Authors: Wendy Corsi Staub
Tags: #Fiction, #Thrillers, #Suspense, #General
The Last to Know
Wendy Corsi Staub
As always, for the three guys who give my life meaning:
Mark, Morgan, and Brody
And this time, for two women who showed me the profound depth of maternal love and who radiated courage in the face of breast cancer, a disease that strikes far too many, for too young:
In loving memory of my cherished mother,
Francella Corsi, and mother-in-law, Claire Staub.
The author is grateful to the following professionals who so graciously assisted in the research for this book:
Rachel Paradise, Joseph Burger, and Marian Corsi
ome on, now, don’t look so upset. You’re lucky, you know, Janey. ”
. . .
Jane comprehends the word through the fog of mind-numbing dread.
Yes, she thinks, dazed, she has always been lucky. How many times has she heard that over the years, from wistful classmates and envious friends, even her own sister?
“You’re so lucky, Jane, that you were born with those blond curls and big blue eyes . . . so lucky you can eat anything you want and look like that. . . .”
“You’re so lucky, Jane, that your family is rolling in money and you’ll never have to work. . . .”
“You’re so lucky, Jane, to have Owen. He’s crazy about you and your future is set. . . .”
What will he do when he comes home from work and finds that she still hasn’t returned from her afternoon run? Probably assume that she and Schuyler are at Starbucks with some of their Gymboree friends again, that she’s lost track of time, as she often does these days. . . .
But not after dark. She never stays out past dark.
When Owen comes home, she’s usually giving Schuyler her bath in the big marble tub in the master bathroom, which is more fun than the other tubs in the house, because Schuyler likes to see herself reflected in the mirrored walls. Or, if Owen misses the six forty-four out of Grand Central and takes a later train, he finds Jane in the nursery, singing softly and rocking the baby to sleep.
“Please . . .” Jane begs.
Begs for her life.
“No, Janey,” comes the firm reply. “Sorry, but this is the way it has to be.”
“But . . . why?” she manages through hammering teeth.
Her body is trembling violently now. She doesn’t dare turn her head, struggling to keep her balance on the narrow rock wall where she has been forced to sit, legs dangling over into space. Any movement can send her hurtling over the edge to her death on the distant jagged rocks edging the Hudson River below.
And she won’t look behind her, anyway. Can’t bear to see her precious baby, her little Schuyler, clutched in the arms of the familiar figure that suddenly loomed out of nowhere such a short time ago as she rounded a bend on the deserted jogging path that winds through the scenic park.
Though she was startled to see someone there, she wasn’t afraid. Not when she saw who it was.
She wasn’t afraid until she realized what was happening; understood that she’d somehow been naive, blind, never sensing the shocking truth.
Why didn’t she suspect that the most sinister of souls inhabited her safe, suburban world? That lurking close by, cloaked in a convincingly harmless facade, was a monster who happened to look just like everyone else, act just like everyone else, never betraying the slightest hint of evil . . . until now.
Now, when it’s too late.
“Look, you know why I have to do this, Janey.”
The nickname is spoken with mocking familiarity.
She feels sick. Dizzy. Like she’s going to faint.
No! Can’t do that. If you faint, you fall. If you fall . . .
“You know what you did, Janey. And now it’s time to pay.”
If you fall, you die.
“Jump, Janey. Just jump.”
“No . . .”
“If you don’t jump,” the voice says, with chilling calm, “I will drop her. Just as I said before.”
She feels movement behind her, sees from the corner of her eye the hands clutching her precious baby. They’re outstretched now, reaching toward the wall as if to make a sacrificial offering.
Schuyler wails, makes a sound like “Mama.”
The wail tears into Jane’s gut. She struggles not to fall apart, battles the overwhelming urge to turn around, to snatch her child from that deadly grasp.
It would be futile. She would lose her balance and go over the edge, maybe taking Schuyler with her.
