Friday, October 5, 2018

That Second Death by Daniel L. Link

When Nellie's twin sister disappears, she suspects murder, but how far will she go for the truth? By Daniel L. Link.

THE END

I couldn't see the dawn as day broke over my final resting place. I heard birds, though, as they rose from their nests and went about their daily scavenging. The finches and jays were the loudest. I knew they were getting close to the hole in which I lay.

Every time I moved, the burlap tarp over me rubbed at my nose, creating a nagging itch I couldn't scratch. That was worse than the handcuffs, worse than having my arms pinned behind my back. That rough fabric scraping across my skin was a constant reminder of what was to come.

It was getting warm when the workers arrived. Sunlight peeked through tiny holes in the tarp, thousands of golden pinpricks in my otherwise black grave. The beep-beep of a truck's backup alarm rang out, feet from where I lay, silencing the birds' cries and signaling that the end was near.

The night had been cold, but the heat of the morning had me sweating. That sweat all froze to my body when I heard the truck.

"Nancy," I said. "Oh, Nancy."

My sister's name on my lips, I closed my eyes and tried to take in deep, calming breaths. The truck was almost on me, but the backup signal now seemed quiet compared to the thundering of my heart. I bit down on my lip, not allowing myself to cry out. I held Nancy's necklace tight, and for the first time in years I prayed, resigned to the fact that I was about to die for the second time.



THE BEGINNING

The first death came when I lost my sister. That sounds melodramatic, but an identical twin would know what I mean. It's not something most people understand. Nancy and I lived our lives so closely entwined that there was no telling where she ended and I began. She was a part of me, sure as my arm. We were that way for twenty-nine years. Then one day, she wasn't. It wasn't like I would have suspected, that when she died I would feel it, too. Nothing like that. She was just gone.

It was Rick that told me. There was no cliché scene with a cop at my door, hat in hand, who tells me my sister's dead. No, I got her husband, Rick Levin, telling me over the phone that she didn't come home the night before.

"Hey Nellie, have you seen Nancy? I can't reach her on her phone, and she didn't come home last night."

The way he said it, so calm, so matter-of-fact, I knew he was hiding something. It was as if he wasn't worried about her.

Three weeks later the search was all but over. Rick said it was time to get back to work. He ran a construction company and he needed to be there to make sure things went smoothly. He even suggested maybe Nancy just up and ran away.

"Sometimes people need to shake things up. She was really upset when we found out she couldn't have children. That hit us hard. Maybe she's gone away to figure some stuff out, and she'll be back someday."

I couldn't believe what I was hearing, that he would try that bullshit on me. It was he who couldn't accept the news from the fertility doctor. It was he who got so moody that Nancy thought he was going to leave her.

I knew then that Rick killed my sister. He put on a good show of grief for the local news, but when I looked him in the face and he said that maybe she was just shaking things up, I knew what had happened to Nancy, and that I would have to continue through life without half of myself.



There was no funeral for my sister, no candlelight vigil or memorials. She stayed gone and Rick went back to work. So I started to investigate.

Rick's company seemed the best place to begin. Levin Construction had just finished the foundations for an apartment complex on Cedar Street. I made an anonymous call to the police and told them Nancy's body was in that foundation. I don't know if they spoke to Rick, but I've driven by every day, and the cement wasn't disturbed.

They do all kinds of jobs around town, so it's possible he buried her elsewhere, but that apartment complex is the only job I know of that fits the timeline. If I could get into his business records, I might be able to find other possibilities.

Nancy would be better suited to that kind of thing. I've always been more bookish, a little shy. Nancy, though, you get her in Rick's office and the secretary would be eating right out of her hand.

I fired up my computer and brought up Rick's Facebook. We were friends, though I knew he resented me. It's funny how in this new high-tech world we'll accept anyone as a friend, when in life we consider them enemies.

