Chapters One & Two
Do you know the killer beside you?
Stefan leaned against the hardware store counter, the first customer of the day, and watched the clerk select two blank coppery keys off a peg-board. The clerk had oil-stained fingers and Stefan almost hated to see him touch the virgin keys, shiny and uncut. The first key was clamped into the whirring machine and in seconds its edge was mapped with Stefan's future. A key in a lock, and you were in. He figured this could be worth thousands. Then the second key was copied, and they were done. He paid the clerk, got into his black SUV, beat-up and faded to gray in spots, and raced home. He needed to get the original keys back into Magna's purse before she woke up, which would be soon. On Tuesdays, she cleaned two houses and her schedule was tight.
Rudy was already waiting at a small corner table, halfway through a cup of coffee and a slice of lemon meringue pie, when Stefan arrived later that morning. He got himself some coffee and sat down. The table was streaked with someone's sticky mess—probably one of those Capo-Marshmallow-Latte things. Rudy drank his coffee "real," meaning strong and black, and since meeting him last summer in the halfway house Stefan had taken to doing the same. They only came to Starbucks because all the other places had shut down, except for one lonely spot at the mall, and both Rudy and Stefan agreed they hated malls. Too many cameras everywhere.
Stefan flipped the shiny keys, joined by a flimsy metal ring, back and forth on his open palm. "The old lady's leaving tomorrow and she'll be gone until Saturday—visiting her family in New York for Thanksgiving. The house will be empty and she keeps a lot of cash lying around."
"Nope. She doesn't think she needs protection."
A grin spread across Rudy's face. Clean shaven but heavy-bearded, he looked perpetually shadowed, even in direct light. He also shaved his head because, as he'd once told Stefan, there wasn't enough hair left to do his face justice. Rudy was around forty, easily twice Stefan's age.
"Everyone needs protection," Rudy said, and both men laughed. "How much cash does she keep in the house?"
"A lot, in big bills—fifties, hundreds. Magna's seen it in a jewelry box. Big box, right on the old lady's dresser, full of classy stuff we can easily pawn."
"No husband, no boyfriend?"
"Widow. And no boyfriend. She's something like seventy years old and she's some kind of famous writer. Thinks she's the greatest fucking thing since they landed on the moon."
"Magna thinks that?"
"No, the old lady thinks it about herself, Magna said. Fiona Carson. Ever heard of her?"
"I don't read much." Rudy finished his coffee in one gulp like he had to be somewhere. Which he didn't, not as in had to get to work or get home because someone was waiting. No one was waiting at home for Rudy, and he hadn't worked in twenty years, unless you counted prison work. He'd been in and out of the joint since before he was Stefan's age. Repeat offender: burglary, armed robbery, the kind of thing they were planning for Thursday. The kind of bread and butter job that could keep you going for a month, two if you were lucky. One thing about Rudy that Stefan really admired was how well he planned. He didn't like dealing with people and he made a point of hitting houses when no one was home. Stefan knew from the minute they'd met that there was a lot this guy could teach him, because where Stefan was weak, Rudy was strong. "That you're impulsive," the judge had said about Stefan before sending him away for nine months last year, "is your Achilles heel. You need to get that under control, do you understand me?" Bloodshot eyes under bushy eyebrows, old fart. "Your juvenile record alone—arson, breaking and entering, public intoxication—shows that already, at your young age, you've fallen into a pattern of criminal recidivism. Son, I'm genuinely sorry to say this, but you are becoming a menace to society."
"It'll teach her a lesson," Rudy said, setting down his empty cup. "Ought to get herself an alarm system. It's not like she can't afford it. Cheap bitch."
Stefan's laughter drew another grin from Rudy.
"What time?" Stefan closed his fingers around the keys, loosening them when he felt one of their sharp new edges cut into his palm. His mother always told him his hands were too soft, but what did she expect? He'd spent his youth at school and doing homework, though not very well. Everyone in their family made a living with their heads; Stefan was the first one to avoid the college trap and actually work for a living. It was a hard job, redistributing wealth, but someone had to do it.
"Let's say five o'clock, when it's dark, so the neighbors won't see."
"Didn't I tell you? She lives at the end of a country road—no neighbors."
Rudy's eyes cranked open. "No, you didn't tell me that, moron. That's the kind of thing I'm talking about. You've got to think. No neighbors means we don't have to work the night shift."
"Sorry, Rudy." Stefan squeezed the keys into his palm, cutting himself.
Rudy stood up and straightened his leather jacket. "Pick me up Thursday at my place at eleven thirty, sharp."
It was a moment before May became aware of the deer darting across the road in front of her car. A moment rich with thought. A moment in which she was aware only of the windshield at night, hard and glossy, separating her from the cold bite of the November air outside the car. Candy-coated darkness, she was thinking, the moment before the deer catapulted into her vision; a membrane between me in here and every possibility beyond the small spaces of my life. Driving, on her way to her mother's for Thanksgiving, with Juliana crumpled in sleep in the back seat, May simultaneously felt the sharp edges of two distinct and conflicting feelings: relieved to have left her husband Charlie behind, and terrified that he wasn't beside her navigating the wheel as usual.
