Friday, February 24
Lady Obsession kills. She dumps the body of the climber
into the blue crevasse. Chokes the arteries of the gourmand.
Strangles the reluctant object of desire. Sometimes she kills by
accident. Sometimes she kills by design.
Sometimes, Obsession is a murderer’s best friend.
Not every obsession is grand. Lloyd Bunker was driven by his need to avoid stoplights. Perhaps he couldn’t bear the moments of self-criticism that pounced on him at any pause in his forward motion. Maybe Lloyd’s demons could really get at him when he was backed up in traffic at the intersection known to the locals as Five Points, where East 152nd, St. Clair, and Ivanhoe come together in the shadow of Collinwood High.
He was happy to enumerate, to anyone who would stand still for it, the painful statistics: If you were heading south on 152nd, the total wait would be one minute, forty-five.
“And what’s worse,” he’d continue, the light of recollection firing his eyes, “that includes a full twenty-second lead allowed to oncoming vehicles, and all you can do is sit there and watch everybody else get to go. And don’t get me started about just missing the light and having to sit through the whole thing twice.”
Lloyd’s fingers would flex as he related this, as if drumming on an invisible steering wheel. Most people, even people who liked Lloyd okay, even the one or two who actually loved him, would murmur something sympathetic at this revelation and back away. Many of them knew he had similar numbers for intersections all over town.
On the night in question, Lloyd was told to pick up a package at an address off Euclid Avenue in Euclid. He liked how the avenue and the city names were the same. “Symmetrical,” he mused about it to himself. Satisfying how that all matched up.
The waiting was making him jumpy. Lloyd hated leaving the GTO outside unattended. They weren’t making cars like his anymore. It was the nicest thing Lloyd had ever owned. A total classic. 1967. V-8. 440. Black vinyl, bucket seats. “Linden Green” exterior. He didn’t think of it as green, though. Green was for grass. Linden was the name of a tree and the tree’s color wasn’t all that good either. He’d looked it up. Online had images of everything. No matter what anybody called the color, Lloyd’s GTO was the color of wind. Or rushing water, maybe. Fast like that. Pontiac should have come up with a better name.
He shivered. This place was haunted by the ghosts of too many stolen cars.
The minutes ticked by while he stood, feeling like a god- dam jackass, on the freezing, damp concrete. He was a courier tonight, they’d said, and it seemed to him that the courier should get more respect. Even if he wasn’t permitted to know what he was couriering. He’d always felt, his whole life, that he’d come up painfully short in the Respect Department. Sometimes he could still hear his dad say, “You’re pathetic, Lloyd. What’s the matter with you?” He said that to himself sometimes, too. It made his eyes burn and his chest clench up when he thought how unfair—
But here at last was the man with the upfront money.
The envelope was fat. Lloyd had to stop himself from checking to see if it was all there. He’d never done a courier job before, but the deal was sweet. Whatever they were putting in the trunk of his car must be worth a lot to somebody. All he had to do was drive it down to Bratenahl, meet the guy, turn over the package, and the whole ten grand would be his, tax-free. It crossed his mind again that the logic, or lack thereof, of this plan might spell T-R-O-U-B-L-E. But he’d said yes and, anyway, he was already caught up in mapping his route.
The quick and easy way to get to the address would be to turn right onto Euclid, go a couple of miles, turn right on Noble, then right onto 152nd, and roll all the way to Lake Shore. From there, it was straight and smooth to Bratenahl and the gate, the long driveway, the porte cochère, where his package would be unloaded.
He’d looked up porte cochère so as not to appear ignorant, but as far as he could tell it was a glorified carport. He’d done a test run. Piece of cake. Empty-looking house. Lake view.
But now, at 11:45 on a Friday night at the end of February, everything grim and frozen, with a thin fog of snow in the air, that plan didn’t have much appeal. For one thing, at the very heart of that route was the goddam Five Points Intersection.
Plus, with the Cleveland Fifth District Police Headquarters parked, like, two blocks away, and who-knew-what in the trunk of his GTO, Lloyd could be stuck in a risky situation for a minimum of one minute, twenty-five.
So Lloyd altered the flight plan he’d filed with the guys. When he got to the Noble intersection, he kept going straight. Due to the late hour, a lot of the cross streets were blinking amber. Plus he proceeded to hit it lucky a couple of times. He was booking on toward downtown. Except for one pair of dim headlights behind him, he had the road to himself.
