The full moon was surreally bright, but that didn't help. This part of the Hidden Lake shore was so secluded, so few ever ventured in this direction, that not a single soul was likely to hear her scream.
Except one. If he cared to listen… If he cared about her… But now she knew with absolute certainty, he didn't. No one did. The world - her world - was ending.
How will her mother survive this? And dad? He's just started recovering from a stroke. Gathering what strength she still had left, she struggled on wet grass, as her new summer dress turned to filthy rags, as a thousand knives sliced through her tortured body. But there was no escaping from the cold fingers, pinning her down, or from a rough hand that crushed her mouth, the hand that hit her - again, and again, and again.
The last thing she thought was: how could he? The last thing she smelled was the freshness of the night lake, overpowered by a foul stench of a drunken, sweaty male. The last thing she saw was a menacing shadow, obscuring the light of the moon.
Then, she saw no more. She felt no more…
I never thought of myself as a stay-at-home little housewife. A mere eight weeks ago I'd been dodging stray bullets in Afghanistan together with Paul, my new husband. But then again, I'd never pictured myself as a marrying type either.
My name is Jade Snow, I am twenty eight, an investigative journalist and a freelance documentary filmmaker. I met Paul, a brilliant journalist for Time magazine, on one of our expeditions. My crew got word that the Taliban should be in one of the villages of southeastern Afghanistan, close to the Pakistani border. Our documentary about the Iraqi and Afghani insurgencies would've been enhanced dramatically, if only we succeeded in getting that coveted footage of the bearded, dust-covered Taliban warriors.
We were in the very thick of things when the shooting started, my crew was trapped, and Paul came out of nowhere and saved the day, just like - I am embarrassed to say - that proverbial knight in a shining armor. And as if that was not enough (as they would say in romance novels), that's when our eyes met and we knew.... Basically, you get the drift.
When you are in the line of fire every day, you know very quickly who's who around you. You also don't waste your time on unnecessary doubts and deliberations. Paul and I didn't. A month later we were married and, since our lives were very busy – me, shooting my documentary, him, writing his pieces for Time magazine - the honeymoon was brief and almost perfunctory: four days at a luxury hotel in Dubai, part of the nearby United Arab Emirates. Dubai is a Switzerland wannabe of the Middle East – so close to all the skirmishes, yet so prosperous, so clean, so quiet, and so neutral. Well... sort of prosperous, apart from nearly going bankrupt recently, and sort of neutral, at least officially.
We spent our time making love, walking on the beach (in case you were wondering, just walking, since public displays of intimacy are a huge no-no in these parts), making love (alas, strictly in our hotel room), enjoying peace and quiet, and making love (lots of it). It was loads of fun, restrictions aside, but we had to get back to the hell across the Gulf.
Trouble started, when one morning I felt sick. At first, we thought it was just the food - you know, the inedible, indigestible kind, Afghanistan is so famous for. But when the excruciating abdominal pain and the extreme nausea didn't subside after a full week, Paul talked me into flying back to Dubai to see a proper doctor.
Turned out, I wasn't sick at all, I was just pregnant. And that's when my life changed forever from the predictability of danger-ridden assignments at the hottest spots on the planet to the shock of the unpredictable existence as an expecting housewife.
The doctor shook his head reproachfully and pronounced that I had too much stress in my life and, if I wanted to keep my baby, I should consider changing my lifestyle.
“Meaning?!” I managed to squeak out indignantly.
“Meaning, young lady,” continued the doctor, sternly knitting his bushy eyebrows, “you should stop chasing the Taliban and start living a peaceful, restful life, with good and regular nutrition, and in a safe environment.”
I hated that man!
But Paul agreed with him immediately and wholeheartedly. One week later he persuaded me, forced me really, to move back to the US. He knew, I didn't have much of an excuse. The documentary was basically done, and I could leave my crew behind to finish up some additional footage.
We returned to New York, to Paul's spacious apartment on Upper West Side, where he spent his days applying finishing touches to his work. Meanwhile, I was trying to look like I was busy too. I went around, obsessively re-arranging furniture in compliance with the principles of my new hobby, feng shui, all the while feeling like a caged tiger. Before long, Paul's eyes started acquiring a certain alarmed look every time he'd turn around to find yet another furniture piece not in it's familiar place. But at that point, his series of Front Line Essays was published to a chorus of favorable critique, my crew came back, and our documentary went into production. Soon, I ran out of furniture to re-arrange, having already feng shue-ed the whole place to death. There was nothing left for me to do but to be bored, between debilitating attacks of nausea, of course.
From there on everything got worse... Paul got a new assignment, of all places, to Africa. I envied him, since I was about to begin resembling a small barrel on long, thin legs, and in my condition, taking on any new assignments was out of the question.
Meanwhile, Paul didn't feel right leaving me by myself in New York. We need to talk, he said to me one day. Oho! Why didn't I like the sound of that? Then he started. Didn't the doctors say I needed a peaceful and restful atmosphere? So, he continued, that must mean the country. It turned out that all my assurances that I was fine in New York, and that I had all the fresh air and peace I needed right where I was, fell on deaf ears. Paul was a man of action, coupled with an overactive imagination and a “white knight in a shining armor” syndrome to boot. I should know - this was the explosive combo I fell for - but now it was turning downright dangerous, as he insisted on treating me as his very own damsel in distress.
So, one fine day, Paul came home and happily announced that he rented me a wonderful cottage in the Berkshires, MA, a charming community about two and a half hours north of the City. Fresh air, mountain views, peace and quiet - what can be better for a pregnant woman? Paul's rhetorical question hung in the air next to his smiling face, which stared happily into my mortified one.
He continued his assault. Green grass, birds singing, besides, didn't I want to start working on my own book? Surely, those gorgeous mountains would provide plenty of inspiration! He was so convincing - I imagine that's how the infamous snake in the Garden of Eden seduced naïve Eve into trying the forbidden apple.
I certainly saw Paul's dilemma: what to do with me in my condition when he is so far away risking his life in some godforsaken Somalia? From his point of view this was a perfect solution, and a great way to appease his guilt – mission accomplished! And I... I was too exhausted to argue, and somewhere deep down, skillfully implanted by my best friend and confidant, Rachel Weise, a doubt lingered. Who knows, may be I should, after all, try a change of pace? Perhaps, the country would indeed be better for the baby? Perhaps, I could finally start working on the stories I always wanted to write, but never found the time? Perhaps...
