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by Delphine Hirsh
When a thumb, index finger, and ear were found in the canyon at the end of their block, Elspeth did not initially consider her husband Jonah a suspect. It was only after the detective came by that she began to feel uneasy.
Most people who came to their house stood at the gate by the street and shouted “Hello!,” intimidated by their barking dogs. But not the detective. He came straight to their front door. Maybe he was reassured by the fact that he was wearing a gun under his navy suit jacket. Or maybe he just had a way with dogs. He patted their bigger dog, a pit mix, absentmindedly while he asked his questions. Elspeth answered each question as thoroughly as she could. She wished she had more to contribute. And she agreed, of course, to let the detective’s uniformed colleagues go through their garbage bins.
That night, Elspeth couldn’t wait to tell Jonah about the detective’s visit. It was a fizzy change from the daily reports on kids’ activities, or her work writing copy for movie trailers, which was not even of much interest to her. But as she was recounting her exchange with Detective Brandon Espinoza, she started to feel strange.
“He asked if we heard anything unusual the night before last.”
“What did you tell him?”
“I said that we hadn’t. Then he asked if we’d seen anyone new hanging around recently.”
“What did you say?”
“I said we hadn’t, because we haven’t.”
“What else did he ask?”
“He asked what time we got home that night.”
“He did? What did you tell him?”
“I said that I was home the whole night and that you got home from a work dinner around 11pm.”
“Did he ask who I was out with?”
“Okay. What else did he want to know?”
“He asked if the police could go through our garbage bins, and I said they could.”
“Did they have a warrant or something?”
“Did they go through the bins?”
“I think so.”
“Was that it?”
“For now. He left his card.”
Did Jonah not realize that their exchange sounded straight out of Dial Eight for Murder? And that he was clearly playing the role of the anxious and guilty party? Then Jonah poured himself a big drink. Now, there was nothing special about that but he spilled a few ice cubes onto the floor, which slid under the stove, and he barked, “Shit.” Then he threw the empty wine bottle in the trash roughly and closed the drawer for the recycling a little too hard so that it bounced halfway open again.
Before the exchange with her husband, Elspeth had had a surprising reaction to the discovery of body parts in the canyon at the end of her street: She was thrilled! Something had happened. She hadn’t been conscious that she’d been waiting for something to happen. But she knew it just as soon as the policeman wearing Invisalign braces turned her away on her run into the canyon two mornings ago, squad cars parked willy-nilly as if they’d been placed there by a toddler. Yes, she’d been waiting for something, anything, to happen for years, unsure what form it would take. And here it was.
She wasn’t unfamiliar with the feeling of waiting for something to happen. When she was younger, she was almost always the last person to leave a party, for that reason. She’d lived in a denser city then, a city that felt—though it wasn’t true—as if it were the center of the world. Which meant that even at a mid-size gathering on the roof of one of the tens of thousands of buildings, the thing that might happen could still be huge. It could be personal or…it could have international implications. So she waited, smoking, drinking, watching.
Sometimes things did happen. A woman might throw a drink into the face of a man who had mistreated her. Sometimes Elspeth was that woman. Or a revelation: someone had had sex with someone unexpected or someone had been fired or was moving. Or sometimes, someone was in love with someone who wasn’t in love with him or her. The whole night would be spent looking for a sign that possibly love would be requited. Charged hours spent observing, circling, until the object of affection left—occasionally with a despised third party—and then there would be no point to anything. The something that was going to happen was over, was not going to happen. But even in it’s not happening, something had happened. Feelings had been felt, deeply. She’d been that woman, alone, feeling deeply many times, though sometimes she’d been with friends.
