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Claudia's Shadow

One

Every Saturday morning after breakfast, while still in her pajamas, she cleaned the apartment. She changed the sheets, then put fresh towels in the bathroom, tossing the items to be laundered in a pile by the front door. Donning rubber gloves, she scoured the bathroom before moving on to the small Pullman kitchen. After dusting the living room and bedroom, she vacuumed. And finally, sweaty but satisfied, she added her pajamas to the laundry in the front hall and headed for the shower.

She'd just finished dressing and was about to dry her hair when the telephone rang. She picked up the bedroom extension to hear Ian Hodges say, "Rowena?" and she knew—her stomach went hollow and her shoulders tensed—that she was about to hear bad news. Ian was the manager of her sister Claudia's restaurant and would have no other reason to call except to convey something dreadful.

"What's happened?" She was suddenly, arbitrarily frightened.

"This is very difficult, Rowena," he said, and her fear deepened because she knew he was trying to find words that would lessen the impact of the blow he was about to deliver.

"Just tell me, Ian." She needed to know, to begin dealing with the facts.

"Claudia failed to show up at the restaurant last night. I tried ringing her but there was no answer. I thought it odd but then odd things happen as a matter of course with your sister. When she still wasn't answering this morning, I thought I'd better come round to check. I had the spare set of keys from the restaurant, you see." His voice became heavier as his upset manifested itself. "I'm sorry, Rowena, but it appears she's committed suicide."

"Oh my God!" she exclaimed, while the voice inside her head declared that of the many possible things she might do, Claudia would never kill herself. "How?" she asked, as immediately skeptical as she would have been had Claudia herself been calling to suggest an impromptu dinner together. In her entire life Claudia had never done anything without considering beforehand all the possible ramifications and permutations; she was a plotter, someone who never succumbed to impulse but who was always looking to see what possible benefit to her there might be in whatever she did.

"Could you come?" Ian was asking. "I've identified her, but the police would like to speak to her next of kin."

"Yes, of course," Rowena agreed, her brain spinning. "I'll leave right away."

"Oh, good. Thank you."

She hung up to find herself trying to go in several directions at once. She moved to pick up the receiver again, to call somebody but couldn't think who; at the same time she started toward the bathroom to dry her wet hair but abandoned that idea and went for her coat and keys. Her body seemed to want to act independently, according to its own agenda, while her mind was struggling to comprehend the idea of Claudia as a suicide. It was impossible, could never happen.

Hurrying to the hall, she kicked aside the laundry to open the closet door, grabbed the nearest jacket and began pulling it on as she ran into the kitchen for her handbag and keys.

Impossible, could not be, she told herself, locking the apartment door before rushing to the elevator. Inconceivable. Claudia dead. A suicide? Never. Claudia was too tenacious to die, too fixed on sucking the last bit of juice out of life, too young and successful and good-looking to die. Claudia would not take her own life. Rowena could imagine someone murdering her sister in a rage, but she would never have killed herself.

Ordinarily the drive from downtown Stamford to the house in Norwalk would have taken twenty minutes. Today Rowena made it in twelve. She sped up I-95 fully expecting to be pulled over, and had a speech prepared about how she'd just received news of her sister's death. But typically everyone was going well over the limit and there wasn't a police car to be seen.

As she approached the house the collection of official vehicles—fire rescue truck, ambulance, police cruiser—parked out front at haphazard angles, and a few curious neighbors gazing over their hedges at the house confirmed what she'd been working to deny: Claudia actually was dead.

The front door stood open and she paused on the threshold gazing in at the uniformed men milling about in the foyer, and at Ian to one side, head lowered, in conversation with a policeman. A very attractive man, Ian, always impeccably dressed; tall and slim, with an interesting face—intelligent, deep-set hazel eyes, long nose, a rather thin mouth, a strong chin. Yet he was oddly sexless as only, in her opinion, certain British men could be. She'd wondered for a time if he might be gay but had concluded fairly early on that he was simply neutral. If he'd been a country, he'd have been Switzerland: appealing, well-maintained, charming, but impartial.

She felt dizzy, dislocated, as if she were standing behind a thick plate of glass that muted all sounds and slightly distorted everything on the other side.

Ian looked up and saw her, their eyes holding for a long, fraught moment. Then he came over. She hugged him, and he murmured, "I'm so sorry, Rowena. This is frightful."

Strange. This man she'd met a few dozen times over the years who had always been the living essence of British propriety with his brisk handshakes and deferential smiles was so rattled that he'd bypassed the usual formalities and was communicating with her in the language of physical gestures. People hugged a lot at funerals. She remembered the way everyone had embraced her and Claudia at their mother's service twelve years before. Formerly reticent friends, both of theirs and their mother's, had suffered a loss of coherency and had to rely on their bodies to convey their sadness. Most of the people who'd known Jeanne Graham had loved her, except those who'd had to live with her, particularly Claudia. What Claudia had felt for their mother was something Rowena could not say with any accuracy. Claudia's true feelings—if she had any—were hidden beneath so many layers of artifice it was rarely possible to perceive them.

