"Carolyn, if you're going to lie to me, you could at least make it a good one," Chip Hahn said sorrowfully into the phone.
He sat by the window in the upstairs front guest room of the big old house on Key Street, looking out at a late-night view of Eastport, Maine. Through the wavery antique panes in the elderly wooden windows, the full moon seemed to wobble liquidly.
Or maybe that was because he was seeing it through tears. Angrily he swiped them away, then closed his hand reflexively on the rabbit's foot hanging from a thin chain on his belt loop.
Not, he realized miserably, that the talisman he'd carried around for years was going to give him any good luck tonight. How could it? After all, it wasn't as if he hadn't known what he was getting into, becoming involved with Carolyn.
In the blue-white moonlight downhill beyond the houses of town, Passamaquoddy Bay was a pewter-colored disk. Above, a plane's contrail streaked thinly northeast through the indigo night, the aircraft itself already racing out over the Atlantic.
"Carolyn?" Two miles distant across the bay on the Canadian island of Campobello, a car's headlights appeared, then vanished.
"Carolyn, are you still there?"
She said something in reply, but he couldn't make out what. He'd forgotten how poorly his cell phone worked here in remote downeast Maine; his city phone plan was wrong for the area. But he hadn't wanted to use the landline. Someone in the house might pick up an extension and overhear this conversation.
Its tone, especially: the ragged pain in his own voice, which he tried to hide, and the carelessness in hers, which she didn't. The CD player on his laptop played the Roche sisters' first album, nearly as old as he was but in its wry lyrics and harmonies the perfect background music for him now.
"I had dinner and then a few drinks with Siobhan," Carolyn went on unconvincingly. "It got late, she let me sleep on her couch. End of story, okay?"
Through the window, he watched clouds begin streaming in gauzy tatters over the moon. Something ugly was coming, according to the weather forecast he'd heard earlier. Something . . .
"Chip?" The leafless branches of the ancient maples lining Key Street were elongated fingers, reaching out for something they could never have. Like me, he thought miserably, still clutching the rabbit's foot.
"Yeah," he said. "End of story." But of course it wasn't.
Silence from Carolyn, who after two days of not answering her cell or responding to his messages had at last taken his call. Now he imagined her sitting cross-legged in the oversized leather easy chair he'd bought for their apartment in Manhattan, a year ago when they'd first moved in together.
Her slim frame clad in a black leotard and a smock dress--the purple corduroy one, maybe, now that it was November and getting chilly--and her glossy dark hair falling in waves over her shoulders, she would be tapping her long nails impatiently on the chair's soft leather arm. Her high-heeled boots would be on the thick Persian rug nearby, probably, flung where she'd shed them.
"Have you eaten lately? I mean today?" he asked. She wasn't lazy, and she could be very well organized. But Carolyn had never learned to take care of herself.
She had him for that. "No," she said guiltily. "But I will. Chicken and corn, maybe. And a baked potato."
Yeah, right. The idea of her cooking a meal for herself in his absence, let alone a decent one, was beyond far-fetched. More likely she was subsisting on takeout until he got back.
If she was even eating that. But he didn't press it. "Sounds good," he told her instead, not wanting to start a quarrel. "Drink some fruit juice with it," he advised, knowing she wouldn't do that, either. In her simple obduracy Carolyn was like a stone, impenetrable unless you wanted to crush it, or break it.
And he'd never wanted to. After nearly three years' working together, he as the researcher and she the writer of a string of bestselling true-crime books, they'd become a couple, and Chip had briefly thought his life was complete. Even before they began sharing the same address he'd imagined them curled together in the leather chair, large enough to hold them both comfortably.
Just how comfortably, he had also pictured in considerable detail. But once it was delivered, Carolyn had claimed the chair as her own, her pointy knees and sharply jutting elbows fencing it off from him silently but definitively.
"Chip? You believe me, right? About last night?"
His hand felt cramped. Tucking the phone awkwardly in the crook of his neck, he heard the signature opening fanfare of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno coming on in the background at her end.
Good old Carolyn, the original multitasker. "Sure," Chip said, absently worrying the cuticle on his right thumb. "Like you said, you were at Siobhan's."
