Three o'clock in the morning. His favorite time of day. The sky was dark, the streets deserted. Most people were asleep. Like the woman in the bedroom down the hall. He wondered if she was dreaming and smiled at the realization that her nightmare was just about to begin.
He laughed, careful not to make a sound. No point waking her up before he'd decided the best way to proceed. He imagined her stirring, sitting up in bed, and watching him approach, shaking her head in a familiar mixture of amusement and disdain. He could hear the scorn in that gravelly, low-pitched voice of hers. Just like you, she would say, to go off half-cocked, to rush into something without a clear plan.
Except he did have a plan, he thought, stretching his arms above his head and taking a moment to admire the leanness of his torso, the hardness of his biceps beneath his short-sleeved, black T-shirt. He'd always taken great pains with his appearance, and now, at thirty-two, he was in better shape than he'd ever been. Prison will do that for you, he thought, and laughed his silent laugh again.
He heard a sharp noise and looked toward the open window, saw a giant palm frond slapping against the top half of the pane. An escalating wind was whipping the delicate white sheers in several different directions at once, so that they looked more like streamers than curtains, and he interpreted their frenzied motion as a sign of support, as if they were cheering him on. The Weather Channel had promised a major downpour would hit the greater Miami area by dawn. Seventy percent chance of severe thunderstorms, the pretty blond announcer had warned, although what did she know? She just read whatever was on the cue cards in front of her, and those stupid forecasts were wrong at least half the time. Not that it made any difference. She'd be back tomorrow with more unreliable predictions. Nobody was ever held accountable. He cocked his gloved fingers into the shape of a gun, pulled an imaginary trigger.
Tonight someone would be.
His sneakered feet cut across the light hardwood floor of the living room in three quick strides, his hip knocking against the sharp corner of a tall wing chair he'd forgotten was there. He swore under his breath -- a rush of colorful invectives he'd picked up from a former cell mate at Raiford -- as he lowered the window to a close. The gentle hum of the air-conditioning unit immediately replaced the tortured howling of the wind. He'd made it inside just in time, thanks to an agreeable side window that had proved as easy to manipulate as he'd always suspected. She really should have installed a burglar alarm system by now. A woman alone. How many times had he told her how easy it would be for someone to jimmy that window open? Oh, well. Can't say I didn't warn you, he thought, remembering the times they'd sat sipping wine or, in his case, guzzling beer, at her dining room table. But even in those early days, when she was still being cautiously optimistic, she couldn't help but let him know that his presence in her home was more tolerated than welcomed. And when she looked at him, if she deigned to look at him at all, her nose would twitch, a slight, involuntary reflex, as if she'd just caught a whiff of something unpleasant.
As if she was in any position to look down that pretty little upturned nose at anyone, he thought now, his eyes growing comfortable with the darkness, so that he was able to trace the outlines of the small sectional sofa and glass coffee table that occupied the center of the room. You had to hand it to her -- she'd done a nice job with the place. What was it everybody always said about her? She had flair. Yeah, that was it. Flair. If only she'd been able to cook worth a damn, he scoffed, remembering those awful vegetarian concoctions she'd tried to pass off as dinner. Hell, even prison food was better than that god-awful crap. No wonder she'd never been able to find herself a man.
Not that he didn't have his suspicions about that either.
He walked into the tiny dining area adjoining the living room, ran the palms of his hands across the tops of several of the high-backed, fabric-covered chairs grouped around the oval glass table. Lots of glass in this place, he noted with a smile, flexing his fingers inside his tight latex gloves. He wasn't about to leave behind any telltale prints.
Who said he was always going off half-cocked? Who said he didn't have a plan?
He glanced toward the kitchen on his right and thought of checking out the fridge, maybe even grabbing a beer, if she still kept any around. Probably didn't, now that he was no longer a regular visitor. He'd been the only one of their crowd who ever drank the stuff. The others clung stubbornly to their Chardonnay or Merlot, or whatever the hell garbage it was they insisted on drinking. It all tasted the same to him -- vaguely vinegarish and metallic. It always gave him a headache. Or maybe it was the company that had given him the headaches. He shrugged, remembering the hooded looks they'd shot one another when they thought he wasn't looking. He's just a passing fancy, those looks said. Amusing in small doses. Full of facile charm. Grin and bear him. He won't be around long enough for it to matter.
