Chapter no 32

A Flicker in the Dark

“I’m proud of you, babe.”

I glance up from our bedroom floor at Daniel leaning against the doorframe, smiling at me. He’s fresh out of the shower, a crisp white towel knotted around his waist and his arms crossed against his bare torso. He walks across the bedroom and starts flipping through a line of pressed white button-ups hanging in the closet. I stare at him for a second, at his perfectly tanned body. His toned arms, his dewy skin. I squint, noticing a scratch across his side, trailing from his stomach to his back. It looks fresh, and I try not to wonder how it got there. Where it came from. Instead, I look back down at my suitcase, at the pile of clothes heaped inside. It’s mostly jeans and T-shirts, practical things, and I realize I should probably toss in a dress and some stilettos for appearance’s sake—after all, that’s the kind of thing you wear on a bachelorette party.

“Who’s going to be there, again?”

“It’s small,” I say, nestling some heels into the corner of the bag. Heels I know I won’t be wearing. “Shannon, Melissa, some old work friends. I don’t want to make it a big thing.”

“Well, I think it’s great,” he says, picking a shirt from the hanger and hoisting it over his back. He walks toward me, the buttons still gaping open. Normally, I would have stood up, wound my arms around his bare skin, pressed my fingers into the muscles in his back. Normally, I would have kissed him, maybe led him back to bed before we both left for the day, no longer smelling like body wash but instead like each other.

But not today. I can’t today. So instead, I smile at him from the floor, then look back down at the clothes in my lap, focusing intently on the shirt I was folding.

“It was your idea,” I say, trying to avoid his eyes. I can feel them burrowing into my temple, trying to wade through the coils. “At the engagement party, remember?”

“I remember. I’m glad you listened.”

“And when you went to New Orleans, I thought that could be fun,” I say, glancing up at him. “An easy drive, not too expensive.”

I see his lips twitch, an invisible flicker I never would have noticed had I not already known the truth—that he was never in New Orleans. That the conference he had told me about in such detail—networking on Saturday followed by golfing on Sunday and sessions for the rest of the week—had never actually taken place. Actually, that’s a lie. It had taken place. Pharmaceutical sales reps had flocked to the city from all across the country, but not Daniel. He wasn’t there. I know because I had found the conference website, called the hotel, and asked them to send over a copy of his invoice, claiming to be his assistant filing an expense report. And he wasn’t there. No Daniel Briggs had checked in or out of the hotel, let alone registered for the conference. I had no way to confirm his recent trip to Lafayette, but I had a hunch that was a lie, too. That all of these trips he took, all of these long weekends and overnight drives that brought him home deliriously tired yet somehow more alive than ever were just a cover-up for something else. Something dark. And there was only one way to find out for sure.

There are so many things I don’t know about my fiancé, but living

together has made one thing clear: He is a creature of habit. Every day, when he gets home, he tucks his briefcase neatly into the corner of the dining room, locked and ready for his next trip. And every morning, he goes for a run—four, five, six miles around the neighborhood, followed by a long, hot shower. And so, every day this week, after he kissed my forehead and stepped out of our house, I had crept into the dining room, my fingers pushing the digits back and forth on the combination lock, trying to crack the code. It had been easier than I had expected—he’s predictable, in a way. I had tried to think about all the numbers in Daniel’s life that could hold some type of meaning—his birthday, my birthday. The address of our home. After all, if Aaron had taught me anything, it’s that copycats are sentimental; their lives revolve around hidden messages, secret codes. After days of no luck, I sat down on the dining room floor, thinking, my eyes darting back and forth between his briefcase and our dining room window, just waiting for him to appear.

But then I stood back up, a thought creeping into my mind.

I glanced out the window again before trying one more combination: 72619. I remember lining the numbers up against the little tick marks etched into the lock’s side; I remember pushing the slider, hearing that click as the latch unlocked. The creak of the hinges as the satchel fell open, its contents organized neatly inside.

It had worked. The code had worked. 72619. July 26, 2019.

Our wedding day.

