Sunday, May 19, 2019

The Favor – Part One

August 3, 2017 Strange and Unexplained
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Estimated reading time — 22 minutes

Tess stood at the mirror applying her eye liner. It was Saturday night and, although she didn’t officially have any plans, she was sure that, at any moment, she would get a call inviting her to go out somewhere.

She stepped away from the mirror suddenly, evaluating her work. She’d never been any good at applying make-up. She wasn’t even sure why. Both her mother and her aunt routinely wore the stuff. Surely she must have picked up some of their finesse with a pencil or a brush somewhere along the line?

“If you’re going for that whole raccoon look, you’ve got this down,” she murmured as she gazed at her reflection.

She was just getting ready to lean in closer to the mirror once more in a futile attempt to fix the mess she’d made, when her phone suddenly lit up next to her on the vanity. She automatically sighed with relief. It was after five. She was starting to worry that no one would call. Without even looking, she answered the phone.

“Hello?” she asked, trying to hide her enthusiasm. After all, she didn’t want to seem too eager and desperate.

“Hey,” said a familiar voice.

It was Kelli. Tess didn’t know whether to be happy or leery. Kelli. She had a reputation as a manipulator, mostly because she was a master when it came to the classic bait-and-switch tactic. She was the sort of girl who’d invite you out and pay for your iced tea at the fast food restaurant, but then ask you to cover her shift at the church garage sale the night before the event. She’d call you and ask you to see a movie, and even pay for your ticket, but then turn around and ask you to drop off one of her friends… conveniently forgetting to mention that his house was nearly an hour away. In short, Tess had reached the point where she almost preferred to just say “No” to all of Tess’s invitations because she didn’t want to deal with all of the strings attached.

“What’s up?” Tess began, trying to keep her voice neutral.

“Whatcha doing?” Kelli inquired in a sing-song voice.

“Putting on my make-up,” Tess answer cautiously. She certainly didn’t want to come right out and admit that she had nothing going on.

“Oh, so you have plans?”

Tess knew it was a loaded question. Kelli was either going to suggest something for them to do together or she was going to try to unload some responsibility. It was always a roll of the dice.

“Kinda,” Tess replied vaguely.

“Well, watcha doing?” she asked pointedly.

“Why do you wanna know?” Tess returned, just as abruptly.

“Why are you being so secretive?”

“Because I’m talking to you,” Tess answered somewhat sarcastically.

“Oh come on, I’m not that bad, am I?”

Tess tried not to feel ashamed. After all, had Kelli not been so manipulative she wouldn’t have felt the need to lie to her, right?

“No,” she lied, “I just always get suspicious when you start drilling me with questions.”

“I’m not drilling you. I’m just asking you what you’re up to,” she replied sweetly.

“What do you want Kelli?” Tess asked, trying to cut to the chase.

There was a long pause. Here it comes, thought Tess. Here comes the ridiculously insensitive request. Tess often wondered if Kelli suffered from some emotional disorder that made it impossible for her to feel any empathy for others. How else could she explain Kelli’s complete lack of common decency or tact? Kelli thought nothing of asking someone to pick up one of her cousins from the airport within hours of their scheduled arrival time. Or, she’d ask to borrow clothing that still bore the tags and return them ruined. Then, when she’d ask to borrow something else, she always seemed confused as to why she was refused. Tess couldn’t imagine being so clueless. Then again, she was the sort of person who wrung her hands if she had to ask someone to borrow ten bucks.

“Why do you always assume I want something?” Kelli returned, somewhat sharply.

“So, you’re not calling to ask me for anything?” Tess challenged.

There was another long pause. Clearly, Kelli had planned to use her fool-proof switch tactic, but Tess had gotten wise to it. Now, she was frantically scrambling around for some way to back herself out of the corner, but there was no way to do so without admitting that Tess had been right about her.

“Look,” Kelli sighed, deciding honesty was probably best under the circumstances, “I kinda told these people I’d watch their kid tonight, but then Mario called me and asked me if I wanted to go see a movie. You know how long I’ve liked him,” she paused, “I’m just afraid if I say no that he’ll get the wrong idea.”

