing than the truth. A bit more water, Amanda? Or something stronger? You look as though you could use it.”

He really was quite unnerving. “No, I can’t— I mean, I don’t. Drink.”

“I see.” He replenished her water and said lightly, “Now, Amanda, shall we come to the reason for the psychologist’s sudden interest in art?”

And so it was that she told him. Everything. Amanda found it strangely freeing to confide in this eccentric stranger the pain of her sister’s disappearance, the mysterious letter from Devon, and her first glimpse of the Gisèle Paintings. He was thoughtful and fidgety; his pen flipping now, in rapid circles through his fingers. Yet he listened attentively, actively. When she’d finished, Amanda reached for her purse and extracted the photo she always kept with her. Robin took it, and the reality of what she was asking him struck her.

The photo was taken the fall before Karen disappeared; she was fourteen years old. It was a smiling face, not a happy one, and she wore the expression she’d often worn then: wistful, self-conscious. It adhered to all the noble traditions of stock school photography: the backdrop was a static impenetrable gray and the lights garish; there was a predictable tip to her head. But beneath the ’70s feathered haircut and gold diamond-patterned sweater there was Karen: the odd combination of lovely cagey eyes and shining lip gloss that accented a smile full of secrets.

“Well,” Amanda said, at last. “She does look like Gisèle, doesn’t she?”

You look like her.” His voice was clipped, but she was beginning to recognize this as emotion. He sighed. “It’s impossible to tell, Amanda. This is a child.”

“But you seemed to recognize her—”

“I like her, that’s all. Your Karen.” He handed the photo back to her, and plucked a cigarette from a drawer, not bothering to ask if Amanda wanted one, if she minded. She didn’t smoke, and she did mind. For a long time she hardly breathed, but when she did inhale, the sharp musky scent of exotic tobacco suited him, suited the room. And, strangely, it suited her too. He took a sip of scotch. Amanda envied him his vices, the comforting numbness they must provide. At last, “You don’t quite understand the position I’m in. I’ve known Tristan Mourault for nearly fourteen years.”

“Tristan Mourault?”

“Tristan Mourault is Gisèle’s father.” A hesitation. “And my dear friend.”

The meaning of the words settled upon her, and her heart began to sink. But her mind calculated. “But, fourteen years ago she would have been—”

“Elle was sixteen when I met her.”

“Then you must recognize her.”

Robin sighed. “I’ll grant you the resemblance is very great, but it’s hardly definitive. Change the hairstyle, clothing, context, and it could be nothing more than coincidence. Many people have similar features.” He took a long drag off his cigarette and released a whirling white wraith into the room. “But you’ve been refreshingly frank with me, so I’ll be frank with you.”

And in spite of herself, Amanda slid to the edge of her seat.

“When I met them in New York, Tristan claimed she’d only recently come to live with him.” Robin shifted, restlessly. “He was French, she was very American. He explained she was a ‘love child,’ quaintly enough, from his years at Princeton. But he’d married another woman there, and she’d had a child the same year. They had both died in a car accident. But it seemed one daughter too many, if you know what I mean. Gisèle looked nothing at all like him, and her accent was not New Jersey, but California.”

Amanda’s stomach began to churn. “Californians have accents?”

“You do.”

“But I’ve lived in Seattle for years.”

“Your accent is the place you were born. You can leave it, but you can never be rid of it.”

Amanda didn’t like to consider this; every part of her rejected it, a thing she knew meant it contained some truth. In her nightmares she was always back in San Francisco, stalking her past through alleyways and warehouses, disappearing up the steep stairs of the old Victorian.

“It wasn’t just the accent, of course, but the climate between them.” Robin went on. He took a drag off his cigarette, and shrugged. “To be honest, I took her for a runaway.”

The room began to hum. So she had been right about slipping into the sacristy.

Robin ran a restless hand through his hair, and rationalized. “It was New York. Runaways are like stray cats. If he wanted to take her in, who was I to stop him? Tristan’s a kind man, Amanda: cultured, wealthy. He gave her everything she wanted, and she was happy.” Robin stared at the smoke rising from the cigarette in his hand. “In later years he certainly acted the father. He gave her away at her wedding, for Christ’s sake. She was married a dozen years of the fifteen—”

Of the fifteen she’s been dead. It was habit to think it, and the reverse was inconceivable. That Karen had been alive all these years and never contacted her? That she’d lived here, mere miles away? There had been so much blood at the scene... So much blood. Could it all have been planned?

Her thoughts must have played across her face like a silent film, for Robin interceded gently, “Perhaps you ought to consider whether or not you want Gisèle to be Karen.”

Amanda stared. To say ‘no’ was to deny Karen fifteen more years of life and love and experience. And to say, yes? There could be no teary reunion. Only Gisèle, unlike Karen, had left her by choice. She focused on the ash of Robin’s cigarette; the burnt edge hovered dangerously near his long fingers, and said at last, “Would you recognize her handwriting?”

“I would, yes.” He stubbed out the cigarette between his forefinger and thumb, dropped it in the silver tray. His manner was brusque. “Do you have the letter with you?”

She hesitated. “No, I—I didn’t expect things to progress quite so fast.” I need time to think.

“You didn’t expect them to progress at all. You came to Devon to convince yourself Gisèle isn’t your sister. Of course, you did. But I have to see the letter before committing to the next step.”

She laughed, a foreign sound, mirthless. He really was something. “And what is that?” 

“Well, I imagine you’ll want to meet Tristan.”

Tristan Mourault. The years in between.

Amanda swallowed. “You’re acting as though you don’t need to see the letter.”

A twitch of his lips, but kindness in his eyes. Sympathy. “You’re still acting as if you don’t have it with you.”

Was she so easy to read? Sighing, she opened her notebook and with shaking fingers plucked the envelope from the back cover. She handed it to him. Please, don’t let it be her. The thought crossed her mind, unbidden. She closed her eyes, and heard Robin unfold it and fold it again, slip it back into the envelope. “Well,” he said, quietly. “Now things rest with you.”

“Then, it’s really—”

“Yes.”

She’d scarcely believed it possible. She still didn’t. Scar tissue till the end. She sat dumbly, and when she couldn’t speak, he did. Again she was struck by the kindness in his eyes, and the concern there for her, a stranger. Why should he be concerned for her?

“Tristan’s a reclusive man, Amanda, but he has many interests: wine, books, music. I could arrange a meeting, indirectly.”

“Why would you?”

Robin sighed, swiveling impatiently in his chair. “I suppose it’s that you remind me of her. And that you don’t. And that she has a daughter... my goddaughter, Nicola... a lovely, lonely little girl with no mother and no aunts.” He finished the last of his scotch, and frowned at the glass. “And because as happy as she ought to have been, Gisèle drowned because she’d swallowed enough sleeping pills to sink a battleship.”


 

XI— The Philosopher

 

                                                                                                                                             —Édouard Manet, 1865

 


                                               

 

It was the autumn of 1980 when the blackmail began.

An envelope arrived one innocuous morning: postmarked New York, it contained nothing but a photo of Gisèle and me standing on a street corner. A street corner in San Francisco. We were doing nothing compromising. It was just a street corner; she was smiling... we were not touching. And yet I flew around the room in the middle of the sunny day, absurdly closing shades. Gisèle came out of her room and gazed at me placidly. “What’s the matter, Tristan?”

“Nothing. Nothing at all.” The illusion, perforce, must be maintained. I fought to maintain it in my own mind. There were others in the photo surrounding us; it might have been shot by a tourist. The street sign was famous: Lombard Street. The crooked road. The one I’d chosen.

For the next three weeks we did not leave the house. I’m not sure what good I felt this would do, but I feigned illness and holed up in my bunker, living for the post to arrive each day. Henri ran all my errands; we ate take-out or Gisèle made a game of cooking for me. I kept my worries from her, though the phone call to her mother weighed heavily on my mind. Had Mrs. Miller confronted Mr. Miller with his depravity at once, or had she first phoned police? Had she confided in a friend, or even little Mandy, that Karen was alive? And had that someone tracked her here, to me?

My mind presented a series of similar non sequiturs, but the photograph itself was proof against them. For it had clearly not been taken here, but in San Francisco, long ago. Before we had gone. But who would have done such a thing, and waited so long to act?

After a month of no more photos, no demands for money, I began to wonder if I’d imagined it all. I allowed a blissful cloud of denial to surround me. Gisèle was growing restless.

It was the start of her restlessness. Her blue period had passed, and she chafed at her incubation. It was true, we were too much alone, and I had grown restless, too. My reticent blackmailer was in New York. If he wouldn’t come to me, perhaps I might go to him.

And so after a year of solitude and refused invitations, I reentered “society” – a group of artists I knew in the Village and SoHo. They were an idiosyncratic, amoral group, interested in the pursuit of their own pleasures and thus not critical of those who did likewise. Those I recognized had not missed me, yet they welcomed me back with open arms. Among the new faces, only one stands out in sharp relief.

In art circles he was called, “The Philosopher,” for he hadn’t read art at university, but philosophy, and I’d heard a good deal about him before we met. Robin Dresden had a reputation for being rather a dark horse; a genius, an elitist, a hedonist— even a hypnotist, or so I had heard. A ‘head-tripper.’

He exceeded all reports.

He was that rarity in the art world: an artist who lived up to his hype. All the rage in London, by the age of twenty-six he was just beginning to break into New York art circles. It was clear he had a strategy. He was exhibited at few galleries, yet they were the right galleries. He was showcased in the right art magazines. He was saved from his ambition by his talent, and from arrogance only by his wit. He seemed to like to cut it fine, but even my most cynical artist friends followed his rise and admired it. He had interesting things to say. I’ve kept many relics of those years, and I insert here a page of an old interview in ARTline:

 

Does it bother you that critics seek meaning in your work?  “No. I hope they find it.”

That’s rather glib. Not at all. The very idea of meaning is an artistic one, our attraction to art is the longing for meaning, for epiphany. To ‘seek’ meaning is the proper occupation for critics and spectators. Artists create epiphany. I try to give critics multiple epiphanies.

Ha! But what does that mean, exactly— to create epiphany? “Everyone but the artist is too specialized to move through the world and understand its secrets; the shaman’s sleeping and Sisyphus reigns. For the most part human beings are ants, but with less clarified purpose: performing our menial tasks and living for the weekend. Politics and religion try to soothe the chafing, offering up notions of the ‘betterment of society’ so they can collect their tax and tithe. The artist reminds you you’re alive. Art is why.”

Working for the betterment of society isn’t a noble aim in your view? “Well, society isn’t better for it, and mankind certainly isn’t. Society— like religion and politics— is an artificial construct. A healthy society consists of healthy individuals; the notion of ‘society’ smothers individuals. Man’s forgotten his own magic and even most art is no more than mindless distraction. True art reenacts the moment of creation.” But that seems a religious sentiment. “It’s a philosophical sentiment. If we know why we create, we know why we exist. That is where the riddle lies; all else exists only to distract one from it. Either you live within the riddle, or you are the distraction.”

 

And so I was intrigued when one evening he materialized at the party of a friend in SoHo. I had time to choose my distractions, why not with elitist riddles? But he was exactly the sort from whom I steered Gisèle wide. It was more than his looks; it was his certainty. At that first party I saw him mesmerize a girl to such a degree I wondered if she wasn’t hypnotized (I’d heard the rumors) or on a drug of some kind. If so, its effects were centered wholly on him.

She was the most beautiful woman in the room. I say ‘woman’ for she showed my Gisèle to be just a girl. Yet to me Gisèle was made more beloved by this woman’s voluptuousness, which had about it so blatant a fecundity, that insistent sexuality we men typically find impossible to resist. She reminded me of Sabina, and was, unsurprisingly, an artist’s model. I watched for sport as she took stock of the room and gravitated to Dresden in a practiced way that betrayed no outward sign of doing so. She was confident and very cool. They didn’t appear to have met before and engaged in what appeared to be casual conversation. He stared at her, she at him; it was a predictable game made interesting only in the brevity with which it was played. I only saw him touch her hand, not as a lover touches a hand, but as a sculptor does— and look at her; not as a lover does, but as an artist does, as if to memorize the minutest detail of what is before him. He murmured a few intent words and she went from flippant flirtation to the most ardent devotion. I saw it in her posture: her teasing inaccessibility turned to acute vulnerability in the space of a few minutes.

It was rather pitiful, though some men have that power over women, I suppose. It was said he shared a flat off Central Park West with two women: ménage à trois as lifestyle choice— a thing one imagined limited to Anais, Henry and June, and Penthouse forums. Epiphanies took many forms.

When I looked again, she’d gone. I saw her down the hall, glancing at him anxiously as she waited for the bathroom. He looked at me, as though aware I’d been watching. He tipped his head.

I went protectively back to Gisèle. She was with Henri, who was acting as chaperone, precisely to protect her from the Robin Dresdens of the world. I murmured to Gisèle that I thought we ought to leave. “But we just got here—” Her protest broke off suddenly, and I turned.

“Bonne nuit,” Robin addressed me formally “Monsieur Mourault,” which made me feel old. And introduced himself, extending his hand.

“Please, call me Tristan.” He smiled and with a slight inquiring arch of his brow, rather forced me to introduce Henri and Gisèle. “This is my friend and associate, Henri Dupré. And my daughter, Gisèle.”

“A great pleasure.” He greeted them in an easy elegant way that spoke of good European upbringing, and said with the slight twitch of lips that was his smile. “Are you all coming to the wake?”

“Pardon?”

“Tomorrow. The wake for Lennon.” Oh, Christ. John Lennon, whom some religious madman had shot just days prior. A tragedy, of course, but one I personally resented as it had swallowed up all of Gisèle’s attention. She’d been wearing black all week. She was wearing black now. So was Robin, though I doubted it to be for the same reason; I suspected he liked to play up to his reputation for being somewhat sinister.

He went on to give us the wake’s time and locale, giving oblique mention of his having known Lennon, slightly. Gisèle had been gazing at him quite obviously besotted (and trying to conceal it), but here she could take no more. “You knew him?” she echoed, awed. “You knew John Lennon?”

“Not well. He and Yoko came to a show I had on in London. He bought a few pieces; we had dinner sometime after that. Quite an extraordinary person.”

“In what way?” she asked. “I mean, apart from his music.”

Dresden tipped his head to study her. “He didn’t say anything unnecessary, Gisèle. In our entire conversation he never relied on the usual things to fill up space. You would have liked him.”

She nodded, rather infuriatingly starry-eyed. I placed my hand at the small of her back, and she cast a quick, almost apologetic glance at me. (Had you forgotten me, ma petite?) I winked at Henri and with a touch of her chin, said, “You should eat a little something, chérie.” And before she could say anything more, the priceless Henri was whisking her away.

Once they were out of earshot, Dresden said, “She’s about the same size as Lolita, is she not?” And to my horror, he began to quote, “‘Wanted, wanted: Dolores Haze; her dream-grey gaze never flinches... Ninety pounds is all she weighs, with a height of sixty inches.’” And again he smiled his unwholesome ghost of a smile. “Or is it sixty-two?”

Exactly sixty-two, as it happened. But she was still growing. I raised a pious brow. “I’ve never thought about it, to be sure.”

“Her height?”

“Her resemblance, or lack thereof, to Lolita.”

“Come now, Tristan.” He stroked his chin. “She’s clearly not your daughter. Is she a runaway?”

A chill ran down my spine; I must confess I had no words available to me.

“No half-observant person will swallow it,” Dresden was continuing amiably. “For one, she looks nothing at all like you, and for two: you’re French. Despite her name, she has all the mannerisms of an American of middle class, born and raised. And for three—”

 I interrupted. “She was raised here, of course. Her mother was an American.” I held his eyes.

“Yes,” he agreed equably. “That works better.” As if I’d been offering a suggestion, not a fact.

“From my days at Princeton, if you must know. An American,” I repeated feebly.

“I see.”

 Did he? I attempted to steer the conversation to easier terrain. “I should congratulate you on your recent exhibition, Robin. I’ve just read an interview in ARTline and another piece in Le Monde.”                   

“Thank you.” His smile lost its irony and was appealingly open. “I never read my interviews. I always sound like a prick.”

“Not at all,” I lied. “But I do find it hard to believe you’ve had no formal training in art.”

“Sprung whole from the head of Zeus.” He raised a brow and turned. Moira— that was the name of the voluptuous blonde— returned, having scavenged some scotch. He took a glass from her, opening her palm as he did so and running his fingers over the icy wetness. She giggled, and I turned gratefully to go.

“Tristan,” (I suppose I should insert that the conversation which followed was carried on entirely in French. To exclude the lovely Moira?) “You needn’t go. Please, let’s talk a little longer. You interest me.”

“I can’t imagine why,” I replied. It was a keen pleasure to speak French again.

“I find your present situation quite interesting,” but then instead of elaborating, as I feared, he went on, “As it happens, you’ve interested me for some time. Like every serious collector, I’ve heard of the Mourault Collection. The Impressionists are a favorite of mine.” A slight reverent pause, during which I nodded jerkily. “It’s rumored you have a van Gogh that has never been shown. Along with ‘Butterflies and Poppies.’ Painted two months before his suicide.” He paused. “The butterflies will go after the poppies, eh?”

As collectors will go after another’s collection. I tipped my head to deflect him.

“And his notes, I believe, on ‘The Potato-eaters’ and ‘Starry Night?’” He proceeded to catalogue the high points of the collection. “‘Déjeuner sur l’herbe,’ as well as Manet’s preliminary sketches of ‘Gare Saint-Lazare.’ One of the largest private collections of Morisot. And Degas. My, my. ‘The Rape?’ ‘The Collector?’” He glanced heavenward. “And a Renoir of which I’m particularly fond.”

“Oh?”

 “L’Ingénue?’” I smiled. I too, loved the piece. 

He gave a gesture to encompass the collection, too many others to mention. “It’s quite well-known.”

I hadn’t known how well known, it seemed. “Thank you, we are fortunate.”

“You are fabulously fortunate. How can you bear to leave them?” Robin seemed to expect an answer, but I could think of none. “We have mutual acquaintances as well,” he went on. “Eve Duvalier?” His eyes had the most discomfiting prismatic effect; one wished to look away, but somehow could not.

I squinted at him to diffuse it. “Duvalier, you say?”

“Yes. Your daughter, as you prefer to call her, reminds me of her. Eve knew your wife, Sabina. At least, the families were close. Perhaps you remember her? She would just have been a child then, playing at having tea while the women gossiped. She knew a good deal more about Sabina than she ought to have.”

My heart pounded. It would not do to discuss Sabina. And the paralytic thought: he may know of my impotency. In the end, Sabina had been rather indiscreet; she’d used it to justify her affairs. Something in his expression told me this was why he didn’t mind Gisèle. I felt as if I were inside a house of cards that was rapidly collapsing. I forced myself to speak. “I— er. Ah, yes. Eve. Do you mean the little dancer?”

“She is not so little anymore. She is the mother of my son.”

An odd way to say it. In French, ‘la mère de mon fils.’ Of course it’s more typical to say my wife, or my mistress. “I remember only an enchanting little girl with a long ponytail, who danced.” I’d danced with her while she stood on my shoes, many years before. She would, of course, be near to Dresden’s age now.

“It is very sad about Sabina. And your daughter, of course. A tragedy.” He tipped his head; his expression was shrewd. “She would have been about sixteen, wouldn’t she? Marie?” A measured pause. “Marie Gisèle, wasn’t it?”