Except he was.
And it did.
And now I'm back, he thought, a cruel smirk tugging at the corners of his full lips.
A wayward strand of long brown hair fell across his forehead and into his left eye. He pushed it impatiently aside, tucking it behind his ear, and headed down the narrow hallway toward the bedroom at the back of the tidy bungalow. He passed the closet-size room where she practiced her yoga and meditation, catching a whiff of leftover incense that emanated from the walls like a fresh coat of paint. His smirk widened. For someone who worked so hard to stay calm, she was surprisingly high-strung, always ready to argue some obscure point, to take offense where none was intended, to jump down his throat at the slightest provocation. Not that he hadn't enjoyed provoking her.
Her bedroom door was open, and from the hallway, he could make out the shape of her narrow hip beneath the thin white cotton blanket. He wondered if she was naked underneath that blanket, and what he might do if she was. Not that he was at all interested in her that way. She was a little too toned, a little too brittle for his tastes, as if, with the slightest degree of pressure, she might break apart in his hands. He liked his women softer, meatier, more vulnerable. He liked something you could grab onto, something you could dig your teeth into. Still, if she was naked...
She wasn't. He could see the blue-and-white cotton stripes of her pajama top as soon as he stepped inside the room. Wouldn't you just know she'd be wearing men's pajamas? he thought. Shouldn't be surprised. She'd always dressed more like a guy than a girl. Woman, he heard her correct as he approached the queen-size bed. Fit for a queen, he thought, staring down at her. Except that she didn't look so queenly now, curled into a semifetal position on her left side, her normally tanned skin pale with sleep, chin-length dark hair plastered across the side of her right cheek, and straying into her partially opened mouth.
If only she'd learned to keep that big mouth shut.
Maybe he'd be visiting someone else tonight.
Or maybe he wouldn't have had to visit anyone at all.
The last year might never have happened.
Except, of course, it had happened, he thought, clenching and unclenching his fists at his sides. And it had happened largely because old Gracie here couldn't keep her stupid thoughts and opinions to herself. She was the instigator, the agitator, the one who'd turned everyone against him. Everything that happened had been her fault. It was only fitting that tonight she be the one to make things right again.
He looked toward the window on the other side of the bedroom, saw the sliver of moon winking at him from between the slats of the white California shutters. Outside, the wind was painting the night with a surreal brush, combining disparate colors and surfaces; inside all was still and serene. He wondered for an instant whether he should leave without disturbing her. Probably he could find what he was looking for without having to wake her. Most likely the information he sought was secreted in one of the side drawers of the antique oak desk that was squeezed into the corner between the window and the dresser. Or maybe it was stored safely inside her laptop computer. Either way, he knew everything he wanted was within easy grasp. All he had to do was reach out and take it, then disappear into the night without anyone being the wiser.
But what fun would there be in that?
He slipped his right hand inside the pocket of his jeans, felt the hardness of the knife's handle against his fingers. For now the blade was tucked safely inside its wood casing. He'd release it when the time was right. But first, there was much to do. Might as well get this show on the road, he decided, lowering himself gingerly to the bed, his hip grazing hers as the mattress slumped to accommodate him. Instinctively, her body rotated slightly to the left, her head lolling toward him. "Hey, Gracie," he cooed, his voice as soft as fur. "Time to wake up, Gracie-girl."
A low groan escaped her throat, but she didn't move.
"Gracie," he said again, louder this time.
"Mmn," she mumbled, her eyes remaining stubbornly closed.
She knows I'm here, he thought. She's just playing with me. "Gracie," he barked.
Her eyes shot open.
And then everything seemed to happen at once. She was awake and screaming as she struggled to sit up, the horrible catlike wail assaulting his ears, then racing wildly around the room. Instinctively, his hand reached out to silence her, his fingers wrapping tightly around her neck, her screams turning to whimpers beneath the growing pressure on her larynx. She gasped for air as he lifted her effortlessly with one arm and pinned her to the wall behind the bed.
"Shut up," he ordered as her toes struggled to maintain contact with the bed, her hands scratching at his gloves in a fruitless effort to free herself from his stubborn grasp. "Are you going to shut up?"
Her eyes widened.
"What was that?"
He felt her trying to croak out a response, but all she could manage was a ruptured cry.
