The Twilight Twenty-Five
thetwilight25 dot com
The house was a double bungalow with a pair of side-by-side front doors, both made out of a mid-tone wood that had an abstract lion design carved into it. The front door was the only thing Edward liked about the place. Tanya had led him on the first tour, showing off all the empty rooms with their high ceilings and California-style arches. She'd been thrilled with it, since it was very glamorous and looked a lot like an editorial photo spread in Architectural Digest. A lifestyle house.
"Of course, this is the master bedroom," She said, ushering him into a bright and open space with its own skylight, "I guess we'll make the second bedroom into a home-office, and the third bedroom can be a guest room."
"The second bedroom is a little small, isn't it?" Edward asked.
"I don't think we'd be able to get the piano and the computer desk in there…"
Tanya sighed, and her arctic eyes softened with indulgence. Edward had mistaken that expression for fondness early in their relationship. Time had corrected him. It was just the face she made when she knew she was going to have to bear some suffering (the kind that a weaker woman might not be able to handle.)
"Darling, we've talked about this," She sighed, "I really don't think that writing music is the best hobby for you. It doesn't do anything to help your career, and there really isn't a future in it. Besides, it takes up so much space! And this really is the nicest place we've ever had. I'd hate to see it cluttered up with a piano."
"What if I put the piano in the third bedroom?"
"But the second bedroom is too small for guests…"
"Why do we need a guest bedroom?" He wandered the empty space while he talked, opened the closet to have a peek inside, made a note of where the door to the ensuite washroom was.
"For my sisters, of course," Tanya scoffed, "And for your friends from work, in case they want to visit for the weekend."
Edward paused and looked at her with faint confusion.
"I never have friends from work over for the weekend."
"But now you can!" She said, "You can finally start socializing properly! You can network."
God, that word. Network. If it had been a person, Edward would have poisoned it to death years ago. He hated it, and all the things it implied. Talking to people without getting to know them, being polite to rude and ambitious social-climbers just in case they might remember your name when it counted, updating your status every ten minutes on your smartphone. It was so superficial.
"…all new furniture," Tanya was droning on, "None of the stuff from the old place will go with this décor. We can sell most of it, but nobody would dream of buying that table of ours…"
Once upon a time, there had been something undeniably appealing about how efficiently Tanya went through life. It had made her seem sophisticated, and a good counterpoint to him and his occasional dreaminess. But that efficiency had seemed more domineering than anything else lately, and even though his wife remained a stunningly beautiful woman, Edward found that he was no longer attracted to her.
"Edward?" Tanya said, suddenly and sharply, "You weren't listening at all, were you?"
"Of course, I was just…"
"I was just saying that the people next door seem nice," She smiled tightly, "I saw the wife the other day when I was here with the real estate agent. Apparently, their name is Newton or something. I'm sure we'll get along with them very well, they seem like our kind of people."
"Yes, of course. I'm sure they're very nice."
On Monday, Edward took the train into work so that Tanya could use the car. They'd taken possession of the new place on the fifteenth of the month, but paid rent on their old place until the end of the month. That way they could slowly move things over instead of doing everything in a mad rush. At least, that's how Tanya had explained it. Edward couldn't see the point, since she wasn't keeping anything they already owned, except for books and DVDs and the small treasures with sentimental value. She'd already ordered an entirely new living room set, a coffee table, two end tables, a rug and a lamp that were all going to be delivered that afternoon.
Edward was surprised she'd been willing to keep their box spring and mattress.
He ate dinner at a restaurant, then walked the seven blocks from the station to his new house. When he got there, the lights in both his house and the nearest neighbour's were off. The shades were pulled down in both sets of front windows. It was like somebody had drawn one house, then photocopied it for the one next door. The places were perfectly symmetrical and perfectly soulless. There was no car in either driveway, and both garage doors were shut.
Tanya wasn't there, that much was obvious. Maybe she'd gone out to eat with the new neighbours, or maybe she wasn't done packing something up at the old place.
Edward wanted to stand outside forever, still in the space between his thankless work and his loveless marriage. On the sidewalk, neither in one world or the other. This was where he was the most relaxed. This had come to be the happiest moment of his day.
Finally, he started towards the two front doors, with his keys in his hand. He looked from one identical lion carving to the next and stopped. Which door was his, again? A little embarrassed with himself, he stepped back and looked at the front windows. Both living rooms had the same sort of pull-down accordion blinds. Probably for curb-appeal. Nothing was yielding any clues.
