“Here we are,” Richard said as he turned into the wide circular driveway. The seven year old girl sitting in the backseat of the SUV leaned forward, eyes widening almost as much as her smile.
“Your first sleepover, Nell. A little excited?” Richard smiled. He was so happy to see his daughter smile. It had been a rough few years. Man, had it been.
“Wow!” exclaimed Nell.
“Yeah, it’s pretty big house, huh?” Richard said as he opened his door. He eyed the expansive Craftsman/Bungalow styled home. “Nice,” he thought. He especially liked the large reflective bay windows that stretched the entire height of the three-story home. Richard looked over his shoulder. They probably have a nice view of the hills over the tree line facing the property. The house was only one of less than a half a dozen on the street. Wood lined the south side of the street. That’s a rarity, today, thought Richard.
“Yeah, Sally’s got two brothers and a sister.” Nell looked at her father, who had now opened her door and was lifting her out of the car. “Daddy, will I ever get a sister?”
Richard rolled his eyes. “I don’t know sweetheart. We’ll have to see. Not for a while anyway.” He grabbed the “My Little Pony” backpack from the seat and shut the car door. “Well, let’s go meet Sally’s mom.”
Nell grabbed her father’s hand, squeezed it and led him towards the house. As they approached, the white double doors opened and a little girl about the same age as Nell came running out. “Nell!” She screamed as only a little girl can.
“Sally!” Nell answered.
“You’re the first! Cool! Marcy’s coming. Stephanie too. Wendy can’t come cause she’s got some kinda of bug or something. But Amy said she’d be come. Is this your Dad? Wow. He’s cute. Come on! I’ll show you my room!” As Sally led Richard’s daughter running through the doors, they almost collided with the woman that was now exiting. She laughed as the girls scrambled around her.
“You must be Mr. Faux,” she said offering a hand and a smile. “I’m Barbara, Sally’s mom.
“Richard,” he said taking her hand. “And yeah, judging by the blur, she could almost be your twin.” He paused. “In another fifteen years, I mean.”
Her smile widened. “Well, looks and charm. We’re going to have to find a girl for you, Mr. Faux,” she said. “Richard.”
Richard shrugged and rolled his eyes.
“In fact, I may know someone, a friend of mine?”
“Is she as pretty as you?”
“Mr. Faux, keep talking like that, and the next time my Bill takes a business trip, it won’t be you’re daughter I’ll be having for a sleepover.”
Richard laughed, a little nervously. It was only innocent flirting, he knew that, but a shudder ran up his spine. He turned, a little too quickly, and looked at the woods across the street. “You have a lovely view, Barbara.”
“I’m sorry,” she offered. “A little too much, huh?” A glimmer of sadness touched her eyes. “I know about your …”
“Yeah, the whole world knows about it.” Richard sighed. “Um,” he turned back towards Barbara. “I’m sorry, I’m a little off my game.” He shrugged. “Anyway.”
“It’s okay.” Barbara smiled.
“Yeah, anyway.” Richard drew a deep breath. “That’s why we’re a little early. “You see Nell’s had it pretty rough. This is the first time she’s going to be away from me for any length of time, and …”
“You want me to have her call you with hourly updates?” Barbara joked.
Richard chuckled. “Yeah, it’s going to be a little rough for me too, I guess, but …” He shifted nervously. “But, uh, I just wanted to prep you, and leave my numbers, and …”
“It’ll be okay, Richard. This isn’t my first sleepover” Barbara put a hand on Richard’s shoulder. “Come on in, have a cup of coffee, check things out a bit, and leave me your numbers. I’m sure Nell will be fine, really.”
Richard allowed himself to be escorted inside. “I just mean, if she gets nervous or something, it’s no problem for me to come back and pick her up, if she needs.”
Barbara laughed. “You’ve never experienced a girl’s sleepover have you? She won’t have time to be worried.”
“I mean, you never know.”
