Here are some of my horror and supernatural-themed stories that have appeared on various fiction sites. All are 5-minute reads or less.
Here is the complete version of On the Way to My Grave, which I also serialized here.
Here is the complete version of The Last Stop, which I previously serialized on this blog:
The Last Stop
By Eric John Baker © 2009
Riley Conard reported his wife Madeline missing on the third of February. All this time later, the police still didn’t have a lead!
In the cafeteria, Riley was in line behind Darnell Tubbs and that woman from accounting when he heard Darnell say, “You gotta hand it to him. He’s pretty chill for a fella whose wife is probably under a tarp in the back of some dude’s truck. She must be a pile of bones now. What’s it, eight months?”
Riley stared at the pizza on his tray, suppressing a grin. Imagine how embarrassed they’d be to know he was right behind them.
The woman from accounting, gripping a styrofoam container marked Daily Special, bumped Darnell’s arm with the back of her hand. “The IT guys call him ‘Data’ after that Star Trek robot. Anyway, I’ll bet Maddie’s in Hawaii with her boyfriend.”
There goes another one calling her “Maddie.” Ever since the disappearance, people who met his wife once at the holiday party three years ago had been talking about her like an old friend. Perhaps it made a sexier story. Oh yeah, I knew her. I knew the chick who went missing.
“I mean, have you taken a good look at him?” the woman from accounting said. “I have no clue why Maddie married him in the first place. What a blank!”
She made a face Riley couldn’t see, and she and Darnell laughed. Darnell said, “You’re bad!”
Riley didn’t care. His blankness was performance art, making their insults a compliment. They could guess all they want about what was on his mind. It wasn’t Madeline, to tell the truth. Or the police, who he had badgered incessantly in the beginning. He had no use for their nowhere investigation.
Riley only thought about one thing. Sophia.
At the crest of the hill, Riley saw the gentle rise of the bridge and the cluster of skyscrapers beyond, across the Nevasha River, sticking up like a massive crystal formation. Branford! The Big City on the other side. He’d welcomed the sight every single weekday morning for five years. Except for when Maddie went missing in February. He was a wreck that week.
On the descent, he coasted into the left-turn lane, queuing up for the traffic light into his office complex. Riley’s heart fluttered. A warm tingle washed over him. He inched forward, looking to his right through his passenger window.
There she was.
She flipped a page in the Wall Street Journal as she waited for the bus to Branford. Somehow, it made her smile. How could it be that she found such joy in the Wall Street Journal?
The big redhead showed up and stood beside her.
Sophia kept reading, but she glanced up a few times, flashing that adorable smile, her petite, almost pointy face poking out from under jet-black bangs.
Riley eased forward two or three car lengths, and the light turned red again. Now Sophia was laughing and touching the redhead’s arm, her layered bob hairstyle swaying in concert with her graceful motions.
Then that dreaded moment arrived, as every day. The light turned and he had to make the left, leaving her. Hers was the last stop before the bus crossed the bridge into Branford. His heart ached.
That night Spinelli called.
At first, Riley didn’t like him one bit. The interrogations. The dirty looks, treating Riley like a suspect. I’m the one who called you, Riley had said in desperation. Later, when the weeks stretched on without a lead, Riley’s rational side returned, and he knew the guy had just been doing his job.
Spinelli was all right. He called at least once a month, even when there wasn’t anything to say. When the phone rang, Riley figured it would be him. Nobody else called anymore. Madeline was the one with the friends.
“Hey Joe,” Riley said.
“Just want to see how you’re holding up.”
He’s got nothing again. “Keeping busy with work.”
Spinelli asked the usual “if you think of anything” question then mumbled off. Like any good cop, he hated to be beaten.
Riley sunk into the couch, fished the remote from between the cushions, and flicked on the TV. Perched on a dusty shelf above it sat a wedding picture. The man was Riley, so the woman must be Maddie. Logically, it had to be her. Who else would it be?
Riley stayed one step ahead of himself. It can’t be Sophia. That doesn’t make sense.
Then why was it?
Descending the hill Friday, Riley was disappointed at the light traffic. He’d make his turn faster.
Sophia faced the road, leaning against the light pole. The redhead was there again, second day on a row, but they weren’t talking.
