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Authors: Ron Chudley

Tags: #Fiction, #Thrillers, #General, #Suspense, #Mystery & Detective

Act of Evil (9 page)

BOOK: Act of Evil
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ten

Stephanie was doing a final clear away when the phone rang. At this hour, with the café closed, the chef gone, and Fran in back cashing out, there was only herself to answer. Since it was unlikely to be a customer—nobody in Duncan would dream of dining after nine—this would probably be a personal call, and on her way to pick up, Stephanie thought of Trent's brother. Had he come up with some ideas already? Her heartbeat quickened as she picked up the phone. “Fran's Restaurant: good evening.”

“And good evening to
you
, sweetface,” her fiancé's voice said.

With just these words, Stephanie could tell that Trent was feeling better. Earlier, when she'd confronted him with the folly of the stunt at the house, he'd seemed genuinely ashamed. Now, his tone made her worry that he'd convinced himself he didn't care. She was sure that deep down he did. But the swiftness with which he'd slipped back into denial made her see that convincing him to sort out the mess was going to be harder than she'd thought. Her heart sank, but she didn't let this show in her voice. “Darling, hey! I'll be leaving in five. Did you want me to pick up something on my way home?”

“No,” his cheerful voice said, “That's why I'm calling: Don't
go
home.”

“Oh—why not?”

“Because, kiddo. I'm at
my
place. I want you to come here.”

Though they'd been going together a year, and were definitely—albeit without the formality of a ring—engaged, this did not yet include a permanent living arrangement. Stephanie had a little house on the outskirts of Duncan, where she'd lived, with her son Gary, for the ten years since her divorce. Trent often stayed over—almost always on weekends—but they'd not taken the final step. Ostensibly, Trent needed to maintain a presence at Shawnigan Lake for his caretaking duties. In fact, had they really wanted, something could have been worked out. “Why the change of plans, hon?” she said.

“I realized you were mad at me. You know, for playing that little game with Hal . . .”

“Darling, my only concern is why you think you have to impress him. Anyway, it doesn't matter right now. Why do you want me to come there?”

He gave a conspiratorial chuckle. “Terry doesn't get back till Monday. We could sleep up at the big house.”

“You know I don't like to do that.”

“Whatever. Anyway—what I
do
have is a surprise for you. I've been working on it all night. So you have to come here to see it. Okay?”

“Sure. So—is there anything you need?”

“No. Just bring your sweet self.”

“Okay—see you in a bit.”

She hung up and quickly finished her cleanup, changed out of her uniform, and popped her head into the office to say goodnight to Fran, the owner. Her old
VW
was parked out back. This late, she was hardly enamoured of the prospect of a half-hour drive to Shawnigan Lake, but resignedly started out. Trust Trent to come up with a mysterious “surprise,” a diversion, no doubt, from his embarrassment of the earlier charade.

She loved Trent, no doubt of it. Though ten years her senior, he was the most exciting, passionate man Stephanie had ever known. He was also brilliant, with a wonderful imagination, fantastic memory and math skills that made her feel humble. Though he'd taken to business rather than the arts, the richness of imagination that had served his brother so well was evident in him too. Finally, he adored her—he was capable of making her feel happier and more desirable than anyone ever had—the snag being that he was also a bit of a flake.

Apparently, the fortune he'd recently lost wasn't the first. According to his friend Terry Bathgate—who'd told her this in confidence—Trent had been up and down several times over the years. Undoubtedly a whiz-kid, he had trouble staying focused and was easily bored, the final problem being that, though an astute market analyst, he had trouble taking his own advice. His present predicament was the result of just that.

So why had she committed herself to such a man? He had come by chance into her restaurant, a charming but obviously adrift guy, and he'd returned again and again, chatting her up until finally she agreed to go out with him. A year later, she'd come to believe she'd found someone just one small misstep from extraordinary. If he'd just sort himself out and try to be a bit more mature, she was sure that the rare soul she sensed beneath the slightly wacky exterior would one day emerge in triumph.