He hadn't posted any pictures since Nancy's disappearance, and there was nothing out of the ordinary. Maybe a few too many female friends, but he hadn't changed his relationship status to single or anything. Of course not, he was too smart for that.

It was the same with Instagram and Twitter. He was keeping a low profile since killing my sister. That meant I had to think of a way to bring him out, to expose what he did.

The lights in the living room of Rick's house went out at eleven. I watched the hall light come on, then the bedroom in the back, the hall light flicking out behind it. He had settled in for the night. So did I.

I had no trouble staying up to watch his house. Sleeping had become difficult without Nancy. That had also happened when she married Rick. I was so used to having her there with me that I couldn't sleep without her in the house. Losing her to him a second time only made that worse. She had always been able to settle me down. Without her, there was no hope of that.

Every day, Rick came home from work around six, and the only time he went out was on Wednesday evenings. The ridiculous shirt he wore screamed bowling league, as did the bag he carried, but I followed him there anyway. Sure enough, two and a half hours after he arrived, he would climb back into his pickup and head off for home, where he'd be back in his bedroom by eleven, and the light would go off by midnight.

To say that I got more brazen in stalking Rick would be an understatement. He didn't lock his truck at his work sites. I learned that after crawling on my hands and knees from the cyclone fence at the perimeter of one of his buildings. My hands were scraped raw by the time I got across the gravel lot, but I found it well worth my while when the passenger door opened for me.

There was nothing obviously incriminating inside, but I did find some receipts from the hardware store, which I pocketed, and a length of rope with a frayed end. An image came to my mind, unbidden, of Nancy tied up with that rope.

In the back of the pickup there were tools galore. The two large metal boxes on either side of the bed must not have been enough to hold them all, because there were loose wrenches and pliers lying atop a dirty burlap tarp. I peeked underneath, but there was nothing.

Sitting outside his house nights wasn't enough for me either. I started sneaking across his lawn and around back, where I could get a peek inside the windows. The bedroom curtains were always drawn, leaving me no view inside.

In the kitchen, I could see that painting Nancy loved so much, the one she'd paid so much for, with the boy and the duck. It was about four feet by five, dominating a whole wall. I was surprised to see it still there. Rick hated it, called it kitschy. Nancy was over the moon about it, though.

Looking at that painting, I knew Rick was never going to slip up. He didn't leave evidence of Nancy's murder in the work truck, and he wouldn't have left any in the house. He was too clever for that. If I was going to catch him, I had to be better.



"Nellie?" Rick held the door half shut, and his large body blocked my view inside. "What are you doing here?"

He looked surprised to see me, and I wondered how it must feel for him to stare into the face of the wife he'd already murdered.

"Am I interrupting anything?" I asked.

"No. Of course not." He opened the door all the way and stepped aside. "Come on in."

As I walked past him, I could smell cologne. Rick had never worn cologne before, at least not around me. It wasn't the sweet smell of most men's fragrances nowadays, but something richer, old-fashioned.

His tie lay across the back of the couch, but other than that he was still in work clothes, though he'd been home for an hour already. He had a couple days' worth of stubble, and his hair was too long. He hadn't cut it since Nancy went missing.

He led me to the kitchen and offered a chair. I took it, and he pulled a stool out from under the bar and perched on it.

"So what's up?" he asked after a few silent moments.

Ignoring the question, I looked around the kitchen. The space looked larger, brighter and cheerier than in my night visits, but I saw nothing new in the light of day. I made a show of it, turning my head in a circuit of the room and nodding before looking back at him.

"Well?" he asked.

"I'm sorry, what was that?"

"I was just asking what you've been up to."

Even in his work shirt, Rick's big shoulders bulged, putting more stress on the seams than they were built for. His rough good looks had charmed Nancy from the start, and back then I could see why. Now that I knew better, though, his politeness and his easy smile weren't fooling me. It was a mask, one that concealed the worst sort of evil.

"I'm alright," I told him. "I just wanted to check up on you, see how you're doing."

