RUNNING FROM SHADOWS © by Gina Burgess
A tingling pulsed at her fingertips.
Lauren jerked her hands away from the marble window sill. No, this will not happen again. I will not allow it, she thought tilting her face to the sun feeling its rays warm her skin the same as it warmed the streets of Baton Rouge, forcing her attention away from the woman in that swishing white skirt and the shiny black straw hat.
A glint caught Lauren’s eye for an instant as she savored the view from her office window ten stories above the bustle below. It was a beautiful morning filled with sunshine and warmth. Summer’s scorching 98 degrees hadn’t yet curled up around the city like a cat on a long nap. Today was a breezy 74 degrees, cool for late Spring in Baton Rouge.
Sunlight enveloped the tall, downtown buildings in glister and one particular building with dark tinted glass cast the offering back in dimpled reflections. It glinted off the residuals of several undulating Mississippi River traffic wakes caused by barges carrying undetermined cargo down to New Orleans or up river to St. Louis.
The glint flashed again and she glanced along the skyline then searched the morning land traffic as it did its own stop-start shuffle, then at the people below. Some strolled along basking in the sun and others dashed across the busy street. She jerked her gaze from the scene below. She would not fall into the trap again. She just would not let it happen again. That was that.
She glanced at her watch. It was a quarter to ten. There was plenty of time before her next interview she thought as she pressed her fingers to her lips trying to erase the memory of that tingling. She turned from the window to her desk and ran the tip of her finger down the open calendar.
“Kathleen St. Amant,” she read aloud, “at ten o’clock.” She slid the resume from under the calendar to concentrate on anything but what happened at the window. The girl was perfect for the job if the resume proved true. She had decided if the girl’s qualifications and demeanor were as professional as she proclaimed on her resume, Miss Kathleen St. Amant would have a new job today. From what Lauren had gleaned on the phone, the girl desperately needed this job. People who needed something usually worked to keep it and this axiom had proven true in her experience as a manager. Lost in thought about the girl’s struggle as a single mom, Lauren wandered back to the window.
When her hands touched the marble warm from the sun, she slowly and deliberately crossed her arms and tucked her hands in the crooks. The flash of white caught her eye again. The woman was heading back the way she had come. It was as if Lauren’s fingers were awakening from a deep sleep. The painful tingling slowly crept over her body; took over her will and in a breath of time, Lauren lost control. The old familiar panic, like acid dissolving metal, bubbled and nibbled at her. That hungry tiger opened wide its mouth and consumed her, robbing her of all thoughts save one. It’s back. Oh, dear God, it’s back. Baton Rouge bustled below. River traffic steamed away. The April sun streamed through the window. But Lauren was cold and rigid.
Tearing her gaze from the woman dressed in white on the bustling street far below, she watched the lazy flow of river traffic; a futile effort to block out the tiny image. No more, God, no more. Numb fingertips rubbed up and down her arms trying to smooth out pebbly flesh. She forced her gaze to the casino boat docked at Catfishtown, but her thoughts took flight back to the woman. Who was she? It was no use. She couldn’t keep her gaze away the woman, “Dear God, not another one,” she breathed.
The hat shaded the woman’s face. The hem of her dress swished around her knees as she briskly walked up the sidewalk. Where’s she going? Lauren tried to lean forward; to reach out her hand to the woman but her body resisted movement, muscles taut as steel bands.
The woman stepped down the curb and strode across the street in the middle of the block with her tiny black clutch purse tucked under her arm. Lauren squeezed her eyes shut…knowing what was coming…knowing she couldn’t hear it…knowing she did not want to see it. After a brace of seconds, she opened her eyes. The woman stepped up on the opposite curb, unharmed.
Lauren gasped. But the tingling? Always before it heralded disaster…horror…
What’s happening? Why didn’t… ? She could barely see the woman except for a bird’s eye view of that white swirling skirt and the sun’s reflection off polished straw. The tingling circled her wrists. Fear rose above panic, curling and spreading. Not again, God. Oh, please, not again! Then it engulfed her; that nameless something that brought horror to a very personal level. That steel glove clamped shut. Like a mannequin poised on the brink of movement, caught in the middle of motion, unable to retreat or move forward. Her arms were stiff. Her lips were gently parted as if she were about to speak; her eyes glassy—sending no images to Lauren’s mind. The life in Lauren Bastille had stilled. The horror was back.
Only this time it was different. This time it was much worse. This was a nightmare in not only color but living color -- breathing, touching, feeling. She knew it was much, much worse. The years of vigilance were for naught, the fighting and resistance all for nothing because it was back. Her thoughts were not her own any more; she wasn’t Lauren anymore. Whispered words with descriptions so vivid she didn’t hear the words anymore, only the images through eyes not her own.
Kathy St. Amant was on her way to an interview. Lauren could feel her white linen dress billow about her knees in the brisk spring breeze. Lauren could hear Kathy’s thought. The woman had seemed so nice on the phone, I hope this goes well, I really need this job. Money has to come from somewhere and that rat of an ex-husband can’t be found. Without alimony or child support I’ll have to move back in with Mother and that...that man. Stepfather, HA! Creep’s more like it. Oh, please, God, anything but that.
The black glass door was heavy as she tugged it open. A blond-haired man stood beside the information desk. A well-formed body filled out his navy blue, security uniform very nicely thank you very much. His mustache curled over his smile and green eyes twinkled at her. A little off center, like the girl had coquettishly cocked her head.
“Suite ten fifty-four C?” her question came out timidly, not at all as she would have liked it to sound especially to this handsome man, Hank, according to his name tag. “Hank,” she added a bit tentatively.
Lauren felt the tension of Kathy’s muscles, the heated flush of her cheeks and the prickle of perspiration at her waist, under her arms, down her back. The day was warm but not that warm. The girl was a bundle of nerves.
Hank smiled and pointed down the hall. “Take the elevator around the corner and go to the tenth floor. The suite is just down the hall on the right. You can’t miss it.”
Kathy waited impatiently in front of the elevator, listening to it creaking and groaning on its laborious journey down. Glancing at her watch, an imitation gold thing that was starting to turn green, she found it showed ten to ten, plenty of time.
The elevator doors slid open with a grinding clang. Lauren felt Kathy shrug as she stepped up into the car, her muscles groaned with tension as she tried to scream in Kathy’s mind Don’t get into the car, don’t do it. Lauren fruitlessly admonished the Shapely legs to stiffen and stay still, the foot encased in a scuffed black shoe seemed rooted to the floor. Stop, girl, stop… Oh, please stop! Vainly, Lauren struggled to be heard knowing she wouldn’t be, knowing something was blocking her, knowing it was going to happen and there was absolutely nothing she could do to stop it. That poor baby and that innocent young woman. This was worse than before.
In despair, Lauren watched a pink-tipped finger punch the circular button marked “ten.” The elevator lurched then began a torturous trip upwards.
A veteran to job interviews, Kathy rehearsed answers to routine questions as she glanced at her resume then tucked it under her chin to dry sweaty palms along her hips. It was almost a wasted motion but she did it anyway. The elevator jerked bringing Kathy’s stomach to her throat. Another grinding lurch and the doors slid open between floors seven and eight...or was it eight and nine? There was no way to be sure. The cable slipped dropping the car a heart-stopping two feet then jerked to a halt. Grabbing the handrail, Kathy stared into the eyes of a gray-haired woman bent over to peer down into the car.
“Help me,” the voice barely resembled a young woman’s, “oh, please, help me!” Lauren tried to scream but Kathy’s throat muscles constricted seeming to cut off all breath.
The gray-haired woman reached forward but her hand disappeared as the elevator suddenly plunged downward. Kathy’s resume fluttered to the floor, a flash of white against the black marbled linoleum. Her mind flashed with pictures--Stepfather laughing...a bruise on her mother’s face...the look on Warren’s face when the judge ruled the amount of alimony...the giggle of her baby as a bottle was poked in her mouth. I’m going to die! The thought ran like quicksilver through her terrified mind. The elevator continued its plummet and Kathy shrieked. Lauren silently echoed the terrified wail. Still clutching the rail as if it would save her, Kathy sank to the floor, a puddle clothed in white. Her image was a wavy reflection in the silvery doors. The horror of her plight plainly etched in her face. This was the image seared in Lauren’s mind as she steeled herself for the impact.
“Lauren?” a voice breathed then a hand branded her shoulder, its touch scorching through her thin white blouse.
“DON’T!” she jerked away from the searing touch, grabbing onto the windowsill with trembling hands.
“Goodness, Sha!” the short, balding man jumped. “You were standin’ there stiff as a board, starin’ out the window. What in the world is the matter, Sha? You look like you seen a ghost.” Martin’s Cajun heritage evident in his speech.
“I’m sorry, Martin. You--you just startled me is all. I-- I need to go down to the coffee shop for a moment. You don’t mind, do you? I won’t be long.” Lauren tossed him a pleading look as she reached for her jacket.
“Hey, you run things here, I jest own de place,” he grinned then glanced at his watch. “Thought you had an interview at ten, it’s almost that now.”
She was shocked that the whole sordid scene had lasted less than ten minutes. “I did, but she’s not coming.”
Martin threw his hands wide and shrugged, “All right, but you make sure you make the board meetin’ today,” he called to her disappearing back. “Ma name may be on this building, but you know I don’t like those blank stares when all I do is jes stand there.” The last was spoken to her disappearing back and her waving fingers as she left her office.
Lauren fumbled into her light, navy blue jacket as she shoved the front door open with her hip. Racing around the corner, she stabbed the down button. The doors slid open and fear uncoiled more tendrils around her stomach, the fear gave her pause. Was this one safe? The question whirled and seemed to feed her fear. Kathy had used the south entrance elevator, and this one was on the north side. The doors started to close and she thrust her hand against its cool metal. The need to know what happened surged past her fear.
“What happened here?” her voice sounded strained as she elbowed her way through the murmuring crowd. Catching sight of a blond head bent over a crumpled form, she gasped again, “What happened, Hank?”
“The elevator gave way. She probably fell at least seventy or eighty feet. Depends on which floor the cable break gave way.” The guard looked up. “Does anybody know her?”
She tore her gaze from his, afraid of something she couldn’t face. Afraid he would recognize something in her eyes that she couldn’t acknowledge. Her voice cracked, “Her name’s Kathy.”
“Do you know her?” the guard’s keen gaze locked on her face.
“No. No--I--” Lauren shifted uneasily; a trembling hand covered her pale lips. She backed up a step because his twinkling emerald-colored gaze had suddenly turned stormy. “If you know her, Ms. Bastille, you need to stick around for the authorities.” A woman tugged on the man’s sleeve and diverted his attention. Too shocked to speak and too confused to try to explain, she took advantage while his back was turned and slipped out of the crowd. She fled back to the safe haven of work, the only thing that had saved her before; the only sanity in a world that was suddenly insane.
She’s dead, Lauren thought, cutting an outward path through the staring crowd. She’s dead and I was her just before it happened. Oh, God, help me, I was there! It wasn’t a dream this time. The nightmare is different! I wasn’t on the outside this time, I was her.
Lauren forced herself to go back up stairs and back to work, yet her concentration faded out as each image invaded. The woman’s torturous scream echoed in the recesses of her mind. Images from the other woman’s life replayed over and over. Those scenes, vibrant and full of personal details, were a constant reminder of how fragile life really is.
Martin finally stood up and took control of the meeting. “This Board meeting is quite possibly the longest meeting ever lived through since the dawn of time. How many ways can you say the elevator broke? Nobody knows anythin’ yet. We’ll know a whole lot more after the investigation. That’s it. Meeting adjourned.”
After Martin sat down, all eyes cut to Lauren as if to ask, Really? It’s over? only to see her gathering all her notebooks and papers, then watch her walk around the table and leave the room. All eyes cut back to Martin who just waved toward the door with a scowl on his face.
When the board members were finally filing out, he breathed a hefty sigh of relief. Martin herded some of the more staid members toward the outer office fielding more questions about the accidental death. He looked around to hand them off to Lauren, aggravated that the thing had dragged on interminably without her quick track through the process. Through grinding teeth, he smiled and waved good-bye then hurried to Lauren’s office.
“What the H jes happened in there, Lauren?” exasperation edged his normally soft voice.
She peered through her fingers, “I’m sorry, Martin. I know I dropped the ball. All I can say is, I’m sorry.”
“You’ve been acting like that gal was murdered like someone put a gun to her head. The investigators will find something wrong with the elevator, but it will fall back on the inspectors for passing the daggumed thing the last time they inspected it. We’ll get through this. Cho Co, Sha, it was an accident and that elevator has been inspected every year, given a clean bill of health every year. These things happen. That’s what insurance is for, Bebe.”
“This is more than money, Martin.”
“I know, I know. A woman died this morning.” After a beat, he added, “In our building.”
“Not just any woman. A single mother with an 18 month old baby girl.” She sighed and leaned back, which caused her leather chair to squeak in the ensuing silence.
Martin rubbed his forehead with the butt of his hand. “De’pouille!” he growled. “One unholy mess. This whole thing is such a mess. How come I come in here to rake you over the coals about dropping the ball in the meeting and I end up feeling so bad?”
