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By Cybele Loening
Balboa PressCopyright © 2014 Cybele Loening
All rights reserved.
He'd set the alarm as a precaution, never thinking he'd actually need it. Now he was glad he had. He switched off the buzzer then rubbed his eyes and stretched, forcing himself to come back to life.
The clock said 4:30. It was the middle of the afternoon, but outside his window the New York City sky was dark, and the moon was already out. It hung over Manhattan like a giant Christmas ornament.
Web had slept for three hours.
Not nearly enough.
He was exhausted. All he'd done lately was work. But that's what you got when you owned a business, especially one that put you at the whim of demanding clients all of whom believed they were the center of the universe and needed attention now.
He pushed the thought away. His company was all he thought about these days, and he needed a break. Just one day. Which is why he had given himself the morning to do one of the things he loved best: Internet-shop on his new MacBook Pro. He was an unabashed consumer, not so much of clothes as electronics and gadgets, and this morning had spent more than two hours hunting for a carry-on size duffle bag with roller wheels. Not just any duffle bag with roller wheels, but the perfect duffle bag with roller wheels—specifically one with a padded compartment for his computer, interior zip pockets for his phone, keys, power cord and iPod, and a netted side pocket for a water bottle.
This was probably part six of a series of Internet searches and store visits he'd made in the last month. As it always happened when he was on the hunt for The Perfect Item, Web became completely obsessed ... to the point that he would start thinking about it at 3:00 a.m. while taking a piss.
He wanted to get back online now but he didn't have time. He was due at his parents' house in an hour. Tonight his whole family—his parents, his sisters Beth and Serena, and Serena's husband Bill—would be there. It was the first time his family would be gathered under the same roof in years. He couldn't wait to see them.
Hoisting himself into a seated position he swung his right leg over the side of the bed. His left leg—now just a stump below the knee—followed. Amputated when he was nineteen, the stump looked like a giant sausage puckered at the tip. At one time the sight of it had horrified and revolted him. But now he didn't think about it as much.
And fortunately the women didn't seem to mind. His other attributes seemed to make up for the missing leg.
Web had two prosthetics—one for everyday use and the other a sleeker version designed for running. He reached for the all-purpose limb and put it on.
By the time he was finished dressing, fifteen minutes had passed. It was time to go. He called the garage downstairs and asked the attendant to get his car ready. He would be down shortly. Twenty minutes later his BMW was cruising sixty miles an hour on the empty West Side Highway. He paralleled the Hudson River until signs for the George Washington Bridge exit appeared. Flipping his right blinker and checking for cars feeding in from Riverside Drive, he decelerated to thirty and eased into the lane that snaked onto the bridge. Midway up the ramp, he made a split-second decision to take the Upper Level rather than the usually less crowded lower level. Today he couldn't resist seeing the bridge in its full glory rather than from its dingy bowels, which was the way he always thought of the tunnel-like lower level. He had been fascinated by the bridge as a child, and the idea of seeing it spread before him the way he'd appreciated it when he was young suddenly seemed no less thrilling.
It didn't disappoint. Anchoring the bridge on either end were two soaring steel archways tied by a series of massive suspension cables that dipped toward the center in a graceful upside down arc. The bridge was a marvel of design, and yet the natural beauty of the mighty Hudson River below rivaled its magnificence. Flanked by steep cliffs on either side, the river stretched north in a straight column for many miles then began to curve and widen as the urban landscape gave way to the greener suburbs. On a clear day travelers crossing the span could see the Tappan Zee Bridge twenty miles north.
When he reached the other side of the bridge, Web experienced the familiar mix of emotions he always did when he left the city. He'd loved growing up in the suburbs, but now he found them stifling. The people all looked, sounded and thought alike. There was no challenge. And yet leaving the noise and intensity of Manhattan was a welcome relief; the sensation was almost palpable. Escaping once in a while wasn't just a luxury but a necessity. It was why a few years ago he'd purchased a small house in Sag Harbor, a few blocks from the beach.
Best money he ever spent.
He loved that house. He'd bought it as a summer weekend escape, but he quickly found he enjoyed fall out there best. By then the high-strung New York crowd had cleared out, and the whole town seemed to sigh and soften. The locals relaxed, the artists shelved their sales pitches and snapped back into creative mode, and the place just seemed, well, lighter. It wasn't the Hamptons most Manhattanites talked about, but to him it was the real Hamptons.
Thinking about his house got him excited about the duffle bag again. He had a closet full of summer clothes in Sag Harbor, and this one would be perfect to transport the few items he needed to take back and forth to Manhattan.
Yup. Some more shopping tonight was definitely on the agenda.
