A Familiar Face
Before you read this story, you ought to read Black Velvet.
Erin Malone pulled into her driveway, thinking only of the homemade chili that had been cooking in her crock-pot all afternoon. Tired and hungry, she wanted nothing more than a meal, a relaxing bath and a good night's sleep. But as she reached into the back seat for her briefcase, Erin saw a moving van pull out of the long, tree-lined driveway of the house next door. A sense of excitement came over her. No one new had moved into the neighborhood during the twelve years she and Patrick lived there.
Her curiosity was piqued, and she wished she had a better view of the property. Unfortunately, the house next door sat far back from the road, surrounded by close to five acres of wooded land. One thing was for sure: whoever moved into that house no doubt cherished his privacy.
"Hi, honey. I'm home," Erin called as she let herself in the front door.
Patrick, who had gotten home ten minutes before her, was in the kitchen setting the table.
"It looks like we're getting new neighbors," she announced. "I just saw a moving van pull out of the driveway next door. That old Claiborne place has been empty for so long. It'll be nice having neighbors again."
"How do you know we'll get along with them? Not everyone is as nice as the Claibornes were."
Mr. and Mrs. Claiborne, although thirty years older than the Malones, were warm, friendly people, and a close friendship developed between the two couples despite the age difference. Then three years ago, Mr. Claiborne retired and the elderly couple moved to Florida; the house had been vacant ever since.
"I'm not expecting them to become our best friends. I just think it would be nice to have someone to borrow a cup of sugar from."
"Someone to gossip with is more like it," Patrick laughed.
"And wouldn't it be nice if our new neighbor is a Red Sox fan? You'd have someone to watch the games with."
Although he never admitted it, Patrick missed the old neighbors too. He and Art Claiborne had spent many enjoyable Sunday afternoons in front of the TV, drinking beer and watching baseball.
Patrick came to the conclusion that it would be good for them both, if he and Erin could bond with the people who were moving into the house next door, so the following weekend the Malones bought a bottle of wine and walked up the long, tree-lined driveway of the house next door.
"I don't think anyone's home," Patrick said when no one answered the bell.
"There's a light on in the living room."
"They probably left a light on to scare away burglars."
"Maybe they just didn't hear the bell," she said hopefully, and proceeded to knock loudly on the door.
"Easy does it, Erin. Don't break the door down!"
"I want to make sure they hear me."
"Why don't you just huff and puff and blow the house down?"
"Shhh! I think I hear someone coming."
The door was suddenly opened by an attractive, middle-aged woman.
"Hello. We're your neighbors from next door. I'm Erin and this is my husband, Patrick."
"Hello," the woman replied, but she neither introduced herself nor invited the visitors inside.
"We brought you a little something to welcome you to the neighborhood," Erin announced.
"Thank you," the woman said, reaching for the wine through the narrow opening of the door.
Erin would no doubt have invited herself in, but Patrick could sense the other woman's reticence.
"Perhaps we've come at a bad time," he said apologetically.
The woman smiled with gratitude, and a faint feeling of recognition tugged at Patrick's memory.
"We just wanted to pay you a short visit," Erin continued to press.
"Not now, honey. Maybe some other time," he said, gently taking his wife's elbow and steering her back toward the front porch steps.
Erin turned just before the woman shut the door. "Excuse me; we didn't get your name."
"My name's Nan," the woman replied. "Thank you for the gift. It was nice to meet you."
As the Malones walked back down the tree-lined driveway, Erin complained about the way she and her husband had been treated. "She must be from New York. It's amazing how rude those people can be."
Patrick, who was still struggling with an elusive memory, came to the woman's defense. "She seemed more timid than rude."
"Are you kidding? She practically slammed the door in our faces!"
"Didn't you see the look in her eyes? It reminded me of a frightened deer."
"Why on earth would she be frightened of us? We look about as dangerous as a couple of Jim Henson's Muppets."
"You can never tell with old people. Maybe she's going senile."
"Old? I doubt she's a day over fifty. Her hair may be white, but there's not a wrinkle on her face."