“You on the other hand,” Barbara offered another smile. “When Tracy, Sally’s older sister, went on her first sleepover, I was a bundle of nerves. What if? You know?”
“Yeah, I know. You have no idea.” It was Richard’s turn to laugh. “Maybe I will take you up on that cup of coffee, until the other kids get here.”
Richard pulled his SUV into the driveway of his little bungalow. He released a chuckle. At least he had a home now. Small as it was. Richard decided he was going to enjoy tonight. After dropping off his daughter, he picked up his supplies for his first night of peace in a very long time. It seemed like a lifetime really. Maybe it was. Grabbing the grocery bag and pizza he headed for the front door.
That’s strange, he thought. I thought I left the porch light on. As Richard got to the door, he looked around. That strange shiver rolled up his spine again. He released a sigh. “Nerves,” he said. “You’re being paranoid, Richard. And now,” he laughed. “You’re talking to yourself.”
“After all this, you’re going to go crazy? Just when your life starts getting normal again.” Richard unlocked the two deadbolts and then the doorknob. “Relax, Richie. It’s going to be okay,” he told himself. “It’s going to be okay.”
And it would be. He really felt it would be. His little encounter with Sally’s mother was awkward, but normal. He could learn to have a real life again. “I hope Nell’s doing okay,” he said.
Richard shut the door behind him with his foot, quickly put his wares on the floor and went to disarm the alarm. It only had a thirty-second delay. But, as he went to enter his code, he stopped short. He looked again at the liquid crystal display. Did he forget to turn on the alarm? Was that possible? Richard was dumbfounded. Suddenly, that shudder rolled up and down his back again. He drew a breath. His stomach rose to his throat. His eyes searched the foyer. He listened to the empty house. His hand went to his mouth. Someone is here. Richard felt his pulse increase. He couldn’t catch his breath. He closed his eyes. Don’t panic!
“Too late,” he said out loud, a little too loud. “Calm down. She can’t be here. It’s not possible. It’s just your imagination. Nell is safe. Nell is safe,” he repeated. Richard laughed. He was worried about letting his daughter go to the sleepover, but at least now she was safe.
That actually helped. Richard inhaled deeply, trying to force himself to be calm, to think. “I don’t know. Maybe, I was so worried about the sleepover, I forgot to set the alarm. Everything is fine. She’s not here. Jane is not here. She can’t be. She’s locked up. She can’t hurt us anymore. She is not here.” He allowed himself to sit on the staircase. He sat there for a good while.
When his pulse returned to normal, Richard picked up the grocery bag and pizza and went into the living room. He dropped the pizza on the table, removed the six-pack from the grocery bag and brought it to the kitchen.
“Well, that was fun, Richie. Now you’re pizza’s cold and your beer is warm. Does it ever get any easier?” He put five of Heinekens in the freezer, and opened the sixth. “Well, here’s to good friends, panic and paranoia,” he said as he took a long pull on the bottle. “Tonight is kinda special.” He took another pull. “No, that’s Lowenbrau.” Richard shrugged. “I’m doing well tonight.” He returned to living room.
“Okay, a little Springsteen, some pizza and The Dark Tower. We can salvage the evening.” Richard paused. “I gotta stop talking to myself.”
Richard’s pocket started vibrating while chiming “Born to Run.” He looked at the cell phone. It was Steven, his lawyer and probably his last friend on the planet.
He flipped open the phone, but before he could say hello, Steven practically shouted, “Where are you? Turn on Channel Five News, right now. And sit down.”
“What is it?”
“Just do it, right now. I’ll stay on the line. Are you at home? Good. Sit down, man, and take a deep breath.”
That was out of the question. Richard’s breath seized in his chest. He grabbed the remote and flipped on the television. His eyes riveted to the screen. Automatically, he sat on the edge of the couch. “What is it?” he whispered into the phone, but he knew, somehow he knew.
