I richard, p.7

I, Richard, page 7


I, Richard

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  No way, baby, Douglas thought. You'll be sorry you made a fool out of me.

  When she finally cuddled next to him and murmured, “Doug, is something wrong? You want to talk? You okay?” it was all he could do not to shove her from him. He wasn't okay. He would never be okay again. But at least he'd be able to salvage a measure of his self-respect by giving the little bitch her due.

  It was easy enough to plan once he decided on the very next Wednesday.

  A trip to Radio Shack was all that was necessary. He chose the busiest one he could find, deep in the barrio in Santa Ana, and he deliberately took his time browsing until the youngest clerk with the most acne and the least amount of brainpower was available to wait on him. Then he made his purchase with cash: a call diverter, just the thing for those on-the-go SoCal folks who didn't want to miss an incoming phone call. Once Douglas programmed the diverter with the number he wanted incoming calls diverted to, he would have an alibi for the night of his wife's murder. It was all so easy.

  Donna had been a real numbskull to try to cheat on him. She had been a bigger numbskull to do her cheating on Wednesday nights because the fact of her doing it on Wednesday nights was what gave him the idea of how to snuff her. The volunteers on the hotline worked it in shifts. Generally there were two people present, each manning one of the telephone lines. But Newport Beach types actually didn't feel suicidal very frequently, and if they did, they were more likely to go to Neiman Marcus and buy their way out of their depression. Mid-week especially was a slow time for the pill poppers and wrist slashers, so the hotline was manned on Wednesdays by only one person per shift.

  Douglas used the days prior to Wednesday to get his timing down to a military precision. He chose eight-thirty as Donna's death hour, which would give him time to sneak out of the hotline office, drive home, put out her lights, and get back to the hotline before the next shift arrived at nine. He was carving it out fairly thin and allowing only a five-minute margin of error, but he needed to do that in order to have a believable alibi once her body was found.

  There could be neither noise nor blood, obviously. Noise would arouse the neighbors. Blood would damn him if he got so much as a drop on his clothes, DNA typing being what it was these days. So he chose his weapon carefully, aware of the irony of his choice. He would use the satin belt of one of her Victoria's Secret slay-him-where-he-stands dressing gowns. She had half a dozen, so he would remove one of them in advance of the murder, separate it from its belt, dispose of it in a Dumpster behind the nearest Vons in advance of the killing—he liked that touch, getting rid of the evidence before the crime, what killer ever thought of that?— and then use the belt to strangle his cheating wife on Wednesday night.

  The call diverter would establish his alibi. He would take it to the suicide hotline, plug the phone into it, program the diverter with his cellular phone number, and thus appear to be in one location while his wife was being murdered in another. He made sure Donna was going to be at home by doing what he always did on Wednesdays: by phoning her from work before he left for the hotline.

  “I feel like dogshit,” he told her at five-forty

  “Oh Doug, no!” she replied. “Are you ill or just feeling depressed about—”

  “I'm feeling punk,” he interrupted her. The last thing he wanted was to listen to her phony sympathy. “It may have been lunch.”

  “What did you have?”

  Nothing. He hadn't eaten in two days. But he told her shrimp because he'd gotten food poisoning from shrimp a few years back and he thought she might remember that, if she remembered anything at all about him at this point. He went on, “I'm going to try to get home early from the hotline. I may not be able to if I can't pull in a substitute to take my shift. I'm heading over there now. If I can get a sub, I'll be home pretty early.”

  He could hear her attempt to hide dismay when she replied. “But Doug… I mean, what time do you think you'll make it?”

  “I don't know. By eight at the latest, I hope. What difference does it make?”

  “Oh. None at all, really. But I thought you might like dinner…”

  What she really thought was that she was going to have to cancel her hot romp with his baby brother. Douglas smiled at the realization on how nicely he'd just unhooked her little caboose.

  “Hell, I'm not hungry, Donna. I just want to go to bed if I can. You be there to rub my back? You going anywhere?”

