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The House Across the Lake
Author: Riley Sager

 

 

I think he did it, but I just can’t prove it.

    —Taylor Swift, “No Body, No Crime”

 

 

The lake is darker than a coffin with the lid shut.

   That’s what Marnie used to say, back when we were children and she was constantly trying to scare me. It’s an exaggeration, to be sure. But not by much. Lake Greene’s water is dark, even with light trickling through it.

   A coffin with the lid cracked.

   Out of the water, you can see clearly for about a foot beneath the surface before it starts to get cloudy. Then inky. Then dark as a grave. It’s worse when you’re fully submerged, the shimmer of light coming from above a stark contrast to the black depths below.

   When we were kids bobbing in the middle of the lake, Marnie often dared me to swim past the point of visibility until I touched bottom. I tried many times but never succeeded. Lost in the darkness, I always got disoriented, turned around, swam up when I thought I was headed down. I’d emerge breathless, confused, and slightly unnerved by the difference between water and sky.

   On the surface, it was bright day.

   Just below, the night waited.

   On shore, five houses sit beside the dark water of Lake Greene, ranging in style from comfortably quaint to conspicuously modern. In the summer, when the Green Mountain State is at full splendor and each house is packed with friends, family members, and weekenders, they glow like beacons signaling safe port. Through the windows, one can see well-lit rooms filled with people eating and drinking, laughing and arguing, playing games and sharing secrets.

   It changes in the off-season, when the houses go quiet, first during the week, then on weekends as well. Not that they’re empty. Far from it. Autumn lures people to Vermont just as much as summer. But the mood is different. Muted. Solemn. By mid-October, it feels like the darkness of the lake has flooded the shore and seeped into the houses themselves, dimming their light.

   This is especially true of the house directly across the lake.

   Made of glass, steel, and stone, it reflects the chilly water and the gray autumn sky, using them to mask whatever might be happening inside. When the lights are on, you can see past the surface, but only so far. It’s like the lake in that regard. No matter how much you look, something just beneath the surface will always remain hidden.

   I should know.

   I’ve been watching.

 

 

NOW

 

 

I stare at the detective on the other side of the table, an untouched mug of coffee in front of me. The steam rising from it gives her a gauzy air of mystery. Not that she needs help in that regard. Wilma Anson possesses a calm blankness that rarely changes. Even at this late hour and soaked by the storm, she remains unperturbed.

   “Have you watched the Royce house at all this evening?” she says.

   “Yes.” There’s no point in lying.

   “See anything unusual?”

   “More unusual than everything I’ve already seen?” I say.

   A nod from Wilma. “That’s what I’m asking.”

   “No.” This time a lie is required. I’ve seen a lot this evening. More than I ever wanted to. “Why?”

   A gust of wind lashes rain against the French doors that lead to the back porch. Both of us pause a moment to watch the droplets smacking the glass. Already, the storm is worse than the TV weatherman said it would be—and what he had predicted was already severe. The tail end of a Category 4 hurricane turned tropical storm as it swerved like a boomerang from deep inland back to the North Atlantic.

   Rare for mid-October.

   Rarer still for eastern Vermont.

   “Because Tom Royce might be missing,” Wilma says.

   I tear my gaze from the French doors’ rain-specked panes to give Wilma a look of surprise. She stares back, unflappable as ever.

   “Are you sure?” I say.

   “I was just there. The house is unlocked. That fancy car of his is still in the driveway. Nothing inside seems to be missing. Except for him.”

   I turn again to the French doors, as if I’ll be able to see the Royce house rising from the lake’s opposite shore. Instead, all I can make out is howling darkness and lightning-lit flashes of water whipped into a frenzy by the wind.

   “Do you think he ran?”

   “His wallet and keys are on the kitchen counter,” Wilma says. “It’s hard to run without cash or a car. Especially in this weather. So I doubt it.”

   I note her word choice. Doubt.

   “Maybe he had help,” I suggest.

   “Or maybe someone made him disappear. You know anything about that?”

   My mouth drops open in surprise. “You think I’m involved in this?”

   “You did break into their house.”

   “I snuck in,” I say, hoping the distinction will lessen the crime in Wilma’s eyes. “And that doesn’t mean I know anything about where Tom is now.”

   Wilma remains quiet, hoping I’ll say more and possibly incriminate myself. Seconds pass. Lots of them. All announced by the ticking of the grandfather clock in the living room, which acts as a steady beat backing the song of the storm. Wilma listens to it, seemingly in no rush. She’s a marvel of composure. I suspect her name has a lot to do with that. If a lifetime of Flintstones jokes teaches you anything, it’s deep patience.

   “Listen,” Wilma says after what feels like three whole minutes. “I know you’re worried about Katherine Royce. I know you want to find her. So do I. But I already told you that taking matters into your own hands won’t help. Let me do my job, Casey. It’s our best chance of getting Katherine back alive. So if you know anything about where her husband is, please tell me.”

   “I have absolutely no clue where Tom Royce could be.” I lean forward, my palms flat against the table, trying to summon the same opaque energy Wilma’s putting off. “If you don’t believe me, you’re welcome to search the house.”

   Wilma considers it. For the first time since we sat down, I can sense her mind ticking as steadily as the grandfather clock.

   “I believe you,” she finally says. “For now. But I could change my mind at any moment.”

   When she leaves, I make sure to watch her go, standing in the doorway while being buffeted by rain slanting onto the front porch. In the driveway, Wilma trots back to her unmarked sedan and slides behind the wheel. I wave as she backs the car out of the driveway, splashes through a puddle that wasn’t there an hour ago, and speeds off.

   I close the front door, shake off the rain, and go to the kitchen, where I pour myself a supersized bourbon. This new turn of events requires a kick coffee can’t provide.

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