A fire danced in the background of the screen as the voice of a young woman described the news event. The words at the bottom of the screen seemed to laugh at Richard, “Live from the Bergen County Female State Penitentiary for the Criminally Insane,” and he knew. He didn’t really need to hear the announcer describe how three women escaped, killing two guards and wounding four others. Two of the prisoners were killed, but the third was still missing.”
“Are you okay?” Steven asked.
“Are you okay? It’s not as bad as it sounds. They’re not identifying the escaped prisoners yet.”
“I know. You know.”
“We don’t know anything yet, Rich.”
“Yes we do. That’s why you called me.” Richard buried his face in his hand. “Oh God, what am I going to do?”
Suddenly, the whole evening returned to Richard in a flash. The door. The alarm. Did he smell her perfume when he walked in? She was there. She was in the house. Nell. Oh God, what if she gets to Nell. He had to get to Nell, to make sure she was safe.
“Steve, I got to go.”
“No, Richard, wait. Let me help you. I’ll be there in twenty minutes. Don’t do anything till I get there. Okay? Rich?”
Richard had already hung up the phone. He went to the closet and grabbed his Louisville Slugger. “Okay Bitch, where are you?”
The house was deadly quiet. The one thing that helped him keep his grip on sanity was the fact that Nell wasn’t home. She was safe. Even she couldn’t know where Nell was. Richard walked towards the stairs. She must be upstairs. The sound of his breathing echoed in his ear with each step. “How did you do it Jane? How?”
Before Richard made it to the upstairs landing, there was a loud knock at the front door. Richard’s heart smashed into his teeth. The bat fell from Richard’s hands and clattered down the stairs. Richard gasped. There was another loud knock on the front door. “Mr. Fax,” a deep male voice boomed, “Are you there?”
Richard collected himself and descended the stairs. He picked up the bat and opened the door to two large men in suits. They both held out their police identification for Richard to see. “Mr. Fax?” the first one asked.
“May we come in, sir?” the blonde one asked. “Did you happen to see the news?”
“Or are you just getting ready for spring training?” the first one pointed to the bat.
“Yeah, well, I …” Richard shrugged, “Come on in. I suppose this is about the prison break, right? It was Jane, wasn’t it?” He led the two detectives to the living room.
“How did you know?”
Richard looked at the two cops. “Are you at all familiar with this case officers?”
“Yeah, it is pretty ‘Outer Limits,’ I guess.”
“But you don’t have anything to worry about,” offered the second one, “That’s why we’re here. She’s dead.”
“What?” It was too incredible to believe.
“Well, in the course of their escape, a gas canister ignited and exploded. We found two bodies, and parts of a third.”
“Your ex-wife is dead, Mr. Faux.”
“You’re sure? She’s dead?” Richard repeated. His legs gave out and sank to the floor. Richard began to cry. “Oh God.” He breathed deeply. “Oh God.”
“Are you alright, Mr. Fax?”
“It’s Fox, as in the animal,” Steven said as he stepped through the door.” “Is everything okay, Richard?”
“She’s dead, Steve.” Richard looked up at Steven’s voice. “I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry.”
The blonde detective turned to Steven, “Sir, what’s your involvement in all this, if may I asked.”
Steven sized up the two men quickly. “I’m his friend.” Steven shifted his gaze from one officer to the other. “And attorney. What’s yours?” Steven asked.
“We’re with the State Police,” said the one with the deep voice. “I’m Sergeant Banes, and this is Detective Hackman. “We came to inform Mr. Faux of the news.”
“And?” asked Steven, knowing there was something else.
“Well, his daughter is listed as the next of kin,” confessed the one called Banes, “and we need to know how to …” His voice trailed off as he searched for the right words.
“Dispose of the remains,” offered his partner.
Banes scowled at Hackman, “He means that we need to know what type of arrangements should be made.”
“What do you guys normally do with psycho killers?” asked Steven.
“Steve, please,” pleaded Richard.
