He cleaned me out. All I had left was my name, as they say around here in Dixie, and the suit I was born in — oh yeah, and an empty ice cream store near Sammy-Mart and Maeve's Nail Salon run by a garrulous, middle-aged Thai with lots of advice and plenty of takers. The lease on the ice cream store wouldn't run out for another five months, but with no freezer, no ice cream and no cash or credit, it was just a place to sleep in and an address my lawyer could mail his bill to. I hadn't a clue where I was going to get lunch much less a paycheck. I'd eaten my last dill pickle for supper the night before and a pretzel and soda for breakfast. Now the cupboard was as bare as Mother Hubbard's and so it would remain until I started selling off my meager hoard of rare books.
I suppose I could have called my folks (collect, of course), but they and I had parted company years ago, and it would take a hole in my head before I laid myself open to their told-you-so's.
They had arranged the marriage and I had blown it. It would be as simple as that.
"At least you got a place, honey," Maeve said philosophically. "My niece, now, she lived in a cardboard box for six weeks...."
"Here? In Corinth, Georgia?" I asked, my mouth full of the honey and mustard spiced chicken she'd bought for the two of us.
"No, no, honey, back home in Bangkok. She live with me now. I make her senior manicurist. Second only to me. She doing good now. Not like before. Like I say, at least you got a place, hmm?"
I shrugged. "For the time being anyway."
Maeve shifted her backside energetically on the red valentine-backed chair and patted the stern of her neatly coifed black hair. "Plenty of time for you to think of what to do, missy," she said. "You come up with something, no?"
"No," I said. It was too early in the afternoon for me to play Pollyanna and I was a pessimist by nature. It was too late in my life to change that.
"A smart young Indian woman like you?" Maeve asked, outraged that her pep talk hadn't materialized into even a glimmer of success so far.
"First of all, I'm not smart," I said, determinedly pursuing every last smidgen of trans-fats-filled, cholesterol-imbued morsel on my plate. "If I'd been smart I would have run like hell when I first saw that smarmy-faced weasel standing under the wedding canopy smelling like the hundred marigolds in his garland. Secondly, I'm not an Indian. I'm an American…."
"Okay, American Indian…."
"No, not an American Indian. That would make me a recipient of government welfare, land on a reservation, and part owner of a casino. I am…."
"Okay, okay, Indian American…."
"Just American will do. It’s all fair and square. Just ask the judge who handed me my citizenship papers. But that doesn't pay the bills."
"No, but you got good genes. Money-making genes."
"Wrong caste. That would be the Patels. Try again."
"But Indians are smart…." Maeve said hopelessly. "They professors, doctors, engineers, you know, professional people. You be professional now, hmm?"
She sounded like my in-laws after I’d declined to inter myself in a graduate degree, having already interred myself maritally. One death lasted a lifetime and the only sunlight I had perceived in my burial—beg your pardon, please—bridal chamber had been, apart from the ice cream store, my books, through which I had burrowed my escape.
A shadow fell across Maeve’s face, far outweighing any possible effects of my ruminations.
Shop bells tinkled melodiously behind a closing door. "Chief Detective Doublewide," Maeve whispered warningly.
I turned to look and wasn't disappointed. The man lived up to his name. The shadow he cast grew, adumbrative, portentous, menacing….
I stood up.
"Jimmy the Jammer, right?!" I cried, and the shadows fled. "Let's see. It was at the one and only Raves National Championship. Your senior year. The fourth quarter. You caught the ball at the 60-yard line and barreled your way to a touchdown. We won by a point. It made me believe in miracles again."
The love that emanated from the black detective's face was like a furnace on a winter's night.
The six-and-a-half-foot, 300-pound Doublewide turned to the dark-haired man at his side in speechless astonishment, then back to me. Or, I should say, back down to me, as I was a good foot trimmer in every dimension.
"You Ay-shun?" he asked incredulously, apropos of nothing. Did my black hair, dark skin, and the red velvet tikka dot slapped on as a sentimental gesture to my homeland in a moment of fatalistic bravado give it away maybe? He seemed to have lost the ball at scrimmage.
"Native to India," I sighed. Conversation can be so overrated.
"You were there?" Doublewide asked, astonished. His chocolate brown face was a mixture of love and disbelief, twin foundations of the universe.