She glanced up at him and gave him a half, teasing smile, “Be careful Martin, your heart is showing.”
Martin huffed, “I’ll try to not let that happen too often.”
The crawling hour hand signaled the end of another workday just as her tentative grip on control slipped. JUST another work day, hysterical laughter bubbled up as she slung her briefcase on the passenger seat then slid behind the wheel. The horror of the morning had faded as work had engulfed her the rest of the day. She forced her mind into traffic mode. Traffic, she thought to herself, drive defensively. Ever since Katrina, there was no end to traffic. It stopped and started and ground to a halt, choking the main streets and the byways with slow moving outbound clogs. And in the morning the whole thing started all over again. Start, stop, shuffle, like shuffling cards in a deck, only it was cars not cards that were changing places. She sucked in a deep breath and let it out slowly, trying to relax. Reaching a relaxed state had become a daily aspiration, but rarely achieved. She tried, though, every day she tried.
A searing pain pierced her between her eyes, then she dredged up an old trick of concentration that had usually worked to help kinked muscles loosen while her mind focused on something familiar. Reciting the multiplication table backwards usually never failed to discipline her mind.
“One times two is two, one times is one is. . .one. . .is ONE.” She closed her recital with a gusty sigh of relief. Realizing she was only half way home some of the tension began to creep back up her spine. Palms dripping in perspiration, she gripped the steering wheel in a white-knuckled vise and glared at the stubborn red light above her little midnight blue car. A thirty-minute ride had stretched into fifty-seven minutes and she still wasn’t home.
A white car eased forward into her peripheral vision, and the tips of her fingers began tingling just like this morning. “Don’t look at it. Don’t think about, don’t see anybody.” she told herself out loud with eyes tightly squeezed shut. “Lauren, you are going to get home. Just let this light change and you’re on your way. Come on, come on light, change!”
A cigarette ash drifted from the window of the white car and fluttered across the her windshield. Lauren transfixed on it. “Oh. . . a cigarette. What I’d give for a cigarette!” She took a deep breath. The tingling slowly went up her fingers, and they slipped a little on the steering wheel. The woman and her daughter were talking about a wedding.
The flowers would be pink and white--perfect colors.
Panic clamped around her stomach, tightening and twisting huge knots until she thought she would throw up.
The bridesmaids would be dressed in pearl gray, high-necked sleeveless blouses with flouncing skirts.
Her arms itched as the tingling inched its way upwards.
Pink and white rose bouquets.
She couldn’t go through it again, she just couldn’t.
Pink and white rose garlands in their hair…
This morning was only a fluke...
to match the bride’s white rose garland with a white voile veil…
She groaned then gritted, “Twelve times twelve is one hundred forty-four,” the knots twisted and writhed. Lauren glared accusingly at the red light then grinding her back teeth till her jaws ached, she forced her hands and arms to move. The dry cleaning could wait. She gunned the motor and shifted into first to make an illegal right turn. Her foot slipped off the clutch and her old faithful-never-gave-a-moment’s-trouble little blue sports car promptly bucked and died.
She growled in deep frustration which bled into whimpering panic. She almost bent the key in duress. It wouldn’t be like this morning, she just plain wouldn’t let it. The engine finally caught, humming softly as if nothing was wrong. Oblivious to the honking horns and irate drivers, Lauren sliced across the right turn lane onto Bluebonnet Boulevard, the sports car’s tires squealing. Slowly, the tingling drifted back down her arms then finally left.
Trembling set in as she let out a long sigh. Glancing in the rear view mirror, green eyes stared back. A smattering of freckles stood out starkly against her white face. Tension finally loosened its grip on aching muscles, giving permission for the trembling to fade.
“Gracious!” she breathed as her apartment complex came into view. “That was close!”
Easing into her reserved parking slot also helped to ease her tenacious grip on the steering wheel. She raked her thick, raven-colored hair from her face and slumped back in the seat. Home, finally home. She closed her eyes and stretched her neck muscles by tipping her head from side to side then forward. It felt really good. Then leaning back against the seat she sighed. A few moments of peaceful silence made it easier to open the car door. Grabbing her briefcase filled with the day’s neglected work, she swung out of the car. The briefcase banged against the hand brake and the clasp let go. Lauren groaned, watching the mountain of paperwork flutter around the interior of her car, then slide to the floor. With a muttered curse she bent to rescue it.
“Uh... Ex--excuse me,” a deep, male voice broke the dusky silence.
Lauren jerked upright, smacking her head against the dash. “OW!” she barked as she rubbed the bump on her head with the heel of her hand.
“What?” every ounce of frustration she had bottled up during the day was packed into that one word. She glanced over her shoulder and spied the owner of that rather nice voice. He was tall, and dark, and rather harmless looking. Definitely on the handsome side.
She suppressed a groan. It certainly wasn’t his fault she’d had a perfectly horrid day and here she was being terrifically rude to this innocent man. She paused. That thought had barely crossed her mind before she tensed up completely. He didn’t look like rapist…but then usually they didn’t, she reminded herself. She’d found out most rapes were committed by someone you knew. At least that’s what Becky had said. Those wonderful women at the Rape Crisis Center volunteered their precious time to go through the whole sordid process with every assault victim they were called in to help. Brushing those thoughts to the side, she eyed the tall man who only slightly seemed to be invading her space.
She didn’t know him. It only took two seconds to see his chocolate brown gaze widen at her suppressed scowl. That little light of interest that dawned in his eyes blinked out. And good riddance, she thought. She just couldn’t take that right now. She was on a Man Break and that’s the way it would stay… at least for right now. Maybe later… in a different lifetime. Or maybe it wasn’t that kind of interest. Maybe, just maybe she was reading something that really wasn’t there, Maybe it was just ghosts from the past. She sighed and tried to cover up her internal confusion with a glare pointed his way.
His deep, rich brown hair was cut short, but it was still a bit wavy. The open frankness of his chocolate brown gaze had boarded up at the vehemence of her tone, but she didn’t care. He was a big boy and she had more things to worry about than his feelings. He certainly didn’t look dangerous. Okay, we covered that already, Lauren. He was a very fine specimen of a man. Okay, we covered that, too. Focus, Lauren, she told herself, no matter how innocent and gorgeous he looks you could be in real trouble here if you don’t focus.
She forced back the thoughts, and eyed his boyish face. The wandering thoughts bubbled up again. I wonder how old he is. Anywhere between thirty and forty, she guessed. He didn’t have those tell-tale forehead wrinkles that indicated a transition to the forties. But, then men aged better than women. They didn’t worry so much as women did. Maybe if he grew a mustache . . . perhaps some gray hair at the temples…Hmm. Focus, Lauren, get your head back on your shoulders and get out of this before trouble grabs you with both hands.
“Sorry,” she rubbed the bump on her head and tried, she really did try, to put a pleasant look on her face, “Had a horrendous day.”
“It’s okay, I’ve had several of those myself. Ah--I was wondering if you could direct me to apartment two-fifty-two. It’s my cousin’s place and while he’s overseas, I’m supposed to look after it. You know--keep an eye on things,” he grinned sheepishly at her.
She pointed towards the dying sun sinking behind the trees between two apartment buildings, “Right down this walkway, then to your right,” politeness coated her disgruntlement. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a lot of work to do this evening.” Promptly dismissing him, she returned to the rescue of her paperwork.
“Yes, I can see your filing system may need a little work,” he said as he reached under the car to retrieve a few wayward sheets of paper. The wind had whisked them almost out of his reach. When he snagged them and began to straighten up, Lauren was snapping the case closed and sliding out at the same time.
“Hi. My name is Terrance Sheffield but my friends call me Rance,” he offered his hand with a sweet smile.
Carefully, she stood to the full height of her five feet eight inch frame, swiped her hair from her face and snapped, “Okay, we’re done here.” She straightened her skirt and glared at him, “You can go on to number two-fifty-two and just leave me alone. Please.” Plastering a polite look on her face, she carefully slipped the strap of the briefcase over her shoulder, grabbed the sheets from his hand, then carefully stepped around him. “Well, Mr. Sheffield, I think you should move before you get smacked in the head with this car door.” She’d worry about the crumpled paperwork later. At the touch of a button, she locked the car and set the alarm.
Rance scrambled to his feet, “I said--”
“I heard what you said, Mr. Sheffield. It was duly noted and filed away.” She straightened to her full height again and looked up into chocolate brown eyes. “If I were a security guard, I’d be mighty pleased to know who you are, why you are here and where you are staying. Since I’m not, I’m not.” Lauren’s heels clicked on the sidewalk as she dashed away from him. Well that was certainly incredibly rude. But it was better he got the message right up front she wasn’t interested…she would be sorry later. . .much later. Right now, her peace of mind was much more important and a very tall, good-looking man would not give her any peace of mind.
“Hey!” Rance almost ran to catch up with her. “It would be nice for the new kid on the block to have a friend here.”
Lauren whirled around so suddenly, Rance had to side-skip to the grass to avoid another collision. She glowered at him, trying to appear taller, “Look, I’m extremely tired. I’m sorry for any rudeness but I must get out of these shoes before my feet fall off. It was nice meeting you, Mister Sheffield. Maybe I’ll see you around. Right now, good day to you.” She turned, nearly running the rest of the way to her apartment. Hoping against hope she’d be able to get inside before her new neighbor found out their apartments were separated by only a few inches of drywall, paint and two by fours. The key gripped so tightly her hand slipped easily into the lock of two-fifty-four.
A cold darkness met her gaze as the door swung open, which stirred her heart into a faster beat. The darkness surrounding her made her pause for a moment, like a deer sure danger was near, but not sure in which quarter it lay. There should be a light on because she always left a light on, it was a safety measure. And because of what had happened, she never wanted to enter darkness, so light always met her at the door.
Flinging the bulging briefcase and shoulder strap purse onto the chair beside the door, she slid out of the offending shoes. She peeked over the lamp shade to see if the bulb had burned out. Her lips curled into a half smile of relief. Just a burned out bulb. That was all.
She slipped on the chain and turned the deadbolt. The sound of metal grating against metal vibrated throughout the quiet space. A bump on the shin and a few hobbling steps brought her to the window where she whisked open the drapes, and the last golden orange rays of the sun flooded the starkly furnished room.
Lauren looked around and sighed, something was missing. Oh, yeah. A stabbing pain pierced her heart. No yipping, exuberant greeting from Cajun. She had always looked forward to those greetings and that little, shaggy-haired mutt had made her feel safe somehow. There would never be another such greeting from that pert little bundle of fur rescued from the side of a busy road. How much she missed that happy, little dog!
You might as well get used to it, dearie, the voice of reason bluntly told her. But despair still encircled her being before settling around her heart. The short walk to the bathroom seemed overly long.
Hot water cascading over her body felt good as it washed away the day and some of the tension went down the drain. Reluctantly, she stepped from the shower and rubbed herself briskly with a thick towel, then loosened her black mane from its tight clip. She reveled in the feel of its soft caress as it swished back and forth over her bare skin seeming to dulcify the last vestiges of tension.
She had forced her racing thoughts to stop, her mind to go blank, to not think of anything while in the shower. That had always seemed to work before. It had always seemed to help with the anguish over the loss of Cajun and…that other thing. That other horror that she couldn’t or maybe a better word was wouldn’t think about. It was better that way. The numbness was comforting and a lot less straining on already taut nerves. It was definitely better than a nervous breakdown. That was something she just couldn’t afford right now. Shutting the door to the outside world and not having to think about other people’s feelings was better. She’d face it in time, she just needed more time. One day she would remember and then she’d face it but for right now not thinking was much easier and somehow, she felt it to the morrow of her bones, much safer.
Slipping on a pair of jeans and long-tailed pink shirt, she thought about the lonely jar of olives and its wilted lettuce companion in the refrigerator. Her stomach immediately declared it wasn’t hungry anyway. Padding down the short hall, sun’s light had faded and the front room was again dark.
Settling down on the couch of green and cream stripes, which didn’t exactly match the chair beside the door except for the cigarette burn on the right armrest, she sighed. They didn’t exactly meld perfectly with the drapes. But it wasn’t hideous. Besides, she was still a work in progress. It was always her automatic reply whenever she happened to think about the mismatched décor. She hadn’t decided if she was a ‘green’ person or not. She punched on the TV with the remote control; a small smile on her face. From outward appearances, it would seem that green seemed to be her color. The living room was mostly green. The bathroom was full of green towels, green rug, green… green…green. Ah! But the bedspread was a brown print!
With green leaves. The tiny voice butted into her thoughts.
Oh shut up. The closet is full of black and white and cream. She argued with herself.
AND green blouses, green jackets and you even have a pair of green shoes!
Is that a crime, for crying out loud? Sheesh! Go away. Let me listen to the news. The subject of green is closed.
Channel Two News filled the screen; the handsome anchorman’s face was somber.
“A thirty-eight year old woman and her eighteen-year old daughter were killed today in a rush hour traffic accident. We go now to Annie Hodge at the scene. Annie can you tell us what happened?”
