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By N. G. Edwards
'Tis but her picture I have yet beheld,
And that hath dazzled my reason's light;
Proteus, of Julia, The Two Gentlemen of Verona: II, iv
I’d been married to Celia for more than fifteen years when I decided to kill her.
We’d been growing apart for a long time, to the point where we each sought out other partners. Sure, even as late as the last few months before the end we mostly maintained a public façade of domesticity, but I know that nobody was fooled. Her concession was to hold onto my arm when we were together in public and mine was to keep her in the style to which she’d become accustomed – glitter by Paloma Picasso, Manhattan handbags from Tiffany’s, hair by Hershberger, vacations wherever the sun was guaranteed, never mind the cost. Always the best, as much as she wanted.
After my third heart attack – a doozey that almost saw me toasting with the angels (or maybe devils; who could say?) – I took early retirement. Before that I’d been engrossed in my work, a high-flyer from the start, destined for success and so addicted to the pressure and the graft that I hadn’t recognized the duplicitous, not to mention libidinous nature of the woman I’d taken to wife (though like I say, I’m no less guilty.) If only I hadn’t been so driven by deadlines and targets, enslaved to the potent, adrenalin-pumping, out-and-out thuggery of the boardroom, maybe I’d have wised up the sooner. But there we are; I had my world, she had hers, and rarely did our orbits intersect.
You might ask why did we stay together so long? I guess the answer – for me at any rate – was apathy. Convenience. Laissez-faire. I was used to her existing somewhere on the periphery of my solar system, orbiting so far from my central sun that it was no hardship to ignore both her presence and her indiscretions.
As for her reasoning, I already said: she liked what I could provide, even if she wasn’t all that keen on the provider any more. Maybe she never had been.
So what tipped the balance? What changed? Let me tell you first how I met Celia, how it all began…
Rudi’s party, a summer night in ’89 at his waterfront home in the Palm Island neighborhood of Miami’s South Beach. I reached the place across the MacArthur Causeway, driving, as it happened, in the wheel tracks of Al Capone who’d overwintered there before the Feds finally brought him to justice – not that the place’s association with Big Al meant much to me at the time. History was history and I was only interested in the here and now, which at that moment meant the deal I was engineering between Valentino Holdings and my own company, International Investments Incorporated – you’ve probably seen the Triple-I logo; maybe you’ve got some stock. I was VP of Acquisitions, still the right side of thirty-five, headstrong, totally dedicated, eyes on the prize: partnership. I was going for the top and nobody was going to get in my way.
“Hey! Joey! How you doin’?”
There he was, Rudolpho Benito Valentino. No kidding. He told me his mom had once met the great man when she was a young girl, shortly before his early death in 1926, and that she’d fallen hopelessly in love with the icon. Apparently, so Rudi said, the family name was the only reason she’d married his father, Benito Filipo Valentino (what is it with eye-ties and the letter ‘o’?) though I think maybe the fact that old man Valentino was one of the richest people in the Big Apple at that time might have had something to do with it. Whatever, from the moment they married the name of any son they might produce was a done deal.
“Rudi, good to see you,” I replied, shaking his hand. “I’ve got the papers right here,” I added, tapping my breast pocket.
“Yeah, great! But we can do business tomorrow. Tonight is party time! I got primo African black, great food, great wine, and who knows, maybe a little romanticismo, yeah? C’mere, I want you should meet somebody. You’ll love her, a real beauty, tight fighetta! Hey, Celia! C’mere. Here he is, the guy I told you about. Joe, this is Celia. Celia, this is Joe. Oh, scusi, I got to go see Jamie. You know him? Never mind. I introduce you sometime. Bur go talk. Get yourselves drinks. Take a dip in the pool or something. I catch you later. Hey, Jamie…!”
He always left me breathless, Rudi. He always seemed in a hurry, always had so much to say. Somebody meeting him for the first time might figure he was just a wealthy slob, someone with a head full of air. That’d be a mistake. Rudi was as smart as they come. You got into talking business with him and you had to make damn sure you listened to every word and read every line before you placed your moniker where X marked the spot.
