O is for Outlaw Page 22

I heard footsteps tap-tap-tapping down the hallway in my direction. I'd just managed to giant-step my way across the foyer to my original position when Dixie came into view. She wore skintight blue jeans, boots with spike heels, and a buff-colored blazer over a snowy white silk tank top. Her jewelry was Bakelite, two chunky bracelets that clattered on her narrow wrist. Now forty years old, she was still extremely thin: small hips, flat stomach, scarcely any butt to speak of. The shoulder pads in her jacket made it look like she was wearing protective gear. Her hair was pulled back away from her face, an oh-sochic mess in a shade that suggested copious chemical assistance, a red somewhere between claret and burnt ocher. Gone were the false lashes and all the heavy black eyeliner. Curiously, the absence of makeup made her eyes seem much larger and her features more delicate. Her skin was sallow and there were dark circles under her eyes, lines in her forehead, cords showing in her neck. Hard to believe she hadn't yet availed herself of a little surgical refreshment. Even so, she looked glamorous. There was something brisk and brittle in the way she carried herself. She seemed to know who I was, using my name with an artificial warmth as she held out her hand. "Kinsey. How nice. What an incredible surprise. Stephie said you were here. It's been years."

"Hello, Dixie. You look great. I wasn't sure you'd remember me."

"How could I forget?" she said. "I'm sorry you missed Eric." Her gaze took me in without so much as a flicker of interest. Like her, I wore jeans, though mine were cut without style, the kind worn to wash cars or clean hair clots from the bathroom standpipe. In the years since I'd seen her, she'd risen in social stature, acquiring an almost indescribable air of elegance. No need to wear diamonds when plastic would do. Her jacket was wrinkled in the manner of expensive fabrics, linens and silks, you know how it is with that shit.

She glanced at her watch, which she wore on the inner aspect of her wrist. The watch was forties vintage, stingy-sized crystal surrounded by little bitty diamonds on a band of black cording. I'd seen nicer versions at the swap meet, which just goes to show what I know about these things. Hers was probably rare, recognizable on sight by those who shopped in the tony places she did. "Would you like a drink?" she asked. "It's nearly cocktail time."

My watch said 4:10. I said, "Sure, why not?" I almost made a joke about creme de menthe frappes, but a black guy in a white jacket had materialized, a silver tray in hand. A bartender of her own? This was getting good.

She said, "What would you like"

"Chardonnay sounds fine."

"We'll be out on the patio," she remarked, without directly addressing her faithful attendant. My, my, my. Another cipher accounted for in the nameless servant class. I noticed Dixie didn't need to specify what she'd be drinking.

I followed her through the stone-floored dining room. The table was a rhomboid of cherry, with sufficient chairs assembled for a party of twelve. Something odd was at work, and it took me a moment to figure out what it was. There were no steps, no changes in elevation, no area rugs, and no signs of wall-to-wall carpet within view. I thought of Eric in his wheelchair, wondering if the floors were left bare for his benefit.

It struck me as peculiar that Dixie hadn't yet questioned the reason for my unannounced arrival at her door. Maybe she'd been waiting for me all these years, rehearsing responses to numerous imaginary conversations. She'd always known she'd been screwing around with Mickey, whereas I'd just found out, which put me at a disadvantage. I don't often go up against other women in verbal combat. Such clashes are strange, but not without a certain prurient attraction. I thought of all the male-fantasy movies where women fight like alley cats, pulling at each other's hair while they roll around on the floor. I'd never had much occasion, but maybe that would change. I could feel myself getting in touch with my "inner" mean streak.

Dixie opened a sliding glass door and we passed out onto a spacious screened-in patio. The floor here was smooth stone, and the area was rimmed with a series of twenty-foot trees in enormous terracotta pots. The branches were filled with goldfinches, all twittering as they hopped from limb to limb. There was a grouping of upholstered patio furniture nearby, in addition to a glass-topped table and four thickly cushioned chairs. Everything looked spotless. I wondered where the little birdies dropped their tiny green and white turds.

"This is actually a combination greenhouse and aviary. These are specimen plants, proteas and bromeliads. South American," she said.

I murmured "gorgeous" for lack of anything better. I thought a bromeliad was a remedy for acid indigestion. She gestured toward the conversational grouping of chairs. From somewhere, I could already smell dinner in the making. The scent of sauteed garlic and onion, like a sumptuous perfume, floated in the air. Maybe one of those no-name indentured servants would appear with a tray of eats, little tidbits of something I could fall on and snarf down without using my hands.

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