THEY DID IT WITH LOVE Excerpt:
“To have trusted someone! To have believed… and it was lies—all lies.”
-Agatha Christie, They Do It with Mirrors
It was autumn. Early morning. The air was sharp, and the sky was a deep October blue. The cars on the narrow suburban street whizzed by, churning up little whirlpools of leaves—but none of the people in the cars noticed the body hanging among the trees. The feet were suspended in mid-air not far from the ground, and they looked like they had maroon stockings on—the deep purple color due to the blood pooling in the lowest parts of the body. The long, blond hair hung in a curtain around the lolled head. A light wind ruffled the hem of the nightgown and shivered the leaves in the trees, but the body hung motionless. A dozen cars drove by without noticing anything. It might have been hours before the body was discovered—if it weren’t for Sofie. Afterward Sofie’s life would never be the same, but a year earlier she hadn’t even known the woman. For her it all started with another death.
New York : December
The phone call came early Friday December 14th at seven-fifteen A.M. ensuring that Sofie would remember that particular morning forever. That’s what happened with death. It took otherwise small unmemorable moments and fossilized them. This would be the second time she had experienced the phenomenon. It had happened once before when she was three years old and had wandered into her mother’s bedroom because, though she’d waited forever, her mother hadn’t come to get her up. Even twenty-five years later Sofie still remembered those moments as clearly as if someone had taken a photograph. The open windows. The rumpled sheets. The slowly revolving ceiling fan. Then the sharp smell of urine. And the feeling… as if all the joy had been sucked out of her heart like the water rushing down the drain when her mother pulled the plug in the bath.
Now it would be these moments—before the phone call—that would be preserved in her memory. She was sitting in the window seat, her mug of tea balanced precariously on the sill. The heat from the tea had made a small hazy patch of fog on the window pane just above the lip of the cup. The newspaper—opened to the second to last page of the Arts and Leisure section and folded to frame the crossword puzzle—lay on the cushion beside her, and her cat Agatha was curled in her lap, a small spot of warmth.
Outside the window a few snowflakes drifted through the air. Across 5th Avenue the trees of Central Park were a tangle of dark grey branches against a pale grey sky. In a few minutes the sun would rise, and the first rays would hit the facades of the buildings across the park turning all the windows into mirrors of light.
But at seven fifteen on December 14th the sun wasn’t up; there was only the flat emptiness of the sky and the aimlessness of the tiny flakes of snow. And her mood matched the day. That morning she felt… suspended. Poised on the edge of something. (Though later she wasn’t sure if this was true or if it was something she had retroactively inserted into her memory. Does the calm before the storm seem calm at the time? Or does it only seem calm in retrospect, knowing what is to follow?)
At that moment, sitting in the window seat looking out over the dreary view, Sofie realized that the feeling of discomfort wasn’t purely internal; the tip of her nose was almost completely numb. She had been waiting for the heat to come up, but her husband Dean must have put the heat on manual override (he slept better when it was cold) and forgotten to switch it back. Cupping her palms around the mug she lifted it to her face and exhaled, letting her own breath send a little cloud of steam billowing up. It warmed her nose but only for a moment. As the steam ebbed away the cold crept right back in, so she gently dislodged Agatha from her lap and stood, making her way through the dining room, then the living room into the foyer and over to the master climate control for the apartment.
As she was adjusting the heat up from an arctic 50 degrees she saw Dean’s gym bag tucked underneath the hall table. He must have forgotten it in his rush out the door this morning. She sighed in exasperation. He always came home cranky when he didn’t work-out. Now she had to decide if it was worth the bother to take his bag over to him at the office or risk his mood later. Maybe she would take it over to him. She nudged the bag out from under the table with her foot so she would see it when she went out and turned to go back to finish the crossword puzzle.
The call came precisely as she was passing the phone extension in the living room, as if her presence had somehow called it into action. The abrupt jangle also echoed from the extensions in the bedroom and kitchen and her hand holding the mug jerked sending a little tidal wave of hot tea spilling over the side of the cup and onto her knuckles. It left a red mark where it splashed onto her skin.
She set the tea down and reached out to pick up the receiver. But her hand hovered in the air as if to delay the moment of knowing—though the truth was she knew already. She knew it wasn’t Dean calling about his forgotten gym bag. She knew it wasn’t a solicitation offering her an opportunity to get the New York Post delivered right to her door. She knew it wasn’t the bookstore checking on her availability. She’d been expecting this call for weeks now.
