Grimacing pumpkins stared out into the late afternoon gloom. Here and there, bed-sheet ghosts hung from spindly tree branches. One front yard was dressed as a cemetery. A life-sized wooden casket lay on a heap of dirt next to a couple of headstones, a pile of bones and an abandoned shovel. It was Oct 29, 1984, and Fulgrove Avenue was ready for the big night.
Sharp pulled her K-car up to the curb and cut the engine. She folded down the sun visor and studied her face in the mirror. She looked all set for Halloween, too. A few hours earlier, a nurse at the walk-in clinic stuck a puffy bandage over Sharp’s cut temple then wound gauze around her head to keep it in place. She closed the mirror with relief — then peered forward through the windshield. Her eyes shot open.
A block ahead on the other side of the street stood the Mintz’ silver Ford. Sharp bit her lip.
Outside, a flurry of orange and red leaves blew across the street, then rain started beating against the K-car’s beige exterior.
Sharp took a breath, turned up her collar and headed for the narrow path leading to 141 Fulgrove Ave.
On the porch, Sharp pressed the third floor apartment buzzer and waited.
A few minutes later, she heard footsteps coming down the three flights of stairs that she had walked up only five days earlier. Then they stopped and there was no sound. Sharp figured whoever was on the other side of the door was staring at her through the door’s peep hole. She remembered the gauze on her head and tried to appear normal. She looked around displaying casual interest in her surroundings. She was a bad actor.
The door opened a crack.
“Yes?” It was the woman who had chased Sharp out of the third floor apartment. Her grey-black curls crowded around her face. “Can I help you?” she said in a high, girlish voice.
“My name is Sidney Sharp. I’m looking for Janet Wilbur.”
“Well you found her. So what?” the woman said through pursed lips. She eyed Sharp with irritation.
“I wanted to ask —” Sharp started.
Wilbur shook her head. “Third floor. Up you go.” It was an order. She opened the door and stepped aside. “You know your way.” Sharp started up the narrow staircase.
“What happened to your head anyway?” Wilbur asked, huffing behind her.
“Accident,” Sharp said. She didn’t feel like getting into the details and Wilbur didn’t ask for any.
Sharp reached the third floor landing. The door to apartment 33 was open so Sharp walked in.
“Wait,” Wilbur said through gasps, but Sharp was already inside the crimson-walled room.
The first thing she noticed was the smell of perfume and hairspray. Then she saw them — women — everywhere. They shrunk back like frightened deer, watching her behind long lashes, careful make-up and stiff hair. Some stood by mirrors, others adjusted their make-up, a few had fashion magazines open on their laps.
Wilbur walked in, still breathing hard. “Do you always just go barging in wherever you please? Oh yeah. I guess you do, come to think of it. Everyone,” she addressed the assembly, “meet Sidney Sharp, our private dick.”
A low-octave chuckle rippled through the room along with a couple of ruby smirks, but the women didn’t move, except for Wilbur who cleared coffee mugs from a side table.
Perspiration broke out on Sharp’s forehead. She saw Wilbur walk toward a door at the back of the room and burst out, “So the reason I’m here is . . . ”
“I know why you’re here.”
“Huh?” Sharp spun around.
A woman sat in a love seat by the window. She carefully uncrossed her legs, stood up and smoothed out her pencil-thin grey skirt. She walked toward Sharp. Her high heels echoed across the hardwood floor.
Close up, Sharp could see the layer of make-up on the woman’s face.
“Mintz?” she asked.
The woman’s mouth twisted into a thin smile. “Though I’m Della Reid, here,” Mintz said. His chin tilted up and he gazed beyond Sharp to the apartment’s crimson walls and the safety that lay within them.
Sharp scratched the back of her neck. “So it was you that dropped the charges?”
“Della made me do it! I was against it. For the record,” Wilbur entered the room blowing on a mug of tea. “Entering a premise unlawfully is a crime last time I checked.
