Depraved Heart :a crime novel

Bronte’s stepfather is on trial for his life. But is he the real murderer or is it one of the multiple suspects in Bronte’s own house?

Chapter One — Midnight

On the first night of the trial Jake came into my room to offer me his body. I knew what he was up to. I was lying in bed reading Dostoevsky’s Raw Youth, still enveloped in the web of his prose and looking up from my circle of light saw him close the bedroom door with an air of uncharacteristic caution. Jake seems to want people to think he can have anyone; but according to Big Brother Trevor his daredevil pretense is just a masquerade. Trevor says Jake is ruled by The Group Dynamic and lacks an individual soul. Like some lesser life form, say, fish or bees. But, to quote Trevor, a hundred times zero will always be zero.


Not that I believe everything Trevor says. Trevor isn’t perfect. Oz, my stepfather, says you can’t trust anyone and you should always be especially skeptical of Special Pleading. So I ask myself, if Trevor has such a low opinion of Jake and his sorry, spiritless homies, how come he goes to all their parties? That those are the only parties worth going to is not an excuse.


Probably it was Trevor from whom Jake was concealing this current maneuver; Trevor has done everything in his power to put me Off Limits. But Jake was being uncharacteristically over-careful; Trevor has problems of his own — in the person of a high-maintenance, and high-yaller girlfriend, Fayette. Better sleep with one eye open if you have Fayette by your side because you could get a lamp in the face at any moment. Their fights are a reality show all their own, much more interesting than anything on television, like a two-person “Survivor”.


Lately she’s taken to throwing him out of his own bedroom, so you might come across him wandering the halls at all hours, sleeping upright while moving, like a shark or a horse.
But Jake averted any run-in by closing the door snappily and locking himself on my side of it, not that our locks are unpickable. Live to tell. Unaware that his strongest argument would be total nudity, he was keeping his court clothes on, possibly out of the old-world Southern gentlemanliness that is such a bizarre feature of our otherwise free-for-all upbringing. I’ve seen Jake naked lots of times, and I’m here to tell you he’s a breathtaking sight, a glamorous swordsman any Sister of Smegma Sigh would be honored to be molested by.


But I was kind of surprised that he thought he could get me. He had to be desperate. We’ve lived together for fourteen, maybe fifteen years as brother and sister. How can you get romantic about a kid nicknamed “Brownie” because he flunked Toilet Paper? There must be something more at stake. He’d loosened his tie so when he came close enough I could see the pulse beating in his throat. As he settled down on the bed I was grateful for the linen, the silk, the broadcloth, the gabardine and yes, even the bizarre Southern gentlemanliness lying between us. Anything that creates the illusion of choice.


“Guess today was hard for you, huh,” he said. And tried to put his arms around me.
Almost fooled me there. Comforting me had always been Trevor’s job and we both knew he was otherwise engaged. While Jake hugged me, testing t my shoulders for deltoid strength, I wondered, was I just wampum in the never-ending fraternal game of one-upsmanship or did he imply that masculinity and a two-year age advantage made watching Oz’s trial for murdering our stepmother more of a breeze for him? I’ve seen other guys produce the “men-don’t-have-feelings” card as a magic talisman when their emotions start to scare them.


His feelings ought to be more engaged than mine, because, after all, Oz wasn’t my real dad. Plus I’m an artist, so I’m an outsider in the universe as well as in this family. Oz says people become artists out of temperament, rather than ability. He says they better stay wary and emotionally cold, backing away from other people in an effort to get the whole picture. Probably why it comes more naturally to men.


Technically I wasn’t related to the man who sat so diminished at today’s defense table, looking like a disgraced philosophy professor in his leather patches and clubby tweeds, registering on his sensitive face such shocked reactions to the horrible things the prosecution said about him right out loud; like how he must have come back a second time to make sure his wife was dead and then hit her again, how he calculated so exactly the time for “bleed out” before calling 911. I barely recognized the two people described in either sides’ opening arguments as my adoptive parents, Oz and Colleen.


The prosecutors said Oz had long since spent his own epic inheritance, was in way over his head with debt, and when Breadwinner Wife tightened the financial screws he threw her twelve feet into an empty swimming pool and kept hammering her from above with some long, cylindrical object when she tried to climb out. Until her head exploded.


