This scene didn’t make the final cut for the book. I felt, and my editor Alison Dasho agreed, that readers would have a pretty good idea what would come next. Still, some might be interested in precisely what Skin and Ruby Jane found when they returned to Ohio…
– 53 – Lock and Key
We arrive at the house before Nash. It’s a monster, brown stone and two long wings with a tower in the middle. An actual tower, with a goddamn turret at the top. The drive loops past the broad front door and on through a gate to what look like stables beyond. I feel like we’ve stumbled into a Fitzgerald novel.
An elderly woman waits at the door. Daatje van der Hoeven, wife of Nel, who we are given to understand is currently traveling in Costa Rica where the van der Hoeven coffee plantations can be found. Mrs. van der Hoeven is not pleased by our visit, based on the brief phone call I made from the rental car counter to let her know we would soon arrive. She and her husband bought the house in 2002 from the estate of the Denlingers. Daatje is not interested in strangers rooting around in her home.
Nash was able to force the issue, I suppose. I don’t know for sure. I’ve been more worried about getting Ruby Jane here. The last two weeks haven’t been the easiest in her life. First her brother’s funeral, then Pete’s. Negotiating with the terse Joanne over the equity in Uncommon Cup held by Pacific West Fidelity was a snap in comparison. There’s still a lot to sort out: Bella’s farm will need to be sold, hopefully before the county takes it. Jimmie’s finances are a mess. But for now, there is only the key Jimmie sent me, and this house.
“I hated this place.” Ruby Jane’s voice is flat. “My grandparents were so cold. Maybe that explains Bella, or maybe Bella explains their coldness. I just know I never wanted to come back here.”
“Let’s get it over with.”
Mrs. van der Hoeven offers us coffee in a tone which makes it clear we better decline. She takes us into a living room which is larger than my entire lot to wait for Nash. Oriental rugs hang on the walls. The grand piano outsizes my car. The sofa is hard. Ruby Jane, like me, seems afraid to touch anything. Mrs. van der Hoeven hovers at the window, refuses to sit. Her skin is like parchment stretched over raw meat, her hair rusted steel wool. The sapphires in her ears look real, the stones as big as blueberries. Her sapphire and diamond necklace is even more impressive. We have nothing to say to each other, but I ask a few polite questions. She and her husband are Dutch, but have lived in the United States for nearly forty years. Her accent is intact, and I have to ask her to repeat herself a few times. When she talks, she looks down her nose at us, and with her it’s no metaphor. After some prodding, she admits they bought most of the furniture with the house, and the study at the top of the tower is intact. In fact, it’s never been used. Nel always intended to, but the location was inconvenient.
“I suppose you want to see it.”
The doorbell rings. Nash has arrived with Grabel’s file.
We meet him at the door.
“Sorry it took so long. Big accident on Route 35 coming in.” He looks at Ruby Jane and smiles, but her face is impassive as she takes his proffered hand. “Good to see you, Ruby. Been a long time.”
She attempts a smile, but the effort fails. Nash looks away, flustered. He opens the folder and leafs through a few pages. “That was a damned shitty day.”
Ruby Jane tilts her head back and for a moment I think she’s going to cry. But then she shakes her head and this time pulls off a genuine smile. “For you and me both.”
“Coby didn’t last long, you know.” Nash’s voice seems to come from far away. “He talked the Chief into keeping him on, but within a year he was dead.”
“Please tell me his past caught up with him.”
“I suppose you could say that. Aneurysm. Dropped right there in the station and never woke up again. A few months later, we transitioned to Jackson Township control and the chief retired.”
Ruby Jane seems unmoved by the death of Grabel. From what she’s told me about him, I can’t say as I blame her. Nash continues to read through the file. “Anyway, here’s everything we got. Description of the ring, bank records showing the missing assets. If nothing else, Grabel put together a good file.”
Mrs. van der Hoeven clears her throat. “My husband is going to want his attorney to review all that. We did, after all, buy the house and everything in it.”
Ruby Jane’s breath seems to catch. “It’s my grandmother’s ring.”
“Be that as it may—”
I interrupt. “We have the key, lady. You didn’t even know about this until yesterday.”
Nash raises a hand. “Let’s just see what we find. We can sort out the legal matters later if this doesn’t turn out to be Al Capone’s vault.”
A spiral staircase climbs the tower, with a landing on the second floor leading to the two wings. Ruby Jane, Nash and I climb, but Mrs. van der Hoeven takes a small lift which runs up through the middle of the staircase. We reach to the top before her.
The room is small. Dust hangs in the air and tickles my nose. Dark stained wood, old books on the shelves. A dictionary on a stand, leather chair behind the walnut desk. There’s a window which looks out over an old tennis court.
“It’s just as I remember it.” I take Ruby Jane’s hand and squeeze it. She smiles gratefully, but I can see the anxiety in her eyes.
Mrs. van der Hoeven is impatient. I’m feeling it myself, a bit. But this is Ruby Jane’s moment.
She goes behind the desk. “Jimmie found this the day we—” She doesn’t finish, but I know the day she means. The day she and Jimmie first saw the gun.
“What is it?” The old lady’s voice snaps.
“My grandfather’s desk.” Ruby Jane kneels, and for a moment she’s out of sight. “Here.” There’s a click, then the squeak of hinges. “A little compartment in the footwell.”
It’s not Al Capone’s vault. There’s a small box wrapped in brown paper and tape, two inches square. FOR RUBY JANE WHITTAKER is written in marker on the surface. Ruby Jane unseals paper while Mrs. van der Hoeven frets. She insists whatever is in the package belongs to her and her husband, the inscription notwithstanding. Nash notes a court will likely make that call. Ruby Jane is more interested in the small velvet box, surface dirty with craft paper dust. Inside, she finds a folded piece of paper and the ring. She looks at the ring for a long time. The emerald is maybe two carets in an antique gold setting. There’s a simple loveliness to it, but just one of the accent gems in Mrs. van der Hoeven’s necklace has to carry a greater dollar value. Even so, from the look in her eyes I can see she’s thinking about snatching the ring from Ruby Jane’s hands.
“Back off, Mrs. Gollum.”
After a moment, Ruby Jane unfolds the note. It takes her only a moment to read it, then she hands it to me.
Roo, We both know if mom finds out about this, she’ll take it, and anyway, that’s not the only reason to hide it. Someday, it will be safe again and you can have Grammy’s ring. I’m sorry about the money. It was the only way I could keep her quiet. —James
Ruby Jane is crying. Mrs. van der Hoeven taps her foot.
“That note means nothing. We have title. The sale agreement stipulated—”
But Nash isn’t having it. He takes the ring and writes the woman a receipt. “I’ll log this in as evidence. You can have your attorney make your claim to the Montgomery County District Attorney’s office.” On that note, we leave.
Outside, I stop Nash.
“That was bullshit, wasn’t it? The D.A.’s office won’t have standing.”
“She doesn’t know that.”
“Her squadron of lawyers will.”
“I think everyone needs a cooling down period. If the van der Hoevens press their claim, I suppose this will end up in civil court. In the meantime, we all know where the ring is.” He turns to Ruby Jane. “Maybe you can work out a settlement with that old bat.”
“I’ll buy Grammy’s ring from her if I have to.”
Nash offers her a comforting smile. “I’m sure it won’t come to that.” None of us believe that.
I put my arm around her. “Ruby Jane, darling, let’s go.”
Mrs. Parmelee is expecting us. Her, and everything else to follow.