Out With a Bang

December 2001

Tales of Imagination

By Kelly Bembry Midura

She found her husband lying face down atop the iron bars that roofed a charming little courtyard at the center of their Spanish colonial style home. Blood colored pink the waters of a fountain beneath his body. The bars had imprinted a grid-like pattern onto David Levine’s corpse that remained even after guards from the American Embassy laid him to rest face up upon the tiled floor of the courtyard. A small hole in the middle of his forehead marked where a bullet had entered, ending his life.

Sarah Levine was holding together well considering the circumstances. I sat beside her in an elegantly appointed living room while she nervously twisted a tasteful scarf around her hands and waited for the Embassy Medical Officer and his assistant to pack up what was left of David for removal to the U.S. She didn’t say much, but then we didn’t know each other very well. As the wife of our Embassy’s Political Counselor, Sarah inhabited a universe separate from my own.

I’m Maggie Mulhall, diplomat’s wife, if not an especially diplomatic wife. My husband, James, is the Press Officer for the United States Embassy in El Salvador. At that moment he was busy fending off inquiries from members of the press corps about David’s sensational death. As one of the top-ranking U.S. officials in Central America, David’s name had often appeared in print. In death he would probably merit a headline, at least in the capital city, San Salvador.

We lived across the street from the Levines in one of San Salvador’s leafier neighborhoods. James had given me a quick call from his office to let me know what was going on at the Levine house. After dispatching the girls, Caitlin and Terry, to a friend’s house for a play date, I ran over to see what I could do for Sarah. Their guard, Alfonso, who knew me well, let me pass through the crush of reporters and into the house.

It was an abrupt and unpleasant start to the New Year. We were all sleep-deprived from the barrage of fireworks and gunfire that had persisted into the wee hours of the morning. Salvadorans were just a little too crazy about firearms for my taste. Of course I had little right to complain: most of the guns in this tiny country were left over from the flood of armaments pumped in by my own government during a decade-long civil war.

The first year in San Salvador we all enjoyed the midnight New Year’s celebration, but by our third year, even my daughters were jaded. To my surprise, they had not even begged to be allowed up on the roof to watch the fireworks. I was glad that I had taken a Salvadoran friend’s advice and kept them inside and away from the windows. Presumably, a stray celebratory bullet had pierced David’s skull as he admired the show from his own rooftop.

The Levines’ own teenage daughters had been spending Christmas vacation in the States with their grandparents. They were sweet girls and had often babysat for us in the past, educating Caitlin and Terry in the feminine art of manicure, and teaching them to dance the Macarena. I hated to think that we would never see them again, but that’s the way it goes in the Foreign Service. The family of a diplomat has no technical right to remain in a country after the diplomat himself leaves, whether he leaves in an airplane seat or a coffin.

Earl Pritchard entered the living room after crushing out his cigarette on the floor of the courtyard. The Embassy’s Regional Security Officer, and a longtime friend, he frowned as he saw me sitting on the sofa beside Sarah. Earl had learned to be suspicious of my motives, as I had a knack for inserting myself into any trouble that might crop up in the Embassy community. Really, it was entirely coincidental nearly every time, but Earl wasn’t convinced.

“Hey, Maggie,” he said, with what the hell are you doing here? written all over his whiskered face.

“Hi. I saw the fuss, and just thought I should step across the street and see if I could help.”

“That’s mighty considerate of you. Now, would you mind letting me speak to Mrs. Levine in private for a while?”

Always happy to oblige, but unwilling to move too far out of earshot, I wandered around the living room looking at the Levines’ extensive art collection. I admired Sarah’s taste. All Foreign Service families acquire dozens of knick-knacks and art objects in their travels. Usually they are thrown together and combined with tacky U.S. government-issued furniture to create a style that is eclectic at best. Picture Zulu masks hanging next to Javanese batiks and Central American weavings. Now put a well-worn avocado-colored sofa underneath this composition, and you have The Look.

Somehow Sarah managed to take all these elements and create the effect of a classy salon. “Conversational groupings” dotted the spacious living room and arty little lights illuminated attractive groupings of indigenous art. I envied her ability. My childhood in a working-class Midwestern home hadn’t taught me much about Multi-Ethnic Home Decorating, unless one counted the leopard-spotted adhesive paper that my mother used to line the bookshelves. I was thirty-five years old and my home still resembled the Washington, D.C. group house that I had occupied in my early twenties. African batiks were thrown over ugly furniture, and Latin textiles were tacked to the wall at odd intervals. Poor James, I thought ruefully. I’ll never be able to boost you up the career ladder with my domestic skills.