“I’m going to text Shannon and make sure she sends me pictures,” Daniel says now, turning toward the dresser and opening his underwear drawer. He steps into his boxers, a pair of red and green flannel ones I bought him for Christmas, and laughs. “I want photo evidence of you straddling those bartenders on Bourbon Street, you know the ones with the little test-tube shots—”

“No,” I say, probably too fast. I turn toward him, watch as his eyes narrow a fraction, then scramble to come up with an excuse believable enough to convince him not to text Shannon, or Melissa, or anyone for that matter, because none of them are going on my bachelorette party. I’m not even going on my bachelorette party. Because it doesn’t exist.

“Please don’t,” I say, lowering my eyes. “I mean, it’s my bachelorette party, Daniel. I don’t want to be self-conscious the entire time, worried about making a fool out of myself and having it wind up on your phone.”

“Oh, come on now,” he says, putting his hands on his hips. “Since when are you insecure about having a few too many drinks?”

“We’re not supposed to be communicating!” I say, trying to make it playful. “It’s just one weekend. Besides, I doubt they’ll even respond. I’ve already been read the rules—no calls, no texts. We’re being cut off. Girls’ weekend.”

“Fine,” he says, holding his hands up in surrender. “What happens in New Orleans stays in New Orleans.”

“Thank you.”

“You’ll be home Sunday, then?”

I nod, the prospect of four full, uninterrupted days enough to make me melt into the carpet. It’s a relief, really. Getting away. Getting to stop the pretending, the constant acting that’s required of me every time I step foot in my own home. And hopefully, after this trip, I won’t need to act anymore. I won’t need to pretend. I won’t need to sleep with my body pressed against his, concealing the cringe that shudders down my back every time his lips graze against my neck. After this trip, I will have the evidence I need to go to the police, finally. To make them believe me, finally.

But that doesn’t make what I’m about to do any easier.

“I’ll miss you,” he says, sitting on the edge of the bed. I’ve been distant since the night of the alarm and he knows it. He can sense it, sense me pulling away. I tuck a strand of hair behind my ear and force myself to stand, to walk over toward him and take a seat by his side.

“I’ll miss you, too,” I say, holding my breath as he pulls me in for a kiss. He holds my head in his hands, cradling my skull in that familiar way. “But hey, I have to go.”

I pull back, standing up and walking to my suitcase, closing the flap and zipping it shut.

“I have a few appointments this morning, then I’m leaving straight from the office. Melissa and I are riding together, and we’ll pick up Shannon on the way.”

“Have fun.” He smiles. For a brief second, watching him sit on the edge of the bed by himself, his fingers laced together as his palms rest heavy in his lap, I sense a sadness that I’ve never seen in him before. The kind of desperate longing that I had once recognized in myself, before Daniel, when I felt the loneliest in the company of others. Just weeks ago, I would have felt guilty, that familiar pang in the chest when you lie to someone you love. I am sneaking around behind his back, digging into his past the way I have always chastised others for doing to me. But this is different, I know. This is serious. Because Daniel isn’t me—I know he’s not me. But I’m becoming increasingly certain that he may be just like my father.

I arrive at my office thirty minutes before my first appointment, duffel bag slung over one shoulder. I walk quickly past Melissa’s desk, waving at her as she takes a sip of her latte, trying to avoid lengthy conversation about my upcoming trip. I told her it was for wedding planning, but beyond that very vague description, I’m lacking any legitimate details. My primary concern had been providing a believable alibi to Daniel, and so far, I think I’ve done pretty well.

“Doctor Davis,” she says, placing her cup on the desk. I’m halfway through my office door before turning toward the sound of her voice. “Sorry, but you have a visitor. I told him you have an appointment, but … he’s been waiting.”

I turn toward my waiting room, glancing at the cluster of couches in the corner that I had completely ignored on my way in, and there, sitting on the far edge of one of them, is Detective Thomas. He’s holding a magazine open in his lap and smiles in my direction before flipping it closed and tossing it back on the coffee table.

“Good morning,” he says, standing up to greet me. “Going somewhere?”

I look down at my duffel bag, then back up to the detective, who has already halved the distance between us.

“Just a little trip.” “Where to?”

I chew on the side of my cheek, very aware of Melissa’s presence behind me.

