Scaling the fence, he dropped silently into the backyard. The grass sloped away from the house toward the creek. It was difficult to tell with the tall trees blocking the moonlight, but Preston was pretty sure he saw a little canoe or rowboat tied up down there. If the creek had been big enough, a river perhaps, Preston felt sure Vince would have owned a yacht. Vince was no slouch when it came to keeping up with the Joneses.
Preston moved toward the French doors on the other side of an elaborate pool and patio area. He passed some fancy brickwork, a built-in grill, lawn furniture. Besides the wind chimes tinkling above him, the creek gurgled nearby and classical music floated from inside. Was Vince not alone?
He probably had his little receptionist with him, Preston decided. Vince didn’t like pets, but neither did he like to be alone.
The contrast between Vince’s house and Joanie’s apartment made Preston shake his head. Somehow Vince always came out ahead.
Good thing that was all going to end tonight. Vince would confess, or his secrets would die with him.
The door was locked. Preston considered the possibility that Vince might have installed an elaborate security system after Joanie moved out, but it wasn’t likely. Using the butt of his gun, he broke out a square of glass near the door handle, then waited to see if there’d be any response from inside.
Nothing. Pulling his sweatshirt down to protect his hand, he reached in, turned the lock and opened the door.
The house was clean and spacious and smelled like an Italian restaurant. The music came from a built-in stereo above a big-screen TV in the living room. Evidently, Vince had gone all out when he’d moved to Cedar Rapids. What he’d done to Dallas hadn’t set him back a bit.
Preston flipped on his flashlight, then paused to examine the pictures on Vince’s shelves. Once there’d been photographs of the four of them going deep-sea fishing in San Francisco Bay, skiing in Park City, shopping in Carmel. Now the only photos Vince displayed were of his parents, who’d been significantly older and had died at least ten years ago.
So where was he?
Preston moved quietly through the house and into the garage. Joanie had said Vince kept a few of his old records out there. He wanted to have a look, just to rule out that possibility.
The file cabinets along the back wall held plenty of folders. But most were empty. Preston couldn’t find anything that had to do with Melanie, Billy or Dallas.
Another dead end. Preston’s gun pressed into his stomach as he rested his head on the cool metal of the filing cabinets. That was it, then. It was up to Vince to tell the truth. One way or another, the agony of the past two years would soon be over. At least there was relief in that.
Striding purposefully into the house again, Preston climbed a flight of stairs that curved away from a vaulted entry. The carpet was so plush he couldn’t hear his own footsteps, and with the music playing, he wasn’t worried that Vince might be alerted to his presence.
Several doors opened off one side of a long hallway. On the other side, a banister overlooked the living room. The first three bedrooms were empty. One room was obviously an office. At the end of the hall, Preston found a set of double doors that stood partway open. He’d located the master bedroom. And probably Vince, as well.
Flicking off his flashlight, Preston nudged the door wider. He thought it’d take a moment for his eyes to adjust to the dark, but inside was a huge lighted aquarium filled with dozens of tropical fish. Vaguely, Preston wondered who fed them and cleaned the tank. Probably the same person who did the cooking and housework.
Preston turned his gaze to the lump in the middle of the bed and pulled his gun out of his waistband. To his surprise, Vince was alone. But it didn’t appear he’d been that way for long. Preston could smell a woman’s perfume.
He strode toward the bed. “What’s the matter, Vince, you run out of Viagra?” he said, giving his old neighbor a nudge with the muzzle of his gun.
Vince snorted and rolled over, then raised his head and squinted at him. “Who is it?”
“Have you forgotten me already, old friend?”
“P-Preston?” Suddenly wide awake, Vince sat up. The past two years hadn’t been kind to him physically. The blankets fell away to reveal a pudgy, white chest with a sprinkling of dark hair, certainly nothing to impress a cute young receptionist. But then, Preston hadn’t seen the receptionist.
“W-what are you d-doing here?” Vince cried.
Preston shrugged. “Thought I’d drop by to say hello. Aren’t you glad to see me?”
Vince had caught sight of the gun. He blinked as though he couldn’t believe what he saw. Then he inched back against the headboard. “You’re n-not the type to d-do this,” he said. “You’d n-never shoot anyone!”
Preston tossed the hair out of his eyes. “I’d say that was true of the Preston you knew two years ago. It’s a funny thing, though, Vince. You wrong a man badly enough, you never know what he might do.”
“B-but you have too much to l-lose.”
“Not anymore, buddy. You took what I had away from me when you killed my son. I have no job, no house, no wife, no family.”
Briefly, Preston thought of Emma and Max. He did have something to lose. Two people he cared about a great deal. But he couldn’t let them stand in his way. He had to do this.
The color fled Vince’s face, leaving it so pale it nearly glowed. “W-where’s Diane?”
“It’s past her curfew, evidently.”
“D-did you make her leave?”
“I would have asked nicely. But I didn’t have to. She was gone when I arrived. So get up. I want to have a conversation with you.”
“Can you leave so I can get dressed?” he said, finally overcoming his stutter.
“To be honest, I don’t think giving you time alone would be in my best interests, Vince.” Preston saw a pair of pants lying on the floor and tossed them over. “Here you go. You won’t need a lot.”
“What are you going to do?” Vince asked as he got out of bed and pulled on his pants.
“We’re going downstairs.”
Vince’s dark hair stood up on the sides like horns. He nervously smoothed it down as he started into the hallway.
“You don’t have to look good for this,” Preston told him.
“I know you won’t believe me, Preston,” he said. “But I didn’t do anything to Dallas. Septicemia can strike any child, anytime. I tried to save him. Lord knows I didn’t want him to die.”