I was distracted from my musing by Earl’s questions. I couldn’t help but overhear Sarah’s description of the previous night. She was pale but coherent as she described plugging her ears with cotton before going to bed. They had returned from dinner about eleven p.m., and she had been sleepy from the wine they had consumed.

“David wasn’t as tired as I was. He said he’d go up on the roof to watch the fireworks and come in later. I slept like the dead the entire night. When I woke, I saw that he hadn’t been to bed, so I went looking for him. I found…well, you’ve seen it.”

Sarah had dark circles under her eyes as if crying had worn her out. Earl asked a few more questions, took diligent notes, then went to take another look at the courtyard. I asked Sarah if there were anything else that I could do for her.

“No, thank you, Maggie.” She laid a grateful hand on my arm. “I had better fortify myself to call the kids and give them the news. I’d prefer to be alone, if you don’t mind. Thank you so much for your help.”

Sarah retired to her bedroom, but I didn’t feel right about leaving her alone. I went to the courtyard to ask Earl what he thought about it.

The courtyard had a small trapdoor in the iron bars that allowed passage to the roof. Normally this was padlocked to keep burglars out, but it had hung open since David’s ascent to the roof the previous night and his gruesome descent that morning. Earl was perched on a ladder trying to squeeze his considerable bulk through the small opening. His “relaxed fit” pants had dropped until I could see baby-blue boxer shorts peeking out under a sizable belly. Despite the grim setting, I barely suppressed a giggle at the sight.

Earl glared at me through the bars. “Damn it, Maggie, quit gawking and help me out here,” he growled.

I stood back and assessed the situation.

“Sorry, Earl, but there’s no way you’re getting through that hole unless I soap you up or something. Why don’t you step down and let me get up there? I’ll tell you what I see, honest.”

Earl saw the wisdom of this suggestion and backed down the ladder with a sigh of relief. He stood among the potted rubber trees and lit a Marlboro while I easily boosted myself up onto the roof. There is one advantage to being permanently underemployed in Third World countries, and that’s daily tennis. I was not exactly glamorous, with my unruly blonde mane and “generous” figure, but I was in great physical shape for a thirty-something housewife.

The view from the flat terracotta roof was unimpressive. Like all homes in this wealthy section of the city, the house was surrounded on all sides by twenty-foot walls topped with shards of broken glass mounted in mortar and a vicious-looking spiral of barbed wire added by the Embassy’s Security Section. Nearly all the houses of any size in San Salvador were similarly equipped in view of the city’s outrageous crime rate. Most of the windows faced inward to the courtyard where David’s body had been found. The same type of iron bars that roofed the courtyard enclosed the few windows that did face the outside world. A bright red light topped a device that looked like an old-fashioned air raid siren. All the American employees of the Embassy had the same gadget, basically a burglar alarm, but wired to alert the Embassy’s Roving Patrol. The Patrol was a private police force composed of several four-wheel drive vehicles full of hardened, muscular paramilitary types with big guns. I was glad to have them on my side.

The housetops and the street below were littered with the shredded remains of cheap homemade bottle rockets and cherry bombs. I made a face at the lingering, acrid smell of smoke and gunpowder. Behind me, in the distance, loomed the cone of the supposedly dormant San Salvador volcano, a sleeping giant that rolled over and gave us a good shake every few weeks. In front of me the overcrowded city spilled down the foothills of the volcano as far as the eye could see. A gray haze hung over everything, nearly obscuring the green slopes of more volcanoes in the distance.

“There’s nothing here but a lot of garbage, Earl. Do you want me to look for anything in particular?”

“Is there a lounge chair or anything up there?” he asked.

“Nope.” I answered.

“Any blood?”

“Just some on the bars where he was lying when Sarah found him,” I reported queasily.

“OK, climb on down then. I was just wondering how he managed to get a hole in his forehead, when you’d think he would be looking down toward the city. Seems like a stray bullet would be more likely to get him in the top, or the back of the head, than in the front. I thought maybe he was leaning back at the time.”

I stepped down through the trap door onto the ladder and swung down from the bars, executing a nice fluid leap onto the tiles. Earl looked disgusted, and blew cigarette smoke out his nostrils.

