Endogamy – Julian Cage

Julian Cage

Angie took another sip of beer before replying. “You have to understand, I haven’t even seen Emily in, like, a year. And I didn’t know her that well. She was … always really nice. As in, polite. Not high-maintenance: she was a vegetarian, but one time there was only chicken soup and she just shrugged and had some. No drama. But no effort, either. I always got the feeling she’d just as soon be at home reading a book.”

“No, that wasn’t it,” Megan said. “She was just always behind the camera.” She pointed behind Amy, at the plate glass window giving a view onto Flat Shoals Avenue. A typical East Atlanta crowd: two-thirds hipsters, one-third hip-hoppers.

“That’s it. I forgot: She made films. I never saw one.”

“I did. At Eyedrum? It was all arty. Naked girl on a hill. Scarf, wind. It was good.”

“You’re right, though. We were all just people she was filming, even if you never saw her with a camera. I never really bonded with her. Stuff that we cared about just wasn’t important to her. We’d all be so excited about the Carnivores show at 529, and she’d smile, but you could tell she had no idea who the Carnivores were or why you’d want to waste an evening dancing your ass off.”

“But she wasn’t, like, a bitch about it. She just didn’t care. But, if she got hammered, she got all huggy.”

“Really? I don’t think I ever saw her even tipsy.”

“It was at her house. We were all going to Corndogorama? Her place was closest. We were wasted: she sat in everyone’s lap. I think she’s one of those people who are really, really shy, but who have enough basic social skills to function. You know, like a metaphor or whatever: She’s only comfortable behind the camera.”

“Maybe. I think you got to know her better. For me, she was one of those people who I was like, why are you here?”

“That’s kind of bitchy.”

“No, it isn’t. Well, yeah, I guess it is. I don’t mean that I wanted to kick her out. I was just like, wouldn’t you feel more comfortable where people were talking about whatever it is that you care about? What are you, like, getting out of this?”

Megan laughed. “Oh, it was the sex.” At Angie’s astonishment, she laughed again. “You didn’t know? Girl got around.”

“You’re kidding. I mean, I saw guys take shots at her all the time, and she just rolled her eyes. She didn’t care.”

“That’s what you think. She’s fucked pretty much every guy we know.”

“What? Who?”

“I’m not saying any names. They’d get in trouble.”

“You mean, like, married guys?”

“I swore an oath of secrecy. They made me prick my finger.”

“Justin? Chuck?”

“I promised. It was at Michael K’s party last year, when it snowed?”

“I missed that one.”

“So did pretty much everybody. It was me, Kristin, eight guys and enough alcohol for a hundred people. Her name comes up, and everyone figures out they fucked her. She’d invite them over for some film-related bullshit that didn’t seem like it was anything else. Then they’d get there and she’d fuck them stupid. None of them knew about the others. She’d never say anything about it later. Even to them. They all sounded like they had a real good time.”

“Really? She was skin and bones. I didn’t think she was all that pretty. Wow. You’re totally not going to tell me who?”

“No way. And they all went on about what a little porn star she was. Most of them went back for seconds.”

“That whole time, she was fucking all my friends’ husbands? What a whore!”

“Not all of them. Michael K was real upset: I guess he’d always thought she was hot, but he got left off the list.”

“What about —”

“Kristin? She was right there, laughing at him for being so sad for missing out on the Magic Sex Pixie.”

“You’re bullshitting me.”

“It’s true! They kept toasting her, and me and Kristin were like, holy shit, y’all are such guys.”

“What a little whore!”

“No, she wasn’t. I mean yeah, she fucked other women’s husbands —”

“And that isn’t whorish?”

“No. Well, yes. But not whore whorish; just slutty.”

“Megan, you’re making no sense.”

“It’s like … oh, I know: it’s the camera thing. She didn’t want to get involved, you know? So she only went for guys who were already taken. And she went out of her way to make sure nobody ever found out. If she was a real whore, she would’ve made sure everyone knew she fucked those guys.”

“I’m not sure I really buy that. Why not just troll the Internet if all you want is no-strings?” She slid out from the booth. “I have to pee.”

“Beer me,” Megan said.

“Only if I get a list of names.”

“Blood. Oath. They made me squeeze the blood into a whiskey shot and drink it.”

“Sure.” She looked at the third woman. “You sure you don’t want a beer?”

Detective Diana Siddal said, “Yes, I would. But I’m on duty.”

“We won’t tell.” She shrugged and flounced off.

Megan said, “I thought she knew. Her boyfriend? Went back for seconds. So what did Emily do, anyway?”

Diana said, “This is all just background. None of her more recent contacts weren’t involved. I went back through her phone records, got your names.”

“I really don’t see her anymore. Nobody does. The wives and girlfriends, you know. She was shy to begin with. Just cut her ties.”

Angie slid back into the booth, handed one of her beers to Megan. “Line for the bathroom was way long.”

Diana made a note on her tablet. “Either of you ever see Emily with a gun?”

“Holy shit,” Angie said. “No, never. What did she do?”

“I really can’t discuss it.”

Megan said, “Never saw anything.”

“How about … you said she was detached. Did you ever see her upset, excited? What about?”

“No,” Angie said. “I wouldn’t’ve thought she’d be passionate enough to fuck my friends’ boyfriends.”

“Wait a second,” Megan said. “Remember when Michael J and Gloria were talking about getting little Morgan baptized?”

“Oh, yeah. She went off. They had to totally keep the kid away from god, was what she said. Gloria tried to explain it was just to shut her family up — they’re from like Venezuela, I think? — but Emily was dead serious. What did she do?”

 

The Tikriti family lived about three blocks from Diana’s own townhouse in the tony Ansley Park neighborhood, in a sprawling house whose beautiful lawn Diana had always admired without knowing who lived there. Their parents had dropped the al- from their surname forty years earlier, when they immigrated to the United States.

Diana used her tablet to match up each member with a DMV photo. Ron, the father, forty-two, legally changed his name from Abdelrahman when he was twenty-six. Looked Arab only because Diana had spent enough time around Mustapha to pick out the facial features. Leila, the mother, had just turned forty, a Real Housewife of Atlanta, but with an MBA. Together, the couple ran Tip-Top Motors, which the guys at the precinct assured her was the go-to destination for high-end hip-hoppers who wanted to customize their cars for the Saturday night Peachtree Street cruise. Susan, the daughter, eighteen, software engineering student at Georgia Tech, strawberry blonde, pale. Diana was ninety percent sure that Ron — and one hundred percent sure that both women — had had some very high-quality work done on their noses and chins.

The woman in the headscarf was Fatima, the dead kid’s mom, no driver’s license but a resident alien, immigrated to the States with her son in 2005, at age thirty-eight, when he was twelve, so she was Diana’s age but looked fifteen years older. So would Diana, if her only kid got killed, even if it had happened when he was breaking into someone else’s house.

Diana pointed at the middle-aged, clearly Arab-American guy whose beautifully tailored suit surely concealed a sizable belly. “Who are you, sir?”

