FAMILY MAN - HILARY DAVIDSON
Originally published in the March/April 2009 issue (Issue #29) of CrimeSpree Magazine
“Open your eyes now,” Gary said, staring at his girlfriend’s face beside his in the hallway mirror. Mila’s plump pink mouth twitched before she opened her eyes. Gary watched as her gaze trailed down to her breastbone, where a pendant of white gold hung from a delicate chain.
“Look, it twinkles in the light,” he said. His broad hands were on her shoulders and he moved her forward and back, gently, grinning at her all the while. “Diamonds.”
“Diamonds,” Mila repeated, staring at the necklace.
“Don’t you think it’s beautiful? Not beautiful like you are, but hell. Nothing’s that beautiful.” He leaned in and kissed the fine blonde hair at her temple. “C’mon, Mila, say you like it, okay?”
“I like it okay.” She avoided his eyes.
“Look at this, you can make the chain longer.” He unhooked the lobster clasp with his squared-off fingertips and moved it along a few links. Mila was wearing a plain black T-shirt, but Gary pictured the pendant swinging into her cleavage. “You look so hot, baby,” he said, putting his arms around her and nuzzling her neck.
“Not... not in the mood. Not tonight, Gary,” she said, pulling away. Her English wasn’t so good, but that was one phrase she’d learned. It seemed to Gary that she was going to repeat it every time she saw him now.
“That’s okay, Mila baby,” he said, keeping up his smile. He let go of her and watched her walk back into the kitchen. She’d been unloading the dishwasher when he’d walked into the apartment, and she went back to it. Ten o’clock on a Friday night, and there she was, playing with her favorite appliance. It had to be some weird Soviet thing, Gary figured. Mila had told him, not long after they’d met, when she was growing up in Kubinka she’d dreamed about one day living in the West and having a dishwasher.
One dream come true, he figured. If only he could figure out what the hell else she wanted.
“You have dinner?” Mila asked.
“I grabbed some food with the guys,” Gary said, leaning against the doorframe and folding his arms. “We went to Bolduc.”
“Poutine place,” said Mila, making a disgusted noise.
“In Montreal, everywhere’s a poutine place,” Gary pointed out. He thought about adding that French fries covered in cheese and gravy was a hell of an improvement over the starchy Russian crap Mila cooked up, but he stifled the impulse.
She shrugged, picked up a glass and held it up in front of the light over the kitchen table. She put it down, and picked up another one, studying it.
“Works like magic, you know. Presto, magico!” said Gary.
Mila looked over at him.
“The dishwasher. Presto, like… one, two, three, presto.” He shook his head. His hair was getting too long and he could feel it falling into his eyes. He brushed it back with one hand. “Never mind.”
She gave him a withering look with cold blue eyes that would have chilled Vladimir Putin’s heart and went back to her glassware.
“How’s Tatiana?” Gary asked.
“Okay.” There was a long pause. “You want to see baby?”
“You bet I do,” he said.
“Baby asleep,” said Mila, pulling another glass close for inspection. “Go see.”
Gary walked down the hallway to the pink door, easing it open. By the glow of the night-light, he could make out Tatiana in her crib, curled up in her fuzzy sleepers. When he’d found out that he and Mila were having a baby, he’d gone a little crazy. Maybe a whole lot crazy but hell, he’d been turning 39 and his mother had died of cancer the year before and he’d started to think of himself as an orphan. He couldn’t tell anyone, but he’d been kind of depressed. Then Mila had gotten pregnant and Gary had pulled himself together. He’d bought toys and Dr. Seuss books and a bunch of those DVDs that were supposed to make babies into geniuses. Then, when the ultrasound showed the baby was a girl, Gary had painted the walls, ceiling and doors of the baby’s room pink. He’d installed an ivory carpet covered in pink and red hearts, and he’d refinished the furniture himself. He’d do anything for his baby girl.
“Ta-ti-ahh-na,” he whispered, tiptoeing into the room. He loved his daughter’s name, the way his tongue bounced over the syllables. “Daddy’s here.” She was four months now and smiling all the time, his precious girl, even in her sleep.
