About the Author

Joy Fielding

Books by this Author
All the Wrong Places
Excerpt

Chapter One

“So, tell me about yourself,” he says. He smiles what he hopes is a sweet smile—neither too big nor too small, one that hints at a wry, maybe even offbeat sense of humor that he thinks would appeal to her. He wants to charm her. He wants her to like him.

The young woman sitting across from him at the immaculately set table for two hesitates. When she speaks, her voice is soft, tremulous. “What do you want to know?”

She is beautiful: late twenties, porcelain skin, deep blue eyes, long brown hair, just the right amount of visible cleavage. Exactly as advertised, which isn’t always the case. Usually the photos they post are a few years old, the women themselves older still. “Well, for starters, why a dating app? I mean, you’re gorgeous. I can’t imagine you’d have any trouble meeting guys, especially in a city like Boston.”

She hesitates again. She’s shy, thoughtful as opposed to self-absorbed. Something else he likes. “I just thought it would be fun,” she admits. “All my friends are on them. And I’ve kind of been out of the dating scene for a while . . .”

“You had a boyfriend?”

She nods. “We broke up about four months ago.”

“You broke up with him?”

“Actually, no. He broke up with me.”

He laughs. “I find that hard to believe.”

“He said he wasn’t ready to be tied down,” she offers without prompting. Her eyes fill with tears. Several escape without warning, clinging to her bottom lashes.

Instinctively he reaches across the table to wipe them away, careful not to disturb her mascara. “You miss him,” he says.

“No,” she says quickly. “Not really. It’s just hard sometimes. It’s more being part of a couple I miss, our friends . . .”

“Were you together long?”

“A little over a year. What about you?”

He smiles. She’s trying, he thinks. Even though he can see her heart isn’t really in it. Still, some women never even think to ask. “Me? No. It’s been a while since I’ve been in a serious relationship. But we were talking about you.”

She looks toward her plate. She hasn’t touched her food, and he spent hours preparing it, letting the expensive steaks marinate all afternoon, wrapping the large Idaho potatoes in tinfoil for baking, arranging the watermelon and feta cheese salad just so on the delicate floral china, wanting to impress her. Maybe she’s a vegetarian, he thinks, although there was nothing on her profile to indicate that.

He should have asked when he suggested dinner. “Tell me about your childhood,” he says now.

She looks surprised. “My childhood?”

“I’m assuming you had one.” Again, the sweet smile hinting at greater depths.

“It was pretty ordinary. Nothing much to tell.”

“I’m guessing upper middle class,” he offers, hoping to stimulate the conversation. “Comfortable lifestyle, maybe a nanny or a housekeeper, parents who loved you, made sure you had everything your little heart desired.”

“Not really. Well, maybe at first,” she agrees tentatively. “Until I was about six and my parents got divorced. Then everything changed.”

“How so?”

“We had to move. My mom had to go back to work. My dad remarried a woman we didn’t like. We were always being shuffled back and forth.”

“We?”

“My brothers and I.”

“I like that you say ‘I,’?” he interrupts. “Most people would say ‘me.’ They have no respect for grammar. Or maybe they just don’t know the difference between the subject and the object of a sentence. I don’t know.” He shrugs, sensing her mounting discomfort. Not everyone is as concerned with grammar as he is. “How many brothers do you have?” he asks, aiming for safer ground.

“Two. One’s in New York. The other one’s in L.A.”

“And your mom? Where is she?”

“Here. In Boston.”

“Does she know where you are tonight? Well, how could she?” he asks, answering one question with another. “Don’t think she’d approve of your agreeing to have dinner in a stranger’s apartment, would she? Are you always this adventurous?” He cocks his head to one side, a gesture some have called charming, and waits for her response.

Another hesitation. “No.”

“Should I be flattered? ’Cause I’m feeling kind of flattered here, I gotta admit.”

She blushes, although whether the sudden redness in her cheeks is from embarrassment or anticipation, he isn’t sure.

“Is it because I’m so good-looking?” He says this playfully, accompanied by yet another smile, his sweetest one so far, and although she doesn’t respond, he knows he’s right. He is that good-looking. (“Pretty boy,” his father used to sneer.) Much better-looking than the picture he posted on the dating site, which in truth isn’t a picture of him at all, just some shirtless model with handsomely generic features and washboard abs whose photograph he saw in a Men’s Health magazine.

Good-looking enough to make a woman silence the nagging voice in her head warning her to beware, to follow him out of the crowded bar where they’d agreed to meet and go with him to his apartment near Sargent’s Wharf, where he’s promised a gourmet feast.

“You’re not eating,” he says. “Is the steak too rare for you?”

“No. I just can’t . . .”

“Please. You have to at least try it.” He cuts a piece of meat from his own plate and extends his fork across the table toward her mouth. “Please,” he says again, as blood drips from the steak to stain the white tablecloth.

She opens her mouth to receive the almost raw piece of meat.

“Chew carefully,” he advises. “Wouldn’t want you to choke.”

“Please . . .” she says, as the cellphone in his pocket rings.

“Hold on. I’ll just be a minute.” He removes the phone from his pocket and swipes its thin face from left to right, then lifts it to his ear. “Well, hello there,” he says, lowering his voice seductively, his lips grazing the phone’s smooth surface. Finally, he thinks.

“Hi,” the woman on the other end of the line responds. “Is this . . . Mr. Right Now?” She giggles and he laughs. Mr. Right Now is the name he goes by on the multiple dating sites to which he subscribes.

“It is. Is this . . . Wildflower?”

“It is,” she says, more than a trace self-consciously, not as comfortable with pseudonyms as he is.

“Well, Wildflower,” he says. “I’m so glad you called.” He’s been anticipating this moment for what feels like forever.

“Are you still in Florida?” she asks. “Is this a bad time?”

“No. It’s perfect. I just got back into town about an hour ago.”

“How’s your mother?”

“Much better. Thanks for asking. How are you?”

“Me? I’m fine.” She hesitates. “I was thinking maybe you were right, that it’s time we give this another try.”

“No maybes about it,” he says, eager to nail her down. “At least on my end. How about Wednesday?”

“Wednesday is good.”

“Great. Are you familiar with Anthony’s Bar, over on Boylston? I know it’s usually crowded and it can be pretty noisy, but—”

“Anthony’s is great,” she says, as he knew she would. Crowded, noisy bars are always a woman’s preferred place to meet.

He smiles at the woman sitting across the table, notes the tears now wriggling freely down her cheeks. He checks his watch, making no move to wipe the tears away. Anthony’s Bar is where he met her less than two hours ago. He is being rude and insensitive.

“Say six o’clock?” he says into the phone.

“Six is good.”

“No more last-minute cancellations?”

“I’ll be there at six on the button.”

“No!” his dinner companion shouts unexpectedly. “Don’t . . .”

He is instantly on his feet, his hand sweeping across the table to slap her hard across the face. It connects with such ferocity that the chair to which she is securely tied, her hands handcuffed behind her back, teeters on its hind legs and threatens to fall, causing the noose looped around her neck to tighten. He watches as she gasps frantically for air. Another minute of flailing uselessly about and she will likely lose consciousness.

He’s not ready for that. He isn’t done with her yet.

“What was that?” the woman calling herself Wildflower asks.

“What was what?” he asks easily in return, walking around the table to steady the chair, then covering the frantic woman’s mouth with his free hand. “Oh. Probably just the TV. Some guy getting the shit kicked out of him. Excuse the language.”

A second’s silence. He can almost feel Wildflower smile.

“Are you going to tell me your real name?” she ventures.

“I’ll tell you mine if you tell me yours,” he replies flirtatiously. A lie. He never tells any of the women his real name. “Although I gotta say, I kind of like Wildflower.”

“Then suppose we leave things the way they are for now.”

“Till Wednesday, then,” he says.

“Till Wednesday.”

“Looking forward to it.”

He returns the phone to his pocket and removes his hand from the woman’s mouth. “If you scream, I’ll stick this steak knife in your eye,” he says calmly, brandishing its serrated edge in front of her face. The noose around her neck is now buried inside her flesh. He doubts she has enough air to scream, even if she were so inclined. Still, he’d underestimated her before.

She’d been so easy. Almost too easy. Mesmerized by his beautiful exterior, she’d gone along with his every suggestion, agreeing to leave the dark, crowded bar to enjoy a home-cooked dinner in his apartment, then eagerly sitting down at the small, round table with its white linen tablecloth already in place, not comprehending the danger she was in until her hands were handcuffed behind her and the rope was literally around her throat.

She’d tried so hard, been so compliant, going along with his silly game of pretending they were on a real date, answering his stupid questions, even offering up a few of her own, undoubtedly hoping to save her life. And even when she recognized this for the pipe dream it was, when the phone call convinced her that she was simply one of many, that there was nothing special about her, and that he was already moving forward, who’d have thought she’d have the gumption to try warning his next victim? He admires that.

Not that it matters.

He resumes his seat at the table and calmly finishes his meal, careful to chew each piece of meat thirty times, as his father used to insist. He hopes she won’t do anything stupid, something that will make it necessary to finish her off quickly. He wants to take his time with her, show her he’s more than just a pretty face.

He smiles, hoping to convey that she has his full attention. She deserves that. But even as he lifts the last piece of steak toward his lips, his imagination is already leaping ahead.

To Wednesday.

And the woman who will be his crowning achievement: Wildflower.

Chapter Two

Three weeks earlier

At just after seven a.m. Paige Hamilton woke up to find her mother sitting on the side of her bed in her pajamas, her normally youthful features betrayed by a series of worried lines that made her look every one of her seventy years.

“Mom?”

“How was your date last night?”

“You woke me up to ask about my date?”

“How was it?

“Not good.” Paige pushed herself up on her elbows, recalling last night’s unfortunate rendezvous as she shook her shoulder-length brown hair from her eyes. The man had been at least twenty pounds heavier and five inches shorter than his profile on Match Sticks indicated. What was the matter with these guys? Did they think that women didn’t have eyes, that they wouldn’t notice the discrepancy?

“That’s too bad,” her mother said. “You thought he sounded promising.”

“Mom . . . what’s going on?”

“I don’t want to worry you.”

“Too late for that.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t apologize. Tell me what’s wrong.”

Her mother’s sigh shook the double bed. “I think I might be having a stroke.”

Paige was instantly on her feet, dancing abstract circles on the hardwood floor. “What are you talking about? What makes you think you’re having a stroke?” She searched her mother’s face for signs of anything off balance. A drooping eyelid, a twitching lip. “You’re not slurring your words. Are you dizzy? Are you in pain?”

“I’m not in pain. I’m not dizzy,” her mother repeated. “You have such a lovely figure,” she said, as if this were a perfectly normal thing to say under the circumstances.

Paige grabbed her pink silk robe from the foot of the bed and wrapped it around her naked body, trying to make sense of what was happening.

“I didn’t realize you slept in the nude,” her mother continued. “I always wanted to do that, but your father preferred pajamas, so I followed his lead.”

“Mom! Focus! Why do you think you’re having a stroke?”

“It’s my vision,” her mother said. “It’s kind of weird.”

“What do you mean, it’s kind of weird? How weird?”

“I’m seeing all these flashing lights and squiggly lines, and I remember reading that a change in vision is often the first sign you’re having a stroke. Or maybe a detached retina. What do you think?”

“I think I’m calling nine-one-one.”

“Really, darling? Do you think that’s necessary?”

“Yes, Mom. I really, really do.” Paige grabbed her cellphone from the night table and pressed the emergency digits. “Try to stay calm,” she advised her mother, although she was the one on the verge of hysteria. She’d lost her father to cancer two years ago. She wasn’t ready to lose her mother, too. At thirty-three, she was much too young to be an orphan. “What are you doing?” she asked as her mother pushed herself off the bed.

“I should probably get dressed.”

“Sit back down,” Paige said, listening to the phone’s persistent ring against her ear. “Don’t move.” She threw her free arm into the air in frustration. “What’s the matter with these people? Why aren’t they answering the phone? I thought this was supposed to be an emerg—”

“Nine-one-one,” a woman’s voice said, interrupting Paige’s tirade. “What is your emergency?”

“My mother’s having a stroke.”

“Well, it could be a detached retina,” her mother qualified.

“We need an ambulance right away.” Paige quickly gave the dispatcher the address of her mother’s posh Back Bay condominium. “They’ll be here in five minutes,” she said, crossing to the en suite bathroom and throwing some cold water on her face, then applying deodorant before grabbing the first thing she saw in her closet and pulling it over her head.

“That’s a pretty dress,” her mother said. “Is it new?”

Paige glanced at the shapeless floral sundress that Noah had always despised. She quickly reminded herself that Noah’s likes and dislikes were no longer her concern. “No. I’ve had it a while.” She retrieved a pair of lace panties from the top drawer of her dresser and stepped into them, pulling them up over her slim hips.

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Charley's Web

Charley's Web

edition:Paperback
also available: Hardcover
tagged :
More Info
Excerpt

Chapter 1
--------------------------------------------------
FROM: Irate Reader
TO: Charley@Charley'sWeb.com
SUBJECT: YOU ARE THE WORST COLUMNIST EVER!!!
Date: Mon. 22 Jan. 2007, 07:59:47-0500

------------------------------------------

Hey, Charley: Just a brief note to let you know that aside from being THE WORST COLUMNIST WHO EVER LIVED!!! you are quite possibly THE MOST SELF-ABSORBED WOMAN ON THE PLANET!!! It's obvious from your photograph -- the long, wavy, blond hair, the knowing glance from large, downcast eyes, the subtle smirk on those no doubt Restylane-enhanced lips -- that you think the sun rises and sets on your lovely shoulders. Your insipid columns about shopping for the perfect stilettos, searching for just the right shade of blush, and coping with the demands of a new personal trainer have only solidified my assessment. But what on earth would make you think there is anyone who is even moderately interested in learning about your latest foray into the world of the sublimely shallow -- a Brazilian wax?!!! Before your graphic and unnecessarily lurid description regarding the denuding of your nether region in Sunday's paper -- (WEBB SITE, Sunday, January 21) -- I actually had no idea there even was such a thing, let alone that any grown woman -- I know from a previous column that you celebrated your thirtieth birthday last March -- would willingly consent to such a barbaric procedure. I wonder how your poor father reacted when he read about his Harvard-educated daughter infantilizing her body in such a demeaning way. I wonder how your mother manages to hold her head up in front of her friends with the constant public airing of such private -- dare I say, pubic? -- matters. (At least they have two other daughters to keep their spirits buoyed!!! Kudos to Anne, incidentally, for the stunning success of her latest novel, Remember Love -- number 9 on the New York Times bestseller list, and climbing!!! And to Emily, who made such a lovely impression when she subbed for Diane Sawyer on Good Morning America last month!!!) Those are truly daughters to make any parent proud.

And speaking of daughters, what must your eight-year-old think when she sees you parading around the house in the nude, as I'm sure you do, judging from how much you obviously enjoy exposing yourself in print!!! Not to mention the teasing your five-year-old son will be subjected to in his kindergarten class from other children whose parents were no doubt similarly appalled by Sunday's column! Last week's article about sex toys was bad enough!!

Can you not look beyond the tip of your pert little nose -- courtesy of the best plastic surgery money can buy, no doubt -- and consider the effect of such indiscreet blathering on both these young innocents?! (Although what can one expect from a woman who prides herself on never having married either of her children's fathers?!!!)
I've had it up to here with your inane yapping about all things Charley. (Thank you for not using your given name of Charlotte. At least you spared us the desecration of that most wonderful of children's books!) After three years of reading -- and shaking my head in dismay!!! -- at your dimwitted musings, I have finally reached the end of my rope. I would rather hang myself by my own still intact pubic hairs than read one more word of your puerile prose, and I can no longer justify supporting any newspaper that chooses to publish it. I am therefore canceling my subscription to the Palm Beach Post as of today.

I'm sure I speak for many disgusted and disgruntled readers when I say, WHY CAN'T YOU JUST SHUT UP AND GO AWAY?!!!!
-------------------------------------------------

Charley Webb sat staring at the angry letter on her computer screen, not sure whether to laugh or cry. It wasn't just that the letter was so nasty that had her feeling so unsettled -- she'd received many that were worse over the years, including several this very morning. Nor was it the almost hysterical tone of today's letter. Again, she was used to reader outrage. And it wasn't the wildly overused punctuation either. Writers of angry e-mails tended to view their every sentence as important and therefore worthy of capital letters, italics, and multiple exclamation points. It wasn't even the personal nature of the attack. Any woman who devoted a thousand words to her recent Brazilian wax had to expect attacks of a personal nature. Some -- including a few of her colleagues -- might even say she invited them, that she prided herself on being provocative. She got what she deserved, they might say.

They might even be right.

Charley shrugged. She was used to controversy and criticism. She was used to being called incompetent and lightweight, as well as a host of other more unflattering epithets. She'd grown used to having her motives questioned, her integrity impugned, and her looks dissected and disparaged. She was also used to being told it was those same looks that had gotten her a byline in the first place. Or that one of her more famous sisters must have pulled some strings. Or that her father, a highly esteemed professor of English literature at Yale, had used his influence to get her the job.

She was used to being called a bad daughter, a worse mother, a terrible role model. Such slurs usually rolled off her "lovely shoulders." So what was it about this particular e-mail that had her trapped between laughter and tears? What about it made her feel so damn vulnerable?

Maybe she was still smarting from the fallout from last week's column. Her neighbor, Lynn Moore, who lived several doors away from Charley on a once-decrepit, now verging-on-fashionable, small street in downtown West Palm, had invited her to a so-called Passion Party, just before Christmas. It turned out to be a variation of the old neighborhood Tupperware party, except that instead of a variety of heavy-duty plastic containers on display, there were vibrators and dildos. Charley had had a wonderful time handling all the assorted objets, and listening to the hyperbolic sales pitch of Passion's perky representative -- "And this seemingly innocuous string of beads, well, ladies, let me tell you, it's nothing short of miraculous. Talk about multiple orgasms! This is truly the Christmas gift that keeps on giving all year round!" -- then performed a neat evisceration of the evening in her column the following month.

"How could you do this?" Lynn had confronted Charley in person the day the column ran. She was standing on the single step outside the front door of Charley's tiny, two-bedroom bungalow. Charley's column was scrunched into a tight ball in her clenched fist, her fingers curled around Charley's paper throat. "I thought we were friends."

"We are friends," Charley had protested, although, in truth, they were more acquaintances than actual friends. Charley didn't have any actual friends. "Then how could you do this?"

"I don't understand. What have I done?"

"You don't understand?" Lynn had repeated incredulously.

"You don't know what you've done? You humiliated me, that's what you did. You made me look like a sex-crazed fool. My husband is furious. My mother-in-law's in tears. My daughter is beside herself with embarrassment. The phone's been ringing off the hook all morning."

"But I didn't say it was you."

"You didn't have to. My hostess," Lynn recited from memory, "a fortyish brunette sporting tight capri pants, two-inch crystal-studded nails, and three-inch heels, lives in a charming white clapboard house filled with fresh-cut flowers from her magnificent garden. A large American flag waves proudly from the tiny, manicured front lawn. Gee, I wonder who that could be."

"It could be anybody. I think you're being overly sensitive."

"Oh, really? I'm being overly sensitive? I invite you to a party, introduce you to my friends, pour you not one, but several glasses of champagne..."

"For God's sake, Lynn. What did you expect?" Charley interrupted, annoyed at having to defend herself. "I'm a reporter. You know that. This sort of story is right up my alley. Of course I'm going to write about it. You knew that when you invited me over."

"I didn't invite you over as a reporter."

"It's what I do," Charley reminded her. "It's who I am."

"My mistake," Lynn said simply. "I thought you were more."
There was a moment of awkward silence as Charley struggled to keep Lynn's words from sinking in too deep. "Sorry I disappointed you."

Lynn brushed off Charley's apology with a wave of her two-inch nails. "But not sorry you wrote the column. Right?" She began backing down the front walk.

"Lynn..."

"Oh, shut up."

WHY CAN'T YOU JUST SHUT UP AND GO AWAY?!!!!

Charley stared at her computer screen. Was it possible Lynn Moore was her Irate Reader? Wary eyes skipped across the words Irate Reader had written, searching for echoes of Lynn's subtle southern drawl, finding none. The truth was that Irate Reader could be anyone. In her thirty years on this planet, three at this desk, Charley Webb had managed to ruffle an awful lot of feathers. There were plenty of people who wished she would just shut up and go away. "I thought you were more," she repeated under her breath. How many others had made the same mistake?

-------------------------------------------
FROM: Charley Webb
T0: Irate Reader
SUBJECT: A reasoned response
DATE: Mon. 22 Jan. 2007 10:17:24-0800
-------------------------------------------

Dear Irate:

Wow!!!! That was some letter!!!! (As you can see, I, too, have an exclamation mark on my computer!!!!!) Thanks for writing. It's always interesting to find out how readers are responding to my columns, even when they aren't always positive. Call me crazy, but I sensed you haven't been too thrilled with my columns of late. I'm truly sorry about that, but what is it they say? You can't please everybody all the time? Well, I learned a long time ago that it's pointless to try. Reading is such a subjective endeavor, and one person's heaven is another person's hell. Clearly, as far as you're concerned, I'm Satan incarnate!!!!!

Now, while I rigorously defend your right to be wrong, I feel I must address some of your more egregious utterances. (I'll see your indiscreet blathering and raise you one egregious utterance!!!) First, I do not now, nor have I ever, used Restylane to enhance my lips. My lips are the lips I was born with, and while they're perfectly adequate as far as lips go, I've never considered them to be particularly noteworthy, or I probably would have written a column about them by now. Also, I broke my nose when I was seven, running into a brick wall to get away from my younger brother, who was chasing me with a garter snake he'd found in our backyard. The result has been a lifelong fear of reptiles and a nose that veers slightly -- some might say charmingly -- to the left. I've never felt the slightest need to have it fixed, although now that you've declared it "pert," I may have to reconsider.

I'm surprised you'd never heard of a Brazilian wax before you read about it in my column, because I can assure you they've been around for a long time. But once you realized what I was writing about, and that such a topic was an affront to your obviously delicate sensibilities -- a lot of that going around these days -- why on earth did you continue reading?!!! (Finally, I got to use the “!!! It's fun!!!!)

As for what my father thinks about his Harvard-educated daughter infantilizing, (good word!) herself in this way, I suspect he doesn't know -- cocooned as he is in his ivory tower at Yale -- and if he does, he doesn't care, since we haven't spoken in years. (Regular readers of WEBB SITE should know this!!!) As for my mother, she doesn't have to worry about holding her head up in front of her friends, since, like me, she doesn't have any. (Possible fodder for an upcoming Mother's Day column that you will, unfortunately, miss.) My children, on the other hand, have lots of friends, all of them happily oblivious to the inane yapping of their mother, and since -- surprise! -- I actually don't make a habit of parading around the house in the nude, they haven't had to pass any unnecessary artistic judgments on the denuding of my nether region. Wow -- that's quite a mouthful, even in writing!!! As for my never having married either of my children's fathers -- nor lived with them, I might add -- well, at least I haven't subjected them to the unpleasantness of divorce, unlike both my more successful sisters, who have four-and-a-half divorces between them -- Emily, three, and Anne, one divorce, one recent separation. (Incidentally, I'll pass on your congratulations to both of them for their recent, much-deserved triumphs.)

As for my column, you should realize that I am doing exactly the job I was hired to do. When I came to work at the Palm Beach Post three years ago, the editor-in-chief, Michael Duff, told me he was interested in attracting a younger readership, and that he was especially interested in what people my age were thinking and doing. In short, unlike you, he was deeply interested in all things Charley. What he wasn't interested in was objective journalism. On the contrary, he wanted me to be totally subjective -- to be honest and forthcoming and, hopefully, controversial as well.

It would seem from all the e-mail I've received this morning that I've succeeded. I'm sorry you consider my prose puerile and that you're canceling your subscription to our wonderful paper, but that is certainly your prerogative. I will continue to do my job, commenting on today's social scene, reporting on the morals and habits of America's youth, and tackling important issues such as wife-abuse and the proliferation of porn, alongside my continuing forays into the world of the sublimely shallow. Sorry you won't be along for the ride.

Sincerely, Charlotte Webb.
(Sorry. Couldn't resist.)
-------------------------------------------------

Charley's fingers hovered over the SEND button for several seconds before moving to the DELETE button and pressing it instead. She watched the words instantly vanish from her screen as all around her, the busy sounds of Monday morning began encroaching: phones ringing, keyboards clicking, rain pounding against the floor-to-ceiling, third-floor windows of the airy, four-storey building. She heard her colleagues talking outside her tiny cubicle, inquiring pleasantly about one another's weekend. She listened to their friendly banter, full of laughter and harmless gossip, and wondered briefly why no one had stopped by her desk to ask about her weekend or congratulate her on her latest column. But no one ever did.

It would have been easy to dismiss their attitude as stemming from professional jealousy -- she knew most of them considered her columns, and, by extension, her, to be silly and inconsequential, and resented her high profile -- but the truth was that her colleagues' ever-increasing coldness was largely her own fault. Charley had purposefully shunned their overtures when she first came to work at the Palm Beach Post, thinking it was better, safer, to keep relationships on a strictly professional level. (Just as she'd never believed it was a good idea to get too chummy with the neighbors. And boy, had she been right about that.) It wasn't that she was unfriendly exactly, just a little aloof. It hadn't taken her colleagues very long to get the message. Nobody liked rejection, especially writers, who were already too used to being rejected. Soon the casual invitations to dinner stopped, along with the offers to tag along for a drink after work. Even a polite "Hi. How's it going?" had stopped coming her way.

Until this morning, she thought with a shudder, recalling the obscene leer that senior editor Mitchell Johnson had given her when she'd walked by his glassed-in office. Never subtle to begin with, Mitch had stared directly at the crotch of her Rock & Republic jeans and asked, "How's it growing? Going. I meant going, not growing," he corrected, as if his slip had been unintentional.

He thinks he knows me, Charley thought now, leaning back in her brown leather chair and staring past the dividing wall that separated her tiny space from the dozens of other such cubicles occupying the editorial department's large center core. The big room was divided into three main areas, although the divisions were more imaginary than concrete. The largest section was comprised of journalists who covered current events and filed daily reports; a second section was reserved for weekly and special-interest columnists such as herself; a third area was for fact- checkers and secretarial staff. People worked at their computers for hours on end, barking into headphones, or balancing old-fashioned black receivers between their shoulders and ears. There were stories to uncover and follow, deadlines to be met, angles to be determined, statements to be corroborated. Someone was always rushing in or out, asking for advice, opinions, or help.
No one ever asked Charley for anything.

They think they know me, Charley thought. They think because I write about Passion parties and Brazilian waxes, that I'm a shallow twit, and they know everything about me.

They know nothing.

WHY CAN'T YOU JUST SHUT UP AND GO AWAY?!!!!

--------------------------------------------
FROM: Charley Webb
TO: Irate Reader
SUBJECT : A reasoned response
DATE: Mon. 22 Jan. 2007 10:37:06-0800
--------------------------------------------

Dear Irate: You're mean. Sincerely, Charley Webb.
------------------------------------------------------

This time Charley did press the SEND button, then waited while her computer confirmed the note had indeed been forwarded. "Probably shouldn't have done that," she muttered seconds later. It was never a good idea to deliberately antagonize a reader. There were lots of powder kegs out there just waiting for an excuse to explode. Should have just ignored her, Charley thought, as her phone began ringing. She reached over, picked it up. "Charley Webb," she announced instead of hello.

"You're a worthless slut," the male voice snarled. "Someone should gut you like a fish."

"Mother, is that you?" Charley asked, then bit down on her tongue. Why hadn't she checked her caller ID? And what had she just decided about not deliberately trying to antagonize anyone? She should have just hung up, she admonished herself as the phone went dead in her hand. Immediately the phone rang again. Again she picked it up without checking. "Mother?" she asked, unable to resist.

"How'd you know?" her mother replied.

Charley chuckled as she pictured the puzzled expression on her mother's long, angular face. Elizabeth Webb was fifty-five years old, with shoulder-length blue-black hair that underlined the almost otherworldly whiteness of her skin. She stood six feet one in her bare feet, and dressed in long, flowing skirts that minimized the length of her legs and low-cut blouses that maximized the size of her bosom. She was beautiful by anyone's definition, as beautiful now as she'd been when she was Charley's age and already the mother of four young children. But Charley had few memories of this time, and fewer photographs, her mother having disappeared from her life when she was barely eight years old.

Elizabeth Webb had reappeared suddenly two years ago, eager to renew contact with the offspring she'd abandoned some twenty years earlier. Charley's sisters had chosen to remain loyal to their father and refused to forgive the woman who'd run off to Australia with, not another man, which might have been forgivable, but another woman, which most assuredly was not. Only Charley had been sufficiently curious -- spiteful, her father would undoubtedly insist -- to agree to see her again. Her brother, of course, continued to shun contact with either of his parents.

"I just wanted you to know that I thoroughly enjoyed your column yesterday," her mother was saying in the quasi-Australian lilt that clung to the periphery of each word. "I've always been very curious about that sort of thing."

Charley nodded. Like mother, like daughter, she couldn't help but think. "Thank you."

"I called you several times yesterday, but you were out."

"You didn't leave a message."

"You know I hate those things," her mother said.

Charley smiled. Having only recently settled in Palm Beach after two decades of living in the outback, her mother was terrified of all things remotely technical, and she owned neither a computer nor a cell phone. Voice mail continued to be a source of both wonder and frustration, while the Internet was simply beyond her comprehension. "I drove into Miami to see Bram," Charley told her.

Silence. Then, "How is your brother?"

"I don't know. He wasn't at his apartment. I waited for hours."

"Did he know you were coming?"

"He knew."

Another silence, this one longer than the first. Then, "You think he's...?" Her mother's voice trailed off.

"...Drinking and doing drugs?"

"Do you?"

"Maybe. I don't know."

"I worry so much about him."

"A little late for that, don't you think?" The words were out of Charley's mouth before she could stop them. "Sorry," she apologized immediately.

"That's all right," her mother conceded. "I guess I deserved that."

"I didn't mean to be cruel."

"Of course you did," her mother said without rancor. "It's what makes you such a good writer. And your sister such a mediocre one," she couldn't help but add.

"Mother..."

"Sorry, dear. I didn't mean to be cruel," she said, borrowing Charley's words.

"Of course you did." Charley smiled, felt her mother do the same. "Look, I better go."

"I thought maybe I could come over later, see the children ..."

"Sounds fine." Absently, Charley clicked open another e-mail.

------------------------------------------
FROM: A person of taste
TO: Charley@Charley'sWeb.com
SUBJECT: Perverts
Date: Mon. 22 Jan. 2007 10:40:05-0400
------------------------------------------

Dear Charley,

While I'm normally the kind of person who believes in LIVE AND LET LIVE, your most recent column has forced me to reconsider. Your previous column on sex toys was bad enough, but this latest one is an affront to good Christians everywhere. What a vile and disgusting pervert you are. You deserve to BURN IN HELL. So DIE, BITCH, DIE, and take your bastard children with you!

P.S.: I'd keep a very close eye on them if I were you. You'd be horrified at what some people are capable of.
---------------------------------------------------

Charley felt her breath freeze in her lungs. "Mother, I have to go." She hung up the phone and jumped to her feet, upending her chair as she raced from her cubicle.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Don't Cry Now
Excerpt

Bonnie pulled her white Caprice into the driveway of 430 Lombard Street at exactly twelve thirty-eight -- there'd been an accident on the Mass turnpike and it had taken her over half an hour to get there -- parking directly be hind Joan's red Mercedes. Joan was obviously doing very well for herself, Bonnie decided. Despite the fluctuations in the real estate market, she seemed to have survived the latest prolonged slump quite nicely. But then, Joan was a survivor. It was only those around her who perished.

This house shouldn't be too difficult to sell, Bonnie thought, squinting into the cool sun as she walked past the large sign on the front lawn that announced the open house and mounted the outside steps to the front porch. The house was two stories high and wood-framed, like most of the homes in this upscale suburb of Boston, and it had recently received a coat of white paint. The front door was black and slightly ajar. Bonnie knocked timidly, then pushed the door open farther. Immediately, she heard voices coming from one of the back rooms. A man and a woman. Maybe Joan. Maybe not. Possibly in the middle of an argument. It was hard to tell. At any rate, she wouldn't eavesdrop. She'd wait a few minutes, cough discreetly a few times, let them deduce someone else was in the house.

Bonnie looked around, helping herself to one of the many fact sheets that loan had left stacked on a small bench in the front foyer next to an open guest register. According to the information on the sheet, the house was three thousand square feet over two floors, with four bed rooms and a finished basement. A wide center staircase divided the house into two equal halves, the living room to oneside, the dining room to the other. The kitchen and family room were at the back. A powder room was some where in between.

Bonnie cleared her throat softly, then again, more loudly. The voices continued. Bonnie checked her watch, wandered into the beige and cream-colored living room. She'd have to leave soon. As it was, she'd be late getting back, miss the first part of the lecture on how today's schools had to adapt to today's teens. She checked her watch again, tapped her foot on the hardwood floor. This was ridiculous. While she hated to interrupt Joan while she was trying to make a sale, the fact was that the woman had insisted she be here before one o'clock, and it was almost that now. "Joan,'' she called out, returning to the hall, walking down the corridor toward the kitchen.

The voices continued as if she hadn't spoken. She heard snatches -- "Well, if this health plan is implemented . . ." "That's a pretty lamebrained assessment." -- and wondered what was going on. Why would people -- Joan, of all people -- be involved in such a discussion at such a time? ''I'm going to have to cut you off, caller," the man's voice suddenly announced. "You don't know what you're talking about and I feel like listening to some music. How about the always classic sound of Nirvana?''

It was the radio. "Jesus Christ," Bonnie muttered. She'd been wasting her time discreetly coughing so that a rude radio host could finish hurling invectives at some hapless caller! Who's the crazy lady here? she wondered, losing her patience, raising her voice over the sudden onslaught of sound that was Nirvana. "Joan,'' she called, stepping into the yellow and white kitchen, seeing Joan at the long pine kitchen table, her large sable eyes clouded over with booze, her mouth slightly open, about to speak.

Except that she didn't speak. And she didn't move. Not even as Bonnie approached, waving her hand in front of the woman's face, not even as she reached out to shake her shoulder. "Joan, for God's sake. . ."

She wasn't sure at what precise moment she realized that Joan was dead. It might have been when she saw the bright patch of crimson that was splattered across the front of Joan's white silk blouse like an abstract work of art. Or perhaps it was when she saw the gaping dark hole between her breasts, and felt blood on her hands, warm and sticky, like syrup. Maybe it was the awful combination of smells, real or imagined, that was suddenly pushing its way toward her nose that convinced her. Or maybe it was the screams shooting from her mouth like stray bullets, the ungodly sound creating a strangely appropriate harmony with Nirvana.

Or maybe it was the woman in the doorway screaming with her, the woman with her arms full of groceries who stood paralyzed against the far wall, the bags of groceries glued to her sides, as if they were all that were keeping her upright.

Bonnie walked over to her, the woman recoiling in horror as Bonnie pried the groceries from her arms. "Don't hurt me," the woman pleaded. ''Please don't hurt me."

"Nobody's going to hurt you," Bonnie assured her calmly, laying the bags on the counter and wrapping one arm around the shaking woman. The other arm reached toward the wall phone and quickly pressed in 911. In a clear voice she gave the operator the address and told her that a woman appeared to have been shot. Then she led the still-trembling owner of the house into the living room where she sat down beside her on the textured tan sofa. Then she put her head between her knees to keep from fainting and waited for the police to arrive.

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Good Intentions
Excerpt

One

She knew she was in trouble the minute she saw him.

“Lynn Schuster?” he asked as she slowly opened the front door.

“Marc Cameron?” she asked in return. They both nodded. Good, Lynn thought, stepping back to let him come inside. We know who we are. “Come in,” she said, guiding him toward her living room.

He carefully observed all the niceties of the first-time visitor: her home was lovely; it was nice of her to agree to see him, especially under the circumstances; he hoped he wasn’t inconveniencing her too much. To which she replied: thank you; no problem; he wasn’t inconveniencing her at all. Could he tell she was lying?

“Would you like a cup of coffee?” she asked, not something she had been planning to offer, but he said no, thank you, and then sat down on the green-and-white-striped chair across from the similarly colored floral-print sofa, and stared at her for several seconds without speaking.

Why was he here? Why had she agreed to see him?

“Is something wrong?” she finally asked, carefully avoiding his eyes, which were blue and serious. Seriously blue, she mused, feeling her knees go weak. Like a silly schoolgirl, she thought, and sat down on the sofa,
wondering if the attraction she was feeling was mutual, or just obvious.

“I’m sorry,” he said, his voice deep, his tone quizzical. “I thought I had it all worked out.”

“All what worked out?” she asked, hoping suddenly that he would leave without telling her. His presence upset her in ways she was unprepared to deal with. Of all the reactions she had been preparing herself for since he had phoned and said he was coming over, she was least prepared for this one–to be physically attracted to this man! It just wouldn’t do, she thought, looking just past him toward the silver-framed photograph of her with her husband and two children, which sat by the front window.

Marc Cameron was tall, as tall as the man in the photograph, and like Gary’s, her husband of fourteen years, his hair was thinning a bit on top. Unlike Gary, however, Marc Cameron’s hair was still quite thick, even long, at the sides, where it curved toward his chin and formed a neatly trimmed, reddish-tinged beard. But while Gary was slender, this man was big, almost bulky. He was totally unlike anyone to whom she had ever felt herself even remotely attracted.

This was a temporary aberration, surely, she decided, fidgeting, an unwanted, unwarranted visceral reaction to a set of rather peculiar circumstances.

“This is awkward.”

“Yes, it is.”

Silence. Deep breath. Then another. The first one from him, the next from her.

“You said there were things I should know,” Lynn ventured, silently cursing her innate professionalism.

“I guess that sounded pretty melodramatic.”

Lynn shrugged, as if to say: What can you do? and waited for him to continue, not trusting her own voice.

“This whole thing has hit me pretty hard,” he said finally. “Do you have a drink?”

It was obvious from his pronounced inflection that he wasn’t referring to the coffee she had just offered. “There’s some beer in the fridge,” she began, about to continue when his voice stopped her.

“Beer is great. If you don’t mind.”