“But he fell forward, didn’t he? I saw the marks of the bars on his face when I came in,” I recalled with a shudder.

“Yeah, I know. I’m just trying to figure out how a stray bullet could have come from that angle. The guards already looked around up there for the bullet, but they couldn’t find one. Maybe the shot came from the street, and he stumbled over here before he croaked, but you’d think there would be more blood spread around in that case.”

“You do believe it was an accident, don’t you?” I asked innocently.

Earl clearly wasn’t ready to share his theories with me. He gave me a wary look, put out his cigarette in the fountain and left. “I think I’ll go out front and have a look around. See you, Maggie.”

I stood in the courtyard for a moment considering the possibilities. I knew very little about David Levine other than what my husband had told me. He saw David as a hard-driving career diplomat, working toward that elusive Ambassadorship which is the goal of many State Department Political Officers. I didn’t really feel one way or the other about his death, other than my sympathy for Sarah and her kids, but Earl seemed almost flippant. I wondered about his attitude, and why he was so concerned about the angle of that shot. With so many bullets flying around on New Year’s Eve, it seemed to me that pinpointing the origin of the shot would be impossible.

Eventually I decided that this was a question best left to the medical and ballistics experts, and went inside to check on Sarah.

I found her talking in hushed tones with María, her housekeeper, in the large, well-equipped kitchen. She held María’s hand with both of hers, an unusually familiar gesture between employer and employee. Sarah’s rapid Spanish was excellent. María looked serious, but unshocked by the news she must have just received. Salvadorans were used to violence. They were often disgusted but rarely surprised when it struck close to home. She saw me first over Sarah’s shoulder and quickly slipped something into her pocket.

“Are you going to be OK now, Sarah?” I asked.

She turned toward me, startled, but recovered quickly.

“Oh, you’re still here. I believe I have everything under control for the moment. I just need to get on with those phone calls now. Thanks again for your help.”

I told her that I would drop in later and crossed the street to my house, passing Earl who was shooing the last of the reporters away with his baseball cap. It worked. Earl was easily twice the size of most Salvadorans, and his Spanish wasn’t bad, at least in the colloquial sense. He knew some expressions that I made a point of not understanding, but which were no doubt common among the local press corps.

When I entered my house I found my housekeeper, Teresa, in a state of advanced excitement. “Qué pasó, Señora?” she asked breathlessly. What happened?

Standing in the cement laundry yard, with the week’s washing hanging around our heads, I explained to Teresa that Mr. Levine had been killed. I didn’t bother with details, since I knew that she was María’s friend, and would get a much more entertaining version of the day’s events at that night’s tortilla klatch. Teresa’s reaction surprised me. She folded her arms and nodded her head as if justice had been meted out.

I pressed her for more. There really is nothing like tapping into the maid network for quick information. Nearly all of the Americans in San Salvador employed at least one person in their home to handle the myriad housekeeping tasks required by life in a Third World city. From disinfecting fruits and vegetables to dealing with a constant stream of vendors and beggars at the front door, a maid was essential. Since they commonly earned extra money working at other Americans’ business receptions and dinner parties, maids working in American Embassy homes were well acquainted with each other.

After promises that María would never hear of her indiscretion – and the offer of a Friday afternoon off – Teresa dished the dirt on the Levines.

Apparently, David Levine was well known among domestic staff as a lecher. He had never bothered María, no doubt because she was at least fifty with a figure like a beer keg, but María no longer brought in her young daughter to help out with the ironing. David had been far too friendly for comfort and had even “accidentally” brushed up against the girl several times. I was initially skeptical, but then Teresa added that this occurred in the maid’s quarters, where no Señor had any business being in the first place.

It was hard for me imagine the straight-laced political whiz harassing maids, but then anything is possible. There was no doubt that David was shrewd enough to keep his hands off the Americans while groping servants to his heart’s content. That did sound like him, actually.

“And that’s not all, Señora,” Teresa went on, evidently enjoying herself as she vigorously ironed a heavily starched shirt into submission. “He’s got something else going on as well. María keeps finding makeup stains on his shirts. She thinks that Señora Levine knows too. She’s seen her pick up a shirt now and then and throw it back down on the laundry pile, like she’s upset.”