Riley slowed, moving his head around to get a better view. Sophia seemed upset. What the hell? He braked to a crawl, scanning her face for an answer. Was that sorrow or anger? What could someone so perfect possibly have to be—
A horn blared and Sophia glanced toward him. Riley stomped on the gas and made the left. In his rearview mirror, her reflection shook apart from the vibrations of the pavement.
He thought of her all weekend. Her black hair curling under at the jaw. Her elfin face. Her narrow shoulders and curving hips hugged by a skirt terminating an inch above the knee. Her red lipstick and dark eye make-up, maybe too dark but urban chic on her. She could get away with it, a city girl like that.
He knew her wardrobe pretty well. She had ten outfits she cycled through every two weeks. Sometimes she mixed and matched.
Monday, he would stop and talk to her.
Riley crested the hill Monday in the right lane. If he didn’t get over soon, he’d be on the bridge! No turning back then.
Halfway down he thought, “What am I going to say?”
In a panic, he shot into the left lane. He glanced toward the bus stop, seeking Sophia out from the clutter of people and colors and shapes. Where are you?
He stopped, waiting for green, now directly across from the stop. With rising anxiety, he realized she wasn’t there. He held his ground, waiting, forgetting the traffic signal, feeling helpless. Sophia was always there.
The light turned green and a horn blasted. Damn it. I need time to think! The horn sounded again, probably the same asshole from Friday, and Riley made the turn. She’d be there tomorrow. No doubt.
On Tuesday, Riley slammed his fist down on the top of the steering wheel and cursed. Little dots of spit shot across his dashboard. Goddamn it! What was her game? Where did she go?
He felt guilty all day for blowing up at her like that. Guilt turned to panic when Wednesday morning once again revealed unfamiliar faces. Panic like when Madeline went missing and the cops were buzzing around and the mystery was new and unreal.
First Maddie, now Sophia.
Riley’s boss, Patrick, poked his head into Riley’s office at least ten times. Riley knew he was there but kept his eyes down, fumbling through papers. Staying in character grew more difficult. At a quarter past five, Patrick stopped him in the hall and laid a hand on his shoulder.
“You know what,” he said. “You haven’t taken a day off in months. Why don’t you relax at home tomorrow?”
Finally, Riley thought. It’s about goddamn time he offered. “Yeah, ok.”
“Good,” Patrick said. “Just sleep in and watch some TV or something.”
Riley nodded, but he didn’t sleep in or watch TV. TV sucks! He drove downtown at four thirty in the morning, parked at the Hilltop Tavern, and walked down the slope to wait for the bus. Five miserable hours waiting on that bench, and she didn’t show. He had to go on worrying and not knowing. Goddamn her. How could she?
Next day, Riley called out sick. Patrick didn’t sound too upset. Christ, Riley’s wife was a missing person. How could Patrick be upset?
This time he stayed out of sight. Patrick and most of the people on his floor made the same left every morning. All he needed was someone blabbing, “I saw Riley on the bus stop,” and then someone else saying, “Yeah, me too.” And then, suddenly, he’s the hot topic again.
People should get lives, he thought, hiding behind a poster advertising car insurance.
The 8:15 bus appeared at the top of the hill, but no Sophia. Riley watched it draw closer, squinting to see the bus driver’s face. Was he wondering what the hell happened to Sophia too?
The brakes squeaked and the big shiny rectangle slid to a stop a few feet past the rain shelter. The doors opened. Three riders lined up and shuffled on board. The doors began to close.
“Wait,” Riley called, shooting forward. The driver, staring straight ahead, opened the door again. Riley charged up the stairs then paused, fumbling for fare. The driver became melodramatic in his silence.
Riley scraped the money together. The bus was already moving before he started down the aisle.
An idea hit him: Maybe she gets on at an earlier stop now. A distinct possibility! She was surely on this bus already. He’d drop beside her and make some joke that she’d laugh at in spite of herself.
I’m Riley, by the way.
Hi, I’m Sophia. Nice to meet you, Riley.
The bus hit the bridge and started up the incline, sending him stumbling down the aisle. He pivoted into a seat next to a tiny guy with a long beard who didn’t look at him. Riley twisted around, scanning the passengers.
He turned and slumped into the seat. Maybe she was in the city somewhere. He gazed through the window, eyeing the cluster of skyscrapers drawing closer, trying to figure out where to look.
The buildings looked like big glass knives.
Madeline was laughing, her arm outstretched in an effort to keep her champagne from spilling. Riley stood beside her, watching, detached. Their bodies did not touch. Maddie was leaning away.
