About the Author

Linwood Barclay

Linwood Barclay, a former columnist for the Toronto Star, is the internationally bestselling author of seven critically acclaimed novels, including Fear the Worst, Too Close to Home, and No Time for Goodbye, which has been optioned for film. He lives near Toronto with his wife and has two grown children.

Books by this Author
Broken Promise

Broken Promise

A Promise Falls Novel
edition:Hardcover
also available: Paperback Paperback Paperback
tagged : thrillers
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Excerpt

TWO

David

A couple of hours before all hell broke loose, I was in bed, awake since five, pondering the circumstances that had returned me, at the age of forty-one, to my childhood home.

It wasn’t that the room was exactly the same as when I’d moved out almost twenty years ago. The Ferrari poster no longer hung over the blue-striped wallpaper, and the kit I built of the starship Enterprise—hardened amberlike droplets of glue visible on the hull—no longer sat on the dresser. But it was the same dresser. And it was the same wallpaper. And this was the same single bed.

Sure, I’d spent the night in here a few times over the years, as a visitor. But to be back here as a resident? To be living here? With my parents, and my son, Ethan?

God, what a fucking state of affairs. How had it come to this?

It wasn't that I didn't know the answer to that question. It was complicated, but I knew.

The descent had begun five years ago, after my wife, Jan, passed away. A sad story, and not one worth rehashing here. After half a decade, there were things I'd had no choice but to put behind me. I'd grown into my role of single father. I was raising Ethan, nine years old now, on my own. I'm not saying that made me a hero. I'm just trying to explain how things unfolded.

Wanting a new start for Ethan and myself, I quit my job as a reporter for the Promise Falls Standard-not that hard a decision, considering the lack of interest by the paper's management in actually covering anything approaching news-and accepted an editing position on the city desk at the Boston Globe. The money was better, and Boston had a lot to offer Ethan: the children's museum, the aquarium, Faneuil Hall Marketplace, the Red Sox, the Bruins. If there was a better place for a boy and his dad, I couldn't think where it might be. But ...

There's always a but.

But most of my duties as an editor took place in the evening, after reporters had handed in their stories. I could see Ethan off to school, sometimes even pop by and take him to lunch, since I didn't have to be at the paper until three or four in the afternoon. But that meant most nights I did not have dinner with my son. I wasn't there to make sure Ethan spent more time on his homework than on video games. I wasn't there to keep him from watching countless episodes of shows about backwoods duck hunters or airheaded wives of equally airheaded sports celebrities or whatever the latest celebration of American ignorance and/or wretched excess happened to be. But the really troubling thing was, I just wasn't there. A lot of being a dad amounts to being around, being available. Not being at work.

Who was Ethan supposed to talk to if he had a crush on some girl-perhaps unlikely at nine, but you never knew-or needed advice on dealing with a bully, and it was eight o'clock at night? Was he supposed to ask Mrs. Tanaka? A nice woman, no doubt about it, who was happy to make money five nights a week looking after a young boy now that her husband had passed away. But Mrs. Tanaka wasn't much help when it came to math questions. She didn't feel like jumping up and down with Ethan when the Bruins scored in overtime. And it was pretty hard to persuade her to take up a controller and race a few laps around a virtual Grand Prix circuit in one of Ethan's video games.

By the time I stepped wearily through the door-usually between eleven and midnight, and I never went out for drinks after the paper was put to bed because I knew Mrs. Tanaka wanted to return to her own apartment eventually-Ethan was usually asleep. I had to resist the temptation to wake him, ask how his day had gone, what he'd had for supper, whether he'd had any problems with his homework, what he'd watched on TV.

How often had I fallen into bed myself with an aching heart? Telling myself I was a bad father? That I'd made a stupid mistake leaving Promise Falls? Yes, the Globe was a better paper than the Standard, but any extra money I was making was more than offset by what was going into Mrs. Tanaka's bank account, and a high monthly rent.

My parents offered to move to Boston to help out, but I wanted no part of that. My dad, Don, was in his early seventies now, and Arlene, my mother, was only a couple of years behind him. I was not going to uproot them, especially after a recent scare Dad put us all through. A minor heart attack. He was okay now, getting his strength back, taking his meds, but the man was not up to a move. Maybe one day a seniors' residence in Promise Falls, when the house became too much for him and Mom to take care of, but moving to a big city a couple of hundred miles away more than three hours if there was traffic-was not in the cards.

So when I heard the Standard was looking for a reporter, I swallowed my pride and made the call.

I felt like I'd eaten a bucket of Kentucky Fried Crow when I called the managing editor and said, "I'd like to come back."

It was amazing there was actually a position. As newspaper revenues declined, the Standard, like most papers, was cutting back wherever it could. As staff left, they weren't replaced. But the Standard was down to half a dozen people, a number that included reporters, editors, and photographers. (Most reporters were now "two-way," meaning they could write stories and take pictures, although in reality, they were more like "four-way" or "six-way," since they also filed for the online edition, did podcasts, tweeted you name it, they did it. It wouldn't be long before they did home delivery to the few subscribers who still wanted a print edition.) Two people had left in the same week to pursue nonjournalistic endeavors-one went to public relations, or "the dark side," as I had once thought of it, and the other became a veterinarian's assistant-so the paper could not provide its usual inadequate coverage of goings-on in Promise Falls. (Little wonder that many people had, for years, been referring to the paper as the Substandard.)

It would be a shitty place to go back to. I knew that. It wouldn't be real journalism. It would be filling the space between the ads, at least, what ads there were. I'd be cranking out stories and rewriting press releases as quickly as I could type them.

But on the upside, I'd be back to working mostly days. I'd be able to spend more time with Ethan, and when I did have evening obligations, Ethan's grandparents, who loved him beyond measure, could keep an eye on him.

The Standard's managing editor offered me the job. I gave my notice to the Globe and my landlord and moved back to Promise Falls. I did move in with my parents, but that was to be a stopgap measure. My first job would be to find a house for Ethan and myself. All I could afford in Boston was a rented apartment, but back here, I'd be able to get us a proper home. Real estate prices were in free fall.

Then everything went to shit at one fifteen p.m. on Monday, my first day back at the Standard.

I'd returned from interviewing some folks who were petitioning for a crosswalk on a busy street before one of their kids got killed, when the publisher, Madeline Plimpton, came into the newsroom.

"I have an announcement," she said, the words catching in her throat. "We won't be publishing an edition tomorrow."

That seemed odd. The next day was not a holiday.

"And we won't be publishing the day after that," Plimpton said. "It's with a profound sense of sadness that I tell you the Standard is closing."

She said some more things. About profitability, and the lack thereof. About the decline in advertising, and classifieds in particular. About a drop in market share, plummeting readership. About not being able to find a sustainable business model.

And a whole lot of other shit.

Some staff started to cry. A tear ran down Plimpton's cheek, which, to give her the benefit of the doubt, was probably genuine.

I was not crying. I was too fucking angry. I had quit the goddamn Boston Globe.I'd walked away from a decent, well-paying job to come back here. As I went past the stunned managing editor, the man who'd hired me, on my way out of the newsroom, I said, "Good to know you're in the loop."

Out on the sidewalk, I got out my cell and called my former editor in Boston. Had the job been filled? Could I return?

"We're not filling it, David," he said. "I'm sorry."

So now here I was, living with my parents.

No wife.

No job.

No prospects.

Loser.

It was seven. Time to get up, have a quick shower, wake up Ethan, and get him ready for school.

I opened the door to his room-it used to be a sewing room for Mom, but she'd cleared her stuff out when we moved in and said, "Hey, pal. Time to get cracking."

He was motionless under the covers, which obscured all of him but the topsy-turvy blond hair atop his head.

"Rise and shine!" I said.

He stirred, rolled over, pulled down the bedspread enough to see me. "I don't feel good," he whispered. "I don't think I can go to school."

I came up alongside the bed, leaned over, and put my hand to his forehead. "You don't feel hot."

"I think it's my stomach," he said.

"Like the other day?" My son nodded. "That turned out to be nothing," I reminded him.

"I think this might be different." Ethan let out a small moan.

"Get up and dressed and we'll see how you are then." This had been becoming a pattern the last couple of weeks. Whatever ailment was troubling him, it certainly hadn't been troubling him on weekends, when he could down four hot dogs in ten minutes, and had more energy than everyone else in this house combined. Ethan didn't want to go to school, and so far I'd been unable to get him to tell me why.

My parents, who believed sleeping in was staying in bed past five thirty-I'd heard them getting up as I'd stared at that dark ceiling-were already in the kitchen when I made my entrance. They'd have both had breakfast by this time, and Dad, on his fourth coffee by now, was sitting at the kitchen table, still trying to figure out how to read the news on an iPad tablet, which Mom had bought for him after the Standard stopped showing up at their door every morning.

