Cassie's house appeared perfect -- as long as visitors didn't look for anything more significant than dust. Even the trees planted along the winding driveway seemed to fit at exact intervals. Her friends probably assumed she held bridge club in the huge A-frame at the end of the long private drive to show it off. On the second Saturday of the month, at two in the afternoon. No husbands allowed. Besides, Cassie told me that Vic often traveled on weekends to negotiate cheaper materials for his business.
I smiled, thinking about how my Frank would fly almost anywhere rather than have anything to do with a game that didn't include beer and half-time entertainment. I had only seen Vic once, from a distance. And that was enough contact for me. He wore arrogance as armor. It hid the man inside his fancy exterior the way an expensive sarcophagus held bones.
Cassie's bridge friends didn't know Vic beyond a casual hello, and they had never met me. They came from upper middle class, daddy-pays-for-everything stock. My childhood memories include a father with a love for cheap booze, a demolition-derby truck, and a broken refrigerator hidden in the weeds in the yard. I grew up in a trailer park in Central Ohio. I planted flowers that blessed the onions since there wasn't space for daisies and pansies to have separate domain.
I am not complaining. Because of my life I've learned to see the whole; it has helped in my work.
Cassie's dining room gave a full view of rose bushes and a well-manicured garden. Her ever-clean windows brought sun even though exhaust-fume-like clouds filled the sky. As I looked closer at her inside surroundings, I noticed that the handles on two of the antique china coffee cups had been glued back on. Strange. Sure, delicate items can easily be dropped. I suspected more to the story.
I arrived a few minutes before the other players were expected to arrive. She said nothing about why I had come as a sub for one of the regulars. Cassie reminded me of a box turtle, head inside her shell, coming out only when absolutely necessary.
"The coffee is ready. Would you like some?" she asked.
The afternoon was Midwestern early-June warm. I was comfortable in a short-sleeved shirt. But Cassie, thin as a freshly planted sapling, wore a gray cashmere sweater, the sleeves pulled almost over her hands.
I sighed and asked, "Ready for ... our plan?"
She paused and nodded. I hoped we were on the same page.
The doorbell sounded, a strangely old-fashioned tone, and two women followed Cassie to the table, already set with coffee, finger sandwiches, and tea cookies.
"Hi," one of the women said. "So you have found a sub for Lois." She extended a limp hand. "How dare she get the flu today. I wonder if she got it on purpose. She and Cassie lost the last three rounds."
"I'm probably not your match at the game, but I can occupy the fourth chair." Actually I'd played bridge in college only to prove that I could learn how -- to pretend that I fit into a league that recognized grammatical rules and used cloth napkins. I didn't.
"Glad to hear it," the other woman said. "I'm Lucy. You could say it comes from the word lucky, although actually I'm something of a master at bridge. I grew up with it the way some kids grow up with 24-piece cartoon-figure puzzles."
"And my name is Karen," the first woman said. "I don't think I caught yours."
"Jen, just call me Jen," I said, and then wished I had given my name only once, especially since the shortened variation sounded foreign even to me. To make up for the struggles of my youth I used my full name, Jeanette Miller-Parkersworth. Today needed to be different. Besides, I didn't come to play a game anyway.
"Then while you shuffle. I'll deal," Karen said. "I've got the topic of the day."
"You are writing a how-to bridge manual?" Lucy said.
"No." Karen answered as if the word had at least four o's. "I think we should talk about our lives. We're together every month at this time, but don't really know one another."
"Well then, make the subject interesting." The cards responded to Lucy's touch as if she were a magician preparing for a show. I almost expected a handkerchief with a dove flying out of it.
Even though I had only swallowed one small bite of sandwich, it had turned into what felt like a chunk of granite. I had handled some mighty tough situations, but pretending to fully comprehend the difference between a trick and a trick-or-treat didn't sound like it was going to go over. Moreover, it would be necessary to hear every word this group had to say.
"I bid one diamond," Karen said. "But I want to use a spade to bury our husbands -- verbally anyway. We always talk about suits and points, and that's fine, but for no reason at all I'd like to have some fun talk."
Cassie bit her lower lip. I wasn't expecting this either, but I looked across the table at her and nodded assurance -- a smile just wouldn't form on my lips.
"Husbands," Karen said, "That is the topic for the day. They always are doing something incredibly stupid. It's the nature of the beast. I understand that testosterone prevents proper connection between the left and right hemispheres of the brain."
"Such a thing to say." Cassie acted as if her coffee were as hot as molten lead. It had been sitting untouched for ten minutes.
"Well, your husband built you a place out of a super architects' fantasy magazine," Karen said.
"As if you lived in a shack," Lucy added.