"Maybe we were interrupting something," he laughed and winked. "Perhaps that's why she took so much time to answer the door."
"Whatever her reason, I think she was extremely rude, and I, for one, have no intention of wearing out her doorstep."
That night, unable to sleep, Patrick, turned to his wife and asked, "Did you find anything familiar about her?"
"About who?" Erin asked sleepily.
"Nan, our neighbor. I know I've seen her somewhere. I've tried to put my finger on it all night, but I just can't remember."
"Maybe you've seen her picture hanging up at the post office."
Patrick sighed. He would get no help from his wife.
"Go to sleep, honey. Your memory will make the connection when you least expect it."
"I guess you're right," he agreed and then kissed her and promptly fell asleep.
It was Erin who then lay awake, concentrating on the contours of Nan's face and the shape of her eyes and mouth. Come to think of it, there was something remotely familiar about the woman.
* * *
Over the next several days, Erin spent an unusual amount of time looking out her living room window, hoping to get a glimpse of her new neighbors, but her efforts were in vain.
"Don't you think it's odd that we haven't seen any sign of life next door?" she asked her husband. "I never see anyone going to or coming from work."
"Maybe they're retired. She's probably an old woman after all, one who's been blessed with a young complexion or a good plastic surgeon."
"No. I can't believe she's that old. Besides, even if she were retired, she'd have to go out shopping or at least have things delivered. I haven't seen anyone go near that driveway all week."
"You forget we both work during the day. She could go out every day and you wouldn't know it."
"I'm going to go over there tomorrow and see for myself. She could be sick, hurt or even dead."
"I thought you said you weren't going to wear out her doorstep."
"I'm not. I'm just a concerned neighbor."
The following afternoon Erin again walked up the long, tree-lined driveway. This time Nan was outside, sitting on an Adirondack chair with a handsome man that Erin assumed was Nan's husband. It was a beautiful spring day, and the two were probably enjoying the first taste of warm weather.
"Hi, Nan," Erin called.
Nan's perfect complexion turned as pale as her hair. "Hello, Erin," she stammered, her eyes nervously darting to the man next to her.
Ah ha, Erin thought, perhaps that's not her husband after all.
Erin walked up the porch steps and extended her hand to the man. "Hi, we haven't met yet. I'm Erin Malone from next door."
The man's hand was cold, despite the hot day. There was no warmth in his eyes or his smile either. He shook Erin's hand but spoke not a word.
What a couple of cold fish, Erin thought. They were not a bit like the Claibornes.
"This is Charlie," Nan finally said.
"Nice to meet you, Charlie. How do you like your new home so far?"
Nan jumped in and answered for him, "We're very happy here."
"Do you work in Puritan Falls or do you commute?"
"Actually, I work out of my home."
"Lucky you! What kind of work do you do?" Erin asked, anxious to learn as much as possible about the strange couple.
Nan looked at her watch and exclaimed somewhat theatrically, "Oh, look how late it is! I'm sorry, Erin, but Charlie and I have to get ready for an important engagement. Come along, dear. We don't want to be late." Then she turned to Erin and dismissed her, saying, "It was good to see you again, Erin. Give my regards to your husband, won't you?"
Without so much as a word or a nod of his head, the man stood up and obediently followed Nan inside.
"Well?" Patrick asked, when his wife returned home. "Did you find what you were looking for?"
"I met her husband."
"And? What's he like?"
"Middle-aged; handsome and distinguished looking, but quite odd."
"I thought Nan was unfriendly, but she's Miss Congeniality next to him. He never said a word to me the whole time I was there."
"I guess he wouldn't be interested in going to a baseball game then," Patrick joked. Erin didn't laugh. "Come on. Don't let them get to you, honey. We're not the only people with weird neighbors. We're luckier than most, though. We've got plenty of property separating us from them."
"I got a good look at her while I was over there, and I agree with you. There is something familiar about her."
"She reminds me of your cousin's ex-wife. What was her name? Lauren, Laura--something like that."