“What? You’re going to defend her, now?” Steve asked Richard. “Five people are dead because of her. What would you have me call her?”
Richard sighed. “She’s dead Steve. I was married to her, and she’s still Nell’s mother. Let it rest.” Turning to the detective, he asked, “What do I need to do?”
“Well, as your daughter’s guardian, you can take custody of the body, and have it transferred to a funeral home, or you can sign off on it, and let the state ‘dispose’ of the remains.”
“No, we’ll give her a proper funeral.”
“I don’t believe you.” Steven rolled his eyes. “After all she put you through? You’re a fucking saint.”
“What are you?” asked Hackman, “The other woman?”
“Shut it, asshole,” Steven shouted. I’ve seen what she’s done to him.”
“Hackman,” Banes cautioned.
“Sorry, counselor.” There was almost some sincerity in Hackman’s apology.
“Hey, where is Nell?” asked Steven.
“At a sleepover.”
“You were free tonight, and you didn’t call me?” asked Steven.
“I just got back from dropping her off, when you called,” Richard answered. “And, I just needed some time for myself.”
“Girls, can you hash this out later, I want to get home to my wife,” interjected Hackman.
“Hackman!” Banes chided.
“Do I have to sign for her tonight?” asked Richard.
Banes pulled out some folded documents from his jacket. “We brought you the forms, Mr. Foax. You want to look at them, counselor?”
“Yeah, let me see them,” Steven said reaching for the papers.
“Thanks for your cooperation, Mr. Foax,” Banes said as he walked towards the door. “Good luck.”
“Thanks, officer. Um…” Richard paused while escorting the police officers to the door.”
“Is there something else you need, Mr. Foax?” Bane asked.
“Yeah, I know it’s kinda silly, maybe even a little crazy, but could you give the house a once over. Check upstairs …”
“What for?” asked Steven.
“Paranoia.” Richard forced a smile. “Just to put my mind at rest, you know.”
“Sure, Mr. Foax. Come on Hackman,” Banes said, as he mounted the stairs.
“The guy’s a little nuts isn’t he?” asked Hackman when the two of them were upstairs. “What’s he expecting, her ghost?”
“Look, the guy’s on edge. He’s been through a lot. Besides,” Banes looked at his partner, “I’m not going to give up an opportunity to check out his house.”
“What gives?” asked Hackman.
“Oh nothing. Just intuition,” Banes entered what appeared to be the main bedroom. “Look, there’s no way that lady was able to break out without outside help. I don’t believe it, and …” Banes eyes caught something on the bedroom mirror. “Look at this.”
“So what? He’s got a picture of his wife,” said Hackman.
“Ex-wife,” corrected Banes. “And, after all she put him through, too. Makes that Fatal Attraction lady look like a girl scout. He was even set up as the murderer. Sat in jail for awhile.”
“You don’t think that this guy …”
“Probably not. But something’s not right about all this. Just don’t know what it is. Come on, let’s get back downstairs.”
“You want me to stay awhile?” Steven asked after the police had left. “I can sleep over, and then I can ride over to the funeral home with you in the morning.”
“Don’t you have a life?”
“No, not really.” Steven laughed, “It’s what I get for hanging around with you.”
“Thanks, man,” Richard said, “You really are good friend. There’s some cold pizza and some Heineken in the freezer.”
“Why don’t we warm up the pizza? We’re not in college anymore.”
“Go ahead. I’ll go fix up the guest room,” said Richard.
Steven headed towards the kitchen when his Blackberry began to ring. He looked at the Caller I.D. and scowled. “Yeah,” he said into the phone.
Steven became increasingly impatient as he listened to the caller. “Look, I’m little busy… Don’t be a …” Steven looked to see if Richard was within earshot. “Just let yourself out … And you too … Deal with it.” Steven closed his phone and shoved it back into his pocket.
“What’s up?” asked Richard.
