CLP Blog Tour Excerpt Spotlight: Paper Phoenix by Michaela Thompson

31 March, 2014 Book Spotlights 1

Excerpt

Two

I didn’t let myself think about it any longer, as if I had looked straight at the sun and didn’t want to look again. I followed the rest of my daily routine carefully. Because I was still a little ahead of time, the evening pill had made me sleepy enough that I could reasonably switch off the television before the eleven-o’clock news, thus avoiding possible reminders of Larry’s fate.

I moved through the next day like the zombie I was. It wasn’t until slightly more than twenty-four hours after I had first read it that I walked back out on the sun porch and saw the previous day’s paper, turned to Larry’s obituary, lying beside my chair. I was overwhelmed by a rage so intense that I had to sit down before my knees gave way.

Larry and I had been in the same boat, hadn’t we? Both of us had given Richard Longstreet a pain in the ass, and look at us now. Giving Richard a pain in the ass was obviously hazardous to your health, if not dangerous to your life.

In that bright burst of hatred I never doubted that Richard had somehow maneuvered Larry Hawkins into committing suicide, if he hadn’t literally pushed him out the window. How else could he have been so certain on the telephone? “You can absolutely take my word for it,” he had said. I remembered it more clearly than anything else that had happened that morning.

All at once, I couldn’t sit still. Invigorated by anger, I got up and paced the room, clenching and unclenching my fists. It was so unfair. It was utterly, completely unfair. Things always went Richard’s way. Does a newspaper editor bother you? A few months later he’s dead. Does your wife cramp your style? Kick her aside. Don’t under any circumstances let anything slow you down.

It would be such a satisfaction, just this once, to see him fail to get away with it. It would be the purest joy I could ever know to see him get caught. I stopped walking. It was impossible. There was nothing whatsoever I could do. Nothing. I sat down.

I thought about Larry. I had had only a single real conversation with him, and that took place because we were both somewhat drunk. It was at a fund-raising dinner for a Board of Supervisors candidate, held in a private room at one of the fancy Nob Hill hotels. Because of the terrible pressure of public service, the guest of honor hadn’t shown up yet, and it was getting on for nine-thirty. The hors d’oeuvres trays were ravaged, and since dinner couldn’t be served there was little to do but drink, or put one’s head in an ashtray and go to sleep, or both. Richard was, as usual, deep in a huddle with the few selected bigwigs who could do him the most good, and I had exhausted my small talk. A white wine or even, God help us, some sort of mineral water would have been the trendy tipple, but I decided to continue bucking the trend and went to order another Scotch. Larry Hawkins was leaning against the bar, his corduroy elbow just missing a puddle, and as I picked up my drink I noticed him watching me. He lifted his glass in a mocking little toast and then leaned over and said, “Bunch of turkeys.”

“What?” I said.

He waved his glass, indicating the room, its inhabitants, and part of the ceiling. “Bunch of turkeys, man. Real bunch of turkeys.”

I wasn’t sure if he was insulting the crowd or announcing the menu. “Who is?”

His eyes narrowed. “Who is what?”

“A bunch of turkeys.”

He looked at me glumly and turned away to his drink. “Aw, Christ, it’s hopeless.”

I wasn’t to be put off. “Don’t say it’s hopeless. Just tell me.”

“Can’t you even see?” he said with exasperation. “Whole goddamn room is full of goddamn City Hall turkeys.”

I sipped my drink. He pointed his index finger at me. The nail was chewed to the quick. “You look like an intelligent lady. What the hell are you doing here?”

“I’m married to one of the turkeys.”

He looked sincerely sad. “Jeez,” he said in a tone of regret. “Which one?”

“Richard Longstreet.”

“Oh, no.” His voice was a plaintive moan. “Not Redevelopment. God, I don’t believe it.”

At the time, I didn’t appreciate his sympathy. “Yeah. Redevelopment.”

He leaned toward me, full of sincerity. “Lady, if you want to take my advice you’ll stay away from that Redevelopment bunch. I mean, I’m not kidding with you on that one. They’re bad news.” He nodded firmly.

“Thanks for telling me,” I said. “It only comes about twenty years too late.” I took my drink and wavered away from the bar.

Larry had said Redevelopment people were bad news, and he had been right. Now Larry had smashed himself on an alley pavement. That brash little man a suicide? Week after week, he had gone after City Hall corruption, building-code violations, consumer fraud, police department drinking, always with a strident assurance that left no room for self-doubt. Wasn’t self-doubt a requirement for suicide?

You didn’t know Larry, and you don’t know the first thing about it, I chided myself. Wearily, I went to the kitchen to make a cheese sandwich. The bread was slightly stale. As I spread it with mayonnaise, I argued internally. I had heard Richard promise someone that soon Larry wouldn’t bother them again. Richard didn’t know that I had heard him, and I was the only one who had heard him, besides the person at the other end of the line. That was point one.

Slicing the cheese, I went on to point two. If Larry was bothering Richard, it was probably because Richard was doing something Larry planned to expose. I wanted to know what. Had the urbane, unflappable Richard Longstreet made a misstep? Imagining his doing something wrong was easy. I had known for a long time that he was ruthless where his career was concerned. As a poor boy with the manners and tastes of the rich, he had of necessity hardened himself, left some of the virtues behind as excess baggage. Imagining his getting caught doing a wrong act was much more difficult. Richard was clever, and he liked to look good.

I had forgotten to make tea. The kettle would boil in a minute. The truth is, you want revenge, I told myself. There. There it was. I was angry, hurt, bitter, and now I had something that had never before been given to me—a weapon. Furthermore, if Richard had done something, something that led to Larry’s death, wouldn’t it be only the right thing to do, the moral thing to do, to find out what it was? To bring about justice? Justice for Larry and justice for me, all in one stroke?

My head was beginning to ache. Bring about justice. Maybe I thought I was Saint George, riding to kill the dragon and rescue the maiden in distress. Whereas actually I was the maiden— make that matron—in distress. In other words, helpless. I ate my sandwich and drank my tea and continued to sit staring at the squeezed-out tea bag in my saucer.

Larry might have been working on a story about Richard and the Redevelopment Agency at the time of his death. If he had been, it would mean— it wouldn’t mean anything. But it might mean Richard had done something to Larry. It might. It might mean Richard was as mean a son of a bitch as I thought he was. I’d feel a lot of satisfaction in having my opinion confirmed.

Satisfaction was something I hadn’t had much of lately, and the thought of feeling it again made my head reel faster than any pill ever could. All I really needed to know was what stories Larry had been working on before he went out the window. Suppose I could find out?

I couldn’t find out. No way. I wasn’t Saint George. I was just an ex-political wife, or a political ex-wife. Confined, more or less, to my really rather lovely home.

Well, hell. I could go to the People’s Times and ask.

I could ask. What harm would it do? They could always tell me to get lost if they didn’t want to say. If having somebody tell me to get lost would kill me, I’d have died after Richard said it.

I must be nuts. Time for a pill.

I could ask. It wouldn’t hurt anything. If I failed, so what? Failure was the story of my life. If I found out Larry had been investigating Richard—well, then I’d know.

Time for a pill.

I cleared away the dishes and sat down for an evening of television.

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