She picked up the receiver.
Sofie went from the hustle of Manhattan on a Friday morning through the smooth automatic doors and into the stillness of the hospital lobby. She’d gone through those doors dozens of times over the last three years but every time she was struck by the contrast—from the careless rush of the city into the hushed calm of the hospital, from the world of the living to the world of the dying. Every time she passed through those doors she thought about how the two worlds felt so far apart and yet only the space of a breath actually separated them. For her mother—only the time it took to swallow a handful of pills. For her father—only the time it took to get the results of a biopsy.
She crossed to the elevator and pressed the button for the third floor. They grouped patients with the same type of cancer together. The section for pancreatic cancer was small and grim. As she exited into the familiar hallway she wondered how many times had she been here in the last few years? Ten? Fifteen? More? How many times had the doctors told her that it looked as though her father wouldn’t make it out of the hospital again? But somehow (by pure willpower he claimed) he’d always fought his way back. So when he’d been admitted again yesterday she’d come to visit, listened to the doctors say the same thing they always said, and then she went home when visiting hours ended. The only difference was that this time the doctors had been right.
When she reached her father’s room she found the door open. The sun was streaming in the windows, and the vase of orange tulips that she’d brought was still perched on the sill, but all the curtains around the bed that her father usually kept closed were now drawn back, and the bed was stripped down to the plastic mattress pad. A nurse was bent over the bed removing the pad, and she must have sensed Sofie’s presence at the door because she looked up.
“I’m so sorry,” the nurse said. “He’s not here anymore.”
“Where did they take him?” Sofie asked. She was amazed that her voice came out so calm. So even.
“They took him to the lower level,” the nurse told her. “Do you want to view the body?”
“Just take the elevator down to the basement.”
So Sofie retraced her steps back down the hallway and waited patiently for the elevator. When the doors slid open and she got in she saw the button next to the one for the lobby labeled “B”. If she’d ever noticed it before she would have assumed that it was a dark musty basement filled with buckets and mops and supplies. She pressed it and the elevator took her down. Down past lobby level. Down below ground level. Why had she never thought about the fact that a hospital needed somewhere to store their failures?
When she exited she found—not the concrete walls and the buckets and mops she’d imagined—but a carpeted reception area. And there weren’t silent men in blue coveralls, but a very pretty, very young girl sitting behind the desk. The girl didn’t look old enough to be out of high school, and it seemed incongruous to have someone so young manning the reception desk for the hospital morgue. But maybe, Sofie thought, only someone young would be willing to work down here. For the young death was something that happened to other people.
Sofie gave the receptionist her father’s name, and the girl checked the computer. She picked up the phone but before dialing she said, “It will be just a few minutes,” and motioned for Sofie to take a seat. Five minutes later an orderly appeared. He was dressed in green scrubs with a plastic identity card clipped to his pocket. Sofie noticed his name was James… the same as her father.
“If you’ll come with me,” the orderly said, so she followed James down the corridor. Just past the reception area the carpet ended and the floor was a slick hard linoleum. As Sofie walked the sound of her footsteps seemed embarrassingly loud, and it felt like it took forever to walk down the hall. They took a right and the orderly stopped in front of a closed door.
“Do you want me to go in with you?” he asked politely.
“No, thank you.”
She waited while he turned and retreated down the hallway. Only when he had disappeared back around the corner did Sofie open the door. As she slipped inside and closed the door behind her she felt as if she had entered yet another reality. This wasn’t the hospital—the world of the sick and dying. This was the world of the dead. Her father’s body lay on a steel table in front of her, a thick white sheet pulled up to his shoulders. Her father’s body she repeated to herself, as if it had only been some possession that he had relinquished. Her father’s townhouse, her father’s vacation homes, her father’s cars, her father’s businesses, her father’s body. He owned none of them anymore.
She crossed the small space to stand beside him. She had thought that he might simply look like he was sleeping, but he didn’t. His face looked different. In life there was always something tense about it—the lips pressed together, the eyes creased into a squint, even the skin had seemed to stretch tight over the bones. It was the same face, but now everything was slack—not peaceful, just slack.
At that moment Sofie suddenly realized that this was the first time in her life that she had been in the same room with her father and not felt a nauseous, clutching sensation in her stomach like how you might feel right before a big test that you haven’t studied for but desperately need to pass. And with that realization she finally believed her father was dead. The body hadn’t done it. The slackened face hadn’t done it. Only this—this sense of calm in his presence—made it real.
