The sound of the car doors slamming cracked so sharply in the sleepy neighborhood, I halfway expected the neighbors to come out on their porches to see about the disturbance. While Dan went to get the key from the landlord, I stood by his car and stared up at the house. No one had closed the curtains in Ellen's house or drawn the blinds, leaving the windows black, unblinking, the interior exposed to anyone who dared to approach. I had agreed to this search-I had made this search possible-but now that I was here, it seemed like a better idea in concept than in practice.
Dan arrived and handed me the key. There was no ring, no rabbit's foot, nothing but a slim, bright sliver that disappeared into the palm of my gloved hand.
"Let's go, boss. I'm freezin' my ass off out here."
"Aren't you…" I couldn't find the right word because I knew he wasn't afraid. A feeble gust of wind came up, sending long-dead leaves scuttling over the blacktop. "Aren't you even a little uneasy about going in there?"
I looked up again at the forbidding structure. "I don't know. I just think-"
"Shanahan, you're thinking too much. Follow me." And he was off. When I caught up, he was waiting for me on the porch. While he held open the aluminum screen door, I used the light from the street to find the dead bolt. It was dim, but I could still see that the cylinder was as shiny as a new quarter.
He nodded. "She's the one who put in the security system, too. The landlord wouldn't pay for it."
I took off my glove and touched the lock face. It felt cold. "Something must have scared her."
The dead bolt slid back easily, and the same key worked in the knob. A piercing tone from the security system greeted us. I knew that it was just a reminder to disengage the alarm. Even so, it felt like one last warning from the house, one last chance to turn back. Dan slipped past me and, reading from a minuscule scrap of paper, punched a six-digit code into the keypad on the wall. The buzzer fell silent, leaving the house so still I almost wanted the noise back.
"I'm going to start in the basement," Dan said, already halfway to the back of the house.
"We need to reset this alarm," I called, making sure he could hear me. "Wasn't that the whole point of getting a new code?"
"Oh, yeah." He came back, referred again to his cheat sheet, and punched in a different string of numbers. "There you go, all safe and sound."
He was gone before I could respond. The air in the house was frigid. It felt dense and tasted stale, as if a damp breeze had drifted in from the ocean some time ago and never found a way out. And there was an odor. Faint. Sweet. From the body? How would I know? I didn't know what a dead body smelled like.
I shot the dead bolt, turning the interior knob on the shiny new lock Ellen had installed. She'd felt the presence of danger, taken reasonable precautions to keep it outside her door. But she had not been safe. If she had killed herself, then the real threat had been inside the house, inside with her. On the other hand, if she hadn't killed herself-I wrapped my coat a little tighter-then it was really dumb for us to be in here.
The rooms were slightly dilapidated, showing the house's age, but the residue of grander times lingered. Chandeliers hung from high ceilings, although some of the bulbs were out. The decor, at least the part Ellen had contributed, was impeccable-simple, spare pieces placed in sometimes surprising but always perfect relation to one another. And unlike those of her office, the walls were not bare. They were hung with paintings and prints that were contemporary and seemed to be carefully selected. Edward Hopper had been a favorite, with his haunting images of urban isolation and people staring into the middle distance, into their own desolation.
As I moved from room to room, I looked for evidence that intruders had been there. I saw no drawers open, no seat cushions askance. Still, I had an odd feeling that Dan was right, that the soul of the house had been disturbed, that Ellen's sanctuary had been violated in some way.
I had the same feeling upstairs, standing at the foot of her bed, staring at the brocade comforter and the elegant pile of matching pillows. I hadn't made my bed once since I'd moved out of my mother's house. I didn't see the point. Ellen had made her bed either the morning of the day she'd died, or-this was a really strange notion-would she have taken time to make it before she'd gone upstairs to kill herself?
The rest of the bedroom was predictably uncluttered, as was her bathroom, but when I opened her bedroom closet, I was stunned-and then I laughed out loud. I had finally found something about this woman that was authentic and unguarded and completely, delightfully out of control. Her walk-in closet was a riot. It wasn't messy as much as… relaxed. Especially compared to the rest of the house. It was as if her compulsion to shop had fought a battle with her obsession for order. Order never had a chance. Hanging racks to the left and right were crammed with silk blouses and little sweaters and wool suits and linen slacks and one linen blazer that I found particularly swanky. Her shoes had completely overwhelmed the handy shoe shelf and escaped to the floor.
It took a long time to search the closet-she'd owned a lot of handbags that I had to go through- and when I was finished, I didn't want to leave. For one thing, it was warmer in there. But mostly, standing in that closet I recognized Ellen as a real person, a person who had an obvious weakness for natural fibers and good leather pumps. I could have gone shopping with this woman, and we would have had a good time.
I was turning to leave when a single sheet of lined paper tacked to the inside of the closet door caught my attention. It had dates and distances and entries penciled in Ellen's hand, and when I looked around on the floor, I had to smile. There were two pairs of well-worn, mud-covered running shoes, the expensive kind, lined up right next to her trendy little flats. Ellen had been a runner, too. I did what all runners do- immediately checked her distances against mine. I might not have had her discipline-she ran more often than I did and on a schedule as rigid as everything else about her life-but I had endurance. I ran farther.