"I'll take that as a yes," he said, slowly releasing his grip, and watching her slide down the wall and back onto her pillow. He chuckled as she collapsed in a crumpled heap, struggling to gulp air back into her lungs. The top of her pajamas had ridden halfway up her back, and he could make out the individual vertebrae of her spine. It would be so easy to just snap that spine in two, he thought, savoring the image as he reached over to grab a handful of her hair, then yanking her head around so that she had no choice but to look at him. "Hello, Gracie," he said, watching for the disdainful twitch of her nose. "What's the matter? Did I wake you in the middle of a good dream?"
She said nothing, simply stared at him through eyes clouded with fear and disbelief.
"Surprised to see me, are you?"
Her eyes darted toward the bedroom door.
"I think I'd get that thought right out of my head," he said calmly. "Unless, of course, you want to make me really angry." He paused. "You remember what I'm like when I'm really angry. Don't you, Gracie?"
She lowered her eyes.
"Look at me." Again he tugged at her hair, so that her head was stretched back against the top of her spine and her Adam's apple pushed against her throat like a fist.
"What do you want?" Her voice emerged as a hoarse whisper.
His response was to pull even harder on her hair. "Did I say you could speak? Did I?"
She tried shaking her head, but his grip on her hair was too tight.
"I'll take that as a no." He let go of her hair and her head fell to her chest, as if she'd been guillotined. She was crying now, which surprised him. He hadn't expected tears. At least not yet. "So, how's everything been?" he asked, as if this was the most normal of questions. "You can answer," he said when she failed to respond.
"I don't know what you want me to say," she said after a long pause.
"I asked you how everything's been," he repeated. "You gotta know the answer to that one."
"Everything's been fine."
"Yeah? How so?"
"Please. I can't...."
"Sure you can. It's called conversation, Gracie. It goes something like this: I say something and then you say something. If I ask you a question, you answer it. If you don't answer it to my satisfaction, well, then, I'm going to have to hurt you."
An involuntary cry escaped her throat.
"So, my first question to you was 'How's everything been?' and I believe your answer was a rather unimaginative 'Fine,' and then I said, 'How so?' And now, it's your turn." He lowered himself to the bed, leaned in toward her. "Dazzle me." She was staring at him, as if he'd taken complete leave of his senses. He'd seen that look many times before. It never failed to make him angry.
"I don't know what to say."
He detected a hint of defiance creeping into the corners of her voice but decided to ignore it for the time being. "Well, okay. Let's start with work. How's that going?"
"Just okay? I thought you loved teaching."
"I'm on a sabbatical this year."
"A sabbatical? No kidding. Bet you think I don't know what that means."
"I never thought you were stupid, Ralph."
"No? Could have fooled me."
"What are you doing here?"
He smiled, then slapped her with such force she fell back against her pillow. "Did I say it was your turn to ask questions? No, I don't believe I did. Sit up," he shouted as she buried her face in her hands. "Did you hear me? Don't make me tell you again, Gracie."
She pushed herself back into a sitting position, her fingers trembling in front of her now red cheek, any trace of her earlier defiance erased by the palm of his hand.
"Oh, and don't call me Ralph. Never did like that name. I changed it as soon as I got out of prison."
"They let you out?" she muttered, then winced and pulled back, as if trying to shield herself from further blows.
"Had to. Can't begin to tell you how many of my rights it turns out had been violated." He smiled, remembering. "My lawyer called what happened to me a real travesty of justice, and those judges he appealed to, well, they had no choice but to agree with him. Now, where were we? Oh, yeah. Your sabbatical. That's pretty boring. I guess I don't need to hear any more about that. What about your love life?"
She shook her head.
"What does that mean? You don't have a love life, or you don't want to tell me about it?"
"There's nothing to tell."
"You're not seeing anyone?"
"Now, why doesn't that surprise me?"
She said nothing, glanced toward the window.
"Storm's coming," he said. "Nobody else is though." He smiled the boyish grin he used to practice for hours in front of the mirror, the one that had always been guaranteed to get him into the pants of any girl he wanted. No matter how much they protested, they just couldn't resist that smile for very long. Of course Gracie had always been impervious to his charms. He'd smile at her, and she'd just stare right through him, as if he didn't even exist. "When was the last time you got laid, Gracie-girl?"