She wondered if her mother had guessed the real reason May had opted out of hosting the holiday in Brooklyn, as originally planned, and the real reason Charlie wasn't traveling to Waterbury with them tonight. Might Fiona have already figured out that May's explanation—"He has some work to finish up for his show next week, the big piece, the one he's been struggling with, and plans to join us tomorrow morning"—was just an excuse? After twenty-one years of marriage, Charlie, a sculptor whose life and work gave flex-time real meaning, had never missed a minute of any family holiday. It was unthinkable, in fact, that Charlie with his thrilling (egomaniacal) personality wouldn't be there to make every minute exciting. May wondered if Fiona's disappointment would tip into anger. Fiona, the celebrated novelist, and Charlie, now becoming a famous artist, were soul-mates in a way that was suffocating May out of her marriage. Twenty-one years ago she had fled her rapacious mother into the arms of a lovely young man who didn't throw cold shadows over her own aspirations toward the theater. Twenty-one years ago, before two children and the constant nurturing of a family had drained her of her own goals. The stage: she could still feel its pulse inside her. Even now, in the darkness beyond the windshield, she could see a ghost of her once-young self shimmering in a spotlight, hands open by her sides, chin tilted precisely to show her reaction to something in the script...something in the script.
You couldn't be at the theater for an early makeup call and home cooking dinner for hungry children at the same time. And you couldn't reasonably expect your husband to accommodate you, not when his career came first because he brought in the money, but not enough money to afford a sitter. It was a simple equation, on the surface.
"He has some work to finish up...and will join us tomorrow...." Charlie would come in the morning; it was not a lie. But the more she thought about it the more she assumed her mother had probably read between those flimsy lines. May hoped Fiona would keep her sharp tongue to herself, especially in front of Juliana. All May wanted now was to get through the holiday so on Friday, when it was over, and everyone was gathered for breakfast, before anyone had left—Stella, her oldest, was due from college tomorrow morning and her boyfriend Art would follow later in the day—when they were all still together she and Charlie could announce their decision to separate.
Separate. This was the painful thought saturating her mind when the deer hit the car, or the car hit the deer. She wasn't sure. It just suddenly happened. An enormous deer leapt in front of her and seemed briefly suspended in midair, antlers majestically aloft, and then there was a loud thump. The car jolted before she slammed her foot on the brakes.
The first thing she did was turn around to look at Juliana, who had gone from sleeping to alert some time in the last few seconds.
"It's okay, honey." Even as she said this, May recognized its insincerity. How could it possibly be okay?
"What happened, Mommy?" Juliana rubbed her eyes. At nine, her pretty face hovered between babyish and mature. While she was sleeping, having contorted her position in search of comfort, her long brown ponytail had strayed messily to the side of her head.
May reached back to touch her daughter's leg. "We hit a deer."
Juliana looked stunned and May regretted the "we."
"I didn't see it at first," May said. "It jumped in front of the car."
"Is it alright?"
May turned to face the windshield. She could see the top of the deer's side in front of the car and a sprig of antler, but that was all.
"Wait here." May opened the car door and immediately felt the sharp cold air of a country night. They were in northern Connecticut, nearly at Waterbury where she had grown up and where her mother still lived. The darkness up here was almost pure, with what little light there was coming from distant houses and the moon and stars which shone brightly in the clear sky.
The deer was large, lying on his side, completely still. Disappointment, sadness, regret flooded May. She glanced at the car, at Juliana who was now perched in the front seat, trying to see the deer. It was dead, but May doubted Juliana could see that. Anything that still had to be dead.
She would have to tell Juliana. And what about the deer? What were the procedures? Surely she couldn't just drive away, nor would she want to. She would begin by calling 911.
Juliana cracked open the side door and was just stepping into the road when suddenly, in one huge motion, the deer stood. It happened so fast Juliana screamed and May jumped back. The deer righted himself and without a glance at May or Juliana or the car ran across the road and the grass embankment and into the woods.
The asphalt where the deer had lain was illuminated by the car's headlights. May inspected the area for blood and found none, nor were there any traces on the car. The front grille was slightly dented, but that was all. She wondered if the deer might have suffered internal injuries. But this was not a possibility she could share with Juliana, at the age of nine.
"He's okay!" Juliana said, coming around to her mother's side in front of the car. In the headlights, the frazzled nimbus of her hair gave her the look of a furry animal herself, as if a nature sprite had appeared to celebrate the miraculous survival of the deer.
"He'll be fine," May said, hugging Juliana to her side.
"Come on, let's go to Grandma's."
"If she's asleep, can we wake her up and tell her what happened?"
"She'll be awake; it isn't late."
"Good." Juliana climbed into the back seat of the car and May shut the door, then walked around and got into the front. "Maybe I'll tell her the first half of the story but keep the happy ending for tomorrow. Can I do that, Mommy?"
"A story like that? You'll have to tell it all at once, I think. Not knowing what happened to that poor deer would be torture for anyone."
© Katia Lief