Sally saw her as soon as she stepped through the door of Carlyle's sports bar. The bitch was working behind the counter and looked like she didn't have a worry in the world. Well, that was about to change, she thought.
The place smelled of stale tobacco and grease, mixed with a hint of someone's lingering perfume. Sally paused and looked around before heading over to the bar. It was a little past eleven Sunday evening and the place was almost empty. Perfect. A group of four men sat at a table engulfed in cigar smoke, hoarse laughter, and loud conversation. Sally wrinkled her nose and sat down on a stool, fidgeting to straighten her skirt.
The wooden bar took up a full third of the room. Horseshoe shaped, it was designed to give a clear view of any one of the three televisions set above a large mirror. Several stools from where she sat a young couple were holding hands, engrossed in a rerun of Cheers. The girl wore tight black shorts and a skimpy white top that clung to her breasts and bulged at the midriff in a soft white puddle of skin. From where Sally sat it looked like a doughy life preserver. The boy was short and thin with a panther stenciled on his arm, an adolescent mustache, and long dark hair tied back into a ponytail. It glistened in the dim light as if it was oiled. An ashtray sat on the bar between them, and the tendrils of smoke from their cigarettes twisted together in an erotic dance that might have reflected the couple's thoughts.
There were two people behind the bar. One, a young man in his twenties, moved over to stand in front of Sally. He was square and squat with bulging biceps, a tiny waist, and an attitude that suggested that she, too, could become one of his admirers. Dumb shit, she thought, as she ordered a beer and laid a five-dollar bill on the counter. He returned with her drink and she turned away from him to discourage any attempt at conversation. He stood there a moment, then took the hint and walked away.
Sally turned her attention to the other person behind the bar, a thin, attractive woman in her early thirties with shaggy blonde hair, blue eyes, and a tight close-lipped smile. Sally watched the woman sort through the bottles of liquor arranged along the back of the bar. Occasionally, she picked up a bottle, held it up to the light, and made a note on a pad of paper sitting on the counter.
The table behind Sally grew quiet. She looked into the mirror behind the bar, saw the four men huddled together, and realized that she was the object of their conversation. As she watched, one of the men stood, said something to his friends, and headed her way. He had long sandy hair, a pockmarked face, and sinewy arms that were etched with tattoos. His friends put their heads together and laughed as the man took the seat next to her.
He reeked of cigars and beer and Sally tried to ignore him. "Can I buy you a drink?" he asked, oblivious to her attitude.
"Get lost," Sally said as she took a sip from her beer. The asshole should know better, she thought.
"You don't have to be bitchy about it," the man said. He slurred his words and it came out more like "bishy". With exaggerated care, he leaned toward her until his mouth was only inches from her cheek. His breath was hot on her face and had a strange sweet odor to it. "I was just trying to be friendly."
"I don't need a friend," she said as she pulled away from him.
The man's voice had grown louder as he spoke and drew the attention of the others in the bar. The bartender began to edge toward her, and the woman looked up from her bottles. Behind Sally, the man's friends roared at his discomfort.
"Well up yours," he said. He turned from her, looked at his friends, and shouted, "That goes for all of you." As he staggered toward the exit, Sally picked up her beer and watched him totter away.
"Sorry about that." The woman had left her bottles to stand next to the bartender. Her nametag read, "Denise". "He's a regular, quite harmless."
Sally looked her in the eyes. "It's no big deal. He isn't the first guy to hit on me."
"Do I know you?" Denise asked.
"I don't think so." Sally changed the subject. "I thought it was illegal to smoke in bars."
Denise shrugged. "The owner doesn't believe in the law, and I'm not a cop. By the way, if you're thinking of complaining, I wouldn't. Last person who called the cops had her car keyed."
"I don't mind. I was just curious." Sally smiled down into her drink. The woman stood looking at her for a moment then went back to her bottles. Good, Sally thought. It would never do for her to recognize me now.
After that, Denise looked up every few minutes and seemed to be studying Sally. Sally finished her beer, stood, and left the bar.
Sally watched from her car as the final customers and the bartender who'd tried hitting on her wandered out into the night. It was almost one by the time Denise stepped through the door.
Sally reached over and picked up the sock she'd stuffed earlier with three rolls of quarters. Jumping out of her car, she ran around to the front, lifted the hood, and waited. The night air was charged and hot and carried the faint scent of an approaching storm. Sally had spent a lot of time getting to know Denise, and she knew Denise would not ignore a woman in distress. She might have hesitated with a man, maybe, but not another woman. Sally listened, following the muted sound of footsteps along the parking lot. She waited to turn until Denise spoke from behind her. "Problems?"
"Thank God." As Sally faced Denise she placed her hand out of sight and down to her side. "I thought everyone had left. I forgot my phone and now the damn car won't start. It's done this before, not start. If I let it sit for a little while it will be okay. I've had it into the dealership four or five times, but of course it always starts then. You know, you expect more from a two year old car."
The woman smiled. "I think they build problems into cars," she said. "It helps to keep the mystique of the auto mechanic alive. You can use my phone if you'd like."
"I hate to be a bother, but I don't relish the thought of being caught out here alone at night." Sally kept her voice low, and she smiled when Denise moved in closer.
"No problem." Denise slipped her purse from her shoulder, opened it, and began to dig for her phone.
As Denise looked down, Sally took one more glance around, raised the sock over her head, and whipped it toward the other woman. Her aim was off, and the homemade sap caught the woman along the right side of her neck and across her shoulder.
Denise staggered, crying out as she fell to her knees. A wave of excitement surged through Sally when the betrayer looked over her shoulder, and Sally saw pain and fear in the woman's eyes. Sally swung the sock and brought it down hard on the woman's head and started to raise it again, but the woman dropped to the ground and lay unconscious before her.
Sally tried to lift the still body, but Denise was much heavier than she had expected. A wave of panic overwhelmed her. She looked around the parking lot, searching frantically to make sure they were still alone. Satisfied, she bent down, grabbed the woman's wrists, and dragged her to the trunk of the car.
Sally felt vulnerable as she ran to the front of the car and closed the hood. She grabbed the keys from the ignition and raced to the trunk. Sally swore as she fumbled with the keys, almost dropping them before getting the right one in the lock. She sighed as the trunk popped open, and then she reached down and struggled to lift the unconscious body.
With a final back-wrenching shrug, Sally flung Denise into the back of the car. She straightened, slammed the trunk closed, then smoothed her dress as she looked around one more time to make sure she was still unobserved. She walked around the car, climbed in behind the wheel, and willed her body to relax. Sally put the key into the ignition as the first tentative drops of rain found her windshield.
The office Linda Morgan was looking for was located in a house, in an older section of St. Paul, deep in a neighborhood on the fringes of the urban jungle. Turn of the century mansions dominated the area. Doctors and lawyers and entrepreneurs had remodeled many of the homes. Some of the dwellings, the less fortunate, had been converted over the years into apartments. A few sat dormant, too long neglected to be brought back to life. These awaited the wrecking ball, silent monuments to their glorious past.
The address was in the middle of the block. A stone wall surrounded most of the lot, and although there were no gates, Linda felt cut off from her world as she turned into the drive. Tall, well-groomed bushes and huge old trees dotted the lawn and flanked the empty blacktopped parking area.
The house itself was stark white and faced with innumerable windows. The front bowed out, and the design drew her attention to the upper floor. She formed the image in her mind of massive wood beams, plants, and sunlight. It was difficult to see into the downstairs windows. The angle of the sun reflected off the glass, shielding the interior.
Linda turned off the car and wondered if stopping by without an appointment was a good idea. It had seemed that way when she was going over the case files that morning. There was something about Jeff Danials, the man she was investigating, that didn't sit right with her.
It was Linda's job as an investigator with the Minnesota Department of Health to look into complaints made against unlicensed psychotherapists. Linda had spoken to Danials twice on the phone. On both occasions he had deflected her requests for a person-to-person meeting, which was why Linda had opted for this unscheduled visit.
There were two complaints filed against Jeff Danials, both of which had been filed by therapists who were now treating Danials' former clients. In Minnesota the law required licensed health professionals to report any personal knowledge of conduct by unlicensed therapists that violated state ethics laws.
The first complaint that had crossed her desk was filed on behalf of a woman by the name of Grace Kelly. Allegedly, Danials had a sexual relationship with Grace that lasted for six months. During that time, she met with him two or three times a week, paying him sixty-five dollars a session for what amounted to an hour of sex. She also told her new therapist that when she mentioned to Jeff she had inherited thirty thousand dollars, he convinced her to lend it to him so he could invest it for them in a friend's software company. The company went bust, and shortly thereafter Jeff cancelled several of their appointments. He told her he didn't feel he could help her any longer and he would not be able to see her again.
The second complaint involved a woman by the name of Denise Johnson. According to the files, she had found Jeff Danials through her church, just after her husband had left her. She was hurting and vulnerable and admitted to her current therapist that Danials had convinced her sex was a necessary treatment for her depression.
Like Grace, she continued to pay for her therapy sessions, but rather than talk, they had sex. This continued until Denise began to hate herself. She found the act of paying for sex humiliating so she quit going to see Jeff and found another therapist.
Linda had been unable to contact either of the women, and her case was becoming stonewalled. If something didn't break soon, Linda was going to have to close the case for lack of evidence.
Linda grabbed her bag and as she got out of her car, she was engulfed by the thick odors of lilacs, pine trees and fresh mowed lawn. Most of the outside noise was cut off by the wall, leaving the rustle of the breeze through the trees and the distant thunder of a jet banking away from Twin Cities International Airport painting contrasting pictures in Linda's mind of the past and present.
Linda walked up to the house and was surprised as the door opened before she could knock.
"Can I help you?" The man had blond hair and a soft, smooth face that Linda thought looked more pretty than handsome. A dangerous aura of sensuality emanated from him, and his blue eyes, which stood out like sapphires embedded in ivory, took Linda's breath away.
Linda turned on her professional smile and held up her state identification badge. "You must be Jeff Danials. I'm Linda Morgan. I was in the neighborhood, and since we haven't been able to find a time when we could get together, I thought I'd stop by and see if you had a few minutes. I need to ask you some questions. If you and I don't get together, we'll have to reach our decision about your case without your input."
Danials held out his hand, and when Linda took it, he held her hand so she couldn't remove it. "You're much different than I expected. You were quite brisk over the phone and I imagined you to be matronly, an unpleasant bureaucrat. You're quite beautiful."
His eyes offered an unspoken invitation, and Linda became aware of the faint wisp of cologne, fresh and youthful, almost attuned to his natural scent.