“Got a present for you, baby girl.” He unlocked the side of the crib and rolled it down, leaning forward to kiss her fluffy blonde head. He pulled a shiny bangle out of the pocket of his leather jacket and set it beside her.
“What you do?” hissed Mila. She’d snuck up behind him, her steps silent on the carpet. “What that?” She snatched the bracelet and held it up accusingly.
“It’s for Tatiana. You know she loves shiny stuff.” Gary smiled at Mila, but her mouth pulled into a grim line.
“This? This not for baby!” said Mila, her voice edging from a harsh whisper to a shout. “Baby choke on this!”
“For crying out loud, Mila. It’s too big for her to get into her mouth. She’s not gonna choke on it.”
Mila glared at him, her blue eyes narrowed to slits. As if on cue, Tatiana woke up crying. Gary picked her up and cradled her against his chest. “Sorry, sweetheart, Daddy didn’t mean to wake you up.” He jiggled her up and down a little – Tatiana usually loved that – but tonight she kept on crying. Mila glared at him and put her arms out. Gary handed his daughter over reluctantly.
“Hungry baby,” said Mila, sitting in an overstuffed armchair next to the small window. She pulled up her t-shirt and unlatched her nursing bra in one practiced motion. Gary caught sight of her nipple for a split second before the baby latched on. It was the most action he’d had in months. Mila gazed down at Tatiana, cooing at her in Russian. It would have been a nice scene, Gary thought, if he hadn’t been so completely excluded from it. He’d found the chair on a sidewalk while he was driving through Westmount one night, and he’d fixed it up so nice anyone would’ve thought it came from one of those snooty antique dealers up on Notre Dame Street. Mila had given him as much thanks for that as she had for everything else. Exactly none.
“You want me to go?” he asked, trying to keep his voice quiet.
Mila nodded. Gary went over to her, kneeling on the floor to kiss Tatiana’s soft hair. He breathed in the scent of her, so sweet and clean. He’d never pictured himself as a father, but now that he had this precious little girl to take care of, he couldn’t imagine his life without her.
He leaned forward to kiss Mila, too, but she turned her mouth away, so that his lips grazed her cheek. “Good night,” she said, as coldly and formally as if she were the Czarina and he were a peasant crawling around a Ptotemkin village. You’d never know that they’d been together for almost two years, Gary thought bitterly. You’d never know they had a child together.
“Guess I’ll let myself out,” he said. “I’ll be away a couple days. You need any cash?”
Mila nodded, not looking at him. Gary counted out a small bundle of bills, added a couple more for good measure. He could see Mila counting along with him out of the corner of her eye. Had some talents, that woman did.
“Enough?” Gary asked, setting the money on the broad arm of the armchair. Mila nodded, glanced at him and back down at the baby, who was the picture of peace now. It calmed him down, at least a little, seeing his sweet girl like that. He backed out of the room, his eyes on her.
“Take this,” said Mila, grabbing the pendant and pulling the chain over her head. She held it out to him.
“That was a gift,” Gary said, his mouth dry.
“Take back,” said Mila.
“C’mon, Mila. I got it for you.”
“Where you get from?”
“What... what the hell does that matter?” He was losing it now, and he jammed his fists into the pockets of his jacket. The fingers of his right hand struck the cold metal of the switchblade handle, and he stifled his impulse to swear. Tatiana, like a barometer of pressure within the room, unlatched from her mother’s breast and started to wail. Mila dropped the necklace on the carpet and started cooing at the baby again.
“Stop gibbering at her in Russian,” Gary snapped. Mila ignored him. The baby cried louder. Gary retreated from the room, his pace increasing as he headed to the front door. It took all his willpower not to slam it behind him. Instead he shut it carefully, making sure it latched and then locking it with his key. He didn’t want someone breaking into the apartment, and that dumb bitch Mila probably wouldn’t bother to check it. He wasn’t going to let anyone hurt his little girl.