"In India?" The ball was in the stands.
"No, at Landfort Stadium."
"Not exactly," I said, on the ball once again. "I was six, in Cosmo-Catholic boarding school in India, and Sister Femina and I would get up early and watch American football every Sunday morning before Mass. I got her a poster of you and she put it up next to her favorite H.P.s.”
“Holy pictures. Of the saints. Anyway, I heard Mike Seasons on Int’l Network of Sports describe that game with poetry and a catch in his voice. It moved us to tears! Before I left school, Sister Femina gave me a copy of the whole game on disc, but my ex-husband took it." I ground my teeth. "I could have killed him."
The gloom that settled on Doublewide's face puzzled me. I seemed to have grown horns suddenly.
The dark-haired man at his side spoke up. Clearing his throat, the thin (juxtaposed to Doublewide) man interjected, "Would you be Mrs. Gopi Mohan?"
I directed my gaze at him, reading the open condemnation on his face.
Up until that moment he had merely been the flotsam in Doublewide's wake, but the moment the tide subsided I recognized the species as I had known it in all its multitudinous incarnations: the Hostile Hegemonic Male, narrowed eyes, knowingly attractive, gone PC (he had brushed up on the ethnic angle and pronounced "Mohan" correctly — rhymes with “rowan”), and encased in the armor of a tailored dark suit and polished shoes. I bet he was so in touch with his inner man he was enthralled — with himself, of course. Obviously the limelight had been on Doublewide too long to suit him.
I raised a pair of well-intentioned eyebrows.
“A rookie on the team?” I asked Doublewide, before returning my attention to the man I now gratuitously dubbed the Thin Man. "I’m Marteena Mohan. Strictly speaking, I am ex-Mrs. Gopi Mohan, but," I added, "only if accuracy is a matter of interest to you."
The Thin Man frowned. Purely from a sociological view, Asian immigrants were normally quiescent before authority. On the other hand, if I were just another run-of-the-mill divorced female with an antipathy to males of marriageable age, I was obviously to be pitied.
"I truly apologize," he drawled, rendering a corn-fed, aw-shucks charm with a shrug of his broad shoulders that didn’t impress me one bit. "Your sensitivity is not at all uncommon. My aunt just got divorced and she's as prickly as a porcupine. It's not Ms., Miss, or Mrs. without somebody coming out hurting."
He turned a considerably warmer gaze on Maeve, giving her a smile that made her round face beam in return. "Perhaps you could excuse us for a minute? We'd like to ask your friend a few questions regarding Mr. Mohan and, er, her recent activities."
The battle lines had been drawn. "Maeve, stay put," I ordered in my best prickly-as-a-porcupine manner before turning to Doublewide. "Rookie or not, may I inquire as to whom this odious individual might be?" I asked, groping for words from Jane Austen's Regency world. Poverty be damned. The books were going to stay.
Why can't she understand me? I wasn't being rude. I was reaching for my security blanket like Elmer Fudd reached for his gun.
“What-is-up, Doc?” a deep, heavily Indian-accented voice interjected behind me in a most un-Bugs-Bunnian way.
I turned. There was only one man who would say that to me. A short, septuagenarian madman. Spud. And it was his coded way of reminding me that he, at least, knew what a thumb sucker I was.
Now Spud gazed at the two detectives like a United Nations bureaucrat who had just gotten his cut.
"I do beg your pardon, gentlemen,” he continued in mellifluous singsong. “Courtesy is still on her to-do list of accomplishments, though as you might have hazarded, not of the highest priority."
Doublewide started, regarding the intruder suspiciously, but the Thin Man was not undone. "May I inquire as to whom this…."
"You would be?" Doublewide cut in.
"Her guardian, sir, Spud, at your service," he said, extending a fair-skinned hand and a conciliatory smile. The polished manner was at odds with his current state of dishabille, to wit: a lungi wrapped precariously around an imposing waist-line, with said fabric knotted and folded up in the proper Gandhi-ji style, exposing plump legs; the bare expanse of his chest was topped off by a curiously ascetic face, narrow and lined, with penetrating rich brown eyes. So might Cotton Mather have looked, given the proper pedigree. Well, maybe not.
"No, not her guardian," Maeve protested. "He's a sponger and a layabout."
