First Chapters - The Double
Carlos felt more at home in this small room than anywhere else in his penthouse apartment. He liked the warmth, the sharp chemical smell, the eerie glow from the naked red bulb. This was the only time his skin had the healthy look of a living person and not the whiteness of a rotting corpse.
He gazed down at the bath of developing fluid, watching as she floated on the surface, her features slowly taking shape until she was smiling up at him. Gently, he lifted out the photo and pegged it up to dry.
Sonita was all around him: singing on stage in a silver bikini; standing on a strip of red carpet waving to the crowd; chatting to his mother at a charity gala. He’d been five feet away when he’d taken that photo … so exquisitely close.
Hearing his mother’s call and the yapping of her dog, Carlos left the dark room, locked the door and slid the key onto the overhead frame - away from the prying eyes of his mother and the uniformed maids that invaded his home every morning.
He stopped at the mirror to insert his contact lenses then jammed a baseball cap over his hair – he’d gotten used to being a freak of nature, but his mother hadn’t - then walked out onto his terrace. Thirty floors up from Park Avenue, he could see the heat haze over Manhattan, the lush greenery of Central Park, the sparkling silver of the Hudson River.
The world was a beautiful place, but in it walked evil. And she was evil - poisoning the minds of men.
Christ had spoken.
Sonita La Cruz must die.
Sonita stepped from the cool twilight of the Range Rover and into the dazzling heat of the Carolina sun. The house stood on high ground, a French-colonial in primrose yellow with deep balconies supported on white columns. It had pedigree and refinement, just like everything in Bill’s life - apart from her, of course.
‘Goddam it, Sonita!’ Zeb slammed the driver’s door, his ugly ink-black face crumpled in pain. ‘You don’t get out of the goddam car until I open your goddam DOOR!’
‘I’m goddam SICK of you goddam swearing at me!’ she yelled back. Zeb would put himself between her and a bullet but was too scared to see a dentist. Now he was mad because she’d called him a big baby for cancelling the treatment she’d arranged.
Zeb’s eyes narrowed at something beyond her head. ‘You said he’d be alone.’ He shouted back to the guys at the Hummer, ‘Mr Stratton’s got visitors.’
Sonita swivelled, saw the lines of cars parked under the trees, chauffeurs sleeping in the cool, their caps perched over their eyes. She felt a thud of dread. Whatever was going on, Edith Penelope Stratton the Second would be playing hostess. Sonita glanced back at the Range Rover. She would leave. See Bill another time.
Zeb was watching her. There was a soft light in his black eyes and when he spoke, his voice was barely above a whisper: ‘You called me a big baby. That hurt. But I’ll forgive you if you get your scrawny Latino ass up those steps.’
She held his gaze, drawing strength from the silent message he was sending her: Don’t let that bitch win. She touched his arm. ‘And I’ll forgive you, if you get your fat black ass to a dentist.’
He smiled sadly. ‘You got a deal.’
As she moved forward, her bodyguards fell into formation around her, their heads swivelling slowly, reflective shades glinting like the bulbous eyes of predatory insects. She didn’t want them with her but extra protection was compulsory when a fan became “unfriendly”.
‘Miss La Cruz! What an unexpected pleasure.’ Johnson stood at the top of the steps, beaming her a smile. Any other butler would have been throwing terrified looks at her entourage, but not Johnson; he was English and too polite to notice the small army of hit-men now sizing him up as a potential threat.
‘Hi, Johnson. What’s happening?’
‘Mr Stratton is celebrating the Tenth Anniversary of the Stratton-’
‘Foundation! Oh, God, yeah.’ As Bill’s fiancé, Sonita should have remembered, should have rearranged her schedule to be by his side, to talk passionately to the patrons about a pile of old stones or a painting that could’ve been done by a bunch of pre-schoolers on a sugar high.
Johnson bowed when she drew level. ‘If you would care to follow me, Miss La Cruz, I will escort you to Mr Stratton.’
‘Thanks but I’ll be OK on my own.’ She raised her voice for the benefit of her bodyguards. ‘I don’t need company. Not here.’ Zeb crossed his arms, his mouth set in a stubborn line. She knew that look. ‘OK, Zeb,’ she relented. ‘You stay with me but hang back. I don’t want Bill asking questions.’
They cornered the house and came in view of the sea, an inlet of sparkling water edged with a ribbon of baking sand. A paddle steamer lay at anchor at the end of the jetty, coloured flags wilting in the heat, a banner declaring: The Stratton Foundation. 1982-92.
The shriek of a seagull pierced the distant hum of chattering voices. Beyond the avenue of lemon trees the terrace was crowded with women in flowery dresses and men in linen suits and panama hats. This was the Old South aristocracy who’d once had the God-given right to own slaves. Conversations dropped to a murmur as she approached. Elderly women with waxy skin and brittle smiles eyed her contemptuously: Sonita La Cruz may be engaged to William Bakersfield Stratton the Third but she would never be one of them.
