Authors: Kevin O'Brien
Tags: #Fiction, #Thrillers, #General
Kimberly stepped into the alley. “Do you need some help?”
The man looked over at her. He was cute, with glasses and a crooked smile. “You’re a lifesaver,” he said, readjusting the swaddled baby in his arms.
“You look like you could use an extra hand,” Kimberly said, grinning.
“Thanks a million.” He held out the tote bag. “If you could just open the car door, then put this on the floor back there, I can do the rest.”
“No sweat,” she said, taking the tote bag from him. It was a bit heavy. She turned and opened the back door. “So how old is he?” she asked over the baby’s cries.
“Two months,” the man replied.
Kimberly bent over and set the bag on the floor. Then she noticed something strange. There was no infant seat in the back. And she didn’t see anything to hold a baby in the front passenger seat either.
“Can you take him?” she heard the young dad ask.
Still half-inside the SUV, Kimberly started to turn toward him. She reached out for the baby, but hesitated.
There was nothing in the blanket but a lump of clothes and a small tape recorder.
Suddenly, she felt the man grab her arm and twist it.
She opened her mouth to scream as the man pulled back his hand, clenched in a fist. It felt like a hammer-blow to the side of her face.
Then she didn’t see anything, just blackness…
Books by Kevin O’Brien
THE NEXT TO DIE
MAKE THEM CRY
WATCH THEM DIE
LEFT FOR DEAD
Published by Kensington Publishing Corporation
Kensington Publishing Corp.
This book is for my sister-in-law, Judy O’Donnell O’Brien.
Jude, you’re a treasure…
For his friendship and support, I’m grateful to my editor, John Scognamiglio. Thanks also to everyone at Kensington Books, especially the terrific Doug Mendini.
Another great big thank you goes to Kara Cesare, Meg Ruley and my friends at the Jane Rotrosen Agency.
This book couldn’t have gotten off the ground without my Writers Group pals, David Massengill, Garth Stein, and Soyon Im. I’m also grateful to my good friends, Cate Goethals and Dan Monda, who weathered through early drafts of this book and came back with suggestions for improvement.
Thanks also to my neighbors at the Bellemoral, especially Brian Johnson and David Renner; the gang at Broadway Video, especially Paul Dwoskin; and the folks at Bailey/Coy Books.
For their friendship, encouragement and help, I’m grateful to my friends, Lloyd Adalist, Dan Annear, Marlys Bourm, Terry and Judine Brooks, Anna Cottle and Mary Alice Kier, Ed and Susan Kelly, John Saul and Michael Sack, Dan and Doug Stutesman, and George and Sheila Stydahar. And a huge thank you to my pal, Tommy Dreiling.
Thanks also to my family for all their love and support.
She made up her mind. She would tell her husband all about it when she got back home. A full confession. She felt a tight knot in her stomach. She dreaded this talk. Still, better Frank hear the truth from her than from somebody else.
She was five blocks from the house, walking their Jack Russell terrier, Cosmo. It was eleven-thirty, and a chilly, autumn wind crept through the night air. She and Frank had just returned from an awful party. They’d flipped a coin over who got dog-duty. Connie had called heads, and it had come up tails. So she’d put her coat back on, grabbed the leash and a couple of pooper-scooper bags, then let Cosmo lead the way out the front door.
Connie Shafer was thirty years old, with green eyes and shoulder-length, wavy, auburn hair. She’d dressed to the nines tonight, a simple, sleeveless black dress that showed off her thin figure, and on a delicate chain, the gold heart-shaped locket Frank had given her last Valentine’s Day. Connie’s two-hundred-dollar Amalfis made a curious click-click sound on the sidewalk.
They lived in a town house in Redmond, not far from one of the main shopping areas. Their neighborhood had sprouted up in the mideighties, a maze of little roads with new split-level and rambler-style houses dwarfed by tall, old trees. There wasn’t anyone else out at this hour, so Connie had plenty of time to think—sometimes out loud.
“I’m sure half the people at the party know,” she muttered, pausing for a moment while Cosmo sniffed at a tree trunk. “That Hannah has such a big mouth…”
Cosmo pulled her farther down the sidewalk, beneath a sputtering streetlight and past a gnarly old oak. Someone had left their recycling bins on the sidewalk. Connie stepped around them.
The party had been at the home of a former coworker from their Microsoft days. Connie and Frank had met while working there. Half the people at tonight’s soiree had been at their wedding four years ago. Both Frank and Connie had since moved on to other jobs. But before leaving, Connie had become involved with a coworker, Gary Levinson.
It lasted only a week, after months of flirting. Talk about a long build up to nothing. At the time, she’d been pretty miserable at home—with Frank ignoring her while he focused on his new job. And there was Gary, a bit older (thirty-two at the time), divorced, nice eyes, and saying all the right things. It didn’t matter he was balding and about twenty pounds overweight. Gary made her feel special.
Connie ended it. She couldn’t stand the sneaking about. Besides, after a few times with Gary, he didn’t seem so charming anymore. In fact, she realized he was a jerk. Whenever they’d gone out to eat together, he’d treated the waitpeople like crap—always a bad sign. Moreover, she heard from several coworkers that he was a backstabbing sleazeball.