Or was she just a sentimental fool?

Whatever! She loved the man, which was all that mattered. As for the drive to Shawnigan he'd sprung on her, after the bustle of work she found it soothing. Fifteen minutes from Duncan, she left the Island Highway at the south end of tiny Dougan Lake, heading in the direction of Shawnigan Village. The road was dark and winding but still quite busy. The blinding lights of oncoming cars began to give her a headache. Traffic started to pile up behind, and at one point a giant pickup overtook her with a roar. By the time she reached the village, she was feeling exhausted and somewhat less benign toward the instigator of this late-night odyssey.

The last couple of kilometres around the lake, though even more winding, were less busy. Stephanie reached the familiar entrance to Lake Haven and turned down the drive with relief. The light was on in the lower courtyard, Terry's Bathgate's convertible parked off to the left near the rear entrance to the house. Stephanie turned her
VW
in the opposite direction, on a track that led through the trees to a cabin. Outside there was just room for two vehicles. Trent's battered Landrover was parked there, and Stephanie edged in beside it. The only way out was to reverse all the way back to the courtyard—but she wasn't going anywhere tonight.

The porch light was off, making the normally cheery guest cabin look a little mysterious. It was built of logs, with a steep-pitched, shake roof. There were windows to right and left of the front door, one side being the kitchen-living room, the other the bedroom. The bedroom curtains were closed, as—surprisingly—were the drapes to the living room. No light showed behind either, which was odd; Trent usually kept the place bright and cheerful. Stephanie gave a small toot on the horn to announce her arrival, gathered up her handbag, and moved to the front door.

It was locked.

That was odd. She'd never known Trent to lock his door. Stephanie gave it a sharp rap. “Trent!” she called. “Honey?”

No answer. From the lakeside a couple of houses away came a girlish shriek and the sound of high-pitched laughter. A voice cried. “Hey—no way—too fucking
cold!
” The sound of a splash was followed by more laughter.

Stephanie knocked more loudly. “Trent—it's me—open up!”

Silence—then the sound of footsteps. Finally, Trent's voice, muffled and low. “Are you alone?”

“What?”

“I said, are you
alone
?”

His voice actually sounded nervous, which was absurd. “Of course I'm alone. What else, you nut? Open the damn door.”

Lights came on in the living room. There was the sound of a key turning, then the door opened. Trent stood there, a dark figure silhouetted by the glow beyond. Stephanie couldn't see his face, but his stance told her that she hadn't mistaken the voice tone. Something was wrong. “Trent—what's the matter?”

“Shhh!” he whispered urgently. “Get in!”

She did as requested and Trent quickly closed and locked the door. Stephanie felt her unease growing. “Honey, what is it? Why are you locking the door?”

“I've got to! To stop him?”

“Stop
who
, for God's sake?”

“Terry, of course!”

“Terry Bathgate?”

“YES!”

“Stop him doing
what
?”

“Throwing me out!”

Trent's voice was no longer just afraid, it was growing angry, and Stephanie began to feel more than a little nervous herself. “Why would Terry want to do that? Oh, Trent, you two didn't have a fight . . . Hold on, he's not even
here
. Did he just come back? What's going on?”

Trent put his finger to his lips and hustled her away from the door. His grip was none too gentle, and Stephanie felt her nervousness increase. Half an hour ago her fiancé had been chatting on the phone, sounding perfectly cheerful. Now he seemed to have become totally paranoid. “What's going on, Trent?” she repeated, trying hard to keep the panic out of her voice.

Trent led her into the kitchen area, and only then did he loosen his grip. “We didn't have a fight,” he said. “Terry's not here. But he'll be coming—coming to throw me out!”

“Darling, why would he do that?”

Trent laughed: the sound was impatient, exasperated—and chilling. “You must know! You must have worked that out!”

“Worked out
what
, for heaven's sake?”

Her fiancé's expression suddenly changed, becoming sly and—yes—suspicious. “Unless you're in on it too?”