I could think only: this is it; this must be him. I was face to face with my blackmailer. He knew Gisèle wasn’t my daughter; he knew my daughter had died. But why should Robin Dresden wish to blackmail me? And then, of course, I thought of the collection. At last I said, “I don’t like to speak of it.” But paranoia circled round and round me; its hum filled my ears. How had I been so ignorant as to believe no one would know? That no one would put two and two together?

“Have I said something wrong?” Knowing full well that he had, Dresden wore a quizzical expression that I would later come to recognize as irony, from the spark in his eyes.

You too will think me naïve, perhaps, to think no one would know of Sabina, or my daughter’s full name. But I’d led a very solitary life; my family had led a sequestered one. I was close to no one. “I feel I should explain, Robin,” I began brusquely, then faltered. The truth was out of the question, and lies could be checked. But the game— at least, with him— was up. I said quietly, “It’s not at all what you think.”

“That’s too bad. She’s lovely.”

The man was perverse. Even I had the decency to feel ashamed of myself. “The ethical implications; they don’t concern you?”

He gazed at me very directly. “Is there reason to be concerned?”

“Non, non. I assure you—”

He held my eyes. “You misunderstand, Tristan, I think. Moral judgments don’t interest met; I only mean to warn you. The world is small. Especially the art world. I’m not concerned with implications, but with facts. She appears very well taken care of, and rather taken by you—that’s the biggest giveaway— she’s far too interested in pleasing you to be a teenaged daughter.” He gave a shrug. “She is rather young, of course, but I don’t share the American need to prolong infancy. Better to be with you than on the street.”

He believed she was a runaway I’d rescued. Close enough. I conceded, “She had nowhere to go.”

“Do not trouble yourself, my friend. ‘Gisèle’ is lovely and one can tell, quite bright. There is more energy between the two of you than most of the people in this room put together. Relationships are unnecessary to detail. Let people guess. This will explain her uncertainty. You’ve dressed her nicely, but she acts like she’s trotting out of a dressing room when she walks into a room. I rather like it, but—”

“So do I.” And I stared at him meaningfully, before shifting my gaze to Moira, who stood beside him, utterly enraptured by this lengthy conversation (or his side of it, at any rate) carried out before her in a foreign tongue. All the while he held her hand with his free one, running his fingers over her wrist and down her palm, but otherwise paid her little attention. She was rapt. And I looked at Gisèle, who was talking charmingly to Henri, but looking uncertainly past him to me.

Yes, she had a few bad habits: when bored, she tended to fidget. When intrigued, as now, she liked to rest on her ankle, twisting it to an extreme angle that made one flinch to watch. She gagged on caviar, and would eat a very fine Camembert with Saltine crackers. She could only stomach Lafite-Rothschild when mixed with 7-Up. “I don’t want to change her,” I said.

“Ah.” Robin’s eyes flickered with a strange unhealthy light. “Don’t you, really?”

“No.”

“How extraordinary; that seems to me the benefit of her youth and inexperience.”

“Yes, well.” I cleared my throat. “I should go back to her; everyone here is strange to her.” And he, I had concluded, was the strangest. “I can trust you to—”

“Of course.” He flashed a disarming smile. “Forgive my intrusion. It’s inevitable that I should offend you, but I wouldn’t like to think I’ve done so quite yet.” A smile, without irony.

“Of course not. No. It’s been, well…revelatory. We’ll see each other again, I’m sure.” I sincerely hoped not. Turning away, I was plunged into a panic rather like the vertigo I’d suffered as a child. I felt dizzy; the walls compressed around me. Staring at me, Gisèle swallowed her protest. I took her hand and with Henri following, we pushed toward the door. Dresden did not glance in our direction, he leaned down to kiss Moira, and they were beset upon by a boisterous crowd. Somewhere a champagne cork popped. Nobody seemed to pay us any mind. But for the first time, I knew better.

 

I have always had that faculty of ignoring that which I don’t care to see, and yet in that inexplicable way one runs across a word repeatedly after hearing it the first time; I was doomed to run into Dresden. One had the irrational sense he did it on purpose. I spotted him in restaurants and bars, and once inside a questionable shop in SoHo, where Gisèle and I were merely sightseeing, of course. The place sold corsets and Victorian erotica and various ‘antique’ sex toys. He was with two lovely young women I took to be his flatmates; I quickly hurried out.

He was in the magazines; I would happen upon Gisèle reading them. There was an exhibition coming up at the MOMA, his first, and he was interviewed in Face regarding it. There had also been some controversy over a piece he’d been commissioned to do for a traditionalist art academy, called Clerestory, in Connecticut. They must have been misled by some of his more mainstream sculpture of the human form, for there was some outcry when what he sculpted was not the human form but an abstract piece in granite. Sexually graphic bas relief amid the message ‘Nothing is written in stone,” in several languages. Naturally all this earned Dresden was a backlash from the conservatives of the art world who would never have bought his work in the first place and increased his following among the remainder. A following that could no longer be classified as ‘cult.’ He had, as they say, made it.

And I could see that somehow under my nose, Gisèle had grown enamored with him. I was less threatened by this than I might otherwise have been, for I could see it was more awe than affection— as she might behave were she sitting across from John Lennon. It made her seem very young to me. And Robin, I learned, was splitting time between New York, Paris, and Prague of all places. But then, quite out of the blue, Gisèle said one evening, “Robin came to visit you today.”

She was in the kitchen and I sat on a stool at the bar, sipping a lovely Côtes-du-Rhone whose loveliness abruptly vanished. Came to visit “me?” The emotion I felt was quite dangerous. I searched her face for traces of her thoughts. Had he come in; had she wanted him to? Had they talked; what had they talked about? What the hell had happened to Henri? He must have been downstairs. Why had I taken to leaving her alone with Henri downstairs? Was her tone too casual?  “Did he?” I asked. “What about?”

“He never said.” She wrinkled up her nose adorably. “What do you think of him, Tristan? Personally, I think he’s a little odd.”

“Pourquoi?”

“He just doesn’t do things people ought to do. And he has a funny way of turning conversations around.”

“You talked to him for some time, then?”

“You see, it’s like that. We didn’t. Not really. We talked about nothing, really, and then suddenly he tells me I mustn’t be afraid of him.” She swallowed. “I mean, really.”

She always says ‘really’ when she’s nervous. Americans do.

“And were you?” I cleared my throat. “Afraid of him?”

“Not till he said that.”

“You don’t find him attractive?”

Her response was immediate and vague. “Hmm. Well, anyone would. He is very.” (As if ‘very’ were a noun of some kind) She focused on chopping her already chopped vegetables. “But he’s not my really type.” A glance up; a winning smile. “You’re my type.” Methinks she doth protest too much. And I noticed something in her then that I had never noticed before, something manipulative. She was growing up.

She turned back to the stove. Mondays she insisted on cooking for me: dreadfully complicated concoctions from “Bon Appétit” magazine that were mostly inedible but terribly chic, and involved using every conceivable kitchen gadget ever invented. “You’re not jealous, Tristan, are you?” She glanced at me sideways in that way women do when they’re telling you they wish you to be.

And so. “Non, non, ma petite.”

“Oh, good.” And then in an, ‘Oops, must of just slipped my mind’ tone, “I didn’t mention the weirdest part. He asked if I missed California. Said I had an accent—”

I nearly choked on my wine. And then I made her recite the whole conversation verbatim.

Gisèle was well aware of the relevance of the California comment. Apparently, she’d been debating whether or not to tell me. “It wasn’t that he meant to tell anyone; he was just letting me know he knew.”

Damn the man. Damn him. I told her then of our conversation at the party, knowing as I did so that his knowledge of ‘our situation’ was likely to encourage a feeling of camaraderie in her, rather than the other way around. It is pleasant to share a secret. If the secret hadn’t been her, and the sharer not him, it might have been pleasanter for me. But the heart of man is frail. I asked, “Did he… do you…” I stumbled over it dreadfully. “Did he do anything to make you uncomfortable?”

“You mean did he try to come on to me?”

 “Oui. That’s what I mean.”

“No.”

And perhaps it was true that he hadn’t said or done anything untoward; he simply was untoward. “Well, I don’t trust him. Where was Henri? I’ve told you about answering the door when I’m not here.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Gisèle?”

“Yes.”

“Promise me.”

“All right.”  So easy. All right. And then, “But I can’t hide here forever, Tristan.” But her tone said something quite different. It said: you can’t keep me a prisoner here forever. And it was quite a different tone from long ago, from the dreadful hotel in Centralia. It was not frightened, but matter-of-fact.

I held her eyes. “You know I’d kill him if he took you from me. I’d kill anyone who tried.”

She turned from the sizzling substance on the stove, her countenance as sweet as it had ever been, her eyes just as wide. But newly wise. “And me?”

“Et tu?” I echoed.

“What would you do to me, Tristan?”


 

XII— The Start of the Hunt
 

 

                                                                                                                                — Edgar Degas, 1863-65                                 


 

Nicola wasn’t sleeping, or she wouldn’t have heard the sound of shattering glass. It wasn’t loud, like a window breaking, but more like a trinket falling to the floor. She crept from bed and heard a soft cascade of footsteps diminishing in the hall. When she opened her door, it was empty.

She tiptoed to her mother’s room. Somehow she knew the noise had come from there and investigating in the middle of the night called for vigilance and discretion. She reached the door and inched it open as if she might find more than emptiness inside. But seeing nothing, she entered, closing the door behind her and switching on a lamp. She blinked in the light and gazed around her. Little had changed since that terrible morning. She’d half-hoped and half-feared it would be the same— the idea of finding the room utterly vacant was worse than anything she could imagine.  Nothing appeared to be broken or out of place. The scent of perfume was gone and so was its stain. The vanity mirror was open; the reflection of her own dark shape there made her jump.

She went to her mother’s writing desk, but everything seemed to be in order there, too. Her favorite pen, a book of poems, and a small sculpture Robin had done of the Muses. Idly, Nicola opened the top drawer and found it empty. Had someone emptied it? She couldn’t remember what used to be there. She tugged open the side drawer. There should be stationery there. She used to love writing on her mother’s stationery; it was a pale mottled ivory with a ragged tear along the bottom of each page instead of a straight edge. It was a relief to feel the pages beneath her fingers. There were tiny impressions on the top sheet from the last letter her mother had written. She wondered for the first time who her mother wrote to. Everyone she knew seemed a fixture at Falconer’s Point. Maybe she wrote to Grand-père when he was in Paris each August, to Robin in Europe or her father on his frequent trips to Seattle. Yet, with cell phones and e-mail letter-writing seemed a quaint affectation from another time. Nicola only wrote pretend letters and formal thank you’s to Great-aunt Eleanor.

She turned to her mother’s dresser. A lace runner ran across the top and in the center was a mirrored tray of perfumes. Their existence was another enigma, since Gisèle never wore any of them. They were just for looks, like the decorative bath towels you weren’t supposed to use. Nicola had often made a game of arranging them in different patterns, by shape and size. If one had toppled over it would make a shattering sound. But what would anyone be looking for there? The drawers held only clothes. To the left of the tray was a vase of flowers they’d dried last spring, and on the right, three framed photos.

The first was a snapshot of Nicola and her father at the lake, their faces dappled beneath canopy of trees. Her father looked much younger, she thought, though it was only taken last summer. The photo beside it had been taken before Nicola was even born. It was of her grandfather and Robin in New York, and there was no gray in Grand-père’s blond hair, and no crinkles around his eyes. She felt a pang too see him like that. Since her mother died, he’d lost weight and there was sorrow in his step; she often caught him with a glassy-eyed, nostalgic expression on his face, like some ghost of Christmas Past gazing fondly on a familial scene from long ago.

Robin was ten years younger than him, and though it was nearly fifteen years ago, he looked much the same as now. Very handsome. His hair was longer, but his smile was just as cocky. He looked as though he was teasing the person taking the picture. Had that been her mother?

Somehow Robin was the only one Nicola had been able to confide in about that night. He’d encouraged her to call him whenever she needed to talk: “That’s what godfathers are for,” and she trusted him. He was very smart about things, especially people, and never offended by anything she said. And so she’d told him what Grand-père had said about the lights, and the timers that were set to go off at three. But she’d seen her father go to the pool house at three-thirty. He’d have had to turn on the overhead lights, and he would have seen her mother in the pool. But why didn’t he tell anyone? And if her mother hadn’t died before three, why was she walking around in the dark?

Robin had understood at once. He’d told her she was right to come to him, and that he’d find out the truth in such a way that her father would never know she had told. Still, Nicola felt guilty. It sounded like an accusation, yet she knew her father wouldn’t hurt her mother. Would he?

Nicola forced the bad thoughts from her mind. She picked up the last frame gently.

Her mother was holding her, and she was just a baby. Gisèle was so young, just nineteen, and there was a mischievous glint in her eyes as though she was thinking of a secret. Her chin was lifted, and the smile on her lips was strange to Nicola: a little bit teasing, but exultant. Triumphant. Nicola was in a pretty pink dress, white lacy socks, and shiny patent leather shoes; her mouth was open and she was laughing. Her hair was very dark and curled behind her ear, just like her mother’s. She clutched a teddy bear tight with her tiny hands. It was like looking at a stranger. It was hard to imagine ever being so tiny.

She’d take it with her, Nicola decided, and put it on the dresser in her room. She still had the little bear she was holding in the photo. Maybe she’d put them together. And then she remembered the teddy bear from the day of the party: the battered one in Scottish tartans. She’d rescue him, too. Wandering to the closet, Nicola inhaled the familiar scent of cedar as she switched on the light.

Her mother’s clothes still lined the walls like colorful ghosts, hanging formless and empty. Her shoes were lined up in racks, and her sweaters neat bundles on the shelves. The little bear was missing, and his existence, like everything else, seemed suddenly in question. Tears swam in Nicola’s eyes. Surrounded by her mother’s things, it was impossible that she was gone. She’d wake up soon. People didn’t just go. Her thoughts were awash with Gisèle’s voice, the soft cool touch of her hands and the melody of her laugh. For a split second she was there and Nicola wasn’t alone.

A noise from the bedroom made her jump. She peeked out, but the bedroom door was still shut, the sliver of light beneath it unbroken. But the shadows had thickened and shivers ran down Nicola’s spine. Clutching her baby picture, she switched off the lamp and slipped quietly out.

Down the hall, she flopped onto her bed and twisted the stays on the back of the frame to see if her mother had written anything on the photo. But when Nicola lifted away the backing, a small loose snapshot tumbled facedown on her bedspread. It was old, with creases that had been carefully smoothed, and an inscription in an unfamiliar hand: Karen Louise and Amanda Nicole— Grandma and Grandpa Miller’s: 1976.  Turning it over, she met her mother’s face.

~~~

Amanda awoke with a sense of the surreal. Today she was to meet Tristan Mourault.

She’d hardly slept and a torrential downpour that morning discouraged pleasant distractions like window shopping. But late afternoon brought a break in the storm and Amanda put her pacing to some use, traversing the streets of Devon. The cobblestones glistened wet and reflected the glow of gas lanterns, already lit due to the darkness of the day. The boutiques and galleries lost none of their charm in the rain; smoke spiraled from chimneys and cottages clustered cozily together in the cold. She stopped at a café for a late lunch, watching the elegant passers-by in blustering scarves and overcoats, their multi-colored umbrellas reminding her of sails on the Sound.

She even ordered a glass of champagne with her Tian Provençal, though it was a bittersweet celebration: a conclusion to her troubles in Seattle, and the start of troubles here. Mercifully, she was not pregnant. Amanda never thought she’d greet cramps and bloating with such euphoria. That chapter had come to a welcome end, but what had she begun?

Her mind was exhausted from volleying back and forth; she believed, she didn’t believe; she didn’t know what to believe. Amanda looked forward to meeting Tristan Mourault just to reassure herself he was real. Already she was beginning to think she’d imagined Robin Dresden. Yet it was he who had arranged, through intermediaries, her membership into Tristan’s book club tonight.

As the six o’clock hour approached an odd calm settled over her, as if this were an adventure someone else was taking. She felt she should mourn “Gisèle,” yet Gisèle was a stranger to her, and she’d spent her life mourning Karen. For the moment she was incapable of feeling more than numb.

 

The book club met every other Sunday at Margaret Jennings’ house. This owed less to an expansive nature than an expansive home, of which she was clearly very proud. A tall Tudor-style, it was built on a grand scale and located south of the village, lakefront. Margaret’s deceased husband had been a generous patron of Devon College, she informed Amanda a few syllables past hello. Amanda was giving the impression of studying there, and Margaret’s present charitable contribution consisted of acquiescing to allow her into her book club.

Margaret’s mother, Lettie, had recently come to live with her, and was refreshingly unlike her daughter. With soft white hair and baby blue eyes, she countered Margaret’s frostiness and her lack of largesse, supplying gossipy asides and good wine for the meetings. Amanda liked her at once.

Next was Heidi, who owned a health food store in Devon called The Healthnut Hut, and was known for bringing inedible snacks when it was her turn. “Once she showed up a startling shade of orange from going on a diet of carrot juice for ten days,” Lettie murmured. “You can expect an invitation to a hemp rally, and you ought to go, dear. Great fun and lots of charming young men.”

Nick was a handsome thirty-something writer, who bartended at a club called Bootleggers in town. “I’m working on something post-post-modern now, very non-linear. The end is the beginning, you know?” Amanda didn’t, but she liked Nick. He was witty and affable, though perhaps this was due to the fact that he drank a good deal more than anyone else. “I believe he carries a flask,” declared Lettie, with a nod of endorsement for the practice. Real men, it seemed, drank secretly.

Nick’s wife, Sophie, looked as though she could have used a swig. A pretty blonde, so soft-spoken Amanda had to lean forward to hear her “hello.” This was prefaced with a worried frown and she offered nothing beyond, but clung to Nick like a shadow. Lettie quickly moved on, introducing Amanda to Karl Cooper, an ecologist or, “ex-lumberman who repented.”

And then, at last, there was Tristan Mourault.

He was the last to arrive and according to Lettie, had suffered greatly at the recent death of his daughter.Such a lovely thing she was. What a shame. You know, you remind me a bit of her, dear. I’m so glad you’ve joined us. It will do him good to be around you.”

Yet Amanda held back, to observe him before they were introduced. On the surface there was no cause for alarm. His was the picture next to “urbane” in the dictionary: slim and reasonably tall, with dark blond hair going salty gray at the temples, and pale blue eyes as cold and clear as diamonds. His face fell into natural lines, slight weathered grooves in skin that had the patina of perpetual tan. Robin had told her Tristan was French, and so she was prepared for the accent as he greeted Lettie and Karl. Still, she was struck by the mesmerizing cadence of his voice. His English managed to maintain the melodious vowel-consonant-vowel rhythm of French, and it was easy to stop listening to what he said in favor of how he said it. Yet there was something dichotomous in his air; it was both engaging and distancing at once. He wore his refinement like camouflage.

When Lettie introduced Amanda, Tristan’s warm smile faded. He failed to introduce himself, nor did he give Lettie an opportunity to do so, but moved smoothly past them to greet Nick, whom he called ‘Carraway,’ (In homage to Fitzgerald?). He gracefully sidestepped Margaret and Heidi’s tofu cakes, took a glass of red wine, and when they took their seats in the haphazard circle of sofas and wing-backed chairs, he settled exactly across the room from Amanda.

She looked up to find his eyes narrowed on hers, critically, and tried not to feel self-conscious. She was fairly sure she didn’t have tofu in her teeth. He was simply seeing Gisèle in her, as Lettie had. Amanda had anticipated it, but she hadn’t expected it to drive him away. What pretext could she possibly use to talk to him if he remained so evasive? She could hardly open a conversation with an accusation. She felt the prickle of his stare, yet didn’t let her eyes return to him until Margaret made her introduction formally to each member of the group. When they came to his chair, Amanda managed to smile as she would at a perfect stranger. “Hello, Tristan.”

He’d slipped on a pair of wire-rimmed glasses, and they served to deflect her. He was a figure from an elegant Mediterranean film, not quite real. “Bonjour, Amanda. Welcome.

This was the man who had walked her sister down the aisle?

“As our new member,” Margaret was saying, “it’s up to you to choose our next selection.”

“Oh?” Amanda glanced at her hostess in surprise. “I hadn’t really prepared—”

Margaret steamrolled over her smoothly, “Tonight we’re finishing up Tristan’s choice: Guy de Maupassant’s short stories. Prior to that, we read Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Faulkner. Our focus has been on the classics.” Margaret gave her a frosty smile. “Perhaps that will inform your choice.”

“Don’t make us all sound like a lot of pretentious twits, Maggie,” said Nick. He flashed a smile at Amanda that made Sophie bite her lip in apprehension. “I chose the Tao of Pooh last time.”

Amanda smiled, but her eyes traveled back to Tristan. The ice had thawed, it seemed; his expression was surprisingly warm, and he gave a sophisticated shrug. “You mustn’t let anything inform your choice, Amanda, you must simply choose. How else will we know you?”

How else, indeed. Tristan Mourault was nothing at all like her father, and Amanda found it hard to imagine him playing one, even in an elegant Mediterranean film. Had Karen called him ‘Daddy?’ Had he really sought a daughter in her? It was hard to imagine it now, let alone fifteen years ago, when he would have been much younger. And Karen had only been fifteen, barely fifteen, when she disappeared. Amanda swallowed hard. If the letter was a phony and the handwriting a coincidence, she was about to make an abject fool of herself.

In for a penny, in for a pound. “Well, in keeping with the classics, I’d like to choose one I missed.” Her eyes skipped like a firefly around the circle, and landed on his. “I’d like to read Lolita.”  

And Tristan smiled at her, a playful smile with a lift of the brows that didn’t translate to shock or surprise or an instructive flash of guilt— but to Amanda’s dismay, flirtation.

