The Falconer

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Chapter 2

“What I need is money,” Chloë said to herself between gritted teeth, pressing the accelerator desperately as she drove towards her aunt’s home. Bennett Park happened to be only two miles from James Point, the family estate in genteel New Breda where her aunt lived, and Chloë raked a distracted hand through her hair. She felt a mad impulse to detour to the woods, to the scene of her crime, and see if there was a Toyota Sequoia somewhere nearby. She needed to focus, she reminded herself -- to remember her quest. Money.

The Ipswich Theatre Project might have been the Holy Grail, as far as Chloë was concerned. She longed for that warehouse, for the chance to produce her performance works onstage in front of real audiences, and she knew Kit felt exactly the same. There was only one thing separating the dream from reality: money.

As the Pontiac started to climb the final hill towards her aunt’s estate, it began to jerk and backfire. She glanced nervously at the inspection sticker on the windshield, wondering what to do. Only one month remained before the car was to be inspected, and there was little hope of spontaneous mechanical regeneration on the horizon. I need money!

Yet the idea of returning to the woods to confront that falconer made her smile even now: she imagined him standing by his Sequoia, horrified, as she careered toward him, her Pontiac backfiring, the engine roaring and knocking through its muffler. She grinned as she thought of him running for the woods to escape her, of panic taking possession of that tall, masculine figure...she, too, could be frightening, given the proper machinery.

She continued to coax the elderly Pontiac onward, and the car began to drive more smoothly as the uphill climb became level ground. The green steel gate of her aunt’s mansion came into view just as the car increased its acceleration. She hated to stop the car just as it was discovering its true potential, but Chloë stepped on the brake, got out, and approached the intercom ensconced in the wall beside the gate. The Pontiac’s motor thrummed loudly behind her, and the video com’s camera stared at her balefully as she pushed the intercom button.

“Yes?” inquired Karma’s voice, even though Chloë was certain her cousin could see herquite clearly on the video screen.

“Hi, Karma– it’s me,” Chloë announced. You know –your cousin, who grew up with you in this house for nearly 20 years? You know perfectly well who I am! Chloë decided to keep her thoughts to herself. She couldn’t waste any energy on her cousin.

“Just park the car behind the house, Chloë,” said Karma, her tones steely, as if addressing a servant.

Chloë bit her lip to keep her mouth shut. She had come to terms with the fact that she was the black sheep of the family, but this was too much. Her bamboo flip-flops crunched angrily on gravel as she entered the Pontiac again.

The tall gate slid smoothly open, and James Point revealed itself proudly, outlined by a backdrop of white summer clouds. The two storey house with the access to a lakeside beach had served as the glorious stage for her childhood adventures, back in those summers when everything was possible and there had been no rent to pay, no bills, and no climbing gas prices. During those days, the mere idea of asking Aunt Melissa for money would have seemed a surreal joke.

Chloë sighed as she saw Conchita waiting for her on the back porch, smiling and waving. She hurried to the car as if she were afraid Chloë might suddenly turn around and leave.

“Chloë, hija…”

Conchita’s sweet soprano felt like home, and Chloë found comfort in being led into the familiar kitchen, in the warmth of Conchi’s maternal hand at her elbow.

“Sit here for a while. Tell me your news,” Conchita urged her, spreading cinnamon over a bowl of rice pudding.

Chloë sat down and took a mouthful of the pudding, delaying her answer. She hadn’t decided whether or not she liked these visits to James Point anymore. Time had flown, and her uncle and aunt now owned the mansion which had belonged to her Grandpa Jim, then to her father after him. Chloë sometimes felt as imprisoned by time as a dragonfly in amber while everything around her moved with dizzying speed.

She took another mouthful of rice pudding. Chloë loved cinnamon but found that too much left a bitter taste in her mouth. “I have to talk to Aunt Melissa—”

“Are you sure that’s a wise choice?”

Chloë gulped, looking nervously at Karma, who stood, smirking, by the kitchen door.

Karma rested an elegant, tanned hand on her hip. Chloë’s eyes were drawn against her will to the short designer skirt her cousin wore, setting off her lithe figure to perfection. That’s $300! What I could do with $300…!

“What do you mean?” Chloë asked.