And that's how I was seduced into moving to the quaint town of Stepford, located in idyllic Berkshire County, MA.
Paul left for Africa two weeks later, after settling me down in our new country home. He gave me a long and passionate kiss, his dark eyes gazing into mine.
“Ocean,” he murmured dreamily, as our lips finally detached. “Ocean,” he repeated, still gazing into me. It was our code word of sorts, that's what he'd always called my eyes. They were like two turquoise drops of a boundless ocean on a beautiful summer day, he said to me once, and the image stayed with us. My eyes were indeed an unusual blue-green color and their shape was a bit like a drop of water, with corners slightly slanting upwards.
“The Orientals,” Paul had told me when we first met, “believe that people, whose eyes are slanted upwards are born optimists.”
“Relax, enjoy, and remember how much I love you,” he finally managed to whisper, still a little dazed and tongue-tied, but sporting one of his sexy, boyish smiles. I stood in the front door as he pulled out of the driveway, waving like a proper little housewife I've suddenly become. My eyes followed the car carrying my husband away as it flashed the left turn signal, and disappeared behind the bend. A sigh parted my lips as I touched them, savoring the lingering sensation, the taste, the smell, the feel of his lips on mine, the last delicious kiss. I wanted to make sure it stayed with me forever.
For lack of anything better to do, I started writing a story that was on my mind since Iraq. The Stepford library was just a few steps away from the famous Blue Peacock Inn, right on Main Street, a nice fifteen minute walk from my house. The library was a delight for those who appreciated antiques, a sweet, peaceful place. During the day, I would spend a few hours writing in its deserted hall, at one of the ancient tables with turned legs, surrounded by nineteenth century portraits decking its old walls.
It started becoming my routine, unless I felt I'd do better writing in one of the area's little cafes. The weather was getting warmer and each morning I would awake to the merry chirping of the birds and to nature's intoxicating smells, as lilac in my garden burst with color and aroma. What a nice, sheltered paradise it was! What else could I want? How could I miss my old life, full of danger, uncertainty and death? That was a good question and I didn't have an answer to that. And yet, I was getting more restless by the day, and the only thing that kept me pinned down was the fact that my belly was growing, and I knew it would only get bigger.
It looked like I had no choice - I had to stay right where I was, for the baby. I talked myself into taking it easy, but a slight aftertaste, bordering on rebellion, remained somewhere in the depths of my psyche.
Meanwhile, my life was outwardly settling down. The cottage Paul rented for me came tastefully, if lightly, furnished with some quality antiques. First things first - again I spent some time on feng shui, the so called “oriental art of placement.”
I tirelessly moved furniture around to allow for a free flow of chi. A few days later, I stood in the middle of my living room, between a comfortable sofa and a mahogany coffee table sitting atop an oriental rug. A vase filled with daisies - my favorite flowers - adorned the table. That's for harmony. On the sideboard I put a large bowl of fresh fruit for abundance, and on the étagère with my books, a pitcher with curly bamboo for growth and good health. Next to it - a statue of Laughing Buddha, for luck. After adding a framed photo of Paul and me, both smiling happily on our wedding day, I admired the fruits of my feng shui-ing labors.
The only taboo in the room were the hefty original beams running across the vaulted ceiling. That, according to the best feng shui practices, meant heavy obstacles. I laughed out loud. Ridiculous! Obstacles? What obstacles could I have in Stepford? Besides, I liked these beams. They gave the place a character. All in all, if my living room was any indication, a peaceful, restful and luck-filled life was predestined for me in the Stepford paradise.
I sighed, recalling the smoldering ruins of Iraq, and the lung-searing dust of the Afghani desert. Nothing like that here, just peace, quiet, chirping birds. For all I knew, this town could as well be in another galaxy. And this – another sigh – was my new life.
And so it happened that one day I was working on my story at the library. It was almost six p.m. and I was getting tired and hungry, but my writing flowed so well that I didn't dare interrupt it. However, my stomach, together with my nutrition starved brain, begged to differ.
About to give up and leave in order to find supper for the demanding beast inside, I noticed a group of women making themselves comfortable by the ancient fireplace, adorning one of the walls of the usually deserted reading hall. They arranged their chairs around an antique coffee table and started pulling out their knitting projects.
Knitting - imagine that! All of a sudden, I felt transported to Victorian England, of all places. I could make out a sweater on one woman's lap, a cute little hat on another's, also what looked like a baby blanket, a pair of slippers, a lacy shawl and even a knitted bunny! There were women of all ages, and I noticed that two of the younger ones were pregnant.
For some reason, unknown to me, I felt drawn to this group. Trying to be inconspicuous, I attuned to their conversation.
“I don't know what's going on,” said one of them, an older woman in some comfortable, new-agey clothes. She glanced at the others over the top of her half-moon spectacles that didn't go at all with her round face. “I rang Adelaide's bell – no answer.”
“This isn't like her,” agreed another woman. This one had keen eyes, hidden behind some practical, but sooooo old-fashioned glasses, complete with an oversized square frame. She shook her head, at the same time remembering to count her stitches. “The other day I couldn't reach her on the phone either.”
“This would be the third meeting she'd missed,” announced one of the young pregnant women with innocent blue eyes and rosy cheeks.
“I think you are right, Karen,” frowned the woman in new-agey clothes. “Adelaide and I started this club over ten years ago, and I don't recall her ever missing a single meeting, let alone three in a row...” Her voice trailed off, a look of mild alarm on her face.
“D'you think we should all go and visit her sometime?” proposed another young woman brightly. “Perhaps she needs help?”
“Now, that's a great idea, Shawna,” nodded the older woman approvingly, “we'll make it a field trip. How about this Saturday?”
I hadn't the faintest idea who the mysterious Adelaide was, but all of a sudden I felt a strong urge to belong. Isn't it nice to be a part of a group, where so many people care when you don't show up for a knitting club gathering? In my previous life I was always needed – my crew needed me, my editors, my friends, my husband... And now... Certainly, I still had friends who called me regularly, but they were all in New York, going on with their lives. They all promised to come and visit sometime, but I knew from experience – this could be a long wait.
And of course, Paul called every opportunity he got, but honestly, what kind of opportunity could he have in Somalia? His calls were far and in between, and his letters, even more so. I knew, he would be there for me close to my due date - my knight in shining armor - but for now... oh, let's face it, I was on my own.