“Nothing,” said Steven, “nothing at all.”
“Come on Steve, we’re going to be late,” Richard called from the doorway.
“I’m coming, I’m coming.” Steven jogged towards the door. I couldn’t find my shoe.”
“Arm the alarm, will you?” Richard asked as he held the door.
“Sure,” Steven answered as he coded the alarm box. “I don’t know why you need this thing anymore.”
“Humor me,” replied Richard.
Steven exited the house, and Richard double locked the front door. “I’ll drive,” said Steven. “Are we picking up Nell first, or going straight to the funeral home?”
“No. We’ll pick up Nell on the way home. I already talked to Barbara, and she says Nell can stay all day if I want.”
“The girl’s mother. She’s really nice.”
“Don’t you think it’s a little soon,” Steven chided.
“She’s married with four kids, Steve.” Richard laughed. “She did say she had a friend for me though.”
“Yeah, I’ll bet,” Steven joked. “Just be careful. I’m tired of bailing you out of trouble.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to come in?”
“No, I’ll wait in the car. Just don’t take all day.” Steven leaned back in his seat. “I’d like to salvage what’s left of my Sunday.”
“You won’t even know I’m gone. I’ll just grab Nell, say thank you and we’ll be off.”
“Are you going to tell her?” asked Steven
“I’m going to wait till the funeral on Tuesday. I don’t want to ruin her day. This is the first time she’s had friends and a sleepover …”
“Yeah, whatever. Just go.”
“You asked,” Richard said as he closed the car door. He admired the house again as he approached the door. This time, he had to knock.
But, he didn’t have to wait long for an answer. The door opened and Barbara greeted him warmly. “Richard, so good to see you. Come on in.”
“I can’t stay long. My friend is waiting in the car.”
“Nell, you’re father’s here,” Barbara shouted into the house. “How are you doing? She asked Richard.
“I’m okay.” He smiled. “A little confused, to tell you the truth. A part of me is relieved, but I’m also a little sad. You didn’t say anything to Nell, did you?”
“No. You’re not going to tell her?”
“Not today. The funeral is going to be on Tuesday, and I want to wait till then.”
“Well let me know if you need anything.”
“Thank you. Really.”
Nell and Sally came running down the stairs like screaming banshees. “Daddy!” She yelled as she jumped into Richard’s awaiting embrace.
“Had a good time, kitten?”
“Oh yes! It was fantastic!”
“The girls spent all night telling ghost stories, and didn’t fall asleep till the middle of the night,” offered Barbara.
“Wow. How do you manage?” Richard asked Barbara.
“Oh, I’m fine. I love little girls. Just wait till you have a son,” she joked.
“Come on kitten, Uncle Steve is waiting in the car,” said Richard.
“Uncle Steve?” Nell said. “Come on Sally, you’ve got to meet Uncle Steve, he’s really cool.” Nell raced out the door followed by Sally.
Barbara walked Richard to the door at a slower pace. She placed a hand on his forearm. “Listen, I can’t imagine what you’re going through, but if you need a hand, you want me to watch Nell or have her sleepover, please feel free to ask. I’d like to help.”
“Thanks. I may take you up on that. We need to get our balance, and start living again.” Richard placed his hand on Barbara’s. “I appreciate it.”
“Pretty friendly woman,” Steven said to Richard as he entered the car. “Where’s her husband?”
“Ahh,” mocked Steven.
“Stop that,” chided Richard, “You sound like …”
Richard swallowed hard at the thought. “Her,” he said. Richard shook his head at the memory and turned in his seat to face Nell. “All strapped in, honey?”
“Yes, Daddy,” answered Nell.
“Did you have a good time?”
“Oh it was the best time. Can I stay over again? Sally wants me too, and Aunt Barbara says its okay. Can I?”
“We’ll see honey. I’ll talk with Aunt Barbara and we’ll work it out?”
Steven laughed. “Aunt Barbara? So now she’s part of the family?”