“That stuff you’re eating is pure sugar. It’ll turn into body fat by evening,” Karma informed her with haughty authority. She was eyeing the bowl in Chloë’s hands as if looking at a vial containing a dangerous virus.

“I wonder if you still remember what sugar tastes like,” Chloë said, closing her eyes in well-feigned delight over her last spoonful of pudding. She let a theatrical moan of pleasure escape her lips before opening her eyes to regard a smiling Conchita.

“Would you like a bowl, Miss Karma?”

Chloë tried to keep a straight face as she listened to Conchi’s polite question. Both women knew that Karma would prefer swallowing sulphuric acid to 500 calories before dinner.

“Melissa’s guests will be late. The roast will be served an hour later than scheduled,” said Karma, icily ignoring Conchi’s question. “And I won’t be staying for dinner. I have a date.” Then, lifting a gilded eyebrow – everything about her seemed golden somehow – she stared at Chloë. “I wonder if you’ll ever know how it feels…you know…to date a rich, successful man?”

“What’s wrong with having an affair with a man who’s not wealthy?” Chloë challenged her. She was sure that Karma always learned the exact balance a man had in his bank account before she deigned to date him. “I’ve never thought of wealth as the basic condition which defines success. I prefer intelligence.”

Karma waved her sculpted nails in a tired gesture.

“A poor man is a man not intelligent enough to overcome his poverty,” she pronounced, shrugging elegantly to better display beautiful, exposed collarbones.

Chloë detected Karma’s tacit insult. If a man was considered stupid unless he rose above his poverty, what was the word for a woman who refused a succulent inheritance in order to pursue a dream no one approved of? Chloë was an idiot, to Karma’s way of thinking.

“Speaking of overcoming poverty, I saw Jacob DeWitt at a party the other day. He was alone. He was asking about you. He still seems interested…” Karma’s smile had an edge.

Inwardly, Chloë translated her cousin’s words:

Speaking of intelligent men who choose to triumph over their poverty by marrying money, I saw Jacob DeWitt at a party the other day. He was alone. His incredibly rich wife of ten months already bores him. He was asking about you. How dare he not be solely, exclusively interested in ME? He still seems interested…in YOU! I wonder why…?”

“Well, I’m not interested!” Chloë replied. “Married men are not my target group of romantic interest.” Especially the man who dumped me to get married and took MY suitcase when he left!

Was Jacob’s leaving her a wake-up call she had ignored a year ago? Hadn’t he had a point when he had accused her of betraying their love? She could have worked in the family firm, satisfied the absurd clause her father had included in his will. She could have money now, clothes, jewelry, and a handsome boyfriend—maybe husband—and she’d never have been in this miserable state, never have had to ask Melissa for money and spar with Karma over her choices in life. And she’d never have had to return as a pauper to this house she loved but couldn’t call her own anymore.

“I’ll forward you the two-month offer to some idiot sent to my e-mail account. Perhaps you’ll find someone from your target group theremaybe someone who appreciates having a girlfriend working in the streets for pennies.”

She makes me sound like a hooker! Chloë bridled.

“I am a performer! An artist!” she exclaimed.

Karma shrugged again. “Melissa’s in the dining room,” she said, and she turned on her heel and left the kitchen.

“Swizzle sticks…swizzle sticks…” Melissa was murmuring as she rummaged through one of the drawers of the antique mahogany sideboard, which had somehow survived the massive refurbishment the house had undergone when she became its owner. Chloë stopped in the doorway, watching as her aunt picked out the antique glass swizzle sticks that her grandfather had collected. They had been filched from hotels during business trips: The Ritz, the Seaside Hotel in Atlantic City, and many other hotels which no longer existed.

“Hey, Melissa,” murmured Chloë.

“Well, look who’s here!” said Melissa, finally turning to address Chloë. “The prodigal daughter returns!” She smiled affectionately as she looked at her niece. “I wish you had called before you came –we could have fit you into our dinner plans. But maybe we could still arrange something…”

“Oh, no, Melissa, I wasn’t planning on staying,” said Chloë hurriedly. She hesitated, then forged ahead. “I need to talk with you. Do you remember my roommate, Kit?”

“Kit? Wasn’t she the young lady who helped you with your little projects?”

“Um…yes, she was…”

“Is her hair still colored that delightful shade of blue?”

