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UNCLEAN SPIRITS

1

I flew into Denver on the second of August, three days before my twenty-third birthday. I had an overnight bag packed with three changes of clothes, the leather backpack I used for a purse, the jacket my last boyfriend hadn’t had the guts to come pick up from my apartment (it still smelled like him), my three-year-old laptop wrapped in a blanket, and a phone number for Uncle Eric’s lawyer. The area around the baggage carousel was thick with families and friends hugging one another and saying how long it had been and how much everyone had grown or shrunk or whatever. The wide metal blades weren’t about to offer up anything of mine, so I was just looking through the crowd for my alleged ride and trying not to make eye contact.

It took me a while to find him at the back of the crowd, his head shifting from side to side, looking for me. He had a legal pad in his hand with my name in handwritten letters—‘Jayné Heller.’ He was younger than I’d expected, maybe mid-thirties, and cuter. I shouldered my way through the happy mass of people, mentally applauding Uncle Eric’s taste.

‘You’d be Aubrey?’ I said.

‘Jayné,’ he said, pronouncing it Jane. It’s actually zha-nay, but that was a fight I’d given up. ‘Good. Great. I’m glad to meet you. Can I help you with your bags?’

‘Pretty much covered on that one,’ I said. ‘Thanks, though.’

He looked surprised, then shrugged it off.

‘Right. I’m parked over on the first level. Let me at least get that one for you.’

I surrendered my three changes of clothes and followed.

‘You’re going to be staying at Eric’s place?’ Aubrey asked over his shoulder. ‘I have the keys. The lawyer said it would be okay to give them to you.’

‘Keys to the kingdom,’ I said, then, ‘Yes. I thought I’d save the money on a hotel. Doesn’t make sense not to, right?’

‘Right,’ Aubrey said with a smile that wanted badly to be comfortable but wasn’t.

I couldn’t blame the guy for being nervous. Christ only knew what Eric had told him about the family. Even the broad stroke of ‘My brother and sister-in-law don’t talk to me’ would have been enough to make the guy tentative. Much less the full-on gay-hating, patriarch-in-the-house, know-your-place episode of Jerry Springer that had been my childhood. Calling Uncle Eric the black sheep of the family was like saying the surface of the sun was warmish. Or that I’d been a little tiny disappointment to them.

Aubrey drove a minivan, which was kind of cute. After he slung my lonely little bag into the back, we climbed in and drove out. The happy crowd of families and friends fell away behind us. I leaned against the window and looked up into the clear night sky. The moon was about halfway down from full. There weren’t many stars.

‘So,’ Aubrey said. ‘I’m sorry. About Eric. Were you two close?’

‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘Or . . . maybe. I don’t know. Not close like he called me up to tell me about his day. He’d check in on me, make sure things weren’t too weird at home. He’d just show up sometimes, take me out to lunch or for ice cream or something cheesy like that. We always had to keep under my dad’s radar, so I figure he’d have come by more often if he could.’

Aubrey gunned the minivan, pulling us onto the highway.

‘He protected me,’ I said, soft enough that I didn’t think Aubrey would hear me, but he did.

‘From what?’

‘Myself,’ I said.

Here’s the story. In the middle of high school, I spent about six months hanging out with the bad kids. On my sixteenth birthday, I got very, very drunk and woke up two days later in a hotel room with half a tattoo on my back and wearing someone else’s clothes. Eric had been there for me. He told my dad that I’d gotten the flu and helped me figure out how to keep anyone from ever seeing the ink.

I realized I’d gone silent. Aubrey was looking over at me.

‘Eric was always swooping in just when everything was about to get out of control,’ I said. ‘Putting in the cooling rods.’

‘Yeah,’ Aubrey said. ‘That sounds like him.’

Aubrey smiled at the highway. It seemed he wasn’t thinking about it, so the smile looked real. I could see why Eric would have gone for him. Short, curly hair the color of honey. Broad shoulders. What my mother would have called a kind mouth. I hoped that he’d made Eric happy.