Courtrooms are divided into halves like wedding chapels and we sat on the groom’s side listening while our attorney, like all good things an expensive import, played the 911 tape. Oz’ voice urging paramedics to hurry, conveyed a stark terror that did seem to me a little bit phony. Oz brags about all the wars he’s been in; the guts and dismemberment he’s seen. He doesn’t lose it like that.
“She’s still breathing!” was the assertion the prosecution said couldn’t be true. All our eyes turned to the man morphing from philosophy professor to Oscar-level actor: was such a thing possible?
Craig Axelrod told the jury the marriage was not only just fine thank you but legendary among the couple’s family and friends. Plenty of them would soon crowd forward to testify on behalf of the defense. That was the Colleen and Oz I recognized. Of course they had debts; gentlemen are notorious slow to pay because they demand good value. The spirit of noblesse oblige means those to whom so much is given must extend their reach, Craig intoned, real-seeming tears glistening in his eyes. Assets always outweighed debt so where was the emergency? Colleen’s stock options alone were valued at four million dollars, and the house they jointly owned was appraised for two.
Jake pressed my breasts to his hard chest, patting my back as if burping a baby. Not arousing, more insulting.


“I thought jury selection was worse,” I said. Jake doesn’t begin to know everything about me, but this was the truth anyway. They had to be “death-qualified”; guess what that means. It means waking up in someone else’s nightmare because I never have dreams that bad.
“They’ve had it in for us since Oz wrote those letters to the paper,” said Jake. “Imagine a legal process where Bubba and Bubba’s Auntie-Mama are encouraged to say whatever’s in their empty heads.”


Bubba and Auntie-Mama didn’t look friendly, and they looked at all of us the same way. Although he bought the biggest house in the neighborhood fifteen years ago, Oz never had been really accepted. He would have considered “acceptance” insulting. Deference was more what he had in mind.


And Oz loves making enemies. He enjoys needling people to see what makes them spit. It’s no accident that his last job for the military was interrogator. He would have water-boarded this lot and somehow they knew it. Probably knew he calls everyone born around here “inbred degenerates.” He says the country is pretty but the people are not.


He does claim to be proudly American; his first marriage even fell apart because his wife wouldn’t leave Europe. (He calls Europeans “juiceless”.) But Oz is the least democratic of men. He says the founding fathers were naturally elitist and most of the “booboisie” should be drowned at birth. He describes our current governmental system as a “mediocracy.” That’s a combination of “media” and “mediocre”. Guess whose hands he’s fallen into now?


Since there’s nothing else to do out here in the woods most people watch a lot of TV. Their first requirement in life is a satellite dish; their second is the bomb shelter they think they need after watching all that scary shit. According to Trevor television is a form of sleep-learning. The jury they picked claimed they hadn’t followed the case, so Trevor says that means we ended up the vindictive and the dishonest. Who could have missed the celebrity look-alike talking heads yammering about “socialite couple”, “blood-spattered crime scene”, “unemployed jetsetter”, “executive wife” 24-7. It was the most exciting thing to happen around here since Shiloh.


Craig tried hard to make Oz sympathetic but he may have made it worse. “Kindly retired military man adopts penniless daughters of dying friend” sounds OK but when the jury looks at us they don’t see two little girls but a pair of well-endowed teens. Then they find out Oz retired on “full disability”, but there’s no disability on view. In fact, for a guy in his sixties, Oz looks fantastic. All those hours in our basement gym.


Craig won’t let Oz get on the stand because he’d say the disability is the governments’ and he just knows where the bodies were buried. That would really help! Of course Oz wants to testify, he thinks he can charm anyone. Chekhov says we are blind about ourselves and that’s for sure.
Take Jake, at this moment stroking my hair and pressing on my neck, like he wants me to huddle on his shoulder. All I want to do is smack him. I only wish I could delude myself that the brother who called me Squirt for fourteen years suddenly realizes I’m Hotness Nonpareil. More likely he wants to find out if it’s true what they say about tongue studs. He doesn’t come across many in his circle. It’s not the sort of thing Bitsy takes to college.


