By Diana Killian
Docketful of Poesy
Hollywood comes a calling, and Grace answers the door, much to the chagrin of Peter, who reluctantly follows...
I um believe it's straight to cable, I said.
And this is a documentary?
I think so.
You think so?
Roberta Lom, the producer - I winced, hearing my own slightly self-conscious tone as I spoke the words the producer, was a little vague. She was late for a meeting.
Another of those awkward silences. I glanced at the clock on the bedstand; ten o'clock Peter's time I had been so looking forward to talking to him; I always seemed to call at the wrong hour: either he wasn't home or he wasn't able to talk. But now, after three and a half weeks of phone tag, I finally had him on the line - and it was almost as though I were talking to a stranger. He seemed so far away.
Of course, he was far away - over five thousand miles of far away. Peter was in the tiny village of Innisdale in the English Lake District while I was in Los Angeles, so maybe I was letting my imagination make too much of a bad connection. Bad in more ways than one.
Peter said flatly, I don't see why anyone would want to make a documentary of your book. Who, other than academics like yourself, would care whether or not Lord Byron fathered yet another bastard child?
Now, I found that a tad irritating, but I'm the first to admit that when it comes to my passion - my passion for Romantic literature - I'm not entirely objective. So, striving for sweet reason, I said, Well, first of all, how we determined that little fact makes a pretty good story, I think. I mean, I was kidnapped - three times -
My gaze wandered past the assorted silver and pewter-framed photos of my parents, me, and my brothers, Clark and Colin -- Clark, four years older, had the blonde hair and wide green eyes - behind the same horn rim glasses - of our father. Colin had Mother's freckles and red hair. As the middle child it had fallen upon me to somehow manage a diplomatic combination of genetic traits: green eyes and auburn hair - and if there's one thing I'm good at, it's doing the right thing. And in reward I was blessed with good skin, good teeth, and pretty darn good legs.
You can hardly count Al taking you to Lady Vee's as actual abduction.
Perhaps he was not defending yet another former girlfriend so much as being a stickler for accuracy. Still striving for sweet reason, but now through gritted teeth, I said, I was held against my will. Never mind the fact that we were both nearly shot by that crazed -
A bit sensationalistic for a reputable documentary, Peter drawled in that annoying public school accent, and if I didn't know better, I'd have sworn he was deliberately provoking me.
I assume the documentary will focus on the academic aspects of our search.
Peter laughed. And now I was quite sure that he was trying to provoke me. What academic aspects might those be? he inquired as though genuinely interested. As I recall you were convinced we were searching for a lost manuscript.
Now that was one for the books - no pun intended. For once I, Grace Hollister, was at a loss for words. In fact, there was the oddest prickling behind my eyes - as though I were about to suffer a dreadful allergy attack. What was happening here? We were very nearly quarreling.
This, after exchanging no more than a dozen words or so since I'd left the Lakes for a brief visit home. Or, what would have been a brief visit, if it hadn't been for my parent's silver wedding anniversary, the holidays, the difficulty in arranging the sub-letting of my apartment, catching up with old friends and colleagues, and now this once-in-a- lifetime opportunity to see my first book made into a film.
I couldn't understand it. Did Peter regret the things - those lovely, romantic things -he had said before I left nearly three four six months?...earlier? Did he not want me to return to the Innisdale?
Into my silence he said, If this is a documentary, wouldn't I need to sign a release of some sort? You're planning to use my name, I take it?
Are you saying you would refuse to sign a release?
The hiss in the long distance line seemed ominous.
No, he said quietly, at last. I'm not going to stop you, if this is what you want.
Were we still talking about the proposed documentary film? There was something in his voice
I said uncertainly, Is everything all right there? Was there - you said you had something to tell me. I'd been so thrilled that he had called me, so excited about my news; I'd hardly given him a chance to get a word in until at last his pointed lack of interest had penetrated even the polymer-coated bubble of my enthusiasm.
It'll keep, he said.
Abruptly, I remembered the beautiful and dangerous Catriona - and the much less beautiful but equally dangerous Turkish prison guard Hayri Kayaci. I remembered three murder investigations and far too many close calls to count. Peter's past was checkered at best, and the publication of my first book alone had brought results similar to poking a stick into a nest of cobras. Was it possible that he had valid reasons for not wanting this film made?