The snow picked up with bigger flakes and the swirl of rising wind. He’d better pay attention to how he stepped on the brakes now, but—good news!—he mostly didn’t have to even slow down. He was moving smoothly, slightly over the thirty-five-miles-per-hour limit. Green. Green. Green.
Occasionally he pushed his luck just a bit for an amber, but so far, he was pitching a perfect game. A near thing at the corner of Euclid and Mayfield, but all good. Lucky. His heart was pumping, his fingers, lightly resting on the steering wheel, tingled pleasantly. He felt alert, happy, almost powerful. Definitely in command.
He noticed, with a little grin, that the car behind him was closing the distance. Probably wanted to see what it was like to do an all-green run with a pro.
When he passed Severance Hall, before the turn to Chester, Lloyd told himself that when this job was done, he’d take Loretta to a concert of The Cleveland Orchestra. You didn’t refer to it as the Cleveland Symphony if you didn’t want to sound like a dumbass. Lloyd knew that for sure. He could learn.
He’d buy himself a good suit. Fancy shoes with a little bit of lift to them. A fine, thick topcoat that would camouflage the spare tire. He’d always felt ill at ease, almost scared, around rich people. But not this time he wouldn’t. Loretta would be impressed, too.
The sad feeling was sneaking up on him. She was so pretty. So smart and sweet. All the women who’d turned Lloyd down, and suddenly here was Loretta, saying she loved him. “Her Lloyd.” Even though she knew him pretty well. When he took her to the concert, he’d say it back this time. I love you, too, Loretta. He blinked. His eyes were burning again.
And, anyway, how many of those classical dumbasses ever had five-thousand dollars in their glove compartments? Not too damn many, he figured.
Severance was dark. The richies were tucked in all safe in their mansions by now.
He eased down onto Martin Luther King Drive. Right turn on red with a perpetual green arrow. Sweet. Still going strong. The perfection of this run must be an omen. Lloyd’s life was on a roll, ready for a big change.
He sailed past the VA Hospital and its shadowy parking garages. Lloyd never rode roller coasters and hollered woo-hoo, but he imagined he could be having that kind of moment now. He wasn’t one of those stupid, crazy, out-of-control guys, though. This was dead serious.
In his preoccupation with his mission, Lloyd was oblivious to the beauty of MLK on this night. How the boulevard snaked through Rockefeller Park, tracking alongside the icy black coil of Doan Brook. How the massive stone bridges hovered. Under the dim glow of streetlights, the statues and monuments in the cultural gardens were apparitions cloaked in snow. In India’s garden, Gandhi, frozen midstride with his staff in hand, wore a robe of white. None of this touched Lloyd because he was about to realize his lifetime goal of a one-hundred-percent Green Light Run.
He’d forgotten about the five-thousand dollars in the glove compartment and the five-thousand he had coming. Of his package he had no consciousness at all. He knew that, after the VA, there was one, single, solitary light on all of MLK and that was before the last bridge. No matter if that light was yellow, or even dead red when it came into his view. On a night like tonight he could slow down until it turned. If it was green, he could simply speed up. His heart was racing now.
He tried to calm his breathing, not think too far ahead. As he rounded a turn, he could make out the last bridge. The light was red. Good. That light was only fifteen seconds. An easy stretch of road with the brook a meandering shadow on his right. He was golden. He slowed, just enough. Nothing could stop him now—
As if in response to that thought, the unthinkable happened.
The GTO made an odd, muffled sound like a small backfire, and the engine died.
Saturday, June 17
I read a book once about Einstein’s E=mc2 formula. Before that, I’d never understood that you can’t go faster than the speed of light. No. Truly. You cannot. I assumed that Einstein foolishly ignored the fact that you can always press down a little harder on the accelerator. Apparently not. The laws of the universe do not allow for this.
I have a corollary to that law: There has got to be a thread-count of sheets that is the most threads you can ever jam into a single sheet. After that, add a single teeny thread more, and nuclear fission or fusion, one or the other, occurs. However, that maxed-out sheet, if you can afford it, is the very epitome of sensuosity. I know “sensuosity” is not a real word, but there’s a certain level of sensuousness that requires the invention of a whole new vocabulary.