“Well…it’s orange now, and it’s very short. Anyway, she’s moved out…” Chloë persisted.

Melissa finally seemed to be listening. “She moved out? Do you mean to tell me that you’re living alone in that grungy little apartment of yours?”

“For the moment, but…”

“Chloë, Chloë. You know how dangerous that is! A girl like you living alone? That’s just asking for it! Whatever happened to that boy you were dating – now, what was his name? Jack? Maybe he could stay with you and protect you.”

Chloë gritted her teeth. “Jacob. His name was Jacob. He left me a year ago, and now he’s married. Ask Karma. She knows all about it.”

Melissa’s face was a mask of sympathy. “I’m sorry, dear. I must have forgotten about that. So, Jacob left, and now the young lady with the blue hair’s gone…”

“And I’m fresh out of roommates!” interjected Chloë. “I can barely pay the rent now, but I’m getting by. But there’s something more important even than myrent, and it’s a dream of Kit’s…and of mine. You remember the Ipswich Theater Project? I think I told you about it. It’s Derek Harris’s project…you know, a venue where all kinds of artists and performers could showcase their talents? But we still don’t have enough money to rent the warehouse we’ll need. I…I guess I’m asking you for a donation…or at least a loan, Melissa.” There. It was out.

Yet Melissa did not acknowledge the plea. Turning her back on Chloë with a sigh, she abandoned the group of swizzle sticks on top of the sideboard and focused her attention on the dining room table. Places had been set for four people in black Art Deco plates and Fostoria stemware. As Melissa fumbled with a napkin and napkin ring, Chloë approached the table, too, and silently flattened a napkin. Melissa stopped, watching, as her niece folded triangles over, turned the napkin, folded more triangles, then finally puffed the finished figure out – a cloth fleur de lis. Chloë placed it on the middle of the plate.

She raised her eyes to Melissa, who was smiling approvingly at her work with the napkins, and tried to keep her own treacherous face impassive. Her beautiful aunt had always been an intimidating presence in her life, and she cursed the fact that she still craved her approval.

“That’s lovely, Chloë,” said Melissa. “I suppose you really do have some artistic talent.”

“I am an artist,” protested Chloë. “I have a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from NYU, and I am working as an artist…”

“I’m not at all sure that I would call what you do working, dear,” countered Melissa. “What do you call it…’drama art’?”

Performance art, and it takes a lot of work…”

“Now, oil on canvas, watercolor on canvas…even acrylic on canvas is something you can sell people. Something solid. Money in the bank, dear, and I don’t know why you don’t do that…”

“Melissa…please,” Chloë interrupted, willing her aunt to listen, “I’ve done all that, I’ve sculpted in textile and paper, I’ve worked with all kinds of media, I’ve even welded, but it was never enough. I’ve always wanted to make art that lives and moves in the moment, that breathes, that lives its life and is gone somehow…like us. There’s beauty in ephemera!”

“I think you’re too caught up in theories!” Melissa snorted. “You can’t tell me that what worked fine for Michelangelo is not good enough for you! What you’re doing is the sham du jour, just the latest fashion! What is it you do out there on the street, anyhow –ersatz theatre, or ersatz music videos?”

“Theatre and music videos are ersatz, Melissa. I’m very real, and I live through my art, through taking it to people on the street.”

“And living on handouts. Well, I’m sorry, Chloë, but I can’t lend you money,” Melissa said. “I’m very disappointed you’ve put me in this position, because you know I can’t help you. The only person who can help you is you, dear, and you know exactly what I’m talking about.”

It was as if Melissa had slammed a door in her face. Chloë stared at her aunt, and there was a roaring in her ears.

Melissa continued. “Your poor father! Do you think he really wanted to see you in these straits? I know that the two of you had your differences, but he only wished to see you succeed in life! Seven years…he only asked seven years of you!”

“Seven years of living death working for Jordan Medical Supplies? He wanted to kill me!”

“Of course not, dear. He wanted you to learn the ropes, along with Karma…”

“It was a trap to force me to be buddies with her!

The temperature of the room seemed to descend abruptly. “You’re still a little girl, aren’t you, Chloë? Karma is a very nice person, believe me, and I don’t understand why you’ve always been so ugly to her. You still can’t find it in your heart to get along with your own cousin, or even to work with us,” said Melissa slowly, as if she were indeed speaking to a child.

