Jimmy Beaufort’s windshield wipers shave off water in perfect rhythm as he drives through the open gate to Veronica’s house. The tires of his rebuilt Monte Carlo pummel the stenciled concrete where glints spit into his headlights as if he’s coasting through crushed glass. Veronica is just the sort of person to embed glitter in concrete.
“What the hell am I doing here?” he asks himself. If there’s a score to settle, his ex-wife owes him. Her gypsy voice on the phone must have cast a spell on him, but the mansion he sees at the end of the driveway is bringing him out of it. Instead of putting her off two days he should have made it two weeks. He whistles with surprise. A white BMW sportster just off the assembly line is parked in front of the four-door garage.
From the looks of things, his ex has tapped into an affluent spirit. Which makes his presence even more puzzling. What could she possibly want with him after all these years? He considers gunning the motor and fishtailing out the big gate in a cloud of pollution and noise.
He looks at his watch. He’s an hour late for the appointment. The thought of her waiting inside satisfies some need to punish her. He sucks it up, gets out of the car, shuts the door, and stands in the drizzle looking up at a house with more grandeur than style.
Beaufort mounts wide steps to reach the covered piazza. Obviously Veronica’s claim about being down on her luck was her way of negotiating his price. He should have asked five hundred bucks just for showing up to listen to whatever she has to say.
He slicks rain out of his hair and brushes it off his coat. Beside the doorbell the name Montgrove is engraved on a brass plate. Montgrove. Sounds like a bloody vampire or a pet muskrat.
Somebody on the inside jiggles the shiny knob and tows the hefty door open. A blonde servant with a lingering gaze motions him into a foyer big enough for a horse show. Beaufort regrets Veronica’s discount less than his own gullibility.
The blonde leads him to the library where he sits on an uncomfortable chair and, as soon as she leaves, he shifts to a couch which, like the chair, is padded tighter than a baseball. In a matter of minutes, he’s standing. On one wall are glassed-in shelves which contain, instead of books, dolls dressed in every conceivable motif and color, some of them in glitzy dresses with glossy hair. Rows of zoned-out eyes stare at him as he stares at them. He checks his coat pocket for a mint chew. In the midst of the painted faces, puny chins, and lacquered curls, is a plain, olive-skinned cloth doll he recognizes. The black twine of her hair is plaited over her ears. Beaufort wishes he’d never met Veronica.
The man entering the room has close-set eyes, protruding eyebrows horned with bristles, a tipped chin, and says he’s Heller Montgrove, Veronica’s husband.
Beaufort is superstitious of people who grow eyebrows hairy enough to hide germ warfare. The way the man angles his chin upward irritates Beaufort. “Do people call you Hell?”
Montgrove’s look of disdain is followed by questions. “Veronica called you?” “When was that?” “What does she want?”
His numerous queries seem to insinuate that Beaufort’s visit is of a suspicious nature. Beaufort, at first inclined to walk away without his money, changes his mind. “It’s personal,” and “It’s a private matter,” don’t satisfy the husband’s festering curiosity, and Beaufort hints that Veronica’s call to him was possibly a request for help.
Montgrove scoffs. “Get out of here! The very idea …”
“I’ll just make a nine-one-one call for her to be on the safe side.” Beaufort takes out his cell phone.
Montgrove’s eyebrows twitch. “Follow me.” He leads the way into the foyer and up the winding staircase as Beaufort keeps pace. At the top, they enter the room where Veronica lies on silk sheets and lacy pillowcases. She appears to be sleeping. Her face is especially pale compared to her electric red hair that’s losing voltage at the roots. Beaufort squashes a distant memory of her wan face after the birth of their son Donny.
The husky voice he had heard on the phone is in stark contrast to her appearance. At once confused and queasy, Beaufort approaches her bed as he would an altar. To get her attention, if she has one to give, he takes her right hand. Her left arm is in a cast. “Veronica …” Her perfume is too rosy, a latter-day failing for a woman whose scent at one time waylaid his sanity. “Veronica …” Beaufort hovers at the bed, shifting in a way to distance Montgrove.