Crisscross Purposes

"We've got the genealogical report in on Pete Mesling. There's some Fredric Brown. Some Kafka. And even some Brautigan. But mostly there's Mesling. And that's 100% unique and original. As is None So Deaf, this memorable collection."—Mort Castle, author of Moon on the Water and New Moon on the Water

We're coloring a little outside the lines of the horror genre with this one, I suppose, but not by much. I took it into my head that I needed to try my hand at a
Columbo-style murder mystery. "Crisscross Purposes" is the result. As with all my stories, I hope you have a good time with it. If you do, you might also be interested in a second Lieutenant Caldera story that I've written: "The Wages of Crime"


The chiming of the doorbell drew Geoffrey Longstreth out of his brandy-induced torpor. Smiling thinly he set his snifter down, rose from the sofa and answered the door. Standing before him was his identical twin.
            “Brother Clifford,” he said with mock obeisance. “Won’t you come in?”
            “I will,” said Clifford. “I’ll even take some of that detestable brandy that you insist on swilling. The Seattle air has teeth tonight, even in the rarified cul-de-sacs of Laurelhurst.”
            Geoffrey took his brother’s hat, scarf and jacket, noting the drab quality of the articles. There was no reason Clifford shouldn’t have cultivated an appreciation for better clothing, an appetite for fine food and drink, an ear for the right kinds of music. It galled Geoffrey to dwell on it, but his twin was regarded as a science writer of some acclaim in certain circles.
            “Now we wait,” Geoffrey said, running a hand over his bald head as he handed his brother a snifter and gestured for him to sit.
            “Yes, now we wait.” Clifford leaned forward in the black leather chair his brother had offered, both feet firmly planted, and turned the large glass between his hands. “Have you learned any more about this?”
            “No, just what I told you over the phone,” Geoffrey said, taking a seat on a matching sofa.
            “That she’s planning to drag Dad to hell and back? She’ll put him in an early grave.”
            “A bit late for an early grave, where Dad’s concerned. Of course, it wouldn’t be the worst fate imaginable, as long as there was anything left of the inheritance afterward. What I fear is that the woman might actually spend him dry before he slings his last insult.”
            “Jesus, has he really been that hard on you? I fear the loss of time. How many good years can he have left? Two? Five? We’ll never get those years back if she whisks him off to the four corners of the globe.”
            Geoffrey smiled briefly.
            “How did this little meeting get set up, anyway?” Clifford wanted to know. “Just to satisfy my curiosity.” He sat back and brought one leg up across the other. Now it was his turn to rub his bald head.
            “I invited her out to discuss things in more detail. It seemed the civil thing to do. You should try it sometime, being civil.”
            “I’ll take rough around the edges but true to my word every time. I still don’t understand why she reached out to you with all of this. If Dad still had his wits about him you can bet I would have been the one he called.”
            Geoffrey shrugged.
            “And this irritating habit of hers to refuse a ride from the airport. We could have had the whole thing worked out by now in the car.”
            “You really have no respect for the wishes of others, do you? Sometimes I can’t believe we share the same genetic makeup.”
            “Genes are one thing, dear brother. There are environmental factors to be considered.”
            “Oh, save it for the fans.”
            “Is that what it’s come to between us? We can’t even discuss our work?”
            “Because your interest in comparative literature runs so deep.” Geoffrey took a drink. “Would you care to hear my thoughts on why the definitive translation of Goethe has yet to emerge? Could I entertain you with folktales from the German countryside?”
            “Your audience is a bit narrower—”
            “I don’t have an audience,” Geoffrey said. “I have students and colleagues.”
            “Do you want me to apologize for my success?”
            “No, I want you to suffer for it.”
            The doorbell sounded, but neither of them moved until they were done staring each other down. Finally Geoffrey made for the door.
            “Loreta,” he said as he took her suitcase and rolled it into a corner before leaning in to kiss her on the cheek. “It’s a delight, as always. And your timing couldn’t be better. Let me take your things.”
