Cards on the Table
An excerpt from the novella by Josh Lanyon
The card was wedged under the brass 17 on my apartment door when I got back from my morning swim. For what felt like a long time I stood dripping on the welcome mat, staring at the slightly crooked number and the colored rectangle beneath.
A Tarot card.
Finally, I removed the card, examined it. A castle in flames, a man and woman plummeting to the cliffs below, and the words The Tower.
Not good. Even if I turned it upside down so that the man and woman seemed to be doing handsprings through the clouds and lightning, it still looked pretty ominous.
I told myself that someone was playing a joke on me.
Only a handful of people even knew I was writing a book about the Aldrich case. For that matter, who would care if they did know? It was dead news in every sense.
I stuck my key in the latch and stepped into my apartment, eyes adjusting to the gloom. Dusty sunshine poured through the arched living room window. Everything looked just the way I'd left it an hour ago. In the kitchen alcove the old dishwasher was steaming, stereo lights flashed from the entertainment center, and the screen of my laptop, which sat on the coffee table, offered a gently rolling view of star-lined outer space.
I walked through to the bedroom. The bed was stripped, sheets piled for laundry in the doorway. The mirrored closet doors were shut. I got a look at my face as I moved to open them, and was irritated to see that I looked worried: hazel eyes narrowed, tanned face grim, body tense --
Jesus. The last year had turned me into an old woman.
I slid open the closet doors, jumping back as a box of photos tumbled from their precarious perch on the shelf above and dumped snap shots across the carpet.
A photo of me -- in a gold-sequined sombrero no less -- and Jack celebrating my thirtieth birthday at Don Cuco's landed by my bare toes.
I stepped over the pictorial retrospective of my life, and moved on to the bathroom, poking my head inside. Another glimpse of my frowning face in the cabinet mirror -- and, by the way, I really did need a haircut, I reflected, momentarily distracted by the wet spikes of my chlorine-bleached hair. The shower dripped noisily. I yanked back the curtain with a plastic rustle.
Okay, bathtub ring, but otherwise nothing sinister.
Of course nothing sinister. Nobody had broken in. Why would they?
But why would someone leave a tarot card on my front door?
I went back to the kitchen, poured a glass of OJ and drank it slowly, studying the Tarot card.
Was someone trying to tell me something? Was it some kind of clue?
More likely it was just some kind of weird coincidence. Right?
And even if it wasn't a weird coincidence what was I supposed to do about it? It wasn't exactly a lead that I could follow up. And I couldn't picture myself going to the police over something so vague. There was no defined threat and I had absolutely no suspect in mind.
I could always talk to Jack.
I stared out the window over the sink at the row of second story apartments, red doors and turquoise railings glimpsed through the tangle of ivy and bougainville.
Jack Brady was a homicide detective with the Glendale PD. We'd gone out a couple of times. Slept together once. We were still on friendly if distant terms.
The blinds to Jack's apartment were up so it looked like he might be home.
I stripped off the swim trunks, tossed them over the shower rod, pulled on a pair of jeans and a clean T-shirt, stuck the Tarot card in my pocket and headed upstairs to Jack's apartment.
I could hear Neil Young's Rust Never Sleeps playing behind the scarlet door. The smell of something spicy drifted out the open kitchen window. My stomach tightened but it had nothing to do with hunger -- not for chili, anyway. I'd liked Jack a lot.
I knocked and the door opened. Jack stood framed in the doorway. He was about thirty-five, just over medium height and built, grey eyes and dark hair. He had a small white scar over his left eye brow and a dimple in his right cheek when he smiled -- he was not smiling now. Music and the aroma of garlic and onions wafted around him.
“Hey, Tim,” he said briefly, neutrally, after a pause.
“Hi, Jack,” I said. “Could I talk to you for a minute? I could use some advice. Professional advice.”
He hesitated -- just long enough for me to realize I was making a mistake. Jack was the one who'd lost interest in pursuing a relationship. We were neighbors, not friends, and this was probably the equivalent of complaining to a doctor you'd met at a party about that pain in your neck.
“Yeah, sure,” Jack said, and he stepped aside, nodding for me to come in.
