Fargo flopped in the shade while I looped his lead around the anchor outside the Wharf Rat door. I told him I'd be right back and went inside to fetch him a bowl of water and a slice of Billie's meatloaf. She asked about the family. "How's Mae? Still growing all those herbs you mostly wouldn't know whether to eat or drink or rub 'em on? And Jeanne, still working for the Catholics though she isn't?"
You had to get used to Billie's speech patterns, but after many years practice, I answered easily. "Aunt Mae stays busy, though mostly she grows herbs for cooking, not for medicinal purposes. And Mom still works at the church office. They're both fine, and ask about you often."
"Give them my regards. Got some good crab cakes the way you like them on special without much breading. Want a plate?"
Fargo's lunch delivered, I went back in and looked around for a table. There were none, but I spotted Pete Santos again at the little table by the kitchen door. I hoped he'd give me a chance to apologize and maybe buy him lunch at last.
He accepted my apology with frigid courtesy, and coolly declined my offer of lunch and a drink, which I could understand. I'd make it up to him someday when it didn't seem like a minor payoff.
"So the girl dropped the rape claim?" he asked.
"It seems so. I hope so. You know how it is, Pete, everybody tells the same story with a different slant. Maybe nobody's exactly lying, but nobody is exactly telling the truth either."
He warmed up a bit, grinning slightly. "Story of the world, I guess. Well, now I'll have to make my peace with Jack for roping him into going by your house."
"I don't think it will be too hard. I told him it was my idea, and that you said all along he didn't do it. Aha! At last!" My crab cakes and a cold Bud had arrived. For the rest of the meal we chatted of nothing special. The Yankees. Would Jeter kindly break another small bone or so? The Red Sox. The curse had finally ended! Pete finished lunch first and left to go back to work.
I finished my filling lunch and went out to find Fargo dozing happily away, now in the warm sun. I had a great desire to join him, but thought it might look a little odd. So I picked up his dishes, unhooked his leash and we started home, where it wouldn't look odd at all.
By the time we walked the several blocks home, I felt a little less like one of Billie's clams and a little more awake ... which was just as well, for parked in front of my house was Mary's truck. Shittay! As we say in old France. I went around the back of the house and there they were, comfortably ensconced at my outdoor table.
"Oh, hi, Alex." Mary didn't seem the least ill at ease. "We figured you'd be at the Rat, but when we got there, you were with Pete Santos, and we didn't want to interfere, so we just came on over here to wait."
"So I see." I sat down and didn't offer refreshments. I had some hope of making this visit brief. "What can I do for you?"
Maureen answered. "Oh, Alex, you're so clever! Surely you can figure out a way I can keep my baby and not go into court against Jack and that awful woman."
"Easy," I answered. "Just have the baby, keep it and raise it."
"But to do that, I need money." She gave a sweet, pouty smile.
"Work." I could see my gentle nap fluttering away across the treetops. Fargo didn't help by yawning cavernously and collapsing noisily by my side.
Mary tapped her finger imperiously on the table. "Grace Sanhope should not be allowed to get away with this!"
Feeling a little imperious myself, I tapped right back. "Grace isn't getting away with a thing. She didn't do anything. Jack has already paid, quite generously, for an abortion. Or they will pay you to put the baby up for adoption. If you want the baby that much, either support it yourselves or go to court. And I personally think the last is a very bad idea. You will both come out looking like a couple of opportunistic blackmailers."
"Well, really ..."
"Look." I tried to be patient. "You've both lied about when Jack was supposed to have raped Maureen. I can understand, Maureen, why you didn't go to the cops back in April if... er, when he raped you, but I cannot understand why you didn't go the night in June, when you say it happened again. You say he either got you drunk or drugged you. Well, the way to prove that would have been blood tests right away. Now it boils down to he said.. .she said. And Jack may possibly show up with friends who'll say they had sex with you, too. It will be perjury, but who will prove it? And now you're asking the Sanhopes to support a child being brought up by two lesbians, which might not sit well in court, either, depending on what judge or jury you get." I lit a cigarette and blew out a vicious cloud of smoke.
"Either do as John Frost suggests or don't. But don't ask me to do the impossible or fabricate something to make you look better." I stood up. Startled, Fargo lunged to his feet and growled. I didn't even correct him, I just laid my hand on his head to quiet him.
"I would never ask you to lie, Alex." Mary sounded hurt, and I was sorry for that, but Maureen was her problem, not mine. "I guess we'd best be going," she added lamely.
"Indeed and we might as well," Maureen snapped. "You see how it goes, don't you, Mary? Her mother knows Grace. Grace likes her dog, the big spoiled lout. Her brother and Pete Santos are both coppers together. Alex and Pete just had lunch together. So you and me, darlin', we're outside and lookin' in."
I was stunned at the words and the vitriol they held but tried not to show it. I did not appreciate her references to my mother and Fargo! Mary and Maureen walked across the lawn toward the driveway. I took a couple of steps after them and called, "Mary!"
She turned back to me, and I said softly. "I'm sorry about all of this, Mary. I know you have a heavy emotional investment in this situation, but I really cannot help you. I know you wouldn't ask me to lie. I hope you also know I would never slant information in someone else's favor, either."
"I trust you, Alex. I don't always like you, but I trust you." For some reason we shook hands, and she left.
I hoped I was finished with Mary and Maureen. I wished them well, but I wanted no part of it anymore.
I seemed to have been granted my wish. The following days went quietly. I got some dawn runs with Fargo and a few photos that I liked. Then I got carried away and decided to put up a couple of badly needed shelves in the garage. I actually got them installed, and damn near level, with but one small bruise on my thumb and one close call when I nearly put a board through the garage window.
