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‘The Duke’ Part III

By web

Section: Arts

March 11, 2011

Graphic by Ariel Wittenberg/The Hoot

Previously in “The Duke:” After running into loner Veronica Dent, Tim discovered that his novelist mother may be cheating on his father, suspicions that were seemingly confirmed on a disquieting family camping trip …

“I’m not doing that,” Tim said. He backed out of Veronica’s bedroom, his cheeks turning pink then blossoming to a violent red.

Why did he agree to meet with Veronica at her home? Couldn’t they have plotted their battle plan in neutral territory?

Veronica lived in a huge house. It was the kind of house that looked empty from the outside—the windows were dark, the curtains drawn, the driveway had no cars. Veronica’s family was wealthy in the way Tim imagined the dukes and nobility in his mom’s books were wealthy. Old money.

Earlier that day, Tim had pretended to go for his run, but instead took a bus to the upper side of town. The area was full of houses with long driveways, cast-iron gates and lawns with strips of grass that looked like they had just been unfurled. There were sidewalks, but Tim saw no one making use of them. His plan had been to jog to Veronica’s address, but he had sputtered from a jog to a quick walk—in this part of town he had the feeling that no one did something as unsightly as sweat in public.

She stalked over to him, the ears of her bunny slippers flopped with each step. Tim had the urge to dash out the front door, but when he stumbled out to the dimly lit hallway, he realized that he had forgotten which direction the entranceway was located.

Veronica had led him to her room on an ambling route, pausing in the cavernous library to pick up a book that was lying open on an overstuffed couch, and then passing through rooms with faded floral wallpaper, each with a mysterious purpose. One room was filled with stuffed exotic birds, their bright feathers coated with a thin layer of dust. Veronica had mumbled that it was her mother’s aviary. Tim, like all teenagers, instinctively recognized when someone was embarrassed, and so made no comment.

“You have to do it, nitwit, we both have to be prepared to catch them.” She rolled her eyes, supposedly at Tim’s stupidity. She swung the camera on its cord in front of him as if she were attempting hypnosis. “They need to know that someone is watching,” she said.

Tim took the camera, but held the expensive equipment with only the tips of his fingers. He tried to imagine taking a picture of his mom locked in the embrace of the Duke. The mental image was so horrifying that Tim’s stomach lurched and for one shaky second he thought he was going to throw up.

“How did you find out?” he asked, walking back into Veronica’s room and flinging his body onto her blue bean-bag chair.

Veronica shrugged, head down. She looked less fierce when she wasn’t staring murder at him.

“My dad started making all these phone calls at odd times of the day. Who did he need to talk to at three-in-the-morning?” She fingered the knit comforter that covered her bed. “Then he forgot to pick me up after band practice, which isn’t new,” she said, face wrinkled into a scowl. “But he was at a swanky French restaurant with your mom.”

“That doesn’t mean they’re sleeping together,” Tim said.

Veronica sprang up from her bed, “He lied about it when I asked him!” She flung a stuffed cat across the room, “He lied to me.”

Tim nodded. Ever since the camping trip and the whispered conversation he had overheard, he believed his mom was having an affair. Any protests he made were because he didn’t want to believe it.

“I think my dad knows already,” he said.

Veronica spun around. “Do you know for sure?” she asked standing over him.

Tim squirmed in the chair; he could feel the beads of the bag dig into his back through the fabric. Veronica could be frightening sometimes. He had barely said no, when she clapped her hands, “That’s not good enough. We need photo evidence, so that even my dad can’t weasel his way out of it.”

A muffled clatter sounded from a corner of the house. Veronica silently left the room to investigate. When Tim got up to follow, Veronica just shook her head.

Tim took this moment to give into his curiosity, which was much better than the riptide of anxiety he had been feeling, and carefully took in his surroundings.

The bedroom was painted violet and posters of rock bands plastered the walls. Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, the Grateful Dead. The image of Veronica head-banging, frizzy mop flying, made Tim smile. There were books in messy piles on the floor; in fact, a stack seemed to function as her nightstand. A copy of “Dastardly Duke” was open to a page on Veronica’s unmade bed.

