Read The Pocket Wife Online

Authors: Susan Crawford

The Pocket Wife (4 page)

“Your wife have any enemies you know of?”

“No,” Ronald says. “Everybody liked Celia. Her students, the neighbors, everybody.”

“How about you? You like your wife?”

“Of course. I loved my wife, Detective. Always have.”

“Women are funny,” Jack says, and he leans over his paperwork like he's reading it. “Mysteries.”

“I'm not sure what you—”

“Were you aware that Celia—sorry. Were you aware that Mrs. Steinhauser withdrew five thousand dollars from the bank three days before she died?”

“No. She— We—”

“Had a joint account?”


“Well, apparently she had another one. A savings. Her name only. Same bank.”

“I didn't know,” Ronald says, and Jack believes him.

“Was she planning on going somewhere?”

“No. Not that I knew of. Not that she told me about.”

“That kind of cash—maybe she was going on a little vacation? Putting money down on an apartment?”

Ronald clears his throat. His foot taps against the chair leg, his shiny black shoe.

“Any pressing credit-card debt? Overdue bills, that sort of thing?”

Ronald squints, screws up his face like he's pondering this. “We did. Yes. We had a large credit-card balance on one of our cards, on the . . . Anyway, we'd talked—well, mostly Celia talked—at length about paying it off, or paying it down at least.”

“Any particular rush on that, Ronald?”

“No. Well, yes. We wanted to do some traveling in the fall.”

“That right?”

“She was a—you know this already—she was a teacher. A lot of her students were from South America, Central America. She spoke a little Spanish. We thought about going to Guatemala, Costa Rica—someplace like that.”

“So you wanted to start out with a clean slate.”

Ronald chuckles. “Well, clean

Jack smiles, leans back in his seat. “So you can rack up the debt all over again.”

“Right. Part of the marriage vows—till debt do us part.”

Jack laughs. He leans in again over the table and scratches his head with the pencil. “Thing is, Ronald. Wouldn't she—Mrs. Steinhauser—wouldn't she just write a check for that?”

Ronald stops smiling.

Jack looks at his watch. One of the neighbors is due in three minutes. A Lon Nguyen. He gets up, watching Ronald rise to his feet and stand there in his shiny shoes.

“Thanks for coming in, Mr. Steinhauser. Ronald.” He holds out his hand. Ronald shakes it for the second time that morning, but this time his grip is limp and sticky.

“I'm at the St. Giles Hotel, over by— You'll let me know,” Ronald says, “if anything . . . if you turn up anything.”

Jack looks at him. “Depends on what it is.” He hands Ronald his card, tells him to call if he thinks of something that might be helpful. “Oh,” he says when Ronald's stepped into the hall. “You go back inside your house last night, Ronald?”

“No. Went straight from the hospital to the hotel. Drank myself into a stupor, to be honest.”

“Got somebody to corroborate that?”

“The bartender. I told him what happened. It was on the TV, the whole sordid— It came on while we were sitting there—”

“Who else has a key to your house?” Jack sticks his hands in his pockets, peers at Ronald over the tops of his reading glasses. “Anybody?”

“Not a soul. Only me. Celia, of course, and the boys, but they're. . . Wait a minute. A neighbor. Dana Catrell still has the extra key. She took care of our house a week or two ago while we were away. I was trying to . . . reconnect with my wife, I suppose. Fat lot of good that did.”

Lon Nguyen is smaller than Jack expected. He looks like a kid, slipping in off the elevator and padding down the hall in his shorts
and flip-flops. He stands for a minute in the doorway, watching people in the cluttered office as they sit for questioning or come in with reports.

“Detective Moss?”

“Yes.” Jack stands up, sticks out his hand. Nguyen takes it in a brief, obligatory shake, and Jack heads back down the hall to the interrogation room with Lon Nguyen in tow. Jack can tell he hates the looks of it. A lot of people do; they get skittish in a closed room, claustrophobic. “Relax,” he says. “We can leave the door open. We're just here for privacy.” He goes in first and sits down, motions for Nguyen to take a seat. “So your neighbor,” Jack says. “You saw her the day she died?”

