Bartlett House by Patricia J. McLean and Duane Poncy ©2004, 2010

How many times since that night had he passed that same street corner without giving it a thought? Now he stood on it and stared down the street toward her apartment and toward the past as if he might see her walking out of it. At what point had he ceased being afraid, had he known with grateful certainty that Emmy wanted to be with him. That she felt the same pull; something like the current of a river. Will could still feel it pulling. Soon it would leave him empty. Soon, but not yet. The night may be coming, but now it is twilight and how can he believe in the darkness when the last glitter of the sun is still warm on his cheek and love still sings; when he can remember the curve of her thigh and the solid pressure of her slight body?
     Will felt lightheaded as if he were off-balance, about to fall over. The street had steepened and he was a little breathless. He stopped and put one hand out to rest on the rough bark of an old walnut and forced himself, leaning there, to breathe deep. And the smell of it came to him then though it was still out of sight, further up the hill, still ahead of him. Rain has a peculiar way of sharpening the smell and the weather had held the smoke down; its scent still clung to the buildings and trees.
     A couple blocks later he saw the yellow police tape hanging on the iron fencing. It caught at his heart. A group of ten or so people milled around on the walk in front of the house. Will was disconcerted, reluctant to mingle with them. They all had a look of life-long nourishment and privilege. They looked like they fit in the neighborhood and had a personal stake in the condition of this particular property, but hadn’t decided whether the fire would prove a detriment or an advantage.
     Will advanced slowly. He caught scraps of conversation. “…have to come down.” “Pity. It would have been a good place for a bed and breakfast…” “Part of history…”
     He stood in the middle of the drive directly in front of the open iron gates. Only that yellow tape blocked his way with its black DO NOT CROSS letters. He and Emmy had stood right here that night when they had first seen it lit up by the moon, looking somber and graceful. The roof was mostly gone now; charred rafters crossed the sky, the five chimneys, smoke blackened, stood slender and straight, exposed in the ruin. The black stone turret, rising above the gutted third floor, gave the house the appearance of a medieval castle sacked by barbarians.
     Two men and one woman dressed in protective rubber clothing were inspecting the remains.
     Did Emmy know it was burning? Had she suffocated on the smoke or had she been strangled like the police told him? It was a devil’s choice. Will forgot about the neighbors, left the open drive and leaned his head against the cool iron bars of the fence. He felt tears wet his cheek. His shoulders began to shake. Somebody put a hand on his arm.
     “Will?” It was Lucy.
     He drew his breath in deeply and fought to quiet the turmoil in his chest.
     “You haven’t been home all afternoon.”
     “I was at the police station,” Will replied.
     Lucy looked at him with questioning eyes, but didn’t say anything. Will felt grateful that she had tracked him down; he could use a friend right now. Lucy Hidalgo was a small woman, thin and energetic. Her Mestiso features seemed slightly more European than Native American. She had almond skin with black piercing eyes that now were darkly rimmed. Coarse black hair, braided to the middle of her back, revealed silver stands. The silver gave her a look of wisdom that Will wanted to take strength from, except that she looked as miserable and bewildered as he felt.
     She stared past him, down the hill.
     “Isn’t that Doug Bartlett?” she asked.
     A lone figure walked up the street toward them, dressed casually in shirt sleeves and black dress pants, no tie, a slightly ruffled look about him. Doug Bartlett was a fairly tall man, a little over six feet. He was elegantly graying at the temples and the remainder of his hair was nearly black, worn a little long over his ears, but neatly styled. Though he was by no means overweight, Doug looked as if he had never, not once in his life, been hungry. Yet, he had an afflicted quality–hungry, but not for food. He strode up to Will, hand extended. Will took it.
     “I’m so sorry, Will,” Bartlett said. “If there’s anything I can do….”
     “Thank you.” Will replied, wondering what Doug Bartlett could possibly do.
     Doug turned to Lucy, put his hand on her shoulder. “Lucy. Are you okay?”
     Lucy tried to smile, couldn’t. “It’s all been so sudden.”
     “Yes,” said Doug. “I was really fond of Emmy. I’m going to miss her.”
     Doug’s apparent sincerity impressed Will. It was one quality he was disinclined to grant the rich.
