Moving through the dark living room toward the staircase, she felt something latch onto her far worse than the emotional fallout of this long, long day.
A swallowing emptiness.
In a few short hours, the sun would rise, and in many ways, it would be the first morning of the rest of her life without him. This past day had been about saying good-bye, about scavenging what little peace she could find in a world without Ethan. Their friends had mourned him, would certainly always miss him, but they would move on—were already moving on—and would inevitably forget.
She couldn’t shake the sense that beginning tomorrow, she would be alone.
In her grief.
There was something so devastatingly lonely at the thought of it that she had to stop at the foot of the steps, put her hand on the banister, and catch her breath.
The knock startled her, kicked her heart rate up a notch.
Theresa turned and stared at the door, the thought crossing her mind that she’d imagined the sound.
It was 4:50 a.m.
What could anyone possibly want—
Another knock. Harder than the first.
She crossed the foyer in bare feet and stood on her tiptoes to see through the peephole.
Under the illumination of the porch light, she glimpsed a man standing on her stoop under an umbrella.
He was short. Completely bald. Face an expressionless shadow under the dripping canopy. He wore a black suit that made something catch inside her chest—a federal agent with news of Ethan? What other reason could there possibly be for someone to knock on her front door at this hour?
But the tie was all wrong.
Striped blue and yellow—too much style and flash for a fed.
Through the peephole, she watched the man’s hand reach out and knock once more.
“Mrs. Burke,” he said. “I know I’m not waking you. I saw you at the kitchen sink just a few minutes ago.”
“What do you want?” she said through the door.
“I need to speak with you.”
She shut her eyes, opened them again.
The man was still there, and she was wide awake now.
“What about him?” she asked.
“It would be simpler if we could just sit down and talk face-to-face.”
“It’s the middle of the night and I have no idea who you are. There’s no way I’m letting you in my house.”
“You will want to hear what I have to say.”
“Tell me through the door.”
“I can’t do that.”
“Then come back in the morning. I’ll speak with you then.”
“If I leave, Mrs. Burke, you will never see me again, and trust me, that would be a tragedy for you and for Ben. I swear to you...I intend you no harm.”
“Get off my property or I’ll call the police.”
The man reached into his coat and took out a Polaroid.
As he held it up to the peephole, Theresa felt something break inside her.
It was a photo of Ethan lying on a steel operating table, naked under clinical blue light. The left side of his face looked deeply bruised, and she couldn’t tell if he was alive or dead. Before she knew what she was doing, her hand was reaching for the chain and turning back the dead bolt.
Theresa pulled the door open as the man collapsed his umbrella and leaned it against the brick. Behind him, a cold steady rain laid down an undercurrent of white noise on the sleeping city. A dark-colored Mercedes Sprinter was parked a few houses down. Not a fixture on her street. She wondered if the van was his.
“David Pilcher,” the man said, extending his hand.
“What have you done to him?” Theresa asked, not taking it. “Is he dead?”
“May I come in?”
She moved back as Pilcher stepped over the threshold, his black wingtips glistening with beads of rainwater.
“I can take these off,” he said, gesturing to his shoes.
“Don’t worry about it.”
She led him into the living room and they sat down across from one another, Theresa on the couch, Pilcher on a wooden, straight-backed chair she’d dragged over from the dining room table.
“You hosted a party here tonight?” he asked.
“A celebration of my husband’s life.”
She suddenly felt very tired, the lightbulb over her head almost too much for her retinas to bear.
“Why do you have a picture of my husband, Mr. Pilcher?”
“That doesn’t matter.”
“It does to me.”
“What if I were to tell you that your husband is alive?”
For ten seconds, Theresa didn’t breathe.
There was the noise of the dishwasher, of rain falling on the roof, of her throbbing heart, and nothing else.
“Who are you?” she asked.
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Then how can I trust—”
He held up a hand, his black eyes crinkling. “Better to listen right now.”
“Are you with the government?”
“No, but again, who I am isn’t important. It’s what I have to offer you.”
“Ethan is alive?”
Her throat tightened, but she held herself together.
“Where is he?” She could only whisper.
Pilcher shook his head. “I could sit here and tell you everything, but you wouldn’t believe me.”
“How do you know?”
“You won’t tell me where my husband is?”
“No, and if you ask me again, I’ll get up, walk out that door, and you’ll never see me again, which means you’ll never see Ethan again.”
“Is he hurt?” She could feel a compacted mass of emotion beginning to loosen behind her sternum.
“Do you want money? I can—”
“Ethan isn’t being ransomed. This has nothing to do with money, Theresa.” Pilcher scooted forward, now sitting on the edge of the chair and staring at her through those piercing black eyes whose intensity suggested a massive intellect behind them. “I am extending to you and your son a one-time offer.”
Pilcher reached into the inner pocket of his coat, carefully removed a pair of half-inch glass vials containing a clear liquid, and set them on the coffee table. They’d been plugged with tiny corks.
“What’s that?” Theresa asked.
“With your husband.”