"It just so happens I've had a cancellation today and I can spend a little time with you. When we talked over the phone you said I could have an attorney present if I wished."
"Of course," Linda agreed. "Did you want to call someone before we talk? I can wait."
"That's not necessary." Danials stepped aside to let her in. "I have nothing to hide, but if I feel the need, I want to know that I can call my lawyer. My office is in the back."
"It's a very lovely house." Linda looked around as he led her down a long hallway past several rooms. A sitting room with plush gray carpet, white sofa and chairs, and antique tables. A formal dining room with an antique cherry-wood table that appeared to seat a dozen or more. A white, provincial kitchen.
"I left decorating this entire section of the house to my mother. She selected the furniture and the wallpaper, everything. She lived most of her life on a farm, and when I made some money, I planned to bring her here. I wanted her to enjoy life, experience comfort, relax."
"She's a very lucky woman."
"She died a week before we were to move in. I left it the way she would have wanted it. I spend most of my time in my office."
"I'm sorry," Linda said. He gave no indication that he had heard her, and Linda followed him into his office.
Jeff led Linda through the doorway. "This is my inner sanctum. I spend most of my time in this room." It was masculine, massive, and aromatic, a direct contrast to the feminine nature of the rest of the house.
The floor was hardwood and had been buffed to a golden sheen. A large area rug, dark and plush, covered the center of the room. The aroma of good leather furniture blended with the airy scent of old wood and aged pipe tobacco to give the room a comfortable, lived-in feeling. Linda sank into the dark leather chair Jeff pointed to as he moved around and sat behind a large oak desk.
Linda reached into her bag and removed a tape recorder, notebook, and pen. She then leaned forward and set the recorder on the desk. "Do you mind if I record this interview?"
"Is it on now?"
"Not yet. I'll only record with your permission and, of course, I'll take notes either way."
"As I said, I have nothing to hide," he said.
"Great, we can get started then," Linda said. She reached over and pushed record. After making sure it was working she stated the date and identified herself and Jeff Danials as the interviewee. She looked across the desk at him and paused as he reached over, opened the top drawer of the desk, and brought out a clear quartz crystal about the size of a flash drive. Linda fixed her gaze on Jeff's hands. They were soft with long fingers and well-manicured nails. When he realized she was watching him, Jeff lifted the crystal and offered Linda a better view of it.
"I find rubbing it relaxing," he said.
Linda nodded. "Before we go any further, I'd like to inform you of your rights under the State's Tennessen warning. You are required to answer all of my questions honestly. Any information you provide to me today will be kept confidential during the course of my investigation. However, the facts may become a matter of public record. That will depend on whether the Health Department takes any enforcement action against you."
Jeff's eyes were alive and his gaze moved around the room before settling on her face. "Sounds ominous," he said with a smirk.
Linda shifted her body and sank deeper into the cushion. "I think it would be a good idea if you took this seriously," she said.
"I'd like to know the exact nature of the complaint against me, and who filed it."
"Actually," Linda began, "we have two complaints against you. Both allege improper actions with your clients. Although it isn't necessary in Minnesota to be licensed to practice as a therapist, there are certain guidelines you must follow. Like I said the last time I called you, I'm not at liberty to give out the names of the complainants."
"And as I told you at that time, I don't consider myself to be a therapist. I have never claimed to be one."
"And that's one of the purposes of this interview." Linda smiled and locked her eyes onto Jeff's. They faced each other, like two poker players, trying to read the other's thoughts. "It may very well be that we'll determine the complaints to be invalid. But we have to gather all of the facts before we can reach any type of determination. Perhaps we could start with a little bit about your education."
"I have a Bachelor's degree from Wayne State University in Detroit."
"And that's in what field?" Linda asked. "Psychology? Sociology?"
"Tell me, Jeff," Linda leaned forward, fighting the gentle allure of the chair. "Have you ever been licensed to practice any type of therapy, in Minnesota or any other state?"
"No I haven't, Linda. As I've explained several times, I am not now, and never have been, a therapist."
"And as I've explained," Linda matched the tired inflection of his voice as she settled into the part she knew best, a trained investigator. "I'm just doing my job. I gather information. Others will then decide whether you should be classified as a therapist. If you're not a therapist, what would you call yourself?"
"I don't use a title," he said. "I like to think of myself as a shaman."
"Could you please expand on that? I'm not quite sure what you mean by 'shaman'."
"Do you believe in the forces of good and evil, Linda?"
"I believe that there's good and evil in the world, yes."
"Exactly," Jeff nodded his head and smiled for the first time since the interview had begun, as if he'd just revealed the best-guarded secret in the universe to her.
"Exactly what?" Linda prompted him.
"I am a professor of good and evil. I have spent most of my life studying the effects of good and evil on people, and I have found that it all has to do with the flow of energy throughout the body. Energy can be directed, discarded, or embraced."
"You're an exorcist?"
"Indirectly, perhaps. You see, there's an energy force that runs throughout the body. Are you familiar with chakras?"
"I've heard the term. Why don't you give me your interpretation?"
Danials leaned forward. His face was flushed, his body animated, as he rubbed his crystal. "Chakras are sources of spiritual energy within the body. They are the center of cosmic and human order.
"Sometimes, chakras become blocked or out of focus. A person's life may become hazy or confused. Events, both good and bad, tend to interfere with the proper alignment of these chakras.
"By running my hands along the body I'm able to establish contact with certain points of energy flow. This allows me to determine where the energy force has been interrupted. I can then help a person to understand how their personal energy forces are interrupting their peace and tranquility. Once I've located the problem, I can help them to put their lives back in order."
"And do you have to touch a person's body to perform this exorcism?" Linda asked.
"I wouldn't call it an exorcism. I don't drive anything out. Energy flows from different points of the body, the chakras. Sometimes it's necessary to touch the body. It's like a doctor's exam."
"Do your clients take off their clothes?"
"What constitutes occasionally?" Linda asked. She tried to catch Jeff's gaze again, but he looked away, his hand rubbing furiously on the crystal. "Ten percent? Thirty percent? Seventy percent?"
"I don't know."
"And how did you acquire this ability?" Linda asked. "Is there a chakra school? Is this something you discovered on your own?"
"You're mocking me."
"I'm not," Linda said, "I'd really like to know."
"When I was fourteen years old, I found that God answers my prayers."
"All of them?" Linda asked.
"I had an accident. I spent over a month in bed. I asked God to heal me. He did. Later, I discovered he's given me the power to heal others."
"And you believe that power comes from God?"
"Do you have another suggestion?"
"I guess not." Linda looked across the desk and saw a little man with a big ego. "I think that I'd rather get on with the questioning than enter into a philosophical discussion."
"By all means." Jeff leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. "I'm ready."
Linda wasn't quite sure that she was, but continued. "Do you ever take your clients out for coffee or lunch?"
"Is that an invitation?" He opened his eyes and smiled at her.
"Jeff, I think you should take this seriously and answer my questions."
"I may have gone out for coffee with a client on occasion."
"For Christ's sake," Jeff raised his voice. "I don't remember. Maybe we ate something, I couldn't say for sure."
"That's fine. Have you ever hugged any of your clients, Jeff?"
"Of course. You're not saying that a hug is improper?"
"Not necessarily," Linda said. "I've talked to quite a few therapists who have told me they do just that."
Jeff nodded. "Good. It puts my clients at ease and lets them know that I care."
"That's fine," Linda agreed. "Could you tell me when it's appropriate to hug a client?"
"When they're hurting. When they're lonely. It sort of depends on the client."
"Would you say that's when they're most vulnerable?"
Jeff met Linda's gaze. "Perhaps."
"Have you ever had sex with any of your clients?"
"You're very good at this, Linda."
"I beg your pardon."
"You led me right into that question," he said. "And now you're waiting to close the trap."
"I think you're reading a little too much into this, Jeff. It's a simple question. You can answer it, either yes or no."
"No." Danials' face went blank and his eyes turned hostile. "I've never slept with any of my clients. Is that what this is all about?"
Linda fought down the queasy feeling in the pit of her stomach and tried to appear at ease. "Jeff, these are questions I need to ask. I need to know more about you. The way you conduct your business, how you relate to your clients. There's nothing more to it. I'm not trying to trap you and I'm not trying to convict you. If you don't want to go on at this time we can wait until you have an attorney present and do this down at our offices."
"That's not necessary." Jeff was working his crystal so hard that his entire body appeared to be in motion.
"Have you ever accepted money from any of your clients?"
He slapped his hand on the desk and Linda jumped. "We all have to eat, don't we? I don't charge a fee, if that's what you mean. I offer a service, and then I accept a donation if they choose to make one."
"Do you suggest what an appropriate donation might be?"
"I may mention what others have donated, but I don't make suggestions."
"Have you ever accepted a loan from a client, or gone into a business deal with a client?"
"Have you ever received counseling or therapy yourself?" Linda asked.
"Do you feel you've ever acted inappropriately toward a client?"
"No! You know, I'm beginning to think this is nothing but a witch hunt, Linda. You don't want to know how I conduct my business. You've already concluded that I'm guilty of something, but you won't even tell me what that something is."
"I think that's all of the questions I have for today." Linda was beginning to wish she hadn't stopped by to conduct this interview. She knew she wasn't going to get any further information from Jeff Danials, and his responses were causing her to grit her teeth and giving her a headache.
She reached over and turned off the tape recorder, then picked it up and set it in her bag along with her notebook. "Is there anything you'd like to ask me before I leave?"
"I don't think so." Jeff jumped to his feet and ran around his desk to stand in front of her. Linda took a deep breath and eased out of her chair. Trying not to let him notice, she scanned the room for the door. He was a small man and she wondered if she'd be able to push him aside if he tried to stop her.
"I'd be glad to show you what I do," Jeff offered. His voice was calm as he stood his ground and refused to let Linda pass.
"What do you mean?"
He pointed behind her. She turned her head and saw the sofa, set back against the wall. "If you'd like to lie down for a moment, I'd be happy to analyze your energy flow. You seem tense and agitated to me. I think you would find it helpful, not to mention useful, in your report."
"I don't think that would be appropriate," Linda said. "Not very professional on either of our parts."
"This whole situation doesn't seem very appropriate to me." Jeff took a step toward Linda. "After all, you expect me to answer all of these absurd questions, defend my integrity, and you won't even tell me who filed a complaint against me. It doesn't seem fair, does it?"
"The law was written to protect the public, Mr. Danials. Especially those who are apt to be vulnerable. This isn't a personal vendetta against you."