He was stabbing at the device with his index finger hard enough to knock it off its stand.

"For God's sake, Don," she said, "you're not trying to poke its eye out. You just tap it lightly."

"I hate this thing," he said. "Everything's jumping around all over the place."

Seeing me, Mom adopted the excessively cheerful tone she always used when things were not going well. "Hello!" she said. "Sleep well?"

"Fine," I lied.

"I just made a fresh pot," she said. "Want a cup?"

"I can manage."

"David, did I tell you about that girl at the checkout at the Walgreens? What was her name? It'll come to me. Anyway, she's cute as a button and she's split up with her husband and-"

"Mom, please."

She was always on the lookout, trying to find someone for me. It was time, she liked to say. Ethan needed a mother. I'd grieved long enough, she was forever reminding me.

I wasn't grieving.

I'd had six dates in the last five years, with six different women. Slept with one. That was it. Losing Jan, and the circumstances around her death, had made me averse to commitment, and Mom should have understood that.

"I'm just saying," she persisted, "that I think she'd be pretty receptive if you were to ask her out. Whatever her name is. Next time we're in there together, I'll point her out."

Dad spoke up. "For God's sake, Arlene, leave him alone. And come on. He's got a kid and no job. That doesn't exactly make him a great prospect."

"Good to have you in my corner, Dad," I said.

He made a face, went back to poking at his tablet. "I don't know why the hell I can't get an honest-to-God goddamn paper to my door. Surely there are still people who want to read an actual paper."

"They're all old," Mom told him.

"Well, old people are entitled to the news," he said.

I opened the fridge, rooted around until I'd found the yogurt Ethan liked, and a jar of strawberry jam. I set them on the counter and brought down a box of cereal from the cupboard.

"They can't make money anymore," Mom told him. "All the classifieds went to craigslist and Kijiji. Isn't that right, David?"

I said, "Mmm." I poured some Cheerios into a bowl for Ethan, who I hoped would be down shortly. I'd wait till he showed before pouring on milk and topping it with a dollop of strawberry yogurt. I dropped two slices of white Wonder bread, the only kind my parents had ever bought, into the toaster.

My mother said, "I just put on a fresh pot. Would you like a cup?"

Dad's head came up.

I said, "You just asked me that."

Dad said, "No, she didn't."

I looked at him. "Yes, she did, five seconds ago."

"Then"-with real bite in his voice-"maybe you should answer her the first time so she doesn't have to ask you twice."

Before I could say anything, Mom laughed it off. "I'd forget my head if it wasn't screwed on."

"That's not true," Dad said. "I'm the one who lost his goddamn wallet. What a pain in the ass it was getting that all sorted out."

Mom poured some coffee into a mug and handed it to me with a smile. "Thanks, Mom." I leaned in and gave her a small kiss on her weathered cheek as Dad went back to stabbing at the tablet.

"I wanted to ask," she said to me, "what you might have on for this morning."

"Why? What's up?"

"I mean, if you have some job interviews lined up, I don't want to interfere with that at all or-"

"Mom, just tell me what it is you want."

"I don't want to impose," she said. "It's only if you have time."

"For God's sake, Mom, just spit it out."

"Don't talk to your mother that way," Dad said.

"I'd do it myself, but if you were going out, I have some things I wanted to drop off for Marla."

Marla Pickens. My cousin. Younger than me by a decade.

Daughter of Mom's sister, Agnes. "Sure, I can do that."

"I made up a chili, and I had so much left over, I froze some of it, and I know she really likes my chili, so I froze a few single servings in some Glad containers. And I picked her up a few other things. Some Stouffer's frozen dinners. They won't be as good as homemade, but still. I don't think that girl is eating. It's not for me to comment, but I don't think Agnes is looking in on her often enough. And the thing is, I think it would be good for her to see you. Instead of us old people always dropping by. She's always liked you."

"Sure."

"Ever since this business with the baby, she just hasn't been right."

"I know," I said. "I'll do it." I opened the refrigerator. "You got any bottles of water I can put with Ethan's lunch?"

Dad uttered an indignant "Ha!" I knew where this was going. I should have known better than to have asked. "Biggest scam in the world, bottled water. What comes out of the tap is good enough for anybody. This town's water is fine, and I should know. Only suckers pay for it. Next thing you know, they'll find a way to make you pay for air. Remember when you didn't have to pay for TV? You just had an antenna, watched for nothing. Now you have to pay for cable. That's the way to make money. Find a way to make people pay for something they're getting now for nothing."

Mom, oblivious to my father's rant, said, "I think Marla's

spending too much time alone, that she needs to get out, do things to take her mind off what happened, to-"

"I said I'd do it, Mom."

"I was just saying," she said, the first hint of an edge entering her voice, "that it would be good if we all made an effort where she's concerned."

Dad, not taking his eyes off the screen, said, "It's been ten months, Arlene. She's gotta move on."

Mom sighed. "Of course, Don, like that's something you just get over. Walk it off, that's your solution to everything."

"She's gone a bit crackers, if you ask me." He looked up. "Is there more coffee?"

"I just said I made a fresh pot. Now who's the one who isn't listening?" Then, like an afterthought, she said to me, "When you get there, remember to just identify yourself. She always finds that helpful."

"I know, Mom."

"You seemed to get your cereal down okay," I said to Ethan once we were in the car. Ethan was running behind-dawdling deliberately, I figured, hoping I'd believe he really was sick-so I offered to drop him off at school instead of making him walk.

"I guess," he said.

"There something going on?"

He looked out his window at the passing street scene. "Nope." "Everything okay with your teacher?"

"Yup."

"Everything okay with your friends?"

"I don't have any friends," he said, still not looking my way.

I didn't have a ready answer for that. "I know it takes time, moving to a new school. But aren't there some of the kids still around that you knew before we went to Boston?"

"Most of them are in a different class," Ethan said. Then, with a hint of accusation in his voice: "If I hadn't moved to Boston I'd probably still be in the same class with them." Now he looked at me. "Can we move back there?"

That was a surprise. He wanted to return to a situation where I was rarely home at night? Where he hardly ever saw his grandparents?

"No, I don't see that happening."

Silence. A few seconds went by, then: "When are we going to have our own house?"

"I've gotta find a job first, pal." "You got totally screwed over."

I shot him a look. He caught my eye, probably wanting to see whether I was shocked.

"Don't use that kind of language," I said. "You start talking like that around me, then you'll forget and do it front of Nana." His grandmother and grandfather had always been Nana and Poppa to him.

"That's what Poppa said. He told Nana that you got screwed over. When they stopped making the newspaper just after you got there."

"Yeah, well, I guess I did. But I wasn't the only one. Everybody was fired. The reporters, the pressmen, everyone. But I'm looking for something. Anything."

If you looked up "shame" in the dictionary, surely one definition should be: having to discuss your employment situation with your nine-year-old.

"I guess I didn't like being with Mrs. Tanaka every night," Ethan said. "But when I went to school in Boston, nobody ..."

"Nobody what?"

"Nothin'." He was silent another few seconds, and then said, "You know that box of old things Poppa has in the basement?" "The entire basement is full of old things." I almost added,

Especially when my dad is down there.

"That box, a shoe box? That has stuff in it that was his dad's? My great-grandfather? Like medals and ribbons and old watches and stuff like that?"

"Okay, yeah, I know the box you mean. What about it?"

"You think Poppa checks that box every day?"

I pulled the car over to the curb half a block down from the school. "What on earth are you talking about?"

"Never mind," he said. "It doesn't matter."

Ethan dragged himself out of the car without saying good-bye and headed in the direction of the school like a dead man walking.

Marla Pickens lived in a small one-story house on Cherry Street. From what I knew, her parents-Aunt Agnes and her husband, Gill-owned the house and paid the mortgage on it, but Marla struggled to pay the property taxes and utilities with what money she brought in. Having spent a career in newspapers, and still having some regard for truth and accuracy, I didn't have much regard for how Marla made her money these days. She'd been hired by some Web firm to write bogus online reviews. A renovation company seeking to rehabilitate and bolster its Internet reputation would engage the services of Surf-Rep, which had hundreds of freelancers who went online to write fictitious laudatory revtews.

Marla had once shown me one she'd written for a roofing company in Austin, Texas. "A tree hit our house and put a goodsize hole in the roof. Marchelli Roofing came within the hour, fixed the roof, and reshingled it, and all for a very reasonable cost. I cannot recommend them highly enough."

Marla had never been to Austin, did not know anyone at Marchelli Roofing, and had never, in her life, hired a contractor of any kind to do anything.

"Pretty good, huh?" she'd said. "It's kind of like writing a really, really short story."

I didn't have the energy to get into it with her at the time.

I took the bypass to get from one side of town to the other, passing under the shadow of the Promise Falls water tower, a ten-story structure that looked like an alien mother ship on stilts.

