The Cold Room

One

Gavin Adler jumped when a small chime sounded on his computer. He looked at the clock in surprise; it was already 6:00 p.m. During the winter months, darkness descended and reminded him to close up shop, but the daylight savings time change necessitated an alarm clock to let him know when it was time to leave. Otherwise, he’d get lost in his computer and never find his way home.

He rose from his chair, stretched, turned off the computer and reached for his messenger bag. What a day. What a long and glorious day.

He took his garbage with him; his lunch leavings. There was no reason to have leftover banana peels in his trash can overnight. He shut off the lights, locked the door, dropped the plastic Publix bag into the Dumpster, and began the two-block walk to his parking spot. His white Prius was one of the few cars left in the lot.

Gavin listened to his iPod on the way out of downtown. Traffic was testy, as always, so he waited patiently, crawling through West End, then took the exit for I-40 and headed, slowly, toward Memphis. The congestion cleared right past White Bridge, and he sailed the rest of the way. The drive took twenty-two minutes, he clocked it. Not too bad.

He left the highway at McCrory Lane and went to his gym. The YMCA lot was full, as always. He checked in, changed clothes in the locker room, ran for forty-five minutes, worked on the elliptical for twenty, did one hundred inverted crunches and shadow boxed for ten minutes. Then he toweled himself off. He retrieved the messenger bag, left his sneakers in the locker, slipped his feet back into the fluorescent orange rubber Crocs he’d been wearing all day. He left his gym clothes on—they would go straight into the wash.

He went across the street to Publix, bought a single chicken cordon bleu and a package of instant mashed potatoes, a tube of hearty buttermilk biscuits, fresh bananas and cat food. He took his groceries, went to his car, and drove away into the night. He hadn’t seen a soul. His mind was engaged with what waited for him at home.

Dark. Lonely. Empty.

Gavin pulled into the rambler-style house at 8:30 p.m. His cat, a Burmese gray named Art, met him at the door, loudly protesting his empty bowl. He spooned wet food into the cat’s dish as a special treat before he did anything else. No reason for Art to be miserable. The cat ate with his tail high in the air, purring and growling softly.

He hit play on his stereo, and the strains of Dvořák spilled through his living room. He stood for a moment, letting the music wash over him, his right arm moving in concert with the bass. The music filled him, made him complete, and whole. Art came and stood beside him, winding his tail around Gavin’s leg. He smiled at the interruption, bent and scratched the cat behind the ears. Art arched his back in pleasure.

Evening’s ritual complete, Gavin turned on the oven, sprinkled olive oil in a glass dish and put the chicken in to bake. It would take forty-five minutes to cook.

He showered, checked his work e-mail on his iPhone, then ate. He took his time; the chicken was especially good this evening. He sipped an icy Corona Light with a lime stuck in the neck.

He washed up. 10:00 p.m. now. He gave himself permission. He’d been a very good boy.

The padlock on the door to the basement was shiny with promise and lubricant. He inserted the key, twisting his wrist