The most wanted, p.30
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       The Most Wanted, p.30

           Jacquelyn Mitchard
 

  Then there came that one cicada-loud afternoon when I, swooshing away on an upstairs bedroom wall, overheard Arley laughing so loud I had to go out to see what had happened.

  Charley had been planting sago palms in one of the series of interlocking circle gardens in the front yard, and he was trying to keep Arley from helping him. “The fruit around the seed and the seed itself are both poisonous,” he’d been telling her. “You don’t want to eat this, Arley. People end up with things like Parkinson’s twenty years later if they eat one of these things.”

  “Charley, why in the hell do you think I would eat one?”

  “Well, you might, by mistake, and you’re pregnant. . . .”

  “I don’t have brain damage from being pregnant! I don’t eat things by mistake.”

  Charley noticed me then.

  “Look, Annie!” he announced. “It’s like having real dinosaurs in your yard! These plants watched tyrannosaurus rex walk around . . . well, not these, exactly—”

  “Oh gee,” Arley put in. “I’m glad you said that, because otherwise I would have thought that these here very plants were a few million years old.”

  Charley took my wrist and pulled me closer. “Let’s ignore her,” he told me. “You’re supposed to ignore kids. . . . See, there’s a male sago palm and a female sago palm. When they’re little, they look mostly the same. When they grow up, they look different. Like male and female people. The female here, her leaves will spread out more, open, like a giant daisy; but the male’s will have this sort of dome shape on top, like an open umbrella. When they’re pollinated, the females produce the bright-red seeds. . . .” Charley had taken my hand, using it as a pointer to lead me through the various parts of the plant; and suddenly our faces were very close together, and I was inhaling the salt-and-chalk smell of Charley, and I knew he was aware of my inhaling it.

  We both looked up, embarrassed, and Arley, not quite sure what it was she’d seen, suddenly evaporated back into the shadows of the front porch. That night, I had a dream about Charley and me making love. I woke up, sure I’d cried out, sure I’d woken Stuart, and I couldn’t get back to sleep. I thought it was the heat, or a sign of the emotional and hormonal changes to come. Then, just two nights later, I had another version of the same dream.

  We fell into a routine, during that vigilant and yet languid time of heat. Arley’s doctor visits. My office and field days. Work on the house. The occasional night out for me with Jeanine and Patty, often with Arley along. The even more occasional night out for Stuart and me, during those few hours he could steal from the last convulsive days of effort by the expiring defense center on behalf of its condemned. Half the time, I remember, I felt as though I were asleep, my actions and reactions taking place outside me, without my direction. I had to remind myself that it was Arley, not I, who was pregnant.

  I took Arley to Lamaze classes. The plump and shiny young matrons there seemed to make it a kind of parlor game, attempting to figure out whether I was Arley’s mom or something more salacious. After the breakout hit the news, though, you could see recognition light up their faces, serially, week by week, and you could tell who’d read the newspaper, who’d seen CNN. I knew Arley must have noticed their whispering, the none-too-careful attention they gave to seeming not to pay attention to her. But she was all quiet grace, keeping her eyes on me, asking for her pillow, getting ready to practice breathing during transition. Her every small gesture of dignity made me more and more proud.

  I knew her tension had to be consuming. But when the police called, she betrayed little. She never asked for the phone. She’d only raise her eyebrows. “Nothing,” I’d say. And Arley would walk away.

  Between Arley and the house, I’d begun living paycheck to paycheck, as I hadn’t done since law school. There was the Evenflo car seat I laid out fifty-nine dollars for after Arley sheepishly showed me the one she’d been given by the lady who ran the rummage at Mater Christi, which looked as though it had already survived a crash. There was the nursery furniture we bought accidentally at SuperBaby when we were supposed to be out buying canned tomatoes to finish making gumbo. Maternity jeans and nursing bras—do you know how much those things cost, just because they know they have you cornered? I had to let Stuart think I was sending money to OxFam, buying Italian shoes, hiring Leonardo da Vinci to restore the woodwork at Azalea Road. Even Jeanine, whose heart has been pierced by lost love or compassion so many times I’m surprised it doesn’t leak, couldn’t understand why I teared up when I described giving Arley her shimmering green raincoat, and why it touched me so much that she kept it hung on the wire she’d strung across one wall to dry her watercolors, as if it were a piece of art to be admired. Arley’s eager gratitude had no manipulation in it, and she didn’t pretend not to be thrilled by everything I gave her and everything we did. Not even the wan faces of my clients, nor their toddlers with wide brown eyes like night creatures clinging to their mothers’ knees, had ever roused such protectiveness in me. Compared with my peers’ overfed and sullen teenagers, for whom love was no more than interference, she was like some kind of air fern, reared from nothing, thriving by accident.