“So you’re Joe. Rudi’s told me all about you.”
Celia was a beauty, just as Rudi had said: tanned, well-proportioned, and as it happened fifteen years my junior – though when you looked in her eyes you for sure knew the years she’d had were packed with experience. But what was most striking was the way she carried herself. Head high, shoulders straight, back arched by six-inch stilettos that accentuated a beautifully rounded ass and a face that just knew how good she looked. This was a self-assured young lady.
“Every word is true,” I said, escorting her to the bar where the barman for the night supplied me with a bourbon.
“I’ll have another Martini,” she told him. “Every word?”
“Well, mostly. But I’m disadvantaged here. Rudi’s kept you a secret. All I know is that your name’s Celia. Want to fill in the blanks?”
She shrugged. “There’s not much to tell, really. I was raised by my mother in Joliet, Illinois, went to school in the rain and snow and couldn’t wait to leave. I came to Miami in search of sun and adventure and, well, here I am.”
“I guess you found the sun. What about the adventure?”
“Ah.” Her eyes sparkled. “that would be telling. Anyway, I’d much rather we talked about you. Rudi said you were a man who was going places. He said you were a hard negotiator and that you were dedicated to your work, that you didn’t have time for any social life. That can’t be true, can it?”
I shrugged. “If you’re going to get anywhere and make something of yourself, if you want to be the best at what you do, you have to stay focused. And I am the best at what I do.”
“How sad.” She wandered over to the pool and I followed, her scent an intriguing lure. We settled on a couple of loungers and watched the sun begin to disappear beyond the horizon. Around thirty other guests – a few I knew, most I didn’t – were attending the party and most of them were now finding convenient spots from which to watch day become night, when natural light was replaced by the flickering glow of downtown Miami.
“If all you do is work then you only have half a life. Everybody needs to escape now and then, grab a little me-time. If you don’t...”
“If I don’t…?”
“Don’t you ever feel lonely? When you come out of your meetings with grey suits and go home, don’t you sometimes want to do more than just switch on the TV and tune in to Bloomberg and count how much your stock is worth?”
“Who says that’s what I do? Maybe after work I go skinny-dipping, or throw wild parties.”
She shook her head. “No. I’ll bet it’s always late by the time you get in. You turn on the light, throw your briefcase on a chair and fix yourself a drink, maybe a TV dinner. And it won’t matter what day it is because all your days will be the same. You work and sleep because that’s all there is in your life. And I think that’s sad.”
Rudi hadn’t told her those things because all Rudi knew was my professional side. But somehow she’d got the hang of me, like she’d been an unseen observer looking over my shoulder since the day I de-enlisted from the National Guard.
“So what do you suggest?”
She looked at me with big, almond eyes.
“Did Rudi tell you I have a tight fighetta? Would you like to find out for yourself?”
A few months later we married in Rio, and a year from then, after we got back from a honeymoon that took in Paris, Rome, and London, finishing on the Valentino family’s private island in the Med, I took my seat on the board of Triple-I as a full partner. And that’s when the real work began. More and longer meetings. Tougher negotiations. Harder decisions. And parties. It seemed as if every weekend there was a party somewhere, usually with some commercial backdrop: private get-togethers, like at Rudi’s where most guests already knew each other; formal black-tie dinners for starting new or cementing existing relationships with the financially rich and politically powerful. And with these came sweeteners and benefits: opening nights in New York or LA with the stars of the latest blockbuster movie; sporting meets around the world – racing at Monaco, the Superbowl, the honbasho at the Ryogoku Kokugikan in Tokyo, the Winter Olympics in France, and so on. We went to them all, dined on white diamond caviar and blue lobster, and drank Perrier-Jouet.
Looking back from the present it all seems a bit remote, like catching glimpses of distant mountaintops poking through a haze of fluffy cloud. But that’s the way things were, then. And I appreciated it, for a while. Celia had set me free from the work-sleep-work regime she’d so correctly diagnosed. Even when the novelty of the social life had worn off I still participated because that’s what Celia wanted. I’d convinced myself that I – we – were deeply in love. I bought her whatever she wanted, took her wherever she wanted. She asked, I supplied – and I scarcely noticed that, as the years rolled by, we were spending less and less time together.
So then, at the age of forty I got my first heart attack. I was hospitalized for ten days at an exclusive clinic in Switzerland. That’s where realization began to dawn that things between Celia and me were not as they should be. Sure, she visited every day, but never for more than an hour; and when she left she would give me a kiss – but always on my forehead, never my lips. That was a detail I didn’t spot at the time, though a few days after my release the memory surfaced to vex me. I ignored it, convincing myself the kiss was nothing more than a demonstration of tenderness, like maybe a mother would show.
I had two more attacks over the next six years, each requiring longer and more intensive care under medical supervision. The frequency of Celia’s visits declined sharply until, by the end of my third stay, they’d disappeared altogether. So much for the mothering instinct.
Work was still my main preoccupation. Even in hospital, during the convalescence phases I took part in conference calls and electronic meetings – you had to keep a finger on the pulse or you’d get sidelined pretty damned quick. There were plenty of warnings from the doctors, telling me I had to slow down, not get so involved, take things easier if I wanted to see fifty – though in the same breath they’d recommend I should exercise more, which seemed kind of contradictory; how could taking things easy and exercising more be on the same side? But after that last attack I figured I’d better listen to their advice, so I began to wean myself off the junky thrill of high-powered deals and took up tennis, initially with Celia as my partner in mixed doubles but that didn’t last long. She was more interested in the weekend and night-time social scene, and when I told her that I was going to have to cut down on such things she said okay but would I mind if she carried on without me? I said no, I didn’t mind, and that was the real beginning of the end.
Soon I was getting reports from ‘friends’ about how Celia had been seen in the company of young and handsome beaus. Studs, as some of those friends described them. This didn’t come as the shock you might think. Although I’d never consciously admitted this, I guess I’d known for some time that she was unfaithful. I never said anything to her. I don’t know why. Instead I retaliated with my own flirtations. Celia wasn’t nineteen anymore – though she was still a very beautiful and alluring woman – and I was on the down-slope some ways ahead of her. She had a predilection for young and virile, so I allowed myself similar diversions. And I was rich, of course; I could afford for the both of us to play our little games and still keep up the front of husband and wife, for a while at least. Besides, it wasn’t as if we were the only ones. I could name half a dozen couples similarly occupied.
And that’s how things might have continued but for one crazy moment in my life. I found a photograph. Not of Celia, but of someone I didn’t know. What’s so crazy about that? What impact could it possibly have? I’ll tell you…
Health concerns drove me to retire in the fall of 2004. The company arranged for a big party in the historic Carbide & Carbon Building along Chicago’s Michigan Avenue, coinciding with our new purchase of that Art Deco landmark. We’d beaten Hard Rock to the punch; they’d been planning for it to be a hotel.
Everybody who was anybody came: Rich Daley, chasing his father’s record for longest standing Chicago Mayor; Bill Murray, full of the success of Lost in Translation; Michelle LaGroue, the only woman to have held the Miss Illinois title twice, 2002 and 2004; and Rod Blagojevich, 40th governor of Illinois state, plus a host of sharks from the business world. And Rudi was there as well, all the way from Miami – but don’t read friendship into that. This was business for him, too.
Both my retirement and the celebration of the firm’s occupancy of the C&CB were conveniences, vehicles for forging and re-forging ties with the movers and shakers. ‘Contacts for contracts’, as Eugene, senior partner and founder of Triple-I, often said. I’d always endorsed this epithet but that evening I felt distanced from the buzz of business. I couldn’t get enthused by the commercial turkey that fogged the air. My decision to retire, I guess; knowing that any deals coming out of this shindig would be steered by others; that my future interest would be no more than that of any other stockholder; it was all kind of depressing. Okay, I’d be welcome to ‘drop by any time to pass on words of wisdom to the young guns’, as Eugene said at the after-dinner. And I responded in kind: how I knew the firm was in safe hands with him at the helm; how I was waiting for Eugene to join me in a long, post-work vacation – he was almost twenty years older than me, and I don’t think he planned ever to leave! But it was only words.
“You’re going to miss it, Joey,” Rudi told me through a cloud of Cuban. “I’ll give it six months and you’ll be beggin’ Eugene to take you back.”
“Not a chance. I’ll give you six months before those things finally get to your ticker and then it’ll be you that’s begging to join me!”
He laughed and took a satisfied puff. “Uh-uh, pal! Besides, what better place is there in the world than Miami to work and play at the same time, yeah? Have you met Melody?” He pulled a tall twenty-something close to his side. Blonde, curves, in love with money. Rudi was hardly ever without someone who matched that description. “Great arusso! Go get me another drink, honey.” He patted her ass as she swayed off in the direction of the bar.
“If those cigars don’t finish you, Rudi, she looks like she could.”
He shrugged. “What else should I do with my greens? Life’s for living, Joey.”
I smiled. If anyone seemed to know how to have a good time, it was Rudi.
“Listen,” he continued, “if you should change your mind about this retirement thing, I could find you a space, you know? I got a soft spot for you, fuck knows why, you ain’t even Italian.”
I told him I’d think about it but we both knew it wouldn’t happen. This retirement wasn’t just a fancy; my heart insisted on it.
“Oh. Look who just turned up.” Rudi nodded to the door as Celia made her usual, could-have-been-a-movie-star entrance. “Maybe I do know why I care. It was me that introduced you.”
She came over, having the courtesy to at least send her accompanying toy-boy to fetch her a drink.
“Rudi, it seems ages since we saw you last. And Joe. So the day’s finally arrived. I hope it’s not going to impact too much on your earning potential.”
“Celia. You’re looking well. I missed you at breakfast.” Our exchanged smiles told everything.
We made three-way small-talk for a while, Celia with a bright smile – or should that be brittle? – conversing engagingly. It was something she was real good at. Of course, everyone at the party knew the reality of our situation but nobody said anything. Nobody cared. Most lived lies not so very different to ours.
Celia wandered off to mingle, eventually disappearing (but not exactly secretively) about midway through the evening accompanied by her latest catch. I didn’t actually know the guy she was with, but at the same time I did know him. He was a stereotype, half my age and around ten years younger than her. When she returned about thirty minutes later I made sure she saw me talking with Michelle – the model, remember? Not that I had any expectation of success there. The beauty queen was well chaperoned by an attentive and athletic young stud. But that didn’t matter. Later, I picked up with one of the professional hostesses the company always made sure were available at get-togethers like that. I don’t recall her name. We escaped to the floor above the party to make whoopee on a thickly upholstered sofa in a room that was destined to be a coffee lounge. It wasn’t the greatest bang I’d ever had but then I was only indulging in answer to Celia’s current indiscretion. In fact, what I remember most is that I didn’t last ten minutes in the hostess’s professional hands. I’m pretty sure the woman didn’t care. A couple of C notes passed from my wallet to her purse, a customary tip for the extra service.
Ten minutes, though, was too short a time. I couldn’t have us return until we’d been absent at least as long as Celia so I told the girl to take a bathroom break for a quarter of an hour. Cost me an extra fifty, but so what? I mooched around for a while before heading for the elevator where I punched in floor number twenty-one; but that’s not where I ended up. Maybe my finger slipped to the button below but whatever, the doors slid open on sixteen. You could ask why I didn’t just press the buttons and try again but I honestly wouldn’t have an answer. I stepped out into a dim-lit corridor.
Floor sixteen was still being worked on. All the structural labor was complete: cabling laid, fixtures and fittings fixed and fitted, and so forth; but stepladders rested against walls and dustsheets lay in heaps on the floor ready for when the decorators returned to apply final coats. Several doors were serviced by the corridor and after a moment or two looking up and down I opened one at random.