~~~

THE moment Luke had been anticipating and dreading had at last arrived.

“Mr. Dresden called while you were out, Mr. Farrell.” Henri spoke in a clipped voice. “To discuss the Gisèle Paintings.” He was good. No sign of disapproval in his expression, no emotion in his eyes. The only giveaway was the avoidance of first names, compounded by the use of the formal “Gisèle Paintings.” Rather than the member of the family he was, Henri sounded like a paragon of butlery; he might as well have tagged on a ‘Sir.’

Luke knew it was only his way of putting distance between himself and the sale and distribution of Gisèle. That’s how he would see it. And deep down, Luke agreed.

But he steeled himself and called.

They would begin with an intimate exhibit in just two weeks, Robin said, and invite select critics and press, escalating interest by offering only a few for sale at a time. It would be delicately handled, not a zoo. Afterward, they would move on to various showings in San Francisco, Seattle and New York, as well as boutique galleries in Carmel and Palm Springs. New York was the litmus; if they liked him there they could move on to London and Paris in time.

Each exhibit would carry a different theme and selection. A vivisection of Gisèle on display was the sordid way it had come to play in Luke’s mind, pieces of her body up for sale: First on the block today we have a lovely left thigh: I have three thousand, do I hear four; I have four, who will go more?

He didn’t share this image with Robin, who spoke in a remote, businesslike tone. He set up a meeting that Friday over lunch and quickly rang off, leaving Luke to his private horrors.

He knew there was an art to self-promotion— it wasn’t enough to fill up your dance card, you had to rumba with the right folks. It meant, as Rolf had said, that Luke would need to begin considering interviews. Conning his close family was one thing, but could he really con total strangers? The press from the Seattle preview would have dissipated long ago if not for Dresden’s backing and Gisèle’s death. These had received so much attention that at times Luke wondered whether the art world paid any attention to art at all.

Rumors were rife that Gisèle’s accident had been suicide, and collectors and critics alike were chomping at the bit to examine the crime scene, even if it were only on canvas.

Uneasily, he was reminded of the reporter who’d inquired after him at the gallery. He ought to ask Robin about it when they met up on Friday. He found his jacket and rummaged through the pockets. There it was, in Rolf’s concise hand:

Reporter/Reflex: Amanda Miller. The Dorrington— Room 301

He blinked, as if his eyes were playing tricks on him. Amanda Miller? And below this was the name of a local hotel: The Dorrington, as if to drive the point home: she was here.

Somehow, she had found him.

~~~

AMANDA paced. It was too early to sleep. Her hotel was Victorian and the room— the cheapest in Devon— was resultantly small, consisting of a large four-poster bed and very little else; the walls pressed in on her. Dainty lace curtains were flimsy armor against the darkness outside, and lowering the shades made the room claustrophobic. Should she go out? Where? And with whom?

A cherry wood credenza had been wedged into a tight corner, with an offering: a half bottle of cabernet and two wine glasses. Amanda didn’t really want anything to drink, (her paranoia had spawned weeks of sobriety, and Lettie’s wine had gone straight to her head), but she was nervy and welcomed the idea of well-being, however artificially induced. She popped the cork and poured a glass, and then a knock on the door startled her so that she nearly spilled it.

It couldn’t be the maid; the bed had already been turned down, and chocolates placed on her pillow. Amanda peered cagily through the peephole, and was met with a beautifully cut charcoal suit and a flash of beautiful charcoal eyes.

The sight of Robin Dresden made her palms irritatingly clammy. Amanda ran a hand through her hair, took a glance in the hall mirror and a sip of wine. Opened the door.

“Good evening, Amanda.” He swept past her; had she asked him in? “You’re looking well.”

“Thank you.” So are you.

His gaze flitted over the room more critically. It seemed even smaller suddenly, the bed significantly bigger. “More than I can say for your surroundings. This hotel’s in need of renovation.”

“I like it.”

He frowned. “You need a sitting room, at least. The inn down the lane is in much better condition. Fairly private, no wallpaper. I’ll see that you’re moved.”

“That’s not necessary.” I can’t afford it. “Please. This is fine.”

As if reading her mind, (a thing she ought to have grown accustomed to), Robin went on smoothly, “There’s no question of cost, Amanda. I realize Devon is pricey for a student. You are my guest.” She opened her mouth to protest, but he said firmly, “I insist.” And his expression dismissed the subject. He studied her in his almost invasive way. “So, I see you’re not pregnant after all.”

And for the second time, she nearly spilled her wine. “Excuse me?”

Idly, Robin turned, straightening a picture frame. “The other day you said you couldn’t drink before saying you wouldn’t.” A shrug. “You were either an alcoholic or an expectant mother. I chose the latter on instinct. Then there was the unconscious protective gesture to seal it: your hand…” He touched his own hand to his abdomen, stepped back to study the frame. “This is crap, isn’t it? Why do hotels hang such crap?”

“I might have been allergic,” she said dryly. He was too clever for his own good.

“I’m afraid not. Have you ever asked a person allergic to eggs if he or she would care for an omelet? The answer is always virulent, ‘Good god, man. I’m allergic to eggs— they make me turn blue, or foam at the mouth, or whatnot.’” He went to the window and lowered the shade. “Few people are as forthcoming with details as allergy-sufferers. Of course, hypochondriacs are good, too. You’ll never see a tight-lipped hypochondriac.”

“You came for something?”

His eyes held hers effortlessly. “I hope it was the desired outcome?”

The pregnancy. “It’s a swell outcome, Robin. A false alarm, if you must know.”

“An indicative one. Are you expected back soon, to Seattle?”

“I’m not expected anywhere. I’m not expecting anyone. Thank you for your interest.” Amanda tried to squelch her annoyance. She was grateful for his help. Yet where Robin Dresden was concerned, she felt it was safer to be irritated than grateful. Politely, “Now that we can be drinking buddies, would you care to join me?”

He smiled, charmingly. “Yes, of course; thank you. I’d suggest going out for a drink, but under the circumstances I think it’s wise not to be seen together.”

“Very cloak and dagger.” But then Tristan was his friend. She read this in his glance, and so rushed on meaninglessly, “The wine’s probably not up to what you’re used to.”

“Wine takes on the character of those who share it. It will be very good, I think.”

She turned to hide her flushed cheeks. What was it about him? Something about the way he said the simplest things gave them sexual undertones. Seeing him so soon after Tristan made her notice both the similarities and differences between them. Robin was a good deal younger, and yet more self-possessed. Beneath his polished veneer Tristan had struck her throughout the evening as vulnerable, even anxious. Lonely? It was hard to imagine Robin as any of these things. There was the roguish quality of his looks, his voice, and his gaze: impolite, almost, in their presumptiveness. And something in the nature of his presumptions that made her stomach do undignified little flips.

Amanda handed him his wine. “Cheers.”

À votre santé.

“I’ve always found it an oxymoron to drink to my health.” But they clinked glasses and Amanda found he was right; the wine was much improved.

“And how was your evening?”

Such polite interrogation tactics. Amanda swallowed. “It was fine.” I’m out of my element. “It was an interesting discussion.” I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.  “I chose our next book. The people are very nice; I especially liked Lettie.” He simply waited. “And Tristan… well, he’s different than I expected. I don’t know what I expected.” She scratched her head. “He chose tonight’s selection: Guy de Maupassant’s short stories? It seems I’ve always mispronounced ‘Guy.’”

“Amanda.”

“Yes?”

“It’s all right if you’re uncomfortable playing Nancy Drew.” Robin tipped his head to catch her eyes; he swirled the wine in his glass, absently. “I take it you weren’t able to speak with him.”

Amanda bit her lip. “Can I be honest with you, Robin?”

“Lying doesn’t appear to be your strong point.”

“Well, that’s just it.” She sunk onto the edge of the bed, and waved him to the sole chair in the room. He made himself at home, crossing his legs at the ankle and reclining, so that the chair looked almost comfortable. “I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t even know that I believe any of this. Tristan doesn’t look like the sort who would take in an underage runaway off the street. The accent, the clothes, even the way he discussed the stories tonight. He was intimate with the settings, throwing out allusions that went right over my head. That’s his experience, his life. Karen and I were born middle-class, if that, educated in public schools. I’ve never been out of the country. My god, Karen had never even been out of California. Surely Tristan’s known many, many women. Why would he do this thing? He’s the sort of person things come easily to. Like you.” She paused. “And I… well, I just don’t belong here.” And neither did Karen. At least, not the Karen I knew.

Robin’s dark eyes narrowed; there was a spark in them. Interest, not amusement. “And yet I’m here with you, and I think you belong perfectly. It may be precisely because things haven’t come easily to you. In any case, men are base creatures, Amanda. We don’t need much reason to be attracted to women of any age or circumstance.” He smiled his dry half-smile. “It could be that Karen made Tristan see things in a new way. And vice versa.”

“You don’t sound very disapproving.”

“Whatever the nature of their relationship, it was hardly non-consensual.”

She scoffed. “Do you think a fifteen-year-old girl can give consent?”

“Ah, but not all significant relationships are sexual, Amanda. Are they?”

He was only trying to rile her; she distrusted the spark in his eyes. “Do you really think that at the age of what— thirty-five? Do you really think Tristan was looking for a teenaged daughter?”

Robin ran a hand through his hair, sighed. “No, I don’t.”

“But then…”

He hesitated. “I happen to know Tristan is impotent, Amanda. He was when he met her.”

Her eyes widened. “Impotent?” she repeated, dumbly.

“Whatever their relationship, it wasn’t sexual in the traditional sense.” His eyes roved the room, restlessly. “You haven’t answered my question. Did you speak to him?”

Her mouth had dropped open; she clamped it shut, and shook her head, no. “I didn’t have to. He spoke to me.” She swallowed. “He asked me out. Dinner, tomorrow.”

To her surprise, Robin laughed. “Of course, he did.” The source of the spark in his eyes, she was beginning to see, was the arrow hitting the bulls eye. The expected outcome. In this case, it wasn’t a healthy sort of triumph, and the laughter didn’t translate to levity. It was as if he were playing a game, but deriving little pleasure from it.

“Why would he do that, Robin?”

“Because you look like her.”

“And you don’t find that a wee bit disturbing?”

“Of course, I do. That’s why it’s worth following through.”

“To what end? I don’t want to date him.” She broke off, annoyed. “And why do I feel like you know far more than you’re telling me? It’s as if you have some kind of agenda—”

“I have.”

She stared. “Well. Care to share?”

“Gisèle wrote to you, Amanda, after all these years. What happened between writing that letter and her death? That’s what I want to know.”

“What could have made her commit suicide, you mean?” Robin presumed her belief and she found that with him, she did believe: Karen was Gisèle and Gisèle, Karen. As impossible as it seemed. “Well, all right.” She sighed. “The truth is I just can’t imagine Karen doing it that way. I can’t imagine her choosing to drown.” She sipped her wine. “Not the Karen I knew. The phobia was real, Robin; I saw it firsthand. Why would she choose to die in the manner that terrified her most? Why not take an overdose of the pills, if that’s what she wanted to do?”

“Precisely. Moreover, contacting you was a psychological leap. Think of it, Amanda. After fifteen years, to take that step and then end it all? It is a puzzle.”

“I agree. But an accident seems equally unlikely, precisely because of the sleeping pills. She often took them, you said. So maybe she took more than the usual dose, but three times? Could someone else have drugged her? I think they would have to in order to get her into the water.”

“Bravo.” Robin clasped his hands together, and his eyes flickered with a dark light. “A strike for the public school system.”

She felt a rush of anger. “Well, you might have told me in the beginning that you suspected murder, Robin. For Christ’s sake, where are the police? What about an autopsy?”

“Naturally, they were called in; one was done. There were no defensive wounds and no sign of foul play. As I’ve said, they couldn’t even resolve to call it suicide. And I had to agree. Quite apart from her fear of water, I simply don’t believe she would have done it. She would never have left her daughter. The dose of sleeping pills was too high, but hardly lethal. She’d had a lot of champagne: impaired judgment, an accident.” He sighed. “You see my dilemma.”

Your dilemma? Are you out of your mind? You just told me the other day how kind Tristan was; now you’re telling me he murdered her?”

Robin rose from his chair, and calmly replenished their wine. “Don’t be silly, love; I don’t believe for a moment it was Tristan. I’ve known him for years, and he was devoted to Gisèle. Many others were in the house that night. In my opinion, Tristan is the least likely.”

Was friendship clouding his judgment? “He can’t have been thrilled about her writing me.”

“I don’t imagine he knew.”

“And you?”

“I didn’t know, either. Clearly—”

“That’s not what I mean. Were you in the house that night?”

Robin’s lips twitched in amusement. “Oh, I see. My alibi?”

“Well, yes.”

“Yes, I was in the house that night. With a date. I’m capable of many things, Amanda. I wouldn’t cross murder off the list. But the victim would have to go to great lengths to piss me off.”

“Charming. That doesn’t seem very exclusionary criteria.” 

“I have a high tolerance. Gisèle, I assure you, was incapable.”

“Glad to hear it.” She sighed. “Listen, Robin. I can go to the police with my letter. It’s already been to the detectives in San Francisco, but with your testimony as to the handwriting— or better yet, a sample of Gisèle’s writing to compare it to— I could have it analyzed by a professional and it may be enough to have the body exhumed.”

“And what would all of that prove?”

“That my sister is this woman you knew. That Karen is Gisèle.”

“And what would that prove?”

“I don’t understand you.”

“That does nothing to prove she was murdered, let alone who killed her, Amanda. All it does is help you to believe it.”

“That’s not such a small thing, Robin. I don’t know what to believe anymore.” Amanda’s head was pounding. She pressed her fingers hard against her temples.

“Believe this. Your sister wrote you and then she died.”

“But who else do you suspect, if not Tristan?”

“Her husband, Luke Farrell.”

Amanda frowned. “The artist? The man who painted her?”

Robin’s expression was shrewd. “He was entirely financially dependent on her; he was also having an affair. Not a terribly wise combination. Gisèle wanted out of the marriage. And there are other reasons, not all of which I’m able to share at the moment, that I’m partial to him as a suspect.”

“‘Not able to share?’ I feel like I’m totally in the dark here.”

“Can’t you see it’s better that you don’t know?” Robin leaned forward, and spoke steadily.  “This way, you don’t have to pretend with Tristan. Simply talk about your history and your sister. Eventually, you find a way to show him your photo of Karen. He will recognize her, of course—”

“And, what? Confess?”

“Confess to what happened fifteen years ago, yes. Perhaps. I don’t know. But you deserve that much. I understand, Amanda, that you want to know what happened to your sister, Karen. But I want to know what happened to Gisèle.”

“So, we join forces?”

“I think we already have.”

And her heart actually fluttered. She frowned, finishing her wine in a gulp. “Oh, what’s the use?” She gazed away and back again. “I said yes, Robin. I said yes, I’d go to dinner with Tristan.”

Robin smiled. “Of course, you did.”

She rolled her eyes. “So, what now?”

“You have a unique opportunity to get inside Tristan’s head, Amanda. Talk to him about Karen. Help him talk about Gisèle. And let me take care of the other suspects on our list.”

“Take care of?”

“Well. Apply pressure to.”

“I see. And I’m supposed to apply pressure to Tristan over dinner?”

“Amanda, darling. You’re not listening. Your very existence applies pressure to Tristan. Don’t attempt to confront him, just be yourself. Get him to open up. Pretend he’s a future patient.”

She gave him a withering glance. “I’m giving up psychology.” Physician, heal thyself. After a hesitation, she said, “Were you in love with her, Robin? With ‘Gisèle?’”

“I loved her.”

“That’s a different thing.”

He sighed, took a sip of wine. “It is, indeed.”

“Was she in love with you?”

He said not a word, but his eyes told her. The lack of delineation between the dark iris and pupil; it was mesmerizing, a little inhuman. Amanda couldn’t tell if it attracted her or frightened her. It was as if he had infinite energy at his disposal, to focus or diffuse. When he focused, she felt it inside and out; when he did not, she felt oddly invisible. What, she wondered, had Gisèle felt? “It has nothing to do with this,” he said at last.

“Because you say it doesn’t?” Amanda cleared her throat. “Do you know what I think, Robin? I think you feel guilty. I think you believe— just a little bit— that she killed herself after all, and maybe it was because of you. And for my part, I have to admit I didn’t know ‘Gisèle’ at all. I don’t know how Karen could have left me to begin with, so maybe I never even knew her.” And this was a chilling sorrow unlike the others she’d known. She dropped her eyes, following the gaudy floral pattern of the carpet. “Maybe she’d gotten over her phobia; maybe it was an accident. Maybe... she killed herself rather than explain it all to me.”

There was a silence. “You surprise me, Amanda. Yes, it may well be any of those things.” Robin gazed at the dregs of wine in his glass. “But don’t you want to know?

~~~

The soles of Luke’s shoes squelched on the wet pavement as he walked up the street to the Dorrington Hotel. He’d actually stayed there once, long before his marriage, in order to avoid his aunt after a night of drinking. It was one of the original Victorians in the historic section, and so less appealing to the eye than the solid, shiny, new “historic” Victorians. Set atop a hill, it was a relic filled with the kitsch sort of things they refer to in advertisements as old-world charm: narrow rickety stairs, cramped rooms and ancient plumbing: the joys of which included separate faucets for hot and cold water, and thus the delightful choice of either freezing or scalding oneself.

