I composed this little tale about fifteen years ago, and sent it to a couple of magazines which promptly rejected it. I then forgot about it until recently and thought of sending it to a few more, but upon re-reading it I see it is out of date in many ways but not yet ancient enough for retro appeal (“zero cool” still had a gleam at the time, but is now covered in verdigris). My first thought was that I might update it, but that would actually be a lot of work and I might never get around to it. So rather than just waste it entirely, I’m sticking it here.
I’ve never been to Beverly Hills, except in the sense that we all have.
KIND OF A POWER
DAVID RAMSAY STEELE
Lucy moved all her stuff into Dan’s old office. The last item she carried in was the “Under urgent consideration” pile of current scripts. She placed this in the tray on the left of her desk, then gazed with satisfaction at the Sony Pentium notebook, the phone, the bowl of polished stones, the herbal bouquet, and the purplish black candle in the little silver candlestick. This desk would never look so tidy again, until maybe, a couple years down the road, she had her next major promotion, probably to president of the agency. And then someone else would take over from her the office she had now taken over from Dan.
The phone rang. It was Fiona in Human Resources. “Lucy, I have an Officer Martinez here, from the police. Do you have a minute to talk with him? It’s about Dan.”
Ninety seconds later, Fiona appeared at the office door, with a young man, single by the look of it, who was wearing, not a police uniform, but a gray-green jacket and aqua shirt which went quite well with his dark skin tone. Not bad, thought Lucy.
This being her first day, in fact her first five minutes, in her new office, she had a choice of uncluttered chairs to offer Martinez. He was looking at her Welsh brooch.
“Is that . . .?”
“A spiritual symbol. Would you be a spiritual person?”
“No.” And then by way of explanation: “Catholic.”
“Just a few points we need to clarify. This was Daniel Zegarac’s office? Ms. McGregor informs me you now have Mr. Zegarac’s job.”
Martinez’s black eyes darted about like a snake’s tongue. Lucy had been looking forward to a few minutes alone to gloat over her new corner office with the zero cool view and enough bookshelf space to encompass a basic herb garden in seven earthenware pots. It might have been better to have seen the cop in a conference room.
Martinez asked a few general questions about Dan and quite naturally slipped in a few about Lucy. She explained the nature of Dan’s job, now her job. She gave Martinez her routine little chat about the work of the agency, representing creative talent in the Hollywood jungle, getting the most promising scripts to the right people in the studios. Fiona should have taken care of this.
She vaguely wondered why the police were interested at all. Maybe they needed to rule out suicide for insurance purposes, though if she’d considered it seriously, she’d have known that wouldn’t be police business.
Martinez paused and Lucy picked up a hint of awkwardness. She thought she knew what he would say next. She almost helped him along by inquiring “Just what kind of a script is it?”
But she was mistaken. Martinez was not about to mention his screenplay, or his girlfriend’s or brother-in-law’s screenplay.
He said: “We now believe that Daniel Zegarac’s death was not accidental. Mr. Zegarac was murdered.”
His eyes had stopped their restless flickering. They were fixed on Lucy’s face. What he saw there was an instant of pure, unfeigned astonishment.
“We were told it was an accident,” said Lucy. “Wasn’t he working on a boat?”
“He was building a yacht. He fell and broke his neck. Since the autopsy, we now believe someone gave him a push.”
Deftly massaging the truth was second nature to Detective Martinez. He didn’t explain that a witness had seen someone leaving Dan Zegarac’s place close to the time of his fatal fall, and only because of that had the police and the coroner looked more closely for signs of foul play. There was nothing in the autopsy report to definitely indicate homicide. Once they looked, however, they found details of the fatal scene that were atypical in this kind of accident.
She said: “Wow, that’s . . . Why would anyone kill Dan? You have any idea who did it?”
