A Night at the Royale – a Pequod Short Story

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At 7:30 PM, with two tickets to the movie of Liz Alexander’s choice, Liz and her husband Ed bought a large Diet Coke and some popcorn and headed into the theater at the Pequod Mall. Two hours later, they came out and headed to the rest rooms.

“Meet you right here,” Liz called to him as they separated.

A few minutes later Liz emerged and was surprised Ed was not there to meet her. He always took less time. She looked around the theater lobby, and not seeing him, sat down on one of the padded benches. Craning her neck, she searched around the lobby and still did not see him. After five minutes, she started to worry and walked around looking for him. Why had she left her cell phone at home? Did Ed have his? After ten minutes, she went up to the gangly teenager taking tickets and asked, “My husband left me to use the rest room. He hasn’t come back. Can you look in the rest room and make sure he isn’t sick or something? His name is Ed Alexander.”

When the kid came out, he spread his hands and said. “I called for a Mr. Alexander but no one in there answered. Sorry.”

“Do you have a cell phone I could use? I can call him.”

“Okay, I guess,” the kid replied with an annoyed tone, pulling his cell phone out of his pocket. Liz dialed Ed’s cell phone number, but it immediately went to voice mail. Damn. His phone is off. Where IS he?

Liz sat down again. Where could he have gone? Maybe he’s waiting outside instead of in here. She stood up and headed out the main doors, looking around as she did. When she didn’t see him in the plaza area outside the theater, she though, Maybe he’s getting the car. I’ll go out to the drive and wait until he pulls around.

After standing by the side of the drive for another ten minutes, Liz became totally panicked. I don’t even know where he parked, he dropped me off to get the tickets. What the hell do I do now?

She decided to check one more time in the theater and talked her way back inside by asking for the manager.

“What seems to be the problem?” he asked, with smarmy concern and a check of his comb-over with his hand.

“Well, I seem to have lost my husband,” Liz answered, trying to keep her tone light and not betray her overwhelming anxiety. “I had the bathroom checked. Could you check in the other movies?”

“That would be very disruptive to our customers, don’t you think? You could just wait until each movie lets out, see if he comes out with the crowd. I’m sure he’s here somewhere. Of course, it’s not allowed to attend more than one movie on a single ticket, so if he’s gone into another movie, we’ll have to charge him.”

Liz exploded. “Don’t you understand? My husband has disappeared! Gone! I cannot reach him!”

“Have you tried calling home?”

“I don’t have my cell phone, but I borrowed one and called him. His phone is off.”

“Let me call security for you. Perhaps they can straighten this out.”

A caricature of an overweight mall cop finally came and took down her information and listened patiently while Liz explained one more time what had happened. By this time, she was hyperventilating and had to sit down on the theater bench again.

“He didn’t say anything to you when he left for the restroom?” asked the cop.

“No, nothing!”

“Have you and your husband been having any difficulties lately?”

“What? Why would you ask that? No, of course not. I love my husband and he loves me. There’s nothing wrong.”

“Can you tell me what kind of car you drive?”

“It’s a Jeep Grand Cherokee, about five years old, dark green, license plate HVN 405,” Liz answered automatically, without waiting for more specific questions.

After a few more agonizing minutes of interrogation, the cop did go into each theater and ask the patrons if there was an Ed Alexander in the audience. There wasn’t. In the meantime, more security was called to search the parking lot for the car but didn’t find it. Finally, the Pequod police were called.

The man who arrived introduced himself as John Smith. Liz looked him over and decided he was the most unremarkable man she’s ever seen: brown hair, brown eyes, medium height and weight, plain Jane facial features. The two things that did impress her was his voice – a deep, rich bass – and the intelligence and thoughtfulness with which he interviewed her, taking down every detail.

He took Liz home, suggesting with some hope in his voice her that husband would be waiting for her when she got there. But he wasn’t. Officer Smith came in with her and made a thorough search of the house. Finding nothing suspicious, he asked Liz, “Look, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence of foul play here. Is there anything missing?”

