DEALING WITH DAPHNE
By Henry Simpson
Daphne had already worked her way into Vergie’s confidence, displaced Lily in her life. Now she was pushing her out of the house. Soon she would convince Vergie to have her lawyer rescind her employment contract. In a few more weeks, Lily would be homeless, jobless, and cast out of Montecito society. She laughed.
She had to discredit Daphne, but how?
She closed her bedroom door, opened her laptop, searched the Internet to find LSD effects: physiological, predicable and benign; main effects, emotional and sensory, disorienting, might mimic psychosis.
How to administer to Daphne? Easy: add a few drops to her silver flask. Mrs. Steele filled it with gin each morning.
No, too risky. If Daphne went nuts with the flask nearby, someone might test its contents and ask who spiked it with LSD. Not Daphne or Vergie, obviously, and Mrs. Steele was neither cunning or bright enough. Who else lived in the same house? Lily, obviously.
She lay back on her bed, closed her eyes, daydreamed, thought back to the session with Selena, the fortune teller. “Gold,” she had said. “It’s powerful. It may be the key to something else.” It came to her in a flash.
She waited until Vergie and Daphne had gone to the country club, then pulled on a pair of latex gloves, then collected Daphne’s gold cigarette lighter from her room, wiped it down to remove fingerprints, took it to the wine cellar, set it on a dish, eyedroppered liquid LSD on each face. After it dried, she wrapped it in tissue, took it to the garage, unwrapped it, put it in the Alfa’s glovebox.
She went back in the house, poured a scotch, and imagined the scenario: Daphne would drive somewhere, open the glovebox, spot her missing lighter, and grab it. Her perspiration would liquify the LSD and she would experience a psychotic episode. Observers would think she was nuts, the news would get back to Vergie, and she would have second thoughts about cousin Daphne.
Saturday morning, she met with Vergie and Daphne for breakfast on the veranda. The mood today was somber, victors pouring champagne and doing most of the talking.
After Vergie and Daphne chatted Friday night’s follies at the club, Vergie said, “Lily’s leaving us.”
Daphne glanced at Lily. “Whatever will she do now?”
Vergie said, “Speak up, Lily. You’re like a bump on a log, silent, stewing in your own juices.”
“I’ve applied for a position in Dallas,” Lily said.
“She’ll have to get a horse and a Cadillac,” Daphne said.
“And become a Baptist,” Vergie said.
“What sort of position is it?” Daphne said. “Do you get to sit, or must you stand on your feet all day behind a counter?”
“Most of us work for a living,” Lily said. “Vergie, You asked me to work for you, begged me. You have a short memory, dearheart.”
Vergie looked away.
Daphne said, “You can’t blame Vergie for wanting me to run the show, sweetie. Family and all that crap.”
Lily said, “My work contract with Vergie has one year left to run.”
Vergie said, “Perhaps you could stay on in some capacity, love. I suppose I could fire Mrs. Steele and have you take over the housekeeper’s duties. She is such a dunce anyway.”
“Where would she sleep?” Daphne said. “I think what you’re suggesting wouldn’t work out. It would be impossibly humiliating for Lily, moving from upstairs to downstairs, and I personally don’t relish the thought of living in the same house with her if she’d no longer be part of our social set.”
Lily laughed. “Thanks for being so considerate, ladies. Offering me a job instead of throwing me out on the street, and then withdrawing it based on the awkwardness of living in the same house and talking to me.”
Vergie smiled, then began laughing. Daphne soon followed.
“See,” Vergie said. “She has a sense of humor. We’ll all get past this difficulty I’m sure.”
Daphne looked at Lily, eyes flashing in triumph.
“I’m taking the Alfa out this afternoon,” Daphne said.
“Are you sure it will run?” Vergie said.
“I started it up. It purrs like a cat.”
“Where are you going?” Lily said.
“I haven’t decided yet. I don’t know this area well.”
“I suggest you stick to the back roads of Montecito. They’re twisty enough to give it a workout and the traffic’s light. You’ll have fewer problems if anything goes wrong with the car.”
Daphne laughed. “You’re so cautious, Lily. You put a wet blanket on everything. The Alfa’s safe enough, and if I run into any difficulties, I can handle them.”
Vergie said, “Why not do Santa Ynez? Take a run up there, check out the wineries, and stop in Solvang for lunch at one of those touristy Danish restaurants.”
“I like the winery idea, Vee. Come along with me and we’ll have a grand old time.”