Nguyen nods. “Yes.”

“When was that, Mr. Nguyen?”

“It was in afternoon. I was outside. When summer is hot and so much smog, I wash my car often.”

“What time was this?”

He shrugs. “Shortly after I return from work.”

“Say five?”



“More like five-thirty.”

“And Celia?”

Nguyen stares at the floor or maybe at his flip-flops, Jack can't tell.

“What was Mrs. Steinhauser doing when you saw her?”

“She was yelling.”

“Where was she?”

“In her front yard, out by the street.”

“Who was she yelling at?”

“My neighbor.”

“What's your neighbor's name?”


Jack looks down at his notes. “Dana Catrell?”

“I don't know their last name,” he says.

last name?”

“Dana and her husband and their son.”

“Okay. So what was she yelling?”

“She tell Dana to come to her house.”


Lon shrugs again.

“What did Celia—Mrs. Steinhauser—say, more or less?”

“‘Come here right away. It is matter of life and death.'”

“Then what happened?”

“Dana close her door and run to Celia's home.”

“Then what?”

“I finish washing my car and I enter inside my house.”

“That it?”

“Yes. That is it.”

“Did you see anyone else at the Steinhausers'?”


“Did you happen to notice when Dana Catrell left their house?”

“No. I was already inside.”

“Did you hear anything? Besides what you told me, of course.”

“No. Nothing else.”

“All right, then.” Jack stands up, and Nguyen is on his feet and halfway out the door before he can even extend his hand. “Thanks for your time, Mr. Nguyen,” he says as the man bolts out, mumbling what Jack assumes are parting words. By the time he picks up his notes and steps into the hall, Nguyen is nowhere in sight.

Jack stretches his arms over his head and yawns. He'll call Dana Catrell, have her come down and see what she's got to say. He hasn't spoken to her himself. One of the officers at the scene jotted down her name and phone number—said she was a neighbor, a friend, maybe; it's in his notes. At this point in the investigation, she's the last person to see Celia Steinhauser alive, and he
hopes she's more forthcoming than Nguyen.
he'd have told Ann a few days ago, sitting at the table after dinner.
It was like pulling teeth talking to that guy.

It's you, Jack,
she would have said, clearing the dishes, stacking them in the sink for him to get to later. She'd turn to him, catch him on his way to the back door, trap him with her words.
You're too tough on everyone,
and he'd walk out back and stare at the crap in his neighbors' yard.

He stuffs all his notes on the murder into a file and walks back toward his office, makes a turn through the outside door to clear his head. As he steps into the parking lot, the air is hot and soggy. He pushes from his mind thoughts of Ann, her car bumping off the driveway onto the road, the cake at home, melting on the kitchen counter. Instead, he replays bits of his two interviews, and something about Ronald's nags at him. He can't put his finger on it. It's a feeling, that's all, but he'll check out the guy's alibi first chance he gets. He's already got a call in for the night-shift bartender at the hotel where Steinhauser's staying. And then there's the neighbor, the last one known to see the dead woman alive and the only other person with a key.


ana scrambles eggs in a blue bowl and stirs in a few drops of half-and-half.

“Mom?” Her son watches her from his seat at the kitchen table. He's back, but only for the day; he's in the summer session, and it's tough, he tells her—the classes are more difficult, all that information crammed into a couple months. He's come home to grab some odds and ends, he's said, for his dorm room, but Dana knows it's her phone call that's brought him here. She can feel him observing her. Jamie is the sensitive one in the family, always watching for a variation in mood, like a medium, sticking trembling hands inside a house, a room, and feeling vibrations.

She turns around.

“What's wrong?”

“Well,” she says, “it's upsetting, this whole thing.”

“Mrs. Steinhauser?”

