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Innocence

Innocence

Innocence 18


  As she lay belly-down, the cold granite leached away her body heat. She was not dressed for the out-of-doors, and her tremors of fear quickly became violent shudders.

  After a few minutes, peering past the lion that sheltered her, Gwyneth saw Telford exit her father’s house and descend the front stairs. He wore his overcoat and carried a white bundle that must have been the scones in the bag that might have incriminated him in some way if he left it behind. To her dismay, he turned toward her.

  She could tell that his vision, while improved, was not normal, because he proceeded like a man in no hurry, his face thrust forward as if in doubt of the way before him. When he passed a lamppost, he turned his head from it, the light too bright for his stinging, dilated eyes.

  As Telford approached, his breath steamed from him as if he were a dragon bespelled into the form of a man. Gwyneth knew, in passing, he would instinctively look to his left and up, and in spite of his compromised vision and the night shadows in which she was lying, he would see her. What she knew proved to be only what she feared, and the curator went past, oblivious of her, cursing softly in a voice strained by fear.

  Two houses farther east, he got into a car parked at the curb. Over the rush of traffic in the street, Gwyneth couldn’t hear the engine start, but a graveyard’s worth of ghosts plumed up from the tailpipe, feathering away among the skeletal branches of an overhanging tree.

  Telford’s Cadillac faced toward the girl, but from her higher position, the intervening limbs of another tree obscured most of his windshield, and she could not see him behind the steering wheel. She felt certain that she had escaped him for the night, but she remained prostrate and motionless in the dark of the lion.

  Although surely he had splashed cold water in his eyes to dilute the Mace and though he must have been anxious to be gone, he waited another five minutes before gaining enough confidence in his vision to pull out from the curb into the street. He drove to the end of the block and turned south on the avenue.

  The girl hurried home and locked the front door behind her. She ventured to the kitchen doorway to confirm her father’s death, and at the first glimpse of his lifeless face, she turned from him, unable to endure the sight. She could have drowned in a black sea of grief, but such surrender would have dishonored her father, who believed in perseverance in the face of any loss or misfortune. She fled to the fourth floor.

  Telford would expect her to dial 911 to report a murder, but she would never make that call. Uniformed officers, detectives, personnel from the coroner’s office, reporters, and unknowable others would descend upon her, besiege her, a plague of locusts stripping her of privacy and hope. Their stares relentlessly upon her, their questions requiring a thousand answers, all those hands reaching to reassure her, to take her arm when her knees grew weak, technicians gathering evidence in her rooms, perhaps a trip to a hospital to be examined for injury and to assess her emotional condition: That prospect was intolerable. She would be destroyed by it.

  Furthermore, if Telford had been as careful eliminating evidence of his presence as he’d claimed, nothing could link him to the death of her father. In her rooms, he might have left fingerprints only on the entry door and the bathtub fixtures. Even bleary-eyed and frantic to leave before authorities arrived, he would have taken time to wipe those surfaces. If he proved to be as methodical as she expected, he had established an alibi for the hours he had meant to spend in their house. In the end, wouldn’t it be her word against his? And were the police likely to believe a respectable curator or a Goth-obsessed, neurotic thirteen-year-old girl with acute social phobia?

  Gwyneth packed a few essentials in a satchel belonging to her father. Leaving the front door standing open, she left the house and made her way to the nearest of the eight apartments that, with considerable foresight, her father had prepared for her if he should die.

  Safe for the moment, she called Teague Hanlon and told him all that had happened. He wanted to call the police, but when he listened to her reasons for not doing so, he understood that relying on the usual authorities would lead to her destruction, not to Telford’s imprisonment.

  “If Telford is ever brought to justice,” she told Hanlon, “I’m the one who will have to gather the evidence against him, in my own way and in my own good time. I have lost so much. The kindest father in the world. I will never relent. Never.”

  46

  ALTHOUGH OUR WINE WAS FINISHED BEFORE HER story, the candles were a long way from guttering, and they blued the darkness of the dining area.

  I said, “So it was declared an accidental death.”

  “Death by contaminated honey, yes.”

  “But weren’t the police looking for you?”

  “Not actively. An appeal was made to the public, through local TV and newspapers, asking anyone who saw this lost and afflicted girl to report her whereabouts to the police. But it was a picture of me with my father, taken a year earlier, before my Goth look, the only photograph of me since I was an infant, and of course I no longer much resembled that girl.”

  “The only photograph of you in all that time?”

  “If you allow your picture to be taken, you don’t know who might see it a month from now, a year. Strangers looking at your photo, staring at you, studying you … It’s not as awful as being in the presence of strangers, with them touching and talking to you and expecting you to reply. But it’s bad enough. I can barely tolerate the thought of it.”

  We shared a minute of silence.

  Considering her psychological problems and the limitations they imposed on her, considering that I could venture from my underground haven only in the quietest hours of the night, cloaked and hooded and at risk of being murdered on sight, our encounter and the way that our friendship continued to unfold seemed miraculous. I yearned for more than friendship, but I understood that love, given and received, was impossible. Even an imperfect princess could be awakened to the fullness of life only by a kiss from a genuine prince, not by such as I. In spite of my yearnings, I remained satisfied not to pursue the impossible and to settle for the miraculous. Now my greatest fear was that we might lose what we had together and go our separate ways, or be separated by death.

