Chapter 1: This is the House that Jack Built
Los Angeles, Thomas Blake had found, was a city enchanted with things that happened after dark – rooftop cocktails at the Standard, stiletto desperation outside the The Ivy, suits slumming at the W Bar. Southern California mornings started late, later even then their late, late time zone, because of the harsh light they cast. Television promised a city of palm trees and tan lines. Reality provided an elaborate beehive of neon tubing; it only looked right when it fluoresced, and it only fluoresced at night.
He was not a man afflicted by idealism, and adapted quickly. In that first week, he had keenly smelt the rancid despair of the 405 as it bloodied the 10, the concrete stained with tire marks, and oil, and human DNA. By his second Monday, he saw only the brake lights of the car ahead of him. Now, over a decade in, he barely noticed the asphalt desolation of the Los Angelinos, as they waded through exhaust fumes and a deep Starbucks haze to cubicles in the sky. Sometimes, he watched them from his office window as they swarmed the sidewalks twenty floors below, a frantic amoeba of Vuitton and Prada with simple single cellular sights – a moment among the fallen stars at the Chateau Marmont, a taste of paparazzi outside Trousdale – and appreciated the order imposed by universal urges upon such Brownian motion. Other times, he looked to the Hollywood sign, of which he had a sometimes view from his office window. He could only see it when the Starbucks haze cleared following a storm. There were not many storms in Los Angeles. Thomas Blake approved of its consistency.
On this particular day, he arrived well before seven, but not before his secretary, who knew what time it was. She had blonde, flat hair, two children, and no alimony. The lights flickered up the hall as he walked to his office, tripped by his footsteps. “Message from the King in your inbox, five fifteen, seven fifteen central. He decided to stay for the deposition.”
“I heard from Nancy that they had to delay the national practice group meetings –”
“It’s Mrs. King’s birthday. Of course he would stay in Chicago.”
“Did he get married again? I didn’t think Jessica – ”
“I don’t mean Jessica.”
“Oh,” she said. “Oh. Of course.”
As she spoke, he rounded the doorway into his office. The lights rose obligingly. On cue, the phone beeped and flashed. He flipped his computer on.
“This is Mr. Blake’s office, may I ask who’s calling,” said Sharon. “Uh huh. Uh huh. Sure. Let me see if he’s available.” He placed his briefcase in one of the minimalist chairs, reserved for deliveries from the twelfth floor and the backsides of nervous associates. “It’s Barbara Clifton. Are you available?
“Barbara Clifton from Highland Park. It’s in Indiana.”
“Highland Park is in Illinois.”
“No, it’s in Lafayette, Indiana. I have an aunt there.”
“Put Ms. Clifton through to voicemail.”
“She says it’s about your mother.”
“That’s what she said.” Sharon’s tenor was carefully neutral, but he knew what secretarial gossip in the break room would concern come noon. “Maybe there’s one in Illinois, after all.”
“I’ll take it.”
“Line one,” she said. He shut his office door. Outside his windows, the early sun bled the smog a grainy gold. It jaundiced his diplomas, and stained his office a distasteful yellow, like the whole place, from the woodwork to the stationery, had been washed in urine. He closed the shade. It only helped a little. He picked up the phone.
“This is Thomas Blake,” he said.
“My name is Barbara, and I’m a neighbor of Judith’s,” said the voice on the other end of the phone.
“Has my mother passed away?” he asked.
“Of course not,” said Barbara. “What a question.”
He flipped open his inbox. The King’s message had already been flagged by Sharon, and flickered a dusty orange. “How did you get this number?” he said. He bypassed the King’s message and opened the most recent, something from the New York office. “Markin-Avery settlement conference– Confidential, attorney client privileged,” said the subject heading.
“A card was on the fridge,” said Barbara.
“My number was on my mother’s refrigerator.”
