Michael Dawson stood before the imposing front entrance to the Holy Name Catholic Church at the corner of Weston and Ford in Salem’s upper west side. He looked up at the frontage, copied unashamedly from that of the Cathédrale de Nôtre Dame in Paris, and sighed. The cold wind blowing down Weston sent a shiver through his body, and he rubbed the fronts of his shoes down the back of his trouser legs like some kid standing outside the Principal’s office at elementary school. He took a deep breath, turned the huge ornate door latch, and stepped inside.
It was cold – these places always were – he could just imagine the heating bill. Stepping beyond the entrance porch and into the church itself, he looked up automatically as the ceiling towered above him; he couldn’t remember the last time he’d attended Mass, and the entire place seemed to scream ‘Sinner!’ at him.
The confessional booth was occupied – he could tell by the closed curtain. Apart from an old woman cleaning at the other side of the aisles he was alone, and took a seat in a pew a few yards away from the place of his confession.
Michael Dawson was forty-eight years old and had been married for twenty-five of those. He stood six feet one and weighed a hundred and seventy-five. Prematurely graying hair gave him an enhanced air of authority at the First Commercial Bank, and his position of VP Finance ensured that no-one at the office questioned either his actions or motives in driving the business forward. He was a man whose self-assuredness had served him well throughout his career…until now. A chance meeting during a business trip had changed all of that, and desperation had now forced him back into the shell of the mother church – he was in need of absolution. He was shaken from his reverie by the sudden opening of the booth curtain as its previous occupant departed, somewhat quickly, in the opposite direction to where he was seated.
“Forgive me Father, for I have sinned.” He uttered the mantra quietly, having closed the curtain, sat down, and crossed himself – at least he hadn’t forgotten how to do that!
“And what is it that brings you here, Michael, after all this time?” The priest replied.
Dawson started. Conor Fitzgerald had been the incumbent at The Holy Name for more years than anyone could recall, but it startled him that the priest recognized his voice. The Father’s accent bore the gentle burr of a resident of Tipperary, and his years in the States had done nothing to harden the soft tone of his native Irish county.
“It’s been a long time since my last confession…”
“Five years it is.” Fitzgerald’s voice bore no reproach, but Dawson stiffened in his seat as they struck home.
“If you say so, Father.” He paused, trying to reassemble his thoughts after the interruption. His mind had gone blank, and he blurted out the first thing which popped into it. “I’m guilty of pride. I’ve let what people at work say affect my ego.”
Fitzgerald, partly hidden by the screen, paused for a moment. He nodded and smiled sadly to himself. They rarely told what was really bothering them the first time out, and he was always inclined to cut a break knowing that the truth would surface in the end. He shook his head and sighed.
“Say three ‘Hail Mary’s’ and sin no more.” There was another pause. “Is there anything else, Michael?”
There was a momentary silence, and time, for the two of them, seemed to pass at different rates as Dawson fought to come to terms with the lie which he had just told – that would require a further confession…at some point.
“No, Father.” He stood up. “Thank you for…you know.” Michael hadn’t seen the parcel until that very moment when his foot brushed against something on the floor. He picked it up, automatically, and thrust it into the pocket of his coat. Turning off the street, he entered the gloom of a nondescript bar.
“I do, my son.” Fitzgerald replied to the now empty booth.
Back outside, Dawson turned up the collar of his Burberry against the cold wind, thrust his hands into its deep pockets, and started off down the street towards the underground. He needed to think, and a call to his secretary ensured that he would be allowed that time for the rest of the day. His fingers closed around the parcel in his right hand pocket, and he frowned at the thought of what he now believed it to contain. Turning into the first bar he came across, he walked slowly into the room.
“What’ll it be?” The bar tender smiled as he tossed the towel across a broad shoulder.
“Scotch rocks.” Dawson stared blankly at him.
“Comin’ right up.” He shook his head as the greeting failed to illicit a friendly response.
The new customer tossed the drink down in one, and replaced the glass noisily on the bar. “Again.”
