Featured Excerpt: My Wife Is Missing by D. J. Palmer
By Crime HQFebruary 17, 2022
Bonus: Enter for your chance to win an advance copy of My Wife Is Missing by D. J. Palmer and a teddy bear!
Chapter 1: Michael
As Michael Hart rounded the corner to his hotel room, he saw a small, lifeless shape lying on the floor of the hallway.
It was Teddy.
Teddy’s arms were splayed open wide like the T-shape of a cross, legs straight as boards, feet pointed up at the ceiling. Still as stone, his two dark glassy eyes, black like onyx, gazed unblinking upwards, seeing nothing. Wrapped around Teddy’s neck was his familiar blue kerchief, frayed at the edges from time and touch.
“What on earth are you doing here?” Michael muttered to himself, bending at the knees to retrieve the beloved stuffed bear. He uncoiled his fingers from the pizza boxes he’d been carrying to latch onto Teddy’s plush arm. Careful not to tip tonight’s dinner, Michael rose to standing. In the back of his mind tumbled a thought: where is Bryce? Wherever Bryce went, Teddy went with him.
Michael endured a spurt of frustration—the kids dropping things everywhere, Natalie not thinking straight enough to keep track. Who was there to pick up the slack? He was, that’s who. Chances were the old Natalie would have noticed Teddy had become separated from his owner. This new Natalie—his wife who managed only a couple hours of sleep on a good night, who suffered tremors, visions, and memory problems as a result, who these days had a fuse shorter than a matchstick—could have quite conceivably left one of the children behind (let alone a teddy bear) without realizing her oversight.
Michael exhaled his annoyance and concern in a single breath. No harm done. Teddy was safe. The cleaning crew hadn’t swept him away. He figured Natalie and the kids had gone off exploring. Addison and Bryce had both been wide-eyed with wonder on their first trip up in the hotel’s famed glass elevators so chances were they’d gone riding them again, and Teddy got left behind in all the excitement.
With the bear still dangling in his grasp, Michael gave the hotel room door a gentle kick, hoping the kids had returned from their adventures so he wouldn’t have to fumble for a key. He waited. Down went the food (and Teddy) as Michael fished out a plastic rectangle from his wallet.
The room was dark when he entered. A heavy smell of vanilla and cedar clung to the air. It was a trick of the hotel trade, he knew; a little scent to help set the mood, like a new car smell. Normally the pleasing aroma didn’t last long once the occupants arrived, but the vanilla odor was still quite strong. Something about it made Michael feel strangely alone.
Curtains thick as X-ray blankets blocked out the view of Times Square. He pulled them open to let in the last bits of daylight. They’d arrived close to sunset, and Michael couldn’t wait to show Addie and Bryce the explosion of neon when darkness came. There was so much he wanted his kids to see and do here.
The city held a special place in Michael’s heart. When he and Natalie were newly married, they’d make frequent trips from Boston to New York to take in shows and dine at fancy restaurants, but this was their first time coming to New York as a family. Today was all about getting settled and acclimated to the neighborhood—plan was to check out Times Square from above and then on the ground. Of course Addison had already scoped out her primary stops, and no doubt the M&M and Disney stores would soon be getting some of Michael’s hard-earned cash.
After setting the salads and pizzas on a dresser, Michael tossed Teddy onto the bed Addison had claimed. The cot Bryce would occupy for the five nights remained folded up in a corner of the room. The cot wasn’t exactly unnecessary, considering his son could sleep perfectly well in a sleeping bag on the floor. Michael knew the kids would be comfortable here, but he worried how Natalie would fare. She couldn’t sleep at home, and it had been a shock to him when she suggested they take a family trip to New York during the kids’ April vacation.
“Are you sure?” he said in response. “What are you going to do if you can’t fall asleep? Wander the hotel halls like Marley’s ghost?”
“I’ll be fine. It’ll be good for us,” Natalie assured him.
He saw the outline of sadness in her tight smile and in her eyes, which were the color of the dark ocean. She was already anticipating the difficulty, but clearly she wanted to do it, so he made the reservation.