Almost unwillingly I admitted, “It has been horrible.” Wish Trevor were here.
“Poor Brontë,” said Jake. He placed a hand on my pajamaed thigh.
Unmistakable. He was mine – for the night – if I wanted him.


I tried to envision the future. Just how would this change our relationship? Sex always changes relationships, even when the guy swears on Granma’s Bible you’re just “friends with benefits”. Jake maintained a constant criticism of my “Goth” clothes, my “raccoon” eyes, my “bushy” hair, my “worthless public school diploma”. Would any of that change? Would he treat me at least as well as he treats my sister Shelley? He never acts that way toward her. But poor Shelley is but a passive clone; I am an incipient revolutionary, trying to graduate from just frustrating expectations into transforming them, but this murder trial has cramped my style.


I admit I was tempted. Sex can be so comforting. Unfair that women can’t absorb sex like ice cream. It’s the way men think they can consume us. Those woodenheaded girls who throw down so publicly on Facebook will rue the day, not that you can blame them. I was a high-school slut so I know. Stepping off the cliff without looking doesn’t mean the drop’s not there.
It’s men’s own faults if they end up with girls who hate sex. They “sportfish” the willing ones — tossing them back — and then they have all this mysterious respect for the lock-kneed. I understand these things because our household suffers from a certain “grandiose dickism.” Colleen was no match for it. The secret is: stop looking for approval, the snag is; less ice cream. Me, I’m making it up as I go along.


I teased Oz that his coat of arms is a “dick rampant”; that made him laugh. Later I found out Dick Rampant is his screen name. It was the first time I discovered that he valued my ideas.
Oz is an old-timer suffering from the usual schizoid philosophy: freedom may be everybody doing everything to anybody but no man willingly signs up for a country club without standards. Oz is no feminist; hear him bewailing the fact that women no longer ride sidesaddle. (“It trains the important muscles so perfectly.”) Colleen was too fastidious ever to discuss such matters. If the conversation turned to sex she found something in the kitchen that needed attention, but I overheard her checking with her own daughter, Skylar, just to be sure she was keeping herself “exclusive”.
Arrest and trial alienated us from town, pretty much mandating a period of celibacy after the inaugural hot-weather skirmishes — you can’t get through graduation summer without them — and I was feeling mighty deprived. I could get philosophical, like Montaigne in his tower, but I’d rather be young.


Jake might be a step up from the country boys, a sort of Tantric do-over. Jake’s reputation of being “good in bed” probably means he makes love like a girl — going for pores as well as orifices. This is such a rarity I’ve heard you should grab all you can get. He stays friends with all his girlfriends, that’s really a good sign. If I disappeared into the warm cocoon of his harem, would I ever come out?


Theoretically I should just enjoy him as a body and forget he’s Jake, with incredibly bad taste in music and an indelible fear of spiders. He’s creampuff; wavy pale hair he “forgot” to cut (knowing the effect on us), true-blue eyes (helped out by color contacts), straight patrician features and that smooth, hard, hairless fencer’s body. Mine for the taking. Couldn’t I just allow myself just a brief wallow? I could say I’d “had” Jake. Another notch on my lipstick case, as the poet says.
Trevor’s spent my lifetime trying to teach me “delayed gratification.” That’s because he’s the delayed gratification poster child and I’m the baby of the family. He makes some good points. Why get sick on pica when there’s real nourishment lying hidden somewhere — waiting to be found?


I’m too proud to share Jake with the universe. Jake is beyond easy; Jake is a super-slut. And God, he’s so irritating! Theoretically you ought to be able to have sex with a person without conversing with them, but can I abandon myself thoroughly around someone who thinks things are “egregiously good” as well as “egregiously bad”, who spells “nostalgic” as if descended from “nasty”, whose favorite philosopher is Khalil Gibran and whose favorite poet is Eminem? Can’t do it.


Not even to get a good night’s sleep for once, instead of tossing like a salad or prowling the darkness dodging Trevor. Pretending is hard work, and it’s the opposite direction artists should go. We need to figure out what’s real. Pretenders never care.
So I cast a jaundiced eye at the hot, hot hand creeping up the cold, cold flesh beneath my Hello Kitty pajamas.


