Loren stood in the doorway and listened to her mother’s smoke-phlegm snore. The grating sound was something of a comfort—it eased Loren’s own desire to light up. Loren didn’t wake her mother. She didn’t fluff her pillow or pull a blanket over her. She just watched for a few moments and wondered for the umpteenth time what she felt for this woman.
Loren made herself a ham sandwich, wolfed it down over the sink in the kitchen, and poured a glass of Chablis from a jug-shaped bottle. The garbage, she saw, needed to be taken out. The bag was overflowing, not that that ever stopped her mother from trying to stuff more into it.
She ran the dish under the faucet and lifted the garbage can with a sigh. Her mother still did not stir; there was no disturbance or variance in her phlegm-snore cycle. She took the bag to the Dumpster outside. The outside air was sticky. The crickets hummed. She tossed the bag on the heap.
When she got back to her apartment her mother was awake.
“Where were you?” Carmen asked.
“I had to work late.”
“And you couldn’t call?”
“I was worried sick.”
“Yeah,” Loren said. “I saw how it affected your sleep.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing. Good night.”
“You’re so inconsiderate. How could you not call? I waited and waited—”
Loren shook her head. “I’m kinda getting tired of it, Mom.”
“Your constantly berating me.”
“You want to throw me out?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“But that’s what you want, isn’t it? To have me gone?”
Carmen opened her mouth and put her hand to her chest. There was probably a time when men would react to such theatrics. Loren remembered all those photographs of the young Carmen—so lovely, so unhappy, so sure she deserved more.
“You’d throw out your own mother?”
“No. You asked if I wanted to. I do. But I won’t.”
“Am I that horrible?”
“Just . . . just stay off my back, okay?”
“I just want you to be happy.”
“I want you to find someone.”
“You mean a man.”
“Yes, of course.”
Men—that was Carmen’s answer to everything. Loren wanted to say, “Yeah, Mom, look at how ecstatically happy men have made you,” but she bit down.
“I just don’t want you to be alone,” her mother said.
“Like you,” Loren said, wishing she hadn’t.
She did not wait for the response. She headed into the bathroom and started getting ready for bed. When she came out, her mother was back on the couch. The television was off. The air conditioner was back on.
Loren said, “I’m sorry.”
Her mother did not reply.
“Were there any messages?” Loren asked.
“Tom Cruise called twice.”
“Fine, good night.”
“What, you think that boyfriend of yours called?”
“Good night, Mother.”
Loren headed into the bedroom and switched on the laptop. While it booted up, she decided to check the caller ID. Nope, Pete, her new boyfriend, hadn’t called—hadn’t called, for that matter, in three days. In fact, other than those that had emanated from her office, there had been no new calls at all.
Man, that was pitiful.
Pete was a nice enough guy, on the overweight side and sort of sweaty. He worked some district job for Stop & Shop. Loren could never figure out what he did exactly, probably because it really didn’t interest her much. They were nothing steady, nothing serious, the kind of relationship that just glides along, that scientific principle about a body in motion will keep moving. Any friction would pretty much stop it in its tracks.
She glanced around the room, at the bad wallpaper, the nondescript bureau, the Kmart snap-together night table.
What kind of life was this?
Loren felt old and without prospects. She considered moving out west—to Arizona or New Mexico, someplace warm and new like that. Start fresh with great weather. But the truth is, she didn’t like the outdoors all that much. She liked the rain and cold because they gave her an excuse to stay inside and watch a movie or read a book guilt-free.
The computer sprang to life. She checked her e-mail. There was a message from Ed Steinberg sent within the hour:
I don’t want to get into Trevor Wine’s file on Max Darrow without involving him. We’ll do that in the morning. Here are the prelims. Get some sleep, I’ll see you at nine A.M.
A file was attached. She downloaded the document and decided to print it out. Reading too much on a computer monitor made her eyes ache. She grabbed the pages out of her printer and slipped under the covers. Oscar managed to jump on the bed, but Loren could see him wince from the effort. The old cat cuddled next to her. Loren liked that.
She scanned the documents and was surprised to see that Trevor Wine had already come up with a decent hypothesis for the crime. According to the notes, Max Darrow, a former detective with the Las Vegas Police Department and current resident of Raleigh Heights, Nevada, had been found dead in a rental car near the Hebrew cemetery in Newark. According to the report, Max Darrow had been staying at the Newark Airport Howard Johnson’s. He had rented a car from someplace called LuxDrive. The car, a Ford Taurus, had been driven, per the speedometer, eight miles in the two days the car had been in Darrow’s possession.
Loren turned to the second page. Here was where things got interesting.
Max Darrow was found shot dead in the driver’s seat of the rental car. No one had called it in. A patrol car had spotted the bloodstains on the window. When Darrow was found, his pants and boxers were pulled down around his ankles. His wallet was gone. The report stated that Darrow was wearing no jewelry when found, implying that he’d probably been robbed of those items too.
According to the preliminary report—everything was still preliminary—the blood found in the car, especially the trajectory on the windshield and driver-side window, showed that Darrow had been shot while sitting in the driver’s seat of the car. Splatters were also found on the inside of his pants and boxers, which would be consistent with the man having his pants pulled down before the gun fired, not after.
The working theory was obvious: Max Darrow had decided to get lucky—or more likely, to buy some “get lucky.” He had picked up the wrong prostitute who waited for the right moment—pants down—and then rolled him. Something had gone wrong then, though it was hard to say what. Maybe Darrow, being an ex-cop, had tried to make a hero play. Maybe the prostitute was simply too strung out. Whatever, she ends up shooting and killing Darrow. She takes what she can find—wallet, jewelry—and runs.