She minded but she said she didn’t, and excused herself to go into the kitchen to get it for him. She hoped by doing so to place some distance between them, to use the few seconds to give her back the objectivity she would require to get herself through this conversation, but he was right behind her.

“Who’s the artist?” he asked, indicating the many bright-colored sketches that were taped to the refrigerator door.

“Both my children like to draw,” Lynn answered, volunteering nothing further.

“You can always separate people who have young children from those who don’t by looking at their refrigerator doors.” Marc Cameron smiled. “I have two boys. Twins. Jake and Teddy. They’re five. They’re very heavy into finger painting at the moment. My fridge is similarly covered.”

“Is this about them?” Lynn asked abruptly, determining to end this visit as quickly as possible.

“What?”

“Why you’re here. What you want to tell me. Does it have anything to do with our children?”

“No.” He took the bottle of beer from her outstretched hand.

“Oh, sorry, did you want a glass? Gary never drank beer from a glass.” She thought she saw him wince at the sound of her husband’s name. “He always preferred it straight from the bottle.”

“Then I’d like a glass.”

Lynn smiled despite her intense desire not to, and reached into the cupboard to get him one of the tall, curved glasses she’d bought Gary one Father’s Day, glasses he hadn’t bothered to take with him when he left.

“You’re not having one?” he asked.

“I don’t like beer.”

“I’m not surprised,” he said. “Neither does Suzette.”

Lynn tried to smile, as she had smiled effortlessly only seconds earlier, but at the sound of his wife’s name, she felt her lips gather together in a series of unattractive wrinkles, as if she had just sucked on a lemon. She was trying to appear sophisticated about all this, but he wasn’t making it easy.

His phone call had caught her off guard. “This is Marc Cameron,” he had announced. “I’d like to come over and talk to you. I think there are some things you should know.”

At first she hadn’t known who he was or what he was talking about, although he obviously assumed she did. His name meant nothing, although she thought it a handsome name.

“I’m sorry,” she began. “I don’t know who . . .”

“Suzette’s husband,” he explained, and then was silent.

Standing alone in the living room of her small, three-bedroom bungalow, Lynn had tried to visualize the man, although they had never met. What exactly did he want to tell her? Experience had taught her that information others felt she should know was usually the last thing in the world she wanted to hear.

“I don’t think it would be a very good idea . . .” she had told him, feeling her throat go dry and the words stick to the roof of her mouth.

“It’s important.”

“I don’t see what . . .”

“Please,” he had said, adding that it was only a fifteen-minute drive from his apartment in Palm Beach to her home in Delray Beach.

“All right,” she had agreed reluctantly, knowing she was probably making a mistake. “In an hour. I’d like to get my children in bed first.”

“An hour,” he’d repeated. “Oh, and I don’t think I’d say anything to anyone about my visit.”

“Who would I tell?” she’d asked, then heard the line go dead.

She’d promptly called her lawyer at home. “Renee,” she spoke clearly into the receiver, responding with only a hint of impatience to the answering machine, “this is Lynn Schuster, and I’m sorry to bother you at home but I thought this might be important. It’s ten minutes after eight, and I just had a rather interesting phone call. If you’re back in the next hour, give me a call. Otherwise, I’ll speak to you in the morning.” Then she’d folded up the reports she’d been working on, large white sheets of paper spread out across the glass top of her dining-room table like a fine linen tablecloth, except that someone had scribbled all over this one, and stuffed them back into her already well-stuffed leather briefcase. She’d have to get up at least an hour earlier in the morning to finish them off, but she recognized that there was no point in trying to concentrate on work now. Not when, in another hour, a man who referred to himself as “Suzette’s husband” would be in her home to tell her some things he thought she should know.

What things? she’d wondered then, as she was wondering now. And how else should he refer to himself if not as Suzette’s husband? Wasn’t that precisely who he was? At least until the divorce? Was she still not Gary’s wife, after all? At least until the divorce?

It was all too confusing, although it was simple enough once you broke it down. Her husband had left her for another woman. A married woman. That woman’s husband had called her on the phone approximately one hour ago and asked if he might come over; there were some things he thought she should know.

The hour between his phone call and his arrival had passed in something of a blur. Lynn recalled lingering by the telephone for several minutes before suddenly throwing herself into action, scurrying down the long hall to her bedroom, past the bedrooms of her son and her daughter. Seven-year-old Nicholas had already fallen asleep. Lynn had walked to the side of his bed, pulled the covers he had kicked off back up to his shoulders, gently pushed some stray yellow hairs away from his round little face, and kissed his forehead. He hadn’t moved. Lynn had stood for a minute and studied her younger child, surprised to find him so still. Even in sleep, Nicholas was usually one of those children who never stopped moving. Lynn found herself bending forward until her face was only inches from his lips so that she could feel the warmth of his breath and reassure herself that he was still breathing, something she hadn’t done since he was an infant. He’d suddenly sighed and turned onto his side, almost hitting Lynn’s nose with his curled fist. Lynn smiled, kissed him again, and left the room.

Ten-year-old Megan was sitting on her bedroom floor, completely wrapped up in the latest Nancy Drew novel, which Lynn had found strangely comforting. It provided her with a sense of continuity, something lately missing from her life. She had read Nancy Drew herself as a girl and she enjoyed the fact that she had at least one thing in common with her older child, who, in every other respect, resembled her father. Like Gary, his daughter was quiet and intense. She had her father’s mouth and his same head for figures. (If Lynn has one apple, she’d found herself thinking as she continued down the hall to her room, and Suzette takes that apple, how many apples does Lynn have left?)

She’d reluctantly confronted her image in the mirror across from her unmade queen-size bed, and run a
careless brush through her naturally curly shoulder-length brown hair. Then she’d applied a quick smudge of rose-colored lipstick across her full mouth and just a hint of blush to her pale cheeks. Despite her lifelong Florida residency, Lynn was one of those people who were incapable of tanning. She burned bright tomato red within a few minutes of exposure to the sun, unlike Gary and both their children, whose complexions were
naturally golden brown. (If Lynn has one tomato and Suzette takes that tomato . . . ) The sun isn’t good for you anyway, she’d thought, applying a small amount of navy mascara to her eyelashes, remembering her mother’s advice that mascara was all the makeup a woman really needed, and wondering why she was going to all this effort for someone she was fully prepared to hate on sight.

“Are you going out?” Megan had asked, suddenly appearing in the doorway, her subtle Southern drawl masking the fear behind the seemingly simple question.

“No, sweetheart,” Lynn said to the child, who was, at five feet two, only three inches shorter than herself. “But someone’s coming over here.”

“Who?”

“A client,” Lynn lied, and felt her cheeks flush.

“A man?” Megan pressed, her soft voice hardening, her shoulders stiffening.

“Yes,” Lynn replied, trying to keep her voice steady. “He sounded pretty upset on the phone, so if he gets here before you’ve gone to bed, I’d appreciate it if you’d stay in your room.”

“Why can’t he come to your office?”

“Because . . . he just can’t. Are you ready for bed?”

“Do I look ready?” Megan asked incredulously, her child’s body beneath her cotton jumpsuit threatening to burst into full bloom at any moment.

“I suggest you get ready,” her mother said, as pleasantly as possible. Megan, slender, with her blonde hair, tawny skin, and gold-flecked brown eyes, fixed her mother with the guilt-inducing stare she had lately turned into something of an art form. Was it Lynn’s imagination or did puberty seem to be happening earlier these days?

“Are you wearing perfume?” the child asked accusingly. Then before Lynn could reply: “Are you going to change your clothes?”

Lynn looked down at the white jeans and red-striped jersey she had changed into when she got home from work. “I’m not wearing perfume,” she answered steadily, “and what’s wrong with what I have on?”

“It’s not very businesslike,” Megan said succinctly.

“It’ll have to do. Have you changed yet?” Lynn asked pointedly.

Again the look that reduced cities to rubble. Lynn felt suddenly lost. Why had she agreed to meet this man? Wasn’t it bad enough that her husband had left her for another woman? Wasn’t it humiliation enough in a small town like Delray Beach that the woman he’d abandoned her for was, from all accounts, neither especially young nor particularly pretty? Did she really have to suffer through the woman’s husband as well? Did the fact that their respective spouses had left them for each other mean they were, in some perverse way, related?

She’d made her bed with painstaking care–there were few things she hated more than climbing into an unmade bed–straightened up the living room, and finally tucked a strangely clingy Megan into her four-poster brass bed, completing all these tasks only moments before she heard the front doorbell ring.

“There’s someone at the door,” Megan called out, chillingly wide awake.

“I know, sweetheart,” Lynn said as she passed her room, lowering her voice to emphasize that it was time for the child to be asleep, then proceeded to the front hall, making minor adjustments to her hair along the way and trying to maneuver her lips into a smile. Taking three quick deep breaths, she’d thrown open the front door.

“Lynn Schuster?” the man on the other side had asked.

It wasn’t that peculiar, she told herself now, leading him back into her living room, that she should feel such a strong physical attraction for this man. She and Suzette (the name stuck in her throat) obviously shared the same taste in men. Was Marc Cameron a lawyer as well?

“Are you a lawyer?” she asked, resuming her position on the sofa, thinking that by being the one to ask the questions, she retained at least a semblance of control.

Marc Cameron walked to the large front window of the comfortable, predominantly green living room and stared out into the starless night. “You can almost hear the ocean,” he said, more to himself than to her, then: “No, I’m a writer."

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Grand Avenue
Excerpt

Introduction

We called ourselves the Grand Dames: four women of varying height, weight, and age, with shockingly little in common, or so it seemed at the time of our initial meeting some twenty-three years ago, other than that we all lived on the same quiet tree-lined street, were all married to ambitious and successful men, and each had a daughter around the age of two.

The street was named Grand Avenue, and despite the changes the years have brought to Mariemont, the upscale suburb of Cincinnati in which we lived, the street itself has remained remarkably the same: a series of wood-framed houses set well back from the road, the road itself winding lazily away from the busy main street it intersects toward the small park at its opposite end. It was in this park-the Grand Parkette, as the city council had christened the tiny triangle of land, unaware of the inherent irony-that we first met almost a quarter of a century ago, four grown women making a beeline for three children's swings, knowing the looser would be relegated to the sandbox, her disappointed youngster loudly wailing her displeasure for the rest of the world to hear. Not the first time a mother has failed to live up to her daughter's expectations. Certainly not the last.

I don't remember who lost that race, or who started talking to whom, or even what that initial conversation was about. I remember only how easily the words flowed amongst us, how seamlessly we moved from one topic to another, the familiar anecdotes, the understanding smiles, the welcome, if unexpected, intimacy of it all, all the more welcome precisely because it was so unexpected.

More than anything else, I remember the laughter. Even now, so many years later, so many tears later-and despite everything that happened, the unforeseen, sometimes horrifying detours our lives took-I can still hear it, the undisciplined, yet curiously melodious collection of giggles and guffaws that shuffled between octaves with varying degrees of intensity, each laugh a signature, as different as were ourselves. Yet, how well those diverse sounds blended together, how harmonious the end result. For years, I carried the sound of that early laughter with me wherever I went. I summoned it at will. It sustained me. Maybe because there was so little of it later on.

We stayed in the park that day until it started raining, a sudden summer shower no one was prepared for, and one of us suggested transferring the impromptu party to someone's house. It must have been me, because we ended up at my house. Or maybe it was just that my home was closest to the park. I don't remember. I do remember the basement, shoes off, hair wet, clothes damp, drinking freshly brewed coffee and still laughing, as we watched our daughters parallel-play at our feet, guiltily aware that we were having more fun than they were, that our children would just as soon be in their own homes, where they didn't have to share their toys, or compete with strangers for their mother's attention.

"We should form a club," one of the women suggested. "Do this on a regular basis."

"Great idea," the rest of us quickly agreed.

To commemorate the occasion, I dug out my husband's badly neglected Kodak Super 8 movie camera, at which I was hopeless as I am with its modern counterpart, and the end result was something less than satisfactory, lots of quick, jerky movements and blurred women missing the tops of their heads. A few years ago, I had the film transferred to VHS, and, strangely enough, it looks much better. Maybe it's the improved technology, or my wide-screen TV, ten feet by twelve that descends from the ceiling with the mere push of a button. Or maybe it's that my vision has blurred just enough to compensate for my failure as a technician, because the women now seem clear, very much in focus.

Looking at the film today, what strikes me most, what, in fact, never fails to take my breath away, no matter how many times I view it, is not just how ineffably, unbearably young we all were, but how everything we were-and everything we were to become-was already present in those miraculously unlined faces. And yet, if you were to ask me to look into those seemingly happy faces and predict their futures, even now, twenty-three years later, when I know only too well how everything turned out, I couldn't do it. Even knowing what I know, it is impossible for me to reconcile these women with their fate. Is that the reason I return so often to this tape? Am I looking for answers? Maybe it's justice I'm seeking. Maybe peace.

Or resolution.

Maybe it's as simple-and difficult- as that.

I only know that when I look at these four young women, myself included, our youth captured, imprisoned, as it were, on video tape, I see four strangers. Not one feels more familiar to me than the rest. I am as foreign to myself as any of the others.

They say that the eyes are the mirror of the soul. Can anyone staring into the eyes of these four women really pretend to see so deep? And those sweet innocent babies in their mothers' arms- is there even one among you who can see beyond those big tender eyes, who can hear the heart of a monster beating below? I don't think so.
We see what we want to see.

So there we sit, in a kind of free-form semi-circle, taking our turns smiling and waving for the camera, four beguilingly average women thrown together by random circumstances and a suddenly rainy afternoon. Our names were as ordinary as we were: Susan, Vicki, Barbara and Chris. Common enough names for the women of our generation. Our daughters, of course, are a different story altogether. Children of the seventies, and products of our imaginative and privileged loins, our offspring were anything but ordinary, or so each of us was thoroughly convinced, and their names reflected that conviction: Ariel, Kirsten, Tracey, an Montana. Yes, Montana. That's her on the far right, the fair-haired, apple-cheeked cherub kicking angrily at her mother's ankles, huge navy blue eyes filling with bitter tears, just before her chubby little legs carry her rigid little body out of the camera's range. No one is able to figure out the source of this sudden outburst, especially her mother, Chris, who does her best to placate the little girl, to coax her back into the safety of her outstretched arms. To no avail. Montana remains stubbornly outside the frame, unwilling to be cajoled or comforted. Chris holds this uneasy posture for some time, perched on the end of her high-backed chair, slim arms extended and empty. Her shoulder-length blond hair is pulled back and away from her heart-shaped face into a high pony-tail, so that she looks more like the well-scrubbed teenaged babysitter than a woman approaching thirty. The look on her face says she will wait forever for her daughter to forgive her these imagined transgressions and come back to where she belongs.

It seems inconceivable to me now, and yet I know it to be true, that not one of us considered herself especially pretty, let alone beautiful. Yet Barbara, who was a former Miss Cincinnati and a finalist for the title of Miss Ohio, and who never abandoned her fondness for big hair and stiletto heels, was constantly plagued by self-doubt, always worrying about her weight and agonizing over each tiny wrinkle that teased at the skin around her large brown eyes and full, almost obscenely lush lips. That's her, beside Chris. Her tall helmet of dark hair has been somewhat flattened by the rain, and her stylish Ferragamo pumps lie abandoned by the front door amidst the other women's sandals and sneakers, but her posture is still beauty pageant perfect. Barbara never wore flats, even to the park, and she didn't own a pair of blue jeans. She was never less than impeccably dressed, and, from the time she was fifteen, no one had ever seen her without full make-up, and that included her husband, Ron. She confessed to the group that in the four years they'd been married, she'd been getting up at six o'clock every morning, a full half-hour before her husband, to shower and do her hair and make-up. Ron had fallen in love with Miss Cincinnati, she proclaimed, as if addressing a panel of judges. Just because she was now a Mrs. didn't give her the right to fall down on the job. Even on weekends, she was out of bed early enough to make sure she was suitably presentable before her daughter, Tracey, woke up, demanding to be fed.

Not that Tracey was ever one to make demands. According to Barbara, her daughter was, in every respect, the perfect child. In fact, the only difficulty she'd ever had with Tracey had been in the hours before her birth, when the nine-pound-plus infant, securely settled in a breech position, and not particularly anxious to make an appearance, refused to drop or turn around, and had to be taken by Caesarian section, leaving a scar that ran from Barbara's belly-button to her pubis. Today, of course, doctors generally opt for the less disfiguring, more cosmetically appealing cross-cut, one that disturbs fewer muscles and lies hidden beneath the bikini line. Barbara's bikini days were behind her, she acknowledged ruefully. Something else to fret over. Something else that separated the Mrs.' from the Miss Cincinnatis of this world.

Watch how regally Barbara slides off her chair and onto the floor, casually securing her skirt beneath her knees while showing her eighteen-month-old daughter the best way to stack the blocks she's been struggling with, patiently picking them up whenever they fall down, encouraging Tracey to try again, ultimately stacking them herself, then restacking them each time her daughter accidentally knocks them over. Any second now, Tracey will curl into her mother's protective arms, the dark curls she inherited from Barbara surrounding her porcelain doll face, and close her eyes in sleep.

"There was a little girl," I can still hear Barbara say, in that soothing singsong voice she always affected when talking to her daughter, as I watch her lips moving silently on the film, "who had a little curl, right in the middle of her forehead. And when she was good, she was very, very good. And when she was bad, she was...."
"A really bad girl!" Tracey shouted gleefully, chocolate brown eyes popping open. And we all laughed.
Barbara laughed the loudest, although her face moved the least. Terrified of those impending wrinkles, and, at 32, the oldest of the women present, she'd perfected the art of laughing without actually breaking into a smile. Her mouth would open and a loud, even raucous sound, would emerge, but her lips remained curiously static, refusing either to wiggle or curl. This was in marked contrast to Chris, whose every feature was engaged when she laughed, her mouth twisting this way and that in careless abandon, although the resulting sound was delicate, even tentative, as if she knew there was a price to pay for having too good a time.

Amazingly, Barbara and Chris had never even seen each other before that afternoon, despite the fact that we'd all lived on Grand Avenue for at least a year, but they instantly became the best of friends, proof positive of the old adage that opposites attract. Aside from the obvious physical differences - blond versus brunette, short versus tall, fresh-faced glow versus Day-Glo sheen - their inner natures were as different as their outer surfaces. Yet they complemented each other perfectly. Chris soft where Barbara was hard, strong where Barbara was weak, demure where Barbara was anything but. They quickly became inseparable.

That's Vicki, pushing herself into the frame, making her presence felt, the way she did with just about everything in her life. At twenty-eight, Vicki was the youngest of the women and easily the most accomplished. She was a lawyer, and, at the time, the only one of us who worked outside the home, although Susan was enrolled at the University, working toward a degreee in English literature. Vicki had short reddish-brown hair, cut on the diagonal, a style that emphasized the sharp planes of her long, thin face. Her eyes were hazel and small, although almost alarmingly intense, even intimidating, no doubt a plus for an ambitious litigator with a prestigious downtown law firm. Vicki was shorter than Barbara, taller than Chris and at 105 pounds, the thinnest of the group. Her small-boned frame made her look deceptively fragile, but she had hidden strength and boundless energy. Even when sitting still, as she is here, she seemed to be moving, her body vibrating, like a tuning fork.

Her daughter, Kirsten, at only twenty-two months, was already her mother's clone. She had the same delicate bone structure and clear hazel eyes, the same way of looking just past you when you spoke, as if there might be something more interesting, more engaging, more important, going on just behind you, that she couldn't chance missing. The toddler was forever up and down, down and up, back and forth, clamoring for her mother's attention and approval. Vicki gave her daughter an occasional, absent-minded pat on the head, but their eyes rarely connected. Maybe the child was blinded, as we all were initially, by the enormous diamond sparkler on the third finger of Vicki's left hand. Watch how it temporarily obliterates all other images, turning the screen a ghostly white.

Vicki was married to a man some twenty-five years her senior, whom she'd known since childhood. In fact, she and his eldest son had been high school classmates and budding sweethearts. Until, of course, Vicki decided she preferred the father to the son, and the resulting scandal tore the family apart. "You can't break up a happy marriage," Vicki assured us that afternoon, stealing a quote from Elizabeth Taylor's resume, and the rest of the women nodded in unison, although they couldn't quite hide their shock.

Vicki liked to shock, the women quickly learned, just as they learned to secretly enjoy being shocked. For whatever her faults, and they were many, Vicki was rarely less than totally entertaining. She was the spark that ignited the flame, the presence who signaled the party could officially begin, the mover, the shaker, the one whom everyone clucked over and fussed about. Even if she wasn't the one who got the ball rolling - surprisingly, it was usually the more unassuming Susan who did that - Vicki was invariably the one who ran with it, who made sure her team scored the winning touchdown. And Vicki always played to win.

Next to Vicki's coiled intensity, Susan seems almost stately, sitting there with her hands clasped easily in her lap, light brown hair folding neatly under her chin, the quintessential Breck girl, except that she was still carrying around fifteen of the thirty-five pounds she'd gained when pregnant and hadn't been able to shed since Ariel's birth. The extra pounds made her noticeably self-conscious and camera-shy, although she'd always preferred the sidelines to center-stage. The other women offered their encouragement and advice, shared their diet and exercise regimes, and Susan listened, not out of politeness, but because she'd always enjoyed listening more than speaking, her mind a sponge, absorbing each proffered tidbit. She'd make note of their suggestions later in the journal she'd been keeping since Ariel was born. She'd once had dreams of being a writer, she admitted when pressed, and Vicki told her that she should speak to her husband, who owned a string of trade magazines and was thinking of expanding his growing empire.

Susan smiled, her daughter tickling her feet as she played happily with Susan's bare toes, and changed the subject, preferring to talk about her coursed at the University. They were more tangible than dreams, and Susan was nothing if not practical. She'd quit school when she got married in order to help put her husband through medical school. Only now that her practice was established and going strong had she decided to return to school to finish her degree. Her husband was very supportive of her decision, she told the women, and her mother was helping out by looking after Ariel during the day.

"You're lucky," Chris told her. "My mother lives in California."

"My mother died just after Tracey was born," Barbara said, eyes filling instantly with tears.

"I haven't seen my mother since I was four years old," Vicki announced. "She ran off with my father's business partner. Haven't heard from the bitch since."

And then the room fell silent, as was so often the case after one of Vicki's calculated pronouncements.

Susan glanced at her watch. The others followed suit. Someone mentioned the lateness of the hour, that they probably should be getting home. We decided on a group picture to commemorate the afternoon, and together we managed to prop the camera on top of a stack of books at the far end of the room and arrange ourselves and our daughters so that we all fit inside the camera's scope.

So there we are, ladies and gentlemen.

In one corner, Susan wearing blue jeans and a sloppy, loose-fitting shirt, balancing daughter Ariel on her lap, the child's wiry little body in marked contrast to her mother's quiet bulk.

In the other corner, Vicki, wearing white shorts and a polka dot halter top, trying to extricate daughter Kirsten's arms from around her neck, small eyes mischievously ablaze as she mouths a silent obscenity directly into the lens of the camera.

In between, Barbara and Chris, Chris wearing white pants and a red-and-white striped T-shirt, straining to prevent her daughter Montana from abandoning her yet again, while Tracey sits obediently on her skirted mother's lap, Barbara manipulating Tracey's had up and down, as both mother and daughter wave as one.

The Grand Dames.

Friends for life.

Of course, one of us turned out not to be a friend at all, but we didn't know it then.

Nor could any of us have predicted that twenty-three years later, two of the women would be dead, one murdered in the cruelest of fashions.

Which, of course, leaves me.

I press another button, listen as the tape rewinds, shift expectantly on my chair, waiting for the film to start afresh. Perhaps, I think, as the women suddenly reappear, their babies in their laps, their futures in their faces, this will be the time it all makes sense. I will find the justice I seek, the peace I desire, the resolution I need.

I hear the women's laughter. The story begins.

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Heartstopper
Excerpt

Chapter 1
KILLER’S JOURNAL
The girl is waking up.
She stirs, mascara-coated eyelashes fluttering seductively, large blue eyes opening, then closing again, then reopening, staying open longer this time, casually absorbing the unfamiliarity of her surroundings. That she is in a strange place, with no memory of how she got here, will take several seconds to sink in fully. That her life is in danger will hit her all at once, with the sudden force of a giant, renegade wave, knocking her back on the small cot I’ve so thoughtfully provided, even as she struggles gamely to her feet.
This is my favorite part. Even more than what comes later.
I’ve never been a huge fan of blood and guts. Those shows you see on TV today, the ones that are so popular, the ones filled with crack forensic experts in skintight pants and push-up bras, they’ve never held much appeal for me. All those dead bodies — hapless victims dispatched in an increasingly gory variety of exotic ways—lying on cold steel slabs in ultramodern morgues, waiting to be cracked open and invaded by dispassionate, gloved fingers—they just don’t do it for me. Even if the bodies weren’t so obviously fake—although even the most obvious of rubber torsos look more real than the ubiquitous breast implants held in check by those heroic, push-up bras—it wouldn’t turn me on. Violence, per se, has never been my thing. I’ve always preferred the buildup to an event over the actual event itself.
Just as I’ve always preferred the flawed, natural contour of real breasts to the perfectly inflated—and perfectly awful—monstrosities so popular today. And not just on TV. You see them everywhere. Even here in the middle of Alligator Alley, in the middle of south-central Florida.
The middle of nowhere.
I think it was Alfred Hitchcock who best summed up the difference between shock and suspense. Shock, he said, is quick, a jolt to the senses that lasts but a second, whereas suspense is more of a slow tease. Rather like the difference between prolonged foreplay and premature ejaculation, I would add, and I like to think old
Alfred would chuckle and agree. He always preferred suspense to shock, the payoff being greater, ultimately more fulfilling. I’m with him on this, although, like Hitch, I’m not adverse to the occasional shock along the way. You have to keep things interesting.
As this girl will soon find out.
She’s sitting up now, hands forming anxious fists at her sides as she scans her dimly lit surroundings. I can tell by the puzzled look on her pretty face—she’s a real heartstopper, as my grandfather used to say—that she’s trying to stay calm, to figure things out, to make sense of what’s happening, while clinging to the hope this is all a
dream. After all, this can’t really be happening. She can’t actually be sitting on the edge of a tiny cot in what appears to be a room in somebody’s basement, if houses in Florida had basements, which, of course, most of them don’t, Florida being a state built almost entirely on swampland.
The panic won’t be long in coming. As soon as she realizes she isn’t dreaming, that her situation is real and, in fact, quite dire, that she is trapped in a locked room whose only light comes from a strategically placed lamplight on a ledge high above her head, one
she has no way of reaching, even were she to turn the cot on its end and somehow manage to climb up its side. The last girl tried that and fell, crying and clutching her broken wrist, to the dirt floor. That’s when she started screaming.
That was fun—for a while.
She’s just noticed the door, although unlike the last girl, she makes no move toward it. Instead, she just sits there, chewing on her bottom lip, frightened eyes darting back and forth. She’s breathing loudly and visibly, her heart threatening to burst from between large, pendulous breasts—to her credit, at least they’re real—like one of those hyperventilating contestants on The Price Is Right. Should she choose door number one, door number two, or door number three? Except there is only one door, and should she open it, what will she find? The Lady or the Tiger? Safety or destruction? I feel my lips curl into a smile. In fact, she will find nothing. At least not yet. Not until I’m ready.
She’s pushing herself off the cot, curiosity finally forcing one foot in front of the other, propelling her toward the door, even as a gnawing voice whispers in her ear, reminding her it was curiosity that killed the cat. Is she counting on the old wives’ tale about cats having nine lives? Does she think a bunch of useless, old wives can save her?
Her trembling hand stretches toward the doorknob. “Hello?” she calls out, softly at first, her voice as wobbly as her fingers, then more forcefully. “Hello? Is anybody there?”
I’m tempted to answer, but I know this isn’t a good idea. First of all, it would tip her to the fact I’m watching. Right now, the idea she’s being observed has yet to occur to her, and when it does, maybe a minute or two from now, her eyes will begin their frantic,
fruitless search of the premises. No matter. She won’t be able to see me. The peephole I’ve carved into the wall is too small and too elevated for her to discover, especially in this meager light. Besides, hearing my voice would not only tip her to my presence and approximate location, it might help her identify me, thereby giving her an unnecessary edge in the battle of wits to come. No, I will present myself soon enough. No point in getting ahead of the game. The timing simply isn’t right. And timing, as they say, is everything.
“Hello? Somebody?”
Her voice is growing more urgent, losing its girlish timbre, becoming shrill, almost hostile. That’s one of the interesting things I’ve noticed about female voices—how quickly they jump from warm to harsh, from soothing to grating, how shameless they are in their eagerness to reveal all, how boldly they hurl their insecurities into the unsuspecting air. The gentle flute is overwhelmed by the raucous bagpipe; the chamber orchestra is trampled by the marching band.
“Hello?” The girl grabs hold of the doorknob, tries pulling the door toward her. It doesn’t budge. Quickly, her movements degenerate into a series of ungainly poses, becoming less measured, more frantic. She pulls on the door, then pushes it, then bangs her shoulder against it, repeating the process several more times before finally
giving up and bursting into tears. That’s the other thing I’ve learned about women—they always cry. It’s the one thing about them that never disappoints, the one thing you can count on.
“Where am I? What’s going on here?” The girl bangs her fists against the door in growing frustration. She’s angry now, as well as scared. She may not know where she is, but she knows she didn’t get here by her own accord. Her mind is rapidly filling with increasingly terrifying images—recent newspaper headlines about missing girls, TV coverage of bodies being pulled from shallow graves, catalog displays of knives and other instruments of torture, film clips of helpless women being raped and strangled, before being dumped into slime-covered swamps. “Help!” she starts screaming. “Somebody help me.” But even as her plaintive cries hit the stale air, I suspect she knows such pleas are useless, that nobody can hear her.
Nobody but me.
Her head snaps up; her eyes shoot toward me, like a searchlight, and I jerk away from the wall, almost tripping over my feet as I stagger back. By the time I regroup, regain my breath and equilibrium, she is circling the small room, her eyes darting up and down, this way and that, the palms of her hands pushing against the unpainted, concrete walls, feeling for any signs of weakness. “Where am I? Is anybody out there? Why have you brought me here?” she is crying, as if the correct question will trigger a reassuring response. Finally, she gives up, collapses on the cot, cries some more. When she raises her head again—for the second time, she looks right at me—her large blue eyes are bloated with tears and ringed in unflattering red. Or maybe that’s just my imagination at work. A bit of wishful thinking on my part.
She pushes herself back into a sitting position, takes a series of long, deep breaths. Clearly, she is trying to calm herself, while she takes stock of her situation. She glances at what she’s wearing—a pale yellow T-shirt that shouts, MOVE, BITCH, in bright lime-green lettering across its stretched front, low-slung jeans pulled tight across her slender hips. The same outfit she was wearing . . . when? Yesterday? Last night? This morning?
How long has she been here?
She runs her fingers through long, strawberry-blond hair, then scratches at her right ankle, before leaning back against the wall. Some madman has kidnapped her and is holding her hostage, she is thinking, perhaps already wondering how she can tell this story to maximum effect after she escapes. Perhaps People magazine will come calling. Maybe even Hollywood. Who will they get to play her? The girl from Spider-Man, or maybe that other one, the one who’s all over the tabloids these days. Lindsay Lohan? Is that her name? Or is it Tara Reid? Cameron Diaz would be good, even though Cameron’s more than a decade older than she is. It doesn’t really matter.
They’re all more or less interchangeable. Heartstoppers all.
As am I. A heartstopper of a very different kind.
The girl’s face darkens. Once again, reality intrudes. What am I doing here? she is wondering. How did I get here? Why can’t I remember?
What she probably remembers is being in school, although I doubt she recalls much, if anything, of what was being taught. Too busy staring out the window. Too busy flirting with the Neanderthals in the back row. Too busy giving the teacher a hard time.
Too ready with the smart remark, the sarcastic comment, the unasked-for opinion. No doubt she recalls the bell sounding at the end of the day, releasing her from her twelfth-grade prison. She likely remembers rushing into the school yard, and bumming a cigarette from whoever is closest at hand. She might remember snatching a Coke from a classmate’s hand, and guzzling it down without thank-you or apology. Several cigarettes and snarky comments later, she may even remember heading for home. I watch her watching herself as she turns the corner onto her quiet street; I catch the tilt
in her head as she hears the soft wind whisper her name.
Someone is calling her.
The girl leans forward on the cot, lips parting. The memory is there; she has only to access it. It plays with her senses, goading her, like the bottom line of an eye chart, the letters right there in front of her, but blurred, so that she can’t quite make them out, no matter how hard she strains. It lies on the tip of her tongue, like some exotic spice she can taste but not identify. It wafts by her nose, trailing faint wisps of tantalizing smells, and swirls around the inside of her mouth, like an expensive red wine. If only she could give voice to it. If only she could remember.
What she does remember is stopping and looking around, listening again for the sound of her name in the warm breeze, then slowly approaching a row of overgrown bushes at the edge of a neighbor’s untended front lawn. The bushes beckon her, their leaves rustling, as if in welcome.
And then nothing.
The girl’s shoulders slump in defeat. She has no memory of what happened next. The bushes block her vision, refuse her entry. She must have lost consciousness. Perhaps she was drugged; maybe she was hit on the head. What difference does it make? What matters isn’t what happened before, but what happens next. It’s not important how she got here, I feel her decide. What’s important is how she’s going to get out.
I try not to laugh. Let her entertain the illusion, however fragile, however unfounded, that she has a chance at escape. Let her plot and plan and strategize and resolve. After all, that’s part of the fun.
I’m getting hungry. Probably she is also, although she’s too scared to realize it at the moment. In another hour or two, it’ll hit her. The human appetite is an amazing thing. It’s pretty insistent, no matter what the circumstances. I remember when my uncle Al
died. It happened a long time ago, and my memory, like the girl’s, is kind of hazy. I’m not even sure what killed him, to be honest. Cancer or a heart attack. Pretty run-of-the-mill stuff, whatever it was. We were never really all that close, so I can’t say I was terribly affected by his death. But I do remember my aunt crying and carrying on, and her friends offering their condolences, telling her in one breath what a great man my uncle was, how sorry they were at his passing, and in the next breath, complimenting her on the wonderful pastries she’d prepared, saying “Could we please have the recipe?” and “You have to eat something. It’s important to keep up your strength. Al would want that.” And soon she was eating, and soon after that, laughing. Such is the power of pastry.
I don’t have any pastry for this girl, although in a couple of hours, after I’ve grabbed something to eat myself, I may bring her back a sandwich. I haven’t decided yet. Certainly a good host would provide for guests. But then, no one ever said I was a good host. No five stars for me.
Still, the accommodations aren’t all that bad, considering. I haven’t buried her in an underground coffin or thrown her into some snake-and-rat-infested hole. She hasn’t been stuffed into some airless closet or chained to a stake atop a nest of fire ants. Her arms haven’t been bound behind her back; there’s no gag in her mouth; her legs are free to traverse the room. If it’s a little warmer than she might like, she can take comfort in that it’s April and not July, that it’s unseasonably cool for this time of year, and that it’s evening and not the middle of the afternoon. Given my druthers, I too would opt for air-conditioning, as would any sane individual, but one takes what one can get, and in this case, what I could get was this: a dilapidated old house at the edge of a long-neglected field in the middle of Alligator Alley, in the middle of south-central Florida.
The middle of nowhere.
Sometimes being stuck in the middle of nowhere can be a blessing in disguise, although I know at least two girls who would disagree.
I discovered this house about five years ago. The people who built it had long since abandoned it, and termites, mold, and dry rot had pretty much taken over. Far as I can tell, no one’s made any attempt to claim the land or tear this old place down. It costs money to demolish things, after all, even more to erect something in its place, and I seriously doubt that anything worth growing would grow here, so what would be the point? Anyway, I stumbled upon it by accident one morning when I was out, walking around, trying to clear my head. I’d been having some problems on the home front, and it seemed like everything was closing in on me, so I decided the best thing to do was just remove myself from the situation altogether. I’ve always been like that—a bit of a loner. Don’t like confrontations; don’t like to share my feelings all that much. Not that anyone was ever much interested in my feelings.
Anyway, that’s the proverbial water under the bridge. No point brooding about it now, or living in the past. Live for today—that’s my motto. Or die for it. As the case may be.
Die for today.
I like the sound of that.
Okay, so it’s five years ago, and I’m out walking. It’s hot. Summer, I think, so really humid. And the mosquitoes are buzzing around my head, starting to get on my nerves, and I come across this ugly, old field. Half-swamp really. Probably more than a few
snakes and alligators hiding in the tall grass, but I’ve never been one who’s afraid of reptiles. In fact, I think they’re pretty awesome, and I’ve found that if you respect their space, they’ll usually respect yours. Even so, I’m careful when I come here. I have a trail pretty well etched out, and I try to keep to it, especially at night. Of course, I have my gun, and a couple of sharp knives, should anything unexpected happen.
You always have to guard against the unexpected.
Somebody should have told that to this girl.
The main part of the house isn’t much—a couple of small rooms, empty, of course. I had to supply the cot, which was kind of tricky, although I won’t get into any of those details now. Suffice to say, I managed it all by myself, which is the way I usually do things. There’s a tiny kitchen, but the appliances have been ripped out, and there’s no running water in the taps. The same is true of the bathroom and its filthy toilet, its once-white seat cracked right down the middle. Wouldn’t want to sit on that thing, that’s for sure.
I’ve thoughtfully provided the girl with a plastic bucket, should she need to relieve herself. It sits in a corner to the left of the door. She kicked at it earlier, when she was flailing around, so right now it’s lying on its side at the other end of the room. Maybe she doesn’t realize yet what it’s for.
The first girl chose to ignore it altogether. She simply lifted up her skirt and squatted right there on the floor. Not that she had to hike her skirt very far. It was so ridiculously short, it could have passed for a belt, which I guess was the look she was going for— strictly Hooker City. Of course, she wasn’t wearing panties, which was pretty disgusting. Some might say she was no better than an animal, although not me. No way I’d say that. Why? Because it disrespects the animals. To say that girl was a pig is to slander the pig. Which, of course, is why I chose her. I knew no one would miss her. I knew no one would mourn her. I knew no one would come looking
for her.
She was only eighteen, but already she had that knowing look in her eyes that made her seem much older. Her lips had frozen into a cynical pout, more sneer than smile, even when she was laughing, and the veins on the insides of her skinny arms were bruised with the piercing of old needles. Her hair was a frizzy cliché of platinum curls and black roots, and when she opened her mouth to speak, you could almost taste the cigarettes on her breath.
Her name was Candy—she even had a bracelet with candies for charms—and I guess you could say she was my test case. I’m the kind of person who doesn’t like doing anything halfway—it has to be perfect—and once I knew what I had to do, I realized I’d have to plan everything carefully. Unlike so many people you read about, I have no desire to be caught. Once this project is over, I plan to retire and live peacefully—if not always happily—ever after. So, it was important that I get things right.
Hence, Candy.
I met her at a Burger King. She was hanging around outside, and I offered to buy her a burger, an offer she accepted readily. We talked, although she didn’t have a lot to say, and she clammed up altogether when my questions got too personal. That’s okay. I understand that. I’m not too fond of personal questions myself.
But I did find out some key facts: she’d run away from home at fourteen and had been living on the streets ever since. She’d met some guy; he’d gotten her hooked on drugs, and the drugs had, in turn, gotten her hooked on hooking. After a while, the guy split, and she was on her own again. She’d spent much of the last year moving from place to place, occasionally waking up in a strange hospital room or holding cell. One place was pretty much the same as the next, she said.
I wonder if that’s how she felt when she woke up here, in the underground room of this forgotten, old house.
Did I neglect to mention this room is underground? Shame on me—it’s what makes the place so special, the “pièce de résistance,” if you will.
I said before that, for the most part, houses in Florida don’t have basements. That’s because they’re built on what is essentially quicksand, and you could wake up one morning to find yourself up to your eyeballs in muck. Entire homes have been swallowed up, and I’m not just talking about the older, less substantial ones. There’s a
brand-new subdivision going up not far from here, built almost entirely—and ill-advisedly, in my humble opinion, not that anybody has asked for my opinion—on landfill, and one day, one of the houses just up and disappeared. The builders didn’t have to look very far to find it, of course. They were standing on top of it. Serves
them right. You can only go so far challenging nature.
If I were going to build a house today, I’d hire the guy who designed this one. True, it’s seen better days, but whoever constructed it was a genius. He created a whole warren of little rooms underneath the main floor, rooms he probably used for storage.
I have something quite different in mind.
Candy didn’t think much of the place when she realized it wasn’t the kind of holding cell she was used to. Once I finally showed myself, and the seriousness of her predicament became clear, she tried all the tricks in her arsenal, said if sex was the goal, there was
no way she was doing anything with me on that dirty old cot. She’d do whatever perverted things I wanted, only not here. The idea of sex with this person was so repugnant I was tempted to kill her on the spot, but the game was far from over. I still had some surprises up my sleeve.
Ultimately I killed her with a single bullet to the head. Then I dumped her body in a swamp a few miles away. If anybody finds it, and I doubt they will—it’s been four months after all—there’ll be nothing left to link her to me, no way of determining exactly when she died, at what precise moment her heart stopped beating. Even had she been found immediately, all in one piece, I know enough about DNA, courtesy of all those surgically enhanced forensic experts on TV, to ensure I’ve left no clues.
Just as Candy left no mourners.
But this girl, this heartstopper with the big blue eyes and large, natural breasts, will be different.
Not only will a lot of people be out looking for her—they may even be looking for her now—she’ll be more of a challenge all around. Candy was a trifle dim-witted to be much fun. This girl is stronger, both mentally and physically, so I’ll have to up my game, as they say—move quicker, think faster, strike harder.
She’s looking this way again, as if she knows I’m here, as if she can hear the scribbling of my pen. So I’ll sign off for now, go grab something to eat. I’ll come back later, initiate phase two of my plan. Maybe I’ll keep the girl alive till morning. Maybe not. Risk management after all. It doesn’t pay to get too cocky.
Stay tuned, as they say. I’ll be back.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Kiss Mommy Goodbye
Excerpt

ONE
 
“Could you be a little more specific when you say ‘erratic behavior’?”
 