“Well, Richard, the police are not clear on what caused the accident. Sgt. McDonald of the Baton Rouge Police Department says today’s accident brings the total of traffic fatalities to 10 for the year to date. We should have more information to report this evening at ten. Back to you Richard.”
“Annie, have the victims been identified?”
“Richard, the names have been withheld pending notification of next of kin. We should have more information tonight at ten. For Channel 2 News, this is Annie Hodge. Back to you, Richard.”
Lauren hit the mute button. That couldn’t be right. They had gotten the street names mixed up. Her mind barely registered the muted sounds of a crying baby in the apartment above and the distant slamming of a door. She slumped down in the cushions and propped her bare feet on the coffee table, pushing her toes through the litter of magazines and empty ashtrays. Leaning her head against the back of the couch, she stared at the ceiling. It must have been some kind of quirk or dream. How else could she explain it?
That’s it, Lauren continued to gaze at the ceiling. Just some sort of twisted coincidence. There had been flashes before, but never on a personal level. Always before, she had been an impersonal observer…
A knock at the door shattered the quiet of her apartment. Startled, Lauren jerked to her feet, her heart jumped and adrenaline flooded her veins. She put a hand to her chest in a futile attempt to still the crescendo there. Her breath was coming in short, hoarse gasps as the knock came again, so loud it seemed to rattle the door’s hinges. A jeering voice in the back of her mind tried reason. It’s just an innocent knock, no threat… no danger. Why are you afraid?
Lauren never questioned why a knocking on her door gave her the hebee jebees. A loud knock or any loud noise made her heart stand still. She had to force herself to take a step toward the door. She took another step towards the door. Trying to swallow the irrational fear, she forced herself forward in a rush and pressed her cheek against the facing.
“It’s me, Lauren! Come on and open up!” a female voice shouted as Becky winked at the peep hole.
Relief welled up spreading a warming balm over her fear. “Becky,” she breathed. Her heart slowly resumed a normal tempo, but her fingers shook as they slid the chain off its hook and opened the door.
“Where did you have to come from, China?” Becky asked striding into the apartment. “You had better been eyeballing me through that peep hole!”
At the same instant Lauren chided her friend, “How many times do I have to tell you don’t knock! Ring the bell, please, just ring the bell. Listen here, Finley, knocking on the door scares the life out of me.” Lauren sagged against the door and slid the chain back into place.
“I’m sorry, I forgot.” Becky Finley threw her purse in the chair beside the door. “Consider me duly chastened, but dang it, it’s hard for me to remember that. You never used to be so skittish, especially about whether to ring the bell or knock on the door. I truly don’t understand what’s so scary about a simple knock. Are you going super-anal on me? You used to at least have a modicum of free spirit, now your as uptight as Governor Blanco was just after Katrina.” A tiny frown creased her forehead as she said, “You never were this way before, Lars.”
“I know, I know. I don’t know why it scares me so, it just does.” Lauren sighed as she punched off the TV and flicked on the radio.
“It’s just as I thought!” Becky’s voice boomed from the kitchen. “You haven’t eaten anything in what looks like days! If you don’t have me around to feed you, you don’t eat.” The door of the refrigerator slammed shut.
Lauren padded to the kitchen and leaned against the wall, her slim body silhouetted by the soft living room light. “I just haven’t been hungry lately. But, boy could I use a cigarette right about now.”
“You’ll never quit if you keep thinking about it,” was the quick comeback as the woman with short blonde curls leaned against the refrigerator door. “Why don’t you go change out of that pink rag you’re wearing and we’ll go eat Mexican or something?”
“Beck, unless you’re taking me to a fancy place like Mansur’s I don’t need to change. But,” Lauren shoved her hands deep in the pockets of her jeans and glanced at her well-worn clothes, then sighed. “I just don’t feel like dressing up again. I just got out of those afflictions called shoes. I don’t feel like going out. It wouldn’t matter if it was fancy or not, but thanks anyway.”
“Lauren, you look like something a Mack truck ran over. I’m not even going to apologize for that. What are friends for if they don’t tell you the truth?” Becky stated flatly, as she pushed off from the refrigerator and headed toward the living room.
One corner of Lauren’s mouth curved up and a dimple appeared as she followed her from the kitchen. “That’s my best friend. Open mouth and anything falls out.”
Becky had the grace to look sheepish, then she ploped onto the couch. “This is really eating at you, isn’t it? You know none of this is your fault. When are you going to start talking about what happened? If you won’t go see a therapist, then why don’t you give the support group at the Stop Rape Crisis Center a chance? I know for a fact it’ll help if you talk to others that have been through this very same thing.”
“That’s just it! I can’t remember the rape. I don’t remember anything about it. In fact if it weren’t for the evidence scraped from my body I don’t believe I would’ve known I was even raped. When I think about that night,” her hand trembled as she raked her thick, raven hair back from her face, “all I see is blackness. There’s just nothing there.” Her fingers clutched then dug into her scalp. “Besides…certain things have happened lately that nobody could’ve been through at the Stop Rape Crisis Center. Nobody would understand and nobody can help.”
“What kind of things, these certain things?” Becky leaned forward.
Lauren crossed to the window and closed the drapes then pulled one side back so she could stare at the embers of the sunset.
Becky stood up and crossed the room to stand by her friend. “Lauren, talk to me. What kind of things?”
Lauren turned to stare at Becky, then shook her head. “You’ll think I’m crazy.”
“Come on, Lauren, I’ve known you since kindergarten. I’ve seen your craziness, and have grown to love it.” Becky nudged her with an elbow and let a touch of exasperation creep into her voice. “Look, hon, I know why you feel this way. There’s not a woman that’s been raped that doesn’t have the same emotions. Believe me,” she squeezed her friend’s shoulder, “when the police reported that Lauren Bastille needed an escort volunteer, I nearly dropped the files I was carrying. I told Marge not to bother calling any of the others, I was going to handle it personally. You never think that something as violent as that would happen to you or a friend! It’s always far away, something that happens to someone else, but never close to home like this.”
When Lauren didn’t reply, Becky sighed and flopped on the couch in exasperation. She pulled a pillow from behind her back and cradled it in her lap. Plucking at the fringed tassels, she glanced at her friend. “You need to talk about it, Lars. Besides, maybe talking would help you remember something about that night. Can’t you remember anything?” The question was softly insistent.
“Trust me, my friend. That is not the best thing for you.” Becky wiggled into the corner of the couch. “Lauren, listen to me. I know I’ve told you this before, but I want this to truly sink in this time. I can tell you, trauma of this sort never, ever goes away. We’ve had cases reported as late as twenty years after the fact and in every case, it had always hurt the women’s relationships--until they got professional help, at any rate. Why don’t you consent to being hypnotized? It’s worked many times before, you know, unlocking that subconscious mind. Once you’ve remembered, it’ll be much easier to deal with.” Worry lines fretted Becky’s forehead.
“Just back off, Becky. I’m just not ready yet. Can we please talk about something else?” Lauren whirled around and glared at her friend.
“All right, all ready, fine keep it all bottled up and see where that gets you. One of these days you’ll explode and guess who’ll have to pick up all the itty bitty pieces!” Becky eyed her friend at the window. “Ready to talk about Ted?”
Lauren cast her a withering look.
“Guess not. Then, let’s go eat.”
Lauren’s face shut down then turned back to the now purple tinged sky and the horizon above the trees looked like brilliant orange fringe beginning to turn red. Venus sat serenely, glowing just above the trees.
Becky gave an exasperated sigh. “There’s that Mexican place right around the corner.”
“Or how about Ralph and Kacoo’s? That isn’t too far down the road.”
Becky tried a different tactic, “The president grew horns today. They say the first lady took a shovel and tried to whack them back inside his head before anybody noticed. It would’ve worked too, except they were in the garden and FOX News was there and Glenn Beck keeps replaying the thing.”
“Lauren Marie, look at me!” Becky almost shouted across the room.
“What?” She turned from the window.
“Believe it or not, I know just what kind of hell you’re going through. I also know you have to talk about it or it’s going to fester inside growing and growing until you drown and there’s no more Lauren.”
“Oh, Becky, don’t be so melodramatic. I had a perfectly horrid day.”
“Well, okay then, tell me all about it over supper. Let’s go eat. I really do want to hear all about it. I guess it’s hard for me to turn it off after living it all day at the Center, and I really do know just what kind of hell you’re going through.” She threw up her hands in surrender then heaved a sigh. Becky leaned forward, throwing the pillow to the side. “It seems that something else must’ve happened. It’s not just the rape anymore, is it?” Her question was soft and she held her breath, hoping her friend wouldn’t explode again.
Lauren’s shoulders hunched up a notch, the tension in her body coiling to royal proportions but her voice was low, “Everything’s fine, just fine.”
“No, I think not!” Becky snapped back, her hands gripping her knees. “I’ve known you for almost our whole lives, Lauren, and you’ve never acted this way when faced with a problem. Normally you meet it head on and find a way to solve it or someone who can. In the past you’ve always talked to me but now you’re shutting me out completely. I won’t have it, I simply won’t have it. Now, talk, dadgumit!”
“Okay! O--K!” Her fists uncurled as she turned back to the afterglow of the sunset. The red sky reflected on her face, blushing cheeks that would have been pale as snow, the warm color belying the chill of her being. She was quiet so long Becky feared she had changed her mind and wouldn’t speak at all. Lauren’s mumble forestalled Becky’s next verbal push. “Just remember, you asked for it.”
“Wait a minute,” Becky threw her hands up, “let me get this straight. You sorta body jump? Or mind meld like Spock?”
“Sort of like that.”
“Good grief,” Becky was shocked, “I cannot even imagine that.”
“Yeah, well it’s like some B horror movie, only I’m in it, not watching it.” sarcasm laced Lauren’s voice.
Becky kicked off her shoes and tucked her feet under her in the corner of the couch, “Well? Go on, I’m all ears.” Becky prompted anxiously.
“Actually, the first time it happened, well, not the first time, but the first time it was so vivid -- vivid and clear like a movie, I was looking out the window of my office. A storm was coming up from across the river and I was thinking about those construction guys having to be out there in it--the storm that is, not the river.” She grinned a little sheepishly.
“I know what you meant. Now go on!”
“Well, it was almost five o’clock and one guy was walking along an I-beam towards the elevator. Then all of a sudden, I was with the guy!” Lauren raised her hand, “Don’t say it! I know it’s crazy but it’s true. One minute I’m looking at him, the next I’m sort of sitting on his shoulder…walking along that I-beam and looking at the ground feeling the building shake and swerve as each gust of wind rattled the structure. The crazy thing is, I knew I was still in the office but I reached out my hand to grab hold of him and…and… then suddenly instead of seeing his back, I was looking through his eyes. I was seeing what he was seeing. I was feeling what he was feeling. He/I was terrified! Then a huge gust of wind hit and the building slanted. I swear it was like a roller coaster the way my stomach went up into my throat. He/I-- I misplaced a step and fell, grabbing the I-beam with both hands.”
“Lauren, you’re talking about that building that collapsed. That must’ve been, what, five years ago?” Her eyes narrowed, “And come to think of it, why didn’t you tell me about this?”
“No, it was six years ago. Because there were a lot of things going on in your life right about then and in mine as well. This was just another flash to me, a lot more vivid, but still just another flash.”
“Whatever, I remember it but I don’t remember anyone dying. But regardless of what was going on in our lives--it must have been pretty traumatic, you should have told me.”
“I’m sorry. At least I’m telling you now. Trust me, it happened.”
“Okay, it’s all right. You’re the most trustworthy person I know. I’d trust you with my kids if I had any.” She leaned back, her expression showing only concern for her friend, not disbelief. “Just don’t leave me out again, got it? Are you sure it only happens when someone dies?”
Lauren marveled at her dearest friend. She had just accepted the most outlandish tale as the absolute truth. Well, maybe not the most outlandish. Wait until she told her about today.
But then why wouldn’t Becky accept it? She had been with her those other times when they were kids and had learned to trust those flashes of intuition. They had explored the possibilities and determined Lauren had a special gift. It was only later that Lauren had felt uncomfortable with it and started suppressing the gift. A tiny smile started to curve her lips then was instantly gone.
“No, I’m not sure of anything. But he did die. I saw the obit in the paper and I went to his house. It was just as I had seen--even the lawn needed mowing. But this was only the first time it happened when I sort of mind melded with the person.” She raised a ravaged face and her body began to tremble. “It’s demented I know, so I won’t blame you if you don’t believe me. After so long, I thought it had gone away for good. I tried so hard to keep it from happening.”
“I believe you, Lauren. And I don’t think you’re going crazy, either, if that makes you feel any better. Now, how many times has this happened?”
The relief in Lauren’s expression was palpable. “Twice more. Twice today. Both times today the victim was killed by an accident.” Lauren took a deep breath and recounted her morning experience, then her narrow escape that afternoon. “So, you see, I’m afraid to go anywhere. I’m even afraid to think.” She plopped back down into the chair and leaned back, stretching out her legs. Suddenly, relief swept over her, dethroning the tension that had ruled over her since nine fifty that morning.
