by Lois Hendricks
This week we have a never before published mystery short story from Lois Hendricks.
Paul Cowley drove down the dark, tree-lined road leading to his country home north of Boston. The moon and a myriad of April stars shone through the leafy canopy of overhead branches. Halfway down the lane his headlights caught a glint of blue. He slowed his car.
An old Volkswagen was parked at the side of the road. The dented trunk and rusty paint looked out of place in this affluent area. Curious, Paul pulled up behind the vehicle. No one appeared to be inside. With long, slim fingers he reached into his glove compartment and took out a flashlight.
He stepped out of his car, his lean, tall frame topped by white hair glinting in the moonlight. Why is a strange car parked on my private road? My closest neighbor is a mile away. He peered into the interior of the car, then stepped back into his Lincoln Continental and drove to the concrete driveway in front of his garage. He turned off his lights and engine. His heart pounded irregularly. He pulled a pillbox out of his shirt pocket, popped a tablet into his mouth and swallowed. His slim, muscular hands gripped the wheel while his blue eyes scanned the darkened area. He glanced at his white colonial-style house, majestic against the stark night. Lights from the family room on the first floor shone through the picture window.
A female figure moved about inside. Is that Maggie or April? Still gripping the wheel he wondered if the beat-up car belonged to some shaggy-haired kid wet behind the ears and smelling of sweat and sneakers. Which of my two girls broke the rules and let a boy come here during the week when I’m not home? Maggie, I’m sure.
He glanced up at the windows on the second floor. Only the room where Luella, his stormy, unpredictable wife, spent much of her time was lit. A figure came to the window. He recognized Luella’s tall, graceful silhouette. She held a glass in her long, slim hand. Her tousled, thick, black hair cascaded about her shoulders the way Paul liked it. She drew back the curtain and concentrated on something in the darkness.
Does she see my car? Paul shook his head. She’s not glancing in my direction. She’s staring off to the side. Paul turned to look. A man stepped out of the shadows at the end of the yard near the gate. His footsteps crunched on the gravel; a cap obscured his hair and upper face. The moon glinted off a leather jacket draped loosely about his shoulders. His lean body, poured into tight jeans, ambled toward the house. He appeared young, possibly in his early twenties, with a cocky way of moving. Paul feared for his family’s safety. But no man contemplating robbery or rape would casually drape a jacket across his shoulders, would he? Frowning, Paul reached for the door handle.
The young man suddenly stopped, then ran back toward the gate.
Paul stepped out of his car. His breath came in short gasps. Darn ticker! With a shaking hand he yanked the pillbox from his shirt pocket. Within moments of consuming the additional medication he was breathing normally. He glanced at the window on the second floor where Luella had been. The room was dark. He started walking toward the house. If only I could have seen his face. Is he anyone I know? He probably left because he saw Luella at the window and realized Maggie wasn’t home alone. Irritation increased as Paul wondered who would come lurking around this late on a school night.
At the entrance to the house he pulled out his key and unlocked the front door. He stepped inside, closed and locked the door behind him, then headed for the family room. An acetone scent permeated the house. April, twenty pounds overweight with blonde hair, lay curled up on the sofa with large curlers in her hair. She was eating an apple and reading a book. Paul noticed the usual box of candy was missing from the stand next to the sofa. Good. April’s sticking to her diet. Maggie, dark-haired and sleek like her mother, sat in the big upholstered chair next to the sofa watching an Errol Flynn swashbuckler movie on television. Her freshly-painted nails were held up to dry.
“Hello, girls,” Paul said, glancing at Maggie, sixteen and mature beyond her years. Her dark hair was piled on top of her head.
Fourteen-year-old April jumped up from the sofa and ran to him. “Hi, Daddy.” Standing on tiptoe she planted a kiss on his check. Paul hugged her. When he released April she flounced back to the sofa. Maggie waved, never taking her eyes off the movie.
“Hi.” Luella entered the family room in a long flowing dress with her head high. She gave him a sensuous smile. Paul smiled back as he felt the dampness of April’s kiss on his cheek. For one nostalgic moment he remembered wet kisses from two little girls growing up. He wanted to kid with them like he usually did on his evening returns, but tonight he felt tense. He blamed his uneasiness on the stranger lurking outside.
“Were either of you expecting company tonight?” he asked, trying to sound casual.
April looked at him and gave a short laugh. “Are you kidding, Dad? I haven’t even had a phone call from a boy.” She pushed out her lower lip and then returned to her book.
Maggie looked at him. “A couple of boys wanted to come over tonight but–” her lower lip also pushed out “–I had to tell them you won’t let me see anyone on a school night.” She flashed Paul a sullen look and then returned to the movie.
