Whatever Doesn't Kill You

The sign above the door said "MOVING ON." Emma Howe wished that were true, that she were free to move on to lunch, instead of embarking upon another sure-to-be futile interview.

This was the sixth such interview and so far Emma had learned nothing useful except that nobody actually had known—or cared about not knowing—the accused. This was, she thought, a record of some sort. Never in her experience had so much energy and breath been expended for such pitiable results.

And she had tried because this case felt different from most. Emma's reputation was based on going the distance, doing solid work. She believed that everyone was entitled to the best possible defense, but that didn't mean she believed in the innocence of 99 percent of the accused she helped.

She didn't believe in Gavin Riddock's innocence, either. She thought he'd killed his best friend, Tracy Lester, in a fit of anger or confusion. She didn't know his motives, and she feared he didn't, either. From everything she'd read about him and the case, and from the interviews she'd already completed, it was clear that nobody really knew the twenty-two-year-old young man.

Gavin was different; robbed of oxygen during delivery, he was mentally slow. Because of that or because of his sense of being different, he was a shy, somewhat withdrawn loner who'd never found a comfortable place for himself.

He couldn't explain himself clearly, couldn't defend himself, and was even more withdrawn, in deep mourning for his lost friend, whether or not he'd killed her. And that terrible image was what stayed with Emma. Not that she had suddenly become a sentimental fool, but still, it bothered her to imagine him shackled, although she knew he wasn't physically bound except by his own neurological and emotional ropes. And she knew his shackles were a life sentence, no matter what the courts ultimately said.

Which left it up to Emma to find the words that would explain Gavin Riddock, and so far, she'd found not a one. She pushed open the door of MOVING ON and took a deep breath.

Fourteen minutes later, when she checked her watch, she was hungrier than ever but no closer to the elusive truth of Gavin Riddock's identity or guilt.

"This is ridiculous," the young woman she'd been interviewing—or attempting to—said. "I don't know anything about that murder, or about Gavin Riddock. Not anything real. I don't want any PI investigating me."

Emma resisted the impulse to check her watch again. All she'd know if she did was how much more time she'd wasted. "I'm not investigating you," she said. "I'm trying to get a better sense of Gavin and Tracy, and you may know more than you think you do."

Marlena Pugh tossed her platinum hair. Emma didn't pay much attention to styles, but Marlena's seemed to belong on an old movie reel. Her parents may have dreamed up a young Dietrich, but the girl was modeling herself after Monroe, with her lemon-candy, polka dot dress, red lips and high-heeled shoes. Why would anyone want to replay the uncomfortable fifties, she wondered.

But Monroe herself—even in her current dead state—would have provided the same amount of information as Marlena Pugh had. The girl confused looking catatonic with looking sultry.

Emma reminded herself that she was being paid for this boredom. That in fact, the less obliging the Marlenas of the world were, the slower their minds moved, the more hours Emma could bill to the lawyer.

The knowledge did not improve her mood. She thought she was on the verge of coming down with something, felt it stalking her, trying to lay a claim. She'd felt too young for a flu shot at fifty-five—a possible mistake.

So now she'd be sick, her work undone and her business—already shaky because of the new, cheap searches available on the Internet—collapsing altogether. She'd wind up on a freeway exit, holding up a cardboard sign, "will sleuth for food," all because Marlena couldn't or wouldn't think.

"This isn't an investigation in the sense that we aren't looking for facts about the crime." Emma was positive she'd said this already. "We're preparing Gavin's defense, and in order to present a clearer picture of who he was, we need to find out more than we know." Scratch Marlena, even if the girl could prove she had a pulse. Emma had to wind this down, beat a quick and efficient retreat. "Maybe something you say will lead to someone else who knows something."

In whose dreams? When a mentally-challenged young man is found with a murdered friend, her blood all over him, it's "only" circumstantial, but how much more would a jury want? You didn't need a motive when the accused was considered less than normal.

If the accused's parents hadn't been wealthy, the case would be over by now, open and shut, and Emma wouldn't be cultivating germs in a nondescript moving company's office, squeezed next to a desk, her chair banked by flattened cardboard boxes. She wouldn't be the day's entertainment for apathetic Marlena, and for a co-worker, who was trying not to snoop too obviously as she counted inventory a few steps away.

If Gavin's family hadn't been swathed in assets, Emma also wouldn't be listening to her own stomach growl as she watched Marlena pick at a fragrant take-out burger with still more fragrant fries. Was it feed a cold and starve a fever or the other way around? And which was it for flu? Either way, she was hungry.

"Couldn't go to lunch today," Marlena had said sullenly. "Because of you."

A real charmer, this girl. Emma put on her Granny Em face, which she wore only as needed as a form of makeup, or disguise.