Peter, I began.
Look, Grace, he said at the same time. Something's come up. I'll ring you later, shall I?
All right, I said reluctantly, but I was speaking to a dial tone.
Slowly, I replaced the handset, fearing that more than a phone connection had been broken.
That didn't take long, my mother said when I entered the kitchen a few minutes after ending my phone call to Peter. She was chopping asparagus stalks for yet another of her highly nutritious casseroles. Mother is one of those women who does everything brilliantly; everything except cook. I had a sudden, inexplicable longing for one of Peter's butter-drenched, cream-soaked, cognac-laced specialties.
It was hard not to love a man who could cook as well as Peter, even taking into consideration all his unsavory acquaintances and the number of close calls I had experienced since becoming involved with him. Assuming involved was the right word.
Something came up. He had to ring off, I said.
Was he pleased about the documentary?
No. I met my mother's green gaze and shrugged. He's a very private person.
Is he? Mother added the asparagus and baby carrots to the small new potatoes already steaming on the stovetop. Nature camouflaged my mother's razor-sharp brain beneath feathery red hair and a playful smattering of freckles on a pert nose. But there's nothing feathery or pert about my mom - especially when she's grilling one of her suspe - off-spring. She studied me levelly for a moment, clearly choosing her words, and I felt one of those qualms that adulthood and autonomy had done nothing to anesthetize me from.
Grace, your father and I have made a point of never interfering in our children's lives, but I can't say we're pleased to discover that you're seriously considering committing yourself to a man with a criminal record.
Of course, I had known this chat was coming from the moment I set foot on American soil, and for one cowardly instant I wished I'd revealed a little less of Peter's background to my concerned parents. But I'm a firm believer in honesty being the best policy - besides, it was a sure bet that Detective Inspector Brian Drummond, who I'd been seeing quite a lot of lately, would have been only too happy to fill my family in on the more colorful aspects of Peter's history.
With the uncanny mind-reading ability that still terrified me and my brothers in our formative years - not to mention generations of students in her Women's Studies courses - my mother said, What time is Brian picking you up?
A quarter to seven. The seminar ends at four-thirty.
Brian, an expert in art and antiquities theft, was attending an Interpol-sponsored international conference on cultural trafficking. The conference had been postponed several times, but finally his trip coincided with my visit home in a way that seemed uncannily fortuitous - from his viewpoint and the viewpoint of my parents.
Whether in reaction to Peter Fox's criminal past, or on the basis of his own merits - of which, true enough, he had many - Brian had already received the stamp of approval from my nearest and dearest.
That last sounds like I was being forced to see Brian against my will, and of course that's not true. I liked him - a lot. I found him very attractive - and very good company.
He's an attractive young man, Mother said. Intelligent, presentable, politically conscious.
Yes, I said noncommittally.
He's certainly very interested in you.
He's a long way from home, I said. I could feel my mother's gaze, but I kept my own glued to the flowered Harker Pottery casserole dish that had once belonged to my grandmother.
It was a very pretty dish, though not particularly valuable - something I had learned working at Rogue's Gallery with Peter. One of the more useful - and law abiding - things I had learned. Another thing I had learned was the importance of family and treasured traditions. Which is why I didn't object when my mother continued, I can't pretend that your father and I are pleased with some of thing things you've told us about this Peter Fox.
Even I had to admit Peter didn't - well, look good on paper. If you were able to meet him
Well, that would be up to him, wouldn't it? Mother said. If he's genuinely interested in building a life with you, I would think he would be willing to make the effort to meet your family.
There really was no answer to that; I would hardly strengthen my position by admitting that I couldn't picture Peter in this country - or this house - let alone this kitchen.
How many criminal investigations has he dragged you into? Mother continued.
He hasn't dragged me into anything, I countered. In fact, from the minute I met him he tried to discourage me from getting involved in these...these adventures. But if I hadn't gotten involved there would have been no book and no documentary, so it isn't all a bad thing.
My mother looked unconvinced.
