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William Bayer

Wallflower

1

She Remembered.

Even years before, when it first came to her, she had relished the idea for the sheer cunning of it, treasured and cherished it for its craft and guile.

She remembered: It had been a sour, rainy day, much like this one, in Cleveland, smelly old Cleveland where the air always stank of iron and dust. She'd been sitting in the window seat, the one on the landing that broke the stairs in the gloomy old Tudor-style house-sitting there, knees drawn to her breasts (such as they were), arms wrapped about her legs, looking out at the rain spattering the sidewalk below. Thunder was rumbling in the distance, and an old kindergarten chant was running through her brain: 'Rain, rain, go away/Come again another day…

Then, suddenly, lightning struck, a real bolt that zigzagged, crack!crack!crack! across the sky.

She sat up straight, and the singsong chant was forgotten, for she saw something then, something dark and scary she would remember all her life. There was a moment, just a split second really, when the tight gray fabric of the sky was torn. And then she caught a glimpse of the inky black-the other side. She would never forget that shade of black.

A second later the thunder clapped, and the rain poured down furiously as if a huge bladder had broken open and was emptying itself upon the earth. It was before that, just an instant before, between the bolt and the clap, that the idea was born. It was a very simple idea yet most profound. Only later would she come to understand how there was a cosmic view implicit in it. She remembered: She had been fifteen years old when the concept came to her. Every day after that she harbored and nurtured it. And now, many years later, it was about to bear fruition. She smiled as she remembered, smiled at the sheer cunning of it. The cunning. janek in Love There was in Frank Janek a certain imperturbability as the speedboat raced out of the dawn mist, then cut hard across the lagoon. A slapping sound, water against wood, as the boat sliced the tiny waves. A faintly rancid smell, too, seaweed and shellfish, hung on the vapor that rose from the salt marshes just touched by the morning sun.

The shadowy form of an oil tanker loomed on the horizon while ahead an islet fortress, deserted, trash washed against its seawalls, resolved out of the mist. He'd read about the place. He remembered now. It had been a lunatic asylum not too many years before.

The boat turned again, then charged forward faster, its sharp prow high and haughty, its wake a churning river in the smooth expanse of water behind. Then, in an instant, the fog broke, and his destination, pink and gold, was finally revealed. Towers, domes, arches, bridges, sculptures, pilings angled against a sinuous facade. The soft cries of men stroking long boats through the water merged with the muted tolling of church bells in the shimmering baroque city ahead.

She was there, all of her, all at once, suddenly, and as her remarkable presence hit him full force, Janek stood up in the boat and shuddered with rapture. He couldn't help himself. He had arrived, finally, in Venice. It had been a dream to come here, a dream of seduction so long harbored he'd sometimes thought it would be better left unrealized. What if the legendary city, La Serenissima, failed to charm him with her wiles? She had fallen on hard times, he'd heard, was rotting, sinking, choked with tourists in her season, flooded and fetid the remainder of the year. There was a good chance, he knew, that he'd be disappointed. But rather than deter him, that possibility made him eager. If Venice had gone to seed, well then, hadn't he gone a little to seed himself? And if he was going to be disappointed, then perhaps disappointment was something he could savor.

A depressed middle-aged detective with his greatest case behind him-might not a city well past her glory be the perfect place for him just now?

It had been ten years since he'd taken a vacation. And that was deliberate. 'I just can't imagine myself doing nothing,' he'd told people, 'lying in the sun, broiling myself on some damn beach.' But there was a lot more to it. Perhaps, as he now suspected, he had been afraid of the feelings of emptiness a real vacation could expose.

He had always considered himself fortunate: He had found his vocation early, had discovered the joys of investigating crimes, probing deeply into the motives of others. But the one kind of probing that was not pleasant for him at all was the examination of his own quite troubled soul.

Lately his despair seemed to have deepened, something he attributed to the Switch Case, which should have been his crowning achievement but which, instead, had left him feeling depressed, at times almost numb.

Every case had its cost-he knew that, had been aware of that for years-but with Switch the price had been very high. No matter the glory, the fame, the adulation of young colleagues, and the respect of contemporaries, in Switch he had come face-to-face with a degree of blackness which haunted him even now, two years after the final trial.

After the book came out and the miniseries was broadcast, they'd tried to take him off cases. 'We've got a thousand detectives to work cases, Frank,' his chief had told him. 'But you, you're something else, you've become a real asset. What do you say we put you on the fast track, get you ready for a field command?'

When he replied that he didn't want to go on the career fast track and that a command position wasn't for him, he saw the same skeptical expression he'd seen on superiors' faces since the day he'd come on the force, the look that told him he was being regarded as a maverick. He didn't care. Without cases to perplex him, taunt him in the night, he would begin to think about himself. And then he would have to deal with his greatest failing, his apparent inability to sustain a relationship with a woman.

For years he and his best friend and partner, Aaron Greenberg, had laughed over his 'poor choices,' his 'bad luck,' his weakness for 'problem females.' But lately the joke had stopped being funny. He had begun to fear the loneliness of middle age. Twice in the last six months he'd driven alone down to Atlantic City, walked into a casino, tanked up at the bar, bet and lost a week's pay at the blackjack tables. Then he'd driven back home in the dark, almost reveling in his loss of self-esteem.

Those episodes had frightened him. He didn't want to end up like so many detectives he had known, men who'd put in their time on the streets, done the job, retired after honorable careers to lead quiet, lonely, orderly lives. Until, usually on the eve of a winter holiday, the family next door would be awakened by a single shot in the middle of the night.

What he needed now was a chance to focus on who he was and where he was going with his life. And to consider, too, what form his redemption should take, redemption from his melancholy and despair. But it would never have occurred to him to combine that quest with his long-held dream of seeing Venice if Kit Kopta hadn't decided to send him to Lugano. **skip**'You need a change, Frank. I've got just the thing for you,' she said when he presented himself, obedient to her summons, at her office.

The room, large and square, seemed to dwarf her, for she was a small, lean forty-five-year-old woman with fine, sharp features, a mane of thick black hair, and dusty Mediterranean skin. Her eyes were her most prominent feature: big brown eyes that burned beneath dark Grecian brows. She'd been appointed Chief of Detectives three months earlier, the first woman ever to hold the position, the highest-ranking female cop in NYPD history. Now she was looking after her own.

'There's a detectives' conference coming up in Switzerland. A couple hundred of the top people from a] I over the world. We've been asked to send our best man. That's you, Frank. You're the one they want.'

He squirmed in his chair. 'Uh-uh, Kit. Please She grinned, then shook her head. 'You're not getting out of this one. they asked for you. They'll pay for everything. All you've got to do is give a little talk.'

'About the Switch?'

She nodded. 'I know you're sick of it. But a whole bunch of European detectives wants to hear how you solved it.'

'I got nothing new to tell them. It's all in the goddamn book.'

'Doesn't matter. they want to hear it out of your mouth. Face it, Frank-you're a star. So you might as well enjoy it instead of acting like it's a heavy burden you have to carry around.' She squinted at him. 'Anyway, it's not

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