            Stepping into the entryway, which opened directly on to the expansive living room, she handed him her fur-collared coat and gloves. The purse she kept, more for the fact that it matched her mauve dress perfectly, he suspected, than for access to anything she might carry in it. If so, he approved. It was impossible to hate this woman completely, but that didn’t mean she had to be allowed to run his father’s fortune into the ground.
            “I’m always amazed at how well you’ve done for yourself as a teacher.” She devoured every lamp, bookcase and painting with shrewd eyes.
            “Not a teacher,” Clifford put in, rising from his seat, “a tenured professor. He’ll tell you that he knows a great many things. Getting him to divulge one of them is another matter.”
            Geoffrey threw him a look.
            “Boys, boys. You’d think you were two years old. Geoffrey was good enough to invite me to stay with him, so he can’t be as bad as you make out. I won’t believe it. Let’s sit down, you two. I simply have to tell you all about my plans for Carlton and me.”
            With a manner impervious to defiance, she put an arm around each of them and led them to the dining room table. Enough brandy, she declared. It was time for coffee, which she brewed without having to ask after the location of a single implement. It was preternatural with her, this ability to manipulate the world, seemingly without effort.
            “Your father’s not well,” she said, sitting across from Geoffrey. Clifford sat at the head of the table, on Geoffrey’s right. “We all know that. I think he’s close to giving up, letting that mansion of his become his tomb.”
            “But you have the antidote, I suppose?” Clifford said.
            “Yes, I think I might. Travel, dear boy. It’s an age-old prescription. I swear I’ve never known anyone of his means who’s seen so little of the world. I’d like to show you both a draft of the itinerary I have in mind for the spring.”
            Disproving Geoffrey’s assumption about the purse, she removed a map of the world and laid it out on the large oblong table. She spun a tale of globetrotting that would have exhausted Vasco da Gama had he been there to hear it. Asia first. Japan, then Korea and China, Thailand if there was time. India certainly, then into Russia and eventually across Europe.
            “It’s madness,” Clifford blurted out. “It’ll kill him.”
            Geoffrey looked from Loreta to Clifford. It was possible. Old, sick Carlton Longstreth might just kick the bucket over the moon on such a punishing trip. Maybe on the first leg. It would solve everything. The inheritance would be safe, and Loreta Romanov would enjoy the comfort of knowing she had tried to do something for the old man in his final years. Like a fine cream over the top of it all, Clifford would be reduced to a furious wreck of a man. It was perfection—except that it wasn’t a sure thing.
            “Life is already doing a pretty good job of that,” Loreta said. “But his mind doesn’t have to stay focused on death, just because his body can’t seem to lose the obsession.”
            “It boggles the mind” Clifford said. “I mean, where is your sense of reality?”
            “Oh, please. Reality is a dirge played at the funeral of the imagination.”
            “Whatever that means. It’s all a foregone conclusion with you, isn’t it? This is all going to take place just as you’ve laid it out for us here tonight. You’re not consulting us. You don’t even want to know our opinions. This is just a show of power.”
            “I don’t think—” said Geoffrey.
            “Well that’s damned odd for a professor,” Clifford interrupted. “You ought to try it sometime.”
            “For God’s sake, where is this coming from?” Loreta asked.
            “It’s coming from me, not you. That’s why you don’t recognize the source.”
            Geoffrey could barely conceal his amusement. Let them rake each other over the coals. He had his own solution to the problem posed by Loreta’s best-laid plans. He’d always been more patient than Clifford. Maybe it would work in his favor for once.
            “Well, I didn’t come all this way to be ridiculed for my loving intentions.”
            “But you never stopped to consider whether I might have my own. Did it ever occur to you that maybe I’d want to move Dad to Seattle in the near future? Has he even mentioned the idea, or does he care so little anymore?”