When I got to Marla's, I pulled into the driveway beside her faded red, rusting, mid-nineties Mustang. I opened the rear hatch of my Mazda 3 and grabbed two reusable grocery bags Mom had filled with frozen dinners. I felt a little embarrassed doing it, wondering whether Marla would be insulted that her aunt seemed to believe she was too helpless to make her own meals, but what the hell. If it made Mom happy ...

Heading up the walk, I noticed weeds and grass coming up between the cracks in the stone.

I mounted the three steps to the door, switched all the bags to my left hand, and, as I rapped on it with my fist, noticed a smudge on the door frame.

The whole house needed painting or, failing that, a good power-washing, so the smudge, which was at shoulder height and looked like a handprint, wasn't that out of place. But something about it caught my eye.

It looked like smeared blood. As if someone had swatted the world's biggest mosquito there.

I touched it tentatively with my index finger and found it dry. When Marla didn't answer the door after ten seconds, I knocked again. Five seconds after that, I tried turning the knob.

Unlocked.

I swung it wide enough to step inside and called out, "Marla? It's Cousin David!"

Nothing.

"Marla? Aunt Arlene wanted me to drop off a few things. Homemade chili, some other stuff. Where are you?"

I stepped into the L-shaped main room. The front half of the house was a cramped living room with a weathered couch, a couple of faded easy chairs, a flat-screen TV, and a coffee table supporting an open laptop in sleep mode that Marla had probably been using to say some nice things about a plumber in Poughkeepsie. The back part of the house, to the right, was the kitchen. Off to the left was a short hallway with a couple of bedrooms and a bathroom.

As I closed the door behind me, I noticed a fold-up baby stroller tucked behind it, in the closed position.

"What the hell?" I said under my breath.

I thought I heard something. Down the hall. A kind of ... mewing? A gurgling sound?

A baby. It sounded like a baby. You might think, seeing a stroller by the door, that wouldn't be all that shocking.

But here, at this time, you'd be wrong.

"Marla?"

I set the bags down on the floor and moved across the room. Started down the hall.

At the first door I stopped and peeked inside. This was probably supposed to be a bedroom, but Marla had turned it into a

landfill site-disused furniture, empty cardboard boxes, rolls of carpet, old magazines, outdated stereo components. Marla appeared to be an aspiring hoarder.

I moved on to the next door, which was dosed. I turned the knob and pushed. "Marla, you in here? You okay?"

The sound I'd heard earlier became louder.

It was, in fact, a baby. Nine months to a year old, I guessed. Not sure whether it was a boy or girl, although it was wrapped in a blue blanket.

What I'd heard were feeding noises. The baby was sucking contentedly on a rubber nipple, its tiny fingers attempting to grip the plastic feeding bottle.

Marla held the bottle in one hand, cradling the infant in her other arm. She was seated in a cushioned chair in the corner of the bedroom. On the bed, bags of diapers, baby clothes, a container of wipes.

"Marla?"

She studied my face and whispered, "I heard you call out, but I couldn't come to the door. And I didn't want to shout. I think Matthew's nearly asleep."

I stepped tentatively into the room. "Matthew?"

Marla smiled, nodded. "Isn't he beautiful?"

Slowly, I said, "Yes. He is." A pause, then: "Who's Matthew, Marla?"

"What do you mean?" Marla said, cocking her head in puzzlement. "Matthew is Matthew."

"What I mean ... Who does Matthew belong to? Are you doing some babysitting for someone?"

Marla blinked. "Matthew belongs to me, David. Matthew's my baby."

I cleared a spot and sat on the edge of the bed, close to my cousin. "And when did Matthew arrive, Marla?"

"Ten months ago," she said without hesitation. "On the twelfth of July."

"But ... I've been over here a few times in the last ten months, and this is the first chance I've had to meet him. So I guess I'm a little puzzled."

"It's hard ... to explain," Marla said. "An angel brought him to me."

"I need a little more than that," I said softly.

"That's all I can say. It's like a miracle."

"Marla, your baby-"

"I don't want to talk about that," she whispered, turning her head away from me, studying the baby's face.

I pressed on gently, as if I were slowly driving onto a rickety bridge I feared would give way beneath me. "Marla, what happened to you ... and your baby ... was a tragedy. We all felt so terrible for you."

Ten months ago. It had been a sad time for everyone, but for Marla it had been devastating.

She lightly touched a finger to Matthew's button nose. "You are so adorable," she said.

"Marla, I need you to tell me whose baby this really is." I hesitated. "And why there's blood on your front door."

From the eBook edition.

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Escape
Excerpt

The van was flying.
Jeff Conroy stared out the window, nose to the glass, breathless. Seconds earlier, they’d been driving along on solid ground, but now their rusty old van was sailing through the sky.
The road was so far below that it looked like a snake winding its way through the grass. Except those weren’t blades of grass. They were trees. And those weren’t little model houses or toy cars like you’d find on a train set. They were the real thing.
As amazing as it might seem to be in a van that could fly, Jeff was not enjoying the ride. He was scared, and feeling more than a little sick to his stomach as the vehicle swayed back and forth through the air.
The van continued to sail along gracefully, but the view out the windows was partially obscured by the thick black magnetic straps that clung to the van’s metal body. They led up to the large helicopter above, and had been used to lift the vehicle off the road.
Harry Green, sitting at the now totally useless steering wheel, glanced back helplessly at Jeff, who was in the middle of the van, next to his dog Chipper.
“What are we going to do, Chipper?” Jeff shouted over the noise of the rotating chopper blades as he looked at the ground far below.
Chipper did not know. Chipper had only just woken up.

Five minutes ago, before their van had been tracked down by The Institute, Chipper had been dreaming.
Even though there were almost no other dogs like Chipper on the entire planet, he still resembled the most common of mutts in at least one respect.When he slept, he dreamt.
While the scientists at The Institute had spent millions of dollars to create what was in effect a running, barking, sniffing computer, outfitted with some of the most sophisticated software ever invented, the one thing they could not do was keep it awake twenty-four hours a day.
Chipper could read multiple languages, access maps in his head and do complicated calculations but, unlike an ordinary laptop that could run all the time, Chipper sometimes needed to lie down, shut his eyes and catch a few winks. Well, he didn’t have to shut his eyes, considering they weren’t real ones, but he could put them into sleep mode.
And when Chipper did finally drift off, he had dreams. Sometimes they were happy dreams, and sometimes they were nightmares.
Before the van became airborne, Chipper had been having a very happy dream, a dream of happier times.
He was dreaming about when he was a puppy.
Oh, what a glorious time it was, before his body was outfitted with chips and wires and circuitry and memory banks. Back then, Chipper’s thoughts weren’t like the ones he had now. These days, Chipper tended to think in actual words, just like people, but when he was a puppy it wasn’t like that at all. There were impulses, and instincts, and feelings of joy and fear and curiosity.

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Fear The Worst
Excerpt

PROLOGUE

The morning of the day I lost her, my daughter asked me to scramble her some eggs.

“Want bacon with it?” I shouted up to the second floor, where she was still getting ready for work.

“No,” Sydney called down from the bathroom.

“Toast?” I asked.

“No,” she said. I heard a clapping noise. The hair straightener. That noise usually signaled she was nearing the end of her morning routine.

“Cheese in the eggs?”

“No,” she said. Then, “A little?”

I went back into the kitchen, opened the fridge, and took out eggs, a block of cheddar, and orange juice. I put a filter into the coffeemaker, spooned in some coffee, poured in four cups of water, and hit the button.

Syd’s mother Susanne, my ex, who’d recently moved in with her boyfriend Bob on the other side of the river in Stratford, would probably say I was spoiling her, that our daughter was old enough at seventeen to be able to make her own breakfast. But it was such a treat to have her stay with me for the summer I didn’t mind pampering her. Last year I’d found her a job at the Honda dealership where I work, just this side of that same river here in Milford. While there were moments when we wanted to kill each other, overall it had been a pretty good experience sharing digs. This year, however, Sydney had opted not to work at the dealership. Living with me was enough. Having me keep an eye on her while she worked was something else again.

“Have you noticed,” she’d asked me last year, “that every guy around here I talk to, even for a minute, you tell me something bad about him?”

“It’s good to be forewarned,” I’d said.

“What about Dwayne, in Service?” she’d said. “His rag was too oily?”

“Sign of bad character,” I’d said.

“And Andy?”

“You’re joking,” I’d said. “Way too old. Mid-twenties.”

So this year she’d found a different job, but still here in Milford, so she could live with me from June through Labor Day. She’d gotten herself hired at the Just Inn Time, a hotel that catered to business travelers only looking to stay a night or two. Milford’s a nice place, but it’s not exactly a tourist destination. The hotel had been a Days Inn or a Holiday Inn or a Comfort Inn in a previous life, but whichever conglomerate had owned it, they’d bailed, and an independent had come in.

