He hadn't expected it this morning, but there it went across the street in the form of a woman. She had left the coffee shop when the art gallery door finally opened, stepping carefully over the unevenly bricked road that some architect no doubt meant to be quaint. She looked to be in her early fifties, wearing a white cotton skirt with turquoise top and white beads. On her left hand, she wore a man’s wedding band, held in place by a daintier lady’s ring. From the sidewalk table, he watched her thoughtfully. He was younger, barely thirty. He had only come here for hot tea, to fight this blasted cold he felt himself catching. And yet--how could one ignore opportunity?
He looked down into his paper cup; the tea was nearly gone. Standing, he tossed the cup into the gutter, prompting a disgusted look from the teenaged girl clearing tables. He didn’t see her, focused now on the woman in the gallery. He could see her through the window, admiring some painting. He wasn’t much interested in art, but he could fake it.
The woman was looking at a huge picture of a busy street, the wet road reflecting city lights. In the background the Eiffel tower seemed to float behind the buildings. Pretty neat, he admitted to himself. Not what he’d put in his living room, of course. His apartment being what it was, that painting would take up an entire wall plus part of the kitchen entry. The thought made him smile a little as he opened the door.
The woman was talking. “This is his latest, then?”
“Oh, yes, Mrs. Walker,” said the saleswoman. “And only one hundred numbered Giclee prints. “You know he’s not a snob about his paintings, but this one was very special to him, and he doesn’t want it just everywhere.”
“I understand how he feels. It’s magnificent. I’ll take it,” said Mrs. Walker decisively. “It will be perfect for our anniversary.”
He glanced down at the man’s wedding ring on her finger. Anniversary?
“Can I help you, sir?” The gallery woman was talking to him.
“No, ma’am,” he said easily. “Just enjoying the pictures.”
“Look as much as you like. Did you come over from the coffee shop?”
“Why, yes. I couldn’t stop looking at the one you had in the window, so I thought I’d wander over.”
“That's a nice one, isn’t it? Well, I’ll let you look around while I go help this lady.” She went back over to Mrs. Walker. “Will that be pick-up or delivery? It’s quite a sizeable piece, so I recommend letting us deliver it for you.”
“Of course. 674 Five Islands Road.”
He memorized the address as he wandered through the gallery, pausing to stare at a painting of a young woman who apparently got caught in a hurricane while wearing a few dozen yards of fabric. Now that was a picture he wouldn’t mind in his apartment.
“When would you like it delivered?” the lady was asking Mrs. Walker.
“Friday. Tomorrow I'll be at the library and the rest of the week I’ll be busy getting the house ready.” Her voice softened, then it became firm again. “That can be the crowning touch.” She gestured to the picture.
That night he drove to Five Islands Road. It meanders along towards Bay Point Road, which continues on to Popham Beach, one of Maine’s most beautiful beaches. There weren’t many houses here, and thick shrubbery kept most of them from being seen. He found Janet Walker’s mailbox, but the house was hidden behind trees. No reason to bother going in, anyway. Tomorrow he would go to the library.
He wandered past the shelves, lazily eying the books. A book about the history of the Sagadahoc courthouse would suit perfectly. Art, history, he supposed they were related. He could see her in the children’s section of the library, reading to a herd of little kids. One way to stay busy, he guessed. When she was done with the kiddies, he would make his move. She had a kind face—it should be easy. He knew how to work nice old ladies. He’d done it so many times.
Walking out of the library, he gazed around until he saw her car. Ducking down between it and the one beside it, he took a nail and a good-sized stone out of his pocket. A firm thump drove the nail into the tire on the front driver’s side. He yanked it out and did it again in another spot. The tire would be flat by the time she came out. Now he just had to wait.
He was sitting on the bench outside the library, his nose in a book, when she came out. He waited patiently, reading along, as she walked out, found her car, and discovered the damage…no, not yet. Wait for it…
Her hands went into the air a little. She rubbed her forehead slightly as she knelt down for a closer look at the damage.
He closed the book and got up. His heart raced as he walked towards her, but his face gave no sign of his excitement he always felt at the beginning, when the hunt was on. “Can I help you, Ma’am?”