Good for us, Natalie had said. Goodness knows they could have used some quality time together. It was something the marriage counselor had suggested. The truth was that he’d been planning to approach Nat about a getaway, just the two of them, leave the kids with her parents for a stretch. More than family time, they needed to reconnect, or at least hit the reset button on their marriage. The past few months had been, in a word, eventful. But Natalie had insisted on getting away with the kids as well, so family time it would be.
It took some fiddling, but Michael finally managed to get the room lights on—no small feat, given how modern hotels eschewed the old-fashioned switch for touch technology. Honestly, he was surprised everyone wasn’t in the room eagerly awaiting his return, ready to pounce on the food. He checked his phone for a text from Natalie letting him know where they’d gone.
He checked the watch he wore obsessively—a throwback, Natalie called it. The Citizen timepiece with its thick leather band, darkened at the edges, couldn’t send and receive messages, but it did tell him the hour was getting late.
They’d arrived in New York utterly famished after a four – and – a – half – hour car ride from their home in Lexington, Massachusetts. Michael had suggested going out to eat, but Natalie was too tired (no surprise there) and wanted takeout from a nearby pizza place she’d found on Yelp that had fantastic reviews. But given the dinner rush hour, delivery would take too long, so Michael was dispatched for pickup.
“Where is everyone?” he said to the empty room, plopping himself down onto the bed he’d soon be sharing with his wife. He sent her a text.
Food is here. Come and get it.
Wherever they were, he imagined the kids had to really be enjoying themselves to delay dinner for even a minute. A savory whiff of sauce and cheese tickled Michael’s nose. He contemplated downing a slice, but managed restraint. He was a big believer in eating together as a family, and always made it a point to get home from his job at Fidelity in time for dinner. They’d only recently begun a new dinnertime tradition called Three Things, a conversation starter game that Natalie got off the internet. They’d take turns going around the table, each sharing one thing that had gone well that day, one thing they were grateful for, and one thing they’d have done differently.
It wasn’t easy getting the conversation going, and typically the kids launched half-hearted protests, but in the end Michael always felt the game brought him closer to the people who were closest to him.
He recalled Natalie’s three things from the night before. They’d struck him as somewhat odd, just as this whole experience of returning to an empty hotel room felt odd.
Natalie had said:
“Today I got us all packed and ready to go.”
“I’m grateful for the truth.”
“I wish I’d done this sooner.”
He had meant to ask his wife for clarification—what was it she wished she’d done sooner? Pack? And what truth was she grateful for? But then Bryce spilled his glass of milk, and those questions got lost in the aftermath.
Now, thoughts of that game—specifically Natalie’s reference to her packing prowess—brought Michael’s attention to just how clean the room was. He took in that vanilla and cedar smell again. It was as if they’d not yet arrived. Normally there’d be clothes strewn about, the TV blaring, and suitcases left open on the floor, but not this time. This time there was not an item in sight, as if Natalie had prepared them for a military-type room inspection.
In the bathroom, Michael splashed water on his weathered face and rubbed the dark stubble of a nascent beard. He looked aged well beyond his forty-three years, but stress can do that to a person. His marriage was on the rocks, but was there more to their troubles at home than he knew?
I’m grateful for the truth . . .
Noticing his reddish eyes, Michael went for his toiletry bag on the countertop, digging inside for the Visine. As he undid the zipper, a concern tugged at him, bringing with it an unsettled feeling not unlike the one he had experienced when he found Teddy all by his lonesome in the hallway.
All his senses were telling him something was wrong. He couldn’t immediately identify the source of his unease, but as he scanned the bathroom, he realized what was amiss. He distinctly remembered Natalie getting her toiletries out of her suitcase because she had wanted to brush her teeth. Now there was only one toiletry bag on the counter, and it belonged to him. Had she really put hers back in her suitcase?
Michael’s heartbeat picked up. Just a little.
He went to the closet directly across from the bathroom. There he paused, not quite ready to open the door. His thoughts gummed up as he took another look around the perfectly ordered room.
Two rambunctious children aren’t this neat.
The smell of vanilla taunted him.
He gripped the knob of the closet door, his stomach in knots, and gave it a yank. It was dark inside, but he had no trouble seeing the outline of his black suitcase pushed up against the back wall.
Copyright © 2022 by D. J. Palmer. All rights reserved.
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