Excerpt

The Night Before

Wendy Walker

The following is an exclusive excerpt from The Night Before, a page-turning thriller from Wendy Walker, about two sisters whose lives have taken radically different paths. When one disappears, the other begins searching, only to be confronted by long-buried family secrets.

There is something all wrong about Jonathan Fields’ car. Yes, it’s a Toyota and not a BMW, but there’s something else.

“Do you like music?” he asks as we stop at a light. Then he laughs, at himself I think. “That was stupid. Of course you like music. I meant to ask what kind of music. I can find something on the radio.”

That’s it. This car has a radio. An actual radio with knobs and buttons. The knob for the volume twists right and left. The one for the channels pushes up or down. Large white arrows lead the way. It has AM and FM. No satellite service. No iPhone connector, Bluetooth, or hardwire. And yet it’s not old. It smells new. Brand-new.

Jonathan hits a button to search for a channel. It stops on something with Top 40 stuff, and I feel like I’m in fourth grade again, riding with my grandmother.

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“This okay?” he asks. He glances at me and smiles. The light changes. He makes a right from Schaffer Boulevard onto Grand Street.

I hesitate, but then I can’t help myself. Grand Street is way out of the way if we’re going to the waterfront, and let’s just say it’s not exactly a scenic route. It’s the part of town that’s suffered most at every economic downturn.

“Do you know a secret shortcut?” I ask. It’s not the best way to ask the question, but it’s better than saying, What the hell are you doing? Which is what I’m thinking and what I want to say.

Now he seems unnerved.

“No,” he says. He answers with the intonation of a question.

So I give him my answer.

“It’s just – Schaffer goes all the way down. Under the train and highway.” I’m pointing back toward the right direction, from which we have just departed.

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“I go this way to avoid the lights,” he says. He’s very clever. Only, there are lights this way as well, and you have to drive slower because the forgotten teenagers who line the streets at night will walk right out in front of you and not give a shit. This is their neighborhood and they do what they want. We used to come here to buy pot, and from the looks of it, nothing has changed. There’s no reason to be here unless you live here or want to score weed.

“Do you know a secret shortcut?” I ask. It’s not the best way to ask the question, but it’s better than saying, What the hell are you doing? Which is what I’m thinking and what I want to say.

Maybe that’s it, I think. Maybe he just smokes a lot of weed and so he made this turn out of habit. I can live with that.

Adele comes on the radio and I find myself looking again at the dashboard. It’s not just the radio. The entire console is old school. Analog. Red and white. Buttons and knobs to twist and push – not just for the radio, but the heat and the wipers and the odometer reset. It makes my sister’s minivan look like a space ship. The seats are blue-speckled fabric. The arm rests cheap plastic. No way this guy drives this car by choice. Not Jonathan Fields.

We make awkward small talk. It’s actually painful, reminding me of the distance we will have to travel to be more than strangers. And then I’m reminded of how desperately I need to make that journey, with someone, anyone. And it all feels hopeless.

Maybe it’s just Adele. Damnit, Adele, what will it take to make you happy? I hit the search button to silence her.

“You said you just moved back here,” he says.

“Uh-huh.”

“From the city?”

I already told him this on the phone.

“Uh-huh.” I know this is immature. This is old me talking, and new me tells her to shut the hell up along with Adele and her desperation coming through the radio and make nice conversation. I tell myself I can make that long journey if I just follow the instructions, the rules, one at a time, starting with a normal answer to his question.

“I was a research analyst. Tired of going to the office. I can do what I did at home, and there’s a market for independent research now.”

He pretends to be interested.

Jonathan Fields makes a left and eventually we go under the bridges for the train and the highway. Now we have to turn left again to get back to Schaffer, where we started. We’ve just driven in a large rectangle. But I say nothing. He’s not driving like he knows his way around – like he’s lived downtown for a year. He’s driving like he just moved here.

We park on the street four blocks from the string of bars and restaurants that abut the apartments along the water. It’s an inlet from the Long Island Sound, so not exactly the ocean. More like a river. But there are boats and sunsets and all of that. The smell of the ocean. The sound of the waves. And it’s as far away from the part of town where people like my sister live, so it attracts the young, single crowd.

And every divorced dad in the county looking to get laid. Maybe it’s a good thing he doesn’t know the fastest way here. Maybe if he did, I would worry more.

Jonathan Fields wears dark, tailored jeans and a loose button down shirt tucked in with a belt. Loafers. Dress socks. Two buttons are undone at the top of the shirt, just enough to reveal a small tuft of chest hair. No jewelry. Thank God.

I am a fan of chest hair. It’s masculine. Manly. I don’t understand all the waxing and laser removal. I like manly men. It makes me feel that it’s safe to lay down my sword and shield – that I won’t get ambushed in the night because someone else is watching the perimeter. It’s nice to be part of an army, even if it’s a small one.

Asshole had chest hair. I used to weave my fingers through it. And suddenly I miss him more than I can bear. I think his name, his real name, and feel his embrace. I feel his skin against my skin, arms and legs weaving, torsos locked together. Warm breath on my neck as his mouth finds its way to mine. A deep kiss. A sigh.

He said the words as we lay still. I love you.

And I believed him. For once, I let myself believe.

I got it wrong. It won’t happen again.

And now … I have to start over, make another long journey from strangers to lovers. I’m so tired and we haven’t even begun, Jonathan Fields.

He pulls the key out of the ignition and looks at me with a smile. He says something corny like Shall we? And my brain feels like a circuit’s been tripped by the conflicting information. The car. The Shall we. But then the jeans and the chest hair. I feel confused, so I smile and open the car door. I need air.

“Where should we go?” I ask. I haven’t actually eaten here before. I come here with Rosie and Mason to watch the boats. There’s a huge playground and it’s a long drive from her house – all the makings of an outing. And Rosie loves her outings. I feel a surge of warmth wash over me as I think about Rosie and Mason and Joe, and my work and the future. There is so much that is good.

I hear Mason call me name. Lala!

I hear Rosie in my head. You don’t need a man.

And I think, as I watch Jonathan Fields walk, but I want one.

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From THE NIGHT BEFORE. Used with the permission of the publisher, St. Martin’s. Copyright © 2019 by Wendy Walker.




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