Emma was indeed a grandmother, but not a Granny Em, that harmless, soft, ignorable, fluffy-minded sweet old thing. This was the face people expected, the acceptable middle-aged woman. The un-crone. The not-possibly-a-witch old lady. Powerless.

"There's nothing you can say that's wrong, and no reason I should make you nervous," she said sweetly.

Apparently, Granny Em worked even on Marlena. Her brow uncrinkled, and she smiled back tentatively. When she spoke, it was more gently than before, and even a shade less sullenly. But it was still without the hint of an operating intelligence. "But Gavin Riddock killed Tracy, didn't he? I mean I read the papers. So what's to ask?"

"Help him get the best possible defense." Emma skirted the question. Innocent till proven, she silently repeated, even when there's blood on the hands. Not as if he'd confessed. The pathetic boy-man couldn't say, really, if he'd done it or not. Emma tried a different path. "Did you know Tracy Lester?" Emma asked.

"Know her?" Marlena shook the pale blonde hair again. "I met her. She was in here now and then—worked across the street at the Travel Agency. We talked. So I couldn't say I knew her, but I knew who she was. We were in a group together for a little while, that's pretty much it. You get the difference, right?"

It amused Emma how idiots always assumed their listeners were as stupid as they were, thereby proving they were idiots. "What brought her over here?" Emma asked.

Marlena shrugged. "She was moving, I think. Is that right, Heather?"

The other worker looked startled, then nodded.

"Moving herself. People do that, you know. People who are moving themselves still need boxes and the supermarkets, they cut them right up for recycling. Used to be you could get them there, but not anymore."

Emma made note of this overlooked modern heartache. "Was that the only time she was over here?"

She shook her head, then flicked the wave of platinum hair that nearly obscured one eye. "She knew my boss, Mr. Vincent. Came over to talk to him a couple times. That's how I knew her. Her and me, we said hello and all. Enough to give me the creeps when I read about her." She shuddered. "Right in Blackie's Pasture, by the horse statue. I mean jeez! There's always kids playing around there, joggers, bikers..."

Tracy Lester's bludgeoned body had been found at dawn near the Tiburon bike path, on public land named for a swaybacked horse whose pasture it had once been. Blackie's neatly fenced in gravesite was nearby, and a statue of the saggy horse, was in the center of the field. Gavin Riddock found Tracy Lester at Blackie's base just after dawn on a winter morning and the bloodstained Gavin was found in turn by a jogger. The murder weapon, however, had never been found and probably wouldn't, the theory being that it had been a rock, later tossed into Richardson Bay, a few steps away.

Tracy Lester's murder was the second in the history of the quiet town of Tiburon,, and the first had been an open and shut family dispute. This one seemed equally obvious, but unlike the first murder, in which a son had killed his father, this time, the accused had money. Therefore, Emma was fully employed.

"All the same, I don't want to get involved," Marlena said. "I mean, a murder, uck!" She shuddered dramatically, excessively. "I could not be a witness."

"Oh, please," Emma said. "This isn't a gangland hit. You aren't in danger. I'm asking for what you know about Gavin Riddock, human being."

"Nothing. That's what I know. I don't even know why you're here," Marlena said. "Did he give you my name?" She glanced at Heather, the other girl in the office, her eyes wide, her jaw slightly open, making sure her incredulity was acknowledged. In fact, Emma thought, she was playing this interview as like a bad actress auditioning for a role.

"Tell me about Gavin." Emma wondered whether the lawyer on the case had checked out the names his client had given him.

"What's to say? He came here once to get cartons. Come to think of it, it was around when Tracy was moving, so maybe he was helping her. I don't know. We talked maybe a little so one thing I know is that it isn't easy talking to him. But business was slow that day so I wasn't in any rush."

As if business was ever not slow here. As if troops of people suddenly wanted to move their household with a significantly unimpressive looking organization when there were so many other options nearby. Emma considered the stacks of flattened packing cases. The other girl, still pretending to be busy, turned away. "You worked together against animal testing, didn't you?"

Gavin had, in fact, listed Marlena as a friend. This, even more than Gavin's blighted life made Emma sorry for him.

Emma needed specifics. She didn't know whether Gavin Riddock had been part of the more violent aspects of the animal rights movement, whether he himself had ever been violent, whether there was a history, a side to him that she'd better unearth before the prosecution did.

Marlena blinked, chewed a fry, examined her manicure—the appearance of her ring fingernail seemed to trouble her—and finally answered, sounding as if speech exhausted her. "Not work together exactly. We just both belonged. Well, I belonged for a little while. Tracy said CoXistence was cool. New people to meet." Marlena shrugged with world-weariness. "Then, like she dropped out. So did I. Didn't meet anybody and it was boring."

"What did that group do?"

She shrugged. "'All things animal.' That's their motto. Anything bad for any animals—except humans—they do something about it. Gavin likes animals. Likes them better than people, he said."