“On a card. At the top it says ‘King Loenstein Krantz’ and then below that it says, ‘Thomas Blake’ – that’s you – and then below that it has a California address, and then after that it says…”
“And you put two and two together.”
“It isn’t rocket science.”
“Apparently not.” He clicked open the time program and entered, “02548 Markin-Avery .1 – reviewed email re: settlement discussion conference on Thursday.”
“I think you should know your mother’s been buying things. All kinds of things. The trucks are here every day. I see them back up to the garage and just leave stuff there. One time, I saw the garage door open, and it’s filled, you know, just filled to the ceiling with packages, I can’t tell for sure, but they look unopened to me. You know how many boxes it takes to fill one of these garages, Thomas?”
“Mr. Blake,” he said.
“Mr. Blake,” said Barbara. She had the sound of an old diesel engine, slow to start but warming to its fullest potential – a heady roar of verbiage. “Do you know how many trucks I’ve seen?”
“Not unless you tell me,” he said.
“Five since Thursday.”
“I see,” he said.
“Today is Tuesday,” she said.
“Yes it is,” he said.
“They’re from the Home Shopping Network.”
“That’s highly unlikely,” he said.
“They are,” she said. “I checked. And while I was checking, I took a look-see around the living room.”
“Of course you did,” he said. He looked at the clock. He had wasted three minutes on this woman that he would never get back. “If the truck noise bothers you, take it up with her directly.”
“There’s a dead rat in there.”
“In the living room.” The clock ticked four minutes. He turned it away from himself. “Do you know how bad a dead rat smells, Thomas?”
“No,” he said.
“Bad,” she said.
“How long has it been there?”
“Take a sniff. The smell ought to be reaching California any moment. And that’s just the start of it. The house is a mess. There’s food everywhere. It’s rotting all over the counters. Judith’s a real neat woman. Everyone knows that. You know that. I know that. She used to yell at Bernie, that’s my husband from before the divorce, about the way he let the roses climb outside the planters. Now her laundry’s in the kitchen cabinets and her rye bread is in the hamper, and I think I found some fuzzy slippers in the bathtub, although it’s hard to tell how they started out, what with all the mold. That’s worse than roses outside the planters, if you ask me.”
“You’re sure my mother is still living there.”
“I found her wandering around the backyard in her underwear. It’s February, Thomas.”
“You have a keen handle on the obvious, Barbara,” he said.
“Thank you,” she said.
“You didn’t leave her in the back yard.”
“I called that home on Lincoln Avenue, my niece works there, it’s a nice enough place except for the food, I wouldn’t touch the food, and anyway they took her away. She’s pretty skinny, I mean, she was always skinny, but now it’s the bony kind, which I guess isn’t a surprise because there’s nothing to eat in the whole, godforsaken house besides moldy bread and unopened cans of baked beans. There’s so many cans of beans in here you’d think she was preparing for Armageddon. My niece thinks it’s on account of the Alzheimer’s. That’s what she says it is. A classic case, she says.”
“I see,” he said. He could think of nothing else to say, so he said it again. “I see.” He had a sudden memory of his mother. It was fall, and she was standing on the back porch with her arms folded across her chest, staring at the one tree in the backyard as it mourned the passing of summer with gentle, auburn tears. “I wish I was a man,” she had said, “so I could turn that damn thing into a coffee table.” He didn’t know what made him think of it. “Where did you say she is now?”
“It’s a temporary place. Being as how Annie, that’s the niece, is a, what do you call it, a caregiver there, they’re willing to make an exception until you get here. The management told my niece who told me specifically they don’t handle this sort of thing.”
“Alzheimer’s,” he said.
“That’s the sort of thing they don’t handle. You need to be a good son and get down here and take care of your mother.”
“I will be there in the morning.”
“Bring your checkbook. I took a look-see at the mail, and I think your mom owes the Home Shopping Network sixty thousand dollars.”
“Good to know,” he said.