“No thanks, Dee. I hated staying there for rehab and don’t want to return to the scene of my degradation. All the same, it’s pretty country. San Marcos Pass offers wonderful views of the mountains and ocean.”
“How’re the roads?”
“Tricky the first time, they wind, and steep cliffs.”
“Sounds like a perfect workout for my Alfa. Are you sure you won’t come with me, Vee?”
Vergie shook her head.
Daphne did not ask Lily, did not even look at her.
“Drive carefully,” Lily said.
Their eyes met briefly, no words.
Later that day, Lily found Vergie in the west end library, sitting for once alone on the couch, Old Fashioned glass in hand, open bottle of gin and bucket of ice on a table. She checked her watch. “It’s only two o’clock, Vergie. It’s early to be getting drunk.”
Vergie looked, blinked, noticing her for the first time. “She’s gone.”
“Who else, love? She went to Santa Ynez.”
Lily hesitated. “Good riddance.”
“You heard me.”
“You sound angry, Lily. What is it?”
She felt rage rising quickly, overwhelming her. “You are incredible, Vergie.” She paused. “I’m leaving.”
“It amazes me you’d ask such a stupid question. What’s wrong with you?”
“Don’t glare at me, Lily. I have no idea what’s got under your skin recently, and talking to me like this, it’s . . . well, it’s almost inexcusable.”
“Shut up, and listen to me—for once. I put my life on hold for you and you betrayed me. You asked for my friendship and I gave it to you. I saved your life the day you OD’d. I forced you into rehab. I helped you deal with the loss of your husband. I got your house in order and made it safe to live in. I did all of those things for you without being asked or paid. I did them because I’m probably the best friend you’ve ever had.”
“I’ve done a lot for you, too.”
Lily laughed. “I borrowed your car, lived in your house, ate your food. Big sacrifice to you for a full-time caretaker and pal.” She shook her head. “Then you asked me, Lily, please come work for me, you begged me, and I quit my job to do it, and now you’re going back on all of it, acting like it never happened. You didn’t keep your word, Vergie. You let me down, all for—her!”
“Are you jealous?”
“Of course I am.”
“But she’s my cousin, Lily. What else could I do?”
“You talk family, but don’t know what it means. You don’t know who loves you and who only makes you feel good. You and Daphne are the same, both rich, lonely, loveless women who don’t know who your true friends are. I don’t know which one of you is worse. Daphne is honest, at least. She says exactly what she thinks. You lie constantly, even to yourself. Daphne will destroy you. She went through her own fortune and several men. Now she’ll go through yours. In a year or so, you’ll both be broke. You’re well on your way. Look at yourself, drunk in the afternoon, like before. All you need are the pills to complete the picture. Keep it up, you’ll die.”
Vergie stared at her, wide-eyed. “You took them away. You’re leaving, I want them back.”
“At least return my pillbox.”
“Buy another. See Bill Secrest and have him fill it with pills. Then get drunk and swallow them. End your misery.”
Lily handed her the Mercedes keys. “These are yours. I won’t need them now. If you want to go anywhere, please have Roman drive you.”
“I don’t need anyone to drive me anywhere,” Vergie said coldly. “Having the Mexican here was your idea. I’ll fire him when you’re gone. I’ll unhook the cameras too. I don’t need security men controlling my life.”
“You don’t know what you need, dearheart. Good luck.”
Vergie looked sad, forlorn. “I’m sorry, love.”
As she left the library, Lily heard the tinkling of ice cubes dropping into a glass.
Lily settled in her boyfriend’s living room before the TV, relaxed on a sagging couch, soon fell asleep. She awoke to a ringing old-fashioned dial phone, got up and answered, Danny calling, reminding her to feed the cats, he would be home in an hour with Chinese.
“I said I’d get the food,” she objected.
“It’s easier for me,” he said.
He had a good point. She decided to make a home of the place, even if temporarily, wiped off old dishes and cutlery, set the rickety table in the kitchenette. When she had more time, she would go grocery shopping, equip the kitchen, cook a few meals. What a novel idea. She had never lived with a man for more than a single day and night; such short stays did not count.
Early evening, she went to the back door, a herd of cats, eyes sparkling in reflected light, looking up at her, distant mewing, coming closer as she stepped out onto the slab, scattered the kibbles, milling bodies, tails scraping against her legs seductively, urging her to spread the abundance among them and do it quickly.