  On Arley’s due date, we went for an ultrasound. The physician’s assistant, one of those breezy Donna Reed types in pornographically revealing white slacks, reported a tiny baby, with possible intrauterine growth retardation. That was common among young teens—they barely ate enough to keep themselves alive, after all, she told us. Anyway, she breezed on, missing the date was no big deal: the “real young ones” often got “their dates mixed up.”

  “Well, she couldn’t have got her dates mixed up,” I told her. “She only had sex one time.” Even as air hit the words, and before the knowing smile, I realized what a chump Donna Reed must think I was. To her, Arley would have looked like everyone’s worst nightmare—a tenth-grade Lolita. It took both hands to hold my tongue while she explained that “Doctor” was due for vacation week after next, so she would call the hospital and schedule an induction for the following Thursday, if nothing “popped” before then.

  Pop.

  God.

  That was Friday.

  On Saturday, against my better judgment, I called Arley’s mother about possible complications with the baby. Rita was all compassion. “I expect she’ll have her a time,” she said. “I know I surely did. Trouble into trouble, I say.” Rita worked at the very hospital where Arley was to be induced, if it came to that. Was she working that day or night? I wanted to know. Would she be able to come and be with Arley during some of her labor? “No, no, I’m sorry to say. Thursday, that’s my night out. I reckon it’ll be late before I’m home. I’ll call you, how about? And you can tell me what’s what.” I was furious, but what had I expected? It would break Arley’s heart that her mama wouldn’t even come to comfort her as she gave birth, I was sure. But Rita would be something less than no use. A cat was more devoted.

  Then on Sunday, so that one day should not pass without some painful event, Stuart asked me out for a drink. “Pencil me in, babe,” he told me. I was suspicious.

  At Amor Ausente, among interns cheering or bemoaning the residency offers they’d all received that day, Stuart told me about his own offer. The law firm in Florida had come through with a good one. Stuart was going to be able to go on doing at least most of what he’d done in Texas, but for paying customers and, with the firm’s backing, a fair number of those who couldn’t pay. They’d double his salary.

  “I’m happy for you,” I said, then wondered, how must that sound? “I mean, I’m happy. But Florida . . . ?”

  “Well, Anne.” Stuart sighed. “The offers here and in New York were just too . . . just ordinary litigation work. Interesting, but I can’t do that right now. I’m not ready to be a civilian yet. The work can really make a difference, Anne; it’s not a time to give up. . . .”

  The work, I thought. Not “my work.” The work. Like a preexisting condition.

  “When do they want you to start?”
r />   “Next week.”

  “Next week, Stuart? You expect me to resign my job and . . . and move to Florida next week?”

  “No, Anne. I don’t. You can have all the time you need for . . . whatever you need it for.”

  “What’s that supposed to mean?”

  “Just what I said.”

  “Stuart, we didn’t meet yesterday. I know when you’re pissing about something.”

  “It’s nothing. It’s just . . . Jesus, Anne, you’ve been so tender in your concern for my career. . . .”

  “Well, I’ve had a few things on my plate. In case you haven’t noticed, Arley’s about to have a baby. And I took my last bit of vacation for next week to help her! So I can’t even get time off to come with you and help you get your stuff settled. . . .”

  “I didn’t expect you to,” he said. “At least, not now. But Jesus, Anne. Arley. Arley. Arley. Just what do you expect will happen with this kid? Not to mention with her kid . . . Do you think she’s going to go on living off you?”