     “A lot of people are going to miss Emmy terribly,” said Lucy.
     “I warned her about coming here alone. This house….” Doug halted, a far-off look in his eye. “I’m sorry. This house has been nothing but trouble.”
     Doug turned again to Will. “Emmy is family. I insist on taking care of the expenses. But you’re the one who was closest to her. You might know her wishes.”
     Will cleared his throat, tried to think of something to say.
     “Look,” Doug saved him, “I know this is awkward, Will. You haven’t had time. Just give me a call.”
     Doug turned to go, but Will stopped him.
     “Wait. Maybe there’s something you can do after all.” He nodded toward the rubber-clad inspectors. “Do you suppose they might let me take a look…at the place where she….”
     Will began to choke up and Lucy put her hand on his shoulder. “Are you sure you should do that, Will?”
     No, he wasn’t sure he could handle it. Yes, he was sure he had to. He felt that if he didn’t see it, the room, the exact place where she had last been alive, that he would be robbed of something. That he would always regret not going far enough. That Emmy would feel abandoned if he couldn’t meet her there. She would be there. Will was sure of it. An imprint of her soul, or an echo, something he could hear, or see, or feel.
     “Yes, I need to see it.”
     Doug turned toward the figures sifting through the ashes. “I’ll see if I can arrange something.”
     The female investigator was squatting among the debris examining some artifact of the fire. Doug approached her and she stepped away from the work site and removed her dust mask. An argument appeared to ensue, but she soon motioned Will and Lucy over. With a wave, Doug Bartlett began his trek back down the hill.
     The woman was all business, a bit terse. “Okay, follow me. Don’t touch anything. Stay back away from marked areas. A crime investigation is still officially in progress.”
     “We’ll be angels, we promise,” Lucy said demurely.
     The woman’s demeanor softened.
     “I’m sorry, but I could really get in trouble for this.” She extended her hand. “I’m Sgt. Margolis.”
     Lucy shook her hand. “Lucy Hidalgo. This is Will Adelhardt. We know, we knew, Ms. D’Angelo.”
     “This is not exactly following procedures, but Mr. Bartlett…well, he has a lot of influence.”
     “It appears,” said Lucy.
     “Actually,” Sgt. Margolis continued as they approached the front steps, “we’re just wrapping up the fire investigation. The crime scene crew left about an hour ago.”
     “I don’t understand,” said Will. “Wasn’t the fire part of the crime?”
     “It’s not an assumption we automatically make.” She hesitated, measuring her words. “The fire may have been intentionally set, but it seems to have started several hours after the young woman died. In a different part of the house. We’re trying to determine if the two things are related, but they don’t appear to be. Not on the surface.” She seemed uncomfortable as if she had revealed more than she should.
     The front steps of the house were made of the same gray, volcanic rock as the turret and the short wall that bordered the veranda. Sgt. Margolis opened a Teak door, which seemed to Will to be more than eight-feet tall. It opened into a large entryway floored with imported black slate and paneled in mahogany. The first thing Will saw inside was the massive staircase of dark oak and basalt.
     To the left, French doors led into a hall, decorated with lingering traces of idiosyncratic opulence. Plaster walls were adorned with intricately carved woodwork, faded and graying with age. Will tried to imagine these walls holding flamboyant, late nineteenth century paintings. But all he saw was decay, dead weight, cold, black, immovable stone, garnished with the rotting remains of Victorian excess. Tropical mahogany, sacrificed for a vain moment of grandeur on a Portland, Oregon hillside. In the middle of the room, pillars of basalt supported the mass of the stone turret above.
     “This part of the house,” said Sgt. Margolis, dragging Will back to the present, “is structurally undamaged. The fire started on the second floor, at the rear of the house. It moved up the outside wall and consumed most of the third floor before it was extinguished. The young woman was found on the second floor, in the stone turret.”
     As they ascended the steps to the second story, Will tried to think of “the young woman” as a faceless victim, not Emmy. He was only partially successful.