What she had really been waiting for was adventure: a suitcase that contained a stolen treasure/dangerous weapon/exotic animal that would pit her against forces of evil but would ally her with a dashing archeologist/spy/fish & wildlife agent with dark secrets of his own. Or some other critical race against time in which her (nonexistent) martial arts skills and (also nonexistent) knack for decrypting code would lead her to save the world (or the city—it was a very big city after all) and impress a ruggedly handsome but jaded expert, or just a ruggedly handsome (initially reluctant but eventually heroic) everyman. Or any kind of situation in which she would be tapped for a key (probably undercover) role in a (hopefully international) web of intrigue that would end successfully (though with requisite cynicism) and in someplace scenic, likely reuniting her with an unrequited love who would realize what a fool he’d been, that he’d loved her all along.
So sometimes things had happened but nothing on the scale that she’d hoped. Though she had been, at one point, reunited with an unrequited love and it had been thrilling, but now he was her husband. These days, the only thing she wondered when entering a party was whether the hors d’oeuvres would be any good. She often wasn’t even one of the last people to leave. She was almost certain that she would never be tapped for any international missions, and even if she were, who would know the passwords to their online accounts or where her daughter’s ballet tights were?
Yes, she felt a charge when the human bits were discovered so close by. This was it. She knew it. She hummed with sensory alertness. Though her reaction was not shared by her neighbors. Their kids played in that park! Was the neighborhood unsafe?! One young mother started blubbering at the mailbox. What a twit! Didn’t she realize that they were probably statistically safer now than they had been before? The likelihood that another crime of that nature—or any other serious nature—would happen anytime soon in the same spot was infinitesimal. Did no one else feel the sweet, sweet rush that Elspeth did?
The following day, at zumba class, as she twerked with a new intensity, Elspeth noticed that for the third day in a row Turquoise Scrunchie, or TS for short, was AWOL. It was odd. In the past two years, TS had never missed a class. She’d been right there front and center, and territorial too. Once when TS’d come back from a dart to the bathroom, she’d forced the other women to back out of her spot in a hostile manner, displaying questionable zumba etiquette. But despite this, and TS’s bony ass and prominent elbows, both of which injected a trace of stiffness into her movements, Elspeth admired her. TS was a zumba machine. It was as if she knew new routines before Carlos, the instructor, had even demonstrated them. She never missed a step. Also, she had the cardio stamina of a woman half her age, which was to say half of Elspeth’s age too. And she could do some of the saucier moves damn near perfectly, if not as sensually as Carlos, but he was untouchable, in a completely different stratosphere of zumba, even when compared to other instructors. You could probably spark a match off his skin, his dance was so smoldering.
After class, Elspeth asked Carlos if he knew what was going on with TS, who, she discovered, was actually named Deborah. He did not. Nor did any of the other women.
Elspeth forgot about TS’s disappearance for two reasons.
One, she was called in to rewrite the copy for a trailer of a movie about a father and son who both had terminal cancer. The rewrite was narrow. The trailer would now focus on a single shot in which a hot female extra walked across the frame. Apparently, the movie wasn’t testing well. News flash: double terminal cancer was depressing. Drew, the ten-years-her-junior trailer house founder, even rolled his jaded eyes. He appeared tired, and his shirt wasn’t as self-consciously half-tucked in as usual. His wife had recently had a baby. Elspeth was pleased. No longer would he be the frat-boy-turned-hipster who had left her in the wind during a meeting with a bunch of male studio executives, allowing her to forcefully make what she thought were excellent points to a rapt audience while breast milk was causing bigger and bigger circle-stains on her shirt. He had just sat there, silent, his eyes like saucers, his gaze on her chest, like the rest of them. What a dope.
Then, as Elspeth arrived home to write the cancer out of the cancer movie, Ginger, once prominent in commercials for beer and vaginal cream, ran toward Elspeth’s car, dragging her mid-shit Chihuahua. The thumb, the ear and the index finger belonged to a woman! How horrible! The worst! As if a man losing some extremities would have been just fine, maybe a good thing. Did violence against women have to be extra titillating? After all, it was so much more common. Still, Elspeth was interested. Any news was news.
