“Words in the Dark” - First chapters


Boston, July 23rd
“Nora… Are you there?”
Detective Joe Cooper listened for a long moment, before surrendering to the silence on the line. He didn’t like leaving messages, not even on his own answering machine. Pocketing his cell phone, he knew he’d talk to his wife later.
His shoe stamped out his unfinished cigarette and for the umpteenth time, he promised himself that he’d kick the unfashionable habit once and for all. A moment later, he walked into the bank and nodded hello to the security guard who had just walked out of the manager’s office.
“It’s only nine in the morning and can you feel how it’s already sweltering? Not even a breeze last night.”
Rick Clancy, six feet tall and a baby face, smiled back.
“I wouldn’t have slept a wink anyway. My kid’s teething and he kept us up ‘til dawn. I haven’t had a full night’s sleep for six months.” But his frown betrayed his pride as a new daddy.
Joe thought of his own little Meg.
“Savor it. They’re thirty before you know it.”
A second later his attention went to the only bank teller available. Rose, he thought her name was.
Although she was too heavily made up, Rose was pale as a sheet, staring into the void, expressionless.
She looked like she had even stopped breathing.
Joe glanced to two other clients waiting at the tellers. Even if he could only see them from behind, he thought it was strange that they were wearing woolen hats with all the hot weather they had been having.
“Hey… those men…”
Now even Rick Clancy had noticed the two men and Rose’s strange expression.
Joe motioned for him to stop and he glanced about. The manager must be in his office, he considered. Other than the two men with their backs toward them, Rose, the security guard and him, there was just a blonde woman dealing with her whining three-year-old who didn’t want to keep still and wait.
Joe had just enough time to think that he should get the mom and the child out of there with some old excuse, when the two men in front of Rose turned around.
Like he feared, they were armed.
And what had looked like just wooly hats were actually baklavas, revealing only their eyes.
At that point, he wasn’t alone in understanding that they were in the middle of a bank robbery.
“Oh my God!”
The blonde woman’s scream got stuck in her throat. Right away the taller robber aimed his gun at her little boy to make sure she wouldn’t do anything stupid.
The bank robber’s glance shifted to Joe who had the distinct feeling that he had seen this man before somewhere.
But where?
Detective Joe Cooper took a deep breath. After a life on the force, he knew that this was a situation as complicated as a chess game and he’d have to keep his cool. He took another deep breath to clear his mind and keep his emotions in check.
He watched and thought. For the moment, that was all he could do.
As long as no one lost their cool...
Then he noticed an almost imperceptible movement to his side and realized that Rick Clancy was only a step behind him and was slowly sliding his hand towards his gun. His face muscles tensed. A few drops of sweat streaked down from his temples.
Joe looked at the security guard and with a slight nod suggested the man leave his weapon where it was.
The woman and the child were too close to the bank robbers. Rose was already putting the money in a bag. All they had to do was let the criminals leave the bank and then they could call back up and possibly give chase.
In that silence laden with tension, Rick Clancy seemed to understand and he left his gun where it was.
Joe nodded imperceptibly, satisfied. Now there was nothing to do but wait, try to remain calm and not bother the robbers.
Only a few seconds passed, maybe three or four, when the first gunshot echoed throughout the bank and Joe slumped to the ground, an acute pain burning in his chest.
What had happened? Why had that robber suddenly shot him? They already had the money, all they had to do was leave, and instead…
As the noise around him became muffled and his vision started to blur, Joe felt a presence next to him. It took a huge effort to move his head, but when he did he looked into the icy gaze of the bank robber who had shot him and he had that same feeling again.
Those eyes…
A moment later another gunshot rang out in the bank and the security guard fell to the floor. Joe could see his crumpled body a few steps away out of the corner of his eye.
Rick was still just a kid; he must be scared, he thought. He would have liked to reassure him, but he couldn’t move.
Back at the precinct, Steve was probably wondering what was taking him so long. And Nora… if she knew, she would be terrified.
Why did it all go wrong?
Joe couldn’t concentrate. He thought of the security guard, of his young wife who would be waiting for him at home in vain. He thought of his own grandchildren with whom he had promised to spend a few days at the beach, and of Nora who was expecting to see him again, like every weekend, and how he hadn’t managed to wish her a good day that morning.
Then everything dimmed into that deep black darkness and the only thing he could still ask himself was: Why?