Riley hated this photo. It was her favorite, which is why she’d had it cropped and framed, despite the harsh lighting and blur of the champagne glass.
Now, lying on the living room couch and holding the photo overhead, Riley saw so clearly the resentment in his own face. Maddie being entirely her own person. Maddie so charming and flirtatious, walking two steps ahead of her husband. Maddie, gone without a trace and no closer to being found now than she was eight months ago. The resentment had come from knowing she would leave him one day, by some means or another.
People always asked how he got so lucky to land a looker like Maddie. As if were easy being married to a woman who knew she was better than him.
He replaced the picture on the end table, almost dropping it. Tired from a fruitless, foolish day wandering around the city in search of an astronomical stroke of luck, Riley closed his eyes. He obeyed a subconscious command to produce a mental image of Sophia. Her straight, black hair. Her dark, vibrant eyes, alive and intelligent yet ripe with sexuality.
“I don’t want to lose you,” he said, startling himself awake. He closed his weary eyes again. I won’t lose you, Sophia.
Tuesday greeted him with glares and concerned stares and silent avoidance from co-workers. Riley laughed to himself. He’d forgotten to shave again. No point now. In a few days it would be a decent beard.
Riley shoved spreadsheets around for hours, accomplishing nothing while he ignored the red light on his phone. At three in the afternoon, Patrick knocked on the door frame. “Hey, Buddy. Can we talk?”
After a speech, Riley promised the old Riley from now on. The blank who got his work done.
On Wednesday morning, he saw redhead on the bus stop. Riley jerked the wheel to the right and cut across two lanes of traffic, slipping between a box truck and a minivan and nearly clipping the left front fender of a Hyundai. Oh well. He pulled against the curb in front of the bus stop.
“Hey,” he shouted as he climbed out, leaving his engine running. “Can I talk to you?”
Face drawn with concern, the woman stepped back.
Riley ceased his advance. “I’m sorry. I just have a couple of questions. I’m not going to hurt you.” As if.
The woman held her handbag to her bosom. “I have to get my bus in a minute.”
“I know,” Riley said. “Just a question.” Now he had to think of a question. “Uh, I’m looking for a friend of mine who uses this bus stop, and I’ve seen you talking to her before. I wonder if you… might know where she is.”
Her eyes betrayed fear of what might happen if she didn’t give the answer he wanted. “Well, what’s her name? I don’t…”
Good question. “She’s the woman who reads the Wall Street Journal. Black hair, attractive face.”
The redhead nodded with relief. “Yes, I know who you mean. I mean, I don’t know her, but I’ve talked to her. I don’t know her name though.”
Riley went with it.
“Sophia. I haven’t seen her around lately and I thought maybe…”
The woman slung her handbag back onto her shoulder, seemingly calmed by the knowledge that the guy who almost caused a pile-up was after somebody else. “I really don’t know anything about her other than she seems like a real sweet girl. It’s not like we sit together.”
Riley glanced over his shoulder at his car blocking the bus stop. “Do you remember the last time you saw her? Did she seem upset to you?”
The woman gazed at the pavement for a moment then looked up, relieved to have an answer. “More like worried, actually. Her phone kept ringing and I think the caller said something that upset her.”
“Did she look scared?”
“I guess. Yeah. I remember on the bus she had this look like something bad was going to happen.” By now, the woman had grown pleased with the interrogation.
“Do you know where she gets off? What stop?”
She shook her head. “I’m sorry. I get off first.”
Riley ran back to his car and slid in, pulling away from the curb with a jerk as he saw, in his rearview mirror, the bus cresting the hill behind him.
He slammed his fist into the passenger backrest. “Damn it!” Somebody was hurting Sophia while he jerked off with spreadsheets! She was suffering and scared and he did nothing for over a week.
Riley banged a U-turn right before Route 4 became a bridge, almost wrecking three cars.
Across town, he parked at the municipal office and ran toward the police station entrance. As he raced past the sliding doors, a brawny officer threw an arm out and stopped him dead.
“Hold it there, buddy. What’s the big rush?”
Riley composed himself, and the officer released him. He smoothed his shirt. “I’m here to see Detective Spinelli.”
“Ok, then you can walk, not run, up to the window over there and they’ll get him for you.”