Well, I told myself, I'm a tough chick, so Paul isn't worried. In his mind, I should be happy and, most importantly, safe, right where I am. After all, what's not to like in paradise?
Some unknown force lifted me from my chair, and before I knew what I was doing, my feet carried me towards the group of knitting women.
“Excuse the interruption,” I started. All six women, as one, lifted their heads from their knitting and looked at me expectantly. I produced the friendliest smile I possessed. “ My name is Jade Snow. I'm new in town, and I saw you all here... So, I thought, may be I could...” I felt uncharacteristically shy, and once I realized that I did, my confusion and embarrassment made me blush.
The women stared at me. Then, their eyes rested on my slightly showing stomach. “Oh, please, please, join us,” said one of them, while another hastily pulled up an extra chair.
“Thank you,” I said gratefully.
“I'm Maria,” said the older new-agey woman, “and these are Shawna and Karen – they are expecting too.” The two younger women, who were about my age, and who, from all appearances, were further along than me, gave me a friendly wave.
“I'm Beth, and this is my sister Cathy,” said another woman, who looked like she was in her early forties. Cathy, who might have been in her thirties and who was apparently a woman of few words, simply nodded.
“And I'm Anne,” said the woman in the old-fashioned glasses.
“So, Jade, do you like to knit?” inquired Beth.
“Now that you've mentioned it,” I said, “I actually never tried it. But I'd really love to learn,” I added quickly and – incredibly – blushed again.
“See, I am a journalist, and my husband, also a journalist, is now in Africa. He thought I'd like the peace and quiet of the Berkshires while he's away. I'm actually busy writing my first book, but sometimes it feels a little lonely, and... and I start wishing I had company.” I uttered that almost apologetically.
“Now you have us. You are welcome to join the group any time,” said Anne encouragingly.
“He kicked,” suddenly whispered Shawna, her left hand on her bulging stomach. “He just kicked! Oh, my God, again! And again!”
Knitting abandoned, all the ladies gathered around her, buzzing excitedly and touching her stomach, in the hopes of experiencing the miracle of new life inside her.
“Mine has been kicking like crazy lately,” announced Karen proudly.
“When did yours first kick?” asked Shawna.
“About two months ago. Yours?”
“One and a half.”
“What about you, Jade?” Karen turned to me.
“Oh, should it start kicking already?” I asked. “I haven't felt anything yet. May be, I should see a doctor?” All of sudden, I felt alarmed.
“Wait, there is probably nothing to worry about yet,” said Maria reasonably. “Shawna is six and a half months pregnant and Karen is over seven. And you are what? Only four?”
“Four and a half already,” I responded meekly.
“Then yours will kick very soon, at around five months. If everything's all right, that is,” concluded Shawna with a sunshine smile.
“If everything's all right?” I asked, beginning to worry again.
“Oh, don't listen to them,” interjected Anne. “Stepford is a virtual paradise, marvelous for raising a family. Everything will be fine.”
I exhaled, relieved.
The women went back to their knitting, all the while chatting away about this and that, the latest neighborhood news and the freshest bits of gossip. I sat there half-listening and nodding distractedly. Shawna was knitting a baby blanket in cornflower blue and Karen - a baby hat in bright pink. Their fingers moved swiftly, neat rows appearing like magic from under their clicking needles. I better learn to knit like that soon, I thought. The baby sure could use a soft blanket, or a little pretty hat.
And then another thought slithered into my mind. Congrats Jade, it teased me, you've just landed yourself in pregnant housewives' paradise. But then again, the thought continued, at least I won't be alone any more. And who knows, perhaps, it'll even be fun.
We gathered a bit early at the Bean Counter coffee house. It was Saturday, and the plan was to visit Adelaide today. Everyone was in a good mood, giggles and jokes flying around the table. We all ordered coffee and waited for Maria, who was running late.
The coffee house was permeated with the otherworldly aroma of freshly ground dark roast. I inhaled the divine scent like a junkie deprived of her drug of choice, while sipping my coffee slowly, deliberately. For a brief few minutes – too brief, unfortunately - I allowed myself to linger in heaven. Since finding out I was pregnant I was on a strict chamomile-slash-peppermint-slash-rooibos tea regime to avoid making my future baby hyper. But today, with five women around me savoring the steamy brew, temptation was simply too much. Oh, well, I was entitled to a treat once in a while, wasn't I?
The door opened to let Maria in. The strange expression on her face made everyone sit up.
“Any news?” immediately asked Beth.
“I know what's going on with Adelaide,” said Maria in a hushed voice, looking around conspiratorially. “Jason, her son, is back.”
“You mean - from jail?” gasped Shawna, a look of horror on her face.
“Yes,” whispered Maria, “can you believe it?”
“So, what does that mean,” said Karen, her eyes as big, as saucers. “Is he going to live in Stepford?”
“That's what it looks like.”
Apparently the news was rather bad, because the ladies at the table all lowered their heads and drank their coffee silently, pensively. There was a marked change in the atmosphere, as if the excitement and joy of only five minutes ago was suddenly zapped out of the air.
“Excuse me,” I said, “But what happened with Adelaide's son? Did he commit a crime, or something?”
“Yes, he did,” said Maria, shaking her head sadly, “and what a crime!”
“See, Adelaide lost her husband when Jason was just a teenager,” explained Anne. “ After that she became, what she called, “especially protective of her only child”. But in many people's opinion she simply spoiled him rotten.”
“Jason was a handsome boy,” piped in Beth, “with lots of charm, and girls simply adored him. Almost thirteen years ago, when this whole story started, he had just turned eighteen and Adelaide had given him a new silver Mercedes convertible for his birthday.”
“She has money, then?” I asked.
“Her husband left her a nice fortune,” explained Anne, “but of course with all the lawyers' fees – defending Jason and all – I bet it has diminished somewhat.”
“She still has plenty,” said Cathy wistfully. “She is quite wealthy, you know.” The other women nodded in agreement.
“So,” continued Anne, “Jason was very popular and he was often seen driving girls around in his new car. One evening, right after graduation, a girl named Rebbecca Gilman took a ride with him. That was the last time she was...she was...” Anne's voice wavered and she fell silent, apparently unable to find the right words.
“And then what happened?” asked Shawna, holding her breath.