She turned towards him. Would she recognize him from the art gallery? “Oh, I can’t believe this.”
“I hate when that happens. Well, do you have a spare?”
She looked at him blankly. “I’m not sure. Where is it?”
“Usually under the trunk. If you’ll open it for me, I can get to work.”
Her eyes widened. “You, sir, are a lifesaver.” She went around to the trunk and opened it for him. “Oh, dear. I have a spare, but don’t you need a jack or something?”
“I’ve got one in my car. Let me go get it.” He went to his car, leaving the book on her fender. When he came back, she asked, “So you’re interested in the courthouse, I see.”
He nodded as he set the jack in place. “Lately I’ve started to really look at some of the architecture here. The courthouse goes back to 1869, and it’s not just a chunk of concrete, like these modern ones. It’s got style. I’ve always loved the buildings in this town, so finally I’ve decided to buckle down and start learning about them.”
“There’s a Preservation Society here in Bath. You should join them. I’m Janet Walker, by the way.”
He stood up briefly, to offer his hand. “Pleased to meet you.” He gave her a name. It wasn’t his, but it didn’t have a rap sheet attached to it, either. He knelt down again to his work. Time to take it to the next level.
He let the wrench slip, ramming his knuckles into the ground. He didn’t have to fake the yelp of pain, and when he lifted his hand to inspect the damage, the blood had already started oozing.
“Dear oh dear,” cried Janet.
He looked embarrassed. “Ms. Walker, I will get these lug nuts off. They’re always stubborn.”
An hour later they were sitting in a little sandwich shop near the wharf, and he was telling her all about himself. Of course, his life story was mainly fiction. He hadn’t been born and raised in Bath, Maine, and he wasn’t a struggling lawyer right out of law school. He was a New Yorker, from the Bronx, and he’d learned early on that he was born to lie. He could have actually gone to law school on a scholarship, but why bother? Money was easy to come by, if you were good enough at lying.
By the end of lunch, she’d given him her phone number, and they agreed to meet for dinner. Back at his apartment and thinking about things over some microwaved chicken broth, he decided she’d been a looker in her youth; likely she pined for those years, back when she could have any man she wanted. Well, he knew how to work a woman like her, he thought, popping an antihistamine to clear his sinuses. This cold was setting in pretty well, and the last thing he needed right now was to start snuffling.
They had dinner at a small tavern that night. He told her about his daughter Laura that he was raising alone, and he showed Janet the picture of a little girl. It wasn’t his daughter, of course. It was the grand-daughter of his last victim, back in New York. She was a cute kid, and he’d known then that the picture would come in handy later. She showed him a picture of her husband Barry, deceased for six months now. He’d been much older than Janet, he saw. Looking at her now, he decided she wasn’t really all that old. And she was still quite beautiful.
He felt thoughtful as he went home that night. He’d never considered marriage, but to a rich, attractive, older woman? He’d never have to worry about anything again. At the age of thirty, he could just sit back and relax, until Janet went to her reward. She had no kids. Her life insurance would go to him, and he would be the only beneficiary of the will.
Of course, he would need to come up with an explanation for his “daughter.” Bingo—her mother came back and initiated court proceedings, and the court gave her back to her mother, because courts were so unfair and they always favored the mother…
He laughed out loud. And then he sneezed. He needed the night-time cold medicine. Janet had asked him to come over the next morning for breakfast. Things would go well, if only he could keep this cold under control.
He rolled up in the driveway the next morning, not too early. He didn’t want to be a pest, after all. He admired the surroundings as he got out of the car. It was a magnificent house, near the turnoff toward Popham Beach.
Enjoying pancakes and coffee in the gazebo, he noticed the gutters needed cleaning. He volunteered for the job.
“Of course not. I didn’t ask you to come do the chores.”
“No, I insist, Janet. It needs doing, and if you don’t take care of it, you’re going to have some serious problems down the road. Barry would tell you the same thing.”