The officer gripped his arm. “It’s not a good idea to charge into a police station making crazy faces.”
Crazy? “Yes sir. I understand.” Halfway to the window, Riley whispered, “Jackass.”
The lady at the window picked up a phone and called for Spinelli, who emerged from behind the security door five minutes later, interrupting Riley’s agitated pacing.
Spinelli had gotten grayer and craggier since last time. “Riley Conard. What can I do for you?”
“I want to report a missing person.”
The detective paused to assess Riley’s words, like he often did. This time, he seemed extra suspicious.
Riley, naturally the original suspect in Madeline’s disappearance, was used to Spinelli’s approach. He could see the searching in his eyes.
“Um, your wife’s case is very much active. I know it’s frustrating to wait for news, but I promise you-”
“I’m not talking about Madeline. Someone else.”
“All right.” Spinelli said, inflecting it as a question. It’s not common for one person to make two missing-persons claims in the same year, no doubt.
Riley waited for an invitation to the office, past the security doors, where he would sit at the detective’s desk and tell the whole story, after which Spinelli would vow to find Sophia, and this time he really would, unlike with Madeline.
When the man didn’t move, it became clear the exchange would happen in here in the hall.
“Well,” Riley said, miffed to be reduced in Spinelli’s estimation to a crank, “I used to see this woman on the bus stop across from my office, and she’s not there anymore. She just disappeared, and I’m pretty sure something happened.”
Spinelli took out a notepad. Progress.
“What’s her name?”
Riley almost said Sophia. “I don’t know.”
Spinelli closed the notebook. “Why do you think she’s missing, other than she decided not to ride the bus anymore?”
No wonder this guy can’t find anybody. “I just talked to her friend, who said she was very upset the day before she disappeared.”
Spinelli opened the notepad. “What’s the friend’s name?”
Riley knew where this was going. “I forgot to ask.”
The detective sighed and returned the pad to his pocket. “Riley, what do you want? I can’t open a case without a crime.”
“Can I talk to a sketch artist at least?”
“Not without me opening a case, which I am not going to do until I have a missing person.”
Riley thought of Sophia, bound in a basement somewhere, cold and scared and wondering if any was ever going to save her. “What are you going to do?”
Spinelli said, “Tell me what she looks like. If someone reports a missing person who fits the description, I’ll let you know.”
The wedding photo! “Ooh. Hold on.”
Riley withdrew the picture of him and Sophia from his pocket and unfolded it to its original 8×10 size. About to hand it over, he noticed something wasn’t right, like when a bug crawls up the wall and you catch a glimpse. He held the picture under the florescent light and leaned in close to inspect.
It wasn’t Sophia anymore. It was Madeline, like before.
Riley stared a moment longer wondering how Maddie got back in there. “Sorry, I got confused for a second,” he said, crumpling the photo and sticking it in the trash bin beside the security window.
Spinelli’s tired eyes gazed at him from under sagging lids. “Think about seeing a therapist, will you? I know you’re frustrated with me, probably for a few reasons, but you gotta know you’re acting a little nutty right now.”
Riley found a local sketch artist online. The sketch cost him seventy bucks, because he didn’t like the way the first two turned out and demanded a third. He plastered five hundred copies, with his phone number at the bottom, on telephone poles and construction barricades and at libraries and bars. Spinelli accepted a copy.
He deleted messages from Patrick. The post office sent him a notice saying his box had gotten too full and they were holding the rest of his mail. He didn’t have any money left to pay bills anyway, so who cares.
On Sunday night, the phone rang at 8 p.m.
“Hello. Are you calling because of the flier?”
A hesitation. “Um, yeah. Is the girl in the picture home?”
Riley looked at his handset a moment then put it to his ear again. “Can you say that once more?”
“I’m calling for the girl in the picture. Did I get a wrong number?”
Riley shook his head and balled his left hand into a fist. “It’s a missing-persons flier, not a personal ad, dumb ass. Can’t you see the big M-I-S-S-I-N-G across the top?”
“Hey, I found it on the ground with the top part ripped off. What’s your problem, asshole?”
Riley dropped the handset into the cradle and buried his face in his hands. The phone rang again.
“Hello? Are you calling about the missing persons flier?”
A woman’s voice, broken and fading, said, “That’s my daughter, Judy.”
Riley jumped to his feet. Judy! “Do you know what happened to her?”
The woman hesitated. “She was murdered.”
