The windows of this glass house are black with darkness. A small, rocky moat of sorts separates the house from the path that curls off the driveway. Clare takes the small bridge to the front door. This house feels somehow inharmonious with what Clare knows of Malcolm—it’s too modern, flashy. Not like him at all.
Clare knocks on the large metal door. Nothing. She knocks once more, waits, then crosses the bridge again and circles around to the back of the house. Every few paces she stops to call out a hello, her voice drowned by the hum of the ocean not yet in her sight. There are no neighbors visible here, just this isolated glass house carved into a wall of rock.
When Clare reaches the rear deck, she is again astounded by the ocean. She spins in a slow, full circle to check the surroundings. No one is here. The house is dark. This deck is all glass too, even its floor, so that the rocky cliff is visible underneath her feet. It gives her vertigo to look down, and so Clare fixes her gaze on the horizon. The sun has recently set, the last pink of the sky casting everything in a hazy light. The edges of the deck are marked by a metal and glass railing. Clare peers over. She can still make out the frothing white waves a hundred feet below. She grasps the railing and shakes it. It holds firm. It’d better, she thinks, because you’d never survive that fall. Clare arches her back to feel for her gun.
It was only this morning, before she boarded the bus, that Clare found herself at the back of a sporting goods store, the fake ID provided by Somers in hand, the young clerk more than happy to help a woman who knew her weapons well. The gun was an easy purchase. Clare tracks a seagull circling among the rocks below. Even in the dying light she knows she could withdraw the gun, aim, and strike it. She was still just a girl when her father started her on moving targets, skeets and tin cans tossed into the air. She knows Somers would not approve, but then, Somers would have no idea just how well Clare knows the feeling of a gun in her hands.
At the back, the house’s stucco foundation is washed gray by the salt off the sea. To one side is a rock garden. Its flowers bloom, the soil around them weedless and black. Malcolm and Zoe may not live here anymore, but someone tends to this place. It is not abandoned. It takes Clare a minute to notice that the sliding door is open an inch. There is a screen door too, and she tries it and finds it locked, but the screen itself has a tear, and Clare is able to edge her arm through it and unlock it from the inside. She cups her hands to the glass and looks in. A kitchen devoid of color and life.
No huge risks, Somers said.
This is risky, Clare thinks. Stupid. And yet, I’m here.
The patio door slides open with a whine.
“Hello?” Clare calls into the space. “Hello?”
Clare presses the door closed behind her and the sound of the ocean vanishes. Instantly there is a shift in the quality of the air, the breeze replaced by thick humidity. This kitchen is stark, the floors cement, the counters and cupboards white and angular. It’s the sort of room you’d find in the pages of an architectural magazine. Clare stands still, listening. Of course Malcolm is not here. He would never be so reckless as to return to his home. All she wants is evidence of Malcolm’s former life, his marriage. To paint a picture. This showpiece house is nothing like what she would have imagined of him, the calm and reserved Malcolm she thought she knew.
In the living room the furniture is spare, a long leather couch and a wooden coffee table facing a gas fireplace embedded into an otherwise bare wall. Everywhere the walls and the floor are white. Ghostly. Clare is losing light fast. She closes her eyes in an effort to animate this space, to imagine Zoe and Malcolm in this room, drinks in hand, talking or arguing. Were there mundane aspects to their marriage? Or was Zoe always craving adventure, conflict? Though Clare calculated last night that it’s been two months since she first met Malcolm, he is still unknowable in so many ways.
She climbs to the second floor. At the top of the stairs is a square landing with only three doors, all open. Straight ahead is a bathroom, and then a guest bedroom with nothing but a queen bed. Clare turns left first and finds herself in the master bedroom. The mattress has been stripped, the blinds open, the ocean vast out the large window. Clare enters the walk-in closet and uses the light on her phone to illuminate the space. It is split into his and hers sides. A smattering of clothes hang, the shirts on Malcolm’s side ordered from dark to light. Clare leans into them and inhales. Dust tickles her throat. She must stifle a cough, annoyed at herself for thinking these shirts might still bear Malcolm’s scent. Clare opens and closes the drawers. Most are empty, but in the bottom one on Zoe’s side she finds a framed photograph. Clare holds her phone over it.
In the photo a family of six stands on a beach, each in khaki pants and a white shirt. The Westman family. Clare’s gaze is drawn immediately to a younger Malcolm on the far left, his posture tense, his expression serious. Zoe is not beside him but instead at the opposite end of the group. The woman next to Malcolm holds a young girl on her hip. The little girl is beaming, her eyes fixed on Malcolm. Jack Westman and his wife, Colleen, are centered in the frame, arms around each other. Zoe and Malcolm are the frowning bookends to an otherwise happy family portrait.
The details of Jack Westman’s death are easy to come by, a prominent businessman shot dead five years ago in his favorite restaurant as his wife and daughters sat with him eating dessert. Clare draws the photograph closer. It must be Charlotte Westman who stands next to Malcolm, Zoe’s younger sister. She is taller than her sister, heavier set, her curly hair blown sideways to shield her face.