“Specific?”
 
The lawyer smiled with well-practiced patience, perfectly pitched understanding in his voice as he elaborated.
 
“Yes. Could you give us some examples of what you describe as your wife’s erratic behavior over the last few years.”
 
“Oh, yes. Certainly,” the man nodded.
 
Donna Cressy sat in the straight hard-backed chair, her back rigid, not touching the wood, and watched the man in the witness stand, the man to whom she had been married for six years, Victor Cressy, age thirty-eight and five years her senior, continue to grind what was left of her self-image into fine flecks of ash (human remains from the cremator’s oven), to dissect every phrase she had uttered during their life together, every tone, every nuance until there was nothing left but his interpretation of how it had been. She almost smiled—why should their divorce be any different than their marriage?
 
She looked at his face and wished she could be like some of those women she had often read about who, when they looked at a lost or former lover, wondered what they could have seen in him in the first place. But it was all still there to see—the conventionally handsome, even kind face, with its brooding blue eyes and almost black hair, the sensitive yet commanding set of his features, his full mouth, the imperious yet curiously respectful tone of his voice.
 
“She stopped driving the car,” Victor said, almost wondrously. Obviously something beyond his comprehension.
 
“What do you mean? She just stopped?” the lawyer probed. “Had she had an accident?”
 
His lawyer was good, Donna admitted to herself. Victor had said he was the best in Florida, which hadn’t surprised her. Victor had to have the best. It was a quality she had first admired, then learned to despise. Funny how the things you loved could turn so quickly into objects of scorn, she thought. Funny how a road-weary lawyer with a well-rehearsed client could still manage to make everything sound so spontaneous. Her own attorney had told her that a good lawyer never asked a question for which he didn’t already know the answer. Her lawyer was also considered to be good—though not as good as Victor’s.
 
“No. She never had any accidents in all the years I knew her,” Victor answered. “She’d been driving since she was sixteen and as far as I know, she’d never so much as dented a fender.”
 
 “And when you were first married, did she drive often then?”
 
“All the time. In fact, I bought her a car, a little Toyota, for our second anniversary. She was thrilled.”
 
“And she just stopped driving one day?”
 
“That’s right. Suddenly, she just refused to get behind the wheel.”
 
“Did she offer any explanation?”
 
“She said she didn’t want to drive anymore.”
 
Victor’s lawyer, a Mr. Ed Gerber, raised his eyebrows while simultaneously furrowing his brow and pursing his lips. Donna thought that must be hard to do. “When exactly was that?”
 
“About two years ago. No. Maybe a little more. It was around the time she got pregnant with Sharon. Sharon’s sixteen months old now, so, yeah, I guess it was about two years ago.” His voice was deep. Thoughtful.
 
“And she hasn’t driven since?”
 
“Not to my knowledge.”
 
“And to the best of your knowledge, nothing happened to cause this decision?”
 
“That’s right. I—” he hesitated, as if debating with himself whether or not to continue. “I once saw her get behind the wheel of the car, about a year ago when she thought I was still asleep—”
 
“Still asleep? What time was it?”
 
“A little after three a.m.”
 
“What was she doing out at three a.m.?”
 
“Objection.” Her own lawyer. Mr. Stamler. The same height and weight as Mr. Gerber. Approximately the same age. Interchangeable, except that Victor had told her Mr. Gerber was better.
 
“Sorry. I’ll rephrase that. What was your wife wearing at the time, Mr. Cressy?”
 
“Her nightgown.”
 
“And where were the children?”
 
“Asleep. In the house.”
 
“Would you describe exactly what you saw that morning.”
 
Victor looked perplexed. Donna could see his confusion was sincere. Forgive them, Father, she found herself thinking, for they know not what they do. Victor had sworn to tell the truth. And he was telling it—as he saw it. As he knew it. His truth, not hers. Her chance would come later. Her last chance.
 
“I heard the front door close and I looked out the window to the carpark and I saw Donna unlock the car and get inside. I remember being astounded that she would even be thinking about driving again, and then even more surprised that she would be going anywhere at three in the morning. That was long before I found out about her relationship with Dr. Segal, of course.”
 
“Objection. There is no proof that Mrs. Cressy had any intention of going to meet Dr. Segal that morning.”
 
“Sustained.” The judge. The same height and weight as both Mr. Stamler and Mr. Gerber. Perhaps twenty years older.
 
“Did Mrs. Cressy, in fact, go anywhere?”
 
“No. She put the key in the ignition and switched on the motor, and then she just sat there like she couldn’t move. And then she started to shake. All over. She just sat there and shook. Finally, she turned off the motor and came back inside. I went into the living room to see if she was okay, and I could see she’d been crying. I asked her what was wrong.”
 
“And what was her answer?”
 
“She told me to go back to bed. And then she went back to her room.”
 
“Her room? You had separate bedrooms?”
 
“Yes.”
 
Victor looked deeply embarrassed by the admission.
 
“Why was that?”
 
“It was what Donna wanted.”
 
“From the beginning?”
 
“No. Oh, no.” He smiled. “We have two children, remember.” Mr. Gerber smiled in consolation. It seemed even the judge smiled. Only Donna remained unmoved. “No, she, uh, she told me she wouldn’t sleep with me anymore on the day she found out she was pregnant with our second child.”
 
“Did you consider that announcement strange?”
 
“Only a little. She’d been saying no for quite a long time by that point. Except for the odd occasion.” His smile was puppy-dog sad. Donna wanted to punch him in the mouth.
 
“So your wife refused to have sexual relations with you?”
 
“Yes, sir.” Almost inaudible.
 
“Did she give you a reason?” Why was he so concerned with reasons? Donna wondered.
 
“At first, she used to say she was just too tired, what with looking after Adam—he’s four now.”
 
Donna stared at Victor with disbelief. He had once told her he could sell sand to the Arabs, and it was true he had been Prudential’s top insurance salesman for the past five years running. But before her eyes she had just witnessed the almost total transformation of a Yankee from Connecticut transplanted to Palm Beach, Florida, only eight years ago, into a born and bred good ole boy from the South, his voice even hinting at a mild Southern drawl, and she had actually believed in this new identity. “She used to say she was just too tired, what with looking after Adam”—she heard his voice silently repeating. “What with looking after Adam!” Victor Cressy had never used the term “what with” in his life before. And that final little sentiment—“he’s four now,” tacked onto the end of the thought like so much country molasses. And she had fallen for it! The way she recognized the judge was falling for it as well. For a moment, she felt panic and looked around her shoulder for Mel. He was there. He smiled but he looked as puzzled as she felt, and as she turned back to face the witness stand, she felt something she had not allowed herself to feel since she had decided to leave Victor—that he might win after all. Not the divorce suit—she didn’t care who was granted the divorce, being branded an adulteress didn’t bother her (she had committed adultery, after all), but what had suddenly traveled from Victor’s mouth to her ears in that mellifluous near-Southern drawl was the very real possibility that she could lose her children, the very things that had sustained her these last trouble-filled years, the only things that had kept her sane.
 
Sane?
 
Not according to Victor. “Then, of course, she was sick so often.”
 
“Sick?”
 
“She seemed to have one cold after another, and when it wasn’t a cold, it was the flu. She’d be in bed for days.”
 
“And who would look after the children?”
 
“Mrs. Adilman from next door. She’s a widow, she would come in.”
 
“Was Mrs. Cressy seeing a doctor?”
 
Victor’s smile was a neat mixture of irony and regret. “At first she was seeing our old family doctor, Dr. Mitchelson. Then he retired and she wasn’t seeing anyone except for her obstetrician, Dr. Harris. Until she met Dr. Segal. Then suddenly he became the family practitioner.”
 
“Dr. Melvin Segal?”
 
“Yes.”
 
“He began treating your wife?”
 
“And my children.”
 
“They had no pediatrician?”
 
Victor’s voice raised itself in anger for the first time that morning. It was very effective. “They had a perfectly good pediatrician. The best. Dr. Wellington, Paul Wellington. But Donna insisted, and she was very adamant about it, that Sharon and Adam go to see Dr. Segal.”
 
“Did she offer an explanation?” Again he wanted explanations.
 
“None that was satisfactory.”
 
The lawyer paused. Like the wanderer in a poem by Robert Frost, he had come to a fork in the road. He had been offered two paths to follow and he could choose only one. He could travel the road to adultery, or the more erratic, as he had earlier phrased it, trail of Donna’s behavior. He opted for her sanity, or lack of it, as he hoped to prove, since he had already started out in that direction, and, unlike the poet, he recognized he could always double back later.
 
“I’d like to return to Dr. Segal in a few moments, Mr. Cressy,” Mr. Gerber continued, unfurrowing his brow and doing something weird with his lips. “Right now I’d like to concentrate on those of your wife’s actions you found strange. Can you give us a few more examples?”
 
Victor looked over at Donna, then lowered his head. “Well,” he began slowly, “there was the period just after Sharon was born that she hated the way she looked and decided to change the color of her hair.”
 
“That’s not so unusual, from what I understand about women,” Mr. Gerber said, chuckling lightly with condescension. Victor was smart enough not to join him. He tolerated his lawyer’s well-timed interruption, then continued with his story, the narrative picking up gradual speed as it rolled to its conclusion.
 
“No,” Victor agreed, “it wouldn’t have been unusual, and at first I didn’t think anything about it, except that I always preferred it long and natural, and she knew that.” Pause. Let it sink in. She deliberately altered something that was already preferred. “At first, she just put streaks in it, so that it was still brown but with a few blonde highlights. That wasn’t bad, but after about a week, she decided she didn’t like that any better than plain brown, so she had it frosted, which made it almost all blonde streaks with just a little bit of brown. Then she decided that if she was going to have long hair, it might as well be all blonde and so she had it done really blonde, almost white. But then she complained that the sun kept turning it yellow, so she had it turned strawberry blonde, and then a few weeks after that, she changed it to red.” He stopped to catch his breath. Donna remembered the red. She had hoped to look like Tina Louise. Instead she came out looking like Little Orphan Annie. “The red didn’t last any longer than any of the others, so she had it done auburn and then black. By then her hair was such a disaster in terms of the condition it was in from all the bleachings and colorings that she had to have it cut. So she cut it to just above her shoulders, and put it back to its natural color, like how she has it now, and she looked terrific, and I told her so, and the next morning, she came down to the breakfast room and at first I didn’t recognize her. She looked like an inmate of a concentration camp—she’d cut her hair herself so that there was practically nothing there, and she was so thin.” He shook his head in bewilderment.
 
“What did her friends think of all these changes?” his lawyer asked.
 
Her lawyer sat poised to object at the slightest hint of hearsay.
 
“By this point,” Victor continued carefully, “she really didn’t have many friends. Certainly, none that ever came to the house.” Effective pause. Surreptitious glance at Mel. “Mrs. Adilman did ask me if Donna was all right once.”
 
“Objection. Hearsay.”
 
“Sustained.”
 
Victor waited to be led; his attorney readily, though subtly, did the leading.
 
“What did you think of all these changes, Mr. Cressy?” his lawyer asked.
 
“I just kept hoping that it was something she was going through after the birth of the baby. I’d heard that women sometimes went a little crazy after—”
 
“Objection, your honor. Really—”
 
“Sustained. You’re on dangerous ground here, Mr. Gerber.”
 
Mr. Gerber was suitably humbled. He lowered his head and asked his next questions without raising it.
 
“Did things improve with time?”
 
“No. They got worse.”
 
Donna felt her foot going to sleep. It’s always darkest before the dawn, she remembered her mother once telling her. She shook her foot, felt the nerve ends tingling, and smiled with the recognition she still had nerve endings that could tingle, that she was still alive. She saw Victor’s eyes narrow—he had seen her smile and he was questioning it, disapproving of it. Fuck you, she thought, wishing she could yell it aloud, knowing she couldn’t. Not if she wanted to prove herself a fit mother, to be able to keep and raise the children she had watched come into this world.
 
Victor’s voice was droning on about some real or imagined slight she had done him, humiliations she had wrought. She refused to have people over, to entertain any of his associates or prospective clients, and when they went out to parties, she was often sarcastic and rude, putting him down unmercifully. Either that or she would go to the other extreme and not say anything all night. It was a nightmare; he never knew how she was going to react. Neither did anyone else. And then there was that business about cleaning the house.
 
Victor made the story sound as if he were hearing it for the first time himself. “It started after Sharon was born and she had to get up in the middle of the night to nurse her. Sharon would cry around two a.m. and Donna would feed her and then put her back to bed, but instead of going back to bed herself, she’d start to tidy up. She’d clean the living room, the dining room, the kitchen, even the kitchen floor sometimes. When Sharon gave up the two a.m. feeding—which she wasn’t long in doing—Donna still got up every morning around two or three and cleaned the house for at least an hour. Once, I went into the kitchen and she was standing there washing the dishes.” He stopped, then continued sadly, “And we have an automatic dishwasher.”
 
Who was this crazy lady they were talking about? Donna wondered. Because undoubtedly Mrs. Victor Cressy had been a crazy lady.
 
She suddenly found herself thinking back to the first time the concept of hell had become a reality for her. She had been about twenty-six, living on her own, dating a lot of men, relishing her freedom and independence. A group of the people she worked with at McFaddon Advertising had decided on a Fourth of July picnic weekend at the beachfront home of the parents of one of the employees (his parents summered in the North), and she had been included, having a wonderful time until she was assigned to the kitchen clean-up crew and spent the hours from midnight till two a.m. washing dishes in the sink, the automatic dishwasher having decided to get in the holiday spirit and take the weekend off like everybody else. As she had stood there, her hands sinking into the hot water and overabundance of suds, watching the revelers return with yet another armload of dishes just when she had thought she was through, she had been reminded of a book she had studied in college, and one she had recalled often since, Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus. According to the ancient Greek myth, Sisyphus had angered the gods for reasons which had escaped her then as they did now, and he had been condemned to spend the rest of eternity pushing a large and monstrously heavy rock up to the top of a huge hill, only to have it roll back down to the bottom just as he was reaching the summit. Camus had asked the seemingly ridiculous question, was Sisyphus happy? More ridiculous still, he had concluded that yes, Sisyphus was indeed happy because he knew in advance that the rock would never reach its destination, that he would always be forced to carry it just so far and then watch it backslide, that there was no hope of his ever succeeding. And in abandoning hope, he had gained his salvation; by knowing and accepting his fate, he became superior to it. Donna had pondered these existential theories of existence as her hands went in and out of the water, and she had decided as yet another sinkful of dishes emerged from beneath the bubbles, that if, in fact, there was a hell, and each person was assigned his or her own particular and private hell, then hers would undoubtedly be eternal kitchen duty. The thought of having to spend forever at the kitchen sink, coming to the end only to find another load waiting, brought home to her the concept of hell, its possible reality, in a way that no amount of Sunday sermonizing could ever have hoped to accomplish. For the first time in her life, Donna Cressy had feared death.
 
And now here she sat in the starkness of the courtroom and heard herself described, accurately she had to admit, at least superficially, as some maniac for cleanliness who woke herself up in the middle of the night in order to wash the dishes her automatic dishwasher was perfectly able to handle. Did she sound like a woman in control of her life? Did a woman whose hair coloring traveled from Gloria Steinem to Lana Turner to Lucille Ball to Dorothy Lamour to Mia Farrow—anybody but herself—in the space of a few months have any right to supervise the development of two young children with perfectly healthy heads of hair?
 
Not according to what she had just heard. And there was more much more to come, she knew. They hadn’t begun to talk about Mel, about her immorality. They had thus far avoided any detailed mention of the children themselves. Victor was only the first witness to be called. There was doubtless a long string of witnesses to follow, all to condemn her in tones varying from outrage to pity. She had only herself. Once again she found herself smiling ruefully—why should their divorce be any different from their marriage? Then she noticed the judge was staring at her, silently questioning her smile, so incongruous under the circumstances. He thinks I’m crazy, she said to herself, as the judge banged his gavel and adjourned the session for lunch.
 
 
Victor was standing beside her before she could even think of rising from her chair, his face full of gentle concern.
 
“Can I talk to you for a few minutes?” he asked.
 
“No,” she said, standing up and pushing her chair back. Her lawyer had already moved to the back of the courtroom where he was talking to Mel.
 
“Donna, please, don’t be unreasonable.”
 
She looked genuinely surprised. “How can you expect me to be anything else? You expect the lady I just heard described by your very own sincere mouth to act with reason? As usual, Victor, you expect too much.” She began to scratch at the top of her left hand above the thumb.
 
“Rash back?” he asked.
 
She stopped scratching. “Something you forgot to mention this morning. Oh, well, the day is still young. I’m sure you’ll get around to it.” She wanted to stop but couldn’t. “Oh, and you forgot to tell him I have hemorrhoids from reading on the toilet despite all the times you warned me against it.” She slapped her hand. “Bad little girl.”
 
He grabbed her hand. “Donna, please. Look what this is doing to you.”
 
“Please let go of me.”
 
He let go reluctantly. “I just want to spare you any further pain and humiliation this whole mess is going to cause you.”
 
“Are you going to drop the custody action?”
 
He looked genuinely distraught. “You know I can’t do that.”
 
“You don’t seriously believe I’m not fit to raise my children?” she almost shouted. Mel and Mr. Stamler looked in her direction, Mel instantly moving toward her.
 
“They’re my children too,” he reminded her, “and I’m only doing what I feel is right.” Mel was at Donna’s side.
 
“You won’t win, you know,” Donna said with more conviction than she felt. “The judge will hear my side of the story. He won’t let you take my children away from me.”
 
Victor looked from Donna to Mel with undisguised hatred. When he looked back at Donna, any concern his face had once held had vanished. His voice had lost any trace of Southern gentility, was unabashedly Northern and cold like a biting Chicago wind. “I promise you,” he said, spitting the words into the air between them, “that even if you win, you’ll lose.”
 
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Donna asked, but his back was already to her, and seconds later he was gone from the courtroom.

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Life Penalty

Life Penalty

A Novel
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Lost

Lost

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Excerpt

"Has she ever done anything like this before?"

"You mean, stayed out all night?"

Neil nodded. He was sitting beside Cindy on one of two tan leather sofas in her living room. Behind them a wall of windows overlooked the spacious backyard. Facing them were three paintings of pears in varying degrees of ripeness. Cindy couldn't remember the name of the artist who'd painted these pictures. Tom had bought them without asking either her opinion or approval. I make the money; I make the decisions, being pretty much the theme of their marriage. Along with the never-ending parade of other women, Cindy thought, smiling sadly at the good-looking man perched on the opposite end of the couch and wondering if he'd ever cheated on his wife. She ran her hand across the sofa's buttery surface. Find Italian leather. Guaranteed to last a lifetime. Unlike her marriage, she thought. The sofas had also been Tom's decision, as was the checkered print of the two wing chairs sitting in front of the black marble fireplace. Why had she never bothered to change anything after he left? Had she been subconsciously waiting for him to return? She shook her head, trying to excise her former husband from her brain.

"Cindy?" Neil was asking, leaning forward, extending his hands toward hers. "Are you all right? You have this very strange look on your face."

"Yes, she's stayed out all night before," Cindy said, answering his question, wondering how long ago he'd asked it. "But she always calls. She's never not called."

Except once just after she moved back home, Cindy recalled, when she was making a point about being an adult and no longer answerable to her mother. Her father, she'd argued pointedly, had never placed any such restrictions on her. Her mother, Cindy had countered, needed to be assured of her safety. It was a matter of consideration, not constraint. In reply, Julia had rolled her eyes and flounced out of the room, but she'd never stayed out all night again without first phoning home.

Except one other time when she forgot, Cindy remembered, but then she'd called first thing the next morning and apologized profusely.

"Shouldn't you be at work?" she asked Neil, trying to prevent another example from springing to her mind.

"I take Fridays off in the summer."

Cindy vaguely recalled him having told her that last night. "Look, you don't have to stay. I mean, it was very thoughtful of you to come over and everything, I really appreciate it, but I'm sure you have plans for the long weekend…."

"I have no plans."

"….and Julia should be home any minute now," Cindy continued, ignoring the implications of his remark, "at which point I'm going to strangle her, and everything will be back to normal." She tried to laugh, cried out instead. "Oh, God, what if something terrible has happened to her?"

"Nothing terrible has happened to her."

Cindy stared at Neil imploringly. "You promise?"

"I promise," he said simply.

Amazingly, Cindy felt better. "Thank you."

Neil reached over, took her hands in his.

There was a sudden avalanche of footsteps on the stairs, and Heather bounded into view. "I heard the door. Is Julia home?"

Cindy quickly extricated her hands from Neil's, returned them primly to her lap.

"Who are you?"

"Heather, this is Neil Macfarlane."

"The accountant." Heather advanced warily, quick eyes absorbing Neil's black jeans and denim shirt.

"Neil, this is my younger daughter, Heather."

Neil stood up, shook Heather's hand. "Nice to meet you, Heather."

Heather nodded. "I thought maybe Julia was back."

"No," Cindy said.

Heather swayed from one foot to the other. "Duncan and I were just going to head down to Queen Street. Unless you need me for anything."

"No, honey. I'm fine."

"You're sure? 'Cause I can stay if you want."

"No, sweetheart. You go. I'll be fine."

"You'll call me as soon as Julia gets home?"

Cindy nodded, looked anxiously toward the front door.

"You know my cell number?"

"Of course." Cindy pictured a series of numbers, realized they were Julia's. "Maybe you'd better write it down."

Heather walked into the kitchen. "I'm leaving it by the phone," she called back as Duncan came barreling down the stairs.

"Julia home?" he asked.

"Not yet."

He stared blankly at Neil, crossed one arm protectively over the other. "Are you a cop?"

Cindy blanched. Why would he ask that?

"He's an accountant," Heather said, reentering the room. "We should go." She guided Duncan toward the front door. "Remember to call me when Julia gets home."

Cindy nodded, watching them leave. "Do you think I should call the police?"

"If you're worried, yes," Neil said.

"It's only been twenty-four hours."

"That's long enough."

She thought of Tom. Probably she should wait for him to return her call, discuss the matter with him before she did anything rash. "I should probably wait a little longer."

"Have you checked with the place where Julia had her audition, to make sure she showed up?"

"I don't know who to contact," Cindy admitted. "I mean, I know the audition was for Michael Kinsolving, but he's probably just renting some space, and I don't know the address or the phone number." I don't know anything, she wailed silently. What kind of mother am I, who doesn't know anything? "Tom will know," she said. "My ex-husband. Julia's father. He arranged the audition. He'll know." All the more reason to wait until she spoke to him before calling the police, she acknowledged to herself.

Neil walked to the fireplace, lifted a plexiglass frame from the mantle. "Is this Julia?"

Cindy stared at the picture of Julia that had been taken several days after her eighteenth birthday. She was smiling, showing a mouthful of perfect, professionally straightened and whitened teeth, elegant shoulders thrust proudly back in her new cream-colored Gucci leather jacket, a present from her father. Diamond studs sparkled from each ear, another present from Daddy. The night this picture was taken, Cindy had presented her daughter with a delicate necklace with her name spelled out in gold. Less than a month later, Julia had broken it while trying to pull a turtleneck sweater over her head. I forgot I had it on, she'd announced nonchalantly, returning the necklace to her mother to be fixed. Cindy dutifully had the necklace repaired, only to have Julia lose it a few weeks later. "That's an old picture," Cindy said now, taking the photograph from Neil's hands and returning it to the mantle, one finger lingering, caressing her daughter's cheek through the small square of glass.

"She's a very beautiful girl."

"Yes, she is."

"Like her mother."

The phone rang. Cindy raced to the kitchen, tripping on the large sisle rug in the front hall, and banging her hip against the side of the kitchen door. "Damn it," she swore, lifting the phone to her ear. "Hello?"

"Well, damn it yourself," her mother replied. "What's the matter, darling? Forgot to put on your makeup?"

Cindy raised a hand to her bare cheek, realized she had indeed forgotten to put on any makeup. Still Neil had said she was beautiful, she thought gratefully, shaking her head as he approached, signaling the caller wasn't Julia. "I'm fine, Mom. Just a little busy at the moment. Can I call you back?"

"You don't have to bother. I'm just checking in. Everything all right? Your sister said you sounded pissy, and I'm afraid I have to agree with her."

Cindy closed her eyes, ran her free hand through her hair. "Everything's fine, Mom. I'll call you later. Okay?"

"Fine darling. Take care."

"My mother," Cindy said, hanging up the phone and immediately checking her voice-mail to make sure no one else had called. "My sister told her I sounded pissy when she called earlier."

"I'm sure she meant pithy," Neil offered.

Cindy laughed. "Thanks for coming over. I really appreciate it."

"I just wish there was something more I could do."

Something clicked in Cindy's mind. "You can take me to see Sean Banack," she announced suddenly.

"Who?"

"I'll explain on the way." Cindy grabbed a piece of paper and scribbled a note for Julia, leaving it in the middle of the kitchen table, in case her daughter should return while she was gone. On the way out the door, she called Julia's cell phone again and left another message. There'd been something in Sean's voice when she'd talked to him earlier, Cindy thought, replaying their conversation in her mind, word for word. Something more than cigarettes and alcohol. Something more than fatigue and impatience and hurt feelings.

Anger, she realized.

He'd sounded pissy.

"Is Sean here?"

"He isn't," the young man said, standing in the doorway, blocking Cindy's entrance to the small, second floor apartment that was situated over an old variety store on the south side of Dupont Street near Christie. The man was tall and black, with an athletic build and a shiny, bald head. A silver loop dangled from his left ear. A set of earphones wrapped around his neck, like a noose. He was wearing a sleeveless white T-shirt and black sweatpants, and his left hand clutched a large, plastic bottle of Evian.

"You must be Paul," Cindy said, pulling the name of Sean's roommate from the recesses of her subconscious. She extended her hand, gently pushing her way inside the stuffy, non-airconditioned apartment, Neil following right behind.

The young man smiled warily. "And you are?"

"This is Neil Macfarlane, and I'm Cindy Carver. Julia's mother."

The expression on the young man's face altered ever-so-slightly. "Nice to meet you, Mrs. Carver, Mr. Macfarlane. Excuse the mess." He looked sheepishly toward the cluttered L of the living-dining room behind him.

Cindy's eyes followed his. Books and papers covered the light hardwood floor and brown corduroy sofa in the middle of the room. A deeply scratched wooden door balancing on four short stacks of red bricks served as a coffee table. Several old copies of the Toronto Star lay stretched across the small dining-room table, like a linen tablecloth. HUSBAND PHONED WIFE AFTER BEHEADING HER screamed an inside headline. MAN STALKED VICTIM FOR THREE DAYS BEFORE FATAL ATTACK, announced another.

"Sean's doing research on aberrant behavior," Paul explained, following her eyes. "For a script he's writing."

Cindy nodded, remembering Julia had once boasted that Sean was writing a script especially for her. As far as Cindy knew, Sean had yet to find a producer for any of his efforts. He supported himself by bartending at Fluid, a popular downtown club. "Has Julia been around lately?" she asked, straining to sound casual.

"Haven't seen her since…." There was an uncomfortable pause. "You should probably talk to Sean."

"Do you have any idea when he's coming back?"

"No. I wasn't here when he went out."

"Do you mind if we wait?" Cindy immediately plopped herself down on the sofa, moving a well-thumbed copy of a paperback book to the cushion beside her. The book was called Mortal Prey.

Paul hesitated. "The thing is….I have to be somewhere by noon, and I was just gonna hop in the shower…."

"Oh, you go right ahead," Cindy instructed. "We'll be fine."

"Sean could be a while."

"If he's not back by the time you're ready to leave, we'll go."

"All right. I guess it's all right," the young man muttered under his breath, perhaps sensing Cindy's determination, and not wanting to make a scene. "I won't be long."

"Take your time."

As soon as Cindy heard the shower running, she was on her feet.

"What are you doing?" Neil asked. "Where are you going?"

The second question was by far the easier of the two to answer. "To Sean's room," she said, trying to decide which of the two rooms at the back of the apartment was his, opening the first door she came to, grateful when she saw a row of high school football trophies bearing Sean's name lined up in front of the open window.

Posters from popular movies covered the walls: Spider-Man, Invasion of the Body Snatchers; From Hell; The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Cindy winced at the image of a horrifying, leather-faced figure brandishing a chainsaw in front of him like a giant phallus, a helpless young cowering at his feet. She remembered that movie, hated herself now for enjoying it. What was the matter with her that she liked such things?

"I don't think this is such a good idea," Neil said, his voice a strained whisper as he followed her inside the tiny bedroom.

"Probably not," Cindy took a step back, her ankle brushing up against the waste paper basket on the floor. Her attention was immediately captured by the torn and crumpled remains of an eight-by-ten glossy. She bent down and scooped the battered picture of her daughter into her shaking hands. "It's Julia most recent head-shot. She just had it taken a few weeks ago." Cindy tried vainly to iron out the creases of the black-and-white photograph, piece together the smile on her daughter's face. Obviously Sean had torn it from its fame in a fit of fury. Was it possible he'd attacked her daughter in a similar rage?

"Maybe you should just leave it," Neil advised, removing the picture from her trembling hands.

"What else is in here?" Cindy asked, ignoring Neil's warning, turning the waste paper basket upside down, and watching as scrap pieces of paper, used tissues, pencil shavings, and a browning apple core tumbled toward the floor. "Garbage, garbage, garbage," she muttered, her fingers loosening their grip on the white plastic container, allowing it to slip from her hand. She began pulling open the desk drawers, poking around inside them. There was nothing of consequence in the first drawer, and she was just about to close the second when her fingers located something at the very back. An envelope, she realized, pulling it out, and opening it, a small gasp escaping her lips.

"What is it?"

Cindy's mouth opened, but no words emerged, as her fingers flipped through a succession of small color photographs, all of Julia, all in various stages of undress. Julia in a see-through lavender bra and thong set; Julia wearing only the bottom half of a black string bikini, her hands playfully covering obviously bare breasts; Julia in profile, the curve of one naked breast visible beneath the crook of her elbow, the top of her bare bottom rounding out of the frame; Julia wrapped provocatively in a bed sheet; Julia wearing high heels and a man's unbuttoned shirt and crooked tie.

"Why would she do this?" Cindy wondered out loud, showing the pictures to Neil before tucking them into the pocket of her khaki cotton pants. What was the matter with Julia? Had she no common sense whatsoever?

Cindy rifled through a few more items, and was about to close the drawer when her eyes fell across a sheet of densely typed paper.

The Dead Girl, she read.

By Sean Banack.

Cindy pulled the piece of paper from the drawer, and carried it over to the bed, where she sank down, her lips moving silently across the page as she read.

The Dead Girl

By Sean Banack

Chapter One

She stares up at him defiantly, despite the fact her hands and feet are bound behind her naked body and she knows beyond any shadow of a doubt that he is going to kill her. He should have taped her eyes shut as well as her mouth, he thinks, then he wouldn't have to see the look of contempt he knows so well. But he wants her to see him. He wants her to know what's coming, to see the knives and other medieval instruments of torture spread out across the floor, and understood what hell he has prepared for her. He lifts the smallest, yet sharpest of the knives into his hands, cradles it delicately between his fingers, fingers she claims are hopelessly inept. Fairy fingers, she calls them to his face. A faggot's hands.

He draws a fine line down the taut flesh of her inner arm. Her eyes widen as she watches a thin red streak wind its way across the whiteness of her skin. Slowly he lifts a second knife into the air in a graceful arc, then plunger it into her side, careful to keep the blade a safe distance from her vital organs, making sure the thrust isn't hard enough to kill her, because what would be the fun in that? Over so soon, so quick, before he's had a chance to really enjoy himself, before she's had a chance to fully suffer for her sins. And she must suffer. As he has suffered for so long.

What are you doing? Let go of me, she'd yelled when he pulled up beside her, then bundled her into the trunk of his car. She, this spoiled child of privilege, who claimed nosebleeds anyway north of Highway 401, is about to bleed to death in an abandoned shed just south of the King Sideroad, in the middle of bloody nowhere. Serves you right, bitch, he says, slicing at her legs before throwing her on her back, pushing the largest of the knives between her legs.

Green eyes widen in alarm as the knife slides higher, cuts deeper. Not laughing now, are you, bitch? Where's all that defiance now? With his free hand he grabs another knife, slashes at her breasts. Her blood is everywhere: on her, on him, on the floor, on his clothes, in his eyes, beneath his fingernails. His faggot fingernails, he thinks, rejoicing as he plunges the knife deep inside her, then savagely rips the duct tape away from her mouth so he can hear her final screams.

"Oh dear God," Cindy cried, rocking back and forth.

Neil extricated the paper from Cindy's hands. "What is it?"

"No, please no."

It was then she heard the noise from somewhere beside them. "What's going on in here?" Paul asked from the doorway. "Mrs. Carver? What are you doing in here?"

Cindy scrambled to her feet, lunged at the startled young man, naked except for the white towel wrapped around his waist. "Where's my daughter? What have you done with her?"

Paul took a step back, clutching the towel at his hips. "I don't know. Honestly, I have no idea where she is."

"You're lying."

"I really think you should leave."

"I'm not going anywhere until I speak to Sean."

"I already told you I don't know when he'll be back."

"Is he with Julia?"

"No way. Julia ripped his guts out, man. Look, I'm gonna have to call the police if you don't clear out of here right now."

Neil looked up from the pages he was reading and yanked the phone from the small table beside Sean's bed, thrust it toward Paul. "Call them," he said.

