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Authors: John Sedgwick

The Dark House

BOOK: The Dark House
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THE DARK HOUSE

A NOVEL

JOHN SEDGWICK

For Josie

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

—T. S. Eliot
from “Little Gidding”
in
FOUR QUARTETS

CONTENTS

One

“Eleven thirty-eight P.M,” Rollins said quietly into the tiny Panasonic…

Two

“Well, you're getting a lot of work done, I see.”

Three

It was past eleven when he returned to his own…

Four

Rollins kept the tapes of his pursuits, filed by date…

Five

The more they talked, the more certain Rollins became that…

Six

The house was a two-story Cape, somewhat run-down, with cracked…

Seven

Someone was banging on Rollins' front door. At first, the…

Eight

Rollins felt feverish that night. He was afraid that he'd…

Nine

It kept raining, off and on, the next day, too.

Ten

Schecter's card in Rollins' Rolodex was slightly yellowed. It had…

Eleven

Back in the Nissan, Rollins continued on down the road…

Twelve

“I should have all these locks,” Marj said as Rollins…

Thirteen

Marj was silent, hand to mouth, waiting.

Fourteen

That night, Rollins was certain he'd never felt so hot,…

Fifteen

There was a pounding from somewhere far away, then a…

Sixteen

Joey's was an old-fashioned fish place on Atlantic Avenue, a…

Seventeen

At the hotel that night, Rollins and Marj cuddled together…

Eighteen

It was well after three when Rollins and Marj reached…

Nineteen

Rollins turned away from Marj to face the wall, where…

Twenty

Rollins called Schecter from the pay phone near the pizza…

Twenty-one

They went into the Burger King on 102, hardly Rollins'…

Twenty-two

Outside the restaurant, the night sky seemed deeper now, the…

Twenty-three

The stately Maple Hill retirement center glowed yellow amid its…

Twenty-four

She landed on her side, her head and shoulder on…

Twenty-five

Rollins stood there for several minutes, staring at his father's…

Twenty-six

“Hey—you okay?”

“E
leven thirty-eight
P.M.
,” Rollins said quietly into the tiny Panasonic in his palm. “North on 93, just past Exit 32. The Audi's two ccars up, holding steady at”—he glanced down at the speedometer—“about fifty-seven, fifty-eight miles an hour.” The Audi was navy blue, or possibly black, with green-on-white Massachusetts plates. Rollins put the tape recorder down by the newspaper on the passenger seat of his Nissan. As far as he could tell, the Audi was occupied only by the driver, who was thin and fiftyish and had a look of concentration that was unusual for this time of night. Because the man was wearing a suit coat and unfashionable glasses, Rollins at first had guessed banking. Then he spotted an umbrella on the rear dash, and he reconsidered. Insurance? After all, the forecast had said nothing of rain, just the endless steam heat so typical for Boston in late July.

The trees were set well back from the raised highway, opening up a wide night sky. A blurry moon rose through the glass by his left shoulder. Before him, the asphalt gleamed like open water. As Rollins followed along, he knew enough to keep out of the Audi's rearview mirrors, both center and side. He was sensitive that way, almost as if his skin were allergic to another's sight. He stayed well back, and one lane over, to make it clear that he just
happened
to be traveling this road tonight. His slim hands curled lightly on the wheel, Rollins was ready to move when the Audi moved. It was a kind of dance, Rollins supposed. A dance with a shadow.

On a pursuit, Rollins never flipped on talk radio or whistled, as he might do at other times—when he was staring at the stock prices floating across the bottom of his computer screen at the office, say, or sitting in the big chair by the phone in his apartment. He didn't want to break the mood of the evening by cutting the white noise that enveloped him. He was comforted by the steady drone of his engine, the wavelike rush of passing cars, the buzz of the tires on the asphalt, the whoosh of humid air from the vents. Inside the Nissan, he felt snug as an astronaut, tidily enclosed in his bubble of glass and steel. But keyed up, too, on the cusp of a new adventure.

Rollins couldn't know where the driver of the Audi had been before their paths first crossed in front of the Mid-Nite Convenient newsstand, with its red awning, in Somerville's Union Square some miles back. The man's past was a blank, and the car bore no
SOCCER MOM
bumper sticker, no Northeastern University parking pass to help fill out a history. Only his future could be known. So different from the way life generally worked, Rollins mused with a shake of the head. The only thing noteworthy about the Audi's exterior was a slight dent on the housing of the left rear wheel. “The kind of ding you get in a parking lot,” he told the recorder. “Nothing major.”

In Rollins' experience, people rarely went anywhere just once. Rather, their lives were an endless loop of going, coming back, and going again. Most likely, where the man in the Audi was going was where he had come from. He was returning to his source. By now, Rollins was something of an expert on Boston's greater metropolitan area, its thorough
fares, one-way streets and cul-de-sacs. He knew precisely where one town ended and another began; and he grasped the subtle differences between exclusive Wellesley, say, and reclusive Weston, which lay right beside it. And of course, it meant even more to see the exact neighborhood within the town, and still more to see which street.