Sofie had never really believed he would die. She’d always had the sense that he could do whatever he wanted—that the laws of the universe didn’t apply to him. That was why when he was diagnosed three years ago and the doctors told him that he only had a few months to live and he might want to consider foregoing the painful treatment and trying to get the most out of the time he had left, she hadn’t been surprised when he ignored the advice, did the treatment, and went into remission. He’d had her convinced that he would live forever. Now looking down at his body she felt a strange, unnatural lightness as if she’d been hiking for hours with a heavy pack and had finally taken it off. The only thing she knew for sure was that this wasn’t how you were supposed to feel when you were standing over the body of your father.
She was distracted from this thought by voices outside in the hall. And then the door was opening, and her husband Dean was there. Having him arrive felt like fitting that last piece of the puzzle into place—it came with a feeling of relief.
She was about to speak when she noticed that hovering behind his shoulder was the pretty receptionist. The girl must have decided that Dean warranted a personal escort to the room instead of calling the orderly. That kind of thing always seemed to happen to her husband.
“Let me know if you need anything else,” the girl said to Dean.
“Okay, thanks,” Dean said.
Sofie could see the girl still standing there even as Dean shut the door. He was a heartbreaker even when he wasn’t trying. Maybe part of the reason he’d pursued her so hard when they first met was that he couldn’t believe Sofie wasn’t interested in him. It was amazing for her to think back on that now—that there had been a time when she had looked at him with absolute indifference. That when she first met him she thought he was a little too good looking with his sandy blonde hair and a dimple on one cheek, a little too slick with his ability to turn on the charm. She’d turned him down three times, but he had pursued her with a single-mindedness that eventually secured him a date. Who could resist being wanted that much? And during that first date she realized that he wasn’t just handsome, he was also sarcastic and smart and a little bit insecure and trying so hard to impress her while at the same time making fun of himself for it. She wasn’t sure exactly when it happened, but she fell for him… hard. So hard that she never admitted except to herself exactly how much. She knew that that kind of love tended to frighten men off, even husbands.
As Dean came up beside her he put an arm around her shoulders. “Are you okay, Cara Mia?” he asked. That was his pet name for her. He’d started out calling her Mia because he insisted she looked like Mia Farrow’s twin (though Sofie thought that he was glamorizing what was simply the Swedish inheritance she’d gotten from her mother: blue eyes and white-blonde coloring). Over the years the nickname had morphed into the Italian endearment.
She nodded. “I’m fine.”
Then he looked down at her father.
By some miracle of fate Dean and her father had actually gotten along. Her father often said that Dean was the only thing she’d ever done right. And Dean had never in the three years they’d been together (the same three years her father had been sick) made a negative comment about her father. So now she expected Dean to say something about missing him or about how he was a tough old man. But, after a long moment of silence Dean said, “He was such a prick.”
Sofie was so surprised that she started to laugh. But then the laugh caught in her throat. And then, to her surprise, she began to cry instead.
It was a few weeks later, after another crazy, exhausting day, that Dean brought up his idea.
They were lying in bed in the dark, looking out over Central Park and the carpet of trees and the buildings with their tiny twinkling lights on the other side of the park. Dean liked to sleep with the windows open and the heat turned down so they were under the heavy down quilt. Dean was curled up behind her, his arm draped over her waist, his chin nestled in her shoulder.
They had been talking about the day—what she had gotten done, what happened at his work—but in the last few minutes they had fallen into a comfortable silence. Sofie was watching the lights wink on and off in the buildings when Dean spoke.
“I was thinking,” he said slowly. “These last few weeks have been rough on you, haven’t they?”
“A bit,” she said.
Dean snorted. This was classic Sofie, always understating things.
If pressed, she would have had to admit that the last few weeks had been more than “a bit” rough. First there had been all the details to take care of: the funeral arrangements, making phone calls, writing letters. Then there was the inheritance to deal with. Her father had a brother and a sister, both married with kids—six nieces and nephews all together. He’d also gotten married (and divorced) twice after Sofie’s mother died. Both ex-wives were alive and well. But her father hadn’t left the brother or sister, nieces or nephews, or the ex-wives a dime. Sofie as the only child had gotten everything—all the houses, all the cars, all the antique furniture, his art collection—everything. And she had to make decisions about what to do with it all.