“Yes. The awful way she died.” She stirs the scrambled eggs with a wooden spoon, scraping them from the bottom of a large cast-iron pan.

“Will they do an autopsy?”

“I guess.” She empties the pan onto a large orange plate and puts it on the table in front of Jamie. “Help yourself,” she says, glancing up as Peter stumbles through the doorway and makes a beeline for the coffeemaker.

“What do you think, Peter?” She doesn't look at him.

“About what?”

“About Celia.”

“It's . . . God, it's . . .” Peter pours his coffee and sits down at the table, reaches for the eggs. She's behind his chair, leaning in with a plate of bacon, so Dana can't quite see his face. She only sees Jamie watching her, studying her, and she suddenly wishes she hadn't called him the night Celia died.

They eat in silence. Peter peruses the front page of the morning paper, thumbing through to the sports section as a car honks in the driveway and Jamie pushes back from the table. His chair scrapes across the tiles and his sneakers squeak like long ago when he was little. Dana feels a stab of nostalgia. “See you guys later.” He kisses Dana on the top of her head before he stacks his dishes in the sink. “You sure you're okay?” he whispers, and she nods.

“Fine,” she says. “Make sure you're back in time for dinner,” and Jamie turns in the doorway, gives her a thumbs-up. She stabs at a tiny edge of bacon. Across the table Peter seems riveted to the sports section. The thin newsprint shakes in his hands.

“What do you think about Celia?” Her words are loud and flat in the silent kitchen.

“I think it's horrible.” Peter sets his mug down on the table, and a small spurt of coffee flies over the rim onto the place mat, “as I've told you several times since this hap—”

“You didn't really know her, though, did you?” Dana takes a bite of toast. “Could you pass the jam?”

“I— Through you I did. From the times she was over here. With you.”

“Really? 'Cause I don't— The jam?” She watches Peter's hand shake as he reaches for a jar of preserves; his face is pink beneath his perfect hair. “I don't actually remember her being here when you were home.”

“Strawberry or . . . ?”

“Yeah,” she says. “Strawberry's fine. So when were you and Celia both here again?”

“I didn't— Jesus, Dana, what is this anyway? I didn't actually write it down. ‘Met Celia at six o'clock this evening. Our kitchen. Dana hosting.'” He laughs a tight little pretend laugh.

“Did you kill her?” Dana's heart is racing. She wipes her sweaty palms across the thighs of her pajamas as Peter chokes on his coffee. She watches him cough until tears run down his cheeks, and she wants him to say yes, prays he'll say yes—that she'll see a killer, a demon there inside her husband, peeking out his squinty hazel eyes. Crazily, she wills him to nod, to shrug, to raise his hands in a gesture of surrender, because if Peter killed their neighbor, then she'll know that she did not. They'll get him off, she thinks of telling him. They'll hire the best attorney in the state.

“What the fuck is wrong with you?” Peter asks when he can speak. He sounds like a frog. “Take it easy,” she says, but her heart slams against her ribs. “You are so not a morning person.”

“Why would you
something like that?”

Dana shrugs. “I was kidding.”

“People don't kid like that,” Peter points out. “Not normal people.”

He's so different now from who he was when they first met, when Dana was twenty-two, working at a Manhattan law firm, reinventing herself—when Peter was naïve and eager, trying unsuccessfully to fit in with the senior attorneys. Or so she'd thought. Now
she thinks he was neither innocent nor particularly eager. He was only new and insecure.

“We're out of sugar.” He scrapes a spoon across the bottom of a large glass canister, where a damp clump of granules remains.

She nods. She thinks about grabbing his cell phone out of his back pocket—she can see the small, thin bulge of it when he leans over the counter—and scrolling to Celia's number in his contacts list. She thinks about pressing down her thumb, connecting with the message, with the “You know what to do” on Celia's recording.

