Ten days earlier …
I’ve sometimes regretted the women I’ve been.
There have been so many: daughter, sister, cop, tough broad, several kinds of whore, jilted lover, ideal wife, heroine, killer. I’ll provide the truth of them all, inasmuch as I’m capable of telling the truth. Keeping secrets, telling lies, they require the same skill. Both become a habit, almost an addiction, that’s hard to break even with the people closest to you, out of the business. For example, they say never trust a woman who tells you her age; if she can’t keep that secret, she can’t keep yours.
When I joined the FBI there weren’t many female special agents and the Bureau took advantage of that. A five-foot-three-inch natural blond with a preteen cheerleader’s body comes in handy for many investigations, so they were willing to waive the height requirement. For a good chunk of my career I worked undercover, mostly acting as bait for human traffickers and sexual predators crossing state or international lines.
I did the undercover work for nine years. That’s about five years longer than usual before agents burn out or lose their families. Because I never married or had children I might have done more time if it hadn’t been for the accident that necessitated fusing several vertebrae. It could have been worse; you should have seen what happened to the horse.
The surgery made problematic many job requirements—leaping across rooftops … dodging knife thrusts … lap dancing. I could have taken disability but couldn’t see what life would look like outside the Bureau, so the second half of my career was spent in Investigations. Then I retired.
No, that’s not the whole truth. Toward the end I was having a little difficulty making decisions. Specifically, a couple of years ago I killed an unarmed perp near Turnerville, Georgia. Contrary to what you see in movies, FBI special agents seldom use deadly force. It causes the Bureau embarrassment. Look at Waco, or Ruby Ridge. As for the agents, they’re not trusted so much anymore and the defense can use it against them in court, paint them as a rogue who might plant evidence or slant the facts to fit a case.
There was an investigation by our internal affairs group, the Office of Professional Responsibility, which cleared me with a decision of suicide by cop. The civil suit by the relatives of the guy I shot took longer and was more expensive. That’s another thing you don’t see in the movies, that the evil serial killer has a large extended family, including a sister with a limp who teaches special needs children and who testifies that her scumbag brother is the sweetest person who ever lived.
The family claimed I shot him because I was afraid he wouldn’t get convicted. They lost, but it left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. By that time my career was over and they reassigned me to the field substation in Tucson, which everyone told me was a lovely place but that felt a lot like Siberia, only hot. I hated the agent in charge and lasted a little less than seventeen months before opting for retirement, which is what they were hoping for in the first place.
Now that’s the whole truth. Mostly.
For a year I gave retirement my best shot. I joined a book club, but the other women started ignoring me when they found out I never read the book. I tried yoga at the advice of a therapist who said it would help my “anger issues” but was kicked out by the Bikram instructor after she wouldn’t let me drink water in a humid room with a temperature of one hundred degrees. I’m the one with anger issues? Namaste, my ass.
I kept going to the gym every other day to at least stay in shape, which had always been pretty good, and absolutely necessary given the work I did. I had to be able to improvise, to be flexible. I had taken special ops training from a Navy SEAL named Baxter. That was his first name. I can’t remember his last. We were very close and he was wise, for a trained killer. Whenever I picture Black Ops Baxter he’s cracking crass jokes about teaching me to use my cleavage as a weapon. He’s dead now, Baxter is.
Come to think of it, like the kid in that movie, I might know more dead people than live ones.
But back to my retirement: it felt like I was still undercover, temporarily posing as a Southwestern Woman of a Certain Age. If anyone asked me what I did for my work, I told them I investigated copyright infringements. That always killed the conversation because everyone has copied a video at some point.
I’m still gifted at disappearing into whatever environment I encounter, fading into the background, happy to succeed at what other women my age dread.
That’s who I am, and that’s what I hid from my next-door neighbors, from my beloved new husband, and sometimes from myself. No one likes a woman who knows how to kill with her bare hands.
As I said, retirement didn’t work out that well except for, also at the advice of my therapist, auditing a class on Buddhism at the university. That’s where I met the Perfesser. And shortly thereafter stopped seeing the therapist.
Mutual attraction was fairly immediate. During the first lecture I watched the intense Dr. Carlo DiForenza pacing back and forth in front of the class lecturing like a caged tiger who had eaten the Dalai Lama. In the middle of Carlo’s review of the cyclical nature of karma, one of the girls, wearing a tube top that squeezed her out the top like toothpaste, pressed her elbows together and said, “Oh, you mean, like, ‘wherever you go, there you are.’” The professor’s pacing stopped and he blinked out the window without turning toward the speaker, a tiger distracted by a gnat.