The room began to spin and Riley fell back into his chair, unable to breathe. His arm remained in place, holding the phone to his ear, but he barely heard the woman say, “I can’t believe you knew her.”
Riley stared at the wall, destroyed. His voice came out as little more than a whisper. “I just used to see her around… I didn’t even know her name.”
“I can’t believe you remember her after all this time.”
Riley’s eyebrow went up. “What?”
“I say, I can’t believe you’ve been looking for her since 1985. Do you think we could meet sometime?”
His grip tightened on the handset until the plastic groaned. “I’m sorry for your loss,” he said through his teeth and threw the phone across the room. Then he took the picture he hated of Madeline from the end table and punched it, shattering the glass.
Monday morning, he sold his Toyota at a car-cash place for four thousand dollars. Thank god for the resale value of Japanese cars, he thought as he rode the bus downtown.
He alighted on Jamaica Park Road, the site of a private detective agency. Andre Rodgers, proprietor, motioned for Riley to sit.
“Welcome to Rodgers Agency. How can I help you?”
Riley handed him a flier and told the story.
“So, if I read you,” said Rodgers in a confident baritone, “You want me to find a girl based on nothing but a sketch and a redhead at a bus stop.”
Riley had no time for games. “If you can’t do it I’ll find someone else.”
Rodgers’s hand went up. “I didn’t say that. I can find her if she exists.”
“The police won’t even-”
“The police get paid whether they find her or not,” he said. “In fact, it’s easier for them if they don’t. Me, I’m a businessman. My closing ratio is pretty important to me.”
“Fifteen hundred, and I’ll have a solid lead by the end of the week. If I got nothing, I’ll give you the money back, less two hundred for expenses.”
Andre Rodgers’s words elevated him to the status of minor deity. He was going to find Sophia! Like it was easy. Why didn’t I come to this guy right away,Riley thought. Private enterprise is always the answer. No feat is too great for a man with willpower.
Riley wrote out the check and stood to shake Rodgers’s hand. Rodgers remained in his chair.
Outside, on the sidewalk, Riley felt free from the burden of the heavy chains.
His cell rang. “Hello?”
“Riley.” Patrick. “I’ve been trying to get a hold of you for over a week. Please come in. We need to talk.”
He didn’t have time for this. They were so close to finding Sophia. “I’ll be there in 20,” he said with cheerful blankness, back in character.
Riley rode Sophia’s line, bound for the city. He departed at the last stop, where she normally got on.
He bustled through the main doors of his company on the fourth floor, brushed past the reception desk and someone dressed for an interview—an applicant trying to steal his job, he surmised—and trotted down the hall to Patrick’s office.
Patrick stood and closed the door. “How are you doing, Riley? Do you want to take a seat?”
“I’m fine standing,” Riley said. “Before you tear me a new one, which I deserve, I just want to apologize for the way I’ve been-”
Patrick was doing the boss stare. “Listen. I’ll just come out and say it. You’re being terminated.”
Riley let the words roll around for a moment. “Oh.”
“I tried to cover for you the past few weeks, but you vanished, man. We can’t have that. You’re a good worker, but your head’s not on straight.” Patrick pointed to Riley’s head, in case anyone was unsure of its location. “If it were up to me, I’d keep you, but this comes from above. There’s no way—”
“You know what? Don’t worry about it. I’m ready to move on anyway.” Riley thought he might like to work for Andre Rodgers and learn how to be a detective.
Patrick, with his world’s worst poker face, was evidently pleased with how this was going. “This might sound weird, but hear me out. We replaced you already. Sorry, but the opportunity came up and we took it. Anyway, I’m authorized to give you a month’s severance pay if you stick around the rest of today to do training. You’re the only one who knows the systems and—”
Blah blah blah, Patrick.
Riley needed the money. “Sure. That sounds fair.” With Andre Rodgers on the case, he could concentrate on something else for one day.
As Patrick dialed the receptionist, Riley realized he had to pay the severance anyway. It was in the hiring contract. He lowered his face to hide his smirk. Patrick Pohdile was a first-class, conniving butthead.
The door opened.
“Riley Conard,” Patrick said, “meet Eleanor Fayne.”
Let’s see what this vulture looks li—
Riley’s smirk withered. A last breath escaped his lips, and then all of time stopped. He stared at her, numb.
It. Could not be.