"Are you the sister?" one of the officers asked as Rowena stepped back from Ian.

She nodded, her mind like a heavy pudding lodged in the basin of her skull.

"Mr., uhm, Hodges here's already identified her, but if you wouldn't mind … ?"

God! She minded! She didn't want to see her younger sister dead, a supposed suicide. But again her body had its own will and was following the uniformed officer up the carpeted stairs to the master suite. Dread made it hard for her to breathe; her legs were heavy. All she'd ever wanted was a quiet life, to be left alone. She hadn't an illusion to her name, hadn't had since the age of twelve or so. But being Claudia's sister meant you were scheduled for drama whether you craved it or not. It was the result of being the only pragmatically rational member of the family, the plain one, the one with small ambitions and no interest in power, no urge to bend others to her will. She'd simply wanted to be able to go to her job and take a trip each summer to someplace exotic. She wasn't even particularly interested in men anymore, not after all the years of Claudia making an ugly game of actively pursuing the few men Rowena had managed to attract. And the thought of having children and subjecting them, no matter how peripherally or infrequently, to their grandmother or their aunt Claudia had made her cringe.

Well, that was certainly no longer an issue. She could start breeding tomorrow were she not too old and lacking a partner. I don't want to do this, she thought, aware of her feet moving her along the worn carpet of the hallway, on her way to see Claudia in this house that had scarcely changed since their childhood. Which was odd, considering Claudia's outrageous maneuvering to obtain it. She'd embarked upon a campaign to persuade their dying mother to alter her will, leaving the house and the bulk of the not inconsiderable liquid assets to her. And, through a skillful exploitation of Jeanne's guilt, she had succeeded.

Crushed but unsurprised, Rowena had taken her comparatively small inheritance and invested it carefully in mutual funds, using the interest to pay her living expenses and telling herself that Claudia was welcome to the old family home. They had never been much of a family, and the house had never been a home. Yet once she'd gained possession of the place Claudia had done only what was required to keep it functioning, proving conclusively to Rowena that it had been no more than another prize in another convoluted and incomprehensible game Claudia had played, and won. Twelve years later the house had a decidedly dated air, as if someone well into her seventies had resided here, not a woman of thirty-seven.

Rowena stood in the master bedroom doorway, mouth open, fists shoved deep into her jacket pockets. Claudia lay on the bed, her back to the door. I can't do this. The officer had gone to the far side of the bed and was waiting for Rowena to come make her identification, and she felt sick. She would throw up if she had to look at her sister's face in death. Bad enough seeing that too-thin arm bent at the elbow, the deep curve where Claudia's back dipped low at her waist before rising again to her hip. Thin, thin. Claudia's favorite aphorism: You can't be too rich or too thin. I can't do this. Fully dressed and under the bedclothes. Claudia would never have climbed into bed with all her clothes on. She had rigid habits, one of which was to remove her clothes before getting into bed. It was a thing with her, like so many other things: her categoric refusal to do anything on the spur of the moment (she had to have sufficient time to dress appropriately for any occasion); her obsessive concern with her looks (she couldn't resist any opportunity to look at herself, be it in a mirror, a shop window, or the side of a toaster); her bottomless appetite for expensive gewgaws (a Louis Vuitton checkbook cover, a Tiffany money clip, a Cartier key ring); her instant interest in anyone or anything belonging to someone she considered inferior (she considered everyone inferior and thought nothing of seducing a good friend's husband or lover); her need to win over anyone she thought worthy of her attention in order that she could, eventually, prove the person's true unworthiness by playing him or her for a fool. The list was long.

"Is this your sister?" the officer was asking.

Rowena nodded and with a dry mouth said, "Yes."

"Would you mind stepping closer?"

I would, I do mind! She took a few steps, stopped. She could now see the edge of Claudia's face, and had an impression of terrible pallor. The policeman was watching, frowning slightly, expecting her to come right to the side of the bed; expecting, perhaps, to see her display some measure of sorrow. But all she could show was shock. All she felt was disbelief. "Was there a note?" she asked.

"If there was, we haven't found it." He looked directly down at Claudia, as if unable to absorb the fact that such a beautiful woman could really be dead. "But the prescription was hers. She had it refilled a week ago." He indicated the bedside table where there sat an empty plastic vial, a bottle of Chivas Regal, and a glass. "Nothing to indicate anything funny, but we'll wait for the assistant medical examiner to get here. He'll cite cause of death, or order an autopsy. Just the two of you?"

Baffled, unable now to stop gazing at this rear view of her sister, the question failed to compute. Claudia and Chivas Regal? A jarring combination she couldn't consider properly because the man's question was fouling her mental circuitry. Then she got it and said, "That's right. I'm her older sister. We had a brother." Her mouth was running independently now. "But he died a very long time ago." The words dried, her mouth stopped moving, and she felt the pain of that loss—the real pain, the real loss, even after so many years.

