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Dead Ringer: Chapter Six
Post includes links to Chapters 1-5! Read to catch up!
When last we saw her, Blainey Blair had stepped over a line that is going to change everything.
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Out in the brilliant afternoon a hot summer wind carried the promise of another storm on the way. My mind worked the disjointed puzzle pieces of Rachel Roper and the daughter she’d lost. All the while, like a program running in the background, was the unsettling whir of my having no memory at all of Rachel or the interchange she’d described.
I stood outside my hot car and dialed Mark’s office number. After a half-dozen rings, the call rolled to his answering machine.
His deep voice sounded in my ear. “You’ve reached Omega Investigations. Please leave a detailed message and your contact information, and one of our staff will return your call as soon as possible.”
I imagined him sitting at his desk, jotting notes onto a yellow legal pad. “Hey, Mark, it’s one of your staff,” I said, smirking over the last words. “Are you there? Can you pick up?”
“Mark? I need to speak with you. Are you there?”
“Okay, I’ll catch up with you later.”
I took a deep breath and slid into my car, letting the day’s stored-up triple-digit heat swallow me whole. “It’s nice in the winter,” I whispered, shutting my eyes as I waited for the air conditioner to take the edge off. “Remember? Nice. In winter.”
I hadn’t mentioned Rachel Roper in the voicemail message, because I didn’t quite have the words to put around her yet. Or maybe I needed more time to grapple with the guilt I was feeling about mixing hospital business with this other weirdly necessary part of my life.
Though she be old and small, my Civic’s air conditioner be fierce. When I could breathe without feeling like there was a towel over my face, I headed over to talk to Mark.
His office at is about a block and a half from the center of old Brady, in a charming bungalow off Main Street in a residential neighborhood of elderly couples, young upwardly mobile singles, and families just starting out, as well as several small businesses — a yarn shop, an exclusive antiques dealer, a tax specialist, and a portrait photographer.
In contrast to the wide, flat avenues of new, upscale Brady, the streets here are narrow and wind charmingly through treed areas and thickly planted beds with azaleas that erupt into full riotous bloom in the spring, and splashed with colorful summer perennials, like day lilies and daisies and coneflowers and roses. I swung onto his street and drove slowly, taking my time over several teeth-jarring speed bumps.
I was nearly to Mark’s office when I saw a woman coming out of the front door, and a crazy notion made me pull over to the curb and park a couple lengths behind a blue Mercedes SUV.
The woman was tall, leggy, and slim, with strawberry-blond hair that waved just to her wide shoulders, and a long patrician profile. She looked like the type who would use a cigarette holder, if she smoked, and leave it dotted with traces of red lipstick. She was dressed in crisp tan pants and a billowy cream-colored blouse. A stack of gold bracelets flashed on one arm.
The two of them paused, their heads moving as they talked, then shook hands and she walked down the stairs. Mark stood on the porch watching her leave, and when she glanced back over her shoulder and smiled, he gave a brief wave. She got into a white Lincoln Continental and drove off, and Mark went back inside, the muffled thump of his wooden screen door coming to me as I hunkered down, peering through the windshield.
It was none of my business. I knew that. But I couldn’t help being curious. As a rule, he didn’t schedule client appointments in the afternoon. At least, that’s what he’d told me.
I paused there for a minute, thinking of what I would say about Rachel. I’d gotten her contact information. I’d made no promises. All I would ask is for Mark to meet with her, and if he didn’t want to take the case, at least he could offer her some suggestions.
His office bungalow is a compact story-and-a-half with stone in front and cream-colored vinyl siding. Surrounding the house are neatly edged perennial beds that Mark pays a couple of horticulture students from NC State to keep that way. The front porch is empty of furniture. Four wide concrete steps lead up to the front door, and through the screen I saw the back of Mark’s head and heard him typing in that awkward monkey hunt-and-peck thing he does. I knocked and he swiveled around, motioning to me, and I stepped inside.
He’d made good use of a charming space. The front door, beautiful old oak with beveled glass set in it, opened into the hallway that divided the house in two. On the right side was Mark’s office, which featured a large teak desk covered with stacks of papers, haphazardly piled books, and often an assortment of empty glasses, plates, and bowls. Behind and against the wall on a low credenza, were his computer and a large flat screen monitor. In front of the desk were a pair of large wingback chairs in a matching green and gold bargello print. A rich maroon and gold and green Persian rug covered the hardwood floor. Three Currier and Ives prints hung on the paneled wall to one side and a couple of large watercolor prints of landscapes, one summer and one winter, hung on the other side.