Trembling, he swept the back of his arm across his eyes to wipe away the flash flood of tears. Joyful tears, bursting from within his heart. He knew he would find her! He knew it.
Sometimes destiny does call.
She extended a tentative hand, her apprehension incapable of marring her perfect face. “Hi, I’m Eleanor.”
She called herself Eleanor.
Riley stood frozen. She lowered her eyes, embarrassed, and started to drop her hand. He commanded himself to step forward, and her fingers slid into his. Up close, she looked older, maybe thirty, but no less stunning. He caught her eyes, letting her know she had nothing to fear, and she smiled for real.
He let go of her hand first. He didn’t want her to think he was creepy.
Side by side they sat in swivel chairs, Riley teaching, Sophia learning. Here, it’s easier if you do it this way, Riley said. Sophia replied, it’s so kind of you to show me all this. It would take me months to figure it out. Riley encouraged her, saying, nah, you’d get it in no time, though he knew she’d never get it without him because he was the only one who knew.
Below her left ear, smooth, perfect skin curved over a pleasing feminine jaw line. Fine wisps of almost-black hair showed on the back of her neck when she reached for the printer. Her delicate chin and curious mouth oriented her to her task. Slender shoulders called for his caress. He wondered if she thought the same types of things about him. The words came out of his mouth, unplanned. “Do you want to grab a beer or something after work?”
She tried to conceal her surprise, he could tell. “It’s my last day,” he said, “so I don’t care. I can give you the dirt. Office politics and all that. It doesn’t hurt to have a handle on that stuff.”
Her pupils darted from side to side, studying his face. Riley wore a mask of earnestness he knew she could not penetrate. Everyone always said he was a blank.
“Yeah, ok,” she said, uncertain. He’d change that soon enough.
Riley’s departure at 5 p.m. was met with little fanfare. He boxed up a few things while Sophia stood by and waited, awkwardly eying Patrick, who awkwardly watched her wait.
Riley sealed the third box. “Ready?” he asked Sophia in a too-familiar way, which he realized when her eyes widened, like she had been caught stealing.
He turned to Patrick. “I’ll be back for these if that’s okay.”
The men shook hands and Patrick said, in hushed tones, “When you get things straightened out, let me know. A spot might open up somewhere.”
Riley smiled and patted his shoulder. Whatever you say, pal, he thought. I’ve found Sophia.
During the elevator’s brief descent, she said, “I could have helped you carry the boxes.”
“I sold my car a couple days ago.”
Riley didn’t care about the junk in the boxes, even the picture of Maddie he’d found in the bottom drawer. He only packed it up so he’d have an excuse to come back and see Sophia again.
On the walk up to Hilltop Tavern, Riley occupied her with idle chit chat, but he didn’t listen to her answers. He was thinking about how he could make her love him.
At the table, Sophia asked for a Diet Coke, and he reminded her he wasn’t a co-worker who needed impressing. She laughed and changed the order to a beer.
“So what’s the dirt I need to hear?” she said, and Riley told her how to manipulate Patrick, and he told her who was a suck-up and who was fake-nice but would stab you in the back. She was free to contact him for advice, he said. Everyone needs an ally.
When the pints came, he said, “Go ahead and ask me what you’ve been wanting to ask me.”
For a moment she demurred but then said, “Ok. I have two questions. Why are you getting fired, and why are you being so nice to the person replacing you?”
Riley watched her porcelain doll hand on the glass and wondered how anyone could feel anything other than craving for her. “I’m getting fired because I’ve barely shown up for work in the past few weeks. I just can’t do it anymore.”
“That bad, huh?”
“No, it’s as good a place as any. I have other things going on. I suppose they told you about Madeline?”
“Who’s that, your dog ?”
“My wife. I haven’t seen her since February.”
She almost spit beer. “I’m sorry. You guys separated?”
“I mean she’s missing. Like milk-carton missing.”
She gripped his arm. “And you worked all this time? Your poor thing. You must be a wreck.”
He slid his chair closer and, in a quieter voice, said, “That’s the thing. I haven’t felt anything lately. Like she never existed.”
Sophia leaned in, her dark eyes electrified. “It’s got to be some kind of psychological reaction, like delayed shock.”
“That’s why I can’t work right now. Something’s changed for me and I just can’t concentrate on the banality of an office job anymore.”
He looked down and noticed her hand was still gripping his arm. She let go. “Wow.”