Ancient plumbing, Luke thought, had a lot on common with modern life.

It was a black night without stars; as he opened the gate, he heard the clatter of a loose shutter above being battered by the wind, and the long narrow sash windows glowed like yellow eyes. Kids probably thought the place was haunted. And for Luke, it was.

Amanda would have chosen it for the rates. She didn’t have the money to be here, hunting him down. What he felt was guilt, pure and simple: a guilt that stopped his breath short and ran like ice through his veins, because it was compounded by so many others. What exactly was he going to say to her? He glimpsed himself through her eyes, and it wasn’t a pretty sight.

How had she found him, anyway? Had one of the art magazines run his photo? He didn’t think so, and Mandy wouldn’t have recognized his real name. He’d used his mother’s maiden name with her: Barrow. Had news of Gisèle’s death reached the Seattle papers? She had to have seen his face in connection with the paintings, somehow. Why else would she come to Devon masquerading as a reporter? He’d been a prick to her on the phone and he could only guess she’d come to make him squirm. Yet it didn’t seem Amanda’s style at all. She wouldn’t seek revenge. Would she?

A familiar figure met his eyes as he mounted the last of the sagging stairs. It wasn’t hers. Through the window, Luke could see into the small lobby with its brothel-like décor of ornate red velvet couches and fringed lamps. A tall figure stood there, collecting his black trench coat and scarf from a coat rack. Robin Dresden? What the hell was he doing here? And how could Luke explain his presence here, to him? The hotel didn’t have a restaurant or a bar and he could hardly mention Amanda. Luke moved quickly away from the entrance. The porch was a wraparound; he’d wait till Robin left. Through a crack in the window, he heard the impatient ringing of the bell at the front desk; the besieged clerk appeared, fixing a smile on her face. “What can I do for you, Sir?”

“Amanda Miller will be checking out tomorrow,” Robin said, in a clipped voice. “I’d like to take care of her bill tonight.” He handed her a credit card.

“Of course, Mr. Dresden.” A frown. “I thought she’d anticipated a longer stay. I hope everything was satisfactory?”

“Quite the reverse…”

But Luke had backed quickly away from the window; he skipped down the side steps, and jogged down a maze of streets. At last he stopped and stood in the shadow of a damp darkened building. Why in hell was Robin Dresden paying Mandy’s hotel bills? His inner voice couldn’t cough up any comforting answers, and as if by consensus, the skies opened and it began to pour.

~~~

Morning shone clear and bright. After a rain everything sparkled: the puddles turned to long mirrors and sunlight danced in the drops that still clung to Nicola’s oak tree, casting rainbows. Stretching, she gave a protracted yawn. She’d barely slept, and when she had, she’d entered the world of her mother’s photograph: her only window into the mystery of her mother’s life before her.

Nicola had never seen a single photo of her mother as a child. She never spoke of her childhood, and over the years Nicola had come to think of her grandfather’s art collection as her family album, for there were no others. She’d named all the subjects in the paintings, and assigned them familial relationships: aunts, uncles, cousins. Grand-père had often spoken to Nicola of having grown up like her, an only child surrounded by art and artists; he detailed the architecture of their homes and his mother’s love for painting, for music and books. Yet he never spoke of Gisèle’s mother, and Gisèle didn’t either. It was almost as if she’d never had one.

Her father’s side of the family wasn’t much better. He didn’t even speak to his own father, and his mother had died when he was Nicola’s age. There was Great Aunt Eleanor, but she viewed children as one might a problematic strain of alien plant life. And so the photograph opened intriguing new doors. Could her mother have been adopted? It was romantic to cast her in the role of A Little Princess: orphaned and rescued by a kindly man after a long string of misfortunes and hair-raising adventures, but it didn’t seem very likely. Why would her mother have kept it a secret?

All day she was plagued with questions about Karen Louise and Amanda Nicole. She imagined a bespectacled Grandma and jovial Grandpa Miller. And after school, (even that had been rendered less abysmal by her new treasure), Nicola went to visit her grandfather’s collection. The gallery was a good place to think: very still, cool and quiet, with dark cherry wood floor and whitewashed walls. Spotlights were trained on each of the paintings and it had the hushed air of a museum. Beside the door was a keypad. The secret code was Nicola’s birthday: 32183. Inside, the room was temperature controlled and the door specially fitted to keep the air inside from mingling with the air outside. Nicola always had the sense she was stepping into a refrigerator.

She wasn’t in the refrigerator alone. Marc Kreicek startled her though he was a familiar sight, seated with his easel before a sketch by Degas, his dark hair sticking out at angles as it always did when he worked. He had a habit of running his hand through it as he studied the canvas, and Nicola always thought she’d spot a streak of cadmium red or titanium white there, but she never did. Today’s medium: charcoal, wouldn’t show in his dark hair but his fingers were black with it, and there was a streak on his cheek.

“Good morning, malý kvĕtina.” This meant ‘little flower’ and he called her that because Robin did, when they spoke his language. He often did things Robin did. “Did I frighten you?”

“Not really. How are you?” Nicola was glad to see him. It gave her a pleasant sense of déjà vu. She gazed at his sketch. “That’s looking good. Almost as good as the real thing.”

“Almost? My dear, you wound me.”

“Well, it’s not done. I bet it’ll look just the same when it’s done.”

“Thank you.” Marc tipped his head. His tone was always more formal with her than with anyone else. She was both frustrated and flattered by this. She supposed it was simply that he didn’t know how to talk to kids. He returned to his sketch. It was called Lying Nude: the prostrate model’s face turned away from her viewer. Nicola was reminded uneasily of her father’s paintings.

“How come women in art never wear any clothes?”

His hand froze in midair and managed to express annoyance, but he set his charcoal down and turned to her. “Sometimes they do. But the female body is one of the loveliest things in nature.”

“Well, that sketch is my least favorite.” She cleared her throat. “I mean, nothing against yours, but the woman looks uncomfortable and sort of ashamed.”

“Perhaps she is.”

“But it’s a little like some of Dad’s, don’t you think? You know, of Mom.”

“It is very like.”

“I thought the paintings meant Dad loved her.”

He shrugged, noncommittally.

“I suppose it’s possible to love someone too much...” said Nicola.

“It is very possible, I should think. Especially if they don’t love you.”

“I guess that’s what I mean. That’s why people have affairs, isn’t it?”

To her surprise, he laughed. “Nicola, malý kvĕtina; these are not questions you should be asking me. I don’t know why people marry.”

But she persisted, “Was Dad having an affair, do you think?”

“You are too young to concern yourself with such things.”

“That means yes, doesn’t it?” His expression told her it did. “Did you love her, Marc?”

He gave a great hollow laugh. “Love is life’s greatest hoax, my sweet. There is no love between men and women, because there is no understanding. There is only delusion.”

She stared. “That’s a terrible way to look at things.”

“Ah, well. Yes. That’s why we all prefer the delusion.”

Nicola wasn’t sure exactly what he meant and didn’t want to ask. She took it that Marc’s delusion involved loving her mother, and she hadn’t loved him back. She changed the subject. “What do you do with all your copies?”

“Nothing,” he said. “It’s a hobby of mine, that is all.”

“You don’t sell them?”

“It wouldn’t be worth the trouble.” His tone was cross. “Copies don’t sell for much.”

She gazed around her. “But what’s the point of copying copies?”

A spark flickered in his eyes. “There is very little point, but these are very fine copies.”

“Well, actually,” she said. “Between you and me, I don’t think these are copies at all.”

“Oh, no?”

Nicola stood before the withering gaze of the man she’d christened “Pierre,” in a painting by Degas, called The Collector: a collector like her grandfather and Robin, she supposed. Turning, she met Marc’s eyes. “It’s because Grand-père could get in trouble that everyone pretends, isn’t it? Grand-père said his collection couldn’t leave France, because of a trust his parents set up. So if he wanted to bring the paintings here, he’d have to replace them with something, right?”

“Yes. They would be missed, I think.”

She bit her lip. “That’s just it. My idea is that maybe the copies— your copies— are there, and these are the originals. You’re a very good painter. No one would ever know.”

Marc’s index finger tapped his bony knee and left smudges on his faded jeans. His expression was amused. “I’m very flattered.”

She shrugged. “Everyone lies to me. They think I’m too young to understand.”

“I think you understand a good deal more than you should.” But it wasn’t really a reprimand. Amusement flickered in his clear green eyes. “Shall I let you in on a secret?”

Nicola nodded. Why did people always ask that? Did anyone ever say ‘no?’

“If my copies are as good as you say, then all of these might be copies as well. Who would know? All collectors are interested in is possessing a thing they believe no one else can. In the end it’s all brushstrokes on canvas. With the right provenance, a copy would not even be questioned.” A sardonic smile. “People can’t tell the real thing from an illusion. That is true art, Nicola.”

Nicola gazed around her, and frowned. “But doesn’t Grand-père know which is which?”

“I’m afraid he knows least of all.”

“But they belong to him.”

“Art doesn’t belong to anyone.” Marc tipped his head and studied her a moment. The flicker died and his heavy-lidded, bored expression returned. “Come, now. Do not look so disapproving. It’s best not to believe anything I say.” She already knew that. “I am only teasing.”

She gazed at him dubiously. “But how do you live if you don’t sell your paintings?”

“I have other work.”

“What’s that?”

“Well. I work for Robin.”

“I didn’t know that. What do you do for him?”

“A little bit of everything.” An indecipherable expression. “Things he doesn’t wish to do.”

“Does he pay you a lot?”

Marc laughed. He had a big laugh; it echoed in the barren room. “You could say so, yes.”

“Can I ask you something, Marc?” She knew she ought to leave him to his sketching, but she wanted to talk to someone about the photograph and suddenly he seemed perfect. He wouldn’t care enough about anything she said to repeat it. “Could Mom have been adopted, do you think?”

This took him aback. “Whatever’s given you that idea?”

“Well, I found a picture of her as a kid. She’s with another girl and they look like sisters, only the names on the back are all wrong.” She’d extracted the photo from the deep pocket of her sweater and handed it to him. Marc gazed down, flipped it over, and gazed up again. “I should forget it, my sweet. These must be old friends of your mother.”

“No, it’s her.”

“The bones of her face are different, her cheekbones.”

“No, no. See, that’s just the shadow from the tree. Anyway, people change—”

“Yes, people do. Not their bones.” His clear eyes were fixed on her; they were troubled. “What is it you believe? That your mother had another name, and a sister? That’s very unlikely.” He ran his blackened fingers through his hair, and frowned. “You should forget this, Nicola. Your mother had no secret life, I promise you.”

“Well,” Nicola said stubbornly. “I thought maybe I’d ask Grand-père. He’ll know for sure.

There was a flicker of pity in Marc’s eyes. “Yes, yes. He would certainly know.” But then he cleared his throat and his eyes wandered longingly back to his sketch.

“Well, I’ll let you go back to... to your hobby. I’m sorry I bothered you.”

“You bother me less than most people do.” It seemed to surprise him. “Run along and play, malý kvĕtina. You need fresh air and sunshine. The air is too still in here. It is for paintings.”

~~~

Over cocktails, and to her dismay, Amanda found she had more in common with Tristan Mourault than she’d ever anticipated. Her experiences were limited and his were vast, yet it seemed they shared the same taste in movies (old), cars (not quite as old, but old), architecture (very, very old) food (Italian), wine (not Italian), music (classical), art (Impressionist), and literature (all of it). There was something almost too agreeable about him. Was it chemistry by design?

“Margaret mentioned you’re a student at the college,” Tristan said, over an hors d’oeuvre of oysters on the half shell and champagne. “I have a few friends there, I wonder if you know.”

The lies would begin and keep growing; she’d decided to keep them as honest as she could. “Probably not. I’m just visiting, you know, for the semester. I go to the University of Washington, in Seattle. I’m just here working on a research project, so I’m mostly in the library.”

“You have perhaps heard of Robin Dresden?”

Her heart hammered, but she managed to shrug. “I’m afraid not.”

Over his champagne flute, he studied her. “I must confess I find you very mysterious.”

She laughed. “I can’t imagine why.”

Eh bien, I shall lay my case before you.” The teasing tone didn’t quite conceal his inquisitiveness, and his gaze remained glacial in spite of the smile that played on his lips. “You’re in town for only a short time and yet you’ve joined a book club? I’m selfish enough to hope you’re met with endless delays in your research, but it is curious, n’est-ce pas?” Amanda felt her cheeks grow warm. “And you have managed, very charmingly, to tell me very little of yourself. Nothing of your family, your life in Seattle, your hopes and dreams. Nor even the nature of your research.”

“Do most people get to all that before the entrée?” Amanda laughed, nervously. His frankness had caught her off guard. “In any case, I was thinking the same of you, Tristan.”

“Ah, but that is deliberate, of course; I have too many skeletons.”

He was only teasing. Of course he was.

“Well, I hate to ruin the mystery, but I’m here for the semester. That’s half the academic year, not such a short time.” She traced a finger around the stem of her glass. “As far as the book club goes, I like books and it beats a bar. It can be difficult to make friends in a new place.”

“That is true.” Tristan seemed appeased. “And I’m pleased to be counted among your new friends. I shall make it my mission to seduce you with the many charms of Devon. I hope I haven’t offended you with my curiosity. It is a flaw in my character.”

“No, of course not.” She busied herself with dipping an oyster in mignonette; she’d never cared for raw oysters, but she’d learn to like liver if it was an alternative to personal interrogations. Unfortunately, that was exactly what she was here for. “As far as my family goes, it’s just that it’s not terribly good dinner conversation.” With effort, she met his eyes. “When I was ten, both my parents were killed in a car accident. My only sister, Karen, was murdered eight months before.”

Mon Dieu, I am sorry.” A wave of genuine empathy, even shock, crossed Tristan’s face. “Please forgive my intrusion, Amanda. You have emerged remarkably poised and sane.”

“Have I?” She laughed, a little too sharply. “Well, appearances can be deceiving.” 

He opened his mouth to reply, but the waiter arrived with the entrées then. And over the feast of filet mignon, local rainbow trout and a silky Bordeaux, Tristan managed to draw out Amanda’s personal history without even seeming to try. She had not banked on his curiosity, and found it both disarming and alienating. By dessert, she was showing him Karen’s school photo. But if she’d hoped for a heartfelt confession, she was disappointed. His reaction was more disturbing still. He held the photo gingerly, utterly enraptured.

“What a beautiful girl.” He cleared his throat, and his cool blue eyes met hers. “It seems only yesterday my daughter was that age.”

“Your daughter?” She tried not to stare. “Does she live here in Devon?”

“I’m afraid she’ll be here always, Amanda.” Tristan spoke mildly, as if he did not wish to embarrass her. “She is dead.”

“I’m sorry.” She studied his face and the sorrow there was tangible. She glimpsed it beneath the polished façade, like a morbid glimpse of the skull beneath the skin. “How long has it been?”

“Is it November already? It is over a month ago now.” He toyed with the tiny handle of his espresso cup. “I’m not dealing with the loss very gracefully. I feel as if the best of me left with her.” He focused on Amanda again and she felt it like a touch, not refined, but raw. His voice was hoarse when he spoke again. “It seems we’ve a great deal in common, chérie. I too have lost my parents, and now my Gisèle. So much that I have loved is gone. It is my name. Our name is our destiny and I was born triste, you see.” A poignant smile. “My sadness is fated. But I have hope yet for you.”

She simply stared, for a moment lost for words.

The only awkwardness arrived with the check. Amanda insisted on splitting. Amused, Tristan insisted she would not.

“Please don’t be offended, Tristan, it’s just something I like to do.”

“When you’re uncertain of the man across the table?”

Of course, he was savvy enough to see. “It’s not an uncommon practice nowadays.” And then, uncomfortably, “I don’t want to lead you on—”

“The notion of leading one on, I wonder, is it a feminine invention or an American one? It is foreign to me. I’m not a child, Amanda. But then I imagine you’ve already recognized that.” A self-deprecating expression; it was hard not to be charmed by him. “I’m far too old for you, it is true. However, with age comes a lovely ebbing away of expectations. I have none at all. I only want to spend time with you, and you are indulging me with your company. What does any of it have to do with the cost of dinner? I am more than fit to pay; the price means nothing at all to me. And so, it would be a petty sort of symbol in which to seek equality, would it not?”

She laughed a little apprehensively. “Well, how do you suggest I seek it?”

Tristan seemed entertained by the very notion. He gave a faint shrug. “You are terribly concerned with rules, Amanda. With boundaries. Do I make you feel unsafe?”

It seemed ludicrous put like that; seated in La Dolce Vita and surrounded by it en force. And yet she did feel unsafe in this elegant game of cat and mouse, in which she was decidedly the rodent in the equation. He had given away exactly nothing, and yet there was something almost predatory in his charm. But she forced a smile. “No, no, Tristan, I feel perfectly safe.”

“Très bon. Shall we go, then?” Did he throw in the French phrases to charm her? It was exactly the sort of thing, she realized, he would do. His English was too perfect to need to rely on his native tongue, and there was a premeditated quality to everything he did. For instance, his smile as they collected their coats suggested nothing more than the gentlemanly lack of all expectation. So did the hand that touched the small of her back quite casually as they walked out onto the street. But in his stride there was also, distinctly, triumph.

Or am I imagining it all?

At last they reached The Chaucer Inn, the lovely accommodation “down the lane” that Robin had provided, and Tristan offered to see her to her door, (distinctly “door;” not “room”). Reluctantly she agreed, but there were no more awkward scenes. She thanked him for the evening.

“I hope I may have the pleasure again?”

“Of course.”

“Tomorrow?”

Amanda hesitated. This is what she wanted, wasn’t it? “Yes.”

“Good.” Tristan took her hand in his, a light warm touch. “Bonne nuit, Amanda.”

And she was released.


 

XIII— The Artist’s Studio

 

 

                                                                                                                         — Jean-Frédéric Bazille, 1870

 

 


 

 

 

The second blackmail envelope arrived that spring, months after the first. It was postmarked April 13, 1981: two years to the day since Gisèle’s disappearance. And though I had by then nearly convinced myself no more letters would come, when I saw the plain white business envelope with the blank upper left corner, it seemed, of course, inevitable.

The contents rather settled matters. There we were, Gisèle and I, in all our burgeoning glory: emerging from a bookstore, holding hands in the park. I’d often had the sense in those days of being followed. Here was my shadow, and it had, apparently, interest only in tormenting me. It made no demand for money, no threats— but I knew they would come.

When not a week later, I learned from Henri that Robin Dresden meant to ‘sketch’ Gisèle, it seemed I could rule out a single bad apple and expect a harvest. “A surprise for you, Sir, but I thought perhaps you’d prefer to know.” Henri possesses a great flair for understatement.

“Yes, Henri, thank you. When and where is this to take place?”

“This Friday. Mr. Dresden has a loft, it seems, in SoHo. She has given me the address.”

I’d happily believed Robin’s primary residence to be on the continent, and his living arrangements here rather crowded. Had he tired of his ménage in Central Park West? “Gisèle asked you not to tell me?”

He apologized for her with a slight frown. “It’s a surprise, you see. I was made to promise.”

“I’m afraid I’m not terribly surprised, Henri.”

“Nor I, Sir. You will wish to prevent her going.”

“No.” No, I did not wish to prevent her going; I wished to ascertain her purpose in going. I thought I could pretty well ascertain his. “No, no. I imagine that would only worsen things.”