"Her name was Laurel, and she doesn't really look like our neighbor. No. I've seen Nan's face, but I think it was years ago. And it's not just her face. I know her voice from somewhere."
"Why don't you take the advice you gave me? Don't dwell on it; it'll come to you in time."
* * *
As usual, Erin found it difficult to follow the advice she doled out to others. She couldn't forget about her new neighbors or ignore the nagging certainty that she'd seen Nan before. She waited for days for the forgotten memory to surface, for the click of the right neuron, but it didn't come. Then one day when Erin was getting her groceries from the trunk of the Eclipse, she saw the postal truck drive away from her neighbor's mailbox. She glanced around; no one was in sight. Erin feigned a casual air as she walked down the drive toward her own mailbox. She took out a stack of bills, circulars and credit card applications and leafed through them. Her eyes, though, were not on her mail. Instead, they darted furtively to the long, tree-lined driveway.
With one last furtive look around, she sprinted over to the neighbor's mailbox. She quickly rifled through the pile of envelopes and found one from the First Federated Bank addressed to Mrs. T. Reilly. T. Reilly? Erin thought, as she put the stack of papers back into her neighbor's mailbox and quickly headed back to her grocery bags. Charlie wasn't her husband, after all.
At dinner that night she mentioned her discovery to Patrick.
"You do know it's a federal crime to tamper with someone's mail, don't you?" he cautioned his wife.
"I wasn't tampering! I only wanted to find out what Nan's last name was. I put everything back just as I found it."
"Still, if you'd been caught going through her mail, you'd have had a bit of explaining to do."
"But I wasn't, so never mind about that. Don't you think it's odd that she's getting mail for Mrs. T. Reilly, and the man who lives with her is named Charlie?"
"No. I don't think it's odd at all. There could be any number of explanations. One, Charlie could be a nickname. Not everyone goes by his or her first name. Maybe Charlie's first name is something like Thaddeus or Templeton, and his middle name is Charles. Two, Nan could be divorced or widowed and living with Charlie. It's not unusual for unmarried people to live together these days."
Erin could feel her temper starting to rise. She hated it when Patrick treated her like one of his students.
"Three, you saw a man sitting in a chair beside Nan, and you automatically assumed he was either her husband or her lover. Perhaps he's her brother."
"Why not? Maybe he's a little backward and she takes care of him. Don't you remember the guy who used to walk up and down Gloucester Street all day carrying a gym bag? He lived with his sister."
"Okay, okay. I get it. Don't belabor the point."
"Then stop obsessing about the people next door."
"I'm not obsessed with them. In fact, you were the one who brought up the whole subject about Nan looking familiar. Remember?"
"Yeah, but I'm not the one snooping around in other people's mailboxes."
Erin got up from the table and went to the bedroom, slamming the door behind her. It was several days before she thawed to the point of speaking to her husband. When they did talk, Erin deliberately avoided mentioning Nan Reilly or the ambiguous Charlie. She was determined to continue her snooping without Patrick's knowledge. The only problem was she had few opportunities to observe her neighbors. They rarely ventured outside the house, and when they did, they returned quickly. Erin was forced to bide her time and wait for the right moment.
Finally, one Sunday afternoon when Patrick drove to Home Depot to buy weed killer and grass seed, Erin spotted Nan's Volvo pulling out of the driveway and heading toward town.
"Ready for Plan A," Erin laughed as she grabbed her jacket and an empty measuring cup.
She walked up the steps of Nan's porch, but she didn't ring the doorbell. Instead, she peaked into the window. The place looked empty. Where was Charlie? When she walked to the back of the house, she found her answer. Through the sliding glass doors of the family room, Erin could see Charlie sitting in a lounge chair. He sat perfectly still, staring straight ahead--at nothing. He was so still and quiet. Too quiet. Even when Erin tapped on the glass, Charlie didn't move. Was something wrong with him? Erin's heartbeat quickened as she tried the sliding door. It stuck momentarily, but then slid open.
"Charlie? Are you feeling all right?" she asked as she drew nearer to him. "Charlie?"
