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Authors: William Casey Moreton

Tags: #Mystery, #Suspense, #Thriller

The Stranger Beside You (4 page)

BOOK: The Stranger Beside You
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I sat up slowly.

I closed my eyes and listened as hard as I could.  The sounds of movement had stopped.  The house was silent again, so I opened my eyes and slowly turned my head, tuning my ears at various angles.  Still nothing.   

I took a deep breath.  Perhaps it was just my imagination, but my heart was still going full throttle.  Then I heard something crash to the floor and my blood turned to ice.

The sound had come from above me, so I looked at the ceiling.  There was a quick succession of footsteps somewhere upstairs, and I tried to gauge the direction of travel.  From the chopping block on the kitchen counter I selected a knife with a six-inch blade.  In the other hand I held the cordless telephone.  Both of my hands were shaking.

I crept through the kitchen.  There is a short hallway that leads to the laundry room, and from there a door opens into a mudroom attached to the garage.  I tiptoed barefoot past the washer and dryer.  The tile floor was cool. 

The sounds stopped again.  I stood for a long minute without blinking, my thumb poised on the number 9 on the cordless phone, ready for action, then I jumped at the sound of the garage door opening, and instinctively retreated a few steps and stood with my back flat against the wall behind the door to the mudroom in case the intruder came barging through. 

I went out and found the garage door open.  The only car in the garage was Tom’s five-year-old Lexus.  My Volvo was still parked in the driveway.  There was no one there, but the door to the attic was open, the ladder having been unfolded from the ceiling to the garage floor.  My flesh prickled.  Someone had been up there since before I’d come home.

I grabbed a flashlight from Tom’s tool bench and reluctantly climbed the ladder up to the attic to have a look.  I stood on the third or fourth rung from the top, leaned in and clicked the black button on the flashlight.  The beam of light cut a narrow swath through the dusty blackness.  The attic looked like ninety-percent of all attics in North America.  It was full of boxes of Christmas decorations and all variety of other crap stashed away and mostly forgotten.  I couldn’t see much, but I sure as hell wasn’t going any further up.  If anyone was still up there, I had no intention of introducing myself.

I hurried down as quickly as possible and ran inside and dialed 911.

•  •  •

Rosemary Gladwell had lost all sense of time.

She had made a heroic attempt at first to keep track of the passage of hours and days but had given up weeks ago.  After what she had believed to be her third full day in total darkness, she’d realized the effort to keep track was futile and might only serve to drive her mad.  Besides, the man with the beard and the hat intentionally varied the time of day he brought her meals so that not even those intervals could be measured or predicted.

The man with the beard had tied her up in her own basement and left her in the dark.  Rosemary didn’t have a single clue about who he was or what he wanted.  Her last memory of daylight had been when he rang the doorbell and she invited him inside.  He was with the cable company, he’d said, and needed to check the strength of her signal at the box connected to her television.  Rosemary had been all too happy to cooperate because her cable television was just about her only friend left in the world.  Without her TV she could barely think of a reason to get out of bed in the morning.  Inviting the stranger into her home had been a huge mistake.  He’d asked for a glass of water, and when she turned her back he grabbed her.  He put a cloth over her nose and mouth that reeked of chemicals, and Rosemary passed out within seconds.  She awoke to total darkness, bound by a heavy cord and plastic zip-ties.  For hours she wondered where he had taken her. The man had strapped her down to an old rusted bed frame in a locked room.  Only after what had felt like days did the man reappear, bringing her something to eat.  When he flicked the wall switch to turn on the light, Rosemary was stunned to discover that he had simply moved her down to the basement. 

The man let her sit up to eat.  He would stand and wait impatiently until she finished and then he would tie her back down, take her plate, turn out the light, lock the door, and again leave her alone with only the darkness and her thoughts to keep her company.

Rosemary was seventy-years-old.  She had told the man about her medication and he served the pills with her meals.  She was so scared, but he had not harmed her in any way other than holding her captive in her basement, bound to the old bed frame.  He didn’t speak, and her one memory of his voice from the afternoon when he rung the doorbell had faded away weeks ago.