Liz had already looked in the closets and drawers to see if anything obvious was missing. “No, everything seems to be fine,” she replied.

“Well, you can file a missing person’s report in 24 hours if your husband doesn’t show up.

I can see how much you’re worried, but he’s probably just off having a night with the boys or taking a break. It’s been my experience when this happens, the spouse always comes home.”

     Haven’t had that experience, thought Liz. Ed had come into her life four years earlier, at a time when she’d been divorced for two years. Her first marriage never should have happened; she was too young and her husband became a stranger who liked alcohol better than her and beating her even more. Without a college degree, she had been stuck in part-time, menial jobs. It was nothing less than a miracle she had found the courage to leave him, but after moving back in with her parents, she’d been so depressed she’d even contemplated suicide. All that changed when she met Ed at a church dinner.

He was everything she could have hoped for. Older than she but with a youthful outlook – supportive, funny, and encouraging. He had a good job as the owner of a medium-sized insurance firm and took her to nice restaurants and treated her with respect and kindness. After her miserable experience, she couldn’t help falling for him and occasionally wondered how she could have been this lucky. They were married six months later. At Ed’s insistence, Liz had gone back to a community college to take business courses and was currently managing his office. Being married to Ed was good, even if she had married him on the rebound. The only thing lacking was a child.

Before he left that night, Officer Smith gave her his card. “If you need anything, or think of anything, give me a call.”

Liz found some small comforted in his words. After the patrol car had driven away, she called all their friends and her parents. No one had seen Ed. She went through the house again, this time more thoroughly, but still couldn’t find anything out of place. She believed all of Ed’s clothes were there, but then she didn’t monitor what he wore.

Later, her mother Alice came over to sit with her while Liz waited by the phone, desperately hoping for a call from Ed or Officer Smith. Her Mom, small, with tightly curled white hair and a sharp nose that suited her personality, made her coffee, hugged her, and made sympathetic noises. By late the next morning, when the secretary from work called to ask why Ed and Liz were not there, Liz made the excuse they would both down with bad colds and asked her to cancel any appointments and reschedule them. At that point, her mother finally started to ask questions which alternately made her mad and despairing.

“I know that not all marriages are made in heaven, dear. Goodness knows, your first one was a disaster.”

“I know, Mom.”

“Were you and Ed having any problems? You know, maybe not having children?”

“No, Mom, we were actually talking about adopting.”

“Do you think the idea of having a child at his age might have frightened him off?”

“NO, Mom, he was okay with it.”

This line of questioning went on rad nauseum until Liz filed the missing person’s report, at which time her mother went home. Once the report was filed, Liz broke the news to the office and consulted a lawyer about the business. She discovered that Ed had recently written a will, which stated that in the case of his death or disappearance, Liz was to run the business. Once his death was established, the company would come to her. The wording was odd.

     Disappearance? Liz wondered. But why? Did he want to leave me? No, something must have happened to him. We’ve been happy together, haven’t we? Inevitably, she started dissecting her marriage, looking for any hint that Ed wasn’t happy, something she might have done. True, Ed had been a little short-tempered and preoccupied the last few months, but when she’d asked if anything was bothering him, he’d told her everything was fine. She spent hours going over and over this in her mind, unable to focus on her work, until the day the police found his car.

Officer Smith called her at work to tell her Ed’s car had been located at the Bangor airport in the fly-and-ride lot. It had been there, according to the attendant, since the night Ed had disappeared. In the car were keys, phone, and some clothes. No wallet. The police had brought the car in for forensic technicians to examine and Officer Smith brought the belongings to Liz for identification.

“Yes, those are his keys and phone,” replied Liz to the Smith’s gentle questioning.

“Are you sure these are his clothes?”

Liz separated the neatly folded pile. “Yes. This is what he was wearing that night.” As she got to the bottom of the pile, she inhaled sharply. At the bottom of the pile were his underwear, socks and shoes. “Oh my God, the people who took him must have stripped him!” she cried.