“Why don’t you just tell him you have to babysit and ask him if you guys can go out tomorrow?” Tess suggested.

“He’s gotta work tomorrow. Besides, going out on Sunday night is lame and you know it.”

“Well, I dunno what to tell you,” Tess answered, unmoved. She’d covered for Kelli so many times without compensation that she was able to face the guilt trip without difficulty, “I guess you’re just going to have to figure something out.”

“Come on,” she whined, “please? I’m begging you. I can’t ask anybody else. Everyone already has plans.”

“How do you know I don’t?”

“Because if you did, you would have just told me. The fact that you hedged said it all,” Kelli replied.

“Alright,” Tess began, determined to get something out of the arrangement, “so what’s in it for me?”

“Well, supposedly the guy’s loaded. They’re friends of my dad’s from the office. He and his wife have some benefit to go to. I guess he’s just got one little girl. She’s, like, five so she can go to the bathroom on her own and stuff. I bet he’ll probably even tip you. You could make serious bank.”

“For how long?” Tess asked, growing more intrigued by the proposition in spite of her reticence.

“Just until midnight,” Kelli answered plainly, “so, what? Five hours? The shift starts at seven.”

“That’s in less than two hours!” Tess whined, “And these people don’t even know me. They probably only asked you because they know your dad. They’re not gonna go for this. And what about your dad? He’s gonna be ticked that you pawned this off on somebody else.”

“I’m gonna call them, Tess,” she sighed, “Jeez, it’s not that big of a deal.”

“It’s their only child,” Tess argued, “and they’re loaded. Their whole world probably revolves around this kid. I don’t think they’re gonna go for it.”

“Well, just let me take care of it,” she answered decisively. Tess knew Kelli would probably figure out some way to hoodwink the couple into accepting her terms.

“Okay,” Tess replied, rolling her eyes.

“But you’ll do it?” Kelli tested.

“That depends,” Tess muttered, “you never did answer my question.”

“What question?”

“You never said what was in it for me,” Tess returned.

“You get to babysit one kid in a mansion for good pay. That’s not enough for you?”

“If it’s so great, why are you on the phone right now begging me to do it for you then, huh?” Tess argued, “And don’t say Mario. We both know darn well if this gig was as awesome as you say it is, you’d make up some excuse so you could still do it. Face it, Kelli. It’s not all that.”

“Fine,” she almost spat, “what do you want?”

“You still haven’t paid me back the thirty bucks you owe me. Plus, you ruined my new t-shirt. That’s another twenty bucks. If you want me to do this job for you, I want you to swing by my house in the next twenty minutes with my fifty dollars. If you don’t wanna do that, then I suggest you make other plans with Mario.”

“That’s totally ridiculous and you know it,” Kelli answered.

“Oh, you mean like driving your pal, Greg, clear out to Harrisburg Junction after the movies last month? Kinda like that?”

“You act like that was my fault.”

“I don’t care whose fault it was,” Tess replied, “I just know it wasn’t my responsibility.”

Kelli paused for several moments. She knew Tess had her where she wanted her. She had asked a lot of her lately and she’d given back almost nothing in return. She didn’t really have a leg to stand on, but twenty bucks was all the money she had in the world at the moment. And, it wasn’t as though she could ask her parents to borrow any. If she went to either of them they’d tell her to wait until the end of her babysitting shift… a shift they didn’t know she was hoisting on someone else. Ugh… what a mess!

“Well, I only have twenty bucks,” she began, “I swear. I was planning to bring that tonight so I could eat, but you can have it.”

“Don’t even try making me feel guilty,” Tess answered, “you’ve had months to pay this back. Just think of all the times you came into school wearing new clothes and I never said a word to you about it.”

“Alright, alright,” she sighed, “I’ll drop off the twenty bucks.”

“And what about the rest? When am I gonna get that?”

“Next week,” she said, “I promise.”

“Okay, but until I’m paid in full, you don’t get to ask me for anything, you got it?”

“Fine,” Kelli answered without emotion.

“So,” Tess said, “where am I going?”