Fortunately, Lucy had not yet put up her movie festival posters. Martinez was sitting in front of a plain peach wall, which made it child’s play to scrutinize his aura. Applying her well-honed technique, she could instantly make out that this aura had blue and turquoise points. Not a man to be taken lightly, but no signs of unusual potency, at least not of a spiritual kind. Years of experience had taught her that by a little deeper concentration she could see beyond the immediate manifestation, to a faint kind of secondary aura, invisible to all save the most spiritually discerning. She perceived a thin brown smoke, some underlying ominous quality, an emanation of violence. Not surprising in a homicide detective, given the kinds of experiences he must be familiar with almost daily. This whole analysis took less than two seconds. Lucy was very good at it.
“It’s early in the investigation,” said Martinez. How well did you know him? Would you know if he had any enemies?”
“Not really. Not that I can think of. A lot of people around here didn’t like him, but not enough to . . . want to hurt him.”
“Not mixed up in anything shady? Drugs or anything like that?” The purpose of this question was to ascertain whether Lucy would snatch the opportunity to send him off in an irrelevant direction; she merely shook her head.
“Did you personally like him? Did you get on well with him?”
He made my life a misery. When I heard about the accident, I felt like celebrating. “Dan could be very trying. We had our issues, work-related issues. But . . . I was just appalled that he died. I couldn’t believe it. I was really upset. We all were.” If Martinez had not already been informed that she had loathed Dan and fought him bitterly over the recent negotiations with Bernstein at Columbia TriStar, someone was sure to tell him.
“Okay.” Martinez made a slight movement in his chair, a hint that he was about to get up and leave. “Uh, one last thing. This is a routine question we have to ask everyone. Where were you on the night of May 6th?”
She checked her palm pilot. Nothing on that night.
“I must have been at home watching TV. Yeah, I’m sure I was. Then in bed. Asleep.”
“Alone all the time?”
“Totally.” She pulled a mock-dismayed face and added: “No alibi.”
Martinez didn’t smile, but his voice was soft enough to perhaps indicate sympathy. “It’s routine. We have to check on everyone.”
Not so routine was the call she took from Detective Martinez a few days later. He asked her to stop by police headquarters. He was ready to say that she needed to be there to look at an artist’s sketch of the person seen leaving the scene of the homicide. Surprisingly, she agreed to be there, without any need to invoke this contrived rationale.
When she showed at headquarters, Martinez had more questions of a general nature. Then: “Would you say you’ve been lucky in your career?”
Uh oh. “Some good luck. Some bad luck. A whole lot of hard work.”
“As a matter of fact, you’ve had some lucky breaks.”
Lucy guessed what was coming next. So they’ve noticed. Well, they can’t know anything. And even if they did, what could they do about it?
“As I look at the trajectory of your career, I see you’ve had three big breaks. And each one of those lucky breaks has been precipitated by the death of a colleague.” Trajectory. Precipitated. Definitely has a screenplay.
Lucy felt slightly dazed but not anxious. If she’d been even moderately perturbed she’d have gone straight into Great Pan breathing for serenity of soul, but this hadn’t been necessary.
Martinez said: “Quite a coincidence.” He paused and looked around the room in an oddly unfocussed way. Lucy abruptly knew that colleagues of Martinez were watching her reactions from an adjacent room and—of course—videotaping them. Weren’t they supposed to warn you in advance when they did that? Or at least tell you they considered you a suspect? This is so LAPD. Either they would swear under oath that they had warned her, or, if they thought they had a case against her—not that this could ever happen—they’d swear that not informing her was a careless and deeply regretted slip.
Martinez had Lucy’s basic bio on a sheet of paper, and was checking off each item. Yes, in her previous job she had worked for the Tom Davenport agency. Yes, twelve years ago she had been assistant to Mary Nolan. She got on badly with Nolan, who had recommended that Lucy be canned.
“Business was bad,” Lucy recalled. “They were looking for headcount reductions.”