“To answer your other question… I’m not hostile to you because—don’t take it the wrong way—I sort of feel like I know you.”
“I used to see you on the bus stop every day, across from my building. Your building now, I guess. I kind of looked forward to seeing you there. That’s why I acted funny when I met you today.”
Sophia smiled. “That’s kind of sweet, actually. I was temping in the city, but the contract ended. My recruiter hooked me up with Patrick when she knew he was… well, looking to get rid of you.” Her pout said she was both sorry and embarrassed.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said, heat coursing through him. She was so real, like in his dreams. “Is that why I stopped seeing you on the bus stop? Your contract ended?”
She laughed. “No. I bought a car. Riding the bus sucks.”
Riley stared into his pint and laughed at his insane, emotional, destroy-your-life obsession turning out to have such a stupidly mundane explanation.
“What’s so funny?”
“Your redheaded friend told me you looked upset the day before you vanished. We thought something happened to you.”
Sophia leaned back like she just found out she was the butt of a joke. “You know her?”
“No. I pulled over one morning when I saw her. She said you were upset. I was worried.”
“It’s no one’s business, but if you must know, the reason I was… upset, as you put it… was my bank screwed up the car loan.”
Riley laid his hand on her wrist. “I’ve been looking for you all over.”
She pulled her chair away. “Wait a minute. Did you put up a bunch of missing-persons fliers? Somebody showed me one and said it looked like me.”
Riley did not understand. How could she be mad? “I thought you were in danger. I tried to save you!”
She stood, withdrew a five from her purse, and tossed it on the table. “I’m sorry, that’s fucking weird.”
Why would she say that? Was she a taker, no different from Madeline?
“Wait,” he said. “I don’t want hostility between us.”
“Riley, you’re a nice guy, but obsessing isn’t the way to impress a woman. Anyway, you’re married. I’m sorry.”
Riley hated himself. He hated himself because she was just like Madeline with her superiority, but he had to say it. “I love you, Sophia.”
Far worse than anger, she showed pity. “My name is Eleanor.” Like he was stupid.
Damn her for making him feel like a scolded child. “Sophia’s the name I made up for you.”
She rubbed her wrist clean where he had touched it. “Look. I’m not a psychologist, but you’ve got problems. Guilt or whatever. Maybe you feel like you didn’t do enough when your wife left. I don’t know, but it has nothing to do me. Do you understand?”
Her eyes were no longer letting him in. “Please go get some closure,” she said. “Do the right thing. And absolutely do not follow me.”
Riley gazed upon her. She was so perfect, but he knew the women he loved would always treat him this way. He didn’t want it his love for Sophia to end the way it had with Maddie. So he showed it the purest way possible.
He let her go.
Riley caught the bus at the bottom of the hill. Not into the city, but the other way. A few rush-hour stragglers entered or alighted at various stops, but he had a seat to himself. Maybe the other passengers sensed he was on the most important ride of his life.
He stared, his forehead against the glass, watching the storefronts and bars. He saw a few of his fliers attached to telephone poles, tattered and dirty. At some point, he realized the bus was idling.
“Last stop,” the bus driver said, impatient.
Riley peered out the opposite window. So it was.
On the street, he stepped through the choke of exhaust, crossed to the other side, and entered the building. This time he shuffled, unnoticed, to the window, and asked for Detective Spinelli. Spinelli was always working.
He sat on a bench in the hall, still as a dead man, and waited. Spinelli came out.
“What’s up, Riley? News on the missing girl?”
Riley stood. “I found her. She’s fine. She will be fine.”
Spinelli gave a curious glance. “That’s good news. Thanks for updating me.”
“That’s not why I’m here.”
Spinelli stepped closer, like a smart cop does. “I’m listening.”
Riley said, “I’m ready to tell you where I hid Madeline’s body.”
The detective placed a fatherly hand on Riley’s back. “Why don’t we sit at my desk.”
Riley allowed Spinelli to guide him to the door. Before passing through, the old cop patted him down and read him his rights. “I didn’t intend to kill her. I’m not like that.”
“I know,” said Spinelli, his voice caring. He was an all right guy, Riley thought. Trustworthy.
“I’m doing this for Sophia,” Riley said. “I love her.”
“Of course you do,” said the detective, leading Riley into a chair by his desk. “Tell me about it over coffee. Cream and sugar?”