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Mad River Road
Excerpt

Prologue
Three o'clock in the morning. His favorite time of day. The sky was dark, the streets deserted. Most people were asleep. Like the woman in the bedroom down the hall. He wondered if she was dreaming and smiled at the realization that her nightmare was just about to begin.
He laughed, careful not to make a sound. No point waking her up before he'd decided the best way to proceed. He imagined her stirring, sitting up in bed, and watching him approach, shaking her head in a familiar mixture of amusement and disdain. He could hear the scorn in that gravelly, low-pitched voice of hers. Just like you, she would say, to go off half-cocked, to rush into something without a clear plan.
Except he did have a plan, he thought, stretching his arms above his head and taking a moment to admire the leanness of his torso, the hardness of his biceps beneath his short-sleeved, black T-shirt. He'd always taken great pains with his appearance, and now, at thirty-two, he was in better shape than he'd ever been. Prison will do that for you, he thought, and laughed his silent laugh again.
He heard a sharp noise and looked toward the open window, saw a giant palm frond slapping against the top half of the pane. An escalating wind was whipping the delicate white sheers in several different directions at once, so that they looked more like streamers than curtains, and he interpreted their frenzied motion as a sign of support, as if they were cheering him on. The Weather Channel had promised a major downpour would hit the greater Miami area by dawn. Seventy percent chance of severe thunderstorms, the pretty blond announcer had warned, although what did she know? She just read whatever was on the cue cards in front of her, and those stupid forecasts were wrong at least half the time. Not that it made any difference. She'd be back tomorrow with more unreliable predictions. Nobody was ever held accountable. He cocked his gloved fingers into the shape of a gun, pulled an imaginary trigger.
Tonight someone would be.
His sneakered feet cut across the light hardwood floor of the living room in three quick strides, his hip knocking against the sharp corner of a tall wing chair he'd forgotten was there. He swore under his breath -- a rush of colorful invectives he'd picked up from a former cell mate at Raiford -- as he lowered the window to a close. The gentle hum of the air-conditioning unit immediately replaced the tortured howling of the wind. He'd made it inside just in time, thanks to an agreeable side window that had proved as easy to manipulate as he'd always suspected. She really should have installed a burglar alarm system by now. A woman alone. How many times had he told her how easy it would be for someone to jimmy that window open? Oh, well. Can't say I didn't warn you, he thought, remembering the times they'd sat sipping wine or, in his case, guzzling beer, at her dining room table. But even in those early days, when she was still being cautiously optimistic, she couldn't help but let him know that his presence in her home was more tolerated than welcomed. And when she looked at him, if she deigned to look at him at all, her nose would twitch, a slight, involuntary reflex, as if she'd just caught a whiff of something unpleasant.
As if she was in any position to look down that pretty little upturned nose at anyone, he thought now, his eyes growing comfortable with the darkness, so that he was able to trace the outlines of the small sectional sofa and glass coffee table that occupied the center of the room. You had to hand it to her -- she'd done a nice job with the place. What was it everybody always said about her? She had flair. Yeah, that was it. Flair. If only she'd been able to cook worth a damn, he scoffed, remembering those awful vegetarian concoctions she'd tried to pass off as dinner. Hell, even prison food was better than that god-awful crap. No wonder she'd never been able to find herself a man.
Not that he didn't have his suspicions about that either.
He walked into the tiny dining area adjoining the living room, ran the palms of his hands across the tops of several of the high-backed, fabric-covered chairs grouped around the oval glass table. Lots of glass in this place, he noted with a smile, flexing his fingers inside his tight latex gloves. He wasn't about to leave behind any telltale prints.
Who said he was always going off half-cocked? Who said he didn't have a plan?
He glanced toward the kitchen on his right and thought of checking out the fridge, maybe even grabbing a beer, if she still kept any around. Probably didn't, now that he was no longer a regular visitor. He'd been the only one of their crowd who ever drank the stuff. The others clung stubbornly to their Chardonnay or Merlot, or whatever the hell garbage it was they insisted on drinking. It all tasted the same to him -- vaguely vinegarish and metallic. It always gave him a headache. Or maybe it was the company that had given him the headaches. He shrugged, remembering the hooded looks they'd shot one another when they thought he wasn't looking. He's just a passing fancy, those looks said. Amusing in small doses. Full of facile charm. Grin and bear him. He won't be around long enough for it to matter.
Except he was.
And it did.
And now I'm back, he thought, a cruel smirk tugging at the corners of his full lips.
A wayward strand of long brown hair fell across his forehead and into his left eye. He pushed it impatiently aside, tucking it behind his ear, and headed down the narrow hallway toward the bedroom at the back of the tidy bungalow. He passed the closet-size room where she practiced her yoga and meditation, catching a whiff of leftover incense that emanated from the walls like a fresh coat of paint. His smirk widened. For someone who worked so hard to stay calm, she was surprisingly high-strung, always ready to argue some obscure point, to take offense where none was intended, to jump down his throat at the slightest provocation. Not that he hadn't enjoyed provoking her.
Her bedroom door was open, and from the hallway, he could make out the shape of her narrow hip beneath the thin white cotton blanket. He wondered if she was naked underneath that blanket, and what he might do if she was. Not that he was at all interested in her that way. She was a little too toned, a little too brittle for his tastes, as if, with the slightest degree of pressure, she might break apart in his hands. He liked his women softer, meatier, more vulnerable. He liked something you could grab onto, something you could dig your teeth into. Still, if she was naked...
She wasn't. He could see the blue-and-white cotton stripes of her pajama top as soon as he stepped inside the room. Wouldn't you just know she'd be wearing men's pajamas? he thought. Shouldn't be surprised. She'd always dressed more like a guy than a girl. Woman, he heard her correct as he approached the queen-size bed. Fit for a queen, he thought, staring down at her. Except that she didn't look so queenly now, curled into a semifetal position on her left side, her normally tanned skin pale with sleep, chin-length dark hair plastered across the side of her right cheek, and straying into her partially opened mouth.
If only she'd learned to keep that big mouth shut.
Maybe he'd be visiting someone else tonight.
Or maybe he wouldn't have had to visit anyone at all.
The last year might never have happened.
Except, of course, it had happened, he thought, clenching and unclenching his fists at his sides. And it had happened largely because old Gracie here couldn't keep her stupid thoughts and opinions to herself. She was the instigator, the agitator, the one who'd turned everyone against him. Everything that happened had been her fault. It was only fitting that tonight she be the one to make things right again.
He looked toward the window on the other side of the bedroom, saw the sliver of moon winking at him from between the slats of the white California shutters. Outside, the wind was painting the night with a surreal brush, combining disparate colors and surfaces; inside all was still and serene. He wondered for an instant whether he should leave without disturbing her. Probably he could find what he was looking for without having to wake her. Most likely the information he sought was secreted in one of the side drawers of the antique oak desk that was squeezed into the corner between the window and the dresser. Or maybe it was stored safely inside her laptop computer. Either way, he knew everything he wanted was within easy grasp. All he had to do was reach out and take it, then disappear into the night without anyone being the wiser.
But what fun would there be in that?
He slipped his right hand inside the pocket of his jeans, felt the hardness of the knife's handle against his fingers. For now the blade was tucked safely inside its wood casing. He'd release it when the time was right. But first, there was much to do. Might as well get this show on the road, he decided, lowering himself gingerly to the bed, his hip grazing hers as the mattress slumped to accommodate him. Instinctively, her body rotated slightly to the left, her head lolling toward him. "Hey, Gracie," he cooed, his voice as soft as fur. "Time to wake up, Gracie-girl."
A low groan escaped her throat, but she didn't move.
"Gracie," he said again, louder this time.
"Mmn," she mumbled, her eyes remaining stubbornly closed.
She knows I'm here, he thought. She's just playing with me. "Gracie," he barked.
Her eyes shot open.
And then everything seemed to happen at once. She was awake and screaming as she struggled to sit up, the horrible catlike wail assaulting his ears, then racing wildly around the room. Instinctively, his hand reached out to silence her, his fingers wrapping tightly around her neck, her screams turning to whimpers beneath the growing pressure on her larynx. She gasped for air as he lifted her effortlessly with one arm and pinned her to the wall behind the bed.
"Shut up," he ordered as her toes struggled to maintain contact with the bed, her hands scratching at his gloves in a fruitless effort to free herself from his stubborn grasp. "Are you going to shut up?"
Her eyes widened.
"What was that?"
He felt her trying to croak out a response, but all she could manage was a ruptured cry.
"I'll take that as a yes," he said, slowly releasing his grip, and watching her slide down the wall and back onto her pillow. He chuckled as she collapsed in a crumpled heap, struggling to gulp air back into her lungs. The top of her pajamas had ridden halfway up her back, and he could make out the individual vertebrae of her spine. It would be so easy to just snap that spine in two, he thought, savoring the image as he reached over to grab a handful of her hair, then yanking her head around so that she had no choice but to look at him. "Hello, Gracie," he said, watching for the disdainful twitch of her nose. "What's the matter? Did I wake you in the middle of a good dream?"
She said nothing, simply stared at him through eyes clouded with fear and disbelief.
"Surprised to see me, are you?"
Her eyes darted toward the bedroom door.
"I think I'd get that thought right out of my head," he said calmly. "Unless, of course, you want to make me really angry." He paused. "You remember what I'm like when I'm really angry. Don't you, Gracie?"
She lowered her eyes.
"Look at me." Again he tugged at her hair, so that her head was stretched back against the top of her spine and her Adam's apple pushed against her throat like a fist.
"What do you want?" Her voice emerged as a hoarse whisper.
His response was to pull even harder on her hair. "Did I say you could speak? Did I?"
She tried shaking her head, but his grip on her hair was too tight.
"I'll take that as a no." He let go of her hair and her head fell to her chest, as if she'd been guillotined. She was crying now, which surprised him. He hadn't expected tears. At least not yet. "So, how's everything been?" he asked, as if this was the most normal of questions. "You can answer," he said when she failed to respond.
"I don't know what you want me to say," she said after a long pause.
"I asked you how everything's been," he repeated. "You gotta know the answer to that one."
"Everything's been fine."
"Yeah? How so?"
"Please. I can't...."
"Sure you can. It's called conversation, Gracie. It goes something like this: I say something and then you say something. If I ask you a question, you answer it. If you don't answer it to my satisfaction, well, then, I'm going to have to hurt you."
An involuntary cry escaped her throat.
"So, my first question to you was 'How's everything been?' and I believe your answer was a rather unimaginative 'Fine,' and then I said, 'How so?' And now, it's your turn." He lowered himself to the bed, leaned in toward her. "Dazzle me." She was staring at him, as if he'd taken complete leave of his senses. He'd seen that look many times before. It never failed to make him angry.
"I don't know what to say."
He detected a hint of defiance creeping into the corners of her voice but decided to ignore it for the time being. "Well, okay. Let's start with work. How's that going?"
"It's okay."
"Just okay? I thought you loved teaching."
"I'm on a sabbatical this year."
"A sabbatical? No kidding. Bet you think I don't know what that means."
"I never thought you were stupid, Ralph."
"No? Could have fooled me."
"What are you doing here?"
He smiled, then slapped her with such force she fell back against her pillow. "Did I say it was your turn to ask questions? No, I don't believe I did. Sit up," he shouted as she buried her face in her hands. "Did you hear me? Don't make me tell you again, Gracie."
She pushed herself back into a sitting position, her fingers trembling in front of her now red cheek, any trace of her earlier defiance erased by the palm of his hand.
"Oh, and don't call me Ralph. Never did like that name. I changed it as soon as I got out of prison."
"They let you out?" she muttered, then winced and pulled back, as if trying to shield herself from further blows.
"Had to. Can't begin to tell you how many of my rights it turns out had been violated." He smiled, remembering. "My lawyer called what happened to me a real travesty of justice, and those judges he appealed to, well, they had no choice but to agree with him. Now, where were we? Oh, yeah. Your sabbatical. That's pretty boring. I guess I don't need to hear any more about that. What about your love life?"
She shook her head.
"What does that mean? You don't have a love life, or you don't want to tell me about it?"
"There's nothing to tell."
"You're not seeing anyone?"
"No."
"Now, why doesn't that surprise me?"
She said nothing, glanced toward the window.
"Storm's coming," he said. "Nobody else is though." He smiled the boyish grin he used to practice for hours in front of the mirror, the one that had always been guaranteed to get him into the pants of any girl he wanted. No matter how much they protested, they just couldn't resist that smile for very long. Of course Gracie had always been impervious to his charms. He'd smile at her, and she'd just stare right through him, as if he didn't even exist. "When was the last time you got laid, Gracie-girl?"
Immediately, her body tensed, recoiled.
"I mean, you're a reasonably attractive woman. And you're young. Although you're not getting any younger, are you? How old are you anyway, Gracie-girl?"
"Thirty-three."
"Is that right? You're older than me? I never knew that." He shook his head in mock wonderment. "Bet there's lots about you I don't know." He reached over, unbuttoned the top button of her pajamas.
"Don't," she said without moving.
He opened the second button. "Don't what?" Not even a please, he thought. Typical.
"You don't want to do this."
"What's the matter, Gracie? Don't think I'm good enough for you?" He ripped off the remaining buttons with an almost effortless tug, then pulled her toward him by both halves of her collar. "You know what I think, Gracie? I think you don't think any man is good enough for you. I think I need to show you the error of your ways."
"No, look, this is crazy. You'll go back to jail. You don't want that. You've been given a second chance. You're a free man. Why would you want to jeopardize that?"
"I don't know. Maybe because you look so darn cute in those little dyke pajamas."
"Please. It's not too late. You can still walk out of here...."
"Or maybe because if it hadn't been for you, I wouldn't have spent the last twelve months of my life in jail."
"You can't blame me for what happened...."
"Why can't I?"
"Because I had nothing to do with it."
"Really? You didn't poison anyone's mind against me?"
"I didn't have to."
"No, you didn't have to. You just couldn't help yourself, could you? And look what happened. I lost everything. My job. My family. My freedom."
"And you had nothing to do with any of that," she stated bitterly, that pesky note of defiance once again creeping into her voice.
"Oh, I'm not saying I'm altogether blameless. I have a temper. I'll admit that. Sometimes it can get a little out of hand."
"You beat her, Ralph. Day in, day out. Every time I saw her, she was covered in fresh bruises."
"She was clumsy. I can't help that she was always walking into things."
Gracie shook her head.
"Where is she?"
"What?"
"As soon as I got out, I headed straight for home. And what do I find? A couple of queers have set up housekeeping in my apartment. That's what I find. And when I ask them what happened to the former tenant, they blink their mascara-covered eyes and tell me they have absolutely no idea. Absolutely no idea," he repeated, his voice lifting a full octave on the word. "That's how this skinny faggot says it, like he's the queen of fucking England. I almost popped him one right then and there." He tightened his grip on her collar with one hand, retrieved the knife from his pocket with the other, used his thumb to snap the switchblade into view. "Tell me where she is, Gracie."
She was struggling now, frantically kicking her legs, flailing at him with her arms. "I don't know where she is."
Once again his fingers dug into the flesh of her throat. "Tell me where she is or I swear I'll break your fucking neck."
"She left Miami right after you went to jail."
"Where'd she go?"
"I don't know. She left without telling anyone."
With that he knocked her on her back and straddled her, using the switchblade to cut the drawstring of her pajama bottoms even as his hand tightened its death grip on her neck. "You have to the count of three to tell me where she is. One...two..."
"Please. Don't do this."
"Three." He pressed the knife against her throat while tugging her pajama bottoms down over her hips.
"No. Please. I'll tell you. I'll tell you."
He smiled, loosened his grip just enough for her to catch her breath, raised the switchblade level with her eyes. "Where is she?"
"She went to California."
"California?"
"To be near her mother."
"No. She wouldn't do that. She knows it'd be the first place I'd think of."
"She moved there three months ago. She thought it was safe after all this time, and she wanted to get as far away from Florida as possible."
"I'm sure that's true." His hand moved to the zipper of his jeans. "Just like I'm sure you're lying."
"I'm not lying."
"Sure you are. And you're lousy at it." He lowered the knife to her cheek, drew a line in her flesh starting just beneath her eye, then dragged it toward her chin.
"No!" She was screaming now, thrashing from side to side, the blood flowing from the cut on her face onto the white of her pillowcase as he positioned himself between her legs. "I'll tell you the truth. I swear, I'll tell you the truth."
"Why would I believe anything you tell me now?"
"Because I can prove it to you."
"Yeah? How?"
"Because I have it written down."
"Where?"
"In my address book."
"Which is where exactly?"
"In my purse."
"I'm starting to lose patience here, Gracie."
"My purse is in the closet. If you let me up, I can get it for you."
"What do you say we get it together?" He pushed himself off her, zipping up his pants as he dragged her off the bed toward the closet. She clutched at the bottoms of her pajamas, trying to hold them up as he pulled open the closet door and quickly scanned its contents. A couple of colorful print blouses, half a dozen pairs of pants, a few expensive-looking jackets, at least ten pairs of shoes, several leather handbags. "Which one?" Already his hand was reaching toward the top shelf.
"The orange one."
With one swipe, he knocked the orange bag to the floor. "Open it." He pushed her to her knees on the white shag rug. Several drops of blood fell from her cheek, staining the orange leather of the purse as she struggled with the clasp. Another drop buried itself into the carpet's soft white pile. "Now hand me the goddamn address book."
Whimpering, Gracie did as she was told.
He opened the book, flipped through the pages until he found the name he was looking for. "So she didn't go to California after all," he said with a smile.
"Please," she cried softly. "You have what you came for."
"What kind of name is that for a street? Mad River Road," he pronounced with an exaggerated flourish.
"Please," she said again. "Just go."
"You want me to go? Is that what you said?"
She nodded.
"You want me to go so you can call your girlfriend as soon as I leave and warn her?"
Now she was shaking her head. "No, I wouldn't do that."
"Of course you wouldn't. Just like you wouldn't call the police either, would you?"
"I won't call anyone. I swear."
"Really? Why is it I find that so hard to believe?"
"Please..."
"I don't think I have any choice here, Gracie. I mean, aside from the fact that I've been looking forward to killing you almost as much as I'm looking forward to killing her, I just don't see where I have any choice. Do you?" He smiled, pulled her roughly to her feet, brought the knife to her throat. "Say good night, Gracie."
"No!" she screamed, flailing at him with all her strength, her elbow catching him in the ribs and knocking the air from his lungs as she squirmed out of his grasp and raced for the hall. She was almost at the front door when the toe of her right foot caught on the bottom of her pajamas and sent her sprawling along the wood floor. Still she didn't stop. She scampered toward the door, screaming at the top of her lungs for someone to hear her and come to her rescue.
He watched in amusement as she reached for the doorknob, knowing he had plenty of time before she'd be able to pull herself to her feet. She certainly was tenacious, he thought, not without admiration. And pretty strong for such a skinny girl. Not to mention a loyal friend. Although when push came to shove, she'd given up her friend rather than submit to his admittedly less-than-romantic overtures. So maybe not such a good friend after all. No, she deserved her fate. She'd asked for it.
Although he had no intention of slitting her throat, he decided, returning the knife to his pocket and reaching for her just as her hand made contact with the brass knob of the front door. No, that would be way too messy, not to mention unnecessarily risky. There'd be blood everywhere, and then everyone would know immediately there'd been foul play. It wouldn't take too long before he was a suspect, especially once they realized he was out of jail, and put two and two together.
She was kicking and scratching at him now, her green eyes begging him to stop, as once again his fingers tightened around her throat. She was screaming too, although he barely heard her, so caught up was he in the moment. He'd always loved using his hands. It was so personal, so concrete. There was something so satisfying about actually feeling the life slowly drain from someone's body.
He'd drawn a bit of a break with her being on a year's sabbatical. It might be days, even weeks, before anyone reported her missing. Although he knew he couldn't count on that. Gracie had lots of friends, and maybe she was supposed to be having lunch with one of them tomorrow. So he shouldn't get too cocky. The sooner he paid a visit to Mad River Road, the better.
"I thought we'd take a little drive up the coast," he told Gracie as her eyes grew so large they threatened to burst from her head. "I'll just drop you in some swamp along the way, let the alligators have their way with you."
Even after her arms went limp at her sides, even when he knew for certain she was dead, he held on to her neck for another full minute, silently counting off the seconds before opening his fingers one at a time, then smiling with satisfaction as her body collapsed at his feet. He walked into the bedroom and removed the bloody case from its pillow before remaking the bed, careful to leave the room as he had found it. He retrieved her purse from the floor where he had dropped it, pocketed a fistful of cash along with her credit card, and hunted around for her keys. "You don't mind if we use your car, do you?" he asked as he returned to the front door and lifted Gracie's still warm body into his arms. She looked up at him with cold, dead eyes. He smiled. "I'll take that as a no," he said.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Missing Pieces

Missing Pieces

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Excerpt

Another woman is missing.

Her name is Millie Potton and she was last seen two days ago.  According to today's paper, Millie is tall and thin and walks with a slight limp.  She is fifty-four years old, which isn't surprising.  Only women over fifty have names like Millie anymore.

The small article on page three of the local news section of the Palm Beach Post states that she was last seen wandering down the street in her bathrobe by a neighbor, a woman who obviously saw nothing particularly peculiar in the incident.  Millie Potton, the article continues, has a long history of mental problems, the implication being that it is these mental problems that are responsible for her disappearance and are not therefore anything the rest of us have to be concerned about.

Over two dozen women have disappeared from the Palm Beach area in the last five years.  I know because I've been keeping track, not consciously, at least not at first, but after a while their numbers just started adding up, and a vague figure affixed itself to my conscious mind.  The women range in age from sixteen to sixty.  The police have dismissed some as runaways, especially the younger ones, girls like Amy Lokash, age seventeen, who left a friend's house at ten o'clock one evening and was never seen or heard from again.  Others, and Millie Potton will undoubtedly be among them, have been dismissed for any number of indisputably logical reasons, even though the police were wrong about Amy Lokash.

Still, until a body turns up somewhere, stuffed into a garbage bin behind Burger King like Marilyn Greenwood, age twenty-four, or floating facedown in a Port Everglades swamp like Christine McDermott, age thirty-three, there really isn't anything the police can do.  Or so they say.  Women, it seems, go missing all the time.

It's quiet in the house this morning, what with everybody gone.  I have lots of time to tape my report.  I call it a report, but really it isn't anything so clearly defined.  It's more a series of reminiscences, although the police have asked me to be as specific and as orderly as I can, to be careful not to leave anything out, no matter how insignificant--or how personal--something may seem.  They will decide what is important, they tell me.

I'm not sure I understand the point.  What's done is done.  It's not as if I can go back and change any of the things that have happened, much as I'd like to, much as I tried to before they occurred.  But I was just hitting my head against a brick wall.  I knew it at the time.  I know it now.  There are certain things over which we have no control--the actions of others being the prime example.  Much as we may not like it, we have to stand back and let people go their own way, make their own mistakes, no matter how clearly we see disaster looming.  Isn't that what I'm always telling my clients?

Of course, it's much easier to give advice than it is to follow it.  Maybe that's one of the reasons I became a family therapist, although that certainly wasn't the reason I gave on my college entry application.  There, if memory serves me correctly, and it does so with alarmingly less frequency all the time, I listed my intense desire to help others, my reputation among friends as someone to whom they could always turn in times of trouble, my experience with my own dysfunctional family, although the term "dysfunctional" had yet to be coined at the time I entered university way back in 1966.  It's so common now, so much a part of the everyday vernacular, that it's hard to imagine how we managed for so long without it, despite the fact that it's essentially meaningless.  What constitutes dysfunction, after all?  What family doesn't have problems?  I'm certain my own daughters could give you an earful.

So, where to start?  This is what my first-time clients ask all the time.  They come into my office, which is on the third floor of a five-story Pepto-Bismol pink building on Royal Palm Way, their eyes wary, the fingers of one hand chipping at the wedding band on the other, as they perch on the ends of the upholstered gray-and-white chairs, their lips parting in anticipation, their mouths eager to give voice to their rage, their fears, their displeasure, and the first thing that tumbles out is always the same: Where do I start?

Do I start at the very beginning, announce myself like a label stuck to a lapel: Hello, my name is Kate Sinclair?  Do I say that I was born forty-seven years ago in Pittsburgh on an uncharacteristically warm day in April, that I'm five feet six and a half inches tall and one hundred and twenty-five pounds, that my hair is light brown and my eyes a shade darker, that I have small breasts and good legs and a slightly lopsided smile?  That Larry affectionately calls me funny face, that Robert said I was beautiful?

It would be much easier to start at the end, to recite facts already known, give name to the dead, wipe away the blood once and for all, instead of trying to search for motivations, for explanations, for answers that might never be found.

But the police don't want that.  They already know the basic facts.  They've seen the end results.  What they want are details, and I've agreed, as best I can, to provide them.  I could start with Amy Lokash's disappearance, or the first time her mother came to my office.  I could begin with my mother's fears she was being followed, or with the day Sara's teacher called to voice her growing concerns about my daughter's behavior.  I could talk about that first phone call from Robert, or Larry's sudden trip to South Carolina.  But I guess if I have to choose one moment over all the others, it would have to be that Saturday morning last October when Jo Lynn and I were sitting at the kitchen table, relaxing and enjoying our third cup of coffee, and my sister put down the morning paper and calmly announced that she was going to marry a man who was on trial for the murder of thirteen women.

Yes, I think I'll start there.

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Now You See Her
Excerpt

Okay, if you’ll all just gather around me for a few seconds, I’ll give you a wee bit of information about this glorious building in front of you.” The guide smiled encouragingly at the group of tired and somewhat bedraggled-looking tourists milling around the front of St. Anne’s Shandon Church.

“That’s it, darlin’,” he cajoled in his exaggerated Irish lilt, the emerald-green scarf in his hand waving impatient circles around his portly frame. “Move in a little closer, young lady. I won’t bite you.” His smile widened, revealing a bottom row of spectacularly stained and crooked teeth.

Good thing her husband hadn’t made the trip to Ireland after all, Marcy Taggart thought, taking several reluctant steps forward. He’d have interpreted the poor man’s lack of a perfect smile as a personal affront. People spend all this money on facelifts and designer clothes, and they forget about the most important thing of all—their teeth, he often fumed. Peter was an orthodontist and therefore prone to such pronouncements. Hadn’t he once told her that the first thing that had attracted him to her wasn’t her slim figure or her large, dark brown eyes but rather her obvious regard for oral hygiene, as evidenced by her straight, flawlessly white teeth? To think she’d once found such statements flattering, even romantic; Marcy marveled at it now.

“Can I have your full attention, please?” the tour guide asked with only a hint of reproach in his voice. He was clearly used to the casual rudeness of those in his charge and had ceased to take offense. Even though the largely middle-aged group of twenty-four men and women had paid a lot of money for the day’s excursion to Cork, the Republic of Ireland’s second- largest city, with a population of approximately 120,000, only a handful of those in attendance had actually been paying attention to anything the man had been saying since leaving Dublin.

Marcy had tried, she really had. She’d repeatedly instructed herself to focus as the guide educated them on the history of Cork during the seemingly interminable bus ride, 168 miles of severely congested highway and narrow country roads. She’d learned that the name Cork was derived from the Irish word “corcach,” pronounced “kar-kax,” meaning “marshy place,” because of its situation on the river Lee; that it had been founded in the sixth century AD and now served as the administrative center of county Cork, and that it was the largest city in the province of Munster. Corkorians, as they were known, often referred to Cork as “the real capital of Ireland.” Its nickname was “the Rebel County,” the town’s reputation for rebelliousness having something to do with its support of the English pretender Perkin Warbeck back in 1491, following the War of the Roses. Today it was better known as the heart of industry in the south of Ireland, the chief industry being pharmaceuticals, its most famous product none other than Viagra.

At least that’s what Marcy thought their guide had said. She couldn’t be sure. Her imagination had an unfortunate tendency to get the better of her these days, and at fifty, her once prodigious memory for facts both useful and otherwise was no longer what it used to be. But then, she thought, grit-filled eyes surreptitiously scanning the glazed faces of her fellow travelers, all clearly years past their “best before” date, what was?

“As you can see, because of its envious hilltop position, the tower of St. Anne’s Shandon Church dominates the entire north side of the city,” the guide was saying now, his voice rising to be heard over the other competing tour groups that had suddenly materialized and were jockeying for position on the busy street corner. “St. Anne’s is Cork’s prime landmark, and its giant pepper-pot steeple, which was built in 1722, is widely regarded as a symbol of the city. No matter where you are in the downtown area, you can see the marvelous stone tower, on whose top sits a gilt ball and a unique fish weather vane. Two sides of the tower are faced with red sandstone, the other two with white limestone, from which the colors of the Cork hurling and football teams are taken.” He pointed toward the large, round, black-and-gold clock in the middle of the bottom tier of the four-tiered steeple. “Corkorians depend on Shandon clock for their time and its weather vane for their weather forecast.” A gentle chorus of bells suddenly drifted down the hill from the church, bringing forth oohs and aahs from those nearby. “That’s our famous peal of eight bells,” the guide said proudly. “As you’ve probably already noticed, you can hear them all over the city all day long. And if you choose to climb the belfry, you can even play the bells yourself. Any tune you want, although most people seem to pick either ‘Danny Boy’ or ‘Ave Maria.’ ” He took a deep breath. “Okay, you have thirty minutes to visit the inside of the church, then we’ll head over to Patrick’s Hill, so you can get a feel for its steepness. Americans say it rivals the notorious streets of San Francisco.”

“What if we’re not up to the climb?” an elderly woman asked from the back of the crowd. “I think I’m all churched out,” the man beside her muttered.

“I don’t know about the rest of you, but I could use a pint of Guinness.”

“For those of you who have seen enough and would prefer to enjoy a bit of rest and relaxation before heading back to the bus, there’s no shortage of pubs in the area. Although you’re more likely to find the locals drinking Murphy’s or Beamish, two stouts that are brewed right here in Cork.”

“Sounds good to me,” someone said.

“We’ll meet back at Parnell Place Bus Station in one hour,” the guide announced. “Please be prompt or we might not have enough time to visit the famous Blarney Castle on our way back to Dublin. And you don’t want to miss out on kissing the legendary Blarney Stone, do you?”

No, we certainly wouldn’t want to miss out on that, Marcy thought, recalling Peter’s revulsion at the idea of being held by his feet and suspended backward and upside down like a bat in order to kiss “some dirty piece of bacteria-soaked gray rock coated with other people’s saliva,” as he’d so memorably phrased it when she’d first shown him the brochures. “Who in their right mind would want to do such a thing?” he’d asked accusingly.

Marcy had smiled and said nothing. Peter had ceased believing she was in her right mind some time ago.
Wasn’t that why she’d agreed to go on this trip in the first place? Hadn’t everyone been telling her that it was important— some said crucial—for both her mental health and her marriage that she and Peter spend more time together, time in which they could come to terms with what had happened, as a unit? Wasn’t that the term her psychiatrist had used?

So when her sister had first floated the idea of a second honeymoon in honor of their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, Marcy had thrown herself into its planning with every fiber of her being. It had been Peter’s suggestion to go to Ireland, his mother having been born in Limerick. He’d been talking for years of making a pilgrimage to the land of his ancestors. Marcy initially argued in favor of somewhere more exotic, like Tahiti or Bali, someplace where the average July temperature was substantially more than sixty-six degrees, where she could sip mai tais on the beach and wear flowers in her hair instead of a place where Guinness was the order of the day and the humidity would pretty much guarantee she’d always look as if a clump of unruly moss had just landed on her head. But what difference did it make where they went, she’d reasoned, as long as they went there as a unit?

So Peter’s choice it was.

And ultimately, Peter had chosen someone else.
 
Did one person still qualify as a unit? Marcy wondered now, recognizing that as much as she loved the often-spectacular scenery and the much-vaunted forty shades of green of the Irish countryside, she hated its dull, rain-filled skies and the pervasive dampness that clung to her like a second skin.
 
He couldn’t take any more drama, he’d said when he told her he was leaving. It’s better this way. We’ll both be better off. You’ll see, you’ll be much happier. Hopefully, eventually, we can be friends. The cowardly clichés of the deserter.
 
“We still have a son together,” he’d told her, as if she needed reminding.
 
No mention of their daughter.
 
Marcy shivered, gathering the sides of her trench coat together, and decided to join the ranks of those opting for a brief respite and a pint of beer. They’d been on the go since their bus had pulled out of Dublin at eight thirty that morning. A quick lunch at a traditional Irish pub when they’d first arrived in Cork had been followed by a three-hour walking tour of the city, a tour that included such landmarks as the Cork city jail, spelled “gaol”; the Cork Quay Market, pronounced “Kay”; the opera house; and St. Fin Barre’s Cathedral, as well as a stroll down St. Patrick’s Street, the city’s main shopping thoroughfare. It was now concluding with this visit to St. Anne’s Shandon Church and a proposed hike up the steep slope of Patrick’s Hill. Since Cork’s center was located on an island lying between two branches of the river Lee, the city naturally divided into three main sections: the downtown core known as the “flat of the city,” the North Bank, and the South Bank. Marcy had spent the entire afternoon crossing one bridge after another. It was time to sit down.
 
Ten minutes later, she found herself alone at a tiny table for two inside another traditional Irish pub overlooking the river Lee. It was dark inside, which suited the mood that was rapidly overtaking her. She was crazy to have come to Ireland, she was thinking. Only a crazy woman goes on her second honeymoon by herself, even if the trip had already been paid for in advance, even if most of the money was nonrefundable. It wasn’t as if she couldn’t afford the loss of a few thousand dollars. Peter had been more than generous in his settlement offer. Clearly he’d wanted to get away from her as quickly and with as little effort as possible. Marcy found herself chuckling. Why should he put any more effort into their divorce than he’d put into their marriage?
 
“You find something amusing, do you?” a voice asked from somewhere above her head. Marcy looked up to see a roguishly handsome young man with enviably straight black hair falling into luminous, dark green eyes. She thought he had the longest eyelashes she’d ever seen.
 
“What can I get you, darlin’?” the young man said, notepad and pencil poised to take her order.
 
“Would it be too ridiculous to order a cup of tea?” Marcy surprised herself by asking. She’d been planning on having a Beamish, as the tour guide had suggested. She could almost hear Peter admonish her: It’s just like you to be so contrary.
 
“Not ridiculous at all,” the waiter said, managing to sound as if he meant it.
 
“Tea sounds wonderful,” she heard someone say. “Could you make that two?” Beside her, a chair scraped the wood planks of the floor. “Do you mind if I join you?” The man sat down before Marcy had a chance to respond. Marcy recognized him as a member of her tour group, although she couldn’t remember his name. Something Italian, she thought, placing him in the window seat three rows from the front of the bus. He’d smiled at her as she’d made her way to the back. Nice teeth, she’d heard Peter whisper in her ear. 
 
“Vic Sorvino,” he said now, extending his hand.
 
“Marcy Taggart,” Marcy said without taking it. Instead she gave a little wave she hoped would satisfy him. Why was he here? There were other tables he could have chosen to sit at.
 
“Taggart? So you’re Irish?”
 
“My husband is.” Vic looked toward the long bar that ran the entire length of the room. “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize you were with anyone,” he said, although he made no move to relinquish his chair.
 
“He’s not here.”
 
“Doesn’t like bus tours?”
 
“Doesn’t like being married,” Marcy heard herself say. “At least to me.”
 
Vic looked vaguely stunned. “You’re not big on small talk, are you?”
 
Marcy laughed in spite of her desire not to and pushed at the mop of curls falling into her narrow face. So much hair, she thought in her mother’s voice, for such a tiny face.
 
“I’m sorry,” she said now. “I guess that falls under the category of too much information.”
 
“Nonsense. I’m of the school that believes information is always useful.” “Stick around,” Marcy said, immediately regretting her choice of words. The last thing she wanted to do was encourage him.
 
The waiter approached with their teas.
 
“He probably thinks we’re crazy, ordering tea in a pub,” Marcy said, following the handsome young man with her eyes as he returned to the bar, watching him flirt with several of the women clustered on high stools around him. She watched him fill half a dozen mugs of draft beer and slide them with a flick of his wrist across the dark polished wood of the bar toward a group of noisy young men at the far end. His female admirers broke into a round of admiring applause. He can have any woman he wants, she thought absently, estimating his age as early thirties and wondering if her daughter would have found him attractive.
 
“Actually, Americans have the wrong idea about Irish pubs,” Vic was saying, his easy baritone pulling her back into the conversation. “They’re not bars, and they’re as much about socializing as drinking. People come here to see their friends and neighbors, and lots of them choose tea or soft drinks over alcohol. I’ve been reading the guidebooks,” he admitted sheepishly, then, when Marcy remained silent, “Where are you from?”
 
“Toronto,” she answered obligingly.
 
“Toronto’s a lovely city,” he said immediately. “I was there a few times on business.” He paused, obviously waiting for her to ask: When? What business? When she didn’t, he told her anyway. “It was a few years back. I was in the manufacturing business. Widgets,” he said.
 
“You manufacture midgets?” Marcy asked, realizing she’d been listening with only half an ear. Vic laughed and corrected her gently. “Widgets. Small, mechanical devices whose names you usually can’t remember. Gadgets,” he said, explaining further.
 
Marcy sipped her tea and said nothing. I’m an idiot, she thought.
 
“I sold the business and retired last year,” he continued. Then, when no further questions were forthcoming, “I’m from Chicago.”
 
Marcy managed a tepid smile. She’d always liked Chicago. She should have gone there, she was thinking as her cell phone began ringing in her purse. Chicago had wonderful architecture and interesting neighborhoods. It didn’t rain almost every day.
 
“Is that your phone?” Vic asked.
 
“Hmm? Oh. Oh,” she said, locating it at the bottom of her purse and lifting it to her ear. “Hello?”
 
“Where the hell are you?” her sister demanded angrily.
 
“Judith?”
 
“Where have you been? I haven’t heard from you in over a week. What’s going on?” “Is everything all right? Has something happened to Darren?”
 
“Your son’s fine, Marcy,” her sister said, not bothering to mask her impatience. “It’s you I’m worried about. Why haven’t you returned any of my calls?”
 
“I haven’t checked my messages.”
 
“Why the hell not?” Because I didn’t want to speak to you, Marcy thought, but decided not to say. Judith was obviously upset enough already. Marcy pictured her sister, older by two years, pacing the marbled floor of her new luxury condominium. She was undoubtedly dressed in her standard uniform of black yoga pants and matching tank top, because she’d either just finished working out or was just about to start. Judith spent at least half the day exercising—a thirty-minute swim first thing in the morning, followed by an hour or two of spin classes, then an hour and a half of “hot yoga” in the afternoon. Occasionally, if time allowed and she was in the mood, she’d throw in an additional Pilates class, “for my core,” she insisted, although her stomach was already as hard and flat as steel. Possibly she was munching on a piece of raw carrot, Marcy thought; her sister’s diet consisted solely of sushi, raw vegetables, and the occasional spoonful of peanut butter. Judith was on husband number five. She’d had her tubes tied when she was eighteen, having decided when she and Marcy were still children never to have any of her own. “You really want to take that chance?” she’d asked.
 
“Something’s not right,” she said now. “I’m coming over.”
 
“You can’t.” Marcy allowed her gaze to drift toward the pub’s large front window.
 
“Why not?”
 
“Because I’m not there.”
 
“Where are you?”
 
A long pause. “Ireland.”
 