She had screamed loudly at first when she awoke to the darkness.  She had screamed as loudly as she could, screamed until her throat and lungs burned, but the screams had stopped when she realized no one could hear her.

•  •  •

A black and white showed up and parked behind the Volvo.  They were local cops, bored and uninterested in my tale of the intruder.  They asked questions, took some notes, and went methodically through the house to make sure that there was no longer any possibility of someone lurking in the shadows.

One of the cops was comically tall and thin.  I immediately named him Lurch.  His partner had a baby face, as if he’d only recently graduated junior high school.  They were straight out of central casting.  They climbed into the attic, shoving boxes around, complaining between themselves about the dust and the scratchy fiberglass insulation.  Nothing up there, they said, and they were back down the ladder in three minutes.

Lurch had a huge black flashlight.  He roamed the front yard, moving the cone of white light from side to side across the grass, I assume looking for clues or something.  He went about his work with all the enthusiasm of Grandpa Simpson.  The younger cop was the talker.  He asked loads of questions, scribbling my answers in great detail on a little notepad.

I reluctantly recounted the events of earlier that morning, with the feds, and later coming home to find the front door unlocked.  The little guy looked at me through squinty eyes.

“Your husband was arrested?”

“It was a misunderstanding.”

“Uh huh.”  He worked more on his notes.

“What if the intruder comes back?” I asked.

He shrugged.  “I wouldn’t worry too much about that.  Odds are you won’t be bothered again.  Whoever it was, you scared him off, but we’ll take a quick look around the neighborhood.  I’ve already been on the radio and there hasn’t been any other report of a prowler in the area tonight.  I’d suggest you get some sleep, Mrs. Nelson.”

“How am I supposed to sleep knowing there was someone in my attic?”

Before they left, I insisted they make another quick sweep of the house.  They were less than enthusiastic.  I stood alone at the window in the dining room at the front of the house and watched them drive away.  Again the house fell into eerie silence. 

I checked every door, every window.  I couldn’t relax without knowing the place was locked down tighter than Fort Knox.  The truth is, I felt stupid.  The two officers had found no evidence of a prowler.  Had I simply imagined it all?  Maybe Tom had left the ladder to the attic down.  Perhaps he had gone up to look for something earlier in the evening and forgotten to put it back.  Anything was possible.  I mean, I’ve spent half my life hearing strange sounds at night.  I’m not a deep sleeper and I wake at a change in air pressure.  It freaks Tom out.  I mostly chalk it up to a motherly thing.

I poured another glass of wine and sat on the sofa.  The knife and both telephones were on the coffee table.  There would be no more sleep tonight.  All I could do was pray for sunrise.  I had every reason to believe that Tom would be home by lunch.  Optimistic, I know, but I had to cling to that hope.  I sat and waited, wide-eyed and terrified, listening to all the sounds that go bump in the night, wondering who had been in the attic.

 

 

 

5

 

Rosemary Gladwell heard him coming down the stairs.  She had been awake for what felt like a couple of hours.  She turned her head in the direction of his footsteps.  He turned the key in the lock and turned on the light.

He set her meal on the overturned cardboard box beside the bed frame and stared down at her.  He always wore dark sunglasses.  He nodded at the plate of food.  She finished her meal and drank the last of the water.  She dreaded the return of the darkness.  The man with the beard took the plate, killed the light, and locked the door.  Then she listened to his heavy footsteps as he climbed the stairs leading up from her basement.

•  •  •

The man with the beard rinsed the plate and the drinking glass at the sink in the dark.   He rarely turned on any lights in Rosemary Gladwell’s home.  He removed the sunglasses and set them on the kitchen table and stood in the stillness of the old woman’s home and took a moment to catch his breath.  He was still sweating.

In the upstairs bedroom, he walked to the window that faced north over the neighborhood and spread the drapes apart about eighteen inches.  It was still dark outside, but dawn would be rolling around soon.  A folding table stood next to the window against the wall.  Most of his equipment was on the table.  He went to one corner of the room and lifted his telescope, carrying it to the window.  He spread the tripod legs and aimed the lens through the part in the drapes.  He looked through it and adjusted the dial until the Nelson home slowly came into focus.  He snapped a pair of padded earphones over his head and plugged the jack into the output receptacle on the laptop computer open on the table.  The software on the screen showed a flourish of sound waves.  In recent weeks he’d spent many hours in the dark in this room listening to the sounds and voices inside the Nelson home.

