Here is the second part of Chapter Six of Marcello’s Revenge. Again it is quite long. For part one of the chapter, and all previous installments, please follow this link:
Francine and I did keep in communication. When her next birthday came around I sent her a card with a short note, and she responded with a thank you letter (written by her father) and asked for me to write again soon. This would lead to an eccentric correspondence lasting until we met again where at least once a month over the span of years we would exchange letters. Her father assisted in the beginning, but she told me that the letters were such an inspiration to her that it spurred her to studiously learn to read and write on her own. My letters mainly contained summaries of what was happening in my life, inquiries as to how she was doing, and responses to what she may have written, or answers to questions she may have posed. Sometimes I would include a short story that I wrote off the cuff that were generally about animals in the same vein as Beatrix Potter. As she grew older I spoke a little more freely, but for the most part kept my life reserved.
Her letters became more personal and mature, though, speaking quite openly (and sometimes uncomfortably frankly) about her life, her views, and her fears.
A fear has crept upon me recently, dearest cousin, she wrote me when she was twelve. A strangling feeling, and my breath comes in short gasps. I fear for you! For the words you have not written and what lies beneath them. There is a shadow there. And one not caused by lack of light. I feel it most acutely in the darkness in between my dreams, and during the silent mornings of the desert.
Andrew, who was informed by my mother of my situation at that time, wrote to me, thanking me for taking the time and effort to stay in communication with his daughter. Francine is such an independent child, and though she has friends, there is a loneliness about her, he wrote. Your letters keep her in such anticipation and expectance that it is a true joy to her, and a comfort to me.
Truthfully, though, I may have been somewhat selfish in the whole affair. It was through her letters that I was kept grounded. For in them there was a pureness, a genuine honesty, a home of sorts, one I could escape or retreat to. And as the madness of depression reached its zenith, and I sat in the lovely but impersonal common room of the Galloway Treatment Center in the rolling mountains of the Adirondacks, I found comfort in reading them.
Going inside I prepared a gin and tonic and put on some music. Francine’s compilation of Cole Porter songs began to play, starting with Doris Day singing I Love Paris. This, of course, brought back memories of the time we went there for a week in October a couple of years prior. We enjoyed ourselves, though it rained nearly the whole time, exploring the city and its many sites. Strolling down a park path under an umbrella as drops fell from the leaves on the trees and the well manicured bushes. Or when a cool autumn wind blew fiercely through our clothes and we ran down the street, finding refuge in a café ran by an odd fellow who spoke to us about Hank Williams while we sipped coffee and ate delicate cookies. The hotel we stayed in had the pungent smell of thyme floating all throughout its slim corridors and spacious rooms, and a landlady who spoke very little English and winked at us all the time.
Knowing that Francine would be hungry when she came back from church, I began to make lunch. We had some left over chicken in the refrigerator, and I starting chopping it up along with some celery, onion and garlic to make a quick chicken salad. A watermelon sat on the counter so I sliced it in half after I was done with the chicken, scooping it out with a melon-baller and mixing it with some fresh mint. There was enough food for the two of us plus Julie should she wake up. As I was in the middle of crafting my bowl of marble sized melons my phone rang. I did not know the number, but answered it anyway.
“Yes, hello. Is this Mister Robin Mentor?”
“Yes, sir, thanks for taking my call. This is Detective Porter. I am assigned to the Periwinkle case.”
“Oh, yes. What do you need detective?”
“I would only like to see if we can meet to go over your account of last night’s events. I know you gave it to the officer at the scene, but since I have been assigned to the case, I would like to meet the people involved and go over a few items. Could I stop by your place? Or maybe you can come down to the station?”
“When would you like to meet?”
“Anytime you may have a free minute. I wouldn’t want to bother you. Maybe this afternoon?”
“Sure. Feel free to stop by. Would you say around five would work for you?”
“That would work great. Thank you for being so accommodating.”
“Not a problem, detective. I look forward to seeing you then.”
The third and last time I was introduced to Francine occurred after her father’s death. He was in an automobile accident as he drove to work one Saturday morning, being asked to come in after someone called in sick. Due to being stuck on a project at work which I could not break away from, I was not able to attend the funeral, but I called her to offer my condolences.
“I made him breakfast that morning,” Francine said to me over the phone, her voice a low and steady monotone, “and we were planning on going to the art museum. It was just eggs and bacon with sourdough toast. But he was truly grateful, you know. Then the call came, and he apologized saying he was sorry but he had to go. And we could go out to the museum the next day. I told him it was okay, and it was. But then the news came. And it was over. Truly over. And I froze,” her voice cracked, and her breathing was heavy, but she composed herself after a moment. “There are days where the monotony of life runs its course, and all is at a certain peace. Maybe peace is not the right word. Assurance. But then nothing is assured, and it all falls like shattered glass. You would think I would have learned that, you know. With everything. But I keep forgetting.”