Had it not been for the static female voice of her GPS feeding her turn-by-turn directions, Tess would have thought herself lost. She’d left the city limits behind her fifteen minutes earlier and now she was driving through a wooded wilderness that seemed impossibly isolated. It was beautiful though. Sometimes the road would open up into a vast, treeless area and it seemed as though the hills and valleys were heaving waves on a moonlit ocean. But, just as quickly, she would enter the trees once more and the road would wind and turn this way and that until she was utterly confused.

“I should have left earlier,” she murmured as she glanced at the clock. She hoped she’d arrive soon, otherwise she’d be late. It was already after 6:50 and she had no idea how much road still lay ahead.

But, that wasn’t Tess’s only concern. She wondered if Kelli had bothered to follow through on her promise to call the family. What had she said about their names? Oh, yeah, the last name was Edwards. That was it. Katherine and Paul Edwards. The little girl’s name was Lillian.

“Sounds pretty highbrow,” Tess mused as she turned another corner. It was 6:55. She’d probably just make it.

As if on cue, the GPS instructed her to make a left turn through a metal gateway. The long lane was lined with trees and hanging lanterns. Tess marveled at the effect; it was both charming and strangely eerie. Maybe because of the mist rolling off of the lake nearby? Tess had no way of knowing. She was totally out of her element. She’d known there were enormous houses located on the outskirts of town, but she’d never seen any of them, mostly because the vast majority were locked away from curious on-lookers in gated communities. The Edwards didn’t live in one of those, but they were located so far away from the regular folks of Lake Harbor that they didn’t need to concern themselves with trespassers. The only visitors they encountered on a day-to-day basis were the occasional raccoon or heron.

The laneway wound around the wooded lot, until, slowly, the house came into view by degrees. Even in the dark, its beauty was impossible to ignore. It was done in a modern Tudor style with a series of pitched gables accented by stonework. Beveled glass windows reflected the light of a series of lanterns lining the sidewalk, and the rich green ivy making its way up the stone surfaces seemed to twinkle in the moonlight. Everything was perfectly manicured, impossibly neat. Indeed, Tess was so impressed by the house that, even after parking, she found it difficult to pull her eyes away from the lavish exterior long enough to make her way to the front door.

She would have stayed in her car even longer, but the home’s front door suddenly opened to reveal a man dressed in a tuxedo. Tess instinctively glanced at her car clock. It was 6:58.

“Crap, I gotta get moving,” she hissed as she grabbed her purse and her car keys.

She all but jogged up to the front door.

“I’m so sorry,” she began, apologetically, “I meant to get here on time, but the drive took longer than I thought it would. I hope you won’t be late on account of me.”

“You’re not Kelli.”

Tess stopped her forward movement immediately. She hadn’t called. That irresponsible, no good, double crossing Kelli had failed to follow through… again. To be fair, she had stopped by Tess’s house to drop off the twenty dollars, and thank heavens she had. Otherwise, Tess would have had no way to fill up her gas tank and drive out to the middle of nowhere, as needed. But, the other part of the deal? Tess figured her friend must have decided it just wouldn’t be worth all of the drama it would create. Better to just throw poor Tess into the lion’s den. That’s the ticket, Kelli. Throw your friend into the fray face first…

“No…” Tess looked away helplessly. She was ashamed, although she wasn’t sure why. It wasn’t as though she’d done anything wrong.

“What’s the matter, Paul?” a feminine voice called out from inside the house, “Is something wrong?”

“It’s not Kelli,” he answered simply, “it’s some other girl.”

“Well, who is she?” asked his wife, coming out onto the porch also.

Tess couldn’t help but draw in her breath. Katherine Edwards’ dress was beautiful. It was a pale pink accented by thousands of tiny crystals that made her shimmer with every move she made.

“That dress is incredible, Mrs. Edwards,” Tess murmured, unable to help herself.

“Thank you,” she answered automatically.

“Where’s Kelli?” Mr. Edwards asked more pointedly.

“For heaven’s sake, dear, invite her in,” Katherine fussed, “don’t just leave the poor girl milling about on the doorstep. Come in, won’t you?”