I wasn’t surprised when Sydney told me they’d put her on the front desk. “You’re bright, charming, courteous–”

“I’m also one of the few there who speaks English,” she’d countered, putting her proud father in his place.

It was like pulling teeth, getting her to talk about the new job. “It’s just work,” she’d say. Three days into it I heard her arguing on the phone with her friend Patty Swain, saying she was going to look for something else, even if she was making good money, since no income tax was being taken out.

“This is off the books?” I said when she got off the phone. “You’re getting paid under the table?”

Sydney said, “You always listen to my phone calls?”

So I backed off. Let her solve her own problems.

I waited until I heard her coming down the stairs before I poured the two scrambled eggs, a few shavings of grated cheddar mixed in, into the buttered frying pan. It had occurred to me to do something I hadn’t done for Sydney since she was a little girl. I took half of the eggshell I’d just cracked and, using a soft pencil from the cutlery drawer, drew a face on it. A toothy grin, a half circle for a nose, and two menacing-looking eyes. I drew a line from the mouth to the back side of the shell, where I printed, “Smile, damn it.”

She shuffled into the kitchen like a condemned prisoner and plopped into her chair, looking down into her lap, hair hanging down over her eyes, arms lifeless at her sides. She had a pair of oversized sunglasses I didn’t recognize perched on her head.

The eggs firmed up in seconds. I slipped them onto a plate and set them before her.

“Your Highness,” I said, talking over the sounds of the Today show coming from the small television that hung beneath the cabinet.

Sydney lifted her head slowly, looking first at the plate, but then her eyes caught the little Humpty Dumpty character staring at her from atop the saltshaker.

“Oh my God,” she said, bringing up a hand and turning the shaker so she could read what was on the egg’s back side. “Smile yourself,” she said, but there was something bordering on playful in her voice.

“New shades?” I asked.

Absently, like she’d forgotten she’d just put them there, she touched one of the arms, made a minor adjustment.

“Yeah,” she said.

I noticed the word Versace printed in very tiny letters on the glasses. “Very nice,” I said.

Syd nodded tiredly.

“Out late?” I asked.

“Not that late,” she said.

“Midnight’s late,” I said.

She knew there was no point denying when she got in. I never got to sleep until I heard her come into our house on Hill Street and lock the door behind her. I guessed she’d been out with Patty Swain, who was also seventeen, but gave off a vibe that she was a little more experienced than Syd with the kinds of things that kept fathers up at night. I’d have been naive to think Patty Swain didn’t already know about drinking, sex, and drugs.

But Syd wasn’t exactly an angel. I’d caught her with pot once, and there was that time, a couple years back, when she was fifteen, when she came home from the Abercrombie & Fitch store in Stamford with a new T-shirt, and couldn’t explain to her mother why she had no receipt. Big fireworks over that one.

Maybe that’s why the sunglasses were niggling at me.

“What those set you back?” I asked.

“Not that much,” she said.

“How’s Patty?” I asked, not so much to find out how she was as to confirm Syd had been with her. They’d been friends only a year or so, but they’d spent so much time together it was as if their friendship went back to kindergarten. I liked Patty — she had a directness that was refreshing — but there were times I wished Syd hung out with her a little less.

“She’s cool,” Syd said.

On the TV, Matt Lauer was warning about possibly radioactive granite countertops. Every day, something new to worry about.

Syd dug into her eggs. “Mmm,” she said. She glanced up at the TV. “Bob,” she said.

I looked. One of the ad spots from the local affiliate. A tall, balding man with a broad smile and perfect teeth standing in front of a sea of cars, arms outstretched, like Moses parting the Red Sea.

“Run, don’t walk, into Bob’s Motors! Don’t have a trade? That’s okay! Don’t have a down payment? That’s okay! Don’t have a driver’s license? Okay, that’s a problem! But if you’re looking for a car, and you’re looking for a good deal, get on down to one of our three loca—”

I hit the mute button.

“He is a bit of a douche,” Syd said of the man her mother, my ex, lived with. “But those commercials turn him into Superdouche. What are we having tonight?” Breakfast was never complete without a discussion of what we might be eating at the end of the day. “How about D.A.D.?”

Family code for “dial a dinner.”

Before I could answer, she said, “Pizza?”

“I think I’ll make something,” I said. Syd made no attempt to hide her disappointment.

Last summer, when Syd and I were both working at the same place and she was riding in with me, Susanne and I had agreed to get her a car for nipping around Milford and Stratford. I took in a seven-year-old Civic with low miles on a trade and snatched it up for a couple thou before it hit our used-car lot. It had a bit of rust around the fender wells, but was otherwise roadworthy.

“No spoiler?” Syd cracked when it was presented to her.

“Shut up,” I said and handed her the keys.

Only once since she’d gotten this new job had I dropped her off at work. The Civic was in for a rusted-out tailpipe. So I drove her up Route 1, what I still thought of as the Boston Post Road, the Just Inn Time looming in the distance, a bleak, gray, featureless block on the horizon, looking like an apartment complex in some Soviet satellite country.

I was prepared to drive her to the door, but she had me drop her off at the sidewalk, near a bus stop. “I’ll be here at the end of the day,” she said.

Bob’s commercial over, I put the sound back on. Al Roker was outside mingling with the Rockefeller Center crowd, most of them waving signs offering birthday greetings to relatives back home.

I looked at my daughter, eating her breakfast. Part of being a father, at least for me, is being perpetually proud. I took in what a beautiful young woman Syd was turning into. Blonde hair down to her shoulders, a long graceful neck, porcelain skin, strong facial features. Her mother’s roots go back to Norway, which accounts for her Nordic air.

As if sensing my eyes on her, she said, “You think I could be a model?”

“A model?” I glanced over.

“Don’t sound so shocked,” she said.

“I’m not,” I said defensively. “I just never heard you talk about it before.”

“I never really thought about it. It’s Bob’s idea.”

I felt my face go hot. Bob encouraging Syd to model? He was in his early forties, like me. Now he had my wife and — more often than I liked — my daughter living under his roof, in his fancy five-bedroom house with pool and three-car garage, and he was pushing her to model? What the fuck kind of modeling? Pinup stuff? Webcam porn to order? Was he offering to take the shots himself?

Bob said this?” I asked.

“He says I’d be a natural. That I should be in one of his commercials.”

Hard to pick which would be more demeaning. Penthouse or hawking Bob’s used cars.

“What? You think he’s wrong?”

“He’s out of line,” I said.

“He’s not a perv or anything,” she said. “A douche, yes, but a perv, no. Mom and Evan even kind of agreed with him.”

“Evan?”

Now I was really getting steamed. Evan was Bob’s nineteen-year-old son. He had been living most of the time with his mother, Bob’s ex-wife, but now she was off to Europe for three months, so Evan had moved in with his dad. This meant he was now sleeping down the hall from Syd, who, by the way, liked her new bedroom very much and had pointed out several times that it was twice the size of the one she had in my house.

We’d had a bigger house, once.

The idea of some horny teenage boy living under the same roof with Syd had pissed me off from the get-go. I was surprised Susanne was going along with it, but once you moved out of your own house and into someone else’s, you lost a bit of leverage. What could she do? Make her boyfriend kick his own son out?

“Yeah, Evan,” Sydney said. “He was just commenting, is all.”

“He shouldn’t even be living there.”

“Jesus, Dad, do we have to get into this again?”

“A boy, a nineteen-year-old boy, unless he’s your actual brother, shouldn’t be living with you.”

I thought I saw her cheeks flush. “It’s not a big deal.”

“Your mother’s cool with this? Bob and his boy telling you to be the next Cindy Crawford?”

“Cindy who?”

“Crawford,” I said. “She was — never mind. Your mom’s okay with this?”

“She’s not having a shit fit like you,” Syd said, shooting me a look. “And besides, Evan’s helping her since the thing.”
The thing. Susanne’s parasailing accident in Long Island Sound. Came down too fast, did something to her hip, twisted her knee out of shape. Bob, behind the wheel of his boat, dragged her a hundred yards before he knew something was wrong, the dumb fuck. Susanne didn’t have to worry about parasailing accidents when she was with me. I didn’t have a boat.

“You never said what you paid for the shades,” I said.

Sydney sighed. “It wasn’t that much.” She was looking at several unopened envelopes by the phone. “You should really open your bills, Dad. They’ve been there like three days.”

“Don’t you worry about the bills. I can pay the bills.”

“Mom says it’s not that you don’t have the money to pay them, you just aren’t very organized, so then you’re late—”

“The sunglasses. Where’d you get them?”

“Jesus, what’s the deal about a pair of sunglasses?”