‘I just want you to know,’ I said, ‘it’s okay with me that he was gay.’

Aubrey started.

‘He was gay?’

‘Um,’ I said. ‘He wasn’t?’

‘He never told me.’

‘Oh,’ I said, mentally recalculating. ‘Maybe he wasn’t. I assumed . . . I mean, I just thought since my dad wouldn’t talk about him . . . my dad’s kind of old-school. Where school means testament. He never really got into that love-thy-neighbor-as-thyself part.’

‘I know the type,’ he said. The smile was actually pointed at me now, and it seemed genuine.

‘There was this big falling-out about three years ago,’ I said. ‘Uncle Eric had called the house, which he almost never did. Dad went out around dinnertime and came back looking deeply pissed off. After that . . . things were weird. I just assumed . . .’

I didn’t tell Aubrey that Dad had gathered us all in the living room—me, Mom, my older brother Jay, and Curtis the young one—and said that we weren’t to have anything to do with Uncle Eric anymore. Not any of us. Not ever. He was a pervert and an abomination before God.

Mom had gone sheet-white. The boys just nodded and looked grave. I’d wanted to stand up for him, to say that Uncle Eric was family, and that Dad was being totally unfair and hypocritical. I didn’t, though. It wasn’t a fight I could win.

But Aubrey knew him well enough to have a set of spare keys, and he didn’t think Eric was gay. Maybe Dad had meant something else. I tried to think what exactly had made me think it was that, but I couldn’t come up with anything solid.

Aubrey pulled his minivan off the highway, then through a maze of twisty little streets. One-story bungalows with neatly kept yards snuggled up against each other. About half the picture windows had open curtains; it was like driving past museum dioramas of the American Family. Here was one with an old couple sitting under a cut glass chandelier. One with the backs of two sofa-bound heads and a wall-size Bruce Willis looking troubled and heroic. One with two early-teenage boys, twins to look at them, chasing each other. And then we made a quick dogleg and pulled into a carport beside a brick house. Same lawn, same architecture. No lights, no one in the windows.

‘Thanks,’ I said, reaching around in the seat to grab my bag.

‘Do you want . . . I mean, I can show you around a little. If you want.’

‘I think I’m just going to grab a shower and order in a pizza or something,’ I said. ‘Decompress. You know.’

‘Okay,’ he said, fishing in his pocket. He came out with a leather fob with two keys and passed it over to me. I took it. The leather was soft and warm. ‘If you need anything, you have my number?’

‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘Thanks for the lift.’

‘If there’s anything I can do . . .’

I popped open the door. The dome light came on.

‘I’ll let you know,’ I said. ‘Promise.’

‘Your uncle,’ Aubrey said. Then, ‘Your uncle was a very special man.’

‘I know,’ I said.

He seemed like he wanted to say something else, but instead he just made me promise again that I’d call him if I needed help.

There wasn’t much mail in the box—ads and a water bill. I tucked it under my arm while I struggled with the lock. When I finally got the door open, I stumbled in, my bag bumping behind me.

A dim atrium. A darker living room before me. The kitchen door to my left, ajar. A hall to my right, heading back to bedrooms and bathrooms and closets.

‘Hey,’ I said to nothing and no one. ‘I’m home.’

***

I never would have said it to anyone, but my uncle had been killed at the perfect time. I hated myself for even thinking that, but it was true. If I hadn’t gotten the call from his lawyer, if I hadn’t been able to come here, I would have been reduced to couch surfing with people I knew peripherally from college. I wasn’t welcome at home right now. I hadn’t registered for the next semester at ASU, which technically made me a college dropout.

I didn’t have a job or a boyfriend. I had a storage unit in Phoenix and a bag, and I didn’t have the money to keep the storage unit for more than another month. With any luck at all, I’d be able to stay here in the house until Uncle Eric’s estate was all squared away. There might even be enough money in his will that I could manage first and last on a place of my own. He was swooping in one last time to pull me out of the fire. The idea made me sad, and grateful, and a little bit ashamed.