She takes another bite of toast, feeling it stick to the roof of her mouth, dry as dust, and she stares past Peter's shoulder out the window. From behind the oak tree at the back of the yard, a form steps onto the lawn—a hooded form in black. The hood is overlarge and moving slightly in the breeze, obscuring whatever face is there. Only the dark form is visible, stooped over in the shadows of the trees.

Dana jumps up, knocking over a glass. “There's someone out there,” she says. “Look!”

Peter sighs. He doesn't move. He doesn't even turn around.

“Look! Just— For God's sake—”

He turns around finally, slowly, running his hands through his hair, but the creature in the hoodie is no longer visible; it's lost in the oaks that edge into a patch of county land, a tiny wooded plot at the far end of their yard.

“You have to get some help,” Peter tells her. “You're sliding toward the— No. You're
toward the edge.”

Dana nods.

“Really,” he says. “Soon. Before it's too late,” and Dana nods again. She knows he's right. No matter how she feels about him, no matter what a philanderer he is, about this at least he's right, and she wonders how much time she has before the doors start closing, before her sharp assessments turn to disconnected scraps of
sight and sound, before she is mad as a hatter. She hopes there's time enough to reconstruct that dreary afternoon when Celia died. “‘There will be time, there will be time . . .'” Her voice is soft in the room, a sprinkle of glitter on the kitchen counter. “‘There will be time to murder and create . . .'”


“Nothing,” she says. “T.S. Eliot. I was just . . .” She clears the dishes from the table and sticks them in the dishwasher, turning the large, bright dial to
. In the bathroom she tugs on a pair of shorts she finds hanging on the doorknob, runs her toothbrush across her teeth, and fills in her lips with red liner.

“I'll get it now,” she says, back in the kitchen. She steps into her sandals and grabs her keys off the counter, opens the door. “I've got a few things to pick up anyway. For tonight.”

now?” Peter stands behind her, gangly and awkward, like a Ken doll with cloth arms.

“The sugar,” she says.

“Dana,” Peter says, and she turns around. “I mean it. You really need to go see Dr. Sing.”

She nods. She knows she's racing against time, that she's fast approaching an abyss, a brick wall, and that when she reaches it, she'll no longer know or care if she needs help.

As she rolls down the driveway, she sees Ronald inching past his house with his head stuck out the car window, scrutinizing the decline of his once-perfect yard. He and Celia often had the coveted
sign stuck into the verdure of their grass, but now even the yellow crime tape has begun to come loose in the wind.

She watches him slink past Lon Nguyen, outside washing his Miata, leaning over the soapy hood in a white sleeveless T-shirt and shorts, his flip-flops sinking in mud. Dana backs her car out of the driveway and zigzags onto the street as Ronald slows to a near stop behind her. He ducks his head around
the inside of his car as if he's trying to see hers from a range of angles. In her rearview mirror, Dana watches him reach toward his glove compartment and extract a pack of Camels—at least she assumes they're Camels. “Ronald used to smoke,” she remembers Celia saying. “Camels, no less, but now he wouldn't touch the things.” Dana watches as he lights a match, and then she waves her hand absently toward the back window of the Toyota and speeds down Ashby Lane. Once or twice she thinks she sees him in the traffic behind her car, and she slows down, letting her foot tap on the brake until he catches up. Maybe he'll have Celia's phone with him and she can get another look at that picture of Peter.

She turns in the Root Seller parking lot, filled with sporty minivans and trendy little hybrids, and pulls quickly into a space, jumping out onto the hot asphalt. She strides to the entrance and straight through to the produce aisle, where shoppers linger over broccoli as if it's a new novel. Shopping in the Root Seller, Dana has often thought, is a little like going to a spa, with its large, abundant skylights, the soft sprays of water falling like a gentle rain at the veggie aisle, the strains of Ravi Shankar pumping through the PA system.