He sighed, those shoulders dropping, and slumped down on the stool. "This has been hard, Nell. I'm not going to lie."

He looked smaller like that, fragile. He looked up at me with his brown eyes wet and full of some emotion I couldn't put my finger on. Remorse? Regret? Maybe, or maybe it was just a show.

"All of this," he went on, waving an arm in a sweeping gesture that took in not only the kitchen, but his and Nancy's entire life together. "This was all her. All I had to do was go to work. Now it's all up to me. Thank God we never had children."

My face got hot and I had to fight to keep control of my voice. "Yes. That would have been tragic."

He nodded, then without warning, dropped his face in his hands and let out a sound somewhere between a moan and a keening. "Oh, God," he said when he'd gotten himself under control. "I swear, it's the not knowing that's the worst."

His eyes stayed on me, and although his face remained blank, I knew he was dissecting me with that stare, peeling back my outer layers and seeking out the truth within. I maintained eye contact, trying to see through those windows into his soul, but I couldn't. I looked down at my hands and straightened the hem of my blouse.

"You're sure she's dead, aren't you?"

The question startled me. He was testing me, but I didn't know what answer he was looking for. I went with the truth. "Of course."

He nodded, but didn't speak. Instead he swiveled on his stool and faced the wall separating the kitchen from the living room. He pointed to Nancy's painting.

"It really is beautiful, isn't it?"

"The painting?" I asked.

"Yes." He smiled then, that easy smile that beguiled my sister. "There's something about it. I can't say why, but it's got to be my favorite thing in this house."

My hands started to shake, so I balled them up into fists and shoved them hard into my thighs. I wanted to speak, but my mouth wouldn't form words. I wanted to run, but my legs wouldn't move.

"You know, Nell, I've got to be going." Rick stood and walked over to me. "I have an important meeting at the office. I'm really glad you came by, though."

Standing was difficult, and I walked out on rubbery legs. When I crossed the threshold and was on the front porch, Rick called to me again.

"Sorry for unloading on you like that," he said. When I looked back his eyes were wet again. "I used to tell Nancy everything, and you look so much like her. It's hard to remember that you're two different people sometimes."

That was when I knew my sister's husband was going to kill me.



"I'm sorry, ma'am," Detective Holleran said. "Could you run that by me again?"

"His name is Rick Levin. He's my sister's husband."

"I know who he is," Holleran said. His hair was gray at the temples, cut short like a soldier's. He sat straight, holding his lean frame erect. "You're telling me you've got evidence that he killed your sister?"

"Yes, and I'm pretty sure I know where he buried her."

His eyebrows shot up and he leaned forward, making his chair squeak. "Okay, Miss Carpenter. Tell me what you know."

I tried. Lord knows I did. All the things that were so clear to me came out sounding like paranoid nonsense when I spoke them out loud. I even tried to tell him about that damn painting.

To his credit, Detective Holleran was a nice man. He listened with interest and asked questions, jotting notes all the while. I couldn't get a sense of whether or not he believed me, but I knew I was wasting my breath all the same. It took all I had not to scream, and I choked back my rage and hurt, barely able to keep it in check.

"Look, Miss Carpenter," he said, his big oven mitt hands splayed out in the air in front of him. "I'm not saying you don't have a point. What I'm saying is you don't have any real evidence."

"He killed her," I said. "She had no enemies. She never would have run off, not without telling me."

"I can't tell you any specifics about our investigation, but I want to assure you that we're doing all we can to find out what happened to your sister."

"He can't get away with it. He can't. She was everything, and now she's gone."

The control that I struggled so hard to keep broke, and I buried my face in my hands and wept. Holleran left me to it for a while, then I felt his hand on my shoulder. He helped me up from my seat, gave me a tissue, and walked me out to the parking lot.

The summer sun was blinding as we came out of the station. Birds sang in the large oak in the center of the lot. It was far too beautiful a day to be without my Nancy.