After submitting her copy, picking up the kids, driving them to and fro, refueling the car, ordering school yearbooks, transferring more money into their checking account from their line of credit, finding a missing soccer uniform sock, removing a splinter, conducting a lice check, cooking chicken marsala and setting the table, Elspeth had a solid seventeen minutes before dinner to reflect on the day. She sniffed at the shallot tang on her fingertips.
Could TS be the woman whose pieces had been found in the park? It was crazy, of course, to make that leap just because she’d stopped coming to zumba for a few days. Maybe TS had moved. Or been in a car accident. Or been sidelined by breast cancer, as had happened a few times in the past two years to other classmates. Or had a new job, which had a new schedule. Or had just gone on vacation as plenty of their classmates did all the time. There were so many reasonable explanations that did not involve her being the canyon victim.
Then it hit Elspeth like a slap. Only an ear and two fingers had been found. It was possible that the owner of those parts was still alive. Not a murder victim, as Elspeth had assumed. How had she just completely overlooked that possibility? She dug up Detective Espinoza’s business card and dialed his number. He answered just the way that she’d hoped he would with a curt “Espinoza.” She was on the phone with him when Jonah came into the kitchen.
“So you think she’s dead?” said Elspeth.
Jonah, who had been inspecting the dinner on the stove, glanced sharply at her.
“I don’t know why. I just thought of it. It upset me that she might still be alive, maybe being tortured somewhere,” Elspeth whispered, moving away from the kitchen, suddenly wanting to get away from Jonah.
But Jonah followed her.
“Not that being dead would be better, of course,” said Elspeth, then she added, “Was she white? No reason. Just curious. She was. Okay, I’ll let you know if I think of anything.”
She and the detective said good night. She didn’t mention TS because it was ludicrous and she didn’t want to appear like a ninny to Detective Espinoza. Jonah blocked her reentry into the kitchen. It wasn’t aggressive, he was just creating a pause to talk to her, but Elspeth felt something else, something menacing.
“What was that?” he asked. “Why are you dragging us into this thing further? Now they are going to think we’re involved.”
Elspeth couldn’t believe it. Did he not see how he was behaving?
“No, they’re not. I just had a question for the detective. It occurred to me that the person from the canyon might not be dead. I wanted to check. That’s all.”
“Well, is she or isn’t she?”
“How did you know it was a she?”
“You just said it was a she when you were on the phone,” said Jonah letting her pass and turning himself toward the refrigerator to grab a cold bottle of pinot grigio. Elspeth couldn’t see his face. Had he really overheard her, or did he already know? She jumped when the wine bottle smashed onto the floor, but Jonah didn’t notice. He was already picking up the pieces.
That night in bed, after an unsatisfying drought-minded quarter-bath, Elspeth watched the outline of Jonah’s body rise and fall as he slept. Would he be so stupid as to leave his victim’s parts so close to their house, scattered for a dog to find and drop into its dog walker’s palm like a twig? But Jonah didn’t always focus on mysteries and procedurals when they watched them. She really hoped he’d focused enough not to make this kind of rookie mistake.
The bigger question was: could Jonah be a killer? And did he have a connection to the dead woman? It was hard to know if he knew the victim because she was, as yet, unidentified. Sure, there were several people Jonah had stated he’d like to kill, clients who’d mistreated or fired him, and Elspeth herself wanted to lay hands on each and every one of them. But actually murdering them? It seemed unlikely. Plus, they were all the kind of people whose disappearance would have raised a public eyebrow. The news would be chock-full of the missing big-time so-and-so.
In the morning, the way Jonah held the bread knife made Elspeth draw a breath sharply.
“What?” asked Jonah, bringing the knife down decisively on a loaf.
“Oh, nothing. I just realized I forgot to fill out a field trip form,” said Elspeth, pulling out lunch boxes with jangly hands.