Anne hesitated, glancing doubtfully at Shawna and Karen's bulging stomachs, then, her keen eyes circled the table. Six pairs of our eyes peered back at her with rapt attention.
“Anne works at the police station,” whispered Shawna to me by way of an explanation.
“Yes, that's right, I've been there for, let's see, almost eighteen years now,” confirmed Anne. “And I remember that day all too well. The whole department was looking for Rebbecca. Then they found her. In the bushes, by the lake. She was severely beaten and raped, had some broken bones and internal bleeding, but, thankfully, she was still alive.”
Karen's eyes went wide and Shawna's face drained of color. Even the more seasoned Beth and Cathy had horrified looks on their faces.
Anne noticed that. “Are you, girls, all right? You sure you want me to continue?”
“Yes, yes, please do,” the response was as unanimous as the terrified expressions.
“It was a gruesome crime. Are you sure you are up to...”
“We are fine, please go on,” firmly said Beth, while Karen and Shawna nodded energetically.
“All right then,” reluctantly agreed Anne. “If you're sure... Here goes. Jason was the only suspect, since he was the last person seen with Rebbecca. As I recall, bloodstains were found in his car. DNA match showed that the stains belonged to both him and the girl. It seemed clear he was the one who did it to her. But he denied it emphatically. He said that when they parked at the lake and he tried to kiss her, they got into a terrible argument, she scratched him very painfully on a cheek, he got mad and slapped her hard in response. Blood from his cheek spilled in the car. Meanwhile, her nose started bleeding and so, that could have accounted for her blood. That was Jason's version of the events.”
“Then what happened?” prompted Shawna.
“Jason also said that, after realizing that Rebbecca was bleeding, he came to his senses and withdrew. But she still ran out of the car, and, before he could stop her, disappeared. He tried to call after her and even looked around the bushes, but there was no sign of the girl. So, assuming that she ran back home, he drove away.”
“Except, that's not where she ran, it seems,” said Maria pensively.
“Right,” nodded Anne. “They found her unconscious not far from the spot Jason indicated as their place of argument. It was in the opposite direction from Rebbecca's house and in a very secluded area. So, based on evidence and in the absence of witnesses, no one believed Jason's story.”
“But what about Rebbecca?” I blurted out. Everyone turned to me in surprise. I didn't know exactly what made me continue, but feeling a bit self-conscious, I pressed on nevertheless. “Didn't you say, Rebbecca was alive? If so, surely, she could've explained what really happened back there?”
“Unfortunately,” said Anne with a sad smile, “she couldn't. She was alive, just barely. The doctors saved her life and she got better in time - physically anyway. But the trauma of the beating and rape had done something to her mind. All attempts by police to get a statement caused her to go into hysterics and try to commit suicide. Finally, doctors prohibited further questioning. Later, she withdrew completely into some kind of inner world and stopped speaking all together.”
“What a tragedy,” whispered Karen.
“It gets worse,” said Maria. “Rebecca's mother got ill after the incident and died soon after, and her father, having essentially lost his daughter and then, his wife, had a stroke and had been confined to a wheelchair until his death five years ago.”
“So, Jason was convicted, of course,” I said.
“Well, the trial was very emotionally charged,” said Anne. “The whole town was in shock about this hideous crime. Chief Nordini - a very nice man with lots of experience, who felt badly for Adelaide - personally spent day and night searching for evidence, hoping for anything that would confirm Jason's story and point in another direction. But,” Anne shook her head, “everything seemed to be pointing at the boy.”
“What was the charge?” I asked.
“If I remember correctly,” Anne knitted her eyebrows, recalling, “it was rape with aggravated assault and attempted murder. Prosecution was able to show that not only was Rebbecca cruelly raped and beaten, but that she was also deliberately left for dead. Due to the seclusion of the spot, it was by pure chance that she was found when she was. Just half hour later and it might have been too late, hence, they argued, it was an attempted murder. Once the “M” word was uttered, there was no turning back. Adelaide hired the best lawyers from New York that money could buy. She spared no expense. And even though the evidence was irrefutable and prosecutors wanted Jason's blood... well, at least twenty years of it, his hot shot lawyers managed to reduce the sentence by almost half and Jason got twelve years as a result.”
“So now that his sentence's up, he's returned to his mother,” said Shawna, cringing.
“Is he planning to stay here?” whispered Karen, her saucer-like eyes full of fear.
“I sure hope not!” exclaimed Cathy indignantly.
“Well, there is only one way to find out.” Maria resolutely got up. “Time to go, ladies!”
Adelaide's house was a mere ten minutes walk past the old, overgrown cemetery. In this town oozing with history and antiques, the impressive white colonial looked very much in place. Peonies and roses came to life in its extensive and well tended front garden and a majestic oak on its right lent shade and protection to both the garden and the house. The front porch had an inviting set of wrought iron settees and a coffee table, surrounded by potted geraniums. An impressive crystal chandelier illuminated the entrance hall and the furniture inside was, predictably, antiques.
The woman sitting in a comfortable, meticulously restored Queen Ann chair, knitting on her lap, still preserved some traces of beauty from the long bygone era. Her looks were probably quite exceptional some forty years ago. Her old charm still showed in a delicate ivory of her skin and those clear, porcelain-blue eyes. There was still a certain regal curve to her neck and a straight posture. But wrinkles around her eyes and sadness around her mouth betrayed her share of loss. She got up to greet her guests and I noticed that she was leaning on a cane.
I definitely liked this woman, there was some sad and quiet dignity about her. And despite her disability, she was a gracious hostess. Within ten minutes, tea was brewing in a teapot. Fruits, lemon slices and sugar biscuits appeared out of nowhere and the cranberry cake, brought by Maria, sat in the honorary central position on the dining table. It seemed, Adelaide was glad to see us.
Why did she disappear from the group? Oh, she was just sitting it out, since walking is so hard for her. Would she like someone to pick her up and bring her to the next meeting? Oh, how nice, but perhaps, she could make it on her own. She was a sweet lady.
We were about to sit at the table, when her calico cat, a brown, orange and white medley of pure fluff, leaped lightly into view and fixed her bottomless eyes, which were the incredible shade of green turquoise, on each of us in turn. She rounded up her inspection of our group by sniffing each guest and apparently satisfied, settled herself on the table.