            “I think we ought to take this up again over breakfast,” Geoffrey said. “Come at it with fresh eyes. Clifford, do you think you could swing by in the morning? I’ll make crepes.”
            “Crepes? Jesus, spare me. No need to get my coat. I saw where you stashed it.”
            The silence in his wake was in some ways more awkward than the outburst itself. Geoffrey parted the picture-window curtains and watched his brother drive away in his yellow Mustang. He was mildly jealous of the car whenever he saw it, but he supposed Clifford felt the same way about his bottle-green Jaguar, so fair was fair.
            He turned back to face Loreta and saw that she looked her age: fifty-seven, compared to Carlton’s seventy-nine. She always seemed much younger. It wasn’t going to be easy, doing what he had planned. But he was not going to retire in poverty, or the six-figure existence he had come to think of as poverty. Not when he knew there was a seven-figure life of leisure hanging in the balance.
            “He has a point, you know,” Loreta said, laying a hand on Geoffrey’s shoulder as they walked to the stairs. Geoffrey paused to retrieve her suitcase. “I’ve overstepped.”
            “You haven’t, really. Let me show you to your room. Everything will look brighter in the morning.”
            “Carlton always used to warn me that you were the bad one. I’m not a bit convinced.”
            He grinned in the half dark as they climbed the staircase.
            An hour later he was deep in his cups, pacing through the main level of the house with all the lights dimmed. He lingered at the baby grand, tempted to play a strain or two of Liszt by heart. Finally he let himself drop onto the sofa, spilling some brandy in the process.
            Something on the chair where Clifford had been sitting earlier caught his eye. Leaning forward he snatched up the black rectangular item. Clifford’s phone. It must have slid out of his pocket.
            A devilish idea seized him. He had already planned to give dear old Dad a call. Why not use his brother’s phone? Setting his brandy down on an end table, he dialed in his father’s number.
            “Hello?” came the shaky voice on the other end.
            “Dad.”
            “Geoffrey? Is that you?”
            “No, it’s the good one.”
            “Clifford? You don’t sound quite yourself.”
            “Bit of a cold. Winter is dragging fall away by the hair out here.”
            The old man chuckled. He wouldn’t have chuckled like that for Geoffrey. Not knowingly.
            “You want to talk weather? Six inches of snow expected in New York tomorrow. Can you beat that?”
            “Afraid not.”
            A sadness crept over him. Part of it was the brandy, but part of it was realizing what it must have been like to be Clifford all those years, to be in Dad’s good graces without condition. Mingled with the sadness was more than a touch of resentment.
            “Dad, I’ve got to tell you, I have some concerns about Loreta.”
            “Loreta? She made it to you okay, didn’t she? She called when she arrived at the airport. Said something about a town car.”
            “She’s fine. The three of us had a long talk about things, and I’m just not convinced that she’s on the up and up.”
            “What the hell are you talking about?”
            “Dad, she’s got men like you in half a dozen cities, bankrolling her wanderlust. She’s using you, and the sooner you put her out of your thoughts the better.”
            There was a long pause, then a catch in Carlton’s throat.
            “She told you this?”
            “She’s not what she seems. One day you’re going to wake up broke in an empty bed. You’ll try to reach her, but she won’t return your calls. And if you’re lucky you’ll start forgetting about her around the time you start forgetting everything else.”
            “Jesus, Clifford.”
            “I know. It’s hard. It was hard for me to hear what she had to say tonight. But what’s to be gained from ignoring the truth?”
            Silence.
            Then, “You might be wrong.”
            But Geoffrey could tell from his father’s tone that he’d struck the right nerve. An acorn of doubt had been planted. Now it was only a matter of nurturing the nut into a healthy oak of despair over time.
            In a brandy haze it all seemed so easy. So straightforward. So attainable.
            “Maybe you’re right,” he said in the most lugubrious tone he could muster. “Goodnight, Dad.”
            After disconnecting the call and placing his brother’s phone in his pocket, he accompanied his snifter of brandy to the kitchen in search of something sweet. He’d earned it.

