8 January 2015
22 MARIANA’S DROP OF WINE
Harry wasn’t very impressed when I called and told him I wasn’t coming into the office. He was quiet for a moment and I could imagine the office as a scene of elastic contentment. Not much noise, just people writing or reviewing. Christine smiling from over in the sports section. A poster of a sportsman in his shorts was pinned up next to a thoroughbred hitting the finishing post at speed. Diana looking up and down, sizing up the facts in front of her. Glen looking anxiously at the clock, probably checking Neil’s story from the council meeting; one ear on the police radio.
‘Where are you? We need to discuss how we’re going to approach the story from last night,’ Harry said.
‘I thought that’d been decided, besides I’ve got bit of a problem.’
‘Okay, but just give me the edited highlights.’
I quickly told Harry about how I had been told off the record that Brand knocked his wife about recently.
‘On or off the record?’
‘Background really, I guess.’
‘A helluva a lot of use that is to us, Bill. You need to get here now so we can put this story together.’
I remained silent for a moment.
‘Are you still there? When can we expect you? Either come in now or we’re going with Diana’s story.’
‘Harry, I’ve just got to go and do something. Can you hold it?’
The last thing I heard was Harry using lots of swear words, effing this and effing that.
Instead of turning into town I took the road to Brandsville. Climbing the road up through the bush this morning seemed like being elevated to a new world through clean washed bush. The rain had stopped and as I came out on to the plateau and turned to go into Brand Place the sun came through the morning sky. Down through the bush I could see the beach in the distance, where the heavy surf awaited an offshore wind to form up waves. I stood by the car for a moment, thinking ‘tomorrow’.
Ros and the Prof wouldn’t be home for a while at least. I was confident of Ros’s persuasive powers; that was my gamble anyway. I rang the bell but it was silent, so I softly knocked on the door so as to avoid alarming the occupant. Mariana Brand opened the door just as I was about to turn and go back to the office. It’s true she had that beauty many men desire and many women crave. Almost as tall as me, with a long, angular face and deep brown eyes. But this morning the eyes looked nearly dead, as though they needed the kind of CPR only a night at The Strand could revive. I felt sorry for a moment about what I was going to attempt to put her through. So I started with the obvious.
‘Hello, I’m William Brown from the Last Newspaper in the World. I’m really sorry to bother you at this time but I really need your help.’
‘Yes, how can I help you Bill? Why so formal now? Of course you met Ros this morning. I asked her to talk to you.’
‘Oh, okay. Can we talk?’
She held up her phone, languidly giving it a wave in front of me, smiling slightly.
‘See, it’s okay. Ros has already sent me a message. She says maybe I can trust you. Can I trust you Bill?’
Can I trust myself? I thought, but looked straight at Mariana, nodded the reassurance that, of course, she could. I think it must have been underwhelming, because she hesitated for a moment, then turned and walked through the hall without saying anything. I stepped through the open doorway and followed quickly. Pictures of old settlers hung on the walls down the hall. Doors led off to a bedroom on either side. The doors were closed so I couldn’t see the bedding arrangements. We walked out into the lounge, which had more the look of transplanted academia. The prof must be right at home here. A long book shelf covered the back wall and files were piled a coffee table. A map of the district on a side wall was marked with arrows in red ink marking directions with black highlighting places of interests.
‘The prof’s been very busy,’ I said as Mariana gestured for me to sit down on one of two arm chairs beside the over laden coffee table.
Instead of sitting, Mariana went over to a set of French doors and stood with her back to me, looking out at the contours of the backyard as it gently sloped in a mound down to the bush line. I couldn’t see the beach from here but the Pacific Ocean would run in a line across the horizon had it not been obscured by a curtain of rain. Then again, I wasn’t really looking at much except the curve or her back.
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Of course. Why not? He is not very creative but Ros tells me he is very thorough.’
I wondered for a moment if she was talking about his writing.
‘It must be quite difficult living here, you know what with…’
‘What with the death of my husband or my relationship with Ros? Yes and no. It is most difficult with my home so close but it is not so difficult to be with Ros. Alistair, or the prof as you call his name, has a greater understanding of natural society than most. He knows I love her.
‘That’s pretty sanguine of him,’ I said, borrowing a word I’d heard old Bernard use once. ‘Sanguine?’ Mariana asked.
She shrugged, and came to sit down on a sofa opposite me. She curled her legs up under her and looked like a wonderfully relaxed big cat waiting for its prey to come ever so closer.
A light from a piece of sun somewhere was shining from behind a hill around the side of the horizon. A thin coating of silver was painted under the clouds. The wind was going around, to offshore. The wind change distracted and may have made me impatient.
‘Why did you kill your husband?’ I asked.
‘Why do you ask me?’ Her mouth, a moment ago so light was now tight and her eyes chose to be closed.
‘Because you did it, didn’t you.’