Something creaked in the ceiling directly above my head, something loud. Dan was supposed to be in the basement, but… there it was again. Loud, groaning footsteps. Definitely footsteps. I was on the second floor and the noise was coming from overhead, so either Dan wasn't in the basement anymore, or-I flinched at the sound of a muffled thud-someone was in the attic.
I stepped quietly into the hallway. A door was ajar, framed by a light from behind. Through the opening I could see the wooden steps inside that climbed, I assumed, to the attic.
More footsteps and then another loud crash. I held very still and listened, feeling every footstep in my chest as if it were my own ribs creaking under the weight rather than the dry hardwood planks overhead.
"Is that you, Dan?"
The second thud had a different quality, more like a deliberate kick, followed by "JesusChristsonovabitch. Yes, it's me."
I let out the deep breath I hadn't even known I'd been holding, climbed the steep stairs, and emerged through a planked floor into the attic. It smelled of mothballs and lumber, and my eyes were drawn immediately to the apex of that familiar pitched roof where I knew Ellen had hung from a rope until Dan had come to find her.
He was sitting on a trunk rubbing his shin. He must have left his coat and tie somewhere. His collar was unbuttoned and I could see the band of his cotton T-shirt. It was warmer in the attic than any other part of the house, except for Ellen's closet maybe, but still cold. I picked my way over to where he was sitting, careful not to step off the planks.
He looked up at me. "What do you think 'fish' means?"
"Is this a trick question?"
"Look at this." He handed me a page from a desk calendar for Monday, December 22, 1997, with the handwritten notation that said FISH 1016.96A.
"Fish? I have no idea. Was this in her office?"
"On the floor behind the desk."
"On the floor? Where's the rest of the calendar?"
"Gone. So's the tape from her answering machine."
"Which one? Inbound or outbound?"
"They're both gone."
"Wow," I said, "that sounds kind of… not random. As if whoever took them knew her and had talked to her on the phone. That wouldn't be Little Pete, would it?"
"It could have been if he was calling in threats to her."
"I guess you're right. The rest of the house doesn't look as if it's been searched. If someone's been in here, they were looking for something specific and they knew where to look." I tapped the calendar page with a fingernail as I tried to think about what we hadn't found. "Did you find any computer diskettes? Or maybe an organizer? Did she carry a briefcase?"
"There's no organizer or disks. Her briefcase is downstairs, but there's nothing in it but work stuff."
"What about her car?"
"It's in the garage. I checked it a few days ago. There's nothing in it."
I looked at the note again. Fish. What could that possibly have to do with anything? He waved me off when I tried to give it back to him. "You keep it. I'll just lose it."
I stuck the calendar page into the pocket of my coat and sat next to him on the trunk. "You have no idea what they might be looking for?"
"Not a clue."
The space was large for an attic. Several matching footlockers were randomly scattered around the floor, as was some old furniture, too tacky to have been Ellen's. For an attic the place was clean, but still not the image I would want to take to my grave. Several cardboard boxes were stacked neatly to one side. "Have you checked these boxes?"
"No. That's why I came up here. Want to take a look?"
We went through the boxes and lockers. Each one had a colored tag, the kind the movers use for inventory, and it made me think about my own moving boxes, which had tags on top of tags. We found nothing that you wouldn't expect to find in the attic- Christmas ornaments and old tax records and boxes of books and clothes. The most intriguing box was labeled personal mementos. I wanted to sit in the attic, take some time, and go through it piece by piece, but for reasons other than what we'd come for. I wanted to find out about Ellen.
When we were finished, Dan and I sat on a couple of the lockers and looked at each other. Illuminated by the bare bulb from the ceiling, his face was all pale angles and deep hollows.
"She didn't have any shoes on."
"The rope was over that high beam there." He pointed up into the apex of the roof. "One end of it, anyway. The other end was knotted around that stud. The cops think she climbed up on this and kicked it over." He went over to one of the lockers and nudged it with his toe. "She was wearing some kind of a jogging suit thing, but nothing on her feet. They were white. That's what I saw first when I came up the stairs. Her feet were totally white and… I don't know… like wax or something. It's funny because it was pretty dark up here, but there was light coming from somewhere." He checked around the attic, finding a window at the far end covered with wooden slats, like blinds closed halfway. "Through there, I guess. She was facing me. Hanging, but perfectly still, which was weird. And her eyes… I thought your eyes closed when you died." He bowed his head, and when he raised it again, the light over his head showed every line in his face. "When I think about that day, I still think about her feet. I'd never seen her bare feet."
He found the trunk again, sat down, and put his face down in his hands. "I'm so tired tonight."
I didn't know what to say, so I said nothing. I thought about what it must have been like for him standing by himself in the attic, looking at her that way. I wondered how something like that changes you. As I watched him rubbing his eyes, I found myself wishing I had known him before he had seen her that way.