     The hallway at the top of the stairs ran the length of the house. To the right, it ended in charred wood and blue sky. They turned to the left. The end of the hall opened into a room that appeared to have been built to attach the rest of this floor of the house to the turret, a self-contained tower of stone. Three archways gave access to the tower room, which was about twenty feet in diameter, a spiral staircase rose from the center. More police tape warned them from actually entering the room, but Will could see the grand view of the city through its arched windows.
     “Where…?” Will gestured at the empty room.
     Sgt. Margolis let Will’s unfinished questioned hang for a moment. Then she seemed to make a decision. “The body was found on a mattress. Just there, on the other side of the staircase.”
     The body. Emmy’s body. Will looked at Lucy and saw tears running down her cheeks. She was wiping them away with the heel of her hand. He felt a twinge of guilt for dragging her along. He listened for Emmy, but all he could hear was passing traffic through an open window. Life going on outside, carelessly. He felt stranded in his own left-behind world.
     “I think we’ve seen enough,” he said. “Thank you, Sgt. Margolis.”
     When they were back outside Will apologized to Lucy.
     “I didn’t have to follow you up there, Will,” said Lucy. “Look, can I drive you home?”
     “Thank you, Lucy. I’ll take you up on that.”
      “I parked around the block,” Lucy led the way.
     It was the first time Will had seen the back of the Bartlett property. The stone wall with its rib like iron fence topping it was less formidable in back where the sidewalk sloped upward. The yellow police ribbon was here too. Lucy’s battered Subaru was parked near a rear gate to the property. This gate was not so elaborate, or secure, as the wrought iron ones in front. It had once been held together by a padlocked chain, but the chain had been weakened by rust and broken by trespassers, leaving the gate free, and access to the rear of the Bartlett estate open to anyone who might know about it.
     Lucy’s was one of only three cars parked on the street, which was a dead-end and served no other houses. The West Hills rose almost vertically on the opposite side of the road and here, for the length of two blocks, had so far been unmolested by development. The hill was covered with fir trees, and a dense undergrowth of salal, Oregon grape, ferns, and thorny wild blackberry canes. It was dotted with the white throats of morning glories whose vines clothed the trunks of the trees in layers of heart shaped leaves. Will felt the mass of vegetation and earth brooding over the street.
     The rain started up again as they crossed Burnside, and by the time Lucy parked a couple of blocks from Will’s, water was rolling wildly down the gutters. Will and Lucy sat in the car for a few minutes mutely staring at the rain. The only comment Will had made, in spite of his offer to talk about his visit to the police was that they were right–he was too old to fall in love with Emmy.
     Lucy hadn’t answered him.
     “But she was so,” Will searched to describe what it was about her that had caused him to jump in again. He’d been married twice, should have known better. Not that he regretted either marriage. He regretted what happened to the marriages, but not being in love. He was convinced that he and Emmy had something so unique, that his previous failures had no bearing on their chances for happiness, whatever that meant. He had to admit that he was not very familiar with the practical everyday application of happiness, but he had had some experience with the intensity of isolated encounters. How often had he quoted Buddha, “Life is suffering,” and been cheered to know how much company he had. Right now, in this suffering, he was ashamed. He would just as soon believe that he was alone with this–that others were spared.
     Will’s unfinished sentence had sunk below the surface of awareness. He did not go back to it and Lucy did not appear to care. He didn’t know Lucy well enough to guess at what she was thinking. Lucy was Emmy’s friend. Someone he had gotten to know through Emmy. He did not know Lucy well. All Will really knew about her was that she was about his age, was a freelance journalist and had been involved in the migrant worker movement that Cesar Chavez had been so instrumental in shaping in California. Will didn’t know any more about Lucy’s past other than that she had taught an adult education class in journalism at one of the community colleges and Emmy had been her student, just as Emmy had been his student, he thought. Lucy had become Emmy’s friend; he had become her lover. Had Emmy told Lucy she was pregnant?
     “How did Emmy die?” Lucy asked still staring out the windshield, not making a move to get out of the car, though she had turned it off. “Morris wouldn’t tell me. I guess he didn’t know yet.”
     “Did he question you, too?” At Lucy’s nod, Will said, “She was strangled.”
     “What else did they say?” Lucy began to cry soundlessly.
     “Something about leather, that she was wearing leather.”