She’d hemmed and hawed, but finally he’d gotten his way. He wanted to become a fixture of this place as soon as possible. So that day he cleaned and repaired the gutters, painted some of the woodwork that was looking weathered, and found a dozen little chores to handle around the place. He made it clear he didn’t want any money. No, he was just a nice guy, fixer of flat tires and rescuer of widows. He would get his paycheck in a slightly different form, he thought, smiling to himself as he dipped his brush into the white paint. For the next two days he came to the Walker house, telling tales of law school and his daughter and her mother—he must have been crazy to even date her, he said, shaking his head All she’d been after was money, figuring he’d be a rich lawyer someday.
And Janet gave him turkey sandwiches for lunch, telling him about her husband, the artist who’d built this place himself back when he was a young man, and how he’d gotten on his bicycle at four in the morning and ridden down to the coast so he could paint the Pond Island lighthouse in the rosy light of the rising sun. This was a beautiful place, he admitted to himself. He couldn’t wait to live here. As for Janet, he decided he’d keep her around as long as she stayed pretty, which likely would be a good five to ten years. After that, nobody would be too suspicious if she fell down the staircase at two in the morning. It was paneled with dark wood, gloomy even during the day. Janet had commented on it. “Barry was sorry as soon as he did it, but we’d paid for it and it was done, so he said we were going to have to grin and bear it. He was planning to do a painting that would liven it up, but he never got the chance to.” She sighed.
“So he did the staircase not too long ago?” he asked.
She nodded. “It was a big expense, putting up all that carved mahogany. He wanted to turn the staircase into sort of a gallery to show off his favorite paintings. It was finished two years ago, and he started putting up the pictures, with spotlights on them, to give ‘em some zing, like he said. But it still wasn’t bright enough. So he was going to do a really big painting, right at the top of the stairs, to take the place of that little one that’s there now. He’d just bought the canvas. He was going to make it a street scene, all bright and lively. But one morning…” her voice broke off. “I woke up, went down to the kitchen, and made coffee, like always. I made him a cup and took it up to him. And—then I realized. He’d been dead for a while. The coroner said he died in his sleep.” Her voice was crisp, but her jaw was tight.
He reached out and took her hand. “Oh, Janet, I’m so sorry.”
She patted his. “What’s done, is done. It would have been our anniversary Saturday, and I was going to get the house fixed up and have a little anniversary dinner for myself. I know it sounds silly, but I even bought a painting to go up at the top of the stairs. It’s not his, but it’s beautiful, and I know he would have liked it.”
“I’d love to see it.”
“It’ll be here tomorrow afternoon. You’re more than welcome to come over then. But the day after, I’d really like to be by myself.”
“Of course,” he said compassionately. “I respect what you’re doing. I’ll be over tomorrow afternoon, then.”
It was six-thirty before the truck finally pulled into the driveway. “Sorry, Ms. Walker.” The driver was young, barely out of his teens, a little flustered. “I couldn’t find this place.” He came through the door and saw him. The boy looked startled for a moment. Then he turned quickly to Janet Walker, “We can hang the picture for you, if you know where you want it.”
She led the way up the stairs to the landing. “Right here. I’ve marked the spot for you.”
“This will be a beaut,” said the other man, admiring the setting.
While they took the picture out of the packaging, he stepped into the kitchen. He knew that boy from somewhere, he couldn’t say where. Best to play it safe and stay out of sight. But Janet was calling him.
“Well, here it is. What do you think?”
He pretended to admire the street scene, trying not to look at the teenaged boy. The boy wasn’t looking at him, though, and finally he relaxed and really looked at the picture. It was great for that spot, he admitted. Janet Walker had chosen well.
The men finally left, the boy ignoring him. He wondered if he’d imagined the whole thing. Janet pulled out a bottle of wine and a pair of glasses. “I could really use this. How about you?”
He smiled. “I think I could. You were right about the painting. It makes the whole wall come alive.”
“I think that’s close to what Barry had in mind. Well, even if it isn’t, it looks right.” She poured the wine. It was a heavy burgundy, not his favorite. Red wine gave him a headache, but he wasn’t going to mention that now. Janet herself was taking it to the next level.
They talked of art, about the lighthouse on Pond Island and the one on Wood Island, about Barry. Finally she stood up and said, “Well, I need to turn in. Do you want to call on Monday to go do something?”
“That sounds good. Are you sure you’ll be all right by yourself tomorrow?” His head was really starting to pound.
“Yes, of course.” She went into the kitchen with the glasses.