"Ladies, ladies. Remember our job is to jab husbands, not one another." Karen looked over the top of her glasses as if she were a teacher admonishing her students. "Okay, okay. I will begin. My husband keeps extra tissues in his crotch!"
Lucy roared. "You are making that up."
"Ooh, to use for his nose later, or ..." Cassie scrunched up her nose.
Lucy rolled her eyes. "Sometimes I can't believe how innocent you are."
The game progressed. I watched Cassie out of the corner of my eye since full contact easily could have been too much for her. The first time I met her she reminded me of a slender, version of a tea kettle, sturdy, attractive on the outside, yet boiling inside.
"Pass," I said. Maybe it was the way I said it, or maybe I'd missed an opportunity. Karen and Lucy looked at me as if I would probably be a newbie at Old Maid. They couldn't see my hand. I was impressed at how well they saw the shape of the whole game. At least that was better than letting them know I didn't give a tea cookie about clubs, spades, or any bridge that couldn't support a tractor trailer. Fortunately, no one said anything.
"Are you married?" Lucy asked me.
"Very," I answered. "Ten years. Of course all I can complain about is his inability to lift the lid on the wash hamper or to hear me during any portion of a football game. He also has table manners that would embarrass a muddy hog going for the last corn cob."
Even Cassie laughed at that one.
Cassie and I didn't come close to winning the bridge game. Her attempt to hide a severe case of anxiety weakened as the game ended. I decided to take over as good-bye hostess and ooh and ah over Lucy and Karen's designer purses although actually I didn't care what they carried -- as long as they carried them outside, away, as far away as possible.
Karen hesitated, but then left as if she had forgotten what she was going to say. I doubted it. She didn't seem to be the dull type.
As soon as I heard their cars move out of the driveway I asked Cassie if she was ready, really ready.
"You're sure about what you discovered?"
"That Vic has been at the core of a major drug smuggling scheme? Oh yes. You did hire me as a private investigator when you accidentally discovered two sets of financial books. My husband is a cop. He just happens to have a warrant for Vic's arrest for beating up another woman to a pulp. And we have photos of your bruises as well. They don't look like the I-fell-down kind. Too many variations of color in one spot. Chances are you have new ones if those long sleeves are a clue. And I'm guessing those china cups weren't dropped, they were broken in a scuffle. Am I right?"
"His stupid move was building this house. Sure he inherited money from his family and had his own business, but fell short of enough to pay for this place. The police should be watching just in case his flight arrives early. In unmarked cars, of course."
I followed her to her bedroom where she had packed the single suitcase for quick flight that I had recommended. "So what happens now?" she asked.
"Someone will take you in for a while. Your friends met me only once. Besides, they were looking for different kind of tricks than I had in mind. Your husband and his associates should not know where to find you. But perfect may be defined a little differently from now on. Come on. Your coach is waiting ... And so is your new life, over a bridge that is no longer a game."
Cassie left with me in my nothing-special Chevy down her impeccable driveway. She stared, unblinking, as if in a fog. I had done considerable study about Cassie, but wasn't sure who this woman was.
"Vic beats me up if the dishes aren't washed exactly right," she said. "He won't let me have a housekeeper. He won't let me do anything. Except bridge. With eat-sleep-think card-playing people who wouldn't consider changing partners. Thank God I have my own small banking account. But now, just all of a sudden, I'm kind of scared thinking about what happens now."
Cassie got a call on her cell. She jumped, and I was glad she had been wearing a seatbelt.
"It's Karen," she whispered.
"Put it on speaker."
"Cassie, I almost stayed, but you had a guest and I didn't want to talk about this in front of anyone else. Are you okay? What am I saying? I know you aren't okay ..."
Karen may have been a tenacious opponent, but she was apparently a friend, too. She had seen Cassie's injuries, caught some clues.
"I will be now. But can I call you later? It won't be from home. Not for while anyway. I'm going somewhere else." Cassie looked at me, mouth open. I was certain she didn't know how much to tell.
"You're driving away now. I hear traffic," Karen said.
"I haven't arrived yet but I will. And I will let you know then. Thanks, Karen. More than thanks."
The police cars were lined up at the entrance to the drive, exactly as they were supposed to be. Cassie followed my gaze as if understanding. Chances are few vehicles parked here on an ordinary Saturday afternoon. Of course today wouldn't be ordinary. The neighborhood simply didn't know it yet.
"Then maybe we didn't lose today's game after all," I said.
"Although I did kind of wonder if you would have preferred cuffing a serial killer to sitting in that game for one more minute," she said, allowing the faintest, probably forced smile to appear.
She was shaking when she spoke, but I was proud of her. She had made a beginning whether she knew it or not.