Chloë held up her hands.

“No, that isn’t it. Well, maybe that’s something that bugs me about the arrangement, but it’s not important. No, what I could never do, ever, was submit to the idea of being someone I’m not, and for seven entire years. Father always wanted me to be the person he wanted me to be, and he couldn’t respect the way I really am…he even did his best to sabotage me!”

“Spare me the venom, Chloë, I’ve heard all your little paranoias before. Look, do you think that I like it that you’re estranged not only from James Point, but from the part of the family money that you’re entitled to? It’s sitting there in a trust fund right this minute, just waiting for you to do the right thing. It will not wait forever. You know that.”

“My principles are not for sale!”

“Think of it as renting them out for seven years,” said Melissa tartly. “In the meantime, I’m sorry, Chloë, but I can’t do anything for you.”

Chloë sat at her laptop, checking her e-mail messages. All spam. Except one –from Karma, surprisingly…

“I wonder if I should even open it?” she wondered to herself aloud. Bet it’s a virus.

She sighed. There had never been a moment’s understanding between herself and Karma, not even when they had been children. How well she remembered all those summers together at Grandpa Jim’s house…

On the surface, everything had been as calm as the lake her grandpa’s mansion overlooked. No one had ever suspected the bitter rivalry that had seethed beneath the girls’ beguiling play.

Karma had been her grandfather’s favorite, and Chloë had barely existed for him. She was a destructive, annoying tomboy, prone to mischief, prone to noise. Karma, on the other hand, had always been the sunny-haired, decorous little lady…at least, as far as the adults knew. Chloë had to give her cousin credit, now that she reflected on things. Karma had been smart. She never let the adults see how she sneaked pinches or patent-leather kicks to Chloë, or hear the things she would say to her.

“Grandpa doesn’t like you, you know. Your mommy’s dead, and your own daddy hates you…”

The whispered words were true enough. Chloë’s mother had been killed by a drunk driver when she was two; her father had always wanted a boy, and no matter how thoroughly she had worked to impersonate a boy, he had never been impressed.

The truth had hurt, and Chloë had pushed Karma into the dirt over it. She remembered her cousin’s pink dress, stained with mud, and the horror on the adults´ faces…and her father’s switch. Karma’s show of innocent, surprised tears had been impressive.

Feminine wiles.

In fact, everything about Karma had been feminine –and boring. She had always worn the latest fashions –all in pink– had played with Barbies, and had taken pains never to get dirty.

She had watched as Chloë went fishing and camping with her father and uncle, climbed trees, caught frogs and snakes, and got gloriously dirty. Had she been jealous?

Karma had resented something about her. She had always done everything she could to set her up for trouble. Whenever Karma broke something, or anything went missing, it was quickly blamed on Chloë, and it was tomboy Chloë who received her father’s switching. Her protests of innocence fell on deaf ears at best – at worst, they caused her father to switch her harder. Gradually, Chloë had learned to pay Karma back. She put a garter snake down her back; she tied Hercules beetles to her bedposts using thread; and she painted moustaches on her dolls with Magic Marker. Crickets had disappointed her as fish bait one day, so she dumped the leftover fourteen crickets from her can onto the carpet under Karma’s bed. They posted themselves in strategic corners of the house, singing enthusiastically throughout the summer nights.

One day, Chloë had found twin amber hair combs among some dusty volumes in Grandpa Jim’s library. When she held them up to the sunlight, she saw delicate bubbles trapped within the amber, and she felt a pang. Why should Karma have exclusive rights to all things feminine?

Chloë had gathered her hair up, anchoring it with the combs, and had looked into the mirror. Disappointment had flooded through her – the same 10-year-old ugly duckling as always stared back at her, and the elegant amber looked incongruous in her dark, unruly hair. She tried smiling, but the effect was worse –her adult teeth were coming in crookedly and she was snaggle-toothed. Freckles peppered the fair skin of her face, and she had a cut on her forehead.

Finally, she had shrugged. The amber combs had produced no miracles, but they were something different from her usual rubber band, and that would suffice. She bounded into the sunlight without further thought. She knelt on the ground to examine a cottonwood borer’s progress through the grass, poking at it with a twig. The sunlight blazed down, and she could smell the damp aroma of the loamy earth.