This too was improbable, however. Siobhan was Carolyn's editor, and in that role had proven to be an honorable, reliable friend. But she was about as likely to have a writer sleeping on the sofa in her elegant apartment overlooking Gramercy Park as she was to have bedbugs infesting it.
"I believe you," he said, since what good would it do to say otherwise? Carolyn was in Manhattan, over five hundred miles away, and he was here visiting his old friend Sam Tiptree in a place so different from the city, it felt like some other planet.
"Good." He heard relief in Carolyn's voice. It was this faint whiff of her caring that he clung to, knowing she depended on him not to give up on her or forsake her. He'd never done that either, even when he'd known her only as his employer, the writer of crime literature.
Which it was: What she wrote was never just another hack job on yet another wife-murder, child disappearance, or greed-fueled parent-slaughter, turgid tomes mixing sex, cash, and subnormal IQs to predictably gory effect. Instead, word by word and sentence by carefully crafted sentence, she presented the human elements behind the headlines, delicately and in their subtlest colors.
It was what he'd loved first about her, this freakish genius she had for communicating the emotions and motives of others while--the tragic irony of this did not escape him--possessing almost no insight into her own. But there was more.
Much more. Even now, if he'd been there he'd have gathered her in his arms, brushing aside the jutting knees and the sharp little elbows, and that would've been the end of it. For a long time her mercurial side had seemed a small price to pay for the rest of it.
All the rest of it. "You should get some sleep," he told her gently. "You're okay? You're going to be able to?"
Sleep, he meant. She wasn't any better at that than she was at eating, when he was away.
He heard her put her drink down on the low marble table that had been her only contribution to the room's decor, the little click of the glass striking stone. Even that had been grudging; if he'd left it to her they'd still be using stacked milk crates.
"I'm okay." Then: "Chip?"
"Yeah," he exhaled. All the rest of it . . . which he'd adored, and still did. The trouble was, something was changing. And in the week since he'd been away from her it had gotten worse, this feeling of not being able to bear the few things he didn't adore.
A lot worse. "Chip, could you do me a favor? Call up Maury Cahill for me, ask if I could go in and see him for a minute?"
Chip felt his mental eyebrows rising; Cahill was a criminal lawyer specializing in the kinds of scandalously illegal antics rich people's kids got up to, keeping them out of Rikers and off the front pages of newspapers.
Maury's son had been Chip's classmate at prep school; they still got together for a beer once in a while. But why might Carolyn need his old school pal's dad?
"It's for a friend," she assured him hastily but unconvincingly. Still, if she or her "friend" needed a lawyer, she had picked a good one.
And a request from Chip would indeed produce the desired appointment. So he agreed to phone Maury Cahill in the morning, then made a mental note to check in with him again later in the day. The old attorney wouldn't violate any oaths, but if Carolyn was in real trouble he'd probably give Chip a general heads‑up.
"Thanks," said Carolyn. "I'm sorry I didn't call you."
"Right." He knew she was sorry. That wasn't the point. "Get some rest. Just . . . go on to bed. You'll be all right tomorrow."
Would he be, though? The trouble was, he was beginning not to be sure how much longer he could take the situation before something bad happened. He drew his gaze from the moonlit rooftops, skeletal tree shapes, and the few warmly lit windows still visible in the village of Eastport at this late hour, and from the metallically gleaming bay. Here in this room the softly hissing radiator and the wallpaper's faded florals lent the sense that everything might still be fine, that he could get through this somehow.
His shirts and slacks hung on hangers in the tiny closet, but his socks and underwear were still in his suitcase, open on one of the plain pine twin beds. The room-size rug was a threadbare Persian long missing its fringes, indigo and red.
The bedspreads, white chenille, smelled of soap and bleach. "Listen," he told Carolyn. "Tomorrow you'll work, and you'll feel fine. And when I come home, we'll look at my new research together, all right?"
Across the room on a round wooden table were heaped his open laptop, stacks of papers, and spiral notebooks, preliminary materials having to do with a series of killings in Milwaukee two years earlier. If all went well, the crimes were to be the subject of his and Carolyn's next book.