“I’m just curious, is all,” I said. “Get them at the mall?”

“Yeah, I got them at the mall. Fifty percent off.”

“Did you save your receipt? In case they break or something?”

Her eyes bored into me. “Why don’t you just ask me to show you the receipt?”

“Why would I do that?”

“Because you think I stole them.”

“I never said that.”

“It was two years ago, Dad. I don’t believe you.” She pushed her eggs away, unfinished.

“You come down here in Versace sunglasses, you think I’m not going to ask questions?”

She got up and stomped back upstairs.

“Shit,” I said under my breath. Nicely played.

I had to finish getting ready to go to work myself, and heard her run down the stairs while I was in my bedroom. I caught her coming out of the kitchen with a bottled water as I came down to say goodbye before she headed out to the Civic.

“Being with you for the summer is going to suck if you’re going to be like this all the time,” she said. “And it’s not my fault I’m living with Evan.”

“I know, it’s just–”

“I gotta go,” she said, walking away and getting into her car. She had her eyes fixed on the road as she drove away, and didn’t see me wave.

In the kitchen was the receipt for the sunglasses, right next to the eggshell character she’d flattened with her fist.

I got into my CR-V and headed to Riverside Honda. We were just this side of the bridge that crosses over into Stratford, where the Housatonic empties into the Sound. It was a slow morning, not enough people dropping in for my turn to come up in the rotation, but shortly after noon a retired couple in their late sixties dropped by to look at a base model four-door Accord.

They were hemming and hawing over price — we were seven hundred dollars apart. I excused myself, said I was going to take their latest offer to the sales manager, but instead went into Service and scarfed a chocolate donut from a box at the coffee stand, then went back and told them I could only save them another hundred, but we were going to have a custom pinstriper on site over the next couple of days, and if they took the deal, I could get the Accord custom-pinstriped for free. The guy’s eyes lit up, and they went for it. Later, I got a ten-buck pinstriping kit from Parts and attached it to the order.

In the afternoon, a man interested in replacing his decade-old Odyssey van with a new one wanted to know how much his trade was worth. You never answered that question without asking a few of your own.

“Are you the original owner?” I asked. He was. “Have you maintained the car?” He said he’d done most of the recommended services. “Has the vehicle ever been in an accident?”

“Oh yeah,” he volunteered. “Three years ago I rear-ended a guy, they had to replace everything up front.”

I explained that an accident translated into a much lower trade-in value. His counter-argument was that all the parts in the front of the car were newer, so if anything, the car should be worth more. He wasn’t happy with the number I gave him, and left.

Twice I called my ex-wife in Stratford, where she worked at one of the car lots Bob owned, and twice I left messages, both asking how thrilled she was with Bob’s plan to immortalize our daughter on a bathroom calendar at the local Goodyear tire store.

After the second call, my head cleared some, and I realized this wasn’t just about Sydney. It was about Susanne, about Bob, about how much better her life was with him, about how much I’d screwed things up.

I’d been selling cars since I was twenty, and I was good at it, but Susanne thought I was capable of more. You shouldn’t be working for somebody else, she said. You should be your own man. You should have your own dealership. We could change our lives. Send Syd to the best schools. Make a better future for ourselves.

My dad had passed away when I was nineteen, and left my mother pretty well fixed. A few years later, when she died of a heart attack, I used the inheritance to show Susanne I could be the man she wanted me to be. I started up my own dealership.

And fucked the whole thing up.

I was never a big-picture guy. Sales, working one-to-one, that was my thing. But when I had to run the whole show, I kept sneaking back onto the floor to deal with customers. I wasn’t cut out for management, so I let others make decisions for me. Bad ones, as it turned out. Let them steal from me, too.

Eventually, I lost it all.

And not just the business, not just our big house that overlooked the Sound. I lost my family.

Susanne blamed me for taking my eye off the ball. I blamed her for pushing me into something I wasn’t cut out for.

Syd, somehow, blamed herself. She figured that, if we loved her enough, we’d stay together no matter what. The fact that we didn’t had nothing to do with how much we loved Syd, but she wasn’t buying it.

In Bob, Susanne found what was missing in me. Bob was always reaching for the next rung. Bob figured if he could sell cars, he could start up a dealership, and if he could start up one dealership, why not two, or three?

I never bought Susanne a Corvette when I was going out with her, like Bob did. At least there was some satisfaction when it blew a piston, and she ended up getting rid of it because she hated driving a stick.

On this particular day, I went home, somewhat reluctantly, at six. When you’re on commission, you don’t want to walk out of an open showroom. You know, the moment you leave, someone’ll come in, checkbook in hand, asking for you. But you can’t live there. You have to go home sometime.

I’d been planning to make spaghetti, but figured, what the hell, I’d order pizza, just like Syd wanted. It’d be a kind of peace offering, a way to make up for the sunglasses thing.

By seven, she had not shown up, or called to let me know she’d be late.

Maybe someone had gone home sick, and she’d had to stay on the front desk for an extra shift. Ordinarily, if she wasn’t going to make it home in time for dinner, she’d call. But I could see her skipping that courtesy today, after what had happened at breakfast.

Still, by eight, when I hadn’t heard from her, I started to worry.

I was standing in the kitchen, watching CNN, getting updated on some earthquake in Asia but not really paying attention, wondering where the hell she was.

Sometimes she got together with Patty or one of her other friends after work, went over to the Post Mall to eat in the food court.

I called her cell. It rang several times before going to message. “Give me a call, sweetheart,” I said. “I figured we’d have pizza after all. Let me know what you want on it.”

I gave it another ten minutes before deciding to find a number for the hotel where she worked. I was about to make the call when the phone rang. I grabbed the receiver before I’d checked the ID. “Hey,” I said. “You in for pizza or what?”

“Just hold the anchovies.” It wasn’t Syd. It was Susanne.

“Oh,” I said. “Hey.”

“You’ve got your shorts in a knot.”

I took a breath. “What I don’t get is why you don’t. Bob and Evan giving Syd the eyeball? Thinking she should model?”

“You’ve got it all wrong, Tim,” Susanne said. “They were just being nice.”

“Did you know when you moved in there with Sydney that Bob was taking his son in? That okay with you?”

“They’re like brother and sister,” she said.

“Give me a break. I remember being nineteen and—” The line beeped. “Look, I gotta go. Later, okay?”

Susanne managed a “Yeah” before hanging up. I went to the other line, said, “Hello?”

“Mr. Blake?” said a woman who was not my daughter.

“Yes?”

“Timothy Blake?”

“Yes?”

“I’m with Fairfield Windows and Doors and we’re going to be in your area later this—”

I hung up. I found a number for the Just Inn Time, dialed it. I let it ring twenty times before hanging up.

I grabbed my jacket and keys and drove across town to the hotel, pulled right up under the canopy by the front door, and went inside for the first time since Syd had started here a couple of weeks ago. Before heading in, I scanned the lot for her Civic. I’d seen it the odd time I’d driven by since she’d started, but it wasn’t there tonight. Maybe she’d parked out back.

The glass doors parted before me as I strode into the lobby. As I approached the desk, I hoped I would see Syd, but there was a man there instead. A young guy, late twenties maybe, dirty blond hair, his face cratered by the ravages of acne a decade earlier. “May I help you?” he asked. His name tag read “Owen.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I was just looking for Syd.”

“I’m sorry. What’s his last name?”

“It’s a she. Sydney. She’s my daughter.”

“Do you know what room she’s staying in?”

“No, no,” I said, shaking my head. “She works here. Right here on the desk, actually. I was expecting her home for dinner, just thought I’d swing by and see if she was going to be working a double or something.”

“I see,” said Owen.

“Her name’s Sydney Blake,” I said. “You must know her.”

Owen shook his head. “I don’t think so.”

“Are you new here?” I asked.

“No. Well, yeah.” He grinned. “Six months. I guess that’s new.”

“Sydney Blake,” I repeated. “She’s been working here two weeks. Seventeen, blonde hair.”

Owen shook his head.

“Maybe they’ve got her working someplace else this week,” I suggested. “Do you have an employee roster or a schedule or something that would tell you where I could find her? Or maybe I could just leave a message?”

“Could you wait just a moment?” Owen asked. “I’ll get the duty manager.”

Owen slipped through a door behind the front desk, returning a moment later with a lean, good-looking, dark-haired man in his early forties. His name tag read “Carter,” and when he spoke I pegged him as from the South, although what state I couldn’t guess.

“Can I help you?” he asked.

“I’m looking for my daughter,” I said. “She works here.”

“What’s her name?”

“Sydney Blake,” I said. “Syd.”

“Sydney Blake?” he said. “Don’t recognize that name at all.”

I shook my head. “She’s only been here a couple of weeks. She’s just working here for the summer.”

Carter was shaking his head, too. “I’m sorry.”