Saturday afternoon I was allowing myself to be cajoled by Cindy into putting some shelves in the tiny back hall of the cottage. They would provide some very welcome storage space for canned goods and extra pots and pans. We were now deciding exactly what I would charge for this service. We had about agreed on Sunday breakfast in bed and whatever might follow, and I was now trying to explain that some down payment was customary in these cases, when the phone rang.
It was Sonny. He and Trish had been fishing and caught a bunch of nice flounder. Would we be interested in a fish fry? I asked Cindy. She said she'd agree to a postponement of down payments if Sonny and I would clean the fish outdoors where she wouldn't see or smell them, so I told them to come ahead.
Sonny, bless him, had already cleaned and filleted the fish when they arrived. He and I made dinner, dipping the flounder fillets first in an egg wash, then in cornmeal and dropping them into a skillet with hot olive oil for a fast brown and flip. We made french fries and a big salad with four—count 'em, four—gorgeous radishes right from my garden, thinly sliced as garnish. A dash by Sonny to the store for tartar sauce ... and dinner was served.
And it was good. Afterward we lounged around the outdoor table with coffee and a B&B liqueur and I felt very rich.
"What's the latest on Jack the Raper?" Sonny asked.
"Don't look at me," I replied. "I hope to God I'm not in that mare's nest anymore."
He turned his head to look at Trish, who shrugged. "Fairly quiet. John talked to the Sanhope attorney and got Maureen an extra four thousand in cash plus attorney's fees. She was not happy, although I don't think anyone could have done better. At any rate, the papers are signed."
Sonny shook his head. "I don't know Maureen, but can't you cut her a little slack? She's only a kid. She's a million miles from home. Pregnant and dealing with a bunch of lawyers . .."
"And doing quite well, thank you." Trish grinned sourly. "I think you can put away your armor and white horse. Maureen will not lose in this."
"So now," Cindy asked, "When Maureen has the baby, is it immediately available for adoption? Or is an adoptive family found in advance? Just how does that work?"
Trish poured herself another B&B, unusual for her. "I can tell you how I think this one is going to work." She looked at me. "You say Jack told you his brother Richard and wife can't have children, right?"
"Right. I think her name is Lillian."
"Okay. And the papers Maureen signed state that she's to check in the Mountain View Maternity Hospital, just outside that town in New Hampshire, no later than November seventeen. Her due date is December tenth. Keep that in mind." She sipped her drink and went on.
"Right about now, Lillian is telling a few close friends that she is at last pregnant, but that she must be very careful if she is to carry full term. She's going to stay down here in Ptown and be super quiet. While she would enjoy e-mails, phone calls and cards . . . visitors and visiting are a no-no. But she will keep them apprised of her progress by letter and phone. On or about November seventeen, Lillian will check into Mountain View."
Sonny was scowling. I looked at Cindy, and she seemed as bewildered as I was.
"Trish," I said, "Why would Lillian say she's pregnant if she isn't? And why check into Mountain View Maternity Hospital?"
She laughed shortly. "Because big money lets you do a lot of things the rest of us can't. Follow me closely. On or about December tenth at Mountain View, a baby will be born to Lillian and Richard Sanhope. That is the way the baby's birth certificate will read, Parents, Richard and Lillian Sanhope. Then one other thing will happen. Maureen Delaney will be told her child was stillborn. Oh, she'll still get her money because the Sanhopes feel sorry for her loss, but she never had a viable baby."
"My God," Cindy nearly whispered. "So the baby is 'born' a Sanhope, not adopted at all!"
Sonny couldn't stay quiet. "This is all highly irregular! They should be stopped. Trish, as an officer of the court, you have to report this to the proper authority." Sonny was sounding pompous again.
"Yes, possibly and no. Yes, if I am right, it is illegal. Possibly it should somehow be stopped. I'm not so sure. You seem to have forgotten the child." She looked at each of us in turn and, in turn, each of us looked away.
"This is the only scenario where the child does not suffer. If it were put up for adoption, who is ever absolutely certain it will be a good match? Adoptive children sometimes have more emotional problems. No one is sure why, but they do. If Maureen keeps the child, do you really think she's parent material? I don't. And I doubt she'll stay with Mary, who would at least provide some stability. And no child in the country will be more loved, I'll bet, or have more advantages, than little Whosis Sanhope. An abortion, obviously, is self-explanatory. So, no, Sonny, I have no intention of propounding this theory to John or anyone else 'in authority.' It's unprovable, for one thing, and reporting it would simply alert Mountain View and the Sanhopes to do it some other way, for a second. Not to mention getting me fired as a meddlesome big mouth, for a third. Case closed."
"Boyohboy," I breathed. "The child is half Sanhope anyway. Now he or she suddenly becomes all Sanhope and Jack becomes the loving uncle. He said he wanted a role in his child's life. Well, he'll have it. One thing for sure, it ought to be a gorgeous kid. But, really, what about Maureen? She could be deeply grieved over her presumed loss."
"I seriously doubt it." Trish smiled wryly. "You were there, Alex, in John's office. After a few little maidenly squeaks about love and religion, Maureen hunkered right down to hard money. A damned lot of money, if you recall. She will mourn the 'lost baby' all the way to the bank and then get on with life, probably in a large city sans Mary . . . who will, unfortunately, probably be the one who gets hurt in this."
Sonny was still frowning, but brightened visibly when Cindy said, "Who wants chocolate ice cream and who wants butter pecan?"