He didn't respond, verbally or otherwise. Erin reached out to touch his hand. It was cold. She jerked her own hand back.
"Charlie?" she whispered, watching his chest for signs of life. There was no gentle rise and fall; Charlie wasn't breathing. Erin jumped back and put her hand to her mouth to stifle a scream. Charlie was dead, but had he died of natural causes or had Nan Reilly murdered him? Erin turned and ran, frightened for her own safety.
* * *
Erin paced the living room floor, biting her nails and waiting for all hell to break loose at the house next door. The police cruiser had driven up that long, tree-lined driveway nearly ten minutes earlier.
"Sit down," Patrick warned her, "you're going to wear a hole in the carpet."
"What if she killed him too?" Erin asked, referring to Officer Shawn McMurtry, who had responded to Patrick's call.
"Don't jump to conclusions, Erin. You don't know if Charlie was murdered. He could have died of natural causes. In which case, Shawn is probably comforting Nan in the time of her bereavement."
"You always look for the logical explanation to everything, don't you?"
"It's better than resorting to breaking and entering. You know, Nan could press charges."
"I only went inside because I was afraid that Charlie might be sick."
"Save that borrowing-a-cup-of-sugar story for the police because I don't buy it."
The argument was cut short by the reappearance of the police cruiser. Erin and Patrick both raced to the door.
"You'll be happy to know that Mr. Reilly is alive and well," Officer McMurtry said.
"What?" Erin's voice rose in incredulity. "That can't be. I saw him with my own eyes. He wasn't breathing. His hand was cold and stiff."
"You must be mistaken because Mr. Reilly is as alive as you and I."
"But that man was not alive when I saw him."
Patrick shook his head in disgust. He was the one who had insisted on calling the police. Now he felt like a fool, and he hated feeling foolish. "Thank you for coming, Shawn. We're sorry to put you through all this trouble."
Erin's eyes threw daggers at her husband, but she didn't say a word.
For the next two weeks, Erin tried to forget about Nan and Charlie Reilly. She busied herself with gardening and reading a new novel. She had a life, after all. Why dwell on the peculiarities of two people she hardly knew just because they happened to have property that adjoined her own?
"Look! A yard sale," Erin pointed out as she and Patrick were coming home from the Walmart in Copperwell one Saturday afternoon. "Let's stop. I want to look for some more books."
Erin loved to read, but didn't like paying six or seven dollars for a paperback book she would more than likely finish in two or three days.
While Erin looked through a carton of used books, Patrick spotted a stack of record albums.
"The good old days of vinyl," he declared nostalgically.
He hummed an old tune as he thumbed through records by such artists as Led Zeppelin, the Who, Cream, and the Rolling Stones. Then he found an album, released in the early eighties, which brought back a memory that had eluded him for several months. He grabbed the album and rushed over to his wife. "Erin, look at this record."
"We don't even have a record player," she said, not wanting to take her eyes off the back cover of the Richard Patterson novel in her hand.
Patrick shoved the album in front of her face and commanded, "Take a good look, will you?"
Erin looked and fell back on her heels. "It's Nan!"
The memory clicked. It was the white hair that had thrown them both off. Nancy Thomas--once known to the music world as Black Velvet--had jet-black hair. But the face was the same, and so was the voice.
As Patrick helped Erin to her feet, he suggested, "Nan Reilly must be related to Nancy Thomas."
"I don't think so. I think Nan Reilly is Nancy Thomas."
"That's impossible. Black Velvet is dead."
"Wrong. She was legally declared dead, but the bodies aboard that plane were never found."
"You think she could have survived the crash and then went into hiding? Why?"
"Who knows? Maybe she wanted to get away from all the pressures of being a star."
"Please, Erin," her husband pleaded, "don't mention this to anyone. I don't want to see your picture on the front page of The National Tattler under the headline 'Woman Spots Black Velvet and Elvis Living in a Remote New England Town.'"
"Who said anything about Elvis?" she laughed. "Okay, okay. I promise I'll keep my suspicions to myself. Besides, the police probably already think I'm one card short of a full deck."
