Something very bad
'Tom sits on the edge of the bed, quietly unraveling. His heart is beating too fast. Something is wrong.' Our summer fiction series continues with an excerpt from Shari Lapena's new book, A Stranger in the House
On this hot August night, Tom Krupp parks his car – a leased Lexus – in the driveway of his handsome two-storey home. The house, complete with a two-car garage, is set behind a generous lawn and framed with beautiful old trees. To the right of the driveway, a flagstone path crosses in front of the porch, with steps leading up to a solid wooden door in the middle of the house. To the right of the front door is a large picture window the width of the living room.
The house sits on a gently curving street that ends in a cul-de-sac. The surrounding houses are all equally attractive and well maintained, and relatively similar. People who live here are successful and settled; everyone's a little bit smug.
This quiet, prosperous suburb in upstate New York, populated with mostly professional couples and their families, seems oblivious to the problems of the small city that surrounds it, oblivious to the problems of the larger world, as if the American dream has continued to live on here, smooth and unruffled.
But the untroubled setting does not match Tom's current state of mind. He cuts the lights and the engine and sits uneasily for a moment in the dark, despising himself.
Then, with a start, he notices that his wife's car is not in its usual place in the driveway. He automatically checks his watch: 9:20. He wonders if he's forgotten something. Was she going out? He can't remember her mentioning anything, but he's been so busy lately. Maybe she just went out to run an errand and will be back any minute. She's left the lights on; they give the house a welcoming glow.
He gets out of the car into the summer night – it smells of freshly mown grass – swallowing his disappointment. He wanted, rather fervently, to see his wife. He stands for a moment, his hand on the roof of the car, and looks across the street. Then he grabs his briefcase and suit jacket from the passenger seat and tiredly closes the car door. He walks along the path, up the front steps, and opens the door. Something is wrong. He holds his breath.
Tom stands completely still in the doorway, his hand resting on the knob. At first he doesn't know what's bothering him. Then he realizes what it is. The door wasn't locked. That in itself isn't unusual – most nights he comes home and opens the door and walks right in, because most nights Karen's home, waiting for him. But she's gone out with her car and forgotten to lock the door. That's very odd for his wife, who's a stickler about locking the doors. He slowly lets out his breath. Maybe she was in a rush and forgot.
His eyes quickly take in the living room, a serene rectangle of pale gray and white. It's perfectly quiet; there's obviously no one home. She left the lights on, so she must not have gone out for long. Maybe she went to get some milk. There will probably be a note for him. He tosses his keys onto the small table by the front door and heads straight for the kitchen at the back of the house. He's starving. He wonders if she's already eaten or whether she's been waiting for him.
It's obvious that she's been preparing their supper. A salad is almost finished; she has stopped slicing mid-tomato. He looks at the wooden cutting board, at the tomato and the sharp knife lying beside it. There's pasta on the granite counter, ready to be cooked, a large pot of water on the stainless steel gas stove. The stove is off and the water in the pot is cold; he dips a finger in to check. He scans the refrigerator door for a note – there's nothing written on the whiteboard for him. He frowns. He pulls his cell phone out of his pants pocket and checks to see if there's any message from her that he might have missed. Nothing. Now he's mildly annoyed. She might have told him.
Tom opens the door to the refrigerator and stands there for a minute, staring sightlessly at its contents, then grabs an imported beer and decides to start the pasta. He's sure she'll be home any minute. He looks around curiously to see what they might have run out of. They have milk, bread, pasta sauce, wine, parmesan cheese. He checks the bathroom – there's plenty of toilet paper. He can't think of anything else that might be urgent. While he waits for the water to come to a boil, he calls her cell, but she doesn't pick up.
Fifteen minutes later, the pasta is ready, but there is no sign of his wife. Tom leaves the pasta in the strainer in the sink, turns off the burner under the pot of tomato sauce, and wanders restlessly into the living room, his hunger forgotten. He looks out the large picture window across the lawn to the street beyond. Where the hell is she? He's starting to get anxious now. He calls her cell again and hears a faint vibration coming from behind him. He whips his head toward the sound and sees her cell phone, vibrating against the back of the sofa. Shit. She forgot her phone. How can he reach her now?
He starts looking around the house for clues as to where she might have gone. Upstairs, in their bedroom, he's surprised to find her bag sitting on her bedside table. He opens it with clumsy fingers, faintly guilty about going through his wife's purse. It feels private. But this is an emergency. He dumps the contents onto the middle of their neatly made bed. Her wallet is there, her change purse, lipstick, pen, a tissue packet – it's all there. Not an errand then. Maybe she stepped out to help a friend? An emergency of some kind? Still, she would have taken her purse with her if she was driving the car. And wouldn't she have called him by now if she could? She could borrow someone else's phone. It's not like her to be thoughtless.