Immediately, her body tensed, recoiled.
"I mean, you're a reasonably attractive woman. And you're young. Although you're not getting any younger, are you? How old are you anyway, Gracie-girl?"
"Is that right? You're older than me? I never knew that." He shook his head in mock wonderment. "Bet there's lots about you I don't know." He reached over, unbuttoned the top button of her pajamas.
"Don't," she said without moving.
He opened the second button. "Don't what?" Not even a please, he thought. Typical.
"You don't want to do this."
"What's the matter, Gracie? Don't think I'm good enough for you?" He ripped off the remaining buttons with an almost effortless tug, then pulled her toward him by both halves of her collar. "You know what I think, Gracie? I think you don't think any man is good enough for you. I think I need to show you the error of your ways."
"No, look, this is crazy. You'll go back to jail. You don't want that. You've been given a second chance. You're a free man. Why would you want to jeopardize that?"
"I don't know. Maybe because you look so darn cute in those little dyke pajamas."
"Please. It's not too late. You can still walk out of here...."
"Or maybe because if it hadn't been for you, I wouldn't have spent the last twelve months of my life in jail."
"You can't blame me for what happened...."
"Why can't I?"
"Because I had nothing to do with it."
"Really? You didn't poison anyone's mind against me?"
"I didn't have to."
"No, you didn't have to. You just couldn't help yourself, could you? And look what happened. I lost everything. My job. My family. My freedom."
"And you had nothing to do with any of that," she stated bitterly, that pesky note of defiance once again creeping into her voice.
"Oh, I'm not saying I'm altogether blameless. I have a temper. I'll admit that. Sometimes it can get a little out of hand."
"You beat her, Ralph. Day in, day out. Every time I saw her, she was covered in fresh bruises."
"She was clumsy. I can't help that she was always walking into things."
Gracie shook her head.
"Where is she?"
"As soon as I got out, I headed straight for home. And what do I find? A couple of queers have set up housekeeping in my apartment. That's what I find. And when I ask them what happened to the former tenant, they blink their mascara-covered eyes and tell me they have absolutely no idea. Absolutely no idea," he repeated, his voice lifting a full octave on the word. "That's how this skinny faggot says it, like he's the queen of fucking England. I almost popped him one right then and there." He tightened his grip on her collar with one hand, retrieved the knife from his pocket with the other, used his thumb to snap the switchblade into view. "Tell me where she is, Gracie."
She was struggling now, frantically kicking her legs, flailing at him with her arms. "I don't know where she is."
Once again his fingers dug into the flesh of her throat. "Tell me where she is or I swear I'll break your fucking neck."
"She left Miami right after you went to jail."
"Where'd she go?"
"I don't know. She left without telling anyone."
With that he knocked her on her back and straddled her, using the switchblade to cut the drawstring of her pajama bottoms even as his hand tightened its death grip on her neck. "You have to the count of three to tell me where she is. One...two..."
"Please. Don't do this."
"Three." He pressed the knife against her throat while tugging her pajama bottoms down over her hips.
"No. Please. I'll tell you. I'll tell you."
He smiled, loosened his grip just enough for her to catch her breath, raised the switchblade level with her eyes. "Where is she?"
"She went to California."
"To be near her mother."
"No. She wouldn't do that. She knows it'd be the first place I'd think of."
"She moved there three months ago. She thought it was safe after all this time, and she wanted to get as far away from Florida as possible."
"I'm sure that's true." His hand moved to the zipper of his jeans. "Just like I'm sure you're lying."
"I'm not lying."
"Sure you are. And you're lousy at it." He lowered the knife to her cheek, drew a line in her flesh starting just beneath her eye, then dragged it toward her chin.
"No!" She was screaming now, thrashing from side to side, the blood flowing from the cut on her face onto the white of her pillowcase as he positioned himself between her legs. "I'll tell you the truth. I swear, I'll tell you the truth."
"Why would I believe anything you tell me now?"
"Because I can prove it to you."
"Because I have it written down."
"In my address book."
"Which is where exactly?"
"In my purse."
"I'm starting to lose patience here, Gracie."
"My purse is in the closet. If you let me up, I can get it for you."
