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The first thing he always sees is red roses lying as if flung like garbage against a bank of white snow. Not red, exactly. More a scarlet so bright it hurts, a sparkle in the periphery of his eyesight.
It’s when he grasps the roses that they run down his hand, soaking his skin with blood.
Reed Ivory jerked upright in bed.
The nightmare of roses, which had plagued him since the week before Christmas, caused his heart to race painfully. Cold sweat crawled like spiders through his hair. One hand massaged his wrist where the blood of the dream had been absorbed by his waking; the skin looked bruised until he turned on the bedside lamp.
He swung his feet over onto the floor, into the leather moccasins laid at precise right angles to his bed. As his soles touched the cold animal skin, fear clutched at him and shook him, a tremor running down the length of his body.
But he had dreamed. A dream; nothing more. A nightmare. Scarlet roses, dropped in livid snow. Neither portent nor omen. Nothing in it to frighten even a child.
Except the blood.
The room was foreign, faintly-illuminated outlines of the familiar lost in the dead of night. The lack of clutter gave his surroundings the appearance of no-man’s-land. Usually comforting in its spartan lines, now it looked bare, dead.
Reed blinked and rubbed the sleep out of his eyes. The luminous clock’s glowing green message read:
SAT FEB 29 1992 3:40
The minute number shuddered, then clicked down, loud as the cock of a gun hammer: 3:41 a.m.
Suddenly, the telephone shrilled.
He sat looking at it for what seemed a lifetime. Its ringing mocked him: I can keep this up as long as you can.
At last he picked it up. It was a bad line, so he hung up, and the caller called him back instantly. The voice was still faint, as faint as a ghost. It could have been Kate.
But it wasn’t.
He listened fearfully to the flat, English-accented female voice. ‘I’m calling from North Wales Police. Can you confirm your name, sir?’
‘Reed Cefyn Ivory.’ Pronouncing his middle name the Welsh way, with a hard ‘c’, which made him stutter.
‘I’m afraid I have to tell you, Mr Ivory, that your sister, Mrs Catherine Hiles, has been reported missing.’
Reed swallowed the tremor of panic that threatened to take his voice. ‘How do I know you’re who you say you are?’
She gave him both her telephone and her badge number so he could authenticate the call.
Afterwards, he called Kate’s house in Wales. There was no answer, by human or by answering machine. His sister’s phone rang out into eternity. I can keep this up as long as you can.
He hung up again and dialled American Airlines. They were closed, another robotic voice giving their opening hours. He’d have to call back at six. What could he do for two hours? He rubbed at his forehead as if to erase foreboding thoughts.
There was no way he could get back to sleep now.
He tried ringing Kate again. Listened to a machine bell he knew no one but him could hear. What was the time in Wales? Eight, nine hours ahead of California? He waited four minutes in case she had her key in the lock of her front door and could hear the phone ringing after all.
No answer. No dice.
He wrapped his robe around his pyjamas and shuffled downstairs. In the kitchen he made a pot of chicory coffee. No cream, one sugar. He sat at the breakfast nook, stirring, looking out at a darkness just beginning to bleed sunrise.
He couldn’t sit still. He picked up his mug and walked into the hall. Throughout his small pink stucco bungalow lay his only children, a brood of guitars in various stages of construction. Here a cedar front, there a wenge body. Another an old piece, constructed in 1959 when he was eighteen. The guitar had been abandoned then, now to be refurbished for a scholarship student. Young, gifted, and poor.
He unfolded the plan for this latest baby, commissioned by one of Europe’s most famous classical guitarists, a genius with a reputation for difficulty, and reportedly even more of a misanthrope than Reed himself. It would be a glorious instrument: constructed of (CITES-approved) Brazilian rosewood, ivory and ebony, with a special rosette to reflect the guitarist’s year of birth. The rosette’s colour scheme was Harry Clarke blue; Reed had designed a circle with the holy glow of stained glass.
There was still an hour before he could call the airline again. Perhaps best to ready himself, just in case he was able to get a flight. And routine always helped in a crisis. He made his bed, then set out his clothes across the smooth, tight expanse of quilt. Each of his movements was economical. He did nothing unnecessary, nothing nothing which hindered the time in which he could get safely to his sister.
He hung his robe on the back door of his bedroom, stuffed his pyjamas into the wicker hamper. Despite the sudden awakening, he still felt groggy. Cold air in the bathroom started the job of waking him fully, a job the shower finished. He stood under tiny needles of lukewarm water, exquisite pain against his slack skin. As the water did its work, his brain found reason again. The worries, the doubts, the night-fears brought on by a daft dream.
Kate would be OK. Her brother would make sure of that.
Comforted by wood, corrected by water, Reed rang American Airlines again at 6 a.m. This time he was in luck. The cheerful woman at the other end booked him on a flight leaving for London’s Gatwick Airport at 8:45 a.m. Acknowledging it was a matter of emergency, if he could get to LAX by flight-time, she’d waive the required two hour pre-flight check-in time.
He sat on the bed. For a moment the illusion of normality soothed him. As the sun rose, barely-limned outlines became solid belongings.
The Quaker bureau containing his shirts. The walnut linen press built by his maternal grandfather, which held his socks, underwear, and suits. His stepfather’s marble jewellery box with Gus’ 18 carat gold cuff-links and tie pins which Reed kept but never wore. He told himself he was frightened of losing them, but the truth was he found them too garish. The book case groaning with hundreds of books, mostly non-fiction; the Corby trouser press, last October’s 50th birthday present to himself. His mother’s elm wainscot chairs, one of which was a support for his latest work-in-progress.
He wouldn’t need to call his client. He’d travel to Wales and return in less than a week.