I felt my heart beating more quickly. “Check your employee list,” I urged him.

“I don’t need to be checking any list,” he said. “I know who works here and who doesn’t, and there’s nobody here by that name.”

“Hang on,” I said. I dug out my wallet, fished around in a crevice behind my credit cards, and found a three-year-old high school photo of Sydney. I handed it across the desk.

“It’s not real recent,” I said. “But that’s her.”

They took turns studying the picture. Owen’s eyebrows popped up briefly, impressed, I guessed, by Sydney’s good looks. Carter handed it back to me.

“I’m real sorry, Mr.—”

“Blake. Tim Blake.”

“She might be working at the Howard Johnson’s up the road a bit.” He tipped his head to the right.

“No,” I said. “This is where she said she works.” My mind was racing. “Is there a day manager?”

“That’d be Veronica.”

“Call her. Call Veronica.”

With great reluctance, Carter placed the call, apologized to the woman on the other end of the line, and handed me the receiver.

I explained my situation to Veronica.

“Maybe she told you the wrong hotel,” Veronica said, echoing Carter.

“No,” I said firmly.

Veronica asked for my number and promised to call me if she heard anything. And then she hung up.

On the way home, I went through two red lights and nearly hit a guy in a Toyota Yaris. I had my cell in my hand, phoning Syd’s cell and then home, then her cell again.

When I got back to the house, it was empty.

Syd did not come home that night.

Or the next night.

Or the night after that.

close this panel
Never Look Away
Excerpt

Prologue
 
“I’m scared,” Ethan said.
 
“There’s nothing to be scared about,” I said, turning away from the steering wheel and reaching an arm back to free him from the kiddie seat. I reached under the pad where he’d been resting his arms and undid the buckle.
 
“I don’t want to go on them,” he said. The tops of the five roller coasters and a Ferris Wheel could be seen well beyond the park entrance, looming like tubular hills.
 
“We’re not going on them,” I reminded him for the umpteenth time. I was starting to wonder whether this excursion was such a good plan. The night before, after Jan and I had returned from our drive up to Lake George and I’d picked Ethan up at my parents’ place, he’d had a hard time settling down. He’d been, by turns, excited about coming here, and worried the roller coaster would derail at the highest point. After I’d tucked him in, I slipped under the covers next to Jan and considered discussing whether Ethan was really ready for a day at Five Mountains.
 
But she was asleep, or at least pretending to be, so I let it go.
 
But in the morning, Ethan was only excited about the trip. No rollercoaster nightmares. At breakfast he was full of questions about how they worked, why they didn’t have an engine at the front, like a train. How could it get up the hills without an engine?
 
It was only once we’d pulled into the nearly full parking lot shortly after eleven that his apprehensions resurfaced.
 
“We’re just going on the smaller rides, the merry-go-rounds, the kind you like,” I said to him. “They won’t even let you go on the big ones. You’re only four years old. You have to be eight or nine. You have to be this high.” I held my hand a good four feet above the parking lot asphalt.
 
Ethan studied my hand warily, unconvinced. I don’t think it was just the idea of being on one of the monstrous coasters that scared him. Even being near them, hearing their clattering roar, was frightening enough.
 
“It’ll be okay,” I said. “I’m not going to let anything happen to you.”
 
Ethan looked me in the eye, decided I was deserving of his trust, and allowed me to lift the padded arm up and over his head. He worked his way out of the straps, which mussed up his fine blond hair as they squeezed past his head. I got my hands under his arms, getting ready to lift, but he squirmed free, said, “I can do it,” then slithered down to the car floor and stepped out the open door.
 
Jan was around back, taking the stroller out of the trunk of the Accord, setting it up. Ethan attempted to get in before it had been locked into the open position.
 
“Whoa,” Jan said.
 
Ethan hesitated, waited until he’d heard the definitive click, then plopped himself into the seat. Jan leaned over into the trunk again.
 
“Let me grab something,” I said, reaching for a backpack.
 
Jan was opening a small canvas bag next to it that was actually a soft-sided cooler. Inside were a small ice pack and half a dozen juice boxes, cellophane-wrapped straws stuck to the sides. She handed me one of the juice boxes and said, “Give that to Ethan.”
 
I took it from Jan as she finished up in the trunk and closed it. She zipped up the cooler bag and tucked it into the basket at the back of the stroller as I peeled the straw off of the sticky juice box. It, or one of the other juices in the cooler, must have sprung a tiny leak. I took the straw from its wrapper and stabbed it into the box.
 
Handing it to Ethan, I said, “Don’t squeeze it. You’ll have apple juice all over yourself.”
 
“I know,” he said.
 
Jan reached out and touched my bare arm. It was a warm August Saturday, and we were both in shorts, sleeveless tops, and, considering all the walking we had ahead of us, running shoes. Jan was wearing a long-visored ball cap over her black hair, which she had pulled back into a ponytail and fed through the back of the cap. Oversized shades kept the sun out of her eyes.
 
“Hey,” she said.
 
“Hey,” I said.
 
She pulled me toward her, behind the stroller, so Ethan couldn’t see. “You okay?” she asked.
 
The question threw me off. I was about to ask her the same thing. “Yeah, sure, I’m good.”
 
“I know things didn’t work out the way you’d hoped yesterday.”
 
“No big deal,” I said. “Some leads don’t pan out. It happens. What about you? You feel better today?”
 
She nodded so imperceptibly it was only the tipping of the visor that hinted at an answer.
 
“You sure?” I pressed. “What you said yesterday, that thing about the bridge—”
 
“Let’s not—”
 
“I thought maybe you were feeling better, but when you told me that—”
 
She put her index finger on my lips. “I know I’ve been a lot to live with lately, and I’m sorry about that.”
 
I forced a smile. “Hey, we all go through rough spots. Sometimes there’s an obvious reason, sometimes there isn’t. You just feel the way you do. It’ll pass.”
 
Something flashed in her eyes, like maybe she didn’t share my certainty. “I want you to know I appreciate . . . your patience,” she said. A family looking for a spot drove by in a monster SUV, and Jan turned away from the noise.
 
“No big deal,” I said.
 
She took a deep, cleansing breath. “We’re going to have a good day,” she said.
 
“That’s all I want,” I said, and allowed myself to be pulled closer. “I still don’t think it would hurt, you know, to see someone on a regular basis to—”
 
Ethan twisted around in the stroller so he could see us. He stopped sucking on the juice box and said, “Let’s go!”
 
“Hold your horses,” I said.
 
He settled back into his seat, bouncing his legs up and down.
 
Jan leaned in and gave me a quick kiss on the cheek. “Let’s show the kid a good time.”
 
“Yeah,” I said.
 
She gave my arm a final squeeze, then gripped the handles of the stroller. “Okay, buster,” she said to Ethan. “We’re on our way.”
 
Ethan stuck his hands out to the sides, like he was flying. He’d already drained his juice box and handed it to me to toss in a wastebasket. Jan found a moistened towelette for him when he complained about sticky fingers.
 
We had several hundred yards to get to the main entrance, but we could already see people lined up to buy tickets. Jan, wisely, had bought them online and printed them out a couple of days earlier. I took over stroller duty while she rooted in her purse for them.
 
We were almost to the gates when Jan stopped dead. “Nuts.”
 
“What?”
 
“The backpack,” she said. “I left it in the car.”
 
“Do we need it?” I asked. It was a long trek back to where we’d parked.
 
“It’s got the peanut butter sandwiches, and the sunscreen.” Jan was always careful to goop Ethan up so he didn’t get a burn. “I’ll run back. You go ahead, I’ll catch up to you.”
 
She handed me two slips of paper—one adult ticket and one child—and kept one for herself.
 
She said, “I think there’s an ice-cream place, about a hundred yards in, on the left. We’ll meet there?”
 
Jan was always one to do her research, and must have memorized the online map of Five Mountains in preparation.
 
“That sounds good,” I said. Jan turned and started back for the car at a slow trot.
 
“Where’s Mom going?” Ethan asked.
 
“Forgot the backpack,” I said.
 
“The sandwiches?” he said.
 
“Yeah.”
 
He nodded, relieved. We didn’t want to be going anywhere without provisions, especially of the sandwich variety.
 
I handed in my ticket and his, bypassing the line to purchase them, and entered the park. We were greeted with several junk food kiosks and about a dozen stands hawking Five Mountains hats and T-shirts and bumper stickers and brochures. Ethan asked for a hat and I said no.
 
The two closest roller coasters, which had looked big from the parking lot, were positively Everest-like now. I stopped pushing the stroller and knelt down next to Ethan and pointed. He looked up, watched a string of cars slowly climb the first hill, then plummet at high speed, the passengers screaming and waving their hands in the air.
 
He stared, eyes wide with wonder and fear. He reached for my hand and squeezed. “I don’t like that,” he said. “I want to go home.”
 