Danny soon walked in with bags of Chinese, set them on the table, glanced at the dishes and cutlery, shook his head. She fetched beer. They both sat, opened the bags, sorted The food, set to with plastic utensils, eating from steaming food containers.
“Boy, this is the high life,” Lily said.
“Ain’t this great?” Dan said. “You like playing the blue collar old lady? Wow, this must be comedown from palace life, princess.” He stared at her. “Were you a real princess over there?”
“For a while I felt like one, but then the queen’s evil cousin came, saw through my act, persuaded the queen to demote me to commoner, and she expelled me.”
“Are they dykes?”
“It was a power play, not sexual.”
“I’ve been curious, Lily. You don’t date and you’ve been living with those two women. Can you swing both ways?”
“Why? Does the idea turn you on?”
“Sure, it turns all men on.” He hesitated. “Straight ones, anyway. I don’t know how homos feel.”
She smiled. “If I answer the question, you’ll stop wondering. What fun is that?”
“For me, or you?”
She laughed. “For both of us, Danny. I enjoy tantalizing you, and you get excited.”
“Seriously,” he said.
“Only under duress,” she said.
“How much is enough not to be considered a whore?”
“How much of what?”
“Money, property, lifestyle, everything.”
“More than I can afford. High-class hookers get thousands and they’re still considered whores. I’ve known guys, they marry a chick they don’t love just to get laid. That’s a whole lifetime, big money if you think, which nobody does.”
“I can usually get what I need for nothing or a few drinks, never for money, I mean, I never pay a chick for a favor—well, mostly never.”
“Mostly never?” She laughed. “You’re a big liar, Danny.”
“I know. All men are liars, but so are women, and women are worse liars.” He paused in mid-bite. “Hey, I answered your question to the best of my limited ability considering my lack of formal education and sophistication. Now it’s your turn to give me the correct answer.”
“A fortune,” Lily said.
“Fair enough. I’d do it too. Hell, I’d even bare my cheeks for a dude or give a blowjob.”
“How do I know you haven’t already done it with a guy?”
“Because I’m a macho man. Say, I’d like to continue this conversation, but I’ve got to get a few hours of sleep and then go back to work. Maybe we can continue it tomorrow. Do you like biking?”
“I did when I was a kid.”
“Not the kind you pedal. I mean motorcycles.”
“Those are cool, but I like road racers. Let me show you mine.”
She laughed. “Is this where you show me something big and impressive to prove how macho you are?”
She followed him out to the garage. He pulled open the door and revealed a shiny red motorcycle resembling a rocket sled on wheels.
“It looks expensive.”
He ran his hand along the tank. “It was. It’s a Ducati, an Italian racing bike I got from one of my employees, owed me money, and, well, he died.”
“Died, in the line of duty?”
“Sort of, but he was off the reservation, crazy, shot a cocaine dealer, and the dealer’s bodyguard killed him. It’s a long story, not for now.”
“And you inherited the bike?”
He nodded “Let’s make a run up the pass tomorrow. I can lend you leathers.”
“Danny, you’re full of surprises.”
He grinned at her. “Ain’t life fun, princess?”
She slept in and Dan worked through the next morning until almost ten o’clock. Back home, he showered, slept for a few hours, and was raring to go riding by one o’clock. He found a set of red and black racing bike leathers cut for a woman somewhere and gave them to her to try on. The were loose in the chest and ass but fit reasonably well. Danny had a matching pair. The two sets probably had an interesting backstory, but she did not ask. All she could conclude from the fit was the girl had been top and bottom heavy the way male bikers seemed to prefer.
He helped her put on a bike helmet, told her to climb aboard and hang on. “How do we communicate?” she said, voice muffled, conversation hopeless. She felt as if she were about to be fired from a cannon, and as soon as Danny took the Ducati out onto a city street and accelerated up to a speed illegal on any California highway, her nascent fear was realized.
Soon they were on U.S. 101, zipping down the coast against a stiff headwind, dodging and passing lazy Sunday afternoon traffic, then a quick right turn up San Marcos Pass Road, two opposing lanes cut into a mountainside, steep fall left, sharp rise right. Cars grouped bumper to bumper in serial packs, delayed by the slowest poking mobile home, truck, bus, or torpid car in front. Danny wended his way through each pack and passed his way to the front, oblivious to oncoming traffic, blind corners, road hazards, other threats to life and limb and, once there, sped on to the next pack, as if racing himself as Lily leaned against him, arms around his midsection, bodies joined at each tilt and turn, like being on a roller-coaster without the guardrails or certainty of a safe landing, happy end.