She makes her way past the veggies and looks up just as Ronald walks briskly through the large glass doors and strides among the lolling customers, his nose pointed forward like a bloodhound's. He disappears down a middle aisle, and Dana loiters, avoiding him. She'd once encountered him here with Celia, staring at the Rainforest Radish display as if it were a lap dance. She'd wondered then what it would be like to have a husband like Ronald, one you could take to T.J.Maxx and the Root Seller without having him pout and head for the nearest door, cigarette cravings burning in his eyes. She'd decided it might be fun but that she'd probably need a lover, too, that sleeping with Ronald might be more like a pajama party than a blush-evoking
night of passion—a conviction, she now realizes, most likely shared by Celia.

When she reaches the fish section, she stops at a table of faux crab salad, where three women in aprons spoon small tufts of the fake crab onto whole-grain crackers. Behind her, someone snorts. Ronald, she thinks. She doesn't turn around to face him. Not quite yet. She moves through the sea of arms and hats, gathering this and that in quick, jerky movements.
Grab the apples, grab the bag. Open the bag, insert the apples.
The ambience of the Root Seller is marred by Ronald's presence. Even here where she has always felt unreachable, at peace among the cabbages and the German cheese, even here Celia's death hangs like a guillotine above her head.

For a moment he disappears, and Dana thinks he might have left. Maybe he wasn't even following her. She grabs a bunch of organic bananas and heads back to the cart she's left in the pasta section. And there he is, his face buried in her purse, his pudgy fingers riffling her wallet. For a second she's torn between confronting him and watching to see what he's doing.


“Oh,” he says. A line of crimson peeps over the open collar of his shirt and moves to his cheeks. “I was . . . You left your purse wide open in the cart here.”

Dana stares at him.

“Somebody could just come along and—”

“Go through my stuff?”


“Much like you were doing?”

“Hey,” he says. “Hold on here. I was zipping it for you.” He moves away from Dana's cart, his hand stuck out like a traffic cop's, his glasses knocked off center in an obvious collision with the display of herbal sunblock a store manager is rushing to put right. “I thought that was you back there in the fish section. I had
to laugh,” he says, “at the absolute absurdity of that woman serving fake anything in a store whose whole purpose is to be genuine in this minefield we live in, this maelstrom of margarines that won't melt or attract bugs no matter how long they're left outside the fridge.” His words are light, bantering, but his eyes are cold and squinty in his puffy face.

Dana stares at him, placing her hand across her purse as if it were a small, active child who might escape. Was he after her cash? Could he possibly be that destitute? No. He was looking for something. She can see it in his eyes. He's lying his balding head off, but instead of anger, she feels fear. Is Ronald trying to cover something up, a thought she finds the teensiest bit comforting? Or does he suspect she killed his wife? Is he searching for the proof inside her bag?

“Ronald,” she says, “I am so sorry. About Celia. It's so awful I can't even begin to imagine how you must—”

“Thanks. That means a lot,” Ronald says, “coming from you.” For a moment neither of them speaks.

“Umm,” Dana says, “what do you mean?” Her voice cracks.

Ronald shrugs. “Just that . . . you were so special to Celia,” he says, but Dana can't tell if he's being sarcastic.

“I wasn't that special. We were . . . we were friends,” she finishes in a barely audible voice.

“Yes.” Ronald nods. “So where's your husband? Peter, is it? Paul?”

“Peter. He isn't here, actually. He's at home.” Her voice, which she now has somewhat under control, thunders across the aisle.

“Oh,” Ronald says. “Too bad.”

“Do you

“Well,” Ronald says, “no. Not really. No. I'd like to, though. I'd really enjoy meeting him.”

“Oh.” Dana pushes her cart forward to check out and begins unloading it in the speed line. She wonders if Ronald has happened
upon the photo in his late wife's phone and decides by now he probably has, that he's likely in pursuit of Peter to see if his is the unclear face in Celia's cell. Dana feels a slight wave of relief, a second or two of normal breathing, until it occurs to her again that
the one he's watching. Observing. Stalking.

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