At eight o’clock, Thomas located the king. “Your timing’s good, as always – they’re on break. I’ll put you through,” said Amy, the king’s daytime Chicago secretary.
The phone clicked softly, and was answered almost immediately. “I don’t know where they find these people, soldier, but they’re easy sport. You can smell the panic when you walk in the door,” said voice on the other end of the line. “The C.E.O. claims he can’t remember his own job title. Buddy in HR could have taken this deposition. What a waste of my time.” The theory was that the king had trouble with names. One of the other partners had been “sport” for thirteen years, while almost every female associate was “kiddo” and every young man, from the guy who manned the stamp machine in the mailroom to the senior associate, was “buddy” or “champ”. Thomas knew better. The king, like Thomas himself, never forgot. If he called a man sport, it was because he was letting him know the way of things, and his place in them. Thomas had always been “soldier.” He was the only soldier in seventeen domestic branches of King Loenstein and Krantz, for reasons no one remembered anymore. It had come to supplant his real name. He heard Sharon use it sometimes, on the phone outside his office with his favorite paralegal. “The soldier’s having a day,” she might say. “You’re lucky you’re on the nineteenth.” Once, he dreamed he could not remember his name at all.
“I need to take some time off,” the soldier said to his speakerphone.
“We have a court date in twenty-six days,” said the king.
“The situation is unavoidable.”
“Enlighten me,” said the king. “Tell me all about your unavoidable situation, soldier.” Somewhere in Chicago, at the other end of satellite and cable, the king sat at his mahogany desk, opening letters with a seventeenth century dagger. The soldier felt balanced between that dagger and a slow asphyxiation.
“There are problems with my mother,” he said.
“Judith,” said the king.
“Yes,” said the soldier.
“A remarkable lady,” said the king.
“The neighbor called this morning. They think she has Alzheimer’s.”
“Alzheimer’s,” said the king.
The sound of letter ripping stilled. The soldier waited, five seconds, ten seconds, but the king said nothing else. So he continued. “I have to go home, to meet with her doctor and make arrangements.”
“After all these years, Illinois is still home, is it?” The ripping resumed. The Los Angeles air was growing thin, sucked from the soldier’s hermetic office, through cellular currents into a distant building in Chicago.
“I meant Judith’s home,” said the soldier
“Trial is in twenty-six days,” said the king.
“I know,” said the soldier.
“People say you’re my right hand. What do you think of that?”
The soldier said, “I think you’re left handed.”
“You always know what I’m going to say, you fucker,” said the king. “It’s uncanny.”
“That’s my job.”
“Yes, it is,” said the king. Five seconds. Ten seconds. Fifteen. Rip. Rip. Rip. The king said, “This is your mother, and I like to think I am a reasonable man. People tell me I’m reasonable all the time. What do you say to that?”
“I think you pay those people,” said the soldier.
“You don’t think I am reasonable.”
“I think that you are reasonably consistent.”
“You’ve got some brass balls,” said the king.
“You would know,” said the soldier. “I’m your right hand man. I like to think that’s the hand holding my brass balls right now.”
Ten seconds, fifteen seconds, thirty. The king laughed. “You have the soul of a politician,” he said. The soldier inhaled slowly, carefully, so he would not be heard over the speaker. There was barely enough oxygen left in the room for it. The king disdained the fearful, and the soldier did not want his breathing to be misunderstood. “If I didn’t know better, I’d be worried that we would lose you to state governance. Lucky me, you sold your soul to my firm a long time ago.”
“Lucky you,” said the soldier.
“Then tell me what I will say next, right hand man.”
“You will say this isn’t a charitable organization. You will say that if you do something for me, I must do something for you. You will say…”
“Quid pro quo,” said the king.
“You will say quid pro quo,” said the soldier.
“Something for something. What for what, as Black’s says. I should have that etched somewhere,” said the king.
“Someone bought a plaque. It hangs over the men’s room in Seattle.”