"What do you say we get it together?" He pushed himself off her, zipping up his pants as he dragged her off the bed toward the closet. She clutched at the bottoms of her pajamas, trying to hold them up as he pulled open the closet door and quickly scanned its contents. A couple of colorful print blouses, half a dozen pairs of pants, a few expensive-looking jackets, at least ten pairs of shoes, several leather handbags. "Which one?" Already his hand was reaching toward the top shelf.
"The orange one."
With one swipe, he knocked the orange bag to the floor. "Open it." He pushed her to her knees on the white shag rug. Several drops of blood fell from her cheek, staining the orange leather of the purse as she struggled with the clasp. Another drop buried itself into the carpet's soft white pile. "Now hand me the goddamn address book."
Whimpering, Gracie did as she was told.
He opened the book, flipped through the pages until he found the name he was looking for. "So she didn't go to California after all," he said with a smile.
"Please," she cried softly. "You have what you came for."
"What kind of name is that for a street? Mad River Road," he pronounced with an exaggerated flourish.
"Please," she said again. "Just go."
"You want me to go? Is that what you said?"
"You want me to go so you can call your girlfriend as soon as I leave and warn her?"
Now she was shaking her head. "No, I wouldn't do that."
"Of course you wouldn't. Just like you wouldn't call the police either, would you?"
"I won't call anyone. I swear."
"Really? Why is it I find that so hard to believe?"
"I don't think I have any choice here, Gracie. I mean, aside from the fact that I've been looking forward to killing you almost as much as I'm looking forward to killing her, I just don't see where I have any choice. Do you?" He smiled, pulled her roughly to her feet, brought the knife to her throat. "Say good night, Gracie."
"No!" she screamed, flailing at him with all her strength, her elbow catching him in the ribs and knocking the air from his lungs as she squirmed out of his grasp and raced for the hall. She was almost at the front door when the toe of her right foot caught on the bottom of her pajamas and sent her sprawling along the wood floor. Still she didn't stop. She scampered toward the door, screaming at the top of her lungs for someone to hear her and come to her rescue.
He watched in amusement as she reached for the doorknob, knowing he had plenty of time before she'd be able to pull herself to her feet. She certainly was tenacious, he thought, not without admiration. And pretty strong for such a skinny girl. Not to mention a loyal friend. Although when push came to shove, she'd given up her friend rather than submit to his admittedly less-than-romantic overtures. So maybe not such a good friend after all. No, she deserved her fate. She'd asked for it.
Although he had no intention of slitting her throat, he decided, returning the knife to his pocket and reaching for her just as her hand made contact with the brass knob of the front door. No, that would be way too messy, not to mention unnecessarily risky. There'd be blood everywhere, and then everyone would know immediately there'd been foul play. It wouldn't take too long before he was a suspect, especially once they realized he was out of jail, and put two and two together.
She was kicking and scratching at him now, her green eyes begging him to stop, as once again his fingers tightened around her throat. She was screaming too, although he barely heard her, so caught up was he in the moment. He'd always loved using his hands. It was so personal, so concrete. There was something so satisfying about actually feeling the life slowly drain from someone's body.
He'd drawn a bit of a break with her being on a year's sabbatical. It might be days, even weeks, before anyone reported her missing. Although he knew he couldn't count on that. Gracie had lots of friends, and maybe she was supposed to be having lunch with one of them tomorrow. So he shouldn't get too cocky. The sooner he paid a visit to Mad River Road, the better.
"I thought we'd take a little drive up the coast," he told Gracie as her eyes grew so large they threatened to burst from her head. "I'll just drop you in some swamp along the way, let the alligators have their way with you."
Even after her arms went limp at her sides, even when he knew for certain she was dead, he held on to her neck for another full minute, silently counting off the seconds before opening his fingers one at a time, then smiling with satisfaction as her body collapsed at his feet. He walked into the bedroom and removed the bloody case from its pillow before remaking the bed, careful to leave the room as he had found it. He retrieved her purse from the floor where he had dropped it, pocketed a fistful of cash along with her credit card, and hunted around for her keys. "You don't mind if we use your car, do you?" he asked as he returned to the front door and lifted Gracie's still warm body into his arms. She looked up at him with cold, dead eyes. He smiled. "I'll take that as a no," he said.
Excerpted from Mad River Road by Joy Fielding Copyright © 2006 by Joy Fielding. Excerpted by permission of Seal Books, a division of Random House of Canada Limited. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.