Ten minutes later Web exited the highway and entered the town of Avondale, one of the New York City's most exclusive suburbs. Five minutes later his parents' stately home came into view. The grand house was set far back from the road, behind hundred-year-old trees and a rolling, manicured lawn. Each time Web saw that property, it reminded him of what his father—a man from humble beginnings—had built. He felt both pride and gratitude for the world he'd been born into. With a pool and tennis court in his own backyard, and yearly vacations to the Caribbean or Europe, Web and his sisters had enjoyed a more privileged upbringing than most kids could even dream of.
Not that Web had ever rested on his trust fund laurels. Much like his father, he'd proved his own in business.
He pulled the car up to the three-car garage and came to a stop in front of the last bay. He got out and grabbed two bags of Christmas presents from the trunk. Then he entered the house through the back door and removed his coat, hearing laughter coming from inside. He hung his coat on a peg in the mudroom and stepped inside the large kitchen, where the family always seemed to congregate. That's where he found his father and younger sister, Beth. They hadn't heard him come in.
Beth was sitting at the table next to her father, who was squinting into the LCD screen of a digital camera and awkwardly manipulating the scroll button with fingers gone stiff with arthritis. Web guessed that his father was looking at the photographs from Beth's recent trip to Peru. She was a travel writer and loved showing off the places she'd been.
"Torturing Dad, I see?" he said by way of greeting.
Beth looked up in surprise and grinned. "Yup. You're next."
"I'd rather eat Zoey's poop." Zoe was her cat.
"Now, kids," his father scolded, rising from his seat to embrace his oldest child, his only son. He grinned. "How ya' doin' big guy?" At 6' 4", Web was more than half a foot taller than his somewhat shrinking father, so he had to bend down to meet him.
"How was the traffic?" Web's father asked after they'd pulled apart.
The question marked his father as a true suburbanite. Traffic was the bane of existence to everyone who commuted to the city by car. His father had done it for forty years.
"It's Christmas, Dad, there was no traffic."
At that moment, his mother entered the kitchen holding a wooden mixing spoon. "Web!" she said and came over to give him a hug. "Merry Christmas!"
"Merry Christmas, Mom," he said, bending down to give her a kiss on the cheek. His mother returned to the stove and started mixing something with her spoon. "It smells amazing in here," Web said, taking in the intoxicating scent of roasting meat.
"You look great, Mom," he said, admiring the pale blue dress that brought out the blue of her eyes. Small pearl earrings dotted her earlobes, and the pearl choker Web's father had given her on their first anniversary hung around her neck. Slender and delicate, she looked neatly dressed and coiffed as always, the perfect picture of a Mainline, Philadelphia banker's daughter.
"Thank you, darling."
Still, his parents were aging more visibly each year, and Web wondered how many more Christmases they would all be able to share. He pushed the thought away.
"I can't wait to eat," he told his mom. "I'm starving."
As if on cue, his stomach grumbled, and his mom laughed. "Try my chestnut puree, Web," she said, scooping a mound of it and spoon-feeding him like a baby, not a thirty-four-year-old man who ran his own company. "Does it need more salt?"
"It's perfect, mom," he said. She made the dish every year, and he'd always hated it. But he'd never tell her that.
His mother looked closely into his face, and her forehead crinkled in concern. "Honey, I'm worried about you. You look pale. And tired."
Web bit back a sarcastic retort. Guys loved hearing stuff like that. But her eyes were filled with love. She was only expressing motherly concern.
Besides, she was right. Web wasn't getting nearly enough sleep, partly because he'd been working so hard and partly because he had just been through a horrible break-up, the worst of his life. Web was still angry at what Justine had done, but he was mad at himself, too. He'd gotten too comfortable in the relationship, and in the end he panicked.
He still couldn't believe how it had played out. Until now he'd always managed to keep his cool with women.
"Work's been grueling lately," he told his mother, hoping to deflect any questions about the break-up, which no doubt she was dying to ask him about. "I signed three new clients in the last two months. Actors are like toddlers. They're spoiled, especially the reality stars. Last week one of them called me six times between the hours of two and five a.m. He was on something." "You should turn off your phone," his mother advised.
"Then they'd just show up at my door," he responded, partly joking.
"I'm guessing your mother and I don't know who any of these people are," his father piped in.
Web smiled. His parents rarely watched television. "You don't want to."
"So where's Serena?" Web asked, already knowing the answer. His twin sister was chronically late.
His mother looked at her watch. "It's five o'clock now. That's when I told them to come."
Web snorted. "Like they ever show up when you tell them to. You should have told them four-thirty."
"Now, Web," scolded his mother.