It was a nightmare.
Sofie remembered reading an article about what generally happens to lottery winners after they win; they are barraged by family, friends, and strangers. The same thing happened to Sofie. Everyone seemed to have an investment scheme, or some service that she couldn’t live without, or they simply thought they deserved a piece of the pie. With many of the people who called and wrote she wondered how they even knew about the inheritance. Her father had been a relatively well-known businessman but nowhere near the level of the true titans of industry. His death appeared in the obituaries and in a few trade magazines and that was it, but there seemed to be some sort of network that passed around this type of information and then descended in a swarm.
It was all so overwhelming, and beneath the details and the daily hassle was an aching sense of loss. The feeling of lightness that she’d felt initially standing over her father’s body hadn’t lasted. It had been replaced by a chasm of regret. It wasn’t that she missed her father. The way he had been in life—angry, contemptuous, vindictive, critical—she knew she was better off without him. What tortured her was the loss of the possibility for change. Not that he would change—she’d always known that was never going to happen—but she thought that she might.
She always had the idea that one day she would stand up to him. Her father sometimes taunted her, daring her to do it. “How can you just stand there?’ he’d sneer at her (though she thought it took more courage than her father could know—to stand there quietly, keeping her face a mask of indifference while he screamed or yelled or mocked, depending on his mood.) “You’re a damn victim,” he would say. “Your mother would roll over in her grave if she could see you. She’d never let someone talk that way to her. She had spirit. She had guts.”
Sofie had a hazy memory of screaming voices, voices so piercing that they penetrated closed doors and hands pressed over ears and pillows burrowed under. She thought this might be a memory of her mother’s guts and that this memory might also explain why she usually chose to avoid confrontation. The only problem was that she found the price of conciliation was her self respect. And now her father was gone, and it was too late to change.
So the idea of change was already on her mind when in bed that night Dean said, “I was thinking we might need a change.”
From the way he said it Sofie knew that it was a suggestion he thought she wouldn’t like. “What kind of change?” she asked.
He hesitated then said, “Before I tell you, I just want to make sure you’re going to take some time to think about it before you give your answer.”
She was definitely not going to like it, Sofie thought.
“Okay,” she said.
“Alright, well, I was thinking maybe we should move out of the city. Not too far away,” he said quickly, anticipating a protest. “I could commute to work, and you could still come in to work at the bookstore if you wanted.”
Sofie had been working at the Black Orchid Mystery Bookshop since she was sixteen. As a freshman and sophomore in high school she spent so much time there—just hanging around, buying books by the armful, and trying to avoid going home—that she had gotten to know the owners, Bonnie and Joe, pretty well. She spent so much time there in fact, they finally suggested a part time job. She’d jumped at the idea and found she loved it. She was surrounded by what she loved most in the world—books. And not just any old books—mysteries. Dean joked that she loved mysteries more than she loved him.
Dean went on, “Or if you didn’t want to commute into the bookstore there’s also another possibility. Haven’t all your friends been saying for years that you should write a mystery? Well, this could be your chance to do it—get away from the city and all the distractions, somewhere quiet where you can think. We could set up an office for you. You could use this as an excuse to finally get started. And I was also thinking—”
“Dean,” she broke in.
“I thought you said you weren’t going to answer right away,” he said. “I thought you were going to take some time to think about it.”
“I don’t need to think about it.”
“But—” he started, ready with more ammunition to persuade her to leave the city.
She rolled over, turning her back on the hulking buildings and their beautiful, twinkling lights. It was too late to change what happened with her father, but it wasn’t too late to make a change.
“I don’t need to think about it,” she said again. “The answer is yes.”
Sofie could see the look of shock on his face even in the dim light filtering through the window.
“Really?” he said. “You’re not joking?”
He started to smile. “Just when I think I’ve got you figured out, you go and surprise me again,” he said. “How is it you always do that?”
“You’re not too bright?” Sofie suggested.
“You’re in trouble,” he said, making a grab for her. But when he’d wrestled her to the bed and pinned her down, he suddenly turned serious again. “Listen, I know how much you love the city, but this is the right decision. You’ll see.”
But it was this decision that eventually brought Sofie her third dead body. The first had been her mother, lying sprawled across the bed, sunshine streaming through the windows. The second was her father, in the cold fluorescent light of the hospital morgue. The third would be swinging gently from a tree, surrounded by brilliant red autumn leaves.