The intense ride up the pass felt like forever but took less than ten minutes, ending when Dan turned onto a narrow stagecoach road, drove for a mile, and stopped at a weathered clapboard tavern resembling an old ranch house. Dozens of motorcycles were parked in front and bikers of various descriptions were congregating, drinking beer, bullshitting, arguing, joking, sparring. Danny pulled the Ducati in and parked it near a group of European racing bikes apart from the Harleys and Hondas. The bikes were segregated but the bikers were fully integrated and enjoying themselves loudly and with gusto. Danny walked her around, introducing her to friends. They drank beer, hung out for an hour or so, had a good time, then left the throng, went into the tavern, ate dinner inside—dim lights, plank floors, walls covered with ranching tools and western memorabilia.
Driving to work the next day, Lily heard a local news report, a traffic accident in San Marcos Pass. The victim had run off the road at a sharp turn, plunged off a cliff to her death. No witnesses, wreckage undiscovered until Sunday. Driver identified as an Italian tourist, accident cause unknown.
“Shit!” she said, and finished the drive to work.
They went to Vergie’s home office after breakfast. “You are now my business manager, Lily. Your duties are as before, managing the household and finances, as well as anything else I decide to add. I also expect you to be my full-time companion and see to my personal needs and happiness as necessary. You don’t have to sleep with me, for sex at least. Sometimes I get lonely and like to have companionship in bed, but it’s up to you.”
“I hope you don’t expect me to be at your beck and call twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.”
“No, of course not. We’re not married. You have a right to a personal life. Let’s work on it as time passes.”
“Good, I’m glad we got it out of the way. I want you to handle a few things for me immediately. I’ve been procrastinating, and you’ve liberated me from guilt by returning.” She smiled.
Lily laughed. “It’s wonderful to be useful.”
“I want you to go to the city morgue on Monday and identify Daphne’s remains. They called last week and asked me, but I simply couldn’t go over there. They said she’s battered and bloody but recognizable. They did an autopsy, probably suspected drunk driving, or a heart attack or stroke. Found nothing. She drove off the stupid cliff without a seatbelt. We’ll never know why. Take a look, say it’s her, and have them send her bits and pieces to the same mortuary that did Tony’s cremation. They should give us a discount.”
“Monday morning, fine.”
“It was damn careless of her to die. Probably mechanical failure. You warned her about the car. She showed poor judgment taking it, and was quite inconsiderate. I know you wanted it. I wonder if she took it to spite you.”
“Maybe she was depressed.”
“Do you think it was suicide?”
“Go to the county impound lot and check the wreck to see if it’s repairable and worth fixing, fat chance. If it is, get a cost estimate. If it’s a total wreck, send it to a recycler.”
“You know, Lily, I’m having serious second thoughts concerning Daphne. I didn’t realize until now how I’d misjudged her and allowed her to influence me. You’ve suffered as a consequence of my bad judgment and pigheadedness. I am truly sorry for all the pain and misery I’ve caused you.”
“It’s all in the past, dearheart. Leave it there.”
“No, I need to say these things to clear the air between us. Daphne coaxed me out of rehabilitating and back into her live and let live ways. She was a bad influence.”
“And I’m perfect?”
Vergie laughed. “Hardly, but you are loosening up a bit, champagne and occasional cocktails.”
“I had to be your watchdog for a while, dearheart. You’re doing better.”
“We both are, love.” Vergie’s eyes roamed. “I’m her sole heir, unless some bastard comes out of the woodwork or one of her ex’s.” She giggled. “Not to worry. In such an eventuality, I’ll call my Jew, get lawyered up as good as the next man.”
“You should’ve heard my parents speaking.”
“What’s your attitude toward Gypsies?”
Vergie leveled her eyes on Lily. “What a strange question.”
If she only knew, Lily thought.
“They have colorful, cozy wagons, live mostly outdoors, clever people, but untrustworthy, at least it’s how they’re portrayed in movies.” Vergie paused. “I have absolutely no idea regarding Gypsies. Never met one in my life.”
“I’m not sure what all Daphne has left,” Vergie continued. “Squandered money on lovers and other fun. I’ll check with her lawyer and find out what her will says. He’s Italian, I think. I hope he speaks English so I don’t have to hire an interpreter or Italian Jew to get what’s coming to me.”
Lily laughed. “You’re hopeless, dearheart.”