Chapter 1

Martha’s Vineyard, October 24th
At five o’clock that Friday afternoon, Nora Cooper reached Seaview Avenue in Oak Bluffs to meet a New York couple who on the phone had told her they wanted to buy a summer house on Martha’s Vineyard. The temperature was warm and the sky was clear. Only the yellowing leaves and the sun sitting low on the horizon let on that it was fall.
While they were looking around the cottage that Nora had picked out, thinking it right for them, Janet and Richard Bradford commented on the large rooms, the incredible view from the living room and the ceiling with the old wooden beams. They lingered, hugging each other, in front of the red-tinged ocean. As her husband wrapped his arm around her waist, with a simple, yet perfect movement, Janet Bradford rested her head on his shoulder.
Here are a man and a woman in love who want nothing more than to spend the rest of their lives together, Nora thought with a pang of sadness.
She could have walked off or looked away, but instead she stood and watched them. She missed how Joe used to make her feel protected. She missed every stupid, trite gesture of their everyday life.
Ever since he had gone, life went on, but it was as if it were happening behind a pane of glass.
She took a deep breath. Her pain was lying in ambush. She could feel it on every inch of her skin, but she wasn’t going to cry. She couldn’t possibly cry, otherwise she’d drown in her tears.
Remembering the fairy tale from when she was little, she said a prayer to the Snow Queen, asking her to freeze her heart.
Make me not feel the pain.
Make me not feel the pain.
A moment later, Janet Bradford left her husband’s embrace and came over to Nora.
“The beach is only a few steps away. It’s an incredible view. The house seems like it was made for us.”
Nora forced a smile. That’s exactly what she and Joe had thought the first time they saw the cottage on Lake Tashmoo. It made such an impression that from one day to the next they reorganized their lives so they could buy the house.
In a few weeks, she had moved to The Vineyard to start a new real estate agency and renovate the cottage, while Joe stayed in Boston during the week and met her, the police department permitting, for the weekend.
Three months. Only three months more and Joe would have retired. Only three months more and he wouldn’t have been in Boston anymore. He wouldn’t have gone to that bank. And no one would have killed him.
Nora made herself stop thinking about all the things they had planned to do together when Joe left his job and instead concentrated on showing the Bradfords the antique leaded windows that separated the kitchen from the living room.
As soon as the tour of the house was over, just like all clients, Janet and Richard Bradford promised they would be in touch soon.
But they would be calling, Nora thought after saying good-bye.
She had worked in real estate for more than twenty years and she could boast that she knew when someone was really interested or not.
She hadn’t burst out in tears and she had done her job well. She had been sociable and had smiled. Maybe she could manage, she said to herself as she walked back to her office in the center of the town of Oak Bluffs.
The charm of the colored Victorian houses looking like gingerbread in a fairy tale and the cheerful shops were the main reasons she decided to buy the small office space at Oak Bluffs where there was only just enough room to squeeze in a small cornflower blue sofa, a filing cabinet and two desks.
Seeing her arrive, Judith stood up to make a cup of coffee.
“How’d it go with the Bradfords?”
Judith’s few extra pounds gave her a reassuring maternal air. She was something more than a secretary for Nora. Eight years ago, when she came to Nora's agency in Boston looking for work, Judith was a little over forty years old. She didn’t have any experience, or references, but she was willing to work. She had recently become a widow and had five children to provide for.
“After what I’ve faced to raise them, no job can scare me,” she had said, revealing her ironic sense of humor.
Undaunted by her age or her nonexistent résumé, Nora had decided to give her a chance. And she’d never regretted it.
Six months earlier, when Nora had told her of her decision to move to The Vineyard, without even thinking twice Judith had told her that she would gladly follow her. Obviously, only if Nora wanted her to, Judith had specified a moment later.
The island would be a wonderful place for her children to live, she had explained. What’s more, and no small thing, that would save her the trouble of looking for a new job and starting everything all over again at the age of fifty.
“They liked the house. I think they’ll call back,” Nora answered, sitting down behind the desk.
“Then they will. I’ve never known you to be wrong.”
And this would be the perfect moment to make a sale, Nora thought. Work in Martha’s Vineyard was concentrated mostly in the summer months and hers was a little agency, and had been open for only a few months. Closing the contract would give her a little room to breathe.
Judith held out a cup of coffee to her.
“Here you go. Black, like you like it.”
“Thanks. I don’t know what I’d do without you,” Nora answered, sincere.
After Joe died, she’d left Judith to take care of the business all by herself, right in the middle of the summer rush. And Judith managed wonderfully. Except that after a few weeks Judith had started finishing their phone calls to Nora with: “If you drop by the office…” and “Maybe when I see you…”
Had she understood that if Nora’s mourning wasn’t interrupted then, it might last forever?
Maybe yes. And she was right. Because going back to work meant a slow, but steady return to life.
“Have the photos of the Vineyard Haven cottage arrived?” Nora asked while she turned on the computer.
Judith nodded.
“If I’m not mistaken, you agreed on eight hundred thousand dollars.”
“I don’t think they can ask for more than that. The house and garden are beautiful, but between you and me, that place needs a lot of work,” she answered while she was checking the mail that arrived at the house that morning. As usual, bills to pay. “Just like the Tashmoo cottage when we bought it,” she concluded a moment later.
Judith smiled.
“Well, most is done now. And when you have that pool, you’ll have turned it into a luxury cottage.”
Right. How many times had they questioned the sense of having a pool in The Vineyard where they were just a few steps from the beach, but Joe had gotten the idea in his head that their grandchildren would have had a ball splashing in the swimming pool.
“Don’t remind me. In a bit, they have to start work on it and the mere thought of having all those workers around the house…”
Joe wasn’t there anymore and often she was right on the brink of dropping that project. But she had already made arrangements with the company that had renovated the cottage and she didn’t feel like backing out now.
Or maybe it was because it was so important to Joe that she couldn’t give up on the idea?
Judith turned on the printer.
“Here you go. I’ll show you the photos that I think are best.”
Nora gave a slight, distracted nod because in the mail she had noticed an elegant ivory envelope from a Boston law office: Mitch Miller & Associates.
She flipped over the envelope and noticed it was addressed to Joe.
The letter was for her husband, but he would never read it…
She drank a sip of coffee to warm her up after the shiver that had run up her spine.
“Look, Nora. What do you think of these?”
Judith was showing her the photos that she had chosen for the file on the Vineyard Haven house.
“They look wonderful,” she answered without really focusing on them.
A moment later, she finally decided to open the letter.
Dear Joe Cooper…
Nora read one line after the other, more and more bewildered, until she couldn’t even distinguish the words. She was breathing heavily as if she had just been running.
“Nora… Everything okay?”
Nora looked up from the letter and realized that Judith was watching her, worried, from the desk in front of her.
“Yes, everything’s fine… Thanks,” she lied, folding the letter back up and putting it in the envelope.

