As dusk settled over the suburban Cincinnati neighborhood, the sodium-vapor lights along the quiet street blinked and came to life on cue. They chased the shadows from the grade school parking lot, now littered with dried leaves that scraped across the pavement and swirled in their seasonal dance of joy.
Across the way, a man in a jet-black jogging suit eased behind a tree and checked his watch as the chilly breeze tousled his hair. He breathed deeply, noting the intoxicating aroma of burning leaves, and impatiently studied the faces of the pedestrians now strolling toward the school auditorium. Anxious children tugged at reluctant parents, their excitement barely contained.
“Yes, yes,” he overheard a woman tell a child. “We’ll get there in plenty of time. No need to rush.”
He smiled. He had been that overzealous child once, but that was a long time ago. He’d grown up, things had changed, and not every change had been welcome.
His smile faded as he continued to search for a certain bespectacled face. He’d been watching her for weeks and knew everything about her: when she got up in the morning, when she went to bed, where she went each day, how she spent her time. He even knew she was failing English for the second time, even after her teacher had given her a two-week extension on her term paper. Going through her trash, he’d discovered her addiction to Snickers bars, her affection for Ruffles potato chips and cream soda, and her preference for Pantene shampoo, which added luster to the blond hair she wore long and wavy.
A familiar red nylon jacket caught his eye, and he sucked in his breath. Concealing himself further behind the tree, he waited for her to pass.
Hmm. She was so close. He could have reached out, could have touched her hair. But he steadied his breathing and let the moment pass, deciding that reason must win the battle with emotion. There were simply too many people around who might see him and remember his face. He watched as she strolled into the school with her two charges in tow, carefree and unsuspecting.
Just the way he wanted her.
He took another deep breath, surprised by how calm he felt tonight. He knew what he needed to do and realized he had the resolve to execute his plan. Now all he needed was the opportunity, but waiting had never been easy for him. He could hear his mother’s chiding words strumming across the strings of his memory.
You’re so impatient, Donny. So restless. Don’t you know that good things come to those who wait?
Time to get inside.
Someone was watching her. For weeks, she’d felt unseen eyes following her every move. Evaluating. Judging. But when she would whirl around, no one was ever there—just brittle leaves scudding across the empty sidewalks.
“C’mon, you two. Hurry up.”
Clutching their hands with icy fingers, Erin yanked Daphne and Thomas along to match her stride. It was bad enough that she was stuck taking care of these first-grade brats on a Friday night. Worse, the evening’s entertainment promised to be a childish, elementary school musical, and she had better things to do with her time.
She’d been planning to give Sheryl a cut and dye job tonight. Her hairdressing service brought in more money than babysitting, but her mom had said she owed the Spensers a favor.
Erin wished for her father right now. Divorced from her mom and recently remarried, he had moved three states away, leaving them with the mortgage and a barely enough paycheck from her mom’s job as a nighttime gas station attendant. Her mom had said he was a no-good lowlife, that they were better off without him, but Erin wasn’t so sure. She had fond memories of her dad taking her ice-skating, just the two of them. He had shown her the spins he’d mastered as a young man, when he had almost qualified for the Olympics.
Almost. Dreams are never easy, he’d told her. You have to work hard and never, ever give up.
One more year and she would graduate from high school. Maybe then she could free herself from her mother’s stranglehold and open the beautician’s shop she’d always wanted.
The lights of Bridgetown Elementary glimmered against the darkening sky, the crisp wind swirling the leaves at her feet. She wished she’d worn her jean jacket instead of the thin, red windbreaker. She pushed her wire rim glasses up on her nose and glanced at her watch, realizing that in her reverie she’d slowed her stride.
“C’mon, we’re going to be late if you two don’t hurry,” she said.
“Slow down!” Daphne cried. “We can’t keep up.”
Erin peered down into Daphne’s frustrated hazel eyes. “Look, I’ll let you wear my watch if you’ll get a move on.”
Daphne squealed. “Cool!”
Though they were five minutes late, the program hadn’t yet started. But Erin realized that they should have come much earlier if they’d wanted to get a good seat. The place was packed, and she didn’t see an open row anywhere.
Biting her lip, she spied a friend coming down the aisle toward her. Laurie was a stagehand—and, as it happened, she was also the solution to their problem. She had been saving seats for her mother and sisters, but they’d all been waylaid by food poisoning or something, and wouldn’t be coming.
Three seats. Right in front. Perfect.
Erin couldn’t help smiling smugly as Laurie escorted them to the front row like celebrities at the Academy Awards, minus the red carpet pre-show, of course. She felt the indignant glares drilling into her back from those who had arrived a half hour early to get their seats. She felt a rush of pleasure at the realization that she was the cause of their indignation.
Let them sulk. Sometimes good things happen when you least expect it.
Her mind replayed a similar thrill she’d felt just a month ago, when she’d been summoned to give testimony in a big court case downtown.
She’d done up her hair special, dry-cleaned her special navy twin set, and worn her new high-heeled shoes, which made her short, lithe figure seem several inches taller. Approaching the stand, she had, for once in her life, felt important; felt as if every eye in the room was glued to her, mesmerized by this long-haired, blonde goddess with the porcelain skin and sapphire blue eyes. She hadn’t realized until later how important her testimony had been.
“And you saw the defendants enter Margaret Stowe’s house?” Stan Loomis, the prosecuting attorney, had asked.
“And you’re sure it was Walter and Virginia Owens. You’re positive?”
“Remember, Miss Walker, you are under oath. You saw their faces?”