  At last I said, “But in time, the court might declare you dead, and then what will happen to the trusts that support you?”

  “I remained in seclusion for three months, never once going out, grieving Daddy, in touch with no one but Teague Hanlon. At the end of that period, he told the authorities that I had found my way to him, that as my guardian, with my approval, he’d placed me in a sanatorium in a quiet country setting, so that I could rest, get psychological counseling, and learn either to overcome my social phobia or to live better with it.”

  “On the phone, Telford said you were in a sanatorium.”

  “And so he thought all these years. Until last night.”

  “And the authorities believed Mr. Hanlon?”

  “Of course. Not just because he was my guardian, but because of who he is.”

  “And who is he?”

  Although I could not see her face in the blue-tinted dark, I suspected that she was smiling when she said, “My guardian,” and thereby made it clear that, regardless of all that she had shared with me, some of her secrets were still hers alone.

  She said, “I had no close relatives, only one friend, who was also my guardian, so there was little risk of an advocate stepping forth to ask that, in my interest, the court investigate my current condition and treatment. Besides, the bureaucracy in this city is so indifferent that Child Protective Services as often as not assigns kids to temporary homes where they’re beaten or sexually abused, or overdrugged for ADHD until the clean sharp edges are worn off their souls, and everyone knows it. No one would think a foster home in this town is automatically superior to an expensive asylum.”

  After a brief silence, I said, “I’m sorry you had to see your father dead, in the condition that he was.”

  “I thought I turned
away too quickly for the image to stay in my memory. But it remains. Vivid and terrible. There will never be any forgetting it.”

  Into my mind’s eye came an image of my father’s broken face, one eye obscured by blood pooling in the socket.

  She pushed her chair back from the table and got to her feet. “I promised to play the piano for you.”

  I followed her into the living room, where the candles flickered in red-glass cups, though the ambience was no less melancholy than it had been under the influence of blue glass.

  When I stood beside the bench on which she sat to play, Gwyneth said, “Don’t crowd me, Addison. Since Daddy died, in order to play well, I have to feel that I’m playing just for me and him. Go sit and leave me to it.”

  Another candle glowed on the small table beside an armchair, and I settled there to listen.

  With her back to me, she said, “ ‘Sonata quasi una fantasia,’ in C-sharp minor.”

  The moment that Gwyneth began to play, I recognized Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” and I came to my feet, shaken, because of all the music that Father and I had listened to on our CD player, this was the one piece that moved us equally, that we could never hear too often. It is music that speaks to the deepest reaches of your soul, and you are lifted higher, ever higher, by the adagio, in my opinion more so even than in any of the masses that Beethoven composed.

  I went to the wall of windows and stood gazing out at the snow, which fell no less heavily than before. The wind had abated somewhat and had become capricious, though lazily so. The flakes were no longer driven at an angle through the street. Instead, they gathered into half-formed figures that dissolved a moment after they took shape, an eternal procession of spirits, settling softly to the Earth like crystalized notes of music, bringing the melodies of a higher sphere.

  The title “Moonlight Sonata” had not been Beethoven’s, but had been appended to the piece by a friend to whom the music brought to mind the beauties of Lake Lucerne as one glided across the water in a boat, by moonlight.

  In the night, through the snow, came three Clears, the same that earlier I had seen on the roofs of buildings across the street, two men and a woman, she dressed in hospital whites and they in hospital blues. As Clears sometimes do, these three didn’t merely walk into view, but glided through the air, standing upright, as if being flown by wires in a stage production.

  Two of them touched down in the street and stood looking this way and that, but the woman floated to the windows, as if drawn by the music. When she passed through those panes, a few feet to the right of me, no glass shattered. She walked now as if gravity limited her, when obviously it did not, and as she crossed the room, she was a lamp from which darkness shrank before creeping back in her wake. She stepped out of the living room, through the dining area, through the open archway to the kitchen, where she moved out of sight. She must have gone into other rooms, because shortly she returned, not by a door, but manifested out of lath and plaster, passing through a wall as easily as I could stroll through curtains of fog.

  The Clear went to the piano and stood gazing down at Gwyneth, neither smiling nor frowning, watching with calm interest. The girl wasn’t aware of being observed, nor could she see the soft glow of the Clear, which fell upon her and across part of the keyboard. She played as if only I and the memory of her father were with her.

  After a moment, the visitor turned from the piano and walked toward me. Obeying Father’s admonition, I looked out of the window, avoiding her eyes. I imagined that meeting her stare might transform me as, in classic mythology, meeting the stare of Medusa could turn flesh to stone. Father had never explained what would happen to me if I insisted on being eye-to-eye with a Clear, but he had been wise in all things, and I had no reason to doubt his advice.