“Lauren,” Becky rubbed her jaw line with a finger, “this sounds like some paranormal experience. You know, like that show on TV… or even, that stuff Shirley McLane talks about. There’s got to be lots of information about this kind of thing on the internet, maybe even a class at LSU. Maybe some research will shed some light on what’s going on here.”
“No. Becky, you know by now, I don’t like that part of me. I want to suppress it, not aggrandize it. Any other brilliant ideas?”
“Don’t you think some research will help you understand how to suppress it? I mean it,” Becky charged on undeterred, “someone experienced in these matters could possibly help you. If nothing else, at least they could help you understand what’s happening.”
“Forget it. I still remember all those nasty, little taunts I got in grade school before I learned to button my mouth.”
“I’m not asking you to talk to nasty little grade school kids. This is adult advice I’m talking about.”
Lauren cast her one raised eyebrow.
“Well--I am being serious. A paranormal group is what you need. This smacks of it.”
“They are all quacks. I’m not going to look in the yellow pages and call up Madam Yvette or Sister Sara or whoever and ask them to look in a crystal ball to see the boogy man behind me.”
“Look, Madam Whoever is the one you call if you want to go to the casino not when you have a very serious problem. Besides I wasn’t thinking of the yellow pages anyway. I’m talking about the internet. You just click these convenient buttons, get your information and you don’t have to talk to anyone.”
Lauren snorted, “Oh, right! All kinds of kooks floating around the Internet and you want me to go looking for them. Give me a break, Beck. I’m not going to one of those sites and let my computer take a cookie so I can get blasted with all kinds of spam asking me for money to have my electronic tarot cards read. No. Thank you very much, but no. That’s as bad as dialing one of those goofy nine hundred numbers.”
Becky waved a placating hand. “I’m not talking about that kind of site. I was thinking about maybe the public library’s information site…or perhaps LSU’s class schedule list. Besides, they do have yellow pages on line. Or have you forgotten all that computer training you had that your company paid such an indecent price for?”
“I haven’t forgotten.” Lauren dipped her head, “It’s that indecently priced training that has me scared to even turn on my laptop. Do you know what crazies out there do to invade your space? No. I crave the old and familiar.”
“Like sucking your thumb and that hideous pink blankie with the ragged edges?” Becky gave her an innocent, wide-eyed innocently glance.
That got a genuine grin. “Not that old. But that old blankie is at the bottom of my cedar chest. I just might dig it out.”
Becky grinned, got up and stretched. “I’m going to your tax-deductible-office. Wipe off the inch of dust that must be on the keyboard and monitor and find you some reputable information… after we eat.”
“I just don’t know. Let me think about it.”
“What’s there to think about? It’s free. It’s information we’re looking for not a psychiatrist or the witches of Salem. Besides, all you’d have to do is ask ‘What if?’ questions.”
“I guess I could consider that.”
“Good. I’ll go search while you change.”
“Wait!” Lauren leaned forward, clutching her knees shouting the word at Becky’s determined back, “Are you taking me to Mansur’s?”
Her friend turned around, running a hand through blonde curls, “No. Not on my salary. I work for a non-profit remember? Not for a fancy insurance broker like someone I know. If you want to go to Mansur’s then go change and you buy.”
“No!” Lauren turned a horrified look on her friend. “I’m afraid it will happen again.”
Becky grinned crookedly at her, “Look, who’s to say it won’t happen here? Let’s just go get something to eat. That pickle in your fridge is too lonely. You can always think better after you’ve eaten a good meal.”
“Don’t you see?” Becky’s tone was empathic. “You’re running away from the problem instead of hitting it dead on.” At Lauren’s wince she said, “Sorry.” then continued forcefully. “You’re doing the same thing with the rape. I really feel that until you face that rape and realize deep down that it wasn’t your fault, you’re going to have a lot more problems than you bargained for.” Becky stood up facing her, arms akimbo. “Come on,” she coaxed, then pulled Lauren to her feet. She grinned impishly, “Hurry up, I’m starving!”
“Okay. But I’m going to be terrible company. Why don’t we order pizza? That’s quick and no clean up afterwards.”
“Forget it, Lars. Pizza’s definitely off my list. That’s one of the things that ruined my curves.” Becky slid a hand down one slim hip. “There! I see a glimmer of a smile. Come on out, come on, widen up.”
Lauren did smile at her friend then but growled, “Shut up, you really are a witch sometimes, you know that?”
“I know and it’s not even PMS time. Let’s go.”
“Yeah, let’s, so we can get back here,” her hand on the doorknob.
“Hold it right there, Lauren Bastille. The whole purpose of this is to get your mind off your troubles. You are not walking out that door without a smile on your face and without leaving all gloomy thoughts here. Got it?”
Lauren gave her a squinty-eyed, pinched-lip grimace. “Good enough?”
“If that’s the best you’ve got, stay behind me, girly, there are too many men out there I haven’t met yet. I don’t want them running the other way.” With that she elbowed past Lauren and sailed through the door. “We are going to have fun even if it kills you.”
“Yes, it probably will,” Lauren grumbled.
At the steak place they finally settled on, Becky eyed the large salad and prime rib on Lauren’s plate, then up at Lauren. As she opened her mouth, Lauren gave her an awkward, crooked grin and a shrug, “I guess I didn’t know how hungry I really was.”
“I’ll say,” Becky replied. “You missed a spot right there,” she pointed to a tiny clear space on the edge of Lauren’s plate, then popped a mouthful of potato full of cheese, bacon bits, green onion and dripping butter. The dark-haired woman’s eyes rolled to the side letting a grin dimple her cheeks.
“Hello, neighbor,” a strangely familiar voice spoke close to Lauren’s ear. “I’d call you by name, but I don’t know it, yet.”
Startled, she whirled around, gasping. Staring into hopeful, brown eyes, she murmured into a napkin, “Hullo, Rance.” The napkin lowered revealing a small smile, “My name’s Lauren--Ah--Bastille, and this is my best friend Becky Finley. Becky this is Rance Sheffield.”
“Hellloooo, handsome! Very pleased to meet you.” Becky leaned over the table and stage whispered, “Where have you been keeping him?” Back to Rance, “Why don’t you join Lauren and me?” Then she cocked her chin and batted her eyelashes.
“Becky!” Lauren hissed.
“I calls ‘em as I sees ‘em, girl, and this one’s a--oomph--Ow.” She daintily rubbed her ankle.
He grinned at her antics. “Thank you, but I can’t. I’m here with my cousin, Brad,” tipping his head to a far corner.
Lauren stared across the room. The man who had been her neighbor for the past two years was unassuming except for his almost black hair with shades of gray at the temples. When she first saw him, she had pictured him with at least three children and a pleasantly plump wife yet he lived in the apartment all by himself, except for a cat. As she watched, his shoulders twitched and he turned to glance around the room. Just as if he knew someone was staring at him. They had been ‘hello’ neighbors for the first few months. He was extremely quiet--never a raucous party. He seemed rather staid. She had never bothered to establish a closer relationship until the night he helped her break into her own apartment. Late for the Chamber of Commerce Business After Hours party, she had slammed the door leaving the keys on the dining table. He had noticed her dilemma right away--how could any one miss a frustrated woman banging on a door with the side of her fists? Seeing the problem, he immediately came to her rescue. Slipping a credit card between the door and the jamb, he gave a quick twist of the wrist and the door swung wide. She’d been impressed. He wasn’t the chivalrous knight type: tall, broad shoulders, long blond hair, devastating smile. But, he was nice, and he’d saved her that night.
“It’s sort of a going away party,” Rance brought her attention back from across the room. “Among other things, he’s giving me instructions on how to take care of his plants for what good it’ll do. It seems I’m a plant murderer in need of much coaching. I should do better with the cat, at least he can tell me he’s hungry. And I’m sure I’ll remember to change the litter. The nose knows.” He grinned sheepishly then, “Well, hope to see you around, Lauren.” He nodded to Becky, “Nice meeting you.”
Lauren gave him an absent wave then watched him thread his way between tables to his cousin. As soon as he was far enough away, she leaned toward Becky and whispered, “Will you behave?”
At the same time Becky said, “He’s your neighbor and you haven’t told me about him? I’m shocked and appalled. You’ve been hiding him from me and that’s not fair. Not fair at all. I did behave--you obviously weren’t going to make the first move and I wanted him to sit right here beside me. He’s a keeper, you mark my words. By the way, keep your feet on your own side of the table.”
“Lauren, Sha, come to my office please?” Martin’s deep resonant voice startled her as it boomed from the doorway. Glancing up she started to answer, then only saw a fleeting glimpse of her boss’s back. He’s never in the same place long, she thought. Why answer? He knows I’ll be there and I know he knows it. A grin transformed her face like the afternoon sun turning mere raindrops on a daisy to glinting diamonds after a spring rain.
Tension plunged back as she entered Martin Gerard’s office; it fairly permeated the room like a thick cloud of noxious gas. The smile vanished and seconds seemed like hours as she stared at the man standing beside the desk. No amount of hair lightening or sun lamp tanning could keep her from recognizing her ex-husband. “I--I--never thought I’d see you again, Andre Fontenot.”
“Well, well, well, Lauren. You certainly haven’t changed a bit since we graduated. You’re still as lovely as a fresh flower.” A smile crinkled, changing manly handsomeness to impish little boyishness as he stretched out his arms.
She walked jerkily forward, then stood with a chair between them digging her fingers into its leather back for support. “Why have you come back?”
Martin cleared his throat. “Well, I say this, I was surprised jest like you when he walkt in za door. He jest move back to Lou-seana, yeah.” His lilting Cajun accent was filled with pride. “He president of his own company, now Lauren,” the balding man’s chest puffed up. “Me, I’m mighty proud--the little runny-nosed kid from next door finally made it big.”
Andre’s nostrils flared and his expression took on a look of appalled horror at the picture Martin’s description raised. “Now, Martin,” the tall man bowed up, “I might have been a lot of things, but runny-nosed, never!”
Lauren glimpsed the horrified look on Andre’s face and gave in to an urge to giggle behind her hand. Savoring the vision Martin had created of this fastidious man, made it easier to get a grasp on her emotions. She cast him a small smile of thanks for cutting the thick curtain of pressurized strain with his well-timed remark. Martin took the heat of the tall man’s faint glare with an unconcerned grin and turned to Lauren. “Andre wants us to handle the insurance for his company. Workman comp, etceteras, etceteras. I tole him you’d be the bes’ one for za job.”
“That’s right, Lauren,” there was a slight lilt still to Andre’s accent but not thickly Cajun. “Martin is like my jolly old uncle,” pausing he shot a sidelong glance at the older man as if daring him to make another comment. “I know he’ll get me the best insurance for the best price.”
“Das tru,” Martin nodded then added with a twinkle in his eye, “Yeah me, I knowed this kid back when he had brown waves on top instead ‘o zat yellow froth he got now.” He strode around his desk and placed a hand on his vice president’s shoulder ignoring the sniff that came from Andre. “It’ll most likely wind up being a million dollar account so don’ you screw it up.” He gave her shoulder a fatherly squeeze. Even without the squeeze, she would have known Martin’s remark was in jest. She’d always known he didn’t have a mean bone in his body. “It’s this what I pay you for and why I spent five year of my life teaching you everythin’ I know about insurance and why, Sha, you’re in charge. Now, me, I’ve got a golf ball to birdie about eighteen times. You two work dis out and let me know the details later.”
Lauren caught his arm before he had taken a step. “I’m not sure this is such a good idea, Martin. Maybe someone else should handle this.” Raising a slender hand to stem his argument, “I just feel I’m too personally involved in this one. No offense, Andre.” One shoulder lifted in a graceful half-shrug along with an apologetic smile.
“Nonsense, Sha,” Martin’s hearty voice boomed throughout the plush office. ‘Y’all may’ve had differences in za past, but that’s all over now.” He put his hand on the back of the leather chair, causing it to give a muted squeak, which conjured a vision of a mouse caught in a trap to Lauren. Martin continued, a hint of steel in his gaze, “Me, I’m right, aren’t I?”
The softly spoken words caused Lauren’s chin to go up and a gleam stole into her eyes. “You certainly are.” She spoke to his back as he left the room.
Turning to Andre, “You, of course, have all the pertinent information with you?”
“Naturally.” He lifted a dark leather-bound briefcase onto the broad desktop and touched the gold clasps. Taking out an inch-thick stack of papers with one hand, the other quickly closed the case. He handed the stack to her with such a flourish, Lauren half expected his heels to click together.
She glanced at the sheaf of papers, then at the man standing so nonchalantly and so closely to her. Blast it, his eyes still have the power to make my knees weak. Jerking her eyes back to the papers, she pretended intense interest in thumbing through the stack.
“Andre,” she cut him off, “before you say anything, I want you to know I’m glad you’ve got yourself together and even your own company. That’s just wonderful for you. However, a lot of water has flowed by and I’m just not in to--”
“Wait,” Andre’s voice held a tinge of pleading, “there were a lot of things I had to do. I couldn’t drag a wife around with me. I just couldn’t afford it. We were both too young. But I’m back in Baton Rouge now and plan to stay. I’ve got the time to take care of the things I didn’t have time for five years ago.”