"And who protects those of us that want nothing more than to help? This is my livelihood, and you can just walk in here and take it away on a whim."
"Mr. Danials, I don't write the laws. All I do is ask questions and gather information. You've told me that you have nothing to hide. If that's true, you have nothing to fear."
"I'm not afraid of you," Danials said.
"I'm going to leave now," Linda said. "Can I get around to the front of the house if I go out of this door?"
He gave his head a short stiff nod and moved aside, allowing Linda to make her way to the door.
As the door closed behind Linda, Jeff Danials hurled the crystal across the room. "Bitch," he shouted, running to the window. He pushed aside the blinds and watched as Linda hurried along the drive. When she disappeared from his sight, he turned away from the window, sprinted to the door, threw it open, and ran to where his car was parked.
As Linda turned into the parking structure closest to her office building, her phone rang. Swinging into the first empty space, she grabbed her phone and answered it, unaware of the late model Cadillac that pulled into a space on the far side of the ramp.
"Linda, this is Michelle Knutson. I was wondering if you could do me a big favor."
"I'll try," Linda said. Michelle ran Burgundy House, a shelter for battered women. They'd met when Michelle contacted the Health Department about an incident involving a female therapist working for the shelter. A teenage prostitute had turned to the shelter for help when her pimp had beaten her so badly she was unable to walk in under her own power. Like many of the clients involved in Linda's cases, the girl had been sexually abused as a child and the pattern had continued as she neared adulthood. The shelter had tried to help her with free counseling. The therapist spent two weeks listening to the girl's problems and fears then tried to seduce her. When the girl resisted, the woman used all of the forms of intimidation the girl's stepfather and pimp had used in her past. As her therapist, the woman knew which buttons to push and which to pull to get what she wanted. Thanks to Linda's investigation, the woman had been forbidden to practice therapy in Minnesota ever again.
Since then, Linda and Michelle had become good friends, and Linda helped out at Burgundy House at least a couple of times a month.
"I got a call from a woman who lives in Saint Paul, not far from your office. She said she had a big fight with her boyfriend and he stomped out of the house. She's sure he's out at a bar somewhere and she's frightened. According to her he's been drinking heavily since he lost his job. When he drinks he hits her. She's pregnant and she needs to get out of there."
"Did she call the police?" Linda asked.
"You know how it is. When I mentioned the cops she freaked out."
Linda looked at her watch. It was ten minutes after eleven. "I can take an early lunch. Give me the address and I'll drive by her place and see if I can convince her to go to the shelter."
"I appreciate this," Michelle said after rattling off the address. "And Linda, please be careful. Cathy's terrified of her boyfriend. He drives an old red truck. If you see him, get out of there fast. I don't want you to do anything that might put you into a dangerous position.
"Her name's Cathy Wells. I'd go myself, but I have to meet with a possible donor. The balloon payment is coming due on the house. I was hoping I wouldn't have to reschedule this appointment. Just bring her to the shelter. I should be finished by the time you get here."
"I understand," Linda said as she hung up.
Linda drove as fast she dared, but it was eleven-thirty by the time she arrived at Cathy Wells' house. She checked the street, and as soon as she was sure the red pick-up wasn't around she pulled into the driveway.
A few of the houses on the street spoke of caring ownership. They had well manicured lawns, flower gardens, and were nicely painted. But for every well-maintained home there were three or four houses showing the blight that proceeded a neighborhood's fall from grace.
The Wells' house was one of the worst. Several discarded bicycles lay rusting, half-covered by tufts of unkempt grass and weeds. The screen on the back door was ripped and flapped when Linda knocked.
The door opened and Linda took a step back. "Who are you?" a hoarse voice demanded.
"My name's Linda Morgan. Michelle Knutson from Burgundy House asked me to pick you up."
"Changed my mind. I ain't going." The woman opened the door further and stared at Linda, her hand resting on her pregnant stomach. Her blonde hair hung around her shoulders and showed a large dark patch of root. Acne scars peppered her face and a kaleidoscope of puffy flesh ringed her right eye.
"Michelle said she talked to you a little while ago." Linda pushed her way past the woman and moved into the kitchen. It smelled of bacon grease and dead cigarettes, and like the outside of the house, the room needed a coat of paint. Although the house looked as battered as the woman standing before her, there were no dirty dishes or items out of place.
"Michelle was worried about you."
"Told you." The woman lowered her eyes as she spoke. "I changed my mind."
Linda reached out, touched the woman's chin and raised her face. "When did he do this?" she asked, as the woman winced.
"Yesterday." Cathy turned away from Linda and picked up a pack of cigarettes. "He'll do more than that if he comes home and finds you here and no lunch made."
"You don't have to put up with this," Linda said. "You don't need him."
"What do you know about it?" Cathy lit a cigarette and drew deeply in before continuing. "You all and your cushy jobs. I ain't got but a eighth grade education. And all my family's back in Mississippi. They don't want me. Besides, if I leave Jerry he'll find me and kill me. He told me if I called the cops he'd kill me. I gotta think about my baby. She's due in a couple of weeks."
"Michelle can offer you a place to stay where Jerry can't find you. And she'll help you find a job."
"Doing what? I don't know nothin'. That's why Jerry never let me get a job. He says I'm too stupid."
Linda looked at her watch, saw that ten minutes had passed and asked, "What time do you expect Jerry home?"
"He always comes home for lunch at noon. That's when he used to come home from work, and now that's when he comes home from the bar. He's not a bad man when he's not drinking."
"Listen to me, Cathy," Linda said. She reached out, put her arm around the woman, and began to steer her from the kitchen. "I know what you're going through. My ex-husband only hit me once, but he often told me I was no good. When he left, I didn't think I would ever be able to survive on my own. Now I own my own home and have a job I like."
"Yeah, but you're educated. It's too late for me."
"It's never too late, Cathy," Linda said. They were in a hallway outside of the kitchen now. "You need to pack a bag and we need to get out of here."
"Bedroom's down at the end of the hall," Cathy said. She hesitated, but let Linda lead her to the bedroom.
"Do you think Michelle can help me?"
"I know she has a program to help women at the shelter get their GED. Why don't you pack a few things? I'll go watch for Jerry." Linda left Cathy at the door to her bedroom and walked down the hall and into the living room.
The living room had a slight sour smell of neglect to it. The carpet was worn and the woodwork was chipped and missing in places. Above the door, a single strip of wallpaper hung forlornly. A ragged sofa and chair that might have matched at one time filled most of the room. They now sat unpaired, victims of years of divergent exposure to the sun. Two end tables and a coffee table, newer but inexpensive, sat across from a bookshelf. A thirteen-inch television, some DVD's, three photographs in plastic frames, a vase of wilted flowers, and a ceramic cat completed the decoration.
Linda shook her head. The thought that anyone would put up with physical and mental abuse for so little saddened her.
"It ain't much," Cathy said from the hall, as if reading Linda's mind. She had a small backpack slung over her shoulder and carried a pillow and a stuffed bear under one arm.
"I understand that it's hard leaving home."
"He kept telling me we'd buy our own house and fix it up real nice. But he never made that much money and now he spends a lot on drinking with his friends."
Linda looked at her watch and said, "We'd better get going. It's almost noon."
Cathy shrank back into the hallway at the sound of a car door slamming outside the house. When Linda looked out the window she saw a rusted red pickup parked behind her yellow Mustang, blocking her in. A large pale man with dark hair and a wild beard slid out from behind the wheel, paused for a moment to look over her car, then made his way toward the front door.
"He'll kill us both," Cathy whispered. She leaned against the wall and looked as if she was going to collapse.
"Wait for me at the back door." Linda grabbed Cathy by the shoulders and gave her a hurried shove, and then she ran to the front door and turned the deadbolt lock. Without a second thought she reached out and pulled the stuffed chair in front of the door, then ran to join Cathy at the back door.
"Goddamn it. Open this door Cathy." Jerry demanded. "Don't make me break it down."
"Doesn't he have a key?" Linda asked.
Cathy shook her head. "He lost his key. He never worries about it when I'm home 'cause he don't let me go out by myself. Not even shopping."
There was a large crash outside. "I'd better let him in." Cathy started toward the front door.
Linda held her back. "It's too late, Cathy. He's liable to beat the shit out of the both of us if he catches us now. Come on. Out the back door."
Another crash sounded from the living room as the two women sped from the house. They ran around the corner and climbed into Linda's car as Jerry came lumbering from the back of the house.
"Who the hell are you?" he shouted, as Linda hit the lock button. He stopped next to her door, grabbed for the handle, and when it didn't open, he pounded his fist against the window. The car shook as Linda started it and she looked around for a way out. The truck behind her was too close to allow her to back up so she cranked the wheel hard to the right and pulled off onto the neighbor's lawn. Jerry ran alongside as she drove through the yard and pulled into an alley.
When Jerry gave up the chase and ran back toward the house, Linda took a deep breath and pulled into the street. "I think we're all right now," she said. She looked over and saw Cathy cowering, half on the seat and half on the floor, her stuffed bear clutched in her arms.
Linda glanced into the rearview mirror as tires screeched behind them and saw the rusted pickup bearing down on them. "God damn it," she swore as she shifted gears and stepped on the gas. She had no doubt she could lose the pickup. Her car was a 1967 Ford Mustang, restored and built for power. It had once been her brother's and now she cherished it. She lost Jerry in three blocks and then headed for the shelter.
Burgundy House was located just off Grand Avenue. It was a large statuesque house built by a banker in the late eighteen-hundreds and had gone through several transformations before becoming a shelter for battered women. In the early 1950s it had been converted into apartments. Later, it became a real estate office, then a series of other offices and then a boutique. In 2007, after almost dying from gunshot wounds inflicted by her husband, Michelle Knutson bought the house and turned it into a shelter. She spent every penny she had to convert it back into a real house and was fighting to come up with the funds to keep it in operation. A large hardware chain had donated several dozen cans of unsold burgundy paint, hence the name.
Linda found a parking space two doors down from the shelter, got out of the car and walked around to meet Cathy, who stumbled as she got out of the car. Linda took her arm and led her along the sidewalk and up the stairs. A young woman Linda didn't recognize was sitting behind the desk. She was short and plump with ink-black hair, a nose ring, a ring through each eyebrow, and a row of tiny earrings that lined the edge of her right ear. A single earring in her left ear gave her face a lopsided look.
"Would you like to see a doctor?" she asked.
Cathy shook her head and looked at the floor, as if afraid to speak.
"I think she just needs a little time to herself. This is Cathy Wells and my name's Linda Morgan. Michelle's expecting us."
