Authors: D.J. Palmer
Was it stupid and foolish to meet with a potentially dangerous man?
That was the question on Nina's mind as she sat down across from Hugh Dolan. She didn't know anything about him, not even how he got here, or where he came from. Did his drug addiction make him impulsive, desperate? Did he plan to take her by gunpoint to the ATM for another withdrawal? She'd found him where he said he'd be, in a booth in the back of the Bar and Feather, a speakeasy-themed restaurant in downtown Seabury. Nina had picked this meeting spot because it always drew a sizable crowd even in the early afternoon. Simon was coaching robotics after school, so running into him wasn't a concern.
The first thing Nina noticed was the look of surprise on Hugh's face when he set eyes on her, as if something about Nina's appearance startled him.
Even though the restaurant was dimly lit, the curtains drawn to keep out sunlight, Nina didn't need to see well to know that Hugh Dolan lived a hard life. He looked like his mug shot, but in person his narrow face was more weather-beaten. His skin had no color save for pockets of acne that stuck out like constellations of red stars. Gray streaks ran through greasy hair that fell to his shoulders, and the odor of cigarettes was noticeable from across the table. His arms barely filled out the faded jean shirt he wore. Despite his appearance, to Nina's professional eyes he didn't give off vibes that he posed any physical
danger. Then again, she knew the lengths some addicts would go to for their fix, so she refused to dismiss the possibility outright.
Hugh ordered a whiskey shot with a beer chaser from the black-clad waitress. Nina asked only for a glass of water.
He studied Nina through sunken, hooded eyes, saying nothing for a time until she got the unspoken message. From the wallet she kept in her monogrammed Coach bag, Nina produced five crisp one-hundred-dollar bills. She slid them across the table to Hugh, who counted the money twice, folded the bills carefully in half, then stuffed them in his shirt pocket. After the waitress came by with their drinks, Hugh took his shot, ordered another, and downed half the beer.
“You got this, right?” he said.
Nina heard the steely edge to his voice, casting fresh doubts on her earlier supposition that he wasn't prone to acts of violence.
“Yes, I'll cover the tab,” Nina said, correctly guessing his intent. “But you're not driving, are you?”
She hated how nervous she sounded, wary he might exploit any weakness on her part. Hugh smirked knowingly.
“I can handle myself,” he said. “You look like her, you know that? Your hair mostly.”
Reflexively, her hand went to her head, forgetting for a moment she'd dramatically altered her appearance.
“I look like who?” she asked apprehensively.
Nina's heart sailed to her throat. Now she understood the look of surprise when he first set eyes on her. She hadn't thought that Hugh might bring a picture of the elusive Emma Dolan, but now she prayed he had.
“Do you have a photo of her?” Her voice was barely above a whisper. Perspiration prickled her forehead.
Hugh took out his phone and tapped the screen before presenting Nina with an image of a smiling woman, sitting on a rock at the ocean.
“Happier times,” said Hugh a bit wistfully.
She saw a vague similarity in their faces, Emma's being thinner and longer than Nina's, her nose less pronounced, but the hair was unmistakably the sameâa bob with straight bangs and swept sides. A pit opened in Nina's stomach. It was unsettling to gaze into the face of her near-doppelganger, a dead one at that, but what did it mean?
“I see the similarities, but lots of men have a type,” Nina said, feeling a sudden urge to be protective of the man she still loved.
“True,” Hugh said. “But Simon Fitch isn't like lots of men.”
Nina stiffened in her seat. This was the true purpose of her visit: to find out if there was any truth to Hugh's alarming claims. She probed his eyes, studied his body language, searching for any of the telltale signs of deceit she was trained to recognize. Seeing none, she again studied the picture of Emma Dolan, a woman in her forties with a haircut from a different era.
“What do you mean by that?” she asked.
Hugh downed the second whiskey the waitress brought over before enjoying a few sips of beer. He cleaned the foam from his thin lips with the back of his hand.
