A is for Alibi Page 59

"Feel better?" he said.


"Good. Then we'll eat.

The meal that followed was one of the most sensual I ever experienced: fresh, tender bread with a crust of flaky layers, spread with a buttery pate, Boston lettuce with a delicate vinaigrette, sand dabs sautéed in butter and served with succulent green grapes. There were fresh raspberries for dessert with a dollop of tart cream, and all the time Charlie's face across the table from me, shadowed by that suggestion of caution, that hint of something stark and fearful held back, pulling me forward even while I felt myself kept in check.

"How'd you end up in law school?" I asked him when coffee arrived.

"Accident I guess. My father was a drunk and a bum, a real shit. Knocked me around a lot. Not seriously. More like a piece of furniture that got in his way. He beat my mother too.”

"Doesn't do much for your self-esteem," I ventured.

Charlie shrugged. "It was good for me actually. Made me tough. Let me know I couldn't depend on anyone but myself, which is a lesson you might as well learn when you're ten. I took care of me.”

"You worked your way through school?”

"Every nickel's worth. I picked up money ghosting papers for jocks, sitting in on tests, writing C minus answers so no one would suspect. You'd be surprised how tricky it is to miss just enough questions to look genuine. I had regular jobs, too, but after I watched half a fraternity get into law school on my smarts, I figured I might as well try it myself.”

"What'd your father do when he didn't drink?”

"Construction till his health broke down. He finally died of cancer. Took him six years. Bad stuff. I didn't give a shit and he knew it. All that pain served him right," he said and shook his head. "My mother died four months after he did. I thought she'd be relieved he was gone. Turns out she was dependent on the abuse.”

"Why do estate law? That doesn't seem like you. I picture you doing criminal law, something like that.”

"Listen, my father pissed away everything he had. I ended up with nothing, less than nothing. It took me years to pay off his hospital bills and his fucking debts. I had to pay for my mother's death, too, which at least was quick, God bless her, but hardly cheap. So now I show people how to outwit the government even in death. A lot of my clients are dead so we get along very well and I make sure their greedy heirs get more than they deserve. Also when you're executor for somebody's estate, you get paid on time and nobody calls you up about your bill.”

"Not a bad deal," I said.

"Not at all," he agreed.

"Have you ever been married?”

"Nope. I never had time for that. I work. That's the only thing that interests me. I don't like the idea of giving someone else the right to make demands. In exchange for what?”

I had to laugh. I felt the same way myself. His tone throughout was ironic and the look he laid on me then was oddly sexual, full of strange, compelling male heat as though money and power and sexuality were all somehow tangled up for him and fed on one another. There was really nothing open or loose or free about him, however candid he might seem, but I knew that it was precisely his opacity that appealed to me. Did he know that I was attracted to him? He gave little indication of his own feelings one way or the other.

When we finished our coffee, he signaled for the waiter without a word and paid the check. Conversation between us was dwindling anyway and I let it lie, feeling watchful, quiet, even wary of him again. We moved through the restaurant, our bodies close but our behavior polite, circumspect. He opened the door for me. I passed through. He'd made no gesture toward me, verbally or otherwise, and I was suddenly disconcerted, lest my sense of his pull turn out to be something generated in me and not reciprocal. Charlie took my arm briefly, guiding me up a shallow step but as soon as we were on smooth pavement again, he dropped his hand. We went around to my side of the car. He opened the door and I got in. I didn't think I'd said anything flirtatious and I was glad of that, curious still about his intentions toward me. He was so matter-of-fact, so removed.

We drove back to Santa Teresa, saying little. I was feeling mute again, not uncomfortable but languid. As we approached the outskirts of town, he reached over and took my hand noncommittally. It felt like a low-voltage current was suffusing my left side. He kept his left hand on the steering wheel. With his right hand, he was carelessly, casually rubbing my fingers, his attitude inattentive. I was trying to be as casual as he, trying to pretend there might be some other way to interpret those smoldering sexual signals that made the air crackle between us and caused my mouth to go dry. What if I was wrong, I thought. What if I fell on the man like a dog on a bone only to discover that his meaning was merely friendly, absentminded, or impersonal? I couldn't think about anything because there was no sound between us, nothing said, not anything I could react to or fix on, no way to divert myself. He was making it hard to breathe. I felt like a glass rod being rubbed on silk. Out of the comer of my eye, I thought I saw his face turn toward me. I glanced at him.

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