They’d found him in an alley somewhere on the north side of the city. There was, the lawyer had told me, an open investigation. Apparently he’d been seen at a bar somewhere talking to someone. Or it might have just been a mugging that got out of hand. One way or another, his friend Aubrey had identified the body. Eric had left instructions in his will for funeral arrangements, already taken care of. It was all very neat. Very tidy.

The house was just as tidy. He hadn’t owned very much, and it gave the place a simplicity. The bed was neatly made. Shirts, jackets, slacks all hung in the bedroom closet, some still in the plastic from the dry cleaner’s. There were towels in the bathroom, a safety razor beside the sink with a little bit of soap scum and stubble still on the blade.

I found a closet with general household items, including a spare toothbrush. The food in the fridge was mostly spoiled, but I scrounged up a can of beef soup that I nuked in a plain black bowl, sopping up the last with bread that wasn’t too stale. The television was in the living room, and I spooled through channels and channels of bright, shining crap. I didn’t feel right putting my feet on the couch.

When I turned on the laptop, I found there was a wireless network. I guessed the encryption key on my third try. It was the landline phone number. I checked mail and had nothing waiting for me. I pulled up my messenger program. A few names appeared, including my most recent ex-boyfriend. The worst thing I could have done just then was talk with him. The last thing I needed was another reminder of how alone I was. I started typing.

Jayneheller: Hey. You there?

A few seconds later, the icon showed he was on the other end, typing.

Caryonandon: I’m not really here. About to go out.

Jayneheller: OK. Is there a time we can talk?

Caryonandon: Maybe. Not now.

His name vanished from the list. I played a freeware word search game while I conducted imaginary conversations with him in which I always came out on top, then went to bed feeling sick to my stomach.

I called the lawyer in the morning, and by noon, she was at the door. Mid-fifties, gray suit, floral perfume with something earthy under it, and a smile bright as a brand-new hatchet. I pulled my hair back when she came in and wished I’d put on something more formal than blue jeans and a Pink Martini T-shirt.

‘Jayné,’ she said, as if we were old acquaintances. She pronounced it Jane too. I didn’t correct her. ‘This must be so hard for you. I’m so sorry for your loss.’

‘Thanks,’ I said. ‘You want to come into the kitchen? I think there’s some tea I could make.’

‘That would be lovely,’ she said.

I fired up the kettle and dug through the shelves. There wasn’t any tea, but I found some fresh peppermint and one of those little metal balls, so I brewed that. The lawyer sat at the kitchen table, her briefcase open, small piles of paper falling into ranks like soldiers on parade. I brought over two plain black mugs, careful not to spill on anything.

‘Thank you, dear,’ she said, taking the hot mug from my hands. ‘And your trip was all right? You have everything you need?’

‘Everything’s fine,’ I said, sitting.

‘Good, then we can get to business. I have a copy of the will itself here. You’ll want to keep that for your files. There is, I’m afraid, going to be a lot of paperwork to get through. Some of the foreign properties are complex, but don’t worry, we’ll make it.’

‘Okay,’ I said, wondering what she was talking about.

‘This is an inventory of the most difficult transfers. The good news is that Eric arranged most of the liquid assets as pay-on-death, so the tax situation is fairly straightforward, and we get to avoid probate. The rest of the estate is more complicated. I’ve also brought keys to the other Denver properties. I have a copy of the death certificate, so you only need to fill out a signature card at the bank before you can do anything with the funds. Do you have enough to see you through for a day or two?’

She handed me a typewritten sheet of paper. I ran my finger down the list. Addresses in London, Paris, Bombay, Athens . . .

‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘I don’t want to be a pain in the ass, but I don’t understand. What is all this?’

‘The inventory of the difficult transfers,’ she said, slowing down the words a little bit, like maybe I hadn’t understood them before. ‘Some of the foreign properties are going to require more paperwork.’

‘These are all Uncle Eric’s?’ I said. ‘He has a house in London?’