Mariana stood, uncurling herself from the sofa and went over to bench between the lounge and the kitchen. She poured herself a glass of wine and tilted the bottle at me. I shook my head but she poured me one anyway. She was buying time but I was happy to wait, although maybe I should have hurried her along a bit. Her hand must have been shaking slightly, because some of the wine had spilt on to the tips of her fingers. The weird light outside reflected on to her skin, so her fingers seemed to have small stains of blood droplets. Mariana looked straight at me.
‘Yes, I killed my husband.’
Now, I wasn’t really expecting that reply. If I was, it was only a vague hope that a straight answer would spill. Of course, it was too easy.
‘You looked surprised, Bill,’ she said, and then reached over to touch the top of my writing hand. ‘Do you really think I could shoot my husband?’
Again, she was too fast for me. She stood before I could reply and asked me if I wanted another drink even though I hadn’t touched the glass. She was so tall standing in front of me.
‘But you had motive. He struck you and threw you out,’ I said, or rather mumbled. ‘You also knew what he was up to,’ I added.
‘Yes, we know about the six, the drugs and the rock ‘n roll.’
‘I know it is early but you can help me dull the pain,’ Mariana said as she turned and moved to towards the bottle on the bench.
I downed my glass and held it up for a refill.
‘You do feel pain don’t you Mr Cool Surfer Dude?’
It was my turn to shrug.
‘So why did you say you killed Mr Brand?’ I asked. The wine was dry but I wasn’t really paying attention. ‘Murder isn’t something you would want to admit to so casually.’
Mariana sat down opposite me and made a bowl with her hands around her glass.
‘It is true that I didn’t kill him but I feel like I murdered him,’ she said, holding up the wine to the light in one hand and peering through the liquid. ‘Do you understand what I am saying, Bill? Sometimes my English is not so good.’
I said I thought her English fine and maybe even better than mine. My phone was making noises, so I hauled it out and turned it off. It was my turn to stall.
‘So you feel responsibility for his murder but you didn’t actually pull the trigger?’
She looked down into the wine and swept it around the bowl of the glass.
‘I may as well have. When I first met him, he was a dowdy provincial mayor with a lot of money. I believe I came to live here for love but maybe…’ she drifted off for a moment. ‘He was happy with the way he was but I wanted more.’
‘I wish it was that simple. He had sufficient money but I wanted more.’ A pause. ‘Life –mi vida loca; my crazy life.’
‘So you shot him?’
‘With a gun?’
‘That is usually the idea, yeah.’
Mariana was silent for an instant, looked down into the glass once more and then up to me.
‘I don’t need a gun to kill a man.’
‘I’m sure Sergeant Stead would be interested in this interpretation of events.’
Her vibrant skin seemed to lose much of its lustre. She turned her head to one side. When I didn’t say anything else, she again shrugged.
‘Stead has been very caring to me. He’s helped me very much since all this happened.’
‘Okay, of course, Sergeant Stead is the most help man in Coastlands. Sorry, how do you kill a man, again, without a gun?’
‘I may have placed my husband in the wrong place at the wrong time. He tried hard – too hard – to match what he thought were my aspirations for his life. He then became the man I did not know.’
‘What about you? What did you become?’
She put the wine glass down and help up her hands palms up in exasperation.
‘Yes it is true I became the woman he did not know but maybe I always was that woman he did not know.’
I could hear a car pulling up outside the house. Time was running out quickly. Now was the time.
‘Mariana, please, what did you push Mr Brand into doing that may have got him a bullet in the head?’ I asked, pointing a forefinger to my forehead.
I heard the front door opening. Ros was calling out for Mariana and Alistair was saying something about that reporter chap annoying Mariana.
‘Please,’ I mouthed to her.
‘I made him what he was when he died. Corrupt and immoral and ready to take a risk he would never have considered with out me. It was just too much for him.’
Ros and Alistair were now in the lounge. She was trying to shepherd him out into the kitchen but he was having none of that. However, Mariana stood and faced them both.
‘It is good. Bill is going now and, so I will walk him out.’
Mariana seemed to take on power as she stood beside me. I could see how such power could attract and scare at the same time. Turning her head towards me, she nodded towards the doorway. I thanked Ros and Alistair for their hospitality. Alistair put up a hand.
‘Before you go, when we met at the beach, I meant to invite you out to visit our project with Jim Tatua and his father. We are launching it tonight.’
I said ‘of course’ but before I could say anything else, Mariana wrapped a hand around an arm and pulled at me to follow her up the wall.
‘Do you understand what I am saying?’ Mariana said as she leaned into me with her light frame as we walked to the door. She put her hand on the handle to open the door. I looked quickly over my shoulder down the hallway and then put my hand over her hand.
‘So how did Stead help you then?’ I turned to her and said.
‘He was,’ she looked down the hallway, ‘very helpful in dealing with my poor husband afterwards.’
‘Are you okay Mariana?’ I heard Alistair’s voice from the end of the hallway.
‘Of course,’ she called back, and leaned over to me. ‘You must ask Mr Stead yourself.’
That was something I planned to do straight away.
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Copyright © 2012 Mick Stone
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