Celine, p.1Peter Heller
ALSO BY PETER HELLER
The Dog Stars
Kook: What Surfing Taught Me About Love, Life, and Catching the Perfect Wave
The Whale Warriors: The Battle at the Bottom of the World to Save the Planet’s Largest Mammals
Hell or High Water: Surviving Tibet’s Tsangpo River
Set Free in China: Sojourns on the Edge
THIS IS A BORZOI BOOK PUBLISHED BY ALFRED A. KNOPF
Copyright © 2017 by Peter Heller
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York, and distributed in Canada by Random House of Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited, Toronto.
Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: Heller, Peter, 1959–author.
Title: Celine : a novel / Peter Heller.
Description: First edition. | New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2017.
Identifiers: LCCN 2016026943 (print) | LCCN 2016034200 (ebook) | ISBN 9780451493897 (hardcover) | ISBN 9780451493903 (ebook)
Subjects: LCSH: Women private investigators—Fiction. | BISAC: FICTION / Literary. | FICTION / Thrillers. | FICTION / Family Life. | GSAFD: Suspense fiction. | Mystery fiction.
Classification: LCC PS3608.E454 C45 2017 (print) | LCC PS3608.E454 (ebook) | DDC 813/.6—dc23
LC record available at
Ebook ISBN 9780451493903
This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual people living or dead is coincidental, except for Celine and Pete and Hank, who are based on real people. There is a lot of Celine’s family history in this novel. Much of it is true, and some of it is imagined.
Cover image: CSA Images/Getty Images
Cover design by Kelly Blair
Also by Peter Heller
A Note About the Author
Reading Group Guide
With all Love
To my Mother, Caroline Watkins Heller—
Artist, Spiritual Warrior, Private Eye.
And to Lowell “Pete” Beveridge,
The Quiet American.
It was bright and windy, with the poppies flushing orange down the slopes of the bluffs, all mixed with swaths of blue lupine. The Pacific was almost black and it creamed against the base of the cliffs all along Big Sur. He loved this. He hitched the rucksack higher on his shoulder. Since Jence had died in the war it was the only thing he really loved. Good haul today, too, a solid handful of jade pebbles from the cove below. He stopped to catch his breath. The trail was steep here, the rocks like steps, his pant legs soaked to the thigh and heavy. Just a second here, he was in no hurry this afternoon.
He heard the click of rock and voices and looked up the trail and saw the family. The little girl was practically running down. She was wearing a yellow-and-blue summer dress a little like the flower-covered cliffs and she was yelling. Must be her mother right after, trying to catch up, trying to watch her step in her leather sandals, her arms held out for balance like wings. She was calling “Gabriela! Gabriela! Cuidado! Querida!” She was very pretty. She wore the same dress as her daughter and when the two got close he noticed they were like big and little twins: olive skin and green eyes, long black hair in ponytails. Well. It was a day for beauty. The father came after. He took his time. He wasn’t worried about a thing. He wore a black T-shirt and he was handsome like James Dean—older than Jence, maybe ten years, too old for the draft. The girl Gabriela yelled “Hi! Hi!” as she breezed past, and the mother brought herself erect when she saw him and flashed a shy smile. He held up his hand for the dad and spoke.
“Pretty good today. The rougher seas have brought down more stone. But be careful with the tide.”
“Thanks. We will. Thanks.” The father touched his arm and continued down, out of sight.
The man hooked his thumbs in the rucksack and climbed. He got to the top of the bluff and sat on the little bench that was just a slab of wood on two rocks. He closed his eyes against the sun and smelled the warming yarrow, the salt. Nice seeing the family. He and Jence also came here when Jence was a kid, and when they got home they covered the kitchen table with bits of jade. He still did that now. He came home and he didn’t think about his son blown to shreds fifteen months ago in Vietnam, and he pieced the stones close together like a jigsaw, like a growing green island, so there was no room to eat anymore. He ate his meals on the porch.
He thought he heard shouts. Shouts and cries. Hard to hear over the wind and rush of surf. People got so excited about jade. Well.