He picked it up and read.

The Duke knew his actions were ill-advised, but his head was clouded with a potent mixture of lust and desire. He must have her. Despite the consequences, despite the impropriety. Elizabeth was a married woman, but the Duke knew that there were ways of getting around such things.

“I wanted to know more about her.” Veronica leaned on the doorway, “I’m sorry.”

Tim tossed the book back onto the bed.

“I guess, I’ll take the camera and go then,” he said, standing up. He was aching to run. Run away from Veronica and her monstrous empty house and her dangerous ideas. Run because that’s what he knew how to do and what he was best at.

“You can’t go, you have to meet my father,” she said.

They had a few hours to kill so they listened to music and Veronica pulled from beneath the bed a battered chess set. She smoothed out the board and placed the pieces carefully on their respective squares.

“My mom taught me how to play.”

Veronica beat him quickly the first round, which would have embarrassed Tim if she hadn’t taken the time to show him how to employ the tactic she had used. Every half-hour or so she would disappear from the room for a few minutes and return with a funny look on her face. After the third time Tim recognized it for disappointment.

During one of her absences, Tim peered more closely at her books. There were massive biology texts he was certain none of their teachers had assigned. They had small-type and words like interferon and ribonucleic acid.

“Do you want to be a doctor?” he asked when she returned.

This time she had fixed them a plate of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. When he bit into the soft bread and the sweet taste filled his mouth, he felt like he was five again, when he had gorged himself on his father’s famous raspberry chocolate chip cookies.

“Not really, but it helps to have a plan.”

Veronica was one of those people with a strategy for everything. He wondered what would happen if one of her plans didn’t work out.

“What happened to my vase?” Mr. Dent asked, striding into her room. He must have gone straight there for he had not had time to put down his suitcase or remove his damp jacket, wet from the first summer rain.

Mr. Dent was the junior partner of a new law firm called Bernard and Bailey. He had the same fierceness that Veronica sometimes displayed, but while she seemed to be fueled by something hot, he seemed cold. Tim was reminded of an eel.

“Your vase?” she asked. The picture of innocence, she was sitting cross-legged, playing with the ears of her bunny slippers.

Mr. Dent blinked at Tim for a moment before swooping down and shaking his hand. “I didn’t know that my daughter had company, it’s nice to meet you …”

“Tim,” Veronica said.

“Tim,” Mr. Dent repeated, he frowned and dropped Tim’s limp hand. He stared at Tim as if searching through a formidable mental rolodex.

From his bean-bag chair, Tim felt very small and useless.

He thought he would hate this man, but instead the Duke had turned out to be a stranger, a real person who he didn’t understand at all. He gazed at Veronica for some clue as to how he should be reacting, but she was fiddling with her hair and did not look at him.

“It’s missing,” Mr. Dent said. Veronica later explained that in order to prove himself to his rich in-laws, her dad had committed himself to becoming a successful lawyer. The vase was a present from one of his first prominent clients, a prince from a tiny country.

She shrugged.

Tim didn’t understand how she could be so lackadaisical. Mr. Dent was all sharp angles with his high cheekbones and direct gaze.

“She broke it, didn’t she?” he said, his words soft.

Veronica’s head snapped up, “No, I did,” she said. And after a pause, “I’m sorry.” But she didn’t look sorry, she looked like she was making a challenge.

Mr. Dent shrugged, “I will talk to her and see what she says.”

“She’s in bed, sleeping,” Veronica said.

“She’s always there,” Mr. Dent sighed, glanced at Tim, and left the room.

“My mom’s sick,” she said, walking across the room and picking up the stuffed cat she had tossed earlier. Hugging the toy to her chest, she glared at Tim, “But she’s getting better.”

Suddenly Tim understood. He wondered what Veronica said to her mother when she was standing over the shards.

He looked at the camera that he had taken unwillingly, “So,” he said, “How does this thing work?”

Read the final installment of “The Duke” in the next issue of The Hoot!

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