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The pain of others, p.1
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       The Pain of Others, p.1

           Blake Crouch
 
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The Pain of Others


  THE PAIN OF OTHERS

  by BLAKE CROUCH

  Copyright © 2011 by Blake Crouch

  Cover art copyright © 2011 by Jeroen ten Berge

  All rights reserved.

  THE PAIN OF OTHERS is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, events, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

  For more information about the author, please visit www.blakecrouch.com.

  For more information about the artist, please visit www.jeroentenberge.com.

  “The Pain of Others” originally appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.

  The bite of conscience, like the bite of a dog into a stone, is a stupidity…Can you give yourself your own evil and your own good and hang your own will over yourself as a law?

  – Friedrich Nietzsche

  LETTY DOBESH, five weeks out of Fluvanna Correctional Institute on a nine-month bit for felony theft, straightened the red wig over her short brown hair, adjusted the oversize Jimmy Choo sunglasses she’d lifted out of a locker two days ago at the Asheville Racquet and Fitness Club, and handed a twenty-spot to the cabbie.

  “Want change, Miss?” he asked.

  “On a $9.75 fare? What does your heart tell you?”

  Past the bellhop and into the Grove Park Inn carrying a small leather duffle bag, the cloudy autumn day just cool enough to warrant the fires at either end of the lobby, the fourteen-foot stone hearths sending forth drafts of intersecting warmth.

  She sat down at a table on the outskirts of the lounge, noting the prickle in the tips of her ears that always started up right before. Adrenaline and fear and a shot of hope because you never knew what you might find. Better than sex on tweak.

  The barkeep walked over and she ordered a San Pellegrino with lime. Checked her watch as he went back to the bar: 2:58 p.m. An older couple cuddled on a sofa by the closest fireplace with glasses of wine. A man in a navy blazer read a newspaper several tables away. Looked to her like money—top-shelf hair and skin. Must have owned a tanning bed or just returned from the Islands. Two Mexicans washed windows that overlooked the terrace. All in all, quiet for a Saturday afternoon, and she felt reasonably anonymous, though it didn’t really matter. What would be recalled when the police showed up? An attractive thirty-something with curly red hair and ridiculous sunglasses.

  As her watch beeped three o’clock, she picked out the sound of approaching footsteps—the barkeep returning with her Pellegrino. He set the sweating glass on the table and pulled a napkin out of his vest pocket.

  She glanced up. Smiled. Good-looking kid. Compulsive weightlifter.

  “What do I owe you?”

  “On the house,” he said.

  She crushed the lime into the mineral water. Through the windows she could see the view from the terrace—bright trees under grey sky, downtown Asheville in the near distance, the crest of the Blue Ridge in the far, summits headless under the cloud deck. She sipped her drink and stared at the napkin the barkeep had left on the table. Four four-digit, handwritten numbers. Took her thirty seconds to memorize them, and a quick look around confirmed what she had hoped—the windowwashers and the hotel guests remained locked and absorbed in their own worlds. She lifted the napkin and slid the keycard underneath it across the glass tabletop and into her grasp. Then shredded the napkin, sprinkling the pieces into the hissing water.

  One hour later, she fished her BlackBerry out of her purse as she stepped off the elevator and onto the fifth floor. The corridor plush and vacant. No housekeeping carts. An ice machine humming around the corner.

  Down the north wing, Letty flushing with the satisfaction that came when things went pitch-perfect. She could have quit now and called it a great haul, her duffle bag sagging with the weight of three high-end laptops, $645 in cash, one cell phone, two iPods, and three fully-raided minibars.

  Standing in front of the closed door of 5212, she dialed the front desk on her stolen BlackBerry.

  “Grove Park Inn Resort and Spa. How may I direct your call?”

  “Room 5212.”

  “Certainly.”

  Through the door, she heard the phone ringing, and she let it ring five times before ending the call and glancing once more up and down the corridor.

  The master keycard unlocked the door.

  5212 was the modest one of the four—a single king-size bed (unmade), tiled bathroom with a shower and garden tub, the mirror still beaded with condensation. In the sitting area, an armoire, loveseat, leather chair, and floor-to-ceiling windows with a three hundred and fifty dollar-a-night view of the Asheville skyline, the mountains, and a golf course—greens and fairways lined with pines and maple trees. A trace of expensive cologne lingered in the air, and the clothes on the bed smelled of cigar smoke.

  She perused the bedside table drawer, the armoire, the dresser, the drawers under the bathroom sink, the closet, the suitcase, even under the sofa cushions, which occasionally yielded big scores from the rich too cheap or lazy to use the hotel safe.

  Room 5212 was a bust—nothing but three Romeo y Julieta cigars, which she of course pocketed—bonuses for the bellhop and barkeep.

  On her way out, Letty unzipped her duffle bag and opened the minibar, her BlackBerry buzzing as she reached for a 1.5 ounce bottle of Glenlivet 12 Year.