He tipped his head. “You’re quite sure?”

“Quite. But I will take the address.”

It seemed Robin was to pick her up at two and return her by five. It was my habit to be out on Friday afternoons, and I was particularly anxious to be out on this one, breaking into Robin’s loft.

I wished only to be a fly on the wall, but the clever fly must determine an entrance and exit strategy. In spite of my skills as a pickpocket, I’m under no particular illusions that I would make a good cat burglar; I cannot pick locks and the scaling of walls has never been my strong point. But I never lacked nerve, and nerve is all one needs. I had no time to observe Robin’s habits as I had once observed Gisèle’s. I did investigate flats across the way, but none were conveniently vacant. I thought of concocting a distraction which would inspire a rush downstairs while I rushed up, but all suitable distractions were along the lines of fire and flood, bomb threats or a shooting on the street below— all of which held for me very little appeal.

At last I decided on a plan. Gaining access to the building was a trifle. I used the intercom to buzz apartments until one had the geniality to buzz back. It may not have been so simple a matter in my neighborhood, but SoHo in those days was delightfully slack about such things. Robin’s building was old and picturesque, and came with a fire escape. These do not extend to the ground, of course, and in any case my vertigo would scarcely allow me to make the entire ascent to the top. And so I approached his neighbors.

On the floor directly below his loft, I found four doors. My first three attempts produced no answer. On the fourth, I was met with a suspicious-looking fragment of a face through the crack in the door. My polite requested for access to the fire escape (as I’d carelessly mislaid my house key...) was met with a laugh. The door was promptly slammed in my face. Down a floor, the apartments were smaller and there were many doors to try. I selected one at random and it was opened by a promising-looking young woman with a Goldie Hawn pixie haircut and an open smile. In such situations it pays to be French; she was only too pleased to find a hapless Yves Montand in the hall. Her neighborliness extended itself to fire escape access as well as an invitation to a disco that night. I find my conscience faintly troubled at having stood her up.

But once upon the fire escape, I encountered my first crisis of nerve. The wind is less than polite at great heights, and the abstract spinning of the earth is corporeally felt. I can only say that my anxiety at leaving Gisèle alone with Robin Dresden rivaled that of plummeting to my death, and so I climbed the two floors in fits and starts. If anyone had been watching I must have appeared either a very foolish thief or one wrestling with waves of scruples.

Robin’s window was open, as I expected; it was springtime and lovely. But it was stuck halfway and it took a good deal of coaxing and cajoling and cursing, before the thing at last gave. By this time, I half-expected Robin and Gisèle to burst through the door as I stepped in, but I found the loft silent and empty. It was a vast space, a thing emphasized by the sparse furnishings. Paintings covered the walls, and were propped against them, and the windows were more like one might find in a cathedral than an artist’s loft— clerestory lighting that fell in exaggerated oblong arches onto a cherry wood floor, the sunlight revealing nicks and dings in the finish. The scent of paint and turpentine stung my nostrils, and several easels were draped like ghosts. There were also a great many books and a bed rather conspicuously unmade.

It struck me only then that he may not have left the apartment empty in his absence. And for a moment I stood paralyzed in the middle of the room. There was not a sound: no footsteps, no water running in the bathroom, no approaching sirens. I had just enough time to steady my nerves, (the room had ceased to sway), and decide on my hiding place when I heard voices from the hall.

There soon came a fumbling at the door, the fingernails-on-chalkboard grating as it was slid open, and I had the irrational sense one has that the pounding of my heart would be distinguishable to all. I’d taken refuge behind a great antique Italian sideboard; a lovely Tuscan piece, solid and sturdy and large enough to conceal me, yet it left vantage points to either side of the immense room. I could easily peer over the top or hide behind the stacked plates and bowls. I could only hope he did not intend to feed her.

They came through the door together, Gisèle in a pretty floral dress, (which had better remain on), and Robin uncharacteristically crumpled and unshaven after what looked to be a rough night. The phone rang almost at once and he spoke shortly to someone, then excused himself and stepped out the door. I was overcome with panic. Had I been observed by one less trusting than my Goldie? A friend across the way?

As I broke into a cold sweat, Gisèle wandered carelessly around the room. She scanned the vast wall of bookshelves and knelt to eye titles on the third row, extracting one and fanning through its pages. She glanced over her shoulder with a guilty expression, and then furtively pulled out another. This engaged her to such a degree that she jumped when she heard the door, shoving it hurriedly back into place.

Robin went to the kitchen and offered her a ginger ale, which she declined. He took a bottle of beer for himself and then, impatiently, posed her in the corner of the settee: chin up, head tilted, he brought a lock of hair forward to sprawl across her right shoulder, curled her fingers under her chin, and positioned her elbow on the padded arm. Her legs were curved beneath her. He took up his sketchpad and sat in the chair opposite. From where I knelt I could see them both well, and easily eavesdrop.

“Should I look at you, or past you?” Gisèle asked, in a tentative voice I’d nearly forgotten.

“At me,” said Robin. “Just so. Good.”

For long moments I could hear no more than the scratch of charcoal on paper. Her eyes wandered.

“Gisèle.” Sharply, “Focus on me.”

She blushed, protesting, “But I feel like I’m staring at you.”

“Stare.”

She inhaled deeply as if she’d been holding her breath since he’d begun. Then held it again. Silence.

“You’re not comfortable being alone with me. Why is that?”

“I’m fine.”

“No you’re not. I can tell by your breathing.”

“What’s wrong with it?”

“You’re not doing it. Your fingers are too tightly clenched and from the rate of your blinks you’re either wearing contacts, suffering from an allergy, or nervous about being here. I’m convinced it’s the last; you needn’t lie.”

“I guess I’m just not used to being sketched.” She swallowed. “And you seem mad at me.”

“Relax. You can talk, just try not to move too much. I’m not mad; this is me at my most cheerful.”

She giggled. “I’ve heard all sorts of stories about you. That you killed someone in Prague.” A question mark in her brows. “That you live with two women. That you’re a hypnotist, a sadist, a drug smuggler, an art thief, and a spy.” She swallowed. “And no one knows your real identity at all.”

From my hiding place, I frowned. I wondered where she’d heard these things, and what was said about me. Robin only laughed. “It’s a wonder I find time to paint. Which one is your favorite?”

“Which ones are true?” she countered.

He raised a brow and scratched his unshaven chin. “Taking them in order: not that I know of… yes, until recently... yes... I hardly think so... no, occasionally, occasionally, perhaps, and what’s a ‘real’ identity?” The last was the one that offended him. “I don’t think I believe in that; it sounds very dull.”

Gisèle, I thought, ought not to believe in a real identity either, by now. But she asked, “Is it something you can ‘not’ believe in?”

“Everything is.”

“But identity isn’t a choice, it’s who you are.”

“Then how can it be real or unreal? Reality is a choice, because reality is perception.” He gazed up from his sketch and smiled at her puzzled face. “Listen. The truth is I’ve been a lot of things. Right now my name is Robin Dresden and I’m an artist who’s sketching you. If we’re talking genetics, my parents are both blond and blue-eyed; upstanding, respectable people. I rather suspect I am not their son...” He flashed an irreverent grin. “And I no longer go by the name they gave me. What does it matter, in the end?”

“How old are you?” she asked.

“Twenty-six.”

“That’s young to be so sure of everything... I think it’s a way of not letting people know you.”

He laughed with gusto. “Thank you for the character assessment. Very astute. How old are you?”

“Seventeen.” He’d slipped it in so nimbly that she’d answered without thinking, It was true that Karen’s birthday had been in February, but ‘Gisèle Mourault’ would not be seventeen for several months.

Though Robin had guessed our secret, I had asked her not to confide in him. He didn’t raise a brow, but focused rather harder on his sketch.

“I think you’re a wonderful artist.” She cleared her throat. “I paint too, a little. With Tristan.” And I smiled, thinking of this. She was actually quite good; she took direction very well. “The great thing about painting is you can’t do it and think normal thoughts. It’s like your brain floats on the surface of a thing and nothing else matters. It doesn’t matter what it’s there for, or what it means...”

“Of course one might come to the meaning of a thing by searching the surface. Or one can create it.” A slight smile. “That’s more fun. Take these walls. How I paint them gives them meaning. Are they to keep one in, or others out? Is the room a closed box, or an open space? Is the view in or out? Surfaces are no more static than identity. Surfaces tell a story, they are possibilities.”

She smiled, but then it faded. “It must be nice to look at things that way.”

“Things are that way, whether you look at them or not. We create everything we see.”

Out of the blue. “I was going to be a writer once.” She hadn’t spoken of it in a long time, I realized.

“When you were young?”

She rolled her eyes, but smiled. “It’s just that I’m not sure now. Things come to a meaningful end in books, but in life things are just things. Disconnected things. And everyone pretends they have control.”

He raised the damned articulate brow. “And you?”

“I pretend, too.”

Robin took another sip of beer, and then frowned. “What is it you want to control?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know. Everything. Anything.”

I didn’t care for the way he watched her, as if he could see beneath her skin. “I used to pretend all the time,” he said, evenly. “I pretended my whole life: walk, talk, dress, history, different accents. I didn’t go to art school; I pretended I was an artist. And then I found everyone seemed to believe in my make-believe. Go figure. The key to acquiring anything is to imagine you already have it.”

Her smile was slight and wistful, but her almond eyes shone. “Is that true?”

I thought of her, and realized it was. Almost.

“Of course it is. If you have no control, perhaps it’s how you’re pretending.”

Gisèle laughed nervously, gazed away and back again. “Can we talk about something else?”

“Probably. You start.”

“I’m not sure I followed you before. Is it really true you live with two women?”

“I did. I do, sometimes. When I’m not elsewhere.”

“Here?”

“Anywhere.”

“And they don’t mind? I mean, they don’t get jealous?”

“Stop fidgeting. No, they don’t mind. Why should they?” She looked as skeptical as I felt. “They’re more in love with each other, you see. Ana and Marie. And I...” He scratched his head. “Well, occasionally I enjoy being the hyphen between their names.”

Nice little euphemism, that.

“They’re in love with each other? Don’t you think that’s kind of… well, gross?”

He laughed outright and I had to suppress my own. “Um, let me think. No.”

Her eyes darted around the room, but she kept her head perfectly still. “Have you really read all these books?”

“Yes.”

“Earlier, I looked through a few of them.” A pause. “In the third row... from the bottom.”

“Ah.” There was something in his tone; she heard it, too. “You shouldn’t have done that, Gisèle.”

“I would have asked, but—”

“It’s not that.” The scratch of charcoal. “It’s just that it’s not my job to corrupt you.”

“Whose job is it?”

Scratch-scratch-smudge. He gazed at her a moment. “I see, now. All this talk of pretending and control. It’s about sex.” An amused smile. “What is it you want to know, Gisèle?”

“I want to know if I’m normal.”

“Of course, you do. It proves you are.” He retrieved the sketchpad, sat.

She laughed, but her voice was eager. “You already seem to know already so I guess I can tell you. Tristan’s not really my father, and I’m… well, I’m in love with him.” She said it nervously, gauging its effect. It affected me the greater, I think. All at once, I felt quite well.

“Glad to hear it. What’s with all the playacting then? The father-daughter bit. I’ve told him he ought to give it up. It’s perverse. No wonder you feel trapped.”

 “He does it to protect me. You know: driver’s license, insurance, all that. I’ve got to be someone.”

“I see.” Benignly, “Someone’s looking for you?”

She was silent, hesitant to face the answer. Not family, not anymore, but murder investigators? I could see how this weighed on her then; she let him see what she hid from me. “I guess someone must be.”

“Why did you do it?”

“I— well, I was in love with him.”

“Then you knew him before you left home?”

I didn’t breathe. She dropped her eyes. “I would have left, anyway.”

“I see.” Robin studied her closely, then shrugged. “Well, the cops don’t bother much with runaways once they’ve crossed state lines. Anyway, in another year you’ll be legal.”

She gave him a hard look. “I’ve just realized what’s so strange about you. Nothing bothers you... It’s like you’re from another planet.” Wistfully, “I wish I could be that way... Tristan isn’t sure about you, you know. He can’t believe you won’t tell— but I know you won’t.” She held herself very still as she spoke, but a frown appeared between her eyes. “I hope he’ll like this for a present. He’d freak out if he knew I was here alone with you. He’s very jealous.” She sounded pleased with the fact.

Robin frowned. “Do you never venture out by yourself?”

Damn the man. She squirmed a little and said nothing.

“Stay still. All right, let me see if I have this straight. You’re in love with a man you have to pretend is your father, who’s so jealous he barely lets you out of his sight. You’re also sexually frustrated—”

“I’m not frustrated.”

Robin sighed, exasperated, and laid down his charcoal. “You’re a virgin, Gisèle. By definition, you’re frustrated.”

“How did you know I was—I mean, did you think I wasn’t a virgin?”

“No. It was quite clear to me that you were. How long have you been with him, anyway?”

“Tristan? A while.”

“A long while, I think.”

She shrugged. “So?”

“That puts you pretty young when you ran away.” He tapped his beer bottle with his forefinger. “I’m guessing your situation was pretty bad and he’s a very patient fellow. The problem’s not with you, Gisèle. He’s just waiting for you to grow up. That makes him a swell guy.”

I shifted in my hiding place, not feeling like such a swell guy, at all.

Her jaw dropped. “And I just get to wait? I mean how old were you when you… did it?”

He laughed merrily. “That’s not really the point. I didn’t do it with a woman twice my age.”

“The thing is,” dropping her eyes, “the problem is with me, Robin. I told him I was scared of it.”

“It sounds like you still are.”

Indignantly, she retorted, “I am not. I want to do it. I’m not really afraid it’ll hurt. I know it does. I just....” her voice trailed miserably away. “I just want to get it over with.”

His gaze was appraising but his words surprised me. “Good idea. Virginity is best gotten over with and forgotten. Sort of like the chicken pox. But sex is something else...You probably won’t like it much the first time, but there are ways to make you forget. And afterward it gets infinitely better, I promise.”

She was back to holding her breath. On the exhale, “Make me forget, how?”

“Come now, I take it you and Tristan haven’t been entirely idle?”

In my corner, I cringed.

“Well, no.”

“Have you ever come with him?”

“Come where?”

Ma petite...

Robin rolled his eyes disparagingly.

She flushed red. “Oh, that. Right.” But she just continued to blush and didn’t answer.

“All right, so that’s a no,” he continued carelessly, “How about with anyone before him? Ever go a little far playing doctor… spin the bottle… no precocious little boy or girlfriend in childhood?”

But she simply shook her head no. “No. I mean, yes, but just kissing and not with girls. Gawd.”

“How gross!’ Robin mimicked the flat Californian outrage. He scratched his head idly, the charcoal still between his smudged fingers, and went on pragmatically, “You must have come by yourself, then.”

“That’s none of your—”

“Right. So that’s another no. This is going to be harder than I thought.”

“It is not a no. I’ve had a, you know.”

“Orgasm? The word doesn’t bite, Elle.”

How dare he abbreviate her name! And why didn’t she correct him?

“Well, but not with anyone. I told you I’m a virgin,” she murmured indignantly.

“The two aren’t mutually exclusive, love.”

“Well, they are for me. I’ve never had one with anyone. But I know I will when we go all the way.”

He frowned at the utter illogicality of this. I frowned at the fact that it came as an utter surprise. I’d been encouraged and rather proud of the ease with which she... faked it. My heart sank. I thought she’d had many. And I am French. I was truly very shaken.

“What a lot of rubbish,” Robin said.

“Well, it’s just that with Tristan, I get worried about not having the right reaction, so I pretend. But it doesn’t work for me, pretending.” She twisted a curl around her finger. “I can’t seem to pretend it into being.” Imagine what I felt? To hear her say this to my rival. I was dazed, deflated. Betrayed.

“Oh, my.” Robin sighed with disapproval and shook his head. Music filled the silence. The Stones. “Sympathy for the Devil.” It was horribly apt. Quite firmly he said, “Well. You must certainly promise not to do that again.”

She most certainly must.

She grimaced at the very idea of honesty. “I can’t. It’ll seem weird to him now. He thinks—”

“I really must make you promise, Gisèle. It’s hardly fair to Tristan, and it’s worse for you. Do you want someone to think you’re having a great time, or do you want to have a great time? Really, love. All you’re pretending into being is the quote, unquote ‘right response.’ I assure you a real one is better.”

“I know. It’s just I was nervous, and nothing was happening. And then I started to worry I was taking too long.”

“Classical feminine response.”

She dropped her fist. “You mean it’s normal?”

“You are sweet. Of course, it is. Especially when you’re just starting out. Remember, Elle,” (Damn him), “It’s not a chore for the fellow you’re with; it’s not a race. No one’s holding a stopwatch.”

“I just didn’t want to hurt him. And anyway what if I can’t have one with him, or with anyone? Maybe I’m not normal. I mean… And then he’d feel awful. He’s nice; he’s not like you.”

Merde. Since when had I been relegated to “nice?”

“At least I’m well-mannered,” he said dryly, “Your manners are appalling. Not nice, indeed.”

She was unfazed. “Well, so I told you I’ve had a, you know… by myself. That counts, doesn’t it?”

“Well yes, under the circumstances I think we ought to count it. We’re running out of options.”

“Why is it so much harder with someone else?”

He replied matter-of-factly, “Because you’re worried about pleasing him more than yourself, and he’s only touching you, while you’re touching yourself and feeling at the same time.” I was, as you can imagine, growing increasingly uncomfortable with the situation, he was quite at ease, sketching the entire time. He’d switched to another page; she was more animated now, and he’d stopped restricting her pose. “Tell me about the first time.”

“I was thirteen.”

“And where were you?”

“In bed, in my room, at night. And it was kind of funny, because—” She broke off and gave a slight girlish giggle that tore at me. I wanted so badly to swoop in and cart her off. And yet I did not belong here. It was more than the difficulty of explaining my presence; I was a voyeur in the truest sense of the word, I was on the outside looking in, and sadly we were past the stage of my carting her off.

“Funny, because?”

“You’ll only laugh at me,” she demurred.

“Quite possibly.”

After a moment, “Okay, but don’t tell anyone. It’s just that I was really scared everyone would hear me.” Another giggle. A confidence. “Because you know how women in the movies moan and scream, like they’re being murdered or something? I thought it was something you couldn’t help, so if I— if it happened— I’d start to scream uncontrollably and wake the whole house.”

As predicted, Robin laughed, but—worse— there was affection in it. “Charming.”

She just blushed, and he tilted his head, lifting the charcoal and bringing it down in quick sure strokes. He flipped the page again— capturing her from different angles, I imagined. I longed to see the image of her as it was coaxed from the paper; the curls, the fleeting smile replaced with the pensive expression as she waited. “And what did you think as it was happening?” he asked.

“I couldn’t breathe. I was shocked.”

“Yes, it is shocking the first time.”

“That my body could do that and I never knew.”

“Amazing, isn’t it?” His voice was very gentle, as if to contradict the rapid motions of the charcoal in his hand. “And what were you thinking about?”

“Oh.” She bit her lip, blushing deeper.

“You were thinking of something.”

“Just a story I read in a magazine. A friend of mine found aHustler’ in her brother’s room.”

“And what did you feel afterward?”

“Guilty. I didn’t really do anything after that. Well, there was one other time. In the tub.”

He dropped his charcoal and stared. “One other time? One? Please tell me you’re joking.”