Tess moved passed Paul Edwards somewhat sheepishly. He was angry and confused, and Tess couldn’t blame him. She’d arrived within minutes of being late, and she wasn’t the person they’d been expecting to watch their little girl. The three moved into the foyer as Paul closed the front door behind them.

“Now, can you please explain to me what the heck is going on here?” he asked sharply, “Where’s Kelli? She was supposed to babysit for us tonight. It was all arranged with her father.”

“I know,” Tess began nervously, “Kelli asked me to cover for her because something came up suddenly and she didn’t want to leave you hanging. She told me she was going to call you so you’d know to expect me. I dunno why she didn’t.”

“Well if that isn’t the most scatter-brained, irresponsible–” he ranted, walking away from them angrily.

“Well, it wasn’t totally irresponsible. At least she sent someone else to cover for her,” Katherine argued.

“Yeah,” he huffed, “some girl we don’t even know. We know nothing about her. You can bet your bottom dollar I’ll be calling Frank Collins about this!”

“How do you know Kelli?” Katherine asked, turning to Tess in a futile attempt to take the edge off her husband’s words.

“We go to school together. We’ve known each other for years,” Tess explained, before adding, “Look, if you don’t want me to stay and watch Lillian, I totally understand. I wouldn’t want some stranger watching my kid either.”

“And she said something came up suddenly?” Katherine continued, “Did she say what it was? Was it some family emergency? I hope everything’s alright.”

“I dunno,” Tess shrugged, “she didn’t say. She just said she was in a jam and she needed somebody to watch a little girl for her tonight.”

“She’s in a jam alright,” Paul spat, “this had better be something serious, or so help me…”

“Paul,” Katherine hissed, “you’re scaring the girl. She can’t help what happened.”

“Well, you be sure and tell Kelli that we are not happy,” Paul continued, pointing a slim finger in Tess’s direction, “I can’t believe Frank’s daughter would pull something like this. He’s so reliable, you can practically set a watch by him. Now this.”

“Well, what do you want to do, honey? Do you want to go or do you want to call Jack and tell him we’re not coming? We’re going to have to make a decision.”

Paul sighed audibly as he paced around in a tight circle. Finally he paused and rubbed the bridge of his nose vigorously with the thumb and middle finger of one hand before turning to face his wife.

“What do you think?” he indicated Tess.

“I think she seems nice,” Katherine replied, “to be honest, I kind of like her better than Kelli. She seems more mature.”

Paul looked Tess up and down then also. It was clear he agreed somewhat with his wife. Then he turned to face a nearby staircase.

“Lillian,” he called, “come down here and meet the sitter, baby-girl.”

A little girl, who had been sitting at the top of the stairs from the moment the three had walked inside, suddenly appeared on the steps. She was wearing a ruffled t-shirt and pink sweatpants bearing the insignia of a cartoon princess. Her hair was fixed into a dark brown braid that hung in a single strand to a point between her shoulders.

“Honey, this is Tess,” Katherine introduced her, “why don’t you come down and say hello.”

Lillian moved down the stairs cautiously, unsure what to make of the new presence in the foyer. However, when she finally reached Tess, it was clear that she wasn’t opposed to her.

“My name’s Tess,” she volunteered, kneeling down so that she and Lillian were looking into one another’s eyes.

“I’m Lillian,” she returned, extending her tiny hand.

“You’re very lady-like,” Tess commented.

“Thank you,” Lillian smiled. The two sat eye-to-eye for several moments before Lillian asked, “Do you like to play princess?”

“I don’t know how to play princess, but it sounds like a lot of fun,” Tess smiled.

“Well, she seems to like you alright,” Katherine mused, “she doesn’t let just anybody play princess with her. What do you think Paul?”

“Well, it’s after seven. If we’re going to head out, we’d better do it. I’m going to go and get the car. You show Tess where we keep all the phone numbers and whatnot.”

“Alright,” Katherine nodded before turning to Lillian, “honey, you go on upstairs for a minute. Tess will be up soon, okay?”

“Okay,” she nodded before moving to hug both of her parents. A moment later, she disappeared up the steps.

Tess followed Katherine into the living room, through the dining room, and then into the kitchen.

