Monday, December 23, 1:15pm
Clark took a deep breath and mounted the staircase. He had rested little since the interrogation of the previous night. It wasn’t so much the sirens and crowds that had disturbed his sleep.
No, his restlessness came from within.
His bare feet made only the faintest sound on the hardwood. Though only thirteen steps to the top, the landing seemed as far away as an unattainable dream. But he must do it. He must pull himself together and be strong.
The end was near.
He reached the landing, took a hard right, and slowly opened his wife’s bedroom door.
Her head jerked upward at his arrival, her eyes bloodshot and accusatory.
“Victoria, I apologize for not checking on you sooner. I’ve been
. . . preoccupied.”
His wife said nothing, though she followed his progress through the room with her eyes. Those bulbous, confounded eyes . . .
He opened the blinds. “There, how about a little sun?”
He went to her, sitting on the edge of the bed in front of her. “Is that better?”
She tried to speak, guttural utterances falling from useless lips. “Dear one, are you trying to tell me something?”
He slipped off the gag, allowing it to hang loosely under her chin. Her first reaction was to spit violently in his face.
Before he realized what had happened, his hand leapt from his body, striking her solidly in the jaw.
Her chair teetered… and fell with a thud.
“Oh . . .” Clark rushed to her fallen form, sitting her erect once again. “Victoria, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean . . .”
She looked at him, hate glowing within her pupils. Blood poured freely from her lip, running down her chin, and out of sight within the folds of her neck. He retrieved a tissue and dabbed it delicately.
Finally, she spoke. “Who are you? And why are you doing this to me?”
Clark stood, sighing as he walked slowly to the window. The sun was already beginning its journey across the western sky above the merciless knolls.
“You don’t really want to know.”
“Are you going to kill me, Clark?”
Her voice was calm, as if she had merely asked whether he was going to eat the last slice of pie. She was a strong woman. He knew that.
He kept his back to her as he answered. “I . . . I don’t know.”
“Then you owe me, Clark. An explanation. Have you planned this for a year? Since we were married?”
“No. I . . . things are complicated, Victoria.” He turned towards her. “Sometimes I have to . . . improvise.”
“Improvise. Why are you speaking in riddles, Clark?” She paused. “You’re not the man I married. What has happened to you?”
“This place has happened to me. Rubicon Ranch. There’s a force here . . . a spirit . . . that seems to drive me. To make me do things. It’s . . . it’s a spirit I’ve known before.”
Victoria’s face was expressionless save for a glazed look in her eyes—those large, protruding eyes that seemed to look right into the blackness of his soul.
“You pathetic little liar. You’re blaming your actions on some
. . . some . . . imaginary demon? The devil made you do it, Clark? That’s the best you can come up with? You cowardly—”
“SHUT UP! SHUT UP! SHUT UP!”
Victoria winced, turning her head from Clark’s outstretched hand. He gritted his teeth as he lowered his arm and forced himself to take deep breaths.
“I-I’m sorry.” He turned away, thrusting his hands in his pockets to hide their trembling. “You want to know my story. I’ll tell you then. I’m a fake.”
There, he had said it. Something he dared not admit to anyone before.
“I could’ve told you that, Clark. You said you loved me. You wouldn’t tie me to a chair if you loved me. You wouldn’t be planning to rob me blind and then kill me if you loved me. That is why you’re doing this I assume. Money?”
Clark turned to face her. “It’s more complicated than that. Yes, I was planning to empty our bank account and leave. I only tied you up so I could get away. Far away. I knew someone would find you before . . .”
“Yes, I was being merciful.”
She shook her head and sighed. “Did you ever love me? Or was this one long . . .”
“Con? Yes. And no. Yes, I did love you. Once. I was ready to settle down. To live somewhere quiet. And when I found you . . . I thought I’d found my peace.
“But conning . . . That’s what I do, Victoria. That’s what I’ve always done. But my last con ended badly. And I came here to get away from some . . . unpleasant circumstances.” He sighed. “I had all intentions of giving it up. But then . . . the darkness came.”
“The devil again?”
“It’s real, Victoria. You may not believe that but it’s haunted me all my life. In every major event in my life, this dark . . . presence
. . . has been there. Disrupting . . . sabotaging . . . turning peace into chaos. Why else would I do this? Why else would I betray the woman I love . . .”
“If you love me, you’ll let me go.”
Her tone was matter-of-fact. And Victoria’s logic was unassailable. If he indeed loved her, he wouldn’t harm her. But she didn’t understand. She didn’t know. He had no choice. This dark force would not allow her to live.
He placed the gag over her mouth and made sure it was tight. Then checked the knots on the ropes. They were secure. In fact, the ropes had burned ugly red streaks into her wrists. They must hurt. Her shoulders must be aching, too. Her arms were bent backwards at an awkward angle.
“I’m sorry to do this to you. I was supposed to already be gone. But this place . . . Rubicon Ranch . . . is cursed. Another murder. And hordes of people and police. If I were to disappear . . . well, I would be suspect number one, wouldn’t I? Every policeman this side of the Grand Canyon would be looking for me.”
“And then the fire . . . As soon as things calm down I’ll leave. In the meantime, you’re a bit under the weather if anyone asks.”
He walked to the door. “I realize you haven’t eaten since yesterday. I’ll be back soon with some food.” He turned. “I’m not a cruel man, Victoria. I won’t let you starve.”
As he left the room, he imagined he saw tears forming in those great, big, bulbous, hellish eyes.
Clark parked Victoria’s Mercedes in the empty parking lot behind Rojo Duro’s public library. His destination—Pepper’s Ol’ Fashioned Barbecue—was a good two blocks away but he didn’t care. He had time. The afternoon temperature had crested at forty-eight degrees and it was a nice day for a walk.
Rojo Duro was a quiet town. It stood in stark contrast to the chaos in Rubicon Ranch. He strolled along the sidewalk, hoping his mind would empty itself of worry. A large American flag towered over the post office, its rhythmic flapping providing the only noise. The occasional car idled slowly past. Yes, it was indeed a nice day for a walk.
He was still reeling inside from his talk with Victoria. He just didn’t feel right. Yes, Victoria would soon be dead, but still . . . He had never admitted a con before. Ever. And he had been in some tight spots, starting when he was a child in the orphanage. Older boys would call him names, beat him up, and force him to do their chores. Once in a while, when the abuse had been bad enough, he had fought back but it usually resulted in extra chores and public humiliation at the hands of the nuns. He had learned never to trust those in authority. And he had learned to take care of himself.
A car honked its horn and Clark’s mind snapped back to the present. Two ladies were leaving the police station, headed for an official vehicle. One was the female cop. Lieutenant . . . Hot Pants? He drank in every inch of her curves, every contour and every jiggle. He slowed his walk. As delicious as she was, he didn’t want to force a conversation with her.
The other lady he recognized from Rubicon Ranch. The one who fancied herself a psychic. As he watched her sashay across the sidewalk in front of him, a chill moved through his body.
How easy it would be to kill her.
Just take her out at the same time as Victoria. He had never liked her. There was something about her that was . . . unsettling. He couldn’t read her as well as others. Was she really a psychic or just a con artist like him? Though he had posed as a psychic for years in a little town back east, even he couldn’t tell if she was the real deal.
And that’s why he disliked her. Hated her, actually.
He closed his eyes and leaned against a street lamp. The darkness had followed him. It was here, coursing through his mind like a maddening itch. Taunting him. Prodding him.
He breathed deeply, allowing his mind to clear. Why was here? Oh, yes. Food for Victoria.
He was going to surprise her with her favorite. Santa Fe Enchiladas. Pepper’s specialty.