With the glass refilled, any further attempt at conversation was stifled as Dawson took the glass, turned away from the bar, and retreated to a corner table. Michael downed half the second drink in one go, wincing as the alcohol once more made its way down his gullet, burning a route to his stomach. Glancing around for prying eyes, he carefully removed the parcel and unfolded it. A sharp intake of breath went unheard outside the confines of his corner - Dawson stared in amazement at the gun now in his hand and concealed beneath the table top.
Even in the semi-darkness of the bar room it gleamed. He turned it over and squinted through the gloom. He was no expert, but there did not appear to be any identification marks upon it. He ran his fingers along it…there were no raised surfaces which would have hinted at a serial number. It was untraceable – just the thing which he needed. He replaced it in its wrapping and stuffed it back into the pocket of his Burberry. Downing the rest of the scotch, he narrowed his eyes at the thought of what he now knew had to be done.
“So long.” The barman called to the retreating figure leaving the bar. “Asshole!” He cursed as the door slammed behind Michael Dawson.
Michael Dawson’s problems would indeed require a solution of significant proportions. As VP Finance at the bank, he was one of a small circle of trusted employees running the investment arm of the corporate portfolio. Along with Dexter Taylor and Duane Perkins he had expanded that side of the business in the wake of what became known as the Sub Prime market. A series of questionable, but highly profitable, deals with some shady Middle Eastern faces had seen all three of them on the verge of a vast amount of wealth. That potential expanded exponentially with the accidental deaths of the other two in an airplane crash some months earlier – Dawson had been the only one with unhindered access to the funds which they had concealed in a numbered account in the Bahamas. That was before he met Cindy.
“Come on, honey.” She had cooed in his ear as they danced their inebriated way around the floor at the bank’s Christmas party. “Who’s gonna know?”
Pressed up against each other in a throng of bodies, they had managed to remain upright, but his sobriety, severely challenged up to that point, now regained a modicum of sensibility as her words struck home. She was right, though – his was not the only party being hosted that evening.
“Hmm?” Was all that he could articulate, despite his thoughts beginning to clear. Without the restraining influence of his wife, Dawson had imbibed quite freely.
“No-one’s gonna split on you.” She pulled him even closer. “Anyway, who knows you here?”
Dawson had to agree. As sole representative of the Salem branch at the event, nothing that he did there on that evening could compromise him, either professionally or personally. Marlene, his wife, steadfastly refused to attend these functions, choosing to remain firmly entrenched at home. Their marriage was the epitome of ordinariness and she trusted him. Cindy, however, was something else and her entire being screamed out to him in a way that Marlene could never have understood.
“You mean?” He asked, his befuddled brain clearing further.
“Sure do, honey.” She eyed the exit, winking as her fingers entwined his and the two of them headed for the hotel reception desk.
Michael awoke sometime during the early morning and stumbled to the bathroom. Cindy lay breathing gently, completely undisturbed by his foray. He leaned against the sink and looked at himself in the mirror. A nauseating feeling of guilt suddenly swept through him as his thoughts swept back to his wife at home. How could he have done this to her? The sound of Cindy turning in bed snapped him back to reality. He looked back at the mirror.
“What have I done?” he asked the reflection staring at him, as if he expected some platitude from his alter ego.
Fear then seized him. My God! Had he said anything to Cindy about the offshore account? Dawson trawled his memory for some clue to what he might have revealed in his inebriated state of mind. The sexual act would not have passed without some form of conversation, crude as it may have been. But what afterwards? Pillow talk? He sat down on the toilet, legs temporarily giving way as he sought to come to terms with his situation.
The more he thought, the more he came to the conclusion that Cindy would have to go. But how? Here? No; any attempt on her life would very soon find him in police custody. He would have to wait – find out where she lived and perhaps take some kind of action then and far away from home and family. For now it was important that he put as much distance between himself and this hotel as possible and get back home without delay. He dressed quietly, packed his bag, and closed the room door. He looked at his watch – 6.30am. The desk clerk downstairs gave him a knowing smile as he pulled a wad of cash from his wallet.
