The statue began to resemble Callie. The block of Italian marble, slightly off-white to accentuate her curves, responded well as I carefully chiseled away the excess stone around her.
I was an amateur, but I was fortunate to have an outstanding teacher, the sculptor Antonio Cabral. He often reminded me, “Just keep using your chisels until you get to what is inside the marble and then stop.”
After the first twenty times he repeated it, I said, “Didn’t Michelangelo say that?”
“Maybe. And Noel Coward said that thinking up brilliant things to say is nothing. Knowing when to say them is everything. Or something like that.”
The life-size nude was an ambitious undertaking. I planned to give it to Callie on our wedding night. There was no chance that I’d ever produce anything that resembled Antonio’s work. Still, I wasn’t dissatisfied when I stepped back and saw that the statue was close to the image I held in my imagination.
Sculpting demanded all my attention. In return, it locked out memories of things I wish I could change. Also, opportunities I let slip away. To avoid distractions, my studio was at the back of my estate. It contained only my tools and the most minimum security.
I wiped my hands. Suddenly, I felt a low-wattage jolt of electricity race through me. It was like the feeling you might experience if you were racing down a flight of stairs and, in the instant before you fell, your body realized you had missed a step. I’d experienced the same type of feeling before. It was a warning. I have no idea why I ignored it that night.
Four nights ago, I handed the keys to my fifty-five Falcon to the valet at Jackson Aurelian’s restaurant on Shattuck Avenue. Three of America’s other finest restaurants were all within walking distance. Jackson’s location was a testament to his confidence and the trust of his friends who invested in the restaurant.
When Jackson, pushing his Haitian sense of whimsy to the limit, named his restaurant The Ahh Baloney Café, all of his friends, including me, had tried to talk him out of it. Now, six days a week, there was a month’s wait for a reservation, and his abalone baloney sold out every night.
I walked into the unassuming dining room and saw Callie waiting at our table. She looked like a blazing campfire in a room full of candles.
“You are a monster,” she said.
I kissed her and sat across from her.
“Can you possibly imagine what it’s like to sit here hungry, watching servers carrying Jackson’s creations to other tables?”
“You’re being dramatic,” I said. “I can’t believe Jackson let you sit here with nothing to eat. That would fly in the face of his religious beliefs.”
“Of course, I had a little something, but I’m starving. I’ve been waiting for you to share the experience.”
“You are, as always, too kind.”
“Monster,” she said.
“Deep apologies. Aram had me on a conference call with Apple. You can’t imagine how they go on.”
“Who? Aram or the Apple people? I know how Aram goes on when he’s talking about computers. At least, I think he’s talking about computers.”
AB’s impeccable headwaiter, Henry, appeared. He was also an excellent sommelier.
“The wine, Mr. Case?”
“You choose something, Henry. Something extra special tonight.”
“Of course,” he said in a tone that indicated my request was unnecessary.
A well-trained server brought us two bowls of Haitian Consommé a l’Orange. We didn’t need to order. Jackson would send out the food. The moment I placed a spoonful of consommé onto my tongue, I silently thanked Jackson’s parents for the night that produced him. I hoped it gave them a fitting preview of the pleasure they were about to bring into the world.
Callie was absorbed in her meal with a single-minded intensity.
I wanted to marry her, but I was nervous that it was too soon to ask. It wasn’t easy to predict her reaction whenever I tried to let her know how I felt. One moment, she was giving me everything, and then, suddenly, it was as if she turned into some charming woman that I’d just met.
Her father was Brazilian, her mother Irish. I never met anyone who was as full of life. I watched her devour the consommé. Long strands of her golden hair were in danger of falling inside the edges of the bowl. Her sea-green eyes shone with a pleasure mirrored on her full, smiled-shaped lips.
She was wearing a sleeveless pale green dress, cut low in both the front and the back, accenting her assets. Simply looking at her sent fiery jolts of desire racing through me.
She felt me staring at her and looked up. She swallowed.
“What?” she said.
“You’ve got a bit of consommé on your chin.”
“Consider yourself fortunate,” she said in her mild Portuguese accent.
She reached for her napkin.
“This is so good I almost stuck my whole face into it.”
I laughed a bit too loudly. She tilted her head and studied me.
“Not so funny, Case,” she said. “Something’s on the mind, no?”
She waited for me to respond. I locked eyes with her for what seemed like a long time. Any trepidation about the right moment faded away. All that remained was the certainty that I had no doubts.
“I love you,” I said, trying to remember exactly how I wanted to say it. “More than anything I’ve ever loved, and more than anything I will ever love.”
She assumed the pose of a movie ingénue, head slightly tilted back and to the side, eyes looking off into the distance over my right shoulder.
“It’s not something I get tired of hearing,” she said with a small sigh.
There it was. Her way of telling me I was coming too close. She was covering up, trying to keep me from asking too much. However, this time I wasn’t letting go.
“I need serious now,” I said.
I watched her decide. She came back to me, and her foot touched my ankle under the table.