Sonita held her head high, mercifully grateful that these people would never know the truth; that the aloof, poised Sonita La Cruz had once been a slum rat scavenging in the favela of Belo Horizonte. A tough kid with one agenda: food. Love, she’d gotten from a one-legged doll she’d found on a garbage dump. Now that doll had two legs and lived in a fifty-million-dollar mansion.
Bill knew her history, but there was one thing he didn’t know. And that was why she was here today: she was going to tell him her secret.
Edith greeted her with surprised delight, faking it for her friends who must never suspect her humiliation that this mulatto was going to marry her only son. ‘Bill is such a naughty boy! He didn’t tell me you were coming.’
Sonita bent to exchange an air kiss. ‘It’s a surprise, but I can’t stay.’ As Sonita drew back she saw the hostility stamped on Edith’s face but, immediately, the brittle smile was back in place.
‘He was here only a moment ago.’ Edith glanced around as if helplessly lost, even though she practically lived here.
‘Don’t worry, Edith, you get back to your guests. I’ll find him.’
Sonita carried on along the edge of the terrace, passing miniature orange trees in terracotta pots. There were no kids, no dogs and no toys to disfigure the emerald lawn that swept down to the shore. When she saw Bill, she felt the familiar tug at her heart, immediately forgetting Edith and all her bullshit. Bill was big and ugly with a mop of ginger hair, and Sonita loved every inch of him. He stood alone on a lower terrace dressed in a captain’s uniform with a garland of pink flowers round his neck while studying the clipboard in his hand.
She laughed. ‘You look like the meet-and-greet guy for Waikiki Cruises!’
His eyes snapped wide. ‘Sweetheart! I didn’t think you could make it.’
She was quick to set him straight. ‘I’m sorry, Bill. I can’t stay. I just had to talk to you about … me … us.’
‘You’re not having second thoughts?’
She saw the anxiety cloud his eyes, and she knew she could trust him. Already, she could feel her secret rising up from that dark deep place, coming up into the light. With a bubbling happiness she set her knuckles on her hips. ‘After I’ve spent hours being sewn into a wedding gown? No way, sweetpea. We’re getting hitched.’
Laughing, he grabbed her by the hand and ran her across the lawn to a bench screened by roses and here he tugged her down beside him, his clipboard forgotten on his lap. Up close, she noticed the silver laughter lines etched into the tanned skin. The years were creeping up on him … and her.
‘I’ve missed you so much,’ he whispered.
She gave him a long slow appraisal. ‘How much?’
‘This much.’ He spread his arms as wide as they could go, making her laugh. He took off his garland and looped it over her head. ‘Mother has finally made up the invitation list.’ He puffed out his cheeks in weary resignation. ‘And it’s big, very big. We can’t possibly have the ceremony on the lawn like we wanted, so she’s making enquiries at the Waldorf.’
Sonita felt suffocated. She’d been having this feeling more and more lately. Now she understood why: she wasn’t just marrying Bill, she was also marrying his mother.
Bill cocked his head, seeming puzzled. ‘I thought you were performing in Jacksonville tonight?’
She couldn’t remember what he did from one week to the next, yet he knew her schedule down to the last minute. ‘They didn’t sell enough tickets.’
‘That’s a first!’
She looked down so he wouldn’t see the panic in her eyes. If he had any knowledge of the music business he would know she could no longer fill one-thousand seats in Nashville; while Carmel’s debut at The Garden had sold out in three hours.
‘Let’s get you a drink.’ Bill turned to see Maria coming towards them carrying a tray. ‘A cranberry soda for Miss La Cruz,’ he called.
‘I’ve got it right here, sir.’
Sonita took the glass. ‘You always remember, Maria. Thank you.’
‘My pleasure, Miss La Cruz.’
‘Maria, I keep telling you. Call me Sonita.’
Bill fidgeted. ‘That’s all, Maria.’ As the maid walked off, he turned to Sonita. ‘Sweetheart, you know the rules. You cannot be familiar with the staff. It just isn’t done.’
‘How long has Maria been in your family?’
‘Twenty years, maybe more. Why?’
‘Don’t you think that after two decades you could treat her like someone you know?’ She spoke over his protests. ‘And what about Miguel?’
Sonita paused. Why was she scratching open old wounds? Jesus, they’d had this argument a hundred times. But she couldn’t stop herself. ‘Miguel, your pool boy. He was in an orphanage before-’
‘This is unfair! I don’t employ the staff.’ Bill sighed. ‘Look, Sonita, I’ve told you before, I do care about people.’ He motioned to the paddle steamer. ‘That’s what this is all about: raising funds to keep Jackson Pollock’s work in this country.’
‘But that doesn’t help people.’
‘It does. America doesn’t have the cultural heritage of Europe, so it’s the duty of someone like me to ensure the little we do have doesn’t get exported with-’ he circled a hand. ‘Coca-Cola. What I give the nation will benefit our children’s children in centuries to come.’