After a brief introduction, Adelaide seated me on her right and I found myself positioned next to her cat, who purred at me invitingly. I gently stroked her silky fur and the cat responded with an even louder purr, which sent wonderful vibrational waves all over my body. It felt surprisingly good.
“She's a magician, that one,” said Adelaide, watching me with approval. “Makes you forget all your worries and pains.” She petted the cat lovingly. The purring intensified further. “Do you have a cat?”
“No, I don't, I used to work abroad and move from place to place a lot, so I couldn't...”
“Jade's a journalist from New York City,” announced Karen, “she recently came back from Iraq and Afghanistan.”
“Yeah, that's right, thanks, Karen,” I said. “Now that I'm settled down, I might get a kitty.”
“So,” said Adelaide, “your husband's a journalist too.” It wasn't a question.
“How did you know that I have a husband and that he's a journalist?”
“That's not a hard one to figure out, my dear,” said Adelaide with a shrug. "Although you are hardly showing yet, you're definitely pregnant and have a trace from a ring on your ring finger - probably took it off because your hand is a little swollen. That's quite natural, of course. You're the city type – a New Yorker – and wouldn't have settled here unless a husband insisted that you need some peace and quiet for the baby – and I have a hunch that you're staying here while he's away, otherwise, you'd likely be spending a Saturday with him, not with us. Since you've been to Iraq and Afghanistan, and looks like for a while, judging by your tan, you must have married there. Now,” she looked at me appraisingly, “military is definitely not your cup of tea, therefore, he must be a journalist.”
“Everything's exactly as you said,” I laughed, “you are good!”
Adelaide smiled at me, “I've been around the block quite a few times, my dear.”
“Yeah, you are right,” I said. “My husband's on an assignment to Africa. So, he insisted I move here during my pregnancy.”
The moment I started my explanation, the cat perked up her ears, but as soon as I was finished, she jumped off the table, as if now she knew everything there was to know about me and anything else would've been superfluous. She stretched luxuriously and made herself busy playing with the ball of yarn left by Adelaide on the floor. Watching her graceful moves and funny jumps, Shawna giggled and the rest of us applauded. As if to receive her due, the cat sat on the floor like a chiseled calico statue, her four snow-white paws forming a perfectly round pedestal, which caused another round of applause. The atmosphere in the house was so peaceful, so relaxing, that it seemed impossible that anyone unpleasant or, worse, sinister could live in such environment.
“What's her name?” I asked.
“Ah, of course, how could I forget! Let me introduce my pride and joy. This is Lily, also known as Princess Lily.” Upon hearing her name, the cat turned with a pleased meow, and two shimmering pieces of green turquoise stared at me.
“She has gorgeous eyes,” I said to Adelaide.
“Yes, she does. In fact,” Adelaide looked intently into my eyes, then back into Lily's, “this is incredible, but her eyes are a lot like yours.”
“You are a beauty,” I said, smiling at the cat. “And it's very nice to meet you.” The cat smiled back at me.
There was a sound of the opening door and a man came in. He was tall, lean and strong. His dark hair was shoulder length, gathered in a ponytail. A tattoo with a skull and two crossed knives was peaking through on his muscular arm, where the short sleeve of this tee shirt ended. His right hand came into view as he lifted it in order to take a black messenger bag off his shoulder. It was a large, capable hand - a hand, used to manual labor. And it was all covered with rough darkened skin and what looked like a number of cuts and calluses inflicted by years of hard work, neglect, and possibly, injuries.
He was probably in his early thirties, but somehow he made an impression of an older man, mercilessly beaten down by life. His forehead was cut with untimely zigzags, and his mouth, which a long time ago was probably considered sensuous, drooped down in a kind of permanent fatalistic expression that said, I have nothing to live for and won't be surprised by any shit that comes my way. The eyes were the same color as Adelaide's, but there was no spark, no intelligent curiosity that the older woman possessed. He was definitely her son, and he was definitely very much unlike her.
Seeing him come in, Karen and Shawna involuntarily shrunk in their chairs. Cathy, Beth and Anne watched him with different degrees of suspicion and even Maria had a faint trace of disapproval in her eyes.
The man's downcast eyes quickly surveyed the landscape and immediately turned away from the group. Call it journalist's instinct, but I knew that, however quick and general that glance was, it noticed everything there was to notice.
“Good day,” he mumbled in our general direction, hardly bothering to open his mouth and not really looking at any of us. His frowning expression told us that in his opinion, the day was anything, but...Without so much as a fleeting glance in our direction, he shuffled up the stairs.
“Good day,” responded some of the women uncertainly to his retreating back, and then they continued in a chorus, “how are you, Jason?”
No answer. The shuffling had trailed away.
“Jason, dear,” called Adelaide after her son coaxingly, “would you like a nice cup of tea? Look, the ladies brought cranberry cake, your favorite!”
Silence - just a creak of a floorboard somewhere upstairs, and a sound of a body sinking into bed behind the closed door.
“You must forgive him,” said Adelaide apologetically, something suspiciously wet glinting in her eye. “He's trying to re-adjust. This is only his second week back.”
“Of course, there is nothing to apologize for, we understand.” The women wanted to smooth out the awkward situation.
“So, Adelaide, how are you feeling?” Maria hurried to change the subject.
“I'm fine, just fine. A little tired, that's all,” said Adelaide distractedly, her eyes still lingering on the top of the stairs, where her son disappeared just a minute ago.
“How's that foot?”
“Oh, that's a bit painful. Has been difficult to get to my charities.” Adelaide smiled weakly. “I don't feel right skipping yet another week, you know.” Then realizing that I had no idea what she was talking about, she explained. “I volunteer at the battered women's shelter, they are always in need of an extra pair of hands there. Besides, I do some work at the shelter for homeless animals. Lily and I are lucky,” she glanced fondly at Princess Lily who was now purring contentedly on my lap. “We both have a good home and security, but how many out there don't.”
“She is just modest,” said Anne. “She does a lot of work at both places, she's practically there full time.”
“Yeah, and she's also their major financial supporter,” said Karen.
“O-okay ladies, what else can I get you?” said Adelaide, looking embarrassed.
“Oh, we should be going.” Everyone started gathering their things over the half-hearted protests of our hostess, and although my journalistic antenna was up big time and I wouldn't have minded getting to know better this interesting woman and her unusual son, I knew it was time to go. Still, I felt with every fiber of my body that there was much, much more to their story than caught the eye.