“What?”
 
“I’m in Ireland,” Marcy repeated, knowing full well Judith had heard her the first time and holding the phone away from her ear in preparation for Judith’s shriek. “Please tell me you’re joking.”
 
“I’m not joking.”
 
“Is someone with you?”
“I’m fine, Judith.” Marcy saw a shadow fall across the front window. The shadow stopped and waved at the bartender. The bartender acknowledged the shadow’s wave with a sly smile.
 
“You aren’t fine. You’re off your rocker. I demand you come home instantly.”
 
“I can’t do that.” The shadow stepped into a cone of light, then turned and disappeared. “Oh, my God.” Marcy gasped, jumping to her feet.
 
“What is it?” Vic and Judith asked simultaneously. “What’s going on?” her sister added.
 
“My God, it’s Devon!” Marcy said, slamming her hip into a nearby table as she raced for the door.
 
“What?”
 
“I just saw her. She’s here.”
 
“Marcy, calm down. You’re talking crazy.”
 
“I’m not crazy.” Marcy pushed open the pub’s heavy front door, tears stinging her eyes as her head swiveled up and down the tourist-clogged street. A light drizzle had started to fall. “Devon!” she called out, running east along the river Lee. “Where are you? Come back. Please come back.”
 
“Marcy, please,” Judith urged in Marcy’s ear. “It’s not Devon. You know it’s not her.”
 
“I know what I saw.” Marcy stopped at St. Patrick’s Bridge, debating whether or not to cross it. “I’m telling you. She’s here. I saw her.”

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Puppet

Puppet

edition:Paperback
tagged :
More Info
Excerpt

Chapter One
Some of the things Amanda Travis likes: the color black; lunchtime spinning classes at the fitness center on Clematis Street in downtown Palm Beach; her all-white, one-bedroom, oceanfront condo in Jupiter; a compliant jury; men whose wives don't understand them.

Some of the things she doesn't: the color pink; when the temperature outside her condo's floor-to-ceiling windows falls below sixty-five degrees; clients who don't follow her advice; the color gray; being asked to show her ID when she goes to a bar; nicknames of any shape and size.

Something else she doesn't like: bite marks.

Especially bite marks that are deep and clearly defined, even after the passing of several days; bite marks that lie like a bright purple tattoo amidst a puddle of mustard-color bruises; bite marks that are all but smiling at her from the photographs on the defense table in front of her.

Amanda shakes blond, shoulder-length hair away from her thin face and slips the offending photographs beneath a pad of lined, yellow legal paper, then picks up a pencil and pretends to be jotting down something of importance, when what she actually writes is Remember to buy toothpaste. This gesture is for the jury's benefit, in case any of them is watching. Which is doubtful. Already this morning, she's caught one of the jurors, a middle-aged man with thinning Ronald Reagan-red hair, nodding off. She sighs, drops her pencil, sits back in her chair, and pushes her lips into a pout of disapproval. Not big. Just enough to let the jury know what she thinks of the testimony being given. Which she would like them to believe is not much.

"He was yelling about something," the young woman on the witness stand is saying, one hand absently reaching up to tug at her hair. She glances toward the defense table, pulls the platinum curls away from their black roots, and twists them around square, fake fingernails. "He's always yelling about something."

Again Amanda lifts the pencil into her right hand, adds Stouffer's frozen macaroni and cheese to the impromptu list of groceries she is creating. And orange juice, she remembers, scribbling it across the page with exaggerated flourish, as if she has just remembered a key point of law. The action dislodges the pictures beneath the legal pad, so that once again the photographic impressions of her client's teeth against the witness's skin are winking up at her.

It's the bite marks that will do her in.

She might be able to fudge the facts, obfuscate the evidence, overwhelm the jury with irrelevant details and not always reasonable doubt, but there is simply no getting around those awful pictures. They will seal her client's fate and mar her perfect record, like a blemish on an otherwise flawless complexion, detracting from almost a year of sterling performances on behalf of the poor, the unlucky, and the overwhelmingly guilty.

Damn Derek Clemens anyway. Did he have to be so damn obvious?

Amanda reaches over and pats the hand of the man sitting beside her. Another salvo for the jury, although she wonders if any of them is really fooled. Surely they watch enough television to know the various tricks of the trade: the mock outrage, the sympathetic glances, the disbelieving shakes of the head. She withdraws her hand, surreptitiously rubs the touch of her client's skin onto her black linen skirt beneath the table. Idiot, she thinks behind her reassuring smile. You couldn't have exercised even a modicum of self-control. You had to bite her too.

The defendant smiles back at her, although thankfully, his lips remain closed. The jury will soon be seeing more than enough of Derek Clemens's teeth.

At twenty-eight years old and a wiry five feet ten inches tall, Derek Clemens is the same age and height as the woman selected to represent him. Even their hair is the same shade of delicate blond, their eyes variations of the same cool blue, although hers are darker, more opaque, his paler, sliding toward pastel. In other, more pleasant circumstances, Amanda Travis and Derek Clemens might be mistaken for brother and sister, perhaps even fraternal twins.

Amanda shrugs off the unpleasant thought, grateful, as always, for being an only child. She swivels around in her chair, looks toward the long expanse of windows at the back of the courtroom. Beyond those windows is a typical February day in south Florida -- the sky turquoise, the air warm, the beach beckoning. She fights the urge to wander over to the windows, to lean her head against the tinted glass, and stare out past the Intracoastal Waterway to the ocean beyond. Only in Palm Beach does one find an ocean view from a courtroom to rival the view from the penthouse suite of a top hotel.

Perversely, Amanda would rather be here, in Courtroom 5C of the Palm Beach County Court House, sitting beside some lowlife accused of assaulting his live-in girlfriend -- five counts, no less, including sexual assault and uttering death threats -- than sunbathing on the cool sand next to some underdressed, overnourished snowbird. More than a few minutes of lying on her back with the surf washing over her bare toes is enough to send Amanda Travis screaming for the hot pavement.

"I'd like to retrace the events of the morning of August sixteenth, Miss Fletcher," the assistant district attorney is saying, the deep baritone of his voice drawing Amanda's attention back to the front of the courtroom as easily as a lover's seductive sigh.

Caroline Fletcher nods and continues playing with her overly bleached hair, her surgically amplified bosom straining against the buttons of her perversely conservative blue blouse. It helps the defendant's case that the woman Derek Clemens is accused of assaulting looks like a stripper, although in fact, she works in a hairdressing salon. Amanda smiles with the knowledge this is less important than the image being projected. In law, as in so much of life, appearance counts far more than substance. It is, after all, the appearance of justice, and not justice itself, that must be seen to be done.

"August the sixteenth?" The young woman uses her tongue to push the gum she's been surreptitiously chewing throughout her testimony to the side of her mouth.

"The day of the attack," the prosecutor reminds her, approaching the stand and hovering over his star witness. Tyrone King is almost six feet six inches tall with chocolate brown skin and a shiny bald head. When Amanda first joined the law firm of Beatty and Rowe just over a year ago, she heard rumors that the handsome assistant district attorney was a nephew of Martin Luther King's, but when she asked him about it, he laughed and said he suspected all black men in the South named King were rumored to be related to the assassinated leader. "You've testified that the accused came home from work in a foul mood."

"He was always in a foul mood."

Amanda rises halfway out of her chair, voices her objection to the generalization. The objection is sustained. The witness tugs harder on her hair.

"How did this mood manifest itself?"

The witness looks confused.

"Did he raise his voice? Was he yelling?"

"His boss yelled at him, so he came home and yelled at me."

"Objection."

"Sustained."

"What was he yelling about, Miss Fletcher?"

The witness rolls her eyes toward the high ceiling. "He said the place was a mess and that there was never anything to eat, and he was sick of working the midnight shift only to come home to a messy apartment and nothing for breakfast."

"And what did you do?"

"I told him I didn't have time to listen to his complaints, that I had to go to work. And then he said there was no way I was going out and leaving him with the baby all day, that he needed his sleep, and I told him that I couldn't very well take the baby with me to a hairdressing salon, and it just went on from there."

"Can you tell us what happened exactly?"

The witness shrugs, her tongue pushing the gum in her mouth nervously from one cheek to the other. "I don't know exactly."

"To the best of your recollection."

"We started screaming at each other. He said I didn't do nothing around the apartment, that I just sat around on my bony ass all day, and that if I wasn't going to do any cooking or cleaning, then the least I could do was get down on my knees and give him a..." Caroline Fletcher stops, straightens her shoulders, and looks imploringly at the jury. "You know."

"He demanded oral sex?"

The witness nods. "They're never too tired for that."

The seven women on the jury chuckle knowingly, as does Amanda, who hides her smile inside the palm of her hand and decides against objecting.

"What happened then?" the prosecutor asks.

"He started pulling me toward the bedroom. I kept telling him no, I didn't have time, but he wasn't listening. Then I remembered this movie I saw on TV where the girl, I think it was Jennifer Lopez, I can't remember for sure, but anyway, this guy was attacking her, and she realized that the more she struggled, the more turned on he got, and the worse things got for her, so she stopped struggling, and that kind of threw him off guard, and she was able to escape. So I decided to try that."

"You stopped struggling?"

Again Caroline Fletcher nods. "I kind of went all weak, like I was giving in, and then, as soon as we got to the bedroom door, I pushed him out of the way, ran inside the room, and locked the door."

"And what did Derek Clemens do then?"

"He was so mad. He started banging on the door, yelling that he was going to kill my ass."

"And how did you interpret that?"

"That he was going to kill my ass," Caroline Fletcher explains.

Amanda stares directly at the jury. Surely, her eyes are saying, they can't consider this outburst a serious death threat. She grabs her pencil, adds bran flakes to her makeshift list of groceries.

"Go on, Miss Fletcher."

"Well, he was banging on the door and screaming, and so, of course, Tiffany woke up and started crying."

"Tiffany?"

"Our daughter. She's fifteen months old."

"Where was Tiffany during all this?"

"In her crib. In the living room. That's where we keep it. The apartment only has one bedroom, and Derek says he needs his privacy."

"So his yelling woke up the baby."

"His yelling woke up the whole damn building."

"Objection."

"Sustained."

"And then what?"

"Well, I realized that if I didn't open the door, he was just gonna break it down, so I told him I'd open the door, but only if he promised to calm down first. And he promised, and then it got real quiet, except for the baby crying, so I opened the door, and next thing I knew, he was all over me, punching me and ripping at my dress."

"Is this the dress?" The assistant district attorney maneuvers the distance from the witness stand to the prosecutor's table in two quick strides, retrieving a shapeless, gray jersey dress that has obviously seen better days. He shows it to the witness before offering it up for the jury's inspection.

"Yes, sir. That's it."

Amanda leans back in her chair, as if to indicate her lack of concern. She hopes the jury will be as unimpressed as she is by the two tiny rips to the bottom of the dress's side seams, fissures that could just as easily have resulted from Caroline Fletcher pulling the dress down over her hips, as from Derek Clemens pulling it up.

"What happened after he ripped your dress?"

"He threw me down on the bed, on my stomach, and bit me."

The incriminating photographs appear, as if by magic, in the hands of the assistant district attorney. They are quickly introduced into evidence and distributed to the jury. Amanda watches the jurors as they examine the impressions of Derek Clemens's teeth branded into the middle of Caroline Fletcher's back, disgust flickering across their faces like flames from a campfire as they struggle to maintain the veneer of impartiality.

As always, the jurors are a decidedly mixed lot -- an old Jewish retiree squeezed between two middle-aged black women; a clean-shaven Hispanic man in a suit and tie next to a ponytailed young man in a T-shirt and jeans; a black woman with white hair behind a white woman with black hair; the heavyset, the lean, the eager, the blasé. All with one thing in common -- the contempt in their eyes as they glance from the photographs to the defendant.

"What happened after he bit you?"

Caroline Fletcher hesitates, looks toward her feet. "He flipped me over on my back and had sex with me."

"He raped you?" the prosecutor asks, carefully rephrasing her answer.

"Yes, sir. He raped me."

"He raped you," Tyrone King repeats. "And then what?"

"After he was finished, I called the salon to tell them I'd be late for work, and he grabbed the phone out of my hands and threw it at my head."

Resulting in the charge of assault with a deadly weapon, Amanda thinks, adding a legitimate question to her list of groceries. You called the salon and not the police?

"He threw the phone at your head," the prosecutor repeats, in what is fast becoming a tiresome habit.

"Yes, sir. It hit the side of my head, then fell to the floor and broke apart."

"What happened next?"

"I changed my clothes and went to work. He ripped my dress," she reminds the jury. "So I had to change."

"And did you report what happened to the police?"

"Yes, sir."

"When was that?"

"A couple of days later. He started hitting me again, and I told him if he didn't stop, I'd go to the police, and he didn't stop, so I did."

"What did you tell the police?"

Caroline Fletcher looks confused. "Well, what the officer already told you." She is alluding to Sergeant Dan Peterson, the previous witness, a man so nearsighted his face virtually vanished inside his notes for most of his testimony.

"You told him about the rape?"

"I told him that me and Derek had been fighting, that Derek was always slapping me around and stuff, and then he took some pictures."

Tyrone King lifts long, elegant fingers into the air, signaling for his witness to pause while he locates several more photographs and shows them to Caroline Fletcher. "Are these the pictures the police officer took?"

Caroline winces as she looks over the various pictures. A nice touch, Amanda thinks, wondering if she's been coached. Don't be afraid to show some emotion, she can almost hear Tyrone King whisper in his seductive baritone. It's crucial that you appear sympathetic to the jury.

Amanda looks toward her lap, tries picturing the photographs through the jury's eyes. Not too damning really. A few scratches on the woman's cheek that could easily be the result of her daughter's groping fingers, a slight red mark on her chin, a fading purple blotch on her upper right arm, either of which could have come from almost anything. Hardly the stuff of a major assault. Nothing to directly implicate her client.

"And that's when I told him about Derek biting me," Caroline continues, unprompted. "And so he took pictures of my back, and then he asked me if Derek had sexually assaulted me, and I said I wasn't sure."

"You weren't sure?"

"Well, we've been together for three years. We have a baby. I wasn't sure about my rights until Sergeant Peterson told me."

"And that's when you decided to press charges against Derek Clemens?"

"Yes, sir. So I pressed charges, and the police drove me back to my apartment, and they arrested Derek."

A phone rings, disturbing the natural rhythms of the room. A tune emerges. Camptown ladies sing dis song -- Doo-dah! Doo-dah. And then again. Camptown ladies sing dis song...

Amanda glances toward her purse on the floor by her feet. Surely she hasn't left her phone on, she hopes, reaching inside her purse, as do several women on the jury. The Hispanic man reaches for his jacket pocket. The prosecuting attorney looks accusingly at the woman who is his second chair, but she shakes her head and widens her eyes, as if to say, Not me.

Camptown ladies sing dis song -- Doo-dah! doo-dah.

"Oh, my God," the witness suddenly exclaims, the color disappearing from her already pale face as she grabs her enormous canvas bag from the floor beside her and rummages around inside it, the tune growing louder, more insistent.

Camptown ladies sing dis song...

"I'm so sorry," she apologizes to the judge, who peers at her disapprovingly over the top of a pair of wire-rimmed reading glasses as she switches her portable phone off and flings it back in her purse. "I told people not to call me," she offers by way of explanation.

"Kindly leave your phone at home this afternoon," the judge says curtly, taking the opportunity to break for lunch. "And your gum," he adds, before telling everyone to be back at two o'clock.

"So where we going for lunch?" Derek Clemens asks casually, his arm brushing against Amanda's as they rise to their feet.

"I don't do lunch." Amanda gathers her papers into her briefcase. "I suggest you grab a bite in the cafeteria." Instantly she regrets her choice of words. "I'll meet you back here in an hour."

"Where you going?" she hears him ask, but she is already halfway down the center aisle of the courtroom, the ocean roaring in the distance as she steps into the hallway and runs toward the bank of elevators to her right. One opens just as she approaches, which she takes as a good omen, and she checks her watch as she steps inside. If she moves fast enough, she can just make it to the club for the start of her spinning class.

She checks her phone for messages as she runs south along Olive toward Clematis. There are three. Two are from Janet Berg, who lives in the apartment directly below hers, and with whose husband Amanda had a brief, and unnoteworthy, fling several months earlier. Is it possible Janet found out about the affair? Amanda quickly erases both messages, then listens to the third, which is mercifully from her secretary, Kelly Jamieson. Amanda inherited the relentlessly perky young woman with spiky red hair from her predecessor at Beatty and Rowe, a woman who'd apparently grown disillusioned with being a grossly overworked and woefully underpaid associate in the busiest criminal legal firm in town and left to become the trophy wife of an aging lothario.

Nothing wrong with that, Amanda thinks, nearing the corner of Olive and Clematis. She considers trophy wife a noble profession.

Having been one herself.

She calls her office, begins speaking even before her secretary has time to say hello. "Kelly, what's up?" She crosses the street as the light is changing from amber to red.

"Gerald Rayner called to see if you'd agree to another postponement on the Buford case; Maxine Fisher wants to know if she can come in next Wednesday at eleven instead of Thursday at ten; Ellie called to remind you about lunch tomorrow; Ron says he needs you at the meeting on Friday; and a Ben Myers called from Toronto. He wants you to call him, says it's urgent. He left his number."

Amanda stops dead in the middle of the street. "What did you say?"

"Ben Myers called from Toronto," her secretary repeats. "You're from Toronto originally, aren't you?"

Amanda licks at a fresh bead of perspiration forming on her upper lip.

A horn begins honking, followed by another. Amanda tries to put one foot in front of the other, but it is only when she notices several cars impatiently nudging toward her that her legs agree to move.
Puppet! she hears distant voices cry as she weaves her way through the moving line of cars to the other side of the street.

"Amanda? Amanda, are you there?"

"I'll talk to you later." Amanda clicks off the phone and drops it back inside her purse. She stands for several seconds on the sidewalk, taking deep breaths, and exhaling all reminders of the past. By the time she reaches the glass door of the fitness center, she has almost succeeded in erasing the conversation with her secretary from her mind.

Something else Amanda Travis doesn't like: memories.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Puppet/Mad River Road

Puppet/Mad River Road

Two novels in one volume!
edition:Paperback
tagged : suspense
More Info
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Excerpt

One
 
One afternoon in late spring, Jane Whittaker went to the store for some milk and some eggs and forgot who she was.
 
It came to her suddenly, without prior hint or warning, as she stood at the corner of Cambridge and Bowdoin in what she recognized immediately was downtown Boston, that while she knew exactly where she was, she had absolutely no idea who she was. She was on her way to the grocery store to buy some milk and some eggs, of that she was sure. She needed them for the chocolate cake she had been planning to bake, although why she had been planning to bake it and for whom, she couldn’t say. She knew exactly how many ounces of instant chocolate pudding the recipe required, yet she couldn’t recall her own name. Furthermore, she couldn’t remember whether she was married or single, widowed or divorced, childless or the mother of twins. She didn’t know her height, weight, or the color of her eyes. She knew neither her birthday nor her age. She could identify the colors of the leaves on the trees but couldn’t remember whether she was a blonde or a brunet. She knew the general direction in which she was headed, but she had no notion of where she’d been. What in God’s name was happening?
 
The traffic on Bowdoin slowed, then stopped, and she felt people being pulled from her sides, drawn as if by a magnet to the other side of the street. She alone stood rooted to the spot, unable to proceed, scarcely able to breathe. Cautiously, with deliberate slowness, her head lowered against the collar of her trench coat, she glanced furtively over each shoulder. Pedestrians breezed past her as if barely aware of her existence, men and women whose faces betrayed no outward signs of self-doubt, whose steps carried no noticeable hesitation. Only she stood absolutely still, unwilling—unable—to move. She was aware of sounds—motors humming, horns honking, people laughing, their shoes alternately shuffling or clicking past her, then halting abruptly as the traffic resumed.
 
A woman’s angry whisper caught her attention—“the little slut,” the woman hissed—and for an instant she thought the woman was speaking about her. But the woman was clearly in conversation with her companion, and neither seemed even vaguely aware that she was beside them. Was she invisible?
 
For one insane second, she thought she might be dead, like on one of those old Twilight Zone segments in which a woman stranded on a deserted road makes a frantic phone call to her parents, only to be told that their daughter has been killed in a car accident, and who is she anyway to be calling them at this hour of the night? But then the woman whose mouth had only seconds ago been twisted around the word “slut” acknowledged her presence with an almost beatific smile, then turned back to her confidante and moved on.
 
Clearly, she was not dead. Just as clearly, she was not invisible. And why could she remember something as idiotic as an old Twilight Zone episode and not her own name?
 
Several more bodies appeared beside her, tapping their toes and swiveling on their heels, impatiently waiting to cross. Whoever she was, she was unaccompanied. There was no one ready to take her arm, no one watching anxiously from the other side of the street wondering why she had fallen behind. She was all alone, and she didn’t know who she was supposed to be.
 
“Stay calm,” she whispered, searching for clues in the sound of her voice, but even it was unfamiliar to her. It said nothing of age or marital status, its accent nondescript and noteworthy only for its undertone of anxiety. She raised a hand to her lips and spoke inside it so as not to attract undue attention. “Don’t panic. It’ll all come clear in a few minutes.” Was she normally in the habit of talking to herself? “First things first,” she continued, then wondered what that meant. How could she put anything first when she didn’t know what anything was? “No, that’s not true,” she corrected herself immediately. “You know things. You know lots of things. Take stock,” she admonished herself more loudly, glancing around quickly to ascertain whether or not she had been overheard.
 
A group of perhaps ten people was moving toward her. They’ve come to take me back to wherever it is I escaped from, was her first and only thought. And then the leader of the group, a young woman of perhaps twenty-one, began speaking in the familiar broad Boston tones that her own voice strangely lacked, and she realized she was as inconsequential to these people as she had been to the two women she had overheard earlier. Was she of consequence to anyone?
 
“As you can see,” the young woman was saying, “Beacon Hill is one of the areas that makes it easy for Bostonians to walk to work. Long regarded as Boston’s premier neighborhood, Beacon Hill has steep cobblestone streets lined with private brick houses and small apartment buildings the construction of which began in the 1820s and continued through the latter part of the nineteenth century.”
 
Everyone took due notice of the private brick houses and small apartment buildings as the young woman continued her well-rehearsed speech. “A number of the larger and more elegant homes have been turned into condominiums in recent years because of the housing shortage and Boston’s soaring real estate prices. Beacon Hill used to be a Yankee stronghold, but while many of Boston’s old families still live here, people of all backgrounds are now welcome . . . as long as they can pay the mortgage or the rent.”
 
There was some benign twittering and much nodding of heads before the group prepared to move on. “Excuse me, ma’am,” the tour leader said, her eyes opening wide as her lips popped into an exaggerated smile, so that she resembled a happy-face button brought to life. “I don’t believe you’re with this tour?” The statement emerged as a question, the last few words curling upward along with the speaker’s mouth. “If you’re interested in a walking tour of the city, you have to go to the tourist office in the Boston Common, and they’ll sign you up for the next available tour. Ma’am?”
 
The happy-face button looked in distinct danger of losing its happy thoughts.
 
“The Common?” she asked the young woman, whose easy use of the word ma’am suggested she must be at least thirty.
 
“Just keep heading south on Bowdoin until you hit Beacon. You’ll pass the State House, the one with the gold dome? It’s right there. You can’t miss it.”
 
Don’t be too sure, she thought, watching the tour group cross the road and disappear down the next street. If I can misplace myself, I can lose anything.
 
Inching one foot in front of the other as if she were stepping into unfamiliar and potentially treacherous waters, she moved along Bowdoin, paying little attention to the nineteenth-century architecture and concentrating on the road ahead. She crossed Derne, then Ashburton Place, without incident, although neither these streets nor the State House that suddenly loomed before her evoked any sense of who she might be. She turned the corner onto Beacon Street.
 
Just as the Happy Face had suggested, the Boston Common stretched before her. Ignoring the Granary Burying Ground, which she had no trouble recalling contained the tombs of such diverse notables as Paul Revere and Mother Goose, she hurried past the Visitors’ Center toward the large Public Garden, knowing instinctively she had done this many times in the past. She was no stranger to the city of Boston, no matter how much of a stranger she might be to herself.
 
She felt her knees go weak and forced her legs toward a waiting bench, letting her body fold into it. “Don’t panic,” she repeated several times out loud, using the words like a mantra, knowing that no one was close enough to hear her. She immediately began a silent recitation of known—if largely unimportant—facts. It was Monday, June 18th, 1990. The temperature was an unseasonably cool sixty-eight degrees Fahrenheit. Thirty-two degrees Fahrenheit was the temperature at which water would freeze. One hundred degrees centigrade was hot enough to boil an egg. Two times two equaled four; four times four was sixteen; twelve times twelve was 144. The square of the hypotenuse was equal to the sum of the square of the other two sides. E = mc2. The square root of 365 was . . . she didn’t know, but then something told her that was all right—she never had. “Don’t panic,” she heard herself say yet again as she began smoothing out the wrinkles of her tan coat, feeling slim thighs beneath her fingers. The fact that she was a veritable font of useless information was reassuring because how could a person retain such knowledge and not, at some point, remember her own name? She would remember. It was just a question of time.
 
A little girl came racing toward her across the wide expanse of park, arms extended, her portly black nanny running to catch up. She wondered for an instant whether this might be her little girl and instinctively reached her arms toward her, but the nanny quickly pulled the child out of reach, steering her toward a nearby set of swings, eyeing the bench suspiciously. Do I have children of my own? she mused, wondering how a mother could forget her child.
 
She glanced at her hands. At least a ring on her finger would tell her whether she was married. But her fingers were devoid of jewelry, although there was a thin line on the third finger of her left hand where a ring might once have been. She studied it closely, unable to say for sure, noticing that her muted coral nail polish was chipping, and the nails themselves were bitten to the quick. Her gaze dropped to her feet. She was wearing low-heeled, bone-colored patent-leather shoes, the right one of which pressed rather too tightly against her big toe. She pulled it off, recognizing the name Charles Jourdan printed across its instep, and noting she was a size nine, which meant that her height was probably at least five feet six inches. Even with her coat buttoned tightly around her, she knew from the way her hands grazed her sides that she was slim. What else had she been able to figure out? What else did she know about herself beyond the fact that she was white, female, and if the Happy Face and the backs of her own hands were any indication, well over twenty-one?
 
Two women walked by, their arms entwined, their large purses slapping at their sides. Her purse! she thought with great relief, feeling for a strap at her shoulder. Her purse would tell her everything—who she was, where she lived, what color lipstick she wore. Inside would be her wallet with her identification, her driver’s license, her charge cards. She would once again know her name and address, the year of her birth, the kind of car she drove—if, in fact, she drove at all. Her purse contained all the mysteries of life. All she had to do was open it.
 
All she had to do was find it!
 
Stuffing her foot roughly back inside her shoe, she leaned against the dull-green slats of the park bench and acknowledged what she had known all along but had been too frightened to admit—that she had no purse. Whatever identification she might have been carrying when she began this strange odyssey, she wasn’t in possession of it now. Just to make sure, to satisfy herself that she hadn’t dropped her bag carelessly to the ground when she sat down, she took a concentrated look around, checking, then rechecking, the grass at her feet. She even circled the bench several times, once again catching the suspicious eye of the black nanny, who was pushing her young charge on the nearby swing. She smiled at the dark-skinned woman, then wondered what exactly she had to smile about, and turned away. When she looked back several seconds later, the nanny was hurriedly ushering the loudly protesting youngster out of the area. “There, now you’ve scared her,” she said out loud, automatically feeling her face for any signs of disfigurement. There didn’t seem to be any, so she allowed her fingers to continue their Braille-like reading of her features.
 
Her face was a narrow oval, her cheekbones high, perhaps a touch too prominent, and her eyebrows were full and untended. Her nose was small and her eyelashes were caked with mascara, although it seemed to have been applied unevenly and with a heavy hand. Perhaps she had been rubbing her eyes, she thought, causing the mascara to cling to certain lashes while abandoning others. Perhaps she had been crying.
 
She pushed back her shoulders, stood up, and abruptly marched out of the park, ignoring a stoplight and running against the traffic toward a bank at one corner of Beacon Street. She knocked loudly on the glass door, catching the attention of the manager, a prematurely bald young man whose head seemed several sizes too small for the rest of his body. She deduced he was the manager because he wore a suit and tie and was the only male in a room full of women. “I’m sorry,” he told her gently, opening the door just wide enough for part of his large nose to protrude, “but it’s after four o’clock. We close at three.”
 
“Do you know who I am?” she asked desperately, surprised at the question she had not meant to ask.
 
The man’s frown indicated that he interpreted her remark as a demand for special treatment. “I’m really sorry,” he said, an unmistakable edge creeping into his voice. “I’m sure that if you come back tomorrow, we can take care of you.” Then he smiled, a stubborn pursing of his lips that brooked no further discussion, and walked back to his desk.
 
She remained on the other side of the glass door, staring in at the tellers until they began whispering among themselves. Did they know who she was? If they did, they soon tired of her presence and, prompted by their manager, who was gesticulating wildly, returned their attention to their computers and balance sheets, ignoring her as if she no longer existed. Did she?
 
Taking a few deep breaths, she proceeded along Beacon to River Street, back toward the steep cobblestone streets lined with private brick houses and small apartment buildings from whence she had sprung fully grown and totally lost. Did she live in one of these nineteenth-century homes? Did she have enough money to cover the mortgage or the rent? Was she concerned at all about money? Was she a wealthy woman? Did she work for a living or did she hire others to work for her? Maybe instead of living in one of these fine old homes, she cleaned them.
 
No, she was too well dressed to be a cleaning lady, and her hands, while undeniably a mess, were too soft and uncallused for someone accustomed to physical labor. Perhaps instead of cleaning these houses, she sold them. Maybe that was what had brought her to this part of town. Maybe she had come to meet a client, to show off a recently renovated home and had . . . what? Been hit over the head with a falling brick? Despite herself, she quickly felt her head for bumps, finding none and ascertaining only that her hair had come loose of its tight clasp and was hanging in stray wisps at the base of her neck.
 
She turned right on Mt. Vernon, then left on Cedar Street, hoping that something would transmit the necessary signals to her brain. “Something please look familiar,” she coaxed the tree-lined streets as she turned again at Revere, walking toward Embankment Road. The sun had disappeared behind a great gray cloud, and she felt cold, though the temperature remained steady. She recalled that the winter had been a relatively mild one and that the experts were predicting another hot summer. The Greenhouse Effect, they called it. Greenhouse. Greenpeace. Acid Rain. Save the Rain Forests. Save the Whales. Save Water—Shower with a Friend.
 
She felt suddenly overwhelmed with exhaustion. Her feet were sore, the big toe on her right foot now completely numb. Her stomach was starting to rumble. How long had it been since she’d eaten? For that matter, what sort of foods did she like? Did she know how to cook? Maybe she was on some sort of kooky diet that had affected her brain. Or maybe she was high on drugs. Or alcohol. Was she drunk? Had she ever been drunk? How would she know whether she was drunk or not?
 
She covered her eyes with her hands, wishing for the telltale pounding in her head that would signal an approaching hangover. Ray Milland’s Lost Weekend, she thought, wondering how old she would have to be to remember Ray Milland. “Help me,” she whispered into her closed palms. “Somebody, please, help me.”
 
She checked her wrist for the time, an automatic reflex, and saw that it was almost five o’clock. She had been walking around for almost an hour and had seen nothing in that time to give her any clue as to who she might be. Nothing looked familiar. Nobody had recognized her.
 
She found herself on Charles Street, an easy and attractive mix of shops, from the local grocery mart to a variety of jewelry and antique stores, everything from hardware to fine art. Had she been heading here to buy her milk and eggs?
 
A man brushed past her and smiled, but it was the smile of one weary soul to another at the end of a trying day, and spoke nothing of acquaintance. Even still, she was tempted to seize this man by the shoulders, to plead with him for some indication that he knew who she was, if necessary to shake an identity from him. But she let the man pass unmolested and the moment was gone. Besides, she couldn’t just accost total strangers on the street. They might call the police, have her locked away. Another crazy lady trying to find herself!
 
Was she crazy? Had she just escaped from an asylum? From jail? Was she on the run? She laughed at her own histrionics. If she hadn’t been crazy before all this started, she certainly would be by the time it was over. Would it ever be over?
 
She pushed open the door of a small convenience store and went inside. If she lived in this neighborhood, there was a good chance she frequented this little shop. At the very least, she hoped she had shopped here enough times to be familiar to the man behind the counter. Slowly, she made her way between the rows of canned goods toward him.
 
The proprietor, a ponytailed young man with uneven features and a straight line for a mouth, was busy with several customers who had converged on him simultaneously, each one claiming to be the first in line. She took her place behind them, hoping to catch the young man’s eye, praying to hear a crisp, “Hello there, Ms. Smith. Be right with you.” But all she heard was someone asking for a large pack of cigarettes, and all she saw was the proprietor’s skinny back as he swiveled around to reach for it.
 
She glanced over her left shoulder to a row of impossibly beautiful young women, who stared back at her from the covers of several dozen magazines. Allowing her body to drift toward the magazine rack, she found her eyes riveted to the sultry face of one model in particular. Cindy Crawford, the name beside the face proclaimed in bright pink letters, supermodel. No doubt who she was.
 
She lifted the magazine from its slot and studied the model’s face: brown eyes, brown hair, a mole to the left of her slightly parted lips that distinguished her from the hundreds of other equally pretty faces that were everywhere. So beautiful, she thought. So young. So confident.
 
It occurred to her again that she had no idea what she looked like, no conception of how old she was. Her fingers gripped the sides of the magazine, bending its edges, curling them inward. “Hey, lady,” a male voice called out, and she turned to see the proprietor waving an admonishing finger, “you don’t handle the magazines unless you’re gonna buy them.”
 
Feeling as guilty as a child caught shoplifting a piece of candy, she nodded understanding of the rules, and clutched the magazine against her chest as if it were a lifeline. But she didn’t move.
 
“Well, you gonna buy it or not?” the young man asked. The other customers had departed, leaving the two of them alone. Now was her best, perhaps her only, chance to confront him.
 
She threw herself toward the counter, watching him take a quick step back. “Do you know me?” she asked, straining to keep the panic out of her voice.
 
He stared at her without moving, his eyes narrowing in concentration. Then he tilted his head, his ponytail grazing his right shoulder, a smile creeping across the straight line of his mouth, twisting it into a flattened U. “You somebody famous?” he asked.
 
Was she? she wondered, but said nothing, waiting, holding her breath.
 
He mistook her silence for affirmation. “Well, I know there are a few movies shooting in the city right now,” he said, taking several steps to his right so that he could study her profile, “but I don’t go to a lot of movies, and I don’t recognize you from anything I watch on TV. You on one of those soap operas? I know that them actresses are always coming to shopping malls and stuff like that. My sister made me take her once. She had to see Ashley Abbott from The Young and the Restless. ‘The Young and the Useless,’ I call it. You on that one?”
 
She shook her head. What was the point in continuing this charade? Clearly, he didn’t know her any better than she did.
 
She watched his body tense, then stiffen. “Well, you gotta pay for the magazine, whoever you are. Celebrity or not, it’s still two dollars and ninety-five cents.”
 
“I . . . I forgot my purse,” she whispered, starting to feel queasy.
 
Now the man looked angry. “What, you think that just because you’re on some dumb TV show that you don’t gotta carry money around like the rest of us? You think that because you’re kinda pretty, I’m gonna make you a present of whatever you want?”
 
“No, of course not. . . .”
 
“Either you pay for the magazine or you get out of my store and stop wasting my time. I don’t need people making fun of me.”
 
“I wasn’t trying to make fun of you. Honestly.”
 
“Two dollars and ninety-five cents,” he said again, extending his hand, palm up.
 
She knew she should simply hand over the magazine, but something would not allow her to give it up. Cindy Crawford looked so lovely, so happy, so damned sure of herself. Was she hoping that such boundless self-assurance would rub off on her? She reached inside the pockets of her trench coat in hopes she might be carrying some loose change. Her hand moved rapidly from one pocket to the other, refusing to believe what it had found. When she finally brought her hand back out, she saw that it was filled with crisp, new hundred-dollar bills.
 
“Whoa,” the man behind the counter whistled. “You rob a bank or something?” Then, “You just print these up, or what?”
 
She said nothing, staring with wonder at the money in her hand.
 
“Anyway, I got no use for hundred-dollar bills. I give you change of a hundred, I don’t have any change left for anybody else. How many of those you got, anyway?”
 
She felt her breath pushing its way out of her chest in short, shallow bursts. What in God’s name was she doing with two pocketfuls of hundred-dollar bills? Where had all this money come from?
 
“You all right, lady?” The man behind the counter looked anxiously toward the door. “You aren’t going to be sick, are you?”
 
“Do you have a bathroom I can use?”
 
“It’s not open to the public,” he said stubbornly.
 
“Please!”
 
The desperation in her voice must have convinced him because he quickly raised an arm and pointed toward the storeroom to his right. “Look, I just washed up in there. Try not to be sick on my clean floor, okay?”
 
She quickly, located the small bathroom just inside the storage area. It was a tiny, crowded closet of a room, containing an old toilet and a broken mirror above a stained sink. The walls were lined with boxes of supplies. A half-filled bucket of water, a mop balanced precariously at its side, rested by the door.
 
She dashed toward the sink and twisted open the cold water tap, burying her magazine underneath her arm, quickly catching the icy water in her hands and splashing it against her face until she felt as if she could straighten up without fainting. What was going on? If this was a nightmare—and this was a nightmare—surely it was time she woke up!
 
Slowly, she lifted her face toward the mirror, then had to clutch the sides of the sink for support. The woman who stared back at her was a complete stranger. There was nothing even remotely familiar about her face. She scrutinized the pale skin and dark-brown eyes, the small, faintly upturned nose and full mouth painted the same shade as her nails. Her brown hair was perhaps a shade lighter than her eyes and pulled back into a ponytail by a jeweled clasp that had come loose and was threatening to fall out. She pulled it free of her hair, shaking her head and watching her hair fall in soft layers to her shoulders.
 
It was an attractive face, she thought, objectifying it as if, like cindy crawford, it was on the cover of a magazine. Kinda pretty, the young man had said. Maybe slightly better than that. Everything was in its proper place. There were no unsightly blemishes. Nothing was too big or too small. Nothing jarred. Everything was where it was supposed to be. She estimated her age as early to midthirties, then wondered if she looked older or younger than she really was. “This is so confusing,” she whispered to her image, which seemed to be holding its breath. “Who are you?”
 