She was being silly—no, ridiculous. Jonah was no killer. And even if he were, she and the children were in no danger. Actually, Jonah probably did want to kill her on many occasions, but not really. She tried to relax into herself. But then she picked up Jonah’s iPhone to check the weather to determine the best outerwear for the kids, and Jonah snatched it from her hand. He didn’t apologize. He just muttered “work stuff” and left the house.
At zumba, Elspeth was distracted. Jonah did seem jumpy. And TS was absent again. While Elspeth couldn’t help with the actual investigation in the canyon, she decided finding TS was something she had to do. Obviously, it was near impossible—positively insane—that the murder, Jonah’s jumpiness, and TS’s disappearance were related, but she had to be sure.
After bungling her way through class, Elspeth lied to the woman at the makeshift front desk. Elspeth explained that she had bought TS/Deborah a work-out top that TS had admired, and wanted to send it to her since TS hadn’t been in class. She said she had TS’s address from having drinks at her house but not her last name. (Asking for both, or even just the address, would surely seem suspicious). Zumba friendships are so like that, said Elspeth, smiling with lots of teeth. The woman held her hands above her laptop keypad with the deliberation usually reserved for entering nuclear codes. Then she shrugged and clicked away. Deborah…Miller.
Jesus. Couldn’t TS have a more unique name? How long would it take to find the right Deborah (or Debbie!) Miller?
Facebook was a bust. There were so many Deborah/Debbie Millers. And none of the photos that came up looked like TS, though there were several Deborah/Debbie Millers without photos. And then there were several Deborah/Debbie Millers with a photo of children as their profile photo. Unless these tykes had their own Facebook accounts—which was unlikely—their mothers were using their childrens’ photos as their profile photos. It made Elspeth snarl. For fuck’s sake, you are not your kid, your kid is not you, you are not your ability to procreate. Put on some mascara and take a photo of yourself! Jesus.
Elspeth would have to start with the zumba class. How far would someone be willing to drive for Carlos? His greatness could add miles to the radius in which TS might live or work.
By noon, Elspeth had eleven Deborah/Debbie Millers who lived within three miles of Carlos’s zumba class. She printed out the list, snappy with adrenalin, and hit the road.
She started at the places farthest away from her house. She was quickly able to eliminate two Deborah Millers who came to their doors with the wrong faces. Two others weren’t home but by questioning neighbors, Elspeth was able to eliminate them as well. Three others weren’t home and there were no neighbors to be found, so Elspeth would have to come back another time. Another Deborah Miller was alarmed and wouldn’t open the door but she sounded too old. And another Deborah Miller worked as a realtor. Elspeth tracked her down at an open house. The realtor was another wrong Deborah Miller, but Elspeth refueled on some oatmeal raisin cookies and stole two more to bring as a snack for the kids at pickup.
With only an hour left, Elspeth had two remaining Deborah Millers she hadn’t visited yet. The first lived in a Craftsman bungalow at the end of a concrete walkway decorated with flowers and rainbows drawn in multicolored chalk. While she was another wrong woman, this Deborah Miller was curious about the zumba class and asked for the schedule.
The last Deborah-Miller-of-the-day’s house was a large Italian villa, not too far from Elspeth’s house, tucked up on a hill, with a long driveway. The gates were open so Elspeth drove up, got out of the car, and knocked on the stately dark wood door festooned with metalwork. Elspeth heard the sound of someone coming down a staircase. She took a few steps back to avoid being too close to the prospective door answerer. A blurry face peered through a stained glass window, which arched around the door. TS! Elspeth smiled maniacally, waving like a marionette. The door swung open.
Elspeth had expected TS to be surprised to see her or maybe irritated by the invasion of privacy, but TS looked downright furious. Her mouth puckered like an anus.
“What are you doing here?” she hissed, looking over her shoulder. Elspeth shuffled her feet awkwardly and rambled.