And what sort of house? A gated estate in Beverly Farms, on Massachusetts's gilded North Shore, where the driveways are a half mile long? Rollins had had a comfortable childhood in a big house on a private road in upper-class Brookline, and he was always on the lookout for one of his own, just to see how that person had managed it. Or would it be a more traditional suburban home—with a tight yard, neighbors pressing in on either side? Were there kids in the picture? Would a voice call down to him from an upstairs window when Rollins's man came home? If so, would it be accented? With luck, Rollins might spot other revealing details—some Spanish artwork in the bedroom, or a projection TV in the paneled den, or antique doll furniture arrayed on the living room mantelpiece. Small points, but telling ones to him.

He clicked on the tape recorder again. “Eleven forty-seven. Passing Exit 33, no change in speed.” So his subject was not the Exit 33 type after all. That is, not one to take the Fellsway up to Stoneham, with its tract houses, its drab Redstone Shopping Center, its tiny zoo, seventeen baseball fields (Rollins had once passed a slow evening counting them), mediocre schools, three cemeteries, and Empire Bowl-a-drome, so favored by overweight smokers. Likewise exits 34, 35, 36, 37A and B, 38, and 39.

Past Exit 39, however, twenty miles north of Boston, where signs of roadside activity finally started to thin, the Audi signaled for a right turn, its blinker impatient, Germanic. (Rollins could write an interesting monograph on taillights: their flame-colored stripes, circles, dots, and wraparound curves were so much more variable and expressive than those tedious twin orbs of white up front.) After an interval that affirmed his man's deliberate nature, the Audi moved gently to the right lane and slowed to fifty. Rollins, in the far left, eased off the gas and shifted two lanes over. He could feel a film of sweat where his fingers touched the steering wheel. He was closing in. The Audi turned at
Exit 40, eastbound on Route 62. “Twelve oh-three,” Rollins said, glancing at the dashboard clock. “East on 62. The Audi seems to be slowing a little, so I think I'll stay back.”

Route 62 led past a sand and gravel supply yard, its great mounds of earth dark except for a few security lights, then wound around through several ill-landscaped subdevelopments. The Audi's turn signal flashed again, and the car made a quick left, then—this time without signaling—a right, and another right, finally turning onto a tree-lined street.

“Something's a little off here,” Rollins whispered into the Panasonic. He didn't like that last flurry of turns. Plus, he'd cast his man as a homecoming father. But he could tell when an individual was driving into a neighborhood as a visitor or as a resident: Visitors grope their way along, while residents steam through as if they know every turn in the road. The driver of the Audi was definitely groping. More perplexing still, the car halted in front of a split-level ranch that had some ersatz grillwork over the windows and faux medieval paneling on the front door. It couldn't go for more than $175,000, well below the price range suggested by the Audi. It seemed to be the residence of an aspiring middle-manager, or a department supervisor with a single income. Rollins stopped several houses back on the other side of the street, cut the engine, and killed the headlights.

The dome light inside the Audi flashed on for a moment as the driver opened the car door. He was more gaunt than Rollins expected, with thinning hair and a wispy mustache he had not noticed before. His suit wasn't badly cut. Rollins upped his salary estimate into the eighty-to ninety-thousand-dollar range. The gaunt man took a quick, nervous look around as he stepped out of the car—another unexpected move for a homecoming father. He paused momentarily as he surveyed Rollins' car. Rollins stopped breathing. But the man turned back to the Audi, closed the door, and made his way up the limestone walkway to the front steps. At the door, he fished in his pocket and pulled out a single key. He slid it into the lock, pushed the door open, and stepped inside.

There is a rhythm to such entries. Rollins had seen hundreds. At this hour, he typically would wait no more than three seconds for the lights to come on. But three seconds passed, then ten, then thirty. A
full minute went by, and still no light burned in the house. That got Rollins' pulse going. It was conceivable that his man had somehow gone straight to bed in the dark. It was also possible that he had walked to the back of the house, or down into the basement, where he might have flipped on a light that did not shine onto the street.

A more alarming thought formed in Rollins' mind: that the man was fully aware of his presence, and had been for some time. And that the driver was, at this very moment, staring out at Rollins from the darkness, performing his own evaluation, for his own ends. Light was everything at night. One saw from the darkness into the light. The lighter environment was the one observed. If the house remained dark,
Rollins
could be the subject. His intestines turned watery, and his skin felt flushed and prickly. He was being watched. He could feel it.

Five minutes flickered past on the dashboard clock; it felt like an hour, or a day. His arm heavy, Rollins flipped the switch on the interior light so that it wouldn't shine when he opened the door and slowly released the door handle to step out of his car. He went around to the sidewalk and strode away from the house to give his man, if he was indeed watching, the impression that he, Rollins, wasn't interested in that house at all. No, sir, not
at all
! Once he was out of sight, he crossed the street and walked around the house's block to view the back of the dark house through the rustling trees. It was completely black against the gauzy night sky. Circling the block to return to the dark house from the other direction, he put his hands in his khaki pockets to convey casualness while he peered as far around to the back as he could out of the corner of his eye without actually turning his head. The neighboring houses screened off some of his view, but, again, every window in the house that he could see was pitch black.

Rollins returned to his Nissan. “No lights on in the house,” he told the tape recorder somewhat breathlessly. “I just looked around from the back. Not one light. Jesus.” He watched the house through the driver's-side window. A few cars went by, and a jogger in a reflecting vest chugged along the sidewalk, but otherwise nothing changed. “All right,” he said, starting the car. “Twelve fifty-three. I need a toilet.” It was the night's last entry.

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