Mrs. Mercier held a magazine in her hand and assumed a look of surprise, but the expression didn't reach her eyes.
"I'm sorry, Jack. I didn't know you had company." She was lying, and I could see in Mercier's face that he knew she was lying, that we both knew. He tried to hide his annoyance behind the trademark smile but I could hear his teeth gritting. He rose, and I rose with him.
"Mr. Parker, this is my wife Deborah."
Mrs. Mercier took one step toward me, then waited for me to cross the rest of the floor before extending her hand. It hung limply in my palm as I gripped it, and her eyes bored holes in my face while her teeth gnawed at my skull. Her hostility was so blatant it was almost funny.
"I'm pleased to meet you," she lied, before turning her glare on her husband. "I'll talk to you later, Jack," she said, and made it sound like a threat. She didn't look back as she closed the door.
The temperature in the room immediately rose a few degrees, and Mercier regained his composure. "My apologies, Mr. Parker. Tensions in the house are a little high. My daughter Samantha is to be married early next month."
"Really. Who's the lucky man?" It seemed polite to ask.
"Robert Ober. He's the son of my attorney."
"At least your wife will get to buy a new hat."
"She's buying a great deal more than a hat, Mr. Parker, and she is currently occupied by the arrangements for our guests. Warren and I may have to take to my yacht to escape the demands of our respective wives, although they are such excellent sailors themselves that I imagine they will insist upon keeping us company. Do you sail, Mr. Parker?"
"With difficulty. I don't have a yacht."
"Everybody should have a yacht," remarked Mercier, his good humor returning in earnest.
"Why, you're practically a socialist, Mr. Mercier."
He laughed softly, then put his coffee cup down and arranged his features into a sincere expression. "I hope you'll forgive me for prying into your background, but I wanted to find out about you before I requested your help," he continued.
I acknowledged his comments with a nod. "In your position, I'd probably do the same," I said.
He leaned forward and said gently: "I'm sorry about your family. It was a terrible thing that happened to them, and to you."
My wife, Susan, and my daughter, Jennifer, had been taken from me by a killer known as the Traveling Man while I was still a policeman in New York. He had killed a lot of other people too, until he was stopped. When I killed him, a part of me had died with him.
Over two years had passed since then, and for much of that time the deaths of Susan and Jennifer had defined me. I had allowed that to be so until I realized that pain and hurt, guilt and regret, were tearing me apart. Now, slowly, I was getting my life back together in Maine, back in the place where I had spent my teens and part of my twenties, back in the house I had shared with my mother and my grandfather, and in which I now lived alone. I had a woman who cared for me, who made me feel that it was worth trying to rebuild my life with her beside me and that maybe the time to begin that process had now arrived.
"I can't imagine what such a thing must be like," continued Mercier. "But I know someone who probably can, which is why I've asked you here today."
Outside, the rain had stopped and the clouds had parted. Behind Mercier's head, the sun shone brightly through the window, bathing the desk and chair in its glow and replicating the shape of the glasswork on the carpet below. I watched as a bug crawled across the patch of bright light, its tiny feelers testing the air as it went.
"His name is Curtis Peltier, Mr. Parker," said Mercier. "He used to be my business partner, a long time ago, until he asked me to buy him out and followed his own path. Things didn't work out so well for him; he made some bad investments, I'm afraid. Ten days ago his daughter was found dead in her car. Her name was Grace Peltier. You may have read about her. In fact, I understand you may have known her once upon a time."
Copyright © 2001 by John Connolly
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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