Grandpa Jim had passed her without so much as a glance as he carried a broken lawn chair towards the cellar doors. He opened them and descended. Chloë watched lazily until the top of his head had disappeared and noticed that he had left the doors flung open.

“What’s that?” Karma’s sneering voice surprised Chloë, and she instinctively rose to her full height, prepared for confrontation.

“What’s that in your hair?” repeated Karma, and she reached towards Chloë, who backed away. “Don’t worry, Stupid, I just want to look at it!” And she snatched a comb from Chloë’s hair.

“Ow! Give it back!” exclaimed Chloë; several strands of her hair had been pulled out in the attack. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed Grandpa Jim watching them, his head just visible above the horizon of the cellar door. He was out of Karma’s line of vision.

“Give it back!” repeated Chloë.

“Why? What if I like it?” challenged Karma, holding the comb as high aloft as she could. She had been two inches taller than Chloë that summer. “You don’t wear things like this anyway. You’re too busy being a boy!”

You can’t boss me around!” cried Chloë.

“Can so! I’ll do what I want, and no one will know, ‘cause I’m smarter ‘n you.”

“Give it back! You don’t want to wear it!”

Karma considered, lowering the comb to eye level and looking at it. “You know, you’re right. I don’t want it, so…” And she had flung it to the ground and stepped on it.

Suddenly, Grandpa Jim had descended, wrathful and icy.

Karma had backed away quickly from Chloë, pointing down at the broken comb with an accusing finger. “Look what Chloë did!”

Chloë had nearly felt sorry for Karma. For the first time, her old trick no longer worked, and Grandpa Jim stared at her, his eyes cold, wide and comprehending. “That belonged to your grandmother,” he had said simply, and he had left.

Karma had not understood at first. It had taken a long time for her to understand. The summer days passed, and Grandpa Jim no longer seemed to see her. He was slightly kinder to Chloë than he had been before, however.

He never forgave Karma.

Karma had borne this situation in pale silence until the summer ended.

By the next summer, she had become more polished, more civilized, and more carefully venomous than ever towards Chloë. She would never forgive her for her role in the loss of Grandpa Jim’s affections.

Now, years later, Chloë still felt like a child when confronted by a single e-mail from her cousin.

Enough of this!

Grasping the mouse, she clicked it open impatiently, then read:

Hi, Chloe,

I told you I’d send you this link. This is the perfect thing for people like you. Good luck.

Chloë suppressed her feelings of outrage and clicked on the link, her curiosity stirring. The website started with a mission statement:

We at are dedicated to the idea that there is a partner out there for you – never a perfect partner, because we make no such promises. Love is hard work. There is no perfection.

“No kidding!” murmured Chloë, scanning down through the site’s philosophy, its view of the psychology of couples, and its promises of individual attention.

We will work with each individual to assure the best match possible. This will require the completion of an online questionnaire, to be evaluated by our professionals with our guarantee of complete discretion….

Chloë went through the questionnaire, and soon she was immersed in a quiz regarding how she handled her emotions.

When you are angry, do you a) suppress your anger, b) verbalize it, or c) act upon it?

How about “d) slash tires”? thought Chloë to herself as she clicked reluctantly on “c.”

She answered many more questions designed to determine her personality traits, opinions, and even political and religious leanings.

Why am I DOING this? She stopped just as she was about to submit the answers to the questionnaire. She had filled out her personal information and provided a photo of herself automatically, without really thinking about why she was answering all these questions and signing up with this dating website.

She thought of Karma. Wouldn’t it be poetic justice if, by the next time she saw her, she had a new boyfriend? It would certainly blunt some of Karma’s verbal barbs.

She thought of Melissa. Wouldn’t she be able to face her aunt with more aplomb if at least one aspect of her life –her love life– could be considered a success?

She thought of Jacob. His abandonment had been humiliating to her on many levels. Wouldn’t it be good for her self-esteem if she finally enjoyed a successful relationship?

She thought of Kit. “You need someone,” she had told her. Now that she was by herself, she could no longer deny the cold loneliness that seemed to seep into her through her very skin.

Loneliness. THAT’S why I’m doing this.

She clicked on the “Submit” button, sighing. I must be nuts!
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