Mintz smiled indulgently then his smile vanished. “I couldn’t have this come out. We couldn’t. I’m sure you understand.”
“But — what about your wife? She thinks you’re having an affair.”
Mintz’s jaw tightened under the layer of tan, base make-up. “I suppose I am, in a way, with myself — my other self.”
Sharp bit her lip. She didn’t say anything for a minute then looked straight at Mintz. “You want to know something? The people who hire me to spy on their spouses — they’re after money. Divorce money. They’re looking to cash out. The love’s all gone.”
“And your point is what?” Mintz said briskly.
“Your wife isn’t like those people. She loves you.”
A vein in Mintz’s face pulsed. Sharp could see colour rising in his cheeks despite the make-up.
“I’ll tell her you were meeting with clients. I’ll tell her there’s no affair, it’s all a big misunderstanding. I’ll lie to her!” Sharp said. “But I bet she’d like the truth . . . from you.”
Mintz let out a short sigh.
“All right,” he said quietly. “All right.”
From the darkness of her apartment, Sharp listened to the sounds of the city. Somewhere nearby, a car horn blared. A dog yowled. A police cruiser’s siren rang out, zig-zagging up and down the scales. Sharp closed her eyes and separated the siren from the other noises. Was it getting closer or moving away? She lay still on the couch concentrating. An empty tumbler stood on the floor near her hand — so did a bottle.
“Huh?” Sharp jumped up.
Her phone rang two short rings. She winced at the disruption, then felt around for the receiver.
“Hello?” she said.
It was a woman’s voice on the other end of the line.
“May I come up?”
“Ah, sure. I guess.”
Sharp pushed her hair back off her face and surveyed the chaos of her living room — books abandoned, clothes strewn, bottles scattered, cushions flipped, Meg’s massive plant — now a tree. The sound of footsteps paused her inventory. A knock at the door ended it.
Sharp crossed the room and pulled open the door.
Eve Iverson stood on the other side of it.
“I — just wanted to thank you. For everything. My family would like to offer you something, as well. I hope this will be acceptable,” she said. She held out her hand to Sharp. She was holding a cheque. Sharp took it. Her eyebrows rose up.
“Wait, this is too —” Sharp started.
“Please,” Eve said. She didn’t want an argument.
“Well, thanks,” she blurted out, pocketing the cheque. “How’s — your father doing?”
“He’s going to be all right. What about you? Your . . . head?” Eve gestured at Sharp’s zombie bandage.
“It comes off in a few days. It’s nothing. Really.”
Sharp looked at Eve and for the millionth time was overcome by her resemblance to Claire.
“Say, could I come in?” Eve asked.
Sharp stepped aside, smiling stupidly. “Sorry, of course.”
Eve walked into the room and Sharp closed the door behind her.
“So . . . ” Sharp started, slapping her arms against her sides like a penguin but Eve wasn’t paying attention.
“We never liked Neal,” Eve said, like she was trying to figure out a terrible puzzle. “There was something about him. Something off-putting. It hurt Claire that the family didn’t accept him. And then we were so happy when they broke it off. We just didn’t know what he would do to her."
She covered her mouth with her hand and turned to Sharp. Tears welled up in her eyes. Sharp reached forward and hugged her. Eve’s head rested on Sharp’s shoulder and her hands slipped around her waist.
Then she looked at Sharp. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry for the way Mark treated you. I’m sorry about so many things,” she said, wiping away tears.
Eve smiled at her. Sharp brushed away a tear from her cheek.
“At first — I didn’t know what Claire saw in you.” Eve looked deep into Sharp’s eyes. “I do now.”
Sharp pulled her close and kissed her hard. Eve ran her fingers over Sharp’s face. “I want you,” she whispered.
Sharp kissed her again, on her lips, down her neck, across her bare shoulder. A moment later they were on the floor adding each other’s clothes to the mess — and a chance at love to the future.
(Image courtesy of Chris_Tefme/iStock/Thinkstock)
(Follow Hope Thompson at hopethompson.net)