She smiled. “I’ve noticed.”
“But maybe you don’t put enough value on that. Not as much as you should.”
“I put a great deal of value on it,” she said.
“Jenny, what we have is—”
She put one hand on his lips. “I didn’t mean for the conversation to take such a serious turn,” she said.
“But I think we should talk seriously. We’re long overdue for that.”
“No,” she said. “I don’t want to talk about us, not seriously. And because you’re such a nice man, you’re going to do what I want.” She kissed him again, opened her door, and got out of the car.
The tavern was a warm, cozy place. There was a rustic bar along the left-hand wall, about fifteen tables in the center of the room, and a row of maroon leatherette booths along the right wall. The shelves behind the bar were lit with soft blue bulbs. Each of the tables in the center of the room held a tall candle in a red glass lantern, and an imitation stained-glass Tiffany lamp hung over each of the booths. The jukebox was playing a soulful country ballad by Charlie Rich. The bartender, a heavyset man with a walrus mustache, joked continuously with the customers. Without trying for it, without being aware of it, he sounded like W. C. Fields. There were four men at the bar, half a dozen couples at the tables, and other couples in the booths. The last booth was open, and they took it.
When they had ordered and received their drinks from a perky red-headed waitress—Scotch for him and a dry vodka martini for her—Paul said, “Why don’t you come up and spend a few days with us at camp? We have an extra sleeping bag.”
“I’d like that,” she said.
“Maybe next week.”
“I’ll tell the kids. Once they’re expecting you, you won’t be able to back out of it.”
She laughed. “Those two are something else,” she said.
“Do you know what Rya said to me when she was helping me pour the coffee after dinner?” Jenny took a sip of her drink. “She asked if I had divorced my first husband because he was a lousy lover.”
“Oh, no! She didn’t really.”
“Oh, yes, she did.”
“I know that girl’s only eleven. But sometimes I wonder..
“Reincarnation?” Jenny asked.
“Maybe that’s it. She’s only eleven years old in this life, but maybe she lived to be seventy in another life. What did you say to her when she asked?”
Jenny shook her head as if she were amazed at her gullibility. Her black hair swung away from her face. “Well, when she saw that I was about to tell her it was none of her business whether or not my first husband was a lousy lover, she told me I mustn’t be cross with her. She said she wasn’t just being nosy. She said she was just a growing girl, a bit mature for her age, who had a perfectly understandable curiosity about adults, love and marriage. Then she really began to con me.”
Paul grimaced. “I can tell you the line she used: Poor little orphan girl. Confused by her own pubescence. Bewildered by a new set of emotions and body chemistry.”
“So she’s used it on you.”
“And you fell for it?”
“Everyone falls for it.”
“I sure did. I felt so sorry for her. She had a hundred questions—”
“All of them intimate,” Paul said.
“—and I answered all of them. And then I found out the whole conversation was meant to lead up to one line. After she had learned more about my husband than she could ever want to know, she told me that she and her mother had had long talks a year or so before Annie died, and that her mother told her you were just a fantastic lover.”
“I said to her, ‘Rya, I believe you’re trying to sell your father to me.’ She got indignant and said that was a terrible thing to think. I said, ‘Well, I can’t believe that your mother ever said anything of the sort to you. How old would you have been then? Six?’ And she said, ‘Six, that’s right. But even when I was six, I was very mature for my age.’”
\Vhen he was done laughing, Paul said, “Well, you can’t
blame her. She’s only playing the matchmaker because she likes you. So does Mark.” He leaned toward her and lowered his voice slightly. “So do I.”
She looked down at her drink. “Read any good books lately?” He stirred his Scotch and sighed. “Since I’m such a nice man, I’m supposed to let you change the subject that easily.”