“My name is Mahmoud Tikriti.” Beautiful voice, just a trace of accent. “I am Abdelrahman’s uncle. I’m also Leila’s second cousin, and Fatima here is my cousin on the other side.” He had a great smile. “I’m sure it sounds strange, but custom cars are a family business. Perhaps down South such a thing is less unusual? I’m here to help the family in our time of need. I’m their attorney, also. I’m not a member of the bar here in Georgia, but I am in New York and New Jersey. If necessary, we will hire a local attorney, but —”

“Right. This is all background, anyway. What we want to know is —”

Diana was cut off by Fatima, who pointed at Ron and uttered a rapid-fire stream of invective in what Diana could recognize was Arabic. Ron held up two hands to stop her; Mahmoud interrupted and spoke back to her, slowly, placatingly. Diana cursed under her breath, docked herself a day’s pay for poor preparation, called up the sound recorder on her tablet and activated it. “What did she ask?”

Ron started to speak, but Mahmoud cut him off. “She’s very upset about her son’s death.”

“Well, I would be, too.”

“And she doesn’t understand why the woman who shot Samir hasn’t been arrested.”

“Well, sir, that’s why we’re all here. Your cousin broke into Peter Vale’s house and came at him with a knife. The man’s friend shot him in what she argues was self-defense. She had every legal right to carry a handgun, and there are two witnesses, including young Susan here, who saw what happened. Under Georgia law, what Emily Pope did was legal. Maybe if I can figure out why Mr. — I’m going to call him Samir, since there’s two other Mr. Tikritis here — was so upset that he drove over to Mr. Vale’s house with a knife, it might shed some light on the situation.”

Mahmoud said, “What did you tell them, Soraya?”

Susan sighed theatrically. “Don’t call me that. I’m here in the living room trying to figure out why my program won’t compile. Then Samir just busts into the house. He doesn’t live here, anymore, but he thinks he can just walk in without knocking. He says he needs his laundry done, I tell him the washer’s down the stairs on the right. He tells me I need to do his laundry, because he wants to use my computer. I tell him to fuck off. I’m not gonna wash all the skid marks out of his tighty whiteys, and he’s not going to put porn malware all over my laptop. Nobody touches my laptop. Last time, it was all hippie chick porn. All these girls with dreads, and bushes out to here. All of them sitting in rivers. What the fuck is up with that?”

“Honey,” her mother began.

“Yeah, yeah. Anyway, he goes to use the PC in the other room, then maybe an hour later, he runs out ranting in Arabic. Then he calms down, or maybe he just pretends to. He asks me where Peter Vale lives. He knew Peter from when he lived here, and Peter made an effort, so I just said over in Morningside, gave him the address. I hear his scooter peel out of the driveway and think, what the fuck? So I get in the car and follow him. I’m like four cars behind him, all the way there, so when he parks in the driveway and goes up to the house, I can see the giant knife in his hand. So I run up there, calling 911. Samir just plows through the front door, screaming about jihad or whatever, and then a couple of seconds later, Bam! Bam! I hit the ground. Then Peter is shouting and Emily’s crying and the operator is asking me what happened, and I give the address and walk in and there’s Samir on the rug with two holes in his chest. I’d never seen a dead person before.” She shuddered. “I need a beer.”

“Honey,” said her father.

“Sorry.”

Mahmoud stepped forward. “That’s enough, Soraya.”

“My name is Susan.”

“Of course.” He turned to Diana. “We are all very curious why Samir would do such a thing. Perhaps he felt that attacking this Vale fellow was the right thing to do.”

“Well, sir, all due respect, that doesn’t matter. There’s essentially nothing Samir could have learned about Mr. Vale that would have justified breaking in on him with a weapon. Maybe if it were some kind of livestream of Mr. Vale about to hurt someone else? But it would still be a poor justification; better to phone the police than drive across town. The law is very strictly on Emily’s side. Hey, Susan?”

“Hunh? Yeah?”

“Why didn’t you call the police while you were on your way over?”

“Oh … I don’t know. I think I was too focused on chasing Samir. Well, and I didn’t realize that this was, like, an assault mission.”

“Okay. Can you show me the computer?”

“Come on in here.” As they walked into the other room, followed by the others, Susan said, “I usually wipe it every couple of days, because between Samir and my parents, there’s all kinds of junk on it. But I haven’t touched it. You know, like on the crime shows? That patrol cop who came before you did gave me all kinds of shit about going into Peter’s house, afterwards. She was right, too.”

Susan tried to get to the keyboard before Diana, but Diana waved her away. “A Crime Scene officer is on the way.” Diana took out a handkerchief, draped it over her finger, very carefully used the mouse. The browser history window had twenty-one URLs all ending in .jpg, then the words Search Results: swinger couples.

Susan said, “There’s Samir for you.”

“Right,” Diana said. “But this search is from yesterday morning. Your cousin was shot at three in the afternoon.”

Susan shrugged. “He either set it to anonymous browsing or he deleted his history. Give me twenty minutes on Slashdot and I’ll get it back for you.” She plucked a tangerine from a bowl on the desk.

“Let’s let our analysts take care of that.”

“Sure.” She dug a thumbnail into the fruit and began to peel it. The older woman started screeching in her language; she reached out and grabbed Susan’s wrist. Susan threw off the woman’s grip, dropped into a fighting stance. “Back off!

Fatima pointed at her and said something Diana did not need a translator to understand was a rebuke. Susan rolled her eyes. “Speak English. I know you know how.” She popped a wedge of tangerine in her mouth.

Mahmoud was incredulous. “What are you doing?”

“What the fuck does it look like?” she said around a mouthful of fruit.

“Honey,” her mother began.

“Sorry, Mom.” Before her uncle could speak, Susan addressed him. “You are observing Ramadan. I am not. I have a class in an hour. Last one of the summer semester; final exam review. I need to focus. And no, I’m not going to miss my class just because my stupid crazy cousin decided to try to kill someone. Mom and Dad wanted me to pretend, but I want to keep my A.”

Mahmoud turned to Ron. “This is true?” Ron tried to look sheepish.

“I’m an adult,” Susan said. She popped several more wedges into her mouth. “Mmm. And my constitutional rights are delicious.”

Mahmoud’s face flushed. He drew breath to speak, then looked at Diana and made a visible effort to calm himself. “We’ll talk about this later.”

“There’s nothing to say,” Susan said.

Mahmoud blinked twice, slowly, then smiled. “You’re right.” He turned to Diana. “I think we have said all we need to say, Detective.”

“Well, that’s your right, sir. But this is really just background. Mr. and Ms. Tikriti, how do you both know Mr. Vale?”

Mahmoud said, “We’re finished here.”

“Yoga class,” Leila said. “Four or five years ago. We got to talking, we had the same tastes in books and TV. He helped Susan out a lot when she showed an interest in computers.”

“He’s a software developer,” Susan said.

“His son worked in our shop last summer,” Ron said. “Before he went off to college.”