  The radiance of the Clear settled upon me and silvered the windowpane. I was aware of her face mirrored in the glass as she looked over my right shoulder, but I dared not meet the eyes even in reflection. After a hesitation, she passed through me, through the window, into the night, and I thought that perhaps she lived in a different dimension from mine and was capable of exploring this world, though I could not cross into hers.

  She drifted down through the falling snow and joined her two companions. They walked along the street in the direction that the man and dog had gone earlier.

  The sonata came to an end, but Gwyneth must not have wanted praise for her playing. After the briefest silence, in the thrall that follows the final note of any soul-felt piece of music, she brought forth another melody from the keyboard. As quickly as I had recognized “Moonlight Sonata,” I knew this piece as well, but not its title. These were the beautiful but sad strains that, on certain nights, found their way into my windowless rooms and haunted me, the music for which I’d never been able to identify a source, as though it issued from another world invisible.

  I crossed the room and stood behind and to one side of her, still at a respectful distance, so that she could continue to imagine she was playing only for herself and her lost father, but near enough that I could feel the music as well as hear it. Music is sound, sound consists of vibrations in the air, and these particular vibrations resonated with the marrow in my bones, with the tissues of my heart.

  When Gwyneth finished, she sat with her head bowed, her hands resting on the keyslip, her face blushed by trembling candlelight.

  She said nothing. I knew that I should give her silence as long as she wanted it, but I asked in a whisper, “What was that music?”

  “The first was Beethoven.”

  “Yes, I know. ‘Moonlight Sonata.’ But the second?”

  “It’s my own composition. I wrote it in the week after my father died. It’s an expression of the pain … the pain of losing him.”

  “It’s beautiful. I didn’t know you had such great talent.”

  “Don’t be so awed. It’s just a thing I can do. A gift. It’s not work to me. I didn’t earn it.”

  “You must have recorded the piece you just played.”

  She shook her head. “No. It’s music only for him and me. And, this time at least, for you.”

  “But I’ve heard it before.”

  “You can’t have.”

  As she began to play it again, this time pianissimo, I said, “But I have heard it many times. In my rooms under the city. And I can never trace it to a source.”

  I stood in silence as she played the piece through to the end. The last note traveled away from us like a slow bird floating higher on a warm current of air.

  After a silence, I said, “I really do hear it some nights.”

  “I believe you.”

  “But if you’ve never recorded it and no one else ever has …”

  “Nevertheless, you’ve heard it. I don’t know how. But I think I might know why.”

  I didn’t quite follow the logic of not-how-but-why, and yet I asked, “Why?”

  At first she replied with silence, but then: “I don’t want to say—and be wrong. I don’t want to hope for the wrong thing.”

  Her cell phone rang. She put it on SPEAKER. “Hello?”

  All silken tones had been washed from the voice by bad whiskey, and the words came rough and low, as if spoken through a stone-filled craw. “Miss Gwyneth, it’s me.”

  “Is something wrong, Simon?”

  “Some guys they’re lookin’ for you.”

  “What guys?”

  “Neighbors at two of your apartments called me, said these guys came around askin’ about you. Your neighbors they didn’t much like the look of these guys, thought I should know.”

  “My neighbors hardly ever see me come and go. I don’t know them, Simon, so how do you know them?”

  “Well, Miss Gwyneth, they’re friendly, and I gave ’em my number in case, you know, there was ever a plumbin’ leak or somethin’ when you weren’t in residence.”

  “The neighbors have the number of the property-management company, and that’s all they need. Simon, I told yo
u never to talk about me to anyone.”

  Her tone of disappointment seemed to distress him. “No, no, I never did. I never talked about you. I told ’em the other name, not your real one, and all we talked about was stuff, you know, just this and that, the way people do.”

  She got to her feet. “But you gave them your phone number. Simon, you’ve got to get out of there right away.”

  “Out of here? Out of my nice little place? Where would I go?”

  “Anywhere. Those men will be coming for you.”

  “But, Miss Gwyneth, those neighbors, they have just my phone number, not my address or even my last name.”

  “The men who’ll be coming for you have connections, friends in high places, resources. They’ll find you eventually.”

  “But where would I go? I don’t have anyplace else to go.”

  “Go to my guardian. I’ll call him and tell him to expect you.”

  “Even in good weather that’s too far, Miss Gwyneth. In this blizzard, it’s impossible far, I mean for a man my age.”

  “You still don’t drive?”

  “My history, they’ll never give me a license, Miss Gwyneth. Who needs to drive in the city anyway? I got my bicycle and taxis, I do all right, but you can’t bike in deep snow, and no taxi is comin’ out in this storm.”

  She hesitated, and then said, “I’ll come for you, Simon. I’ll drive you.”

  “If those guys come around here, I won’t tell them the littlest thing. Not even the littlest. You know I won’t, Miss Gwyneth. I’d die first.”

  “I know, Simon. But I don’t want you to die, and it might come to that. I’ll be there in half an hour.”

  “Bless you, Miss Gwyneth, I’m sorry to be trouble to you. You’re an angel, and I didn’t mean for anythin’ like this.”