“Give it a rest, Steve.”
“Isn’t it suppose to rain at a funeral?” whispered Steven to Richard. They were standing graveside, as the two men on either side of the grave lowered the casket into it. Nell was holding her father’s hand, staring into the grave.
“You didn’t have to come, Steve,” Richard whispered back.
“Ah well,” Steve shrugged. “I don’t understand why you’re going through the trouble, but you are my friend. Might as well see it through to the end.”
“Mommy can rest now, right Daddy?” asked Nell.
“What did you say?” asked Richard.
“Well, I mean, God will take care of her now right?” Nell looked at her father. “You said the doctors would help her, that she’d find rest in the hospital.” Nell’s face was very serious. “Now, that she’s with God, he’ll help her right?”
“I’m sure He will, sweetheart. “
“She’s probably roasting marshmallows,” Steven whispered to Richard.
Someone approached the grave. Both looked up and were surprised to see Sergeant Banes.
“Sergeant Banes?” Richard asked.
The detective smiled. “I came to offer my condolences, Mr. Foax.” He offered his hand. Richard shook it. “This must be Nell,” he said kneeling before the seven year old. “I’m sorry about your mom.”
Nell looked up to Richard. He encouraged her to take the detective’s hand.
“It’s okay, Daddy says that Heaven is better than the hospital.”
Banes stood up. “I’m sure it is, dear. Hopefully she can find peace.”
The gravediggers began filling in the grave. Banes, Richard and Nell began walking towards the gravel road where the cars were parked. Steven hung back. When the others were a few yards away, he turned and spit into the grave. One of the gravediggers looked up, but said nothing.
“Rot in hell, you little wench,” Steven hissed. “Game over!”
Bane walked Richard to his car. “Didn’t she have any friends? Family?” he asked.
“Well, everyone kind of abandoned us, when the killings started. You know, everyone thought we were just bad luck to be around at first, and then when everyone found out …” Richard sighed. “No one knew how to handle it. It was easier to avoid it.”
Bane smiled. “Well, he stuck by you.” Banes nodded towards Steven who was coming towards them. Richard buckled Nell into her seat.
“Yeah, Steve’s been great. He was my roommate in college, the last of the old gang.”
“Talking about me?” asked Steven.
“Just telling the detective what a good friend you’ve been to me, and to Jane.” Richard sighed. “You coming back to the house?”
“Yeah sure,” said Steven.
“You were Jane’s friend too?” asked Banes.
“Once. You know how it is,” answered Steven.
Banes nodded. “Not really, no.”
“You know, before she flipped out,” offered Steven.
“I see,” said Banes.
“Well, we need to get going Sergeant. Do you want to come back to the house? We have a spread,” offered Richard.
“For a woman that made your life a living hell, you’re going to an awful lot of trouble,” Banes said.
“Yeah, well,” Richard demurred. “My shrink would tell you I have some conflicted feelings about her. She’s Nell’s mom, she was my wife. A part of me will miss her, and now that she’s dead, the part of me that was terrified of her is…” He searched for the right words. “I’m trying to make my peace.”
“Is there a reason you’re asking all these questions, detective?” Steven asked.
Banes smile widened. “No, no, just curious by nature. It gets me into trouble with my wife all the time.” He turned to Richard. “Mr. Foax, thank you, but I’ll have to take a rain check on the offer. I do need to get back to my job.” Banes took out a business card and handed it to Richard. “I can’t imagine why you’d need this, but just in case, please feel free to call if you need anything.”
“Thank you,” said Richard, placing the card into his pocket.
Banes turned and walked to his car. Steven looked after him. “I don’t trust him,” he said.
“Now look at who’s being paranoid, Steve,” Richard chuckled. “It’s all over.”
“Yeah, I guess so,” answered Steven. “I guess it’s just my nature. I am an attorney.” He patted Richard on the shoulder, before turning and walking to his car.