“Oh, really.” Even to her own ears her tone sounded haughty. “So now you have the time and can afford it.” Lauren bristled with a defiant look, her back straightening. “Well let me tell you Mister Fontenot. I’ve changed from that wide-eyed innocent I was in high school. How can you expect to waltz back into my life after all these years?”
“I didn’t expect to just waltz back into your life as you so eloquently put it. I truly didn’t expect to find you unmarried.” His vibrant eyes roved boldly over her body. “You are a very beautiful woman.” He reached out to touch her and she jerked away. “Lauren, I’m sorry.” His hand dropped to the back of the chair beside him. “Look, baby, I’ve only been back in Baton Rouge for a couple of weeks,” he leaned closer. His cologne wafted faintly around her, teasing memories welled up, memories she thought had been buried forever. She refused to look into those deep green eyes of his, afraid of other memories being stirred to life.
“Lauren, look at me.” His tone was soft, loving and oh so familiar. His strong, well-manicured hand slid from the back of the chair and gently lifted her chin, the green of his eyes deepened with a smoldering passion held in check.
She closed her eyes against his gentle onslaught, but scenes of their life together began to replay--each with different emotions--happiness, anger, passion--four years of being exclusively together flashed through her brain with strobe-like intensity. They had been married for so short a time. His eyes could turn deep brown with passion, or flash emerald green in anger. They were a velvet quicksand drawing her down into…
“...that’s another reason I chose this agency.” His voice blew away the memories, returning her to the unpleasant present. “Just give me a chance, that’s all I ask. Let me take you to lunch, or better yet, let’s have a nice, cozy dinner. We can talk about old times when we were care-free. We could even go back to that little hole-in-the-wall by LSU. What was it called? Den? Lair?”
“Paws,” Lauren stepped back, trying to get away from the searing touch and regain some composure. “I’m afraid you’re out of luck there. It’s a video store now with a tanning salon next door. A lot of things have changed since you’ve been gone. I’m sorry, Andre, the way you left me, no word for months then the divorce and not one word from you after that still rankles me. Not once in five years did you write or call. My folks still live in Amite. I personally wrote their address and phone number in your address book so I know you could’ve called if you had wanted to.” She sighed and backed up another step; the weight of so much past pain teetered on the point of crashing her world.
“I’ve changed since you’ve been gone. I was forced to. Things have happened to me that you could never understand. Besides, I’m not looking for any kind of relationship right now.”
“I’ve changed, too, baby. Honestly, I didn’t expect it to be easy. I understand you’ll need some time to sort things out. I’ve got as much time as you need.”
A familiar smile touched his lips, “I’ve got influence, perhaps I can help in some way?” He ignored her puzzled gaze and closed the distance between them in one stride. His hands rested warmly on her back. She was stiff, her muscles rigid. He tried in vain to pull her closer, “Listen, baby, Martin told me about the rape. It doesn’t bother me that much, and you shouldn’t let it bother you. I know how you feel, but you need to get on with your life, not let that experience ruin it. I know that I can help--”
“Martin had no right!” She jerked away from him, glaring. “Look! Just forget it, do you hear? Forget it and forget me! I’m not a piece of putty anymore. I’m dealing with this in my own way. You don’t know what you’re talking about--you have no idea what I’ve been through!” With papers clutched to a heaving chest, she stomped to the door. Putting a shaking hand to the doorknob, she turned back to him. “What has happened between us is over and done. You saw to that with the divorce. Whether you know it or not, it was a long time ago. From now on, we’ll deal on a strictly business level. After they catch the slime ball that did this to me, then we’ll see! However, you will have a long row to hoe before that chance will bear any fruit.” Jerking the door open, she paused on the threshold, took a deep breath and calmly walked to her office.
“I’d rather wrestle an alligator than go back in Martin’s office with an apology,” she muttered as she sailed to her desk, then she slammed the sheaf of papers down. Ire evaporated almost as quickly as it had flared. With head in hands, she moaned, “Why did he have to come back now? I thought that episode was over and done.” A heavy sigh rifled the pile of papers in front of her. Half-heartedly raking them into some semblance of order, she mused aloud, “He’s obviously done what he set out to do. Now, he’s come back to Baton Rouge to fulfill the last part of -- The Plan,” Her voice deepened into a sarcastic imitation of Andre’s silky accent. She sat up straight and slapped the top of the desk decisively, “Well, we’ll just see about that Mister Fontenot!”
Lauren threw her briefcase on the chair. Another day, another dollar, she sighed to herself. Trudging to her bedroom she began peeling off her work clothes. The answering machine whirred at the flick of a switch and began its recital. Climbing into comfortable jeans and a floppy shirt, she listened with a pained expression to a fretting message from her mother, one sales pitch about aluminum siding, two dial tones and...
“Lauren, it’s me, Becky. Couldn’t reach you at work. Just wanted to remind you about the counseling session tonight at seven. The group tonight is small, so you should feel very comfortable. Please try to come!” She picked up a rubber band from her dresser to pull her hair back. There were a few seconds of silence and the automated sound of the machine’s voice, “End of messages.” Dead silence followed. She headed to the machine to delete the messages, thinking, That girl will never give up.
Just as her finger was about to touch the delete button a soft static hissed through the speaker and then, “Lauren. . .Lauren. I’ve missed you three times, Lauren.” It was a cracked whisper, like the way static used to sound on an AM station. It faded in, sounding far away, then suddenly the sound mounted into a piercing crescendo. A cold wash of fear suddenly drenched her. The voice’s breathing was harsh, like someone who had run several miles then tried to talk or like someone very, very angry. Angry at her.
The rubber band slipped from nerveless fingers and her eyes widened in horror. Through suddenly dry lips, she whispered, “No, dear, sweet Lord, no.”
“Lauren, I’m going to get you,” the cracked whisper continued, “Lauren? Are you hearing me, Lauren? I’ve been watching you. I’ve been studying you. I’m going to get you. Soon…so soon.”
Lauren dialed Becky’s number with fingers that felt like jelly. A pain in the pit of her stomach forced her to double over. With her forearm tightly pressed to her middle, she sat on the floor tucking her legs underneath her; a tightly coiled spring with muscles taut and nerves stretching to the breaking point. Easy girl. Don’t start cussin’ now. It’s just your nervous stomach! Lauren loved that little sassy voice inside.
After the first ring, Becky’s husky hello was so comforting, Lauren’s throat constricted. “Becky,” she swallowed rancid-tasting fear making her stomach recoil but managed a half-way normal tone, “I need to see you right away.”
“Lauren? What’s wrong? Are you hurt? Did he come back?”
“No, I just need you, okay?”
“Listen, Lars, I’ve got a staff meeting in about three minutes. I’m so sorry, I just can’t leave right now. It shouldn’t take more than thirty minutes or so. I’ll be there as quick as I can. Got it?”
“I guess it’ll have to do, but Becky?”
“Please hurry. This is important.” There was only a whisper of panic in her voice.
“Are you sure you’re okay?”
“Physically, yes. I--I’ll tell you all about it when you get here.” There was now a desperate quality in her voice.
“Look, I tell you what. I’ll reschedule the meeting and be there in a few. Just hold on, girl.” Becky didn’t wait for an answer.
Lauren heard the click and then panic flooded through her as the connection broke. She clutched the receiver to her chest. Human contact was broken. Someone to talk to… anything to take her mind off that whispering, threatening voice was what she needed.
Ted! That sassy voice screamed the name. The only other person whom she had mentioned her flashes of. . .of. . .intuition in her younger years. What else could they be called…visions? Never mind that girlie, just dial the flippin’ number.
Her hand hovered over the little squares, the white numbers beckoning. Would he even talk to her? It had been two weeks since she had last seen him. That argument had been a doozy. All she had wanted was a commitment before they slept together. Actually, you wanted that piece of paper that says Marriage License on it, but you can’t even take care of a dog, much less a husband. She winced at that, then realized that her inner voice was correct. Besides, all Ted wanted was a quick thrill. He had proven that over and over. At least that’s how she saw it and how he seemed to act. On the other hand, he had seemed to care for her. They had stayed up late many nights just talking; getting to know each other’s thoughts and feelings on a wide gamut of things. They even agreed on the subject of psychic phenomena. He had told of several psychic happenings he’d read about. That was when she’d decided not to tell him about the guy on the I-beam. Need to justify the call, eh, Lauren, ole girl? Big, tough Lauren can’t admit she’s scared silly and needs a live, human voice to make the world quit spinnin’. The decision to keep your trap shut about the guy on the I-beam isn’t important, girl. What’s important is, keepin’ your sanity intact. Now, dial that number.
“What’s important, ole girl, is knowing when to listen to that sarcastic voice in my head.” Lauren spit out the words between gritted teeth. She hated making the first move to smooth over an argument especially when she was right on target. What would Ted think when he picked up the phone and there she was on the other end of the line?
Who cares what he thinks? The point of this exercise is to get a live voice on the other end to keep the boogie man from coming out of the shadows. You wanna call the public library about a psychic group or Ted, the POLICEman?
Lauren sighed and loosened her grip on the phone.
“If you would like to make a call, please hang up and dial again. . .If you would like to make a call, please hang up and dial again…” the inane recorded message bleated from the telephone. Then the nnet! nnet! nnet! alarm jerked her back to the present. Muttering a curse under her breath, she pressed reset and hurriedly decided to dial Ted’s number. Settling deeper into a corner between the nightstand and the wall, she hugged her knees to her chest, listening to the mundane message on Ted’s recorder.
“Oh, great. Another computer.” Deciding it couldn’t hurt to leave a message, she blurted, “Ted, this is Lauren. Please call me.”
“Lauren!” the tinny sound of his voice floated from the receiver an inch from the cradle.
“Ted? I thought you weren’t home.”
“No, I’m just screening my calls. There’s a lot of overtime and I just don’t have the energy to handle it right now. You’re the last person I expected to hear from.” His voice was deep and soothing to agitated nerves. “Hold on a sec and let me turn off the machine.” There was pause and two clicks. “Kay, now, what’s up? I’m thinking it wasn’t to apologize. You were too adamant two weeks ago.” There was a brief pause. “Have you?”
“Called to apologize?” The pause was much longer this time. He sighed heftily then, “Okay. I’m sorry. I’m truly sorry I rushed you. That make you feel better?”
“Ted, I didn’t call to rehash our argument. We’ve only been seeing each other a few months--”
“Right, six months. I made myself very clear that night. Besides after what happened, I’m just not ready for anything like that. Maybe never.”
“I’m a class A heel, Lauren. I’m really sorry. You didn’t give me a chance to tell you I was only trying to wipe away something horrible with something genuinely, truly beautiful. You know it could be.”
“What do you mean, exactly.” Her tone was sharp.
“Just what I said. It could be beautiful between us. My motives were good, Lauren, not self-serving as you seemed to think.”
“What did you mean ‘wipe away something horrible’?”
“Your marriage to that moron. What did you think I meant?”
“Right. Okay. Sorry I doubted you. But the reason I called is that I need someone to talk to right now and--and--Ted, something has happened to really upset me.” Even she could hear the strain in her voice. Her throat was sore from holding something back…what? A screaming tantrum of frustration? Terror? That probably described it perfectly.
“What’s the matter?” After a moment of silence waiting for her to answer, his patience waned and his questions turned staccato, “Lauren? Are you there? Are you okay?” Ted’s tone held a definite note of concern.
“Yes,” she croaked, “I’m here…I don’t quite know how to tell you. Something happened to me recently…” pausing to take a deep breath, her eyes looked to the ceiling for the right words. It was a white, blank expanse and she fumbled. “did you know… I mean, did you hear-- I was-- raped?” The dead silence on the other end of the phone line caused her to ask, “Ted? Are you still there?”
“Yeah, I’m here,” he loudly cleared his throat. “Ah, no, I didn’t know. Did they catch the creep that did it?” Lauren could hear the anger and tenseness in his voice.
“No. And it’s probably because my stupid brain has blocked out the whole sordid thing. Strange as it may seem, I must’ve passed out and didn’t realize what had happened until I came to the next morning. There were bruises all over my body. My nightgown was in pieces. It took me a while before I got up the courage to call the police. But they were very nice throughout the thing. Sergeant Macdonald came, called the Stop Rape Crisis Center and I was lucky Becky was there and she was my escort.
“The absolute worst is that I can’t remember anything about it! Not what he looked like or even how it happened--” her tone bordered on hysteria.
“Get a grip, Lauren.” Ted’s voice was like a balm, deep and soothing. “Just calm down and tell me what else you can remember. Maybe I can help”
“No, Ted. Look, I’m sorry for dumping all this on you. Sergeant Macdonald is handling it. He’s from the Sex Crimes Unit, not burglary like you. Anyway, he said it was fortunate I hadn’t showered or anything because now they have some kind of profile on the rapist.” Strength left her voice like a windup toy running down.
“I’m so sorry, Lauren. I didn’t know. I wish you had called me.” His tone sounded sincere and sympathetic, a most welcome comfort to her frazzled nerves.