  “She’s not living off me, Stuart.”

  “Well, living off you or off Jeanine, or whatever. What I mean is, do you think you’re going to be some happy family unit after she has this baby? That she isn’t going to find someone even worse for her than the excellent Mister LeGrande? And as fast as she can?”

  “She isn’t like that, Stuart. And even if she did, I’m her friend. I’m her lawyer. I’m not her mother.”

  “You’re more involved with Arley’s life than you are with ours.”

  “I’m not. It’s just been a series of crises, is all.”

  “I’ve been having a crisis of my own, Anne.”

  Right, I thought, shaking the ice in my drink. But your crises are chosen. Crisis is your line. You got into your line because you knew, somehow, somewhere, it would never give you time or space to get your teeth into anything more extended than the World Series. It’s all a big game, Stuart. A big, meaningful, life-and-death game. The death warrants will keep on coming, like clay pigeons, and you’ll always try to shoot them down. If not here, in Florida. If not in Florida, in Utah. I thought of my house, thought of Charley’s hand guiding Arley in the gentle, patient sweep of the whitewash brush.

  “I know how much of a strain you’ve been under,” I said carefully.

  “I don’t know if you do.”

  “Well, I don’t know if you appreciate my feelings with regard to all that’s happened, either.”

  “I know that you’re having some kind of overheated mommy lust for this kid—”

  Suddenly furious, I said, “I am not. Stuart, I am not.”

  “It’s completely obvious. You’re over there with her and Plant Man every day and night, nesting your brains out—”

  “What? What a lousy thing to say!”

  “As if seven years at Women and Children First had never happened, or taught you anything about these women . . .”

  “Stuart, are your clients poster children for wise choices and moderate behavior?”

  “Not to mention that you have no time in your life left for anything except her and the house, so what would happen if you did have your dream come true and we had a baby? I’d probably see you on weekends, if you could squeeze me in—”

  “It’s you who’s always so busy, Stuart. Your eight-day weeks. Your thirty-hour days. And I was supposed to be ready to be there for you whenever you got the time—”

  “Anne, stop it,” said Stuart. “This is lousy.”

  It was.

  We sat there in silence.

  And we spent most of the week in silence, Stuart tearfully packing his boxes with those things he couldn’t part from even for the few weeks he’d spend holed up in the bachelor studio his new firm would provide in Miami—his Nolan Ryan signed ball, his running shoes on their stretching rack, the two Sinatra Duets CDs. Without ever actually saying so, we talked as if I’d follow him for a visit almost immediately—when at least I had Arley sorted out—to search for a job of my own. And, Stuart said once, it was entirely possible that Florida wouldn’t work out, that he’d be back in a few months. We didn’t say anything about our wedding. We didn’t say anything much.

  Early on the morning Stuart was to leave, Arley called me, sobbing. “I don’t want you to miss Stuart on account of me!” I hushed her. It wasn’t only her, I told her, realizing the truth of it as I said it. It was a whole world of my own, a world outside the consuming demands of my work, which had somehow opened, by chance, and embraced me: My house. Arley. And Charley Wilder. I couldn’t ignore the fact that I didn’t want to leave behind Charley’s loony, beguiling anecdotes about paint and architecture and social history and plants. I’d asked him a few nights before what his degree was in, and he’d taken a while to ponder before he’d announced, “You know, I don’t think I have an entire one. But I probably have three-quarters of one in English, almost all of one in graphic design, and another one almost done in horticulture.” A few moments later, he’d added, “I guess I already knew what my work was going to be. You know what they say: you can lead a whore to culture, but you can’t make her think.”

  No other human being could have elicited a laugh from me with that rank old sexist line.

  My little world didn’t, however, do much to lessen the velocity of my tears on the way to the airport. Stuart looked a little perplexed; it wasn’t good-bye forever, after all. We’d spent plenty of days and nights apart in our life together. Still, we never really talked about our good-bye at the airport that day and what it might have meant. Stuart kissed me and got out of the car. But then, I remember, he leaned back in through the window. “Never change, babe,” he said, his face the sweet and serious Jewish monk’s face I loved so entirely it was as if we were siblings, reared on one stalk. It seemed unthinkable that Stuart and I could ever really be apart.