“Wow,” Tess sighed, “this house is really something.”

“Thank you,” Katherine beamed, “it’s been a labor of love. Paul is quite the collector. It’s hard to find places for everything that catches his eye.”

“Yeah, I noticed you have quite an art collection. It’s really impressive,” Tess commented.

“Paul’s got very eclectic tastes,” Katherine smirked, “sometimes we agree on what’s pretty, and sometimes we don’t. I love several of the paintings in the back near the sunroom. You might want to check those out if you enjoy art. Other pieces…”she didn’t finish, “let’s just say Paul’s got some rather avant garde busts and sculptures that are sure to catch your eye.”

“Sounds exciting,” Tess chuckled.

“It’s less exciting than just plain weird if you ask me, but that’s my opinion,” she laughed.

“Are you ready?” Paul’s voice echoed through the downstairs.

“Just a minute. I’m almost finished,” she returned, before turning to Tess, “I’d better hurry up. Okay, here are the emergency numbers. This is my cell phone, and this is Paul’s. This here is the closest neighbor. They know we’re going to be at this benefit tonight. Mr. Walters said he and his wife will be home so feel free to call them if you need someone right away. The rest of these are just your standard emergency numbers, but I doubt you’ll need them. It’s pretty quiet out here.”

“Yeah,” Tess nodded, “you’ve got that right.”

“We’ll be calling to check in with you about every two hours or so. It’ll probably be close to 9:30 when we call the first time. We’ll call again right before we leave. I can’t imagine we’d be home any later than twelve. Do you have any questions?”

“Nope. Not that I can think of.”

“Well, if you think of anything, don’t hesitate to call or text one of us. We’ll have our phones on us all night.”

“Thanks, Mrs. Edwards.”

“Oh, call me Kathy,” she murmured before grabbing her clutch from the counter-top, “you two girls have fun tonight, alright?” she said before heading toward the garage. She stopped a minute later, however, “Oh, and just so you know, Paul and I decided to disengage the security system until we get home. That way if you open the door or go out onto the patio for some reason, you won’t have to reset it. If that thing goes off, the whole police department will show up and they’d be none too happy if they found out it was a false alarm.”

“Got it,” Tess nodded, before adding, “You and Mr. Edwards have fun tonight, okay? I’m sure Lillian and I will be fine.”

“Good,” Katherine nodded, “we’ll talk soon.”

A moment later she disappeared down an adjoining hallway.

Tess moved through the house slowly, taking it all in. She’d never been in a house like the Edwards’ before. Oh, she’d had friends who considered themselves wealthy, of course. They were people like Tina Hall whose dad worked in management at the local power company. She always bragged about the fact that she had over 60 pairs of designer jeans and wouldn’t wear anything except name brand hoodies. And then there was Diane Howard who always felt it necessary to mention her family’s yearly skiing trips and her mother’s lavish inheritance. But, as Tess made her way through Paul and Katherine’s home, it became immediately clear that both Tina and Diane were still planted firmly in the middle class, albeit at the high end of things. However, the Edwards were something else altogether. They weren’t just coasting on the edges of wealth, they were swimming in the deep end.

“I wonder what he does?” Tess wondered aloud as she gazed at a family portrait hanging over a marble fireplace, “Kelli said he works with her dad, but Mr. Collins is just some middle management stiff. He doesn’t even have good dental.”

“Who are you talking to?” a little voice asked.

Tess looked up to see Lillian standing at the top of another staircase. There must have been several of them winding their way through a house that size, Tess mused silently.

“Myself,” Tess answered, “I do that sometimes.”

“Are you coming up?”

“Absolutely,” she nodded, “I believe we had plans to play princess, didn’t we?”

“Yeah!” Lillian rejoiced happily as she disappeared down the long hallway toward her room.

By eight-thirty, Lillian was fast asleep on a fainting couch in her bedroom. Tess smiled as she looked at the little girl. She still wore the princess Halloween costume and sparkly crown that she’d donned an hour before. Tess rose and carefully draped a blanket over her before tip-toeing out of the room and shutting off the lights. She closed the bedroom door only partially and left the hall light burning. She remembered her own childhood too vividly to risk plunging the entirety of the upstairs into darkness. A moment later she was making her way downstairs again.