“I didn’t call because it happened the same night of our fight. And Becky was here to help keep me sane.” Again, total silence echoed on the line. Lauren waited a few tense moments, then cried desperately, “Ted? Ted?”
“I’m still here, Lauren. Look, I…I’m not sure what to say. Is there anything else you want to tell me?
Oblivious to anything other than that deep sympathetic voice, she continued, “Well, actually, yes. Someone is terrorizing me, I think it’s the rapist. There’s a threatening message on my answer machine among other things. Ted what could I have possibly done to someone to deserve such cruelty?”
“Well--” another loud clearing of his throat, “it’s extremely unusual for a rapist to do that sort of thing. They usually get their jollies from seeing your terror in person. Don’t worry, it’s probably just an obscene phone caller. Your subconscious is reeling and making things seem more ominous than they really are.” This time there was a hint of condescension.
“Thanks, Ted. You’ve been very reassuring.” A jabbing peal of the door chime jerked her to her feet. “Uh, Becky’s here. I have to go let her in. See you around, ‘kay?”
“Okay. Call me if you need me.” The connection broke as the doorbell rang again.
Now why did you go and blabber about the rape, ole girl? You could have just kept your lip zipped about that and told him about…say… about that girl that was killed in your building today… about the dadgum obscene phone call. Oh, no…you had to blab about the rape. That should tell you something, Lauren. Your mind has completely unhinged. Alert the media! Read all about it! Lauren is the Mad Hatter…
“Becky!” Lauren cried as she flung open the door. “I--” her breath died in her throat and the unexpected sight of deep brown eyes belonging to Rance caused her heart to still a beat.
“Uh, not the last time I checked.” Rance chuckled. “Let me see.” He pulled his shirt collar out and glanced down. Long, dark lashes drew smudges against his high cheekbones. “Nope, wrong gender. And besides, my hair’s the wrong color.”
A glimmer of a half-dimpled smile trembled then spread across freckle-sprinkled cheeks. “And you’re too tall to boot.” Eyeing the cup in his hand, she continued, “I’m all out of sugar. Is there something else I can do for you?”
“Actually,” he drawled, scratching his head, “it’s not sugar I need. It’s more like coffee.”
Her mood lightened considerably. “Well, is it coffee you need or something instant?”
“Coffee. The real stuff, if you please. Just plain old coffee. None of that fancy flavored stuff either. Juan Valdez specifically warned me about that stuff. And make it leaded not that wimpy stuff. Dark roast--full robust flavor--A man’s drink. Put-hair-on-your-chest, kind of coffee. The kind that spurs a Tarzan yell.” The cup was shoved under her nose.
“You’re in luck.” She laughed; his banter relieving her tension. She took the proffered cup. “Come on, I’ll fill it up.” She started to turn toward the kitchen.
“Wait, here’s the scooper. I need five of these to make a pot.”
She eyed the huge scoop. It had probably been white at one time but was now black in the crevices and the bowl of it was a brown that was almost the exact color of his eyes. She swallowed hard, clamping down on that thought.
He laughed. “I told you I like industrial strength coffee, eyes-wide-brain-fully-alert-hand-trembling coffee.”
She backed up and he followed her. Her stomach quivered when his solid frame filled the kitchen doorway. Okay, girl, take a deep breath, her inner voice reasoned. This is Brad’s cousin and Brad’s the sweetest neighbor in the whole complex. Rance probably would be the same way, wouldn’t he? The question loomed large, seeming to hang in midair. Raising wide, green eyes fringed with doubts, she caught the warm look of understanding he cast her. His gaze seemed to wash away her doubts. It caressed her and held her breathless like a pair of strong, muscle-bound arms around her trembling body. Their brown depths were so--she searched for the elusive word—perspicacious? Now, what did that mean? It seemed as though they glowed with intelligence and could penetrate to the epicenter of her hurting soul. And what was that tiny spark in their depths? It was something deeper than understanding, something broader than mere attraction. It seemed like an inner fire that was a catalyst to something deep inside her being. Was it hope? She wanted to push away the thought but her empty heart latched on to it. A tiny spark in the abyss of her being seemed to ignite and slowly radiate comforting warmth. Instantly, she squelched it.
Good for you, ole girl! It is absolutely best that you do not allow any complications into your life right now. Besides, you’re waxing way too eloquent.
Are you kidding me? She snapped back at the voice.
Whaaat? You wanna write romance books? Forget it, there’s too much going on in your life right now. Besides that place in the center of your chest has known no warmth for so long. Push him away before he even gets close. Atta, girl.
She couldn’t chance this. She barely knew this man. And there was no way to start a relationship with anyone right now! Dear, God, how could she when her whole life was in total disarray? Her hand trembled as she reached for the coffee decanter on the kitchen cabinet. She had her back to Rance and hoped he hadn’t seen it. She simply must get a grip on things, Ted was right!
No matter what he thought, they did not have an understanding so thinking about Rance was not cheating. Thinking about Rance? Stop it this instant, Lauren! Get a grip. Face it, you are a blithering idiot. Thank goodness no one can actually hear what you are thinking. This nice handsome man filling up your kitchen doorway would run screaming all the way to Timbuktu if he could hear what’s going on inside your head. This, whatever this was, would go no farther. She insisted to her heart.
“What the-- Lauren Marie, just what do you mean leaving the door wide open?” Becky’s strident voice jerked her back from her wayward thoughts. “Did you forget that the rapist could come back any time? The very idea!” The door slammed. “I don’t know what I’m going to do with you!” She slid the chain into place and stormed into the kitchen almost running into Rance.
A blush stained Lauren’s cheeks before she could turn away. Here she was starting to have romantic notions about a new neighbor, almost ready to fall into his arms and there Becky was practically speaking out loud about them. Shut up, Becky. Was she a complete imbecile? Life was getting too complicated.
“It’s okay, Becky. Rance just wanted to borrow some coffee.” Completely forgetting the scoop that had basically started all those ruminations, Lauren tilted the coffee container over the cup, spilling a small measure of it along the white Formica.
A lazy smile crinkled the corners of Rance’s brown eyes as he nodded at Becky. He tipped his fingers to an imaginary hat, “Wall, now, liddle lady. If ya’d point me to the bad guys, I’ll just punch ‘em out for ya. He-heh.” He chuckled, a deep rumble in his chest. “Actually, I’ve got an all-niter staring me in the face.” He seemed oblivious to the confusion behind him as Lauren dropped the decanter while trying to scrape the coffee off the counter. “Three tedious reports including statistics have to be done before nine in the AM.”
Becky eyed his tall frame appreciatively then leaned against the dining table. “I feel for you, Pilgrim. I’ve had to do the same thing myself more than once. All moved in?”
“Yep. All that’s left is groceries. That’s why I’m borrowing coffee.”
“Speaking of which,” Lauren pushed the cup filled with the rich, brown grounds into his hand, their aroma wafted around the kitchen, “here you go.” Their fingers met. A warmth traveled up her arm from her fingers. She jerked away, rubbing her thumb across their tips.
“Thanks, neighbor,” a smoldering deep in his eyes aimed directly at her belied the casual tone in his voice. “How about I take you to dinner this weekend as repayment?”
Lauren broke the lock his eyes held. Accept a date now? What if there was another flash? We just talked about this, ole girl, and we agreed, remember? Besides, we don’t want him to think you belong in Gorky Park. She forced her twisting hands to still. “I don’t think so, Rance. Thanks for the offer, anyway.” Her fingertips were blue from squeezing them together. “I’m sorry,” she managed.
She risked a peek, catching a look of disappointment. The spark deep inside burst into a tiny flame. Maybe one date wouldn’t hurt. She caught herself. Yeah, just like a tee-nincy bullet wouldn’t tear a hole the size of Utah in a man’s chest.
He sighed. “Well, you may change your mind, especially when I tell you that I bathe regularly and I brush my teeth every day.” When she didn’t look up or smile, he turned and went to the door. Then he paused, letting go of the knob and leaned against the doorframe. “Lauren, I don’t mean to pry and you can tell me to keep my nose on my face without hurting my feelings. But did I hear Becky right when she said something about a rapist?”
Engulfing fear flooded her body. Oh, dear God, he was going to find out, then he’d turn away in disgust. She couldn’t lie. Prevarication had been a part of her entire married life. She hated it. But a barely perceptible nod was all that she could manage.
“Is that why you’ve refused my invitation? And why you ran from the parking lot the other day?” His eyes never left her face, waiting patiently for a reply.
“Yes,” looking at him squarely, her chin held high, yet breath seemed hateful to her chest. She read his message clearly. No disgust, no revulsion on his handsome face. Relief swept through her with surprising intensity. “But I can’t talk about it now. Please don’t ask me to.” She dipped her chin and said softly, “And thank you for not saying I was rude as a wet hen.” She risked another peek at him and the pent up breath she did not even know she held escaped slowly. He had the cutest crooked smile.
“I’ll…” his pause caused a great constriction in Lauren’s chest, “wait. I’ll wait ‘til you’re ready.” He left tossing a wave and a cute, crooked grin over his shoulder. Lauren let out the rest of her pent up breath in a whoosh. Her heart peered over the wall she had built.
“Are you crazy?” exasperation clearly etched Becky’s voice. Closing the door, “How could you turn him down like that? He’s the most decent man you’ve met in years and you just turn him down flatter than a corn fritter. I can’t believe it! You’ve just got to go to counseling. You’re social life will be ruined until you do, not to mention any future happiness.”
“Wait! You don’t know the half of it. That’s the least of my worries. You’ve got to hear what’s on my answer machine.” She dashed to the back of the apartment with Becky following close behind. She flicked the machine to play the messages. She skipped over each until the last one.
A rasping whisper filled the apartment. Obscene in its harshness, it caused goose bumps to prickle Lauren’s arms.
“Oh, my goodness!” Becky cried. “It’s got to be the rapist. How did he get your number? I thought it was unlisted.”
“It is. I don’t know how he got it. But I know it must be him. I mean it’s truly unrealistic that two people are out to get me, agreed?” After Becky’s nod, “You realize what this means?” Lauren erased the tape then glanced back at Becky.
“Yes,” her friend breathed. “He must be referring to your recent flashes. ‘Missed you three times’. Ugh! That tears it, Lauren. We’re going to talk to someone that can help us, and we’re going to do it tonight.” She whirled and punched on the computer. Pulling out the chair, she said, “I can’t believe I let you talk me out of doing this last night. What a push-over I am.”
Lauren leaned over her friend’s shoulder. “What are you doing?” her tone wary. “Now just a minute, Becky Anne Finley, I know what you’re looking for and I’ll bet there’s not even a heading for paranormal whatchamacallit. More likely the best you can do is psychics. And we’ve already had that discussion.” Lauren folded her arms under her breasts. “For that matter, what self-respecting psychic would advertise anyway?”
“Brother Kotera advertises all the time,” Becky raised an eyebrow at her friend, “I see him on TV every night during Stargate Atlantis reruns.” She turned back to the yellow pages.
Lauren rolled her eyes, “Oh, puh-leeze. I absolutely will not, repeat not, go see that half-baked stooge.” Her expression turned mulish.
Becky grinned and patted her friend’s folded arms. “Relax, and pull up a seat why don’t you? Watch this.” She pulled up the browser. “We’re going to Google LSU and Paranormal. Surely, we’ll find something useful. They probably have a department that knows something about psychic phenomena because they study everything there. We’re going to get to the bottom of this tonight.” She paused, “Oh, look. They had a leisure class on the paranormal. Now, we have a name and an email. Wait, here’s a phone number.” Becky wrote it down. “Now, let’s see what else we can find.” She typed in several other words. “Now, look at this, there’s 144,000 results for psychics including Baton Rouge, oh and there’s mediums and-- and here’s a listing for Witches of Salem.” She shuddered.
“I thought you were looking for LSU information,” Lauren accused.
“I did already,” Becky’s finger flicked the screen, “I just told you I got the name and an number, but I couldn’t resist looking up to see if there really was a heading for paranormal stuff.”
She glanced back at the listing for the Witches of Salem. “Now I wish I hadn’t.” There was a sudden chill to the room that didn’t come from the air ducts. She clicked the disconnect icon and picked up the phone saying, “When are you going to get that flash-speed-whatcahmacallit ISP so you can be on the internet, on the phone and send a fax all at the same time?”
“I can do all that at the office. Why would I want to do that at home? It’s more expensive and I only use it to email reports back and forth to myself, and once in a while to Martin at the office.” Lauren leaned against the wall listening to Becky’s voice asking for information. Becky waved her hand frantically, motioning for a pen and paper. Lauren scrabbled through a drawer then handed her a pen and the back of an envelope. She scribbled down a name and number then hung up the receiver. “That was much easier than I expected!” Becky was excited. “The man’s name is Reginald Sebastian and he lives close to LSU.”
Lauren heaved another unladylike sigh as the streetlights of this well-worn residential section of town fought against the trees to illuminate the street. She squinted to make out the numbers on the houses set back on lots jealously guarded by ancient oaks and tall pines.