He had enjoyed the earlier activity, watching those pathetic cops blunder around looking for clues.  What a joke, especially the tall one.  The man with the beard knew he could have very easily killed them both if he had stayed.  They were lucky.  So was Brynn Nelson, because he could have killed her too.

The presence of the FBI was what bothered him.  It was an unexpected development.  He needed to know exactly what they had taken from the house.  He had watched until they left and then had snooped around as quickly and thoroughly as possible until Brynn returned.  The search had left him a little worried.  He had documented all the events of the night in the spiral notebook he’d used from the day he’d first entered Rosemary Gladwell’s home.  Every detail had been logged and dated.

The Nelson home was quiet now.  Perhaps she had gone back to sleep.

The man with the beard was patient.  This was his job and he had nowhere better to be, so he simply waited, staring through the lens at the Nelson home, watching for the next flourish of activity, eager for his next glimpse of the lovely Brynn Nelson.

 

 

 

6

 

Clive Rozzell didn’t believe in marriage.  His mother had been a drunk and a tramp, and his father had used her as a punching bag.  They were divorced by the time young Clive learned to ride a bicycle.  The court made him choose between the two.  He picked his father because his father was employed.  His mother died ten years later of liver failure and his father married and divorced twice more before sticking a shotgun in his mouth when Clive was seventeen. 

So Clive had little use for a bride of his own.  Instead, he believed in recreational sex and short-term girlfriends.  When the phone rang shortly after sunrise, he awoke to find a gorgeous brunette in bed with him.  Her name was Sharon or Sherri, or something similar.  She groaned as she tugged the bedspread over her head.

Clive stuck out an arm, blindly groping for the nightstand where he’d dropped his cell phone as he’d snuck under the covers a few hours earlier.  He’d slept for three or four hours, tops. 

He ignored the caller ID.

“Rozzell,” he groaned.

“Good morning, this is Special Agent Chapman.  I hope I didn’t wake you,”

Clive made no attempt to pry his eyes open.

“No worries.  I was on the treadmill.  I’m big on cardio this time of day.”

“Tom Nelson made a run for it.”

It took a second for the message to register with Clive’s sleep-fogged brain,  then his eyes flashed open.

“What do you mean?”

“He attacked one of my agents and choked a cop, then attempted to escape on foot.”

Clive sat up and dropped both feet to the floor.  The brunette didn’t stir.

“Where is he now?”

“It’s best if you just come down here as soon as possible.  I’ll have more to tell when you get here.”

“I’m on my way out the door,” Clive lied, struggling to pull on a pair of pants using only one hand.  “Where are you?”

“The city morgue,” Chapman said.

•  •  •

I teach 2
nd
grade. 

I’ve taught at the same private school in New Jersey my entire career.  Most of that time I’ve had the same classroom.  There is something about the security of the familiar that I can’t let go of.  Tom does very well in banking, even in this lousy economy, well enough that I’ve never actually
had
to work, but I love the structure of employment.  A lot of it boils down to the notion that I’m contributing, giving back, helping to educate the next generation.  But beyond that, I simply don’t want to look back on my life when I’m a hundred years old and realize that the majority of my time and energy consisted of doing laundry, cooking dinner, and making grocery lists.  Besides, I love the kids and love watching them learn.  I live for those light bulb moments where something finally breaks through and they get it.  You can’t put a price tag on that.  There is something invigorating about those hungry young minds and eager faces, the Crayola artwork and Thanksgiving turkeys traced from tiny hands.  All of these reasons, and many more, are why I teach.  I could never give it up.

This is my twelfth year at Kingston-Pratt, and I can count the number of school days I’ve missed on one hand.  I’ve had the flu once or twice, and there have been funerals and such over the years, but I take my job seriously and want my attendance to set a good example for my students.  Today, however, I would not be in class. 

BOOK: The Stranger Beside You
7.92Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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