Authors: Jane Haddam
Open Road Integrated Media
Walking Down the Aisle to the Funeral March
HERE WAS A FOG
in Fox Run Hill that morning, a thick roll of gray and black floating just an inch above the ground, like the mad scientist’s dream mist in some ancient horror movie. Patsy MacLaren Willis moved through it much too quickly. There were stones on the driveway that she couldn’t see. There were ruts in the gutters where she didn’t expect them. It was just on the edge of dawn and still very cold, in spite of its being almost summer. Patsy felt foolish and uncomfortable in her short-sleeved, thin silk blouse. Foolish and uncomfortable, she thought, dumping a load of clothes on hangers into the rear of the dull black Volvo station wagon she had parked halfway down the drive. That was the way Patsy had always felt in Fox Run Hill all the time she had lived there, more than twenty years. It was as if God had touched His finger to her forehead one morning and said, “No matter what you do with your life, you will always be out of step, out of touch, out of place.”
The clothes on hangers were her own: navy blue linen dresses from Ann Taylor with round necklines and no collars; Liz Claiborne dress pants with pleats across the front or panels under the waists; Donna Karan wrap skirts with matching cropped jackets. The clothes went with the Volvo in some odd way Patsy couldn’t define. The clothes and the Volvo went with the house too—a mock-Tudor seven thousand square feet big, set on a lot of exactly one and three-quarter acres. Fox Run Hill, Patsy thought irritably, looking up at all the other houses facing her winding street. An elegant Victorian reproduction. A massive French Provincial with a curlicue roof and stone quoins. A redbrick Federalist with too many windows. The only thing she couldn’t see from here was the fence that surrounded it all, that made Fox Run Hill what it really was. The fence was made of wrought iron and topped with electrified barbed wire. It was supposed to keep them safe. It was also supposed to remain invisible. Years ago—when the fence had just been put up, and the first foundations for the first houses had just been dug on the little circle of lots near the front gate—someone had planted a thick stand of evergreen trees along the line the fence made against the outside world. Now those trees were thick with needles and very tall, blocking out all concrete evidence of the existence of real life.
Patsy checked through the clothes again—dresses, slacks, blouses, skirts, underwear of pink satin in lightly scented bags—and then walked back up the drive and into the garage. She poked against the pins in her salt-and-pepper hair and felt fat wet strands fall against her neck. She shifted the waistband of her skirt against her skin and ended up feeling lumpy and grotesque. Three days before, she had celebrated her forty-eighth birthday with a small dinner party at the Fox Run Hill Country Club. Her husband, Stephen Willis, had reserved the window corner for her. She had been able to look out over the waterfall while she cut her cake. She had been able to look out over the candles at the people she had been closest to in this place. It should have been the perfect moment, the culmination of something important and valuable, the recognition of an achievement and a promise. Instead, the night had been ugly and flat and full of tension, like every other night Patsy could remember—but it was a tension only she had recognized. If she had tried to tell the others about it, they wouldn’t have known what she meant.
Nobody here has ever known what I meant, Patsy thought as she came up out of the garage into the mudroom. She kicked off her sandals and left them lying, tumbled together, under the built-in bench along the south wall. She padded across the fieldstone floor in her bare feet and went up the wooden stairs into the kitchen. The house was cavernous. It should have had a dozen children in it, and a dozen servants too. Instead, there was just Stephen and herself, having their dinners on trays in front of the masonry fireplace in the thirty-by-thirty-foot family room, making love in a tangle of sheets in a master bedroom so outsized, the bed in it had had to be custom-made, and all the linens had to be special-ordered from Bloomingdale’s. Patsy stopped at one of the two kitchen sinks and got herself a glass of water. Her throat felt scratchy and hard, as if she had just eaten razor blades. I hate this house, she thought. Anybody would hate this house. It was not only too large. It was fake. Even the portraits of ancestors that lined the paneled wall in the gallery were fake. Stephen had bought them at an auction at Sotheby’s, the leftover pieces of somebody else’s unremembered life.
“I paid only a thousand for the lot,” he’d told Patsy when he’d brought them home from New York. “They’re just what we’ve always needed in this place.”
Patsy put her used glass into the sink. That was the difference between them, of course. Stephen
like the house. He liked everything about it, just the way he liked everything about Fox Run Hill, and the country club, and his job at Delacord & Tweed in Philadelphia. Last month he had bought himself a bright red Ferrari Testarosa. This month he had been talking about taking a vacation in the Caribbean, of renting an entire villa on Montego Bay and keeping it for the three long months of the summer.
“The problem with us is that we’ve never really learned to enjoy our money,” he’d said. “We’ve never understood that there was more that we could do with it than use it to invest in bonds.”
Patsy had fished the lemon slice out of the bottom of the glass of Scotch on the rocks she’d just drunk and made an encouraging noise. The family room had a cathedral ceiling and thick, useless beams that had been machine-cut to look as if they had been hand-hewn, then dyed a dark brown to make them look old. Stephen’s voice bounced against all the wood and stone and empty spaces.