And the truth was, I wasn't entirely convinced either. It had been roughly two and a half years ago that I visited the Lake District researching the Romantic poets for my doctoral thesis, and become involved in a bit of literary skullduggery. With that involvement had come involvement of another kind: a romantic liaison with Peter Fox, antique dealer and former jewel thief. Peter claimed to have turned over a new leaf, but not everyone in his murky past seemed to have got the message. Which wasn't likely to endear him to my friends and family - and even I had to admit that the fact that Peter's kisses turned my bones to water and my brain to mush wasn't exactly an endorsement for sane and healthy living.
I understand the power of sexual chemistry, My mother said in that voice as cool and clear as astringent, but I speak from experience when I tell you that nothing is more important to a successful marriage than respect and shared interests.
I had a sudden, vivid childhood memory of lying in bed listening to the quiet murmur of my parents' voices - and the surprising sound of my mother giggling. I know you and Dad have been very happy, and of course I want that for myself. I do respect Peter and we do share many interests.
Amateur sleuthing? my mother inquired tartly.
More than that, Mother.
She had the grace to look down at the vegetable swamp of casserole.
Are you able to share your work with him?
Yes. That is, he listens.
My mother fixed me with her all-seeing gaze. But does he share your passion?
For poetry? He understands it. As much as anyone who wasn't a fellow academic could understand my obsession for the written word.
You know what Joubert said. 'Only choose in marriage a man whom you would choose as a friend if he were a woman.'
The picture that conjured held me silent for the second time that afternoon.
You look smashing! Brian said a few hours later when I opened the front door to my parents' home.
Brian looked rather smashing too in his dark suit; I wasn't used to seeing him so formally attired. He generally wore jeans and a blazer on duty. Pristine jeans, mind - I even suspected him of pressing them - and beautifully cut tweed blazers.
Thank you, sir. I accepted the peck on my cheek automatically.
Surreptitiously, I studied him. It's always interesting seeing that reflection of yourself in the people that your nearest and dearest want to set you up with. Brian was about my age, medium height and trim as a marine. His hair was dark and his eyes were that shade of blue that looks mostly gray. In some ways he reminded me of Chaz, my other longtime family-approved significant other. Brian was a bit edgier, and a lot more stubborn - er, forceful - than Chaz, but they shared similar values and world view. Oddly enough, it was a world view and values I shared with them.
New dress? Brian inquired. He was very good about noticing that kind of thing.
I shook my head. It's been in storage with the rest of my things.
It suits you. Very feminine. The green brings out your eyes.
Yes, it was difficult; Brian made no bones that he was interested, that for him it was not just friendship. He never overstepped the boundaries, but he didn't pretend either. He wasn't a man for playing games. That was one of the things I liked about him. But then, I liked many things about him.
I watched him being pleasant with my parents, watched the warm welcome they extended him, and I couldn't help thinking how much simpler my life would be .
So where are you taking me tonight? Brian inquired as we walked outside to my car.
Mélisse on Wilshire Blvd. And, no, before you ask, no, it's not Mexican. Try not to be too disappointed.
I am disappointed, he said. I suspect some addictive substance in that salsa they all make. But it's all right. I had tacos for lunch today.
I laughed, unlocking my car door. Yes, it was very easy with Brian.
Mélisse Restaurant was supposed to be one of the most romantic dining spots in Los Angeles, although this was not why I had picked it. At least, I didn't think that was why I had picked it. While I would never consider myself a foodie, I had gained new appreciation and knowledge of food through my relationship with Peter - and I say this as a woman who has battled her weight since adolescence.
The food at Mélisse was traditional French with a California flare; the wine list was fabulous, and the setting was comfortably chic. We were seated quickly. We ordered wine, and Brian asked, How's the research coming?
My mother's words in mind, I responded, It's fascinating.
Absolutely. Maybe I'm crazy but I find research seductive. I think I enjoy it more than the writing, to tell you the truth. I was supposed to be starting work on a book about the premier female poets of the Romantic period, but so far I'd been unable to whittle down the list of potential candidates to a realistic size.
And right on cue Brian asked, Have you settled on who you'll be writing about?
Not finally, no. It would be easier to go with the obvious choices: Felicia Hemans, Anna Letitia Barbauld, Charlotte Smith .
He'd heard this all a dozen times, of course. He said mildly, You wouldn't want to do the easy thing.