Worse than looking pushy, gauche, I realized this might seem like I was coming up with an excuse to see him again. So instead of coming in, I took a step back and said, “You know, on second thought, it can probably wait.”
“Whoa!” He caught my arm as I turned away. “What's this?” He was smiling now, his eyebrows raised.
The feel of his hand on my arm reminded me vividly of our one and only night together. The warm sure slide of his palm stroking my belly, knuckles brushing the sensitive skin between hip and thigh, long strong fingers closing at last around my dick…
I let him draw me into his apartment.
Jack closed the door and I looked around curiously. Tidy as a monk's cell. A stark black and white print of the desert hung over the fake fireplace. There were a few pieces of generic guy furniture, a number of paperbacks -- mostly non-fiction and mostly true crime -- on a low bookshelf. Nothing had changed. Jack had changed, that was all.
“Did you want a beer?” he asked going behind the counter that separated kitchen from living room.
Jack returned a moment later, handed me a frosty cold bottle, fingers grazing mine, and then he dropped down on the couch across from me. He took a swig.
He wore Levis and a yellow muscleman T that displayed his hard tanned body to perfection.
“So…what's the problem?” He grinned and the dimple showed for a moment. I wondered if a dimple was a liability for a cop. Did bad guys ever make the mistake of overestimating that mischievous crease in Jack's lean cheek? “Jaywalking tickets piling up? Somebody finally haul you in for disturbing the peace?”
“Er…no.” I set the bottle on the glass-topped table, leaned on one hip, fished the Tarot card out of my pocket and put it face up on the coffee table.
Jack studied it, one eyebrow arching. “The Tower?”
“Yeah. Someone stuck it on my door while I was in the pool this morning.”
“Yeah, I saw you swimming,” he said absently, reaching for the card, careful to only touch the edges. His grey eyes lifted to mine. “And you see this as -- what? A threat?”
“I don't know. I know it seems a little...” I raked a hand through my still-damp hair. “I think it has to do with the book I'm writing. About the Aldrich case. The Tarot Card Murder.”
His face showed no comprehension.
“I guess it's supposed to be a joke.” I added doubtfully, “But it happened then too.”
“What happened then?” He asked. “You're not making a lot of sense, Tim.”
“Are you familiar with the Aldrich case?”
He looked a little exasperated at my tone. “I'm not familiar with every homicide case that ever took place in the L.A. vicinity, no.”
“Well, it's just that it was kind of a high profile case. And it's still unsolved.”
“I'll try not to take that personally.”
“Back in 1957, a Hollywood starlet by the name of Eva Aldrich was stabbed to death at a big costume ball. The only clue was a Tarot card pinned on her blood-stained dress.” Like one of those old press cameras my memory flashed on those gory old black and white crime scene photos. There had been one shot of Eva's discarded and bloodstained high heel lying a few feet from her body. There was something poignant -- something I couldn't shake -- when I thought about that frivolous little pump splashed with her dying blood.
“And you're writing a book about this?”
“You're writing a book about a homicide that took place back in 1957?” Jack was expressionless. “And you think... what? You've got some geriatric killer stalking you?”
I felt color rise in my face. “I don't know what to think,” I said evenly. “It's kind of a weird coincidence, don't you think?”
“Maybe. Who knows you're writing this book?” He stared at the card and then he stared at me. His eyes were just the color of the ocean when the mist starts rolling in.
“My publisher. The people I've interviewed so far.”
“And this card, The Tower, that's the card that was pinned to the decedent's -- this Aldrich woman's -- dress?”
“No. The card pinned to her dress was the sixth card in the major arcana, The Lovers.”
“Not the same card?”
“Look, I know it sounds silly. But--”
But what? I was the kind of guy who jumped at shadows? I didn't have a sense of humor? I had too much imagination? I wanted attention? The unflattering possibilities were plenty.
He studied me for a moment, then straightened, arching his back a little like he was stiff -- or bored with sitting there talking to me. “Okay. Tell you what,” he said. “I'll do some checking for you. See what the unofficial word is on this cold case of yours.” He shrugged a broad shoulder. “It can't hurt.”