“Good morning, sir.” She winked. “Pleasant evening?”
“Yes. Thank you.” He mumbled. “My bill, please.”
“Of course, sir. Will we be seeing you again?”
“No. No…I don’t think so.”
“Will the lady be requiring any further service?” The clerk looked over the tops of her glasses and smiled once more.
“That’ll be all, thank you.” Dawson straightened up, and the reproof was clear. “Goodbye.”
Hailing a cab, he headed for the Central Station and the start of his journey home. Without the nerve to ask the clerk for Cindy’s details, he saw no point in delaying and perhaps arousing suspicions about his activities. He would track her down later – he did not want her trying to find him.
“Honey!” Marlene greeted him as he stepped through their front door. “Did you have a good time?”
“It was fine, dear.” Dawson tried to act as normal as possible, and had rehearsed a number of scenarios on the way home. In the event, he did not need to embellish any further, and Marlene’s interest, beyond that of having him home, waned from that point on. He was safe for the moment – or so he thought.
As the days passed, Michael’s fears subsided somewhat and work filled his time, preventing any brooding on what may or may not have been said at the hotel. The phone call on the Thursday of the second week shook all of his complacency to its foundations. The private line in his office buzzed, and the display, worryingly, came up with the message ‘unknown caller’.
“Hello.” He frowned. He couldn’t recall having given out the office number to anyone but colleagues and family.
“Michael, honey.” The voice purred. “So nice to hear your voice. Why did you sneak away like that?”
Beads of perspiration broke out across his forehead, and he reached into his pocket for a handkerchief. Mopping his brow, Dawson cleared his throat and sat forwards at his desk.
“Cindy?” He whispered. “How the hell did you get this number?”
“Checked your cell phone, sweetie.”
“My cell?” Dawson’s voice rose.
“Oh, don’t worry. Just took a peek, you know you really should put a security code on that thing; anyway, needed a memento after the night we spent together. You sleep soundly…well, you did after we’d had our little chat.”
Michael could feel the tension crackling away over the phone line, and knew that control of the conversation was rapidly slipping away from him. His brain froze as he waited for her next line. It was not long in coming.
“Are we alone on this line?” The softness in her tone was gone, and the timbre now had a hard, businesslike edge.
“It’s a private line.” He mumbled. “Even my secretary has no access.”
“That’s good.” The voice softened again. “Means we can have a little talk about that offshore nest egg you have.”
“Nest egg…?” Dawson held his head in his hand as he realised how foolish he had been.
“Sure, honey.” Michael could see the smile. “Just a small cut to keep me happy. Thirty percent sounds good. Or would you like your wife to find out about our evening together.”
The rest of the conversation left Dawson feeling sick, as he started to realise how stupid he had been to leave the hotel without taking care of her right then and there, despite the risks. His hand was now forced, and over the remainder of the day a cold, calculating, feeling began to germinate. Just before close of business, he made the call to the hotel and asked for Cindy’s details. It was a risk, but one that he was forced to take. The desk clerk was the same one who was on duty on the morning he left – a stroke of luck! She remembered him, and passed over Cindy’s telephone number without a second thought. Half an hour later he had her address from Information Services, and the net started to close.
“Another business trip, dear?” Marlene’s surprise pained him. “Seems like I’ll have to look up the girls again. How long will you be gone?”
“Just a couple of days, sweetheart. Last minute panic to tie up a big deal, and Davies has gone sick.” He smiled as the lies tripped so easily off his tongue.
He was in New York later that afternoon, and checked himself into the Maritime Hotel on West 16th Street. Hailing a cab after dropping his bags in the room, he stepped out of it a while later in Hoboken, paid the driver, and walked across the street to an address on Clinton Street. Cindy’s apartment at number 447 was on the top floor, and repeated buzzing told him that there was no-one home. He stepped to one side as another resident keyed in the access code and entered the building. Placing a toe inside the door, Dawson held the gap until the figure had disappeared and then let himself in.