“Nolan’s body turned up in her swimming pool. So they got themselves a headcount reduction.” Martinez kept the irony out of his voice. He didn’t reveal that the drowning had been viewed at the time as suspicious and a police report had been generated. An unidentified DNA sample was on file. The report was inconclusive and the investigation had been shelved.
Lucy had taken over Mary’s job, an arrangement that was eventually made permanent. When business improved she got her own assistant.
Five years later, Lucy’s boss at Davenport was Eddie McInerny. Though she had been Eddie’s protégé—Martinez didn’t yet know she had also been his mistress—their relationship soured and they held sharply opposed views on the future direction of the agency.
McInerny’s house burned down. Something fatty had been left simmering on a kitchen stove. He slept through the thickening fumes and was dead of smoke inhalation before his flesh began to char. The body contained traces of cocaine and three other controlled substances.
“He could have been zonked on drugs and forgotten to turn off the stove. Or he could have had help.” Help with the zonking or help with the fire, or both. Still, there was no proof this wasn’t a typical accidental blaze.
So here was a second apparently accidental death of a colleague with whom Lucy had developed an acrimonious relationship. A second career boost, as it turned out, for Lucy had quickly concluded the deal that Eddie had been working on, the deal that turned the Davenport Agency around.
Opinions might differ on whether two deaths and two career boosts were or were not an extraordinary coincidence. Subsequently Lucy, with a number of lucrative movie deals to her credit, had moved into a senior position at the Paulsen Creative Talent Agency. And after five years here, bingo, we have a third seemingly accidental death of a colleague who clashed with Lucy, who quarreled with Lucy, and whose removal would likely help Lucy. Surely this is beyond ordinary coincidence.
Martinez had read about individuals who’d been struck by lightning on three separate occasions. Astounding coincidences could happen, were bound to happen once in a while. Or perhaps some persons had physical qualities or chosen habits that made them unusually likely to be struck by lightning. Could there possibly be people whose personal qualities made it fatal for others to get in their way? Detective Martinez didn’t think so. He was open-minded but not unduly credulous.
Martinez was an excellent listener.
“Yes. I did a good job,” Lucy was saying. “You can’t say I’ve coasted to the top by wasting the competition.” She didn’t intend to sound amused, but a little of that came through.
Martinez was thoughtful: “It could be fifty percent job performance and fifty percent luck.” He might have been speaking of his own career in the police department. “A person could do okay on job performance and still decide on some pro-active interventions to improve the odds.”
Even as he said this, Martinez couldn’t make himself believe it. The story just wouldn’t walk, it wouldn’t bark, it wouldn’t wag its tail. And whether he believed it or not, no one in the DA’s office would want to parade it on a leash in front of a jury. Some link had to be found between Lucy Armstrong and the death scenes. So far, nothing.
Looking at her soft countenance, long red hair, and nicely curved figure, Martinez briefly considered the possibility he was mentally exonerating her because he liked the look of her. He didn’t think so. Only six months before, he had not hesitated to pursue and arrest the mouth-watering Mrs. Mulligan, who had quite understandably, after more than ample provocation, hired a contract killer to dispose of her exasperating but well-insured husband.
Martinez could have placed Lucy as a serial murderer if she’d worn tight black pants, cropped hair, a leaner physique, a bonier face. Or, given her actual persona, if Nolan, McInerny, and Zegarac had been poisoned. Any type of person might commit murder, but he couldn’t see Lucy sneaking out to Zegarac’s house at dead of night and pushing him off a ladder. Also, the DNA found at the Nolan drowning was male. And the person seen leaving the Zegarac homicide scene was believed to be male.
Suppose pure coincidence is ruled out. Suppose also Lucy Armstrong did not kill these three people. What are we left with?
Lucy thought of mentioning that she’d been in Denver when Mary Nolan died, and in Paris when Eddie McInerny died. Did Martinez know that yet? He would find out about Europe first, then about Denver. Let him find out.
Martinez was trying a different approach. “You must have thought about this yourself. What did you think?”