“You promised you wouldn’t hurt her,” she says, finding her voice again, hearing the foreign infusion of hysteria in it. “You
“I did. And you know I won’t hurt her. Not unless it’s absolutely necessary. So. You’ll jump. We’ll even wave bye-bye to Mommy, right, Schuyler? Then I’ll put her right back into the jogging stroller and tuck her in all cozy with her blankie, just the way she was before. I’ll even push her back down to the path so that someone will find her more easily. I’ll do that for you, Janey. Okay? Consider it my parting gift. Now go ahead.”
“Oh, God . . .” Horror chokes Jane’s throat, snatches her voice again.
Is this actually going to happen?
Is this it?
She’s actually going to die?
“You’re lucky, Janey . . . not like the others. This isn’t nearly as . . . messy.”
She fights to stave back the panic as her thoughts whirl, struggling to find an escape, some shred of hope.
If another jogger happens to come along . . .
But she’s too far from the path now. There’s nothing back here but a tangle of trees and vines, and birds and squirrels, and the low rock wall that rims the western boundary of the park, with its sheer drop to the river below.
She won’t survive the fall.
Suicides never do.
They’ll find her water-bloated, broken body in the river, just as they’ve found others—mostly teenagers, dejected kids who left notes for broken-hearted families.
Will Owen believe that she jumped?
Will Schuyler grow up thinking that Mommy abandoned her?
“Just think. The others—they suffered, Janey.”
She can’t focus.
Can think of nothing but Schuyler. And Owen.
They need me.
Her hands grip the rough, crumbling stone wall.
Don’t look back.
Don’t look down.
“You won’t suffer like they did. A few seconds, and it’ll be all over. You won’t feel a thing.”
She opens her mouth to beg again for her life.
“Jump!” the voice barks abruptly. “Let’s go. I can’t wait here all day. Jump!”
“No . . . please . . . I can’t. . . .” She falters, her voice strangled with fear.
Not a sound but the brisk breeze stirring the trees.
Then, behind her, an ominous sigh.
“All right, then, Janey. If you won’t jump, I’ll send your daughter down before you. That’ll get you moving. You can try to land first and catch her, okay?”
She turns her head as a harsh chuckle assaults her ears and the meaning of those words filters through the haze to strike her full force.
Panic seizes her as she glimpses the hand again in her periphery, sees it clutching Schuyler’s chubby arm.
The baby is dangling by one arm, dangling over the edge.
The warbling wails turn to screams.
Her baby is screaming.
Jane must save her.
Save Schuyler. Do whatever you have to do. Anything. Don’t let anything happen to Schuyler. . . .
“I’m going to give you one last chance to jump, Janey, before I drop her.” The words are matter-of-fact, spoken loudly above the baby’s terrified howls.
OhmyGodohmyGodohmyGod . . .
Don’t look back.
Don’t look down.
“Schuyler,” she sobs, and then, with an agonizing shriek and a prayer—for her child, for her own soul—Jane pushes off with her hands and hurls herself over the edge, into space.
Falling . . .
Images swirl through her mind, a rapid-fire montage.
Her parents’ big Tudor-style house in Scarsdale . . .
Her horses, her dollhouse, her canopy bed . . .
Daddy, alive, handsome, getting out of his Rolls on the circular drive, stretching out his arms to her, picking her up, spinning her around . . .
Owen, young, grinning at her in his morning coat as she makes her way down the aisle of the flower-bedecked Presbyterian church on Richmond Street . . .
Their eight-bedroom Victorian on Harding Place with its detached three-car garage, and the nursery whose walls she had sponge-painted herself—a soft yellow because they hadn’t known if they were expecting a boy or a girl . . .
Schuyler, newborn, sticky with warm blood, squirming in her arms . . .
Jane Armstrong Kendall’s last thought, before her body is shattered on the cruel, jutting rocks, is that her luck has finally run out . . .
Just as she’s always known it would.
kay, guys, Mommy’s going to get dressed. I’ll be back in two seconds,” Tasha Banks calls over her shoulder as she deftly unlocks the child-safety gate at the bottom of the staircase in the front hall.