Nina lost patience with him. “If I'm not safe,” she said, talking hurriedly now, “why wouldn't you simply explain it to me over the phone? Why the insistence on the money?”
Hugh looked at her like she was dim. “Are you asking where's the goodness in my heart?”
Hugh rolled up his sleeves to reveal for Nina a thin, near-bloodless arm, dotted with scars recognizable as needle injection marks.
“I gave my heart to something else. But I'll make good on my promise. I'll tell you the truth. That was our deal. So tell me, has he isolated you from your friends and family yet? Does he make you question things? Does he try to control your life? Trust me, Nina, you're not safe.”
Nina's throat went dry as a jumble of thoughts came to her, starting with Susanna and Ginny, who not long ago chided her for being so unavailable. But there were always valid reasons causing her to cancel
plans with her friends, and Simon wasn't keeping her from seeing her parents, as Hugh had implied. She hadn't seen them because she didn't want to bring the stress of Simon and Maggie's difficulties to Nebraska, simple as that.
Or is the strife something he's cultivating partly for that purpose?
The question she asked herself took her by surprise. She contemplated Hugh's other allegations.
Does he make you question things? Does he try to control your life?
Nina went silent as her thoughts flickered back to their first big blowup in the new house, the one over the TV remote and the instructions she'd had no memory of giving. And there were other small, rather inconsequential happenings that didn't seem to amount to much when taken as separate incidents, but as a whole began to form a disturbing pattern. There was Maggie's perspective: the trip to Niagara Falls that she clearly thought had been fabricated to make Nina feel guilty about her new job; Simon's thoughtless remarks at the school assembly; the missing homework; and of course, the dark look Maggie had described that Nina, too, had seen on that odd morning when Simon was preparing to cut the neighbor's tree branches.
And don't forget the day he bought you a home gym so you wouldn't have a reason to work out with your friends,
she told herself.
She thought about the dinner with the superintendent that Simon swore he had told her about, and the inappropriate remark about an affairâthe one he later denied making to Ginny.
Nina caught a glimpse of her distorted reflection in Hugh's near-empty beer glass, seeing again the haircut she had gotten at Simon'sâwhat was it? Suggestion? Or was it more than that? No, she'd done it on her own, Nina told herself. She had willfully, enthusiastically, gone to that hair appointment, and made the dramatic change to look like the model in the magazine. A hair appointment Simon had made, she reminded herself, with hopes she'd style her hair to look like Emma Dolan. Other thoughts came to her, a swirl of doubt stirred up as if Hugh were a whirlwind churning up the uncertainty lurking within her. She recalled the mixed message Simon had sent about the job after
gifting her the Coach bag, and found herself wondering if he
intentionally making her question things.
Nina had been deceived before, but the way Simon looked at her, loved her, the things he said, the note he wrote and put in that bag, his touch, the way he connected to her, all made her believe to her core that she wasn't being lied to this time around. And every doubt Hugh's accusations had conjured could easily be countered with some logical explanation.
Safe or not? Who to believe?
“Why do you keep saying I'm not safe?”
Hugh raised his head. His red-rimmed eyes bored into Nina's. His fierce gaze made her cower inwardly, but she didn't let it show on her face.
“Emma didn't kill herself,” Hugh said. “
The accusation did not come as a shock. Simon had told her very clearly that the police had questioned him. Standard procedureâinterview the spouse.
“Why would you say such a thing?” she asked.
“Because I know,” Hugh answered flatly.
“The police didn't think so,” said Nina. “They'd have arrested him.”
“That's because they're idiots,” Hugh said.
And you have a lot of reasons to dislike the police,
thought Nina, seeing Hugh's mug shots in her mind.
“I think my money bought a better answer than that, don't you?”
“I know my sister,” answered Hugh after a moment's pause, “and she wasn't suicidal.” He picked up his phone, again showing Nina the picture of a smiling woman at the seashore. “Does she look depressed to you?”
Nina felt a burst of sympathy for Hugh. “Depression wears many masks,” she said. “I know it's hard to accept, but what we see on the outside doesn't always reflect what's going on inside.” Nina thought it highly doubtful he'd read excerpts from Emma's diary, as she had.
