Chapter 1 of my novel The Right Thing
On a frozen February afternoon the house stood quiet as a sentinel, the conservative stone and cedar exterior belying the terrible secret within. The sprawling ranch style home sat well back in the woods of the private, ten-acre property. From the road a casual observer might think that no dwelling existed there at all, so well hidden from view was the house beyond the trees.
The fresh snow lay undisturbed when Mary pulled into the driveway.
No tire tracks she thought. Good—it means Elsbeth’s home. Johnny must’ve left for work before the snow started this morning.
She drove down the long driveway toward the house, pulled up to the garage, and turned off the ignition. A blast of icy air greeted her when she opened the door.
Damn, it’s cold! I hope Elsbeth has some coffee on.
When Elsbeth’s terriers heard the car door close, the barking began. When they saw her silhouette in the window, they turned it up a notch.
“Aw c’mon boys!” Mary called. “Easy now! You know who I am! Where’s your mommy, huh? Where is she?”
After hitting the doorbell for the third time, Mary cupped her hands over her eyes and looked in the kitchen window.
Damn! Maybe she’s around back.
She turned from the window and crunched through the snow past her car, rounded the corner of the garage, and made her way around to the back door.
No one’s been back here. No tracks in the snow. Might as well take a look in the window.
She remembered Elsbeth’s words the first time she showed her the house.
“I love these big windows. I’ll never keep them covered. It’s so private here.”
Maybe Elsbeth went somewhere with Johnny this morning. Before the snow. Maybe Johnny’s off today. Could be anything. Funny though. I think she would have told me.
Rapping on the window a few times was enough to send Skippy and Louie racing from the foyer to the other side of the window, and the chorus of barking started all over again.
Easy, boys, easy!
Dammit, where is she?
The barking stopped, and both terriers put their front paws up to the low windowsill. When the stiff ridge of hair stood up on the Schnauzer’s back like metal filings on a magnet, the dog snarled, flashing its teeth. Alert and agitated, the Yorkshire terrier stared toward the woods.
When she saw her reflection in the big mirror on the wall opposite the window, Mary froze. Just beyond her image, further in the distance at the edge of the woods, she saw the man. He wore a slouch hat and a long black coat. Was he moving? She couldn’t tell. Disoriented, Mary stared at the reflection. Like a hallucination, his image seemed to grow as if it were coming closer. What the . . .?
Spinning around, she saw nothing but the tree line. When she turned and looked again in the mirror, the image was gone.
God he was there. Someone was there. The dogs saw him. I saw him. I know I saw him.
“Elsbeth!” Mary called, accented by four, good hard raps on the window.
“Elsbeth, are you in there?”
Frightened now, Mary ran back around the house to the front door. Fumbling for her keys, finally finding the right one, she let herself in. The dogs came to her, shaking, moaning, tails wagging as if they were motor driven.
“Easy, boys! Where’s your mommy, huh? Okay now. Easy.
“Elsbeth? Are you here?
See if her car’s here. Yeah. Her car’s probably gone. Jesus! I wonder who that asshole was out back?
Just off the foyer the utility room shared a common wall with the garage. When she entered and looked in the garage window, Elsbeth’s Chevy sat in its place, where resting against the windshield a yellow tennis ball hung from a string above.
She went with Johnny. Maybe he didn’t have to work today and they went somewhere. Yeah that’s probably it. Wait till they find out some weirdo was on the property. But where the hell did he go? It’s like he vanished into thin air!
Standing in the kitchen, Mary stared at the counter. The coffee pot was on, half full.
She wouldn’t have left the coffee pot on, not Elsbeth. Not if she left. Shit maybe she fell in the tub or something. I’d better check the rest of the house.
In the hall the bathroom door was open, the room empty.
Three bedroom doors stood closed. Turning the knob on the master bedroom door, Mary looked inside and saw that the bed was made. Finding the light on in the master bathroom, she turned off the switch and returned to the hallway.
I feel like a friggin’ cat burglar.
The guest bedroom door beckoned. The room was neat, both beds made.
Well Monty, how about it? What’cha got behind door number three?
Mary tried the third door—the computer room door. The knob was rigid, locked.
“Hey Elsbeth, are you okay in there? Open up!”
Straining to hear, she put her ear to the door.
“Come on, it’s me, Mary! Quit fooling around—open up. This isn’t funny anymore.”
Locked. Why the hell is it locked? And where the hell did she say she hides the key? Damn! Maybe she’s in the basement. Maybe she fell.
When she walked into the living room Mary stopped for a moment at the window. Scanning the woods, satisfied that no one was there, she went to the head of the basement stairs.
Maybe I just think I saw him. No dammit, I saw him all right.
The dogs followed her into the basement. She made a quick check of the laundry room and storage rooms, the extra bedroom and the rec room, all quiet as a tomb.
When their ears perked up, the dogs raced up the stairs and took a left into the living room.
From the foot of the stairs, Mary called, “Elsbeth? Elsbeth—are you up there?”
She must have been in the computer room. Damn her!
“Elsbeth, is that you?”
Mary trudged up the stairs, closed the basement door and stood in the entrance to the living room. The growling reached a crescendo as the dogs were at the living room window again, paws on the sill, the standing hair rippling across their backs.
God I hope he’s not back I hope he’s not back please God don’t let him be there I’m scared.
Willing herself to look, Mary went to the windows. The growling stopped as if someone threw a switch. Both dogs were silent now, the moment gone.
I’m gonna get the hell out of here, that’s what I’m gonna do. To hell with this.
Marching back through the kitchen, she turned off the coffee pot, and then went to the foyer, the dogs on her heels.
“So long, boys. Aunt Mary’s checking out.”
Why is that damn computer room door locked? I could look in the window from the back yard and see. I don’t want to go in the back yard and see. What if he’s back there?
“You boys wanna go outside? Wanna go outside? Huh?”
Hearing the magic word, the dogs ran in circles, jumping, moaning, excited.
No doubt about it. They gotta go. I better take ‘em out. I’ll just take a quick look in the window. Just in case she’s in there. Yeah.
“Okay boys, c’mon.”
After leashing the terriers in the utility room, she stood at the back door and watched the woods for a long time. Satisfied that no one was there, she opened the door. Walking past the living room window, Mary avoided looking in the mirror, keeping her eyes on the woods, just in case. If anyone were there the dogs would let her know. The computer room window was high, and she had to stand on her tiptoes to see inside. With the sun overhead and the blinds nearly closed, she put both leashes in one hand and held the other hand over her eyes. What she saw in the window was at first too terrible to comprehend, and although her mouth was open and she tried to scream, not a sound issued from her, until the noise behind her made her turn and she looked into the grinning, horrible face of the man in black.