4th day | excerpt chapter 4
As Ben parks his car in the driveway, he finds his wife busy with her rose bushes in the front yard. He tries to figure out why this image irritates him, maybe because it is such a trivial activity, or because on TV they always show some silly woman being busy in her garden. Anyhow, it’s dumb because we have a gardener. Let him do it.
“Are you already home, I wasn’t expecting you until the day after tomorrow!” says Carlita in surprise, she had been so focused on pruning that she hadn’t heard the car drive up. Her dark curls are wet with sweat and she quickly pulls them up into a bun on the top of her head.
Your hair looks ridiculous. But instead of saying that, Ben conjures a charming smile on his face, “I just missed you too much”.
“But tell me honestly, why did you come back so soon? Wasn’t it fun?” asks Carlita as she takes her husband inside to make him coffee.
‘Fun’, what does ‘fun’ have to do with it? Ben throws his bags in the hallway. “Yes, I had a good time, but we got done what we needed to get done, so I didn’t think it was useful to stay any longer and waste unnecessary time.”
“And how about the ceremony, did it go well?”
Ben ignores Carlita’s question. “I’d rather have an espresso,” he says gruffly, pushing away the cafe latte that Carlita always makes for him. “Sorry, honey, I didn’t mean to snap at you, I’m just tired from the trip.”
Carlita knows that ‘I’m tired’ means ‘don’t talk to me anymore’. So she silently hands him another cup of coffee and drinks the cafe latte herself. They sit across from each other for at least half an hour without a word. Ben sits with his eyes closed enjoying his espresso.
I still can’t get over how much Ben has changed, Carlita thinks as she studies him. Old Ben would be too impatient to sit dead still without talking, or he would hastily take a few sips before resuming some activity. Old Ben enjoyed gardening, new Ben hired a gardener. “Rebirth”, he calls it.
As Carlita gets up to take a shower, the doorbell rings. She peeks through the window and sees the female detective with the blond curls standing there, this time not with the beautiful Latina, but with a young man with fierce dark hair. Wasn’t her name Demi? She has already seen Carlita, so she can no longer pretend they are not home. Demi waves enthusiastically and the young man looks around curiously. Ben remains motionless, it all seems to pass him by. Perhaps he has fallen into meditation, Carlita thinks as she walks past his chair to open the front door.
“I was just showing my colleague around and I thought I would say hello if you were home. I hope we are not disturbing you, since we have made a habit of showing up at your doorstep unannounced?” Demi points to Aron. “Sadly Detective Rodriguez couldn’t come, but this is Aron Sanchez, our detective with IT skills.”
Carlita shakes Aron’s hand and feels uncomfortable under his piercing gaze. “Uh, well, Ben just got home from his trip and he’s kind of tired,” she says apologetically.
But Ben has awakened from his meditation and enters the hallway. “Who have we here then?” Ben already knows that these people are detectives, he figures he might as well invite them in. It will be interesting to know how the Palomino PD is progressing in the case of the missing girl, and if they’ve already figured out who the dead women are. “Do come in! Since you’ve taken the trouble to explore our neighborhood, the least we can do is offer you a drink, right, honey?” Ben says cheerfully to Carlita, giving her a kiss on the head.
Carlita forces an equally cheerful tone. “Of course! How rude of me to even suggest that it wouldn’t be convenient?” Carlita steps back to let them pass and glances eagerly at Demi, “shall we sit in the garden, since you enjoyed my roses so much the first time we met?” Now that they’re invited in, she’s not going to miss the opportunity to show off her hard work. The newly planted shrubs, the potted young lavender and her pruned climbing rose look picture perfect. Since Ben has failed to give her any praise, she pins her hopes on the visitors.
While the two young detectives follow Carlita to the back yard, Ben hurries to the kitchen to get some drinks and prepares a light meal. Carlita has to laugh to herself, he can be very hospitable when he wants to be. Though she wonders why he decided to put his best foot forward with the police, no less.
At the far end of the large garden stands a gazebo with a lounge set and a rocking bench. Before, Demi had imagined the Meisters swinging together in the moonlight, drinking wine and looking out over the lake. It had seemed so romantic, but now that she has met Ben, the pretty picture is in tatters. She thinks back to the porn magazines she found in his desk drawer. ‘Spiritually awakened’ is how Carlita described Ben. Hm, it seems to Demi that something dark might have awakened in Carlita’s hubby.
After Carlita has shown them around in the garden, Aron plops down on one of the lounge couches and looks around appreciatively. “This is how I want to live when I grow up, if I can ever afford a place like this.”
Demi sits down next to him and takes a cocktail from Ben.