  “Of course not. Where would I be going? Doug, you sound strange. Is something wrong?”

  Nothing was wrong, he told her. What he didn't tell her was how right everything was, felt, and was going to be. He had her where he wanted her now: She'd be home, and she'd be alone. She might phone Michael and tell him that his brother was coming home early so their tryst was off, but even if she did that, Michael's statement after her death would conflict with Douglas's uninterrupted presence at the suicide hotline that night.

  Douglas just had to make sure that he was back at the hotline with time to disassemble the call diverter. He'd get rid of it on the way home—nothing could be easier than flipping it into the trash behind the huge movie theater complex that was on his route from the hotline to the neighborhood where he lived—and then he'd arrive at his usual time of nine-twenty to “discover” the murder of his beloved.

  It was all so easy. And so much cleaner than divorcing the little whore.

  He felt remarkably at peace, considering everything. He'd seen Thistle again and she'd held his Rolex, his wedding band, and his cuff links to take her reading. She'd greeted him by telling him that his aura was strong and that she could feel the power pulsing from him. And when she closed her eyes over his possessions, she'd said, “I feel a major change coming into your life, not-David. A change of location, perhaps, a change of climate. Are you taking a trip?”

  He might be, he told her. He hadn't had one in months. Did she have any suggested destinations?

  “I see lights,” she responded, going her own way. “I see cameras. I see many faces. You're surrounded by those you love.”

  They'd be at Donna's funeral, of course. And the press would cover it. He was somebody after all. They wouldn't ignore the murder of Douglas Armstrong's wife. As for Thistle, she'd find out who he really was if she read the paper or watched the local news. But that made no difference since he'd never mentioned Donna and since he'd have an alibi for the time of her death.

  He arrived at the suicide hotline at five fifty-six. He was relieving a UCI psych student named Debbie who was eager enough to be gone. She said, “Only two calls, Mr. Armstrong. If your shift is like mine, I hope you brought something to read.”

  He waved his copy of Money magazine and took her place at the desk. He waited ten minutes after she'd left before he went back out to his car to get the call diverter.

  The hotline was located in the dock area of Newport, a maze of narrow one-way streets that traversed the top of Balboa Peninsula. By day, the streets' antique stores, marine chandleries, and secondhand clothing boutiques attracted both locals and tourists. By night, the place was a ghost town, uninhabited except for the new-wave beatniks who visited a coffee dive three streets away, where anorexic girls dressed in black read poetry and strummed guitars. So no one was on the street to see Douglas fetch the call diverter from his Mercedes. And no one was on the street to see him leave the suicide hotline's small cubbyhole behind the real estate office at eight-fifteen. And should any desperate individual call the hotline during his drive home, that call would be diverted onto his cellular phone and he could deal with it. God, the plan was perfect.

  As he drove up the curving road that led to his house, Douglas thanked his stars that he'd chosen to live in an environment in which privacy was everything to the homeowners. Every estate sat, like Douglas's, behind walls and gates, shielded by trees. On one day in ten, he might actually see another resident. Most of the time—like tonight—there was no one around.

  Even if someone had seen his Mercedes sliding up the
hill, however, it was January dark and his was just another luxury car in a community of Rolls-Royces, Bentleys, BMWs, Lexuses, Range Rovers, and other Mercedes. Besides, he'd already decided that if he saw someone or something suspicious, he would just turn around, go back to the hotline, and wait for another Wednesday.

  But he didn't see anything out of the ordinary. He didn't see anyone. Perhaps a few more cars were parked on the street, but even these were empty. He had the night to himself.

  At the top of his drive, he shut off the engine and coasted to the house. It was dark inside, which told him that Donna was in the back, in their bedroom.

  He needed her outside. The house was equipped with a security system that would do a bank vault proud, so he needed the killing to take place outside where a peeping Tom gone bazooka or a burglar or a serial killer might have lured her. He thought of Ted Bundy and how he'd snagged his victims by appealing to their maternal need to come to his aid. He'd go the Bundy route, he decided. Donna was nothing if not eager to help.