He tried to remember what door they'd gone in through on Saturday. That was the day Tanya had first shown him the place, and so the likeliest time he would have been paying attention instead of just following along behind her. He recalled admiring the doors themselves, but not which of the two she'd opened - left or right. He tried to remember their new address, whether they were the six or the eight, but his mind drew only a blank.
It'd be silly to stand out there all night. Besides, it was getting cold and Edward had no idea what time his wife was coming home. Hadn't she said that she'd invited somebody over for dinner? Couldn't he wait for them to show up? Surely Tanya had given them instructions about which bell to ring. But the more he thought about it, the worse that idea seemed. They'd probably already stopped by, gone with Tanya to a restaurant, and left him a note or something. Even if they hadn't, he didn't relish the idea of waiting around for his guests to tell him where he was supposed to live.
The idea of accidentally barging in on the Newtons - or whatever they were called - wasn't particularly appealing, but they probably had better senses of humour than Tanya and her friends. All he could do was guess and take the chance.
He chose the left door, and fumbled with his key a little. He wasn't good at unlocking doors, for one reason or another; he had plenty of poise and precision on the piano, but locks and keys had something against him. Then again, if it seemed completely hopeless, he'd just switch sides and try the other one.
He must have been making a lot of noise, because the door swung open in front of him. Opened from the inside. Edward couldn't see much of the man standing in front of him, there were long dark shadows cast inside the house without any lights on, but he recognized one thing without any doubt in his mind.
The stranger was aiming a handgun straight at Edward's chest.
"Come in." The man with the gun said, his voice as quiet as a whisper but still self-assured. Hardly the voice of a man who got nervous very often, and definitely not the voice of a man who had much patience for other people's mistakes.
"Wait," Edward tried to say, "I didn't-"
There wasn't going to be a discussion. The gunman grabbed the front of Edward's jacket and pulled him into the house. He kicked the door closed behind them and shoved Edward forward into a space that must have been the living room. There was a clicking noise, like somebody pulling on a chain cord, and a light went on. Edward noticed a few things.
First, that the gunman was tall and lean, with a hard and jagged edge to his features. He was wearing a tailored suit and a pair of black leather gloves that were probably supposed to keep his fingerprints off of anything he touched in the house. The second item of concern was the fact that gunman wasn't alone. Standing in the middle of the living room was another man, this one even taller than the first, built for moving mountains or intimidating quarterbacks. He also had a gun, but his was lowered at his side. There was little doubt that it would be aimed right at Edward if it needed to be.
The third thing that he noticed, and probably the most troubling, was the dead woman on the couch.
She was lying on her side, facing away from the room. They'd covered her with a coat or a blanket, so Edward couldn't see her head or really what she was wearing. He did see a pair of bare calves and ankles, and a pair of beige high heels. Tanya had a pair of shoes like that.
"What's going on?" Edward managed to ask, despite his confusion and fear.
"You tell us," The first gunman smiled, "Who do you happen to be?"
"I…" Edward stared dumbly at the high heels, "Is that… my wife?"
"Shit!" The big guy groaned, "It's Newton!"
The first gunman narrowed his eyes and looked Edward over.
"You're supposed to be in Chicago, Mr. Newton." He said, tilting his head to one side.
Edward's mouth was suddenly as dry as a desert.
"I think I made a mistake…"
"A mistake, huh?" The first gunman sneered, "What the hell right do you have to make any mistakes, Mr. Newton? You arrange the day, the hour, the alibi and the death. Then you just waltz in during the job."
"That's a mistake, alright," The big guy chuckled, "Probably the last mistake you'll ever make."
Whether it was his last mistake or not remained to be seen, but it was certainly the biggest mistake Edward had ever made. Whoever these men were, it seemed like they'd been hired by Newton - the neighbour - to murder his wife. And Edward had walked in right in the middle of proceedings. If they knew that he was some nobody who wasn't suppose to be there, they'd shoot him without hesitation.
But they thought he was Newton, and as long as they thought that, he might have a chance at keeping them talking. It was hardly a plan at all, but it was the only thing he had.
"Wait, wait," Edward said, "If it wasn't some kind of mistake, why would I walk in right when you were… when you were…"
"You can say it," The first gunman said, "We're all men of the world, here."
Edward swallowed hard.
"When you were whacking my wife."
The big guy errupted into a fit of laughter, but he was trying to keep from being too noisy so it sounded a little strangled.
"Shut up." His assosciate advised, grinning a little himself.
"Sorry. Sorry," The big guy said with a twinkle in his eye, "Whacking."