*****

            The stairs were the darkest part of the house. A red night-light lent some visibility to the second floor hallway, and below he’d left the main lamps dimmed. But here between worlds it was good and dark. Clifford was leaving behind the world of indecision and status quo, throwing it over for the brave new frontier of burned bridges and fate remapped. It was a good feeling. An intense feeling.
            Once he reached the top of the stairs, the guest room of his brother’s house was the farthest door on his left. He crept along that side of the hall, as if being slow might also keep him quiet. This too felt surprisingly good.
            The door squawked a little as he inched it open. All was dark within, and he thought of Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” If he were holding a lantern now, would its beam fall upon the cold, staring eye of a horribly frightened Loreta? He almost laughed. Would a madman have been as calm as that!
            But there was no lantern. No flashlight. Not even a lighter or a match. His sense of touch alone would have to guide him to her side, guide his fingers to her throat.
            It was an odd thing, killing her while she slept. It made the deed unnervingly simple, and yet how could he be sure it was done? She didn’t wake up as his hands crushed her windpipe. There was no scream, no flutter of breath. He had been counting on a reasonably quiet go of it, but this was almost too much.
            She had to be gone now. His hands were beginning to cramp. He’d seen them test for breath in the movies, so he did that using the back of his hand. He detected nothing. A check of her pulse also produced no results, but he was no doctor. At some point he was going to have to take it on faith that she was dead, and that point was now.
            He quickly crossed the hall to check the bathroom for any toiletries she might have laid out for her stay. There were none, so he returned to the bedroom. He threw the light switch and made a brief search of the room for any loose articles of clothing. Again he found nothing.
            Throwing the covers wide he hauled Loreta’s body onto his shoulder, clicked off the light and retraced his steps down the hall to the stairs. The red glow from the night-light seemed brighter now, deeper. Soon he and his cargo were on the main level, moving to the front door.
            He closed the door behind him and carried the body to the rear of the Jaguar, which was backed into the driveway. He’d talked Geoffrey into swapping the spare keys to the Jaguar for the Mustang’s extra set months ago. Ironically, the idea had been an olive branch. He used the spare now to pop open the trunk.
            After stuffing Loreta’s body into the small space and latching the trunk securely, Clifford ran back into the house to retrieve the suitcase from upstairs, and the coat and gloves from the closet. He then used his house key to lock the front door. This key he’d taken it upon himself to make a copy of without his brother’s knowledge, not with murder on the brain, but liking the unseen advantage it gave him over Geoffrey if anything were to go wrong between them, which had been a constant danger in recent weeks.
            The sleek car purred quietly to life, which eased his mind some, even though Geoffrey would have snored through the din of an eighteen-wheeler roaring through his living room. It was a trait they shared.
            He pulled out of the driveway and started off down the winding hill toward Sandpoint Way. The car had almost half a tank of gas in it, but he stopped at a Shell station to fill it up anyway. When he was done, he walked inside to pay, smirking at the sign beside the door that read, “NO CHECKS.”
            “Which pump?” the attendant wanted to know.
            “Oh, I forgot to look. It’s the Jaguar there.” He pointed out the window and removed his hat to reveal his bald dome. “Will you take a check?”
            “Cash and charge only.”
            “All I’ve got is a checkbook.”
            “I can’t take a check.”
            “Then what do we do here? I have a tank full of gas and no way to pay for it.”
            “You don’t have a credit card?”
            He shook his head.
            “Let me call my manager.”
            “You do what you’ve got to do. I don’t have all night.”
            “Wait, you can’t leave!” the attendant called after him as he stormed out the door.
            Sliding behind the wheel of the Jag, he launched out of the gas station parking lot with a bark of rubber and resumed the short drive to his Ravenna home.
            It was an old brick affair, like many of the expensive homes in the neighborhood, nestled in the bend of a quiet stretch of road. He backed the Jaguar into the driveway and parked it alongside his Mustang. The first thing to do was move the suitcase and purse into the spare room and stow the coat and gloves in the front closet. That done, he quickly hauled the body into the house and laid it on the bed, careful to disturb the bedclothes.
            Satisfied, he closed and locked the front door before slamming his shoulder into it repeatedly until the lock gave way. Then he drove the Jaguar back to his brother’s and parked it. He had hired a taxi from Yellow Cab to return to Laurelhurst after having driven his Mustang home for the night. Now his plan was to call Orange Cab for a ride back to Ravenna. But he suddenly found himself in no great hurry to return to a house occupied by a corpse. The wind was still biting, but he was dressed for it, especially with the brown leather trench coat he’d purchased to more closely resemble his twin brother. He would walk the several miles, he decided. Maybe the lively air would settle his nerves and clear his fevered brain. He would need to be at his best to deal with the aftermath of what he’d set in motion tonight.