‘But what about the children, right now, who are starving?’
‘I leave that to others.’
You leave that to others, she thought grimly, because you don’t want to see the underbelly of life, but I’ve seen it, I’ve lived it.
‘Bill, come with me on my next trip. Meet those kids for yourself. Then you’ll want to-’
‘No!’ He rested a hand on her knee. ‘Sonita, I cannot have my wife walking through slums, touching kids with … diseases. We can pay someone to do that. Instead, I want you to be a major part of the Stratton Foundation. You can organise gala dinners or special events, that sort of thing.’ He paused, his next words heavy with intent. ‘Do you understand?’
She looked across the manicured lawn. ‘Yes,’ she whispered. ‘I understand.’ There would always be this gulf between them. She wanted to put bread in hungry mouths, he wanted to wine and dine the rich. She thought back to their first meeting - two polite strangers at a table - eyes locked, chemistry zinging. She was there because the Dewdrop Trust for Kids had asked her to take part in a charity auction - “Dinner with Sonita La Cruz in New York” - and he’d been the highest bidder. Fifty thousand dollars. She’d been prepared to like him even before she’d met him, knowing the guy cared. Now, three years later, she was finally facing the truth: he didn’t give a damn.
Their marriage was approaching. For him, it meant laying down the ground rules. For her, it meant laying her soul bare.
‘What was it you wanted to talk about?’ he asked softly.
She felt her secret sinking back down. ‘It’s not important.’
‘Darling, it must be, for you to come all the way here.’
‘No, forget it.’
He glanced at his guests moving down towards the jetty. ‘I have to go.’ He picked up his clipboard. ‘But we must talk. Soon.’ He stared at her, his eyes pleading with her to understand what was expected of her: to become another Edith Penelope Stratton, a tight-assed WASP who viewed the poor as the enemy.
He kissed her gently on the lips. ‘You are the love of my life, Sonita. Always remember that.’
She watched him merge into the crowd, tall and distinguished in his captain’s uniform. She had come here wanting to unburden her secret. She smiled bitterly. Had she honestly believed he would understand and forgive? As she got up, she felt a wave of nausea and sat down to wait it out. She’d been feeling like this the past couple of days – probably the boiled peanuts she’d had at the roadside stand outside of Tallahassee.
Maria stood at the jetty, nimbly retrieving the crystal Baccarat wineglasses before they were carried aboard. Further up, Edith had her arms wide, herding a group of straggling benefactors like they were goats. ‘Congratulations, Edith,’ Sonita whispered. ‘You won’t have me fucking up the gene pool.’
When the last guest had stepped aboard, Sonita headed up to the house, taking off the flower garland and tossing it over a bush where it landed in the shape of a heart; vivid pink against the green. French windows, glowing with spots of brilliant light, stood open to the hot, still afternoon. Inside, the air moved softly, stirred by large fans set high in the ornate ceiling. Placing her glass on a table, she moved across the room.
‘You ready to go?’
She pivoted. Unexpected noises spooked her now. Zeb stood at the open door, his great bulk silhouetted against the late afternoon sun, his shadow stretching far across the carpet, almost to her feet.
‘Just gimme a minute.’ She went up to Bill’s bedroom, took off her engagement ring and opened a small drawer in his bureau. She paused, surprised. There was the seashell she’d given him in Guadelope just after she’d tried mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on him that had left him rolling in the sand, screaming with laughter. There was the cocktail stirrer from Las Vegas when they’d won five dollars on the fruit machine; even the bottle-cap they’d played with when they were waiting for the auto-repair guy outside of Oklahoma City.
He’d kept all these things.
‘Oh, Bill …’ she moaned. Steeling herself, she put the ring in the drawer. She wouldn’t think about it. She closed the drawer. That chapter of her life was over.
She was ahead of her guys as she reached the Ranger Rover, so she was the first to see it. An envelope, stuck under the windshield wipers. Depressed, unthinking, she pulled it free. A split second before she unfolded the note she sensed it but even so, the shock was no less vicious. Words jumped out at her, words she knew were written in blood.
She-devil. Poisoning the souls of men. There is no hiding place. Carlos the Christ Avenger.
She was trembling too much to speak. Zeb snatched the letter, took one look and shouted to the men, ‘HE’S HERE!’ He wrenched open the back door of the Range Rover and pushed her in. ‘Get down!’ Then he was in the driver’s seat, gunning the engine, tyres squealing.
She lay there, biting into her knuckles to keep from trembling. Slowly, a numbness filled her brain. She pushed herself up, leant her head against the window and stared out. She had lost her career. And she had lost the only man she would ever love.
Zeb saw her in the rear-view mirror, ‘Sonita! Lie down! He could have a gun.’
She didn’t care if a bullet found her. She had nothing to live for. Everything she’d held so precious was gone.