Poor Sarah! If there was one thing I knew about the reserved, elegant woman, it was that she worked her skinny butt off for David’s career. She was famous for holding two or three dinners or receptions per week, often involving dozens of people. James had told me that her photo was constantly appearing in the Salvadoran papers, opening some school or clinic in the sticks. She wasn’t a bad mother either, considering she had practically raised those girls on her own. David worked long hours and socialized with his business associates several nights per week.

Wow. I had a lot to think about. I thanked Teresa for her help and asked her to please let me know if María had anything else interesting to say about the Levines. Teresa was not the most efficient housekeeper I’d ever had, but she was smart and observant and my girls loved her. She claimed not to speak a word of English, but I strongly suspected that was not the case. I’d caught her watching American soap operas on our pirated cable television on more than one occasion, and I was sure she’d learned more than anyone needed to know about American culture while serving coffee to my friends.

Time to call my husband James and collect some more information. It took a while to get through to him, but finally Daysi, his able assistant, collared him for me.

“Maggie, this had better be an emergency. All hell’s breaking loose around here today,” he grumbled.

James, like many diplomats, is a little high-strung. Consequently he does not handle stress well. Being accustomed to this sort of treatment, I ignored it.

“Just one question, sweetheart. Do you know if David had anything going on the side?”

“What kind of question is that? The man’s dead!”

“Please just answer me and I won’t bother you anymore, I promise.”

“OK, there was some talk about the new Protocol Secretary. Her name is Rosa something-or-other. She’s definitely on the make, and they have lunch together sometimes. That’s all I know.”

He lowered his voice: “Listen Maggie, steer clear of this one. There’s some scuttlebutt going around about the maras. It could be that they’re upset about the latest repatriations and decided to take out an Embassy official in response. The Ambassador is considering putting Embassy personnel on alert. Be careful.”

That’s all I need to know, I thought, as I thanked him and hung up.

That certainly put a new slant on things. The maras, or street gangs, were composed largely of the children of Salvadorans who had left for the United States for their own safety during the war. They had stayed safe, but many of their Americanized kids returned to El Salvador with street smarts and a tendency to deal in drugs. I had learned during a temporary secretarial stint in the local Drug Enforcement Administration field office that the maras had connections with Salvadoran gangs in the U.S., especially in Los Angeles. When someone up there behaved badly enough, the U.S. would pack him back to San Salvador, thereby depriving the local gang of their U.S. drug connection.

But why murder the Political Counselor? He spent most of his time behind the Embassy’s “hard line,” a section restricted to employees with security clearance, furiously composing cables updating Washington on Salvadoran political conditions. It would be difficult for the gangs to even figure out who David Levine was. The Ambassador or the Deputy Chief of Mission would be easier to spot, although perhaps harder to get to.

If the maras wanted an officer with maximum visibility and minimal security they should have just nailed the Press Officer.

Who was my husband. Who lived just across the street from David Levine, in a house marked by an identical Embassy burglar alarm, and who even bore a superficial resemblance to David. Holy shit.

I briefly considered informing James of this insight, but thought better of the idea. It was pure speculation on my part, after all, and would only give him more to worry about on a very hectic day. He was safely stowed away in the Embassy for the moment. Besides, the fact that even James, who could be a little out of it sometimes, knew about David’s little lunch dates meant that there must be something to that business. If I were going to have peace of mind I would have to start digging.

I had no choice. I would have to have lunch with Cecy.

Cecy was a Texan of Mexican extraction, and the wife of an Economic Section officer. Her Spanish was Americanized, but fluent, and she considered herself to be the official liaison between the American and Latina women in the Embassy community. In other words, the Queen of Gossip. She reminded me of the Eveready Rabbit with her rapid-fire speech and constant twitching. I avoided her unless I needed her services.

We met the next day at a Mexican restaurant in the Zona Rosa, the most fashionable area of San Salvador. If one ignored the guards armed with automatic weapons stationed at the entrance to every boutique, and the garbage piled in the gutters, it was a decent little neighborhood. I parked a block from the restaurant, paid a lively little kid to cuidar, or refrain from stripping the parts from, my trusty old Jeep, and made my way into the restaurant.

I was the first to arrive, so I ordered margaritas for two in the hope that alcohol might slow Cecy down a bit. She rushed into the restaurant, twenty minutes late and smoking like a chimney.