“Good for you, Honey. The reason I asked is that earlier I saw a blue Volkswagen parked along our driveway and some guy with a cap and jacket headed for the house. He turned and ran back toward the road so be careful. I think I should call the police.” He paused. “I take it you both have your homework done.” Two young heads nodded in unison.
“I wouldn’t bother the police, dear, since the man left.” Luella clasped her hands tightly together.
“That’s true.” He looked at Luella. “Is anything wrong, dear? You seem tense.”
“Only that you upset me when you said someone was prowling around.”
“Well, I think he left, but let’s be on our guard. I’m going to do some work on the computer. Let me know if you see or hear anything suspicious outside and I’ll call the police.”
Paul left the room and headed for the wet bar in the side room. After picking up a bottle, he studied the label and then poured himself a drink. Now that’s liquor. He sat down on one of the stools near the bar and thought about the convention he’d just attended.
He heard movement behind him and turned quickly. Luella stood in front of him, wearing a pink frothy pants outfit that hugged every curve. Curious why she had changed out of her flowing dress Paul smiled at her. She weaved slightly and Paul suspected she’d been drinking before his arrival. Her long nails were the color of the pants and he wondered if she always matched nail polish to outfit. She certainly has as long as I’ve known her. I have a feeling she did before, too.
“Darling, you look tired.” Luella traced Paul’s lips with her warm fingers. He felt the old urges, as strong as when he’d met Luella nineteen years ago, and he reached for her. The fragrance of wine mingled with perfume wafted in the air. With a somber face she pulled away. Paul was puzzled. I’ll never get used to her sudden mood swings. She smiled. For Paul it was like sunlight breaking through dark clouds. “Let’s relax with a drink, and then slip away to our room,” she purred, moving closer to him
Paul nodded. “Sounds good.” Her eyes sparkled. Paul took a sip of his drink and felt the warmth spread slowly throughout his body. Luella’s hand closed over his and he let himself be led out of the room, up the long flight of stairs and down the hall to their room.
* * *
Three nights later in his hotel room, Paul gathered up his lecture notes from his speech at the seminar earlier in the day. He stuffed them into his briefcase and glanced at his watch. I should be home in a little over two hours unless the traffic gets heavy. Luella and the girls aren’t expecting me until tomorrow night, so this will be a pleasant surprise, especially on my birthday. It isn’t every day a man turns fifty. He frowned. Funny Luella didn’t mention my birthday when I was home. She usually plans a small party at home with the girls and a few friends. It’s not like her to forget. He smiled at his reflection in the mirror hanging on the wall. A tall executive with grey hair, glasses, and wearing a dark grey suit, smiled back at him. I look like a middle-aged man knowledgeable about computers and happy working for Microsoft.
Paul went down in the elevator, nodding to two other speakers from the convention and then hurried to his car in the underground parking area. The ride home was pleasant and two hours later he turned on to his private road leading to his house. He remembered the Volkswagen parked in the driveway a few nights earlier. His eyes scanned the area. No vehicle in sight. He heaved a sigh of relief, parked in the driveway in front of his house and stepped out.
Only two lights shone inside the house, the family room which was always lit whether anyone was home or not, and the large bedroom at the end of the second floor with the attached balcony overlooking the concrete driveway below. He frowned. Who would be in that bedroom? It’s seldom used. The only sound in the darkness was the chirping of crickets.
After pulling a key out of his pocket Paul opened the front door and went inside.
The house was still. He heard footsteps padding around at the far end of the house. A door slammed. Paul felt his heartbeat quicken. Pain shot through his chest. He ignored the discomfort and hurried to the back of the house where he’d heard the noise. The door to the outside was locked. He hurried to the window and looked out into the back yard filled with foliage and ominous shadows. A young man with a cap in one hand and a jacket in the other ran across the grass towards the woods.
He’s built like the man hanging around here the other night, but I couldn’t see his face so it’s hard to tell. Anger shot through Paul. Had the intruder been inside the house this time? No one screamed for help.
Paul ran upstairs, two steps at a time, despite an increasing pain in his chest to check the guest bedroom, rarely used but lit tonight, at the end of the hall. All the bedroom doors were closed except April’s. Paul stopped outside her room and pushed gently on her door. In the darkness he heard soft breathing. Sliding his hand along the wall until he found the switch he flipped on the light. April was asleep, looking young and vulnerable, one arm lying bare on top of the coverlet. She stirred.