“I know this doesn’t look good,” Smith said calmly, placing his hand on her arm, “but there was no sign of foul play in the car.”

“No blood?”

“No, ma’am.”

“What are you doing about this? Have you found anything else? It’s been more than a week, and I know from all those TV shows that after 48 hours, there is a decreasing probability that you will find him!”

“Come on, let’s sit down and talk about this.” Smith led her to the kitchen table and sat down opposite. “First of all, we asked the FBI to run a check to see if he’s used his credit cards. So far, nothing. We’re checking all the flights the left the airport around the time the car was parked. We’re also checking the car for fingerprints and any trace evidence that might help us find him. We’re also going to look at whatever footage is available from the airport’s security cameras. Do you have a recent picture we could use?

Liz thought for a minute and then realized there were no recent pictures. Ed was camera shy. “No, I’m sorry I don’t. Can you use his driver’s license photo?”

“I assure you we’ll let you know as soon as we find anything at all.” This last was said reassuringly, but Liz just shook her head and walked him to the front door.

Officer Smith took her hand and covered it with his other. “You take care of yourself,” he told her.

A week later he returned, just after the dinner Liz would normally have eaten, but now had no stomach for. She let him in and sat with him in the living room, making sure that he did not sit in Ed’s chair.

“I just wanted to bring you up to date on the investigation,” Smith said by way of explanation for this visit.

“Have you found anything?” she asked hopefully, even though she’d known from the moment she opened the front door the news wasn’t going to be good.

“No, Mrs. Alexander, we haven’t. Your husband wasn’t on any of the flights leaving the airport around the time his car was left off, and we’ve spent quite some time examining tape from the security cameras placed around the airport terminal. No one resembling your husband was seen. The techs examined your car very carefully but found no fingerprints other than yours, your husband’s, and your mother’s. His credit cards have still not been used. At this point, we seem to have hit a dead end.”

Liz’s head and shoulders sagged.

“Now, ma’am, don’t give up. We’ll continue to look. We won’t give up, I promise, and you shouldn’t either.” The kindness in the man’s voice finally registered, and Liz looked up. She had been so miserable, she didn’t even remember his name. He had told her, had given her his card, but it hadn’t registered.

“Officer…?” she began.

“Smith, Mrs. Alexander. John Smith – you, know, the man who was saved by Pocahontas?”

Liz had to smile. “Officer Smith, you’ve been so very kind and very supportive. I want you to know how much I appreciate what you’ve done. Of course, I’ll not give up. I’ll never give up…”

“That’s the right attitude, ma’am. Keep your chin up.” He smiled back at her.

Liz and Officer Smith talked for some time after that, about Ed, her marriage, her job, and about his work for the Pequod Police Department, and his boss, Sam Brewster. By the time he left, she felt a little stronger. Over the next week, she somehow managed to go to work and focus, but she couldn’t hold down food, and at the insistence of her mother, finally went to see her physician. Liz was shocked when she was told she was pregnant and burst into tears. How could you? she thought, finally angry at Ed and at the same time guilty about being angry. Leaving me just when we are going to have a child! Your child whom you’ll never see. How could you do that to me?

By the time two months had passed, during which her middle had expanded slightly but not as much as her anger at Ed, she decided to have the company’s books audited. What she found shocked her. Ed had been embezzling money and had left her with a nearly bankrupt company. Why did he do this? Why didn’t I not see this? What did he need the money for? she asked herself, again and again.

Liz sold the house and Ed’s car and moved to an apartment, using the money to prop up what she now thought of as her business. By that time, six months had slipped by, and Liz found that she could go for hours at a time and not think about Ed. When John Smith continued to call on her, never with any news but just to talk, she found she enjoyed his attention and eventually they had dinner together.

The following evening, her mother came over to bring some baby things she’d knitted.