Jenny Leigh Edison distrusted romance and feared marriage. Her ex-husband, whose name she had gladly surrendered, was one of those men who despise education, work, and sacrifice, but who nonetheless think they deserve fame and fortune. Because, year after year, he achieved neither goal, he needed some excuse for failure. She made a good one. He said he hadn’t been able to put together a successful band because of her. He hadn’t been able to get a recording contract with a major company because of her. She was holding him back, he said. She was getting in his way, he said. After seven years of supporting him by playing cocktail-bar piano, she suggested that they would both be happier if the marriage were dissolved. At first, he accused her of deserting him, and then he threatened to kill her if she left. She divorced him. “Love and romance aren’t enough to make a marriage work,” she had once told Paul. “You need something else. Maybe it’s respect. Until I do know what it is, I’m in no hurry to get back to the altar.”
Like the nice man that he was, he had changed the subject at her request. They were talking about music when Bob and Emma Thorp came over to the booth and said hello.
Bob Thorp was chief of the four-man police force in Black River. Ordinarily, a town so small would have boasted no more than a single constable. But in Black River, more than a constable was needed to maintain order when the logging camp men came into town for some relaxation; therefore, Big Union Supply Company paid for the four-man force. Bob was a six-foot-two, two-hundred-pound ex-MP with martial arts training. With his square face, deep-set eyes, and low forehead, he looked both dangerous and dim-witted. He could be dangerous, but he was not stupid. He wrote an amusing column for Black River’s weekly newspaper, and the quality of thought and language in those pieces would have been a credit to any big city newspaper's editorial page. This combination of brute strength and unexpected intelligence made Bob a match even for lumbermen much bigger than he was.
At thirty-five Emma Thorp was still the prettiest woman in Black River. She was a green-eyed blonde with a spectacular figure, a combination of beauty and sex appeal that had gotten her into the finals of the Miss U.S.A. Contest ten years ago. That achievement made her Black River’s only genuine celebrity. Her son, Jeremy, was the same age as Mark. Jeremy stayed at the Annendale camp for a few days every year. Mark valued him as a playmate—but valued him more because his mother was Emma. Mark was deeply in puppy love with Emma and mooned around her every chance he got.
“Are you here on vacation?” Bob asked.
“Just got in this afternoon.”
Jenny said, “We’d ask you to sit down, but Paul’s trying to keep an arm’s length from everyone who has the flu. If he picked it up, he’d just pass it on to the kids.”
“It’s nothing serious,” Bob said. “Not the flu, really. Just night chills.”
“Maybe you can live with them,” Emma said. “But I think they’re pretty serious. I haven’t had a good sleep all week. They aren’t just night chills. I tried to take a nap this afternoon, and I woke up shaking and sweating.”
Paul said, “You both look very good.”
“I tell you,” Bob said, “it’s nothing serious. Night chills. My grandmother used to complain of them.”
“Your grandmother complained of everything,” Emma said. “Night chills, rheumatiz, the ague, hot flashes . .
Paul hesitated, smiled, and said, “Oh hell, sit down. Let me buy you a drink.”
Glancing at his watch, Bob said, “Thanks, but we really can’t. They have a poker game in the back room here every Saturday night. Emma and I usually play. They’re expecting us.”
“You play, Emma?” Jenny asked.
“Better than Bob does,” Emma said. “Last time, he lost fifteen dollars, and I won thirty-two.”
Bob grinned at his wife and said, “Tell the truth now. It’s not so much skill. It’s just that when you’re playing, most of the men don’t spend enough time looking at their cards.”
Emma touched the low-cut neckline of her sweater. “Well, bluffing is an important part of good poker playing. If the damn fools can be bluffed by some cleavage, then they just don’t play as well as I do.”
On the way home, ten miles out of Bexford, Paul started to turn off the blacktop road onto a scenic overlook that was a favorite lovers’ lane.
“Please, don’t stop,” Jenny said.
“I want you.”
He put the car in park, half on the road, half off. “And that’s a reason not to stop?”
She avoided looking at him. “I want you, but you aren’t the kind of man that can be satisfied with just the sex. You want something more from me. It’s got to be a deeper commitment with you—love, emotion, caring. I’m not up to that part of it.”