She wanted to explore the house a little further. She didn’t want to snoop around, per se, but she was curious about the kind of life Paul and Katherine lived every day. She wondered what it would be like to live in a house like theirs, full of marble and glass and priceless collectibles. She doubted she’d ever get the chance to explore such a house again so she figured she’d better take advantage of the situation while she could.

“Hmm, I guess old Mr. Edwards has some pretty strange tastes though,” she muttered. It was then that she remembered what Katherine had said about the artwork hanging down by the sunroom. She vowed to go check it out immediately.

She wasn’t exactly sure where she was going, but she figured the room in question must be somewhere toward the back of the house. She moved along a long hallway past a series of rooms before she arrived at an open den. She hit the light switch casually. The ceiling rose almost to the roof. On one side of the room, a wall decorated with various types of stones ended in a lavish fireplace. On the other, a wall of glass provided an open view of what must have been the backyard. Tess knew the sunroom must be nearby.

She moved down a series of small steps into a curved room full of plants and small trees. When she came to another light switch, she flipped it and the back patio area lit up. Off to the right, Tess could plainly see an enclosed area accented by canvas-covered arm chairs, wicker furniture, and pastel artwork. Clearly, this was the sunroom.

Tess wasn’t sure about the artist, but she had to agree with Mrs. Edwards regarding the subject matter. Each picture was tied thematically to the one beside it, and all four pieces depicted some aspect of coastal life. In one, waves heaved along a rocky shore. In another, a lone lighthouse waited for lost travelers. Tess moved from one to the next, admiring the craftsmanship and obvious skill of the artist.

When she’d reached the last painting, she shivered involuntarily. There was a draft coming from somewhere, she was sure of it. Tess looked this way and that, but could find nothing to account for the cold air blowing on her neck until her eyes lighted on one of the windows in the sunroom. It had been left ajar. Tess moved toward it immediately and closed it securely, locking it at the top.

“I guess rich people forget stuff too sometimes,” she smirked.

She left the sunroom and the den, turning off the lights behind her. She wasn’t sure what she wanted to explore next, but, at least on some level, she knew she wanted to see Paul’s strange art collection. Katherine had made it sound so bizarre. This struck her as odd because Paul seemed so straight-laced. He didn’t seem like the sort of man who’d collect anything weird, least of all objects of art. Then again, sometimes the most typical people were the ones with the most outlandish tastes.

She turned a corner and headed down another partially lit hallway. It would have been darker, but there was light coming from the exterior of the garage shining through the skylight overhead. Tess glanced upward to look through the glass, but what caught her eye instead was the railing of a balcony. Stepping sideways, she was just able to make out a few artistic pieces.

“There it is,” she murmured, “I was starting to think Katherine was making it all up.”

Glancing around, she was able to locate the staircase without too much difficulty. She climbed up the steps in the half-light before flipping a switch at the top of the stairs. Suddenly, the whole area was awash in indirect illumination.

The collection was impressive. Two paintings, reminiscent of Lichtenstein and Mondrian, adorned one wall. On another, brightly colored artwork stood out against plain eggshell white. Tess approached them and read the names Cheng and Chandni. She didn’t know much about art, but she liked the energy of the pieces.

There were sculptures too. She read the place cards beside them: Eames, Berneds, and Veil Han. The sculptures looked as though they belonged in a museum somewhere.

“This stuff must have cost a fortune,” she observed.

As Tess moved from piece to piece, she thought of Paul and Katherine. She could see why Katherine wasn’t a fan of her husband’s artistic choices. The collection in the sunroom was realistic, muted, almost serene. The artwork on display in this room was vibrant, expressive, and visually loud. It demanded attention. It excited the pulse and grabbed the eye. Tess wasn’t sure which art she preferred more.

Of course, there were a few pieces Tess KNEW she didn’t like. For example, there was a wire sculpture that resembled a giant praying mantis that was just weird (in Tess’s opinion), and a few of the paintings looked as though someone had thrown paint into an oscillating fan. Tess wasn’t sure she liked those either. But, the one sculpture she knew she despised, even at a distance, was the one of a full-sized standing clown at the far end of the room.

