Chapter 13 – The Magic Hour
After dinner, Frank sat by himself out by the pool. He had brought the cushions for a lounge from the pile near the house. He settled in to watch the sunset, the classic California light show. With the sun on its way down, spilling a shell’s mother of pearl and all the colors from pink to dusty red and purple. The surface of the water was a flat mirror reflecting the sky.
Frank had not been surprised that, after the events of the day and their less than triumphant return, the table had been less talkative than usual. Ryan had described what had happened or at least given his version, simple and short, revealing as little as possible. Frank had simply agreed with Ryan. For the rest of the meal, Ryan had been relatively quiet. He didn’t compete to hold the floor. Johns had picked up the task of keeping everyone engaged and by the end of the meal things were almost normal.
Frank had gotten several looks from Maggie at the table. Whenever he glanced in her direction, she would be looking at him. She had slipped out of the house and was watching him now from the archway by the kitchen. Maggie had been in another space through the meal, not playing the foil for Susan. Muted, that was the word, Frank thought. Muted like the melancholy appeal of a Miles Davis trumpet solo.
Maggie was like a walking ball of static. She was trying to hang onto Ryan. But she had to be wondering what it was she was hanging onto. What if Ryan was only a charming sham? What if all this, all of Desert House, were coming to an end?
Frank tried to read everyone’s reactions to the blackmailers’ refusal. The broken deal dropped a large stone into the quiet pool of Desert House. He knew there was another world he hadn’t seen into yet. People went through their public reactions and he could only guess at their private ones.
Maggie finally came out from the archway and stood at the far end of the pool, looking into the water. Then she gave Frank another look. She walked to where he lay on the lounge chair and sat down on the warm red tiles beside him.
“So it was bad?” she said.
“No worse than I figured it would be. Stopping extortion is a very difficult thing unless you bring in the police. And that can make it a lot worse.”
“Is Ryan wrong to be doing it this way?”
“It’s his choice.”
“But is this the smart way to handle it?”
“As smart as any. If you don’t want the police and the publicity that brings, you don’t have many options.”
Maggie looked out at the mountains. When she spoke she didn’t look at Frank. “I know you’re not supposed to tell me. I’m not your client. I just sleep with him. But, did you get any idea —“
“About what they’re selling him and how bad it is? No. Everybody was very tightlipped. I don’t know the secret. Do you know why he started paying them?”
“Guilt.” She paused. “He says guilt. I don’t know what it is. You have to understand — to be close to Ryan you learn the rules that let you in. There are things in his life he’s decided aren’t there anymore. He’s never opened up to me about it. He acts like he can’t explain it. That doesn’t mean it’s something really bad.”
“No.” She looked at Frank. “Something bad.” She stopped talking for a while.
Frank stayed silent.
Maggie said, “Something I could never forgive him for.”
“You could forgive murder?”
“Well it depends on who gets killed, doesn’t it?”
“I suppose you could look at it that way.”
“There are people who really need somebody to kill them, Frank.”
“I agree with that. What couldn’t you forgive?”
“With Ryan? Maybe nothing.” Maggie got up, said “Goodnight, Frank”, and walked back to the house.
“Good-night,” said Frank. He couldn’t say don’t worry or it will all turn out well. He had no consolations to give her.
Frank had met people who could understand that there were evil people in the world who needed killing. He hadn’t met that many who took it to the personal level. Maggie was Chinese in America. And most members of minority groups that Frank met had an anger that could encompass murder as an entitlement. The only way to deal with the Anglo sea they swam in. Still, Frank wanted to find out why Maggie thought that way.
Frank sat staring at the pool. The long shadows of the mountains were reading out toward Desert House. The last dramatics of the sunset were fading away.
Susan made a carefully staged entrance, dragged another lounge over beside Frank.
“Did you talk to Maggie?” she asked.
“Yes. She wanted —“
“That’s alright,” Susan broke in, “I don’t need to know. Professional confidence and all.”
Frank was surprised. He wondered if Maggie had not told Susan what concerned her or if Susan had declined to get involved. He liked Susan, but they were still tossing stones into each other’s dark zones to see what they hit.
“For now, we’re leaving it in the no-go zone,” said Susan. “Maggie hasn’t decided to open up about what exactly worries her. She and Ryan have something they want to keep just between them. I’m minding my own business.”
“You haven’t talked about it.”
“We talk up to the point where she starts looking off into the distance and goes all quiet. I do know one thing. All that’s going on in that bed is sleeping. But,” she drew her fingers across her mouth in a motion as if zipping her lips, “I won’t betray her. Even if you torture me, officer.”
“How’s everyone else doing? How upset are Johns and the others?”
“Some of our little group are a bit worried.”
“Am I part of the little group?”
“Don’t know yet. We’ll see.” She took a drink from her iced tea and looked at the mountains. “Trust, Frank. Hard to know who to give it to. So damn many different kinds of relationships. My mother and father got married and that was it. Forty-some years of marriage and they’re still tight. Today? It’s just hard to know.”