“You haven’t been in class so I just wanted to check that you were okay. Which it would appear that you are. It sounds crazy but I thought maybe, well, it’s ridiculous—”
“Does Jonah know you are here?”
“What? You know Jonah?”
“I just didn’t want to see you anymore once I realized.”
“Once you realized what?”
“I’m getting divorced, okay? I’m sorry.”
“What does that have to do with me? Or with Jonah? How do you know him?”
“Don’t you know who I am?”
“You’re in my zumba class. You’re Deborah Miller.”
“I’m Dede Miller.” She paused. “Was Dede Winslow.”
“You’re Jonah’s college girlfriend?”
The two women stared at each other, faces open like pancakes. Elspeth pushed aside a strand of hair that tickled her ear. Had she remembered to apply eyeliner?
“I’m his wife,” said Elspeth.
“I know that.”
“Have you been…,” Elspeth fumbled for the right words, “with my husband?”
“You should talk to Jonah. The kids will be home any minute with the nanny. I don’t want to do this.” Dede stepped back and closed the door.
Ten minutes later, as she arrived at school, Elspeth realized her brow was furrowed and tried to smooth it with the back of her hand.
So something had happened. It just wasn’t what she thought it was. No wonder she’d never been asked to save the world. She was too stupid.
Elspeth had questions: How long had Jonah known that Dede lived in their city and so close? Who had contacted whom? Was contact made before or after Dede realized that her husband was leaving her? Was Dede checking to see if Jonah was available now that she was? Was he? Were they sneaking around or not? Going to dimly lit places in other neighborhoods or just out where they might have run into other people they knew in a totally open, though insensitive, manner? What was it? Clandestine? Not clandestine? An actual affair? An emotional affair? Just a few nostalgic chats? Was Elspeth’s marriage over? In serious trouble? Just experiencing some maybe harmless subterfuge? What?
Jonah insisted that nothing had happened. He’d had dinner with Dede the night the body parts had been dumped in the canyon. He’d been nervous that it would come out in the investigation, especially with Elspeth carrying on like Miss Marple. And he’d met Dede for drinks before on two other occasions. He should have told Elspeth. He was sorry. And it was over. The fact that he’d been out with Dede, leaving his family unprotected while a homicidal maniac visited the canyon, had frightened him back to his senses. He was ashamed. He was sorry. He loved Elspeth, their family, their life.
The next day, Elspeth was tired. It was draining to be devastated. How could she know what was true? How could she trust the information given to her by someone who had lied to her? She wrote a round of revisions on the rewrites on the cancer movie. Drew called to say that they were still too depressing. She wrote some more. A few were even funny. The client loved them.
Ginger had more news. The rest of the body had been found. In an abandoned car far away. A homeless woman, a drifter, maybe a prostitute. Why did the killer leave those bits in the canyon? What did it mean? No one knew.
Elspeth called Detective Espinoza the following week. If no one claimed the body, could she bury it? The detective didn’t press Elspeth. He supposed she could. He gave her a number to call.
Elspeth organized a graveside service for the woman whose thumb, index finger and ear had wound up in the canyon. She’d affixed a sign-up on the canyon gates alerting locals that the service would be happening, in the cemetery that was on the other side of the hill but contiguous with the canyon. Jonah did not say a word about the fact of it or the expense.
Ginger came dressed like a sexy widow, with a short veil and patent leather black stilettos. Other neighbors came too: the dog walker who’d discovered the index finger, an elderly couple Elspeth recognized as the volunteers at the local polling station, a skeletal man she’d often crossed paths with while jogging. The young mother also turned up, and she and her baby cried. Elspeth read a few carefully selected poems and passages, and invited everyone to sing a hymn together at the end, passing out Xerox copies of the words and melody. Afterwards, as they walked back to their car, Jonah reached out to take her hand, and she let him. In the rearview mirror, as they drove away, Elspeth thought she saw Detective Espinoza, watching her go.