"You watch too much TV, Mr. Newton," The first gunman said evenly, "I don't like guys who watch a lot of TV. They have a skewed perspective on things like heroics. Isn't that right, Felix?"
All of the levity drained out of the big guy's face.
"I don't have any patience for heroes," He said, "I'd hate to hear that you had aspirations to become one, Newton."
"I don't know what you're talking about…" Edward shook his head, feeling like he was taking another few steps in his helpless march towards death.
"Sure you do!" The first gunman grinned, "Everybody knows how a hero story goes! A couple of goons try to rob a nice little house apartment in one of the nice little parts of town, when the hero comes along and kills them. Unfortunately, he's too late to save his wife. That's not so bad, because he was getting pretty sick of her anyway. And nobody cries for a couple of goons, so the hero comes out amazingly well."
"Pure Hollywood," Felix said, "In real life, the last poor bastard who tried that on us didn't land on the evening news like he wanted. But he did get a premium plot in a very pretty cemetery."
"I couldn't have meant to do anything like that! I don't even have a gun," Edward explained frantically, "What was I supposed to kill you with, my bare hands? There are two of you and one of me, and even if I thought I was going to bust in here like Sam Worthington, it'd suicide to not bring something along with me!"
"Who the hell is Sam Worthington?" The first gunman looked over his shoulder at Felix.
"I don't remember the names of actors," Felix raised the hand he was holding his gun in, so that the barrel was pointing directly at Edward's head, "You search him, and I'll cover him. If he's unarmed, he's telling the truth."
The first gunman looked at Edward for a cold and steely second before moving.
"I think we should kill you," He said, "Our boss isn't a big fan of loose ends."
"Can we make some kind of arrangement?" Edward asked hoarsely. He was scared, and he didn't have much else he could say. He felt his life ticking away like the seconds on a bomb timer.
"I don't like arrangements." The first gunman shook his head, and began patting down Edward's arms and legs.
"What kind of arrangement?" Felix asked.
"Doesn't matter." The gunman said, beginning to check Edward's pockets.
There was nothing he'd find there that would make Edward seem like more of a threat to them, but there was his wallet. And inside that wallet was a driver's licence and credit cards and a public transit pass and who knew what else. None of it registered in the name Newton. And as soon as the gunman saw it, he'd figure out what had happened. Then he'd shoot Edward.
As soon as he felt the wallet being pulled from his pocket, he knew that he had to do something as a distraction. So he said:
"Can I look?" And he nodded towards the body on the couch.
The gunman looked over his shoulder.
"You want to see her? Why?"
"Maybe he thinks we don't know how to do our job, Demetri," Felix offered, "Maybe he thinks you're sloppy."
Demetri handed Edward his wallet back, with a raised eyebrow. He hadn't opened it or give in it much appraisal, probably because it wasn't a lethal weapon.
"Go look," He said, "If you want."
Edward nodded, and made his way over to the body on the sofa. He braced himself. It had been awhile since the last time he'd seen a dead body, and that one had been in an open casket at a funeral parlour. He'd never seen someone who'd died a violent death. He didn't even know what to expect.
It turned out that she was covered with one of those soft designer blankets - the kind that's thrown over armchairs to make them look cozy. He lifted it slowly, partly out of hesitation and partly out of respect for the dead woman. When he saw the deep bruises along the back of her neck and the clotted blood that stained part of her hair, he felt sick to his stomach. He looked at her delicate and pretty profile for a moment before covering her up again.
"You look like you're going to barf." Felix said.
"A sensitive soul," Demetri suggested, "Wants the job done, but hates the low-class reality of it. Looks down on guys like us who need the money and have the skills."
Edward didn't answer. He just stood there, as pale as a ghost. Seeing the woman under the blanket, seeing that she was dead, had managed to make the whole situation more real and hopeless.
"Well?" Demetri asked, "Are we satisfied, Mr. Newton?"
"I'm not complaining." Edward managed to say, finding a little more of his own courage.
"Not complaining. That's nice."
"You said something earlier about an arrangement…" Felix said carefully, his eyes glittering with something that might have been greed or might have been curiosity.
"We have work to do," Demetri snapped, "We don't have time for this."
"Maybe we should see what the idea is," His associate said, and turned to Edward, "You want this job finished properly, right?"
"What do you mean?" Edward asked, still in a daze.
"Keep it looking like a botched burglary," Felix explained patiently, "Try to stop the police from thinking you had anything to do with any of this. We take the easiest electronics to carry, iPods and phones and that stuff, as well as any nice jewellery poor Mrs. Newton might have had, and anything else that looks expensive. Get it?"