“Brandon,” Susan said. “Yum. Too bad he’s gay.”

Leila said, “You don’t know that.”

“Yes, I do.”

Diana said, “So, a friend of the family?”

“Sure,” Susan said. “Came over for Thanksgiving last year.”

“What about Emily Pope?”

Leila said, “Also yoga class. She had a flat tire, we drove her home. She’s so shy, and Peter is someone who’s very good at drawing people out of their shell. She was new to Atlanta, didn’t have many friends. She makes films. They’re very good.”

Susan said, “I don’t know about that.”

Diana said, “Ma’am, have you ever seen her with a firearm before?”

“No,” Leila said.

“Sure,” Susan said. “I saw it in her purse. I’m like, whoa. She said her dad was a cop. No, like an agent or something? Not FBI; something else. She got assaulted when she was, like, my age?”

“Okay. You said Mr. Vale made an effort with Samir?”

“We are done here,” Mahmoud said.

“Sir, if you think your cousin was unjustly murdered ….”

“It’s okay,” Ron said. “Samir was having trouble up in New Jersey, so the family sent him and his mother down here for a fresh start. He wasn’t born here; he never really fit in.”

“His home was destroyed,” Mahmoud said. “His father was killed.”

“Right, exactly. There’s a big Iraqi refugee community out in Clarkston. A couple of them work at our shop. Peter coaches a soccer team; he got Samir to help, tried to help him make friends out there.”

“But it didn’t work,” Susan said. “There’s all this clan and tribal bullshit you wouldn’t believe. Most of those people were like farmers or whatever over there, but Samir and his mom think they’re aristocrats and don’t have to work for a living.”

Ron said, “That’s —”

“It’s true!”

“He’s studying business, to help run the shop. Was studying.”

“And he’s too lazy to get his hands dirty like everyone else.”

“Stop!” Mahmoud said. “Just stop.” He continued in Arabic.

Susan said, “What he’s saying is, we shouldn’t say anything bad about Samir. Because he’s part of the family.” She made a jerking-off motion; Diana smiled in spite of herself. “Even though he tried to kill Peter.” At Mahmoud’s glare, “She’s recording you, dude, on the iPad. She’ll get someone to translate it.”

“Then I think this interview is over.”

Diana said, “Just one more question. Do you know anything that Mr. Vale might have done to make Samir so upset?”

Susan shrugged. “You’ll have to ask him.”

 

Captain Curtis Jenkins leaned back in his chair. “So what did this Vale guy say?”

“Nothing, sir. Lawyered up. At the crime scene, he was all baffled, weeping, confused. Said he liked the kid, had no idea why he came busting in on them. Seemed pretty genuine. Emily Pope, the shooter, was spooky calm and demanded a lawyer right away—refused to answer any questions at all. She’s got a lawyer from the NRA. Not the man who sounds like Foghorn Leghorn: this guy’s a lot younger. He wouldn’t let her give anything but the bare facts of what she saw and how she reacted. Told me she’d say nothing more unless we put her on trial. Told Vale, the homeowner, to shut up and lawyer up.”

“Well, that’s his constitutional right. The gun was legal?”

“Yes. All paperwork in order, including the concealed-carry permit. I’ll do a deeper background on her and Vale. I got a call into Homeland Security about the kid and the family.”

“What I want to know is, can you call it self-defense?”

“I walked the scene, talked to witnesses. Nothing stands out.”

“Well, okay then. Close it and move on.”

“I just ….”

“Aw, hell. What is it?”

“The family. The local branch hired Lara Doyle.”

“What the hell for?”

“That’s exactly it. She said it was because they’re Iraqi Muslims, victims of prejudice and so forth, can’t trust the authorities. She even got the daughter to shut up for a minute. Which, impressive. But, something tells me there’s more to it.”

“And you’re never wrong.”

“Yes, I am; there was that kids’ party clown last spring. He really wasn’t a child molester; I still feel bad about that.”

“Yeah, but who would expect that? So what’s this family hiding? What did the kid see on the computer that set him off?”

“Tech people say amateur porn, about an hour of it in eleven different clips.”

“Maybe he recognized someone? Or was it underage?”

“Nope. I fast-forwarded through it. All grown-ups, and all the kind where you don’t see faces unless they’re wearing masks, or pixelated.” She sighed. “I’m too old for porn. By the time everyone was downloading it off the Internet, I was a mom with a job. Grace came home last weekend, because she has to pay for laundry in her building? I caught her surfing porn. She looked at me like I’m a space alien for being shocked. Generation gap. And it was gay porn.”

“Hang on: She’s gay, now?”

“No, no; gay male porn. I’m like, why would that interest you? She’s like, just look at them.” Diana shrugged. “In her defense, they were beautiful.”

“It’s a different world. Can we close this?”

“I just think … give me a couple of days.”

“With Mustapha on vacation and Duane out for that foot thing, I’m short two detectives.”

“You owe me like nine weeks of lost time. I’ll drop it if something comes up. It’s too hot to commit murder, anyway.”

 

“Oh, hi there,” said the neatly dressed man behind the counter. “How’ve you been? I’ve got a Pinot Noir you might want to try. It’s truly fantastic.”

“Hey, Paul. I’d love to, but this is business.” Diana flashed him her shield. “I’m on duty.”

“Of course. Is this a liquor tax thing?”

“No; a homicide.”

His hand went to his perfectly manicured mustache. “Oh, dear.”

She showed him her tablet. “You guys talk almost every day.”

“Oh, poor Ronnie. That nephew of his turned out to be a nutcase after all. And little Emily just plugged him.”

“You know her?”

“I’ve met her. Too shy-shy, hush-hush, eye to eye. And then she’s got a gun. You can never tell.” He sighed. “Ron asked me not to say anything, but I’ve been doing that for the last ten years.” At a look from Diana, his hand went back to his mustache. “Oh, you didn’t know that, either, did you? You have to understand I’m a Scorpio: I’m too passionate and too possessive. I’ve been in love with the most closeted man in Atlanta for all this time.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. Um, does he know this?”

“Of course he does. He slept over three or four nights ago. His wife knows, spunky Susan knows, I’m sure the whole body shop knows. But what are all his cousins with their toxic tribal religion going to think? Who cares, I say. But he’s from the old country, or at least the cousins are. He’ll never leave his wife. And the thing is, Leila’s great. I like her. She’s helped me out all sorts of ways with the business. Smart lady.”

“And she’s okay with her husband’s double life?”

“Oh, sure. We double-date, her and Peter, Ronnie and me. Everyone thinks Peter and I are a couple, which squicks poor Peter out because, even though he’s a big old liberal, he’s still a little afraid of the gay. Oh, you didn’t know about Peter, either, did you?”

“I think I was starting to figure it out.”

“It took Ronnie years to convince Leila to go find an arrangement of her own. She deserved it, and Peter’s a big old cuddly bear. Except for the one hundred percent straight part. Which is just what she needed. We were one big happy, until the Uncles From Hell sent cousin Samir and his awful mother down to live with Ronnie and Leila. Suddenly, we all have to live on the DL, just so some deeply closeted teenager and his bee-yotch of a mother don’t get offended. They stored all the liquor at my place, gave Peter all the bacon. Lord, what a charade.”