“Contrary to what that bumper sticker says,” I drawled, “it’s not precisely true.”
Carlo finally turned to the class and zeroed in on me. His grin shot to my loins. “Go on,” he said.
“It’s my experience that it takes about a year to catch up with yourself, so you don’t have to worry as long as you keep moving.”
He started blinking again. I expected I was going to be treated to a condescending retort. Then his grin returned. “Who are you?” he asked, emphasis on the “are.”
“My name is Brigid Quinn,” I answered.
“We should speak of this over dinner, Brigid Quinn.”
Most of the students tittered. Tube Top only looked chagrined to have been trumped by an older woman.
“I hardly think that’s appropriate in the middle of class,” I said.
“What the hell,” he had replied. “After this term I’m retiring.” He was a lot more aggressive with me in those days. I was a lot more honest with him until I fell in love on our first date. I’ll recall that date later if I’m feeling a little stronger.
Within the year, I married Carlo DiForenza and moved out of my apartment and into his house north of the city. With a view of the Catalina Mountains out the back window, the house itself had been decorated by Carlo’s Dead Wife Jane in the style of my crazy aunt Josephine—that is to say, red-fringed lamp shades and faux Belgian tapestries with depictions of unicorns. The large backyard had a life-size statue of Saint Francis sitting on a bench. That was all right; I had never decorated any place I’d lived and this fit the kind of person I wanted to be like ready-made slipcovers.
The house came with a set of Pugs, which are sort of a cross between Peter Lorre and a bratwurst. The dogs were given to Carlo by Jane just before her death from cancer five years before; she figured caring for them would give his life purpose after her death. We kept intending to name them.
But the best part of the deal was Carlo.
It, the marriage I mean, all happened so fast I could hear my mother whispering one of her platitudes, “marry in haste; repent at leisure,” but I knew what I wanted. What I actually had I wasn’t quite sure even now, but that meant he hardly knew me, and as I’d never known another way to live I was comfortable with that. One may say this is not the basis for a good relationship, but I’d learned my lesson: keep the violence in the past and focus on learning how to be the ideal wife. Ideal Wife was the woman I would be now.
Carlo took his time as well. He learned not to sneak up and hug me from behind and would place his palm ever so gently on my cheek so I would lean into it instead of tighten. He never tried to pry out of me the reasons for my fight-or-flight behavior, and I was certain he agreed it was best not to know. I was slowly relaxing, learning to trust him, and life was perfect except for those times in the middle of the night when I was overwhelmed by anxiety, when my heart would start to pound in habitual terror that he would leave me, that I would lose everything I had at last found.
That first year we made love, walked his Pugs, seduced each other into our favorite cuisines (him sushi, me Indian), watched movies (I discovered an appreciation for indie mind benders, he for things blowing up), and collected rocks.
I particularly liked the rock hounding. Besides being pretty, rocks don’t change, and they don’t die on you. My best local place for rock hounding was a quiet wash about a half mile down the hill from our house, under a bridge where Golder Ranch Road crossed it. The summer monsoon season, a flooding rain that brought the desert all of its yearly eleven inches within a few short months, tumbled the rocks from the surrounding mountains to gather there.
On the day I’m recalling, in early August, I had walked to the wash by myself, filled my backpack with twenty pounds of anything that looked unusually colorful, and trudged back up the hill, feeling a little woozy with the hundred-degree temperature but glad for the workout.
Soon I sighted our backyard at the eastern edge of the Black Horse Ranch subdivision. We’re a recent anomaly, surrounded by the real desert dwellers. People with horses. People cooking meth in their trailers. When it rained you could smell horse manure, and sometimes trailers blew up.
Does that sound critical? After spending most of my life in urban apartments I actually loved this rural area the way you love a sloppy old uncle who tells good stories from the war. I loved the smell of horse manure, and the occasional bray of a donkey coming from an unknown location when the wind is very still, and the reminiscent bark of gunfire from the direction of the Pima Pistol Club.
But like I said, what I loved most was Carlo. Tall as Lincoln with a slight Italian accent, Roman beak, mournful Al Pacino eyes, and a bad-boy smile to contradict them.
When I lugged the backpack into the kitchen and dumped the rocks in the sink to rinse them, Carlo was making hummingbird juice, mixing water and some strawberry-colored powder. Without my asking him to, he had hung the feeder on the white thorn acacia tree in the front yard where I could watch the hummingbirds from my office window.
The sight of him fixing the feeder for my pleasure made my heart … swell to overflowing is supposed to be a worn-out phrase, but for me it’s a brand-new feeling.