He stormed down the stairs, his eyes on the plaster walls that had been pockmarked by the occasional fist. Gary was ready to add to the damage, but he heard a door creak open. “It’s okay, Mrs. Revuelta, it’s just me,” he called out.
“Gary, you’re not leaving already.” He could make out the outline of her, resting on her cane. The apartments in the old building were ringed around a staircase, four to a floor, making privacy a scarce commodity.
“Got a job driving a busload of tourists up to Quebec City tomorrow. Early start, you know.”
“Oh, Gary. You drive a cab all week and then a bus on the weekend.” She shook her grey head. “You work so hard, you really do. I hope Mila appreciates you.”
“Thanks, Mrs. Revuelta. How’ve you been?”
He zoned out while she answered. She could go on at length about her arthritis and her diverticulitis and all kinds of other crap he didn’t want to hear. He was fond of the old lady, though. How many times had he come over and found her watching Tatiana while Mila was jabbering on the phone to her sister in Minsk?
“Gary, I said did you want any cake? I was baking for my Amy, but that lazy bag of bones that’s supposed to be my son didn’t bring her by. No call, nothing.” Her voice quavered.
“That’s terrible. I’m real sorry to hear that, Mrs. Revuelta. Can’t believe he’d do that to you, and to your granddaughter.”
“I know. Do you want some coffee?”
“Wish I could. Got that early start tomorrow, though,” Gary said.
“Well, let me wrap up some cake for you. It’s chocolate fudge, your favorite.”
Gary followed her into her apartment. A television with wire bunny ears played silently. The sofa was covered with heavy plastic that looked like nothing so much as a giant condom stretched over the delicate wooden frame. A carved wooden crucifix hung on one wall between photographs of Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul the Second. It was all depressingly familiar to Gary, not unlike his mother’s apartment before she moved into the hospice to die. Gary felt sorry for the old lady, widowed by her husband and ignored by her only son. He’d never done anything like that to his mother. It wasn’t fair that she wasn’t around, that she never got to meet her granddaughter.
“It’s such a shame, you having to work so hard,” called Mrs. Revuelta from the kitchen. “Just like my Peter when we got married. Tatiana must miss you. You and Mila should get married. That’d be good for the baby, good for everybody.”
“Yeah,” said Gary. He never told Mrs. Revuelta about the time he’d tried to propose to Mila, and how badly that had ended. Love conquers everything but the heart of a villain, he thought. The inscription on the ring he’d tried to give Mila hadn’t made much sense at the time, but in hindsight it seemed like some sort of sign.
“Mila’s a nice girl,” said Mrs. Revuelta, coming out of the kitchen with a big plastic bag.
“I guess.” Gary looked at the carpet. “She’s always giving me such a hard time. Maybe she’d be happier with someone else.”
“Gary! Don’t think that for a second. If she were even thinking about anyone else, I’d know. There’s nothing that goes on in this building that I don’t know about.” She handed him the bag and smiled. “She’s just depressed. Hormones. Happens to plenty of girls after the baby comes. Oprah’s done shows about it.” She nodded to herself as if that were the last word on the matter. “Any girl would consider herself lucky to have you, Gary. Look at you, always taking care of people. You bought me flowers on Mother’s Day, and those gold earrings you gave me… my own son has never done the like of that.” She patted his arm with her gnarled fingers.
“C’mon, you’re gonna make me blush, you keep that up,” said Gary, feeling awkwardly pleased. “You need me to do anything before I go?”
There were little jobs he sometimes did for her, like changing lightbulbs or fixing the tap in the kitchen. Tonight she shook her head. “You just go on home, Gary. You get some rest.”
He left her apartment with a lighter heart. Fighting with Mila made every nerve ending in his body crackle, stirred him up so that he was popping with chaotic energy. He’d gotten into bar fights after some of their bouts, and he was just lucky that he hadn’t been arrested. Talking with Mrs. Revuelta calmed him down, made him see sense. He went to the parking lot behind the building and got into his taxi, setting the cake on the seat next to him. It was a rainy night and he thought about heading back to his apartment, getting a solid night’s sleep before the tour bus job. But then he thought about Tatiana and Mila and he drove downtown instead.