Cupping her chin in his hand, he gently turned her face to him. “When you were down to Boston in March, you were very changeable. One moment you thought we could make it together, and the next moment you thought we couldn’t. But then, the last few days, just before you went home, you seemed to have made up your mind. You said that we were right for each other, that you just needed a little more time.” He had proposed to her last Christmas. Ever since, in bed and out, he had been trying to convince her that they were two halves of an organism, that neither of them could be whole without the other. In March, he thought he had made some headway. “Now,” he said, “you’ve changed your mind again.”
She took his hand from her chin, and kissed the palm. “I’ve got to be sure.”
“I’m not like your husband,” he said.
“I know you’re not. You’re a—”
“Very nice man?” he asked.
“I need more time.”
“How much more?”
“I don’t know.”
He studied her for a moment, then put the car in gear and drove back onto the blacktop. He switched on the radio.
A few minutes later she said, “Are you angry?”
“No. Just disappointed.”
“You’re too positive about us,” she said. “You should be more careful. You should have some doubts like I do.”
“I have no doubts,” he said. “We’re right for each other.”
“But you should have doubts,” she said. “For instance, doesn’t it seem odd to you that I’m such a physical match for your first wife, for Annie? She was the same build as I am, the same size. She had the same color hair, the same eyes. I’ve seen those photographs of her.”
He was a little upset by that. “Do you think I’ve fallen for you only because you remind me of her?”
“You loved her a great deal.”
“That has nothing to do with us. I just like sexy, dark women.” He smiled, trying to make a joke of it—both to convince her and to stop himself from wondering if she was at least partly right.
She said, “Maybe.”
“Dammit, there’s no maybe about it. I love you because you’re you, not because you’re like anyone else.”
They rode in silence.
The eyes of several deer glittered in the brush at the side of the road. When the car passed, the herd moved. Paul caught a glimpse of them in the rearview mirror—graceful, ghostly figures—as they crossed the pavement.
At last Jenny said, “You’re so sure we’re meant for each other. Maybe we are—under the right circumstances. But Paul, all We’ve ever shared is good times. We’ve never known adversity together. We’ve never shared a painful experience. Marriage is
full of big and little crises. My husband and I were fairly good together too, until the crises came. Then we were at each other’s throats. I just can’t . . . I won’t gamble my future on a relationship that has never been tested with hard times.”
“Should I start praying for sickness, financial ruin, and bad luck?”
She sighed and leaned against him. “You make me sound foolish.”
“I don’t mean to.”
Back in Black River, they shared one kiss and went to separate rooms to lie awake most of the night.
Twenty-eight Months Earlier:
Saturday, April 12, 1975
THE HELICOPTER—A PLUSH, luxuriously appointed Bell JetRanger TI—chopped up the dry Nevada air and flung it down at the Las Vegas Strip. The pilot gingerly approached the landing pad on the roof of the Fortunata Hotel, hovered over the red target circle for a moment, then put down with consummate skill.
As the rotors stopped churning overhead, Ogden Salsbury slid open his door and stepped out onto the hotel roof. For a few seconds he was disoriented. The cabin of the JetRanger had been air-conditioned. Out here, the air was like a parching gust from a furnace. A Frank Sinatra album was playing on a stereo, blasting forth from speakers mounted on six-foot-high poles. Sunlight reflected from the rippling water in the roof-top pool, and Salsbury was partially blinded in spite of his sunglasses. Somehow, he had expected the roof to bobble and sway under him as the helicopter had done; and when it did not, he staggered slightly.
The swimming pool and the glass-walled recreation room beside it were adjuncts of the enormous thirtieth-floor presidential suite of the Fortunata Hotel. This afternoon there were only two people using it: a pair of voluptuous young women in skimpy white string bikinis. They were sitting on the edge of the pool, near the deep end, dangling their legs in the water.
A squat, powerfully built man in gray slacks and a short-sleeved white silk shirt: was hunkered down beside them, talking to them. All three had the perfect nonchalance that, Ogden thought, came only with power or money. They appeared not even to have noticed the arrival of the helicopter.
Salsbury crossed the roof to them. “General Klinger?”