Life goes easier without love. The poets would damn this for a lie, but it is true.
I should retreat into hiding. I’m good at it, and I’m safer when no one really knows me. But I want to be here. I want to be with her. Perhaps I can blame my indecision on Paris and its murderous spike of a tower. In Philadelphia, I knew who I was, but only in Philadelphia.
In Brooklyn, my edges blurred so profoundly that only three morning cups of strong dark espresso, brewed the way my strong dark Sicilian father taught me, could bring any of my selves into focus. Amanda, whom I did love, would bring me each cup, her anxious eyes watching to see who would emerge when I came fully awake.
Perhaps it is more accurate to say that most of me loved Amanda. The part of me who is Katrina did not. All these years, Katrina has been as divided as I, and she never knew. There was the physical Katrina, my childhood playmate who stayed in Philadelphia and let herself be ground down by life. And then there was the Katrina who lived inside me, cheek by cheek with Amanda and all the others.
There came a day when it was too painful to have Amanda walking around in the world, doing things that the Amanda in my head would never do. Getting pregnant, for example. When the tension grew too great between Amanda-as-she-was and Amanda-as-she-should-be, I did what had to be done. I retired Amanda, whole and pure, to the Bar For Characters Who’ve Been Deleted From Stories.
Katrina, whom I’ve always loved more than a cousin should love a cousin, has lived in my head for a lifetime. She could have maintained her duality for the rest of our lives, if I’d stayed in Brooklyn, away from the physical Katrina. My return to Philadelphia meant the end of her corporal body.
I couldn’t bear the changes in her, you see, the fine lines around her mouth and eyes, written by financial catastrophe and by grief for the the husband she’d barely had time to know.
I chose a slow poison for Darrell Malfois, dusted over a slice of wedding cake and sprinkled into the big goblets of cheap red wine he downed every week at the DeSantis Sunday dinners. Within a few months, it was done.
Katrina wasn’t even twenty-five when Darrell died, but his passing left an aged sag to her facial skin, and I couldn’t look at her. Her pain was my doing, which should have bothered me but didn’t. The sagging skin, the dull eyes, and the slumped shoulders were the things that bothered me. I couldn’t love her properly when she didn’t look like my image of her, so I had to go. Or I had to kill her. After her husband’s funeral, I fled Katrina, and Philadelphia, too.
In Brooklyn, I found a kind of pale, sickly literary success and I found Amanda, but it’s hard for me to hold onto anything or anyone for long. The light shifts and my memory shivers and then I find myself, once again, barricaded in my room and living solely on food that can be delivered to my door. When it happened this time, I thought that home would make me whole. I told myself that I could live with Katrina’s changed body, if I could be with her soul. I suppose it was always inevitable that Philadelphia and Katrina would see me again.
But-and here’s the joke-I found that my careless, life-loving Katrina was gone. That wild and girlish soul was gone, even when I could see her body standing right in front of me. In her place was a woman who carefully counted out the cost of her dinner, every penny, and then undertipped the wait staff because she made even less than they did. In my valiant cousin’s place was a woman too ground down to free herself from servitude to the institutes of higher education who were wringing her dry. I bore the company of this damaged woman for as long as I could, until I had no choice but to free her and her little dog, too.
Now their bodies lie at the bottom of the Delaware,and Katrina’s essence sips champagne with the other characters I’ve deleted from this world. I don’t give a damn what happened to the dog’s yappy essence.
On a good day, with the right wig and when the light is right, I can look in the mirror and speak in Katrina’s voice, fooling even myself. I can only convince myself for a moment at a time, but I can do it. When it happens, Katrina is with me. So she’s not gone, not really.
Chelsea took a long drag off her cigarette. She leaned against the thigh of the man she very probably loved and wondered who he was. His name wasn’t Ben Travers. That was certain. She didn’t trust much of anything any more-betrayed wives rarely do-but she trusted her own skills as a detective. Travers’ trail consisted almost exclusively of his internet presence as a blogger and late-night commenter on internet discussions that covered an astonishing variety of interests. Even that faint trail petered out at about the five-year mark. There were no photographs, not even on his blog. His only physical presence was in the here and now.