  Pressed talk. “Yeah?”

  “What room you in?”

  “5212.”

  “Get out of there. He’s coming back.”

  She closed the minibar. “How long do I have?”

  “I got tied up giving directions. You might not have any time.”

  She hoisted the duffle bag onto her shoulder, started toward the door, but the unmistakable sound of a keycard sliding into the slot stopped her cold.

  A muffled voice: “I think you’ve got it upside down.”

  Letty opened the bifold closet doors and slipped in. With no doorknob on the inside, she had to pull them shut by the slats.

  People entered the hotel suite. Letty let the duffle bag slide off her shoulder and onto the floor. Dug the BlackBerry out of her purse, powered it off as the door closed.

  Through a ribbon of light, she watched two men walk past the closet, one in a navy blazer and khaki slacks, the other wearing a black suit, their faces obscured by the angle of the slats.

  “Drink, Chase?”

  “Jameson, if you’ve got it.”

  She heard the minibar open.

  The man who wasn’t named Chase poured the Irish whiskey into a rocks glass and cracked the cap on a bottle of beer and the men settled themselves in the sitting area. Letty drew in deep breaths, her heart slamming in her chest, her knees soft, as if her legs might buckle at any moment.

  “Chase, I need to hear you say you’ve really thought this through, that you’re absolutely sure.”

  “I am. I only went to Victor when I realized there was no other way. I’m really in a bind.”

  “You brought the money?”

  “Right here.”

  “Mind if I have a look?”

  Letty heard locks unclasp, what might have been a briefcase opening.

  “Now, you didn’t just run down to your bank, ask for twenty-five large in hundred dollar bills?”

  “I went to Victor.”

  “Good. We’re still thinking tomorrow, yes?”

  “Tomorrow.”

  “I understand you have a son?”

  “Skyler. He’s seven. From a previous marriage.”

  “I want you to go out with your son tomorrow morning at ten. Buy some gas with a credit card. Go to Starbucks. Buy a coffee for yourself. A hot chocolate for Skyler
. Wear a bright shirt. Flirt with the barista. Be memorable. Establish a record of you not being in your house from ten to noon.”

  “And then I just go home?”

  “That’s right.”

  “Can you tell me what you’re going to do? So I can be prepared?”

  “It’d be more natural, your conversations with the police I mean, if you were truly surprised.”

  “I hear you on that, but I’ll play it better if I know going in. It’s the way I’d prefer it, Arnold.”

  “Where does your wife typically shower?”

  “Upstairs in the master bath, right off our bedroom.”

  “As you’re stepping out of the shower, is the toilet close?”

  “Yeah, a few feet away.”

  “You’re going to find her on the floor beside the toilet, neck broken like she’d slipped getting out of the shower. It happens all the time.”

  “Okay.” Chase exhaled. “Okay, that’ll work. I like that. Then I just call the police?”

  “Call Nine-one-one. Say you don’t know if she’s dead, but that she isn’t moving.”

  “The police won’t suspect I did this?”

  “They may initially.”

  “I don’t want that.”

  “Then don’t have your wife killed. It’s not a neat, easy transaction, and you shouldn’t do business with anyone who tells you it is. The husband will always be suspected at first, but please understand I am very good at what I do. There will be an autopsy, but assuming you hold it together, it’ll be ruled an accident. Now what does your wife do for a living?”

  “Not really anything now. She used to be a registered nurse. Why?”

  “Just a little piece of information that helps me to prepare.”

  “That manila folder in the briefcase contains a recent photograph of Daphne. Address. House key. Floor plan. Everything you asked for. And I’ll make sure the third window to the right of the front door is unlocked.”

  “I’ll need your help distracting her while I’m getting inside. I want you to call her at precisely 10:15 a.m. Tell her you can’t find your wallet. You got a bedside table?”

  “I do.”

  “You say you think you might have left it there, and would she please go check. That’ll get her upstairs, give me time to get in.”

  “I should write this all down.”

  “No. Don’t write anything down.” The black-suited man rose to his feet. “I’m exhausted. I’m going to grab some shut eye.”

  They came toward her, and Letty realized that Chase was the tanned and moneyed specimen she’d seen in the lobby.

  “Once you walk out the door, Chase, there’s no going back. You need to understand that.”

  She watched them shake hands and then Arnold opened the door and saw Chase out and came back in and closed and locked the door.

  He went past the closet and sat down on the end of the bed. Pulled off his shoes and his black socks, and as he sat there rubbing his feet, it occurred to her that he still wore his jacket, that he would want to hang it in the closet. Arnold stood and took off his jacket and started toward the closet.

  The vibration of his phone stopped him. He flipped it open. Sighed.

  “Yeah…no, it’s fine.” He unbuttoned his white Oxford shirt.

  Letty’s hands trembled.