"So who wants a drink?" said his father, adeptly changing the subject in his usual gentle way. A former financier who'd made a fortune on Wall Street—the son of a baker from Queens he'd also married considerably up—Carl Marino was the father every kid in the neighborhood wished they had. He always made them feel welcome in his home, spontaneously ordering pizzas on Kick the Can nights and organizing campouts in the backyard. As successful as he was in business, he was a man who rarely ever brought work home. His family and friends always took priority.
Web and Beth accepted their father's offer and watched him get the ice tray from the freezer. There was no need to specify what kind of drink they wanted. Bloody Marys were the cocktail they always enjoyed on Christmas. It was a family ritual.
"How about you, Vivian?" Web's father said.
"No thanks, Carl. Somebody around here needs to be sober enough to get dinner on the table."
Web leaned against the counter and watched his father mix the drinks, shoving fat sticks of celery into leaded crystal glasses. When his father finished preparing the pitcher he poured three glasses and passed them around. The three of them clinked glasses. "Merry Christmas," his father said.
The family chatted for awhile until the grandfather clock in the entrance hall struck six, and Web realized that Serena and Bill still weren't there. He sighed with frustration. "Doesn't Serena know it's Christmas?"
His mom looked at her watch. "Hm, they're not usually this late. I wonder what's holding them up?"
"Give them some more time," Web's father urged. "You know Serena."
"I can't keep dinner going much longer or the turkey will dry out."
"Well, let's call them then."
"I'll do it," said Web, retrieving his cell phone from his pocket. Just as he was about to open the cover, it chirped. Web looked at the I.D. screen. "It's her." He opened the phone.
"Hey, Ceci," he launched in, using his private nickname for her. "We've got a pitcher of Bloody Marys with your name on it." He held the phone up to the pitcher and stirred the mixture, hoping she could hear the ice cubes tinkling. "If you don't get here soon we're gonna drink it all. And Santa's not coming by with refills for another few hours."
"Serena?" He heard scraping noises on the other end, but he couldn't make them out. The scraping noises got louder.
"Serena?" he repeated.
A few long seconds dragged by before he finally heard Serena's voice. It was wet and raspy. "Violent," she seemed to say. He strained to hear and made out something that sounded like, "Get violent."
Web's heart thudded in his chest. "Serena, talk to me."
He knew his parents and sister were watching him, their faces beginning to register concern, but he instinctively avoided their eyes.
Ten more seconds passed, and he started to sweat. He became hyper-aware of his body. He was breathing raggedly, and his head was throbbing. Another minute passed. There was no response, no sound on the other end.
"Please," he begged.
Seconds ticked by. His father stepped closer and asked anxiously, "What's going on, Web?"
"Serena?" Web's voice was only a whisper now, but it was deafening against the stillness of the room. A few more seconds passed and then it was there. The knowing.
His dread must have showed plain on his face because he heard Beth whisper, "Web?" And his mother started to cry.
Finally, through the phone, he heard a hideous crashing noise and then, worse, total silence. The phone had disconnected.
Web couldn't speak; he couldn't breathe. The knee he was born with buckled, and he dropped to the floor.CHAPTER 2
Police Officer Anna Valentine was grateful for her new job in ritzy Avondale. The small-town station was as quiet as a law office.
Back in New York City, where she'd worked until four months ago, police precincts were crowded, dirty and chaotic. Phones rang non-stop, people were constantly slamming drawers, and guys thought nothing of yelling out to each other over their colleagues' heads so they could be heard over the din. On top of that, there was the noise of the city to contend with. It was an endless assault of cars honking, people shouting, garbage trucks beeping and grinding. The noises seemed to seep through the cracks and the holes of the building, so that you felt that you could never get away from it.
But four months into her new gig, Anna was starting to feel ... a little bored with all this serenity. She spent most days writing parking tickets while all too infrequently catching a real case, like the burglary that had occurred two months ago. The perps had busted a back door and taken a few hundred dollars of cash plus some jewelry the owners hadn't bothered to hide. They'd caught the guys the same night, two scared and gangly nineteen-year-olds on break from college who needed money to score pot.
She also missed the rowdy camaraderie of an urban precinct. Her city colleagues loved nothing better than to trade takedown stories at the water cooler or at the local cop bar. She had tried that with her Avondale colleagues, but she'd learned pretty quickly that most of them weren't much interested in hearing about the exciting life she used to lead in The Big City. She wasn't sure if they were jealous or unable to relate, but either way, they seemed content with their mundane responsibilities, so she decided she would try to feel the same way, too. She didn't want to alienate anybody. She wanted to fit in.
Excerpted from Dead Lies by Cybele Loening. Copyright © 2014 Cybele Loening. Excerpted by permission of Balboa Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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