Tom sits on the edge of the bed, quietly unraveling. His heart is beating too fast. Something is wrong. He thinks that maybe he should call the police. He considers how that might go. My wife went out and I don't know where she is. She left without her phone and her purse. She forgot to lock the door. It's completely unlike her. They probably won't take him seriously if she's been gone such a short time. He hasn't seen any sign of a struggle. Nothing is out of place.
Suddenly he gets up off the bed and rapidly searches the entire house. But he finds nothing alarming – no phone knocked off the hook, no broken window, no smear of blood on the floor. Even so, he's breathing as anxiously as if he had.
He hesitates. Perhaps the police will think they've had an argument. It won't matter if he tells them there was no argument, if he tells them they almost never argue. That theirs is an almost perfect marriage.
Instead of calling the police, he runs back into the kitchen, where Karen keeps a list of phone numbers, and starts calling her friends.
Looking at the wreckage in front of him, Officer Kirton shakes his head in resignation. People and cars. He's seen things to make his stomach empty itself on the spot. It wasn't that bad this time.
There'd been no identification on the crash victim, a woman, probably early thirties. No purse, no wallet. But the vehicle registration and insurance had been in the glove compartment. The car is registered to a Karen Krupp, at 24 Dogwood Drive. She'll have some explaining to do. And some charges to face. For now, she's been taken by ambulance to the nearest hospital.
As far as he can figure, and according to witnesses, she was traveling like a bat out of hell. She ran a red light and smashed the red Honda Civic right into a pole. It's a miracle no one else was hurt.
She was probably high, Kirton thinks. They would get a tox screen on her.
He wonders if the car was stolen. Easy enough to find out.
Thing was, she didn't look like a car thief or a druggie. She looked like a housewife. As far as he could tell through all that blood.
Tom Krupp has called the people he knows Karen sees most often. If they don't know where she might be, then he isn't waiting any longer. He's calling the police.
His hand trembles as he picks up the phone again. He feels sick with fear.
A voice comes on the line, "911. Where's your emergency?"
As soon as he opens the door and sees the cop on his doorstep, his face serious, Tom knows something very bad has happened. He is filled with a nauseating dread.
"I'm Officer Fleming," the cop says, showing his badge. "May I come in?" he asks respectfully, in a low voice.
"You got here fast," Tom says. "I just called 911 a few minutes ago." He feels as if he might be going into shock.
"I'm not here because of a 911 call," the officer says.
Tom leads him into the living room and collapses onto the large white sofa as if his legs have given out, not looking at the officer's face. He wants to delay the moment of truth for as long as possible.
But that moment has come. He finds that he can hardly breathe.
"Put your head down," Officer Fleming says, and places his hand gently on Tom's shoulder.
Tom leans his head toward his lap, feeling like he's going to pass out. He fears that his world is coming to an end. After a moment he looks up. He has no idea what's coming next, but he knows it can't be good.
Excerpted from A Stranger in the House by Shari Lapena. Copyright ©2017 1742145 Ontario Limited. Published by Doubleday Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.
Q&A with Shari Lapena
Your last novel, The Couple Next Door, began with a missing baby. A Stranger in the House features a missing wife, although it seems she quickly turns up dead. What's with you and vanishing people?
Vanishing people are always good fodder for thrillers. However, the missing wife does not in this case turn up dead – in fact, she is very much alive. But matters take a turn for the worse when the police show up at their doorstep with questions about a murder.
The Couple Next Door was your first stab – no pun intended – at writing a thriller. Now, you've written a second. What appeals to you, as a writer, about the genre?
Writing a thriller is always a rather exciting experiment. You have to keep so many balls in the air at once. It's a challenge to write a story that keeps readers on the edge of their seats. It's also very gratifying when they tell me they couldn't put it down.
This excerpt ends with Tom on the verge of learning some very bad news. Give us a hint as to what comes next.
Okay, I can give you a small spoiler … the bad news he's expecting is that his wife has been killed in the car accident. In fact, she survives the accident, but Tom knows that something is definitely wrong when he goes to visit her in the hospital. She can't explain what she's been up to, and Tom starts to wonder just how well he knows his wife. Things get progressively more mysterious – and creepy – from there.