The building was quiet and, checking back through the glass door, Michael was sure that no-one had seen him enter. Summoning the elevator in favor of taking the stairs, he took it to the fourth floor and approached apartment 447. He paused outside, listening intently for any sounds of approaching footsteps. Taking a deep breath, he removed a credit card from his wallet – he’d seen this done on TV, so how difficult could it be? The only alternative would be to wait for Cindy to return, and the risks inherent in that would be far too great. Sliding the plastic into the gap between door and jamb he drew it downwards, fully expecting it to come to a sudden halt. To his immense relief and surprise, a soft ‘click’ heralded the release of the lock and the door swung gently away from him – he was in!
“So, what’s on for tonight?” Harriet’s interminable questioning drove Cindy up the wall at times, and today was just one of those days.
“Nothing.” She replied tartly. “Staying home and washing my hair.” The rebuff was enough – this time, and Harriet grimaced at Cindy’s back as she made her way out of the office and headed home.
There was nothing at the apartment block to alert her to what was about to happen, and she was greeted just inside her door by the customary rubs and purrs from Buster, her feline friend; it was dinner time and he had been waiting long enough.
“Okay, okay. Where’s the fire?” She smiled and picked him up, rubbing her face across his fur. “C’mon then, Hungry Horace, let’s see what we got for you.”
Those words died in her throat as she moved from the lounge to the kitchen. The door closed behind her and, as she turned, Dawson smiled as she dropped the cat in surprise. The gun in his hand told her that this was not a social call.
“Michael, honey.” She swallowed hard – gazed fixed on the muzzle pointed directly at her chest. “What are you doing here?”
“Just tying up a loose end, Cindy.” He closed the door, sealing off any escape route; she was trapped against the far wall with no means of defending herself. “I can’t have you stealing something that’s taken years to build up. You should have kept your mouth shut.”
Dawson removed the safety and leveled the gun at her. The silencer would ensure that anyone passing by would be completely unaware of what was happening, and he frowned momentarily. He hadn’t thought about it at the time, but he couldn’t remember there being a silencer in the package when he checked it at the bar.
“Say goodbye, Cindy.” He squeezed the trigger, and she froze, eyes closed in anticipation of the kill shot.
The ‘click’ took them both by surprise as the gun refused to discharge its deadly projectile. Cindy opened her eyes, and was first to realise what had happened. Taking advantage of Dawson’s disbelieving look, and spotting the gap between him and the table, she rushed for the door and the relative safety of the fourth floor lobby outside the apartment. Had she been a fraction of a second quicker, escape may have been a possibility, but Dawson spotted the move and grabbed her as she tried to pass by.
The gun fell to the floor as her momentum carried them both through from the kitchen and back into the lounge. They careered across the room and came to rest at against the large sofa in the middle. Michael used his greater strength to pin her to the floor as he grabbed a cushion from the furniture. Her attempts to fight him off were doomed to failure as life began to ebb out of her against the pressure of the foam-filled cushion. Now sitting stride her, Dawson pressed down with all his weight as her struggles became weaker. In moments she was gone, and once he was certain that he was now safe from her threats, he rose from the floor and sat, exhausted on the sofa.
“In other news today…”
Dawson jumped at the sudden sound of a voice in the apartment, and turned in terror only to be faced with the TV screen in the corner. Cindy clearly had it programmed to come on in time for her return from work each day. With hammering heart now returning to normal rate, he crossed the room and switched it off. Looking at his watch, Michael knew that it would be unwise for him to leave the block at that precise time. Too many eyes, returning from their own places of work, would surely identify a stranger leaving the premises. Pressing down the security lock on the door, he settled back to wait for the afternoon rush to subside.