“If you keep heaving those sighs, I might think you don’t want to find out what is happening to you,” Becky said softly.
“Well, you are thinking in the right direction. I really don’t want to be here and I really don’t want to be talking to a psychic, tonight or any other time.”
“You agreed, Lauren, and I’m holding you to it.”
“It will be fine. You’ll see. If I’m not right, then I’ll give you my new dress.”
“Really?” Lauren perked up. “That cute, off the shoulder thing that has the umpire waistline and the v-neckline? Okay. I’ll take it. Whoa, there it is! Back up, Becky, that’s the number he gave us.”
“No so fast, dearie. I have to be proven wrong first.” She grinned at her friend as she turned into the short drive of Reginald Sebastian’s house.
The smell of coffee wafted through the screen door. “Mr. Sebastian?” Becky called with a trace of uncertainty. “Are we in the right place?”
“Yes, yes, my dear. I’m in here, to your left.”
“Mr. Sebastian, I presume? I’m Becky Finley and this is—”
“I know, this is Lauren,” he smiled up at her and offered his hand. Forgive an old man for not standing. My arthritis is acting up again.” Flashing a warm smile at the two, he pointed a crooked finger at Becky. “Young lady, I’ve made fresh coffee. The kitchen is straight across from the front door. Would you mind?”
“Certainly, I’d be glad to.” She lifted an eyebrow at Lauren who nodded and then Becky went to find the kitchen.
The thumping of the swinging kitchen door was only an echo in the quiet house before Reginald finally spoke. “Lauren, you don’t have to tell me what you have on your mind. I already know.”
She wanted to be skeptical so she said, “That’s right, you’re a mind reader too, no doubt?” She sank into the chair opposite Reginald’s.
“Tut, tut. That doesn’t become you, young lady.” He paused a moment but she said nothing else. “The man that’s after you is extremely powerful. He harbors a malevolent spirit. I’ve seen him, in fact I saw him the night he attacked you.”
She was incredulous. “You did?” Surprise crinkling her face, she leaned forward, “Who is he? What does he look like?” Her eyes narrowed a fraction in indignation. “Wait just a dadgumed minute here.” She glared at him, “Why didn’t you stop him? Why didn’t you call me or better yet, the police?”
Reginald waved a placating hand, “Hold on a minute. I’ve never been able to penetrate that blasted mask he wears. At the time, I didn’t know it was you he was attacking. I just knew he would do it that night—do you live in apartment two fifty-four?”
Lauren cast him a puzzled look, a black cloud of foreboding surrounded her, “Yes, I do, but what has that to do with the price of tea in China?”
“I saw that number on a door that night. It was during the vision I had while I was trying to penetrate his mask. I’m worried, Lauren. He has always killed his victims, always. Yet he spared you. I keep wondering why.”
“Well, I’m glad he did!” Becky’s tone was harsh as she placed a tray on the coffee table. “I’m not going to question his reasons, I’m just thankful he did. Now, if Lauren could only remember that horrible night, maybe we could catch this b—uh, rat!”
“Yes,” Reginald looked intently at Lauren. “You’ve got to remember what happened or you won’t be able to defend yourself from him when he comes back.” He accepted a mug from Becky and waved his hand to refuse sugar and cream.
“What do you mean when he comes back?” Wide, green eyes bore into his clear, gray ones.
“Yes, my dear. He will come back. He has to because you are unfinished business. This is what I keep wondering. Why did he leave you unharmed?”
Becky snorted, “I would hardly put rape in the category of ‘unharmed’.” Her statement brought a deep silence to the room broken only by a soft chiming, declaring the hour.
Lauren wrapped trembling hands around her coffee mug and shivered. She stared at the steam wafting up from her cup thinking that was exactly how she felt, like being carried on any breeze that kicked up. Seriously, what was she doing here?
If you’ll pay attention, you just might learn something ole girl.
“Mr. Sebastian,” Becky asked eagerly, “since it seems you know so much about him, can you tell us when or even where he’ll attack next?”
“No, I’m sorry, but I can’t. He’s too powerful for me to see past him. He knows I’ve been following his so-called ‘career’ of murder. I get the feeling he wants me to see. He seems to be playing a game with me, allowing me to see just so much, taunting me with it like a schoolyard bully. Nevertheless, it gives us a bit of insight to him. He seems to enjoy having a witness to his crimes. It is a control thing, I think. He seems to thrive on it. I detect glee or excitement when he lets me see what he is doing.
“I’d decided if you hadn’t called me by tomorrow, I was going to call you. It just seems I’m not going to be able to help you as much as I thought I might, at least, not at this point anyway.” Reginald sighed gustily.
“Is there anything else you can tell us about him? Something that we might be able to recognize to give us a clue to his identity?” Becky was just short of exasperation.
“There is one thing. He’s not a stranger. I get the feeling that you know him from somewhere, Lauren. There’s a darkness about him that makes me lean toward dark coloring, and perhaps dark eyes.”
“You mean besides the darkness of evil,” it was a statement, not a question. Then Lauren sighed. “Do I know him well or is it just a nodding acquaintance? Do you get the feeling he is a recent friend? Someone in the office? Who?” Fear curled icy fingers her stomach and made her voice breathless. “It would have to be someone new, wouldn’t it? The attacks only started recently. But there’s the rub, I see dozens of new clients monthly, and we often have new temps at the office. Our list of suspects could fill a hundred pages.”
“I don’t know. It was just a flash, an impression. I’m afraid I can’t be more specific.” Reginald set his mug on top of a book on the end table. “On the other hand the impression could be from the rape in the biblical sense of knowing someone. I’m sorry I’m not much help.”
“Well,” Becky held a hand out in front of her and ticked off on her fingers with the other hand, “we know three things for sure. He’s a man, he wears a clown mask and he’s someone Lauren knows. That narrows it down to around, oh, five or six hundred people or so.”
“And that’s in town,” Lauren grinned for the first time since they had come in the door. “Subtract the ones that don’t dress up for Halloween and that narrows it down to only about a couple hundred. But, if you add in all those acquaintances from around the country, conferences, suppliers, and the like, the figure could go as high as a couple thousand.”
Becky stared at her friend, “For some reason I just can’t wrap my head around that.”
“I’m glad you still have a sense of humor.” Reginald smiled faintly, “But please,
don’t misjudge the gravity of the situation. He is ruthless and methodical in his hunt.”
“I know, Mr. Sebastian. Becky seems to strike a chord in me sometimes and she has a special way of helping me keep my sanity. At least now I know I’m not going crazy. Just what do you think I should do?”
“I don’t know that either. We’ll just have to play a wait and see game for the moment. If you have any more flashes, let me know immediately. My classes at LSU are minimal this semester so call me or leave a message with my service.” He handed her a card. “You might want to consider hypnosis to remember all of that night. Something might trigger a recollection and you could possibly forestall any more contact with this psychotic killer.”
Lauren accepted the card and her jaw clenched at the thought of hypnosis. “I’ll certainly consider it. Thanks for you help.”
“Yes. Well, thank you very much, Mr. Sebastian, for your help,” Becky hurriedly picked up the tray. “I’ll just put this back in the kitchen. Do you want another cup of coffee before we go?” Her hand hovered over the coffee pot.
“No, thank you, child, I’ll be all right. You two be careful on your way home and lock the car doors. The campus isn’t the safest place to be after dark.”
Lauren paused at the door. “Just one more question. You said his ‘career’. Could you tell me how many he has raped and murdered?”
“Fifteen,” Reginald shook his head sadly. “Twelve have been found and, Lauren, you were to be thirteen. There’s only two bodies that I know about that haven’t been reported found. The murders occurred out of state and he buried them. Exactly where the bodies are buried, I can’t even guess. I just know it isn’t close around here. It was at the beginning of his ‘career’ and he was frightened of what he’d done. Now he’s too powerful to care.”
“Well, that certainly was a lot of help!” Becky cried, plopping down on Lauren’s couch. “We don’t know any more now than before.”
“Yes we do,” Lauren stuck a cigarette in her mouth.
“What’re you doing? Get that thing out of your mouth!” Becky leaned forward to pull the offending object from Lauren’s lips.
“I just want to hold it for a minute. I’m not going light it!” Lauren took it from her mouth and held it lovingly between two fingers, gazing longingly at the slender paper tube packed with sweet smelling tobacco.
“Look, that’s not going to help you quit. I ought to know. How long has it been now? A couple of weeks?” Becky cupped her chin with long fingers.
“One month, exactly, I’ll have you know,” Lauren beamed, proud of the accomplishment. She raked the white tube under her nose, inhaling its ambrosial scent.
“It’s only the emotional side of you that wants a cigarette now, not the physical. The nicotine was gone from your system after seventy-two hours, so now it’s only the psychological addiction. You’ve got to break the association crutch. You used to reach for a cigarette every time you were upset. Now put that stinking thing down and hold an ink pen instead.” Becky leaned forward and rummaged through her massive purse, she grabbed an ink pen from her checkbook and tossed it to Lauren. Thoughtfully, thin brows arched together as she watched Lauren nip the pen from the air, “Look, on second thought, maybe now isn’t the time for you to quit smoking. You have so much going on right now and all. You’re under a tremendous strain.”
“No, you’re right. It’s not that I need it, it’s just a crutch. I have quit, and I am going to remain that way!” Lauren broke the cigarette in half and threw the pieces in the trash. “I think I’ll trade one drug for another, though. How about a mocha?”
Becky patted her flat stomach. “I’ve almost got off that twenty pounds I gained when I quit smoking. How about some unsweetened iced tea instead?”
“Coming up!” Lauren turned towards the kitchen just as the doorbell ping-ponged. She glanced at the door, then at Becky, her feet rooted to the spot. She was ashamed that sudden noises or anything unexpected sent her into a panic. She hated being like this.
“Are you expecting anyone?” Becky caught the panic in her eyes and whispered.
“No.” Lauren then cajoled leaden feet to the door, coaxing them to move with a strength of will tantamount to pushing a car uphill. One hand resting on the chain, she asked, “Who is it?” To her disgust her voice trembled.
“Pizza man!” came a muffled shout.
“Look through the peep hole, dufus,” Becky stated flatly.
Lauren looked then grinned over her shoulder, “It’s Rance.” She swung open the door, and late afternoon sunshine filled the room as well as her heart.
“Out of the way, madam,” Rance ordered. “I’ll just take this into the kitchen.” Pulling a hand from behind his back, a cup was brandished in front of her nose. “Since I haven’t had time to go to the store, here are your grounds back. I didn’t want you to think I wouldn’t return something I had borrowed. As for their use,” he leaned towards her conspiratorially, raised thick, brown eyebrows and smiled, “they do have a use, you know. My cousin told me they keep ants out of your flower beds. I’ll just take it along with the pizza. I hope you like everything except anchovies. I personally hate those little buggers. I know it’s late but I hope you haven’t eaten, yet. Even if you have, it’ll keep in the fridge.” Rance walked into the kitchen, rambling on, oblivious to two pairs of wondering eyes that followed his every move. “This particular kind tastes surprisingly good when heated in the microwave.” Putting the pizza on the cabinet, he turned around smiling, hands on blue jean encased hips. His broad shoulders stretched the blue T-shirt across his expansive chest. He was a very handsome man.
“Rance,” Lauren had followed him into the kitchen and now stood directly in front of him. “You shouldn’t have gone to all this trouble and expense. It really wasn’t necessary, but thank you. And if the grounds keep ants out of flower beds, what about roaches in the kitchen? I hate anchovies, too, and luckily we haven’t eaten. And this is just too much food for two people. Please grab a plate and eat with us.” Lauren ignored the bemused look on his face, as she lightly pushed him aside, then grabbed three plates and glasses from the cabinets behind him.
“Rance, close your mouth,” a soft chuckle came from the doorway. “That’s only one of her irritating idiosyncrasies. She’s always pulling it on me. Memory like an elephant, I tell you. Sometimes I even have a hard time following her and I’ve known her for years!”
“You should’ve been a lawyer, Lauren, instead of wasting your talents in insurance,” Rance’s face lit up in a grin. “Anyway, bringing the pizza was my pleasure.” He gave her a flourishing bow, reminiscent of a British butler.
“Well, I know it’s a pleasure for me, especially pizza with everything on it.” Becky grinned, again patting her flat stomach. “My belly thanks you, my mouth thanks you, and I thank you, kind sir.”
For some inexplicable reason, Lauren’s mood lightened, a bubbling laugh burst forth. “Here, Rance, have a plate, if you can stand all this nonsense.”
“Thank you, but I can’t, I’ve got a thousand things to do before I open the office tomorrow. The head honchos are coming and everything has to be ship-Shape. Enjoy, ladies!” He headed for the door, opened it with a brandish and closed it quietly.
“That certainly was nice of him,” Becky took a heavy slice from the box and placed it on her plate.
“Yes, it was,” Lauren replied thoughtfully, watching her friend put another slice on the plate. “I thought pizza was off your list?”
“It was until I smelled it! And pizza with everything calls for...” Becky hurried to the refrigerator and held up two cans, “Coke! I’ll diet tomorrow.” Seeing no one at the table, Becky called out, “Aren’t you going to eat?”
