It is Christmas morning, the wee hours, and I have received the best present imaginable under the circumstances. Diantha has returned home. Late yesterday afternoon, as I was fidgeting around this big empty house feeling mocked by the glitter of the little tree I managed to set up, as I mourned as never before Elsbeth's absence and as I thought of ginning myself into oblivion, Diantha came through the front door. She threw herself into my arms, she pulled me to her, and she wept hot tears on my neck. "Oh, Norman, Norman, I am so glad to see you. I will never leave you again. You are like ... civilization to me."
I was nearly at a loss for words. I couldn't exactly chastise her for being away so long. Yet I felt constrained in returning her effusions, as for me there is a very thin line between certain kinds of affection and darker, more palpable feelings. I did manage to gaze smilingly into her large moist eyes and express both great joy and great relief that she had returned safely.
"Let's have a cup of tea," she said, and I'll tell you everything. I want one of your English cups of tea, real tea out of a pot with milk and sugar. You know, the way you learned to drink it when you were in ..."
"Jesus," I said, "Jesus College, Oxford."
So we retired to the kitchen while Diantha, perched on a stool, looking the worse for wear, to judge from the dark circles under her eyes, told me what she had been doing.
"Well, you were there ..."
"Yes. It was like a fortress of sorts," I said, keeping my remarks neutral as I got the electric kettle going. "Eccentric, to say the least."
"You don't know the half of it. I mean he's got these killer guard dogs and some really creepy looking guys hanging around. And all sorts of secret rooms."
"I see." Though it was Diantha, my stepdaughter, I had already started taking mental notes. "But what happened? I mean to send you home like this?"
"Well, at first, Freddie was all sweetness and light. Walks in the woods and philosophizing. He said you need to lead the Nietszchean life or none at all. You heard him go on about Hitler. I mean the guy is obsessed. He talks about how you have to live life on the edge, all that sort of stuff. He's into filmmaking. He kept bugging me about that Corny Chard tape. He said he'd use muscle if he had to get it back. He says he paid big time for it."
I poured hot water into the pot to scald it. Then I ladled in two heaping teaspoons of good loose tea before filling it with the water, which I had brought to a boil. I sighed, shook my head. "You really shouldn't have told him."
"I know. But at first, he comes on like a regular guy. He wanted to know all about you. Then, you know, like, you have a joint and start talking. I was just kind of bragging. About you."
I smiled, flattered in an odd way. "Does he use drugs?"
"To put it mildly. He's into them. I mean big time."
"Do you think he sells drugs as well as uses them?"
"I couldn't swear, but I think he does. One night, when I couldn't sleep, I wandered into this place that leads off from a bookcase that's really a door on the second floor behind the fireplace. It was like something out of a movie. I was looking for something to read. I pulled out 'Northanger Abbey,' you know, I've always liked Jane Austen, and the bookcase kind of went in. Then it just opened, right into a dark passage. It was really creepy with no lights. I went down to the kitchen and got a flashlight. I went in, I don't know how far, maybe fifteen feet and just as I got to this big vault-like door cut into solid rock, lights started flashing. Freddie and two of his creeps showed up with guns and dogs. I couldn't believe it. Freddie was really pissed. He accused me of snooping. I told him that was bullshit. I told him I went up to the bookcase to look for a book because I couldn't sleep. I said when I pulled out a book the bookcase started to swing open."
"Did he believe you?"
"He didn't have any choice. Besides, I was telling the truth. But I think he deals and I think that's where he keeps his stash."
"On a large scale?"
"I think so. Now that I think of it. He was always getting beeped on his cell phone, then he'd go and use a special phone that probably had some kind of scrambler on it. Then some creepy looking type would show up and they'd go upstairs."
"And he uses drugs himself?"
She shook her head to indicate incredulity. "You wouldn't believe it."
"Too much for you?"
She sipped her tea. "I don't mind doing a joint, you know, to get things going or slow things down, but he is really into heavy stuff."
"Cocaine. Opium. Ecstasy. You name it. It was everywhere."
"So when did things start to go ... bad?"
"Some friends showed up. Business associates, he called them. Real scaggy types. They had girls with them. I think they were hookers. That's when the handcuffs and the whips came out. You know, dog collars and chains."