He wasn’t who he said he was, but that didn’t mean he was a killer. Chelsea knew Ben Travers’ mind from the inside out, in a way that was far more intimate than sex. She had been reading his deep thoughts and strong opinions for so long that she was now like a spy who was so good at being a double-agent that she eventually found herself cheering for the wrong team. She wasn’t sure Ben was a murderer and she wasn’t sure that he wasn’t, but she knew that she didn’t want him to be.
Chelsea had exercised the same skill set on Steven Barr, who hadn’t given her much to work with beyond his books and three author photos that were careful to conceal more than they showed. Big, heavy glasses. Eyes that never addressed the camera. A goatee. Hanks of ash blond hair escaping from his pony tail and hanging over his cheekbones. A hand cupping his chin in a writerly pose that covered most of his mouth. And, in every shot, solemn and expressionless brown eyes peering out of a face that managed to be both handsome and nondescript. Perhaps this was the epitome of physical beauty, features so symmetrical as to be completely generic.
In the course of all this detecting, she’d fallen in love with them. Both of them. She loved the detached intelligence of Barr’s books and the shrewd muckraking of Travers’ political screeds. She loved the secrets in Barr’s photographed eyes and she loved the warm reality of Travers’ touch. But Travers was the one who was here. And Barr was the one that she was certain had plotted the murders of five people with poisoned salt. Six, really because she would always believe that the crime lab had fucked up determining Angela Nicholetti’s cause of death. Barr’s books showed a deep and concerted study of poisons, and they told the stories of protagonists who hated athletes with the passion of the man who was once a bullied boy. He knew how to do the killings. He had a motive. The timing worked. It beggared belief that he didn’t mastermind the murders.
She wasn’t sure how he’d delivered the salt packets to his victims when the innkeeper said he’d been holed up in his turret at the times of most of the murders, but she had a suspicion that she didn’t like much. Early on, she had set aside the idea that Ben Travers had been Steven Barr’s accomplice. The Ben Travers she knew was too brash to do the work for or share the glory with anyone but himself. The only way she could imagine Steven Barr masterminding murders carried out by Ben Travers would be if the two men were one and the same. Based on the flimsy evidence she possessed, she just wasn’t sure.
Like most detectives, Chelsea was both aided and hindered by an extreme rationality, and she had rationalized her way into this solution to her dilemma: It didn’t matter to her if Travers wasn’t who he said he was, just as long as he wasn’t Barr. If he was covering up a dark past that didn’t involve her, fine. But if this man beside her was Steven Barr, he belonged in jail.
Also, if this man beside her was Steven Barr, then she stood every chance of ending up like poor, pregnant, dead Amanda unless she got the hell away from him. And, since all five of Katrina Malfois’ cheapskate employers had reported her missing shortly before Chelsea and Travers got on the plane that brought them to Paris, there was every chance that she would soon be joining both Amanda and Katrina on the list of Barr’s victims, if she didn’t flee.
She looked up at her lover’s chiseled profile, silhouetted against the City of Light. His straight nose was distinctly different from Barr’s aquiline one, which had been undeniably visible in all three of his author photographs. She had hung onto that one obvious difference, because she had wanted to love Ben…until tonight, when she saw his naked body for the first time and understood that he did not have the body hair of a red-haired man. That observation forced her to face another fact that she had suppressed: There are thousands of plastic surgeons in the world who are more than happy to give a man’s nose a new shape and never ask why.
This man whose right hand was stroking the curve of her hip was a natural blonde who wanted the world to think that he was a redhead. He was present at both murder scenes where she had reliable witnesses. He and Steven Barr both were writers skilled enough to attract an audience. Nobody had ever seen the two of them together. Nobody but the nearsighted innkeeper and the late Katrina Malfois could even say that they’d laid eyes on both men.