“Yes, I’m just locking the door.” The chain raked into its slot, and leaned against the door.
“What are you doing?” Becky asked around a mouthful of pizza.
“I was just wondering who is Rance Sheffield, anyway?” Lauren sighed as she headed toward the table and her supper. You know, he actually could he be the rapist. Could he just be trying to wear down my defenses so he can finish the job later? Worm his way into my confidence so I won’t be wary and will be open for his next attack? Or is he just some ordinary guy? Someone that just dropped into my life when I least expected it or, for that matter was even ready for it? Was he someone that the fickle finger of fate had pointed my way just by lucky chance?” She stared into empty space for a moment.
“Honey, that guy is the least ordinary of our acquaintance.” Becky pointed to the empty chair across from her, “Come. Eat. You’ll feel better and stop being so weird.”
Ruefully, Lauren grinned, “You are correct. Ordinary he is not. He’s anything but ordinary.” Suddenly some of her pent up tension drained away and her body began to relax, and a genuine smile played around her lips. Her facial muscles had almost forgotten how to form a smile. Walking back to the kitchen, she passed Becky on the way.
“I puff a Coke bethide yourah plath,” Becky’s tongue rolled around a mouthful of pizza.
“There you go again, talking with your mouth full!”
Becky gulped, “I’m allowed...we’re in the privacy of your home. Isn’t this classified as private?”
“Private, yes, but let’s keep the grossness to a minimum,” Lauren laughed. “Thanks for the Coke.” Putting two slices on the plate, Lauren sat across from Becky at the small round breakfast table. Breaking a string of cheese away from the plate, she lifted a slice to her mouth.
The half smile on her full lips suddenly faded and the pizza slipped from her hand landing upside down on her plate. “He said ‘insurance’,” Lauren gasped, almost choking.
“He said I should be a ‘lawyer instead of in insurance’!”
“Oh, Becky, don’t be so obtuse! I never told him what I did for a living. How could he know?”
Lauren looked down thoughtfully and flipped over the slice of pizza on the plate. Pensively scooping the toppings back on the crust, she shaped them into a more palatable arrangement. There were two ways to look at it. Either he had done some checking on her or he was—the thought was unpalatable--psychic, too.
Oh, goody. Two psychics in your life. Now all we need is to get some hypnosis and we’re in business.
Shut up! Lauren told the voice.
“We don’t know that he’s psychic,” she didn’t realize she had spoken out loud until Becky replied.
“Who? Reginald? He said he is and he knew some things about you that the police had never released, like the number of your apartment.”
“No silly, not Reginald. I was talking about Rance. There are only two ways to look at it. He’s done some kind of check on me or he’s psychic. I’m hoping he’s done some kind of checking. I don’t think I can handle two psychics.”
“Are you kidding me? He’s your next door neighbor’s cousin! Of course, he told him what you do. You’re a good looking woman and there’s no ring on his finger. I’m quite sure he asked his brother all about you.”
“Ha. That would be a good thing except I don’t think I ever told Brad what I do. We talked about other things, general chit chat things,” Lauren spoke softly.
“Are you close enough to know his last name? So what does he do for a living that he would need someone to take care of his cat and plants?” Becky asked with a mind to the practical. “That means he’ll be gone for a long time, not just a couple of weeks.”
“Certainly I know his last name,” she answered huffily. “It’s—um—it’s Brad—Well, I know it isn’t Sheffield. Oh, yes, it’s Brad Johnson like that actor fellow. As for what he does, he’s an engineer. He travels for his job and he—Oh. I see what you mean, Beck. I could have easily spilled all my information in our chats, never realizing what I’d given away.”
“Exactly. Don’t go borrowing trouble.”
“But with the terror tactics that dervish is using on me, it would be just like him to move in across the way and— “ she stopped in mid-sentence. “I refuse to finish that thought. His eyes held no cruel glint. Surely no one is that good an actor.” Lifting the pizza to trembling lips, a soft clicking noise caused her hand to stop in midair.
“Listen, I hate to eat and run, but I’ve got a very early meeting in the morning. We have some info gathering to do before I write that grant—”
“Shush,” Lauren waved her hand.
“What are you flapping your hand at me for?”
“Shush—what was that?”
“What? I didn’t hear anything.” Becky’s voice seemed to crash through the soft quiet of the apartment.
“Lauren,” a hoarse whisper came from the bedroom. “Lauren, I know you can hear me.”
“I heard THAT!” Becky almost choked, slamming the her drink can against the table top.
“Lauren,” the rasping continued. “Your time is close now.”
Swallowing a lump in her throat, Lauren dropped the pizza which landed partly in the plate, partly on the table. Sitting very still, her breath came in shallow gasps, her chest hardly moved. She cast a look of desperation over the table. That old familiar tiger named fear yawned, flexing its claws deep in her bones.
“Do you have a gun?” Becky mouthed the words with her hand in the shape of a cocked gun.
Lauren’s hands clenched into fists as she shook her head.
“Are you enjoying the pizza, Lauren?” The voice continued to rasp, its sound grating every nerve, razing the tenuous hold she had on control. Terrified eyes stared down the short hallway to the bedroom, she barely registered the fact that Becky was moving on quick, quiet toes to the couch where she pulled a tiny gun from her purse. Hiding it behind her back, she slowly marched to the bedroom, a mother bear protecting her cub. It seemed to take an eternity to traverse the twelve feet between the couch and the kitchen doorway. As Becky reached the entrance of the kitchen, Lauren was galvanized into action, throwing herself and her friend into the kitchen.
“You can’t go in there! He’ll kill you!”
“Get out of my way, Lauren. One shot from this,” Becky waved the tiny gun around, “and he’ll drop in his tracks.”
“What? From that toy?” Lauren’s stage whisper was intense.
“Toy?” her tone was indignant. “This is a forty-four magnum, dearie. It would probably stop a charging tiger! A man has no hope. Now let me go!”
“Lauren,” the hoarse voice continued, echoing through the stillness of the apartment. “Your time to die is close. So close. Can you feel its caress? It will be me you see last. It will be me who will hold you…me who will love you for all time. So appropriate. You will see death face to face. Finally. And I will be your escort.”
Becky whipped through the door as demented giggles filled the bedroom. She stood with feet wide apart, the gun sweeping from side to side as it searched for the tormentor. Her hand slowly dropped as her body disappeared into the room.
Lauren’s heart leapt from a heaving chest into an already cramped throat at the sight of Becky’s retreating back.
“Becky, you idiot! Get out of there! He’s probably in the closet or something!” Her tone was choked and tight.
“He’s not here!” Becky called out. “It was the answer machine all the time.” “Come see, Lauren. It was only a voice on the machine.” A soft click followed the last words, then the beep signaling a new message was on the machine.
Relief swelled beyond bearing and Lauren slumped to the floor. “Thank you, Lord,” the heart-felt prayer lifted to heaven. Another beep and then the whisper came again. “Don’t!” Lauren screamed, scrambling to unsteady feet. Running to the bedroom, she lunged for the off switch. “Don’t,” she repeated more softly. “My nerves can’t stand to hear it again.”
“Okay, hon, I’m sorry. We don’t have to listen anymore. I think, though, that the police should hear it. They may be able to do a voice analysis. This was done directly, without the phone even ringing. This thing is digital. I see you’ve at least upgraded to the 21st century with your answering machine, if not your internet service.”
“It’s just a cheapy from a department store.” Lauren collapsed on the bed, face in hands.
Becky stomped to the bathroom and ran water in the sink. In seconds, she was back and Lauren felt a cool wet cloth cover her forehead.
“What’ve you got to drink around here? I hear alcohol is good for shock. Wouldn’t hurt my nerves any, either. . .” Becky slipped onto the bed beside Lauren, an obviously forced smile planted weakly on her face.
“Nothing besides Coke.”
“Let me get yours from the table. Actually, something stronger sounds even better. I’ll bet your neighbor has something to put in that cola.”
“How about a glass of water?”
“No.” Lauren’s voice had fallen to a whisper. “I don’t want anything except for that maniac to leave me alone.” She rubbed her sweaty palms along the tops of her thighs then stroked her upper arms.
“Listen,” her friend’s tone was reassuring, “you still have those sticks on your windows, don’t you? The ones the police gave you?”
“Yes,” she whispered as she started to withdraw from the present, and pull into herself.
“Lauren!” Becky shook her friend’s shoulders. “You’ve got to snap out of it! He wasn’t here. With the door locked and chained, there is no way he can get to you. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“Yes, Becky, I understand you. But that voice! It doesn’t sound like anybody I know. Who would do something like this?”
“A sicko. A psychopath. He’s playing with you. Terrorizing you. He gets a strange jack-off doing that. . .they all do. Don’t let him get to you. You’re stronger than that. Look, I need to take your machine to the police tonight, right now, before anything happens to it. With this, they may come up with some clues.”
Lauren’s hand grabbed Becky’s as if she were suddenly falling from a cliff and had to hang on for dear life. “Don’t leave me alone...please!”
“Darlin’, nothing’ll happen to you. Unless you let him in, he can’t get in. And you’re not likely to do that. Do you want me to see if Rance could stay with you?”
Something darted near the corner of her memory but Lauren shoved it away. “How do I know it’s not Rance?”
“Point taken, what about someone else? Martin maybe?”
Lauren shook her head. “Until I remember the rape, everyone I know is suspect. And I know you’re right and I’m acting like a baby. I’ll be all right—you just hurry back.”
Becky patted her back and pushed a wayward strand of hair from her forehead. “I’ll tell you what. I’ll leave this gun for you. You can keep it under the pillow and if anybody knocks on the door, you bring it with you.”
“Okay.” Lauren stared at the tiny metal object. Its six inches fit perfectly in her palm. American Derringer was stamped on the rosewood handle and .44 Magnum Waco, Texas was imprinted on the silver barrel. The half-inch holes in the barrel yawned widely as she flipped it over.
Becky gently pushed her friend’s hand down, “It’s loaded, kiddo. Be careful which way you aim it. The hollow points are filled with water and waxed over. It won’t go through a man, instead it’ll shatter into shrapnel, stopping him cold. I promise I’ll come straight back and stay with you as long as you need me.”
Lauren’s head jerked up, eyes wide. “They were! I checked before we went to Mr. Sebastian’s.” She yanked the curtain nearest her to the side. That stick was in place.
“Well, I guess we know how he got inside,” Becky jammed the stick on her side into place.
“No, we don’t. If the stick was in place, there’s no way he could have climbed through this window.” She gave it a pushing test and the stick stayed in place. She stared across the bed at her friend. “There’s no way.”
Lauren shivered, “I don’t want to think about it now. I just can’t. It’s too much.”
“All right. We’ll worry about it later.” She scooped up the gown and went to Lauren then draped it over her shoulder. Taking her shoulders, Becky propelled her toward the bathroom. “Get in the tub. Everything looks better when you’re relaxed.” Looking at her friend’s hapless expression she said, “We’ll deal with it in the morning. Go.”
Lauren dragged herself to the bathroom. As some of the terror ebbed, shudders of reaction set in. Gazing in the mirror and the purely timorous expression on her beautiful face something clicked. She had been vacillating between fear and anger so long she had forgotten her objective. Pure hatred for the maniac who was doing this to her burned fiercely in her breast.
Her chin lifted. With gritted teeth, she ground out, “I hate him. We’ll get him, Beck! I won’t let him do this to me again.”
“That’s my girl! Hang the torpedoes, full steam ahead! And we will, too! We’ll stop him before he can do this anymore to you or to anyone else.” She pushed off from the door frame of the bathroom. “I’ll check all the windows.” After her checking of the apartment, her gaze fell on the uneaten pizza. The temptation was too much. “Lauren, I’m taking two pieces of pizza and I’m locking the door. You just get some rest, you hear?”
“Yes, mommy,” Lauren’s lips parted in a small smile. “Consider it done.”
Lauren swam to consciousness. Something was ringing...irritating. A quick glance at the luminous numbers on the clock—twelve-thirteen. Becky had been gone only a few hours! Fumbling, she knocked the receiver to the floor. Searching for it with one hand, she tried to turn on the lamp with the other.
“It’s just me, hon,” Becky’s chirpy voice sang from the ear piece. “I’m sorry, but it’s going to be a while before I can get back to the apartment. A rape case came in while I was here and there’s no one else to take it right now. I guess I drew the low card from the deck you might say. If you’d like, I could send a policeman to sit on your doorstep until I get there.”
“No, that’s okay,” Lauren mumbled sleepily. “I’m fine.”
“Look, I’ll see you when I get there. I’ll grab some clothes and move in until this thing blows. Let’s meet at your pool tomorrow—make that this afternoon after work. How does that hit you?”
“Okay, great,” Lauren yawned as the connection was broken. Rolling over, a thought suddenly crossed her mind. Hypnotism. Becky’s suggestion was starting to sound better and better. At this point, I’m willing to try anything to get rid of all this dreadfulness! Tomorrow...I’ll think about it some more tomorrow. Another mighty yawn and she was instantly asleep.