"Right. We have a room for her. And I'll tell Michelle you're here."
"All right," Linda agreed. She watched as the woman led Cathy away, then she went over to one of the three couches that dominated the room and sat down. Along with the metal desk there were several bookshelves filled with paperbacks, a fireplace, and two wooden chairs.
A portrait of Michelle, done by a former shelter resident, hung on one wall. It showed a strong-featured woman, seated on an antique divan in front of a fireplace. Tall and slender with graying hair, a long straight nose, brooding eyes, and a warm smile, she appeared to be the benevolent mother figure. At first glance it looked as if a fire was burning in the fireplace behind Michelle. Upon closer inspection, the logs were transformed into stick figures of men roasting in the flames, and demons emerged from the andirons, laughing at the obvious pain being inflicted upon the men. Michelle once told Linda that the woman who painted the picture had been sexually abused by her father and two brothers. They had later died in a house fire, and although she had never been convicted, or even charged with anything, Michelle suspected the artist had set the fire herself.
Michelle ran into the room, rushing to greet Linda. She wore a green flowery dress and moved awkwardly on her heels.
"Thanks," Michelle blushed. "I'm sorry, Linda, but my meeting is running longer than I expected. I was hoping to sit and talk for awhile."
"You didn't have to leave your meeting. I would have understood."
"I know, I know," Michelle said as she hugged Linda. "But we needed a break anyway. I think Neibolt Companies is going to donate enough to keep us running for the next six months and pay off the back mortgage payments. The bank's tried to be understanding, but there's a limit. How about if we get together for lunch next week?"
"Sounds good," Michelle agreed. "Can you give me a call Monday or Tuesday to set a time and place?"
"Sure," Linda said. "Now you'd better get back to your meeting."
"I can't tell you how much I appreciate your dropping everything to help out like this," Michelle said.
"I wish I had the time to do more, but after today I may opt for a police escort when I go to pick someone up. Now get back in there. I'll call you Monday."
With a whirl Michelle swept away from Linda and out of the room, leaving Linda feeling guilty. As busy as Linda was with her job, she knew Michelle was busier. As she left the shelter, Linda vowed she would find more time to help out.
Linda checked her watch as she pulled away, saw it was after one o'clock, and realized she was hungry. She drove to a McDonalds two blocks away, pulled up to the drive-through window, ordered a Big Mac combo, and headed back to the office.
Terri Dane, Linda's office mate, looked up from her desk when Linda walked into the office. "I let Vicki know you'd be out for awhile. She reminded me you had a meeting set for this afternoon. About a half hour ago."
"Shit," Linda tossed her purse on the desk and shook her head. "I forgot. I'd better get down there."
"No need," Terri said. "I told her you might be a little late and she rescheduled for the morning. Nine a.m."
"You're a life saver Terri. How can I ever repay you?"
"Tomorrow night-dancing. Remember?"
Linda cringed. Terri had been trying to convince her to go Country Dancing with her for a couple of weeks now, and Linda vaguely remembered giving her a tentative maybe, if nothing else comes up, answer for the coming weekend.
"I never promised," Linda said. "I said maybe."
"You need to get out and meet someone," Terri said. "It's been more than six months since your divorce."
"Is this an attempt to set me up?" Linda asked.
"I wouldn't do that," Terri turned back to her computer and made an effort not to look at Linda. "But I would consider it a personal favor if you'd come. You owe me."
Linda hesitated. Two months earlier, when another friend had been forced to cancel on a camping trip to the Boundary Waters canoe area, Terri had filled in. They'd had a great time, but Linda knew Terri would have preferred a nice motel to a tent and canoe. "All right, I'll go," Linda said. "But no match making. Where were you thinking of going?"
"There's a country bar in Cottage Grove called The Roundup. It's huge. The music's great, and best of all the place is packed with good-looking guys in tight jeans. They wear cute little hats, and they like to dance. What more could a girl ask for?"
"No way, Terri," Linda shook her head and pushed her hands out in front of her. "I don't know how to dance to that stuff. I've done a little ballroom dancing, but even that was back when I was in college. Now I trip over my own feet when I walk fast."
"Hey, I never thought I'd like it either," Terri said. "Tom got me out there and taught me a few steps. I love it. Just think about doing the Fox Trot to Alan Jackson's 'Chattahoochee'. And you can always come out early for the free line dance lesson. Then you'll be able to say you can Country Dance."
"I don't know," Linda said. She could feel her resistance fading as she tossed out another feeble excuse. "Cowboy dancing doesn't interest me all that much. And the thought of sitting alone all night watching others dance is not my idea of a great night out."
"You won't sit around by yourself, I guarantee it," Terri said, trying to sell Linda on the evening. "The way you look, those long legs and that beautiful blonde hair of yours, you'll have the guys lined up to teach you the Two-Step. Do you own a pair of boots?"
"No, Terri, I don't."
"It doesn't matter," Terri said. "Just throw on a pair of flat shoes with leather bottoms. Black if you have them, and not too loose. You don't want to lose them while you're dancing."
"What's wrong with tennis shoes?" Linda asked, as she realized that she had been out maneuvered.
"You ever try dancing in tennis shoes, hon, let's get real now. And wear a pair of tight jeans; it'll drive the men wild."
"And if I agree to this, you won't do anything to embarrass me, right?" Linda asked.
"Linda, what would I do to embarrass you?"
"Act like little Miss Matchmaker, maybe. I still remember that blind date you fixed up for me."
"Look," Terri said. "I've apologized for that guy several times. Besides, he was a friend of Tom's and I thought I was doing all three of you a favor."
"I'm assuming Tom will be there."
"Not likely," Trish said.
"Last I heard Tom was Mister Wonderful."
"I know what you're thinking, Linda. I did believe he was the one, but he met this big-breasted babe. At the bowling alley, if you can believe it. Who goes bowling anymore for Christ's sake? I didn't do the dumping this time."
"I'm sorry Terri."
"Don't be," Terri said. She drew her lips together into a pout and lifted her eyebrows. "Just come along tomorrow night. I could use the company. And I promise. No matchmaking." She raised her hand in a silent oath and Linda laughed.
"Give me directions," Linda said. "I'll meet you there. But I mean it. I find my own dance partners or I leave. I don't need your help finding a man, Terri."
Terri smiled across the room, a look meant to calm Linda's fears. But something in the tilt of her head and the look in her eyes made Linda wish she had stuck to her guns and bowed out.
"Let's get back to work." Linda said. She sighed and as the phone rang she turned back to face her desk.
It was almost eight o'clock by the time Linda pulled into the garage. As she closed the garage door, she looked around at her small yard and sighed. A week of summer rain had spurred the lawn to ragged heights, added unwanted greenery to her vegetable garden, and appeared to have washed off the last vestige of paint from the garage. She realized that if she didn't take some time off work to catch up around the house, the tasks would become insurmountable.
The worst thing was she liked working around the house. Linda suspected she was becoming too wrapped up in her job, that it was consuming too much of her energy, but she couldn't seem to help herself. She often arrived home like tonight, teetering between exhaustion, exasperation, and anger toward the emotional vampires that preyed upon those desperate for relief from the demons that tormented their thoughts and actions.
Linda owned a small thirty-year-old house, four blocks from Lake Harriet. She enjoyed living in Minneapolis. In the summer thousands of joggers, skaters, and bicyclists circled the lake like ants without direction. And while the deep penetrating Minnesota winter kept many of those people inside watching television, she often joined the hardy ones as they moved about on ice skates and cross-country skis.
Linda felt comfortable and secure in her neighborhood. She entered her house, set down her briefcase, and kicked off her shoes before going into the living room to switch on the television. She had noticed that South Pacific was on cable, and she was looking forward to being able to sit and enjoy it. The movie was just starting as she walked into the kitchen and checked to make sure she had the makings for a Greek salad.
The kitchen was compact and neat. She had refinished the cupboards herself after her divorce, and a new refrigerator had added to the feeling that the house was hers alone. As Linda listened to the opening sounds of the movie, she cut up two tomatoes, half a cucumber, a couple of green onions, and the remains of a red pepper before sprinkling on a generous helping of feta cheese. She topped her salad with olives, poured on some olive oil, and went out to watch the movie.
She passed up the couch and set the plate down next to the recliner. The chair was older, but well padded, the most comfortable chair she had ever owned. After a quick glance at the movie, Linda returned to the kitchen and cleaned up her mess. She then poured a glass of milk, took out a couple of ice cubes and dropped them into the glass, and walked back into the living room where she could enjoy her meal and the movie.
As Linda ate her dinner, she was unaware of the dark figure that sat watching her house from a parked car across the street. After awhile, the driver got out of the car and strolled around the block, paying careful attention to the alley entrances and counting the number of houses between the end of the block and Linda's house. When he had finished his walk, he climbed back into the car and watched her house until well after dark. When the lights went out and he was convinced Linda was asleep, the watcher started his car, put it in gear, and rolled away, his eyes glued to Linda's house until he turned the corner and it passed from view.
Friday morning Linda arrived early at her office for her nine o'clock meeting with her supervisor, Vicki Roberts. Linda wanted to discuss several of the cases she felt should be forwarded to the Attorney General's Office.
"You look terrible," Vicki greeted Linda as she walked into her office. Vicki was short and slightly overweight, with a mop of premature gray hair she didn't bother to color, smoke-stained teeth, and deep green eyes that Linda often thought were too bright to be real. After ten years in private practice she had quit her job and gone to work for the State of Minnesota. She once told Linda that before they could graduate from law school, all students were required to sign a pact with the devil-their souls for wealth. She claimed she took a job with the state because it was the closest thing she could find to what she imagined purgatory would be like, and she wanted to redeem her soul.
"Gee thanks," Linda set the files on the corner of Vicki's desk and sat down. "I do feel a bit worn out today. I should be able to catch up on my sleep this weekend."
"You're not working tomorrow?" Vicki asked.
"Not if I can help it. I've worked the last three Saturdays and my lawn looks like hell. Unless you've got something I need to do."
Vicki shook her head. "Ben came into my office yesterday and said he had to have a rundown of all our cases by Monday. I told him you could have them for him by the end of next week."
Ben Philips, the department director, had a habit of waiting until the last minute to let them know when he needed something, and after several years of hurry up and wait, Vicki and Linda had learned how to handle him.
"Thanks," Linda adjusted her body in the chair and reached for the stack of files. "I brought the files you wanted to see."
"I won't have time to go over all of them today so why don't you give me a brief run down on the ones you wanted to discuss."