"Only one?" Patrick joked.
That evening Erin spent several hours on the Internet, reading through every scrap of information she could find on Nancy Thomas, a.k.a. Black Velvet. Of particular interest were the details of the plane crash that supposedly ended the life of the popular singer, her husband and her agent. What information Erin could find was sketchy. It was known that Tim Reilly had a pilot's license, and occasionally he and Nancy would fly to New England for the weekend. When the wreckage from his plane washed up on the shores of Cape Cod, rescue teams began to search for survivors, but their efforts proved futile. No trace was ever found of Nancy, Tim or Chip. Until now, Erin thought, feeling sure she had uncovered the true identity of the woman who lived next door. One thing still puzzled her, however. Was the man the police referred to as "Charlie Reilly" actually Tim Reilly or Chip Beckwith?
Erin spent two more hours searching the Internet, but although she found hundreds of photographs of the glamorous singer, there were few of her husband or her manager. In that handful of pictures, Tim and Chip were always in the background, and it was difficult to tell which of the two men was now living with Nan Reilly. There was only one way Erin would ever know for sure--she must ask Black Velvet herself.
* * *
Erin gathered all her courage and once again strolled up the long, tree-lined driveway. She tenaciously marched up the porch steps and rang the bell. After a few minutes, Erin heard footsteps echoing through the hall, but it was neither Nancy nor her mystery man who answered the door.
"Who are you?" Erin asked the elderly man who stood facing her across the threshold.
"I think the appropriate question here, my dear woman, is who are you?"
Erin had lived with Patrick long enough to know the unmistakable demeanor of a schoolteacher. The man had the same infuriating habit of treating others as though they were pupils.
"I'm Erin Malone. I live next door."
"I thought it might be you. Won't you come in, Mrs. Malone?"
Erin was taken aback. Was she actually being invited into the sanctum sanctorum? For a brief moment she feared going inside. What guarantee did she have that she would be safe? Her curiosity got the better of her, however, and she followed the man into the living room.
"Where's Nancy?" Erin fearlessly asked.
"Nancy's busy working."
"I forgot. She told me she worked at home. But," Erin added, hoping that perhaps this man could provide her with some additional information, "she never told me exactly what type of work she does."
"I'm not surprised. Nancy likes her privacy. That's why I arranged for her to live in this house. I thought she'd be safe here, far enough away from the prying eyes of the world." He shot an accusatory look at Erin that made the young woman cringe. "Just what did you want to see Nancy about?"
"I came to invite her and Charlie to have dinner," Erin lied.
The man stared at her as though she were a specimen under glass. He peered intently into her eyes, trying to discover her intentions. "How well do you know Nancy and Charlie?"
Erin's intuition told her that he knew who Nancy and Charlie really were. Should she admit her own knowledge to this man and hope that he would throw some further light on the mystery? Erin closed her eyes briefly, let out a sigh and leaped.
"I know that Nan Reilly is Nancy Thomas, the singer who went by the name Black Velvet."
It was a look of sadness rather than surprise that came over the man's face, like a patient who had expected the worst prognosis and got it.
"Are you her father?" Erin asked.
"No. I was her teacher," he replied and then added sadly, "and a good friend."
"You were in love with her, weren't you?" Erin blurted out before she could stop herself.
"Yes, I was, but there was never anything between us. After all, I was more than twenty years her senior. But I couldn't help the way I felt. Nancy was beautiful and had a mind that was pure genius. She could have been one of the greatest scientists of our time, but she chose music instead. I never...."
He was interrupted when Nan and Charlie came through the door.
"Hello, Erin," Nancy said hesitantly. Charlie was silent, as usual.
"She knows," the elderly man said simply.
Nancy fell back into an armchair, her beautiful face contorted with misery. "What should I do now?" she asked her friend and former teacher.
"I can arrange for you and Chip to...."
"Chip?" Erin echoed and turned her attention to the silent Mr. Reilly. "You're Chip Beckwith, Black Velvet's manager."