She swiftly fastens the latch again from the other side, then takes the carpeted steps two at a time.
She’s left them in the large family room at the back of the house.
Hunter, who is six, is cross-legged on the floor in front of the television, engrossed in a “Pocket Dragons” cartoon. He isn’t the one she’s worried about.
Victoria, who has just turned three, seems busy with her crayons at the table, but Tasha doesn’t entirely trust her. Just the other day she caught her hitting Max over the head with a plastic hammer.
“But Mommy, we’re playing workshop. I’m the tool guy and he’s supposed to be a nail,” Victoria had protested when Tasha snatched her helpless eleven-month-old from the floor and inspected his tender little head for damage.
I can leave them alone down there for three minutes, tops
, Tasha thinks, pausing to scoop a stray dirty, kid-sized sock from the hall floor.
When she brought Max home from the hospital last November, Hunter took the new arrival in stride, which was no surprise. He had been laid-back about everything from the moment he arrived in the world, and big brotherhood was no exception.
Though Tasha had taken pains to read up on sibling rivalry before she and Joel presented Hunter with a little sister shortly after his second birthday, he had been gentle, patient, and remarkably understanding of the fact that he now had to share Mommy and Daddy with Victoria. He had reacted the same way to Max. If Tasha was busy with the baby and he had to wait for something, he would occupy himself with a book or some blocks until she was able to turn her attention to him.
When Max came along last year, she was clearly dismayed. She refused to speak to Tasha the whole first day she was home from the hospital. Even after she thawed out a bit over the next few weeks, whenever Tasha sat down to nurse the baby, Victoria would invariably declare that she needed something.
If Tasha asked her to wait, she threw a tantrum.
Never, though, had she directed her anger toward Max. Only toward Tasha and Joel. The baby, she adored.
Or so we thought
, Tasha tells herself, sticking her head into the kids’ bathroom, tossing the sock into their overflowing hamper, and continuing on down the hall.
Last week, she barely caught Max before he struck his head on the comer of the coffee table after Victoria shoved him as he crept around it in his new walking shoes. Of course, the toddler had feigned innocence, claiming she was trying to hug him, not hurt him.
“She lied to me, Joel,” Tasha told her husband that night, still upset over the incident.
“Did you punish her?”
“I took away her Blues Clues videos for the rest of the week.”
“Cruel and unusual.” He grinned. “That’ll teach her.”
“But I don’t think she’s truly sorry. I don’t think she understands that she could really have hurt Max.”
“Sibling rivalry is a normal thing, Tasha. They’ll get over it. Besides, Max has a hard head. Nothing fazes him. He crawls into walls head-first and laughs.” Joel disappeared into his closet then, to hang up his suit, and Tasha sensed the conversation was over.
It’s frustrating, the way Joel lately seems more wrapped up in what’s going on at the office than in anything that happens at home.
Or maybe that’s just Tasha’s perception. Maybe she really is making a huge deal out of minor issues these days.
Joel accused her of that last night when she relayed to him, word for word, her confrontation with the cable company’s customer service representative after discovering a two-dollar overcharge on their monthly bill. She was thinking of writing a letter to the supervisor to complain about how she’d been treated.
“Was it resolved?” Joel interrupted her to ask.
“Yes, but that’s not the point. The woman acted as though I was asking her to go out of her way, when it was their mistake. Two dollars is two dollars.”
“But they credited our account right?”
“Then let it go.”
That was when he mentioned that she might just be blowing things out of proportion these days—not just about the customer service representative, but with other issues as well.
Her defenses went up immediately. “What kinds of issues?” she demanded.
Joel told her in a maddeningly offhand tone that it seemed that every night when he came home, she was ready to report some crisis or other—something one of the kids had done, or something around the house that needed fixing.
“It’s just that I don’t get home until after eight o’clock most nights and I’m exhausted by then, Tash, from a long day at the office and then riding the train an hour from Grand Central—”
“I’m tired, too!” she snapped back. “You think a day here with the kids isn’t exhausting?”