“No,” I said.
“Don’t be such a virgin.” He showed his irritation too plainly. Something I was pretty sure he wouldn’t have done if I hadn’t been officially his sister.


“Who are you calling a virgin?” I snapped, insulted beyond bearing. “Yes I do; just not with you.”
He tried a new tack, softening his approach and leaning into me, enveloping me with his seductively sleepy breath. “Why shouldn’t we comfort one another?”


He had me there. Long, cold December night; two eager bodies. Anything wrong with this picture? I could feel myself on the edge of Bad Decisions. Like when you’re at a drive-thru window and you’re way too hungry. In the master scheme of the universe decisions so tiny will vanish as if they’ve never been. You could always deny it later. No one will know.


I was so mad at him for making me uncomfortable I decided to bounce him a little at the end of his own stick.


“So what would you do to me if I said yes?” I teased, letting my voice go all throaty.
He picked up my bare foot and began to kiss it. Inspired! Made me shiver with pleasure. This guy is good.


“Everything you want one second before you realized you wanted it,” he wheedled, kissing all the way up to my ear. Then he ruined it all by disclosing breathily, “You know he’s innocent.”
I jerked away. So that was what this was all about! I should have figured it out before; I pride myself on sub-text. I had something he wanted, the old “quid-pro-quo” that passes for lust among the prostitutes of this world.


Jake doesn’t need intelligence; (luckily for him); he has emotional radar fine-tuned like a bat. His feminine intuition sniffed out my doubt. I sat listening in that courtroom really wanting to know. Disloyal, of course. Couldn’t be allowed.


Maybe it was just a lucky guess based on my lifelong reputation for oppositional tendencies; always the family holdout. Just this morning in the limo Craig emphasized the importance of a united family front; a manifest belief in Oz’s innocence for all the world to see. “That alone won’t sway a jury,” he told us, “But the lack of it definitely will. If his own family wonders…”


Usually my dislike of lockstep and groupthink pushes me outside any huddle, but in the hysteria and dread leading to the arrest — the “evidence gathering” phase when the police marched their jackboots through every facet of our lives — I went along with the chant of Absolute Innocence, swaying like a sea fan controlled by a powerful tide. I couldn’t help myself; it was just too scary, like being in a war. But calm reflection is always a subversive thing, as Oz himself would be first to say.
Saying he didn’t do it, he couldn’t have done it, should be good enough for us, but I wondered. The question, I thought, was not so much whether Oz could have done it, but whether he would tell us if he had.


A scholar of Machiavelli, a student of the Art of War, Oz makes no bones about favoring “information management”. Information is always managed by somebody. “Sensitive” information is especially need-to-know.


If it wasn’t an accident, then it was a horrible crime, but Oz can get horribly angry. I’ve seen him scream so loudly at Shelley that she wet herself in front of all of us – and she was seventeen years old.


Colleen got the worst of it. Marrying him, poor Colleen was absorbed by a force majeure. She was no longer allowed to be herself, because now she reflected on him, and just as the Scary General had been tough on Oz when he was growing up now Oz was tough on her. As “thoroughbred” was Oz’s Holy Grail of concepts; the precious confluence of gift and heredity, so he was vocal in his doubt about Colleen. Wasn’t her father practically a coal miner? An education that led her to trust flowers over science clearly left something out. But Oz had high confidence in his ability to mold people, and Colleen needed re-booting. So marriage was boot camp for poor Colleen.


Being alone with them that last year was awful. Everyone else was away at college — didn’t see how bad things got. Sometimes Oz acted like I wasn’t there. God knows I tried not to be there — I was sneaking up the back stairs for sleep and down the front for food. Colleen and I once came across each other hiding from him in the same downstairs bathroom.


The prosecution mentioned three domestic abuse calls Colleen made to 911; one more than even I knew about. She tried concealing their fights from me, (ironically, she actually was as loyal as he insisted) but there was plenty she couldn’t hide.


I like thinking that was why I slapped away Jake’s invading fingers. I don’t do quid-pro-quo. Jake’s major flaw is overconfidence. He’s not that beautiful. Did he think his gifts of meat and motion would silence me?


I’m his sister. I couldn’t resist needling him. Looking into Jake’s blue eyes at a quarter past midnight, I said, “You know perfectly well he could have done it.”