Linda flipped through the folders on her lap, drew out the files she needed, and handed the others across the desk to Vicki. She waited while Vicki stuck them in a file drawer, then began.
"The first is David Binard. I received a complaint from the sister of a woman who died in a car accident in Ely." Linda opened the top file and scanned her notes. "The woman's name is Diane Hougland. Two days before she died, Diane signed her house over to Binard. According to the sister he had been her therapist for over a year. The sister swears that he murdered Diane."
"Did you talk to the police?" Vicki asked. She rocked back in her chair, stared at the ceiling, and waited for Linda to go on.
Despite the pose, Linda knew Vicki was following every word.
"I talked to someone in the sheriff's department. They say there's no doubt it was an accident. It was late at night; Diane had been to several bars and had a one-point-four alcohol content."
"So what's the problem?"
Linda shrugged her shoulders. "Diane's sister claims that Binard hypnotized Diane and told her to drive her car off the road. The sister also mentioned that Diane was having an affair with Binard."
"You buy the hypnosis bit," Vicki asked.
"No," Linda admitted. "Everything I've read about hypnosis suggests a person will not go against their own wishes or beliefs while under. Still, she did sign the house over to David. I suppose it's possible she had a death wish and his suggestions spurred her on."
"What does Binard say?"
"My letters come back marked refused, and his phone is picked up by a machine. I did get hold of his wife. She told me Binard moved to Texas, but he still has a Minnesota driver's license. I can't find any proof he's moved. The post office still shows his address in Duluth, and the authorities in Texas tell me they have no records of a David Binard in their state."
"What do you want to do about it?"
"I'd like to set up a case conference," Linda said. "Even if he didn't kill the woman, we need to question him about the sexual relationship, and I have a problem with her giving him the house." Linda shifted forward in her chair and continued. "If he shows up we'll see what he has to say. If not, I think we should revoke his right to practice based on non-cooperation."
"All right," Vicki held out her hand and took the file from Linda, setting it in front of her. "What else?"
"Vincent Haleron. We fined him five thousand dollars and revoked his right to provide therapy. He hasn't paid us anything, and I just received another complaint. From a woman who claims she was seeing him for therapy, and he tried to convince her to remove her clothing and exchange massages. For therapeutic purposes." Linda handed this file to Vicki and sat back in her chair.
"What do you want to do with this one?" Vicki asked.
"I think it needs to be turned over to the Department of Revenue for collections, and since it looks like he's still practicing, we need to have the Attorney General's Office review this and see what we can do to stop him."
"All right," Vicki agreed. "What about this Jeff Danials case?"
"Nothing to tell right now." Linda stood and gathered her notes. "If I don't come up with something concrete in the next week or so I'm going to have to drop the investigation."
"You'd better hold on to the file then." Vicki pushed back her chair, stood, and stepped around her desk to stand in front of Linda. "By the way, I got a note here from Human Resources. You've reached your maximum vacation limit. If you don't take some time off soon you're going to start losing it. You've been working too hard lately, Linda."
"I just took a vacation last month," Linda pointed out. "Terri and I went canoeing up in the Boundary Waters, remember?"
"You took four days over Memorial Day weekend because I wouldn't let you work on the holiday. It's been two years since you took a real vacation."
"As soon as I wrap up the Jeff Danials' investigation. I promise."
"Two weeks," Vicki said.
"What do you mean?" Linda demanded.
"You have two weeks, and then I'm putting you down for two weeks vacation."
"I can't promise to wrap it up by then," Linda insisted.
"I'm not kidding." Vicki turned aside to let Linda out of her office. "This is not an option. You won't be any good to anyone if you burn yourself out."
"I'm not burnt out," Linda said under her breath as she walked out of the office. She knew it would do no good to argue with Vicki. Besides, it might be nice to take a few days off, she admitted to herself as she walked back to her office.
Back at her desk, Linda opened the Jeff Danials file. She tried calling both of the women involved in the case and came up with a disconnected number for Grace Kelly and an answering machine for Denise Johnson. After leaving a message for Denise to call her, Linda picked up her purse and turned to Terri.
"I'm going out for a little while. I'm not having any luck reaching either of these women on the phone. I've got one number here that's been disconnected so I'm heading out to see if she's still at the address I show."
"What's so pressing about this case? Why don't you just send out a letter and see what happens?" Terri asked without looking up from her computer screen.
"Been there, done that. About three months ago. I had an appointment to meet with this woman with the disconnected number, Grace Kelly. She never showed up for our meeting. There's something about Jeff Danials that bothers me. He scared me when I went out to interview him. Besides, I need to get out for a little while, and I might as well make my time productive. I'll be back in a couple of hours."
The address Linda had for Grace was in an area of the city known for its gang problems. A small section of decay, that was eating its way outward a block at a time. As she drove up to the apartment complex, Linda couldn't help but wonder if Minneapolis was doomed to follow in the footsteps of other large cities throughout the country, gradually giving way to the modern pestilence of crime and poverty.
Linda parked as close to the entrance of the building as she could, and after making sure that her car was locked, she moved up the stairs and through a battered door propped open with a rock. The apartment was on the entry level at the end of a short, stained hallway. Linda wrinkled her nose at the festering odor of the building and knocked. She waited, and then knocked again before taking a card and a pen from her purse. She wrote a brief note asking Grace to call her and slid it under the door. As she turned to leave, the door across the hall opened.
"You with the welfare people?" a young girl asked. She was too young, too thin, and wore her jeans low on the hips. Her white midriff blouse revealed a belly ring and the upper edges of a tattoo above her left breast. A beautiful toddler dressed only in a diaper stood behind her, holding onto her leg for balance.
"No, I'm not. Sorry."
"They ain't home today," the girl said in a high, coarse voice. The baby climbed down from her leg and crawled back into the room.
"Do you know Grace?" Linda asked.
"No Grace here. Just Marcia and her two babies. Sometimes her baby daddy stay there too."
"I thought Grace Kelly lived here."
"She's dead," the girl said. "Jessie, you get back here." She looked back at the baby then said to Linda, "I gotta go."
"Wait a minute," Linda took a step forward as the door began to close. "When did she die? What happened?"
"She killed herself. I don't know nothin' else," the girl said. "You a cop?"
"No," Linda said. "But I do work for the Health Department. Is there anything else you can tell me?"
"You could maybe ask the manager," the girl said. "She's in the 210 building," she added, as she swung the door shut.
Unlike the first building, 210 had new carpeting and carried the faint scent of fresh paint. The woman who opened the door was about fifty with blonde hair. She smelled of potent perfume and cigarette smoke. Her lime green dress clashed with her purple eye liner and dark lipstick and pulled at her hips and stomach when she moved.
"Can I help you?" she asked.
"Yes," Linda said. "If you have a couple of minutes, I'd like to talk to you about one of your previous tenants."
"You a cop?" she asked.
"That seems to be the sixty-four thousand dollar question around here," Linda said. The woman stepped back from the door, and Linda followed her across the room. She stopped at a table where a cigarette was burning and picked it up before turning toward Linda.
"What do you mean?" she asked.
"Nothing," Linda said. "I'm not a cop. I'm from the Health Department. I just wanted to ask you a couple of questions."
"We were just inspected. Don't tell me we got another complaint."
"I don't deal in that end of the department," Linda assured her. She took a card out of her purse and handed it to the woman who stuck it in her pocket without reading it. "I was looking for Grace Kelly," she added. "Her neighbor told me she was dead and I wanted to make sure we were talking about the same person. I'm afraid I didn't get your name."
"Betty." She sucked on her cigarette, coughed, and stubbed it into an overflowing ashtray. "You can sit down if you want. I don't know that I can help you much. About two months ago Grace took an overdose and killed herself. I was kind of surprised. We were getting to be sort of friendly. I mean, we both went to the same AA group and sometimes we went out for coffee. I never thought she'd kill herself, but hey, she led a tough life."
Linda remained standing, frustrated by the dead end road her investigation was headed down. "Thanks," she said. "I have to get going. I was hoping the girl was wrong about Grace."
"You might check with the police," Betty said. "I told them what I told you, but they didn't seem to have any doubt she did herself in." She shrugged her shoulders and reached down for her pack of cigarettes.
Linda returned to her car, her frustration mounting as she reviewed her case. She had one client that was dead and another who didn't respond to her letters and refused to return her calls. She had a therapist whose only fault she was sure of was that he made her feel uncomfortable. She sighed. That ought to hold up in a court of law, she thought.
Linda signaled to turn onto Cedar, checked behind her and couldn't believe her eyes. Three cars back, behind a black Cadillac, was a rusted pickup truck. Sunlight reflected from its surface, hiding the color from her, but it sure looked familiar. Son of a bitch, Linda thought. She switched off her turn signal and merged back into the flow of traffic, shifting her eyes between the road ahead and the truck behind her. It moved back one car further from her, and she still couldn't make out the color. The thought that Jerry was following her made Linda angry. She decided she'd lead him on a merry trip, right to the front door of the St. Paul Police Department.
They had driven two blocks when the pickup made a sudden left turn, allowing Linda to see that, although the front right fender of the truck was red like Jerry's, the side panels were rust free and painted green. A restoration in progress and not Jerry's after all, she realized. With a sigh of relief Linda turned down the next street and proceeded toward the parking ramp and the haven of her office.
She took one more glance behind her and shook her head. I must need a vacation, she thought as she stared at the black Cadillac that had taken up the position vacated by the truck. "Not only am I seeing red pickups everywhere I look," she muttered, "even that Caddy looks like the one following me yesterday. I must be getting paranoid in my old age."
"Any luck?" Terri asked as Linda walked into the office and set her purse and briefcase on the desk.
Linda filled her in about Grace's death and picked up a package from her desk. It was about four inches square and wrapped in brown paper. "What's this?"
"Tina dropped it off a little while ago." Tina was their receptionist, typist, and general couldn't-do-without person. "She said it came in by private courier a little while ago. Who's it from?"
Linda turned the package over, looked at both ends and said, "No return address." She set it back on her desk and sat down.
"Aren't you going to open it?" Terri asked. As she spoke she gathered up some papers and stuffed them into her top drawer. "I'm going to take off a little early today. Get a good start on the weekend."
Linda looked over her shoulder and smiled at her officemate. "So what else is new? And since when do you tell me when you're leaving early? I take it that's a hint you want to know what's in the package."
"I'm shocked that you could think such a thing," Terri said. She came out from behind her desk and stood next to Linda's chair. "Maybe it's from an admirer."
"Not likely." Linda hesitated for a moment, then took a letter opener from her desk and reached for the package. "Maybe you should get behind your desk in case it explodes."