  “The floral pattern, Jim.” He lay his jacket across the dresser and turned his back to the closet. “Remember we talked about this?” His pants fell to his ankles, followed by his boxer shorts. He stepped out of them, climbed onto the bed, and lay on his back, his feet hanging off the end. “No, Jim. With the daffodils.”

  Already forty-five minutes late for work, Letty peered through the slats, saw Arnold’s chest rising and falling, the man otherwise motionless and perfectly silent. She’d been standing in the same spot for almost ninety minutes, and though she’d abandoned her heels, the closet didn’t afford room, with the doors closed, for her to sit down or bend her knees to a sufficient degree of relief. Her legs had been cramping for the last half hour, hamstrings quivering.

  She lifted her duffle bag, and as she pushed against the closet door, a rivulet of sweat ran down into the corner of her right eye. Blinking through the saltwater sting, she felt the door give, folding in upon itself with a subtle creak.

  She stepped out into the room, glanced at the bed. Arnold hadn’t moved.

  At the door, she flipped back the inner lock, turned the handle as slowly as she could manage. The click of the retracting deadbolt sounded deafening. She eased the door back and stepped across the threshold.

  She sat in the lobby, now noisy and crowded with the onset of cocktail hour. In her chair by the fireplace, she stared into the flames that roasted twelve-foot logs, the BlackBerry in her right hand, finger poised to press talk.

  She couldn’t make the call. She’d rehearsed it three times, but it didn’t feel right. Hell, she didn’t even know Daphne’s last name or where the woman lived. Her story would require a leap of faith on the part of the investigating lawman, and when it came to credibility, she held a pair of twos. She couldn’t use her real name, and meeting face-to-face with a detective could never happen. Letty had been convicted three times. Six years of cumulative incarceration. Her fourth felony offense, she’d be labeled an habitual criminal offender and entitled to commiserate sentencing guidelines at four times the max. She’d die in a federal prison.

  So seriously, all things considered, what did she care if some rich bitch got her ticket punched? If Letty hadn’t hit room 5212 when she did, she’d already be at the diner, flirting for the big tips and still glowing from the afternoon’s score. She tossed the BlackBerry back into her duffle. She should just leave. Pretend she’d never heard that conversation. She stole from people, innocent strangers, every chance she got. It never kept her up nights. Never put this torque in her gut. She’d get out of there, call in sick to work, buy two bottles of merlot, and head back to her miserable apartment. Maybe read a few chapters of that book she’d found at the thrift store—Self-Defeating Behaviors: Free Yourself from the Habits, Compulsions, Feelings, and Attitudes That Hold You Back. Pass out on the sofa again.

  And you’ll wake up tomorrow morning with a headache, a sour stomach, a rotten taste in your mouth, and you’ll look at yourself in that cracked mirror and hate what you see even more.

  She cursed loud enough to attract the attention of an older man who’d dolled himself up for the evening, his eyes glaring at her over the top of the Asheville Citizen-Times. She slashed him with a sardonic smile and got up, enraged at herself over this swell of weakness. She took two steps. Everything changed. The anger melted. Exhilaration flooding in to take its place. In the emotion and fear of the moment, it had completely escaped her.

  Room 5212 contained the manila folder with Daphne’s photograph and address, but also a briefcase holding $25,000 in cash. Steal the money. Steal the folder. Save a life.

  Even as she scrounged her purse for the master keycard, she knew she wouldn’t find it. In those first ten seconds of entry into Arnold’s room, she’d set it on the dresser, where she imagined, it still sat. She could feel the heat spreading through her face. The barkeep and the bellhop, her only contacts at the hotel, were already off-shift. There’d be no replacement keycard.

  She started through the lobby, wanting to run, punch through a sheetrock wall, do something to expend the mounting rage.

  She’d stopped to calm herself, leaning against one of the timber columns, her head swimming, when thirty feet away, a bell rang, two brass doors spread apart, and the man named Arnold strode off the elevator, looking casual in blue jeans, cowboy boots, and a sports jacket. She followed his progress, watching him thread his way through the crowd, finally arriving at the entrance to the Sunset Terrace. He spoke with the hostess at the podium, and without even thinking about it, Letty found herself moving toward him, wishing she’d honed her pickpocket skills during one of her stints in prison. She’d known a woman at Fluvanna wh
o had it down so cold she’d once lifted fifty wallets during a single day in Disney World. Arnold’s back pockets were hidden under his navy jacket, no bulge visible, but people with sense didn’t keep their wallet there. Inner pocket of his jacket more likely, and she knew enough to know it took scary talent to snatch it from that location. You had to practically collide with the mark, your hands moving at light speed and with utter precision. She didn’t have the chops.

  Arnold stepped away from the hostess podium, and she watched him walk across the lobby into the Great Hall Bar, where he slid onto a barstool and waited to be served.

 
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