Paul fiddled with his hands in a way Diana knew meant he wanted a cigarette. “And it wasn’t like the two of them didn’t find a million other things to be offended about. They just about drove poor Susan to homicide. I take it you’ve met Susan? I’m a big fan of Susan’s. Not someone who’s going to take well to being told she has to pretend to be a quiet little princess. Do you know what she did? When Samir and his mom told her she had to cover her hair, she started walking around the house topless, saying the most vile things to them. Pure comedy gold. She and Leila finally put their feet down and said it was time for those two to have a little cottage all by themselves in Hateworld. Ronnie pissed and moaned because the whole family thing means he’s supposed to cater to the nasty old bitch’s every whim, but you don’t say no to Leila and Susan. He borrowed money from both Peter and me to put down the money for a house, out in some suburb. Lord, did we party when they moved out, the old lady bitching the whole way. Then everything was fine, until the boy started going to Georgia State. Too far for him to drive, on a scooter, so he started coming back to Ronnie’s on school nights. Drove the women crazy—he’s the sort of insecure little boy who needs to tell women what to do. Susan locked him out whenever she was home. Made him sleep in the garage one night.”

“So, what I want to know is, why he would attack Mr. Vale?”

“No idea. I was always afraid he’d come after me. Once he found out who I was —”

“That you were Ronnie’s boyfriend?”

“Oh, no; that was a forbidden topic. I’m just the Tikriti family’s nice gay friend. Which was enough for him. I grew up in small-town South Carolina: I know what a closeted bully sounds like.”

“Okay. Would he have known about Leila and Peter?”

“Not as far as I know. But when I heard the story, that was my first guess. Peter actually tried to be nice to him. Though I always thought Samir would go after Susan first, ’cause she’s little and looks like she’d be easy to pick on. But she’s Aries: she’ll butt heads with anyone. And she’s taken kung fu since she was a little girl. Samir was a pussy.” He sighed. “I just want to go over there and hold Ronnie. But the boss uncle is there; Ronnie has to play it straight. Story of my life.”

 

The receptionist managed to slip in between Diana and the office door. “Ms. Jones, this woman is from the police.”

Karen Jones looked up, blinked twice, shrugged. “Okay. Thanks, Latoya.” She stood up, extended a hand, said to Diana, “What can I do for you?”

Diana let her look at the shield before putting it back in her purse. “Just some background information.” She waited until Latoya was out of earshot. “I’m with Homicide, Ms. Jones.”

Two more blinks. “And?”

“Mind if I sit? Thanks. Two days ago, a man named Samir Tikriti was killed during a home invasion. You are nothing like a suspect in this. But the young man’s family is proving less than cooperative; I’m trying to find out why he broke into this man’s house.”

The slightest of shrugs. “Yes?”

Diana got out her tablet. “Do you recognize this man?”

“Sure. Peter. I don’t know his last name.”

“How about this woman?”

“Linda. I’m pretty sure that isn’t her real name.”

“And this one?”

“Emily.”

“So what’s your connection to these people?”

“We’re social acquaintances.”

“Look, Ms. Jones, I’m not trying to get your friends in trouble. Emily here was the person who shot Samir Tikriti.”

“Oh, I read about this. Over in Morningside? Crazy kid with a knife? That was Emily? Well. I wouldn’t have guessed. But I’m certainly not going to cooperate with you if you’re trying to pin a homicide on her.”

“I’m not. It was a clear case of self-defense. Samir, the victim, was a cousin of this woman, Leila Tikriti. He saw something on the computer at her house, became enraged and drove over to Peter Vale’s house, where Emily shot him.”

Another blank. “And?”

“Well, Ms. Jones, when I go through Peter’s and Leila’s phone records, the common number they call the most is a line registered to you. Lots of people call this number; but only for a minute or two, and you never call out. So, I’m guessing you’re the organizer of some kind of party or social event. They call in, get the time and place, and the secret password.”

A tiny and fleeting moue of frustration. “I was sloppy. I should have put that line under a dummy corporation, but I didn’t want to deal with the paperwork.” A forced smile. “Yes. You’re right. It’s a social event. Peter and Linda—Leila, you said?—and Emily are all members. I do the logistical work. There is absolutely nothing illegal taking place. Everything is consensual; there isn’t even a password.” She took a card from her purse. “But the first rule of Cake is that you must not talk about Cake.” She gave an embarrassed smile; it was the first sign of real humanity Diana had seen. “Yes, that’s trite. But it’s important.”

“Cake?”

“Yes.” She wrote something on the back of the card. “As in, you can have it.” She handed the card to Diana. “And eat it, too. Someone like you will keep digging no matter how much I assure you there’s nothing here that would lead to a home invasion. So come take a look.”

Diana looked at the card. The obverse just said CAKE, in bold capitals. The reverse had an address in Buckhead, the next day’s date, and 8:30 p.m. “I’m going to have to pass,” she said. “It … well, it’s my birthday.”

A real smile. “All the better. There will be cake.”

 

The man from Homeland Security had been freshly poured from a mold. Not a thread nor hair was out of place. “The Tikriti family. Good people; patriotic Americans.” He declined coffee: probably too organic. “They started coming over in the late 1960s; their clan was on the wrong side of Saddam’s. Got into the body shop business, branched off into customization. Much more profitable. Your Atlanta branch, the husband was born here, the wife came over as a toddler. Lots more of them after ’91, then the last bunch in ’05. Samir’s dad worked for the Coalition Provisional Authority as a translator, but he got shot by one of Muqtada Sadr’s goons.”

“They always kill the translator first, is what veterans have told me.”

“Yeah. But this was a private thing, some kind of real estate dispute. The wife and son had no support there, and family here, so they only had to spend about a year in a refugee camp before they made it to Jersey. The kid went on a watch list right away. He fit the profile. You immigrate before you’re twelve, you become an American; any older and you’re likely to have trouble adjusting, remain alienated. But nothing else ever popped. He got religion, but that’s pretty usual for kids in his position. The mosque was conservative, but not radical. Lots of web surfing, but mostly just news. Your basic alienated, lonely immigrant teen: nothing to worry about, from our perspective. Heck, you should have seen me at that age.”

“I can’t imagine.”

“Oh, I was an emo kid. Long hair over my face, eyeliner. I can show you pictures. I used to cut myself.”

“No kidding?”

“No, ma’am. Marine Corps straightened me out. Once Samir got out of high school, we offered him an Army ROTC spot. Family was all for it; mom wouldn’t let him. Didn’t want to lose her only kid. Family sent them down here for a fresh start. After that, nothing piqued our interest.” He shrugged. “But with young men, you never know. A careful reading of Samir’s file gave us nothing to suggest he’d break into some random guy’s house with a knife. But we don’t, contrary to public opinion, know everything about people. Even ones we’re interested in.”

