By Wendy Corsi Staub

Thriller, Crime & mystery

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4 mins


“Some things,” Carmen used to say, “just don’t feel right until the sun goes down.”

It was true.

Cocktails …

Bedtime stories …

Turning on the television …

Putting on pajamas …

All much better—more natural—after nightfall.

There are other things, Alex has since discovered, that can only happen under cover of darkness. They’re far less appealing than the ones to which Carmen referred, but unfortunately they’ve become increasingly necessary.

Alex opens the door that leads from the kitchen to the attached garage, aims the key remote at the car, and pops the trunk.

It slowly opens wide. The interior bulb throws enough light into the garage so that it’s unnecessary to turn on the overhead fixture.

Not that there are any windows that might reveal to the neighbors that someone is up and about at this hour …

And not that the crack beneath the closed door is wide enough to emit a telltale shaft of light …

Even if it did, it’s not likely that Hester Toomey will be up at this hour and sitting in her usual spot on her porch across the street.

But still, it’s good to practice discretion. One can’t be too careful.

Mrs. Toomey notices everything.

Alex removes a square-point shovel from a rack on the sidewall. The steel blade has been scrubbed clean with bleach; not a speck of dirt remains from the last wee-hour expedition to the remote stretch of hilly forest seventy miles north of suburban Westchester County.

Into the trunk goes the shovel, along with the rake used for clearing the ground of fallen leaves and the headlamp purchased from an online camping supply store.

Now comes the hard part.

Alex returns to the house with a coil of sturdy rope and a lightweight hand truck. Stolen from a careless deliveryman who foolishly left it unattended behind the supermarket, it’s come in handy. Alex is strong—but 150 pounds of dead weight is …

Well, not dead yet.

The figure lying prone on the sofa is out cold, courtesy of the dissolvable pill dropped into booze-laced soda.

Rohypnol—the date rape drug—is no longer prescribed in the United States and thus harder to come by. But Alex wisely stocked up during a trip to Mexico when it became apparent there would be a need for it.

In Mexico nobody asks questions.

When this is all over, and he’s back in my arms, maybe that’s where we’ll go.

But now is not a time to daydream about the future. There’s a lot to do before the sun comes up.

Alex carries the glass of spiked soda to the kitchen, dumps the remaining inch or two of liquid into the sink, and washes it down the drain. The glass and the sink are scrubbed with bleach and the glass returned to the cupboard alongside colorful plastic sippy cups and baby bottles that are ready and waiting …

Just waiting.

Then it’s back to the living room. Dozing on his favorite chair, the black cat lazily opens one eye.

His name is Señor Don Gato, from a childhood song a foster mother sang years ago in a cozy little home that reminded Alex of a gingerbread cottage. That particular foster mother loved cats and was always taking in strays. Stray cats, stray kids …

Yet for some reason, she didn’t want to adopt me.

“It’s time for our guest to go now,” Alex informs Gato.

Not a twitch of movement from either the cat or the guest.

Under Gato’s watchful gaze Alex rolls the hand truck over to the sofa and unfurls a length of rope. The end whips through the air, toppling a framed photo on the end table. It’s an old black-and-white baby photo of Carmen, a gift from Alex’s mother-in-law the day after their son was born.

“El niño mira justo como mi Carmen,” she had said, and then translated in her heavily accented English for Alex’s benefit: “He looks just like my Carmen.”

On that day, gazing into the newborn’s face, all patchy skin and squinty eyes from the drops the nurses had put in, Alex couldn’t really see it.

But as the months passed, the resemblance became undeniable. Strangers would stop them on the street to exclaim over how much parent and child looked alike. At first it was sweet. Soon, though, Alex started to feel left out.

“He looks like you, too, sweetie,” Carmen, ever the supportive spouse, would claim. But it wasn’t true.

“You’re just trying to make me feel better.”

“No—he has your blue eyes, see?”

“All babies have blue eyes,” Alex pointed out, “and he has your face. Everything about him is you—even his personality.”

The baby had been so easygoing from day one, quick to smile, quick to laugh …

As their son grew into a boy, he loved buildings and music, even learned to play the guitar like …

Like Carm.

He was nothing like you.

Alex leaves the photo lying facedown on the table.

Carmen—even baby Carmen— doesn’t need to witness what’s about to happen.

I know you wouldn’t approve, Carm. But you’re not here, and I have no choice. It’s the only way.

Five minutes later Alex is in the car heading north on the Taconic Parkway. The cruise control is set at five miles above the posted limit—just fast enough to reach the familiar destination in little over an hour, but not fast enough to be pulled over for speeding.

Even if that were to happen, nothing would appear out of the ordinary to a curious cop peering into the car. Alex would turn over a spotless driver’s license and explain that the sleeping person slumped in the passenger’s seat simply had too much to drink. No crime in that statement, and quite a measure of truth.

Three hours later the first traces of pink dawn are visible through the open window beyond the empty passenger seat as Alex reenters the southbound lanes. All four windows are rolled down and the moon roof is open, too, despite the damp chill in the strong west wind on this first day of March.

Some distance ahead, taillights glow in the dark. Twin red orbs, exactly parallel, that remind Alex of—

No. Stop. Don’t think of that.

Alex hits the gas pedal hard—a necessary risk in order to pass the other car. But as soon as the disturbing red taillights have given way to a distant glare of headlights in the rearview mirror, Alex slows to a speed that won’t attract police radar.

The radio is set, as always, to a classic rock station. Real music—that’s what Carmen always used to call it.

None of that techno-electro-hip-hop-pop crap for us, babe. Just good old-fashioned rock and roll …

Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” opens with a powerful electric guitar; eerie, wailing, lyric-free vocals from Robert Plant.

The fresh air and the music make it better somehow. Easier to forget throwing shovels of dirt over the wooden crate that contains a still unconscious human being. Easier not to wonder what it would be like to regain consciousness and find yourself buried alive.

Maybe that won’t happen. Maybe it never has, with any of them. Maybe they just drift from sleep to a painless death, never knowing …

But that’s not very likely, is it?

Chances are it’s a frantic, ugly, horrifying death, perhaps clawing helplessly out of the box only to be crushed by the weight of dirt and rocks, struggling for air …

Alex reaches over to adjust the radio, turning the volume even higher in an effort to drown out the nagging thoughts.

Sometimes that works.

Other times they persist, refusing to be ignored.

Not tonight, thank goodness.

The voices give way to the music, which shifts from Led Zeppelin to the familiar opening guitar lick of an old Guns N’ Roses tune: Sweet Child of Mine.

Singing along—screaming, shouting—to the lyrics, Alex rejoices. There is no more fitting song to punctuate this moment. It’s a sign. It has to be. A sign that everything is going to be okay after all. Someone else will come along. Another chance. Soon enough…



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