He looked up the staircase, at the street scene with the Eiffel Tower floating in the mist behind it. He climbed up the stairs to get a better look. His legs felt heavy. That blasted wine, he thought.
Up close, the street lights seemed to really glow, the people almost life-size. The wet streets reflected bright shop windows, full of pastries and vegetables. The mist in the painting seemed to float around the people, hunched over to stay warm. He felt warm. The wine sang in his ears as he actually tilted his head back to look at the Eiffel Tower. He stepped back, focusing on the spidery superstructure…
The floor seemed to vanish beneath his feet, and the Tower loomed over, spinning higher; now it was the ceiling that floated far above him. It was the last thing he saw before he felt the crushing blow to the back of his neck.
Janet Walker had called the paramedics immediately. She rode with him in the ambulance to the emergency room, where the sheriff came to take a statement. "It's just protocol," he apologized to Janet. "Well, and something else. But I wanted to talk to you first. Likely it's nothing."
She frowned for a moment. But she replied, "I understand. You have to make sure everything's on the up-and-up." She told him who the man was. No, no. Not a relative. Just a young fellow, single dad with a daughter, you know. He'd swooped in to the rescue when her car got a flat. “He was so helpful to me this week. And he wouldn’t take a dime. Such a nice young man, right out of law school.”
The doctor came out, shaking his head. “This guy was higher than a kite. He was loaded up with cold medicine and then alcohol on top of that.”
The officer nodded. “You say he has a daughter?”
“Yes. You’ll want to tell her, I suppose. She’s with her aunt.”
Sheriff Owens fingered the wallet with the little girl’s picture. “The name you gave me is not what's on his driver’s license.”
Her brow furrowed. “What?”
“And there’s something else. A fellow named Mark Langford came to see me today. Apparently you had a painting delivered to your house this evening.? Well, Mark was one of the deliverymen. He’s from New York, but he thought he recognized this guy as the one who ripped off his grandma. She gave him her life savings. She even took out an extra mortgage on her house to give him more money. Then he disappeared. She was too ashamed to tell her family. She died of heart failure, and that’s when they learned her bank account had been cleaned out. Mark’s college money, his grandma’sretirement savings, the value of her house, it was all gone. And then they found all the canceled checks to the young guy who’d been hanging around her house. He’d been helping out a lot, fixing the roof, shoveling the driveway, stuff like that.”
Her jaw dropped in shock. “Impossible! He’s—I can’t believe it.”
“Now, Ms. Walker, I asked Mark to come to the hospital to see if he’s sure this is him. Seeing as how the guy’s not going anywhere just now, I figured this would be the best time.”
The young delivery boy came in and stood behind him. Sheriff Owens showed him the driver’s license photo. “Hard to say. I only saw him a couple of times.” The boy went silent for a moment. Then he pointed at the photo of the little girl. “I can tell you that’s my baby sister, though. What’s her picture doing in his wallet?”
Janet turned pale as she stared at him, then at the photo. “He said that was his daughter,” she whispered. “Are you sure?”
“That’s my baby sister,” Mark Langford repeated firmly. “That was her fifth-grade class picture. She hates that dress, but Mom sewed it for her, and she made her wear it for picture day. That’s Kylie.”
Two days passed before he came to, slowly opening his eyes against the dark fog that had enveloped him. Where was Janet? He tried to raise his hand, but he could not feel his arms, either of them. He tried to shift in the bed, but he could not move. He could not feel his legs or his feet. He called her name, and footsteps came toward him.
The figure who moved into his field of vision was not Janet. He was a police officer. He tried to think. “What happened?” The words slurred in his mouth.
The officer sounded polite but terse. “You fell down some stairs. You’re under arrest for fraud and extortion. You have the right to remain silent. If you waive the right to remain silent, anything you say may be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney...”
He'd heard the words before, and they didn’t scare him. He could still fix this. But he would have to think fast. Recover, get out of this hospital, and disappear. That was the order of business. Right now he couldn’t move, of course. Medication, likely. He would have to play dumb until he got better, and then he could get into some scrubs, and walk out the door as just another orderly.
But he would not be walking anywhere. His neck had been broken in the fall, leaving him paralyzed for life.