Tess had always had a strong aversion to clowns. She wasn’t even sure why. Maybe it was because her cousin had chased her around wearing a clown costume one Halloween when she was little. Maybe it was the nightmares she’d had after watching the horror film It. She couldn’t be sure. The only thing she knew for sure was that she hated the clown sculpture.

Part of her wanted to get close, to examine it fully, but she found that she couldn’t. It was just too unsettling. Maybe it was the dirty looking shoes or the shabby trousers? Maybe it was the wrinkled clown shirt or the tattered red ruff around its neck? Or, maybe it was the eerie, unblinking stare of the thing as it observed the wall across from it? Ugh… what on earth possessed Paul to buy such a thing? Tess shivered unconsciously before turning to leave the room.

She descended the stairs rapidly. The statue had unnerved her to her bones, and she didn’t like the idea of that dark room looming up behind her in the shadows. To calm herself, she decided to go to the front half of the house and check on Lillian.

Tess made her way through the house with swift feet. When she finally entered the soft glow of the front hall, she felt calmer almost immediately. Taking the steps two-by-two, she made her way toward Lillian’s room. In the bedroom, the little girl lay sleeping peacefully. She really was darling. Tess hoped Katherine wouldn’t mind that she’d allowed Lillian to sleep in her princess costume.

Tess’s thoughts were interrupted by the sound of the phone ringing downstairs in the kitchen. Hastily, she jogged through the house, reaching the phone on the fifth ring.

“Hello?” she asked, out of breath.

“Doing a little cardio in the home gym, are we?” Katherine teased.

“Actually I was just upstairs checking on Lillian.”

“She asleep?”

“Yeah,” Tess answered, “she nodded off about an hour ago actually.”


“I hope you don’t mind. We were playing princess and she fell asleep in her costume. I didn’t want to wake her up,” Tess explained.

“Oh, that’s fine. She loves that thing. I got it for her last Halloween. I don’t know what she’s going to do when she outgrows it,” Katherine chuckled before adding, “so, it sounds like everything’s pretty quiet.”

“Yeah,” Tess nodded, “I’ve actually been taking a little tour of the house since Lillian fell asleep. You know, checking out the artwork.”

“And?” Katherine laughed, “What do you think of Paul’s collection? It’s pretty out there, right?”

“I actually liked some of it. Like the picture of the girl flying the kite. That was pretty neat. I also liked those pictures in the sunroom you were telling me about. The one with the lighthouse is great.”

“Yeah, I picked those up on vacation one year. We were up in Maine somewhere. Beautiful area. You should go if you get the chance.”

“Some of your husband’s stuff though,” Tess chuckled, unable to finish.

“Paul’s got some unique tastes.”

“Like that clown statue,” she shivered, “that just gave me the creeps.”

“Clown statue?” Katherine asked.

“Yeah,” Tess nodded, “it looks life-sized. It’s at one end of the room, by that big swirly silver thing.”

“Oh, you mean the Yoshi. Hmmm. Must be something new,” Katherine shrugged, “he was in Aspen a couple of weeks ago. Who knows? With him, it’s hard to tell. You never know what’ll catch his eye.”

“Well, he probably should have left that one where he found it,” Tess teased.

“Sounds like it. I’ll be sure to check it out when I get home,” she mused, “well, I’m going to get back to the benefit. If you need anything, don’t hesitate to call me, alright?”

“No worries,” Tess smiled, “I’ll see you when you get here. Have a good time.”

“You too,” she smiled, “try not to let my husband’s taste in art give you nightmares.”

“I’ll try,” Tess laughed before hanging up.

Katherine made her way back into the main hall and across the crowded dance floor. Every person of any status in the whole county must have been there. The governor had come with his wife. The Mayor and her husband had also made an appearance. Then there were the Benoits, the Lloyds, and the Kirklands. It was a virtual who’s who of power and prestige.