This may seem an unusually strong reaction to a man filling a bird feeder. If you have led a relatively peaceful life you will not appreciate its value and treasure it the way I do, not understand what it feels like to go day after day with that vibration in your chest, as if you carried inside of you a violin string that has just been plucked but now the string is silent and still because the threat of violence is long past.
Now I was living in peace with a man so gentle and sensitive he gave sup to hummingbirds. Does this seem precious? I don’t give a rat’s ass.
“What do you have to give me?” he asked, pouring the juice through a funnel into the clear plastic container. His low voice and the glint in his eye made the question a double entendre.
“Just some pretty rocks, Perfesser. You’ll have to tell me what I have.”
I turned to the sink where I’d dumped the stones, rinsed them off one by one, and placed them still wet on the dark granite counter for Carlo’s examination.
The rinsing heightened the vivid colors, smooth blood red, vanilla ice cream, round and speckled green like a dinosaur egg, silver shot with black specks. We opened the color atlas of minerals in the southwestern United States to see what we had.
Carlo was no more a geologist than I was. Rather, before becoming a philosophy professor, and before marrying Jane, he’d done time as a Roman Catholic priest. Father Dr. Carlo DiForenza could explain either linguistic philosophy or comparative religion so simply a learning-disabled bivalve could understand.
Carlo and I sat side by side on the stools by the breakfast counter where he leaned his gaunt frame over the stones like a giraffe protecting her young. His thin fingers tickled the rocks as he admired each one individually.
“Pudding stone,” Carlo said, pointing out the picture in the book. “See the quartz plugging it? I can imagine the megasurge of heat that boiled the granite into a juice that mixed all these elements together. Then a plunge of temperature that hardened the elements into a single mass with each mineral distinct. Gorgeous, Brigid. Oh, and you found some more shot with copper.”
I squirmed a bit and leaned closer. Plugging, megasurge, plunge, juice, shot—is it just me, or did Carlo talk dirty about a billion years of geologic activity as if they were one hot night of sex? Plus I got a kick out of watching him stroke the rocks.
The geo-erotica started working on us both. We went from stroking the rocks to stroking each other’s fingers stroking the rocks, and I made a lame joke about getting our rocks off and then I started licking his fingers and then Carlo started murmuring Bella, Bella, which is what he calls me when he’s feeling romantic and I didn’t care if he used that so he wouldn’t accidentally call me Jane because I knew in my heart that this time Bella meant me. That’s how it goes when you have a lot of life behind you, no self-delusion.
He didn’t mind that I hadn’t showered yet. We slipped off the stools onto one of Jane’s faux Persian rugs. Turkish. Oriental. Whatever. And kissed. But the Pugs stared, and lovemaking on the floor didn’t have quite the charm it once had. We moved into the bedroom and tossed aside Jane’s pink satin comforter with the blue trim.
The sex was spectacular, but don’t worry about my going into details of the act. You may be younger than I, and won’t like to think about someone outside your generation making love. For you the image may be embarrassing, vulgar, or comic.
Carlo and I were none of those.
While he dozed afterward, as always, in grateful lust I thanked him silently, from the center of my soul, for letting me live in his normal world. For giving me this new self, different from the one defined by any of the other women I had been.
But gratitude for the present invariably came with memories of the past where I’d learned my lessons. One of the things I brooded about: Paul, gentle, widowed Paul of the cello and the truffle oil, of the two cherubic preschoolers, Paul repulsed by me despite his best efforts. As gently as he could even though he thought I couldn’t be hurt, See, Brigid? You stare into the abyss of depravity, and sooner or later it begins to stare back. The abyss is where you’ve lived for so long you’ll never escape it. I fear it too much to live there with you. I can’t expose my children to you.
I was still terrified to think I might destroy my relationship with Carlo the way I had destroyed my relationship with Paul and determined that I would do nothing to make that happen.
Paul was the last man I tried to be honest with, twenty-two years ago. I still wonder what made me leave that crime scene photo on the kitchen counter. I didn’t expect the children would find it.
Copyright © 2013 by Becky Masterman
BECKY MASTERMAN, who was an acquisitions editor for a press specializing in medical textbooks for forensic examiners and law enforcement, received her M.A. in creative writing from Florida Atlantic University. Her debut thriller, Rage Against the Dying, was a finalist for the Edgar Award for Best First Novel, the CWA Gold Dagger Award for Best Crime Novel of 2013, as well as the Macavity, Barry, and Anthony awards. Becky lives in Tucson, Arizona, with her husband.