They didn’t even finish the argument. Victoria had shown up in her nightgown in the doorway, claiming a big purple monster with sharp teeth was hiding in her closet. Joel went off to tuck her back in. Tasha finished helping Hunter with his homework while Joel reheated some of the chili she had made for dinner and gobbled it down. By the time she put Hunter to bed and returned to the living room, her husband was snoring in the recliner in front of a Yankees playoff game.
She hurries into the master bedroom now and makes a face when she spots the unmade oak four-poster bed and clutter piling up on every surface. She barely had a chance to take a shower this morning before the kids were awake, running all over the place, needing her.
You’d think Joel could make the bed once in a while. But he never does. It doesn’t seem to bother him if it doesn’t get made.
Tasha flips on the television to see if she can catch a quick weather report. She’s planning to take Victoria and Max over to the playground at High Ridge Park after she drops off Hunter at school this morning, but it’s starting to look like rain.
She flips to channel four, tosses the remote on the bedside table, and begins hurriedly pulling the sheets and blankets up, smoothing them, then putting on the cream-and-rose-colored quilt with its double wedding-ring pattern. Joel bought it for her during a weekend trip to Pennsylvania Dutch Country the first year they were married. Every time she looks at it, she remembers how shocked she was when he picked it out.
“It’s pink,” she said, running her hands over the hand-stitched pattern.
“I know. You love pink.”
“But you don’t.”
“It’s okay. I love you,” he said, brushing her hair with his lips.
On television, Matt Lauer and Katie Couric are discussing upcoming segments and Ann Curry is about to do the news. That means the weather report won’t be on for a few more minutes. Tasha reaches over and presses the mute button on the remote so that she can hear what’s going on downstairs.
So far, silence, except for the faint drone of Hunter’s cartoon. She left Max sitting in his Exersaucer with several toys. Victoria seemed occupied with her Blue’s Clues coloring book, seated at a small table on the other side of the room.
But what if the minute Tasha left the room, Victoria decided to stir up some trouble with Max? Hunter is usually pretty good at keeping an eye on things, but not when the television is on.
Tasha tosses the heart-shaped throw pillows into place on the bed and hurries out into the hallway, leaning over the bannister. “What’s going on down there?”
“Is everything all right down there?”
“What’s Max doing?”
“Eating his rattle.”
“What’s Victoria doing?”
“Okay, I’ll be down in a minute. Hold down the fort, okay, buddy?”
“What fort?” comes the reply.
She smiles. Hunter takes everything literally.
“Just keep an eye on things, okay, Hunter?”
She hurries back into the master bedroom, picking up Joel’s pajama bottoms and T-shirt that are strewn on the floor by the closet. She puts them in the hamper in the blue-and-white-tiled master bathroom. It, too, is overflowing with laundry. She meant to get to it yesterday, but somehow the day flew by without completion of any of the tasks she hoped to accomplish. As usual.
Back in the bedroom, she opens the ivory pleated shade on the window opposite the bed and glances out. The sky is a milky, overcast shade of gray that looks more March than October.
The white-paned window overlooks the large, shady side yard bordered by a hedge of tall rhododendron bushes. They’ve been ravaged by the deer that frequently wander out of the woods that border the back of the property. Tasha’s glance takes in the bright patches of chrysanthemums in full bloom in her flower garden, the expensive wooden swing set she and Joel bought for the kids after he got his last promotion, the new green Ford Expedition parked at the edge of the driveway.
And there, in the far corner of the yard, is the kids’ vegetable garden. The deer have long since devoured the last of the tomatoes and beans, but the crowning glory remains: a giant pumpkin Hunter and Victoria grew from seed. After months of carefully tending their prize, which Tasha has kept protected with yards of deer-proof netting, the kids are planning to enter it in the pumpkin contest at the town’s annual autumn festival this weekend.