Spud smiled benignly. "Begging your pardon, I am her guardian."
"He uses that word merely as a trope," I explained, "a figure of speech."
"A joke." Maeve got the last word in.
It's not to be assumed at this point that Doublewide understood any of this since we all spoke at once, the upshot being that it took the better part of the next ten minutes ironing out the pertinent facts: Spud had attached himself to me (as he had to my grandfather before the latter's death a year ago) in fulfillment of an oath taken from youth to serve and protect my grandfather and his line as a matter of religious exercise and familial obligation. Whatever else this entailed, the contract was a source of mystery to me and suspicion to Maeve.
"I call him Spud, for short," I ended my explanation, "seeing as he has a rather long and windy name."
"Her frivolous attempt at an acronym, I’m compelled to say," Spud added, running a hand over his balding head.
"Can't say he not look like one," Maeve opined.
Doublewide roused himself as if from a deep and turgid reverie on the complexity of human behavior and sighed. We looked at each other soulfully and in an uncanny blink of an eye our minds melded.
"He's dead," I said.
"I'm sorry," Doublewide said.
Only the knowledge of the Thin Man's irrational hostility kept my back straight and my lips grim. Otherwise, I would have hugged Doublewide and taken him out to eat at the Cheap Men Don't Diner — the finest cuisine in town.
Maeve grasped the situation immediately and gave me a comforting squeeze of sympathy, and over her shoulder Spud looked at me warningly. The few hairs on his head seemed to be on radar alert. More likely he had teased them with his hand, a nervous tic his yoga had yet to cure.
"How did it happen? Was it an accident, a robbery?" I asked the Thin Man. Doublewide's gaze was too acute and had to be avoided.
"No, ma'am. Your husband …" he began either deliberately or obtusely.
"Ex-husband," I interrupted.
"Yes, ma'am, your ex-husband was discovered at the U-Sleep-Inn motel this morning with a bullet hole in his head."
"He shot himself?" But even as I spoke I realized that was an absurdity. Gopi Mohan would see the world depopulated before he put a bullet through his head.
"No, ma'am. The murder weapon has yet to be recovered."
"Murder." I shook my head. "But you said the U-Sleep-Inn. He lives in New York now where he moved the main branch of his investment firm."
The Thin Man seemed about to answer when Maeve, who had been standing like a sheriff at her post, suddenly interrupted.
"You know Sam and Jan Kowalski?" Maeve asked, twisting the napkin in her hand. I nodded. The black news about Gopi had clearly unhinged her. "See, they been running U-Sleep-Inn since Su-Lin's parents, they retired. Then Su-Lin's parents bought Peek-A-Boo Video store and it doing some kinda business ...."
Maeve stopped chattering and looked at me dismally. I couldn't blame her. She had known Gopi and she too had wished him his just desserts, but murder was too drastic a correction.
And a bullet through the head sounded like an execution.
“But who would want to kill him?” I wondered out loud before realizing that my own carelessly uttered words a few moments ago would place me at the top of the list.
The Thin Man whose matter-of-fact countenance maintained a spurious objectivity broke the silence, answered that at this early stage of the investigation everyone came under suspicion until the search could be narrowed.
"And I'm the prime suspect, I suppose?" I asked him. “What would be my motive? Whatever his wealth, it would no longer come to me.”
This time Doublewide answered. "No one's a suspect, yet. He had a Georgia license on him and you came up as his nearest, er...." he paused warily.
“Ex-relative,” the Thin Man completed in a suspiciously wooden voice. “As such you could be a valuable source of information to us, if you would care to answer a few questions. We'd like you to identify the body as well. You're entitled, of course, to a lawyer at all times.”
"Don't bother reading me my rights,” I said, matching his stony countenance and spurning all blandishments. “I've a large collection of Phillip Marlowes and Perry Masons to go with my Jane Austens. Besides, I've got nothing to hide or hide behind. My lawyer's in Bermuda.”
The moon shone uncertainly in the golden glow of the April sky as I emerged from the police station. A lone photographer ran up the steps and snapped a picture while his journalistic sidekick told me I was the only suspect and how did I feel about it. I told her I'd only answer that question in the presence of all the local media, including her tabloid competition. She said she represented the only newspaper in town, and I told her that was the problem. She snarled, the photographer snapped a picture of me grinning in response, and I could see the headline now: Merry Widow Chief Suspect. The press always gets the last word, last, after they've finished shoveling it. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.