Gabriela screamed. The foam rushed cold over her bare toes and as it slid back it vanished in a million tiny bubbles. What a glorious afternoon. White seagulls lifted off the boulders and terns dove. The waves broke and spumed over the outer boulders that were covered in shiny dark kelp. The waves rushed white through the rocks right up onto the gravel of the tiny cupped beach and turned the stones black and when they all glistened was when you could see the bits of green.
“Gabriela,” Amana said to the girl. “Querida. This one—exactly the color of your eyes! See? But it’s shaped like a bird! Here’s a little fish, look. I am going to find one that looks like your eye.”
“Your eye!” The girl shrieked with delight. “One that looks like your eye! I am going to find one for you.”
They kneeled, heads almost together, black hair flying in the wind, and sifted the stones. They raced. Paul helped Gabriela a little, but mostly he sat on a rock and closed his eyes. The wind was almost cold. He was thinking that he should have brought some sausage and cheese, that they could stay here maybe till sunset, when he heard the girls scream. He opened his eyes. A bigger wave had pushed whitewater right over the entire swath of gravel, right up to the wall of the sheltering cliff, and his wife and daughter were standing, soaked, and laughing.
“Hey! Hey!” he yelled. “Come higher!” He laughed too, but what he felt was alarm. He looked past Amana and Gabriela to the outer rocks and saw the dark swell. It was the next wave and it was the second in a set and he watched it as if in slow motion: the wall lightening to green as it rose, rising impossibly tall, the guarding boulders out in the cove dwarfed beneath it, the quivering top frayed by wind and then a piece of it curled and collapsed and the wall fell: a surge of whitewater chest-high roared in over the black slack water of the inner cove and he was slugged and knocked over, his shoulder and neck hit rock, he came up lunging out of ice foam to see the tumult sucking back.
Then he sa
The call had come while she was at her workbench wiring the naked taxidermic form of an ermine onto a rock, beside the skull of a crow. The plan was to have the skinless ermine looking down at his own hide tacked to the rock. Her sculpture had a distinctive dark streak. When Celine wasn’t solving cases, she made pieces from anything at hand, which often involved skulls. The year before, the window washer had been fascinated by her art, which was displayed throughout the open studio, and the next day he brought her a human skull in a bucket. “Don’t ask,” he said. She didn’t. She covered it immediately in gold leaf and it stood now on a pedestal by the front door, looking elegant.
Now, she felt like this ermine. She felt skinned and lost, without protection.
Her own fur had been her family. She had Hank, of course, but a son, no matter how old, was someone to be protected, not the other way around. When the phone rang, she almost didn’t answer it, but then she thought it might be Pete calling from up in the Heights, needing grocery-shopping help.
“Hi, Celine Watkins?”
“This is Gabriela. Gabriela Ambrosio Lamont.”
“Gabriela,” she whispered, trying to place the name.
“You don’t know me. I went to Sarah Lawrence. Class of ’82. I saw the story about you in the alumni magazine: ‘Prada PI.’ ” Gabriela laughed, clear, bell-like. Celine relaxed.
“That was silly,” Celine said. “I mean the title. I’ve never worn Prada in my life.”
“Chanel doesn’t alliterate.”
“Right.” Celine closed her eyes. The name was distinctive and it sounded familiar. Hadn’t the girl had her own small story in the magazine?—about a show of still-life photographs in a gallery in San Francisco. Celine seemed to remember a portrait of the woman and bits of biography—she was pretty, maybe partly Spanish. Her father had been a photographer, too, hadn’t he? Famous and very charismatic. The story had interested Celine.
“I remember you from an article.”
“Hah! The exclusive club of the alumni magazine profiles,” Gabriela said.
Pause. “I hope it’s okay that I called you. Out of the blue.”
“Yes, of course.” Celine had been in her business a long time; she knew that nobody ever just called out of the blue. They had been on a certain trajectory for a while, they deliberated, they picked up the phone. They were like the pilots of small planes approaching an airport who call the tower, finally, for instructions to land.
What Celine didn’t know was if she had the strength. It was one year and one day after the Twin Towers had fallen. She could still almost smell the char, still see the air gritty with ash, and remember how the wind blew bits of charred financial statements and Post-it notes across the river where they fluttered over the dock like lost confetti. She could not have imagined a sadder finale to a grim year.
