Lawhon / THE WIFE, THE MAID, AND THE MISTRESS
Club Abbey, Greenwich Village, August 6, 1969
WE BEGIN IN A BAR. We will end here as well but that is more than you need to know at the moment. For now, a woman sits in a corner booth waiting to give her confession. But her party is late, and without an audience she looks small and alone, like an invalid in an over-sized church pew. It’s not so easy for her, this truth telling, and she strains against it. A single strand of pearls—brittle and yellowed with age—rests against the flat plane of her chest. She rolls them between her fingers as though counting the beads on a rosary. Stella Crater has avoided this confession for thirty-nine years. The same number of years she has been coming to this bar.
Not long ago this meeting would have been a spectacle, splashed across the headlines of every paper in New York: Wife of Missing Judge Meets with Lead Investigator, Tells All!
But the days of front-page spreads, interviews, and accusations are over, filed away in some distant archive. Tonight her stage is empty.
Stella looks at her watch. Nine-fifteen.
Club Abbey was once a speakeasy during the Jazz age, and is now another relic in Greenwich Village, peddling its former glory through the tourist guides. It sits one floor below street level, dark and subdued. Scuffed pine floors. Black and white photos line the walls. An aging jukebox has long since replaced the jazz quartet. The only remnant is Stan, the bartender. He was fifteen when hired by notorious gangster Owney Madden to sweep the floors at closing. Owney took a liking to the kid, as did the showgirls, and Stan’s been behind the bar ever since. He’s never missed Stella’s ritual. His part is small, but he plays it well.
Two lowball glasses. Twelve cubes of ice split between them. Crown Royal on the rocks. Stan arranges napkins on her table and sets the glasses down. Her eyes are slick with a watery film—the harbinger of age and death.
“Good to see you again, Mrs. Crater.”
Stella swats him away with an emaciated hand and he hangs back to watch, drying glasses with a dishtowel. It’s the same thing every year: she sits alone in her booth for a few minutes and then he brings the drinks. Straight whiskey, the way her husband liked it. She’ll raise one glass, saluting the empty place across from her, and say, “Good luck, Joe, wherever you are.” Stella will take her time with the drink, letting it burn, drawing out the moment until there’s nothing left in her glass. That is when she’ll rise and walk out, leaving the other drink untouched.
Except tonight she does none of these things.
Fifteen minutes she sits there, rubbing the rim of her glass. Stan has no script for what to do next and he stares at her, confused. He doesn’t see the door swing open or the older gentleman enter. Doesn’t see the trench coat or the faded gray fedora. Sees none of it until Detective Jude Simon slides into the booth across from Stella.
She lays her palm on the table, inches from a pack of cigarettes, and sits up straighter. The booth is hard against her back, walnut planks pressing against the knobs of her spine. “You’re late.”
“Stella.” Jude touches the brim of his hat in greeting. He takes stock of her shriveled body. Tips his head to the side.
“It’s been years.”
“You were here the first time, makes sense that you’d be here the last.” Stella lifts her glass and takes a sip of whiskey. Shudders. “Call it a deathbed confession.”
Jude surveys the room through the weary smoke. The regular Thursday night crowd, a few women, mostly men are scattered around in groups of twos and threes drinking longnecks and griping about the stock market. “This isn’t exactly a church and I’m not much of a priest,” he says.
“Priest. Detective. What’s the difference? You both love a good confession.”
His shoulders twitch—a doubter’s shrug. “I’m retired.”
Stella pulls a cigarette from the pack and props it between her lips. She looks at him, expectant.
He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a tarnished silver lighter. Something like a smile crosses his face and then melts away. He stares at it for a moment, cupped there in his palm before striking it with his thumb. Jude used to be handsome, decades ago when Stella first met him, and the traces are still there in the square line of his jaw and the steel-blue eyes. But now he looks tired and sad. A bit wilted. It takes three tries before a weak flame erupts from the lighter. Perhaps his hand trembles as he holds it toward her or it could be a trick of the light.
Stella tips her cigarette into the flame and the end glows orange. “You would be here tonight even if I hadn’t asked you to come.” Her eyes shift toward the bar where Stan pretends not to eavesdrop. “You have your sources.”
“Maybe.” Jude hangs his fedora on a peg beside the booth and pulls a pad and pen from inside his coat pocket. He waits for her to speak.
Stella lured him here with the promise of a story—the real version this time. He has been like a duck after breadcrumbs for thirty-nine years. Pecking. Relentless. Gobbling up every scrap she leaves for him. Yet the truth is not something she will rush tonight. He will get it one morsel at a time.
Stella Crater picked her poison a long time ago—unfiltered Camels—and she takes a long drag now, sizing up her pet duck. Her cheeks collapse into the sharp angles of her face and she holds the smoke in her lungs for a long moment before blowing it from between her teeth. Oh, she’ll tell Detective Simon a story all right.Chapter One
Belgrade Lakes, Maine, Saturday, August 2, 1930
Stella slept with the windows thrown open that summer, a breeze blowing back the curtains. The sounds of nature lulled her to sleep: frogs croaking in the shallow water beneath her window, the hum of a dragonfly outside the rusted screen, the call of a loon across the lake. She lay there, with one arm thrown across her face in resistance to the burgeoning sunlight, when she heard the Cadillac crunch up the long gravel driveway.
