I Am Death
“Oh, thank you so much for coming on such short notice, Nicole,” Audrey Bennett said, opening the front door to her white-fronted, two-story house in LA’s upper Laurel Canyon.
Nicole gave Audrey a bright smile.
“It’s no problem at all, Ms. Bennett.”
Born and raised in Evansville, Indiana, Nicole Wilson spoke with a very distinctive midwestern accent. She wasn’t very tall—about five foot three—and her looks weren’t exactly what fashion magazines would call striking, but she was charming and had a likable smile.
“Come in, come in,” Audrey said, ushering Nicole inside with a hand gesture, seemingly in a hurry.
“Sorry I’m a little late,” Nicole said, stepping inside as she consulted her watch. It was just past eight thirty in the evening.
Audrey chuckled. “You’ve got to be the only person in the whole of Los Angeles who considers anything under ten minutes as being late, Nicole. Everyone else I know calls it ‘fashionably on time.’ ”
Nicole smiled, but despite the comment, she still looked a little embarrassed. She prided herself on being a very punctual person.
“That’s a beautiful dress, Ms. Bennett. Are you going anywhere special tonight?”
Audrey grimaced. “Dinner party at a judge’s house.” She leaned toward Nicole and her next words came out as a whisper. “They are sooooo boring.”
“Oh, hello, Nicole,” James, Audrey’s husband, said, coming down the arched staircase that led to the house’s second floor. He wore an
elegant dark-blue suit with a silk striped tie and a matching silk handkerchief just peeking out of his jacket pocket. His butterscotch-blond hair was combed back, and as always, not a strand was out of place.
“Are you ready, honey?” he asked his wife before quickly checking his Patek Philippe watch. “We’ve got to go.”
“Yes, I know, I’ll be right there, James,” Audrey replied before turning to face Nicole again. “Josh’s already asleep,” she explained. “He’s been playing and running around all day, which was great, because by eight o’clock he was so exhausted he was dozing off in front of the TV. We put him to bed and he crashed out before his head hit the pillow.”
“Oh, bless him,” Nicole commented.
“From the amount of running the little devil did today,” James Bennett said as he approached Audrey and Nicole, “he should sleep right through to the morning. You should have an easy night.” He grabbed Audrey’s coat from the leather armchair to his right and helped his wife into it. “We’ve really got to go, honey,” he whispered into her ear before kissing her neck.
“I know, I know,” Audrey said as she nodded toward the door just past the river-rock fireplace on the east wall of their large living room. “Help yourself to anything you like from the kitchen. You know where everything is, right?”
Nicole nodded once.
“If Josh wakes up and asks for any more chocolate cake, do not give it to him. The last thing he needs is another sugar rush in the middle of the night.”
“Okay,” Nicole replied, renewing her smile.
“We might be quite late tonight,” Audrey continued. “But I’ll call you later just to check everything is all right.”
“Enjoy your night,” Nicole said, accompanying them to the door.
As Audrey took the few steps down from her front porch, she looked back at Nicole and mouthed the word boring.
After closing the door, Nicole went upstairs and tiptoed up to Josh’s room. The three-year-old boy was sleeping like an angel, his arms wrapped around a stuffed toy creature with huge eyes and ears. From the bedroom door, Nicole stared at him for a long while. He looked
so adorable with his blond flock of curly hair and rosy cheeks that she felt like cuddling up to him, but she wouldn’t dare wake him up now. Instead, she blew him a kiss from the door and returned downstairs.
In the TV room, Nicole sat and watched about an hour of some old comedy film before her stomach started making noises. Only then she remembered that Audrey Bennett had said something about a chocolate cake. She looked at her watch. It was definitely time for a snack, and a slice of cake sounded just perfect. She left the room and went back upstairs to check on Josh again. He was in such a deep sleep, he hadn’t even changed position. Returning downstairs, Nicole crossed to the other side of the living room and casually opened the kitchen door, stepping inside.
“Whoa!” she yelled in a fright, jumping back.
“Whoa!” the man sitting at the breakfast table having a sandwich yelled a millisecond after Nicole. Instinctively, he dropped the sandwich and kicked back from the table, standing up immediately and knocking over his glass of milk. His chair tipped over behind him.
“Who the hell are you?” Nicole asked in an anxious voice, taking a defensive step back.