Across the hallway on the other side of the house was the waiting area for clients. Two large lamps glowed warmly, and the caramel-colored overstuffed leather love seat and chairs were pleasantly inviting. The wallpaper in here was a pale ivory with tiny peach-colored flowers trailing along in a loose diamond-like pattern, and the floor was carpeted in a deep plush with a luxurious pile. In front was a bay window that the students had filled with lush potted ferns and begonias heavy with apricot-colored blossoms .
I took a seat in one of the wingbacks. As Mark swiveled his leather chair towards me, I asked in what I hoped was a breezy tone,
“So, what’s up?”
“Okay, can I talk to you about a woman I met at the hospital today?
“What about her?”
“She came in through the E.R. and was admitted. She’s have some pretty serious breathing issues and they’re trying to figure out what’s going on.”
“Well, apparently, we were in high school together, and she asked for me because she says she surrendered her daughter to adoption twenty years ago, possibly under questionable circumstances, and she thinks I can help find her.”
“Huh,” Mark said, and the leather chair creaked as he leaned back, his fingers making a little tent.
“Huh, what?” I said.
He made that circular sign with one index finger that you do when a story is taking too long to tell.
“Well, okay, so I might have told her you could help.”
“I told her I thought you could help.”
“I don’t do pro bono.”
“I’m pretty sure money is not going to be an issue.”
“Tell me,” he said then, and I repeated the story Rachel had related to me.
“Anyway, I thought you could at least meet and talk with her, and if it’s not something you want to take on, you could advise her on ways she could proceed.” See how good I was, not mentioning how busy he might be with, air quote, other cases?
“Sure,” he said. “Let me think about it.”
“Okay,” I said. “Well, that’s great. Thanks.” When I stood to leave, Mark leaned forward again, the chair complaining about it.
“Sit, please?” And then I knew for sure.
“Look, I can explain,” I said, but he shook his head and held up one hand, letting me know it was not my turn to speak.
He began. “I had the most interesting conversation with Gina this afternoon. You remember her, right? Gina, who told us to drop the case and cease any further investigation? Gina, whose business it is solely and completely as to what kind of relationship she desires with her husband? Gina, who in an effort to do her part to repair her damaged relationship with said husband admitted to him that she’d paid us money to follow him, spy on him, and take pictures of him?
“Gina, whose husband Paolo, challenged her statement that she’d parted ways with Omega Investigations, because, why just yesterday he’d had an odd interchange with a woman who seemed a little too on edge about talking to him and he thought she was just pretending she was lost. Thank heavens he got her name, though, right?”
I let all that hang in the air for a moment. “Okay,” I said. “In my defense…”
“Nope,” said Mark, standing up. “Nope. Try again.”
“It was going to be so much worse,” I said.
“Is that supposed to make me feel better?” he asked. “What were you thinking?!” Then he held up his hand again. “No, never mind,” he said. “I don’t even want to hear it. Just know, Gina was spitting nails. She was livid. And of course she wants her money back. I mean, you do get that this is my reputation? My livelihood?”
He sat again. I kept my mouth shut. I had clearly shit the bed.
“So what I need you to do is to leave. I’ll call you in a few days. I’ve got a lot of work to do, and honestly I can’t be in the same room with you right now.”
I stood again and nodded. “Of course,” I said. “For what it’s worth, I am really very, very sorry.”
I heard him slowly pick up where he left off with his typing as the screen door bumped shut behind me.
Back home, I slipped into shorts and a tank top, slamming around as I moved through the house, furious with myself. When things don’t make sense, I make a beeline for the beach. I grabbed a towel, a sweatshirt, and a couple bottles of water. It was close to six o’clock. With the two-hour drive, I’d have barely an hour of light by the time I got there, but I didn’t care.
My brain whirled like a circus ride all the way out to the coast and by the time I hit the sand, I was mentally and emotionally drained. How many times would I have to learn the same lessons? And had I blown any chance for Rachel Roper to get the help she needed?
I sat digging my feet into the cool sand, unable to shake the sense that I was an utter failure as a human being. I stayed out there staring at the ocean until well past nine and then headed back to Brady where I already knew I was going to have a lousy night’s sleep.