"Thank you for coming in today, Ms. Carpenter," Holleran said after I rolled down the window. "Now again, we're doing everything we can on this. In the meantime, you be careful now."

"I will," I told him, and put the car in reverse.

He reached out a hand to stop me. "You say you know where your sister's body is?"

I nodded. "In the foundation of that new apartment complex his company's building." I remembered then what Rick had said. "Or maybe that new building they got the contract for. The Towers."

"It couldn't be there. They haven't started pouring the cement for that one yet. They start next Wednesday."

He gave me a nod then, and a little wink. I pulled out of the parking lot feeling defeated, but somewhat relieved. He believed me.



The day after my visit with Detective Holleran, Rick came to see me. I was working in the kitchen, and I saw him through the blinds. He was walking up the path, swaying in that way that I would recognize anywhere, not a care in the world.

My breath caught, and I had to count to ten backward before the knot in my stomach eased enough for me to answer the door. When I opened it, he was smiling. He didn't seem the least bit put out for having been made to wait.

"Hi, Nell," he said. "Can I come in?"

I froze, unsure. He took advantage, sidling past me into the foyer. I turned and followed him to my living room.

"Man," he said, taking a look around. "You two may have been a lot alike, but you're polar opposites when it comes to decorating."

I stood there in stunned silence while he dropped himself onto my loveseat so hard that the cushions groaned out most of the air trapped inside.

"You're more of a minimalist, am I right?"

I looked from him to the walls, which had only a framed reprint of Klimt's "The Kiss" and a picture of Nancy and I when we were eleven. "I suppose."

"Not Nancy. No way. She'd fill this place up in no time. I don't think she could stand the sight of an empty wall, or a corner without furniture in it."

"She was very comfortable here."

"That's not what I meant," he said, but his grin suggested otherwise. He pointed at the print. "I like it, myself."

"Why did you come here?"

He gestured for me to sit. I didn't.

"Please, Nell. I'm not going to bite."

I sat across from him on the sofa, and he went on.

"The other day, what we talked about. It's been on my mind a lot."

"Which part?"

His smile faltered. "The part about Nancy being dead. I want to find out the truth."

"What are you suggesting?"

"I was thinking about going on TV, offering a reward."

That brought me right back to my feet. "We already tried that. You were against it, remember? It was you that pulled the plug on the TV alerts."

"I know, Nellie. I know. I was frustrated at the lack of response. I gave up too early, I grant you. But this is different."

"What's so different about it?"

"Have you ever seen the show The Crime Report?"

"The one with the man from The Untouchables?"

"No," he said, the grin returning. "That was a different show, but it's similar. Anyway, they want to come here and do a full-hour piece on Nancy's disappearance. This show is national. Imagine the amount of people that would see her face."

They would also see my face. "And you think this would help us figure out what happened?"

"It couldn't hurt. And they would want to talk to you, too. You were closer to her than anyone. They would need your side of the story."

My head was a traffic jam of thoughts and emotions, all fighting to be first to burst out. I counted backwards again silently, but I couldn't help my lips moving.

When I had a grip on my tongue, I said, "I'm not sure this is such a good idea. Have you signed anything with this Crime Report?"

"Not a good idea?" He shot to his feet, but didn't take a step toward me. "I thought you'd be thrilled."

I positioned myself in front of the foyer in case I had to turn and run.

"Tell me Rick," I said. "Are these people paying you for your story?"

"Now I don't see what that has to do with -"

"Out!" I yelled so loud I surprised myself. When he made no move to go I stamped my foot. "Out. Now. I don't ever want to see you near my house again."

He sighed, shrugged, then strutted from the room. When he made it to the door, he turned and said, "They'll be here Friday, and they're going to want to talk to you. I hope you'll reconsider."

Too angry to speak, I slammed the door.



Breaking into his house was a bad idea; I knew that. I didn't feel like I had any choice, though. I couldn't wait for the police to make their case. Nancy used to keep a key in a flowerpot on the side of the house. I figured if I used that, it wasn't breaking in, not really.