“There is no alcohol in it,” Ben says reassuringly. He has managed to prepare tapas in the fifteen minutes they’ve been there. Demi looks at the food on the table and realizes that she hasn’t eaten anything all day. This guy can do magic, Demi thinks, mouthwatering.
“Go ahead, grab whatever you are hungry for,” Ben says jovially.
Is there really no alcohol in this delicious cocktail? Demi giggles inwardly as she glances sideways at her colleague. Yes, he’s definitely her type, she decides in that instant. Does Aron seem a little woozy now? He grins big at one of Ben’s jokes. Not at all like Aron, who is usually reserved and skeptical around people he doesn’t know.
“Tell me, detective Sanchez, do you really like this secluded part of Palomino? You seem more the type for a hyper-modern city apartment. But I could be wrong?” Carlita asks curiously.
“Hm, uhuh,” says Aron. “Actually, I share an apartment with fellow alumni and it suits me fine. But once I settle down with a family and a dog, I can definitely see myself living here.”
Truly bizarre, Aron being so open about personal things, Demi determines to herself. But she likes the picture he paints, and in her mind she puts herself in it. She sees herself walking the dog while Aron makes breakfast in the large kitchen of their mansion before he goes to work. She has to call herself back to earth because Ben is talking to them.
“Have you made any progress on the case, detectives?” interjects Ben. He wants to keep the conversation relaxed, but at the same time he’s too impatient to make small talk for too long. Carlita has already spent like half an hour showing off her garden work, and it seems that their guests are already getting sleepy. Before they doze off, Ben wants to know a few things.
“Well, that is a good question, Ben,” Aron says. “This case has proven to be complex, we are looking at a myriad of clues and trying to connect those dots but we cannot disclose the specifics, I am sure you understand.”
Ben ignores Aron’s hint. “Carlita told me that two bodies were found, do you think they are related to the missing girl? I think I can safely ask that question, because the whole world is speculating.”
“That is true,” Demi says, “there’s no denying that the story has exploded on social media. Our medical examiner is working on the women’s bodies, and there is certainly something interesting that could indicate that these murders are related to Soleil’s case.”
Oh hey Demi, don’t talk too much! Aron subtly touches her knee with his, but she doesn’t pick up on the hint.
“Rest assured that we are investigating the correlation, but Soleil Copley’s disappearance is still top priority when it comes to our time and energy,” Demi continues.
Oh God, Aron can’t think of anything to interrupt Demi’s waterfall of words. He could ask Ben if he can have a glass of water so he can give her a warning glance, but something seems to be squeezing his throat. What the heck, is it because this Ben dude is overly confident and intimidating, or did I drink those cocktails too fast? But hey, there was no alcohol in them, right?
“Say, Carlita, I saw you and Zoe Smithe together behind the cordon as we prepared the bodies for transport to the morgue. I didn’t know you knew each other?” asks Demi.
“Mrs. Smithe doesn’t live far from here, as you know, because she told me she had to testify. We have met a few times during community activities and I ran into her by chance.”
Demi notices that Carlita is lying because she looks nervously at Ben, seeking his approval.
“Mrs. Smithe is a wicked lady,” Ben says bluntly. “I have warned Carlita often enough about that meddlesome woman and her arrogant husband.”
Demi wants to know why Ben feels that way, but he is already distracted, busy refilling their glasses while Carlita starts a conversation about his paintings.
“Remember that your colleague liked Ben’s paintings so much? Last night I went to the basement to choose some other pieces he’s done and I put them up in the guest room. Please do us a favor and take a look?”
Carlita is already making a move to get up, so Demi feels she can’t refuse. And she’s curious to see Ben’s other works, too, because art provides a window into its creator’s inner world. But after a sip from her second drink, her legs feel heavy. Why does she suddenly feel so tired? Aron next to her seems to be frozen as well.
Ben looks at her questioningly. “What is the matter detective? Please don’t insult me, I am shamelessly proud of my works. Carlita told me that you also paint, isn’t it immensely fascinating that we share the same passion?” Ben calls out overly upbeat.
Aron has managed to stand up, and Demi tries to do the same by holding onto Aron’s arm. “So sorry, but I skipped breakfast and I realize now that I waited too long. I am all dizzy and a little heavy in the legs,” she says apologetically.
Aron does not feel steadfast either, but damned if he admits it. He no longer doubts that Ben has tampered with their drinks. “Demi, you were already lightheaded when we walked here, I am getting used to you clinging to my arm,” he says jokingly, not begrudging Ben the satisfaction.