“The homeowner has an ongoing affair with Ms. Tikriti.”

“Oh, that’s the connection? Well, then: family honor. It’s a big deal over there.”

“Well, that’s what I was working with, mostly because I didn’t have anything else to go on.”

“Does it matter? Your own report makes it out to be self-defense.”

“Too many loose ends. Well, really, not enough of them. The family? The one here in Atlanta? They’re not mourning; they’re relieved.”

“Maybe they’re both. Tell you what, though; your shooter, Emily Pope? Now she’s got an interesting background.”

 

The next evening, Diana parked her own car two houses down from the address on the card. It was a good-sized mansion even for Buckhead, half a mile from the governor’s house. People were parking around her, getting out, walking to the house, some of them in casual clothes, more of them in bathrobes. Diana felt out of place in her usual work uniform of knockoff designer jacket, blouse, slacks, and flats; and oddly nervous, like a teenager. She took out her phone, listened to Grace’s off-key version of “Happy Birthday,” got out of the car.

At the door was Karen Jones herself, wearing a black silk bathrobe over a bikini that might better have suited a rather younger woman. “Hello, Detective Siddall. I was hoping you’d come. Happy birthday, by the way.”

“Uh, thanks. I didn’t bring a bathing suit.”

“That is absolutely no problem. I do need to know if you’re on duty now.”

“No.” A couple squeezed by. Diana was pretty sure they were naked under matching robes printed with bunnies.

“Hey, Karen,” said the man. They both looked at Diana, nodded, smiled, went in.

“Oh,” Diana said. “This is a sex club.” She shook her head back and forth, very quickly, like a wet dog. “How did I not figure that out?” She sighed with relief. “So, just a bunch of adults doing their thing. And no underage people, or —”

“You wouldn’t be here. Nobody under thirty allowed.” She pinched a fold of her own belly. “We say it’s to avoid strong emotions getting in the way of pleasure, but is really because younger people make us older ones feel self-conscious.”

“Oh, sure. So Samir, at nineteen, if he showed up here —”

“Wouldn’t get past the door. Too young, and we don’t allow unescorted males. Too many problems.”

“Right.” Another couple, fifties, stout, Mardi Gras masks. Nods and smiles. “Last question: Are there any recordings, movies?”

“Oh, no. Strictly forbidden. If society were a little less prudish? We wouldn’t have to be so discreet.” Karen led her into the foyer of the house, where a department store clothing rack stood. Most of the hangers had robes on them. “See, I can put you in a white robe: everyone will know you’re just an observer. We like to give people the chance to dip their toes in, before they, well, dip anything else in.”

“Oh. Um, that’s okay. I don’t really need to come in.”

“Detective, don’t be bashful. Nobody is going to hurt you. You can even put on a mask, if you want. Are you married? Is that the problem, you feel that your husband —”

“Divorced. Long ago. Single.” A round little brunette in nothing but a long black T-shirt and flip-flops came up the walk, big breasts bouncing back and forth under her shirt. “I got pregnant in college. My daughter’s all grown now.”

“Then there’s nothing unethical. Come on in. Like I said, there’s cake.”

“Or pie,” said the brunette. She looked Diana up and down, then stared at her with big green eyes. “Lots and lots of pie. If that’s what you like.” She sashayed in.

“Perhaps I should have a white robe,” Diana said.

Karen draped one over Diana’s shoulders. “There. You’re off-limits now: you can relax. There are many of us who get a great deal of satisfaction from filming our encounters and putting them up on the Internet, but we don’t allow that here. They do it at home. There’s quite a community of sharers out there. But video isn’t really my thing. If you need to know something, I can introduce you to people.”

“Well, I think I’ve seen enough.”

“Come on in, please.” Karen led her into the dining room. On the table was a fishbowl full of wrapped condoms next to a cake about three feet in diameter, its frosting the color of almonds. The missing wedge revealed that the cake itself was chocolate. On one of the formal chairs in a back corner of the room sat a woman — skinny, bony, over sixty, nude, a towel underneath her and each foot propped on another chair. She had a plate with a half-eaten slice of cake on it in one hand and a fork in the other. Between her legs knelt a bald man, his head and hands moving rhythmically. She waved cheerfully. “Hey, Karen!”

“Hi, Ellen. Hi, Jack.” The man lifted a hand and gave a backwards wave without breaking his rhythm. Karen saw Diana’s expression. “She couldn’t possibly be more satisfied, could she? That’s what we’re all about.”

They walked into the living room, which had French doors open out into the backyard, where naked people of all shapes and sizes cavorted around a swimming pool. Diana almost didn’t notice the foursome on the room’s sunken couch. “It’s all about consent and safety,” Karen said. “Nobody here would be involved in a homicide. Though as an off-duty police officer, you probably shouldn’t go upstairs, where there is almost certainly a room where people are smoking cannabis. Which, well, we can all hope that we won’t have to worry about that for very much longer.”

“Well, that would certainly save us police a lot of wasted time.”

They were interrupted by an oddly familiar man who was completely shaved from head to toe, and who was so effusive about welcoming Diana and to observe and explore that she had to excuse herself to the bathroom to catch her breath. She stripped, looked at herself carefully in the mirror, wondering what others might see. She put all her clothes back on, draped the robe over her shoulders, went back out. Karen was waiting, now naked under her robe. “Everything all right?”

“Sure. I should go.”

“Oh, don’t. Peter is here. Come say hi.” Before she could object, they were in front of Peter, who naked had a lot of tattoos but still looked like a friendly soccer coach. He held a chain connected to the dog collar of a nude woman whose hands were cuffed behind her back. She looked like the archetypal suburban mom but for the collar, the cuffs, and the bright red ball gag in her mouth. Vale said, “Hey, Detective!” He was friendly, comfortable in his environment. “What a neat surprise. Thinking about joining up?”

“She traced our phone records,” Karen said.

“Well,” Diana began.

“Uh-oh,” Peter said, jokingly. “Well, poor Samir was never here. He had some problems, but I never expected him to —”

“Hang on, Mr. Vale. I can’t discuss the case with you. Unless your attorney is present, I could get in a lot of trouble.”

“Oh, right. Maybe I should have invited him.”

“Oh, dear,” said a woman’s voice from behind them. “This is awkward.” Diana turned to see Leila Tikriti, naked as the day she was born, a beer in one hand and a realistically detailed green phallus in the other. “Hi there, Detective.” Her skin had lots of dark birthmarks, little dots all over her breasts and belly and thighs.

“She knows our secret,” Peter said.

“She knows them all,” Leila replied. “Paul called last night. He says you’re one of his favorite customers. Have you tried the Pinot Noir he just got in?”

“It’s on my countertop. Haven’t cracked it yet. Look, I really should go.”

Karen said, “Detective, you needn’t be uncomfortable about sex.”

“That’s not it,” Diana said. “Mr. Vale and Ms. Tikriti here are part of an ongoing investigation. Their attorneys aren’t here. It’s just not appropriate; there are rules.”