The man gazed at her for a couple of seconds, confused, as if trying to figure out what was happening. “I’m Mark,” he finally responded, using both hands to point at himself.
They stared at each other for a moment longer, and Mark quickly realized that his name meant absolutely nothing to the woman.
“Mark?” he repeated, turning every sentence into a question, as if Nicole should’ve known all this. “Audrey’s cousin from Texas? I’m here for a couple of days for a job interview? I’m staying in the apartment above the garage in the back?” He used his thumb to point over his right shoulder.
Nicole’s questioning stare intensified.
“Audrey and James didn’t tell you about me, did they?”
“No.” She shook her head.
“Oh!” Mark looked even more confused now. “Umm, as I’ve said, I’m Mark, Audrey’s cousin. You must be Nicole, the babysitter, right? They said you’d be coming. And I’m sorry, I really didn’t mean to scare you, though I guess you’ve already paid me back in kind.” He placed
his right hand over his chest, tapping his fingers over his heart a few times. “I almost had a heart attack just now.”
Nicole’s stare relaxed a fraction.
“I flew in this morning for a big job interview downtown this afternoon,” Mark explained.
He was dressed in what looked to be a brand-new suit, very elegant. He also looked quite attractive.
“I just got back from it about ten minutes ago,” he continued. “And suddenly my stomach reminded me that I hadn’t had any food all day.” He tilted his head to one side. “I can’t really eat when I get nervous. So I just came in for a quick sandwich and a glass of milk.” His eyes moved to where he was sitting and he chuckled. “Which is now all over the table and starting to drip onto the floor.”
He picked up his chair and looked around for something to clean up the mess. He found a roll of paper towels next to a large fruit bowl on the kitchen counter.
“I’m a little surprised that Audrey forgot to tell you I was staying over,” Mark said as he began mopping up the milk from the floor.
“Well, they were in a bit of a hurry,” Nicole conceded, her posture not as tense as moments ago. “Ms. Bennett asked me if I could get here for eight o’clock, but the earliest I could make it was eight thirty.”
“Oh, okay. Is Josh still awake? I’d like to say good night if I could.”
Nicole shook her head. “No. He’s out like a light.”
“He’s a great kid,” Mark said as he bundled up all the soaked paper towels and dumped them in the trash can.
Nicole kept her full attention on him. “You know,” she said, “you look a little familiar. Have I met you before?”
“No,” Mark replied. “This is actually my first-ever visit to LA. But it’s probably from the photographs in the TV room and in James’s study. I’m in two of them. Plus, Audrey and I have the same eyes.”
“Oh . . . the photographs. That must be it,” Nicole said, a hazy memory playing at the edge of her mind, but not quite materializing.
A distant cell phone ringtone broke the awkward silence that had followed.
“Is that your phone?” Mark asked.
“That’s probably Audrey calling to say that she forgot to tell you about me.” He shrugged and smiled. “Too late.”
Nicole smiled back. “Let me go get that.” She exited the kitchen and returned to the living room, where she retrieved her cell phone from her bag. The call was indeed from Audrey Bennett.
“Hi, Ms. Bennett, how’s the dinner party?”
“Even more boring than I expected, Nicole. This is going to be a long night. Anyway, I’m just calling to check that everything is all right.”
“Yes, everything is fine,” Nicole replied.
“Has Josh woken up at all?”
“No, no. I just checked on him again a moment ago. He looks like he’s out for the count.”
“Oh, that’s great.”
“By the way, I just met Mark in the kitchen.”
There was some loud background noise coming from Audrey’s side.
“Sorry, Nicole, what did you say?”
“That I just met Mark, your cousin from Texas, who’s staying in the garage apartment. I walked in on him having a sandwich in the kitchen, and we scared the hell out of each other.” She giggled.
There was a couple of seconds delay before Audrey replied.
“Nicole, where is he? Has he gone up to Josh’s room?”
“No, he’s still in the kitchen.”
“Okay, Nicole, listen to me.” Audrey’s voice was serious, but shaky at the same time. “As quietly and as quickly as you can, go get Josh and get out of the house. I’m calling the police right now.”
“Nicole, I don’t have a cousin named Mark from Texas. We don’t have anyone staying in the garage apartment. Get out of the house—now. Do you underst—”
The line went dead.