"Don't be ridiculous." Terri laughed, but took an involuntary step away from Linda. "Just open the thing."
"All right." Linda slipped the point of the opener into the paper, made a big enough rip to push her fingers in, tore off the paper in one swipe, and opened the box it had covered. Inside, set in a bed of black velvet, was a piece of clear quartz. It was about three inches tall and an inch in diameter and peaked in jagged point. Linda turned the box over and let the crystal fall into her hand. At the same time a small piece of paper fluttered from the box and fell to the floor at Terri's feet.
"Here," Terri stooped and picked up the slip of paper. "What's it say?"
Linda put the crystal back in the box, pushed it to the corner of her desk, and took the note from Terri. "It says, 'I hope this crystal will help you to relax and focus your energy. It's been a lifesaver for me.' It's signed, 'Jeff'."
"Who the hell's Jeff?" Terri demanded. "Is there a new man in your life I haven't heard about?"
Linda folded the note once, then again, and reached across the desk to tuck it in the box alongside the crystal. "No," she said with a shake of her head. "I'm sure it's from Jeff Danials, the therapist I interviewed yesterday. He was playing with a crystal just like this the entire time I was talking to him."
"A little weird if you ask me." Terri picked up her purse and briefcase. She started for the door and then turned to face Linda again. "You won't forget your promise to come out dancing tonight, will you?"
"I said I'll be there and I will," Linda said. "Don't worry."
"All right. I'll see you tonight," Terri said.
With Terri gone the office took on an eerie silence. Linda picked up the box and stared at the crystal, wondering what had possessed Jeff to send it to her. If he thought she would drop her investigation, he was dead wrong. If she had one goal in life it was to stop the human vultures that fed on the troubled souls who sought them out hoping to find peace within themselves.
Most of the victims Linda came into contact with were women looking to understand the pain that drove them. Many were lonely as well as depressed, had often been abused as children, and lived in a state of perpetual unrest. All they wanted was someone to lift the veil of darkness that clung to them like a dark shadow.
The most vulnerable people often turned to charlatans and con artists who thought nothing of stealing their hearts as well as their money. The therapist listened as the client opened up to them, discussing their fears and needs. Armed with the client's own demons, it was easy to take advantage of them. Many of the therapists looked at sex as the ultimate power trip. They tended to think the world revolved around them. True, there were many good therapists out there, but they weren't the ones Linda heard about.
With a shudder Linda closed the box, opened the bottom drawer of her desk and tossed the crystal to the back, slamming the drawer shut as if it was alive and might attack her. Linda straightened in her chair, took a deep breath, and jumped when the phone rang. She let it ring twice, considered leaving it, and then picked it up.
"Hello," Linda answered the phone. "This is Linda Morgan."
"Hi Linda, this is Sammy Davis. How are you today?"
Linda sighed. "I'm fine Sammy. What can I do for you today?" Sam Davis was one of her regular callers and a patient at Saint Peter Regional Treatment Center. He had been committed by the court and was considered mentally unfit to live by himself. Linda suspected he knew there was nothing she could do for him and that his monthly calls were more from loneliness than necessity. She didn't have the heart to tell him to stop calling.
"I think they're bugging me, Linda. I found one of the critters this morning."
"You mean they're listening to your phone calls?" Linda asked.
"No, no," he said, excitement building in his voice. "I don't have anything that interesting to say. I found a cockroach under my bed. It's pretty gross."
"Maybe this is something I should refer to the client advocate," Linda said. "There's nothing I can do about your cockroach."
There was a pause while Sammy thought about what she had said, then he blurted out, "You don't need to do that Linda, I'm getting out today. I'm going to be living with my brother in Minneapolis. I thought maybe tomorrow we could meet for coffee at that Starbucks near where you work."
"How do you know where I work, Sammy?"
"I Googled you. Did you know you can look up people's addresses and everything?"
Linda felt the hairs on her arms rise, as if an electric wand had been waved over her body. "I don't think that's such a good idea, Sammy." She considered her next words.
"We have rules against seeing our clients." Linda held her breath and waited for his reply. Maybe she had made a mistake taking his calls after all, but she felt sorry for him and hadn't seen any reason not to take his occasional calls.
"I was looking forward to meeting you," he said. Linda thought she could hear the disappointment in his voice as he continued. "Can I at least call you?"
"I'm sorry Sammy, but I don't think so."
"You're just like all of the others," he said in a loud voice. "I thought you were different," he added, and then he slammed the phone down.
After all that had happened that day the call spooked her more than she would have expected. As Linda sat in the stillness of her office she became aware for the first time that the outer corridor had purged itself of workers.
When Terri left Linda had closed the door to the office. Now Linda felt as if the walls were closing in around her. Her heart raced like an out of control motor and beads of sweat formed on her forehead.
Linda, recognizing her claustrophobia for what it was, jumped up, grabbed her purse and briefcase, and ran from the office. She gasped as she stepped into the main office suite and almost collided with Vicki.
"Are you all right?" Vicki asked.
"Sorry," Linda said. "I needed some fresh air. Are you on your way out?"
"Yep. Come on, I'll walk out to the garage with you." Vicki slipped past Linda and led the way through the deserted offices.
A gentle rain began to fall as Linda pulled into the parking lot at The Roundup. She was already beginning to regret her decision to meet Terri. A quiet evening at home with the fire going, a glass of red wine, and maybe Billie Holiday on the stereo was more in line with what she was in the mood for. Oh well, she thought as she parked her car, I never promised to stay late.
He watched her walk through the parking lot and cursed. He wanted her at home where she belonged, waiting for him to come to her. Now he would have to wait, but he promised himself she would be punished for her indiscretion. He sat for over an hour as the parking lot filled, and the people walking through the lot trickled down to an occasional straggler. Satisfied, he reached into the glove box, took out a screwdriver, and slid out of the car. He strolled over to her car. After making sure that no one was watching, he bent over the rear driver's side wheel and plunged the screwdriver into the tire. He straightened and moved over to the passenger side where he repeated his actions before walking back to his car. As he climbed in he smiled and considered what he would do next.
The heavy beat of country music reached out from the open doors of the club and seemed to hang suspended in the dark, moist night air. Linda's first thoughts were of disbelief. The building was immense, the music lively, the crowd animated. Inside, the massive dance floor wrestled with the long curved bar as a gathering place. Tables and chairs were packed around the floor and in most of the open spaces. They all appeared full, yet hundreds of bodies stood about, filling every void.
In the center of the dance floor, forty or fifty men and women moved in unison, twisting, turning, and stomping their feet like soldiers on parade. Line dancers, Linda realized. Along the outer perimeter of the floor, scores of couples moved in a giant circle. Young and old, some clumsy, others refined, they spun and raced to the tempo of the music. About half the men wore cowboy hats, jeans with big belt buckles, and boots. Some wore t-shirts while others strutted about like peacocks, attired in shirts too gaudy for the light of day.
The women wore whatever they pleased. Linda saw everything from leather to frill. Skirts and blouses, many midriff cut, seemed to be the mainstay. Thrown into the mix were jeans, shorts, and even a couple of evening gowns.
"I didn't think you were going to make it," a voice at her side gave Linda a start. She turned to face a wildly different Terri. She had on a short red skirt that was gathered around the bottom. Her blouse was white and ruffled and showed off much of her trim, muscled stomach. Her boots were white, and a red cowboy hat finished up her costume. Linda shook her head.
"What?" Terri asked as her hands went to her hat. "Is something wrong?"
"No," Linda said. "It's just that this is a side of you I haven't seen before. You look great though. How the hell did you find me in this crowd?"
"We're right over there." Terri pointed to the table closest to the door where three women and two men sat. The women were watching the dancers on the floor while the men had their heads bent forward and were talking.
"I've been watching for you," Terri said. She took Linda's hand and continued, "You missed the line dance lesson, and I thought you might not be coming."
"I told you I'd be here," Linda said. Around her the noise level was loud and steady, like the din of a powerful waterfall, while the scent of sweaty bodies and a melee of colognes and perfumes pressed at her from all sides.
"Meet the gang," Terri said. She led Linda over to the table. "Linda, this is Lynette, Leslie, Julie, Rich, Nate," Terri moved her hand in a clockwise motion, indicating who went with what name. Everyone nodded their greetings as Terri pulled a chair from the next table and made room for Linda.
"Isn't Nate the cutest thing you ever saw," Terri whispered in Linda's ear as she sat down. "I just met him tonight, but I've been watching him for weeks. I can't help but wonder if he makes love as well as he dances. Of course the way I see it, dancing's nothing more than vertical sex anyway. Don't you think?"
Linda laughed. "I never looked at it quite that way, Terri."
"Just watch Nate when he gets out on the dance floor." Terri stood, scooted over to his chair, took his hand and pulled him to his feet.
Linda watched as Terri dragged him out to the dance floor. She had to admit he was good looking, and it was obvious what Terri had meant as Nate led her around the dance floor.
Across the table Linda could feel the eyes of the other man studying her. She searched her mind until she came up with his name, Rich. He smiled a lopsided smile and nodded at her. She smiled back. He's not bad looking, she thought. Linda's smile faded as he reached for his beer can and spit a stream of tobacco juice into it. She fought to keep a look of disgust from her face. Without hesitation she turned away and wondered what she would say if he asked her to dance.
As the song began to wind down Linda felt a gentle touch on her shoulder. She looked up. Towering over her was the pleasant, creased face of a cowboy. His smile was flanked by two large dimples, which were almost hidden beneath a full black beard. His hazel eyes were charged with energy and appeared to change hue with the beat of the music.
"Linda?" he asked.
"Do I know you?"
"Doug Worthington," he said. Her eyes remained blank as he took off his hat, revealing a nearly bald head. With a quick motion he brushed a hand across his hairy face. "Take away the beard."
Linda stared for a moment, and then smiled her recognition. "You work for the Attorney General's Office," she said. "We worked on a case together about a year and a half ago. I'm sorry I didn't recognize you right away." Out of the corner of her eye she could see that Rich was watching them with a frown on his face, and Linda knew that she had been rescued.
"Don't worry about it. Nobody recognizes me anymore. I grew the beard while I was on vacation last fall. When I got home my dog bit me, my mother refused to have me over for Thanksgiving dinner, and my boss insisted that I let myself be fingerprinted before I was allowed back to work."
Linda laughed. "And you don't think your tall tales might have more to do with their reactions than your looks?"
"Perhaps," he admitted. "Would you like to dance?" he asked as the music started up again.
Linda bit her lower lip and blushed. "I've never danced to this kind of music," she said. "I wouldn't have the faintest idea where to begin."