Paul flipped off the light, turned and went down the hall toward the large bedroom. At Maggie’s room he stopped, opened the door and turned on the light. She, too, appeared asleep, snoring lightly. He turned off the switch and quietly shut the door behind him. At the end of the hall he opened the door and stepped into the large guest bedroom.
The room was lit and undisturbed. He stepped to the door leading to the balcony and looked out. Dew glistened off the black, four-foot high railing. A slit of moon hovered overhead.
He moved to the railing.
A creaking sound came from behind.
He whirled around. No one’s in sight.
Paul headed downstairs. I’ll call the police. Inside the den he reached for the phone, but he stopped. The
intruder’s been here twice, yet it doesn’t appear he took anything. He must be a friend of one of the girls, but they’re both asleep.
Paul poured a drink. Where’s Luella? Taking small sips, deep in thought, he took a long time downing his drink. Angry, heart pounding irregularly, he felt sure the man had come for something other than theft. Deciding against calling the police he went back upstairs and opened the door to the bedroom he shared with Luella and turned on a small lamp near the door.
Luella was asleep, her long hair fanned out on the pink pillow. Paul undressed quietly, trying not to wake her. He slipped into bed. Closing his eyes he recalled earlier years when Maggie’s and April’s childish laughter had filled the air as they rode their tricycles on the sidewalk. It seems like only yesterday they’d vie for my lap while I read stories to them. Tales of helpless princesses, living in dragon-guarded dungeons and finally rescued by princes were as popular with the girls as Bambi or other cartoon characters. Where have the years gone? Paul opened his eyes and stared into the dark. Neither of my girls seems to have any real interest in Daddy anymore. Their main concern, especially for Maggie, is boys.
* * *
For the next several weeks Paul was on the road speaking at conventions. He had always loved public speaking, but as usual missed his family. He called home whenever he could. During one call he asked Luella, “Do you ever see anyone lurking around the place?”
“No, dear, never.” She laughed. “Everything is fine. Don’t worry so much.”
* * *
The weeks slipped into months and a more serious problem plagued Paul. Chest and arm pains once controlled by medications were becoming increasingly worse. Getting enough air into his lungs was difficult. Paul found himself taking twice as many pills as he had only a short month earlier. One night while on the road, he phoned Luella. “I don’t want to worry you, but Dr. Forbes’ prediction is coming true. My heart condition’s getting worse.”
There was a long pause. “Why don’t you come home, dear? You shouldn’t be on the road anyhow with your condition. I can’t imagine why you feel the need to work. You could work in your office here. You’d be near Dr. Forbes.”
“Conventions have always been a big part of my life, but I know you’re right. This old ticker has become a real bummer.”
“Hurry home, darling.” Her words were syrupy. “Remember next week I’m driving the girls to the orientation at Chadstone, the exclusive girl’s college, so we’ll be gone a few days until Saturday.” She hesitated. “Will you be okay?”
“I’ll be fine. Don’t worry.” I won’t let her know I’m disappointed they’ll be gone.
A few nights after his conversation with Luella he drove from the nearby convention to his hotel. His legs didn’t want to move and he felt more tired than he could ever remember as he walked through the hotel lobby. Off to the side in another room was the bar where he could see a few men from his firm drinking and talking. They motioned for him to join them. He could think only of getting some rest as he smiled, shook his head, and moved toward the elevator.
Inside his room he turned on the television, got his favorite program, then sank into the chair nearest the bed. He was soon sound asleep.
Pain woke him. His chest was on fire. He couldn’t get his breath. Frantically he gulped for air and lunged for his coat lying across the bed. His hand searched the pocket.
After retrieving the pillbox he popped two capsules into his mouth. He loosened his tie and stumbled into the bathroom where he downed a large gulp of water. He sank down onto the edge of the tub. Don’t let me die alone in a strange hotel room.
Sweat beaded his forehead. His palms were wet. Slowly the pain subsided. When he felt better he knew he had to go home and be with his family. As he packed to leave, he remembered Luella and the girls would probably not be home tonight. They’ll be on their way to Chadstone, but I can manage on my own. I can call Dr. Forbes if I need to.
* * *
Paul’s car sputtered and slowed. He managed to get to the side of the freeway before the engine died completely. Irritated, he pulled out his cell phone and dialed AAA. Forty minutes later a gruff, overweight man with a beard showed up and towed Paul and his Lincoln away. They arrived at the closest repair station. Assured by the station manager his car would be ready in a day Paul called a taxi. The cabbie, a beefy, middle-aged man with tattooed arms, arrived in ten minutes and Paul settled into the back seat.
The cabbie turned down the dark, narrow road leading to Paul’s house. Green foliage, outlined by the cab’s headlights, cast dark shadows.
