Excerpt: Enemy Queen by Robert Steven Goldstein
It was palpable the moment I entered the North Carolina house. The place felt completely different. I stood, confused and motionless, trying to assimilate how the ambiance could have veered so drastically in so short a time.
I’d been gone for two weeks. Sydelle and I had each tacked five additional vacation days onto the end of the conference, during which we tooled around Chicago together, in the afternoons visiting museums and parks, and in the evenings drinking, dining, and taking in some of the city’s blues clubs.
Now that I was home, it felt in some ways more foreign than the hotel room I’d occupied for the fortnight. I lowered my suitcase and carry-on bag slowly onto the hardwood floor and gazed at the professor, who raised his head to look up at me. He smiled.
“There have been some changes, Counselor,” he said, then lowered his eyes to resume his work.
He sat on the sofa, the coffee table between him and myself. On the professor’s right shoulder, Barney the lovebird rested calmly, glancing periodically at me before returning his gaze to the side of the professor’s face. The wooden bird ladder, which the professor had mentioned but never built, now lay fully constructed across the professor’s lap. He was meticulously shaving one of its legs with a utility knife, tapering the dowel to match the ladder’s other side.
If the tableau before me were not already sufficiently surreal, what rested on the coffee table rendered it even more so. The professor’s chastity device lay sprawled on the table, the shackle of its tiny lock sliced in pieces. Alongside sat a large pair of metal cutters with slightly rusted iron blades. I recognized the tool; I had seen it many times, hanging on the back wall of the garage, along with the professor’s handsaws, axes, and large hammers.
Barney teethed gently on the professor’s earlobe.
“Where’s Victoria?” I asked.
“She’s gone, Counselor.”
“Gone? Where? Where did she go?”
“I couldn’t say, Counselor.”
His quiet nonchalance confounded me. I raised my voice just a bit. “She has to be somewhere, Professor. I’d like to know where she went.”
The professor looked up from his whittling and spoke softly. “I only know that she’s gone, Counselor. More than that, I couldn’t say.”
“So she ran off and just left Barney here? Alone with you? That makes no sense.”
“When did that woman ever make any sense, Counselor?”
A bottle of red wine and a half-filled glass sat on the table next to the chastity device. “Grab yourself a glass and sit down,” the professor said with a tranquil grin. “I’ll pour you some wine. It’s an excellent pinot.”
I sighed and stared blankly at the professor for a moment before acquiescing to his offer. I took a wineglass from the hutch and sat down in the easy chair across from him. He leaned over and filled my glass, then resumed fine-tuning the wood in his lap.
I took a sip. “I see you finally built that ladder for the bird,” I said.
“Indeed, and he’s taken to it famously.”
“You and Barney appear to have redefined your relationship.”
“Yes, Counselor. Once Victoria left, it all seemed to fall into place rather effortlessly.”
“When exactly did she leave?” I probed.
“Oh, about a week ago.”
He took a hearty swig of the pinot. “What happened . . . let’s see . . . well . . . hunting season started . . . and I had no one to go with . . . and she expressed some interest. So I took her. That was the last thing she and I did together.”
“And she just left after that?”
I drank some more wine and tried to slow my thought processes. Too many ideas were firing simultaneously. Many of those ideas harkened back to a seemingly arcane discussion I recalled during which Big Al Rider extolled the professor’s preternatural ability to render completely undetectable a hunting site where an animal had been killed and butchered.
I again scrutinized the paraphernalia on the table. “I notice you had to cut through the lock, Professor, to get the chastity device off. She didn’t take it off you, or give you the key before she left?”
“No, the bitch didn’t. In retrospect, though, would you have expected her to? Insane as she was?”
I said nothing. I paused and attempted to methodically process all the information I had gleaned since arriving, but nothing cohesive or coherent emerged.
“Would you like to play a game of chess?” the professor asked.
“No, thanks, Professor,” I said. “It was a long flight. I think I’ll take a shower and get into bed.”
“Masturbate and go to sleep?” he queried with an impish snigger. “We can do that again now.”
“I suppose we can,” I said wearily. I grabbed my suitcase and carry-on bag and shuffled slowly up the stairs. There were so many more questions I needed to ask. But posing them now would have been akin to conducting a legal deposition without my having first reviewed the facts and strategized the tack of my inquiry. It was better left for another day.
“Goodnight, Professor,” I mumbled.
“Sleep well, my friend,” he replied exuberantly. Barney hooted softly in consent.
* * *
I returned to work the next day. Too many deliverables had piled up in my absence to allow me to partake in my customary midday workout at the university’s gym, but I did make time at noon to walk briskly across campus to the hospital building. Its Medical Records Department was on the basement level. I followed the labyrinthine vestibules to the director’s office. As was invariably the case at noon, Big Al Rider was behind his desk, gnawing ferociously on an enormous meat and cheese sandwich, washing each mouthful down with a long swig of Coca-Cola from a plastic half-gallon bottle.
“Stanley!” he exclaimed, expectorating tiny morsels of chewed edibles onto an open document on his desk. He stood up, swallowed what remained in his mouth, and extended his hand. It engulfed mine completely as we shook.
“And to what do ah owe the privilege of a visit from our esteemed chief legal counsel?” He chortled, motioning for me to sit down.
“Good to see you too, Al,” I said. “That looks like quite a hero you’re eating.”
“Oh, sorry,” I said. “That’s my old Manhattan lingo. It dies hard. Submarine sandwiches are called heroes in New York City. That’s how we all knew them growing up. Anyway, sorry to interrupt your lunch, Al, but I have a favor to ask you.”
“Happy to oblige, Stanley. Wha’ d’yah need?”
“I was wondering if you might ask your daughter, Tiffany, whether she’s heard from Victoria lately. I know they worked together and were kind of friendly. I’d be curious if Tiffany knows where Vicki is and how I might contact her.”
“She ain’t livin’ with y’all anymore?”
“Evidently not, Al. I came back yesterday from a two-week visit to Chicago for a conference and learned that she’d moved out.”
“And Tommy doesn’t know where?”
“No, he doesn’t appear to.”
“Well, that sure is strange, Stanley. But I’ll be happy to ask Tiff. She’s still very grateful to yah fo’ the weddin’, yah know.”
“It was my pleasure. Just please give me a call when you’ve had a chance to talk to her. I really appreciate it, Al.”
“No problem, Counselor. You take care now.”
On my way back to my office, I bought a chicken salad sandwich at the student union café. I ate it at my desk as I struggled to work through the piles of papers and folders that had accumulated during my time away. But every time I forced myself to focus on the work in front of me, I’d find myself, just a few minutes later, staring blankly ahead, pondering a myriad of possibilities surrounding Victoria’s disappearance.
At about five o’clock, I called the professor and told him I would not be home for dinner. I explained that I needed to stay because I had so much work to catch up on. But in truth, I was well aware I’d get little or no work done that night. The professor graciously offered to save me a plate to eat when I got home, but I told him I’d pick up some Chinese food to have at my desk instead.
I just wasn’t ready to face him.
When I made my run to the Chinese restaurant, I noticed a cheap bottle of sake in their chiller beside the beer. I procured it along with my shrimp chow mein and Szechuan eggplant.
I lingered at my office till ten that night. The bottle of sake was depleted long before I left.