  Our whole personal library of pre- and perinuptial fights suddenly seemed inconsequential. All the way home, I was besieged by images of regret and abandonment. I’d be lost without Stuart. I already was.

  Then I thought, I’ll go and see Charley. But immediately thought, how could you, Anne?

  It didn’t matter, in any case.

  When I got home, Jack Becker was in front of my house with one Carla Merrill, agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

  It soon became clear that Langtry Mowbray, a white female, aged twenty-one years, had disappeared from her mother’s locked house in Avalon, Texas, leaving behind all her earthly goods, so far as anyone could tell, except a pair of multicolored cowboy boots. A blood-drenched nightgown was found trampled on the ground below the second-story window of the bedroom now hers, once Arley’s. There was blood on the walls of the room and on the open window, but not on the metal extension ladder that lay among the chile pequin bushes. Langtry’s mother, Rita Mowbray, had been at work at Texas Christian Hospital when whatever took place at the house took place. Ms. Mowbray was quite calm. Her greatest anxiety was the ladder, which she was careful to explain was not hers, and to insist that it be removed before it ruined her shrubbery.

  “Where is Arley?” I asked Jack, trying to restrain a scream. “Where is Arley right now?”

  “She’s in her apartment,” Jack said. “And we have a unit on her, front and back.”

  “Would she have a way of knowing?”

  “I can’t read her mind, honey,” Jack Becker said. “If she’s watching TV, she knows.”

  I grabbed my purse to turn and run right back down the walk.

  But the FBI agent broke in: “We need to talk to Missus LeGrande.”

  “Not tonight.”

  “Miss Singer, this is a homicide investigation—”

  “She’s having a baby at six o’clock in the morning! She’s fifteen years old!”

  “If she’s been in contact with her husband—”

  “She hasn’t been in contact with her husband or anyone but me!” I pleaded with Jack. “You know it’s true, Jack. Her own mother doesn’t even know where
she is. . . .”

  “That is true,” he agreed.

  “I’m not saying you don’t need to talk with her. But this kid has been through so much. A few hours—”

  “Can mean a cold trail,” Carla Merrill assured me.

  “This is a terrible idea for her physical health, Miss Merrill,” I said then, scrambling for my lawyer gears, settling down. “As you know, a girl this young is at considerable risk.”

  They stood there, both of them, staring at the curb. Then Carla Merrill said, “Well . . .”

  I knew then that they’d give Arley one last night of peace. Jack agreed to keep in constant phone contact with me—I’d stay at Arley’s apartment. But as I went to gather up my briefcase and my overnight bag from my apartment, Merrill touched my arm and looked me in the eye.

  “You know, it’s just possible that this has nothing to do with Dillon LeGrande,” she said. Langtry, she went on, had no shortage of unsavory pals: she was apparently a successful call girl, with a real following among minor-league Hispanic hoodlums.

  But there was one thing. Merrill hesitated.

  “What? What? Tell me right now.”

  It just couldn’t get out to the media; she’d have to rely on me for that.

  I wanted to smack her one. But then she finally told me.

  There’d been something found at the scene: a cream-colored card with letters cut from magazines to spell out a single line: “What?” I asked. “What line?” She told me: “Wait for me by moonlight.”

  Right then I couldn’t have known the significance of that particular bit of poetry. I thought the card found at Rita’s house, with its spooky line, was one of a kind. But of course it was not.

  CHAPTER SIXTEEN

  Arley

  IF THERE IS A HELL, I’m going to it, because most of what I remember feeling when I finally found out about Lang was that her disappearing, however it happened, screwed up my first few months with Desi. After all, Langtry had no use for me, and I hadn’t really known her except for a few hours every few months since I was a little girl. I was so sick and frazzled after Desi was born, and then finding out about Lang, that I couldn’t even nurse Desi properly at first. And all the while, Annie kept acting like the Nazis were coming to break into the secret annex. She carried her ugly little gun everywhere and got me shuttled off to the cabin at light speed, even before I was supposed to leave the hospital.

 
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