News of the discovery of the body of Cindy Fraser hit the news desks the next morning when she failed to turn up for work. Dawson was, by that time, safely back in his hotel room and preparing for a return to the relative normality of home. Remaining at the hotel was risky, but by no means as hazardous as a sudden departure following the news of a homicide. He would take the chance and behave as normally as possible in the circumstances.
Sitting in a bar across the street on his second day in the Big Apple, his attention was drawn to a conversation further down the room. The two off duty cops were sipping Budweiser and chewing the fat after a long and arduous shift. It was after six in the evening, and conversation had turned to the latest developments in the case of the woman murdered across town in her own apartment.
“Did the CSI’s find anythin’?” The first one asked. He was a large bruiser of a man and must have weighed in at over 200.
“Nobody’s lettin’ on, but word on the grapevine says she was linked to some big shot in the financial world.” Came the reply from the second.
“How’d they work that one out?”
“Seems the guy left somethin’ at the scene; you know how these jerks are – think they can get away with anythin’ if they got enough dough.”
Dawson didn’t wait to hear the remainder of the conversation. Sinking his scotch in one, he picked up his coat and left as quickly as possible without attracting attention. Out on the street, his mind whirled with the possibilities. Had he left any prints? No – he wore gloves from the time he entered the main lobby downstairs to his exit some time later; hell, he’d even had them on in the cab he used. What about evidence from the cushion? Could be fibers from his suit, but they would surely be untraceable in New York. What about footprints? He’d wiped his feet at the main entrance as countless others would have done – nothing there then. Cindy hadn’t managed to get any kind of hold on him, so there wouldn’t be any residual DNA under her fingernails. No; Michael decided that he was becoming paranoid. He would be safe as long as he held his nerve.
Checking out of the Maritime Hotel the next morning, his demeanor was much calmer and he even managed a smile to the desk clerk as he handed over his room key and paid the bill – in cash once more.
“Thank you, sir. Will we be seeing you again?”
“No. Just in town to seal a business deal. Back off to Frisco and the family now.” That lie would be enough, he thought, to throw any overzealous cop off his trail.
The return flight to Salem from La Guardia passed uneventfully, and he was back on home turf that evening. Marlene had met him once more with her customary manner, and they went out to dinner with friends.
Back in the present, Dawson had started to believe that all of his problems were over, but scarcely a week had passed since his visit to the confessional before the hint of something untoward sent ripples through his life once more.
“What’s this?” Marlene slid an open envelope across the table to him as he came into the kitchen after work.
Dawson frowned. The postmark header carried the identification frank of the hotel where the Christmas event had taken place. He held his breath as he lifted a single sheet of paper from within it. His heart froze when he unfolded it to reveal a receipted bill for the room which he and Cindy had used on the night of their stay.
“Well?” Marlene Dawson stood, arms folded, lips pursed in the way she always had them when he’d been caught out in something. “A double room? What did you need a double room for?”
“I… I… don’t know. Some of the guys must have done this as a joke.” He looked up from the bill and cursed forgetting to pick it up at the desk when he’d departed.
“What guys? I thought you’d said you were the only one going from Salem?” Marlene’s tone was hardening by the moment, and her pitch was getting higher.
“Some guys at the party.” Dawson was beginning to struggle. “We had a few beers and got talking; you know what it’s like.”
“So, they become lifelong friends on the basis of one evening and start playing practical jokes?” She was now coming across the room. “How stupid do you think I am, Michael? What’s her name?”
“Who?” He swallowed hard. Marlene was not about to let up.
“The floozie you shacked up with for the night.”
“There was no-one, Marlene. I swear…”
“Give me that!” She snatched the hotel bill away from him. “I’ll call the hotel. Damned if I won’t find out who this piece of trash is.” She stopped, suddenly on her way to the telephone. “New York.”
“What?” Michael was now sitting down.
“That’s where she lives, isn’t it? That’s where you went. You’ve seen her again – it wasn’t some deal you had to complete at all, was it?”