Connie had heard he’d quit Microsoft and moved to California, so she hadn’t expected to see him at tonight’s gathering. But there he was—even fatter and more bald—with yet another Microsoft refugee, Hannah Van Buren, hanging on his arm. Big Mouth Hannah.
“Oh, Gary’s living in Bellevue now,” Hannah had told her, nibbling on a cheese puff. “We’ve been going together since July. He’s awesome. But then I don’t have to tell you, Connie. You had a little thing with him a while back, didn’t you?”
“Not really,” she replied, with a half-smile, half-grimace.
“That’s not what he told me,” Hannah retorted in a singsong voice.
Connie noticed a couple of party guests turn to stare at them. Maybe she was paranoid, but she felt people staring all night. Nervously fidgeting with her gold heart-shaped locket, she clung to Frank most of the time. She managed to avoid Gary—until Frank went to the bathroom. Then Gary slithered up to her and kissed her on the cheek. “That’s for old times,” he whispered. “I’m with Hannah now. Going on four months…”
“That’s swell,” Connie said. They deserved each other.
Frank came back from the bathroom, and suddenly Connie was standing with the two of them. She just wanted a hole to open in the floor and swallow her up. “Honey, you remember Gary Levinson,” she heard herself say.
The two men shook hands. Frank was very cordial—as usual. He was good at small talk, chatting amiably with Gary.
Then out of the blue, Gary said to him: “I hope you’re taking good care of this gal of yours, and treating her right.” With that, he excused himself to cozy up with Hannah by the hors d’oeuvres table on the other side of the room.
Frowning, Frank turned to her.
“‘Treat this gal of yours right.’
What the hell does he mean by that? Who does he think he is?”
Connie merely shrugged.
Twenty excruciating minutes later, they’d left the party and driven home, hardly saying a word to each other in the car.
“He knows,” Connie murmured, pulling out a Baggie to scoop up after Cosmo. How appropriate, cleaning up a mess. It was what she had to do when she got home. Damage control. She loved her husband. The thing with Gary was merely a momentary lapse, an embarrassment—like a hiccup or a fart. It was just something disgusting she’d let happen. And she was sorry. Would he understand? Would he please forgive her?
Connie stepped into an alcove by the condominium at the end of the block. She deposited the loaded poop-bag in a Dumpster, then quietly closed the lid.
Giving the leash a little tug, Connie started out of the alcove. But she stopped abruptly. She may have even gasped. She wasn’t certain. She wasn’t certain of anything—except the man standing on the corner across the street. He seemed to be staring at her.
Had he heard her talking to herself? Had she been talking out loud a moment ago, or just thinking?
Cosmo tried to go back toward the Dumpster. Connie had to tug at the leash until he obeyed and followed her. She headed back home.
She glanced over her shoulder at the man. She couldn’t see his face, swallowed up by the shadows. But he was tall and gaunt. He wore a windbreaker and baggy pants. He hadn’t moved from his spot on the corner. She had no idea what he was doing there. He didn’t have a dog with him. It wasn’t a bus stop. Was he some homeless guy? In Redmond? This was the suburbs, for God’s sake.
Connie moved on. She told herself not to look back. She didn’t want him to know she was afraid. Maybe if she just kept walking, he’d stay where he was and leave her alone.
Cosmo wanted to stop and sniff at another tree, but she jerked at the leash. Despite her resolve, Connie peeked over her shoulder again. She let out a little sigh. The man wasn’t on the corner at the end of the block any more. He must have moved on.
Then Connie saw something out of the corner of her eye. A shadowy figure darted into the little alcove where she’d been just a minute before. It was him.
Her heart seemed to stop for a moment.
She could see his silhouette, half-hidden behind a fence. He was lurking in that dark niche, watching her. She couldn’t see his eyes, but she felt them on her.
She couldn’t move or breathe. Then Cosmo pulled on the leash, and made her turn away.
Only four blocks from home,
she told herself,
you’re going to be all right.
Connie picked up the pace a bit. She didn’t dare run, because he’d probably chase after her. She pulled Cosmo into the center of the street. She’d read somewhere that one way to discourage a possible attacker while walking alone at night was to go down the middle of a road—no shadows or trees for anyone to hide behind, no nearby bushes to camouflage a crime.
The night was so still. She heard the click-click of her high heels on the pavement and Cosmo panting. She even detected the sound of some cars in the distance. But she didn’t hear anyone behind her. Connie nervously fidgeted with her gold locket. She dared to look back once more.
No one. Or was he hiding again?
Three blocks back, a Mercedes turned up the street, followed by a silver SUV.
Connie returned to the sidewalk. She felt a bit better. No one was about to attack her while a couple of cars were driving by. She glanced over her shoulder and squinted at the headlights, illuminating the roadway. No sign of her phantom stalker. The cars must have scared him away.
Connie began to breathe easier. She continued toward home, and the cars passed by, first the Mercedes, then the SUV. Maybe she should tell Frank about her little scare. She could squeeze some sympathy from him, before she told him about Gary. Would he ever forgive her?