The Thin Man, whose name effaced itself behind my blatant lack of curiosity, had been assigned the grim task of taking me to the scene of the crime. The U-Sleep-Inn was near the Veres da Partie University's northeast campus. The inn was the scene of the last sorority “incident” in collegiate p.r.-ese, and every fraternity pledge who woke up on its welcome mat only knew he'd lived to see another day.
The motel's roof was painted periwinkle and its doors a stomach-churning lime green. Right from the start it struck me that this was a décor unappealing to the Gopi I knew, and as it wasn't the football season, the finer hotels would not have been averse to his occupancy. So what had he been doing here?
The shock of seeing Gopi's lifeless body in a morgue drawer had been like a plunge into icy water and I had yet to feel any returning warmth. Now, as the Thin Man unlocked the motel door leading the way into the dull wall-papered room with its equally dull décor and appointments, I was glad of his presence, for arrayed before me were the remains of Gopi's last hours. I felt the encroaching coldness return.
Thankfully, the Thin Man kept up a running commentary. Forensics, he said, had gone over everything with a fine-toothed comb. Except for a few valuables, everything had been left as found: the suitcase, its contents, the unmade double bed, the shades pulled closed, the chair draped with belt, ties and, on an adjacent table, an open wallet, a familiar bottle of Monsoon Wind Cologne, and a chalk-line on the floor that looked like a macabre gingerbread man. You could barely see the blood stain on the dingy carpet.
Something was missing. I looked at the receipts and change Gopi had left on the nightstand. I glanced at the clothes hung on the rack. I went to the bathroom. The towel racks were bare, the used towels on the floor. I looked at the half-empty Herbalist Action Shampoo bottle, the caked bar of hotel soap, the disposable razor and Australian Outback shaving cream. And I was disturbed. Something was missing from this picture and it would explain why the scene failed to trigger the usual feelings of rage and impotence which assailed me whenever I was within ten feet of Gopi or his personal effects.
I must have looked like Lot's wife, standing there frozen, but with less fascination, just perplexity. I looked over at the Thin Man.
He had his back to me, his auburn head bent over an uncapped bottle of shampoo, apparently smelling it.
"Vitamin E, rose hips and jojoba," I muttered as I examined Gopi's wallet. It must have sounded like an incantation because it definitely spooked him and he jerked his head toward me. I should have thrown in the wing of a bat and eye of a toad and gone for a laugh, but I didn't have the heart of a comic at the moment. My companion looked distinctly uneasy, as if doubting my sanity, and I realized the judicious use of power is as necessary as its ready employability. I needed this guy to help me find out who killed Gopi. Maybe if I deferred a laugh and gave him some slack, he would do the same.
"Those are the ingredients," I said, "in the shampoo. Gopi was a freak about his thick bushy hair. It seemed too good to be true and he was scared he'd go bald one day. He would order this shampoo special from Chicago because his astrologer recommended it."
"Yeah, I know. I blame his astrologer for a lot more than that though."
I frowned as I suddenly remembered what it was that was missing from the room. It was time to get something back for my liberality of information. "Did this place get aired out after they took ... his body?"
The Thin Man raised a pair of dark eyebrows as he switched off the light in the alcove where he'd been standing.
“Nothing more than would occur in the course of people coming in and out,” he replied, leaning against the doorway.
“Was he here long? He must have said when he'd check out.”
"No, he checked in yesterday night, and as far as his scheduled checkout time, I don't believe he had one."
"Well, he didn't need it in the end, did he?" I asked blandly. "Who discovered his body?"
"The front desk sent someone to look in on him this morning when he didn't answer his wake-up call."
"But by then he'd really checked out."
I dared him to judge my widow's weeds. And he did.
He walked towards the table with Gopi's wallet and fingered its contents before looking back at me.
"No love lost between you two, huh? Not a tear to shed?"
I shrugged. "None at all. But I feel a wifely duty to avenge his death, or at least bring his murderer to justice. Is that good enough for you?"
His face remained expressionless. "Why ask about the place being aired out?"
I shrugged again. "I can't smell his sandalwood soap and the kind he uses would knock out a raging bull at a hundred yards."