"Where do you keep it?" Demetri asked.
"I don't know, the bedroom I guess."
"You guess?" Felix smirked.
"Wonderful. Absent-minded and sensitive," Demetri sneered and motioned at Edward with his gun, "Lead the way."
Edward nodded and head for the master bedroom. It was so surreal, walking in front of two men holding guns, waiting for any excuse to shoot him in the back. His life had always been so quiet and average, none of this seemed to match what had gone before. Like somebody had changed the film reel in the middle of a comedy, and all of a sudden some scene from a mobster movie was playing.
The two gunmen began ransacking the room, grabbing items of interest and value and shoving them into reusable shopping bags. The bags didn't seem conspicuous at all. In fact, nobody would look twice at either man for carrying one, or think about what might be inside. This surprised Edward, though he had no idea why it ought to. He knew better than to think that they would have brought brown sacks like in a Tom and Jerry cartoon. But he passed by people like these two men every day, wearing nice suits and carrying reusable bags; it wasn't very likely that he'd be able to let them pass without noticing ever again.
When they'd finished going through the room with enough thoroughness to be convincing, but not so much that it was suspicious, Demetri said:
"I guess we'll leave him in here while we clean out the rest of the house."
"I still want to talk about arrangements," Felix shrugged, "I think we've got two possibilities."
"We've only got one."
"Let's talk to Newton, just to be sure," The big guy turned to Edward and smiled, "Arrangement number one is doing things my friend's way. We arrange that you are dead, and we arrange that we leave without drawing extra attention to ourselves. Arrangement number two is doing things my way. We arrange that you stay alive this evening, and you arrange to give us ten thousand dollars."
"I… don't have ten thousand dollars…" Edward shook his head.
"A nice place like this? And you owning a good solid business?" Felix shrugged, "I think you can get it. Maybe you should mull over your options while you're in here. You won't try to open the window and call for help, or anything stupid like that, will you?"
"Of course he won't," Demetri said, "Nobody does anything that'll get them shot in the back six times."
Edward knew he wasn't kidding. There was already one dead body in that house, why not make it two? He watched as the gunmen filed out of the room, and tried to think. There was a scraping noise from the other side of the door. It sounded like one of them had stuck a chair under the doorknob, just to make sure Edward stayed where he was supposed to.
As soon as he was sure that they'd moved on, he started searching through the chest of drawers. There must have been some hiding place for emergency money. Anything to keep the gunmen distracted awhile longer, just a bargaining chip. But there wasn't anything to be found.
Frantically, he tried to check the top shelf of the closet, his nervous hand groping at the strap of a small travel bag. Pulling the bag down, it knocked against a black enamel music box and forced it off of the shelf. As it hit the ground, it sprang open and began to play Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty. The sound was more than enough to get the attention of the gunmen.
Edward tossed the bag back into the closet and closed the lid of the music box.
The door to the bedroom opened just as he was putting it back in place.
"What's going on in here, Newton?" Demetri asked, his gun at the ready.
"Nothing!" Edward put his hands up slowly, "I got a little clumsy and knocked a few things over. That's all."
"Clumsy, huh?" Demetri raised an eyebrow, "What were you looking for in that closet?"
"Valium," Edward said, thinking fast, "My wife has a prescription she keeps in the bathroom, but I was locked in here. I thought there might have been a few in a suitcase that was with us on our last vacation."
"Valium?" Felix chuckled, "Getting a little edgy, huh?"
"I've never been in a situation like this before."
"That I believe," Demetri nodded, then motioned to the make-up table by the window, "Sit down."
Edward did as he was told, and Felix laid out some stationary and a pen. The stationary had blue flowers printed on one side.
"What's this for?" Edward asked.
"We've had a discussion," Demetri explained, "And it's occurred to both of us that it was unfair to expect you to raise ten thousand dollars in one evening. But we can't let you live without some kind of compensation. You've given us a lot of trouble tonight, and that wasn't very thoughtful of you…"
"So you're going to write a note." Felix said, cutting off his friend's explanation.
"I don't understand…" Edward shook his head. They'd been talking about letting him live, but now they wanted him to write his own suicide note? Was that what was going on?
"Not very bright, is he?" Demetri shook his head.
"He's probably been banking on his looks up until now," Felix shrugged, "Cut him a break."
"Look, Newton, you're going to write a nice long explanation about how you killed your wife…"
"How I killed my wife?"
"Who else was responsible?" Felix asked, feigning innocence, "It certainly wasn't us."