Chapter 2

Was it possible that Joe wasn’t the person who, for so many years, she thought he was? And was it possible that there was a Mr. Hyde who was living out a second life for him?
It was eight thirty in the evening and the table was still crowded with the food left from the dinner they had just finished. With a deep sigh, Nora stood up from the sofa and spread her palms out in front of the fire, trying to warm the chill creeping up inside her.
A tornado had hit her life, but she had organized a birthday party for her grandson and for now, she wasn’t going to allow any storm upset it. She would strike the sails, let herself be rocked by the waves, and try to stay afloat.
She turned her back on the fireplace and her gaze caressed the rest of the room. The children were having fun wrestling with their daddy, her daughter Meg was setting glasses out on the table for the champagne and her dinner of lasagna and veal cutlet had been met with great enthusiasm.
After many years, her family was still grateful for the months she had spent in Italy taking an art and literature course. What made them proud wasn’t her knowledge of Dante or Michelangelo, but her home made fettuccine, gnocchi al ragù, ravioli with butter and sage and all the other dishes she had learned to cook there.
Nora couldn’t help but think that Joe would have appreciated dinner that evening. Like her, he loved good food and being with the family.
Are you really so sure you know what your Joe loved, whispered a little voice in her head.
Of course Joe would have been happy to be there with them, Nora told herself, trying to silence the voice.
“You okay, Mom?”
Meg came over and Nora gave a slight nod.
“The kids are growing so fast. Charlene is only eight and she already seems like a young lady.”
It was like talking about the weather with an acquaintance she had just run into, but it wasn’t the moment for deep conversations. Soon enough she and her daughter would have a conversation that neither would enjoy.
Meg put her arm around her mother.
“They grow up and we get old.”
“Shame on you. Complaining at your age…” Nora slipped out from her embrace with a smile. “I’ll clear the table for the cake. I don’t want the children to go to bed too late.”
Nora crossed the room, trying to walk steadily. She would have rather never received that letter. With only a few words, the letter from the lawyer Mr. Miller had managed to shatter what she had thought was a happy marriage of thirty-five years.
She had always thought her husband was too predictable, but also she maintained him sincere and honest.
And yet…
Now, that’s enough, Nora told herself, trying to bury her anxiety under another smile. They were there to celebrate little Jason’s birthday and she wouldn’t let her sadness ruin the party.
She went to the dinner table and started concentrating on folding napkins, even if that it was all in vain since she’d stuff them in the wash.
The ever-efficient young Indian man who helped her around the house came over to put the dirty plates and glasses on a tray.
“Let me, Mrs. Nora. I’ll put everything away.”
“Thank you, Rudra. Then we’ll get the cake and candles.”
As she gazed at the birthday streamers that she had hung for Jason, Nora thought for the second time that evening that she should have invited Steve to the birthday party. After all, he had always come to all their family gatherings.
He was her husband’s most trusted colleague and their best friend.
Yes. She should have invited him. But she had been scared that Joe’s absence would have been even more intolerable if Steve had been with there, she admitted to herself while she prepared the dessert plates.
“Birthday caaaake!!!”
As Rudra came in with the cake, everyone gathered around the great oak table in the living room. Meg lit the three candles and her ex-husband got ready to pop the cork on the sparkling apple cider for the children.
“Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you…”
The birthday chorus was joyful and out of tune. Jason was jumping out of his skin with glee when he got to blow the candles out over again so his mother could snap a few more photos.
“Happy birthday, Jason.”
Nora bent down to hug her grandson and immediately a large red cat rubbed against her leg, meowing expectantly.
“I can’t believe Dante’s jealous,” joked her daughter.
Her kids’ shouts were drowning out her voice, “Scra-bble! Scra-bble!”
Like a tribe of Indians on the warpath, Jason, Alex and Charlene surrounded their parents, pushing them into the kitchen.
Nora forced a smile. Scrabble was one of the favorite pastimes in the Cooper house and Joe had always been the champ.
“Sooner or later, you’ll beat the master,” he had enjoyed teasing her at the end of their fierce games.
But now, there wouldn’t be any more Scrabble games with Joe, just like there wouldn’t be any other of the simple pleasures of their life together.
Were these things just as important to Joe, Nora couldn’t help wonder.
Then her gaze wandered out the large window in the living room. She thought she saw something sparkle in the darkness of the road. But she didn’t have time to think what it might be because Charlene had come back and taken her hand.
“Come on, Grandma. You’re the only one missing.”
Nora found a smile for her.
“Let’s play, then. I want to see if you can beat me this time around.”
She put the plate of uneaten cake back on the table and followed her granddaughter into the kitchen.
A shadow darkened her expression for a moment when her hand brushed against the letter from Mr. Miller in her pocket.