We spoke at great length, and except for the circumstances, it was nice to hear her voice. I had not spoken with her in years, each of us preferring our sole means of communication being the letters, and during that time we both were wont to continue that arrangement so as not to spoil the unique and intimate relationship it created. Yet as I was talking with her I felt us leaving it behind, moving past it as a new form of our relationship began to take shape. And other than small notes here and there asking to pick up coffee or not to forget to feed Gates, we have not really written each other since then.
I was eating lunch with my mother after she had returned from the funeral and she informed me that she was named to be the executor of the will as well as named to be the legal guardian of Francine.
“But I think you would be a much better choice. For the latter I mean.”
“What? Why me?”
“Well, you are her Godfather and cousin. And you have a child who you have supported, and are financially secure. I will do it, if you are so opposed to it and I must. But, what with your father’s condition, and now also being the executor of Andrew’s will, I kind of have my hands full.”
“But what about her sister, or brothers.”
“Laura has two children, and she and her husband are financially struggling. I do not think this would be a good burden to place on her. The other two are in college, and James has only just started his first year. So they are not in any position to care for their sister.”
I told her I would think about it, and would give her a decision in a couple of days. “Not too long. I have to get things arranged, and will be going back out there this coming week,” she said.
It had been a long time since I lived with anyone, other than a week or two here and there when George would visit. Yet, when I really thought about it, the question wasn’t how much of a burden she would be to me. Not to say I did not give it some thought. I was sure a teenage girl can be difficult at times, having issues I was totally unfamiliar with, but overall I could not see her being so much of a problem that my normal routine would be too heavily impacted. Also, in getting to know Francine over the years through our correspondence, I thought her personality would not conflict with mine. On the contrary, I believed it as more complementary. So no, my personal life was not a concern compared to what she had been through and what would be in her best interest. I wondered, however, how agreeable she would be to the arrangement, and if it would place more hardship on the girl than assistance. So I called her, not knowing if it was against standard protocol or not, and asked her thoughts on the matter.
“Really?” she said. “That would be terrific! It is the one bit of good news that I have had. Can you really afford for me to live with you though?”
“Yes, I do not see that as a problem. My house has three rooms, and you can have the one that George does not use when he visits. And I make enough that I would be able to accommodate you and still cover all of my other obligations.“
“I wasn’t speaking financially.“
“Mostly, I just wanted to ensure you were alright with it.”
“Oh, yes. Dearest cousin, of course I am alright with it. I am overjoyed with the possibility! I feared that my Aunt Lily would become my guardian, so this is most welcome news!”
It would be four months before guardianship was granted to me by the state of Arizona. Francine was placed in an orphanage, and, although we were allowed to contact each other by phone, once my guardianship had become contested the judge ordered that I would not be permitted to visit her until it was settled. Lily had challenged my appointment on the grounds that I had been committed into a mental institution, and was a known alcoholic. From what I heard, she was unsatisfied by what her brother-in-law had left her in the will, and wanted Francine due to the sum of her inheritance, and the possibility of being the controlling entity of the finances. Though this is pure conjecture based on rumor, it is not too far off what kind of personality Lily has displayed over the years. My lawyer, James Rippold, who had some contacts in the probate and family courts in Arizona, was a great help in getting things taken care of, and I only had to appear at the court once. The time I spent at the Galloway Treatment Center was explained by showing the records which stated I was at the retreat, not at the hospital, for they have two separate facilities. Further, I was not committed, but went voluntarily for treatment of exhaustion caused by work related stress. As far as the alcoholism charge, Lily only had hearsay to base it on, and quickly dropped the allegation when we threatened a lawsuit on the grounds of libel.
Additionally, I appealed that if Francine’s inheritance was an issue it should be held until she came of age, and that I would take on guardianship without any authority over her finances. Though, I argued, I held a degree in finance, had no record of any wrong doing, and had never been in any monetary trouble, it was not the inheritance that mattered to me, but only the girl’s welfare, and the court at its discretion could appoint someone else to manage it should they feel that to be in the best interest for all parties.
The judge ruled that, other than a small stipend to be paid on a monthly basis to cover living expenses, the money would be held, and she would gain half of the inheritance when she turned eighteen, with the remainder to be granted to her the age of twenty-one.
Once everything was settled, which was surprisingly fast all things considered, I flew out to Arizona in January to pick her up, arriving in the evening at the orphanage, and after giving my name and the reason for my visit to the receptionist, I was asked to wait. The waiting room was empty and gave me the impression more of a hospital than an orphanage with its scattering of magazines on the tables and TV playing an offbeat cartoon. In a short while, a man came out and took me to a small meeting room where he asked me some questions and requested a copy of the court’s decision. He fumbled around as he looked for some paperwork for me to fill out, and I asked him if he was new. He said he was, only being on the job for a couple of weeks.