*****

            Geoffrey slowed the Jaguar to a crawl when he turned into the loop where Clifford lived. He’d found it beyond strange, of course, to discover that Loreta had flown during the night, but he quickly resolved to drive to Ravenna and see what his brother knew. He was also hoping to plant Clifford’s phone somewhere, so he could find it on his own and scold himself for mislaying it. He would suspect nothing.
            But Geoffrey wasn’t expecting a passel of police cruisers to be surrounding Clifford’s home. He parked on the street and stepped out of his car. It took him a moment, but he was able to pick his brother out of the crowd of officers. Clifford spotted him in the same moment and rushed over to him.
            “Clifford, what the hell?”
            Clifford took hold of Geoffrey’s arms and shook him.
            “Oh, God. Dear God. It’s Loreta. She’s, she’s …”
            “What is it?”
            “Dead. She’s dead. In my house! Jesus, someone killed her in my house. Or killed her and put her in my house. I slept through the whole thing.”
            “You can’t be serious. This doesn’t make any sense.”
            Someone was approaching along the sidewalk, emerging from the crowd in front of Clifford’s house, which included a team from the medical examiner’s office. Geoffrey pushed Clifford aside and turned to face the stranger. He wore a brown leather flight jacket, blue jeans and hiking boots. His light brown hair hung to his shoulders, and he puffed on an electronic cigarette. Late thirties, Geoffrey figured. Maybe forty.
            “I guess I don’t need to ask how you two know each other.” The stranger’s voice was smooth and deep. “The resemblance is uncanny, if you don’t mind my saying so.”
            “What’s going on here?” Geoffrey asked. “Who are you?”
            “Lieutenant Caldera.” He waved without offering his hand.
            “He’s with Homicide,” Clifford said, eyes wide.
            “What the hell happened here?” Geoffrey asked. “My brother tells me our friend was murdered last night. Is that true?”
            “You don’t believe your brother?”
            “Is it true?” he repeated.
            “It’s true. Strangled in her sleep, it looks like. A horrible thing.”
            “Something’s not right, Lieutenant.”
            “Why’s that?”
            “She wasn’t sleeping here. She was spending the night at my house in Laurelhurst. I saw her to the guest room myself, after the three of us had spent the evening talking. Clifford went home and Loreta went to bed.”
            “Well, there’ll be time to go over all that. I haven’t been inside yet. Do the two of you care to accompany me?”
            Geoffrey and Clifford glanced at each other and followed Lieutenant Caldera into the house.
            “Damn,” Caldera said at the threshold, snapping his fingers. “I need to check on something outside. I’ll be right back.”
            “You care to fill me in?” Geoffrey asked his brother after Caldera had gone.
            Clifford patted his pants pockets. He was looking for his phone. If Geoffrey was going to plant it, he might not get a better opportunity. Loose mail and other items cluttered a couple of shelves on a nearby bookcase. It would have to do. He slid the phone out of his coat pocket and waited for his brother to turn away. There were a couple of investigators moving through the house, but they were well occupied with their work. With a quick movement, Geoffrey divested himself of the phone. A second later Clifford’s head swung back around.
            “Where was the body found?” Geoffrey pressed, his gaze narrow.
            “Guest room.” It was Caldera who answered. The twin brothers turned to face him. “She was found in the guest room. Hell of a thing, her visiting from out of town and all. Just arrived last night, I understand?” he was addressing Geoffrey.
            “Yes, she flew in from New York. I’m confused, Lieutenant. How did this—”
            Caldera put up a hand to silence him. “We got two calls early this morning. One was from a neighbor who saw someone dragging something heavy into your brother’s house in the wee hours. The other was from a Carlton Longstreth. Your father, I believe?” Geoffrey nodded. “Right, well he says Clifford here called him up in the middle of the night and had some upsetting things to say about the victim. So upsetting that your father decided to call Ms. Romanov some time later. He tried several times but couldn’t get through, so he called us and asked if an officer could pay a visit to your brother. He didn’t feel right about talking to either of you himself, he said.”
            Apparently this was news to Clifford. He said, “I didn’t call Dad last night.”
            Caldera took a drag and scratched his cheek.
            “Dr. Longstreth,” he said to Geoffrey, “I peeked in at the dash of your car a moment ago. That’s a hell of an automobile, by the way. A Jaguar, is it?”
            “Yes, thanks. What were you looking for?”
            “Oh, you know. Just keeping my eyes open for anything that might shed a little light on things. Do you mind if I ask when you last filled up with gas?”
            “It’s been a week or more. Why?”
            “You get pretty good mileage in that thing?”
            “Average.” Geoffrey was getting irritated. “Do you have a point?”
            “It’s just that it looked full to me. It’s an older model Jag, isn’t it? Switch doesn’t need to be on to read the gauge. The funny thing is, headquarters took another call last night. Seems there was a bit of a disturbance at a nearby filling station. A man matching your description and driving a green Jaguar filled up and had a somewhat terse exchange with the attendant. Wanted to pay with a check, which was against company policy, so he left in a huff and drove off without paying. I don’t suppose you know anything about that?”
            “Of course not. Jesus, you’ve got some nerve.”
            “Listen, I’ve got a crime to solve. A murder, in fact. Now, if that means making an offensive remark or two along the way, I can live with that. As long as I end up at the bottom of things.
            “But I’ve taken enough of your time for now, gentlemen. You’ll both be hearing from me again, though. Don’t go skipping town or anything.”
            Before either of them could protest or ask any more questions, Lieutenant Caldera was gone.
            “This smells to high heaven,” Geoffrey said in an angry whisper. “Loreta went to bed in my guest room less than an hour after you left. This morning her bags are gone and she turns up dead at your place? What the hell’s going on?”
            Clifford seemed reluctant to respond, and suddenly Geoffrey wondered if his question hadn’t answered itself. Was his brother capable of such a thing?
            “I think maybe the less talking we do right now the better,” Clifford said. “In fact, maybe you ought to consider finding yourself a good lawyer.”
            “A lawyer? What in God’s—”
            “Please, Geoffrey, just go. We’ll talk later. Ah, there’s my phone.” He plucked it from the bookshelf and slipped it into his pocket. “Good thing my head’s attached.” He wandered deeper into the house.
            What else could Geoffrey do but leave. It wasn’t his house. He had no business there. And Clifford was right about one thing. Talking was a bad idea. He would be treading very carefully through this minefield, he decided.