My significant other, Thomas Bennington III, PhD, can afford a Speed of Light Formula Sheet such as the one I’ve described. In fact, as a five-hundred-fifty-million-dollar-MondoMegaJackpot-winner, he could probably afford a stack of sheets of this quality about a mile high. That’s how crazy rich Tom is. And I am, by default. Since I share his sheets and much, much more.
I met this Thomas the III, hot, blind, associate professor of English literature, in the middle of Lake Shore Boulevard in Cleveland, Ohio, where he was standing dazed and vulnerable after being honked at by an impatient woman in a Hummer. I rescued Tom and his groceries, plus his lottery ticket, from the street, and took him and his sexy white tee-shirt home on the bus to my run-down but charming cottage.
That first twenty-four hours changed everything. It was the Bulldozer of Fate. We had dinner and fell immediately, if not in love, definitely in like and absolutely, no question, in lust, and got started kissing out by the edge of my lakeside cliff, within the sound of my neighbor Ralph’s annoyingly loud TV.
The kissing which, let me say, was everything kissing should be, got all interruptus when Ralph’s TV blared out a number Tom recognized as the exact one he’d played to prove to a kid that you would not win the MondoMegaJackpot, even if you picked your very own, special, lucky numbers.
After that, the Mondo Ball really got rolling, and before the night was out, there was mayhem spread all over the place. But the Bulldozer of Fate (hereinafter, BOF) also delivered another opportunity for kissing and much, much more before the dawn went ahead and broke on the next day, which is when the news of the murdering began to break, too.
Before the BOF moved on, Tom and I were in love. That hadn’t changed. We were also in danger most of the time and that hadn’t changed either, but it was not as much in our faces right at that moment as it was during our first Mondo month. No surprise, however, that Jackpot = Chaos in Tom’s universe. I myself am ambivalent—on the more positive end of the scale.
I now knew, however, that, great sheets aside, there are many things unlimited money can’t buy. Real security, for one. Another day of life if someone is holding a gun on you. True love.
On a more mundane level, it could buy me a world-class glamour haircut, but, ten minutes post-salon, Glamour Girl would be gone. Again. And there’d be the ordinary, brown-eyed, friendly-as-a-golden-retriever-and-not-entirely-a-dog Alice Jane Harper. Cute, yes. Glamorous, no. But, once upon a recent time, I didn’t have enough money to get my car fixed and now here I was with a Tom Bennington. The Third. PhD.
I could deal.
Back to the bedding news. We owned only two sets of the E=mc2 sheets. One in white. One in a sage-y green, which I particularly admired. Tom didn’t care about the color but the man appreciated thread count. And the senuousity of it, too.
The sheets are pertinent to this report of the first case of the newly established T&A Detective Agency—of which I, Allie Harper, am The “A” and The Recording Secretary—because this case began for me right there between those sumptuous sheets. With yet another extremely disconcerting interruption.
It was eight a.m. on a gorgeous, warm Saturday morning in June. Tom and I were lying side by side between the aforementioned sheets in our temporary, but over-the-top-vast-and-luxurious rented mansion in Bratenahl, Ohio, a highly upscale, lakeside village, surrounded on three sides by the City of Cleveland. A watery-smelling breeze was moving the curtains gently in and out of the open windows, and I could hear Lake Erie right outside, murmuring a few suggestions about some wicked stuff Tom and I could be getting into soon.
Since this report is mostly for my own benefit—and possible memoirs—I should make a note here that if you are lying naked between Einstein-quality bedding, not only is the fabric that touches you thicker and smoother than anything you can imagine, but your own skin feels incredibly velvety, too. The infinitesimal interface between your skin and those sheets just vibrates with electrical heat.
Add to that the thought that your skin—all of it—is about to meet the skin—all of it—of someone you’re absolutely out-of-your-mind in love with?
Red alert, Alice Harper. But in a good way.
Imagine: I was lying on my back, allowing the top sheet to caress my entire front. Tom was lying on his front under that same top sheet. He reached out his arm and slipped one warm, highly welcome palm onto my bare, pink, sheet-caressed front. I let him do this. Gladly. Tom may be blind, but he always knows exactly where his hands are.
I am shameless.
“Mmm,” he proposed.
“Mmm, Mmm,” I replied, stretching deliciously so as to improve contact.
The doorbell chimed.