It had been one hell of a night.
Renee Charlesbois glanced over the diminishing crowd. Sixty, maybe seventy guests were still milling about her new restaurant, finishing off the last of the free appetizers and liquor. Another two hundred had already left, most of them taking her by the hand and telling her how wonderful the evening had been. Success, they assured her, was in the cards. Her cheeks hurt from smiling and her feet were killing her. When she’d opened her first restaurant five years ago, working the room until two in the morning had left her invigorated and giddy. Not so much now.
I’m only thirty-four, she thought. And this isn’t getting any easier.
She slipped in beside Hans Grummer, her maitre d’. “I’ve talked with most everyone, Hans. I’ll be in the kitchen, helping with the cleanup.”
“No, Renee,” he said, his Austrian accent at home in the fashionable dining room. “You’re exhausted. Go home, I’ll handle whatever needs to be done in the kitchen.”
She was going to object, but his stern look told her it wouldn’t matter. “Okay, the leftover food goes to the shelter.”
“As always. Don’t worry. Go home and get some sleep.”
She leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. “What would I do without you?”
“You would stop opening restaurants,” he answered immediately. “And we don’t want that.”
She grinned and looked for the least populated escape route. After a few quick conversations and a handful more accolades, she slipped out the front door and took a deep breath of salty night air. She had chosen the location for this restaurant carefully, remembering the uphill struggle to gain a foothold when she opened her first place. Thinking her name alone would draw a steady clientele was a mistake. Bostonians, it turned out, were about as loyal as a total stranger.
The breeze off the harbor felt good after the artificial cold of the air conditioning and she slipped off her suit jacket as she walked, the August air pleasant on her bare shoulders. Her strides were long and confident, a benefit of being her father’s daughter. Her inquisitive brown eyes and beautiful smile, those were courtesy of her mother.
The parking garage was less than a block away but to her feet, trapped in the high heels, it felt like a marathon. She swiped her access card in the reader, rode the elevator to P4 and hit the key fob. The lights on her Mini Cooper blinked, radiating like a strobe light through the deserted concrete structure, the acrid odor of gasoline lingering in the stuffy air.
She was almost at the car when she saw him. The man was in the process of unlocking a Porsche Carrera four stalls down, but was distracted by the flashing of her car lights. He stopped, looked up and smiled.
“Mini Cooper S,” he said as she neared. “Now that’s a fun car.”
She hesitated a moment, then answered. “Yes, it is.”
He looked back to the driver’s door on the Porsche. For some reason, the key fob wasn’t opening the lock.
Renee stared at his face, now positive she had seen him somewhere. Well dressed, average height and build, with dark hair and glasses with thick black frames. He was about her age, mid-thirties, with fair skin and clean-shaven. Then it clicked, she had seen him mingling earlier that evening at her opening. That was reassuring, but her fingers tightened on the small canister of mace in her handbag.
“You were at Chance tonight,” she said. “The new restaurant up the street.”
He looked up again from the key fob, which was refusing to work. “Yes, I was. You as well?”
“I own it,” she said.
He smiled again, and walked around the Porsche toward her. “Then you must be Renee Charlesbois.”
She nodded, and her grip on the mace loosened. “I am.”
“I’m visiting from the west coast. A friend invited me – Doctor Bernard Rhonell. I’m sorry I didn’t get an opportunity to personally thank you. The entire evening was fantastic. I think your new venture should do well.” He had an easy smile that revealed even, off-white teeth.
She looked at him across the hood of her car. “You were Bernie’s guest?” she asked.
“I was,” he replied. “I’m a fellow anesthesiologist. We went to school together at UCLA.”
“And you are?” She let go of the mace.
He tapped himself on his forehead and shook his head. “How rude of me. Liem Khilt.” He reached across the hood of the car and she took his hand. She felt a tiny prick as they shook, but a split-second later the sting was gone.
He glanced inside the Mini Cooper. “I had one of these for a couple of years. Everything about it was fun. Sometimes I wish I hadn’t sold it.”
“I took a quick test drive and bought it,” Renee said, rubbing her hand. It felt like a tiny thorn had pricked her. “Love at first sight.” She leaned against the car as her balance momentarily deserted her.
He watched her without speaking.
“Oh, my.” Renee grabbed at the roof of the car. “I don’t feel well.” She started sliding down the driver’s door and Khilt came rushing around the car to catch her.
“Perhaps you had too much to drink.” He steadied her by wrapping his arm around her waist.
She shook her head. It was a monumental task. “No, I don’t drink.”
Her eyes slowly closed and she collapsed into his arms. He gently lifted one eyelid gently, then let it drift shut. He fished her keys from the concrete where she had dropped them, lifted her up and walked around to the passenger door. He opened it and slid her unconscious body onto the soft leather. When she was propped up against the seat, he reached across and snapped the seat belt in place. Then he closed the door and jumped into the driver’s side.
“That was easy,” he said, taking a quick glance at the sleeping woman. “Almost too easy.”
He started the Mini and pulled out of the parking lot, keeping to the speed limit while skirting the waterfront. After a few blocks he cut inland and headed east through the city, parallel to the Charles River, past Fenway Park and into Brighton.
Traffic was light and he made good time exiting the city, pulling up in front of an acreage just before midnight. He parked the car in the attached garage and pulled Renee’s inert body from the front seat. Inside the garage a stairwell led to the basement and he hoisted her over his shoulder and started down. The air cooled slightly as he descended to the bottom where a short hallway led to a heavy wood door with a small, six-inch hole at eye height. He pulled the door open and entered the room.
It had been a wine cellar and the racks were still bolted to the walls. A toilet and sink had recently been installed, and it was sparsely furnished with a cot and a metal chair. The ceiling was low and made of poured concrete with metal I-beams to support the weight of the cars parked in the garage above. He laid her on the cot and smiled.
He left the room, locking the wooden door securely behind him.