Rick had been at the site of the new tower, busy on his new pet project. I left and headed straight for his house. I parked out front and walked to the side yard like I owned the place. The key was where Nancy had left it.

I didn't know what I was looking for. The downstairs was much as it had always been. The floors had been swept, the kitchen was spotless, and there was no dust anywhere. I ran a finger over the blinds in the kitchen: nothing. No way Rick kept the place so neat. He had hired a maid.

The upstairs was just as tidy, but there were signs of change there. Nancy's stuff had been cleared out of the bathroom. Her toothbrush, deodorant, and makeup were nowhere to be found. The drawer with all of her hairbrushes and scrunchies and headbands now held Rick's shaving accoutrements.

Their bedroom held a few surprises as well. I thought I had seen their wedding picture on the wall, but it wasn't there. There were still a lot of Nancy's clothes in the walk-in closet, but the dresser drawers had been cleared out, and there were boxes stacked in a corner.

One drawer under their bed held sexual paraphernalia. There were vibrators, a riding crop, scented oils and handcuffs. I tried not to think about that.

The dresser across from their king-sized bed had a vanity mirror against the wall. It had a polished mahogany frame with intricate designs hand-carved into the wood. That wasn't what caught my eye, though. Hanging from the frame, dangling on its golden chain, was the necklace I got Nancy for her thirteenth birthday.

It was nothing special, just a tiny dove pendant, but Nancy had made such a big deal about it. She wore it everywhere, and she never took it off. I ran around the bedroom, tearing open drawers, but that was the only piece of Nancy's jewelry.

The sky seemed to have grown brighter while I was inside the house. Since Nancy was gone, the days seemed to mock me with their beauty, their splendor a constant reminder of the drabness of my existence. I shielded my eyes and headed down the walk to my car.

When Rick's work truck rounded the corner I almost collapsed. He wasn't due home for hours yet. Did he have someone following me? How could he have known I was here? I gripped my purse tight as he pulled up alongside me.

"Hey, Nellie," he smiled at me across the truck. "What are you doing in my neck of the woods?"

My mouth worked wordlessly for a second, but then it came to me. "I wanted to talk to you about the show."

"Really? The other night, you seemed pretty sure."

"I just don't want Nancy's memory -"

"Me neither. That's not what this is about. I promise."

"If that's true, then I'll do it."

"You want to come inside and talk?"

I looked up at the house and thought about that golden dove. "No, I've got to get going. Set up the interview. I'll do it."



He called later that night. I had just finished my letter to Detective Holleran. The evidence seemed much stronger when I'd had a chance to think it through, to explain why it was all so important. I told him all of my suspicions, all that I'd seen in Rick's house, and I told him that I knew Rick was going to kill me. Sealed and stamped, I set it on the counter, and my phone rang.

"Hey Nell, it's Rick. I was wondering if you and I could meet."

"What for?"

"Well, the Crime Report people are going to be here in a couple days," he said. "I thought we should go over what we're going to say."

I had to stifle a laugh. "Okay. Where would you like to meet?"

"Could you come over?"

"Sure. When should I get there?"

"Anytime's fine. What are you doing right now?"

My hands were shaking as I dropped the letter in the mailbox. I started my car and drove to my last visit with my sister's killer. A calm came over me, a feeling of confidence that I'd never known before, a confidence like my sister's. I knew I would be dead soon, but for the rest of my life, I would pretend to be like Nancy.

When he answered the door, his hair was a mess, his clothes wrinkled. I'd never seen him so disheveled.

"Come on in." He held up a glass of amber liquid. "Want one?"

I nodded. He poured a couple fingers worth into a glass.

"To Nancy."

"To Nancy," I echoed. We drank.

Rick started in about the show right away. I couldn't tell if it was the whiskey talking, but everything about him was too fast, too excited. He talked about probable locations for the interviews, and the person who he'd contacted via email, but it took him a while to get around to his point.