"Did you see any mail when you were downstairs?" He'd summoned the energy to stand up.
"No, come to think of it. But I wasn't looking."
"I'm going down to see if I can find it."
"I'll be right down. I'm going to turn off the lights first." And I wanted something from her closet. I didn't know why, but I wanted her running log. As Dan clopped loudly down the wooden stairs, I took one last look around the attic and the personal mementos box caught my eye again. It had neat handles cut into the sides, and when I picked it up, it wasn't heavy. I decided to take it also because it didn't belong in the place where she'd died.
I carried the box and the running log to the bottom of the staircase and went back up to get the lights. Dan had not only left every light burning in every room he'd searched, he'd also left a couple of drawers open in Ellen's desk along with the cassette door on the answering machine. Dan was right. Both of the tapes were missing. I had closed everything up and reached over to turn off the desk lamp when I noticed the red light on the fax machine. It was out of paper. According to the message window, there was a fax stored in memory. I knew Ellen would have paper nearby, and it didn't take long to find it. I dropped it in the tray and waited. After a few beeps, the machine sprang to life, sucked one of the pages into the feeder, and started to turn it around, spitting it out, bit by tiny bit. With a surge of nervous anticipation I plucked it out. A second one started right behind it.
It was written in cutout letters like a ransom note. It wasn't addressed to me. It wasn't meant for me, but it still made me shaky enough that I had to sit down. It said, "Ellen Shepard is proof that dogs fuck monkeys." I sat in her chair and stared at it. It had to be from someone at the airport, from one of her employees, and how sick was that? Having to show up at work every day knowing that you might be glancing at or talking to or brushing past the person who wrote this? Thinking about harassment in the abstract was one thing. Holding it in your hands was another.
Probably because I knew what was coming, the second one seemed to take even longer. This one was handwritten, the message scrawled diagonally. "Mind your own business, cunt."
And they kept coming, one after another, each more crude and disgusting than the last. As they rolled off, I checked the time and date stamps and the return fax number. They'd all been sent in the middle of the night from the fax machine in the admin office-my office. But at least they were old. At least there wasn't someone at the other end right this minute feeding the stuff in as fast as I could pull it off. Real-time torment-that was a thought that made my stomach lurch, and it occurred to me that maybe she had left the paper tray empty for a reason.
The last one to roll off was another one-liner, this one typed. "Regular place, regular time on Tuesday" was all it said. There was no name and no signature. According to the time stamp it had been sent at 2307 hours on Saturday, January 3-two days before she died-from a Sir Speedy in someplace called Nahant. It was from the snitch. Had to be. I put it in the pile, turned off the light, and was into the hallway when I heard it. It was so sudden and unexpected in the mostly dark, empty house that it was like an electric shock to my heart. It took a moment for me to calm down and realize that it was only the sound of the phone ringing. Ellen's phone. It was a perfectly ordinary, everyday sound and it scared me stiff. That it rang only once and stopped was even more chilling. Right behind it came the sound of the fax machine powering up again in the dark office. It was a sound that was so common, so mundane, and it was one of the most frightening things I'd ever heard.
I called for Dan. No answer. He could have been anywhere in the huge old house. The fax began to print and my pulse rate began to climb. I called again and then realized that even if he came, he wasn't going to do anything for me that I couldn't do for myself, right? It was just a fax machine, for God's sake.
I turned on the light and went back into the office, creeping up to the machine as if it was a rattlesnake. The page scrolled out slowly, leaving me to read it one word at a time. "We're"… the machine seemed louder than before… "watch"… and slower… "ing"… and it took everything I had not to just rip it out before it was finished… "We're watching you" is what it said and below that the number 1018.
At first I couldn't move, then I couldn't move fast enough. I was out of there, banging off the hallway walls and down that grand staircase. I'm not sure my feet even touched the ground. I tried the front door. Locked. Trapped. Then I remembered the dead bolt…
Dan, just coming up from the basement, took one look at my face. "What happened?"
"I just got… there's this message." I started to show him, but there wasn't time. "We have to go. Right now."
"All right. Just let me reset the alarm."
I had a hard time threading the key into the lock, and then again on the other side. When we were in the car, I showed him the last fax that had rolled off. He held it up to the light of the street lamp. "What's this number, this 1018?"
I cringed to even think about it. "It's my hotel room."
"Those bastards," he said. "I swear I'm gonna kill someone before this is over."
"Who exactly? What bastards? Who would know we were here unless they followed us? They could be watching right now."
"Let them watch." He started the engine, but paused to turn on the dome light and look at the fax more closely. "It came from the airport. Fucking Big Pete. It's starting all over again."
I reached up and turned off the light.
"Calm down, Shanahan."
"They're just trying to scare you."
"Mission accomplished. Let's get out of here, Dan. Right now."
As he pulled away from the curb and drove down the quiet street, I peered into every parked car, checked for movement behind every swaying tree. I wasn't sure I'd ever feel safe again.
"You might want to do one thing," he said, after we'd gone a few blocks in silence.
"Change hotel rooms."
"Hotel rooms? I might want to change cities."