"Have you ever done a Fox Trot?" he asked.
"Sure. I took some ballroom lessons in college."
"No sweat. A Two-Step is just a Texas Fox Trot. Slow, slow, quick, quick. A Three-Step is nothing more than a Polka. A Waltz is a Waltz, and a Swing is the same in Ballroom, Rock and Roll, or Country Dancing. That's a Two-Step they're playing right now. Want to give it a try?"
"As long as you don't complain if I step on your feet."
"I'm pretty quick on my feet, so I'm willing to take a chance. If it's any consolation, I can almost guarantee I won't step on yours."
"All right," Linda agreed. "I'll give it a try." She stood and Doug took her hand. Linda thought he must have radar as he made his way around, through, and between the groups of people gathered along the dance floor.
Doug guided her to the beat of the music and led her through several easy turns. Linda had always admired good dancers, and she was enjoying herself. After their third dance, he again took her hand, and they walked off the dance floor. To Linda's surprise she was breathing hard, while Doug seemed as fresh as when they had started.
"How about a drink?" he asked. "It gets real hot in here when you're dancing."
"Sure," Linda agreed. When they were back at the table she asked, "Do you know Terri?"
"We've met," Doug said. Terri looked up and smiled.
"Was this a setup?" Linda asked. She dropped Doug's hand and took her seat. Terri turned away as Linda glared across the table at her.
"Of course not," Terri said. "Won't you sit down, Doug?" she added. "Linda can be a little rude at times, but she's nice once you get to know her."
"Terri." Linda looked away as she felt herself turning red.
"I swear, Linda. I had no idea Doug was going to be here or that he'd ask you to dance."
"Is there something I'm missing here?" Doug asked. "I can leave if you'd prefer."
"No." Linda and Terri said together. They laughed.
"Linda has accused me of being a busybody and trying to fix her up." Terri explained. "I'm afraid she has a suspicious mind. I think it goes with the job, we're all trained to be that way."
"It's only because I know you," Linda pointed out.
"I'm sure that you don't need anybody to play matchmaker for you," Doug said. He turned his attention to Linda and continued. "She's telling the truth. I didn't even know you were with her. She wasn't around when I came up and asked you to dance. Remember?"
"All right," Linda said. "I apologize to the both of you." She grinned at Doug, and then shot a hard look at Terri meant to show that she wasn't convinced.
"What do you want to drink?" Doug asked as he pushed back his chair and stood up.
"A light beer will be fine," she said.
Doug smiled. "I like a woman who drinks beer. I've never been able to trust a woman who orders mixed drinks. My experience has been they either drink too much, or tend to put on airs."
"I'll remember that," Linda said. As Doug faded into the crowd surrounding the bar she turned to confront her friend.
"Terri, I want to know. Did you set this up?"
Terri focused her attention on Linda and smiled. "Doug's a good-looking guy. Do you like him?"
"What does that have to do with anything?"
"A lot I'd think," Terri said. "But enough chatter. Here comes Doug."
Linda glanced over her shoulder to see Doug making his way through the crowd, a beer in each hand, one with a glass turned over the neck. When she looked back at Terri, she was talking with her male friend and making an obvious effort to ignore Linda.
Doug set the glass and one of the bottles in front of her and sat down. "Is this the first time you've been out here?" he asked.
Linda nodded. She poured beer in her glass and took a sip. "Like I said, I've never country danced before. To be honest, I'm not that fond of country music. This has been fun though. Nothing like I expected."
"And what did you expect? Fist fights in the corner. Maybe a little chewing tobacco mixed with sawdust on the floor?"
"I don't know," Linda admitted. "Maybe."
He smiled. "See that fellow over there?" Doug pointed to a tall, thin man standing against the bar talking with a striking blonde woman. He wore a white hat, a colorful red and white shirt, and was sipping from a long-necked bottle of beer. "He's CEO of one of the biggest privately owned companies in the twin cities, and the girl he's with has done several television commercials for Dayton's. The woman in the corner with the short white dress and a little too much stomach showing, she's a high bucks lawyer. This is yuppie heaven, although you will find a good share of auto mechanics and bikers mixed in. Country dancing's not just for rednecks anymore."
"All right," Linda raised her hands in mock defense. "I'm convinced."
"Good. How about another dance? If you ballroom dance, you must do the East Coast Swing." He saw her look of doubt. "The old Lindy Swing is similar."
"It's been awhile," Linda admitted. "But yes, I can do the Lindy."
"Same thing," he assured her. "Shall we give it a try?"
"Why not?" Linda agreed. She took a final swallow from her glass for courage before following him out onto the dance floor.
For Linda, the rest of the evening was a blur of dancing, beer, and enjoyable conversation. She was surprised when last call for drinks was announced, and she realized that Terri and her new friend were gone.
"You could come over to my place for awhile," Doug suggested.
"I don't think so, Doug." Linda said. "It's tempting. And I've had a great time tonight." Linda shrugged her shoulders and smiled at him. "I know it may sound hokey, but I need to get to know you a little better."
"That's fine. Can I see you again?"
"What did you have in mind?" she asked.
"Do you sail?"
Linda shook her head. "It's something I've always wanted to try."
"How about if I give you a call the next nice day we have?" he asked. "We can go out for a sail and maybe do a little swimming."
"Sure." Linda reached into her purse and took out one of her business cards and a pen. "I'll write my home and cell numbers on the back of my card."
"At least let me walk you out to your car. I promise to be a perfect gentleman."
Linda grabbed her purse and stood up. "Let's go."
Doug reached over, picked up his bottle, drained the remaining beer, then reached for Linda's arm and led her through the near empty club and out into the parking lot.
"That's my car over there." Linda pointed.
"Absolutely gorgeous," Doug said. He let go of her hand as they approached the Mustang. "What is it, a sixty-seven?"
"It looks brand new," he said. As if it was a living thing, he reached over and stroked the hood.
"It only has twenty-five thousand miles on it," Linda said.
"No way. Where'd you find it?"
"It was my brother's pride and joy," Linda said. Her voice softened as she continued. "He died in the first Iraq War."
"I'm sorry," Doug said. He reached over and squeezed Linda's arm.
She smiled at the warmth of his gesture. "It seems so long ago. My father took it the hardest. He had plans for Bruce to take over the farm some day. Dad couldn't bear to sell the car, so he stuck it in the back of the barn and let it sit there. When dad died last year, mom gave it to me. It was covered with bird shit, and the damn field mice had practically built a city around the engine. I could have bought a new car for what it cost me to have it restored."
"I'm sure your brother would approve. A car like this is made to be driven, not stored."
"I agree," Linda hesitated, and then held out her hand. "It's been a fun evening. I'm looking forward to giving sailing a try."
"First nice day. I promise," Doug strolled around to the back of the car, and added, "But I'm afraid there's a little downfall to the evening."
"You have a flat tire."
"Oh shit," she said.
"That's odd," he continued around the car to where she was standing.
"What?" Linda asked
"Both of the back tires are flat."
Linda joined Doug and looked down at the two flat tires. "That's a pain in the ass. I must have driven over something on my way here." Reaching into her purse she added, "I'll call AAA."
"Sounds good," Doug agreed. "We can wait in my car for the tow truck."
It was after three in the morning by the time Linda pulled her car into the garage. I need to get a light out here, she thought, as she moved along the dark walkway to her house.
The rain had stopped several hours earlier, but the humidity clung to her like a damp sack, and the air smelled of wet grass. She unlocked the back door and hurried in. Closing the door behind her, Linda switched on the kitchen light when the stench of tobacco smoke drifting through the kitchen tweaked her nose. She was not alone.
"I was beginning to think you wouldn't make it home tonight," the voice came from the living room and was deep and familiar. For a moment she felt relief, but as she took a step toward the intruder her relief turned to anger.
"What the hell are you doing here?" Linda's voice boomed like a shotgun in the confines of the kitchen. "And what made you think I wouldn't be home?"
The shadowy figure moved into the light of the kitchen. He'd let his hair grow, and it was tied back in a short ponytail. It was peppered with silver flecks, as was his beard.
"This is my house too, Linda. Or did you forget?" he said.
"I think you're forgetting, Jack. We're divorced. I got the house and you got the girl next door." She couldn't keep the sarcasm from her voice. She backed up against the door as Jack crossed the kitchen and stopped in front of her.
Linda turned her head away as the strong stench of alcohol mixed with his cologne reached her. "I see you didn't have any trouble finding the whiskey. And how the hell did you get in here anyway?"
"I can't believe you still leave a spare key under that planter. I told you when we first bought this house that it was a bad idea." Jack set his drink down on the table, smiled at Linda, and took a pack of cigarettes out of his shirt pocket. Linda knew Jack was waiting for her to react as he took a cigarette from the pack and reached for his matches.
"I don't allow smoking in my house, Jack. And I want you to leave right now."
"I forgot." Jack forced another smile. He returned the cigarette to the pack and shoved the pack and matches back into his pocket. "I think it was you who once told me the only thing worse than a religious zealot was a reformed smoker."
Linda flinched and she reached behind her for the doorknob as Jack inched closer to her. "I'll call the police," she said.
"I don't think so. You're there, I'm here, and the phone's in the other room."
"What do you want, Jack?"
"Ginny threw me out. I need a place to stay."
"You can't stay here, Jack." Linda bullied her way past him, swung her purse off of her shoulder, and dropped it onto the counter.
"I thought you'd be glad to see me." Jack picked up his glass, walked into the living room, and sat in the recliner. Linda followed, flipped on the light, and watched as he pushed the recliner back and stared up at the ceiling.
"No," she said. "I'm not glad."
"You didn't want me to leave."
"It hurt," Linda admitted. "At the time it felt like you cut me open with a knife, then jumped in and stomped on my heart."
"I didn't mean to hurt you." Jack looked over at Linda. "Sometimes shit happens."
"She was only eighteen, for Christ sake. Of course you hurt me."
He gave her a soulful, searching look. "I'm sorry."
She had always loved his eyes. When they first met she had been drawn to them. Large, gray and feline, his eyes had penetrated her more intensely than the hard, frantic rhythm of his lovemaking.
"You still care, don't you?" he asked.
"No. I've gotten over you." She reminded herself that she'd spent seven years being conned by this man. "I've moved on with my life." Linda felt her knees weaken, and she wanted to sit, but she was afraid that if she did, he would take it as an invitation.
"I don't believe you," he said.
"Believe it, Jack." Linda was glad that he was too far away to see the sweat on her forehead, to pierce her soul with those eyes. "Why did she throw you out?"
