He stood in the shadows of a building near the Water Tower district watching the entrance, waiting for the chosen one to appear. The damp, cool night air settled in his bones. He was miserable but didn’t dare give up, and so he continued to hide there waiting and hoping for over two hours. Then he finally accepted that he had failed.
Defeated, he climbed back into his Jeep and headed home. Tears came into his eyes, so severe was his disappointment and shame. He heard someone sob, realized that he had made the sound, and impatiently wiped the tears from his cheeks.
He couldn’t stop shaking. He had failed. What would the demon do to him now? He sobbed again.
And then, just as he was about to scream with the despair, the answer came. He saw the entrance to Conrad Park and suddenly knew the demon had guided him to where he needed to go. The jogging trail circled the university and the park in a perfect figure eight. He remembered seeing the diagram in the newspaper along with a long article about a festival. The proceeds would go to some sort of charity, but he couldn’t remember which one.
You’ll find her here, the demon whispered.
He was suddenly relieved. He found a perfect parking spot along the street next to the university. He pulled up beside a telephone pole. There was a poster for a coming race north of the city nailed to it. The poster showed a pretty young woman crossing a finish line.
He started to open the door and then froze. He wasn’t dressed properly. He’d worn his cheap but serviceable black suit with a white shirt and pinstriped tie because he thought he’d find her down by the Water Tower district, and he wanted to blend in with the other businessmen going home from work. He had stuffed a baseball cap in his pocket and planned to put it on once he started following her so that no one else on the street would be able to identify him after the fact.
What should he do?
Make the best of it, the demon hissed.
He grabbed his briefcase and decided to act as though he were a professor at the university, walking in a hurry. It wasn’t such a stretch. Yes, he could pull it off.
The weather had turned foul again. It had rained hard every day for the past four days, but it was supposed to be clear tonight. The weatherman had obviously been wrong. Damn, he should have thought to bring his umbrella along. It was too late to get one now.
Gripping the vinyl handle of the briefcase in his left hand, he walked quickly along the trail, trying to act as though he knew where he was headed. He walked for almost a mile, a fine mist covering his clothes, the urgency building inside him as he searched for the perfect spot. There weren’t many wooded areas, and he knew the specimen would be more cautious and watchful there.
He wasn’t too concerned that the mist would keep her away. Runners run, no matter the weather. And there was an important race to get ready for, he thought. Oh, yes, he would find her there.
But where should he hide? He kept walking, looking for a good spot. New lights designed to look like old-fashioned gas lamps were spaced along the path about twenty feet apart, some even closer together near the back of a building he was approaching. A sign with an arrow pointing to the building indicated it was a lecture hall. “Won’t do, won’t do,” he muttered. Too much light for what he intended.
His suit was soaked through, and still he continued on. What was that against the wall? He walked closer, stepped off the path, and then stopped. A shovel? Yes, that’s what it was.
There were three large holes along the side of the stone building where shrubs had been pulled out to make room for new ones. One of the workmen had obviously left the shovel behind. And a few other items as well. On the ground next to the shovel was an orange tarp folded haphazardly, and sticking out from one edge was a hammer, rusty but adequate. He seized it, measured the weight and grip in his hand, and held it close to his side. He hadn’t thought to bring a weapon. He was strong, terribly strong, and he believed he could subdue any woman, no matter her size, with his bare hands. The hammer might make it easier to convince her not to struggle. Better safe than sorry, he thought.
He walked around the curve in the path and gasped with excitement. A renovation was in progress. There was a pyramid of dead shrubs and trees, the roots like dried-up octopus tentacles reaching into the path. The trash was waiting to be carted away. He looked around for signs of anyone who could see or hear, then picked up a rock, and with his first pitch, broke the lamplight nearest the pile. Still too bright, he decided and threw another rock to break a second lamp.
“Perfect,” he whispered. A perfect little nest.
He kept thinking about those big, deep holes someone had thoughtfully left for him. A couple of them were on the south side of the building, but there were two more adjacent to the path with neon orange cones around them. Although he was wearing gloves, he still brushed his palms against his pants as he hunkered down behind the stack of foul-smelling, decomposing rot. His loafers sank into the mud. He gingerly placed the cheap attaché case on the ground next to him and took a deep, calming breath.