I reached into my pocket and took out the ring, a two-and-a-half carat flawless yellow diamond set in an antique band. The jeweler told me it would get a reaction and, when I placed it on the table in front of her, it did.
“Callie, we can get married in private tomorrow, or you can have hundreds of guests and everything that goes with them. Have it any way you want, though you know Jackson would have a stroke if we picked someone else for the food. I know you’re unwilling to share some things, but I don’t care. There’s nothing you could tell me that would change my mind. I’m not the best man in the world, but you’ll never find another more willing to make your life everything it can be. Not to mention the fact that I laugh at your jokes.”
She was staring at the ring. She looked like a woman standing on the ledge of a tall building, deciding whether to jump or turn and walk away. I waited silently, as tense as if I was watching her on that ledge from a few feet away. I knew there was nothing more I could do or say to help her decide.
“The thing you said about how you laugh at my stupid jokes. That has to be, how do you say it, a clincher,” she said. “Besides, Michael, you are the best man in the world.”
Then she said, “But I don’t want City Hall. I need time.”
“Say, ‘Yes,’ and then take all the time you need.”
“Yes,” she said.
I’ve always suspected that Jackson trained the servers at AB to read lips. Less than a minute later, he arrived at our table, dressed in his chef’s whites, stained by his evening’s work. He was expertly opening a bottle of Bollinger Special Cuvée.
I’d met him the first night I arrived in California. He’d shaved off his thick beard, leaving only a constant covering of short stubble. His hair was shorter now. Except for that, he looked the same as when we bumped into each other at an otherwise dull party.
He was shorter than me, about five-eleven, and thin, something that never ceased to amaze everyone. His metabolism ran on overdrive. Friends found it annoying that he could enjoy a giant ice cream sundae at midnight and wake up two pounds lighter in the morning.
He had a dark complexion and deep brown eyes. With his hooked nose and heavy jaw, no one had ever accused him of being too handsome, but that never seemed to trouble women. There’s a widely held notion that writers and chefs always seem to find themselves surrounded by the most beautiful women, and Jackson proved it to be true. If you’re looking for a way to a woman’s heart, start with words, and then seal the deal with a savory home-cooked meal.
Jackson’s most prominent feature was his limitless energy. There were times when I heard him say he was tired, but it never seemed to prevent him from personally attending to every minor detail that lifts a restaurant from excellent to extraordinary.
Two hours after we met, we both knew we’d be friends, and now we had four solid years behind us.
“I don’t believe it,” he said, expertly pouring the champagne. “Honestly, I never thought it would happen, but I suspected his time was up five minutes after I met you, Callie. Well, all I can say is that he’s lucky he asked you and even luckier you said, ‘Yes.’ I was waiting in the kitchen, and the way you look tonight if you had said, ‘No,’ I was ready to make my pitch.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Callie said to Jackson. “How could you possibly be in love with me? I’m not smothered in pepper sauce! Even so, I’m glad you waited until now to bare your soul because the choice would have been much too hard. You’re both so incredibly handsome, strong, and charming.”
“Don’t stop now,” Jackson said. “You’re rolling downhill and gaining speed.”
“Let’s see,” Callie said. “I read in a magazine last week that you have a good man if he puts the cap back on the toothpaste and the toilet seat down when he’s finished.”
“Don’t you believe it,” Jackson said. “In this town, where can you find a straight guy who lifts the seat before he begins?”
In my studio, I smiled at Jackson’s line once again. I banged my hands against my overalls and watched the marble dust blow into the air.
I stepped out the door onto the grass just in time to see Callie emerge from the back of the house.
“There you are,” she said.
“As are you,” I said.
I opened my arms wide.
“Come here for a proper hello, future wife.”
“Not a chance. You’re covered in dust from head to toe. What are you doing in there? Sculpting a Rolls Royce?”
“You might say that.”
“All right, then. Just close enough to kiss me.”
I leaned towards her and caught the scent of Pineapple and Rum on her breath. She leaned back and giggled. She jumped up and down slightly. Callie was usually in a good mood, but I’d never seen her act positively giddy.
“You’ve been drinking. You didn’t drive up here?”
She looked around.
“I have a big surprise for you.”
“Really? How about telling me all about it in the shower?”
“Oh no. That would spoil everything. But I tell you what. You go and get cleaned up, be sure to put on a bathing suit, and then come down and take a swim with me.”
“Well, that sounds like a plan.”
The vid on a nearby stand hovered up.
That gave me just enough time to say, “Case.”
It floated over and stopped a short distance from my face.
“Mr. Case, Fred here. Your perimeter alarms and video surveillance went out without warning. You should be in a safe room. A security team is on the way.”
I looked up at the inconspicuous area where a small red light was blinking. I raised one eyebrow at Callie.
“Guilty,” she said, a bit too loudly.
Then she leaned in close to my ear.
“Okay. I turned off the perimeter security. Believe it or not, there are some things I’d rather not have Fred or Louie see.”
“Fred, the code word for today is Archie. I’m placing my wrist on the vid. Cancel the alert. I’ll turn on the outdoor cameras and alarms in an hour.”