She gazed away. “I always thought I’d wait till I was married or, something. I don’t know. You’re supposed to make love with someone. I don’t want to go to hell.”

“Oh, my.” Robin let out a groan. “Then choose to go elsewhere.”

“You’re so weird. It’s not a choice.”

“Everything’s a choice. I don’t believe in hell. It’s a made up place, and as I didn’t make it up, I’m not required to go there. That’s a choice.”

“You’re just weird.”

“All right, but we’re discussing you. Tell me about the story in the magazine. What was it about?”

“A guy and a girl.”

“How inventive.”

“They were...” she hesitated. “Brother and sister.”

“Ah.”

“Well, yeah. That’s the thing. That doesn’t turn me on at all. I mean, ick—”

“Your body didn’t think so.”

“It should have.”

He rolled his eyes. “Who says?”

“You wouldn’t understand.” She squinted. “You don’t even believe in God.”

“Not the same one you do. Mine is a wonderful artist. He made your body and invented the frightful O-word. He’s much more fun than people make him out to be.”

She smiled. Then frowned. “It doesn’t explain why I was excited by the story.”

“Oh, please. You liked the dirty words.”

She blushed.

“Anyway, did you sleep with your brother?”

“I don’t have a brother.”

“I rest my case.”

She laughed, uneasily. “That doesn’t prove anything. For all you know I’m a depraved pervert.”

“I’m betting you’re not. But far more perversions arise from repression than expression.”

“That’s why people go to psychiatrists to talk about sex.”

“That, and notions like you’ll automatically get off if you do it missionary style on your wedding night. If all your illusions are built around that, you’re going to be very disappointed. Practically every psychosis evolves out of shame, fear, guilt. It’s a nasty little cycle. But you’re still young. You’re not too far gone. It’s a matter of the man you’re with not giving your body a choice.”

Her lips had parted slightly. She tried to tease, “I thought everything was a choice.”

“Hmm.” His gaze was too direct. “Suppose Tristan were to say to you, ‘Gisèle, I’m going to make you come, very hard, no matter how long it takes and whether you like it or not.’ Do you think you’d race from the room?”

She blushed very red and squirmed, pleasantly. I wanted to beat the crap out of him.

“No,” she murmured. “But I can’t imagine him saying that...”

I couldn’t really imagine myself saying it either. It seemed a little... well. Presumptuous. Sure of oneself. Of course, I could say it. Perhaps I would. A variation therein.

“I don’t think you’re really afraid of sex, Elle. I think you’re afraid of guilt.”

“No. It’s just...” Softly, “I’ve done a lot of bad things.”

“Have you? Like what?” When she didn’t answer: “Here’s what I think. I think a lot of bad things have been done to you, and you’ve let them stick. But whatever happened before this moment is null and void. You get to decide whether you carry it with you from here.”

She straightened. “You don’t have to make fun of me just because you don’t have a conscience.”

“The point of a conscience seems to me to be preventing one from doing something one would feel guilty about. The actual act of feeling guilty seems to be a failure of conscience, wouldn’t you agree?”

She gazed at him, thoughtfully. “I guess so.”

“Don’t guess. You have nothing to feel guilty for. It’s your body. It’s yours to touch. Where is the guilt in that? Guilt’s a cage, Elle. Believe me. It will keep you where you are forever. And in that case, you don’t really need to worry about hell. You’re already in it.” He looked at her intently, and his tone softened. “But if you let it go, you’re free.” He made a gesture with his hands, of release. “Do you see? It is a choice.”

She bit her lip. “You understand.” That’s all she said. And, all at once, light crept into her eyes.

“There. That’s lovely.” Robin flipped the page and sketched. “Look at me. Just like that.”

She looked like an angel.

 She resolutely bit her lip, and so could not speak.  Robin didn’t speak either. His hand flew across the page. And she grew older before my eyes. She took him in, it in. The room, the feeling, the fact of being sketched. She liked it. At last, he said. “Good. All right, relax. We’re done.”

 And I let out my breath.

Gisèle gazed at him. “I like the way you think. And, well... thank you.”

His eyes flickered with amusement, and something more disturbing: a very definite affection. “And, well, you have a lot to look forward to. Now listen to me.” He set his charcoal down, and said sternly. “No more guilt, no more faking. Agreed? We’ll discuss it when I sketch you again.”

Again?

She nodded. “I’ll try.”

“Don’t try, do it. You have fantasies. Let yourself have them. Look at your body in a sexual way. Be conscious of the way it feels in your clothes, in bed, in the shower. You have a very beautiful body, Elle.”

 Elle. “She,” in French. Her. The fathomless feminine. She went very pink.

“And when you touch yourself, focus on the feeling, but also feel your fingertips. You’ll know you’re doing it, because they’ll tingle. Feel the air around you. Take time to notice the shape of things, the colors, the textures.”  Robin smudged here and there with his thumb and forefinger and closed the sketchpad. “And for the next two weeks you’re to think of nothing but sex.”

She giggled. And even I had to smile.

“It is an order, you understand.” Robin rose, rubbing his neck. “I’ll know if you don’t do it.”

“Oh, really.” Saucily, “How will you know?”

“It’ll show up in your sketch.”

She gazed at him, twisting her ankle to its awkward thoughtful angle, painfully inward. “Can I see it?” With a toss of her head she indicated the sketchbook.

“No.” Robin pushed the rogue lock of hair from his brow. “Right now it’s just the way you look. I add things later, as I recreate you in my mind. I sketch in what you leave me with. Those are the essential things, the things you leave behind in a room.”

She tipped her head. “I did all right, then?”

“You did exactly right. Tristan will be pleased.”

Tristan doubted it.

“You won’t tell him we talked about all this stuff, will you?”

“What stuff?”

She smiled. “You know, I actually think you’re very sweet.”

Robin rolled his eyes. “Let’s not let that one get out. I fancy myself a degenerate spy.” He touched her chin; she let him. He dropped his hand, turning. “And now for a little light reading to help your homework along. You won’t like all of it, but I guarantee you’ll like some.”

She giggled, a lovely lilting sound, as he pulled selections from his infamous third row, and I was consumed with yearning, loss, jealousy... It should have been me discussing these things with her. Me, handing her these books. But the greater pang was that they spelled for me not a beginning, but an end.

 

Robin was not, it seemed, able to escort her home as I had planned. Fortunately for me, he did go down to hail her a cab. (“Don’t tell me you’re frightened of those as well?” he frowned. “Very well. I shall have to teach you to whistle.”) I made my way out after them, avoiding the lift for the stairs.

It was a long, long way down. I could not see them, though at one point I thought I heard their whistles echo up from the street below. I descended another level down the Inferno. I didn’t want Gisèle to learn to whistle for cabs. To go by ‘Elle.’ I wanted her to remain scared and unready, fragile and naïve. I did not want her to grow up. In the space of an afternoon, using only words, I felt Robin had corrupted her. At least for me. And— perhaps irrationally— that he had meant to do so.


 

XIV— Reading the Part

 

                                          

                                                                                                                   —Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1874-76

                                                                                                                               

 

 

 

 


 

Nicola’s morning started out the same as always. She walked into class like a lone soldier advancing on an army of enemies, her face stoic and her stomach full of knots.

The boys had warmed up to her, because it turned out she was good at sports. But with the girls she was still persona non grata. Kelly— the popular one who’d christened her “Ricola” on the first day— was at the top of the sixth grade hierarchy, and she’d decided Nicola was out. She never picked her for teams in P.E.; she made a game of not picking her, and her friends all followed. They called her sickly (because she made a point of being absent when possible), and taunted her endlessly with cries of “Ri-co-la!!” Why did it hurt so much to be likened to a cough drop, anyway?

But she’d made one friend. Meghan Phillips was new to Prescott, too. She sat next to Nicola in home room and told her to ignore Kelly; she was just jealous. But when Nicola walked into class that morning, Meghan had changed seats. She avoided eye contact with her, and sat smirking and giggling in the corner with Kelly. How had they become best friends overnight?

Nicola took her seat and lifted her desk mindlessly. It was filled with bags of Ricolas. She dropped it shut with a clang, and tears stung her eyes. She heard giggling behind her.

Don’t cry. Stop it. Who cares about them, anyway?

But all through first period she tried to swallow the lump in her throat. She focused hard on three o’clock, when her grandfather would be there to pick her up. But when Mrs. Perkins called on her to spell “inadequate,” three o’clock seemed a lifetime away. School, she decided, wasn’t about learning at all. It was like a performance. And it was as if she was performing before an audience who’d decided they hated her before she ever stepped on the stage. She’d come to expect it, and something about anticipating terrible things made them happen. She knew this meant the opposite was also true, but she didn’t know how to expect good things. It was as if she’d forgotten how. 

At recess she complained of a stomachache, which wasn’t really a lie. At the office she asked the secretary to call her grandfather. He had a private line in his study. Please come. Please come…

He came. With a keen glance she could see he knew her problem wasn’t medical. Still, he frowned with convincing concern and lamented the flu that was going around; he actually managed to wipe the snooty expression off the secretary’s face as he signed her out. And when they got in the car he glanced at Nicola, a twinkle in his eyes and his expression affectionate. “Well. Shall we go for ice cream, mon chaton? I understand it’s very good for stomach aches.”

He winked at her, and for the first time that day she managed a smile. “Can we stop at the college after, Grand-père? We could see Robin, and I’d like to go to the library.”

Mais oui. You’ll need some good reading if you intend to make it a long illness.”

The joke was that Nicola had read everything in the children’s library in town, but the truth of course was she was too young for most everything in the college library. But she liked to check out the oversized art books, and there was a whole section on fashion design. Mostly, she went there to see Robin or, as he put it, so he could see a bit more of her.

They visited Robin in the stone tower at the center of campus. Robin’s uncle had been one of the founders of the school and donated the land with the condition that the tower remain. Robin had refurbished the exterior to its original state and converted the interior into a sort of dormitory and dining hall for his students, with an art room at the top. ‘Room’ proved to be an understatement: it was the height of two floors with an open gallery above and usually flooded with light from the long lancet windows that encircled the top. The view down to the ground was dizzying. Nicola thought of her grandfather on the railroad trestle and realized for the first time why he never went up to the gallery. There was a wrought iron railing, but it was still a long drop to the wood floor below, where a hodgepodge of tabletops were scattered with art supplies and easels held works in progress. 

Apparently Robin had no fear of heights; they usually found him working on something high above them and not even visible at first. Recognizing their step, he would call down a greeting. Salut, Tristan. Nico, how are you, darling? But there was no such greeting, today. As they moved further into the vast room, she could see a figure upstairs silhouetted against the light, but it wasn’t Robin. After a moment, Marc turned; he went to the railing and called down. “Ah, a surprise. Good afternoon, Tristan. Nicola, my sweet. I’m afraid Robin’s out today. Gone to lunch with Luke.”

Nicola felt her grandfather stiffen beside her, and she could tell he wasn’t happy to see Marc, and wondered why. He said, coolly, “Well, that can mean only one thing.”

“Yes, yes.” Marc must have been involved in his work; his tone was as impatient as his gaze. “The exhibition’s back on, it seems. The paintings are too good to go unseen.” Nicola wondered what he really thought about her mother’s death. How he could speak of the paintings as if they were just paintings— not pieces of her. Though Nicola had reluctantly told her father it was okay, she didn’t like the idea of all those strangers ogling her mother at an exhibition.

She knew her grandfather felt like she did, though Tristan said nothing at all. He busied himself in the way people do when they desire a distraction, gazing in an unfocused way at the clutter on one of the tables, where Marc must have mixed his paints earlier.

“What are you painting?” Nicola asked, to change the subject.

“As it happens,” He cast a glance at Tristan. “Robin’s asked me to work on something for the exhibition. A complementary piece.” A slight pause. “A surprise.”

“Oh. Can we see?” Nicola asked.

Marc clucked his tongue in disapproval. “Then it wouldn’t be a surprise anymore, would it?”

“But I won’t be at the exhibition. I told Dad I didn’t want to go. It would be too… weird.”

“I’m afraid it’s not finished, malý kvĕtina.”

Grand-père turned at last from his private musings. “And what’s inspired all this creativity?”

“Gisèle’s the inspiration.” Marc replied, as if she had posed for him that very afternoon. He descended the stairs like a cat, barely making a sound. “Must there be another?”

Tristan shifted his weight, but didn’t say anything because Nicola was there. She could always tell: the skin around his lips tightened and his eyes touched her and traveled away. “Nicola, why don’t you run on to the library? I have a few dull things to discuss with Marc.”

“In that case, Tristan, you must make yourself at home. May I take your coat?”

Almost reluctantly, as if he didn’t really care to stay, her grandfather removed his long coat and handed it to him. Marc turned away from them to hang it on a rack near the door.

“Is everything okay, Grand-père?”

He gave a curt nod, but his voice was gentle. “Of course, mon chaton. Run along now.”

As Nicola passed, Marc gave her grandfather’s coat a pat and winked at her as if at a private joke, smiling his self-satisfied Cheshire cat grin.

~~~

AMANDA was in the Devon College library, play the part of visiting grad student. Tristan had threatened to drop in to see her one afternoon, and she’d worried about the prospect since. It was important, she’d decided, to at least be true to one’s lies.

It was an inspirational setting for duplicity. An ivy-covered sandstone dome, the library was three stories tall and as wide in circumference. Inside, parquet floors gleamed, the shelving was of mahogany and a delicate staircase zig-zagged up from the center of the room. There were a great many plants and paintings hung on any wall devoid of books; famous quotes were gilded above the doors. Soft lighting shone on high-backed cushioned chairs of leather pulled to tables of the same mahogany as the shelves, and polished to a high reflective sheen. All it lacked was drippy candles and a picturesque smattering of dust on the books.

Ah, the joys of private funding. Yet beneath the opulence the library was more than functional. The computer system was the latest in technology and the collection vast for a college of its size. She selected a few fat psych texts and spread them on the table before her. Should Tristan arrive, she could hardly confess that her psychological “research” consisted entirely of conversations with him.

Five ‘dates’ in the last five days: one casual lunch, three elegant dinners, one lovely walk along the lake. Without even seeming to try, Tristan Mourault had monopolized her. All the while he was witty, worldly and lived up to his promises; he asked for nothing more than her company.

Whatever else he may or may not have been, Tristan was good company. He told her stories of his childhood, beautifully recreating Paris and the countryside, as well as his eccentric mother and father; he gave comical scenarios of his travels and education, and his early ill-fated marriage. But as soon as she attempted to bring up Gisèle, he’d do a perfect conversational pirouette and somehow the topic was back to her. Tristan’s evasiveness and her confessions had quickly become the norm. She called him a frustrated priest; Tristan only laughed, he said she didn’t know just how accurate that was. And then she could only think of Robin’s comment about his impotency, and blushed stupidly with embarrassment, and wondered if it was true. If any of it was true.

She would have to do something. All of Tristan’s attention was making her uneasy; she had no desire to exploit his grief over his daughter— if that’s what Gisèle truly was— and she could hardly consume four-course dinners and live in Robin’s quaint little world-class inn forever.

Amanda sighed, and stared blindly at a dry journal article on personality disorders, and replaying the dinner conversation of the night before. Had she started it?

“Having a male friend is fairly new to me, too,” she’d said carefully, over the Caesar salad. “But it’s nice. I don’t seem to do all that well with the other.” So yes, she had started it.

“Lovers?” It was so frank, and old-fashioned. Such a queer combination of both. No American can say ‘lovers’ with a straight face, but the French? It rolled off Tristan’s tongue.

But she’d managed not to laugh, and simply nodded.

“What was his name?”

“Whose name?”

“The name you’d like to forget; the one who’s here with us?” The only name Amanda could think of was “Karen.” Karen is the one here with us. Gisèle. But, of course, his interest was more prosaic. “Do not look so stricken, chérie; it doesn’t become you. Of course there will be someone. Back in Seattle? It’s none of my business, I know, but friends share confidences.” Tristan placed no quotes around friends, but each time he used the word she felt them there.

“Well, the last ‘someone’ was called Luke. Luke Barrow.”

He lifted his brows. Something crossed his face. Jealousy? Distaste. “Luke. How biblical.”

“Yes,” she said, dryly. “He was a regular saint. It was a huge mistake, but hardly the first and it’s over now. I’m not quite sure how it began, really. He wasn’t my usual type, but he was sort of flyaway and lost, I guess, and I was going to put him back together again. There’s a psychological term for that, I think.” She plunged her fork rather too fiercely into a crouton. “Stupidity.”

Tristan laughed.

“He had a habit of making himself disappear, and reappear again. Anyone but me would have known from the start he was married.”

“Perhaps you did.”

“Well, I don’t really make a practice of—”

“Unconsciously, chérie. Of course.”

And what could she say? It was true enough. She couldn’t have done a better job of it if she had made a practice of seeking out married men. “Maybe,” she admitted, grudgingly. “Maybe I can only feel things when they’re doomed to end. Desire things I can’t have. Lovely character traits, huh? The relationship before Luke was with my advisor. He was “separated’ from his wife when we met. I later learned he’d separated himself from her ‘emotionally,’ and never let her in on it.”

“Ah.” A slight poignant smile, sympathy in his eyes. “And what did you do?”

“I was a sophomore; he was the handsome psych professor. Brilliant. Misunderstood. We’ve been seeing each other on and off for four years.” She met his eyes. “Does that shock you?”

Chérie, I am not American.”

Amanda laughed. “Oh, that’s right. I can’t possibly shock you, can I?” She gave a wry shrug. “Well, the truth is I have terrible taste in men. They’re not always married, of course, but there’s always something: a secret drug habit or perverse fetish. Something.”

Tristan raised his eyebrows. “You’re drawn to perversity? How very refreshing.”

Amanda laughed. “Not really.”

“I think you’re attracted to men you will eventually have to leave, or who will eventually leave you. A psychologist would say it’s because you were left as a child.”

How had he done that? “Psychologists are a pain.”

“Not all of them. I find some of them very enchanting.” A practiced smile. “Especially those with a grievous taste in boyfriends.”

At least he hadn’t said lovers.

“May I ask you something, Amanda?” And before she could say no, he’d said, “The death of your sister seems to have affected you more than the death of your parents. Why is that?”

She should have seen it coming, and yet the change in subject was like being dunked in ice water. “Tristan. Listen, I know we’re playing true confessions, but—”

“We’re not playing anything, chérie.” He fingered the cuff of his dress shirt, avoiding her eyes. “Are we?”

One of us is... Amanda chewed without tasting; the lovely salad might have been made of Styrofoam. “Well, you say it like an accusation.” He hadn’t, of course; that was the way she had felt it. She sighed. “The one left behind always feels guilty for surviving, Tristan; it’s as if you can’t mourn enough. Who did I love most? I don’t know. Yes, it was Karen, I guess. She’s the one who stayed with me. They never found her body, and I can’t get over the idea that she’s still out there somewhere.” His face gave away nothing; he looked sorry for her. “She was my best friend. My mom supported us for the most part, but she wasn’t around much. She was unhappy. My father was a drunk, and the reason for her unhappiness. I guess I blamed them both.”

“For your sister running away?”

Her fork dropped, clanging discordantly on the china. “I never said she ran away.”

“She didn’t arrive at school, you said, and was found at the pier. I assumed...”

Karen wasn’t found at all. Her things were. She just skipped school.”

“She wouldn’t have left you.”

It wasn’t a question; it was a fish hook. And though Amanda had suspected as much herself, even as a child, she found a lump in her throat and defensive words on her lips. Was it because now she suspected that Karen had not only tried to run away, but succeeded? “No, she wouldn’t have. She was the only one I could count on. With Karen I wasn’t a problem, I was…” Amanda choked on the words. That hadn’t happened in a long time. She blinked away the sudden tears, embarrassed. “Damn,” she murmured. “I don’t suppose I’m used to good wine.”

“You’re not used to feeling, I think.”

And Tristan reached for her hand, then. He did nothing but cover hers tightly, as if to brace her, but a chill ran down her spine like a trickle of ice. “Is it not enough to know she loved you?”

“No, it’s not.” She lifted her eyes to his, and sighed. “I mean, it’s not that, Tristan.”

“Because,” he said, softly. “If she could leave you, so will everyone else?”

“Any more pop psychology clichés in your arsenal?”

“Clichés are clichés because they’re common truths, Amanda. I’m no psychologist, but the serpent is drawn to his own tail, I know. You feel abandoned, and so seek abandonment. The unfulfilled, duck fulfillment.” Yes. “So much of what we do is beyond our conscious control. Can we change our prophecies, I wonder?” He held her eyes. “Even if we wish to?”

 

Someone dropped a book and the report echoed through the quiet of the library, jolting her back to the reassuring academic world. Amanda sighed, tilting her head back to rest her neck. It was a dizzying view up to the domed ceiling. There was a beautiful mural there, surrounded by delicately scalloped wood: a Chaucerian figure at a crude table, writing on rags with a quill in candlelight. A figure from the dark ages. Had his feelings seemed elusive abstractions, puzzles to be solved? She thought not. Suddenly he seemed the more enlightened.

“Lovely, isn’t it?” It was the head librarian, whom she’d gotten to know in recent days.     

Amanda smiled. “Hi, Elizabeth. Yes, it is. I ought to look up more often.”

“A student named Daniel Ekland painted it. We expect great things of him.”

“A college student painted this? You’re kidding.” Amanda glanced around her and frowned. “They’re not all like that here, are they?” 

Elizabeth smiled. “Oh no, dear. Dr. Dresden’s students are unique. On the whole, the geniuses are in short supply. I find it rather reassuring.”

Amanda saw a young girl come through the double doors and glance around her, apprehensively. A music prodigy? “Is she one of his, too?”

Elizabeth glanced around. “Funny you should say that. She is, in a way. Lovely little girl. Not a student, of course. That’s his goddaughter, Nicola.”

His goddaughter? The lovely lonely little girl with no mother and no aunts. Of whom Amanda had hardly allowed herself to think. Nicola. Gisèle’s daughter. Her niece?