  He got out of the car silently and paced over to the door. He rang the bell with the back of his hand, the better to leave no trace on the button. In less than ten seconds, Donna's voice came over the intercom. “Yes?”

  “Hi, babe,” he said. “My hands are full. Can you let me in?”

  “Be a sec,” she told him.

  He took the satin belt from his pocket as he waited. He pictured her route from the back of the house. He twisted the satin around his hands and snapped it tight. Once she opened the door, he'd have to move like lightning. He'd have only one chance to fling the cord around her neck. The advantage he already possessed was surprise.

  He heard her footsteps on the limestone. He gripped the satin and prepared. He thought of Michael. He thought of her together with Michael. He thought of his Asian erotica. He thought of betrayal, failure, and trust. She deserved this. They both deserved it. He was only sorry he couldn't kill Michael right now, too.

  When the door swung open, he heard her say, “Doug! I thought you said your hands—”

  And then he was on her. He leapt. He yanked the belt around her neck. He dragged her swiftly out of the house. He tightened it and tightened it and tightened it and tightened it. She was too startled even to fight back. In the three seconds it took her to get her hands to the belt in a reflex attempt to pull it away from her throat, he had it digging into her skin so deeply that her scrabbling fingers could find no slip of material to grab on to.

  He felt her go limp. He said, “Jesus. Yes. Yes.”

  And then it happened.

  The lights went on in the house. A mariachi band started playing. People started shouting, “Surprise! Surprise! Sur—”

  Douglas looked up, panting, from the body of his wife, into popping flashes and a video camcorder. The joyous shouting from within his house was cut off by a female shriek. He dropped Donna to the ground and stared without comprehension into the entry and beyond that the living room. There, at least two dozen people were gathered beneath a banner that said SURPRISE, DOUGIE! HAPPY FIFTY-FIVE!

  He saw the horrified faces of his brothers and their wives and children, of his own children, of his parents. Of one of his former wives. Among them, his colleagues and his secretary. The chief of police. The mayor.

  He thought, What is this, Donna? Some kind of a joke?

  And then he saw Michael coming from the direction of the kitchen, Michael with a birthday cake in his hands, Michael saying, “Did we surprise him, Donna? Poor Doug. I hope his heart—” And then saying nothing at all when he saw his brother and his brother's wife.

  Shit, Douglas thought. What have I done?

  That, indeed, was the question he'd be asking—and answering—for the rest of his life.

  Introduction to

  Good Fences Aren't

  Always Enough

  So often I'm asked where my ideas for stories come from. I always answer in the same way: Story ideas come from everywhere and anywhere. I might see a wire service article in the LA Times and realize that it contains the kernel for a novel, as I did when I wrote Well-Schooled in Murder. I might see an exposé in a British newspaper and decide that it can serve as the foundation for a novel, as I did when I wrote Missing Joseph. I might want to use a specific location in one of my books, so I'll design a story that fits into that location, as I did when I wrote For the Sake of Elena. I might see someone on the street or in the underground, overhear a conversation between two individuals, listen to someone's experience, study a photograph, or determine that a particular type of character would be interesting to write about. Or sometimes what stimulates the story idea is a combination of any of these things.

  Often, when I've completed a project, I can't remember what got me started on it in the first place. But that's not the case with the following short story.

  In October of 2000, I went on a walking and hiking tour of Vermont after I'd completed the second draft of my novel A Traitor to Memory. I'd long wanted to see the New England fall colors, and this trip was to be my reward for a long and enervating time spent at the computer over the fifteen months of writing two drafts of a complicated book. My intention was to see and to photograph the landscape.

  As I was traveling on my own, I decided to sign up for a tour of other like-minded individuals interested in the exercise and the atmosphere. We stayed in country inns at night, and during the day we hiked through some of the most spectacular foliage I've ever seen. We had two guides, Brett and Nona. What one of them didn't know about the flora, the fauna, the topography, and the geography of the region, the other one did.

