Guilty Knowledge

Chapter 1

As he opened the door, the phone began to ring. He hesitated, looking back into the house, decided he wasn’t going to answer it, and turned away, pulling the door shut behind him. Whump, there she was, right up against him. His arms went out reflexively, her arms went out, and each of them stepped one way and then the other, trying to get clear.

He managed a shaky laugh as he stepped back. “I’m sorry. I haven’t been dancing…” He broke off when he saw the gun, black in the early twilight. Her arm was extended, the gun raised, the barrel pointing just to his right, but moving.

“Hi, Alan.”

He recognized her and backed up further, his heel catching on the threshold and his back hitting the closed door. She extended her empty hand toward him as if to steady him, and he shrank from her touch as if she were a corpse risen from the grave. The gusting wind played with her dark hair.

She laughed. “Oh, the gun,” she said, and she moved away from him, reaching behind her to tuck it into the waistband of her short skirt. But it wasn’t the gun that alarmed him; it was her.

He managed to recover his balance, but his heart was pumping.

She held out her hands, palms up. “It’s just me. Tracey. Say something, okay?”

He swallowed. “What are you doing here?”

“I was thinking maybe ‘hello.’” Lightning flashed silently behind her. Her eyes were in shadow, but he remembered that they were, for someone with her dark hair, a disconcertingly light shade of blue.

“Hello,” he said. From far away came the low rumble of thunder.

“Can we go inside?”

“I was just going jogging.” He glanced down at himself, inviting her to note the evidence of his running shoes and gym shorts.

“Yes, but then I turned up, and you invited me inside.”

She reached past him to turn the knob and push. The door, unlocked because he didn’t carry a key when he jogged, swung inward.

“It’s about to storm,” she said, looking back at the street as lightning brightened it again. “You don’t want to go jogging.”

“I can get wet.”

“You can get fried by lightning, too. That doesn’t make it a smart thing to do.” She took a step toward the open door, and he stepped to block her. The movement brought them together, so that she was standing against him, looking up into his face. Five years telescoped to nothing. He had held her only yesterday.

She stepped around him, her eyes not leaving his face until she was past him, inside the house.

As she turned away, he hardly saw the gun in the waistband of her skirt. He did see how the ends of her dark hair brushed her slender shoulders as she walked. She hadn’t changed at all.

Outside, the first drops of rain spattered the sidewalk. He closed the door and leaned against it, his hands behind him on the knob. Tracey Coleman turned and looked at him.

“You look scared to death. I didn’t think trial lawyers were scared of anything.”

He didn’t know what to say to that. He shrugged.

“You knew you’d run into me again sooner or later,” she said.

“Yes. I thought it would be in a public place, though.”

She laughed, and the sound was as familiar to him as an old song. She took out her gun and set it carefully on the coffee table. Dread rose in him like the tide, but he left the door and came into the living room.

“Why the gun?” he asked.

“Force my way in. Make you talk to me.” She’d had her navel pierced. He could see the gleam of the gold ring beneath her short blouse.

“Why did you want to talk to me?”

She dropped onto the sofa. “Same old sense of humor. I’m kidding, okay? I wasn’t planning to come here at all. I was out walking, and a couple of creeps started following me.”

“And you had a gun?”

“I always have a gun.”

She had changed after all. “How did you know where I lived?” he asked.

“I’ve kept track. You were a pretty big part of my life.”

He himself had not kept track.

“I live in your old apartment complex, you know,” she said. “It’s only about a mile from here.”

He dropped into a chair and put his head in his hands as time telescoped on him again. He was twenty-seven, two years out of law school. Fists banged on his door in the night, police visible through the peephole, her father standing behind them on the landing, the wind whipping a pale raincoat about his legs. Thunder. Flashes of lightning brightening the scene like a flashbulb. It had been storming that night, too, and he could hear rain on the roof.

Tracey said, “I didn’t get your old apartment, of course. Daddy would have freaked. Could you check the door and see if anyone’s out there? I only lost them about a block from here.”

He had been too focused on the threat posed by the 110-pound girl on his sofa to think about any external threat. To him, the creeps she’d said were following her seemed more phantasmal than real. He went back to the front door and put his head against the glass of the tall, narrow window to the left of it. It was getting dark, but the street lamps provided sufficient illumination for him to see past his own reflection into the yard and the street beyond it. There was no one. He turned the thumb latch to lock the door.

When he turned back to the living room, he found that Tracey had changed position. Her empty sneakers were on the floor, and her legs were curled beneath her on the sofa. He hesitated, then went back to his recliner and perched there. “There’s no one,” he said.

“You sound like you don’t believe me.”

He felt his mouth stretch. “Why else would you show up on my front porch with a gun in your hand?”

“Thank you.”

“Who are they?”

“I don’t know. I was walking around the high school track when I noticed two guys watching me.”

His eyes went to the gun on the coffee table. It had a short barrel, no more than three inches or so, but it was too big for easy concealment.

“I have a little derringer I usually carry in my pocket, but tonight I couldn’t find it. This is a Walther. Walther PPK? You know.”

He shook his head.

“James Bond.”

“Is that what he carried?”

“Duh. Astin Martin? Vodka martini, shaken not stirred?”

