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Art of the Lie
"So, all of it was just a lie?" I kept my eyes on the woman sitting across from me in the coffee shop; the kind where take-out cups are blue and white and feature renderings of the Parthenon. Not your trendy low-fat latte/espresso bar with track lighting and copies of 'Rolling Stone' lying around. Nobody paid the slightest bit of attention to us: my rationale for choosing this place was the assurance of privacy. No one would care to eavesdrop on whatever we might say. Naturally, when Lisa arrived, she got the once-over from every man at the counter. I recognized the envy in their faces as she slid gracefully into the orange leatherette seat across from me at the last booth in the back. Lisa was a stunning woman, but she was also my sister-in-law, my late brother's wife. Lisa frowned slightly, repositioning a butter knife in front of her, checking her makeup in its reflection. Immediately, her forehead became smooth and flawless. She pushed the knife away.
"Let me tell you a little secret about lying, Alix. Every well-told lie contains some element of truth. It makes the lie believable. The art of lying isn't taught in graduate school. You learn it along the way, or maybe you don't."
I understood this to be a subtle dig at my perennial student status. I did not speak. Lisa regarded me briefly before continuing.
"Some of it was a lie it depends on your definition of truth. What's that mean to you, Alix?"
"Being honest, scrupulously honest. There's no gray area for me, Lisa. It's all quite black and white."
She sipped her coffee, gazing at me over the rim of the cup. Her eyes were impossibly blue and I wondered, not for the first time, if she wore contact lenses.
A waitress silently refilled our cups. Lisa shook two packets of sugar; the gesture reminded me of someone rolling dice. My mind flashed back to a long-ago trip to Atlantic City. The memories were still vivid. I'd been nineteen and horribly drunk and yes, Lisa was there. Blur of perfume, rum and Coke, Lisa laughing, throwing money at me. The expensive suite, and our mutual desire for each other. Lisa sleeping, one perfect arm across my stomach. It certainly wasn't the first time I had sex with a woman, nor was it the last time. Soyes, I slept with my brother's wife and though I'm not sure about the contact lenses, I can tell you that she was a natural blonde. We managed a few more clandestine meetings before she tired of my puppy love adoration.
She wasn't married to Gordon yet, but she wore an engagement ring on her finger. I was merely a game to Lisa: some fun with the kid sister before she wed the man. We were never intimate after the wedding, although I cannot say that it hadn't occasionally crossed my mind. Gordon didn't know about those sordid little episodesI'm grateful for that, at least. It would be an understatement to say that if anyone knew my sexual preferences, the proverbial shit would hit the fan.
Lisa read my face and leaned in. "Don't think about it. That's in our past, Alix. We don't have a future."
"I never expected we did," I said, not sounding nearly as cold as I'd hoped. "I only wanted to discuss thearrangements."
"But you want the truth, don't you? To analyze it all. Can't be done, Alix. It can't be done."
"All that means is you won't tell me. I want to know how my brother died. What part did you play, Lisa? If it wasn't all a lie, how much of it was true? How much of that police report is simply fabrication? What about this obituaryhere."
I opened the copy of the New York Post I'd brought along with me. I read aloud, "Gordon Brenninger, Tragic Suicide At Forty-three; Suffered Severe Depression As Company Stock Fell To An All-Time Low."
Lisa didn't respond.
She pushed her cup away, shooting me a look of malice so palpable that I flinched. "Let's go. There's something you need to see, Alix."
Outside, the raw wind slapped my face. Lisa pulled her fur coat tightly around her; a black Lincoln Town Car waited at the curb. Lisa had a great deal of moneybecause she married my brother. She began life as Lisa Petersen, a corn-fed Wisconsin girl without two nickels to rub together. Gordon met her while she was paying her college tuition with the money she made working as a call girl. Oh, we had her investigated, but it was too late; she already had Gordon wrapped around her finger and he refused to listen to reason. I can actually understand how he felt. Lisa could bend people to her will; it was one of her special talents.