“I told you, sport, don’t worry. The rides we’re going on are on the other side of the park.”
 
The place was packed. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people moving around us. Parents with little kids, big kids. Grandparents, some dragging their grandkids around, some being dragged by them.
 
“I think that must be the ice-cream place,” I said, spotting the stand just up ahead.
 
I got behind the stroller and started pushing. “Think it’s too early for ice cream?” I asked.
 
Ethan didn’t respond.
 
“Sport? You saying no to an ice cream?”
 
When he still didn’t say anything, I stopped to take a look at him. His head was back and to the side, his eyes closed.
 
The little guy had fallen asleep.
 
“I don’t believe it,” I said under my breath. Not even at the first merry-go-round and the kid was already comatose.
 
“Everything okay?”
 
I turned. Jan had returned, a bead of sweat trickling down her neck. The backpack was slung over her shoulder.
 
“He’s nodded off,” I said.
 
“You’re kidding me,” she said.
 
“I think he passed out from fear after getting a close look at that,” I said, pointing to the coaster.
 
“I think I’ve got something in my shoe,” Jan said. She navigated the stroller over to a concrete ledge surrounding a garden. She perched herself on the edge, nudging Ethan and the stroller to her left.
 
“Feel like splitting a cone?” she asked. “I’m parched.”
 
I guessed what she was thinking. We could share a treat now, while Ethan dozed. He’d get plenty of junk before the day was out, but this would be something just for us.
 
“Dipped in chocolate?” I asked.
 
“Surprise me,” she said, putting her left foot up on her knee. “Need money?”
 
“I got it,” I said, patting my back pocket. I turned and strolled over to the ice-cream stand. It was the soft white stuff that comes out of a machine. Not my favorite in the world—I like the real thing—but the young girl who took my order did manage a skillful twirl at the top. I asked her to dip it in the vat of chocolate, which clung like skin to the ice cream as she presented it to me.
 
I took a tiny bite out of it, cracking the chocolate, and instantly regretted it. I should have let Jan have the first bite. But I’d make up for it through the week. On Monday, come home with flowers. Later in the week, book a sitter, take Jan out to dinner. This thing Jan was going through—maybe it was my fault. I hadn’t been attentive enough. Hadn’t made the extra effort. If that was what it was going to take to bring Jan around, I was up to it. I could put this marriage back on the rails.
 
I didn’t expect to see Jan coming straight for me when I turned. Even with the sunglasses over her eyes, I could still tell she was upset. There was a tear running down one cheek, and her mouth was set in a terrible grimace.
 
Why the hell wasn’t she pushing the stroller? I looked beyond her, to where I thought she’d been sitting.
 
She came up to me quickly, clapped her hands on the sides of my shoulders.
 
“I only looked away for a second,” she said.
 
“What?”
 
“My shoe,” she said, her voice shaking, uneven. “I was getting—the stone—I was getting the stone out of my shoe, and then I looked—I looked around and—”
 
“Jan, what are you talking about?”
 
“Someone’s taken him,” she said, almost in a whisper, her voice nearly gone. “I turned and he—”
 
I was already moving past her, running over to where I’d last seen them together.
 
The stroller was gone.
 
I stepped up onto the ledge Jan had been sitting on, scanned the crowds.
 
It’s just a mix-up. This isn’t what it looks like. He’ll be back in a second. Someone grabbed the wrong stroller.
 
“Ethan!” I shouted. People walking past glanced at me, kept on going. “Ethan!” I shouted again.
 
Jan was standing below me, looking up. “Do you see him?”
 
“What happened?” I asked quickly. “What the hell happened?”
 
“I told you. I looked away for a second and—”
 
“How could you do that? How could you take your eyes off him?” Jan tried to speak but no words came out. I was about to ask a third time how she could have allowed this to happen, but realized I was wasting time.
 
I thought, instantly, of that urban legend, the one that got called into the newsroom once or twice a year.
 
“I heard from a friend of a friend,” the calls usually began, “that this family from Promise Falls, they went down to Florida, and they were at one of the big theme parks in Orlando, and their little boy, or maybe it was a little girl, got snatched away from his parents, and these people took him into the bathroom and cut his hair and made him look different and smuggled him out of the park but it never got in the papers because the park owners don’t want any bad publicity.”
 
There was never, ever anything to it.
 
But now . . .
 
“Go back to the main gate,” I told Jan, trying to keep my voice even. “If someone tries to take him out, they’ll have to go through there. There should be somebody from park security there. Tell them.” The ice-cream cone was still in my hand. I tossed it.
 
“What about you?” she asked.
 
“I’ll scout out that way,” I said, pointing beyond the ice-cream stand. There were some restrooms up there. Maybe someone had taken Ethan into the men’s room.
 
Jan was already running. She looked back over her shoulder, did the cell phone gesture to her ear, telling me to call her if I found out anything. I nodded and started running the other way.
 
I kept scanning the crowds as I ran to the men’s room entrance. As I entered, breathless, the voices of children and adults and hot-air hand dryers echoed off the tiles. There was a man holding up a boy, smaller than Ethan, at one of the urinals. An elderly man was washing his hands at the long bank of sinks. A boy about sixteen was waving his hands under the dryer.
 
I ran past all of them to the stalls. There were six of them, all doors open except for the fourth. I slapped on the door, thinking it might open.
 
“What?” a man shouted from inside. “I’ll be another minute!”
 
“Who’s in there?” I shouted.
 
“What the hell?”
 
I looked through the crack between the door and the frame, saw a heavyset man sitting on the toilet. It only took a second to see that he was in there alone.
 
“Fuck off!” the man barked.
 
I ran back out of the restroom, nearly slipping on some wet tiles. Once I was back out in the sunlight, saw all the people streaming past, I felt overwhelmed.
 
Ethan could be anywhere.
 
I didn’t know which way to head off, but going in any direction seemed a better plan than just standing there. So I ran toward the base of the closest roller coaster, the Humdinger, where I guessed about a hundred people were waiting to board. I scanned the lineup, looked for our stroller, or a small boy without one.
 
I kept running. Up ahead was KidLand Adventure, the part of Five Mountains devoted to rides for children too young for the big coasters. Did it make sense for someone to have grabbed Ethan and brought him here for the rides? Not really. Unless, again, it was some kind of mix-up, someone getting behind a stroller and heading off with it, never bothering to take a look at the kid sitting inside. I’d nearly done it myself once at the mall, the strollers all looking the same, my mind elsewhere.
 
Up ahead, a short, wide woman, her back to me, was pushing a stroller that looked an awful lot like ours. I poured on the speed, pulled up alongside her, then jumped in front to get a look at the child.
 
It was a small girl in a pink dress, maybe three years old, her face painted with red and green spots.
 
“You got a problem, mister?” the woman asked.
 
“Sorry,” I said, not even getting the whole word out before I’d turned, still scanning, scanning, scanning—
 
I caught sight of another stroller. A blue one, a small canvas bag tucked into the back basket.
 
The stroller was unattended. It was just standing there. From my position, I couldn’t tell whether it was occupied.
 
Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of a man. Bearded. Running away.
 
But I wasn’t interested in him. I sprinted in the direction of the abandoned stroller.
 
Please, please, please . . .
 
I ran around to the front of it, looked down.
 
He hadn’t even woken up. His head was still to one side, his eyes shut.
 
“Ethan!” I said. I reached down, scooped him out of the stroller, and held him close to me. “Ethan, oh God, Ethan!”
 
I held him out where I could see his face, and he was frowning, like he was about to cry. “It’s okay,” I said. “It’s okay. Daddy’s here.”
 
I realized he wasn’t upset because he’d been snatched away from us. He was annoyed at having his nap interrupted.
 
But that didn’t stop me from telling him, again, that everything was okay. I hugged him close to me, patted his head.
 
When I held him out again, his lip stopped trembling long enough for him to point at the corner of my mouth and ask, “Did you have chocolate?” I laughed and cried at the same time.
 
I took a moment to pull myself together, then said, “We have to find your mother, let her know everything’s okay.”
 
“What’s going on?” Ethan asked.
 
I got out my phone, hit the speed dial for Jan’s cell. It rang five times and went to message. “I’ve got him,” I said. “I’m coming to the gate.”
 
Ethan had never had such a speedy stroller ride. He stuck out his hands and giggled as I pushed him through the crowds. The front wheels were starting to wobble so much I had to tip the stroller back, prompting him to laugh even more.
 
When we got to the main gate, I stopped, looked around.
 
Ethan said, “I think maybe I want to try the big coaster roller. I’m big enough.”
 
“Hold on, partner,” I said, looking. I got out my phone again. I left a second message: “Hey, we’re right here. We’re at the gate. Where are you?”
 
I moved us to the center of the walkway, just inside the gate, where the crowds funneled in to get to the rides.
 