“We’re all about rules,” Karen said. She pointed at the woman with the ball gag. “Jennifer here is about to find out just how nice things can be if she follows all the rules.” The woman nodded, her eyes bright with anticipation and desire. “Peter here is a rare treat. Most men our age really want to be dominated, but Peter is a master at properly dominating a woman.”

“It’s to die for,” Leila said.

“I’m so turned on,” mumbled Jennifer from behind the gag. She looked at Peter, who nodded, then reached over and unclipped the gag. “He just told me if I do absolutely everything he says, he’ll let my husband watch when he fucks me.”

“Oooh,” said Leila and Karen simultaneously. Peter put the gag back in place and led Jennifer to the basement stairs.

“I should really go,” Diana said.

“No, stay,” Leila said. “I can’t tell you how much better my life has become because of this group.”

Karen said, “You’re in a dominant position most of the time, aren’t you, Detective? Have you ever considered how much you might enjoy being thoroughly dominated?”

“Er,” Diana began, but her body had already responded. Peter Vale wasn’t really her type, but he was well-built, and she could still see him in her mind, half-erect as he prepared to do god knows what to happy Jennifer. She did the head-shake thing again. “There are ethical issues here. My captain would be very upset if he found out I was talking to suspects — er, persons of interest — without their attorneys. I really need to leave.” But they wouldn’t let her, though they were very polite about it; not until she had a piece of what was actually quite delicious cake, while a bunch of naked, middle-aged hedonists sang “Happy Birthday” to her.

All the way back down Peachtree, she drummed her fingers on the steering wheel at every stoplight. Only when she got into her own neighborhood did she realize she was thinking about the smooth, featureless silver vibrator in the drawer by her bedside table. But when she got home, there was Grace, draped over the couch watching one of her own strange documentary films on her laptop. She jumped up to sing “Happy Birthday,” then stepped back. “You feeling all right, Mom?”

“Um. Oh, I’m okay. Just … just my birthday. I feel like I’m getting old and missing out.”

“Well, you’re only forty-four.”

“Forty-three. I just need to get out more.” She walked into the kitchen, grabbed the Pinot Noir, found the corkscrew, poured them each a glass. “Cheers, kiddo.” She was never going to be able to masturbate with Grace in the house.

Two glasses later, “Can I ask you a question, sweetie?”

“Uh-oh.”

“I’m not going to interrogate you. I’m really curious.” She went to get another bottle. “I read stuff online about how you’re the hookup generation. I’m sure it’s mostly nonsense. But have you ever … er, got busy with someone in public? Or with another couple?”

“Mom!”

“I’m genuinely curious. The rules are a lot different now.”

“Well … yeah. A few times. But mostly because there wasn’t another room to go to, not like we were putting on a show.”

“How about with another girl?”

“Well. Uh, yeah. It’s like, you’re at a party, you want to get laid, so you find another girl in the same boat, start making out in front of the guys you like, they’ll get the idea. But I’m not really into it.” She drained her glass. “Oh. You’re dating a woman now? I mean, go Mom! Do what you want.”

“No, I’m all about men.”

“Me, too! Hey, remember when I went to Florida for the Obama campaign? Okay, so there’s this guy I’m into. We’re staying, like, four to a hotel room, and we finally get a chance to do it. So we’re both naked, and the other guy stumbles in. Kind of awkward, but he was cool. Ten minutes later, I’ve got … one in each hand. What a mess!” Grace’s eyes had the same glitter to them that handcuffed Jennifer’s had an hour earlier. “There might have been some really high-quality pot involved. I can’t believe I’m telling you this. Anyway, so it was so much fun we just kept at it. The other girl moved in with the guy she liked, and I spent the rest of the campaign with both of them. God, you must think I’m an awful slut.”

“No, no; I don’t. I’m glad you’re happy and able to talk about it. It’s so different.” Now she was crying for real. “I need to … get out more. I feel like the world has passed me by.”

“Well, I got over the whole you and Dad are going to get back together when I was about sixteen. Do what makes you happy. Have more wine.” Diana did. And then she sat with her daughter on the couch and watched silly things until she fell asleep. She woke up on the couch in the morning with a frightful headache, but at least it wasn’t her birthday anymore.

 

Inspector Mustapha Alawi’s grinning face more than filled the Skype window. “Man, I feel like hell. I totally thought today was your birthday.”

“Well, it’s not as if it was something to celebrate. I just went to a sex club, then came home and got drunk with Grace. How’s Paris in the middle of summer?”

“Not hot enough, and full of fat Americans. I’m kind of bored, tell you the truth. Gisèle is having a great time, but they’re her cousins. Nice people, but … tell me you’ve got a crime to solve. I look at one more piece of beautiful Renaissance art, I’m gonna die of boredom.”

“Funny you should ask.” She told him the story. “So I guess Samir figures out that his aunt is sleeping with this Vale guy, goes over to the house to avenge the family honor.”

“But who cares? It’s still self-defense.”

“It looks like it. First of all, the shooter, Emily Pope? Fifteen years ago, she’s an honor student in small-town Tennessee. They kick her out of school for starting an atheist club. ACLU steps in, they have to take her back. A month after that, she drives herself to the hospital, says six or seven guys tied her up and gang-raped her because she didn’t believe in god. The boys, one of whom was her regular boyfriend, all claim it was consensual.”

“And of course everyone in small-town Tennessee totally believed her and not them.”

“The state authorities felt the same way, when she appealed to them. She ended up spending almost a year in a mental hospital. But then she gets it together, moves to Atlanta, graduates from college with honors, and of course since this is Georgia, a former mental patient has no trouble obtaining a concealed-carry permit.”

“Man, I miss the USA. So, someone whose buttons might be easily pressed. Oh, I get it: you’re thinking the American side of the family got him riled up, pushed him right toward an armed woman with a grudge. Why would they do that, to their own cousin?”

“Well, his and his mom’s old country ways were crimping their assimilated lifestyle.”

She began to explain, but Mustapha cut her off before she could finish. “Wow, I’m glad you called. You got it all wrong. We need to spend a lot more time watching shitty Egyptian movies. The family up North sent the kid down because they wanted to marry him off to the daughter in Atlanta.”

“They’re cousins.”

“That’s why the family wants it.”

“Yeah, right. Yuck!”

“Yuck to Americans. The perfect end to the story for traditional Arab parents. Don’t look at me like that. I bet you if you talked to the mom—the boy’s mom, I mean—she’ll tell you that the girl belongs to her son.”

“You’ve got to meet this girl. There’s no way she’d go for it.”

“Doesn’t matter. Not her decision. You see, there’s dowries involved. The husband’s family has to fork over a big sum of money to the wife’s. That’s why you get cousin marriage. There’s clan and tribal stuff, too, but it’s really about keeping money and property in the family.”

“Cousins?”

“Totally serious. We’ll have movie night when I get home.”