“You know I can’t allow that, Mr. Case. If Dr. Cooper finds out, he’ll have my head.”
“Dr. Cooper doesn’t have to know, does he? I mean, even Dr. Cooper can’t know everything. Tell you what, Frank, you know those Cuban Cigars you like so much and the forty-year-old scotch that goes so well with them? How about five boxes and two bottles get delivered to your home tomorrow morning?”
“An hour?” he said.
“I guess it’s okay,” he said, sounding like he was sure it wasn’t. “But, no matter what, everything goes back on in sixty.”
“No problem, Fred. Vid down.”
The vid hovered back to its stand.
“As for you,” I said, turning to Callie.
“An hour isn’t a very long time,” she said. “The more of it you spend lecturing me, the less of it we’ll have together, and I mean very together, in the pool.”
“Use the closest downstairs shower,” she said. “No peeking.”
As I began walking towards the house, Callie said, “Oh, and one more thing. Do you remember what Jackson said? About wanting to marry me?”
“You haven’t changed your mind, have you? Decided to go with him instead of me? Was it the Griot that he somehow managed to make without pork?”
“No, I haven’t changed my mind. But, after he’s done at the restaurant tonight, can you get him to come up here? We’ll have something to celebrate, and I’m hoping he’ll whip up something wonderful.”
“Jackson wouldn’t know how to whip up anything else.”
I went into the house and stepped into the bathroom. After pulling off my clothes, I pushed them through the door of the clothes processor. I stepped into the large shower and spoke my preferred temperature. The six water jets, four soap jets, and nine drying jets made quick work of the marble dust.
I stepped out of the shower naked and thought about simply stepping out of the house the same way. But Callie had said I should wear a bathing suit.
I walked to the closet area.
“Bathing suit, dark blue,” I said.
The pool and the surrounding grounds were empty. I checked my watch. I’d been away for about ten minutes.
“Callie?” I shouted.
“Full-house intercom,” I said. “Callie, I’m at the pool now. Where are you?”
“Okay,” I said. “I’m going to do some laps. Time’s running. Forty minutes and counting.”
The lighting around the pool reproduced a moonlit night. There was a shallow end, about six feet long. Then the depth dropped quickly to twenty feet. Stepping into the shallow end, I followed with a horizontal dive. Turning over, I looked through the pool’s one-way cover at the night sky, luminescent with stars.
I began swimming laps with an even energy-conserving stroke, going up and down the length of the pool at least four times before I changed my style and swam with my face submerged in the clear water. As I approached the edge of the deep end, the pool lights provided just enough illumination for me to make out a vague shape at the bottom.
I dove down to get a better view.
When I saw her, I thought she was playing some stupid trick on me.
Was this her idea of a surprise? That she could hold her breath underwater and scare the hell out of me? My mind wouldn’t accept the expression frozen on her face as her hair floated around it. No bubbles escaped from her nose or mouth. Her eyes were open, doll-like, and empty.
I was choking, unaware that I had screamed her name under the water. Grabbing her shoulders, I pulled her to the surface and dragged her out of the water. I started CPR, but I knew she had been in the pool the entire time I swam laps over her. The thought forced me to push down the bile that rose in my throat. As I blew air into Callie’s slack mouth, I knew it was too late. It was much too late.
I stopped and stared at her, hoping I would wake up.
My mind wouldn’t accept that Callie was gone. Forever.
“No, that can’t be,” I said to the empty night air.
It wasn’t right. Time needed to back up. She’ll be alive, and I’ll stop this. I’ll protect her. We’ll be together like we planned. In this world filled with security vids and advertising follows, it was hard to feel you were ever alone. But without Callie, I’d be alone for the rest of my life.
The night was suddenly cold. I wanted to lie next to her.
I said, “Vid Up. Level One.”
Fred came on immediately.
“Mr. Case,” he said calmly. “I cannot ignore that.”
Level One was roughly equivalent to the outdated 9-1-1.
“Fred, get an ambulance and the police.”
Fred said, “It’s done. Our team will be there before them.”
There was nothing else to say.
“It doesn’t matter,” I said.
I stood up, took a few steps, and fell to my knees. Images exploded in my mind. I watched Callie struggling during the last seconds of her life, her unblinking eyes under the water, my mouth on her lifeless lips, trying to change the unchangeable.
People rushed in. A powerful light blinded me. A woman with a professional-sounding voice spoke to me in a gentle tone.
“Mr. Case, my name is Olivia. I’m in charge of a Cooper Emergency Response Team. Our doctor is working on her. The police will arrive in a few seconds. Just sit tight. Everything’s under control.”
I got up, wanting to get to Callie. Olivia stood in my way.
“You can’t go over there. My team’s working.”
“Get out of my way.”
She touched my shoulder. The STAY hit my bloodstream, and she gently lowered me to the ground.
“You’ll be back to normal in about ten minutes,” she said.
I couldn’t move. Of course, I couldn’t speak. But my eyes let Olivia know she was wrong. Nothing would ever be normal again.