Demi is still holding on to Aron as they climb the stairs, and he secretly finds it cute. The guest room appears to be a huge suite, with fancy drapes and a pompous cube divan bed.
When Ben follows lastly, he notices that Aron and Demi went up the stairs first, and yet she somehow steered Aron in the right direction. How could she have known where the guest room was? The second floor has a number of rooms, including a hobby room for Carlita, his own office, the laundry room, a separate walk-in closet and two bathrooms. Had Carlita shown them around the house on their first visit? But that would be odd because they never let strangers upstairs, except on rare occasions when Carlita hasn’t had time to clean the bathroom downstairs. Ben will have to check with his wife later, blondie might have been snooping around, and he thinks about the broken lock on one of his desk drawers.
Ben’s paintings hang on flower-papered walls; there are two small portraits and a large winter landscape. They are much different from the pieces in the living room, but Ben’s style is still evident. Aron falls silent, he is not an art expert, but he has a hard time reconciling the creepy guy with the delicate expression that even he can recognize in these works. The two portraits are of the same lady; one painting shows her in her younger years, and in the other she appears to be in her thirties. The woman in question gazes at Aron mysteriously, reminding him of the Mona Lisa. To the right of the portraits is a large canvas on which a winter landscape has been painted in broad brushstrokes; a large full moon illuminates two snow-capped mountain peaks. It has a captivating yet threatening quality.
Demi sits down on the homemade bedspread next to Carlita, who absently straightens the quilt and stares at the portraits.
“Who is that lady, is it an ancestor perhaps?” asks Demi.
Ben seems lost in thought himself and says languidly; “Um, well, I called her Lisa on a hunch because I don’t really know her. Her face appeared to me during meditation practice, shortly after my awakening. And she came to me once in a dream, in which she was older than the first time. She was dressed in old-fashioned clothes and she looked at me sternly, as if she wanted to warn me about something or someone. I wish I knew what she was trying to tell me, but I never saw her again. My mystical abilities are still developing,” Ben says somewhat theatrically. “But the experience was so intense that I felt the urge to paint her.”
“I can see why you call her Lisa, she gives off that Mona Lisa feel.”
Ben bows in gratitude. “Thank you, that is a most generous compliment.”
Pompous ass, Aron thinks. “And what about the moon and the mountains? It is eerie, and so different from the other works you’ve got downstairs.”
“It is the harvest moon that I witnessed during a weekend at Ranger Peak, I also had an uncanny experience at that time, but I don’t want to say too much about it because it’s personal. And quite frankly,” Ben says with a somewhat sadistic smile on his face, “if I told you, you would run out of the house in utter fear.”
Aron looks at Ben in disbelief. What is he getting at? He doesn’t want to tell them what he went through at Ranger Peak, and yet he’s implying that they wouldn’t be able to handle the story because it was obviously something sinister?
Carlita is clearly uncomfortable and tries to salvage the situation. “Let’s go downstairs, there’s still food on the table.”
She doesn’t want to go there, no matter how proud she is of Ben’s work, Demi thinks. Might as well, I’m calling it a day. Rosie’s waiting so we’ve got to get back to the office. She wants to signal to Aron that she’s not feeling well, but he doesn’t see it.
Once back in the garden, Demi tries to settle back next to Aron on the garden bench, but after the cool guest room, the hot sun overwhelms her and she slumps through her legs in front of Aron’s feet.
“Oh my God,” Carlita cries. “What is wrong? Oh, Ben, she’s got a sunstroke. Get a cold washcloth, quick!”
Aron is startled, he wants to help Demi up, but he feels as weak as water himself. He tries to bend over to her, but he can’t. Jesus, what was in those drinks? Were they poisoned? His T-shirt is soaked with cold sweat. He tries to get his phone out of his pocket but his arms are too heavy. Helplessly he tries to make eye contact with Carlita, but Ben and Carlita have already turned their backs, maybe they are getting help? Minutes seem like hours and Aron fights the sleep that is coming over him, he has to think! His foggy brain struggles to reconstruct and analyze the events of a moment ago; what had they been talking about, nothing special, right? Why would Ben risk poisoning two detectives? Okay, so maybe poisoning is a little strong, it must have been sleeping pills in those cocktails. He manages to turn his head just enough to see Demi, is she unconscious, or is it worse? His eyes are blurry, and the sun is weaving diamonds in Demi’s hair. He hears a dog barking loudly in the garden of the neighboring villa before he dozes off.
Inside, Ben and Carlita stand hunched over the old-fashioned telephone in the hallway. “Time to inform the Chief, one of his detectives has been too nosy,” Ben says and dials the number. “Let him fetch his disobedient sheep, he must deal with them.”