“You’re nobody I know,” her reflection answered, and both women dropped their heads to stare into the stained basin of the white enamel sink.
 
“Oh, God,” she whispered, feeling a bubble of heat explode inside her. “Please don’t faint,” she cried. “Whoever you are, please don’t faint.”
 
But the wave of heat continued to wash across her body, sweeping past her legs and stomach into her arms and neck, getting caught in her throat. She felt as if she were melting from the inside out, as if, at any minute, she might burst into flames. She splashed more water on her face, but it did nothing to cool her off or calm her down. She began tearing at the buttons of her coat in an effort to free her body, give it more room to breathe. The magazine under her arm slipped to the floor, and she quickly bent down to scoop it up, pulling open her coat as she stood up.
 
She took a deep breath, then stopped dead.
 
Slowly, as if she were a marionette and some unknown force were manipulating her strings, she felt her head drop toward her chest in one seamless arc. What she saw—what she had seen when she was down on her knees retrieving the magazine but had managed to ignore—was a simple blue dress, the front completely covered in blood.
 
She gasped, the soft, frightened cry of a small animal caught in a trap. The sound quickly grew into a moan, then emerged as a scream. She heard footsteps, the sound of other voices, felt herself surrounded, overwhelmed.
 
“What’s going on in here?” the proprietor started, then stopped, his words retreating into the open hole of his mouth.
 
“Oh, my God,” a young boy groaned from somewhere at his side.
 
“Gross!” his companion exclaimed.
 
“What have you done?” the store owner demanded, his eyes searching the tiny cubicle, undoubtedly for signs of broken glass.
 
She said nothing, returning her gaze to the front of her bloodied dress.
 
“Look, lady,” the man began again, shooing his two young customers away from the door, “I don’t know what’s going on here, and I don’t want any part of it. Take your blood and your hundred-dollar bills and get out of my store before I call the police.”
 
She didn’t move.
 
“Did you hear what I said? I’m going to call the police if you don’t get out of here right now.”
 
She looked toward the frightened proprietor, who suddenly grabbed the mop from the bucket and brandished it at her as if he were a matador and she the bull. “Blood,” she whispered, her disbelieving eyes drawn back to the front of her dress. The blood was reasonably fresh, still a little damp. Was the blood hers or someone else’s? “Blood,” she said again, as if the repetition of the word would pull everything into place.
 
“You got ten seconds, lady, then I’m calling the cops. Now, I don’t want any trouble. I just want you out of my store.”
 
Her eyes returned to his, her voice so soft she noticed that he had to bend forward in spite of himself to hear it. “I don’t know where to go,” she cried, and felt her body crumple, like a piece of paper in someone’s clenched fist.
 
“Oh, no, you don’t,” the man said quickly, catching her before she could fall. “You’re not fainting in my store.”
 
“Please,” she began, not sure if she was pleading for understanding or unconsciousness.
 
The young man, while not very tall or muscular, was surprisingly strong. He gripped her tightly around the waist and marshaled her quickly to the door. Then he suddenly stopped, looking uneasily around the store. “Is this one of them hidden video shows?” he asked warily, a hint of embarrassment creeping into his voice, as if he might have been had.
 
“You have to help me,” she said.
 
“You have to get out of my store,” he told her, regaining his composure and pushing her outside. She heard the door click shut behind her, saw him angrily shooing her away.
 
“Oh, God, what do I do now?” she asked the busy street. Again, the puppeteer took charge, buttoning her coat, tucking her magazine beneath her arm, directing her gaze toward the traffic. Seeing a taxi approach, the string pulling her right hand shot up, jerking her arm up and out. The taxi came to an immediate stop at the side of the road in front of her. Without further thought, she opened the cab’s rear door and climbed inside.

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Someone Is Watching
Excerpt

—One—

The day starts the same way it usually does. Just another monotonously gorgeous October day in Miami, the sky typically blue and cloudless, the temperature expected to reach eighty degrees by noon. There is nothing to suggest that today will vary significantly from yesterday or the day before that, nothing to suggest that today, or more specifically tonight, will change my life forever.

I wake up at seven. Shower and dress—­a black pleated skirt and white cotton blouse, slightly more formal than my usual fare. Brush my hair, which is light brown and hangs in loose waves halfway down my back. Apply a hint of blush to my cheeks and a touch of mascara to my lashes. Make some coffee, scarf down a muffin, and call downstairs at eight thirty for one of the valets to bring up my car from the underground garage.

I could go get the vintage silver Porsche myself, but the valets get a kick out of driving it, even for the thirty seconds it takes to accelerate up the circular ramp from my parking spot on lower level three to the front entrance. This morning it’s Finn, almost handsome in his uniform of khaki pants and short-­sleeved, forest-­green shirt, behind the wheel. “Busy day, Miss Carpenter?” he asks as we exchange positions.

“Just another day in paradise.”

“Enjoy,” he says, closing my door and waving me away.

I head for Biscayne Boulevard and the law offices of Holden, Cunningham, and Kravitz, where I’ve been employed as an investigator for almost two years. The firm, home to approximately three hundred employees, a hundred and twenty-­five of whom are lawyers, occupies the top three floors of an imposing marble tower in the business heart of the city. Normally I’d enjoy another cup of coffee while exchanging pleasantries with whomever happens to be milling around the staff room, but today I’m due in court, so I park my car in the underground lot, lock my licensed Glock in the glove compartment, and hail a cab for the short ride over to 73 West Flagler Street and the Miami-­Dade County Courthouse. Street parking is minimal to nonexistent in this area, and I can’t afford to waste precious time looking for a spot. I’ve been called as a rebuttal witness in a case involving corporate espionage, and I’m anxious to take the stand. Unlike many in my profession who prefer to remain invisible, I actually enjoy testifying.

Maybe that’s because, as an investigator, I spend a great deal of my time in relative isolation. My job involves gathering information that will prove useful in courtroom defense, investigating cheating spouses and suspicious employees, engaging in surveillance, taking photographs, videotaping clandestine encounters, searching out and questioning prospective witnesses, locating missing heirs, and rounding up facts, some of which turn out to be pertinent and admissible in court, others merely prurient but useful anyway. When I have gathered up all the necessary info, I sit down and write up a report. Occasionally, like today, I’m called to testify. A cursory knowledge of the law is essential, making the several years I spent at the University of Miami majoring in criminology not a total waste of time, despite my leaving before completing my degree. According to the online site where I secured my investigator’s license, it is part of my job description to be clever, well-­informed, dogged, methodical, resourceful, and discreet. I try to be all of those things.

There’s a long lineup of people already waiting to pass through the metal detectors when I arrive at the courthouse, followed by an excruciatingly slow ride in a crowded elevator to the twenty-­first floor. It seems almost laughable now to think that back when construction of this twenty-­eight-­story building was completed in 1928, it was not only the tallest building in Florida but the tallest building south of Ohio. Amazingly, its white limestone exterior still manages to stand out amid the largely indistinguishable glass structures that surround and dwarf it. Inside the building, it’s a different and less impressive story, the lobby still awaiting funds to complete its stalled refurbishing, the majority of courtrooms feeling as stale as they occasionally smell.

“State your name and occupation,” the county clerk directs as I take the stand and agree to tell the whole truth and nothing but.

“Bailey Carpenter. I’m an investigator with Holden, Cunningham, and Kravitz.”

“How are you, Bailey?” Sean Holden asks as I take my seat. Sean is not only my boss but one of the firm’s founding fathers and major stars, even though he’s only forty-­two. I watch him do up the buttons of his blue pinstriped jacket, thinking what an impressive man he is. Not good-­looking in the traditional sense, his features somewhat coarse, his hazel eyes small and a little too direct, his dark hair a bit too curly, his lips a touch too full. Just a little too much of everything, which is usually just more than enough to intimidate the hell out of the other side.

The case before the court is relatively simple: Our client, the owner of a local chain of successful bakeries, is being sued for wrongful dismissal by a former employee. He is countersuing, arguing that the woman was fired for divulging trade secrets to his chief competitor. The woman has already testified that her meetings with the competitor in question were totally innocent, that she and her husband have known him since childhood, and that their meetings, all of which are detailed in my report and already entered into evidence, were for the sole purpose of planning a surprise party for her husband’s fortieth birthday. She went on to volunteer that she is an honest woman who would never knowingly betray her employer’s trust. That was her mistake. Witnesses should never volunteer anything.

Sean asks me a number of seemingly innocuous, job-­related questions before zeroing in on the reason I’m here. “You’re aware that Janice Elder has already testified under oath that she is, and I quote, ‘an honest woman incapable of such betrayal.’?”

“Yes, I’m aware of that.”

“And you’re here to refute that statement?”

“I have evidence that refutes both her assertion of honesty and that she is incapable of betrayal.”

The lawyer for the other side is immediately on his feet. “Objection, Your Honor.”

“Mrs. Elder opened the door to this line of questioning herself,” Sean states, and the judge quickly rules in his favor.

“You said that you have evidence that refutes both her assertion of honesty and that she is incapable of betrayal?” Sean asks, repeating what I have said, word for word.

“Yes, I do.”

“What is that evidence?”

I refer to my notes, although the truth is I don’t need them. Sean and I have been going over my testimony for days, and I know exactly what I’m going to say. “On the night of March 12, 2013,” I begin, “I followed Mrs. Elder to the Doubleday Hilton Hotel in Fort Lauderdale. . . .” Out of the corner of my eye, I see Janice Elder hastily conferring with her lawyer. I see the panic in her eyes.

“Objection,” her lawyer says again.

Again, he is overruled.

“Go on, Ms. Carpenter.”

“I watched her approach the reception desk and secure a room card. Room 214, registered to a Mr. Carl Segretti.”

“What the hell?” a man exclaims from the bench directly behind Mrs. Elder. He is Todd Elder, Janice’s husband, and he is already on his feet, a combination of shock and outrage causing his tanned skin to glow bright red, as if he has been set ablaze. “You’ve been sneaking around with Carl?”

“Objection, Your Honor. This has absolutely nothing to do with the case at hand.”

“On the contrary, Your Honor. . . .”

“You lying little bitch!”

“Order in the court.”

“You’ve been fucking my goddamn cousin?”

“Bailiff, remove that man.” The judge bangs on his gavel. “Court is recessed for thirty minutes.”

“Good work,” Sean remarks out of the corner of his mouth as I walk past him out of the courtroom, the hostility in Mrs. Elder’s eyes burning into my back like acid.

In the hallway I check my phone while waiting to see if I will be recalled to the stand. There is a message from Alissa Dunphy, a third-­year associate at the firm, asking me to look into the possible reappearance of one Roland Peterson, a deadbeat dad who fled Miami some months ago rather than pay his ex-­wife the several hundred thousand dollars he owes her in back alimony and child support.

“Well, that was a rather unpleasant surprise,” a voice behind me says as I’m dropping the phone back into my oversized canvas bag. The voice belongs to the lawyer representing Janice Elder. His name is Owen Weaver and I estimate his age as early thirties, which makes him just a few years older than me. I note that he has a mouthful of straight white teeth that don’t quite go with his engagingly crooked smile.

“Just doing my job,” I tell him, only half-­apologetically.

“Do you have to do it so well?” The smile spreading from his lips to his soft brown eyes tells me we’re not really talking about the case at all. “Do me a favor,” he says.

“If I can.”

“Have dinner with me,” he continues, confirming my suspicions.

“What?”

“Dinner? With me? The restaurant of your choice? Saturday night?”

“You’re asking me out?”

“You’re surprised?”

“Well, under the circumstances . . .”

“You mean the fact that you just blew my case out of the water?”

“There is that.”

“We still have to eat.”

“There’s that, too.” The courtroom doors burst open and Sean Holden strides purposefully toward me. “If you’ll excuse me a minute . . . my boss . . .”

“Of course.” Owen Weaver reaches into the inside pocket of his navy jacket and hands me his card. “Call me.” He smiles, first at me, then at Sean. “Give me ten minutes with my client,” he tells him before moving away.

Sean nods. “What was that all about?”

I slip Owen’s card into my bag and shrug, as if to indicate our conversation was of no importance. Sean looks back toward the courtroom, my eyes following his. Mrs. Elder’s husband is standing alone and stone-­faced beside the door, his fists clenched at his sides, his body muscular and coiled, ready to spring into action. He catches my glance and mouths the word bitch, transferring his fury at his wife to me. Not the first time misplaced anger has been pointed in my direction.

By the time court resumes half an hour later, Mrs. Elder has agreed to drop her suit if our client will do the same. Our client grumbles but ultimately gives in, and nobody leaves happy, which I’ve heard is the sign of a good compromise. At least Sean and I are pleased. “I have to run,” he tells me as we’re leaving the courthouse. “I’ll catch you later. And Bailey,” he adds, hailing down a passing cab and climbing inside. “Congratulations. You did real good.”

I watch the taxi disappear into traffic before hailing a cab of my own and returning to Biscayne Boulevard. Despite our victory in court, I’m feeling a bit let down. I guess I’d been hoping for something more than an ungrammatical pat on the back. A celebratory lunch would have been nice, I think as I locate my car in the underground garage and climb inside, unlocking the glove compartment and returning my gun to my purse, where it lands on top of Owen Weaver’s business card. I’m toying with taking him up on his offer. Since breaking up with my boyfriend, I’ve spent far too many Saturday nights alone.

I’m still debating whether to accept his invitation some twenty minutes later as I turn the corner onto Northeast 129 Street in North Miami. Parking my car on the quiet, residential street, I head toward the lemon-­yellow building at the end of a row of similarly old-­fashioned, pastel-­colored, low-­rise condos. This is where Sara McAllister lives. Sara was Roland Peterson’s girlfriend at the time he fled the city rather than support his children. My hunch is that Sara McAllister just might be the reason he came back, something I intend to find out.

Near the end of the street is an elongated circle of shrubbery, a spot both self-­contained and secluded, despite its proximity to the road. I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect surveillance spot. Taking a quick look around to make sure no one is watching, I retrieve my binoculars from my bag and slip into the middle of the bushes, dislodging several coral blossoms as I crouch among the flowers and raise the binoculars to my eyes. I aim them at the third-­floor corner unit of the four-­story building and adjust the lenses until they merge into a single image.

The drapes in Sara McAllister’s living room are open, but with the lights off, it’s difficult to make out much of the interior except for a white-­shaded lamp positioned next to the window. The apartment appears to be empty, which isn’t surprising. Sara is a saleswoman at Nordstrom and usually works till six. I decide there’s little to be accomplished by hanging around now. It makes more sense to come back this evening.

I have two meetings scheduled for this afternoon as well as a backlog of paperwork to finish off. I also want to call my brother, Heath. It’s been a week since we’ve spoken, and I can’t stop worrying about him. I take one last, seemingly casual look around the old street, frozen in the sunlight as if it were frozen in time, as still as a photograph.

I’m pushing myself to my feet when I see something flash in a window across the way, a hint of someone moving just out of frame. Has someone been watching me?

I lift the binoculars back to my eyes but see no one. Professional paranoia, I decide, as I extricate myself from the bushes, brushing a fallen hibiscus blossom from the shoulder of my white blouse and swiping at the dirt clinging to my knees. I decide to change into more appropriate attire before coming back tonight, when I can use the darkness as a protective shield. I’m foolish enough to think it will keep me safe from prying eyes like mine.

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Still Life

Still Life

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Excerpt

Chapter One
Less than an hour before the car slammed into her at a speed of almost fifty miles an hour, throwing her ten feet into the air, breaking nearly every bone in her body and cracking her head against the hard concrete, Casey Marshall was sitting in the elegant, narrow dining room of Southwark, one of South Philadelphia’s more popular white-tablecloth restaurants, finishing lunch with her two closest friends and stealing glances at the beautiful, secluded courtyard behind their heads. She was wondering how long the unnaturally warm March weather was going to last, whether she’d have time to go for a run before her next appointment, and whether she should tell Janine the truth about what she really thought of her latest haircut. She’d already lied and said she liked it. Casey smiled at the thought of an early spring and allowed her gaze to drift over her right shoulder, past the luminous still-life painting of a bouquet of enormous pink peonies by Tony Scherman, and toward the magnificent mahogany bar that was the centerpiece of the restaurant’s front room.

“You hate it, don’t you?” she heard Janine say.

“The painting?” Casey asked, although she doubted Janine had even noticed it. Janine regularly boasted she was oblivious to her surroundings. Having said that, she always seemed to select only the finest, most expensive places for them to have lunch. “I think it’s fabulous.”

“My hair. You think it’s awful.”

“I don’t think it’s awful.”

“You think it’s too severe.”

Casey looked directly into Janine’s intense blue eyes, several shades darker than her own. “A little, yes,” she agreed, thinking that the sharp, geometric angles of the blunt cut that hugged Janine’s long, thin face put too much emphasis on the already exaggerated point of her chin, especially when combined with the almost blue-black tint of her hair.

“I was just so tired of the same old thing all the time,” Janine explained, looking to their mutual friend, Gail, for confirmation.

Gail, sitting beside Janine and across from Casey at the small, square table, nodded obligingly. “A change is as good as a rest,” she said half a beat behind Janine, so their sentences overlapped, like a song being sung in rounds.

“I mean, we’re not in college anymore,” Janine continued.

“We’re over thirty. It’s important to keep current. . . .”

“Always good to keep current,” Gail echoed.

“It was just time to do away with the Alice in Wonderland hairdo.” Janine’s eyes settled pointedly on the naturally blond hair that fell softly across Casey’s shoulders.

“I liked your hair long,” Casey demurred.

“So did I,” Gail agreed, tucking a few frizzy brown curls behind her right ear. Gail never had a problem with her hair. It always looked as if she’d just stepped on an electrical current. “Although I like it this way, too,” she added.

“Yeah, well, it was time to move on. That’s what you always say, isn’t it?” The question was accompanied by such a sweet smile that it was difficult to know whether or not to take offense. What wasn’t difficult for Casey to figure out was that they were no longer talking about hair.

“Time for more coffee,” Gail announced, signaling the waiter.

Casey decided to ignore the deeper implications of Janine’s remark. What was the point in reopening old wounds? Instead, she offered up her gold-rimmed white china cup to the handsome, dark-haired waiter, watching as the hot brown liquid cascaded artfully from the spout of the silver coffeepot. While Casey knew Janine had never quite gotten over Casey’s decision to leave the legal placement service they’d co-founded fresh out of college to start her own business in the totally unrelated field of interior design, she’d talked herself into believing that after almost a year, Janine had at least made peace with it. What complicated things was the fact that Casey’s new business had taken off running, while Janine’s had ground to a halt. And who wouldn’t resent that? “It’s amazing how everything you touch turns to gold,” Janine regularly observed, always with the dazzling smile that accompanied the vaguely unpleasant undertone in her voice, making Casey question the validity of her instincts. It’s probably just my guilty conscience, Casey thought now, not sure what she should feel guilty for.

She took a long sip of her black coffee, feeling it burn the back of her throat. She and Janine had been friends since their sophomore year at Brown. Janine had just made the switch from prelaw to honors English; Casey was double-majoring in English and psychology. Despite the obvious differences in their personalities – Casey generally the softer, more flexible of the two, Janine the more brittle and outgoing; Casey the more conciliatory, Janine the more confrontational – they’d clicked immediately. Perhaps it was a case of opposites attracting, of one woman sensing something in the other that was lacking in herself. Casey had never tried too hard to analyze the forces that had brought them together, or why their friendship had endured a decade past graduation, despite the myriad changes those ten years had brought, changes that included the dissolution of their business partnership and Casey’s recent marriage to a man Janine described – complete with dazzling smile – as “fucking perfect, of course.” Casey chose to be grateful instead.

Just as she was grateful for her other close friend, Gail, a young woman much less complicated than either Casey or Janine in virtually every respect. Casey had known Gail since grade school, and although more than twenty years had passed, Gail was essentially the same guileless, open-faced girl she’d always been. With Gail, what you saw was what you got. And what you got was a thirty-two-year-old woman who, despite much hardship, still ended almost every sentence with a giggle, like a shy teenage girl, eager to be liked. Sometimes she even giggled in the middle of a sentence, or even while she was speaking, a habit that was as disconcerting as it was endearing. Casey considered it the auditory equivalent of a puppy offering up its stomach to be stroked.

Unlike Janine, there were no pretenses where Gail was concerned, no hidden agendas, no particularly deep thoughts. She generally waited until she knew how you felt about something before offering up an opinion of her own. Occasionally Janine grumbled about Gail’s naïveté and “unrelenting optimism,” but even she’d been forced to agree that Gail was such a pleasant person, it made you feel good just to be around her. And Casey admired the skill involved in being able to listen to both sides of an argument and make each party believe you were on her side. It was probably what made her such a good saleswoman.

“Everything okay?” Casey asked, turning her attention back to Janine and praying for a simple yes in response.

“Everything’s fine. Why?”

“I don’t know. You just seem a little . . . I don’t know.”

“Of course you do. You know everything.”

“You see – that’s exactly what I mean.”

“What do you mean?”

“What do you mean?”

“Am I missing something here?” Gail asked, large brown eyes darting nervously between the two women.

“Are you angry at me?” Casey asked Janine directly.

“Why would I be angry at you?”

“I don’t know.”

“I honestly don’t know what you’re talking about.” Janine touched the gold locket at her throat and adjusted the collar of her crisp white Valentino blouse. Casey knew it was Valentino because she’d seen it on a recent cover of Vogue. She also knew that Janine couldn’t afford to pay almost two thousand dollars for a blouse, but then, Janine had been dressing beyond her means for as long as Casey could remember. “It’s very important to wear nice clothes,” Janine had said when Casey questioned one of her more exorbitant purchases. Followed by: “I may not have been born with a silver spoon in my mouth, but I know the importance of dressing well.”

“Okay,” Casey said now, picking up the silver spoon next to her coffee cup and turning it over in her hand before letting it drop. “That’s good.”

“So maybe I am a little irritated,” Janine conceded with a shake of her newly geometrically cut hair. Several straight black strands caught the side of her generous mouth, and she impatiently brushed them aside. “Not at you,” she added quickly.

“What’s the problem?” Casey pressed the instant-replay button in her mind, quickly reviewing the last sixty minutes. The women had enjoyed their various salads and glasses of white wine; they’d gossiped and caught up on everything that had happened in the two weeks since their last meeting. Everything had seemed fine. Unless Janine was still obsessing about her hair. . . .

“It’s just that little twerp, Richard Mooney – you remember him?” Janine asked Casey.

“The guy we set up at Haskins, Farber?”

“The one and only. Jerk finishes in the bottom third of his graduating class,” she explained to Gail. “Has zero social skills. Can’t get a job to save his life. Nobody, but nobody wants to hire him. He comes to us. I tell Casey he’s a loser, we shouldn’t take him on, but she feels sorry for him, says we should give him a shot. Sure. Why not? She’s leaving soon anyway, as it turns out.”

“Whoa,” Casey exclaimed, raising her palms in protest.

Janine dismissed Casey’s objection with a megawatt smile and a wave of her long, French-manicured fingernails. “I’m just teasing you. Besides, we did take him on, and a few months later you were gone. Isn’t that true?”

“Well, yes, but . . .”

“So that’s all I’m saying.”

Casey was having a hard time figuring out exactly what Janine was saying. She would have made a great lawyer, Casey was thinking, wondering why they were talking about Richard Mooney at all.

“So back to Richard Mooney,” Janine said, as if Casey had voiced her confusion out loud. She returned her attention to Gail. “Sure enough, we were actually able to do something for that little twerp. Turned out one of the partners at Haskins had a soft spot for Casey. She batted her eyelashes at him a few extra times and he agreed to give Mooney a try.”

“That was hardly the reason,” Casey interjected.

“Anyway, Mooney goes to work at Haskins, lasts barely a year, then gets canned. Of course, by now, Casey’s in her new role as decorator to the stars. And who’s left to deal with the fallout?”

“What fallout?” Gail asked.

“What stars?” asked Casey.

“Well, I can’t imagine Haskins, Farber is too happy,” Janine said. “I can’t see them beating down my door in the near future, looking for a replacement. But guess who does show up at my door first thing this morning? The little twerp himself! He wants a job, says we screwed up the first time in sending him to Haskins, we should have known it would be a bad fit, and that it’s up to me to find him a more suitable position. When I suggested he go elsewhere, he got quite upset, demanded to know where the person in charge was. That person, I assume, being you.” Janine nodded toward Casey. An oblong chunk of blue-black hair fell across her left eye. “He raised quite a ruckus. I almost had to call security.”

“That’s awful,” Gail said.

“I’m so sorry,” Casey apologized. Janine was right – it had been her idea to take Richard Mooney on; she had felt sorry for him; maybe she had batted her eyelashes at Sid Haskins a few extra times. “I’m sorry,” she said again, although she knew this wasn’t the only time a lawyer they’d recommended to a particular firm hadn’t worked out. Janine herself had been responsible for at least two pairings that had proved less than ideal. It was like Internet dating: People who seemed well suited on paper often proved anything but. You could never predict chemistry. Casey understood – as did Janine – that these things happened. However, she didn’t think this was the appropriate time to point that out.

“It’s not your fault,” Janine conceded. “I don’t know why I let him get to me. I must be PMS-ing.”

“Speaking of which . . . well, no, not exactly,” Casey said, stopping to debate with herself whether or not to continue, then plunging ahead. “Warren and I have been talking about having a baby.”

“You’re kidding,” said Janine, thin lips opening, long chin dropping toward the table.

“I can’t believe you waited until the end of the meal to tell us such exciting news,” said Gail, punctuating her sentence with a laugh.

“Well, it’s just been talk up until now.”

“And now it isn’t?” Janine asked.

“I’m going to stop taking the pill at the end of the month.”

“That’s fantastic!” Gail said.

“Are you sure this is the best timing?” Janine questioned. “I mean, you haven’t been married all that long, and you’ve just started a new business.”

“The business is doing great, my marriage couldn’t be better, and as you pointed out earlier, we’re not in college anymore. I’m going to be thirty-three on my next birthday. Which should be just about when the baby would be born. If things go according to plan, that is.”

“And when haven’t they?” Janine asked with a smile.

“Good for you.” Gail reached across the table to pat the back of Casey’s hand. “I think it’s great. You’ll be a terrific mom.”

“You really think so? I didn’t have a very good example.”

“You practically raised your sister,” Gail pointed out.

“Yeah, and look how well that turned out.” Casey glanced back at the still-life painting over her shoulder and took a deep breath, as if trying to inhale the scent of the blush-pink peonies.

“How is Drew anyway?” Janine asked, although the tone of her voice indicated she already knew the answer.

“Haven’t heard from her in weeks. She doesn’t phone, doesn’t return my messages.”

“Typical.”

“She’ll call,” Gail said. This time no soft giggle accompanied her words.

Janine signaled the waiter for the bill by wiggling her fingers in the air, as if she was already signing the check. “Sure you want to give up that perfect body?” she asked Casey as the young man brought the bill to the table. “It’ll never be the same, you know.”

“That’s all right. It’s . . .”

“. . . time to move on?” Janine quipped.

“Your boobs will get bigger,” Gail said.

“That’ll be nice,” Casey said as Janine divided the amount.

“Fifty-five apiece, including tip,” Janine announced after several seconds. “Why don’t you give me the money and I’ll put it on my credit card to speed things up?”

Casey knew Janine’s request had nothing to do with saving time and everything to do with writing off today’s lunch as a business expense. “So, what are you up to this weekend?” she asked, handing Janine the appropriate amount of cash.

“I have a date with that banker I went out with last week.” Janine’s blue eyes were already growing opaque with boredom.

“That’s nice,” Gail said. “Isn’t it?”

“Not really. But he has tickets for Jersey Boys, and you know how hard it is to get tickets, so how could I refuse?”

“Oh, you’ll love it,” Casey said. “It’s fabulous. I saw the original on Broadway a few years ago.”

“Of course you did.” Janine smiled as she pushed herself off her chair and to her feet. “And this week you’ll be with your fabulous husband, making fabulous babies together. I’m sorry,” she said in the same breath. “I’m being a real bitch. For sure I’m PMS-ing.”

“Where are you off to now?” Gail asked Casey as they retrieved their coats from the maître d’.

“Think I’ll just stick around here. I was debating going for a run, but I don’t think I have enough time before my next appointment.” Casey checked her watch. It was a gold Cartier, a gift from her husband on their second anniversary last month.

“Save your energy for tonight,” Janine advised now, leaning forward to kiss Casey on the cheek. “Come on, Gail, I’ll give you a ride back to work.”

Casey watched her two friends walk down South Street arm in arm, thinking them an interesting study in contrasts: Janine tall and contained, Gail shorter and spilling out in all directions at once; Janine an expensive glass of champagne, Gail a mug of draft beer.

Which made her – what? Casey wondered. Maybe she should try a more current hairstyle. Although when had long blond hair ever really gone out of fashion? And it suited the soft oval of her face, her fair complexion and delicate features. “Don’t even try to tell me you weren’t prom queen,” Janine had said shortly after they met, and Casey had laughed and kept silent. What could she say, after all? She had been prom queen. She’d also been captain of the debating and swim teams, and scored near perfect on her SATs, but people were always less interested in that than in how she looked and how much she was worth. “Someone just told me your old man is worth gazillions,” Janine had remarked on another occasion. Again Casey had remained silent. Yes, it was true her family was almost obscenely wealthy. It was also true that her father had been a notorious ladies’ man, her mother a self-absorbed alcoholic, and her younger sister a drug-fueled party girl on her way to becoming a total screwup. Four years after Casey graduated college, her parents were killed when their private jet crashed into Chesapeake Bay during inclement weather, officially making her sister a total screwup.

It was these thoughts that were absorbing Casey’s attention as she walked along South Street, Philadelphia’s answer to Greenwich Village, with its collection of pungent smells, seedy tattoo parlors, funky leather shops, and avant-garde galleries. Truly a world unto itself, she was thinking as she crossed into South Philly and headed toward the large indoor parking garage on Washington Avenue. That was the problem with having lunch in this area – it was almost impossible to find a place to park, and once you got away from South Street, the dividing line between Center City and South Philadelphia, you were pretty much in Rocky territory.

Casey entered the parking garage and took the elevator up to the fifth floor, retrieving her car keys from her oversize black leather bag as she walked toward her white Lexus sports car at the far end of the platform. She heard the gunning of an engine in the distance and looked over her shoulder, but she saw nothing. Aside from the rows of multicolored automobiles, the place was deserted.

She didn’t hear the car until it was almost on top of her. She was approaching her Lexus, right arm extended, thumb on the button of the remote to unlock the driver’s door, when a silver-colored SUV came careening around the corner toward her. She didn’t have time to register the driver’s face, to ascertain whether a man or woman was behind the wheel. She had no time to get out of the way. One minute she was walking toward her car, the next she was being propelled through the air, her arms and legs shooting into four different directions at once. Seconds later, she came crashing down, a limp repository of broken bones, her head slamming against the hard pavement.

Shortly after that, the SUV disappeared into the streets of South Philadelphia, and Casey Marshall slipped into oblivion.

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Tell Me No Secrets
Excerpt

ONE
 
He was waiting for her when she got to work. Or so it seemed to Jess, who spotted him immediately, standing motionless at the comer of California Avenue and Twenty-fifth Street. She felt him watching her as she left the parking garage and hurried across the street toward the Administration Building, his dark eyes colder than the late October wind that played with his straggly blond hair, his bare hands clenched into tight fists outside the pockets of his well-worn brown leather jacket. Did she know him?
 
His body shifted slightly as Jess drew closer, and she saw that his mouth was twisted into an eerie little half grin that pulled at one side of his full lips, as if he knew something that she didn’t. It was a smile devoid of warmth, the smile of one who, as a child, enjoyed pulling the wings off butterflies, she thought with a shudder, ignoring the almost imperceptible nod of his head that greeted her as their eyes connected. A smile full of secrets, she understood, turning away quickly, and running up the front steps, suddenly afraid.
 
Jess felt the man move into position behind her, knew without looking that he was mounting the stairs after her, the deliberateness of his steps vibrating throughout her body. She reached the landing and pushed her shoulder against the heavy glass revolving door, the stranger stopping at the top of the steps, his face appearing and reappearing with each rotation of the glass, the sly smile never leaving his lips.
 
I am Death, the smile whispered. I have come for you.
 
Jess heard a loud gasp escape her lips, understood from the shuffling along the marble floor behind her that she had attracted the attention of one of the security guards. She spun around, watching the guard, whose name was Tony, approach cautiously, his hand gravitating toward the holster of his gun. “Something wrong?” he asked.
 
“I hope not,” Jess answered. “There’s a man out there who . . .” Who what? she demanded silently, staring deep into the guard’s tired blue eyes. Who wants to come in out of the cold? Who has a creepy grin? Was that a crime now in Cook County? The guard looked past her toward the door, Jess slowly tracking his gaze. There was no one there.
 
“Looks like I’m seeing ghosts,” Jess said apologetically, wondering if this were true, grateful that whatever the young man was, he was gone.
 
“Well, it’s the season for it,” the guard said, checking Jess’s identification even though he knew who she was, waving her through the metal detector as he’d been doing routinely every morning for the past four years.
 
Jess liked routine. Every morning she got up at 6:45, quickly showered and dressed in the clothes she had carefully laid out the night before, gobbled a piece of Pepperidge Farm frozen cake directly from the freezer, and was behind her desk within the hour, her calendar open to the day’s events, her case files ready. If she was prosecuting a case, there would be details to go over with her assistants, strategies to devise, questions to formulate, answers to determine. (A good attorney never asked a question to which she didn’t already know the answer.) If she was preparing for an upcoming trial, there would be information to gather, leads to run down, witnesses waiting upstairs to be interviewed, police officers to talk to, meetings to attend, timetables to coordinate. Everything according to schedule. Jess Koster didn’t like surprises outside the courtroom any better than she liked them inside it.
 
After she had a full grasp of the day that lay ahead, she would sit back with a cup of black coffee and a jelly doughnut and study the morning paper, starting with the obituaries. She always checked the obituaries. Ashcroft, Pauline, died suddenly in her home, in her sixty-seventh year; Barrett, Ronald, passed away after a lengthy illness, age 79; Black, Matthew, beloved husband and father, no age given, donations to be sent to the Heart and Stroke Foundation of America. Jess wasn’t sure when she’d started making the obituaries part of her regular morning routine, and she wasn’t sure why. It was an unusual habit for someone barely thirty years old, even for a prosecutor with the Cook County state’s attorney’s office in Chicago. “Find anyone you know?” one of her partners once asked. Jess had shaken her head, no. There was never anyone she knew.
 
Was she searching for her mother, as her ex-husband had once suggested? Or was it her own name she somehow expected to see?
 
The stranger with the unruly blond hair and evil grin pushed his way rudely into her mind’s eye. I am Death, he teased, his voice bouncing off the bareness of the office walls. I have come for you.
 
Jess lowered the morning paper and let her eyes glance around the room. Three desks in varying degrees of scratched walnut sat at random angles against dull white walls. There were no framed pictures, no landscapes, no portraits, nothing but an old poster from Bye Bye Birdie haphazardly tacked onto the wall across from her desk by a few random pieces of yellowed Scotch tape. Law books filled strictly utilitarian metal shelves. Everything looked as if it could be picked up and moved out with only a minute’s notice. Which it could. Which it often was. Assistant state’s attorneys were rotated on a regular basis. It was never a good idea to get too comfortable.
 
Jess shared the office with Neil Strayhorn and Barbara Cohen, her second and third chair respectively, who would be arriving within the half hour. As first chair, it was up to Jess to make all major decisions as to how her office was run. There were 750 state’s attorneys in Cook County, over 200 of them in this building alone, 18 attorneys to every wing, 3 attorneys to every room, each watched over by a wing supervisor. By eight-thirty, the labyrinth of offices that made up the eleventh and twelfth floors of the Administration Building would be as noisy as Wrigley Field, or so it often seemed to Jess, who usually relished these few moments of peace and quiet before everyone arrived.
 
Today was different. The young man had unnerved her, thrown her off her usual rhythm. What about him was so familiar? she wondered. In truth, she hadn’t gotten a good look at his face, hadn’t seen much past the eerie grin, would never have been able to describe him for a police sketch artist, could never have picked him out of a lineup. He hadn’t even spoken to her. So why was she obsessing on him?
 
Jess resumed her scanning of the obituaries: Bederman, Marvin, 74, died peacefully in his sleep after a lengthy illness; Edwards, Sara, taken in her ninety-first year. . . .
 
“You’re here early.” The male voice traveled to her desk from the open doorway.
 
“I’m always here early,” Jess answered without looking up. No need to. If the heavy scent of Aramis cologne wasn’t enough to give Greg Oliver away, the confident swagger in his voice would. It was an office cliché that Greg Oliver’s winning record in the courtroom was surpassed only by his record in the bedroom, and for that reason, Jess had always made sure to keep her conversations with the forty-year-old prosecutor from the next office strictly professional. Her divorce from one lawyer had taught her that the last thing she ever wanted to do was get involved with another. “Is there something I can do for you, Greg?”
 
Greg Oliver traversed the distance to her desk in three quick strides. “Tell me what you’re reading.” He leaned forward to peer over her shoulder. “The obits? Christ, what some people won’t do to get their name in print.”
 
Jess chuckled in spite of herself. “Greg, I’m really busy. . . .”
 
“I can see that.”
 
“No, really,” Jess told him, taking quick note of his conventionally handsome face, made memorable by the liquid chocolate of his eyes. “I have to be in court at nine-thirty.”
 
He checked his watch. A Rolex. Gold. She’d heard rumors that he’d recently married money. “You’ve got lots of time.”
 
“Time I need to get my thoughts in order.”
 
“I bet your thoughts are already in order,” he said, straightening up only to lean back against her desk, openly checking his reflection in the glass of the window behind her, his hand brushing against a stack of carefully organized paperwork. “I bet your mind is as neat as your desk.” He laughed, the motion tugging at one comer of his mouth, reminding Jess instantly of the stranger with the ominous grin. “Look at you,” Greg said, misreading her response. “You’re all uptight because I accidentally moved a couple of your papers.” He made a great show of straightening them, then whisked some imaginary dust from the ragged surface of her desk top. “You don’t like anybody touching your stuff, do you?” His fingers caressed the wood grain in small, increasingly suggestive circles. The effect was almost hypnotic. A snake charmer, Jess thought, wondering momentarily whether he was the charmer or the snake.
 