“I called you last night but there was no answer,” she said offhandedly to Liz.

“I know, Mom. I wasn’t home, but I got your message.”

“Why didn’t you call back?”

“Because it was late when I got home, and I was tired.”

“Where were you?”

Her mother had always pried into her private life, but never more so since Ed disappeared. She sighed. “I went out to dinner, Mom.”

“That’s nice. With some of the people from the office?”

“No.”

“So, who did you go out with?”

“John Smith.”

“Why would anyone name their child John Smith! Who’s he? Someone you work with?”

“No, he’s the policeman who is handling Ed’s case.”

“I can’t believe you went out on a date, Liz! It’s not seemly. It’s only been a few months since Ed disappeared. He might come home any day now.”

“It’s nearly a year now, Mom, and I’m tired of waiting for something that might not happen. John is just a nice man, and I wanted to get out of this house and enjoy the company of a person of the opposite sex. He isn’t trying to seduce me, it was hardly a date. Look at me! I’m more than eight months pregnant. How attractive do you think I am?”

“Well, I still don’t think you’re behaving properly. A year isn’t that long, after all.”

Liz sighed. Her mother had been a strong support for her in the days after Ed’s disappearance, and she was grateful for that, but soon Alice had begun criticizing her, something she’d done since Liz was a little girl: she shouldn’t be working, she should exercise more, she wasn’t eating the right foods, she was gaining too much weight.

Bite me, Mom! How long do you wait for a man who disappeared without a trace? Without even his clothes. Two years, five years, ten years? Why isn’t she blaming Ed? Doesn’t she get how really angry I am?

Liz continued seeing John socially, who didn’t seem to mind the fact she was pregnant and deserted by her husband. Despite his unremarkable appearance, he was gentle, supportive, intelligent, and funny. He made her laugh, which she needed desperately. Over a few weeks, she came to trust him and found herself considering whether she should allow the relationship to develop any further.

One Saturday afternoon toward the end of her pregnancy, when her back hurt and her feet were swollen, there was a knock on the door. Liz opened it. It was Ed. He had dyed his hair a lighter shade of brown and was wearing a cheap-looking business suit and garish tie. Good Will, she immediately thought. Her mouth opened to say something, but no words emerged. Her stomach sank.

“Well, aren’t you going to welcome me home?” Ed asked, with a smile, as if he had been away on one of his business trips. “Miss me?” He reached for her to give her a hug.

Liz pulled back and just stood there, trying to figure out what to say. Finally she squawked, “Miss you? You bastard. Do you know what hell you put me through? And you just show up like nothing’s happened? How could you do that?”

“Let me come in and I’ll explain. You did miss me, didn’t you?”

Liz realized when the original shock of him being gone had passed, she hadn’t really missed him all that much. She remembered little cruelties and during the months before his disappearance, his disinterest. She loved her work, it kept her busy, and John Smith had stepped in and filled her life.

She stood in the doorway for a long moment, blocking his entrance, thinking about how to handle his return. They stared at each other, and finally she said thoughtfully, “I did miss you at first. Why did you disappear? Why did you embezzle from the company? I don’t even know you. I’m not sure I ever knew you. I need time to think about this. Call me later.”

“But Liz, this is my home, too. You’re renting it with proceeds from the sale of our house, aren’t you?”

“It’s my name on the lease. I want you to leave now.”

“Why would I want to leave? You’re the mother of my future child, and its birth is imminent by the looks of it. It is mine, isn’t it? I have a right to be part of its life. Plus you have done wonders with my business. So I am asking you again, nicely, may I come in?”

“No. Call me later.” She slammed the door in his face and locked it. Liz counted to ten and then carefully peeked out the front window. Ed, scowling, stood on the stairs for a minute, then walked back across the street to a compact car that looked like a rental. After a few minutes, he peeled out.