Stella sat up and threw her legs over the edge of the bed, toes resting against the cool floorboards. She pushed a tangle of pale curls away from her eyes with a fine-boned hand. Yawned. Then grabbed a blue cotton shift from the floor and pulled it over her tan shoulders. She hadn’t expected her husband to come—hadn’t wanted him to—but there was no mistaking the familiar rumble of that engine. She went out to meet him wearing yesterday’s dress and a contrived grin.
Joseph Crater leaned out the open window and drew her in for a kiss. “Drove all night. We beat the Bar Harbor Express by an hour!” He clapped their chauffeur on the back. “We’ll have to paint a racing stripe down the side of this old thing.”
Stella pulled the car door open and saw two things at once: he’d brought her flowers—white peonies, her favorite—and he wasn’t wearing his wedding band. Again. The sight of that naked finger stripped the grin from her face.
Joe climbed out and reached for her with one arm, but she took a small step backward and looked at his pants pocket. The imprint of his ring pressed round against his cotton trousers. The question that surfaced was not the one she really wanted to ask. “Did you have a pleasant trip?”
“Where did you go?”
Joe’s answer was cautious. “Atlantic City. With William Klein.”
Her voice was even, almost carefree. “Just the two of you?” Joe hesitated long enough for her to rephrase the question. “Were you and William alone?”
He glanced at Fred Kahler, stiff behind the wheel, eyes downcast, and responded with a single sharp word. “Stell.”
It took a moment to find her breath. All that fresh air and she couldn’t pull a stitch of it into her lungs. “Must you be so flagrant about it?”
“We’ll talk about this later.”
Stella heard the warning in his voice, but didn’t care. She rose up onto the balls of her feet, the gravel digging into her bare skin, as anger ripped through her voice. “We have nothing to talk about!”
His eyes went small and dark.
Stella grabbed the car door and, with a rage that startled them both, slammed it shut, crushing Joe’s hand in the frame. She heard the crunch before he screamed, and when he yanked his hand away, two fingers were bloody and mangled.
Stella waited for Joe on the deck of the Salt House. It was Belgrade Lakes’ only fine-dining establishment, and they’d been late, thanks to his difficulty dressing with one hand. She had refused to help him.
Joe hadn’t yelled at her after the incident. Hadn’t called her names or lifted a hand to strike her. All he said was, “I’ll need your help with this mess.” Almost polite. Then he soaked his hand in the kitchen sink and waited for her to gather ointment and gauze. She had wrapped the bandage tighter than necessary, angered anew by his cavalier attitude and the way he expected her to accept that a man of his position would have a mistress. As though some skirt on Broadway was the same thing as a membership in the City Club.
By the time they arrived at the restaurant, he’d created a plausible fiction for his injury. “Had a beastly run-in with a Studebaker,” Joe explained to their waiter, wiggling his fingers for effect. “Damn thing tried to eat my hand for lunch.” And then, shortly after being seated, he excused himself to make a phone call.
Stella ordered their meal from a menu of summer fare: grilled fish, steaks, roasted vegetables, and fruit. A pleasant breeze rolled off the lake, rocking the Chinese lanterns that were strung around the deck. The red-and-yellow globes sent dancing spheres of amber across the linen tablecloths. Only a handful of the tables were occupied, and the diners leaned close over the candles, lost in conversation or in silence as they enjoyed the view. The longer she waited for Joe to return, the more they sent sympathetic glances her way.
The meal arrived with wine and bread, and Stella shifted candles and silverware to make room for the ample dinner. She waited until their server departed with his tray before taking a long drink of merlot. Steam rose from the pan-seared trout with lemon-caper sauce on her plate, and she wondered what sort of mood Joe would be in when he finished his call.
Minutes later, the door banged open on loose hinges, and Stella forced a smile as Joe strode toward the table, shoulders rounded forward like an ox. It was a look Stella knew well. Fury and determination and arrogance.
He yanked his chair away from the table with his good hand. “I’m leaving in the morning.”
“I have to go back to the city tomorrow. Straighten a few things out. I’ll be back on Thursday, in plenty of time for your birthday.”
“Don’t snivel. It doesn’t become you.” Joe unfolded the crisp black napkin and spread it over his lap. “You shouldn’t have waited. Food’s getting cold.”
Stella stayed in bed when Joe pushed back the covers at six the next morning. She stayed there while he bathed—the water turning on with a groan of rusted pipes—and when his toothbrush tapped against the sink. Stella stayed curled around her pillow when he rattled through the dresser and yanked his clothes from the closet. Didn’t move when he nudged her shoulder or when he cursed or when he brushed dry lips against her temple—a rote farewell—his freshly shaved chin rubbing against her cheek. Not until she heard his footsteps on the stairs did she open her eyes. And only when the Cadillac roared to life outside did she sit up. Four steps brought her to the window. She wiped his kiss from her temple. “Goodbye.”
The last Stella Crater ever saw of her husband was a glimpse of his shirt collar through the rear window as Fred eased the Cadillac down the gravel driveway.
Copyright © 2014 by Ariel Lawhon. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.