Her younger sister had died that May. She remembered how bright, how tender seemed the cottonwoods along the Big Wood River in Ketchum, Idaho, the morning Mimi left. She had helped her go—the handful of pills, the long kiss on the cheek. How she had walked down the drive, how the leaves spun in the wind, and how when a gust came through it swept the old trees to a darker green like the hands of a harpist lifting a somber note off the strings. And then in July she got word that her older sister, Bobby, had a brain tumor. It was a flare-up of a cancer five years in remission. Celine went to Pennsylvania to visit, to help, and there was not much to do as Bobby died within three weeks. It was almost as if the youngest sister’s death had given the eldest sister permission to take the deep rest she had longed for.
And then the first plane hit and Celine went to her window and watched the plume of black smoke rise into a clear sky. She was riveted. She lived fifty feet from the pier in an old brick loft building kitty-corner to the River Café. It was almost under the Brooklyn Bridge, Brooklyn side, thirty yards from the East River, and with the windows open she could hear the current rip and burble against the pilings of the dock. She pursed her lips and tried to get enough air. She did not move. Pete left her alone. When the second plane tore through the sister tower to the south she shuddered as if it were she herself who had been slammed and ripped. Lying in bed that night while she cried silently beside him, Pete realized that Bobby was the North Tower and Mimi the South. And of course the collapsing buildings were much more than that, too. They were a burning message that a certain world had passed. Her sisters had been the last of the family she’d been born into. Celine’s inner and outer world mirrored each other.
Celine was sixty-eight then. Her body was more frail than it should have been for an active strong-willed woman as a result of four packs a day for thirty years, and though she had quit ten years ago, the smoking had ravaged her lungs. She usually refused to wear oxygen, she was too elegant, or vain.
So she had stood in the window and struggled to breathe. She stared at the skyline where the two improbable towers had been and felt the constriction in her chest: the grief of this unreal, this towering loss that just then seemed the sum of all loss. She was aware of the half-full bottle of morphine pills she had in her gun safe upstairs, the pills in their labeled orange plastic bottle that bore Mimi’s name: “Mary Watkins, For pain, one pill every four hours, not to exceed six pills per day.” But she would never go that way. Nor would she use one of the four handguns from the same safe, not on herself. She was too curious, for one. About how everything unfolds—and folds back up. But she didn’t know if she had the will to do any longer the work she was born for. Which was saying, in a way, that she no longer had the will to live.
Celine Watkins was a private eye. It was an odd vocation for someone in the Social Register who had grown up partly in Paris, partly in New York. She may have been the only PI on earth whose father had been a partner at Morgan’s in France during the war. The only working PI who had come to New York City when she was seven and attended the Brearley School for girls on the Upper East Side, and then Sarah Lawrence. Where she studied art, and at twenty-one spent a year back in Paris, where she apprenticed with an expressionist and was proposed to by a duke.
She also had what Mimi called the Underdog Bone. Celine always rooted for the weak, the dispossessed, the children, for the ones who had no means or power: the strays and homeless, the hapless and addicted, the forlorn, the remorseful, the broken. One couldn’t count the skinny trembling dogs her son ended up loving, nor the chaotic families that stayed
The cases she took were for the Lost Causes, the ones who could never afford a PI. They were never about leverage or retribution or even justice, and they were often performed pro bono. They were usually about reuniting birth families. So she found the missing, the ones who could not be found—she gave a mother her lost son, a daughter her lost father—and her success rate was a staggering 96 percent, much better than, say, the FBI. She had worked for them, too—once, and she would never do it again.
Gabriela said, “I’m staying with an old college friend up in the Heights. On Garden Place.”
Celine was still holding a pair of small wire cutters in her right hand. She set them down. She closed her eyes. She hadn’t been to Garden Place in years, but she had gone often when her son, Hank, had had playmates on the street. Those years. Of early marriage and motherhood. She could almost smell the streets on the south side of the neighborhood, eroding brownstones, maple leaves, and the brown crunchy seedpods of the locust trees. Wilson, her first husband, was living in Santa Fe now, with a woman thirty years younger.
Celine by Peter Heller / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes