The Button Maker Murders - Chapter 2 - In the Land of Jealous Gods (continued)
The middle-aged heavily perfumed blonde in the seat beside Cat in the crowded bus from the airport noticed Cat’s tears and the anger with which she wiped them away. She patted Cat on the leg and said, “Honey, it's frustrating. It is. All that wine ahead waiting to be tasted and our troubles put behind us and here we are stuck in a traffic jam on Golden Gate Bridge. But the view is nice, isn’t it? I like to look on the bright side of things. I just love the fancy colored sails on those sailboats, for instance. They remind me of the scarves I bought last week in Milan. They were just so ... affordable ... I almost said cheap, silly me ... I must have bought a suitcase full. Here, there's one in my purse. Doesn’t that orange and gold just jump out at you? And the silk is so dreamy! Let me rub it on your cheek. Oh goodness, still no smile?"
She craned around to look down the aisle. “I could frown too, you know. I didn't get to sit with my husband. That’s him three rows back by the window on the other side. Isn't he the cutest thing? And that bushy mustache, when he gets going with that, lord, lord. Oh, Gregory! This is your beautiful wife waving at you, Gregory. I see you flirting. Don’t forget we’re married, you bad boy.” She turned back to Cat. “Oh, don’t mind me, hon. We’re so excited to be here for Crush, me and Greg, we shared a bottle on the plane on the way over from Tulsa. So I’m a little lit up already, and I’m a chatty Cathy when I get lit. We’re going to rent a car in Santa Rosa, and then at Healdsburg we’re going to get off and head on up on 128 to Anderson Valley and hit Scharffenberger and Zina Hyde Cunningham before we call it a day. Oh, I’m a champagne fool, you know, and that Scharffenberger, I mean the whole line, and then those Zina Hyde Pinots! Are you here for Crush too?” She put her hand on Cat's leg again. “Say, is your husband on the bus and you couldn’t sit with him either?”
Cat took the woman's hand and carefully replaced it on the woman's own leg, “I don’t know what Crush is, Chatty. And no, my husband is not on the bus. He’s a ghost and can't be on a bus. In fact, he can't go anywhere with me.”
“Well,” said the woman, “no wonder you can't find your happy face! But aren’t you proud of what your husband does?” She lowered her brassy voice to a rasping whisper and leaned so close to Cat that the sourness of the wine on her breath momentarily overpowered her perfume, “Gregory's company makes a program for the CIA, that their spies use, and I am so proud of that. So, you’re from Washington! Or is it Virginia? I can never remember where they put their headquarters. My goodness, where’s my head! Tonya Watkins, where's your head! Anyway, Crush is ... you came all the way here from Virginia to go wine tasting and you don’t know what Crush is?”
“I came all the way from Nova Scotia. That’s in Canada, you know, the country, the one just above you. And I came because my husband’s father died and they’re settling the estate.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry. I ...”
“And I didn’t say my husband was a spook,” Cat said, her patience worn out. “He's not a spy. He's a ghost. A real ghost. One of the dearly departed that hasn't quite departed, eh? I do still love him, and I am quite proud of him, but I wish he were still with me in the flesh, especially when it comes to travelling to Hysterika, I mean America, and dealing with his family’s affairs.”
The woman’s face blanched and went blank. She looked as if Cat had just slapped her, and indeed Cat felt as if she had, and further, that it had been like hitting a child. “I’m sorry,” she said, apologetically, “I’ve had a long trip and I’m tired and there was trouble about my passport. So please don’t mind me. Tell me about Crush.”
The woman looked down at the purse in her lap. A corner of the orange and gold Milan scarf stuck out. The woman picked at the corner with her fingers, pecked at it with them as if she were a bird attacking a snake, till she had the scarf entire out again.
“Oh, you don't need me yapping at you,” said the woman. “I'm sorry, too. Really, I perfectly understand. You’re newly widowed, and you’ve had to make a long trip here from your poor country to our real country to beg, to see if there’s any leftovers for you, to lick the floor at the edge of the table where some choice crumbs might have fallen off. And you had trouble getting in. Well, of course you did. The immigration officers are trained to spot people like you. Foreign troublemakers. Freeloaders. Maybe a terrorist, who knows? But me, I got a kind heart. I'm gonna help you out.” She rummaged in her purse and came out with a twenty dollar bill, which she wrapped in the orange and gold scarf and extended to Cat. “Here. Now I know that’s an awful lot in your money. I visited Nova Scotia once, and it was just amazing how much you could buy there with a few real United States dollars. I loved it. It was just like a third-world country, only everyone was white! I mean, I really loved it, but it must be tough on you. So listen, you just take this Andy Jackson and walk right back there to my husband and tell him that you’d like to give up your seat so he and I can sit together. And all will be forgiven. Okay, hon? Okay? What's the matter? Cat got your tongue? Oh, you want to bargain! Good for you. Here’s another dollar. Will that do?”
Hearing the ridiculous woman say her name, even accidentally, Cat felt one of her black rages coming on. She could see herself actually slapping the woman and a brawl ensuing. Already the people across the aisle were staring. And she was far from home and the trouble at the airport would be remembered. And there was no Raymond to come to her rescue.
With a supreme effort she reached out, uncurled the fist that her hand had become, and accepted the scarf with the two bills wrapped in it. “Thank you,” she heard herself saying as if in a dream. “That will do fine. Really. In fact, it’s more generous than I deserve. Now, if you’ll just let me out, I’ll go change seats with your husband.”
The woman's mouth opened and closed like that of a fish out of water, but she could think of nothing further to say. Cat slipped by her and made her way down the aisle.
Gregory, the woman’s husband, was engaged in an animated monologue with the woman in the window seat next to him, a woman much younger than his wife, whose khaki shorts revealed a pair of shapely brown legs and whose pink tee shirt did little to hide an upper shapeliness that kept his eyes darting down as he spoke. Cat could tell from the young woman's forced smile that she was not comfortable with the older man's attention.
“They go through a second fermentation,” Gregory was saying, “called ma-lo-lactic fermentation. It takes longer, and it makes the wine cost more, sure, but that’s how you get that lemon-buttery perfection, that ... yes?” Cat’s tap on his shoulder caught him with one hand in the air accentuating lemon-buttery perfection. He responded with a vexed look backward. When he saw Cat, however, he settled back in his seat with a lascivious grin and said, “Well, yes ma'am, what can I do for you?”
“Gregory, I’m really sorry to bother you,” said Cat.
“Hell, it’s no bother,” Gregory said, looking Cat up and down with the same intensity he had focused on his neighbour. “It’s a pure pleasure!”
“Gregory,” said Cat, “I’ve been sitting with your wife Tonya, who would really rather be sitting with you, you bad boy.” She smiled enticingly and removed the contents of the orange and gold scarf. “So out of the goodness of my heart, I would like to give you this twenty dollars to change places with me. Would you do that for me, please? It would make me really happy to do you two the favour.”
The man’s grin vanished. Taken completely aback, he pushed the bill of his suede leather baseball cap up and scratched his receding hairline. He looked at the young woman beside him, then up at Cat, then along the aisle at his wife, who sat staring back at him with her eyebrows raised and her narrow lips squeezed tight. “Well, sure” he said finally. “Sure. I mean, o’ course I’d like to go sit with my wife.” He swallowed hard and then with a ghost of his former sleazy gallantry went on, “But you don’t have to pay me to do that. No, ma’am. Hell, I ought to be the one paying you. In fact, here, you keep your twenty and take this one from me.” He dug under himself for the wallet in his back pocket and fished out a bill and handed it to Cat. “And buy yourself a bottle of something you normally wouldn’t.” He pulled the brim of his cap back down, managed a fractured imitation of a grin, said, “Ladies,” and vacated his seat.
Sitting down by his wife, he said sweetly, “Tonya, darlin’...”
“Don’t you Tonya, darlin’ me, you dumb ass,” his wife barked back. “Do you realize we just paid that bitch forty dollars, no, forty-one, to do something she would have done for free if you’d had the sense to ask her in the first place? If you hadn't been so busy flirting like you always do, making a fool out of yourself with a woman half your age! And a Mexican at that!”
The object of his flirtation was shaking her head and speaking softly but passionately to herself via her reflection in the bus window. “Así es con los dioses celosos,” she said. “Tienen todo...TODO...y todavía quieren más, y siempre SIEMPRE tienen que ganar, a cualquier y de cualquier modo. Seguramente es un gran error haber venido aquí.”
Cat sat down beside her.
“Javier, Javier mi vida!” the young woman went on, resting her forehead against the window. “Que has hecho?”
Uncomprehending but moved by the plea in her voice, Cat touched the young woman on the arm and said, “Are you all right? I don’t know what you’re saying, but it sounds like you're pretty upset.”
The young woman leaned back in her seat. “Thank you,” she said. “I'm okay. Really. But I have come very far, all the way from Veracruz. So maybe what I am is ... tired ... yes, just tired.” She showed Cat the ring on her finger, a gold band engraved with a simple cross. “I come to meet my husband, Javier.”
Feeling a surge of sympathy, Cat took the young woman's hand in her own and admired the simple elegant ring. “It’s beautiful,” she said.
Tears welled in the young woman's eyes. “He send it to me,” she said. “My Javier. With the first money he makes.”
Cat squeezed the slender hand in hers. “How wonderful,” she said, “I'm so glad for your good luck. You know, I'm tired too. We should get some rest.” She took two pillows from the overhead rack and offered one.
The woman took the pillow and thanked her and said her name was Soledad and put the pillow against the window and her head against the pillow and fell asleep before the bus had moved another slow and jerking hundred yards in the coagulating and disintegrating traffic.
“I wonder what you were saying to the window, Soledad,” Cat said under her breath as she closed her own eyes.
“I can tell you what she was saying,” said a voice from behind the tall seatback. “I wrote it down in English. It was quite compelling.”
A hand reached around and dropped into her lap a page torn from a pocket notebook.
Ordinarily she would have looked to see who the hand belonged to. But the voice was one she recognized. And it was not the voice of anyone she ever wished to see again. She sat staring at the elegant archaic penmanship of the words on the little page.
The first paragraph read, “That’s how it is with the jealous gods. They have everything and still want more, and they always, always have to win, against whomever and by whatever means. Surely coming here was a big mistake.”
The second paragraph was obviously no translation. It read, “You may have made the same mistake, Catriona. Coming here to California. If you have, and it turns out you need me, call my name and I’ll be there.”
The page was signed, “One who cares for you more than you know”.
She read the note several times. Each time her sense of dread heightened. She felt a shadow invading her heart. Finally she said, “You go to hell, Burton Latimer,” and stood up and turned to face him.
There was no one behind her. In the window seat, a little old lady sat crocheting a pink baby-size sock. In the aisle, further toward the rear, a man in a pale yellow jacket opened the door to the toilet and went in. Cat went back to the toilet and waited. After a while, when no one came out, she knocked. When no one answered, she twisted the knob. The indicator on the door changed from “Occupied” to “Available” and the door swung open.
There was no one inside.
On the lid of the toilet was a brown leather button inset with a tiny gold heart pierced with an arrow.
That was where I first noticed that something was wrong. The lost soul I had been – graveyard lord, skillful servant of dark forces, pitiless, calculating, with a sense of humour that would have made a snake wince – that Burton Latimer would have taken that woman without further ado. Not followed her across a continent like a blithering sheep. Not been embarrassed to face her when the opportunity offered. Not resorted to a scribbled note with a veiled warning and a puerile promise. Never have returned without her. Never have run from her. Never in life.
And so once again I found myself crippled by life.
I thought I had escaped from love.
(End Chapter 2 - In the Land of Jealous Gods)
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