Where had he come from? What had he been doing all this time? And why did he come back now? Her sense of outrage grew. Of course, now the business is doing well. He’s going to want it back! She headed to the phone to call the company’s lawyer. Unfortunately, Ed had gotten to him first. The lawyer told her Ed was still the owner of the company since he hadn’t died. Plus the will had specified that unless his death was confirmed, Liz was just to run the business in his absence.

     What a fool I was, she thought after she hung up. I should have just let the business fold and his reputation get dragged through the dirt! He deserves it for what he did to me. Where is the man I married? She sat down with a cup of tea, pondered her situation, and eventually decided to wait until Ed called. Once he gave her an explanation about why he’d left and where he’d been, she could decide what to do. But he didn’t call.

She finally called John to tell him of Ed’s return and he came over immediately. Other than provide a sympathetic shoulder, there was nothing he could do to help her. Their relationship would now remain unspoken, undeclared.

When Liz went into work the next day, she figured she’s see Ed, and sure enough, he was there, sitting in her office at her desk. Her things were piled outside the door. Ed motioned her to come in and sit down.

“How are you?” he asked solicitously.

“Doing fine. Why are my belongings outside on the floor? Where do you want me to sit?”

“Nowhere. I’m letting you go. I can run the business myself and I’ve talked to your mother. You need to take care of our baby.”

Liz felt like the floor had dropped out from under her and shifted in her seat to establish that she was still sitting. “How am I supposed to support myself?”

“I suggest you move in with Alice, but don’t worry. I’ll send you a check every week and I’ll take care of your medical bills…and the rent if you don’t want to move. Once the baby is born, I’m divorcing you and I plan to sue for joint custody, at the least. After all, you won’t have a means of support.”

“Well, I’ve already filed for divorce,” Liz bluffed.

“Go ahead. You won’t get a cent,” Ed said with a certainty filling Liz with rage.

“So was our marriage just a joke to you? Did you ever really love me?” Here it comes.

“Well, I’ll admit at first you were such a pathetic little thing, just begging for attention and so needy that you appealed to me, sort of like a cute little kitten. Your clinging and devotion were pretty flattering at first, but it got old quick.”

“So why did you send me to school and give me a job here?”

“To get you out of my hair, and because I needed a dedicated and able person to set the ship right in case I jumped.”

“Jumped? Why?” Because you’re an asshole.

“Because I found someone smart and beautiful I wanted to spend time with. She turned out to be an expensive bitch, but I had a good time with her until the money ran out.”

“So where is she?” In hell, I hope.

“Not sure. Maybe in Cabo, where I left her.”

“All those business trips you were with her?”

“Yup.”

“Who is she?” I’d like to rip her hair out.

“No one you know.”

Ah, but I’d like to. “Bastard. I’m still your wife and this business is as much mine as yours now.”

“Surely you’re smart enough to know that the business is in my name. It was nice of you to save it for me.”

“And how do you think you are going to keep it going with me gone?” He’ll just do it all over again.

“I’m sure can find a replacement.”

Liz slammed out of the office, leaving her belongings behind. When she got back to her apartment, her first phone call was to a ball-busting female divorce attorney she’d met at a town dinner for business owners.

After explaining the situation, Liz asked, “What are my rights here?”

The attorney answered, “Basically, if you divorce him, you get half of what the business is worth. Of course, you have to pay him half of the proceeds of the house, if it wasn’t all put back into the business. But I’m warning you, it’s going to be a battle to get you even that, unless we can prove beyond a shadow of a doubt he was embezzling. After all, it’s his company. He’s going to fight and things are going to get nasty.”

“But I had the books audited and he even admitted he took the money!”

“You know he’ll have his own accountants go over the books and I’m betting he’s already doctored them. It will end up in a vicious he said, she said fight, and it’ll take time and cost you. How will you pay?”

Liz spent the rest of the day walking aimlessly around her apartment, talking to herself. One thing Ed didn’t know was that he had her own savings account, which she’d originally meant to be for a rainy day or special gifts for him. It was fairly substantial by this point, plus she had added some of the money from the sale of the house. She calculated it would be eaten up by her lawyer’s bills, the necessary accountants, and the divorce settlement.