 

“Okay, so everyone’s here?” Diana said, looking around the conference room. She counted off from left to right around the table: Fatima, Uncle Mahmoud, Lara Doyle, the three Tikritis, with Susan’s size-four feet in combat boots up on the table, then Peter Vale and his attorney, and Emily Pope with the guy from the NRA. “Okay, then. This is Mr. Quinn from the District Attorney’s office. There’s doughnuts and coffee in the back for those of you not fasting.”

“Oh, good,” Susan said. “I’m starving.” She got up, brought back a plate with three doughnuts, put one in front of each of her parents. “Eat up,” she said. “You both get real cranky if you don’t.” Fatima started to chastise her, but Susan just snapped her fingers. “Aka-laka Muhammad jihad, bitch.” But neither of her parents touched the doughnuts.

Mahmoud started to object, but Lara Doyle stopped him. “I know I’m paid by the hour, but could y’all save the bickering for later? Detective Siddal, as the Tikriti family’s attorney it is my fervent hope, if perhaps not my expectation, that you’ve gathered us all here this afternoon to tell us that you’re charging Ms. Pope over there with second-degree murder in the slaying of their beloved cousin.”

The man from the NRA said, “And it’s mine that we are here to listen to you tell us that you’re closing this ridiculous investigation into an obvious and clear-cut case of self-defense.”

Diana said, “Well, I’m going to have to disappoint you both. What I’m going to do is tell you a story.”

“Oh, no,” Doyle said. “Not again.” She addressed her clients. “Detective Siddal’s stories are ludicrous and transparent attempts to induce innocent people to confess to the most preposterous of crimes. As your attorney, I advise you to remain silent. She’s got nothing.”

“Why, Ms. Doyle, I didn’t know you cared. But it’s not my story. It’s y’all’s. Well, they’re y’all’s, because there’s more than one story.”

Diana sipped her coffee. “The first story is the simplest one. Poor crazy Samir burst into Mr. Vale’s house, and Ms. Pope shot him in self-defense. From a strictly legal point of view, it’s cut and dried. But then a nosy, suspicious detective like me is never satisfied, especially when Samir’s cousins seem much more relieved than sad. So I start looking for a reason why Samir, a guy with no history of violence, goes over to Mr. Vale’s house with a knife.”

“It doesn’t matter,” said the NRA guy. “His motive is irrelevant to Ms. Pope’s claim of self-defense.”

“You’re right. But see, if Ms. Pope knew Samir was coming, then her right to shoot becomes a lot murkier. She could have just called the police.”

“How would my client have known?”

“Because she knew all along. But I’m getting ahead of myself. There’s another story. I do a little research, I find out that Ms. Tikriti here has a whole lifestyle of her own. Samir gets on the computer to enjoy his porn, and the last video he watches looks an awful lot like Ms. Tikriti in a compromising position. She’s wearing a mask, but she’s the right size and shape, and she’s covered with freckles. This enrages him, so he goes over to Mr. Vale’s house to kill the man he thinks is defiling his family’s honor.”

“This is true?” Mahmoud said. He pointed at Leila. “What did you do?”

“It’s none of your business,” Leila said.

“Shut up,” Doyle said. “Please. This is what she wants.”

Diana enjoyed a bite of doughnut. “So, superficially, it all makes sense. Old country values, an unbalanced kid, all very unfortunate. Plus, it’s got this titillating sex thing going. Step out of your role and violence results. But this is real life, not a CSI episode: Just because someone isn’t straight and monogamous doesn’t mean they’re going to end up punished for it. In fact, as a straight and in theory monogamous person, I’m beginning to see that I’m the real deviant in the room.”

Doyle said, “Maybe you should get out more. What does this have to do with Samir’s death?”

“Well, I’ve been on the phone all night, talking to people in D.C. who served in Iraq, and lived there, and even a couple of Iraqis who work for the State Department. And I had it all wrong. Let’s say Samir really did see porn starring his aunt. Which I don’t think he did, because the Atlanta branch of the Tikritis made a real effort to pretend to be conservative when Samir and his mother lived with them. And Samir would never have seen enough of Leila’s unclothed body to be able to recognize her in a video, even if she is family.”

She held up a finger to forestall Doyle. “But it’s moot. Because even if it were true, family honor doesn’t require Samir to kill Mr. Vale; it requires him to kill you, Ms. Tikriti. And when Samir went to Mr. Vale’s house, you were at work, across town in the body shop. So if I’m just a dumb American cop, I see motive for Samir and everyone’s off the hook. But a little research makes it fall apart. If Samir saw the video, he wouldn’t have asked Susan about Mr. Vale, but rather about Susan’s mother. And Susan knew her mother was at work, because she phoned her there, for one minute, right about the time Samir would have left the house. And then, Ms. Tikriti, you phoned Mr. Vale, only you just let it ring a couple of times. We can track that, you know.”

Leila began, “It was —”

“Please be quiet,” Doyle said.

“It doesn’t matter,” Diana said. “Because now I know y’all are lying. You got Samir fired up, and you sent him toward someone with a gun. Conspiracy, not self-defense.”

“Show me an overt act,” Doyle said. “That phone tree will never stand up in court.”

“Not by itself, no. But it made me wonder, why do it? If y’all just don’t like Samir, stop talking to him. Ask him to go away. Move him and his mom out to Lilburn and stop returning their phone calls.”

“That didn’t work,” Susan said.

“Please,” Doyle said.

“Motherfucker kept showing up and bringing that cunt with him. Like we want to have a family dinner with you bitches. Or do your goddamn laundry.”

“Honey,” said her father. Susan rolled her eyes but closed her mouth.

“That’s just it,” Diana said. “But it’s not motive for at least four people and probably more to conspire to kill him. I mean, to actually go through with it. So what’s the real motive? Hey, Ms. Doyle, what do you think about first cousins getting married? Yeah, that’s what my face did, too. We hear the banjo music from Deliverance, but in Iraqi culture it’s normal. I bet if we ask Samir’s mom or Mr. Mahmoud here, they’ll say Samir and Susan here were supposed to get married.”

She pointed to Ron Tikriti. “You and Leila went up to New Jersey a couple of months ago, right? And when you were there, you met with someone called an udúl, which I’ve learned is kind of like a magistrate in Islamic law. People at mosques are generally real cooperative with law enforcement. He said y’all were trying to work out a marriage contract for Samir and Susan, but that Ron here was dragging his feet so much the udúl kicked all of you out and told you not to come back until you worked it out. Is this true?”

“Don’t answer,” said Doyle. “It has no bearing on this case.”

But Mahmoud said, “It’s true. Samir was to marry Soraya.”