The silence was deafening, and the scene stood frozen in time as they stared at each other for what seemed an age. Michael Dawson had cheated on his wife before; just the one time, and it was over twenty years earlier shortly after they had got married. That time she forgave him; the woman was a known man-eater and Michael, poor Michael, had been so innocent, so naïve, that she forgave him. He swore he would never do it again and she believed him. She moved, and it broke the spell.
“Stop.” Dawson’s voice had returned to its normal, calm, tone. “Put down the phone, Marlene.”
She turned and gasped. The gun was pointed directly at her. The gun which Michael had tried to use in New York, the gun fitted with the silencer to ensure that no-one would hear what he was about to do. The gun which he had kept in his briefcase ever since.
“Michael. What in hell are you doing?”
Marlene had never seen her husband like this before, and there had a number of things down the years which he had kept from her – not least the offshore accounts in the Bahamas. He had been planning to tell her about them – one day. That day would now never come.
“What!?” Marlene stood in amazement.
“Cindy. Her name was Cindy, and she found out…” He stopped. No point in letting out too much.
“What? Found out what?” Marlene fought to control the fear welling up inside her, and her voice was once more calm.
“You.” Dawson, panicking now for words to use, momentarily relaxed his grip on the gun. “I must have told her about you.”
The lie was enough to buy Marlene more time, and she spotted his change of grip on the weapon. It was now all down to opportunity, and she knew that her life would hang in the balance of the next few minutes. The telephone shattered the tableau which the two of them had formed, and Dawson’s attention was drawn away from his wife. It was now or never.
Marlene picked up the vase standing on the hall table next to the phone and hurled it with unerring accuracy at her husband. Dawson reeled from the blow as it hit the side of his head, and he dropped the gun. He fell backwards into the staircase and was too slow in his recovery to rectify the situation. Marlene was now standing before him, gun in hand, and in full control. The cops would believe her; after all, she was shorter and weaker than her husband. The basic facts of the incident would remain as they had happened with one exception. She had struggled with him for the gun, he had fallen, and she had shot him as he came at her again.. It was all so tragic. She would even ensure that the bruises which she sustained in the fight would be enough to exonerate her.
“Goodbye, Michael.” She squeezed the trigger and smiled.
The ‘click’ had Dawson running to the kitchen for another weapon. He was too close to reach the gun, and could not risk another close encounter with his wife, armed as she was. The knives gleamed in their rack and he pulled three from it. Marlene aimed and squeezed the trigger a second time as he turned. Still the gun failed to fire, and Dawson was now approaching fast – getting closer for a better aim. He was only feet away when she aimed, closed her eyes, and squeezed for the third time.
The gun flashed and Michael Dawson reeled backwards, a look of shock across his features. The slug had hit him right between the eyes - he lay on the floor in an ever-increasing pool of blood. With no appreciable sound to alert any neighbors, she stood motionless for what seemed an age looking at what she had done.
It was self-defense. He had attacked her, first with the gun, and then with the knives. His fingerprints were all over both weapons. There would be no doubting her innocence – she was sure.
“Father, forgive me, for I have sinned.” She murmured softly to the priest as he sat next to her in booth.
“What is it that you have done, my child?” Conor Fitzgerald’s soft Irish burr sent waves of soothing sensations through Marlene Dawson’s body, and she smiled.
“I’m guilty of the second of the deadly sins, Father.”
Fitzgerald smiled across the table as he picked up his Double Cheeseburger. “Sure, and I don’t think a meal at MacDonald’s counts as far as that little list goes, Marlene.”
Michael never knew that she had discovered his ‘secret’ stash some time ago. A forged signature would suffice to release the funds to her. Getting rid of Dexter Taylor and Duane Perkins had been the key. Air crash investigators never did find out the real cause of the unfortunate accident once her pet engineer had done with the light aircraft. A life in the sun with the young hunk was exactly the future which she had wanted all the time.
The gun, having now served its purpose, was carefully concealed at the back of the toilet cistern in the very rest room from which she had just returned to the table which she and Fitzgerald were sharing.