Two weeks went by. Liz met with her lawyer, who had concluded Liz might get a reasonable settlement, but it was going to take months of bitter negotiation. The question of custody of her child was complicated. In the meantime, Liz had quietly looked for a job, but in the current economy, companies weren’t looking to hire a very pregnant woman, no matter how qualified she was. Ed was sending her weekly checks, which were enough to pay for food and a tank of gas. The rent was paid, but Ed had insisted on accompanying her to her latest visit to the obstetrician, as a condition of his paying her medical bills. She threw a tantrum when he insisted on coming into the examining room with her. Her physician, to whom she had confided her story, made him stay in the waiting room.

She knew all of this was designed to make her quit and give up everything, but the thought didn’t make it any easier. At least John had stuck with her; they had dinner together most nights and he spent his weekends taking her on outings to distract her from her troubles.

Liz had screwed up the courage to tell her mother what was going on, the day after Ed returned. Her mother had been so insistent Ed was not to blame that Liz found ways to avoid her. This day, her mother wouldn’t accept Liz was not home and made such a scene at her door ,Liz had to let her in.

“I knew he’d be back,” said her mother confidently, ignoring Liz’s scowl as she settled into a comfortable chair and prepared for another blame game. “He even called me before he came to see you. A considerate thing to do, considering he’d been on such a long trip.”

Liz sighed with exasperation. “Just another lie, Mom. Can’t you recognize that?”

“I recognize that he loves you, sweetie. Look at all he’s done. Letting you be at home so you can rest.”

“When are you going to see the truth, Mom? He left me without a word, left the business flat broke from his embezzlement, gallivanted around with another woman and expected me to pick up the pieces. Which I did, and now he comes back and fires me!”

“Oh, I don’t think that’s right. He’s taking care of you, paying the bills.”

“He’s paying my rent and the medical bills, if that’s what you mean. What about his decision to seek sole custody of the baby? Surely you don’t think I’d be an unfit mother?”

“Oh, I’m sure he was just angry when he said that. He went with you to your doctor’s appointments, didn’t he?”

“Mom, have you listened to anything I’ve said?”

“I listen to everything you say, Liz. I think you are just emotional because of all the pregnancy hormones. Ed is a decent man. He doesn’t want you working while you are pregnant, that’s all.”

Liz gave up and let her mother prattle on. Around five, she made a phone call and then suggested that they go out for dinner at Roy Rogers, which delighted her mother. She more than held up her end of the conversation for most of the meal, while Liz hardly said a word. “What’s wrong with you?” her mother finally asked. “Why are you just picking at your food? You’re eating for two now and that baby needs to be fed.”

Liz bit down hard on her tongue and picked up her fork.

When they were finishing, Liz suggested, “I’m feeling pretty good tonight. Let’s go to a movie. I think I might like to see that new Jennifer Anniston comedy.”

“Where is it playing?”

“At the Royale.”

For the first time all evening, her mother showed some sympathy for her daughter. “Are you okay going back there, after everything that’s happened?”

“It’s the only multiplex that has it.”

“Well, I’d enjoy it if you’re sure you’re going to be okay.”

Liz drove to the Royale and dropped her mother off to get the tickets while she parked the car. After the movie was over, Liz told her mother she had to use the restrooms. The baby was pressing on her bladder.

Her mother went with her, then waited for her out in the lobby. When Liz didn’t come out of the restroom after ten minutes, she went in to look for her but didn’t find her. She went to the kid taking tickets and asked, “Can you help me? I seem to have lost my daughter. She’s eight months pregnant.” The mall cops were called and a search of the movie theater yielded no sign of Liz. When the Pequod Police finally arrived and searched the parking lot, Liz’s car was not there. A week later, her car was located at a distant airport in the fly-an- ride lot. All her clothes were inside, together with her phone and her keys.

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