"Both of you shut up," Demetri pinched the bridge of his nose with the hand that wasn't holding the gun, "You're going to write a note explaining how you've been very unhappy with your wife, and all that stuff about how she wouldn't give you a divorce. Feel free to throw in some colour, just to keep it believable. Then you're going to say that your usual argument got out of hand tonight, you found yourself very worked up, and you hit her in the back of the neck with that heavy vase in the living room. The one on the table next to the sofa. Only you hit her much too hard…"
"Is that…" Edward swallowed, "Is that how you killed her?"
"We don't use guns unless it's absolutely necessary," Felix said, "They're very noisy. But one shot in a neighbourhood like this might just sound like a car backfiring. Hard to say if anybody would bother to call the cops."
It left unspoken in the air between them that it would only take one shot to kill Edward.
"And if I write the note, you're going to use it to blackmail me. Is that it?"
"He's smarter than I gave him credit for," Demetri smiled and levelled the gun in his hand for emphasis, "Now write, Mr. Newton."
There seemed to be a few things wrong with their plan, but Edward was hardly going to complain about it. All he needed to do was write the note and stay alive, and writing a confession in another man's name probably wasn't going to do him any harm. Whatever ended up happening to the gunmen or Newton was none of his concern. They could all kill each other in a Mexican stand-off for all the trouble they'd put him through.
He picked up the pen and began to write. He wasn't worried about matching Newton's handwriting. Most things were done electronically or over the phone, weren't they? Nobody sent notes or letters anymore, so there wasn't much of a chance that the gunmen would have a point of reference for any discrepancies.
It was natural that his thoughts would drift to Tanya. Five years of his life and happiness sacrificed to her and her ideas of what made a good life. Her ideas about what made people happy, what the neighbours would think of things, what ambition was meant to be. He thought about the friends he'd lost and the opportunities that had slid by while she was slowly and insidiously forcing him to climb corporate ladders and forget about music and life and love. Five years wasted.
The words came easily. He put the pen down when he was finished and ran a hand through his thick, bronze-coloured hair.
"Let's see it," Demetri said, picking up the note and reading it through. He smiled, and for the first time that evening, he looked genuinely amused, "Pretty good. Really sounds like you meant it."
"I did." Edward nodded.
Demetri tossed the note back onto the table in front of him.
"And none of this initialling crap you do on e-mails and texts," Felix said, "The whole name, so the police won't have to think too hard."
Edward nodded. The whole name. He realized that he had no idea what Newton's first name was. He'd never heard anybody say it, and these two were sure to know it. How could they not? It probably came in whatever information packet they got from whatever underworld kingpin arranged for them to do the job. Slowly, he picked up the pen.
What could he do? Should he just guess? And if he guessed wrong, it wouldn't take long before the peaceful streets echoed with a popping noise that was kind of like a car backfiring.
"What does the M stand for, anyway?" Demetri asked, "I've been wondering about that…"
"I bet it's Matthew." Felix replied.
"No," Edward smiled, suddenly overwhelmed with a fondness for small-talk amongst gunmen, "It's Michael. Usually Mike."
He scrawled out a signature that read Mike Newton, and he couldn't help wondering if that was really what the M stood for.
"Huh," Felix shrugged, "You don't seem like a Mike to me."
"Who are you, the Name Police?" Demetri scoffed, "Grab that note and let's go."
"You're leaving?" Edward asked, trying not to smile.
"We're leaving." Felix said.
"You're supposed to be in Chicago tonight, Mikey," Demetri explained, "And it'd be better all around if that were true. We'll buy you a ticket on the Greyhound bus. Our treat."
They drove him out to the bus station in their car, which had been parked two blocks away in front of a house that was under construction. It was an unassuming car. The kind nobody noticed, because everybody's sister seemed to own one. When they arrived, Demetri went in with him to buy the ticket; and he waited with him until the bus turned up. They didn't talk much.
When the bus came, Edward boarded it with a smile on his face. He took a seat by the window, just so Demetri would be sure to see him leave. And as the bus pulled out and started driving, it was all he could do to stop himself from laughing and crying at the same time. Because he was free. Not only of the terrorizing threat of the gunmen and their brutal ways, but of the chain that had been binding him for the last five years. When he got to Chicago, he'd buy another ticket. All the way to Denver, or maybe up into Canada. As far away as he could afford, to someplace where he could start a new life and get a new name.
Because, when he had lifted that blanket and looked at the body on the sofa, it hadn't been the mysterious Mrs. Newton's.
It had been Tanya's.
Edward hadn't picked the wrong door that night, but the gunmen had.