Chapter 3

Leaning on the black Ford that blended into the darkness of the night and whipped by the salty ocean wind, Mike Repetti lit the umpteenth cigarette of the evening and watched Mrs. Cooper as she crossed the living room to reach her guests in the kitchen. For a moment, before going to them, she had stopped right in front of the window.
But in all that darkness she couldn’t have seen him, he reassured himself.
He checked his watch. It was a few minutes past nine.
He should be home having something hot to eat instead of standing out there where someone could notice him.
The street flanking the lake was deserted and in the now empty living room of the cottage, there wasn’t much else to see.
A gust of wind bit hard and he hugged his down-lined jacket. Standing there in the middle of the road, his feet and hands were already freezing. All right, he finally gave in. It was time to use what sense he had left and go home. Maybe a few beers would help him fall asleep.
He was already opening the door to his car when he realized that Mrs. Cooper’s daughter had come back into the living room to look for something.
Mike Repetti’s gaze got lost in the waves of red hair that framed her perfect oval face and highlighted the hazel color of her eyes. The shade wavered between green and brown and reminded him of the nuances in agates.
Meg was the kind of woman who could light up a man’s life.
But if she knew even one of the reasons pulling you towards her, she would run away…
Walking over to her during that art show had been inevitable. He had no choice; he was drawn to her like a thirsty person to water. But the dark shadow pushing him towards her felt as heavy as a lead.
No, nothing good could come of that story, he thought, crumbling up his empty cigarette pack with the promise that it would be his last for a long time.
The Lake Tashmoo cottage still held its charm and the renovation hadn’t altered its original appearance, he thought, observing its illuminated silhouette under the glow of the lights as Meg disappeared again into the kitchen.
It’s as if time had never passed at all…
Mike Repetti looked over at the fragments of moon dancing on the surface of the lake, rippled by the wind and everything around him confirmed that this place was even lovelier without the summer chaos.
People should appreciate more what isn’t immediately obvious. And as if his thoughts had evoked her, Meg’s image resurfaced in his mind.
He smiled, remembering that in ancient legends, girls with hair ‘the color of fire’ were often considered special, either fairies or witches.
And what was Meg then?
In his life he hadn’t met many women like her, but whether she was a fairy or a witch, he didn’t know. From what he knew of her, she was a woman who didn’t believe in compromising, and to his misfortune, who was also allergic to lies.

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