His senses were heightened by adrenaline, and he was more attuned to his surroundings. He could hear every little sound, smell every musty scent.
He heard the pounding of feet against the pavement as a runner approached. He smiled with satisfaction. Runners run, no matter what. He scrunched down lower still and squinted through the triangular opening he’d made between the branches. He watched the spot under a bright light he knew the runner would have to pass.
“Yes.” The runner was indeed a woman. But was she the right woman? Was she the perfect chosen one? He couldn’t see her face—she was looking down at the path as she sped along. He could see her slim, atheletic body, though, and her thick, dark hair pulled back in a ponytail. She had to be the one. He stared at her long, luscious, incredibly perfect legs.
Clutching the hammer like a baseball bat, he prepared to spring.
He didn’t mean to kill her. He wanted only to daze her. Too late, he discovered his timing was off. He should have let her get past him and then struck her from behind, at the base of her skull, but he was too eager and too inexperienced. She was a fighter, clawing at his face as he struggled to take her down.
He dodged her hands, and when he was finally able to get a good look at her face, he realized she was seeing him clearly. Panic set in, and then fury.
She was pulling pepper spray from her pocket and screaming at the top of her lungs. He struck her hard—one blow from the hammer—and she collapsed. The demon wouldn’t let it end there. Again and again he struck her legs, pounding her knees and her thighs and her ankles.
There was blood everywhere.
Luck stayed on his side, for the mist had turned into a hard rain. He turned his face up to the sky and let the cold rainwater wash the blood away. The crimson stream flowed under his shirt collar giving him goose bumps. He closed his eyes to rest.
He suddenly bolted upright. How long had he been squatting next to her body, stupidly looking up at the black sky while anyone and his uncle could have wandered by?
He shook his head. He had to hide the body.
The holes. Those beautiful, big holes on the side of the building. Dare he risk carrying her all that way? Or should he use the shovel and dig a better hole underneath all the dead shrubs. Yes, that’s what he would do. But not yet. He quickly hid her under some branches, then found a spot near the shovel to hunker down and wait. After midnight, when he was sure no one would disturb him, he moved the dead branches and dug a pit for her. He made sure it was deep enough to cover her folded body. As he dragged her to the hole, both shoes and one of her socks came off, so he threw them in. He stuffed her into the hole butt first, shoveled dirt on top of her and patted it down, and then dragged the rotting branches and dead shrubs over his work.
After he covered his footprints as best he could, he stood off to the side of the path to survey his handiwork. He was relieved to see that the rain had already washed the blood away from the walk.
The shaking started when he got back in his Jeep. He could barely get the key into the ignition, so undone was he by what had just happened. By the time he got home, an overwhelming sensation of peace and tranquility eased through his limbs, and he was feeling just like he used to after sex. Satisfied, content, relaxed.
And guilt free. That surprised him a little. He really didn’t feel any guilt at all. But then, why should he? The woman had tricked him, and for that reason alone she deserved to die.
Two other runners had passed by while he’d waited to bury the body, and either one of them, both males, might have noticed the bloodstains the rain hadn’t completely washed away yet. Yes, he’d taken quite a risk tonight.
He flipped the car lights off before he turned the corner so the nosy bitch neighbor wouldn’t see him pulling into his drive. Several weeks before, he’d removed the garage door light. As he approached his house, he drove at a snail’s pace. There she was, standing at her kitchen window, staring out. She was always checking on the neighbors.
She disappeared just as the garage door went up. Her name was Carolyn, and she was becoming more than just a pain in the ass. Too bad Carolyn didn’t live alone. She took care of her mother. One would think that the old woman would keep her occupied, but apparently that wasn’t so. Carolyn was a busybody and intrusive, always wondering when she could stop by to meet Nina. If she kept it up, he would have to do something about her.
After he parked in his garage, he pulled a wooden crate from a shelf and laid the bloody hammer in the bottom. Then he emptied his pockets. The pepper spray and driver’s license he’d impulsively taken from the woman went into the box next. He shoved the crate and the attaché case into a corner. After that, he stripped and put his muddy clothes and shoes in a trash bag.