Mrs. Revuelta was right, he thought. It was wrong that he and Mila weren’t married. Hell, they weren’t even living together. How could that be good for Tatiana? He’d been toying with the idea of moving away from Montreal, just getting out of Quebec altogether. He’d grown up in the city and barely spoke a word of French, how funny was that? But that had been easy to do back when he was a kid. Now, with French fascists calling the shots, you couldn’t even put up a sign in English anymore. A high school dropout like him had nothing in the way of job prospects. He’d hurt his back doing construction and had burned out of a dead-end telemarketing job. Driving a cab was about all he was good for these days. He could barely read the damn French street signs, but he knew the winding city streets like the curves of a longtime lover, and that got him by.
He cruised along the dark, narrow pathways of Old Montreal, near the port, picking up a couple of tourist fares in the rain. He eyed a couple of girls who tumbled into his cab, but noticed one of them was wearing a cross. Bad karma, he thought, at the same time imagining how great a cross would look around Mila’s pale, slender neck. He dropped the girls off at their hotel, really just a small bed-and-breakfast on Stanley Street, near McGill, and kept his cab light off as he headed in the direction of Mont Royal. Gary could make out the cross at the top of the mountain, the lights on it shimmering like so many diamonds in the rain. He drove around the mountain – people kept insisting it was a hill these days, but when Gary was growing up everyone called it a mountain – and headed north, to Outremont. There were some nice restaurants and cafés here along Laurier and Bernard streets, but Gary only turned his taxi light on after he reached the residential district. He drove slowly, scanning the hulking houses for signs of life. He stopped in front of one and watched the gate expectantly. It was after one in the morning now and, sure enough, a couple appeared as if on cue. The woman pointed to the car and the man strode towards it, opening the door to the backseat and letting the woman slide in. The man got in and said something in rapid French.
“Repetez-vous?” Gary said slowly.
“You only speak English?” said the man, following up with something to the woman in French that made her laugh. Speaking very slowly, as if to a stupid child or perhaps a baboon, the man gave him an address. “You think you can find that?” he added.
“Bien sur,” said Gary. “House or apartment?”
“House,” sniffed the man, rolling his eyes and settling back into his seat. His companion giggled and whispered in his ear.
Gary kept an eye on them in the rearview mirror as he drove. Another cabbie had alerted him to the existence of private swingers clubs a while back, telling Gary that they were a goldmine. Captive audience, he’d said, adding that they usually tipped real well. The other cabbie seemed to think that it was a big deal to have half-undressed women occasionally flash their tits at him from the backseat. Lots of them are on Ecstacy or something, the cabbie had told Gary. I bet they’d bang me, too, if they’re in the mood. Gary figured the guy was probably working on a letter to Penthouse by now. Whatever this particular couple was on, it made them ignore Gary. They whispered to each other, the man’s hand disappearing up her skirt.
“You have kids?” asked Gary.
“What?” said the man.
“Kids. Les enfants.”
“No,” said the man, sounding disgusted. He said something to the woman that must have been very funny, because her red mouth opened in a long peal of laughter. Teeth like pearls, thought Gary, wondering if she was wearing any jewelry under her trenchcoat.
When he got to the address, he pulled into the driveway of the house. It was a two-story Tudor-style, big but nothing like the mansion they’d come from. “There you go,” said Gary. “Close as I can get you in this rain.”
“Bien sur,” said the man. For some reason Gary couldn’t figure, the woman laughed again. The man passed a couple of bills to Gary and opened the door. The woman followed him out, took his arm, and went to the front door.
All that and he’s a lousy tipper, Gary thought, unlatching his seatbelt and turning the engine off. He opened the glove compartment, tossing the cash in and pulling out a pair of latex gloves that he immediately put on. He got out of the cab as soon as the front door of the house was open. The woman was already inside, but the man turned back in the doorway.
