Phil Kramer walked down the sidewalk under the big trees toward his car. It was quiet on this street, and the lights in the houses were almost all off. There was a strong, sweet scent of flowering vines that opened their blooms late on hot summer nights like this one—wisteria, he supposed, or some kind of jasmine. There was no way to limit it because there wasn’t anything that wouldn’t grow in Southern California. He supposed his senses were attuned to everything tonight. He had trained himself over the past twenty-five years to be intensely aware of his surroundings, particularly when he was alone at night. He knew there was a cat watching him from the safety of the porch railing to his right, and he knew there was a man walking along the sidewalk a half block behind him. He had seen him as he had turned the corner—not quite as tall as he was, but well built, and wearing a jacket on a night that was too warm for one. He could hear the footsteps just above the level of the cars swishing past on the boulevard.
He supposed the man could be the final attempt to make him feel uncomfortable—not a foolish attempt to scare him, but a way to remind him that he could be watched and followed and studied as easily as anyone else could. He could be fully known, and therefore vulnerable. The man might also be out walking for some reason that was completely unrelated to Phil Kramer’s business.
Phil approached the spot where his car was parked—too near now to be stopped—and the man no longer mattered. He pressed the button on his key chain to unlock the locks, and the dome light came on. He swung the door open and sat in the driver’s seat, then reached for the door to close it.
In the calm, warm night air he caught a sliding sound, with a faint squeak, and turned his head to find it. In one glance, he knew his mistake in all of its intricacies: He took in the van parked across the street from his car, the half-open window with the gun resting on it, and the bright muzzle-flash.
The bullet pounded into his skull, and the impact lit a thousand thoughts in an instant, burning and exploding them into nonbeing as synapses rapid-fired and went out. There was his brother Dan; a random instant in a baseball game, seeing the ground ball bounce up at his feet, feeling the sting in his palm as it smacked into his glove, even a flash of the white flannel of his uniform with tan dust; the pride and fear when he first saw his son; a composite, unbearably pleasant sensation of the women he had touched, amounting to a distilled impression of femaleness. Profound regret. Emily.
Emily Kramer awoke at five thirty, as she had for twenty-two years of mornings. The sun barely tinted the room a feeble blue, but Emily’s chest already held a sense of alarm, and she couldn’t expand her lungs in a full breath. She rolled to her left side to see, aware before she did it that the space was empty. It was a space that belonged to something, the big body of her husband, Phil. He was supposed to be there.
She sat up quickly, threw back the covers and swung her legs off the bed. She looked around the room noting other absences: his wallet and keys, his shoes, and the pants he always draped across the chair in the corner when he came to bed. He had not come to bed. That was why she had slept so soundly. She always woke up when he came in, but she had slept through the night.
Emily had the sense that she was already behind, already late. Something had happened, and in each second, events were galloping on ahead of her, maybe moving out of reach. She hurried out of the bedroom along the hall to the top of the stairs and listened. There was no human sound, no noise to reassure her.
Emily knew her house so well that she could hear its emptiness. Phil’s presence would have brought sound, would have changed the volume of the space and dampened the bright, sharp echoes. She went down the stairs as quickly as she could, trusting her bare feet to grip the steps. She ran through the living room to the dining room to the kitchen, looking for a sign.
She pulled open the back door, stepped to the garage, and peered in the window. Her white Volvo station wagon was gleaming in the dim light, but Phil’s car was gone. No, it wasn’t gone. It had never come back at all.
Emily turned, went back into the kitchen, and picked up the telephone. She dialed Phil’s cell phone. A cool, distant voice said, "The customer you have called is not in the service area at this time." That usually meant Phil had turned the phone off. She looked at the clock on the wall above the table.
It was too early to call anyone. Even as she was thinking that, she punched in the one number she knew by heart. It rang once, twice, three times, four times. His voice came on: "This is Ray Hall. Leave a message if you want." He must be sleeping, she thought. Of course he was sleeping. Every sane person on the planet was sleeping. She hoped she hadn’t awakened him. She stood with the phone in her hand, feeling relieved that he didn’t know who had been stupid enough to call at five thirty in the morning.
But that feeling reversed itself instantly. She wasn’t glad she hadn’t awakened him. She wasn’t in the mood to think about why she cared what Ray Hall thought. She knew only that she shouldn’t care, so she punched his phone number again. She waited through his message, then said, "Ray, this is Emily Kramer. Phil didn’t come home last night. It’s five thirty. If you could give me a call, I’d appreciate it." She hesitated, waiting for him to pick up the telephone, then realized she had nothing else to say. "Thanks." She hung up.
While she had been speaking, several new thoughts had occurred to her. She set the phone down on the counter and walked through the house again. She had no reason to think Phil would kill himself, but no reason to imagine he was immune to depression and disappointment, either. And bad things happened to people without their talking about it—especially people like Phil.
Emily walked cautiously through the living room again. She looked at the polished cherry table near the front door under the mirror, where they sometimes left notes for each other. She forced herself to walk into the downstairs guest bathroom and look in the tub. There was no body. She reminded herself she shouldn’t be looking for his body. A man who carried a gun would shoot himself, and she had heard nothing. If he did kill himself, she was sure he would have left a note. She kept moving, into the small office where Phil paid bills and Emily made lists or used the computer, into the den, where they sat and watched television.
There was no note. She knew she had not missed it because she knew what the note would look like. It would be propped up vertically with a book or something, with em printed in big letters. For formal occasions like birthdays or anniversaries, he always used an envelope. Suicide would be one of the times for an envelope.
She walked back to the telephone and called the office. Phil’s office line was an afterthought, but she knew she should have tried earlier. The telephone rang four times, and then clicked into voice mail. She recognized the soft, velvety voice of April Dougherty. It was an artificial phone voice, and Emily didn’t like it. "You have reached the headquarters of Kramer Investigations. I’m sorry that there is no one able to take your call at the moment. For personal service, please call between the hours of nine a.m. and six p.m. weekdays. You may leave a message after the to...