“Now, don't you be a stranger,” said Adelaide, giving me a good-bye hug.
“I wouldn't dream of it,” I responded earnestly, “especially since my house is only several blocks away from yours.”
“Hey, how's the life of leisure,” rang in the phone Rachel's cheerful voice, and my mood immediately went up a few notches.
Rachel and I were close for years - ever since freshman year at Columbia. She stayed at our alma mater for graduate school, and now she was Rachel Weise, Ph.D., a young, but already fashionable psychoanalyst, her Manhattan office located not just anywhere, but at the highly coveted and awfully expensive Central Park West. All, thanks to generous contributions from her guilt-ridden, divorced mom and dad, as well as a battalion of Jewish relatives, scattered all over the world, but firmly united in the pride and support of a high achiever from the Weise clan. Rachel, the practical, common sense soul that she was, made a very good use of all this windfall, and knowing her relatives, I am sure, they didn't expect any less of her.
Usually, whenever we happened to pick up our friendship after a period of either my travels or Rachel's super busy schedule, it flowed naturally, as if a dry spell had never happened. At the sound of her enthusiastic voice in my phone, I would readily spill all my news, big and small, and listen to hers, with equal interest.
Irrationally, I've been a bit peeved at Rachel lately. It so happened, that when my husband had made that infamous unilateral decision to rent me a house in Stepford, he had tried to enlist Rachel's help in persuading me that it was, in fact, a swell idea. Rachel listened to our heated discussion silently – she was a pro and much too smart to take sides in my husband's presence. But when Paul, exasperated with my resistance, finally left for his office, Rachel wisely stayed back. As soon as the door closed behind him, she told me that in her professional opinion, he had a point.
“E tu Brutus!” I exclaimed indignantly, considering that to be a punch way, way below the belt.
She sighed in resignation and then, completely demolished me with her lecture that in my humble, non-professional opinion was worthy of appearing in some fancy-shmancy psychology textbook.
“Emotional and physical requirements of a pregnant woman are different,” she said. “An expecting mother's desire to protect the unborn child may cause a subconscious system rebellion, unless it is placed in what it deems a safe and protected environment.” She fixed me with that professional psychologist's stare of hers, but seeing that I wasn't yet duly impressed, went on.
“Jade, given that your lifestyle prior to pregnancy had been that of danger and uncertainty, you are a high risk. Call it an overactive baby protection system, if you will. When your mind assumes that your lifestyle is dangerous for the seed of new life in you, just like an overactive immune system in some people, such a rebellious baby protection system may become unruly, causing major complications, and even a loss of your child.” She had pronounced all that psychological mumbo-jumbo with a very serious air, and although I felt that I was being pushed to make a decision I didn't want to make, it got me thinking.
That night I had agreed to move to the Berkshires to Paul's inexpressible relief, but I never mentioned to him Rachel's role in my unexpected turnaround.
“That I've got to see - you doing nothing!” meanwhile continued Rachel's voice in the phone, and my irrational resentment evaporated as a wisp of smoke. I had to admit that she was right, and so was Paul. Within a week since my move to the blessed Stepford environment, my nausea and morning sickness disappeared without a trace. Granted, my skeptical side objected, it could be that I was simply way into the second trimester and my first trimester woes were naturally over. But, hey, with my appetite coming back and my life finally settling down, I wasn't about to complain.
Rachel was very glad that I was doing well and promised to come visit me the following weekend. My mood dramatically improved, I decided that a little celebration was in order. Let's see, what could I have for lunch? Something nice, yet healthy. Hmmm... I didn't feel like cooking, so eating out seemed like a very good idea. But where? Obligingly, into my consciousness drifted the inviting smells that usually emanated out of the Blue Peacock Inn, a multilevel colonial that sprawled it's grand body across a whole block of Main Street, easily dwarfing my favorite library next door. It had a luxuriously deep veranda, as large as a dancing floor, where guests and restaurant goers lounged and mingled, complete with two marble statues of peacocks majestically flanking its main entrance.
The inn was the destination of Stepford and so, forty-five minutes later I found myself at the Blue Peacock restaurant. My table was in a somewhat secluded corner that, nevertheless, afforded a full view of the room, including the entrance. This was a habit of a die-hard investigative journalist. See everything, hear everything, yet stay as unnoticed as possible. Eating at a restaurant by myself wasn't my first choice, but it beat cooking and I had to admit that smells wafting out of the inn's kitchen were irresistible. Besides, I was making up for my torturous nausea days, so skipping meals was definitely a thing of the past. After all, I was now eating for two!
And as for eating alone, I took care of that, as well. How? By bringing with me a companion, namely, Nikolay Gogol's immortal satirical comedy The Incognito From St. Petersburg, which I was heroically attempting to read in Russian. Political intrigue in a small town, deception, hidden motives, mistaken identity, and in the end ... well, naturally - everyone got what they deserved. Delicious!
The restaurant was half empty. There was an elderly couple sitting at a table by the window and a few tourists scattered around the room. By the wall, opposite the entrance, I noticed a mismatched group of three men, two in expensive business suits, practically screaming “country club”, and one in a faded blue shirt that was in desperate need of an iron. All three of them looked like they were in their thirties and appeared to be immersed in some important discussion, conducted in hushed voices. One of the men in suits – the good-looking one – got up and headed towards the bathroom. The remaining two kept a hushed conversation going, while throwing periodic surreptitious glances in the direction of the entrance.
I ordered grilled salmon on a bed of basmati rice with baby tomatoes and basil, and sat there sipping Evian and reading The Incognito. The door opened and a man wearing a policeman's uniform came in. He was big, broad-shouldered - the way bodybuilders are – with muscles bulging through the thin fabric of his summer uniform. In fact, everything about him was a bit too big for comfort and seemed out of place in this room, where flowery Victorian teapots and delicate china dominated the decor. The man quickly surveyed the place with his small eyes tucked away behind the visor of the uniform hat, and resolutely headed straight for the table where the men sat. The glass display cabinets with Victorian teapots in them trembled slightly as the oversized policeman passed.
“Nick, glad you could join us,” said one of the men, and both of them shook the new arrival's hand. The chair creaked pitifully as he sat down. Then he took off his policeman's hat and placed it on an empty chair next to him. The trio at the table put their heads together and resumed their whispered discussion. A few moments later, the policeman lifted his head and scanned the surroundings, while I observed him from my corner, unnoticed. Apart from those small sharp eyes, his face was in total discord with the rest of him. It was simply too young and ruddy cheeked. It didn't go very well with the imposing air the man exuded and with the eyes that were way too cold, way too cutting for such a young man.