“Maggie, how good to see you again! And you ordered margaritas, qué nice!” she prattled, waving her Virginia Slims cigarette around like a cheerleader’s baton. Cecy was prone to drama. Still, the woman did have a certain style. I reflexively put my blunt, naked fingers under the table when I saw her diamond rings winking at me from between perfect pink nails. She tucked stiletto-heeled feet under her seat, put a glossy patent leather clutch purse on her lap and immediately popped open a compact to refurbish herself.

“No problem, Cecy. Always a pleasure,” I answered, waving smoke away from my face.

“You must be a wreck! What with a murder taking place just across the street and all. It was a murder wasn’t it?” She leaned toward me with a hungry look in her eyes.

Suddenly I realized the reason for Cecy’s eager acceptance of my lunch invitation. I was a Primary Source. This meant that I had leverage.

“Oh, enough about me,” I said smoothly. “What’s the latest gossip at the Embassy? I don’t get to the compound much since I quit temping in the DEA office. I hear that Rosa is just devastated by her boss’ unexpected demise.”

Cecy sat back, took a long drag of her cigarette, and smirked. She realized that I had come to barter.

“Well, what you can you expect, the way they were carrying on? Two-hour lunches with no forwarding number? Private conferences after working hours? And then there was that outrageous Secretaries’ Day gift. If there were more female officers in that Embassy, I can tell you that man never would have gotten away with it. As it was, the men all turned a blind eye.”

I could see that. James, an upright sort himself, always considered other people’s business to be just that: other people’s business. This was something about the male sex that I could never understand.

“I even heard,” she whispered, leaning close until my eyes watered from the pungent smell of her Giorgio perfume, “that the little slut thought that David was actually going to marry her! She’s been telling her buddies in the secretarial pool that David had decided to divorce Sarah! Can you imagine? Sarah’s the perfect diplomatic wife. He’s never dump her for some little tart like Rosa.”

I didn’t know what to think. I divulged enough juicy details of the scene at the Levine house to satisfy Cecy’s appetite, shared chicken fajitas and another round of margaritas with her (it didn’t slow her down at all) and departed.

It made no sense for David to dump Sarah. She was his right hand, the extra “something” that separated him from the herd of Ambassador wannabes. She was a born linguist, an incomparable hostess, and an all-around domestic goddess. She had raised model children while simultaneously running the smoothest, most organized household in the Foreign Service. Meanwhile, David had apparently been keeping a string of mistresses to supply his other needs. Sounded like a perfect arrangement for him, so why would he screw it up?

Maybe it was time I had a look at this Rosa myself. I drove out to the Embassy, an enormous faux-Maya compound on the outskirts of the city. A group of vaguely pyramidal buildings loomed over a medieval looking wall that encircled them. Observation towers were spaced at intervals along the wall, and the two entrances were constantly under surveillance by guards and closed-circuit cameras. I certainly had no worries about James’ personal security while he was inside this fortress.

There were more people roaming the compound than would normally be working on the day after a public holiday. Extra guards had been laid on to deal with the reporters gathered at the gates. I politely tooted my horn and the crowd parted to let me through. Curious eyes peered through my windows as the Salvadoran guard at the gate passed mirrors underneath my car to check for hidden bombs. It occurred to me at moments like these just how strange the routines of my life might seem to the people back home.

I showed my I.D. to the Marine Guard at the entrance to the Chancery and went past metal detectors into the bowels of the beast. It didn’t take long to find Rosa. Hers was the desk surrounded by secretaries and anchored by the tearful Rosa herself, who was apparently freely admitting her association with David in his absence. How come everyone but me knew about this affair? I made a mental note to speak to James about bringing home less shoptalk and more gossip.

As she stood up to reach for more tissues, I could see that Rosa was stunning. She was taller than the average Salvadoran woman, with an unusually curvaceous figure for this land of Size-6 Petites. Even with heavy mascara smudged all over her face it was easy to see how she might have caught any man’s eye. Hmm, no wonder James had never mentioned her.

I pretended to read some notices that were posted on a nearby bulletin board and overheard a good bit of the conversation that was taking place. I had one advantage that Cecy did not. It was often assumed that I could not understand Spanish, because I was such an all-American blonde. Just another gringa wandering the halls in search of a temp job. But in fact my Spanish was pretty good, if you weren’t too picky about my grammar.

“Ay Díos,” she sobbed. “I can’t believe he’s gone! We would have been so happy!”

She certainly looked sincere. It was possible that David had lied to her, but the diamond on her finger must have come from somewhere.