He had to be quiet. He didn’t want to awaken Nina, and so he decided he’d sleep in the guest room. He silently crossed the house and climbed the stairs. When he saw his face in the bathroom mirror, he gasped and recoiled in horror. What had the woman done to him? His face looked like raw hamburger. He quickly turned on the faucet and used a cloth to gently wash the blood away. Her nails had ripped long tears in his skin on both sides of his face. There was even one long scratch down the side of his neck. He raged against her as he stepped into the shower and turned the water on. His arms were a mess, too.
My God, what if someone had seen him on the drive home? How many times had he sat at stoplights looking left and right. Maybe one of the other drivers had already called the police and given them his license plate number.
He began to bang his head against the tile. They’ll catch me; they’ll catch me. What will I do? Oh, God, what will happen to Nina? Who will take care of her? Will she be forced to watch me being dragged away in handcuffs? That humiliation was too appalling to think about, and so he did what he had trained himself to do while Nina was in the critical care unit at the hospital. He forced himself to block the image until it disappeared.
He stayed inside his house all weekend, glued to the television set, waiting to hear the newscasters talk about the murder. As time went by, he became strangely detached because the woman hadn’t been discovered. By Tuesday, he counted himself lucky and was feeling quite confident.
Not bad, he told himself. Not bad at all for a dress rehearsal.
He’d even come up with the perfect explanation for his scratches. The rain had made the ground slick and he’d slipped and fallen into some thorny bushes.
His department head, a pissant of a man, called him into his office on Wednesday at four to tell him that everyone had noticed how hard he was working and how cheerful he had been these past three days. Why, one of his colleagues had mentioned that he’d even told a joke. The pissant hoped that he would continue with this bright, fresh, wonderful attitude.
As he was leaving his boss’s office, he was asked a question. What had caused this transformation? Spring, he’d told him. He was ignoring the foul weather and relandscaping his entire backyard. He was having a delightful time, but he wasn’t doing any planting yet. The ground was warm now, and he was tearing up everything. Out with the old and in with the new. He was even thinking about building a gazebo.
“Do be careful pulling out those shrubs,” the pissant cautioned. “You don’t want to fall into any more thorny bushes and get hurt again. You’re lucky the scratches didn’t become infected.”
Indeed. He most certainly didn’t want any more scratches, and yes, he was a very lucky man.
THE WEEK WENT BY IN A BLUR. BY FRIDAY, REGAN WAS IN A MUCH better mood. She’d caught up on all of her paperwork, and she was able to get back to what she loved to do.
Even running into Aiden’s assistant didn’t dampen her spirits. Regan had been hurrying down the hall to her office when Emily Milan called out. She turned and waited for Emily to catch up to her. The woman was at least three, maybe four, inches taller than Regan and towered over her when she wore high heels. Her blond hair was cropped short with jagged wisps framing her striking features. Everything about Emily was trendy, from her short, tight skirt to her bold, colorful jewelry.
Regan didn’t like Emily, but she tried her best not to let her personal feelings interfere with work. For some reason, Emily had taken a real dislike to Regan too. Emily’s animosity had been building over the past couple of months, and she was becoming more openly hostile.
“Aiden would like me to take over the meeting you were scheduled to run this morning. I’m sure he wanted to make certain it ran smoothly.”
It was an insult, and not even a veiled one. Regan had to remind herself why she put up with the woman. As unpleasant as she was, she did ease Aiden’s workload, and that was all that mattered.
“That’s fine,” she said.
“I’ll need the notes Aiden e-mailed you. Print them out and have your assistant bring them to me.”
No please or thank you, of course. She simply turned and walked away. Regan took a breath and decided she wasn’t going to let Emily ruin her morning. Think of something good, she told herself. It took a minute, but she finally came up with something. She didn’t have to work with Emily. That was definitely good.
Most days, Regan believed she had a dream job because she got to give away money. She was the administrator of the Hamilton Foundation. Her grandmother Hamilton had begun the philanthropic program, and when she had a fatal stroke a couple of years ago, Regan, who was already being trained for the position, stepped in and took over. It wasn’t yet the multimillion-dollar foundation Regan hoped for, but it was successful and had provided money and supplies to many struggling schools and community centers. Now all she needed to do was convince her brothers to increase the funding. And that was no easy task, especially with Aiden, whose entire focus was on expanding the hotel chain.