A little shrug. “Coincidence?” There are no coincidences. Synchronicity is a law of nature, just like gravity. That was Zuleika, holding forth in her preachy way. Zuleika had been right about synchronicity, of course.
“Anyone else ever comment about this coincidence?”
One time, just before she’d left Davenport, when someone had gone quiet, tailed off in mid-sentence, and the other two people present had looked embarrassed. As though they had some knowledge in common—probably knowledge of a conversation in which they had speculated avidly about Lucy’s benefiting from two deaths in a row.
Then there was Laura. Laura had said: “So the spells worked, then.” Lightly enough to show she wasn’t concerned. Warmly enough that it could have been more than just a joke. Lucy smiled at the recollection.
He’s sharp. “Someone joked about it. Said the spells work.”
Why not? He can find out anyway. “I was into Wicca.” Blank stare from Martinez. “I belonged to a coven.”
“You’re a witch?”
“We called ourselves students of Wicca. This was a few years back. People around the office knew something about it. There were jokes.” Let the Cowans mock.
“You’re not into this anymore?”
“The coven was disbanded. I haven’t really kept it up.” Like the South Beach diet, except that she really hadn’t kept that up.
Disbanded. You could say the Spirits of Light Coven had been disbanded. Zuleika sputtering with rage, her lips positively frothing. “I offered you the world and you betrayed me, you loathsome creature, you rotten hypocrite.” Her Russian accent thickened as her adrenaline level rose. “Your pathetic little act is finished. You’re under my curse . . . yes, my curse!”
“You worshipped the Devil?” Martinez wanted to know.
A brief exhalation of amusement. The usual misconceptions. “Wicca has nothing to do with His Satanic Majesty. Really. It’s nature worship, not devil worship. Though I do know a couple devotees of Satan, and they’re, like, totally nice people who wouldn’t hurt a fly. . . .”
Lucy found herself parroting one of Zuleika’s set pieces: “Wicca sees the divine manifest in all creation. The cycles of nature are the holy days of Wicca, the earth is the temple of Wicca, all life-forms are its prophets and teachers. Wiccans respect life, cherish the free will of sentient beings, and acknowledge the sanctity of the environment.” That’s about all the Cowans need to know.
Martinez considered this. “So. Did you nature worshippers put spells on people you wanted out of the way?”
“We were so totally not about that. Wiccans believe for every action there’s a reaction. If you send out evil energy, it’ll return to you threefold.” Only if your enemy is protected by a sufficiently strong charm. “Using spells to coerce or injure is always evil.” But possible. And evil’s kind of a relative thing.
“Didn’t stick pins in voodoo dolls?”
The absurd preoccupation with physical props. “Oh no. I respect voodoo as an authentic grassroots religion of the Haitian people and an expression of community solidarity in the face of neo-colonialist exploitation.” Lucy had majored in Sociology at Berkeley. “Voodoo is a totally valid kind of folk tradition; Wicca is different.”
She didn’t mention that the Wicca tradition does involve acquiring some of the enemy’s hair or fingernails, and burning them over a black candle with appropriate incantations, on four consecutive nights when the Moon is waning. Let him do his own research. Why do I pay property taxes? But this was a portion of the tradition that she had repudiated, and the online record of her dispute with the Reverend Zuleika LeGrand would attest to that. In any case, it was all totally academic. The DA’s office was not going to indict anyone, in the twenty-first century, for casting spells.
The meeting had been a formality, the concluding handshake to months of negotiations. In the Paulsen Agency’s glass conference room, amid blue sky and green palms, business was over, the chit-chat was winding down, lunch was in the offing, and there came an unexpected voice.
“Ms. Armstrong, do you have a moment, please?” It was Martinez, standing in the doorway, lithe and springy on his feet.
Around the table were Paulsen’s president, Jay Maxwell, Bill Rescher from Public Relations, the writer Joss Whedon, and, in a rare appearance, the legendary Clyde Paulsen himself. Whedon would rewrite his story along the lines agreed to, and the agency would pay him half a million for the option.