“Reminds me, love. I can change my will now that she’s gone, add that foundation you wanted. You’ve met Mr. Sullivan. Schedule a meeting with him next week, some day in the afternoon, we can make the necessary changes.” She came to Lily, hugged her. “You are so good at business, and you make everything easier for me.”
“Anything else, ma’am?”
“Yes. Call up a vintage car broker and tell him to sell Tony’s cars.”
Monday morning, Lily got up early, selected a blouse and slacks from the wardrobe, flats, wig, gold wire glasses. Mrs. Steel was in the kitchen as she entered to get a glass of juice, gave her a startled look at first, then smiled. “Good morning, Mrs. Hove,” she said. “You look exactly like her.”
“Good morning, Mrs. Steele,” Lily said, pouring herself a glass. “What do you think?”
“You give me the shivers, Lily.”
Lily finished her glass of juice, set it in the sink. “Tell Mrs. Hove I’ve gone into Santa Barbara to visit the morgue and impound yard. I should be back before lunch.”
She drove the Mercedes into town, arrived at the morgue at 9 a.m. The man at the counter asked her name and other information. “Vergie Hove,” she said, and answered everything as Vergie would have. It was a practical test, for Vergie had sent her to identify her cousin, being too lazy to do it herself. If the attendant saw through her disguise, Vergie would probably be more amused than shocked.
The attendant took a folder out of a file and opened it. “Hove, Daphne,” he said, looking up. “It’s good she had a handbag with a driver’s license—Italian. Maybe it explains the accident, the reckless way they drive over there.” He chuckled. “I’m sorry, Miss . . .”
“Mrs. Hove,” Lily said. “Vergie Hove. I’m her cousin. Are you sure it’s her?”
“Not until you ID her, ma’am. But we think so, based on the license and the car she was driving. Someone called you last week concerning the car, an Alfa Romeo. It’s an old one, rare, and it’s not likely someone impersonating Mrs. Hove was driving it.”
“May I see her now?”
“Yes, ma’am. I’ll walk you down there right now.”
They walked side by side down a hallway through a pair of swinging doors into a large room with stainless steel drawers along the walls. At the far end, a man in whites sat at a desk watching a small TV.
The attendant located the drawer, reached for the handle, looked at her. “She was ejected from the car, no seatbelt, flew through the air, hit a hundred feet below. It was like she jumped off a tall building. Get what I’m saying?”
“I think so,” Lily said.
“Barely recognizable. Please prepare yourself, Mrs. Hove.” He slowly opened the drawer, pulled back the covering sheet.
A bloody, misshapen face, nose flattened, recognizable, but barely.
“That’s Daphne Hove,” Lily said. “She wore two wedding bands on her right hand.”
“We removed her jewelry and placed it in temporary storage. You can collect it when you leave.”
The attendant recovered the body, closed the steel drawer. They returned to the front counter. He retrieved a paper bag from a storage room and placed it on the counter. She peeked inside: bloodstained clothing, a handbag, plastic baggie with two gold rings and a gold wristwatch.
She told him where to send the remains, signed a paper, and left.
She pulled into a large fenced lot filled with vehicles, parked, and entered a shed. A man in blue coveralls came to the counter. She said she was Vergie Hove and described the Alfa. The man’s eyebrows rose in a sign of pity—likely for the car more than its victim. He gave her a space number and pointed. “Do you want me to walk you out to it, ma’am?” he asked politely.
“No, but thank you for asking. I can find it myself.”
“Please watch your step, ma’am. Don’t slip or you’ll ruin your pretty outfit.”
She felt like telling him to shove it, smiled.
The sight of the Alfa made her teary. It had been such a beautiful car, those graceful, classic lines, voluptuous curves. What remained was the color red, bits of chrome, twisted and flattened like a crushed Coke can. The glove box was open, empty. She searched the cockpit floor—papers, empty cigarette pack, matches, ancient debris set loose on impact. Sunlight made it difficult to see, so she moved to the other side of the car, looked down, a glint of gold light caught her eye, down there, where Daphne’s feet would have been. She leaned close, took out a handkerchief, reached down, felt it, the squared corners of an exquisite little gold lighter, picked it up, examined it: perfect, not a scratch. She was tempted to test it; no. She chuckled, wrapped it in the handkerchief, dropped it into a pocket.
About the Author:
Henry Simpson is the author of several novels, two short story collections, many book reviews, and occasional pieces in literary journals. His most recent novel is Golden Girl (Newgame, 2017).