I nodded, tension draining from my body. Maybe he was just humoring me, but I knew enough about Jack to know that if he said he'd check, he really would. Realizing I hadn't touched my beer, I tilted the bottle to my lips. Jack watched me steadily. It made me uncomfortable.
“Have you uncovered any new info on the case?” he asked
“Not that I'm aware of.”
“Maybe it is a joke.”
“Where's the humor?”
He shrugged and checked his watch. It wasn't pointed, just remembering that he had somewhere to be.
I set the bottle down, stood up.
“Can I hang on to this?” He nodded to the card lying on the tabletop once more.
“If there were any prints I messed them up handling the card.”
“I noticed.” He offered that half-grin. “It never hurts to check.”
“Thanks, Jack.” I moved towards the door. “I know this isn't really anything for the police. Unless something else --”
“No problem.” He held the front door for me.
As I stepped out onto the shady walkway he said awkwardly, “I'm glad you stopped by, Tim. Really. I -- uh -- I've been meaning to call.”
“Oh, shit yeah.” I shrugged. Smiled. No big deal, this. “I've been busy myself.”
* * * * *
Back in my apartment I circled from room to room, trying to settle enough to get back to work. I wasn't sure what had me more off-kilter. Seeing Jack again or finding the tarot card.
After a few minutes I sat down on the sofa with a copy of Roman Mayfield's The Mystery of the Tarot, thumbing through 'til I found the description of The Tower.
Mars' martial light shines upon the Tower, the card of war. The dark masonry of a structure built of lies crumbles beneath the lightning flash of truth. The Tower represents "false concepts and institutions that we take for real." In a reading, the Querent is often shaken when the Tower appears, expecting to be blinded by a shocking revelation. Sometimes the catalyst of reading forces the Querent to face a bitter truth or knock down beliefs rooted in the concrete of self-deception.
Was someone trying to tell me I was heading for a fall?
Absently I listened to the flap of palm tree leaves outside the open window, the distant rush of traffic from the Hollywood Freeway, listened for something else too. Something that didn't belong. But there was nothing to hear but the normal sounds of apartment living: splashing and laughter from the pool, someone's stereo playing too loudly, another bout in an on-going argument between my neighbors on the left.
And if I listened very carefully I could hear Jack humoring me. Okay. Tell you what. I'll do some checking for you.
That was nice of him, seeing that he hadn't been interested in keeping up the friendship -- let alone something more.
If I closed my eyes I could feel his broad hand on the small of my back guiding our bodies closer, the comfortable friction of bare skin on skin, the solid rub of our erections. I could feel the tickle of his chest hair, the unexpected softness of his mouth…
But it hadn't been perfect, by any means. We'd both had too much to drink that night, and after we'd rushed past the feverish preliminaries of getting naked and getting between the sheets, there had been the usual awkward moments of trying to get into sync with each other, fitting our bodies together, finding a rhythm.
The warmth of him, the salty taste of him, the clean scent of him.
Abruptly, I sat up and started clicking away on my laptop, like I could tap and type away from memories. It was just a couple of dates. Jeez. Get over it.
I remembered I still had clothes in the laundry room washer.
The bad news -- besides the rent -- about living in one of those atmospheric 1940s LA apartment buildings were the little inconveniences like parking in the back with the winos and homeless folk, the lack of any kind of security, and a laundry room that any Hollywood scout would immediately peg for a horror movie location.
Buried in the jungle of hibiscus and jasmine behind the pool yard, the laundry room was down a short flight of stairs. The overhead bulb was usually burnt out because no one ever remembered to turn it off. There were three washers and three dryers to service the entire complex; I'd learned to take advantage of it during the day when most of the young and not-so-young professionals were working.
Carrying my laundry basket down the steps, I automatically flipped the wall switch, and of course nothing happened. It didn't matter because there was enough daylight from above so that I could see to scoop soap into the battered machine.
It was warm and noisy with the sudsy washers filling up and the dryers tumbling. I put the lid down on my sodden clothes and turned to get the previous load I'd left in the dryer. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught movement.
I glanced swiftly towards the stairs.
A shadow filled the doorway. The door to the laundry room slammed shut.
Copyright 2000-17, Josh Lanyon.
All rights reserved.