“Now that I won’t be traveling anymore, it’ll be better,” he had told her, “you’ll see. I know that you’ve been terribly lonely, dumped in this house with nobody to talk to for weeks at a time. I know that you haven’t been happy here.”
Now the water-spotted glass sat in the sink, looking all wrong. Everything else in the kitchen was clean to the point of being antiseptic. The sinks were all stainless steel and highly polished, as if porcelain had too much of the roadside diner attached to it, too much of the socially marginal and the economically low rent.
“Damn,” Patsy said out loud. She walked through glass doors that separated the kitchen and the family room from the foyer and started up the front stairs. The stairs made a circular sweep up a curved bulge in the wall that was lined with curved leaded windows looking out on the drive and the front walk. Outside, the Volvo looked dowdy and dumpy and square—just like Patsy imagined she looked dowdy and dumpy and square everywhere in Fox Run Hill, next to all those women who worked so hard on treadmills and Nautilus machines, who came to parties and ate only crudités and drank only Perrier water. The clock at the top of the stairs said that it was 6:26. Patsy stopped next to it, at the linen closet, and rummaged through the stacks of Porthault sheets until she found the gun.
Patsy turned the gun over in her hands. It was a Smith & Wesson Model 657 41 Magnum with an 8-3/4-inch stainless steel barrel, muzzled by a professional silencer that looked like a blackened can of insect repellent. She had bought it quite openly at a gun shop in central Philadelphia, with no questions asked, in spite of the fact that it was a heavy gun that most women would not want to use and illegal to buy in Pennsylvania.
Most women probably couldn’t even lift it, Patsy thought, walking down the carpeted hall. The only real sounds in the house were Stephen’s snoring, and the whir of the central air-conditioning, pumping away even in the cold of the morning, set so low that crystals of ice sometimes formed on the edges of the grates.
In the bedroom, Stephen was lying on his back under a pile of quilts and blankets, his mostly bald head lolling off the side of a thick goose-down pillow, a single naked shoulder exposed to the air. When Patsy had first met him, he’d had thick hair all over his body. In the years of their marriage, he seemed to have shed.
Patsy spread her legs apart and raised the gun in both hands. She had fired it only twice before, but she knew how difficult it was. When the bullet exploded in the chamber, the gun kicked back and made her shoulder hurt. She wished she’d thought to wear a set of ear protectors like the ones they’d given her when she went out to practice at the range. Then she remembered the silencer and felt immensely and irredeemably stupid. Could anyone as naive and ignorant as she really do something like this? Why didn’t she just turn around and go downstairs and get into the car? Why didn’t she just drive through the front gates and keep on going, driving and driving until she came to a place where she could smell the sea?
Stephen’s body moved on the bed. He coughed in his sleep, his throat thick with mucus. He was nothing and nobody, Patsy thought, a cog in the machine, an instrument. He was the one who had wanted to live locked up like this, so that he could pretend they were safe. If I don’t do something soon, he’ll wake up, Patsy thought.
She tried to remember the color of his eyes and couldn’t do it. She tried to remember the shape of his hands and couldn’t do that either. She had been married to this man for twenty-two years and he had made no impression on her at all.
“I know how unhappy you’ve been,” he had told her—but of course he didn’t know, he couldn’t know, he would never have the faintest idea.
Stephen shifted in the bed again. A little more of him disappeared under the covers. Patsy aimed a little to the left of the shoulder she could see and took a deep breath and fired. Stephen made a sound like wind and jerked against the quilts. Blankets fell away from him. Patsy changed her aim and fired twice again. He seemed to be dead, as dead as anyone could get, but she couldn’t really tell. There were three black holes in the skin near his left nipple but no blood. Then she saw the red, spreading in a thick wash on the sheet underneath the body. The longer she looked at it, the more it seemed to darken, first into maroon, then into black. She let the gun drop and brought her legs together. She suddenly thought that it was so odd—even in this, even in the act of murdering her husband, the first thing a woman had to do was spread her legs.
Patsy walked over to the night table on Stephen’s side of the bed and put the gun down on it. The air was full of the smell of cordite and something worse, something foul and rotted and hot. Patsy made herself kneel down at the side of the bed and look Stephen in the face. His eyes were open, deep brown eyes with no intelligence left in them. She grabbed him by the hair and turned his head back and forth. It moved where she wanted it to, flaccid and heavy, unresisting. She let his head drop. His eyes are brown, she told herself, as if that really mattered. Then she walked out of the suite and into the hall, closing the single open bedroom door behind her.
The house was still too large, too empty, too hollow, too dead. Now it felt as if it no longer belonged to her. Patsy walked down the hall to the front stairs and down the front stairs to the foyer. She went through the foyer to the kitchen and through the kitchen to the mudroom. She walked into the garage and then carefully closed the mudroom door behind her. The Volvo was still packed and waiting on the gravel. The fog was still rolling in puffs just above the ground. No one would come looking for Stephen at all today. Anyone who came looking for her would assume that she had gone into the city to shop.