“Just a couple of questions.” The voice was as gravely courteous as ever. Maxwell and Whedon didn’t seem to notice: Martinez might just as well be the limo driver. Rescher looked distinctly annoyed at the interruption. Paulsen appeared fascinated, but then, he always did.
Lucy found Martinez’s feeble ambush both mildly diverting and mildly irritating. For him to appear like this, without prior warning, while she was with other people, was a planned attempt to disconcert her. She was slightly embarrassed for him because it wasn’t very well done.
“How can I help you this time? Why don’t we go to my office?” A warm smile and a cheerful lilt, but in that moment Lucy decided this would be the last interview. Before saying goodbye to Martinez, she would let him know that all future communications had to go through her lawyer. One-on-oneing with Martinez had been fine, but she wouldn’t be Columboed, even ineffectually.
Over the next few weeks, Lucy’s attorney Steve Gordon heard from Martinez a couple of times with what seemed like trivial inquiries. Martinez appeared at the Paulsen offices more than once, and she heard of other people who had been questioned.
Laura was away in Cannes, lucky Laura. In the evenings, there seemed to be more squad cars than usual, making more commotion than usual, near Lucy’s condo. Before going to bed, she would call Laura—it was early morning in Cannes—and exchange reports. They would enjoy a good chuckle about agency office happenings, who was doing what to whom in Cannes, Laura’s own hair-raising adventures, Hollywood scuttlebutt, the hunk Martinez, and the strange investigation into Dan Zegarac’s demise.
The day before Laura was to get back in LA, Gordon took a call from a female cop named Bennett, asking to set up a meeting. Bennett said just enough to convince Gordon that his client was not a suspect, and that she would personally benefit from being present. When Gordon called Lucy, she immediately insisted on co-operating.
So here they were. The two cops, Lucy, and her lawyer.
“We requested this meeting,” said Bennett, “because of a few points we need to clarify, and because we have information Ms. Armstrong needs to be aware of. Let me say right away that Ms. Armstrong is not a suspect. We’re grateful to her for her co-operation. We do have a few questions for her. Then we’ll explain the latest developments in this case.”
Gordon turned to Lucy and was about to whisper something; she held up her hand and shook her head. “I’ll answer. Go ahead.” But don’t trust them.
Martinez asked: “How well do you know William Rescher?”
What the . . .? “I’ve known him for yea long. He was with Davenport.”
“You both worked at Davenport, and now you both work at Paulsen. He followed you here.”
“Yes. He joined us a year ago.”
“Do you know him well?”
“Don’t see much of him. He’s not involved directly with the talent side of the business.”
Bennett asked: “On May 4th, did you tell William Rescher you were leaving town for several days?”
Lucy remembered sharing an elevator ride with Bill. He’d asked her if she was leaving for the airport, “for that Nebraska thing.” She’d said yes. She had been selected as one of the judges at the new Nebraska festival. But the festival had been called off, some scandal about funds.
“I was in a hurry. Conversations with Bill tend to go on too long. I was taking a taxi to LAX but that was to say goodbye to a friend who was leaving for Europe. I didn’t want to take the time to get into the convoluted messy story of why the Nebraska festival was cancelled.”
There was actually a little more to it. She had lied on impulse, not just to save the time of explaining, but because she somehow instinctively didn’t want creepy Bill to know where she was or what she was doing.
It occurred to Lucy that if she’d gone to Nebraska as planned, she would have had a way solid alibi for all three deaths, not just the first two. Yet still the significance of this fact didn’t dawn on her.
“Did you ever date William Rescher?”
Where’s this going? “Yeah. A long time ago. That was, let me see now, twelve years ago.” The week after she started at Davenport. Bill was already there, and that’s where she had first met him.
“Who terminated the relationship?”
“There was no relationship.”
“Can you recall whether one of you wanted to go on dating, the other didn’t?”