Her mother and sister had been like cartoon figures to her, too large for the kind of quiet reality she'd long craved. From a very young age, she believed she'd been born into the wrong family. Cary had escaped early. People might not think death by drowning at the age of eleven could conceivably be good but, perhaps for him, it had been, because he'd been too gentle and good-natured to have survived intact. Even at the age of eight, clad in stiff black serge for Cary's funeral, Rowena had envied her brother, thinking how lucky he was to have managed to get away. She knew somehow that she'd never be so lucky.

"We'll have to wait for the assistant M.E.," the officer said again, mercifully releasing her from having to stare any longer at Claudia's unyielding back. "I think your friend made some coffee," he said when they got to the top of the stairs, allowing her to precede him down.

What friend? she wondered, very confused, then realized he meant Ian. And she could all at once smell the coffee, and followed its homey, tantalizing aroma to the kitchen, the officer right behind her.

With an apologetic dip of his shoulders, Ian said, "I thought I should," as he indicated the coffee maker. "Will you have some, Rowena?"

"Yes, please." She sat down at the marble-topped table, shivering at the feel of her damp hair on the back of her neck. "Do you still smoke, Ian?"

"Would you like one?" He reached into his pocket for a pack of imported Silk Cut 100s and a small disposable lighter.

"Thank you." She accepted a cigarette, and then a light. The first inhalation made her head swim and she sat very still, concentrating on not toppling off her chair as Ian opened one of the cupboards and got a heavy crystal ashtray which he placed on the table before lighting a cigarette himself.

"Guess you folks won't mind if I light up," the officer said with a grateful, conspiratorial we-smokers-against-the-world smile.

"No," Rowena said. "Have some coffee. Sit down."

"First lemme tell the ambo guys and fire fighters they can take off." Authoritative but pleasant, the policeman went to confer with the sundry uniformed men milling about in the foyer while Ian poured three cups of coffee, set them on an enamel tray with cream and sugar, and carried it over to the table. He seemed hesitant, and Rowena said, "Please sit down, Ian."

Searching her eyes, he slid into a chair. "I'm afraid I don't know what to say. I'm stunned. Of course, anything I can do to help … "

"I'm sure there'll be something." She took another puff of the cigarette. If she wasn't careful, she'd be smoking again, after three years' abstinence. "I can't believe this was suicide," she said. "There's no note. She'd have left one. She would have, absolutely." She could imagine the kind of unsubtle recriminations her sister would have committed to paper in a final attempt to control and wound those around her. Claudia liked hurting people. But she was mystified and distressed when the people she'd hurt turned on her or, worse, simply swallowed their bile and walked away without looking back. There was a part of Claudia that wanted to care and to be cared for. But that part of her seemed to have no connection to the one that had to do damage, so that often she seemed genuinely bewildered by the outrage she inspired in people who had trusted her. Countless times Rowena had heard her sister innocently say, "But what did I do?" As if she hadn't fed her latest victim an insidious diet of half-truths, outright lies and genuine affection.

But perhaps Claudia had managed to create a few real friendships. Certainly Ian appeared shattered, though maybe that was due to the shock of finding Claudia dead. Rowena was shocked herself, positively shaken, as if the ground beneath her which she'd always assumed was solid had suddenly turned to liquid and was threatening to submerge her. Claudia dead. An utterly alien concept. "I can't believe it." She shook her head, then drank some of the strong coffee.

"I know," Ian agreed quietly, gazing at the tabletop. "It's entirely too sudden, too unexpected."

"She never drank Chivas Regal."

Without raising his eyes, he said, "On occasion she did."

That wasn't true. Claudia disliked whiskey. But Rowena could scarcely argue the point now.

The police officer—Brian Kelly according to his name bar—came to the table, lit a cigarette, and added cream and sugar to his coffee before asking, "Your sister have a will?"

"It's in the top drawer of her dresser," Rowena answered, gripped by the absurdity of all this. Her sister was dead, and she was sitting in the kitchen of her childhood home, discussing Claudia's will. "Why?"

"Formality. We're supposed to ask, in case there are special requests—funeral arrangements, that kind of thing. I'll go get it, if you don't mind."

"I don't mind. She always said she wanted to be cremated." Rowena looked first at the officer and then at Ian, who nodded as if he'd also been told that. She felt cold and very thin, as if she'd lost weight in the last hour. Dead. Claudia. Impossible. If she had any way to locate her father she'd call to tell him. But he'd left them the year before Cary died and no one had known since then how to contact him. For all she knew, he might be dead, too. Sad, sad. What a dismal excuse for a family they'd been! And now she was the only one left.

Officer Kelly came back with the blue-jacketed copy of Claudia's will. "Hope you don't mind," he said, scanning it quickly. "Dated this year, and you're named as her executor, Rowena."

His calling her by name personalized the event as nothing else had. Holding the cigarette to her mouth, she turned her head away as tears, abrupt and unbidden, spilled from her eyes. Poor goddamned Claudia was dead.

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