“Bullshit!” shouted Susan. She climbed up onto the table, grabbing the doughnut from in front of her mother. She stomped past her parents and Doyle and pump-faked at Mahmoud with the doughnut. He flinched; then, Susan threw it for real. The doughnut hit him square in the face and broke apart, leaving his hair and beard dusted with powdered sugar. “Listen up, bitch!” She stood atop the table, arms akimbo, shaking with rage. “I. Am. An. American. Adult. You don’t get to tell me I’m going to get married, and neither does my dad. You think I want to get fucking married when I’m eighteen, stay home with the kids? Fuck that noise. I’m going to live my life how I want. And if I do get married? Like, after I’m thirty? He’ll be —” She counted off on her fingers. “Hot, smart, nice and fun. Oh, and totally godless. And that asswipe Samir was none of the above. You don’t get to tell me what to do. You know why? Because fuck yoooooou, that’s why.”

“Susan,” Doyle said, “I’m not going to tell you what to do,”

Susan held up her hands. “I’m cool. Wait; no, I’m not.” She picked up a fragment of doughnut and brandished it at Mahmoud, who flinched. “My name is Susan, motherfucker.” She stomped back to her seat. “Dad? Eat your doughnut.”

“It’s true,” Diana said. “That’s the name on her birth certificate.”

Mahmoud looked at Ron. “Is this true?”

“Stop, please!” Doyle said.

Ron gazed at Mahmoud; Doyle began to speak, but Ron motioned her to silence. After almost a full minute, he reached in front of him and broke his doughnut in half, raised one half to his mouth, bit. Fatima hissed; Mahmoud shushed her with his own hand.

Ron chewed, swallowed. “I have a lot of trouble saying no to my family. I was born here, but I was raised like you. I married the woman your father told me to, and I thought of Leila and me as employees of the family firm.” Another bite. “You should really try a doughnut; I know you gamble, which the Qur’an strictly forbids. Anyway, almost right away, Leila and I … came to understand that we’re Americans. You and your father, you kept telling us we had to name our daughter Soraya, and we didn’t want to. But I couldn’t say no directly, so we just told you Susan was a nickname. Susan Tikriti, she could be Italian.”

He savored the next bite. “Nobody will force her to put on a fucking headscarf.” Last bite. “Up in Jersey? I kept thinking you’d see my reluctance and call it off. We want Susan to be able to make her own choices in life. And, habibi, we had to live with Samir for almost a year. We weren’t impressed.”

Mahmoud said, “Oh, this is my fault, that you murdered our cousin?”

“Stop!” Doyle said. “Can’t you see what she’s doing?”

Leila said, “We have nothing to say about how poor Samir died.” She took the other half of Ron’s doughnut, patted him on the shoulder. “Paul will murder me if he finds out I let you eat a whole doughnut.” She bit, chewed. “Yum. Mahmoud, about six years ago, we decided that we quit. Quit the family, that is. No more obligations, no more tedious weddings where some girl is forced into sexual and domestic servitude to a mediocre boy who’s been treated like a prince all his life just because he has a penis. Everything went great, up until you forced Samir and that bitch down our throats. I let Ronnie talk me into giving you one more chance, and that led to a whole year of dinner without wine. So, we’re done. Please, leave us alone. And take the old woman with you.”

“And we’re done,” Doyle said. “Could you please have this conversation elsewhere?”

“Let me finish,” Leila said through a mouthful of doughnut. “When we were up in Jersey, remember how I had a bunch of papers you needed to sign? I gave you some nonsense about changes in Georgia law? Well, you’re not just a lazy gambler and a hypocrite; you’re a bad lawyer, too. Go back and read those papers. And remember that Ronnie gave you a dollar right before you signed.”

“Holy shit,” Susan said. Her mother leaned back and whispered in Susan’s ear. “No way. Mom, that is so G.”

Doyle stood up. “I think y’all are my all-time favorite clients. Let’s go.”

“Hang on,” Diana said. “Mr. Quinn?”

“Nobody say anything,” Doyle said. “The D.A. has no case. He’s going to offer whoever talks first a reduced sentence. Because everything Detective Siddal has told you is a castle in the air. Phone calls? Not a proof of conspiracy. And nobody called Ms. Pope, the actual shooter.”

Diana said, “Samir didn’t have a knife, did he, Susan? You carried it, and threw it down at the scene, didn’t you?”

“I already gave my statement, bitch.”

“Watch your language. And Emily, you’ve wanted to shoot a bully who uses religion to push women around for fifteen years now, haven’t you?”

The NRA man said, “My client has said all she’s going to say.” Emily smiled and waved.

Vale’s lawyer said, “As has mine.”

Leila said, “You see, Mahmoud? This is what good lawyers sound like.”

 

Three minutes later, it was just Diana and Quinn in the room. “You did your best,” he said. “But we both know how hard smart criminals are to beat.”

“Unless they made a mistake. And they did. Somewhere. Susan’s smart, but there’s got to be something about the way she put the video on the net.”

She was cut off by Quinn’s huge hand covering her own. “Sometimes you lose a game, even when you play well.” Long ago, she and Quinn had been lovers, maybe even something of a serious couple. Usually, this made her uncomfortable; tonight, his touch and tone brought her down to earth. “Besides, just imagine me in front of a jury trying to argue that forcing the lovely Susan, and her incredible facility with profanity, to marry the unimpressive young man who was also her cousin, did not constitute a direct and immediate threat to her life.”

After Quinn left, Diane ate a chocolate frosted cake doughnut, picked up another, shook her head, cleaned up, clocked out, and spent most of the rest of the day on her couch, reading Gaddis’s JR.

 

Three days later, she got a text from an unknown number. This is Susan. My parents are getting divorced. Dad’s taking Paul to New York to make an honest man of him. We’d invite you, but … awkward. Anyway, thanks.

 

Three weeks later, Diana walked up a street in a posh neighborhood on the North Shore of Chicago. She was glad she’d picked the thick robe to wear: it was chilly out. She handed the card to the woman at the door. “I’m from another city,” she whispered.

The cheerful, rounded woman in the pink housecoat grinned. “Welcome, dear.” She leaned forward and whispered. “If you’re going to wear that mask, now would be the time to pull it down off your forehead.”

“Oh. Thanks.” The eyeholes were disconcerting; Diana kept having to move her head from side to side. The foyer was like the one in Atlanta, with a clothes rack. She took off her robe, removed the tank top and shorts underneath before she could stop herself. She saw in what little remained of her peripheral vision the hem of a white robe, stood up, put it on. She switched it for the plaid, switched back, switched again, then stood there, looking at both robes.

Diana whirled, covered herself by reflex as she heard a woman’s laugh behind her. Late thirties, nude, tall and gawky, thick glasses, braces on her teeth, lots of tats and a big Caesarean scar.

“I am so sorry,” said the woman. “I don’t want to make you feel self-conscious. I only laughed because I did exactly the same thing, with the robes, about a year ago. It just reminded me, was all.”

Diana forced her hands down to her sides. “It’s okay,” she squeaked.

“No, really; I’m sorry. Welcome. Do exactly what you feel comfortable with. And remember: There’s cake.” She smiled, turned, walked through the door into the party.

Diana reached behind herself and grabbed a robe. She put it on without looking to see which one it was, but she could smell that it was her own robe, lived in and warm. She walked to the door, then stopped, her feet inches short of the threshold, frozen.

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