Jake didn’t look shocked, exactly, but he left my pajamas alone.
“How can you say that? Of course he couldn’t have. He loved her. They were soulmates.”


Soulmates means half a soul apiece. Oz takes his half out of the middle.


I faced him down. “You know how angry he gets.”


“But not at…her. Never at her! They never even had an argument!”


This revisionist history took my breath away. It’s true that you can’t call Oz’s yelling an argument, exactly. Oz only argued with people he was trying win over, people he perceived as equals. He argued interminably with Trevor, on the other hand. Jake and Shelley already agreed with him about everything, so no fun there; and me? I was too little. Just “cute”. Adorable. “Save your wiles for the little boys,” he used to tell me. When it came to a clash I had Trevor to stand up for me. Trevor speaks Oz’s language.


Oh, the benefits there are to being the baby! It’s a family joke that when Colleen told us we could grow up to be anything we wanted, Shelley said,


“Can I be the baby?”


So why should I ever focus Oz’s lasers on me? I grant him the power to verbally destroy me. I may be just another coward after all, but need to get out of here alive. I am getting up my nerve in many areas. Next year I’ll be gone, away at college on scholarship. No trial lasts a whole year, Craig admits it.


Oz himself gave me the direction. “Soar, baby. Soar.”


“He didn’t have enough respect for her opinion to argue with her,” was the way I put it to Jake. One of Oz’s antique expressions is that no man is a hero to his valet, “valet” being it seems, an old-fashioned word for “wife”. Colleen knew his orders. If she rejected his commands, he humiliated her.


She didn’t know what she was talking about. It was “her time of the month.” Or it would never be her time of the month again, which is to say she would be PMS-ing forever. He’d imitate her voice, he’d imitate her walk — unflatteringly of course — and swirl a finger at the side of his ear. Fun-nee. Especially when it’s not you that’s the target.


“You owe him a fair hearing,” said Jake, “Consider the law of Occam’s razor. Accident is more likely than murder! Of course Oz corrected her — he was older and more experienced. He’d been round the world having adventures while she was beavering away nose-down in that silly company of hers. The “science” of “flowers!” Please! Colleen was so parochial. Really just a small-town girl.”
I stared at him awestruck. Jake sounded just like Oz. As though not just the torch, but the “inner light” had “passed”.


Could we all trade up? Trevor was talking to the press, negotiating with lawyers, answering middle-of-the-night margin calls, paying bills, debating with bankers and stockbrokers. Now Jake was playing Trevor. So who am I? There’s a lack of models here.
Jake worked my brain as well as my body.


“You should have studied enough psychology to know Colleen was really the aggressive one. Passive aggression is still aggression. It’s more dangerous because it’s secret. Didn’t you study anything at public school? She undercut his masculinity trying to make him out to be the bad guy. He would never have done anything to her. Be logical! Where’s the murder weapon? They searched everywhere. He didn’t leave to dispose of it, he had no time, and besides, there was no blood in any of the cars. You know him, Brontë. Would he take away…our Mom?”


It worked, I was speechless. No one ever called Colleen “Mom”, except for Skylar, who was her actual daughter. Was this some new family directive I had missed, some memo never received? Could the “baby” be that much out of the loop? Jake and Trevor had a mother still living, even if she stayed in Europe because she was so embarrassed about America.


At least she remembered Christmas, always sending her boys leather and gold versions of the “classics”. Trevor was twelve when he got The Decameron, which we all perused with plenty of interest. Very instructive. Since she’d be subpoenaed if she showed up now she was even less likely to visit, but still. She existed.


Neither Shelley nor I had even that much of a mother. For us, Colleen was it. Jake is dumb because he’s – well, born dumb, and he thinks I’m dumb because I went to public school. At college he majors in “business psychology”, which is some sort of a synonym for “brainwashing” or “mind control”. Here he was practicing his “dark arts” on me. So I heckled him out of sheer self-defense.