My curiosity went on high alert. The Incognito forgotten, from that moment on I became all eyes and ears. Of course, there was nothing wrong with a policeman having lunch with some local business people. Except that the four of them – two in expensive business suits, one in a wrinkled shirt and one in neatly pressed police uniform – made up an odd group.
Meanwhile, the good-looking suit was on his way back to the table, and as he noticed the new comer, a quick shadow seemed to pass through his face. But a mere second later he was again all smiles and shaking the burly policeman's hand.
At that moment, a stocky man in his sixties, accompanied by a suntanned woman, her dieted and exercised body in a well-cut beige dress, entered the room and headed to a table, not far from where the odd group of four ate their lunch. The new arrival noticed the oversized policeman and greeted him jovially: “Good to see you Chief Nordini, how is everything going?”
“Everything's under control, Your Honor,” responded Chief Nordini, rising slightly in his chair.
“Splendid, splendid,” said the man, gallantly pulling the chair out for the woman.
Chief Nordini? Must be the same one Anne mentioned the other day. What was it that she said? Oh, yes: “Chief Nordini – a nice man with a lot of experience. He felt sorry for Adelaide and personally spent days and nights looking for evidence that would point in another direction, but alas, it was all pointing squarely at Jason.” Except it couldn't have been him – age didn't match. It happened good thirteen years ago, and the Police Chief, if he was as experienced as Anne said, at the time should have been at least forty, or older. This man was much too young for that. Even though his uniform and his size made him look imposing, the face betrayed his real age – he definitely looked to be in his thirties - as a matter of fact, he looked young enough to be the same age as Jason. That meant that he would have been twenty, or less, when Rebbecca's tragedy took place.
Meanwhile, the other three greeted the stocky man as well: “Good day, Your Honor!” “How are you, Judge Bowman?” “Good to see you, Your Honor!”
Judge nodded to all of them genially. “Marc, I trust practice is doing well? Jack, how's your dad's health? So you are running the company now – good man! Peter, I'll need to talk to you about some investments. When? Tomorrow lunch? That should work – splendid, splendid.”
The waiter started taking the judge's lunch order and I got busy with my steaming fish. For a few minutes I enjoyed the meal, but after first hunger was satisfied, thoughts returned. Did I just witness a gathering of who's who of Stepford? Something about this whole scene seemed strange, but I couldn't quite put my finger on it.
Half-hour later I was done with my lunch, and deciding against coffee – I must be good for the baby - was ready to ask for the check, when the policeman abruptly got up and quickly left. A couple of minutes passed, and the other three headed out in a group. On the way to the exit they unexpectedly paused by my table.
“Excuse me,” said one of the suits, the bigger and taller one. “Are you Jade Snow by any chance?”
“Yes,” I said, surprised, “I don't believe we've met. How did you know?”
“Oh, I'm sorry,” he said, smoothly conjuring his card out of thin air, “allow me to introduce myself. Marc Catcham, Law offices of Catcham and Catcham at your service.”
“Thank you,” I said, taking the card reluctantly, “I'll keep that in mind, but I still don't understand, how do you know me?”
“Oh, yes,” he flashed me a smile, his face with protruding chin and hawkish nose failing to show even the slightest sign of embarrassment. “One of your knitting friends works as my paralegal – Beth Miller. I understand you are a journalist and your husband is on an assignment to Africa.” He shrugged his shoulders disarmingly. “In a small town news travels fast. And,” he added as an afterthought, “the knitting club is dubbed The Gossip Central of Stepford not for nothing.”
“So I see,” I said slowly, processing this new bit of information, while at the same time examining his card. “Catcham, Catcham - rings a bell. Where could I've seen this name?” I murmured to change the subject.
The two men in suits looked down at me with what felt like a condescending smile and started to open their mouths to enlighten me. That annoyed me. Look at these little arrogant country clubbers, I thought. They think they are so smart and important, don't they? We shall see. My dormant competitive drive was all of a sudden aroused.
“No, no, don't tell me,” I said aloud. “I have good memory. Yes, yes, I know. I saw your name on posters. That's it. Marc Catcham for Senate, correct?” I said triumphantly.
“Correct!” The hawkish-nosed suit was pleased, a trained politician's smile on his lips, but the smile, still failing to register in his narrow eyes. “I am running for State Senate and your vote will be highly appreciated.” He wanted to go into his campaign pitch no doubt, disregarding my raised eyebrows, when...
“Peter Burns,” quickly cut in the second suit. Somewhat shorter than Marc Catcham, he had a good-looking, clean-cut face – the kind that women like - and suave manners. And apparently, he noticed my raised eyebrows. It looked like little escaped this particular man's attention, as he simultaneously managed to sweep a covert glance over my breasts that got bigger as my pregnancy progressed, and therefore, were visible in the low cut of my princess top. He produced his own business card with a flourish, “President of the Burns Berkshire Bank - banking and wealth management.”
“Thank you,” I said, mentally hoping this torture by men in suits would end soon.
“Hi,” said the third man in a wrinkled shirt, clasping my hand in a surprisingly clenchy grip. His fingers were thin and long and his hand nervous and clammy, like a spider's extremity. “Jack Maloof, I work with my father,” he mumbled, avoiding my eyes, and I was relieved that he didn't attempt to push on me his own business card or agenda.
“Jade,” continued Marc Catcham, “we wanted to invite you to join us at the next Rotary Club meeting,” He was obviously unperturbed by either awkwardness or interruptions. Clearly, he'll make an excellent politician, I thought.
“We all belong to the club,” he made a sweeping gesture to include his companions and God knows who else, “and we gather for lunch right here, at the Blue Peacock, every Tuesday, between noon and two. There are other business men and women, as well as prominent people of our community and perhaps, as a journalist, you would like to be a part of it, too.”
“Thank you,” I said noncommittally, shuddering at the thought of having to endure two hours at a table with these specimens. “Um... I'll consider it.”
The trio finally headed for the exit and I made a mental note to stay away from the Blue Peacock on Tuesdays at all cost.