     “Leather? I’ve never seen Emmy wear leather.”
     “That’s what they said.”
     “I don’t understand, Will.”
     “Neither do I. The cops had their theories. At least the ones they were willing to tell me. All I could think was Emmy’s dead, Emmy’s murdered. How the cops figure it out just doesn’t matter all that much to me.” Will could hear the edge in his own voice and he put his hand on his chest up high where he was breathing around the tightness.
     “What kind of theories, Will?”
     “That it was an accident. Emmy wasn’t into that kinky stuff and she wasn’t seeing anyone else,” Will jerked the car door open, stood up and shut the door before Lucy could reply.
     She was out of the car almost as fast. “Don’t walk away from me. What do you mean kinky stuff? Like S&M? Like getting strangled to get off?”
     They faced each other on the sidewalk. Lucy’s hair was matting down to her face. Will could feel water running down his forehead and channeled by his nose, run down his cheeks. “Yes, like that. That’s what they said.”
     “I don’t believe it.”
     “Neither do I,” Will sighed. “Why don’t you pump the meter and come up. I think there might be some moldy cheese and stale crackers, if you’re hungry.” He made a thin smile. “Wait out the rain.”

     Will handed Lucy a towel to rub her hair dry. While the towel still covered her face, he asked, “Did Emmy tell you?”
     “Tell me what?” Lucy gave the towel back to Will, not looking at him at first. When she did look at him, he could see that she knew what he was asking.
     “Yes,” She said.
     “Why didn’t you tell me? How could you let me hear that from the cops?”
     “How was I to know they were going to drag you off? I called and called. I came over to your place. I was looking for you all afternoon.” Lucy’s voice was hoarse.
     The tender spot on Will’s forehead started to throb. He touched it.
     “Did they hit you?” Lucy asked.
     “No. I guess I fainted. Hit my head on the table.”
     Neither of them spoke. Outside the rain-sheeted windows, flat dirty white clouds were braced motionless against the bowl of the sky.
     Will went in the kitchen and came out with a tray of crackers and a round of Gouda. A bottle of wine was tucked under his arm. He set the tray down and held up the bottle, “Would you like a glass?”
     “No thanks. Actually, I’m not really hungry.” But she picked up a cracker and sliced off a piece of cheese.
     Will went back to the kitchen to retrieve a wine glass for himself. He gazed out the narrow kitchen window onto the street below. A man in a raincoat stood under the second story overhang in front of the tavern across the street. The man was looking up at Will and, even with the distance of space and the veil of rain, he recognized Sgt. DeChris. To Lucy he said, “Are you sure you won’t have something to drink? Water, tea, coffee. I hate to drink alone.”
     “Water’s fine.”
     “The cops said there was a door,” Will said as he sat back down across from Lucy.
     “What?”
     “A door. A heavy door on the tower. DeChris said that it kept the fire from entering the room, but there was no door.”
     “Sometimes, they say things like that. They were trying to trip you up, to get you to disagree with them. It would indicate that you had been there at Bartlett House,” Lucy said.
     By the time the cheese and crackers were gone and Will was halfway into the bottle of wine, the rain had stopped. Lucy stood up to go. “You need to get some sleep, Will. You’re exhausted. But, I’ll stay and keep you company for a while if you don’t feel like being alone.”
     “I don’t feel like being alone, but I don’t think that is something that you can do anything about. I’ll be fine,” Will said. “You should go home.”
     When Lucy was gone, the questions flooded in. Who killed Emmy? Do the police really think I killed her? He poured another glass of wine. What would Zoe be thinking about him? Did she know? Had her mother called her? Zoe would be worried about him, wouldn’t she? He wanted to hear her tell him that she loved him no matter what, that he was her daddy and nothing, nobody could keep her from loving him. The last time Zoe had said that, she was eleven years old, balancing on the edge of puberty, still running faster than all the boys. Her parents’ divorce and adolescence had hit Zoe at just about the same time and she had never looked at him with anything but reproach since then.
     Will picked up the phone and began to punch the numbers of her Vermont exchange. “Hello.” Her voice was muffled, sleepy. It was midnight in Vermont.
     Will gently laid the receiver in its cradle.

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