“Good number,” said the king.
“Tell me your what,” said the soldier.
“You have met a few of my daughters.”
“Yes, a long time ago,” said the soldier, and he already knew, this would be no ordinary what. Once upon a time, he had been acquainted with three of the King daughters. They had been children, studying piano with his mother, when he was a teenager. But then, everyone knew about the king and his many daughters, and his failure to father a son. It was a dangerous thing, to ridicule the king, but the soldier suspected the story of the king’s daughters amused many a member of support staff during happy hour.
“There are five now,” said the king.
“I’ve heard,” said the soldier.
“They live in the Chicago house.”
“Kate and Jane still live at the Chicago house,” said the soldier.
“Jane is in graduate school in the city,” said the king. “Again.” The soldier could hear the king moving papers on his desk “They watch over their sisters.”
“And the younger Kings’ mothers?” said the soldier. The king had three ex-wives. The current prospect for the title of number four, the soldier was led to believe, had feet that burned when they hit the ground; she preferred her travels rapid and continuous, shaped by society and glossed with charity, and entirely children free.
“Their mothers are alimony whores,” said the king, but without malice. “Absentee alimony whores.”
“I assume Charlotte is in college.”
“Charlotte is missing,” said the king. “Amy, where’s the goddamn printout?”
“How long?” he said.
“Three days. A week. I don’t know. Amy!”
“Got it.” Even over the speaker, Amy sounded out of breath. He heard her say, “They’re reconvening in five.”
“Jesus Christ, that woman’s fucking slow,” said the king. “Where were we?”
“You were talking about Charlotte.”
“Right. You’ll need some time to sort your business. I’m going to give it to you. Days are long. There will be plenty of time left in yours to look into the issue.”
“I’m a lawyer.” The king did not respond. The soldier could hear the sound shuffling papers as the king reviewed Amy’s printout. The soldier continued, “We both know there are people better qualified to find a missing person.”
The sound of papers stilled. For the first time that morning, the soldier could tell he had the king’s undivided attention. “I have always considered you to be an intelligent, even dangerously intelligent man,” said the king. The good-old-boy office veneer was gone. What was left was the real man, the ruthless climber, the courtroom lion, the giant killer. “I don’t normally barter in that sort of intelligence, but once upon a time, I made an exception with you. I have never regretted it. I don’t think you will disappoint me at this late date.”
The soldier uncapped and recapped his pen three times in careful succession. It had been a gift from the firm the tenth anniversary of his partnership. “Okay,” he said.
“Charlotte is her mother’s daughter. You remember Charlotte’s mother.”
“Then Charlotte and her idiosyncrasies should come as no surprise. She has disappeared before, but never this long. I don’t want it in the papers.”
“I will get it done.”
“Yes, you will,” said the king. “When are you leaving?”
“Redeye tonight. After that thing for Mark.”
“The service. For Mark. Mark German from the trademark group in San Francisco.”
“Right,” said the King. “Where are staying when you get here?”
“The Hilton downtown,” said the soldier. He liked the predictability of chain hotels.
“I want you to stay at my house.”
“Your house,” he said.
“Quid pro quo,” said Jack Zedekiah King.
The soldier thought of his mother, standing in her underwear in an Illinois winter. He wondered if she had been berating the tree. He wondered if she registered cold, anymore. He said, “Fine.” He hung up the phone and looked out his twentieth floor window at a vast expanse of sallow smog. Somewhere in all that ozone hid the Hollywood sign.
The soldier wrapped up his afternoon early, and headed out to the thing for Mark.
He had a redeye to catch.
As he sat, waiting for takeoff, he thought of his flat, all black leather, glass and hardwood. He had no particular affection for things aesthetic beyond a preference for the monochromatic and spare. In this way, his loft was a success. It had been years since his last visit to his mother’s, but there was no reason to suspect any changes had occurred, given her budget. It was likely as it always was, a haven of seventies shag and Formica, with essence of popcorn ceiling. He felt a sudden, momentary twinge, like a strained muscle, sear across his abdomen. The soldier swallowed the remainder of his cocktail. “I will have another,” he said, to no one in particular. It was first class. He was confident someone would respond.