"Did he say why?"

Did Emma care why? She liked most animals better than most people, too. Give her a comfy dog any day over Marlena. Dogs didn't dawdle and put you into afternoon commute hell, which slow Marlena was doing. Emma's pulse accelerated at the thought of sitting in exhaust fumes for the better part of an hour, with nothing to show for her day except multiplying flu microbes.

"Animals weren't afraid of Gavin." Marlena waved at the air, red nails physically searching for words. "That's why he liked them."

Amazing. She'd just said something semi-insightful.

"People," the girl said. "Well, he's different. That can be scary. He isn't scary, I don't think. But like people think he is because sometimes the things he says—they're weird. But it's not like he does bad things. Animals don't worry about words that way."

Had his parents, or at least his mother, not been both protective and enormously wealthy, Gavin might be living on the streets now. Instead, he lived in a "cottage" in Belvedere—a million and a half dollars worth of small shingled home on the bay, and he lived there alone, with daily companionship from a woman who was half housekeeper and half nurse.

Gavin kept a low profile. He had no records of any association with violence.

"Animals trust him," Marlena said. "He volunteers—or he did, at the place in the hills where they rescue seals and all?"

"The Marine Mammal Center?"

Marlena shrugged and nodded at the same time. Emma wondered if she voted, or ever made a clear choice. "Those are wild animals," Marlena said. "And they trust him, too."

"Maybe 'cause they're sick," the girl with the boxes suddenly said.

Marlena glared at her. She in turn twisted her face away so vigorously, her hair billowed, as if in a wind.

Marlena settled back down, picked up another fry, bit it, and sighed. "That's all I know. Now you know it, too. I went to one meeting, I swear, and it was a nothing and that was it for me."

"Was Tracy Lester at that meeting, too?"

Marlena did her shoulder and head shimmy. Maybe yes, maybe no. "Gavin brought her in. He was the animal lover. She was like, kind of a fake, all excited suddenly about doing something. That's what she said, she had to 'do something'. So, like I had to do something too, like join that stupid group. And then she quit." Marlena rolled her eyes to over-express her disdain for the dead girl's fleeting enthusiasms.

"All I can sanely hope for is to throw a little sand in the jury's eyes," Gavin's lawyer, Michael Specht, had said. "Create doubt. De-monsterize people who are different just because they're different. The guy's a gentle creature, but it's hard finding somebody who believes that. You have to find that person. And if you stumble across anybody else with any kind of motive against Tracy Lester, then blessings on your head."

So with Emma's help, they would counterbalance the newspapers, which were behaving as if Gavin and others whose IQs and personalities weren't smack dab in the middle of the norm were time bombs planted all over Marin County. Hercules' job description sounded easier to her.

Marlena ate the last of her french fries, then slowly folded the grease-stained paper that had cradled them before putting the resulting square in her wastepaperbasket. She glanced at the clock, then picked at the hamburger's roll. One of Emma's kids had gone through a phase like that, eating whatever was on the plate in sequence. All of one food group gone, then the next begun. But Emma's kid had finished that phase by age nine.

"Boring," Marlena said.

"Excuse me?" Emma was boring the world's most boring young woman?

"The meeting was boring. I didn't go back."

Perhaps Gavin hadn't given Marlena's name at all. Emma hoped that was the case, that instead, Michael Specht had copied a list of all the people CoXistence claimed as members and sent Emma chasing after them.

Marlena stared at Emma with barely a flicker of life in her eyes. Emma didn't even know what the girl did in this pitiable office. Surely nobody had hired her to interact with customers.

She felt sick. And sick and tired of this. She wanted to go home and take aspirin and drink brandy until she killed all the flu bugs while she watched the most stupid TV show she could find.

"It's like this," Marlena said. She possibly meant her tone to be civil, but she wasn't good at it.

Emma thought with envy of her trainee, Billie August, sitting in comfort in front of the computer, conducting lovely on-line background searches while she, poor Emma, endured this idiot. From now on, Billie could do the Riddock interviews and Emma could sit in peace with a cup of good coffee—and food when she was hungry—letting the computer do the legwork. No traffic snarls, no tedious young women.

It would be good practice for Billie, anyway. She hadn't gone out on interviews of this sort yet. Emma had wanted to give her more time, let her get her legs. She'd only been at the agency a few months.

Now, Emma felt that a few months were quite enough. Surely Billie—surely anybody—was quite capable of talking to people who said nothing back in return.

"It's like what?" Emma prompted.

"I only meant," Marlena said, rolling her eyes. "I mean isn't it obvious? I don't know anything."

It was obvious. She knew nothing and neither had the five other people Emma had interviewed. From now on, let Billie face the know-nothings. They'd be a good match.

 

© Gillian Roberts.