OK, now I knew that there really was a mistress, and a pretty hot-looking one. Cecy had mentioned an extravagant Secretaries’ Day gift. Perhaps an engagement ring had been given with that rather flimsy cover.

Could a relative have taken umbrage at David’s attentions to Rosa? Such machismo in the face of adulterers was not unheard of. I’d bet anything that Earl, who was more observant that it would appear, already knew about Rosa and had thought of this angle. That would account for his apparent lack of concern for David’s fate. When it came to macho behavior, Earl was something of an authority.

I still was not satisfied. I couldn’t dismiss the thought that some thug might have been aiming for James and hit David by mistake. On the way home I stopped by Sarah’s house. I told myself that I wanted to see how she was holding up, but of course my snooping instincts were in overdrive by this time. María let me in and to my surprise, I saw suitcases lined up in the foyer. There were several heavy-duty American Touristers and one shabby old case secured with masking tape.

“Maggie, is that you?” I heard Sarah call from the study.

“Yes, it is. It looks like you’re on your way out already. Can I help you with anything?”

“Yes, actually. I’m trying to get this computer packed up and I don’t know a thing about it. I don’t trust the movers with it, but I’m afraid to fiddle with it myself. You know something about these things, don’t you?” The computer screen flickered in protest as she tapped it with her finger. “Is it safe to just yank these cords out?” she asked.

“You should definitely shut it down first. And I would back up any documents before you do that. Want me to do it? It will just take a few minutes if you have some floppy disks around.”

“That would be a great help, Maggie. David had some financial software on there that I don’t know how to use yet. I had better not risk losing that information until I meet with our accountant in the U.S. Go ahead and back up all of his documents, but don’t worry about the rest of the junk on there. Just let me know when you are done. A couple of friends are on their way over to say goodbye. I’ll wait for them downstairs in the living room so as not to disturb you.”

I called Teresa and let her know that I would be late. She agreed to stay overnight because I didn’t know when James would be getting home. Caitlin and Terry were old enough at seven and nine to be thrilled at getting rid of Mom for the evening. I was sure they’d have a ball without me.

Actually, I had no professional qualifications for dealing with computers. But there are times when my natural tenacity, which James often compared to that of a pit-bull on steroids, had come in handy. I’d become invaluable to many a helpless diplomat during my secretarial stints at the Embassy. When a computer ate a document I just interrogated it mercilessly until it spilled the beans. Even temps need to find some kind of satisfaction in their work.

I sat down and started copying documents. They seemed to be mostly files that David had brought home from the office, memos and the like. I got bored watching little file icons fly across the screen and logged on to the Internet just to pass the time. The creaky Salvadoran server was loading pages even slower than usual, so, after poking my head out into the hallway to make sure that Sarah was occupied with her visitors, I clicked on the History file and scanned it for more information. Evidently David had a low opinion of his wife’s technological abilities because he had never erased it.

He should have. Like women everywhere, Sarah had discovered the joys of Internet commerce. But along with Sarah’s shopping sites, there were URLs like “HotTeenSluts.com.” One Web site even advertised “cybersex” with supposedly underage Korean girls. Creep.

David also had a Web-based email account that contained a lot of juicy reading. His password was a no-brainer. It was the employee number that was stamped on his Embassy I.D. that was lying right there on the desk. There were several messages to a Washington, D.C. law firm that contained details of the divorce settlement that he was planning to negotiate with Sarah. I forgot all about copying documents as I read every message in David’s Inbox and Trash folders.

Sarah would have been hit hard. The lawyer suggested filing for full custody of his daughters due to Sarah’s “inability” to support them. Nearly all of the listed assets were mutual funds in David’s name. There was no house for her to claim and the car and practically everything else the couple owned was in El Salvador, where she technically had no right to be after the divorce.

Then I noticed something. Everything in the Inbox had been marked as previously read when I opened it. But the top message, from the lawyer, had been sent this morning, the day after David’s death. Someone, presumably Sarah, had read it.

That was why David’s I.D. was on the desk. She had used it to get the password. Sarah had found out about David’s plans at some point. The only question was, when?

I heard a sniffle behind me and quickly turned around. I had been so absorbed in my snooping that I hadn’t heard Sarah’s guests leave. She stared at me with red eyes but with her head held high.