Jan wouldn’t be able to miss us here.
 
I stood in front of the stroller so Ethan could watch me. “I’m hungry,” he said. “Didn’t Mom come? Did she go home? Did she leave the backpack with the sandwiches in it?”
 
“Hold on,” I said.
 
“Can I have just peanut butter? I don’t want the peanut-butter-with-jam ones.”
 
“Just cool your jets a second, okay?” I said. I was holding my cell, ready to flip it open the instant it rang.
 
Maybe Jan was with park security. That’d be fine, even though Ethan had been found. Because there was somebody running around this park, taking off with other people’s kids. Not a good thing.
 
I waited ten minutes before placing another call to Jan’s cell. Still no pickup. I didn’t leave a message this time.
 
Ethan said, “I don’t want to stay here. I want to go on a ride.”
 
“Just hang on, sport,” I said. “We can’t go off without your mom. She won’t know where to find us.”
 
“She can phone,” Ethan said, kicking his legs.
 
A park employee, identifiable by his khaki pants and shirt with the Five Mountains logo stitched to it, walked past. I grabbed his arm.
 
“You security?” I asked.
 
He held up a small walkie-talkie device. “I can get them,” he said.
 
At my request, he called in to see whether anyone from security was helping Jan. “Someone needs to tell her I’ve found our son,” I said.
 
The voice coming out of the walkie-talkie was scratchy. “Who? We got nothing on that.”
 
“Sorry,” the park employee said and moved on.
 
I was trying to tamp down the panic. Something was very wrong.
 
Someone tries to take your kid. A bearded man runs away.
 
Your wife doesn’t come back to the rendezvous point.
 
“Don’t worry,” I said to Ethan, scanning the crowds. “I’m sure she’ll be here any minute now. Then we’ll have some fun.”
 
But Ethan didn’t say anything. He’d fallen back asleep.

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The Twenty-Three
Excerpt

ONE
 
I know I won’t be able to get them all. But I hope I’ll be able to get enough.
 

DAY ONE
 
TWO
 
 
Patricia Henderson, forty-one, divorced, employed at the Weston Street Branch of the Promise Falls Public Library System as a computer librarian, was, on that Saturday morning of the long holiday weekend in May, among the first to die.

She was scheduled to work that day. Patricia was annoyed the library board chose to keep all of the town’s libraries open. They were slated to close on the Sunday, and on the Monday, Memorial Day. So, if you’re going to close Sunday and Monday, why not close for the Saturday, too, and give everyone at the library the weekend off?

But no.

Not that Patricia had anywhere in particular to go.

But still. It seemed ridiculous to her. She knew, given that it was a long weekend, there’d be very few people coming into the library. Wasn’t this town supposed to be in the midst of a financial crisis? Why keep the place open? Sure, there was a bit of a rush on Friday as some customers, particularly those who had cottages or other weekend places, took out books to keep them occupied through to Tuesday. The rest of the weekend was guaranteed to be quiet.

Patricia was to be at the library for nine, when it opened, but that really meant she needed to be there for eight forty-five a.m. That would give her time to boot up all the computers, which were shut down every night at closing to save on electricity, even though the amount of power the branch’s thirty computers drew overnight was negligible. The library board, however, was on a “green” kick, which meant not only conserving electricity, but making sure recycling stations were set up throughout the library, and signs pinned to the bulletin boards to discourage the use of bottled water. One of the library board members saw the bottled water industry, and the bins of plastic bottles it created, as one of the great evils of the modern world, and didn’t want them in any of the Promise Falls branches. “Provide paper cups that can be filled at the facility’s water fountains,” she said. Which now meant that the recycling stations were overflowing with paper cups instead of water bottles.

And guess who was pissed about that. What’s-his-name, that Finley guy who used to be mayor and now ran a water bottling company. Patricia had met him the first–and she hoped, last –time just the other evening at the Constellation Drive-in. She’d taken her niece Kaylie and her little friend Alicia for the drive-in’s final night. Kaylie’s mom – Patricia’s sister Val – had lent her their minivan, since Patricia’s Hyundai was a little too cramped for such an excursion. God, what a mistake that turned out to be. Not only did the screen come crashing down, scaring the little girls half to death, but then Finley showed up, trying to get his picture taken giving comfort to the wounded.

Politics, Patricia thought. How she hated politics and everything about it.

And thinking of politics, Patricia had found herself staring at the ceiling at four in the morning, worried about next week’s public meeting on “Internet filtering.” The debate had been going on for years and never seemed settled. Should the library put filters on computers used by patrons that would restrict access to certain websites? The idea was to keep youngsters from accessing pornography, but it was a continuing quagmire. The filters were often ineffective, blocking material that was not adult oriented, and allowing material that was. And aside from that, there were freedom of speech and freedom to read issues.

Patricia knew the meeting would, as these kinds of meetings always did, devolve into a shouting match between ultraconservatives who saw gay subtext in the Teletubbies and didn’t want computers in the library to begin with, and ultra left-wingers who believed if a kindergartner wanted to read Portnoy’s Complaint, so be it.

At ten minutes after five, when she knew she wasn’t going to get back to sleep, she threw back the covers and decided to move forward with her day.

She walked into the bathroom, flicked on the light, and studied her face in the mirror.

“Ick,” she said, rubbing her cheeks with the tips of her fingers. “ABH.”

That was the mantra from Charlene, her personal trainer. Always Be Hydrating. Which meant drinking at least seven full glasses of water a day.

Patricia reached for the glass next to the sink, turned on the tap to let the water run until it was cold, filled the glass and drank it down in one long gulp. She reached into the shower, turned on the taps, held her hand under the spray until it was hot enough, pulled the long, white T-shirt she slept in over her head, and stepped in.

She stayed in there until she could sense the hot water starting to run out. Shampooed and lathered up first, then stood under the water, feeling it rain across her face.

Dried off.
Dressed.
Felt–and this was kind of weird–itchy all over.
Did her hair and makeup.

By the time she was in her apartment kitchen, it was six-thirty. Still plenty of time to kill before driving to the library, a ten-minute commute. Or, if she decided to ride her bike, about twenty-five minutes.

Patricia opened the cupboard, took out a small metal tray with more than a dozen bottles of pills and multivitamins. She opened the lids on four, tapped out a calcium tablet, a low-dose aspirin, a vitamin D, and a multivitamin, which, while containing vitamin D, did not, she believed, have enough.

She tossed them all into her mouth at once and washed them down with a small glass of water from the kitchen tap. Moved her upper body all around awkwardly, as though her blouse were made of wool.

Patricia opened the refrigerator and stared. Did she want an egg? Hard-boiled? Fried? It seemed like a lot of work. She closed the door and went back to the cupboard and brought down a box of Special K.

“Whoa,” she said.

It was like a wave washing over. Light-headedness. Like she’d been standing outside in a high wind and nearly gotten blown over.

She put both hands on the edge of the counter to steady herself. Let it pass, she told herself. It’s probably nothing. Up too early.

There, she seemed to be okay. She brought down a small bowl, started to pour some cereal into it.

Blinked.
Blinked again.

She could see the “K” on the cereal box clearly enough, but “Special” was fuzzy around the edges. Which was pretty strange, because it was not exactly a tiny font. This was not newspaper type. The letters in “Special” were a good inch tall.

Patricia squinted.

“Special,” she said.

She closed her eyes, shook her head, thinking that would set things straight. But when she opened her eyes, she was dizzy.

“What the hell,” she said.

I need to sit down.

She left the cereal where it was and made her way to the table, pulled out the chair. Was the room spinning? Just a little?

She hadn’t had the “whirlies” in a very long time. She’d gotten drunk more than a few times over the years with her ex, Stanley. But even then, she’d never had enough to drink that the room spun. She had to go back to her days as a student at Thackeray for a memory like that.

But Patricia hadn’t been drinking. And what she was feeling now wasn’t the same as what she’d felt back then.

For one thing, her heart was starting to race.

She placed a hand on her chest, just about the swell of her breasts, to see if she could feel what she already knew she was feeling.

Tha-thump. Tha-thump. Tha-tha-thump.

Her heart wasn’t just picking up the pace. It was doing so in an irregular fashion.

Patricia moved her hand from her chest to her forehead. Her skin was cold and clammy.

She wondered whether she could be having a heart attack. But she wasn’t old enough for one of those, was she? And she was in good shape. She worked out. She often rode her bike to work. She had a personal trainer, for God’s sake.

The pills.

Patricia figured she must have taken the wrong pills. But was there anything in that pill container that could do something like this to her?

No.

She stood, felt the floor move beneath her as though Promise Falls were undergoing an earthquake, which was not the sort of thing that happened often in upstate New York.

Maybe, she thought, I should just get my ass to Promise Falls General. 

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