“New Orleans,” I say. “I’m running some last minute wedding errands. They have some boutiques there, different vendors I wanted to check out.”

When I find myself caught up in a lie, I’ve found it’s always best to simplify it. To stick to the same version as often as possible. If Daniel thinks I’m in New Orleans, then Melissa and Detective Thomas might as well think the same thing. I catch Detective Thomas’s eyes glancing down at the ring on my finger before looking back up, nodding gently.

“This will just take a few minutes.”

I extend my arm to my office, turning around and smiling at Melissa as I lead him across the waiting room, attempting to convey a sense of calm

and control despite the panic rising in my chest. The detective follows me inside and shuts the door.

“So, what can I do for you, Detective?”

I walk behind my desk and set my bag on the ground, pulling out my chair and taking a seat. I hope he’ll follow my lead and do the same, but he remains standing.

“I wanted to let you know that I spent the week following up on your lead. Bert Rhodes.”

I raise my eyebrows; I forgot about Bert Rhodes. So many things have happened over the past week that have shifted my focus—the necklace in our closet and the revelation about Aubrey Gravino, the perfume on Daniel’s shirt and the lying about the conference and the scratch across his side. The visit with my mother, the things I had found in Daniel’s briefcase, now tucked into my own duffel bag. The evidence I had been looking for, and the evidence I’m traveling this weekend to find. The memory of Bert Rhodes in my home, holding that drill, his eyes boring into mine, feels so distant to me now. But I still remember that feeling of paralysis, of fear. Of my feet firmly planted on the ground despite the mounting sense of danger. But now danger has taken on a whole new meaning. At least I wasn’t living under the same roof as Bert Rhodes; at least he didn’t have a key to access the doors that I had locked behind me. I’m feeling almost nostalgic for last week, yearning for that moment—standing in my hallway, back against the door—when the line between good and bad was so clearly defined.

Detective Thomas shifts on his feet and suddenly, I feel guilt, too.

Guilt for sending him down this rabbit hole. Yes, Bert Rhodes is a bad man. Yes, I felt unsafe in his presence. But the evidence I’ve uncovered in the past week doesn’t point in his direction—and I feel like I should say so. But still, I’m curious.

“Oh, really. What did you find?”

“Well, for starters, he wants to take out a restraining order. Against you.

“What?” The shock of his statement sends me shooting up from my desk, the screech of my chair against the hardwood floor like jagged nails on a chalkboard. “What do you mean, a restraining order?”

“Please take a seat, Doctor Davis. He told me he felt threatened during his little visit to your house.”

He felt threatened?” I’m raising my voice now; I’m sure Melissa can hear, but at this point, I don’t care. “How in the world did he feel threatened? felt threatened. I was unarmed.”

“Doctor Davis, take a seat.”

I stare at him for a moment, blinking back my disbelief, before slowly lowering myself into my chair again.

“He claims that you lured him into your home under false pretenses,” he continues, taking a step closer to my desk. “That he arrived under the impression that he was completing a job, but once he stepped inside, he realized you had other intentions. That you were interrogating him, pushing his buttons. Trying to get him to admit to something incriminating.”

“That’s ridiculous. I didn’t call him to my house, my fiancé did.”

I feel a lurch in my chest at that word—fiancé—but force myself to push it down.

“And how did your fiancé get his number?” “I imagine from the website.”

“And why were you looking at the website? It seems like a pretty big coincidence, considering your history.”

“Look,” I say, pushing my hands through my hair. I can already see where this is going. “I had his website pulled up, okay? I had just realized that Bert Rhodes lives in town and I was thinking about how coincidental it is, to your point. I was thinking about those girls and how desperately I wanted to figure out what was happening to them. My fiancé saw it pulled up on my laptop and called him without me knowing. It was just a stupid misunderstanding.”

Detective Thomas nods in my direction. He doesn’t believe me, I can


“Is that all?” I ask, irritation dripping from my tongue.

“No, that’s not all,” he says. “We also discovered that this isn’t the

first time this has happened with you. It sounds eerily familiar, actually. The stalking, the conspiracy theories. Even the restraining order. Does the name Ethan Walker ring a bell?”

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