Whatever had happened since they'd known each other, Trent had never shown the smallest negative attitude toward herself. She forced her voice to be calm when she said, “In on
what
? Hon—please tell me what you're talking about?”

He looked at her squarely, his eyes dark and—was this possible?—dangerous. “The conspiracy that Terry and my brother are cooking up.”

“What are you talking about? Terry and Hal have never met!”

“The minute he arrived I knew.”

“Knew
what
?”

“That I was really on my uppers. He was just testing me, taunting me, seeing how far I'd go with my pathetic shit—so he could report back to Terry how crazy I am!”

“Trent, that's ridiculous. You may exaggerate a bit from time to time—tell a few harmless fibs—but one thing you're definitely
not
is crazy.” She finished lamely, “Anyway, as I said, Terry doesn't know your brother.”

Trent chuckled. “That's what you think.”

“Darling, how
could
he?”

“Very simple.” Trent began to pace. “All those clever bastards know each other. That's how they get where they are. I've been figuring it out and now I understand: oh, yeah!”

“Trent—
really
!”

“It's fucking
true
! If you can't see that, you're either stupider than I thought—or you're in on it.”

There was no answering this. She knew it very well. She also understood that, if she could believe what she was hearing, she was witnessing something entirely new: Trent was becoming delusional. She was both astonished and afraid—and her immediate concern was not to show it.

“I'm not ‘in' on anything,” she said swiftly, in as reasonable a voice as she could muster. “Come one, hon, you know that.”

He paused, took a deep breath—and finally smiled. “Yes—I do. So now—I want you to help me.”

Relief washed through her. “Of course I'll help you. Any way you want. So—why don't we just relax. Put on some more lights and I'll put on the kettle—”

“No, no,
NO
!” he blurted savagely. “That's not what I meant! What I need is for you to help me to get
away
!”

“Away?”

“From
here
! I'm going to fool them! Do what they'd never suspect. I'll escape. Go where no one can ever follow, or make me look stupid again. Then I'll have the last fucking laugh on the lot of them!”

In the light from the single lamp, Trent's face was drawn, rigid, his eyes aglow with excitement and triumph. Whatever was going on, whatever strange country her fiancé had entered since his mind had apparently become unhinged, he now seemed beyond influence or diversion; Stephanie understood this, and felt real fear. “Darling,” she whispered, “I just don't understand.”

“Of course you don't!” Trent shouted. “But you
will
. Come on—it's time!”

He grabbed her arm, pulling her across the room. “Trent—what are you doing?” Stephanie cried.

“This is why I brought you here. I want you to be the witness!”

They had reached the bedroom. Trent snapped on the light, and flung back the door. The room was neat and tidy, bed made, everything as usual—except for a single item.

Suspended from a beam in the high ceiling was a hangman's noose.

Stephanie gasped, stumbled sideways as Trent released her and strode ahead. In a single fluid movement, he leaped on a chair, stretched up, and put his neck in the hideous loop.

The other end of the rope had been securely tied off, unreachably high, so that once the noose had begun its work, nothing could be done to stop it.

Head in the noose, Trent looked down at his almost swooning fiancée. His face was now serenely calm. One of his legs lifted, poised to kick away the chair. “Goodbye, darling,” he said softly. “Remember me.”

Stephanie stumbled forward, wanting but not daring to clutch the chair, terrified of precipitating the very action she desired to prevent. “
No!
” the word echoed like a rattle from the grave. “Trent—sweetheart!—
please
—
DON'T!

“But I must!” His raised leg shifted, hovered in front of the chair back, pausing before its final, fatal thrust, “You can see I must.”

Her insides convulsed in a frenzied effort not to scream. Agonizingly, she rammed sobs back into her throat, forcing her mouth to make the words that likely would be the last her fiancé would ever hear.

“Oh, Trent,” she whispered, “if you love me—
please don't do this dreadful thing!

Stillness. Dead silence.

The suspended foot, waiting to perform the last life-ending shove, paused—hovered . . .

BOOK: Act of Evil
10.36Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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