“I’ve heard of the vodka martini thing.”

She rolled her eyes. “It’s hard to believe I ever slept with such a cultural illiterate.”

“James Bond is culture?”

“Such as it is. The guy who gave me the gun was a Bond fanatic.”

“So he was culturally literate.”

“Oh, good grief. I didn’t sleep with him, if that’s what you’re thinking.” She paused. “Well, it was no big deal anyway. Do you want to touch it?”

He started.

“I mean, I see you eyeing it and all.”

She was talking about the gun. He shook his head, smiling weakly.

“Pick it up if you want to. Just be careful. There’s a cartridge in the breech, and the safety’s off.”

He didn’t pick it up. Her easy familiarity with firearms reminded him that she had changed, just as he had. The world was different.

“I wouldn’t say no to a glass of water,” she said.

His mouth twitched. “If it were offered, you mean?”

She smiled at him.

Oh, that face, he thought, and he got up.

She didn’t stay put, but trailed him to the kitchen, deeper inside his house. He opened the cabinet door, glanced at her sitting at his little kitchen table, and said, “We can’t do this.”

She raised her eyebrows. “Do what?”

“Just pick up again like nothing happened.”

“Pick up again. You mean sleep together? I thought you were just going to get me a glass of water.”

He sighed as he got a glass out and set it on the counter. Rather than fill it, he dropped into a chair across from her. “What we did cost me everything, you know ¾ my job, my friend and mentor, and really my self-respect.”

She studied him. “I’m sorry. Of course, I was just seventeen.”

He nodded. “I know. You had a lot to deal with yourself. For what it’s worth, I’m sorry, too.”

“Don’t be.”

“I can’t help it. Guilt has been a big part of my life these last five years.” He shrugged. “I’ve actually become religious again, trying to deal with it.”

“I thought the church was better at making you feel guilt than helping you deal with it.”

“We’ve got the confessional.”

“Oh, God. You’ve been talking about us to a priest?”

He shrugged. She rose and got the glass from the countertop. She looked at him. “How did he take it? The priest.”

“He seemed able to deal with it.”

She shook her head. “‘A sexual experience so profound it will change your religion.’ I ought to put it on billboards.” She opened the refrigerator and looked in. “Can I have grape juice?”

He said she could, and she poured, twisted the cap back on, and put the jug back in the refrigerator. When she picked up her glass, she stood leaning against the counter and looking at him. Finally she took a large breath and expelled it.

“Okay, I think I get it,” she said. “It doesn’t make me feel real great, but I think I get it.”

“Get what?”

“Sleeping with me was evil; it was bad; it was the worst thing that ever happened to you. Does that sum it up pretty well?”

His mouth twisted. “Let’s just say it was illegal. That’s enough.”

“I was eighteen.”

“When they caught us.”

“I’d been eighteen for two days.” It was something her father hadn’t acknowledged. She was his seventeen-year-old daughter. It was why the police were there, why Alan had spent the rest of the night in the county jail.

“We’d been at it for six months,” he said.

She rolled her eyes and took a long drink from her glass. The dark juice stained her mouth like a child’s. “At it,” she said. “No, we hadn’t been at it. My eighteenth birthday was our first time.”

A wave of unreality washed over him. “What?”

“That’s what we told them, remember? We wouldn’t have had to tell them that much if I’d been able to find my underwear.”

In the mad scramble that started with the pounding on the door, it was amazing that they’d been able to find anything. When he opened the door to the police and her father, almost the first thing anyone had noticed were the striped panties lying across the back of the loveseat.

“That’s all we had to tell them. That’s all that happened,” she said.

He gave an uncomfortable laugh. “I always thought of reality as something given, not something we adjusted to suit ourselves.”

“Why not?” She put down her glass. “Listen to me, Alan. Only two people were there. The only thing that keeps reality from being whatever we want it to be is the pattern of electrons spinning around in there.” She tapped his forehead with her index finger. “Get with the program.”

His mouth opened, but not to speak. He had a sense, suddenly, of looking out at the world through her eyes, and what he saw was an alien landscape.

“Oh, lighten up! It’s not like you went to prison.”

“I lost my job.”

“Well, you couldn’t expect Daddy to keep you around after he’d caught you diddling his daughter.”

“Diddling?” Alan said. “Is that what they call it now?”

“No. That’s what my grandmother called it. I thought it might offend you less than some of the alternatives, but I guess a person with your commitment to reality isn’t going to deal in euphemisms. What would you prefer? Screwing? Fornication? Statutory rape?”

Angrily she picked up her glass and pushed off the counter. Grape juice sloshed onto her blouse, staining it like blood. She froze, her head down, watching the stain spread slowly.

He stood up.

“I’m sorry,” she said in a small voice. “I guess we do have a lot of baggage between us.”

“It’ll come out.”

She started to cry, standing with her head down, her slender shoulders jerking. He hesitated, then laid a hand on her back. She turned toward him and rested the top of her head against his chest. After about a minute, her shoulders grew still, and she looked up at him with eyes a pale, watery blue.

She said, “I’m sorry about that, too.”

“It’s all right.”

“Can I use your bathroom?”

He nodded. “Back across the living room. Turn right.”

She was gone. For the moment, at least, he could breathe.