The room was dark. My groping hand found a light switch, and fluorescent tubes buzzed into flickering life, disclosing an unremarkable parcel of office space. Desks, chairs and filing cabinets were ready and waiting for human occupation. Everything was new, of course… well, almost everything. On the far side of the room, beneath the jalousie-guarded window, was a two-drawer, freestanding chest of old, dark wood. It was an incongruity, a blemish on the face of the pristine. I crossed over.
The chest was what Rudi would have called rifiuti, battered and dented, surface notched and marked, and stained by Lord knows how many coffee rings and paint spills, fit only for the garbage man to recycle, but… I was intrigued by its presence. Why was it there? Where had it come from? My guess was that it had been found i by the decorators who, noting its dilapidated condition, had used it as a convenient table for resting their brushes, paint cans, and mugs while they went about their business. The Carbide & Carbon Building was constructed in 1929, and for all I could tell that chest might have been there since day one. I bent down and slid open the top drawer. Whatever might once have been inside, now there was only a dirty rag, some candy wrappers and an empty pack of Camels.
The second drawer was harder to shift. It pulled a quarter way and then stuck, but from what I could see it held even less, which is to say nothing, though I couldn’t see too far inside. I gave another, more resolute tug and the thing budged a fraction more before jamming tight, half open, half shut. I gave up trying and straightened up, but as I unbent something caught my eye. In that final movement a piece of card that must have been wedged between the drawer and the carcass slipped to the floor. I collected it up. It was a photograph, monochrome, grainy, faded yellow round the edges. The back was grubby and devoid of any writing – no title, or date or anything – but the subject was unmistakably the man with the notorious nickname of Scarface. I don’t know where it was taken; maybe at a ball-game, maybe at the track. Either way, he was clearly engrossed with whatever was happening in front of him.
Yet it wasn’t the infamous mobster who drew my attention. Sitting near was a woman, kind of out of focus, not especially pretty, dressed in the fashion of her time. She was separated from the man by some old biddy, maybe a friend or relative. I didn’t know who either of them were but one thing was absolutely certain in my mind: the younger one was looking at me. Not looking to her right. Not looking at something out of camera shot. At me. Which was just crazy. I was there in the present and she was a slightly blurred image of black and white on a thin piece of developed paper. Yet the longer I looked the surer I became that she could see me, that she knew I was there. I stared back and as the seconds passed a weird sense of connection crept over me, as well as a feeling of inevitability. A scent from nowhere tickled my nostrils, cheap perfume and low price alcohol laced with stale tobacco. A touch of erotic heat caressed my loins but at the same time a chill entered my bones, a sharp, cutting-edge tremble of freezing ice.
If ever I knew that something was about to happen it was there and then.
“Hey, buddy. What’re you doing in there?”
That wasn’t it. A burley uniformed guard was standing by the open doorway. I’d not realised I’d stopped breathing but his sudden presence forced a gush of stale air from my lungs.
“Uh, oh. Sorry, I was just…”
The man advanced into the room. “What’s your name, pal?”
My name? It took me a moment to recall that simple fact but eventually I managed to tell him.
“I’m with the party,” I added.
“Yeah? Well, you stay just where you’re at.”
He picked a walkie-talkie from his belt and engaged in conversation with an unseen ally, all the time holding me in close scrutiny as he relayed my name and described my appearance. Finally he seemed satisfied.
“Okay, sir. You check out. But you shouldn’t go wandering around. There’s work been going on, you know, equipment lying around. You could easy trip over something.”
Yes, I knew. I thanked the guard for his advice, commended his diligence and, conscious of his eyes still on me, returned to the elevator. In my hand I still held the photo. Pushing it into a pocket I thumbed the button.
“Thanks again,” I called out as the doors hummed shut.
This time I made it back to the party.
…continued in Part Two.
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©2014 by Nigel Edwards. All rights reserved
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