Paul’s white house stood majestic in front of him. Light shone from the family room. Luella’s car was missing from the driveway. She and the girls must have left already for Chadstone. Paul stepped out of the cab and paid the non-talkative cabbie. He sped off.
Crickets chirped. A full moon shone. A dog barked in the distance. Carrying his small case in one hand, Paul unlocked the front door and entered the house which seemed large and unfriendly. He made his way to the bedroom he shared with Luella and undressed. The house creaked and groaned in a way he had never noticed before. He smiled, remembering that as a kid he had never liked being alone.
After slipping into bed, he fell asleep instantly.
* * *
Paul awoke and looked around. Something had disturbed his sleep. A faint sliver of moonlight shone through the partially open curtains and dimly lit the surrounding darkness. He listened for sounds that never materialized and then chided himself for being uneasy. He rolled over on his side and closed his eyes. The faintest trace of laughter reached his ears. He opened his eyes and strained to hear. The sound came again, this time a little louder. Is it coming from the driveway? He went to the window in his pajamas, looked out and shivered. No car was visible. Then he heard a male voice talking. Paul moved to the closet, pulled his robe off a hanger and slipped into it. He slid his feet into his slippers and stepped into the hallway. No lights shone under any door.
He stood, listening, wondering if he had imagined the laughter and the male voice. Faint laughter brought chills to his body. The sound seemed to come from the bedroom at the end of the hall with the balcony beyond. Paul moved down the carpeted hallway and placed his hand on the knob leading to the large bedroom. He opened the door and stepped inside.
The room was dark. He flipped on the light.
The bed covers and top sheet were tossed to the floor. A man lay on top of a woman in the king bed, both naked. A female breast showed beneath the man’s body. The man rolled onto his back, stared at Paul, and cursed. Paul recognized him as the young intruder he’d seen outside his house twice.
The woman slowly sat up.
Paul’s heart sank. “Luella.” His voice was hoarse and cracked. “What’s going on?” Hot searing fire raced up and down his arms. His chest hurt and he couldn’t get his breath. He grasped at his bathrobe pocket and then remembered. He’d left his medications in his shirt back in the room. I don’t have my pills. He sank to his knees.
The couple stared at him. Luella sneered. “It’s his heart. He’s a goner without his pills.”
The man jeered. “Can’t do much, can you, old man?” He jumped out of bed, naked, and stared down at Paul on his knees. With a thrust of his foot he pushed Paul to the floor. Luella got out of bed, also naked, and linked her arm inside the man’s.
Paul lay helpless on the floor. He had never hated anyone before as much as he now despised his wife and this intruder. Why didn’t I suspect her of infidelity?
Luella kissed the young man passionately and then murmured in a soft, intimate tone, “Darling, our waiting will soon be over.” She looked down at Paul with a gleam in her eye. “He’s got so much money.” She smiled at the stranger as though they shared a secret.
“Sure, Babe, sure.”
Paul stared at them. Her lover sounds bored. How can Luella treat me like this? She’s going to let me die! Angry at having ever trusted her he made a fist, but he had no strength, no power to back up his hatred. The man laughed, then walked over and picked up a pack of cigarettes from the nightstand next to the bed and lit one. With his bare buttocks facing Paul, he weaved toward the open door leading to the balcony. Luella hastened to join him, never once glancing at Paul. She linked her arm in the man’s and leaned into his side.
Gasping, pushing himself up on his hands and knees, Paul knew he couldn’t last much longer. Are Maggie or April in the house? Luella’s car was nowhere around when I drove in, so she must have let Maggie and April drive to Chadstone without her. Luella could have used any excuse for not going. Paul looked out at the balcony. Luella and the man stood near the four-foot-high railing, embracing and kissing, their bodies locked together. Luella murmured something in the man’s ear and then pinched his bare buttocks. Laughing, she pressed her lips to his again.
Despite the waves of pain, like bolts of lightning, throbbing through his chest and running rampant down his arms, Paul hobbled across the floor on his knees to the bed, and then pulled himself up to his feet. Gasping and cursing under his breath he staggered out the balcony door toward the couple. They stood with their arms entwined around each other, staring out into the night. Paul was two feet away when Luella looked back and saw him.
With a sudden burst of strength born of desperation, Paul shoved Luella and the stranger forward.They tumbled over the short railing.
Luella grabbed Paul’s arm and held on.
The three of them fell.
Luella’s cries split the night.
The stranger yelled. Paul laughed out loud as he thought how their three falling bodies, two of them naked, must look. The smile remained as though painted on, as the concrete driveway rose to meet them.