“Oh, that would be him kind of wanting to go on, me wanting to stop.”
“He upset about that?”
She had given it barely a thought for twelve years, but now it came back to her. Bill had been younger and cuter then. She’d felt a bit mushy about being so brutal. God, there were tears in his eyes. He was all, “I can’t go on without you. You mean everything to me.” Sweet, at the time, but what a loser. Surely he got over it quickly. Four months later he married that anemic blonde at the front desk, was still married to her, as far as Lucy could remember.
Lucy’s next date was Brad Pitt. It was only once and that was six months before the release of Thelma and Louise, so he wasn’t big BO. But there was a picture in Hollywood Reporter. That kind of publicity never hurt an agency, and Eddie McInerny had been impressed. So much for Bill Rescher.
“William Rescher is in custody, said Bennett. “He has confessed to the murder of Daniel Zegarac.”
“What? That’s way wacky.”
“He did it,” said Martinez. “We have independent corroboration.”
“He’s totally putting you on. Did he even know Dan?”
“You’re right. He barely knew him.” It was odd that Martinez said this as though it clinched the case against Rescher.
Lucy sensed that they were now getting to the whole point of the interview. What kind of a trick is this? Lucy was absolutely sure that Bill could not have killed Dan. This just had to be a smokescreen. But why?
Bennett cleared her throat and said: “Ms. Armstrong, we have to tell you . . . because this may cause you some embarrassment when he goes to trial. William Rescher committed murder because of you. He’s seriously . . . infatuated with you. He has been obsessively in love with you for fourteen years. His motive for killing Daniel Zegarac was to help you out.”
Lucy’s head was spinning. She instantly went into Great Pan breathing.
A long pause. Martinez asked, “Did you have any idea he felt this way about you?”
“But that’s just . . . He must be . . . totally out of his mind.”
Lucy was rapidly computing. Numerous little recollections of subtle oddities in Bill’s speech and behavior, at rare intervals over the past twelve years, suddenly made sense. What the police were telling her struck her with stunning force as true, even obviously true, a truth screaming for recognition.
Yet it had to be false, because it contradicted her certain knowledge that she could bring down her enemies by the sheer force of her mind. She knew perfectly well that she had deliberately caused the deaths of Mary Nolan, Eddie McInerny, and Dan Zegarac by her own unique magickal hexing power. Therefore, Bill Rescher could not have killed them.
“This must be a shock for you, and also disgusting, like a violation,” said Bennett, seeking to soften the blow by empathizing. “However the evidence is that you’ve been the center of William Rescher’s thoughts for the past fifteen years.
Don’t panic. Need to think. “You’re saying he did those other killings too?”
“He may never be charged with them, but . . . yes, we believe he did them.” Martinez chose not to reveal that a DNA trace from the Nolan death matched Bill Rescher. Rescher would be offered concessions for confessing to at least two of the three homicides, preferably all three. It didn’t matter anyway: Rescher would likely be acquitted by reason of insanity and incarcerated for life in a mental institution.
In kind of a vertigo, Lucy heard Bennett’s voice, as though from the other end of a long, winding corridor: “Did Rescher ever tell you what he did before he got into the agency business? He worked for an insurance company, investigating claims. Before that he’d been a small-town sheriff for a few years. He knew something about domestic accidents and crime scene investigations. So when he . . . developed this psychotic obsession about you, he could easily see a practical way to help you out.”
It took less than three minutes of turmoil for the mist to be dispelled, for the simple truth to shine forth in all its clarity, and for Lucy to feel once again completely in control. If Bill had directly engineered the deaths of Mary Nolan, Eddie McInerny, and Dan Zegarac, this showed, not that Lucy didn’t have the power to kill at a distance by the trained exercise of concentrated thought, but that this formidable power of hers worked through a human intermediary. Of course. She should have known it. Hadn’t she known it?