*****

            “Hello, Mr. Longstreth,” Caldera said as he slid into a chair across the table from Clifford.
            “Ah, hello, Lieutenant.” He put his book aside and laced his fingers together. “Thanks for coming.”
            “The Bean and Bagel, huh? Never been here before. They pour a good cup of coffee?”
            “None better. You should try one.”
            “No, I’ve had my ten cups today already. You said on the phone that you had something you wanted to tell me in person?”
            “I do, yes. It’s something you said the morning of Loreta’s …”
            “Go on.”
            “You said my father told the police that he’d spoken to me the night of the murder.”
            “That’s right.”
            “Well, it’s not true. I called him later that day to tell him what had happened. He said the same thing to me, that he and I had spoken on the phone the previous night. I think it’s pretty obvious who he actually spoke with, don’t you?”
            “Your brother?”
            “My brother.”
            “Only there’s a problem with that, Mr. Longstreth.”
            “A problem? What kind of problem?”
            “Your brother didn’t make that call to your father. I had the phone records checked.”
            “Well then, who did make the call?”
            “You did, Mr. Longstreth.”
            The silence that followed was profound. There was no explanation for it, unless Caldera was bluffing for some reason that Clifford couldn’t fathom. It was as if God had grown so impatient with Clifford’s crimes that He stepped in to punish him before he could die and be claimed by the devil.
            “You know,” Caldera continued, “I was beginning to think this was a simple frame-up. You and your brother met with Ms. Romanov at your brother’s house to discuss some travel plans she had. You returned home, and after you were sound asleep, your brother, having strangled Loreta, transported her body to your house. The business at the gas station was a little reckless, but criminals behave erratically at times. By all accounts you’re the good twin and he’s the bad one. Yup, I thought we had our man, all right.
            “Then comes this thing with the phone call to your dad. It was like a light switch getting flipped. You can’t count on luck like that in my line of work, but if you’re smart you’ll sure as hell take it when it comes.”
            Clifford had taken his phone out and was examining it to make sure it was his. He was incapable of making sense of the detective’s claim. “Reality is a dirge played at the funeral of the imagination,” he could hear Loreta saying. Could he also hear her laughing? He thought he could, and he nearly told Lieutenant Caldera to tear up the planks. Anything to silence the beating of her hideous, old heart.
            “Why don’t you finish that cup of coffee, Mr. Longstreth. Then we’ll take us a ride down to the station.”


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Contents

Foreword