~~~

NICOLA didn’t know how long she had; she’d have to be quick. She cast a furtive glance over the library as if the students and librarians were spies planted there to do surveillance on her. What was she so nervous about, anyway? It wasn’t as if she was doing anything wrong; she just wanted the answer to one question: Who were Karen and Amanda Miller?

The library had numerous sources of information online: Elizabeth had explained the computer system to Nicola when Robin gave her a library card last year. It hadn’t meant much to her then: a huge network of databases containing archived academic journals, articles, newspapers, and doctoral theses. It was a research resource for the students, but Elizabeth had made a big deal of having Nicola choose a log-in ID and password. Now she was grateful. She selected a computer station in an isolated corner and maneuvered through the options to find LexisNexis. She double-clicked the left mouse button, entered her ID and the name of her beloved wire-haired terrier who had died: Brigadier. And instantly accessed newspaper archives from all over the country.

She cast a glance over her shoulder. There was no sign of her grandfather, but Elizabeth was smiling at her and a student beside her was staring. Nicola managed a wave and the sort of smile meant to indicate she didn’t want or need any help, and turned back to the screen.

Quickly, she typed in her search entry and held her breath. The search for “Amanda Nicole Miller” hretrieved only two results, but both were from nearby Seattle: one from the Times, the other from the Post-Intelligencer. The first was from 1986. It was a cast shot of a ballet company. No, a ballet school: Students from the Pacific Northwest Ballet School join the pros in a presentation of The Nutcracker. Nicola scanned the names. Amanda Miller was third row, center: a sugar fairy, from the look of it. The photo was black and white and grainy, but taken ten years after her snapshot. Nicola peered forward. Was that a dimple in her left cheek? Yes. Just like the little girl beside her mother in the photograph. But her hair was up and the chubby cheeks were gone. It was impossible to tell.

The second link proved to be a recent photo in color, a close-up. Amanda was very pretty, Nicola thought. Her hair was shiny and straight with honey highlights, like Nicola’s own. Her eyes were soft brown with flecks of green. She wore a cap and gown and a grave expression. Amanda Nicole Miller, Salutatorian of UW-Seattle’s Class of 1992.

But could it really be her mother’s Amanda?

Once again, Nicola tapped the keys. “Karen Miller” garnered a long string of results: notices of marriages and births, Karen Miller Named Miss Iowa. No. Young British Economist Lectures at Yale. No. Performance Artist Raises Hackles in Brooklyn? They went on and on, and Nicola’s stomach began to sink. This would take forever. Then, she realized she’d left out the middle name in her search and inserted: Louise. This brought up a series of linked stories and a wire photo.

It was a clear photo, a close-up, and there was no doubt in Nicola’s mind that it was her mother, and yet she was not as Nicola had ever imagined her. It was a school photo, though her mother had never been to school. Her hair was feathered and she wore a brown and gold diamond sweater that was hopelessly out of style. But she had the same wide eyes and clear fair skin. This girl was different from the triumphant young woman in the baby photo, or the polished, elegant woman her mother had become. Her cheeks were full and her smile less certain, the make-up lighter and less artfully applied. But her secretive, melancholy expression was as familiar to Nicola as her own face.

The photo had been run with several stories from the San Francisco Chronicle, cross-referenced with similar stories in the Examiner. They were all over fifteen years old.

 

April 16, 1979:

 

LOCAL GIRL MISSING SINCE FRIDAY

 

SAN FRANCISCO, CA— Karen Louise Miller, 15, of the Mission District was reported missing Friday by her parents: Patrick and Maureen Miller. She left home as usual that morning, but never arrived at Mission High School, where she is a freshman. Her absence went unnoticed until that evening, at which time calls were made to friends and family members. None reported seeing Miller that day.

Miller (photo, left) is a good student with no history of running away. She is five foot one with wavy brown hair, shoulder-length. Her eyes are blue. She weighs 95 pounds and was last seen wearing a floral top and jeans, beige sandals and carrying a denim backpack. Anyone with information should contact Detective Keith Mitchell with the San Francisco PD.

 

 

April 23, 1979:

ABDUCTION SUSPECTED IN MILLER DISAPPEARANCE

Police investigators released new information regarding the April 13th disappearance of 15-year-old Karen Miller today. An employee of The Daily Grind, a coffee house frequented by Miller, contacted police yesterday to report that he had seen Miller in conversation with an attractive middle-aged man on two occasions prior to her disappearance. This echoed reports from a clerk at Fran’s Flowers on Pier 39 and a security guard at The De Young Museum, according to Detective Keith Mitchell. All three sightings occurred within a month of her disappearance.

 

One account describes the suspect as a “prosperous-looking” man in his thirties with a height of six feet, and weighing approximately 185 lbs. He may have had a European accent. Other physical markers varied from source to source and there is some debate as to whether the suspect is the same in each case. San Francisco Police Chief, Thomas Felder, warns that such things as facial hair and hair color, clothing style, hats, glasses, etc., are easily altered, and claims he is encouraged by the multiple reports. “The abductors of teenaged children frequently form a relationship with the victim beforehand, gaining their trust,” he stated in a press conference this morning. “A profile is starting to emerge here. There’s a good chance someone else has seen this man with Karen Miller in recent weeks. We strongly urge anyone with information to come forward.”

 

Miller’s family and friends report no knowledge of her acquaintance with the older man. Officials are also said to be investigating the possibility that Miller left of her own volition.

May 1, 1979:

MISSING GIRL BELIEVED DEAD; BLOODY BACKPACK FOUND ON PIER

 

There is a tragic development today in the search for Karen Miller. The backpack she purportedly carried the day of her disappearance was found at Pier 31. Ted Hinley, a fisherman for Pacific Waters Co., spotted the backpack from the water, where it had been dumped from the pier and lodged on a ladder below, just inches above the bay at high tide.             

The pack was filled with the personal effects of Miller, 15, who has been missing since April 13. A source within SFPD reports the backpack was soaked in blood matching Miller’s blood type and a large gash in the denim was made with a heavy-bladed knife. This indicates the teen may have struggled against her attacker using the bag as a shield.

 

The grieving family has been at the heart of a heated debate in the way missing persons cases are conducted. Miller’s disappearance raised the question of laxity on the part of authorities where children fourteen or older are involved. “Too often,” Mrs. Miller protested in a statement to the press, “it’s assumed that teenaged children have run away from home. Critical time is lost while the parent is put in the position of defending their child to those who should be helping them.” She pointed out that the FBI was never called in on this case.

 

Following the grisly discovery Police Chief Thomas Felder issued an angry warning to Miller’s attacker, “The city of San Francisco wants you, and you will be found,” – as well as a promise to Miller’s parents. “We will not give up the search for your daughter.” Yet by all accounts, they search now not for a missing young woman, but for her body and her murderer.

 

January 28, 1980

ALCOHOL INVOLVED IN GOLDEN GATE CRASH

 

Patrick Miller, the driver responsible for the Jan. 22 accident that also killed his wife, Maureen Miller, and truck driver, Michael Ramsey, had a blood-alcohol level nearly three times the legal limit, San Francisco police said Wednesday.

"This was clearly a drunk-driving crash," Officer Doug McMillan said after receiving blood-test results showing the driver's blood alcohol was 0.28 percent. The legal limit is 0.10.

Patrick Miller, 37, was traveling with his wife in a 1977 Chevrolet Vega when it overturned. The car was speeding southbound on US Highway 101 near Dumbarton Bridge when its driver apparently lost control, drifting across two lanes. A truck transporting natural gas collided with the car, resulting in a fire that left both vehicles charred and all occupants dead before paramedics arrived. The crash occurred about 3 a.m. and closed the highway for several hours.

Sources report that Miller and his wife, Maureen, were overwhelmed by the loss of their daughter, Karen, abducted and presumed dead in April of this year. Miller’s sister-in-law, Gwen Lovett of Seattle, claimed the tragedy had only exacerbated his known alcoholism. “I can’t understand what made Maureen get into that car,” she stated in response to the blood-test results. The Millers are survived by another daughter, Amanda, aged ten, whom early reports had placed in the car with her parents. The girl was later located at the home of a neighbor. Lovett will seek custody—

Mon chaton?”

Nicola gasped audibly, and stood up so abruptly she toppled the chair. She had no time to close out the program. She used her body to block the monitor, and with trembling fingers pushed the power button off. As the screen went black, she turned. “Grand-père, you scared me—”

“I’m sorry, ma chère. Her grandfather was setting her chair upright again. “You were lost in your own world, n’est-ce pas? Are you looking for a book?”

Nicola nodded stiffly. Her mouth wouldn’t form words.

Tristan merely raised a brow and mused, “No more card catalogs, eh? I must be getting old. Why don’t you show me how the computer works?”

“Uh.” She felt her cheeks flush, and dropped her eyes. “Can I show you next time? I’ve already found what I was looking for.”

He looked faintly puzzled. “But you’ve written nothing down. Are call numbers also passé?”

“No, but I can remember them.”

“My smart girl.” He studied her a moment, and then smiled, reached out to touch her chin.

His touch was cool, the touch of a stranger. But Nicola made herself smile back, forced herself not to flinch or run or scream. Not to cast so much as a glance over her shoulder as she walked to a shelf as if she knew where she was going, what she was looking for. But once safely behind the shelves, she did look; she couldn’t help it. She turned in time to see Tristan lean forward and press the monitor on. Her ears rang and her breath was shallow; she hid among the books.

~~~

LUKE had been unable to eat breakfast and so found the first vodka tonic going to his head, but Robin was buying, which meant they’d keep coming. They were meeting for lunch to discuss marketing strategy— which, similarly, meant Robin would strategize and Luke would listen. They had met at a restaurant called From the Terrace, and in spite of the gathering clouds they were seated outside beneath the tree tops and heat lamps. The terrace offered a charming view of downtown, and served overpriced tapas and drinks. It was popular with the business set, which in Devon consisted of boutique clerks and innkeepers, gallery directors and restaurateurs. And, Luke supposed, the odd wannabe artist and fraud.

They were not alone. Beside Robin sat a girl Luke would not have believed real if she didn’t breathe and talk and otherwise animate. Her long dark hair fell in delicate waves and her face was as he’d long pictured the heroines of romantic novels: bewitching green eyes and pouty lips, delicate cheekbones that made her every expression both graceful and blithe. And her body. It was enough to give one religion, though she conjured up more pagan visions of forest nymphs and diaphanous robes, unicorns and otherworldly pleasures. Luke was charmed by her company before she’d ever said a word. He recognized her at once, though they’d never spoken. She had been Robin’s date at the fated party: she who preferred big beds to picturesque views.

Her name was Chelsea Delaney and she was just twenty-one. When introducing her, Robin said simply that she was “his actress.” His students were all into different arts. Robin, it seemed, taught them “Art philosophy.” And what was that? “All there is to be taught.” His son Josh was a music prodigy, or had been once; he hadn’t played publicly in ages. He’d managed to get himself kicked out of every respectable music school in the states, including Julliard, and finally come to Devon at the age of sixteen. He was responsible for his father’s unlikely turn as teacher.

Though now, looking at Chelsea, Luke wondered. Tonight was her opening night in A Streetcar Named Desire, and her presence here due to a ritual they had of lunch and champagne before first nights. Luke’s presence was due, of course, to the Gisèle Paintings, and the two combined because Chelsea and the other students had recently been given a preview of them. Would Luke wish to hear her reaction? Luke would not, particularly, but displayed a dutiful enthusiasm. Chelsea was a good audience, Robin assured him: a natural aesthete and a ‘sensualist.’ He said this last as if it were a mundane quality, akin to being a pragmatist or a Methodist or a Virgo.

As a sensualist, it was no surprise that Chelsea was over the moon about the paintings.

“They’re just heavenly,” she gushed, biting her lovely lower lip. “I’m so sorry about Gisèle.”

To hear her name spoken out loud stung. But, of course, the Gisèle Paintings would soon put everyone on a first name basis. “Thank you,” said Luke. Is that what one said?

“Is it very uncomfortable for you to discuss it?” she asked, all naïveté. “With the paintings you’ve made her live forever.” Her femininity washed over him like spring rain.

With a twinge of longing, he thought of Amanda and the troubling fact of Robin paying her hotel bill. Rob’s quick observant eyes were on him now. On the surface, everything was very amiable, yet he had the distinct feeling that something large and unpleasant was swimming under the boat. He must know all about her, about the affair. Luke had searched Gisèle’s desk after her death, but found no sign of the photographs. Did Robin have them? Had he brought Amanda here to Devon? But why would he do that? And why would she come?

And so he found himself grateful for Chelsea and her bountiful distractions. Robin ordered tapas in fluent Spanish, and another round of more intelligible American drinks. Luke said, “You say the paintings were part of an assignment? It doesn’t sound like your typical homework.”

Chelsea smiled at the word ‘homework.’ Wasn’t it still called that nowadays? She glanced uneasily at Robin, who had dispatched the waiter and said simply, “It’s all right, love. Go ahead.”

But Luke doubted it was all right, from her expression.

“Well, the assignment was to analyze the relationship of artist and subject.”

Between he and Gisèle? Luke drained the last of his drink. Recruits would be coming soon.

“Some of us were a little surprised by the minute focus on her body. Gisèle’s no more than an object in many of them and taken together, it seems obsessive. Ashleigh felt the nudity was a kind of contradiction: that it showed an uneasiness with her body, with her sexuality, not the opposite.” This girl had no uneasiness with it, clearly; she did not even blink along with the word.

“Well, that’s probably true. And who is Ashleigh?”

“My writer,” Robin said.

His writer. “Ah, yes,” Luke said dully.

“And Daniel agreed.” Luke had heard of Daniel Ekland: a painter, who Robin had managed to say on several occasions with a perfectly straight face was “clairvoyant.’ Chelsea ducked this, but said, “He’s the most intuitive of all of us, and he was looking at it from the perspective of the artist. He said that the nature of the nudity, well, it’s just not the way a husband would paint his wife.”

Not the way a husband would paint his wife.

Sweat broke out on Luke’s brow, and like manna from heaven, the waiter arrived with the drinks and several small steaming plates: crispy mussels, prawns, baked manchego cheese, and god-knows-what concealed under a blanket of bubbling tomato sauce, cups of gazpacho. He reached for his vodka tonic and managed to keep his voice cool. “Well, I don’t understand why this, er, Daniel would say a thing like that.” And as he said the words, yet another source of paranoia struck him: maybe the kid actually was psychic. “How the hell would he know? Is he married?”

Chelsea tipped her head, a flicker of surprise in her eyes. “Well, I guess it’s just that a husband could look at his wife all the time. He could simply touch her.” Innocently, she twirled a strand of hair around her finger. “The paintings, or so Daniel’s theory was, are a replacement for.”

Ouch.

She dipped the edge of her bread delicately into the gazpacho. “But I think that’s what makes them good, Luke. Honestly. All the longing. I thought they were very sensual. Rob tells me she didn’t pose for them at all. You have a really fabulous imagination.”

Luke glanced involuntarily at Robin and for a moment felt panic rise. He was damnably cool, as if they sat discussing stock market quotes, but there was an unhealthy flicker in his eyes. And Chelsea was an actress after all. And his student. She fastened those guileless green eyes on him, and Luke felt for all the world as though he were being set up. Was Robin trying to make him confess that he hadn’t painted them? Had Tristan told him? For Christ’s sake, Robin may have guessed the truth; he was damned near clairvoyant himself.

“Well, art is a subjective thing, as I’m sure Robin’s taught you,” Luke bristled. “The artist is least equipped to explain his art.” What a load of crap. “I don’t know myself just how they came to be.” That was true enough, and encouraged by this, Luke went on, “Gisèle was a ghost. Not quite solid. That’s the truth of it; it was part of her beauty. I guess that’s why the paintings are so focused on the physical. Gisèle’s thoughts might have been written in Sanskrit. I suppose her body’s the part of her I knew best.” That was quite good. His father had always said he could lie like a rug.

“Well.” She tipped her head, brushing her hair behind her ear with her fingers— a gesture so quintessentially feminine that it seemed Luke’s heart stopped at the simple abstraction of it. “I’m just puzzled. If you didn’t know her all that well, and the paintings are only the product of your imagination, how come she’s so real in them? Much more real than she seemed in real life. It’s almost as if she’s trapped in the paintings, as if she only really existed there.”

“I’m not sure if that’s a morbid notion, or a romantic one.”

Chelsea shrugged, and smiled self-effacingly. “Probably both. I only met her once, but at the party, I felt as if she was acting out a role.”

Which you would know all about...

Robin still sat strangely silent, his dark eyes attentive, calmly eating a prawn. They were supposed to focus on selling the paintings, not dissecting the hell out of them. Chelsea’s arm brushed against Robin’s sleeve as she reached for her champagne. There was not a moment in the entire time Luke had spent in their company that they were not touching, lightly at the elbow or shoulder, a brush of the upper arm or elbow, his hand at the small of her back. There was an odd ownership in his body language toward her, and when the wind blew the sexual tension seemed a physical touch upon Luke’s skin. He could have done without it. He had a sudden surreal vision of this “assignment” as a strange sort of foreplay for Dresden and his young protégés; he pictured them pawing over prints of nudes, a cerebral pornography.

Chelsea went on matter-of-factly, “You must have known her better than you think, Luke.”

Luke stared down at the ice puddles in his empty glass. “Right.”

Robin broke his reticence at last. He said, “You realize you must have seen her last.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Oh.” Chelsea glanced quickly at Robin, and then at Luke. She flushed guiltily. “Well, it’s just that I saw you. That night.” Luke’s heart had ceased to beat, and sirens whirred in his ears. “I got up for a moment. It was about three-thirty... At least, that’s what the clock read. I thought you’d gone out there for the paintings. I didn’t realize she was staying there.” A meaningful pause. “I didn’t even mention it to Robin at the time. I didn’t know it was important.”

Luke downed half of his drink in a gulp. “It isn’t.”

Robin said, “Still, it’s strange you failed to mention it.”

“It didn’t seem like anyone’s business.” Luke’s mind raced. After all this time, he hadn’t expected this. Robin arched a patient brow, selected another prawn, and waited. Luke pinched the bridge of his nose hard between his fingers, and sighed. “I couldn’t sleep; I remembered the paintings were still set up out by the pool, and I went to take down the easels. That’s all. I had no idea she’d be out there.” Sweat trickled down the back of his neck. “She came out of the cabana—”

“Were the lights on?” Robin asked quietly.

“The lights? I don’t— well, yeah, I guess I must have turned them on. It was dark.”

“But you were aware the investigators placed her death earlier. Due to the lights.”

“So, what?”

“So,” said Robin, as if explaining to a child. “The overhead lights weren’t on the next morning. The timed lights for the paintings went off at three. She was stumbling in the dark?”

“Well, that’s probably why she slipped.”

“But why wouldn’t she turn on the lights, Luke? Why would she go out to the pool at all?”

“Maybe she was sleep walking, I don’t know. I don’t know anything. She scared the hell out of me, coming out of the cabana; she looked like she was expecting someone else. Maybe she was. It sure as hell wasn’t me.” Luke wiped his brow, and looked up. “Damned heat lamps. Listen to me, it was nothing really. She turned around and left as soon as she saw me. I turned and left when I saw her. Earlier, in her room, we argued. I didn’t want to argue anymore.”

Robin said, mildly. “You failed to mention that, as well.”

“What?”

“The argument.”

“Come on,” Luke pleaded, agitatedly. “You know ours wasn’t a great romance. Hate to disappoint you, Chelsea.” She was frowning. Artists were always painfully in love with their models; husbands torturously besotted by their wives. She probably thought Robin was in love with her. “I’m afraid your friends win the day. Gisèle was uncomfortable with nudity, with sexuality. And with me, mostly.” He made a hapless motion with his hands. “Hell, I loved her anyway.” He couldn’t seem to stop talking; he had to convince them that he had tried. He’d done everything he could. It wasn’t his fault. Luke stared down at the tablecloth. “Listen, she didn’t kill herself over me, if that’s what you think. She had her issues, to say the least, but she didn’t kill herself over anyone. She wouldn’t have left Nicky. Sometimes, I think that’s the only thing I know about her, but I know that much. I have no delusions about her leaving me. She told me she planned to—”

At last the record wound down. How had his glass gotten empty? Luke tipped it back anyway, the dubious expressions of his interrogators made fractured and abstract by the melting ice.