She was less than two blocks from the town house. Cosmo wanted to stop and sniff another tree. Connie studied the darkened street. The creepy man must have run off or he’d gone Dumpster-diving in that alcove. She and Cosmo were alone—and very close to home. Still, she felt unhinged. The dread in the pit of her stomach hadn’t quite gone away, because she had to have her talk with Frank.
Cosmo moved on, pulling her along. Two blocks ahead, Connie saw a car turn and come up the street toward her. The headlights blinded her for a moment, then she noticed the vehicle was the silver SUV that had driven by just a minute ago. As the SUV came closer, it slowed down, then crawled to a stop.
Connie kept walking, but hesitated as she saw the driver’s window roll down.
“Excuse me,” the man called gently.
“I’m sorry, I’m holy cross…”
Connie stopped and stared at the man inside the car. She couldn’t quite see his face. And she was pretty certain she hadn’t heard him right. “I beg your pardon?” she asked, taking a step toward the SUV.
Cosmo seemed to resist. He was straining the leash.
“I’m totally lost,” the man said, more clearly. “I wonder if you could help me. I’m
working for sessions treat…”
“What?” Connie asked.
“I’m looking for
street…” he repeated, but it was still a little muddled.
Connie said. He was talking as if he had a mouthful of marbles. She still couldn’t quite see his face either. “What street were you looking for?”
“I’m sorry, I still can’t hear you…”
Connie took another step toward the car.
Frank Shafer glanced at his wristwatch again: 12:20. He’d already changed into a flannel shirt and sweatpants, watched part of Leno, and knocked off a beer.
Connie had been gone nearly an hour. Usually Cosmo did his business within ten minutes. Something was wrong.
Frank had stepped outside twice already, looking up and down the block. No sign of them.
Damn it, if she’d planned on taking this long, she should have brought along the cell phone. Frank couldn’t figure out what was going on. Connie had seemed pretty tense most of the night—ever since they’d arrived at the party. Had he said or done something to upset her?
Frank paced around the living room. He kept looking out the front window for her. He’d turned the TV volume to mute a few minutes ago. He wanted to hear if anyone was outside.
He did hear something: a scratching on the front door, then an abbreviated bark.
He always strained at the leash and clawed at the door to get back in, because it was their routine to give him a dog biscuit after a walk.
Frank hurried to the door. He was so happy for Connie and Cosmo’s return that he wouldn’t be mad at her—at least, not for a minute or two. Right now, all he wanted to do was hug her. He flung open the door.
Cosmo looked up at him. The dog was whimpering. His leash trailed behind him, dragging on the ground.
Frank noticed something tied around the handle end of the leash. It looked like a black handkerchief. He squatted down, and Cosmo nuzzled up beside him. The dog was trembling.
“Jesus, what’s going on?” Frank murmured.
He gazed at the black silky material tried around the leash handle. He’d seen it before, earlier tonight, while Connie was getting dressed for the party.
He was staring at his wife’s panties.
Megan and Jamie had known each other seven weeks, and they were totally in love. They were so wrapped up in each other, and so heady with bliss that it was a bit disgusting. As they played on the swings together in the kiddie playground, several people smiled warmly at them. Jamie noticed one woman roll her eyes and sneer, but he decided to ignore her. He and Megan were a cute couple, and they both knew it. Damn cute.
With a disposable camera, Jamie chronicled their cuteness, their love, and all the fun they were having that Sunday afternoon. It was a crisp, overcast day, and the leaves on the trees had turned to vibrant hues of orange, red, and yellow. Megan looked gorgeous—her cheeks rosy and her black hair all wind-swept. Jamie had taken some terrific photos of her hanging from the monkey bars. He wanted to save some on the roll for later—so he could shoot a few photos of her in bed.
“Next, let’s play hide and seek,” Megan suggested, calling to him from the top of the slide. “Okay? “
“Let’s go back to your place and play it,” Jamie replied, grinning.
Megan just laughed, then pushed off and sailed down the slide.
As Jamie pulled her up, she gave him a kiss. “Close your eyes and count to fifty. Gotta find me before I’ll let you take me home.”
Jamie plopped down on a bench, closed his eyes, and started counting.
“No cheating!” he heard Megan call.
“Stay in this section of the park!” he called back. Then he went back to counting. He kept his end of the bargain—going all the way up to fifty.
Once Jamie opened his eyes, he suddenly felt very much alone. He shrugged it off and started scoping out the kiddie park area.
Megan was wearing a yellow pullover. She should have been easy to spot. But he didn’t see her.
Jamie peeked around a few trees—and even peered up at the branches. He and Megan had climbed a couple of trees earlier, and she was good at it. But he didn’t see her hiding up in any of the limbs.
He circled the restroom facility—a plain, small brick unit with the men’s room on one side, and the women’s on the other. Megan wasn’t in the bushes behind the building.
As he passed the women’s doorway, Jamie almost bumped into a girl coming out of the lavatory. Lugging a backpack, she had a pierced nostril and a green streak in her hair.