The stewardess, all three-hundred-dollar highlights and low-carb diet, responded with a drink, a bleached welcome-to-the-friendly-skies smile, and a phone number. Opportunity presented itself and he took it, via a room at the airport Hyatt. As dawn approached, he stood before the bathroom mirror, tying his tie. It was dark blue, with a faint pattern woven into its silk. To an outside observer, it looked generically geometric, but close examination revealed the constellation of Orion. Like the Hyatt, the tie was part of his travel regimen. He looped it once, then again, and it felt like home: a tightening across his windpipe, a familiar room, a woman in the bed behind him. Her huddled form was barely visible. If she was not actually sleeping, she had the good grace to pretend. He paused at the door. Perhaps he had stood on this exact square of economical carpeting before. It was hard to be sure. One Hyatt hotel room looked much like the next – he supposed this to be part of their questionable charm. He could see her hair, brittle from its many chemical tortures, spread upon the pillow, and remembered, only an hour or two before, clutching that same hair with double fists as he buried his face past her shoulder and into the pillow, so he could see neither her nor himself, and thrust and thrust, like he could empty his day, his year, his life into her if he did so with sufficient force. If experience was any indication, it was never enough, but this did not stop him from trying. He put on his coat, collected his bag, and headed for the street to acquire a cab and confront winter. It was seven in the morning, and his day was just beginning.
The soldier’s secretary from his brief time as a summer associate in the Chicago office still worked there, occupying the same cubicle she had for the past twenty years. When he visited, he always took her to lunch. Darlene was a nervous talker, and required little input on his part. Over a plate of fettuccini she discussed the firm’s insurance policy, her husband’s pending layoff, and her son Devon’s recent misdemeanor brush with a telephone pole (it wasn’t his fault). Duties discharged, he spent the rest of the afternoon in the pleasing silence of the visiting partner office, completing review of an associate memo, and drinking something pungent retained from the Hyatt mini-bar.
The walk to the elevators led him down a long row of associate offices. It was three in the afternoon, but the worker bees were just getting started on their pollination of the evening hours. They looked very young, he thought. They had not yet paid their pound of flesh.
He stopped at the last office before making his turn for the elevator. A woman hunched over a streamline black desk, leaning on her elbows, her shoulders pushed up by her ears. It took her a moment to notice him standing there. Her skin was unfortunately wan, accenting the dark impressions beneath her eyes, almost like bruises, and the red rims of her lids. It had a familiar jaundice about it, the sallowness that associate skin adopts as it mourns the sun. She looked up at him. Her eyes were startlingly sunk into her skull. When she saw him, her face flushed, and then she smiled. “I bet you didn’t know you have highlighter ink all over your collar,” she said. “I’m guessing that’s a first for you.”
“I am looking for Stacey Myrdon’s desk. She is in billing,” said the soldier.
She blinked, once. “Fourteenth floor, around the corner, to the left.”
He rode the elevator down its many flights, the computer monitor ticking stock prices beneath the severed head of a CNN analyst, and mulled the woman over. He could not shake the feeling that there was something familiar about her, not about her face, certainly, which was haggard and unremarkable, but something there, in the placement of her eyes, the distance between nose and mouth, that he had seen before. The soldier considered his recall both vast and dependable, but he could not place her, a failed synonym search within the thesaurus of his brain. Maybe he attended the closing interview following her summer internship. Maybe she had attended one of his continuing legal education lectures. As he rounded the main doorway, he lifted his hand to hail a cab, and turned his face to the bitter sun, reigning in frigid glory over an arctic afternoon. He shelved the associate for another day, and flipped his thoughts to a darker channel.