The thing that really irks me is that I paid for Ethan's funeral. At the time it seemed like the right thing to do, seeing as he had made me his heir. Had I known then what I know now, I wouldn't have put out a single sou, much less the small fortune I spent to see to it that he had a proper send-off. But Ethan knew me all too well and knew I would tidy things for him, that I wouldn't be able to live with the thought of his remains ending up in some unmarked grave or as an anonymous pile of ash in the county morgue.
Looking back, much of his deception shouldn't have come as a surprise. There were inconsistencies about him all along, starting with his awkward table manners and ending with the seedy area in which he lived. These are not customarily the ways of one to the manner born. But Ethan was a writer, and since writers are known for their eccentricities, I simply chose to attribute Ethan's to his literary bent. Thus, not only did Ethan's charade take me completely unaware but the depth of it was as unanticipated as an earthquake in the Midwest.
Now I'm getting ahead of myself. Though Ethan's story really begins the moment he was conceived, it became my undoing the day I went to his apartment and found the body. Prior to that, the thought of Ethan as anything other thanmy best friend would never have crossed my mind. What followed afterward just shows how little we know those we think we know best.
It was the rare spring day in Chicago, a city whose climate can best be summed up in two words: winter and August. The sky was a cloudless silky blue, the air wrung dry by a westerly wind that whisked the city's notorious humidity out over the lake. The swollen buds on the trees looked ready to burst their seams, and the sweet scent of cherry blossoms perfumed the breeze. Venus rising from the foam, spring coaxed, and her public was happily seduced.
My mood was exceptional as I stepped from my co-op building onto the short costly street known as East Lake Shore Drive. Across the busy lanes of the outer drive, Lake Michigan stretched endlessly before me, her slate blue waves folding gently onto the shore. The public beach bristled with humanity as the prisoners of Midwestern winter took advantage of the unexpected parole. Joggers and bicyclists crowded the paved trail while sunbathers sprawled across the sand, guilelessly soaking up the sun's disfiguring rays. Apart from the crowd, two lovers were entwined on a hastily thrown blanket, groping each other with abandon. Indifferent to the presence of other beachgoers or the vantage point of the high-rise buildings that loomed above them, they acted as though they were the only souls on earth. I watched their antics with a pang of envy, realizing that far more than a few lanes of asphalt separated our worlds.
I turned and walked away at a leisurely pace, past the tulip-filled gardens and Beaux Arts facades of the city's priciest real estate. When I reached the Drake at the end of the block, the doorman nodded at me in polite recognition. "Good afternoon, Mrs. Cook," he said, tipping his hat. He swept the door open with a gloved hand. "Beautiful day, isn't it?"
"It is indeed, Raymond." I acknowledged him with a polite smile. Ethan and I had a standing twelve-thirty reservation in the Cape Cod Room every Wednesday afternoon, so our faces were well known at the hotel. Our ritual had been established after our very first meeting more than five years before, and was never broken unless one of us was out of town--or if something of greater urgency came up.
I stopped inside the arcade to check my watch and noted with satisfaction that the time was one o'clock, making me precisely thirty minutes late for my lunch date. I seldom arrive anyplace on time. I feel it makes one look desperate. Farther down the corridor, a couple of attractive men in business suits were locked in what appeared to be serious conversation. Upon seeing me they fell silent, their heads pivoting as their eyes followed me to the restaurant entrance. When one is a five-foot-ten redhead with extremely long legs, one becomes accustomed to such responses. Although I'm certain it didn't hurt that I was wearing my new magenta suit from Feraud's spring collection, an acquisition that cost far more than I had any right to spend at the time. But it fit me as though it were designed with me in mind, and besides, I'm a winter. Bright colors flatter me. As a woman ages, she must learn to become less dependent on her looks and more dependent on her style. With my half-century mark looming ominously before me in the coming year, mere days before the world would pass into the new millennium, I had already learned to appreciate how one's clothes can carry the day as the other attributes fade.
Not that I conceded to fading quite yet. One thing I had to thank my mother for was good genes. From her side of the gene pool came my long legs; auburn hair; a compact, slightly upturned nose; luminous skin; and an ample bosom. I say ample, not large, thankfully. Nothing like those dreadful drooping appendages Sunny Livermore was cursed with or the overinflated balloons Whitney Armstrong had surgically installed. Finding couture to hang properly over bustlines like those must be challenging at best.
The only thing I inherited from my father was my eyes. Ironically, many say they are my best feature. Deep-set and emerald green, they tilt slightly upward at the corners like a cat's. When we first met, Henry used to tease me about their color, saying he thought my eyes couldn't possibly get any greener until he saw them reflect money.