“The son of a bitch was going to take everything,” she said in a harsh voice. “After twenty years. I followed him to some of worst places in the world to advance his career. Put up with his working until all hours and leaving me to raise the kids. I’ve had malaria, giardia, you name it. I lost a baby to some kind of sexually transmitted disease that he gave me in Paraguay. We never slept together after that.”

I was speechless. Sarah’s knees wobbled and she sat down abruptly before continuing.

“We had an agreement. I was going to stay until the kids were in college and manage his social life for him. He promised to keep his hands off my friends and he did do that. We only had four more years to go and then I was due a generous alimony and a graceful exit. But the bastard couldn’t wait. Or maybe she couldn’t wait.”

She looked thoughtful. “I believe he actually thought he was in love with that girl.”

“I had him insured for a million dollars,” she continued with a faint smile. “He’s worth more to me dead than he ever was when he was alive. The girls can go to college on that and I can finish my degree. María’s going to come back with me and help with the girls until I graduate. I don’t think forty-five’s too late for me to start over, do you?” she asked, with a searching look.

I jumped a mile when the phone rang. I heard Maria answer it out in the hallway. “No, Señor Pritchard, la Señora no está aquí.” Mrs. Levine is not here. Had she been instructed to keep Earl away from Sarah? Exactly what had María put in her pocket after that furtive conference with Sarah in the kitchen? At this point I was just about certain that it was a handgun.

That beat-up suitcase must have been María’s. Sarah didn’t really need any help with her teenage daughters. They had probably struck a bargain: Maria had disposed of the weapon for Sarah and would be taken back to the States with her in return.

In that case, I could safely assume that Sarah was unarmed. I had nothing to fear from her, being a good twenty pounds heavier and a decade younger. She sat there studying me with a weary expression.

“There was so much gunfire on New Year’s Eve, Maggie. No one could have noticed the shot that killed David.”

I held up my hand. I didn’t want to be responsible.

“No. I don’t want to know any more. I’ve got to sleep on this, Sarah. Maybe you’ll see me again before you leave. Goodbye.” I turned quickly and left the room.

María was waiting out in the hall. She silently ushered me to the door. “Buenas noches, Señora.”

I stepped off the curb, then turned to face her, as she watched me through a crack in the doorway. “Buenas noches, María. Qué le vaya bíen.” Good night, and good luck.

I caught a flash of a smile before the iron door clanged shut.

It was almost eleven o'clock. My own house was dark and quiet. After peeking into the kids’ bedrooms to make sure that they were still there, I followed the soft chatter of the TV into the living room. James sat dozing in front of a baseball game, his tie thrown over a lampshade, and his bare feet propped on the arm of an orange flowered sofa.

The girls had clearly had a manicure and hairdo party with Teresa earlier that evening. There were pillows on the floor amid the litter of nail polish bottles and curlers. As I began to clear them away, James made a sound like a choking elephant, opened one eye and sat up.

“Oh, good, you’re home. I was about to go over there and rescue you, but I guess I must have dozed off,” he said sheepishly. “I had a godawful day.” He moved over and patted the seat beside him. “Screw the mess, that’s what we pay the maid for. Come over here and watch TV with me.”

I fell onto the sofa with a grateful sigh and kicked my shoes off. While James watched los Yanquis, I studied his profile. James wasn’t conventionally handsome, but I loved his angular face, deep-set eyes and thick, wavy dark hair. Wisps of gray were appearing at the temples, which disconcerted him but looked great to me.

I wondered what other women thought of James, and what he thought of them.

Like the Levines, we had built a life together in this time warp created by diplomatic service. We occupied roles that would seem antiquated to many modern Americans. He pursued a career and supported the family. I handled the infinite details of our constantly mobile lives in several languages and on every continent. I knew that I was essential to the partnership despite my questionable domestic skills, but, like it or not, I was completely financially dependent on him. What would I do if he threatened to replace me with some exotic Barbie doll?

“What were you doing over there, anyway?” he asked after a few minutes.

I hesitated for a moment, then replied. “Oh, nothing really. Nothing to do with you.”

I snuggled up to James’ lanky frame and pulled Caitlin’s bathrobe, thoughtfully abandoned on the living room floor, over both of us. About a half-hour later I thought that I heard the sound of a car pulling out of the garage across the street. For once, I decided that it was none of my business.

After a while, we both fell asleep.

© 2001 by Kelly Bembry Midura. All rights reserved.

Kelly Bembry Midura is a freelance website designer, writer, and U.S. Foreign Service spouse.

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