Zuleika had once said: “All occult powers work through the human world; all human powers work through the natural world.” Actually the gross old manatee had said this more than once. It was one of her irritating little sayings, as if she could have attained to some kind of privileged wisdom. At the time, of course, they had all hung on Zuleika’s every goddamn word.
All occult powers work through the human world, the mental world. It was true enough, and obvious enough, and therefore it was something Lucy must always have known. Of course Bill was besotted with her and consumed with the mission of serving her interests. Bill was an instrumentality of the hex.
Within a few seconds of this surprising thought, she began to feel that she had never been surprised at all. She conceived that she had been struck with fresh force by a fact she had always taken for granted. The only surprise, it now seemed to her, was the identity of the human agent. And she would soon begin to recall that she had known all along, on some deep level of her being, that it was Bill.
She could picture herself one day explaining the principle of the thing to Laura and a select inner circle of devoted followers: “What’s more in keeping with Wicca wisdom? That a witch might cause the death of an enemy by using mental power to make a ladder collapse? Or that a witch might cause the death of an enemy by influencing the mind of a third person who then kicks over the ladder?” The answer could be no less self-evident to Lucy and her followers than it had been to the sorry old fraud Zuleika.
Now Lucy had Bennett figured out. She was the kind of sympathetic cop who would be first choice to talk to a rape victim or to a witness who had seen a loved one blown away. Probably had a degree in social work.
Okay now, what would they expect me to say in this situation? “This is just awful,” Lucy wailed. “I thought I’d made it this far by my own efforts.”
“It would be unproductive to let that distress you.” Bennett’s tone was almost maternal. “Chance enters into everyone’s life. Many people fail to get the promotion they deserve because someone doesn’t like them, for instance. You didn’t ask Rescher to do any of the things he did. And as far as we can see, he was not mainly concerned about helping your career. It seems he was thinking that each of these victims, at the time, was getting you down, causing you severe emotional pain. The way he thought of it, he couldn’t bear to see you suffer.”
Detective Martinez felt good about the case. Everything, or almost everything, had clicked into place quite smoothly. A week after his first meeting with Lucy, he’d found she had a cast-iron alibi for the death of Dan Zegarac, an alibi she evidently didn’t even know about.
On the afternoon of May 6th, Jordan Pirelli, actuary, e-trader, body-builder, occasional model, and currently unbooked actor, had gone out of town leaving a faucet trickling in his jacuzzi. When wet stuff came through the ceilings of the condos below, the janitor, Frank Vucovic, had to make sure of the source of the flood. Since Pirelli was a security-minded person who had installed additional anti-theft devices, janitor Frank needed to have the fire department break into Pirelli’s condo through the window. Before going to such lengths, Frank wanted to be very sure of the source of the flooding, so he had called the neighboring apartment, Lucy Armstrong’s, at 12:30 in the morning, and when she answered and said she was still up, he had personally gone into her apartment, talked with her, and checked around for any signs of leakage. This had taken about a minute. It wasn’t remarkable that Lucy didn’t recall it—some people do forget unimportant occurrences in the few minutes before they fall asleep. Frank vividly remembered the whole sequence of events, which he was obliged to report in tiresome detail to the building management later that morning.
It was a perfect alibi. Not only did it place Lucy two hours away from the scene of the crime, it was also a purely chance event; there was no way she could have engineered it, certainly not with the required precise timing. This ruled out the possibility that she had arranged to provide herself with an alibi, knowing in advance that the murder would take place. It tended to eliminate her as an accomplice or accessory.
When Bill Rescher displayed an interest in the questioning of Lucy, Martinez, in a reflexive impulse to sow misdirection, hinted that she was the hot suspect. The calamitous look on Rescher’s face intrigued Martinez, who began to feed Rescher with suggestions that Lucy was the investigative target, and to ostentatiously pull her in for questioning. Then Martinez had staged his arrival at Paulsen to confront Lucy in Rescher’s company.