Atop the heap lay a photograph of a human torso, or what was left of it after someone got done with the acts he'd committed upon it. All told--if indeed all had been told; the perpetrator had died in jail of a heart attack before he finished confessing--there were a dozen photos like this. All were taken by the killer while committing the crimes, about one per month during the time he had been active.
Which was another thing nobody was sure of: How long? And its corollary, How many? The accused man had said a year, but his methods were sophisticated. His staging of tableaux, especially, was what the FBI analyst out of Madison had termed "fully developed."
"Yes, Chip, I'll sleep," Carolyn agreed, sounding subdued. "And work sounds good."
The victims in the dozen photographs had all been young women. These were the only known photographs in the series, but a new cache of them might yet turn up, Chip believed, because the police weren't the only ones who had seen the pictures. Long before his capture, the killer had also posted them on the Web, in private chat rooms Chip had found while following obscure links the way a hound sniffs scent.
He'd phoned and emailed the Wisconsin authorities in case they didn't already know about the websites, but hadn't heard back yet. He'd never have found the sites himself if his own research talents weren't as prodigious as Carolyn's writing chops.
But through long practice and stubborn persistence, Chip could click his way unerringly to a needle in an electronic haystack; thus he'd discovered the forums where the gruesome pictures had resided, and since then memories of what else he'd seen and read there clung dankly to the inside of his head. Chat rooms for killers, he thought, what a concept.
"Good night, Chip," Carolyn said. "I love you."
"I love you, too," he answered, because he did.
He truly did. "Good night," he added, and hung up.
Only then did he realized that while he and Carolyn were talking, he'd torn off the strip of cuticle he'd been worrying without even feeling it, and now the rabbit's foot he always carried was smeared with his own bright red blood.
Just across the hall in his own room, Chip's old friend Sam Tiptree was also having problems with women.
Two women, to be precise.
WHERE R U? W8TNG W8TNG W8TNG
The first one, pretty and fun-loving Carol Stedman, had been texting him all evening. She wouldn't take no for an answer, which under other circumstances he tended to find attractive.
He supposed he should have known that she was going to be a difficult girlfriend; from the start, she had not by any means been a safe bet. He'd met Carol while she and a guy she'd been traveling with were wreaking small-town havoc--no violence, and the money and stolen car were recovered, but still--in Eastport, and this had been an omen of things to come, relationship-wise.
I HV SMTHNG 4 U . . .
I'll bet, Sam thought. He'd never been convinced by the new leaf Carol had sworn she'd turned over.
Still, she was lively and irreverent and game for all kinds of delightful adventures. Tall and athletic, she'd even sampled new-to-her activities like kayaking and camping, things that involved getting dirty, wearing clunky boots, or carrying your toilet paper along with you into the woods (or all three), and she had ended up really liking the outdoorsy stuff.
Or at least she did as long as it was liberally diluted by weekends in downtown Portland, on tours of bars, clubs, films, concerts by bands he'd never heard of, and plenty of time in bed.
"Sam? Are you still there?" The voice, not Carol's, came from the phone he held to his ear, the landline handset because his cell was being occupied by Carol's messages.
"Are you texting someone while I'm talking to you?"
This voice belonged to Maggie, the other young woman in Sam's life. A longtime friend, she had gradually turned into much more; for a while there'd been a clear, unspoken sense between them that they would marry, sooner or later.
That it was inevitable, which was what had spooked him, he guessed. "Uh, no," he managed while his thumbs moved deftly. "Why would you think that?"
TOLD U NOT COMING SORRY. He pressed Send.
"The way you breathe when you're texting. And I can hear it, the way your sleeves rustle a certain way or something. So stop it. What's she trying to do, anyway, get you to go out?"
Carol was at a party on the mainland, on the Golding Road near Boyden Lake in Perry. She'd been cajoling him to join her since nine-thirty. But he had early plans tomorrow, with Chip.
Excerpted from A Bat in the Belfry
by Sarah Graves
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provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or
distributed without the written permission of the publisher.