The view from the master bedroom also includes two other houses visible through the trees, both of them center-hall colonials like this one. The one occupied by the Bankses’ next-door neighbors, the Martins, is white with black shutters. So is the other, which belongs to the Leibermans across the street. The Banks home, however, is white with green shutters.
“Come on, Joel, let’s live on the edge,” Tasha had urged him in Home Depot on that Sunday afternoon two summers ago as he wondered, with characteristic caution, if they should go with green or stick with black when they repainted the house. “Let’s dare to be different.” She had picked up a paint brush and tickled his nose with the bristles. “Let’s push the envelope and go with green.”
“You’re making fun of me, Tash,” he accused.
“So? You made fun of me when I polished off the entire carton of Ben and Jerry’s last night,” she pointed out, poking him in the arm.
“Only because you looked so ridiculous, resting it on your belly and shoveling it in like you hadn’t eaten in months.”
“I’m pregnant,” she said, adding her familiar “I’m eating for two.”
came his usual reply, and she laughed with him.
God, it seems like ages since we’ve teased each other that way
, Tasha thinks now, turning away from the window. Joel is always so distant, wrapped up in work these days. And she’s so . . .
Of course. Three kids keep a person busy. But that’s not all she is. No, not just busy. More like . . . restless.
She sighs and glances at the television screen again. Al Roker is finally on, doing the weather. She turns up the volume and learns that the sun is going to shine later on and the high today is going to be in the mid-to-upper fifties. Not great, but not bad, either, for mid-October in the Northeast.
She opens a bureau drawer, notes that it’s nearly empty, and reminds herself that she really has to do the laundry.
She takes out a pair of Levi’s that she hasn’t worn in a while and puts them on, frowning when the zipper doesn’t glide up as easily as it should. It’s been almost a year since she had Max. Another few weeks and this tummy won’t officially be considered baby weight anymore—at least, not by her standards.
With Hunter, she gained thirty pounds and lost it all six months after he was born. With Victoria she gained forty pounds and it took her almost a year to lose it. But even then she got back into her favorite faded jeans and skimpy sun dresses, though nothing fit exactly as it used to.
This time, though, she gained fifty-five pounds, and she’s still carrying ten of them. Not that she’s been consciously trying to diet. And with three kids, who has time to exercise?
Of course, she didn’t diet or exercise the other two times, either. The weight just seemed to come off.
They were living in the city when she had Hunter, and she used to walk the twenty-five blocks down Third Avenue every morning to the publishing house where she was an executive editor acquiring mass-market fiction. She was so busy with her workload that when she actually had time for lunch, she usually just grabbed a banana or a cup of low-fat yogurt from the deli on the corner.
By the time Victoria came along, they had moved up here to Townsend Heights. She hadn’t gone back to work that time—it didn’t make sense. Her salary would barely make up for the cost of putting two children into day care or hiring a nanny at Westchester County’s sky-high rates. Joel was steadily climbing the ladder at his company and would soon make up for what they would lose financially if Tasha quit.
So she became a stay-at-home mom. Gladly.
She was so happy then, so incredibly busy and fulfilled with a newborn and a toddler, and with the house. The place seemed like a mansion after their cramped city apartment. Now that the passage of time has diminished the novelty, it certainly isn’t anything spectacular—particularly not to Tasha, who grew up in a big Victorian in Centerbrook, Ohio. Her childhood home, where her widowed mother still lives, is filled with angular little nooks, pocket doors, ornate moldings, curved archways, and leaded stained-glass windows.
The layout of the Bankses’ colonial is nearly identical to the other homes on Orchard Lane. The rooms, windows, and doors are all simple rectangles. On the first floor, the front door opens onto a ceramic-tiled small center hall with a living room on the right and a dining room on the left. A staircase leads straight up to the second floor, and tucked beneath it is a small half bath. Along the back of the house is an open kitchen-family-room space with a fireplace at one end and sliding glass doors leading out to a deck. On the second floor, three small bedrooms, a linen closet, and a bathroom open off a short hallway running along one side of the house, with a master bedroom and connecting bath at the far end.