"They're going to ask some pointed questions."

"What kind of questions?" I cocked an eyebrow and lifted my glass. To my surprise, it was empty.

Rick brought the bottle. He filled my glass and topped off his own. "They're going to want to know what you think, if you have any suspicions."

"I suppose that's a big part of these shows."

"Yeah, and with you looking so much like her, I'm sure they're going to play that up."

"Are you worried about me?" I gave him a smile that was not my own. It was the crooked, coquettish smile that Nancy used to flirt, the one that showed off her canine teeth.

"Of course not," he flashed a grin of his own. "Just want to make sure we're on the same page."

"Why wouldn't we be?"

He squirmed in his chair before downing a big gulp of his whiskey. "To be honest, Nellie, you've been acting a little strange lately. I was starting to think you might..."

He left it hanging for so long that I had to pick it up. "That I might what?"

"Well, I know it's crazy, but I worried that you might blame me."

I brought a hand up to my mouth and gasped. For that, I should have gotten an Oscar. "You? Rick, this has been hard, harder than anything I've ever gone through, but I know you wouldn't..."

He reached out to me then, hugging me tight. After that, the whiskey flowed easier, and I couldn't tell you how many we had. We talked about anything but Nancy for the next couple hours, and just when I'd about given up on him, Rick reached up and touched my face, rubbing his thumb across my cheek.

"You look so much like her."

When he kissed me I went rigid, every alarm in my head ringing at once. It took every bit of self control to relax. I let him paw at me, and I pretended I was enjoying it, but soon it didn't matter. He kissed me all over, and the smell of his sweat and the whiskey turned my stomach.

A while later he rolled off me, finished.

"Nancy," he said. "I'm so sorry."

When I ran out of his house, we were both crying.



Armed with everything I needed, I went to the site. I left my car and headed out on foot. The orange cones and yellow caution tape were no obstruction. The area cordoned off was bigger than I imagined, and the plot of earth dug out to make room for the foundation was deep.

First, I covered the burlap tarp with loose dirt. I slid under it, then set to work tying my feet together with the frayed rope from Rick's work truck.

I couldn't stop crying. The stink of my sister's killer was all over me. Knowing his seed was inside me deepened my shame. I wished there had been another way, but he couldn't get away with it. I told myself this as I wrapped the gold chain around my fist and fingered the dove charm.

Getting the handcuffs on was a chore, but I managed to do it without removing the tarp. When they clicked into place, there was nothing left to be done.

In two days, the TV crews would come for me, and so would Detective Holleran. My sister's killer would know justice, even if it wasn't for her murder. Maybe they would look for her under the apartment complex, but if not, they would have him anyway. He may have gotten away with the first killing, but it was the second death that would do him in. Secure in that, I thought of Nancy, and waited for the cement to pour.

7 comments:

  1. A clever plot in a well-paced story. The final reveal was delivered with skilful understatement that emphasised the horror. It is excellent that, though the reader is inclined to buy into Nellie's interpretation, there is still a lingering doubt that in her grief-racked mind she might have got it wrong. Many thanks,
    Ceinwen

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  2. A nice unexpected twist, with, as Ceinwen brings out, enough hint of a doubt. The horror and grief are well played out, but not overdone.
    Well done!
    Jim

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  3. Wow! Nice emotional grip and pacing. Loved the little details and twist. Beautiful.
    Ash

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  4. Great story. Well written, and the end is a surprise.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Great suspense, really kept me on the edge of my seat. The twist caught me off guard. Nice subtleties to tie it all together. Very well done.

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  6. A tall order to achieve both tension and suspense in 4k words, but you done it! Who cares about the niceties of plot when you've built a character as vivid as the screaming bowling league-shirted Rick. Well done!
    B r oo k e

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  7. A gripping story, well told. Your ending was superb.
    Beryl.

    ReplyDelete