‘He has property all over the world, dear. Didn’t you know?’

‘No,’ I said. ‘I didn’t. What am I . . . I mean, what am I supposed to do with this stuff?’

The lawyer put down her pen. A crease had appeared between her brows. I sipped the peppermint tea and it scalded my tongue.

‘You and your uncle didn’t discuss any of this?’ she said. I shook my head. I could feel my eyes growing abnormally wide. ‘I thought he was gay,’ I said. It occurred to me just how stunningly underqualified I was to execute anybody’s will, much less something complex with a lot of paperwork.

The lawyer sat back in her seat, considering me like I had just appeared and she was maybe not so impressed with what she saw.

‘Your uncle was a very rich man,’ she said. ‘He left all his assets specifically and exclusively to you. And you had no idea that was his intention?’

‘We didn’t talk much,’ I said. ‘He left it to me? Are you sure? I mean, thanks, but are you sure?’ ‘The majority of his titles are already jointly in your names. And you’re certain he never mentioned this?’

‘Never.’

The lawyer sighed.

‘Ms. Heller,’ she said. ‘You are a very rich young woman.’

I blinked.

‘Um,’ I said. ‘Okay. What scale are we talking about here?’

She told me: total worth, liquid assets, property.

‘Well,’ I said, putting the mug down. ‘Holy shit.’

***

I think lottery winners must feel the same way. I followed everything the lawyer said, but about half of it washed right back out of my mind. The world and everything in it had taken on a kind of unreality. I wanted to laugh or cry or curl up in a ball and hug myself. I didn’t—did not—want to wake up and find out it had all been a dream.

We talked for about two hours. We made a list of things I needed to do, and she loaned me six hundred dollars—‘to keep me in shoes’—until I could get to the bank and jump through the hoops that would give me access to enough money to do pretty much anything I wanted. She left a listing of Eric’s assets about a half inch thick, and keys to the other Denver properties: two storage facilities and an apartment in what she told me was a hip and happening neighborhood.

I closed the door behind her when she left and sank down to the floor. The atrium tiles were cold against my palms. Eric Alexander Heller, my guardian uncle, left me more than I’d dreamed of. Money, security, any number of places that I could live in if I wanted to.

Everything, in fact, but an explanation.

I took myself back to the kitchen table and read the will. Legal jargon wasn’t my strong suit, but from what I could tell, it was just what the lawyer had said. Everything he had owned was mine. No one else’s. No discussion. Now that I was alone and starting to get my bearings, about a thousand questions presented themselves. Why leave everything to me? Why hadn’t he told me about any of it? How had he made all this money?

And, top of the list, what was someone worth as much as a small nation doing in a bar in the shitty part of Denver, and did all the money that had just dropped into my lap have anything to do with why he’d been killed?

I took out the keys she’d left me. A single house key shared a ring with a green plastic tag with an address on Inca Street. Two storage keys for two different companies.

If I’d had anyone to talk to, I’d have called them. My parents, a friend, a boyfriend, anyone. A year ago, I would have had a list half as long as my arm. The world changes a lot in a year. Sometimes it changes a lot in a day.

I walked back to the bedroom and looked at my clothes, the ghost of my discomfort with the lawyer still haunting me. If I was going to go face Christ only knew what, I wasn’t going in a T-shirt. I took one of the white shirts out of the closet, held it close to my face, and breathed in. It didn’t smell like anything at all. I stripped off my shirt, found a simple white tee in Eric’s dresser, and put myself together in a good white men’s button-down. It classed up the jeans, and if it was a little too big, I could roll up the sleeves and still look more confident than I did in my own clothes. More confident than I felt.

I felt a little weird, wearing a dead man’s shirt. But it was mine now. He’d given it to me. I had the ultimate hand-me-down life. The thought brought a lump to my throat.

‘Come on, little tomato,’ I told the key ring. ‘You and me against the world.’

I called a taxi service, went out to the curb to wait, and inside forty-five minutes I was on Inca Street, standing in front of the mysterious apartment.