"Was Celeste Tangent there?" I tried to sound casual.
"Yeah ..." Her voice got wistful. "They have a thing."
"Freddie and Celly. We all had a thing."
"The three of you?"
"Yeah. But it was too druggy to be real. Sixy would have loved it. You know, like his cut 'Orifice Rex.' But it's not my scene. I mean they were putting dildos on dogs and trying to get a chain going. And then they had this mock wedding between a midget ballerina and one of the German Shepherds. I'm so sick of that stuff. It's all fizz and no wine. And ..."
"Yes?" I prompted after a pause.
"I think Freddie's starting to lose it." She pointed to her head.
"So you decided to leave him?"
She sighed, as though it had cost her something. She nodded. "He wasn't going to let me go, though. He said no way, not now."
"How did you do it?"
"I took a walk and called a cab."
"With your walk-around phone."
"Yeah. The cabbie had a tough time finding it. Freddie was really pissed when he found I had called one and given directions. He's like a dictator. He didn't want to let me go. But he knew you knew I was up there. It's like he owns people. And everyone's a slab of meat."
"He's a criminal, you know," I said.
"I can believe it."
"I don't say that just because he thinks Adolph Hitler was a great artist. I mean he's a real criminal. He's part of an organized crime syndicate."
Diantha stuck out her lower lip and nodded, but skeptically.
I proceeded then to relate what Agent Johnson and Sergeant Lemure had told me about his background. I went into some detail. One has to be careful these days in talking to young people. Criminality has taken on such glamour. But Diantha listened as though taken with my seriousness.
She got up to rinse her cup, and I noticed the way she wore her slacks, just like her mother had so many year ago. She turned to look at me. "Hate to rain on your parade, Dad, but I know first hand that Freddie's not circumcised."
What is it about that kind of detail that cuts to the heart? Because I suffered then a keen and entirely inappropriate stab of retrospective jealousy. I can't explain it. Was I that smitten by my own stepdaughter? Was I to live in torture now until she found some suitable young man and went off to start a life of her own?
"Perhaps he faked that when he went through his 'conversion,'" I said, trying to keep my voice neutral.
"It wouldn't surprise me. Reality to him is what he says it is. The guy really is ..."
"Solipsistic ... self-absorbed."
"Yes. You always know how to say things, do you know that?"
She smiled at me then, melting my heart, touching me in ways I'm sure she couldn't imagine. I was looking again at a young vibrant Elsbeth, and again experiencing a kind of temporal dislocation.
We decided we would go Christmas shopping together for some last minute things. We would dine out, shop, and then go to the midnight carol service at St. Cecilia's, the rather High Episcopal church I attended with some regularity before Elsbeth arrived on the scene and changed my life.
I managed to get us a table at the Oriole in the Miranda, an old-fashioned place that serves excellent, old-fashioned food. Diantha had wild goose and I had tame steak, and we finished off a bottle and demi-bottle of decent wine. She couldn't quite stop talking about Freddie Bain, at the same time reaching over to touch my hand, as though clinging to me, as though torn between a rollicking life on a sybaritic if sinking pirate ship and austere survival on an odd bit of eroded rock sticking out of the water.
We shopped half-heartedly for an hour or so, mostly walking off the wine, before making our way to the incensed interior of St. Cecilia's. There, for more than an hour, we lifted our voices and our hearts, bracing hope and beauty against the solstitial darkness. Elsbeth and I had come here each of the last three years, and my eyes brimmed when we sang the verses of one of her favorites:
In the bleak midwinter,
frosty winds may moan,
earth stood hard as iron,
water like a stone;
snow had fallen,
snow on snow, snow on snow,
in the bleak midwinter, long ago.
God is good, I thought. Had he not sent his only son as a reassurance? Of course, we nailed him to a tree and left him to die. And we've celebrated his death ever since. I put such thoughts aside and thanked fate that Diantha was with me and safe.
Afterwards, outside, I noticed Diantha had tears shining in her eyes. I tried to comfort her.
"Oh, Norman," she cried, clinging to me again. "I don't know what to do."
"About what, darling?" I said.
"About Freddie. I still love him. I know he's a creep. I know he's crazy. I know he's a monster. It doesn't matter. I can't help it. I love him."