“When was the last time you saw Miss Delacroix?” he asked as he tapped the stack of papers I handed back to him on the desk.
“Ten years ago.”
“Ten years?! Then she would have been…”
“She was five years old.”
“I see. This way,” he said getting up and leading me through a door on the opposite side of the room. We walked down a narrow hall and up some winding stairs to the second level. Then down another skinny hall with doors lining either side as in a hotel. Finally, about halfway down, we stopped at door 213 and he knocked. Francine answered saying to come in. He entered first saying:
“Francine, I would like to introduce Mister Robin Mentor,” I came through the door and saw her sitting at the window, the red sunset spilling through the blue, sheer drapes behind her, bleeding a purple hue throughout the room. She was about to say something, but the man continued to speak. Her eyes widened and she pursed her lips in mock abashment before giving me a wry smirk. “Mister Mentor will be your guardian and is here to pick you up and take you to where you will be residing next…” he droned, and went on for another minute or two, but I was not really listening as, though it was probably indecent of me, I was slightly memorized by Francine, sharply dressed, and I thought looking quite beautiful, wearing a tight shirt and a ruffled skirt which showed off her shapely legs, crossed with a bare foot accented by green toe nails enticingly dangling. Her wonderful eyes and sinister smile brightening her face where a few locks of dark hair fell in the glow of the light. “Will you be taking her this evening, Mister Mentor, or would you like to collect her in the morning?” The man finished his drawn out oratory with, bringing me back to my senses.
“Oh, sorry, yes. Well I think that would be best left up to her.”
Francine got up and walked over to me. She stuck out her hand and said “Mister Mentor,” with a serious expression and tone, and I took it and we shook. She then proceeded to pull me to her, hugging me and kissing me on the cheek. “Robin! I am so happy to see you again!”
“Oh, umh, I am sorry. I was under the impression that you did not know each other well,” the man said.
“I have known him all my life,” Francine said staring into my eyes. “Tonight. I would like to leave tonight.”
“Then it is settled.” I said.
We spent a few days in Arizona. I changed my room at the hotel, booking two that were adjoined, and we spent some of the time gathering her personal items and things that she had inherited that was in storage. Those that were too large, or we did not have room to take with us on the airplane, I made arrangements to have shipped to the house. But other than that, we treated the time as a vacation and used it to get to know each other better, driving out to see the wildness of the desert, visiting a town from the Old West where businesses profited from glorified banditos, or just wondering around museums, or grabbing some tacos at a corner shop and catching a movie.
The lunch preparations complete, I settled into my chair to finish my drink and strike up a smoke when my phone rang again. Time After Time started to play. I asked Francine why she included this song. She also had some Nate King Cole songs on the compilation, but with the common name of Cole this could be explained as a simple search or sorting error. But Time After Time?
“Didn’t he write it?” she asked.
“No, dearest, that was Cindy Lauper.”
“Oh, well, it sounds like one of his songs. Wouldn’t you say that it sounds as if it could have been written by Cole Porter?”
“Yes, I suppose it does.”
The name on the phone was FRUIT, which meant it was my boss Robert (Bobby) Ballentine. I answered it.
“Robin! How you doing? Seems that you got caught up in a pretty big matter over at the Periwinkles last night.”
“Hi Bobby. Yes it was a long night, but I am not bad, thanks. I have not had much sleep though.”
“Well, I’ve heard some chatter about it already. Your nose clean in all this?” Bobby, perhaps as a result of being in the investigative business so long, constantly spoke in code. And a code of his own design, based maybe on old movies, which, while not hard to decipher, could lead to some confusion to the uninitiated.
“Oh, yes. I found the body, and was a little shaken up, but I don’t have anything to do with it.”
“Good. Because there has been some chatter, you know. So you say you you’re upright, then, I know you Robin, you’re upright. How is the chair?”
“Very comfortable, thanks. I have to say, though tedious, it has been a refreshing change.”
“No interest then.”
“Not at this time.”
“Because I have one for you. It has to do with a bowling alley.” If this had to do with an actual bowling alley, or a code I had not heard before I was not sure, but I decided not to pursue it.
“Sounds intriguing, but really, not at this time. I am enjoying where I am right now.”
“Good by me. Let me know if you have an itch, okay?”
“You’ll be the first.”
He hung up, and I contemplated another drink. Or maybe a nap? I thought. No, Francine would be home soon. After lunch would be better. I got up and stretched and turning around saw Julie standing in the hallway wearing Francine’s yellow pajama bottoms, a red tank top, and a bewildered look on her face.