The man said nothing to her, didn't even look at her. "Tim," Nan moaned.
It was as though the man were released from a trance to become the most solicitous of husbands. He knelt by Nan, took her in his arms and gently comforted her with words of love and devotion.
"Just who the hell are you," Erin asked in utter confusion, "her manager or her husband?"
"My husband is dead, Mrs. Malone," Nan cried, her voice filled with unimaginable grief.
"Then only you and your manager survived the plane crash."
"There was never any plane crash," the older man explained. "Tim Reilly was murdered by Chip Beckwith. When Nancy found his body, she called me for help. I came up with the idea of the crash. It was the best way to explain the disappearance of three people."
"Chip killed my husband, my beloved Tim," Nan cried mournfully.
"How can you live with the man who murdered your husband?"
Nan didn't seem to hear her. She was desperately clutching the younger man in her arms, crying, "Tim, oh, Tim" over and over again.
"This isn't Chip Beckwith," the man replied. "Nancy destroyed him after he killed Tim."
"If Chip killed Tim and Nancy killed Chip, then who is Charlie?"
"Nancy never killed anyone. Chip Beckwith wasn't human. He was a robot she created when she was my student at MIT. She programmed him to manage her career and take care of her finances. He was a machine, although to the world he appeared quite human. Unfortunately, he developed human traits. He was protective, caring, faithful and--jealous. When he thought Tim Reilly was going to replace him in Nancy's life, he drove a screwdriver through Tim's eye and into his brain."
Erin's stomach turned, and for the first time she looked with heart-felt compassion at the broken woman before her. "So this man isn't Chip or Tim."
"He's both, and yet he's neither. After the tragedy, Nancy created another robot in Tim's image, using components she took from Chip. Then she reprogrammed the robot to act as her husband, not her manager."
"The day I found him in the family room," Erin said, "he was so cold and lifeless, I thought he was dead."
"Not dead, Mrs. Malone--just deactivated."
Tim (or Chip?) had finally gotten Nancy up from the chair and was leading her upstairs.
Erin turned to the older man and asked, "How can you let her live like this, hidden away from the world with no one but a robot for company? She's still young enough to continue her career, perhaps fall in love again."
"You don't know what you're saying. You don't know Nancy. You didn't see what Tim's death did to her. She was devastated. Without that robot, she probably would have killed herself long ago."
"I'm sorry. I guess she's not really alone. After all, she does have you," Erin said. Then with a sudden intuition she asked, "Could I ask you one more question, sir?"
"I know nothing about robots. I confess I have enough difficulty trying to keep my computer from crashing. How do you program a robot to think?"
"Nancy devised a way of transmitting electromagnetic impulses from a human brain directly into the robot's central processing unit."
"Did she use her own brain?"
"Why, no. She had to operate the necessary equipment."
"Then whose brain provided the programming for Chip?"
"Why, mine, of course."
"Yes, who else would she have chosen?" Erin asked rhetorically. "I better go now. Please assure Mrs. Reilly that it'll be perfectly safe for her to remain in this house. I give you my word I won't bother her again, and I swear I'll never tell anyone about what I've learned today, not even my husband."
"Thank you. I hoped you would understand, Mrs. Malone."
"Beckwith, Professor Charles Beckwith."
Erin was not surprised that Nancy had chosen to name her first robot after her professor, friend and mentor. After all, she had used his brain to create Chip in the first place.
As she walked back down the long, tree-lined driveway for the last time, she couldn't help comparing Nancy Thomas to Mary Shelley's Victor Frankenstein. Nancy had created life only to have her robot destroy her happiness as the Creature had destroyed Dr. Frankenstein's. She chose to endow the machine with the thoughts of a man she knew was in love with her. That had been Nancy's fatal error. It was Professor Beckwith's suppressed jealousy that in the end killed Tim Reilly, the man she loved. It was that same unearthed jealousy that even now kept poor Nancy a prisoner of her past.
I wanted to create a perfect pet: loyal, loving, and obedient. I settled for Salem instead.