“Oz’s story is unbelievable. They’re spending the evening alone together, having what he describes as a “nice time”, then she goes outside for a smoke, doesn’t come back, and he never went to check on her? Seems funny-strange to me. They said it took her forty-five minutes to die, trying to get out of the empty pool. His soulmate dying in the pool and it took him an hour to look?”
Jake played with his tie as if thinking of using it on me. Isn’t it interesting how many sex games dance around hostility? In biology they say all that extreme courting behavior birds go through is because they can’t stand to be touched. It’s hard for them to get close enough to one another to actually conceive. Explains party dolls, if you ask me. They’re like trainer-wheels.


Jake honored me with some late-breaking honesty.


“You know what must have really happened. He was passed out and didn’t want to admit it! Likely they were shit-faced; you know how they got on weekends. Plus the police have their heads up their asses over the time element; Craig says he can prove their lab has never been right about anything. As for all the blood, she was taking blood-thinner. That made her a bleeder. She would have died from any little cut.


If you have to make it murder, maybe someone came out of the woods and killed her. Even that is more likely than that Oz did it. Since when is it our business to invent scenarios? Stop playing devil’s advocate. You think it’s cute but it doesn’t become you. Could prove fatal.”


See how much power I have? Like the devil needs an advocate! Suddenly Oz’s life and death is up to me. Step out of line and you throw the planets out of alignment! I deliberately leaned away from him, out of the reading light that was starting to feel more like an interrogation tool.


“It doesn’t strike you weird that in that short window of time they weren’t together, someone seized on that moment to murder her? Not robbing her or raping her or anything?”


His breath expelled in a hiss. “Murder is weird, sis. Who knows how weirdos think? It was probably one of these inbreds — do they need a reason for anything? Anyone watching, planning to murder her would wait for Oz to leave.”


“But where’s the motive?”


“How do I know? Someone at her stupid business. Her secretary was just let go. The whole place went cutthroat the moment she took it public, that’s how the stock market works. Maybe it was one of Oz’s lovers. It’s not up to the defense to prove who did it, or even that Oz didn’t. Only that someone else could have done it. Admit, someone could have.”


I know he was right about that. Murder trials can’t about probabilities. It’s “beyond a reasonable doubt.” As they’re always saying.


We were arguing, now. He was giving me some respect, in trying to convince me. Nobody had yet mentioned what was to me the strongest argument in Oz’s favor; that it’s a stupid crime and he is not a stupid person. He loves mysteries and thrillers and he knows all about forensics; if he was going to get rid of somebody he wouldn’t do it in a mess like that. He insinuates he was involved in lots of Cold War “disappearances.” Bodies undiscovered, motives still buried.


Yet smart people do dumb things. As I weakened, Jake played yet another “asshole” card.
“Brontë, the one person who didn’t have a motive was Oz,” he lectured. “Look at the mess we’re in now! Oz had everything he wanted. Everyone envied us. Our lives were perfect.”


Revisionist history! He hated Colleen having all the money. After he encouraged her to take her business public, he thought she’d sell her stock options, but she loathed the new management. Talked about buying the business back.


“Six hundred thousand dollars insurance money,” I said, “sounds like motive to most people.”
“Chump change,” Jake sniffed. “He didn’t do it and they’ll never prove he did.”


“But what if they do?”


Me being honest. Paying (undeserved) respect to him. Awful as this trial was, our isolation and imprisonment in this house with international press camped by the gate — worse was possible. Conviction. Execution.


We stared at one another. That moment of sexual possibility slipped irretrievably past. Slapping and strangling still on the table. Slurping and kissing, no.


“Have you talked like this to anyone else?”
His voice was threatening.


“Who am I going to talk to? All my friends are at college and nobody from town will speak to me. ”
If I sounded sorry for myself, well, I was. Who else ever had this amount of shit to contend with? My homies disappeared into that federal witness protection program known as “higher education”, where they were busy building new identities.


“Well, listen to Craig. Don’t hurt Oz.”
I collapsed. Time to get him out of here.


“Just venting.”


I tried to drag my book out from under his hip. Even Dostoevsky at his most hysterical was more fun than this family. “Sorry about going negative on your offer.”


Jake stood up, looking insultingly relieved, as if he’d been planning to “take one for the team.” The gentleman in him said generously,


“Oh well. Maybe some other time.”


No skin off his nose. Or off his foreskin, to coin a phrase. Shelley’s room is right down the hall.

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