"He used the hotel soap."
"But he never does that. He always carries his sandalwood soap with him when he travels. It’s tinctured with a marigold perfume."
"His astrologer again?"
"No, his mother this time."
The Thin Man went to the open suitcase, pulled out a sealed, extra large bath-sized soap box, smelled it, then tossed it to me. Its weight seemed to correspond abnormally with its size.
"Sandalwood?" he asked. "Why didn't he use it?"
"That's what his mother, God bless her stony little heart, would want to know."
"Here's another one," he said and frowned down at the unfamiliar Indian packaging.
But it had to be the least of the unfamiliar encounters he had had today.
I thought with amusement of his earlier questioning of Spud.
“Your name, sir?” he had asked, preparatory to jotting it down.
“Subramaniam P.G. Devaprandakaran Shastri,” Spud had reeled out. “The Shastri is just a title, like Esquire, for a scholar in Sanskrit.”
The Thin Man's pen had remained frozen for a split second.
“And what might the P.G. stand for, sir?” he had asked, undaunted.
“Pelham Grenville,” Spud had replied. “As in Pelham Grenville Wodehouse.”
But the Thin Man had looked at me, as if suspecting that I had been guilty of this as well.
I had shrugged and lifted a brow. “I’m Marteena, remember? My mother named me after a singer she heard over a country music station piped into Bangalore General Hospital.”
“See anything else interesting?” he asked me now.
As a matter of fact I had, but not in the sense he meant.
A pair of plum polyester pants had been flung on the air conditioning unit and a red cotton checked shirt lay beside it. For a moment I actually got choked up. Plum pants and red checked shirt. It was what Gopi wore whenever he traveled. Like a lucky charm, a rather unbecoming and tasteless charm. It was what he had worn to our initial meeting in the company of our families. He had looked like a kid who was anxious to please, self-conscious, though not fashion–conscious, and I had taken that to mean sincerity. Instead it had been superstition and snake's skin.
I backed into the television behind me and something fluttered to the floor. I picked it up. It was the hotel registration receipt, signed J.U. Dhass but in Gopi's handwriting.
The hotel manager stuck his head through the door.
"How much longer will you be, detective?" he asked, chewing his gum like it was either that or his lip. "This yellow police tape across the front is plain bad for business and I got Mr. Kowalski the owner calling every five minutes wanting to know if everything's been cleared away."
"We're almost through," the Thin Man said soothingly. "Just give us a few more minutes and the guys will be here to bag it. Appreciate your scrounging up that hotel registration, by the way."
"Did Mr. Mohan show you any identification with this registration?" I asked the manager.
"Say who?" He made round eyes like he'd only just noticed me and ceremoniously paused in his chewing.
"Did the dead guy show you an I.D.?"
A true worker-bee, he looked round at the Thin Man for permission to unload the requested nugget. He nodded and I waited for the hind leg to shake.
"He sure did. J.U. Dhass or whatever, just like on that piece of paper you're holding."
I shook my head. "What kind of an I.D.?"
"A New York driver's license."
I looked at the Thin Man. He'd obviously known all this and had set me up to watch my reaction.
"C'mon," he said. "Let's get out of here."
The ice cream parlor looked less like home than ever in the darkening shadows of evening, but here I was with the Thin Man and there went the bells tinkling behind us as the door closed. The place would have been pitch black except for the neon lights of the strip mall.
After the initial flood of disappointment that no one was there to greet me, I scurried across the floor like Kafka’s angst-driven beetle to the comfort of the counter and reached over and flipped on the lights.
Where were humanity, solidarity, and community when you needed them? Maybe I was being unreasonable. I could hardly have expected Maeve to have been waiting home for me. In the first place she really did have a home and secondly, as owner and first in command of a nail salon, why the manicures of a city hung in the balance! So what if her best friend were on her way to manacles, orange uniforms and death row? I slapped my hand down on a square yellow STICK-IT prior to discarding what seemed to be just an irritating piece of clutter when I saw written in a neat hand,
As I put on the layers
You're in my prayers!
and I confess even the Bard, Shakespeare himself, ne'er moved me so. What a louse I was, what a —! But where was Spud? Et tu, Brute?
I must have looked the avatar of agony at that moment when the Thin Man solicitously but noncommittally tried to take the temperature of my emotions. "Are you okay?"