She had bitten her lip as she tried to remember.
She had just finished house-sitting for Mrs. Stowe, as another way to make some extra money. The old lady was loaded. She had said good night to Mrs. Stowe and had walked off, feeling giddy at the sizable check. Almost to her car, she’d dropped her keys and bent to pick them up. Hearing voices, she’d glanced back and had seen two people walking up the sidewalk to Mrs. Stowe’s front door.
A man and a woman, wearing long, dark overcoats. They had looked wealthy. The man had placed his black-gloved hand at the middle of the woman’s back.
“You don’t think she’ll mind?” the woman had asked, a musical quality to her husky voice. “It’s late.”
“You’re right. It is late. Too late.” The man’s voice had sounded rough, like a smoker’s. “She can’t turn us away now.”
Standing beside her car, Erin had watched as the man knocked. When the door opened, a band of light had slashed across their faces for an instant before they disappeared inside.
Staring unflinchingly at Stan Loomis, she had said, “Yes, it was them. I’m sure of it.” She’d pushed away the fact that the encounter at Mrs. Stowe’s house had occurred the week before she’d gotten her new glasses.
“For the benefit of the jury, would you please point out who you saw?”
Her hand had trembled as she pointed to the pale-faced Owenses, who sulked beside their defense attorney. They didn’t flinch. They didn’t move. But their eyes—they hated her. They wanted her dead. Ever since, those eyes had stared back at her in her dreams.
Those dark, hateful eyes.
The sound of a grade school chorus singing an upbeat song drew her attention back to the stage. She stifled a yawn and glanced at her watch, only to realize that Daphne was still wearing it. Well, no big deal. She’d get it back later. The musical version of Winnie the Pooh was okay, she supposed. She reminded herself that she’d worked more demanding babysitting jobs for even less than the paltry, subminimum wage she was being paid.
The musical was drawing to a close. In another five minutes, the show would be over, and she’d take the kids home. Maybe there’d even be time for Sheryl’s cut and dye job.
A female voice sliced into her thoughts. Amid the waves of applause, the director was acknowledging the stage crew, who bowed awkwardly in their matching black jeans and T-shirts. Erin’s gaze locked onto one of the crew members, who appeared to be staring at her. A look of recognition glinted in his black eyes before Erin glanced away.
Do I know him? He didn’t look familiar. Unsettled, she rushed Daphne and Thomas home as soon as the show was over.
Walking home from the Spensers alone, Erin kept to the edge of the roadway, away from the sidewalk and out from beneath the shadow of the trees, as her mother always insisted. She scuttled between the dim pools of light cast by the streetlights, which seemed to do a better job of lighting the tops of the posts than illuminating the street below; she walked briskly, though she was really in no hurry to reach her quiet, lonely house. Her mother would be working at the gas station, and Erin would have the rest of the evening to watch HBO, to see if Sheryl wanted to squeeze in that haircut, and maybe to take a long, hot bath.
A familiar prickly feeling crawled up the back of her neck. Someone was watching her again. She whirled around, but no one was there. Exhaling a relieved sigh, she resumed her journey. A fresh blast of frigid wind cut through her thin jacket and set the leaves to dancing at her feet. Thoroughly chilled, she hugged herself as she walked along the shadowy street.
She heard the car before she saw it—a distinctive chirping noise above the sound of the engine as it pulled alongside.
“Hey, it’s cold out there. Want a ride home?” the driver called to her through the open passenger-side window.
Erin glanced in his direction, but couldn’t see his face. “No, thanks. I’m fine.” She kept walking.
“It’s me. From the musical.”
She stopped and looked closer, recognizing the guy from the stage crew. He was the one who’d been staring at her. She’d felt uncomfortable then, but didn’t feel uneasy now. He was attractive and friendly enough, but still she was cautious. “I don’t think I know you.”
“Well, maybe we could talk, get to know each other a little bit. I’m not so bad, if you give me a chance.”
Her hands automatically moved to smooth back her hair. He had to be at least ten years older. “I don’t know . . .”
“You look like you’re freezing. At least let me give you a ride home. I don’t bite. Honest.” He opened the passenger-side door and swung it toward her.
Stepping closer, Erin peered in and studied his face in the dome light. He had a nice smile and white, even teeth. His black, curly hair was kind of cute, too. She wondered if his curls were natural. “Well, it is pretty cold out here . . .”
Daphne Spenser tugged at her mom’s arm. “Erin let me borrow her watch, but I forgot to give it back.” She held up the too-large watch for her mom to see.
Washing dishes at the sink, Diane Spenser wagged her head. “How many times have I told you to return things you borrow? Hurry. Erin just left. Maybe you can still catch her.”
Out the front door and pulling her jacket on, Daphne scampered down the steps to the sidewalk and peered down the road. Halfway down the block, Erin was standing beside a brown car and talking to someone through the open window.
“Erin!” Daphne ran toward her. “Erin, wait!” But the wind was howling, and Erin couldn’t hear her. Daphne kept running, hoping Erin would see her.
She saw the passenger-side door open, and Erin stepped closer to the car. Just then, a hand shot out from inside the car and closed around Erin’s arm. She screamed and tried to pull away.
Daphne’s heart slammed into her throat. She froze.
A man was pulling Erin into the car in spite of her screams. Daphne saw his dark hair, but couldn’t see his face.
The car squealed away. The passenger door slammed shut as the car sped around the corner and headed out of sight.
Daphne’s heart pounded in her ears.
She wouldn’t see Erin again until the funeral.