“Would you mind if I use your phone?” asked Gary. “Mine is…” He pulled his right hand out of his pocket, snapping the switchblade open and slicing the man’s neck in one smooth motion. The man dropped to the floor, his legs sticking out the doorway. “Thanks,” said Gary. “That’s really great.” He reached down and pulled the man’s wallet out of his pocket, stuffing it into his jacket. He kicked the body into the foyer and locked the door behind him.
There was a keypad for a security system on the wall next to the door. So much for that, thought Gary. He heard the woman’s voice call out from upstairs. Gary listened for anyone to answer her, but when no one did, he headed up the stairs. The woman called out again. Gary followed her voice into the master bedroom. She was sitting on the bed, stripped down to red bra and panties, and when she saw Gary, she screamed “Violeur!” and made a run for the bathroom. Gary grabbed her by her long black hair and brought the knife up again, cutting her throat.
“C’mon, no one’s raping you,” he said as her eyes rolled back and stared up at him. He let her drop onto the white carpet, her head hitting with a soft thud. Gary stood back so that the spurting blood wouldn’t hit him. He’d done a better job on the man, he knew. Now he noticed that the woman was wearing a beautiful pearl necklace. He thought about taking it, even with all of the blood on it, but he wondered if it was the kind of thing you could really clean. When he’d proposed to Mila, he’d given her a beautiful diamond ring that had been too big for her hand. Words, what mean? she’d said, and it had taken Gary a while to realize the ring had an inscription. Amour vaint tout fors ceur de villain. It didn’t even look like real French to Gary. Mila had run her finger over the words and then had stared at her finger and screamed. She’d gotten so upset that he’d been terrified for the baby in her womb, just six months along then. Afterwards, Gary realized that a tiny trickle of – well, it looked like rust, really – but that there was a stain on the ring. That had made him feel like hell, it really did. Afterwards he’d bought some liquid jewelry cleanser, because that wasn’t going to happen again. He was just glad that his mother’s eyesight had never been too good, especially towards the end.
Gary wiped the knife blade with tissues from the bedside table, then turned his attention to the dresser, where a red leather jewelry box lay open. The stuff this woman had, she could have opened her own store. There was too much for his pockets. He noticed a handle on the side and shut the case. He grabbed the woman’s wallet from her purse and put it into his jacket, and stepped over her body. He headed downstairs and found a newish laptop computer in the kitchen and scooped it up. He unlocked the front door, kicked the man’s body as he stepped over it, and shut the door behind him.
It was only later, when he got back to his apartment and was snacking on Mrs. Revuelta’s cake, that he got a good look inside the jewelry case. He was sorting out which pieces to bring to Quebec City, where a buddy of his would take them off his hands.
Guy knew more about jewelry than anybody he’d ever met. He’d even been able to puzzle out that weird inscription on the diamond ring. Medieval French, he’d told Gary. Love conquers everything but the heart of a villain. True words, Gary thought, checking the jewelry for inscriptions and finding none. Inside the bottom drawer of the case he found a tarnished silver pendant. It was a cross, but with two additional short crossbeams, one near the top and one near the bottom. He held it in the palm of his hand, thinking of how he’d seen Mila’s friend Svetlana wearing exactly the same kind of pendant. An Orthodox cross, she’d called it. It was perfect for Mila, he realized, seized suddenly by hope. He couldn’t wait to get over to her place on Sunday night, to give it to her and watch her eyes light up. It was a sign, he thought. Now he just needed to get one for Tatiana, too.
BIO: Hilary’s debut novel, THE DAMAGE DONE, has been called a “razor sharp mystery debut” by Publishers Weekly and “Hitchcock writing for the hip Manhattan set” by Ken Bruen. The book will be published by Forge on September 28, 2010. Hilary will be at Bouchercon and Noircon this fall, and her book tour will take her to cities including Houston, Scottsdale, Los Angeles, Toronto, Boston and Pittsburgh; for dates, please visit Hilary Davidson.