~~~

THE other foot did not immediately fall. In fact, nothing happened at all. Nicola chose her books blindly, fat ones from the row in which she’d chosen to hide. When she had the courage to peek again, she saw Grand-père at a table laughing with a student as though nothing was wrong. As she watched, he came towards her and she couldn’t quiet the hammering of her heart. Maybe the computer program had miraculously ended somehow, timed out. Maybe he’d seen nothing at all.

He smiled down at her affectionately; he was the same as always. He wanted to introduce her to someone, he said. She was a member of his book club. “…Amanda Miller.”

“Amanda Miller?”  Nicola repeated, aghast. “What do you mean?”

“Mean? Nothing at all. Only that I should like you to meet her. I enjoy her company—”

“She lives here? And you— you’re dating her?”

He smiled, teasing, “You mustn’t worry, mon chaton. You will always have my heart.”

“But Grand-père, you....” Can’t.

He had already turned and was walking toward a table; it was the same table where he had been laughing earlier, and where Elizabeth had been standing with the pretty student who had been staring at her. The pretty student was Amanda Miller. The graduate in the photograph had materialized as if by some dark magic. Her mother’s sister. Her aunt?

Amanda couldn’t possibly know the truth, but knowledge was coming to Nicola in waves; a picture had formed and she realized the kiss she’d seen in the garden was exactly what she’d thought it was. Not fatherly. Not fatherly at all. Her mother’s father had died in a car crash.

Nicola trailed after Tristan miserably. He’s not my grandfather at all. Who was he?

~~~

“Amanda, chérie. May I introduce my granddaughter, Nicola; Nicola, this is my ‘friend,’” (Amanda inserted the quotation marks), Amanda.”

She should have been more prepared, but Robin had not prepared her. Nothing had. Her sister’s daughter? Her very existence seemed an utter impossibility. Amanda had the urge to reach out and touch her to make sure she was tangible— to hug her. “Hello, Nicola,”

Nicola was a beautiful child. Almost disturbingly so. Her face was lovely, and utterly unaware of its loveliness, vulnerable. Her eyes were oddly adult, an unusually deep shade of blue, framed by long lashes and against the pale skin appearing deep and unfathomable, like little oceans. Little oceans that were sizing Amanda up. “Hi, Amanda. It’s very nice to meet you.”

“You, too.” If she had met her on the street, would she see traces of Karen in her? Probably not, but they were there, vanishing and returning elsewhere like the flashing lights in an eye exam: right here before her, then in the periphery, back again, gone. There was something in her bone structure: the resolute set to her jaw that Karen sometimes had, and a cagey quality to her posture as if she expected to be squashed at any moment by an unseen tennis shoe, but wasn’t going to be an easy bug to crack. She was at the awkward age Amanda remembered all too well, all arms and legs, her bones too sharp at that time when baby fat was still in vogue. She crept into Amanda’s heart all at once. A little too brightly, “Which books did you choose?”

She carried four very fat volumes, and set them on the table gratefully: The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, A volume of Proust. Plutarch’s Parallel Lives... and a lit-crit text that must weigh nearly as much as Nicola. De-crying Lot 49: Deconstructing Pynchon.

Amanda’s eyes widened. “My goodness. No light reading for you.”

Nicola reddened slightly, but Tristan smiled. “She’s read everything in the children’s library in town. We can’t keep up with her.”

Amanda raised a brow and smiled. “When I was your age, I was reading Ellen Conford.”

The girl’s face was radiant when she smiled, and momentarily relieved the painful, fragile quality. “Really? I love her, too. I’ve read them all. My favorite one’s called, And this is Laura.”

“Oh, yeah. Isn’t that about the psychic girl? There’s another one, at summer camp...”

Hail, Hail, Camp Timberwood.”

“That’s it!” Amanda knew more about children’s books than was healthy; they had been her best friends for a long, long time. How about Dear Lovey-Hart, I am Desperate.”

Nicola nodded. We interrupt this Semester for an Important Bulletin?”

They laughed simultaneously.

“How about Lois Duncan?” Amanda asked.

“Oh, I love her.”

Tristan gazed at them, a little lost. “Well, you two have a great deal in common.

But this seemed the wrong thing to say to Nicola. An inscrutable expression crossed her face, and she dropped her eyes. She must simply be painfully shy, Amanda decided, uncomfortable with eye contact. She asked gently, “Have you read much Madeleine L’Engle?”

A Wrinkle in Time?

“Yeah, but she’s written a lot of others, too. My favorite character was Vicky Austin. She’s in a whole series. I still think of her as a friend.”

The radiant smile reappeared. “I do that, too. I haven’t read those, but I will.”

Tristan scooped up her weighty present selection. “We’d better be on our way, mon chaton. These ought to keep you occupied for a few days.” Nicola only nodded; she seemed almost as reluctant as Amanda to say good-bye. “We’ll let you get back to your studies, chérie. Until tonight.”

Distractedly, “Yes. Yes, good-bye. I hope we’ll get to talk again sometime, Nicola.”

“Me, too.” Her eyelashes fluttered and she seemed poised to say something more, but Tristan had transferred the weighty stack of books to one arm and put his other around Nicola’s shoulders. Amanda watched goose bumps appear where he touched her upper arm. “Bye.”

Tristan guided his granddaughter to the checkout desk near the door and Amanda watched as the librarian scanned Nicola’s books. What was up with Plutarch, Pynchon, and Poe? She couldn’t possibly be that advanced. Nicola cast an apprehensive glance over her shoulder as they exited through the double doors. It was disturbingly clear that she was frightened of something. And was it only Amanda’s imagination, or was that thing her grandfather?

~~~

The lovely Chelsea Delaney had played her part and exited the stage.

Robin asked Luke if he’d like another drink and he gave a nod, though what he’d really have liked was to get the hell out of there. Gesturing to the waiter for another round, Robin moved carelessly on. “You were quite frank with Chelsea. I’m surprised.”

“Well, she was quite frank with me.”

“It’s a very small taste of what the press will be. Don’t expect many of the questions to do with technique.” A meaningful pause. “You won’t want to be quite so frank with them.”

“Is that what this was? A test?”

“I hope it wasn’t too uncomfortable.” Yet, Robin’s mild tone implied no hope of the kind. He was at his most dangerous when mild. “Is there anything else you’ve left out about that night?”

That was theatrical. “No. What the hell do you think I’ve left out?”

“Well now that I recall it, Luke, you seemed upset as the party was winding down. You’ve just admitted she planned to leave you. And now you’ve been placed at the scene of the crime.”

Luke’s heart thudded. A trickle of sweat rolled down the small of his back. “What crime?”

“Let me think. Oh, yes. Murder.” He spread manchego calmly on a slice of baguette. “You see, I don’t believe it was an accident, and I don’t believe for a moment it was suicide. That rather narrows the field.”

“I don’t give a damn what you believe—”

“Calm down, Luke. Have the last prawn.”

Absurdly, he did. He chewed; he swallowed. “I am calm. But—” Luke broke off, reaching rapidly for his goblet of water; his mouth was on fire. “It’s fucking hot!” he choked.

“Is it? I should have warned you. Do you know spicy food actually produces a rush of adrenalin? I rather enjoy it. It’s like fencing with a worthy opponent.”

Luke’s eyes were beginning to water.

“Try sugar,” Robin suggested, opening a pack amiably. “Water makes it rather a lot worse.”

Luke dumped the sugar into his mouth, and chased it with vodka tonic. Slowly, the effects began to wane. He met the eyes of his opponent warily, and spoke in low tones. “Robin, if you’re honestly telling me I’m a suspect in Gisèle’s murder, the whole idea’s insane.”

“I’m afraid it would be insane not to say it. It seems to me there are two possibilities. The first is the crime passionale: a moment’s madness, a shove into the pool. That’s how I envisage you doing it. On the other hand, it may have been more calculated. There is some evidence to that end. Someone may have drugged her with sleeping pills and drowned her.” He frowned. “That doesn’t seem your style. Nicola mentioned the traces of water in the tub. Someone may have drowned her in her bath, although they would have to transport her to the pool without being seen.”

“What about the chlorine—”

“Chlorine leaves no trace in the lungs, Luke. It dissipates almost instantly,” Robin mused. “The evidence begs certain questions: Why would she take a bath, down a great lot of sleeping pills, and decide to leave her cozy room for the cabana? It’s a riddle. Did she tell you why she’d gone?”

“No, she didn’t. I told you, we hardly talked.”

“Yes. You hardly talked because you had argued earlier. And she was going to leave you.”

“Wait a minute.”

“I’ll be honest with you, Luke. I think you’re a prick in many ways, some of which I’ll detail in a moment, and I’m absolutely partial to you as a suspect.” Luke gaped at him, unable to believe his ears. “But I’ll grant you, it’s not wholly impossible that someone else did it. If the crime was premeditated, I have to consider the possibility that it was Tristan. He’s a premeditated sort of person, very patient, whereas you’re rather blundering and impetuous. I think you know he was unhealthily attached to Gisèle, but I have no evidence of a riff between them. Do you?” He sighed. “And maybe I’m looking at it all from the wrong angle. Maybe it was for the paintings.”

Luke spoke carefully. “You mean someone may have tried to steal them, and she—”

“No, no. I mean that someone had already stolen them.”

Luke simply stared.

“Did she threaten to come out with the truth, Luke?” After a horrible silence, Robin waved a dismissive hand. “For Christ’s sake, you can drop the charade. Do you think for a second I believed you capable of the Gisèle paintings? I’d put better odds on pigs taking to the sky in V-formation.” Robin’s eyes were very dark, his voice emotionless and cold. “Let’s abandon the pretense, shall we?”

Luke’s blood pounded in his ears; all else, magically receded. He gazed around him. Now he understood why Robin had chosen a public place; the murmur of civilized voices buzzed all around them, punctuated by careless laughter and the clink of glasses. There would be no scenes. It would be civilized. Luke said quietly, “I didn’t kill her, Robin. I wouldn’t harm a hair on her head.”

“Oh, but you did, I think.” Robin traced his index finger idly along the chilled rim of his martini glass. “But tell me about the paintings, first.”

The paintings. How Luke wished he’d never laid eyes on the damned things. He spoke quickly, like a kid caught in a lie. “Listen, I didn’t want to claim them. Ella practically forced me to. What was I going to do? Force her to admit that Tristan, her own father, had done them? I thought— well, I hoped he’d done them without her knowing, somehow. I know it sounds nuts, but I convinced myself that’s how it was, Rob. I thought I’d sell the paintings, and get her away from there. That’s all I wanted, honest to god. But then, that night I saw her kiss him in the garden. She kissed him, you understand? And it made me so sick to think that all this time—” And yet all of Luke’s sickness had been replaced with utter grief and sorrow. Remorse. It overwhelmed him and tears stung his eyes. Embarrassed, he sat there, blinking them away.

“It’s all right, Luke. You were sickened. Of course, you were.”

He felt a hot rush of anger. “Don’t be so goddamned patronizing. You must have known the truth about them all along. All along. And you never did a damned thing.”

“You should be careful with words like ‘truth,’ Luke. You may not know the truths you think you know. Shall I tell you how I think it happened?”

“I think you had goddamned better.”

“Well, I wonder. Was seeing Gisèle with Tristan an aphrodisiac for you?”

“I— hell, no. What do you mean by that?” But he knew exactly what he meant.

The waiter cleared their plates then and Robin calmly fished around in his jacket pocket; he pulled out a cigarette case and extracted one, tapping it on the marble tabletop. The waiter made his oblivious exit. “You know as well as I do that Gisèle’s autopsy results showed signs of recent sexual activity. You confirmed this, as I recall. It was one of the reasons investigators decided against suicide.” He lit his cigarette; Luke watched the tip glow red. “By all accounts, the night was a joyous celebration of the paintings: the artist and the model, husband and wife. How terribly romantic.” The words dripped sarcasm. “Things culminate in the usual way, and afterward the wife takes a late night stroll to look at the adoring husband’s paintings once more. Add too much champagne and sleeping pills to an impetuous choice, and you have a neat, tragic accident.” He took a long drag off the cigarette, and exhaled. His dark eyes were pitiless. “But let’s put the thing into context. In light of new information, affairs and incest and such, suddenly it doesn’t seem like the most romantic of nights. To what extremes did your moral outrage carry you? I think you raped her, Luke.”

“Are you out of your—”

“Yes, I know. Husbands don’t think they can rape their wives; the ones that do it don’t like to think so. But I’m guessing it wasn’t quite consensual. Did she take a bath afterward? Did you realize you could never really have her? Did you keep thinking of all the things she may have done willingly with Tristan?”

Luke swallowed bile; his head was dizzy, vertiginous, and his stomach was a washing machine cycle on high: churning prawns and gazpacho and vodka. “If you really thought that, you wouldn’t be here. You wouldn’t be doing the exhibition. You have no proof of anything at all.”

“Then why are you so rattled, Luke? If you’re innocent, you have nothing to fear. We’re just having a conversation.”

“You really are debauched, aren’t you?” He started to rise.

“You’re leaving before we even discuss the exhibition?”

“I don’t need it this bad.”

“Don’t you?”

There was a poignant pause. At last, Luke sat. He said quietly, “Why would you go on with it, if you believe all this?”

Robin narrowed his eyes; he exhaled a ribbon of white. “In the beginning, I agreed to an exhibition for Gisèle’s sake. Everything I’m doing is for her sake, and Nicola’s. Let’s put it this way, Luke. You may not be the fish I’m after, but your lies have caught you in the net. And that doesn’t trouble me much. To my mind, Gisèle was murdered, and I intend to prove it. You’ve said Gisèle was expecting someone out there. If that someone actually exists, you may just be a bloody bastard and not a killer. And here, you have three things in your favor. One: my instincts are troubled by an easy answer, and the truth is you’re too damned obvious. I simply can’t believe you’re so stupid as to parade yourself through a well-lit glass corridor after disposing of your wife’s body. Nor to confess to me an argument that culminated in murder. Two: I insisted the gallery cut would go to Gisèle for any sale, and she agreed. In the past, she’s always refused money from me. That means she had a reason. For the first time, she had both need and desire for financial independence from Tristan.”

Luke felt a leap of hope. A small redemption. “And what’s the third?”

He frowned. “The third is that a very good reason for her to desire independence from Tristan has recently fallen into my lap.”

“But you’re not sharing?”

“I’m afraid not.”

“And you really believe your good friend, Tristan, capable of murder?”

“The sad truth is, Luke, under the right circumstances we’re all capable.”

“And suicide isn’t a possibility?”

“Not if I knew Gisèle. And I did.”

“If you knew about her and Tristan, why didn’t you stop it?”

He contemplated Luke. “There was nothing to stop.” But there was an uncertain note in his voice that Luke had never heard before.

“You’re not sure of that, are you?”

Robin didn’t reply.

“What exactly does the exhibition have to do with any of this?”

“Exhibition. A telling term. Tristan has asked me not to show the paintings, but they are going to be shown. And he will be there. Likewise, you must play your part, and Gisèle will be there en force. It will be revelatory, I think.” Robin’s gaze was withering. “This show is going to put pressure on all the right people, and one of them is going to snap. No man escapes himself, wouldn’t you agree?”

And Luke did agree. “I didn’t kill her, Robin.”

“Glad to hear it. I’ll be in touch.” Of that, Luke had little doubt. “In the meantime, I don’t think I would do any interviews if I were you.”

“Right.” Luke rose, nearly toppling his chair. He couldn’t think of a cutting exit line. He never could. He turned from the table to find that the lunchtime rush had ended and the crowd had thinned; he strode across the terrace in a daze. Clouds overhead threatened rain, and the lake from here was a roiling gunmetal gray. And it struck him only then. All this, and Robin hadn’t said a word about Amanda. Was she yet another weapon in his arsenal? What was he saving her for? 

He cast a glance over his shoulder at Robin, still sitting in the shadows, a profile in black unhurriedly smoking, and Luke didn’t have the nerve to ask him.

What part did he have to play in all of this?

He had never quite known, and it was as if Robin had already forgotten Luke. He was utterly lost in his thoughts, the lit end of his cigarette hovering in the air like a firefly.