"It was her mother's fault." He reached for his cigarettes, remembered, rubbed the pack through his shirt pocket, and then pushed the chair down so that he was sitting forward. His shoulders bent as he rested his elbows on his knees. "She convinced Ginny that I'm no good for her. They slapped a restraining order on me and I need a place to stay. Just for a couple of days, Linda. I promise. As soon as I can find a place, I'll be out of here."
"You hit her?"
"I had a little too much to drink last night, and she pissed me off. I just slapped her around a little."
"You slapped me around once, Jack. I couldn't go into work for a week. I should have thrown you out then. It's taken me two years of therapy to realize that I wasn't the problem. You were. Come to think of it, didn't you blame it on having a little too much to drink that time too?"
"I don't drink as much as I used to," Jack spoke in a quiet, soothing voice. The bullshit voice, she used to call it.
"Nothing's changed, Jack." Linda looked from the glass on the table to the open liquor cabinet on the other end of the living room and shook her head. Her pulse quickened, pumping pent up venom through her and she added, "I mean it, you can't stay here. Not even one night." She turned from him and walked across the living room and into the hall that led to her bedroom.
"Where are you going?" Jack stood up. "You wouldn't do anything stupid like call the cops, would you hon? I don't need that shit right now."
"I'm going to change out of these jeans, then I'm going to fix myself a snack." She felt sad and empty as she moved away from him. "I'm hungry."
"Hey, great idea." Jack set his glass on the liquor cabinet and picked up a bottle of vodka. "It'll be like old times. I'll fix us both a drink while you're changing. You still like a vodka gimlet?"
"Jack," Linda stopped at the door to her bedroom. "You're not listening to me. I shouldn't be surprised. You never did listen worth a damn. I don't want a drink; I want you out of here by the time I've changed." Linda pulled the door closed behind her and fumbled for the light switch.
Linda hoped she could talk Jack into leaving, but as she crossed the hard wood floor to the bed, she heard the sound of bottles being shifted around in the liquor cabinet. She considered her options as she slipped off her jeans and top and then reached behind her back to unhook her bra.
She froze when the door opened. Out of the corner of her eye she saw his reflection in the full-length mirror that stood next to the closet. He was standing, staring at her, with a drink in each hand. The musk of his cologne, a favorite for as long as she had known him, filled the room and eased opened the heavy shutter to the past. She smiled for just a moment before realizing she'd made a mistake.
"You look great," his voice rose in a husky purr.
Linda watched in silent disbelief as he set the glasses on the nearby table and began to unbutton his shirt. The past beckoned for a moment, and then snapped away. She felt like a fool strapped to a bungee cord.
"You look like you've put on a few pounds, Jack." Linda felt a fleeting triumph as she saw Jack look down at himself and frown. "I thought I told you to get the hell out of my house."
"I know you still want me, Linda. I saw it in the living room, and I saw the way you were watching me in the mirror."
"I'll call the police."
"Are we going to go through this again? Believe me, Linda, this is just like the first time. You told me no then, too. Don't you remember?"
"I don't know what you're talking about." Linda moved over to her dresser and opened the top drawer while she kept her eyes on the mirror. She reached into the drawer, watching Jack's reflection as he dropped his pants, then fought the desire to laugh at the bold cartoon images on his boxer shorts. The idea of the Tasmanian devil protecting his manhood seemed absurd to her at the moment.
"That first night we made love. We had gone out to a club; I don't remember the name. We went back to your place, and when I started to take off your clothes, you told me to stop. You pushed me away at first, but then you gave in."
"The difference there, Jack, was that I wanted you then. I don't want you now." Linda shoved her hand deeper into the drawer, growing frantic as Jack closed in on her. The gentle cling of satin and rayon gave way to the callous rigidity of plastic and metal. Her fingers curled around the grip, and a shiver traveled up her arm as she pulled the pistol out of the drawer and turned to face Jack.
The gun came free of the drawer, dragging a pair of black panties along with it. Jack smiled when he saw the panties, and then stumbled toward the door when she shook the gun and the panties floated to the floor.
"This is the last time I'm going to tell you to get the hell out of my house, Jack," Linda said. Her initial nervousness gave way to exhilaration. For the first time in their relationship, she felt in control.
"What are you doing, Linda? You know you won't use that thing."
"You look pretty stupid, standing in the doorway like that, Jack. Why don't you put on your pants and get out of here before the temptation gets too great for me."
"I forgot you even had that thing. How long has it been since you last shot it? It's not very big. I don't think it would do a whole lot of damage, assuming you could even hit me with it. If I have to take it away from you, you're going to regret it."
"It was you who insisted that if I was going to own a gun, I had better learn to use it properly." Linda lowered the barrel of the gun and pointed it at the front of Jack's boxer shorts, then extended her arms while holding the gun in both hands. A slight smile grew on her face as she sighted along her arm to the tip of the gun. "You assured me that, under the right circumstances, this little gun can do a lot of damage. You even suggested that at this distance, I should shoot for the head if I wanted to kill someone. I don't want to kill you; I just want you to leave. And I'll even admit I haven't practiced in awhile. But be honest now, Jack. Do you want to find out if I can hit what I'm aiming at?"
"If you shoot me, you'll end up in jail. I know you wouldn't like that," Jack said. He tried to sound confident, but his voice cracked as he lowered his eyes to stare at the gun. He licked his lips, ran his tongue over his upper teeth, then stooped over and began to pull up his pants.
"I don't think that's how it would happen, Jack." As Linda took a small step toward him, the gun never wavered. "You're in my house, uninvited, and you just had a restraining order slapped on you for beating up your current girlfriend. Do you think the cops won't believe me when I tell them you were going to rape me?"
"I'd never do that."
"You're standing here, half naked in my bedroom, and I have to use a gun to get you out of my house. What would you call it?"
"Damn it all, Linda, we had a lot of good times together. We could again."
"I don't remember it that way. I remember a lot of nights when you came home drunk, waking me up, demanding sex. Of course, there were a lot of nights when you didn't come home at all. I won't even bring up the beating again. Those are not fond memories for me."
"There were some good times, too," he said.
"Not enough that I want you back."
"You've grown cold, Linda. Or do you just feel you're too good for me, now that you have a cushy job with the state and make more money than I do."
"You're such an ass, Jack. I don't give a damn about those things. I do think I'm a little wiser now. I know that I feel a lot older, and I'm more independent. I'd like a man in my life, but not you. Not someone who tries to control me. Maybe I won't find what I'm looking for, but I'm in charge of my life now, and that's how I like it."
"One more chance, Linda. That's all I ask." He smiled, half closed his eyes, and pouted. Linda laughed.
"You don't get it, do you, Jack? The truth is I'm tired of this whole goddamn conversation. I'm going to give you thirty seconds to get out of my house. If you don't, I'm going to shoot you." She took another small step toward him and drew a tiny circle in the air with the gun. "At this distance, I don't think I can miss. Maybe I'll let you bleed on the carpet for a couple of minutes before I call 911. I don't know whether you'll die or not, Jack. I'm not all that sure about how much damage this gun can do. But I know that you live for fucking. You always have, and if I have to shoot you, there won't be any more of that."
Linda took another step forward, surprised at how calm she felt. There was less than four feet separating the gun from Jack, and she knew she could shoot him if she had to. Something in the way she stood, or the tone of her voice, must have alerted Jack to that fact. He did a little jig as he tried to pull up his pants. Linda followed him out into the living room where he tripped over the ottoman, caught himself on the arm of a chair, stopped, and pulled his pants the rest of the way up.
"Jesus, Linda. Be careful before that thing goes off," Jack pleaded. The timber of his voice sent a cool shiver of excitement through her body.
"If this gun goes off, it'll be because I want it to go off. Remember that, Jack. Now this is the last time I'm going to tell you to get the hell out."
"Can I have my shirt and shoes back?"
"Out!" Linda shouted. Jack turned and half ran across the living room.
"Watch the lamp!" she cried out. It was too late. His shoulder knocked the lamp against the table, causing the light bulb to break with a sharp, little explosion. They both jumped at the noise, and then Jack bolted out of the door.
"You aren't going to always have that gun with you," Jack called over his shoulder. Without his shoes, he ran in short, choppy steps to a dark blue Ford Taurus parked across the street and scrambled in.
Linda watched him through the window, and then burst into a nervous laugh as she closed and locked the door. As the car pulled away from the house her laughter gave way to tears, and her body began to shake. Sobbing, Linda wrapped her arms around herself and collapsed onto the sofa. Ten minutes later, she dried her tears. The anger returned, and Linda stood, walked into the kitchen, flipped through the yellow pages, and called a locksmith.
While she waited, Linda tried to keep busy. She reached under the kitchen sink, took out a small green plastic watering bottle, and stomped through the house watering her plants. The large Areca palm that took up the entire southwest corner of the living room. The two ferns hanging over the window in her bedroom with their leafy vines touching the floor. The potted Jade trees that sat under the twin windows of her upstairs recreation room.
When she finished with the plants, Linda walked over to her aquarium, sprinkled a little food into the clear bubbling water, and watched the blue Japanese fighting fish rush to the surface. Finally, Linda headed for the kitchen. She grabbed a beer, snapped the cap off on the edge of the sink, and sat at the kitchen table to wait for the locksmith.
Sitting there, she debated the wisdom of her actions in chasing off Jack. The son of a bitch can carry a grudge for a long time, she thought. She knew from past experience that he was capable of trying to get even. But damn it felt good to put the asshole in his place for once.
He watched the locksmith come and go, waited until the lights went out, then drove to the entrance of the alley. He parked across the street and stretched as he climbed out of the car. He had been sitting too long, but now she was where she belonged. There would be no more waiting, no more games.
He crouched and crept along the fence line, counting the houses as he went along, but three houses from his destination he heard the dog. At first it was only a faint growl emanating from the other side of the fence, but he was cautious and he stopped, waiting for the dog to lose interest in him. Instead, the dog moved closer to the fence, sniffing, searching.
"Goddamn it," he swore when the dog picked up his scent and began to bark wildly, racing back and forth along the fence. He jumped back into the shadows of a large lilac bush as a light exploded across the dark yard and a door opened.
"Granger, stop that," a male voice called out. "Get over here. There's nothing out there."
At the sound of its master's voice the dog moved away from the fence. The yard was bathed in blackness when the door closed and the light went off. Alone again, the dog raced back to the fence and stood growling at the dark figure hidden behind the bushes.
While he waited, the dog once again began to bark. Throwing out a final curse, the man turned from his hiding place and ran back to his car.