The facts took her to an uncomfortable theory, but they didn’t give her the proof she needed. Chelsea Simon needed to decide what to do, and she needed to do it soon.
I’ve enjoyed being Travers. I’m going to miss him if if he has to go sip sparking wine with Amanda and Katrina. Just because a writer is blocked doesn’t mean that he has nothing more to say, so Travers was born to be my voice until my wandering muse comes home and gives me another novel to write. Blogging has been a release, and I needed a release.
Bloggers can blog from anywhere. Hardhitting journalists can do damn near all of their research from anywhere, too, which is very useful for a journalist living in Brooklyn who is obsessed with his Philadelphia home. Years of blogging fame had passed before I let Ben Travers be seen in public. Even then, the appearances were staged to baffle without revealing.
A ride on Amtrak, two easy hours, brought me into the City of Brotherly Love whenever Ben Travers needed to make an appearance. A red wig, a trenchcoat, a briefcase, makeup skillfully applied to resemble facial hair, a fedora that was affected but did the trick-Ben Travers was these things and no more. Ben Travers can never truly go to the Bar for Characters Who’ve Been Deleted, because there is nobody to delete, just Steven Barr passing through Philadelphia and pretending not to be a man with a dissociative personality disorder and an unfortunate tendency toward homicide.
Katrina knew I was the man under the red wig, and eventually the man wearing red hair dye. Maybe she suspected the dissociative personality disorder. She may even have suspected the homicidal tendencies, but she hated the world too much to believe that it deserved to know the truth about me. She let me be Ben when I needed to be, and the alter ego was distracting enough to quiet the voices in my head for a good long while, although not forever.
Now there is Chelsea to consider. Can I keep being Ben, forever and always, living with Chelsea like a man who doesn’t have enough people inside him to populate a warm and intimate drinking establishment? Is it a coincidence that Steven Barr sends his cast-off characters to drink together for all of time at a very special bar? Is Barr even my real name?
Katrina should know. I’ll ask her.
But first, I must decide whether I can spend the rest of my life fooling a very intelligent and intuitive detective into believing that the man at her side is Ben Travers and only Ben Travers. If I can’t, then she needs to be deleted, too. I need to push her out the window in front of us and let her fall six floors to the Rue Cler, as the Eiffel Tower’s murderous spike watches and wonders. Chelsea is a Philadelphian through and through, so I suppose she deserves a death that speaks more of brotherly love. A fall from the clock tower of City Hall, from the very feet of William Penn. A dive off the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, perhaps. But I’m not in Philadelphia. I’m not at home. I’m going to have to work with what I have.
I love Chelsea, but that doesn’t mean that I won’t kill her.
I watch her take one last drag off her cigarette, study it with regret, and toss it out the window. Its glowing tip is visible for most of its long fall. She’s changed. She’s no longer a rule-follower, but I knew that. If she were, she wouldn’t be with me. Unfortunately, I cannot trust a woman who could go off the rails at any time.
Now I know what to do.
When Barr made his move, he was a heartbeat too late. Chelsea felt the muscles in his thigh tense as he prepared to shove her out the window, and she was ready for him. She was a cop, after all, and she was trained in hand-to-hand combat.
This was Barr’s weakness, believing that he could do all the things that he wrote about so well. She’d seen it when he’d been so obvious about tailing her in the Audi. She’d seen it big-time when he’d lacked the road skills to outmaneuver her when she’d called that bluff.
She dropped into a wide stance and used the forward vector of his shove against him, toppling him over her bent leg. His center of gravity passed into a place where he couldn’t shift it back over his feet, so he now had no hope of remaining upright.
Her fist hit his reconstructed nose as it passed her. Its impact shoved him through the plane of the open window and out into the Parisian night.
Naked, she watched his naked body fall.