  It was while we were on one of these hikes that Nona told me the story of an eccentric woman who once lived near her own home. As soon as I heard the tale, I knew I was listening to the kernel of a short story that I would write.

  And when I got home from hiking in Vermont, that's what I did. It seemed fitting to use a variation of a line from Robert Frost—that famous literary New Englander—as the title for my piece.

  Good Fences Aren't

  Always Enough

  Twice each year a neighborhood in the attractive old town of East Wingate managed to achieve perfection. Whenever this happened—or perhaps as an indication that it had happened—the Wingate Courier celebrated the fact with a significant spread of appropriately laudatory column inches dead in the center of its small-town pages, photos included. Citizens of East Wingate who wanted to better their social standing, their quality of life, or their circle of friends then tended to flock to that neighborhood eagerly, with the hope of picking up a piece of real estate there.

  Napier Lane was just the sort of place that could at any moment and in the right circumstances be named A Perfect Place to Live. It was very high on potential if not quite there in every respect. It had atmosphere provided by enormous lots, houses over a century old, oaks, maples and sycamores even older, sidewalks cracked with time and character, picket fences, and brick paths that wound through front yards lapping against the sort of friendly porches where neighbors gather on summer nights. If every house had not yet been restored by some young couple with a lot of energy and inclined to nostalgia, there was in Napier Lane's curves and dips an open promise that renovation would come to them all, given enough time.

  On the rare occasion that a house on Napier Lane came up for sale, the entire neighborhood held its breath to see who the buyer would be. If it was someone with money, the purchased house might join the ranks of those painted, glistening sisters who were raising the standard of living one domicile at a time. And if it was someone with easy access to that money and a profligate nature to boot, chances were that the renovation of the property in question might even occur quickly. For it had been the case that a family now and then had bought a house on Napier Lane with restoration and renovation in mind, only to discover upon embarking on the job how tedious and costly it actually was. So more than once, someone began the Augean project that's known as Restoring a Historic Property, but withi
n six months admitted defeat and raised the for sale sign of surrender without getting even within shouting distance of completion.

  Such was the situation at 1420. Its prior inhabitants had managed to get its exterior painted and its front and back yards cleared of the weeds and debris that tend to collect upon a property when its owners aren't hypervigilant, but that was the extent of it. The old house sat like Miss Havisham fifty years after the wedding that didn't happen: dressed to the nines externally but a ruin inside and languishing in a barren landscape of disappointed dreams. Literally everyone within sight of 1420 was anxious to have someone take on the house and set it to rights.

  Except Willow McKenna, that is. Willow, who lived next door, just wanted good neighbors. At thirty-four and trying to get pregnant with her third of what would ultimately be—some years hence—seven children, Willow hoped merely for a family who shared her values. These were simple enough: a man and a woman committed to their marriage who were loving parents to an assortment of moderately well behaved children. Race, color, creed, national origin, political affiliation, automotive inclination, taste in interior decoration… none of that mattered. She was just hopeful that whoever bought 1420 would be a positive addition to what was, in her case, a blessed life. A solid family represented that, one in which the dad went out to a white collar if not distinguished job, the mom remained at home and saw to the needs of her children, and the children themselves were imaginative but obedient, with evident respect for their elders, happy, and carrying no infectious diseases. The number of children didn't matter. The more the better, as far as Willow was concerned.

  Having grown up with no relations of her own but always clinging to the futile hope that one set of foster parents or another would actually want to adopt her, Willow had long made family her priority. When she'd married Scott McKenna, whom she'd known since her sophomore year in high school, Willow had set about making for herself what fate and a mother who'd abandoned her in a grocery store had long denied her. Jasmine came first. Max followed two years later. If all went according to plan, Cooper or Blythe would arrive next. And her own life, which had lately felt dark, cold, and cavernous with Max's entry into kindergarten, would once more stretch and fill and bustle, relieving the nagging press of anxiety that she'd been experiencing for the last three months.

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