She smiled, amazed at the way her mind seemed to be working this morning, and stood up, moving purposefully toward the bookshelves, though, in truth, she had no purpose in mind. “I think you better go so I can get some work done. I’m delivering my closing argument this morning in the Erica Barnowski case and . . .”
 
“Erica Barnowski?” His eyes reflected the path of his thoughts. “Oh yes. The girl who says she was raped . . .”
 
“The woman who was raped,” Jess corrected.
 
His laugh invaded the space between them. “Jesus Christ, Jess, she wasn’t wearing panties! You think any jury in the land is going to convict a guy of raping some woman he meets in a bar when she wasn’t wearing panties?” Greg Oliver looked toward the ceiling, then back at Jess, automatically smoothing back several hairs he’d displaced. “I don’t know, but her not wearing panties to a pickup bar smacks of implied consent to me.”
 
“And a knife at her throat is your idea of foreplay?” Jess shook her head, more in sadness than disgust. Greg Oliver was notoriously accurate in his assessments. If she couldn’t manage to persuade her fellow prosecutors that the man on trial was guilty, how could she hope to convince a jury?
 
“I don’t see a panty line under that short skirt,” Greg Oliver was saying. “Tell me, Counselor, you wearing panties?”
 
Jess’s hands moved to the sides of the gray wool skirt that stopped at her knees. “Cut it out, Greg,” she said simply.
 
The mischief in Greg Oliver’s voice spread to his eyes. “Just what would it take to get into those panties?”
 
“Sorry, Greg,” Jess told him evenly, “but I’m afraid there’s only room in these panties for one asshole.”
 
The liquid chocolate of Greg Oliver’s eyes hardened into brown ice, then immediately melted as the sound of his laughter once again filled the room. “That’s what I love about you, Jess. You’re so damn feisty. You’ll take anybody on.” He walked toward the door. “I’ll give you this much—if anybody can win this case, you can.”
 
“Thanks,” Jess said to the closing door. She walked to the window and stared absently out at the street eleven stories below. Large billboards shouted up at her: Abogado, they announced. “Lawyer,” in Spanish, followed by a name. A different name for every sign. Open twenty-four hours a day.
 
There were no other high buildings in the area. At fourteen stories tall, the Administration Building stuck out like the sore thumb it represented. The adjoining courthouse was a mere seven stories high. Behind them stood the Cook County Jail, where accused murderers and other alleged criminals who either couldn’t make bail or were being held without bond were kept until their cases came to court. Jess often thought of the area as a dark, evil place for dark, evil people.
 
I am Death, she heard the streets whisper. I have come for you.
 
She shook her head, glancing up at the sky, but even it was a dirty shade of gray, heavy with the threat of snow. Snow in October, Jess thought, unable to recall the last time it had snowed before Halloween. Despite the weather forecast, she hadn’t worn boots. They leaked and had unsightly salt rings around the toes, like the age lines of a tree. Maybe she’d go out later and buy herself a new pair.
 
The phone rang. Barely past eight o’clock and already the phone was ringing. She picked it up before it had a chance to ring again. “Jess Koster,” she said simply.
 
“Jess Koster, Maureen Peppler,” the voice said with a girlish giggle. “Am I interrupting anything?”
 
“Never,” Jess told her older sister, picturing Maureen’s crinkly smile and warm green eyes. “I’m glad you called.” Jess had always likened Maureen to one of those delicate sketches of ballet dancers by Edgar Degas, all soft and fuzzy around the edges. Even her voice was soft. People often said the sisters looked alike. But while the two women shared basic variations of the same oval face, and were both tall and slender, there was nothing fuzzy around the edges about Jess. Her brown shoulder-length hair was darker than Maureen’s, her eyes a more disturbing shade of green, her small-boned frame less curvaceous, more angular. It was as if the artist had drawn the same sketch twice, then rendered one in pastels, the other in oil. “What’s doing?” Jess asked. “How are Tyler and the twins?”
 
“The twins are great. Tyler’s still not thrilled. He keeps asking when we’re sending them back. You didn’t ask about Barry.”
 
Jess felt her jaw tighten. Maureen’s husband, Barry, was a successful accountant, and the vanity license plates on his late-model Jaguar said EARND IT. Did she really need to know more? “How is he?” she asked anyway.
 
“He’s fine. Business is terrific despite the economy. Or maybe because of it. Anyway, he’s very happy. We want you to come to dinner tomorrow night, and please don’t tell me you already have a date.”
 
Jess almost laughed. When was the last time she’d had a date? When was the last time she’d been anywhere socially that wasn’t connected, in some way, to the law? Where had she gotten the idea that only doctors were on call twenty-four hours a day? “No, I don’t have a date,” she answered.
 
“Good, then you’ll come. I don’t get to see nearly enough of you these days. I think I saw more of you when I was working.”
 
“So go back to work.”
 
“Not on your life. Anyway, tomorrow at six. Dad’s coming.”
 
Jess smiled into the phone. “See you tomorrow.” She replaced the receiver to the sound of a baby’s distant cry. She pictured Maureen running toward the sound, cooing over the cribs of her six-month-old twins, changing their diapers, seeing to their needs, while making sure that the three-year-old at her feet was getting the attention he craved. A far cry from the hallowed halls of the Harvard Business School where she’d earned her M.B.A. Jess shrugged. We all make choices, she thought. Her sister had obviously made hers.
 
She sat back down at her desk, trying to concentrate on the morning that lay ahead, praying she would be able to prove Greg Oliver wrong. She knew that securing a conviction in this case would be next to impossible. She and her partner would have to be very convincing.
 
The state’s attorney’s office always tried jury cases in pairs. Her second chair, Neil Strayhorn, was set to deliver the initial closing argument, recounting for the jury the straight, unpleasant facts of the case. This would be followed by the defense attorney’s closing remarks, and then Jess would handle the rebuttal, a position that allowed ample room for creative moral indignation. “Every day in the United States, 1,871 women are forcibly raped,” she began, rehearsing the words in the safety of her office. “That translates to 1.3 rapes of adult women every minute and a staggering 683,000 rapes each year.” She took a deep breath, tossing the sentences over in her mind, like errant pieces of lettuce in a large unwieldy salad. She was still tossing them over when Barbara Cohen arrived some twenty minutes later.
 
“How’s it going?” At five feet eleven inches, and with bright red hair that cascaded halfway down her back in frenzied ripples, Barbara Cohen often seemed the anthropomorphic version of a carrot. She was almost a head taller than Jess, and her long, skinny legs gave the impression that she was standing on stilts. No matter how bad Jess was feeling, just looking at the young woman who was her third chair always made her smile.
 
“Hanging in there.” Jess checked her watch. Unlike Greg Oliver’s, it was a simple Timex with a plain black leather band. “Listen, I’d like you and Neil to handle the Alvarez drug case when it comes to trial.”
 
The look on Barbara Cohen’s face reflected a mixture of excitement and apprehension. “I thought you wanted to take that one.”
 
“I can’t. I’m swamped. Besides, you guys can handle it. I’ll be here if you need any help.”
 
Barbara Cohen tried, and failed, to keep the smile that was spreading across her face from overtaking her more professional demeanor. “Can I get you some coffee?” she asked.
 
“If I drink any more coffee, I’ll be excusing myself from the courtroom every five minutes to pee. Think that would win me any sympathy points with the jury?”
 
“I wouldn’t count on it.”
 
“How could she not wear panties, for God’s sake,” Jess muttered. “At the very least, you’d think she’d worry about discharge.”
 
“You’re so practical,” Barbara stated, and laughed, readying her cart with files for the judge’s morning call.
 
Neil Strayhorn arrived a few minutes later with the news that he thought he was coming down with a cold, then went straight to his desk. Jess could see his lips moving, silently mouthing the words to his initial closing statement. All around her, the offices of the state’s attorney for Cook County were coming to life, like a flower opening to the sun.
 
Jess was aware of each new arrival, of chairs being pushed back, pulled in, computers being activated, fax machines delivering messages, phones ringing. She unconsciously monitored the arrival of each of the four secretaries who served the eighteen lawyers in the wing, was able to distinguish the heavy steps of Tom Olinsky, her trial supervisor, as he walked toward his office at the end of the long hall.
 
“Every day in the United States, 1,871 women are forcibly raped,” she began again, trying to refocus.
 
One of the secretaries, a pear-shaped black woman who could have passed for either twenty or forty, stuck her head through the doorway, her long, dangly red earrings falling almost to her shoulders. “Connie DeVuono’s here,” she said, then took a step back, as if she half expected Jess to hurl something at her head.
 
“What do you mean she’s here?”
 
“I mean she’s outside the door. Apparently, she walked right past the receptionist. She says she has to talk to you.”
 
Jess scanned her appointment calendar. “Our meeting isn’t until four o’clock. Did you tell her I have to be in court in a few minutes?”
 
“I told her. She says she has to see you now. She’s very upset.”
 
“That’s not too surprising,” Jess said, picturing the middle-aged widow who’d been brutally beaten and raped by a man who’d subsequently threatened to kill her if she testified against him, an event that was scheduled for ten days from today. “Take her to the conference room, will you, Sally? I’ll be right there.”
 
“Do you want me to talk to her?” Barbara Cohen volunteered.
 
“No, I’ll do it.”
 
“Think it could be trouble?” Neil Strayhorn asked as Jess stepped into the hall.
 
“What else?”
 
The conference room was a small, windowless office, taken up almost entirely by an old walnut table and eight low-backed, mismatched brown chairs. The walls were the same dull white as the rest of the rooms, the carpet a well-worn beige.
 
Connie DeVuono stood just inside the doorway. She seemed to have shrunk since the last time Jess saw her, and her black coat hung on her body as if on a coatrack. Her complexion was so white it appeared tinged with green, and the bags under her eyes lay in soft, unflattering folds, sad testament to the fact that she probably hadn’t slept in weeks. Only the dark eyes themselves radiated an angry energy, hinting at the beautiful woman Connie DeVuono had once been. “I’m sorry to be disturbing you,” she began.
 
“It’s just that we don’t have a lot of time,” Jess said softly, afraid that if she spoke above a whisper, the woman might shatter, like glass. “I have to be in court in about half an hour.” Jess pulled out one of the small chairs for Connie to sit in. The woman needed no further encouragement. She collapsed like an accordion inside it. “Are you all right? Would you like some coffee? Some water? Here, let me take your coat.”
 
Connie DeVuono waved away each suggestion with shaking hands. Jess noticed that her nails were bitten to the quick and her cuticles had been picked raw. “I can’t testify,” she said, looking away, her voice so low as to be almost inaudible.
 
Still, the words had the force of a shout. “What?” Jess asked, though she’d heard every word.
 
“I said I can’t testify.”
 
Jess lowered herself into one of the other chairs and leaned toward Connie DeVuono so that their knees were touching. She reached for the woman’s hands and cupped them inside her own. They were freezing. “Connie,” she began slowly, trying to warm them, “you’re our whole case. If you don’t testify, the man who attacked you goes free.”
 
“I know. I’m sorry.”
 
“You’re sorry?”
 
“I can’t go through with it. I can’t. I can’t.” She started crying.
 
Jess quickly drew a tissue from the pocket of her gray jacket and handed it to Connie, who ignored it. Her cries grew louder. Jess thought of her sister, the effortless way she seemed able to comfort her crying babies. Jess had no such talents. She could only sit by helplessly and watch.
 
“I know I’m letting you down,” Connie DeVuono continued, her shoulders shaking. “I know I’m letting everybody down. . . .”
 
“Don’t worry about us,” Jess told her. “Worry about you. Think about what that monster did to you.”
 
The woman’s angry eyes bore deeply into Jess’s. “Do you think I could ever forget it?”
 
“Then you have to make sure he isn’t in a position to do it again.”
 
“I can’t testify. I just can’t. I can’t. I can’t.”
 
“Okay, okay, calm down. It’s okay. Try to stop crying.” Jess leaned back in her chair and tried to crawl inside Connie’s mind. Something had obviously happened since the last time they had spoken. At each of their previous meetings, Connie, though frightened, had been adamant about testifying. The daughter of Italian immigrants, she had grown up in a household that believed fiercely in the American system of justice. Jess had been very impressed with that belief. After four years with the state’s attorney’s office, Jess thought it probably stronger than her own. “Has something happened?” she asked, watching Connie’s racking shoulders shudder to a halt.
 
“I have to think about my son,” Connie said forcefully. “He’s only eight years old. His father died of cancer two years ago. If something happens to me, then he has no one.”
 
“Nothing’s going to happen to you.”
 
“My mother is too old to look after him. Her English is very poor. What will happen to Steffan if I die? Who will take care of him? Will you?”
 
Jess understood the question was rhetorical, but answered anyway. “I’m afraid I’m not very good with men,” she said softly, hoping to elicit a smile, watching Connie DeVuono struggle to oblige. “But, Connie, nothing is going to happen to you once we put Rick Ferguson behind bars.”
 
The very mention of the man’s name caused Connie’s body to visibly tremble. “It was hard enough for Steffan to lose his father at so young an age. What could be worse than losing his mother too?”
 
Jess felt her eyes instantly well up with tears. She nodded. There could be nothing worse.
 
“Connie,” she began, surprised by the trembling in her voice, “believe me, I hear what you’re saying. I understand what you’re going through. But what makes you think that if you don’t testify, you’ll be safe? Rick Ferguson already broke into your apartment once and raped you. He beat you so badly you could barely open your eyes for a month. He didn’t know that your son wasn’t home. He didn’t care. What makes you think he won’t try it again? Especially once he knows that he can get away with it, because you’re too frightened to stop him. What makes you think that the next time he won’t hurt your son too?”
 
“Not if I refuse to testify.”
 
“You don’t know that.”
 
“I only know he said I’d never live to testify against him.”
 
“He made that threat months ago and it didn’t stop you.”
 
There was a moment’s silence. “What happened, Connie? What’s frightening you? Has he contacted you in any way? Because if he has, we can have his bail revoked. . . .”
 
“There’s nothing you can do.”
 
“There’s plenty we can do.”
 
Connie DeVuono reached inside her floppy black leather purse and pulled out a small white box.
 
“What’s that?”
 
Connie DeVuono said nothing as she handed the box to Jess.
 
Jess opened it, gingerly working her way through layers of tissues, feeling something small and hard beneath her fingers.
 
“The box was in front of my door when I opened it this morning,” Connie said, watching as Jess pulled away the final tissue.
 
Jess felt her stomach lurch. The turtle that lay lifeless and exposed in her hands was missing its head and two of its feet.
 
“It was Steffan’s,” Connie said, her voice flat. “We came home a few nights ago and it wasn’t in its tank. We couldn’t understand how it could have gotten out. We looked everywhere.”
 
lnstantly Jess understood Connie’s terror. Three months ago, Rick Ferguson had broken into her apartment, raped her, sodomized her, beaten her, then threatened her life. Now, he was showing her how easy it would be to make good on his threats. He’d broken into her apartment again, as effortlessly as if he’d been handed the key. He’d killed and mutilated her child’s pet. No one had seen him. No one had stopped him.
 
Jess rewrapped the dead turtle in its shroud of tissues and placed it back in its cardboard casket. “Not that I think it’ll do any good, but I’d like to show this to forensics.” She walked to the door and quickly signaled for Sally. “Get this over to forensics for me, will you?”
 
Sally took the box from Jess’s hands as carefully as if she were handling a poisonous snake.
 
Suddenly Connie was on her feet. “You know as well as I do you’ll never be able to connect this to Rick Ferguson. He’ll get away with it. He’ll get away with everything.”
 
“Only if you let him.” Jess returned to Connie’s side.
 
“What choice do I have?”
 
“A clear choice,” Jess told her, knowing she had only a few minutes left to change Connie’s mind. “You can refuse to testify, that way ensuring that Rick Ferguson walks away scot free, that he never has to be held accountable for what he did to you, for what he’s still doing to you.” She paused, giving her words time to register. “Or you can go to court and make sure that that bastard gets what he deserves, that he gets put behind bars where he can’t hurt you or anyone else for a very long time.” She waited, watching Connie’s eyes flicker with indecision. “Face it, Connie. If you don’t testify against Rick Ferguson, you’re not helping anyone, least of all yourself. You’re only giving him permission to do it again.”
 
The words hung suspended in the space between them, like laundry someone had forgotten to take off the line. Jess held her breath, sensing Connie was on the verge of capitulating, afraid to do anything that might tip the delicate balance in the other direction. Another speech was already working its way to the tip of her tongue. There’s an easy way to do this, it began, and there’s a hard way. The easy way is that you agree to testify as planned. The hard way is that I’ll have to force you to testify. I’ll get the judge to issue a bench warrant for your arrest, force you to come to court, force you to take the stand. And if you still refuse to testify, the judge can, and will, hold you in contempt, send you to jail. Wouldn’t that be a tragedy—you in jail and not the man who attacked you?
 
Jess waited, fully prepared to use these words if she had to, silently praying they wouldn’t be necessary. “Come on, Connie,” she said, giving it one last try. “You’ve fought back before. After your husband died, you didn’t give up, you went to night school, you got a job so that you could provide for your son. You’re a fighter, Connie. You’ve always been a fighter. Don’t let Rick Ferguson take that away from you. Fight back, Connie. Fight back.”
 
Connie said nothing, but there was a slight stiffening of her back. Her shoulders lifted. Finally, she nodded.
 
Jess reached for Connie’s hands. “You’ll testify?”
 
Connie’s voice was a whisper. “God help me.”
 
“We’ll take all the help we can get.” Jess checked her watch, rose quickly to her feet. “Come on, I’ll walk you out.”
 
Neil and Barbara had already left for court, and Jess ushered Connie along the corridor of the state’s attorney’s offices, past the display of cut-off ties that lined one wall, symbolizing each prosecutor’s first win before a jury. The halls were decorated in preparation for Halloween, large orange paper pumpkins and witches on broomsticks taped across the walls, like in a kindergarten class, Jess thought, accepting Greg Oliver’s “good luck” salutations, and proceeding through the reception area to the bank of elevators outside the glass doors. From the large window at the far end of the six elevators, the whole west side and northwest side of the city was visible. On a nice day, O’Hare Airport could be easily discerned. Even faraway Du Page County seemed within reach.
 
The women said nothing on the ride down to the main floor, knowing everything important had already been said. They exited the elevator and rounded the corner, pointedly ignoring the Victim-Witness Services Office with its large picture-laden poster proclaiming we remember you . . . in loving memory of . . . and proceeded to the glassed-in rectangular hallway that connected the Administration Building to the courthouse next door. “Where are you parked?” Jess asked, about to guide Connie through the airport-like security to the outside.
 
“I took the bus,” Connie DeVuono began, then stopped abruptly, her hand lifting to her mouth. “Oh my God!”
 
“What? What’s the matter?” Jess followed the woman’s frightened gaze.
 
The man was standing at the opposite end of the corridor, leaning against the cold expanse of glass wall, his lean frame heavy with menace, his blunt features partially obscured by the thick mass of long, uncombed, dark blond hair that fell over the collar of his brown leather jacket. As his body swiveled slowly around to greet them, Jess watched the side of his lips twist into the same chilling grin that had greeted her arrival at work that morning.
 
I am Death, the grin said.
 
Jess shuddered, then tried to pretend it was from a gust of cold air that had sneaked into the lobby through the revolving doors.
 
Rick Ferguson, she realized.
 
“I want you to take a taxi,” Jess told Connie, seeing one pull up to drop somebody off, guiding Connie through the doors onto California Avenue, and thrusting ten dollars into her hand. “I’ll take care of Rick Ferguson.”
 
Connie said nothing. It was as if she had expended all her energy in Jess’s office, and she simply had no more strength to argue. Tightly clutching the ten-dollar bill, she allowed Jess to put her in the cab, not bothering to look back as the car pulled away. Jess remained for a moment on the sidewalk, trying to still the loud thumping in her chest, then turned around and pushed her way back through the revolving doors.
 
He hadn’t moved.
 
Jess strode toward him across the long corridor, the heels of her black pumps clicking on the hard granite floor, watching as Rick Ferguson’s features snapped into sharper focus with each step. The vague generic menace he projected—white male, early twenties, five feet ten inches tall, 170 pounds, blond hair, brown eyes—became more concrete, individualized: shoulders that stooped slightly, unkempt hair pulled into a loose ponytail, deeply hooded cobralike eyes, a nose that had been broken several times and never properly reset, and always that same unnerving grin.
 
“I’m warning you to stay away from my client,” Jess announced when she reached him, not giving him the chance to interrupt. “If you show up within fifty yards of her again, even accidentally, if you try to speak to her or contact her in any way, if you leave any more gruesome little presents outside her door, I’ll have your bail revoked and your ass in jail. Am I making myself clear?”
 
“You know,” he said, speaking very deliberately, as if he were in the middle of an entirely different conversation, “it’s not such a great idea to get on my bad side.”
 
Jess almost laughed. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
 
Rick Ferguson shifted his body weight from one foot to the other, then shrugged, managing to appear almost bored. He looked around, scratched at the side of his nose. “It’s just that people who annoy me have a way of . . . disappearing.”
 
Jess found herself taking an involuntary step back. A cold shiver, like a drill, snaked its way through her chest to her gut. She had to fight the sudden urge to throw up. When she spoke, her voice was hollow, lacking resonance. “Are you threatening me?”
 
Rick Ferguson pushed his body away from the wall. His smile widened. I am Death, the smile said. I have come for you.
 
Then he walked away without a backward glance.

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The Bad Daughter
Excerpt

Chapter One

The tingling started in the pit of her stomach, a vague gnawing that quickly traveled to her chest, then spread upward and outward until it reached her neck. Invisible fingers wrapped around her throat and pressed down hard on her windpipe, cutting off her supply of oxygen, rendering her dizzy and light-headed. I’m having a heart attack, Robin thought. I can’t breathe. I’m going to die.

The middle-aged woman sitting across from her didn’t seem to notice. She was too engrossed in her own troubles. Something about an overbearing mother-in-law, a difficult daughter, and a less-than-supportive husband.

Okay, get a grip. Concentrate. The woman—what the hell was her name?—wasn’t paying her a hundred and seventy-five dollars an hour to receive a blank stare back in response. At the very least, she expected Robin to be paying attention. You didn’t go to a therapist to watch her have a nervous breakdown.

You are not having a nervous breakdown, Robin admonished herself, recognizing the familiar symptoms. This isn’t a heart attack. It is a panic attack, plain and simple. You’ve had them before. God knows you should be used to them by now.

But it’s been more than five years, she thought with her next breath. The panic attacks she used to experience on an almost daily basis were part of her past. Except the past is always with you. Isn’t that what they say?

Robin didn’t have to wonder what had brought on the sudden attack. She knew exactly what—who—was responsible. Melanie, she thought, picturing her sister, older by three years, and thinking, not for the first time, that if you removed the L from her sister’s name, it spelled “Meanie.”

A message from Melanie had been waiting on her voice mail when she’d returned to her office after lunch. Robin had listened to the message, debating whether to return the call or simply pretend she’d never received it. In the midst of her deliberations, her client had arrived. You’ll just have to wait, she’d informed her sister silently, grabbing her notepad and entering the room she reserved for counseling clients.

“Are you all right?” the woman asked her now, leaning forward in her upholstered blue chair and eyeing Robin suspiciously. “You look kind of funny.”

“Could you excuse me for just a minute?” Robin was out of her seat before the woman could answer. She returned to the smaller room off her main office and shut the door. “Okay,” she whispered, leaning against her desk with the palms of both hands, careful not to look at the phone. “Breathe. Just breathe.”

Okay, you’ve identified what’s happening. You know what caused it. All you have to do now is relax and concentrate on your breathing. You have a client in the next room waiting for you. You don’t have time for this crap. Pull yourself together. What was it her mother used to say? This too shall pass.

Except not everything passed. And if it did, it often circled back to bite you in the ass. “Okay, take deep breaths,” she counseled herself again. “Now another one.” Three more and her breathing had almost returned to normal. “Okay,” she said. “Okay.”

Except it wasn’t okay, and she knew it. Melanie was calling for a reason, and whatever that reason was, it wasn’t good. The sisters had barely exchanged two words since their mother died, and none at all since Robin had left Red Bluff for good after their father’s hasty remarriage. Nothing in almost six years. Not a congratulatory note after Robin graduated from Berkeley with a master’s degree in psychology, no best wishes when she’d opened her own practice the following year, not even a casual “good luck” when she and Blake had announced their engagement.

And so, two years ago, with Blake’s encouragement and support, Robin had ceased all attempts at communication with her sister. Wasn’t she always advising clients to stop banging their heads against the wall when faced with an immovable object and insurmountable odds? Wasn’t it time she followed her own sage counsel?

Of course, it was always easier to give advice than it was to take it.

And now, out of the blue, her sister was calling and leaving cryptic messages on her voice mail. Like a cancer you thought had been excised, only to have it come roaring back, more virulent than ever.

“Call me” was the enigmatic message Melanie had left, not bothering to state her name, taking for granted that Robin would recognize her voice even after all this time.

Which, of course, she had. Melanie’s voice was a hard one to get out of your head, no matter how many years had passed.

What fresh hell is this? Robin wondered, taking several more deep breaths and refusing to speculate. Experience had taught her that her imagination couldn’t compete with her reality. Not by a long shot.

She debated calling Blake, then decided against it. He was busy and wouldn’t appreciate being interrupted. “You’re the therapist,” he would tell her, his eyes wandering to a space behind her head, as if someone more interesting had just walked into view.

Pushing thoughts of Blake and Melanie out of her mind, Robin tucked her chin-length curly blond hair behind her ears and returned to the other room, forcing her lips into a reassuring smile. “Sorry about that,” she told the woman waiting, who was a first-time client and whose name Robin was still unable to recall. Emma or Emily. Something like that.

“Everything okay?” the woman asked.

“Everything’s fine. I just felt a bit queasy for a second there.”

The woman’s eyes narrowed. “You’re not pregnant, are you? I’d hate to start this process only to see you quit to have a baby.”

“No. I’m not pregnant.” You have to have sex to get pregnant, Robin thought. And she and Blake hadn’t made love in over a month. “I’m fine,” she said, trying desperately to recall the woman’s name. “Please, go on. You were saying . . .”

What the hell had the woman been saying?

“Yes, well, I was saying that my husband is absolutely useless as far as his mother is concerned. It’s like he’s ten years old again and he’s afraid to open his mouth. She says the most hurtful things to me, and he acts like he doesn’t hear any of it. Then when I point it out, he says I’m exaggerating, and I shouldn’t let her get to me. But my daughter has picked up on it, of course. And now she’s being just as rude. You should hear the way she talks to me.”

You think you have problems? Robin thought. You think your family is difficult?

“I don’t know why my mother-in-law hates me so much.”

She doesn’t need a reason. If she’s anything like my sister, she despises you on principle. Because you exist.

It was true. Melanie had hated her baby sister from the first moment she’d laid eyes on her. She’d been instantly jealous of their mother’s suddenly divided attention. She would pinch Robin while she lay sleeping in her crib, not stopping until the infant was covered in tiny bruises; she’d hacked off Robin’s beautiful curls with scissors when she was two; when Robin was seven, Melanie had pushed her into a wall during a supposedly friendly game of tag, breaking her nose. She was constantly criticizing Robin’s choice of clothes, her choice of interests, her choice of friends. “The girl’s a stupid slut,” Melanie had sneered about Robin’s best friend, Tara.

Oh, wait—she was right about that.

“I’ve done everything to make peace with that woman. I’ve taken her shopping. I’ve taken her for lunch. I invite her to have dinner at our house at least three times a week.”

“Why?” Robin asked.

“Why?” the woman repeated.

“If she’s so unpleasant, why bother?”

“Because my husband thinks it’s the right thing to do.”

“Then let him take her shopping and out to lunch. She’s his mother.”

“It’s not that simple,” the woman demurred.

“It’s exactly that simple,” Robin countered. “She’s rude and disrespectful. You’re under no obligation to put up with that. Stop taking her shopping and to lunch. Stop inviting her over for dinner. If she asks you why, tell her.”

“What will I say to my husband?”

“That you’re tired of being disrespected and you’re not going to put up with it anymore.”

“I don’t think I can do that.”

“What’s stopping you?”

“Well, it’s complicated.”

“Not really.”

You want complicated? I’ll give you complicated: My parents were married for twenty-four years, during which time my father cheated on my mother with every skank who caught his roving eye, including my best friend, Tara, whom he married five short months after my mother died. And just to make matters truly interesting, at the time, Tara was engaged to my brother, Alec. How’s that for complicated?

Oh, wait—there’s more.

Tara has a daughter, the product of a failed first marriage when she was barely out of her teens. Cassidy would be twelve now, I guess. Cute kid. My father adores her, has shown her more love than he ever gave any of his own kids. Speaking of which, did I mention that I haven’t talked to my sister in almost six years?

“Some people are toxic,” Robin said out loud. “It’s best to have as little to do with them as possible.”

“Even when they’re family?”

“Especially when they’re family.”

“Wow,” the woman said. “I thought therapists were supposed to ask questions and let you figure things out for yourself.”

Were they? God, that could take years. “Just thought I’d save us both some time.”

“You’re tough,” the woman said.

Robin almost laughed. “Tough” was probably the last word she would have used to describe herself. Melanie was the tough one. Or maybe “angry” was the right word. For as long as Robin could remember, Melanie had been angry. At the world in general. At Robin in particular. Although to be fair, it hadn’t always been easy for Melanie. Hell, it had never been easy for her.

Double hell, Robin thought. Who wants to be fair?

“Are you sure you’re all right?” the woman asked. “Your face . . .”

“What’s the matter with my face?” Am I having a stroke? Is it Bell’s palsy? What’s the matter with my face?

“Nothing. It just got all scrunched up for a second there.”

“Scrunched up?” Robin realized she was shouting.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you—”

“Would you excuse me for another minute?” Robin propelled herself from her chair with such force that it almost tipped over. “I’ll be right back.” She opened the outer door to her office and bolted into the gray-carpeted hallway, running down the narrow corridor until she reached the washroom. Pushing the door open, she darted toward the sink to check her image in the mirror. An attractive thirty-three-year-old woman with deep blue eyes, pleasantly full lips, and a vaguely heart-shaped face stared back at her. There were no unsavory warts or blemishes, no noticeable scars or abnormalities. Everything was where it was supposed to be, if a little off-kilter because of her slightly crooked nose. But there was nothing that could be described as “scrunched up.” Her hair could use a touch-up and a trim, she realized, but other than that, she looked decent enough, even professional, in her rose-colored blouse and straight gray skirt. She could stand to put on a few pounds, she thought, hearing Melanie’s voice in her ear reminding her that despite her achievements and “fancy degree,” she was still “flat as a pancake” and “skinny like a stick.”

She felt the stirrings of another panic attack and took a series of preventive deep breaths. When that didn’t work, she splashed a handful of cold water on her face. “Okay, calm down,” she told herself. “Calm down. Everything is fine. Except your face is all scrunched up.” She examined her reflection once more, noting her pursed lips and pinched cheeks and making a concerted effort to relax her features. “You can’t let Melanie get to you.” She took another series of deep breaths—in through the nose, out through the mouth, inhale the good energy, exhale the bad. “There’s a woman patiently awaiting your wise counsel,” she reminded herself. “Now, get back there and give it to her.” Whatever the hell her name is.

But when Robin returned to her office, the woman was gone. “Hello?” Robin called, opening the door to her inner office and discovering that room empty as well. “Adeline?” She returned to the exterior hallway and found it likewise deserted. Great. Fine time to remember her name.

Obviously, Adeline had fled. Scared off by Robin’s “tough” facade and “scrunched-up” face. Not that Robin blamed her. The session had been a disaster. What gave her the right to think she could counsel others when she herself was such a complete and utter fuckup?

Robin plopped down into the blue chair that Adeline had abandoned and looked around the thoughtfully arranged space. The walls were a pale but sunny yellow, meant to encourage optimism. A poster of colorful flowers hung on the wall opposite the door, meant to suggest growth and personal development. A photograph of autumn leaves was situated beside the door to her inner sanctum, a subtle reminder that change was both good and inevitable. Her personal favorite—a collage depicting a curly-haired woman with glasses and a worried smile amidst a flurry of happy faces and abstract raindrops, the capitalized words why do i get so emotional? floating above her head—occupied the place of honor behind the chair she usually sat in. It was intended to be humorous and put clients at ease. She’d found it at a neighborhood garage sale soon after she and Blake had moved in together. Now he was increasingly “working late.” How long before he brought up the idea of moving out?

“Why do I get so emotional indeed?” she asked the woman in the collage.

The woman smiled her worried smile and said nothing.

The phone in Robin’s inner office rang.

“Shit,” she said, listening as it rang two more times before voice mail picked up. Was it Melanie, phoning to berate her for not returning her previous call promptly enough? Robin pushed herself slowly to her feet. What the hell, might as well get this over with.

The first thing she saw when she entered the adjoining room was the telephone’s blinking red light. She sank into the comfortable burgundy leather chair behind her small oak desk, a desk that had been Blake’s when he first began practicing law; he’d passed it on to her when he graduated to a bigger firm with a bigger office, one that required a more imposing desk.

Was that why they’d never followed through on their plans to marry? Was she not sufficiently imposing for a man of his growing stature?

Or maybe it was the pretty new assistant he’d hired, or the attractive young lawyer in the next office. Perhaps the woman he’d smiled at while waiting in line at Starbucks had been the source of second thoughts on his part.

How long could she continue to ignore the all-too-familiar signs?

She picked up the receiver, listened as a recorded voice informed her that she had one new message and one saved message. “To listen to your message, press one-one.”

Robin did as directed.

“Hi, this is Adeline Sullivan,” the voice said. “I’m calling to apologize for running out on you like that. I just didn’t think we were a good fit, and to quote a therapist I know, ‘I thought I’d save us both some time’ and just leave. I hope you aren’t angry. You can bill me for the session. You did give me some things to think about.” She left the address where Robin could send the invoice. Robin promptly erased the message. Would that everything else was so easy to erase. She closed her eyes, her fingers hovering over the phone’s keypad.

“Go on,” she urged herself. “You can do this.” She pressed the button to listen to her sister’s message again.

“First saved message,” the recorded voice announced, followed by her sister’s abrupt command.

“Call me.”

Robin didn’t have to look up Melanie’s phone number. She knew it by heart. It was chiseled into her brain. She punched in the digits before she could change her mind.

The phone was answered almost immediately. “Took you long enough,” her sister said without preamble.

“What’s wrong?” Robin asked.

“You better sit down,” Melanie said.

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The First Time

The First Time

edition:Paperback
also available: Paperback
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Excerpt

ONE

She was thinking of ways to kill her husband.

Martha Hart, called Mattie by everyone but her mother, who regularly insisted Martha was a perfectly lovely name — "You don't see Martha Stewart changing her name, do you?" — was swimming back and forth across the long, rectangular pool that occupied most of her spacious back yard. Mattie swam every morning from the beginning of May until mid-October, barring lightning or an early Chicago snowfall, fifty minutes, one hundred lengths of precisely executed breast stroke and front crawl, back and forth across the well-heated forty foot expanse. Usually she was in the water by seven o'clock, so that she could be finished before Jake left for work and Kim for school, but today she'd overslept, or rather, hadn't slept at all until just minutes before the alarm clock went off. Jake, of course, had experienced no such trouble sleeping and was out of bed and in the shower before she had time to open her eyes. "Feeling all right?" he'd asked her, already dressed and out the door in a handsome blur before she was able to formulate a response.

She could use a butcher knife, Mattie thought now, pushing at the water with clenched fists, slicing the imaginary foot-long blade through the air and into her husband's heart with each rise and fall of her arms. She reached the end of pool, using her feet to propel herself off the concrete, and made her way back to the other side, the motion reminding her that a well-timed push down a flight of stairs might be an easier way to dispatch Jake. Or she could poison him, adding a sprinkle of arsenic, like freshly grated Parmesan cheese, to his favorite pasta, like the kind they had for dinner last night, before he supposedly went back to the office to work on today's all-important closing argument for the jury, and she'd found the hotel receipt in his jacket pocket - the jacket he'd asked her to send to the cleaners - that announced his latest infidelity as boldly as a headline in a supermarket tabloid.

She could shoot him, she thought, squeezing the water as it passed through her fingers, as if squeezing the trigger of a gun, her eyes following the imaginary bullet as it splashed across the pool's surface toward its unsuspecting target, as her errant husband rose to address the jury. She watched him button his dark blue jacket just seconds before the bullet ripped through it, his dark red blood slowly oozing into the neat diagonal lines of his blue-and-gold striped tie, the boyish little half-smile that emanated as much from his eyes as his lips freezing, fading, then disappearing altogether, as he fell, face down, to the hard floor of the stately old courtroom.

Ladies and gentleman of the jury, have you reached your verdict?

"Death to the infidel!" Mattie shouted, kicking at the water as if it were a pesky blanket twisted around her ankles, her feet feeling unexpectedly heavy, as if newly attached to large cement blocks. For a second, Mattie felt as if her legs were foreign objects, as if they belonged to someone else, and had been grafted haphazardly onto her torso, serving no other purpose than to weigh her down. She tried to stand, but the bottoms of her feet couldn't find the bottom of the pool, although the water level was only five feet high and she was almost eight inches taller. "Damn it," Mattie muttered, losing the rhythm of her breathing and swallowing a mouthful of chlorine. She gasped loudly, throwing herself toward the side of the pool, her body doubling up and over the edge of the pool to rest against its border of smooth brown stone, as invisible hands continued to pull her legs, trying to drag her back under. "Serves me right, " she muttered between painful coughing spasms. "Serves me right for having such evil thoughts."

She wiped some errant spittle from her mouth, then burst into a fit of hysterical laughter, the laughter mingling with her coughing, one feeding off the other, the unpleasant sounds bouncing off the water, echoing loudly in her ears. Why am I laughing? She wondered, unable to stop.

"What's going on?" The voice came from somewhere above her head. "Mom, Mom, are you okay?"