Reed spoke to his sister every other week, Sunday afternoons. Last August they’d lost their parents, whose car had been T-boned by a drunk driver on Route 5; both killed instantly. He’d minded the loss of his stepfather much more than that of his biological father, the latter felled by a massive heart attack in 1985.
Reed had obtained two more commissions on which he’d been working flat out throughout December and through the beginning of 1992. In a telephone conversation on Sunday the first of December―he remembered the date because her news had made him so happy―Kate had told him she was preparing to go on a short tour with her band, Crane Dance.
And when the tour finished, in March, she was going to leave Lewis. She had not yet told her husband her plans. Sensing she was frightened, her brother implored her to leave.
‘Go. Just go. Leave him, Katie. Pack a few things and take the kids. You can always explain on the phone.’
‘I can’t, bubbeleh. He’s my husband, I owe him an explanation.’
‘Not if he frightens you.’
‘He’s all mouth,’ laughed Kate. ‘He won’t hurt me. Besides, he’ll be glad to see the back of me, so he can womanise in peace.’
Kate wanted Reed to help her find a house for her and the children in Santa Monica, by the beach, if possible. Reed knew it might take a while as his sister could be fussy. It must be in a quiet area, with a large garden. Not right on the beach. The record company who was going to back Crane Dance’s first album was in nearby Venice Beach. She, Walter, and the rest of the band were trying not to get too excited about it.
'My co-writer. Wait till you hear some of the songs we've come up with. I'll make sure you get a copy of the demo tape.'
Reed and Kate met Monday December 2nd in Buffalo, New York, to settle their parents' will, receiving three hundred thousand dollars apiece. But they'd rather have had their parents. Or mother and stepfather, who'd been more of a father to both Kate and Reed than Bernard Xavier Burgess ever had.
If she couldn’t call, she’d write. Either way, the plan had been to catch up again on her return from the tour the first week of March. He expected too a murmuration of starlings, the nickname they had for the postcards they had sent to each other since her move to the United Kingdom, would pass between them.
And now this: a phone call from the police in Wales to inform Reed his sister had been reported missing.
Reed frowned at the bedroom mirror. He didn’t see himself so much as his attire: it was vital it be right if he had to be twelve hours on an aircraft surrounded by strangers. Dress shirt, English jet cuff-links, sober suit. Buttoned up. Tie straight. Brushing down material though there wasn’t a breath of a wrinkle. Quick comb through greying auburn hair, most of which he still possessed.
His suit hung straight, his appearance crisp. The only jarring note was his hands, small but muscular like a boxer’s, whip-corded with protuberant veins. Moulded by decades of working with wood.
The sun went behind a cloud. In the darkened room, a white collar with blackness where his face should be was all of the man he could see in the glass before him.
He began to shiver, and stopped the trembling by dropping into his mother’s chair and squeezing his hands between his thighs. He repeated to himself in a loud voice that it was going to be a very short trip. He would fly to England, Manchester by way of Gatwick Airport, then hire a car to drive to Wales. He would find his sister and see with his own eyes, somehow, that this was a terrible mistake. Even, perhaps, a macabre joke that Lewis, who wasn’t known for being kind or considerate, was now having at his brother-in-law’s expense.
Kate would tell her brother off for being a drama queen. He wouldn’t mind if he could see for himself that she was safe and well.
Reed had booked his return ticket for Sunday March 8th. He’d be back in Los Angeles in plenty of time to start the most important commission of his working career. He had to, as he now had to help Kate.
He packed three suits, seven shirts, underwear and socks for a week, and toiletries in a leather kit bag; his travel alarm clock, an art deco guilloché enamel sunburst which had belonged to his grandmother Ivory, would fit in his hand luggage. He attached his suitcase securely to a small wheeled trolley, then patted his pockets. Keys, wallet, cards, British and USA passports.
He did this nine times, as nine was his number. Walked around the bungalow, also nine times, with the more prosaic protection of lamp timers purchased the first time he was burgled. He programmed these to turn on lights in various rooms during the still-dark evenings. He scribbled a note on an envelope to Mrs Lucky, explaining the emergency: he would be in contact as soon as he knew where he was staying, though he’d be back next Sunday. He slipped a week’s wages into the envelope.
At the last minute he popped his address book and his Nikon N6000 into his hand luggage. One final look around the bungalow―windows shut and locked, spare keys in the key box―rain-coat over one arm as he set the alarm. Luggage onto the porch, lock the front door. Try it nine times before stepping off the porch.
Outside, everything looked brand-new in the early morning light of this expensive neighbourhood he’d been lucky enough to get into when it had been dangerous, decades before its gentrification. Mercs and BMWs sat in carports; windows dark. The other residents―actors, musicians, a few artists, one high-class call girl―wouldn’t stir until afternoon. That is, if they were in residence. Reed knew of them through Mrs Lucky. He never saw any of them outside their houses.
There wasn’t much garden around his bungalow except the lawn, mowed every other Sunday, and the forty-year-old peach tree, which flourished despite his neglect. As Reed unlocked his sky blue Volkswagen, the familiar scents of orange blossom and the ocean hit him between the eyes.
A goldfinch sang in the bare jacaranda tree in his neighbour’s yard; the neighbour kept a key to Reed’s house in the unlikely event he wasn’t in for a delivery. He would be back in time to see its glorious spring flowering, an explosion of purple-blue blossoms.
He said farewell to the bungalow, a hangover from happy summers forty years ago at the family cottage at Lake Chandos in Canada. Happy, before his father fell off his motorcycle and landed on his non-helmeted head.
See you soon. Don’t say ‘goodbye’, say ‘so long’. Be back in no time.
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