"Don’t tell me you’re still here!" I exclaimed in sharp rebuff. “A little late for the concerned cop routine, isn’t it?” I hadn't forgotten the shock of being led into a trap earlier.
I watched as his grey eyes hardened a geological age or so into slate.
And when I took in his slowly stiffening frame, I wasn't too surprised to hear him say, "Tell me, do I address you in the future as Mrs., er, 'Dh-ASS?'"
He hadn't thus far struck me as deficient linguistically and had previously correctly pronounced “Dhass” to rhyme with “cause,” so I realized he was in fact impugning my character zoologically. Naturally, such caustic derision qualified as a hit below the belt but, in deference to Jane Austen that mistress of verbal give-and-take, I abided by the Queensberry rules.
"I’d prefer that you and your compatriots not address me at all,” I said, maintaining my dignity, “but as one of two apparent victims in this case, the other one being dead, I can’t advise you."
"You consider yourself a victim?" he asked with just that hint of sarcasm to make you feel like gum stuck on the sole of a shoe.
"I do," I said, trying to keep my chin from going up. "My ex-husband had obviously been leading a double life of which I was wholly ignorant and which could possibly lead me to the electric chair. So just out of curiosity, Lieutenant, if that doesn't make me a victim, tell me what does!"
The chin had gone up, the blow landed.
"Shall I?" he drawled in a soft, silky voice that the Angel of Death spends eternity perfecting. "What makes you a victim is the chip on your shoulder that's just begging to get knocked off. And I'm going to be the one to do it." He threw a plastic bag on the counter with a thud. "Here's a souvenir of our first date. Shall we bury it in the backyard together?"
I wanted to tell him that the Corinth Police-Community Relations Office would be hearing about this, but discretion is the better part of valor when you're dealing with someone who could have been Freud's star patient and I let him stride off to the tune of jingling doorbells.
Meanwhile I didn't need an arm and hammer to tell me what was in that bag. All the GripLocks in the world couldn't seal in the stench of Gopi's favorite hygienic cleanser. Apparently even the boys in forensics turned their noses up at it.
Still, I really did bury the bag of marigold-perfumed sandalwood soap at the expense of some purple-leaved impatiens in the only square foot of dirt there was in front of the ice cream store where the sidewalk stopped and an ornamental shrub popped up. I knew the Thin Man was watching from his car and somehow it made me feel better, because this was a burial of sorts and no one likes being the only one at a funeral. When I stood up, he drove away and I watched his taillights disappear. Whatever he thought had just happened, he had done me a favor, and maybe he even knew it. I would never see Gopi in the Down & Under Funeral Home parlor. My presence would be as desirable there as an overexposed starlet and as unnecessary as a dentist’s drill.
A few minutes went by and I realized I was still standing there like that old Victorian pagan Matthew Arnold on Dover Beach, but I was watching the ebb and flow of traffic, not waves, and feeling confusion and clamor, yes, but not feeling so refined (I'd just buried a couple of bars of soap!) and wishing I was at a high window like the old poet where I could turn to my sidekick and say, Ah, love, come to the window, sweet is the night air.
We could all use windows like that.
“What-is-up, Doc?” Spud had once taunted in nuanced Indian English. Sometimes I thought he left out the contraction just to annoy me. “You have pickled yourself in your books and philosophy. They were once a shield. Now they are just a self-preservative. What sort of a life is that?”
Maybe he was right.
Gopi was dead and I was thinking of Dover Beach and Sophocles. I looked at the freshly turned over earth covering the soap and let the impatiens in my hand fall like a teenage boy’s forlorn boutonnière the night after the prom.
“Good night, Gopi. Rest in peace,” I said to his immortal soul wherever it lingered in its vaporous form. There had been for him no gentle entrance into death’s good night.
I turned to go, but the hum of mortal activity had not yet lost its hold.
Across the parking lot the parade of shoppers at Sammy-Mart kept up a continual march and I didn't have to see their faces to know that Always the Bottom Prices! didn't seem to make them any happier than the suckers at the boutique stores who got a cheap thrill for Always the Top Prices! and that it's gotten so that you can't tell the winners from the losers. I was headed for a lounge chair philosopher’s apocalypse when I went inside.
And the phone rang.