Bill’s pathetic eagerness that Lucy should come to no harm, skilfully manipulated by Martinez, had soon prompted Bill to confess to the killing of Dan Zegarac. Bill knew many details of the fatal scene. It was a couple of days before Martinez mentioned to him that he was also a suspect in the Nolan and McInerny killings. Once this matter was raised, Rescher became exceedingly cagey. He knew that Lucy had excellent alibis for those killings, so he had no motive to confess to them. Martinez had not yet informed him that DNA placed him at the scene of Mary Nolan’s drowning.
Hours of questioning of Rescher and of Lucy had convinced Martinez that they had not been working together. Rescher had acted alone and without anyone else’s knowledge.
There were no major loose ends. Something felt not quite right about Lucy’s failure to volunteer her alibis for the Nolan and McInerny deaths. But she was, after all, a deeply spiritual person, which Martinez quite benevolently took to mean: occasionally out to lunch and in need of a little practical guidance. For all her quick shrewdness, her mind could sometimes be way off someplace on a broomstick.
The Council of Thirteen, the trustees of the coven, were all there. Zuleika screeched: “You’re under my curse . . . yes, my curse!” and slapped Lucy’s face. The next few seconds of intense silence made that slap seem like the snapping of a bone, though some eye-witnesses later argued about whether any blow had actually landed. Lucy didn’t flinch but just glared. Most of the onlookers felt awkward as well as awed. Wiccans don’t talk much about curses, and when they cast them, the entire rigmarole is decorous and painstakingly slow. Yet Zuleika was Zuleika. The members were embarrassed but also filled with foreboding. They fully expected something bad to happen to the delinquent Lucy, though possibly not for years.
That night, Zuleika, never at a loss for captivating words, was paralyzed and rendered permanently speechless by a stroke. Within hours, self-effacing Ben Goldberg, Zuleika’s reliable lieutenant—and heir apparent now that Lucy had vacated this role—was hit by a truck and put out of action. From the following morning when she heard the news, Lucy never doubted her own awesome gift.
No member of the Spirits of Light Coven had any doubts about what these events signified. Lucy didn’t have to say anything. For a few days, she thought she might assume the throne vacated by Zuleika, but most of the members melted away. They were impressed, even intimidated, but having been Zuleika’s apostles they were not ready to switch allegiance to this disconcerting young witch. Only Laura remained. And then, over the years, contacts were made with a few more interested seekers: a new coven was discreetly in the making.
Martinez turned the steering wheel. Bulky shoulders and taut arms, an efficient instrument of justice. He spent some time in Dave’s Gym, no time in Dunkin’ Donuts. He wore a demeanor of solemn dignity like a ceremonial robe. His ancestors, Lucy divined, had been priests of Quetzalcoatl. They could be relied upon to hack out the hearts of an endless procession of sacrificial victims to gratify their ineffably potent god. Lucy was enough of a postmodernist to feel at home with her vision of this vanished mystical empire, with its pitiless established church ever thirsty for more daily gallons of fresh human blood. Our own society is brutal enough in its way, just kind of a different way, what with corporate greed, global warming, and all.
Martinez thought he was beginning to know Lucy better, to pierce beneath her unruffled surface. She had never acted as upset as he’d expected. She was calm; most of the time she radiated an awesome sense of calm; he couldn’t help admiring her amazing calm. Inside of her, she undoubtedly did experience turbulent emotions. Learning of Rescher’s sick obsession had shaken her. The observable signs were subtle, subdued, yet there was no mistaking the juddering impact of tremendous shock, an eight on her personal Richter scale, at the moment when she had learned of Bill’s confession. She definitely had been shaken. She was still shaken. Better see her right to her door.
“For me this is another case to be filed away. For you it must be a little bit traumatic.”
He for sure has a script. Detective Martinez stopped the car right on the corner by Lucy’s condo building.
She said: “I guess you come across some, like, really weird stuff in your job. As weird as anything in the movies. Or even weirder.”
“As a matter of fact . . .,” began Hugo Martinez.
© 2001 David Ramsay Steele