Katherine spotted Paul across the room having an intense discussion with Walter Darburg and decided not to interrupt him. A second sweep of the area garnered a quick smile from Debbie Whitcomb. Katherine remembered her from the last benefit and decided she’d be a good choice for idle chit-chat.

“Hey Deb,” Katherine began, “I thought that was you.”

“Oh yeah, I never miss these things. I couldn’t, even if I wanted to,” she laughed, “any time Randy gets the opportunity to sell somebody on another one of his business schemes, he’s out in force. How about you?”

“I’m here with the hubby. This is the first time we’ve been out anywhere together in over a month. You just get busy, ya know?”

“Got a sitter, eh?”

“Yeah,” Katherine nodded, “she seems really nice. The girl who was supposed to have come had to cancel at the last minute and this other girl was kind enough to fill in for her. Thank God too. I don’t know what we’d have done if she hadn’t come.”

“I’m amazed you could get anybody, especially out by you,” Deb commented.

“I know,” Katherine agreed, “we’re out pretty far.”

“Well, that, and all that business on the news this afternoon.”

“What news?”

“Oh, you know? About that guy who got loose. The police are out in full force, but they haven’t caught him yet. I guess he’s a real nut-job.”

“Who’s on the loose?” Katherine’s face echoed her confusion, “What are you talking about?”

“You haven’t heard?” Deb was clearly floored by this news, “It’s been all over the news. Some creep escaped from police custody earlier tonight. They think he’s the same guy responsible for all those home invasions up north. Remember all that? He’d break into people’s houses and then wait for them to fall asleep. He was obsessed with serial killers, I guess. Especially John Wayne Gacy. You’ve got to remember that business.”

“John Wayne Gacy. Which one was he?”

“He killed a bunch of people back in the 70’s and early 80’s, I think,” she explained, “Nobody ever suspected him. He’d go to kid’s birthday parties and whatnot,” she paused before adding absently, “He liked dressing up as some Pogo character. A real whack-job.”

“Yeah,” she nodded, “I guess I kind of remember that now,” she paused, “and you say this guy got loose today?”

“That’s what they said on the news. He outsmarted a couple of police officers and escaped. No one knows where he is, but everybody seems to think he’ll probably head into the woods to hide. That’s why I say, it’s lucky you could get anybody to babysit out by you.”

“Hmmm,” Katherine nodded vaguely, “well, that’s good to know, Deb. I appreciate it.”

A few minutes later, Katherine made her way away from Debbie, somewhat shaken. She moved through the room, almost trance-like, not really seeing anything or anyone. But then her eyes met Paul’s suddenly, and a series of seemingly unrelated threads began to converge in her mind all at once, and the tapestry they formed left her utterly unsettled. Paul immediately read the look of unease on his wife’s features and excused himself abruptly before walking away from Walter Darburg.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, “Tess answered, didn’t she?”

“Yes,” Katherine nodded vaguely.

“And everything’s okay with Lillian’s, isn’t it?” he continued.

“Yeah, she’s asleep,” she replied absently before changing the subject, “Paul, did you buy any new sculptures when you were in Aspen?”

Paul seemed temporarily dumbfounded. Why would Katherine be asking him about something so random?


“Did you… buy anything?” she repeated, trying to keep her voice steady; trying desperately to keep panic at bay.

“No,” he answered simply, “why? Katherine, what’s wrong?”

“I didn’t think anything about it when we were on the phone. I mean, you’re always picking up new pieces,” she rambled, “but then Deb said some lunatic escaped police custody today and–”

“Katherine, what’s this all about?” he asked pointedly, “You’re starting to scare me.”

“Tess was looking at your collection. She said she liked most of it, but there was this one piece, a statue, that she didn’t like. She said it freaked her out. A clown. I didn’t know what she was talking about. I knew you didn’t used to have any statues like that, but I assumed you must have picked something up in Aspen when you were there last week–”

“I didn’t pick up anything in Aspen,” Paul stated, “I haven’t bought any new sculptures in over a year.”

“Then how on earth did that statue get there?”

Paul couldn’t find his voice at first. He stood, frozen, as he stared into Katherine’s terrified eyes, reading her thoughts. Finally, he spoke.

“Get your coat,” he said tersely.

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