Clare uses her phone to take a picture of the photograph. She returns the frame to the drawer and enters the master bathroom. It is cavernous, tiled from ceiling to floor with marble. At its center is a large stand-alone tub, a floating vanity under the window and a shower open to the space. No glass enclosure. Clare returns to the bedroom and stands at the window as the last light fades. So far, this house has offered her very little. It feels nearly devoid of any history, any context, any sense of its owners. Perhaps not so inharmonious with Malcolm after all.
Wait. Clare holds still. What is that sound?
The room washes with light.
“Turn around,” a woman’s voice says behind her. “Slowly. Now. Turn around.”
Clare obeys, her hands lifting instinctively. She must squint to adjust to the brightness of the track lighting. In the doorway stands a woman about Clare’s height and age. Her hair is the same curly brown. This woman wears a black T-shirt and black pants, an outfit that would have rendered her nearly invisible in the dark. And she has a gun. She holds it up, aimed right at Clare’s head. This woman’s hand is steady, her stance firm as she steps closer.
If I reach for my gun, Clare thinks, I’m dead.
“Please,” Clare says. “Don’t shoot me.”
Now the woman is within a few feet of Clare, her expression blank. At closer range, Clare recognizes her. Charlotte Westman, Zoe’s sister, vastly changed from the photograph Clare examined only moments ago. Too thin, much aged.
“You’re trespassing,” Charlotte says.
“I know,” Clare says. “I know I am. But I know Malcolm. He’s… a friend. Malcolm Hayes. I know him.”
A flicker crosses Charlotte’s face, a small register of surprise. She lowers the gun by an inch. But just as quickly her stance rights itself, and she steps to within point-blank range.
“You’re on private property. I should shoot you.”
Clare inhales deeply and holds her eyes closed. Why does she feel so calm? Charlotte edges the gun closer to Clare’s skull. When Clare pushes back against the wall, the numbness she feels is broken by the pressure of her own gun against her spine.
“You could shoot me,” Clare says, popping her eyes open. “But you shouldn’t, Charlotte. You really shouldn’t.”
“Shut up,” Charlotte says. “Shut the fuck up.”
Charlotte’s finger is not on the trigger. This gives Clare a split second.
“Charlotte,” Clare says again. “You’re Zoe’s sister. I know who you are.”
And then Clare reacts. She grabs the barrel of the gun and spins her hip into Charlotte until she’s able to yank the weapon free. A scramble ends with Clare holding the gun, their positions reversed, so that Charlotte is against the wall, her hands in the air. Clare clicks the safety open and threads her finger through the trigger loop.
“I get the feeling you’ve never actually fired a gun,” Clare says. “I promise you that I have.”
“Go ahead,” Charlotte says, her voice low. “Go ahead. I don’t fucking care.”
At this Clare takes several steps back until she is on the opposite side of the master bedroom. She thinks of Somers, her calmness, her professionalism. What would Somers do if she were here? She would not let her anger get the best of her, Clare thinks. She would assess, de-escalate. She would do her job. Clare keeps the gun pointed with one hand, then fishes a card from her back pocket and flicks it across the room. Charlotte watches stone-faced as it flutters to the floor.
“The back door was open,” Clare says. “I let myself in. My name is Clare O’Kearney.”
This name. Before she’d embarked on this case, Clare had allowed Somers to select her alias from a list of O’ names they’d found online. It means warrior, Somers had said. Let’s give you a name that means warrior.
“Like I said, I know Malcolm. Personally. I can explain.” Clare points to the card on the floor. “I’m an investigator. And I’m looking for him. I’m looking for Malcolm.”
“Stop saying his name,” Charlotte hisses.
The venom in her voice, the wildness in her eyes takes Clare aback. What is it about her brother-in-law’s name that stirs such anger in Charlotte Westman? In the week between cases, Clare had sometimes enacted scenes like this one, trying on reactions, personas. The cold, detached investigator. And then a warmer version, like Somers, professional but disarming and friendly. Neither felt right. I have no persona, Clare remembers thinking. And now Clare must tamp down the urge to say sorry for not doing as she’s told, for taunting Charlotte. This is her missing sister’s house. She may well know more than anyone else. Clare needs Charlotte Westman on her side.
“Can we make a deal?” Clare says. “I put down the gun, and we talk? It’s possible that we want the same thing.”
The words hang in the air, Charlotte breathing hard, eyes diverted to the window. Is she waiting for something? Someone? Clare clicks the safety back on and lowers the gun, tucking it into her pants next to her own.
“You’ve probably been through a lot,” Clare continues. “I might be able to help you.”
Charlotte slides down the wall until she is slumped on the floor, her face buried in her hands. She begins to weep. Clare keeps her distance, silent. Whatever she knows of this woman’s story has come only from news articles, a family destroyed by her father’s murder, a sister missing. Who knows what else she’s lost? Enough to bring her to this house with a gun, enough for one gesture of goodwill to make her crumble. Clare can’t begin to understand these tears. She can only wait them out.