She transformed herself into Lisa Brenninger, the young and beautiful wife of Gordon Brenninger, a man accustomed to great wealth. To put it in the simplest terms, we Brenningers are filthy rich. I know how much effort Lisa put into maintaining her charade. She carefully hid her rapacious nature. She organized fund-raisers, attended numerous charity functions. Lisa, as the saying goes, was beyond reproach and Gordon's death was officially a suicide. I suspected that the lovely Lisa killed him. I had no proof and I doubted I'd find any. Lisa was far too skilled to leave any details to chance.
The Town Car glided up Central Park West, splashing filthy slush up on the curbs and over the booted feet of people who actually have to walk to wherever they're going. Lisa wore stiletto heels wherever she went, because she never walked anywhere. A personal trainer kept her in shape; she had a driver.
I was curious about their prenuptial agreement.
The standard contract used by our family carries a stipulation that the parties must remain married for a period of no less than ten years. Gordon and Lisa were married for something closer to four and a half years, maybe less. At best, she was entitled to a small sum, an amount that would rise incrementally with each year of marriage: certainly not Gordon's entire estate. Something wasn't right.
Obviously smitten with Lisa, the doorman hurried to let us inside. In the elevator, a suggestion of Chanel # 22 left me slightly off-balance. She stood very close to me. She knew the effect her presence had on my ability to think clearly.
Few traces of Gordon remained in their apartment. Things had been discreetly removed: in storage or sold, perhaps. Lisa shrugged off her coat, dropping it on the couch. She waved a hand towards Gordon's study.
"Snoop around. Be my guest. Want a drink?"
I closed the door behind me. "I'll pass."
I didn't know exactly what I was looking for and I was going through Gordon's desk when Lisa came in with a folder. "Gordon's medical records. You can see how depressed he was, towards the end. I wasn't lying when I told you he was sick." I scanned the papers briefly, trying to ignore the view. She'd perched on the desk, watching me read, waiting for me to take the bait. She moved slightly, leaving her legs uncrossed.
I took a deep breath and reminded myself that I hadn't come for a booty call.
"Weren't you lying about his suicide, Lisa? Isn't there a possibility, however slight, that he may not have wanted to die? I grew up with Gordon. He never just gave up on anything."
Lisa pulled videotape from the closet. "Show starts in five minutes, Alix."
She walked out. I followed her with my eyes and she knew it.
I entered the living room just in time to see horribly compromising footage of myself andI don't want to go into details, but suffice it to saythat video would keep the gossip columnists busy for a long time. And my sister Paula's running for a seat in the Senate. We can't afford scandal. Lisa knew this. I averted my eyes. Lisa hit the remote and the images disappeared.
"What do you want, Lisa?" My mouth was so dry it was difficult to speak.
"What is it that you want, Alix? Somehow, I feel I can trust you now to keep your mouth shut. You want to know how I got around the prenup. You're wondering if Gordon overdosed intentionally, or if I helped him along, correct?"
I nodded. "That tape "
"Here's the original, but there are copies. I won't use them unless I'm forced. Get off my back. Stop asking questions. Leave me alone and I'll return the favor. I'll explain this once and we won't mention it again. Agreed?" I kept nodding, like one of those idiotic bobble-head toys you see on television.
"Good, we agree. First of all, it was a walk in the park, convincing your brother to change the conditions of the prenup. Remember his accident in Vail? I cried and reminded him that if he were to die, I'd be left destitute. Gordon amended the prenup and included a provision stating that if he died before the ten years had passed, I'd automatically inherit. God, Alix, you know what a hypochondriac he was! When the stock market started fluctuating and he developed insomnia, I suggested that his mood swings could indicate depression. I urged him to seek treatment. I found a wonderful therapist who prescribed antidepressants. I heard just recently about the terrible fire in his office. Awfulall his files destroyed and the poor man died from smoke inhalation. How can people forget to replace their smoke detectors? Convincing Gordon to take all those pillsthat was the hard part. Holding a gun to his head helped." Her laughter angered me even more than her words. She held out her arms.
"Oh, come over here. It's not so bad, Alix. Let me make it better."
Sometimes it's as simple as who's fucking whom.
I was beginning to understand the value of a well-told lie. Lisa didn't count on what happened several months later. After I was rid of herpermanentlyI fabricated a story of my own. Was it all a lie? No.
I took a page from Lisa's book. I told the police she hadn't been the same person since my brother died.
It worked like a charm.
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