THE PLOT THICKENS
From "The Man Next Door" by Mary Higgins Clark
The man next door had known for weeks that it was time to invite another guest to the secret place, the space he had fashioned out of the utility room in the basement. It had been six months since Tiffany, the last one. She had lasted twenty days, longer than most of the others.
He had tried to put Bree Matthews out of his mind. It didn't make sense to invite her, he knew that. Every morning as he followed his routine, washing the windows, polishing the furniture, vacuuming the carpets, sweeping and washing the walk from the steps to the sidewalk, he reminded himself that it was dangerous to choose a next-door neighbor. Much too dangerous.
But he couldn't help it. Bree Matthews was never out of his mind for an instant. Ever since the day she had rung his bell and he had invited her in, he had known. That was when his growing need to have her with him became uncontrollable. She had stood in his foyer, dressed in a loose sweater and jeans, her arms folded, one high-arched foot unconsciously tapping the polished floor as she told him that the leak in her adjoining town house was originating from his roof.
"When I bought this place I never thought I'd have so much trouble," she had snapped. "The contractor could have redone Buckingham Palace for what I paid him to renovate, but whenever it rains hard, you'd think I lived under Niagara Falls. Anyway, he insists that whoever did your work caused the problem."
Her anger had thrilled him. She was beautiful, in a bold, Celtic way, with midnight blue eyes, fair skin, and blue-black hair. And beneath that she had a slim athlete's body. He guessed her to be in her late twenties, older than the women he usually favored, but still so very appealing.
He had known that even though it was a warm spring afternoon, there was no excuse for the way perspiration began to pour from him as he stood a few inches from her. He wanted so much to reach out and touch her, to push the door closed, to lock her in.
He had blushed and stammered as he explained that there was absolutely no possibility that the leak was coming from his roof, that he'd done all the repairs himself. He suggested she call another contractor for an opinion.
He had almost explained that he had worked for a builder for fifteen years and knew that the guy she had hired was doing a shoddy job, but he managed to stop himself. He didn't want to admit that he had any interest in her or her home, didn't want her to know that he had even noticed, didn't want to give anything about himself away....
A few days later she came up the street as he was outside planting impatiens along the driveway, and stopped to apologize. Following his advice, she had called in a different contractor who confirmed what she had suspected: the first one had done a sloppy job. "He'll hear from me in court," she vowed. "I've had a summons issued for him."
Then, emboldened by her friendliness, he did something foolish. As he stood with her, he was facing their semidetached town houses and once again noticed the lopsided venetian blind on her front window, the one nearest his place. Every time he saw it, it drove him crazy. The vertical blinds on his front windows and those on hers lined up perfectly, which made the sight of that lopsided one bother him as much as hearing a fingernail screech across a blackboard.
So he offered to fix it for her. She turned and looked at the offending blind as if she had never seen it before, then she replied, "Thanks, but why bother? The decorator has window treatments ready to put in as soon as the damage caused by the leaks is repaired. It'll get fixed then."
"Then, " of course, could be months from now, but still he was glad she had said no. He had definitely decided to invite her to be his next guest, and when she disappeared there would be questions. The police would ring his bell, make inquiries. "Mr. Mensch, did you see Miss Matthews leave with anyone?" they would ask. "Did you notice anyone visiting her lately? How friendly were you with her?"
He could answer truthfully: "We only spoke casually on the street if we ran into each other. She has a young man she seems to be dating. I've exchanged a few words with him from time to time. Tall, brown hair, about thirty or so. Believe he said his name is Carter. Kevin Carter."
The police would probably already know about Carter. When Matthews disappeared they would talk to her close friends first.
He had never even been questioned about Tiffany. There had been no connection between them, no reason for anyone to ask. Occasionally they ran into each other at museums -- he had found several of his young women in museums. The third or fourth time they met he made it a point to ask Tiffany her impression of a painting she was looking at.
He had liked her instantly. Beautiful Tiffany, so appealing, so intelligent. She believed that because he claimed to share her enthusiasm for Gustav Klimt, he was a kindred spirit, a man to be trusted. She had been grateful for his offer of a ride back to Georgetown on a rainy day. He had picked her up as she was walking to the Metro.
She had scarcely felt the prick of the needle that knocked her out. She slumped at his feet in the car, and he drove her back to his place. Matthews was just leaving her house as he pulled into the driveway; he even nodded to her as he clicked the garage door opener. At that time he had no idea that Matthews would be next, of course.
Copyright© 1997 by Pocket Books