“You sound just like the police,” Hugh said bitterly. “They jumped
right to suicide because Emma was seeing a therapist. But she wasn't in therapy because she was depressed. Simon was making her crazy. She never saw her friends. She stopped seeing me, our parents, all of us. There was always some issue, and Simon was at the center of it all.”
Nina had a theory: Hugh needed someone to blame for Emma's death and found the perfect scapegoat in his former brother-in-law. It gave him a motive for his accusations. What she still didn't have was evidence to refute his claims.
“He controlled her,” Hugh continued. “What she did. Where she went. Everything. He took her over, completely, even what she looked like.”
“That doesn't prove anything, Hugh.”
“Yeah, and neither did her suicide note. It was short and sure as shit didn't explain why she did it. All it said was:
I'm sorry. I can't take this anymore.
What the hell is that? It could have been a note she'd written after a fight. For all I know he had copied her handwriting.”
“Seems like a bit of a stretch to me,” said Nina.
“Maybe, maybe not. What I do know is that Emma had never talked about taking her life. It happened out of the blue. One day she's fine, and the next she ODs intentionally on her pain meds and Ambien.”
But Nina knew all this. Just as she knew that the police had questioned Simon after his wife's death. They'd done a deep dive into his computer, looking for affairs, incriminating Google searches, illegal drug purchases on the Dark Web, contacts with nefarious individuals, recently purchased life insurance policies, finding nothing to make them remotely suspicious. They had talked to friends who said Simon was a wonderful, attentive husband. There were no signs of abuse, no reports of domestic violence.
“Had your sister overdosed at any other time?”
Hugh returned a grim nod. “Yeah, it happened a few times. Her chronic pain was getting tough to manage.”
“Why was she on pain meds?”
Hugh shrugged. “I don't know what started it. Emma had a good
career as an accountant before she quit her job. That was about a year after she and Simon got married. Simon blamed the job for her downfall; said it was too much pressure on her. You ask me, I don't think he ever wanted Emma to work. Didn't like her having her own money. You know that's one way abusers try to control you. Like pushers, man, they make you dependent.”
That revelation would have alarmed Nina, but Simon was extremely generous with his money, even putting her on his checking account, and he'd been excited when she got the job, only voicing major concerns after Maggie started having troubles.
“He was always going on about how he could provide,” Hugh continued. “Then one day, seemingly out of nowhere, Emma starts suffering chronic pain. Work pressures, she said, but I think Simon somehow put the idea in her head so he could get her hooked on pain pills. Next thing you know, she's popping opioids like they're Pez candy. Don't get me wrong, I appreciated her habit.” Nina caught the glint in Hugh's eyes. “Back then, man, it was like any unexplained twinge got an oxy prescription and refills to go with it. Eventually, she ended up leaving her job. She couldn't function anymore.”
Nina knew one cause of chronic pain was depression, which aligned with Simon's story. As a whole, though, despite decades of research, the condition was still poorly understood and notoriously hard to control.
Work pressures. Depression. Chronic pain. Drug abuse. Interesting,
thought Nina. Was Simon afraid that Nina, too, would become overwhelmed with her job and stop functioning, as Emma had done? Maybe Nina's career was a reminder of all he had lost. A part of Nina relaxed because she believed that yes, indeed, that was exactly the case.
“What can you tell me about her otherÂ â¦ overdoses?” Nina gulped on the word.
Hugh's face turned harder, more serious. “Why are you asking? What did Simon tell you?”
“He said he tried to help her, that he tried to induce vomiting.”
Hugh thought a beat before his expression changed as a memory came to him.
“Oh, yeah. Weird you bring that up. We were in the ER waiting roomâSimon, my parents, and me. I remember the docs told him to never do that again if she overdosed.”
There was no delay between her question and the answer, suggesting to Nina that Hugh didn't have to think before he spoke.
Relief washed over Nina.
Simon didn't lie!