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The air was thin, brittle and still. It was the kind of winter evening that allowed sound to travel unimpeded. Bud knew it was a fact he should remember as he pulled his Mercedes into the drive of his Schaumburg home.
The sun hung just above the horizon, but already the temperature had plummeted to below zero. It was going to be a bitter night, he thought as he walked up to the front door, snow crunching under his shoes.
The neighborhood was unusually quiet. Bud assumed most everyone was shopping for last-minute Christmas gifts just like his wife, Roya.
He stopped abruptly and looked at the house he'd built in the late seventies. For the first time, he was seeing it for what it was, what Roya had always said it was, "a monstrosity."
But then, I didn't build it for Roya.
He'd wanted so badly for it to be a replica of the grand estates he'd seen on the East Coast when he'd visited his sister, Daria, one summer in New York while she was attending Vassar. He'd wanted to fit in with her elegant society friends, women with aristocratic bone structure and impeccable clothes. Above all, he'd envied the careless ennui with which they viewed life and themselves.
For Bud, life had always been an intense grapple between himself and the forces that continually tried to beat him into submission. A battle that, for the most part, the forces had won.
He gazed at the house. It was a corruption of good taste, its ostentation counterbalancingits classic Greek Revival lines. It shouted what Bud was, what he despised about himself and what he'd sought a lifetime to curehis Polish heritage.
This is the last time I'll walk through this door.
Once inside, Bud glanced at the stately mahogany grandfather clock Roya had given him for his fiftieth birthday, four years ago.
"Impeccable taste." He remembered his friends commenting on Roya's gift and the black-and-white formal party she'd given him as a surprise.
"So elegant. Refined." He'd heard those words, too, used to describe his beautiful and much younger wife.
Even now, it was the only thing Bud found to smile about. Those were precisely his reasons for marrying Roya. She was class. With a capital C.
Intricately tuned chimes rang out four o'clock.
"I have to hurry. There isn't much time."
Bud flung his black cashmere overcoat on the burgundy brocade settee in the foyer. It missed its mark and puddled on the white-and-gold marble floor.
"White and cream would have been a better choice, Bud. Gold is overdone," Roya had said when he first showed her the house. She'd been eighteen.
"I thought it looked rich."
"Flashy is not rich, Bud," she'd replied with the innate confidence he'd always lacked. "Gold is Las Vegas and we're Sutton Place." Even her smile was measured for the correct impact. Not too bright, yet not weak, either.
He knew then he needed her. Needed her to make him look good when they went out in town. Needed her to smooth his rough edges. Needed her to wash away the stench of poverty and fear that dung to him.
He unlocked the door to his study. Bud didn't trust anyone, not his wife and certainly not his two teenage daughters, Lucienne and Cynthia, in this, his most private domain. Even the cleaning woman who came twice a week was barred entrance. Bud cleaned the room himself. He knew better than to leave anything to chance.
He unlocked the drawers and searched them frantically.
Then he unlocked each of the three file drawers next to the desk. Shoving his hand to the flat drawer bottoms, he found nothing.
"How can it be missing? No one's been here."
He slammed the last drawer shut just as the phone rang.
Startled nearly out of his leather desk chair, he reached out and carefully turned up the volume on his answering machine.
Thank God I never went to voice mail.
The connection was clear, too clear for the caller to be using a cellular phone. A single breath was all he heard before the caller hung up.
He couldn't tell if the caller was male or female. But it didn't matter.
Both were just as deadly to him.
"Shit! How could I not have seen this coming?"
His nerves were raw as he shoved his hands through his thick white hair. He needed more time. Time to think. To plan. To escape.
"Christ, Bud. You stupid, stupid Polack! Escape to where? To what? This has been there all along and you didn't see it! Just how dumb can you be?"
He spied the closet door and was on his feet in seconds. He flipped on the light, yanked the door open and scoured the interior.
"It's gotta be here!"
Frantic tears burned angrily in his eyes. He tossed doctored old company files and foreign car magazines to the floor as he moved farther back into the closet. High school yearbooks, scrapbooks, a small wedding album and photographs of a Caribbean vacation with his mistress, Kitt, formed piles of debris at his feet.
His fingertips brushed against cold metal.
He clutched the revolver, a prayer of benediction escaping his lips. He stretched his arm to the very back corner and found the box of bullets he would need.
He kicked the photographs of Kitt to the back of the closet. "Bitch!"
He turned out the light and shut the door.
Headlights from the street pirouetted across the paneled study wall.
"God! Not already!"
His fingers trembled as he jammed the bullets into the chamber. He sank to the floor, hiding in the increasing shadows as the last of the sun's rays died.
He could hear the car outside. Was it in his driveway or the one next door? He strained to hear his children's voices, but there was nothing.
He couldn't be sure the car door had even opened yet.
Fear paralyzed him. Were they coming for him? Or did he still have time?
He crawled along the carpeted floor close to the wall, through the doorway and out into the foyer. He could see through the narrow windows on either side of the front door that the car was not Roya's. It was small and dark, a compact of some sort parked between his house and the neighbor's on the street. Its headlights were off and the driver was watching the house. Waiting.
Not for a second did he think they'd sent only one man. There had to be an accomplice. Or two.
Bud scrambled along the foyer floor to the back of the house where the kitchen overlooked the backyard, empty swimming pool and snow-covered redbrick terrace. He didn't dare turn on a light in case they were in the backyard.
His heart hammered against his chest. He couldn't catch his breath. Then he realized he was crying.
He was going to pee his pants.
"Oh, God. Oh, God."
His eyes shot to the backyard. He knew every inch of the land he owned, possessed it with pride. Against a screen of tall evergreens that Roya had strung with crystal Christmas lights, he saw a figure walk through the shadows, making its way across the yard.
Then he heard the front doorbell ring.
Terror clawed at him.
He fought for control and cocked the gun.
"This is one dumb Polack you'll never get!"
The doorbell rang again.
Another car entered the cul-de-sac, its headlights illuminating the front steps of the Pulaski house where the lone figure dressed in black stood, his hand gripping a metal object.
The winter air cracked with the gunshot blast.
Bud had been right; the sound traveled for miles.