Ha. It's not just a matter of doing the easy thing. It's ground that's been covered, of course, but well worth re-examining. The thing is
I paused; Brian looked inquiring.
I feel terrible admitting this, but I don't feel inspired by these women the way I feel inspired by the works of Byron or Shelley or Keats. It seems disloyal to say it, but it's the truth.
That's because you've a soft spot for villains.
I shook my head, and Brian said, All right, remind me why you're writing this book again?
I leaned forward on my elbows, and Brian put a hand out to steady the table. I do tend to get a little carried away once I get going. To begin with, it's incredible to me that as well respected and popular as these women were during their own writing careers, they're virtually unheard of now. As well-read as I am in the Romantic period, even I'd heard of almost none of them before I began researching this book. They aren't even listed as minor poets. It's as though they never existed.
Maybe their work doesn't stand the test of time.
But it does. That's the thing. These are smart, talented, often courageous women who deserved to be remembered for their contribution to literature. They deserve our respect.
Is respect a substitute for passion?
I stared at him. No, I said slowly. It's not.
Brian looked a little puzzled, although he smiled. Our server came then and we ordered our meals, me opting for truffle-crusted imported Dover sole, and Brian deciding on the dry-aged Cote de Boeuf Roti.
How was the conference? I inquired after our wine glasses were replenished and our server had departed once more.
He settled back in his chair. Today it was mostly discussion of the UNESCO and UNIDROIT multilateral treaties.
Brian grinned. It's been interesting, but I admit I'm looking forward to going home. Any idea about when you're returning to Innisdale?
Realizing to my surprise that I had come to a decision, I said, I'm probably going to book my flight tomorrow evening. His smile caught me off guard. I-it's time I was getting back. I did hear this afternoon from Roberta Lom, the producer of Dangerous to Know, and she's invited me out to the set tomorrow. They're filming in Tehachapi of all places.
About as far away from the English Lake District as you can get - although it's apparently very green there this time of year. I can't imagine a small indie film company has much of a budget so shooting on location is out. I mean shooting on the actual location -- not that anyone shoots on actual location anymore. I think everyone goes to New Zealand or Romania to shoot on location now days.
Er right, Brian said cautiously. I thought they simply used computers.
Maybe they do. I'm not exactly an expert. Noticing I was about to monopolize the conversation again, I turned our talk back to Brian's conference.
Our meals came and for a brief time we were pleasantly occupied with food. Peter taught me to give a fine meal the appreciation it's due, and in fact, he'd have been right at home in this place with its muted romantic lighting, the gleaming Riedel flatware and Limoges china. Peter valued what he referred to as life's little civilities as much as he respected wonderful food, and our food that night was wonderful indeed: potato gnocchi, King Oyster mushrooms, and Jus De Cuisson Truffee. One melting bite of sole, and I realized that Mélisse's awards and reviews were well-earned.
Blinking back the haze of foodie fever, I became aware that Brian was studying me with a rather odd expression on his face.
Is something wrong? I glanced at his plate. Potato-leek torte, wild mushrooms, braised Boston Lettuce: it all looked perfect to me. It smelled perfect too.
Brian's gaze met mine and sheered away. I have something to tell you, and I've been trying to find the right way to say it.
A chill of premonition slithered down I's spine. What is it? Just tell me.
I received a phone call this afternoon from Chief Constable Heron.
Over the past two years I had come to think of the Chief Constable as a friend - or at least as close a friend as a copper could be to a woman whose intended was a former villain.
Staring at Brian's grave face I told myself that if something bad had happened Heron would call me directly. He wouldn't leave it to Brian to break truly bad news to me, would he?
But it was clearly not tidings of great joy about to be delivered.
Heart slamming against my breastbone in silent panic, I sat very still, very straight, waiting to hear whatever bad news this was. And? I asked, dry-mouthed.
Apparently someone tried to kill Peter Fox this morning.
Did the room's lighting suddenly dim? I managed, Is he all right?
Brian hesitated, and I barely felt the pain of my nails sinking into knotted my hands. It was all I could do not to give into the desire to scream at him. He said, after what felt like an eternity, No one knows. He's disappeared.
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Docketful of Poesy