The story I was writing kept stalling, and absolutely refused to move forward, much like a stubborn donkey, that quintessential animal of Afghanistan. And no wonder, since my eyes kept drifting in the direction of the tiny white hat I started to knit for the baby, while Adelaide's image, along with those of Princess Lily and Jason, kept invading my mind. She had missed yet another knitting club meeting and somehow, curiously, I missed her. So, setting aside my computer with a sigh of resignation, I put the baby hat into my bag, handling it with trepidation of a true novice. I'll go visit Adelaide, I decided. It's as good an excuse as any - a proud beginner showing off her first ever kitting project. She'd be happy to see me, or so I hoped.
Adelaide's front garden was, as usual, sunny and serene, the majestic oak hugging the house and the garden in its protective embrace, with multicolor blooms, butterflies and chirping birds. Not a sound, not a move anywhere besides the gentle ebb and flow of nature – for a hard core New Yorker like myself it seemed a bit too serene. I almost rang the bell, but it occurred to me that the lady of the house might be resting. Not wanting to wake her up I peered instead into a half open window of what I knew was her sitting room. As I suspected, she was asleep in the familiar Queen Ann chair and her knitting slipped off her lap to the floor.
There was a curious scene in progress on that floor. Princess Lily, her back towards me, was bent over Adelaide's project and the impression was that she was busy knitting it. But it couldn't be, could it? Cats didn't knit and I couldn't really see what she was doing there, where the shadows deepened. Perhaps, it occurred to me, like most cats she just wanted to play with a ball of yarn and was in the process of contemplating how to best unravel it. After all, however smart Lily was, she was just a cat, complete with all of the feline instincts and pranks.
I better wake up Adelaide, I thought, or she will have no project to get back to. I cleared my throat loudly and the cat immediately turned around, saw me and gave a melodic meow. There was not a trace of guilt in her demeanor, only friendliness. You are just being silly Jade, I told myself, my heart melting. Your imagination is running away from you. This is an angel of a cat, she would never do anything mischievous.
Meanwhile, the cat smartly brushed her silky body across Adelaide's legs, which woke her up instantly. I waved to her from the window. Getting up with difficulty, she went to open the front door.
“Isn't she precious,” cooed Adelaide, glancing fondly at her cat. “That's a good girl, waking me up so I could let Jade in.” She stroked the fluff in front of her and Lily responded with a satisfied purr.
Adelaide pulled out a tin of her pearl jasmine green tea, which she saved for special occasions. I helped her set up the table and started cutting blueberry cheesecake I picked up at the bakery. We sipped tea and talked about knitting, when Adelaide asked me about my parents.
“My parents are both gone,” I said quietly, my heart skipping a beat, but quickly resuming its usual rhythm.
“Oh, I'm sorry,” said Adelaide. “I didn't know.”
“That's okay,” I smiled. “It's been a long time – thirteen years ago. They died when I was fifteen. My Grandma Anastasia took care of me after that. But she was getting on with age and died during my sophomore year in college.”
“What happened to your parents?”
“Well, they were both investigative journalists on an assignment to South America. There was a little, unknown war, the kind of war that hardly ever makes news in the US. It was between some local drug lords, and my parents got in the middle. They were shot. I only found out a month later.”
“Oh, I'm so very sorry,” she said, and put her wrinkled, warm hand on top of mine.
“Thank you,” I said, feeling very grateful and tingly with that forgotten homey warmth that I vaguely remembered from my childhood.
“I see, you decided to follow in your parents' footsteps and become a journalist too?”
“I always wanted to be one. It was really a very natural choice for me. I love traveling, talking to people, getting to the bottom of things.”
“Good thing you tan so well. That's highly unusual with your coloring. Reddish hair and blue-green eyes usually are not favorable for tanning.”
“True,” I nodded. “But I do have some southern blood. My father was British and from him I inherited my reddish hair. My mother was half Russian, and my Grandma Anastasia is responsible for the color of my eyes. Another half was Spanish and that's the side that gives me a great tan, thank goodness.”
We continued chatting, while enjoying our tea, when Jason came into the room. Seeing that Adelaide had a guest, he tensed defensively, his immediate reaction to head for the stairs, to escape.
“Hello, Jason,” I greeted him as amicably as I could, hoping he might change his mind.
“Hello,” he responded reluctantly and looked in my direction for the first time. His face underwent a transformation when he knew it was me. It was unbelievable, but there was no mistake – the expression on it was that of relief. “I remember you,” he said, “you came with the rest of the knitting ladies the other day.”
“That's right,” I said, “it was me.”
“You are not like the others,” he continued, his body starting to relax. My eyes met his and I noticed a deep shadow of sadness in them.
“Would you like to have a cup of tea with us, dear?” quickly asked Adelaide, seizing the moment. He nodded and sat down. I poured him tea.
“I couldn't find any cranberry cake - it's your favorite, isn't it?” I said to him, “so I brought some blueberry cheesecake instead. I hope it's okay.” And I handed him a slice.
“Thanks, it's fine,” he said, and amazingly, there was a semblance of a smile on that never-smiling face. Adelaide looked happy.
We all drank the fragrant green liquid. Jason finished his slice of cheesecake and asked for seconds. There was a sound of mrrreow, and Princess Lily nimbly leaped on Jason's lap. He petted her gently with those callused, prematurely aged hands and fed her cheesecake from his spoon. The cat's tongue touched the smooth substance delicately, and an inspired purr, like a song emanated in waves from her little body. She licked the spoon clean and stretched luxuriously on Jason's lap. Then she placed her snow-white paws on his shoulder, reached for his face and licked his cheek with great affection. He stroked the cat's fur in response, his face changing beyond recognition. There was absolutely no pessimism or pain left on it. It was peaceful, much like Adelaide's. This time it was clear beyond any doubt – Jason indeed was her son.
I walked back home meditating on what I just witnessed. I had been to Afghanistan and Iraq, I've seen death and suffering, I met those who committed crimes and those, against whom the crimes had been perpetrated. For the life of me I could not imagine the man I just had tea with raping and nearly killing another human being, a young woman, just for the fun of it. He didn't feel like the villain of the piece - to me he rather resembled another victim.
Something was fundamentally wrong with the official story of Rebbecca's rape. But what? And that's when I knew - I simply had to get to the bottom of this cold case. I had to uncover the truth!
To find out what happens next, read mystery/thriller STEPFORD, USA!
Copyright 2011-2012 Lada Ray. All rights reserved