Mattie brought her hand up across her forehead to shield her eyes from the sun's harsh rays, focused on her like a flashlight, and stared toward the large cedar deck that extended off the kitchen at the back of her red-brick, two-story home. Her daughter, Kim, was silhouetted against the autumn sky, the sun's glare rendering the teenager's normally outsized features curiously indistinct. It didn't matter, Mattie knew the lines and contours of her only child's face and figure as well as her own, maybe better: the huge blue eyes that were darker than her father's, bigger than her mother's; the long straight nose she inherited from her dad; the bow-shaped mouth she'd gotten from her mom; the budding breasts that had skipped a generation, moving directly from fifteen, already a force to be reckoned with. Kim was tall, like both her parents, and skinny, as her mother had been at her age, although her posture was much better than Mattie's had been at fifteen, better, in fact than it is now. Kim didn't have to be reminded to push her shoulders back or hold her head up high, and as she leaned against the sturdy wood slats of the railing, swaying like a young sapling in a gentle breeze, Mattie marveled at her daughter's easy confidence, wondering whether she'd played any part in its development at all.

"Are you all right?" Kim asked again, craning her long, elegant neck toward the pool. Her shoulder-length, naturally blonde hair was pulled tightly back against her scalp and twisted into a neat little bun at the top of her head. Her 'Miss Grundy' look, Mattie sometimes teased. "Is someone there with you?"

"I'm fine," Mattie said, although her continued coughing rendered the words unintelligible, and she had to repeat them. "I'm fine," she said again, then laughed out loud.

"What's so funny?" Kim giggled, a slight, shy sound seeking inclusion into whatever it was her mother found so amusing.

"My foot fell asleep," Mattie told her, gradually lowering both feet to the bottom of the pool, relieved to find herself standing.

"While you were swimming?"

"Yea. Funny, huh?"

Kim shrugged, a shrug that said, 'Not that funny, not laugh-out-loud funny,' and leaned further forward, out of the shadow. "Are you sure you're okay?"

"I'm fine. I just swallowed a mouthful of water." Mattie coughed again, as if for emphasis. She noticed that Kim was wearing her leather jacket, and for the first time that morning, became aware of the late September chill.

"I'm going to school now," Kim said, then didn't move. "What are you up to today?"

"I have an appointment this afternoon with a client to look at some photographs."

"What about this morning?"

"This morning?"

"Dad's giving his summation to the jury this morning," Kim stated.

Mattie nodded, not sure where this conversation was headed. She looked toward the large maple tree that loomed majestically over her neighbor's back yard, at the deep red that was seeping into the green foliage, as if the leaves were slowly bleeding to death, and waited for her daughter to continue.

"I bet he'd really appreciate it if you were to go to the courthouse to cheer him on. You know, like you do when I'm in a school play. For support and stuff."

And stuff, Mattie thought, but didn't say, choosing to cough instead.

"Anyway, I'm going now."

"Okay, sweetie. Have a good day."

"You too. Give Dad a kiss for me for good luck."

"Have a good day," Mattie repeated, watching Kim disappear inside the house. Alone again, she closed her eyes, allowing her body to sink below the water's smooth surface. Water immediately covered her mouth and filled her ears, silencing the white noise of nature, blocking out the casual sounds of morning. No longer were dogs barking in neighboring yards, birds singing in nearby trees, cars honking their impatience on the street. Everything was quiet, peaceful, and still. There were no more faithless husbands, no more inquiring teenage minds.

How does she do it? Mattie wondered. What kind of radar did the child possess? Mattie hadn't said anything to Kim about her discovery of Jake's most recent betrayal. Nor had she said anything to anyone else, not any of her friends, not to her mother, not to Jake. She almost laughed. When was the last time she'd confided anything to her mother? And as for Jake, she wasn't ready to confront him yet. She needed time to think things through, to gather her thoughts, as a squirrel stores away nuts for the winter, to make sure she was well-fortified for whatever course of action she chose to follow in the long, cold months ahead.

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The Wild Zone

The Wild Zone

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ONE
 
This is how it starts.
 
With a joke.
 
“So, a man walks into a bar,” Jeff began, already chuckling. “He sees another man sitting there, nursing a drink and a glum expression. On the bar in front of him is a bottle of whiskey and a tiny little man, no more than a foot high, playing an equally tiny little piano. ‘What’s going on?’ the first man asks. ‘Have a drink,’ offers the second. The first man grabs the bottle and is about to pour himself a drink when suddenly there is a large puff of smoke and a genie emerges from the bottle. ‘Make a wish,’ the genie instructs him. ‘Anything you desire, you shall have.’ ‘That’s easy,’ the man says. ‘I want ten million bucks.’ The genie nods and disappears in another cloud of smoke. Instantly, the bar is filled with millions and millions of loud, quacking ducks. ‘What the hell is this?’ the man demands angrily. ‘Are you deaf? I said bucks, you idiot. Not ducks.’ He looks imploringly at the man beside him. The man shrugs, nodding sadly toward the tiny piano player on the bar. ‘What? You think I wished for a twelve-inch pianist?’”
 
A slight pause followed by an explosion of laughter punctuated the joke’s conclusion, the laughter neatly summing up the personalities of the three men relaxing at the crowded bar. Jeff, at thirty-two, the oldest of the three, laughed the loudest. The laugh, like the man himself, was almost too big for the small room, dwarfing the loud rock music emanating from the old-fashioned jukebox near the front door and reverberating across the shiny black marble surface of the long bar, where it threatened to overturn delicate glasses and crack the large, bottle-lined mirror behind it. His friend Tom’s laugh was almost as loud, and although it lacked Jeff ’s resonance and easy command, it made up for these shortcomings by lasting longer and containing an assortment of decorative trills. “Good one,” Tom managed to croak out between a succession of dying snorts and chuckles. “That was a good one.”
 
The third man’s laughter was more restrained, although no less genuine, his admiring smile stretching from the natural, almost girlish, pout of his lips into his large brown eyes. Will had heard the joke before, maybe five years ago, in fact, when he was still a nervous undergraduate at Princeton, but he would never tell that to Jeff. Besides, Jeff had told it better. His brother did most things better than other people, Will was thinking as he signaled Kristin for another round of drinks. Kristin smiled and tossed her long, straight blond hair from one shoulder to the other, the way he’d noted the sun-kissed women of South Beach always seemed to be doing. Will wondered idly if this habit was particular to Miami or endemic to southern climes in general. He didn’t remember the young women of New Jersey tossing their hair with such frequency and authority. But then, maybe he’d just been too busy, or too shy, to notice.
 
Will watched as Kristin poured Miller draft into three tall glasses and expertly slid them in single file along the bar’s smooth surface, bending forward just enough to let the other men gathered around have a quick peek down her V-neck, leopard-print blouse. They always tipped more when you gave them a flash of flesh, she’d confided the other night, claiming to make as much as three hundred dollars a night in tips. Not bad for a bar as small as the Wild Zone, which comfortably seated only forty people and had room for maybe another thirty at the always busy bar.
 
YOU HAVE ENTERED THE WILD ZONE, an orange neon sign flashed provocatively above the mirror. PROCEED AT YOUR OWN RISK.
 
The bar’s owner had seen a similar sign along the side of a Florida highway and decided the Wild Zone would be the perfect name for the upscale bar he was planning to open on Ocean Drive. His instincts had proved correct. The Wild Zone had opened its heavy steel doors in October, just in time for Miami’s busy winter season, and it was still going strong eight months later, despite the oppressive heat and the departure of most tourists. Will loved the name, with its accompanying echoes of danger and irresponsibility. It made him feel vaguely reckless just being here. He smiled at his brother, silently thanking him for letting him tag along.
 
If Jeff saw his brother’s smile, he didn’t acknowledge it. Instead he reached behind him and grabbed his fresh beer. “So what would you clowns wish for if a genie offered to grant you one wish? And it can’t be anything sucky, like world peace or an end to hunger,” he added. “It has to be personal. Selfish.”
 
“Like wishing for a twelve-inch penis,” Tom said, louder than Will thought necessary. Several of the men standing in their immediate vicinity swiveled in their direction, although they pretended not to be listening.
 
“Already got one of those,” Jeff said, downing half his beer in one long gulp and smiling at a redhead at the far end of the bar.
 
“It’s true,” Tom acknowledged with a laugh. “I’ve seen him in the shower.”
 
“I might ask for a few extra inches for you though,” Jeff said, and Tom laughed again, although not quite so loud. “How about you, little brother? You in need of any magical intervention?”
 
“I’m doing just fine, thank you.” Despite the frigid air- conditioning, Will was beginning to sweat beneath his blue button-down shirt, and he focused on a large green neon alligator on the far brick wall to keep from blushing.
 
“Aw, I’m not embarrassing you, am I?” Jeff teased. “Shit, man. The kid’s got a PhD in philosophy from Harvard, and he blushes like a little girl.”
 
“It’s Princeton,” Will corrected. “And I still haven’t finished my dissertation.” He felt the blush creep from his cheeks toward his forehead and was glad the room was as dimly lit as it was. I should have finished that stupid dissertation by now, he was thinking.
 
“Knock it off, Jeff,” Kristin advised him from behind the bar. “Don’t pay any attention to him, Will. He’s just being his usual obnoxious self.”
 
“You trying to tell me that size doesn’t matter?” Jeff asked.
 
“I’m telling you that penises are way overrated,” Kristin answered.
 
A nearby woman laughed. “Ain’t that the truth,” she said into her glass.
 
“Well, you ought to know,” Jeff said to Kristin. “Hey, Will. Did I tell you about the time Kristin and I had a three-way?”
 
Will looked away, his eyes skirting the dark oak planks of the floor and sweeping across the far wall without focusing, eventually settling on a large color photograph of a lion attacking a gazelle. He’d never been comfortable with the sort of sex-charged banter Jeff and his friends seemed to excel at. He had to try harder to fit in, he decided. He had to relax. Wasn’t that the reason he’d come to South Beach in the first place—to get away from the stress of academic life, to get out in the real world, to reconnect with the older brother he hadn’t seen in years? “Don’t think you ever mentioned it,” he said, forcing a laugh from his throat and wishing he didn’t feel as titillated as he did.
 
“She was a real looker, wasn’t she, Krissie?” Jeff asked. “What was her name again? Do you remember?”
 
“I think it was Heather,” Kristin answered easily, hands on the sides of her short, tight black skirt. If she was embarrassed, she gave no sign of it. “You ready for another beer?”
 
“I’ll take whatever you’re willing to dish out.”
 
Kristin smiled, a knowing little half grin that played with the corners of her bow-shaped mouth, and tossed her hair from her right shoulder to her left. “Another round of Miller draft coming right up.”
 
“That’s my girl.” Once again Jeff’s muscular laugh filled the room.
 
A young woman pushed her way through the men and women standing three-deep at the bar. She was in her late twenties, of average height, a little on the thin side, with shoulder-length dark hair that fell across her face, making it difficult to discern her features. She wore black pants and an expensive-looking white shirt. Will thought it was probably silk. “Can I get a pomegranate martini?”
 
“Coming right up,” Kristin said.
 
“Take your time.” The young woman tucked a strand of hair behind her left ear, revealing a delicate pearl earring and a profile that was soft and pleasing. “I’m sitting over there.” She pointed toward an empty table in the corner, underneath a watercolor of a herd of charging elephants.
 
“What the hell’s a pomegranate martini?” Tom asked.
 
“Sounds revolting,” Jeff said.
 
“They’re actually quite good.” Kristin removed Jeff’s empty beer glass and replaced it with a full one.
 
“That so? Okay, then, let’s give ’em a try.” Jeff made a circle in the air with his fingers, indicating his request included Tom and Will. “Ten bucks each to whoever finishes his pomegranate martini first. No gagging allowed.”
 
“You’re on,” Tom agreed quickly.
 
“You’re crazy,” Will said.
 
In response, Jeff slapped a ten-dollar bill on the bar. It was joined seconds later by a matching one from Tom. Both men turned expectantly toward Will.
 
“Fine,” he said, reaching into the side pocket of his gray slacks and extricating a couple of fives.
 
Kristin watched them out of the corner of her eye as she carried the pomegranate martini to the woman sitting at the small table in the far corner. Of the three men, Jeff, dressed from head to toe in his signature black, was easily the best looking, with his finely honed features and wavy blond hair, hair she suspected he secretly highlighted, although she’d never ask. Jeff had a quick temper, and you never knew what was going to set him off. Unlike Tom, she thought, shifting her gaze to the skinny, dark-haired man wearing blue jeans and a checkered shirt who stood to Jeff ’s immediate right. Everything set him off. Six feet, two inches of barely contained fury, she thought, wondering how his wife stood it. “It’s Afghanistan,” Lainey had confided just the other week, as Jeff was regaling the bar’s patrons with the story of how Tom, enraged by an umpire’s bad call, had pulled a gun from the waistband of his jeans and put a bullet through his brand-new plasma TV, a TV he couldn’t afford and still hadn’t fully paid for. “Ever since he got back . . . ,” she’d whispered under the waves of laughter that accompanied the story, leaving the thought unfinished. It didn’t seem to matter that Tom had been home for the better part of five years.
 
Jeff and Tom had been best friends since high school, the two men enlisting in the army together, serving several tours of duty in Afghanistan. Jeff had come home a hero; Tom had come back disgraced, having been dishonorably discharged for an unprovoked assault on an innocent civilian. That was all she really knew about their time over there, Kristin realized. Neither Jeff nor Tom would talk about it.
 
She deposited the rose-pink martini on the round wooden table in front of the dark-haired young woman, casually studying her flawless, if pale, complexion. Was that a bruise on her chin?
 
The woman handed her a rumpled twenty-dollar bill. “Keep the change,” she said quietly, turning away before Kristin could thank her.
 
Kristin quickly pocketed the money and returned to the bar, the ankle straps of her high-heeled silver sandals chafing against her bare skin. The men were now placing bets on who could balance a peanut on his nose the longest. Tom should win that one, hands down, she thought. His nose boasted a natural ridge at its tip that the others lacked. Jeff’s nose was narrow and straight, as handsomely chiseled as the rest of him, while Will’s was wider and slightly crooked, which only added to his air of wounded vulnerability. Why so wounded? she wondered, deciding he probably took after his mother.
 
Jeff, on the other hand, looked exactly like his father. She knew that because she’d stumbled across an old photograph of the two of them when she was cleaning out a bedroom drawer, just after she’d moved in, about a year ago. “Who’s this?” she’d asked, hearing Jeff come up behind her and pointing at the picture of a rugged-looking man with wavy hair and a cocky grin, his large forearm resting heavily on the shoulder of a solemn-faced young boy.
 
Jeff had snatched it from her hand and returned it to the drawer.
 
“What are you doing?”
 
“Just trying to make room for some of my things,” she’d said, purposely ignoring the tone in his voice that warned her to back off. “Is that you and your dad?”
 
“Yeah.”
 
“Thought so. You look just like him.”
 
“That’s what my mother always said.” With that, he’d slammed the drawer closed and left the room.
 
“Ha, ha—I win!” shouted Tom now, raising his fist in the air in triumph as the peanut Jeff had been balancing on his nose dribbled past his mouth and chin and dropped to the floor.
 
“Hey, Kristin,” Jeff said, his voice just tight enough to reveal how much he hated losing, even at something as insignificant as this. “What’s happening with those grenade martinis?”
 
“Pomegranate,” Will corrected, then immediately wished he hadn’t. A bolt of anger, like lightning, flashed through Jeff ’s eyes.
 
“What the hell is a pomegranate anyway?” Tom asked.
 
“It’s a red fruit, hard shell, tons of seeds, lots of antioxidants,” Kristin answered. “Supposedly very good for you.” She deposited the first of the pale rose-colored martinis on the bar in front of them.
 
Jeff lifted the glass to his nose and sniffed at it suspiciously.
 
“What’s an antioxidant?” Tom asked Will.
 
“Why are you asking him?” Jeff snapped. “He’s a philosopher, not a scientist.”
 
“Enjoy,” Kristin said, placing the other two martinis on the counter.
 
Jeff held up his glass, waited for Tom and Will to do the same. “To the winner,” he said. All three men promptly threw back their heads, gulping at the liquid as if gasping for air.
 
“Done,” Jeff whooped, lowering his glass to the bar in triumph.
 
“Christ, that’s awful stuff,” said Tom with a grimace half a second later. “How do people drink this shit?”
 
“What’d you think, little brother?” Jeff asked as Will swallowed the last of his drink.
 
“Not half-bad,” Will said. He liked it when Jeff referred to him as his little brother, even though, strictly speaking, they were only half brothers. Same father, different mothers.
 
“Not half-good either,” Jeff was saying now, with a wink at no one in particular.
 
She seems to be enjoying it.” Tom nodded toward the brunette in the corner.
 
“Makes you wonder what else she enjoys,” Jeff said.
 
Will found himself staring at the woman’s sad eyes. He knew they were sad, even from this distance and in this light, because of the way she was leaning her head against the wall and looking off into space, her gaze aimless and unfocused. He realized that she was prettier than he’d first suspected, albeit in a conventional sort of way. Not strikingly beautiful like Kristin, with her emerald green eyes, a model’s high cheekbones, and voluptuous figure. No, this woman’s looks tilted more toward the ordinary. Pretty, for sure, but lacking sharpness. Her eyes were her only truly distinguishing feature. They were big and dark, probably a deep-water blue. She looks as if she has profound thoughts, Will was thinking as he watched a man approach her, experiencing an unexpected wave of relief when he saw her shake her head and turn him away. “What do you think her story is?” he heard himself ask out loud.
 
“Maybe she’s the jilted lover of a British prince,” posited Jeff, downing what was left of his beer. “Or maybe she’s a Russian spy.”
 
Tom laughed. “Or maybe she’s just a bored housewife looking for a little action on the side. Why? You interested?”
 
Was he? Will wondered. It had been a long time since he’d had any kind of girlfriend. Since Amy, he thought, shuddering at the memory of the way that had turned out. “Just curious,” he heard himself say.
 
“Hey, Krissie,” Jeff called out, leaning his elbows on the bar and beckoning Kristin toward him. “What can you tell me about the pomegranate lady?” He pointed with his square jaw toward the table in the corner.
 
“Not much. First time I saw her was a few days ago. She comes in, sits in the corner, orders pomegranate martinis, tips very well.”
 
“Is she always alone?”
 
“Never noticed anyone with her. Why?”
 
Jeff shrugged playfully. “I was thinking maybe the three of us could get better acquainted. What do you say?”
 
Will found himself holding his breath.
 
“Sorry,” he heard Kristin answer, and only then was he able to release the tight ball of air trapped in his lungs. “She’s not really my type. But, hey, you go for it.”
 
Jeff smiled, exposing the two glistening rows of perfect teeth that not even the dust of Afghanistan had been able to dull. “Is it any wonder I love this girl?” he asked his companions, both of whom nodded in wonderment, Tom wishing Lainey could be more like Kristin in that regard—hell, in every regard, if he was being honest—and Will pondering, not for the first time since his arrival ten days earlier, what was really going on in Kristin’s head.
 
Not to mention his own.
 
Maybe Kristin was simply wise beyond her years, accepting Jeff for who he was, without trying to change him or pretend things were otherwise. Clearly, they had an arrangement they were comfortable with, even if he wasn’t.
 
“I have an idea,” Jeff was saying. “Let’s have a bet.”
 
“On what?” Tom asked.
 
“On who can be the first to get into Miss Pomegranate’s panties.”
 
“What?” Tom’s guffaw shook the room.
 
“What are you talking about?” asked Will impatiently.
 
“A hundred bucks,” Jeff said, laying two fifties on the countertop.
 
“What are you talking about?” Will asked again.
 
“It’s simple. There’s an attractive young woman sitting all by herself in the corner, just waiting for Prince Charming to hit on her.”
 
“I think that might be a contradiction in terms,” Kristin said.
 
“Maybe all she wants is to be left alone,” Will offered.
 
“What woman comes to a place like the Wild Zone by herself hoping to be left alone?”
 
Will had to admit Jeff ’s question made sense.
 
“So, we go over there, we chat her up, we see which one of us she lets take her home. A hundred bucks says it’s me.”
 
“You’re on.” Tom fished inside his pocket, eventually coming up with two twenties and a pile of ones. “I’m good for the rest,” he said sheepishly.
 
“Speaking of home,” Kristin interrupted, looking directly at Tom, “shouldn’t you be heading back there? You don’t want a repeat of last time, do you?”
 
In truth, Kristin was the one who didn’t want a repeat of last time. Lainey was as formidable a force as her husband when she was angry, and she wasn’t too proud to wake up half the city when it came to ferreting out her errant husband’s whereabouts.
 
“Lainey’s got nothing to worry about tonight,” Jeff said confidently. “Miss Pomegranate’s not going to be interested in his bony ass.” He turned toward Will. “You in?”
 
“I don’t think so.”
 
“Oh, come on. Don’t be a spoilsport. What’s the matter? Afraid you’ll lose?”
 
Will glanced back at the woman, who was still staring off into space, although he noticed she’d finished her drink. Why hadn’t he just told his brother he was interested? Was he interested? And was Jeff right? Was he afraid of losing? “Do you accept credit cards?”
 
Jeff laughed and slapped him on the shoulder. “Spoken like a true Rydell. Daddy would be very proud.”
 
“How are we going to do this exactly?” Tom asked, bristling at all this newfound brotherly camaraderie. During the almost two decades he and Jeff had been friends, Will had been nothing but a thorn in his brother’s side. He wasn’t even a real brother, for shit’s sake, just a half brother who was as unwanted as he was unloved. Jeff had had nothing to do with him, hadn’t spoken to or about him in years. And then, ten days ago, Will showed up on his doorstep out of the blue, and all of a sudden it’s “little brother” this and “little brother” that, and it was enough to make you puke. Tom gave Will his broadest smile, wishing “little brother” would pack his bags and go back to Princeton. “I mean, we don’t want it to look like we’re ambushing her.”
 
“Who said anything about an ambush? We just go over there, thank her for introducing us to the pleasures of vodka-laced antioxidants, and offer to buy her another.”
 
“I have a better idea,” offered Kristin. “Why don’t I go over, chat her up for a few minutes, and try to feel her out, see if she’s interested.”
 
“Find out her name anyway,” Will said, trying to think of a way to extricate himself from the situation without embarrassing himself or alienating his brother.
 
“How much do you want to bet her name starts with a J?” Tom asked.
 
“Five dollars says it doesn’t,” Jeff said.
 
“More names start with J than any other letter.”
 
“There are still twenty-five more letters in the alphabet,” Will said. “I’m with Jeff on this one.”
 
“Of course you are,” Tom said curtly.
 
“Okay, guys, I’m on my way,” Kristin announced, returning to their side of the bar. “Anything you want me to say to the lady on your behalf?”
 
“Maybe we shouldn’t bother her,” Will said. “She looks like she has a lot on her mind.”
 
“Tell her I’ll give her something to think about,” Jeff said, giving Kristin’s backside a playful tap to send her on her way. All three men followed her exaggerated wiggle with their eyes as she sashayed between tables toward the far corner of the room.
 
Will watched Kristin retrieve the empty glass from the woman’s table, the two women falling into conversation as easily and casually as if they were lifelong friends. He watched Miss Pomegranate suddenly swivel in their direction, her head tilting provocatively to one side, a slow smile spreading across her face as Kristin spoke. “You see those three guys at the end of the bar?” he imagined Kristin telling her. “The good-looking one in black, the skinny, angry-looking one beside him, the sensitive-looking one in the blue button-down shirt? Pick one. Any one. He’s yours for the asking.”
 
“She’s coming back,” Jeff said as, moments later, Kristin left the woman’s side and began her slow walk back to the bar, the three men swaying forward in unison to greet her.
 
“Her name’s Suzy,” she announced without stopping.
 
“That’s another five you owe me,” Jeff told Tom.
 
“That’s it?” Tom asked Kristin. “You were over there all that time, and that’s all you got?”
 
“She moved here from Fort Myers a couple of months ago.” Kristin returned to her side of the bar. “Oh, yeah. I almost forgot,” she said with a big smile in Will’s direction. “She picked you.”

close this panel
Whispers and Lies
Excerpt

Chapter 1

She said her name was Alison Simms.

The name tumbled slowly, almost languorously, from her lips, the way honey slides from the blade of a knife. Her voice was soft, tentative, slightly girlish, although her handshake was firm and she looked me straight in the eye. I liked that. I liked her, I decided, almost on the spot, although I'm the first to admit that I'm not always the best judge of character. Still, my first impression of the amazingly tall young woman with the shoulder-length, strawberry-blond curls who stood tightly clasping my hand in the living room of my small two-bedroom home was positive. And first impressions are lasting impressions, as my mother used to say.

"This is a real pretty house," Alison said, her head nodding up and down, as if agreeing with her own assessment, her eyes darting appreciatively between the overstuffed sofa and the two delicate Queen Anne chairs, the cushioned valances framing the windows and the sculpted area rug lying across the light hardwood floor. "I love pink and mauve together. It's my favourite color combination." Then she smiled, this enormous, wide, slightly goofy smile that made me want to smile right back. "I always wanted a pink and mauve wedding."

I had to laugh. It seemed such a wonderfully strange thing to say to someone you'd just met. She laughed with me, and I motioned toward the sofa for her to sit down. She immediately sank into the deep, down-filled cushions, her blue sundress all but disappearing inside the swirl of pink and mauve fabric flowers, and crossed one long, skinny leg over the other, the rest of her body folding itself artfully around her knees as she leaned toward me. I perched on the edge of the striped Queen Anne chair directly across from her, thinking that she reminded me of a pretty pink flamingo, a real one, not one of those awful plastic things you see stabbed into people's front lawns. "You're very tall," I commented lamely, thinking she'd probably heard that remark all her life.

"Five feet ten inches," she acknowledged graciously. "I look taller."

"Yes, you do," I agreed, although at barely five feet four inches, everyone looks tall to me. "Do you mind my asking how old you are?"

"Twenty-eight." A slight blush suddenly scraped her cheeks. "I look younger."

"Yes, you do," I said again. "You're lucky. I've always looked my age."

"How old are you? That is, if you don't mind..."

"Take a guess."

The sudden intensity of her gaze caught me off-guard. She scrutinized me as if I were an exotic specimen in a lab, trapped between two tiny pieces of glass, under an invisible microscope. Her clear green eyes burrowed into my tired brown ones, then moved across my face, examining each telltale line, weighing the evidence of my years. I have few illusions. I saw myself exactly the way I knew she must: a reasonably attractive woman with good cheekbones, large breasts, and a bad haircut.

"I don't know," she said. "Forty?"

"Exactly." I laughed. "Told you."

We fell silent, frozen in the warmth of the afternoon sun that surrounded us like a spotlight, highlighting small flecks of dust that danced in the air between us, like hundreds of tiny insects. She smiled, folded her hands together in her lap, the fingers of one hand playing carelessly with the fingers of the other. She wore no rings of any kind, and no polish, although her nails were long and cared-for. I could tell she was nervous. She wanted me to like her.

"Did you have any trouble finding the house?"

"No. Your directions were great: east on Atlantic, south on Seventh Avenue, past the white church, between Second and Third Street. No problem at all. Except for the traffic. I didn't realize that Delray was such a busy place."

"Well, it's November," I reminded her. "The snowbirds are starting to arrive."

"Snowbirds?"

"Tourists," I explained. "You're obviously new to Florida."

She looked toward her sandaled feet. "I like this rug. You're very brave to have a white carpet in the living room."

"Not really. I don't do much entertaining."

"I guess your job keeps you pretty busy. I always thought it would be so great to be a nurse," she offered. "It must be very rewarding."

I laughed. "Rewarding is not exactly the word I would use."

"What word would you use?"

She seemed so genuinely curious, something I found both refreshing and endearing. It had been so long since anyone had expressed any real interest in me that I guess I was flattered. But there was also something so touchingly naive about the question that I wanted to cross over to where she sat and hug her, as a mother hugs her child, and tell her that it was all right, she didn't have to work so hard, that the tiny cottage behind my house was hers to occupy, that the decision had been made the minute she walked through my front door.

"What word would I use to describe the nursing profession?" I repeated, mulling over several possibilities. "Exhausting," I said finally. "Exacting. Infuriating."

"Good words."

I laughed again, as I seemed to have done often in the short amount of time she'd been in my home. It would be nice having someone around who made me laugh, I remember thinking. "What sort of work do you do?" I asked.

Alison stood up, walked to the window, and stared out at the wide street, lined with several varieties of shady palms. Bettye McCoy, third wife of Richard McCoy, and some thirty years his junior, not an unusual occurrence in South Florida, was being pulled along the sidewalk by her two small white dogs. She was dressed from head to toe in beige Armani, and in her free hand she carried a small white plastic bag full of dog poop, a fashion irony seemingly lost on the third Mrs. McCoy. "Oh, would you just look at that. Aren't they just the sweetest things? What are they, poodles?"

"Bichons," I said, coming up beside her, the top of my head in line with the bottom of her chin. "The bimbos of the canine world."

It was Alison's turn to laugh. The sound filled the room, danced between us, like the flecks of dust in the afternoon sun. "They sure are cute though. Don't you think?"

"Cute is not exactly the word I would use," I told her, consciously echoing my earlier remark.

She smiled conspiratorially. "What word would you use?"

"Let me see," I said, warming to the game. "Yappy. Pesky. Destructive."

"Destructive? How could anything that sweet be destructive?"

"One of her dogs got into my garden a few months back, dug up all my hibiscus. Trust me, it was neither sweet nor cute." I backed away from the window, catching sight, as I did so, of a man's silhouette among the many outside shadows on the opposite corner of the st reet. "Is someone waiting for you?"

"For me? No. Why?"

I edged forward to have a better look, but the man, if he'd existed at all, had taken his shadow and disappeared. I looked down the street, but there was no one there.

"I thought I saw someone standing under that tree over there." I pointed with my chin.

"I don't see anyone."

"Well, I'm sure it was nothing. Would you like some coffee?"

"I'd love some." She followed me through the small dining area that stood perpendicular to the living room, and into the predominantly white kitchen at the back of the house. "Oh, would you just look at these," she exclaimed with obvious delight, gliding toward the rows of shelves that lined the wall beside the small breakfast nook, her arms extended, fingers fluttering eagerly in the air. "What are these? Where did you get them?"

My eyes quickly scanned the sixty-five china heads that gazed at us from five rows of wooden shelves. "They're called 'ladies' head vases,'" I explained. "My mother used to collect them. They're from the fifties, mostly made in Japan. They have holes in the tops of their heads, for flowers, I guess, although they don't hold a lot. When they first came out, they were worth maybe a couple of dollars."

"And now?"

"Apparently they're quite valuable. Collectibles, I believe, is the word they use."

"And what word would you use?" She waited eagerly, a mischievous smile twisting her full lips this way and that.

I didn't have to think very hard. "Junk," I said concisely.

"I think they're great," she protested. "Just look at the eyelashes on this one. Oh, and the earrings on this one. And the tiny string of pearls. Oh, and look at this one. Don't you just love the expression on her face?" She lifted one of the heads gingerly into her hands. The china figurine was about six inches tall, with arched painted eyebrows and pursed read lips, her light brown curls peeking out from under a pink and white turban, a pink rose at her throat. "She's not as ornate as some of the others, but she has such a superior look about her, you know, like some snooty society matron, looking down her nose at the rest of us."

"Actually, she looks like my mother," I said.

The china head almost slipped through Alison's fingers. "Oh my God, I'm so sorry." She quickly returned the head vase to its original position on the shelf, between two doe-eyed girls with ribbons in their hair. "I didn't mean..."

I laughed. "It's interesting you picked that one. It was her favorite. What do you take in your coffee?"

"Cream, three sugars?" she asked, as if she weren't sure, her eyes still on the china heads.

I poured us each a mug of coffee I'd been brewing since she'd phoned from the hospital, said she'd seen my notice posted to the bulletin board at one of the nurses' stations, and could she come over as soon as possible.

"Does your mother still collect?"

"She died five years ago."

"I'm so sorry."

"Me too. I miss her. It's why I haven't been able to sell off any of her friends. How about a piece of cranberry-and-pumpkin cake?" I asked, changing the subject for fear of getting maudlin. "I just made it this morning."

"You can bake? Now I'm really impressed. I'm absolutely hopeless in the kitchen."

"Your mother never taught you to cook?"

"We weren't on the best of terms." Alison smiled, although unlike her other smiles, this one seemed more forced than genuine. "Anyway, I'd love a piece of cake. Cranberries are one of my very favorite things in the whole world."

Again, I laughed. "I don't think I've ever met anyone who felt so passionately about cranberries. Could you hand me a knife?" I motioned toward a group of knives slid into the artfully arranged slots of a triangular chunk of wood that sat on the far end of the white tile countertop. Alison pulled out the top one, a foot-long monster with a tapered two-inch blade. "Whoa," I said. "Overkill, don't you think?"

She turned the knife over slowly in her hand, studying her reflection in the well-sharpened blade, gingerly running her finger along its side, temporarily lost in thought. Then she caught me looking at her and quickly replaced the knife with one of the smaller ones, watching intently as the knife sliced effortlessly through the large Bundt cake. Then it was my turn to watch as she wolfed it down, complimenting me all the while on its texture, its lightness, its taste. She finished it quickly, her entire focus on what she was doing, like a child.

Maybe I should have been more suspicious, or at the very least, more wary, especially after the experience with my last tenant. But likely it was precisely that experience that made me so susceptible to Alison's girlish charm. I wanted, really wanted, to believe she was exactly as she presented herself: a somewhat naive, lovely, sweet young woman.

Sweet, I think now.

Sweet is not exactly the word I would use.

How could anything that sweet be destructive? she'd asked.

Why wasn't I listening?

"You've obviously never had a problem with your weight," I observed as her fingers pressed down on several errant crumbs scattered across her plate before lifting them to her mouth.

"If anything, I have trouble keeping pounds on," she said. "I was always teased about it. Kids used to say things like, 'Skinny Minny, she grows like a weed.' And I was the last girl in my class to get boobs, such as they are, so I took a lot of flak for that. Now suddenly everybody wants to be thin, only I'm still catching flak. People accuse me of being anorexic. You should hear the things they say."

"People can be very insensitive," I agreed. "Where'd you go to school?"

"Nowhere special. I wasn't a very good student. I dropped out of college in my first year."

"To do what?"

"Let's see. I worked in a bank for a while, sold men's socks, was a hostess in a restaurant, a receptionist in a hair salon. Stuff like that. I never have any trouble finding a job. Do you think I could have some more coffee?"

I poured her a second cup, again adding cream and three heaping teaspoons of sugar. "Would you like to see the cottage?"

Instantly, she was on her feet, downing the coffee in one seamless gulp, wiping her lips with the back of her hand. "Can't wait. I just know it's going to be beautiful." She followed me to the back door, an eager puppy nipping at my heels. "Your notice said six hundred a month, right?"

"Will that be a problem? I require first and last month's rent up front."

"No problem. I intend to start looking for a job as soon as I get settled, and even if I don't find something right away, my grandmother left me some money when she died, so I'm actually in pretty good shape. Financially speaking," she added softly, strawberry-blond hair curling softly around the long oval of her face.

I had hair like that once, I thought, tucking several wayward waves of auburn hair behind one ear. "My last tenant was several months behind in her rent when she took off, that's why I have to ask..."

"Oh, I understand completely"

We crossed the small patch of lawn that separated the tiny cottage from the main house. I fished inside my jean pocket for the key to the front door, the heat of her gaze on my back rendering me unusually clumsy, so that the key fell from my hand and bounced on the grass. Alison immediately bent to pick it up, her fingers grazing mine as she returned it to the palm of my hand. I pushed open the cottage door and stood back to let her come inside.

A long sigh escaped her full lips. "It's even more beautiful than I thought it was going to be. It's like... magic." Alison danced around the tiny room in small, graceful circles, head arched back, arms outstretched, as if she could somehow capture the magic, draw it to her. She doesn't realize she is the magic, I thought, suddenly aware of how much I'd wanted her to like it, how much I wanted her to stay. "I'm so glad you kept the same color as the main house," she was saying, briefly alighting, like a butterfly, on the small love seat, the large chair, the bentwood rocker in the corner. She admired the rug - mauve and white flowers woven into a pale pink backround - and the framed prints on the wall - a group of Degas dancers preening backstage before a recital, Monet's cathedral at sunset, Mary Cassatt's loving portrait of a mother and her child.

"The other rooms are back here." I opened the double set of French doors to reveal a tidy arrangement of galley kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom.

"It's perfect. It's absolutely perfect." She bounced up and down on the double bed, running eager palms across the antique white bedspread, before catching her reflection in the mirror above the white wicker dresser and instantly assuming a more ladylike demeanor. "I love everything. It's exactly the way I would have decorated it. Exactly."

"I used to live here," I told her, not sure why. I hadn't confided anything of the sort to my last tenant. "My mother lived in the main house. I lived back here."

A little half-smile played nervously with the corners of Alison's lips. "Does this mean we have a deal?"

"You can move in whenever you're ready."

She jumped to her feet. "I'm ready right now. All I have to do is go back to the motel and pack my suitcase. I can be back within the hour."

I nodded, only now becoming aware of the speed at which things had progressed. There was so much I didn't know about her. There were so many things we had yet to discuss. "We probably should talk about a few of the rules...," I sidestepped.

"Rules?"

"No smoking, no loud parties, no roommates."

"No problem," she said eagerly. "I don't smoke, I don't party, I don't know anyone."

I dropped the key into her waiting palm, watched her fingers fold tightly over it.

"Thank you so much." Still clutching the key, she reached into her purse and counted out twelve crisp $100 bills, proudly handing them over. "Printed them fresh this morning," she said with a self-conscious smile.

I tried not to look shocked by the unexpected display of cash. "Would you like to come over for dinner after you get settled?" I heard myself ask, the invitation probably surprising me more than it did her.

"I'd like that very much."

After she was gone, I sat in the living room of the main house, marveling at my actions. I, Terry Painter, supposedly mature adult, who had spent my entire forty years being sensible and organized and anything but impulsive, had just rented out the small cottage behind my house to a virtual stranger, a young woman with no references beyond an ingratiating manner and a goofy smile, with no job and a purse full of cash. What, really, did I know about her? Nothing. Not where she came from. Not what had brought her to Delray. Not how long she was planning to stay. Not even what she'd been doing at the hospital when she saw my notice. Nothing really except her name.

She said her name was Alison Simms.

At the time, of course, I had no reason to doubt her.

From the Hardcover edition.

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